Thursday, April 30, 2009

Does this mean Mexicans are now kosher?

This is pretty funny:

JERUSALEM (AP) — The outbreak of swine flu should be renamed "Mexican" influenza in deference to Muslim and Jewish sensitivities over pork, said an Israeli health official Monday.

Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman said the reference to pigs is offensive to both religions and "we should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu," he told a news conference at a hospital in central Israel.

I wonder if Hindu health officials want to re-name "mad cow disease".

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Greenwald throws some cold water on Specter switch


(1) The idea that Specter is a "liberal" Republican or even a "moderate" reflects how far to the Right both the GOP and our overall political spectrum has shifted.

Consider Specter’s most significant votes over the last eight years, ones cast in favor of such definitive right-wing measures as: the war on Iraq, the Military Commissions Act, Patriot Act renewal, confirmation of virtually every controversial Bush appointee, retroactive telecom immunity, warrantless eavesdropping expansions, and Bush tax cuts (several times). Time and again during the Bush era, Specter stood with Republicans on the most controversial and consequential issues.

(2) Democrats will understandably celebrate today’s announcement, but beyond the questions of raw political power, it is mystifying why they would want to build their majority by embracing politicians who reject most of their ostensible views.

Reports today suggest that Democratic officials promised Specter that the party establishment would support him, rather than a real Democrat, in a primary. If true, few events more vividly illustrate the complete lack of core beliefs of Democratic leaders, as well as the rapidly diminishing differences between the parties.
This is true. I think Specter should be primaried by a progressive Democrat. That will force Specter to tack leftward. And I think the Democratic establishment shouldn't rush in to protect Specter if this happens. A progressive Democrat could probably still defeat a Repblican candidate like Toomey, and would be a much better person to have in the seat.

Quote of the Day

John Cole:
At this point, the GOP might want to re-introduce the Schiavo legislation, just replacing the name “Terri Schiavo” with Republican.

Specter flips!

Just heard on NPR that Senator Specter (R-PA) is now Senator Specter (D-PA). This was a shrewd move on his part. He'll probably beat Toomey handily now. The Republicans really gave him no choice. Now Specter has no incentive to tack rightward, which is a good thing indeed. He may still he hard to bring aboard a progressive agenda, though. I haven't yet read any progressive blogosphere reaction; will do so soon.

[I sent this from my iPhone, so please excuse any excessive brevity or
typographical errors.]
--Zachary Drake

Update: Sullivan rounds up some reactions. Anonymous Liberal has a thought similar to mine:

First, from a political perspective, instead of facing serious pressure from the Right (because of Toomey's primary challenge), he will now face serious pressure to move to the left on various issues. That's because he's now going to have to run in a Democratic primary, and though the party will do what it can to clear the field for him, he'll still likely face some competition. And whoever he faces in the primary will play up his or her own Democratic bona fides while attacking Specter's lack thereof. So Specter will have to do things to prove that he is a legitimate Democrat. And if he proves to be a major obstacle to Obama's agenda, he'll suffer for it; the honeymoon will be over very quickly.

Vote "No" on all six May 19th California ballot measures

Most progressive organizations I know of are coalescing around voting "No" on all six ballot measures in California's May 19th special election. The Bay Area Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club is one such organization. Calitics is another. The Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry is yet another (and their chart lists several other organizations also encouraging no votes, as well as some who are encouraging yes votes).

I really think we need to get rid of the 2/3 budget requirement and Prop 13. Until those things are done, California will be hostage to Republican extremists and basically ungovernable.

Rick Perry decides being part of the United States has its advantages

Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas who recently had been flirting with secession, has decided to request help from the tyrannical federal government:
SAN ANTONIO – Gov. Rick Perry has asked for 37,430 courses of anti-viral medicine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of the swine flu outbreak.
What, the Lone Star State doesn't have it's own Center for Disease Control? Tsk tsk. I hope the folks down there see that being part of Obama's Socialist Tyranny of Mandatory Gay Marriage does come with some benefits.

Yo Republicans, confirm Sebelius already

Your party is rapidly dwindling to laughable insignificance. One thing you could do to lessen slightly my contempt for your party is to allow Sebelius' confirmation to go through. We're facing a potential flu pandemic without a Secretary of Health and Human Services, thanks to your obstruction.

And Olympia Snowe (R-Maine): Bet you feel pretty stupid for cutting flu pandemic preparedness out of the stimulus bill. And conventional wisdom is that you're one of the moderates. Sigh.

Republicans are human beings. I must keep reminding myself of that.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Term of the Day: Bungalow

"Bungalow" is a term that gets thrown around a lot in housing. But what is it, exactly? Jane Powell has an article on the subject in The Berkeley Daily Planet. Her definition:
A bungalow is a one or one-and-a-half story house of simple design, expressed structure, built from natural or local materials, with a low-slope roof, overhanging eaves, and a prominent porch, built during the Arts and Crafts period in America (approximately 1900-1930). If it’s two stories it’s no longer a bungalow, though it can still be Arts and Crafts or craftsman (often known in Berkeley as a “brownshingle”).
Both our current house and the house we are considering purchasing would qualify as bungalows.

Lindsay Wildlife Museum

I love how the injured birds perch so dutifully above the plaques
explaining their history. Apparently, perching in one place for long
periods of time is normal behavior for predatory birds.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Quinn studies Kitty while she eats

Homeownership: more complicated than I thought

OK, we've done some inspections. The house needs foundation work. As in, a new foundation. A bunch of people come over, lift up your house, put it on thingys, jackhammer the old foundation (or, in the case of this crumbly one, just kick it vigorously), build a new foundation, and attach the house to it. There are firms that specialize in this. The engineer thought that this would cost about $50,000.

Oh, and it needs chimney work, electrical repairs, a new furnace, some roof work, and some of the kitchen appliances don't work. And that's just the high priority stuff. We're getting a bunch of estimates on Tuesday. They could easily come in at $80K total. Then we're going to present those to the seller and try to get the price reduced. If she does not do so sufficiently, we'll have to cancel our offer. (Since we'd do so during the inspection period, we lose no money except what we've already spent on inspections).

So much education in so little time! SO MUCH MONEY!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Homeownership is coming!!!

Our offer was accepted. Now the inspection period begins... EEEK!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Republican death spiral watch

Scene: a smoke filled back-room at Republican National Headquarters.
Republican Strategist 1: How will we take back the Senate in 2010? The Democrats are very close to getting a filibuster proof majority!

Republican Strategist 2: I know! We'll take a relatively popular, almost-impossible-to-unseat incumbent, Arlen Specter (R-PA), and have him knocked off in a primary by Club For Growth right-winger Pat Toomey! This way, we'll surrender the advantage of popular incumbency and put forward an unknown wingnut in a state that voted for Obama over McCain by 10 points!

Other Republicans: Sounds like a fantastic idea!
Specter would be basically unbeatable. Toomey, by contrast, could win depending on whether or not a strong candidate emerges against him. But you wouldn’t really bet on it. Pennsylvania’s not the bluest state in the nation, but there’s little evidence that an orthodox conservative can beat an orthodox progressive in a statewide race. Obama beat McCain by ten points, Kerry beat Bush by two and a half, Gote beat Bush by four, Clinton beat Dole by ten, and Clinton beat Bush by nine. Ed Rendell’s been elected governor twice, and his Republican predecessor was, like Specter, a moderate.

