Thursday, May 29, 2008

Site Moved: Links for 29 May 2008

RE: State of Union cc: Congress
Electric Sportscars are here
Wealth vs. Freedom: how do you score?
Keyboards: now in Franconian!
Peace through Prosperity
Gates on Gates

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Site Moved: Links for 28 May 2008

From Our Tailpipe to Yours
Our First Crow President
When Language Log isn┬┐t about Language
Leftovers

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Site Moved: Links for 27 May 2008

Heavy blogging day. As indicated, all posts are now at the new site. Here are links to today's:

Another Obama Gaffe
Guns in Australia: now more than ever!
Placebos - You Know, For Kids!
Rising Oil Prices Dampen Demand - Who Knew?
Chavez: still gettin' it wrong
A Covert Lesson in the Economics of Trade
Red and Blue States: maybe not so different

By the way, anyone who may have been a regular reader of any one of Noah's six posts on his blog "Sourcefiler," be advised that it, too, has moved - to a Wordpress site.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Moving

The Only Winning Move is moving.

After nearly two years (28 August 2006 - 26 May 2008) on Blogger, I've grown dissatisfied. I've never had any problems with the Blogger server or interface per se - no official complaints. Nevertheless, working through someone else's bloghosting service is confining, and I'm ready to branch out and start rolling my own sites. And so several months ago I opened jwherring.com through a hosting service recommended by Mr. Tweedy (that he probably doesn't remember recommending, actually) with that intention. School got in the way, but I've now moved my academic homepage there (it's the main page when you click over), as well as The Only Winning Move - which can now be found here.

I doubt I'll continue crossposting here. What I'll probably do instead is link new posts on the new site here for another month or so, and then quietly delete this blog sometime over the summer.

The new blog is, for the time being, not my own design, but is content-managed by Wordpress with a template interface designed by Vladimir Simovic. I will handroll my own engine and template as time permits.

To anyone who was a regular reader, thank you very much for stopping by and listening to my thoughts! Kindly update your bookmarks.

Impatient

Wired has a cool 8-minute video summary of everything that's happened on Battlestar Galactica. Did I watch it...? Hmmm....

High Prices, Yes - Taxes, NO!!!

The following line comes from one of Richard Posner's posts on the excellent Becker-Posner Blog:


I would like to see the price of oil rise to $200, despite the worldwide recession that would probably result, provided that it rises as a result of heavy taxes on oil or (better) carbon emissions.


This strikes me as something that I should respond to, since I have also often celebrated rising gas prices on this blog. One could easily get the impression that I'm in favor of higher taxes on oil for all the reasons Posner gives in his post: reducing economic dependence on hostile and unstable foreign powers, stimulating investment in environmentally-friendly energy alternatives - you know, all the usual perks. But in point of fact my opinion is the opposite of Posner's here: I would also like to see the price of oil rise to above $200, despite the worldwide recession that would probably result, provided that it rises NOT as a result of heavy taxes on oil or carbon emissions, but rather as the result of natural market processes.

In fact, I have trouble understanding what the reasoning would be behind Posner's assertion that $200/barrel oil is somehow only a good thing if it's an artificial price brought on by taxes. Thinking independently, the only thing I came up with is that it gives us a "safety word" in case the recession becomes too painful. If $200/barrel prices result from taxation rather than supply problems, then the government can always "turn off the problem" (by lowering the taxes) if consumers cry "uncle!" But this reasoning is nowhere to be found in Posner's post. What he gives instead seems specious:


The taxes would jump start the development of clean fuels, and the financial impact on consumers could be buffered by returning a portion of the tax revenues in the form of income tax credits.


This seems downright irrational. If we "buffer" the financial impact on consumers, then we blunt their drive to search for alternatives. Granted, oil companies themselves might want to invest in alternative fuels to avoid the price barrier imposed by the hefty taxes Posner is proposing, but with what capital, one wonders? If their profits are suddenly slashed by an added tax burden, where is this investment money going to come from? Presumably Posner is proposing that the tax revenues be spent by the government to stimulate research into alternative energy sources, but believing that this would be done efficiently or in good faith requires me to imagine a fantasy government quite different from the one we actually have. The government we actually have, if you'll recall, sends the president to Saudi Arabia twice in the last four months to beg for cuts in the price of oil that they well know the Saudis either cannot or will not supply. Meanwhile no one mentions that we have plenty of oil right here at home that we're not allowed to touch for silly environmental reasons. Instead of talk about that, Congress votes to allow lawsuits against OPEC for price gouging, something that can only ever increase prices further. And let's not even talk about ethanol subsidies, where Congress gives handouts to the least energy-efficient form of ethanol while simultaneously slapping import tarrifs on the kinds of foreign-produced ethanol (sugar cane ethanol) that actually work. This is NOT a government we can trust to micromanage our energy spending choices!

And this:


Heavy taxes on oil would reduce not only the amount of oil we import but also the revenue per barrel of the oil exporting nations, so there would be a double negative effect on those countries' oil revenues: they would sell less oil and earn less per unit sold. The reason for the latter effect is the upward-sloping supply curve for oil. Suppose the first million barrels of oil can be produced at a cost of $1 per barrel and the second million at $2 per barrel. If total demand is one million barrels, the suppliers break even: they have revenues of $1 million and costs of $1 million. If total demand is two million barrels, the suppliers have revenues of $4 million (because the price of all barrels is determined by the price that the marginal purchaser is willing to pay) but costs of only $3 million ($1 million for the first million barrels, $2 million of the second). The lower the price of oil received by the oil producers (that is, the price net of tax), the lower their net income.


Neat trick, but is there any reason to believe that it actually works this way? Oil is well known to be an inelastic-demand product, meaning that there's really only a certain point to which we can reduce our use of it in the shortterm without completely killing our economy. I have no doubt that on the free market things work as Posner says (it costs more to produce extra oil to meet demand, and since it's a demand-driven production, prices can rise to keep pace with production cost, true), but what of a situation where demand is artificially depressed? Surely in this case the oil company can afford to sell at a higher profit margin to compensate for the tax cuts, and also save itself the trouble of extracting as much oil as it had in the past. The dampening effect on the company's profits would seem to be less than Posner anticipates. We know from the previous scenario that there is $4million worth of demand for the oil. If this demand is inelastic, there will be somewhat - but not much - less than that after the taxes, so let's call it $3million. Oil companies charge $2million on top of $1million production costs, and the other $1million goes to pay the taxes. They still make $1million ($2million in profit on $1million in production), and for doing less work. Over the long term, of course, I suppose I can't really argue against Posner's scenario. Demand would drop with time as people found alternatives. The point is simply that the punishing effect on oil-producing countries is not going to materialize for a time, and relative to what they suffer, we suffer a lot more in terms of economic slowdown. It really is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

If, however, it's a real drop in demand, then the scenario is obviously quite different. As there are real alternatives in this case, oil-producing countries then don't have the luxury of pumping up their prices safe in the knowledge that someone will buy. Once demand is more elastic, then oil profits for these countries will fall on their own. But this is pointedly not the situation caused by the taxation scenario.

Of course, I'm not a trained economist (though neither is Posner), so perhaps there are things I'm overlooking. The REAL argument against "going the tax route," in any case, is that it's an ill-advised transfer of wealth to the government.

I hear lots of arguments to the effect that the government should artificially raise prices on oil to "wean us off our addicition," and these arguments almost always focus on the supposed benefits that higher prices would have on consumption. What most people fail to consider is that all that money that gets collected in the taxes that account for the price increase is money that gets collected in taxes. It's money that people used to spend on themselves that the government is now spending for them, money lifted from the economy and given over to government programs. And like every tax, it's economically inefficient. What people would have spent on food, on entertainment, on education, etc. is now given to the government to spend on ... what, exactly? Posner suggests it could be spent on energy programs, but the government doesn't have a very encouraging history there. As noted, it's currently spending a lot of its "energy money" subsidizing hugely inefficent "alternatives" like ethanol. So let's imagine that the gas tax goes to fund some such subsidy. And let's further imagine that it works and people start buying other things instead of oil. So what happens to the subsidy? Politicians go to the subsidy receivers and say "fair is fair, people stopped buying oil, so we have less income in taxes from oil, we're going to reduce your subsidies accordingly?" In some distant utopia, maybe - but here in the real world what happens is that the subsidy-receivers threaten to vote for the opponent, and so they get their subsidies anyway. And the government pays for that by ... raising taxes somewhere else and doing more price damage to the economy if it's the Democrats, or more deficit spending doing capital damage to the economy if it's the Republicans. Either way, once you let politicians have a tax, they don't easily let it go. They'll either compensate for it by finding money (real or imaginary) somewhere else, or, more likely, now that the government has a (much larger) stake in oil tax intakes, they will be more reluctant than ever to kill off oil consumption. Making the government hostile to energy alternatives to oil by giving it a stake in oil profits seems like a really bad idea.

No - better that we just let it go. The "transfer" of wealth that currently goes to oil-producing countries happens because they provide us with something useful: an efficient energy source. This is, in itself, hugely profitable for us - comparative advantage and all that. The best way to get ourselves off of oil dependence is simply to evolve out of it, which we are currently doing without help from the government. Call it a "soft landing." Rather than Posner's government-induced shock to the economy which not only causes a recession we might not need (if the goal is energy-independence, I mean) but also gives the government an ever-greater license to meddle, almost certainly making investment in energy alternatives less efficient in the process (because the government invests on the basis of politics rather than economic and scientific reality) - what we could have instead is a slow, comfortable transition where the private market sends investment money toward profitable fuel alternatives (rather than the ones that tend to get people elected in the shortterm), leading to a more sustainable base for the future, and without needlessly throwing money to the wind in the meantime.

