Monday, January 31, 2005


What is a knuckleball?

Honorary Degrees for $200

This doctor can put his honorary Ph.D. next to his oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.

The future ain't what it used to be

Sometimes I'm glad I'm getting up there in years and probably won't live to see the world I see coming.

In what's described as the largest effort of its kind, 100,000 students, 8,000 teachers, and 500 administrators at 544 public and private high schools took part in a survey of their attitudes about First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and the press. The results, released Monday are not what you could call encouraging.
[W]hen told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.
And when it's said that over a third think the First Amendment goes too far, that is of the whole sample, including the 21% who said they don't know enough to express an opinion. Of those who did express an opinion, 44% - close to half - agreed that the guarantee of freedoms goes "too far."

Students also were readier than their elders - by a margin of about 15 percentage points - to accept the idea of limiting expression of "unpopular" ideas (albeit while still showing strong support for the idea) and were less than half as likely as teachers and principals to actually think about First Amendment rights. The survey also made clear that many of the students did not understand what is and isn't protected speech.
"These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous," said Hodding Carter III, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which sponsored the $1 million study. "Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future."
Interestingly, there was a bit of NIMBY going on: The students were more likely than the teachers and administrators to say that musicians should be free to sing offensive lyrics and they were significantly more likely to say that student newspapers should be able to write about controversial topics without interference from school authorities - more than twice as likely as principals. So is this a sort of "I have rights, you have privileges" response, an "I'm free to say what I want and you're free to agree with me" attitude? Certainly, seeing how quickly and easily many comment threads on various blogs break down into endless strings of insults - and not even creative or original insults, just the same old infantile name-calling; where is Ambrose Bierce when we need him? - indicates that for many, "free speech" consists wholly of the right to be rude, and the more sophomorically vulgar you are, the freer you are.

That could be chalked up to immaturity and indeed it does seem that many of the more hectoring sorts have missed their afternoon nap, except that it points to a deeper and more serious consideration. There is an equation, unspoken but visible, between free speech and power. Not empowerment (of the self), but power (over others). As if the right to speak was a prerogative of the powerful and "Shut up! Just shut up!" is the entirely appropriate response to opposition.

This is something of which the power-hungry right - not surprisingly - has been far more guilty than the more cooperatively-oriented left, but the left has been infected with the poison. Not that the left, while it can be censorious, is anywhere near the equal of the right in seeking to silence opposition - and we tend to focus our attention on expressions rather than expression, that is, terms rather than ideas - but that all too often we feel the need to demonstrate our right to express our ideas, the need to prove our right to speak.

When was the last time you heard some right-winger declare, for example, "I love my country but...?" So why do so many of us feel the need to make such pleadings? The fact is, every time we fall into that or any associated verbal trap we are simply reinforcing the idea that doubts about us of whatever sort are justified, because we clearly feel the need to defend ourselves against them. But still we do it, over and over. I can't help but fear that it's partly because we do believe, even unconsciously, that we have to establish that we are connected to the dominant power before our voices can legitimately be raised.

Footnote: I'm working this out as I go and it's hard for me to tease it out more clearly; maybe it's something I should just let sit for a time to tumble around my head and I can come back to it later.

Oh, and by the way, in this whole discussion about left and right I've been talking about them in the US context. So before anyone tries to slam me for saying that the left is less repressive than the right by bringing up some left-wing dictatorship or another, let me say now that I'll see you a Mussolini and raise you a Hitler and no, don't bother with the "it was called the National Socialist Party" crap; Nazi Germany was no more socialist than fascist Spain.

Or Saudi Arabia. Or Uzbekistan. Or Pinochet. Or Somoza. Or Ferdinand Marcos. Or the Shah. Or ... you get the idea.

Sunday, January 30, 2005


Who is E. M. Forster? (Acceptable: Edward Morgan Forster)

Sports Words

In baseball, "dancer" is slang for this type of pitch.

The view from an election

As predicted, the spin machine was in "full steam ahead" mode, the reports full of cheering crowds and touching scenes of elderly women being helped to the polls by Iraqi policemen, the words "courage," "brave," and "unafraid" on all lips.

Now to be fair, the Iraqi elections came off better than most anyone expected. There were fewer problems and less violence than many feared - although at least 44 were killed in election-related violence - and the turnout may have been higher than predicted. One election official even estimated a turnout of 72%, far beyond the predicted 57%. I find that figure suspect because it would require a far higher than expected rate of voting by Sunnis, but the fact remains the turnout, at least among Shiites and Kurds, was good.

"At least among Shiites and Kurds." And therein lies the problem.
But for the country's minority Sunni Arabs, who held a privileged position under Saddam Hussein, the day was not as welcome.

No more than 400 people voted in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, and in the heavily Sunni northern Baghdad neighborhood of Azamiyah, where Saddam made his last known public appearance in early April 2003, the four polling places never even opened.
Ignore the attempt to equate Sunni opposition with being pro-Saddam Hussein. Instead, realize that this just serves to show that the split between Shiite and Sunni remains and could easily grow even if there are attempts to bring Sunnis into the 275-member national assembly charged with writing a new constitution.
Residents [in Tikrit] who rejected the vote asked how they could trust any government that came to power in the shadow of an American occupation.
Which also implies asking how they could trust any Sunnis who took part in that assembly, especially as Shiites are predicted to end up controlling well over 60% of the seats. What's more, the parties expected to be the strongest going into the assembly, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party, which make up the biggest part of the United Iraq Alliance slate favored by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, both have ties to Shiite Iran.

That connects to another aspect of this, noted by Robert Fisk in the January 29 The Independent (UK).
[O]utside Iraq, Arab leaders are talking of a Shia "Crescent" that will run from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon via Syria, whose Alawite leadership forms a branch of Shia Islam. The underdogs of the Middle East, repressed under the Ottomans, the British and then the pro-Western dictators of the region, will be a new and potent political force. ...

What does all this presage for the Sunni potentates of the Arabian peninsula? Iraq's new national assembly and the next interim government it selects will empower Shias throughout the region, inviting them to question why they too cannot be given a fair share of their country's decision-making. ...

No wonder, then, King Abdullah of Jordan is warning that this could destabilise the Gulf and pose a "challenge" to the United States. This may also account for the tolerant attitude of Jordan towards the insurgency, many of whose leaders freely cross the border with Iraq.
It also could encourage Sunni-dominated states in the region, primarily Saudi Arabia, to provide covert aid to the insurgency, which could only be staved off by what Shrub has thus far refused to consider doing: challenging the Saudis.

So on top of everything else, Iraq has the potential to become a surrogate battlefield for Saudi Arabia and Iran in a struggle for regional dominance. I believe we have done far more damage that we imagined and far more harm than good. STDD>HO.

A small step - but a step

Who do you think wrote this in a column published on Sunday
Are Americans OK with using religious humiliation as tools of war?

How about religious torture?
After listing several of the reports obtained by the ACLU of physical and emotional abuse inflicted on prisoners in US military custody in Iraq, the author goes on to say that
[g]ranted, these are only allegations. But there are a lot of them - enough to fill this whole page, never mind this column. That is too many to dismiss as unfounded. Too many to shrug off as the deeds of a few rogues on the night shift. And too many to make excuses for in the name of political or ideological loyalty.
That last sentence should be a hint that the author is no lefty, antiwar activist, human rights advocate. And indeed he is not. He is Jeff Jacoby, arch-conservative columnist for the Boston Globe and And he has come to face something I suspect he would rather not.
As regular readers know, I write as a war hawk. I strongly support the mission in Iraq. I voted for President Bush. I believe the struggle against Islamist totalitarianism is the most urgent conflict of our time.

