5/17/2002

Couple days off We're off to the Schlitterbahn, the world's greatest water park, for the weekend, so I probably won't have anything more to say until Sunday night or Monday. I've got a few things brewing, such as a followup on Joe Katzman's piece about the anti-Semitic incident at SFSU, which Meryl Yourish has publicized, but for now all I want to do is relax, ride a few slides, and recharge my batteries. Have a great weekend!
More Disturbing Technological Advances Dept. Using Gummi Bears, PhotoShop, and ingenuity, a Japanese cryptographer was able to create fake fingerprints that fooled fingerprint recognition systems 80% of the time. Guess maybe I'll keep paying cash at Kroger for awhile longer.

Thanks to Michael for pointing this out.
Putting words in my mouth A new breakthrough in video technology at MIT can realistically alter video images to make it appear that someone is saying something else. Read it and worry.

5/16/2002

RIP, PFI Craig Biggerstaff at Page Fault Interrupt is hanging up his keyboard, citing that old bugaboo of Real Life. I salute your efforts, Craig, and hope that someday you may be able to blog again. Please feel free to drop in a comment any time, and enjoy your retirement.
Hey, Mickey! Back when KausFiles was still its own site and had actual archives, Mickey Kaus snickered that Democrats' glee about using Enron to bash Republicans was overdone and premature. Take a look at the top story from today's Chron and tell me if you still think this is a nonstarter. I should note that this was the top headline in the print edition; for some reason it's not on the front page of the online version.
Aren't his 15 minutes up yet? John Wayne Bobbit has been dropped from "Celebrity Boxing 2" because he was arrested for assaulting his wife. Man, if "Celebrity Boxing 2" doesn't want to be tainted by your association, you're really on the outs. All I can say is that if there is a God, this will be the last time any of us reads the words "John Wayne Bobbit" anywhere other than the obituaries.

5/15/2002

Homelessness feedback My dad, who spent 14 years as a judge in New York City, sent me the following feedback on my post about Houston's proposed anti-panhandling ordinance:

I think that stats will verify that most [homeless people] are substance abusers or mentally ill persons with addictions (MICA). Spending large sums of money at the end process, arrest, jail, etc. is not an answer. Maybe we should allocate more and more money earlier and earlier. For example, in the schools where we could have certified intervention people addressing substance abuse as soon as there is any evidence of abuse.

I learned from bitter, but repeated experience in reading sentence reports from Probation officers that the substance abuse began with the defendant as early as 10 years old. These reports would show beer drinking, marijuana smoking, cocaine and then anything that would give them a high to the point that they were hopelessly addicted by their early 20's. Repeated jail did little to rehab these folks or teach them any recovery skills. Time tested AA on the other hand, if the addicted person was caught early, gave them a better chance of recovering.

The unfortunate thing about all of this is that politicians don't get votes for realistic approaches to addiction, but garner votes by being "tough on crime".

Sad but true; however my experience, personally and professionally, is that if you aggressively attack the problem sooner rather than later, you get a better bang for your buck.
Ten thousand! Woo hoo! I've reached 10,000 hits, in a bit more than three months. That may be chump change to some bloggers, but I'm pretty happy about it.

Number 10,000 was a Roadrunner-NYC user, according to my referral log and Sam Spade's reverse DNS lookup. If that may have been you, at around 8:15 PM CDT tonight, please drop me a line.

My friends did their best to help out. Larry, who is approaching 10,000 hits as well, was number 9999, and he sent me a screen shot to prove it. Either Ginger or Michael came in at 10,002. Thanks, guys!

And thanks to everyone out there who's stopped by, especially those who visit regularly. When I started I figured I was just doing this for my own exercise and amusement. Once I discovered there were people who actually made a habit of reading, it was a huge thrill. It was also a bit daunting. I feel a responsibility to my audience, and I hope I've held up my end of the bargain. I really appreciate the time you've taken, the feedback you've given, and the faith that you have in me.

On to 20,000!
In case you hadn't noticed, Ted Barlow is back, and he's full of renewed vigor. You had us worried for awhile there, Ted. We may never know the meaning of croatan, but at least it doesn't appear to have meant "So long and thanks for all the fish."

On the down side, it looks like Duncan Fitzgerald is either on hiatus or experiencing hosting problems. Duncan was one of the first bloggers whom I didn't know personally who linked to me, so I'll be quite sad if he's retired. Duncan? If you're out there, please let me know what's up.
Patch Adams and the Folk Song Army Fallacy From Greg Hlatky comes this article about Patch Adams and the "Dialogue for Democracy" which took place at the University of Pittsburgh.

