Monday, May 23, 2011

Choose Your Fears Wisely

[Issue date 3/23/11]

As I write this it’s Friday morning in Seattle and on the West Coast of the United States all the way down past San Diego, everyone is bracing for the radioactive plume from the Fukushima meltdown, and I’m highly amused.

There was recently an earthquake in Japan that was quite significant and might be a reminder to West Coast Americans of some unpleasant realities attached to their choice of coast. But instead of thinking about those realities they prefer to dwell upon the hazards of being exposed to radiation released by a nuclear disaster from which they are more than 4000 miles removed.

In my day, we had what was called A-bomb and H-bomb testing. My government blew up whole islands in the Pacific and turned Nevada desert lands to glass so dweebs could read radiation meters and mark the results on clipboards. We loved it because we were advancing into the future, one mutation at a time. I was going to be Spiderman.

Seriously, no, we were scared out of our minds. But, guess what? Even when they blew up whole islands, only nearby Pacific islanders and a few sailors (ironically, Japanese sailors) who got in the way were hurt by it. Nobody 4000 miles away came down with radiation sickness.

So, I ask, why has everyone around here shifted their attention so quickly and fully from one humongous magnitude 9.0 earthquake and horrific tsunami to the far-distant effects of a nuclear disaster, which, even in the country it is happening in, if it were an earthquake, would rate only 7.0, 7.5, tops?

I’ve already answered that question. West Coast Americans know they are sitting on some real shifty real estate. It is human nature not to want to hear genuine bad news, even when you already know it. So instead of hearing the genuine bad news (which is, that were all overdue to experience our ceilings meet our floors and make loose-meat sandwiches of us), we’d prefer hearing false bad news. News that scares us without actually involving anything really happening.

I am torn by this. Part of me, “humanistic angel Wes,” says, “human nature is inherently good, so if people don’t want to think about the fact that the big subduction quake that’s 50 years late will render mass transit unnecessary by eliminating the ‘mass,’ I should celebrate that nature, and keep quiet about such things.”

Another part of me, “three ways a bastard Wes,” says, “Let’s put all this in perspective until grown men tearfully beg for a return to flat representative art.”

As always “three ways” wins.

Perspectively speaking, Seattleites are likely to experience less additional accumulated radiation this week than they would suffer from if they spent the entire summer vacationing in a brick house in Denver.

On the other hand, if the big subduction doozie happens, while it’s true that the increased proximity of stone and brick and airborne stone and brick dust might elevate your radiation levels three or four times higher (I’m half guessing because it doesn’t matter), it wouldn’t matter.

I’m so lucky I live two blocks north of the fault line on a hill that probably wasn’t here before the last time the earth rocked that much. So, when the earthquake we’re all trying not to think about happens, my neurons will probably be crushed before they can apprise my brain of the situation.

However, if my luck fails, I can lie on my back dying with the relief of knowing that the local fire station is sitting on the same hill as I am and will also be part of a new improved, bigger, hill, and I won’t be disturbed by any more annoying sirens from them.

Or, let’s say the hill drops out from under me and I’m down around sea level. Then, the earthquake will rearrange the bottom of Elliott Bay and send a nice big wave to fetch me from the offensive sirens. Either way, free at last.

You Can't Buy Objectivity

[issue date 3/16/11]

I love liberalism. I love liberals. I married a liberal. Almost all of my best friends are liberals. But sometimes liberals can be horribly wrong. Let’s try to understand why!

A fantastic example of liberals off the deep end is seen in the current liberal hand-wringing over the fate of National Public Radio. I have had multitudinous liberal friends plea that I sign on to petitions to stop the federal defunding of NPR. This is wildly strange.

I won’t get started on the details of what defunding NPR really entails, such as the fact that NPR actually doesn’t have dedicated federal funding to speak of. We all know what we’re talking about is a principle of a thing. “Why, how dare they...”

Let’s visualize an average liberal and try to walk him through the decision whether to sign on to such a petition. For the sake of concreteness we should give our average liberal a name. My conservative friends clamor for “Ivan.” No offense intended, but, they’re all a bunch of out-of-touch freak buckets who think they’re reincarnations of Joe McCarthy or Roy Cohn. Like Reagan, they spent the 1980s in a delirium. They think The Rights of Man was written by a Russian. So I’ll call my average liberal “Steve” instead.

