Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.

A Horse's New Best Friend  | e-mail post

While it does strike me as rather adolescent and puerile to be amused by a subject like animal husbandry, I can't help it after stumbling across the EquiMount Phantom, from Equine Reproduction Services (visit them at frozen-semen.com). One might say it is a sex doll for horses. Interestingly, it looks kind of like a pommel horse with a center support (and without the pommels), or maybe like a larger, more industrial mechanical bull, such as we saw in Urban Cowboy (aka "Saturday Night Fever - The Western"). I don't think the horses care too much about the industrial design, but they probably like that it is "designed for comfort, security and maximum ejaculatory response." Check out the step-by-step guide to the EquiMount, including the all important step #4: "Introduce stallion to the EquiMount." I'm just picturing Mr. Ed saying "Aw, guys, you shouldn't have."

The thing that went over the top for me, though, was the picture in the online catalog for the Mini EquiMount, which shows, a shetland pony standing next to a tiny little EquiMount.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Saturday, July 31, 2004

867-5309 extension 2  | e-mail post

For some Friday-afternoon time kills, I'd recommend a collection of wonderful lists, courtesy of McSweeney's. For those of you who don't know of it, McSweeney's is a boutique publishing house founded by Dave Eggers, who many of you may know as the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. In any event, the McSweeney's website has a collection of some fairly amusing items. The title of this entry comes from their list of "Possible Follow-up Songs for One-Hit Wonders," as does "Remember When You Lit Up My Life? That Was Great."

Some other lists that you might enjoy.
This is just a sampling...you can see all of McSweeney's lists, if you dare.

While you're there, you might want to visit the website for the 826 Valencia Pirate Shop, and purchase things in anticipation of International Talk Like a Pirate Day, September 19th.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Friday, July 30, 2004

As I Expected  | e-mail post

It shouldn't be too surprising, but you might like to know that ranting and raving is beating rational discourse. Now, you probably already knew rational discourse was taking it on the chin from watching the activities on the campaign trail, listening to talk radio, or knowing that the O'Reilly factor is the ratings leader for current events programming on cable. But now it's official: Google says it's so.

You can see the results of the square-off at Google-Fight.com. Google Fight lets you square off any two terms and reveals which one has more hits on Google. "Rational discourse" comes in with 16,900 while "ranting and raving" beats it 3 to 1 with 46,000. Can you do this yourself with Google? Of course, but it's so much more fun this way. Some other interesting facts:

Good is trouncing Evil 10 to 1 (183,000,000 to 18,000,000)
Jesus is beating Satan 3 to 1 (about 6 million to 2 million)
And, while pornography is losing to fine art, Larry Flynt is really dominating Leonardo DaVinci. You don't even want to know how widely "cumshot" surpasses "Mona Lisa".

Sadly, "enlarge your penis" beats "raise your IQ" (144:1) and "improve yourself" (2.5:1), and only narrowly loses to "get in shape" (168,000 to 144,000).

Oh, and not surprisingly, Cynicism is kicking hopefulness' ass at 477,000 to 53,700.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (8) comments |  | Wednesday, July 28, 2004

M.I.L.F. Hunted...  | e-mail post

I just thought this story of Michael Syravong getting his "GOTMILF" vanity plates cancelled by Washington's Department of Licensing was great. My favorite part is the line in the Komo 1000 News story, "Emails of disgust rolled into the Department of Licensing." Rolled in? The Smoking Gun story and correspondence seems to indiciate that only two complaints were received and the cancellation process was triggered by only one. I just feel like you almost would have to go out of your way to be offended by this. Some people have too much time on their hands, clearly.

The offending plates[from thesmokinggun.com]

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Halfway Point?  | e-mail post

It's my birthday today. Thanks. I'm 35 today. I just got a great eCard from a friend. According to the card, I am officially interesting, as men apparently aren't interesting until they're 35. It had a monkey on it, and since I love monkeys, the card was perfect. Speaking of monkeys, I think I might order this print as a birthday gift for myself.

According to this calculator, my life expectancy is 69.9 years, so I'm basically right at the halfway point in my life. (I'm a smoker, in case you couldn't guess from my relatively short life expectancy, or because you missed my writing on smoking bans.) I've had a pretty good life thus far, and I'm torn as to whether another 35 years seems like too much or too little, or maybe it's just right. I feel like I've done a lot in my life thus far, and have probably had several lifetimes worth of different experiences by many people's standards. There are some things I probably won't be able to get around to in my remaining time, but I'm looking forward to an even more enjoyable (but maybe not as exciting) back half of the whole life thing.

