Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween

I like Halloween. When I was a lad of 3 or 4 or 5, we lived in an ethnic, largely Catholic neighborhood in Cleveland, and folks went all out decorating their homes and yards for Halloween. I dressed as one of those cartoon crows, Heckel or Jeckel, and scored a huge haul of goodies and even some real money. Those were some of the most fun times of my life.

We moved back to rural Georgia when I was 6, and Halloween was nowhere near as big a deal as it had been in Cleveland. Beyond jack'o'lanterns, nobody bothered to decorate much. It was also too dark and dangerous to walk down sparsely populated country roads to trick or treat, so we had to be driven to various Halloween friendly homes in the valley and to parties. Some of our neighbors saw Halloween as a manifestation of the occult and the work of the devil, so we didn't call on them to get treats. Frankly, the rural, white, Protestant Halloween was not nearly as much fun as the urban, ethnic, Catholic Halloween.

I had the pleasure of living in neighborhoods that were quite enthusiastic for Halloween. In 1987, we moved to a neighborhood in Rockville, Maryland that was just starting to yuppify after a metro station had opened nearby. Most of our neighbors decorated for the holiday, and there were scores of trick or treaters at our front door.

In 1998, we moved to a dense working class neighborhood in Yonkers where most of our neighbors were Catholic. When Halloween 1999 approached, most of the households decorated their front entrances and yards starting a few weeks ahead of time. Quite a few went whole hog and featured elaborate displays taking up their entire front yards or stoops. As many as 200 children would call on us. One year, we had some of our nephews for the holiday, and we had to give out some of the candy they had scored because we had run out.

Now I live in the country again, and I don't expect any trick or treaters. It's too dark and dangerous, and the houses are too far apart for kids to get the kind of booty that makes for a memorable Halloween without putting in way too much effort. I'll pick up some candy just in case.

The fun/boring Halloween dichotomy is not merely a function of urban/rural differences. We have lived in urban and susburban communities that had pretty lame and halfhearted levels of Halloween participation. I have identified some correlates with high neighborhood enthusiasm for Halloween:

1. Relatively high population density.
2. Presence of street lighting.
3. Lots of lawn ornaments such as "Bathtub Virgin Marys", St Francis statues, little Dutch kids by windmills, donkeys pulling a cart full of plastic flowers, lawn jockeys, flamingos, etc.
4. A relatively high proportion of Roman Catholics.
5. A relatively high proportion of immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived after 1890.
6. Presence of sidewalks.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Test the Voting Machines

I hear that electronic voting machines are relatively easy to hack or to manipulate so as to steal elections. This is from my IT nerd friend, whom I trust, but who usually starts to sound to me like the adults on a Charlie Brown special after five minutes of techno-speak.

Maybe the machines could be tested right before an election by casting 1000 votes on them in a set way and comparing the results provided by the machine with the known votes that were cast. If the numbers don't match, can the machine and run off some paper ballots. Also, investigate and prosecute the machine maker or programmer and the party that was advantaged by the hack.

I still think Ohio 2004 was rigged. The exit polls could not have been that wrong, and the voting machine maker's CEO said he was going to deliver Ohio for Bush.

Language Curmudgeon

I have become and amateur language curmudgeon in my middle age, although I am by and large very tolerant of other folks' writing and speaking styles. I have a few pet peeves, however, that drive me nuts. Perhaps by airing them, I can help myself get over them:

1. "Nauseous" means having the characteristic of inducing nausea in others. "Nauseated" means you have nausea. If you say "I'm nauseous", you are saying that you make other people sick, when you probably really mean to say that you are nauseated.

2. "Therefor" is a perfectly cromulent word even if Microsoft Word's spell check doesn't recognize it. It means "for it" and refers back to an antecedent in the sentence or even an earlier sentence. Example: "This settlement covers both the leases and security given therefor." The word refers back to the leases and could be replaced with "for them". "Therefore" is an entirely different word which connotes "accordingly" or "consequently". Akin to "therefor" are the words "therefrom", "thereunder", "thereto", "thereat", "thereupon" and the like. You can also do the same thing with "here", as in "hereunder".

3. There is nothing wrong with the passive voice, even if Microsoft Word underlines it with a green squiggle. It is useful for emphasizing the object when the subject is not all that relevant. It is also good for making a less emphatic statement. My favorite is using it to be deliberately evasive or obscure. "Mistakes were made, and people were killed." "Responsibility has been taken."

4. It bothers me when people use "hopefully" for "it is hoped that". "Hopefully" is an adverb that denotes that an action or proposition is taken or uttered in a hopeful manner. "'We are going to take Congress," he said hopefully." "They planted their crops hopefully but had no guarantee of success." Those are OK. "Hopefully, I won't fall down the stairs today." That's not right.

5. "And I" is not always right, and "and me" is sometimes right. "He yelled at John and I" is wrong. You wouldn't say "he yelled at I".

6. "Aren't I" is wrong. You wouldn't say "are I not" or "I are not good with figures". I advocate the use of "ain't" as a contraction for "am not". That's what it means. The use of "ain't" with the second or third person or the first person plural is wrong, but you can deliberately use it incorrectly to make a point, of course. "GW Bush ain't much for book learnin'".

These are the peeves that bother me most. Hopefully, they are now exorcised and won't make me so nauseous any more. Hey, lookie there. I'm already bending the rules myself, aren't I?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Weight Loss. This Time I Really Mean It. No, Really. I'm Going to Stick with the Program.

