Election 2012: Choosing the lesser of two evils

Political campaign ads have become all the more common on the Internet in light of the upcoming Presidential election this November. Up until now, I had paid little attention to them, as I consider Romney to be the more favorable candidate (he is less friendly to Big Government than Obama is), but now, for those interested in preserving liberty, the presidential and congressional elections must be carefully balanced in order to prevent some dastardly legislative plans that each party has in store.

Obamacare on the left, cyber-tyranny on the right

The Democrats’ “Affordable Care Act” is a ticking time bomb waiting to  make costs and prices skyrocket with its mandate that all Americans purchase health insurance, and since we can’t rely on the Supreme Court to actually uphold the Constitution, it will take a repeal by a Republican Congress to prevent the ACA from being implemented.

If Romney is elected this November, a slight majority of Republicans in both houses of Congress will probably be enough to send Obamacare packing, but if Obama wins the election, however, anything less than a 2/3 Republican majority in both houses of Congress will not be able to stop the ACA before it is implemented.

Unfortunately, such a significant majority of Republicans in Congress, with or without a President of the same party, is not particularly appealing. The Republican Party has been more supportive of the draconian stream of cyber-“security” legislation which threatens to give the government unprecedented access to our data and unreasonable authority to deliver felony sentences for minor copyright infractions, and with the right number of legislators, it could turn such dangerous measures into law.

To be fair, Republicans aren’t the only ones supporting measures that would essentially destroy our freedom on the Internet, and since SOPA and PIPA were never put to a vote, we can’t assume that the majority of Republicans in Congress inexorably supported them, but as the opponents of CISPA (a bill that, while less potent than SOPA, is nonetheless undesirable) in the House of Representatives were predominantly on the left side of the aisle, it would be safe to guess that the Democratic Party is more likely to guard the Internet than the GOP.

The dilemma

No matter how the elections turn out this November, both CISPA-esque measures and Obamacare could end up going through. No action, in any area of life, produces an inevitable result, and thus, it behooves us to balance the possible consequences of any electoral outcome.

It seems to me that a very thin Republican majority (perhaps 52-48) in both houses of Congress, as well as a Romney Presidency, will result in a likely repeal of Obamacare without a likely pass of CISPA, as it will allow both parties to counteract one another’s dangerous ambitions. The liberty that lies at the foundation of the US Constitution was produced by compromises that prevented groups of people from exercising their whim when it grew inimical to the public, and that is the way we must progress in the future in order to prevent the death of the freedoms we hold dear.


Satan: The Evil Within

Nearly all of us are familiar with the concept of Satan, the personification of pure evil. He tempts his victims with the promise of granting them their hopes and dreams, only to pull them into his inferno when they have no way to escape. The Christians like to think of Satan as a red, horned, goat-legged monster (probably in order to make him easier to identify), but in reality, the devil is never so easy to identify. The devil is not a charging mass of soldiers, he will never admit that he bears any ill intentions towards you. He is not HIV, for the only way that he may wreak havoc upon you is by your own consent. As the master of deception, his job is to make you greet him with open, unwitting arms.

Now, the concept of Satan need not be taken literally in order to be potent; I follow no religion and don’t believe the devil is a physical being or even an outside force, but despite my descriptions of him as a largely symbolic being, he is nonetheless very real.

Where is this devil? He manifests himself in our behavior, tempting us to engage in dangerous behavior ranging from procrastination in the face of an ultimate deadline to falling for the tricks of politicians who promise to bring you security by removing restrictions on their power to kill or otherwise coerce you whenever they want. If you gauge his intentions by the smile he wears on his face, then you will fall for him, as he only ceases to smile when he knows that you have no escape from his wrath.

