Category Archives: Politics

Three Keys to Successful Parenting

Now that Madeline is two, it seems appropriate to declare myself a success as a parent. Which means it’s now appropriate for those of you with kids (as well as those of you thinking about having or abducting kids) to ask me, “Joel, what’s your secret?” Which means it’s now appropriate for me to say “I’m glad you asked,” and then write a blog post about it.

1. Improv

I’m sure many of you wondered why I took all those improv classes, and why I made you come watch my improvised musical where we could only use words that started with a letter suggested by the audience, and why I didn’t stop the guy in the second row from choosing ‘X’, and why my song “Xerox Xevious” sounded exactly like “Summer of ’69.”

Well, it turns out that improv is a very easy way to become a better parent. (And that all of my songs sound exactly like “Summer of ’69″.)

Before improv

“Daddy, can I have some more candy?”
“No. Go to bed.”

After improv

“Daddy, can I have some more candy?”
Yes, and after your teeth rot and you become obese and get diabetes and have to have your foot amputated, then you should go to bed.”

Before improv

“Daddy, where do babies come from?”
“Go ask your mother.”

After improv

“Daddy, where do babies come from?”
[sits down on a plain black box, mimes that it's maybe some kind of pirate seat on some kind of pirate boat, and starts in a pirate accent] “Yarr, ye land lubbers always be asking me questions about babies … [10 minute monologue in a pirate voice about pirate-y things that cleverly reincorporates elements from earlier in the conversation] Arr, go ask the first mate!”

Before improv

“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Again? You just went!”

After improv

“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom.”
“DING! Now in the style of Shakespeare.”
“Daddy, I need to go to the bathroom!”
“DING! Now in the style of film noir.”
“Daddy, I NEED to GO to the BATHROOM!”
“DING! Now in the style of a fetish video.”
“Daddy, I peed my pants.”
“And scene!”

2. Radical Libertarianism

Most books (with the notable exception of *Praxeological Parenting*) will tell you that moderate libertarianism is all you need to be a good parent. But there are a great many parenting problems that a belief in the night-watchman state does little to solve.

For instance, when your kid doesn’t want to go to school because it’s a brainwashing factory designed to grind young impressionable minds into submission by (among other things) forbidding them from leaving their seats or talking “out of turn” or using the restroom without first obtaining permission, the moderate libertarian answer is typically to offer them a voucher that covers the tuition to a different brainwashing factory. Your kid is unlikely to find this satisfying, for obvious reasons.

Similarly, when your kid wants to BitTorrent the Criterion Director’s Cut version of Dora the Explorer, the wishy-washy moderate libertarian “you wouldn’t download a Dora the Explorer handbag!” position on intellectual property is not going to make her particularly happy.

And what will you tell her when she asks (as all kids inevitably do) how granting a monopoly on violence could possibly be a good way to prevent monopolies and violence? Or why the dinosaurs on “Dinosaur Train” are able to peaceably resolve their various conflicts despite living approximately 66 million years before the invention of government? Or why it’s OK for the government to take pieces of paper out of daddy’s wallet just as long as they don’t take too many, while she gets punished for taking even one, and don’t try to give me any of that John Rawls “veil of ignorance” stuff, I might have bought that crap when I was an infant, but now that I’m TWO YEARS OLD the flaws in his “logic” are pretty glaringly obvious?

Whereas radical libertarianism easily sidesteps all these problems, making parenting a breeze (relatively speaking).

3. Trolling

Did you ever imagine that all those years you wasted trolling that idiot Marxist kid on LiveJournal debate would end up being useful? Because they are! Kids love being trolled! Love it! Here are a few of Madeline’s favorite trolls:

“My Hippo”

This one’s easy, you just pick up something that belongs to the kid (e.g. a stuffed hippo) and troll that it’s yours:

“Hey, my hippo.”
“No, MY hippo!”
“I’m pretty sure this is daddy’s hippo.”
“No, MY hippo!”
“Does it have your name on it?”
“MY hippo!”
“It was just lying on the floor and I homesteaded it.”
“MY hippo!”
“Have your protection agency call my protection agency and maybe we can work something out.”
“MY hippo!”
“Behind the veil of ignorance it could just as easily have been my hippo.”
“MY hippo!”
[ several hundred lines of dialogue removed due to space constraints ]
“Yeah, but what does it really mean to ‘own’ something?”
“MY hippo!”
“And scene!”

