Begging The Question

Friday, July 23, 2004

The Couch-Bound Free-Rider
So maybe I've been paying too much attention to commercials lately. But I saw an interesting post by Peter Northup at Crescat about whether one is a free-rider if one skips the commercials on television, or whether a duty of fair play would lead one to sit through them.

I don't know enough about Rawls or the moral argument here to make a genuine contribution. But I just wanted to point out that my sense is that, for most advertisers, it's not enough that you just watch the commercials. Oh, I'm sure that they take some pleasure in knowing that their ads are being seen and possibly enjoyed. And I'm sure the advertisers like getting Clios.

But for the company whose product is being advertised, the important thing is that people watching the commercials go out and buy the product.

For the company, the commercials are a means to that end, rather than the end itself. Would the company and the tv networks be happy if I dutifully watched every commercial aired but boycotted the products advertised? Of course, the free-rider argument depends on the assumption that advertisements are successful in getting me to buy something -- and I'm sure that for the most part that's true. I have no doubt that products that are advertised sell better than products that are not.

Now, what's interesting is that we don't hear a morality argument that goes so far as to say that one is "stealing" free television unless one buys the advertised products. (Perhaps except from President "Go shopping or the terrorists win" Bush.) Northup quotes the CEO of Turner Television as saying, "Your contract with the network when you get the show is you're going to watch the spots." Note that she doesn't say our contract is to dutifully buy these products. My guess is that the "otraged commentary" that met her "skipping ads is theft" remark would have become a full-fledged lynch mob if she had argued that much.

Again, I know that "watch the ads" is really a shorthand for "buy these products," and isn't indefensible as a marketing conclusion. But I just wanted to make sure that the terms of the morality argument are established. I will accept a contract that merely asks me to watch the commercials. I watch a pretty good amount of network television, especially when you add in all the college sports I watch -- someone has to pay for those huge bowl game payouts.

But I would chafe at an argument that I was immoral or not playing fairly if I watched the FedEx Orange Bowl but shipped via UPS. I think such a contract would go beyond my obligation. But I would sure like to hear FedEx (for example) try to make that case. I think that, if they did, I would go ahead and skip the whole show.

Anyway, this is a minor thing, but I did want to note what I think the free-rider argument is really trying to say. By the way, can I set a TiVo to record only the commercials?

Holiday Road

In three weeks I will be traveling across this great land of ours, from sea (almost) to shining sea (almost).  No, I am not on a pilgrimage to see a moose.  But yes, I will be loading up the Wagon Queen Family Truckster and putting a few clicks on the ol' odometer.  I am looking forward to seeing some new places, but I am not looking forward to 42 hours of driving.  My trip should take me through the following cities:
St. Louis
Kansas City
Salt Lake City
Of these, I have only been to Denver.  The others are unknown to me.  In an effort to avoid culinary disappointments and hotel disasters, I am asking you to send in your suggestions for great places to eat or sleep in these cities or anywhere along I-70 between St. Louis and Denver or I-80 from Cheyenne to Reno.  Use the comments or send me an email (you can click on the "Contact" button at the top of the screen or simply click on my name at the end of this post).  Thanks in advance.

Car Ad Nonsense & Etc.
I had a post a while ago about how much I hate car advertisements. Oh, and I had this one (only half-jokingly) suggesting that car ads could be considered crime-facilitating speech when they show the car doing stuff I would get arrested for trying.

Anyway, tonight on the radio I might have heard the topper. The dealership was yammering about its fantastic deals, and the announcer shouted, "All loan applications will be IMMEDIATELY processed!!"

Really? Imagine that. Sign me up! Oh wait. They didn't say immediately approved, they said immediately processed. (And "immediately" was stressed, while "processed" was practically whispered.) You mean they don't want to leave those loan apps laying around because they don't care how soon they get more moeny? You mean they actually want to get me in a car as soon as possible? I had no idea.

I tried to think of an analogy to demonstrate just how dumb this is. If you can come up with something better, please let me know. I thought of a music store that said, "All our CDs are immediately playable. We don't guarantee quality, but you can put them in your player the second you buy them!" But I guess it's more like a Photmat saying, "Your film orders are IMMEDIATELY processed! Pick up your pictures next week." What's so amazing about instant processing if you can't guarantee instant results -- especially when you inflect your voice to make it sound like you are guaranteeing instant results.

