Sunday, December 21, 2008

The death of PC gaming and the rise of the netbook

WARNING: The following post may contain technical terms that you will have to Google.  If you think your computer is run by magic faeries and a pinch of gold dust, you might want to skip this one.

I love games.  I play both computer (Windows PC) and video games (Wii and PS3), and I have done ever since my family had a computer (1996 or thereabouts).  However, there is a definite trend in the games industry away from computers, and towards console games.  To me, this seems a bit odd; most people already own computers, many computers are as powerful, if not more so, than current-generation consoles (especially the Wii), and wouldn't you think it would be cheaper and easier to consolidate one's games into one system, the computer?

Console game sales far outpace sales of computer games.  The Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, quotes statistics that support this claim: in 2007, console game sales accounted for $8.64 billion, while computer games accounted for a comparatively measly $910 million.

I think that there are a few reasons for this decline in PC gaming vis-à-vis console gaming.  The first is that dreaded and sick thing known as "Recommended System Requirements."

I remember trying to convince my parents to let me get a console when I was 12.  My main argument centered around the statement "there are no system requirements!  It always runs!"  This is my biggest beef with computer games, and I think it may have led to the downfall of the platform.  Console games, besides the fairly obvious "this game runs on this system" sticker on the front cover, have no system requirements.  It's either on such-and-such a system (and at full quality), or it's not.  

PC games, in contrast, come with a rather cryptic message on the bottom of the box that has a list of the "minimum requirements" (ie whether or not you can load the menu screen) and the "recommended requirements" (ie whether or not you can actually run the game).  You have to actually know what kind of processor you have, how much RAM you have, what video card you have, and what speeds they all run at.  You have to actually know how your computer works!  Oh noes!

In my experience with computer games, I have bought a game, taken it home, and installed it, only to find that that it either doesn't run at all or that it runs at such low quality as to make it virtually unplayable countless times.

Console games?  No problem.  Go to the store, buy the game that says "I run on your console!", pop the disc in, and bingo!, you're playing within five minutes.  No long installs (well, not until recently, anyway), no system requirements, no pain.

The second reason that I believe computer games are on their way out has to do with hardware.  Video game consoles have pretty much the same hardware, no matter what version of a platform you buy (yes, there are occasional updates, but for the most part they consist of nothing more than a new DVD drive, or a slightly faster processor).  PCs, on the other hand, are constantly being updated.  New graphics cards (arguably the single most important factor in how a computer runs a game) come out almost monthly; Intel and AMD (the two major processor manufacturers) release new processors regularly; new standards of RAM (random access memory, the stuff that stores data temporarily, as opposed to the hard drive, which stores things permanently) come out yearly.  The only thing that doesn't seem to change constantly in a computer is the hard drive.

Like all Apple products, PCs are obsolete almost the moment you buy them.  Because of the lack of a standard of hardware - a benchmark PC - games can, and do, vary over the entire spectrum of system requirements.  The prime example of this is a game called Crysis (pronounced like crisis).  Gamers love to poke fun at Crysis (in the way that school kids poke fun at the bully, but are secretly afraid and awed by him).  Crysis is consistently described as about two years ahead of current hardware and continues, a year after its release, to be the golden standard of extreme graphics on the PC, an amazing feat.

However, I have never seen a PC that could run Crysis at the highest settings.  They do exist, but they cost $5000 and up.

Who wants to constantly have to burn money on a computer to make sure that it can run the latest games?  Not I.  And, it seems, not the 38% of American households that own a video games console.

The third reason that "hardcore" PC games are going to die (which finally explains the title of this post) is that the world is transitioning away from big, powerful computers to small, portable, less powerful computers.  The "netbook" is a term coined fairly recently for the new category of computers with low-power processors and screens under 12" across.

I am typing this on a laptop, and although it's a huge 17" desktop replacement, the very fact that I own a laptop and not a more powerful desktop is an admission to the fact that I value portability more than power.

It is no coincidence that a "niche product" like the netbook exploded into the mainstream in the biggest year for video game console sales ever.  This is the point at which computers and games go their separate ways.  Video game consoles have and will continue to evolve into sophisticated multimedia centers, with games at their cores, while computers will evolve into more portable devices that center around interaction via the internet.

Indeed, some netbooks already blur the lines between the internet and a desktop environment.  Google recently announced a project, called Native Client, that would run x86 code (the types of programs that you run on your computer) inside your browser, which is presently limited to things like Flash or JavaScript.

Some may argue that games like World of Warcraft, which have an exclusively PC (and Mac) audience and are extremely popular, disprove this theory.  As much as I am inclined to dismiss these people as n00bs, they have a point.  WoW and other Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) have a tremendous audience on the computer.  However, new MMOs, like Bioware's the Old Republic, a Star Wars-themed MMO which has received a huge amount of hype, will be available on consoles as well as computers.  As internet connection speeds increase and MMOs become more hardware-intensive, the limiting factor of the graphics of PC MMOs like WoW will cease to be connection bandwidth and will become the actual video hardware of the machines they are played on.

Computers and consoles are headed in fundamentally different directions and only one can take gaming with it.  At the moment, it would appear that consoles have it mostly wrapped up.  Of course, what does it matter to Microsoft and Sony, the companies that make both our computers and our consoles if we have to buy one of each?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Metricate me, Cap'n!

To avoid any awkward confusion upfront, "metrication" is defined as "rewriting something in such a way that it is indecipherable to Americans" "the act, process, or result of establishing the metric system as the standard system of measurement."

The United States has officially recognized and endorsed the use of the metric system (officially the International System of Units - Le Système International d'Unités - or SI) since 1866.  However, it is one of three countries in the world that has not adopted it as its primary system of measurement (the other two are Liberia - a former US colony - and Myanmar).

This is not a post about how great the metric system is (very great), or why the metric system is better than the conventional system (it just is), or even how stupid the US is for refusing to adopt such a common sense series of units (quite stupid).  No, this post is none of these things because all of these things have been written about ad nauseam.

Essentially, the United States has refused to switch to the metric system because of a myriad of political and cultural reasons.  It is the only developed country in the world that has continued to use conventional units (with the quasi-exception of the UK), and most people tend to believe that metric units will continue to be used only in academia and technical fields like robotics and engineering.  However, I believe that the US could, and will, switch much faster, and much sooner, than is presently predicted.  And all because of the Internet.

North America has the highest percentage of Internet penetration in the world (73%); the United States alone has about 220 million Internet users.  Internet culture has blended so much with American culture that it is not uncommon to hear Internet expressions like "lol" or "1337" (pronounced "leet" and short for "elite" for all you non-1337 h4x0rz out there) used in everyday verbal conversations.  The Internet also uses metric.

Think about it; the hard drive in the computer you are reading this on is measured in gigabytes, the SI prefix giga, meaning "one billion," bytes.  My Internet connection is measured in Mbps - megabits per second (mega being the SI prefix for "one million").  The resolution of the photos you uploaded to Facebook the other day are measured in megapixels.  You use the metric system every day on a computer and on the Internet.

The international nature of the Internet also contributes to the metric influence.  Since so many (metric) countries are represented on the Internet, and since the Internet hosts content from all of them, it is inevitable that if one spends enough time on the Internet, one will encounter the metric system.

