The Laboratorium
March 2003

Bad Symbolism


Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, a.k.a. the racial affirmative action cases, will be argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, 1 April.

Now, doing anything of this nature on April Fools' Day is unfortunate. But it gets worse. Local fans of racial affirmative action have scheduled a series of remarkably ill-thought-out events for the week.

First up, there's the march on the Supreme Court. As far as I can tell, trying to put this sort of political pressure on the Court concedes that Supreme Court rulings are "political" in the partisan sense; part of the legal argument here, though, is supposed to be that the Court should be apolitical and stay out of the racial affirmative action debate. If you're going to have a rally, why not march on one of the political branches, such as, oh, say, Congress, where there's actual a fierce fight going on over the political composition of the judiciary.

If you don't want to go down to Washington, though, there are plenty of things you can do up here on campus. Wear all black next week, for instance. Huh? Wouldn't a combination of many colors be more appropriately symbolic of the value of racial diversity? And, more to the point, shouldn't the black (of mourning, one presumes) be reserved for the if-and-when of the actual ruling ending state-sponsored race-based educational affirmative action?

The message I'm hearing from the wear-black mandate is "We know how the Supreme Court will rule, and we don't like it, but we know we can't stop it, so therefore we are sad." But that message is a terrible message for a protest, because it's so damn passive.

But wait! There's less! We're also supposed to wear gags to class on Tuesday. If questioned about it, we're supposed to hand out literature instead of speaking. Excuse me while I gag in disgust.

As an initial matter, there will be no questions, beacuse everyone on campus knows about the gag plan by now. I can see it already: packs of kids walking around in gags handing out flyers to each other. Ellen Jamesian campaigns work when people in the audience don't already know why you're not talking.

On a symbolic level, though, this just isn't a gag issue. On-campus military recruiting was plausibly a gag issue: the gags stood for the enforced silence of gays in the military. But conceptualizing racial affirmative action as a free speech issue is such a confusion among categories I wouldn't even know where to begin.

Going around all day on one's knees, now that would symbolize the end of race-based affirmative action. ("Talented minority students are kept down by past and present racism.") Staying home would be appropriate, too. ("Racial minorities will be excluded from the academic community.") But gags? Gag me with a spoon.

Now, I'm for race-based affirmative action, but as previously noted I have some issues with the ways in which it's usually defended. And with tactics like these, who needs the Supreme Court?

The Basic Difference


Most people are here in to learn sophistry, whereas I'm here to learn casuistry.

Both in the bad sense.

Shelving Illogic


Wherever I go in this world, whatever I do, I will never fully escape the feeling that I'm an outsider here. Situations that everyone else navigates effortlessly bring me only confusion and humiliation.

If you look for safety pins at OfficeMush, you will fail. If you repeat the exercise at Home Despot, you will be laughed at.

What, I ask, was so wrong with either of these ideas? Safety pins are hardware, in the classic sense -- "metal goods and utensils." The kinship between pins, nails, picture hooks, and screws is close, or so it seems to me. But I could find only the latter three in a hardware store.

Equally well, my mind classifies safety pins together with staples and paper clips, both staple goods of an office supply store. They're small metallic objects you use to hold stuff together. I also think of them, perhaps, as akin to art supplies, like glue, construction paper, and clothespins, all of which I also saw at OfficeMax. But no safety pins.

There's no need to go into the details of my searches through kitchen supplies and baby essentials (does no one use cloth diapers any more?), but I did eventually find safety pins in a drug store, under "closet supplies." Of course. They were between spools of thread and clothes hangers.

The sewing connection makes sense. I was going to try a crafts store next. But I will never really be able to wrap my mind around various accidents of the American system of classifying consumer items, both across stores and within. The dividing line between supermarkets and drug stores, for example, remains obscure to me, as does the juxtaposition of spices with coffee and tea. On the other hand, the consistent segregation of canned soup from canned vegetables from canned fruit from pasta sauce leaves me baffled every time.

I'm sure there's a reason; I'm equally sure I'll never really understand it.

But They’ll Never Take Our (Iraqi) Freedom


I'm highly amused that the general in command of U.S. Army forces in Iraq is named William Wallace.

Wasted Youth


So I'm walking down York Street at about 10 when three guys wearing only codpieces and sneakers run past me, whooping and carrying magic markers. They reach the corner and turn into a coffee shop; through the window I can see them approaching young women with requests to sign their naked chests. Everyone seems to find this uproariously funny.