As the danger posed by this force is very real, we must also realize that since our devil is not an external force like the wind or the rain, the key to defeating him is within our own minds. As he can only attack you when you allow him to, you must be able to see past his illusions through the lens of truth. Stand firmly by your goals, your dreams, and your respect for the rights of others, and so long as you do so, he will not be able to open up your door. To do so is by no means easy (and I do not claim, in any way, to be perfect in this regard); he will knock ceaselessly and implore you to let him in, but if you believe strongly enough in what is right, the devil will lose in the end.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of warding off deadly desires within, resisting the will of people who have already succumbed to those temptations is even more complex. You can’t so easily bend the will of a dictator who is intent on killing you, but we can prevent such ugly weeds from growing on humanity by encouraging others to live a moral live and inform them of the dangers they will surely face. If ignorance is the first step towards defeat, then knowledge is the first step towards freedom.

Looking back at what I’ve just said, this post may seem like some sort of secular sermon. Indeed, religious principles operate on a common level with nonreligious principles, and as there are variations of ideas such as the Golden Rule in both Eastern and Western philosophy, we can identify certain morals as basic to our humanity. Killing, stealing, and enslaving are basic wrongs that nearly all of us can identify, and these are some of the principles by which all of us can live a moral life.

2012: Four cheers for liberty

The year 2012 isn’t even halfway over, and already, among all of the civilian-killing drone strikes abroad and bills in Congress intended to gang-rape the Constitution, there have been at least a few people who have decided to bite back, and in doing so, have made great strides in defending the freedom of the people. They have blocked free-speech-stifling cybersecurity measures, punched the teeth out of gluttonous public unions, and told the legislative and executive branches to sit down, shut up, and read the Constitution. They are:

The people of the Internet

Since November 16, 2011 when news of two putative cybersecurity bills called SOPA and PIPA, bills that would permit the government to take down entire websites for single instances of copyright law violations, leaked out, the Internet took action. Senator Ron Wyden (D – OR) vigorously campaigned against the bill both on-and-offline, the owners of prominent websites such as Google, Yahoo, and Wikipedia countered the support of companies like Netflix for the bill with anti-SOPA campaigns, and millions of Internet users all across America protested and called their Congressmen until both bills were taken off the discussion table.

It was heartening to see the American people joining together in defense of their freedom, and although the “cybersecurity” advocates in Congress will continue their onslaught against Internet freedom with bills like CISPA, the Internet will continue to fight against them.

The Supreme Court

In 2004, the FBI tracked a man named Antoine Jones for 4 weeks via a GPS device planted under his car under suspicion that he was committing narcotics violations. The government obtained no warrant for the search, in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for such searches, and when Jones was arrested, he moved to suppress the evidence obtained under that search as pursuant to his Fourth Amendment rights.

Jones’s case went to the Supreme Court, and on January 23, 2012, the court unanimously ruled against the warrantless search of private vehicles. The government has, in past years, been trying to get its slippery hands around the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement for searches, and with the US v. Jones ruling, combined with the earlier rulings of Bond v. United States (2000) and Kyllo v. United States (2001), it seems that this Supreme Court is very much in favor of protecting the 4th Amendment.

Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) and the people of Wisconsin

Public sector unions are a menace to the American people. They spend exorbitant amounts of money on increasing the wages of their members without having them work for it (public union members have a 31% advantage in wages over non-union members), and they campaign to elect politicians who will increase their funding, since they work for the government (they spend upwards of $165 million on campaign funding). All of that money comes from the taxpayer, and since these workers are receiving raises for free, the taxpayer receives no benefit whatsoever.

However, when Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin attempted to remedy this situation by pushing a bill to strip public unions of their power to collectively bargain for more money, he was met by fierce opposition. The unions themselves, predictably, would not let their free money be taken away from them without a fight, and many ordinary voters took their side as well.

An election to recall Walker was held, but the unions lost out on this one. Governor Walker is there to stay in Wisconsin, and with public unions stripped of much of their power, public education will surely increase in quality there, as teachers will now have to actually teach better in order to get wages (those teachers must be fuming in their indignation). This may very well have a ripple effect in other states, and I can only hope that these money-burning unions will grow weaker and weaker as other states will take the same measures that Walker did.

Judge Katherine Forrest

On December 31, 2011, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for the year 2012 (NDAA), which contained a provision authorizing the indefinite military detention of any person, American citizen or not, who is suspected of being a terrorist. If you’re familiar with what happens when governments are given more and more unrestrained power (Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin are great examples), then you were probably scared of what havoc the government could wreak with this law in place.