“Science Project”

Part of being a parent is helping your kids with science projects, so help them “demonstrate” something that isn’t real, like cold fusion, or quantum computing, or evolution. Chances are their teachers won’t know the difference, which makes it also work on another level.

“9/11 Trutherism”

Kids will believe just about anything, even that that third WTC 7 skyscraper would just collapse on its own despite not even being hit by a plane. Even so, it’s not very hard to convince them that the towers were brought down on 9/11 by controlled demolition using explosives secretly planted in advance by the government in order to create an excuse to invade Iraq and Afghanistan in order to pave the way for a new American hegemony. And then they’ll repeat this on the playground, and then you’ll get called in for a parent-teacher conference at which you can reveal that you’d assumed that she’d picked these theories from the playground, which means that if she didn’t then maybe she just came up with them on her own? And that if the official narrative is so shoddy that a 2-year-old can pick holes in it, then maybe Alex Jones is onto something!

“The Craigslist Experiment”

OK, so possibly there are some kinds of trolling kids don’t like.

The Hardest Job There Is

One summer during college I was stringing together temp jobs in order to make money so that I could afford to go out with my friends at night and play “Star Trek” pinball. (I would have preferred, of course, to spend my summer developing my idea for a “group couponing” website, but as the summer in question predated widespread adoption of the Internet, the decision was out of my hands.)

These were super-boring temp jobs, involving things like data-entering anonymous “secret shopper” surveys for Jersey Subs, filing papers alphabetically, and going through medical bills with a red pen to make sure that the prices didn’t exceed prescribed rates. (The last was the worst, as their computer system ran on OS/2, which some genius decided should have chess rather than Minesweeper, which made it very difficult to blow off steam after decimating a particularly tough bill, which is why I originally took up amphetamines.)

At some point the temp work simply dried up, possibly because there were no more medical bills, possibly because no one was willing to eat at Jersey Subs anymore, possibly because of the amphetamines. And so my dad arranged it that I could work for a friend of his who owned a warehouse of surplus metal parts.

What were these metal parts? I have no idea. They were large and heavy and in bins on pallets, and it’s possible they were used to repair trains, or in air conditioning, or as weapons. They came in various shapes and sizes and weights (heavy *and* very heavy), and every day orders would pour into the warehouse that some company wanted 137 of the metal pieces from bin A17. My job, then, was to retrieve bin A17 (which involved a forklift, which was sort of cool, except that I never got the hang of rear-wheel steering and always ended up crashing into things) and get an empty pallet and then manually choose 137 of the least-rusty metal pieces from bin A17 and pile them onto the empty pallet, all the while counting (and then double-counting) to make sure that there were indeed exactly 137 of them. Then I’d put the bin back and move on to the next order of 94 metal pieces from bin C29, and so on, and so forth.

(To this day, it is tough for me to imagine a job that is a worse mismatch for my aptitudes and preferences, except possibly for building model histories of men’s shoes.)

At the end of each day I would collect my pay (which was itself in non-descript metal pieces) and go home and take painkillers and try to scrub all the fine metal grit off my skin and try to cough all the fine metal grit out of my lungs and then cry myself to sleep and have nightmares about counting metal pieces. All of which, quite obviously, left no time for “Star Trek” pinball.

And so after a week, over the vociferous objections of my parents, who insisted that the metal pieces I was earning were likely to represent the difference between success and failure in life, I quit. Accordingly, I have blamed the various subsequent failures in my life on the metal pieces that never were.

