Cybertheft

For the moment, at least, williamsonday.com has become williamsonday.net. A cybersquatter has hijacked my domain, and short of a federal lawsuit, it does not seem likely that I am going to get it back.

Take the Toys from the Boys

If the time has come to repeal the Second Amendment so be it. This atavistic relic of a less civilized age is not worth the carnage it imposes daily on American life. The Constitution countenanced slavery; modern society has outlawed it, albeit at great cost. The time has come to outlaw guns.

There is a spurious reasonableness to the argument that Americans need guns. Even strong advocates of controls kowtow before the "right" of Americans to engage in blood sports. Why we outlaw dog fighting but not deer hunting is a mystery to me. (If starving families in Appalachia depend on hunting to survive, I am sure exceptions could be made.) By and large, however, hunters engaged in the practice of gunning down defenseless animals in the name of so-called "sport" should be unabashedly labeled what it is - "barbaric."

As for the self-defense argument, it is both circular and spurious. Circular because there would be little pretext for owning guns if we were not so afraid of our neighbors who presumably have them. Spurious because gun ownership is largely unavailing for self-defense, particularly in the hands of the largely ill-trained and unprepared American civilian population. As Michael Moore so aptly pointed out, owning five guns did not help Nancy Lanza. (And it is very little exculpation that guns are owned in quantity in sociopathic backwaters such as Texas (whose oft-expressed desire to secede should perhaps be given greater consideration)).

You Didn't Build That or Where Did I Go Wrong?

My superficial resemblance to Mitt Romney does not extend to his great wealth. I am admittedly the son of an automobile executive, albeit not a CEO or a governor, and Romney and I went to some of the same schools, and we both ended up with a law degree. Now, I realize that for Mitt to be more than a thousandfold wealthier than I am, he did not have to be more than a thousand times smarter and harder working. Probably he is both smarter and harder working, with a better temperament, at least enough to reach some kind of tipping point after which wealth just explodes exponentially. But I don't quite see how Romney's edge makes him more than a thousand times more deserving than I am. And I am also pretty sure that Romney is fortunate simply because fortune has smiled on him, and that there are plenty of other people, equally talented and ambitious, who will live on modest means and die in obscurity. As the Good Book reminds us, time and chance happen to us all. See Ecclesiastes 9:11.

The Naked Romney and the Unrobed Royal

Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post takes first prize for the most strained rationalization of Mitt Romney's crude remarks to a group of fatcat donors about the dependency culture of half of America. Petri writes:

Didn’t we agree as a society that no one had any privacy any longer? There is no such thing as In Private. Look what happened to Mitt Romney. If you want to say some off-the-record remarks to donors, the only way to do so is to erase the donors’ memories afterwards — and confiscate their phones. (A variant of this argument implies darkly that any woman who ever exits the house without being entirely covered deserves whatever is coming to her. In fact, how dare she make her Womanly Parts visible to anyone, even her husband? Shame, shame. But the less this is dwelt on, the better.)

Petri translates indignation over a woman's inability to sunbathe in her own home without being photographed into indignation over a political candidate's inability to deceive the American public by concealing his too candid remarks at a $50,000 a plate dinner. It is one thing to argue that royal figureheads should not be subject to intrusive photographs in their homes. It is quite another to shill for a presidential candidate by suggesting that he has the same expectation of privacy in the midst of a political cabal. Put another way, while Kate Middleton's breasts may excite as much attention as Mitt Romney's (alleged) thoughts, there is clearly a much more compelling national interest in the unveiling of the latter than the former. Petri cheapens her asserted indignation over Middleton's loss of privacy by making it a stalking horse for Mitt's catastrophic moment of candor.

George Will: Segregationist

George Will writes in the Washington Post that a wedding photographer is being victimized by a lawsuit over her refusal to photograph a gay commitment ceremony because of her religious beliefs. Will writes, "Elaine Huguenin, who with her husband operates Elane Photography in New Mexico, asks only to be let alone." But, of course, she doesn't ask only to be let alone. She asks to operate a public business, but to serve only customers who meet with her approval based on her religious beliefs. By Will's logic, she might just as easily be entitled to reject Catholics or Mormons based on their religion.

But what really leaves a bad taste in Will's mouth is that the victims of Huguenin's discrimination decided to sue. 'Willock could then have said regarding Elane Photography what many same-sex couples have long hoped a tolerant society would say regarding them — “live and let live."' Just as, after all, Martin Luther King, Jr. could have gone to eat at a different lunch counter and Rosa Parks could have quietly sat at the back of the bus.

