"We Vow to Wash the Streets of Baghdad with the Voters' Blood"

So... would you vote?

Background on threats to Iraqi voters from yesterday's New York Times.

I mean the question seriously. If you were an Iraqi, would you vote, given the threats of violence at polling places and retribution for those who participate? Remember that the insurgents are already identifying people who work for Americans or the new government, and killing them and their families.

I think we'd all like to think we'd vote. But realistically? Would you? Why or why not?

Good News, Bad News

Sixty large companies are joining forces to offer group health coverage for the uninsured, the New York Times reports. The idea is simple: by putting all of these people into a risk pool together, it becomes possible to offer more affordable insurance than they could buy on their own.

The logic of the idea is quite simple. Individual health coverage is expensive and unreliable because the insurer is looking at you as a single individual with certain risk factors. Should you do anything crazy like, say, get sick, you're likely to get your policy canceled or see your costs go up. By spreading the individual risks over a large pool of people, the plans can remain less expensive on an individual basis.

The 3 million people who will be eligible for this plan are about 7% of the 45 million uninsured people in the United States. Of course, the plans won't be affordable to all of these people... but they will bring health care coverage within reach of some of them.

I don't want to criticize the employers in question for taking this step - it is movement in the right direction - but what I kept wondering as I read the article was, "wouldn't it make sense to offer something like this to everyone without insurance?" Now, who would do that? The government is the most likely candidate, simply because the government is pretty well equipped to manage this and sign up insurers.

Of course, that sounds a little bit like national health care (though it's not) and would lead to the predictable complaints that the government is going to "control" our health care - robbing us all of the freedom of belonging to an employer-sponsored plan in which we can only see certain doctors on an ever-changing list that is never provided to us in an accurate form, with co-payments that randomly change and requirements for pre-approvals by the insurer that, if not completed precisely according to that month's procedure, result in denial of coverage. I mean, it would be onerous to move to a system where every doctor participated in a state or federal plan to which everyone belonged, ensuring that everything was covered, even if you went to hospital A instead of hospital B.

I realize that it is against the fashion of the times to suggest that there are some things that the government is well equipped to do - that, in fact, the reason we have governments is to do some of those things - but so it goes.

Homo-Lovin' Bunnies

By now I'm sure you've seen some of the nonsense about Buster the Rabbit and his TV show on PBS, in which the cartoon rabbit visits kids around the country and shows the audience how they live. In a new episode, Buster visits kids with two moms. The show is not about that - it is about the kids going out to collect maple syrup from trees in Vermont - but no matter, the depiction (even as a background item) of lesbian moms has the right wing up in arms. (Read the NY Times article from today's paper here.)

Education Secretary Margaret Spelling has gotten in on the grandstanding, complaining that this is not what the federal grant that helped fund the program was for. So let's look at the grant:

The grant specifies the programs "should be designed to appeal to all of America's children by providing them with content and characters with which they can identify." In addition, the grant says, "Diversity will be incorporated into the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society."

"All" of America's children. Reuters has reported that somewhere between 1 and 9 million American children have at least one gay parent, and the American Psychiatric Association says that estimates of the number of children with lesbian mothers range from 6 to 14 million.

That's obviously not the majority of children, but it certainly is a healthy slice of the "all" in the grant language, isn't it? The idea that this program violates the grant - silly on its face, since the grant doesn't say "only mixed-gender parents" or "no lesbian parents" - becomes siller when you look at the grant language. Note that it specifies that the show should provide characters with whom children can identify. So, given that there are a ton of kids out there being raised by same-gender parents, wouldn't having one episode with two moms as parents be a step toward fulfilling the requirements of the grant?

Forget gay rights. Forget same sex parents' rights. Take a very narrow view of this: the Department of Education's grants are supposed to be serving all American children, including those raised by same-gender couples. The money for those grants comes from tax dollars, including those paid by same-gender couples. So unless the Department of Education is going to start specifying that they only provide programs to help children who live with two mixed-gender parents, Secretary Spelling needs to learn to shut up until she's gone back and looked at the grants her department is giving out, rather than criticizing grant recipients for doing exactly what her department told them too.

Tell her how you feel. HRC has created a nifty form form for it - very important since DoE has one of those citizen-proof web sites that provides no way to contact the Secretary. You can edit the letter to personalize it; I did so to raise the issue above and ask Secretary Spelling to clarify whether her department exists for all of America's children, or just a selected subset.

Riding the Rails

Staring at me from the front page of the Chronicle this morning, an only-in-Texas story about Metro's ban on guns on the transit system. (Short version: it's going away.)

For those who don't know: Texas has a "concealed carry" law, which means you are allowed to carry a handgun around as long as it is concealed. Metro (like many other transit systems in the state) had a ban on guns on the trains and buses. Of course, it's been under fire (so to speak) by gun folks.

In reality, I'm sure people have been carrying guns on Metro for some time, because really, there is no way to enforce the ban. So as insane as I think the whole thing is, I think this is probably the right call for Metro: if people in Texas want to be able to carry guns everywhere, it's not a great use of Metro resources to fight to keep an unenforceable and possibly illegal ban in place.

But as I read the comment from James and Mary Ann Knouse, who stopped riding Metro because they couldn't take along their guns to protect themselves, I got the distinct feeling I was hearing a voice from someone who lives on a different planet than I do.

Meanwhile, the gun crowd is going to turn their attention to other places with gun bans - like the Houston City Hall.

As a side note, this is one of those issues where my viewpoint has changed a bit over time. I think the idea that people toting guns makes us safer is just plain silly. Statistics show that having your own gun around can lead to it being used against you as easily as it can lead to you protecting yourself. And given the general tensions that pop up in daily life, arming the populace seems a bit risky. On the other hand, I don't think guns themselves are the root cause of violence; for that we need to turn to poverty and social inequality. (This was a point Michael Moore made in "Bowling for Columbine," where he took a look at Canada, a nation with high rates of gun ownership but low rates of violent crime - he suggested that this might be because of Canada's vastly superior social safety net that. It's impossible to tell if this is true from anecdotal evidence but it is worth thinking about. Gun advocates like to point out that "guns don't kill people, people kill people," and they have a point, but they never want to seem to move on to thinking about why people kill people, and what we might do to change that. The solution I guess, in these folks' eyes, is "... so we'd better shoot them first.")

It's In the Air

Last week, the Houston Chronicle ran a series of articles about the lax control of chemicals emitted by Houston's cluster of petrochemical facilities in the eastern part of the city around the Houston Ship Channel. (You can read it here. It was a pretty solid set of articles; I didn't think there was a trace of "chemical companies bad, people and puppies good" in it. It raised reasonable questions about how Texas sets the allowable levels of pollutants (randomly, it seems), the state of knowledge about the actual effects of chemical pollutants, and whether any regulations really get enforced.

It's been interesting to watch some of the reaction in the Chronicle's letters to the editor section. There were, of course, many people who wrote in saying that the appreciated the series and calling on state lawmakers to address the issue. But there were also a surprising number who wrote in accusing the paper of being anti-business and generally commenting that since the petrochemical industry was an important part of the local economy, we should just all shut up, and the Chronicle shouldn't write stories like the series in question.

Which is, frankly, bizarre. It's reasonable to question their methodology, their interpretation of the results, or the way the information was presented. It's even reasonable to argue that the Texas standards for the chemical pollutants in question (generally allowing 10-50 times the levels of other states) are the right ones (not easy to argue, but you could). But I think it's just bizarre to argue that since this industry provides a lot of jobs to the area, we should not complain if they're giving their neighbors cancer or violating the law.

My personal interpretation is that it's that old free market fetish - business will save us all, so stop asking questions. It's become part of middle America to an extent that it's not hard to get individual citizens to stand up for the poor, beleaguered corporations of the world to protect them from nasty regulators. Okay, sarcasm aside: it is not logical to support people who are dumping chemicals into the environment because they help the economy. (Neither is it reasonable to run them out of business: reasonable, in this case, is setting scientifically defensible standards for their activities and enforcing the rules.)

Another thought: when I talked about this with a friend on the phone, he responded with a comment along the lines of "Ugh.. Houston... chemicals... yuck." The implication, of course, is that this is just an examle of why Houston is a crappy place.

Which is an absurd response. Those chemical plants aren't there because Houstonians just love the smell of chemicals in the morning. They are there to satisfy a worldwide demand for what they make. They are there so that someone in San Francisco can have a computer, so that someone in the Candian Rockies can get high-tech outdoor gear for their adventures, to make the trim in your car or the bus seat you sat in this morning, and to make the grocery bag you brought your organic produce home in. They ended up here; but they wouldn't be here without a world eager for their products. And one of the pressures that makes them cut corners is that to keep the rest of the world happy, they have to make those goods as cheaply as possible.

If keeping someone who lives downwind of the plant from getting sick means those things are going to cost a bit more, that should be a cost everyone is willing to absorb.

Interestingly, none of the "stop beating up on the poor defenseless chemical industry" letters that I saw were from people who identified themselves as residents of affected communities. Meanwhile, people who earn their livings from those companies were willing to talk to the Chronicle about the flares when chemicals are burned off, the strange dust coating the neighborhood, the smells, and other fun effects of living near chemical plants.