Patch, the subject of an incredibly sappy feel-good movie, is apparently a bit confused about current events:

"I am literally comparing Bush and his cronies to Hitler," Adams said, "only Hitler had a smaller vision."

Umm, Patch? Do the words Godwin's Law mean anything to you? I am now literally comparing you to a mouth-breathing idiot who has no idea what genuine evil is.

Patch also doesn't understand basic economics:

"[I] don't understand why a ball bouncer makes more than a schoolteacher," Adams said.

Well, that would be because someone is willing to pay those ball-bouncers lots of money. Feel free to distribute some of those millions you got for selling your life story to Hollywood to all the teachers you like if you want to make a difference here.

Finally, Patch and cohort Dr. Helen Caldicott, a "vehement opponent of nuclear weapons", seem to be unable to grasp the difference between ends and means:

"I think there are a majority of people who want love, peace and cooperation," said Caldicott. "But we find it hard to reach out to each other."

We all want love, peace, and cooperation, dimwit. That includes the Taliban and the Committee for the Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. They would be (or would have been, in the case of the late and unlamented Taliban) very happy to have us all live in peace and harmony with their vision of how the world should be. Where we differ is in how we think we can best acheive these ends. All the happy talk in the world does squat to change this fact.

Which leads me to the second part of my subject. What we've seen here is another application of what I'm calling the Folk Song Army Fallacy. Basically, the FSAF is what happens when an advocate confuses the ends for the means to those ends. Someone who is "for peace" or "against crime" has committed the FSAF if he or she:
  1. Loudly and constantly touts his or her commitment to the ends (i.e., "promoting peace", "getting tough on crime", etc).

  2. Demonizes those who do not stand firmly with them, and

  3. Has no clearly articulated plan for acheiving their desired end, or has a clearly articulated plan without having any idea of the costs and consequences of that plan.

The beauty of the FSAF, of course, is that you can always be on the right side of an issue. Who doesn't want peace? Or less crime? Or an end to poverty and injustice? Even better, you can accuse your opponents of not being in favor of these wonderful things. With the FSAF, you can't go wrong.

Peaceniks are commonly afflicted with the FSAF. As the Jo Walton quote that Patrick has on his page indicates, "peace" is not the same as "not fighting", but the distinction is lost on those who'd rather chant than think. It's my belief that the more simplistic and sound-bite-like an advocacy group is, the more likely that they have a bad case of FSAF. Once you know the symptoms of this syndrome, it's pretty easy to recognize it in its sufferers. It's also pretty depressingly common.

Naturally, you didn't have to come here to read a barrel shot of this particular fish. You've probably already read Lileks' screed. Lileks is a great writer and all that, but does he make metaphorical use of Tom Lehrer songs like I do? (Don't tell me if he does; it'd just depress me.)
Where the future is being made today Shoppers can now pay for groceries at some area Kroger stores with a new point-of-sale system that uses fingerprints to associate a customer with an account. This came out of a since-abandoned pilot program in Texas to use fingerprint identification to cut down on food stamp fraud. The state got Kroger on board as a participant in the pilot program, and they have continued with it.

5/14/2002

The poor will always be with us Larry wants to know what I think about this story about a proposed City Council ordinance to prohibit "Dumpster diving", "aggressive panhandling", and sleeping on city sidewalks during daytime hours.

I wish I had a good answer to this. My read of the Chron story says this is not simply an attempt to try to force homeless people to go elsewhere, but I'm not sure what it really is all about. The main qualm I have with this kind of ordinance is what do you do with the offenders? According to the article, police "must first warn offenders and inform them about where they can get help". Well, what happens when the offenders don't want to get help, or are too disoriented to understand what's being asked of them? Do we lock them up? That'll get them off the streets. Not for long, of course, and it won't do anything to prevent them from reoffending - who knows, maybe city lockup is preferable to a homeless shelter to some of these guys - so it's hard to see how this will have any long-term effect.

You may think that they short-term effect of putting bums in the drunk tank for a day or two is enough to make this law worthwhile, but is that more efficient than getting them into a shelter? Do we have any idea how much extra this is going to cost us in police power, jail space, and court time? I'm not saying this can't be worth the effort, just that we ought to have some idea of the impact before we codify it.

I'd like to hear more before I decide what I think. It has the feel to me of asking street cops to act like social services agents. I think if we want someone to perform that function, we ought to have people whose job it is to do that function out there doing it. However, that's just a first impression. I'm not quite ready to call it what I really think just yet.

