Thursday, December 8, 2011

Rick Perry, Tim Tebow, and Christianity

Andrew Sullivan has two different conversations going on on his blog right now that make for an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, he's talking about Rick Perry's latest campaign ad, where Perry claims he's not ashamed to say he's a Christian, and about the persecuted minority/victim mentality that seems to be represented in that statement, and how that gels with the fact that the majority of Americans are Christian by a pretty long shot. On the other, and with no particular connection between the two thoughts, he's talking about quarterback Tim Tebow's tendency to kneel down and pray in the middle of football games, and whether or not that's appropriate. From Andrew Sullivan's point of view, Christians are obviously not a minority or persecuted, and Tebow's behavior is clearly inappropriate (although I don't think he's suggesting it should be banned) because "Prayer is not supposed to be a public event, designed to display your holiness in front of the maximum number of people." I don't really know the content of Rick Perry, or Tim Tebow's religion, but I think this is a pretty good example of the danger of treating "Christian" like it means just one thing in this country. Tim Tebow is obviously a very religious person, and one who feels like his faith should be public. Like I said, I don't know the details, but I wouldn't be shocked to learn that he also doesn't think Judaism or Buddhism are equally valid paths to enlightenment, or that he believes he has a responsibility to help other people find the right path. And as far as he's concerned, the name of the religion that he follows is "Christian." But of course, "Christian" is also the name of the religion of a lot of people, I'm guessing including Andrew Sullivan, who would find something deeply wrong with suggesting that Jews and Buddhists won't go to heaven without becoming Christian first, and who are perfectly happy with social conventions that put religion & politics outside of the bounds of polite conversation. (Ok, Andrew Sullivan in particular isn't happy with conventions that put anything outside the bounds of polite conversation, but I'm making this a more general point.)

By conflating the two, I think we miss why an individual Rick Perry...might actually feel like a minority. But then I'd say the corollary to that is that he would need to reconsider what it really means to claim that this is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. Instead we live in this weird in between space where a lot of people sense that the religion of Barack Obama and John McCain and a lot of our leaders isn't their religion, but they see that as a failure of democracy and not a product of it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Californian, Back of the Envelope Social Science

Forbes has a neat gadget up right now that lets you see migration patterns within the United States, the one above is for Merced. You can get more details, like precise numbers and the actual names of the counties involved (in case your knowledge of U.S. geography is less than encyclopedic) by going to the website. Merced stands out for how much people are really just coming from and going to other places in California (although it would be interesting to add on international immigration too). The colors are less useful than they could be...shading seems to be based on the ratio of out-migrants to in-migrants, making Los Angeles County show up as a source of in migration and Santa Clara County as a destination for out migration, but the in migrants from Santa Clara County outnumber the in migrants from LA by about a thousand. Similarly, Fresno County and Stanislaus County are the same color, but about thirteen hundred more people decided to head north towards Modesto than to head south towards Fresno, which is probably significant. Anyways, it's a cool thing to play around with. I'd love to hear people's ideas for worthwhile comparisons to make.

(Redding & Chico, my favorite Merced controls so far, have seemingly wider distribution but less concentrated migration coming from or going anywhere, richer migrants, and dramatically less migration overall.)

Holy shit you can look at how migration patterns have changed since 2005 damn!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

American Exceptionalism part OWS

A while back I read this article, and it's really stuck with me as a cool episode of American history, and of how the American system can work. Basically, it's about a guy (Jose Julio Sarria) who, back when this was actually a point that even needed to be made (1961), wanted to make the point that there were a lot of gay voters in San Francisco. And he made it by putting himself out there, running for city council as an openly gay man and giving people a chance to support him secretly through the ballot. He didn't come anywhere close to winning, but he helped put at least a rough, and surprisingly high, number on the strength of the gay vote in the city...which I'm sure changed the decision making process of other politicians from then on. And that's just pretty darn cool.

The article's been out for a while, but I was thinking about it again in light of the Occupy Wall Street protests, and specifically what is and isn't effective in producing change in this country. The costs that a large scale protest like this impose on people who are just trying to get to their jobs, or just trying to run a business, or just want some peace and quiet can be confusing to justify when the results are so ambiguous. But then again, there is a certain value to protesters who will put themselves out there like that. Without Occupy Wall Street, there would be no polls trying to measure support for Occupy Wall Street, and you can take it as a matter of faith that a lot of political strategists are looking at those polls right now and trying to decide what they mean for their candidates. Which will lead to something, or's hard to tell. It's kind of a cop out, or else just entirely predictable, for me to end this on a note of "I don't know" but the truth is I really don't know what I think about the efficacy of public protest. The Occupy Wall Street movement has me thinking about it more seriously than I ever really have in the past though, which I guess is to it's credit.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Local Election

It's off year election day! Is everyone excited? I might be primarily excited by what I expect will be a decrease in the amount of junk mail I get from people who want to be mayor of San Francisco after today, but I'm also pretty pleased to have formed opinions about each and every candidate for city council in the city of Merced.

It's actually really hard to tell the local candidates apart...they're all for job creation and against crime as far as I can tell, and if any of them have a magical way to make that happen they're keeping that to themselves. I was able to rule out one of the mayoral candidates, Michele Gabriault-Acosta, based on her apparent opposition to housing density. One of the things I really like about Merced is the variety of housing can have a gigantic house with a palatial lawn just a few doors down from an identically sized lot with six or so little cottage style rentals. I'm not really interested in a mayor who's going to have a preconceived notion about how people "should" live. Another mayoral candidate, Stan Thurston, really challenges my ability to not bring my opinions on national politics into local issues...he seems to have a fire sale mentality in regards to the current recession, fees and environmentally green requirements for businesses must be tossed aside until the economy improves...financing current levels of public services for the city can be damned in the meantime. I am a big fan of public parks & breathable air, and while I'm not opposed to the idea that fees and regulations can be an impediment to business and that they should be kept on par with other local communities unless you're San Francisco and can afford to take the hit, I also don't think scrapping environmental protections in Merced is going to make us immune from a worldwide recession. But that leaves me with two more candidates, Bill Blake & Bill Spriggs (plus some other guy who is apparently running "for the fun of it"). I think I'm voting for Bill Spriggs, the current mayor, but primarily just because I find his tone realistic and his policy ideas mostly un-objectionable.

The city council election is the one where I found a candidate I think I genuinely actually like. Noah Lor really impresses me with the amount of detail he includes in talking about his plans for the city, with the added bonus of them being details I mostly like. He's not just for jobs and against crime, he's focused on bringing better supermarkets to the south part of the city, balancing residential development with commerce, and increasing interaction between seniors and police to help them feel safe in their neighborhoods. Another candidate might get my vote just for being the only one to talk about business fees in relative terms, recognizing that the most important factor is whether they're more or less here than elsewhere (his not-just-police-and-fire-protection outlook on public safety is a point in his favor, too), and then I'm probably going to cast my third vote for the guy who cast a controversial vote against a Walmart Distribution Center in Merced. I'm not sure that I agree with the vote, but I like that air quality considerations seem to have been a major factor in it. The other  five candidates strike me as fire salers, or just lacking anything to latch onto ideologically. I feel like I could pretty easily change my mind about any of these people with more information, but voting always carries with it the risk of being wrong.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In which I write about my actual life...

