I feel just as safe as I did last Sunday

I haven't really wanted to blog about the bombing in Boston, because I don't think I have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation.  But today in my Sociology class, the teacher asked a question that really pissed me off:  Do we feel less safe now than we did before the bombing? No.  No, I don't.  And no, neither should most people.

If you live or work in or around Boston right now, that's one thing.  Or if you're about to go to a major cultural event.  And if you're Muslim or Chechen, being around strangers in America might be a bit less safe now than it was last Friday.

But living within a half hour's drive of a place where a bomb went off almost a week ago isn't notably dangerous.

If I felt like everyone else was being reasonable, I would say that the only reason you might feel less safe now than you did last week is if, prior to now, you were totally unaware of the reality that some people suck, and sometimes people blow things up or shoot people.  There are loads of reasons people do these things, but the reasons don't matter all that much on a personal safety level.

What matters is that people living in middle- to working-class neighborhoods and attending community colleges that have no large geo-cultural or political significance are just as much not targets as they were before something other than them was targeted.

This isn't about not giving in to terror.  This isn't about putting up a brave face.  This is me, pissed off that my peer group can't handle the idea that bombs in one place do not automatically, systematically increase the likelihood of bombs everywhere.  I, like most of the people I know, am actually not less safe because of the bombing on Monday.

It's fine and normal to be sad, freaked out, or confused right now.  But if you actually feel like your safety has declined since Monday, and I didn't mention you in paragraph three, I think you probably haven't been paying attention.

(via Boing Boing) Tim Wu at the New Yorker has written an article about how the White House can help solve a major problem with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which basically says that using computers is a felony.  He writes:

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is the most outrageous criminal law you’ve never heard of. It bans “unauthorized access” of computers, but no one really knows what those words mean. Orin Kerr, a former Justice Department attorney and a leading scholar on computer-crime law, argues persuasively that the law is so open-ended and broad as to be unconstitutionally vague. Over the years, the punishments for breaking the law have grown increasingly severe—it can now put people in prison for decades for actions that cause no real economic or physical harm. It is, in short, a nightmare for a country that calls itself free.

[...]

Both private litigants and the Justice Department began to use the law against [...] otherwise legitimate users who violate the “terms of service” policies that come with nearly ever piece of software and service we use on computers today.

What are terms of service? Remember the last time you signed up for a Web site and clicked through several pages of fine print? Yep, that was it. Chances are, you didn’t read it, and didn’t think that it might be a federal felony to violate the provisions that it contained. The Justice Department has repeatedly taken the position that such violations are felonies.

Wu calls for the Justice Department to officially declare that it's not going to prosecute this way, based on this law, anymore -- which sounds like a fantastic idea to me.  They already only selectively prosecute with it in order to jail people for things that aren't really the crime they've been tried for, so the only thing that the change would accomplish is that prosecutors would be forced to try people they think are guilty based on the crimes they think they've committed.

Govt. petition to recognize nonbinary genders on legal documents

Dear everyone who reads my blog: Please go and sign this petition.  It's a really tiny change that's a huge deal to a lot of people, and there's no good reason not to make the change. All the petition asks for is for US legal documents (like similar documents in Australia, New Zealand and the UK) add a check box for "None of the above" in the "Gender" question.

Legal documents in the United States only recognize "male" and "female" as genders, leaving anyone who does not identify as one of these two genders with no option. Australia and New Zealand both allow an X in place of an M or an F on passports for this purpose, and the UK recognizes 'Mx' (pronounced "Mix") as a gender-neutral title.This petition asks the Obama administration to legally recognize genders outside of the male-female binary, and provide an option for these genders on all legal documents and records.

Here's the link.  Go sign it.  Now.

White House in favor of phone unlocking

I got an email a little while ago from the White House, saying that the Obama administration agreed with a petition I'd signed arguing that the recent ban by the library of congress on unlocking your phone so it can be used on different networks should be overturned.  (More accurately, as the official response explains, the Librarian of Congress has the power to create exemptions from the DMCA, and recently chose to rescind the exemption for cell phones that is otherwise implied by the law.) From the official response:

The White House agrees with the 114,000+ of you who believe that consumers should be able to unlock their cell phones without risking criminal or other penalties. In fact, we believe the same principle should also apply to tablets, which are increasingly similar to smart phones. And if you have paid for your mobile device, and aren't bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network. It's common sense, crucial for protecting consumer choice, and important for ensuring we continue to have the vibrant, competitive wireless market that delivers innovative products and solid service to meet consumers' needs.

I waited to write about it, though, until at least one professional source commented on it, because the petition came out in favor of phone unlocking, but also admitted that there was very little the administration could do about it.  Slate covered it about an hour and a half ago, and brought up the context I was most interested in:

Skeptics of the petition, which Slate first reported on in January, have pointed out that Obama might not have the power to overturn the Library of Congress' fiat even if he wanted to. But the White House works in mysterious ways. On the same day that the administration released its response, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski also came out in favor of legalizing unlocking, and the Library of Congress itself released a statement agreeing that the unlocking rule "would benefit from review and resolution" in the context of telecommunications policy.