So it stood until this week, when Hilary Rosen (who, for reasons inexplicable to me, is still allowed to show her face in public after her stint running the RIAA) made some crack disparaging Mitt Romney’s wife for being a stay-at-home mom. Tactically this was moronic, as everyone knows plenty of admirable stay-at-home moms, and also everyone knows that the most fruitful line of attack on Mitt Romney’s wife is that she married Mitt Romney, and let’s see how her “the angel Moroni pointed a shotgun at us and said we had to” excuse plays in the court of public opinion.

Which means that everyone and his brother is rushing to throw Hilary Rosen under one of a variety of buses. Bill Donohue, for instance, wants to throw her under some sort of “lesbian parent” bus, which I’m pretty sure runs on biodiesel, and I would love to throw her under the “she ran the RIAA, which means that nothing she says should ever be listened to by anyone ever” bus, but most people are focusing on the old “parenting is the hardest job there is!” bus.

It turns out, though, that I’m a parent, and so I happen to know that PARENTING IS NOT EVEN CLOSE TO THE HARDEST JOB THERE IS. Metal piece warehouse was a harder job. Burger King was a harder job. Even MATH FREAKING GRAD SCHOOL was a harder job. (As some versions of the bus insist that only mothering is the hardest job, I double-checked with Ganga, and she agrees with my analysis.)

That’s not to say that parenting isn’t work. It is, and occasionally it’s even very unpleasant work, like when it’s 3am and the baby won’t sleep and will scream if you don’t rock her, and you still haven’t prepared your slides for your 8am meeting with Hilary Rosen to present your new plan for permanently ruining the lives of music-downloading teenagers, and all you want to do is sleep and use your dreams to figure out a way to pretend like you care about “artists”. Or when she poops on you. (The baby, not Hilary Rosen, although that also sucks.) Or when you’re trying to write a blog post making fun of Hilary Rosen and the baby won’t stop screaming in your ear and banging on your keywinevsoivdkdsvl

But parenting is also a lot of fun. It’s a huge joy when you finally teach your kid how to Chicken Dance, or when she learns to swear, or the first time she asks you “please can you read me one more chapter before bed, daddy?” of Atlas Shrugged. No metal part ever even asked me about The Fountainhead!

I recognize that it’s uncharacteristic of me to stake out the middle ground like this, but I guess having a kid has been a deeply moderating influence and has taught me the value of compromise. So can’t we all just agree that parenting is nowhere near as hard as sorting and lifting and counting metal parts, that Hilary Rosen has no place in polite society, and that babies love Atlas Shrugged?

What Part of Your Oath Do You Not Understand?

I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to something something anymore!

It all started with Wil Wheaton1, who used to be the bartender (I believe) on “Star Trek”, but who is now some sort of Twitter celebrity. I myself have zero tolerance for Twitter celebrities, but one of the “data scientists” I follow “retweeted” the following into my newshose:

The SOPA/NDAA, in case you have more important things to do than follow politics, is the latest power grab by the content industries, and would allow the President to use unmanned drones to assassinate you and/or the Internet without a trial if he suspects you’re selling counterfeit handbags or illegally downloading Hall & Oates MP3s or waging jihad. It is indeed an abomination, which is why it is only supported by heartless, baby-killing monsters like record company executives and United States Senators. And it certainly seems plausible that a President who signed such a bill would be in violation of his oath to “defend the Constitution.”

You know what else is in violation of his oath to defend the Constitution? JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING HE’S EVER DONE. Invade Libya without declaring war? NOT IN THE CONSTITUTION. Illegally traffic guns to criminals in order to drum up popular support for eviscerating the Second Amendment? NOT IN THE CONSTITUTION. Override state medical marijuana laws? NOT IN THE CONSTITUTION. Force people to buy private health insurance? NOT IN THE CONSTITUTION. And so on. If it takes the NDAA to get you to care about Obama’s oath to defend the Constitution, then either you’ve been living in a cave in Pakistan for the past 3 years, or YOU DON’T ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION.

