Friday, December 20, 2013

Data Security Breaches - Again

The hot story today is the data security breach at Target, which is being investigated by the Secret Service.  They think data on as many as 40 million credit and debit card accounts may have been stolen.

Really makes you reconsider carrying cash, doesn't it?

What annoys me the most is that this isn't the first time.  Does anyone but me remember the stolen data from TJX Corp. (parent of T J Maxx and Marshalls) in 2006??

Friday, December 13, 2013

They Passed a Budget

I've heard a certain amount of complaining on the airwaves about the bipartisan budget that the House just passed.  I confess I was startled - I wondered what has gotten into Paul Ryan?  Apparently this summer's government shutdown scared him, or did something to him.  Most people feel the Republicans are to blame for the shutdown, and most people aren't happy about it.  He's disturbed enough that he's willing to negotiate, and even to agree on new "revenue" - although he still won't call it "taxes."  Still, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

People are annoyed because the budget doesn't extend emergency unemployment.  I agree - it would have been better if it had.  There are a lot of things it would be nice to have in the deal that aren't there.  But it gives us something we haven't had for several years:  a formal budget funding the U.S. government through this fiscal year and the next.  Remember when the sequester came into force because they couldn't agree on a budget, even though everyone agreed that the sequester was a stupid way to cut funding?

Politifact has a nice article on budget history, evaluating Ryan's January 2012 claim that Senate Democrats "have gone without any budget at all" for more than 1,000 days."  (As of January 23, 2012, that is.  Politifact called it mostly true.) 

But isn't this what we elected these people to do??  Why are they there at all if not to take care of the country's business, in a rational and organized way, working out compromises for the best deal they can cut?  Nobody likes this budget.  Good.  That means nobody got everything they wanted.  That is how politics has worked in this country for 250-plus years (with the minor exception of the War Between the States, and look how well that worked out).  I'm relieved if surprised to find Paul Ryan actually negotiating a compromise.  On past performance, I would have said he couldn't do it.  If he can learn, maybe the others can too.

We passed a Constitutional amendment in California that says legislators' pay is docked for every day they go past the annual deadline without a budget.  Now, the California constitution is hardly the shining example of the way to run an organization.  But it's just astounding how those budgets come in on time since that passed!  I don't think I'd try to amend the U.S. Constitution to do this; but I'd sure love to see Congress impose the rule on itself.  The fact that they won't is just one more of the things that are wrong with  Congress.

I still think they should have extended emergency unemployment.  But I'll take the deal they cut.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Wisdom of Art Hoppe

The columnists in the San Francisco Chronicle have come and gone in the (my God!) forty-plus years I've been reading it, some better, some worse.  I enjoyed Stan Delaplane in his day, but when they reprint his columns now I can't read them. I can still read Herb Caen, but I never could read the society column.  I wonder why they never reprint any Charles McCabe, my first example of a literate curmudgeon. 

The one columnist I genuinely miss - the way I genuinely miss Molly Ivins, and for the same reason - was the immortal Art Hoppe.  Mr. Hoppe saw the world through the clearest possible lens, and was an absolute genius at laying it out so nobody could be confused about it.  I still love his suggestion that we would improve tax collection if we simply turned the IRS over to the Mafia to manage, and his complaint after the AbScam scandal in the '70s that at $25,000 apiece, lobbyists were making Congressmen too expensive for ordinary citizens to buy.  How does that sound now??

Recently the Sunday Datebook reproduced one of Mr. Hoppe's columns from the 1960s. As I read this, I thought of all the corporate mergers I've seen go down through the years, and how the businesses get fewer and bigger.  And so I give  you:

Mickey Mouse saves the world, 1965 

Read it and weep.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

I Heard the News Today, Oh Boy ...

Over the last 2-3 days I haven't heard anything on the radio (my normal source of news) except the death of Nelson Mandela.  In pace requiescat; et lux perpetua luceat eis.  But I did begin to wonder what was happening in (say) Syria, or Iran, or the North China Sea, which China has suddenly declared that it owns.  In fact, my very first knowledge of Mandela's passing wasn't from the radio; it came from - Facebook.  Yup, I was browsing Facebook early in the afternoon and one of my friends posted a link. That was my first indication.  I guess I do get my news from Facebook, sigh.

This reminded me of the death of another world figure, many years ago.  In September 1976, I called my mother, just to check in, and she was taken aback that Mao Tse Tung had died and I didn't know it.  I replied that I didn't need to know that right away, and in fact she'd just told me, so now I did know.  Mao died on Thursday, September 9, the Thursday after Labor Day.  I have no idea why I didn't pick this up; I usually read the newspaper.  But I didn't know.  I stand by my statement to her then that if something really important happens, someone will eventually tell me.

Odd.  Both Mao and Mandela died on a Thursday.  Should we worry about Thursdays?

What a change in information sources in 37 years!  In 1976 I accessed the Internet (yes, I did) on a 3600 baud dialup connection, to a paid (very highly paid) database that told me what the peso or whatever was worth on a given date - and only that. (I used a Texas Instruments SilentWriter 800 terminal that used heat to print out the data.  I could practically see the electrons march across the line.)   Now I'm using a high-speed broadband connection to post random reminiscences; and I find out about new events almost in real time.  I remember having more time back then, though.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


I've written about this before, but it comes back around in my head every time I hear another broadcast about how we have to do some asinine thing so we can be "safe."  We have to take off our shoes and go through a metal detector (and now a body scanner) so we can be "safe" boarding a plane, because various people have done evil things on planes, including one guy with a dud bomb in his shoe.  Thank God they've decided the body scanners will spot bombs in underwear; the day you have to be strip searched to get on a plane is the day I quit flying; and driving to visit my sister takes 10 hours.  It would be amusing to watch the business community cope with it, though.