This is, mind you, the same place where a few months ago I saw another group of guys, this time in suits, lined up against a wall, being forced to count off in binary, and doing a terrible job of it.

The Antelope Scatter


Lightning strikes the slaughterhouse flagpole and the antelope scatter like minnows as the rain begins to fall, and finally, having lost what was to be lost, my torn and black heart rebels, saying enough already, enough, this is as low as I go.

-- George Saunders

For Some Things


All is not darkness. A few of the things that have not happened since the shooting started:

  • There's been no use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.
  • Iraq hasn't lobbed any missiles at Israel.
  • Baghdad has not been burnt to the ground.
  • There have been no major terrorist reprisals against the U.S.
  • Lynch mobs looking for Arabs are not roaming the streets of U.S. cities.

I'd heard all of the above mentioned as serious possibilities. And while the war is still young, these particular worst-case scenarios haven't materialized. I hope they don't.

Three Degrees


So Microsoft has a "NetGen" product called Threedegrees in beta. That's dumb Microsoft lingo for "Net Generation" and I can't say that the marketing scheme or the quasi-retro quasi-hipster site and product design strike me as very good ideas. Nor, in general, would I say that the world needs yet another instant messaging client whose main selling point is a smileys-on-steroids "feature."

But Threedegrees does include at least one genuinely brilliant idea: the product appears to be a seamless merger of Windows Media Player and MSN Messenger. That is, you can open up a chat group and stream music to the other participants. There's a shared playlist; anyone can add songs to it or change the order. Run your own radio station; preview your friends' music; give a real-time lecture on the subtleties of the orchestration; work and chat to the same beat. This could be huge.

My first reaction was "how can this possibly have gotten past the RIAA?" I'm told that there is indeed a licensing deal in place, a deal that is reflected in the program's built-in limits: no more than 10 members per group, no more than 60 songs per playlist, streams at 64KBps quality, and no permanent downloads. I also have close to zero confidence that the RIAA will remain calm if Threedegrees really starts taking off.

Even with these restrictions, MS has got what appears to be a killer app on its hands. I say "appears to be" because I haven't yet been able to road-test it with other people. I'm looking for some friends to download the beta and see how well Threedegrees works in practice. You'll need Windows XP, broadband Internet access, and a fair amount of patience as you install the various software prerequisites. But if you're willing to give it a try, please let me know and we can give this puppy a proper inspection.

Fogge of War


A few follow-up points to that last post, based on a midafternoon survey of the news:

  • One report has the uprising as having broken out over attempts by Iraqi irregulars to conscript civilians as human shields. Interestingly, the the actual resistance seems to have started only after the execution (by the Iraqi military) of a local Ba'ath official, which outraged other Ba'athists, who then took to the streets.
  • Another version says that the British "seized a senior regional Baath party leader" as a deliberate impetus to anti-Ba'ath revolt. This article quotes British officials as saying both that they don't know "where [the uprising] will take us" and that Iraqis are waiting for coalition support before they rebel.
  • Other accounts have no uprising at all, or just "disturbances." Here, we hear that coalition military presence near the city has been limited to particularized raids and artillery support.
  • Or, perhaps the British have Basra surrounded, are engaging with an Iraqi armored column attempting to leave the city, are delaying entering the city to avoid killing civilians, and are downplaying suggestions that events in the city constitute an "uprising."

Thus, some questions:

  • What is going on in Basra?
  • By the British standard, would the anti-war protests in the West qualify as "uprisings?"
  • Why are there no decent maps of what's going on? I have yet to see a single news organization even attempt to draw a map of Iraq with the usual lines and arrows showing troops and their movements.

But Teach a People To Topple a Tyrant …


I have to say that I'm not really sure what to make of this apparent uprising. On the one hand, Iraqis feeling confident enough to take up arms against Saddam Hussein is a good sign. It shows that we didn't completely misjudge Iraqi public opinion -- and more importantly, it shows the rest of the world the same thing.

Further, home-brew regime change has a lot of advantages for what comes after. Even if they're just participating in the regime change that's coming anyway, the uprisers are participating. It's not quite bowling leagues, but it's a start.