On the other hand, this calculator computes my life expectancy at 77.5 years, (as do some others I've check) so maybe I still have a few years before I'm on the downhill slope. And that's not even counting improvements in medical technology. The funny thing is that I think I have become less cynical as I've aged. Maybe I'm on my way to complete optimism. The irony would be achieving a complete state of optimism and hopefulness just as I am preparing to shed this mortal coil.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Cynicism about politics? Unimaginable  | e-mail post

Marketplace (the public radio business news program) ran a great segment (audio) today. The intro to it:
It is a phrase that's commonly invoked every four years or so. And it's happening again now. We've been hearing a lot about the packaging of the Presidency, as if politics can be reduced to a kind of commodity. As if the rules of the marketplace apply to how we pick our Commanders in Chief. On the one hand, those of us who care about policy see this as an over-simplification. On the other hand, it may be that the persistence of the metaphor points to something very real about how commercial values have overtaken political values. [source]
It's an interesting interview with Andrew Zolli [blog], a Futures Research strategist and futurist in residence at Popular Science magazine. I can't get the audio to download right now so I can transcribe some choice bits, but among other comments are some Zolli makes around the idea that business has usurped the role of politics (and even religion) as meaning-making institutions in our lives, institutions in which people are more engaged and identify more strongly with than traditional institutions like a political party or a church. Hopefully the audio will work for you. It's definitely worth a listen. He then goes on to discuss the parallels of the political process to that of brand or product development.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Monday, July 26, 2004

It's Too Early in The Campaign to Be This Frayed  | e-mail post

Yahoo! News - John Kerry's Wife Tells Reporter to 'Shove It': "BOSTON (Reuters) - Minutes after telling her husband's supporters to restore a more dignified tone to politics, Teresa Heinz Kerry told a reporter to 'shove it.'

In a reception on Sunday in Massachusetts, the wife of Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry told Democratic Party delegates from her home state of Pennsylvania there needed to be a change in American politics.

'We have to turn back some of the creeping, un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics,' she said. Morning television shows broadcast the remarks on Monday morning.

When a reporter from a conservative Pennsylvania newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, pressed Mrs. Heinz Kerry what she had meant by 'un-American' she said repeatedly, 'No, I didn't say that, I didn't say that.'

She then turned away only to return moments later. 'You said something I didn't say, now shove it,' she said, pointing her finger at the reporter." [end of story]

The only source for video of this exchange (right now anyway) is from WTAE in Pittsburgh. I encourage everyone to watch the video. Some of the things you can really appreciate from the video:
  1. The reporter in question, Colin McNickle, did not seem to be particularly aggressive or hostile.

  2. She repeatedly denies what she said, despite the fact that "unAmerican" was her choice of words. (Although she admittedly did not say "unAmerican activities", as McNickle said. She's no McCarthyist (McCarthyite?). )

  3. She actually was finished speaking with the reporter, and storms (OK, walks) back across the room (probably 20-25 feet) just to again falsely deny her own statements and to tell him to "shove it". The print accounts don't give you a sense of her need to get the last word in regarding the issue.
Now, I do have a few thoughts on this:
  1. "Shove it"???? Why not go back to Happy Days and tell the reporter to "sit on it" like Potsie? If you're going to get pissed, do it Cheney-style, like when he told Patrick Leahy to "go fuck yourself" (or to "fuck off" depending on the source) on the Senate floor. (Ironically, on the same day the Senate voted for the "Defence of Decency Act" which raised fines on broadcasters for indecency. I wonder if CSPAN could get fined for airing Cheney live? (Although he was smart enough to at least duck the mike when he said it.) At least Justin Timberlake wasn't there to pull the veep's shirt off; Cheney's nipples, covered or not, are not something I need to see.)

  2. Why, why, why Teresa, did you have to go back to the reporter? If she hadn't done that, or if she had even told him to "shove it," in the heat of the initial discussion, it would have played so much better.

  3. The worst part is she got herself all worked up denying something she did actually say. OK, fine, the McNickle guy may work for a conservative newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, but it's not like it's a total rag. Admittedly, I don't see any indication it's going to win a Pulitzer anytime soon, but it still runs a daily circulation of around 120,000 (half that of the city's primary paper, the Post-Gazette). Admittedly, the press tends to be "left-leaning" but it's still pretty objective. Would she have gotten herself so worked up if a more clearly liberal individual asked her for clarification?
Teresa, welcome to the wonderful world of politics. No one is going to be nice to you just because you're rich and social decorum demands it. Hopefully Ms. Kerry will learn to relax a little bit. Overall, she came off in a very childish manner.

