Sunday, December 30, 2007

Head for the hills

Well, it has been too long since I've last written. But it hasn't been without cause -- and I don't mean the Christmas holiday. I've been in negotiations with the Thermopolis (Wyo.) Independent Record, a newspaper in north-west Wyoming. And I got the job!

This means that I may be taking something of a hiatus from here for awhile. As some of you know, I'm currently living in eastern Iowa, so picking up stakes and settling into a town 1,000 miles away isn't exactly a mean feat. The Map feature at Google tells me that the total trip will be 1,068 miles, and will take 15 hours and 24 minutes. I think the Goog is smoking some suspicious substance if it thinks I can make the trip in that time, even under perfect circumstances. (I have family in Cheyenne, which is about 250 from Thermop, and that drive can take nearly 14 hours.)

And on top of that, I'm only able to hope for near perfect circumstances. I've been checking the WyoDOT page this evening, and right now you can't get to Cheyenne, let alone points north or west: I-80 is closed; I-25 is closed; and the numerous federal, state, and county routes out of there are closed as well. Oh! Scratch that. I-25 is now open north of Cheyenne, but that still wouldn't do me any good, since I wouldn't be able to get there anyway. The best roads in the state are marked "slick in spots," and many more roads are either TNA -- travel not advised -- or just plain closed. And this is the winter norm in Wyoming.

So we'll see if I can make it. My current plan involves leaving here, Lone Tree, Friday about noon. I expect to lie low in Omaha for the evening, and then push to Cheyenne Saturday. I imagine I will bed down in the capital city, although my plans hinge on the weather. If the roads are all open and clear, but with the threat of weather Sunday or Monday, I'll probably push out early. But we'll see. I should hit Thermop either Saturday, late, or Sunday, depending on weather. And again writing about that weather: a Monday or even Tuesday arrival can not be ruled out, if I find that I have to spend additional hide-out time in either Omaha or Cheyenne. While I have the green light to retire to a motel in other places, I just assume to aim for friendly quartering with persons familiar.

I spent a good deal of treasure today purchasing items for the new place, all domestic. Bed sheets, laundry detergent, a fresh roll of toothpaste. However, there are some domestic items unique to Wyoming: tire chains, road flares, snow shovel (to live in my truck) -- those sorts of things.

In keeping with the tone of this blog, I thought I would (briefly) ruminate on a few of the difficulties an interstate move is posing. In a future post, after I've been through the process, I'll post a fuller laundry list of things to consider when moving to another state, but here's my rough draft...

First of all, there is the move itself. I'm giving U-Haul $227 (plus Iowa sales tax) for a trailer that measures 5'x8'. Fortunately, my new digs are furnished, so I won't have to worry about taking everything I own. On the other hand, I would rather have done that, because I'll have to come after my stuff at some point, which means a 2,000 mile round trip, and another U-Haul. But since I've got an old truck -- that I expect to get back from the shop after having a new clutch put in the same afternoon that I'm too pick up my U-Haul -- I decided to defer on that for now.

Once I arrive, I've got to worry about getting a Wyoming driver's license. ($20.) I've then got to insure my truck in Wyoming. (I dunno how much that'll cost yet.) I also have to transfer my truck title from Iowa to Wyoming, which means a trip to the cop-shop to verify my VIN number, and then to the county seat (thankfully, Thermop is the county seat of Hot Springs County), to do the deed. ($20.) And then I can get plates for my truck. ($96 is the estimate that I was provided from an online calculator. But this will be important for me: I'll get the famous Bucking Bronco logo plates!) Alright, at this point, I should have my truck sorted out, right? (Total cost: $136, plus whatever insurance costs.)

Then there is renter's insurance. I hear that's pretty reasonable -- if memory serves, probably $15 a month. Then I have to figure out if my mobile phone will work in Thermop. People tell me that Verizon is the best carrier there, but I've got Sprint. And I happen to be happy with Sprint. I roam for free, so hopefully I'll be able to use Verizon's towers -- and I don't use any advanced data services. Hell, I don't even text message. Ever.

But if I do have to drop Sprint, I will have to argue with them to let me get out of the remaining time on my contract -- it expires in November, 2008 -- without paying them to $200 early termination fee. I've heard that such a thing is possible, if it can be demonstrated that the current carrier doesn't offer reasonable service in the new locale.

Then there are utilities. Due to my housing situation, these should be fairly simple. I'll be renting half of a house and splitting the utilities 50/50 with the other two inhabitants. I just hope it isn't too lopsided. But the current resident tells me that his bills generally run from $80 - $150 a month on top of the $275 rent. I can live with that.

