Monday, February 27, 2006

Curses - I Can Only Afford a 30GB iPod!

Kerry Howley has a nice piece up at Reason discussing the unhappiness of the present generation of young people – “Generation Debt”,as the title of a recently-published book describes we malcontented twenty-somethings. Howley rightly sees the parallels between the trend of today’s youth feeling sorry for themselves and the countless “find the negative in a positive” games played by pundits, journalists, and academics:

Here's a surefire way to pitch a book idea: Take a sign of human progress—any sign—and spin out a tale of decline. The end of hunger? Try an obesity epidemic. More options on the supermarket shelf? Call that the crippling paradox of choice. That whole overpopulation thing not panning out? Start sweating the birth dearth. But if you haven't been keeping up with the progress-as-panic publishing glut, take heart: Journalist Anya Kamenetz's first book is a veritable Cliffs Notes for the entire genre. Better yet, she focuses her efforts on the biggest bummer of all: youth.

Young people bitching about how bad things are for them is probably a tradition almost as ancient as older generations complaining about the lack of moral fiber found in the current crop of youngsters. And while I think we have some legitimate beefs with the baby boomers and their spendthrift governments that we’ll eventually be paying for through higher taxes, I just can’t find the compassion to feel that sorry for my generation of iPod-listening, cell phone-carrying, flat screen TV-watching, world travelers. We might not have the job security of Jack Nicholson’s character in About Schmidt – toiling away in an office for 30 years of boredom until retirement – but is that really what we want, anyway? I sure hope that's not the life young people today are dreaming of. Yes, we are delaying having kids and paying back student loans – but the life we’re living while we’re doing that seems far from shabby, from my perspective. Howley concludes:

The people Kamenetz interviews lack the imaginative capacity to conceive of a hell worse than a 9-to-5 temp job paying $18 an hour. Perhaps, like bulging waistlines, such conceptual boundaries are a tolerable byproduct of a nation enjoying unprecedented wealth. But as long as we, the put-upon members of the Debt Generation, are taking this moment to air our worries, here's mine: A generation nostalgic for a past that never existed might carry us back to a place we've progressed beyond. And then we'll really have something to complain about.

Read the whole thing. And for god's sake, get positive!

DHS Doublethink

Here, for at least the second time in the past few weeks, we get a glimpse of an Orwellian slice of life under the PATRIOT Act. First, officers from the Department of Homeland Security come into a library in Montgomery County, MD and inform some users of the library’s internet portals that they are viewing offensive material (i.e. pornography). Now comes the story of a federal employee in Idaho who is harassed by DHS agents for having anti-war signs on his truck. A week ago one of my colleagues asked me if I thought the world like the one envisioned in 1984 could ever come to pass. I said no, but that I still worried about it. The actions of these DHS agents make me wonder how close we are, though. Having clearly completed the job of keeping the country safe from terrorism, the DHS is now moving on to deciding what we look at on the internet and stifling criticism of the government. Beautiful.

Entrepreneur of the Year Award – Barter Economy Category

Today a friend alerted me to the “One Red Paperclip” adventure being lived out on the internet by Kyle MacDonald. In July 2005, he started out with one red paperclip, which he intended to gradually trade for bigger and better things until he eventually got a house. A wonderful, bizarre idea – with little chance of success, right? Well, so far he’s managed to go from a paperclip up to a cube van, which in the most recent transaction just got swapped for a complete recording contract. If you ever needed evidence of the maxim of mutually-beneficial trade, here it is.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Faster, Higher, Stronger

The Olympics have come and gone, and as usual I enjoyed them immensely. Canada’s loss in men’s hockey was disappointing, of course, but you can’t deny that this was an extremely successful Olympics for my home country. A record 24 medals, third among all nations, and very close to the COC’s seemingly optimistic “prediction” of 25 medals. An especially big congratulations must go to the Canadian women, who brought home 16 medals. By my rough calculations, this would be tied with Germany for the most medals won by women from any country. Speedskater Cindy Klassen was the star of these games, with an amazing 5 medals. Even I picked up her Canadian accent during her interview on US television and the sight of her and Clara Hughes singing “O Canada” on the podium together was one of the most touching moments of the games for me. Sadly, the Canadian four-man bobsled team just missed the podium, finishing fourth, but I tip my hat to Kenny Koytk and the rest of the crew who worked incredibly hard to get there. For a lighter look at future sports at the Olympics, check out this article at Slate by James Jung. I think you'll agree with him (and me) that the Olympics needs to crown a skimiester!