As it happens, I’m not one of those libertarian types who pounds the table about what is and what isn’t in the Constitution. Of course I’d rather the government lived up to its promises not to quarter soldiers in my condo, not to take away my guns, and not to censor my XXXXXXXXXXX. But they don’t, and no one seems to care that they don’t, and in fact most people are quite happy to let the government quarter soldiers in their condos as long as it gets them something they want, like endless war in Afghanistan, or patents on being aware of medical best practices, or subsidized pharmaceuticals for wealthy old people. In any event, I don’t treat the Constitution as holy writ, or think something is necessarily a good idea because it’s in the Constitution or necessarily a bad idea because it’s not, or consider it a good use of anyone’s time to yell “READ THE CONSTITUTION!” to people who don’t particular care about what’s in the Constitution.

But I will pound the table when some Obama-endorsing, juvenile-name-calling Twitter celebrity suddenly starts chastising people as if in this one case the Constitution is the most important thing in the world. You don’t get to do that. If you didn’t care about the Constitution back when activist judges insisted that deep in its penumbrae one could divine secret rights to funnel taxpayer money to politically-connected banks and carbuilding unions, then no one is going to take you seriously when you pretend to care about it now. Oh, they’ll pretend to care about your pretending, and maybe they’ll even mention to their friends that “that bartender from the Starship Enterprise had some great tweet where he pretended like he cares about the Constitution, and he used #hashtags and everything, and it was really such a stellar example of pretending to care about the Constitution that I favorited it and retweeted it and @replied to it, so you should check it out!” But they know that you’re posturing and that you know perfectly well that the President and the Congress perfectly well understand their oath to “uphold the Constitution”, they JUST DON’T GIVE A RAT’S ASS ABOUT IT, and they also know that 364 days out of the year NEITHER DO YOU.

What’s extra-sad is that this guy had a particularly unpleasant run-in with the TSA last spring:

You’d think that might have indicated to him that the “teabaggers’” fear of government power was maybe not so off-base after all. The bartenders at the places I hang out certainly would have noticed this, so maybe it’s that all the cosmic rays in space kill brain cells.

All that said, the NDAA and SOPA are both horrible laws and we’re worse as a society for passing them (or for being about to pass them) and the people defending them are heartless, baby-killing monsters who you should probably go out of your way to spit on if you encounter them. But they’re also perfectly predictable consequences of having the kind of busybody government that you’ve been loudly clamoring for your whole life. It wasn’t so long ago that you were blogging a stupid “CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN” graphic and telling people to vote for this jerk. To the extent you care about preventing the next SOPA, you might consider next time listening to the libertarians instead of just calling them vulgar names and putting sugar in their gas tanks.

1. Technically, it started when I read the article about Sheila Jackson-Lee stopping a SOPA hearing so they could discuss whether someone had insulted her on Twitter, and I realized that I was the one with the “crazy” politics for not being eager to subject myself to thousands of pages of laws written by emotional preschoolers. But With Guns And a No-Knock Warrant

The government has a CIO, it turns out, and when he’s not hassling us to change our passwords again or to stop BitTorrenting on company time, he’s got a plan to re-invent government itself:

On Tuesday, VanRoekel said that he wants to overhaul the federal bureaucracy to become more agile in an age of services delivered via mobile apps, and where information is atomized so that it can be mashed up by anyone to provide deeper insights. He also wants to break down massive multi-year information technology projects into smaller, more modular projects in the hopes of saving the government from getting mired in multi-million dollar failures.


“Going forward, we need to embrace modular development, build on open standards, and run our projects in lean startup mode,” he said.

No one can argue that he doesn’t grasp the lingo. However, a career Microsoftie is maybe not the best choice to run anything in “lean startup mode”. As someone with a fair amount of startup experience, I offer him the following pieces of advice:

1. Never say “lean startup mode” (or “agile” or “mashed up”)

Each of these buzzwords sends a clear signal that either you’ve been in a coma since 2006 or that your “startup experience” consists entirely of eavesdropping at a coffee shop where programmers hang out.