But none of that justifies the administration's apparent willingness to countenance - under at least some circumstances - the indecent abuse of prisoners in military custody. Something is very wrong when the Justice Department advises the president's legal adviser that a wartime president is not bound by the international Convention Against Torture or the US laws incorporating it. Or when that legal adviser tells the Senate, as Alberto Gonzales did last week, that "there is no legal prohibition under the Convention Against Torture on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment with respect to aliens overseas."

If this were happening on a Democratic president's watch, the criticism from Republicans and conservatives would be deafening. Why the near-silence now? Who has better reason to be outraged by this scandal than those of us who support the war? More than anyone, it is the war hawks who should be infuriated by it. It shouldn't have taken me this long to say so. [emphasis added]
It's all too easy, especially for those of us who live towards the ends of the political spectrum, to downplay, to overlook, to ignore, even to outright deny wrongs done in pursuit of goals of which we approve. It takes a certain degree of intellectual courage to identify, even more to condemn, the injustices committed by those we support.

Jeff Jacoby has come to a point where his heart demands that he say "yes - but not at that price." He has admitted to himself that lines have been crossed that should never be crossed even in service of a cause he supports. In so doing, he has reclaimed some part of his humanity that had been buried in the tomb of expediency. I say, with absolutely zero sarcastic intent, good for him.

We're #10! We're #10!

This is called setting the bar really, really low.

In its online edition, Newsweek described the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, as a gathering of
2,000 of the world's richest and "most powerful" people, [ranging from] central bankers ... to present and past heads of state like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton ... to Hollywood stars....
On Thursday, the Forum staged its own version of a global town meeting, a plenary session to brainstorm about the values that should be part of governance. As part of that they voted on the top 12 issues of importance over the next year. Poverty came out on top, followed by "equitable globalization," global warming, and peace in the Middle East. Here's the kicker:
"Managing the United States" was No. 10, with a mere 24 percent believing that America was the world's biggest problem.

Given the abysmal reputation that the United States enjoys in Europe these days, and much of the rest of the world, that's surprising.
So we're now supposed to think it's good news - or at least be pleasantly surprised - that a "mere" 24% of "the world's richest and most powerful people," exactly the kind of people you'd think would be more likely to be on our side, that a "mere" quarter of them think the US is a bigger problem than poverty, peace in the Middle East, and global warming.

Did I say low? Damn, if they wanted to set the bar any lower they'd have to dig a ditch.

One Footnote: In a revealing detail, when the delegates ranked those challenges for 2005, terror didn't even make the list. The War on Terror(c)(tm)(pat.pend.) remains for the most part an American enterprise, with others doing what they have to do to keep up appearances (and, in a number of cases, the aid flowing) while knowing that other things are just a lot more important, other problems are just a lot more serious. Even those pursuing the lifestyles of the rich and famous know it.

Another Footnote: Morgan Stanley economist Steve Roach, one of those Davos movers'n'shakers,
[f]or the first time in a decade ... has some nice things to say about Europe. He sees signs of hope in recent efforts to make the labor market more flexible, and expects to see some follow-through in productivity from investments in information technology.
The phrase "a more flexible labor market" translates to "weaker unions, fewer worker protections, givebacks, wage cuts, layoffs, and unemployment." It means, that is, increased corporate profit at worker expense. This, he says, is a good thing.

Just to put some of that "oh, we're so concerned about poverty and stuff" business in perspective.

They've certainly broadcast enough

In an interesting role reversal, it develops that the
American Nazi Party has volunteered to pick up trash along a quiet stretch of rural road in Oregon state, causing an uproar after getting a sign placed there crediting its work. ...

"American Nazi Party" is written on the sign, which is part of the "Adopt-A-Road" program that encourages local groups to clean up road litter in exchange for recognition on small signs,
Reuters reported on Saturday.

Marion County officials pointed out that there was no way for them to refuse the Nazis participation in the program, which is true, what with that pesky notion that free speech has to apply to everyone and all the rest of that icky left-wing liberal stuff. In fact,
[a] branch of the Klu Klux Klan has "adopted" a stretch of road in Missouri. After several legal battles, U.S. courts ruled that attempts to block the white supremacists from the litter program was a violation of its free speech rights.
Even so, Dan Estes, senior policy advisor to the county's Board of Commissioners said he'd personally received at least 30 complaints. He went on to say that the county
put up the two signs at a cost to taxpayers of about $500.... If the signs are destroyed, the sponsoring organization must pay for replacements.
I can't help but wonder why he found it necessary to include that last part. Was it just to reassure local taxpayers? Or maybe....

Nah, he's a good public servant. He'd never think that way.

"So sorry about your signs. You are still going to pick up the trash, aren't you?"

Saturday, January 29, 2005


Who is Calvin Coolidge?

In the News 1924 for $2000

A Passage to India must have worn him out; he published no more novels in the remaining forty-six years of his life.

Sports Words

Civics lesson

So tomorrow is the day. The big day! The day democracy comes to Iraq!

In reading the comments on several blogs lately, I've noticed that the issue of "you liberals" not talking a lot about the Iraqi elections has come up a number of times. And in my case, it actually is true: I haven't talked about them much. But there's still time, so here I go.

I hope they come off smoothly. (They won't.)

I hope they come off peacefully. (They won't.)

I hope they come off honestly. (They won't.)

I hope the results truly reflect the desires of the Iraqi people. (They won't.)

I hope they are a truly legitimate exercise of democracy. (They can't be.)

The truth is, whatever we may hope, there is simply no way this can be a legitimate election. Not when "Baghdad feels like a city preparing for war." Not when even the interim president, Ghazi Yawer, admits that many people will not vote because of the threat of violence. Not when, according to a poll by Zogby International, 76% of Sunnis, in line with a call for a boycott, said they "definitely would not vote" and only 9% said they would.

Not when
[t]omorrow's supposedly free and fair elections have been undermined by a wealth of "soft money", an absence of inspectors and no limits to how much candidates can spend.

As a result, parties with links to exile groups have a huge advantage over their rivals,
taking advantage of large sums flowing in from Iran and Saudi Arabia, reports The Independent (UK).

Not when the total lack of international monitors, who will be in Amman, Jordan, not Iraq, means
that it will be impossible to conclude anything about the extent to which corruption, voter intimidation or outright fraud will mar the results. The exercise will regrettably be a farce,
as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH, 10) wrote to Secretary of State Cantbe Right. (The entire letter, in .pdf format, can be seen here.)

Indeed, some examples of fraud have already been found, say articles from the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, including political slates using posters featuring images of leading clerics without their permission and voter education materials in the southern city of Karbala being tampered with to add a blurb implying that the Shia clerical leadership endorsed the major Shia-led coalition.

Not when there have been restrictions on the media, on travel, and on public assemblies and when the security situation is so bad candidates fear to have their names known.

And not when the country is still occupied by roughly 150,000 foreign, mostly US, troops. Not under the shadow of American guns. No election can be thought truly free, truly legitimate, under those conditions.