Those Adorable Brits

Today I emailed a letter to the editor of the Economist, which I may or may not comment on later here. Usually when you send a letter to the editor of a publication it's a bit like pissing off a cliff. I immediately got a replay stating:

The Editor wishes to acknowledge your email with thanks.

Which is not a major deal, but they actually bothered to acknowledge it. With thanks. There's something incredibly British about this email. They are just so damn cute over there. I think it's probably why I like the Economist so much. The reporting is very good, they are mercifully free of the liberal/conservative American political dynamic (they'd fit comfortably into neither camp here), they provide a good non-American perspective, they cover parts of the world thoroughly that even our major papers don't bother with... but most of all, it's written as though the editors believe that a magazine should not sound like someone sitting at the coffee shop talking to you, but rather like someone who sat down and carefully thought through their article, wrote it, and edited it, striving to be accurate, concise, and clever.

After reading the Economist, picking up Time or Newsweek feels a bit like talking current events with a household pet.

The Many Moods of iTunes

iTunes has a mind of its own.

My default listening mode is to have it randomly shuffle through my entire library. This is fun because I have nearly 9000 songs, and over 2000 of them have a play count of zero - that is, I popped an old CD into the Mac and imported it but never actually went back and listened. So when I start it up, I usually scroll down to the stuff I've never heard, pick something randomly, and let it shuffle from there.

But here's what I notice - once I pick a song I haven't ever played in iTunes, I can almost guarantee that it will come up again in about a day or two - "randomly." Additionally, I will then start hearing that artist a lot more in the "random" shuffling.

Obviously there's a little gnome that lives inside of iTunes that is paying attention to what I listen to and shaping the "random" shuffle experience for me.

Unusual Household Object Blogging



Meet James the Doorman. James has no doors to hold open in my house, so he is currently vacationing on a shelf.

That Healthy Economy

From the business section of today's New York Times, a report on Silicon Valley that may be a sign of where we are going: venture capital investments are up, profits are healthy, R&D funding is booming, and the job situation still sucks.

Why? Productivity improvements. Companies are doing more with less. That means, no, there are a not a bunch of new jobs to go with all this good news, and life in the San Jose area continues to get tougher for the middle class.

(The article notes offshoring, everyone's favorite demon since it started affecting educated technology workers; we weren't too upset when it was just manufacturing jobs, so now a modest outsourcing trend that affects higher-income people get a lot more attention than a much larger trend at the lower end of the income spectrum.)

It's a sobering report for those who are convinced that keeping businesses healthy means good things for everyone.

The Weather Outside Is Frightful

I know I'm not exactly going to get sympathy from my largely northeastern readers, but damn it was cold today. And it made me simply unable to leave the house. Despite it being brilliantly sunny outside, the temperature never crept above the mid-40s. And yes, I know this should be no big deal to a New England native, but you know what? Mid-40s is very cold.

So I woke up late, putzed around the house, then got sidetracked by technical problems - I changed the batteries in my bluetooth mouse, and it just wouldn't work right afterwards. This gave me an opportunity to try out Apple's new live support chat. They seem to be testing it by rolling it out to iMac owners only, but it worked nicely. Except the resolution was "your mouse is fucked, we'll exchange it for you." So now I'm stuck with a nasty little wired mouse that I got at a Microsoft partner conference.

I finally dragged my butt out at 3:30, went and read for a while at the Montrose Starbucks, and then saw In Good Company. It was quite good; Paul Weitz seemed particuarly tuned in to the little details that make the interactions between characters seem realistic - the small glances, the word here and there. The only really false note was when Dennis Quaid delivered a mostly incoherent series of questions/statements when the Rupert Murdoch-esque corporate boss was in for a visit. I think the point was supposed to be, "isn't it kind of a bad thing when a major corporations sees itself as a political entity above national laws, and fires lots of people? And isn't this whole synergy thing bullshit?" The satire of modern corporate/marketing culture was pretty much dead on for the most part, though.

But I had a thought as I left the theater: isn't interesting that there's a market for movies that suggest that unbridled transnational corporate power is bad, and which play to the experienced of individual Americans who have been on the receiving end of it... and yet we (the big collective we) keep going and voting for people who pledge to bring us even more unbridled transnational corporate power? Are we dumb, deluded, or just a bit schizophrenic on this one?

100 Miles

That was today's ride, more or less. From here to Galveston and back, accompanied by a guy I'd never met before but chatted with online, who rides a Honda Shadow 1100, one of those bikes I've always really loved. It's a very pleasant day in Houston... however, this was the first time I've ridden any significant distance on a freeway since removing the windscreen from the bike.

And it's a breezy day.

I got a taste of what this would mean first thing in the morning, when I hopped onto the North Loop near my house and suddenly felt like a buoy in a hurricane. Whoah, what is this? Then I kind of settled into it and was fine.

The ride down was nice. I get a kick out of passing the point a little north of Galveston where the temperature suddenly drops five or ten degrees. If you drive there in a car, you will never even be aware of this. On a motorcycle you can't miss it - you've suddenly moved from one airmass into another, and it feels completely different. Then you come to the causeway onto Galveston Island, and even on a nice day like today, it's shrouded in fog. As you enter it, it's hard not to think for a moment that you're going to just ride off into oblivion.

After a nice lunch at an outdoor cafe, we turned around and headed back. I noticed the clouds looking a bit darker and moving more quickly as we started up our bikes. When we got back to I-45, the difference between the morning and afternoon weather become quite apparent - I was riding head-on into the wind the entire way home.

Wind is hard to explain to someone who hasn't ridden in it. The worst wind is the gusty wind - I used to encounter that a lot on the roads that ran along the Potomac near DC. I can remember one chilly morning where a gust hit an suddenly I was several feet over from where I'd been a moment ago. Very strange sensation.

This was not that kind of wind. There was the sheer resistance of it - feeling the bike revving higher and having to concentrate on keeping the throttle up to maintain 65 mph. But wind is not steady. No giant gusts but just that constant buffeting - a little from the left, a little from the right, a stray gust catching your helmet for a moment, the collar of your jacket. It's disorienting till you get used to it.

And it's tiring. You can't get past feeling like a really good gust could knock you right over, so your muscles tense up, from your legs clenching the gas tank to your shoulders and your hand on the throttle. I didn't stop at all between the Strand in Galveston and the gas station in the Heights, nearly 50 miles. After all that, riding home through the neighborhood - at slower speeds and protected from the wind - was like a cooldown after a hard workout.

Good ride, good company, good way to spend half a Saturday. Oh, and I am getting a new windscreen for the bike this week.

Our Englishes

(This is a post I just wrote for Shelf Space, the blog on language that I write along with David and Jeff. It actually ranges from language to the state of current political discourse, so I thought I'd post it here too.)

Yesterday I finished reading John McWhorter's The Power of Babel. It's an absolutely fascinating book, and there are so many topics in it to talk about that it's hard to know where to start. I recommend it - it's not, as you might expect, yet another explanation of the language families and which languages are connected to which others and so on. Instead McWhorter talks about the processes by which language evolves, and challenges the idea that there are actually this things called languages that we break into dialects - pointing out that we bundle dialects into languages in very arbitrary ways.

I'm going to just pick one thing to mention right now, though, an topic relevant to this blog (and once which McWhorter discusses in great detail and specifically in relation to modern English in his later book, Doing Our Own Thing (which I'm midway through now).

I am assuming that anyone reading this blog is literate and reasonably well educated - simply because if you can't read, you're unlikely to be reading my blog, and it tends to be educated people who have the time to sit around reading things like this on the Internet. Whether or not English is your native tongue, it's likely that you learned to read rather early in life, and therefore have a notion of English as a written and spoken language. But really, writing is a very recent innovation; for most of human history, languages have been something we speak, and it's that spoken language capability that seems to hard-wired into the human brain.

There are a very small number of languages in use today that are written frequently - Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, etc. - although they are used, natively or as a second language, by more than 90% of the world's population. And in every case, there's a noticable gulf between the way these tongues are written and spoken. In the case of English, it's actually a relatively narrow gulf, but even so: record yourself speaking and then try to read a transcription of it. ("Eek! I'm incoherent!")

But you're not incoherent. We speak differently than we write. (I would never say that lest sentence out loud - I'd say, "the way speak isn't the same as the way we write.")

McWhorter's thesis in Doing Our Own Thing is that American English in its written form has moved toward the spoken form, for a variety of cultural reasons that have very little to do with language per se, and everything to do with American attitudes toward formality and structure. You might see this as a great democratizing force, and there's some truth to that. It also means, however, that we've lost the refined use of the language in a way that is not true of our peers who speak the other "top 20" languages on Earth today.

McWhorter's concern (which I share) is that this goes beyond aesthetic concerns. Written language is more suitable for lengthy, complicated discussions - just the kind of discussions one needs to have about pressing issues like foreign policy, domestic financial policy, the role of religion in public life - in other words, all the issues that relate to democratic governance. By losing our ability in the written language, we're impairing our ability as a society to talk about these things.