That doesn't mean the Library of Congress will necessarily reverse its October decision to remove the exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that had made unlocking legal. But there's a chance it could lead to something a lot of techies, libertarians, and consumer advocates would appreciate even more: reform of the controversial copyright act itself. The cellphone unlocking restrictions could turn out to be an excellent demonstration of the many ways in which the act overreaches the goals of legitimate copyright protection.

Public Knowledge on Free Access petition

I wrote earlier today that I wasn't sure about the nature of the recent White House directive requiring open access to research and development in government organizations.  I was iffy because my source was the White House (who will obviously be biased in their own favor) and Huffington Post (who are not notorious for thorough, accurate journalism). I'm a little less reserved in my optimism now, though, because PublicKnowledge.org has published a write-up about it.  It's a re-post of a Google Plus post by Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project.  In it, he talks about why the directive is good, and how it compares and contrasts to the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), which I didn't know was a thing.

Here's an excerpt:

The two approaches complement one another. FASTR does not make the White House directive unnecessary. FASTR may never be adopted. And if it is adopted, it will be after some time for study, education, lobbying, amendment, negotiation, and debate. By contrast, the White House directive takes effect today. The wheels are already turning. Compared to this executive action, FASTR is slower. (Thanks to Becky Cremona for this good line.)

Similarly, the White House directive does not make FASTR unnecessary. On the contrary, we need legislation to codify federal OA policies. The next president could rescind today's White House directive, but could not rescind legislation. (One lesson: Don't let up on efforts to persuade Congress to pass FASTR.)

So, great news.  Progress for science, freedom of information for America's citizens, and transparency always makes corruption harder, so steps like this almost inevitably improve government.

(Also: I learned about a new thing in Open Access terminology in this article.  Apparently there's two popular standards for access:  Green OA, which means organizations publish directly to their own open access archive; and Gold OA, which means organizations publish their research in Open Access journals.)

Petition granted to make taxpayer-funded research publicly available

According to the Huffington Post, the White House has just granted a petition to "require free access over the internet to scientific journal articles resulting from taxpayer-funded research."  Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, writes:

I have issued a memorandum today (.pdf) to Federal agencies that directs those with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publically available free of charge within 12 months after original publication. As you pointed out, the public access policy adopted by the National Institutes of Health has been a great success. And while this new policy call does not insist that every agency copy the NIH approach exactly, it does ensure that similar policies will appear across government.

This sounds super-exciting, but I have some questions:

  • Which agencies conduct research for less than $100 million?
  • What constitutes an R&D department?
  • To what extent does this apply to research already done, and currently boxed-up?

I'll be looking over the next few days for criticisms of this response, and I'll report back on whether this is the step forward it looks like, or if it's a shiny but ultimately empty gesture.

Climate Change Denial: an actual conspiracy

One of the funny things about the climate change debate is that, whichever side you're on, you pretty much have to concede that there's a conspiracy.  Either the entire institution of science is cooperating with the liberals to tell a really scary story so that we can cut back on pollution, or high-status, high-influence people are deliberately stoking the fires of climate change denial without regard to the truth of their claims. I mean, obviously, it's the latter.  This article at the Guardian explores the network of donors and think-tanks that are specifically structured to provide resources to climate change deniers.

"Are there both sides of an environmental issue? Probably not," [Whitney Ball, chief executive of the Donors Trust, said]. "Here is the thing. If you look at libertarians, you tend to have a lot of differences on things like defence, immigration, drugs, the war, things like that compared to conservatives. When it comes to issues like the environment, if there are differences, they are not nearly as pronounced."

By 2010, the dark money amounted to $118m distributed to 102 thinktanks or action groups which have a record of denying the existence of a human factor in climate change, or opposing environmental regulations.

The money flowed to Washington thinktanks embedded in Republican party politics, obscure policy forums in Alaska and Tennessee, contrarian scientists at Harvard and lesser institutions, even to buy up DVDs of a film attacking Al Gore.

The ready stream of cash set off a conservative backlash against Barack Obama's environmental agenda that wrecked any chance of Congress taking action on climate change.

The Guardian shared this graph, using data from Greenpeace:

 

This shows that the overwhelming majority of the money is coming from Donors Trust -- although that's not to say the Koch Foundations and Exxon Mobil executives aren't involved there:

And it was all done with a guarantee of complete anonymity for the donors who wished to remain hidden.

"The funding of the denial machine is becoming increasingly invisible to public scrutiny. It's also growing. Budgets for all these different groups are growing," said Kert Davies, research director of Greenpeace, which compiled the data on funding of the anti-climate groups using tax records.