Our pastor has been giving a series of sermons on how Christians should live a life in which they attend to their minds, spirits and bodies. This has been fairly interesting, but there is an undertone of old fashioned railing against sin. Sunday before last, we were reminded that our bodies were temples, and the preacher admonished folks for gluttony. Those of us who are overweight were squirming in our seats a little bit. Ours is the one sin that really stands out. We wear our gluttony on our frames, as opposed to lustful or envious folks who can lust or envy in secret. I treat my body as a temple. It’s just that I’ve sacrificed a lot of animals at the altar.

Yesterday, one of my doctors really read me the riot act about being overweight. I swear the scale in her office is situated on some kind of gravitational anomaly. It shows me 12 pound heavier than my scale at home or the scale the insurance company nurse used on me two weeks ago.

Now I read that I’m wasting gasoline by driving while fat! Pretty soon, the war on obesity is going to become the war on the obese, and I’ll end up in a gulag for fatties. That’s why I’m getting serious about my weight. I know I’ve said this before, but this time I mean it. I joined a gym, and I actually went to it and worked out! The gym is more expensive than the last one I joined and almost never visited, and I am counting on Mrs Vache Folle’s theory that you are more likely to exercise if you have forked over serious money for gym membership or sneakers. That way, my streak of parsimony will help to motivate me. Mrs VF’s frugality will certainly lead her to nag me about going to the gym, and, trust me, nobody wants her in full on shrew mode. The gym also has other middle aged and malformed clients rather than twenty something body builders, and it has a cadre of trainers and a curriculum of classes. There are indoor tennis and basketball courts, too.

And I’ve modified my diet significantly on my doctor’s recommendation because of some gastrointestinal distress I had been experiencing. Instead of being a pure carnivore, I have added a healthy, if unappetizing, dose of fruits, vegetables and fiber. I am even starting to like them. I have cut out snacks, deep fat fried stuff, biscuits and gravy (sob!), pasta, desserts of all kinds, and most bread. Meat makes up less of my diet than before. I am already feeling a lot better even if I have not lost any weight yet. If I can just stick it out for a month, I will be in the habit of exercising and eating sensibly, and it will be easier to keep it up. It was rough eating sensibly while on the road last week, but I managed to do so.

I have had bad eating habits most of my life. Before I was thirty, I was scary thin and could (and did) eat anything I wanted without gaining weight. After thirty, I reckon the old metabolism slowed down, and I crept up in weight little by little. About ten years ago, I managed to lose 60 pounds and develop good habits, but I blew it when I started a desk job. I didn’t handle the stress of all the life changes too well, and I reverted to my slothful, gluttonous default. It’s as though I have bulimia but keep forgetting to purge. I would just avoid mirrors and keep buying bigger clothes.

Now that I have been made to understand by my pastor that Jesus doesn’t like fatties and by my doctor that I’m literally killing myself, I am pretty motivated. Let’s hope it lasts. Just to put pressure on myself, I’m planning to report my progress on this blog from time to time so that my imaginary readership can shame me if I falter.

My weight this morning was 251.4 pounds. My goal: be scary thin and make Nicole Richie look like a cow. Seriously, I aim to lose 75 pounds within the next twelve months. Then I’ll be at the weight where I used to think I was getting fat.

Thomas Sowell is Off HIs Meds

Shorter Thomas Sowell (http://www.gopusa.com/commentary/tsowell/2006/ts_10241.shtml):

“Yes, the GOP is incompetent and corrupt. But I urge you to vote for them anyway because I think the Democrats are soft on national security. I don’t have any basis for this, but the leaders of Iran and North Korea are just like Hitler, and we all know that only the GOP could stand up to Hitler.”

Sowell is demented or deliberately misleading the people who regularly have his columns read to them. If, like Sowell, we measure strength on national security by the degree of warmongering, interventionism, and throwing money indiscriminately at the national security apparatus, the Democrats historically beat the GOP in head to head competition hands down. I prefer to measure strength on national security by the extent to which the party supports policies and investments that actually enhance national security without undue interference with individual liberty, but I am going to use Sowell “reasoning” to debunk his proposition that the Democrats are weak on national security.

Let’s take a trip down the national memory lane.

Who dispatched the navy and marines to North Africa to raise hell with the Barbary Pirates? The Democrat Thomas Jefferson. He also acquired Louisiana and all but eliminated the French as a bordering power.

Who got the US into the War of 1812 and was C-in-C during the invasion of Canada? The Democrat James Madison.

Who established the doctrine that interference by foreign powers with the western hemisphere would be deemed interference with the US? The Democrat James Monroe. Who failed to enforce this doctrine by letting France install Maximilian in Mexico? The Republican Abraham Lincoln. Monroe was also C-in-C when General Jackson, a Democrat, put the kibosh on raids by Indians and bandits from Spanish Florida. The acquisition of Florida eliminated Spain as a power on a good stretch of border.

Who ended the menace from Indians east of the Mississippi? The Democrat Andrew Jackson.

Who oversaw the defeat of Mexico and the annexation of vast parts of that country? The Democrat James Polk. Who was a namby pamby detractor of that glorious endeavor? None other than future Republican Abe Lincoln.

Who settled the northwest border with Britain on favorable terms and pacified the Nez Perce? Democrats Tyler, Pierce and Buchanan.

The War for Southern Independence doesn’t count for either party since it had nothing to do with national security and since it was prosecuted mainly by the GOP on one side and Democrats on the other. Arguably, this internecine struggle made the country considerably weaker.

The GOP gets credit for the next couple of decades of Indian Wars, although Little Big Horn was nothing to crow about. If you don’t count the Indians, there seems to have been a national consensus on pacifying Indians, so there are no points to be had by either party as compared to the other.

The GOP can have the Spanish-American War. They can also take the blame for the far flung possessions that had to be defended with no apparent increase in national security and no apparent benefit to the American people.

