Monday, March 31, 2014

American Justice

Close to 30 years ago -- I don't remember exactly which year -- I was late to work one morning. My car had broken down, and the co-worker who had agreed to pick me up each morning (until Friday, when I would get paid and be able to buy the part I needed) didn't show up. I dragged in a couple of hours late after finding another ride.

When I arrived at work, I got the word -- that co-worker had called in to let the boss know he'd been arrested. He didn't say for what. We found that out later in the day when it was mentioned on the radio news. He'd been arrested for sexually molesting his young daughter.

The matter wrapped up pretty quickly. He sat in jail until, within a couple of months, he entered a guilty plea and asked (with the supporting testimony of his wife, who had reported him to the police in the first place) to be put on probation and to enter into "treatment" so that he could continue working and financially supporting his family (with the understanding that there would be no contact with his daughter, of course).

No dice. He was sentenced to several years in prison. And I doubt there were many people who considered the sentence unjust.

So this morning, I read about another case in which a man was accused of raping his young daughter and eventually pleaded guilty.

He didn't sit in jail until trial -- he put up $60k in bail. And after pleading guilty he was sentenced to ... probation.


Well, not because he needs to work to financially support his family. He's unemployed and lives off a trust fund.

The judge, rather, found that he would not "fare well" in prison, and would likely do much better living comfortably in one of the two mansions he owns.

Well, gosh ... lots of people don't "fare well" in prison. But for some reason, those who don't have trust funds and own mansions seem to end up there anyway.

I'm not a big fan of the idea of warehousing people in prisons. There are lots of good reasons not to. But I can't see how any of those reasons apply more to Robert H. Richards IV than to other criminals. What am I missing?

Friday, March 28, 2014

It's a Shame ...

That Dick Cheney's ticker will probably give out for good long before America gets moral enough again to clap him in leg irons and orange coveralls and drag his ass in front of a judge to explain himself and perhaps beg for clemency.

But there's always hope.

Maryland Legislature: House of Tards

Per the Baltimore Sun:

Responding to a threat that the "House of Cards" television series may leave Maryland if it doesn't get more tax credits, the House of Delegates adopted budget language Thursday requiring the state to seize the production company's property if it stops filming in the state.

So first these idiots hand millions in stolen taxpayer money over as corporate welfare to the series creators.

Then when the creators threaten to leave if they don't get more stolen taxpayer money, these idiots threaten to steal the creators' stuff.

Did I mention they're idiots?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Now Hear This ...

It is entirely possible to oppose US meddling in the affairs of Ukraine and Crimea without pretending Vladimir Putin is any more of a hippie peacenik than are the operatives of the neo-Nazi Kiev junta.

Just like it was entirely possible to oppose US meddling in the affairs of Syria without pretending that the Assad regime is anything but the Ba'athist dictatorship it is and always has been, or that the rebels are anything but a gaggle of Islamist murderers.

That is all.


Against the Libertarian Cold War, by Anthony Gregory
Ron Paul vs. Students For Liberty President: Crimea's Real Crisis? by Zenon Evans

Question of the Day ...

Goes to governor Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Our guest questioner is King Henry VIII:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Update: The Search for Surfing Moses

My two previous blegs (here and here) may be starting to pay off. Ask about anything for long enough and in just the right plaintive tone and the answers start coming.

First off: Proof that I didn't just imagine it at all.

I heard by email today from @Steve-O, who emceed the show I saw Surfing Moses at. It wasn't a "PointFest" after all: It was a "Dare to Care" benefit concert. Steve-O DJed at Channel Z in Springfield Missouri. Best radio channel EVAH, and I listened to it constantly as I commuted 45 minutes each way to work each day. Steve-O is with a Kansas City station now, and also has a MixCloud presence that looks fun.

So anyway, Steve-O sent me a scan of a local newspaper story on the concert. Quote of interest:

Surfing Moses -- Springfield listeners liked this New York group's single "Let's Go Bowling" so much, they made it the victor of Channel Z's "Cage Match Competition" two nights in a row.

Thanks, Steve-O!

I think I may have also tracked down the brains, brawn and beauty behind Surfing Moses. I keep seeing the name "Bret Reilly" associated with the band whenever I can find any references to them at all, and I'm at the point of being pretty sure it's this sculptor. From his bio page:

During his years in New York, Bret also pursued music. He performed more than 200 concerts in NYC clubs and has written and recorded more than 300 songs.

It's my opinion that Reilly's song "Too Much of a Good Thing," from the soundtrack of the film Dumb and Dumber (here's a Youtube grab), bears more than minor stylistic resemblances to my admittedly fragmentary, incomplete and imperfect memories of the Surfing Moses oeuvre both vocally and in the guitar department. Not as raucous, but there's just something going on there I recognize.

So I used his site's contact link to ask Reilly directly if that's him and if he can help me find the recordings in question. Just now, as a matter of fact.

The quest may be nearing its end.
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The Key Keystone Issue

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline don't really bother me, and not just because I'm one of them. Protecting the environment? Blaming the Kochs? Yawn.

It's Keystone supporters who keep catching my attention, because so many of them claim to be "limited government," "free market," "pro-property-rights" types ... and there's just no way to be any of those three things while supporting Keystone. Here's why:

By its own count, the company currently has 34 eminent domain actions against landowners in Texas and an additional 22 in South Dakota. ... A TransCanada spokesman, Shawn Howard .... said the company has tried to obtain voluntary agreements, but when that fails the company has the right to force lease agreements upon landowners in all six states the pipeline would pass through.

If you support Keystone XL, you support using the power of government to steal land from people who don't want to sell it or lease it.

And if you support using the power of government to steal land from people who don't want to sell it or lease it, you are not "limited government," "free market" or "pro-property-rights."

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E-Cigarettes: I See What You Did There, Matt Richtel

In the New York Times:

A dangerous new form of a powerful stimulant is hitting markets nationwide, for sale by the vial, the gallon and even the barrel.

The drug is nicotine, in its potent, liquid form -- extracted from tobacco and tinctured with a cocktail of flavorings, colorings and assorted chemicals to feed the fast-growing electronic cigarette industry.