The latest thing to make us "safe" is new FDA rules which effectively make organic agriculture, habitat conservation methods around farms, and anything resembling normal farming, illegal.  This is because e. coli contamination in some bagged California lettuce spread a moderate epidemic, and the entire food industry went shrieking crazy.  The FDA suddenly became aware that farming is dirty.  Animals on farms shit; wild animals and birds passing through farms shit; and the shit gets on the fruit and vegetables and then we all get sick.  (Some of us were once trained that you washed anything you brought home before eating it; what happened to that?  Not to mention, why do you buy lettuce in a bag and not by the head?)

I will not apologize for the word shit.  It's a fine old Anglo-Saxon word; if it was good enough for Geoffrey Chaucer, it's good enough for me.  Part of our cultural problem is that we regard perfectly natural bodily processes as somehow evil and not to be discussed in polite company.  (Thank you, Queen Victoria - not.)  There are doubtless people who would stop shitting if they could - except that it would kill them.

Anyone who's ever been on a farm knows that animal and bird shit is part of the package.  They also know that if you compost it and put it back on the soil, it will enrich the soil, and you won't have to pay Monsanto a penny for it.  Can this be why the new FDA rules ban using manure as fertilizer?  Well, not ban, exactly:
Using natural fertilizers such as manure and compost would become "very problematic" if the rules take effect...
The FDA proposes a nine months wait between applying manure and harvest - plus a 45-day waiting period after applying the compost.  Current organic standards are 4 months, no additional waiting.  (See the article I linked.)  This basically makes growing crops impossible.  Doesn't anybody at the FDA know anything about farming??  On the published evidence, the answer is no.  The human race has been feeding itself with this kind of farming for 10,000 years and now they say it's too dirty?

My dad grew up on a farm in Missouri.  I remember my grandmother plucking chickens for the pot in our kitchen.  We still tell about the time dad brought home a live turkey for Thanksgiving and then had to chase it around the yard with an axe.  Fresh food will not make you sick if you wash everything and cook everything properly.  This is not rocket science.  But many people don't know how to cook any more, and many can't afford fresh food.  Which is about as unsafe as you can get.

Let's get back to that word "safe."  We have to do these idiot things so we can be "safe."  People, we are not safe, and we never have been safe.  First of all, no matter what you think, we are all going to die. The only thing we don't usually know is when and how. Second, stupidity can be fatal, and ignorance can be fatal.  And even if you're well informed and not stupid, someone else's stupidity or ignorance can kill you at any moment (especially if the idiot is driving a car).  We've gone beyond the point where wild animals will kill us - usually, we kill them.  (This is normal, all you PETA folks - homo sapiens is currently the top predator in every biome it inhabits, and what top predators do is eat smaller creatures.)

So we aren't safe, and we're all going to die, and we don't know when.  Oh, woe, what can we do?  It's very simple.  Quit worrying about being safe.  If death is part of life, so is risk; and sometimes you have to take a risk to achieve a greater goal.  Try to avoid doing anything stupid; try to avoid being around people acting stupidly; do your best; keep moving forward.  I've taken three major, life-threatening risks in the last 15 years: three total knee replacements. The alternative in every case was losing the ability to walk. People die in hospitals all the time; people die under the knife.  If I hadn't taken these risks, I'd be in a wheel chair and not living in my 2 story home.  I might even be dead.  I calculated the risk and I won.  Calculate the risks and move forward, knowing and ignoring the fact that you aren't safe.  You may find you live longer than you ever dreamed.  Or maybe not.  We'd all like certainty; and it's the one thing we're never going to get.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Flaming bagpipes

Over the last couple of months I've seen two short videos posted on Facebook, in which bagpipe players, playing their instruments, caused bursts of flame to come out of the drones.  Drones are the pipes which stick out of the bags and produce a single tone each.  The two videos I saw were:

Unicycling Darth Vader Upgrades to Flaming Bagpipes
The Badpiper Thunderstruck

You can find more videos, if you're interested, by searching for "flaming bagpipes" on YouTube.

Now, I like bagpipes, a taste I inherited from my mother; not everyone does.  But to the best of my knowledge, the chanter (the one the piper fingers) and the drones are made of wood, although Wikipedia doesn't confirm this directly.  And I definitely learned from Wikipedia that bagpipe drones are either reed instruments (like a clarinet) or double-reed instruments (like an oboe).  This explains a lot about the way bagpipes sound, actually.

This leaves a huge question in my mind:  how the devil do you blow a huge blast of flame through a wooden reed or double reed instrument without incinerating the whole boiling, and the bagpiper too?  And yet both of these bagpipers continued to play while intermittently shooting bursts of flame out of the drones.

I spent part of last weekend at the East Bay Mini Maker Faire in Oakland, California. Mini Maker Faires usually have flame-throwers somewhere; this one had a guy (from Sheet Metal Alchemist) with a tower of flamethrowers; you could set them off by swinging a mallet at a lever, just like the old "ring the bell" carny act, except this one produces a huge burst of flame in the air above you.  I asked the guy about the bagpipes, but he said no, he didn't know anything about flaming bagpipes.  He sounded interested, though. 

Now, one group which is always at the Mini Maker Faire is The Crucible, an Oakland non-profit specializing in art production involving fire.  I dropped in at their booth and posed my question, and learned some very interesting things from a man there.  I regret that I didn't think to ask his name; he was an older man with a white beard, wearing a hat, sitting next to the booth.