Who was hell bent on getting into WWI? The Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Who obstructed him and then negated any gains in security by torpedoing the League of Nations? The GOP.

Who was determined to stand up to Hitler and Japan? The Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. Who obstructed him until Pearl Harbor? The GOP.

Who nuked two entire cities of Japanese civilians just for the sake of convenience? The Democrat Harry Truman. He started the arms race and the Cold War policy that had bipartisan support for the next half century.

Who warned about the rise of the military industrial complex? Republican Dwight Eisenhower. The Democrats embraced the national security apparatus and have supported its growth enthusiastically whether they were in or out of power. They started Korea and Vietnam. Republicans pulled out.

Both parties embraced the Cold War policy of nuclear proliferation and brinksmanship that kept the world on the edge of annihilation. It was Republican Richard Nixon that came up with d├ętente with the Soviets and made nice with China. What a softy!

Democrats have supported a number of mindless interventions and projections of power in recent history. Examples include Grenada, Lebanon, Haiti, Colombia, Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. They are changing their mind on the interventions in the Middle East, as they did with Vietnam, because it is clear to anyone with the sense that God gave a duck that they are hurting national security, not helping it.

By Sowell “reasoning”, his claim that Democrats are soft on national security is unsupportable. If your concern is with enemies just like Hitler, let’s remember the party that actually took Hitler out, the Democrats. Democrats are as warmongering and interventionist as the GOP, and they can’t be any worse than the GOP, can they? I’m going by my default: if Sowell says vote GOP, then it’s a safe bet that voting Democrat is the way to go. The GOP cannot be allowed to go unpunished for its incompetence, corruption and overreaching.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Moose Sighted in Carmel and Other News

There was supposed to be a post here, but it disappeared on the way to publication. Let me tell you, it was brilliant, my best work ever. Alas, I'm just not up to replicating it. Suffice it to say, one of Mrs Vache Folle's train companions saw a moose in the parking lot of a medical building near the Putnam Hospital. That's right. A moose in the lower Hudson Valley.

The other news? Not worth mentioning.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Right to Clone

H&R features a bizarre GOP ad wherein it is claimed, inter alia, that the law on stem cell research contains a loophole that makes cloning a constitutional right: (http://www.reason.com/hitandrun/2006/10/wheres_tina_yot.shtml#016197).

I am pretty sure that the legislature doesn’t have the authority to make constitutional rights or to diminish them, although that has never stopped them from doing so. We already have a recognized constitutional right to reproduce, and I don’t see why that wouldn’t extend to reproduction by cloning. It is really nobody’s business but my own if I decide to clone myself. What would be so bad about another Vache Folle running around, except this time with meaningful guidance and a chance to get it right?

And I ought to be able to do as I please with the blob of cells that results from putting my DNA into an egg until that blob becomes a person, provided that I obtained title to the egg. I don’t have any eggs, being male, but if I did, I should be able to sell them or give them away without let or hindrance from anyone, especially Patricia Heaton. Mind your own business, crazy actress lady.

This would apply equally to cells that result from the ordinary union of egg and sperm. Until a person comes into being, those cells should be available for any use by their owners. If I want to run a blastocyst farm for fun and profit, I should be able to do so. Those cells in petrie dishes are never going to become persons, so nobody is harmed and government has no legitimate interest in what I do with them, unless I throw them at passers by or some such thing.

Those frozen embryos in fertility clinics? They’ll never be people, either, so why not put them to some good use?

My carpool buddy claims that blastocysts are potential people and that potential people have the same rights as actual people. This strikes me as ridiculous. If I take a blastocyst and implant it in a womb and all goes well, a person may emerge. If I have intercourse with a fertile woman and ejaculate and the sperm fertilizes an egg which becomes implanted and all goes well, a person may emerge. Does that mean my sperm was a potential person with rights? If so, I am a mass murderer. If I ingest food, some of it may be used by my body in the production of sperm which… yadda yadda yadda… a person may emerge. Does that make my supper a potential person with rights?

I don’t think my carpool buddy really believes that potential people have the same rights as actual people. He doesn’t regard his small children as having full civil rights, and he bosses them around all the time rather than treating them as equals. He is OK with age restrictions on booze, tobacco and porn. He does not, however, condone killing or tormenting children, and, in fairness, I suppose he is mainly concerned with the right not to be killed or tortured. Why he reckons a blob of cells in a petrie dish qualifies for such rights is beyond me.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Systems

I thought we were getting a new front door, but we are actually getting an "entry system". That's how the label on what appeared to my untrained eye to be a mere door read. It also doubles as an exit system. Later last evening while I was watching the idiot box, I noticed that what appeared to me to be a mattress was advertised as a "sleep system". Can anything be described as a "system"? Maybe I don't just wear shoes; rather, I utilize a foot enclosure and protection system. I don't have a simple coffee maker; rather, I have a coffee brewing system. When I open a beer bottle, I use a bottle access system instead of a church key. When I remove staples, I deploy a metal fastener extrusion system.

The concept of system appears to have been stripped of all useful meaning. It has long been abused in the social sciences where scholars tend to speak of just about every social arrangement as a system even when it is not particularly systematic. I reckon a system needs at least two interacting elements to qualify. My entry system has a door, a frame, and a locking mechanism. Add one of us with a key, and voila! It might really be a system. The sleep system is harder to justify since all the elements (mattress, box spring, frame, linens) are more or less static and don't really interact. If you count the sleeper, you might stretch the definition and call the sleeper/bed complex a sleep system.

