Screaming Into The Abyss

You Say She Was Asking For It?
By Ben Zvan
On February 25, 2011 at 09:24

I woke up early today to get in a couple hours of exercise before starting my normal routine. One of the first things I saw was a link to this article about a convicted rapist who won't be doing any time because Judge Robert Dewar in Manitoba said his victim was 'asking for it' by dressing suggestively and kissing her assailant.

Of course, the first thing I thought of was the Not Ever campaign and their advertisement.

I wonder if Judge Dewar would tell a man wearing a Rolex who was robbed at knife-point that they were 'asking for it' by dressing smartly. Or if he would tell a mother who's child was kidnapped that she was 'asking for it' by having an adorable family. Or maybe he'd tell the family of a pedestrian who was killed by a drunk driver that he was 'asking for it' by being out walking after last call.

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Capitalism, Libertarians, and Hunger
By Ben Zvan
On January 12, 2011 at 09:00

A friend pointed me to a New York Times article about global hunger, food prices and the assertion that we're 'one poor harvest away from chaos.' In reading it, the sentence 'Some experts warned that the world could be on the verge of a "nightmare scenario" of cut‑throat competition for the control of shrinking supplies.' really stood out for me and started me thinking.

A couple years ago, I was talking with a libertarian about poor people, school lunches, and taking responsibility for one's actions. I'll see if I can sum up some of his arguments...

Poor people have made a decision to get a job that doesn't pay well or to not work enough hours to make a living wage. Even if they didn't make those decisions directly, they chose not to get the education needed to qualify for a job that pays well enough. So either way, their lack of income can be blamed squarely on them. If these people then choose to have children the can't afford to feed, then they should be locked up for child abuse because they chose to have children they couldn't afford to feed. It's all their fault. The public shouldn't subsidize school lunch.

Now...I guess I can sympathize a little with that argument. Bad decisions shouldn't be rewarded. On the other hand, the state of sex education is horrid and I'm not sure it's fair to argue that having a child is always the decision of the parents. Sometimes it's really the decision of lobbyists who don't want their own children exposed to 'pornography' in school. Also, the cost of higher education is not tiny. Access to college is something that your own parents' income influences quite a lot. But I think most libertarians would run off on a tangent about the 'indoctrinated liberal elite' if I brought that up.

What brought me to this blog post was the sentence I quoted above. In a capitalist society, what determines the cost of food? I would argue that it's the people producing and, even more-so, selling that food. So, if you're going to allow the corporations that sell food to determine their prices and govern their profits, you're also allowing them to determine who is 'poor' and can't afford to feed their child. And, if you're going to allow corporations to determine who can't afford to feed their child, you're effectively allowing corporations to decide who gets put in jail for child abuse.

As I said before, I really do have sympathy for the libertarian viewpoint. That sympathy ends when human nature and greed take over and destroy the ideals.

(This doesn't even begin to consider the cost of food in countries that can't produce enough for their population or the repercussions of taking the libertarian dream to its logical conclusions in other situations.)

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On Net Neutrality Redux
By Ben Zvan
On October 17, 2010 at 06:08

I recently gave some real-world reasons for passing net neutrality laws. Today News Corp has joined the list of companies to step over the line from defending themselves to offending their customers. Gizmodo has the details.

When the clock struck midnight on Saturday, Cablevision customers could no longer watch FOX on their TV. That's because News Corp. (which owns FOX) and Cablevision couldn't come to an agreement on the fees that Cablevision should pay News Corp. It's something that's happened before with other networks and other cable providers but the new twist is that News Corp. is using their stake in Hulu to ban Cablevision Internet users from accessing FOX content on Hulu as well.

When can we get some sense? If cable and television providers keep messing with their customers, their customers are going to learn to use bittorrent real fast. Net neutrality isn't just for protecting consumers and small content providers, it's for protecting everyone.



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Town Hall Cancels Brother Sam Event
By Ben Zvan
On August 09, 2010 at 13:57

I love the Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis. They're one of the rare exceptions to the Rule of Two Kinds of Brewpubs: the kind with good beer and the kind with good food. They aren't 5-star on either front, but both their beer and their food are welcome after-work-happyhour or lunchtime fare. Then I got this tweet:

Rational folk not welcome at Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis.

The event in question is for Sam Singleton: Atheist Evangelist.