2. Also, “mobile apps” are very 2009

I’m not saying you couldn’t hit the jackpot and sell several million copies of “Angry Birds D.C.” or “Laws with Friends” or even “Doodle Congress”. But the odds are against you.

3. Startups have to convince investors to give them money

This is part of what makes startups startups. It’s tough to stay “lean” and “agile” (let alone “mashed up”) if you can simply close a funding round at gunpoint each April 151. If VanRoekel can somehow make it so that government has to make PowerPoint slides and beg us for money each time it needs some, that would be a huge win.

4. Startups have to at least pretend to have a revenue model

It doesn’t have to be completely realistic. It can in fact be pretty ludicrous, like “we’ll sell ‘$50 of junk for only $25′ coupons and then only give the merchants half of the $25.”

But it does have to involve revenue. For instance, “we’ll use the funds to subsidize our friends’ failing businesses and also to bail out our other friends’ failed businesses and then to send troops to Africa and then finally to imprison some recreational drug users” is not a revenue model. Could you maybe add some sort of group shopping component?

5. Startups need an “elevator pitch”

At some point you’ll be in an elevator with someone, and he’ll ask you what your startup does, and you’ll have to explain it to him in terms of something he already knows (and recognizes as a success for venture capital).

For instance, a startup might be “Flickr but for dogs” or “Facebook but for cats” or “ but for group shopping deals.”

Obviously, none of these describes the federal government. Coming up with these analogies is more of an art than a science, but you might consider “Enron but bigger” or “Swoopo but mandatory” or “ but with guns and a no-knock warrant”.

6. Startups fire people

Part of being “lean” and “agile” and “mashed up” is that you can’t afford to keep the wrong people *cough* Tim Geithner *cough* Janet Napolitano *cough* Eric Holder *cough* Steven Chu *cough* in their jobs when they suck at them. If the CIO is empowered to make this change, then good for him!

7. Startups have a “fun” culture

fun not fun
ping-pong table metal detectors
free popcorn the toothpick rule
catered meals Supreme Court cafeteria
geek shootout Waco shootout

8. Startups usually fail and go out of business

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the most exciting part of the “government as startup” plan.

1. Can we dispense with the fiction that taxes are due on April 15? Multiple times I paid my taxes by April 15 and yet was still “penalized” because I didn’t “estimate” and “prepay” them sooner.

I Am Tired of 9/11

Is it too soon to be tired of 9/11? Because I am.

I’m tired of not being able to bring my pinking shears on plane trips. I’m tired of conspiracy theories (except for ones involving reptilians.) I’m tired of pointless wars that waste trillions of dollars that could otherwise be funneled to unprofitable, politically-connected “green energy” companies. And I’m especially tired of having to refrain from referring to my penis as “the Top of the World observation deck” for fear of getting nasty looks from some girl who knows someone who knows someone who almost went to work that day.

I’m also tired of all the people constantly (by which I mean annually) exhorting me to “NEVER FORGET” what happened that day. All sorts of terrible things have happened to me over my life. There was that time I got tricked into watching Napoleon Dynamite, and then there was some sort of incident involving Nancy Drew’s dog, and there was even that one time that I almost got killed on 9/11. But after tens of thousands of dollars of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, craniosacral therapy, sandplay therapy, and reiki work, I’ve learned that “NEVER FORGET” is pretty much the worst advice there is, with the possible exceptions of “Be yourself”, “Girls can’t resist a guy who can chug a bottle of Tabasco sauce”, and “Vote for Obama”.

That doesn’t mean I can’t remember some of the lessons of that event, like “avoid Manhattan” and “don’t ignore the ‘STAY HOME FROM WORK TODAY JEWS!’ phone message” and “don’t wait too long to see that tourist attraction, lest some Muslims hijack and crash an airplane into it.” But these are lessons to put into practice everyday, not just in early September, and not just in years that end in a 1. And the more you “NEVER FORGET” the last crisis, the less prepared you are for the next different one.

