Good fences, poor neighbors

Posted in Society at 9:33 by RjZ

On 75th Street, Boulder, Colorado

From what I can tell, the owners of this rather unattractive wall are upset that someone complained to the authorities about it being too tall. They’re obviously so fuming mad at the invasion of privacy, and more likely the cost of redoing their wall, that they’ve been forced to neglect proper grammar in their protest. My libertarian views might be inclined to side with them too.

The easy thing about libertarianism, though, is that most problems can be analyzed with incredibly simple premises. For example, a couple of guiding principles for libertarians might be: “very few laws, vigorously enforced,” and “your right to hit me stops and my face.” Fact is, if there is a law restricting the height of this wall then it is the property owner’s responsibility to follow it. They can hope to do whatever they wish and that everyone else will remember the “virtue of live and let live” but it’s gonna cost them quite a bit if that pesky law is enforced after all. While there ought to be as few laws as possible, if one does make it on the books, it needs to be enforced or all of the laws become questionable.

Should there be such a law restricting the height of a wall on private property? That’s where the second principle comes into play. Of course one should be allowed to do whatever they wish on their own property, but when those activities aren’t private at all, and effect the security, safety or even mountain views of others, then they need to be looked at more closely.

I don’t happen to know the details of what regulation was broken here or whether or not I agree with the regulation that is in place. I like the protest, but, in the end, I can’t really agree. Too bad the property owners or their contractors didn’t read up on local regulations before building a wall. That’s gonna cost them.

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Diet soda sells newspapers and banner ads

Posted in Society at 15:31 by RjZ

Have you heard that drinking diet soda can lead to weight gain instead of weight loss? Something about this idea was very attractive to me because, from my point of view, soda seems pretty worthless. Why, I ask, would any reasonable adult want to drink such a cloyingly sweet over-carbonated beverage when there’s beer? Mmmm, beer.

Sorry. Where was I? I rather liked the irony of it all, but when I actually did a quick internet search I was disappointed. This meme has quickly spread through society probably because I am not the only one secretly snickering at the irony of it all. It doesn’t hurt that all the soda drinkers were pretty scared of the news either.

In fact, though, there’s only the one study that several news sources reported on over and over again, adding quotes and experts to fill up the news hour with entertaining fear. CBS news cites the study’s author and two more ‘experts’ along with quotes from a couple of consumers. Fox News started off with a more flamboyant headline and peppered their coverage with quite a bit more statistics, but, like dozens of other reports, cited Ms. Fowler’s originally study which was reported to WebMD.

I didn’t find any corroborating studies. More importantly, Ms. Fowler doesn’t hesitate to point out that this study does not examine a causal link between diet soda and obesity. Fowler speculates that the body, once fooled, may crave that which it was deceived:

“If you offer your body something that tastes like a lot of calories, but it isn’t there, your body is alerted to the possibility that there is something there and it will search for the calories promised but not delivered,”

That too, seems compelling, but for now, it’s speculation. Unproven, interesting, speculation. Fowlers intriguing study is one bit of evidence that shows correlation between obesity and soda, and more surprisingly, obesity and diet soda. I learned long ago that correlation does not imply causation, but it looks like it’s enough to sell newspapers (or banner ads).

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In defense of Boulder

Posted in Society at 23:05 by RjZ

Toy Boulder

If you’ve spent any time in or near Boulder, Colorado, you’ve probably heard all the jokes. Most of them center around the idea that Boulder is so liberal that the people are out of touch. In mostly conservative Colorado they say Boulder is surrounded on all sides by reality.

If you actually live here, though, you quickly get the idea, that Boulderites rather enjoy their reputation but that they’re not doing a great job earning it. Boulder citizens are proud of being liberal, environmentally aware, athletic, and spiritually tolerant. The disappointing reality is that amongst the Subarus, there is no shortage of giant SUVs and gas-guzzling trucks. Boulder’s authorities recently published a statistic that 20% of the city rides bicycles to work, but that laughable claim is easily discredited on any morning. There just aren’t four cars for every bike on the road. Maybe more like forty! I saw many more bikes in Santa Cruz than here.

Boulderites are pretty well-off and many have traveled far and seen a bit of the world. There are more tibetan prayer flags here than I ever saw in Nepal. And they’re proud of this reputation for worldliness and tolerance, but I’ve heard wiccans sneer curses at secularists and atheists during a coffeehouse poetry reading and noticed all the heads turn when a black face walks on stage because one really only rarely sees black people in Boulder.

Today, though, I realized something. I noticed for almost hundredth time that there are quite a few panhandlers in this small city. Most every corner downtown has a man or a woman, some clean cut, some in dreads, some with packs just a few feet behind, and some with dogs wagging tails and looking up affectionately at their sign holder/providor. How can a city of under 100,000 people support so many panhandlers? Denver is not far away; don’t your odds of cars actually stopping to hand over lunch money seem a lot better when there are more people around?

The truth is, for all the contradictions, Boulderites really are handing out enough spare change to keep these folks from moving on to greener pastures. Clearly, well above an average amount of people are reaching into their change holders and handing over money, because otherwise there would be no way to support this number of people.

