Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Old Acquaintance

Lest you believe we thought the holidays were over after Christmas.

The New Year is a holiday with an interesting metaphor behind it.  As we celebrate the birth of a new year we simultaneously mourn the passing of another.  When midnight strikes on December 31st, everything 2010 could have been will fade into the realm of never was, but everything 2011 might be will become possible.  This funeral and birth bring the hopes and dreams of everything we now have 365 days to accomplish to the forefront of our minds.  We make resolutions on the grave of the old year, swearing we will do better this time around.  The year is a living thing to us, representing not a measure of time but an avatar of hope, one which we are, sometimes desperately, counting on to come through for us.

For the purposes of this commentary, I will stay away from assessing the usual suspects of resolutions; changes in body and mind, success in love and business, taking chances you promised to take the year before.  I would like to believe that this year everyone will put forth the effort to get what it is they want from life. So, I will refrain from discussing the more serious nature of self-improvement and taking action in the new year and instead focus on the day itself, and the proper, gentlemanly behavior one should exhibit upon ringing it in.

Please note: College students should feel free to disregard the following.

Getting Friends Together

So, it is New Years Eve and you want to celebrate.  Capital!  But you can't celebrate the New Year alone, that's a sad testament to how the old one treated you.  And probably a few before it.  To that end, you need friends to celebrate with!  Wait, there's a decision to make here.  Do you throw your own party or seek out one being propagated by others?  Keep in mind that if you decide to host your own event, there will be many other soirees competing for attendance.  Here is a quick right and wrong example of how to invite people over to yours in light of this fact.

The Right Way:

Hello friends!  I certainly understand that you likely have many parties to attend this New Years Eve, but I do hope you'll make time for mine!  Spirits and snacks will be served, and all are welcome to partake.  See you then!

The Wrong Way:

Come to the best fucking party this year is going to see!!!  The other parties like the one Roger is throwing are lame bullshit and will suck, I know because Roger is a douchebag who fucking steals girls YOU KNWE FOR THREE YEARS I WANTED TO ASK HER OUT ROGER.  I DONT EVEN WANT THAT SLUT NOW AND I DON't WANT TO SEE THE FUCKING VIDEO QUIT ASKING.   So fuck Roger, come to my place and get hammered.  Bring your own booze.  Peace!

So as you can see, spelling and punctuation are an important part of getting people to think about stopping in to celebrate with you.  When people see you've taken the time to attend to details, they will be more apt to choose your party as the place they want to be.  Which brings us to . . .

The Celebration

Now that we have our friends together, either at your place or at a friend's house, we have hours to kill in the time before we watch the ball come down in New York City, marking another successful voyage by the Earth around its closest star.  As a party host, the Gentleman puts out a spread his guests can be happy with.  Snacks should be varied and plentiful, and include the standard dips and garnishes a party guest expects.  There is no need to break out the fine china or order caviar; provide within your means and chances are everything will go smoothly.  What will matter the most is your conduct.

Like I said earlier, New Years is a special balance of time, an observance of both birth and death.  Both usually involve the imbibing of alcohol, and this is no exception.  So whether at your own place or celebrating with someone else, there are certain lines which should not be crossed.

Moderation is key.  Participate in a toast at midnight, and perhaps nurse a drink during some casual conversation regarding the weather or local sporting teams, particularly the inferiority of rival clubs.  By the end of the evening you should be pleasantly warmed, but neither tipsy nor drunk.  Maintain your dignity.  Remember, you are both observing a birth and attending a funeral.  Make a positive impression.  Here are some key guidelines to observe;

1) Most people will be there with their significant other.  As such, advances are most likely unwelcome, no matter how sure you are that they were totally checking you out.

2) In the event you are certain a fellow party-goer IS romantically unattached, do not assume that your level of attraction to the opposite sex correlates with how much alcohol you consume.  By the same token, please try to bear in mind what that person looked like before you started drinking in the first place.

3)  If liquor is provided, it belongs to everybody and should be distributed evenly.  Look around the party.  If you are three times as drunk as everybody else, you have wronged two people there.  If you are three times as drunk as everybody else combined, you may want to consider arranging transport to a hospital.  Before doing so, do ensure that you have all the clothes you came in with, and that you're still at the right party.

4) Generally speaking, no amount of nudity is considered acceptable.

5) Never, ever throw up on anything that has a soul.


The time comes for the ethereal transition from one year to the next.  No one can really describe it, but there is a definitive feeling, perhaps a subconscious realization of the fresh start we face, as soon as the clock hits midnight.  People toast, loved ones share a kiss, and we begin anew.  This is a critical time, as there are customs to observe and any gentleman will be mindful of them.