I did also love Senator Hillary Clinton's comments: "A lot of Americans are going to say, 'Good for you, you go, girl,' and that's certainly how I feel about it." You go, girl? OK, Hil, I think you've had enough Springer for today. (she's quoted in the Guardian piece below).

Coverage from The Guardian

Coverage from CNN

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Monday, July 26, 2004

First No Guns...Now No Smoking  | e-mail post

I wrote a few days back about Minnesota's concealed weapons permitting law being in a state of flux. Well, now its going to get a lot tougher to smoke in Minneapolis as well, thanks to the city council's passage of a smoking ban ordinance [PDF Link] this week. [Star-Tribune] [Business Journal]. The council voted 12-1 in favor of it with Barrett Lane, the council's only political Independent, casting the sole opposition vote.

Of course, there was some attempt at compromise, as you can read about the Star-Tribune article. Two amendments were proposed to exempt establishments for which liquor sales accounted for 50% or 70% of revenue. Seems reasonable, but of course they were shot down.

I loved the line from the Council President, Paul Ostrow, "There are a lot of things that are great for the public health and bad for democracy, and this is one of them. Banning Big Macs is good for health, but we're not going to do that." God knows, we can't be banning Big Macs, even though obesity is estimated to account for $75 billion in additional healthcare costs this year, according to CDC researchers [Obesity Research abstract]. The RAND Corporation has identified obesity as a bigger problem than smoking.1

[RAND has some great information on the impact of the obesity epidemic.]

But this isn't a rant about the obesity epidemic, because, in all fairness, a smoking ban is fundamentally about the exposure of non-smoking employees (and patrons as well) to second hand smoke. I imagine there are already laws that protect me from being force fed a Big Mac if I walk into a McDonalds. Smoking bans are about protecting non-smokers, not protecting smokers from themselves. (Although maybe they should be, according to this research from the National Bureau of Economic Research.)

I have certainly spent enough time in California to know that smoking bans are not the end of the world. It certainly curtailed my smoking when I was out in the Bay area constantly in the late '90s, but didn't seem to when I was in LA a few weeks back. I found that Angelenos have adapted remarkably well to this with so much outdoor seating, in some cases even stretching the concept of "outdoor" into completely covered and enclosed areas. I thought it was fantastic, dining outside is always a pleasure, and they certainly have the weather for it.

But this is Minnesota. It is cold here. Very cold. Much of the year. Then it is very hot for two months. And then it gets cold again, too cold for eating dinner in a three season porch with an awning for a roof.

As a smoker, I am not thrilled with the prospect of a smoking ban. There are already enough fine dining, and even fairly casual, establishments that prohibit smoking, or allow it only in their bars. Restaurants that conveniently accomodate smokers get bonus consideration when I thinking of a place to eat. Just the other day I found another fairly casual independent restaurant in town that now doesn't even allow smoking in their (quite separate) bar.

While not happy about the inconvenience, and while I do feel somewhat crushed by the tyranny of the majority (and especially crushed by the obese members of it. ;-> ), I do recognize, in a limited way, the validity of the basic position driving adoption of these bans: secondhand smoke is harmful, and employees at many hospitality establishments are exposed to a great deal of secondhand smoke. (I do find the fact that while smoking bans are frequently positioned as a "workplace safety" issue, I rarely see restaurant employees supporting smoking bans, although it could be argued that they are silent in their support because their employers (bars and restaurants) are typically opposed to smoking bans due to a feared economic impact.)

However, individuals don't have to work in any particular place. Employees are not enslaved. In many respects, I find the idea that employers must accomodate workers in every shape and fashion quite ridiculous. While I personally, as an employer, try to accomodate and cater to the comfort and general happiness of my staff, I do so both because I like them and because I strongly value their unique skills and expertise and want them to work for me, and I know they could all work elsewhere if they really wanted to leave. At the same time, I run a consulting firm, not a restaurant. I know every employee I have is capable of performing the duties of a restaurant employee, while I am equally confident the converse is not true.

