Thursday, October 30, 2008

Liberal Media Bias?

Thanks to a recent Pew study, the blogosphere and Fox News will soon both ring with more allegations of "Liberal Media Bias". Now, the petty thing to do here is quote Stephen Colbert with a comment from his White House correspondents dinner. Since I'm feeling slightly petty, and because it's a good quote, here you go:
Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32 percent approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in 'reality'. And reality has a well-known liberal bias. ... Sir, pay no attention to the people who say the glass is half empty, because 32% means it's two-thirds empty. There's still some liquid in that glass, is my point. But I wouldn't drink it. The last third is usually backwash.
The more relevant quote come from the blog Politico:
As it happens, McCain’s campaign is going quite poorly and Obama’s is going well. Imposing artificial balance on this reality would be a bias of its own.
Here's a better article, one with journalistic integrity. Better, because it is talking about bias, at most it can only be meta-biased.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tweet Terror

Originally, this post was going to be an indignant defense of twitter, inspired by this quote:

"Twitter has also become a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists, political enthusiasts, hacktivists and others to communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences,... Twitter is already used by some members to post and/or support extremist ideologies and perspectives," the report said.

And I think a bit of indignity is warranted - since when are Vegetarians a threat? They are like the opposite of a threat. And what the hell is "political enthusiasts" a euphemism for? This election, I think that term more or less just means people.

But I don't really need to continue my rant. According to Wired, blogging is dead and twitter is the new social medium. The fastest way to make criminalize of something less scary is to make it ubiquitous and prove it to be harmless. Sure, it means that when the gestapo finds us at night that they have an additional charge against us, but it also means that data pool being mined is clogged to the point of uselessness. When security has to look at an over-abundance of data, two options are possible. The first is that they arrest everyone vaguely suspicious, and have to deal with processing a tremendous excess of indignant innocents. That's bad political capital, and leads to outrage and change. The other option is to realize that twitter is a useless place to be looking for terrorists, even if it is a tool they actually use, because the number of false positives renders it obsolete for security purposes.

You can find me on twitter here. Let's clog the tubes!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Speaking in Dystopias

Science Fiction blog io9 has an interesting post up about the two competing narratives of dystopia in this year's presidential election campaign. The post is a good start, but as we near the very end of a two-year-long campaign about the future of this nation, it's a good idea to take a closer look at our competing worst fears.

The dystopia that is easier for me to imagine is the dystopia of the McCain/Palin administration. Greatly to the disservice of McCain's record in the senate, people fear his government not on his own merits or policies, but on those they see him as a surrogate for. The fears about McCain being the next bush are what inspire the trite labeling of him as "McSame", and again, that's a fear that has everything to do with Bush and nothing to do with McCain. It's a repeat of the dystopia of the first 6 years of this millenium, where a Republican president and a Republican congress waged war, inspired fear, let competitive industries consolidate, undermined freedoms, and challenged the social norms of what was approaching an open and progressive society. The fear with McCain, as is the fear with all conservatives (which is is a stand-in for), is the fear of a regression back into a previous and oppressive state of existence. Reckless wars, failing education systems, and the transition of social norms to the rigidly-clamped down society that spawned first the beat poets and then the hippies are all valid fears, but the big one is not so much a fear of actively going backward as it is a fear of stagnation. Palin especially, with here "drill baby drill", epitomizes the failings of the status quo - not that we can't drill, but we can't do it for much longer, and to continue to rely on solutions which we know will stop working soon seems to be folly. It's another four/eight/sixteen years of watching the United States not so much collapse as go down with the ship. Dystopia here is letting ourselves be blinded by unfailing devotion to a system that worked once when it is obvious that times have changed, reality has changed, and that we need intelligence, innovation, and sacrifice to make the whole thing work. And it's a fear that we'll be blinded by infighting and hobbled by tradition in such a way that we fall behind as a nation, and are unable to maintain our position as the world leader in anything excpet debt.