The math in the article isn't very clear, but I did some quick and dirty calculations based on the density of e-juice (1.04 grams per milliliter if it's propylene glycol based, 1.26 grams per milliliter if it's vegetable glycerine based), the typical concentration of nicotine in "e-juice" (18mg per gram, although it can be bought lower or higher), the purported LD-50 for nicotine (there are competing theories, ranging low as 30-60mg or as high 500-1000mg for an adult human), etc.

The bad news for "it's just a scare tactic" skeptics, assuming my math is right:

At a typical 18mg per gram concentration, a typical personal use vial of "e-juice" would contain somewhere between 187mg and 227mg of nicotine. That's lower than those high-end estimates for LD-50, but much higher than the low-end estimates. So yes, anyone drinking a vial of "e-juice" like a shot of whiskey is almost certainly going to get sick, and might die.

On the other hand, most people keep lots of potentially dangerous stuff -- everything from bleach to aspirin to ammunition -- in their homes. Responsible people keep that dangerous stuff out of the reach of children and/or teach their children to stay away from it, and life goes on with no need for Matt Rachtel to write a scary story about it.

There's a reason for articles like this.

The "big tobacco" version of the e-cigarette is a disposable battery with the "e-juice" (available in two flavors, "tobacco" and "menthol") pre-packed into it. Right now, one of those batteries is somewhat less expensive than the equivalent number (in puffs) of "real cigarettes." Once the regulators get their way and the taxers start taking their rake-off, the price difference will probably be negligible at best.

The rigs that more adventurous "vapers" use come in multiple pieces. My eGo rig, for example, consists of separate battery and "clearomizer." The "clearomizer" is a tank, complete with the wiring that heats up the juice and makes it into breathable vapor.  I can put any flavor or concentration of "e-juice" into the tank, and it's a LOT cheaper than buying "real cigarettes."

The purpose of articles like this, in other words, is to justify driving Big Tobacco's competitors out of business by banning their cheaper, more consumer-friendly products in the name of "public health."

Watch. You'll see.
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Friday, March 21, 2014

About The Coming Clobbering

From The Hill:

President Obama complained Thursday that Democrats "get clobbered" in midterm elections, blaming a "toxic" atmosphere in Washington for suppressing key Democratic constituencies.

Well, no. It's not "Democrats" who get clobbered in midterm elections, its the president's party that gets clobbered in midterm elections.

For example, in 1994 -- the middle of Democrat Bill Clinton's first term -- the Republicans took dual House and Senate majorities away from the Democrats for the first time since the 1950s. And in 2006, the Democrats took both House and Senate back (they also had taken the Senate briefly in 2001, when it was split 50-50 until Vermont US Senator James Jeffords switched from Republican to Independent and caucused with the Democrats). Then in the 2010 midterms, the Republicans took back the House.

Why does the president's party lose seats at midterm?

Well, it's a lot easier to energize the president's party's base when the president is running for re-election. If he's popular at all, he has coattails. His campaign spending is basically a force multplier for his party. At midterms, he's theoretically not running. He's just governing.

And the opposition's base, almost by definition, doesn't like the way he's governing -- so it's a lot easier to energize them.

There are a lot of reasons why the Democrats look set to take a beating this November. ObamaCare is one that comes immediately to mind. Some kind of midterm general structural bias against Democrats isn't one that comes to mind at all, because such a bias is compeletely imaginary.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tonie Nathan, 1923-2014

Theodora "Tonie" Nathan was the first woman -- and the first Jew -- to receive an electoral vote in a US presidential election.

Not Geraldine Ferraro. Not Joe Lieberman. Tonie Nathan.

She was selected as John Hospers' running mate at the Libertarian Party's first national convention in 1972. Virginia Republican elector Roger MacBride -- who later changed his partisan affiliation to Libertarian and was that party's 1976 presidential nominee -- cast his vote for Hospers/Nathan instead of for Nixon/Agnew.

She died  Thursday at the age of 91. Here's a local Oregon story on her life and death.

[cross-posted from Independent Political Report]

Rule 5C, Revised and Extended (and a Related Question, Answered)

In his excellent manual on driving blog traffic, "How to Get a Million Hits on Your Blog in Less than a Year," Robert Stacy McCain includes rule 5C:

Sex sells -- Back when I was blogging to promote Donkey Cons (BUY TWO!), I accidentally discovered something via SiteMeter: Because the subtitle of the book is "Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party," we were getting traffic from people Googling "donkey+sex." You'd be surprised at the keyword combinations that bring traffic to a political blogger who understands this. Human nature being what it is, the lowest common denominator is always there, even if it's sublimated or reverse-projected as puritanical indignation ...

Stacy gets a lot more than a million hits a year these days. How? By taking that lowest common denominator as low as he can get it. Over the course of the last year or so, he's turned The Other McCain into what can really only be accurately categorized as the Internet's top social conservative porn blog.

Teen lesbians. Teacher-student sex. Mother-son incest. Barely legal college porn stars. You name it, Stacy serves it up in SEO-tweaked "no prurient interest here, honey, I'm just keeping up with politics" format.

I stand in awe, and think Stacy deserves recognition for having pioneered this porn genre, even though I got banned from commenting on his site for bringing up substantive issues. I should have known better -- substantive issues don't belong on porn sites, especially porn sites dedicated to an audience that likes to get its fap on while pretending to righteous indignation and moral outrage. The point of porn is, after all, to serve up fantasy ... and this particular niche is no different.

So, why this post, other than to get all those juicy porn keywords into The Goog? Well, Stacy does actually ask an interesting question (at the final link above), and after thinking about it I'm prepared to anecdotally answer that question:

Are "most" 12-year-olds watching porn? Really?

I suspect the answer is "yes," at least as regards 12-year-old boys (I was never a 12-year-old girl, so I can't really speak to their habits).

I turned 12 in November of 1978. At that time there was no Internet for me to "watch porn" on. But I was aware of "girlie magazines" -- Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, et. al -- well before the age of 12, and by the age of 12 I was interested enough in them to look at them when I could find them. Which was more often than you might think, since I knew other 12-year-old boys, some of whom had older brothers, etc. Let's just say that there was a reasonably natural transition from trading baseball cards to trading beaver shots.

There was also cable television. My family didn't have it, but some families did. Our neighbors had it, and their signal was leaky enough that I could pick it up on the garage sale black and white TV that I kept in the corner of my room nearest their house. Showtime in particular had a pretty regular schedule of R-rated "soft porn" late at night.