If you are in attendance by yourself, it is traditional to take part in the New Years toast, which will be given by the host.  If you are not the host, do not assume it is your right to include your own toast or talk over the host as they are delivering it.  Even if the content is lackluster and you just know everyone is secretly groaning inside and hoping someone speaks up to liven this thing up with a toast about excessive consumption and sexual promiscuity, I ask you to refrain.  On that subject, if by some chance you are asked to provide the toast, keep the company in attendance in mind when considering how many references to specific examples you intend to cite.

On the subject of the customary kiss.  This is to be performed exactly at midnight with your significant other.  Like with most things, there are careful rules to abide by when the clock tolls 12.  First, and most importantly, make sure the person you're with actually is your loved one.  Details like this are crucial towards making a positive impression on other party guests, and in most cases your actual partner will not look kindly on such an error on your part.  Second, a New Years kiss is given a wider berth than most public displays of affection insofar as being extended or passionate without being inappropriate.  This only extends so far, however.  Please refer to rule #4 under the section on celebrating.

The New Year

So the people are assembled, the midnight hour has come and gone, and you are now at a party whose reason for being ceased to be.  If guests are enjoying themselves, chances are they will linger for awhile longer.  This creates several possible scenarios depending on if you are host or guest.  If it is the latter, it is your responsibility to judge what is a reasonable time to bid your polite farewell.  When you decide the time is right, give your respects to your friends, provide a final Happy New Year, and leave under your own power.  A successful egress lacks both slurring, staggering, and, if at all possible, racial epithets.

Stay no longer than you feel welcome.  In the event you have passed out, it is courteous to have made arrangements in advance to have someone collect you in case of such an instance.  If this was induced by liquor rather than exhaustion at the late hour, please keep Rule #5 of celebrating in mind, and be mindful that this extends to family heirlooms which may be haunted. 

Now as the host, it is your duty to make sure that people enjoy themselves while still being mindful of your responsibilities in cleaning your home and going to sleep at a reasonable hour.  Should you find guests not receiving your subtle clues about the hour growing late, it is within your purview to simply let people know it is time to go.  Should you hope to host such an event again, please do not include swearing, threats, or, if at all possible, racial epithets.

Once the party has ended, revel in the knowledge that everyone has had a good time, and you have both ended one year and begun another on the right foot.  Surrounded by friends, filled with good cheer, and happy.  Above all else, be happy, because no matter what happened in the previous the year, you are now off to a fresh start, and anything can happen.

Enjoy your revelry, and remember auld lang syne.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Holidays

Yesterday, as I am wont to do, I ventured to my local comic shop and then crossed the street with my super-heroic bounty to read them at Starbucks.  Upon ordering my usual hot chocolate, the barista offered me a jolly "Merry Christmas" to go along with my beverage.  For half a second, I entertained indulging myself in an "I'm Jewish" simply for the sake of his reaction more than any offense.  I stopped myself because it only took that half-second to realize the man across the counter had given me more than perfunctory holiday greeting, he actually infused some spirit into it.  He was giving me his well-wishes, and with a smile, I thanked him and returned the sentiment.

It's been too often in recent years I've heard this debate raging over the proper greeting for others in this age of diversity awareness and political correctness.  Trying to force your viewpoint of the holiday season onto the way people act around you is wholly opposed to what this time is about.  No matter what you observe, be it a major holiday or minor observance or even nothing at all, you must acknowledge that this is a time, once a year, when people try to be a little kinder to one another.  For example, on the way to my girlfriend's house to spend time with her and her family for Christmas, I restrained myself from slowing down and flipping the bird while having brights flashed at me as I went 70 in a 55.  So, you know, little things.

The point being, no one owns this time of year.  The closeness of mankind which the holiday season espouses is about the whole of mankind - not just the sects of it which believe the same things you do.  When someone tells you "Merry Christmas" take it for what it is - well-wishing.  A sincere and honest hope that this time of year turns out well for you.  If you don't observe, so what?  Does that mean you should be offended that whoever told it to you hasn't taken into account that your religion doesn't overlap with theirs?  No, come on.  Be serious here.  By the same token, if someone tells you "Happy Holidays," don't insist they say "Merry Christmas."  Not everyone celebrates Christmas, and you can't insist that they do.  That's pretty contrary to the whole idea of inclusion and togetherness, isn't it? 

This time of year holds meaning to practically every major religion in the world.  Whether it be the necessity of community for survival in harsh months or actual divine intervention bringing about a reason for observance, winter has brought mankind together.  So the next time someone gives you some sort of seasonal greeting, be it "Merry Christmas," "Happy Holidays," or "Festive Solstice," appreciate the sentiment behind them if not the words themselves. 