Well, I have much more to add, but my eyes are getting heavy and I have much packing to commence tomorrow. Shameless plug for comments: if you have any specific information about making an interstate move that I haven't written here, please let me know so I can hopefully avoid making any mistakes, and, if that isn't the case, incorporate your wisdom into my full checklist to come out sometime in January or February.

Cheers -- and I'll see you in Wyoming!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Self determination in the land of the Despot?

I've always had an interest in Russia -- it and Turkey are the two places overseas I really want to visit. A cousin of mine was even fortunate enough to spend time there teaching English. Well, she was fortunate enough to be able to afford it. The fact that she spent a lot of time and work on learning Russian might have had something to do with it as well. Nevertheless, I remain green with envy.

Therefore, when Time magazine announced today Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, as their man of the year [Edit: person of the year], I was interested. Interested, of course, to read their cover story. And the story about why they named him. I read these before I read a story about national identity in post Soviet era Russia. After I read those three, I read about the super glitzy nightclubs of Russia, where one night in the luxury suite can cost upwards of $40,000. There was also an interview of Kissinger about Putin. There was also an interesting piece about prognostications on Putin's place in history. Gorbachev also has a love letter for the president in the issue. Almost satisfied of my Putin-fix, I read on about economics in the Russian capital. And then, like at Christmas dinner, full to even the highest corners of my stomach, I saw one last piece of pie -- well, a hell of a large pie, and not even just a slice -- the complete transcript of the Time interview with the president.

Well, there are probably about 7,500 words that I digested. I'll cover the main points, or at least what I thought were the main points. A note: if you're going to read some or all of that material, I'd suggest both the actual cover story and the complete interview -- both are fairly long, but worthwhile. The cover story is worthwhile because it presents the back story in some places where it is helpful. The complete interview is a good read because it is the cannon, and because it is interesting (especially) side by side to see how Time parses Putin's words. The "excerpts" which I did not link to above are just a rehash of the complete interview.

Without further ado, my main points:

* Putin is Christian, a Russian Orthodox. He seems to be fairly devout -- but he also seems to maintain a balance between public and private:

You could say that it is my deep conviction that the moral values without which humankind cannot survive cannot be other than religious values. Now, as regards a specific church or other establishment, that's a separate matter. As somebody said once, if God exists, he does know that people have different views regarding church.
Now, does this not sound like a particular American candidate to you?

* Time's staff seem to have gone into this interview with unusual tenacity, offering probing follow-up questions when Putin seemed evasive. I just wish they used the same tenacity interviewing domestic pols. The president (our president) must have some really heavy duty security, since these guys weren't afraid to ask the tough questions of Putin even after being warned about snipers roving around outside the villa. Oh, and Putin is an nth degree black belt.

* Putin seems to believe -- and the ancillary stories to the cover package seem to back this up -- that the Russian people really do want him to be a strong-man. (At one point, Time writes that his internal popularity rating is holding at about 70%.)

Alright, three points are enough -- because I want to focus on the third.

The way that I understand things, and what I imagine is one of the underlying factors that lead to the great misunderstandings between cultures, is that some cultures have different values than our own. Duh! I know some of you are yelling at your computer screen. Some African tribes want to practice genital cutting (in some quarters referred to as genital mutilation), and some of us scream about how this is misogynist. (Or, there are now groups here that are calling for an end to infantile circumcision because they argue that such a decision should be made by the guy later on in life.) Some Native American tribes want to smoke peyote to get closer to their gods. And on and on and on.

But when we hear that some cultures value cultural stability at the cost of personal liberty we all throw up our arms and start the talk about exporting democracy to these poor, ass backward souls. A SCOTUS justice -- Oliver Wendall Holmes, methinks -- once wrote that democracy is the only system of government that contemplate its own demise. For example, we can vote in politicians who enact, for example, a monarchy. This could be done, quite legally, through a series of Constitutional amendments. Or we could suspect the Constitution. Or abolish it. Or something. But at any rate, just such a decision could be arrived at through the democratic process.

But now comes Putin and Russia, saying that stability and progress are worth more than freedom and stagnation. (It's the economy, stupid.) Some free markets are alright, with a strong hand to guide them. Before you get yourself all rilled up about that thought, recall that we've elected leaders in this country that have made a similar bargain: civil liberties for collective security. Regardless of which argument you feel is more compelling (Ben Franklin: Those who would give up a little freedom for security deserve neither), you must admit the hypocrisy to holler at the Russians when we've mad the same trade.


* (Point number four -- I just remembered:) Putin's core principle seems to be that of internal control. He refused to comment on the current presidential race going on here, because he thought it would be offensive for a foreign leader to make pronouncements about another nation's priorities. At no point does he ask that we follow the Russian system. He refused to criticize the electoral college -- but he brings up such refusal to point out what he perceives as hypocrisy. (You'll note from above, I am sympathetic to such a charge.)