(Of course, this technique is ideologically neutral. When the Chinese Communist revolution took over a peasant village, it would have the villagers collectively execute the richest landowner in the area. After this looking-glass version of a trust-building exercise, they were all in it together.)

But I'm also worried, because an uprising now seems awfully stupid. Is there, or is there not, a large foreign army already in Iraq with the declared goal of overthrowing Iraq's current government? Does this army not have overwhelming firepower and the most extensive support infrastructure in the world? Does anyone seriously think that this army is likely to be defeated -- and by a thin enough margin that popular uprisings would tip the balance in its favor?

What, after all, are we doing about this uprising? Apparently, keeping our distance and lobbing some artillery shells at the bad guys. A cynic would say that we sent an army around the world so that they could stand back and let someone else do some of the fighting. Someone else who is substantially less well-armed and well-organized, and who is therefore likely not just to do more of the fighting but also more of the dying. Isn't it the point of our modern army that it specializes -- in various quite ruthlessly effective ways -- in making the other guy die for his country (or in this case, his country's dictator)?

The subject is complicated, and I would welcome being better-educated on it. But now that the population of Basra is in open revolt, is it not our job to send in the ground troops as quickly as possible, lest we wind up with a mini-Warsaw? Is that what the British are doing already, and the news just hasn't gotten out yet?

Any and Or


Here's a fun quotation from my admin casebook:

Do you think the words "any" and "or" have as fixed a meaning as Chief Justice Rehnquist does? (And, by the way, do you think the just-preceding sentence would mean something different if it said: "Do you think the words "any" or "or" have as fixed a meaning as Chief Justice Rehnquist does?)

Peter L. Strauss et al., Gellhorn and Byse's Administrative Law 1007 (10th ed. 2003).

Naively. I'd say "no" and "yes," respectively, but I'm open to arguments that the second answer should also be "no."`

Now for the logical games. As a threshold matter, there's a missing quotation mark near the end, between the "?" and the ")". Presumably, it'll appear in the eleventh edition. One could object to the failure to encode embedded quotation marks; the appropriate fix is left as an exercise for the reader.

More seriously, let's try repunctuating the first sentence to a new, and somewhat more amusing version:

Do you think the words "any" and "or" have as fixed a meaning as "Chief Justice Rehnquist" does?"

My answer to this one, unfortunately, turns on the meaning of "as." On a broad reading, I'd say "yes," but if we demand strict equality, I'd say "no."

More subtly, there's a semantic problem lurking in here. For two words to have "a" meaning, as the first question asks, they must have the same meaning, implying that "any" and "or" are equivalent. Thus, this question's answer is vacuously false. There's a way out of this problem: treating "words" as a kind of quantifier (over the finite set {"any", "or"}), we can give it greater scope than the quantifier "a" (over the set of meanings). This scoping is at least possible, although it's the less natural one.

The second question, on the other hand, isn't even grammatical. It has a singular subject inside the noun clause ("the words "any" or "or"") but a plural verb ("have"). So it's not clear that this question has any answer at all.

This pair also seems as though it ought to be susceptible to Godelization, but I haven't quite worked out a version I'm satisfied with.

With which I am satisfied.

Uncle Sam’s Ass


So I saw this picture of a carnival float from Dusseldorf's Rose Monday parade. My thoughts:
  • I am not going to make fun of anti-European fervor in this country any more. We have nothing on the Dusseldorfians when it comes to fervor.
  • Why can't we have floats like this one in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade?
  • Germany has a street carnival season. Who knew?

A Fall in Opposite


So complete is Number Eleven's ruin that there's nothing left but the sound of the crash, rising in the shaft, a fall in opposite: a soul.

-- Colson Whitehead

A Fall in Opposite


So complete is Number Eleven's ruin that there's nothing left but the sound of the crash, rising in the shaft, a fall in opposite: a soul.

-- Colson Whitehead

A Screaming Comes


A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

-- Thomas Pynchon

O Bloody Period


Lodovico: O bloody period! Graziano: All that is spoke is marred.

-- William Shakespeare

A Matter of Timing


Of course, everything I wrote in my last entry about this war should really have been in the past tense, because the last point at which any minds at all were going to change was a long time ago.

Thanks, Dar


In the liner notes for her latest album, Dar Williams dedicates the title song to "J.G."

It's fun to pretend that she had me in mind.

