Why I am heartened by the failure of the bailout bill

Posted on September 30th, 2008 — permalink

Congress defeated the $700×10^9 bailout bill championed by George Bush. The media are portraying this as a disaster, quoting financial advisors saying that this is a “financial 9/11″ and that boy oh boy are we screwed.

On the other hand, I have to admit on some levels I’m happy to see this. Why?

First of all, this isn’t the financial 9/11. The financial 9/11 was when all the major banks said, “Guys? We’re dead. Please bail us out so our execs can enjoy their golden parachutes without the guilt of a destroyed economy all around us.” What did Congress do after 9/11? Well, too quickly they passed the PATRIOT bill, overwhelmingly voting “yes” because the American people were demanding that we Do Something… even though many (most?) of those voting “yes” on it hadn’t had a chance to know what was in it, never mind think about the implications of it. And the PATRIOT bill was a huge step in dismantling a lot of the basic protections we have against living in a surveillance state.

When there is a crisis, there’s always a push to pass legislation, to Do Something, right away. Sometimes we’re lucky and what is done makes sense. More often, it’s thrashing about in a “ZOMG” reaction. Sometimes, if they are prepared, those with an agenda can push across legislation that would never have been pushed across when calmer heads were able to prevail. This is what happened with the PATRIOT act. According to reports, there’s an oppressive cyberregulation bill waiting in the wings for the “Internet 9/11″ to provide the public sentiment that will allow that to push across.

Probably we need to do something fast to prevent our economy from very quickly imploding. But I’m very nervous about the fast response. I’d like to see us do something right. I’d like to see us recognize that just a bailout without a philosophical shift in the attitudes that led us to this mess would be a huge mistake. I’d like to see us recognize that we’ve done an experiment with deregulation of huge, gigantic companies, and for those who were in favor of such things (which included, at least at times, me) to recognize that, yeah, those ideas have now been shown to be wrong, and sticking to them in spite of the evidence is not rational.

We need more than a band-aid. Yeah, quick action may be needed to keep ourselves out of a horrible depression for the next few years. But we need to think about the next several years, the next few decades, or, heaven forbid, even the next century or two. What we really don’t need is a knee-jerk reaction.. and I fear that that is exactly what the $700B bailout is.

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I am one of those moderate Christians

Posted on March 7th, 2008 — permalink

Phil Plait calls out McCain for accepting the endorsement of a religious extremist, but, thankfully, unlike some atheist bloggers, he also reminds us that there are lots of moderate and reasonable religious people out there who may diagree with Phil about the details of religion, but are good folks for whom the extremists do not speak. He does, however, extort us moderate religious types to stand up and remind everybody that the extremists do not speak for us.

So I’m doing that.

The sad fact is that the religious right has had an increasing influence over politics in recent years. Mind you, I’ve been aware of them for a long time. I grew up in Berkeley, CA, where people (including people in my church) were all upset about the Religious Right long before they were really an appreciable political force. But, today, the extreme religious types have contributed to what is, from my perspective, the ruining of the Republican party.

I voted for John McCain in the 2000 primary. I will not vote for him this year. Not unless he repudiates both the creationist political forces that have become de rigeur constitents for any Republican candidate, and not unless he repudiates the Bush/Cheney administration as a horrible thing. He will do neither. (Actually, even if he did, I still wouldn’t vote for him at this point, but I might think about him as a serious candidate.)

I am a Christian, but I don’t want to shove that down anybody’s throat. The church I grew up in was the United Church of Christ– the same denomination, incidentally, that Barak Obama belongs to. We had Nobel prize winning scientists in our congregation. We had ministers who liked to talk about Stephen Hawking. (We’ve also had openly homosexual worship leaders and ordained ministers.) We had no problems whatsoever with evolution or anything else coming out of science. We think it silly from a historical and text perspective to try to read the Bible as literal truth, never mind from a scientific perspective. And we are all very sad to see extremely loudmouthed jingoistic knee-jerk Biblical literalists out there defining what it is to be “Christian” in a lot of the popular press.

