Monday, January 27, 2014

Will the Real Rand Paul Please STF Up?

O, how I yearn for the days when (you should pardon the expression) Senator Rand Paul exits stage right from our national political discourse. These comments, just the latest outrage from the artist whom Charlie Pierce calls Senator Aqua Buddha, assert that President Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions with Monica Lewinski invalidate Democratic critiques of the Republican “War on Women.”

I’ll leave it to Senator Dick Durbin to remind everyone that Clinton’s misbehavior has already been “litigated in the public square for over a decade” (not to mention that it actually happened nearly two decades ago) and pass lightly over, with no substantive additional comment, the plausibly deniable character-assassination-by-association cum victim-blaming neatly wrapped up in Paul’s assertion that “[i]t’s not Hillary’s fault, but it is a factor in judging Bill Clinton in history…. Sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other.”

No, I will stipulate for the sake of this argument that Bill Clinton was seriously flawed husband, and also at best a horndog and at worst a sexual harasser (though I’ll leave it to others to wonder if "sexual predator" might not be a bit of a stretch), because so stipulating lets us get right to the heart of my problem with this story: In claiming that Clinton’s (stipulated) bad behavior magically exonerates Republicans of any War on Women guilt, Rand conflates individual behavior with public policy principles… and that’s a category error on the order of conflating weather with climate in discussing anthropogenic global climate change (and that never happens, eh?).

I don’t know of any Democrat or liberal who claims every man on “our side” has always personally behaved acceptably toward women. I’m equally sure that one or two Republicans and conservatives might be found whose personal behavior toward women is beyond reproach. But neither of those stipulations has the cubed root of fk all to do with the War on Women, both because the individual, personal behavior of a member of a group does not determine the moral worth of the group as a whole and because the things one does and the principles one advocates are categorically different things.

When we Democrats talk about a Republican War on Women, we're not talking about individual Republicans mistreating their female staffers in some way that would make pointing and crying, "y'all do it too!" a relevant response; instead, we're talking about a coherent set of policy positions on a wide range of issues — abortion, contraception, pay equity, workplace discrimination, and sexual assault law, just to name a bare handful — that each and all tend to disproportionately harm women.

None of this is affected one tiny whit by what a horndog Democratic president did before this year's high school seniors were born. The only question is whether Rand Paul's comments were deliberately disingenuous or cluelessly illogical.

Perhaps both in equal measure?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Nothing Is Ever Enough

On occasion, it may seem that I have nothing better to do with my little corner of teh intertooooobz than to promote the snark and wisdom of Charles P. Pierce. Well, when he writes with this sort of passion about our cultural fatal attraction to guns, I can't apologize for helping spread his words. Writing about the latest school shooting (coincident in the news cycle with the fatal shooting of a movie theatre patron for the unforgivable sin of texting) from a hotel room off I-84 not far from Newtown, Pierce muses...
Nothing is ever enough. Nothing is ever sufficient. Nothing is ever a large enough killing ground for us to stand up against the power on the other side and point out, forcefully and permanently, that it is crazy to allow concealed weapons to be carried everywhere, and that the policy proposals of the people who have lost sons and daughters are valid and worthy of serious consideration, and not the contempt of manicured butchers who get fat on death. There is a deep fog over the highway now, and Newtown is far from sight.
 Crazy, indeed. Deep fog, indeed.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sex in Space (or in This Case, on Mars) Is Dangerous?

This is just the latest in a long legacy of sniggering stories about sex in space that posits getting your extraterrestrial freak on might be dangerous or even (as this story asserts yet again) "life threatening." The occasion for this latest volley is the first round of cuts — from over 200,000 applicants to 1,058 aspirants — in the Mars One screening process, leading to the eventual selection of a crew of 6 to make a one-way trip to Mars, but the topic of off-Earth coitus is titillating enough to have spawned a whole book, not to mention all of the giggling press pieces that bubble to the surface periodically, inevitably ranging from cautionary debunking ("it's not gonna be as hawt as you think") to outright fearmongering.

I find it depressing, and I think it's a symptom of the broad sex-negativity that still binds our culture, notwithstanding the ostensible sexual revolution of the last 50 years.