This is all reminiscent of the 2008 Virginia Senate race, which I think never got enough attention. You had a longstanding conservative state that had been trending blue. And you had a very strong Democratic candidate in Mark Warner. And you had one and only one possible Republican nominee who would have stood a chance to beat Warner in moderate Representative Tom Davis. But not only did the Virginia GOP decline to nominate Davis, they actually changed the rules by which the nominee is picked to stack the deck against Davis. The result was a totally noncompetitive senate race. The Republicans just fronted the Democrats a Republican-held Senate seat. And Davis decided to retire, thus leaving his House seat open to be nabbed by a Democrat as well. It was staggeringly self-defeating move. And now they’re set to do it again in Pennsylvania

It seems a bit like overconfidence, but how could a movement that’s clearly on the ropes be feeling overconfident.

Cookie dough all for me! None for you!

Interface gripe of the day

You know how in your email inbox, the emails you've replied to have that little curled arrow next to them? How come when you click on that arrow, it doesn't take you to the reply you sent? Instead you gotta go dig through your sent items folder. I can't believe that this isn't a standard feature on all email programs.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Your advertising dollars at work

Thank you very much, Internal Monologue readers. Your ad revenue has got me all of this, and I still have a few dollars left over. Despite the depression, my ad revune rate seems to be increasing even though my readership (i.e. people who stumble in from Google) has been pretty steady. Maybe Google is getting more generous with their revenue sharing, or cleverer at targeting their ads.

Greenwald on Harman scandal

Democrat Jane Harman was a leading defender of the warrantless wiretapping done by the Bush administration. Now, she's pissed that her phone conversations were recorded as part of an investigation. Greenwald:
So if I understand this correctly -- and I'm pretty sure I do -- when the U.S. Government eavesdropped for years on American citizens with no warrants and in violation of the law, that was "both legal and necessary" as well as "essential to U.S. national security," and it was the "despicable" whistle-blowers (such as Thomas Tamm) who disclosed that crime and the newspapers which reported it who should have been criminally investigated, but not the lawbreaking government officials. But when the U.S. Government legally and with warrants eavesdrops on Jane Harman, that is an outrageous invasion of privacy and a violent assault on her rights as an American citizen, and full-scale investigations must be commenced immediately to get to the bottom of this abuse of power. Behold Jane Harman's overnight transformation from Very Serious Champion of the Lawless Surveillance State to shrill civil liberties extremist.
A civil libertarian is an advocate of unlimited executive power who's phone has been tapped.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Peak wingnut": demographically yes, but activity-wise no

I think right-wing nuttery is demographically doomed. But the fact that its lost its grip on mainstream power (outside of certain regional ghettos) means that they are feeling bewildered, angry, and paranoid. Thus, we're seeing an increase in right-wing activity like the recent "teabagging" events.

So I happy and worried: happy that right-wing extremism as an electoral strategy is going to be less and less viable. But I'm worried that disempowered right-wing extremists will resort to violence as their political power wanes.

Here's a scary thought: What if someone figures out how to make right-wing extremism appealing to minorities in this country? Then we're in big trouble.

Another Republican dismissive of Limbaugh clarifies statement

Political Animal counts five prominent Republicans who have gone through the ritual of saying something critical about Rush Limbaugh, then subsequently kissing up to him.

Take Star Wars intellectual property away from Lucas

I know this is too late, but I'm hereby advocating for the Star Wars intellectual property to be taken away from George Lucas and given to a consortium of fans. They could then hire directors and writers who can actually direct and write. This should have been done before Phantom Menace was made. I'll never forgive Lucas for making Natalie Portman look like a bad actor.

Monday, April 20, 2009

This Used To Be The Future

From Sullivan:

Sent to you via Google Reader

This Used To Be The Future


Chino Otsuka makes double portraits:

Images of Otsuka as an adult are craftily combined with snaps of the artist as a child, pinched from the family photo album. The resultant composite snapshots are both glaringly literal and astoundingly subtle musings on the contemporary relevance of the self-portrait.

More here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ninjas jealous of all the attention pirates are getting

You gotta figure there are some modern-day ninjas who are jealous of all
the mindshare that Somali pirates (and intellectual property pirates)
are getting these days. There were those "NINJA" loans (no income, job,
or assets), but that doesn't really count. So how are the ninjas going
to make a comeback?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Torture, prosecution, lethargy, and the American public

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama's statements about torture:
Bearing in mind yesterday's revelations, this really sticks out for me:

Mr. Obama condemned what he called a "dark and painful chapter in our history" and said that the interrogation techniques would never be used again. But he also repeated his opposition to a lengthy inquiry into the program, saying that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."
I think this is wrong. More than that I think it's dismissive, silly and bordering on insult to any literate human being. In point of fact "spending our time and energy laying blame for the past" is exactly what the justice system does. By Obama's logic murderers would go free in the streets. The real question is not whether you're going to lay blame for the past, but who your going to lay it on, and for which past. What Obama is really saying in this statement is he won't hold this particular group accountable, for this particular past.
And he also says:
All of that said, what really disturbs me about all of this, is that most Americans still don't think torture is a big deal. I think in the case of Bush, particularly after 2004, we--the American people--got the government we deserved. I think Bush said a lot about who we were post-9/11. I'd like to see some exploration into how to make this torture argument directly to the people. Maybe we can't. Maybe people really don't care that much. But if we're wondering why Obama isn't willing to press forward, I think it's fair to also wonder why the people aren't pressing him to press forward.
This American does care. I think Obama's rhetoric about moving forward and not dwelling on the past is bad. I want those who dragged this country's moral soul through the gutter to be investigated, and if evidence warrants, prosecuted. The same goes for those who enabled and covered up for those who set this policy. And that includes the Obama administration if they aid and abet the abhorrent practices recently revealed and confirmed.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Just for the record: I'm for prosectuing officials for authorizing torture

It's almost too much to really let in. We were a nation of systematic torture, authorized at the highest levels. We knew this already, but the most recent memos make this crystal clear. To not prosecute those who authorized this requires throwing out any semblance of rule of law or moral standing in the world. If any other country did this things to us or our allies, there's no doubt we'd call it torture and demand justice.

And I don't want to see a bunch of low-level people thrown to the courts while those at the highest levels go free.

I hope the Obama administration resists the urge to cover things up. If Obama does so, he will become an accessory to those crimes.

By the way, thanks to everyone who pushed for the release of these memos: in the Obama administraion, in the intelligence community, in the blogosphere, on television, in op-ed pages, in conversations. It was not clear that it was going to happen. Without a push for disclosiure, this would probably not have happened. Don't assume Obama will always do the right thing. In many cases on these secrecy/government power issues, he hasn't. It's easier for him to do the right thing if there's a strong push in that direction. Goodness knows there are strong forces pushing in the other direction.

Children needed for research on cognition

My friend, Dr. Silvia Bunge, needs children for a research project involving children's cognition. They've got some very promising preliminary results (including significant increases in IQ after an 8-week after school program), but need to recruit more children. Here's the link to their lab.

Disclosure: I might be working with the Bunge lab in the near future, so I have an incentive to be nice to them and help them recruit subjects.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Yo, Obama, realease those torture memos

UPDATE: Looks like he did.