It is this subtle infiltration of America by the metric system that I believe will ultimately lead to a United States in line (literally) with the rest of the world.  90% of US residents aged 18-29 use the Internet, and so the metric system has finally learned what the Catholic Church has long known - "get 'em while they're young."  I foresee a kind of Glorious Revolution in which the metric system is finally introduced, in policy, as the primary system of measurement for the United States by the maturing Internet-age of Americans - those born 1992 (the birth of the World Wide Web) and later.

Gone will be the Carter-era pamphlets on "metrication" and a "metric future," to be replaced by...well, nothing.  We don't need propaganda to convince us to use the metric system, we already use it voluntarily with our computers and the Internet.  The Internet has brought the world together, and has (recently) begun the process of standardizing a compendium of knowledge and experience (including a system of measurement) that transcends national boundaries.  As high technology becomes more and more integrated within our culture, the metric system, the measurement scheme of high tech, will become integrated, as well.

Fear not the revolution, for it has already come.

P.S. Commenter Dr. Detroit makes a very good point, and I am reproducing part of his comment here: 
"There were many starts and fits in the direction of the metric system in the US since the fateful year of 1866 when it became legal throughout the land. A toxic combination of business lobbies (it's too expensive!), undereducated patriots (it's un-Amerikun!), and sheer inertia (imperial works, why bother?) has killed off any serious attempts at conversion several times. Although people may know their kilo-, mega-, and giga- prefixes thanks to PC's and the Internet, we still live in an America of 21-inch monitors, 3.5-inch hard drive bays, and hard-drive densities measured in bits/square inch." 
It is, sadly, true that high technology, because much of it is developed in America, is subject to the awkward dual use of metric and customary units.  I would concede the point that many measurements of high-tech devices are still measured in inches and other imperial units.  However, it is conceivable that we are in the first stages of a metric transformation that could be graphed as a parabola, that is, a transformation that starts slowly but builds upon itself to become a huge and significant force within a short period of time.  As the generations that never learned the metric system age (or as my mom so eloquently put it to me, "when I die"), the metric system may gain ground at an exponential rate (hence the parabola comparison).  Already we are seeing some small glimmers of hope as computer manufacturers have completely rejected the idea of using fractions of an inch in screen size measurements, in favor of the decimal system (ie .1, .2, .3, etc.) which is used by the SI.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Consensus and the UN

Today, the United Nations is obsessed with consensus.  The ultimate goal of every debate on every issue is to reach a consensus.  Member nations have even gone so far as to include the word consensus in caucus names like "Uniting for Consensus" (which, admittedly, sounds quite a lot better than the caucus's former name "The Coffee Club").  Why do we lust after consensus, though?

Obviously, a solution that is agreeable to everyone is best, right?

Consider the following situation: nation A (let's call them Athens), nation B (Sparta), and nation C (Troy) all meet to try to come to an agreement on human rights.  Athens is a shining beacon of democracy in the world, they even like to spread the fantastic-ness of democracy to other countries.  Athens supports humanitarian intervention and human rights around the world.  Sparta, on the other hand, has a bit of a problem with a minority within their territory, a problem that the Spartans have decided to deal with by denying every human right to these citizens and initiating a campaign of ethnic cleansing.  The Trojans are the moderates: they support human rights, but not at the cost of national sovereignty.

Should Athens, Sparta, and Troy attempt to agree by consensus, anything they pass must meet only the lowest common denominator of the three doctrines on human rights and intervention.  Therefore, any resolution that the three pass will be completely ineffectual in practice, but will allow Sparta to continue killing their own citizens; Athens can proclaim a victory in the monumental passage of a resolution on human rights by consensus (every UN diplomat gets excited by that little buzzword); and Troy can claim to be the moderator, the calm and sage-like arbiter from whose fertile mind this consensus sprang.

Everyone wins!  (Well, except the Spartan minorities.)

This is the danger of consensus.  If everyone agrees, there is probably something very wrong, especially in an organization like the United Nations, which, by design, includes almost every possible viewpoint on almost every possible subject.

In fact, the UN Security Council veto power, an established power of the permanent five members of the Council that I am very much against, was established so that decisions could, and would, be made without consensus.  Unfortunately, the founders of the UN didn't foresee the P-5 being the very nations pushing for consensus and ignoring the plights of others.  Democracy is a great thing, but when it is in almost everyone's best interests to ignore a problem, or even worse, when they are encouraged to ignore a particular problem in order to reach the diplomatic Eden that is consensus, people suffer.

I've been trying to write a coherent post about the UN for a few days now, and I will probably write more on it in the future.  The UN would make great fiction - a struggle for international governance, rather than regional governance; the problems and conflicts that arise when governing a whole planet; even expansion to other planets.  I think the problem with people who like the UN (myself among them), is that we just can't comprehend why other people wouldn't want what we want - a more peaceful world(s) with better leaders and better living for all.  Maybe it's something about that whole having an omnipotent being/organization above you.  God doesn't seem to want to share, I suppose.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Musings on the World Wars

This past Saturday on KUNM, Radio Theatre played a PRX piece by Marjorie Van Halteren about the World Wars and the War in Iraq from the perspective of an American living in France.  In Europe, finding unexploded bombs from the pre-1945 era is commonplace, and there are special forces in both Germany and France that do nothing but round up and destroy these still-live explosives.  In fact, several years ago my paternal grandmother, who lived then in Leatherhead, England, called us up to tell us that an unexploded firebomb had been found under the floorboards of a shop in the town.

As Americans we never have to deal with the after effects of wars - especially those wars in which we were a combatant.  Since WWI, only one battle has been fought on US soil and none have been fought in the contiguous 48.  Finding a bomb in your back garden must really bring home the reality of a war that ended nearly 110 years ago.

Speaking of bringing things back to life, Kelsey has reposted a very interesting set of pictures from the First World War.  These photos are nothing special in terms of composition or subject matter - they depict soldiers in typical WWI uniform standing in trenches or sitting around - but they are in color, as almost no other photos of the Great War are.

I showed these pictures to my photo teacher, who asked if they had been hand-colored.  I don't think they have been, judging by the accuracy and the detail of the work, but I looked it up anyway.  As it turns out, a method of color photography was developed in 1907, just seven years before the outbreak of hostilities in Europe - autochrome.

The pictures, like the bombs and the radio piece, bring the World Wars slightly closer, subjectively, to modern times.  We can identify more easily with a color photograph than we can with a black and white one.  Perhaps things like these will help us avoid such a war in the future.  Maybe we will never have a war so horrible, so bloody, that it can be described by no other name than simply, "the Great War."  

Only if we remember these artifacts, these photos, these stories.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Post-election politics, part II of several: Isn't this a bit premature?

I can't believe this.

Maybe I should have foreseen massive resistance to the election of the first black President in history, but I never thought people would be advocating impeachment before he's even taken office.