What's the difference between a door and an entry system? A couple hundred bucks.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Wherein I Establish That I am an Eclectic Reader

I got a lot of reading done during my travels last week. I reread Daniel Dennett’s “Consciousness Explained” and found that it made much more sense the second time around. I had read several other books about consciousness since I first picked up Dennett’s book on the subject. Dennett likens consciousness to a virtual machine running on our brains. He does a pretty thorough job of discrediting the notion of a homunculus in our heads that directs everything and constitutes the center of consciousness.

An interesting aspect of Dennett’s argument is his recognition that there is no reason for us to believe that our intuition about our minds and how they work approximates reality. Why would evolution have endowed us with access to how our brains work beyond what is needed to function in the world? Accordingly, Dennett reckons that counter-intuitiveness should not disqualify a theory of the mind from consideration even though we think we know how our minds operate through introspection.

I have long believed that consciousness or sentience is overrated. It seems to me that most of what my brain does is unconscious, and what conscious activity there is appears to be mainly taken up with rationalization of what my unconscious mind has already decided. My consciousness is engaged in telling itself stories about what Vache Folle is up to. Occasionally, I have to attend to something novel with all my faculties, but I frankly do my best work when I get into a flow and let consciousness dissolve.

I also read Wm Dever’s “Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?” Here is a link to an unfavorable review: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0LAL/is_3_33/ai_107759382. I disagree with the reviewer. I thought Dever’s arguments for a local Canaanite origin of the Israelites were compelling. He summarizes the archaeological record in a way that lay readers will find accessible.

I have often heard it said that archaeology consistently supports the Biblical narrative, and I never had much interest in Middle Eastern archaeology to check this out for myself, so I was surprised to learn that this claim is outrageously false. Archaeology has not been kind to a literal interpretation of the Old Testament as history. In fact, there is nothing to support either the story of the Exodus or the story of the Conquest of Canaan. These seem to be something that the Israelite historians of several centuries later read back into history as part of their production of a national consciousness and claims to an exceptional place in the world and in history (my interpretation, not Dever’s). I never really took this part of the Old Testament as truth. In fact, the supposedly genocidal Israelis were an embarrassment , so I am not disturbed by this at all.

My only gripe with the work is Dever’s insistence on referring to postmodernist scholars as “nihilists” for their skepticism about the record and about the whole historical enterprise. Dever declines to attribute motives to the authors of the Bible and prefers to assume that they believed the history as they wrote it to be true, but this position is just as conjectural as that of the postmodernists he criticizes.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Has the TSA Figured Out that it is Ridiculous?

In traveling to and from Montana this week, I found myself in six airports, and I went through security in three of them. I was struck by what seemed to me to be a real change in attitude in the TSA employees. They were far less arrogant and irritating than the last time I flew. They were actually somewhat deferential and helpful. They seemed pretty sheepish when they had to collect people’s "liquids and gels", and they seemed to understand the eye rolling that this inspired in travelers.

I reckon that the most recent idiocy with the liquids and gels has made the TSA seem downright silly, and this has lowered them in the estimation of the public so much that they are trying to seem likable to make up for it. They have an air of "we don’t make the stupid rules, so don’t blame us". Seriously, how could a TSA staffer even try to be intimidating and authoritative without causing passengers to crack up? He or she would seem all the more ridiculous.

Car Bombs: They're not Just for Terrorists

I was traveling all this week on business, and, as I usually do, I picked up the latest Harper’s at a newsstand in one of the airports: http://www.harpers.org/MostRecentCover.html

There is almost always something in the magazine that surprises me and raises my consciousness. This time, I was taken by one of the "Readings" entitled "The Poor Man’s Air Force" by Mike Davis. This was published last April in TomDispatch: http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=76140 It is a brief and fascinating history of the car bomb from 1920, when it was a horse and wagon bomb on Wall Street, to the present day. It was not until 1947, when the car bomb was deployed again, this time by Jewish extremists in Palestine. Since then, it has been a weapon in the arsenal of asymmetrical warriors around the world.

A passage:

"The car bomb...suddenly became a semi-strategic weapon that, under certain circumstances, was comparable to airpower in its ability to knock out critical urban nodes and headquarters as well as terrorize the populations of entire cities. Indeed, the suicide truck bombs that devastated the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 prevailed -- at least in a geopolitical sense -- over the combined firepower of the fighter-bombers and battleships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and forced the Reagan administration to retreat from Lebanon."

A number of car bombers learned their trade at "terrorism schools" sponsored by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence in the 1980s. The most fascinating aspect of the essay for me was learning that not all car bombers are asymmetrical warriors, that powerful states use them. In the 1970s and1980s, Mossad carried out numerous car bombings in Beirut. In 1985, the US contracted with Lebanese agents to kill the leader of Hezbollah in a car bombing operation financed by a Saudi prince. The operation failed, but 75 bystanders were killed and 200 wounded. The CIA continued to abet car bombings in conjunction with the Pakistani government and trained, among others, the masterminds of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In the 1990s, the CIA abetted car bombings in Iraq by the Iraqi National Accord.

I don’t know why I was so surprised at state sponsored terrorism, including acts by the government that claims me as a subject. Why would I have put it past them? I don’t think I will ever look at reported "terrorist" activities the same way. I will tend to suspect the hand of government in every attack.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Coyote Encounter

It was cool this morning, somewhere in the mid to high 30s, and the dogs were energetic and impatient for their morning constitutional. I really enjoyed the walk, the crispness of the air, leaves crunching underfoot, brightly colored foliage and autumn wildflowers. I was in something of a reverie when a coyote darted across the road a mere 10 yards ahead of us. The boys were off in a flash and ran the leads out to their full 16 feet before I could brace myself, so they dragged me down the road and into the woods for a few yards before I could get them under control. I had to be careful because I didn’t want Jesse backing out of his collar and dashing off into the woods after the coyote.