Tripmaster Cat


So it wasn't until the Thursday before spring break before I was able to think about my plans. No real reason, just my limited time horizon of late. But something special happened Thursday: I got the email with the calendar of Nields appearances for the next few months. It struck me -- contrary to my earlier suppositions to the contrary -- that Pawling is in downstate New York, not upstate, which made their Friday concert a logistical possibility. And somehow, that unblocked everything for me.

Pawling is about an hour and a half away. The drive took me out Connecticut route 34; I had the sense it would have been quite scenic in the daylight. As it was, I didn't see all that much, with the exception of a grey cat that darted out onto the road (and then wisely darted back) a few miles before I hit 84.

I wound up, through some stroke of good fortune whose source remains a mystery to me, at the very front of the audience. I was close enough to touch Katryna. (It was just her and Nerissa at the show: two unearthly voices and an acoustic guitar with a "hate free zone" sticker.) I refrained; I would have hated to startle her. Instead, I beamed up at her with a stupid grin of insane happiness.

It was a great experience. Too much music is escapist; some music wallows in sorrow. But the Nields suck the poison out of your psychic wounds; their songs seek out the bad vibes and neutralize them. "Easy People" is a song about friendship and the frustration of impermanence, but something about those descending vocal harmonies endures forever in the heart.

And then, on the way back, I saw that same grey cat on the same stretch of road, as though it had been waiting for me all those hours.

The Missing Conversation


The problem is that casting the debate in terms of being "for war" or "against war" precludes meaningful progress. There are many possible wars, and many possible peaces; choosing "war" or "peace" up front cuts off the serious work involved in debating our way through those possibilities.

I'm furious at just about everyone right now. Start with the Bush administration, whose polemophilia has led it actively to undermine every proposed non-military option. Effective inspection-based disarmament and an exile-for-regime-change deal, for example, might not seem so unlikely had our nation's diplomatic and military planners not trash-talked them quite so severely and so unnecesarily. It takes some amazingly hard work to exude bad faith this strongly, but somehow the Bushies have managed. The forgery and the inept plagiarism are more than just embarassing; they make it impossible to evade the inference that the conclusory tail is wagging the evidentiary dog.

The credibility hawks, who think that a nation that has taken such a belligerent stance cannot now afford to back down, deserve special contempt. That was how World War I started, after all; had Austria-Hungary been willing to stand down, it might have survived. (Besides, the credibility argument works in reverse, too: a nation whose sabre-rattling commits it to war is a nation that cannot be trusted with a sabre.)

The anti-war activists have learned nothing from the 2000 election. The insistence that the war can and must be stopped may be a useful organizing technique, but purity of principle won't save any Iraqi lives once the bombs start falling. With all of the sound and light coming from the left, where is the legislation for a second Marshall Plan? Where is the concern for Iraqi refugees? Where is the insistence that civilians be spared even at the risk of more American casualties? I hate Bush, too, but there are more important causes than standing up to him for its own sake.

The balking hawks are being obtuse in the same way, of course. Guess what, guys? Back when you signed on "for war," you should have been a little more specific about what kind of war you were siging on for. But you weren't, and if the only response you have is to want to unsign, you're not going to be taken seriously, because you don't deserve to be. If Bush isn't about to wage the multilateral, UN-approved, nation-building sort of war you want him to wage, your job is to hold some feet to the fire and get the right war, not to undercut your own reasoning by suddenly pretending to recognize realities that have been obvious for months.

More than anyone else, though, I'm enraged at the Europeans, because they're the ones with the power to fix things, even at this late date, and they're squandering the opportunity. When it comes to UN credibility and multilateralism, the damage is either already done (whether you hold the US or France responsible for sticking the knife in, the Security Council is already a joke) or will never take place (whatever face-saving deal we all cut in the end will salvage our foreign relations somewhere well-shy of the recall-of-ambassadors stage). And notice, please, that the multilateral interests being asserted here, are those of the EU, and not those of the rest of the world (especially the countries with substantial Muslim populations). But that sort of engagement is precisely backwards, if you think of multilateralism as a political technique for cutting off the oxygen-rich atmosphere of anger in which terrorism burns.

What are the Europeans bickering over? Timing. Procedure. The language of authorizing resolutions. In other words, all the issues that have zero intrinsic importance and whose procedural importance will vanish the instant the shooting starts. These are questions whose answers affect neither the rightness nor the consequences of war, and yet these are the "compromises" for which the Europeans are holding out. In the face of such moral frivolity, it's easy to pick on the French. They asked for it when they showed greater concern for the sanctity of Resolution 1441 than for the stability of the Middle East.