A lot of people approach the Olympics with a lot of cynicism, and while I can understand that, I personally don’t share that view. My life-long involvement in sports has a lot to do with that, of course. Competition can bring out wonderful and inspiring things in people, and I think it’s great to see that happen on the international stage. The story of Eugenio Monti, the great Italian bobsledder, is one that speaks to the Olympic ideals: in the 1964 games, when his rivals from Britain broke a bolt on their sled, he offered a bolt from his own sled after completing his run, thereby allowing the Brits to take home the gold medal. For his actions, Monti became the first-ever winner of a medal for the True Spirit of Sportsmanship. So in 20 years, Italians and British men went from killing each other to helping each other – and while the Olympics aren’t the cause of these acts of generosity, they provide a unique opportunity for nations to put aside differences and compete on a level playing field. In these games, the story of Turkish figure skater Tugba Karademir gave an example of the lengths parents will go to in order to provide opportunities for their children. When Karademir showed potential in figure skating back in Turkey (a country with only 2 ice rinks), her parents gave up their successful lives in Turkey and moved to Barrie, Ontario in order to allow her to develop as an athlete. The sacrifices of athletes (and their families) in order to achieve the level of excellence on display at the games is inspiring, and I relish the opportunity to see these people rewarded for their years of hard work. And now back to regular programming...

UPDATE: I was reminded tonight of a few other "nice" stories from the games: The Norwegian coach giving a pole to Canada's Sara Renner in the cross-country skiing relay after hers broke, allowing the Canadian team to capture the silver medal (while Norway placed 4th). American speedskater Joey Cheek donating his $25,000 bonus from the US Olympic Comittee to help in Rawanda - an act that inspired a similar act by Canadian speedskater Clara Hughes, who has said she will donate $10,000 of her own money to the same charity (Canada does not give medallists a bonus). And the sight of the quadrapelegic mayor of Vancouver accepting the Olympic flag in preparation for the city to host the games in 2010. The enduring memories of the touching stories of the Olympic games.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Happy Blogiversary

Well, Northern Exposure has reached a milestone kilometerstone: it was one year ago today that I made my first blog post. Some stats: In the past 365 days, I've managed to post 277 times, for an average of 0.758 posts per day (PPD). My readership has increased from (an estimated) 3 in Feb. 2005 to (an estimated) 9 in Feb. 2006 - a threefold increase! The highlight so far has probably been Jacob Sullum at Reason linking at Hit & Run to my post about the Edmonton "Butt Bus", which was a real thrill for me as he is someone I have long admired for his work on drug laws and civil liberties. Over the past year, I've had a lot of fun learning about politics, society, economics, and the blogosphere itself, as well as getting to know some of my fellow bloggers. More importantly, I have made some progress on my original goal with creating this blog: to clarify some of my own thinking about various issues and try to become more eloquent in the expression of my ideas (of course, there is still a long way to go in that regard, but I think I've improved).

Thanks to all of you for reading!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Port Authority of NY & NJ & UAE

After some deliberation, I’ve decided to tentatively side with Bush (?!) on “Portgate”.1 For those that aren’t up to speed on the case, the issue is whether the U.S. government should approve the sale of a British-owned company to one based out of the United Arab Emirates (in fact, a company under de facto control of the UAE government). The brouhaha arose when it was discovered that the White House had given the go ahead to the transfer of ownership, and many members of Congress (both Democrats and Republicans) started hollering about national security. My gut reaction to this situation was originally “why does the government have any say in who owns a private port facility?”. But of course we don’t live in my libertarian fantasy world and like most airports and train stations, shipping ports are currently run as quasi-public facilities. Furthermore, seaports are likely the weakest link in terms of security of the imports (the widely touted figure is that less than 6% of all containers are inspected). Could terrorists use a shipping container passing through these ports as a Trojan horse to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the country? It is a valid concern, and one that does warrant government intervention. I think most of the blowing by Congress stems from (surprise!) political opportunism and Arab-phobia.