"These groups are increasingly getting money from sources that are anonymous or untraceable. There is no transparency, no accountability for the money. There is no way to tell who is funding them," Davies said.

Bridges for wild animals

Mental_Floss has an awesome short article about Wildlife crossings, which doesn't just mean those signs that warn you that deer like to jump out around that part of the road.  Wildlife crossings are these often incredibly beautiful pieces of architecture over highways that save wildlife the trouble of getting hit by a truck:

 

That and more pictures are available at The World Geography.

Mental_Floss writes,

Wildlife crossings help all kinds of animals get around, including salamanders, panthers, bears, and badgers. These pieces of infrastructure save not just wildlife, but also money: Drivers in the U.S. spend $8 billion annually on wildlife-related damage to cars.

Wikipedia points out that these projects are trivial in cost, especially when compared to the gains, both environmentally and in property damage to people's cars:

The benefits derived from constructing wildlife crossings to extend wildlife migration corridors over and under major roads appear to outweigh the costs of construction and maintenance. One study estimates that adding wildlife crossings to a road project is only a 7-8% increase in the total cost of the project (Bank et al. 2002). Theoretically, the monetary costs associated with constructing and maintaining wildlife crossings in ecologically important areas are trumped by the benefits associated with protecting wildlife populations, reducing property damage to vehicles, and saving the lives of drivers and passengers by reducing the number of collisions caused by wildlife.

I talk a lot about liking the urban world more than the rural, but I'm not sure it always comes across that this is a big part of that -- finding ways to cooperate with, and share our spaces with, animals native to the sites of our development is hugely important.

And, it just generally makes the world a more pleasant place.  Seeing a deer on the highway during a drive can go two ways:  it can either be terrifying, because you're afraid it's going to jump out at you and you'll get into a horrible accident, or it can be pleasant, seeing a cute animal safely away from your car.  Among everything else, these crossings sound like one of the millions of ways we can make lots of peoples' lives a little bit less shitty, which is how you make the world a nice place to live.

George W. Bush's leaked paintings

I've seen some paintings of George W. Bush around the internet today, and I really had no idea what was going on with them.  I didn't particularly care.  I had also seen some stuff about someone hacking Bush's email account.  I didn't care about that either, and also it sounded like too much effort to read about while I'm sick.  (btw: I'm sick.) But the Daily Kos wrapped it up in a nice, short piece, and here's the gist of what happened:  Some douche hacked into George Bush's email account and publicly distributed a couple of paintings he'd done of himself, in his free time, which had been sent to his sister.  Other douches around the country are making fun of the paintings, criticizing Bush as an artist, and photoshopping stuff into them.

This strikes me as an obvious breach of ethical boundaries:  yes, email hacking of political figures can have positive effects, re: journalism and important leaks.  But these paintings aren't important political information.  They're really obviously part of the private life of a person who happens to also have a significant public life -- or, at least, used to have.

Apart from the fact that it's Absolutely Not Cool to make fun of a non-expert artist for being not an expert at art, this also reflects on the screwed up idea in American culture that notable people are public property.  It should be a no-brainer that responsible citizens of the internet shouldn't encourage this distribution and mutation of Bush's paintings.

If you're really curious, you can go googling, but I'm not going to embed the pictures or link to anywhere that posted them. (The Daily Kos article embedded them, so no link, but they were at least critical of the fact of their release.)

On widespread disagreement

In his 1978 book "What Is the Name of This Book?," Raymond M. Smullyan repeats a riddle from his childhood:

4. Whose Picture Am I Looking At?

This puzzle was extremely popular during my childhood, but today it seems less widely known.  The remarkable thing about this problem is that most people get the wrong answer but insist (despite all argument) that they are right.  I recall one occasion about 50 years ago when we had some company and had an argument about this problem which seemed to last hours, and in which those who had the right answer just could not convince the others that they were right.  The problem is this.

A man was looking at a portrait.  Someone asked him, "Whose picture are you looking at?"  He replied:  "Brothers and sisters have I none, but this man's father is my father's son." ("This man's father" means, of course, the father of the man in the picture.)

Whose picture was the man looking at?

Often, when I get in long arguments about politics or science or the internet or any number of other things that people strongly differ on, someone (usually someone butting in, who wasn't listening, but occasionally the person I'm arguing with) says, "There is no right answer, people have different opinions and that's that."

Now, these people are clearly wrong.  A system can be complicated, and it can be easy to come to incorrect conclusions when trying to understand that system.  People can over-or-under-emphasize the importance of certain details, or fail to imagine certain actors in the system complexly, or for any number of other reasons become firmly convinced that their conclusion is right, even if it's not.

Lately, it's been reminding me of this riddle.  I have a lot of trouble with this one.  I've known it for years, and I still have trouble holding the whole thing in my head firmly enough to produce the correct answer.  I might have even defended that wrong answer, when I first heard the riddle.