But they will happen anyway. They must. Even if Allawi and the US genuinely wanted to delay them, they wouldn't, they couldn't. As I said back on December 19, there was simply too much political capital invested in the date to change it. So the show will go on, everyone will spin their spin, the low turnout will be credited to a boycott or blamed on "terrorist violence," those who do vote will be lauded as "the brave face of the new Iraq," there will be discussions about bringing more Sunnis into the government (it's already happening), a government which will be denounced as a "puppet" filled with "collaborators" - and no one but no one will think for an instant this will change anything.

In fact,
[i]nstead of stabilizing the country, national elections Jan. 30 are likely to be followed by more violence and could provoke a civil war between majority Shiite Muslims and minority Sunni Muslims, the CIA and other intelligence agencies predict, according to senior officials who have seen the classified reports[, the Miami Herald reported January 18.] ...

All major U.S. intelligence agencies share a pessimistic prognosis for Iraq's future, according to a senior administration official. The assessment of the State Department's intelligence bureau is so grim that it's referred to as the "I agree with Scowcroft's analysis" report.

That's a reference to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who was national security advisor to Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush. Scowcroft said earlier this month that the Iraqi elections could deepen the conflict and "we may be seeing an incipient civil war."
Writing in the January 29 The Independent, Robert Fisk echoes that sentiment:
Few in Iraq believe that these elections will end the insurgency, let alone bring peace and stability. By holding the poll now - when the Shias, who are not fighting the Americans, are voting while the Sunnis, who are fighting the Americans, are not - the elections can only sharpen the divisions between the country's two largest communities.
(Note: The link is to the Information Clearinghouse reprint of the story; The Independent's version is in a for-pay archive.)

But there is an error of omission in that passage, one that explains why I think "may be seeing" fails to describe the crisis.

The error lies in the statement "the Sunnis, who are fighting the Americans." The omission is that American forces are no longer the only or even the main targets of insurgent violence. More and more, the targets are other Iraqis. More and more, the violence has been directed at the Iraqi security forces - the national guard and police, who are mostly Shiite, being attacked by insurgents, who are mostly Sunni. Even beyond that, even beyond what could be described as military targets, there have been attacks on funeral processions, on bus stations, on mosques, all targeting Shiites. There have been threats against schools and local agriculture directorates. Even Christian churches, which would seem to have very little to do with the politics of Iraq (Christians are a tiny minority), have been bombed.

Yes, there is an attempt to disrupt the elections through murderous violence; the attacks on polling places and election officials make that clear. But make no mistake: The election is not the point of the attacks, it is just the current focus. This is not about the elections per se, this is about who will be dominant in Iraq. This is about reactionary fundamentalists taking advantage of deep and bitter social and religious divisions to advance their own medieval agendas. It's about our having unleashed long-suppressed social forces with which we have no idea how to cope. This is about a civil war that dammit is more than incipient and that dammit even more is our fault. This is about bloodshed and death that we cannot contain but can only worsen.

We have enough blood on our hands. STDD>HO before we do any more damage.

Fears confirmed?

"They won't give peace a chance/That's just a dream some of us had." The BBC carries the rest of the tune:
[Jan Pronk, t]he UN's special envoy in Sudan says government military forces have been operating in the western Darfur region. ...

He said government bombers and helicopter gunships fly regularly over north and south Darfur and 40 villages had been hit by pro-government militia. ...

African Union monitors have been trying to investigate the reported air attack on the town of Shangil Tobaya on Wednesday, where 100 people are believed to have died.

They were turned away by Sudanese soldiers on Thursday, an AU official told the BBC earlier. ...

"Many villages around Labado are constantly being attacked - not with airplanes but by militia and these villages are being burned down and completely demolished," [Pronk] said.
The beginning of this month, I expressed my relief at the news that a preliminary peace accord had been reached to end the 20-plus year civil war between northern and southern Sudan. At the same time, I reminded people that six months earlier, when the pact was first announced, I noted that Sudan vice president Ali Osman Taha declared that one of the "fruits of peace" would be "the extinguishing of the conflict in Darfur."

"I find it hard," I said at that time, to find solace "in the words of someone who in the present situation uses the word 'extinguish.'" I was concerned that the end of one war would only enable the government to focus more firepower on the other. I sincerely hope that fear is not coming to pass.

Meanwhile, the oh-so-impartial US State Department
said all sides were involved in the latest fighting.

"All the parties, the government of Sudan, the militias that are allied with the government and the rebels, are to blame for this increase in violence," said state department spokesman Richard Boucher.
It's absolutely true that the "ceasefire" signed last year has been a joke, heavily violated by all sides. But when one side is doing all the dying, such supposed evenhandedness seems, what's a polite term - how about "inappropriate?" Or maybe "improper." Or what about "stupid?" Stupid. Yeah, that will do for now. It's stupid.

Joining the ranks

Updated When Bush nominated him, I noted that Alberto Gonzales had argued that the war on terrorism made the Geneva Conventions' limitations on treatment of enemy prisoners "obsolete" and "renders quaint some of its provisions."

I pointed to the fact that his office played a role in a memo arguing that torture of alleged al Qaeda held outside the US "may be justified" and that international laws against torture "may be unconstitutional" if applied to the War on Terrorism(c)(tm)(pat.pend.).

I reminded readers that he was the one who publicly defended the Shrub team's absurd contention that so-called "enemy combatants" could be imprisoned indefinitely without access to lawyers or courts. And I blasted the idea that his nomination was not "contentious."

In the wake of his confirmation hearings, I called him a "no-good, lying slimebucket" who engaged in "deceit, denial, and double-talk."
I mean, I expected Gonzales to lie. I expected him to run away from his own words. I expected him to dodge his record. I expected all kinds of deceptions and evasions ranging from the merely clever to outright whoppers. ... And yup, I got exactly that.
I also slammed the Democrats' "utterly incompetent" questioning of him and said that those who thought he would be an improvement because he's not John Ashcroft were "fooling themselves."

So I think it would be abundantly clear to all what I think of him being approved as Attorney General.

And yes, I have contacted both my senators about it. And I am confident they both will vote no, as any decent human being who does not want to endorse torture and indefinite detention without legal rights must.

But there is a move to get as many blogs from as wide an ideological span as possible declaring their opposition to Gonzales. So I am taking what, again, I would think to be my obvious position and making it explicit so as to add my tiny voice to the growing chorus of what is, last time I checked, 487 blogs.

No! to torture. No compromise, no acceptance, no softening. And so No! to Alberto Gonzales.

If you have a blog and want to add your voice, this is the link.

Updated to add the links and correct a mistake in my own chronology. Posting at 4am is not wise.

Friday, January 28, 2005


Who is Babe Ruth? (Acceptable: George Herman Ruth)

In the News 1924 for $1200

He won the 1924 presidential election four months after his son died of a tennis injury.

The hell with it

I don't feel well and "the world is too much with me," an energy-sapping state of mind I get into from time to time.

Perhaps at some point or another I'll explain what the phrase means. For the moment the urge is to rip out everything that complicates my life and more or less start over. In the real world, I don't know how far I can go with that, which makes it all the more frustrating.

Bottom line of all this is that I'm taking the day off from blogging and maybe, dammit, tomorrow, too. We'll see tomorrow.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Who is Jack?

In the News 1924 for $400

In 1924, he played 153 games for the Yankees and led the league with forty-six home runs.