Which is actually a pretty good segue way into my next point.  The spirit of this season, the whole notion behind it, is to be thoughtful.  The point of this entire time of year is thoughtfulness, but giving is a part of that as well.  In our commercialized society, we see this reflected in the influx of advertising from retailers trying to convince us that their hot ticket item is THE hot ticket item.  We buy into this exactly how we're supposed to, which leads to incidents like a Wal-Mart employee being trampled to death by shoppers breaking down the doors on Black Friday.  Indeed, that is hardly an isolated incident.  Even in cases not resulting in fatalities, the rage, jealousy, and greed which accompanies this time of year does a disservice to the holiday spirit.

There's no restraint in our culture, no sense of morality infused with our need to have things.  The truth is that the spirit of giving really doesn't matter much if you do it without thought behind it.  I was more thrilled by a set of pencils my girlfriend gave me for Hanukkah than any latest video game or other expensive trinket she could have offered me because she laid out her entire gift scheme to be one showing forethought and planning.  She took time to do more than look at something she'd seen advertised somewhere and say "boy, commercialized America makes me think David would really like this."  She saw the work I've been doing over at The Backlog (the finest blog about unplayed video games which also has comics on the internet today) and, through her gifts, let me know she supports me every step of the way. 

Giving is not about procuring some hard-to-obtain item.  It is not about flaunting your wealth or generosity.  The idea of giving a gift is about putting thought behind it, in saying through some small gesture or token that you listen to what your gift-receiver is saying, you pay attention, and you believe in and support them.  Holidays are about faith in a higher power, but in giving we can show our faith in one another.  Now don't get me wrong, there are some great gadgets and toys out there which would make a lot of people happy to own.  However, the thing commercialism has taken from us the most in this respect is our creativity, our thoughtfulness.  Instilled in us instead is the idea that spending enough money will somehow make everybody happy. 

Holidays are about togetherness.  They're a time for family, friends, and loved ones.  Whether you're in church, at home, or at the movies, we seek to be with others at this time.  That makes us happy.  What lifts our spirits and infuses us with the joy of the season is the people around us and the things they do and we do for them.  Gifts are an accentuation, a supplement, not a dire need.  Sometimes, just the sincere wish of "Happy Holidays" can get the job done.  If you want to show you care in a deeper way, it doesn't take waiting in line at 4AM to get into a store (though I've had people do that twice for me now and I hope they know I did appreciate it).  It doesn't take an extravagant gesture or flashy gift.  It just takes some thought, something you know you'll love to give as much as they will love to receive.

And finally, I'd like to share the one special prayer I made while attending Midnight Mass.  I had no real desire to go to church, and, as I expected, I felt terribly out of place being the lone Jew in a gathering dedicated to the birth of Jesus.  An unfair circumstance, now that I think about it, as Jesus himself had at least two others present at the actual event.  In any event, my girlfriend has a deep and abiding faith which I greatly admire, and she let me know it would mean a lot to her if I came along.  So I went, and while I was there I put aside the issue of faith and belief and the disappointed look I knew my mother was affecting 500 miles away without knowing why, and I just listened to the choir.  I had gone there primarily just to hear her sing, but there's something about a choir I always love.  The principle is the same across many genres, spiritual or non; voices raised together in harmony sound bigger, better, stronger than a single voice.  And I know that even as these people are all united in their faith, they are divided by other aspects of life.  They might have different upbringings, different jobs, different sports teams or life goals or political beliefs, but when singing, that all stops mattering.  When you raise you voice with others, the power of it, the physically palpable wave of sound which washes over you, brings people together.  That, I believe, is what the spirit of the holidays feels like.

So, as I sat inside the church, prayers and hymns I'm unfamiliar with echoing around me, I offered up one simple message to the Lord.

"God," I said, "thank you for Alison.  And Merry Christmas."

He knows I'm Jewish and don't celebrate, but somehow I don't think that matters.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas: Heavy on Santa, Light on Church

Whenever people complain about how Christmas is too secular, too commercial, too consumerist, and that the country is going to hell in a hand basket because too many American families are missing the point of Christmas entirely, I think they’re talking about my family.  Actually, I know they are talking about my family, because my family isn’t even the kind of family who pretends they’re going to go to church and then something something blah blah blah they couldn’t go this year because of whatever reason.  We were never going to go, and if we were, what church would we attend?

My family is decidedly secular.  Christmas, for us, has always been much more about gathering ‘round the fireplace and Santa and snowmen than little baby Jesus.  And so when people rail against all the Americans who’ve lost their way, I guess they’re talking about us.

But I don’t think we have lost our way.  (I guess technically, we never had it.) Christmas today in America is mainly about family, and togetherness, and yes, giving.  (Getting is, of course, a byproduct of the giving, but that’s the fine print.)  My family celebrates all of those things.  I can’t wait to come home to my parents’ house for some home cooked meals, some Christmas Vacation, and (hopefully) seeing the faces of my loved ones light up when they open that just-right present for which I scoured the mall or amazon or etsy for days. 