Boulder may not know what to do with real minorities, but there are book and curio stores representing most every continent and gender preference there is. Of course nearly every vehicle here has ski racks all year round and it sure looks like bikes spend more times on car racks than on the road, and yet it sure is easy to find cheap climbing/hiking/biking gear and so many people on the trails wearing that gear that at least some people really aren’t just for show. Once more, there’s a reason that it’s easy to compare Ann Arbor, Michigan; Austin, Texas; Lawrence, Kansas; and Berkley, California along with many more to Boulder (or Boulder to them.) For all the false bravado these liberal bastions of America share, they’re all college towns full of smarter-than-average, really sincere people, a surprising range of restaurants, plenty of interesting things to do, which are really all the sorts of things that just make them charming pleasant towns, even for a libertarian like me.

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Now it’s the democrats turn

Posted in Society at 17:59 by RjZ

It’s not like the republicans don’t have it coming. Democratic candidates for president and the those in the house and senate are barking about pulling out our troops from Iraq. They’re saying that they speak for the people of the United States when they ask the president to set a timetable for withdrawal. They probably are, but it’s really all politics. Republicans have been playing politics for a while now too, painting democrats yellow with a cut & run brush that’s not holding as much paint as it used to, but the fact is, like insurgents in Iraq, the administration really only needs to play a waiting game before the decision is out of its hands.

As the Bush administration enters the home stretch it becomes increasingly unlikely that the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan will be withdrawn any time during its tenure. But while Mr. Bush hesitates to explain exactly what the victory actually looks like while he avoids defeat, I’ve said before that pulling out right now could have dangerous consequences. Forget civil war, we could be facing Sunni, Shiite proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia centered in Iraq.

For the most part, only candidate McCain has been willing to admit that just pulling out the troops is a disingenuous proposition. McCain proposed benchmarks instead of timetables for deciding when we should remove American forces. I really don’t need to repeat my previous post, except to point out that we’ve come very little further in the debate than over four months ago when I wrote it. What disappoints me today is that democrats continue to play the end-war-now card even though they know it’s not that simple.

U. S. citizens are fed up with the war. They have every right to be and democrats think they can use this to their political advantage. Unfortunately, this advantage will be pretty short lived if they were actually in power and had to do anything about the war! Today they can blame the president. Who knows what will happen in the future.

If I were running, I’d take the benchmark page out of McCain’s book (it’s OK, I wrote about it pretty early on). Yes we have to get out of Iraq! And as soon as possible. But the only way to do this sensibly, and with the safety of the United States and its people in mind, is to leave a government that at least is approximately in power of the nation and to leave a system in place that can reasonably be expected to elect another one of the people don’t like the current one, but within the boundaries of the system. It might be a banana republic, but it should at least appear legitimate.

When the Iraqis actually have a country that governs itself, they might be able to resist the impending proxy war and begin, even violently on occasion, rebuilding their country. A U. S. presidential candidate who admits this reality, however, sounds like he or she supports an ongoing war without end. Fact is, the candidate would just be being honest for once.

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Guns, money and ideas

Posted in Society, Travel at 20:42 by RjZ

As a growing power on the economic and diplomatic stage, China has certain tools at their disposal. According to the Economist (March 31, special report, p4), nations achieve their goals using some combination of three things: guns, money and ideas. But unless you spend most of your time in neo-conservative circles, you probably don’t hear much about China’s military. The neo-cons aren’t completely crazy; China is building up its military capability, but during my recent visit there, it’s clear that both the government officials and citizens with whom I spoke valued one of their favorite philosophical buzzwords: harmony.

Government officials claimed they must grow while respecting harmony of the people and environment. A Chinese colleague told me that the Chinese wish to live in harmony with their neighbors around the world and military action would surely disturb that balance. Indeed, China has chosen harmony with its neighbors through economic leadership and trade over military coercion. China’s membership in the World Trade Organization has focused on economics rather than the flexing of muscles.

Meanwhile, media reports in the west warn constantly of China’s emerging power and rave about the market opportunity there. Beijing, for example, is a beautiful, mostly clean, modern city. There is so much rapid growth, that everyone who leaves for a couple of weeks, can barely find their address with all the new tall buildings sprung up in the way.

In reality, China today is still a numbers game. True, many are growing rich, but there are many more still supplying the cheap labor that keeps our athletic shoes and Wal*Mart’s inventory so affordable. Marketing to China is like an experiment in long-tail economics, where one can find success even on the fringes of society, so long as their are enough folks around. As their economy grows, more of those providing cheap labor are gaining the economic muscle to actually buy products made in their country. China too, is producing more than cheap toys and knock-offs. Now-a-days, they’re making more complex products like cell phones and computers. So, while cheap labor slowly dwindles and prices steadily rise, so too does competition on the very items that companies like the United States still excel at producing.

Change is frightening and China’s rise must keep the United States and other economies on their toes. So far, China is focusing on money and ideas as opposed to guns, but, after all, China is ruled by people and sometimes people get strange ideas what they can do with their power. Just ask George Bush. Still, fear of change aside, China is returning to what they believe is their rightful place as a world power and with a fifth of the world’s population, why shouldn’t they be a fifth of the world’s economy? The rest of us better get used to it!

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