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Monthly Archives: January 2010

Front-row seat at the iPad media circus

January 28th, 2010 - 2:49 pm

For one brief hour on Monday morning, the eyes of the world were focused on a small building in San Francisco — the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where Steve Jobs was to unveil Apple’s latest product, a tablet computer called the iPad.

You don’t need me to tell you about the gadget itself — the launch was breathlessly reported by nearly every media outlet on Earth. So I’m not going to describe the iPad; instead, I’m going to give you something no one else has done, a front-row seat at the media circus outside the Yerba Buena Center.

Only 600 carefully selected top journalists and tech insiders were actually invited into the building to watch the launch itself. The rest of us shlumps had to wait outside where we tried to look important and absorb the magic by osmosis.

Despite our physical proximity to the action, we on the outside were actually among the least-informed Americans about what was happening inside the building, since most of us didn’t have access to computers on which we could follow the minute-by-minute live-blogging of the press conference posted on any number of geek sites. So, instead, people stood outside the event and desperately checked their iPhones to see what was going on directly in front of them. Strange — the data had to travel around the world several times and bounce off any number of satellites to reach people standing maybe 12 yards away from where the information originated. That’s modern technology for ya.

Television equipment from networks the world over was strewn along the sidewalk in front of the Yerba Buena Center and its new Apple mystery logo, in anticipation of the breaking news.

Lowly bloggers sat in the shadows of the satellite trucks, doing their best to beat the well-financed media outlets with the fastest and snarkiest tweets.

Apple security guards and policemen ringed the building to keep out anyone foolish enough to imagine they could slip in for a sneak peek ahead of the appointed unveiling.

Want to know why newscasters are generally only shown from the chest up while doing broadcasts? This is why.

An incongruously glamorous tech reporter happily consented to bystanders’ souvenir snapshots, but her resulting news piece was less than stellar.

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Visualize for a moment what would happen if San Francisco hosted a rally on the hot-button topic of abortion. How many people would you expect to show up to support each side?

Well, considering that San Francisco is the city that regularly votes in overwhelming numbers for Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer, two of the strongest abortion advocates in Congress, and that San Francisco is perceived as being among the most liberal cities in the nation, you would likely anticipate the pro-choice side to vastly outnumber the pro-life side at any rally.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Because when the anti-abortion group Walk for Life staged a march in San Francisco last Saturday, January 23, they turned out an overwhelming and jaw-dropping 40,000 pro-life activists, who were met by a well-advertised counter-protest which managed to draw no more than 80 (that’s eighty, eight-zero) pro-choice advocates. 40,000 vs. 80 is a 500-to-1 pro-life advantage, something that seems inconceivable in the sex-positive liberal stronghold of San Francisco. How did this happen?

We’ll get to verifying the attendance levels at the end of this essay (skip down to the section below called “The Numbers” if you’re curious now). Meanwhile, let’s get a taste of what the day was like!

This picture shows what miracles a deceptive camera angle can wreak. As the huge mass of pro-life protesters assembled for the march, a small contingent of counter-protesters awaited them here across the street. Could you guess from this photo that the pro-life marchers in the distance outnumbered the pro-choicers by 500 to 1? Because the handful of pro-choice counter-protesters are in the foreground, they fill the camera frame impressively — while the pro-life contingent fades away into the distance.

Always pay close attention to news photos! Even an undoctored image can be framed in such a way as to deceive.

Dueling Narratives

This sign kind of summed up with perfect concision the two-pronged pro-choice strategy for the day. The “text,” to get all postmodern, is to focus on women’s ownership of their own bodies and their individual rights of self-determination. The “subtext” is to intentionally destroy any sense of propriety in the proceedings, to use vulgarity and sexuality to rob the other side of its innocence and somehow in the process thereby drag the pro-lifers into the gutter where prim virginity is no longer a source of power but rather something to be mocked.

The fatal flaw in this horribly ill-conceived two-pronged strategy is that that subtext totally undermines the text, and vice versa, so that the argument ends up canceling itself out. Any legitimacy your point of view might have had instantly evaporates when you start yelling “Cunt cunt cunt!” in your opponent’s face. You can try to win by having a rational debate; alternately, you can try to win by punching below the belt; but if you try to do both simultaneously, you are sure to lose.