Perhaps he is wrong, and, prima facie, individual rights should trump collective considerations. I happen to think that, that, is indeed the case -- I think Putin's system will crumble at some point. But at least he's consistent about his beliefs -- and perhaps we should become more so, as well.

UPDATE: Three traditions

If you'll recall our earlier discussion on religion for a moment, there is another comment that's bubbled up that I wanted to post and discuss. And -- hooray! -- this presents a chance for me to introduce another tag for posts: semantics. I have conflicted feelings about semantics: as the commenter (that I quote below) somewhat alludes to, semantics can be an academic exercise in splitting hairs, and might be a pejorative in that context. But at the same time, semantics are also important. SCOTUS (The Supreme Court, another group I expect to blog about at some point) is currently trying to figure out what the Second Amendment to the Constitution means (that would be the one about guns). How? They're dealing with commas. God save the queen.

But at any rate, back to Yahweh. First, you may remember that I wrote:

When I write about faith on this blog, and I don't expound upon which particular faith I'm writing about, I'm speaking in general about the Islamic/Christian/Jewish tradition that dominates Western culture. I'm not an expert in any of the three, but I know a thing or two. (Please comment when I incorrectly generalize across the traditions, or otherwise make a muck of things.)
Well, Casandra did comment, and took me to task for too closely associating these three religions. (Disclosure: Casandra is my former girlfriend and we remain close. Caveat: she's also a religious studies undergraduate alumnus, working on getting into grad school for religious anthropology. What do I know?) To avoid too much rehashing, here's what I figure to be her main point:
You see, the common link between these three religions is the prophet Abraham, but the three religions cannot even agree on the story of this man let alone his importance. You could say that Judaism and Christianity have much more in common with each other than either does with Islam, and that would be correct. However, it would still be incorrect to lump them into one tradition.

Like I said, Judaism is largely based on Mosaic Law. Well, many Christians believe that when Jesus came, he created a new covenant in place of the Mosaic covenant. With this belief, there is no reason to follow the Mosaic covenant and therefore, Mosaic Law.

My point here is that each of these religions have distinct beliefs with distinct traditions based on these beliefs.
And then, an anonymous poster throws in. He or she (I detest the gender/plurality indefinite pronoun "they") makes several cogent points, available for your full consideration under that posts' "Items for discussion." Here is the specific point that I think I was trying to make in that original post (quoted at top):
I think you're all arguing over semantics, in all honesty the 3 religions claim belief in the same 'God'. Perhaps the word tradition was innapropriate ...


The point being, there is an indeterminable amount of ways to divide religion, and on the whole most religious leaders point out that their are more things in common between the big 3 than their are different.
I think that very nicely rephrases what I was trying to say: these three particular religions do share some ancestry and have more in common with one another than other religions. (Right?) Well, not so fast, perhaps: the anonymous commenter also writes, "Hell right now their are probably protestants arguing against the fact their being lumped in with catholics." While Protestants do have issues with Catholics -- see, for example, the euphemistically labeled "troubles" of Northern Ireland -- an additional discussion is going on right now in politics: Is Mormonism a Christian faith? (I wonder whether the Southern Baptist Convention would be more injured by that claim, made by Gov. Mitt Romney, that he is indeed a Christian -- or by my lumping the SBC in with Jews and Muslims?)

The bottom line, for me, is this: Religion is a terribly difficult thing to define and discuss. We frequently are forced to limit ourselves to provisional judgments and rules of thumb in order that we might be able to even begin a discussion. Otherwise, we'd spend all day every day arguing over what religion was, before we might discuss it. Just as Mormons might practice a particular brand of faith that many (other?) Christians might find heretical or at least non-Christian, there is a similar diversity of religion or faith -- or lack of it -- in agnostic and atheist circles.

The point? We all self-identify in terms of religious. If we go to mass at Roman Catholic basilicas, well, we might self-identify as Roman Catholic. The same with those who attend Friday prayers at a Mosque -- most of these folks would self-identify as Muslim. But attendance is an outward action that signifies very little of our internal belief. Witness the friend at a godchild's baptism, or the in-laws at your Protestant wedding. Everyones' faith, religion, or lack of either, is fundamentally internal. And so we're -- at best -- throwing darts at the board blindfolded, not knowing what exactly we're trying to discuss, and certainly not knowing where to vault our prognostications.

I know that we've spent a good bit of ink on the (seemingly) rather simple question of whether or not it is a good idea to throw Christianity, Islam, and Judaism together into one grand label. But as the continuing debate illustrates, the question may not be answered so simply as it is posed.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Iowa Caucus Troubles

Oh, boy, what a mess. I've heard plenty of whining from all quarters about how bad the Iowa Caucuses are for democracy and whatnot: we're an overwhelmingly (and hence not nationally representative) white, the caucus itself isn't really a democratic process, Iowans are idiots. I have always been, to varying degrees, sympathetic to all of these arguments. (Well, not terribly sympathetic to the idiot charge: I am biased.)