We both agreed that anyone doing this has to put some kind of gas source (The Crucible uses propane) inside the bag.  It would have to have a jet poking up inside the drone, and some kind of spark arrangement on the jet to light it; finally it would have to have either one or two switches the player could use to control the gas flow and the spark (separately or together).  My consultant pointed out that the flow of gas up the tube, before ignition, would cool the area somewhat.  Also, if the flame only lasts for a second or two (and I didn't see any that lasted much longer than that), it probably won't affect the wood of the drone at all; and, of course, the flame will go away the instant the gas flow stops. 

Now, what about the reed or double reed?  Reeds are usually at the end of the instrument where the air is blown in; in a bagpipe drone, that's inside the bag.  If you tapped the gas source into the drone above the reed, it wouldn't be affected by the flame at all.  The gas doesn't have to pass through the reed, although the air from the bag does.

Without talking to someone who's actually created one of these things, this is all pure speculation.  But at least I'm no longer wondering why the whole megillah doesn't burst into flame.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Is This Normal?

The U.S. is back in business for the moment, paying its debts as usual.  At least in the S.F. Bay Area, public attention is now focused on the BART strike, which began conveniently the day after the government shutdown ended.  Wouldn't want to confuse our crises, now, would we?  But the government funding mess isn't over.

The bargain that everyone in Washington was so relieved to achieve only lasts until February.  According to AlJazeera, the government is funded until January 15 (and still at the ridiculous, arbitrary sequester levels), and the debt ceiling has been raised until February 7.  How appropriate.  We get Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's off, then Groundhog Day will come around on February 2, and we'll go through the whole brouhaha again.  Just like the movie.

Convince me it's not true.  Why wouldn't it happen again?  The people who created this snafu are all still in office.  Sen. Ted Cruz still thinks he's God's gift to someone (I'm not sure whom), and certainly still thinks he can parlay this into a run at the presidency in 2016.  I was relieved to see that, pushed to the wall, Speaker Boehner was capable of calling an open vote on a straight bill to put the government back in business.  My confidence that he'll do it again is limited.

The Senate and the House, as they now appear, seem to be ungovernable, and unable to govern.  Their hallowed rules allow a single senator to put any action on hold, indefinitely, and without even revealing a name.  I do know that the structure of the Senate was designed to amplify the power of smaller states against larger states, but this is ridiculous.  The surreptitious last minute rule change in the House, which allowed only the Majority Leader to ask to bring a "clean bill" to a vote - which is normal procedure in the House for any member - was a blatant abandonment, not only of normal House procedure, but of democracy itself.  Without this rule the government would not have shut down.  This was just sleazy.

I heard one promising item among all the mess, and I'm still not sure I believe it.  The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees (Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray) met for breakfast and will convene a committee to develop - wait for this - an Actual Budget.  Congress hasn't passed an Actual Budget since 2009 (or maybe since 1997 depending on the definition).  My confidence that they will actually negotiate and agree on something that would be good for the country is very small.  But they're saying all the right things.  They've given themselves a deadline of December 13.  If they can come up with an actual, bipartisan budget and get it through both houses of Congress, maybe we can relax and just run the country - at least until next October 1...

We can't keep doing this.  We made fools of ourselves in front of the entire world. Is this really what we want to become?

What really infuriated me is the way Congress callously threw tens of thousands of federal workers out of a job, for an unspecified period that lasted (in fact) for three weeks, while being paid themselves the entire time.  The days of the solid middle class are gone.  Very few working families can go for 3 weeks on their financial reserves these days (if they have any), especially when the safety net programs (welfare, food stamps) were also shut down.  Sure, they'll get back pay; but how does that help if they've already been evicted?  Not to mention all the unfortunate small businesses, in small towns around the national parks, whose entire livelihood depends on tourist traffic which was shut down on a moment's notice.  Congress has totally lost contact with the people they are collectively supposed to serve, and it is a national disgrace.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Boehner's Impossible Dream

Everyone involved in the Federal government shutdown, starting with John Boehner, knows that he could end the stalemate in a microsecond.  All he has to do is ignore the Tea Party and call a vote on the "clean" continuing resolution already passed by the Senate.  It's pretty evident that, between the Republicans who are very nervous about the Tea Party stance and the Democrats, the CR would pass.

Boom. The government's back in business.  But it doesn't happen.

I've read in multiple places that Boehner is afraid that, if he ignores the radicals and passes the CR, he'll lose the House Speakership.  Could be.  But he doesn't seem to realize that he's already lost it - he can't control his caucus.  A small but very loud section of his caucus is controlling him.  In fact, as far as I can tell, the person really driving this melodrama is Senator Ted Cruz, who isn't even a member of the House of Representatives!  Meanwhile Boehner cowers behind the podium, making bold but meaningless statements about not wanting to see the government shut down.

The title Speaker of the House used to carry real weight.  It meant a man who could get things done.  The current Speaker of the House cherishes the title so much that he has abdicated all the power to a small group of radicals from gerrymandered districts, just so he can continue to be addressed as "Mr. Speaker."