Sam Singleton Atheist Evangelist likes to point out that “unlike you” he has a creator. That’s why he claims to identify with God. “We’re both totally made up,” he explains. Brother Sam, as his friends refer to him, considers himself inevitable. “Sooner or later somebody like me was bound to happen if families kept (messing) with their children’s heads. I’m surprised it took this long. You know what Hosea 8:7 says about reaping the whirlwind. Well, here we are.

They had apparently had an agreement for a time and date in the Town Hall back room that was later canceled by Town Hall. As a result, Sam sent out some vague information about Town Hall being anti-atheist/rationalist, but with no real information. I contacted a representative of Sam Singleton and received this response:

Thanks for your interest. Simply put, they made an agreement, reneged on it, and did so without going to the trouble of contacting this office for clarification as to nature of the event. The owner left a very long, rambling, unpleasant voice mail on my cell phone, making clear that we and ours are not welcome at the Town Hall Brewery, which now joins the growing list of venues that have first agreed to, then backed out of providing a place for Brother Sam and his fans too spend their hard earned money.

That irked me quite a bit to read. But I do still like Town Hall, so I had to give them an opportunity to respond. I called them, left a message and received a pretty prompt return phonecall. I won't quote the conversation because I wasn't recording it, but they basically told me that Town Hall would not have sponsored any religious or political event either, that they don't want to offend anyone, regardless of their beliefs, and that all they want to do is "brew beer and serve food." I can respect that as long as it's honest.

So, until Town Hall Brewery sponsors a political or religious event in their back room, I'll continue to let them brew beer and serve food to me.


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Perfect Target - by Ben Zvan PhotographyI recently received my permit to carry a pistol in the state of MN, a permit that is accepted by many other states. During this fairly long process, I realized that this is not something within the reach of the average citizen.

In order to get a permit, Minnesota State Statute 624.714 requires that you take a class from a certified firearms training instructor. This class can cost anywhere from $75 to $150, depending on where you take the course and what services are offered with it. The class also includes a live-fire qualification test. For that test, you'll need a gun ($15 to rent), ammunition ($8-20), a target ($2), and a place to shoot ($15-30).

Once you have your certificatate you have to go, in person, to the sheriff's office in your county to present your application, certificate (and your own photocopy), and pay an application fee. The fee is typically $100 since the law states that is the maximum that a county may charge. The various sheriff's offices have different, restricted hours for accepting these permits that tend to be during business hours. For example, the Hennepin county sheriff will only accept applications between 8:30 AM and 3:30 PM (exactly) Monday through Friday. So you have to have the flexibility to take time off during the day. (This might actually be an advantage to the unemployed and people working low-wage, off-hours jobs.)

At this point, you get to wait up to 30 days for your permit to be mailed and delivered. This is effectively the same as the two-week waiting period for a permit to acquire a handgun. Once you receive your permit you're permitted to carry a pistol, rifle, or shotgun openly or concealed throughout the state of Minnesota. So, if you don't already own one, maybe it's time to buy a gun.

Baretta 92FS - By Ben Zvan PhotographyThere are cheap guns out there, but you don't want to buy any of those because they might blow up and kill you or they might misfire or something else might happen that keeps you from protecting yourself with them. So you'll want to spend at least $300 for a gun, probably closer to $600 or $800 for something that's really worthwhile. Luckily, your permit to carry also counts as a permit to acquire, so you can just go into any gun shop and buy whatever you want, probably .45 caliber.

Now that you have a gun, there are things to think about when it comes to ammunition. You probably don't want to worry about hitting people behind your attacker…like your family and friends in the next room or that nice couple 18 blocks away, and you'll probably want to make sure that whoever you start shooting at goes down for the count, and you probably don't want to get sued by your attacker because of some crazy, unexpected problem with the bullets. This means buying ammunition other than full metal jacket (FMJ) and it means you need high-quality. You're looking for something that a. expands or breaks up on impact and b. does as much damage as possible, c. doesn't come out the other side of a target (person, chair, building, 2x4) in any condition to cause unplanned damage and d. is as reliable and consistent as possible. If you bought a .45 as your carry weapon, that means you're going to pay through the nose for FMJ, not to mention hollow-point. $30 for a box of 20 is not unlikely.

Putting a gun in your waistband is a bad idea. You don't want it to snag on something and shoot you in they whatever-it's-pointing-at and you don't want it to fall out while you're not looking...or while anyone else is looking for that matter. Like guns, cheap holsters are exactly that: cheap. Spend $50 at least for something that's shaped to your gun and fits you well.