Contrasted with this is the dystopia envisioned by the Nobama crowd. Obama's promise of government working for people again is views quite skeptically; government by its vary nature is harmful to individuals, and any expansion of government power or responsibility will mean, more or less, the end times. It's wars ended in ignominous retreat and a national debt accumlated by spending tax dollars on the lazy, the illegal, and the undeserviving. It's the loss of freedom to universal programs, and it's being expected to say "thank you" for the infringement on your rights. It's being told that your values are not only not unviersal values, but they are criminal values. It's the fear inherent in every American since we first got self-determination, and it's a fear that focuses on very specific definitions of the self, and of determination. It's knowign that tax dollars will be spent on an act you view as murder. It's a real, genuine, fear for our economic security which sees taxes as the final straw that will break the back of American industry. And it's a genuine fear for America's safety, that we'll be left vulnerable and that our president will not have the strength of resolve to punish those who've attacked us. It's a combination of both the oppressive nanny state at home and embarassing appeasement abroad.

Of course, both fears of dystopia are overblown - if they weren't, they wouldn't be fears about dystopia. The way to get around these statements? Read what the candidates say, about themselves, in positive terms - listen to what they say they are going to do, and ignore all the "gotcha!" moments, as well as the divise and petty partisan jokes. Because no matter what happens on Nov. 4th, change is more or less a given, and it's incredibly hard to imagine that change as anything less than positive.

(To be fair, degree of positive matters a lot. Also, this is assuming Obama, McCain, or even Biden administrations. A Palin administration is closer to the dystopic fears about McCain, and tobe fair she inspires many of them. Even under that worst-case of worst-case scenarios, thoguh, the progress will be measured at zero, and not in negative numbers.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Voting in the Age of the Internet

From both BoingBoing and Nora comes this great post: How to Get the Nerd Vote.

My favorite part?
2. Universal Healthcare. Everyone I know that freelances or works a day job and wishes they could quit and follow their dreams of launching a company complains about the lack of healthcare. Whenever I used to talk about freelancing at tech conferences, the first question was always about healthcare coverage. I've heard that in places like Berlin where you don't have to worry about where your healthcare is coming from or how much it costs, up to 35% of working age adults are freelancers. It may sound crazy and anti-capitalist to consider healthcare for all, but if we flipped a switch tomorrow and everyone had health coverage I swear a million small businesses would launch overnight. I know lots of people that keep a job just to get healthcare that are wasting their creative talents because they had a cancer scare or were born with a defect or otherwise are deemed uninsurable on their own.
It's nice to see an argument for universal healthcare that isn't "moral obligation" but is instead "economic boon".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vote for Martin Heinrich

Edit: This post feels like a hatchet job. I'm aware of that, and a tad disgusted, but I think it raises relevant points. Therefore, I'm leaving it up, warts and all.

I've posted about Martin Heinrich once before, but the post is no longer online. It was for April 1st, 2008, and I had just finished my analysis of presidential candidates during the primary. So, as my April Fools day joke, I analyzed Heinrich as though he were a presidential candidate. My analysis was basically "great positions, but it needs to be more fleshed out for presidency". And that's still true. But Heinrich isn't running for the presidency.

He's running as representative for New Mexico, in a district that is Albuquerque-centered but contains parts of 5 counties. And if you're a New Mexican who can vote for him this election, you more or less need to. Over at the Duke City Fix, Johnny_Mango has a great piece up about the campaigning Heinrich is doing. And in the past, Mango has written quite favorably about the guy.

And this is fair. Martin Heinrich is in my top three of favorite political figures; the first is dead, and the second is Barack Obama. He was an exceedingly competent city councilman, and his campaign is one which emphasizes both optimism and an actual commitment to action. He's good people, and that should be enough to vote for him.

But he's inexperienced, you say. And he's too good looking, you say. Well then, we have another option.

Darren White is both experienced and does not have an abundance of handsome. Instead, he ran President Bush's campaign in Bernalillo County in 2004, which is a partisan attack but one that seems rather valid.

Second, Darren White is an incompetent fear-monger. Now, I'm not one to say these things lightly, and I don't mean to be libelous. But Darren White is a fear-monger. In 2004, there was a fire in the bosque, and our fire department responded to it. There was also a device there for converting vegetable oil into biodiesel. Darren White ordered a lockdown of the scene because of the biodiesel converter, and two things happened: one, a media circus, documented here. Two, the arrest and vilification of two sensible people who just happen to really like alternative energy. And while this is old news, it's relevant news. When faced with an unclear situation, White chose bravado and a get-tough attitude that not only made a situation far more complicated than it needed to be, it led to unnecessary fear. Fear that riles people up and gets the better of their reason. And fear that is directed at a perceived internal enemy. A willingness to jump the gun is not something I want in my representative, and it is especially bad when that representative is part of the body that declares war. And this aggressive grandstanding isn't a solitary phenomenon.