Plan Geek from Outer Space

The magnificent Andean condor, the world's largest flying bird, has seen it's numbers decline significantly over the years and is now endangered. It was declared extinct in Venezuela 40 years ago and less than 100 still survive in Ecuador and Colombia. Between them, Chile and Argentina have about 4,000 birds, the largest remaining population.

But there are ongoing efforts to keep them from disappearing completely.
Sierra Paileman, Argentina (AP, January 27) - Timidly taking its first steps in the wild, the young condor perches on a rocky plateau as a hot breeze swirls upward from the barren Patagonian landscape.

Raised in captivity, the 1-year-old gathers the courage to attempt its first flight, unfurling its 10-foot wings and flapping skyward - before landing awkwardly on rocks a short distance away. ...

On Wednesday, two condors, one raised in captivity, the other a rescued bird, were released in Sierra Paileman, about 680 miles south of Buenos Aires, bringing to seven the number of condors freed from this spot. Across South America, 40 condors have been released to the wild since 1991.

Two others are awaiting release later in 2005 from the same fenced-in enclosure.

"Letting them go is a symbol of the condors who once flew here," said Luis Jacome, director of the Andean Condor Conservation Project. "It is important to Argentina both culturally and ecologically." ...

The Andean Condor Conservation Project, begun in 1991, has also opened a window for scientists into the habits of the giant, soaring birds that ride the thermals, traveling up to 150 miles a day to survive as scavengers in the harsh landscapes they inhabit. ...

At the conservation project, some birds are rescued, treated and released. Birds incubated in captivity are raised in the presence of latex puppets - made to look like adult condors - to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans.

There have been disappointments in the program, too: one released condor flew into a high-voltage power line in Venezuela, one was poisoned and another was shot by hunters in Chile.

Jacome notes that educating people about the condor is still the most crucial aspect of the program, as some people still fear an adult condor could kill livestock or carry off small children.

"There is no way we can let these birds go without educating people," Jacome said. "It takes years to raise a condor and only seconds to kill it."
The Andean condor's slightly smaller cousin, the California condor, is also seriously endangered - so much so that the last free condor was captured in 1987 and they are all now raised in captivity. They also are the subject of a reintroduction effort.

A pause that refreshes

I just thought we might pause a moment to note that despite everything, there were a few victories and some progress last year. In a January 19 emailing, TrueMajority mentions five with which it had been involved.

- Congress eliminated funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a next-generation nuclear weapon designed to burrow underground before detonating in order to destroy secure bunkers.

- The Shrub team was forced to deal with the disaster of Sudan, pushed first into paying attention, then to admitting what was happening in Darfur constituted genocide, and then into signing the Comprehensive Peace in Sudan bill, adding sanctions to demands that the Sudan government stop the genocide.

- Reacting to public pressure, Congress blocked Bush's Big Oil/Big Coal-loving energy bill.

- The White House could not get Congress to agree that Star Wars is "operable" in the face of repeated test failures and grassroots pressure.

- Due to widespread exposure of problems with electronic voting, eleven states, including California, plan to require voting systems that allow for recounts and issue voter-verified paper ballots. Even Ohio now says it won't buy the machines if they don't generate a paper trail.

I'm sure other organizations, based on their own work, could add other examples of legislative gains won or at least losses blocked. I'd also add the mass protest at the GOPpie convention in New York as proof that good, old-fashioned, boots-to-the-street action is, despite the claims of some who damn well should know better, neither outdated nor irrelevant.

So keep on keepin' on. Because what choice do we have?

Footnote: The counter-convention demo was loudly talked down and discouraged in some lefty circles populated by those who were totally wrapped up in electing John Kerry as the summation of all that is good in the world and timorously eager to play by the GOPpies' rules of what would "look bad." Imagine what it might have been if instead it had been talked up by those same voices.

Okay, now it's literally officially reached scary

Not about the FCC or directly about self-censorship, but the scary part certainly fits.

"Postcards From Buster" is a children's educational show starring an animated rabbit who travels to different parts of the country with a digital video camera, meeting different people (real people, not cartoon ones) of different backgrounds and religions, talking about different cultures and regional events. One of those harmless, sweet, everybody-is-nice and everything-is-interesting shows.

Or so it would seem. But beneath that veneer (ominous background music slowly builds) lies a black heart, alien to all things clean and decent. But some are not fooled! Some stand against this tide of evil! Some want, above all, to PROTECT THE CHILDREN! (Ominous music reaches a crescendo.)

Among those dedicated to the safety of those dear little souls is new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who, in one of her first official acts, denounced PBS for planning to distribute an episode of "Postcards From Buster" called "Sugartime!" in which he goes to Vermont - because two lesbian couples appear in the show.
"Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," Spellings wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of PBS.

"Congress' and the Department's purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television."'
Spelling wanted anything connecting the show to the her department removed and for PBS to notify member stations of "the nature of the show." (Sidebar: the "nature of the show" is about farm life and maple sugaring; same-sex civil unions, legal in Vermont, are not addressed.)

What's more, she wants PBS to give back to the department, which provides funding for distributing the show, any money that was spent on it and not-so-subtly threatened PBS's future funding:
In closing, she warned: "You can be assured that in the future the department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds."
PBS, to what should be no one's surprise, caved immediately and pulled the episode from distribution while ludicrously insisting that the threatening letter had nothing to do with it.
"Ultimately, our decision was based on the fact that we recognize this is a sensitive issue, and we wanted to make sure that parents had an opportunity to introduce this subject to their children in their own time," said Lea Sloan, vice president of media relations at PBS.
But wait - the show, again, involves Buster meeting people of different backgrounds and religions. Aren't there parents who want to introduce other religions, other cultures, "in their own time?" I mean, there are people out there who don't want older children, much less the age group Buster is aiming for, exposed to "unchristian" ideas (like, for example, evolution). Why are their worries ignored?

Reversing that to the real question, why are gays and lesbians apparently the only ones who are to be made invisible? Why are they the only ones too controversial, too much a "sensitive issue" to suffer children to be exposed to them? What are PBS and Spelling afraid of? What warping of the tender psyches of the dear little children (Think of the children!) do they see happening? That children might come to see gay as lesbian couples as ordinary people? That would be horrible, wouldn't it?

So just whose psyches are being protected? The children? Or their homophobic parents? Or, perhaps even more likely, the homophobic Margaret Spellings?

Footnote: WGBH, the Boston public television station that produces "Buster" will air the episode on March 23 and will make it available to other stations. Good for them.

Okay, it's officially reached scary

Back on January 18, I said the climate of self-censorship among broadcasters had officially reached stupid because Fox had blurred the bare butt of a cartoon character. Apparently I underestimated: Even a sly reference to nudity that doesn't actually show any is also to be off-limits, as CNN/Money tells us.
Anheuser-Busch is pulling an advertisement planned for this year's Super Bowl that would have poked fun at last year's infamous "wardrobe malfunction...."

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the ad would have shown a stagehand using Jackson's outfit to open a slippery bottle of Bud Light, causing it to tear. He tries to fix it using scotch tape.

The newspaper said the halftime show is not shown in the ad. Instead, it shows the stagehand watching the show on television as the crowd reacts and a game announcer chimes in: "Wow, that's something you don't see every day."

But the newspaper says Anheuser-Busch pulled the ad after consultation with both the National Football League, which denounced last year's halftime show, and Fox, which is broadcasting this year's game Feb. 6.