So yes, I'm all for $200/barrel oil, but only if it's a result of real economic signals and not just a product of the government's imagination.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Nothing Wrong with the Analogy

I'm getting a little tired of defending Hillary Clinton on this site, but I would just like to say that the recent spat of accusations in the blogosphere and pundit media that she's dropping hints that someone shouls assasinate Obama are off the charts. A typical bit of commentary comes from zFacts (no persistent link available at the time of writing).


She claims her statement meant that races often last till June. But why bring up a 40-year-old assassination to make this point? She claims it's because "We all remember" when Bobby was assassinated.
Did you remember it was in June? I sure didn't. She knows that almost no one remembers.


Actually, the point isn't that it was in June, but that Bobby Kennedy was the popular choice "nominee presumptive" at the analogous point in the cycle in 1968. It's true that the dates of the contest were all different then (and for that reason I doubt she expects anyone to remember the June date specifically) and that primaries mattered less than they do now - but the aggregate facts actually make it a good analogy. Whether or not you remember that Kennedy was killed in June specifically, some things that anyone familiar with the history will remember are that Kennedy was an initial long-shot who turned out to be a lot more popular than anyone expected. The DNC was deadset on nominating Humphrey (which they did without running him in a single primary, actually) after LBJ imploded in New Hampshire, and was sort of suprised when the challenge came from McCarthy. McCarthy's grassroots popularity inspired Kennedy to run, and he quickly became the more popular anti-war alternative, the voice of the left wing of the party. Gee, see any similarities that might be relevant? A candidate who is surprisingly popular, giving the presumptive winner at the outset a run for her money, and this largely on the basis that he is the more credible anti-war candidate, having actually voted against the Iraq War Resolution? I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that it's OK if anyone sees a parallel between Obama and Kennedy here.


To top that, there were two true examples from more recent years. Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy fought until the convention. The only reason to reach back 40 years to the assassination for a false example is to bring up Obama's vulnerability.


Let's start with Ted Kennedy. This would be the 1980 election, and Kennedy, unlike Clinton, campaigned well beyond the point where he could feasibly win. Remember that neither candidate this cycle has yet reached the threshold for nomination. That was not true in 1980. Though initially favored to beat Carter 2-to-1, the bottom had alreday mostly fallen out of Kennedy's campaign by November 1979. He flubbed a bunch of questions on a nationally televised interview, and the Iran Hostage Crisis did wonders for Carter's approval rating. Carter went into the convention with a 30% lead in pledged delegates (no superdelegates in 1980) over Kennedy, more than enough to force a victory. Kennedy had lost by March, in fact, and took the fight to the convention mostly out of spite, refusing to endorse Carter or even shake his hand on stage. Let's see a show of hands of anyone who can think of a reason why Clinton might not want to compare herself to Kennedy in 1980? Yup, that's everyone in the class.

What of Gary Hart? Well, this is admittedly a pretty good analogy in real terms, since Hart, like Clinton to Obama now, had mostly lost to Walter Mondale by June of 1984. He stayed on through June arguing that "Super Tuesday III" (there were a lot of contests in June that year) would vindicate him. His position was such that he couldn't really win the pledged delegate count, but the argument was that the superdelegates (yes, they were back in 1984) would see a strong showing for him on Tuesday III as a change in the wind and support him anyway at the convention. But the catch here, of course, is that Obama is Mondale and Clinton is Hart. She hardly makes her case by comparing herself to the eventual loser!

Now, the Clintons are not exactly paragons of straight-shooter politics, so on personality alone there's good reason to think she's dropping indecent hints. But let's stop all this talk about the Bobby Kennedy analogy being inappropriate. It's perfectly appropriate for what she was trying to say. In fact, I can't really think of a better one in living memory.

Barr it is

I learn via Radley Balko's blog that Bob Barr won the nomination for president at this weekend's LP convention. Balko counts this a good thing, and I'm very much inclined to agree. Balko sums it up nicely in one of the comments:


Barr has quite a bit to atone for. But I believe him when he says he has come around. Really, do you think he's going to change all of his positions once the campaign starts?


Second that. Can't quite explain it, but I believe him too. More than that, it's important to keep in mind that the LP candidate will NOT be winning the election. We are not yet an electable party. The goal at this point is to gain enough recognition to become an electable party, and the best way to do that is, if I may be blunt about it, to start throwing elections for the Republicans Ross Perot style. George Bush Sr. may have lost in 1992, but small government won big time in the 1994 congressional mid-term elections, and probably in no small part because the loss in 1992 woke up Republicans to the fact that Rockerfeller "Red Tory"-type candidates were NOT what the base wanted (as should have already been made clear to them by Goldwater's nomination in 1964 (actually against Rockerfeller himself) and most especially Reagan's primary and later general election win in 1980). There IS a small-government, pro-constituion lobby, and it is the current task of the Libertarian Party to make that voting block viable.

Bob Barr may not be the best choice to represent our interests in the White House, but that's a moot point because neither Bob Barr nor any other Libertarian is actually going to the White House - not this time, not next time, and probably not even the time after that. If we can't win the White House just yet, something useful we can do in the meantime is do our best to put the brakes on the expansion of state power. The best way to do that is dragging the Republican Party back in our direction. And a good way to drag the Republican Party back in our direction is to split their vote - prick them enough to get them to notice us and cater to us in 2010. Bob Barr, as a popular former Republican with national name recognition, is the best-positioned to do that. Best of all, it is his stated intention to do that. And, like Balko says, whatever Republican instincts Bob Barr may privately still harbor, he's unlikely to change the tune he's been singing for the past five years once the campaign starts. His political relevance at this point depends entirely on making a good showing in this election, something he is not going to do by recruiting Republican voters at the expense of driving away the core LP voting base.

So good on the party! And a great relief for me. Many of the candidates on the ticket this year were simply unacceptable, and I was seriously thinking about just not voting this year - beacuse John McCain and Obama/Clinton are obviousy unacceptable too. Given who the other parties are running, and especially given the task at hand, Bob Barr is definitely someone I can vote for. Time to take down the Ron Paul ad.

Biased, Sure, but WHY?

There is an interesting article over at Cognitive Daily about covert racism. It's a summary of some studies done by John Dovido (with colleagues) designed to demonstrate that, while overt racial bias has declined into near-insignificance since the 1930s (of course it still exists on the fringes, however), covert racial bias remains stubbornly hard to identify and ameliorate.

The results discussed work like this. Some white students were given hypothetical pairs of job applicants of varying levels of ability (by pair), one of the pair being shown by a photo to be black, the other white. When looking at a pair of CVs for highly qualified applicants, no evidence of bias was found: white students are, statistically speaking, roughly equally likely to hire either candidate. However, when the two candidates are nothing to write home about, white students are more likely to choose the white applicant. Why is that?

As evidence of racial bias, it's quite convincing, of course. But I think it is important to identify the basis and mechanism of the bias before committing ourselves to any solutions. In this case, I strongly suspect that the operative bias is what I might style "affirmative action bias."

In short, "affirmative action bias" is just what it sounds like: the assumption that a minority applicant is more likely to have been given help along the road to where he is than a white applicant - that is, that a smaller percentage of his on-paper "qualifications," if I may speak in this way, are accounted for by effort and ability than would be the case for a comparable white applicant. It's an employer's way of compensating for the playing field having been artificially tilted toward the black applicant.

So, the idea is that if you're in the top percentile no amount of legs up could've gotten you there. Even if you were helped along the way by an affirmative action scholarship (or a rich uncle with Good Ol' Boy Network connections, to be fair), your presence in the top tier shows that you have the requisite amount of ability or drive, and there is no need for an employer to compensate for anything, hence the lack of racial bias. If, however, you're in the average tier and black, your qualifications become more suspect. The employer tends to assume that while you look just as good on paper, a certain number of your internships might just have been awarded on the basis of the company's need to show racial balance for PR reasons rather than because you were really the man for the job. Or that your grades might be what they are not because you're a great student, but because someone gave you enough race-based scholarships that you were able to avoid working a part-time job and thus had more time on your hands in college.

Naturally the response will be that white kids have certain systemic advantages that compensate for these affirmative action helping hands - and that may or may not be true. It's an empirical question that I have never seen solved to my satisfaction, truth be told. But absent the empirical evidence in front of him, a white employer is, it seems to me, likely to fall back on his own gut feelings about the situation, and his own gut feelings are probably this: he knows a LOT of poor white people who never had anything handed to them, and comparatively few connected rich white kids. "White privilege," to the extent that it exists, benefits only a comparatively small percentage of whites. Affirmative action, however, is freely available to all blacks simply for the point of fact of having been born black. So the employer's gut instinct is likely to tell him that while there are indeed a handful of white snot-noses who will be worthless to his organization (having been handed their qualifications through relatives' connections) in his applicant pool, there are a comparatively greater number of blacks who may have padded resumes through affirmative action programs and are worth slightly less in real economic terms than their paper qualifications let on. To be sure, the "penalty" for hiring one of the well-connected white applicants is much more expensive than hiring one of the affirmative-actioned black applicants. This is so because for most affirmative action programs you still do have to meet some minimal qualifications, which is obviously not the case if you're playing "white privilege" connections. But the law of averages nevertheless tells the employer that hiring the white guy in the general case will compensate him for these duds since he assumes that the white applicant of the pair is generally more likely to have gotten where he is by effort and ability.