But the wrong answer is definitely wrong.  There can be no difference of opinion about it, only people getting it right or wrong.

In real life, problems are more complicated than that.  Some people may be more right or wrong than others, or disagree about how to act on the knowledge of the correct answer.  People may be bitterly divided over small or large issues.  But in real life, like in this riddle, even if the wrong answer is really persuasive, and has a lot of very vocal supporters, it's still wrong.

Here's the solution to the riddle:

[spoiler]

From the book:

A remarkably large number of people arrive at the wrong answer that the man is looking at his own picture.  They put themselves in the place of the man looking at the picture, and reason as follows: "Since I have no brothers or sisters, then my father's son must be me.  Therefore I am looking at a picture of myself."

The first statement of this reasoning is absolutely correct; if I have neither brothers nor sisters, then my father's son is indeed myself.  But it doesn't follow that "myself" is the answer to the problem.  If the second clause of the problem had been, "this man is my father's son," then the answer to the problem would have been "myself."  But the problem didn't say that; it said "this man's father is my father's son."  From which it follows that this man's father is myself (since my father's son is myself).  Since this man's father is myself, then I am this man's father, hence this man must be my son.  Thus the correct answer to the problem is that the man is looking at a picture of his son.

If the skeptical reader is still not convinced (and I'm sure many of you are not!) it might help if you look at the matter a bit more graphically as follows:

(1) This man's father is my father's son.

Substituting the word "myself" for the more cumbersome phrase "my father's son" we get

(2) This man's father is myself.

Now are you convinced?

[/spoiler]

US High Speed Rail

This beautiful, hypothetical American High Speed Rail map is the work of Alfred Twu, an artist who worked on California's High Speed Rail campaign.  He writes about the map, and the popular response it generated, at the Guardian:

While trains still live large in the popular imagination, decades of limited service have left some blind spots in the collective consciousness. I'll address few here:

Myth: High speed rail is just for big city people. Fact: Unlike airplanes or buses which must make detours to drop off passengers at intermediate points, trains glide into and out of stations with little delay, pausing for under a minute to unload passengers from multiple doors. Trains can, have, and continue to effectively serve small towns and suburbs, whereas bus service increasingly bypasses them.

I do hear the complaint: "But it doesn't stop in my town!" In the words of one commenter, "the train doesn't need to stop on your front porch." Local transit, rental cars, taxis, biking, and walking provide access to and from stations.

Myth: High speed rail is only useful for short distances. Fact: Express trains that skip stops allow lines to serve many intermediate cities while still providing some fast end-to-end service. Overnight sleepers with lie-flat beds where one boards around dinner and arrives after breakfast have been successful in the US before and are in use on China's newest 2,300km high speed line.

There are few things I want more for the United States in the short-term future than a high-speed rail system.  I'm glad this has sparked even more conversation -- I hope the majority of the country comes around soon.

"The second amendment is there for a reason."

"The second amendment is there for a reason." A professor at my school said this with a straight face today.

I'm not annoyed because I think the second amendment is pointless (even though I do) -- I'm annoyed because this is a terrible way to discuss politics, and it dominates the dialogue.  The thing that pisses me off most about the gun debate, apart from all the people dying, is that pretty much everyone agrees that if we can just find the right interpretation of the Holy Second Amendment, which was so important that the Blessed Founding Fathers put it right under freedom of speech, then everything will be okay.

The fact that Americans so frequently act like the Founding Fathers' vision is more important than trying to govern effectively in the present, based on contemporary values, is easily one of the biggest drags on progress here.

But fine.  It's here for a reason.  Whatever.  Here are the reasons I know:

1. We need guns to fight off the government if it goes too far.

Okay, we're not going to beat the government.  If (a.) the American citizenry revolts, (b.) the military stays loyal to the government, and (c.) that fact doesn't dissuade the revolution, the military and the government wins.  No question. The only way the citizenry wins that fight is if the government decides they should -- and we don't need guns for that.  In fact, it would probably be more effective without them.

2. People have a right to protect their homes.

No, people have a right to a government that protects their homes.  People living in a society, especially a society with a police and judicial system, implicitly give up their right to self defense.  We are defended by our government, because our government can be fair and impartial.  That's the goddamn point of police and judicial systems -- it lets us sidestep the hundreds of horrible, anti-civilization side-effects of the standard of self-defense.

3. But a well-armed militia!

Are you going to take up arms when Canada attacks?  Or are we going to leave the fighting to the organized military?

4. Guns are fun!

Fine, whatever.  Here's an idea:  Guns are legal, but you have to keep them at your local, registered shooting range or hunting lodge.  You can use them at the range, or in the woods during designated hunting seasons or if there's another good reason, like self-defense against bears.  Your shooting range can give you a sticker to put on a box that vouchsafes a specific date on which you're transporting your guns in your trunk to and from a hunting trip, and in absolutely every other context people with guns who are not in the process of turning them in get arrested for it and put in jail.  Because you don't need a gun in your house.  Because the police.