(McWhorter has not yet in my reading said that quite so bluntly, but I will; I think that's coming later in the book, but we'll see.)

It's fascinating stuff and I recommend both books.

Democracy in Action

So, GOP members of Congress are "seething" because the confirmation hearings for Condi Rice weren't a rubber stamp.

Well, let's see. The administration put forth a candidate for secretary of state who played a central role is missing the intelligence that warned of the 9/11 attacks, the screwed up intelligence that proved the rationale for attacking Iraq a total lie, and who has contradicted herself and the president in her statements. When faced with these contradictions her response is, "how dare you question my integrity?" If it's not her integrity, it's her competence. It's hard to tell which is flawed. In any case, the hearings were her opportunity to explain why neither her honesty nor ability should be in question; instead of offering such an explanation, she got petulant.

I think the administration should be thanking its lucky stars that the hearings weren't far, far worse for them. If Democrats had spines, they would have been. Perhaps they should stop getting pissed off at opposition legislators doing their Constitutionally-specified job, and ask their parties leadership why whiny, incompetent Condi Rice - a smart lady who clearly is better suited to being a professor than a Cabinet membe - is the best person they can come up with to be the nation's top diplomat.

Too Dumb to Legislate?

I don't know much about John Whitmire, Democratic state senator from Houston (though not my state senator). I'm new in town, I'm still getting to know who all these folks are. But here's what I do know:

When the Democrats were trying to block the GOP/Tom Delay "let's get rid of everybody we don't like" gerrymandering plan last year, Whitmire apparently undid the effort - after the Dems all left the state to keep the legislature from reaching quorum (things really are more colorful in Texas) Whitmire is the one who snuck back from New Mexico.

A week or so ago, when everyone was screaming at the mayor's "safe clear" plan that gets you towed off a freeway if your car breaks down, Whitmire joined the chorus, adding that he would get the legislature involved. Right or wrong on the program's issues, I really hate when states or the feds decide to push cities around. The mayor moved pretty rapidly to address the issues, but Whitmire has just continued to grandstand.

Today, there was a story in the Chronicle about a proposal to report students' body mass index (BMI) on their report cards: HoustonChronicle.com - Lawmaker wants body fat measure on report card. I have mixed feelings about the idea, but the thinking is that many parents don't seem to realize that their kids are overweight, so the thought is to remind them.

Prize quote from Whitmire: ""It sounds like too much government to me. Schoolteachers have many more critical matters to put on a report card, instead of a ... What does BMI stand for?"

Is this man a complete moron? There are times when the government is being intrusive, but 99% of the time a legislator in Texas utters the words "too much government," it usually means, "but the people donating to my campaign need their free ride." Just using the phrase is a big warning: SOMEONE'S NOT THINKING TOO HARD. It's like saying "PC." It's shorthand for nothingness.

But what follows - "what does BMI stand for?" Now that's how you present yourself as making an intelligent comment in a discussion: "Huh? What are we talking about?"

I don't know much about John Whitmire but as I learn more I find myself thinking the man's a total putz.

(And speaking of putzes, you won't believe the trouble I had getting that link. I read the story in the paper edition of the Chronicle, so I went to find it on their web site. Now, the web site is so horrible that it makes the graphic-design-train-wreck of a newspaper look good. And their search tool - which simply does not work in many browsers, although when I told them that, the web team wrote back to tell me I was wrong, it did work! I was imagining that nothing was happening when I clicked the search button! - of course doesn't help. I have no idea how one might come across that article by actually visiting their web site - I finally had to use Google News.

How does the fourth-largest city in the US have a paper as shitty as the Houston Chronicle? Yes, I know there are some good individual writers there, and now and then they shock me by doing actual reporting, like this week's air quality series, but mostly I'm just horrified that this is the lone daily paper in Houston.)

The Big Lie

This "Economic Scene" article from today's New York Times is worth a read. It talks about the great myth that small government is good for business, and good for us all. This is, of course, the mantra of today's Republicans.

As Jeff Madrick points out, traditionally it's when government has taken an active role in the nation's business and economy that businesses - and the country - have flourished. True small goverment, on the other hand, makes it difficult for businesses to undertake large (and profitable) projects.

Of course, as much as the current administration likes to talk about small government, it's all a bunch of nonsense. (If Condi Rice were here, she'd now say, "Don't impugn our ethics by pointing out the contradictions in what we say!" Or, as John Stewart summed up her responses to Barbara Boxer, "No I did!" But I digress.)

What we have today is enormous government - with spending increasing far faster than it did during the Clinton years, but of course no revenue increases to pay the bills - with expenditures that are basically welfare for corporations. All that's getting cut (as I've noted on this blog before) are little pesky things like keeping our drugs and food safe or protecting us from industrial accidents.

Saving the Kingdom (on the Day of the Coronation)

I'm avoiding news sites today in order to avoid seeing coverage of the GOP love-fest in DC. I hate to see my former home overrun with these weasels. But I will finally comment on the Not One Damn Dime! thing.

The idea, in case you've missed it, is that we will all show our outrage by spending no money today.

Boycotts are a powerful tool. Boycotts, as part of the overall activism about South Africa during the apartheid era, were helpful in getting companies to stop investing in that corrupt nation - and as a result today we have a South Africa that's not free of problems, but which at least has some kind of democratic framework to deal with them.

Boycotts helped draw attention to Nike's appalling practice of using sweatshop laborers making wages below what was needed for basic sustenance in their home nations, working in dangerous conditions, and helped them improve (if not really fix the problem).

And so on. Howeve, boycotts are also limited in their usefulness. In the Nike case, people went out and bought Reeboks, but Reebok was nearly as bad. Companies can muddle the issues so much that, for example, in the case of gay bars boycotting Coors over their anti-gay and anti-labor policies, no one is sure what the hell is going on these days.

To work, a boycott needs a few things:

  • A clearly defined targed

  • A "good guy" to spend money with instead

  • Some way of measuring results - that is, the impact on the misbehaving target

  • A clear statement of why the boycott is taking place and under what conditions it will end


"Not one damn dime" lacks all of these. It will be impossible to measure what money didn't get spend because Bush was being inaugurated vs what didn't get spent because it snowed somewhere and everybody stayed home vs what didn't get spent because a bunch of people's jobs got moved offshore this week (as is happening to a number of my old coworkers this week - about a third of the company from what I hear).

That's doesn't make it bad or dangerous, just pointless. If it makes you feel happy, participate. But don't for a second harbor the illusion that you've done anything concrete or made any kind of statement or changed anything. If you'd like that feeling, spend your non-shopping time on some other activities:

  • Write some letters about the issues that concern you - social security, gay marriage, Iraq, etc. Use the stuff out there on the web as the start and then add your own personal voice to it so it's clearly not a form letter. Print them out and mail them to your elected representatives - this will have more impact than an email.

  • Call your members of Congress (sorry, DC) and tell the people there that you are very concerned about your member's stance on these issues and would like to meet him or her the next time they are in your local district office.

  • Plan a vacation day to drive to your state capital and meet with your reps.

  • Join an organization that fighting the day to day battles on these issues - for example, the ACLU.

  • Volunteer with your local Democratic party. Even if you don't love the Democrats, recognize that they are the most credible opposition out there, and by getting involved you can not only help Democrats get elected in your district, you can help shape the direction the party goes.

  • Join a neighborhood association to deal with the day to day issues that affect the place you live. All politics starts on your block.

  • Take the money you would have spent and write a check to a good candidate for office in your area.

  • Call the members of your local school board and tell them - personally - why you don't want your schools to start teaching religion instead of science, and how important it is that the kids in your area come out of school with an actual education.

  • Go to your local paper and the news stories where they gloss over the lies of the administration. Write to them and tell them that they need to be reporters, not press-release retypers.

  • Find an independent local or regional newspaper that actually does journalism and get a subscription.

  • Read some foreign news sites. Then write to your local media again and ask them why their is so much information available in foreign publications that we don't see here.
Is that enough for one day? If you want change, it takes real actions, not pointless gestures. My problem with things like "not one damn dime" is not that what they do is bad in itself, it's just that it's like an anaesthetic for progressives - we do something pointless and feel good. Meanwhile our opponents are registering voters, running candidates for school boards, etc.

Today's a great day to do something. Make it something that matters.

Paying the Bills

So, the feds don't want to reimburse DC for $12M in security expenses for the coronation, I mean, inauguration, but they have found $12M for a think thank at University of Maryland to figure out why people become terrorists.

Maybe we can help them and free up some of that money for DC. Some hypotheses we might want to look at:

People become terrorists because they they see the US supporting repressive regimes (Saddam Hussein, the Taliban) and then bombing the hell out of their countries when we change our minds.

People become terrorists when we prop up their kleptomaniac government (oh, say, Saudi Arabia) because we like their oil.

People become terrorists because they hate freedom. Nah, that's too vague and stupid - nobody could take that seriously.

Sigh.

Staying Up Late

This is how not on the cutting edge of the trendy gay urban lifestyle I am - I was kept up late last night by, of all things, a book. And I love it - finding a book that you just don't want to put down is one of life's fantastic pleasures. In this case, the book is The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter.