And, then, via Mickey Kaus on Slate, comes trouble. First of all, Kaus says, "The TV networks are screwing around with the already-absurd Iowa caucuses again, using an 'entrance poll' of only 40 precincts (out of more than 3,500) that threatens to manufacture a misleading result. Ah, but it's all justified because of the valuable information the network poll will gather!" (Emphasis in original). He continues, "The networks wouldn't have to resort to a questionable 'entrance' poll if Iowans voted at normal hours using, say, easily-countable ballots. But that's not the Iowa way." Read on for the whole backstory, or skip down to my interpretation.

Kaus is generally one of the Slate features I generally avoid -- I'm often sympathetic of some of the highly cynical points he makes, but I tend to choke on his vitriol. But his arguments, if true, were distressing enough that I read with interest. Most damningly, however, he provided a link to a piece by Slate correspondent William Saletan, who writes the "Human Nature" feature on that site. Describing the article as "seminal," I followed the link to Saletan's "article on the epic 1988 caucus debacle." The title from the Saletan piece? "The Phantom Poll Booth: Who won the 1988 Iowa Democratic caucuses? We'll never know." (I was only 5 during the debacle -- I didn't even know that there had been such a mess.)

The 1988 piece is presented as a sidebar, reproduced from the June 1988 American Politics, to a 2004 post, "The Vanishing: If you liked the Florida recount, you'll love the Iowa caucuses," written by Saletan and Slate intern Matt Schiller. Things aren't getting any better, apparently:

To create a dangerously high risk that the winner of the delegate count isn't the winner of the raw vote, you need two things: a big field, so that there will be plenty of nonviable groups to redistribute at the precinct caucuses, and a close race.


This year, the two risk factors have returned with a vengeance. The field is bigger than in 1988, and the race is closer. The latest Iowa polls have the top four candidates—Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, and Edwards—within the margin of error. [A media consortium called the News Election Service], which tried to count the raw vote in 1988, is gone. Here's the system the media have created to replace the NES: Nothing. Plenty of reporters will attend caucuses, but nobody is systematically reporting the raw vote, or even the realigned vote. Some folks at the TV networks seem to think the Associated Press is reporting the raw vote. That's news to the AP.

For better or worse, all of this presupposes you have something of an understanding of how the caucuses work. Don't worry if you're not an expert: it doesn't appear that anyone is. (Or perhaps that's a good reason to soil your trousers. On reflection, I pick the former.)

For those of you who don't have half an hour to dispose upon your democracy (shame!), or trust me enough (horror!) to be interested in my read on the situation, well, here goes. First, a quick primer on how the caucuses work, with reporting measures thrown in to taste. This is hardly an authoritarian or complete description; I'm just touching on the points that are implicated in Kaus and Saletan's writing. And note, this only applies to the Dem's. The GOP has their own form of a caucus, which is strikingly like a primary.

Alright. January 3, 7 P.M. Some Concerned Citizens (the eligibility requirements are an entire 'nother post) gather at their designated caucus spot. At a few of the zillion local precincts, the press will take entrance polls of caucus goers' first choices -- before the caucus begins. Right. The precinct captain tells people to go stand in the corner of their respective candidate: Hillary folks in one corner, Obama supporters over there, Edwards' over here, Bidens' in the fourth corner, Dodds' here between Hillarys' and Edwards', ad nauseam. It is at this point, to my understanding, that the former NES (now defunct, see above), was instructed to take vote counts. Candidates groups not meeting viability are told to realign. Viability is figured as 15% of precinct attendance. During realignment, previously nonviable candidate support groups can achieve viability by bringing on supporters from other nonviable candidates, or by sniping from viable candidates. I saw this happen in 2004: when Dean and Clark all failed to meet viability, Dean supporters sat out for the most part, and Gephardt's group offered a few supporters to Clark, ensuring that Dean wouldn't get a delegate.

Confused yet? Gephardt's group was able to offered two or three supporters for a Clark delegate because of the way that rounding works. Imagine division with a remainder, if you would. In my particular precinct, for example, we were allotted six delegates in 2004. Given to the number of people who showed up -- 80 at my Lone Tree, Iowa, precinct -- and the 15% rule, 12 persons were required for viability. However, every 14 persons in a particular group (80 attendees / 6 delegates = 13 1/3) provided a delegate. In theory, therefore, it would be possible to be viable but not earn a delegate. My head is starting to hurt, too.