If he were to act to pass the CR and put the federal government back to work, he might leave the Speakership with some of his honor (that old concept) restored.  As it is, if you listen carefully, you may hear the sound of real Congressional leaders of the past - Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson (a Senate Majority Leader before he was VP), Tip O'Neill and their kin - giving Boehner the razzberry from the heavenly ramparts.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Understanding Egypt

Anyone who is keeping an eye on the situation in Egypt needs to read an article that appeared a couple of days ago in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.  Fortunately, it isn't behind their new paywall.  The author is Frank Viviano, a career Egypt correspondent.  The article is:

How social media led U.S. astray in Egypt

Speaking from his 30 years of experience as a regular Egypt correspondent, Mr. Viviano makes points about Egypt, and about the coverage of the "revolution," that I haven't read anywhere else, including in the Economist; and they're important points.  The situation in Egypt isn't what we think it is; it may be much worse than we think it is.  Read the article.

For that matter, there isn't much the U.S. can do about Egypt, any more than we can "do anything" about Syria.  What would we do, send in the 101st Airborne?  I fully support President Obama's hesitation to take "firm action" there - what firm action? 

P.S. A Letter to the Editor in today's Chronicle, also supporting Obama's Egypt stance, read, "Since when is the United States policeman to the world?"  I read that and thought, since about 1947, as a matter of fact.  (Do these people actually not understand 20th century history??)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Anyone else remember "namephreaks"??

Reading the news this morning I saw an astonishing namephreak in this story about San Diego mayor Bob Filner.  This has nothing to do with him personally, but I was hornswoggled when I read the name of his lawyers.

Mr. Filner is represented by - wait for it - Payne and Fears, LLC.

Is that a wonderful name for a law firm, or what?  Would you use that name for your law firm?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Too Soon to Celebrate

In the wake of the SCOTUS decisions yesterday on same-sex marriage, everybody is jumping for joy.  Stop, people, and look at what they actually said.  In the DOMA case, the court threw the entire business of regulating same-sex marriage back to the states.  The majority opinion said:
The federal government, throughout our history, has deferred to state-law policy decisions with respect to domestic relations.
Now count:  how many states do we have?  Fifty.  How many states consider a same-sex marriage legal?  Twelve (thirteen once the appellate court stay is lifted in California).  How many states actively ban same-sex marriage in some way?  I counted thirty-three on the Wikipedia list, but your count may vary by 1 or 2; and a lot of these (I didn't count) don't even allow domestic partnerships.  Plus 5 states with no opinion.  Just take a look at the map in the Wikipedia article:

Same-sex marriage status in the United States by state

Come on, people.  This is good news for the federal benefits etc. of the residents of the few states that allow same-sex marriage.  If you live, however, anywhere in the South, or on the Great Plains, or anywhere except California, Washington, and the New England states, your gay marriage is toast unless you can convince your local legislators to rule otherwise.  Best of British luck on that.

Because the flip side of a decision that the states can decide about same-sex marriage is that any Congressional action to approve it nationally (assuming you could get such a thing through the current House, which is crazy thinking) would also be unconstitutional, because it's a states' rights issue.

Keep raising money for the campaign, folks.  You still have a long row to hoe.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The IRS and the Tea Party

KQED broadcast a segment today about the Congressional hearings currently in progress on the IRS's "persecution" of various "Tea Party" and "patriotic" organizations which tried to get tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4).  I've already expressed my opinion on 501(c)(4) groups (see Fix the Damn Tax Code, posted on May 21).  I don't believe that tax code section should even exist, because it gives tax exempt status, under cover of "social welfare," to organizations that wouldn't know an actual social welfare project if they fell over it in the street.

A blog post from the Washington Post suggests that the primary groups 501(c)(4) is intended for are volunteer fire departments and civic leagues; I concede that those groups do indeed contribute to social welfare.  I don't see the San Fernando Valley Patriots (see below) under that rubric; but the definition of what is allowed is frankly fuzzy (another reason to get rid of this).  To see just how fuzzy, read the official IRS definition:

Types of Organizations Exempt under Section 501(c)(4)

Pay particular attention to the link  Organizations that engage in substantial lobbying activitiesto see how fuzzy.

But section 501(c)(4) does exist, and these groups tried to get the status, and the IRS had the nerve - the gall - to ask them questions about how they operate!  I can still hear the sweet, can-you-believe-this tones of Ms. Karen Kenny, of the San Fernando Valley Patriots, complaining that they had asked her organization (I summarize, but read the KQED text) if it had ever broken the law during protests, and whether they ever planned actions that would break the law.  "We're the San Fernando Valley Patriots," she said offendedly, "not Occupy Oakland."

I have news for you, lady.  Part of the IRS' job is to find out if applicants for a 501(c)(4) exemption are doing more political organizing than the law allows (however much that is).  This may come as a surprise, but the San Fernando Valley Patriots are not above the law.  Neither are organizations that have the words "Tea Party" in their name.  If you want this tax exemption you still have to comply with the existing laws and rules, and the IRS is entirely within its mission to ask you this stuff.

I still think that 501(c)(4) "social welfare" organizations are political organizers in sheep's clothing, and they should be treated like political organizations and forced to disclose their donors.  But as the law stands, they're entitled to tax exemption if political activity is not their primary focus.  And that means that when the IRS asks them what they do and how they do it, it is merely doing the job we pay it to do.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Real Men Don't Type

I was just listening to a segment of NPR's Science Friday on teaching seniors how to deal with computers, and a man named Andy called in with a story about his 80 year old father, who is an accountant, and who has for thirty years refused to learn to use computers.  He still does accounts on paper.  Andy complained that his father is underemployed for that reason, and he couldn't understand why all their efforts to convince him to change had failed.