For that matter, if I simply wanted to have a very tiny consulting firm with only two or three employees, and I wanted to smoke at the office, I feel I should be entitled to have such a workplace. I wouldn't discriminate against hiring a non-smoker, but they would have to make the choice that they are comfortable working in a smoking environment, in the same way an employee at a restaurant could make that choice as well. There are non-smoking restaurants if one wants to be a waiter and work in a smoke-free environment.

While I could go on an on about this issue and the broader debate, I imagine there is little to be done to stem the tide of smoking bans, given the politically safe nature of such legislation and the fact that tobacco consumption is higher among the economic lower classes who lack political clout, however, I would feel a lot better about it, though, if it wasn't easier for someone to bring a gun into a restaurant than a cigarette.

1 Most studies on the aggregate social costs of smoking heavily load up with soft costs, ignore hard and soft savings from early smoker mortality (e.g. reduced social security payouts, less total time in the healthcare system, etc; and studies even acknowledge that medical cost estimates are driven by a higher level of smoking in the past.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Friday, July 23, 2004

If You Can't Be Good, Be Consistent  | e-mail post

I stumbled upon Metacritic's list of the 200 worst movies. Unlike IMDB's "Bottom 100" list, Metacritic aggregates reviews from professional film critics, while IMDB bases theirs on user ratings. Mass opinion versus the elites. One weakness of the Metacritic list is that it lacks the completeness of IMDB, having complete critic data only back to 1999. And we all know there was plenty of crap produced before then. For example, Metacritic necessarily misses out on the entire Police Acadmy franchise. In addition, because of IMDB's fairly slick algorithm for computing film ratings, their Best/Worst lists include films that have a sufficient mass of reviews to make them relevant (as of today, making the worst list requires 625 ratings, while making the best list requires 1250 ratings). Thus, for example, Metacritic's worst film "The Singing Forest" (Sorry, no DVD, so no DVD link) while reviewed by seven professional reviewers, does not even have 5 user ratings on its IMDB listing as of today.

But I didn't start writing this to opine about different ways of computing a list of worst films.

The thing I thought was interesting, however, was the consistency. One director, Jorge Ameer, took both the #1 and #3 spots in the worst movie list. (Strictly speaking, it was a three-way tie for first place, with Pauly Shore's Bio-Dome sharing the glory.) As Steven Holden of the New York Times writes in his review: "The Singing Forest was written and directed by Jorge Ameer, whose film 'Strippers' opened three years ago and remained the single worst movie I had ever reviewed -- until now." Holden actually used the word "cheesy" to describe "Strippers" in his review of that film. I am not sure I would have imagined "cheesy" showing up in the Gray Lady other than in a quotation.

While typically practice makes perfect, Ameer appears to be a phenom who has a natural talent for the art of creating pure and unadulterated crap. This is one independent director who has obviously beaten Hollywood at its own game.

As an aside: In a display of vanity surprising even by film industry standards, Ameer himself wrote, under his own name, his biography on IMDB. Not surprisingly, you'd never guess from the bio that he is responsible for what would seem to be two of the three worst films of the decade.

Needless to say, I now need to see these films. It goes beyond trainwreck curiousity, Ameer obviously has a gift, albeit an unfortunate one, and I feel compelled to see the results.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Friday, July 23, 2004

Packing Heat In Minnesota  | e-mail post

Here in Minnesota last year we passed a new law [Statute Text] [Description] making it dramatically easier to get a concealed weapon permit. Minnesota now has what is referred to as a "will issue" policy. This eliminates virtually any opportunity for law enforcement officers to use their discretion about who has a legitimate need for, or should otherwise be issued, a concealed weapon permit. After passage of this law, 15,677 conceal weapon permits were issued in Minnesota between May 28, 2003 and Dex 31, 2003. That's about a 50% increase from either of the the two prior years in terms of the number of concealed weapons permits outstanding.

BTW, no matter where you live, if carrying a concealed weapon is of interest to you (or you want to find out just how easy it is to get one where you live) a website, Packing.org, follows these things quite closely. In their own words, Packing.org is "a great place to find out how to legally carry a concealed weapon, if it is possible in your state." Gotta love the internet.

I remember at the time being quite annoyed with not just the law, but the importance that the Republican leadership in Minnesota put on relaxing concealed carry controls; it was a major agenda item for the new Republican Governer, Tim Pawlenty. Our former Governor, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, had a slightly different attititude about gun control: "I’m all for gun control, I just define it a little differently. If you can put 2 rounds into the same hole from 25 meters, that’s gun control!" You can get other bits of wit and wisdom(?) from Jesse's book, I Ain't Got Time to Bleed: Reworking the Body Politic from the Bottom Up.