We, as people, need tradition. It makes us feel good to get together and do the same ritual every year that we’ve done since we were kids, that our parents and their parents did before us in only slightly different ways.  In our workaholic society we need an excuse to leave our jobs and the everyday prattle of our own lives to go and just hang out on the couch for a couple days with our parents without feeling like we should be *doing* something.

I have a good friend at work who is Indian, and decidedly not Christian, but she still wanted to decorate her cube for Christmas.  I was taken aback; I guess I’m so used to hearing that everyone should hate on Christmas because it stomps all over all the other holidays (which, admittedly, it does) that it took me by surprise.  I asked her why, and she just told me she doesn’t care what the religion associated with a tradition is, she just loves festivals, and celebrating with other people.  As a person who has been to my share of religious and cultural events that I’m technically not a member of, I love that.  I’m not saying, of course, that everyone should just drop their traditions and celebrate Christmas with all us secular heathens and/or evangelist Christians, but I like the sentiment.  It could probably use some more use in our competitive my-religion-or-culture-is-better-than-yours atmosphere.

For whatever reason, the end of the year is when we celebrate togetherness and love and hope for a brighter future.  Just because my family doesn’t go to church (neither a nor your) doesn’t make this time of year any less special for us.  Any excuse to get off work and hang out with my family is good enough for me.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'Tis the Season to be a Gentleman

The holiday time is upon us once more, coming around, as it seems to, at least once a year.  Here at These Gentlemen, we've decided to take the time between Christmas and New Year's to express our own thoughts on the holidays, and how we can make it a more gentlemanly experience for all.

We're a somewhat diverse cast here at the blog.  A few of us are Jewish, a few of us are Christian, at least one of us is an atheist.  Max is kind of a hipster so he might observe Saturnalia since like, everyone else is just ripping off of them, man.  We all observe our beliefs to varying degrees, but one thing we agree on is that this is a time of year when things are a little different.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that winter is a hot bed of activity for religious observation.  It's harder to survive when the weather turns bad, which likely forced primitive man to group together in order to get by.  From that early development of communal togetherness during the harsher months, we've grown into a society which has faiths around the world all observing something or another during this time.  With that air of celebration, things can go very right or very wrong, depending on your approach.

So what does it mean to be a Gentleman during the holiday season?  Where does this sense of community bring us?  What are we doing right as a society, and where do we need to take a step back and apply a Gentleman's touch to the process?  That is exactly what we'll be exploring here as the season reaches its peak, and we do invite you to join in our conversations.

In the meantime, a happy holiday to you and yours, and we look forward to you enjoying our season's offerings here at These Gentlemen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Who Are These Gentlemen? And Other Philosophs

TG is now two years old, which is fourteen in dog years, which is right smack dab in the middle of puberty for humans.  And, like an adolescent gaining and shedding personalities with each new semester to either fit in or stick out (or, tragically, both), we're having a slight identity crisis... in the way that George Bluth may have committed slight treason.  So we're going to try something else, something that will perhaps fit us, and you, better in the long run.

We met and talked for several hours Monday night, and the same question kept coming back: Who are we, exactly?  What is it that we need to say and why do we need to say it?  What does it mean to be a Gentleman on the cusp of 2011?  As it turns out, we have some fierce opinions on that topic.  So maybe These Gentlemen is exactly that: a small band of new adults looking around in shock and distaste at an increasingly mean-spirited, classless, un-gallant world.  How does one live a gentlemanlike existence in the 21st century?  Yeah, we don't know, either.  But herein lies the blog.

We will be making a few aesthetic changes as well as the afore-mentioned philosophical shift:
We will no longer work on a weekly schedule basis, in the hopes that in turn we will deliver you more in-depth, interesting reads. We will also, in our new iteration, focus more on collaborative efforts like RoundTables, GentleMonths, and the like, making them the rule rather than the exception.

So please have patience with our growing pains.  We're trying something new, but we think it could be a really good thing. And we hope that you think so, too.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

To the Gentleman With Whom I Rode Home From Work Yesterday:

I was just hoping you might consider that perhaps a crowded metro car is not quite the forum to pontificate your opinions on the uselessness of an English degree. While you may be positive that the person who convinced "all those kids" to major in English should be arrested, you might just be sitting behind a young woman who is very proud of her Bachelor's in English. A young woman who purposely chose to study both the English language and English literature, and is quite happy with her decision.

Now, your opinion is valid and you are more than welcome to hold it. I just hope that you realize that by loudly proclaiming it to your friend while among a group of strangers, you are taking the chance that you are going to offend someone. In fact, you offended me. By lambasting my path of study, you are not only making it known that you hold a differing opinion from mine, but you are insulting me directly for choosing it. And that, sir, is rude.

You seem to think that being an English major automatically means that our only job options involve an apron and a cash register. Sadly for the understaffed Starbucks of the world, English majors have the potential to go on to become teachers, lawyers, journalists, astronauts, CEOs, the Head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and oh yeah, Nobel prize winners in medicine.

