Saturday, February 28, 2015

BlackLivesMatter doesn't itself matter

I suspect the activists flocking to the banner of "BlackLivesMatter" have a secret contest for who can be the most blood-boilingly obnoxious.

Blocking highway traffic, blocking subways, interrupting live performances, refusing to meet with sympathetic politicians and even disrupting WWII veteran medal ceremonies is pretty obnoxious, but not as obnoxious as what happened at the University of California at Berkley this week.

After professor Steven Segal told his social work class his views that black-on-black violence, not white cops, is the biggest problem facing the black community and backed it up with statistics, students declared he was a racist, the class was an example of institutionalized racism and Segal "oppressed" his students with his opinions.

In my time as a right-wing college with a steady stream of left-wing professors who inserted their political views into class, I can't think of a single time where I would have called it "oppression" or left the classroom crying like these kids just did. The o-word was used a few times in this moronic incident.

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Eric Garner's death was a tragedy. The only tragedy related to the death of Michael Brown is how it harmed the life and career of police officer Darren Wilson, yet these activists have made Brown their poster boy.

Last week police in the city I work in shot a suspect three times while he charged at them with a drawn knife. He had just stabbed his boyfriend, who was the one who called police, and is still in critical condition. Sadly, if this guy had been born black instead of white there would be protests and folk songs in his honor.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The dead concept of cyberbullying

The terms "harrassment" and "bullying" when used for online activity are now dead and Marc Merrill, CEO of Riot Games, was the last one seen kicking their twitching bodies before they expired.

Here's the backstory: Sanghyuk “Faker” Lee plays video games competitively for a living and is paid by a company, Azubu to stream live videos of him playing the game League of Legends. Another person, referred to by the online name StarLordLucian, started streaming Lee's live feed as well without permission to profit off of someone else's work.

Azubu tried to get him to take it down, claiming copyright, but StarLordLucian said they don't actually have the legal rights to Lee's feed. Riot Games, the company behind League of Legends does. That turned out to be true.

So when someone asked Merill, who runs Riot Games, what he thinks, his response was a little nutty:

You are rationalizing and trying to justify the fact that you have singled out a player against their will and broadcasting their games in a way that he can do nothing about. That reeks of harassment and bullying.


Someone is trying to make easy money off of someone else's work. Their motive is personal profit, not to hurt Lee's feelings. I don't know why Merill would say such a strange thing, but I suspect it's because those two words, "harassment" and "bullying" are tossed about so loosely these days that they come out automatically, like duckspeak in 1984.

Which is too bad, because the real examples are pretty horrible, but now it's not just mild criticism that's being labeled as harassment and bullying, but pretty much any unwanted presence.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What it took to get a legal firearm in Massachusetts

At the request of my brother, I've collected the stories I wrote in 2013 when I went through the entire process of getting a license to possess firearms in Massachusetts.

I was initially intimidated by the famously long process of getting a firearm in Massachusetts, but then I thought about pairing it with my job as a journalist. Gun control was a big political issue at the time and I felt the country would benefit from a fair account of how my state's gun permitting process actually works.

I was also hoping the online release of the series would lead to job offers, or at least national attention. I did get my biggest response from readers for anything I'd ever written, includes gun advocates out of state, but it didn't lead to any contact from the national press. I showed that a state agency broke state law by failing to return my background check within the 40 days the state requires, and there were no consequences.

May 5: I began the process

May 30: I took a firearm safety course

June 2: A long waiting list kept me from meeting with local police representative for application

July 8: Met with police representative and sent application to state

October 14: Received my permit 150 days into the process


Sunday, February 22, 2015

It's good to be recognized

I'm proud to announce that last night I received a first-place award for health reporting for my 2014 series on my region's high suicide rate, which explored both what experts know about suicide and personal stories from different demographics that are at a higher risk.

The award was given by the New England Newspaper & Press Association and I was one of four finalists for all health stories in New England daily newspapers under a circulation of 30,000.

I try to keep my personal blog and professional writing separate but under the circumstances I feel comfortable sharing links to the series this time.