Rob at Get Donkey! has some good thoughts on this. I like what he says about the motivation behind the law. Go check it out.
Chron readers fire back at Bill Coulter for his obnoxious editorial in yesterday's paper. Note to Stanley Kurtz: The letter writers were all a heck of lot nicer than Coulter was. (I am resisting the urge to add "Nyah nyah nyah".)

The first writer pointed out the delicious irony of Coulter's swaggering piece appearing on the same page as an editorial about the failure to be considerate to others. Indeed.
Oopsie Now Reliant Energy has admitted that they, too, used controversial Enron trading tactics in California last year during that state's electricity crisis. They claim it wasn't very much, but their stock price got pummeled anyway.

This will surely give California Gov. Gray Davis even more to crow about.
I've waded into a debate about Iraq, Gore Vidal, Ralph Nader, and other stuff in the comments on this Matt Welch post. Please tell me if you think I'm off base.

UPDATE: Be sure to read the responses from Patrick and Matt himself that follow mine. This guy definitely bit off more than he could chew.
Really Cool Stuff Dept. Would you believe bomb-sniffing bees? No, really, it sounds cool. Go check it out.

(Link via Little Green Footballs.)

5/13/2002

Extremism and responsibility Josh Trevino responds to my post about the moral responsibility to speak out against extremism. I had disagreed with Josh's assertion that the failure of Europe's leftist leaders to unequivocally condemn the murder of Pim Fortuyn is equivalent to the failure of American liberals to condemn the likes of EarthFirst!, PETA, and Al Sharpton. My point was that Al Gore (whom Josh singled out) and EarthFirst! are too dissimilar to be lumped together for these purposes. Says Josh:

I used EarthFirst! as lazy shorthand for "destructive environmentalists." Charles is justified in challenging the parallel, but I think it holds -- especially given my intent in writing it. They share language and analyses to a startling degree. As Al Gore says in "Earth in the Balance":

....our activities are now beginning to have fundamental, systemic effects upon the entire life-support system of the planet - upsetting the world's climate, poisoning the oceans, destroying the ozone layer which protects us from excessive ultraviolet radiation, changing the CO2 ratio in the atmosphere, and spreading acid rain, radioactive fallout, pesticides and industrial contamination throughout the biosphere.

Sorry, that wasn't Al Gore at all, but EarthFirst's (EarthFirst!'s?) website. But if you've read Gore's book -- or even representative samples of it -- you know that the vocabulary and the logic are strikingly similar. Charles says that they "agree in a broad sense that something ought to be done to protect the environment, but the paths diverge pretty sharply from there." But that's not quite true. They agree in more than just a broad sense -- they agree on specific problems, and specific causes. Their paths don't really diverge significantly until it comes to remedies.

I would argue that having one's reasonable rhetoric coopted by a dangerous crank does not make you a dangerous crank as well. It's not unreasonable to say that once this has happened that you must disassociate yourself with the cranks, however, lest people confuse your silence for tacit approval. I'm rather of two minds on the subject. On the one hand, at some point I think you really do have to say something. The danger of being associated with extremists is real, and it's devastating to one's moral authority. If the extremists gain any credibility by your lack of denunciation, that's far worse.

On the other hand, I agree with Ginger Stampley when she says

I have minimum standards for considering an opinion on [matters] worth bothering to argue with.

I like to think that I put forth reasoned and rational arguments that most people will think are worth their time to consider. They may well not agree, but I hope no one has grounds for calling me a nut. So why should I waste time arguing with ideologues and zealots who have no firm grasp on reality and contribute nothing to the general debate? Can't anyone tell from what I have already said - and not said - that I plainly disagree with people like that?

I'm more than a bit uncomfortable advancing that line of thought for the obvious historical reasons - evil triumphing because good men did nothing, that sort of thing. In a way, though, this is my point. We all have a responsibility to speak out for good and against evil. I may happen to be incrementally closer to the nutball in question on the ideological panorama, but that doesn't shift the burden. There is good reason to castigate those who have failed to do their part, but this often feels to me like scoring points, especially when prompted like a tragedy such as Fortuyn's murder. That wasn't Josh's intent here, but others (*cough* *cough* Andrew Sullivan *cough* *cough*) have had no shame in doing so. All this does is to distract from the main point - that evil is, y'know, a Bad Thing - and bog us down in arguments over who has and hasn't done the most to denounce it.