But do they have a case? The real question is whether the top level of ownership of the shipping facilities will have any effect whatsoever in the quality of security at these ports. And I think the answer is, not much. Security will still be overseen by the DHS and the Coast Guard no matter who’s running the show and besides, we’re doing a pretty piss-poor job now, and it’s likely going to stay that way in the future regardless of who owns the thing. Which in some ways, might actually make the case for putting it under foreign control stronger. This action might draw some much-needed attention to the situation and stimulate the government to devote more homeland security dollars towards ports. Furthermore, as posited here by Kn@ppster, a company based out of the UAE might actually have MORE incentive to do a good job with security, as the blowback from a mistake will be very different should anything happen: an American firm will be hit with government investigations and lawsuits, while an Arab government will be hit with asset seizures and in extreme cases, bombs (however, I think this analysis misses the screwy incentives behind people who are willing to be suicide bombers – I don’t think they’re overly concerned with the blowback). Throwing the UAE a bone in terms of showing that we aren’t completely allergic to them conducting business in America is likely to help, marginally, the opinion of the US on the Arab street. And if the UAE port company can operate more efficiently (as you would assume, as they are buying out the less efficient British firm), there may be economic benefits for US consumers and more money available for security. So I think there might be pragmatic (improved economic efficiency, potentially helping long-term security and helping our relations with the Arab world) and philosophical (economic freedom) reasons to allow the sale of the ports in question. Keep a close eye on them, though - which we really should be doing no matter who’s in charge.

1 incidentally, how long will it be until political (and figure skating) scandals are no longer ALL referred to as “----gate”? The influence of Watergate on the creativity of journalists and pundits is truly staggering. What may have been a clever and insightful comparison the first couple of times it was used, “something-gate” is probably well past its best-before date.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

State O' the Game

Obviously a very disappointing day for the Canadian men's hockey team. Watching the loss to Russia and the US loss to Finland (and other games during the tournament), the evidence is pretty overwhelming that very few of the most skilled offensive players in the world are from North America (names like Jagr, Ovechkin, Alfredsson, Kovalchuk, Hossa, and Forsberg come to mind). Despite the huge talent on the Canadian team on paper, they did not find their stride at all in this tournament and lacked the flow and intensity of their European opponents. As they say, "paper teams don't win championships" (Hat tip: Lyle Sanderson).

I must say I'm glad not to have to hear all the hand-wringing about the "state of hockey in Canada" and over-analysis of the team selection that will no doubt overtake the country over the next few days. We might just have to face the fact that there is extreme parity in the world hockey talent pool, and it is extremely difficult to win a world championship with at least 7 elite teams (Canada, Russia, Czech Rep., Sweden, Finland, USA, and increasingly, Slovakia). Hockey is becoming more like soccer, with lots and lots of really good countries (and it's still nowhere near as hard as winning the World Cup). It will be interesting to see if the professional leagues in Europe ever, in the long run, come to be seen as near-equals with the NHL (much like the soccer leagues in England, Italy, and Spain are all top-tier), creating the opportunity for world club championships like the Champions League in European soccer.

Besides the hockey loss, a very successful day for Canada in the Games with 2 golds and 2 silvers coming from speed skating (Cindy Klassen, Kristina Groves), x-c skiing (Chandra Crawford), and short track speed skating (women's relay). This put the country at 18 total medals, topping the previous best from Salt Lake City of 17. So there is A LOT to be positive about despite the failure of the men's hockey team to repeat their performance from 2002. And still a few more days to go (especially the much-anticipated four-man bobsled!). So buck up you crazy Canucks and stay positive!

UPDATE, Thursday morning: Allan Maki echoes my sentiments here.

"Come See For Yourself"

With a nod to our new state slogan (which has an appropriate mix of subtle aggression and ironic self-deprecation), I'll link to this old piece where Ilya Shapiro does a nice job defending New Jersey against the endless disparaging remarks made about my state of mind residence.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Economics Lesson (Comic Strip Edition)

In light of ideas floating around that we need to end our dependency on foreign oil, this Dilbert might possibly the best-ever comic strip on energy economics (not that there's probably much competition for that title):

If you don't get it, here's some definitions of fungible. There are plenty of good reasons why you might want to buy a fuel efficient car. However, using it to take money out of the pockets of the supporters of terrorism isn't one of them.

Via Adrienne, guest blogging at Nobody's Business.

Showing the Mirror to Big Brother

Supporters of civil liberties have been justifiably up in arms over the Houston Chief of Police Harold Hurtt's proposal to put surveillance cameras in "apartment complexes, downtown streets, shopping malls and even private homes to fight crime during a shortage of police officers" (emphasis mine). But what's even more outrageous was the way he responded to concerns over invasions of privacy. That's right, he brought out the most lame (and often heard) position used to defend these types of actions by the authorities:

"I know a lot of people are concerned about Big Brother, but my response to that is, if you are not doing anything wrong, why should you worry about it?"

Yes, why should we? Well, a couple of commenters at Hit & Run make some good points:

I do plenty of things in a day that aren't wrong or illegal that I wouldn't want anyone watching on tape. Not every scratch, pick and adjustment should be public record.