Two things about this bother me more than anything else: 
1) Impeachment is a serious thing.  It should not be thrown about or used to enforce "family values," lest it degenerate into something that the Congress is loathe to touch when it is actually needed.  I don't think we would be seeing this had McCain been elected.  Yes, we would see protest and anger, but not calls for legal impeachment.
2) This man is our President-Elect in a time that is perhaps the darkest in America's history since WWII or the Great Depression.  Obama hasn't even had a chance to do anything yet, and I think that when he is tested, he will show the world that he is the President that America needs.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Post-election politics, part I of several: Parties

This series of posts, "Re-examining the Election," will be my "super-post" about the election that I promised.  Tonight I will focus on the two party system that we have had for generations here in America.  George Washington warned against parties, but James Madison saw them as essential to a new type of democracy.  All democracies in the world (that I know of) have some sort of party system, but is there a better way?

Last night I was chatting with Kelsey of Plastick Manzikert and he brought up the religious right faction of the Republican Party and how he thought that this election would be the death knell of the religious right.

That would be great if it were true.

Overall, I don't think the Republican Party membership agrees with the religious right - at least, not the Ron Paul-esque factions of the party - but what ends up happening in elections is that religious right candidates and leaders get into positions of power within the party when they would not generally be accepted by a majority of party members.

This got me thinking - if party platforms were less catch-all and more specific, then we would have a more diverse set of parties to choose from and thus we would "weed out" the extremist factions from "mainstream" parties.  This is the kind of thing European governments do.

To which, of course, Kelsey replied "What about the FN in France [and the BNP and the UK]?  They still get 10% of the vote.  It means no power, but they are scary as heck."

Yes, diversifying and specifying does mean that we get some really scary parties out there, but it also means that they are isolated and can't worm their ways into mainstream, catch-all party leadership and run the country from there (think Karl Rove and Dick Cheney).  Not without a coalition, anyway.

OK, so smaller parties are better, but two major problems remain: 1) How do we change the election system to promote more parties?  After all, there is nothing in the Constitution that limits us to two parties (or mandates parties at all), so we must have arrived here somehow.  2) How do we deal with the election of an executive when no party receives an absolute majority of the vote (or something close to it)?

There is a principle in political science called Duverger's Law which states that an electoral system based on district plurality (like the electoral college, where the winner of a state gets all the electoral votes, no matter the margin of victory) or single-member district plurality (where specific districts individually elect their own representatives to a legislative body) will favor two parties or factions in the system.

Since I can't explain it any better, let me just give you the example from the Wikipedia page on Duverger's Law: 
Duverger suggested an election in which 100,000 moderate voters and 80,000 radical voters are voting for a single official. If two moderate candidates and one radical candidate were to run, the radical candidate would win unless one of the moderate candidates gathered fewer than 20,000 votes. Observing this, moderate voters would be more likely to vote for the candidate most likely to gain more votes, with the goal of defeating the radical candidate. Either the two parties must merge, or one moderate party must fail, as the voters gravitate to the two strong parties, a trend Duverger called polarization.

In addition to this effect of polarisation, Duverger also pointed out a purely statistical problem with single-member district plurality (SMDP): if a statistically significant third party is spread out over several districts, then no single district has enough support for that party to elect a representative from it.  This problem can be solved, but can also be created, with gerrymandering, the oft-criticized act of redistributing and redistricting to benefit or hinder on party or group of voters.

Now before you go around thinking that SMDP leads only to two parties, I have to point out that many successful multi-party democracies have SMDP systems; India, Canada, and the UK all have more than two statistically significant and politically significant parties.  The US, however, doesn't.

In every election since 1980, no third part candidate has received more than 3% of the popular vote, with the exception of Ross Perot, who received 18.9% of the vote in 1992 and 8.4% of the vote in 1996.  More significant in the American electoral system, no third party candidate has won a state, nor received an electoral vote (discounting faithless electors), since George Wallace won five states and 46 electoral votes in 1968.  No non-Republican/Democratic party candidate has won the Presidential election since Zachary Taylor, a Whig, in 1848 (at that time the Whigs were a main party).

So, how can we promote the growth of more (and not just more, but smaller and more specific) parties in the American electoral system?  Well, for a start we can get rid of the electoral college and the system of Congressional Districts.  Yes, they were a good idea when the fastest method of communication was a horse and rider, but today these are simply outmoded concepts.  

We should hold national elections for parties to see what percentage of the public actually identifies with a party's platform, not their candidate.  Assign seats in the Congress based on the national results of this election, not individual state results (i.e. 45% Democrat, 30% Republican, and 25% Whig would yield 196 Democrats, 130 Republicans, and 109 Whigs in the House of Representatives and 45 Democrats, 30 Republicans, and 25 Whigs in the Senate).  This is called proportional representation (PR).  Distribution of the Representatives would still be based on population, and the individuals could still be elected by their respective state parties or local district parties, but this ensures that no gerrymandering to disenfranchise third parties could occur.  This might work, though not as well, on a state-by-state level.

Also, a problem that has grown in recent years, but was not even imagined in colonial days, is that of campaign finance.  I realise that I'm reprimanding my own party here, but I don't think that one party or candidate should be allowed to massively outspend the other.  Much as I love the things the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party have been able to achieve with the millions upon millions of fundraising dollars that they received this election cycle, I don't think it was very fair.  I think that it is every citizen's responsibility to find out as much as they can on a particular candidate; no party should have to plaster posters and fliers around and buy up as much television airtime as possible to inform a voter or scare them into voting one way or another.  If ignorant voters vote for someone out of ignorance, well then the country will be run by ignorant people.  You only get out as much as you put in.  But I digress.  

All candidates, in all races, should be publicly funded.  Either no outside funding should be permitted or it should be severely limited and regulated, as it is in France.  If you want to volunteer for a candidate, that's great, go out and do it.  Just make sure that everyone is on equal footing.  Historically this has been one of the biggest hurdles for third parties; they just can't afford to run campaigns.

On the fiscal side of things, though, funding ~15 parties through a primary season all the way to the election could get expensive for the government.  In that case, maybe some tax should be instituted to pay for campaigns, or maybe campaigns should be funded 50/50 publicly/privately if they receive a required amount of the vote.  NO MORE HUGE, LONG PRIMARY SEASONS!  Campaigning should begin maybe in April, at the earliest.  Not only would this save a heck of a lot of money, it would save us all the headache of having to watch political careers go down in flames as well as preventing long, drawn-out party infighting.

OK.  Well then, on to question two.  How do we deal with the election of an executive when no party receives an absolute majority of the vote (or something close to it)?

This is a difficult question.  In other developed democracies, Prime Ministers are appointed by the ruling party or coalition (a subject for another post) or a President is elected via a system of run-off elections which progressively eliminate candidates until only one is left (wouldn't that be a fun reality show?  Run-Off Terror!).  I think that perhaps the latter would be more appropriate for the United States, but then again, we also have a provision in the Constitution that deals with the possibility of no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes that could be easily adapted to fit a system without the electoral college.

Article 2 of the United States Constitution on the election of the President and the breaking of ties:
if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse [sic] by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse [sic] the President. But in chusing [sic] the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; a quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two-thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall choose from them by Ballot the Vice-President.

This method could work in a popular vote system, and I think, considering the existing infrastructure and tradition, it would be the most practical.

Parties might also form coalitions to achieve greater amounts of power.  Allowing large coalitions would be a mistake in a new elections system.  Coalitions are simply another name for "big, catch-all parties," just like "factions" were for "parties" in the 18th and 19th centuries.  If coalitions with large, moderate member bases and radical leadership get into power, they could do some nasty things.  I'm all for majority rule, but coalitions are a perversion of majority rule in that the few control the many, who in turn control the even many-er.  If that makes sense. 

