The Cult of Death Is Building A Temple in Canaan

I wanted to get a few things off my chest about Israel and Palestine, based on some really idiotic conversations I see going around. I want to preface these statements by making it absolutely clear that they are my opinion only, and do not represent nor reflect on anyone else (employer, sports team, country, etc.) Unfortunate we have to put those disclaimers in, but that is the society we live in.

I’ve been seeing a lot of cheering from those on the right towards Israel, which quite frankly disgusts me. It makes me want to vomit. It’s disgusting and abhorrent. No one should cheer the deaths of people, especially women and children. Nobody should applaud when missiles rain down and blow apart houses. A reasonable response to this could be “Good luck Israel,” or simple statements of support, but instead I am seeing “Yeah, go Israel! Fuck yeah!” and “Wipe out those subhuman savages!” No, really, this is typical rhetoric now being tossed about.

Just in case anyone says “Nobody actually says the Palestinians are subhuman savages” I present to you @CSunnyDaay and @secondthenfirst. Yes, these people do exist out there.


I don’t support Hamas, and I don’t support Hamas’ indiscriminate missile flinging into Israel. That’s not the solution to their problem. But here’s the thing: most Americans (and other foreigners) cheering on Israel don’t even bother thinking about the other side of the equation. They just think “Oh, these bad people are firing missiles at Israel! It’s self-defense! That’s it!” But they never bother to ask why the bad people are firing missiles, they just assume they are intrinsically evil creatures from Mordor.

Let’s examine why. Israel, over the course of decades, kicked the Palestinian Arabs out of their homes (though the initial blame lies with Britain, which decided to just mandate things.) They then forced these people into small areas, locked down running water and electricity, forced them to only get supplies from the Israeli government (which in turn could shut down the supply lines at any time), walk in and bulldoze people’s homes without warning, shoot them without warning or due process or anything even remotely like that, and then have the gall to build tons of Israeli settlements within the territory they’ve already set aside for the Palestinians! And then, when all that is said and done, the Israeli government drops bombs on hospitals, homes, shelters, just blows things up from the sky. And they have the gall to wonder why the Palestinians turn to support Hamas and their (largely ineffectual) rocket attacks?

If you corralled a bunch of red-blooded Americans into an area and shut down basic services and lobbed bombs and shells at them, after removing them from the land they used to own, do you think Americans would sit for that? Or do you think Americans would find a way to fire back?

The stupid, it burns.

Israel has been fighting this war essentially since 1948. It has taken on different forms, but the same thread of conflict has run through it all. You would think, by now, they may have wisened up and realized what they’re doing isn’t working. The US tried this before too. It’s called Vietnam. Our attacks there only galvanized the Vietnamese people to support the Viet Cong more, and they did – to the point where the VC forced us to leave and then destroyed the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam. What the heck does the Israeli government think this will accomplish? Do they really think that if they drop just another load of bombs out of the sky, that the Palestinians will finally be convinced that Hamas’ way is the wrong way and will stop?

Of course, I don’t think that’s what the Israeli government thinks at all. Like most governments, it wants votes, and like many people, a lot of Israelis want blood. Not all of them, but a fair amount, and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represents those who do. And I think Netanyahu wants the conflict as PM because he can blame any problems in his government on the Palestinians. I’m not sure what those other problems are, I am not an expert in Israeli internal politics, but it has been a long lasting and celebrated political tactic to find an “Other” you can demonize and pin all your problems on.

Again, I’m not supporting Hamas. The Palestinians are stupid for supporting Hamas. Do they really think that more rockets raining down will fix their problems of no jobs, crushing poverty, lack of medical care, food, running water, and electricity? Do they really think the Israelis are going to soften and change their policies if their families are blown up? Yet I can understand – though not support – why they support Hamas. Most Palestinians probably feel they have no hope, that there is no alternative. (Sure, there’s Fatah in the West Bank, but Gaza and the West Bank are almost two different entities at this point.) When you have no jobs, no supplies, and there are bombs falling out of the sky, what’s left to do but die for Allah?

The point I’m trying to make here is not that Americans are supporting the “wrong side.” I wouldn’t want them to support Hamas either. The point is that many Americans are completely leaving out half of the equation here. They’re ignoring why the Palestinians in Gaza are doing what they’re doing. If you’re going to jump into a conflict, you need to understand why that conflict is going on, who the players actually are, who the players’ peoples actually are, and then what incentives are going to make each side stop fighting – both the incentives they publicly state and the incentives that we know, deep down, that will cause both sides to knock it off. But, like most foreign policy issues, Americans never bother to actually understand or learn the arguments, they just want some prewritten soundbite to utter that makes them feel all good and patriotic.