Thereafter, the boys were in a state of gleeful excitement and watchfulness. Jesse’s tail was up, and he was practically prancing as he walked.

We sometimes hear the coyotes’ mournful baying in the evening, but we rarely see them. They are shy of humans, and I reckon the presence of the dogs keeps them from getting too close to the house. They aren’t much of a nuisance except that poultry must be kept inside at night. They keep the cat population down, and I view the presence of large predators as a sign of a healthy environment. Bring on the cougars!

I have not heard of a coyote bothering cattle or goats in the neighborhood, but the nearest goatherd has a large sheepdog around the flock. The belted cows are probably too much for a coyote to mess with. Even the calves would be difficult to handle, especially with their mothers nearby. So the coyotes must content themselves with poultry, fawns, turkeys, housecats, and assorted wildlife. The one I saw this morning seemed unusually healthy, sleek and well nourished, so there must be a good living to be had on the mountain.

I wonder what the coyote thought of his canine cousins on leashes. Does he envy them or hold them in contempt? Jesse lived in the park for the first two plus years of his life and enjoyed his freedom until he was hit by an automobile. We took him in, and he adjusted quickly to a comfortable domesticity. If we hadn’t tamed him, he would have been dead of heartworm within a few months. He traded his freedom for a longer life, security, warmth and companionship. I wonder if he misses his feral life, his freedom. Or does he prefer the pack he lives in now and the leadership of the alpha, Mrs Vache Folle? He loves his Mrs VF. Me, not so much.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Lost Art of Penmanship

The Washington Post reports on how the use of computers is leading to a decline in the quality of penmanship: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/10/AR2006101001475.html?referrer=email.
Every advance in technology entails a loss of some previously valued skill. Calculators made the ability to do sums in your head less valuable. The invention of writing was decried because it would lead to a loss of the faculty of remembering epic poems in their entirety. Now keyboards are making penmanship less significant.

When I was a kid, the school put a lot of stock in penmanship. It was part of what we were graded on, at least until high school when we had to type assignments. We practiced our cursive writing quite a lot, and I was especially good at writing in longhand. My grandparents, for whom penmanship had been a big part of their schooling, encouraged me to write well. I loved to write beautifully and especially loved the feel of a fountain pen. I still do, but most of my writing today is done with a word processor.

This was not always the case. Until a few years ago, I used to write my first drafts in longhand. There was something about putting pen to paper that seemed essential to the creative process. The second draft would be done on the word processor with considerable editing and revisions. Time constraints demanded that I abandon the longhand draft and go straight to the keyboard. My typing skills (I still use the Biblical Method: “seek and ye shall find”) had advanced to the point that I could maintain a flow in drafting with the keyboard. Nonetheless, I feel that I lost something when I gave up longhand drafts. Writing seems more like work than play.

There will always be a use for penmanship, but legibility rather than beauty is all that we may require. As long as optical recognition programs can read your handwriting, you will be OK. Flowery and elegant cursive script may turn out to be more difficult for computers to read and easier for computers to generate.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Statist Debating Tricks

One of the most irritating aspects of on line discussions with authoritarians and warmongers is their absolute certainty at how history would have turned out if such and such war had not been prosecuted precisely as it was. They seem to think that their counterfactuals prove something. They don’t. Their counterfactuals are pure speculation predicated on the very assumptions that they are advanced to support. I can play counterfactual, too. “if the US hadn’t entered World War I, it would have ended in a stalemate, and many lives would have been spared. One of those soldiers who did not die would have gone on to invent a cold fusion generator that would have made energy abundant and cheap for everyone. And another would sire a daughter who would serve as America’s first woman president and preside over 20 years of peace and prosperity. See. World War I was not worth it.” Pretty slick, huh?

Another trick is to throw out fake historic facts to put your interlocutor off guard. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t military targets?!? I see you are not a student of history. Intelligence showed that Japan had facilities throughout both cities where they were breeding a race of super soldiers who could fly and who could shoot deadly lasers out their eyes. There was no choice but to destroy the cities altogether to make sure they were all killed. Ordinary weapons would have been useless against them.” Hard to argue with, isn’t it?

If You Don't Like this Post, Maybe I was Drunk When I Wrote It

Jacob Sullum at Reason takes on the use of alcoholism as an all purpose excuse: http://www.reason.com/sullum/101106.shtml. It seems that “the alcohol made me do it” is the new “the devil made me do it”. You can be forgiven any rash statement if you admit that “it was the whiskey talking”.

I don’t know if it is still the case, but when I worked at the VA, alcoholism was considered personal misconduct, and disease or injury attributable to alcohol abuse might not qualify you for benefits. At the same time, the consensus in the mental health community was that alcoholism was a “disease”. How comforting for the booze hound to know that he is in the grips of a disease and is not responsible for the consequences of his drunkenness.

I am an agnostic as to the reality of free will, and I concede that every human action and decision may be ultimately determined by external factors and forces. We aren’t capable of identifying all these determinants, and we tend to attribute to actors some responsibility for their decisions and actions as if they had some control of them. Of course, we tend to attribute our own actions to our circumstances while at the same time attributing the actions of others to their character. Ultimately, both our circumstances and character may be attributed to a series of determinants over which we had no control. If I am a man of weak and base character, the course of my life has made me such, and I am destined to act in accordance with the character with which I have been endowed.

I think I understand the severe alcoholic. God knows that I have self medicated with alcohol from time to time. Once you really start hitting the sauce, your life begins to fall apart. You screw up your career, your family, your health. Then you need the sweet oblivion of a good drunken bender more than ever. You get to the point where sobering up is a scary proposition because then you have to face the fact that you are a week away from living under an overpass and eating out of a dumpster (unless you hook up with some enablers). You decide to quit drinking tomorrow. You decide this every day for months until you finally drink yourself to death. It wasn’t your fault. You were weak and fell into the black hole of self destruction.