Steve keeps NPR on in the background at all times, only turning it down during Car Talk. Steve likes to get high while listening to Fresh Air. Steve has noticed that NPR news coverage has not been as liberal lately as it was during, say, the Carter Administration. But he clings to NPR anyway because it isn’t shrill conservative talk-radio à la Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.

Someone comes racing up the road on a horse and shouts, “The Tea Baggers are coming, the Tea Baggers are coming,” and, “They’re marching on Washington and planning to withdraw government funding for NPR!” What do you do Steve?

At first Steve thinks, “Oh no, if the last remaining liberal radio channel is not funded by taxpayers, our political perspective and our very way of life is threatened! I must stop this!”

Steve is quick to adjust his reasoning and insists that he couldn’t support government funding of NPR because it is liberal -- he knows that would be wrong. He knows the taxpayers can’t be expected to support biased news. Instead, he insists, he wants NPR to continue to be subsidized because all the other channels are biased.

In other words, Steve’s position, in essence, is, NPR should be funded for not being conservatively biased. More precisely, he believes that the only radio we will have, if NPR loses government funding, will be entertainment radio or conservatively biased radio.

It’s easy to feel that fear and run with it, isn’t it? Sure it is. Let’s all breathe deep, and draw that fear in. Draw that fear in through your 5th Chakra, and now down deep to your first chakra, and now let’s bounce it, bounce it good and hard, and see if we can’t get it to blow your Crown Chakra clean off.

How realistic is Steve’s fear?

Who cares? The government doesn’t have any business funding a radio network just because you or Steve are afraid that unbiased radio won’t happen.

There is in fact no way, whatsoever, that continued government funding can maintain unbiased news at NPR. The fact that its funding comes from taxpayers can’t be a guarantee of objectivity.

We have to resist setting government priorities based on gut fears. That got us two wars and Homeland Security and a never ending budget crisis that is feeding conservative talk radio far more than the trickle of dollars NPR gets is worth.

On the other side, how stupid is it that conservatives would cut off funding for NPR on the grounds that a funding desperate NPR has gone begging for money from Middle Eastern sources? “Oh no, let’s not give them any more money, they’ve been begging.” Where have I heard that before?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It's Winning. Duh.

The whole world loves an underdog...

Haha, that was your irony. The world does not. America especially does not. This country only cares about winners. Losers can drop dead.

There are deep historical and cultural reasons for this, having to do with George Washington’s false teeth, the Monroe Doctrine, the fact that they had photography already by the Civil War, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” that FDR died in office instead of on a ranch, and that we have people who seriously think Jesus loves Kansans more than Bedouins, even though they’re practically identical, except for the outfits, tents and camels. The same people can’t even name one Bedouin.

The Monroe Doctrine has had an important role in forming American attitudes about winning and losing.

Speaking of naming Bedouins. Here we go: Muammar el-Qaddafi? Moammar Kadafi? Moammar Gaddafi? Moammar Gadhafi? Muammar Gaddafi? Moamer Kadhafi? Muammar al-Qaddafi? Moammar Gaddafi? See, I can’t name one, either.

My point: America loves a winner, and how can you be a winner if nobody knows how to spell your name? You can’t get your trophy.

That’s why the Obama administration was so quick to back the sure Libyan winners-to-be, the non-Qaddafis, in spite of being so slow to come out for the non-Mubaraks in Egypt. It’s easy to tell that Kadhafi is a loser, but I can spell Mubarak, and he looks damn good in a suit, whereas Muammar in a suit looks like Michael Dukakis with shoulder pads.

How many times has the United States backed a dictator, just because there was no way he was going to be deposed?

DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, also illustrates my point. Two years ago President Obama was prepared to stand by DOMA to the bitter end. Why? Because it crawled out of the same alphabet soup Obama did? No! Because it didn’t look like it needed his help, that’s why.

For Obama to have opposed DOMA back then, he would have had to go on record as supporting what then would have been regarded as a lost cause. This being America, and not Vermont, his ratings would have plummeted.

But times have changed, and now DOMA is looking weak. There’s a truckload of independent legal challenges pending in courts and DOMA is taking one hit after another.

It violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, says one. KICK IN THE SHINS! It violates the Tenth Amendment, says another. TO THE HEAD! It falls outside Congress’ authority under the Spending Clause of the Constitution. GUT BLOW! By passing DOMA, Congress “overstepped its authority, undermined states' efforts to recognize marriages between same-sex couples, and codified an animus towards gay and lesbian people,” says another suit, kicking legal butt.

