Thursday, March 29, 2007

Molon Labe, says Iran

So there’s a bunch of guys in a lunatic asylum. One night (stormy, of course) there’s a power outage, and the lunatics murder their guards, steal their weapons, and (in some cases) eat their flesh. The next several days are harrowing, as they find themselves running up and down the halls trying not to get killed by each other. Finally, one of the inmates is sufficiently charismatic to call together a meeting without anybody getting shot.

“This is insane,” he says. “Running around with all these weapons, soon we’ll be lucky if there’s anybody left. We’re all going to have to disarm.”

“You first,” mutter the others distrustfully.

“Now, I know that some of us are going to be hesitant about dropping our weapons when everybody else still has one,” he continues, “So I’ve devised a plan. It’s simple: you’ll all give your weapons to me, and if anybody tries to shoot anybody else, I’ll shoot them first.”

“But how do we know that you won’t take advantage of being the only one armed?”

“Because I’m trustworthy,” he responds, with a wounded expression. “Besides, the other folks in here are CRAZY!”

Nobody’s surprised that I’m a Second Amendment supporter, right? Whatever the risks of private gun ownership, disarming your populace is pretty much step one of establishing their dependency on you.

So Iran’s refused to back off on their uranium-enrichment program, and the UN’s imposed sanctions on them, setting up a chain of events that will almost certainly lead to another war. President Ahmadinejad (try saying that ten times fast) warns that any nations “seeking to impose sanctions against Iran will suffer a greater damage themselves.”

Let’s get the obvious statement out of the way, that nobody has the warm fuzzies about a gang of undersexed theocrats like the Iranian government getting their hands on something as delightfully phallic as a nuclear warhead. That said, as long as any one government has access to WMD’s, every other government would be crazy for not trying to develop them. It’s the only credible defense in a post-nuclear age. In fact, as the technology improves, they’re only going to continue to become easier for developing nations to obtain and conceal. Trying to fight that process — to turn the technology backwards — isn’t just crazy, it’s rapidly becoming impossible. We’re fighting the most basic biological imperative of our species, to build, to construct, to grow.

Unfortunately, it’s not like the alternative is any less crazy. The last several decades taught us the madness of nuclear proliferation. Now, it seems, we must learn the madness of nuclear disarmament. It’s a true Gordian Knot, and one that, sadly, may take a stroke as brutal as Alexander’s to sever.

Galaxy Quest

“Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
and revolving at nine hundred miles an hour;
orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned,
a sun that is the source of all our power…”

So, do we not care about space anymore?

I remember back in 2004, when Bush was talking about a manned mission to Mars, which led to all of the expected jokes — “Bush wants to go to Mars, let’s send Bush to Mars, ha ha ha” — but no detectable enthusiasm.

Okay, I think the initiative was a bad idea, too. It’s incredibly expensive with no immediate payout. And I’m confident that we’re going to make it there anyway, with my usual faith in the private sector — space tourism is already becoming a lucrative industry, with tickets selling in excess of twenty million. Functioning space hotels seem likely to go up in the next twenty years. As these venues both increase and become more affordable, intelligent investors will jack up their funding for private research. We’ll get there.

What disappoints me is the open contempt for the very idea of space travel. I mean, did nobody out there feel a chill of excitement at the prospect of travelling to Mars? My God, of a human stepping onto the surface of an alien world?

Whatever happened to the enthusiasm of the sixties? Back when science fiction was about ideas instead of explosions, when we put a man on the moon, when we transformed the night sky from a veil that covered us into a place that we could go? When our natural satellite ceased to be the subject of myth and superstition, and became a surface that bore a footprint of homo sapiens sapiens?

Two weeks ago, our species discovered that the south polar region of Mars contains enough ice to cover the entire surface of the planet in water thirty-six feet deep. If the planet once supported water, could it have supported life? Life? What would that mean for us, if it did? What might we learn about ourselves? About our world? What would such an achievement mean for the history of our civilization? Let alone our future?

So what happened? What happened to our excitement about these things? Am I the last one left who cares?

