Sunday, July 16, 2017

Mid-July Mini-Reports

Time for some quick takes on items in the news over the past month or so. This may become a regular feature of the blog… who knows? We’ll take the stories chronologically.

Requires legislation to help incompetent parents.
#1. The June 18 edition of the Denver Post carries an article entitled “ Colorado proposes nation’s first legal limits on smartphones for children.” This is the initiative of one Tim Farnum, who noticed that his own “once energetic and outgoing boys became moody, quiet and reclusive. They never left their bedrooms, and when he tried to take away the phones, one of Farnum’s sons launched into a temper tantrum that the dad described as equivalent to the withdrawals of a crack addict.” Yeah, right. This is someone who had seen lots of folks struggling with narcotics withdrawal. Moron.

Anyway, since Farnum failed at parenting, proving himself incapable of saying no to his spawn, the only solution is… legislation! The proposal would prevent smartphone sales to anyone under 13, and would require providers to plow through a mountain of paperwork which would then have to be submitted to some state agency, which would—at taxpayer expense, of course—log everything to ensure compliance.

All this bill does is take authority away from parents who actually take the job seriously, and give it to the state. By the way, Farnum has now taken the smartphones away from his two sons, and with good results. He, being dumber than an anvil, no doubt believes this proves his point that smartphones should be kept away from kids. What it really demonstrates, of course, is that parents who acquiesce to every whim of their children tend not to be successful at raising healthy and well-adjusted children. But good parents ought to be able to decide whether their 12-year-old can have a smartphone… or if their 14-year-old shouldn’t. Farnum describes his politics as “fairly libertarian.” Curmie shudders at the prospect of someone Farnum would think of as an authoritarian jackass.

#2. The Transportation Safety Administration toyed with the idea of requiring books and magazines to be removed from carry-on bags in order to de-clutter bags, making security screenings more effective. This rationale was widely and probably rightfully regarded as nonsense by the public at large and especially by privacy rights advocates like the ACLU, who wrote a lengthy opinion on its website, recognizing the need for safety but arguing for the greater good of privacy. The good news is that whereas Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly proclaimed in May that he (N.B., yes, “he,” not “we,” or “TSA”) “might, and likely will,” expand employment of the new initiative beyond a handful of test cities, it now appears that either public outcry or a bout of common sense was sufficient to stall the program.

Academics (like Curmie) are particularly disturbed by the prospect of subjecting themselves to this level of intrusion into privacy.  Whether it’s the title. or the language of publication, or the subject matter (Curmie has read a whole lot of anti-capitalistic theory, for example), the risk of having one's reading material examined without a legitimate safety concern, and with a distinct possibility of unnecessary confrontation, disturbs a lot of folks, especially but by no means exclusively in the intelligentsia.  And the examiners—TSA agents—have neither the training nor the intellect to make appropriate decisions.

Note that the stated rationale for the added screening was that carry-on bags are now over-packed, thereby making it more difficult to determine what’s actually in them, because people want to avoid baggage fees, which apply on the first bag only to domestic flights. Meanwhile, the TSA is also contemplating banning laptops in the cabin only on all international flights. If anyone in Washington really believed that laptops are a threat, they’d be prohibited on all flights. If the problem is over-packed carry-ons, make airlines adopt the same baggage fees (which is to say, none) for domestic flights as are now common practice for international flights. The only plausible explanation is what we’ve known all along: TSA is as prying and meddlesome as it is incompetent (and that’s saying rather a lot), and John Kelly has little interest in civil liberties. He’s actually less unqualified than most Trump appointees, but he’s a military guy, not experienced in needing a rationale for his decisions, which he expects to be meekly obeyed. Civilians, especially academics, aren’t really good at that.

#3. From late June comes this story of an elderly Chinese woman who threw coins into a jet engine for good luck, delaying the Shanghai to Guangzhou flight by five hours, lest the attempt to ensure a safe slight lead directly to the opposite result. There’s really not much to say here except, well, wow.

#4. Speaking of stupid ideas, the Denver Post also reports this story about people who claim to be persecuted… for believing in a flat earth. You see, when these folks proclaim their… uh… faith, scientists and other heliocentric round-earthers call them stupid, for no other reason than that they’re, well, stupid. It turns out they even have a celebrity on board: NBA star Kyrie Irving. If ever you needed evidence of major universities’ wholesale abdication of education when there are sports dollars to be made, it’s Kyrie Irving: this idiot got into Duke! (Imagine yourself as an excellent but not quite excellent enough student who didn’t make the cut, while this cretin with a jump shot did.) Somehow Curmie suspects that no one at any university worthy of the name would have given him the time of day if he couldn’t play basketball better than virtually anyone else on the planet.

Seriously, the flat earthers are laughable… but also terrifying. They are not truth-seekers, nor independent thinkers, nor intellectual gadflies. They’re just garden variety morons who, like the snowflakes Curmie wrote about last time out, can do a lot of damage in sufficient numbers. This nation has already embarrassed itself on the world stage in terms of evolution and climate change. Further erosion of the most basic scientific truths cannot be condoned.

The Afghani delegation arrives in Washington, DC.
#5. Credit where it’s due: it appears that intervention by President Trump himself led to a reversal of a visa denial for young robotics team members. Two delegations, from Afghanistan and Gambia, were initially denied the short-term visas that would have allowed them to compete in the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge, currently underway in Washington, DC. The former group, an all-girls team from a country not exactly known for gender enlightenment, attracted more attention here, and this is where we’re hearing about presidential suasion being exercised. It’s unclear whether the President assisted the Gambians’ cause directly, but they, too, were allowed to enter the country after having their visa applications denied.

In neither case was the reason for the initial denial made clear: this is standard practice for the State Department under any administration. Whether it should be, of course, is another matter, and to an outside observer these cases seem particularly bizarre. It’s difficult to believe a bunch of high school kids are much of a threat to national security, but I suppose stranger things have happened. When the bans were first announced, many, including Curmie, feared that State was unilaterally extending the President’s travel ban beyond its original scope: Curmie even wrote that the “temporary” travel ban “sure [looks] like the thin edge of the wedge.” But he also described the SCOTUS ruling as a glass half full. It remains to be seen whether President Trump will craft policies that will allow appropriate access to this country irrespective of the applicant’s nationality. Frankly, I doubt it. But this episode has given Curmie at least a modicum of optimism.

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