So, sure, wear your patriotic shirt and eat your patriotic foods and click “like” on the “Like this if you are watching this on September 11th” comments on patriotic YouTube videos. But while you’re busy trying to “NEVER FORGET” what already happened, I’ll be thinking up jokes for what’s happening next. Advantage: Joel.

College Savings Plans are the Modern Dowry

Because baby Madeline is half-Indian and half-regular-person, she has both Indian friends and regular-person friends. The parents of her Indian friends worry about dowries, which are expensive gifts that they have to hand over when their daughters marry, and that they have to save for until then. The parents of her regular-person friends worry about college savings plans, which are expensive gifts that they have to hand over when their daughters matriculate college, and that they have to save for until then.

Both represent fairly nasty Prisoner’s Dilemmas. “Save for dowry/tuition” is a dominant strategy, which leads to the unattractive “Everyone saves for dowry/tuition” equilibrium, which is pareto-inferior to the (non-equilibrium) “No one saves for dowry/tuition.” To sustain the “no one saves” optimum you need some sort of rule-changing side-deal.

Because the government of India is run by a bunch of amateurs, they introduced a (revenue-neutral) law that bans dowries. If they had any political savvy at all, they’d instead be selling revenue-generating pre-paid dowry plans. (If you’re reading my blog, Indian government, I suggest a clever name like Dowry Opportunity Provision Experience.)

A common objection to this line of thinking is that a dowry buys your daughter something useless (a husband) whereas a college savings plan buys her something useful (a degree in “Chican@ and Latin@ Studies” and also tens of thousands of dollars of nondischargeable debt to pay the tuition and fees above and beyond what’s in the college savings account). This is a subtle point, which I’ll explore in my future posts “Student-Loan Debt is the Modern Indentured Servitude” and “Dressing up as a Sheep and Waving a ‘Mattress Sale’ Sign is the Modern Working at Borders.”

Election 2010 Post-Mortem

Everything is different now. The dreadful “Patty Murray loves Dino Rossi” and “Dino Rossi loves Patti Murray” commercials they’ve been interrupting my football games with have overnight been replaced with commercials for Cialis and Levitra and new, less side-effect-y gout drugs. Our lack of a state income tax is now a new, more emphatic lack of a state income tax. The government-run liquor monopoly, having successfully fended off privatization, has earned a mandate to make its stores drearier, its prices less compelling, its selection sparser, and its employees surlier. Laws against marijuana are still keeping unionized prison workers, unionized cops, and unionized drug gangs gainfully employed. Truly, a new day is dawning.

On the national level, the Big-Government-and-Business Party suffered a stunning loss at the hands of the Big-Business-and-Government Party, which probably portends all kinds of changes over the next two years, although I couldn’t tell you what they are. Possibly they’ll rebuke the suddenly-unpopular President for his “endless war in Afghanistan” and “assassinate Americans” and “keep the drug war going” and “anti gay marriage” positions.

More likely, they’ll keep the ship on its current course, which is why I find it sort of befuddling how everyone on both sides can be all excited and/or apocalyptic.

It’s possible that there’s some way in which my life will be different depending on whether Dino Rossi or Patty Murray “represents” me in the Senate, but it seems pretty likely that Boeing will keep sucking at the giant federal teat, we’ll keep throwing more money at our public schools and they’ll keep sucking really bad, Microsoft will keep introducing fancy new phones that nobody wants, the dollar will keep losing value, we’ll funnel a ton of taxpayer money to politically-connected “alternative energy” companies, Paul Krugman will stay apoplectic, Congress will “save the economy” several more times, and “Top Chef: Just Desserts” will keep eliminating “cheftestants” until one finally claims the dubious mantle of “Just Desserts Top Chef” and Bravo starts the new season of its other show about the transsexual fashion-designer / personal-trainer / cocktail-inventor who likes to flip houses and in zher spare time set spoiled millionaire housewives up on dates.