"Why take the risk? All you need is one person to be offended," Bob Lachky, an Anheuser-Busch vice president, told the newspaper. "Some people don't want to be reminded of the incident." ... [emphasis added]

The newspaper reports that Fox has even changed the name of its cable hit from "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" to "The Best Darn Super Bowl Road Show Period," as the show makes a special broadcast appearance.
Thus, anything that might possibly offend even one person is to be avoided. And so as the Powells, father and son, take leave of their government posts, at least one of them can take pleasure in the accomplishments of a job well done.

Roy Orbison had it right for sure.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Who is Mary (Mary)?

Nursery Rhymes for $1000

In a Mother Goose rhyme, this little boy gets his head patched up "with vinegar and brown paper."

Take a breath

For the moment at least, the tension between Israel and the new Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas seems to have eased. At least a little.

Just over a week ago, Ariel Sharon was holding Abbas personally responsible for attacks on Israelis and declaring that he would not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority unless Abbas took direct action to dismantle what he calls a "terrorist infrastructure." That despite the fact that
Abbas has said he would try to negotiate with Palestinian militant groups to persuade them to agree to a formal cease-fire. Analysts said that attempting to disarm the groups by force could lead to bloody clashes with official Palestinian security organizations and possibly civil war.
Nevertheless, just a few days later,
Israeli officials accepted a Palestinian plan to deploy hundreds of police officers along the Gaza-Israel frontier starting Friday, in the first act of security cooperation with Israel under Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Ultimately, about 2,000 were deployed. Meanwhile, Abbas, for his part, had been trying to reach a ceasefire by Palestinian militant groups, as he had promised.
The militants [said] they are ready to halt attacks, provided Israel stops military operations - a promise Israel has refused to make,
which always struck me as strange: I never understood why Israel could not say something like "Our military has acted only in the self-defense of our people. So if there are no attacks against us, there is no need for us to take any military action" rather than simply refusing to make any sort of promise at all.

But I need wonder no more, because on Wednesday, a "high-level source in Sharon's office" said pretty much exactly that, telling CNN "Wherever the area remains quiet there will not be any Israeli action." The option of acting against a "ticking time bomb" was left open, but the source said PA security would be given first dibs on acting.

Abbas's negotiations seem to have borne fruit, as both Hamas and Islamic Jihad
this week agreed to a "period of calm" if Israel does the same. There have been no reports of Qassam rockets or mortars being fired into Israel from Gaza since Thursday.
(I suspect the phrase "period of calm" was chosen so the two groups could continue to insist that they had never agreed to a "ceasefire." The things that are done in the name of diplomacy....)

Things are looking up enough that high-level contacts between Palestinian and Israeli officials have resumed and the prospects for a Sharon-Abbas summit now look good. The fact that all this happened so quickly and so soon after Sharon ordered an end to all contacts with Abbas's government, especially since Abbas's moves would seem to fall considerably short of Sharon's demand that he, again, "dismantle the infrastructure" of militant groups, re-raises something I've wondered about before: Was Sharon's tough talk and his quick-on-the-draw severing of relations more for domestic political consumption than for a Palestinian audience? In sight of what's transpired since, I can imagine Sharon over that week of broken contacts thinking of saying to Abbas "C'mon, guy, gimme something to work with here." (And maybe, for all we know, actually "saying" it to Abbas in undercover exchanges - in much more diplomatically-correct language, of course.)

The first test of this is happening now, as Palestinians in Gaza vote in municipal elections in which Hamas and Islamic Jihad are expected to do well. But the real test is yet to come. There will at some point be another attack. Everyone knows it or damn well should know it. It could be by Hamas. It could be by some now-unknown splinter group of a splinter group, furious with Hamas for agreeing to that "period of calm." It could be by Israel, claiming one of those "ticking time bombs." The question is, what happens then? That's when the test of sincerity comes, that's when the actual commitment to peace and a negotiated settlement arises.

So far, it has to be acknowledged even by Israel's most ardent supporters that Mahmoud Abbas has done exactly what he said he would do: He has negotiated a ceasefire - excuse me, a "period of calm" - with the main militant groups that have targeted Israeli civilians and military forces. And he is openly ready to negotiate with Israel. He has shown his good intentions, now it's time for Sharon to show his. The question that will soon arise is what does Abbas have to show for his efforts. Tempers are short and patience is low on both sides, and the worst answer to that question is "nothing."

Footnote: One aspect of this which has largely been overlooked but was a key to what has come so far is included in the al-Jazeera report:
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has given orders for members of resistance group al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to be incorporated into the security services, a senior security official says.

"The decision has been made to put members of the al-Aqsa Brigades in the Palestinian security services," the official said.

"Abu Mazin [Abbas] told us that this must happen as soon as possible."
Before his election, Abbas spoke of co-opting the militants. Now, good as his word, he has made one of them part of his security forces, bringing them within the fold of the Palestinian Authority. It's a risky move, as it might set one militant group against another. But if it works, he will have both co-opted some among the militants and increased his own government's authority at a stroke.

Another Footnote: According to Reuters,
Israel says it will answer quiet with quiet and has shelved major military operations, but refused to stop selective raids.
Israel needs to realize, it's vital that it realizes, that this whole ceasefire, "period of calm," call it what you will, will not work if it appears to Palestinians that their resistance fighters - which is how they view the militants - are being killed with impunity. No one is asking or expecting the Israelis to wait until a bomber actually sets off the charge before acting - but the raids to capture wanted figures, the raids into the West Bank and Gaza, must stop if the truce is to survive.

A quiet coup

Two recent items, taken together, suggest to me there is a fundamental and serious reorientation of power going on within the federal government.

Several people have commented on the astonishing revelation by former Army intelligence analyst William Arkin that there exists "a small group of super-secret commandos," as Sunday's New York Times put it, whose task it is to carry out "anti-terrorism" commando operations inside the US.

Taking advantage of provisions in federal law that allow for the military to offer cooperation to local law enforcement in cases of "high-risk events" and emergencies, the program, called Power Geyser, was most recently involved in security for Shrub's coronation. Here's what matters, though:
Mr. Arkin, in the online supplement to his book (, says the contingency plan, called JCS Conplan 0300-97, calls for "special-mission units in extra-legal missions to combat terrorism in the United States" based on top-secret orders that are managed by the military's Joint Staff and coordinated with the military's Special Operations Command and Northern Command, which is the lead military headquarters for domestic defense. ... [emphasis added]

Three senior Defense Department and Bush administration officials confirmed the existence of the plan and mission, but disputed Mr. Arkin's characterization of the mission as "extra-legal."

One of the officials said the units operated in the United States under "special authority" from either the president or the secretary of defense.
Same old, same old: It's legal 'cause the president says it is. But aside from that, note well: It's being said that the secretary of defense also has the power to authorize actions under "special authority" to expand the mission and activities of the military inside the US.

If it seems doubtful to you (as it does to me) that the president can just ignore law and custom under a doctrine of "special authority," the idea that such powers also reside in an unelected official should be beyond the pale. But in practice, it seems the pale has been moved much further out.

And still further: Also on Sunday, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon
has created a new espionage arm and is reinterpreting U.S. law to give Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld broad authority over clandestine operations abroad....

The previously undisclosed organization, called the Strategic Support Branch, arose from Rumsfeld's written order to end his "near total dependence on CIA" for what is known as human intelligence. Designed to operate without detection and under the defense secretary's direct control, the Strategic Support Branch deploys small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists alongside newly empowered special operations forces. ...