Mr. President, don't be a total douchebag like your predecessor. Release those memos. Stop this state secrets bullshit. Government transparency was something you ran on. Frickin' live up to it. I don't want to have to spend four years or eight years fighting you on this, but I will if I have to. Greenwald (and others) are on to you on these kinds of issues:

In the last week alone, the Obama DOJ (a) attempted to shield Bush's illegal spying programs from judicial review by (yet again) invoking the very "state secrets" argument that Democrats spent years condemning and by inventing a brand new "sovereign immunity" claim that not even the Bush administration espoused, and (b) argued that individuals abducted outside of Afghanistan by the U.S. and then "rendered" to and imprisoned in Bagram have no rights of any kind -- not even to have a hearing to contest the accusations against them -- even if they are not Afghans and were captured far away from any "battlefield." These were merely the latest -- and among the most disturbing -- in a string of episodes in which the Obama administration has explicitly claimed to possess the very presidential powers that Bush critics spent years condemning as radical, lawless and authoritarian.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for honest Obama supporters to dismiss away or even minimize these criticisms and, especially, to malign the motives of critics. After all, the Obama DOJ's embrace of many (though by no means all) of the most radical and extremist Bush/Cheney positions -- and the contradictions between Obama's campaign claims and his actions as President -- are now so glaring and severe that the harshest denunciations of Obama's actions are coming from those who, during the Bush years, were held up by liberals and by Obama supporters as the most trustworthy and praiseworthy authorities on these matters.

I really think Greenwald deserves some kind of "Defense of America" award.

C'mon Obama, this is sickening. Do the right thing and change these policies.

Some perspective on teabaggers

John Cole:
[...]why do we have to pay attention to 100K tea-baggers when 10 million anti-Iraq war protesters were considered a focus group?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

End of the Space Shuttle Program

The news, from Maniak, Internal Monologue's rocketry expert:
Effective yesterday, NASA declared the end of all shuttle operations not related to missions currently on the manifest. This includes things like manufacturing of spare parts, external tank and booster sets, and any payload not currently manifested. The shuttle operational budget terminates as of Sept 30, 2010, and all the budget previously designated for project continuation activities is now being redirected to an emergency fund that will be used to cover the period from October 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010 in case launch dates slip into this time frame due to delays over the next 18 months. After January 1, 2011, the shuttle program will have a skeletal shutdown-only budget that includes safing and inerting the remaining orbiters, and transport via Shuttle Carrier Aircraft to permanent storage/display. The transfer of shuttle facilities to Project Constellation is already in a slow startup phase. The next particular milestone is scheduled for May 28th, when Pad 39B will be transferred to Project Constellation.
Maniak's opinion of the shuttle program overall:
In historical retrospect, I think the shuttle program would have to be considered a big waste of money, 30 years and 14 lives. Yeah, it's hard to say that, because technically, they're some of the coolest vehicles ever designed. Also, that criticism is only valid in hindsight. Drop me back to 1972, and I'd probably have signed off on it as well. As originally formulated, it was a great concept, but also flawed from the beginning. The program needed 15-25 annual launches to begin to make financial sense, and only ever really approached this level in 1985. The inherent problem in this, though was that the space station program couldn't justify this number of launches, so the bulk of the early program was diverted almost entirely to satellite launch, which delayed station construction, diverted R&D on cheaper commercial launchers, and led to unacceptable pressures on the safety constraints. The International Space Station project was the eventual genuine success of the shuttle program, but was in itself heavily compromised in a vicious cycle by problems with the shuttle program. Unlike some who consider ISS operations a waste of money, I think that's one thing that's been worth it, but that aspect probably could have been achieved better by a different American heavy lift launch system. The end of the shuttle program was supposed to transition smoothly to what eventually became Project Constellation, but in the early phases of Constellation development, almost all the shuttle-derived components have had to be replaced by more suitable Apollo-derived components, meaning that the shuttle has effectively become an evolutionary dead end. Had NASA gone with further Apollo-based development vs the shuttle in 1972, even at Constellation's glacial pace, we would have been where we are today by 1979, permanently on the moon by the late 80s or early 90s, and planning or achieving the first manned Mars missions by 2000 at the latest. My biggest concern with the shutdown today is that there is nothing to replace it, and I still think a bad launcher is better than none. We are going to have at least a 5 year gap in manned launch capability, and at least a 9 year gap in heavy lift. During this time, we're going to be completely dependent on Russia and Europe respectively to fill these roles. I'm all for international cooperation, but I'm enough of a nationalist to think that it should be done on equal terms. It's a bit disturbing to think that 2 years from now, the U.S. will have access to the International Space Station only in the same sense as Belgium or Brazil.

A brief writeup from Spaceflight Now, though Maniak's info seems to be more up to date.

Monday, April 13, 2009

People who fall in love with inanimate objects

Erika La Tour Eiffel with the building she considers her husband

There aren't many, but apparently they do exist:

Imagine a world in which people seem hostile while inanimate objects appear friendly – even affectionate. Imagine dreading the touch of another human but longing for a passionate encounter with a large public structure. This is the strange world of the "objectum sexual"– a group of people, mainly women, whose intimate lives revolve around objects with which they say they share romantic and sexual love.

As a documentary film-maker passionate about exploring psychological aspects of human nature, I have made films about bigamists, domestic violence and co-dependent anorexic twins. Modern society is a never-ending source of these stories. It is still exceptional for a father to lock up his daughter for 24 years in a cellar, but scratch the surface and it seems that good personal relationships are rare. To fill their emotional needs, people are increasingly turning to a variety of substitutes: from internet virtual reality and food to... well, objects.

On first meeting, Erika La Tour Eiffel appears extraordinarily ordinary. An ex-US Army soldier, the 36-year-old lives in San Francisco. She is also a former world champion in archery – propelled to success, she believes, by her love for Lance, a bow. She now claims to be married to the Eiffel Tower, following a ceremony with friends last year in Paris, at which she promised eternal love to the iron monument and changed her name legally to reflect the bond. "There is a huge problem with being in love with a public object," she says sadly. "The issue of intimacy – or rather lack of it – is forever present."

Via Sullivan. I've had my share of misanthropy, but so far all my erotic and romantic longings have had the conventional focus of another human being. How boring I am.

The 45 ways Paul Simon didn't tell you about

Filling in an egregious omission:
Question: Paul Simon has a song called “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” but he only gives us three or four (“Get off the bus, Gus” “Get a new plan, Dan” “Drop off the key, Lee”) which is a bit disappointing given the title. Any help? I’ve got some boyfriend issues to be dealing with here. Don’t let me down! —Diana R.

Answer: Diana, we feel your pain. Simon’s song, from 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years, quotes some mysterious woman as saying there must be 50 ways to leave your lover, allowing lazy songwriter Simon to only offer five ways in the chorus: to “slip out the back, Jack; make a new plan, Stan; you don’t need to be coy, Roy; hop on the bus, Gus; just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free.”