Of course a few years after that VHS arrived and porn was off and running for home movie viewing.

Now, I am not saying that every 12-year-old boy was a 24-7 porn freak back in the late 1970s. But my perception was that most 12-year-old boys liked looking at pictures of naked women back in the late 1970s.

So, now it's 2014. Have 12-year-old boys changed much? I doubt it.

These days, any 12-year-old boy with access to a computer can easily find porn online, free for the viewing, instead of having to sneak it out of his older brother's or dad's collection or try to convince a convenience store cashier that he's old enough to buy the latest issue of Oui from behind the counter.

At most, he may have to click a button affirming that he's 18 rather than 12.  I suspect most 12-year-old boys are quite comfortable with little white lies of that type.

So yeah, I'm willing to bet that "most" 12-year-olds, or at least most 12-year-old boys, "are watching porn" these days -- at least as much of it, and probably more of it, than 35 years ago. The tech and the format may have changed a lot (as Stacy himself demonstrates), but I doubt that people have changed very much.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Attacking Attack The System

OK, not really. "Attacking" makes for a more controversial headline than "engaging," but the latter term is more accurate.

Why this post? Because one of the few problems with nested-thread commenting systems is that you eventually reach a point where new comments are in columns so thin they can barely accommodate a word per line. And that's what is starting to happen here so I'm moving my replies to KN@PPSTER, and Keith Preston can either follow or not, as is his wont. The Preston comment elements to which I am replying are in block quote:

“While I'd say 3.5% is a little low for actual LGBT folks,”

I'm just going by what the data drawn from the most credible studies on this question show. It's long been claimed, at least since Kinsey, that homosexuals make up ten percent of the population. But more recent and more methodologically sound studies place the figure at about a third that. Maybe the more recent data is wrong, maybe it's not. But that's what it shows.

I am similarly skeptical of Kinsey's claims (or at least of the usual interpretations of his data). But there's a pretty big gap between 3.5% and 10%, and the 3.5% number refers only to "homosexuals," not to bisexuals, trans-sexuals and the "Q" that's recently started appearing at the end of LGBTQ to represent other "queers" of various sorts.

I'm not really trying to belabor this, but I'll restate my premise: You have claimed that one reason it's not smart to focus on e.g. "gay rights" is that it's a small percentage of the population involved. I think the population proper is larger than you think it is AND THEN there's the whole "affected" thing. LGBTQ folks have parents. They have siblings. Some of them have children. They have friends. They have acquaintances. They have co-religionists. They have allies.

So to the extent that you are strategically writing off LGBTQ-related issues based on size of population affected, I'll once again state that I think that the other group which you regard as strategically significant is a much smaller group, both in core group (e.g. I think that actual racial/ethnic "separatists" compose significantly less than 3.5% of the population) and in size of group "affected" (specifically in the US, I think that racial/ethnic separatism has permanently lost most of its actual and potential appeal to those beyond its handful of hardcore activists).

I don’t much care about the state of US politics at present. I orient myself towards where I think things will be 30-40 years from now. By that time the "liberals"” of today will be the ostensible conservatives, and the future liberals will be hard leftists. Imagine an America of 30 years from now where the conservatives are similar to today’s Obama Democrats, and the liberals are like the present day academic left, the US Green Party, or the Scandinavian states. Imagine a regime of this type with control over America's military-industrial complex and police state (which may well be much larger by then). That's the likely future of American government. Meanwhile the economy will continue to go down the tubes, and class polarization will increase. The latter will be brought about through a combination of state policy, overall economic deterioration, and large scale immigration from poor regions.

This explains a lot of our differences. I've already publicly predicted that the existing political system will have collapsed by 30 years from now (in the US, definitely; the cracks also seem to be widening in the "world order" generally, such that I'm comfortable predicting the collapse of the Westphalian nation-state as a global paradigm within the same timeframe).

So while I can see why you might think in terms of what groups to try to cobble together into an alliance to effect revolution at that point, I'm operating on the premise that the revolution is coming regardless of what we do, and coming well before you expect it. Thus I'm thinking in terms of what that post-revolutionary world will look like. And I'm more interested in doing my little part of making that world than in trying to put together "strategic alliances" that I consider neither necessary nor desirable.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Happy Open Borders Day!

Hat Tip to Bryan Caplan for calling my attention to "an international holiday to raise awareness of the single most important policy issue of the modern world."

I haven't closely and carefully read the site dedicated to the proposition ... but it's certainly something I can drink to.

As a side note, though, I'm not sure I agree that it's "the single most important policy issue of the modern world."

The United States, at least, has always had open borders, has really only tried unsuccessfully to pretend otherwise -- at great cost, both economically and with respect to liberty -- for  the last 60 or 70 years, and will never change the situation (with 95,500 miles of border and coastline, "securing the US border" is impossible, even were that the only mission government attended to).

So here, at least, it's already "mission accomplished," and I suspect there are more important things to worry about.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Culture War Contretemps: Et Tu, Brutalist?

Big changes are often terribly disruptive, even among those who favor the changes. For an example, one need look no further than the libertarian movement's struggles to address itself to recent social, legal and political developments on what I'll call, for brevity's sake, "the same-sex marriage front."

Libertarian opinions on that issue run across a fairly narrow range. Some of us want government out of the marriage licensing business entirely (some of us want government out of business, period!). Others are content, at least for the moment, to end government discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in licensing. And hey ... we're getting there much more quickly than anyone would have dared predict a decade ago, aren't we?

Now that we ARE getting there, though, some beneficiaries of the positive change want ... well, more. And some of them are apparently ready and willing to appeal to the same institution which oppressed them for so long to oppress OTHER people into giving them what they want.

I refer, of course, to same-sex couples demanding that the state force bakers, florists and photographers to bake, arrange and take their wedding cakes, flowers and photos, whether those bakers, florists and photographers want to or not.

Libertarianism, as philosopher Roderick Long puts it, is the radical notion that other people aren't your property. You don't get to tell them whom they may or may not marry ... and you don't get to enslave them no matter how badly you want a cake, a bouquet or a pretty 8x10 from them.