Now that you have a gun and ammunition and a way to carry it, you want to have experience with it. You'll want to go to the range every few weeks to make sure that using your gun is second nature to you. You want to be able to reload, clear jams and work the safety as easily as you breathe. So you'll need a lane and 50-100 rounds every time you go (not all of them have to be your carry ammunition, but some sure should be.) So expect to spend between $50 and $200 every few weeks.

And, if you ever do shoot someone, you'll want a lawyer on retainer so you don't have to spend too long in jail. That's going to cost you another $350, minimum.

What's that add up to? Around $1000 initial outlay and up to an additional $1000 per year every year you have a permit. In Minnesota, you have to renew every 5 years. That means taking the course over and paying another, smaller, permit fee. I don't know what the legal income requirements are for poor people carrying guns, but the practical, financial requirements seem pretty high.

Update: Some friends have pointed out that I missed a few things relating to the total cost of ownership of a gun. These were mostly on the issue of safety; things that I didn't think about because they were so obvious (to me).

If you have a gun in the house, it needs to be kept safe. Since guns are inherently dangerous objects, 'safe' has a pretty broad meaning. It should be kept where it cannot be stolen or picked up by children and in a way that it cannot be used if it is stolen or picked up by someone. If you are merely owning a gun, you can accomplish this with a fairly inexpensive safe or heavy lock-box. If you are carrying a gun, you will also need a way to lock it in your car and, most likely, near wherever you get dressed. A home safe could cost anywhere from $30 to several thousand dollars (if you have a lot of guns) and lock-boxes for the car and your closet will cost about the same.

Greg Laden also mentioned in his link to this article that I failed to mention liablility insurance. He makes a good point, and it's something that I hadn't even considered.

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Big Brother is here...and he brought a gun.
By Ben Zvan
On February 08, 2010 at 09:26

I'm all for the US having an advantage on the battlefield, but this technology has too many illegal (currently) civilian and police applications to make me really comfortable.

It definitely makes me want to harden my office against RF and EMP so that no broadcasts can get out.

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How To Debate
By Ben Zvan
On August 11, 2009 at 13:34

Bad WolfSince the November 2008 elections, conservatives have been feeling bit of disillusionment over the results and their subsequent relief from duty in Washington. This is a great opportunity to learn about debate techniques and tactics that may help them to win over new supporters for Sarah Palin in 2012. I'll go over a few of them here:

Start the debate with a lie

Yeah, those senior citizens are really agitators. They don't want the end of life counselin.

Your opponent has researched all manner of subjects formally and informally. He or she is knowledgeable on every possible point of debate ... except one that you have made up out of whole cloth. There is no way that they can be prepared to respond to something they have never heard about before, so be sure to surprise them with the biggest, most damning lie you can think of. It's even better if there's some small truth buried in that lie. For example, you could take real words and phrases out of a bill like "consultation" and "end-of-life" (preferably out of order) and make up a definition for it like "death panel." They'll be so confused they'll won't be able to respond and, once they've figured it out, they won't be able to say anything because nobody wants to use the word "lie" in a public debate.


Continue with words, not phrases

Have you read it and heard Barry just take a pill quote

When your opponent tries to tell you you're mistaken about "end of life counseling," just say some words. Use words that sound like you're trying to say something so your audience will just think they didn't quite hear you, but they'll think your opponent is stupid for not understanding what you said. This also raises your opponent's blood pressure by signaling to them that there is no hope for intelligent conversation any more.


Make references to a respected organization

Yes, it's in there - every 5 years or so the elderly get such converstation[sic] in the bill. Sickens me. AARP is about to lose a lot of members for their stance regarding this version of health care reform.

Respected organizations have influence regardless of which side of the debate they're on. If you can demonize people who agree with your opponent, you're reinforcing your opponent's demonic nature. In this case, you've also suggested that a large group of citizens already agree with your lie by suggesting that they disagree with your opponent's supporter. If that sentence is hard for you to follow, don't worry, just take it on faith.


Move the goalposts and lie again

Colleges are ripping us off and is[sic] to expensive.
Public sub has allowed the lib colleges to jack prices up at all our expense. This cycle keeps growing at all our expense. Sticking to bill to the people who would be hiring them after schooling.
Wow U need to diversify your info portfolio I am in a university foundation board big guy.

Moving the goalposts is a well-known strategy that, like nuclear warheads, has no effective counter. Every time your opponent gets close to showing you their faulty version of reality, bring up another aspect of reality you've been denying. This will keep their overly complicated mind working on many things at a time, allowing you to sit back and think about what you'll make up next.