But what about escape routes for the world’s homosexual Daves? The world’s distraught Margos and emotionally damaged Bills? No worries, relationship-haters, this Non-Expert is happy to help fill the gap ol’ Rhymin’ Simon left 30 years ago (with generous help and cocktails from his fellow editors Andrew Womack and Kate Schlegel).
They go on to list the 45 ways Simon omitted. Here's a sample (warning: gruesome and probably not work safe):
45. Push him out a tree, Bree

44. Feed her to a shark, Mark

43. Harvest his kidney, Cindy

42. Make him all porous, Doris

41. Feed him some ricin, Tyson

40. Get kvetchin,’ Gretchen

39. Chop off his organ, Morgan

38. Throw her down a gorge, George

37. Punch her with an awl, Paul
(HT: James on Facebook)

Internal Monologue now available on Facebook

I've just "syndicated" this blog on my Facebook account. It now appears in the notes section. I'm not exactly sure how this will work, but if it saves me from "double publishing" certain things that would be great. I'm not sure I want every Internal Monologue post showing up on my Facebook friends' pages though. So I'll have to muck around with things a bit.

I'm also worried about my bountiful revenue stream (~$10 per month): if everyone reads Internal Monologue on Facebook, who will click on my obnoxious Google Ads?

Quote of the Day

A rant against Christian celebration of the resurrection:
In terms of Christian holidays, I’ve always found Easter to make the least amount of sense. Think about it---the central justification of Christianity is that Christ died for your sins, a giant human sacrifice to buy salvation for anyone who wants it, right? But since Jesus isn’t actually dead, and instead is up and walking around in the space of a long weekend, it’s not much of a sacrifice, is it? His is supposed to be the most important death of all of human history, but actually, it’s the least troubling since it didn’t stick like it does for 100% of everyone else. The resurrection always took the impact of the sacrifice away for me, and I suspect that’s somewhat true for believers, too, who dwell not on images of stones being rolled away or former corpses walking around, but on the image of Christ on the cross. Face it, the resurrection cheapens the whole thing, and reads like it’s tacked on to give people a happy ending.
--Amanda Marcotte, on Pandagon

The morality implied by Christian theology doesn't really fit our moral intuitions if we take a moment to stop and examine it.

This brings to mind another issue, which is: The questions "Is Christian theology true?" and "Is Christian theology morally sound?" are separate questions. (By Christian theology I mean something along the lines of the Nicene creed and the actions of God as depicted in the Bible.) I answer both questions in the negative. But I can imagine people answering yes-yes ("God exists and is good"), no-yes ("There's no God, but the universe would be morally better if there were.") and even yes-no ("God, you're an immoral bastard!").

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

Quinn hunts for eggs at our neighbor's annual egg hunt. Quinn didn't
quite get the whole "collection" concept and would often re-hide the
eggs after finding them. But he seemed to have fun and liked the
treats inside. He quickly got overwhelmed by all the people though.

Quote of the Day

I may as well admit that I have been more influenced (as a person) by my childhood readings of Tolkien and Lewis than I have been by any philosophers I read in college and grad school. The events and characters in Narnia and Middle Earth shaped my ideals, my dreams, my goals. Kant just annoyed me.
N. D. Wilson via Sullivan. I wasn't just annoyed by Kant; I think I managed to pull something from his dense prose with the help of my college professors. But Kant's creations certainly didn't get incorporated into my personal mythology the way Tolkien's did. Lewis I enjoyed, but somehow it didn't sink in as deep. The possible exception would be C. S. Lewis' Till We Have Faces, which is his best work that I've read.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Giant millepede at Oakland Zoo

Just for Mad Latinist, who loves gross things like this...

Daily Show on right-wing paranoia

Friday, April 10, 2009

Thank you, Dave Arneson

An email from Dave Arneson's family posted to Grognardia:
Shortly after 11pm on Tuesday, April 7th, Dave Arneson passed away. He was comfortable and with family at the time and his passing was peaceful.

The Arneson family would like to thank everyone for their support over the last few days, and for the support the entire community has shown Dave over the years.

We are in the process of making final arrangements and will provide additional details as we work them out. We will continue to receive cards and letters in Dave's honor. We are planning to hold a public visitation so that anyone wishing to say their goodbye in person has the opportunity to do so.

Cards and letters can continue to be sent:
Dave Arneson
1043 Grand Avenue
Box #257
St. Paul, MN

Visitation will be on April 20th
Time: yet to be determined
Bradshaw Funeral Home
687 Snelling Avenue South
St. Paul, MN 55105

Dave Arneson reactions & memorials

Some Arneson tidbits and reactions:

Secrets of the City:
I had the pleasure of playing Dungeons and Dragons with Mr. Arneson when I was a boy, at some convention or another, and he struck me as a very decent man who brought a great deal of personality to his games.
Huffington Post:

"The biggest thing about my dad's world is he wanted people to have fun in life," Weinhagen said. "I think we get distracted by the everyday things you have to do in life and we forget to enjoy life and have fun.

"But my dad never did," she said. "He just wanted people to have fun."

Geek Dad on Wired:

Arneson had to fight to get credit for his contributions, filing multiple lawsuits (later resolved out-of-court) against Gygax over crediting and royalties. He nonetheless did return to TSR in the mid-'80s to work with Gygax again. Following that, he began a second career as an educator, working in several schools with a particular focus on how to use gaming as an instructional tool.

The wargaming scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s was rich in experimentation: in alternative approaches to consolidating and distributing arbitration power, in the choice of scenes of engagement beyond strictly historical moments and eras, in the incorporation of factors besides the strictly combat-orientated in simulating a battle scene. One such experimenter was David Wesely, who hosted a multi-player battle event simulating a Napoleanic-era battle in the fictional Prussian town of Braunstein.

He began with two players each commanding one of the armies, and then added in players who’d control the mayor, local revolutionaries, and others who might affect the outcome. It turned into a free-for-all, very much to his surprise. Given rudimentary goals for their assigned characters, players went to the hilt, wheeling and dealing, working out schemes that ended up surprising referee Wesely as much as anyone else, and in general completely trashing his plans.

Wesely tried it again. The second and third Braunsteins were, from all accounts, flops. He tried centralizing authority to keep the exuberant invention in check, only to learn that it was really the point of the game for participants. Then, in 1970, came the fourth Braunstein, this time set in a banana republic in mid-coup, with Wesely accepting his discovery and planning for it this time. And in came, as one of the participants, Dave Arneson.

Arneson came prepared. His character was a revolutionary, who got points for distributing his radical leaflets. Arneson mocked up CIA ID and used it to convince other players that his character was actually an undercover agent. The game ended with him sailing off in a helicopter with much of the nation’s treasury entrusted to his care and him emptying out suitcases’ worth of leaflets over the riots and skirmishes below.


Some words keep coming up in descriptions of Arneson’s approach to gaming: “collaborative,” “relaxed,” “impressionistic,” and the like. He seems to have had no interest in being an authority, and certainly didn’t wish to be thought of one. In interviews, whenever he talked about what he was up to in gaming, it was full of “we” and “my players and I,” repeatedly emphasizing the group as a whole as what counted. He loved to experiment, and he loved helping others to do it.

Looks like he succeeded.

Grognardia, on one of Arnesons' early publications:

What I think is most notable and praiseworthy about The First Fantasy Campaign is the way it preserves and communicates, warts and all, what it was like to play at the dawn of the hobby. The rules presented here are quirky and flavorful, one part Chainmail, one part OD&D, and one part imaginative improvisation. The setting itself is highly impressionistic. Macro details are few and far between; most of the information pertains to individual locations within the setting, with the implication that other information will be created as needed rather than determined in advance of use.

