Where’s maiken?

Still in flux. All is well; never fear.

What have I been up to?

This pretty much sums it up:

Happy Pi Day!

I totally spaced on the fact that today (3.14) was Pi day, until Steven Colbert graciously reminded me of it.

Via Wikipedia, check out this really trippy pi poster in celebration!

Your inspiration for the day

Holy crap, this video is fantastic. Watch it immediately. Although, it does contain disturbing imagery from the war, so if that sort of thing bothers you, you should skip it.

You must have audio turned on, though.

Via, even though I’m a little grumpy with Shakes these days.

Lots of pictures of the beach stunt at Flickr. You can read about the song featured here, Sinnerman, on Wikipedia.

Big Changes

My life is in significant transition at the moment. I’m not sure what priority to assign to working on the blog. Please forgive the silence.

More Cool UI Innovation

This is the coolest thing I have seen since BumpTop:

Via Bogle’s Blog.

The American Government vs. the American People vs. The Idea That Is America

Becky brings up an important point in a comment to the last post:

As a regular reader of this blog, I wanted to respectfully ask you to please make a distinction between the U.S. government and the PEOPLE of the U.S. [...] Saying that the “U.S.” has no respect for the rule of law is insulting to all of the people who do not agree with these policies, who DO have respect for the rule of law, and who feel suspect about the current administration (who 48% DID NOT even vote for) and their treatment of oh…EVERYTHING.

Up front, I want to say that Becky is right and that often, I make statements about the “US” that could be understood as statements about the people of the US, when really I just meant the current government. I will try to be more precise about that in future.

I’m in something of a negative mood about US policy at the moment, though, so I would also like to make a larger and more depressing point: there is a sense in which a statement like “the US does not respect the rule of law” is not only accurate, but accurate in the only way that matters.

There is only one way in which the US can be said to act or speak with a single voice, and that’s when its government acts. This is the very function of our government: our people speak with 300 million separate voices, but on the domestic and international stage, a singular entity must act with coherent and specific will to get things done. In a very real sense, the acts of the US government are the only acts that can accurately be described as being “by the United States”. No private citizen speaks for the entire country, but our government acts in all of our names and on behalf of all of us.

Because of this, there is a demoralizingly real sense in which it is correct to say that the United States stands today for lawlessness, kidnapping, and torture. That statement, sadly, is true, because of what the United States does. Its citizens may disapprove, and the history of the country may stand in contrast to the present, but those are intangibles: the US is as the US does, and right now what the US does is not pretty.

I am not in favor of these things, and nether is Becky. Possibly, a majority of Americans, even, are opposed to them. But we do not wield the power and authority of the US executive; George W. Bush does, and he acts for all of us. The United States invaded Iraq. The United States shipped Maher Arar to Syria to be tortured and then dodged reparations in court. The United States kidnapped a Muslim preacher off the streets of Milan and sent him to Egypt to be tortured. The United States threw Yaser Esam Hamdi and Jose Padilla in a hole, cut them off from the world, and denied them due process. The United States tortured Padilla in custody until he was as docile and inert as a “piece of furniture”. The United States has repeatedly dodged the rule of law by invoking the “state secrets” privilege, moving prisoners into or out of military custody, keeping them overseas, or hiding their very existence from the outside world.

Becky, I assume, would prefer I say “the United States government” in each of these statements, and of course that would also be true, and more precise to boot. But, no entity on Earth other than our government speaks and acts in the name of The United States of America. The United States, then, as an entity in the word, stands today for lawlessness, eavesdropping, kidnapping, torture and warfare.

Becky is right, though: it’s important to remember that the US could be different, and that many people don’t like what it has come to be. We are used to thinking of the US as standing for democracy, freedom of affiliation, speech and religion, and a respect for the rule of law. The US does not stand for those things today, but it could again in the future.

We should also remember that our government is only empowered to speak as The United States of America because of the trust we put in our democratic institutions to ensure that the government’s actions reflect the will of the people. I would submit that recent events, from the election of 2000 in which the candidate receiving less votes was awarded the Presidency, to the escalation in Iraq despite massive public opposition, give reason to doubt the soundness of our country’s democratic foundations. But that is an issue for another time.