I'm against this war, on the grounds that the President must be discouraged, as strongly as possible, from making such phenomenal diplomatic cock-ups, and refusing him his war is about the only leverage available. I'm against this war, on the grounds that the blowback from peeved "allies" and outraged Muslims will be awful beyond belief. And I'm against this war, on the grounds that a great many of innocent people will die in it.

But, the thing is, these defects can be dealt with. Not perfectly, to be sure, but it is possible to clear up the bad blood, to assuage the rage with memorable shows of good faith, to make the slaughter less wholesale. Would I be for or against the war if these things were done (or, even more counterfactually, had been done)?

That question, as they say, is not before this court. And, in a subtler sense, neither is the question of whether I'm for or against this war. No one made me judge. No one gave me a ballot with clearly marked "yes" or "no" boxes and a promise that my vote would make any kind of difference. The war, as such, is not an up-or-down proposition. I'd rather put my energy into making the actual war a more just war, or the actual peace a more just peace, than into splitting the hairs and balancing the equities of a wholly abstract "war" and an equally undefined "peace."

Take THAT, Frogs!


In the spirit of freedom fries, I'd like to offer a few more suggestions for those eager to deliver symbolic smackdowns to the French:

  • Send back the Statute of Liberty! This Parisian hussy and her open-border policy have no place on our freedom-loving shores!
  • Move the capitol! Our nation's seat of government was laid out by a Frenchman, which explains why it has so many lily-livered rotaries, instead of solid American intersections.
  • Impeach Thomas Jefferson! The man was our ambassador to France, for goodness sake. Talk about aid and comfort. And we should deal harshly with that Ben Franklin creep, too.
  • Undo WWII so we can give France back to the Germans! No, wait, the Germans are on our snit list, too, so cancel that one.
  • Abolish democracy! The guy who wrote "Democracy in America" was another filthy frog, so we shouldn't be having none of that here.
  • Fight the Revolution again! Back when we kicked England's butt and won our freedom, the French insisted on horning in. We should go back and prove that we could have done it all by ourselves. After all, that's how we're going to do this next war.

Doing the Math


Here at the Lab, we pride ourselves on going the extra mile in our news analysis. Thus, when we heard that Don Johnson was caught by German police with $8 billion in bonds and other securities on him, ostensibly on his way to a DaimlerChrysler factory near Stuttgart to buy a car, our job was clear.

Other blogs might harp on the irony of the Miami Vice star being involved with what looks, on the face of it, to be a money laundering scheme. Not us. We're more interested in investigating the mathematical plausibility of his excuse.

According to Yahoo! Autos, the most expensive car made by DaimlerChrysler is the Mercedes-Benz CL600 Coupe, at $124,900. Dividing that figure into $8 billion tells us that Johnson could have driven off with 64,051 CL600s.

True, that may sound like a large number, but keep in mind that Mercedes sells at least ten times than many cars each year. So in the scheme of things, it's not as though Johnson was asking the impossible. Maybe he's just with cars the way Jerry Seinfeld is with sneakers.

Deviant Robotic Monkeys


So I mentioned that I was going to a conference. After many misadventures, I've managed to finish off my report on the event for LawMeme. Have at.

Stewardship Contracting


Under a new plan hidden in a spending bill last month, logging companies will be allowed to clear milions of acres of public forests. Under the plan, the companies will be doing the country a "favor" by clearing small trees and brush, which pose the biggest risk of forest fires. In exchange, they'll be allowed to cut the big trees, too.

Full disclosure. Here at the Lab, we're not such big fans of this scheme. This article offers up plenty of good reasons to be worried, not least the snide attitude of Mark Rey, the former timber industry executive who oversees the Forest Service. In his words, "Maybe we'll offer The Wilderness Society the opportunity to bid on a contract and see if they can do a good job at it."

But still, here at the Lab, we're not really experts in forest management, the timber industry, or environemntal policy. What we know about, from extensive personal experience, is rank stupidity. And when we look at a policy that can be boiled down to "Let's stop forest fires by cutting down all the trees," our dumbometers (that's dumb-OM-e-ters, not dumb-o-MEE-ters) go off the chart.