As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate this style of gaming much more than I would have in my youth. Consequently, I am sure that many will look on FFC with some disappointment at its seemingly random approach to a variety of topics, including world building. For me, though, that's part of its charm. This most emphatically isn't a polished product or an attempt at brand building. It's the notebook of one highly imaginative and eccentric referee, offered up for the world to see rather than to pick up and use "out of the box." Like OD&D itself, using The First Fantasy Campaign for onself is an exercise in active engagement with the text rather than simply reading it and following its instructions. There are no instructions in this book, just as there were no instructions to OD&D. Each person who reads it must of necessity make of it what they will. Like Dave Arneson himself, it's a pity more people aren't familiar with this product and its unique approach. I think the hobby might have been a very different place if they had been.
Out of the Box:

Dave Arneson, RIP

Dave Arneson invented this column.

Dave Arneson invented the reason you read this column.

Dave Arneson invented the reason the website that hosts this column exists.

Dave Arneson invented “armor class.” He invented “hit points.” He invented the “cleric.” He invented the “dungeon.” He invented “so, last week you cleaned out the dungeon, and now you’ve heard about another, even scarier dungeon, over the ridge there.” He invented “everyone plays one guy, and I play all the monsters.”

Dave Arneson co-invented Dungeons & Dragons.

Dave Arneson invented role-playing games.

On a personal note, he was a friendly, generous person who genuinely liked games and gamers; seeing him at a convention, or a store appearance, was always a delight — for me, for the fans, and (as far as I could tell) for him. I had the good fortune to talk to him a lot at various shows; he was a demigod adept at playing a mere tenth-level game designer, or first-level fan, but he also liked hanging out and talking about the Civil War, or his students, or what was going on in my life.

I first met him at GenCon 1997, right after Wizards took over TSR. He was sitting alone, near the Wizards booth, wearing a badge but otherwise inconspicuous. Certainly, there should have been throngs of worshipers bestrewing his lap with rose petals, or a shaft of light from the Fifth Heaven, or an honor guard of bugbears, or something. But I got to shake his hand and thank him for inventing my spare time, and my career.

And now he has leveled up.

Ars Technica:

We know how Arneson dealt with history lessons in college, and it's telling. "We created the Continental Congress and because I knew things the teacher didn't share with the students we ended up not having the Continental Congress, Delaware rejoined the Empire and New York and New Hampshire were at war," he told GameSpy. "Anyway, (laughs) I was accused by my professor of perverting his exercises… and well, it was true I did, and he was mad at me. The same thing happened with the French Revolution, and he accused me of introducing these random events that were of no historical interest at all."

We should be continually happy that so many bright students aren't dimmed by their teachers. Arneson understood that these things were of historical interest; history stands on the edge of knife, and a few different decisions one way or the other and the world would be a completely different place... we only forget that because we're comforted by putting historical events in a neat order. Arneson wanted to get into the heads of these people and play "what-if."

joystiq has some brief reactions.

Grognardia posts an early testimonial from Gygax:
Dave Arneson ... Is there really such a creature? Yes, Gentle Readers, there is, and shudder when the name is spoken. Although he is a man of many talents who has authored many historic rules sets and games, Dave is also the innovator of the "dungeon adventure" concept, creator of ghastly monsters, and inscrutable dungeonmaster par excellence. He devises complex combat systems, inexplicable dungeon and wilderness areas, and traps of the most subtle fiendishness. Herein you will get a taste of these, but he never reveals all. This writer always looks forward with great anticipation to an adventure in the "Blackmoor" campaign, for despite the fact that I co-authored the original work with Dave, and have spent hundreds of hours creating and playing DUNGEONS & DRAGONS, it is always a fresh challenge to enter his "world". I can not reccomend him more highly than simply saying that I would rather play in his campaign than any other - that other dungeonmasters who emulate Dave Arneson will indeed improve their games. While eagerly anticipating yet more material from dread "Blackmoor Castle", the following pages should satisfy your immediate craving for new ideas. Those of you totally committed to the fantasy adventure game may expect additional supplements from time to time; and isn't that dark shape crouched over the desk of blackened oak laughing fiendishly as glowing runes flow from his quill, remarkably similar to Arneson's?

E. Gary Gygax
TSR Games Editor
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
1 September 1975

Dave Arneson, October 1, 1947 - April 7, 2009

The other founder of Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson, has now passed away:

Dave Arneson, co-creator of the original Dungeons & Dragons game, passed away on Tuesday evening, April 7th, after waging one final battle against cancer.

In 1969, when Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax first met at GenCon, both were dedicated tabletop wargamers, refighting historical battles with painted miniature armies and fleets. Their first collaboration (along with Mike Carr) was a set of rules for sailing-ship battles called Don't Give Up the Ship!

By the early 1970s, Dave's far-ranging interests led him to a unique concept in wargaming -- a wargame where each model represented just one hero instead of many soldiers in an army. That idea in itself wasn't new; "skirmish-style" games had been around for years. What was new were the ideas that the same heroes could be played in a series of games, learning and becoming more powerful with each battle; that their battles could be part of larger adventures set in the types of fantastic worlds popular in sword-&-sorcery fiction; and, most importantly, that playing just one hero at a time was more exciting than controlling a whole army if that hero had a personality. In other words … roleplaying.

Dave could have used any set of rules to wage his early roleplaying campaigns, which were set in his world of Blackmoor. For a time at least, he settled on Chainmail, written by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren. It was a fortunate choice, because it brought him back into collaboration with Gary. They swapped ideas and articles, notes and charts, until eventually, the manuscript took on the shape that would become Dungeons & Dragons as published in 1974. Elements of Dave's earliest campaign -- the very first roleplaying campaign -- were published a year later in the Blackmoor supplement to D&D. Blackmoor contained yet another innovation -- the first published D&D adventure, Temple of the Frog.

In later years, Dave published other RPGs (Adventures in Fantasy), started his own game-publishing company (Adventure Games) and computer game company (4D Interactive Systems, Inc.), taught classes in game design, and lectured on educational roleplaying. Whether you're a lifelong D&D player or a newcomer to RPGs, a traditional paper-and-pencil gamer or an online roleplayer, we all owe a great debt of thanks to Dave Arneson and his groundbreaking Blackmoor game.

His Wikipedia entry.

This doesn't hit me as hard as Gygax's passing, but I did know Arneson slightly from my time at Microsoft and through a mutual acquaintance. Sad that they are both gone.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Graphic of the day

From Pandagon. We live in interesting times. There seems to be a rapid collapse of the political power of social conservatism. (The plutocrats seem to be doing just fine, as usual.) This is a good thing, but this collapse is leaving a lot of people confused and dispirited. A lot of ugliness is starting to come out:

What’s startling about this is that it didn’t take long for a right wing nut to go off the deep end during the Obama administration. Because Obama offends the right in many more ways that Clinton ever could---being black, being urban, being a health nut, having a really tall wife, etc.---this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It took the right wing years to come up with enough paranoid theories about how evil the Clintons supposedly were before the proper air of non-stop paranoia had been established. But all the paranoid urban legends you could ask for about Obama were established during the campaign. Plus, you have something now that wasn’t around nearly as much during the Clinton administration---mainstream media collusion with the paranoid right.

Gary Kamiya at Salon has an article pointing out that no matter how off-the-radar Poplowski’s views were, the fact that they show up watered down in tone but steady in content in the mainstream media gives Poplowski and people like him reason to feel more self-assured about their paranoia. Add to that the oversized right wing media that most of us would probably just choose to ignore, and you have a powerhouse reflecting the worst lies of the paranoid right back into their faces.

