Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why the Rally to Restore Sanity Sucks

I’m going to Jon Stewart’s big “Rally to Restore Sanity” this Saturday. Why? Well, because I think it will be fun to be in a large group of people who have similar views to mine and are also probably around my age. I like big crowds. Also, some people may dress up and wave humorous signs around, and that’s always fun. Maybe I’ll be on TV! I’m not treating it as a serious political rally, as some critics of Stewart insist on doing. It’ll be fun, I’m taking a free bus ride from New York to DC and back again, and I’ll probably end up getting drunk.

The only thing that worries me is that this rally might very well be the largest lefty political event of the midterm election season—it’s already the most talked-about—and that fits into a disturbing trend: Protests are no longer about anything.

The Civil Rights marchers were protesting the Jim Crow laws and other forms of institutional racism. The Vietnam War protestors wanted US troops to leave Vietnam (I’m leaving out all the protestors who wanted to ascend to a higher level of consciousness through rigorous use of chemicals, they weren’t really political protestors). Today’s big protest movement is the Tea Party and they want—what? Lower taxes? A balanced budget? Prayer in schools? I’ve been reading about them for at least a year, and yet besides the repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act, I couldn’t tell you what these people actually want.

Glenn Beck’s big rally back in August—billed as non-political but pretty clearly linked to the Tea Party—was defined by Beck like so:

This is not a political event. This is to send the message to us and our children and the rest of America: There is a revival going on of values and principles. There is a revival of honor and integrity, and we’re going to demand it of ourselves and our politicians. We are not going to put up with it anymore, in our own lives or in the lives of politicians or our banks and our businesses.

What the fuck does that even mean? In a related question, what the fuck does Stewart’s website mean when it says,

Ours is a rally for the people who’ve been too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs) — not so much the Silent Majority as the Busy Majority. If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence… we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point.

I’m pretty sure I could sum up the political view of the participants in a phrase: left-of-center to far left loony. There aren’t going to be a whole lot of Republicans there, just as there weren’t many Democrats at Beck’s rally. (I’m pretty sure the only Democrats in attendance there were making spiteful documentaries about how ignorant and intellectually inconsistent the Tea Partiers were.) Just as there won’t be any Republicans at the Rally, neither will there be any people who are too busy to go to rallies—they’re going to be too busy. Like Beck’s event, this will be a gathering of people who have mostly similar views on politics and on life but few clearly definable shared goals.

This is a problem because without some clear goals, a protest isn’t going to do much more than make the protestors feel good about themselves for waving signs. A protest or a petition can make politicians aware that a large group of people care passionately about one issue, and that can have consequences. The act of protesting is a cornerstone of yada yada yada. But when a bunch of people gather to say, “We need to restore honor and pride to America!” or “We need to have a civil environment for political discussion!” it doesn’t inform politicians that we feel a certain way about an issue. It just informs politicians that we like to yell and wave signs around.

Anyway, if anyone is going to the Rally, I’ll see you there. I’ll be the guy waving a sign around.
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Friday, October 22, 2010

Why the Anti-Drug Movement should Suck on an Exhaust Pipe and Die: Fact-Checking an Evil Pamphlet

The one subject that pretty much everyone who goes to college learns about is marijuana. Even if you’ve been sheltered from any knowledge about bongs, joints, and hemp in high school, even if you’ve never watched the Dave Chapelle Show or seen a movie Seth Rogen was involved in, by the time you graduate from (or drop out of) college you’re no doubt in possession of a lot of information about pot. You’ve probably smoked it at least once, and maybe have gone through a period when you were smoking a lot, to the point where there’s a towel permanently placed against the bottom of your dorm room door to prevent smoke from leaking out. Even if you didn’t smoke that much, you know that pot won’t kill you, it isn’t that addictive, and after the first few times you get high, it isn’t all that big of a deal. It can make you lazy, it can make you sort of boring to be around (you know this if you’re friends with stoners), and it can make terrible music sound interesting. It doesn’t make you cool, but it doesn’t kill you. After you find all of this stuff out, you either continue smoking pot or—more likely—you grow up and get a job where you can’t get high all that much, or they drug test you, and then you only smoke weed when your kids are out of the house and your old college buddies come over.

