Some of you may have already noticed the new button in the website menu: FreeForum.

This is EI’s (first!) summer project.

Inspiration first struck when I found a list of the hundreds upon hundreds who had filed with the Federal Election Commission to be candidates.  The project truly began when I realized six more months of Trump & Clinton pettily attacking each other would be incredibly dull without some outlet.  Unable to find such an outlet, I am creating one.

My original idea was popular enough that all Eavesdropper regulars and several others offered to (and have!) offered their time to the project.

Today, the trailer has gone live.  It’s a big day for me, and I’d like to thank all the volunteers who have allowed us to get this far, and look forward to the next stage.

If, like me, you believe there is more to US politics than Republicans and Democrats rehashing the same ideas over and over and over again, FreeForum is for you.  If, like me, you believe in the value of a marketplace of ideas, FreeForum is for you.  If, like me, you know that disagreements do not prevent civil discussions (and friendships!), FreeForum is for you.

If you just want to see if we can get a communist and an conspiracy theorist to argue about the merits of space exploration, well, FreeForum still might be for you.  Strange things can happen in a live debate.

Whatever the reason for your interest, help us spread the word.  Share the video with every one who’s complained about the two party system.  Get your friends onto the Facebook event.  Email the picture card to that uncle who preaches politics over Thanksgiving.

And finally, hope to see you all watching the stream next month!

A History of Exclusion: Why presidential debates need an overhaul

In an era where social binaries and traditional categorizations are being passionately challenged, little attention has been paid to what has become one of the United States’ most powerful binaries, the dichotomy of the Republican and Democratic parties.  This is plainly seen in the vocabulary we use to describe out political workings.  In today’s political landscape, the highest level of internal cooperation we can achieve is often and best described as bipartisan.  The prevalence and power of the two diametrically opposed parties has led to a radicalization of the Nation’s voters and growing sensationalism in the presidential election process.  A telling microcosm of this evolution is the growth of the presidential debates to a high level of perceived importance by the voter, an extreme focus by the media, and a pattern of decreasing substance and inclusion.

Debates’ existence as part of the presidential election process is a fairly recent occurrence.  The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates are often pointed to as the earliest form of political debate as part of a campaign, but the first general U.S. presidential debate wouldn’t occur for another one hundred years and even then the event would not become commonplace until 1976.

The exclusivity and sensationalism of the presidential debates were already prevalent during the initial 1960 debates featuring Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.  The two were provided with a suspension of a portion of the Federal Communications act in order to maintain the legality of the debate.  Section 315 of the Federal Communications act stipulated that any media time provided that any candidate must be allowed equal opportunities to broadcast except in the case of news or documentaries.  Under this rule over a dozen other candidates would have been afforded equal access to a debate.  Congress suspended the “equal time rule” to allow for the 1960 debate.  This gave precedent to suspend the rule for the following election cycles until 1983.  In 1983 the FCC decided to consider debates news and as a result no longer required the suspension of section 315.  This essentially allowed the media to exclude any participant from their debates.

After a few election cycles where one candidate or another refused to ask for an FCC waiver, the tradition of presidential debates started in earnest.  In 1976 the League of Women Voters recognized the importance of the presidential debate and agreed to sponsor several debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.  The League continued to sponsor the presidential debates every election cycle through the 1984 election.  At that point the two major parties began to lobby to move control of the debates to the Commission of Presidential Debates (CPD), a coalition between the two major parties.  They invited the League of Women voters to sponsor the 1988 debates in conjunction with the CPD, but each party required non negotiable control over almost every aspect of the debate.  At this point the League of Women Voters rescinded their sponsorship saying “the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions … The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”  From that point onward, complete control over the presidential debates fell under control of the Nation’s two most powerful parties.

In the current election, the rigid exclusivity and media sensationalism is at an all time high.  Primary debates are being limited to control intra-party damage and support high profile candidates, debate formats have been molded to candidate and party ideals, and the media has embraced the ego based bouts as cash cows likened to the most anticipated sporting events.