Perhaps the most significant shift is the Defense Department's bid to conduct surreptitious missions, in friendly and unfriendly states, when conventional war is a distant or unlikely prospect - activities that have traditionally been the province of the CIA's Directorate of Operations.
Thus the unit, which apparently has been in operation for two years "in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places [officials] declined to name," involves a major expansion of the military's role in foreign intelligence and covert activity, independent of and in many ways in competition with the CIA - and also, apparently, independent of the new position of national intelligence director, the creation of which Rumsfeld resisted until he got language that he interprets as maintaining his freedom of action.

So under, and due to the efforts of, Donald Rumplestiltskin, the military has expanded its power and areas of operation both internally and externally, spread both inward and outward, along with, it would appear, the "special authority" of the secretary of defense to engage in clandestine and covert military operations here, there, and everywhere. No more troubling themselves about the Posse Comitatus act, no more hassles with those icky reporting-to-Congress requirements, no more having to play second fiddle to silly civilian agencies; the personal "special authority" of the secretary of defense can sweep all that aside.

A Rumsfeld coup, a silent coup that is seeing an increasing military influence on both foreign policy and domestic federal law enforcement and therefore placing Rummy on top of the White House in-fighters, lording it over the "risk averse" CIA. So he gets a boost to his political and ideological agenda and we get what, commando raids on libraries that carry "Fahrenheit 911" DVDs?

The reason the Constitution makes the president the commander-in-chief of the armed forces is to insure that the ultimate authority over the military will be in the hands of a civilian. It was intended to be a check on the power of the military, a power the authors understood was dangerous to a free nation. Unfortunately, it doesn't allow for the possibility of an administration that wants to use that very Constitutional authority to expand that power rather than control it.

Footnote: Arkin's book, Code Names: Deciphering U.S. Military Plans, Programs and Operation in the 9/11 World, is available both at Amazon and Powell's.

A p.s. to a farewell

Updated When I first read the Reuters article about the Roy Caballes decision, I missed something really important. So if my previous post didn't shock you enough, try this on for size: In his majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens also argued that
Caballes did not have a legitimate expectation of privacy for contraband in the trunk of his car. He said that was different from the expectation that information about perfectly lawful activity will remain private.
Think about that. I mean really. In that sentence, Stevens takes the utterly shocking position that the cops' actions were justified because drugs were found: the end justified the means in its most literal sense. He thus declares his willingness to quite literally eviscerate the Fourth Amendment.

He would eliminate the possibility of challenging illegally seized evidence: If evidence was found, by definition it couldn't have been obtained illegally because the accused had no legitimate expectation of privacy. (And no hiding behind the "he was convicted, so he was really guilty" crap: The question of the legality of the search precedes, it does not follow, the verdict. No ex post facto excuses allowed.) He would eliminate the need for search warrants: So long as anything is found, the search was legal.

And if nothing is found? What is your recourse? Sue the police? For what? I can easily imagine Stevens or anyone following his "logic" arguing that there was no demonstrated harm because the search didn't reveal anything you were trying to keep secret. But of course if it had done so, pursuing a suit would only serve to spread that former secret farther and wider, making such a suit unlikely except in the rarest of circumstances.

So desperate was the majority in this case (David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were the dissenters) to fashion an out for the police that they wound up embracing a concept that is utterly destructive of a central Constitutional guarantee against arbitrary exercise of police power.

Updated to note, as I should have, that both Souter and Ginsberg reached the same conclusion that I did: the dog sniff actually constituted an unjustified search. Ginsberg specifically labeled it a violation of Caballes' rights. Hopefully, what is a dissent now can, as in other examples, later become accepted doctrine.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


What are tarts?

Nursery Rhymes for $600

She's the gardening aficionado described as "quite contrary."

Paging Bartlett's

Guess who said this:
"This so-called ill treatment and torture in detention centers, stories of which were spread everywhere among the people, and later by the prisoners who were freed ... were not, as some assumed, inflicted methodically, but were excesses committed by individual prison guards, their deputies, and men who laid violent hands on the detainees."
Well, according to an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday (thanks to Information Clearinghouse for the link), it was Rudolf Hoess, the SS commandant at Auschwitz.

Now, I admit to being wary here; the quote wasn't sourced and I'm always suspicious of too-good-to-be-true quotes that can't be tied to an original source. Certainly Hoess' testimony at the Nuremburg trials displays no hint of such evasions. But just in case it proves to be entirely accurate, I figured you should see it.

Footnote: Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting the op-ed's author, Scott Horton, a lecturer in international humanitarian law at Columbia University in New York City, made the quote up. But I want some source closer to the original before I'll accept it accurate rather than a potential urban myth.

Warm thoughts on a cold day

Updated Global warming may seem like an odd topic to be considering just three days after being blasted with 38 inches of snow (that's just short of a meter to my international friends). But Left End of the Dial had a link to a CNN piece for Monday that brought it back to mind.
Global warming is approaching the critical point of no return, after which widespread drought, crop failure and rising sea-levels would be irreversible, an international climate change task force warned Monday. ...

"An ecological time-bomb is ticking away," said Stephen Byers, who co-chaired the task force with U.S. Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, and is a close confidant of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "World leaders need to recognize that climate change is the single most important long term issue that the planet faces."
The report, called "Meeting the Climate Challenge" and available in .pdf format through this link, addresses one of the big fears among climate scientists: the possibility of a "runaway greenhouse effect" where in addition to environmental factors (particularly human activity) acting as "forcings" on the climate, the warming itself becomes a forcing, generating a feedback loop that would dramatically and drastically escalate both the severity and rapidity of climate change and would react sluggishly (i.e., over perhaps centuries) - if at all - to efforts to mitigate it. The report suggests we are on the verge of just that point of no return, beyond which our efforts would be futile.

Just how rapidly can severe changes occur? One of the "tipping points" the report lists would be the shutting down of the Gulf Stream, which would have an large impact, including making parts of the world much colder. I gave a brief explanation of how global warming can make some areas colder here, but the root idea is that it can result in the disruption of the flow of warm tropical water toward the poles.

Yes, but how rapidly, how severe? In his new book Boiling Point, Ross Gelbspan reports on an ice core study which indicates just that sort of breakdown of the warm currents took place about 11,000 years ago, giving what's now the UK a climate much like that of Greenland.

The entire change took four years. That's how rapid, that's how severe.

But so what? After all, actually doing anything about it could hurt the profits of the oil industry, the coal industry, the natural gas industry. Admittedly, it would also help industries dealing in renewable energy and help people live longer and healthier lives - but they don't pour big bucks into campaign coffers. There are priorities, y'know!

Updated to include the link to the report; that same sentence was also edited for the sake of proper grammar.

And so we bid a fond, sad farewell to...

...the Fourth Amendment, which, like whistleblower George Zeliger, a quality control expert and "statistics whiz" consigned to stapling reports and stuffing envelopes, has been limited to such menial duties as to make its job pointless. Reuters for Monday brings us the bad news:
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that police do not violate the constitutional right to privacy when a dog sniff of a vehicle during a lawful traffic stop turns up contraband.