It’s easy to forget, after you grow up, all those "Drug Free America" messages that we were bombarded with as children. Remember how they told you one puff of pot would leave you dead in a ditch? Remember the “gateway drug” stuff? That time the retired cop came to your middle school and showed everyone photos of emaciated meth addicts? That stuff is still going on, and the anti-drug crusaders are just as crazy as ever. The proof of this is evident from the pamphlet, "The Truth About Marijuana," which is printed by the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.

Because I had some time to kill, I decided to do some fact-checking on some of the "truths"contained in the pamphlet. All of these are screenshots from the online version of this document, which is handed out to children at schools. I’ll start from the beginning. On page three:

That’s pretty much a commonly accepted fact. Pot is more potent now than it used to be. Is that a bad thing? On page five:

We learn that one joint equals five cigarettes. If that’s true, than the Drug Free World should applaud the increased amount of THC in marijuana, since it takes fewer joints to get you high now, and therefore fewer stoners are getting cancer. But does pot give you cancer? A major study from four years ago said no, and the study’s lead researcher is in favor of legalizing pot. And of course, you don’t have to get high by holding smoke in your lungs. You can cook using marijuana, or you can use a vaporizer to get high. Also on page five we get this embarrassing feature:

Due to bad layout design, schoolchildren will think both “White” and “Widow” are slang terms for marijuana. Actually, “White Widow” is a very potent strain, or sub-variety, of pot. And a “J” is a joint, and a “roach” is the last remnant of a joint or a blunt. None of these are synonymous with “marijuana.” Small errors, but they add up. On to page seven:

Alcohol contains only one chemical? Only if you are drinking pure ethanol, which is a good way to die. If you’re drinking beer, you’re drinking a bunch of different chemical compounds and carbohydrates, not just ethanol, duh. And while it is technically true that weed contains 400 chemicals, everything in the world is made up of many, many chemicals. Coffee has 800 chemicals in it. Does this mean you shouldn’t drink coffee? Just so you know, the 80 chemicals that are unique to Cannibis are called Cannabinoids. Pages eight and nine feature some ominous-sounding statistics. First up:

Because none of these studies are cited by name or date, it’s pretty hard to verify them. (Is that intentional?) But at least one study showed that marijuana was not a commonly-used drug among people who had to visit the emergency room. (That article is from NORML, a pot-advocacy group, so it isn’t unbiased, but still.) On the next page, we start to get to the stuff that makes my blood boil:

For that first “fact,” I could ask what percentage of people is arrested solely for possession or use of marijuana, but instead I’ll just state the obvious: Correlation does not imply causation. A large percentage of robberies is committed by black men—does that mean being a black man makes you rob people? No, and neither does marijuana make you break the law. (Although, given weed’s effects, it probably makes it more likely you’ll get caught by the police if you’re high.)

That second statistic makes sense, since people who drink or do drugs before they’re 15 are likely to become drug addicts. Don’t do drugs if you are a child—your brain is still developing and older teens and adults can take advantage of you if you get messed up. That does not mean adults shouldn’t drink or smoke pot.

Also, don’t smoke pot and drive. Being high means your reactions are slowed. But while driving stoned increases your chance of injury of death, it doesn’t come close to the dangers of drunk driving. This study notes that 2.5 percent of fatal crashes are caused by pot, but 29 percent are caused by alcohol. The two are simply not comparable.

Don’t smoke pot when you’re pregnant. That should be sort of obvious. I have no problem with this page. This page, on the other hand…

Jesus Christ, where to start? Firstly, it should be obvious that those who used cocaine used pot first. Pot is easier to find and much, much cheaper. You don’t go straight to cocaine without having used “softer” drugs. Does that prove that marijuana is a “gateway?” No. And the high you get from cocaine (or heroin, or PCP) is different enough from the marijuana high that not a whole lot of stoners go on to use those drugs as their tolerance builds. They just smoke more pot. As for the last line on the page, the one that says that joints can be dipped in PCP, is just naked fear mongering. Sure, some people sprinkled PCP on joints, but hardly anyone does that, and when you smoke a PCP joint, the problem isn’t that you smoked pot, the problem is you smoked PCP! That’s not as bad as the “testimonial” on the facing page:

Fuck. This. Assuming this is a real testimonial and not fiction, it implies that weed leads to heroin. They can’t make this claim using statistics, so they find a heroin user to make this claim. Plenty of people smoke pot and don’t become heroin addicts. Like Carl Sagan, for instance. Remember him? The famous scientist?