I sometimes fear that some Christians are creationists because they think they have to be in order to remain faithful to their religion. I occasionally have had students come up to me and express basically that after I’ve given talks about cosmology. I remember one student late last year who really wanted to believe the stuff I was talking about, because it was so cool, but wanted to be able to make it work with what she believed. My answer was that, well, you really can’t accept the scientific evidence for this cosmology stuff if you insist on believing that the world was created in seven literal days exactly as described in the first chapter of Genesis. But there are a lot of Christians out there with a very deep and thoughtful faith in both God and Jesus who have no problem with understanding that much of the Bible is composed of stories that say something about being human, and are not necessarily factual history. I continue to write science and religion things, despite the fact that when I do so (such as I did on scienceblogs.com when my blog was there for a time) atheists line up to jump on me for being soft-headed or contributing to the acceptance of the extremists. Part of the reason I do this is in hopes that I might reach out to one or two Christians out there who do not want to abandon their faith, and who may not have realized that they can accept modern science without doing so.


Signing digital documents : technology transitions that don’t make sense

Posted on January 21st, 2008 — permalink

My wife had knee surgery today.  (All went well.  She’s now in recovery.)  As we were in admission, we went through various things with the hospital worker.  At some points along the line, my wife had to sign some documents.  One was permission to treat and to tell our insurance about it.  Another was notification of having received a “Patient’s Rights” document.  Another was some Medicare form or another.

Rather than doing everything on paper, the signatures were all kept in documents on the computer.  And, here’s how they were done : there was one of those little “signature” widgets that you may have seen in stores where you can swipe your credit card, only here there was just the screen for the signature.   The woman, facing us and looking at her monitor (which we could not see), would ask my wife to sign something, and say, “OK, you’re signing now to say that you received this document,” or some such.

If you sit back and think about this, none of this makes any sense at all.



A bunch of mindless jerks who were the first against the wall when the revolution came

Posted on December 30th, 2007 — permalink

I refer, of course, to the executives, lawyers, and so-called thinkers behind and among the RIAA. They’ve been making noises about this for a while, but finally they’ve gotten around to trying to hold somebody legally liable for making a copy of a CD for their own personal use (that is, not even to distribute, but just for convenience of listening). I mean, heck, I’ve done this myself, and despite my ideological concerns, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid violating even some too-extreme interpretations of copyright law. How many of us haven’t? And if you think about it, it is impossible to make any use whatsoever of the music on a CD without making at least a transient copy of it, be it just in the soundwaves in the air between the speaker and your ear, or in the nerve impulses in your brain. Where does this extreme overreaching self-righteous behavior come from? Well, from fear, obviously. Amidst all their talks about educating kids about the morality of “stealing” and “protecting artists,” somewhere they recognize that large music publishing companies are fundamentally obsolete given modern technology, and like any frightened and unintelligent animal whose cornered, they’re lashing out viciously in any direction they think they can hit.

The mistake many of the rest of us make is by taking them seriously enough to allow them to hurt us rather than just dying off along with the dinosaurs and buggy whip manufacturers and piano roll sellers.

The world has moved on. Technology is no longer such that for musicians to communicate their music to the world at large, they require the resources of a large music publishing company. Alas, the publishing companies do not want to give up the power that yesterday’s technology granted them. Rather than trying to figure out how to best fit into the modern world, they are trying to criminalize modern technology.

I know a lot of musicians (and writers, and such) get huffy when people make arguments like the one I make, saying that I’m just “rationalizing stealing.” My response is this: we are asking the wrong question. The question we should be asking is not how do we protect intellectual property? Rather, we should be asking how can we insure that musicians and authors and artists are able to be paid and make a living producing the creations we value? The rhetoric, lawsuits, and luddism that we are seeing today in those who support the music industry’s utterly crazy crusade are results of limitations on thinking provided by asking the first question. The first question presupposes an answer to the second question that made sense in an earlier era, but that does not made sense in the modern digital era.