Now, I'm the kind of person who would sit around all day studying languages if he won the lottery. I don't know what the right hankie code for linguistics is, but I'd be flagging it on the left AND right if there were one. So I sat there on the couch turning pages till way past my bedtime, and then overslept today.

I'm going to comment on it more in Shelf Space but meanwhile, I'm totally absorbed. The book isn't the traditional kind of language history (there was an original language, from that came the major groups like Indo-European, Uralic, etc., on down to today). Instead McWhorter looks at the mechanisms by which languages "drift" and combine with neighboring languages to become something new - and along the way raises questions about whether "language" as we think of it makes sense, arguing that what we've got in the world today is more a dizzying set of dialects that we bundle into "languagues" out of convenience (and often due more to political than liguistic considerations).

Oh, and you find out why the Scots are so hard to understand.

Whack!

From today's Chronicle: State Senator Harold Dutton, Jr., a Houston Democrat, has introduced a bill into the legislature to "protect" parents who use corporal punishment on their children. (Dutton filed the same bill in the 2003 session. I am glad that the Texas legislature only convenes for a few months every other year; the less they are in Austin, the less trouble they can cause.)

Now, some background: Texas law does not prohibit corporal punishment. (Neither does the law in any other state.) Texas is also one of 32 states that have not banned it in school, either. So Dutton's bill does not create any new right or really change the law.

Dutton says the bill is intended to send a message to parents that spanking is okay, and that it's needed because child protection agencies have been "overzealous" in investigating parents who've used corporal punishment. Now, if the problem were the behavior of agencies, you'd think Dutton would have filed a bill that specifically addressed the standards agencies use in deciding when to investigate. But instead, he's offered this vague bill.

The Chronicle gives some examples of cases where parents have been investigated (and agencies have determined that abuse did not take place):

One Houston woman whipped her 14-year-old granddaughter with an extension cord after the girl left for school on a Friday and didn't return home until Sunday.

A Brazoria County minister used a belt to discipline his teenage daughter, and a Houston lawyer gave his 16-year-old daughter a swat with a board when she disobeyed and talked back to him.


Whipping your child with an extension cord? Whipping your child for talking back?

The article says, "Those who support corporal punishment, including Dutton, often point to their own upbringing, saying the swats they got as children were well-deserved and kept them well-grounded."

Swats are one thing. I am trying to think of a way that you could describe being whipped with an electrical cord as a "swat."

Another bit of background: in 2002, the last year for which I could find statistics, the Texas Child Protective Services department confirmed 74,199 cases of child abuse and neglect, 12,800 of which were physical abuse. 76.6% of the perpetrators of abuse and neglect chases were parents.

Practicin' and Preachin'

To nobody's great surprise, Texas is one of the states that will be considering an amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. There are actually two amendments out there. One would simplyk define marriage as being between a man and a woman. The other is a Virginia-style horror that would eliminate all kinds of legal contracts between same-sex spouses that are designed to get around the lack of protection for same-sex relationship due to the discriminatory nature of American civil marriage.

There's a group that's popped up to oppose the amendments called Practice What You Preach. Their take is that the whole thing is a stupid waste of time for the state legislature, and does nothing to help families or the institution of marriage in divorce-happy Texas.

They are right about that, of course, but I still feel a little queasy when I read their web site:

Practice What You Preach believes that the institution of marriage is under assault in Texas from the twin epidemics of divorce and domestic violence. We are not a gay-rights group. We are mainstream, straight Texans who want the legislative leadership to stop making cheap political points by ignoring real problems.

Now, I think it's great to see straight people standing up to oppose these amendments. In fact I think a "straight people against stupid anti-gay-marriage amendments" group is a great idea. But I keep stumbling at

We are not a gay-rights group. We are mainstream, straight Texans...

First of all - yes kids, you are a gay rights group. The main focus of gay rights group has been the equal treatment of gay people. By opposing the amendments, you are standing up for that.

Second of all - "mainstream?" Ugh. So gay Texans are not mainstream Texans? (OK, strictly speaking, gay people aren't mainstream anywhere but a handful of places like Provincetown. But gay Texans are no less mainstream than Democratic Texans (and at the rate we're going, are likely to be more numerous).

Maybe they are just way more politically savvy than me and this is the right approach and I should just get over it. I don't know. But I think "ick" every time I look at their web site.

Morning with the Commuters

Since I am such a nice guy, I drove my friend Mark to the airport this morning at 5:30. Coming back, traffic on 59 was already getting a little heavy - at quarter past six it was solid but moving heading back into the city. Do people really get up in those predawn hours to drive downtown, just so that they can have a bigger yard? I'd live in a smaller and place and sleep an extra hour, personally.

What is interesting about rush hour is that it's the only time of day that Houston drivers start acting like they live on the east coast - it's pretty much the only time of day that I feel like I'm driving in Washington. That is, people do things like speed up to block you when you put on your turn signal, and generally find ways to be as unpleasant to each other as possible, for no apparent reason (once they've blocked you they slow down). Weird.

It's Not Just Houston

Transit and smart development may be new ideas for Housto, but even in the Washington area where such things are old news, really stupid ideas can come along: Dulles Rail Foe Proposes Substitute (washingtonpost.com)

The idea: make I-66 and the Dulles Toll Road bigger. Because the last widening of the toll road really reduced congestion, didn't it? And all those cars in traffic will do wonders for Washington's worst-on-the-east-coast air quality, too. And of course you still would have no workable public transit between the two biggest employment centers in the region (DC and Tysons Corner).

People in Houston complain about traffic, but when I remember working in Tysons Corner - where it could take 45 minutes to travel two or three miles when I left last year - it's easy to be grateful that it's just not that bad on the roads down here.

It's also quite telling that a developer wants to add more roadways. Road building in DC has been a bonanza for developers like Walker, who then can throw up suburban housing developments, sticking the local governments for costs like roads, schools, and utilities to support them - while the developers make a handy profit. Meanwhile, the entire region becomes more gridlocked and polluted. Cool!

Northern Virginia is an excellent example of how adding road capacity leads to more sprawl, traffic, and congestion. The sad reality, though, is that developers like Walker have deep pockets and tend to buy themselves a nice local government to do what they want. I actually think that northern Virginia has gone right past the point of no return as far as ever being a reasonable place to live and work in the future; still, one hopes that local government there will try to fix the damage rather than just making it worse.

Next Up, Iran?

Today the New Yorker reported that the US has been conducting covert operations in Iran to identify potential nuclear, chemical, and missile targets. An aide to the President (you know, the president who told us that there were WMDs in Iraq) says that the article is "riddled with inaccuracies." It's unclear what those inaccuracies were, and whether the substance of the article was wrong.

Question: given the experience with Iraq, does the administration have any credibility on the issue of identifying which foreign nations represent real threats?

Question: since we've already got a draft by any other name (through service extensions) just to maintain inadequate forces in Iraq, is it more likely that we'll have an actual draft if the administration decides it's time to attack Iran, or will we just abandon Iraq to civil war?

Book Report

I just finished reading Naomi Klein's No Logo, which had been sitting around here forever. It's pretty provocative and quite thoughtful. I was interested in what she had to say about consumer branding, but the book really just uses that as a starting point to draw links between the encroachment of advertising into every facet of our lives and our public space and our current "manufacturing system" (if you can call it that) where corporations don't actually manufacture things, but instead outsource that so that we can have third world people in sweatshops working 100 hours a week in dangerous conditions to supply us with Gap t-shirts and inexpensive underwear. From there, she points out how this is related to the death of the traditional employer/employee relationship in the west - as many of us know from personal experience, there's no sense that employers have any loyalty or responsibility to their people or communities anymore.

It's worth a look if any of that interests you (and if I can get on my soapbox for a minute - it should interest you). The paperback edition includes an afterword that Klein wrote in 2002 with some interesting commentary on how 9/11 was being used to suggest that anti-globalization activists were just like terrorists.

It reminds me of a spot from the Daily Show the other night; Stewart played clips from Scott McClellan's contortions trying to explain how the total absence of WMD is No Big Deal, and of course played the 9/11 card repeatedly. "Since 9/11... 9/11 changed everything... in a post-9/11 world..."

Finally Stewart threw up an equation to explain it all:

9/11 + Whatever We Say = Shut Up!

Which about sums up how the Bush administration has been communicating with the public.

Sometimes It's Best to Just Say Nothing

Charles Graner, now that he's been convicted of torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, now has a stunning anouncment: he knows says that he acted wrongly.

Nice going Chuckie! We're glad to see that you're making such progress in your comprehension of the world around you, but you may have heard that a lot of people - including those who convicted you - already figured that out.

The Reuters story that the link above will take you to actually softpedals things. We're now going to get contrite Graner, family guy Graner, Graner's mom, just-following-orders Graner, malibu suntan Graner - oh, strike that last one - every image of Graner there is to convince us that he's just a good, wholesome American boy led astray.

Except.

