My biggest gripe so far with the Obama administration, which is one I've had with politicians of all stripes, especially the alleged liberals for years, is their complete failures of imagination. There are times when incremental technocratic moderate change is important, necessary, or the only option. And there are times when the status quo has failed so badly that there's room for big imaginative changes. And if you let yourself get circumscribed by the "necessary", you ignore the possible.

But here, let me turn the mic over to my man Franklin Delano, and his four freedoms speech. (Wikipedia) in 1941. The Great Depression and the onset of World War II, and instead of aiming for small ideas circumscribed by the "necessary" or the "possible", he managed to still think big, and act big, and keep trying different things till they worked. Not half-assed bank bailouts without any oversight, not a maybe kinda half-assed possible public health option, but Social Security, no pandering about "glad to have jobs" (more from pundits than pols), but the National Labor Relations Act, Works Project Authority, Civilian Conservation Corps, and FDR directly took on the banksters and their bought minions in government.

It'd be nice if those we elected as leaders could show some leadership, the kind that won FDR landslide elections.
The following is the text of an email I sent to NPR's Marketplace show today, after they had a hack from the WSJ editorial page spouting nonsense straight out of the "Fairtax" book. Here's the article in question.

And my letter:
This morning, on the Marketplace Morning Report, you had Stephen Moore on, praising the benefits of a national sales tax.  His ideas and numbers come entirely from the book "FairTax" by Neal Boortz and John Linder.  And unfortunately, most of what he quoted is inaccurate or false.  A 23% sales tax would not replace all of the government income, the percentage was picked as near the maximum amount people would tolerate as a sales tax.  A national sales tax, despite his claim, would be extremely regressive and complex.  Most families who are out of the top 1% spend most of their income each year, which would make their net tax rate at LEAST 23%, plus the increases in cost that would come from this kind of tax.  Whereas the richest few don't spend all their money, which would make their net tax rate far below the 23% the rest of us would pay.  That hardly qualifies as "fair" by any stretch of the imagination.  And his idea of a $20,000 rebate for the sales tax spent?  That would be at least as complicated as the current income tax.  The rest of the work of tax collection would then be pushed on to the companies who sell products.  It would require just as much work, and we would still require the IRS to investigate cheats and other things.

His entire presentation was misleading at best, and outright false at worst.  The entire idea of a "fair" national sales tax is snake oil, designed to cover up for a gigantic tax cut for the rich and a tax hike for the rest of us, not any kind of serious policy suggestion.
It's amazing how much really really really easy stuff gets neglected just because people don't do it. Like people who throw paper towels on the floor when the trash can is less than three steps away. Or people who work retail and can't bother to do the most basic freaking parts of their jobs. I work retail. I know it sucks. It really does. Most of retail work is utterly and completely pointless in the grand scheme of things, you're trying to sell people stuff they don't need, to make money for the company, and the money doesn't go to you hardly at all.

Man, put that way, I wonder why I even bother to do any work. Retail is thankless and mind-numbing and repetitive and lots of other things, but it's about a hundred times better than the kind of work most of humanity had to do to get by for most of history. So it irritates me when somebody doesn't bother to do something that takes all of like two minutes and is really easy. Especially when I have to do that thing, on top of all the other things I'm already doing.

Now to seemingly switch tangents.

One of the most marvelous creations of the Enlightenment is bureaucracy. The vast and rules-bound strata that, run properly, ensure that everybody has to fill out the same annoying forms to get things done. Lord or pauper, you still need to fill out these forms. The entire idea of a professional, neutral, staff of administrators and others is STAGGERING when you compare it to the way everything had been run before, which was based on nepotism and political infighting. Not that either of those are absent in a professional bureaucracy, but they're greatly reduced when run well.

Many of the greatest problems of bureaucracy come from the fact it's run by people, the same kind of people who are too lazy to put their paper towels in the trash or to clean up the section they're assigned to in the store. But in general, when people are hired to do a job, they do it, at least to some extent. Otherwise they get fired.