In the late 1970s I worked for one of the (then) Big Eight accounting firms.  I was their office librarian and records manager.  And I remember a phenomenon that may explain Andy's father's reluctance, which he may not have thought of.  This was when personal computers were just coming in; I remember "borrowing" the Apple IIe that the consulting arm had bought, so I could put my department budget onto Visicalc instead of 17 column ledger.

The consultants, as you may gather, were perfectly happy to play with this new toy, but I remember that the older accounting partners were very very reluctant.  And it was obvious then why:  in that era, businessmen did not type.  They didn't use keyboards at all; the closest they came to a keyboard was a 10-key adding machine (and you haven't seen fast until you've seen one of these guys adding a column!).  They dictated or wrote notes to their secretaries, and the secretaries typed, and brought the documents in for review and correction, and retyped if needed.

So these men wouldn't use computers because they couldn't type, and it would have been a major loss of face to try to type and fail.  Andy's father is about the age of the partners I'm talking about, they were in their early 50's and up. He may not want to use a computer for the simple reason that he never learned to type and at 80 years of age, he may not even have the manual dexterity to learn any more.  Andy, he's 80; just leave him alone.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fix the Damn Tax Code

I can't stand this any more.  I have to speak out.

Senators Levin and McCain are yelling at Apple because they don't think it pays enough taxes, and it has "offshore entities" that have "no legal residence for tax purposes."

Everything Apple did was LEGAL under the U.S. Tax Code.

The Senate Finance Committee is freaking out at the IRS because of the way it audited some Tea Party "social welfare" organizations, trying to find out if they were doing enough political lobbying to invalidate their tax-exempt status.

Nothing I've seen suggests anything more than an overzealous first-line IRS employee trying to establish the rules for a legal entity that shouldn't exist anyhow.

All you congresspersons and senators trying to make publicity points out there:  YOU wrote the tax code.  Most of you have been in office for at least 20 years.  You built this mess.  Now you're complaining that you don't like it.

Well, go and fix it.  You, Congressmen and Senators, are the only people who can fix the tax code, but instead of doing some actual work (negotiating what a tax code ought to look like, for instance), you'd rather sit around and yell publicly about the awfulness of corporate tax evasion.

The tax code is what it is because Your Corporate Masters told you they wanted all those loopholes - and you obediently set the loopholes up.  Why else would the tax code allow corporations to stash money overseas and not pay tax on it?

The whole 501(c)(4) tax entity exists because some large donors wanted a way to collect tax-exempt money, without revealing their donors, and still be able to do some political organizing as long as they could say it "wasn't the primary activity."  And the Tea Party groups wanted to set them up because political organizing is their primary activity; it's what the Tea Party does.  Tell me one real piece of "social welfare" work any 501(c)(4) organization has done.  When I see one of them running a soup kitchen I'll believe the "social welfare" bunk.  For that group.

So, outraged Senators and Representatives, until you fix what's wrong with the tax code, I don't want to hear one more word out of you about the awfulness of corporate tax evasion or the terrible abuse the IRS heaped on the poor Tea Party.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Good Looking Attorney General

Having now read Barack Obama's complete comment on Kamala Harris, I acquit him of sexism - it was always an unreasonable accusation, he's never shown any sign of sexism.  Just to remind everyone, here's his exact quote, from a CNN opinion piece by Roxanne Jones (the first full quote I could find):
"You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It's true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years."
This is clearly innocuous, clearly a friendly remark.  And yet he apologized.  Why?

I haven't read all the articles about this - but I've seen the "it was just a compliment, why can't we compliment people?" complaints, and I found Eric Golub of the Washington Times saying this:
Until every woman is reduced to an asexual character resembling Bebe Neuwirth’s “Cheers” character Lilith Crane, feminists will keep complaining.
Both those positions are extremes; of course we can compliment people, and no, we don't want to reduce women to asexuality.  But I have to admit, when I first heard the out-of-context phrase, "the best-looking attorney general in the country," my hackles went up - and I like Obama. 

I think reaction to this remark depends not only on your gender but your age.  I predate the feminist revolution; Barack Obama doesn't.   When I was a teenager, women weren't lawyers - ask Sandra Day O'Connor.  In fact when I was in college, considering careers, I had a very small number of options:  teacher, nurse, secretary, librarian.  Lawyer wasn't on the list; neither was attorney general, or any elected position.  The degree a lot of women expected to get when I was in college was the "Mrs."

I also remember when women began to get into those jobs, and other jobs that society in the Fifties regarded as "men's work."  At that time a compliment on her looks to a professional woman, especially from a powerful man, carried a sting - if you're that attractive, you can't be any good.  You must have slept your way there.  The women who got those jobs early were tough pioneers, and these were among the arrows in their backs.

When you say this flatly in the 21st century it's absurd, but in the middle of the 20th century society seriously believed that only a homely woman could be competent or intelligent, and a beautiful woman in a position of power must have used sex to get there.  And the mere implication was the best option.  In the worst cases the compliment was followed by a more-or-less active attempt to force attentions on the woman.  I have worked with an attractive woman, a secretary, who told me she had turned down a job because the boss made it clear that he expected sexual favors.

For background on this, read a good biography of Hedy Lamarr - the woman who helped invent frequency-hopping spread-spectrum communication techniques, the basis of Bluetooth and WiFi.  Her intelligence is supported by the patent in her name, US Patent 2,292,387.  But most people thought of her as a "pin-up girl."  And I don't watch TV, so I don't watch Mad Men, but I'll bet you see this attitude there, if you look.