Rather than adapt, the RIAA seems to be going ever further into rectal defilade, ever further down the path of trying to outlaw the flexibility and individual empowerment provided by digital technology in favor of granting their member companies stifling control over anything anybody does with music.

I am sad that our government puts up with this. I am sad that so many creative people think that somehow the crusade of the RIAA is really doing them any good in the long run. I am sad that there are people out there who seem to think that it’s at all a reasonable opinion that there is justification in what the RIAA is doing.


Proposed Blog Meme : How Big a Terror Suspect Are You?

Posted on December 19th, 2007 — permalink

Check out this post on Nobody’s Business (which I found via BoingBoing).

Here’s what we should all do. Go down the list on the flyer from the Chicago Police Department, and see how many of them we’ve done. Here’s mine:

  • Physical Surveillance : oh yeah. I’ve done everything on the sublist. Binoculars, cameras, video (I think), and, hey, using maps (even though I am a man) in public.
  • Attempts to gain sensitive information regarding key facilities : not so much. I don’t think. Not that I don’t anticipate I might do something like that that in the future; heck, when you’re a gamer and you run roleplaying games, finding things like the floor plan for the pentagon or a nuclear plant can be very useful!
  • Attempts to penetrate or test physical security / response procedures : Yep. I’ve tried the locks on locked doors before. I’ve also used a coat hangar to open the lock on a car door. It was my car, but still. And I was doing this in public. They should have locked me up.
  • Attempts to improperly acquire explosives, weapons, ammunition, dangerous chemicals, etc. : not so much. I have made a lot of attempts to improperly split infinitives, because I’m a Star Trek fan.
  • Suspicious or improper attempts to acquire official vehicles, uniforms, badges, or access devices : a bit. I was a marine captain in a play once, and wore a uniform (sort of). When I was at Caltech, I (along with every other student, graduate or undergraduate) had and made copies of various master keys… which was a (successful) improper attempt to acquire an access device.
  • Presence of individuals who do not appear to belong in workplaces, business establishments, or near key facilities : sure. Ever been asked if you were lost? Means you didn’t appear to belong. Honestly, I do agree that this is something people should be aware of… not for terrorism reasons, but for common petty theft reasons. Calling 911 may be a bit of overkill.
  • Mapping out routes, playing out scenarios, monitoring key facilities, timing traffic lights : All of the above. Hell, every time I drive somewhere new, I map out a route. As for playing out scenarios, yeah, done that, generally using GURPS as the rules set…. Monitoring key facilities? I mean, I wouldn’t think anybody would want to, say, monitor the land (and water) near a power plant…. Timing traffic lights? Hell yeah. Every Monday night in grad school, coming back from orchestra rehearsal, I’d get on Green Street (a one way street) and hit pretty much every single light. It was awesome.
  • Stockpiling suspicious materials or abandoning potential containers for explosives (e.g. vehicles, suitcases, etc.). Insert obligatory joke about living in the South and abandoning a vehicle on your front lawn. I’ve got quite a giant stockpile of boxes left over from the last move in my attic. Does that count? I’m counting it.
  • Suspicious reporting of lost or stolen identification : I’ve actually done this, and it was even suspicious. See I had a credit card that was lost for a year. It was never misused, so it was really lost. Never found it. I mean, I still used it, because I knew the number, but the card itself was lost. Finally I got over the procrastinatory activation barrier and called the company to have a new number issued. Isn’t that a bit suspicious? “Uh, yeah, a year ago I lost my credit card….” Given that you can use credit cards as a secondary form of ID, I think I’m a full-on terror suspect here.
  • How did I do? Six (counting two “halves”) out of nine. Geez! If you aren’t alarmed by me, then you are not a Good American who cares about the safety of his or her country! Heighten your awareness!