As you may have noticed, quite a bit of my proposed electoral system comes courtesy of France.  France has a very good elections system, I think, especially with regard to campaign finance and advertising (there is no TV advertising, only government-regulated news coverage where everyone gets exactly the same amount of time, and no candidate can use the French colors of red, white, and blue in their campaign material).  Maybe we should learn something.  After all, our Constitution could stand an update, and the French have the most similar form of government (we did inspire their revolution, and they did make ours possible).

Well, that post was long enough, so I think I'll finish it here.  I have more post-election issues to discuss, but those can wait for another day.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

McCain on SNL

As a general rule, you don't make fun of yourself on national television until after you've lost an election.  John McCain seems not to have recieved that memo.

I'll make this short, because I want sleep, but McCain appearing on SNL tonight was a new low for American politics.  Isn't it kind of pathetic that McCain had to go to "the liberal media" (especially the hated NBC) to get some free publicity for his campaign three days before the election?  

That last bit, I think, is the most important.  If McCain had been on SNL a month or two before the election, then it might be different.  However, his appearance tonight, less than 72 hours before the polls close in the East, screams "desperate" to me.  I don't want to get too confident, but if I were his campaign advisor right now, I'd be calling a preacher to excorcise the stupid out of him.

The US votes and the rest of the world watches

The World wants Barack Obama to win this Tuesday.  By "The World," of course, I mean the citizens of other countries who can't vote in the upcoming US elections.  Don't believe me?  US News and World Report says reported that
If the foreign diplomats in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly late last month could [vote], they'd go for Sen. Barack Obama.
BBC News's poll of 22,500 people in 22 countries confirmed that Obama is "favoured by a four-to-one margin."  The Guardian, in association with eight other newspapers, including Le Monde (France), Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan), La Presse (Canada), and Reforma (Mexico), corroborates these results.  Gallup polls conducted in 73 countries have shown a 3-1 margin of support for Obama.  I think the evidence speaks for itself, but at the risk of being redundant I shall say again that the World wants Barack Obama to win.  

Why do they want him to win?  What is so different about Americans that we are don't have these huge polling margins for Obama?  Perhaps we see something, a darker side to Obama, or a lighter side to McCain, that the rest of the world doesn't see.  Perhaps the polls were rigged by communists.  Plausible theories, all.  However, I think that these polls reflect a fundamental difference in values between American and the rest of the world.  We've seen this kind of split before - on climate change, on the International Crminal Court, on Iraq, on the United Nations, ad infinitum - but we have never seen it on a "domestic" issue.

We've never seen the world so interested in a domestic American issue before because the President of the United States has never been the position it is now - the election of a President is now an international issue because of the power weilded by the office-holder.  The President apparently has the authority to violate national sovereignty, dismiss members of international border councils, and break US soldiers out of international jails.  The title "the President of the United States" is barely adequate nowadays, as it implies both parity with the heads of state of other nations and a limitation of power to American soil - neither is true.

Yes, you can call the occupant of the office of the President "the Leader of the Free World," as they have been since the Cold War, and it's true that the President weilded an immense amount of international clout in the '50s through the '90s, but in the post-9/11, post-Bush world where "the US sneezes and the rest of the world catches cold," the rest of the world is just as invested, and perhaps more so, as America is in this election.

P.S.  Sometime I want to do a big post or a series of posts analyzing this campaign.  Maybe I'll get to it after Tuesday.

P.P.S. Tomorrow I'll be doing another post exchange with Kelsey over at Plastic Manzikert.  It's something different, but I think it's really quite interesting, so do tell me what you think, all three of you.

P.P.P.S.  This post was inspired by a very good article by Andrew Rawnsley of the Observer (UK) about Barack Obama and his rather surprising campaign.  I encourage you to read it, not just because it's damned good, but because it gives another perspective on the American race for the White House.  Speaking of new perspectives, if you haven't already, check out the Onion's coverage of "The War for the White House," it's very entertaining and truthy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


So I shot and printed some more photos (I haven't been wasting all of my time!) and here they are, well, the best-ish, anyway:

(For some reason Blogger hates this photo.  Ignore the uploading artifacts.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

I'm Voting For Robin Hood in '08

Taking from the rich and giving to the poor is an idea, part of the Robin Hood folk myth, that has been ingrained in our culture.  We love to root for the "good guy" - Robin Hood - while we revile the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborn.  And that is as it should be.  However, we can change the terms just a little bit - make Robin the government that raises taxes on the rich to help the poor and make the Sheriff and Guy the politicians (I swore to myself I wouldn't use any modern names in this first bit) who want to keep the money where it is, and suddenly Robin isn't the good guy anymore.

Effectively, Robin Hood is redistributing wealth to the bottom 90% of Nottingham.  This redistribution is exactly the kind of thing that Republicans have been slamming Barack Obama for even suggesting in attack ads for the past few weeks.  Ever since I saw the first ad, I have been disgusted by them.

Redistribution of wealth is not a bad thing.  It would allow us to ensure that in our society everyone has a decent standard of living because, let's face it, not everyone in America has a decent standard of living.

I know this is political heresy and I will never be able to run for office in this country after saying it, but those people who "pulled themselves up by their bootstraps" to become part of the higher echelons of society should be taxed to allow others to attempt to pull themselves up.  The fact is that 99.9999999% people who live in poverty aren't living in poverty for lack of a will to work hard or to get a job, they just cannot, under current economic and social conditions, make enough to propel themselves out of poverty.  That needs to change.

America needs to tax it's more well-off citizens to provide universal health care, daycare for children, etc.  Civic virtue plays a role here.  Those better-off should help those not-so-well-off because it is their moral duty to do so, not because it benefits them economically (oh no, did I just invoke morals?  I thought only Republicans had those!).

Many people assume that the poor are taken care by not-for-profit organizations and volunteers.  Unfortunately, there are nowhere near enough volunteers and nowhere near enough money in non-profits to fix the huge problem of the class-gap between the very rich (who just seem to be getting richer) and the very poor (who just seem to be getting poorer) in America today.  Volunteerism doesn't cut it.  The government should stop using non-profits as its scapegoats, step up, and take responsibility for its own citizens.

A government's first responsibility is to provide for and protect its people.  We are currently failing the most fundamental mandate of any just government.  America could do with a little redistribution of wealth, and since money is power, if we redistribute the wealth back to the masses, if we take from the rich and give to the poor, then we, the people, get back the power.

And that's exactly what the rich and powerful are afraid of.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Politics for the people

Although I'm a bit late to the party, I just wanted to mention that yesterday there was a huge Obama rally (link quotes sign as saying "We Need Change."  It actually read "Change We Need") on Johnson Field on the University of New Mexico campus.  By huge I mean 45,000 to 80,000 people huge.  That's almost a sixth of Albuquerque right there - an amazing feat for any event (Apparently this was the largest political rally ever in New Mexico, according to KOB-TV).

I was at the Obama rally as a volunteer, one of about 500 registering people to volunteer, assisting with the event, and generally doing anything we were told.  What struck me about the Obama campaign was its amazing organization and the way everything ran so smoothly with only a few days notice and preparation.

