Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thoughts on Benghazi

In which I expose myself as being neither Republican nor Democrat

I participate in a political forum in which there's been some recent discussion of the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya on the evening of September 11th, 2012. The discussion revolves around two news articles. First up is this report by David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, which they style as an "investigation":


It's in six parts, so be sure to read the whole thing. The second is this report by Catherine Herridge for FoxNews:


In Herridge's story, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.tells FoxNews the following: 
"I will tell you this, by witness testimony and a year and a half of interviewing everyone that was in the ground by the way, either by an FBI investigator or the committee: It was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an Al Qaeda-led event. And they had pretty fairly descriptive events early on that lead those folks on the ground, doing the fighting, to the conclusion that this was a pre-planned, organized terrorist event,"
Rogers goes on to stress that it was not caused by the video, "The Innocence of Muslims" ("the video") as was broadly proclaimed by spokesmen for the White House shortly after the attack.
Before I go farther, I need to point out that any discussion here or by... well, just about anybody... amounts to arm-chair quarterbacking. I doubt that anyone is in full possession of all the facts; or even that all of the facts in anyone's possession are accurate. In other words, all parties have incomplete, inaccurate views of the events, which is why we have investigations. It's also why I refer to the NY Time's "investigation" in quotes.
It strikes me that each side is sniping past the other, in different scopes and contexts, and offering "evidence" that does not refute the other.

Bird's-eye view of the US Consulate in Benghazi
The grounds were attacked from the North (top)
For instance, Rogers puts a great deal of emphasis on what the people "on the ground" knew. Well, if you've ever been "on the ground" you know that this is a fine place to collect tiny details of extremely limited scope, and the worst place possible to look at broad strategic actions and causes. "On the ground" you know who arrived and who shot at you, but you don't know anything about what motivated them to move in your direction. This is why generals don't lead battles... being "on the ground" would leave him largely uninformed about the things he really needs to know. And honestly, that's how Rogers comes across to me... as someone who is "largely uninformed". As a Congressman, that may have less to do with the information that's available to him, and more to do with his focus.

On the other hand, Kirkpatrick's article relies heavily on anecdotes told by militant Islamists... people who (not to put it too delicately) are prone to lie. I'm not saying this in a pejorative sense. It's just that in their culture lying is an acceptable thing. It is a form of strategy, one that they would claim is practiced by God himself. According to the Qur'an, for instance, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was replaced by a lookalike. Muslims see this as a clever stratagem devised by Allah. In Kirkpatrick's report, people known to have had a hand in the attack simply deny involvement or explain it away. For instance, Abu Khattala says he only stopped by the mission that night to break up a traffic jam, and then came back to rescue a Libyan guard he had "heard" was trapped inside. What a humanitarian! But not exactly a credible source. Both the reported events and the reported motives are to some degree questionable unless corroborated by multiple independent sources.

Thus, both views of the events are met with derision by the other side.

It's my long-held and oft-repeated position that no one gets into politics because of a desire to do evil. Every politician, no matter what his party or philosophy, thinks he's serving the greater good. However, there is no end to the evil that these "good people" will do because they think it's not true of "the other guy". They will lie, cheat, obfuscate, steal, and basically commit or at least allow all seven of the Deadly Sins in the name of "winning". Unfortunately, it also means that every datum and every argument immediately passes through an ideological filter. They wouldn't know unbiased information if it shot them in the face. This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Muslims and Americans.

Overall, though, Kirkpatrick's article strikes me as a reasonable account of the events it describes. It's the events that it describes that are lacking in depth. It leads us through events and dances around causes while superficially seeming to address them.
  • It describes that Libyans knew about the video and some were motivated by it, but that this was not the prime motivation of the attack. This jibes with both the State Department account and the "on the ground" reports of witnesses. 
  • It describes that the attack against the consulate was pre-meditated, with improvisation; but that the attack against the CIA Annex was purely improvised. Again, this jibes with both accounts.
  • It notes the fact that the US Consulate remained staffed, while leaving us puzzled as to why, in the face of clear security threats known to the Ambassador and his staff.
  • It states that this was not an Al-Qaeda-led effort, and describes some communications between participants and external Al-Qaeda members. Again, this is compatible with both accounts, but I'm going to have to take a moment explain that.
When Rep. Rogers tells FoxNews that there are "ties" between the attackers and Al-Qaeda, he fails to define that term, "ties". No one ever adequately explains that term. If they could, then they'd use any term but that instead. In linguistic terms, "ties" means absolutely nothing. In political terms, it only means that you want listeners to associate your target's name with another name that they know to be bad. "Ties" is shorthand for "we can't prove jack shit, but we're going to say it anyway". 
"Ties" is a form of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon". Here's how it works: You are reading this. Therefore you are "known to frequent the website" of Dave Leigh, who is a casual friend of a man who contacted Kevin Bacon's publicist to have Kevin record a short greeting for one of my friend's friends' wedding. Kevin having responded and send the requested recording, my friend's "Bacon number" is ONE, mine is TWO, and now yours is THREE. You therefore have "close ties to Kevin Bacon" in CIA-speak, despite not having shit to do with the actor. The thing is... you can play "Six Degrees of Separation" between any two people on Earth, and I'd lay money that you have Al-Qaeda "ties" without my even knowing who you are.
That's a very different thing from "this group took orders from Al-Qaeda commander so-and-so". When you have a substantive link, you say it. "Bashir bought guns from Rashid", etc. You don't fart around with "ties". Remember, the militant Islamists have a penchant for lying, but it runs to braggadocio: that's what tore down Saddam Hussein. Al-Qaeda likes to take credit even for things they didn't do, such as the Boston Marathon bombing. But they didn't take credit in Benghazi, even though it would have been advantageous to them. 

So while the "links" to Al-Qaeda may exist, as corroborated by the Kirkpatrick pieces, those ties aren't substantive. I think there's a long, bumpy road from that to the conclusion that Al-Qaeda led the attack. Inspired? Could be, but there have been plenty of terrorists besides Al-Qaeda. To show that it was coordinated, masterminded... led... by Al-Qaeda you'll have to do a lot better than some weak-ass "ties"... especially when the best suspects you have are an errand boy and a former bodyguard. There's plenty of "credit" to be shared among the sometimes-competing, sometimes-cooperating local militia in Benghazi.

Bigger Questions

Everyone remembers part of this quote:


The part they remember is the infamous, "What difference at this point does it make?"  The part they don't is what follows: "It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again."  Clinton closes with the right words, though I'd say her lead-in scores a solid 10 on the "suck-o-meter" scale. Her follow-up doesn't score a thing for effectiveness. We're still out there, looking for answers.

At the end of the day, it's not important whether the attackers were led by Al-Qaeda. That doesn't lessen the attack or detract from the fact that we had clear warning signs in advance. The American failure at Benghazi doesn't hinge on Al-Qaeda at all. I have other questions, and frankly, my questions are more bothersome to me than most of the conspiracies floated by the Right. 
  1. Why didn't the Americans pull out when everybody else did? They had notice. This is unquestionable, and demonstrated by the fact that everybody else pulled out. Ambassador Stevens' journal records that they were in a "security vacuum" As reported by Kirkpatrick, the journal continues, "Militias are power on the ground,” he wrote.“Dicey conditions, including car bombs, attacks on consulate.” And there was more: “Islamist ‘hit list’ in Benghazi. Me targeted on a prominent website (no more off compound jogging).” So why were we still there? And why was our security so obviously not commensurate with the threat? Who was responsible for that?
  2. Were the RPGs and other weapons used in the attack those that were provided by the Americans in the arms deals that Ambassador Stevens was reportedly there to administer? This isn't the first mis-managed gun-running campaign of the Obama administration... Whose baby was this? Does this arms program have anything to do with the failure to pull out? Stevens met with Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin the night of the attack. Was this topic on the agenda? Why didn't Akin call and warn the US Consulate when he left? He had to have passed the militia blockades.
  3. Why did the Administration give the public the simplistic scapegoat of a spontaneous protest against the video when they had prior knowledge of other, more organized security threats in addition to that single excuse?
  4. “Why is the United States always trying to use force to implement its agendas?” This is a quote from the militant Islamist Abu Khattala, but it is nevertheless a valid question. Khattala's question goes to the heart of causes for such action against Americans. This leads to another philosophical question, which is, "why does our Administration consider it right to arm the citizenry of other countries in defense of their freedoms, but consider it wrong to do the same for the citizens of the United States of America?" This is tangential to the main issues of Benghazi, but it illustrates the reason our founders listed the bearing of arms as a right. Our two-faced approach to this topic labels our leaders as hypocrites on the world stage.
  5. Bright and early on September 12, President Obama loftily proclaimed, “We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act, and make no mistake, justice will be done.” Where is Justice? What exactly does it mean in Obama's usage? And what does it mean to the American people and our credibility in the world when we issue resolutions having the substance of vapor?
These are the most important questions on the table, yet none of them are addressed by the Kirkpatrick's piece in the New York Times. Even though many on the Right are barking up the wrong trees, there are still a lot of valid issues. If you're a Leftist, and you're looking for some "ah-hah!" ammunition to refute those concerns, Kirkpatrick's piece isn't going to do the job.