In any event, while I was unhappy with the law, I wasn't in much position to do anything about it; I didn't really have any legal standing. Some churches felt they did, however. I can understand this. Strictly speaking, the law says that even a Quaker church can't prohibit the carrying of guns in their parking lot or on their grounds (although they could prohibit them inside the church, using signage that conforms to the required statutory notification). A consortium of the top-tier law firms in Minneapolis took on the case pro bono.

One aside about the law firms: Dorsey & Whitney, Faegre & Benson, Fredrikson & Byron, Lindquist & Vennum, and Mansfield Tanick & Cohen represented the nonprofit and religious plaintiffs in this case (the City of Minneapolis also joined the suit as a plaintiff). These firms are primarily corporate law firms, not John Edwards-esque trial lawyers who are always "fighting for the little guy," as they seem fond of positioning themselves. I found it interesting that with no money actually at stake in a victory to entice those "socially-minded" attorneys who want to sue gun makers, McDonalds or the tobacco industry, the "little guys" in this case relied on the establishment lawyers to fight their case for them.

District Judge John T. Finley actually invalidated the law [PDF of Order from Faegre & Benson's website] on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. According to Article IV Section 17 of the Minnesota Constitution: "No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title." The funny thing is I've lived in Minnesota almost 13 years and was not aware of this prohibition. It struck me as immediately odd when I heard about the decision, as one frequently hears of amedments getting tacked onto bills in the Minnesota legislature, the same as one hears about in Congress. In a civics class long ago, I learned these were called "rider" amendments, and the U.S. Senate still seems to define them as the "informal term for a nongermane amendment."

Obviously, I was not alone in my confusion, as there are already a couple of planned lawsuits to challenge some recent budget bills that lumped together a variety of issues. There is recent precedent for this decision; in 2000 the Minnesota Supreme Court shot down a wage protection component of a much broader 1997 tax bill. I must have missed the news at the time, but I had an awful lot going on in 2000. For completists or researchers the case was Associated Builders and Contractors et al. v. Ventura, et al. (610 NW 2d 293 (Minn. 2000)).

In a twist of irony, you can read the opinion of our current Governor, Tim Pawlenty, the fountainhead of relaxed concealed carry rules, on the Associated Builders case. I found his last paragaph to be particularly humorous in light of the current situation:
After reviewing prior decisions regarding Article IV, Section 17 that tended to pay great deference to the Legislature, the Court in Associated Builders finally drew a line the Legislature should heed. The balance between different branches of government in our democracy is delicate, and the Court gave the Legislature a gentle nudge in Associated Builders. We may hope that the Legislature will conduct itself in a manner that is clearly more consistent with constitutional principles in the future. If not, the Court’s gentle nudge may need to become a little firmer.
Hopefully the nudge Finley gave was firm enough. The big difference here is that in Associated Builders, the portion of the law being surgically removed from the tax bill was one that Republicans would oppose (higher wage requirements for labor on certain types of government contracts).

The whole situation seems to have many Republicans in a tizzy. I've read some factually-errant and fallaciously-reasoned criticism of the decision (or at least of the judge) by those defenders of the second amendment right to pack heat. It is Republicans who are now running to court to challenge components of other laws on this ground.

Just yesterday, the Minnesota AG, Mike Hatch, went to court to both appeal the judge's ruling as well as request a stay on Finley's decision until the higher courts rule. While I am doubtful that Hatch is a big fan of relaxed concealed carry rules, it is his responsiblity as the Attorney General to properly represent the state. It should be an interesting case. Not to mention, there is a legitimate need to have an authoritative decision on the issue so local law enforcement knows how to handle concealed weapons permits.

Such nongermane amendments seem to often be key tools in manipulating (subverting?) both the legislative process as well voter understanding of their representative's positions on specific issues. I am deeply ambivalent about this issue.

On one hand, I feel that single-issue or limited-scope legislation would provide a higher level of accountability for our elected officials. It would not be possible to "grudgingly vote for" something because it is attached to otherwise desirable legislation. If your guy voted for something, you know he or she is in favor of it. It would offer the benefit to the official of never having to defend a vote in favor of something they opposed and it would offer the voter a great deal more clarity about where an official truly stands on an issue.