Anyway, sorry for the lull around here. I got about halfway through two longish posts, and then decided to scrap them, because I couldn't figure out what the point was. So, there's a bunch of wasted time and nothing on the blog to show for it. Also, I was working on a couple of song parodies. One song only has two verses, so I coulnd't really make anything of it. I mean, I had two verses that didn't go anywhere. The other was "My Scalia," to the tune of "My Sharona" by The Knack. But it turns out that's a pretty weird song lyrically. (It also has a very underrated guitar solo, by the way.) The only verse I was satisfied with:
Tell me more about this Ralph Blakely guy,
Is it gonna empty the jails, Scalia?
All the district judges say you make 'em cry,
Martha Stewart's gonna jump bail, Scalia!
M-M-M-My Scalia!
So, between wasting a bunch of time with crap like that, doing some actual Blakely stuff at work, and cleaning my apartment a little because my Mom is coming this weekend, I haven't had much to say. But I'm working on two that I think will be worth that wait. Have a nice Friday.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

My previous post, about race relations and sidewalk etiquette, led to some interesting reactions. In response to the comments and some emails, I think I should mention a couple of things.

First, I probably should have said that, because of my route and the time of day I travel, I don't encounter a lot of pedestrian traffic. My walk to and from work is about seven blocks long. On a typical trip, I might encounter eight or ten other pedestrians, most of whom are black. I counted this evening on my walk home. The tally: five of the seven other pedestrians were black. If there were dozens of other people on the block, clearly it would be ridiculous to assume that I was acting in reaction to a single one. But the dynamic might change if the only other person in sight is black, I'm white, and I cross the street just before I reach him. Also, there are a lot of homeless people in this area, which slightly increases the chances of an irrational reaction, black or white. I don't know if any of that changes anything, but I thought it bore mentioning in case anyone was picturing a different cityscape than I actually traverse.

Also, I should note that this is certainly not something that consumes me. In fact, the post is what newspaper folks call an "evergreen." It was something I thought about back in the winter when I noticed the way my bag was slipping off my winter coat. In the summer, it's not even really an issue. But the thought sparked in my head, and I put it on that mental list of "possible future blog post topics." And then I never got around to writing it. I guess I was saving it for a time when the well ran dry and I needed some material. Seeing as how I'm throwing myself all around the blogosphere, I decided to get off my duff and write it up. It's not that I'm embarrassed by it or anything. It just wasn't based on any particular incident or any pressing concern.

Having a few potential posts handy reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the tv show Murphy Brown. (Don't start. I didn't watch after the first few seasons, and anyway, I have a weird memory for obscure trivia. Someday I'll mention my favorite moment from Alf.)

Anyway, for some reason Jim, the stentorian anchorman, couldn't do the commentary he was planning for that evening's broadcast. I forget the exact scenario, but it would be like writing a tribute to Michael Jackson, and then he gets arrested before you air it. So, Jim doesn't know what to do. Producer Miles is, typically, flipping out. He asks Jim, "Don't you have a few commentaries in your desk, just in case something like this happens?" Jim: "I checked, and all I have is 'Gary Hart: There's no stopping him now!' and 'Make way for the metric system!'"

So now you know. That post was my "Make way for the metric system."

"If I Like Their Race, How Can That Be Racist?"
The title to this post, of course, is from a classic Seinfeld episode, but my real dilemma isn't so humorous.

I live in a city with a fairly sizeable black population, especially in the area between my home and office. I walk to work, so it's not at all uncommon for me to pass several black people in those few blocks. My office is on a different street than my home, so at some point in my walk I have to cross the street. Also, I use a canvas briefcase-style bag with a shoulder strap. Depending on the material of what I'm wearing, and what I've packed in the bag, and how slumped I am that day, sometimes it slips down my shoulder and requires an occasional hoist. Oh, and by the way, I'm white.