And yes, sometimes we do wait tables to make ends meet while trying to kick-start our careers. But then again, we're in a recession, so there are plenty of business and engineering majors right there next to us.

So maybe next time you'll wait until you're in the comfort of your own home to be presumptuous, yes? I, for one, would appreciate it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Sports Question

I don't have much of a deep thought today, but more of a hypothetical. I watched Tottenham v. Chelsea in soccer today and Redskins v. Buccaneers. Chelsea won their leagues last year. Redskins won the Super Bowl 18 years ago and have been a flawed franchise since then. Both had a pretty poor day, Chelsea drew, which extended their winless streak to over a month, and Redskins lost in rather spectacular fashion, blowing an extra point that would have sent the game to OT (also failed to stop a QB sneak by Tampa Bay and missing two easy field goals). [I do not support either team.]

All of that is a preface to wonder which is worse - supporting a mediocre team that blows it time and again, or supporting a very strong team that takes an extended dip in form?

I think the Chelsea fans are suffering more today, because they know they have a very expensive team that should be winning. I won't mention a certain player for the Redskins who benched for the season, but there's no question that things are more complicated in the NFL than simply outspending your opponents. Plus, few Skins fans thought they'd be challenging for the Super Bow this year. But, there's always next week.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Just a Thought about Reality Shows

Go read Dave's post "Fallacies" if you haven't yet, it's much more weighty than this academic observation I've made:

Reality shows take place in the past.

Almost all of other storytelling formats - fictional TV, movies, novels, plays, even some documentaries - take place in the "literary present." Because fiction is made up and never actually happened, it "is happening" whenever you watch/read it - even if the setting is historical.

Reality shows, however - the kind that simply follow (and impose through judicious editing a narratife structure upon) the lives of various interesting individuals and pseudo-celebrities - can not take place entirely within the "literary present." Why? Because the lives of these real people continued after the show was finished being filming, and still continue to this day (or at least until their death). There is, in other words, story outside of the "story." A reality show, in this sense, is much more like, say, a show on the History Channel - a narrative imposed on the past - than it is like a scripted drama.

Sure, reality show producers enforce a code of silence on their subjects and crews to prevent the viewers from learning about the intervening history, but no matter what they do - particularly in the case of public figures who we are already aware of (like Marion Barry) - those peoples' lives continued after filming was done.

News programs, by contrast, take place in the actual present (excepting a trivial reporting delay). Documentaries either fall into the review-of-the-past type and are thus similar to reality shows as mentioned, or are stories imposed on random subjects in a version of "literary present." (Like the Earth series.)

However, unlike history shows, reality shows seem claim to be "literary present" because of the way they are shown; and unlike documentaries that are current but become dated, reality shows were dated from the very moment they aired.

(Note that this does not apply to some genres of reality shows, mainly contest-type ones like Top Chef, which, like game shows, take the contest [with its clear beginning-and-end] as their subject; since the contest ends with the show, it doesn't have the same issue with meta-show continuing lives as, say, Real World or The Osbournes.)

There has always been, for me, a slightly uncanny or awkward feeling to watching person-based reality shows, and I think this is something to do with it.

Some literary theory ruminations for your Friday morning!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I'll Never Ignore the Perfume Lady at the Mall Again

This is a shout out to all of the people who are nice to the men and women who work at kiosks throughout the world. Thanks for realizing that I'm just doing my job. I promise that I'd rather not be asking you if you'd be interested in winning a new car or $25,000 today, but whether I like it or not, it's a paycheck. And I enjoy it when you stop to chat with me for a few minutes. Otherwise it's a long 8 (or 10 or 12) hours sitting on my stool.

So thanks for not completely ignoring me when I ask how your day is going. Thanks for acknowledging me even when you don't want what I'm selling. I really appreciate it.

(Be looking for a more substantial bonus post from me over the weekend, folks! But today's been a long one, and I think I'm just going to kick back and watch Castle if you don't mind. Thanks for understanding.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I am upset about tax cuts.

The tax cuts recently agreed to by the Obama Administration received some minor concessions by Republicans, chief among them the extension of unemployment benefits for a still-out-of-work America.  What they agreed to do in exchange, however, was extend Bush-era tax cuts, even for the wealthiest Americans, for another 2 years.

How are we going to pay for this?  How does the Republican party possibly justify at this point the idea of trickle-down economic theory, when it was following 8 years of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that our markets entered this recession?  They like to say you can't spend your way out of a recession, but even if that wren't completely inaccurate, you can still raise money in it.  The tax cuts already given to us by the Obama Administration have been the largest cuts in history - over $282 billion dollars in taxes were lifted from the public over the last two years.  That's more relief to the middle class and working Americans than any President before him has given.  If the economy hasn't recovered yet, then cutting taxes more isn't going to help.