A postcard from abroad

I’m on vacation out of the country. But seriously, people, these two paragraphs from this Associated Press article on the recent US Court of Appeals ruling upholding the Torture and Dungeons Act tells you everything you need to know about the US’s respect for the rule of law:

“The decision reaffirms the validity of the framework that Congress established in the MCA permitting Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detention” through military hearings coordinated by the Defense Department,”[sic] said spokesman Erik Ablin.

That’s right — under US law, if you are held overseas by the military, which operates under orders from the Defense Department, you can appeal the basis for your confinement to… the Defense Department. What could possibly go wrong with that system?

Under the commissions act, the government may indefinitely detain foreigners who have been designed as “enemy combatants” and authorizes the CIA to use aggressive but undefined interrogation tactics.

“Aggressive”, people. But we certainly don’t torture. That would be wrong. How can you tell we’re not lying to you right this very moment? Well, you can’t. Have a nice day.

Oh, and the Special Forces team will be by tonight to whisk you off to Guantanamo as your reward for asking questions. Let’s hear you whine about human rights after a few days shackled to the ceiling in a fourty-degree isolation cell.

Freaking pinkos.

Ugh.

Hiatus

Chez Lark is on hiatus; my life is in transition, and I am spending the next week in Mexico with my family. I should have some more material to post when I get back on 2/26.

Sappy Holidays

This sort of thing is exactly why my wife and I long ago vowed to utterly ignore Valentine’s Day:

Via Slog.

Snickers: only sometimes heteronormative

A number of people are up in arms about this Snickers commercial that ran during the Super Bowl:

If you haven’t read about the controversy, stop and think about it for a moment. Is this ad:

  1. Heteronormative / homo-hostile because it depicts homophobia, or
  2. Homo-positive because it depicts homophobia negatively

My money is actually on b). This ad depicts homophobia, but the protagonists are basically neanderthals: they’re unkempt, pudgy, working in a crappy garage on a crappy car, and evidently idiotic enough to rip out chunks of their own chest hair to demonstrate their heterosexuality. The ad is meant to be funny, and it’s meant to be funny because we’re supposed to laugh at these pathetic people. Laugh at them, not with them. Notice there’s a difference between depicting homophobia and conveying a homophobic message, which is why I’m trying to use the alternate terms of heteronormative, homo-hostile, or homo-positive.

When I saw the ad, I was surprised and happy that during the Super Bowl, homophobes were depicted as knuckle-dragging losers that we should all laugh at. I thought it was quite positive for the gay-rights movement.

Now, in fairness, this ad alone isn’t the whole story. This is the ad that ran during the Super Bowl, but Snickers had a bunch more material on their website with alternate endings featuring violence, and NFL players’ reactions to the ads (think: disgust at the idea of two men kissing).

I don’t approve in the slightest of any of the additional material; the violent endings promote the idea that violence is a rational outlet for homophobia, and showing NFL players grimacing uses national heroes to convey the idea that gay people are contemptible. But other bloggers have said it better than me; head over to AMERICAblog or Towelroad or This Modern World for discussion of the alternate endings and players’ reactions.

But, the Super Bowl ad itself, it seems to me, is thoroughly unobjectionable.

(mostly via)

Update: Jonathan Trenn makes a good point in a comment: to the extent that you identify with the two blue-collar males here, you may well be offended at the depiction of blue-collar men as brutish simpletons.

German Existentialism Comes to YouTube

Most videos on YouTube appear to be trash. I guess this makes it par for the course on the Internet. This one is kind of interesting though, if only because it seems deliberately intended as “art”?

It’s by Clemens Kogler, whom I would like to know more about, but whose website appears to be down at the moment. I’m guessing he’s German from his cached homepage.

The non-gender-role-inverting Superbowl ad

Did you catch this Superbowl ad for Chevy?