So when I get annoyed by people who don't manage to do the very easy tasks of their jobs that nothing much really depends on, imagine what I think when I see a headline like this: Most Katrina Aid From Overseas Went Unclaimed.

This isn't a matter of simple incompetence. This is, at best, STAGGERING incompetence. This wasn't just money they turned down. They turned down offers of search and rescue teams. Medical care, housing, all sorts of things. Yeah, there's lots of offers of aid that couldn't really help, like Greece's offer of cruise ships for hospitals that wouldn't get there for months. And y'know, this is the US, we're the richest damn country in the world, we should have had the resources to do this all. And we did. But due to the same staggering incompetence (being generous), a major US city was effectively destroyed and people were stranded without rescue or supplies for days.

But there's a very simple reason why this happened. Most of the people who were chosen to be in charge of emergency response, along with man of the other bureaucracies and other professional civil service agencies of the government, weren't picked for their competence. They were picked for personal loyalty, or for favors. And they weren't just given bullshit posts they couldn't screw up, like ambassador to San Marino. They were put in positions where people's lives were at stake. And guess what. They fucked it up.

The people in charge of our government don't believe in the idea of neutral and professional civil servants. That's why they try to turn "bureaucracy" into a dirty word. That's why they don't care if the people they appoint are even slightly competent for the post they're given. They are, at heart, aristocrats, as petty and venal as any seventeenth century lord. They don't want professionals giving unbiased opinions or evaluations, because those might disagree with what they want. And because it's something beyond their control. So they try to destroy it, first by saying it's useless, and then by trying to prove it's useless once they get power, by not even pretending to care how well things are done.

"Government can't do anything right! Elect us, and we'll prove it!"
...is to write a self-help book and fleece a bunch of people who need help out of their money.

Okay, context. I've started reading The Secret, this book that's been on Oprah at least twice and a couple of the other daytime talk shows and we've been selling a zillion copies of it, the DVD, the audiobook, and the CD soundtrack. I'm only about 30 pages in, because I can't keep reading it that long, because it's crap. Seriously. It fills almost every cliche of crappy new-agey self-help books. But as far as I can tell, "the Secret" is "What you think is what you get". Which is crap. And now as I read this, I feel worse and worse about all the people we sell it to. But let me get back to "the Secret" they're talking about, and why it's crap.

Basically, it takes the power of positive thinking and dresses it up in a lot of pseudo-mystical and pseudo-scientific gobbledygook without caring about the accuracy of either. They talk about the "law of attraction" which means what you think about is what you draw to you, and try and couch it in terms of "frequencies" or "magnetism" or even more fun, quantum physics. And so by this theory, everybody who's ever died in a natural disaster or through something like say, war, violence, heart disease, or having a piano dropped on them is responsible for their own deaths. What a crock of shit. Not just because it shares the same flaw as the whole idea of karma, which is to blame the victim, but because it denies the existence of any sort of objective reality. Yes, I know the arguments that our entire world we see is created by our brain interpreting the messages from our senses, so we can't REALLY know, etc, blah blah blah. And that's stupid too. Not something you can disprove with formal logic (or even by smacking the True Believer sometimes), but it's absolutely no help. If the rest of the world's an illusion, how do you know you're not too? Or it's not all just a giant simulation using you as a battery (or co-processor, in a slightly more scientifically plausible version of The Matrix). You can't. But since pretty much all of our observations match up to the idea of their being a real objective world outside of ourselves that we can touch and influence but don't have complete control over, that sure seems like the best bet. Or at least the best bet to act like.

So with objective reality as a working hypothesis, that nullifies the whole "Secret" right there. Yeah, positive thinking is good to an extent, especially for people who continually undermine themselves with their own actions because they expect to fail (not that I'd know anything about that, personally, of course), but just thinking doesn't do anything. Thoughts are just patterns in your brain until and unless you act on them. So they only have any effect in how they get you to act. By their deeds they shall be judged.