For more on this topic, see David Neiwert, the blogospheric authority on the intersection of violence and far right-wing politics.

We're not even three months into an Obama administration. I hate to think what things will be like after another year of bad economic times. Is there any way to reassure these folks on the paranoid right that Obama isn't going take their guns away and force them into a homosexual marriage? We need to reach out to these people somehow while they're still reachable. I'm the last person for this job; my contempt for the fringe right-wing makes me a poor ambassador. But they're people, they're afraid, and they're becoming scary. Maybe someone like Rick Warren can help calm them down or something.

Our Political Culture: Still Broken

Greenwald via Kos:
Note how warped our political culture is: Sen. Dick Durbin was forced to tearfully apologize on the Senate floor for accurately comparing our treatment of detainees at Guantanamo to the techniques used in Soviet gulags and by Gestapo interrogation squads, but those who perpetrated these war crimes have apologized for nothing, remain welcome in decent company, and are still shielded by our Government from all accountability.
Greenwald rightly lays into Obama for continuing despicable Bush/Cheney era policies of concealment in this area:

So candidate Obama unambiguously vowed to his supporters that he would work to ensure "full accountability" for "past offenses" in surveillance lawbreaking. President Obama, however, has now become the prime impediment to precisely that accountability, repeatedly engaging in extraordinary legal maneuvers to ensure that "past offenses" -- both in the surveillance and torture/rendition realm -- remain secret and forever immunized from judicial review. Put another way, Obama has repeatedly done the exact opposite of what he vowed he would do: rather than "seek full accountability for past offenses," he has been working feverishly to block such accountability, by embracing the same radical Bush/Cheney views and rhetoric regarding presidential secrecy powers that caused so much controversy and anger for the last several years.

And note the pure deceit on the part of Senate Democrats who justified telecom immunity by continuously assuring the public that the Bush officials who ordered the illegal surveillance (as opposed to the telecoms who broke the law by enabling it) would still be subject to legal accountability even once the Congress immunized telecoms. It was obvious at the time (as was often pointed out) that they were outright lying when they said this -- because all sorts of legal instruments had been invoked by the Bush DOJ (such as "state secrets" and "standing" arguments) to protect those government officials from that accountability (legal instruments Democrats knowingly left in place). And now it is Barack Obama, by employing those very same instruments, who is leading the way in making a mockery of the assurances given by Senate Democrats -- don't worry that we immunized the phone companies because Bush officials, who were the truly guilty parties in the illegal spying, will still be subject to legal accountability.

So much more work to do.

I like Obama in the areas of international diplomacy, stem cell research, budget, fair pay, economic stimulus, and numerous other areas.

But I don't like his Afghanistan policy (more troops!), his bank policy (more money for those who torpedoed our economy!), and his policy about revealing what happened during the previous administration (nothing to see here! move along!).

Let's not fall asleep, liberals.

The limits of debate

Ezra Klein quotes Julian Sanchez on the problems with debate in general:
Give me a topic I know fairly intimately, and I can often make a convincing case for absolute horseshit. Convincing, at any rate, to an ordinary educated person with only passing acquaintance with the topic. A specialist would surely see through it, but in an argument between us, the lay observer wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which of us really had the better case on the basis of the arguments alone—at least not without putting in the time to become something of a specialist himself. Actually, I have a plausible advantage here as a peddler of horseshit: I need only worry about what sounds plausible. If my opponent is trying to explain what’s true, he may be constrained to introduce concepts that take a while to explain and are hard to follow, trying the patience (and perhaps wounding the ego) of the audience.
I think this difficulty illuminates a lot of the problems with our current political and civic discourse. If someone has no principles and is willing to spew absolute horseshit in support of their view, only those with specialized knowledge will be in a position to call them on it. And in our society, nobody but John Stewart seems to be calling anyone on their horseshit. (And he can't be a specialist in everything.)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

This will not move the debate forward....

...but I'm posting it anyway:

Obama and the banks

When it comes to the banks, Obama is calling "Code Blue!" when he should be calling a funeral director and an estate attorney.

Inspired by this post on Open Left by Mike Lux

Gay marriage in Vermont

The legislature overrode the governor's veto. Congratulations, Vermont!

[I sent this from my iPhone, so please excuse any excessive brevity or
typographical errors.]
--Zachary Drake

Monday, April 06, 2009

Daily Drug War stupidity

A teenager in Virginia was given a two week suspension for taking a birth control pill.

It's this kind of stupid that makes me dread letting my son get entangled in the public school system in this country. I hope Albany (or wherever we end up) has a better system.

You know, I kind of empathize with the conservative home-schoolers: I don't agree with why they want to take their kids out of the system, but I can share their fear of handing my child over to a system that doesn't reflect our values and doesn't seem created to address our child's needs.

To be fair to the school, these kinds of "zero tolerance" policies don't just pop, fully formed, out of the stupid hat. They are encouraged by our national drug criminalization scheme, our litigious culture, our poor handling of adolescence, our over-burdened school system, and probably a bunch of other stuff. Maybe this school needed a "zero tolerance" policy in order to avoid lawsuits or deal with rampant substance abuse. Maybe they just don't have the institutional wherewithal to deal with each incident intelligently. And so we get blanket policies that result in numerous cases of extreme stupid.

If I grew up in such a school system, I might have dropped out and/or developed extreme contempt for school and other institutions of authority.

Religious wackiness

The new Israeli cabinet contains two women. A couple Haredi Orthodox newspapers in Israel don't like publishing pictures of women. So they had them digitally erased, or even replaced by men:

I want to know how they picked the men who would be honorary cabinet members. Do they have a file of photos of men on hand when they need to replace women? How do the men thus used feel about it? Is it an insult to their masculinity? Or are they proud of their role in keeping the newspaper "female free"? Do they use the same men over and over again so that clever readers know that a particular image is a "beard"? (After reading this comment, I learned that they moved men from the outside of the picture into the positions where the women were.)

What did these newspapers do when Golda Meir was prime minister? I would imagine that avoiding publishing her picture would lead to some rather comical situations.

Cultures can be very different from each other. I can almost understand a puritanical desire not to show pictures of women, and thus censoring the women from the photo. But to have women erased and replaced so it looks like they weren't there in the first place is pretty Orwellian and creepy. It moves from puritanism to reality denial. I hope the spiritual benefits from this practice are enormous, because the amount of effort it takes to constantly edit reality in this way must be exhausting.

Lame-ass D&D Monsters.

I don't know how it is that I never read this before. If you're a long time fan of D&D, you'll find it hilarious. The flumph, the gelatinous cube, the lurker above/trapper/stunjelly trio, giant space hamster, flail snail, and owlbear all get the ridicule they richly deserve.

There's a sequel article, too.

My Dream Job

I am currently on indefinite furlough from my employer, so I've been thinking a lot about what I want my next job to be. I'm happy to say that I've thought of the perfect job for myself:
Lead Program Manager for the Humanity 2.0 mandatory software upgrade
This would use my project management skills, my cognitive psychology background, my insufferable arrogance, and my conviction that I know what is wrong with the human race.