King had words to the well-meaning white people George Will (perhaps unconsciously) echoes:

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

Letter from Birmingham Jail

Ms. Huguenin is free to practice whatever poisonous bigotry she wishes in her home and in her "church." However, she is and ought not to be not entitled to freedom to deny others retail services based on either her religious ideosyncracies or their sexual orientation.

We needed these words then. We need them now.

For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Speech Announcing the Second New Deal October 31, 1936

The French and the Russians

Just as when I read Wilde for the first time, I immediately thought, "This is Shaw;" upon reading the description of Waterloo today in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, I thought, "This is Tolstoy!" And, indeed, I suppose it would be an interesting project to attempt to untangle the relationship between nineteenth-century French writers and their contemporaries in Russia.

The Trouble with Linux

GNOME co-founder Miguel de Icaza has a trenchant post on why Linux desktop computers have not been more successful.

A few quick points in response:

  1. I am very happy with my Debian desktop and Arch laptop.

  2. I agree with de Icaza's praise for the new GNOME shell interface, which I use on my laptop.

  3. I think de Icaza's critique of the Linux development model is worth listening to, although I am evaluating it more on the basis of his status as a longtime leader in the community than any ability to independently evaluate Linux development.

  4. De Icaza's blandishments notwithstanding, I am not ready to jump ship for OSX.

No Brainer

You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding YourselfYou Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars



We live with the assumption that our conscious mind is finely tuned to perform rational calculation based on accurate perception and near-perfect recall. In fact, it is more akin to an evolutionary afterthought that operates on dubious premises, fuzzy memories, and irrational impulses. We are finely tuned to survive in a world where we may be someone's next meal, but the very behavior that may be adaptive under those circumstances may be unforeseen, unnoticed, or ignored in today's world, with consequences that range from the comical to the tragic.

McRaney offers a series of tart essays, each of which illustrates a quirk of the human mind that may be familiar to clinical psychologists but a revelation to the rest of us. If, like the ancient Greeks, one seeks to know oneself, this is an excellent place to start.

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Agility and Accomplishment

Getting Results the Agile Way: A Personal Results System for Work and LifeGetting Results the Agile Way: A Personal Results System for Work and Life by J.D. Meier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My best friend is a person who is, to all appearances, effortlessly organized. When we were roommates in college, he was up early, finished his homework in a demanding scientific discipline (while studying Chinese on the side) before dinner, and went to bed promptly by 9:00 p.m. after a leisurely dinner and a couple of hours of science fiction. This book is not for him.

Being the opposite of my best friend on the organizational scale, much of my life has been spent on a journey to bring life into focus and clean up my act. I am a modest, but not obsessive, consumer of organizational self-help books, from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow to David Allen's Getting Things Done to Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project.

J.D. Meier's Getting Results the Agile Way, based on his experience as a program manager at Microsoft, strikes me as a thoughtful and important contribution to the genre. Meier does not despise the minutiae of task management, but he attempts to transcend it. His emphasis is on identifying measurable goals, working toward them systematically, and evaluating the results regularly. In addition, he emphasizes the importance of recognizing that time and energy are finite resources, and he writes at some length about both effectiveness — doing the right things — and efficiency — doing them well.

Part of being both effective and efficient is boundaries and balance. If you work to exhaustion, it affects your ability to perform in every other area of your life. If you do not get at least a minimum amount of sleep, you won't function effectively. If you do not have some fun, your motivation will plummet. And if you do not pay attention to your relationships with other people, they will atrophy. While these observations may seem obvious, it nevertheless takes a certain amount of planning and discipline to ensure that people schedule a ceiling to the amount of time spent at work and a floor to the amount of time spent for fun, sleep, and other people.

Beyond his emphasis on the importance of short and long term goal setting, Meier is also an astute observer of the self-defeating mind games that prevent people from working effectively toward their goals, and he breaks down a number of simple strategies for addressing them, from settling for something less than perfection on a first iteration to plunging into work to escape analysis paralysis.

In all, Meier's book achieves what should be the goal of every good organizational book: it does not settle for tidying our schedules, but insists that we examine our goals in the hope that we will choose to live more meaningful lives.

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Capitalism's Image Problem

The egregious Charles Murray, he of Bell Curve notoriety, has a new column in the Wall Street Journal, in which he explains that the country's current malaise is due to the poor image of Capitalism. In Murray's rose-tinted view, capitalism is the putative path to fulfillment in modern society.