This situation happens to me quite a bit: I'm walking to work, and either (1) the street lights change in a way that makes this a convenient point to cross the street, (2) the bag starts to slip a little, or (3) both. But I notice a black person walking down the block towards me. So, I consciously avoid either crossing the street or hiking my bag up so as not to appear like I'm acting out of fear of the black person. I especially find myself doing this (or rather, not doing it) when the other person is a youngish black man. Maybe I should also point out that I'm male (I think a woman clutching her purse closer to her looks different than a man doing the same with a briefcase), and I don't appear nervous or skittish when encountered by strangers on the street.

So, my question is, Am I racist for not wanting to seem racist? That is, Is it racist to assume that this person might misinterpret my actions and be offended? I generally think it's racist to make assumptions about someone based on his or her race, and isn't that what I'm doing? Of course, maybe I'm too PC-indoctrinated and I'm nuts to be thinking about this. And maybe it's too paternalistic to worry so much about how sensitive others are. (I should note that "so much" might overstate it. I don't lose sleep over this; I just ponder it on my walks, and then usually forget it.)

I'm no etiquette expert, but my parents did a pretty good job raising me, and I have a dash of common sense. For me, that's a fair proxy for most etiquette rules. My parents and my common sense would tell me that one should avoid causing offense to another when reasonably possible. Since I can't read another's mind, I have to fall back on the "reasonable person" standard. I should ask myself, Would a reasonable black person, seeing me cross the street or pull my bag closer to my body, assume I am acting out of racist fear or animus and be offended?

I think the answer to that is no, for several reasons. First, I (virtually) always cross at the crosswalk and with the light, so it would never appear that I am jaywalking into traffic to avoid someone. Second, hiking my bag on my shoulder has become so semi-reflexive that I hardly notice it, and I do it naturally. It's like pushing up my glasses when they slip down my nose. I don't make a big production of it, or freeze in place and then grip the bag across my chest. Third, I tend to be lost in my thoughts and not paying much attention to others when I walk; I don't think it would seem like I am reacting to their presence one way or the other (although the point of this post is that sometimes, when I'm snapping out of my daze long enough to decide whether to cross at this light or whether my bag is about to slip off, I notice a black person and wonder what he or she is thinking).

However, we wouldn't have a lot of problems in life if all we had to deal with were reasonable people. It's the unreasonable person I have to worry about. And the fact is that I think the chances are high enough that someone will react unreasonably to me that I try to avoid creating that unreasonable response. Obviously, I'm not going to let my bag slip all the way off, or walk around the block instead of going right home, to avoid giving potential offense. This is where that "reasonably possible" caveat above comes in. But when it's easy for me to avoid the risk of offending someone, I will. Even when I think that he or she might be offended solely because of his or her race.

New-Fangled, Then And Now
I see that Duke is giving iPods to all incoming freshmen. I thought about doing a crotchety "in my day" post about this, but the truth is I had it pretty easy.

But this puts it in perspective, I think. When I showed up at Duke as an incoming freshman ten years ago, I was issued a fairly new technologiocal gadget designed for "expanding the use of information both in the classroom and in the campus community." A few people had them, and most people knew what they were, but it was the first time I had ever dealt with one. At the time, they were pretty primitive and the uses were limited. Ten years later, of course, they're ubiquitous, and so taken for granted that most people are expected to have one. I think I have seven that I use every day.

Any guesses at what this piece of then-new technology was? Post your answer in the comments box, and I'll reveal what it was in a few hours.

A "Dear Blog" Letter
I'm trying to think of a gentle way to break this to you, Dear Readers, but I can't. I don't want you to think I don't love you. You'll always be my first and most important blog. That means something to me. That's a special thing that no one can take away from us.

As you know, I've been seeing other blogs lately. I've done some guest-blogging for Life, Law, Libido, De Novo, and Soup's BBQ & Daycare, and now Crescat Sententia. I guess that time I channelled Mr. Poon wasn't just a crazy one-time experiment after all.

But I don't want you to think I take you for granted. I'm doing this to become a better blogger for both of us. Don't look at me like that; I mean it. You know that after I'm done guest-blogging, I always come home to you. And I always let you watch by simul-posting everything. And I do things for you that I don't do for them, because I love you most.

So keep reading, 'kay? I'll always be true to you, Dear Readers.

Matters of Little Importance
btqblog (at)
We'll still check the old Hotmail address, but we're trying to switch over, mostly because of space issues. Please update your instant messengers accordingly.