Now that DOMA is reeling against the ropes, Obama remembers he has better things to do with his lawyers than prop this loser up. So, when DOMA finally goes down for the count, our president will be on the winning side, sharing the cheers.

Learning to apply the theory to everyday problems:

As I write this, the Wisconsin State Assembly (their “House of Commons”) has passed Governor Walker’s budget which deprives most public workers of their collective bargaining rights. The law now goes to the Wisconsin State Senate (their “House of Lords”), where Democrats are fighting it tooth and nail from an undisclosed stairwell in a hotel in Chicago, a hundred and fifty miles away.

Can you guess which side the American people will take in this political battle?

Hint: In order to apply our theory, you need to know which side of the fight is going to be perceived as the “loser” side. You need to analyze which is more “loserly”, whether it’s to run away from a quorum, or to claim that collective bargaining rights have anything to do with balancing a budget in the first place.

For bonus points, find a way to change the result of your analysis by removing the Wisconsin Senate Democrats even further from the scene. What if they didn’t even exist? How would that make the unions look better?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Reaping the Consequences of Poor

About a week before writing this, I was feeling more impoverished than usual. You know how it is: when you can’t pay your bills, your shoes have holes in them, and your credit card company tells you that if you keep paying off your balance at the current rate, it’ll be all paid off by yesterday -- meaning, after forever ends and time starts over again, and gets back to then. Roughly 50-85 billion years, or never, depending on how much dark matter there is in the universe.

“So,” I thought, “let’s get us some of that household energy assistance!”

That led to about 3 hours of me and Anitra “Other Household Member” Freeman studying the application process for federal LIHEAP energy assistance funds. Our conclusion at the end of those 3 hours was that the government doesn’t think we’re poor enough.

While that was disappointing to us, it provided us with new respect for the people who do qualify for LIHEAP funds, and how truly needy they must be. Whoa, that is some amazing poverty, people! Way to go!

The very next day, Obama announced his budget proposal that would cut funding to LIHEAP programs by over 2.5 billion dollars. Millions of households in America, representing approximately 3 per cent of the population, that are currently eligible to receive energy assistance, would be cut loose.

You can’t manage the political will to bring about an end to George Bush’s gift of tax breaks for the richest Americans, so they can keep the yacht industry afloat, but you can slash funds needed to help the poorest Americans have heat? OK, I see how you are, Obama.

No, wait, that’s not fair, is it? We bought health care reform by giving the opponents an extension to Bush’s tax cuts. Yay, we got watered down health care reform! But, you know what? The Republicans didn’t shake hands with us on the purchase, so they plan on taking the goods back, and keeping the extension.

That was muddled of me. Let’s look at the stupidity of these cuts from a different angle.

Consider those Predator Drones you keep hearing about. Like the one that wiped out an Afghan wedding party in 2007. Recently, the Air Force decided they weren’t deadly enough, so they would replace all their Predator Drones with newer Reaper Drones. (The old Predators will be sold at a discount to the Italians, to take out Berlusconi.) Each Reaper, at 10.5 million, costs more than twice what a Predator cost, and they want to buy over 250 of them over the next couple of years.

Our own people can go without heat next winter so that Air Force crews trained on arcade games, sitting in comfort in Florida, can kill more Afghans with the click of a mouse. Have you seen the ads? “It’s not science fiction.” All the excitement of war, and you get to go home to your wife and kids at the end of each shift, 1.4 miles away!

Oh, I get. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. So it’s all one big war, then, isn’t it?

Other ways it doesn’t pay to be poor:
That Ian Birk will not be charged for murder or manslaughter comes down to this 1986 footnote to the law "The legislature recognizes that RCW 9A.16.040 establishes a dual standard with respect to the use of deadly force by peace officers and private citizens... " stating that the lawmakers “really meant it” when they said police should be allowed to get off for murder almost all the time.

So any police officer can kill anyone so long as it can’t be proved to have been done out of malice. For example, let’s say you’re a cop, and you see a poor person wasting space. So long as it isn’t personal (you don’t have anything against that particular poor person, just poor people in general) you can fire away.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Exhibitionist Heaven

A couple of weeks ago some of us at Real Change were talking about how the rise of internet background-check services has hurt poor people. Years ago it was a pain to run background checks. If someone wanted to rent an apartment from you, you had to take their application materials to an agency run out of a trailer and hand it over to a guy named Rocky. You didn’t do it because Rocky smelled like cigarettes, stale peanuts, and three day old fish, and he charged too much.