Update: 

A friend points out the theory that military support was on its way and turned back. I'm addressing that here because it's clearly very important to him. I'm going to let you read Rush Limbaugh to get the full story on that one. Here's a more concise report from FoxNews. In a nutshell: Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were reportedly on the roof of the CIA Annex in the early morning of September 12th, laser targeting a mortar installation that eventually fired the mortar shell that killed them. The theory is that the SEALs were "painting" a target with the expectation that a missile or gunship would take them out. Therefore, the SEALs must have been told that help was on the way. And they wouldn't have been told that if it weren't actually on the way, so what happened to that help? Who turned it back?

I wonder about it, too, but I didn't list that among my concerns, and I still don't, for the following reasons. The military denies that a gunship was on its way, and that there were no AC-130 gunships there at Sigonella at the time. I was in the USAF. I was on duty at RAF Croughton, communications satellite base to RAF Upper Heyford, during the North Libyan bombing campaign against Qaddafi in 1986. I know how fast planes are, and the denial of the military is credible on the basis of time in the air from the nearest alternate bases. Given that the SEALs were repeatedly told to "stand down", it's unlikely that such assistance was dispatched. Were lasers in use, there is an alternate explanation by the Washington Post's David Ignatius. He claims that the laser sights had been trained on various attackers as a warning not to fire. Basically, "you're in our sights and we want you to know it". That again is credible, as lasers are commonly used in this fashion in movies and on TV, so it would be a clearly understandable signal, and to my mind more likely than "painting a target" when not in direct contact with a controller via radio.

So I don't list this in my open concerns because it is far too easy to list alternate explanations and because the theory itself requires assets that are not shown to have existed. I have a hard enough time arguing the facts that I have... I can't argue the facts that I don't have. The security concerns that I did list would have prevented the situation from occurring in the first place, and did prevent it for our allies who wisely evacuated, so I consider that to be of primary importance.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Split Opinions on Splitting California

Tim Draper, the moneybags venture capitalist  who financed Hotmail and Skype, is floating a proposal to split California into six smaller states.  Now, what has me interested in this is the predictability of the Leftist response, but first let's take a look at why this isn't a nutty idea.

Let's start with the obvious. Under the US form of government, we have two chambers of the Legislature: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The existence of these two chambers is to strike a balance between popular opinion and states' rights.

The states send a number of Representatives to Congress proportional to their population, each of which is elected for a period of 2 years. This allows states to respond rapidly to the will of the People. It's pretty easy to see that a huge, densely populated state, with many representatives, could send enough representatives to pass legislation detrimental to the interests of sparsely populated states. The populous states would enact this legislation, proposed by their people, who do not live in the sparsely populated states, and frankly do not know, understand, nor are affected by the legislation they propose. A purely Democratic process would produce a "tyranny of the majority" that would be patently unfair to small states.

That's why each state sends exactly two Senators to Congress, each of whom is elected for a period of 6 years. That's a long time in political terms, and this provides stability. It also gives small states equal footing in the Senate when discussing legislation. Populous states still hold an advantage because of their dominance in the House, but the composition of the Senate reduces that inequity.

Why a breakup?

Now, the announced reason for this proposal is that California is "under-represented in the Senate". That having merely two Senators for such a populous state is unfair. Granted, this completely ignores the fact that the Senate composition is itself intended to correct the problems of California's dominance of the House, but let's roll with it... I can certainly accept that when you reach some threshold, the people (not the "state") are not adequately represented and the state should be split.

This brings up the second reason for a breakup. California is actually far more politically diverse than the news accounts would lead you to believe. But because the most densely populated areas dominate California politics, rural areas... the vast farming communities, really don't get much say in anything. This is exactly the problem we would see on a national scale but for the 2-Senator limit.

This isn't a new problem. In 1941 the idea was proposed by Gilbert Gable, the mayor of Port Orford, Oregon, that a new state be created called "Jefferson", and it be made up of rural counties on either side of the Oregon/California border. 
Contrary to a Slashdot comment on the name, "Jefferson" as a name is not "inexplicable". It was Thomas Jefferson who sponsored the Lewis and Clark Expedition that explored the extent of the continent. Like "Washington", this state name would honor a prominent American.
Now, the purpose of the state of Jefferson wasn't to increase California's representation in the Senate, but to provide the rural population of the Jeffersonian counties adequate representation in general; the proponents of this plan having felt for generations that the tyranny of the majority has ridden roughshod over their interests.

Now, the new plan, as Draper shares with Techcrunch.com, is for the following reasons (and here's the actual proposal: [link]):
1. It is about time California was properly represented with Senators in Washington. Now our number of Senators per person will be about average.
2. Competition is good, monopolies are bad. This initiative encourages more competition and less monopolistic power. Like all competitive systems, costs will be lower and service will be better.
3. Each new state can start fresh. From a new crowd sourced state flower to a more relevant constitution.
4. Decisions can be more relevant to the population. The regulations in one new state are not appropriate for another.
5. Individuals can move between states more freely.
OK, so maybe he's not thinking clearly about reason #1... it wouldn't be "our" representation in the Senate... it would be the representation of each of these new states, each of which would pursue its own interests. So it wouldn't be multiplying "California's" influence, as there would be no "California" in the present sense. Reason #2 and #5 don't make a lot of sense, as you cannot get a competitive bid for services from a state in which you do not live, and there is no impediment in the USA to moving freely between states. Reason #3 is half fluff. A new state flower is not compelling.

The real reasons are the other half of #3 and the entirety of #4... in other words, the reasons that have been given for decades for the formation of Jefferson. More relevant local control. A state government and constitution that is relevant to the populace. In two words: Home Rule.

It's a purely political stand and it makes sense. The state is too big. It has become self-segregated in to areas of wildly different interests, and each of these areas needs to be represented. That's not what's happening in the Senate now. Also, the representation that California does have does not need to be provided by an increase in the number of senators taken "at large" because that would not fairly represent the diverse interests of Californians. Therefore, we have this proposal to sever California into smaller, more effective states.

As a citizen of a smaller state, I'd love to see it, and would urge my Congressmen to actively support Federal ratification of such a split, as then there would be less monolithic screw-ups coming from "California", and more rational differences of opinion.

Opposition:

Of course, there is opposition to it, and that is from the Left. A fairly reasonable description of the plan is found on Motherboard.vice.com and is written by Brian Merchant:


Now, Merchant thinks the plan is ridiculous, but he has a very hard time articulating why other than it "is overrun with libertarian-tinged ideology and language", with no explanation as to why that is a bad thing. After all, our United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution are 100% through and through steeped in Libertarian ideaology and language and nothing else whatsoever. You see, Merchant doesn't quite understand the Constitution. I know this because of what he says. For instance, he sees the equal representation of states a problem rather than the solution that it is. He says this "...isn't ideal if you're aiming for a democracy."  Of course, our nation is not a democracy, it's a republic. Localities may be democracies, but not our nation. The United States was never intended to be a democracy. It was intended to be a republic of limited power, leaving most power to the people of the various states, who would then rule themselves in whatever fashion is appropriate to them. It's not a minor point.

