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.