I am incredibly proud of this movement because this is truly a "grassroots" campaign.  We had volunteers of every age, every ethnicity, and just about every income level out there, working together for something they all believed in.  The raw energy of it was astounding.

I think that this campaign, if it successful, will do something more than simply "bring change to Washington;" I hope that this campaign will change the way campaigns are run.  We have the opportunity here to move away from a negative, top-down approach to political campaigns, and move towards positive, engaging, volunteer-supported, volunteer-driven, bottom-up campaigns that include everyone, not just "VIPs" or the party elite.  For too many years politics has been the domain of a privileged few.  Even the jargon of politics served to exclude people from the process.  Now, though, we can go back to the roots of mass democracy, something envisioned by James Madison way back at the founding of the United States.  

No one believed Madison that democratic-republicanism could be practiced with a large group of people over a large territory.  We can now, once and for ever, prove that Madison was right; we can practice real democracy, democracy where the most important thing is a single person with a single vote.  I'm not saying that party organization doesn't have its place, I'm saying that campaigns and parties should derive their powers from the same source that the government derives its powers: the people.

I realize this sounds as if I'm saying "go out and vote for Obama!  He's the only guy who really wants to listen to the people!"  And yeah...that's pretty much what I'm saying, I'm not going to deny it.

P.S. I've got pictures and a video of most of Obama's speech from last night that I will post as soon as I get it off the SD card.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Firefly Post Exchange - Plastic Manzikert

The other day, Kelsey, the author of Plastic Manzikert and former editor of Foliage, suggested that he and I do a post exchange on our respective blogs on the subject of the sci-fi show Firefly.  I am a huge fan of Kelsey's work, and if you like the post below, go ahead and check out his blog here.

Firefly is my favorite piece of science fiction more or less ever. For the uninitiated, here's a few good quick links: more information than you require, less information than is helpful, and some (but not all) of the episodes available for free online. I'm assuming familiarity with the series for this post, so if you aren't familiar go ahead and watch it. All of it. It will make you very happy.

Like anything that I enjoy and can ponder for hours, Firefly has depth, and most interestingly political depth. Some of this is coincidental timeliness - the show premiered September 2001, and in the eight short years since then our own society has come to resemble fiction in startling ways. The most on-the-surface immediate reaction I get from the show in real life is the sight of blue gloves worn by TSA personal. In the show, these gloves are worn by government contractors on the hunt for a fugitive, and these contractors abuse habeas corpus, kill underlings, and are generally just dismissive of codes of conduct in their pursuit of their quarry. To see the same gloves on security personnel now kind of scares me.

There's more to Firefly's commentary than just prescient villains. The show takes place 6 years after a war between "The Allied Planets" and "The Independents". While the war is admittedly inspired by the US Civil War, the alliance/independent dichotomy strikes me as less of a historical fiction than a meditation on the fate of the United States.

The Alliance, you see, is a collection of prosperous and highly civilized planets, called the "core" (industrialized nations, or, alternatively, well-developed urban centers). The alliance has abundance, and with this abundance they have both a highly-functioning welfare state and a police state. The two, from the perspective of Firefly, are linked in such as way that they cannot function without each other. And in the brief glimpses we see of Alliance planets, it seems like a system that almost works - people are happy, private property is well protected, criminal behaviors are constrained by a system of digital monitoring all individuals, and there is a democratically elected Parliament in charge of everything.

But that's an almost. Throughout the show we see that there are flaws in this system. The government is far more secretive, functioning more less like a transparent democracy and more like a detached council (though perhaps this is how many already view the US legislature). The alliance provides competitive, free higher education for interested individuals, but at a high personal cost. Service to the higher echelons of government overrides local law enforcement always. Spoiler Warning: we see this as it regards distant planets in the episode "The Train Train Job", and we see it as it effects core planets in "Ariel". But that's the government functioning as one might expect, with some degree of secrecy and with priorities that don't immediately square with what locals want. Where the Alliance really breaks from good government is with corporations. Spoiler Warning for everything that follows.

In the first episode, the Firefly cast (also known as the crew of Serenity) are approached by a giant Alliance patrol. The patrol intends to arrest them for "illegal salvage", which brings to question what is legal salvage. While this question isn't addressed in the show proper, the answer is hinted at by the presence of the ubiquitous Blue Sun corporation. Blue Sun is a huge corporation, which does everything from sell canned goods to make t-shirts to employ blue-gloved individuals that hunt down fugitives as government contractors. In all the areas the government itself cannot function, government contractors are given authority, and they are even less accountable and are more subject pursue their objectives without attention to legal constraint. And then, in a flip, the contractors get to sue the government to enforce their monopolies against the public. The illegal salvage mentioned is not illegal because it is salvage (that is a necessary function in an interstellar economy, I imagine), but it is illegal because a contractors license wasn't obtained by those doing the salvage.

So that's the Alliance - rich, cultural imperialists who have the money and the desire to establish systems of both social welfare and social control, and who manage to afford all their excesses of power by employing contractors, corporations, and other extra-governmental bodies. Commentary, right?

This is contrasted with the Independents.

The Independents (and their veterans, known as Browncoats), are states rightists, libertarianistic, and self-deterministic. They believe in local rule, in minimal government, in self-sufficiency, and in individual freedom. Great as this sounds, in corporates a whole lot of nasty - indentured servitude, slaves, rule by arrogant local "Big Men", criminal empires, and some real hardship are all more or less a given in areas where Alliance control is weak, and Independent victory wouldn't have done much to curtail these problems. It's almost a hobbesian simplicity - where the government is weak, the people have no choice but to be strong or to die. On the other hand, those who can make it don't have to deal with anything more powerful than people. It's an intensified myth of the American fronteir, of the self-succificient American pioneer, and of self determination almost directly contrasted with democracy and power.

Firefly is, as I see it, the relevant narrative of this time, or at leasst of the past decade. The show existed before the Department of Homeland Security, and by the time the movie Serenity debuted (the show's sort-of sequal in film form) private military contractors working for the US government had been involved in battles in Iraq. Writing now in 2008, the US is beginning to look seriously at some form of Universal Healthcare and the government has pseudo-nationalized many major financial institutions. And this is also the era of Ron Paul, where a radical rightist can advocate a minimalistic government and draw large support from youths (who already have an unfavorable experience with provided services imposing major restrictions on freedom; i.e. public school).

For good or not, I think that the path as foreseen in Firefly is more or less clear for the United States. We've moved irrevocably away from yeoman farmers, and we've moved further still from an open lawless fronteir. The only option I see, even in the face of rising libertarianism and minimalist government backlash, is a carefully guided course of expanded government. The pitfalls to avoid are obvious, but I'll state them anyway - tranparency is the only safe way to guarentee more government power, and even that alone isn't enough. Private contractors have to be held to the same standards as governmental organs, and they have to be just as transparent. And we as a society are going to have to find some way to ward off a police state while moving into a welfare state. Firefly shows us a workable but broken model - the future isn't set, so there is no reason why we can't do better than fiction.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cicular thinking

So, I'm building an arc-camera in photography.  It it made up of pinhole cameras arranged in an arc and with 35mm film threaded through them to create one giant camera capable of capturing an instant in time from many different angles.  I'm going to then print a few of these on a transparent medium and sandwich them together (or maybe something else) to create an image.  It's similar to what Tim MacMillan (sorry, couldn't find a good link) has done, but horizontal, not circular, and will probably use studio lighting rather than strobes to get the exposure time long enough.