I'm not sure that this counts as "racism." Certainly it's "racial bias," but it's a rational kind of bias. Whether or not it's actually supported by the facts, it's a reasonable conclusion to draw, from the employer's point of view, based on the evidence that his life experiences have given him; fighting it with more affirmative action is therefore both unfair and unlikely to address the root issue in any case. This highlights the importance, I think, of going beyond simple matters of identifying racial bias to trying to understand where it comes from. If it is, in fact, a malevolent racism that causes white people to screen applicants in this way, then affirmative action programs become more appropriate. But if it's affirmative action programs themselves that are the root of the bias, then it's time to start talking about eliminating them and replacing them with more applicant-netural schemes. Things like the NFL's practice of putting restrictions on the racial makeup of the hiring pool rather than the hiring outcome spring to mind. The rule here is that at least one applicant for a coaching position has to be a minority. There is no requirement to hire or even give preference to this person, just to give him a fair interview. Apparently, it has been effective at "diversifying" the coaching rolls. On the college level, programs in which state universities agree to accept all applicants from their state within a certain grade range have been successful "diversifiers." And, naturally, there's the option no one talks about: handing college admissions screeners applications with all personal information replaced by an identifier number so that they have no notions at all what the background of the applicant might be. In any case, the point is that racial bias is not an "across-the-board" phenomenon. There are many potential flavors, each requiring its own type of solution. Narratives focused exclusively on "racism" are not always very helpful, and experiments that document bias without probing it aren't much better.

Floating Wind Turbines - Brought to you by Big Oil

Now this is just plain cool. Inspiring, really. StatoilHydro, Norway's largest oil company (take a moment to ponder) and the largest offshore oil producer in the world is launching the world's first offshore floating wind turbine generator. Yup, click on the link and have a look. The idea is that wind power might just become a viable competitor further offshore, where wind patterns are stronger and more stable. And, one hastens to add, where they can't be seen by "environmentally conscious" rich people.

The remarkable thing to a lot of people('s stereotypes) will, of course, be that one of the world's largest oil concerns is building this thing. But why not? North sea oil production is drying up - down 31% since 2001. This is largely due to extraction difficulties - the increasing cost of which is outstripping the company's ability to do new exploration and open new fields, even with oil prices as high as they are. An investment in wind power is an investment in the company's future. And in fact, investment in wind power is up in the US too. The link goes to an article about how increased demand is driving up the cost of wind generators. Which is, of course, a Good Thing - because raising prices on wind generators will lead to greater investment in their production, resulting in a greater capacity to produce them, etc. etc. etc.

I'm sorry, it hurts me at the pump too, but rising oil prices, provided they don't start running away, are a Good Thing. We can already see the results in investment patterns. Nuclear plant investment is a reality for the first time in three decades. Investment in wind energy is up. We're subsidizing ethanol to the tune of tens of billions a year. Wait ... wha? Yeah, 'cause when hasn't the government managed to stick its claws into problems the market is fixing just fine on its own.

It's what Brian Caplan (along with other economists) calls anti-market bias: "the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of the market mechanism." And in this case, as usual, it's spoiling a good thing. If oil is getting harder to supply (because of increased demand from China et al and diminished capacity in places like the North Sea), then higher oil prices are a very good thing - for two reasons. First, because it causes people to limit their use of this increasingly precious commodity. I myself, to take an example, will finally get around to buying a helmet so I can regularly ride the bicycle I purchased last summer. Second, higher profits for oil companies mean more money to invest in future production. That's good for everyone - because when oil companies are less productive, as is happening now when they fail to keep up with ever-increasing demand, energy becomes harder to come by. Notice that oil company investment need not be in future oil projects exclusively. Oil companies don't exist to extract oil - they exist to make a profit. If there is profit in wind power, there will be investment and production in it.

And yet Congress, fuelled by economically ignorant voters, wants to (a) sue OPEC, (b) continue to all but forbid offshore drilling here at home, (c) tax "windfall" oil company profits that would otherwise be invested in energy solutions but will now have the effect of driving prices even higher than they already are and (d) almost certainly funnel those "windfall" tax profits into ethanol, which contains less than 2/3 the energy per gallonof gasoline, is $0.38/gallon more expensive to produce than gasoline, and is unlikely to become more efficient ever (this last is straight from the USDA itself, not some some raving free-market fringe group). "Moron" isn't strong enough a word...

Look - just leave well alone. The market will figure it out. Government didn't create the modern oil industry. Investors figured out on their own that Henry Ford's ethanol-powered Model T's (yup, we've already tried the ethanol "alternative" - it was in fact the first at-the-pump car fuel in America) could be improved by switching to gas. The rest is history. We use oil because it is efficient, and therefore cheap. Rising prices are as much as anything a sign of its falling efficiency relative to other energy sources. Once another energy source is more efficient than oil, the market will give you an incentive to buy that instead by making it cheaper. Like, say, in the form of lower electric bills coming from offshore, floating wind turbines... So let's let the oil companies keep their profits. I guarantee you they know better than Congress how to invest them, and that's because, unlike Congress, they have a real incentive to do right by their investments. Their future livelihood depends on it, after all.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

No Racism in SciFi - Until Now

It's official - there is now an organization to promote racism in scifi purchases. The link goes to the Carl Brandon society, which is apparently dedicated to documenting blackness in science fiction. It offers affirmative action scholarships to "people of color" aspiring to be scifi writers and also hands out a yearly award for best scifi book penned by a person of color.

YAAAAWWWWNNN.

Race-equality advocates really have descended into self-parody if they think science fiction is a community that needs fixing. From an article about race in scifi in the Boston Globe:


It's an area of fiction that has allowed writers to tackle sensitive issues of race and culture.

"It has always been the safe genre to talk about those issues," Harry says, "or it had been for years until there was a lot more tolerance for bringing those things up in the mainstream."


Another portion of the article has a black fan - the only black attendee at Readercon last year - saying "They're the most accepting group of folks I've ever been with."

That's basically my impression too. There are certainly some issues to discuss with regard to scifi and feminism. Though, for the record, I'm in the camp that believes that the genre as a whole has always been quite accepting of feminist viewpoints - at least since Harlan Ellison started calling it "speculative fiction" in the 60s - even if some of the more prominent writers in the genre (Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein - i.e. the "big three" - spring to mind here) were pretty clearly misogynist. (I realize that will be controversial with regard to Heinlein; I stand by my statement.) But racially intolerant? Simply put - never. I can't speak for the pulps (the one book I read by Edgar Rice Burroughs was, I admit, quite racist - one of the reasons I never gave him a second read), but I can't recall ever thinking that I was in the presence of racial bias in a science fiction book written from the golden age (the 50s) on. Quite the contrary, in fact, I would argue that science fiction was always on the forefront in fighting racism. We're all well aware that the first interracial kiss on American TV was on Star Trek, but that's just scratching the surface. Misogynist though I think he probably was, Heinlein, for example, was no racist, and was in fact fond of pulling the Cosby tactic of waiting until halfway through the novel to let slip that the protagonist is, in fact, a person of color. It's never a big issue in his books, but it is a sly way of asserting racial equality and challenging his readers on their mental assumptions. And as for Chip Delaney, it was years before I realized he was black just because in all the editorials I read by various other authors discussing their friendships with him, no one ever thought to mention it. It wasn't until I read literary criticism of his work that his race suddenly mattered - and that, I assume, only because literary critics are unfortunately trained to think in these terms (I know, having an undergraduate degree in LitCrit myself).

No - there is little, if any, racism in scifi. So of course it had to be introduced. Such is the sad state of liberation movements in the US these days: where there are no enemies, it is necessary to invent them. And that is just what the Carl Brandon society - along with the spate of LitCrit and literary anthologies of "colored" science fiction that have begun to spring up in recent years - are up to.

Thanks, guys. See a good thing, and ruin it.

It's things like this that remind one that many purported liberation movements have no such goal as liberation in mind. Rather, they exist to perpetuate the problem, like scratching at an itch, just because it gives them something to do. Science fiction doesn't need a group dedicated to discussing race issues and pushing books by authors of color. Authors of color do just fine in this genre, because this genre is in general tolerant and colorblind. Sucks to see us now having our consciouness raised way back down to the dark ages.

Writing about Battlestar

At Alexis' request, I recently have the opportunity to rewatch Ron Moore's "reimagined" Battlestar Galactica, and I'm really kind of excited about it. I was a big fan of the first season and a half, and I even blogged about it a bit. I thought this would be a good chance to revisit some of those essays.

I was never really a fan of the old show, though I did enjoy it as a guilty pleasure from time to time. My thoughts on it were exactly Ron Moore's - that it was a great idea (very) poorly executed. If any show in TV SciFi history deserved a second chance, it was Battlestar. That said, I was highly skeptical of Moore's remake when it aired as a miniseries in 2003 - not because I'd heard Starbuck was gonna be a woman or anything like that, but because I still hadn't forgiven SciFi for Dune. I assumed that anything they touched would turn to shit. Boy am I glad to have been wrong!

At the urging of a friend, I watched the miniseries and found myself not just pleasantly surprised but awed. That miniseries, and the first episode of season one, rank as four of the greatest hours of television ever aired in my book. I could go on all night detailing all the improvements that Moore's version brought to the original concept - but let's just leave it at "job well done." I was hooked.

From there, though, it was steadily downhill. But the slow decline didn't keep Battlestar from being the best show on television in my mind - at least through season two's midseason hiatus. I positively adored it; watching was the highlight of my week.

About that...

I just don't know what happened. Hindsight's 20-20, and looking back I think I saw cracks showing in Final Cut. I wasn't a terribly big fan of Flight of the Phoenix either, but Pegasus was good, and so I went into season 2.5 convinced everything was in order.