Finally, we get the capper:

The Foundation for a Drug-Free World is unbiased. If someone tells you marijuana is okay, they’re probably a drug dealer with a vested interest in hooking you on pot. Like the pamphlet as a whole, the logic makes sense in a vacuum—unscrupulous drug dealers looking to hook new customers would lie, wouldn’t they?

Maybe some of them would, the scumbags who sell pot to middle schoolers or the guys whole sell crack and heroin. But—take this from someone with, ahem, some “experience”—marijuana pretty much sells itself. A lot of people like getting high, and if you have good weed at good prices, you don’t need to tell a bunch of complicated lies. All you need to do, to sell weed, is to say, “Hey, I have some weed.”

But the pamphlet is right in one sense: When someone tells you some information that sounds suspect, you should look into their motives. For instance, who funds the Foundation for a Drug-Free World? Oh, right, the Scientologists. The people who tell you you have aliens in your head.

No matter the source, this pamphlet is full of lies and half-truths, and it’s targeted at children. It seems to me that honesty, intellectual rigor, and skepticism are good traits to instill in kids, especially in kids who we don’t want using drugs. But this pamphlet, along with many other anti-drug programs, teaches the opposite of those things. It tells children that marijuana leads to heroin, crime, car accidents, and cancer. It tells them they’ll be stupid and have deformed offspring if they smoke pot, and they’re supposed to accept all of that just because the Scientologists told them so. Never mind all of the movies, TV shows, and books that depict marijuana use, rightly, as being not all that bad, the pamphlet must be right, since it’s given to them by their teachers or some other important adult, right?

I hope no school is actively handing out this pamphlet, unless it’s as part of a unit on propaganda. To ask children to believe this is to lie to their faces, and the only thing you’ll end up teaching them is to not trust anything an adult says. Which, actually, might not be that bad of a lesson.
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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why Elected Officials Suck, According to Hitchens and Adams

Lovable scamp Christopher Hitchens (not pictured) wrote a column for Slate this week about how odd it is that very few of the intelligent and informed people he’s known in his long career as a public intellectual and drunk have ever though about running for political office. Many of them might do a pretty decent job running the country, but they’re put off by the insane slaughterhouse that is contemporary electoral politics. Quoth Hitch:

What normal person would consider risking their career and their family life in order to undergo the incessant barrage of intrusive questioning about every aspect of their lives since well before college? To face the constant pettifogging and chatter of Facebook and Twitter and have to boast of how many false friends they had made in a weird cyberland? And if only that was the least of it. Then comes the treadmill of fundraising and the unending tyranny of the opinion polls, which many media systems now use as a substitute for news and as a means of creating stories rather than reporting them. And, even if it "works," most of your time in Washington would be spent raising the dough to hang on to your job. No wonder that the best lack all conviction.

That reminds me of a line from another famous atheist, the late Douglas Adams, who penned this line about the paradox of government: “Those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”

With all the media scrutiny and waves of negative publicity, in order to want to run for office you’d have to be an emotionally damaged narcissist, a delusional reformer who believes it’s possible to change the system in a meaningful way, or an out-and-out power hungry sociopath. Come election time, we’ll all be voting for candidates who are corrupt at worst, relentlessly bland at best, and most likely have something dark and twisted rattling about in their skulls.

Thankfully for us, the United States has a system that, though designed to elect people uniquely unsuited to have power, is also designed to make sure that those elected officials can’t do anything once they sit down in Washington. With massive majorities in both houses of Congress and one of their own in the White House, the Democrats managed to accomplish some reforms that—despite all the Beckian screaming about Nazis—aren’t exactly earth-shattering. Some companies were prevented from going bankrupt, some more people will have health insurance, and these modest shifts in policy will cost a lot of Democrats their jobs. The struggle for the rights of homosexuals to marry one another and join the army to get shot at (why would one want to do either? some straights ask) is proceeding in the courts, where elected officials can’t get in the way.