Second, we're working through some minor stylistic changes. I have fiddled about with my blogroll, a constant preoccupation. It doesn't mean a lot, though. Part of the arrangement is based on frequency of visits, regardless of the quality I find when I'm there, some is based on quality, regardless of frequency of posts, some is based on the order in which I like to read them, and some is based simply on how I think they look in the list. I do accept bribes for favorable placement, though. Other little changes may be coming soon.

Third, readers who have been paying attention know I've been "competing" in De Novo's "Survivor: Blogosphere." The latest challenge was to "fisk" a well-known blogger. In my entry, I fisked the De Novo Survivor competition, a turn-the-tables sort of thing. I was pretty happy with it. Will Baude was the special celebrity guest judge, and in his esteemed opinion, I won. I think Will had an interesting take on the thing, and he had some nice things to say about my post. However, I didn't actually win anything. There will be a final challenge sometime...maybe. Anyway, check it out. Last thing I'll mention is that I'm kind of glad Baude doesn't have comments on his blog, because the other remaining contestant, Wings & Vodka has a lot of fans. Watch your back, Will.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Three From Slate
I like reading Slate, even if it means Bill Gates is probably scanning my retinas through the screen or something. But I thought, since it's not like I'm posting anything else, I'd pass along three interesting pieces from them.

1. This one is a drinking game based on the freakish success of Jeopardy! contestant Ken Jennings, who has won over $1 million dollars and has now been on the show longer than Alex Trebek. If you need another excuse to drink alcohol, here it is.

2. Here's one about a different kind of pet abuse: undertraining and underexercising. The author suggests this kind of thing is way too common in "urban apartments and suburban backyards." I don't have a dog, and this kind of thing is a big reason why. I can't treat one like a dog ought to be treated.

3. Finally, here is a week-long diary of a copywriter for movie trailers and ads. I ought to hire her to write copy for my life. Everything sounds like a big-budget action adventure if you start it off with "In a world..." in that movie promo voice (who is that guy, by the way?).

In a world where nothing it what it seems, one blogger fights to make a difference...and get a date. This fall, Milbarge will be living large...and taking charge. (This film is not yet rated.)

Fitz-Hume's blogroll

Monday, July 19, 2004

Will Blakely Be The Next Litmus Test?
When the Supreme Court's Hamdi decision came out, I thought of President Bush's oft-repeated pronouncement that, if he had the chance to nominate someone for the Supreme Court, he would choose a jurist like Justices Scalia and Thomas. I'll leave it for folks like Will Baude to discuss if the President is as guilty as anyone for linking these two in the public mind and suggesting they march in lockstep. But the Justices' vastly divergent opinions in Hamdi made me wonder if President Bush would say the same thing today. I presume he's still fine with Justice Thomas, but would he still cite Justice Scalia as a model jurist after Scalia's pretty sharp rebuke of the President's policies in Hamdi? (Yes, I know that one cold still approve of the manner that both Scalia and Thomas approach the judicial task, while nonetheless disagreeing with particular outcomes. But it still amuses me.)

Anyway, that sort of got me thinking about litmus tests for justices generally. Abortion is the big dog in that pack, of course, although far out of proportion to its day-to-day impact on federal court caseloads. I wonder if the Judiciary Committee will wise up and start asking about cases that are going to be litigated, and often, to the Supreme Court in the near future. I think a good example is the Commerce Clause line of cases starting with Lopez and Morrison. Unlike most abortion issues, the Commerce Clause cases are always 5-4, meaning that a one-Justice swing can make all the difference. (Only the partial-birth abortion issue looks to be 5-4, as opposed to 6-3, meaning that a one-Justice swing would likely not affect much abortion jurisprudence.) Next Term, the Court will hear Ashcroft v. Raich, a challenge on Commerce Clause grounds to federal law prohibiting even intrastate possession of marijuana. That case will likely test how committed the 5 are to this line of jurisprudence (even if it means foregoing long federal prison sentences for dope smokers and child pornographers, see the Ninth Circuit's McCoy decision), and whether the wheat crops at issue in Wickard are similar to the pot crops in Raich. But the 4 dissenters have never shied away from saying that they would overrule all these cases should a wooable fifth vote materialize. Regardless, how much time do you think we will see spent on the limits of Congressional power under the Commerce Clause at the next nominee's hearing, as opposed to time spent on the abortion issue?