Very true. Which is why I submit to a strip search and a rectal probe on command. I mean, I'm not trying to hide anything, so why should I object?

Right on. And what's even better is that Matt Asher has created a $1000+ prize for anyone who can capture on tape Police Chief Hurtt doing anything illegal, which will then be used to demand that action be taken against him. If you have any idea how many asinine laws are on the books, you'll know that this will be about as tough as making teenagers depressed.

The World's Least Dangerous Places

In a misguided attempt to save us from ourselves, governments around the globe have made it illegal to consume numerous substances. This gave Taras Grescoe a brilliant idea: travel around the world, sampling as many of the forbidden fruits as possible. He then wrote a book about it: The Devil's Picnic: A Tour of Everything the Governments of the World Don't Want You to Try. This book is now at the top of my reading list. Here's an article he wrote for The Independent, where Grescoe reminds of why prohibition is always destined for failure:

Everywhere I went I saw confirmation of a lesson humanity should have learnt in 17th-century Constantinople (where the sultans tried, and failed, to ban coffee)... ban something, and it only becomes stronger, costlier and more coveted than ever before.

Hat tip: Nikki Sullivan

Not Wanting What You Wish For

While reading Jonathan Rauch’s new piece over at Reason, I was reminded of something that has long held some weight in my mind. It seems to me that some political independents (I’m probably one of them) would, in some senses, actually subconsciously prefer the status quo rather than get all the policy changes we push for. Many (most?) non-partisan voters (such as libertarians) tend to be contrarian by nature (who, me?), and those type of people really enjoy being able to complain (read: bitch) about the current state of affairs and how everything would be so much better if we ran the zoo. But my god, what would we rail against if we actually got power? What are we going to complain about then? Not that it’s ever going to happen, but I think many with non-mainstream views get as much personal satisfaction being outsiders and moaning about the stupidity of the political ruling class than we’d ever get from achieving the things we believe in. I'd almost feel bad pointing this out if I wasn't, you know, kinda one of them. This doesn’t for a second make me think that we shouldn’t still try and get these reforms (i.e. decriminalizing drug use, eliminating agricultural subsidies, etc.), but we should recognize that there is some definite psychological satisfaction in feeling that we're fighting the good fight against an immoveable force.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Golden Fleecing

First off, congratulations to Canada's women's hockey team for their gold medal victory in the Olympics! I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of play in the women's tournament, and was excited to see some other nations (notably Sweden, of course) rise to the level of Canada and the USA in women's hockey. If I had a daughter, I would be very happy that she was growing up in a time when she could look up to female team sports stars as heroes (if they were sportingly inclined), which is certainly something that has been missing for the vast majority of sports history. Of course, there's certainly not parity with men's sports in terms of attention, but at least at the Olympics the women get a chance to shine and the Canadian women's team is deservedly glowing golden today. Way to go!

Now, with that said I can't help but point to the comment section on the Globe & Mail's article about the gold medal game, and in particular, this comment from Jim Terrets from Vancouver:

Well, well, well, thank God the Canadian team ran up the score on those other teams because if it wasn't for the right to have the final line change, they would have surely lost this game. Yes indeed, this tarnished gold was worth embarassing and disrespecting the sport and the opposition. I had hoped the Swedes, with their infectious love and joy for the sport, would pull a shocker and defeat the grim, unhappy, 'we must win at all costs' Canadian team, who are the Darth Vaders of women's hockey. But maybe, just maybe, the Canadian women will reflect on how poorly they conducted themselves in winning this medal, and change their ways for the better. That would be worth its weight in gold.

Unbelieveable. If you know this guy, kick him in the calf for me. (Not really - we shouldn't even joke about making extreme reactions to someone's words) But seriously, I have no idea where this idiot gets his ideas. I was very pleased to see that he gets ripped apart in the comments that followed up his post. Thankfully most Canadians (even ex-pats like me) are rightfully proud of the hard work that the women on this team have put in to reach such an elite level. Negative ninnies like Jim deserve ridicule, while the women's hockey team deserves nothing but praise.

UPDATE: If that's got you down at all, go read this story by Christie Blatchford from the front page of today's G&M.

A Better Response

Rogier van Bakel at Nobody's Business points to a Dutch site that challenged readers to come up with commercial products using Mohammed as a spokesman. Most of them fall on the unhappy side of the fine line between stupid and clever, but there are a few exceptions:

With this tasteless post, I'm saying that I've lost all sympathy for anyone offended by the original Danish cartoons. Arson, rioting, and incitements of murder are not approriate responses to offensive words and pictures. The reaction we've seen merely reinforces the stereotypes that the cartoons were portraying, thereby making something that was produced in somewhat poor taste look eerily prophetic and disturbingly accurate.