On its surface, this looks like a gender-role-inverting spot. The “car wash” setup, of course, is usually used as an excuse to show barely-clothed models, as in this recent spot with Paris Hilton (barely SFW):

…so, the Chevy commercial is a playful inversion, right?

I couldn’t help noticing, though, that most of the men featured in the ad are unattractive, pasty white guys (plus one skeletal senior citizen). I’ve got nothing against pasty white guys per se (I’m not the self-loathing type), but this makes the ad quite unlike the female-models-in-bikinis genre: in the Chevy commercial, the women are decidedly not attracted to the car washers (even though a few attractive men show up). In fact, they’re mortified. The Paris Hilton spot, though, is a gratuitous excuse to show Hilton in a skimpy leather outfit, and ogling her is the whole point. We are meant to take her sexual attractiveness seriously. In the Chevy commercial, the sexual cues are comedic, not serious at all. It’s so impossible to view the car-washer guys as actual sex objects that not even the female characters in the commercial take them seriously, never mind the intended audience.

I think, curiously enough, that this ad, which at first glance seems to be inverting gender roles, is actually reinforcing them. It would be genuinely subversive to actually present men analogously to the hot-babes-carwash setup. Mens’ prescribed gender role is decidedly not that of objectified, depersonalized objects. Men are the locus of sexual aggression and power in a patriarchal society; women are the objectified sexual ornaments.

This ad doesn’t dismantle those roles at all; since the men aren’t to be taken seriously as sexual ornaments, they’re just imitating women, which makes the ad more like someone performing in blackface, or a man being “funny” by putting on a tutu and mincing around. The only acceptable way for men to appear in this situation is for them to be part of an obviously over-the-top spoof; hence, for example, the dramatically decrepit old guy. I actually think that the audience is meant to imagine women in bikinis, since they are the obvious opposite of pasty white guys taking off their shirts. For bonus points, the fact that the men are behaving as women in such a preposterous way conveys, like blackface, that women’s role as ornaments is essentially risible.

There’s another aspect to this, too: homophobia. Imagine what the spot would have looked like if it had actually been analogous to, say, beer commercials: the car-wash men would have been imposing, oiled, muscular guys in Speedos. Wouldn’t that be, well, kind of… gay? Here’s a comment left on YouTube, from someone complaining that not all the guys shown in the ad are completely out of shape:

I would have to agree with Sean. It would have been funnier with all the guys out of shape… What kind of football loving guy wants to watch other guys strip?

I do have to say the old guy was the funniest.

The ad is meant to be funny, not to be an actual presentation of men as sexual ornaments. It’s not funny for there to be any attractive guys in there at all! Besides, no “football loving” (read, heterosexual) male wants to see partially-clothed attractive men; that’s gay!

This ad is like cultural aikido: it lulls you by appearing to be taking apart our entrenched gender roles, but is actually just reinforcing them further.

Washington ballot initiative proposed to restrict marriage to couples who procreate

I’ve been staring at this for a little while now, and I’m not sure what to think. On one hand, I think it might be a brilliant piece of “political street theater”. On the other hand, I think it may be futile.

The Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance (which, confusingly, is opposed to Washington State’s Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which restricts marriage to one man and one woman), is floating a ballot initiative that would restrict marriage in Washington State to only those couples who can, and do, produce children.

Why do such a crazy thing? Well, last July, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled, in Andersen v. King County, that Washington’s Defense of Marriage Act is constitutional. The court found that (among other things):

  • Washingtonians do not enjoy a fundamental freedom to marry any person they want
  • Because no fundamental right is implicated, the “rational basis” standard is applied when reviewing the gay marriage ban
  • Under that standard, the court must not strike down legislation if the legislature could have had any rational basis at all for passing it
  • “Procreation and child-rearing” are legitimate state interests
  • The legislature could have rationally believed that it is beneficial to children to be raised by opposite-sex couples
  • Because of this, the legislature could have rationally chosen to make marriage available only to those couples who could become opposite-sex parents
  • Because of this, the gay marriage ban embodied in the Defense of Marriage Act passes the “rational basis” test and is constitutional.