But here's the weird thing about Merchant... while he believes the plan is bad, he knows that it's not, when reasoned out. And while Merchant appears to be the reasonable sort who could accept the primary reasons for supporting a split when discussed rationally; unfortunately he reasons it out imperfectly in this particular analysis:
"...Draper's slipshod plan would actually be a step towards that goal—and towards a government that ceases to favor the concerns of rural voters over the urban ones."
Well, no... it wouldn't do that at all. In fact, it wouldn't change any of that, even as it makes things fairer for the citizens of these Californian counties. You see, Merchant's fallen into the "all these states will be California" trap.But that's not the way statehood works. It's not as if all these"Californias" would be putting one over on the rest of the nation, merely calling themselves different "states" in a sly scheme game the system to increase Senate representation. They would actually be separate entities working and voting on their own behalf, including the new rural state of Jefferson that would gain favorable representation as they detach from their masters to the South.

The wishful thinking is where the opposition starts... the wishful thinking of those who could accept the breakup if the same people who are calling the shots today get to dominate politics in each of the new states. They don't mind more Senators, so long as they hold the strings. So given the prospect of a region seceding because they want truly representative local government, the opponents will either obstruct or want to gerrymander so that no truly representative government results. After all, you can't possibly be serious when you suggest that people should determine their own destiny. Thoughts like that are "ridiculous". Acknowledgement of that bias is unthinkable.

Knowing this, I particularly enjoyed reading a piece by Sam Biddle on Valleywag.com:


Now, Biddle's problem with it is just class envy, plain and simple. He's one of a number of people who have become so used to the idea of stealing from others that he cannot conceive of home rule. He doesn't recognize that it's edicts coming from people like him, forcing people to buy stuff they don't want and services they don't need, that make that kind of theft "necessary".

As I've mentioned before, separatist efforts have been going on for a very long time. As early as 1859 there was a proposal with strong majority support, which was set aside due to the Civil War. This isn't new. Before Biddle continues his lament over the fact that Silicon Valley would have all of this tech wealth while the rest of California would be "out on their own", he might want to stop and ask whether a majority of the people within those regions might not just like that very, very much. At least it's worth a vote, and if Biddle is even remotely right, it would fail even without all his bitching. So what has he got to lose by submitting this to the democratic process for which he proclaims support in other instances? What makes this different?

A thoroughly opinionated rant...

By all the accounts I've seen, the separatists in the "Jeffersonian" counties aren't motivated by some desire for financial gain. Even Biddle would have to allow that they're looking to cut themselves off from the "big money" in Silicon Valley. I say "cut themselves off" because this movement is far older than Tim Draper, and it's never been thrust upon them from outside. No... this is a political move toward self-determination. But folks like Biddle certainly have every appearance of being motivated by desire to gain the power to funnel other people's money into their pockets. The entirety of his mockery is focused on Silicon Valley because that's where that money is. Those rich elitist Silicon Valley snobs want to hang on to their cash. He sees everyone outside of the tech world as homeless, helpless do-nothings, incapable of wiping their noses, and projects this worldview of his very own onto Silicon Valley "elitists". For some reason he doesn't see the people outside of Silicon Valley as being as intelligent and as capable as all those millions who live in other states, and who get along just fine on their own. Nor does he even consider that they might like to get along just fine on their own.

No, he's focused like a bird-dog on the money, not the opportunity. But even as he hates the very fact that the technologists earn a lot (and by that, I don't mean that they're "given" more, but that they earn it), He wants to be dependent on those earnings to make himself more comfortable. The disdain Biddle has for Silicon Valley drips from his every accusatory word. To him, rich people exist as cattle to be milked, and nobody else has to work very hard at all because... hey, free milk! The State exists to make that happen. And fruits, vegetables, and meat are magical things that are bought in plastic at Safeway with Silicon Valley money, and the farmers who raise them aren't worth even a passing thought in his criticism.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A Note to Some of My Argumentative Friends.

This comes up so often that I've decided to just write a blog post so I can link to it when necessary. In a moment you may see why that's ironic.

I'm a bit opinionated and stubborn. However, it's well within my power to make changes to my beliefs based on reflection and debate. One of those major changes was to drop my Republican political party affiliation and formally identify with the Libertarians, as I came to realize that certain of the Republican party planks were not Constitutional (though this says nothing about my personal religious beliefs).

It's honest and open debate that makes the difference, and that means people airing some sincere disagreements. That doesn't mean we have to "hate" each other, or that we're "enemies" or "opponents". I truly believe that nobody gets into politics because they have an earnest desire to ruin the nation. We have different ideas about how to get things done and make things better. However, I do believe that some of those ideas, through lack of foresight and unintended consequences, or misplaced values, do have the effect of ruining the nation.

That's why we debate. We air those differences, talk them through, and respond to notable problems that we point out in each other's positions. It's important, though... vitally important... that for such a discussion to mean something there has to be a living mind behind those positions. There cannot be a debate between two recordings.

The Problem:

I've noticed a growing tendency in modern communication (on Usenet, various forums, and Facebook) to "argue" by means of links. I'm not talking about posting a link for comment... starting a conversation by saying, "Hey, did you guys see this?" I'm talking about reading an opinion by a live person that you're supposedly "conversing" with and responding by throwing a link at them, as if that's your response. Apparently you may believe that this brings gravitas to "your" rebuttal. That whatever (hopefully) famous or notable person you've cribbed is "there by your side, taking your part".

They're not.

Or perhaps you simply think that they've expressed your own opinion better than you could have... that somewhere in a 40-minute clip of Bill Maher, or a 5-page article from the Mother Earth News there's a point that's exactly the point you want to make, and that if only I'd watch it or read it then I'd see the light and repent of my wicked ways.

I won't.

Here's why:

I'm not there to argue with Bill Maher or Rush Limbaugh... their arguments are often severely flawed: not only the arguments of these particular individuals, but most pundits in general. They are almost invariably "playing politics" as a team sport,  and their arguments are consequently so twisted as to be no contribution at all to a debate based on actual issues. It's too "important" to them that the other side not gain control. So they exaggerate, oversimplify, appeal to emotion, and otherwise use whatever logical fallacies are at hand that they believe to be effective in influencing opinion.  But they're not making valid arguments. It's only when they stop broadcasting opinions and start sharing with someone who can immediately catch out the fallacies that they become interesting. This is why it's so entertaining when Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly or Penn Jillette and Glenn Beck meet face-to-face.

I am so sick of pointing that out that I simply don't do it much any more.

You see, when you just toss in a link to an article without any explanation or context on how it supports your point, what you're communicating to me is that you have no point, so you're substituting this other guy's instead. This immediately makes you the least interesting person in the room.

At that point there's no need to respond or give a fig about your opinion.... you don't have one. I do. If I want to argue with Joe Blogger or whoever you linked me to, I'll do it on their site and argue with them about their opinions. But you...? You just bowed out of the conversation. You've announced that you have no skill in the liberal arts of rhetoric or logic. You're the least interesting person in the room. You didn't make a point, you didn't convince anybody, you didn't do a thing but tell us of your lack of use.

The other reason is that quite frankly I've probably seen that opinion already. And I've been thinking about and arguing my positions for about 40 years now, long enough to not be intimidated by the fact that some dude on a TV show said something. He's just a dude on a TV show. I'm not talking to him, I'm talking to you.


The Caveat:

I'm not talking about situations where you point to actual factual evidence of something. If I claim the price of widgets is skyrocketing, and you've got a link to Widgets Magazine that refutes it, that's evidence, not someone else's opinion. Use it. If there's a breaking news article that materially changes the facts of the case we're arguing, use it.

I'm not talking about your own blog posts, or links to previous comments where you've already addressed a point. If that's still your opinion, use it. A lot of times an answer is way too complicated and I'll move it here for formatting and space, for instance. You can do that... it's still your opinion.

I'm not talking about an appeal to authority that legitimately bolsters your opinion where you put that in context and point out the purpose of the link. For instance, "I'm not alone in thinking the Trask Act is unconstitutional. Professor X of the Xavier Institute has made a study of it, and has reached the same conclusion. Here's his report: [link]." or simply, "Dan Blogger argues my point better than I could:"

I am talking about just chucking links in as if they were responses. That's pretty much the same as not contributing.