As I said, Barack Obama didn't experience the pre-feminist world.  But he's bright enough to know it existed; that's why he gave the compliment that elaborate wind-up.  (Which is all quite true.)  And that's also why, when the out-of-context remark hit the media, he apologized.  Because the sting has largely been drawn; but the memory of it lingers, like a bad smell in the corner of the room.  You're too good looking to be that smart.  It's only been 50 years or so; we've come a long way, but not yet quite far enough.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Fallacious Reasoning

I just read one too many arguments by the pro-gun maniacs in this country that gun control laws "will not solve gun violence" because criminals don't obey gun control laws, therefore we should never pass any gun control laws.  I call this the "only outlaws will have guns" argument, you've heard it.  The current version goes, more or less, we shouldn't ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines because criminals will still be able to get them from illegal sources, and banning them would inconvenience law-abiding gun owners who need to defend themselves.

This is ridiculous.  It is a logical fallacy known as a straw man.  If we assume this generally, then we should eliminate, for instance, all rules governing the owning, insuring and driving of automobiles, because people will drive illegally and without insurance anyway (they sure do here), and the laws will just inconvenience honest people who need to get around.  Cars are dangerous and can cause expensive damage, therefore we pass laws requiring people to be trained how to use them, and to carry insurance to cover any damage they might accidentally do; and we penalize people who drive cars without these.  I have never understood why the same argument shouldn't apply to guns:  they are dangerous, they can cause expensive damage, and all you really need to buy one in some states is a credit card and a pulse.  In, say, Nevada I'm not even sure about the pulse.

I actually just read a letter to the editor arguing that guns are different from automobiles because the Constitution doesn't guarantee the right to drive a car, therefore the analogy about guns and cars (which I am not the only one to make) is invalid, because the Constitution does guarantee the right to own guns.  Right.  The guns the Constitution was talking about were muzzle loaders which took about 10-15 seconds for even an expert to load and for which you had to make your own bullets and carry the gunpowder in a flask on your belt. 

We should ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines because they have no harmless function.  They are killing machines.  They are not sporting rifles; they are not target guns; they are not defensive weapons (look at the size of them!) - they are weapons of war.  They exist only to kill people (and anything else that gets in the way).  The arguments I hear against banning them have, to my mind, a strong flavor of "they're going to take away my toys."  There's a certain (mainly male) attitude that feels status in the possession of the biggest, meanest, baddest gadgets, and by banning these big bad gadgets we will take away their nicest toys and reduce their status.

I'm not convinced by this argument.  Rather, I am convinced by it:  convinced that we should ban the damn things.  Banning them won't eliminate shootings, but it will make the situation better.  If there are fewer of them around, there will be fewer opportunities for a deranged young man to get his hands on them, and if he can't get his hands on them he may try to kill people in a way that will be easier to stop.  I don't want to eliminate guns; but I want to make it hard enough to get a gun that the buyer may stop and think about what he's doing (or she, but usually he) - and maybe even decide that bullets are not the right solution.

And before you accuse me of hating on men, take a look at the mass shootings over the last few years.  How many done by women?  Right.

True, banning automatic guns may endanger some jobs in the gun manufacturing trade.  (May - they can always sell this stuff to Syria, since it's a dead cert that the Senate will not ratify the U.N. Arms Treaty we just signed.)  Not banning them endangers lives.  I live in California, with some of the strongest gun control laws in the country.  The streets of Oakland, where I live, are a guerrilla war zone, because of illegal assault and other weapons that come in from Arizona and Nevada, which have no controls at all and are less than a day away by road. That's why we need national controls.

I continually read arguments from (mainly) the NRA, which boil down to this:  we can't allow any regulation of gun possession and use at any level of government, because any regulation at all will ultimately and inevitably lead to the confiscation of all guns.  This is the "Obama's going to take away your guns" argument.  This is another logical fallacy known as begging the question:  we're terrified that someone will confiscate our guns, therefore we assume that any regulation is the first step toward confiscation. 

Nobody, starting with President Obama, wants to take away all the guns.  I doubt it's even possible, there are too many of them; it's like saying you're going to deport 12 million illegal aliens all at once, it's just not gonna happen.  The conviction that "they're going to take away our guns" is crazy.  Tinfoil hat crazy, up there with all the other conspiracy theories.  I want to reduce the availability of the most destructive weapons of war and try to ensure, through background checks, that people who are known to be violent, who have a history of violence or mental illness, should not be allowed to buy any weapons.  If you are not one of those people and you want to keep an arsenal of non-automatic weapons in your den, go for it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Women and Islam

This post began with a link on Facebook to, to the petition called Horror in Paradise,  about a 15-year-old girl in the Maldives who was reportedly raped repeatedly by her father, who also murdered the baby she bore.  She has now been sentenced to 100 lashes, for having "sex outside marriage."  I don't sign every petition that comes by, because signing petitions invariably leads to more spam and more requests for funds.  I decided I would sign this one.

But the petition didn't have the entire story. An article in the International Business Times explains that the girl was not sentenced to 100 lashes because her father raped her; her father is still awaiting trial on charges of rape and infanticide.  She was sentenced because of another act of consensual premarital sex which she is said to have admitted to.  Also, the sentence won't be imposed until she turns 18, unless she chooses otherwise.  Finally, the Maldives President's office is already arguing with the court about the sentence.  So we can all back off on the horror, except insofar as 100 lashes, in the 21st century, is an absurd punishment for anything.  And bear in mind that sex with a 15-year-old is a crime in every western country I can think of - but the girl is almost never prosecuted.