That last paragraph, stripped down to its rhetorical essence, is what libertarian writer Jeffrey Tucker characterizes as a "brutalist" exposition: "Bigots have rights too. Get over it."

As a matter of aesthetics, Tucker prefers  a "humanitarian" exposition which accentuates the positive aspects of liberty: The flourishing of people and societies flowing from acceptance of freedom of association, non-association and so forth." Same rule, but a spoonful of sugar, if you will, helps the medicine go down.

In the broad strokes, I agree (although I often and easily fall into "brutalist" mode -- a personal failing of style). Unfortunately some libertarians, in an effort to avoid the ugliness of "brutalist" rhetoric, seem to miss actual brutality in painting their "humanitarian" picture. This failure was obvious in many libertarians' responses to the "religious freedom" bills recently proposed by several state legislatures.

Yes, some of those bills had poison pills in them -- violating the "other people aren't your property" stricture in the other direction by forcing employers to retain rather than fire employees who refused to do this or that "for religious reasons."

And yes, it was fairly obvious that the real purpose, as opposed to the advertised effect, of these bills was to let politicians tell their most prejudiced constituents, with a wink and a nudge, "we're on your side -- remember in November."

And yes, it is always painful to watch people for whose rights you have advocated turn around and demand that they be allowed to violate the rights of others. It makes you want to close your eyes for a few minutes, not notice and hope it goes away.

It is to just this kind of situation that only the "brutalist" response really works: Bigots have rights too. Get over it.

[originally published at the Center for a Stateless Society]

Friday, March 14, 2014

Proposition for Debate

"Race realism" is to racism as "creation science" is to religion -- the same thing, disguised in a lab coat. And while libertarianism requires us to tolerate both, it doesn't require us to pretend that either is anything other than what it is.

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370: A Third Possibility?

The two possibilities most talked about with respect to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370  are (1) catastrophic failure and crash into the ocean, or 2) terrorism.

It's beginning to look more and more like possibility (1) doesn't -- pardon the expression -- hold water. Per NBC News, citing Reuters:

Military radar evidence suggests the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner was deliberately flown west toward the Indian Ocean’s Andaman Islands, sources told Reuters on Friday as mounting evidence pointed to a criminal inquiry into Flight MH370.

Two sources told Reuters that an unidentified aircraft -- believed by investigators to be the missing Boeing 777 -- was following a route between navigational way-points, indicating it was being flown by someone with aviation training when it was last plotted on military radar off the country's northwest coast.

But terrorism doesn't make a lot of sense, either. Given that the destroyed plane was going to disappear into a large body of water, possibly not to be found for years, terrorists would presumably have either radioed in about what they were doing, or else had someone on the ground prepped to claim responsibility early enough to be convincing (like about the time the pilot stopped communicating by radio). The point of terrorism is to incite terror, after all. Not terror of accidental crash, but terror of hijacking and murder. If that's what was going on here, the terrorists didn't do a very good job.

The third possibility that I haven't heard mentioned anywhere is: Theft.

A Boeing 777 goes for $250-300 million dollars new.

For obvious reasons, it seems like it would be difficult to sell the thing whole, but maybe someone figured they could knock down a few million by selling parts to airlines under the table? Land the plane in the equivalent of a stolen car chop shop, kill the passengers and make bank.

Or ... perhaps theft pursuant to terrorism. Maybe a week or a month from now, the airplane will appear somewhere unexpected, in the guise of another scheduled flight, and swoop in to knock down a building.

Yeah, it seems far out. But the whole thing is getting pretty far out, isn't it?

My First Election 2014 Prediction

Scott Brown appears to be ready to jump into the race for US Senate from New Hampshire.

If he does, he will probably win the Republican primary, but he'll get whipped like a red-headed stepchild in November by incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

Here's why:

  • Brown couldn't hold on to a Senate seat from Massachusetts, so he's shopping for one from New Hampshire. Nobody likes sloppy seconds. Especially "independents."
  • He won't get the GOP base out. After his first debacle of a partial term, his picture appears next to "RINO" in the acronym dictionary. The only Republicans who are really excited about Brown are the navel-gazing psycho wonks who thought John McCain and Mitt Romney were surefire winners. He can probably win the primary on name recognition and low turnout, but the general is a whole different story.
  • And he won't play well with Democrats because well, they've already got one holding down that seat.
If Brown runs, New Hampshire is a D-hold in November.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

FL 13 After-Thoughts

I didn't make a prediction -- publicly or privately -- as to who would win the special US House election in Florida's 13th district today. I did, however, make some comments elsewhere on the importance, or lack thereof, of the election to November's outcomes. Here's the substance of those comments.

This election is far more important for the Democrats than for the Republicans.

The president's party generally loses seats in mid-term elections, and that's the rational expectation for this year. Barack Obama is not an especially popular president at the moment.

Florida 13 was the Democrats' chance to generate some momentum against that rational expectation by picking up an open seat that's been cradling a GOP butt for 40 years.

I won't say that such a pickup looked easy for the Democrats, but it certainly looked doable for the Democrats. Their candidate was Alex Sink -- well-known and relatively popular former state CFO and gubernatorial candidate. The district voted for Obama (by small margins, but for Obama) in 2008 and 2012. That seat was Republican by virtue of the strengths of long-term incumbency more than anything else. Then the incumbent died.

The Republicans ran relatively unknown lobbyist David Jolly. Yes, they made a race of it. Yes, they spent money on it. But had they lost, it wouldn't have been the end of the world, for the reasons listed in the previous paragraph. Their main goal seems to have been to use the race as a test lab for attacking Democrats on ObamaCare.

With 100% of precincts reporting, Jolly seems to have won with a "no automatic recount" margin of 1.9%, 48.5% to 46.6%. Libertarian Party candidate Lucas Overby racked up an eminently respectable 4.8%.

For Republicans, that's a pretty good outing, although not a really big deal.

For Democrats, it would seem to augur a rout in November. There's a very good chance they will lose their US Senate majority. Odds-makers, take note.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Instead of a Review ...

... let's call this a recommendation. By way of disclosure, I received no payment of any kind for this recommendation, and even turned down an offer of links to pirated e-versions (said offer from the author himself) in favor of buying the books I'm about to recommend. In making the foregoing statement, I'm assuming (safely, I think) that the author's friendship, which I highly value, has never been conditional on receipt of a positive review or recommendation.

