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.