Right now, I'm trying to make all the little boxes that make it up, but f anyone has any suggestions, please don't hesitate to speak up.  I'll post pictures when and if I get it up and running.

I also want to direct you over to Plastic Manzikert, a blog written by former Foliage General Secretary Kelsey Atherton.  It's an excellent blog all-around, and I'll be collaborating with Kelsey on a series of Firefly-themed posts this weekend.  So yes, I suppose you could call this shameless self-promotion, but it's for a good cause.  I mean, everyone loves Firefly, right?

"Oh, I'm going to the special hell..."

Stone-age philosophy

Yesterday, my English teacher assigned some reading from Thoreau's Walden, specifically a chapter entitled "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For."  I've written about Thoreau's contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, before, and suffice to say I'm not a huge fan.  I think that the theories espoused by Emerson, including "self-reliance," are naive and counter to the best interests of a human society.  Effective society depends upon effective cooperation and interdependence, which is why I am such a strong proponent of the United Nations.  Independence and unilateralism, while very good premises for action movies, make very bad real-life philosophies.  "Why can't everyone just get along?!"

Anyway, I thought I'd give Thoreau a read and see if I liked what I saw any better than Emerson.  

I didn't.

Thoreau's central idea, it seems to me, is to be as singularly ignorant of all things as it is possible to be.  Only then can you attain happiness and "true living".  He asks why we should care about events that happen around us and claims that we should attempt to simplify our lives as much as possible.  Maybe it's changed recently, but last time I checked "simple" was a euphemism for "stupid."  Life isn't simple, that's why we have thousands of strands of DNA in our bodies, all altering the way we live in tiny, tiny ways.  That's why we think the universe is infinite, and may even exist as only one of an infinite number of others in a multiverse.  That's why we even have philosophers, for goodness' sake, they tell us how to interpret the confusing and complicated thing of life.

Below I am including an excerpt from Walden and an excerpt from my response to a question on it.  I think this will help clarify my point.

From Walden:
"Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion. Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment. The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it, as for them, is in a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose. It lives too fast. Men think that it is essential that theNation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again."

My response to "Explain the extended metaphor in paragraph 2 (the above).":
"The extended metaphor of the railway in paragraph 2 is used by Thoreau to criticize both government and individuals. In the 19th century, railways were beginning to be built throughout the United States, forming the interconnected, speed-obsessed society that we have today. Thoreau applauds certain elements of the railroad of society for resisting, saying “I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.” He criticizes the higher levels of society, lamenting that “if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.” Thoreau's remedy to this sort of dog-eat-dog society (I hesitate to say capitalist, because I doubt Thoreau would have preferred a socialist, egalitarian society any more) is ignorance. This is, of course, not explicitly stated, and Thoreau would probably take issue with it, but the ideas that he proposes further in the essay amount to as much. He says “if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads?” This statement denies that human society evolves naturally, and claims that if everyone were to simply “stay at home,” tend to their own affairs, and not care about anything or anyone else that existed outside of this insulative bubble (a concept he elaborates on in paragraph 3), society would naturally slip away and the world would be a better place. Perhaps a case study on the Stone Age can enlighten us as to the effects of such a doctrine."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Hehehehe, hohoho....

I think this is awesome.

A Softer World is already one of my favorite webcomics, but this....this is just...wonderful.  Too wonderful for words to describe.  Like Emerson.  Except for not really.  I don't like Emerson.  Self-reliance is naive and counter-productive.  And it reminds me of Sarah Palin.  Anyway.  Webcomics.  I also like today's xkcd.  Including Brian Greene was an excellent touch.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


Today I went to a college fair at the convention center in Albuquerque, and besides being overwhelmed by the number of different colleges in attendance, I was shocked by the cost of going to college.  Maybe I'm being unrealistic, but I think that $40,000 a year is a bit much.  

For example, two colleges I'm thinking of applying to, Bard College at Simon's Rock and Reed College (both, admittedly, very small, selective liberal arts schools) charge upwards of $36,000 a year for tuition alone, according to CNN.  

It also seems bizarre to me that the government only subsidizes college expenses through FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  Though this program can, and has, aided many students who would not have otherwise been able to go to college, it does not cover the huge cost of attending private colleges and universities, which, with some exceptions, are generally better than state schools (please don't kill me!  I mean in academics, and I admit that I haven't actually gone to these schools, so I'm basing this off of college ratings and reputations).  The maximum FAFSA grant is about $9,000 (added up the figures here).  Many schools are also now meeting 100% of demonstrated need (cost of college - other awards and expected family contribution, based on tax filings), which is great, but that can still leave a large sum of money to be paid.

My question is, why doesn't the US government subsidize costs (more than just FAFSA), if we care so much about education and how the US is being eclipsed academically by the students of other countries?  I read a statistic the other day that China has more honors students than the US has students.  Sure, that's a product of population and should be expected statistically, but isn't that the kind of thing that should make government officials concerned with education say "hmmm, I wonder if we should maybe look into this 'higher education' thing"?

There are countries that already have looked at these statistics and thought, "oh!  We should do something about that!"  France funds all of its higher education directly from the state (oh, noes!  Socialism!), and thereby reduces individual tuition costs to at maximum, 700 euros.  The United Kingdom has a similar system; all universities, except the University of Buckingham, are publicly funded (but not publicly owned) and have their fees capped at 3,125 pounds a year.  Even South Africa has average tuition fees for university around 3000 USD a year (24,000 South African Rand to 2845 US Dollars).  

The fact is that the United States cannot continue the contradiction of effectively requiring, through social pressures and job requirements, a college degree and jacking the price up on college attendance.  I return once more to the simple idea that it is a government's responsibility to provide for its people.  It is the responsibility of the government of the United States to either lower tuition costs to an acceptable level, or to eliminate the social requirement of getting a college degree, preferably the former.  That probably won't happen within the next year or two, unfortunately.

In closing, I do not believe that the ability to pay should have any bearing whatsoever on an individual's ability to attend an institution of higher learning.  Anyone with the mind and the will to learn should be given the opportunity to pursue learning to the furthest extent possible.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Division by zero

I just ran across a very interesting explanation of a mathematical concept that I had, up until now, just taken for granted: division by zero.  Math teachers always explain it by saying "you can't do it, so don't."  Although that is quite practical, it doesn't fulfil the human need for explanation and knowledge.  I won't go in to it, I'll let you look at the website, but essentially, we can't divide things by zero because, if we did, it would create contradictions within our number system and said system would fall apart under the crushing weight of all these contradictions ("all integers are equal").
This is cool because it is fundamental to our number system and such a simple thing has such huge implications.  So go ahead, make yourself feel important and part of something bigger and go type in x/0 into a calculator (where x= anything).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Standing Up for Judas

So I said I'd write this, and here I am, writing it.  This is my post about the financial "difficulties" the country is going through right now (oh, and if it seems a to you, it's because I'm dead tired, but thought it rather important to write this).  Anyhoo....the post!