Of course the most immediate impetus for this post is Blakely. Another in a line of 5-4 cases, like Apprendi, and another in which the dissenters would very much like to reverse course. I'm assuming merely by the fact that he signed the "Protect" Act that President Bush approves of mandatory sentencing guidelines and doesn't mind strict review of any decisions departing downward from them. But his two model Justices, Scalia and Thomas, voted with the majority in Apprendi and Blakely. Does the President agree with their interpretation of the Sixth Amendment? If re-elected, will he seek to appoint Justices who are legalists like these two, willing to upend two decades' worth of federal sentencing policy, even if it means chaos in the short term and shorter sentences in the long term?

My guess is that the Supreme Court and Congress will come to some sort of solution on all this before the next vacancy arises. But what if one of the Justices in the Blakely majority left the Court today? I dare say that what the next nominee thinks about the Guidelines will have a much greater impact on the federal courts that what that nominee thinks about abortion. I guess my bottom line is that, since I have no hope we're ever not going to have litmus tests, we should at least pick the right ones. I know this is futile, but just as the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was designed to bring about "truth in sentencing," I wish that when the next vacancy occurs, we can have "truth in litmus tests."

The BTQ Review: Old Crow Medicine Show
For the latest entry in our occasional feature, The BTQ Review, I present O.C.M.S., the debut* album from Old Crow Medicine Show.

*Yes, I know there are some old albums out there somewhere, but you can't find them, and this is the first one on a decent-sized label, it's self-titled, and it's the one that will get them famous, so I'm calling it the debut. So there.

It's somewhat hard to describe Old Crow Medicine Show. In pieces, they are five guys from all over who eventually met up, decided to play old-time stringband bluegrass and blues, play some old stuff in a new way, and some new stuff in an old way. For a while, they were playing on the street in Nashville in front of the Grand Ole Opry. Eventually, they were invited inside. This album establishes their bona fides, but no doubt there are some hardcore fans who will say they sold out for getting (relatively) slicked up. Well, they booed Bob Dylan when he plugged in, too. And I'd rather listen to Dylan than Phil Ochs.

O.C.M.S. is an interesting mix of old and new. A song that sounds like it could be right off Bill Monroe's set list (say, "Hard to Tell") turns out to be an Old Crow original. An old standard like "CC Rider" is done in a way that makes it sound new. The band has an authentic, old-time sound, a sound which includes a guit-jo, a banjo strung and played like a guitar that was popular in the 1920s. You half-expect the Carter family to make a cameo. (Instead we get the wonderful Gillian Welch, which makes sense given that O.C.M.S. is produced by her long-time collaborator David Rawlings.) Look, if you've even heard of MerleFest, this album is worth owning. If you think O Brother isn't rootsy enough, check this one out.

Okay, there are a few quibbles. First, the album is awfully short, less than forty minutes. It's like an opening act with no headliner. (You could always follow it with a Welch album, as Old Crow is opening for her on her current tour.) Also, for me, the songs get better as the album goes along. Trust me, hang in there through the first couple-three songs. They get better after subsequent listening, especially the Vietnam ballad "Big Time in the Jungle," but the real gems are at the end of the disc. I love "Take 'em Away," a laconic ballad about hard times ("Take 'em away, take 'em away, Lord,/ Take away these chains from me./ My heart is broken 'cause my spirit's not free,/ Lord take away these chains from me."), and "We're All In This Together," a sweet, slow tune about pulling together with and being there for one's fellow-man ("We're all in this thing together/ Walking a line between faith and fear./ This life don't last forever,/ When you cry I taste the salt in your tears."). It reminds me a little of Pat Humphries's "Swimming to the Other Side." (For more on that one, see here.)

But the true diamond on this album is its closer, a song that deserves special mention. Apparently, Old Crow's lead singer Ketch Secor found an old Bob Dylan tune he had never released. Dylan wrote the song as part of his Pat Garrett album, but never finished it. It was called "Rock Me Mama." Secor kept the chorus and added semi-autobiographical verses, changed the name to "Wagon Wheel," and the result is a tremendously catchy song about a man running away from the cold winter to get back to his baby. You can see a video on the Old Crow site, linked above, and get the lyrics and chords here. Now, I'm not saying every Dylan song can be improved upon, but "Wagon Wheel" is a far sight better than "Rock Me Mama." "Wagon Wheel" is a genuine breakthrough song, as as far as I'm concerned, worth the price by itself. It's that good.