But now, Rocky has a website so you don’t have to smell him, and his work is automated and uses semi-public internet resources, so the price is down around $30. The way the poor would-be renter gets screwed is that, with the background check affordable at all, it’s the renter who’s made to pay!

Good news! This intolerable situation will only last a few more years! Thanks to improving technology, the price of background checks will plummet so far, they’ll be given away free to anyone who has a computer and knows how to use Google!

“But Wes, how is that possible?” my detractors ask. Sneaky detractors always questioning me. Well, I’ll tell you. It’ll all be done with cameras, wires, connections, and computers, with some math thrown in.

By the time this column is printed, you’ll have had an opportunity to watch a massively parallel IBM computer named Watson play Jeopardy. I don’t know how well Watson will do, but I know he’ll outdo grandpa’s computer. He may not win against the human contestants, but he’s going to do better than a lot of people watching at home could do. Yet, Watson is self-contained. He’s not hooked up to an internet.

Meanwhile, the European Union, the United States of Europe, is funding a project to create a “robot” internet. I put the word robot in quotes because Watson is defined as a robot for the sake of this thing, called the RoboEarth project. Computers all over the world who are equipped to learn from experiences, like Watson, will be able to link up and share their growing knowledge about the world, and the humans in it, on their very own internet geared to their special interests and needs.

Meanwhile, face identification software is improving. It will soon be possible to upload a picture of someone, and tell your favorite search engine to retrieve all pictures that feature only that person and people who look just like them.

Finally, more and more cameras are being installed in public places, Several states are setting up their linked networks of surveillance cameras. But there’s nothing in the law preventing businesses and private citizens from connecting their own surveillance cameras to each other on the net, and every reason for companies that would like to track us all to support them doing so. So, got a surveillance camera? Earn some money just for leaving it on 24/7!

Put it all together, and you realize that it’s inevitable. The cost of the systems that track you will be paid by advertisers wanting to tailor ads to you.

Unless there are major legal barriers put in place (a constitutional amendment guaranteeing privacy would be a start in this country) you can expect as early as ten years from now that if you don’t remember where you were a week ago last Thursday at 3 PM, you’ll be able to able to find out by googling yourself. Switch to image search, and see what you were wearing. Modify the subject, and find out where the spouse was.

Computers will track you from one camera to the next. If you try to trick the computers by ducking into a port-a-potty and switch into a disguise, it won’t work, Superman, computers can count. “Duh-uh, where’d da other human go? Someone’s trying to trick me. Alert, alert! Oh there he is, with the red pantsies.”

And the good news is, it will all be free!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tweet Like an Egyptian

Above: A 1919 Egyptian uprising had a flag that clearly acknowledged the revolutionaries' debt to computers.
Like everyone else in the world I’ve been watching the events unfolding in Egypt with great concern. How can people be so cruel to one another? I’m referring, of course, to the shutdown of the internet and Twitter. It’s insidious.

We all know why it was done. The authorities felt besieged by revolutionaries. Naturally, they (the authorities) sought to deprive the revolutionaries of their power, so they unplugged them. I’m sure I would have done the same, if I were a dictatorial regime propped up by a rich foreign power, because I am also a walking moral vacuum, abhorred by nature.

That got me thinking, though. How would the history of the world been different if this sort of cruel drastic measure had been resorted to in the past?

For example, we’ve all heard of the American Revolution, and how, because of it, we live in George Washington State, instead of George William Frederick State, and we call ourselves Americans, after the continent, instead of British, after the fraction of the island. These are good things. But what would have happened had King George III done what Mubarak did, and cut off the colonists’ internet and Twitter?

One good thing: I’m sure that if they were cut off early enough the Boston Tea Party couldn’t have happened. They could never have pulled off that kind of organization without the aid of selectively distributed electronic communication. Consequently there would be no Tea Bagger Party today, which would be a relief. On the other hand, we wouldn’t know they could have existed, so we wouldn’t feel the relief, so we’d just complain about some other yahoos. Probably the Australians.

Then there’s the Declaration of Independence, which I learned in school was actually finished on MySpace, a sucky 18th Century predecessor of Facebook, on July 2, 1776, and only tweeted two days later. The British people were having their own problems and King George had already (this is real history!) shut down Twitter on their island. That’s why the British, including King George himself, didn’t know about the Declaration of Independence tweet until weeks later, when the ban was lifted and someone did a #revolution search.