I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a sense in which I find all the celebration and/or hand-wringing sort of cute. It reminds me of the epidemic of rioting and/or suicides that you always see when people’s favorite and/or most-hated squadron wins the World Series and/or Grey Cup. Wait, did I say “cute”? Because I meant “alien and tiresome.” Can’t I have a few days of peace to imagine that Rand Paul is going to be my libertarian dream-Senator before he actually gets sworn in and starts being as terrible as the rest of them?

Political Satire

Once I left Microsoft I joined a Daytime Writing Group meetup, mostly as an excuse to get out of the house. Every week I’d go and share the latest chapter of my “Ayn Rand meets J.K. Rowling meets Joseph Heller meets Tom Wolfe” novel-in-progress and listen to everyone else’s latest vampire romance (the genre, not the band*).

While most of the participants were pleasant and helpful, after a few weeks we were joined by an extremely unpleasant woman who angrily criticized my story for not being set in the “country” of Timbuktu and for not acknowledging the accomplishments of “shamanic healers.” After a couple of weeks I decided that the positive interactions with the rest of the group weren’t enough to compensate for the aggravation of dealing with Large Miss Unpleasant, and I stopped attending.

But I’m still on the mailing list, which is how I learned that Daily-Show co-founder Lizz Winstead was conducting a “Political Satire Writing Workshop.” Of course there’s nothing I like better than writing political satire, unless it’s writing religious satire or spreadsheet how-to books or short stories about a boy who likes to play baseball but is no good at it.

Being Seattle, it ended up being more of a “Left-Wing Political Satire Writing Workshop,” with a collective glee focused on the comedic potential of Dick Cheney’s lack of pulse, Dick Cheney’s daughter’s self-hating lesbianness, something else Dick Cheney, and the word “teabagger.”

Still, we had a valuable discussion about comedy writing and the creative process, and I bit my tongue whenever people mocked a candidate’s dabbling in “witchcraft” as if its beliefs were prima facie more ludicrous than the beliefs of Catholicism or Judaism.

Since we were in the International (i.e. East Asian) District, we took a break for bubble tea, after which we divided into groups to bang out some political satire projects.

Most of the suggestions were things I couldn’t in good conscience write about (“teabaggers,” disparaging the Second Amendment, etc…), but one of my workshopmates suggested a news item about a Republican Senator who gave a somewhat oblivious speech assuming that his audience (being good Americans) all earned over $250,000K a year.

The truth, when we Googled it, was slightly less damning (the audience consisted of Chamber of Commerce members), but “Senator lives in insular world, assumes everyone is rich like him” was something I could work with. It was a group effort, so there are ideas in it that I wouldn’t have put in myself, but — for a political satire piece written collaboratively with other Seattleites — it’s actually not bad.

You can see it (along with the other groups’ pieces — ours is the one that’s not about Glenn Beck or “Teabaggers”) here, first in an edited-by-Lizz version, then in the original. I like the edited version better in some ways, worse in others, and I’d probably like some compromise version the best.

At the end I gifted Lizz with a copy of my book, which I predict she enjoys all the way up to the “Environmentalism is false” chapter.

* My fact-checker tells me there’s no such band as Vampire Romance. Well, there should be!

Using Statistics to Coddle Vagrants

I left Microsoft at the end of May, largely so that I could write my opus magnum book on Excel. At the time I set a September 1 deadline for having the first draft done. That seemed like the right amount of time, but I failed to predict that I’d spend a substantial chunk of August doing consulting work, and so I slipped the deadline.

I shifted it two weeks later, to September 15, which I slipped again due to unavoidable commitments like going to the Puyallup Fair and drinking beer and napping. Finally I pushed it to September 17, which I met by arbitrarily deciding that several components of the book were “not part of the first draft.” Right now I’m letting people read it for feedback, after which I’ll revise it, beg famous authors for blurbs (*cough* Philip Roth *cough*), and start selling the heck out of it.

While the book is out for alpha testing, I’ve shifted gears for several days to focus on other things like fiction-writing contests and shaving and working on an Ignite Seattle talk.