The justices by a 6-2 vote, in a majority opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, set aside an Illinois Supreme Court ruling that such searches required reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

"In our view, conducting a dog sniff would not change the character of a traffic stop that is lawful at its inception and otherwise executed in a reasonable manner, unless the dog sniff itself infringed" on the individual's constitutionally protected privacy rights, Stevens wrote.
I've posted about this case twice before, once when the Supreme Court agreed to review it and again after oral arguments. But a brief synopsis: In 1998, Roy Caballes was stopped by Illinois state police for going 71mph in a 65mph zone. After he refused to allow a search of his car, another trooper showed up with a drug-sniffing dog, which indicated contraband was in the trunk. A search revealed a quantity of marijuana, leading Caballes to be sentenced to 12 years in prison and a $256,000 fine.

He claimed the search based on the "sniff" was illegal and in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The trial court rejected the argument but the state Supreme Court reversed on the grounds that the involvement of the dog improperly changed the nature of the situation from a routine traffic stop to a drug investigation.

And now the Supremes have ruled that no, it doesn't, it's just fine, there was no privacy violated, nothing unreasonable, and here, Fourth Amendment, take this stapler and get to work.

The ruling was a joke, so pig-headedly determined to empower cops and look tough on drugs that it wound up admitting the very thing it's argument was intended to deny.
"A dog sniff conducted during a concededly lawful traffic stop that reveals no information other than the location of a substance that no individual has any right to possess does not violate the Fourth Amendment" protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, Stevens concluded.
In other words, he says the dog revealed the location of the marijuana. The dog uncovered something that was not previously available to the police - which seems to me a definition of a search! In order to argue there was no search, Stevens says there was a search!

Warped logic leading to a warped decision that has warped our legal concept of protection against unreasonable searches and seizures beyond recognition.

Why am I so adamant about this? Why do I find this decision so threatening? First, because it avowedly declares that even if police have no reason to suspect illegal activity, they can still undertake what can at its most charitable be called a close examination of your person and property to seek evidence of some crime. That kind of discretion was previously limited to questions of immediate public safety (from which the approval of explosive-sniffing dogs in airports comes). This decision effectively broadens that discretion to include whims, idle curiosity - or perhaps even profiling.

Next, because it doesn't just open the door to even wider applications, it kicks down the whole damn wall. If this raises no Fourth Amendment issues, why should doing the same to cars at a stop light do so? Parked cars? People just walking down the street? Especially when you include the constant narrowing of "expectation of privacy" to slice away any time we could possibly be observed by authorities, how could the Justices say no to any of those without mocking their own logic?

Any why limit it to dogs? Why not the "electronic noses" being developed, which are more sensitive and more selective than dogs? If you're going to argue, as some have, that a "canine sniff" is okay because the dogs are merely "passively" responding to smells rather than "actively" searching for them (If that's true, what the hell is all that sniffing about?), well, the electronic version is even more passive. Hell, it's not even alive. Oh, no, that's different, you say? The use of such equipment is an "active" search by its user, you say? Then why isn't the use of a dog an active search by the handler, who is guiding the dog to what the handler wants checked?

And why, for that matter, limit it to drugs? And to smells? Once we accept the idea that the use of tools (which is what the dogs are) that effectively extend the senses of authorities beyond the range of human ability (which is what the dogs do) does not in any way intrude on our privacy or our right to be "secure in our persons and possessions," then we are of necessity saying, as I've argued several times, most recently just over a week ago, that what is within the protection of the Fourth Amendment is limited to that which is beyond the reach of our most advanced technology - and that therefore the range of the Fourth Amendment must shrink over time until for any practical purpose it has vanished altogether.

If it, as of now, hasn't already.

Monday, January 24, 2005


What is a snowmobile?

Nursery Rhymes for $200

"The Queen of Hearts, she made some" of these; the Knave of Hearts stole them.

Footnote to the preceding

That reminded me of some "guiding editorial principles" I offered for a previous version of Lotus. I suppose they seem as relevant now as any time, so here they are.

1) "To thine own self be true." (Shakespeare)

2) "The US isn't the worst - but it is the biggest." (Joan Baez)

3) "Sometimes a bit of humor contains more inner truth than the most serious seriousness." (Aron Nimzovich)

4) "No one but no one, no matter their status as left or right, 'revolutionary' or 'counter-revolutionary,' can be for that reason exempt from either criticism or praise." (Me)

Standard standards?

Some attention has recently been brought to blogging by a few among us having been paid consultants to political campaigns. Those bloggers dealt with the issue in different ways:

- Jerome Armstrong, hired by the Howard Dean campaign, suspended his blog.
- Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of DailyKos, hired together with Armstrong, posted a disclosure and kept blogging.
- Jon Lauck, a paid consultant to South Dakota's Republican Senatorial candidate John Thune, said nothing, arguing people knew he was pro-Thune just by reading his site.

Now, I think people can guess which of those is the one I think was unethical. But no matter for now. The thing is, this was part of what has prompted some academic discussions of a type with which we are all so familiar, these particular ones about "standards" of blogging and how bloggers relate to "real" journalists: a discussion, for the most part, featuring paid journalists and academics and very few actual bloggers.

In fact, there was one such discussion this past weekend, a conference which, as far as I can tell and like others of its ilk, had nothing to do with blogging or bloggers except as an object of establishment fascination with something it sees as oddball; a break from their usual state of ennui.

At the same time, there is still the actual question of just what we political bloggers are and just how we should regard ourselves. On that broader question, I actually don't have a problem with bloggers "adopting standards" about what we do as long as we recognize that any such standards will be quite informal and be developed by experience over time rather than by committee - and that they will be vague, voluntary, and vociferously violated. "Kinda oughtas" rather than "wills."

While some journalists - and I mean that in the professional, not the hack, sense of the word; Josh Marshall springs to mind - are bloggers, politically-oriented bloggers are not journalists, nor should we (nor, as far as I'm aware, do we) claim to be. We are, for the most past, just very opinionated people who are sufficiently egotistical to believe that someone else might want to hear what we have to say. That does not mean we are not a valuable resource and it does not mean that we don't have a real and growing role to play in the political life of our nation. What it means is that we are much more akin to opinion columnists than to reporters.

So what I have in mind when I say "standards" would be, first, accepting that no political blog should be regarded as, or expected to be, impartial. Our convictions - or, less politely, biases - are the reasons we do what we do.

We should, however, feel an obligation to keep our facts straight and not to deliberately ignore contrary information simply because it undermines what we wish were true. That doesn't mean every post has to be a debate, carefully presenting and analyzing all sides, but it does mean, for example, a post declaring there were no problems with the elections in Ohio patently fails that standard. That should also, I think, include some effort to "go to the source" rather than linking to so-and-so who linked to that guy who got it from her blog which linked to a source. That's not always possible, obviously, but I think an effort should be made in that direction both for the benefit of your readers and, frankly, your own: Better that you consider the source yourself instead of as seen through the filter of a series of eyes. (At the same time, courtesy would require a "link thanks to" acknowledgment.)

And we should also feel an obligation to differentiate between fact and opinion and between fact and conclusion drawn from fact.

Those are standards I have tried to work by - emphasize tried; I'm sure someone looking to do so could find examples of where I have failed - across all the versions of Lotus that have come and gone over the last 30 or so years. (I do miss the print version, but as is common with political publications of both ends of the political spectrum, the subscriptions simply didn't cover costs. And since no angel stepped forward to make up the difference, well....) I think readers can pretty easily distinguish between where I'm reporting and where I'm commenting, can tell where I'm simply presenting information and where I'm drawing conclusions.