Isn't It Ironic?

Someone expressing themselves...about how awful the freedom of expression is.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Benefits of Status-Seeking

As most non-Marxists will agree, there are definitely positive externalities associated with entrepreneurial effort (that is, benefits that fall to society in general, beyond the actual individual involved). For example: some dude works long and hard attempting to invent some cool new piece of technology. He succeeds, and while he is definitely handsomely rewarded for his efforts (hopefully, a patent and loads of riches), our lives (society’s) are all enriched in ways that go beyond his direct compensation. Now hold that thought while we consider a situation where this economic reality interacts with human psychology. Consider the role that status-seeking plays in how people approach their lives. As many studies have shown, there are some definite happiness benefits associated with becoming more wealthy, but most of this seems to result from a comparison to others around you – how well you are keeping up with the Joneses. Clearly, part of the motivation for becoming wealthier is the positive position it puts you in compared to those around you. And while we usually think of status-seeking as being a negative thing, I think you can see that there are real benefits to society at large because of our innate human desire to outdo our neighbors. If we didn’t have this desire, we’d probably have less entrepreneurship and less technological advancement, because the monetary benefits alone wouldn’t be enough to spur people to devote the effort needed to invent cool stuff.

Will has more at The Fly Bottle.

Energy Arrogance

What’s a more arrogant (or, alternatively, naïve) position: to think that human ingenuity will always find solutions to the problems of energy supply (which I’ll call the “optimistic” position), or that we already know all the potential energy sources we might want to use and that we will be unable to find another one that will supply with the bounty that fossil fuels has provided (the “pessimistic” position)? While it might be an act of hubris to think that human ingenuity will always come through to save us, there is also some arrogance in thinking that we already have such complete information about potential sources of energy that we are unquestionably doomed. If you told someone a thousand years ago that the world was running out of trees, they would no doubt be concerned – “what will we do if there are no trees?! What will we burn for heating and cooking?!” (ignore for a second that trees are a renewable resource). But of course, it wouldn’t have mattered, as much better sources of energy were developed that those people had no idea existed. The position that we can’t find solutions to energy supply problems results from a line of thinking that says historical people didn’t know much about the physical world (which they didn’t), but we do have this knowledge (or do we?).

On the one hand, clearly our technological progress has continued despite numerous fears that we would overshoot our carrying capacity – the optimists have been consistently right about progress continuing on despite dire warnings about starvation and the like from Malthus to Ehrlich. But on the other hand, fossil fuels have provided us with an incredible windfall at discount prices, and are certainly the most energy dense form of fuel we available to us. The problems of moving to hydrogen are real, and even as fuel cells become more efficient and cost-effective, the question of obtaining and distributing hydrogen remains. Nuclear has many inherent problems we are well aware of. Fusion will likely be the long, long term key (the fact that the sun uses it is a pretty good indication that it’s probably the best form of energy going), but we’ve got a long way to go before we harness that technology.

Both sides clearly have some holes in their positions…I’m an optimist, but I recognize the fact that a historical trend may not always continue into the future. Besides, pessimists can be a real drag at parties.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Saturday Scary Link

Nick Gillespie at Hit & Run alerts us to a truly disturbing new book: Why Mommy is a Democrat. If you ever needed a more telling example of how sad the state of partisan politics are in this country, this is it. The take home message for you parents out there: it's never too early to indoctrinate your children with the "us vs. them" mentality! With this work, the Democrats are sure to dominate the important preschool voter demographic, while managing to look really foolish and pathetic to the rest of us. As frequent H&R commenter "thoreau" quips:

...while GOP donors get shot at by Dick Cheney, Democratic donors get to watch helplessly while the Democrats shoot themselves in the foot.

And Nick gives what would be a very appropriate subtitle for the book: Why Republicans Run All Branches of the Federal Government and Probably Will for the Next 20 or 30 Years. Keep it up like this, and they just might.