So, I might force myself to finish reading the rest of The Secret and see if there's anything at all useful in there, but I'm not expecting much. And it's sad, it's not even entertaining crackpottery, or anything new and interesting that can make me think "Man, that's not true, but it'd be kinda cool if it was." Everything The Secret tries to do has already been done better, like by Mage: The Ascension.
Sifu Tweety:

"If there’s been one thing most galling about the Worst President Ever’s era, by the way, it’s been having to care about the opinions of rank idiots. That somebody jollily febrile enough to rationalize torture - torture! - or question evolution - evolution?! - is actually in a position to influence my own life one way or another is flat fucking offensive to my strong sense of idiot-free self-deterrmination (very libertarian democrat!)"

Read the whole thing. Though I don't agree with him about the "guilt" part, things really have gotten that stupid where we actually need to say things that should be blindingly obvious, like "Torture is bad, and the US shouldn't torture people," and it's somehow controversial.

And from Jennifer in the comments of that post: "One other thought - I found that the best thing to say to the Bush cultists in 2004 was that I have one simple rule for who I consider fit for the presidency: whoever it is has got to be at least as smart as I am, because I don’t hire people to do jobs for me that I could do better myself. And that George Bush was not a smart man, that there’s nothing he’s done that I couldn’t have done with much better result."

It's simple, and elegant, and utterly removes 90% of Republican candidates from consideration. Along with probably almost as many Democrats. But the Democrats at least seem to care some about competence.
One of the things I most resent about the jingoists and fundamentalists who run around yelling all the time is how they constantly conflate patriotism with nationalism and jingoism. If you question the government, you're a traitor and hate America. (well, when THEIR guys are in power, when the OTHER guys are in power, they suddenly find dissent patriotic again) If you mention things we've done wrong (and we've got some doozies), you're a traitor and hate America. And so on. Well, fuck them.

The government isn't the country The land isn't the country. The people are the country. The ideas are the country. A country is an idea, when it comes down to it. But an idea is nothing without people to make it real. Government in America is supposed to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. We are the government.

And you can love your country greatly, and think it's a wonderful place and even think it's better than most other places to live, and still think it can be improved. You can love your country and hate the bad things that have been done in it, or in its name. You can love the country, without fooling yourself into thinking it (and we) are perfect. In a lot of ways, that's kinda like loving a person, people aren't perfect. You have to love them despite their mistakes, and try and help them fix them, and avoid making them again. That's part of loving somebody. And of loving a country. If you love it, you want it to be better, as good as it can be.

People who completely misunderstand the ideals of this country have no room to be questioning anyone else's patriotism.
if you set up part of your game so it seems like a test of skill, making half the resolution random is extremely frustrating, and doesn't reward the players for doing well.

In other words, it's a pain in the ass and sucks.

Thank you.
With the holiday season bearing down on us like the proverbial train at the end of the tunnel, I figured I'd get a couple of rants out of the way early.

One of them is for the absolutely lame book drive they're running at work. Now, I love books, as you all surely know. And I'm all for getting books for kids. It's just the way it's run that torques me off. Here's how it works. There's a random cardboard stand, plus bookmarks with a kid's name and the kinds of books they like written on it. They're all kids at one of the local school districts. So the way this alleged charity works is a customer comes in, picks up one of the bookmarks, and buys the book, then gives it to the clerk, who puts it in a box with the others that all get donated to the schools at some specific date.

Okay, I'll let you think about that and see if you see the glaring problem with that idea. Don't worry, I'll wait.