The U.S. was created to foster human flourishing. The means to that end was the exercise of liberty in the pursuit of happiness. Capitalism is the economic expression of liberty. The pursuit of happiness, with happiness defined in the classic sense of justified and lasting satisfaction with life as a whole, depends on economic liberty every bit as much as it depends on other kinds of freedom.

Murray argues that Capitalism has been unfairly maligned as a result of collusion fostered by government and a failure of the masses to comprehend the beneficial effects of the financial markets.

Murray, however, does not address the disproportionate rewards Capitalism confers on its elite beneficiaries or the brutal struggle it imposes on workers at the bottom. In Murray's happy vision, there are no "breaker boys" - the eight-year-old boys who sat over the coal chutes in the mines, picking out shale until they lost an finger, an arm, or a life.

Karl Marx was not wrong because he misdiagnosed the horrors of Capitalism. He was wrong because his prescription was violent revolution. The horrors of twentieth century Communism were indeed horrors, but they were an unsurprising reaction to the brutality of nineteenth century capitalism (and Russian feudalism).

Charles Murray's anodyne view of the universal opportunity system mocks the generations of people who have struggled through grinding low end jobs from the first day of their working life to the last, not to mention all of those maimed, poisoned or killed in the process so that the middle class will have detergent and rich men can dine on caviar.

The Problem with Atheism Is Atheists

In the Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell memorably described the brutal conditions under which coal miners worked in the first part of the book, and then devoted the second part of the book to decrying the utter ineffectuality of Socialism, or more accurately, Socialists, in addressing the problems of the working class. Orwell was roundly criticized for the second half of the book at the time by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, and has been roundly criticized ever since. Orwell's critique of Socialists does as much to reveal his own prejudices as anything else, and it is a bit humorous today because many of things he clearly regards as outre are things that we consider quite within the bounds of normality today:

One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.

Id. Chapter 11 Notwithstanding the comedy behind what Orwell considered radical and "crankish" at the time,the point stands that Socialism was going nowhere so long as it failed to appeal to the mainstream, and it was not going to appeal to the mainstream so long as Socialism not only appeared to be a marginal movement, but also Socialists appeared to be marginal people. It is a little bit like the failure of the Democratic Party to win elections if it cannot appeal to what used to be known as "Reagan Democrats": solid middle class citizens who were moderately liberal economically and moderately conservative socially. If a social movement cannot appeal to the solid middle class, it is going nowhere.

Cranks and Atheists

Atheism suffers from a similar problem today. While we may have moved beyond Madalyn Murray O'Hair to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism is not simply grouped as one of many minor systems of belief (or non-belief), but is decidedly still stigmatized in polite middle class society: it retains an association with cranks and weirdos.

The behavior of leading atheists does nothing to dispel this image. This was admittedly not always the case, when such eminent intellectual figures as David Hume combined intellectual leadership, respectability, and notorious unbelief. Prominent atheists such as Dawkins and Hitchens have such a pronounced desire to epater les bourgeois and such a naked assumption of their intellectual superiority that they appeal more to snobbery than solidarity. (The fact that they are smarter than the average person does not make the average person any more appreciative of being reminded of it.) Moreover, they have unacknowledged blind spots, particularly their rather ugly anti-Muslim prejudice and arguably a certain condescension toward women.

There is nothing wrong with an intellectual critique of any particular religion; most of them are on pretty shaky ground when subjected to any kind of rational analysis. However, it is a mistake to conclude based on such a critique that the practioners of that religion are necessarily stupid or malevolent. There are stupid and malevolent practictioners of almost any religion, of course. Moreover, many religions have bizarre tenets which are objectionable when put into practice. (Christianity and slavery, anyone?) But there are clearly just as many good and generous believers as there are atheists, and just as clearly they both succumb to the same fallacy when they assume that it is their religion that determines their character.

Capitalism and Its Ills

In our incessant self-congratulation over the ability of Capitalism to solve all ills, we occasionally overlook one or two priorities. One of these is clearly long-term, basic research, of the kind that produce enormous benefits but will not boost quarterly reports or produce patents. As we contemplate defunding our schools and universities, let us remember that the days of Menlo Park, Bell Labs, and Xerox PARC are long behind us.