You can read more in my previous post on the matter. You can read the entire ruling online. Gay rights activists have been up in arms about the ruling, and I was very disappointed by it, as well.

Enter the Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance. In order to highlight the absurdity of the Andersen ruling, they are carrying it to its logical conclusion and proposing a ballot initiative that restricts marriage only to opposite-sex couples who actually procreate.

As far as I can tell, the absurdity this highlights in the Andersen case goes something like this:

  • In Andersen, the court ruled that it was rational for the legislature to believe that children are best raised “in families consisting of a father, mother, and their biological children”.
  • Because of this, the court ruled that it was rational for the legislature not to make the institution of marriage available to gay couples, because doing so would not further the state’s interest in encouraging opposite-sex-parented-families.
  • It was raised at trial, but found not to be dispositive, that childless couples are not currently excluded from marriage. The court found that the legislature’s categorizations need not be perfect to be rational.

This all suggests, though, that the institution of marriage could be “tightened up” without ill effect. If the purpose of the marital institution is to provide a stable environment for the raising of children, childless couples need not be allowed access to it, just like gay couples need not be allowed access. In fact, allowing childless couples access to the institution is arbitrary and unfair. In the interests of fairness, childless couples should be excluded!

More from WA-DOMA:

Absurd? Very. But there is a rational basis for this absurdity. By floating the initiatives, we hope to prompt discussion about the many misguided assumptions which make up the Andersen ruling. By getting the initiatives passed, we hope the Supreme Court will strike them down as unconstitional and thus weaken Andersen itself. And at the very least, it should be good fun to see the social conservatives who have long screamed that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation be forced to choke on their own rhetoric.

Here is a flavor of the proposition, which is actually fairly lengthy. You can read the whole thing online. Bold are mine:

[...]
NEW SECTION. Sec. 5. A new section is added to chapter 26.04 RCW to read as follows:

(1) All couples married in this state shall have three years from the date of solemnization of the marriage, or eighteen months from the effective date of this act, whichever is later, to have filed with the state registrar of vital statistics or designated deputy registrar at least one certificate of marital procreation as described in section 11 of this act.

(2) Failure to comply with subsection (1) of this section shall result in the marriage being unrecognized as described in section 7 of this act, effective as of the midnight ending the time period described in subsection (1) of this section.

(3) A marriage that has become unrecognized pursuant to subsection (2) of this section shall remain unrecognized until the couple has complied with the requirements of subsection (1) of this section, or until the marriage is annulled in accordance with section 8 of this act, or until the marriage is dissolved for any other reason.

(4) The couple shall be subject to the penalties of section 7 (2) through (4) of this act for any marital benefits received during the time their marriage was unrecognized.

(5) Within fourteen days after the date described in subsection (1) of this section, the state registrar of vital statistics shall verify that at least one certificate of marital procreation has been filed for the married couple. In the absence of any such certificate, the registrar shall proceed in accordance with section 8 of this act.

[...]

NEW SECTION. Sec. 8. A new section is added to chapter 26.09 RCW to read as follows:

(1) When the state registrar of vital statistics determines that a marriage solemnized in this state has failed to produce offspring as described in section 5 of this act, he or she shall file a petition in the superior court of the county wherein the marriage license was filed requesting that the marriage be annulled on the grounds of failure to fulfill the purpose of marriage. This petition shall include the names and last known address of the husband and wife, the date of their marriage, the date of the deadline described in section 5(1) of this act, and a statement declaring that no certificates of marital procreation have been filed as required by law.