So: I highly recommend Conspiracies of Rome (which I have read) and The Terror of Constantinople (which I am now reading) by Richard Blake. I strongly suspect that said recommendation will extend to The Blood of Alexandria and The Sword of Damascus, which I haven't yet read but intend to as soon as possible.

Richard Blake is a pseudonym for Sean Gabb, whom you likely know as the public face of the United Kingdom's Libertarian Alliance. For this reason, I should probably get one likely pre-conception out of the way: These novels are not "libertarian novels."

To be a little more specific and walk that back just a tiny bit, they are not didactic texts or ideological rants disguised as story of the type often associated with with the idea of "libertarian novels." They certainly embody values I've come to associate with Sean's non-fiction forays: Love of England and of "western civilization," an Epicurean sensibility, etc.

But -- and this is intended as compliment, not criticism -- story comes first, last and always in the Blake novels. If you're looking for Ayn Rand Does The 7th Century AD, don't bother. Or at least don't blame me for pointing you in Blake's direction. The novels are intellectually rewarding, but they need to be read as novels.

Both the first and second novels are written in first person, past tense: The adventures of one young Aelric, set in the early 7th Century and as recalled by a very elderly Aelric in the late 7th Century. And, as the titles suggest, two background plot points loom large:

  • The decline and decay of the Roman Empire; and
  • The coalescence of the Holy Roman Catholic Church

Aelric, a dispossessed young English nobleman now employed by the Church, offends a local king  and is forced to flee England (in the company of the priest Maximin) to do penance in Rome. That penance turns out to be, in brief, supervising the copying and shipment back to England of important books (the Church's goal being to Christianize England, Aelric's being to save knowledge for eventual re-dissemination to Europe to re-kindle its dying intellectual flame).

Were it that simple, we'd still have a fine yarn. But it quickly becomes more complicated, turning into a roaring good murder mystery and political thriller. If I have any complaint at all, it's that some of the "murder mystery" elements are more appropriate to 19th century "scientific detection" story-telling than to the Dark Ages. But I frankly found those elements to be a pretty good anchor in a strange environment. Gabb ... er, Blake ... tells me that the later novels stick more to the "political thriller" genre, letting the detective stuff fall by the wayside.

Now, about that environment: To me, the strongest writing point in the Aelric novels is a sense of verisimilitude. I've never lived in 7th Century Rome or Constantinople, of course, but Blake brings them to life. That's no small feat. One of my problems with modern literary and theatrical or film depictions of the first, say, 15 centuries A.D. is that they almost always feel like ... well ... depictions. The Aelric novels come across as the actual memoirs of a real person, experiencing real events in places that really existed.

Side note: One element of that verisimilitude is historical accuracy. For about the first 50 pages of Conspiracies of Rome, I found myself running to Wikipedia every few minutes to see if I had caught Blake in anachronism or error. No dice. Every time I checked, things checked out. I can't guarantee perfection on those fronts, but I can say that I quickly got too caught up in the story to keep worrying about such things.

I think you will be similarly captivated by these books, if you allow yourself the pleasure. So do that.

Friday, March 07, 2014

One of Those Rare Occasions ...

... I actually agree with something I read at Salon. Quoth Andrew Leonard therein:

Exposing [Bitcoin creator Satoshi] Nakamoto's identity is the very definition of "news."

Now, I'm not assuming that Leah McGrath Goodman, of Newsweek, got the right Nakamoto (the person she identifies says he isn't that guy).

Nor do I know what all Goodman did to obtain the information she thinks she obtained. If she broke into Nakamoto's house, stole and rifled through his briefcase, that kind of thing, then she violated his rights ... not by knowing that he is who she says he is, but by doing those specific things.

But if she got her facts right, and if she did so without violating any of Nakamoto's real rights in the process ... well, there's no such thing as a "right to demand that people not know who you are or what you did."

The claim of a right to privacy -- a right to demand that people not know something (or share what they know) -- is an "intellectual property" claim. And like all "intellectual property" claims, it's Grade A Horseapples.

Now, just to be clear: I don't agree with Leonard on anything else in the article. I don't believe for a minute that the outing of Satoshi Nakamoto, even if it turns out to be true and accurate, kills Bitcoin. And it sure as hell doesn't kill cryptocurrency as such. Someone's living in a fantasy world. But that someone is Andrew Leonard, not libertarians.
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Why Libertarians shouldn't use "The Currency of The Greater Fool" (BitCoin)

Guest Post by Neal Reynolds

[Note from KN@PPSTER: Yes, I am a Bitcoin supporter -- maybe even a bit of a Bitcoin evangelist. I disagree with Neal, in conclusion and in certain details, as I'll make clear in comments or a rebuttal piece. In the meantime, enjoy and feel free to debate as well!]

Despite how much the BitCoin system has been in the news lately, the two vital reasons for libertarians to avoid using it have gotten very little (if any) mention.

First, unless libertarians divest immediately, when the almost inevitable BitCoin system collapse happens libertarians will be the main group to be blamed, doing significant damage to our cause. Second, even if the BitCoin system doesn't collapse, it almost certainly wouldn't exist in the first place if we had a more libertarian society.

The first step to understanding all this is to realize that, despite what some advocates say, BitCoins do NOT have any value just because the math required to "mine" them took a lot of computer time and some electricity.

Consider this analogy: Say a currency system was proposed whereby people earn "HoleCoins" by digging a big hole in their back yard, taking a digital picture of it (a picture that incorporates the precise GPS location of the hole), then filling it back in.

Do you really think others would be willing to pay the digger for that unique "HoleCoin" (GPS coordinate number), just because it took a lot of effort to dig that hole and fill it back in? Of course not! Just because something took a lot of effort doesn't mean it has value.

Alas when such "make work" is shrouded in computers and math people are much more easily fooled. For virtually all the work done in finding a BitCoin is not real work (such as processing and validating transactions, which for today's computers is fairly trivial), but "make work" made artificially difficult for no other reason than to make BitCoins take a long time to calculate ("mine").

Specifically, the protocol requires doing the validation of the most recent block of transactions over and over again until the result ("the hash") conforms to an arbitrary (and rare) pattern. The hash value is different each time because the block contains an arbitrary extra data value (the "nonce"), which is changed to a different random value before each block validation iteration.