“So remember when you’re feeling very small and insecure
how amazing unlikely is your birth;
and pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘cuz there’s bugger all down here on Earth…”

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Here I come, to complain ineffectually

It has been requested that I weigh in on the latest batch of so-called “nanny laws” — and I always aim to please. “Nanny laws” are laws so-called for their intrusive regulation of citizens’ personal lives. (Of course, for someone of my political inclinations, this encompasses, er, most of the laws passed in the last 216 years.) Particularly egregious are the bans on trans fats established recently in both Philadelphia and New York City. I have heard it claimed that this degree of state intervention in justified, because it is a matter of public health. Look –

– it’s not like we’re talking about the Joker poisoning the city’s freakin’ water supply, aight? There’s absolutely nobody who eats this stuff and thinks that they’re doing their body a favor. These are adult individuals, consciously making the choice to purchase and ingest food that they know is bad for them.

The argument, as usual, is that this will help people. Well, yeah — you can always help people by curtailing their liberties, whether they be large or trivially small. Impose a curfew and nobody gets mugged after dark, but what would be the fun in that?

It’s also a basic rule of politics that There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch — whenever you pass a law to help people, you’re also hurting somebody else, in this case various restaurants and manufacturers. It’s easy to be dismissive of the needs of organizations, but also easy to forget that organizations are ultimately nothing more than a collection of individuals who bear the brunt of the economic fallout of increased regulation. It’s impossible to measure exactly what that fallout is — probably equally impossible as measuring the exact damage that trans fats do. How the hell do you weigh something like that?

And how far does this go, anyway? Am I going to find myself lurking into a seedy downtown bar — shoulders hunched, hands shaking, palms sweating, eye glancing furtively from side to side — approaching a delightfully buxom waitress, giving her a code word and a secret handshake — her smiling warmly at me, guiding me to the back, pulling on the wine bottle three slots from the left, opening a secret underground passage — descending into a dimly lit club, where rotund men and women dine secretly upon greasy burgers and doughnuts?

Okay, I’m exaggerating. This is not that. But it does set a troubling precedent. You can’t even trust your government to deliver a letter — you want to entrust them with your own body? Everybody’s trying to save us from ourselves — God, why can’t all these people just leave us the hell alone? founder Stephen Joseph, who grew up in England, said the heated reaction to the ban seems uniquely American.

“I was on a talk show a couple years ago and the host said, `Well, you’re trying to bring socialism to America!’” Joseph said, “I mean, what an incredible overreaction for trying to change a cooking oil.”

Bring socialism to America? Oh, sure you are, Steve — just one baby goose-step at a time.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Minority Report

So a lot of people have been asking me for my “take” on the 2008 elections, to which I usually respond that I’m amused to note that the Democrats have selected as their frontrunners a black guy and a woman. They then look at me with a kind of confused, hurt, bovine expression, and ask if I think that that’s really still an issue.

Look, maybe I’m just a cynic, but I can’t help thinking that the white guys’ fifty-five term winning streak is gonna be a hard one to break. My county just elected the first Muslim representative to Congress. He wanted to be sworn in on the Qu’ran, and the country went apeshit. And we’re, like, one of the most liberal states in the union! I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but c’mon. We’re not ready. We are all kinds of not ready for this.

Not that I’m one to talk, anyway — I’ve never supported a candidate that actually had a prayer of making it into office. This is why, every time the Democrats get bitch-slapped in an election year, I find myself clapping my hands and cackling “A-ha! You see? Now you see what I feel like every goddamn election!” Then I get recklessly drunk, curl up under my bed and start weeping, because it’s an emotionally fragile time and sometimes it’s okay to have a crutch.

I guess what I’d really like to see would be Jeb Bush vs. Hillary Clinton, because twenty years under the same two-family aristocracy just plain wasn’t enough for me.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Eminent Stupidity

And for today’s compelling topic…Chinese property law!

So on March 16th, the National People’s Congress finally passed a law clearly defining three existing property types, state, collective, and private. The very concept of legally protected private property is a revolutionary one, and it’s a big step in the right direction. But in a lot of respects, it’s nothing more than symbolic.

Y’see, regardless of the fancy legal language that it’s dressed up in, Chinese property is still defined in terms of usufruct — meaning, the government owns all property. What you actually “own” is a land-use right, not, y’know, property itself.