That was what did happen. But if King George had shut down the internet and Twitter in the colonies that summer, the American colonists wouldn’t have been able to declare independence, so they wouldn’t know they were really having a revolution. No one would ever know they could pursue happiness, so we’d all be couch potatoes today.

No one would know what a “John Hancock” was. If you said to someone “put your John Hancock there,” they’d think you meant something dirty.

That’s just one minor revolution, hardly even the most serious one! What about the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution of 1911, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Velvet Revolution, the Velcro Revolution?

As we know now, without the internet and Twitter, none of those revolutions could have happened. Now I’m sure that some of you would say, good riddance to bad history. But you aren’t thinking how cool it was that all that went down. Just the French Revolution, for example, got us “Let them eat cake” and guillotines. Come on! That’s some cool s#*t!

Further hypotheticals to learn by:

It’s long been said that if the internet had never existed, children wouldn’t have learned violence from internet games. Discuss how the absence of violent tendencies among children would have affected history. First, pay attention to the Childrens’ Crusades, the development of the Mother Goose rhyming industry, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the world-wide stick and rock trade. Then, look away.

It’s also long been an established truism that without internet porn, men would never view women as sex objects. What would they have viewed as sex objects instead? List five possibilities and their relative likelihoods. Take into account the prevailing forms of agribusiness in ancient times and more recently, the rise of little tiny battery powered thingies.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Future Snark

Whenever there are great occasions of public oration, I miss them. They always happen in prime-time, and I’m accustomed to averting my eyes during prime-time. In fact, I always arrange to sleep through prime-time.

Missing the oration means I don’t know everything that everyone else does. I know the words because they’re in the New York Times the next day, if the oration is anything to sneeze at. But I miss the nuanced delivery, the dramatic pauses, the turned up eyes, everything you need to really be fully informed in a country informed by appearances.

But we must do what we can. I shall now attempt to read Obama’s State of the Union address, as it appeared in last Wednesday’s New York Times. [Pause for slow reader.]

OK, let’s see, distinguished guests, fellow Americans, Boehner, rancor, shooting, contentious democracy, we’re great, yadda, yadda, we’re set apart as a nation (as opposed to what? -- as a broccoli?), we will move together because we must, but we have to do more, China, India, yadda.

Alright, here’s something. He says our country is built on an idea and that’s why our kids don’t just memorize equations, they answer questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I never put those things together before. So, it was our founding as a free republic that’s responsible for gnarly uncles asking endless stupid questions. Yeah, I can see that. It sure explains Uncle Ned. He never should have been free.

Next Obama’s telling us we have to win the future. Whenever someone points to something, I make a habit of glancing over my shoulder at what he’s pointing me away from. I guess it’s acceptable to lose the past if the future is still there to be won. I can switch to door number three.

Now here’s something else I did not know! I did not know this was a Sputnik moment! How did the new Sputnik get by me?

If I could see the Sputnik overhead maybe I could figure out how Obama gets from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to “I want be one of the 80% of Americans riding in high-speed trains powered by 80% clean energy.” I don’t see that as much of a career, but then, maybe I just don’t know what the word “career” means. Is it like “careen?” What’s this 80% fetish?

What about my dream, that 80% of America be underwater, so I can get there by stolen rowboat?

Speaking of knowing things, we come to Obama’s first immediate concrete proposal, to continue income tax credits we already have for paying tuition. So that the people who can now afford to go to college can continue to afford to, until tuitions are raised again. A bold proposal.

After three decades of cuts in support for higher education, no change is progress we should all applaud.

He talks about bringing high-speed wireless to 98% of all Americans in 5 years, so that, among other things, students can take classes with a digital textbook. How about using that to crank the tuition down? Is that too much to ask?

How about a future in which 80% of adults have college educations that are fully paid off, so we don’t have a country of debtors?

Questions to propel further snark

Could the author of this column be any snarkier? Suggestion: come up with a snarky over-all assessment of the State of the Union Address that the author could have whipped out. Then, raise the snark level with a counter-snark of your own.

Reading comprehension: Is the author really snarking at Obama, or is he snarking at Americans for setting themselves up for these kinds of addresses, by their absurd expectations. Should every presidential address be a callback to Kennedy’s “Man on the Moon” address?

Obama said that at the time Sputnik was launched the science didn’t exist yet to go to the moon. Hello? Newton’s Laws?