Also back in 2004 Darren White reacted viscerally to a story about a con-man. To be fair, what the con-man did was wrong (if it were right, he wouldn't be a con-man). But we have laws and procedures to deal with con-men. And we, as the United States, grant criminals some basic rights. Not the full rights of citizens, but rights as human beings, and I believe these rights are a key part of our society. How we treat our criminals does not reflect on how repulsed we are by their actions - it instead reflects our degree of civilization, and our willingness to pursue justice under law instead of the justice of the mob. It's one of those things that marks us as civilized.

Darren White holds a different perspective on the issue. As quoted in the Alibi story, Darren White, in his capacity as Bernalillo County Sheriff, said "I'd like to kick his ass. Seriously, let me have five minutes alone with him." Understandably, he was reacting to the appalling actions of a criminal. But this was no rapist, nor murderer. This was a con-man, who simply swindled taxpayer money, and who was under federal investigation. A five-minute off-the -record beating is not an appropriate sentence. I shouldn't even have to type that, but there it is. While I respect the right of Darren White to free speech in his personal life, in his capacity as sheriff he should know better. On top of it all, this remark came at a time when
...our new Metropolitan Detention Center has already earned a reputation for illegal brutality, and that guards were caught on surveillance camera pummeling three handcuffed inmates for 17 minutes earlier this year. The episode is very likely going to cost the public large sums of money once a fat settlement is reached. Do you think the lawyers for the inmates might have clipped and saved White's remarks?
So here's two incidents from early in Darren White's role as sheriff that undermine his judgment. Fear mongering in the first, and weakening our record on human rights in the second. Plus, both mistakes (no matter what perspective you have on the morality involved) were costly, and undermined public faith in the Albuquerque Police Department. This isn't the record of a man who is tough on crime, and it isn't the record of a man who supports inexpensive government. This is the record of grandstanding, bravado, and recklessness. And if elected to the house of representatives, this man will get a vote about whether or not our nation goes to war.

So, there's still time left. Vote for Martin Heinrich, and if you can't just do it because he's good people (yay raising the minimum wage), vote because the man he's running against is dangerous, irrational, and has lost the support of the Republican party.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Participatory Democracy Time!

Thanks to FBIHOP, I've now submitted a question to two separate New Mexico political debates.

To submit a question for the Martin Heinrich / Darren White debate, follow this link.

To submit a question for the Tom Udall / Steve Pearce debate, go here.

Also - I'm curious what you people are asking. Feel free to toss question ideas around in the comments. The community surrounding the omni-blog that is Plastic Manzikert will almost certainly have valuable input.

Edit: My questions, to get this started:

For Heinrich and White: "According to the Pew Center on the States, more than one percent of the US adult population is in jail or prison. As a member of congress, what course of action will you take to reduce this number?"

For Udall and Pearce: "In your capacity as representative for the state of New Mexico, have you ever made a decision against the interests of your district that you thought was in the best interest of the nation, and can you tell us why?"

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Today, Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama. Here's the video, which in 7 minutes is the most reassuring, refreshing assessment of Barack Obama I've heard.

It comes from outside the Democratic party. It comes from a former general and a former secretary of state. It comes from a Republican, but a genuine moderate who believes in not deviating far to either side of the center. And amazingly, it's seven minutes of uninterrupted explanation provided by a modern news show.

This is what the national discourse should look like. And, if it is anything like successful, this is what national discourse will become.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Firefly Post Exchange - Kittens for Jesus

Today, Evan of Kittens for Jesus and I are doing a blog-exchange with posts on Firefly. If you like what he says here, I strongly encourage you to check out his blog, and the underground newspaper he edits. Also, if you like the Firefly post, go ahead and check out my post at his blog, here.

