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Bring back the Fairness Doctrine. The Republicans want it now.

I've been inundated with e-mails lately by Republicans complaining about a video about Hilary Clinton, currently being made by CNN and NBC. They are assuming, without evidence as near as I can tell, that this will be a pro-Hilary pre-campagin puff piece, and they want it stopped.

Rather than deciding whether each thing that comes out is pro- or anti- a specific candidate, fix the whole problem at once. Bring back the Fairness Doctrine. If the Clinton flick is a puff piece, make the stations give the Republicans equal time.

Of course, this would have an effect on the right-wing screamers who tend to just make stuff up. Consider it a beneficial side effect. Broadcasters should not be able to use the public airwaves to deliberately misinform their audience.

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There's one and one thing only that will matter in the Zimmerman trial -- the judge's instructions to the jury.

What happened is obvious:
  1. Zimmerman, in his car, sees Martin "acting suspiciously" (walking while black, ducking into a doorway during a rain shower.)
  2. He calls 911.  The operator tells him *not* to follow Martin and that police are on the way.
  3. He follows Martin anyway.  He is carrying a gun in violation of his "neighborhood watch" policy.
  4. Martin freaks out.
  5. At some point, Zimmerman stops his car, gets out, and confronts Martin.
  6. Fisticuffs ensue.  Zimmerman, despite outweighing Martin by 100 lbs, gets the worst if it.
  7. When Martin has him on the ground and is slamming his head into the pavement, Zimmerman assumes he's in deadly danger, pulls his gun, and shoots Martin.
Was Zimmerman in deadly danger at the time he shot Martin?  Yes; getting one's head slammed into the pavement is a serious matter.  But the only reason that he was in that position was that he had, against explicit instructions, deliberately put himself there.  So the whole thing depends on exactly what the law "really" means -- and that is the responsibility of the judge.

My own cynical take -- white man shoots black teenager == justified.  This is Florida, after all.

"I know how good a gun feels. It makes you bright-eyed and bushy- tailed, three meters tall and covered with hair. You're ready for anything and kind of hoping you'll find it. Which is exactly what is dangerous about it-because you aren't anything of the sort."  -- Tunnel in the Sky, Robert Heinlein


Or, as somebody else put it more pithily:  "Guns make you stupid."
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This is a simple quiz to see if a person you're talking with is worth talking to.  Get the answers wrong, and you're dealing with a fanatic, a denier of reality, or a troll.  I'm always looking for new items to add to this list.  In particular, I don't have any questions on economics or nuclear power/weapons that have stupidly obvious answers except for fanatics.

1.  How old is the Earth?

2.  Is the Earth getting warmer?  If so, what's causing it?

3.  What is the fundamental organizing principle of biology?

4.  T/F:  The writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were evangelical Christians.
4a. T/F:  The US was founded as a Christian nation.

5.  T/F:  The Bible says life begins at conception.

6.  T/F:  The US Civil War was about "States Rights"

7.  Where was Barack Hussein Obama, Jr. born?

8.  T/F  Marriage has always been "one man and one woman".
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Fixating on the deficit while our economy is stuck is like worrying about your cholesterol while you're trapped under a rock.

There's a nasty situation that small plane pilots can get into called a "graveyard spiral". The plane is losing altitude, so the pilot tries to pull up. But it's not in a dive, it's in a spiral. Pulling the nose up just tightens the spiral. This continues until the plane hits the ground or the spiral gets so tight the wings come off. This is, according to the best guess, what killed JFK Jr.

To get out of a graveyard spiral, the pilot has to ignore the seat of his pants, which is telling him he's headed straight for the ground, and get the wings level. At this point, the plane is no longer in a spiral and the pilot can pull out of the dive.

Try to do it backwards and you're dead.

We're in the economic equivalent of a graveyard spiral. Unemployment is high, so consumer demand is low. With low demand, businesses lay off more people, which reduces demand. Unemployed people don't pay income tax, so tax revenues go down. Spending doesn't, so deficits go up. And because there's a Democrat in the White House, the Republicans get all bent out of shape over "the Deficit". (Funny, deficits weren't important under Reagan or either Bush.)