A Law for Thee, But Not For Me

If anyone ever needs more evidence that smoking bans are at least as much about control and political power than "public health ", look no further than D.C.'s newly-minted ban on smoking in workplaces (including bars and restaurants). Guess what big public (at least in theory) building where lots of people work is exempt from the ban. Give up? The Capitol. Similarly exempt are the cigar and pipe lounges frequented by high-rollers. Like members of Congress. Granted, the law comes from the city government, not the feds, but it's pretty clear that they know where their bread is buttered.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Starbucks: The Helpful Behemoth

I'm not a coffee drinker. At all. But I know some of you out there are, and I thought you might be interested in this piece on Starbucks and coffee (incidentally, the whole blog is mostly about coffee, if you're really into that kind of thing). Give me a cold, bubbly glass of Pepsi over the vile bean anyday, but for the average coffee-obsessed twenty-something (or, god forbid, an employee at one of Starbucks' competitors), the issue of Starbucks' corporate power and wonderful/terrible coffee provides no end of conversation. For me, the interesting part of the article was a delightful debunking of the theory that Starbucks drives out smaller firms. While we all can think of an example of an independent coffee shop going out of business with the arrival of Starbucks, it is interesting to look at the long term effects of the growth in the coffee market provided (at least in part) by Starbucks:

According to the Portland Yellow Pages, before Starbucks came to Portland in 1989, there were 28 coffee shops in the city. Today, there are 91 non-Starbucks coffeehouses in Portland proper, compared with the chain's 48 stores within city limits.

It goes on to discuss the taste and preparation techniques of coffee at Starbucks, which I have no interest in. But if you are, read (or drink) the whole thing.

No TV Make Homer Something Something

Earlier this week I observed a conversation where most of the participants were proving their intelligence by bragging about how little television they watched. At one point, someone claimed that studies showed that people watching TV demonstrated less brain activity than people who were sleeping. Even if that's true (which as far as I have been able to discover, it's not), I don't know that it really proves much besides that our brains are still pretty active while we're sleeping (anyone who's ever had a dream can attest to this). Now, from Slate, comes a report of a study that finds no basis in the claim that TV harms kids. The study wisely avoids trying to compare kids who watch lots of TV versus kids who watch very little, as this methodology will only create an opportunity for some smart-ass to remind you of the correlation/causation distiction (the article shows that kids who are driven to school in Mercedes' would also likely have higher scholastic achievement, but it's not because of the Mercedes, it's because of other factors to do with the environment those kids are raised in). Instead, the economists behind the study looked at differences in academic performance in kids from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds in cities that had TV earlier and later when it was first adopted in the 40's and 50's. And they found no negative effect (and in fact, a small positive one) on kids who were watching TV while their less technological peers across the country were playing stickball and catching frogs down at the creek. I still don't think TV should be either a babysitter or a primary educational tool, but perhaps more people need to be open to the possibility that it doesn't actively make us dumber (or, it doesn't have to) TV isn't the devil it's often made out to be.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Finding the Bad Side of Everything

It seems that some negative ninnies (and you know who you are), noticing that young people today don't have a problem with interracial dating, are worried about our society becoming "too colorblind". Um, I thought that was kinda the point of what Martin Luther King was fighting for?! It just goes to show you - there's no pleasing some people. But when they're complaining about too many kinds of mustard or young people not noticing racial differences, it means we're probably making some progress.

HT: The Agitator.

iPods vs. Arranged Marriages

If you're looking for a post-Valentine's Day hand-wringing that reads like a defense of arranged marriages, check out this op-ed in USA Today by Laura Vanderkam, who somehow manages to link young adults' love affair with the iPod as what's keeping us from having long-term love affairs with human beings (i.e. delaying getting married until later in life, compared to previous generations). She even closes the piece with this gem: "There's great joy in listening to what the DJ chooses for you". Well, maybe, but I don't know about having the DJ choice my life partner.

It seems that we're suffering from too much choice (where have we heard this theme before?), which causes us to (gasp!) avoid settling for someone who's not good for us. I'd spend some time dissecting this tripe, but Radley Balko has very nicely taken care of the task already:

Near as I can tell, it's some kind of complaint about how iPods, Internet dating, and too much choice (evil choice!) are causing twenty-somethings to put off marriage for a bit. And apparently, this is something we're supposed to lament (never mind that divorce rates are down dramatically, which might lead a clever observer to conclude that perhaps people are holding off for the right person, a development I'd imagine most people would find positive, but that Vanderkam also seems to find lamentable).

I'm still trying to figure out how iPods fit into the picture, except that they're becoming enormously popular. Which means that like all things popular (see McDonalds, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola), they must be to blame for everything from broken hearts to bone cancer to ring-around-the-collar. And if you can work them into your article, someone might think you're hip (she also casually drops in that she listens to both the Indigo Girls and Renaissance motets. Wow! Hip and cultured!).

