Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Battle Cry of Freedom

I picked up Battle Cry of Freedom because Ta-Nehisi Coates has been talking about it a lot, and because it fits into my conceit that there are a lot of things that I should know more about and that I will enjoy just about any book that is well written. I hated learning about the Civil War back in middle school, but chances seem good that I've evolved since then.

So far in things that I should know more about, or at least be more aware of: the prologue is titled "From the Halls of Montezuma." I recently read somewhere (possibly this book, or this one) that a little discussed precipitor of the ever-so-valient secession of Texas from Mexico was that Mexico had just outlawed slavery, so that's kind of where my mind went...that political happenings in Mexico would be part of a more general international climate that set the scene for the Civil War. Maybe the next section would be on abolitionism in England. The opening lyrics of the Marine's Hymn never meant more to me than "all around the world." It took a while to dawn on me that the reference was actually to the specific event that the song is describing, something that I've never actually thought about in all the times I've listened to it: that American soldiers actually marched through the streets of Mexico City after we invaded their country. Apparently the Mexican-American War was very politically contentious in the United States even while it was being fought. I may have to find a book to read about it next. (This is the problem with making it a goal to find out more about the world...you mostly just end up finding out about more things you really should find out more about).

Anachronistic peroxide.

We can get into the political correctness of this later (or really, let's not), but a lot of fantasy-novel-to-movie-adaptations have characters that are supposed to play on a lot of Norse stereotypes...blond, blue eyed, etc. Am I the only one who is confused why casting directors seem to continuously come up with men who look like this for these parts? Are they afraid that a naturally blond actor would be too pretty and lacking in manly stubble? Do they not realize that these characters are often written as blond because of the pretty/feminine connotations?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The world is a big place.

 News from Afghanistan: 92 percent of men in key province are unaware of 2001 attacks on U.S. 

This article seems to think that the takeaway from this is, "Well surely, we could just tell them! Then they'll know what wonderful people we are and everything will be better!" Somehow I doubt that that's it.  I guess it's possible that the vast majority of Afghan men have just never been exposed to this particular piece of information, and that it will completely rework their world view. I think it's much more likely though that many of them may have heard it somewhere, and just didn't care enough to remember it. And those that did remember certainly didn't think it was important or interesting enough to repeat to others. Even if you could somehow send a memo to every man, woman, and child in Afghanistan, I bet you within a couple months you'd be back in roughly the same place.

I think the takeaway from this should be humility. There are still places in the world where nobody thinks that much about the United States, and places in the world where the official line of the US government doesn't carry any particular weight compared to other more local sources of information...so little weight that it doesn't even get repeated. We've had armed soldiers in their country for almost a decade, and still Afghan men feel like there are better uses for their expertise than analyzing American motives...and they probably have good reasons for feeling that way. (I have no idea what they are, but I assume that most Afghans are pragmatic and rational people, at least as much as people anywhere else are). I think it's important to realize that, and keep it in mind any time someone gives you some utopian vision of what would happen if we could just send troops into some part of the world or another. The United States is an extremely powerful country, but there are limits.

Friday, November 19, 2010

On things not actually being written by Robert Jordan

Finished the book! Things turned out...fairly predictably. Which isn't a complaint, really. I just have nothing in particular to say about the last 300 pages of the book that I didn't already say about the first 500. (So. Many. Pages.)

This series has really given me a new perspective on the writing process, however. Obviously, Robert Jordan deserves credit for creating something that many, many people wanted to read. The first books in the series completely sucked me in...I read them obsessively, and then obsessed over what would happen and how the mysteries would unfold. I think once I actually managed to read an entire 700+ page book in a single day, probably practically a single sitting. But the last couple that he wrote himself, not so much.* It was obvious that somewhere along the way he lost his momentum on the plot, the books got longer and more bogged down in detail while nothing happened. A lot of time when a TV show gets worse and worse in its later seasons, it's because they're trying to drag it out too long, or maybe never knew how to end it in the first place. I kind of thought that was the case with Wheel of Time, too. Watching what's happened since Robert Jordan passed away though, and the writing was handed over to another author, has been really interesting.  My theory now is that lagging fantasy series probably suffer from a completely different malady than TV shows that have jumped the shark. Each author is supposed to create a whole universe, and then find the balance between keeping the plot chugging and making sure that the readers know all the intricately imagined details of the marriage customs of this or that people and the mythology of that one clan. I'm a loyalist by nature. My first instinct is always that whatever came first is the best...but I'm realizing that might be off in this case. Maybe a fantasy series is more like a growing business. In the beginning, one guy with a vision does everything; answers the phones, maintaining the books, and turning out whatever product they make by hand. But as a business gets bigger, and people want more and more from it (or as a fantasy series gets more popular, and there's suddenly a market for more and more details about that world), you can't just keep the same one guy doing everything. You might need one guy to keep churning out the detail and texture and background that most people are looking for in fantasy (what other kind of popular fiction requires so many appendices?), and another to drag the plot across the finish line. I don't think it takes anything away from Robert Jordan to admit that the series is better because he didn't end up doing both.