On the other hand, I am both a political elitist and a pragmatist (remember, I am a cynic, albeit a hopeful one). Coupling otherwise nongermane legislative items is a very effective facilitator of political horsetrading. Because an entire bill gets voted up or down, linking multiple items into a single bill assures the passage of particular pieces of legislation in a way that voting for two independent bills would not. Can you imagine:
Tom DeLay: No, seriously Nancy, if you bring us the votes for this federal death penalty for abortionists bill, we've got your back on raising the minimum wage to $60 an hour.

Nancy Pelosi: Are you sure you guys?

Roy Blunt: Nancy, don't sweat it, we've got everything lined up. You're golden. We'll bring a vote on the death penalty bill this morning, and bring a vote on the minimum wage this afternoon.

Nancy Pelosi: OK, fine, I'll make it happen on our side.


Nancy Pelosi: Hey, what the Hell, Tom? I got you your votes, and you guys all voted against the minimum wage hike.

Tom DeLay: Psyche!
This is even funnier to me if I picture Charlie Brown and Lucy having their dialog about whether or not she will pull the football away right as Charlie Brown kicks it.

All kidding aside, though, it would be very difficult to get a lot of legislation passed if things weren't combined into bills so muddled that it is unlikely any single legislator would vote entirely in favor of or against the individual elements of the legislation. Such is our imperfect system.

That's my pragmatic side. My political elitist side feels like the lack of accountability might be a good thing. There's a lot of legislation which, while desirable, might gore too many political oxen. Nongermane amendments allow socially necessary but politically dangerous legislation to make it through the system. Now, it doesn't seem to me that this happens much in practice, but it does seem like a potentially desirable side effect.

Overall, while I am flatly opposed to relaxed conceled carry standards here in Minnesota, I am undecided on how this case is playing out in the courts. It should be interesting in any event.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Take a Break From Being Serious  | e-mail post

If this Bush/Kerry parody of Arlo Guthrie's "This Land" doesn't make you at least crack a smile, I suggest you a) check your pulse, if pulse is present, b) lighten up.

This Land - "From the liberal weiners to the right wing nut jobs, this land belongs to you and me."

For a more interactive level of humor, check out this great game. The premise is so obvious(!): Hulk Hogan and Mr T set out to liberate American government from the hands of the current administration. While the game creators are strident in their opposition to the current administration, and the rhetoric can be a bit shrill at times, this game is quite funny, and simple enough that you can play through it primarily to get some additional bits of humor.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Isn't She a Little Young? (Statutory Rape, Don't Do It)  | e-mail post

As their motto says, Virginia is for lovers. Apparently, some of the residents there didn't quite understand the implied "who are both past the age of consent" caveat at the end of the motto. It seems that the problem of statutory rape in Virginia is so significant, the Virgina Department of Health has started a campaign to curb it. In addition to the great tagline "Isn't she a little young?" there is also the call to (in)action: "Sex with a minor. Don't go there." That is almost so absurd I am reminded of the "Teenage Suicide - Don't Do It" bit from the movie Heathers. The difference being that in Heathers it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek.

As with any absurd advertising or branding message (of which there are no shortage), I always try to to imagine the meeting where the idea was sold, with people standing around the boardroom table saying "Brilliant!" "Hip but accessible" "Pure genius" and slapping the back of the "gifted" copywriter responsible for such drivel. Admittedly, this is probably better than the message I would want to give these people: "Don't you have any self-respect?" or "Can't find a girl your own age, loser?" I have a feeling I might be too direct and might not help the offenders think through things.

Now, for those of you who might say, as this blogger did, "How about a billboard telling these litttle 15 years olds not to dress sexy and shake their ass in front of 35 year olds?" I can only say this: it's not your fault for thinking some too-young girl is sexy, but do you have to try to screw anything that makes you pop a woodie? Isn't part of what living in a civil society means that we should try to protect the youth, often from their own misjudgement? In all fairness to that blogger, however: I do agree, young girls probably shouldn't go out of their way to dress in such provocative ways, but that's an entirely differnt discussion (or rant, depending on my mood).

Also, this campaign is not aimed at people who are surprised that they ended up in bed with an underage girl: it seems to be targetted at people who are actually dating them. As the press release from the VDH says: "The campaign hopes to change the norms around relationships with minors, making it no longer acceptable for adults to engage in sex with minors." No longer acceptable? When was it? Did I miss something?

As Mathhew McConaughey's character David Wooderson said in Dazed & Confused: "That's what I like about these high school girls, I keep getting older, they stay the same age." I suppose for some people, that's not just comedy, that's really how they see things.