(And no, don’t ask me what’s going on in the crotch region of that sign — I couldn’t figure it out either.)

This impressive banner encapsulated the other most common message that the pro-choice side tried to put forth: that the pro-lifers’ religiosity was the basis for their “hateful” beliefs, and that they were mostly not from the Bay Area and were thus outsiders bringing an unwanted ideology into a liberal enclave.

Once again, one wonders if the total irrelevance of the pro-choice message is intentional or not. So much effort went into this banner, and yet it in no way addresses the concerns of the people on the pro-life side. As a result, I imagine that the banner was completely ineffectual in changing anyone’s mind, and instead seems to have been made solely for the amusement of the pro-choicers.

Here’s a video of the pro-choice side chanting their favorite slogan, one which they repeated over and over for hours on end all day long:

“Christian fascists go away, abortion rights are here to stay! Right-wing bigots go away, abortion rights are here to stay!”

I understand that each side strives mightily to frame the abortion debate in their own terms, because to even acknowledge the opponents’ point of view is to lose the argument. But if you’re actually trying to change hearts and minds, squandering your brief time on the soapbox with a statement like “You’re all a bunch of assholes — go away!” isn’t going to do the trick.

Full Disclosure:

(In American politics, one is not really permitted to discuss the abortion issue while feigning impartiality. There’s no such thing as neutrality anymore. So I should say where I stand on the issue, since my stance will likely affect your perception of this essay.

I am mostly, though not enthusiastically, “pro-choice.” But that doesn’t mean I am pro-abortion. I think abortion is gruesome, and is often traumatic, and should be avoided if at all possible. Yet I balk at the notion of the government dictating which medical procedures are allowable, and at bureaucrats intervening into the inviolable relationship between doctor and patient. In other words, my libertarian bent and anti-authoritarian attitude trump my strong distaste for the concept of abortion. This is made possible by my personal assessment that an embryo is not a fully fledged and legally definable individual until it reaches the level of “viability” — in other words, until it becomes mature enough to survive outside the womb, which is at around five-and-a-half months of gestation.

This issue of “ensoulment” — the point at which a human egg becomes a separate human life — lies at the heart of the abortion debate, though it is rarely discussed in overt terms. Opinions range from the “Every Sperm Is Precious” Monty Python family to late-term abortion advocates who say a baby isn’t a baby until it draws its first breath. Me, I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t think a one-hour-old fertilized egg counts as a separate legal entity, nor do I think that a premature 7-month fetus can just be tossed into the garbage can as so much excess tissue. In my admittedly non-expert opinion, at some point a fetus’s brain develops to such an extent that it achieves awareness of its individual consciousness; and at some point its body matures enough that it could survive outside the womb. Both of these developmental markers seem to happen right around the point of earliest “viability,” somewhere between five and six months of gestation. And so, lacking any more likely indicator of a fetus’s moment of “ensoulment,” in my (once again admittedly non-scientific) opinion, that’s the point at which a fetus can be dubbed a separate human being with all attendant legal rights.

Because of this, although I reluctantly must concede that the state should not outlaw abortion up to five-and-a-half months, I strongly oppose late-term abortions after that point, because at that late stage, abortion could be considered homicide.

I realize that this middle-of-the-road position will likely please no one, and may possibly even anger some readers on both sides of the argument for not being sufficiently pro-choice or pro-life. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything nor draw adherents to my point of view: I’m just laying all my cards on the table so you know where I’m coming from. Whatever my personal opinions are about abortion, I can still cast a critical eye on both sides of the debate and see where they fail and where they succeed. Now: On with the essay!)

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Apple Daily, the Taiwanese news outlet that has been garnering a great deal of attention lately with its brilliantly rendered animations re-creating current events (including the wild Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno showdown a few days ago which earned nearly half a million views) has just released its latest simulation — this time on a much more serious subject, the New Year’s Day attack on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard by an Islamic jihadist.

The animation is quite chilling, and shows how Westergaard only barely escaped a gruesome death and probable beheading at the hands of the al-Qaeda linked Somali attacker; you can see it starting at 0:22 in this English-language report on the incident which Apple Daily just posted at YouTube:

(You can also view the video directly on its own YouTube page here.)