Obama, you're screwing up the financial crisis

The more I read about Obama's handling of the financial crisis, the more he sounds like a shill for the financial industry. Paul Krugman and Glenn Greenwald, both of whom were extremely outspoken in their criticism of Bush's policies, have been scathing in their critiques of Geithner's bailout plans. And the close ties between the financial industry and Obama's economic advisors are rather chilling. Dday on Hullabaloo:
Here's the story so far:

Banks lost a ton of money by making terrible bets based on fanciful notions that housing prices would go up 20% year over year approximately forever. All the while the executives sat on each other's boards and handed out giant bonuses and compensation packages to each other while the financial sector grew essentially out of control. In the process, they used their money and power to effectively buy Capitol Hill and make sure their portion of the economy could keep growing, whether through usurious interest rates, a total lack of oversight (including by some of the same people now charged with overseeing the banks) or just massive wealth transfers. When everything came crashing down, the very last thing these banking interests wanted to do was admit defeat or give back any of their money and power. At the same time, the entire country was furious at them. So they set to work bribing who they knew would be top officials in the next government, people like Larry Summers, who honestly didn't even need to be bribed. And every time Congress or the executive branch threatened to end their party and put limits on their power, they found in Summers and other officials a willing partner in subverting the rules that would make them give back their bonuses and excessive compensation, which by the way the taxpayer is funding. We, the taxpayers, are told that this is necessary to ensure financial sector participation in the program to rid the banks of all of their bad assets at a potentially massive taxpayer expense. However, left unsaid is the fact that the same banks are planning to game the system by passing the same bad assets back and forth among each other at high prices, and using tricky accounting tactics to pretend that the assets on their books have value.

Term of the Day: Beat Sweetener

Here's one I didn't know: "Beat Sweetener". A beat sweetener is a flattering article written about someone in power with the object of getting access to that person later (in order to get scoops or inside information). Here's Atrios:
I recently learned what is apparently a term of art in the world of elite pristine journalism. It describes the standard and accepted - and well understood by all involved except the readers - practice of writing sycophantic source-favoring articles based on the idea that such things will buy you access so that later you might be able to be the one to share actual important information with readers. Never fear, dear readers, no blogger ethics panel is necessary for this journalist-approved practice, even if certain uncomfortable facts never quite make to readers...

Next time I read a profile of some new government official or CEO or entertainment figure, I'll ask myself "Is this a beat sweetener?"

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Right-wing violence

Combine Democratic dominance of federal government with an economic catastrophe and add a lot of incendiary language from the right wing and things could get ugly very quickly. All those right-wing domestic terrorists that went to sleep during the Bush administration are going to come out in force now. The fact that they are losing the major political battles means they will be more alienated, more radical, and more desperate.

We as a culture are going to have to start taking this problem very seriously. I don't even know where to begin.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Giger-esque horror found in Corwall aquarium

(via DailyKos) Dude, this thing looks totally cool. If I'm ever in Cornwall, I'm going to go see it:
Jumbo Worm: This 4-foot-long sea worm was devastating coral reef and terrorizing fish at an aquarium in Cornwall, southwestern England, the Daily Mail reported Tuesday. The creature, known as "Barry," devoured bait traps -- hooks and all -- and bit through a 20-pound fishing line before staffers finally managed to capture it. The worm was moved to its own tank.
I love that it was acting evil as well as looking evil. Maybe the Monterey Bay Aquarium will get one, and then I wouldn't have to travel so far to see it. Much cooler than a bunch of sea otters (though those are pretty cute). More info here:
The creature is covered with nasty bristles that sting and can cause permanent numbness in humans, the newspaper said.
It's even dangerous to humans! How awesome is that?

(For those who don't know what "Giger-esque" means, look here.)

Petition for Norm Coleman to give up already

I signed it. You can, too.

Nobody thinks Coleman has any chance of winning. It's widely known that he's just stalling the process to keep Franken out of the Senate to make things more difficult for Democrats. Not cool. It's time the media started calling out Coleman for being a sore loser and ridiculous obstructionist.

Nate Silver is teh awesome

Here's his take on passing gay marriage bans:
It turns out that you can build a very effective model by including just three variables:

1. The year in which the amendment was voted upon;
2. The percentage of adults in 2008 Gallup tracking surveys who said that religion was an important part of their daily lives;
3. The percentage of white evangelicals in the state.

These variables collectively account for about three-quarters of the variance in the performance of marriage bans in different states. The model predicts, for example, that a marriage ban in California in 2008 would have passed with 52.1 percent of the vote, almost exactly the fraction actually received by Proposition 8.

Unsurprisingly, there is a very strong correspondence between the religiosity of a state and its propensity to ban gay marriage, with a particular "bonus" effect depending on the number of white evangelicals in the state.

Marriage bans, however, are losing ground at a rate of slightly less than 2 points per year. So, for example, we'd project that a state in which a marriage ban passed with 60 percent of the vote last year would only have 58 percent of its voters approve the ban this year.

All of the other variables that I looked at -- race, education levels, party registration, etc. -- either did not appear to matter at all, or became redundant once we accounted for religiosity. Nor does it appear to make a significant difference whether the ban affected marriage only, or both marriage and civil unions.
His model predicts that in 2012, Iowans would be split 50-50. This is the earliest that a gay marriage ban could possibly come up for a vote. By 2013, the model predicts the majority of voters will be against the gay marriage ban. This is the earliest that the ban is likely to come before Iowa voters, as the Democratically controlled legislature is unlikely to pass such a ban this year.

Vermont could enact gay marriage via legislature

The governor will probably veto, but they may have enough votes to override.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Gaming Geithner's asset plan

Finacial Industry: "Hey, let's just buy each others crappy assets using Geithner's plan. We'll end up with the same amount of stuff, but further losses would be paid for by the government! Heads we win, tails taxpayers loose! No downside for us! Whoohooo!" (via Kevin Drum).

Joe Weisenthal at The Business Insider (via The Wonk Room):
Banks buying assets from each other to inflate their books has nothing to do with "price discovery" or any such nonsense. It's all about using taxpayer money to create bids that are higher than what the market currently prices those assets at. And if it turns out those bids were too high and the cash flows never materialize then, oh well, it's the taxpayer left holding the bag.
See also this. These guys are like me and an exploitable set of role playing game rules: they zero in on unforseen implications of the system and take advantage of them in the biggest possible way. Of course if there's a way to get free money at taxpayer's expense they're going to do it. They'd be stupid not to. In fact, they'd be remiss in their duties to their shareholders.

There's a term for this among gamers: "min-maxing". In a robust system, min-maxing should be possible to some extent, but you shouldn't have certain combinations that completely break the system. If there are, the rules need to be changed.

April Fool's jokes I missed

The Economist decides to open a theme park:

AS PART of a strategy designed to broaden the revenue base, leverage content over new platforms and promote The Economist brand to a young and dynamic audience, The Economist Group is delighted to announce the development of a public-entertainment facility that combines the magic of a theme park with the excitement of macroeconomics. After six months of negotiations with the British government, The Economist Group can confirm that Econoland will be built on a former industrial estate in East London, close to the beating heart of the City and thus to a large potential market of financial-sector employees. Thanks to issues relating to its previous use, the site has been acquired at an advantageous price. Most of the toxic wastes have been cleared and levels of carcinogens appear to have returned to normal. High unemployment in the area will only increase the facility's attractions, as former City workers seek to recapture some of the excitement they enjoyed in their professional life. Heavy investment in security and a landscaped moat and electric fence will neutralise any potential threat from the growing anarchist presence.