Considering the quality of politicians we have on hand, deciding things in the courts, where intelligent people debate with one another using a lot of big words, is probably for the best. And it’s probably for the best, too, that however many Republicans get into office this November, no one will be able to pass or repeal any legislation at all, thanks to the labyrinthine rules of the non-robot Senate.

In Douglas Adams’s universe, the problem of government is solved by turning the president into a democratically elected figurehead, someone who is “always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention from it.” The people who run the universe are a sextet of shadowy figures who in turn (spoiler!) make their decisions based on the advice of an insane autistic old man who lives alone with his cat. The system described by Adams seems sinister and despotic on its face, but it’s probably not a bad way to make policy decisions. Not worse than ours, anyway.
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Monday, October 11, 2010

The Most Worthless Thing On The Internet: Yes, Rick Reilly Is Really That Bad Edition

In the past, I’ve been critical of Rick Reilly for being a lazy, unfunny hack of a sportswriter who has coasted along on his name and popularity for more than a decade. But I’ve felt a little guilty about the things I’ve said about him—who am I to criticize a man who has won numerous awards for his sportswriting, who has donated a lot of time and money to the worthy cause of getting malaria-preventing mosquito nets, and who is under pressure every week to produce a column. So what if sometimes he writes a hideously banal column? They can’t all be gems So what if he doesn’t understand soccer? Most American men of his generation don’t. So what if he’s occasionally schmaltzy? There’s a place for that in the world of sports, and maybe I’ve grown too hardened and cynical to appreciate his childlike idealism.

But then on Friday I saw this column and realized I was right the first time: Rick Reilly is a lazy hack who has been half-assing it for at least a decade, probably more, and he deserves to be criticized constantly and mercilessly until he decides to retire from sports journalism and write golf-themed crime caper novels a la Dave Barry or Carl Hiassen.

Let’s break this particular piece of hackwork down. For starters, we’re in the middle of both the college and professional football seasons, and MLB playoffs have just started, so it’s odd that Reilly would pick this time to write about the NBA, which isn’t in the news much. It’s also odd that he’s talking about nicknames for Miami’s star-stuffed team now rather than three months ago, when the team came together. That would have been the time to discuss nicknames—that was when Free Darko ran its “What should we call the LeBron-Wade-Bosh sandwich” piece.

Comparing FD’s column and Reilly’s shows how much more bloggers put into their work than “traditional media” dinosaurs like Reilly. Reilly’s piece is just a list of possible names with no commentary, no context, and no actual thought behind it. Some of the names (“ThreeHeat,” “Menage-a-Dunk,” “Terminators 3”) are so aggressively awful that a sports writer for a college paper would be ashamed to print them. It seems like an early draft of notes for a column rather then a column itself.

Free Darko’s piece, on the other hand, has less nickname suggestions but all of them are considered. You get a bunch of factoids about the Yalta Conference and the history of ancient Rome, and some jokes—actual jokes, unlike Reilly’s middle-aged puns—about the geometry of triangles. It’s way too nerdy and esoteric for ESPN’s audience, sure, but Reilly’s column--or collection of words, or whatever we’re supposed to call a poorly presented list of unfunny nicknames—insults the intelligence of any sports fan who’s out of fifth grade. Seriously, “The Brothers Rim?” That sounds like the title of a particularly hard-core piece of gay porn.