*I probably still read them obsessively, but I tend to do that equally as much with books that I am just trying to get through, and books that I am actually loving. It confuses some people.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why, yes I am reading the latest Robert Jordan book.

But sneakily, because I really don't want anyone on the bus to strike up a conversation with me about it.

(Spoilers below through page 544)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Arnold in a Nutshell

This link sums up everything that I find most frustrating about Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor. He was supposed to blow up the boxes (although I always thought that was an overly simplistic promise, and never voted for him) but he sure knows how to avoid taking a stand.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Serengeti Lion

I'm reading this book on lions, which I'm not particularly interested in, because I liked the book that the same author wrote about wild sheep and goats, which I am interested in. So my approach to it was pretty open starting out, and then was heavily shaped by this statement in the introduction:

"Man, though phylogenetically a primate, has lived ecologically as a social carnivore for some two million years, and possibly more can be learned about the evolution of his social by studying the lion, the hyena, and the wild dog than by examining some vegetarian monkey."

I'm about three quarters of the way through at this point, and still trying to decide what I think of that. Lions don't seem like very appealing kindred spirits. Mostly, they seem to be constantly snarling at one another. Maybe I need to read a book about wolves or wild dogs...an animal for which living in groups isn't such an aberration. Then again, judging whether or not I think they're kindred spirits by how appealing they are is kind of missing the point.

One sense that I get is that your typical TV nature program, in describing the majesty of the natural world, may end up making humans look worse than is really justified. It's been a while since I've watched one, but from what I remember animal behavior is generally described as instinct or an adaptation and even the things that may seem cruel or bizarre are all very logical and purposeful. In contrast Schaller describes, for example, the at best incomplete instincts of lionesses to ensure their cubs have adequate food. One lioness brought a gazelle back for her cubs to eat, but then refused to let them have any. Another let them have a little, but took it back after a short amount of time. A third led her cubs to a kill, but then lost them, and chased them away when they found her. Lots of cubs starve before becoming adults, even though it is rare for adult lions to starve to death. I don't think we generally think of animals as being as capable of doing things badly as we are, especially things as fundamental as raising offspring. But maybe they are.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

California Uber Alles

Jerry Brown is the governor-elect of California...again, despite being massively outspent by Meg Whitman. In fact, all of the state wide races in California were won by Democrats, despite the luke warm popularity of Barbara Boxer (the San Francisco Chronicle wouldn't even endorse her), the shovels full of money from the insurance industry in the Insurance Commissioner race, and the scandal involving the candidate for Attorney General. The Attorney General race was close enough that it might flip on a recount, or once the provisional ballots are tallied, but it's still an extremely strong showing for Democrats overall, in a midterm election in a strong Republican year. It may just not be that easy for Republicans that are not Arnold Schwarzenegger to get elected here anymore.

On the propositions, it was really just a triumph for "Gee that sounds like a good idea" voting. We like clean air and nonpartisanship! We don't like fees or taxes! And then there's Prop 25...which passed (woohoo!), and I'm not really sure why. Possibly because it's just so obviously a good idea, or maybe because more people use those little voter guide things than I thought. That one radio commercial against Prop 25 was pretty lame too, so maybe that helped.

The Prop 19 results are interesting, I think....apparently a lot of people don't like pot. You hear a lot of people (Andrew Sullivan for one) claiming that it must be because the electorate skewed old this time around, or because of a flaw in the way the initiative was written, or that medical marijuana users betrayed their prescriptionless kindred. I'm sure that all contributed, but I think that you have to also acknowledge that this is a reflection of how a large portion of the population actually feels about marijuana...and not just old people who you can ignore because they'll be dead so soon. And if large segments of people have negative feelings about marijuana, maybe the "Gee that sounds like a good idea!" o-matic initiative process is not the best place to attack some of the more problematic aspects of the status quo of marijuana policy. Last month Schwarzenegger and the legislature teamed up to pass a bill that should reduce the waste of enforcement costs significantly and eliminate some of the most egregious examples of unfair enforcement, when it comes to pot consumers. There are a lot more problems to fix regarding pot production and pot distribution, but maybe the legislature can come up with pragmatic approaches to those as well. Or at least, here's hoping.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Midterms

So...yeah...midterm elections. In some ways they're just a horrible idea altogether. The Republicans picked up 60+ seats in the House, not so much because so many of the voters who voted for Obama two years ago hate him now, but because a different set of voters showed up this time.