Among the thrilling experiences Econoland will offer are:

The currency high-roller: Float like a butterfly with the euro and drop like a stone with the pound! Chamber of horrors: Tremble at the wailing of distressed debt! Fiscal fantasyland: Watch the economy shrivel before your very eyes as you struggle to stop growth falling! Bankrupt Britain: Pit your wits against the government as you try to sink sterling and bring the country to its knees! The Severe Contest: Try your strength against a bear market!

“Econoland will appeal to the kid in everyone”, said a spokesman for The Economist Group, “although children themselves will not be admitted”. The park will open on April 1st.

There's an interactive map, too. Take a look.

Tauntaun sleeping bag: from April Fool's joke to reality?

Mad Latinist sent me a link to this over Facebook. Turns out it was an April Fool's joke (which I fell for; I don't know if Mad Latinist did or not). But they (ThinkGeek) got overwhelming interest and are now trying to get permission to actually make this product:
ATTN Tauntaun Fanatics! Due to an overwhelming tsunami of requests from YOU THE PEOPLE, we have decided to TRY and bring this to life. We have no clue if the suits at Lucasfilms will grant little ThinkGeek a license, nor do we know how much it would ultimately retail for. But if you are interested in ever owning one of these, click the link below and we'll try!
I hope Lucasfilm lets them do it. Why not? It's basically free licensing money for them. There's all kinds of stupid Star Wars stuff already out there. If they actually make this sleeping bag, I'll get one for Quinn.

Ooh SNAP! Iowa Supreme Court gets SASSY!

From the recently released decision allowing gay marriage in Iowa, as quoted by Marc Ambinder:
We begin with the County's argument that the goal of the same-sex marriage ban is to ensure children will be raised only in the optimal milieu. In pursuit of this objective, the statutory exclusion of gay and lesbian people is both under-inclusive and over-inclusive. The civil marriage statute is under-inclusive because it does not exclude from marriage other groups of parents--such as child abusers, sexual predators, parents neglecting to provide child support, and violent felons--that are undeniably less than optimal parents. Such under-inclusion tends to demonstrate that the sexual-orientation-based classification is grounded in prejudice or "overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences" of gay and lesbian people, rather than having a substantial relationship to some important objective. See Virginia, 518 U.S. at 533, 116 S. Ct. at 2275, 135 L. Ed. 2d at 751 (rejecting use of overbroad generalizations to classify). If the marriage statute was truly focused on optimal parenting, many classifications of people would be excluded, not merely gay and lesbian people.
What about amending the Iowa constitution to ban gay marriage? It would take a long time:
I heard on Iowa Public Radio this morning that legislative leaders say there is no time to consider an amendment on marriage this year. The legislative session is scheduled to end within a couple of weeks, and the "funnel" date by which bills had to clear a legislative committee passed nearly a month ago.

The 56-44 Democratic majority in the Iowa House may or may not be solid on this issue, but I believe that the 32-18 Democratic majority in the Iowa Senate will be enough to block any Proposition 8-style constitutional amendment during the 2010 session.

Even if Republicans made electoral gains on this issue and picked up seats in November 2010, they would have to get a constitutional amendment through the 2011-2012 legislature and the 2013-2014 legislature before the amendment could get on the ballot. That would mean Iowans could vote on same-sex marriage rights in November 2013. By that time I believe support for gay marriage will have grown substantially.

In less good news, banks get to value more of their assets by wishful thinking

This won't end well:
A once-obscure accounting rule that infuriated banks, who blamed it for worsening the financial crisis, was changed Thursday to give banks more discretion in reporting the value of mortgage securities.

The change seems likely to allow banks to report higher profits by assuming that the securities are worth more than anyone is now willing to pay for them. But critics objected that the change could further damage the credibility of financial institutions by enabling them to avoid recognizing losses from bad loans they have made.

Critics also said that since the rules were changed under heavy political pressure, the move compromised the independence of the organization that did it, the Financial Accounting Standards Board.

During the financial crisis, the market prices of many securities, particularly those backed by subprime home mortgages, have plunged to fractions of their original prices. That has forced banks to report hundreds of billions of dollars in losses over the last year, because some of those securities must be reported at market value each three months, with the bank showing a profit or loss based on the change.
Via digby. Why is this bad? Digby quotes James Kwak:
Investors and regulators are not idiots. They know what the accounting rules are. If banks claim they were forced to mark their assets down to “fire-sale” prices, investors can look at the facts themselves and apply any upward corrections they want. Now that banks will be able to mark their assets up to prices based solely on their own models, investors will make the downward corrections they want. It’s a little like what happened when companies were forced to account for stock option compensation as expenses; nothing happened to stock prices, because anyone who wanted to could already read the footnotes and do the calculations himself.

However, the situation is not symmetrical, and the change is bad for two reasons. First, fair market value (”mark to market”) has the benefit of being a clear rule that everyone has to conform to. So from the investor’s perspective, you have one fact to go on. The new rule makes asset prices dependent on banks’ internal judgment, and each bank may apply different criteria. So from the investor’s perspective, now you have zero facts to go on. It’s as if auto companies were allowed to replace EPA fuel efficiency estimates with their own estimates using their own tests. We all know the EPA estimates are not realistic, but we can find out exactly how they were obtained and make whatever adjustments we want. If each auto company can use its own criteria, then we have no information at all.

Second, this takes away the bank’s incentive to disclose information. Under the old rule, if a bank had to show market prices but thought they were unfairly low, it would have to show some evidence in order to convince investors of its position. Under the new rule, a bank can simply report the results of its internal models and has no incentive to provide any more information.

So what we get is less information and more uncertainty.


Update: Here’s a thought. What if the function of these rule changes is to make it easier for banks to ignore the results of the PPIP auctions? For example, Bank A puts up a pool of loans for auction, but doesn’t like the winning bid and rejects it; Bank A doesn’t want to be forced to write down its loans to the amount of the winning bid. Or, alternatively, Bank B sells a security to a buyer, and Bank A holds the same security; Bank A doesn’t want to be forced to write down the security to the price of Bank B’s transaction.

The change to fair value accounting (Rule 157) may make it easier to claim that the sale by Bank B was a “distressed sale,” meaning it can ignore it for valuation purposes. Even if it can’t ignore the sale, the change to other-than-temporary impairment may make it easier for Bank A to classify any impairment as temporary and therefore avoid an income statement hit. You’d have to be a specialist to know the answers for sure, but in any case these rule changes don’t make it any harder.

Maybe FASB could let me use "mark-to-my desires" accounting when stating my income on my mortgage application. After all, in this unusually bad economy, the market is not valuing my work properly.

There's gay marriage in Iowa

The ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court was unanimous:
The Iowa Supreme Court this morning unanimously upheld gays’ right to marry.

“The Iowa statute limiting civil marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution,” the justices said in a summary of their decision.

The court rules that gay marriage would be legal in three weeks, starting April 24.

The court affirmed a Polk County District Court decision that would allow six gay couples to marry.
Andrew Sullivan compiles some reactions.

Crisis of Credit video: best simple explanation so far

This is the best little video on the subject that I've seen:

The Crisis of Credit Visualized
from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

(via somewhere I can't remember) It mainly covers the collateralized debt obligations (CDO's) and doesn't really talk about credit default swaps all that much. But it gives a nice overview of the basic mechanics of the mortgage-backed securities situation.