I am not an economist.  I have never studied economics.  I have about as much grasp of this subject as Stephen Colbert, and, it seems, most other people in the world.  (Well, now my appeal to ethos is shot to hell..., let's try logos...)  That said, I believe that the government bailout of banks is wrong for the following reasons:

1. These banks are for-profit entities, not owned by the government, and with an obligation to their shareholders only.  We should not bail out private companies with public funds, unless we are actually going to take over that company and make all of its profits government income which can be turned into useful things such as roads and healthcare, which everyone can use, rather than cars and laptops, which benefit individuals.

2. It's these companies' own bloody faults that they lent to people the knew couldn't make their payments if the housing market took even a slight down turn.  Let them deal with the consequences of their actions.  I know it sounds juvenile, but I am a legal juvenile so suck it up.  It also makes the most sense, if you ask me.  You break something, you deal with it.

3. (Not technically a reason for not bailing out banks, just a gripe I have with the whole thing) Executives of these companies should not get bonuses for being fired for sending the country into an economic nose dive.

4. It has been proposed that there will be no oversight on this matter.  Every single government agency that has ever done anything like this has had oversight.  It is crazy and counter to the ideals of the Constitution not to have oversight.

5. (Lastly, and most importantly) We are bailing out the wrong people!  The people who will suffer from this are not the CEOs of AIG and Lehman Brothers, they are the tax-paying citizens of the United States who took on a mortgage that they couldn't handle, and now find themselves over the flames because these banks that lent to them didn't tell them "Uhhh, sir, we're going to make less money off you, but we'd like to inform you that you actually can't afford this loan.  Perhaps I can suggest another, more suitable one?"

Oh, and this also gives us a nice push in the direction labeled "fascism".  As if we didn't need it.

"173 despots would surely be as oppressive as one." - Thomas Jefferson

Monday, September 22, 2008

This Box of Bailout-O's Comes with a Prize!

Congress is now considering a so-called "bailout package" proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, George Bush, and the Executive Branch.  This package would bail out floundering banks and companies (correct me if I'm wrong, here) and would give the Treasury control over the whole process.  Maybe it's just my natural fear of consolidation of power, but vesting all this power in the hands of an administrative department within the Executive just rubs me the wrong way.  It also doesn't help that Section 8 of this proposed plan reads:

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

Now that's just downright scary.  No oversight?  What are they thinking?  If there is no oversight, then Congress could pass as much regulatory legislation as it wanted, and Paulson and Bush would always be able to trump them.  This is just another battle in the ongoing war that has been waged for the last 8 years - the war between the Executive and Legislative Branches.  This is a blatant attempt to corrode the system of checks and balances that this nation is based on.

I'll write more about this tomorrow on a day where I don't have tons of homework and fencing, because right now I need some sleep.  Here's a fun picture I came across to tide you over until then (I'm sure you'll be waiting with baited breath).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


So, I developed my photos that I took with my custom Pringles-can lens extender (now sporting an awesome black interior and exterior - completely lightproof!), and I think they turned out pretty well, considering it all cost me less than 10 bucks. And now, for your viewing pleasure, my photos, developed using "nice and toxic" chemicals and then scanned into JPEGs at low compression. Feel free to make suggestions or (creatively) criticize. If I didn't want people to see them, I wouldn't put them on theh Intertubes.

Monday, September 15, 2008

A quick aside

Just quickly, I read the headline "Gates's Iraq visit marked by bombings." This, to me, is in very stark contrast to the news we've been hearing lately out of Iraq, which amounts basically to "We're winning! Go USA!" This reminds me of a discussion we had in US History the other day, when my teacher, Mrs. Daby, told us about the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. I wasn't around then, so I can only go on what I've learned, but what I've learned is that before the Tet Offensive, Americans were being fed the same kind of self-deluding BS that is coming out of Iraq right now. After the Tet Offensive, though, all that changed. Americans woke up to the fact that they had been lied to - the USA wasn't winning this war, the Vietnamese didn't want us there, and we were going to be there for 100 years if we didn't pull out.


Thomas Paine returns from the dead, film at 11

This year I am taking US History, and it really is amazing to me just how many parallels there are between the 18th century and the 20th and 21st centuries. The adage 'those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it' seems to be the overarching theme this year in history.

What specifically caught my eye today was this passage in my book, The American Pageant:

Because political power no longer rested with the central, all-powerful king, individuals in a republic needed to sacrifice their personal self-interest to the public good. The collective goals of 'the people' mattered more than the private rights and interests of individuals.

This passage is from a section that talks about the main ideas of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, a pamphlet published in 1776. Strangely, or perhaps not-so-strangely, Common Sense seems to apply almost as well, if not better, to the political situation today than it did to the political situation in 1776, 200-some-odd years ago.

In Common Sense, Paine was advocating for a new idea called 'republicanism.' This idea was very radical, because before this time, the political system in America could easily be described as 'do whatever Parliament and the King tell you what to do.' Britain was approaching a constitutional monarchy at this time, but they really hadn't got over the idea of an all-powerful monarch telling everyone what to do.

Common Sense, if we put it in a more modern context, seems to be saying 'provide for everyone, because the government gets it power from the people, so you better take care of those people...people.' Irregular plurals aside, this seems to me to be advocating that most feared of political ideologies, the black sheep of democratic systems: socialism.

Oh, crap guys! Call the Civil Defense corps! Socialism's afoot!

Now, I must confess, in the interest of full disclosure and fairness (hahahaha, hohohohoho, full disclosure, fairness, blogosphere, ahahahaha....), I am a socialist (not a communist; that's a completely different animal). Yes, that's right, I believe that the government has a duty to take care of all of its people, not just those who happen to strike it rich. But that's another story.

The story here is that, 200 years before the Cold War, Thomas Paine was arguing that the United States should have, as at least a part of its underlying ideology, socialism. Doesn't that just blow your mind? That the good of the people as a whole outweighs the good of the self or the good of the individual is an idea that has been immortalized in stories since the beginning of history. Self-sacrifice and all that rot. In Common Sense this ideal took shape in the unifying idea of an American 'republic.' In more modern times, this ideal was fundamental to the political system called socialism.

What I'm trying to get at here is that from the beginning of this country, the government has been designed to serve 'the people.' In the singular sense. The government was not designed to serve individuals, it was designed for a singular and revolutionary new body - the American People. Lately, however, whether through innocent misinterpretation or malign meddling, this concept has become warped to mean that the country now serves the 'people' (plural, now).

This may seem quite nitpicky and not at all relevant to any kind of modern, constructive political discussion, but Supreme Court cases have been decided on as little as the placement of a comma (another bad idea which I'll write on later). I think that, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, the mindset in this country has definitely changed in the past 230 years from brotherhood and society to greed and exclusivity. And that's just not common sense.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Look, Mommy! I Can See the Higgs Boson From Here!"

Today I decided to build a Pringles-can extender tube for my Canon AV-1 SLR. I dremeled holes in a rear lens cap and a Canon body cap and glued the body cap to an already cleaned and dremeled Pringles can. I then wrapped a lens with dark cloth and stuffed it backwards into the Pringles can and attached the whole thing to my camera. The result can be seen below.