Take your ball and bat and go home

No more name calling please. ... if u don't like it don't read it. Just turn me in to the nazi-like snitch govt website like a good comrade

The best way to tell someone who has the audacity to point out that you're lying and denying reality is to call them a name caller while calling them names. They'll be too busy trying to work through the hypocrisy of your statements to get to the core of what you're saying. That will make sure they won't have a decent response ready until you've unfriended them on Facebook. Because really, anyone who disagrees with your lies can't be a friend.

These tactics are sure to win over the opposition to your point of view. Once you've ignored the opposition, you won't know anyone who doesn't support Sarah Palin.


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Representation With Taxation
By Ben Zvan
On April 21, 2009 at 09:29

Why I Walk to WorkWay back in the American Colonial days, Great Brittan passed a law that allowed the East India Tea company to export tea directly to America. This act reduced taxes on tea in Brittan to provide economic advantage to the East India Tea Company and caused taxes in America, including those on tea, to be raised. We Americans felt that we had a right to have a say in the taxes we paid and rebelled by putting on Indian costumes and throwing an entire shipload of tea into Boston Harbor. As the catchy chant of "no taxation without representation" allegedly took hold, several economic escalations meant that this act eventually resulted in the American Revolution.

In response to President Obama's plan to raise the income tax on individuals making over $250,000 and the billions of dollars in economic stimulus going to private industry and local governments, there has been a lot of noise about taxation. Michelle Bachman asks "If our founders thought taxation without representation was bad, what would they think of representation with taxation?" On April 15th, there are always people who picket the US Postal Service and boycott taxes. This year, there was a small movement called "tea bagging" where people who didn't like the taxes their representatives would be voting on waved tea bags in the air and tried to make a connection between their actions and the Boston Tea Party.

These tax boycotters say that taxes are unconstitutional and that there is no requirement to pay them. Article I, section 8 of the constitution gives that argument a hard time:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States;
The tea baggers claim that representation with taxation is bad, but taxation with representation is one of many things the Revolution was fighting for.

Incitement of treason aside, there are some problems with arguing against taxation. Lets contemplate some alternate funding mechanisms.

Taxes build roads. Without taxes, all roads would have to be toll roads. That doesn't seem so bad for interstate highways and local through ways when toll roads are miles apart; high speed limits would get you to your destination rapidly despite stopping to toss your change in the hopper. But if the entire downtown street system is toll-based, there would either have to be a tollbooth at every corner or at every entrance to the city street system. If you think rush-hour traffic is bad, just wait until the 10 drivers ahead of you have to dig for change to get to the next red light.

Taxes build bridges. I'll admit that this is closely related to roads, but there are some different hurdles to jump with bridges. Right now it costs $6 for a car to get from San Francisco to Sausalito. If you want to make that trip without taking a bridge, well... I just checked, and you can't. There are some bridges in the area that are not toll bridges, but they're miles out of the way. Many large cities, ironically with majority liberal populations, have gotten used to the idea of paying for the privilege to enter and leave the city, but people across the country would grumble loudly if they had to pay to go to work every day.

Taxes provide public safety. Remember that guy who was driving erratically and you had to swerve suddenly to avoid him, almost hitting a car in the next lane? Remember he got pulled over for drunk driving a few miles later and you were glad to be a little safer? Without taxes, there are three options I can think of for road safety. Either nobody would be on the roads to protect you from that guy or you'd be dealing with private security companies who would not be held to the same standards as the State Troopers, or their salaries would have to be paid by fines and tolls. Many people believe that the police have ticket quotas that need to be met every month and I'm not going to speak directly to that but just imagine if your salary depended directly on the number of tickets you wrote every day.

Taxes provide public education. Let's ignore the complete lack of public schools for the time being. Anyone who has a college degree can tell you that they are expensive and college degrees from private institutions doubly so. The University of Minnesota currently charges about $400 per credit. That tuition money is directly matched by the State of Minnesota because the state, through the elected representatives of its population, has determined that college education is good for the general welfare of that population. In addition to tuition-matching, the University also receives $125M from the State. Without these public funds from taxes, tuition at this state university would have to more than double, placing a college education out of reach for many Minnesotans. There would also be a distinct lack of Federal grants and student loans regardless of the institution in question, making that education more expensive for all citizens.

Taxes provide law enforcement. When I was a kid, my house was broken into while we were out of town for the weekend. Threat of jail is what keeps most people from stealing from other people. Without centralized law enforcement, we would have to rely on private industry to provide local officers, judges, and prisons. Those people would have to be paid through some billing mechanism, much like a tax, and you can bet that people who were able to pay more would get more patrol officers and fewer complaints against them.