I added a couple of blocks to my walk home from the bus stop this evening by getting off in Downtown, thinking it might be fun to walk by all the shops. There's a new bakery that's opened up...I should probably go back with actual cash in hand and actually try some of their stuff before I decide to like it (they do take cards, but I'm kind of reeling still from the realization of how much the debit card companies are charging retailers), but their stuff at least looked good. And they're open late on Fridays, which is pretty awesome. It was also just really cool to see the amount of activity going on...there were people in the new sports bar that opened up last month, and guys trying out guitars at one of the two music stores. I don't know why it makes me happy that there's a place selling musical instruments in Merced (two even!), but it does. Same with the martial arts place I passed, which either has never had the lights on when I've been there before, or just finished some serious renovations. It actually looks downright swanky, and the family of little girls in gi that I saw crossing the street seemed like a pretty promising thing for Merced's future too. And while it may not completely count as good news, I can attest that Magic the Gathering is alive and well in Merced too. The little game store where dorky looking teenagers get together to play doesn't seem to have much else, unfortunately, but it's still a little game store where dorking looking teenagers get together, so good for them. I'm not sure why I'm so certain that Merced's long term outlook is fewer deteriorating houses, less crime, and less empty store fronts...possibly just my optimistic liberal side, or the realization of what UC Merced's commitment to keep growing should mean...but I feel pretty secure in my optimism tonight. My route home took me by one of the houses we looked at right after I took the job here...the one that was so run down we couldn't quite take the leap of faith that the landlord was going to fix it all up once they had a renter. It's fixed up now, and there's a pumpkin on the porch. I think the number of people in my neighborhood who are putting up decorations for Halloween overall is a very good sign about this place. As I was walking by, I saw one man come out of his house with a bicycle helmet to offer to a little boy...not his own...who was out in the street on a scooter. That's pretty damned cool. I passed another group of little boys who were walking home from the elementary school, and got to overhear them trying to teach their friend how to pronounce -er, not -uh or -or, -er. Like in Merced. So I dunno, the extra couple of blocks of walking was pretty worth it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Herman Cain Still Exists

And I continue to have inadequately informed opinions about what that means.

I keep hearing that nobody really knows who his advisors are, but I'm not really sure what that means. What exactly is "the Cain campaign." If you try to call them...does anybody answer the phone? Who's doing the fundraising? Are any of these people professionals? I find the idea that they might not be intriguing. Obviously, there's an entire industry built up around taking dim-but-likable Republican governors and grooming them for national campaigns. Has Herman Cain been denied this resource by the powers that be? Or has he rejected it? If he has rejected it, is it because he's crazy or is it because he has no actual interest in winning the nomination? And then it makes me wonder about how the process works for other candidates. I mean, what would George W. Bush's tax plan looked like if he had been forced to come up with one on his own with the help of a guy he knew who had a degree in accounting? Very possibly much more rational than the 9-9-9 plan, but mostly it's just a ludicrous scenario. So much of the way modern politics works is based on the idea of the candidate as a product, manufactured and sold to us by a larger organization.

Or maybe Herman Cain has exactly the same set of organizational resources that any candidate would be expected to have at this point, but you just can't control a guy who's determined to give his opinions on "Ubeki-beki-beki-stan," any more than you can make Sarah Palin anything but Sarah Palin. Except I secretly kind of admire the Ubeki-beki-beki-stan line...since it's the only thing I know about Herman Cain's foreign policy views, I choose to believe it's his way of expressing his belief in a profound refocusing of the agenda on purely domestic matters.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Holy Fuck Herman Cain.

a.k.a. who wants to watch me tip toe very carefully around racial issues?

So Herman Cain is polling pretty well these days. Really well, in the last Zogby poll. Nate Silver's latest article about his prospects is interesting, and the one he wrote back in May is even more interesting, and I'm in the awkward situation of admitting that I really know next to nothing about the guy. I don't know whether to file him away in my head along with Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, or Bob Dole. It seems like Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic has taken kind of a special interest in him, which is both a good and a bad sign. Friedersdorf used to guest blog for Andrew Sullivan quite a bit, and I generally was impressed with a lot of his writing...but less impressed with how impressed he was by Ron Paul. But yeah, I'm about a mile away from trying to guess exactly what kind of Republican Herman Cain is.

Which leaves me with the obvious, which is that he's black. I'm pretty sure I have no sympathy for the idea that there's something automatically wrong with being a black Republican...he has as much right to disagree with me about the discentivising aspects of a comprehensive social safety net as anybody else. Apparently he gets a lot of play out of claiming that blacks who vote for the Democratic party have been brainwashed, which is pretty off-putting, but at the same time I don't know that I'm the type to condemn someone for being hyperpartisan. So I dunno. I guess the question I have at the moment is what exactly this says about the Republican Party, which I am more or less familiar with. Or if not Herman Cain specifically, how about the fact that since Obama won the Democratic nomination, the two most high profile people who have been selected by the Republicans on the national stage have been Sarah Palin, and Michael Steele (I guess technically Boehner breaks this trend, but I'm going to ignore him for convenience's sake) and if Herman Cain does manage to bag the nomination, he will be the culmination of a very interesting pattern. Sarah Palin's nomination was pretty obviously an embarrassment...a distilled version of every cynical thought that the Republican party has about tokenism and affirmative action, come back to bite them in the ass. For a while I thought Michael Steele was basically a repetition of the same pattern, but I've kind of revised that opinion after seeing him on the Daily Show after his chairmanship. He actually comes across as a pretty intelligent and competent guy, for a Republican. Obviously it's not a coincidence that the Republican party followed the election of the first black president by immediately electing their first black chairman, and if Herman Cain gets nominated this year I don't doubt it will be partially because of sentiments like this...but I guess my question is: if that means the 2012 Presidential Debates wind up being between our current black President and a black conservative Republican nomine, is that a bad thing? Or is this how change happens?

(Obviously it's a bad thing if Herman Cain turns out to be a farce of a candidate on the level of Sarah Palin, or if he has no interest in being anything as a candidate aside from the perfect vehicle for conservative resentment of Barack Obama's success, but so far I don't see much reason to assume that's the case).

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Structural Unemployment

So apparently we're supposed to debate whether the current rates of unemployment are a symptom of a structural problem or a cyclical problem, but for some reason that debate always just makes me end up feeling like the Chamber of Commerce, and the subset of people who get paid to write about their opinions, each contain a whole lot of assholes. Also, I have a hard time seeing it as an either/or proposition. Overall unemployment is high, and employers are taking this opportunity to outsource as much of the risk and cost associated with training workers as they can by insisting that the training be completed on your own time and your own dime before they'll even consider interviewing you. Never mind that individual workers (or really, want-to-be workers) aren't very well equipped to deal with the potential downside of investing too much in the wrong kind of training and are operating at a significant information disadvantage when it comes to knowing which kind of training is most needed, individual workers are expendable and employers don't really care if they find a place in the workforce or not.

I guess the flip side of this is that the increase in labor force mobility in the past few decades has cut into the advantages to employers of investing in training. And I'm not sure what the actual solution would be. But I think it's pretty clearly a problem with the way the current system works, and one that makes me grind my teeth every time some fat cat decides to whine that he'd love to hire some people if only he could find qualified applicants.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blue Dogs, dingy skies.

Woohoo! First mention of the Merced area on the Atlantic Cities site. Oh wait, it's kind of negative...

Why Does California's Central Valley Have Such Bad Air Pollution?

Well, not negative negative.  Not third most miserable place to live in America negative. Apparently it's even getting better! But I will admit, I have noticed the smog, and I do think it is a genuine problem. Mostly it bothers me from an aesthetic point of view. I want so badly to claim that the Central Valley has a natural beauty that's on par with just about any other place that you can name...and it does, but too many days there's an ugly haze obscuring that. The local news stories that I've read on the same topic (which of course I didn't think to bookmark at the time and now I don't really know that I could find them, so don't expect a citation) have taken great pains to point out that a good deal of smog here is created elsewhere, even suggesting that China is a making major contributions, and that therefore it would be unfair to expect locals to do anything about it. Apparently some recently changed laws on agricultural emissions are already having an effect though, so that's encouraging, and I guess if the price of gasoline keeps marching upwards, fewer people will be choosing long commutes in oversized cars. For my own teeny tiny part of it, I've started taking the bus to and from work most days. It's not quite as glamorous as my initial plan to ride my bike, but it's about as fast.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Historical Fact of the Day

In 1895, most of the graduating class at Amherst College voted for a guy named Dwight Morrow as the most likely to succeed in their year. Dwight Morrow, on the other hand, voted for a guy named Calvin Coolidge.

And now you know.

(Random trivia courtesy of "The Tormented President, Calvin Coolidge, Death, and Clinical Depression" by Robert E. Gilbert. I appear to now be reading through the UC Merced library in order of the Dewey Decimal system)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Back of the envelope social science.

I mentioned last time that the number of people employed by Merced's top ten biggest employers seemed kind of strikingly low to me. Specifically, in a town of 78,958 people, only 10,179 have jobs at one of the places in town that employ more than 311 people. It seems like that could have some ramifications for the local economy as a whole.

Just because it seems especially low to me doesn't mean that it is though. It's not like I'm any kind of leading expert on small city economies. But I can become one with less than 30 minutes and Wikipedia! Right?