On the other hand, the way society treats alcoholism might very well be one of those determinants that influences whether a particular individual will become a total booze hound. If society disapproves of irresponsible boozing and holds folks accountable for the consequences of drunkenness, some would be drunks are bound to be deterred by this and others are more likely to intervene. The attribution of responsibility to the drunk does not imply that alcoholism should not be treated medically or psychologically much as a disease might be treated, and it does not follow that the consequences of drunkenness should not be mitigated. Rather, the personal responsibility meme functions primarily as a deterrent in this case and an impetus to rehabilitation.

The free will meme itself functions to structure social interaction in a way that rewards certain actions and outcomes and penalizes others. This meme, together with the concepts of internal locus of control and personal responsibility, may be among the most influential determinants of character and decision-making. A weakening of this meme complex would have far reaching effects, most of them undesirable as far as I am concerned. In addition to surrendering to alcohol, a person having no sense of responsibility would be more likely to surrender himself to the collective.

Have I weakened the meme complex by failing to affirm the reality of free will? I think not. My argument is that the free will meme is valuable and useful whether it is “true” or not. It may not be possible to determine whether it is “true” since it seems to me to be something of a normative proposition rather than a description of reality, but for most people to act “as if” it were true yields outcomes that I regard as more desirable than those which might arise if we acted as if it were not true.

Using alcoholism as an excuse is an attempt to escape responsibility, not just for the abuse of the alcohol, but for anything we do while we are inebriated. Alcohol, in this line of reasoning, robs us of our free will. And since we couldn’t help drinking, since it is a disease and all, we aren’t responsible for surrendering our free will. Let’s hope that this doesn’t get much traction. Otherwise, someday nobody will ever be held responsible for anything they did while they were drunk.

I don’t dismiss the idea altogether. There are some things that we might readily excuse a drunk, such as stupid utterances or drunken rants or passes at other people’s spouses. Many of us harbor toxic ideas that we work hard to overcome but which were planted in us in our upbringing. When we get drunk, we may come off much more bigoted, sexist or misanthropic than we strive to be when we have more control of our faculties. It really is the “whiskey talking”. Of course, we are free to discriminate against folks on the basis of what is ordinarily concealed in their brains, and we can thank alcohol for outing such folks.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Battlestar Galactica Rocks!

I’ve been catching up on Battlestar Galactica thanks to some marathon broadcasts on the SciFi Channel leading in to the new season. All I can say is…Wow! This might be the best thing on television.

I had missed the whole New Caprica storylines altogether, and I was riveted by the treatment of the insurgency against the occupational government of the Cylons. In the current political environment, the writers and producers courageously presented a view of insurgency and asymmetrical warfare that turns conventional wisdom on its head.

The insurgency, led by Colonel Tai (sp?), resorts to suicide bombings and killing human collaborators in the police force. When ex-President Roslyn argues that this tactic is beyond the pale, Tai remarks that he has sent many soldiers on suicide missions in his career and that whether they are in a Viper or carrying bombs strapped to their bodies they are just as dead. The resemblance to the occupation in Iraq, with Americans as Cylons, is doubtless completely coincidental.

Dean Stockwell does a bang up job as the ultra right wing representative in the leadership of the Cylon occupation. His character could pass for “human” at Little Green Footballs. Strike that. His character is more “human” than the folks at Little Green Footballs. I could swear that Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin are among the hardliners in the Cylon cadre.

This is not your father's Battlestar Galactica. There's nothing cartoonish about this version. It is dark, the characters are complicated and flawed, and the distinctions between right and wrong, prudent and foolhardy, loyal and disoyal (and in relation to what) are not always crystal clear. There's no ultra-cute Boxie and his daggett. Adama is played by Edward James Olmos in contrast to Lorne Greene. It's Captain Castillo versus Ben Cartwright, and everybody smokes and is a boozehound to some degree.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Do You Fit the Profile of a Pedophile?

Steve Gilliard posts, inter alia, about the profile of a child molester: http://stevegilliard.blogspot.com/2006/10/not-even-close-to-worse.html.

I am familiar with the concept of “red flags” and am leery of lending them too much credence. The Florida child welfare bureaucrats tried to get me to prosecute child abuse and neglect cases solely on the basis of “red flags” that they used in their “risk assessments”. The idea was that enough red flags added up to an immanent threat. A lot of the red flags were, by themselves, pretty innocuous, but they got you points on the risk scale. For example, being a young mother, being single, having little education, having little support from others, and having been abused or neglected oneself were all “red flags” that might be counted toward snatching your children from you and putting them in foster care.

I declined to prosecute cases based on probabilities instead of evidence. I once colluded with a judge to get the social workers to shut up about their “red flags”. At trial, I attempted to have the social worker qualified as an “expert” in risk assessment and had her testify about her red flags. The judge shot me down brutally, calling my arguments “ludicrous” in front of the social workers and their boss. He compared the child welfare agency to something the Soviet Union might have. The social workers never brought up red flags around me again.

This profile of a child molester is similar and is not helpful at all.

* Popular with both children and adults. Kids seem to like me. I don’t know why since I don’t particularly like kids myself. I declined to have any of my own, and I can tolerate the nephews and nieces for only limited periods. Adults like me, too, so I reckon I’ll have to give myself 5 child molester points.

* Appears to be trustworthy and respectable. Has good standing in the community. I maintain the appearance of respectability and, as far as I know, am not a pariah. I get 5 more points for a running total of 10.

* Prefers the company of children. Feels more comfortable with children than adults. Is mainly attracted to prepubescent boys and girls. Can be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. I don’t get any points here.

