Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Two Great Things Even Better Together

I have long held that Outkast's "Hey Ya" is the best written song in the past 15 years (I might even go to 20 if you push me on it). Combine that with Peanuts - Gold, I tell you Gold!

Don't worry we'll get back to writing about bleepin Bagojevich and throwin bleepin shoes soon.

The Rational Moderate

Friday, December 12, 2008

K&B Toys is Closing

There is so much to write about right now that it is getting hard to whittle it down to one topic per post. But between the failure of the auto bailout, Bush's gutting of the endangered species act, Scientists being able to take an image from someone's mind and display it on a monitor, and the MPAA asking Obama to filter the internet and adopt a three strikes and your out policy to those caught (or just accused, or just winked at by the MPAA) of downloading or sharing illegal copyrighted material and force other foreign governments to do the same. But instead, Let's chat about K&B Toys closing their doors for good. I'm not really surprised by this, as the economy is terrible and K&B have always been overpriced by the very nature of having to pay mall rent for most of their locations. But still, K&B was my reason for going to the mall with my Mom when I was a kid. In fact the one I went to had two of them at either end with slightly different merchandise. I would travel from one to the other to see what was the best deal I could get for my 4 dollar a week allowance. And I got some cool deals, not the least of which is an original Scott Bernard and his cyclone from when Robotech was a staple of afternoon cartoon blocs. But today, the trend in toys is towards video games and K&B has never been able to compete in that area despite most video game and console prices being set by the industry so you don't ever really get new games cheeper at Walmart, Target or Gamestop, but it always seemed that K&B marked their prices up from that and were always slow to reduce when the item didn't sell. And so, rather than embracing a model of aggressively going after video game market, just like Chrysler and possibly GM not really going after modern car markets, K&B is done. 

So long K&B, the 12 year-old me will miss you.

The Rational Moderate

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Supreme Court Accepts "Enemy Combatant" Case

There is a lot of interesting things happening right now, which I suppose is to be expected given the abuse of powers that has infected the country for the past eight years will soon be if not cured than at least we've made it to the waiting room.

The Supreme Court, despite Bush and Co.'s objections, will hear the case of Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who was designated an "enemy combatant" by the Bush administration and held in a military brig for the past five years. He was originally arrested for credit card fraud, but some where along the lines this was changed by executive order essentially ejecting him from the American legal system. 

The question the Supreme Court will examine is whether the President has the authority to arrest and imprison a person/civilian indefinitely without and part of the judicial branch of the government getting involved. In other words, no trial, no reading of charges, no defense, no appeal... All of this because Bush labeled him an "enemy combatant."

It's surprising that the Supreme Court will hear this for a couple of reasons. First, there is a new administration coming in which will, it seems likely, change this stance. If it seems like the issue will go away, the SC is likely to let it happen. They could have postponed ruling on viewing the case until the new administration. Second, I expected Bush to change the status of this person so he would be tried in a criminal court to avoid having this case come before the SC and therefore establishing some amount of precedent for it. Since the SC would have then had no reason to review this case, they would have chosen to not and the US Court of Appeals in Virginia's ruling in favor of Bush would have stood. 

However, it is really good news that they will hear this case since it seems really, really unlikely that the SC will rule in favor of Bush and this needs to be nipped in the bud. Since the case won't be herd until March it will fall under Obama's presidency. Here is what he should do: keep al-Marri labeled as an enemy combatant and get this thing to a ruling. The only way to squash this as a precedent is not through executive order but through the courts. If Obama changes this notion, it will only apply for his administration and if another lunatic with no regards for the constitution comes into power, the precedent will be there for the President to make this decision. If Obama is against this, he needs to fight to keep that power in the courts. Some of you might be thinking, "But what if he wins and this becomes a recognized legal practice?" The problem is, if it doesn't go to court now, this will be a recognized legal practice. The only way to tank it is to take it all the way.

The Rational Moderate

Friday, December 5, 2008

An Octopus and CNN

Here are two seemingly unrelated stories, but in fact have a lot to do with each other. The first story is of a little mischievous octopus named Otto. It seems that in the winter months, when the aquarium in Germany is closed to the public, little Otto gets bored and takes it upon himself to fix that problem. One of he things he discovered he could do was stand on the rim of his tank and shoot a stream of water to short out a spotlight. He's also been known to juggle hermit crabs, throw rocks against the tank's glass, and rearrange the decor of the tank to suit his own tastes nevermind the other creatures living there (see dizzy hermit crabs.) 