Having reread what I've written, it appears that I don't disagree all that much with Josh, and on the larger point I don't. I still won't go along with his categorization of the American left including centrists like Al Gore and wackos like EarthFirst! for the reasons I previously stated, and I still bristle at attempts to score rhetorical victories, especially in situations like this, but we would all do well to remind ourselves why we're different - I'll be so bold as to say better - than the extremists. If anyone actually needs reminding, we've not been doing enough.
Liberal bias and missing the point Stanley Kurtz goes on yet another tired whine about misunderstood conservatives and liberal media bias:

The belief in conservative bigotry is more than a misunderstanding. It is liberalism's indispensable drug — the opium of the elites. Are there some bigoted conservatives? Sure. But conservative bias can't hold a candle to the thunderous bigotry of the Left toward conservatives.

All I can say is there goes a man who has never read The Free Republic, or for that matter, the op-ed pages in the Houston Chronicle. Here's a charming example from today, in which Chron editorial board member Bill Coulter starts off by calling liberals "pantywaists" and goes downhill from there.

Earth to Stanley: You notice liberal bigotry against conservatives because you're looking for it. The fact that you live in an area that has more liberals than conservatives doesn't help, either. I'm sure that when you're around like-minded individuals that all of you would never consider saying or writing anything about liberals which may be unfair or overly generalized.

Can we please put a halt to this kind of crying victim for awhile? In addition to being supremely annoying - regardless of who's whining about whom - it always serves to distract from arguments rather than to address them. One of the comments I received for this post about how the NRA helps to foster the image of being a bunch of angry white men said that "the media picks up every stupid remark that the NRA makes" while ignoring the same from gun-control groups. Well, maybe that's true and maybe it's not - I'm sure as heck not going to take one person's word for it - but so what? That has nothing to do with my point that the NRA could vastly improve its image and blunt its opponents' criticism by taking advantage of its diversity and replacing their angry, stupid-remark-prone, right-wing white male spokesperson. All that this comment does is to try to shift our attention away from what we're talking about.

And for the record, Stanley, this liberal would read a lot more conservative opinion if so dang much of it weren't composed of liberal-bashing. (Yes, I know, this means I look for it, too. I really need to do something about this masochistic tendency.) You keep telling me you've got something worthwhile to say. Please get around to saying it already, OK? In the meantime, here's a quick-reference guide for you: Targeting an individual is criticism. Targeting an entire group based on the behavior of a few individuals is bigotry. Doing so in the context of decrying that group's bigotry is pathetic.
Spam du jour In which I am invited to order Viagra online in order to "BE A SUPERSTUND!" I sure can see how that email marketing thing is so gosh-darned effective, yessirreebob.
Dept. of Bad Predictions Well, it's been a week, and the Chron has not published any letters complaining about the editorial written by a former death-row inmate who was exonerated by DNA evidence. Which makes me wonder: How many more incorrect predictions do I have to make before I can be considered a Real Pundit?
Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool Sometime over the weekend I got added to a massive CC list on a moronic chain letter that's currently making the rounds at work. It's one of those brain-dead notes that claims you'll get paid by Microsoft/AOL/Disney/the Illuminati for forwarding it to "everyone you know". Bill Gates himself wrote an essay debunking this stoopid thing four years ago, which should give you some idea of just how big a mouth-breather you have to be to actually forward this to everyone in your corporate address book. Not to mention the fact that forwarding chain letters is expressly forbidden in the employees' handbook. Oopsie, here comes the Evil HR Director to whack you with a cluestick!

Of course, what makes these chain letter outbreaks even more special is the cadre of deep thinkers who hit Reply-to-All and demand, in BOLDFACE ALL CAPS, to be removed from this mailing list. As of this writing, I have received one reply-to-all debunking the note, twenty-nine (count 'em) indignant take-me-off responses, three people attempting to recall their indignant take-me-off responses, eight people explaining why you shouldn't hit reply-to-all, another person agreeing with those people, and to top it off, a note from customer services (an outsourcer in this case) telling us that they're aware of it and are looking into it. The fact that this last note came from an anonymous CS worker more than five hours after the original flood of notes began is of great comfort to us all, I'm sure.

Days like this I think that maybe some employees really are worth more to the company dead than alive.
Mandatory Humor Dept. Singer and Psychic Friends Network spokeswoman Dionne Warwick was arrested at Miami International Airport when baggage screeners found 11 suspected marijuana cigarettes in her lipstick case.

Do I really have to finish the joke here, people?

(Naturally, Larry beat me to it on this all-important story. That's what I get for taking Sunday off.)

5/12/2002

Forgive, maybe, but don't forget Another op-ed in today's Chron is this plea for forgiveness for priests accused of sexual misconduct:

The pastor of my parish has been removed because of a recent allegation that 35 years ago he committed an act of sexual misconduct involving a teen-ager.