So there's my advice, which -- if you follow it -- will make you a lot more effective in any online forum. If you'd rather not, then OK. Maybe you like being the least interesting person in the room.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Outraged?

Phil Robertson, patriarch of the "Duck Dynasty" clan, whose lives are chronicled in the hit reality show on A&E, told GQ magazine that homosexuality is a sin. A&E suspended Phil immediately and indefinitely for that remark. People have been quick to jump on it as "hate speech" and "homophobic" and with other adjectives mainly serving to highlight their ignorance.

Because here's what Phil actually said:
“It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical…Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men.”
Let's break that down, shall we?.

First, Phil's heterosexual. He clearly expresses a personal opinion that a woman's vagina is more desirable to him. You don't like that? Then shut up, you damned dirty heterophobe. I say that because it is blatantly obvious that if someone else "has a phobia" when they simply don't agree with your life choices, you "have a phobia" when you don't agree with theirs. That's because you don't get any special treatment. None of us do. So you have to be painted with the brush you insisted on holding. And if it sounds stupid for you to be called a "heterophobe", remember that you sound no less stupid for using "homophobe". You see,. phobia means "fear". If what you're describing is not an actual fear, then you're using the wrong word. In fairness, if someone on whom a gender label is placed is within their rights to decry the evident illiteracy of those applying the label, then everyone else has that same right. Find another word, Left, because you sound like idiots every time you use it. You just do. But if your mind is a bit more open than that... if you're not just the equally-close-minded mirror-image of the people you're hating, keep reading. Otherwise you should leave now because I'm not going to spare your feelings.

Phil also says that he thinks it's logical that a man should be attracted to a woman. Well, logically speaking that's pretty unassailable. Males and females come together to procreate. In nature, that's pretty much the way it has worked among creatures since the invention of sex. Natural offspring most certainly counts as "more to offer", even when we take into account that this is clearly labeled as his personal preference. However, logic has very little to do with love, let alone sin. And this statement has nothing to do with the hyper-punctilious sophistry of gender identification. If you say that everyone has a right to love whomever they want, then I will agree with you entirely... but that's with the understanding that erotic attraction is in no way "logical" under any circumstances.

"Kirsten", in her blog, "Rage Against the Minivan", writes,

"To reduce a person’s sexuality to an oversimplified and graphic question of where to put the penis is dismissive and homophobic. Even most conservative Christians believe that same-sex sexual attraction is not a sin in and of itself. But Phil depicts gay people as deviant, and that’s a big problem. And if his words above represent “Christian values” then we need to have another look at Jesus." 
Well, YES. Actually, you should. Because they do represent "Christian values", though people like Kirsten misunderstand both the statement Phil made and the values they represent.

Christians are commanded to love one another. That commandment makes no distinction between men, women, young or old.  It is independent of sexuality, nationality, and color. In ancient Greek, language of the New Testament itself, the difference between love and sex is quite clear, as there are different words to communicate these concepts (agape, eros, filios, and storge -- see definitions), all of which unfortunately wind up being translated to "love" in modern English. As with many who kibbitz on Christianity, Kirsten makes the mistake of confusing love with sexuality and fails to show an understanding of the distinction. Christians are commanded to love not just some people, and they're not advised that they may love who they wish... they are commanded to love everyone. Matthew 5:44 says to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Obviously, you aren't required to agree with or even like the people you love.

Clearly, what we're talking about with regard to sexuality has nothing to do with "love" as expressed in the Bible, It's not spiritual (agape), or familial (philos) or mere affection (storge), as Christians are expected to hold all of these without distinction. It boils down to eros... plainly defined as "romantic, pure emotion without the balance of logic." In short, the point that Phil's making IS a matter of where you put your penis, and he's completely right to say it's not logical.

It IS true that whether or not homosexuality is regarded as a sin depends on your denomination. There's a broad spectrum of thought, and here's a link to help sort them out. However, even those who claim that the New Testament doesn't condemn homosexuality per se, but that it condemns merely "immoral acts" are doing an intricate tap-dance around what was considered to be immoral.
26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: 27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet. 
It's not as if that's terribly muddy. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, the word arsenokoitai is rather circuitously translated as "abusers of themselves with mankind", though a literal translation would be more like "male-bedders" and it clearly states that they shall not inherit the kingdom of God. That's certainly justification for Phil's view that it's a sin. If a sin isn't something that keeps you from the kingdom of God, then I challenge you to find a definition that makes sense.
"But Phil depicts gay people as deviant, and that’s a big problem." 
If so, it's a problem that's shared by "most conservative Christians", in contrast to Kristen's statement. It is a minority, and by no means a conservative minority, who openly encourage homosexual behavior. For instance, the catechism of the Roman Catholic church describes homosexuality as "intrinsically disordered"... a nice, fancy, polite way of saying "deviant" while avoiding the negative connotations of that word. Loosely interpreted, it says "it may not be your fault, but it still ain't right." Others are sympathetic to those with same-sex desires while still condemning the activity... "love the sinner, hate the sin". With the exception of a few nutjobs like the Westboro Baptist Church, you won't find any phobia or hatred among Christians toward gays. But that doesn't mean they agree that homosexual activity is OK.

So yeah, while Jesus himself never mentions homosexuality outright, he left his Church in the hands of apostles who further explained his teachings. God didn't change his mind about what constitutes a sin between the Old Testament and the New. According to the New testament, man lying with man is still abhorrent, just as it was when Leviticus 18:22 was written. However, that sin, as all others, is forgiven by Christ. And don't think that that's picking on gays, folks. The mainline Christian view is that NO ONE deserves the kingdom of God. NO ONE.  The Pope is no more deserving of Heaven than a gigolo or drug addict. It is through God's grace that one is accepted. Christians don't get that grace by doing good; rather, they strive to do good because they have received grace.

And that's what you get when you go back and have another look. So don't go telling me that Phil got it wrong, because he didn't. He accurately stated the position of his religion, as taught by the Church from Day One.

What I think (part one)

So that's an analysis, but it doesn't tell you what I think on the subject.

I think that of all the gifts that God bestowed upon Mankind, the one that He values most highly must be our freedom of choice. Free will. Even if there were no god, then free will remains as the first most valuable possession of any man. If he does not own himself, he owns nothing. Personal sovereignty is axiomatic, and it is on the basis of this axiom alone that slavery is abolished and human rights upheld.

I have a very strict interpretation of the First Amendment proscription to "make no law" regarding religion, pro or con. I think it means "MAKE NO LAW". It's not rocket science. So government should not be in the habit of defining marriage, nor encouraging, nor denying marriage or denying consensual adult relationships. If you want to marry, do it. As a Christian, you already know that non-Christians, including Atheists and Satanists marry... so you really don't have a theological leg to stand on regarding blocking other people's secular unions. You may instead wish to exalt your own union as a "consecrated marriage", or a "Christian marriage". My politics are informed by my theology. The Bible doesn't tell Christians to chase people down and force them into right action; only that they must be mindful of their own actions and associations. In a theological sense, it's not my business to force you to do good, because that doesn't help you. You must freely choose to do good. I can only encourage you to do so. I disagree with a lot of Conservatives on this matter, but I think that one disapproving of immorality doesn't mean you should legislate morality.Conversely, allowing you to make your own mistakes doesn't mean I approve of them.

Whether in a marriage or not, people have the right to choose their own actions. Whether I approve or disapprove of your actions has no bearing on my love for you. Nor does it change the way I'll interact with you in a casual social setting. The subject will only come up if you bring it up... and you might be absolutely amazed at the number of people who bring up a topic for the apparent purpose of soliciting other people's opinions so they can practice the fine art of being offended. If you're offended by one of my views, you probably brought up the subject in the first place. This particular blog post is in response to one such solicitation. At the very least you willingly exposed yourself to my opinions... for instance, I told you near the top of this very page to go away if you're offended, yet here you are.While whether I approve of your actions or not is immaterial; it's certain that I'd think less of you if my approval were required to make your world go 'round. YOUR freedom of choice is your most valuable asset... why in the world would you waste it by abandoning it to peer pressure?