Boy was I wrong. Somewhere during the Resurrection Ship two-parter things went south and never came back. Epiphanies was terrible, and Black Market was just shockingly, shockingly bad. Lots of people thought the show rebounded with Scar, but I strongly beg to differ. It was better than either "Epiphanies" or "Black Market," but that's really not saying much. I didn't see any kind of improvement until Downloaded, and by "improvement" I don't mean "Downloaded" was good, just that it was mildly interesting. Lay Down Your Burdens, however, was quite good - if not exactly a full return to form. Unfortunately, as I would later argue, I think too much damage was already done by that point. I followed the show to about midway through season three, and then I gave up on it completely. It just wasn't the same brilliant show it had been any more.

However, now that I'm rewatching the first season and a half at least, it's probably worth suffering through seasons 2.5 and 3 again and getting caught back up. I occasionally stumble on mentions of it on the internet, and the vibe I get is that a lot of fans think it eventually regained its former glory. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but seasons 1 and 2.0 were just so damn good that I'm willing to give the rest of it a second chance (even if it means sitting through the wretched season 2.5 again). With that in mind, I post here links to the reviews I wrote of several season three episodes the day after they aired:

Farewell to the Battlestar Blog - Not an episode review, but a hat tip to a blog I had enjoyed posting on (as "Adric"). It stopped just as season three was getting started and is still available to read here.

7 October 2006 - "Occupation/Precipice": Season three starts, and I express profound doubts that the writers are going to be able to dig their way out of the mess of season 2.5.

23 October 2006 - "Exodus, pt. II": I acknowledge that the show is getting better, but lament that the Cylon occupation plot arc was exposed as a sham "band aid" device. Missed opportunities and plotholes abound.

28 October 2006 - "Collaborators": In retrospect, this one was just wishful thinking on my part. It should've been obvious to me that I was going to stop watching the show, but I was holding out hope. Despite some good moments, all the symptoms that the show wasn't recovering were there.

4 November 2006 - "Torn": Things genuinely seemed to be getting better. But it was a mirage - it wouldn't be much longer before I gave up.

11 November 2006 - "A Measure of Salvation": Here I give up on the show in spirit. It's broken and can't be fixed.

18 November 2006 - "Hero": Nothing but contempt left at this point. "Hero" was a horrible episode, and so I decide the show is no longer worth my time. This is the last entry I would write on it.

Of course, it turns out that I'm forever the stupid optimist! Rewatching season one now, I remember how great the show was when it started. It's rekindled some of my enthusiasm - just enough, in fact, that I'm open again to all the praise I hear for it on the internet. We'll give it a second go. I guess I can't promise that I will actually manage to sit through seasons 2.5 and the first part of 3 again, but I'll give it a try. And certainly I'll watch the bits of season three I skipped last year! Here's hoping against hope (again)...

The Final Cylon Should be Billy

It seems betting sites are taking odds on who Battlestar's final cylon will turn out to be. Neat. Lots of subtle signals on the net lead me to believe it will be Anastasia "Dee" Dualla - but I would just like to go on record saying I hate that option. Clearly the best the writers could do for themselves would be to find a way to get Paul Campbell to come back as Billy Keikeya. This isn't, by the way, my idea - I heard it suggested two years ago in the comments on the now-defunct Battlestar Blog, and I thought it was brilliant. The suggestion being that Billy steps out of the shadows at some point when Roslin is alone. What a chilling scene that would make! I hope the writers don't pass up this opportunity.

DebateGraph

This seems like a mildly useful tool. It's called DebateGraph, and it maps out the issues in a debate in a helpful file hierarchy style format. Seems like a good way to present all sides of an issue to a curious outsider in easy-to-understand fashion. I would personally find it most helpful in reading Supreme Court cases, where I often have difficulty keeping track of what all the threads of precedent were doing in the decision.

Hot Chicks Get Perks - Who Knew?

Hoaxes are often invaluable in revealing, or at least confirming, contradictions in an institution. So it was with Alan Sokal's famous takedown of Social Text. Probably everyone has heard of this: Dr. Sokal, a physicist, submitted a paper called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" that was packed with nonsense but written in post-modernist jargon. The point was that if post-modernists themseves are unable to tell the difference between their scholarship and bullshit that sounds like their scholarship, then there's really nothing to what they're doing. Sokal explained that he was trying to save the academic left from absurdity - specifically from the danger that it was becoming anti-scientific.

I stumbled across a similarly revealing hoax yesterday on a site originally called "Libertarian Girl," but now available as archives (the blog itself is defunct) here as "Libertarian Man of Mystery."

The hoax worked like this. Some dude reckoned that there weren't enough girl libertarians, and that he would get more attention as a hot chick than as just another male political blogger. So he grabbed a pic from a Russian mail-order bride site and pretended to be a hot chick instead. He writes:


One thing I learned from this blog is how easy attractive woman have it. When I had a blog as my real self, no one linked to me, no one left any comments, it was as if the blog existed in a vacuum. But things were different for Libertarian Girl. Every day I'd check Technorati and discover new unsolicited links. It was like I had warped into an alternate universe where all the rules had changed. At the rate things were happening, this would have been an A-list blog in a few more months.


So much for the idea that internet political commentary is a "boys club." Girls seem to have a distinct advantage in such circles - at least if they're attractive. No doubt there're some social science papers to back this up somewhere.

A parting shot from author:


I should have figured that the type of people who read libertarian blogs are the same type that read Russian brides websites. When I make my next hoax blog, I'll make sure to use a more obscure photo.


I wonder what would happen if he started with a hot photo and then removed it, perhaps even with a post about how "she" wanted people to focus on "her" commentary. You know, leave the photo up long enough to make it onto people's blogroll links lists, but then take it down in time to avoid getting caught? What happens, I wonder, to the hit rate once the photo is gone? I'm guessing it would drop. Without the constant reminder that it's a HOT girl they're dealing with, the confirmation that libertarian bloggers are presumably seeking for their philosophy by noting that it's now "cool" enough to attract hot chicks would be less palpable.

The Legal Ethics of Memory Supressants

This is a rather interesting article about an issue I hadn't even known was on the horizon: the legal issues surroudning memory dampening. Apparently, there is some reason to believe that the beta blocker propranolol, typically used to treat hypertension, may also be effective at preemptive treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - by blocking the formation of memories of the triggering event. This is based on some double-blind experiments done on people admitted to hospitals after severe accidents. Members of the group given propranolol withing 6 hours of the experience were markedly (though results did not reach statistical significance) less likely to show effects of PTSD several months later (it is my understanding that treatment with propranolol was continued over 10 days under the assumption that recalling a memory, apparently even a dampened one, enhances it) than members of the placebo group.

Propranolol only dampens memories - it does not erase them entirely - by retarding their formation. So not only does propranolol not offer complete freedom from traumatic memories, it also has to be administered rather quickly. The article (which is from a legal journal) concludes that this makes the legal issues less accute. But of course it's worth thinking about them now all the same because the day may come when more effective - in the sense of "selective and total" - memory blockers are available.

The author - UCSD law professor Adam Kobler - identifies these specific legal issues:

(1) Informed consent - since propranolol has to be administered relatively quickly, the patient is usually not in a state where he can give a completely detached judgment about whether he wants his memories dampened. However, this is the case with a number of medical issues, so Kobler doesn't see this being the major concern.


While memory dampening is a more novel and unfamiliar therapy than is amputation, every significant medical innovation is novel and unfamiliar for some period of time, and that is not ordinarily enough to vitiate the quality of patient consent. In any event, a patient's state of trauma cannot be a complete hindrance to obtaining his informed consent, for if we truly thought a patient incompetent to consent, we typically still seek consent from close relatives or the courts.


I'm not a legal scholar, and so I don't know how seriously PTSD and so on are taken relative to decisions to amputate, but I wouldn't be as dismissive of legal complications as Kobler is here. It seems to me that a complicating factor in all of this is likely to be that it's harder to draw a causal inference between trauma and PTSD than it is between injury and physical debilitation. The psychological mechanisms underlying PTSD aren't well-understood enough to allow us to reasonably predict which individuals will suffer from it under which circumstances. Some people deal better iwth mental trauma than others. So I would imagine there are a whole host of legal wrinkles (that can be exploited for lawsuits) out there where "consent" to have one's memory dampened soon after an accident is an issue.

(2) Obstruction of Justice - This is probablly the most interesting one. Can the government hold people responsible for retaining their memories - at least long enough to testify in a criminal trial? Apparently, the definition of obstruction of justice is deliberately broad to as to cover "novel and creative schemes" that people might come up with - i.e. beyond threats or tampering with evidence or getting a witness drunk, etc. Obviously, it was intended for just the kind of situation that propranolol imposes. For largely this reason, and also on the basis of United States v. Neiswender (1979) 590 F.2d 1269, Kobler thinks it possible that witnesses and even crime victims will be charged with (probably some mild form of) obstruction of justice for taking propranolol to supress memories of the violent events they witnessed or were victims of.

This is one of those issues that's harder for a libertarian, I think, than for adherents to other political philosophies because we generally have a greater concern for bodily integrity and individual autonomy. If the individual owns his memories - and surely we libertarians agree that he does, especially as regards those physically encoded in his brain (in contrast with those written down or related to another or whatever) - then surely there is a property and an automony issue in allowing him to supress them, even if that's a hindrance to legitimate state efforts to incarcerate violent offenders. My own personal instinct on this - not having thought too much about it - is, however, pretty unlibertarian. I don't really mind prohibiting memory tampering in the interest of furthering police investigations. This is mostly, I admit, because I'm pretty skeptical of mental trauma issues in general. I would add that memory is a notoriously tricky thing anyway, and that witness testimony is known to be unreliable, so I doubt this is going to be as big an issue as it might, at first, seem, especially as forensic technology improves and every square inch of the planet comes to be filmed.