That disgusts me.

Addition

After conversing with some folks on social media, it appears to me that some clarification is in order. Two points.

First, some have said that Israel has done all it can, and now the ball is in Hamas’ court. That’s fair. While I can understand the sentiment behind a lot of antipathy towards Israelis, having the Israelis come in and basically kick the Palestinians out, the Palestinians need to accept they’re not getting it back. They are never going to destroy Israel and get their all-Palestinian state. They may be able to secure a federalist solution, at best, but they’re never going to kick Israel out. While Hamas will never come to that conclusion willingly – it would mean they would lose all their support as their raison d’etre would be violated – they need to accept that. So these folks are right, it is time that Hamas recognized Israel’s right to exist (as much as any “state” has rights; only individuals can really have rights), and stop the rocket attacks on Israel. The Israeli strikes still won’t lead to the Palestinian people moving against Hamas, but Israel has its hands effectively tied.

Second, some people have taken this post to mean that I support Hamas, that I don’t think Israel has a right to exist, and that the Israelis shouldn’t be allowed to defend themselves. Nothing can be further from the truth. I don’t support either side in this mess. What I am writing against is the frothing, mindless support from some folks on the right for the violence in Gaza. For the people labeling Palestinians as subhuman savages and calling for more death, more bombs, more killings. That is what I am writing against. That is the point of this piece. For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure I care anymore about the conflict itself. I just want it to end. I just want the violence and death and destruction to stop. Is that so bad? Is it so bad that I criticize people who want this to continue? Of course, I shouldn’t expect any reason or intelligence on this issue. Almost more than anything else, this issue runs high on tribalism, to the point where nobody will bother even understanding the argument being made, they will just arbitrarily label the person good or evil. It is the Cult of Death I am fighting against, and the Temple they are building is the ritual chanting for more ordnance to fall. The Cult of Death is not Israeli. It is not Palestinian. It is, regrettably, American.

That is not supporting Hamas. That is not being anti-Israeli. It is being anti-death and anti-war, nothing more.

Update

The spate of attacks on my piece in social media has led me to read a lot more articles about Gaza than what I normally do. This one in particular has me all kinds of confused. Just what is really going on here?

Progress Has Been Made

Finally. Finally, a honest-to-goodness non-ideological post about my writing progress. It was, after all, why I originally started this blog, although it later morphed into other things and almost took on some web programming stuff when I started doing that last year.

So far, I’ve been working on both a short story and a novel, that are completely unrelated. The short story I actually finished a couple of months ago, but I haven’t gotten around to editing it yet before I try to send it somewhere. Meanwhile, I’ve been getting in time working on my novel, and using the awesome program that is Scrivener. One thing I have noticed, however, is that I’ve been using more of it’s basic word processor functions, and haven’t been taking advantage of its project management/plotting functions. I’ve been mostly filling in things I’ve already plotted out, but as I do so, I find the original plot needs significant rework. Which is a good thing, I think, because trying to stay to the original plan is usually not a good thing. You have to adapt to new ideas and new data, and while sometimes that can be a big problem, particularly if you just randomly go off in different directions, often it really improves.

One thing I did was follow the idea behind the book Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between (although, I really haven’t read it yet, just the description, but it was enough.) Write the turning point in the middle of the novel where the hero comes to the critical realization, and then revolve the story around that. I went a step farther and also wrote the ending before I had written the rest, and focused on writing key pieces I will then later string together. It’s a very different and interesting feeling, because the text is now even more fluid and open to revision than it ever has been before. And I’ve never written the ending of a story before I had written the rest of it. I was always very chronological in my writing, seeing where things go as I trundle along. I actually do like some outlines and plotting, but a lot of plotting frustrates me. Stories aren’t history, they’re much more fluid than that. What James Scott Bell has in this book seems to be the ideal balance.

Scrivener has also been a godsend, though one thing that I am trying to figure out is just how to break between scenes. Should a scene end on this line, or the next? It matters because if I move scenes around, will lines be out of place? Well, I suppose it can’t be helped. It will be interesting to see how that will work, however. So far, I haven’t had a real need to actually move scenes around. I actively look forward to the day when I do.

Me and the Angry Atheist: I’m On a Podcast

I am so terrible at selling myself. It’s almost embarrassing.

In any case, earlier this week I had the pleasure of joining the Angry Atheist on his podcast, the Angry Atheist Podcast. You can check it out here.

Looks like I’m moving up in the world. And yes, I do apologize to those Angry Atheist podcast listeners who have come here expecting something interesting…I’m kinda not.