So, looking for other "small cities" to compare Merced to I come up with Chico (86,187), Redding (89,861) and Santa Barbara (88,410). I'm sticking in California because theoretically there might be an advantage to not comparing across state lines and thus keeping the majority of laws constant, and realistically there's a handy dandy list of California cities in order of population right there on Wikipedia and I have a better chance of being able to tell the independent small cities from the large suburbs in my home state than I would anywhere else. Unfortunately there's only four cities that are anywhere close to Merced's size in California that don't seem like suburbs to me, so this whole exercise is pretty worthless. Especially since the fourth one is Napa, which doesn't seem to have the top ten employers info that I'm looking for, and might be too close to the Bay Area anyways.

But based on the shitty data that I do have, evidence seems to be that Merced is pretty completely normal. Chico's top ten employers provide 7409 jobs. Redding's provide 7560. Santa Barbara is the one that stands out with 22,450 jobs, 6200 of which are from UCSB alone, which I guess is a good sign for Merced's future. I'm not really sure why Santa Barbara County employs many more people within Santa Barbara than any of the other cities (4000). The population density is pretty much in line with the other places, except for Redding, and both Merced and Redding are county seats too. The number of employees at Santa Barbara City College seems odd, too. Assuming (based on nothing) that it's a pretty average sized community college with twenty to thirty thousand students, that's one employee for every ten students served. Maybe in Santa Barbara everyone gets their own personal garbage man and even community college students get the finest in personalized instruction? But that's a mystery for another day.

(In other news, the Atlantic just launched, which I'm kind of excited about. Except I'm guessing Merced isn't really on their radar of important urban areas to cover...)

((Also, Matt Yglesias totally backing me up that an economy riddled with small-scale employers might be something to watch out for.))

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Third Most Miserable Place in America

I don't really have the frame of reference to be able to vouch for this personally, but there does seem to be a perception that there is something superlative about Merced. And more often than not, superlatively negative. The crime rate, the unemployment rate, and the poverty rate all stand out as big drags on the city's appeal. My goal has been to understand this better, because my own instinct is that this is a perfectly nice place to live and obviously I have some personal investment in that theory. My latest discovery poking around statistics and local newspapers has been a very simple fact: Merced is very young. The average age here is 28.1 and 46.1% of people are under the age of 24. Under the age of 24 is also a pretty good description of the individuals involved in a lot of the crime stories in the local paper. Throughout society, there's a strong correlation between youth and crime or violence in general (I should probably find a citation for this but I'm feeling lazy).

What's striking is that Merced is young, even compared to nearby places like Modesto (median age 34.2). Fresno and Stockton are only slightly older, at 29.3 and 30.8* respectively, but you don't generally hear anyone singing those places' praises either. For comparison, the median age in San Jose is 35.2 and in San Francisco it's 38.5. 36.8 is the national median. I think the crime, unemployment, and poverty statistics for the area need to be understood in that light.

The next thing I need to figure out is what it means that, in a city of almost 80,000 people, the top ten employers only account for a little over 10,000 jobs. I guess this wouldn't seem so very odd except that Wal-Mart is number ten at 311 jobs in the area. Where does everyone else work? The kind of small mom & pop businesses that get exempted from every major piece of pro-labor legislation? What are the ramifications of that in the community? Also, I can't help but notice that the real big employers in the area are the county, the city, and the schools...all told it adds up to more than 7000 of those 10,000 jobs at the mercy of falling tax revenue and statewide budget cuts. No wonder it's not a great time to be looking for a job here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

One hundred.

Ok, I lasted about ten minutes. I'm really not grasping for the hundredth post though...for one thing, I probably should have tried to hit one hundred yesterday if I wanted to be technical about it. At this point, I can only have a hundred posts in a year and a day, which is pretty meaningless.

I'm really just posting because the world will be a more interesting and nuanced place the more people who have read this:
Rebel Discovers Qaddafi Passport, Real Spelling of Leader's Name
I'd known that the spelling of Qaddafi was kind of especially fluid compared to other foreign names and words, I had not known that that was part of an intentional anti-western statement on his part. That's kind of cool. I mean, the man is a bastard by all accounts...but I can respect that.

Also, I don't know if I'll ever have the time to go back and watch all of the West Wing again, or if it would be the same if I did. But that was a pretty awesome show.

One Year.

Anything I wrote now would seem like I was just doing it to hit the 100 mark. Clearly I'm above that, so I'll just leave this at 98 (or 99, if you count this one) and accept my imperfection.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Left Coast

I need three more posts in the next two days to meet my goal of 100 in the first year I've had this blog.

That means the bar is now very, very low.

There was an earthquake on the East Coast! Did you know?! Ok yeah, probably everybody knew that by now.

You might not have known about this article at the Atlantic though, which gets into some of the reasons that different earthquakes are different. I have fond memories of being a kid listening to the radio after an earthquake and one of the hosts on KGO out of San Francisco who always wanted callers to call in and diagnose the type of shaking. Was it a quick jolt? Wave like? Rumbley? It almost made you feel like an Eskimo with all the different words for snow.

The article is a little disconcerting though, because it suggests that the East Coast might get to have a type of earthquake that we Californians couldn't be familiar with:
...East Coast crust is 'older and colder,' which makes it a more efficient transmitter of seismic energy. 
That sounds like a direct threat to our right to scoff at the Easterners for overreacting to me. And that right is very important. Mostly though, I appreciate the article for this line:
At first, I had the West Coast-native thought that perhaps it wasn't actually that far from Richmond to New York and it was just the weird perception of East Coast distances that made it seem a long way.
I guess it's to be expected...the magazine is called "The Atlantic" after all...but I'm always kind of amazed how little the western states figure into the world view of so many of the political writers I read. It's nice to hear from someone like me for whom all those tiny-ass eastern seaboard states all kind of look the same. I mean, they are all kind of the same, right?

(Totally kidding about them all looking the same. I am very interested in all states and would love to have an opportunity to become more familiar with any or all of them. Plus, I think I might actually have some reasonable guesses about what makes North Carolina different from South Carolina, and I'm kind of proud about that.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Limited Engagement

Looks like Qaddafi is out, or at least almost out, in Libya. If my earlier theories were right (which I make no promises about), what should come next is some serious consideration of possible cuts to our military spending. Realistically, I think this may end up depending on how the Republican primary evolves. Ron Paul obviously still has a strong following, even if we aren't supposed to look directly at it, which is a pretty good sign that isolationism is not dead in the Republican party. I don't get the feeling that defense spending is something that Mitt Romney is particularly passionate about, either. His grandfather, George Romney, seems to have been fairly moderate on defense and got into trouble during his 1968 presidential campaign for skeptical things he said about the Vietnam War. With any luck, there'll be a serious debate between hawks and doves in the GOP primary. Of course, if the doves win, and Obama then positions himself to the right of them, my brain will explode.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Eighty Thousand People

Merced got rated America's 3rd Most Miserable City by Forbes Magazine earlier this year, and then again the worst place to do business a few months ago. Mostly, this leads me to believe that the people at Forbes Magazine are very likely dicks, and are penalizing Merced heavily for being a poor & somewhat high crime area in a relatively liberal state. Finally! Proof that left wing politics is the enemy of prosperity and innovation. Never mind that the Silicon Valley shares all the same taxes and regulations.

That, or there are no truly miserable places to live in the United States. Why not take the optimistic view?

I'm still figuring Merced out. One thing I haven't quite gotten my bearings on yet is what it means to be living in a place that isn't a world-class city, but isn't a suburb either. The first thing I noticed coming into town was that there seemed to be two whole streets worth of downtown. I've heard people complain here about how little there is to do, but in the town I went to high school the only entertainment type businesses in town were a movie theater and a bowling alley, and both closed by my senior year. The only place open past eleven was the 24 hour Safeway. I suppose there were also bars, but being in high school those weren't really on my radar. And I can't really promise there are a lot of great late night restaurants in town here, because I am old now and past eleven is no longer on my radar, but I'm pretty sure there's at least a Denny's. Maybe it's just a case of the grass being always greener, but I'm pretty sure I'd rather live here.