As for Internet dating, Vanderkam's chief complaint seem to me to be the very characteristic that make the service popular. Vanderkam thinks the abundance of potential mates available via online dating services makes us more picky, and less likely to settle. Um. So what? If technology enables us to better sift through a series of awful first dates in order to get to someone with whom we're more compatible, where's the rub?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Little Upside Down

I can't tell which is stranger: the fact that Colorado Springs-based far-right religious conservative organization Focus on Family is advocating the extension of many benefits currently available to married couples to gay couples as well, or the fact that I'm actually offering (limited) support of something coming from James Dobson and Co. The proposed bill avoids supporting gay marriage or civil unions in favor of creating a new category: recipriocal beneficiaries:

[This] bill would allow any two people who are close but cannot legally marry -- a lesbian couple, two elderly brothers, an aunt and her niece -- to register with their county clerk as reciprocal beneficiaries.That would give them access to some of the same rights as married couples with respect to medical decision-making, inheritance and property ownership. Mitchell said he might add other economic rights.

Obviously, FoF is taking this position in an attempt to hedge against moves towards full recognition of gay partnerships, which some may see as pretty sneaky, but this really seems like fairly sensible (and compassionate) legislation. To be sure, it avoids the tricky moral side of the gay marriage debate and focuses on the civil aspects of the relationships we have with other people. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Personally, I see separating these two sides of marriage as a acceptable (and potentially desireable) compromise. I'd like to get all the legal benefits of marriage, but I see no reason why I need to state to sanction my relationship with another human being. It seems that many gay people feel differently, however (hence the push for same-sex marriage), and I have a hard time criticizing them for that. While it's easy for me to be ambivilent about marriage, because the option is always open to me, perhaps I'd feel differently if it was a right I was being denied. So in the end, I still strongly support gay marriage as a basic human right, but I appreciate this move by FoF to create a soft-line postion and find some middle ground. Perhaps this will be an acceptable compromise for many people right now, until the inevtiable happens and we allow gay couples all the same rights as straight ones.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

If You Can't Be Happy

I am currently reading Jon Krakauer's fascinating and terrifying book about Mormon fundamentalism, Under the Banner of Heaven. One of the final paragraphs of the book struck a chord with me in light of the ongoing happiness-as-public-policy discussion going on in some circles. The crux of this debate is that evidence shows that there has not been significant gains in happiness over time, despite our vast increases in wealth over the same period. Therefore, this has caused some to conclude that government policy aimed at economic growth is misdirected, since this increase in our wealth isn't making us appreciably happier. Now, I think this is a misguided analysis, for a number of reasons Will Wilkinson often points out. But the passage from the Krakauer book touches on this issue in a slightly different way. A former fundamentalist Mormon (part of a group that split from the mainstream Church of Latter-Day Saints), LeRoy Bateman had this to say while reflecting on the fundamentalist community of which he is a part:

"I think people within the religion - people who live here in Colorado City - are probably happier, on the whole, than people on the outside."

There's a good chance he's correct with this ignorance-is-bliss observation. But I doubt many of the academics advocating a move towards happiness-based governing would support the creation of a strict religious society where the average person is almost completely controlled by the leaders. Someone like LeRoy Bateman might have some valuable insight into how much power you want to centralize, and what the objectives of those in power will be. Even if you disagree with economic growth as the primary goal of government policy, it is tough to justify maximizing happiness as a more worthy objective. As I have learned the hard way in my personal life, trying to make everyone happy is exceedingly difficult and is an effort doomed to end in failure, and often heartbreak. To those who want to hand our most personal decisions - what we put into our bodies, whom we marry, how we save for our future, and who makes the decisions about our health care - over to the government, I ask you this: do we really want the government deciding what makes us happy? Because even if they get it right, which is likely an impossible task, that's not really the be-all and end-all. As LeRoy Bateman concludes:

"But some things in life are more important than being happy. Like being free to think for yourself."

The Times of Our Lives

One of my recurring themes is railing against our society's questionable nostalgia for supposedly "better" times in the past, before our morals were corrupted by violence on TV, before the economy was set up to keep the working class struggling in poverty, when families mattered and people were decent to one another. "Kids today..., blah, blah, blah". Personally, I think we're living in a pretty great time right now, and we don't realize how tough our ancestors had it, despite the romantic appeal of a simpler time. With this in mind, I was particularly struck by this passage by Annie Dillard, who manages to communicate a side of this idea with a great deal more eloquence and beauty than I ever could:

There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time - or even knew selflessness or courage or literature - but that it is far too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There was never a more holy age than ours, and never a less.