The Force Is Still Strong With the Star Wars Expanded Universe

A not so long time ago, in a boardroom not all that far away…

So the news is out. The Star Wars Expanded Universe – all the books, games, comics, etc beyond the movies and the Clone Wars show – is essentially being put into storage. It will still be available, printed, and even to be used by authors and creators in the “new” timeline. Already, some fans are complaining hard about this, feeling they’re being Force choked by this decision. Things like “I invested years and lots of money into this!” are getting bandied about.

These complaints are really childish, and I actually think this is a good decision for Disney to make.

First, why the decision is good. While I certainly have my favorites from the EU canon – the X-Wing series, Young Jedi Knights, anything by Timothy Zahn, and I, Jedi all stand out – we must face the fact that a great majority of the Expanded Universe is, to put it frankly, bantha poodoo. I said as much back in January, and I just want to reiterate it more now. The Courtship of Princess Leia is as schlocky as they come, and The Crystal Star is…well, perhaps the less said about it, the better. There are many horrible Star Wrongs in the EU. In no way, shape, or form should J.J Abrams and the crew working on the next trilogy be beholden to them. I’m glad they won’t be!

But then, that’s the thing, isn’t it? The EU was always secondary canon. Even though it was canon – unlike, say, Star Trek, which basically said that it’s “extended universe” was not canon, no way, no how – it was always secondary to the two film trilogies and later on Clone Wars. (Ugh.) So even they technically were not really Star Wars. And for the vast majority of people who have watched the movies, they aren’t, because they’re not the movies. How many people read Star Wars novels? I’m sure it’s a large number, but it is nowhere near as large as the many who have watched the movies and never delved into the EU.

Now, why the complaints, in most cases, are pretty childish: because this decision in no way takes away from your enjoyment of those stories. We are dealing with a fictional universe, and you know where fictional universes live? In your mind, and in your heart. And nothing that Disney can do can take them away from those places. Sure, they may not exist in the same timeline as the new movies…however, fiction loves alternate timelines, so there is nothing saying you can’t just push the old EU to a different timeline and enjoy that. People are doing it with Star Trek, why not Star Wars?

Fact is, the Star Wars universe is one you make of it. I myself have completely disavowed anything from New Jedi Order onwards and most of the stuff set between the Exar Kun saga and the earliest “Last Days of the Old Republic” type material. (KOTOR, KOTOR II, The Old Republic, etc – all that stuff doesn’t exist for me, because it is all hilariously dumb.) Does that mean that content doesn’t exist for other fans? Of course not.

I really think fans need to get over themselves. Saying “the death of the EU hurts” is almost pathetic. Having your dog die hurts. Having a friend or family member hurts. Losing a job hurts. A company making a change in what novels it will accept as a backstory to a movie series doesn’t hurt, and if does you may be overly attached. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but come on. I love fiction as much as the next guy, and I love writing it and yes I do get attached to things sometimes, but at the end of the day these are all stories that exist in your mind. (Well, until Heinlein’s pantheistic solipsism is proven correct, that is…)

It’s whiny, entitled bullshit. I see this all over the ‘Net on all sorts of topics, and when it comes to something as silly as this – yes, “silly” and Star Wars do go together in this case – it just makes me sad. Sad that people are wasting their time on this. Move on, you have more important things to do. The Expanded Universe you love will always be there for you, forever.

(And before you say “But Jeremy – shouldn’t you have more important things to do than write a blog post like this?” why yes, yes I do. Which is watch the rest of Gundam Unicorn.)

Why I’m A Little Sad For Google+ (And What These Companies Are Doing Wrong)

Report: Google to end forced G+ integration, drastically cut division resources | Ars Technica

Google+ seems to be the red-headed stepchild of social media networks – an image not helped by the fact that its branding is all, well, red. But in any case, Google+ has never received the support and attention that other networks – hell, even LinkedIn – have received over the years. It’s been “that Google thing” and while you would think because it has freaking GOOGLE in the name everyone would be using it, they haven’t. Now, Google is appearing to “pivot” away from Google+, first with G+’s leader leaving the company, and then this news that possibly over 1,000 Google employees will be shifted around. According to the linked story, TechCrunch is calling Google+ the “walking dead.”

Yikes.

There are a lot of great things about Google+ that I like. This commenter on the post says a lot of them. One of the things s/he says I will also say: I do not live on Google+. But for an occasional trip, I can read a lot of interesting people’s interesting thoughts. People like Google’s own Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the inventor of Linux Linux Torvalds, a few podcasters I follow, and some very fascinating groups on roleplaying games, Linux, computer programming, and science fiction. Google+ also has no character limit, so you can write screeds if you wish, and it does seem like a breath of fresh air to get away from the increasingly stale and stultifying Facebook atmosphere and the hectic, sweltering rapid-fire heat of Twitter.