Alright, to sum up. A few really great songs, and a few pretty good ones, all with a great sound that's a nice cross between something brand-new and something right out of the dawn of country music. Points off for being such a short album. I give it five and a half cans out of a possible six pack.
Won't you gentlemen have five and a half Pepsis?

The BTQ Review: To The 5 Boroughs
For the latest entry in our occasional feature, The BTQ Review, I present the Beastie Boys' To The 5 Boroughs. Far removed from from the fresh faced youth fighting for their right to party and getting arrested for cavorting on stage with an inflatable penis, the Beasties are grown up, the old men of rap, boys no longer. But this album has a lot of what made the Beasties so popular to begin with, and what makes it work is that it's so comfortable, like running into old friends and picking up where you left off.

Where I left off is with Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head. Those are the only Beastie albums I ever bought or even listend to that much. So, I'm no Beastie connoisseur. But Bouroughs fits right in with those old landmarks. If it weren't for the lyrics, it sounds like it could have been made between those albums, after they decided to simplify from the heavily-layered sound of Boutique but before they picked up the instruments for Check Your Head. "Ch-Check It Out" and "Rhyme The Rhyme Well" from the new one could easily subsitute for "Pass The Mic" and "So What'cha Want" from Check Your Head. The beats are pretty simple, but are full and flowing, so they sound more complex than they are. There are far fewer samples than Boutique had. Whether the Beasties wanted to see if they could make their own sound without all the samples, or were just tired of all the litigation, it's anybody's guess. I don't it want to seem as if I'm calling the sound simple, because it's not. It's just solid, not full of tricks. It's like the Boys know they can get wild in the mixing room, but don't see the need with this album.

If the music could have been made a decade ago, the lyrics couldn't. There are plenty of the Boys' classic wacky rhymes and oddball pop culture references, from Miss Piggy to Sasquatch, from Reunite on ice to Dr. Spock. It's always fun to find yourself hearing a new one and getting the joke. But aside from a few old-school put-downs of unnamed "sucker mc's," the lyrics in many places refelct the new place the Beasties find themselves in. There are a few too many anti-Bush rants, but it's easy to tell that the Boys are much more politically engaged than the days when the worst injustice one could suffer was when your Mom threw away your best porno mag.

While my favorites are "Ch-Check It Out" and "Rhyme The Rhyme Well," the most powerful song on album full of love for the five boroughs is "An Open Letter To NYC." Like the movie 25th Hour in some ways, the song is a self-assessment of where the city is post Sept. 11 ("Dear New York, I know a lot has changed/Two towers down but you're still in the game.") and an ode to the city that truly is the melting pot ("Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten/From the Battery to the top of Manhattan/Asian, Middle-Eastern and Latin/Black, White, New York you make it happen.").

If you're a New Yorker, I'm sure you'll find the album full of inside references to subway lines and streets and the city's peculiarities. For me, I like it because I can kind of tune it out. It makes nice background music, because there's not so much going on that you feel like you have to listen to catch it all. It's just a nice, soild effort, and like I said, comfortable. It's not obtrusive or in-your-face. (Is it too condescending to say it would work as a soundtrack to a high school reunion?) It's just the good old Beastie Boys, checking in to say that, like their city, they're still around, still strong, still running, still doing what they do well. It doesn't break any new ground, but you never feel like it needs to. I liked it. I didn't think it was great, but I did think it was just fine. I give it four and a half cans out of a possible six-pack.
Won't you gentlemen have four and a half Pepsis?

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    The views presented here are personal and in no way reflect the view of my employer. In addition, while legal issues are discussed here from time to time, what you read at BTQ is not legal advice. I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer. If you need legal advice, then go see another lawyer.

    Furthermore, I reserve (and exercise) the right to edit or delete comments without provocation or warning. And just so we're clear, the third-party comments on this blog do not represent my views, nor does the existence of a comments section imply that said comments are endorsed by me.

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