Erik Owomoyela

I write.

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Puerto Rico is testing us

Last week, in news that everyone ignored because everyone always ignores Puerto Rico, the voters passed a referendum backing statehood for the first time in history. Maybe. Sort of. It’s complicated. But it’s one of those things I never quite expected to see, and it comes at a really interesting time.

I don’t know anything in particular about Puerto Rican politics, so I can’t say whether this is actually a grand territory-wide conspiracy to put Congress on the spot (it probably isn’t), but it sure could shake out that way. The issues that revolve around statehood for Puerto Rico could stand in pretty well for a lot of the questions about how the United States relates to Latin America, as well as the growing Latino population within our borders.


We are not more liberal than Amsterdam

Tuesday’s election was a big one for Washington state. Voters extended its 32-year streak of not electing a Republican governor, but whatever: The real action came from citizens’ initiatives, as we became the first and only state to simultaneously legalize same-sex marriage and recreational marijuana. Which led led The Stranger‘s Eli Sanders to tell anyone who’d listen that Washington is “not only the most progressive in the nation, but even more so than Canada and Amsterdam.” (The Stranger itself deployed its usual sense of nuance in its analysis of the result, as shown above.)

This is the sort of logic that only works if you only care about social issues. And it papers over the fundamental problems the state is still having thanks to the initiative process, which remains one of the worst ideas the progressive movement ever had.


Mandates are silly

Eight years ago, as an editorial writer for my college paper, I wrote a counterpoint against the idea that George W. Bush’s reelection gave him a mandate to pursue goals like the partial privatization of Social Security. I still think I was on the right side of that argument (and I could say history agrees), but looking back, I think I could have made a much simpler case. And now that another close election has given way to the usual arguments about the size, scope or existence of President Obama’s mandate, it looks like I have the chance.

Barack Obama won a mandate to be President of the United States for another four years. Which is worth a lot. But beyond that, any attempt to read an obvious policy preference in the election results would involve a pretty serious misunderstanding of how our political system works. (more…)

Star Wars must unlearn what it has learned

It probably says something revealing about me that I learned about the new Star Wars trilogy while reading an economics blog. For instance, that I gave up on the franchise around the start of the Yuuzhan Vong storyline. And I think that has a lot to do with why I’m finding myself pretty unenthused about the prospect of more movies.

Like just about everyone, I didn’t much like the prequels. But unlike just about everyone, I thought The Phantom Menace was the best of them, largely because it was slightly more interested in developing its own actual story rather than scene-setting the events of the original trilogy. Episode VII presumably will not be a prequel, but given the state of the franchise, its story could be in even more trouble.


The art of ignoring the voters

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which is running until October 20 at my local community playhouse, isn’t my favorite kind of historical drama — it’s an aggressive mashup of anachronisms that can’t seem to decide how true it wants to be to the real story that it’s telling — but if you read it pretty narrowly, as a skewering of populism and a certain kind of revolutionary, it has some clever points.

Some of the play’s most biting elements don’t involve Andrew Jackson the man or his actual presidency, both of which are pretty heavily fictionalized. Instead, the show works to paint a picture of the American public as a bunch of willfully ignorant simpletons who just want a big strong leader to come along and make the tough decisions for them. And what’s fascinating about this idea isn’t so much how accurate it is, but how central it is to basically every ideology’s political vision, including the moderates. Actually, especially the moderates.


Our solar system is huge

In 1990, Voyager 1 used its camera for the last time and took a panoramic photo of the solar system, including that famous photo of the Earth as a tiny, pale blue dot caught in a sunbeam. (Or, technically, a lens flare.) At the time, the probe was about six billion kilometers away, or 40 times the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Now, after covering another 12 billion kilometers, it may have become the first human-made object to leave the solar system in early September. And despite moving faster (on average) than any other object we’ve ever built, it took 35 years to get that far.

I was born almost four years after Voyager 1’s flyby of Saturn, when its primary mission ended, so I spent my childhood assuming it was long gone already. The fact that it’s still racking up milestones well into my adulthood is a pretty good example of how hard it is to comprehend the scale of the universe we live in.


Cultural imperialism and helmet laws

I don’t generally have a lot of nanny-state moments, but this article about how Seattle’s bike helmet law is holding up efforts to launch the Puget Sound Bike Share program had a couple of discordant notes. Repeatedly, the article makes assertions like this:

We live in a helmet-wearing culture and the PSBS plans to own it. “We are proud to start the [bike share program] in Seattle and be a model for other cities,” Lindmark says.

That’s Ref Lindmark, who happens to be the transportation planner for King County Metro as well as president of the PSBS board. Note that his quote seems to have nothing to do with bike helmets, much less our “helmet-wearing culture.” Possibly because that’s not what we have. What we have is a county regulation stating that anyone riding a bicycle without a helmet can be subject to a $30 fine. So the fact that just about everyone in Seattle wears a helmet isn’t a cultural quirk so much as the result of a deliberate policy choice by our government.


The New Format fallacy

Back this summer, as part of his less-than-subtle attempt to tell American journalism how to fix itself, Aaron Sorkin inserted his vision of an idealized debate into last year’s Republican primary. The whole thing turned into a case study in how much better The Newsroom was at identifying the problems in modern journalism than it was at coming up with solutions, and how the show managed to be half-right and yet go horribly wrong. But considering what did and didn’t work in this week’s real presidential debate, it’s worth taking another look.

I mentioned right after the debate that I thought its biggest problem was the disengaged approach from moderater Jim Lehrer. That mattered more than usual because this debate actually did include a kind of revolutionary new format, which mostly did away with the tightly structured response times we’re used to from previous presidential debates. It’s a promising trend, but it means we really do need the moderator to play a more agressive role.


Where’s the beef?

When I was in high school, and a little bit in college, I took a few turns in my school’s debate club. It was fun, since I like arguing, but I ended up drifting away from it for a couple of reasons. One, I wasn’t that great at it. Two, it turns out that figuring out an objective way to score an argument ends up taking a lot of the fun out of it.

I’m thinking about this because we’ve reached that time in every presidential campaign where I remember why I hate the debates. It’s not that the debates themselves are bad — they’re not great, but they really are the one of the best chances you get to see the candidates argue for their ideas. What bothers me is that the ideas are generally the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.


How Weird Tales did everything wrong

How far we've come.By all rights, Saving The Pearls: Defending Eden should not have been anything I needed to spend time thinking about. The problem with self-published books is that there’s no reliable means of gauging quality, so I generally don’t pay attention to them unless they’ve been recommended by someone I trust, or they took a title I wanted to use. The literary world would really benefit from some sort of comprehensive system to gauge the quality of self-published work, but until then, I have plenty of other books that I haven’t had time to read.

Then Weird Tales went and made this a story about how not to run a magazine.

It’s hard to find any aspect of this controversy that Weird Tales managed to handle well. First, the editor goes out of his way to get involved in what was already a building online controversy over an obviously touchy issue — not just by defending the book on Weird Tales‘ blog, but by promising to publish its first chapter in America’s Oldest Fantasy Magazine. Then, once the backlash happens, his (co-)publisher decides that the best way to save the magazine is by throwing its editor under a bus.