For instance, to give a very simplified example, say you had to keep multiplying eleven large numbers together (ten unchanging real data values and one arbitrary one changed at random) until the digits of the answer met a certain pattern. Such as, say, the third digit was a seven, the eighth digit was a 3, and the tenth digit was a five.

Clearly this would take a lot of computing time, but in the end (perhaps after a thousand iterations) you don't have anything more of value than you did after the first iteration. The rest of the computation is simply to waste computer time (and therefore, green folk, electricity), because computers are so fast these days and the first computer in the BitCoin network to find the "nonce" value that results in a hash conforming to the designated arbitrary pattern is awarded twenty-five credits ("BitCoins").

(By the way the real BitCoin algorithm is far more complicated than the above example, enough to make it impossible to "reverse engineer" the "nonce" value or speed up the process by storing temporary values from one iteration to the next.)

Now, if you're lucky enough to be talking to one of the few BitCoin advocates who understands all this (and heaven help you if you're talking to one of those people who insists that BitCoins have value because "they're backed by math, man!"), he or she will likely insist the fact that BitCoins lack any intrinsic value doesn't matter as people can place value on anything they want to and, further, anything that two or more people place value on can be used as currency.

Which, as far as it goes, is true. However, never before in history have humans voluntarily and widely used for currency something which has absolutely no intrinsic value to anybody. But that is what Bitcoin users are doing, for if the system goes away then those BitCoins have absolutely no value. It's not like you can say, "well, I had five hundred dollars worth of BitCoin in my wallet yesterday and now that the system is going out of business I want my five hundred dollars back." To use an old saying, there is no "there" there!

Contrast this with metals, grains, lumber, and so forth which have intrinsic value beyond their use as currency. In fact, contrast BitCoin with Paypal! If it had to go out of business for some reason, users would likely be able to get back all or most of the money in their accounts. Why? Because dollars have value outside of the paypal system! This fundamental difference between Paypal and Bitcoin is something that can't be emphasized enough, and yet my impression is that most BitCoin users haven't thought much about it.

Furthermore, until we went off the gold standard even dollar bills could have been exchanged for a certain weight of gold if everyone decided to stop using dollars.

(And even now, to figure out the approximate intrinsic value of a dollar bill all you have to do is figure out how much the supply of money has been inflated since we went off the gold standard (I'm guessing there's at least ten times as much) and divide the value of a dollar (in gold) the day before it went off the gold standard by that factor.)

But BitCoins have no such intrinsic value. So why are so many people using them? I submit it's a variation on the familiar "Greater Fool" theory. That is, some people will buy stocks (or real estate) for far more than their intrinsic value because they think someone else (the "Greater Fool") will buy it from him or her later for even more. Of course bubbles never last forever, and when they collapse not only are fools hurt, often (sometimes due to government intervention) others are as well.

In the case of BitCoin probably the most likely way for the bubble to burst would be for some enterprising hacker to discover a way to breach the privacy protections and publicly post the transaction histories of random users on the internet where everyone can see them... no matter how personal, embarrassing, or legally problematic the purchases (and/or sales) may have been. And once people start leaving the BitCoin system in droves the value of the BitCoins will plummet from fifty dollars (or whatever it is currently) to near their intrinsic value: zero. Meaning a lot of people will lose a lot of money.

Why do I care so much, even though I've never used BitCoin? Because society at large, especially "progressive" democrats and independents, heavily associate libertarians with BitCoin. (And alas, from what I've observed, rightfully so.) So when the BitCoin bubble bursts it won't be the Establishment Party that is blamed, but libertarians... costing us significant harm in the eyes of independents who were leaning libertarian.

I think there is still time for libertarians to distance themselves from BitCoin. (I am not optimistic they will, however, based on all of the BitCoin ads I see on libertarian and semi-libertarian web sites.)

Now I know many BitCoin advocates will point to all of the great features (including the latest proposed enhancements) that protect a person's privacy. Especially the fact that the network doesn't store a person's name or address, just the address of their "wallet" (of which any given user may have several for extra protection if they want to go to the trouble).

But having been a computer programmer for over twenty years I just don't believe that any system can be secure when every single transaction ever done exists on the database forever, and that database exists on every computer in the network, and (worst of all) that database can be accessed by any new computer that claims it wants to be in the network (in order to "mine" for the remaining BitCoins).

Especially since there is tremendous incentive for a group of hackers to breach the system! Why? Because (if I understand correctly) derivative markets in BitCoins are springing up more and more, whereby one can buy options (like with stocks) to buy and sell BitCoins in the future at a set price. Meaning that if you know the perceived value of BitCoins are going go way down you can make a lot of money.

As far as I know, there is nothing to prevent someone from coming up with software that will trace the entire transaction history of a BitCoin user's address ("wallet") and then (using other publicly available sources and statistical methods) figure out from this "meta data" who that address belongs to.

(One way someone might find out a wallet owner's true name and address would be by simply sending them a free [or discount] coupon for something which, if used, reveals the owner's name and address. Another way is of course malware on their PCs or Smartphones (perhaps embedded in the latest cool game).

Or simply, as in old fashioned detective movies, "tailing" a person when they make a purchase in a physical store. If you know the date and time [to within a few seconds] and location of the transaction and who made it, I think you are a long way to figuring out that person’s wallet number. If that’s not enough, get behind him in line and purchase the same item. (And if that isn't enough, return the item the next day when a different cashier is on duty and ask for a refund, giving the other person's name and see if they will credit your [his] wallet with the refund even though you "forgot" it.)

Has any BitCoin advocate out there actually used this example (you know everything about the transaction except the wallet address because you bought the same item(s) right behind a person of known identity) and proven that, even with advanced mathematics and computers, it isn't possible for a group of brilliant hackers to figure out the wallet address? (And therefore all previous purchases using by that person using that used that same wallet?)

Don't get me wrong: I am a proponent of alternative currencies. But each piece of paper should have some intrinsic value, whether in terms of gold (or something else tangible and valuable to virtually everyone) or a unit (such as an hour) of a person's time.

After all, that's all money ultimately is: A means to exchange our time with each other. (Or possessions, but for the most part we acquired the possessions in the first place with our labor/time.)