Dean's group, if I remember, was one supporter short of viability -- 11. Another supporter would have allowed them viability, and the chance to snipe supporters from other groups. If you remember, Iowa was a fight between Dean and Gephardt -- so Gephardt would want anyone else to get a delegate before Dean. Therefore, they offered a few strategic bodies to Clark, assuring him viability and a delegate. Without those bodies, Clark supporters might have gone over to Dean's camp, giving him a delegate.

What's all of this have to do with division and remainders, you ask dear reader? Gephardt had sixteen supporters. Let's practice division: 16/14= 1 remainder 2. Those two extra bodies in the Gephardt camp were pretty much worthless: they weren't going to give Dick an extra 1/7 delegate. But they could use those two bodies to shore up Clark -- who turned out to be exactly the also-ran Dick's crew calculated them to be -- and ensure that a measly three bodies didn't deflect from Clark to Dean. (As an aside, Clark earned exactly three statewide delegates in 2004, in Iowa. The Clark county delegate from Lone Tree in 2004 was one of three in Johnson County (same county as Iowa City) and one of 15 statewide. Confused, still?)

Now, this isn't even the problem! This is serious enough to require both boldface and italics.

As you can begin to imagine, the whole caucus process takes a long bloody time, the antithesis of political news coverage. Rewind to the beginning of the caucus -- the entrance poll. My best read of Kaus and Saletan is that the entrance poll numbers are what will be reported on the news outlets -- entrance poll numbers that tally caucus goers' first choices, and poll numbers taken from only 40 precincts (of a total 3,562 Democratic and Republican precincts).

Implications? Well, it would seem like no one need caucus unless they happen to be at one of the 40 precincts where there is entrance polling taking place. And, then, who do declare your support for? Imagine a caucus-goer who supports Sen. Dodd, but who figures Dodd can't win. Not knowing that her vote really counts incredibly disproportionately highly, this caucus-goer might declare her support for her second choice (and top-tier, per MSM) candidate, Sen. Edwards. Arg!!! Not only is her vote subverted (well, not really a vote), but well, everyone who caucuses elsewhere need not apply anyway. From Saletan:
In the last days before the caucuses, buoyed by the Des Moines Register's en­dorsement, [Paul] Simon aides echoed the Bab­bitt campaign's mocking line on Gary Hart: "Let the media decide." On Febru­ary 8, that's what happened.
Looks like that's set to happen, again. Please -- someone tell me that I'm wrong about this. I'm beginning to make a Kauslike use of bold and italics. Save me!

[Edit 071217@2109: Readability edit.]
[Edit 071217@2146: Readability edit again.]

Friday, December 14, 2007

Top Ten Lists

I haven't attached any links without some serious consideration -- in the form of comment here -- about what I'm pointing you to. But I found this via Slate -- they've tentatively named the article as the best Top Ten List of the year -- in Time magazine. I think this is an excellent piece on how people think, relate to one another, and to the world in general. Can you think of a compelling Top Ten list? Or even better, can you do better than the Time piece getting meta about it?

Cheers, and everyone have a good weekend.

P.S. Watch out for the "gotchya" at the end of the Time article.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

UPDATE: The three traditions

Just returning from my local tavern, I find that Casandra has a few important things to say. About my lumping together the three "Abrahamic" traditions (from comments):

Sorry it has taken me so long to finally post this response, but as you know, various circumstances have prevented me from doing so earlier.

So, here goes:

My main objection to what you wrote is specifically your generalization. You lumped Judaism, Christianity, and Islam into one tradition. I would argue they are not one tradition and do not share one tradition.

According to, tradition means:
"1.the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice: a story that has come down to us by popular tradition.
2.something that is handed down: the traditions of the Eskimos.
3.a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting: The rebellious students wanted to break with tradition.
4.a continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices.
5.a customary or characteristic method or manner: The winner took a victory lap in the usual track tradition.
a.(among Jews) body of laws and doctrines, or any one of them, held to have been received from Moses and originally handed down orally from generation to generation.
b.(among Christians) a body of teachings, or any one of them, held to have been delivered by Christ and His apostles but not originally committed to writing.
c.(among Muslims) a hadith.
7.Law. an act of handing over something to another, esp. in a formal legal manner; delivery; transfer."

Alright, let's start with a brief overview of the three religions in question - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Judaism - the "Jewish Tradition"
The Jewish Faith can be traced back to the man known as Moses. Some believe it can be traced back further, but it should be enough to say that Jewish history is based on the stories of the Old Testament of the Bible. It doesn't matter if much of the history cannot be proven. What matters is that Jews consider it their history, their tradition. For the purposes of this conversation, there are two things that should be remembered: Abraham is an important prophet in the Jewish tradition and Jewish tradition is largely based on Mosaic law (the laws set forth in the first five books of the Old Testament, known in Judaism as the Torah).