Trying to "fix the deficit" by cutting Government spending is like trying to pull the nose up in a graveyard spiral. It won't work and will only cause a serious crash. Cut Government spending, we lose more jobs, which reduces tax revenues, which increases the deficit ... Economically, this is called "Hooverism". It's what Herbert Hoover did to try and fix the Great Depression. Didn't work, bigtime. It won't work any better now than it did then.

To break out of the spiral, we need to put folks back to work. We have the questionable advantage that we've been deferring infrastructure maintenence for far too long, so there's a lot of work to do. We also have the real advantage that folks ::cough::China::cough:: are willing to lend us money at, effectively, negative interest rates.

Once we get people back to work, we can go back and look at the deficit again. Ideally, all we'll have to do is sit back and watch it shrink as the economy picks up.

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Connie Shultz, wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and real journalist writes about a woman who was carjacked and did everything right:

In this story, Ms Yee did almost everything exactly right, and she did do everything that needed to be done. The only thing she could have done better would have been to hit the "panic button" on her car key. Hard to think of everything ...

It's interesting to consider a case like this in the context of the current gun debate. What would have happened if Ms Yee had had a gun? Best case, it would have played out exactly like it did. Problem is, she had a gun pointed at her. She had no time to get her own (theoretical!) gun into action. Grabbing for it would probably have caused the attacker to shoot. If somehow she did manage to get her own gun out, she'd be in a gun battle at zero range, inside a car. Bad, bad, bad.

Problem with the pro-gun types is that they talk in terms of imaginary scenarios. It's far more useful to look at real-life situations like this one. The main problem with the scenarios that the pro-gun types use is that they ignore the time it takes to get a defensive gun into action -- a dead-flat minimum of two seconds. On the street, a heck of a lot can happen in that two seconds, and experienced robbers know how to keep a situation ambiguous until the last possible instant.

Another problem with the pro-gun types is that they assume that they will always be able to identify a situation requiring deadly force. Cops have trouble with this one. Harmless street person panhandling or robber? Life is ambiguous. Deal with it.

I may do a post later with my views on self-defense and martial arts. I have a lot of experience with American style wrestling, Judo, and Aikido. I have taught (as an assistant, not a primary) women's self defense. My opinions on the subject are pretty much The Common Wisdom, with some additions from experience, plus some things that are probably so "common wisdom" that they never get mentioned.

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It's no secret that politicians, political pundits, and political reporters are innumerate and scientifically illiterate. It's a job requirement.  Can't let those nasty old facts get in the way.  Joe Scarborough's famous attack on Nate Silver is just one of the most notable examples before the actual election results started coming in and the real meltdowns started:

Nate Silver says this is a 73.6% chance that the president's going to win. Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73.6% — they think they have a 50.1% chance of winning.

.... Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue [that] they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops, and microphones for the next ten days, because they're jokes.

— Joe Scarborough, Morning Joe, 2012-10-29

So what's Joe doing here?  There's the obvious answer that everybody in the news media absolutely needs to see the election as a "horse race".  As long as it's a close race, they can keep everybody interested.  If everybody agrees that one side is going to win, folks lose interest.  The pundits, not having facts (which they can't recognize) or math (which they can't understand), fall back on "momentum" and "energy" and "excitement" and other things that can't really be quantified.  Journalists -- want to cause a panic?  Force a politician to put a number on something.  And follow up on it.

What I suspect he's doing (other than supporting his favorite candidate, of course) is making a very common error. He's assuming that, since there are only two possible outcomes, that each has a "probability" of 50%. After all, it has to be one or the other.  That's not how it works.

Let's use a gambling example.  (After all, probability theory was originally developed to calculate gambling odds.) Assume we have a roulette wheel, but instead of the standard layout we have 100 numbers that are either red or blue.  Let's say, so we have a number to think about, that there are 75 blue numbers and 25 red numbers.  Over a very large number of plays, red will come up 25% of the time and blue will come  up 75% of the time.  Basic probability.  We'd have no trouble saying that "blue has a 75% chance of winning."

However, we're going to introduce a problem — we're only going to play once.  Now, what's the probability of blue winning?  Well, nothing has changed — it's still 75%.  Let's change the question a bit:  Who is going to win, red or blue?  We can't say.  As long as there is at least one number for a color, it has a chance of winning.  It may be a small chance, but it's not zero.  If we have 99 blue numbers and one red number, we can't guarantee that blue will win.  After all, lightning does strike; somebody does win the lottery.