Part I: Firefly and history
I discovered Firefly less than a month ago. It is such a compelling series, however, that I'm already hooked and I am planning on buying the Blu-ray edition of Firefly when it comes out in November, despite my qualms with the BD format.
Firefly, for those unaware of it, is a television show that aired on FOX a few years back, and really didn't do very well. It was canceled after only one season (probably because FOX didn't air the first episode, which established the entire premise), but the response from fans was so great that Universal Studios bought the movie rights and in 2005, a film extending the story, Serenity, came out.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Firefly for me is the deep connection that the show has to history. Although it is set more than 500 years in the future, in a galaxy where humans have spread out from "Earth-that-was" to many terraformed planets, Firefly has a profound feeling of familiarity about it. Many have described the show as a "sci-fi western." I believe that that description of it is quite apt.
The first episode of Firefly begins with the Battle of Serenity and Malcolm Reynolds, a Sergent in the army of the Independent Faction, or the browncoats, fighting against a consortium of "core worlds" (rich, industrialized planets in the center of the galaxy) called the Union of Allied Planets or the Alliance. Joss Wheedon, the show's creator, drew upon the history of the American Civil War for the backstory of Firefly. A group of rural rebels, wishing to maintain their independence, are crushed by a technically superior industrialized force. Sound familiar?
This basis in history fascinates me, and I think that the show is an excellent lens through which we can view the struggles of those defeated and forced to live under a government that they fought against. It doesn't legitimize the confederate cause during the Civil War in my eyes, but it certainly humanizes it.
The way Firefly describes the border planets, the outer limits of the Alliance, is also reminiscent of the American West during the territorial years. Laws exist as only vague guidelines, and those whose job it is to enforce the laws are few and far between. The Alliance, of course, is tyrannical and corrupt on the border planets, just as the North was seen by the Southerners in the conquered South after the Civil War. The Northern authorities, or rather, the Eastern authorities, were seen as similarly corrupt in the American West during the settlement of that area in the 19th century.
I'm a history fan, so I just drink this stuff up, but Firefly is an amazing show even without considering all the history in it. The character development is some of the best I have ever seen in a television show, and the writing is very good, with an excellent blend of humor, action, and drama.

Part II: The Sino-American Alliance
The Union of Allied Planets in Firefly was formed out of an earlier alliance, one that emerged through the merger of the last two superpowers on Earth when humans left the planet: China and the United States. This kind of alliance may not seem plausible given the average American's thoughts on the Chinese, as exemplified by my English teacher's husband's cry during the recent Beijing Olympics: "you rat-assed commie bastards!"
A lot can change in 500 years, though. Currently, the US and China are the major spacefaring nations (excepting, of course, Russia, which in 500 years could be a province of China, just like we could be a province of Canada) and English and Chinese are two of the most popular languages in the world. Everything points to an alliance between the two if the world suddenly got its act together and created a unified world government. However, how effective would such a unified Sino-American government be? Are the cultural gaps just too wide, the mountainous language barrier too high?
More plausible than an alliance, I think, is a war and then a mass exodus of the losing side (or the winning side, depending on the condition of Earth after the war) into space. I think that, rather than rallying around political similarities or geographical proximity, the two sides would be formed by confederacies of states based upon language. Tone language versus tone-neutral language. English versus Chinese. I am probably over-simplifying the situation, but one cannot underestimate the effects of globalization over 500 years.
Once this war had been won by one side or another, the loser or the winner, depending on whether or not Earth had been destroyed by the war, would travel into space and establish colonies, space stations, new Earths. Thus, the process of colonization and expansion, complete, probably, with the concept of manifest destiny, would begin anew. New factions and subgroups would emerge and the endless recursiveness of life would extend into the limitless void. It almost sounds like a premise for a sci-fi show.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

O Canada

I have saved (in draft form) three separate posts about the possibility of a McCain presidency, about the need for action here at home, and about how even if everything goes to hell I will stay in this nation working to make things better. The implicit point behind all of these posts was to argue that moving to Canada will solve nothing.

Fortunately, I have no need for those posts:

That blue column? Seats awarded to the conservative party.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


As I'm mentioned previously, I've a bit of a fondness for certain values with universal implications. It's unsurprising, then, that in looking for a document to frame a rational set of morals/beliefs/standards for humanity, I've come across and become rather fond of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's a longish list (a preamble and 30 articles, most of which have multiple clauses), and that's a bit of a challenge for me. I was recently embarrassed when I could only recall 5 of the 7 UU principles (I'd merged the 2nd and 6th and omitted the 3rd), so memorizing the Universal Declaration will be a bit of a challenge.