It's kind of surreal how much is going on here in Merced actually. There's a playhouse downtown and free Shakespeare in the park (we went last night, it was quite decent), plus the theater programs at the high schools and community college, and then live music and other cultural events going on besides. And this is all before UC Merced develops any kind of meaningful arts program. Our new chancellor is featured in Downtown Life Magazine (Merced has a magazine about downtown life!), and apparently one of her accomplishments at her last institution was locating a campus theater building in the heart of downtown. I hope they consider doing something similar here. I loved going to plays and art performances at UCSD, but the isolation of a college campus at night just can't compete with the atmosphere that downtown theaters have. Not to mention the advantages for downtown businesses.

(For an angrier, but kind of awesome, defense of life in miserable Merced, go here:

Maternal Instinct, Part II

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Silent Majority

Matt Yglesias has a new post up trying to use abortion as an example of how the United States political system is full of veto points that make dramatic change unlikely. I guess his points about the political system are fairly valid, but I think he misses something important about abortion specifically. Treating abortion like some relic kept alive by the inertia of our political system, like the electoral college, ignores the fact that abortion is also legal because legal abortion is popular. Not popular like Justin Bieber or wanting to cure cancer maybe, but of the 800,000 abortions per year in the United States that Yglesias mentions, I'm going to guess that the vast majority are undertaken by women who either can vote or will be able to vote someday. The fact that one of Texas' senators right now is a pro-choice Republican woman isn't just some kind of crazy fluke, it's reflective of the views of a lot of people in Texas (where people have more than 80,000 abortions per year), and of no small number of Republicans. Pro-life bumper stickers may be more popular than pro-choice ones, but that doesn't mean we're living in an anti-abortion country.

Maternal Instinct

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


If my blogs are to be believed, the mini-controversy du jour is that the guy putting together the new Star Trek movies made a negative comment about the idea of inserting a gay subplot into the next movie. Luckily I've already solved this problem. In the 2009 movie, in that departure scene where all the new cadets are boarding the ship, John Cho should have been shown somewhere in the background kissing another man goodbye. Mostly because I think John Cho is pretty attractive, and would like to see him in more kissing scenes in general, but also because that's George Takei's character and really nothing would be more appropriate. You could probably even consider it fan service.

So there. Problem solved. You're welcome.

(Ok problem not really background scene isn't really the same as a thoughtfully put together subplot...but still, it would have been cool.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

American Exceptionalism, National Parks

This weekend we went to Yosemite. I was a little worried I'd regret having made such a big deal about wanting to go; a Saturday in August isn't exactly the ideal time to beat the crowds and commune with nature. The sensible thing would probably have been to go someplace less popular, except we'd already gone up into the mountains to a couple of places that didn't really match my expectations, and I needed reassurance that my expectations were based on actual memories of just how distinctive the Sierras are.

I'm pretty much completely reassured at this point. There are mountains, and there are mountains, and for me mountains are not complete without house-sized boulders that are still sitting in the exact same place they tumbled down to a decade ago, or a century, or a milenium. They aren't complete unless the vegetation is growing out of solid granite, or gnarled by the wind and elevation. The perfect tree will be both, and also very possibly dead and charred by fire, but still standing decades later. A few years ago, I took a trip with some friends through Switzerland. The bit of the Alps that I got to see was very pretty, but it never felt like mountains. The trees there grew as easily as blades of grass, and with all of the same uniformity. I don't really want to get into the false dichotomy of liking one but not the other, but I never knew how much I loved the dust and granite and gnarly trees until I knew there were places that didn't have them.

In the end, I didn't really even mind the crowds. There's something wonderfully democratic about sharing a beautiful place with essentially the whole planet. Edward Abbey is free to roll over in his grave, but it turns out I'm ok with importing the cosmopolitan bustle of a big city to the foot of Bridalveil Falls. I love the history of the park as well, although I could probably stand to understand it better. It always makes me proud to be an American when I see a place that was created by the Progressive movement or the WPA.  Even when they didn't exactly anticipate modern ideas about conservation and environmental protection, these were people who did something incredible and they did it for ordinary people. I guess it would be cool to be the first person to come over the ridge and see the whole valley in all of its pristine perfection, but it turns out I kind of like people...and so I'm not going to wish away the ones that are there with me and or the ones that have been there before me.

Also I highly recommend the Artist Point trail. After a few hundred yards we were out of eyesight or earshot of any of the crowds, and might as well have been the first people stepping over the ridge to look out over the valley, which is pretty cool.

Friday, August 12, 2011

"The gun is where it’s at and about and in."

I suppose this is another cop out post in my quest to hit one hundred before 8/24, but I'm finding this article in the Atlantic really interesting:
The Secret History of Guns
I'm not sure I necessarily agree with this guy's conclusions, to the extent that he has them, or even take his version of history at face value...but it's an article I would love to see a rebuttal of.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Any way you slice it...

California is getting redistricted! Republicans are angry because their non-partisan panel couldn't find a way to make California a Republican state, or even as Republican of a state as it was ten years ago. Also apparently, this next election cycle I may end up with a new congressman. The new lines merge two Central Valley districts, and there are rumors that my representative may retire. The new guy is still a Blue Dog though, so who knows how much change that will actually mean. I'm also not sure what will happen to McNerney, the Democrat who represents Morgan Hill & parts of the Valley right now and who very narrowly survived the 2010 midterms. Hopefully his district hasn't changed too drastically, as far as I can tell he is a thoroughly good guy with a good record on the environment.

Also, I would like to point out that this is all information courtesy of the local news, which I now keep up with...for the first time in my life. I don't really have much by way of comparison, but the Merced Sun Star seems to be a very decent little local paper. It does kind of leave me with a creepy feeling that people are getting murdered constantly around here, but I think that's more a function of local news than the actual murder rate. I mean crime is somewhat high...but it was in San Francisco too. Living there I just had no idea what was going on unless it was within earshot of my apartment.

The Shocking Feminism of Leon Tolstoy

Thirteen more posts to go! So here is my best shot at throwing out one that has been kicking around in my brain for months now.

Last summer, I got myself on kind of a Tolstoy kick. I had been fairly sure I just didn't like Russian literature based on Dead Souls and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which are both kind of dour and dreary books, but I picked up Anna Karenina just to see what it was and ended up being pretty thoroughly surprised.

I was even more surprised by War and Peace. Again, I just kind of picked it up to see what it was. The end of Anna Karenina starts to get sort of political in regards to the Russians fighting with the Serbians against the Turks, and I thought that was one of the most interesting parts. I'd always assumed that War and Peace would be a very male book, kind of along the lines of the Iliad maybe, and had never had any interest in it...but reading just a little bit about how Tolstoy approaches war made me rethink.

Did you know that War and Peace is largely about the marriage prospects of a 14 year old girl? There are chapters where you feel like you could just as well be reading Jane Austen. I guess I've already revealed that I didn't know much about the background or context of the book, and I don't now, but I think it's interesting that a work that has always seemed like the gold standard of serious literature to me has a plot that couldn't be screened in a modern day movie theater as anything but a chick flick. What does that say about the evolution of gender attitudes over the last century? What does that say about our current stereotypes of what men should be interested in?

The other interesting part is the type of female heroine Tolstoy writes. Tolstoy is a very political writer. His books get extremely preachy at times, and in almost everything he has an agenda. Many aspects of his agenda in regards to women is fairly conservative; he has strong options about birth control, and abortion, and a woman's place in general. However, I think it is fairly striking the extent to which he doesn't use foils to define his heroines. In Jane Austen's books the heroines are intelligent and independent...but they are in direct contrast to those other women who are frivolous and petty. Tolstoy manages to make his heroines both extraordinary and completely ordinary...his version of the most amazing woman in the world is still incredibly foolish sometimes, petty and jealous at others, and I think even gets dumpy and fat in the end. I guess that's not classic feminism, but I think it deserves consideration.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kicking Them While They're Down

So this whole issue of making people who receive welfare take drug tests is making the rounds on facebook. I feel like this is pretty idiotic on it's face, but it seems to be popular enough that maybe it's worth my while to explain what exactly is wrong with it.

First of all, let's start off with what I would suggest is the basic purpose of government welfare payments: there are certain people out there that are failing (justifiably or unjustifiably) at supporting themselves, and the government provides those people with enough resources to maintain a very basic standard of living.

If you accept that, then you also accept that suggesting that someone's welfare should be taken away, for any reason, is suggesting that that person should no longer be given the resources to maintain a very basic standard of living. (Except for the very obvious exception where a person's welfare payments are generally discontinued when they are replaced by a job or other source of income that allows for a better standard of living).