Ignite Seattle is a 4-times-a-year collection of 5-minute talks. As best I can tell, you submit a proposal, and “they” choose their favorites to actually give the talks. I attended the last one, and a surprising number of the speakers were introduced as “my longtime friend” or “my frat brother from college” or “my concubine,” which makes me suspect there’s a cronyism element involved. There also appears to be some sort of sex-quotaism, as they back-patted themselves for exceeding the (presumably court-imposed) 40%-female-speakers requirement.

I didn’t get the sense that the people picking the talks were demographically identical to the people listening to the talks, which sets up something of a political-primary dynamic: play to the base to get through the first round then pivot back to the center.

In any event, I think I need a more congenial title than “How Do You Like Obama Now, You Kitchen-Composting, Vagrant-Coddling, Prius-Driving Useful Idiots?” Maybe something more geek-friendly like “ Using Statistics to Model Elections in Washington State” or Seattle-friendly like “Home Composting Projects That Also Help Vagrants” or even a mixture of the two like “Using Statistics To Coddle Vagrants.” [Insert your own p-value joke here.]

Blasphemy and Forced Reverence

On Facebook I list my Religious Views as “irreverence,” which is pretty perfectly descriptive. This means that you can believe any crazy thing you want, but I’m allowed to make fun of you for it if I like. Basically, I’m under no obligation to “respect” your beliefs just because they’re your beliefs. I’ll respect them if they strike me as, well, respectworthy, and I won’t if they don’t.

(Curiously, this makes me a dick, while the infinitely more grotesque “you believe what you want, but if it’s different from what I believe then Jesus is going to torture you forever” is considered in perfectly good taste. Go figure.)

In areas other than religion this approach to respect is totally non-controversial. No one demands that you respect your neighbor’s furry lifestyle, your parents’ musical tastes, or your ex-girlfriend’s body-art aesthetics.

But as soon as someone calls those beliefs “religion,” your lack of respect instantly becomes the awful crime of blasphemy:

Blasphemy is irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs.

Now, blasphemy itself represents a proud religious tradition. Abraham, the founder of Judaism, blasphemed against the gods of his day (although eventually his followers decided that blasphemy against their beliefs was in fact a capital offense). Jesus blasphemed against the Jewish faith (although eventually his followers declared that blasphemy against their beliefs was in fact the one unforgiveable sin.) Muhammad blasphemed against the polytheistic Meccans (although eventually his followers decided that the penalty for blasphemy against their beliefs might include flogging, amputation, or beheading).

In every case there was a tension between

* what those in power wanted, and
* what the little guy thought was true

Abraham was the “little guy” standing up to the much more powerful idolators. Jesus was the “little guy” standing up to the Jewish establishment. Mohammed was the “little guy” standing up to the Meccans. In the unlikely event that any of their stories actually happened, then most surely they were attacked at the time for being “un-Meccan” or “contrary to Judean values” or “dangerous to our troops in Afghanistan.”

In fact, the whole concept of “blasphemy” boils down to the position “I’m more powerful than you are, and I’ll punish you if you don’t revere all the arbitrary things I say you should.” Contra Obama, if anything is “contrary to what this country stands for,” it’s that. In North Korea, you revere whatever they tell you to. In Afghanistan, you revere whatever they tell you to. In Soviet Russia, you revere whatever they tell you to. (Alternatively, “In Soviet Russia, Quran burns you.”)

In America, you revere whatever the fuck you want. If you want to draw a cartoon, you draw that cartoon. If you want to set a flag on fire, you set that flag on fire. If you want to put a skit on national TV that makes fun of the President, you put that skit on TV. If you want to make a musical that mocks the Book of Mormon, you make that musical. And, yes, if you want to set a “holy” book on fire, then you set that book on fire. The fact that the only people willing to take a stand on this are right-for-the-wrong-reasons lunatics like Terry Jones and Fred Phelps is so disturbing that it keeps me up at night.