5. If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns!

See above: arrest everyone seen with a gun.  Let the courts sort out the fringe cases (I left the sticker in my coat pocket!, en route from shooting range to lodge = shouldn't have been an idiot, now you have to deal with the judicial system before you get your gun back.)  People who break the law do not unduly expose themselves to arrest.  Heroin addicts living in countries that will arrest you for having needles choose instead to share needles to minimize risk.  Prostitutes living in countries that will arrest you for having condoms on you choose instead to have unprotected sex.  We can leverage those same depressing realities to a good cause:  criminals who know they're going to jail if they're caught with a gun aren't going to carry around their gun.  And some segment of the ones who do will get arrested, and their guns will be taken off the streets.  Every arrest = one less gun out there.  Every dealer bust = dozens fewer guns out there.

Anybody got any other reasons? I'd love to hear them.  Otherwise, can we stop canonizing the Founding Fathers and the Constitution as the Christ and Bible of American politics?  I would very much appreciate it if we could start having a cultural discussion about the present day instead of the 1700's.

Gun owner on gun control

Former(?) critic of gun control legislation James McMurtry discusses, in his article More Than Just A Tall Order, some ways in which the Sandy Hook shooting has made him rethink some of his former positions.  I like a lot of what he says, and want to post some of what I think are the more important bits, here.

Another aspect of the Clinton Crime Bill that I used to think was silly was its restriction of a firearm's magazine capacity to ten rounds. I didn't see what good such a restriction would do. If we assume, however dubiously, that the shooter abides by the law and only carries legal magazines of the proper capacity, what's to stop him from carrying a satchel full of extra mags with which he can shoot all day? Nothing's to stop him, of course, but he will have to re-load more often, and here is where that silly old gun bill might finally have a practical application due to the evolution of police tactics. [...] If a school shooter is not extremely well trained and has to change magazines under duress, he's out of the fight for a second or two, and the highway patrolman, or the deputy sheriff, or the city constable who just happened to be there will have a second or two to fire at the shooter without risking return fire. If I were any kind of a cop in that situation, I would sure appreciate those seconds. The tragedy would still have happened, but the body count might be lower.

It's nice to see a gun owner admit that small steps that might help a little bit are important, that when it comes to killing, less killing is a change worth making -- it doesn't have to be all the killing or none of it.

If we are to call ourselves a society, we will have to behave as a society. We will have to pass laws and make deals, and none of us are likely to be satisfied at the end of the day. This is a symptom of a condition known as Democracy.

I wish that this were a bigger part of the national dialogue.  Nobody getting their whole way is a lot better than the inability to deal with anything at all that the US currently has to settle for.

The thread that runs through Tim McVeigh, Adam Lanza and Charles Whitman is not just mental instability, but rage, pure unfathomable rage. And we are an angry people these days. I don't know why. I suspect that our world is changing faster than we are capable of changing. Some of us feel left out; some of us feel outnumbered; so we're fearful and angry. Our societal anger needs to be acknowledged and addressed, perhaps diagnosed and treated, as do our individual angers.

I don't like the "It's a mental health issue" argument.  I mean, I'm not unhappy about the added attention, funding, and efforts at de-stigmatization that come out of these debates.  But I don't think it's going to help much with the US's gun violence problem -- because our gun violence problem isn't about individual mental illness, it's about an attitude at the societal level, that when your back is against the wall, killing a whole bunch of people is a good response.

I disagree with McMurtry that America's anger comes from rapid change.  I think it's the same cultural anger that fueled the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, McCarthyism, religious radicals, Wall Street, the Tea Party, and the NRA.  It's anger fueled by entitlement -- the idea that, in America, a small group of people with strong feelings about something are allowed to do whatever they want to try and get their way.

I'm not sure anything good has ever come of that anger.  But it's part of our national character, and I'm not sure that America can change that while staying America.  We'd need a new set of myths, a more civil origin story, a less hyperbolically defensive constitution.  And maybe we'll get the chance -- maybe the gridlock in Congress will push America off the cliff, and out of necessity we'll have to accept the aid of the rest of the industrialized world to get us back on our feet.  Maybe then we could have a cultural narrative of humility and gratitude.

No state Pokemon

After the recent response to the We The People petition that the government build a Death Star ("The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon."), BetaBeat.com reports that the White House has pulled a petition to establish State Pokémon for every state, arguing that it violated the site's Terms of Participation. Jessica R

oy of BetaBeat writes,

Though there are some worthwhile petitions on We the People, many Internet users have glommed on to the tool as an act of trolling. [...]

To be fair, the White House hasn’t exactly discouraged this sort of behavior. Last week, the administration released a hilarious response to a petition to build a Death Star which, while absolutely delightful, was probably not the best use of government time?