And of course, let's not forget the tinfoil hat explanation.  The fix was in; they had to make it look like Romney pulled off a not-completely-unexpected upset.

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Congressional Republicans have been sandbagging the Voting Rights act (big surprise, right?).   So instead of just extending it, we need to update it, to take care of some problems we noted in this year's election:
  • Voter suppression:  attempts at voter suppression of any kind need to trigger some intense Federal scrutiny.  The Old South is not the only place where the Powers that Be would like very much to prevent Certain People from voting.  Long lines (9 hours in some cases) are prima facie evidence of voter suppression (or incompetence).  So are shortages of materials (paper ballots, for example).
  • Nonpartisan election commissions:  This business of having a partisan office determine all the important parameters of the election has got to stop.  At best, it looks bad.  At worst, it's outright corruption.
  • ID:  Needs to be some kind of Federal standard; most of the State ID requirements are unsubtle attempts to suppress poor and elderly voters.
  • Electronic voting machines:  Ideally, the voter should mark a card ("fill in the bubble"), which most voters have been doing since elementary school.  Then you can have a machine count the ballots, but there's always the possibility of a recount.  Diebold- type (unauditable) machines must have the source code escrowed, and random machines examined to make sure that the code in the machine matches the code on file.  Any change to software must be tested, tracked, and audited; "midnight upgrades" of any kind are Right Straight Out.  Also, the entire system needs to be auditable (and audited!).  For example, one report from 2008 (hopefully obsolete!) said that the Diebold central vote-tabulating system was based on a Microsoft Access database, with the default password.  First, the password is an elementary mistake.  No programmer with any experience at all should do that.  Second, nobody who knows databases uses Microsoft Access for anything more important than a Christmas card list.  It's just not sufficiently reliable.  The pros use Oracle, or if you want to stay in the Microsoft universe, SQL Server.
  • "Instant runoff":  Optional, but very desirable.  This would be ideal for things like primary and local elections, which can have many candidates.  Runoff elections are expensive and inconvenient, and a "straight plurality" leads to elections where the winner gets, like, 15% of the vote.  There are all sorts of schemes, ranging from "first and second choice" to the full-up "Australian ballot".
While we're at it, Republicans have been complaining for years about "voter fraud", which to them means people voting who shouldn't.  We need to educate people about what real voter fraud looks like.  Hint -- it's not retail (one vote at a time); it's wholesale (boxes full of pre-marked ballots).

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The Republican Super-PACs spent a jaw-dropping amount of money on this campaign, to amazingly little effect. Karl Rove, in particular, is going to have a lot of uncomfortable explaining to do*. I hope the reason he failed so spectacularly is that his style of campaigning isn't working any more.

Rove's campaigns are about as "content free" as it's possible to get — remember that his chief beneficiary was George W. Bush, about as close to a completely "empty suit" as you can get. His chief gimmick is to accuse the opponent of the candidates's failings — if your candidate has a drinking problem, accuse the opponent of being an alcoholic, no matter how far-fetched, and do it first. That way, the opponent's response looks like "you're another!" sour grapes.

The campaigns are also relentlessly negative — if you're selling an empty suit, you really don't have anything positive to say.

The icing on the turd, of course, is that he lies** constantly. He is fully aware that his lies will end up has headlines and that any "corrections" will be at the bottom of page 3 and published after people have already made up their minds.

In general, the Rove strategy is to win elections, by whatever means necessary.  Governing after the election?  Doesn't care.  The opinion of non-voters (especially foreigners)?  Doesn't care.  The chief result of this, of course, is to make the voters cynical, destroy trust, and in general, pollute the discourse.

Not what we need, to put it mildly.

* The classic advice at this point is "make a run for the border".  In this case, that won't work very well ...

** Not really lies, but bullshit. (See "On Bullshit", by Harry Frankfurt). In his definition, bullshit is statements made to have an immediate effect with no regard to their truth or falsity.

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The biggest political party in the US is neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party. It's the "I didn't vote" party. If the ones who don't bother to go to the polls actually voted, they could take over the country in one election cycle.

Of the things that I consider requirements for Good Citizenship (voting, taxes, jury duty) voting is far and away the easiest, even counting the Getting Informed part. We work hard to make it easy to vote, but half of the population still can't be bothered.

Whether the issue you care about is national economic policy or the pothole in front of your house, if you don't vote, you don't get to complain.


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