January 25: The numbers on my area's high suicide rate, which mysteriously exceeds demographic norms

March 9: Why men die from suicide at a higher rate

March 28: Interview with Kevin Hines, author who survived jump off Golden Gate Bridge

March 30: Talked to a mother who lost her teen son to suicide and wrote about teen suicide issues

April 27: Spoke to a veteran who survived a suicide attempt and touched on veteran suicides

June 17: Interviewed experts about suicide among the elderly

July 6: Details of evidence-based suicide prevention programs

July 30: Spoke to experts about how the media fails in its suicide reporting

This was a difficult issue to cover, and emotionally taxing. I was already proud of what I created here, and while the award is nice to have, it didn't mean as much as the positive responses I got from readers who had suffered a tragedy because of suicide.

This is a serious problem that thrives on silence. I hope I've inspired people to talk about it instead of staying quiet because it's an uncomfortable subject.


Friday, February 20, 2015

Public counter pressure

I got excited when I saw the following sentence linked on Twitter. Finally, I thought, a company is taking a brave stance instead of caving to the pressure of whiners.

"Sorry, we have a general policy against firing people based on social media campaigns. We're against digital mobs."

But then when I clicked the link I saw it was merely a suggestion from writer Conor Friedersdorf of what companies should say, and that it would be better to live in a world where the consequences for caving to only mobs was actually worse than standing up to them.

By the same token, I'd like to see people get resentful at cowardly corporate speak like "at this time," as in the sentence "We're not interested in hiring you at this time."

If only collective bitterness could be coordinated.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Obama's most frustrating economic statement of 2015 (so far)

A good friend of mine who studies political science has been trying to convince me that President Barack Obama is a moderate. My friend knows more than I do on this topic so I take him seriously, but I just can't get the idea to gel, mostly because the president makes statements like the one he just did about Staples Inc. and the Affordable Care Act.

Clickbait website Buzzfeed recently sat down with the president about a number of topics, one of them was about how the office supply store Staples Inc. limits its part-time employees to 25 hours a week to avoid working a long week and passing the threshold where full-time benefits kick in.

Obama was told that those employees are having their hours limited to avoid having to provide health insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Staples Inc. has since said that was wrong and the policy is actually a decade old and unrelated to the Affordable Care Act. However, look at the position the president took when presented with the scenario that his policy has given companies an incentive to cut workers hours instead of paying the high costs of the benefits:

...There is no reason for an employer who is not currently providing health care to their workers to discourage them from either getting health insurance on the job or being able to avail themselves of the Affordable Care Act. I haven’t looked at Staples stock lately or what the compensation of the CEO is, but I suspect that they could well afford to treat their workers favorably and give them some basic financial security, and if they can’t, then they should be willing to allow those workers to get the Affordable Care Act without cutting wages. This is the same argument that I’ve made with respect to something like paid sick leave. We have 43 million Americans who, if they get sick or their child gets sick, are looking at either losing their paycheck or going to the job sick or leaving their child at home sick. It’s one thing when you’ve got a mom-and-pop store who can’t afford to provide paid sick leave or health insurance or minimum wage to workers — even though a large percentage of those small businesses do it because they know it’s the right thing to do — but when I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers’ wages, shame on them.

This is a very telling answer, and it tells me above all else that the president is not a moderate, nor does he seem to understand that business owners who provide health insurance aren't giving their employees a gift. No, employers provide health insurance as a form of payment. They don't do so "because it's the right thing to do" but because they have to compete with other employers.

Maybe the president's brain just can't grasp economic reasoning, and if so he's far from alone, but let's be honest, his ignorance is left-wing ignorance, not moderate ignorance. Just look at the cliche he ended his statement with:

...But when I hear large corporations that make billions of dollars in profits trying to blame our interest in providing health insurance as an excuse for cutting back workers’ wages, shame on them.

The president is evoking the concept of infinite wealth, that a company that makes a large amount in profits should be able to provide unlimited expensive benefits to every one of its employees. However, most of those companies have huge labor forces and those expensive health insurance plans add up. It's telling that people making this argument don't list the actual cost of this course of action.

For what it's worth, Staples Inc. reported a net profit of $707 million in 2014, not actual billions like the president said, and actually lost money in 2013. I can't see a number of how many part-time employees it had, but total employees in 2013 are listed on Wikipedia as 83,000 people.

The president has made it more expensive for businesses to have full-time employees, and when told that businesses are responding the way conservatives predicted they would, his response is to blame the companies? Shame on them? No, shame on him and his infamous audacity.