Note that the animator got one detail wrong in the re-creation; he shows Westergaard carrying his young granddaughter into the panic room with him, while in reality he had become separated from her during the attack and was locked in the room alone; luckily, the attacker didn’t notice or care about the granddaughter hiding elsewhere in the house.

Shortly before the 2008 election I asked a gay friend which candidate he supported. When he replied “Obama,” I asked why, and my friend said that he was a single-issue voter (the single issue being gay marriage) and Obama was obviously going to legalize gay marriage nationwide, whereas McCain was a stodgy old conservative and therefore self-evidently an enemy of gay rights. I pointed out that Obama was all over the map and had made conflicting statements about his attitudes toward gay marriage, telling gay groups that one day same-sex marriage will be seen as normal, while on the other hand giving an interview for a mainstream paper in which he said, “Marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.”

My friend instantly dismissed Obama’s anti-gay-marriage statements: “That’s just something he’s gotta say to appeal to Middle America. Once he’s in office, you’ll see!”

Well, over a year later, I certainly do see. And the result is the exact opposite of what my friend and millions of other gay voters who chose Obama and rejected McCain on this basis had predicted. Turns out Obama has been a major disappointment for the gay community, while the McCain family has emerged as unexpected supporters of gay marriage.

Cindy McCain’s new ad promoting gay marriage.

Yesterday, two unrelated news events perfectly illustrated this unexpected ideological contrast.

The first happened in the California trial challenging the legality of Proposition 8, the measure banning gay marriage in the state. Stanford Professor Gary Segura, an expert witness attempting to show that gays are politically vulnerable and thus need constitutional protection, summarized the gay community’s stinging disappointment over Obama’s inaction as president:

Segura took aim at Obama, saying he was “not a reliable ally” for gays and lesbians, citing his refusal to back gay marriage or end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. When Proposition 8′s lawyer showed a video of a speech last fall in which the president vowed to fight for gay rights, Segura was unyielding.

“I think President Obama is perhaps the best illustration of an ally who can’t be counted on, an ally whose rhetoric far exceeds his actions,” he said.


Meanwhile, over in the Republican camp, John McCain’s wife Cindy yesterday totally destroyed the last shred of the tired old stereotype that Republicans are all anti-gay when she appeared as the new spokesmodel for the pro-gay-marriage group “NOH8.” In so doing, she joins her daughter Meghan McCain as an outspoken advocate for gay marriage.

And yes, John McCain himself yesterday was forced to repeat his rather limp boilerplate defense of traditional marriage, but it’s pretty obvious that the issue is near the bottom of his priority list, as he only mentions gay marriage when pestered about it by reporters. If anything, Obama’s public rejection of gay marriage is stronger than McCain’s.

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(R-MA)-gettin’ Day?

January 19th, 2010 - 9:57 am

The last time any Republican held a Senate seat in Massachusetts was over 30 years ago. And Harry Truman was president the last time the seat once held by Ted Kennedy was in Republican hands. And yet — today there is a good chance that we’ll see the letters (R-MA) on the senate roster for the first time in a very long time.

Is today (R-MA)-gettin’ day?

According to many pundits and nervous voters, the only thing that could prevent a Brown victory today is vote fraud — and lots of it. The problem with tracking vote fraud, however, is that it’s usually not one big single crime that can be prevented or exposed by diligent monitors; rather, it’s thousands of little crimes, each one of which may be easy enough to identify on its own, but when they happen one-by-one-by-one-by-one at innumerable polling places across the state, they’re nigh on impossible to stop or even document.

This is an open thread for commenters to describe any incidents of election irregularities in Massachusetts which they witnessed personally. Only by accumulating many such anecdotes and later presenting them together as a group can there be any documentation of vote fraud.

Hopefully, there will be no fraud, and this thread will get no comments. But in case it does happen, we need to start gathering evidence now.

Stop counting those chickens.

Obama and the Democrats have not conceded the Massachussetts senate race, as some have suggested. Quite the opposite: This morning, Obama’s national Democratic activist group Organizing for America sent out a mass email to supporters saying they will fight tooth and nail to hang on to “Ted Kennedy’s seat”:

OFA is going all out in Massachusetts — we’re sending organizers, knocking on doors, and making phone calls by the tens of thousands to make sure that folks know how to participate.