The most important ways in which life beyond the surface of the Earth will differ are high radiation and different (generally lower) gravity forces. The former is clearly a challenge, and potentially life threatening... but it is in no sense specific to sexual activity. Sex in space is no more dangerous, based on radiation exposure alone, than any other aspect of life in space. As as for low gravity, well, it might pose some challenges in terms of actually making the sex occur — as this soberer-than-usual article by Alan Boyle points out — but there's no reason to think it will make the sex risky.

No, when headlines breathlessly proclaim that outer-space sex is potentially "life threatening," what they really mean is that there's good reason to worry that pregnancy, childbirth, and early child development might not work well in low gravity. And we currently have no idea how much gravity is required to ensure that human procreation is safe, nor any real way to reliably find out.

This is a serious challenge; perhaps the single biggest obstacle to large-scale, long-term human settlement of space... but it doesn't mean sex in space will kill you!

Thought we lived in enlightened times, when sexual pleasure had been decoupled from procreation? Yeah, maybe not so much. You'd think that people writing about human spaceflight would be forward-looking out-of-the-box thinkers, but apparently even to many of them, sex begins and ends at babymaking.

Personally, I suspect the positional/logistical hassles of zero gravity will prove easy to overcome for creatures with, you know, hands and arms to grasp with and brains to direct them (and if you doubt it, consider that astronauts train for zero gee underwater, and then Google "underwater porn"1). And on Mars, whose gravity is 1/3 that of Earth, my guess is that the lightness of being will prove the polar opposite of unbearable.

Despite this story, later debunked as a hoax, and despite the fact that one married couple has flown in space together, nobody has yet tried sexual intercourse in space, and claims that portions of a porn movie, The Uranus Experiment, Part 2, were filmed on an aircraft performing zero-gee parabolas (similar to NASA's "Vomit Comet") are hard to confirm, but my guess is that once Virgin Galactic or one of its competitors starts regular operations, it won't be long before some adventurous couple books a whole flight for just the two of them and po
ps outer space's cherry.

My prediction is that, at least for space tourists, if not for later generations of permanent settlers, whatever practical challenges low/zero gravity poses will be overcome by the sense of novelty and adventure.

Certainly it's not going to kill anyone.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Will No One Rid Me of this Meddlesome Mayor?

Chris Christie’s… well, it really wasn’t much of a mea culpa, was it; more of a theya’ culpa… about the George Washington Bridge scandal got all its due respect today from Charlie Pierce. Christie is shocked, shocked! to learn that there was politics going on in his office, and has summarily cut ties with the culprits, firing his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and splitting with his former Campaign Manager Bill Stepien, who had been in line to become the New Jersey GOP Chair and a key consultant for the Republican Governors’ Association. Christie seems to be punishing these miscreants not so much for ratfking (as Pierce would put it) the people of Fort Lee, NJ, as for being disloyal to him.

Make no mistake: In his own mind, Chris Christie is the victim in this affair, and certainly not the perpetrator of any political dirty tricks! "I am who I am," Christie said at today’s press conference, striking a note somewhere between Popeye and La Cage aux Folles, "but I am not a bully."

Yeah, right.

I’ve been telling everyone who would listen to me that Christie, whom even some of my more liberal friends admire for what seems like a Trumanesque bluntness of manner, was in reality just a bully. His admonition, in advance of 2011’s Hurricane Irene that New Jerseyites under evacuation orders should “[g]et the hell off the beach in Asbury Park and get out” would, in fact, have been admirably direct and pointed coming from many states' governors; from New Jersey, it sounded very much like Chris Christie being Chris Christie. This just happened to be a situation in which a bully’s natural instincts led him to say something that was arguably the right thing to say… but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t talking like a bully.

On the podcast of last night’s Rachel Maddow show, I heard several different people say some version of “either he’s lying or he can’t control his staff.” Actually, they were neglecting a third possibility: that Christie is the sort of man whose staff would believe that political retaliation on his behalf goes without saying. That he need not even utter anything like “will no one rid me of this turbulent priestmayor?” to deploy his henchmen, on whose hands alone the blood will remain and who can conveniently be denied and cashiered.

And this we want in the White House?

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Shameless Blogwhoring: New Posts at Emerging Foodie

Since I'm trying to restart both of my blogs, I thought a bit of cross-promotion wouldn't be out of order... so here are links to my recent new posts at Emerging Foodie about:

What a (Weird and) Wonderful World

During my morning perusal of the Book of Face, I noticed a link one of my (fellow) space-cadet friends had posted to a Slate story about the rusting ruins of Canadian engineer Gerald Bull's High Altitude Research Project... an effort to use huge artillery guns to fire satellites into space!