I have to say, I strongly disagree.

Granted, it's not directly productive for the government to employ pop culture experts to craft amusing refusals to any joke that over 25,000 people want to hear.  But anything that gets people to the website gets people to an environment that might point them towards issues they care about, that do deserve the government's attention.

Furthermore, the Death Star response was interesting and informative, even if it was silly.  The administration took that opportunity to illustrate parallels between the fictional geekyness of Star Wars and the real-world geekyness of the International Space Station.  They also pointed out what kinds of issues the government cares about, and in what ways they categorize those issues, and what kinds of considerations go into making financial decisions on a governmental scale.  And it's a fair bet that that more people read the Death Star response than any other White House response, even for petitions they responded favorably to.

It's a way in, is what I'm saying.  And it's a cheap-as-hell one.  I consider it an outright poor decision to pull the Pokémon petition.  Instead, they could talk about the importance of national symbol making, the American entertainment industry versus that of our foreign allies, and the interrelationship between government and pop culture.

Or they could have assigned the states official Pokémon.  I mean, seriously, why not?

Woo complexity! Planned Parenthood moves away from "Pro-choice" label

The Guardian reports that Planned Parenthood, in an effort to draw attention to the fact that the issue of abortion is more complicated than in-favor or opposed, has "announced that it has reoriented its branding from being a 'pro-choice' group to not labeling itself[.]"

"The labels can mask people's support for access to safe and legal abortion, and they can politicize a conversation that is deeply personal and often complex," Planned Parenthood executive vice-president and chief experience officer Dawn Laguens said in a statement. "We're eager to help people have an authentic conversation – while we continue working to ensure that abortion remains safe and legal."

I'm pretty comfortable identifying myself as pro-choice, but that said I'm thrilled whenever I see an important organization resisting the polarization of public dialogue.

Planned Parenthood coalition partner National Women's Law Center is using [research suggesting that most people don't identify either as pro-life or pro-choice] for its forthcoming "It's Personal Campaign," that emphasizes that reproductive health decisions are personal and complex. "Only you know what it's like to walk in your shoes," reads one ad. "The decision whether to have an abortion belongs to you," says another.

[...]

"A majority of Americans still believe abortion should remain a safe and legal medical procedure for a woman to consider if and when she needs it, and these fundamental views have held steady for more than a decade. Instead of putting people in one category or another, we should respect the real-life decisions women and their families face every day."

Woo complexity!

Jon Stewart's awesome gun video

Pretty often I forget to keep watching the Daily Show.  Fortunately, I sometimes see awesome gif sets that let me know there's an episode I need to see.  Last week, I saw one of those.

This video is eight straight minutes of awesome points, but here's my favorite one:

Jesse Ventura: Do we go to the ford motor company and tell them, stop making these automobiles because people get drunk and kill people in cars?

Jon Stewart:  No, but we do enact stricter blood alcohol limits, raise the drinking age, charge bartenders who serve drunks, and launch huge public awareness campaigns to stigmatize the dangerous behavior in question, and we do all those things because it might just help bring drunk driving rates down, I don't know, by two thirds in a few decades.

Cory Doctorow interview on SuicideGirls

(via Boing Boing) This interview was supposed to be about Cory Doctorow's upcoming new book, Homeland, the sequel to Little Brother.  And, I suppose it is.  But really what it's mostly about is how incredibly terrifying the student loan system is, and, basically, how screwed I am for the rest of my life.

[Nicole Powers]:
This is the first time in history where students in England and America have a disincentive to get educated. In America now, because of rising college fees and falling wages, economically it’s arguable that you’d actually be better off investing the money you spent on education and working straight out of school. -
[Cory Doctorow]:
It’s not arguable, it’s true. Apart from a few Ivy League degrees, the rate of return on an investment in tertiary education, in most fields, in most universities in America is lower than the rate of return on gilts. Literally just buy bonds and you’ll get more money out of the system then you would on borrowing to get a university degree over the long run.
NP:
So we have a situation now on both sides of the Atlantic where there’s a disincentive to get educated.
CD:
Well, they share a certain common heritage. You mentioned for the first time there’s a disincentive to get an education, but what you don’t mention about the UK situation is that for the first time poor people have been given access to tertiary education. It’s not a coincidence that when tertiary education ceased to be the exclusive province of people who had a lot of political influence, that education ceased to be untouchable as an area for defunding by government. In other words, when universities were the exclusive province of rich people who were in close contact with the political classes, nobody took seriously the idea of defunding free education in this country. But when it became more broadly democratized, you could start talking about education as almost like a market proposition.

(emphasis mine.)