It’s a huge effort, it’s expensive, and time is short. But with the outcome uncertain and the stakes sky high, I don’t want to wake up the morning after the election thinking that we could have done something more. If you feel the same way, please donate $5 or more to help us make Martha Coakley the next senator from Massachusetts…

This is in sharp contrast to some reports yesterday claiming that the Democrats are already making plans for how to handle the inevitable defeat in Massachussetts.

Of course, the email is also full of the usual truth-stretching hyperbole intended to rile up the liberal base:

The polls are tightening as right-wing money floods the state, and one even shows the race to be a dead heat between progressive champion Martha Coakley and her extreme opponent. The truth is, special elections often have very low turnout and are notoriously unpredictable.

The stakes are just too high to leave Martha’s victory to chance.

If we lose, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat will be in the hands of someone who opposes everything he fought for.

This of course is laughable — Scott Brown would actually be among the most liberal Republicans in the Senate. But hey, facts play no role in this modern era of do-or-die politics.

Republicans are beginning to think Massachussetts is in the bag. Democrats are betting the rent money that the seat can be saved.

Who ever imagined an election Armageddon would happen so soon into Obama’s presidency?

The future of food has arrived:

Scientists turn stem cells into pork

Call it pork in a petri dish – a technique to turn pig stem cells into strips of meat that scientists say could one day offer a green alternative to raising livestock, help alleviate world hunger, and save some pigs their bacon.

Dutch scientists have been growing pork in the laboratory since 2006, and while they admit they haven’t gotten the texture quite right or even tasted the engineered meat, they say the technology promises to have widespread implications for our food supply.

“If we took the stem cells from one pig and multiplied it by a factor of a million, we would need one million fewer pigs to get the same amount of meat,” said Mark Post, a biologist at Maastricht University involved in the In-vitro Meat Consortium, a network of publicly funded Dutch research institutions that is carrying out the experiments.

Post describes the texture of the meat as sort of like scallop, firm but a little squishy and moist. That’s because the lab meat has less protein content than conventional meat.

Feeling queasy yet?

To dispel any notions that this is some sort of hoax, check out the very real and very sincere Web sites of The In Vitro Meat Consortium and the Orwellianly-named “New Harvest,” a man-made “cultured meat” advocacy group which insists,

Arguably, the production of cultured meat is less unnatural than raising farm animals in intensive confinement systems, injecting them with synthetic hormones, and feeding them artificial diets made up of antibiotics and animal wastes.

21st-century cuts of pork.

Personally, I’m a level-5 vegan — I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow — but even I get the dry-heaves just thinking of the possibility of test-tube meat.

While meat grown in a lab has until recently been the stuff of speculative fiction, even Winston Churchill had the foresight in 1936 to predict that we’d all be eating simu-meat eventually: “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

As usual, Churchill was right on the money, and his prediction is about to come true — because lab-made animal tissue is, according to some scientists, only a couple years away from the supermarket shelves:

“To produce meat at an industrial scale, we will need very large bioreactors, like those used to make vaccines or pasteurized milk,” said Matheny. He thought lab-produced meat might be on the market within the next few years, while Post said it could take about a decade.

For the moment, the only types of meat they are proposing to make this way are processed meats like minced meat, hamburgers or hot dogs.

“As long as it’s cheap enough and has been proven to be scientifically valid, I can’t see any reason people wouldn’t eat it,” said Stig Omholt, a genetics expert at the University of Life Sciences in Norway. “If you look at the sausages and other things people are willing to eat these days, this should not be a big problem.

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Last week the Swiss newspaper Blick broke the story of a guy who was caught driving above the speed limit through the town of M√∂rschwil and given a speeding ticket for $290,000. No, that’s not a typo — two hundred and ninety thousand dollars.

What could possibly justify such a large fine? One simple reason: The guy was rich. And under a new scheme of “progressive pricing” that’s becoming more and more common across Europe, rich people must pay higher fees for things because they can afford it — and because, well, they’re rich, and therefore deserve extra punishment.

"Traffic thug Roland S. has five luxury cars in its garage."

"Traffic thug Roland S. has five luxury cars in his garage."