"The guys give me hell for not getting any pictures while I was fighting this guy," said one message, titled "just another dull night at work," with a photograph attached of a bound and naked detainee howling with pain, his legs bleeding. To an e-mail message about a Take Your Children to Work Day event, he replied, "how about send a bastard to hell day?" attaching a photograph of a detainee's head bloodied beyond recognition.

With a photograph of him stitching a wound on a detainee's eye, he wrote: "Things may have gotten a bit bad when we were asking him a couple of questions. O well." A similar photograph is titled "cool stuff." It was attached to an e-mail reading, "Like I said, sometimes you get to do really cool stuff over here," ending it "xoxoxoxo to all."


And on the following orders question:

But under questioning from the prosecution, Sergeant Davis acknowledged that the military intelligence soldiers ranked below Specialist Graner - he was a corporal at the time - and that the detainees were not interrogated.

That's all from the New York Times yesterday. Expect to hear very little like that should you watch Fox News coverage of the story.

As I was reading that article yesterday, I thought about the sex offender registries most states have. Could we have a torturer registry? I think I'd want to know if this psychopath wound up living next door to me.

The Search for Accountability is Over

I've resisted saying anything about the official end of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because, after all, what can I say that hasn't been said? And how can I talk about it without noticing that the majority of Americans don't seem to really care one way or the other that they were duped by their president?

But I will point out what others have said that's worth a look.

If it makes you angry that we were lied to, how do you suppose you'd feel if you had a family member who was killed in the war? Martini Republic offers up the comments of the brother or a dead soldier, lifted from the LA Times.

What if you livedin Baghdad and heard the news? An excerpt from a longer post at Baghdad Burning:

Terror isn't just worrying about a plane hitting a skyscraper…terrorism is being caught in traffic and hearing the crack of an AK-47 a few meters away because the National Guard want to let an American humvee or Iraqi official through. Terror is watching your house being raided and knowing that the silliest thing might get you dragged away to Abu Ghraib where soldiers can torture, beat and kill. Terror is that first moment after a series of machine-gun shots, when you lift your head frantically to make sure your loved ones are still in one piece. Terror is trying to pick the shards of glass resulting from a nearby explosion out of the living-room couch and trying not to imagine what would have happened if a person had been sitting there.

The weapons never existed. It's like having a loved one sentenced to death for a crime they didn't commit - having your country burned and bombed beyond recognition, almost. Then, after two years of grieving for the lost people, and mourning the lost sovereignty, we're told we were innocent of harboring those weapons. We were never a threat to America...

Congratulations Bush - we are a threat now.


I can't say I'm surprised to hear the official word that the rationale for the war was a giant deception. I am surprised that nobody cares. Maybe it's naive of me, but I really am surprised.

Kicking DC Around

Demonstrating once again that the GOP is the party of big, federal control of your private life, and massive intrusion into local affairs, a Virginia member of Congress has reintroduced a bill defining marriage for people who don't live in Virginia, the Washington Blade reports.

The hypocrisy is obvious. When I lived in DC I always wondered, when is this stuff all too much for people in DC, our biggest group of second-class citizens? Not to knock the political work that many are doing, but at some point someone needs to bring this issue to life in a way that capture the attention of the rest of the country and makes everyone start thinking about how unfair it is that half a million Americans pay their taxes, join the military, and have every responsibility of citizenship, yet are not represented in Congress and have the federal legislature oversee the smallest details of their city government - and of course, cannot resist intruding on all of it.

I would love to see something more dramatic there; a protest in the chambers of Congress, complaints to international human rights organizations, even people blocking the bridges from Virginia one morning as all those people commute in to earn their non-taxable paychecks and take the money back to Richmond.

Signs of Hope

Houston's city planning commission is trying to change the rules for new development inside the 610 loop, the Houston Chronicle reports today. This is a welcome sign; development in the Midtown area has been disappointing because true urban developments are currently illegal. Unless a developer goes through the costly process of getting waivers, they've got to build suburban-style crap with parking lots in front of everything. Midtown has the potential to be a great pedestrian-friendly neighborhood (especially with the light rail system running right through it) but that hasn't happened yet.

There's still a lot to be done on making the streets support that goal. Many of the main streets in Midtown are four or five lane one-way streets with few lights or crosswalks, so walking becomes rather dangerous. I'd like to see those streets become two-way streets with more frequent lights and clearly marked pedestrian crossings. Given the immense amount of street parking available in the neighborhood, it would also be wise to develop more retail space with less parking than is currently allocated; the land can better be used for other things, and Midtown is far from having a parking problem. People can park on the street, with parked cars providing a barrier between traffic and pedestrians that will make the sidewalks more walkable.

It's unfortunate that this plan would only relate to "transit corridors." The 2003 plan would have covered everything inside the loop, which is entirely appropriate; Midtown is just one place where more urban development makes sense. There are plenty of in-the-loop locations that would benefit from better development. But it is a start.

All of this stuff, which seems so obvious in other cities, is new to Houston. They're learning, slowly but surely, how to do this right. Let's hope it takes.

We Represent the Naugahyde Guild

So this week in DC it's Mid Atlantic Leather weekend. Now, despite the name (which those unfamiliar with the event may find intimidating) and the copious amounts of cowhide, this event is basically a bunch of people gathering in DC and having a very good time, and in a world full o' crap that is a good thing indeed. I always found the event a bit odd though - mostly because it seemed like a great example of the human ability to normalize anything.

What do I mean by that? Well, there's just something funny about the way that something that appeals to people because it's transgressive (leather and SM) that manages to spawn all kinds of events and contests that feel more like a Kiwanis meeting than a gathering of outlaws. I think it's one of those inevitable things and has nothing to do with leather, or with the people organizing any particular event. People with similar interests find each other, get together, the curious onlookers gather, and boom! it's not so out there anymore, which tends to make it a little less interesting.

I always find these things to be some of the most unintentionally funny events in town, though; somehow what started as a gathering of people interested in unusual forms of sexual expression ends with a contest where someone who wants to be Mr. Water Sports Bottom 2005 tells us how he wants to promote a positive image of the leather community. I'm sorry, but that's funny.

When I lived in DC, I would always be amazed by how much some people could put themselves together early on a winter day. Typically I'd find myself going somewhere mid-morning on the Saturday of the event, having thrown on a sweatshirt and found a warm coat, and pass someone on the street in chaps, harness, jacket, hat, etc. I find it pretty impressive - I could never fasten that many snaps and zip that many zippers just to go to brunch.

In any case I am sure a fun time will be had by all, whether that fun time involves hanging from chains or just ogling hot men in leather and enjoying the communal spirit. I meanwhile will be going to see Bad Education, taking a motorcycle ride, and shivering in our chilly winter temperatures (50s for the next few days). Enjoy your weekend...

San Francisco Moment

Last night I was watching Do You Speak American, an interesting PBS program on the regional dialects of the United States and how they have developed and changed over the years. Near the end of the program, Robert MacNeil is sitting with members of the San Francisco gay pride day committee talking about how words like "queer," "fag," and "dyke" have gone from being pure epithets to some kind of acceptability within the gay community.

There was a comment from one of the committee members that just captured San Francisco parochialism and self-importance so perfectly. In 1993 the theme of SF's gay day was "Year of the Queer." That choice, according to one committee member, "put the issue on the national stage!"

Yeah, if your nation has about 700,000 citizens and is smaller than a typical Texas ZIP code. Memo to San Francisco: you're fun, you're charming, we love to visit, but honey, you're NOT the only celebrity in town.

Buying Blue is Making Me Blue

BuyBlue.org has a new, updated list of companies to help you support corporations that give their money to progressive political candidates. Sounds great, right? Well, it's a nice idea, but after browsing the list a bit, I can't really recommend it.

There's more to being a socially conscious shopper than this issue. I went to their listing for Starbucks, which is rated highly for their political donations... but every other area is "N/A." So no information is available, apparently, on the issues that have swirled around Starbucks around putting independent competitors out of business through predatory market-flooding practices, building a workforce of people with McJobs who are scheduled to the minute in shifts often only a few hours long, who are usually kept just below full-time status, their use of coffee grown in environmentally questionable ways and harvested with exploited labor, and so on.

The fact that there are blanks for this information tells me that Buy Blue's heart is in the right place. But the fact is that it takes a lot of work to collect this information... and that people have already been working at it.

If you'd rather not buy products that are manufactured by people in export zones in the Philippines or Vietnam held in a kind of indentured servitude where they don't make enough money to buy food... or if in general you don't like the idea that offshoring has been a nifty scheme for manufacturers to avoid labor laws... in other words, if you want to take some responsibility for what you buy... a far better resource is DC-based Co-op America. They have a ton of resources to help you be an informed consumer.

My suggestion to the Buy Blue folks is to hook up with groups like Co-op America that are already working on consumer education issues to help spread the information they've gathered on political donations through other channels.

To Have and to Co-Market

This next step in product placement was inevitable: vendors eager to place their ware at high-profile weddings.

Yes, now you can have your jewelry featured at Donald Trump's wedding, your gown adorning Tori Spelling's bridesmaids, your food at the table when Britney Spears ties the knot again. On one level it's innocuous - everyone knows the world will be watching these weddings (I know, why? whatever). So it's good publicity for the vendors.