The Slate piece is just a few paragraphs and a couple of pictures of the abandoned guns, along with a map of how to hike to the site in Barbados. Interesting, but what caught my eye was the posted-by byline, which listed not a typical author's name, but instead "Atlas Obscura." In addition, the end of the article included several links to other stories on Atlas Obscura. Well, a name like that is just too intriguing not to check out, right? So I clicked.

As George Takei might say, "Oh, my!" Atlas Obscura turns out to be the self-proclaimed "definitive guide to the world's wondrous and curious places": a kind of encyclopedia of the weird, wonderful, and obscure spots on the globe. In addition to browsing the accumulated stories, you can search by category or proximity to a location (there were a surprising number of covered spots near me) or just click the "Random Place" link if you're feeling lucky. If you create an account, you can mark places that you've been to, or that you'd like to go to; you can give tips on places to be added; and you can edit existing entries.

In addition, the Obscura Society consists (apparently... I've just discovered this place this morning and am still sussing it out) of local volunteers who lead related field trips and other events. Indeed, if Atlas Obscura weren't going to be enough of an Internet Timesink™ on its own, a link on the Events page to an Obscura Society San Francisco salon led me to the website of the Five Ton Crane arts collective, the builders of (among many other cool things) the Burning Man project Raygun Gothic Rocketship (to bring us back around to things that appeal to space-cadets like me), and I think Five Ton Crane's site is going to turn out to be a nontrivial timesink, too!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Not Like Hollywood

We've all seen great bar fight scenes in movies and TV: Somebody orders the wrong kind of drink or looks at the wrong woman the wrong way or says the wrong thing, and suddenly fists are flying, people are hitting each other with chairs and bottles and rolling around on the beer-soaked floor.

How come nobody ends up dead in these brawls? Well, part of it is Hollywood magic, of course: Prop chairs and bottles and careful stunt choreography allow storytellers to create fights far more violent looking than could be squared, in real life, with the fact that everyone dusts off and walks away at the end.

But part of it might just be that, barring a few Westerns, these fights don't involve people pulling out guns and blazing away.

Unlike real life.

Three dead and one more in critical condition. Because... why? Why, again, do people need loaded concealed weapons in a bar? I always thought dart boards in bars were a bad idea — encouraging people who have been drinking to throw sharp objects around in a crowded room? — but guns?

Changing carry laws hasn't really been part of the national conversation we've been having about gun regulation in the wake of Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, etc. But maybe it should be, eh?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Swords-and-Knives Delusion

In the various arguments about gun control that I’ve had over the last several years, typically (and tragically) in response to the latest horrific mass shooting, one line of argument keeps recurring: Invariably, someone on the anti-regulation side of the argument makes the self-evidently (but trivially) true observation that there are other ways besides guns to kill people, followed by the assertion (self-evidently ludicrous, in my opinion, but oddly persistent nevertheless) that a determined killer can do just as much mayhem with other kinds of weapons – knives, swords, and other edged weapons are often specifically mentioned – as with semiautomatic rifles and pistols. Strange as it may seem to people who haven’t been involved in these sorts of arguments, I’ve had online acquaintances actually brag about their weapons training, and about how efficiently they could kill with knives, if they happened to be the sort of person interested in killing efficiently.

Well, new information emerging about Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooter Adam Lanza suggests that he was, in fact, a determined killer who seems to have planned his attack well in advance, and that his personal arsenal of weapons included, in addition to a variety of guns and a large quantity of ammunition, numerous other weapons including “at least nine knives, three Samurai swords, … and a 7-foot, wood-handled pole with a blade on one side and a spear on the other.”

And yet… when Adam Lanza left his home to go out on his killing spree, all of the weapons he took with him were guns, three of them semiautomatic, and when he entered Sandy Hook Elementary, the “tool” he used to slaughter 26 people in less than 5 minutes, using more than 150 bullets, was a military-style semiautomatic rifle fed by 30-round magazines. Despite other options at hand, and plenty of time to think it through, this “determined killer” chose a high-rate-of-fire, high-capacity firearm as his weapon of choice.

Now, I obviously don’t want to suggest for even a picosecond that Adam Lanza was some kind of genius… but then, it doesn’t take a genius to know that this “blades are as good as bullets” version of the more general “guns don’t kill people…” argument is utter horseshit... does it?