Perhaps the greatest part of Google+ from a publisher standpoint, however, is how well it integrates with Google search. +1 a story you like, and you push that story higher in the search rankings whenever someone searches for the story’s topic. +1 really helps get stories to the top, as they’re usually recommended by your friends (or, at least, in theory they are.) Of course, you can +1 your own stories and help they grow as well. It’s a fantastic idea.

Unfortunately, Google may some serious errors. One of them was the forced integration with the YouTube comments. Look, hateful, dumb, anonymous YouTube comments are an Internet institution. They are worse than even 4chan, and that’s almost an Xbox achievement. And yet people want them to be that way, and they don’t want their real names and faces attached. Destroying that pissed off a massive Internet community, one that’s arguably larger and more entrenched than even Facebook. Not a smart move, Google. Forced integration with other services beyond search was also starting to grind on a lot of people’s nerves.

My personal pet peeve, however, is how Google has been so damn stingy with the personal profile API. Although they allowed some services, such as Buffer (which I highly recommend, by the way) to post to Google+ pages, but so far it hasn’t let anyone else post to Google+ personal profiles. There was, for some time, an Android app called “Jift” that allowed you to simultaneously post to Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, but it was pulled after awhile (and it’s style of reading posts from all three services wasn’t that great to begin with.) This forces people to get out of their main app, which usually can post to Twitter and Facebook simultaneously (like, say, Plume), and go into the Google+ app. You know who wants to take that extra step? Nobody. Why not just do it all in one go? That would make it dramatically easier to use Google+, although it would cut down on the number of people actually using the Google+ app.

Which is why Google hates it.

This brings me to what I think all of these companies are doing wrong: they are not providing choices. That’s what a consumer wants, right? A consumer, in most instances, wants a choice to make. And I don’t see why companies can’t do this. You have Google+ forcing itself on YouTube commentators and in other places; you have Facebook now forcing people to get a separate app on their phone to use Facebook messages and soon a separate app for events and possibly even groups as well. You have them changing up user interfaces all the time with no option to go to an older one that some users prefer. It’s this forcing of things that is really starting to annoy people, though I wonder if it will truly bite these companies in the behind, because while annoyed, most people still go along with the changes. Still, how can providing your users more choices ever be a bad thing?

There’s the old saw that “The user isn’t the customer, the user is the product” but I don’t know how much I buy that. Facebook runs on its users and it can’t get anywhere without them, so it can’t annoy them too much (although the line of no return seems to keep receding into the distance day by day.) Google as well, though I’ll be honest I have no freaking clue how Twitter makes money. (They can’t be selling that many promoted accounts and tweets, can they?)

I hope Google+ sticks around. (I really hopes it overcomes Facebook some day, so I can actually escape.) I hope it continues. But we’ll have to see, won’t we?

Why Gundam Build Fighters Ending Is The Worst Thing Ever

I’ll just say it: I’m an anime fan. I’m probably not an otaku – I don’t worship it that obsessively – but I do love Japanese animation. One of the first cartoons I saw as a child was the original Digimon, and from there I went into the Japanese Transformers, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and all sorts of things. Recently, I’ve been watching the Gundam franchise, and finding out the latest series will have only one more episode has really made me have some profound thoughts.

Yes, Gundam Build Fighters, the dorkiest, lightest, and just utterly most un-Gundam of Gundam shows has made me have deep thoughts.

It’s okay if you think I’m crazy. I probably am.

Gundam Build Fighters is, from the surface, aimed at children. Even with the battles and the skullduggery that goes on in the background, it is a lighthearted romp through a massive fandom that has touched on Japanese and Western audiences alike for 35 years. (Build Fighters is actually part of the 35th anniversary celebration, which will continue with the next series, Reconguista in G, being created by Gundam’s original creator, Yoshiyuki “Kill Em All” Tomino. Yeah, that’s not a misspelling; Japanese audiences prefer the hard “g” sound than Reconquista. Figures.)

Set in near-future Japan, it takes the real life industry of Gunpla – plastic Gundam models – and using magic (basically) animates them inside of special playing boards, letting their weapons actually fire lasers and bullets and missiles, and they actually explode when destroyed. Nobody, though, is actually harmed, though they take it very seriously. The series itself engages in a ton of lampshading and parodying Japanese anime shows where the basis is on collecting and winning in tournaments, over just how silly it is to be so super serious about playing tournaments with toys. It does so not in a blatant way, either, although I’m not sure “subtle” would describe it either. It merely makes it all work in a spectacularly entertaining fashion.