Taxes provide laws. Law enforcement is irrelevant without laws to enforce. The representation in national government that this country fought so long and so hard to obtain is built by the people, for the people and on the backs of the people. Our taxes pay for enforcement and protection of the constitution, our nation, and our way of life. Private industry providing constitutional protection would lead directly to representation of wealth and land because there is no profit in representing the poor and homeless.

In short, a country without taxes would look a lot like the old American West. Roads would be build at random, justice would be served at random, infrastructure would be built at random, education would take place at random. If you hadn't already died of polio or smallpox, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog, or any blog, because the Internet would never have been funded by DARPA and you may never have learned to read. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said "I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization."

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The Presidential Oath of Office - Updated
By Ben Zvan
On January 21, 2009 at 10:55

With Justice Roberts' misreading of the constitution at yesterday's inauguration, I thought I'd take a moment to discuss constitutional history. Article II Section 1 of the constitution states the following

Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

You'll notice that there are two parts where Justice Roberts misstated the oath (and President Obama followed along.) The first was "I will execute the office of President of the United States faithfully." And the second was "So help me god."

There is argument that George Washington added the words "so help me god" to the end of his oath, but there is little evidence to back that up. Regardless, the person taking the oath has a constitutional right under the first amendment not only to freedom of speech but to freedom of religion and is therefore allowed to add these and any other words to the oath provided the original 35 words are stated in their correct order. The officiant of the swearing-in has no such right as he is acting as an agent of the United States and is injecting religion into a secular ceremony.

This is the basis of a legal action taken against Justice Roberts prior to the event by Michael Newdow and several other individuals and organizations. For more information, listen to the podcast of the Minnesota Atheists' Atheists' Talk radio show from January 4th 2009. In this show, Michael Newdow points out that this is not a case of atheists imposing their religion on the government but a case of keeping the government from imposing their religion on the nation.

When Keith Ellison was elected to the House of Representatives, christian conservatives were up in arms over a Muslim serving the nation along side Christians and Jews. I think they feared that, one day, the Chief Justice might add "so help me Allah" to the oath. It's not rocket science that freedom of religion applies to all religions and removing this tendency to add religion to government will prevent future leaders with different religions from doing the same.

There's a good chance that the oath was given officially a few minutes before the public event and that it was done to the letter of the constitution at that time. But doesn't the rest of the nation diserve to hear the ceremony performed correctly too?

Update: There was a do-over at 19:35 EST, but only a few reporters were present. Audio is available from CBS on The "so help me god" part was still there and I find it interesting that Justice Roberts states it as a question both times.

--photo from emilykreed on flickr.

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Best Buy Charges Poor People More Money
By Ben Zvan
On January 16, 2009 at 07:18

Worst BuyWe've all done it before.  Gone online, checked prices for some piece of electronics, found the best price at Best Buy, packed up the car, driven the 10 miles to the nearest store and discovered that the price in-store is higher than the price on-line. It happens so often that there are tips all over the Internet for how to get the on-line price instead. You could try to show them the on-line price from one of the computers in the store, but we already know that the in-store network shows higher prices. You could show them a printout of the price from their website, but they'll often complain that having a store costs more than having a website so it makes sense for them to charge more in the store or that pricing is different all over the country so they can't match the website. One clever blogger ordered in-store pickup from the website while actually in the store. She had to wait quite a while for the confirmation emails to all go through but, after 20 minutes, saved $100 on Stargate Atlantis DVDs.

So, what does this tell us about Best Buy? Well for one, they are essentially using bait-and-switch tactics by luring you into the store with one price and then giving you another. But the really sinister part is that they are charging people an extra fee for not having Internet access. You obviously have internet access and can avoid the problem, so who doesn't?

Since 2000, people have been noting that income has a direct relation to Internet access. Over time, this is getting better, but that "digital divide" still exists. Anyone can go into their local library and use the Internet and a lot of people do. But how likely is it that they'll be surfing Lifehacker or Gizmodo or one of the other blogs that talked about this issue? My bet is that most library-based Internet users have a specific task to complete and that's pretty much all they do. More phones are going online, but my G1 cost $200 plus $25/month for service.

What's my point? Capitalism is, in theory, a good system. People who work hard and are successfull get more money and people who work less and are less successfull get less money. But there are other ways than work to be successfull. People who already have more money (some call it "captial") can use it to get more money and people who have less money have to use more money to get by.

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