But look at the history of product placement and you see the danger ahead. First it was just ads. Eventually, the ads crept into the ad vehicle. Eventually, corporations got tired of having to shoehorn their ads into somebody else's magazine, movie, video, whatever, and just started making their own. Now, as the whole chain of media production has consolidated, the lines have vanished. An artist from a Virgin label performs at a Virgin mega store. Tommy Hilfiger sponsors a rock tour and the artists wear their clothes.

Given the track record to date, how long before it's the celebrity wedding du jour, brought to you by Calvin Klein? Ceremony at the CK One Church of our Heavenly Savior.

It will be fun, of course, the first time a vendor sues a celebrity couple for calling off the wedding after they've supplied the clothes, food, and logo-branded napkins.

Brands used to identify products. Then brands surpassed products and identified a lifestyle of which the products were a part. Even public places have gotten brand sponsors. Now celebrities are showing us how to live their whole lives inside a brand. They may actually be a little slow - I've seen personal ads where people describe themselves by their brand (usually Abercrombie for the gay boys). Soon, you'll be able to choose a brand and live your whole life according to its brand characteristics, as it provides you with the food, music, movies, and clothing you need. It's a brave new world, people, and its brought to you by the kind folks at....

Flash! Shuffle! Play!

Interesting story from MacCentral about the reaction of competitive flash MP3 player makers to the iPod Shuffle.

I think they are missing the point. The players these folks have made are solid products, but they are geek products - heavy on the features, not so heavy on simplicity or coolness. Whereas Apple's no-screen, oh so primitively simple player will likely be popular because it's just so freakin' easy - plug it into the USB port and be done with it. And it's really tiny and looks really cool.

That said, Apple has yet to solve their biggest problem in the music space, the one that I think decides whether they are the initial big guy who fades away to being a sideshow, or actually stays in it for the long term. That's the whole digital rights management (DRM) issue. Apple is using a very nice DRM scheme that was better than anybody's when they first came out with it; you buy songs from their store, you can play them on up to 3 computers and associated iPods and pretty much burn to CDs at will (You can't burn the same playlist containing a protected track more than 10 times, which is not an issue for anyone not stealing music.)

Since then others have fallen in line with similar systems (notably the Microsoft music store) but... they are similar but different.

Eventually, if music bought at different stores can't be played on different players, there is a problem. What happens when some music is only available online from Microsoft, and other music is only available online from Apple? The whole thing becomes a headache for consumers.

At some point there needs to be some interoperable DRM scheme that lets consumers choose their software and portable players and still buy everything. Apple, dominating the market for now, may be tempted to keep things as they are, but in the long term I believe it's a big mistake. There would be a real advantage to making it possible for someone with a non-iPod player to buy music from them and play it on that device.

What's more, if they don't do it, eventually software to crack the DRM will just show up all over, and then you start to get a real mess.

Genocide and Us

Last night I went to see Hotel Rwanda, which opened here in Houston last weekend. I'm always a bit wary of "big event" or "big issue" movies, because they can have some problems. First, they can make major events seem small. Second, they have a tendency to let us off the hook, as viewers and as citizens. They do this by offering up the heartwarming story that takes the focus off of the events or issues that are the backdrop to that story. They often throw the audience a hook to feel better about themselves and their own community and its relation to what is depicted on screen.

Hotel Rwanda suffers from neither of these flaws. It's unflinching in presenting the horror of the Rwandan genocide of the 90s, and simply offers up the historic facts; when mass killing on an unprecedented scale began in Rwanda, the rest of the world turned its back on the small African nation and allowed hundreds of thousands of people to be brutally murdered - most often hacked up with machetes. The film makes no attempt to answer the question of how this could happen in 1994, and how Europe and the United States could make no serious attempt to intervene. It doesn't particularly dwell on it, either. We simply see these events unfolding as the film follows the story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who is trying to keep his family and the people who have taken refuge in his hotel alive.

It's a powerful film. It doesn't overreach; it simply follows one story amidst the horror that was unfolding, and does so with outstanding performances by all. It's one of the few times I've seen a film in a theater and no one in the audience has uttered a word for the entire two-hour length. When the credits rolled and we left, a number of people were visibly shaken, including a teenage girl who seemed to have attended with her parents who looked as though she'd just witnessed the death of a family member.

It helps to know more background of the genocide when watching the film. The film doesn't attempt to tell that whole story (which would be impossible in this type of movie anyway). There's an excellent book on the subject that I read some years ago, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, that painstakingly documents not only the genocide itself but the factors that led up to it, from the time of Belgian colonialism in Rwanda to the present. It is not easy to read but it is well worth your time. It will leave you angry and frustrated at our own government, which not only failed to intervene despite clear evidence of what was going on, but actually because an impediment to anyone in the western world taking action. It was a failure of the Clinton administration that, in my mind, tainted everything about their time in Washington and while it lacks the the sheer malfeasance of the buildup to the Iraq war, in many ways the outcome is even more horrifying. For me, Rwanda is one of the reasons that as awful as I think our current government is, I can't look back all that fondly on the time before Bush.

Why is it that the United States ignores events like the Rwandan genocide? Each time we think it's an isolated mistake, but in fact the US has never taken serious action to quell genocide. We've come in at the tail end to clean up, but even when we've clearly known what was happening, we don't seem to do anything about it. It's a pressing question right now, considering that just days ago Colin Powell was simply declining to answer questions about the apparent genocide in Sudan.

It's easy to say "Because they're Africans" but that really doesn't answer it. What about Bosnia? What about the Holocaust? What is it about human nature - or American nature, I don't know which it is - that makes us want to help Asian victims of the tsunamis, but not African victims of genocide? Is it natural versus political disasters that make us react differently? (But then why don't we respond similarly to the horrible death toll of malaria - something that, relatively speaking, would be easier to deal with?)

I don't know the answers. I doubt they are simple. The ever-helpful Amazon recommendation engine popped up with this when I searched for the Gourevitch book: "A Problem from Hell" : America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power, which explores these kinds of questions. I'm going to have a look at it.

In the meantime I recommend Hotel Rwanda, as a good movie and as something to make you ask yourself hard questions about the role of the US in the world.

iShuffle

Lots of announcements at MacWorld today, including the new flash ROM iPod. When I started reading the description, I thought, "Ugh" - no display? it only works in shuffle? - but by the end I decided I liked it. I use my iPod in shuffle mode 99% of the time, and it is so freakin' tiny that it would be perfect for taking to the gym, or running/walking, etc. 12 hours of battery life and it weighs less than an ounce. Sweet.

And the Mac Mini? Not for me, but they have finally offered something that fills in the low end price point in their line. I think it's telling that it's designed so you can chuck your PC box, replace it with the oh-so-fabulous-looking little white thing (and it is TINY) and plug your old keyboard, mouse, and monitor into it. Obviously designed for low-end PC users interesting in switching.

Usability Crimes

I have an entirely new reason to dislike James Lileks. I'm not going to complain today about his insufferable whininess, his arguments with liberal straw men, his tendency to talk about political issues without letting a single fact of actual opposing view come into play. No, none of that. I will not even comment on the questionable taste he showed relating a dream about being caught in a tsunami. No, today's reason to loathe Lileks is his unspeakable crimes against users of his web site.

While most blogs (like this one) use a standard format - new posts at the top, older ones below, dated archives of the old stuff - Lileks has created a new and completely unusable way to organize his site.

If you go to the blog, you get the current post. At the bottom is a calendar labeled "This Month" that, in theory, you can use to navigate to other posts. There's no actual month label on it, and it's unclear what month he's actually displaying... because if you go to the current post, and scroll down to the "this month" calendar, and click on, say, 26, a post appears. A blog from the future.

His archive is even weirder. There's a main page with years and months. If you click on a month, you get the first post of the month. And, you get a calendar navigation item again... for the previous month. (Or so it claims, I haven't the patience to test it out.) But nothing for the current month.

It's an enormous fucking mess. My hope is that sometime in the future, someone will publish a snarky book (or web site or whatever medium is in vogue at the time) of horrific web design mistakes from previous decades, and include his site.

Opportunity Knocks

It's not just the biggest natural disaster, it's a great opportunity! That's how some Christian groups see the devastion in southeast Asia:

"In Krabi, Thailand, a Southern Baptist church had been 'praying for a way to make inroads' with a particular ethnic group of fishermen, according to Southern Baptist relief coordinator Pat Julian. Then came the tsunami, 'a phenomenal opportunity' to provide ministry and care, Julian told the Baptist Press news service.

"In Andhra Pradesh, India, a plan is developing to build 'Christian communities' to replace destroyed seashore villages. In a dispatch that the evangelical group Focus on the Family posted on its Family.org Web site, James Rebbavarapu of India Christian Ministries said a team of U.S. engineers had agreed to help design villages of up to 400 homes each, 'with a church building in the center of them.'"

If this reminds you of cults that identify people who are lonely or troubled for their recruitment efforts, it should - it's exactly the same thing. Except that when a cult has enough members, it becomes a "church." Disgusting.