(3) Mitigation of Emotional Distress Damages - Apparently refusing reasonable medical treatment has been used to lessen damages in owed to plaintiffs in lawsuits. This is for cases involving a victim who is a religious goofball of some sort - say, a Jehovah's Witness - who thinks that God forbids certain kinds of medical treatment. The courts have (thankfully) held that such decisions are the plaintiff's responsibility, and damages are generally awarded on the basis of what more ordinary people would choose to do in the same situation. For this reason, Kobler speculates that defendants in damage lawsuits may try to have emotional distress damages lessened on the grounds that the plaintiff refused memory-dampening treatment. However, he considers the danger minimal that courts will take such claims seriously, especially as memories are usually essential to the fact-finding process in such suits. I agree, and would in any case add that what constitutes "reasonable treatment" will evolve as memory dampening does (or doesn't) become generally accepted.

All-in-all, a very intersting issue that I hadn't even known was out there.

Pinker and his Dignity

Steven Pinker is a figure that, as an aspiring Linguist, I'm trained to scoff at as "pop linguistics." But on actual reading I typically find him invaluable. So it is with this recent essay on the moral concept of dignity of his in The New Republic, a nice expose of the use by the religious right of a slippery concept to advance their political agenda.

The basic point is this: there is nothing essential that "dignity" buys us as a legal concept that "autonomy" hadn't given us already. But where "autonomy" is a relatively stable concept - most rational people can agree, or at least hold enlightened discussion about, where it begins and ends - "dignity" is largely in the eye of the beholder. In that sense, it's a stand-in for whatever moral prejudices its advocate already holds, not really a pointer to independent moral truths. The best line in the essay is this one:


In one's imagination, anything can lead to anything else: Allowing people to skip church can lead to indolence; letting women drive can lead to sexual licentiousness. In a free society, one cannot empower the government to outlaw any behavior that offends someone just because the offendee can pull a hypothetical future injury out of the air.


Quite right.

That said, Pinker's argument suffers in a predictable way: since dignity is a proxy for autonomy, it is unsurprising that many of the objections he raises against using dignity as a legal standard can also be raised against autonomy. Specifically - when he says that dignity is fungible and sometimes harmful, one could, it seems, make the same case about autonomy. To the first point he argues that while religious types tend to treat dignity as sacred, ordinary people frequently voluntarily suffer indignities for other gain. Well, fair enough, but the same is surely true of autonomy. Pinker cites "having sex" as "undignified," but surely entering into a marriage is a surrender of autonomy? Likewise, getting anesthetized for surgery and having one's insides played with is surely undignified - and it involves a surrender of autonomy. Etc. etc. If dignity is fungible, then so is autonomy, and no advocate of autonomy as a legal principle should be disparaging dignity on these grounds, therefore.

And so it is with harm. Pinker notes that preserving dignity for some people is actually harmful to society. Some of his examples are silly, but others resonate with me: "political and religious repressions are often rationalized as a defense of the dignity of a state, leader, or creed: Just think of the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Danish cartoon riots, or the British schoolteacher in Sudan who faced flogging and a lynch mob because her class named a teddy bear Mohammed. Indeed, totalitarianism is often the imposition of a leader's conception of dignity on a population, such as the identical uniforms in Maoist China or the burqas of the Taliban." Quite right. But Pinker's failing to make an important distinction here: the religious types are typically talking about violations of one's "right" (they think of it as a right) to dignity, not imposition of dignity (indeed, they would no doubt say that "real" dignity cannot be imposed with a required dress code, that this is a misunderstanding of the concept, etc.). So they're off the hook with regard to Pinker's Maoist China and Taliban examples. As to the others, one's at pains to see how the calculus here is different from that of any balancing act involving conflicts of autonomy. My right to bodily integrity supercedes a murderer's autonomy in deciding to kill me. He violates my autonomy if he succeeds in killing me, and the state violates his by proscribing murder. There's a conflict, and society resolves it in favor of the victim. A legal system necessarily involves such tradeoffs. My rights end where yours begin, etc. It would be silly to say that only those things which never have to be balanced and are never the cause of conflict are the proper subject of law! It's exactly backward, in fact: law exists because their fundamental rights and interests put people in conflict. In the Salman Rushdie example, then, the issue isn't really that dignity is an unworkable concept, but rather that we in the west rate freedom of speech higher. And I will certainly be the first to agree that it should be rated higher - and for exactly the reason that Pinker gave earlier: because "dignity" is a subjective, socially conditioned and emotional concept, and we can't run a society on whim. The point is simply that Pinker should have stuck with that approach rather than trying to malign dignity because preserving it can, in extreme circumstances, cause harm. Preserving autonomy can also cause harm, but what of it? The point, again, is not that anything that, left unchecked, can be harmful is inadmissible as a legal principle, it's that things which are subjective and emotional should not be admissible as legal principles. We can't make laws based on people's "feelings," and THIS is the reason we should reject dignity as a principle.

So Pinker's essay should be about a third shorter than it is. Aside from that third, however, I find it convincing.

Friday, May 23, 2008

How NOT to Solve a Housing Crisis (India Version)

This bit in the Washington Post from January is a nice illustration of how the law of unintended consequences is often the result of attempts to subvert the law of supply and demand. It deals with - largely unsuccessful - attempts by local governments in India to eliminate slums. It's why these well-meaning endeavors fail that's interesting.

In short, it goes something like this. Parts of India are crowded. HUGELY crowded. On the order of 16million people to a city crowded. Crowded. So naturally real estate prices tend to soar. If you have a situation where the population of an already people-saturated place is exploding, real estate prices are going to go up (think Tokyo in the 80s, for a more familiar example). So what to do about the slums? If real estate prices are out of control, then it would seem like the government is priced out of being able to afford housing projects for slum dwellers. Ah - but what if we use the housing bubble to our advantage?

The scheme works as follows. The government loosens zoning restrictions (oh yeah, because this was in the Washington Post, it didn't occur to anyone that zoning restrictions might have something to do with the prohibitive price of housing. Someone must really leave an economics textbook lying around at a major American newsdaily one of these days, just to see what happens.) in exchange for a promise from highrise builders that they will also erect some subsidized-rent buildings. Because housing prices are so high and the profit margin on new tennemants so huge, there is more than enough intake from the highrise to pay for the subsidized buildings and still go home with a healthy take. So - simple, right? Problem solved?

Well, not exactly. 'Cause, see, when you go and flood the market with new houses, some of which are artificially cheap, guess what happens to real estate values in general? Yup - they bottom out. And so, suddenly, the profit margin on the new tennemants isn't so huge anymore, and almost overnight there are no takers for these subsidized building projects. The money just isn't there anymore.

That's all economics 101 - but here's the really interesting bit.


If you build at the rate that the housing crisis -- or an election promise -- demands, the market crashes, making a cross-subsidy unworkable. Therefore, you build slowly, so that housing prices remain high. But when prices remain high, some of the former slum-dwellers will sell their flats and move back to the slum. Sometimes that was their plan all along.


Interesting, eh? When slums are available - some people actually see them as "affordable housing." They take advantage of the government scheme, buy a subsidized place, wait for the market to (inevitably) crash, followed by a general drying-up of bids on contracts to build the subsidized houses, at which point prices go back up, they sell their apartment and move back to the slum.

I dunno - the solution to all this seems simple enough to me. If the government wants to help solve the slum problem, then why not just have a general moratorium on zoning laws, at least for a decade? Take a section of the city, throw out the zoning laws, let developers build as high as they want. If the market gets flooded with houses, then some slum dwellers are suddenly able to afford. If a housing crunch follows, then those slum-dwellers that bought in can resell at a profit. In any case, the new buildings aren't going away. This cycle will happen a couple of times, but each time through new buildings get built, and so with each succession the prices can't go quite as high as they did the last time. Over time, the effect is that prices stabilize. The turnovers get less dramatic, and the housing market becomes more predictable. You might not completely eliminate the slums, but with time you build enough houses at low enough prices that most of the slums go away on their own.

Put simply - we build our way out of a housing problem. Gee, who woulda thought? And we can do that because ... (drumroll) ... there are no zoning laws telling us we can't. True, to some extent the current approach with the zoning laws in place is not much different; it follows similar cycles. That is because, as chronic Soviet (and now Venezuelan) shortages effectively demonstrated over most of the last century, government wishful thinking is not immune to economic realities. You can say nice things like "every worker gets beets," but that only works if you produce enough beets for every worker. And you only produce enough beets for every worker if you make it worth the beet-growers' while to grow that many beets. Here's a clue: people respond better to "if you grow this many beets, you'll live comfortably" than they do to "it is your patriotic duty to grow this many beets, regardless of what we pay you."

Something similar is almost certainly going on in India with regard to housing. To get rid of the slums, the government needs someone to build a lot of hosues quickly. That can easily be achieved by simply removing the zoning laws. If it's suddenly legal to build tall buildings on a lot in a hugely crowded city, people will do it. And indeed, the high price of land (resulting from overcrowding) is, in fact, a market signal that such a thing needs to be done. Land is hugely expensive because it is scarce, and in a rational economic system that means that there are rewards for people who figure out ways to stretch it further - say, by housing thousands in a highrise rather than merely hundreds in a four-story getup.