In order to improve the parties’ chances in the general election, primary debates have become systematically controlled.  This evolution has also given advantages to front runners and limited the exposure of lesser know candidates.  Primary debates can be dangerous to the main parties as they an bring up facts that can be damaging to the candidate during the general election.  This year both the DNC and RNC reduced the number of sanctioned primary debates and for the first time instated penalties against candidates who participated in outside debates.  This ensured that the RNC and DNC had complete control over their candidates debate environments and allowed for the exclusion of lesser know candidates.  The smaller number of debates also favors the candidates who are well known or gain an early lead by insulating them from potential damages done during the debates.  This can be seen in Trump’s refusal to participate in several RNC debates.  Trump refused to participate in two RNC debates and succeeded in having one canceled entirely.  Clinton, the Democratic front runner has also declined the RNC final debate in May.  Clinton’s communications director stated that Clinton would be “preparing for a general election campaign that will ensure the White House remains in Democratic hands.”  Marking the importance of party concerns for the general election over continued interaction with other primary candidates and the risk of hurting Clinton’s general election chances.

The changes made to debate formats by the parties and individual candidates continue to highlight the departure of debates from being venues for open and sincere discussion of idea and policy.  Not only are the debate formats under the direct control of the two major parties, but they continue to change to better suit the campaign goals of the candidates.  After disallowing debate questions referencing things the candidates have said or done, the RNC chairman, Reince Priebus called previous debates “abusively fact based,” and went on to say “this is a presidential debate.  If people want facts, they can watch ‘Jeopardy’.”  Donald Trump was also successful in lobbying for format changes to support his name recognition and early lead.  After threatening to not participate in the coming debates, Trump was able to limit the length of the debates and allow each candidate to have a closing statement.  This would limit Trump’s exposure to damaging responses and, being the top polling candidate, allowed Trump to have the final word at the debates.

One of the most damaging changes the media has perpetrated on the debates has been the presentation of the debates as sporting events, pitting candidates against each other to score “points.”  the televised event is characterized by vivid cut scenes and introductions to rival any high profile sporting event.   Live commentators guide the viewer through the events just as they would for a game of football or baseball.  After the events these individuals discuss the candidates and determine “winners” and “losers”  instead of discussing the validity and substance of the candidates arguments and policies.  As a result, the debates have become ego fueled pissing contests instead of a platform to disseminate and question substantial policy recommendations.

None of this is meant to belittle the importance of the presidential debates.  It is a rare and essential opportunity for the voter to hear not only the views of all of their candidates, but also to have those views questioned  and defended in a substantial way.  Unfortunately, the debates have trended in a different direction.  The keys to a successful overhaul of the current debate culture are impartial governance, inclusion, and substance.  In a world with incredible access to mass communication venues other than television, there is a rare opportunity to escape from a restrictive two party system, have candidates from all parties engage in meaningful debates, and elect the best leaders regardless of party affiliations.

Modern Possession

…surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. … It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.” ~ C. S. Lewis

Like witches, we do not believe in possession today, nor in the sorts of spirits and powers that could possess someone. Like witches, possession is an excuse for jokes and cheap scares.

Continue reading Modern Possession

Securing Security

As some of my readers may already know, there was a bunch of bombings in Brussels last weekend which the Islamic State took credit for.  Two of the explosions occurred in an airport.  Because, unfortunately, terrorists aren’t totally incompetent idiots, these two went off before the security checkpoint.  It’s much easier than trying to get bombs past security, and you have about as many people clustered in one location as in a small airplane.  Sure, putting a hole in an airplane guarantees more casualties, but even so the Brussels airport is closed and the whole city is on lock-down.  The monetary costs and city-wide disruption of normal life is an appropriate punishment for a society IS sees as materialistic and too disconnected from the war IS is being pressured by.

Anyway, this total failure of fifteen years and billions of dollars devoted to protecting airplanes and airports led to some soul searching among the appropriate officials.

Oh wait, no it didn’t.