Aurora and the Shooting Next Time

Until Americans view handguns as more of a threat than a safeguard, there will be no meaningful progress toward effective handgun control in this country.  As it is, Americans are trapped in a perverse perception of risk, much like people who would rather drive than fly because the plane might crash.  Presumably there is a certain reassurance in knowing that in one's home one has ready to hand a few ounces of cold steel (or plastic) that will let one  blow away any rabid psychopathic home invader bent on pillaging the home and ravishing the inhabitants or worse.  It never seems to occur to such people that that the likelihood of their six-year-old blowing away his kid sister is greater than the likelihood of home invasion.  See, e.g., Kellerman, et al., Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home, New England Journal of Medicine (1993).  Not to mention the greater suicide risk in homes with guns.  The illusion of control provided by having a weapon at hand overpowers any rational calculation of statistical risk.

It has long been a source of frustration to gun control advocates that no effective action is taken in response to tragedies such as the recent multiple homicides in Aurora, Colorado.  After decades of such events, it appears that the American public is emotionally inoculated against the shock that would normally attend them, and they are perpetuated by indifference.  Coupled with the fantasy that sporting one's own firearm renders one immune to the random predations of a lunatic, the result is a vast public inertia, further fueled by an overall decline in violent crime in recent decades.   If the public is unwilling to muster the political will even to support a Federal Assault Weapons Ban, then it seems unlikely that there will be any meaningful gun control legislation in our times.

This is a shame, because even after the Supreme Court's affirmation of the individual right to own a gun in the home in District of Columbia v. Heller, there seems to be ample room for legislation aimed at limiting access to firearms on the part of potential criminals.

Lies and Sex

Is there anything so quaint and slightly nauseating as the pious notion that chastity followed by monogamy  is the natural, inevitable, and divinely ordered relationship between men and women, against which all other sexuality is to be measured?  What is it that makes us believe that a roiling cauldron is to be calmed with a sprinkling of holy water? The efforts of our foremost advocates of chastity and celibacy in recent years appear mostly to have ended in disaster.

Considerations of morality, public health, social order, and child welfare may dictate the social strictures that shape sexual activity, from sanctifying marriage to criminalizing sexual coercion and exploitation of children.  However, as far as I can tell, polymorphous perversity is entirely normal to the human race, and the denial of the wide range, strong nature, and varied tastes in sexual appetite is mere wish fulfilment.  It is as though one said that the natural diet of humankind is porridge, and any other craving is entirely unnatural, unacceptable and deviant. Before the banquet of sexuality, let us not pretend not only that every person must eat porridge, but that we actually prefer it that way.

John Winthrop, for example, clearly demonstrated that there is no contradiction between a faithful marriage, a Godly outlook, and a lusty sexual appetite.  But to suppose that a Winthrop is necessarily more natural than a Byron is a fantasy (and Byron was a good deal more entertaining). If we insist on trying to stuff sexuality into a bag, let us at least recognize that the bag is bursting at the seams.

Apple to Basics to Computers

Scientists are in oversupply reports the Washington Post; the dream of earning one's Ph.D. and eventually running a lab has never seemed farther away.  Which brings me to wonder what Apple Computer is doing with all its cash.  If I were Tim Cook, I would set up a skunk works along the lines of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC, the legendary research centers that pioneered the technological discoveries without which Apple Computer would never have been possible. I would try to pick the best scientists and let them pursue independently directed long-term basic research.  That's how we got the transistor and the graphical user interface (GUI), for example.  We have the scientists.  Let's put them to work.

The Amazon Instant Video Ripoff

It seemed like a good thing while it lasted.  Buy your movies in the cloud and have them to play on your computer anywhere through Amazon Instant Video.  For a little while, it worked like  a charm, and I accumulated a small library of three or four videos.  Then suddenly yesterday, without warning, the video simply cuts out. As best I can ascertain the problem is related to some tweak in Amazon's digital rights management that is not compatible with Adobe flash on Linux.  Maybe this is what I deserve for using a minority operating system.  But Amazon Instant Video has just lost a customer.  And I will think twice before I again buy content that I have to store in the cloud.

Patriotism

The Fourth of July is as good a time as any to reflect on the meaning of patriotism.  For good reason, assassins generally do not get a very good rap in the history books.  But Marcus Junius Brutus is perhaps one of the more unjustly maligned figures in history; not because he murdered Caesar, but because he made a last, futile effort to preserve the Roman Republic.  I attribute this attitude largely to the eloquence and anti-democratic bias of Mr. William Shakespeare, who gave Antony all the good lines.  It is worth remembering from Brutus's story, however, that while very few will have the opportunity and the temptation to establish an empire, anyone can act to preserve the Republic, albeit not always without personal cost.