Monday, February 16, 2015

Outrage culture is to blame for boring politics

Politicians give terrible pre-scripted interviews not merely because focus-group testing works so well, but because speaking off the cuff is too risky with partisan opponents ready to twist everything they say.

That's Matthew Yglesias's point in his recent piece about the response to his interview with President Obama. When they talked, the president said:

It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you've got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.

Opportunists on the right claimed the president was denying a Kosher deli was targeting Jews, even though his administration had outright declared it before. This turned into a mini-scandal that has since fizzled. Yglesias believes those critics were sincere, but blinded by their politics. I think he's being generous, while the president's critics were not.

Two years ago Steve Novella wrote:

Before you set out to criticize someone’s claim or position, you should endeavor to grant that position its best possible case. Don’t assume the worst about your opponent, assume the best. Give them any benefit of the doubt. At the very least this will avoid creating a straw man to attack, or opening yourself up to charges that you are being unfair.

And that's the problem isn't it? Politics is dominated by the uncharitable interpretation of one's opponents? Todd Akin simply must have meant by "legitimate rape" that some rapes are acceptable or John Kerry must have been mocking the troops, not George W. Bush, when he said people who don't study in school get stuck in Iraq.

Having a low threshold for outrage is very popular in politics today, but like a leech is sucks the potential for anything interesting to come from the mouths of elected officials.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"The oppressive chocolate capitalists"

This is not a parody, but an actual message written by a group of bitter Marxists against Valentine's Day:

The blood-soaked conspiracy of Valentine’s Day, driven by the oppressive chocolate capitalists, has arrived once again. In order to create a brighter future, we call for solidarity among our unloved comrades, so that we may demonstrate in resolute opposition to Valentine’s Day and the romantic industrial complex.

And when I say bitter I mean bitter. Based in Japan the group is named Kakumei-teki himote doumei, which translates to “Revolutionary Alliance of Men That Woman Are Not Attracted To."

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, who already used "Romantic Industrial Complex" in a headline so I couldn't.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

An international flowering of trade

Alex Tabarrok's Valentine's Day video is a take-off of Leonard Read's "I, Pencil" and a great lesson on spontaneous order around meeting human needs.


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Good riddance to an enemy of speech

Is there something about working in an American university that kills the part of the brain that understands free speech?

Last month NPR's Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos stepped down and his successor posted his final column, which was about media ethics.  Schumacher-Matos was quick to tell us he was once the James Madison Visiting Professor on First Amendment Issues at Columbia University before he told us that we shouldn't have complete freedom of the press.

I do not know if American courts would find much of what Charlie Hebdo does to be hate speech unprotected by the Constitution, but I know—hope?—that most Americans would. It is one thing to lampoon popes, imams, rabbis and other temporal religious leaders of this world; it is quite another to make fun, in often nasty ways, of their prophets and gods. The NPR editors were right not to reprint any of the images. 
None of this is to justify the bombing. That was far worse still. But France itself is now undergoing a soul searching about how it treats its Muslim minority.

He's endorsing blasphemy laws? This is supposed to be the one who watched the watchers? Good grief.

Schumacher-Matos, you say "First Amendment fundamentalists" like it's a bad thing. I'd rather live in a nation where I'm free to be offended then one where the government punishes people for saying unpopular thing.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

NPR self-flagellates

A liberal has told NPR that it sounds too white, and as can be expected, NPR responded by falling on the ground and begging forgiveness.

“Without being directly told, people like me learn that our way of speaking isn’t professional. And you start to imitate the standard or even hide the distinctive features of your own voice. This is one of the reasons that some of my black and brown friends refuse to listen to some of my favorite radio shows despite my most passionate efforts.” 
[Commentator Chenjerai] Kumanyika was referring to the subtle matter of code-switching, or speaking one way to one’s immediate peers and another way — call it more “white” — to a larger group. No matter the racial or ethnic identity of the speaker, people on public radio sound white, he suggested.

His basic argument is that speaking formally and professionally is foreign to blacks and Latinos and they don't want to listen to people who sound that way, so the world needs to go casual to meet their needs.

Does anyone else find this incredibly condescending to minority members? It' the soft bigotry of low expectations. Of course, NPR hosts aren't standing up against it. When you tell a far-left organization that it's too white, they will fold like Circuit City in 2009.