* "Grooms" children with quality time, video games, parties, candy, toys, gifts, money. Is that what I’ve been doing with my nephews and nieces all these years with my generosity and solicitude? Who knew? 5 more points for a running total of 15 out of a possible 20.

* Singles out children who seem troubled and in need of attention or affection. Holy crap! I do tend to be especially attentive to the neediest of my young kin. I’m up to 20 out of 25.

* Often dates or marries women with children that are the age of his preferred victims. I’m off the hook on this one. My “preferred victims” are adult women (exclusively Mrs Vache Folle for 23 years), and I don’t date their moms to get to them.

* Rarely forces or coerces a child into sexual contact. Usually through trust and friendship. Physical contact is gradual, from touching, to picking up, to holding on lap, to kissing, etc. I have never coerced anyone into sexual contact. I have held kids in my lap and carried them on my shoulders and such like. I don’t derive any sexual gratification from this and am not a child smoocher, so I’m only going to award myself half credit for a running total of 22.5 out of 35.

* Derives gratification in a number of ways. For some, looking is enough. For others, taking pictures or watching children undress is enough. Still others require more contact. If this means sexual gratification, I don’t get any points.

* Finds different ways and places to be alone with children. I am sometimes alone with children, but this is not by design. No points. Whew.

* Are primarily (but not always) male, masculine, better-educated, more religious than average, in their thirties, and choose jobs allowing them greater access to children. I am a manly man with advanced degrees, and I am as religious as they come. On the other hand, I am not in my thirties and I don’t work around children. Even when I was in child welfare or a children’s guardian ad litem or special advocate, I rarely spent time with the kids themselves. Half credit for a total of 25 out of 50.

* Are usually family men, have no criminal record, and deny that they abuse children, even after caught, convicted, incarcerated, and court-ordered into a sex offender program. The marriage is often troubled by sexual dysfunction, and serves as a smokescreen for the pedophile's true preferences and practices. I’m married and have no criminal record. Worse yet, I deny that I am a sexual predator and would continue to deny it if I were charged with it. I always felt that having “denial” as a red flag was nightmarish and unhelpful in the extreme. I am not much of a lover, but my marriage is genuine and not a smokescreen. I’m only taking half credit for a total of 27.5 out of 55.

* Are often, but not always, themselves victims of some form of childhood sexual abuse. I don’t recall ever being sexually abused.

* Even if the pedophile has no children, his home is usually child-friendly, with toys, books, video games, computers, bikes, swing sets, skateboards, rec room, pool, snacks - things to attract children to his home and keep them coming back. Usually the items reflect the preferred age of his victims. I am a little guilty of this. I have no kids, but I maintain games and some books and toys for the convenience of visitors. And (gasp), these tend to be age appropriate. This is really minor stuff, and there are no swing sets or anything like that, so I am taking only half credit to reflect my half assed attempts to accommodate the young’uns. 30 out of 65 (finally below 50%). I was getting a little worried.

* A female pedophile usually abuses a child when partnered with an adult male pedophile, and is often herself a victim of chronic sexual abuse. Not applicable.

* A pedophile can act independently, or be involved in an organized ring, including the Internet, NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association), and other pro-pedophilia groups. Some pedophiles recognize that their behavior is criminal, immoral, and unacceptable by society, and operate in secrecy. Some are quite open and militant about their practices and advocate the normalization of pedophilia under the guise of freedom of speech and press, and uses innocuous language like "intergenerational intimacy." I don’t even know how to score this one. I’m not in NAMBLA. Pedophiles and pedophilia aren’t salient to me. I get no points. Crap! I just denied being a child molester again! Final score 30 out of 70 for a 40%-ish child molester probability.

In truth, most of these items are of no value. I reckon that the ones about having sex with kids and being sexually attracted to kids should be weighted more heavily, say at 100% of the total.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Mark Foley No Worse than his Colleagues

The Foley scandal is a source of wonder to me. Politicians can steal, take bribes, wipe their asses with the Constitution, and work all manner of evil and stupidity without getting much attention from the public. I reckon the corruption and lies and evil are just too complex for us. But throw in sex, and we’ll condemn the hell out of it and anyone who even knew about it.

Dennis “The Walrus” Hastert deserved to be pilloried before the Foley scandal came out, but it took something sexual to get folks’ attention and call his leadership into question.

If this scandal costs the GOP its majority in Congress, that’s OK by me. In my book, the GOP had already done plenty to merit being thrown out of power and ridden out of town on a rail while wearing a fresh coat of tar and feathers. That the GOP is evil and incompetent didn’t seem to be enough to imperil their majority until Foley’s exploitation of pages came out.

What do I make of this? My preliminary conclusion is that we Americans are by and large mulletheads without the sense that God gave a duck. And we’re weird about sex, especially with young’uns.

The GOP regime can incinerate thousands of children in Iraq and elsewhere and send 18 year olds into a war zone for no good reason without concerning the public overly much, but sending a sexual text message to a kid really gets us in an uproar.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Teaching Truants a Lesson..... in Evil!

Rogier van Bakel reports on the jailing of a Florida woman for not making her son go to school, even though he is older than the state’s mandatory schooling age: http://www.bakelblog.com/nobodys_business/2006/10/the_parent_trap.html.

I confess that I once served on a Florida Truancy Arbitration Board and meddled in the affairs of families of truants. Some were even old enough to drop out but had not officially done so. Accordingly, they were still truants rather than drop outs, and we could mess with them all we wanted. We never went after the parents, though, because we understood that parents aren’t really able to compel teenagers to do anything. Heck, we had truant foster kids, and the state couldn’t make them go to school either.