Be your policy wise or foolish, if you hand your opponents such a potent rhetorical weapon, you deserve all the trouble you get. I can see the editorial cartoons and Daily Show jokes already.

Dear Aegis


Dear aegis.cs.princeton.edu,

You have been loading the main page here at the Lab every half hour for the last four days. Why?

Sincerely,

The Laboratorium Staff

Sneaky, Very Sneaky


After some repeated close listens (oh, the sacrifices I make for you, my reading public), I finally figured out part of why "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (off of Yonder, the first of the two Red Clay Ramblers CDs to arrive) is so effective.

It's in D-sharp minor.

For those of you who're playing along at home, that's six sharps. The melody is entirely pentatonic, which means that on a piano, it comes out entirely on the black keys. Hence the muted, wintry feel that pervades the song. D-sharp minor (or, its relative major, F-sharp, which is the same thing) is also not a tuning one just stumbles across on a guitar, either. This was a very deliberate choice on the Ramblers' part.

(Digression: I've always been baffled by the way in which different keys have different feels, even on a keyboard instrument tuned with perfect equal temperament. By any mathematical reasoning, they shouldn't, especially for those of us not blessed with perfect pitch. And yet they do. D major is bright and energetic; C minor is heavy and oppressive. And just about everyone trained in piano I know can easily tell a tune mostly in white notes from a tune mostly in black notes -- even when they're off by as much as it's possible to be off by in picking out which particular black note key we're talking about.)

Anyway, it's a good song, and I don't feel quite so bad at my initial confusion trying to transcribe it. When I sat down, I just assumed it would be in a nice easy key, and grew increasingly frustrated at my inability to play along. True, my bafflement speaks ill of my long-term memory and reveals just how much of my musical education I've managed to slough off ovet the years, but I'm not quite as musically senile as I'd feared.

Share and Enjoy


As part of being a socially-responsible Internet citizen, I'm making everything on this site available under a Creative Commons License.

Creative Commmons is Larry Lessig's lastest project; it's a set of reasonable terms for authors who think that copyright's restrictions are overkill. The Laboratorium has never been about wringing every last drop of financial value from my intellectual property. The things that I write here, I write to spur discussion and to encourage the flow of ideas and creativity on the Internet. I want people to pick up my ideas and build on them, just as I want to be able to build on the ideas of others.

Thus, in addition to the (increasingly puny) fair use "rights" guaranteed to you by copyright law, I want you, my readers and my friends, to have various other rights to my writings, rights that guarantee your ability to make your own creative uses of my words. If you copy what I write here and mail it to your friends, you are not infringing my copyright. We're cool. If you shout what I say here from a street corner, we're cool. If you turn my jokes back against me, we're cool. Go wild.

I'm setting a few basic conditions, spelled out in more detail on my policy page, at the Creative Commons site, and in the full legal license. Credit me as the author, don't make money off me, and share with others. These rules aren't absolutes; they're just a baseline. If you'd like some other arrangement, I'm sure we can work something out. The point of the Creative Commons License is that most of the time, for straightforward uses, you don't need to ask me first.

Share and enjoy.

Creative Commons


Except as otherwise noted, everything on this site was written by me, James Grimmelmann. I retain the copyright, with dates ranging from 1989 to 2003, to all content here. Under the terms of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the words of the Lab will enter the public domain seventy years after my death. Since I'm still alive as I write this in 2003, that won't be before 2073.

This state of affairs is just ridiculous. That's why I'm making everything here available, free of charge, under a Creative Commons License. The full details are encoded below in RDF format; the full legal version is also available.

In brief, you can do almost anything you like with my words, as long as you follow a few simple conditions. You can copy my writings, distribute them, stage public readings, translate them into foreign tongues, perform merciless line-by-line MSTings of them, and generally use them as you see fit in the pursuit of your own creative vision. However . . .

  • You must continue to identify me as the author.
  • You may not use my words for commercial purposes.
  • When it comes to letting other people use your version of my writings, you must be at least as generous with them as I have been with you.

If you don't like these terms, write me. I'm happy to consider any other arrangement you'd like to suggest. These are just the terms I'm willing to sign off on for anyone, anytime.

Share and enjoy.

At Least …


. . . today's trip to the dentist wasn't so bad. When I popped a crown on Tuesday, I feared the worst, but it turned out to be a quick and (literally) painless regluing job.