Sounds pretty kooky, right? I direct your attention to Exhibit A:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

That’s the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and it’s pretty good stuff, no? In fact, it contains the one line in the Bill of Rights that I don’t agree with:

“…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Er, what exactly qualifies as “just compensation” for the forceful deprivation of property? This is a concept known as eminent domain, and the practical upshot of it is that the government can come and take away the house that you worked and sweat for if they decide it would be a nice place for a parking ramp. This isn’t one of those antiquated laws just sitting around on the books that nobody pays attention to anymore, either: it happens all the goddamn time.

It’s kinda like if you’re a teenager, and you have to borrow your dad’s car all the time, and you realize that all the girls think that you’re kind of lame, so you decide to work and save up and buy your own car, but your dad still has the right to take it away from you whenever he wants, so in a sense you never have to grow up but remain a teenager for the rest of your life, and the next thing you know you’re in your forties and you’re still fucking teenage girls, because they’re the only ones naive enough to believe that a guy who actually has his own room and gets to stay up late is still pretty cool. It’s kinda like that.

There's a reason that we regard property rights as sacred -- because your property is the product of your life and liberty, and robbing you of the former robs the latter of its meaning. And concepts such as usufruct -- and eminent domain -- turn the very concept of private property into a joke.

I voted, too

So I turned on the TV yesterday to see the House of Representatives kneeling before their lord and master George II, who promptly pulled down his pants, whipped out his cock, and began merrily fapping away, crying “You like that? Huh? You like that, bitches? See this? I’m gonna ram it so far down your throat your throat’s gonna bulge out, and then I’m gonna start choking you to make it tighter, so it’ll be like I’m jacking myself off on the inside of your throat! Whadda you say to that? Huh? Huh?”

…at least, that’s the basic gist of what I saw. Judging from his tone, the President may as well have been whapping Nancy Pelosi on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and scolding her like a naughty puppy.

So, once again, we have the President furious at the legislative branch because of their attempts to, y’know, legislate — and we have a Congress furious at the executive branch because of its refusal to, y’know, execute their laws. Most agitating of all, perhaps, is George’s exhortation to the House that “this is not what the American people want.”

Uh, you mean the American people that elected them? For specifically this purpose? Hey, y’know all those kooky anti-war protestors that have been giving you such a headache lately? We’re the American people, too. Who the hell are you talking to?

Mind if I take a swing?

1.) One book that changed your life.
Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I’ve pretty much outgrown this one — I don’t really agree with, well, most of the conclusions that he comes to, and the protagonist is something of a slack-jawed straw man — but I read this at just the right age for it to blow my mind, and I still adhere to the main revelation that I took from it: that human societies function best when organized at a smaller level.

2.) One book you’ve read more than once.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Picked by virtue of the fact that I think I’ve read it more than any other book (with the possible exception of Le Morte D’Arthur) — I read it when I was six years old, it’s the first book I remember reading on my own, and I’ve come back to it at least once a year since. Its depiction of the corrupting influence of power, of evil as both an internal and external force, and its faith in the potency of ordinary people to resist it, have all had a powerful influence on my own thinking.

3.) One book you’d want on a desert island.
Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. This sprawling, sixteen-book German epic about a bumbling simpleton being initiated into the mysteries of man and God is nothing less than the single greatest achievement of Western literature, and nobody’s even heard of it.

4.) One book that made you laugh.
Y’know, I don’t laugh that often when I’m reading — I might be amused, or think “Huh. That’s clever,” but actual, out-loud laughter? I’d have to go with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. Every line in the damn thing is perfectly constructed, and it’s also the most bleak and bitter satire of the way bureaucracy destroys lives on a (literally!) cosmic scale that I’ve ever encountered

5.) One book that made you cry.
The Power That Preserves, by Stephen Donaldson. Another fantasy novel (can you tell I’m kind of a geek?) in which the epic final battle takes the form of an epic conversation, an almost Buddhist argument over the nature of reality and the function of morality within it. The conclusion that the protagonist comes to — that concepts such as hope and despair are irrelevant in a moral struggle, that evil must be resisted for its own sake, without anticipation of success — is a deeply moving one to me, not least because of what it costs him to achieve it, and probably explains why I’ve ended up allying myself with third parties.