[CD: ...]
Also, the federal government can be successfully lobbied to do what they’ve done now over the last 10 years, which is make student debt the only kind of debt you can’t be relieved from in bankruptcy, and the only kind of debt that can be taken out of social security. This is a perfect storm of awful, where in order to get any kind of a good job you have to take a loan out for a hyper inflated university degree and that loan is then visited upon you forever.

You can’t be relieved of that debt through bankruptcy, even if it turns out you made the wrong decision, and the debt collection practices are set up so there’s almost no limits on them and they can impose arbitrary fees and penalties on you. Whatever your student loan was, you actually can never escape it because if you miss a single payment or even if a payment goes astray, suddenly you have these ballooning charges that could double or triple your student debt and those keep recurring through the life of your student debt, such that it becomes almost a form of indenture.

People also who carry a lot of debt are much more beholden to their employers. Especially a kind of debt where if you miss a payment you have ballooning charges and penalties, because you can’t afford to be made redundant, you can’t afford to be taken off the job, you certainly can’t afford to risk being fired. Those people become a more pliant workforce. So you have, again, this perfect storm of awfulness where all of these awful interests are aligned into making people indebted and unhappy and unable to fulfill their lives, fulfill their potential.

For one thing, people don’t start businesses if they can’t afford to quit their jobs. So all of that economic creativity that America has often benefited from…I mean, for all that America is a nation of military adventurism and conquest, it’s also a nation of entrepreneurship and an enormous amount of its economic mite has been driven not just by resource extraction from foreign economies, but also from the exporting of entrepreneurial ventures. You know, inventing stuff that other people in the world want a buy, that entrepreneurial zeal is increasingly locked up behind people who struggle with debt and can’t afford to quit their jobs to do something cool. This is why you have dot com millionaires who are actually offering cash prizes to people who have good grades not to go to university. They want those people unlocked from debt so they can go off and invent cool things and make jobs and unlock new economic growth for the country.

NP:
On the night of the Strike Debt launch [Strike Debt is an Occupy Wall Street affinity group which buys debt and forgives it order to raise awareness for the true cost of debt] I hosted a discussion via the SuicideGirls’ Twitter account using the Strike Debt hashtag. I just asked people about how debt had impacted their lives. Within the SuicideGirls’ demographic, I’d say 90% of the debt that people were talking about was student loans. And the worst thing is that Strike Debt can’t even buy student loans. It’s the one class of debt that they can’t purchase. The good guys can’t even buy the debt to clear it. And one of the most worrying sentiments that was coming through that night was that because people had no hope of ever paying their student loans off –– especially amongst those where the penalties were already accruing –– they were like, what’s the point of getting a job? I’m never going to get out from under my student debt. There’s literally a whole class of people who have a very real disincentive to find work because of the crippling weight of their student loans.

(emphasis mine.)

Read the whole interview here.

Trillion dollar coins

Apparently, the US Treasury, though they don't have the authority to print money, do have the authority to mint whatever denomination of coins they want, in platinum.  The law was designed to allow the treasury to issue collectible coins, but that law clearly states that those coins are legal tender. The reason we can't just print money to solve the debt problem outside of this weird scenario is that the federal government doesn't actually print money, the Federal Reserve does.  The Federal Reserve isn't a branch of the US government, it's a private bank that prints money, which it then lends to the government at interest, which the government then distributes into the economy.[1. There are a lot of economic premises in this post that I don't really understand.  One of them is the fact that all the money that the US has is created paired with an identical debt, but the debt accrues interest while the money doesn't.  It seems like this guarantees that debt will never, ever be settled entirely -- which is probably a good thing, because complex mutual debt is a good way to stop people murdering each other -- but it still seems like a weird system.]

The Debt Ceiling, the thing we hear almost constantly debated lately, is the number Congress says is the most that the President is allowed to borrow in a term.  If the government needs to spend more money than they have, and the Debt Ceiling prevents them from borrowing new money to pay off old money[2. I'm certain it must be better to owe lots of money to the Fed than to default on loans to other countries.], the US government defaults on its loans, which could be really, really bad for us.

So if we buy loads of debt back from the Fed, we can borrow as much as we need from them and keep everything running smoothly.

Apparently there are no good economic or legal reasons this wouldn't work.  I'm having trouble finding sources that can explain why, because it seems catastrophically irresponsible to me, but I guess all the commentators agree that it wouldn't damage the economy and isn't against the law.

On the other hand, I agree with all the reasons Felix Salmon at Reuters offers that printing a platinum coin would be psychotic on the political level.

Granted, my opinion is formed based on a bunch of late-night googling, so I'm not exactly a well-informed expert.

Still, a lot of people seem weirdly serious.  I first heard of this when I was scrolling through the Daily Kos, which actually has a petition asking President Obama to order the minting of the coin.  There's also a petition on We the People, at about 7 thousand out of 25 thousand necessary signatures to demand a response from the Obama adminsitration.