The Christian tradition obviously has roots in Jewish history. Christians adopted Jewish history as their own. However, it is not the basis or the emphasis of the Christian faith. Christianity is largely based on the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Since Christians claim Jewish roots, Abraham is also a recognized prophet in the Christian faith.

Islam is based entirely on the teachings of Muhammad, both in the form of the Qur’an and the Hadiths (stories about Muhammad). One of the things Muhammad taught was that the origins of their religion were centered in the story of the Jewish prophet Abraham. However, Muslims tell a different version of the Jewish story of Abraham and even emphasize the other of Abraham’s two sons.

You see, the common link between these three religions is the prophet Abraham, but the three religions cannot even agree on the story of this man let alone his importance. You could say that Judaism and Christianity have much more in common with each other than either does with Islam, and that would be correct. However, it would still be incorrect to lump them into one tradition.

Like I said, Judaism is largely based on Mosaic Law. Well, many Christians believe that when Jesus came, he created a new covenant in place of the Mosaic covenant. With this belief, there is no reason to follow the Mosaic covenant and therefore, Mosaic Law.

My point here is that each of these religions have distinct beliefs with distinct traditions based on these beliefs. defines tradition as “the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice: a story that has come down to us by popular tradition.” If you have different statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc. that is being passed down, then you obviously end up with different traditions. Hell, in the definition of “tradition,” these three religions are divided. I think this signifies that the differences in the three traditions is important enough to note in the dictionary.

I would agree if you said that these three religions had a common ancestor, a common root, or even common history, but they definitely do not have a common tradition.
I stand corrected. As is my due. Should I continue to refer to these religions as common? Your comments are now being solicited.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What I'm working on this morning

I'm working on a cover letter and resume package to send out for an oil pipeline job in Illinois right now, actually. But when I'm done with that, I'll be putting together my response, in the voice of Mike Huckabee's press secretary, to a few of his more contentious comments on AIDS he made some years ago. William Saletan from Slate brings forth a contest:

Your audition assignment: Reconcile these comments from your boss.


1) “We need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague.”

2) "The AIDS crisis was just that -- a crisis."

3) “My concern was safety first, political correctness last.”

4) "When asked about AIDS research in 1992, Huckabee said it received an unfair share of federal dollars compared to cancer, diabetes and heart disease. 'An alternative would be to request that multimillionaire celebrities, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and others who are pushing for more AIDS funding be encouraged to give out of their own personal treasuries increased amounts for AIDS research,' he wrote."

Fire away, contestants. And good luck!

This, to help facilitate discussion after this brief post this morning:
Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is under fire for having urged a quarantine of HIV carriers. Huckabee 1992: 1) "Homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk." 2) "We need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague." 3) The government spent too much money on AIDS research compared to other diseases, so maybe "celebrities, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna and others who are pushing for more AIDS funding" should sponsor the research instead. Huckabee 2007: 1) "There was still too much confusion about HIV transmission in those early years." 2) "My concern was safety first, political correctness last." 3) I now favor spending billions on AIDS relief. Rebuttals: 1) Actually, by 1992, "it was well established that the virus could not be spread through casual contact." 2) How could a disease be dangerous enough to quarantine but too frivolous for federally funded research?
Oh, my.

A better democracy?

I've read two items so far this morning that demand comment and reflection. Good items, really, thought provoking and intelligent -- but are they right?

Item number one comes to us via the Washington Post: written by an ABC newsman (No, not that ABC -- this is the Australian Broadcasting Company), John Barron gets the hed: "Campaign Kangaroo: Elections? Here's How You Do It, Mate". Barron suggests that we northerners adopt an more Aussie way of electing our leaders. He notes, wryly, however, that he'll be here to cover American elections until then, because they're as much fun as American Idol. (I killed my TV.)

Item number two comes to us via the New York Times: Stanley Fish writes a regular column there, "Think Again," working on the conventional wisdom. (By working on the c/w, I generally mean to say he tweaks the hell out of it.) This week, he writes about what we're looking for in candidates, and seems to take a rather Machiavellian view (his own description). And you know what? To a point -- a significant point, but nonetheless -- I agree with him.

Full stop. Reactions? On the Australian side of things, I can not help but get excited at the thought of "required" voting. I'd almost support a constitutional amendment in favor of mandated balloting (it seems a near certainty that such an amendment would be necessarily in light of first amendment (i.e., political speech is the most protected form of free speech) concerns) if for no other reason that such a process would force the government more towards the center. If you think that the majority -- or the center -- is right, anyhoo. One must wonder, nevertheless, if the body politic in this country hasn't become too fragmented to be put back together. Sen. Obama seems to have the best claim to that mantle on the Democratic side, and I think that the only candidate on the Republican side of the ticket who could unite the country would be Rep. Ron Paul, although I imagine he'd unite 90% of people against him, save the Libertarians. But I don't know if a forced ballot would solve any of that.