And folks... please think this one out.... even if I think that you probably just chose Hell, if you don't think there is a Hell, and I'm not even barring you from making that choice, then what the fuck are you complaining about?  And more importantly... if one of the Robertsons or anybody else disagrees with you on the subject of religion, what business is it of yours? Exactly none. How much "approval" are you owed for your lifestyle, no matter what it may be? Exactly none. How much outrage are you justified in having? Exactly none. Seriously, if you really want approval from a particular person or group, the way to get it is to do things of which they approve. Anything else is forced, and puts you in the wrong.

Also... the outrage of the Left is highly selective. Where is the outrage about Alec Baldwin's railing against "cocksucking faggots"? Most of that, you'll remember, came from Conservatives in the form of that very same question. The Left is curiously silent.

Here's a note on Facebook by someone who gets it, 100%.



Other Issues

Of course, the homosexuality issue is only part of what Phil discussed with GQ. He's also taking flak for "insinuating" that Blacks were happier under Jim Crow. Here's what he said:
“I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field.... They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
He said he did not personally witness mistreatment. While maintaining a high degree of skepticism, as it's just a report of what he experienced, I'm tempted to just say "he said, she said"  and put it down to being very sheltered, of very limited experience, or having a very selective memory, were it not for (again) a few of the comments about the statement, notably "Comparing black people to white trash is cringey."

And why is that? No really... exactly why is that? Comparing himself to his immediate neighbors who were in similar economic conditions, with similar jobs at the same time is bad because of ... his color. The complaint itself is a racist complaint. It tells us that Phil has no right to acknowledge his humble beginnings because he's privileged by being white. That's the be-all and end-all of that argument. He's an over-privileged white cracker who amassed a vast fortune of $15 million by selling racist duck calls, whereas someone like Oprah must struggle with the mere $3 billion she scraped and saved despite still being a virtual slave. All hail Oprah, and fuck you, Phil.

What I think (part two)

People who think that white trash are privileged have never been white trash. I will point out this one thing, having been in that position, and with full understanding that white people can not entirely comprehend racism. Again the quote is twisted out of context. It's not about comparing "blacks to poor white trash" (implying that all blacks are compared to only "white trash"). It's the other way around... it says that "white trash" in the South are treated much like blacks, so Phil identifies with the blacks ("I'm with the blacks.") For this he's called racist. The reason I would put off his comment to selective memory is that in the days before entitlements and welfare, Phil was a child. As my stepfather once told me about growing up in the Great Depression, "Nobody had anything, so we didn't know we were poor." It is perfectly reasonable to compare poor white people to their poor black neighbors. People to people.

I know full well this will not be believed by people who have nothing to go on but generations-old hearsay, but class distinctions are more important than racial ones at the very high and low ends of the spectrum. Blacks and whites of the Hollywood elite have no problem mixing together in high society. That's not because they're enlightened, it's because they're peers. Likewise, very poor blacks and whites in the rural South don't have much trouble mingling. On the other hand, there are solid social strata... poor white trash and rich Whites don't mix. I find Phil's claim that he saw NO mistreatment of blacks not credible, but earnestly stated if he received similar treatment and didn't view it as unusual at the time.
(By the way, in my experience the worst racist attitudes I ever saw in my life were encountered when I visited upstate New York. The South is tame by comparison. I, as a Southerner, was shocked and embarrassed by the words coming from my Northern hosts even as I hear from ignorant Northerners about how racist we all are down here. But hey, Northerners, I get it... it's so much more satisfying for you to exercise your feigned outrage than to listen and learn.)
You see, much of what we label as racism is actually class-ism. And while a poor white may not experience racism, he can fully experience being looked down upon because of his mere appearance, demeanor, language, accent, education, dress, tattoos, dentition, associations, job, or lack of a job. Often all of the above. You cannot measure the effect of racism without first addressing these issues, which press upon people of all races.

Now.... all that said, I do, as stated above, reserve a high degree of skepticism. This skepticism isn't sufficient to label as "racist" a man who has expressed identification with blacks and has related memories of nothing more than personally getting along with his fellow human beings.

If Phil's statement were racist, despite the fact that his quote is about people living together idyllically, and despite his accompanying statement that he identified with his black neighbors, A&E knew what they were getting when they hired a family of rednecks. What Phil said was far less racially offensive than Grand Theft Auto or the scores of rap and hip-hop songs glorifying ganstas and niggas and hoes. But again the outrage of the Left is very selective. If A&E feels that Phil is racist, then they shouldn't be wishy-washy about it. Just cancel the show.

The fact of the matter is, A&E felt the need to do something about Robertson's statements or lose Liberal viewers, so they suspended him. They certainly have that right. We enjoy protected free speech with regard to the government, but as a private enterprise the network can certainly visit consequences upon the Robertsons. But why didn't they didn't fire him outright? It's because Duck Dynasty pulls in mega-bucks for the network. The Robertson's faces are on everything from their duck calls to bedding to lunchboxes to posters to adhesive bandages. The merchandising alone is astonishing. The network's not in any great hurry to give that up.

But I'm not sure that A&E thought this through. It's not the Liberals who they're appeasing who buy all that crap... it's the rednecks they just pissed off. A&E may have just shot themselves in the foot.

You see, the Robertsons are sticking together, saying there will be no filming without Phil. It's unlikely that A&E have viable legal recourse to either force them to continue or fine them for not, since Phil didn't disparage the network or its producers or sponsors. When all's said and done, the Robertsons were successful without A&E. They didn't need this show to start with. And when all the smoke clears they'll still be the Robertsons, and their fan following will not look on Phil's comments with the same outrage they feel for A&E's censorship. It's a lose-lose proposition for A&E.

As for me, I don't care. I have no love for duck hunting, and don't like the show.... my life goes on.



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Review: The Desolation of Smaug

Once upon a time there was a little boy who never said a word. For years and years he grew up, played, cleaned his room, obeyed his parents, and did all of it completely silently. His parents were convinced that he could not talk. One day, while eating dinner, the little boy said, "The soup's cold". His parents were ecstatic! They shouted and clapped and laughed! And when they had calmed down, his mother asked him, "Son... all your life you've been silent. You've never made a sound. And now you're speaking in complete sentences! Why now?" 
 The little boy answered, "Up to now everything's been OK."
Up to now I haven't done a review of Peter Jackson's film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. It's been OK. Better than OK, in fact. It's been bloody brilliant. But while his adaptation of The Hobbit is in some ways brilliant, in others it's... well... I have a few nits to pick. So here are my thoughts on The Desolation of Smaug (TDOS), understanding that there will be spoilers. In particular, I'm assuming that you've seen An Unexpected Journey (AUJ) and that you've read The Hobbit. If you don't like spoilers, here are some lolcats for you instead.

The Lord of the Rings had to be told in three films due to its sweeping scope. Some allowances had to be made for the linear structure of the novel(s) vs. the need to keep the audience invested in the various characters. And despite there being three films, some things simply had to be dropped (such as the Old Forest, Tom Bombadil, the Barrow Downs, and the Scouring of the Shire). This is normal and to be expected when you are adapting a trilogy to the screen.

The Hobbit is not a trilogy. It's a single middling-sized book. Nevertheless, Peter Jackson's adaptation stretches to three films. Let me say categorically that, given this, with one exception, there is no excuse whatsoever for anything in the book to be left out. There just isn't a reason for it. Nevertheless it's happened. And why?  So that Jackson can insert material of his own devising in place of the much better source material. The one exception is the sleep enchantment on the stream in Mirkwood.