I began wondering what Sharia law actually does say about rape, and relations between men and women.  Is it really true that Sharia law requires 4 male witnesses to prove rape?  Is a woman's testimony really only worth half a man's in Sharia courts? What about marital rape? I don't claim to understand all of Islamic law based on a few web articles, but I was curious to see what a quick survey would find.

I found 3 web sites with articles on rape and Islam which I thought would give a broad perspective:
ReligionofPeace is clearly anti-Muslim, but their links to Qur'an citations were very useful.  The most detailed explanations of how Muslims think about the law were on MuslimAccess.  The article about rape and incest begins with an extended discussion of Islam's emphasis on the value of all human life, and the various ways this is addressed.  Islam prohibits harm, prohibits cruelty, and states that "a woman has to be respected and protected under all circumstances."  Islam prohibits rape (of course!).  The site lists numerous examples of women complaining of rape to the Prophet, and to judges in the time after the Prophet, whose rapists were punished and the women were not. 

ReligionofPeace says flatly, "Under Islamic law, rape can only be proven if the rapist confesses or if there are four male witnesses."  If you actually look at the citations to the Qur'an they give, though, the 4 male witnesses are required to prove adultery:
Qur'an (24:4) - "And those who accuse free women then do not bring four witnesses (to adultery), flog them..."  
Qur'an (24:13) - "Why did they not bring four witnesses of it? But as they have not brought witnesses they are liars before Allah."
ReligionofPeace admits this but insists "it is a part of the theological underpinning of the Sharia rule."  MuslimAccess is very clear that rape and adultery are different crimes under Sharia.  The crime of rape (hiraba) is considered on a par with highway robbery and assault: 
In ‘Fiqh-us-Sunnah’, hiraba is described as: ‘a single person or group of people causing public disruption, killing, forcibly taking property or money, attacking or raping women (hatk al ‘arad), killing cattle, or disrupting agriculture.’
BismikaAllahuma also lists numerous historical examples of rape victims who were not punished, although their rapists were.  The only case listed on BismikaAllahuma where a raped woman was punished was one where "the girl [was stoned to death] because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city."  She was therefore presumed to have consented - and the penalty for adultery was death.

I'm inclined to conclude that in Islamic law, a rape victim should be treated as a victim and not punished, and that the requirement for 4 male witnesses applies to proving consensual adultery, not rape.  There's still a deep chasm between this and modern Western law, where adultery is considered the business of the parties involved.

So, what about marital rape?  The Qur'an contains the following suggestive quote, which two different sites used as examples of two different opinions:
Sûrah al Baqarah 2.223
'Your wives are your tilth; go then unto your tilth as you may desire, but first provide something for your souls*, and remain conscious of God, and know that your are destined to meet Him...'
The ReligionofPeace site assumes this means there is no such concept as rape in marriage in Islam.

The MuslimAccess site says, "The Qur'an is very clear that the basis of a marital relationship is love and affection between the spouses, not power or control. Rape is unacceptable in such a relationship." To the quote above it adds a footnote, "* Note in Muhammad Asad's translation: 'a spiritual relationship between man and woman is postulated as the indispensable basis of sexual relations.'"  It also gives several examples of Islamic scholarship suggesting a much more equal relationship between men and women than some modern critics suggest, or than we see today in some of the more conservative Muslim countries. 

As for the value of a woman's testimony in court, here is the exact text relating to women's testimony in court, from 002.282 (Yu Sufali), in the context of  "transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time":
If they [sic] party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable Himself to dictate, Let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her.
There is no suggestion that the man might need to be reminded if he errs.

So, how explain the way women are treated under Sharia law in some Muslim countries, given that the examples of Islamic law turned up by my search seem more, well, reasonable than I expected?  I believe the explanations are as much cultural as religious.  The cultures in which women seem to especially badly treated are strongly patriarchal, and regard women as property, not citizens:  Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia.  I didn't know enough about the Maldives to include them in that list until now; and after reading the IBT article, I'm not sure I should include them. The Qur'an statement that "your wives are your tilth" seems to support this attitude.

So we have a religion which forbids rape (and murder, and all the other things everybody forbids), and which says it regards women as very important and to be protected and cherished; and the modern advocates forbid women from going out in public without a male family member as escort, refuse to let them go out at all, refuse them education, cause them to wear full-coverage veils, murder them for sometimes incomprehensible failures of "honor" - you've seen the news stories. In fact, from some other stories I've read about the Prophet Mohammed, he sounds like a more rational man than some of his modern followers.

I think the problem with Islam is the same as the problem with Christianity - it isn't necessarily the religion itself.  It's the people who practice it, and the way they've convinced themselves that only their interpretation of the faith is correct, and everyone who disagrees with them is a hopeless heretic.  It's also, frankly, the Pareto principle, also called the 80/20 rule:   80% of the trouble in the world is caused by 20% of the people.  The squeaky wheels get the news reports, and the people who make the news can be pretty scary.  Consider what your opinion of Christians would be if the only Christian you ever heard or read about was Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church, or that guy in Florida (I refuse to look up his name) who amused himself by burning Qurans.  I try to remind myself that for every frothing jihadi in the news, there are at least 4 other Muslims going quietly about their lives, being nice to their wives and daughters, and trying to pay the rent.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


I don't normally read Tom Stienstra's column in the San Francisco Chronicle, since it's in the sports section; but Jim does, since he's a hiker and backpacker.  At his suggestion I read it today (March 24), and I recommend you check back at during the week until it turns up - I hope it does, I think they just delay the Sunday columns a day or so.