On the Fish end of the ledger sheet, well I think he goes too far, but I haven't had enough time to greatly reflect on it here. But I'll give it a shot, anyway. Fish opens with a discussion about how Katie Couric (CBS News Anchorwoman) will be asking softball questions of the candidates, stuff designed to "
“go beyond politics and show what really makes them tick”" (me quoting Fish's quote of, I imagine a CBS News announcement or press release). Fish then closes with:

In short, craft before integrity, but have sufficient craft to produce integrity’s image. Machiavelli’s hero in this regard is the notoriously corrupt Pope Alexander VI, who “did nothing else but deceive men. … [N]evertheless his deceits always succeeded according to his wishes, because he well understood this side of mankind.”

I am not suggesting that Katie Couric take her questions from Hobbes and Machiavelli rather than from the polls that survey the opinions of ordinary citizens. I don’t see her asking Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney, “When did you last successfully deceive someone and still manage to keep his or her friendship and loyalty?” At any rate, that is a question the truly Machiavellian leader would decline to answer and publicly condemn.

Yet I harbor the hope that the man or woman we finally elect this time would have that particular skill in spades and would be, at least in this respect, the match of Alexander VI. The decorums of political contest demand the rhetoric of integrity and sincerity. The performance of political duties, especially at the highest level, requires something quite different.

Gad zooks, as I'm known to say. The craft to lie, and sufficient craft to lie while seeming to be telling the truth!? This hardly seems like a democratic ideal. Never mind I'm still struggling with democracy, 'natch. Some of my excitement is exaggerated; as I noted, the only thing Fish seems to prefer to throwing gasoline on the c/w is getting also to throw the match.

I happen to agree more with Barron, though, than Fish. Fish seems to think that effective governing, even at the expense of transparency and a basic commitment to honesty, is the higher principle. If this is the case, I am sure that Fish cast a ballot for President Bush in 2004. Barron, however, is more interested in an honest, but circumspect, leader -- if I'm reading it right:
But there isn't the same polarizing effect [in Australian elections] as candidates try to "appeal to the base" and turn out the vote. Interest groups and "voting blocs" have much less influence in Australia than they do in the United States. So much so that in two weeks in Iowa I learned more about the views of each of your presidential candidates on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage than I did from John Howard in nearly 12 years.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Teddy Bear Strike Force Z

[Edit 071209@1542: Readability edit.]
[Edit 071210@1014: Added name link.]

From the New York Times Magazine today comes this little tidbit:

When the New Zealand police force said they were open to suggestions about how to rewrite national policing laws, they meant it. In September, they posted the 1958 Police Act online and invited Kiwis and non-Kiwis alike to visit the site and type in their own revisions to the law...
Whoa. The (policeman) administrator of the wiki project said his favorite suggestion was "that the name of the police force be changed to 'The New Zealand Yum-Yum Teddy Bear Strike Force Z.'"

With review protocols in place, this strikes me as both fantastic and frightening. On the one hand, this is pretty open. I was going to write "democratic," but I'm not quite sure that it reaches that level. If edits were accepted on the basis of a line-item vote, yeah, but by accepting suggestions and then vetting them internally, well, I'll say that it is open. Unless (the NYTM item doesn't address this) the internal vetting process is also transparent, this idea remains fantastic, but only translucent. But much less opaque than lawmakers, law enforcement, and special interests getting together and "black boxing" legislation. The draft document that the police force release at some point will be just that -- a draft -- and will be subject to "black boxing" I'm sure, before being adopted.

I find the whole idea a little frightening, as well. Fortuitously, the whole open-editing scheme was only advisory -- open, in other words, not democratic. I'm not quite ready to leave the lawmaking to the population in general, although I'm also not sure that they would muck it up any worse than black boxing does. The base of my objection is that it is bad logic to assume something is "good," i.e., morally correct, because it is the most popular. (The technical term, if I recall correctly, is the "Fallacy of appealing to the majority or a large proportion", although here it is deemed the "Fallacy of the appeal to popularity.") For a long while, a majority of people (well, Americans anyway) thought, apparently, that slavery was a good thing. Another (counter)example: imagine abortion. Depending on at what time period one considers, at some points the majority of Americans have thought that abortion, in one form or another, should be legal; while at other points, the majority of Americans have thought that abortion should not be a legal medical procedure. Regardless of what you think of the normative legal status of abortion, I think we can all agree that that normative legal status has not changed over the years simply because the majority opinion of that status has.