I don't want to say that homelessness and slum-dwelling in India are entirely the government's fault. Obviously it's a lot more complicated than that. And eventually India will build its way out of its housing crisis one way or the other, whether or not the government is fiddling with things. The contours of the process are the same with or without government intervention, but there are nevertheless two advantages to getting the government out: (1) the process happens a lot faster and (2) there are no incentives to stay poor (think about it: you've lived all your life in a slum, so you don't really mind 'cause you're used to it, and suddenly someone hands you a free flat that you can live in for a bit and eventually pocket a bunch of free cash by moving out of. Do you (a) work for a living and buy your own house or (b) take the offer and pocket the free money? Hmmmm....). So yeah, it's a question of time. A sincere interest in seeing the poor housed means you look reality squarely in the face, realize that it can't be done overnight, accept the gradualness of the process but trust your Economics 101 that tells you that if there's a 4million-person demand for housing in a city of 16million, the market will provide. Of course, I guess the politicians don't see it quite that way. They would rather keep their finger on the zoning law trigger, and are content to see things happen just a little bit slower to that end. Nice folks, these politicians.

Why I'm Skipping Indy

i09 has a great takedown of the new Indiana Jones movie in the form of a poll called What Scifi Plot Should Indiana Jones Steal Next? The most plausible-sounding choice was "Indiana Jones and the Lost Continent," but I voted for "Indiana Jones: A Space Odyssey." Have a visit yourself and leave your feedback!

Honestly, what were Spielberg and Lucas thinking making this into an X-Files movie? I'm sure the X-Files movie will be bad enough on its own, thanks, without you two goobers showing off just how big of has-beens you are in the process.

Ok, fair enough, I haven't been to see the film yet. And I say "yet" as though I eventually will - but this review has pretty much convinced me to avoid it like the plauge. Why? Funny you should ask, you know. I'll admit to being one of the few people who like Temple of Doom (another reason why I have a grudging appreciaton for Roger Ebert, in fact, in addition to his gutsy four-star review of "Halloween," for which I am eternally grateful, is that he was also one of the few critics who recognized Temple of Doom for the great film it is). I liked "Raiders" a lot better, but I also really liked "Temple." The series jumped the shark for me with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - not so much because the plot was bad, but because they'd sacrificed the larger-than-life, over-the-top, sense-of-wonder-meets-action-flick comic book style of the earlier two for cheap laughs and one-liners. I love a good one-liner as much as the next guy, but ... well, actually, to be honest, I really don't love a good one-liner as much as the next guy. Not anywhere near as much, in fact. A truly good one-liner is a once- or twice-a-movie kind of thing, and it's REALLY clever and a REAL takedown. Unfortunately, someone in Hollywood went out for a hotdog one day and heard people quoting "I'll be back" and thought, "Great! We don't have to write conversations anymore." And "Last Crusde" is a definite victim of this. Instead of breathtaking stunts and exotic locales we get ... a dad teasing his son. Fucking great - just what I always wanted in an Indiana Jones movie. An INDIANA JONES movie.

When I heard they were making a new Indy movie, I thought "Well, they can't redo 'Raiders,' because Hollywood stopped making good blockbusters some time ago. But what I can hope for is another Temple of Doom - you know, something with cool sets and atmosphere and violence - rather than another Last Crusade, which was all goofy family-values silliness. But how will I know which one I'm getting ahead of time? From the review:


As was true of the previous films, this one attempts to balance light comedy with action. The jokiness that occasionally damaged The Last Crusade is more pronounced here with one-liners punctuating the dialogue. There are some clever ones, to be sure, but most are perfunctory.


Crap. It's "Crusade."


But the film doesn't work on the most basic level where even The Temple of Doom succeeded: getting viewers on the edges of their seats. That's not to say the film is without action; it features a number of such sequences. But a key element is missing: excitement. There's no suspense and not a lot of energy.


Yep - no denying it now. Those were my two fears, and this reviewer helpfully confirmed them. They redid "Crusade," and skipped "Temple" entirely. So I will skip this movie entirely. Maybe someday, if it's on TV and I happen to have nothing better to do. But as much of an Indiana Jones fan as I once was, I think I'll invest the money I would have spent on an inflated box-office-priced ticket in a good book instead.

The Polygamists' Stonewall

In light of how trendy it's become to talk about gay marriage as though it were a civil rights issue on par with Jim Crow, I find it increasingly astonishing that people continute to ignore the question as relates to polygamists. The link goes to an article by William Saletan that charges that the state has a right to ban polygamy because it's "not in our nature." Which rather does raise the issue why homosexuality is in our nature? Sure, for some people it evidently is - so why the blanket, across-the-board assumption that there are no people who can form healthy polygamist unions? It's simple prejudice. Surely this, like gay marriage, is a decision that should be left to the consenting adults themselves and not to William Saletan's personal experiences of what is and isn't in his nature. And yet, it is the normal practice among same-sex marriage advocates to distance themselves from polygamists.

It's been almost 40 years since Stonewall, and gay rights have come a long way. Thankfully, the government is no longer allowed to police private, consensual sexual practices, and homosexuals can go about their business. But "Stonewall" incidents continue for polygamists.

Consider the recent case in Texas. The linked article tells the story of a tearful phone call from a 16-year-old girl to a woman's shelter San Angelo that she'd been beaten and raped by a man she was forced to marry at the FDLS (a Mormon offshoot) compound YZR in West Texas. The government dutifully informs us that this is a pervasive pattern at the compound and promptly seized over 400 minors in a raid. Of course, no one thought to ask why they needed this phone call to go in if they already knew, as Texas Child Protective Services officer Lynn McFadden assures us, that "There is a pervasive pattern and practice of indoctrinating and grooming minor female children to accept spiritual marriages to adult male members of the YFZ Ranch resulting in them being sexually abused." Apparently we're just supposed to shrug our shoulders and go "you know - 'these people' are just like that," and not worry about the due process issue. And it took a while for people to start worrying, even after the raid failed to turn up the girl who made the heart-wrenching phone call. And why couldn't they find her? Well, because it turns out the call was really probably from Rozita Swinton, a 33-year-old woman living far away in Colorado with no connection to FDLS other than trying to frame them. Now to get an idea of the kind of attitudes and prejudices we're dealing with - here's an interview with Flora Jessup, an anti-polygamy activist who had been talking to Swinton on the phone for two weeks under the false assumption that Swinton was a 16-year-old being systematically abused by her father. Incredibly, Jessop says that "I would like to point out that the system absolutely worked in this case. When -- as hotlines get calls from children purporting to be abused, just as I do, it's not my responsibility and my job to decide whether those calls are legitimate." Well, right, not her responsibility to decide if they're legitimate - she just reports on to the police. But sure it is the police's responsibility to make some kind of decision there, right? To not just assume that every accusation they get is true? How is it an example of "the system working" when the police allow their prejudices to get in the way of doing normal investigative background checks resulting in hundreds of bogus custody seizures? Even more incredibly, Jessop goes on to admit that Swinton is disturbed, but nevertheless that "... in a little bit of a way, want to give her a hug because she's protected hundreds of children from the abuses, the widespread systematic abuses they were suffering in this group." Has she indeed? Jessop, who lives in Florida, knows for a fact, then, that systematic abuse was going on at the YZR ranch in Texas? And if she knew this all along, why didn't she simply tell the police herself? Oh, right, because she doesn't know any better than you or I do what was or wasn't going on at the YZR compound in Texas - she just hears "polygamy" and instantly loses all concern for due process protections. The same way that a disturbingly large number of people heard "poor black accuser, rich white defendants" in the Duke Rape Case (link goes to some of KC Johnson's excellent coverage) and decided due process was a quaint distraction.

Look - the reason we have due process protections at all is for precisely the reason that people think with their stereotypes. It's in our nature, I suppose. As The Onion satirically points out, stereotypes are a real time-saver. Except when they're wrong - and it's for THOSE cases that we have due process. We have due process because people's impressions about things AREN'T science, AREN'T reliable, and certainly aren't anything in the ballpark of "fair and just." If the state wants to go snatch a bunch of kids from their parents, you and me and every citizen in this country needs a better process of justification for that action than "well, you know, polygamists, religious kooks, um, yeah."

If it had been a raid on a gay neighborhood seizing all the adopted children because of a bogus phone call from a 33-year-old in a another town purporting to have been sodomized by his gay dads, this never would've gotten this far. In the 1960s, obviously it would have, but times have changed, and society is now confronting its prejudices about homosexuals. The times are past when the police can go on TV and say "well, you know, gays" and count on everyone to collectively forget about the Fourteenth Amendment. What troubles me is that we continue to have to fight this battle with each new group. Isn't it enough, after having exposed unjust treatment of blacks and gays, that people should be able to start actually embracing diversity and actually tolerating members of groups different from their own? Why does it seem we have to go through and catalogue all the classes of people who need "protected group" status one-by-one before anyone gets their rights?