We were armed with a procedure known as CINS/FINS (Child or Family In Need of Services). Parents could also file CINS/FINS petitions to deal with their incorrigible children. This procedure had its roots in colonial law where parents could bring their disobedient children before a judge. In colonial Massachusetts, you could even have the judge order your child’s execution. “Son, we’ve tried grounding thee and taking away thy horse, but none of that has worked. So now we have to kill thee. This is going to hurt me more than thee.”

Of course, the state was not really equipped to provide helpful services to families with rebellious children. All we really did was persuade a judge to order the child to be obedient and go to school and to do or refrain from doing any number of things. When they disobeyed the order, they would be held in contempt and put in a juvenile detention facility. We weren’t supposed to use the juvenile detention facilities in this manner, but judges were reluctant to send the contemptuous youths to jail. The children would then languish in the system, being unable to purge themselves of contempt other than by convincing a state social worker that he or she had really learned a lesson and would be good.

This procedure never did any child any good, but it allowed some exasperated parents to take a long break from their troublesome offspring. Wealthier parents tended to put their unruly teens in psychiatric hospitals for long stays, so our CINS/FINS clientele tended to be less prosperous families or folks who had run out money for in-patient psychiatric care. The whole thing was a nightmare for the teens caught up in it. I reckon that too many parents figured that their kids would raise themselves, and they couldn't deal with the results of their negligent parenting.

I was a real jackhole for participating in this idiocy. May God have mercy on me.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

School Shootings Inspire Calls for Gun Control

The Washington Post’s response to the murders of Amish schoolgirls is a predictable call for more gun control: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/02/AR2006100201197.html?referrer=email.

The editorial writer laments that Congress has failed to make it “harder for the wrong people to get guns”. Certainly, you don’t want to sell guns to someone who intends to use them to murder someone, but there is often no way for a seller to know a buyer’s intent or whether the buyer might some day in the future develop a murderous intent. What if the homicidal maniac who killed those schoolgirls had never shown any previous indication that he might do such a thing? How would gun control measures have helped unless you prohibit firearms altogether?

There has been a flurry of attacks by maniacs on schools lately, and this is a matter of concern. But shootings at schools are still relatively rare, and each of us must consider whether depriving ourselves of the ability to keep and bear arms is too high of a price to pay for slightly enhanced school safety. A disarmed populace is in a very perilous position with respect to the state and other criminals, and the tiny enhancement to school safety would be far outweighed by the loss of the ability to defend ourselves and the reduction of freedom.

Moreover, I don’t reckon that my freedom of action should be restricted based on what the craziest or most irresponsible person in the world might do. Tens of thousands die in automobile accidents each year. Should we prohibit automobiles or enact measures to make it “harder for the wrong people” to get cars? Some pedophiles cruise chat rooms and try to make dates with kids. Should we prohibit chat rooms or make access by the “wrong people” more difficult?

We don’t usually know who the “wrong people” are until they do something wrong. We are all potentially the wrong people, and we are all the wrong people in someone’s eyes.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Fighting Eminent Domain Abuse

The Washington Post has an article on how some westerners are using ballot initiatives to try to limit the use of eminent domain and to get compensation for landowners when land use regulations impair land values: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/01/AR2006100101135.html?referrer=email

Among the objections to the proposed measures is the fear that taxpayers will be hit hard by compensation claims. Of course, a remedy for this would be to eschew making so many land use regulations, but that course of action, or inaction, is inconceivable to authoritarians. Some measures adopt a "waive or pay" approach in which government can either compensate the landowner or waive application of the regulation.

I have long regarded land use regulations as "takings" since they reduce the "bundle of rights" of titleholders to land. If regulations render it unlawful for me to develop my land or restrict the development I can do, that is as good as a "taking" in my book, and I ought to be compensated. This would have the added benefit of making governments consider the costs of legislation. At present, governments pay nothing for land use regulations and have no disincentives to meddling. Voters would be more attentive to politicians' records on land use if they thought that their taxes would go up as a result. Currently, I can advocate restrictions on my neighbor's use of his property at no cost to myself, other than the cost of having a pissed off neighbor.

Out west, ballot initiatives are easier to pull off than here in the east, but it would be interesting to try to do something like this in a busybody state like New York. Of course, New Yorkers might not have much of an attachment to property rights and might be addicted to meddling with their neighbors. They certainly tax and regulate each other up the wazoo.

What Are the Odds of an Asteroid Impact on the Capitol?

That fateful January evening was the most spectacular disaster in the history of the federal government, and millions of people watched it live on TV. Just as GW Bush was set to deliver his State of the union speech, the Capitol disintegrated in a huge explosion that devastated everything in a half mile radius and damaged quite a lot in a five mile radius. Fortunately, loss of life outside the center of the blast was relatively low. But both houses of Congress, the entire Supreme Court, most of the Cabinet, and a heap of other dignitaries were completely annihilated.

At first, most folks assumed that the blast was the work of terrorists or a hostile foreign power, but it was immediately determined beyond any scintilla of doubt that the Capitol had been destroyed by a small asteroid. It was clearly an Act of God, and that the object had hit the Capitol squarely just when almost the whole political class was in it seemed to many an unequivocal message of divine disapproval.

Pundits and preachers tried to interpret God’s message. Some said God’s wrath had come down because the United States had not done enough for Israel. Some claimed that it was because of either the treatment or mistreatment of homosexuals. But most folks reckoned that God’s message was clear as a bell. God had smitten the federal government for being the federal government, and nobody much wanted to tempt God by reinstituting it. The acting President, the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs, urged Americans to rebuild, but sentiment against it was too widespread. The people were not in the mood to wage a Global War on God and reckoned that they would content themselves with the 50 states as sovereign entities.