All of this gets to a more practical issue: is democracy really the best form of government? Plato, for example, theorized of the "philosopher king," hardly a democratic regime. But, in the interests of practicality, I've also been told that Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." How would you locate that philosopher king? It seems to me that another philosopher of old (perhaps even Pluto) once said something along the lines of The one who would govern best desires least to govern. Or something like that.

As always, I'm curious to hear what everyone has to say. And in related news, I am disappointed to report that the suggestion on remaining the national police to Yum Yum Teddy Bear Strike Force Z was rejected. A shame.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

On faith and "tradition"

Former girlfriend and close friend Casandra called today, and a post came up. She objected to my lumping together of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. In a post about death, I wrote:

I'm speaking in general about the Islamic/Christian/Jewish tradition that
dominates Western culture. I'm not an expert in any of the three, but I know a
thing or two. (Please comment when I incorrectly generalize across the
traditions, or otherwise make a muck of things.)

As I mentioned I'm not an expert, but Casandra can claim some specific knowledge - her major is in religious studies (and she is now a graduate, I'm not - yet) and she's working on getting into grad school to go even further.

We didn't go into a long discussion about her objection: I invited her here. I'm very interested in hearing what she has to say - I hope she makes a comment. And, I'd like to hear yours. But now, it being a Saturday evening, and the weather being horrendous, I'm going to my local tavern. I'll see you tomorrow.

UPDATE: Disclosure

Those who know me well know that the closest thing I have to a religion is reading. And I read the online newsmag Slate with near fundamentalist zeal. So when Emily Yoffe posted one of her regular "Dear Prudence" columns, I wasn't hunting for anything in particular but rather following my daily ritual.

I rarely find anything of personal importance on her advice column, but read it to keep my ethical knives sharp. I often disagree with her, but I think that, too, is a big part of why I read her material - for the contrarian point of view she provides. She again provides that view in her latest column, where she writes about disclosure in relationships. (The pertinent item is the third letter down.)

Prudence/Yoffe receives this conundrum: boyfriend uses family computer and innocently discovers father's porn habit. Tell the girlfriend? Her response:

No, you don't tell your girlfriend everything. You don't tell her that the
blouse your colleague wore was really enticing. You don't tell her that the joke
she told wasn't funny. Even in the most open, healthy relationships, people
should and do hold things back from each other. (Snip) You accidentally
invaded the privacy of your girlfriend's father, so don't inflate the incident
by talking about what you discovered.

I definitely disagree with her process, and perhaps with her conclusion, as well. First, the process: I'm not interested in a hand-holding relationship in which I withhold stuff because it could be painful. Let's look at Prudence's two hypotheticals above: the hottie in the blouse and and bad joke.

There are two ways the cute co-worker situation could go. First, there are many beautiful people in the world, and they do not disappear when you begin dating someone. You shouldn't try and cut yourself off from the aesthetic when you commit to someone else, but you're making an observation, and hopefully your significant other has sufficient self-worth and faith in you as to not take offense. And the other possibility is that you might need to think about a different relationship, if you're sufficiently unhappy with your partner's aesthetic. Such an observation should lead to a conversation about what's wrong, and how to deal with it. Throwing it down into a hole and pretending it doesn't exist leads to an explosion down the road.

The bad joke situation isn't nearly as explosive, but important all the same. If your girlfriend tells a joke and you laugh when it sucks, well, she might tell it to someone else, who might say something about it. Let her know so she can retire the line from her arsenal. Even when you correct a mistake it is easy to do it all over again. Uncorrected mistakes beg for repetition.

Dealing with this specific situation - pop's porno, we'll call it - there are several issues to consider, and I think Prudence misses them all. The conflict is not between the guy and his girlfriend, but rather, between the guy and his girlfriend's father, methinks. But there is a lot of ground to consider.

First of all, what's wrong with porn? This question is hardly rhetorical. Specifically, what's wrong with a married man looking at pictures of naked women? (Or men.) The boyfriend doesn't know what the deal is, really. Maybe he looks at them with his wife. Maybe they actually belong to his wife. The point is that we should be honest about things. Lots of folks - lots of happily married folks, lots of happily dating folks, lots of single folks - use pornography frequently without serious detriment. Porn, close cousin to that oldest of all professions, is ubiquitous. And as people have been learning over and over again since the beginning of time, both porn and prostitution survive nearly any attack. There's a reason for that. I'm not a sociologist, but I'm sure that some significant part of the human condition does not want to be in a single-partner committed relationship. Now, perhaps such relationships' benefits outweigh their costs and are a good idea, but there is still a part of us that wants to mix it up. Porn would seem to be a way to do that without harming the relationship.

This consideration could go a whole hell of a lot deeper, but this is a pretty good first look at it. I don't think you have to tell anyone about the porn cache because it just isn't that big of a deal.