Let's just get it out in the open - the looming debt crisis in the country is going to continue getting worse, and for all their talk about wanting to make sure they solve this problem and don't pass it down to our children and grandchildren, the government has done practically nothing to make sure that is more than simple rhetoric.  I fully expect that 10 years from now, we will still be grappling with our greivous budget deficits and trade imbalances.  If there were better ideas, better ways of moving forward, they're being shot down now in the name of "bipartisanship."

What does the President hope to gain by caving in to Republicans yet again?  Is he so willing to compromise and find a middle ground that he'll go as far as to give the other side of the aisle everything they ask for and call it cooperation?  The message being sent right now is that it is to the advantage of the minority party to completely obstruct the positions of the majority party and then blame any failure to act or push through major policy on their shortcomings.  Unless our political gridlock is broken, that will be the model of governance we have moving forward.

The term that applies here is The Fallacy of the Middle Ground.  Middle ground is often sought because of the idea that, in any given argument, the correct option is somewhere in between the two opposing sides.  President Obama has tried to make it a touchstone of his Presidency that he reach across the aisle and work with Republicans to include them in creating of legislation.  The response has been to hinder any forwarding of any Democratic policy at every turn, no matter how beneificial it may be to the country.  Their policy is "Just Say No" to each and every bill that comes down the pipe should it have the names of any Democrat on it or any relation to the Obama Administration agenda.  Does that sound like responsible politics?  Does that sound like the example a minority party should be setting?

No, and that's the fallacy.  Sometimes one side is absolutely wrong and the other is absolutely right.  The Republican party is absolutely wrong in the way they have chosen to conduct themselves for the last two years, and if Barack Obama wanted to make any kind of lasting impression in his Presidency, he should have moved forward without them.  What happened instead was that they moved further and further right, and then insisted he meet them in the middle.  Whatever accomplishments he has had in the course of his first term, they are overshadowed by his utter failure to play the political game and repeated public defeats at the hands of opponents he keeps trying to make friends with.

Of course, the response by Democrats has largely been to blame as well.  That's another issue here - their reaction to the obstructionist policy of the Republicans has been equally as wrong.  They've fought amongst themselves and against the President, and attempted to distance themselves from Obama and show that they're "conservative Democrats."  The response of the public to that idea during the midterm elections was pretty clear - if we want a conservative, we'll just elect a real one.  So rather than responding to a united front with another united front, with superior numbers, they fractured and split and only aided the Republicans in making them look like buffoons. 

This approval of tax cut extensions for the wealthiest Americans is just an example of what the next 2 years will look like if there's not some kind of movement in the Democratic - or Republican - party to say "wait, no, this isn't helping America, this is bad for our citizens, and riding the party line isn't going to get anything done to get people back at work." 

You know why Americans are out of work right now?  Because we're shipping jobs overseas at a record pace, and concentrating our efforts on recovering them.  The problem with that is that these are the jobs that we built our country on 60 years ago, and the countries taking them are just now catching up to where we were then.  We should be putting our effort into innovation and discovery, into creating the next wave of new jobs to employ millions of Americans like manufacturing jobs did for decades.  Yes, we should put effort into retaining the old jobs while we still need them, but not to the exclusion of building a future for America instead of clinging to its past and complaining about its present.  The Republicans are big on telling you that before we do anything else we need to focus on jobs and the economy.  How many of them have offered anything to back up that statement in the way of actual solutions?  And "cut taxes, reduce spending" does not count.

So yeah, I'm angry.  I'm angry at our President, I'm angry at our major political parties, and I'm angry at the portion of the population nodding their heads and saying "yes, this is how the Republicans should act."  I'm angry we elected a President that promised discourse and togetherness conceding point after point in order to force the appearance of cooperation. 

Sometimes, Mr. President, you don't negotiate, or make deals, or try to reach aross the aisle.  Sometimes you say "no, I am right, I will explain to you why I am right, and I will make sure everybody knows I am right, and if you are not with me on this I will move forward without you."  You make your case, you bring it to the people, and you argue for it, only making concessions if a legitimate point against you is raised.  Once you pick a battle, you see it through to the end.  I know you're not perfect, but you should be better than the fallacy of the middle ground.  That middle ground is a chasm that you keep falling deeper into.

I'm also angry that politics continually drive me to make long, rambling posts expressing my frustration.  But I have standards I hold my elected officials to, and I refuse to compromise on them.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Take your facebook picture and shove it

Let us discuss the modern chain letters that is facebook. The following text, has been making the rounds:

"Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood and invite your friends to do the same. Until Monday there should be no human faces on Facebook, but an invasion of wonderful childhood memories. This is in protest of violence against children."