Did you get all that? Married couples get three years to make good on what is, after all, the “purpose of marriage”. Since marriage is (evidently) all about raising children, the rule is simple: no children, no marriage. It’s hard to argue with the logic. Like I said up top, though, I’m not sure if this is brilliant or counterproductive. On the one hand, thoughtful voters may understand that this proposition highlights (at least) two important flaws in the Andersen ruling:

  • Marriage is not, or at any rate is no longer, exclusively about child-rearing. As the Supreme Court of Massachusetts put it in Goodridge, “it is the exclusive and permanent commitment of the marriage partners to one another, not the begetting of children, that is the sine qua non of civil marriage“. Voters are likely to react viscerally to this proposition because they feel instinctively that the State should not be telling two loving individuals who wish to commit themselves to each other that they may not, simply because they are unable or unwilling to have children. That’s exactly the point the gay community makes for inclusion in the institution of marriage.
  • Even if you believe that children are best raised by opposite-sex parents, the exclusion of loving individuals who are unable or unwilling to have children from the institution of marriage is, at best, mean-spirited, and at worst, harmful to children raised in “non-traditional” families. Again, even those voters who think children should have a mother and a father are likely to think to themselves “even so, why shouldn’t two people be able to get married if they love each other but don’t want children?” To which, again, the gay community would say: Exactly.

On the other hand, though, I don’t agree with this proposition! I’m not sure who would. I want the institution of marriage expanded, not restricted. Is it responsible to support, or vote for, a proposition purely as a satirical gesture? I’m not sure it is. So, I’m in something of a quandary.

One final note: on the astronomically remote chance that this proposition actually passed, I do think it would be struck down as unconstitutional, but not, perhaps, for the reason that its authors imagine. In the Andersen ruling, the court first decided that the “rational basis” test was appropriate, instead of the more demanding “strict scrutiny” test, because no “fundamental right” was involved. Among other things, “fundamental rights” must be

[O]bjectively, ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ . . . and ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,’ such that ‘neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed

Part of the problem of the Andersen ruling, though, is that this standard is hopelessly vague and subject to the “framing problem”. The court found that no “fundamental right” is involved because Washingtonians cannot claim to have ever enjoyed the right to marry someone of the same sex, thus flunking the “deeply rooted” part of the test. Of course, if you believe that the right at issue is the right to marry the person of your choosing, then it’s easy to argue that this right is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition”. The framing you choose to use entirely determines the result.

So, I’m depressed to say, it seems fairly clear that if this proposition were ever reviewed by a court, it could easily find that in this case, a “fundamental right” is indeed at stake, since it’s unarguably a “deeply rooted” right to be able to choose the opposite-sex person you wish to marry. This would be entirely consistent with the Andersen ruling.

The court would thus complete the bigoted, circular, self-reinforcing reasoning it used in Andersen:

  • The gay community is not entitled to the rights the rest of us enjoy, because they have never had those rights.
  • Nor can they be given the rights the rest of us enjoy… because they haven’t had those rights in the past.
  • The rights we enjoy, however, cannot be taken away, because we have always had them.

Ain’t America grand?

(Via Slog and Seattleist)

Gates, surprisingly engaging, on Daily Show

Bill Gates is usually pretty dry, but his appearance on the Daily Show is quite compelling, I think:

Storage is now free

I know, I know, you’re sick of hearing about how computers are free. But seriously:

This is a 1TB drive. It’s $400.

I’m pretty sure that I started seeing “TB” in common use, in advertisements for storage, in just the past month or two. How long until measuring hard drives in GB seems quaint, as it would seem ridiculous now for me to say, for example, that my laptop came with a 40,000MB hard drive?

Teddy on respecting the office of the President

Methinks a certain public servant could take a page from Teddy:

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole.

Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.

To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

Go, Teddy.

What the Army thinks of its own soldiers

Here is a video of a meeting that certain soldiers were required to attend if they declared their intent to not re-enlist:

I couldn’t find a transcript of the presenters’ pitch anywhere, so I transcribed most of their spiel:

[Presenter #1] How many of you have an iron-clad, all-bills-paid, already-accepted-to-a-college-of-choice, place-to-live, everything-paid-off plan for when you get out? Think about that.