For the record, I don’t think Reilly stole this idea from Free Darko, none of whose proposed nicknames appear on his list. There are only so many topics in the sports world to write about, and no one has a monopoly on jokey listicles. I also don’t think it’s plagiarism because I doubt Reilly reads Free Darko, which is one of the most popular basketball blogs on the web and should probably be required reading for anyone who writes about sports for a living. I don’t think Reilly reads Free Darko because I believe that like John McCain, Reilly never goes online or even touches a computer. I picture him dictating whatever thoughts are floating in his scotch-addled brain to the hooker or 39-year-old cocktail waitress happens to be sharing his hotel room, who then transcribes them on a Selectric typewriter. The hooker then faxes the stream-of-consciousness transcript, misspellings and all, to an ESPN sub-editor, who sighs, crumples the fax into a ball and throws it out, and writes a column in Reilly’s name in about ten minutes. Reilly never notices this substitution, because like most people on planet Earth, it’s been years since he’s read a word he’s written.
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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Why the New Anti-Poker Law in Washington State Sucks

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court in my old state of Washington ruled that a law passed in 2006 banning online gambling was perfectly constitutional. It was a 9-0 decision, and thus a pretty easy one for the justices to make, but the ruling carried enough weight for PokerStars, a popular online poker site, to ban anyone with a Washington State IP address from playing on it.

This is the kind of news that affects maybe only a few thousand people seriously, but for professional online poker players in Washington—some of whom I know personally—this was the worst possible news. Online poker has existed in a legal gray area for some time now, but this court ruling eliminated all shades of gray; playing poker on your computer, as opposed to in a casino, is a Class C felony. If all poker sites take this ruling as seriously as PokerStars had, it will become impossible to play online poker in Washington, meaning that online poker players who rely on poker to pay the bills will have effectively lost their jobs.

The more you consider the law, the less sense it makes. There is the old argument, “gambling is evil, all evil things should be illegal,” but gambling is legal in Washington State, and not just on Indian reservations. When I lived in Seattle, you could drive just outside the city limits and play poker in a number of card rooms. This document from the Washington State Gambling Commission says, “Gambling has a history of connection to crime and corruption and as a result is strictly controlled virtually everywhere. Just because gambling occurs on the Internet doesn’t change this potential or the concern.” But surely the converse of that last sentence is true too—just because gambling occurs in a brick and mortar casino or card room doesn’t make it any less addictive or prone to corruption.

So why was this law, which deprives a bunch of people of their formerly (semi) legal income, passed in the first place?

Well, duh, it was passed because a bunch of rich casino owners wanted it to be so. When people gamble online, presumably, they aren’t gambling in a casino, and this understandably outraged the Native American tribes who run large gambling enterprises like the Tullalip Casino. These tribes have boatloads of money and they’ve invested a lot of it in the one enterprise in America guaranteed to give you a good rate of return on your investment—campaign contributions.

The sponsors of the original bill--Margarita Prentice, Karen Keiser, Daniel Kline, and Paull Shin—all received substantial contributions from groups like the “Campaign for Tribal Self-Reliance” which have close ties to the Indian casino business. The Congresspeople did what politicians always do and help out the people who helped them out and introduced the online gambling law, which was quickly passed because the other Congresspeople likely wanted contributions from the tribes to keep coming, and also because passing laws against “immoral” activities like gambling is a fun and popular thing for politicians to do. Never mind that the anti-online gambling law was bankrolled by a bunch of people who make their living off of gambling addicts and suckers, and never mind that it hurts the professional and semi-pro poker players (who are the small businessmen of the gambling world). Gambling is bad, so anti-gambling laws must be good, right?

Gambling addiction is a serious problem, yes, but gambling addicts aren’t going to stop gambling because they can’t play online. They’ll just go to the casino instead—which is of course why this bill was passed in the first place, to benefit big in-state casinos at the expense of international poker sites and the people who make money by playing on them. (Not all professional online poker players can simply switch to playing in the casinos and the card rooms—that’s a long car ride for many of them, and many card rooms don’t offer the variety of games that the online sites do.)

The truly maddening thing about this law is not that it’s an arbitrarily oppressive law passed at the request of big-money interests. It’s that this law is an example of the system working pretty much perfectly. A special interest group wanted a law to be passed, they made the necessary (and legal) donations and the politicians did more or less what those groups wanted. Everything was documented, and although there was clearly a quid pro quo exchange, no one can be said to have done anything technically unethical. Everyone cooperated, and we got a law that puts people out of work so large moneyed institutions can thrive. Good job guys.
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