I am against child abuse. I am pro cartoons. But this little meme does a few things:
a) It accomplishes nothing. There is no money collected for shelters, no real awareness is raised. Just as every single person in America knows about breast cancer, I would submit that 0% of Americans would say that they are pro-child abuse. And yet child abuse continues. Here's a thought, let's all just put this text in our facebook profile: "I do not abuse children." Then through the process of elimination we can find those who did not insert that text, and arrest them.
b) It gives the false smug glow of doing something. "Well *I* showed *my* support," you say. Well that's nice, but you didn't do anything. I don't full agree with Gladwells similar get-off-my-lawn rant about this sort thing with twitter, but I do think that these small things create a sort of false positive energy that doesn't get people to do more for a cause, but to do less because they have already shown *their* support.

The point is, you citizens of facebook can do whatever you want. I wrote on this blog long about ways to volunteer in the DC area, but I have reached a point where I genuinely don't care what anyone else does or doesn't do. I'd like more people to get involved in their community, but I know that this is not a real soapbox, and my fine record in high school debate team has never lead to much actual convincing of anyone in real life. Still, with what little voice I have, I will continue to call bullshit when I see it. And your facebook profile picture is bullshit.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Life Made of Arsenic Equals More Probable Aliens

NASA announces discovery of arsenic-based life in a California lake.

Here's the super-quick summary:
Until pretty much just now, it was understood that all life was built on six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorous.
This newly recognized bacteria replaces phosphorous with arsenic.

This is Big News.

(Note that the fact that the scientists' experiments are responsible for the arsenic bacteria doesn't change the fact that life is now factually possible with arsenic instead of phosphorous.)

NASA originally set the stage for this by announcing a press conference that would "impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." What does arsenic-based life on Earth have to do with alien life? Well, if life can exist on Earth with a different basic chemistry, there's no reason to believe it is not possible that life could exist on other worlds with radically different chemistries. No longer is an alien world required to have sufficient O, H, C, N, S or P for life. It could have O, H, C, N, S, As. It could be theoretically be built with Helium, or Selenium, or Silicon, or Neon. This vastly, vastly increases the number of places in the universe that life could exist.

Personally, I (among others) had no doubt that there was extraterrestrial life in the universe prior to this announcement. This discovery only reinforces that. To state my own position more clearly, it's not a matter of whether life exists elsewhere, nor is this a matter of belief; it is all but utterly ridiculous to think otherwise based on the sheer numbers. The only question is "will we ever be able to communicate with the other life?"

There are estimated to be as many as 170 billion or more galaxies in the universe. Galaxies contain billions of stars on average. Even if life is so rare that intelligent life only occurs once in any given galaxy over the entire course of time, that still means 170 billion civilizations at some point or other exist. And that's an astronomically low estimate.

The Fermi paradox questions how, if there are so many life forms, we haven't heard from any. That Wikipedia article gives plenty of the counterarguments, so I won't get way into it, except to say that the key factor, from my point of view, is that aliens are going to be so alien that is is unlikely that we are listening in the right way at the right time in the right spot to identify them - or vice versa. Don't forget that only a little more than 100 years ago human beings sent no recognizable signs of our intelligent life into space, so only civilizations 100 light years away can see us yet. The galaxy is 1,000 light years thick - and 100,000 light years across. (So less than 1%of the galaxy is potentially aware of us.) Don't forget, also, that we can only detect distant civilizations if they're pretty advanced. If there are alien lions and tigers and bears living on a planet only a couple star systems over, we'll have no idea whatsoever for quite a while - but it would still be history-shattering to discover that such life existed, wouldn't it? Heck, it would be pretty much The Most Important Discovery In History to discover with certainty that bacteria-sized simple life developed independently on Mars, or Europa, or Titan.

Keep in mind also that we've been discovering exoplanets at an increasing rate only in the last two decades. We're up to about 400.

That's about all I've got to say at the moment.

(My apologies to those schooled in these matters, for whom little of this is particarly revelatory and is probably better analyzed on more specialized blogs. I think this news is so exciting that I wanted to share it with any of our readers who are not familiar or have not heard about it.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Information Age

In case you haven't heard, Wikileaks has obtained and is in the process of releasing over 250,000 cables from the U.S. State Department detailing the inner workings of our diplomatic dealings from periods ranging from the 1960s to this past February.  Just under 300 of the quarter-million documents have been put out so far and already a number of gems have come to light.  Chinese frustration with North Korea, pressure on the U.S. from Arab countries to attack Iran, and some insights into the personalities of foreign leaders we may not have been made privy to for years without these missives.  Even under the Freedom of Information Act it could take over a year or more to actually receive the requested document, or sometimes not at all.  Knowledge is power, and the more a government controls the knowledge, the more power it has.  Disseminating it amongst the general population is not really a high priority.