All done? Well, for those of you who didn't guess, that's not charity. Oh, sure, on the part of the person buying the book it is, but for Barnes and Noble, it's just marketing. It's a way to get people to buy more books. There's no discounts or anything on the book drive books. Somebody comes in and buys a book at full price, then it gets given to the kid. What the hell? The company is using people's charitable urges this time of year to profit. That's lame. And pissant. And evil. Maybe not very high up on the scale of evils, but it's still evil. And to make it worse, it's inefficient. What the person paid for the book could probably buy two books, if the company were actually interested in helping kids and not just in making money. But instead, it's just a way to market more books to customers. And I find that sad, disturbing, and faintly disgusting.

And the same point applies to other things, too. Even the venerable Toys for Tots, or part of Child's Play. Or even food drives.

Now, I don't know the full details, maybe things like this where somebody donates a thing rather than just money get more response. Maybe it's a compromise because the only way to get companies to support charities in this climate is to say "And you can make money off it, too." Maybe there's a reason for it. But it just stinks of lame greed to me. And I didn't even mention the charities signed up for gift-wrapping who don't get anything other than what people donate. Nice work if you can get it, suckering other people into making money for you.

Technorati Tags: Books, Economics, Rants, Work, Everyday Evil

Y'know...

Nov. 17th, 2005 12:23 pm
For people who don't trust the government to mail out welfare checks or regulate businesses, Republicans are sure quick to vote the government power to snoop on citizens, detain people without charges or trials, and torture people. Maybe it's just me, but I'm slightly more threatened by the government's ability to lock people up without evidence than I am by the government's ability to make companies clean up their acts. That somehow seems a little bit more serious and more ripe for abuse. Same with war. If you don't think the government is competent enough to run trains, why on EARTH would you think the same government is competent enough to bomb the everliving shit out of people?

Technorati Tags: Politics, Rants

A thought

Nov. 10th, 2005 12:55 am
Y'know, if we want to win a war against people who decry us as evil, maybe the best way to start would, oh, I don't know. Maybe by... NOT BEING EVIL.

So that'd mean things like not torturing prisoners (especially ones who aren't even guilty of anything!), firing incendiary weapons into cities full of civilians, that sort of thing. Not invading countries based on false claims, and then totally fucking up the occupation so lots of people die needlessly. Oooh, hey, and we could stop supporting dictators! And stop sacrificing national security for petty political reasons. And stop lying to the public about everything.

So, in other words, we'd have to be everything the modern Republican Party isn't.
It's election day here in the fine state of Virginia, and I just voted once again. I guess it's really past time I quit pretending the on the whole "holier than thou" not related to any party thing. The last three elections, I've voted straight for Democrats. Which is, largely, due to the fact the Republican Party as a whole is batshit insane. Promoting and defending incompetents, allowing and covering up torture, lying us into war, and the covering for the President and his cronies? Not to mention the massive corruption. Which still doesn't mean the Democrats really represent me, they're far too conservative for me and unwilling to stand up for any of the simple basic common sense liberal positions. But it's a choice between people who support torture, and people who are too busy worrying about "electability" to speak out against torture. Well.

But for fuck's sake, Democrats, if you want to win elections, you have to actually run candidates. I don't think my local state delegate has EVER had opposition. So I wrote in Mickey Mouse. I shoulda written in Ficus, but there wasn't an organized write-in campaign for Ficus, so it doesn't matter much.

Technorati Tags: Politics, Me, Rants
A series of random short things about today, to keep from posting 80 one sentence posts.

--

There was a guy on the sidewalk as I was driving in to work today. He was carrying a sign, and had several more propped up against telephone poles and things. A one man anti-war protest, on some random street corner out here. The sign he was carrying said "Do unto others..." on one side, and "Thou shalt not kill." on the other. Couple of the other signs said things like "War and Greed are un-Christian."

I dunno how much difference he made, or if anybody else ever stopped and helped him carry signs, but good on him. I'm not quite sure what I think on the war in Iraq right now, but that's mainly because it's been so incredibly fucked up I don't know if there's any good solutions at this point.