Big Fag Xmas

Saturday's mail included a package from Pete in Boston. Pete's presents always come late but are generally worth the wait. This year he sent me what is perhaps the most homosexual gift I've gotten in ages: a set of Madonna Nesting Dolls.

They are fabulously absurd. They came in a box informing me that they are hand painted (with a photo of a hand painting them) and are part of a special limited numbered edition - mine are number 1495 out of 5000! The best part is that as you open them up, you travel back in time through Madonna's career. So the outer doll is her "Music" phase, cowboy hat and all:



Open that up, and you're taken back in time to those heady days of eastern philosophy and trancey beats - the "Ray of Light' Madonna:



Inside that one, you find the awkward "Pappa Don't Preach" Madonna. She's in trouble. Deep.



And finally, comes the smallest doll, with the biggest hair. Yes! It's the 80s! She's a "Material Girl!"



I only wished I could open that one up and go on a "Holiday." Or find my "Lucky Star."

I am going to put them next to my little metal boxes covered in pictures from strange bible tracts of pre-adolescent children smoking and doing drugs.

Downsizing, Chlorine, and Us

Reading the New York Times article about the train wreck and chlorine gas release in South Carolina, a number of thoughts crossed my mind.

First, I noted that the Times has been writing about the terrible state of our rail system and the inability of the federal government to oversee it. And now this - nine dead at last count, plus injuries and the evacuation of a town.

The second thought was the questions. Why was there a wreck? Whether this is the latest in the pattern of errors and poor oversight that has been causing train accidents all over the country remains to be seen. Maybe it was just a freak accident.

But that leads to the next question: why was chlorine gas being transported in a container that couldn't withstand a crash anyway? Aren't there rules about this? Is anyone monitoring rail carriers to ensure that they are operating safely?

And that leads to the third thought: this is what we get when we decide that our primary national value is keeping the government (and the health and safety of citizens) from interfering with profit. The mantra of the GOP has been that private enterprise will save us all, and the government needs to let corporations do their thing.

Of course, their thing is maximizing profits, and nothing else. That's what corporations were designed to do: provide a structure for business operations that makes it possible to raise capital to invest in projects, and then extract the maximum profit from them.

As such, they are an incredibly useful kind of business organization, and have accomplished some very good things for us. Of course, when you create a profit-making machine, common sense says that you have to set parameters for it and control it. A profit-maximizing machine will not spend money to protect the lives of citizens. If there's a cost to accidentally killing people, that is just a piece of data to go into a calculation to determine the appropriate amount to spend on safety.

Remember the exploding Ford Pintos way back when? This is one of the classic stories of business. Ford calculated what it would cost to fix them all, versus the expected payouts for the deaths and injuries they caused. It was cheaper to make the payouts, so Ford didn't try to fix the Pinto. It was only when cases went to court and the awards were far larger than Ford expected that they realized there was a problem with this way of thinking.

If this sounds like a rant against corporations, it's not. Being mad at corporations for putting profit first is like being mad at your cat for scratching things. Cats scratch things because they have to (to keep their claws shorter - if they don't do it, it causes them physical pain). Corporations put profit first because that's what they were designed to do. Corporations that don't are punished by the market. Corporate executives who don't are punished by their boards. They are doing exactly what we should expect them to do.

I suspect that if you asked people in Republican South Carolina i they think that the government should set standards for rail safety and vigorously enforce them, you'd get a lot yesses. Unfortunately, when those folks vote, they vote for people whose goal is to minimize the power of government to regulate business activities. It's a bit melodramatic - but not fundamentally untrue - to point out that these folks are voting for chlorine gas clouds in towns in South Carolina (and everywhere else).

It's not surprising that corporations give money to candidates who they think will be less likely to trouble them with pesky safety regulations. What is surprising is that the GOP has been so successful at getting everyday Americans to follow along. Whenever I hear a working class Republican voter talking about how the government should not interfere with business, I marvel at it. Here's someone who should be concerned about workplace safety standards, about what's in their air and water, about their job security selflessly setting all that aside to look out for the needs of those poor victimized chemical companies, manufacturing giants, and investment banks. It's downright heartwarming!

Sarcasm aside, it's an amazing triumph of persuasion for conservatives. They've managed to make a religion out of the free market, and create an environment in which commonsense regulation is viewed as some kind of socialist plot. And they've gotten the people who are most likely to be the victims of uncontrolled profit-maximizing machines to support them enthusiastically.

It will be interesting to see how well this holds up as more jobs get outsourced, more prescription drugs kill people, more trains crash, and more toxic chemicals are dumped into our communities.

When Words Fail

This article on the indictment in the 40-year old "Mississippi Burning" case (the murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi) and this piece on the reactions of the mothers of the victims to these developments are worth reading.

This case remains one of most horrifying examples of political murder in recent US history. And while it's an old case that's related to a fight that's gone on for decades since (and where there's been a lot of progress) it raises some interesting issues today.

There's a perhaps insoluble problem at the heart of this. When one group of people is working toward social change through education, voter registration, and other kinds of civil activism, and their opponents are willing to kill them, what happens? The civil rights movement produced a lot of violence. And while there are certainly cases where people working for civil rights committed some acts of violence, they've generally been small, unplanned kinds of violence - for example, scuffles with police at demonstrations.

On the other hand, the people who opposed the civil rights movement were willing to carefully plan and execute violent acts to further their cause, including the murders of people who were working against them. It's not unlike two countries at war, with with a nuclear weapon and the willingness to use it, and one without. One side is better armed simply because they are willing to kill for their cause.

It's worth thinking about today in a nation polarized by battles over same-sex marriage and the role of our Muslim citizens. There are people who view same-sex marriage as an assault on their way of life. There are people who think that Muslims in America represent a fifth column that will commit terrorist attacks. Some of them will respond to rational debate. But I believe that there is an extreme group now, as there was in the battles over civil rights in decades past, that will see violence as a reasonable way to defend themselves against a perceived threat.

We like to think that we're a civil society where these things don't happen - that however heated these battles become, everyone involved has some respect for basic tenets of society, such as not murdering people because you disagree with them. I imagine there were people in the 60s who thought the same thing, but were proven tragically wrong.

High on the drug of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and a siege mentality - encouraged and orchestrated by right wing leaders - it's not hard to imagine some of these folks turning to violence. Perhaps I'm cynical, but I think right-wing leaders know this. I think they know that they don't ever have to advocate violence, but just create the environment where it happens - and then decry it, even as it moves their aims forward.

Violence can, of course, backfire. The murders in Mississippi shocked the nation and in the end showed many middle-of-the-road Americans just how ugly and violent the forces of segregation and racial intolerance were. Matthew Shephard's murder shocked a lot of people into realizing how ugly anti-gay sentiments can be. It's an awfully high price to pay for that progress, however.

In my darker moments, I fully expect to see something awful happen in the coming years - whether it's random gay-bashings, or something more planned (think of the murders of abortion doctors, the bombing of a gay bar in Atlanta in the 90s, and so on). I'm reminded this is a fight where one side is armed with words and the other with guns. I'm not sure how that plays out without tragedy.

Latest Theocrat Appointment

Well, if you were thinking maybe with the election over Bush might try to neutralize the crazed Christian part of his base, check out his new appointment for domestic policy advisor. Claude Allen has, in the past, worked to defeat providing health coverage to the poor; accused political opponents of being linked to "queers;" promoted sexual ignorance among youth; and been a leader in witch hunts against AIDS service organizations that want to help gay men avoid getting HIV infection. (For some color commentary check out Doug Ireland's take on it.)

Big win for the far right.

SUV

Today Mark Morford at the SF Chronicle asks (rhetorically), do SUVs make you stupid? Well, based on the driving I observe, yes...

The conundrum I can't figure out: Here in Houston, we have lots of at-grade railroad crossings. This means that you have to drive over the tracks. It's a little bumpy - about the same as a medium-bad DC pothole.

What I can't figure out is why the people with the badass trucks and SUVs, the ones advertised with television commercials that show them driving straight up sheer cliffs in the Arctic, running down spotted owls and deer, crossing the Himalayas, etc., are the ones who come to a nearly dead stop to get over the 1-inch high train tracks, while those of us in normal cars mostly seem to be able to slow down, glance both ways in case there's a train coming because regulations of railroad safety has been downsized out of existence and the signal may be broken, and drive over the damn things at a reasonable speed.

All while the SUV drivers are moving at 1 mph over them whie chatting on the cell phone, changing the CD, watching a DVD, and running over a small child.

I realize that SUVs have their uses, but my casual observation around here suggests that SUV drivers are a lot more likely to drive erratically, speed up and slow down a lot, cut people off, and run red lights. Maybe it's the feeling of entitlement that comes with driving something larger than an African village?