Thankfully, the system "absolutely worked" in this case in the end, if I can steal Jessop's thunder, and the Appeals Court told the police to go back and reread their basic training manuals. But I'm seeing disturbingly little realization from the media that it was largely prejudice that got us here. If anyone needs proof that there is systematic discrimination against polygamists, this case should do the trick. Like with any other legal issue, we need to think with our heads and not our hearts on this one. So you don't like polygamy. I myself am not lining up to join. But surely whatever distaste people feel about it is not a legal issue. And surely, anyone who feels that gays have the right to marriage because "they're in love" has no grounds to doubt or oppose the legal claims of polygamists who feel the same way. Polygamists are people too. We just can't see it yet because discriminating against them is still in fashion. Even for large numbers of gays who themselves claim to be the special victims of "marriage discrimination." What a world.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Regulating the Already Self-Regulating

Here's something worth celebrating. Data centers are declining to comply with the government's supposedly-anonymous "EnergyStar" background research project. See - some trend hacks have decided that Data Centers will be consuming more energy than the airline industry by 2020, so the government now thinks it has an in to regulate them. It's already recommending that they adopt energy-saving policies - as though, given the nature of their business and how they make their money, that wouldn't be something they weren't already looking into on their own. I mean - imagine yourself as the head of a data center. Your job is essentially keeping a room full of harddrives running and online. The two major things that can go wrong are: (1) power outages and (2) overheating. Naturally staying online is your main concern - which, I hesitate to point out, is good for all of us. Given how much information is online these days (Christ - ALL the information about how much money I have and owe, for example! I use cash essentially only to play $10 poker anymore...), redundancy and reliability are crucial to the functioning of the economy. Ok - so once you're reasonably sure that you're safe from crashes, what's the first thing you look to to lower expenses so that you can expand your market share and profit? Yeah - my first, second and third guesses were "power consumption" too. So once again we have an example of the government stepping in to regulate something that doesn't need regulating because it will take care of things on its own. As if the EPA doesn't already have enough to do dreaming up ways to justify preemptive governmental protection of polar bears. (Ok, ok, that's the US Geological Survey's job, I know.)

So I would just like to applaud the low compliance rate with this study. The data center industry is right to worry that the government is just itching for an excuse to regulate them in ways both costly to the rest of us an inefficient in achieving actual energy savings in any case. To illustrate the point - consider this project in our own Indianapolis.


Lifeline also plans a green campus environment by employing hydrogen-assisted diesel generators, reflective roof technologies, returning of old parking lots to green space, as well as implementing innovative HVAC technologies.


That's from a data center that just bought a defunct old mall - a building that was doing nothing good for anyone - and turned it into a useful part of the internet. No one required it to do all these green things - these are things that it decided to do on its own for its own business interests.

And this is all not to mention, of course, that data centers already benefit world energy consumption just by existing. They centralize data storage so that individual companies don't have to build their own centers and backup systems. I don't have any numbers on it, but it's reasonable to assume that farming out backup to designated data centers is more secure and more energy efficient than having each individual company manage its own data storage.

So, the EPA can officially fuck off, and I'm really glad to see the data center industry telling them to do just that.

Hate Crimes: where they happen and where they don't (are the same place)

Here is an interesting page. It's Esquire's 2006 infographic on instances of hate crimes across the US. It gets its raw numbers from FBI reports and lays the data out on a map of the US - with numbers showing the total recorded instances per state and colors showing how that squares up with per capita population.

Intersting points include:

(1) The South is apparently the place where people are least likely to be victims of hate crimes. Almost all southern states - with the notable exception of Virginia - are in the blue, meaning they are in the category of the lowest per capital instances of hate crimes. Mississippi and Alabama, widely panned in popular culture as the most racist states in the union, also have the lowest instances of reported hate crimes, at 0 and 1 respectively.

(2) The Northeast, by contrast, is the most hate crime-prone region per capita. How's that for a complete reversal of all the stereotypes of a "racist" South and "tolerant" North you were taught in school?

(3) Most strikingly - Arizona and New Mexico have apparently switched geographical locations without telling anyone.

The map is, of course, completely misleading on one level. Everything depends on (a) how much information local authorities choose to share with the FBI and (b) what local definitions of hate crimes even are (they vary widely). Cross-state comparisons are, in fact, impossible under these circumstances, not merely "difficult," as the helpful disclaimer tells us.

On another level, it's completely revealing: hate crimes are a self-fulfilling prophecy almost by definition. If you live in a state that defines everything as a hate crime, you live in a place where a lot of them happen to occur. One notes, for example, that high-scoring Virginia is the state that gave rise to the Supreme Court ruling that cross burning is not protected free speech, even though, perversely, burning the flag apparently is. (For the record, I consider burning cross es and flags both - and anything that belongs to you, provided you don't endanger bystanders, really - to speech in the relevant definition for the First Amendment.) If this intolerance of speech rights is prevelent in Virginia law, it's not surprising that a lot of stuff that's protected speech elsewhere turns up as a "hate crime" on Virginia's radar.

The Cure that Didn't

This story does an especially good job of highlighting the cult of addiction. It's about Chantix - a prescription drug to help people quit smoking from Pfizer. According to the company's website, it works by targeting the same receptors that nicotine targets, providing a (presumably) non-addictive nicotine-like buzz while suppressing the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal.

Here's the comedy. From the Chantix website:


Some patients have reported changes in behavior, agitation, depressed mood, suicidal thinking or behavior when attempting to quit smoking while taking CHANTIX. If you experience any of these symptoms, or if your family or caregiver observes these symptoms, please tell your doctor immediately. Also tell your doctor about any history of depression or other mental health problems before taking CHANTIX, as these symptoms may worsen while taking CHANTIX. ... You may have trouble sleeping, vivid, unusual, or strange dreams while taking CHANTIX. You should use caution driving or operating machinery until you know how quitting smoking with CHANTIX may affect you.


And indeed, the link to the article (the first link) tells of how the FAA is now prohibiting pilots from using the drug because people have been having vision problems and heart trouble.

What we have here, in other words, is a "cure" that's worse than the disease. Not only that, but it doesn't seem to be too terribly effective. The Chantix website claims a 44% success rate, but - and here's the laugh - adds that "You may benefit from quit smoking support programs and/or counseling during your quit attempt." That's because, in fact, their trials included accompanying weekly counselling sessions. Oh, and it turns out it's not really as effective as 44%. Pfizer gets that rate by - get this - measuring cessation rates inside of 12 weeks. If you measure them any later than that, it's really only 23%. And if we recall that there were weekly counselling sessions during the 12-weeks of the trial, we have to admit we don't really know what portion is accounted for by the accompanying counselling aid. Now, when you consider that 9% of the people in the placebo group remained off cigarettes after 52 weeks, you might be tempted to conclude that the counselling alone accounts for 9%. But that's silly - because if the same counselling was administered to the placebo group it's likely to have been less effective (since the placebo group wasn't having their withdrawal symptoms artificially supressed, and since their 7 "free" days of smoking at the beginning - Chantix treatment starts you off with a "free" week during which the drug keeps nicotine from being effective - didn't include conditioning them to see cigarettes as just nasty-tasting without the nicotine buzz, then obviously their counselling sessions weren't tailored to their actual situation). If a different counselling session was administered, then we've introduced a rather serious confound and can't really trust the data at all.

So what we seem to have is an expensive way to probably not quit with rather serious side-effects. Wonderful. If that isn't unintentional self-parody, I don't know what qualifies.

Some people are amazingly weak. The bottom line is that nicotine addiction is a choice. Going to the store, putting money on the counter, purchasing a pack of cigarettes, putting one in your mouth and lighting up is a string of choices. Quitting smoking involves interrupting this chain at some point - a thing that anyone who is conscious of his own actions can do. When you fall off the wagon with smoking, it's because avoiding the withdrawal symptoms has become more important to you than giving up. That is the bottom line, and no drug that merely lessens your withdrawal symptoms changes the terms of the game. Until they come out with a drug that instantly alters your chemical makeup to remove the dependance altogether, some amount of willpower will be involved. The dismal success rates of these drugs owe to this: anyone who believes they can quit with "just a little push" from Chantix doesn't understand what willpower is. Willpower isn't "I will do this if it's easy." Willpower is just "I will do this."

To be clear, I'm not joining in the crazy cacophony of people who seem to think that the FDA should bar Chantix on grounds of insufficient effectiveness. I don't personally see the difference between legal cigarettes and legal Chantix, honestly. Pfizer, of course, needs to come clean about the results of its trials, but since as far as I can tell the information is out there on the internets for all of us to read, then consumers can make up their own minds whether it's worth it to them to try - just as they can make up their own minds whether it's worth it to them to smoke, in fact. No - I'm not calling for a ban on Chanrix. I'm just pointing out that Chantix and things like it are indisputably effective in at least one way: highlighting how silly the "quit smoking" industry is. Chantix reportedly made Pfizer $277million last quarter, and the recent 5% drop in prescription rates has sent the company's stock down 1.2%. Just stop to marvel at the concept: there's an almost $300million make-or-break-a-company market in peddling a painful and probably dangerous experience that is 77% likely to turn out to have been a failure a year later.

The following line from this About.com article sums up the situation nicely:


A drug that has the potential to help 22 out of every 100 people using it quit smoking is impressive indeed.


Since when does the "potential to help" a mere "22 out of every 100 people" rate as "impressive?" A fool and his money, as they say...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Barr the hot Item?

Make that not one but two major conservative internet outlets (NRO and Townhall) that have articles yesterday that seem predicated on the idea that Bob Barr will be the Libertarian Party nominee after this weekend. Barr was a very late addition to the fold (declaring his candidacy formally only last Tuesday), and last I checked he was polling ahead of the others in delegates, but not by enough to win the first round of voting - a problematic position going in to the often-unpredictable LP convention. For what it's worth, he's my first choice on the list, but I would hardly consider this thing over. Does National Review know something we don't?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Goin' Ta Mars

Via i09, a really interesting video detailing what a trip through one of Mars' "canals" might be like. THIS is what CGI is for!