People aren't going to just shrug and accept that as their fate...they are going to pursue other ways of obtaining those resources. And in the modern world, practically all of the non-employment, non-government welfare ways of obtaining the resources to maintain a very basic standard of living are illegal. Take food, for example. You aren't allowed to steal it, obviously. In most places searching for it in dumpsters is also technically illegal. Lots of places have strict rules about begging. Foraging options are considerably limited by trespassing laws. Shelter is similarly problematic. Breaking into a building to keep warm or dry is obviously illegal. Hanging out in an abandoned building is often illegal too. Hell, in San Francisco sleeping on a public sidewalk is currently illegal. So where exactly are these people supposed to go?

Prison, if you're actually interested in enforcing all of your laws (oddly, fines are not a huge deterrent to people who have been kicked off welfare). And that will cost quite a bit of money. Especially when you consider that a significant portion of the welfare population is mothers with young children. Those children are going to have to go somewhere, either into foster care when their mother loses her house or apartment because we don't tolerate child homelessness in this country (except we do), or into foster care when their mothers go to prison, or into prison themselves when they start stealing food and breaking into buildings to keep warm or dry, if we want to be all Dickensian about it. But, again, we are talking about spending quite a bit of money here. Just for the personal satisfaction of knowing that government welfare has been limited to the "deserving" poor.

I think the real issue, however, is that people suspect that trying to scrape by on the meager amount of resources that government welfare provides isn't quite miserable enough, and this is just one more way to take out some resentment on a group of people they think are getting away with something. I honestly don't really know what the average person on welfare looks like in this country, but I have enough experience with job hunting to realize that not everyone in this country who's willing to work is able to find a job that will pay them.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

True Blood/The Books Comparison of the Week

I actually got through this last episode with very few complaints. It's a miracle!

On the other hand, my new thing I think is interesting is how much they're downplaying the fang banger aspect of the book series. Has there really been a character who qualifies as one in the past few seasons? And by leaving it out, they're leaving out a lot of the more complex ethical issues the series gets into. In the books, fang bangers are essentially drug addicts, with the same reflex that you don't have to feel as bad if a fang banger dies, just like it's always reassuring to find out someone's death is drug related, because that makes them comfortably other and complicit in their bad fortune. But at the same time, the books go out of their way to reveal the humanity of individual fang bangers, and Sookie is constantly contemplating the fine line between her life and theirs. Fang bangers are also the foil for Sookie's relative sexual conservatism...which I feel like gets glossed over on the show. Their existence is also fundamental to vampire society as imagined by Charlaine Harris, one that runs on exploitative and destructive relationships with humans rather than killing sprees and rape. The show has decided to go all killing sprees, all the time though, and then expects us to still like the vampire characters when they're done. I find that kind of difficult to go along with.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fun with Mentalism! (And Obama)

I'm pretty much completely making stuff up at this point, but my sense, looking at the overall arc of Obama's presidency so far, is that the man is hoarding political capital. A lot of his decisions seem heavily defensive...the complete lack of interest in investigating anything the Bush administration might have done, because that would be a distraction. The unwillingness to ease up on the increased surveillance & dentention powers that the presidency now holds, because if he does and something happens blame will fall heavily in his direction. The cautious tiptoing around cultural issues (although I guess Don't Ask, Don't Tell did get maybe he doesn't deserve as much criticism here as he might have at one point). The capitulation to Republicans on the question of stimulus vs. spending cuts. It seems like every president has issues that he cares passionately about, and ones that he wishes would just go away...I think LBJ most basic priority in Vietnam (which he failed at) was to keep it from undermining his domestic Great Society programs, whereas Nixon spent most of his presidency wishing domestic politics would just shut up for a while and let him fix foreign relations. If you asked me to identify what Obama really, truly cares about though...I couldn't tell you. At one point I thought it might be government transparency...feeding off of his success in the Illinois legislature in getting police interrogations recorded...but the evidence since his election just doesn't support that. Gay rights clearly isn't making the top ten, or any other kind of crusade for equality for any marginalized group so far as I can tell. I don't see him giving any more attention to the environment than I would expect from any boilerplate Democrat. I guess you could argue that health care was his priority, and now that it's passed that means ensuring his own reelection and putting off Republican attempts to dismantle it as long as possible. But that seems kind of unconnected with the platform he ran on.

Maybe it doesn't have to be connected. Maybe he ran for president because he thought he'd be good at it, and since he was elected in 2008 when health care reform was a big issue, that's what he applied himself to. I guess that might be a more realistic way of looking at political careers. Does anyone think Harry Truman got into politics because he thought it would be really cool to get to rebuild Europe & Japan someday? (Actually, I think it's generally accepted that Harry Truman got into politics because he needed a job. This is one of the many things I like about him). Obama does not really seem like he comes from the Harry Truman mold though.

Anyways, this is all getting around to an exciting half baked theory and an equally exciting round of linking to stuff that Matt Yglesias has written today. I propose, based on Obama's pre-presidency political career and the stuff that he's done so far this week (which clearly should be weighted more heavily than anything he's done in the previous 2.5 years, because I remember it so much more clearly), that our president's innermost and most secret desire is a complete reworking of our national security strategy. He's trying to get us out of Iraq & Afghanistan with a minimum of political controversy. The success of the getting out part has clearly been limited, but with Republican presidential hopefuls now trying to claim that they'd do an even better job of getting us out quickly I guess he could claim to have won on the political front. The involvement in Libya is a demonstration of a new, much more limited role for the United States in these kinds of international interventions. I'm sure he hoped it would be a dramatic and quick success, enabling him to draw a clear contrast with Bush's all in approach to national security...but you know what they say about the best laid plans. Now he's used the debt ceiling crisis to create actual debate within the Republican party about the trade offs involved in a maximalist approach to defense spending. If everything had gone perfectly, I could see how this might be the groundwork for significantly decreasing U.S. military expenditures and military involvement around the world in a lasting way. Even without the benefit of things going as planned as Libya, I think it might still work if Obama gets a second term. Assuming I'm anywhere close to guessing what his priorities.

Who knows, maybe what he really wants to do is invade Canada.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Blue Dog Politics

I've mentioned that I live in a swing district now, right? Currently represented by card carrying Blue Dog Democrat Dennis Cardoza? Besides the giddy feeling that my vote might actually count once or twice while I live here, it's also been interesting having a reason to follow more closely the voting record of one particular example of why liberal Democrat and Democrat do not mean the same thing.

Cardoza was against the spending cuts in the debt ceiling deal (and voted against it) and has said some reassuring things about getting our troops out of the Middle East...but mostly it seems like he really, really wants me to know how tough he is on the EPA. He's fighting them tooth and nail, apparently, trying to reign in their out of control activism. Since agriculture, with their heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is the biggest industry around here I guess this makes a certain amount of sense.

But then this article, about contaminants in the well water in a nearby town, was in the Merced Sun Star this morning. And it occurs to me that since agriculture, with their heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is the biggest industry around I have never had more reason to be grateful for the EPA than I do now that I live here. I wonder why that viewpoint isn't better represented by my congressman? (My first guess that it starts with mmm and ends with oney.)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

You go Joe!

This is kind of a cop out as far as a post goes, but I've decided to dedicate myself to greater Joe Biden awareness today, so I'm linking to two recent articles about him at the Atlantic. The first is a lot more substantial than the second, but the second has Barney Frank in it, so you know it had to be included.

Biden's Burden: Last One Standing in Afghanistan Policy Wars

Biden: 'I'm In Charge, Not Panetta'

Meanwhile, I am now officially reading 500 some odd pages on Calvin Coolidge, so as to better understand the full political history of the United States and the evolution of the Republican party in the 20th century specifically. Should be awesome, right?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Resurrecting Bob Taft?

Nobody seems to be talking much about the balanced budget amendment component of the debt ceiling deal. I guess the consensus must be that it's not all that likely to happen. I'm not exactly up on the exact process for passing a constitutional amendment, but I think I heard something about needing a two thirds majority in the Senate. There are probably enough Democrats in safe seats and Democrats not up for reelection in 2012 that it's not all that likely to happen. Hopefully.