Here’s the weird thing, for me: I am a 25-year old white male, one who has lost a good amount of weight in the past couple of months and doesn’t look like he lives in his mother’s basement, and here I am being very unhappy that this show is ending.

What kind of a person am I?

There’s a small bit of me that looks at the rest of me and wonders, “Jesus, man, are you ever going to grow up and get into the adult world?” I shouldn’t really care about this show. It is entirely fictional. It’s definitely a niche thing. And yet I am still rather pissed that, in all their wisdom, Sunrise is only giving it 25 episodes. That will make it the shortest Gundam TV show by far, with the next shortest, After War Gundam X, coming in at 39 episodes. (Note: I haven’t watched Gundam X, so I have no idea what it’s like. Other than it’s post-apocalyptic. Sorta.)

This show deserves, at the very least, a second season. There are so many questions left unresolved. For instance, one of the protagonists, Reiji, comes from another world (and so does the “big bad”.) We only see him disappear in a flash of light once, although his other world is talked about a bit as a subplot. But ending it now? We have no idea what is going on with that! It’s barely even touched upon, only enough to make us wonder “What?” And maybe that is the point, that not everything should be explained, that there should still be some mystery in life – for else, why live?

To be fair, though, I don’t think the creators of this show were going anywhere that philosophical.

But what really makes this show so wonderful is that it is a total release. Living in the Washington DC area, in a place where a hotdog costs one and a half reverse mortgages, bombarded every day with politics and scheming and BS, Gundam Build Fighters is my little escape valve. I can watch a brilliantly colorful world come to life and just forget about all the insanity going on in 3D land. I can cheer on the protagonists, Reiji and Sei, as they fight to win the championship. I can curse their opponents for underhanded moves. I can laugh at the zany jokes and awe at the cool moves.

At the end of the day, Gundam Build Fighters is pure catharthis. In many ways, it’s therapy.

The weird thing especially for me is how I have come to care about the characters in a real way. I’ve always known that an author’s first job is to make the reader care about a character. This is one of the ironclad rules of writing. But for me, I never had the reactions others had. For example, some people said they cried when reading the last Harry Potter book. I don’t think I could do that. Harry Potter is, after all, fictional. And yet here, I am practically crying over the end of this series. I don’t want it to end. It needs to go to at least 50 episodes. That makes me feel quite sad.

In many ways, it reminds me of the first anime I ever watched: Digimon Adventure. I saw that in second grade, and I remember being quite teary eyed as a child over the ending. I wanted it to go on forever. And now I want this to go on forever. I hate goodbyes. I hate endings. I just need that release to keep going. I need something to keep my sanity in a world gone completely insane.

That’s why I love Gundam Build Fighters, and ultimately all Japanese animation. It is a total cathartic release from the world in ways that I cannot obtain as readily from Western media. Don’t ask me why or how. I don’t understand it either. Maybe it’s because Hollywood has just completely run out of ideas. I don’t know.

But, for whatever reason, Gundam Build Fighters has helped me keep myself intact in this world by giving me a portal to another. That’s a very useful thing to have at any age.

And with that, my friends, it is now time for me to go watch the final episode. It’s going to be a good one.

Hobby Lobby Case And Derailing Secular Gains

I’m going to go out on a limb here with this Hobby Lobby case and say something that is going to be pretty controversial. Just not in the way you might imagine.

The current Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, as well as similar incidents and issues around the country, are keeping the religious level of the United States high and preventing the gradual shift to a more secular nation.

I’m not saying that because conservatives and religious folk are using the suit to maintain their religious beliefs – through employer health insurance – against the tide of reasonable secularists. No, I’m saying this because I think those who want to force employers to violate their religious consciences are in the wrong and are reinforcing the other side.

Look at this this way. Say that Hobby Lobby is allowed to avert the contraception mandate and other health insurance requirements by claiming a religious exemption. Okay, so those things are now no longer paid for by your employer. (This is far different from saying they are dictating people’s lives outside of work. Not paying for your decisions does not equal dictating those decisions. Some CNN commenters have forgotten that.) This fact, I assure you, will be loudly trumpeted throughout the media and people will know about it.

Now let’s see what happens. Those who don’t support the policy will refuse to shop at Hobby Lobby and not give them any money. Indeed, I suspect this will be a majority of Americans, even Christians. Of course, those who actually shop there will be far smaller, but I think there will probably be a boycott movement or two. They might even have some success.

Let’s have this process continue. More people become secular, and instead of forcing their ideas on the religious folk, just allow them to live their lives (without harming anyone else, of course.) The religious folk don’t see themselves as under threat as they do now, and may actually start to talk to the more secular people out there. They may even see them as Americans. And with that, you might actually get through to them, and if not cause them to rethink their views, maybe their children will.