[Presenter #2] OK, we know the military is not a refuge for individuals who can’t make it in society. We know that. We know that you all have the capabilities to survive out there and do very well. But we know that some of you out there are immature and haven’t grown up yet, and need more responsibility. Some of you soldiers are real young. I didn’t really start to think about what I wanted to do with my life until at least 26, 27. Some of you are what — 23 years old. Not really know [sic] what you want to do with your life.
[...]
[Presenter #1] You can’t go home and live with momma. She’s not going to put up with you anymore. You are not the same person. Your friends back on the block are still doing the dumb, stupid stuff they were doing three years ago when you left.
[...]
It’s true — if you go out there in the real world and spend all your money on beer and someone’s going to be evicting you and you’re going to be sitting on the street homeless with a cardboard box sitting around calling up Seargent [inaudible] saying “Can I come back in the Army?”
[...]

A few things stick out for me:

  • The Army “knows” that it is “not a refuge for individuals who can’t make it in society”, but also that it is a valuable refuge for those soldiers that are too immature to make it in society. In other news, black is white.
  • Immature soldiers who can’t cut it in the real world are much better off, apparently, if we put them in charge of powerful weapons.
  • If you have any debt, you would be crazy to leave the Army.
  • If you haven’t gotten accepted to a college, you would be crazy to leave the Army.
  • If you would have to live with your parents, you would be crazy to leave the Army.
  • You would be particularly crazy to leave the Army to live with your parents, because the Army has changed you such that you are now intolerable to your parents. Apparently, this is an improvement.
  • Getting shot at is much better than having debt, not attending college, or living with your parents.

Not to mention that leaving the Army is a sure way to end up in a cardboard box.

Good to know.

What comes after treason?

Why, civil war, of course:

(Via Majikthise)

Is this really the direction we want to go in?

I really like this comment on The Online Photographer, ostensibly about the idea of creating a subscription-based photography website, but really about the current state of affairs on the Web:

We have created a monster and it is us.

Software developers write programs and give the work away for free. Now no one really expects to pay much for programming.

The microstocks make some nice photos available for next to nothing.

WalMart sells shirts and pants for so little that I actually know someone who doesn’t launder her kids clothes but throws them away every 2-3 weeks and buys more. (I am not kidding.)

We expect to have lots of websites at our disposal 24/7 that give us free advice on camera gear and other aspects of photography. But doing that takes time and effort. Do the ads provide enough income?

Trouble is, nobody wants to work for free, do they? Something has to give, it seems to me. You have to spend years acquiring expertise to do what you do. Sharing some of it makes sense. Giving it all away for nothing will cease to make [sense] at some point.
[...]
People used to subscribe to magazines but I get the impression that they are reluctant to subscribe to websites? Why is that? These are weird times.

Weird times, indeed.

Meme Watch: “Aid and comfort”

Perhaps you think this is obvious. But, on the off chance that some of you are not yet attuned to it, be aware: why do you suppose the phrase “giving aid and comfort to our enemies”, or just “giving comfort to our enemies”, comes up so often? After all, talking of “providing comfort” to someone is an old-fashioned sort of phrase. A couple of random examples:

Bush in an address last January to veterans:

We also have an opportunity this year to show the Iraqi people what responsible debate in a democracy looks like. In a free society, there is only one check on political speech — and that’s the judgment of the people. So I ask all Americans to hold their elected leaders to account, and demand a debate that brings credit to our democracy — not comfort to our adversaries.

Republican Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, attacking anti-war comments made by Democratic Senator Tom Daschle:

[Daschle's] divisive comments have the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies by allowing them to exploit divisions in our country.

So, why the recurring use of the phrase “giving comfort to our enemies”? Well, as it turns out, that language is used in the US constitution to define the federal crime of treason:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.

Choosing to use the phrase “aid and comfort” when attacking your opponents is something like a dog whistle: it is a way of accusing them of treason without using the words “traitor” or “treasonous”. People who are suitably attuned will understand that you are choosing to use the language of treason.

Above, Bush is making the veiled suggestion that at least some of those who criticize him domestically are traitors to their country. Tom Davis is making the still veiled, but more specific, charge that Tom Daschle is a traitor. Bush and Davis (presumably) chose their language carefully to suggest a charge that they were not willing to make overtly.

This is a pretty weasely use of language, if you ask me. Be on the lookout for it.