Fortunately, NDAA was given a satisfying kick in the crotch by District Judge Katherine Forrest, who declared the indefinite detention clauses of the act to be unconstitutional under the 4th and 5th Amendments. By filing an injunction against the act, Forrest has nullified it, and when the Obama administration claimed that it will apply the ruling only to the kinds of journalists who started the case (the same Obama administration that claimed to oppose indefinite detention), Judge Forrest announced that the ruling applies broadly, to all American citizens.

Is the NDAA case over? Certainly not. The Obama administration will certainly cling to the opportunity for draconian powers as long as it can, so expect the NDAA case to end up in the Supreme Court soon (which, I’m sure, will uphold Forrest’s ruling), but this ruling was a great first step and a stellar defense of the 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution.

The forecast for liberty

The fight for liberty will likely always be a rocky one, and it will certainly be rocky this year, as governments tend to favor maximizing their own power, but liberty will always have allies so long as people like Wyden, Forrest, Walker, and the Supreme Court are there to support it. The only thing better than a number of committed freedom-fighters in government, however, is an informed public that is equally willing to defend the rights of the people. Any citizen is instrumental to protecting the rights of all the people, and as the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, our rights will be immeasurably safer if we have 313 million people watching.

(sources on public unions from the CATO Institute. Link: http://www.cato.org/pubs/tbb/tbb_61.pdf)

Eduard Khil: 1934-2012

The unfortunate news came in on June 4, 2012. The 77-year old Russian singing sensation and internet meme, Eduard Khil, died due to a stroke that had left him in a coma about a month before. As a general rule, I don’t regard the deaths of famous people as more grieve-worthy than the death of anybody else, but Eduard Khil was a notable exception to that rule.

Now, unless you grew up in the Soviet Union, you probably hadn’t heard of Eduard Khil before 2009, when a video from 1976 of him poorly lip-synching to a non-vocal song of his surfaced on the Internet. Within a year, the video, referred to as “Trololo” by YouTubers, became popular for Khil’s quirky (and often ridiculous) movements and facial expressions. In 2010, Khil became aware of his Internet fame and took to it cheerfully, encouraging the people of the world to unite through the Internet to share their interpretations of the song and craft lyrics for it. Indeed, he seemed to love everything about his song being an Internet meme, laughing along with parodies and performing the song to fans online in order to share his cheer and good spirits.

Now, I was a fan of “Trololo” for a while before I had seen footage of Eduard Khil in 2010; the song was lighthearted, funny, and very exploitable for even more humorous parodies, but Khil’s recent videos put a human face to the man who, until then, was just a relic from 1976. His goodwill made “Trololo” more than just a YouTube video, and even though almost nobody who has seen the video personally knew him, the Internet will miss Eduard Khil, the man who wrote the national anthem of all Internet trolls.

War: What is it good for?

If you love the song “War” like I do, you’d immediately answer “Absolutely Nothing”, but unfortunately, the question of war is not so clean-cut. Certainly, I’d love to see a day when there are no more wars, but unfortunately, that probably won’t happen anytime soon. Humanity loves conflict, and although conflict is generally not conducive to reaching eventual peace for obvious reasons, war can actually work to further the cause of human rights in some cases.

Of course, the majority of warfare in history has been (obviously) quite destructive, as most wars are generally waged in the material interests of a nation or its leader(s), which tends to result in a menagerie of murder, stealing, and various other crimes. The War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American War, for example, were 3 wars waged in America’s history explicitly for the purpose (or result) of adding land to the USA. And while these wars may have not been very deadly as far as wars go, they were waged in cold blood. At the very least, the US entered WWI and WWII to defend our soil and our allies, but other wars, those not waged for the preservation of human life and human rights do little else but sacrifice the lives and livelihoods of some in order to destroy the lives and livelihoods of others.