Compare to that to what is going on in America today: we have cases like Hobby Lobby dominating the media, where religious people feel they are under attack by a pernicious, left-wing, godless conspiracy. They go on the defensive and start to rally and organize. They use the Supreme Court case as a perfect tool for fundraising and email list collection. And they naturally shut themselves off from listening to the other side, as they perceive what is coming at them not to be words, but bullets.

It happens with pretty much every controversial topic these days, if not since the beginning of time.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to see a world where religion is something of the past, where people have stopped believing in supernatural beliefs and instead relegate such things to the realm of fantasy (and maybe get a bit too excited about their favorite TV show). I want a world where science – proper science, not the bastardized progressive worshipping meshuggnah we seem to have today (to see what I mean, Google “anti-vaccine,” “GMOs,” “fracking,” etc) – rules the day, and we can leap far beyond our current selves and advance into a new world where suffering may just possibly be eliminated. We might have room for some secular philosophy such as Secular Humanism or (a toned down variant of) Objectivism, but for the most part I don’t even want that, as they still carry faint threats of straightjacketism and dogmatism in the wings.

However, what is going on today is the wrong way to go about it. Such change can never be forced. European nobles attempted to do so by forcing their subjects to follow the same religion they did; what they got were centuries of religious warfare and pointless struggles. Not until John Locke came around with his revolutionary ideas that, in someone’s mind, that person is sovereign (and thus religion is a wholly individual choice) did this silliness begin to come to an end. Let’s not forget either that this country was, philosophically speaking, built on Locke’s ideas.

By using government to try and force employers to violate their religious consciences – in the name of “health care,” no less – we’re risking starting that up again, and undoing all the advances we’ve made in the past two centuries. Do I think it will come to actual violence? I find that unlikely – Americans talk a good game about kicking ass and being manly, but in general we’re rather reluctant to actually bite, as declining crime rates show – but on the other hand, you never know. Two months ago I didn’t think Russia would actually invade and annex a part of Ukraine.

I do think, however, that it is a largely unnecessary and pointless antagonism of the religious America – which is still about 79% of the population, if my memory serves. We really shouldn’t be having this debate in the first place; government shouldn’t be telling employers what they can and can’t pay for, and if I’m brutally honest we should never have tied health insurance to employers in the first place! (Thanks, FDR.) It’s just as my friends Trevor Burrus and Aaron Ross Powell say: politics makes us worse. It leads to fights that, if government stayed out of the matter entirely, would never have become fights. One side would do X, the other side would do Y, and we’d go our merry ways. Instead, because government force is involved, everything becomes a battleground that must be fought over, lest the “other” is able to impose it’s values onto you at the expense of your liberty.

We cannot force our way to a more secular nation. It can only come naturally and through organic processes.

It’s truly tragic, especially when you consider how it’s harming our society’s development. Oh, we’re still progressing in many key areas, but I just think if some people stopped trying to push their own ideology on everybody else and just let things work naturally, society would be progressing a lot faster.

 

PS: If you like this blog post, you might like my Op-Ed on Why The GOP Should Not Turn Away From Secularism over at Practical Politicking.

 

Image from Matt Wade Photography, via Wikimedia, published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A quick thought on the Crimean situation

I’ve heard more than a few people talk about Vladimir Putin as if he is some sort of genius who easily outwitted our flat-footed president. But I’m not that confident. Here is a story from the New York Times:

MOSCOW — The day after he returned from the Winter Olympics, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia gathered the 12 members of his national security council for a crisis meeting to manage a political implosion in Ukraine that, by all accounts, had surprised Russia’s political and military elite and, above all, infuriated Mr. Putin himself.

One prominent member of the council, Valentina I. Matviyenko, chairwoman of the upper house of Parliament, emerged from the meeting declaring that it was impossible that Russia would invade Crimea, yet a couple of days later Russian troops were streaming into the peninsula.

When Mr. Putin made his first public remarks on the crisis on Tuesday, he said that Russia would not support Crimea’s efforts to secede. On Friday, the Kremlin allowed a mass pro-secession rally in Red Square while senior lawmakers loyal to Mr. Putin welcomed a delegation from Crimea and pledged support to make it a new province of the Russian Federation.

That doesn’t exactly scream “methodical evil mastermind” to me.

Of course some people will criticize this narrative because it comes from the New York Times. I’m not so sure. Some people just like to see misdirection and intelligence where there isn’t; it’s part of the human mind’s nature to see patterns where they don’t exist. I’m not, by any means, calling Putin stupid; he is a shrewd, dangerous man. But still, I think Ukraine probably blind-sided him; nobody expected Yanukovych to flee so suddenly and give up power so quickly. Putin also probably felt he had a duty to protect and secure the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, which is a strategic interest for himself and Russia. His only card to play? Send in troops to secure the region as Ukraine entered a period of instability.