In any event, look for the billboards and bar napkins if you're in Virginia. I'm doubting you'll run into Roman Polanski there; according to George Bush and the State Department, he and his pedophile ilk will all be heading to Cuba, the new vacation destination for sex tourists.

Hope and cynicism are really running in a dead heat on this one.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Monday, July 19, 2004

Would You Die for the Truth?  | e-mail post

It seems so often when I contemplate the media and am assailed by human interest stories masquerading as news, or see news debased to being a human interest story or series of them, I long for more genuinely investigative reporting, more incisive commentary, simply more commitment by journalists (or the media ownership and leadership) to telling the stories that shape our world .

But sometimes events occur that remind me that their are people willing to die in the name of reporting. On July 9th, Paul Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes Russia was murdered, gunned down as he left work. Klebnikov was extremely active in revealing the membership and activities of the Russian oligarchy, and the strong presumption is that he was killed for exactly that reason, especially as it comes just a couple of months after he published a list of the 100 richest people in Russia, and identified the ill-gotten or dubious sources of the wealth of many of them. Some rich people don't like quite so much attention paid to them, it would appear.

Of course, Klebnikov is hardly alone, last year Cate Blanchett portrayed Veronica Guerin in the movie by the same name, directed by Joel Schumacher. Guerin's story is that of a reporter for Dublin's Sunday Independent who was so taken with the tragedy of urban drug abuse that she relentlessly investigated the issue, probing into the Irish drug trade's highest eschelons even after having repeated clear indications that such investigation actively put her in harm's way.
(Completists may want to know that Joan Allen did her turn as a lightly fictionalized Guerin in When the Sky Falls a few years back.) Northern Ireland saw another of its press corps fall to murder in 2001, when Martin O'Hagan was shot dead by Protestant loyalists.

Of course, death has met many reporters from around the world in the course of war coverage over the past year. While any death represents an equally tragic and unfortunate loss of life, it somehow seems these deaths are more related to the proximity to battle than to the actual reporting being done by these individuals, per se. Wrong place, wrong time, so to speak.

The Inter American Press Association has found the murder of journalists in Central and South America to be so frequent as to develop an "Unpunished Crimes Against Journalists" project, and even has a rapid response unit to investigate murders of journalists to determine if their deaths were related to their work as journalists. The IAPA also then works with the relevant governments to investigate these crimes. Of course, sometimes the crimes themselves may be linked to the ruling elites, and sometimes investigations may be cursory because the police might feel it is just safer for them that way. In any case, though, over 50 journalists have been murdered in Central and South America since 1993.

Even today, the murder of Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi seems to be getting a good whitewash in Tehran. And just a few weeks ago in June, a Bangladeshi editor was killed by two bombs thrown at him outside his home.

The global Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) indicates that 28 journalists have been killed thus far in 2004. They also maintain a list of 347 journalists killed from 1993-2004. Only 55 of these individuals were "caught in the crossfire," while 264 were actually "hunted down and murdered, often in direct reprisal for their reporting," in the words of the CPJ. By the way, Amercian journalists are pretty safe. Despite the fact that we put people in almost every trouble spot and have a very high profile (and aren't we hated, too?), American journalists make up only 11 of the 347.

Here in the United States, it's easy to feel like anytime a reporter does any more than retype a press release they have been given or actually verifies a claim made by a news source, they are pushing the limits of what we expect in investigative reporting. We see the local news "investigative" stories during sweeps week: tales of being ripped off by auto mechanics or similar "is this news?" kind of reporting. Maybe that's our lot because that's what the American news consumer wants or because American journalists aren't motivated to dig deeper, or maybe even because things are really that good here in the U.S., and don't demand the kind of reporting for which people are willing to kill or die.

Whatever the case, I think we should all take pause and reflect on the men and women who actively choose to put themselves in mortal danger to bring the truth to light. It is bravery of which I suspect many of us, myself included, may not be capable; and I am humbled, proud and hopeful that I live in a world where such impassioned individuals seek to report the truth, to make their worlds and thus our whole world better, despite such daunting risks.

You can donate to the CPJ.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Monday, July 19, 2004

Shocking Discovery?  | e-mail post

Recently, two economists, David G. Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick in England, authored a paper titled "Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study" [PDF link at Blanchflower's site]. In it, they report several observations gained from statistical analysis of the General Social Surveys of the United States (the GSS). The GSS contains a fairly broad set of questions, related to almost every topic of social relevance and is conducted by the University of Chicago's National Research Center (NORC). NORC has been performing these annual or biennial surveys since 1974. You can read about the GSS at their site.