6.) One book you wish had been written.
Chretien de Troyes’ continuation of Perceval, le Conte du Graal, not least because it would spare us all any number of nonsensical conspiracy theories about the Roman Catholic Church. For Chrissakes, they’ve done enough monstrous bullshit in their history without us having to invent more.

7.) One book you wish had never been written.
I guess I could come up with some kind of snarky response, like The Communist Manifesto or Atlas Shrugged, but the fact is that I really don’t jive with the whole “suppression of information” thing. Bring on all the ideas, good, bad, and ugly. And thus I, Clinton-like, will neatly tap-dance my way past this whole debate.

8.) One book you’re currently reading.
Time Enough for Love, by Robert Heinlein. It’s a bit of a slog, but much more enjoyable if you approach it as a loosely connected collection of short stories, rather than a coherent novel.

9.) One book you’ve been meaning to read.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t made it through The 9-11 Commission Report, but I think I’m going to have to steal Rik’s response and say The Qu’ran. Islam is a rising geopolitical power, and I honestly have no genuine understanding of where they’re coming from.

10.) Tag six people.
Since four of them are the LME crew, I guess I’ll tag two: Ben and Dan.

I Can't Stop Blogging

So I've been asked to be a guest writer (curiously enough, considering my particular political background) for Liberal Media Elite, where I will function as something of a dissenting voice, except in those cases where I'm in agreement with them. (See? I'm already mastering the diplomatic art of using a lot of words to say nothing at all.) I've been a fan of the site since it went up, and they've begun to achieve a reasonably high profile, so it's an honor to be asked. In the meantime, I'll probably be cross-posting most of what I write over here, if only to keep it archived in one place.

Monday, March 5, 2007


After veritable minutes of careful research, I'm come to the conclusion that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who are addicted to Sid Meier's Civilization, and those who have never played it.

For the uninitiated: the game is a kind of "God simulation" in which you guide the fortunes of a struggling civilization, founding cities, establishing trade and diplomatic ties, waging war when necessary (and perhaps when it isn't). Your goal is to win the game in one of two ways: either by wiping out all other civilizations (almost impossible without developing nuclear arms), or successfully developing space travel and colonizing other worlds.

The real genius of the game, I think, is its unique combination of challenge and accessibility. It's remarkably easy to sit down and start pushing elements around: what's this? oh, I'll just move my settlers here, click this "found city" button -- what technology should we be developing? whoops, I've been wiped out by barbarian tribes, silly mistake, one more quick play-through -- and then it's three in the morning and your civilization is still getting wiped out by the French.

The system of inventing cultural advances is by far the most interesting part of the game, and the one that produces the most amusing absurdities -- it's possible to develop nuclear weapons without having cracked the secret of pottery, for example. The invention of democracy enables you to discover recycling, because, y'know, one inevitably leads to the other, I guess. The invention of communism allows you to build the United Nations (tee hee), and so forth.

But the thing that struck me the most on my most recent play-through is the fact that the world of the game presents no role for the inspired individual: *all* cultural advances are solely the role of government research, requiring a specific number of "resource points" which, once alotted, will produce the desired invention. This isn't how history works, although the idea's a disturbingly prevalent one -- we hear it now with scientists talking about stem-cell research, confidently claiming that this amount of research over this amount of time will yield this result. (Uh, has science *ever* worked this way? I mean, ever?)

Anyway, the point is that, sure, it's possible for you to build Shakespeare's theatre in the game -- but that achievement is meaningless without a Shakespeare to inhabit it. And a government can't create a Shakespeare. (You could justifiably argue that a government can -- and did -- *facilitate* a Shakespeare. I yield the point, but my own stands.)

So, yeah. I realize that I'm attacking the underlying mechanic of the game, and that altering it would suck a lot. It's a great game, even if I can't help raising an eyebrow at most of its basic assumptions. And it's definitely one of the most ambitious, certainly politically, that's ever been created. Why don't they make 'em like this anymore?