Putin probably doesn’t want to take over Crimea directly as a Russian federal subject. It would make a difficult situation more tense and no matter how hypocritical the rhetoric might be or fallacious the argument, it would stir up a lot of resentment towards Russia that Putin frankly doesn’t need. But I would bet dollars to donuts that there are some ultranationalists within Putin’s own party who would love to get Crimea, and are subtly pushing things that way. So what we have is that Putin needs to appease the more radical members of his own government while also trying not to annoy the West too much. Even though the West is, admittedly, powerless to do anything in Crimea, he still wants to keep relations smooth for future needs. And bad PR is just bad PR.

I don’t envy the guy, that’s for sure.

Of course, not being a foreign policy expert, I could be completely wrong, but I don’t think things are playing out right for Putin either. Which only reinforces my opinion that right now, the best thing we can do (other than exporting American natural gas to Europe, which would weaken Russia’s economic hegemony over Europe, as well be, you know, free trade) is really nothing at all. This is not America’s business, and for once I can say I am content with our president’s current stance.

Was I right about Bitcoin?

Last year, when writing about 2014 predictions, I made the following about Bitcoin:

Bitcoin will crash

This is just a hunch, but not too long ago we saw China ban Bitcoin transactions (as well as Thailand and India, basically) and the value of Bitcoin plunged about 40%. That’s pretty damn volatile, and while I am not a monetary expert, I think that’s not good for a currency. If the value of your currency changes that much so quickly (and if you put in terms of it’s rapid growth over 2013, which I think was 50x–if you bought $100 worth in January it was worth $5,000 at the end of the year) it’s not going to be very usable.

Now I could be totally wrong about that, and also totally wrong about this, but I have a hunch Bitcoin will dramatically decrease in value next year and might go out. I think it will also bring down other cryptocurrencies, including Litecoin, Peercoin, and the so-called “Dogecoin,” which is actually real. Although it’s also hit the reputation of these cryptocurrencies already…

Of course, everyone is ranting about the bankruptcy and shutdown of one of the largest Bitcoin exchanges, Mt. Gox, in Tokyo. There have also been major thefts and hacks elsewhere. Roughly $400 million worth of Bitcoin has been stolen and disappeared, amounting to somewhere around 6% (if I’ve read correctly) of the entire global Bitcoin supply. Meanwhile, Bitcoin has plunged from a price of $1,200 last November to about $573 as of this writing.

The concern over Mt. Gox and the ripple effects it’s collapse is having are making some wonder if this is the end of Bitcoin itself:

Documents purportedly leaked from the company lay out the scale of the problem. An 11-page “Crisis Strategy Draft” published on the blog of entrepreneur and Bitcoin enthusiast Ryan Selkis says that 740,000 bitcoins are missing from Mt. Gox, which roughly translates to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of losses, although figures are fuzzy given Bitcoin’s extreme volatility.

“At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, this could be the end of Bitcoin, at least for most of the public,” the draft said.

In a post to his blog, Selkis said that the document was handed to him by a “reliable source” and that several people close to the company had confirmed the figures. Reached by phone, he declined further comment. The Japanese government, meanwhile, has not announced any formal investigation.

Not all agree, however:

Now that what’s left of Mt. Gox’s credibility has been shredded, the company is unlikely to rebound even with a bailout from investors or other members of the Bitcoin community. That leaves the question of what comes next. A host of funded exchanges are ready to take its place. But for an exchange to regain users’ trust after the fall of Gox, it will need new transparency standards and safeguards, some of which have already been proposed.

Others see currency exchanges as a gap technology that the Bitcoin economy is poised to move beyond. Once people are being paid in Bitcoin and spending money in Bitcoin, there won’t be as much need to buy it for cash, which is the primary function of an exchange. “These large exchanges that are international and global are more important in the early stages of Bitcoin when we need price discovery,” says Jon Matonis, director of the Bitcoin Foundation. “You don’t need them in the long run because in a true Bitcoin economy you’ll have a closed-loop system.”

There are precedents for Bitcoin bailouts, as when the Polish exchange Bitomat accidentally erased all its customers’ bitcoins. Mt. Gox bought the company and reimbursed its customers. But a bailout of Mt. Gox would be contrary to Bitcoin’s libertarian ethos and it doesn’t seem necessary. The price has already rebounded. A number of well-funded, reputable Bitcoin companies are standing by ready to sell the idea to the vast majority of potential users who have never used the currency or heard of Mt. Gox. And anyone who wants a bailout is likely to be shamed by the sense of self-determinism that kickstarted Bitcoin in the first place.