Now it REALLY Ain't Over Till It's Over

So Obama has decided against a victory declaration tomorrow after all. Veeeerry interesting. Could it be, oh I dunno, because his margin of victory is more convincing now? Or is it maybe because some superdelegates are getting signals from the DNC that they wanna hold out to the last possible minute for the chance of a Hillary victory? Either way, the media will now have to change its "narrative" on the supposed destructiveness of the continuing campaign, and I, for one, will be very curious to see just how they go about that.

Courtesy of the Gay Marriage Debate: the importance of moral principle

Dinesh D'Souza, a pundit I respect less and less recently, has another misinformed column on Townhall today. It's about the California Supreme Court's recent decision on gay marriage, and it - unsurprisingly, considering who the author is - gets a good bit of the facts on the case wrong. Because this is fun, let's go through what they are:


Now the high court of California has made gay marriage into a right that is immune from restriction by the majority of citizens in the state.


and


The court has to pretend that there is a right to gay marriage even though it is nowhere evident in the state constitution. ... It is simply not an enumerated right, nor is it a right that can be clearly derived from other enumerated rights.


Well, at least he's right that there is no enumerated "right to marriage" in the California State Constitution. Of course, the Court itself says as much in its ruling, in which it also spends close to 100 pages going over an exhaustive list of precedents stretching back to the 1930s and continuing up to the present day of California state courts treating marriage as a fundamental right under Article I sections 1, 7 and 9 of the state constitution. Whether D'Souza agrees with this precedent is, of course, a different matter. I myself, for what it's worth, do not. But the point is that the Supreme Court most emphatically DID NOT just "make" a right to marriage that didn't previously exist. It is a "right" that has been recognized by California law for some time now, built on a foundation of numerous rulings and affirmations over decades.

Oh, but wait, D'Souza was talking specifically about gay marriage when speaking of rights that aren't enumerated in the California Constitution. Oh, well, that's alright then. Or ... not ... because if we're talking about specifically enumerated rights, then neither is there a right to any kind of marriage in the California Constitution. Interestingly, D'Souza doesn't seem to have a problem with all those years of precedent that nevertheless establish a right to heterosexual marriage. So which is it? Courts have the authority to read in unenumerated rights - in which case this court may, with proper reasoning, read in a right to gay marriage - or they may not, in which case it isn't clear where California Courts got the authority to overturn the state's statutes prohibiting interracial marriage in, e.g., Perez v. Sharp? Maybe D'Souza would like to come clean and publicly state that the decision in Perez was wrong too?

More to the point, D'Souza is skipping over the substance of the Court's ruling here. The Court did not "make" a right to gay marriage at all. In fact, it specifically affirms the state's right to decide, through democratic means, to restrict marriage rights only to certain classes of citizens. What it - quite interestingly - chooses not to allow is the situation of extending the same substantive rights to different groups of people under different names. Yes, goofy though that sounds (and goofy though that is), the substance of the Court's argument is that giving gays all the benefits of marriage and then calling it a "domestic partnership" is what's wrong.

It's a tortured bit of logic, granted. After all, the Court's reasoning here is that naming rights different things for different groups is a prelude to discriminatory treatment, and yet it affirms in other portions of the ruling that such treatment is the perrogative of the state should it choose, say, not to extend "domestic partnership" rights to homosexuals. The point is not to support the Court's "reasoning" here (which I do not), but simply to call attention to the fact that D'Souza apparently doesn't know what it is.

This is made all the more clear by his strange assertion that the Court relies on the Fourteenth Amendment in reaching its decision. In fact, it does not. It mentions it in the ruling, but the ruling itself is based entirely on California statutes and precedents. The relevant "constitution" mentioned is the state constitution, and the "equal protection clause" cited is, in fact, Article I section 7 of the same.

From there we venture off into conservative la-la land, recycling the same reductio ad absurdum arguments that have become, increasingly less convincingly, a staple of right-wing commentary on the issue.


Now gay activists, with the acquiescence of the California high court, want to remove one of the criteria of marriage while keeping all the rest. Yet if it's discriminatory to gays to require that marriage be between a man and a woman, why isn't it discriminatory to Mormons and Muslims to require that it remain between two people? Isn't incestuous marriage also between "consenting adults" who have a right to equal protection of the laws? And why doesn't the Fourteenth Amendment protect the fellow who wants to walk down the aisle with his poodle on the grounds that "I love my dog and my dog loves me"?


The last one is so silly it's hardly worth responding to. C'mon, D'Souza - have you ever seen a reference in any portion of any laws anywhere in the world to an animal's "informed consent?" Jesus Christmas - if you can't have a contract with a dog, and if a dog can't vote, and if a dog can't apply for a driver's license, then it isn't too terribly taxing on the old gulliver to imagine what legal process we might employ to prevent a dog legally consenting to marriage.

As to all the other questions, the simple answer is "why not indeed?" Honestly - can anyone come up with a good reason why Mormons and Muslims shouldn't be allowed to continue the well-established traditions of their respective faiths and enter into polygamous marriages? Provided there is consent all 'round (meaning that all members are of legal age, etc. etc.), what is honestly the problem? Why should the Judeo-Christian tradition take precedent in this nation that's supposed to guarantee religious freedom? Ditto the situation with incest. No doubt D'Souza would respond with completely convincing scientific evidence of the nasty consequences of such a couple breeding. Fine, we'll prohibit them having kids of their own. But if two grown adults decide to enter into a lifelong partnership, isn't that their business? Where is the compelling government interest in preventing this? Just to reiterate, if there's a compelling government interest in preventing reproduction between such people, so be it. But what is the interest in preventing their marriage? After all, the western tradition on which D'Souza imagines California's marriage laws are exclusively based has frequently tolerated such marriages. To condemn them on the basis of tradition, D'Souza would need to be in the awkward position of explaining why "tradition" starts in the 1930s as opposed to the 1500s.

Now, to give credit where it's due, the rest of this is actually quite sensible. D'Souza explains that he accepts that there are important differences between polygamy and gay marriage, the point is simply that "discrimination" of some kind or another is built into any government recognition of a privilege for some groups and not others. "Consequently," he concludes, "it's unreasonable to say that gays have a constitutional right to override the definition but other groups do not. The court's real justification seems to have little to do with constitutional reasoning and everything to do with an assertion of political power."

Yes, correct. That's exactly what's going on here, and good of him to call them on it. He then goes on to say that to the extent that a particular group seeks to redraw the definition of marriage so as to include itself, it needs to take its case to the legislature and not to the courts. Again, quite correct. As a libertarian, of course I would prefer that marriage remain under the auspices of private contracts, but so long as the state reserves to itself the right to define and regulate "marriage," then the proper venue for modification is indeed the legislature (or also ballot initiatives, in California) and not the court system.

But that still doesn't answer the questions he raises. Why, indeed, are conservatives so opposed to polygamous and incestuous marriages? Why is this a compelling state interest? Why, for that matter, is there a compelling state interest in preventing gay marriage? The obvious answer seems to be that there is no such interest, and D'Souza is merely arguing for the right to enforce his prejudices at the ballot box. I can see how that's better than enforcing one's prejudices through the Court system, as gay rights activists are wont to do, but in both cases we're enforcing prejudices, grabbing for our own groups legal privileges that no rational foundation in natural law grants to them to the exclusion of others. D'Souza's only claim to moral superiority over his opponents here, in other words, is that he feels more compelled to follow legal orthodoxy than they do. Well ... grand! But he doesn't seem to feel especially compelled to justify his voting choices in any way, which doesn't do very much for his reputation as a responsible citizen.

The lesson here is, I think, for everyone. All of these questions that D'Souza raises are in fact questions that D'Souza and conservatives need to answer, but so long as gay rights activists insist on subverting proper legal procedure and going through the courts to secure to themselves something that D'Souza rightly argues is not a natural right but a legal privilege, they allow conservatives like D'Souza to obscure the issue. It was never their intention, of course, but that's the consequence of all this. Rather than asking important questions of conservatives, like "where does your right to marriage come from?," they are content if courts simply hand them what they want - and, apparently, any old basis for that will do.

Neither side looks particularly good from where I stand. Gay rights activists are apparently unconcerned with legal procedure, or with the damage to the fabric of a functioning democracy that encouraging courts to subvert it can do. Conservatives are thereby able to assert a legal right to enforce their prejudices at the ballot box without having to deal with the harder questions of where their prejudices come from or why they should be law, simply because, by comparison with the people who filed the bogus lawsuit in the first place, they look like the ones playing fair.

The truth, of course, is that neither side is playing fair. "Fair," in a pluralistic democracy, means affording people as much leeway to live their lives free from interference as can be tolerated. If conservatives can demonstrate no compelling state interest in securing only to heterosexual couples the property and decision rights that go along with marriage, then we need to get on with getting the state out of the business of regulating and defining marriage. Thanks, however, to the gay rights activists who insist on taking these issues to court, it's even money that the voters of California will vote to amend their state constitution in the fall to include in it a statute that belongs in no constitution. Yes, California will then be in the bizarre situation of having, among its fundamental laws, a definition of marriage -- as if any such thing has anything at all to do with the basic functioning of law in California or any state. Good for the lawyers and the citizen activist groups; bad for the rest of us.

The principle being illustrated here is this: society can save itself a lot of needless grief by getting it right the first time. Just leave marriage to private contracts already. That's an equal-opportunity solution that leaves conservatives free to call gay marriages "domestic partnerships" without stepping on anyone's fundamental property rights and gays themselves the equal legal representation of their unions that they so crave. Perhaps best of all, it gives the courts something better to do than rule that a group has a "right" to call partnerships "marriage," even though the court declines to say whether they have a right to the partnership in the first place.

Or whatever.