So the excitement seems to be instead with the military spending cuts part of the deal...there are some in the immediate cuts I think, and potentially a whole hell of a lot if some other compromise can't be worked by November. Nate Silver (who I'd stopped reading when he moved to the NY Times and got harder to follow using Google Reader, but I recently got reminded what a valuable resource he is for trying to actually understand things) seems to think any compromise will have to be pretty darn appealing to Democrats, as in tax increases instead of spending cuts, before it becomes more appealing than the possibility of just having 50% of the cuts come from defense spending. I'm not sure if that's right...defense spending funnels a whole lot of money into a whole lot of people's districts, and very few Democrats would be willing to be called anti-military...but I guess there is reasonable hope that the next round of brinkmanship will be a little different. The Republican party is at least partially an alliance between the anti-tax rich and a segment of the working class that culturally identifies strongly with the military. Seeing as how military spending is a major source of the demand for tax dollars, I kind of wonder if it's an alliance that still makes sense. I can see how it may have during the Cold War...the international threat of Communism was in direct opposition to the capitalist system, and a threat to overseas markets for U.S. businesses. But now "communist" China is a global epicenter for business opportunity...while I don't think anybody thinks we're going to get back the money we're pouring into Afghanistan just as soon as they regain their footing and become an important trading partner. I see potential that support for military spending might significantly erode in the most anti-tax segments of the Republican party, especially if the two priorities are put in direct opposition to each other like they apparently will be in November. Frankly, I bet a lot more Republican voters benefit directly from Social Security and Medicare than from military spending, and the kind of nationalistic sentiment that motivates a lot of the pro-military feeling on the right only needs a couple of tweaks and a Democratic commander-in-chief to morph into America First isolationism. It should be interesting to watch.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Economic Chicken

I'm trying to follow this whole debt ceiling thing, but it's not exactly easy. Trying to figure out what's good news is pretty difficult...the news seems to only come in shades of bad. The alternatives seem to be a constitutional crisis or draconian spending cuts in the middle of a recession, along with a milder form of constitutional crisis. After all, the least bad option only puts off the next debt ceiling showdown until 2013. Now that the precedent has been set that debt ceiling increases are an opportunity to extract massive concessions from the party that controls two thirds of the government, that's sure to go well.

I'm pretty sure the most bad option is anything that would lead to a balanced budget constitutional amendment...being able to borrow money in years when tax revenue falls unexpectedly or for crises that require extra spending is pretty fundamental. But it's kind of also bad enough that I think nobody serious seriously wants it to happen...unlike completely scrapping the social safety net, which many rich bastards would be pretty ok with. So I don't know how freaked out to be that it's supposedly being included as one of the dire consequence triggers that are supposed to ensure that further spending cuts are enacted.

Speaking of which, I'm sure there are political (or maybe legal) reasons for this, but it seems odd that the Republican hostage* being proposed that's supposed to ensure that spending cuts are enacted by Thanksgiving is military spending. I don't see why the Democrats are willing to accept the premise that Republicans "care" about defense more than they do. Shouldn't the hostage be tax increases for the rich?

*Basically the deal as I understand it now is a certain amount of immediate cuts, and then a promise to negotiate more long term spending cuts by November...and the promise is leveraged by a mechanism that will automatically impose big cuts on something the Democrats care about (discretionary spending) and something the Republicans care about (military spending) if they can't come to an agreement. So basically they get three months to find waste to cut, or else everything's getting cut whether it's wasteful or not. One variant of the agreement also lets them off the hook if they send a balanced budget amendment to the states for ratification. Republicans currently control 26 of the 50 state legislatures.

Missing Bob Taft

There's an article up at the Atlantic right now that purports to list the five best and five worst foreign policy presidents of the last 100 years. In general I think the list is  kind of incoherent. I'm not sure I can really tell what the author thinks "good" foreign policy is.

The interesting part, however, is that he pretty severely dings Harry Truman for his very partisan approach to foreign policy, and then lauds Eisenhower for being so very reasonable and bipartisan. The funny thing is, one of the main reasons that Truman was partisan and Eisenhower was bipartisan was that Robert Taft (son of the former president) was a Republican. Bob Taft was the last and most prominent of the Republican isolationists...a branch of the party that thought WWI was a mistake, WWII was a mistake, the Marshall Plan was a mistake, and Korea was an even bigger mistake. When Eisenhower beat him out for the Republican nomination in 1952, that represented a huge shift in the Republican party platform. When Eisenhower took office, many of the Republican senators (under the leadership of Bob Taft) were essentially unwilling to work with him, so Lyndon Johnson on the Democratic side became Eisenhower's best hope of getting anything passed. Bipartisanship wasn't some magnanimous choice on his part, it was the only option available to him. Just as fighting Bob Taft tooth and nail to maintain American involvement overseas was the only option available to Truman.

But I lied...that's not actually the interesting part. The interesting part is the question of why exactly we think that a bipartisan foreign policy is better than a partisan one. The way I see it, when the 1968 election didn't produce a presidential nominee in either party that represented the level of skepticism towards the Vietnam War that much of the country was feeling, that was a pretty profound breakdown of the American political system. The 2008 election was better, but then again...somehow even after voting for the more anti-war primary candidate from the more anti-war party, we're still in Iraq and Afghanistan three years later, and getting involved in other countries on top of that. Partisanship is the vehicle by which American voters get to pick the direction this country goes in. The idea that foreign policy should be bipartisan is the idea that there's only one right way to do things, and discovering that right way should be left to the experts, not the voters.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Bucket of Warm Piss

Don't you just love my free association post titles? Few things make me happier in life than an allusion. Also, apparently I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of this blog. If I can crank out somewhere around 16 posts in 25 days or so, I'll have 100 in my first year...which kind of seems vaguely like an accomplishment.

This post does have a point though...the Vice Presidency! And Joe Biden. I'm not really sure I have a good grasp of what public perception of Joe Biden is. I've heard some jokes at his expense, and run into one or two people who think that he's just not all that important. I guess he's a little hard to categorize as modern vice presidents go, he's neither the heir apparent a la Dan Quayle or Al Gore or the secret puppet master like Dick Cheney. But I love Joe Biden, Obama's choosing him as VP is one of my favorite things about Obama. Profiles of Joe Biden are one of my favorite kinds of articles to read...or at least they were until I hit the point where most of the information was stuff I already knew. And if you pay attention, there's really very little reason to believe that he's gathering dust in some forgotten office.

Paying attention exhibit one is this article. Did you know we still had diplomatic relations with Russia? The Middle East and China get all the news coverage these days, but it turns out Russia is still a very large country with lots of people and significant impact on world events. I enjoy the part where the Russian official pans the Republican party, even though I don't necessarily look to Russia in general to tell me how to think about things, but the really interesting part is the praise for Tom Donilon towards the end. Tom Donilon is one of the people that Joe Biden brought with him into the Obama administration. "Smart and attentive" pretty much sums up what I like about Joe Biden's political style. The thing that cemented my support for him initially back in the 2008 election was an op-ed he wrote during the crisis in Georgia. I can't find it online now, but he was the first person who really outlined the situation for me...not just taking ideological stances, but laying out what Russia's goals were and what our leverage in the area was. Since then, I've learned to count on Biden as someone who pays attention, who values trying to understand a situation and who believes that voters will want to understand it too. I think that's kind of his role in the administration as well. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What the heck.

(True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse spoilers)

I continue to think that the most interesting thing about the True Blood tv series is tracking what they've changed from the books, and why. The current season is back to at least somewhat following the general plot of the fourth book, but little things have been left out and character motivations have been tweaked almost beyond recognition. Jason's role negotiating Sookie's fee for watching Eric is gone...I'm actually not sure Sookie and Jason have had a single word of dialogue all season (oh wait that's right...the fairy stuff. I blocked all that out). Gone along with it are the interesting gender role questions about what responsibilities an older brother might have to his single and adult sister in modern society, what's old fashioned and what's just practical, etc. With the decision to dial the crazy in Hotshot up to 11, I think it's pretty safe to assume there's never going to be a recognizable version of Calvin Norris...which is unfortunate because he also brings a lot to that aspect of the books. Meanwhile, Bill's character (who I always thought was kind of amusingly mundane in the books. He's badass because of skills! No he doesn't create a robot, or artificial intelligence, or hack things. He makes....a database! That's marketable!) has to be completely revamped* with more violence, more power, and more all around evil. Instead of generally adapting to his role of exboyfriend after being dumped, it's important that he get elevated to some position of power so that he and Eric can be rivals in everything, and not just when it comes to Sookie. Eric gets to lose his memory, but apparently this means he has to brood about stuff and have existential crises. In the books, Sookie is finally seduced by light hearted flirtation and her own desire to enjoy herself. But if TV has taught us nothing, it's that the only valid reason to ever kiss a man is to rescue him from his inner demons.