Stienstra was fishing on Lake Shasta, and while he was there, he saw a golden eagle and a bald eagle going after the same fish, which was sunning itself on or near the top of the water.  His description of the incident (the fish lost) is one of the finest descriptions of a raptor encounter I've ever read, and well worth your effort to go find the column online.  Or dig the Sunday sports section out of the recycle bin.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Life in a City

I don't normally go out to breakfast, but today I had to do one of those fasting blood tests.  Since it was also the day the house cleaners were coming, I went out to breakfast after my little stint in the lab.  I chose a little cafe in the hospital neighborhood, which does basic breakfast and lunch, and sat down at half of a table for 4 in the back.  The joint was jumping; when I walked in that was the only empty table, and as I ate, the tables stayed full.

So I wasn't surprised to be joined.  But the whole incident was odd. A stocky middle-aged Asian woman stood next to my table for several minutes, then finally sat down.  She was talking under her breath almost continually.  She never spoke to me or made eye contact, and never asked if I minded sharing the table.  I didn't mind. I did sort of expect to be asked, but not enough to make a fuss over it. 

The whole time she sat at the table, she continued her sotto voce conversation - she was looking across the table as if there were someone there.  I couldn't hear what she was saying except for an occasional word - and the word I caught was "crazy".  I still wonder what was going on.

This is why I like living in cities.  If that had been in a small town, I'd probably have known everyone in the place and all their business.  In the city, you're never quite sure what's going on.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Women in Combat

I've been listening all day on NPR to various people expressing their opinions on the Defense Department's recent decision to allow women to serve in front-line combat positions.  My, has it been interesting. 

I heard a woman, on BBC's World Have Your Say, opine that the fact that Canada has had women in combat positions for years doesn't mean anything, because their military doesn't fight "real wars" like ours does.  (No, really, that's a good paraphrase of what she said.)

I just heard the (male) head of a veterans group, on PBS NewsHour, say that women aren't fit for front-line combat positions because a woman can't do a fireman's carry of a 225 lb. man, and she can't carry an infantryman's gear.  (He should see some of the iron pumpers at the women's gym I used to go to.  I once saw a woman about 5' 3" dead lift 300 pounds.)  He admitted that the wars we're fighting these days are guerrilla wars that don't have that kind of front lines, but he's convinced that sometime in the next 50 years, we'll be back in the trenches, just like we were in Korea and WWII.

The only one who's actually mentioned that elephant in the room, menstruation, is the blogger at Angry Black Lady Chronicles, who said,
Prepare for the incoming jokes about women being issued Hello Kitty uniforms and pink guns, while conservatives wax nostalgic for the days when strapping young men didn’t have to serve in a foxhole with women who bleed every month and refuse to die.
(I have to read that blog more often.)

Now, personally, I have no idea why any rational woman would want to serve in front-line combat.  But I know a lot of women have chosen a military career, and obviously if they can't serve in combat, their promotion options are limited.  For them this is the right decision, and about damn time.  Ask Sen. Tammy Duckworth, among many others, about women serving in combat.

As for the front lines that we'll "probably have" in the next 50 years:  none of us knows what's coming.  But as I look at all the wars in the last 300 years, I see that every new war (including Iraq and Afghanistan) has required things of its soldiers that no one had ever believed soldiers would have to deal with.  Rifled barrels and accurate fire.  Mustard gas, and machine guns.  Panzer tanks and blitzkrieg.  Urban guerrilla warfare and COIN.  And yet the soldiers adapted to the new ways, and coped; and their brains were usually more important than their physical strength.  In fact, with the new armed drones, soldiers don't even have to be physically on a battlefield; in which case there is no gender difference.

So, ladies, have at it, and God bless.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Gun Control and the Possible

Now that President Obama has revealed the list of changes he wants to make to the way we manage gun ownership in this country, the flap has begun.  A number of very loud people are screaming that "they're going to take away our guns."  I wish. But in fact, his major proposals are very simple:

  • Background checks every time a gun changes hands
  • No more semi-automatic rifles, aka assault weapons, sold
  • No more high-capacity magazines sold
The second and third items have just given gun sellers their biggest month ever, as people line up to buy guns "while we still can."  The paranoia is overwhelming, despite the fact that nothing in any of this suggests any plan on the government's part to "take away our guns," in fact, no action on any guns anyone currently owns.  

But I'm seeing a very interesting consensus building on universal background checks.  The link won't be up until tomorrow, but in today's San Francisco Chronicle, the editorial "Real gun laws at last" quotes an Associated Press poll that showed 86% of respondents in favor of background checks at gun shows.  If you review the general coverage of the SHOT show in Las Vegas this week (Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show), you'll see that even the attendees (largely gun dealers) are generally in favor of more and better background checks.

So I have a recommendation for Mr. Obama.  Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Far more people are in favor of expanding background checks (over 80%) than favor banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines (just over 50%, which is still amazing).  Push the background checks separately, as a single bill that does nothing else.  Then you have a sporting chance of getting it passed.  If you bundle all the changes together in a single bill, as everyone in Washington loves to do, you give anyone with any objection to any small section the excuse to vote against it.

And it would help.  I regularly hear gun supporters argue that because these measures won't "solve the problem" - and they won't, if "solve" means "make it stop entirely" - we shouldn't even bother.  That's a straw man.  No law will "solve" any problem of human behavior.  But regular background checks will make things better. California has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, but Oakland, California is drowning in illegal assault weapons trucked in from Reno, Nevada, where you can  buy any weapon you want - especially at that gun show this week.  Background checks would reduce the flow of guns from Nevada to California, and that would help.  A lot.  Let's do it.