- from "For the Time Being"

Be happy and thankful and optimistic; it's another regular day, and that's a pretty special thing.

Winter Finally Arrives

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Standing Behind the Great One

Full disclosure: I love the Olympics to a possibly embarrasing degree. Everyone seems to be so cynical about them, but I naively hold on to all the ideals associated with the Games. I make no apologies for this position. Sports are awesome, and even though the Olympics brings out the worst in my nationalist sentiments, supporting your country's bobsled team seems a better way to do this than bombing another country into oblivion. Becasue really, doesn't our ability to shoot a rifle accurately while cross-country skiing or land a triple-toe loop truly reflect the greatness of a nation?

Yes, I am excited about the Olympics kicking off. An especially big shout out to my friend and former roommate and teammate Kenny Kotyk, who is pushing Canada 1 in the four-man bobsled competition at the games. Another former track athlete from Saskatoon, Jamie Cruikshank, is also competing at the games in the women's bobsled.

The other thing I have to say about the Olympics is good on Gretzky to stick with the team in light of these frivilous allegations about sports betting (gambling and associated illegal activity right here in New Jersey - imagine!). Now, I don't think we should be blindly supporting a star athlete accused of wrong-doing (the "Free Kobe" shirts that came out during his rape trial were pretty stupid, I thought), but I'm going to stand behind Gretzky on this one. The guy has been a class act his whole career, and it doesn't sound like he was directly involved in all of this, anyway. I truly hope it won't be a distraction for the team - but I think Gretzky's refusal to step aside could be a minor rallying point for the players. So I'm glad Gretzky has stood firm. The only thing I would have preferred him to say is: "Betting on sports? Who cares if I did do it? It's not a real crime, anyway."

Because, you know, we take a real hard line on gambling here in NJ. Well, except the state-sponsored lottery. Oh yeah, and a little place on the shore called Atlantic City.

Monday, February 06, 2006

We're Not There Yet

In spite of it being the year 2006, we are unable to master the movement of money across national borders. I am still unable to simply and easily transfer money from a US bank account to make a payment in Canada. So I'm forced to write cheques, aka checks, which I absolutely detest. And then, when I try to deposit a cheque drawn from a Canadian bank in my US account (a gift from my maternal grandparents), I am confronted with paying a $75 (!) fee. Utterly ridiculous and completely frustrating.

Mr. Gorbachev (or someone), tear down this wall!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Free-Market Ecology

Julian, in his boundless wisdom, brings up the idea of asymmetry in the core beliefs of capitalists and environmentalists: Many strong proponents of free markets are quick to point out that tinkering with the economy is fraught with difficulties and tends to introduce a lot of unintended consequences, many (most?) of them negative. In a somewhat parallel manner, many environmentalists are steadfast in their belief that messing with ecological systems is bound to cause problems. However, neither group seems to be willing (or able) to translate their beliefs over to the other system. Intervention into the economy (or conversely, the environment) is strongly criticized by a certain segment of the population, but intervention in the environment (or the economy) is not. Another similar, and seemingly hypocritical, position would be how each group views complexity. Economists advocate that the complexity of the economy is part of its strength, while largely ignoring the possibility that decreasing the complexity of ecological systems (i.e. biodiversity) may undermine them. On the other hand, many environmentalists who advocate maintenance of the complexity of natural ecosystems are loathe to buy into the idea that a complex economy is a strong one, and tend to support autarky and self-sufficiency. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I think there are real parallels here, and the ideology of individuals has blinded them from seeing how principles they support in one situation might apply to another arena as well. (Obviously, there is some overlap here with my previous post).

Who Needs Reason?

In my personal experience, it very quickly becomes painfully obvious when someone’s partisan politics have erased their ability to think clearly about much of anything. The best current example is that it seems that once someone has self-identified as either loving/hating George Bush, they will pretty much accept/detest anything and everything he has to say. And now there is scientific evidence that supports this anecdotal observation, demonstrating that partisan voters show a complete lack of higher-brain functioning when reviewing data critical of their preferred candidate’s position. Specifically, “brain scans revealed no activity in areas of conscious analytical thought, but instead in emotional circuits including conflict and disgust.” Perhaps this isn't such a terrible thing; it just shows that we tend to outsource our decision-making on difficult issues to someone we have decided (on what grounds? – ed.) that we trust. Nikki Sullivan points out that it would be interesting to see how swing voters and independents responded to the study – which may confirm my belief not to trust the political opinions of anyone with strong party affiliations because they’re probably not really thinking about the issues anymore, while an independent might at least be guided by higher principles and rationality.