One of the first articles I saw when I started googling, Trillion dollar coin: The new nuclear option, by Aaron Blake, described the coin like this:

Just as with reforming the filibuster, the trillion-dollar coin idea presents all kinds of potential unintended consequences, including opening the door to other practices that have thus far been off the table. And while that would benefit the Democrats in this particular instance, there will be a day when the roles are reversed (the filibuster being case-in-point).

“It isn’t just a nuclear option, it is opening up the Book of Revelation,” GOP consultant Dan Hazelwood said of the trillion dollar coin. “Laws, Constitution and common sense merely cease to exist.”

And regardless of whether you think it’s a good idea, the trillion dollar coin would undoubtedly further poison the political well of a federal government whose well is already downright toxic.

At this point in our political climate, I don't feel like the trillion dollar coin is an entirely implausible event.  I do think, however, that if we mint it, we are even closer than I would have guessed to the end of America as established by the founding fathers around the time of the American Revolution.

Which, I mean, good riddance.  This is a country founded upon the central value "We don't want to pay our taxes."  As a world power,[3. Which we probably wouldn't be anymore, anyway.] we can do better.

The Economist on webcomics

(via Boing Boing)

The typical format for a web comic was established a decade or more ago, says Zach Weiner, the writer of “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal”, or “SMBC” (below). It has not changed much since. Most cartoonists update on a regular basis—daily, or every other day—and run in sequence. “I think that’s purely because that’s what the old newspapers used to do,” says Mr Weiner. But whereas many newspaper comics tried to appeal to as many people as possible, often with lame, fairly universal jokes, online cartoonists are free to be experimental, in both content and form.

The Economist has published an article about the rise of webcomics, and the transformative effect they have had on the medium of comics.  They call the article "Triumph of the nerds," but I'll give the (unnamed) writer the benefit of the doubt that she or he didn't have any control over the headline.

It features a history of comics in Western journalism, the particular qualities of webcomics as compared to traditional newspaper comics, and the ways in which webcomics are opening up a significant method of free speech in oppressive nations or cultures.

That last section contained the most content that I hadn't heard before -- the Western webcomics artists they discussed were people I'm already familiar with, but I'm only passingly familiar with comics as a form of serious political dialogue.

 In China cartoons distributed across weibo, a collection of Twitter-like social networks, have become a powerful way of criticising the communist regime. Pi San, a cartoonist and animator from Beijing, creates carefully coded cartoons as a way of subverting China’s strict web-censorship regime. His most popular character, Kuang Kuang, is a lazy schoolboy at a prison-like institution where dissent is routinely persecuted. The drawings, full of jagged lines and dark colours, are as edgy as the politics. One recent animation, poking fun at China’s censorship of references to Ai Weiwei, a controversial artist, was viewed by a million people within just a few hours of its being posted online.

I think this might be the cartoon they're referring to:

 

(via Wild Dollop Appeared)

I can only begin to express how pissed I am about this

There are a whole bunch of major problems with the American media.  If you extend any of them out far enough, they all become fatal, because when you're operating on the scale of a nation, there aren't very many decisions that don't end up being life-or-death for someone. But one of the areas we cover, mass shootings, we do so incredibly, visibly wrong that it's hard to explain.  I'm going to put the news content of this post below the fold, because I don't want to give it the credit of the front page on my blog.  I'm also going to use the nofollow html tag in my links, because I don't want to increase the relevant website's google traffic.

USA Today has a report on the Aurora, CO shootings dedicated, the police officers' descriptions of the process of arresting the gunman.  The first image on the page is a massive courtroom sketch of the gunman, and his name is in the headline.

The way we report on violent crime, centering around the criminals rather than the victims, constructing a nearly heroic narrative, encourages copycats, inspires new generations of murderers.  There are a whole lot of reasons that the United States has one of the highest intentional homicide rates in the developed world.  The biggest and most obvious one is that we let pretty much anyone have nearly any kind of weapon they want.  But one of the other huge ones is that we don't hold our media accountable for the way they present their stories.  Or, when we do, we mostly hold them accountable to their shareholders, and mostly only demand that they make their content maximally sensationalist, to draw in advertising views.

The Aurora, CO story is over.  The people who should follow and know about the result of the trial are those who are particularly obsessed, and those who are close to the story.  The former category is probably dangerous, and the latter category deserves access to the narrative.

Broadcasting this media to the entire country, months after the event, does little apart from remind every would-be mass shooter that the way to go down in fame, if you fuck anything else up big time (note that the gunman had recently flunked out of medical school) is to kill a whole bunch of people somewhere they feel safe.

[note: the article I posted about an hour and a half ago, the videos of the crazy person, features a moment where that guy makes the same point I'm making about the problem of the media and copycats.  I want to take the time now to clarify that just because one of the fifty or so crazy and false things he said happened to be pretty close to true and reasonable doesn't mean I agree with him, or that he was being reasonable even for a moment.]