What isn't stated in this article is that Octopuses are very, very intelligent creatures who will get into all sorts of trouble unless given enough stimulation such as toys to play with. There is no background on our scientific understanding of the behavior of these creatures nor any indication that this is anything other than an anomaly in the undersea world. 

The Second story is the aftermath of a dumbing down of the science reporting that has been going on for years. CNN is cutting its entire science, technology, and environment news staff. Now, they're reply to what seems like an outrageously stupid idea is that they want to integrate these areas into the general news structure rather than have a standalone unit. Sounds reasonable? It's not. Mainly because they are letting all of their science writers go, so instead of getting people who actually understand science and tech and can also actually write so that others can understand it correctly (something most scientists are themselves terrible at) are going to have the stories they should be writing written up by people who are more interested in covering Sarah Palin's wardrobe. 

If the other networks like MSNBC and FOX were smart, they would grab these folks and make a damn big deal out of having the premier science and technology news team. 

The Rational Moderate

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kind of Big News That's Not Getting Around

The Supreme Court has decided not to review a case where the California courts ruled that the state laws on medical marijuana could not be ignored by local law enforcement in favor of the federal laws. In other words - state law trumps federal law for local cops. 

This is pretty big news. This sets as a precedent the notion that state law has a higher authority than federal law in certain circumstances. This is the closest we've ever come to taking a step back towards the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Typically, federal law always trumps local and state law, and practically that hasn't really changed here. What has changed is that local and state law enforcement agents (in California- though the precedent could be used in other states) are not allowed to spend there time pursuing, arresting, and prosecuting cases where the state law has the act as legal and federal law has it as illegal. This still would allow federal law enforcement (CIA, FBI, NSA, DHS, ABC, EFG, HIJ...) the ability to go after these individuals under federal law, but draws a line in the sand for the local cops. 

This, despite of what I'm sure is a resounding protest from social conservatives, is what you get with a fairly Republican Supreme Court from the Reganish years. State's rights matter and should be encouraged while trying to shrink the federal government. The problem for them is that a lot of states are then going to do things that they don't like. Hence the current Republican federal government's confused position of not liking the federal government and yet expanding it uncontrollably because the state's didn't line up the way they thought they would. 

I think this stems from a current talking point that has been percolating since the Gringrich Republican revolution in 1996: the country is center right. And to listen to any news or any pundit on either side of the aisle you'll hear this phrase pop up. When you hear a phrase uttered enough you start to believe it, especially if you already want to believe that to be true as many Republicans do. (See my post on Confirmation Bias) And you may even be able to take polls that ask the American publics where they see themselves and since they have also heard this trumpeted around they will check off the box "center right." Do you see the problem yet?

Just because you might call yourself "center right" or check off that box in a poll, does not mean you actually are center right when you look at the specific issues. As an example, several years ago I helped run an experiment of which one part was to ask students where they felt they fell on a political spectrum and then asked them to fill out a questionnaire on specific issues that would the give a placement of their political views along the same axis they labeled themselves on. I'm sure you can see where this is going. Sure enough the majority of students rated themselves as slightly conservative, or center right, but as soon as where they actually stood on the issues was scored, the majority was center left. 

If anything even close to this holds true throughout the nation, and it probably does though a better chosen population for such a study would make for a better study, then we can see the Republican's dilemma. They think the country is at least leaning towards their side, and yet when specific issues arise, such as the legalization of wacky tobaccy, they are confused by where the public opinion, and so certain laws, goes. The results are that the very things they supposedly want to accomplish, such as a smaller federal government and more state's rights, end up thwarting the realization of many of their key social conservative issues.  

The Rational Moderate

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Confirmation Bias

There is a nice Op-Ed piece by Michael Shermer in the Los Angeles Times on the connection between confirmation bias and cult like behavior. Last month was the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre which gave us our only Congressperson killed in the line of duty as well as the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid."

For those who don't know or remember, the Jonestown massacre was the mass suicide of 918 cult members in the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project led by Jim Jones in Guyana, though the group were mostly Americans who moved the organization there from California. After Congressman Leo Ryan visited the compound to investigate its activities, he along with several aids and journalists were shot at a while on the airstrip to leave. Ryan and four others were killed. After that incident, Jones urged his followers to take cyanide and end their lives rather than have their way of life taken from them. Most complied, though some were shot and others forced to drink. Why do we know this? Because the event was recorded on audio tape. The irony of it all is that apparently Ryan's report was going to be a favorable one. 