--

US Copyright law is largely bullshit right now. Why are movies and music and books like 50 years old still copyrighted? The publishers have long since made their money back on them. Most of the creators are dead, and the ones that aren't, honestly, I don't think it makes THAT much difference. Why should we let immortal corporations charge us rent for our culture? They're not contributing, in fact, they're stifling new creation. If there's any moral or economic reason why, I'd like to hear it. Aside from "The companies make lots of money and give lots of it to Congress and most people don't notice enough to pay attention to the issue."

I could go on about this for hours. And probably will later.

--

I have several pieces of surfer Buddha things I need to write up, but haven't gotten to. So I expect when I do, it'll ramble, and I'll probably miss half of what I was planning to say, as conversations veer off. Also, they involve a lightsaber, and why Luke Skywalker kicks ass.

--

I am sure my abilities at wiping down tables and flipping chairs from constantly helping the cafe people close will look excellent on my resume.

--

I wish I had a scanner. Then I could do a very badly drawn journal comic. Or I wish the cool mac app that Eric Burns is using for the Adventures of John Stark was for PC, not just Mac. Or I had a Mac. But me am poor, no wasting money on anything computer-ey right now. I have more interesting things to blow money on.
Seriously. The man is a great nerd. And would've made a many times better President.

The Threat to American Democracy, a speech by Al Gore.
My parents went in to the anti-war demonstrations in DC today. They asked if I wanted to go. I said no, partly 'cause I was still half asleep, partly because I have to work this afternoon, and partly because I know that no matter what, guess who's going to take the blame if we "lose" Iraq. Not George W. "Mushroom Cloud" Bush, not Donald "We don't need no steenking equipment" Rumsfield, not Dick "I scare little children" Cheney, not Colin "I sold my integrity for this?" Powell. Nope.

It'll be just like Vietnam. Where all the Republicans spin the blame onto Those Damn Liberals, and the Meddling Politicians (not the Republican ones, of course), and the anti-war demonstrators. 'Cause, y'know, they'll say "We were winning Iraq, until Those Damn Liberals wussed out..."

And what'll happen then? Unless we get some new leadership, the leaders of the nominally "liberal" part will... wuss out and not defend themselves, or attack Bush. Feh.

[edit: In retrospect, I probably should have gone. How'm I supposed to have anything to write about if I don't do anything interesting?]
Especially journalists who're covering science?

Read this column, from the author of the "Bad Science" column for the Guardian.

The most disturbing bit was when he was describing the amused reactions of the other "science journalists" when he asked "Shouldn't you, y'know, know some science?"

Science is not some obscure occult process. It's exactly the opposite. That's the POINT of science, that's what lets it work! The openness! The ability to question everybody else's ideas. That's the fundamental basis of science! And when the reporters covering it don't understand that, they misunderstand everything else about science.
"Don't be so gloomy. After all it's not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." - Harry Lime

That up above? It's bullshit. Oh, it's factually true, to an extent, but it's bullshit. Yes, turmoil and disaster have helped produce innovations and art, but that doesn't justify them. Nor does it require them. But there's little chance for "heroism" in peace and prosperity. To some people, this is a bad thing. They feel like they should be facing down giant threats, like their forefathers, rather than doing all the little bullshit things that make life better. Nothing's nearly as cool as when the fate of the world's in the balance!

You know what? I'd rather be bored. Romantic visions of glory and heroism are all well and good... in stories. In reality, I'd much rather have "boring" peace and safety and trade, with only "boring" problems like figuring out how to feed everybody on the planet and keep us from turning it into a toxic waste dump. But somehow there's a perception that it's grander to go out and break something, then struggle mightily to fix it, instead of, y'know, not breaking it in the first place.

I call this "Virture through laziness." It's the entire foundation of most computer geekery, where when you make a program right, it saves you much time. In the long run, doing work right the first time gives you more time to be lazy later on.

Yeah, no more deep thoughts at 1:30 am.
The Daily Show is Back

"Shut up. Just shut up. This was a failure of leadership."
Okay, so this isn't directly related to webcomics, but I figure it's fair game. It's still comics, after all.