Personally, I find myself more with the latter viewpoint than the former. I still think Bitcoin will go out; I just don’t think it will be Mt. Gox specifically. There are going to be other things bringing it down, namely further instances of major theft and fraud and bad management. There won’t be just one issue.

I do want to slightly modify part of my above prediction, namely this:

I think it will also bring down other cryptocurrencies, including Litecoin, Peercoin, and the so-called “Dogecoin,” which is actually real.

I’m not as convinced as this as I used to be. To explain why, let’s take a quote from one of Mt. Gox’s investors:

Roger Ver, a big investor in Mt. Gox, said he did not know if he would ever get any of his lost bitcoin back.

“But the important thing to realize is that Mt. Gox is just one company using bitcoin. The bitcoin technology itself is still absolutely amazing,” he said.

“Even if one email service provider is having a problem that doesn’t mean people are going to stop using email. It’s the same with bitcoin.”

Ver is right, but he’s not expanding it far enough. Even if Bitcoin fails, it will not completely destroy the general cryptocurrency technology or concept. The way I see it now, Bitcoin is basically going to be the sacrificial lamb. It will get a lot of attention, a lot of press–and it will hit every bloody pitfall on the way up and out. Imagine, if you will, a Macross Missile Massacre heading straight for a convoy of cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin will be that ship that takes all of the blows and is destroyed, but the rest of the convoy will keep going–many damaged, perhaps a few unscathed. And the developers of these cryptocurrencies will learn from Bitcoin’s failures and push out innovations that will improve their products. (Granted, most of these cryptocurrencies, if not all, are very decentralized, so there’s no one person controlling the network, but I think the users will work out something.)

Will these cryptocurrencies replace national currencies? Barring a catastrophic global monetary collapse–which, to be fair, there is enough stupidity going on at central banks and governments around the world that we can’t definitely rule that out–I would say no. People are going to use it for speculative purposes, for liquidity, and occasionally to buy things, but for the most part I just can’t see them being used for everyday transactions by the majority of the populace. That is going to take a lot of convincing to get people to move outside their comfort zone. For better or worse, being attached to a government makes a currency look “safe”. It will take magic or tragedy to sever that thought in people’s minds.

One thing I do find interesting about all this is a concept and organization known as Mastercoin. I visited their booth at the International Students for Liberty Conference this year and was fascinated. It’s an attempt to have a sort of meta-protocol on top of the Bitcoin–and other cryptocurrencies’–protocol. It would facilitate seemless transfers between cryptocurrencies and people, and allow the development of what they term “smart contracts.” An example would be if I and someone else had a bet on what the weather would be, and I had Bitcoins and she had Litecoins. The smart contract would check the weather, and instantly transfer over the money bet from one person to the other and convert it, without us knowing what the other person has in terms of currency. But it was a lot more than that; the guy I was talking to said that it would permit the creation of infinite cryptocurrencies which could be used to support any number of things. One example was a hypothetical “Mathcoin,” which would support mathematical research. If a company accepted Mathcoin and people used it to buy things, the usage of Mathcoin–and the mining, I think–would instrinsically support mathematical research.

I’m doing it a major disservice; the Conference was a couple of weeks ago (and it gave me a nasty cough I haven’t really recovered from) and it was a very complicated subject. But it was still fascinating that people are working on this kind of stuff right now. Will it turn into anything? I have no idea. But come on, isn’t this interesting?

Still, Bitcoin…that won’t make it. Pretty sure of it.

The Day We Fight Back – #StopTheNSA

I shouldn’t have to write anything like this. It should be painfully obvious why privacy is important. It should be blindingly clear why it is wrong to have the National Security Agency put tracking devices in your computers, collect all your phone calls and emails, and turn on your webcam to spy on you directly.

These things are just not permissible.

Sadly, American society has become all the more accepting of these things in the past decade. Perhaps accepting isn’t the right word; maybe it is “resigned.” Either that or they just think they have nothing to hide, which is a painfully stupid thing to say.

A world without privacy is a world where we lack individuality. Sure, we share a lot of things on our social media accounts. But the point is we choose to share. We don’t have others deciding what is public and what isn’t. With all of our secrets laid bare, suddenly we start to censor ourselves, to conform, to stop being ourselves.

Think of what happened to people in East Germany or Soviet Russia. Think of the social atomization that went on in these societies. The pain, the fear, the terror.

A society cannot survive without privacy, without civil liberties, without individuality. A democracy cannot survive.

That is why I too am fighting back against the NSA. Stop it today. Stop it before it stops all of us.