Blick even featured a mugshot-like photo of the offender with the shocking caption, “Traffic thug Roland S. has five luxury cars in his garage.”

Horrors! Five fancy cars?!?! What an outrage. On that count alone we should condemn him. (A rough English translation of the Blick article can be read here.)

But wait — that’s not all! The British tabloid Express pointed out that the judges deciding on the size of his fine heard testimony that Roland S. was Facebook “friends” with Formula 1 stars Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa. Unforgivable!

As to how the judges arrived at the reasonable sum of $290,000, the Express notes,

Under Swiss law he was fined for the offence, then had the sum multiplied by 130 to account for his fortune.

The penalty is the highest speeding fine handed out in Switzerland. He was ordered to pay half of it in cash immediately with two years for the rest.

He was stopped last month driving at 85mph through the town of Morschwil, where the speed limit is 50mph.

The few American papers which covered this story safely classified it as “Today’s Weird News” or “Oddly Enough!”, an anecdote presented solely for our amusement, nothing to think about too deeply.

Yet The Fine of Roland is no mere bagatelle. It may be a vision of our future. And you should care very deeply indeed.

More Than Just a Funny Story

On Sunday, AP published an article pointing out the significance of Roland’s fine: Far from being an isolated incident, it’s part of a growing trend in Europe to scale fines and fees to match the payer’s income level:

European countries are increasingly pegging speeding fines to income as a way to punish wealthy scofflaws who would otherwise ignore tickets.

Advocates say a $290,000 (euro203,180.83) speeding ticket slapped on a millionaire Ferrari driver in Switzerland was a fair and well-deserved example of the trend.

Germany, France, Austria and the Nordic countries also issue punishments based on a person’s wealth. In Germany the maximum fine can be as much as $16 million compared to only $1 million in Switzerland. Only Finland regularly hands out similarly hefty fine to speeding drivers, with the current record believed to be a euro170,000 (then about $190,000) ticket in 2004.

The Swiss court appeared to set a world record when it levied the fine in November on a man identified in the Swiss media only as “Roland S.” Judges in the eastern canton of St. Gallen described him as a “traffic thug” in their verdict, which only recently came to light.

“As far as we’re concerned this is very good,” [said] Sabine Jurisch, a road safety campaigner with the Swiss group Road Cross.

Turns out that such astronomical speeding tickets are commonplace in Europe now. Finland bases its fees on the payer’s income, including one infamous case in which the son of a wealthy sausage-making family had to pay 170,000 Euros for driving 50mph in a 25mph zone. The Norwegians take it even one step further, sentencing wealthy people to intentionally humiliating hard labor as well, such as the drunk driver who not only had to pay a $85,000 fine but also chop wood for 30 days.

The idea is catching on. Pundits in Wales want the same variable pricing scheme to be enacted in their country. And yes — inevitably — some writers have already suggested bringing similar laws to the U.S., making all fines and fees be not a fixed amount but rather a percentage of your annual income. The author of the linked essay, discussing the inherent unfairness of a $250 speeding fine, gives a good clear presentation of the basic argument for the progressive position:

To someone who makes minimum wage, $250 is a big deal. A person working for minimum wage makes about $10,000 per year. $250 is more than a week’s wages. $250 is 2.5% of your annual income — it is a serious amount of money. But to someone who makes $200,000 a year, $250 is meaningless. It is only 0.125% of your annual salary. The deterrent effect is minimal — it is 1/20th the impact of a person making minimum wage.

Whether a construction worker is killed by a rich guy speeding in his Porsche, or killed by a minimum-wage guy in his second-hand Ford Escort, the result is the same — either way it is a tragedy for the family of the construction worker. So the goal of deterring speeding is just as important for rich and poor drivers. But how do you make the speeding fine just as “painful” for a rich person, so that it has the same deterrent effect?

The obvious way is to scale the fine based on income. So the sign does not say, “$250 fine for speeding”. Instead it says, “2.5%AI fine for speeding,” where 2.5%AI means “2.5 percent of annual income.” If you make $200,000 per year, the fine would work out to $5,000. The financial impact of the speeding ticket would be just as strong for a rich person as it is for a poor person. That way, the deterrent effect of the fine would be the same for everyone.

How does that idea strike you?

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