And of course there are other reasons for secret diplomacy.  Some nations we must deal with on a regular basis call for tact and confidentiality in order to complete our objectives for the good of the nation.  The knowledge that the State Department, or an organization which can influence the State Department, called for U.S. diplomats to the U.N. to try and obtain personal information on other foreign dignitaries puts egg on our face, but having it exposed also prevents an egregious lapse of judgment on the part of our government - diplomats are for diplomacy, spying is best left to spies.  There is a place in this world for both, and the intelligence community is best leaving the two to perform their duties independent of one another.

So what, exactly, is the fallout expected for this glut of hitherto unknown information?  Early indicators make it seem that, beyond some catty and colorful gossip ("Berlusconi is Putin's mouthpiece in Western Europe," "The two ruling parties in Germany are like parents who want to get divorced"), American diplomacy actually comes out looking rather good.  To add a personal take on the character of your diplomatic contact is apparently not an alien practice (following the release, Turkey's Prime Minister told Hillary Clinton "You should see what we say about you guys"), and on the whole it seems that diplomacy and careful dealing with foreign powers is the U.S. Government's preferred method of approaching the world.  What this information does is opens our eyes to a world we could not see before, parting the shroud between what we perceive and what is real.  Yes, some shady deals go on, and yes, we have some embarrassing secrets which would have been easier to deal with if kept hidden, but this level of exposure, this kind of accountability, can only be a good thing.

Certain foreign leaders are bound to scandalized at least to some degree.  The leaks detail how Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a vocal opponent of the Iraqi war, gave Americans the advice to forgo democracy and install a dictator, and also supports continued U.S. military presence.  Harmid Karzai's brother, Ahmad Wali, enjoys more power as a corrupt public official and drug runner than the governor of the province he lives in.  The British government pledged to protect U.S. interests in hearings regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq.  Saudi Arabians want to fight Iran "to the last American."  While this information is certainly best kept secret by the entities trying to maneuver the subtle or not-so-subtle intrigues of global politics, does the American public not have a right to know?  In fairness, the chief complaint of the State Department was that this information could compromise the jobs of diplomats still in service.  However, Wikileaks asked them to help redact the information before it was released, and they refused, not wanting to work with the organization. 

The job of diplomats may have been made temporarily harder as they deal with the backlash to their innermost thoughts being made public, but the information given to us was vital nonetheless.  Certainly the knowledge that a private Chinese company is providing gyroscopes to Iran is something we should be privy to.  Acknowledgments of the difficulties in shipping out the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is nothing to keep hidden.  Shouldn't we be aware that the Chinese are making a dedicated effort to break into the computers of public and private Westerners, including the U.S government, and also the Dalai Lama?  Why are we kept in the dark about the possibility of enriched uranium in Pakistan being diverted to the creation of an illicit nuclear weapon? 

Now, the government does not seem to view things in the same light, and has already begun taking steps to ensure that this much information can never end up in the hands of a single individual again.  Aspects of media are portraying the deluge of cables, many of them unclassified already but a fair number labeled "Secret" or "Noforn" (no foreigners should view), as "treasonous."  Never mind the fact that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is Australian and thus incapable of committing treason against the United States.  Should the First Amendment guaranteeing Freedom of the Press not extend to information the government does not want us to see?  Is it treasonous, then, to expose corruption or dissembling in authority figures to the public?  Perhaps it was in Middle Ages Europe, or in military dictatorships, or in the U.S.S.R, but here in America are we not allowed to know what the government is doing, regardless of whether or not they want us to know?  We are not guaranteed openness and accountability by our elected officials or the departments which comprise our federal government.  They all have secrets which they believe essential to their daily operation.  Is failing to protect those secrets, then, somehow the fault of the person who exposes them?  If information is given to us, we should dissect and absorb the information, not spew hatred and vitriol at the person who gave it to us.  Julian Assange is very much the medieval messenger, in danger of being killed for the bad news he bears.

So the slow release of cables continues, with news organizations around the world trying to piece together the important bits, and 300 of a quarter million already providing a trove of insight and knowledge.  Even as their site undergoes a DoS (Denial of Service) attack by a pair of "patriotic" hackers attempting to prevent the release of this "treasonous" information, they continue sending out the cables to newspapers and media outlets.  They have already promised a follow-up to these cables - internal documents leaked from an as-yet unnamed bank, and others from an insurance group, which will purportedly cause a much greater scandal than any of the current leaked info.  Is this, too, criminal?

We cannot simultaneously push for more openness and accountability in government and condemn Wikileaks.  In the final estimation, if people doing questionable things do not want their actions coming back to humiliate them, perhaps they should stop doing questionable things.  Hopefully, what has happened here will inspire more people to deliver whatever information they have, however heinous or inflammatory, which broadens the public's view of the world in which they live.  Information is not "treason," but those who want to hold on to their firm control of it may certainly want you to think so.  Wikileaks begs to differ.

And I, for one, am okay with that.