But what has this to do with confirmation bias? Confirmation bias is one of the biggest psychological impediments we have to understanding what is really the case compared to what we think is the case. For example, on days it might rain I may say to myself, "If I take an umbrella, I'll be prepared and therefore it won't rain." Sure enough, I take my umbrella and it doesn't rain. From this I think about all of the times this has happened and I confirm my original belief: that if I take an umbrella it won't rain, or even that the universe has a mean sense of humor. Of course this is nonsense, but this is how confirmation bias works. We are psychological prone to seek out examples, data, and facts that support our beliefs and ignore, forget, or discount and examples, data, or facts that disprove our beliefs. 

The connection between cults such as Jonestown or Heaven's Gate and confirmation bias is illustrated in the Congressman Ryan's visit and the cult members reaction to it. Jim Jones has been preaching for awhile that the government would try to stop them. This was probably not as hard to do as in other cults since Jonestown was based on communist ideals and so could use much of the anti-communist propaganda to promote the idea that the american government was against them. So despite Ryan's visit seeming to be favorable, the cult members (along with Jones) took the visit alone as evidence to back up their belief that the government was plotting against them. Any evidence to the contrary didn't match their beliefs and so was ignored or dismissed. 

With Heaven's Gate, the biggest piece of evidence that confirmed their belief that there was an alien space ship on it's way to take their spirits to paradise was the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet. 

Now granted these groups go out of their way to limit the contact and information with the outside to stop the picking up of facts, thoughts, or opinions that may counter the cult's core beliefs, yet the same principles apply (though likely to varying degrees) to every person. Some think that the remedy for this is to make sure you get your information from various sources. If you listen to Fox News for all of your news, then you should likely tune into MSNBC to counter Fox's conservative bias. I disagree. I think the best remedy is to be aware of confirmation bias and that we are all susceptible to it, and then use logic and reason to work our way through it. Listening to both sides will most likely leave one in the middle or cynical of any perspective, but as I've said before, "Truth is Biased." 

Hey, think I'll make that my new slogan!

The Rational Moderate

Monday, December 1, 2008

American Auto Bailout

The question of the day: Should we bailout the American Auto industry, or let it go?

1) Sends American tax payers into more debt. Sure, the big three say that this is a loan that they will pay back when they start making money again - but will they start making money again?
2) Free Markets. If a business isn't doing well or is getting trounced by the competition it should change or go away. If it does try to change it needs to do so in a way that doesn't make things worse in the long run even if it looks like it could make a short term increase. The American Auto industry is getting trounced and has shown little change, and what they have shown in the last few years, more SUVs and lower mpgs, has  stunk. 
3) Their products stink. The reliability and quality of American autos has been terrible for most of my life. Given the economic recession we are in now and will probably be in for many years to come, which car would you buy to last - Honda/Toyota or Ford/GM? 
4) There is an American auto industry for workers building foreign cars. If the big three go away, many, though certainly not all, of their workers and factories will likely be picked up by foreign automakers wanting to cut down on shipping costs by building the cars in the US rather than ship them in from overseas. 

For the bailout:
1) The price of the bailout will be far less than the loss of the jobs to our economy. Less jobs = less money in the economy + more unemployment = taxpayer still getting screwed.
2) Auto manufacturers actually make something. Unlike all of the banks that are getting bailed out right now, the car industry has an end product that actually has some value. Rachel Maddow (an unabashed lefty) made an interesting observation that there seems to be a class warfare happening where white collar jobs are deemed to big to fail, while blue collar jobs are not important. The problem with this view is that it flies in the face of the above against positions where the blue collar jobs may be important, but their products are not selling. Still, the auto industry accounts for something like 4% of our GPD, and so it would be a pretty big thing to fail.
3) This one has a caveat  - the bailout must have a caveat or two or three. I would have thought that this was a no brainer, but then I heard Maddow's interview  on 11/24 (you can get it on itunes) with the head of the United Auto Workers Union who claimed that the American auto industry was innovative and green and forward thinking and I thought to myself, "If we rely on these bozos to decided what constitutes all of the necessary provisions such as alternative fuel, better mpg, and greener tech, we are going to get the same crap that put them in this hole and they're going to think they are wonderful and that it is the customers who are off their rocker." So what we need is a set standard that individuals who are not in that industry but are knowledgeable about the technology to set the provisions and not the industry itself. 

In the end, I think it should happen, and I'm someone who has never owned an American made car. The #1 reason on the pro side weighs heavier than the rest. But if someone doesn't get in there and kick those morons in the head until they start to get it, I'm going to stick with my Yaris.

The Rational Moderate