First, let's look at some good additions:
  • The storyline in the south of Mirkwood, dealing with the rise and supposed fall of "the Necromancer". If you're going to add anything at all, this is the thing to add. Gandalf otherwise just disappears for an extended period for no explained reason, only to come barging in at the end. Since the events are alluded to by Tolkien, this is a welcome addition.
  • Radagast is one of only three named Wizards in Middle-Earth. He's explicitly stated to have taken part in the defeat of the Necromancer. You can't have that story without him. Radagast is introduced at the right time... it makes sense that he would have discovered the Necromancer.
  • The characters of Legolas and Tauriel. If your characters are going to be imprisoned in the wood-elves' realm, then it stands to reason that we're going to meet a few of them.We know that Legolas is Thranduil's son, and that the elves are long-lived, so it's perfectly reasonable to see him here. Here and in Lake Town are the only opportunities to add female characters to this story, as The Hobbit has exactly none. Tauriel is a welcome addition. It's a shame they chose not to give Bard a wife as well.
  • The characters of Bard and the Master of Lake Town were well done. I like the dynamic there, with Bard's family having fallen out of political favor. Bard's shot will be well motivated by atonement for his ancestor's failure.
  • The Necromancer amassing an army and sending them North. Remember that the Necromancer is Sauron. He can sense the One Ring, and should know that it was used inside Erebor, which he knows to be a nigh-impregnable fortress. He wants that ring. The arrival of the orcs at The Battle of Five Armies is therefore motivated by that, and not at all by some jilted orc jefe desiring revenge.
  • The Last Light of Durin's Day was interestingly done. After all, the letters on the map were moon runes, and in the Lord of the Rings we've seen another dwarven door revealed by the light of the moon. However... the map said, "“Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.” It's all well and good that they played up the "last light" as being the moon, but it's a departure from the actual text. (when I originally wrote this I had seen the movie once and mis-remembered the phase of the moon, thinking it to be gibbous. Having seen it again, it is a waxing crescent, exactly as it should be.  This site tells you why. we know it was 2 days past the new moon, and therefore both "the last moon of Autumn" and on the same side of the mountain as the Sun so that both lights could shine upon the keyhole.)
 Now let's look at some stinkers:
  • There's no reason for Radagast to have traveled north to meet personally with Gandalf. It's flatly not in the story, even by allusion.  I know this happens in the previous movie, but I didn't review that, and it's one story. It stinks. They're Wizards. Surely they have some means of sending a message. As scripted, this was just a bit of unnecessary comedy fluff so that kids get to see a funny guy with shit on his head drive a rabbit-powered sledge, (By the way, The Once and Future King called. Merlin wants his bird shit back.)
  • Too many orcs. Yup, they're in the story, under the Misty Mountains and chasing the dwarves clear down to the Carrock. But the escape is an escape, and that's that. Shortly afterwards, the Necromancer would have called those orcs south. This does happen, after a fashion, in TDOS, but only half-heartedly. An apparent equal number of other orcs replace them. WTF!?. You've got orcs crawling all over the forest, orcs lining the river, orcs sneaking all over Lake Town, Orcs, orcs, orcs, orcs, orcs, orcs, orcs. Yes, I know that the filmakers believe the orcs wouldn't be discouraged evaded so easily. They're wrong. It's done with Beorn's help (and we dash through the Beorn encounter far too quickly in the movie) by means of taking the dangerous and rarely-used north path instead of the expected and well-worn southern path through Mirkwood. Also, the Necromancer's call wasn't optional. Again, this was just a Peter Jackson excuse for more hack-and-slash.
  • The elf rescue. This is a huge stinker. Bilbo's rescue of the dwarves from the spiders is important in raising his esteem in their eyes. Of course, Jackson already ruined that by turning Bilbo into a swashbuckling swordsman in AUJ, but his genuine heroism is casually tossed aside. Boo. Once again, this was a Jackson excuse for hack-and-slash. In the book the dwarves were tired, hungry, and without provisions, hoping to beg from the elves. There's nothing wrong with that meeting. 
  • Dwarves confronting Smaug. Seriously? Seriously?!? The dwarves properly sat on the doorstep waiting for their "burglar" to do the heavy lifting. I know, I know... the big question is how you get the audience to root for dwarves who are obviously greedy rotters. The answer is that you're not supposed to root for the dwarves!  The book is called THE HOBBIT, so root for the bloody hobbit. Once again we're given a shallow excuse for action! action! action! when the script should call for stealth, stealth, stealth and one big "OH SHIT!" moment. And oh, what action we get! We get literally unbelievable rivers of molten gold and sluice rides, and ore cart rides, and a giant melting statue. It's difficult to determine whether we're stealing from Indiana Jones or Star Wars in places. That's a crying shame, because The Hobbit doesn't need to steal from anybody.
  • The romance between Kili and Tauriel. Say what? WHY? 
The Necromancer story line is fine. They've made up the whole thing there, so who cares how they resolve it? But the stuff in the North is just obviously modern action film making sensibilities sucking the good out of a timeless story. In practically every case where they've screwed up, it's to inject unnecessary sword-swinging, when we could've got our fill of that in the South. Oh, look! There's Legolas being perfect! Oh, look! There's Legolas being perfect again! Oh, look! There's the fortieth highly improbable narrow escape! It's not just repetitive and boring, it lacks thought. These incidents would be better:
  • Beorn engages the orcs to the south, causing a diversion for the dwarves to escape undetected into the North Path. No more orcs. No orc that values his life would have blown off the summons of the Necromancer/Sauron. (Oh, wait. That's in the book!)
  • Radagast reports to Saruman and Galadriel, who send the message to Gandalf to join the White Council. The way TDOS is written, the Chief Wizard is cut out of decision-making, which is uncharacteristic and illogical. It also robs us of some quality Christopher Lee screen time as Saruman the White. We need this to fully appreciate it when he's "broken" into Saruman of Many Colors in LoTR.
  • Bilbo single-handedly rescues the dwarves from the spiders, who gain great respect for him as a result. (Oh, wait. That's in the book, too!)
  • While in Thranduil's jail, we're told of the wood-elves' starlight festival (which would have lured the dwarves away from the path in both Tolkien's book and my version of the film). When asked about it, Tauriel treats us to a small explanation that the Elves were the first race to awake on Middle-Earth, before the two trees, and before the Sun and Moon, when starlight was the only light. A beautiful, poetic moment that's never realized in TDOS. What a wasted opportunity. It's not in The Hobbit, but is well documented in The Silmarillion.  
  • If you absolutely need a romance, there's room for two. The dynamic between Tauriel and Legolas allows for one there unsullied by jealousy, but still given tension by Thranduil's disapproval. The second is to leave Bard a wife. Nothing of the plot is advanced by making him a widower, and his not having a confidante removes opportunities for exposition and pathos. She could be killed in the Smaug's attack, further motivating Bard's aim.
  • The escape from Thranduil's halls is a stealthy escape. It should have stayed that way, with no one being the wiser until the Dwarves were gone. (Oh, wait! That's in the book!) Then if you want to dispatch Legolas and Tauriel as scouts, then fine... it makes sense to have someone to report back news of Smaug's death prior to the Battle of Five Armies. But they shouldn't have to needlessly hack their way through orcs for it. Elves are smarter than that. 
  • The dwarves sit on their asses on the doorstep while Bilbo interviews the dragon, who concludes that Bilbo's a Lake man. Bilbo escapes narrowly, but cleanly with the aid of the Ring, and Smaug, enraged by the successful theft, then takes off to torch Lake Town while everybody shits their breeches rather than knowingly leave his halls filled with who-knows-how-many dwarves; something that's completely against his character. (Oh, wait! That's in the book!)
There are some things you can't improve on, even if your name is Peter Jackson. Tolkien's world is very thoroughly thought out. You could wow us by making additions that mesh well with what's already there, but attempts to make substantial changes simply fall flat.

There's one thing that demands special praise, though we saw too much of it in this film... the dragon himself, Smaug. This was a monumentally brilliant piece of animation, well voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug completely lives up to the hype. The dragon's design was spot-on... an anatomically plausible four-limbed creature. The visual build-up of internal fire gives a beautiful sense of dread toward what's coming next. Bravo.

Also, kudos for giving us a little glimpse of a dwarf woman, if only as a cameo picture.

"I was a dwarven adventurer- until I took an arrow to the knee"

On the Subject of Pronouns (and names in general)

In which I piss off some of my friends by maintaining a consistent standard which is respectful to other of my friends.
My Achilles' heel with regard to my memory relates to names. Although I can remember circuit diagrams I worked on 30 years ago in great detail, I often forget a person's name when I'm not directly facing them, and sometimes when I am. This happens no matter how long I've known a person. It has nothing to do with not liking them... it's a mental quirk I have, that I have to work around with some rather complicated mnemonics, which don't always work, and which are sometimes as hard to remember as the names. So sometimes I get it wrong, and I'll resort to "buddy", or "pal" or some such, even knowing that the person prefers to be addressed in some particular manner. I try, but it's all I can do to keep up with names.