I think alternative currencies are best used locally, and as far as the larger picture goes the best thing to do is spend one's energy trying to get rid of The Fed (and making it illegal for the government to increase the money supply any further). I think if that was done the rest will pretty much take care of itself.

(At least, it will if we have a libertarian society in general; after all, dollars [in either cash or electronic form] can be an acceptable means of exchange in most circumstances so long as the government can't artificially inflate [or deflate] the supply.)

I still maintain that the real purpose of BitCoin was (or has become) to enable large-scale speculators to make money off of it at the expense of all of the "little people" who are basically using it for fun. Which brings me to why, even if I knew that BitCoin was completely private and secure, I still wouldn't use it: it relies on the fact that we don't have a free-market!

Virtually nobody would put up with the wildly fluctuating, zero-intrinsic value BitCoin system if crypto-currencies backed by gold (or even dollars) were available, but our oppressive government has made it clear (as the people behind e-gold and Liberty Dollars and others have learned the hard way) won't permit that.

(Heck, most people probably wouldn't use BitCoin even if all that was different was the Fed was abolished, preventing the government from constantly manipulating the effective number of dollars in circulation.)

So, ironically enough, the very fact that the BitCoin system is based on "The Greater Fool", rather than something of intrinsic value, is probably what is keeping everyone who owns a computer in the BitCoin network (or at least a sampling of them) out of jail.

Now I realize that for some users the benefits of BitCoin outweigh the risks. But I think for most users it doesn't; it’s just that they've been so bamboozled by borderline fraudulent statements by some advocates ("BitCoins have value because they took computer power and electricity to mine them"; "it's backed by math!") that they think it is a far better deal (less risky) than it really is.

But even if we rule out outright fraud on the part of BitCoin advocates (since the system is admittedly pretty technical and prone to misunderstanding by non-programmers), I decided long ago that I (unlike many libertarians) was not going to take advantage of government oppression to make money. (In fact, I've written and posted essays explaining in detail how I won't even go to casinos because most of their profit is derived from the fact that gambling is illegal in 99% of the country.)

And, just like libertarians who make a lot of money defending drug dealers don't have much incentive to get drugs legalized, those who make money from BitCoin (or hold millions of dollars of it) actually have a large disincentive against doing things in their daily life that will bring about a more libertarian society (that has better alternatives to BitCoin).

(But they do not deserve all the blame. I've long felt that one of the reasons we haven't made more progress towards a libertarian society is because so many libertarians actually make their living off of government oppression. Obvious examples are most lawyers (especially tax, drug, and patent, no matter which side of the aisle you are on), electronic and software engineers whose high pay is partially a result of their companies use of abusive patent law, and science geeks whose funding comes from NSF grants. But there are even less obvious examples, such as Certified Public Accountants [to the extent that a significant portion of the demand for CPAs is due to the demands of the government, not intrinsic business needs].)

Finally, if you’re still not convinced that you shouldn't be using BitCoin I highly recommend reading the following links (most are are fairly short and easy to understand). Even though the organization that wrote most of them (Coindesk) loves BitCoin, I maintain that the information they provide actually supports most of my points.

(And I especially like how they admit that at this point the probability of anyone with just a PC ever mining a BitCoin again is almost nil since most miners are now using high-speed hardware add-ons to make the calculations faster. And if you buy advanced hardware to put in your PC you still probably won't mine more than what you need to cover the cost of the hardware. So forget your fantasies about making money mining BitCoins; that time has apparently passed.)


Thursday, March 06, 2014

Polis FTW!

How often do you hear me say anything nice about a politician? Well, this:

Congressman Jared Polis is calling on the Treasury to ban physical dollars in response to Senator Manchin's plea to ban Bitcoin. "The exchange of dollar bills, including high denomination bills, is currently unregulated and has allowed users to participate in illicit activity, while also being highly subject to forgery, theft, and loss," wrote Polis in a statement.

To be sure, the Congressman is being cheeky. "This is just a satirical version of Senator Manchin's letter, meant to draw attention to the fact that BitCoins are not any more susceptible to the problems that the Senator points out than dollars," said Spokesperson Scott Overland.

Oh snap and so forth.
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Captain Obvious, Your Office is Calling

I've seen quite a few different takes on the situations in Ukraine/Crimea as the situation develops.

Lots of people seem to be trying to figure out which side is "the good guys."

News flash: There are no "good guys," at least at the level of states, armies, etc.

I'm sure there are some individual "good guys" trying to figure out what the right thing is and do that thing, but to the extent that these affairs are affairs of states, there's no "right side" to be on. It's just a gangland dust-up, no different in principle than the Crips and Bloods arguing over who rules south central LA.

The "Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler" thing is kind of tiresome and boring. So is the "Vladimir Putin as the second coming of Christ" thing. And especially annoying is the absurd claim that Barack Obama and John McCain are Putin's moral superiors.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Brief Note on Value

Q: What makes something valuable?
A: The fact that people value it.

I'm writing this apropos of an email discussion I had with a friend yesterday who remains skeptical about Bitcoin (hopefully you'll be seeing an article from him soon on why he's skeptical).

His point, as you can probably figure out without me saying so, is that Bitcoin is not backed by any physical commodity. His original phrasing of that point, which he may have changed in a subsequent draft of the article, is that Bitcoin is not "intrinsically valuable" while gold is.

His point, of course, is correct. That phraseology, however, is not.

Gold has long been considered valuable by many, perhaps most, people -- and for good reason. It is useful (and has become more so rather than less so over the centuries, because of its electrical conductive properties and so forth), it is scarce, it is fairly easily purified and broken down into uniform small quantities, making it a reliable medium of exchange, etc.

But gold's value is not "intrinsic." It's still subjective. You may consider a given quantity of gold more or less valuable than I do. Sure, there are large marketplaces that generate theoretical average valuations, but the only way to really tell how much each of us values any given amount of gold is to find out what we will trade for it, or trade it for.

Bitcoin is valued by at least some people as well. Whether or not their reasons for valuing it -- because it facilitates digital commerce with low transaction costs, because they think they can profit by speculating on its price fluctuations, because they think it will usher in an era of inability of the state to tax or regulate, etc. -- are good or wise or rational reasons is a separate question from whether or not they do value it. They do. That's just a fact.