But I don't think I'm actually proposing that midterm elections be abolished. Four years is probably too long to go without checking in with the electorate...just think what a difference 2006 made...and people who are disenfranchised because they're too lazy to vote when it's not exciting aren't exactly sympathetic characters. (I'd happily sign on for abolishing special elections, and preventing voter initiatives from appearing on the ballot during the primaries and other minor elections, but that's a different issue). Midterms are a flawed but necessary part of the process. But I think it's a mistake to give them more power than they actually have. The House belongs to the Republicans now, and they have every right to use that power to its fullest (I hear they want to put climate science on trial, which um...good luck with that). But Barack Obama did not get unelected or recalled, and while the Republican "mandate" may be more recent, his comes from a larger share of the people...so he has every right to use the power of the Presidency to the fullest as well, as do the Democrats in the Senate.

I honestly don't know what happens when the Obama agenda meets the Republican house. Probably not major climate change legislation. Maybe not any kind of legislation. Back in the spring, it seemed hopeful that Republican gains in the House and Senate would mean more moderates like Mike Castle and Tom Campbell...but thanks to the Tea Party there weren't that many moderates running, at least for Senate. I don't know if any new moderates made it into the House, but I think the lower profile races just made it more possible for Rand Paul/Christine O'Donnell/Sharon Angle types to fly under the radar and get elected. Gridlock seems much more likely than happy, skippy, bipartisanship. The stereotype is that Presidents who face opposition at home start to concentrate more on foreign policy, where they have more freedom from Congress. If this means that Obama gets aggressive now about ending things in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think that could be very positive. (I'm choosing to ignore the suggestions that Obama might make common cause with the Republicans to escalate in Afghanistan or attack Iran, because I can't imagine that he'd be that stupid). But I think it's really just kind of wait and see right now.

Meta Hipster

Monday, November 1, 2010

I think I'm going to vote for a Republican.

Maybe. On the one hand, Abel Maldonado does qualify as a moderate in a lot of ways. He's the one who bargained for the jungle primary referendum, which I can't actually remember if I voted for, but I at least thought it was an interesting idea. And it's definitely evidence that Maldonado is a lot more than just a party hack. (It was Prop 14 back in June...basically as a moderate Republican he wanted to be able to run in a primary that was all Republicans and all Democrats thrown together, with the top two vote getters moving on to the general election. Massive potential for unintended consequences but not bad as an ideological dream.)

On the other, his record on gay rights is pretty, well, Republican. He has recently managed to piss off the right wing fringe by refusing to "go rogue" while Arnold was out of the state and appeal Prop 8, and he changed from being anti-Harvey Milk Day to pro. (I don't actually care about Harvey Milk Day all that much, but it seems like a promising sign that his views might have evolved). But at some point in the past (I'm trying to figure out exactly when, cause that probably does matter...I think 5-10 years ago), he voted against domestic partnership laws. And really, that's pretty damn awful even if it is completely predictable.

And as unimportant as the lieutenant governor is...Jerry Brown is 72. I agree with Newsom on most things ideologically, but think he's grandstanding disaster who's temperamentally unsuited for the responsibilities of governor. Maldonado seems like he would be no worse than Arnold as governor, and maybe a very good thing for the Republican party in California. And maybe, fundamentally, the job of governor is much more pragmatic than ideological. But I don't know...someone want to talk me out of it?

UPDATES: I did it. And I still feel pretty conflicted about it. But I also figured out that Gavin Newsom is one of the major backers of Prop L in San Francisco, which is essentially just a law designed to legalize police harassment of homeless people. (It makes it illegal to sit or lie on a public sidewalk in SF between 7 AM and 11 PM). So yeah,  I feel like my suspicions that everything good he's ever done was pure opportunism have been confirmed. Excuse me Mr. Kicked Out of a Mental Health Institution By Reagan, your extreme misfortune in life is off putting to the tourists who want to be able to visit Haight Ashbury (!!!!) without actually leaving their comfort zones. Could you, uh, move? No we don't know where. Just go somewhere that nobody has to see you. The guy is rotten to the core, and only doesn't screw over gay people because they're so clean and actually good for tourism.