Fortunately, there is this video, found via BoingBoing:

It's good. And it'll make memorization of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that much easier.

Monday, October 6, 2008

After the Fall

While I normally pride myself on quality analysis of relevant issues, I've a soft spot for the fascinating and improbable. So this post, as a break from issues that matter, is going to focus on zombies. Now, there are lots of to take when talking about zombies - the zombie renaissance in film is a potent one, and the cultural implications are worthy of analysis. Of course, they've also received a lot of analysis, so it'd be a bit redundant.

More interesting is the zombie beyond film commentary - this is a gallery of the post-apocalypse zombie attack rendered in LEGO. What's fascinating for me there is not the nature of the zombie attack, but the fascination with resistance. The scene is somewhere between a resistance movement, a summer barbecue, and an NRA pipe dream. Playful, certainly, but it's people looking at a world the moment everything goes wrong, and people expecting humanity will make it out in a burst of glory and dashing heroics. Indeed, the emergence of zombie survival guides (this one famously, the AHSFoliage guide much less so) is a testament to prevalence of both impending horrible calamity, and to a certain survivalist gusto.

Equally interesting (to me, at least), is the approach of a friend of mine to short fiction. Her blog can be found here, and if you follow this tag you'll see that almost all of what she writes is short zombie stories. Or really, short stories that happen to have zombies. Zombies aren't ever really the focus of the story - they act instead as a constant malevolent force, one that cannot be changed but can only be killed. It makes all the stakes higher, the presence of a marching assault wearing down her cast of only a few characters. And yet, the characters exist in this hyper-heroic world, the kind epics are written about, and the focus is always commentary on the now, the present world before shit hits the fan, before the collapse of everything as we know. Her characters, even the most optimistic, don't have dreams about a glorious new world, about rebuilt civilization, or about how future generations will remember them. They don't have dreams beyond tomorrow or next week. Everything, instead, is focused on what life was, what it meant to have been alive in this present, this modern era.

The final, relevant, post-apocalyptic speculation I want to mention in this post is of an entirely different nature. Johns Hopkins released a study of who would be essential in a pandemic. Sure, their approach isn't related to zombies specifically, but it does address the potential weakness (if not the outright collapse) of federal government, in this paragraph that reads like a libertarian's pipe dream:
The report recognizes that given the widespread and sustained nature of a pandemic, federal assistance will be spread thin and local jurisdictions must develop their own preparedness plans to ensure they are capable of sustained self-sufficiency. Encouraging and working with local businesses to develop their own response plans can help reduce the burden on local governments during a pandemic. Similarly, individuals and families who can afford it should do their best to prepare for any disaster. The paper notes, the more initiative the general public exercises in stockpiling several weeks' worth of food, water, paper goods, batteries medicines, and other needed supplies, the less vulnerable they will be to a break in the supply chain. In fact, the report emphasizes, it is important for leaders to communicate to the middle class and the wealthy that it is their responsibility to prepare for self-sufficiency in order to free up scarce supplies and allow first responders to direct their attention towards those too poor or vulnerable to prepare themselves.
Now, in the zombie context "first responders" could easily refer to military forces, but it's a reassuring prospect that in a worst-case scenario our leaders (and their medical advisors) feel comfortable advocating self-sufficiency. Part of it is the very real strain on governmental capabilities, and it's nice for that strain and inability to respond to be acknowledged. And part of it lends itself more towards American post-apocalyptic coverage: when everything goes wrong with the world we've built up, we'll fall back on ancient, core (mythical?) values, and we'll do all right.

We're in an interesting time, where our hegemonic nation seems no more than decade or two away from collapse (odds are, though, I'll still be saying this in 2024), and collapse is not something the United States has really had to deal with. But all the science fiction consensus, as much as I can make of it (and as much as one exists) is that we'll survive. Institutions and nationhood may change (or not- they're not really addressed in my skimming of the material out there), but the people as a given will remain. The collapse isn't going to be an end-all cataclysmic event. It's not apocalyptic literature after all; it's post-apocalyptic.