February Was So Long That It Lasted Into March



And then the snow,
And then the snow came, we were always out shoveling,
And we'd drop to sleep exhausted,
Then we'd wake up, and it's snowing.

-- Dar Williams

Some Questions About Democracy


(An old but unpublished piece from my archives. Fresh content, er, sometime.)

One

  • Who should be allowed to vote?
  • Does it matter to your answer that most of the Framers thought women could be citizens without being able to vote?
  • Does it matter to your answer that most the authors of the Fifteenth Amendment thought that blacks should be able to vote, but not otherwise be fully equal to whites?
  • At what age should children be able to vote?
  • Should seniors be able to vote?
  • The senile?
  • Others with severe mental dysfunctions?
  • Convicted felons?
  • Should you be able to renounce the right to vote?
  • How long should recent immigrants have to wait before being able to vote?
  • Does it bother you that residents of Washington, D.C. aren't represented in Congress?
  • People out of the country on Election Day -- yes or no?

Two

  • How hard should it be to vote?
  • Is it good enough to have a polling place every ten square blocks?
  • Every hundred?
  • Every thousand?
  • How long a line is acceptable?
  • Should we keep the polls open for a week to give people more chances?
  • Should you be able to vote online, or is it better to have to make some effort, so that decisions are more deliberate?
  • Do you think the butterfly ballots?
  • If you think there is something wrong with the butterly ballot, what should we do about it now?
  • Should hanging chads have been counted as votes?
  • Dimpled chads?
  • If it came to light that the ballot boxes from a particular city had been stolen, what should be done about it?
  • Is it enough to have an intention to cast a particular vote, or do you have to succeed in some sort of arts and crafts task, too?
  • How would you feel if you voted by folding a paper airplane and throwing it into one bin or another?

Three

  • How strong is the obligation to vote??
  • Should we pay people to vote.
  • Should we punish them if they don�t?
  • Should people who are involuntarily hospitalized on their way to the polling place be given a second chance?
  • Is it their fault for not voting?
  • Should people save the life of a child caught on the railroad tracks if it would take up so much time that they wouldn�t be able to make it to the polls before they closed?
  • What if it were a puppy dog instead?
  • A snail?
  • Should you vote if it means taking off early from work?
  • If it means losing your job because you took off early from work?
  • Is it better to vote yourself or to drive two stuck-at-home seniors to the polls?

Four

  • On what principles should you vote?
  • How should you weight various issues in making your choice?
  • Should those issues be different for different people?
  • Is it morally acceptable to vote your pocketbook?
  • If you think that people should (or should not) be allowed to hit their parents with planks, is it okay to cast your vote based soleley on a politician�s stance on the issue?
  • Is it possible to vote irresponsibly?
  • If so, what would voting "irresponsibly" mean?
  • Is it irresponsible to vote for the candidate with better teeth?
  • To vote by flipping a coin?
  • Is it okay to vote for a candidate who has no hope of winning, to "send a signal"?
  • Is it okay to vote for a ficus tree?
  • To vote without watching the debates or reading up on the candidates?
  • Was it ethical for Democrats to vote for McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries?
  • What if they really wanted him to win the overall election?

Five

  • Is voting enough?
  • What about all those other things political theorists are always jabbering about?
  • Is there an obligation to tell other people what you think?
  • How loudly?
  • Are you a bad person if you don�t submit op-eds to your town newspaper?
  • If your answer to the previous question was "no," what if nobody did?
  • Bob Putnam says that if you were a real citizen, you�d go join a bowling league; should you?
  • Is it okay to brainwash people?
  • What about bribing them?
  • Cornering them in an airport until they run away?

Six

  • Is it okay to spend money to influence an election?
  • Is it right that Mike Bloomberg could spend millions and millions of dollars of his own money to become mayor?
  • That Mark Green could spend millions and millions of other rich people�s money to not become mayor?
  • Are you doing something bad when you send ten dollars to your cousin who�s running for dog-catcher?
  • Ten thousand dollars?
  • Would it make a difference if you sent in the money anonymously?
  • Does it matter how the money is spent?
  • Are attack ads better or worse than overnight polls?