In fact, I don't believe the allegation, but it seemed important to ask myself: What if the allegation were true? Would I still support the Rev. Kenneth Nee, who served Our Lady of Fatima parish in Manorhaven, N.Y., and be upset about his removal from his position, the parish and our lives?

[...]

The risk of recidivism is a strong argument for removing from ministry priests who have been guilty of sexual abuse. But it is a strong argument only in those cases where there is a risk of repeat offense. The mere fact that someone committed an act does not mean there is risk he will do it again. I am not talking about pedophilia, which clearly presents an ongoing risk. In cases, however, that involve newly made accusations of a single act that occurred 20 or 30 years ago, there seems no risk of repeat offense. The fact that the priests in question have effectively ministered their parishes in the intervening years without any further allegations of wrongdoing testifies to that. The absence of repeated offenses testifies to the fact that some acts of sexual abuse against minors are the product of a moment of sin and not pathology.

So, if not fear of recidivism, what is the argument for removing from ministry a priest who many years ago committed a single act, as heinous as the act may have been?

The author, a law professor and mother of a 9-year-old daughter, wants to know why one as-yet-unproven accusation of abuse from many years ago justifies the removal of a priest who has otherwise served his parish well. She invokes the Catholic message of redemption heavily:

So, if not fear of recidivism, what is the argument for removing from ministry a priest who many years ago committed a single act, as heinous as the act may have been?

Is it that we expect priests to be sinless? [...] Can a church built on a belief in Christ deny the possibility of redemption and refuse to forgive?

[...]

Some may dispute this phrasing of the issue, arguing that we are not talking about whether to forgive, but simply whether to allow the priest to continue his ministry. That distinction is lost on me. If we forgive, if we accept the possibility of redemption, what is served by removing the priest?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but the scandal currently embroiling the Church is not just about the actual abuse. It's about the long-term conspiracy to silence accusers and shelter abusers. It's about silent payoffs and palming predators off on unsuspecting parishioners miles away. It's about the fundamental breach of responsibility on the part of the Church hierarchy.

So my short answer to this author would be: How do you know that this is the only allegation? How would your opinion change if an actual investigation led to other charges? How many alleged victims would have to turn up before you'd be willing to put the interests of criminal justice ahead of the interests of redemption and forgiveness?

Let's assume for a moment that the accusation is true, and that there are no other incidents. I'm not sure how the justice system should be served in this case. Perhaps 35 years of otherwise spotless service is sufficient to balance the scales, but who gets to make that call? The unaffected parishioners? The pope? Call me a hang 'em high conservative, but just maybe we ought to consult the local District Attorney first. In the meantime, without any further information than the author's faith in her priest, I can't say that removing him from duty until the question of his guilt is resolved is too much to ask.

After all, redemption and forgiveness were never meant as get-out-of-jail-free cards. The accused priest may be paying back his debt to God, but it seems to me that unless the victim is willing to forgive and forget - which apparently isn't the case - then some rendering unto Caesar needs to take place. Removal from duty is simply part of that. The sad thing is that when you think about it, this change in Church policy is just another way for the hierarchy to protect itself. Had they put less emphasis on their own self-preservation in the first place, this particular priest might still be able to do his job right now.

I admit that with all the publicity surrounding the Church and its troubles these days that some pathetic attention-seekers may come out of the woodwork and make false accusations about abuse. If that's the case here, then indeed this author's parish will be hurt by losing the services of their priest. That's a shame, but honestly I can't see how the Church could or should handle things differently. Leaving him in place while the charges are investigated has a much greater possible hurt if it's the wrong thing to do.

Unfortunately, there's no wiggle room here. Zero-tolerance policies are often as stupid as they are inflexible, but let's face it: The Church had no choice. I sympathize with those who may be adversely affected by this, but let's not forget how it came to be this way.
Just a reminder from today's Chron that Christianity has had a rather prominent historical role in anti-Semitism.
Starting somewhere Kathy Kinsley makes an attempt to "calm some fears on both sides" of the gun-control issue. I think her proposal needs a bit more work, but it's a reasoned and reasonable place to start talking. What I really like about this is that she recognizes that resolution of a given problem is impossible until 1) each side recognizes that the other has legitimate issues that must be addressed, and 2) each side trusts that the other has also completed Step 1.

I have no illusions of Charlton Heston and Sarah Brady sitting down for a cordial chat, but you really do have to start somewhere, and if more people were willing to do what Kathy has done, maybe some day we can actually get somewhere on this.