My friends span quite a large spectrum, politically, personally, economically, intellectually, physically, and by any other measure you'd like to name. I don't agree with them all of the time. In fact, I have some very good friends with whom I rarely if ever agree on some subjects. All that means is that we don't agree on some things. Here's one of those things.

Some of my friends have various non-traditional sexual orientations. Some are gay, or transgendered or transitioning male-to-female, or transitioning from female-to-male, or not-transitioning-and-not-gay-but-nonetheless-identifying-with-some-other-gender, or post-op and functioning as something other than what was on their birth certificate, or even post-op transgendered and now functioning as gay. And I will gladly use whatever name each person wants me to use, without comment (within my ability to remember names at all). All of this is their private choice and is none of my business.

I'm going to repeat that, slowly:    its.    none.    of.    my.    business.

I repeated that because, while some of my friends are rather private about their orientation, others aren't. Some want to be taken at face value, regardless of what's under their clothes, and would be completely mortified to be "outed". Others revel in correcting others as to their orientation, even when it has no bearing on a conversation. Again, this is their choice, and none of my business.

I repeat it again because sometimes those who revel don't seem to understand what that means. Here's a refresher. It means that it's not my business to instruct other people how to address you. Frankly, I don't know from one day to the next whether someone has "come out" without my knowledge. I don't know whether you, like very, very many people, choose to keep that knowledge from some of your social circles while privately sharing it with others. And frankly, it's a bit of a burden to expect me to keep up an up-to-date mental index of which of my friends and acquaintances wish to be addressed in which fashion in which circumstances. It's all I can do to keep up with names. So I leave it to you, and you alone, because it's nobody else's business.

One thing I can promise you: whether you're straight, gay, man, woman, transitioning, cross-identifying, queer, or WHATEVER... I will always directly address you with the very same pronoun: "YOU". YOU will be YOU no matter what you are or what you believe yourself to be. I have no interest in YOU other than YOU AS YOU and my treatment of YOU will not be colored by any other criterion. The only possible reason that sex and/or gender might become an issue involving me is if I were interested in pursuing an intimate relationship with you. However, I'm solidly married, and I absolutely guarantee that if you're not my wife, I have no such interest in you whatsoever, and never will. Your sexual and/or gender orientation, therefore, will NEVER be of any interest to me whatsoever.

I can also promise you that whenever I use some other pronoun in reference to YOU, then I'm not talking to you. It is very probable... virtually guaranteed... that I will refer to you with pronouns relating to the way you physically present yourself to others, so as not to confuse them. If you appear to be a man, or if you're even just trying hard though not quite successful, I'll call you "he". If you appear to be a woman, or if you're even just trying hard though not quite successful, I'll call you "she". That's because I'm not talking to you. I'm using language as a medium of meaningful communication, and I want the recipient of the message (which isn't you) to understand which person in the room I'm talking about. And since your sexual or gender orientation (which lies within your head) isn't any of my business, if you then want to announce it to this new person, then please... do so. But understand this... when you do it, it's not a "correction", by any stretch of the imagination. I use pronouns to communicate; and frankly, if that person understands the object of my pronoun to be you then the pronoun did its job. They knew it to be you because it was clear and understandable. But the only pronoun YOU ever get from me is "YOU".

Retaliate in kind if you wish. Call me "she" or "it" or "that frakking asswipe", and be disappointed to learn that I don't care. I have never in my life chosen the pronouns that are applied to me, or complained about those that were used. I don't place unreasonable burdens upon my friends to advertise my personal opinions for me... on any subject whatsoever. I've been propositioned a few times, and I've always responded, "No, thanks," and then, "I'm married." I've never insisted on being introduced as "your straight friend", even when I'm at a party surrounded by gays. I think that if I were to do such a thing, it wouldn't be because I was terribly concerned about the health of my self-image, but it would be about forcing information on others that they don't care one bit about, and grabbing attention for myself. Just as I refuse to be an attention whore, I refuse to be an "attention pimp". Do it yourself.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Star Trek Aurora Begins New Production

Star Trek: Aurora is one of my very favorite fan-made productions. Its creator, Tim Vining, thoroughly "gets" Star Trek. It's not about the ships, it's not about Star Fleet, or Captain Kirk. It's all about the human condition. Vining has taken that world and looked in the dim corners of the Star Trek universe to spin a tale of ordinary people... the sort of people that the crew of the Enterprise would zip past without a second glance. In the process we learn a bit about the extraordinary things that can happen to ordinary people and the lengths to which they may go to survive. The characters are fully fleshed-out, and I don't mean in the CGI sense. They have real motivations, real motivations, and real fears. They're completely believable as people.


In the second episode we are treated to the return of an original series favorite, Harcourt Fenton Mudd, interstellar con-man and shyster, purveyor of the most questionable goods imaginable. The first time we saw Mudd, he was peddling mail-order brides to lonely miners... which would have been completely above-board had it not been for the fact that these brides were "enhanced" by a "Venus drug" (from the episode, "Mudds Women"). When we last saw Mudd he was held prisoner in the custody of hundreds of "Stella" androids; replicas of Mudd's own shrewish wife. (from the TOS episode, "I, Mudd"). Now he's back, and it appears his Venus drug has been replaced with something a bit more... potent.

So far we have only the first part of the episode, which is basically a teaser for the fun to come. Tim Vining must be congratulated here for his adoption of the Open Source philosophy of "release early, release often". By tacit agreement with the copyright owners of Star Trek, fan productions cannot make a profit off of these efforts, so by necessity these are all done in the creator's spare time. Tim not only releases each act as it's done; he goes back and corrects issues that are pointed out in the earlier ones. He improves the work.

Here are two screen caps from the first episode. One is from an early-released part, and the second is from the final production. Here Tim's fixed the injustice of T'Ling not having a seat of her own, and has generally improved the detail of the scene.

In the first episode of Aurora, I found the modeling to be superb, but the actual animation to be a little bit unnatural. I falls well into the uncanny valley. However, that's not the case with this new production, making me wonder if Tim is rotoscoping some of the scenes. Whether he is or not, bravo! Big improvement. Note in particular the "gotta go" moment outside of the bar, and the entire scene in front of the computer.

Here's the original episode, about 55 minute long, complete. Watch it to get an intro to the characters and to get a taste of what character-driven sci-fi is all about:

And here's PART 1 of "Mudd in Your I", As you can see from the opening shot, some of the renders appear to be incomplete, but as I mentioned, Tim has previously fixed such things in the final product. Seeing the rough edges does not detract at all from the story, in my opinion, and I have high hopes for the finished product.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Education and the Workplace

Once upon a time, you'd go to high school, then get a job. You'd work, earn a paycheck, eventually retire, and collect a pension. A high school diploma prepared you to earn a decent living as a clerk or semi-skilled worker just about anywhere.

Of course, that began to change about the same time I was born. I'm one of the last of the Baby Boomers. Our parents and the older members of our generation began to push the "necessity" of higher education on their children. The sales pitch was that to "get ahead" you needed a degree. Then you'd be better than everyone else and earn more. Naturally, everyone needed to get ahead, so everyone started going to college. It was a fantastic marketing campaign instigated and perpetuated by people whose job it is to sell education, abetted by those whose job it is to provide it.

As part of that sales effort, people were told about all the menial jobs that they would be relegated to without a degree. The implicit message was that those necessary, vital jobs are demeaning, and beneath them. Without the degree, you can't "make something of yourself". Without their product, you're nothing.

Predictably, there's a down side.


Yup. Everybody's got a degree. Hiring managers don't want to hire a nobody, so they "require" a degree whether the job duties logically necessitate having one or not. They don't care about the actual needs of the position, because it's very easy to lazily forego a meaningful and informative interview process and weed out "poor candidates" by requiring the mere possession of the degree. Ironic, isn't it? The degree certainly hasn't done a thing to improve the hiring process.We can now just look at a paper so we don't have to think or make real, substantive judgments about living, breathing people.