Seven

  • If you could subvert the political process, would you?
  • If lobbyist friend offers to make any bill you want die in committee, is it wrong to take him up on the offer?
  • What if it�s a leprechaun instead of a lobbyist?
  • What if he offered to do it for ten thousand dollars? Does it make a difference if it�s a spending bill or a bill about family planning policy?
  • Your local beat police chief offers not to enforce the no-hitting-your-parents-with-planks law if you slip him a twenty -- should you?
  • Conversely, if he doesn't want to enforce the planks ordinance, do you have an obligation to make him enforce it?
  • Is it ever right to take the law into your own hands?
  • What if he and everyone else in your town � even the parents � agree that a little plank action is good now and then, but the feds just seem to disagree?
  • Would your answer change if it were polygamy instead of hitting parents with planks?
  • Assisted suicide?
  • Abortion?
  • Child pornography?
  • Is it wrong to vote for a local dog-catcher candidate who promises to subvert the wrongheaded federal dog-catching statute?
  • Is "subvert" even the right term to describe these interactions with the political process?

Eight

  • What counts as fair play?
  • If you surround Congress with tanks and it passes your bill, does it count?
  • In what sense(s)?
  • What if you surrounded their families with tanks?
  • Is that different from surrounding some random people in some other country with tanks?
  • What if you�re just fighting for independence from the warlords who control your country and you won�t stop fighting until the US government extends you diplomatic recognition?
  • Was it wrong for Roosevelt to try to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court?
  • Does it matter to your answer that the Supreme Court's size fluctuated in the nineteenth century?
  • Was the Supreme Court on okay ground deciding Bush v. Gore?
  • What if they decided to unseat Bush now and put Gore in instead?
  • Was it okay for them to order Congress to seat Adam Clayton Powell?
  • What if they decided to order Congress to unseat Fritz Hollings because they don�t like the cut of his jib?
  • Would your answer change if Hollings were convicted of mail fraud?
  • Second-degree murder?
  • What, precisely do you think �high crimes and misdemeanors� are?
  • Who should get to decide what they are?
  • Is this the sort of thing you could put to a vote?
  • What, if anything, would be wrong with a constitutional amendment saying that Joe Lieberman should be drawn and quartered and his children declared anathema unto the seventh generation, assuming it was passed and ratified according to Hoyle?

Nine

  • When is it ethically defensible to break a democratically-decided law?
  • If the state legislature says it�s illegal to teach slaves to read, what do you do?
  • Would it matter if it were a voter initiative that enacted the law?
  • If you think that slaves should be literate and choose to break the law, would you teach them to read publicly, or in secret?
  • Should you fight those who attempt to enforce the law?
  • What about trying to get them in trouble by tricking them into overstepping their boundaries as they enforce it?
  • Hunger strikes?
  • How about paying your taxes?
  • What�s the difference between good respectable business expense deductions and bad evil offshore tax haven deductions?
  • Is it okay to avoid taxes if your money is being spent on orbital mind-control lasers?
  • What if it�s only a tiny fraction of your money?
  • What if you object to your tax money being used to fund an expensive new stadium for the football team you don�t even like, anyway?

Ten

  • How far do our obligations go in respecting other people�s systems of government?
  • What if they don�t let women vote?
  • If they board American ships on the high seas and press sailors into their navy?
  • If they harbor terrorists?
  • Which of these things would justify interfering with their system in any of the ways listed above?
  • In which ways?
  • Is it okay to rig elections?
  • To tell them that the bombing will continue until they pass the laws we want?
  • Is it more important to promote democracy or other interests?
  • Should you pardon human rights criminals if it�ll mean they�ll give up their undemocratic hold on power?
  • Can a population lose the right to self-determination?
  • What would it take?
  • How could they get it back?
  • What do you do when Germany elects a Hitler?
  • When Algeria elects an Islamic fundamentalist party and the military steps in to keep them from taking power?
  • What if the Islamists had promised to suspend democracy in their platform?
  • And in any case where you said �yes, we can do that to them,� would you also be okay with them doing it to us?

Meta

  • Aren't all of these questions really the same question, deep down?
  • What are the ethical obligations of living in a democracy?

I’m Back


To mention good luck is to jinx it, I suppose. It's been a long last week; one of the longest of my life. I'm fine now, or at least stable, so no worries on my behalf, please.

Now would be a good time to call a friend and look to those in need. It's a fragile world we live in, one filled with the most amazing people and with wonders and horrors almost beyond belief.

Peace be upon you all.