There are situations in which it is justified to use military force, however. Self-defense is an obvious one, and in many cases, so is intervention to end the reign of tyrants like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddhafi. In fact, the situation in Libya, at least until Gaddhafi was killed, was intervention done right. In principle, there was nothing wrong with removing a dictator who carpet-bombed peaceful protesters by the thousands, and the execution of the mission did not, fortunately, follow the same path as the Iraq War. In theory, I think that any situation in which some sort of dictator or general is intentionally killing thousands of civilians  justifies the involvement of troops by any nation that can help, so long as:

a) Removing the illegitimate leader from power and promoting the establishment of peaceful democratic institutions is the sole objective of the intervention

b) Strict measures are taken to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties

Of course, these are only a few theoretical parameters for a situation that would justify military involvement; the reality is that some civilian casualties will likely occur, and a theoretically justified intervention situation may escalate into a deadly, Iraq-like conflict. Those potential costs of action need to be weighed into any sort of democracy-spreading military involvement; execution may not always work as well as planned.

Take Vietnam for example: Starting the war was not entirely unjustified (though I’d still disagree with it) given the potential human cost that would likely occur in a communist Vietnam, but as the civilian body count sprung up, the costs of war became clear. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a surefire sign that the US was not on top of the situation, and in the aftermath of that, it would have been better to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty rather than escalate the number of troops in Vietnam and bomb neutral Cambodia.

Involvement in most wars, however, seems like a less moral operation when viewed with the gift of hindsight. The Vietnam and Korean Wars were both started for the cause of keeping communism from expanding, and the spread of protests against Vietnam rather than Korea were nonetheless due to the high death toll caused by the war. As death toll clearly makes a difference, any nation must take potential death tolls into account when considering any military involvement. Because of the obviously deadly nature of war, I would prefer to refrain from war in most cases, but if the situation requires decisive action in order to prevent mass murder and other human rights violations, then all nations willing and capable of acting to prevent a large loss of human life ought to do so.

Peace to you, and hope for the day when all war can finally be abolished.

The Dictator: The Review

If you’re like me, you probably love tasteless and offensive humor, the kind of jokes that PC crybabies can’t seem to differentiate from actual racism, sexism, and hatred. As we know, one of the best artists of tasteless humor over the last decade has been Sacha Baron Cohen, the British comedian who made audiences everywhere laugh with Da Ali G Show, and his equally tasteless (and unscripted) movies, Borat and Bruno.

Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator, has met with significantly less positive reviews (A 59% on Rottentomatoes’ Tomatometer compared to Borat‘s 91%), and I can’t really see why. Certainly, The Dictator can’t provide the same sense of oh-my-god-he’s-doing-that-to-random-people as in his first 2 movies, given that it’s a scripted movie, but I feel that a third unscripted movie would wear out the whole unscripted-comedy shtick.

That said, The Dictator still has a comedic roof set above it, but it manages to bring in its fair share of laughs. Sacha Baron Cohen is as willing as ever to make a film that breaks and ridicules Western taboos on sex, race, and gender, dedicated to the memory of Kim Jong-Il. The character of General Aladeen is reminiscent of Borat; socially backwards yet still likable (I have no doubt that audiences were cheering Aladeen on as he fought to stop democracy from coming to his country). The presence of basic elements of Cohen’s previous work are enough to make The Dictator at least worth seeing.

Of course, The Dictator is no Borat. The inclusion of a love scene in The Dictator did little more than make the whole film feel that bit more unoriginal, adding nothing to the laughs department, and the occasional bouts of leftist propaganda definitely made the film feel less funny at certain points (though most European audiences probably took to those points). Critics have also slammed the movie for its lack of a complex plot, but if you’re really searching for a complex, intelligent plot, don’t look for comedy movies, go read a book.

Ultimately, The Dictator has everything it needs to satisfy fans of Cohen’s type of humor, and though it will never become as memorable or iconic as Borat, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it and would recommend it to anybody who enjoys a little bit of tasteless humor.

The fastest way to learn nothing, guaranteed

Ok, so I have no idea if anybody who reads this blog is interested in learning foreign languages. I have no idea if anybody who will ever see this post has any interest in languages. However, I still feel the duty to warn consumers of the biggest, fattest lie in the language-learning market.