How I'm Voting

For all of the time that I spend reading and thinking about politics...when election day comes around, I end up feeling about as under informed as the average California voter. I just got around to finding out what all the propositions on the ballot are going to be today. I still have no idea who's running for any of the statewide offices below governor. Well, I know about Gavin Newsom...but I have a general idea that the Lieutenant Governor doesn't really actually do anything, so we're really just voting on whether we want him to keep running for stuff. And I kind of don't, I think he's a megalomaniac, and not the good kind...but then maybe I'm wrong, and the lieutenant governor is actually very important, so I'll probably vote for him anyways rather than a Republican. Except maybe the Republican running is someone I'd like to have keep running for stuff...California needs more moderate Republicans. I guess I'll look into it. But yeah, not as informed as I probably should be.

I do get by on a few carefully formulated preconceptions that I can apply to almost any proposition though. So here's my verdict.

Jerry Brown vs. Meg Whitman: Go Jerry! California Uber-Alles! Let it never be said that I'm prejudiced against all megalomaniacs. Jerry Brown just has what it takes to make megalomania interesting. I like that his ego seems to be more tied up in policy than in politics (he'll care more in 4 years what the unemployment rate is than what charities want to have a special dinner for him) and I think he's ideologically pretty well aligned with California; pro-environment, shades of libertarianism on some issues, willing to try new things. With my luck, he'll piss everyone off and accomplish nothing, or try something really bold that completely fails. But I think it's worth a try....and the alternative is Meg Whitman, who I expect to be more preoccupied with how to become the Republican nominee for vice president in 2012 or 2016 (or who knows, maybe President!) than willing to look for actual solutions in California.

Barbara Boxer vs. Carly Fiorina: Meh. I wish Tom Campbell had won the primary, but I probably still would have voted for Boxer. Until the Republicans in the Senate stop voting in lock step with each other, it's really not even worth treating them like individuals. They're all evil people who want to bomb Iran, destroy the environment, and cut taxes until the country goes bankrupt.

Jerry McNerney vs. David Harmer: I don't actually get to vote in this one, but local issues focused Democratic pragmatist vs. district hopping Republican ideologue? I will be very happy if McNerney wins.

Prop 19: Yes. Honestly, I'm not particularly pro-marijuana. And I have sympathy for the people who think this is a badly written law...it does seem to have some obvious flaws. But the status quo has huge flaws too (discriminatory enforcement, out of control costs), so I'd be happy to see this giant break from the status quo go through, and then hope that over the next few years we can scramble to fix the biggest problems with the proposition as written.

Prop 20: No. Apolitical redistricting would be cool and all, but I have no faith that you could come up with a non-partisan redistricting commission that would accomplish that. My guess is that they'll be about as non-partisan as the Supreme Court. The legislature may be partisan, but it is at least representative of California and open about the partisanship. Sausage making might be ugly to watch, but it doesn't get less ugly if you move it into a black box.

Prop 21: Yes. I'm a sucker for state parks, ok? And this would be in my financial best interest, because I actually go to state parks. I technically believe in all the high minded arguments against budgeting at the ballot box and creating special pots of money for special interests...but it's the state parks. Just once I'm going to vote for something a little selfish on my part, and maybe this will make sure the state parks survive until that utopian future that I've been sacrificing for where the California budgeting process makes sense.

Prop 22: No. Look at me! I'm high minded. I vote against ballot box budgeting every time. Plus, evidence seems to be that this is a classic example of something that sounds good, but is more complicated than most voters understand. There's a lot of money transfer going on right now between city and state governments, and this law would just limit California's flexibility when we need it most.

Prop 23: No. I like clean air. And I don't like corporations spending millions of dollars to exploit California's idiotic initiative system and an off year election to undermine our legislature.

Prop 24: No. See above, except for the clean air part.

Prop 25: Yes. YES DEAR GOD YES! I actually probably care more about this than anything else on the ballot. A two thirds majority requirement for California's budget is stupid. It leads to gridlock. It leads to pet spending projects added in to just buy one more vote. California is constantly teetering on the edge of financial disaster, and what our state desperately needs is the flexibility to do something to try to solve the problem instead of laws that serve those who want to hunker down and protect their ideological sacred cows. This wouldn't even lower the 2/3rds requirement that already exists for raising taxes.

Prop 26: No. See, once you get through a few of these it gets easy. Would in decrease flexibility that California probably needs right now? Yes. Are a bunch of moneyed interests trying to undermine the legislature with something that "sounds good" in an off year election? Yes. Will I vote for it? Hell no.

Prop 27: Yes. For all the same reasons I'm voting no on Prop 20.

Now, if I get really ambitious, maybe I'll figure out all the judges.