I work at Barnes and Noble (which is a lot less cool than I would have thought it'd be even a couple years ago) and on breaks, I tend to grab something to read. I've been going through the Graphic Novels section, because they're fairly quick to read, and because I'm a fanboy and get to read them to see if they're any good first that way. I've gone through the usual suspects I don't already have, Hellblazer, Fables, various Batman, Superman, and other superheroes, plus whatever looks interesting. And since I've been on a bit of a hero kick lately, and it was there, I read the Space Ghost TPB. Which made itself a good example of several things I'd been trying to write about anyway. This is going to contain many spoilers.

Spoilers ahoy )

(Crossposted to [livejournal.com profile] snarkoleptics)
The goal of practical engineering and design is to take wonders and make them boring. To make them so reliable and convenient that we take them for granted. Airplanes were once rare and spectacular things, the province of daredevils and eccentric millionaires. Now? Thousands are in and out of cities every day, and nobody spares them a second look. Cars, skyscrapers, bridges, all the infrastructure of modern life. We've gotten to the point where we expect them to work, not to fail. That's profoundly different than how things worked for most of human history.

But the biggest downside of this is things become boring. Infrastructure isn't sexy. How many politicians make speeches about infrastructure on a regular basis? How many students decide they want to work on it? Not very many. It's boring. It "just works". Except it doesn't. It's like the red queen's race, you have to keep running to keep in place. And when we stop, things fail and people die.

But it's boring. it's not sexy, it's not going to make you famous. Most engineers aren't Scotty. And by engineers, I include plumbers, builders, architects, computer techs, and all the other people who know how technology works and keep it running. And it's their own successes that make their jobs considered boring. Until you need things fixed, anyway.

Technorati Tags: SCIENCE!, Mindscribbles, Rants
One of a large subset, obviously.

But in this case, it's this. Why is somebody as "having faith" or "being faithful" always presented as a good thing? Like they're somehow better than other people, just because they say they're religious. Like, oh, say, Pat Robertson, who's manifestly batshit insane, and yet, the media tiptoes around it because he's a minister. Or how Bush is presented as "faithful" while he's lying to the country and bombing thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Why can lying, corrupt, weasly assholes get free points for being "faithful"? If there's anything we should have learned from the Godfather movies, it's that going through the motions of religion doesn't make somebody nice. And if there's something we should have learned from, oh, I dunno, the Inquisition, terrorists, and so on, it's that even when people really believe religion, they can STILL be batshit insane, and they can make the religion encourage them to be batshit insane.

I imagine a lot of it's usually due to the fact that the people making the loudest protestations of faith are making sure they do it in the faith of the biggest group of the area. Which gives them the dual benefit of "see, he's like us," and the reverence usually inspired by being brought up in that religion. And often, the people who'd notice that the person's really an asshole, and not vote for them aren't going to go out and start saying "X isn't really a (whatever)." Because that's a bad idea in general, and usually plays into the hands of people who like to divide people. And the people who really follow the religion tend to try to live up to things like "judge not, lest ye be judged" and so on, I guess.

But it's really annoying. And doesn't help the country. So, just to repeat, Pat Robertson is a dangerous fundamentalist Republican leader.

Of course, if you listen to the "news", you'll get the impression that wherever you go, Christianity is under attack in the US. Right. With what, 75% of the country self-identifying as Christian? Sure. Uh huh. Right.

And, last but not least in this rambling stream of consciousness, a link. Polls on American Religious Tolerance at www.religioustolerance.org. The important poll is about halfway down, the Gallup one about whether or not people would vote for a President who was X. Last poll was in 1999, and is broadly good news (though I suspect that at least some people would answer differently to a poll taker than they would at the voting box) In last place though, are atheists. With, admittedly, 49%, a lot better than in 1959.

Technorati Tags: Politics, Religion, Mindscribbles, Rants

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