Continue reading Securing Security

Reality Check to Aisle 3

Earlier this month, a short-lived debacle involving pre-peeled tangerines and their plastic packaging has thrown a harsh light on the supposed environmental friendliness of high-end grocery stores. Customers are drawn to supermarkets like Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Trader Joe’s by the promise of quality food which isn’t oozing with preservatives and artificial colors, even if it means paying more for everything from pork chops to bok choi. The recent viral backlash in response to a photo of pre-peeled citruses sealed in plastic cartons at one such store has revealed a growing trend of customer disillusionment, which at first glance might seem justifiable. After all, these premium supermarkets portray themselves as wholesome, eco-friendly, and even a bit rustic. Their focus on aesthetic makes shopping more pleasant than a trip to Wal-Mart, which helps ease the sticker-shock when it comes time to check out. Amidst all the wood-paneling and earthy tones and reminders to ‘support local farmers,’ it’s no surprise that the proliferation of plastic packaging could seem a little contrary. But it is ludicrous for customers to expect the best food from around the world without involving the industrial evils of plastic.

For starters, plastic is nothing new. It has become a ubiquitous material used for everything imaginable; its unique mix of malleability and strength make it perfect for use in packaging, whether sealed or permeable. A huge amount of the food we consume would be impossible to create and distribute without the air-tight resiliency afforded by plastics. Tortilla chips that aren’t soggy and stale? Forget it. Fresh pasta? Better get tickets to Italy. Hot dogs, deli meats, peanut butter, breakfast cereal, sandwich bread, if it doesn’t come out of a glass jar or a metal can, there’s a good chance it’s wrapped in some sort of plastic. In short, we’d be stuck with canning and refrigerated trucks as the only means of keeping food fresh until it reaches our local market. Chips and bread and hot dogs would be moldy and dry and infested with larvae before we ever saw them. Having local production centers for all the products we take for granted would be incredibly inefficient, but without them perishable products would be out of reach to all but the wealthiest circles of society.

Now, remember that the selling point which allows these high-end supermarkets to remain viable in an industry with notoriously thin operating margins is the unadulterated nature of the foods they sell, which means chemical preservatives are not an option. Air-tight or vacuum sealed packaging therefore becomes imperative to keeping supply costs and spoilage low. You can’t very well maintain a vacuum seal with a paper bag or a cardboard box, which leaves metal and glass as the only non-plastic alternatives. Glass is fragile and expensive, and food which comes out of metal cans is not exactly known for its freshness. Moreover, decades of reliance on a modern supply chain has made the average consumer largely unconcerned with the race against time inherent to producing and selling food without it rotting or becoming infested with insects. Without protection from the ambient air, preservative-free foods spoil in hours, not days. Just ask our forebears, who survived winters on buried stores of potatoes and onions, who had to salt their meat if they wanted to have any protein in their diets come February. Strict health guidelines required in all food production zones exacerbate the problem of spoilage, especially since these guidelines almost always err on the side of caution. Anything even suspected of being past its peak freshness is tossed out, rather than risking a lawsuit over food poisoning or negligence. Did I mention the razor-thin margins under which grocery stores operate?

To continue the discussion of costs, the transportation of all this pure unadulterated foodstuff is in itself more expensive than the transportation of more conventional products which can unabashedly rely on chemicals to maintain ‘freshness’ in un-refrigerated cargo containers. The trendiness of locally produced food has diversified the number of client companies which ship their product to a given store. Basic macroeconomics advises us that increased scale of production and shipment results in a decrease in per-unit cost , and this holds true for the inverse as well. Consumers are glad for a chance to support local businesses, but these local, small-batch products cost the store more to acquire. To take another example, the popularity of organic produce has created a system of certification which requires strict separation of organic and conventional product at every stage of harvest and processing and distribution, meaning a truck full of organic strawberries cannot have other, conventional strawberries in it without jeopardizing the organic status of the first batch. This is to satisfy consumer demand for accountability, it doesn’t just amuse the store managers to abide by such strict (and expensive) guidelines.