And if people value something, it's valuable. That's just a fact too.
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Tuesday, March 04, 2014

File Under "Trying to Have it Both Ways"

Cinderella story:

[A]ttended San Jacinto College but dropped out because he suffered from what he called "partying syndrome." When he was a teenager police officers allegedly found valium in his possession after a girlfriend allegedly hid the substance in his clothes. He was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance, but the charge was later dropped. He was homeless for a time. He later turned around his life and became a born-again Christian. In 1990, he earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. He worked as a computer salesman in Friendswood, Texas.

After which Steve Stockman got elected to Congress for one term, lost his seat in a redistricting-forced runoff, did a bunch of things (including caring for his sick father), and was elected to Congress again in 2012.

Pretty good stuff. It's the kind of story that makes a politician look like more than just a prettyface moneybags. He's been places. Done things. Been down and out and climbed back up.

Now he's running in the GOP primary to unseat US Senator John Cornyn, and he doesn't want you to see this:

... so much so that he claims "grounds to file criminal complaints" against anyone who shows it to you.

Bad call, Steve. You're a public figure. It's a public record. You'd be a lot smarter rolling with the "Cinderella story" angle than running for office as Vexatious Litigation Troll.

[more at memeorandum]

Sunday, March 02, 2014

The Dark Side of Chrome

Yes, I am a Chrome and ChromeOS cheerleader. Maybe even a bit of an evangelist. You hardly ever see me complaining about any aspect of the browser or the OS framework. But all is not well in Chromeland. Here are two complaints -- one minor in immediate effect, but both major in long-term implication:

  1. In the beginning, when you opened a new tab in Chrome, it was beautiful -- you could do anything you wanted in the new tab, but by way of assistance you saw some tiles representing frequently opened sites, and at the bottom drop-down lists of "recently closed tabs" and other things. Marvelous. Worked like a charm. Absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever to complain about. Then Google yanked that format and made the new tab much less useful ... but with just a tiny bit of work, you could revert to the better setup. And apparently lots of people did. So last week, Google made it impossible to do that, forcing all users to move to the much uglier, much less useful new setup. You can partially undo the damage by adding some extensions, but it's just not the same.
  2. Now I'm hearing that the new Chrome beta (which I haven't seen yet -- I'm on the stable build channel, and apparently this is Windows-only at the moment anyway) restricts users to apps available from the Chrome store.
The first item is an annoyance, but points to Google having a penchant for exerting undue control over the user experience.

The second item puts Google in the same league as Apple with its "walled garden" approach of trying to tell users, in very fine-grained detail, what they can and can't do with their machines.

I was kind of amped up for the new Asus Chromebox coming out this month. Now I think I'm going to wait on that, because if things keep going in the direction they appear to be going, I'll be abandoning Chrome. And while I can certainly root my Chromebox and Chromebook and turn them into (fairly light) Linux boxes, my next piece of hardware won't be one of those kinds of units.

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Government Secrecy: Another Kind

Usually when we talk about government secrecy, the topic is something like the US war crimes exposed by Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, the NSA's illegal surveillance programs exposed by Edward Snowden, etc.

It just occurred to me that there's another form of unjustifiable government secrecy. Here's an instance of someone being sanctioned for violating it:

Usually, the worst an ill-advised Facebook post can do is embarrass you (assuming you haven't committed a crime). But recent prep school grad Dana Snay cost her father $80,000 when she made the mistake of talking about her dad's wrongful termination settlement with Gulliver Preparatory School, the Miami Herald reports.

Patrick Snay, 69, had sued the school for age discrimination and won $10,000 in back wages plus an $80,000 settlement. But there was one little condition: Snay had to keep the deal secret.

Now, I'm not a lawyer and I could be wrong, but if I'm not mistaken, civil "settlements" work like this:

  • Party A sues Party B. The suit is filed with, and litigated in, a government court.
  • Party B proposes to Party A that the suit can be settled without going all the way through the trial process. Party A agrees to Party B's settlement offer, or they negotiate until they do reach agreement.
  • The government court approves or rejects the settlement.
I don't see how a secrecy requirement vis a vis such a settlement could be legitimate. The taxpayers paid for the infrastructure in which the proceedings took place. The taxpayers paid the judge's salary. How can the taxpayers not have a right to know anything and everything about the litigation -- including settlement terms?

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Looks Like We May Be About to Find Out ...

... whether Barack Obama is as good at this president stuff as George W. Bush was.

In 2008, Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his troops to invade South Ossetia, where they promptly got their asses handed to them by the Russians. It was a pretty tense time, but Bush handled it masterfully, having his various minions make conflicting statements that pretty much added up to nothing. Even with his own party's senile, crabby old Uncle John and his  assistant (the one who could see Russia from her house) trying to raise the war flag as an election issue, he managed to defuse things and avoid sub-optimum outcomes like, oh, global nuclear holocaust and stuff.

So: Does Obama have the right stuff -- the political/diplomatic chops to let himself be walked back off the ledge he's ever so gingerly been tip-toeing out onto (with McCain and Palin once again behind him, pushing for all they're worth)?

I guess we'll see. Might want to practice the ol' "duck and cover" routine just in case.

They Must Have Taken a Wrong Turn at Albuquerque ...

... because Seattle, Washington's city council is quite obviously very, very lost.

On Thursday, the council voted to "regulate the number of drivers that companies like UberX, SideCar and Lyft have active on their systems at any given time."

But Uber, SideCar and Lyft aren't located in Seattle, Washington. They're all located in San Francisco, California.

It's one thing for the city council to try to regulate the number of drivers offering rides in Seattle by regulating those drivers. That's a stump-stupid idea, but at least they can make a plausible (to supporters of political government, anyway) argument that they have the power/jurisdiction to do that.

The power to regulate what a company two states away may or may not display on its web site or communicate to its users/members in Seattle ("Fare waiting at 1100 Olive Way")? Um, no. Not a chance.

Hopefully some local Seattle companies will weigh in with common sense here and prevail upon the council to re-think (actually, think for the first time about) this. If this idiocy is allowed to proceed, it won't be long before some city council in Utah tries to tell I Can Has Cheezburger that it can only serve up 100 LOLCats an hour there.