Some things Blanchflower & Oswald observed by analyzing the GSS data include:

Those were some of their detailed findings. Hopefully you are sitting down before reading this main finding, it may shock you: "Sex is strongly and positively associated with happiness." I am assuming that you, fellow readers, are just as shocked by this news as I am. A relationship between sex and happiness is something I had never contemplated; I had naturally assumed that the constant human hunger for sexual congress was strictly driven by our evolutionary need to procreate. OK, I'll stop being sarcastic. So everyone else pretty much would have guessed a relationship between sex and happiness existed at some level.

And, of course, people who have been married or in a long-term monogamous relationship would also know that since it is hard to be happier than being happy in such a relationship, that the ideal number of sexual partners, happiness-wise, is also one.

I did think the percentage of homosexuals was lower than I might have guessed, but not by much; and it doesn't seem like people are having as much sex as they should, especially given that it might relate postively to personal happiness.

Of course, since Blanchflower and Oswald are economists, it is not in their academic nature to speculate deeply about causes behind the data, however, there was one part of the study that caught my attention and made me reflect on some causal factors. Specifically, the finding that: "Sex appears to have disproportionately strong effects on the happiness of highly educated people," struck me as very interesting.

Maybe it struck me particularly given my philosophy education and Plato's claim that the advanced mind (that mind of a good philosopher) appreciates pleasures of a higher order and tends to regard pleasures of the flesh of lesser import. (Plato isn't alone either, the rather more contemporary philsopher J.S. Mill makes a similar claim in his classic tract, Utilitarianism.)

It is likely that if you are reading this, you would fall into the study's "highly educated" category (more than 12 years of education), so this might be news you can use.

Maybe though it does make sense. Sex is one of the few forms of happiness that transcends our ever-thinking minds. That's not to say that there isn't a mental element to sex, and that it certainly can enhance it, but rather, that the sex act can fully absorb one's consciousness and just let it clear out, so to speak. Some religious practices over time have incorporated sexuality into their rituals, for this mind-clearing effect. We can get close to that mind clearing effect in other ways as well, although frequently less conviently. Some people meditate or use self-hypnosis, scuba diving can clear my mind of anything but the present, as can downhill skiing or sometimes even driving, at the right speed and with the right music.

Maybe the more educated among us simply have more difficulty clearing our minds. We may have a predisposition to think about things too much, enhanced by our education and exacerbated by the mass influx of information and media we are constantly assaulted by (or assault ourselves with!). Maybe for those people who can clear their minds just by watching a little bit of television or checking out "the game," have a quicker and more convenient path. Maybe the mind-clearing effect of sex is not all that unique to sex in their worlds. A beer and a baseball game (or soap opera) may work just as well and be a whole lot simpler.

I am reminded of Trent Reznor's lyrics in Nine Inch Nails' none-too-radio-friendly song, "Closer," on The Downward Spiral. In it he describes sex as, "the only thing that works for me, help me get away from myself." As one who typically has a difficult time escaping my own thoughts, quieting my own mind, I always had a certain affinty for this lyric.1 Of course, Reznor is not alone, and Quentin Crisp puts an even darker spin on the escapist property of sex by referring to sex as "the last refuge of the miserable." I find Mae West's observation that an "orgasm a day keeps the doctor away," a much more positive spin on things.

Of course, the other side of the coin here is that sexual activity could be the effect of happiness, not the cause, or more likely that they are linked and comingled in ways too complex to easily discuss. I think we are certainly all aware of the negative impact on a person's (or a couple's) sexual desire that some types of unhappiness can cause.

In any event, maybe this study will give all of us, especially the highly educated, pause to contemplate the value of being an intellectual, if Aldous Huxley's definition of an intellectual as "a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex" has any truth to it. More interesting, maybe, more essential to happiness? I guess we'll have to wait for the next study on correlations between happiness and higher-level thinking and contemplation. Given that I have always considered depression a disease of affluence that is well-correlated with intelligence, I doubt it will be as clearly positive a relationship as between sex and happiness.

1 For an extremely in-depth analysis of The Downward Spiral, you might want to read this dissertation by James Salvatore and Brian Cancellieri. While it has a different spin on Reznor's thoughts in Closer, I can honestly say the authors have given the album's lyrics far more contemplation than I, and would thus defer to their analysis of Reznor's thoughts as expressed through the album.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Sunday, July 18, 2004

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