If you’re from the US, you’ve probably heard of Rosetta Stone before. Their ads are impossible to miss, bearing enticing slogans like “learn through immersion” and “learn a new language like your first one” have proven to be very successful marketing techniques, no doubt, but don’t be fooled: The fact that Rosetta Stone is a household name doesn’t negate the fact that the actual product is mostly useless.

So, why is Rosetta Stone a crappy product?

It’s easy to fall for Rosetta Stone’s slogans (guilty), but they are B.S. How much “immersion” can you possibly get from sitting at a computer? Children don’t exactly learn languages by sitting at a computer and clicking on pictures; they learn by play and experience of the world around them; you can’t simply put that into a box. Their pseudoscientific pitch about connecting you directly to your new language is similarly ridiculous; adults cannot use the same region of the brain to learn a language as small children can.

However, I suppose you can’t expect a company to provide a completely accurate representation of its product in its ads, right? Rosetta Stone could still be an excellent resource for learning new words in an innovative manner, right?


The product itself is actually nothing more than a short series of beginner-level words drawn out into 5 levels that take about a month each to complete (assuming that you do  a few hours a week) Each exercise involves a few different activities, such as matching words to pictures, choosing the right word to fit a picture, etc., all with about 3-8 pictures per screen. There are periodical reviews of old materials, and tests at the end of each lesson. However, there are a number of problems with Rosetta Stone’s approach.

1) There is very little content. After the first level, you’ll be able to ask a few questions in the language and you’ll know a few complete sentences, but nothing past that. The later levels don’t have much more; even after the 5th level, you won’t be at the level where you can just go up to a native speaker and just start a conversation. You’ll be able to talk about a few things, but considering the amount of time it takes to finish the program, it’s not worth it.

2) The few things you do learn are hardly useful at all. Much of the early units consist of phrases like “The man has a ball” or “the woman is drinking orange juice”. These phrases need to be learned at some point, but I think “What time is it?” or “Where is the airport?” are more important to learn when learning another language.

3) You will not learn the culture of the country that speaks the language you’re learning, guaranteed. Most of the pictures included in the exercises were shot within the vicinity of Washington D.C, and since the program was created using a template, it will not take into account the nuances of different languages. In the German version, for example, they teach you “Vielen Dank” for “thank you”, although “Vielen Dank” is not the phrase you’d use in an everyday situation.

4) It’s so easy not to learn with Rosetta Stone.  The program re-uses a lot of its pictures, so it becomes easy to choose the correct word just from remembering the picture instead of learning the words.

5) You will not learn actively. While this is hard to accomplish using language software, the speaking exercises are nothing more than “repeat-after-me” deals, turning into pronunciation exercises, and the writing exercises end up becoming nothing more than spelling exercises. Will you learn how to speak and write actively? Nope.

So, what good is Rosetta Stone?

Admittedly, it’s not all bad. You will learn a few (emphasis on the word fewthings, and no translation is a decent concepts, but for a $600-or-so program, the dearth of information is just appalling. I suppose that they’ve improved a little bit since I’ve used the program; Version 4 (I used Ver.3) TotalE includes an online feature in which you can chat with other learners, but what are you going to say to them? “The eggs are over there”? If you used RS as your sole source of learning, that will be the end result, so I can’t see those new features doing much apart from raising the price.

All in all, Rosetta Stone is a good buy if you are willing to overpay and spend too much time on learning beginner-level material in another language. However, if you want a software program with enough substance to carry you past the “beginner” level, I recommend TELLMEMORE. It’s not a perfect program by any means; it isn’t as aesthetically appealing as Rosetta Stone, and it does have a few embarrassing technical issues that a full-blown software program shouldn’t have, but with multiple times more material at a better price than RS ($400 to Rosetta’s $500-$600), it’s no contest. You will actually learn a language with TELLMEMORE, and learn a bit of culture while you’re at it. If you’re looking to learn a language using software, you can’t go all the way with any software, but stay away from the massively marketed ripoff that is Rosetta Stone.