That said, the "I promise to be happy if you kiss me" line was pretty decent. And I'm still glad that Lafayette's not dead.

*This may or may not be a pun. You decide.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Final Frontier

Apparently I may be watching at least some of Star Trek: The Next Generation in the coming weeks. This should be interesting. One of the fun things about old sci fi is you get to see the changes that writers missed in addition to the ones the writers anticipated. For example, in the first episode last night, between all the warp drive and aliens and omnipotent beings that are obsessed with proving that humanity is a savage race, the thing that actually seemed the most implausible was that Troi & Riker could actually have been surprised to find out they were serving on the same ship. Don't people in the future google stalk their exes? Or even just look up the crew list for their new assignment? I could understand if Riker didn't get all the way through the entire list, but presumably Troi would be somewhere near the top.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An oink-oink here...

One subset of policies I would like to understand better is the laws that essentially ban various types of agricultural in urban and suburban area. It'd be nice to understand them better, because from my perspective they're pretty inconvenient and understanding who exactly the constituency behind them is and what their logic is based on would help me decide if they're inconvenient-stupid or inconvenient-living in a civilized society sometimes means compromise.

Today, Matt Yglesias had a link to this article, which is the extreme version of what I'm talking about.

With our (rental) house, I've considered which plants are allowed to be front yard plants, and which plants we need to make sure to squeeze into the back. I doubt I'd wind up in jail if I didn't get it right, but it seems pretty likely that our neighbors and ultimately our landlords might feel entitled to have an opinion about a giant, rangy tomatillo plant in the front yard. (Never mind that tomatillos are really quite pretty, and not exactly dramatically different from Chinese Lanterns, which as an ornamental plant would of course be kosher). So, of the edible varieties, only the sunflowers and a few herbs are out front...and now that the sunflowers are past the pretty blooming stage and in the drying and letting the seeds fully develop stage, it's entirely possible that even those are kind of iffy.

I'm fairly confident that the convention that it's low class to use your front yard as anything but a type of conspicuous consumption (Look how much water & square footage I can waste growing unproductive grass! That I will certainly, never ever in my life, use to have a BBQ on) is outright stupid. But I'm just as confident that there are plenty of right thinking Americans who disagree with me. Maybe even some people I know, and that's kind of fascinating.

(I also just recently found out that letting weeds grow in your lawn has serious consequences for your neighbor's lawn...which I guess does actually impose some logic on my neighbor's right to have an opinion on what's growing on my property...but I'm not at all sure that the right to perfect grass is one of those cultural imperatives that supercedes personal liberty this country.)

It all ramps up to a completely different level when you're talking about livestock. Chickens are loud (but then again, so is my neighbor's leaf blower). Bees sting people who may be allergic. An angry full grown  (or even half grown) pig on the loose makes a pit bull seem like, well, a puppy dog. At some point, people got together and decided that these were things that they didn't want in densely populated areas, and surely they had reasons. The question is, are these reasons still relevant? Are they based on the class assumptions of a society for whom rural life was something they were proud to have escaped and the very different sanitation/public health conditions that existed a hundred years ago...or do I just think that having more livestock in cities would be awesome because it's something I've never experienced?

Friday, July 1, 2011

High Impact

I have decided that trains are to Merced what garlic is to Gilroy. That is to say, pervasive, and possibly a little too fundamental to the history of the city to actually wish away. Do people read this that aren't familiar with the strong smell of garlic that hits you every time to you come down over the hill into Gilroy? Well, if you don't know what I'm talking about, just take my word for it. Gilroy smells like garlic. That's what makes it Gilroy. And in Merced, apparently, you can hear trains. Any time of day, any time of night, and they're pretty dang loud.

Of course, I'm a good little liberal and think that trains are awesome. Trains are the perfect alternative to gas guzzling long commutes, and gas guzzling airplanes, and gas guzzling semi trucks.  There are very few things out there that are bad that couldn't be replaced by a train. This is what I think about at 2 AM when I'm up, listening to trains go by. The trains themselves aren't actually so bad. It's their horns. And then the dogs that apparently, despite presumably living within earshot of train tracks their entire lives, still feel a need to bark at the giant monster of doom hurtling towards them. I live about three blocks from the tracks right now. There are some really awesome old houses a block or two closer...but I'm not really sure if it'd be worth it.

Oh and also, as much I would like to, I can't really come up with a practical reason to take the train anywhere from Merced. The hills between here and the South Bay mean that the route goes up and around Sacramento...not exactly a time saver. Trying to get to LA or San Diego is similarly convoluted. The tickets are so expensive that it's cheaper to drive...much cheaper, if it's going to be more than one person in the car.

This is all just getting around to throwing out this link,* which is an article that lays out some of the reasons that the problems with trains that you run into living here in Merced aren't really inherent to trains, but rather consequences of rail policy in the United States. Is anyone in congress really worrying about rail policy right now? I'm guessing not as much as they maybe should (there are so many other flashier things to concentrate on!). I just emailed my congressman though. Maybe he lives close enough to the tracks to hear the horns too.

*which I totally got from Matt Yglesias. I'm not really that original.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


See over on the left where it says I'm currently reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra (unless you're using google reader)? That's kind of a lie. Truth is, I'm completely failing at reading it, and it might be time to give up. I took a break to read Ta-Nehisi's last  book club book (What this Cruel War was was decent), and the most recent Sookie Stackhouse book, which I've already mentioned. I powered through another 10 or 15 pages of it, trying to regain some kind of rhythm, or at least push myself through. It's not really working though. I have absolutely no desire to read it and no sense that I'm really getting anything out of it.

This is kind of a big admission for me. Reading difficult material is something that I would generally claim that I'm fairly good at. It's not just a comprehension thing, but a mindset. I always felt like one of my advantages in school is that I would keep reading even when 50-70% of the information was going over my head (or the entire book was in French or Russian and only a small fraction was making any sense to me at all). You'd be amazed how valuable understanding 30% of something can be if you don't give up in the first few pages. Of course, you have to pair that with need to be careful about using something you've read as evidence when you know you didn't understand it completely. Maybe I don't always do that as well as I should. I think there is a place in the world for imperfect knowledge though, and I see my ability to navigate that place as one of my strengths.

I can't really even identify the 30% that I'm picking up from Zarathustra though, or the ten percent, or the five percent. I feel like I'm picking up about as much as I would sounding out words in Finnish. Part of it is that I'm not putting as much effort into as I could. I couldn't read Hume on the bus, but I made a point of finding quiet time at home to concentrate on it because I really wanted to understand it. I'm just not excited enough about Zarathustra to do that...I am reading at home, but not under the kind of "try to talk to me and die" conditions that I might make for another book. More like "hey is that a distraction? yay a distraction!!!" Apparently I have some scholarly cover on this, even the prologue to the book mentions that it's not always highly regarded by Nietzsche-ists, so that cuts into my motivation even more. But mostly, it just seems like it's time to give up. And find something else to read. I'm not really sure what yet...Ta-Nehisi & Matt Yglesias have both mentioned some interesting sounding books lately, but then again maybe I need to branch out. Also, George R.R. Martin book is coming out in a month or I actually going to have to pay money for that?

Anyways, there you have it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Not to make this the all Sookie all the time blog (oh and probably some kind of spoiler alert here, I'm really lazy about spoilers)...but damn the season premier of True Blood was disappointing. Mostly because I'd already predicted the primary premise of the fourth book/season wouldn't fly with the TV folks. Male characters being dependent on female characters is after all, incredibly unsexy. Sexiness in men is defined by brooding, inner torment, amazing abs, and very little else. I honestly expected them to just tweak it a little though, not throw it out completely in favor of a mind-numbingly horrible sequence with fairies so that we could be bored to death by the emotional gushing about a completely new character that we have never been given any reason to care about. Omg I'm so happy you're alive! Omg I'm so sad that you're dead now! Omg who the fuck are you?