Friday, February 6, 2015

A pox on both your houses

Feminst commentator Anita Sarkeesian is being honored by the Harvard Humanist Community as the person of the year for 2014. A lot of my secular friends are opposed to it, but I completely endorse her nomination.

Not as a compliment to Sarkeesian, but as an insult to humanism.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

I'm not giving Rand Paul a pass on vaccines

I recently rewatched Carol Tavris's 2011 talk from The Amazing Meeting. Towards the ends she talked about when a friend does something terrible we tend to minimize the sin or end the friendship, but she then shared a quotation from Shimon Peres when he was asked to comment about a gaffe made by his friend Ronald Reagan.

Peres said, “When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.”

That was on my mind when I heard Rand Paul's infamous comments about vaccines. The headline was that he opposes mandatory vaccinations, something the United States doesn't actually have. We require children to be vaccinated to attend daycare or public schools, but we don't arrest parents who don't vaccinate their kids, and we do absolutely nothing about unvaccinated adults or tourists or immigrants.

Still, I believe the government is justified in forcing vaccines upon the American public. The threat of spreading diseases is great and the risk of vaccines is tiny. Not being vaccinate is dangerous and opposition to vaccines is based on misinformation and hysteria.

I can accept Rand Paul's position on the mandatory nature, but then I learned during the same interview he said vaccines can cause "profound mental disorders" and said, "I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they're a good thing. But I think the parents should have some input."

I wanted to give him a pass, because he did actually vaccinate his kids, but it would be disingenuous to do so. He clearly endorsed the anti-vax movement's disproven idea that vaccines cause health problems like autisim (even though he didn't name it specifically.)

Rand Paul was wrong, wrong, wrong to name those supposed risks. Frankly, it's absurd he could let such a crazy thing out of his mouth. John McCain, Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton all said similar things when they ran for president in 2008, long after the supposed link to autism was disproved. They didn't deserve a pass and neither does he.

Rand Paul was wrong, very very wrong. I will not minimize the mistake. He has tried to walk those remarks back, and by all means we should let him, but the mistake will remain a mistake and he will remain someone I otherwise admire.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Raise your standards, don't lower them

From time to time, I find myself rereading Ken White's brilliant piece entitled "Ken's Law". It's about the idea that awfulness among ones opponents does not excuse awfulness among ones allies.

As I reread this four-year-old essay, I find myself struggling to live up to its lessons.

In modern debates, proving the hypocrisy of one's opponents is a cheap and easy way to feel that you've won a debate. It's very tempting to see political opponents whooping about a gaffe cast by your side and tell them that if their side did it they would be making excuses.

It's tempting alright, but we have to fight that primal urge. As Ken wrote:

We're conditioned by culture, both popular and political, to frame everything as white hats vs. black hats. This leads us into embarrassing contortions, hypocrisies, and violations of previously closely-held principles when we are called upon to defend Our Guy (or gal). He/she was provoked! The other side did much worse! Yes, he/she kicked a puppy, but nobody said anything when the other guy/girl killed a kitten! 
And yet we know, on some level, that this is a foolish way to look at life. We know it when we deal with our children — an apt comparison, as politicians and people who care about them are usually childish in a charming-sociopath-with-questionable-personal-hygiene sense. When one of the kids runs howling into my room at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday about what his/her brother/sister did, it is almost always the case that the howler did not have clean hands in the dispute. 
But somehow we go about acting as if One Guy Is In The Right, and that ifs, buts, nuances, and shared responsibility are signs of weakness, apostasy, and "concern trolling."

For a while, I told myself to stop trying to score political points by assuming that the other side would act hypocritically if the situation was reversed. What if my assumption was wrong? I swore off saying "If my guy was in that situation, would you act the same way?"

But after further thought, I've decided that this way of thinking is only half right. It is indeed wrong for someone to give an ally a pass for something they would condemn an opponent for, but it is only proper to ask an opponent to consider calling out their own kin for being in the wrong, and a good way to show them that is to ask what they would do if their own opponent behaved that way.

Think of a two by two matrix. There are good opponents, bad opponents, good allies and bad allies. In all cases we should all call out bad opponents and allies, and treat good allies and opponents with courtesy and the benefit of the doubt.