The final and perhaps most critical reason that plastic packaging is ubiquitous is the issue of sanitation. American consumers in particular are revolted by anything that looks like it’s been touched by someone else. Just try offering someone a free cookie, then add “but someone took a bite out of it, still want it?” They won’t want it. As a result, any kitchen bigger than a ball-game snack stand will require workers to wear rubber gloves and even hair nets at all times. This is to satisfy consumer demand for high standards of sanitation, as well as to prevent transmission of disease and infection and thereby avoid the inevitable lawsuits which follow. Just ask Chipotle.

Plastic is easily disposable, which helps when customers will only pay for a product that hasn’t been mixed in with all the others, and which can’t have been handled by any other customer who wandered in before them. Plastic is transparent and allows easy inspection of the product inside. Plastic isn’t absorbent and won’t alter the flavor of the product inside, whereas paper packaging risks seepage if used with moist or oily foods, which in turn creates a contamination risk. If packaging touches the floor or anything less than completely sanitary, workers are required to dispose of it, often with whatever was sealed inside, simply because the customers want peace of mind that everything they buy is untainted. With plastic, it’s easy and cheap to maintain this wide margin of safety.

Let me be clear: plastic isn’t great. It’s linked to carcinogens and known to be complicit in altering hormone levels in the population due to its prevalence in our food supply chains. But customers who want affordable, perishable, preservative-free food must be willing to accept plastic as a necessary evil. After all, it is the consumers themselves who demand convenient packaging, high sanitation standards, and freshness. While a pre-peeled tangerine is a little silly, it’s hardly different from a plastic carton of watermelon cubes or pineapple spears, which manage to avoid consumer ridicule on a daily basis. And it wouldn’t seem so silly to someone with severe palsy, or an amputee with only one dexterous hand, to whom a tangerine is a treat to be remembered but not so easily peeled and eaten. So many things are done behind the scenes to keep customers satisfied, singling out one instance of over-packaging is almost laughably quixotic in a developed world which would quite literally collapse without plastics.

Wasted Potential

I’ve been watching drones for several years now, and since the very beginning I’ve claimed that drones have magnificent potential.  It’s such a simple idea – so simple it can be applied to practically everything.  Drones are a new kind of infrastructure, and infrastructure does to society what new detectors do to science – which is to say anything on the spectrum of nothing to upending everything.

I’ve also claimed from the beginning that whatever the potential might be, it could be ruined by a bad reputation that leaves the technology politically untenable, for all it might be mechanically practical.

Because I’m at my usual level of sarcasm and this is a good place for a Read More break, it’s time for me to say that somebody didn’t get the memo.

Continue reading Wasted Potential

Rat Farming

Once upon a time, there was a jungle port.  Being a jungle port, there was a profusion of rats that disturbed the populace and discouraged business.  The authorities resolved to do something.

So, of course, the rat population exploded.

Continue reading Rat Farming

AIs and the Impending Singularity

Superintelligent AIs are coming!  They’ll far outstrip anything mere mortal minds can comprehend, and either usher us into a utopia or negligently crush us on their way to turning the planet into a giant computerized doughnut.

Or maybe not.  Despite the recent uptick in news on the subject, I think the focus is misplaced.

Continue reading AIs and the Impending Singularity

A Brief Exposition of Limited Government

I have fairly simple reasons for pushing for a more limited Federal government, and it has nothing to do with Libertarian ideology and everything to do with patriotism, as in, not risking dangerous stresses on something I’d rather see continue to exist.

Continue reading A Brief Exposition of Limited Government

What Good Are These Particular Presidents?

Previously, I have written about why the Presidency is important.  Lest anyone think I was overcome by an uncharacteristic mood of sunny optimism and governmental idealism, I’d like to append to that statement by arguing that actual Presidents, within my political attention span, have been drastically less important than almost everyone thinks.  Given I do firmly believe my previous statements about the potential of the office, I find the indistinguishability of the actual people to be rather depressing.

Continue reading What Good Are These Particular Presidents?