Fighting Back Against the Box

Marc Fisher, Metro section columnist at the Washington Post, has always been one of my favorite writers at that paper. He's also one of the few who seems to get passionate about the city, and give me hope that someday they might decide to actually cover local events in DC with something more than the perfunctory crap they publish now. He also strikes a good balance between writing about the city and about general topics, such as in this recent column: Better to Zap One TV Than To Curse the Din

If you ever feel like public spaces are being overrun by video monitors, the idea of TV-B-Gone is appealing. I would have loved to have had one the last time I was at the airport. I was happy to wait for my flight while reading my book, but it was quite difficult; it's one thing to tune out the din of people, but the sound of television can just cut through all that and demand your attention. It's one of the reasons I can't stand to have an unwatched TV on in the house; it's like an insistent and particularly bratty child that demands that you stop and look at it.

Admittedly, the TV-B-Gone puts you in an ethically gray area; do you have the right to turn off televisions that others are watching? Perhaps not. But for a society in the thrall of the video beast, this could be seen as guerrilla warfare to save our soul.

I wouldn't use it in the airport, though. It seems to me that any slight misbehavior in an airport is all too likely to be called "terrorist activity" and get you in way too much trouble. I wouldn't mind arming some kids with them, though, to try to put a stop to the utterly evil Channel One, which is designed to give advertisers a great opportunity to start training American kids to be good consumers right there in the classroom. (Teachers are forbidden to turn it off in the classroom; it's part of the contract to have the equipment. I'd love to see students taking the matter into their own hands.)

Leni Riefenstahl, Inc.

I finally got around to watching Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism. While it's not the most organized of documentaries, it's well worth watching. I think we all know that Fox News is anything but "fair and balanced," but the creators of this film have spent a lot of time identifying the many ways in which Fox has abandoned the very concept of journalism and become a GOP propaganda machine. I was actually stunned by the degree to which they parrot Bush administration press released. The internal memos outlining the "message of the day" are quite stunning; there's not the slightest pretense of objective news reporting in them. It's quite depressing, and will make you feel helpless; how does anyone have a chance with the largest media corporation in human history signing on as a partisan organization? If you're feeling exhausted after the last election, and need a kick in the ass to make you start speaking up again, though, this is a good place to start.

Road Warriors

In a story on red light cameras, the New York Times comments on an unintended consequence of the devices - an increase in rear end collisions. The story opens with the story of a Baltimore motorist who slammed on her brakes to stop at a yellow light (she knew the intersection had a camera) and was rear-ended.

Not to dismiss the problem, but let's keep in mind what the root of the problem is: drivers who do not take lights seriously. When I learned to drive, the rules for lights were pretty clear: when a light turns yellow, you stop if you can. It doesn't mean "go through till it's red," it means "stop," and gives you an interval in which you can still pass through if it is not possible to stop.

Here in Houston, where red light cameras are being debated, one of the complaints has been that if you enter an intersection with a yellow light and don't get out before it's red, you'll get a ticket. Apparently this complaint is raised because that would be unfair. No, that would be the law.

Even if all of the collisions caused by people running red lights were replaced by people rear-ending each other, it would be a net gain for safety. Rear end collisions are relatively less dangerous. Collisions caused by red light runners are among the most dangerous there are.

(I have some sensitivity to this issue, having been hit by a red light runner going approximately 50 mph on a Boston city street some years ago. I was very lucky; he hit the front of my car, sending us both spinning across Huntington Avenue until we came a stop at the front door of Brigham and Women's Hospital - where someone who'd just been stabbed was standing on the sidewalk screaming, "Help! He cut me!" It was an interesting night. Had I come through that intersection about a second sooner I'd probably have been killed. In a sign of the typical bad driver's mentality, the guy who ran the light jumped out of his car and screamed, "What the fuck were you doing?")

Also here in Houston, the stupid issue of the day is a new towing program. If you car breaks down on a freeway in Houston, and you don't get it moving in six minutes, you will be towed whether you like it or not, for a base charge of $75 plus mileage.

I think it's a very sensible program with some flaws. Sensible because I remember a steady stream of people getting killed on shoulders of freeways in DC when their cars broke down - it's very dangerous. Sensible because disabled cars lead to big traffic problems. Flawed because six minutes is too short (fifteen seems more reasonable) and there should be some provision for people who have auto club memberships to pay for things like that. (I don't buy the "what if you have no money" argument; if you can't afford to have your car towed away if it become disabled on the side of the road, you have no business driving on a public street. Sorry.)

However, a small number of people are very worked up, and they've got the ear of a state senator, John Whitmire, KPRC reports. I don't know much about John Whitmire but I think he's grandstanding. I did a little homework on him and found one interesting fact; he's the chicken shit who, when the state's Democratic legislators left the state to prevent quorum and thus a vote on the gerrymandering of our congressional districts last year, snack back so the GOP could pass it. So I already don't like the guy. (He's not my state senator though.)

VoIP Again

Quick response from technical support that illustrates why I'd never suggest that my parents get an internet phone service:

"Some fax machines use the T.38 codec standard, to communication between themselves, the Lingo device does not support this standard. A common symptom of T.38 fax relay problems is a voice call that is established where a fax tone is heard, but the fax negotiation is not completed and the call is eventually dropped. Often this issue is associated with the VoIP - H.323 T.38 Fax Relay Issues. (H.323 is now considered to be the standard for interoperability in audio, video and data transmissions as well as Internet phone and voice-over-IP (VoIP) because it addresses call control and management for both point-to-point and multi-point conferences as well as gateway administration of media traffic, bandwidth and user participation.)"

I'm not taking issue with the response, just pointing out that this is not quite consumer-ready.

VoIP Update

A bit of weirdness with the voice over IP line today - I cannot send a fax over it. The fax machine works on the land line, and phone handsets work on the VoIP line, but no fax sending.

The provider's service has been good & I imagine they'll sort this out for me, but VoIP is, it seems, not quite ready for prime time. I have enough technical aptitude to sort through this stuff, but I can't imagine the generic non tech user putting up with it.

Crossfired

The smarmy little troll with the bow tie is gone, with his particularly unenlightening show soon to follow. It can't be good to be fired and have the CEO of your network making sarcastic comments about how crappy your program was. But it couldn't happen to a more deserving person (outside of everyone on Fox News, I guess).

Bears on Film

Just got home from seeing Cachorro (Bear Cub), a Spanish film about a gay man who winds up being the guardian of his nephew. It was quite good, and was one of the first times I saw a gay movie in which the gay guys are mostly all bear types. There's a party scene that looked like happy hour at Windows in DC. And if you appreciate non-skinny guys with facial hair, the lead is a hunk.

Blog Finds

A few new things:

I came across an interesting new local Houston blog, Roman Candles, which I've added to my list of things to check regularly.

Via Roman Candles, I found Practice What You Preach, the blog of a group gearing up to fight against the proposed Texas "marriage protection" amendment. Yes, it's one of those amendments designed to keep marriage "traditional" but not too traditional - you know, it's got to be mixed gender, but not its original form as an economic arrangement to protect a man's property (like his wife).

Enjoy.

Internet Phone Update

Calling Cards

Some time ago I signed up for internet phone service - where your voice gets turned into data that goes out over the internet and then back into the phone network, rather than going via those old fashioned wires. After a few setup hiccups it seems to working nicely and I'm expecting to cut my SBC service back to a bare minimum (for net $$ savings).

Prepaid Phone Cards

I noticed this article in the Washington Post about the plans of Vonage, a VoIP provider (not mine) to offer services via WiFi - basically, you'd have a special handset that works at WiFi hot spots to let you make calls using that internet connection (i.e. not using up your mobile minutes).

It's an interesting idea but I'm kind of skeptical about this particular implementation of it. It means that you have an additional handset to carry, since it doesn't replace your mobile phone. And mobile service is so cheap that frankly it's hard to see that it will be worth it - especially since you will have to pay Vonage for the service. I can see it be useful if you have a WiFi network at your home/office - it could become your "land line" and you could tote it along when you are going to be near a WiFi hotspot so you can make or receive calls on your "land" phone number.

International Phone Cards

But it seems like a clunkier version of what I've got set up; I use my wireless number as my main number, and for $3 per month I have a service from Cingular that forwards all my wireless calls to my home number when I'm in the house (without using up mobile minutes) - I just pop it into a cradle and it's done.

Phone Cards

Burnt Toast

The whole neighborhood smells like burnt toast, which I am guessing is related to the nearby bakery outlet. I feel a bit better after getting out to do a couple errands and spending an hour at Cafe Artiste finishing up Krakatoa. In light of the events of the last few weeks, it's fascinating reading.

The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, in the same neighborhood as December's earthquake and tsunamis, was a far more cataclysmic event. It killed 35,000 people - just a fifth of the tolls we've seen recently - but of course this was 120 years ago and there are far more people there now.

After reading and seeing descriptions of the destruction now, it's very shocking to read about what happened in the eruption - walls of water over 100 feet high crashing into the shores of Java, thousands (but just a fractions of the casualties) incinerated in the initial blast or suffocated right afterwards, six cubic miles of rock vanishing in an instant, atmospheric shock waves that propagated completely around the Earth seven times, and weather effects worldwide that led to famine and shortages as growing seasons were shortened. That's just physical effects - never mind the effect of movements for Indonesian independence and the appearance of a newer, more militant form of Islam in the region.

Fascinating stuff.

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