To illustrate how completely pervasive this has gotten, many of the jobs that were previously considered to be semi-skilled labor now require degrees! Some employers require a plumbing or carpentry degree. For instance, Bob Jones University is advertising carpentry degrees. Here's some info on getting a plumbing degree.

Education inflation has degraded the value of the typical college degree to near-worthlessness. But its cost has skyrocketed with the demand. As a result, Americans are saddled with record levels of debt. The aggregate debt attributed to student loans is now around ONE TRILLION DOLLARS. For our European friends who need to convert this, it's $1,000,000,000,000.00. Your average American college student graduates $25 thousand dollars in debt, for which he has earned the opportunity to get a job. Not a great job. Not a really high-paying job. Just exactly the same sort of job that his grandfather got with a high-school diploma and no debt.

Score 1 for the education salesmen, and 0 for millions of gullible saps.

There's a way out of this, but it requires a whole lot of people to sacrifice their prestige for intelligent action.

First, let me say quickly that I'm a huge proponent of education, and alluded to this rant in a previous post,  I'm an autodidact, but I love teachers, too. But I have a strong dislike for "educators". In my experience, people who willfully call themselves "educators" are usually those self-important jackasses who've stopped teaching and started selling. They've got a bottle of snake oil to cure every ill. To hell with them.

Also, before proposing a cure, let's look at the current state of education and the workplace, according to me. This is stuff that should be taught by the time a kid enters high school, so he has time to act on it. I know my kids were taught, because I'm the one who had the conversation with them.

Step 1 

You're born. I'd congratulate you, but you didn't have anything to do with it. So congrats to your parents. Being born doesn't make you special, except to you and them. It makes you a person. We all possess humanity. What can make you truly special is what you do with yours. From a secular perspective, that's the only lesson of Life. Everything else is commentary.

Step 2

You acquire some "home-trainin'" from your parents. Basic things like manners, discipline, obedience, and respect for elders. If you don't get this then you are at a supreme disadvantage, so if your parents did their job and were hard on you, then thank them, bless them, and love them dearly for it. If they didn't teach you these things, then you legitimately have someone to blame for your life being difficult. It is not "society". Learn from that experience and be better to your own children. Be a parent, not a friend.

Step 3

You go to school. It doesn't matter whether it's publicly funded, privately funded, parochial, or home-school... basic education is mandatory. You learn to read, write, do math, work with money... the basic stuff that will prepare you for entry into society. This is basically fundamental career preparation. It's also where you realize the value of the manners, discipline, obedience and respect that your parents taught you, for with those skills anyone can find success in school. Without them, you're hosed. You'll either learn those from some caring adults, or you'll very likely fail.

Now you have a choice. The only failure is failure to choose.

Step 4: option 1 

Having had 18 years to think on the matter, and having decided that you want to pursue a highly skilled profession, like a doctor, lawyer, skilled artisan or technician. Rather than work for low wages to gain knowledge and experience, you opt to not only work for NO wages, but to also pay a stiff sum in out-of-pocket tuition, or take on student loans for the same. You'll do this for at least 2 years, probably 4, and maybe 6 or more. In the meantime, if you want to pay for your own food you might take on a part-time job, understanding that at this stage you have exactly NO more qualifications than anyone else seeking entry-level employment. When the (probable) 4 year educational stint said and done, you have more training and less experience than the person who worked at a trade full-time over that same period.

Step 4: option 2

Having had 18 years to think on the matter, you decide to forego any further education and strike out on your own. You may simply be doing landscaping or ditch-digging, and there's not one thing wrong with that if that's what you want to do. God love ya, we need you. You may be a visionary entrepeneur, and autodidact, or just a plain go-getter. Anybody can make a comfortable living at this if they have the intelligence and motivation, but it take dedication and sacrifice that few possess.

Step 4: option 3 

Having had 18 years to think on the matter, and having decided that college isn't for you, you get an entry-level job or apprenticeship. You're expected to learn from this, gain skills, and use that experience to get a better job. Entry-level jobs are not careers. They are stepping stones to careers. The pay is low because the work is basic, and because it is partly paid in experience. Consider the money that you're not paid to get this experience your "tuition" for the work experience you receive. But as you gain experience, you move to better positions, apply for certifications, etc

It works with more than just trades. If you're working at McDonald's for more than two years and you're not a shift supervisor, then you should be looking for a better job elsewhere. If you're not actively looking, then you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what that position is for. Remember, entry-level shift worker is NOT A CAREER. Advancement is pyramidal by nature... it's lonely at the top, and sometimes the only way to advance is through a lateral move to another company. If you're at McDonald's for more than 6 years and you're still a shift supervisor, then the same advice applies. And when you find a level you're comfortable at, only then do you stop actively climbing.

Now, if you think that you can just skate on the same entry-level job as the guy who took option 1 and is working his way through school, you're deluded. You took that "entry level" job without considering what it was an entry to. Furthermore, you're standing in that entryway forever, barring entry to somebody else who's a lot more industrious than you. You somehow believe that serving up fries should provide you with a living wage, but you can't really point to any skills to justify a salary above the entry level. That guy next to you working his way through school has a lot more talent and motivation and sheer potential than you do and is willing to your job for that same low wage. So you're left to explain exactly why you should be paid more than you are, because frankly, honestly, and to your face... you're not worth it. You want more, then get out of the entry level position. There's nothing wrong with the minimum wage, dude... it's YOU that's broken. Fix yourself (it's seek help to do that, but you need to do the seeking), get off the starting block, and join the race.

Results

Comparing... an academic having just earned a degree qualifies for a position that pays a little more than an electrician of the same age who applied himself to on-the-job training and passed the state certification tests. But it will take the academic decades to pay off the student loans, whereas the electrician may have a pretty good credit rating by this time. Now the earning potential of the academic may be higher, but with academic inflation being what it is, there's no guarantee of that. Purely academic positions are often poorly funded, and I know plenty of high-school grads who own businesses that employ fancy-pants academics. To boost earnings, a college grad may have to dig a deeper financial hole for a post-graduate degree; whereas the electrician may advance through experience and home study. So though the money situation can even out, the degree does buy you the opportunity to do things that you may want to do, but can't without the degree. The difference is in where you put the risk.

Advice

So now we have hiring managers who are requiring expensive degrees for jobs that don't need it.

My advice to industry? Stop it. It's idiotic. You're forcing yourself into interviewing job candidates who are four years older than they need to be, and who are saddled with debt that they have to pay off. They require higher salaries because of that debt, and you're paying that bill. Again: they're saddled with debt. Is that a good security risk? Look at the actual duties of the jobs you're offering and ask yourself honestly... honestly... whether they can be done just as well by a high school grad with a decent academic record. If so, lower the requirements, and lower the starting salary. Don't drop it to burger-flipping levels, but if you want to attract quality workers who are eager to learn, easy to train, and won't drag you into their debt, look at their GPA. Interview them. In the four years that you currently spend waiting for a trainee to get out of college, the high school grad will have industry-specific experience with your firm, and you will have paid less for him. He's not making loan payments, so he's still making a competitive wage, but he's doing it without the stress of debt. Value this guy and promote him according to the contribution he makes to you rather than the contribution he made to a university. Reserve the high starting salaries and the certification requirements for those positions that actually require them.

My advice to students? Before taking on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, ask yourself what you are buying with that money. An opportunity for a good job? Read my advice to industry and look for that employer. If those employers aren't around then get the amount of education you need for the kind of position you want. And keep in mind that most employers don't care what college you got your degree from. They're looking for the presence of a degree. So don't dig a deep financial hole to get what is basically your job raffle ticket. If your goals do require a prestigious degree, then my advice is the same... acquire the education that meets the level of bullshit required for your target position. Sorry for being blunt, but in a world where a person can be declared a "professor of Constitutional law" and gain the Presidency of the United States without demonstrating the least bit of respect for the Constitution, I reserve for myself a certain degree of cynicism. These days, a degree retains its value primarily for that precious minority who have devoted themselves to medicine and the sciences. Bottom line, make sure you get the education you need or want. Don't mortgage the family farm to buy snake oil. Remember the economics of your situation.

My advice to parents? Stop pushing your kids into stupid action. Tell them to do what makes them happy. If they find out what that is in your lifetime, don't bitch about it. It's their life, not yours.