Why, you ask? Well, reversing the lens and using an extension tube allows me to take pictures of some pretty amazing stuff. Really, really (really) tiny stuff (probably not the Higgs Boson, but one can only hope). It's called macro photography, or technically, photomacrography, but let's stick with the former. I'll post some pictures that I take with it when I develop them (I know, it's retro to actually develop photos, but I just love the smell of chemicals...).

Oh, and by the way, happy last-day-of-the-world! G'night!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Election Game

Maybe it's a bit sick and cruel of me, but I really like the Wikipedia article on dating game shows. I am amused by the ease with which television and the willful self-humiliation entailed in appearing on such a show as the Dating Game or the Newlywed Game destroys "sacred" relationships between "soulmates." Perhaps there's some science behind this schadenfreude, and obviously, it's marketable. I think that at least part of the formula of these shows (one in particular, actually) could be adapted for use in elections.

Now for a nice anecdote: Last week, I was staffing the Democratic Party of New Mexico booth at the New Mexico State Fair, along with my parents and a few other members of the Jason Marks PRC campaign. We were registering voters and handing out buttons and stickers and pamphlets and things, and it was all great. Then, up comes this woman and she asks us if we have any Barack Obama signs or anything. We say "no, everyone in the entire state is out, including their headquarters." (Which is true, by the way.) The woman says that she really wants to go get something advertising Obama because she just overheard someone at the Republican Party booth say "I want to register to vote because I don't want a black man as President."

Well, at least he's got a reason, right? Anyway, this got me thinking, why should what someone looks like, or even what they sound like, or how old they are, determine if you vote for them or not? Unfortunately, that is a reality of American politics today, that is why Kennedy won the 1960 presidential debate, that is why the nomination of Sarah Palin (or even the thought of nominating Hillary Clinton) was so dramatic.

Can we design a better system? Is it possible to disassociate the person from the politics? I say we give it a shot. Tell both parties (or all of them, actually!) to come up with summarized platforms and then disseminate these platforms, through the press, through the schools, through any possible outlet, to the voting public. Then, come election day, each voter simply votes for the party, not the candidate, whose platform they most agree with.

I think this addresses several problems with the current voting process:

1. It eliminates (mostly) votes based upon physical appearance, race, gender, and other, non-policy-related criteria.

2. It has the potential to lower the amount of voter confusion on candidates' stances on issues.

3. It frees up the really charismatic people to go where we need them: dealing with other countries to patch up relations.

4. No more arguments over flip-flopping!

Conversely, it could also create a few problems:

1. Voters may not be able to rally passionately around a candidate (but doesn't passion blind judgment?)

2. It requires voters to educate themselves (I've already written about this. Basically, if voter's aren't informed in the first place, any decisions they make will be uninformed, also, and, in my eyes, invalid).

Personally, I think that having charismatic leaders is great, but a person should not be elected because they are charismatic. A party should be elected because of its stances on the issues, then charismatic officials should be appointed because they are charismatic and it's a job requirement for many positions. Voters should not base their opinions on appearance.

P.S. Maybe politicians should write anonymous blogs on their positions. They could hold Q and A sessions virtually. Ahhhhh, the possibilities unlocked with the internet....

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Civil Disobediance = Terrorism

The news out of St. Paul continues to shock and horrify me. And not only the news coming from the Xcel Energy Center. Today, DemocracyNow! reported that eight members of the group "the RNC Welcoming Committee" have been jailed on charges of conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism.

Excerpt from a transcript of the 4 September 2008 edition of DemocracyNow!:

AMY GOODMAN: According to the National Lawyers Guild, the criminal complaints filed by the Ramsey County Attorney do not allege that any of the defendants personally engaged in any act of violence or damage to property. Instead, authorities are seeking to hold the eight defendants responsible for acts committed by other individuals during the opening days of the Republican National Convention.

Most of the activists were arrested over the weekend in preemptive house raids. None of the defendants have any prior criminal history involving acts of violence. Authorities are basing their case on paid informants who infiltrated the group. The eight activists charged are Monica Bicking, Eryn Trimmer, Luce Gullen-Givens, Erik Oseland, Nathanael Secor, Robert Czernik, Garrett Fitzgerald and Max Specktor.

BRUCE NESTOR (President of the MN chapter of the National Lawyers' Guild): These charges are very significant for any political activist or anybody that cares about the right to organize politically or for freedom of speech. By equating plans or stated plans to blockade traffic and to try to disrupt the convention with acts of terrorism, the conspiracy nature of the charge, where you punish people for what they say or advocate, but not for what they do, really creates a possibility that anybody organizing a large-scale demonstration, at which civil disobedience may be a part of it or where other individuals may then engage in some type of property damage, creates the potential that all those organizers can be charged with these conspiracy charges and face significant penalties.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean, “in furtherance of terrorism”?

BRUCE NESTOR: In Minnesota, that was a law passed after the attacks in New York on September 11th. It kind of tracks the definition in the federal PATRIOT Act, which is any criminal act, in this case at least a felony, that’s designed to influence or coerce public opinion or to disrupt a public assembly. And so, my guess is that the charge is based upon the idea that there was an attempt to disrupt the RNC, which would be treated as a public assembly, even though they didn’t apply for a permit under St. Paul public assembly laws to do so.

This is outrageous. The St. Paul Police Department, Minneapolis Police Department, Minnesota State Police Department, and FBI, among others, are actively participating in an abridgment of the rights, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, to freedom of speech, of the press, and to peaceably assemble.

What is also very disturbing to me is the (unchallenged) use of so-called "preemptive arrests" by the various police departments operating in St. Paul. This policy allows for arrest and detainment for up to 36 hours (a judge has actually lengthened it to 48 for many of those arrested) without the accused having actually committed a crime.

In addition, many raids have been carried out by the St. Paul Police, complete with assault rifle-toting SWAT teams yelling "everyone on the floor!"

I don't understand why this egregious and blatant violation of civil rights isn't front page news in every paper in the nation and leading the top-of-the-hour newscast on every radio and television station. NPR and Pacifica Radio are the only two media outlets I have yet heard any coverage of this from (aside from a small, back page story in the Albuquerque Journal where the phrase "illegal arrests" was not used until the fifth paragraph).

One of my classmates in AP US History today pointed out that this is almost exactly like the way China deals with the press and protesters. Now that's a scary thought.

P.S. - Tonight, as I was watching John McCain's acceptance speech at the RNC, I saw two protesters run out into the crowd and on the steps of the convention center, flashing the peace symbol with both hands. John McCain stopped his (admittedly lukewarm) speech as the protestors were forceably dragged out by security officers in suits and the crowd chanted "USA! USA! USA!" I felt ashamed at that moment. Not for the protesters, no, for them I felt nothing but empathy, but for this country. How far have we fallen in 200 years that to protest is now considered unpatriotic and is drowned out by pseudo-fascist cheers of "USA! USA!"? How can a party that purports to be the party of the average person be so callous to the obvious concerns of so many? Perhaps it is because the GOP only considers "average people" to be people registered as Republicans (just like they consider everyone who makes under $5,000,000 a year to be middle-class). However, the most appaling thing, to me at least, about this whole episode was John McCain's response to the protesters: "Please don't be diverted by the crowd noise and the static." That's what John McCain believes protest is - just crowd noise and static.