(of course I'm still going to watch the next episode though...there were witches! maybe all is not lost!)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hidden Depths

(spoiler alert for the most recent Sookie Stackhouse book)

So, stuff happens in Dead Reckoning, which is the most recent Sookie Stackhouse book. Not like big important plot advancing stuff...which I guess is kind of disappointing...but little moments that I think help hint at where Charlaine Harris is trying to go with this series, and that I actually think support the idea that there's a more to her writing than just cliched trashy vampire fantasy. Not that I'm trying to elevate it into being great literature or anything like that, but the books are fun and enjoyable and extremely why not analyze what exactly is in them a little?

I think there are a couple meaningful developments in this last book. The first is that they do a lot to clarify what supposedly makes Sookie special. Admittedly, this hasn't been the most tightly written plot point ever. At one point, it was obvious that Sookie's telepathy made her special...but how many thoughts does Sookie even really read this time around? Most of her interactions are with people who for one supernatural reason or another can't be read, which is I guess the logical place for her to end up based on the premise of the story, but there's been a definite shift away from exploring how real telepathy might affect a person's life. Then Sookie became (or turned out always to have been) part fairy, and that made her special because vampires loved her and fairies loved her and there she was getting all mixed up with both of them and complicating her life. But part fairy took a backseat this book too, and it turns out what REALLY makes Sookie special is the "essential spark," which might be somewhat supernatural in that some magical beings know it when they see it, but it can also exist in a completely mortal human being like Sookie's grandmother, and it's outward manifestations include crazily magical attributes like being nice to people who are different than you and being curious about the world.

The second is that they focus on what's really going to come between Eric & Sookie. This actually kind of follows a similar arc to the question of why Sookie is so special. The original reasons why it's problematic to date a vampire are dramatic and high impact. People will try to kill you, a lot. The vampire you're dating may even try to kill you in a weak moment. Danger is everywhere. But by Book 11, the danger has faded into background noise. It may not have gone away, but you don't really notice it anymore. Now the real problem is the emotional disconnect. Even a vampire who is not a rampaging murderer,* is still kind of offputtingly cold. For that matter, so are fairies. So is the whole supernatural world.

Which brings us back to the essential spark, a very human and regular world type of magic that is fascinating even to the supernatural. Remember that Sookie thought Eric would be angry to find out that he had become so vulnerable and weak when he lost his memory...but instead he was amazed that he had been able to be open to so much feeling? Or that at one point Bill mentions that Sookie & Eric share a certain vitalness, and that's what brings them together. I have no idea where Charlaine Harris intends to take the plot at this point...presumably Sookie ends up figuring out who her true love is, or maybe there will be a independent woman cookie dough kind of ending where she doesn't need to end up with any of them, but I think many there are many possibly endings that could flow organically from this point (and there could always be a completely stupid, Veronica Mars style end too). I'm pretty sure in one way or another it will end up being about the essential spark though. Which is really kind of cool.

*and in the Sookie Stackhouse universe...remarkably few of them are. Eric & Pam don't reminisce about past massacres the way Spike & Angel did. You get the feeling that life as a vampire, even before the great reveal, was always a bit more like being in the mob than being the living embodiment of evil. Interestingly, this seems to be an area where the True Blood tv show has decided to diverge from the books.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Never underestimate the potential dumbness of politicians.

So, Anthony Weiner. And his weiner. I don't really have much to say.

But it occurs to me that the best way out of the "should he resign/should he not resign" question is pretty simple. Presumably he knows someone, very possibly someone who works as his campaign manager or something, who shares his political views but has not recently been caught sending pictures of his crotch to college aged girls. He should ask that person to run against him in the next primary, without animosity, to give the voters in his district a chance to be represented by someone who won't be held back by a scandal. Or the voters can opt to tolerate the scandal in order to keep their representative who's established himself as someone who can go head to head with Fox News types. My guess is that he'd win, and with renewed credibility.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Won't somebody please OUR SCHOOLS ARE FAILING

Have I mentioned my theory that the constant repetition of the words "failing schools" is a conspiracy by an evil subset of American society that believes that protecting private property rights is the first and last legitimate function of government in order to undermine what is the most public of our public institutions? (This sentence is unwieldy, but I like it.)

Recently Matt Yglesias, who is definitely on the school reform bandwagon but not part of the conspiracy, had a thoughtful post on why this isn't a cut and dried issue. Basically, if you're too lazy to read the whole thing, it boils down to this:
Like the bulk of the center-left “reform” wing of the Democratic Party, I’m very concerned about the plight of low-income black and Latino students in large urban school districts. But it’s important to recall that most American children aren’t poor, most American schools aren’t in large urban districts, and that in a very large country we actually have all kinds of different school systems.
I'll readily admit that a lot of my own instincts on the public school system are based on the exactly one school district that I have any significant experience with, and from the perspective of my extremely middle class and not particularly challenging-to-educate childhood. The weird thing is, I think my very middle American (or ok, Californian) perspective is kind of under represented in the media. It seems like you've got a lot of people, like Matt Yglesias, who grew up in the big cities on the east coast, mostly going to private schools...or whatever the heck Stuyvesant is in New York. I'm not sure how well they understand what it's like to come from a place where schools are intimately interlinked with neighborhoods; what it's like to have a mental map of your hometown that's divided up by which kids go to which elementary school.  In the context of my childhood, concepts like school choice seem sort of bizarre and the idea of closing a "failing" school is downright traumatic. How do you close a school that's synonymous with the community it's in? And don't they understand just how much community stands to be lost if schools are reformed to the point of being unrecognizable?

Of course, I also shouldn't let my own narrow experience prejudice me against reforms that may really genuinely be needed in some places...or that could even have been extremely helpful to a kid who sat in the exact same classrooms as me but got less out of it. But I dunno...I guess it all just circles back to where I ended up the last time I tried to write about this. The rhetoric against public schools really bothers me. Universal public education is one of the most successful endeavors this country has ever attempted...not a failure. Equality of opportunity obviously has a long way to come, and I understand why people expect the school system to be the vehicle to get us there (because honestly, what else even has a chance?) but that only counts as failing if  everything in the entire history of mankind ever counts as failing. Let's not be too eager to scrap a mostly working system in order to try out some ideas that we think might help us achieve a goal we hope is attainable.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gender Neutral

This is a quilt I'm finishing up for some friends who just had a baby, and who decided to be all contrarian-like and not find out the gender beforehand. Trying to make something for a baby not knowing if it's going to be a girl or a boy is an interesting exercise, because it basically brings you face to face with the fact that in our culture, too pink is a much bigger sin than too blue. And it really shouldn't be like that. I'm not sure I can picture it ever not being that way...a world in which you're just as likely to see a little boy with an older sister dressed in this as a hand-me-down as a little girl dressed in this...but I'm starting to accept the limits of my own vision a little more. Maybe things will change, and my vision will just have to catch up.

In the meantime, I'm pretty happy with the way this quilt turned out, and I like the pink in it even though I've always been a little anti-pink personally (just an aesthetic choice or part of never wanting to be too girly?...I'll never know). And it turns out it will be for a little boy. So there you go.

This is cool.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

If you build it, they will come.

I've spent the last hour or so excited about this site, because of this article, which I followed the link from this blog to find. My excitement is probably kind of misplaced at the moment, since I'm not exactly living in the land of the early adopters anymore, but I decided not to let that stop me. I am now one of 5 users of the neighborgoods sharing system in Merced. If you want my folding chairs, let me know. (The term "users" being taken very loosely far as I can tell, nobody has actually borrowed anything from anybody yet. But they might! Any second now!)

I think the overlap between frugality and environmentalism is something that deserves a lot more focus...if for no other reason than because it's the main area of environmentalism available to me for the time being. It also helps lift all of this crazy hippie granola stuff away from it's counter culture baggage and place it in a context of the way people have been living since forever. There's something wrong with wastefulness. I don't care if you arrive at that decision from a financial point of view, an environmental one, a religious one or a philosophical one...I think it's just kind of fundamental. A lot of the things that I'm hoping to do living here in Merced are about avoiding waste. The goal is to live cheaply, make as much use of our yard as possible, and avoid accumulating stuff we don't need. One thing that would be fantastic is if we didn't have to buy every single gardening tool we need new...but the four other users in the area don't look like they're going to save us from that. It's cool to think that that might be the future though.