I don't mean to set myself up as any sort of role model, only to say that I have tried to uphold the standards I would look for in others. I do think that those of us who like to fancy ourselves as political commentators should look to maintain some sort of self-imposed (self here meaning the individual self, not the group self) standards. That doesn't mean we can't deal in sarcasm, satire, rumor, and ridicule, it just means they should be distinguishable from assertions of demonstrable fact.

(I admit I've having a bit of a struggle here trying to talk about standards when there can be so many exceptions to the rule and what I'm really thinking about is political blogging the way I approach it. For example, satire is a hard one: I generally don't deal in satire - sarcasm, yes, satire, no - because I'm just not that good at it. But satire often works best when it cuts so close to the truth that you can't be absolutely sure that it doesn't mean what it appears to mean. So can you clearly distinguish fact from satire and still have top-flight satire? I don't know but I doubt it.)

There is one other issue, raised during the conference I mentioned.
Dan Gillmor, a former newspaper columnist now studying citizen-driven journalism through blogging, said bloggers who want an audience will voluntarily adopt principles of fairness, thoroughness, accuracy and transparency.

"No one's bound by these rules," Gillmor said, "but I think some norms will emerge for people who want to be taken seriously."
The question is, taken seriously by who? The answer appears to be "by 'serious' journalists." Well, I remember when the album "Switched on Bach" came out and supposedly made the Moog (rhymes with "vogue") synthesizer a "legitimate" musical instrument "instead of just making beeps and boops" as some had it. I, on the other hand, was a fan of "Silver Apples of the Moon" and I was disappointed, even saddened. I remarked to my brother, who preferred "Switched on Bach," that I found it rather depressing that we were presented with a device capable of an entirely new range of musical expression and we are expected to judge its worth by how much we can make it sound like the ones we already have.

So now we have the whole new world blogs and bloggers, this whole new means of electronic communication, and the word from the journalistic powers-that-be is that to be "taken seriously" we have to make it as much as possible like the forms we already have. In the case of electronic music, while it didn't replace traditional forms (and never was meant to), it did influence them. It was less that synthesizer music became traditional as that traditional music shifted and adapted to embrace the synthesizer. I suspect that over time, the same will be true of traditional journalism and political blogging.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Who is Madonna?


Carl J. Eliason is credited with inventing this vehicle in the 1920s by motorizing a toboggan.

Three miscellaneous items worth noting before they get too far out of the news

- The so-called scandal in the UN's "oil-for-food" program in Iraq is coming up largely empty. According to IPS News (Italy) earlier this month,
[a] series of 58 internal audits of the multi-billion-dollar oil-for-food programme in Iraq has revealed overbilling and management lapses by its U.N. supervisors, but no large-scale fraud.

The United Nations, which provided food and relief supplies to 27 million sanctions-hit Iraqis during 1996-2003, was charged with overseeing some 65 billion dollars in oil revenues to finance goods and services.

But preliminary U.N. audit reports made public by the Independent Inquiry Committee, created by the U.N. Security Council last year, show management failings resulting in losses amounting to about two million dollars - mostly due to overbilling.
Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, was quoted as saying "When you have a 65-billion-dollar programme and manage to find two million dollars missing, you don't have a big story."

Possibly more importantly, the same article reveals that the stories that Saddam Hussein was able to skim off billions and billions of dollars in illegal profits are also the result of hype. After noting claims by right-wingers that such illegal profits amounted to 10 to 20 billion dollars, the article added that
in an newspaper interview Saturday, the head of the Independent Inquiry Committee, Paul Volcker, a former head of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, said those figures were "grossly exaggerated". He said his own investigations show only about 1.7 billion dollars in illegal profits.
So - ho-hum - it's just another case of wrong-wing hacks building cases out of air. Meanwhile, Paul points out that the real scandal, the billions vanished from the Development Fund for Iraq run by the Coalition Provisional Authority, is all but ignored.

- Venezuela remains on the US hit list, it seems. At her confirmation hearings, Soon-to-be Secretary of State Cantbe Right went after President Hugo Chavez, claiming he was undertaking "autocratic moves to stifle opposition" and calling him "a destabilizing influence in the region."
"We have to view the government of Venezuela as a negative force in the region," Rice said. "We can work with others to expose that and to say to President Chavez this kind of behavior is really not acceptable in this hemisphere."
Let's see, you tried to undermine his government, immediately endorsed a coup you helped provoke, openly supported and helped finance his opposition, and despite having been rejected by the clear majority of the people of Venezuela every time, you now make thinly-veiled threats. Somehow, I don't think you're in a position to lecture him about "unacceptable behavior."

- Only about 30% of international aid actually reaches the poor according to a UN report issued mid-month, says the Toronto Globe & Mail. But, the report insisted,
if rich countries live up to promises made at a UN summit in 2000 and if poor nations reordered their priorities half a billion people could be lifted out of poverty
in 10 years. That's a noble and reachable goal, although with around 1 billion people living on no more than $1 a day and another 1.8 billion people living on no more than $2 a day, it's a beginning, not an end.

Some of the proposals made are good, especially those that might be called quick hit actions, such as
free mass distribution of anti-malaria bed-nets and anti-malaria medicines for children, eliminating fees for primary school and essential health services, providing antiretroviral drugs to 3 million AIDS patients by the end of 2005, and providing free fertilizer for small farmers with poor soil by the end of 2006.
(It's amazing how often the simple things rather than the grandiose, capital-intensive Big Project things make the most difference: Mosquito netting could have a huge impact in Africa, where 150,000 children die each month from malaria.)

Some of the recommendations deserve serious consideration but will need refinement, such as those that aid be focused on nations showing "good governance" while avoiding those known as serious human rights abusers. (I actually first proposed the latter idea 25 years ago, but I added the rider "unless it can be shown the aid directly benefits the people in need.") The reason for the necessity of refinement can be seen in the phrase "good governance." If that means the recipient nations need to be capable of making good use of the aid they get rather than having it evaporate in corruption or plain gross inefficiency, fine - provided that donor nations are prepared to help the less efficient become more so.

But the expression positively invites all kinds of self-serving distortions by more powerful nations to either pressure recipient nations to behave as the more powerful want them to or to punish them for not falling in line. Consider, for one example, the US treatment of Nicaragua in the 1980s. Under the Sandinista government, major strides were made in health, education, and helping rural farmers obtain markets for their produce. But the US successfully blocked Nicaragua's attempts to obtain capital from sources such as the World Bank based on its opposition to the "macroeconomic policies" of the Central American nation. That is, Nicaragua was not capitalist enough for us, so it was economically isolated. Had the US been working under the new proposals at the time, I suspect it would have just as easily have said "poor governance" as "poor macroeconomics."

That's particularly important because one proposal is flat out bad: Increased international support should only go to those nations which are, among other things, "trying to open up their economies" - and failure to do so could and no doubt would be labeled "poor governance" by some (guess who) as part of some power politics play or anther.

The thing is, in other contexts, "opening up the economy" has meant privatization of public services, reduced regulation of, and taxes on, businesses, and taking steps to integrate the nation into a globalized, corporate-dominated, world economy. That course has not served poor nations well so far except for when they can be used as weapons against the standard of living of workers in donor countries - and there's no reason to expect that will change in the future. There is no reason to demand any nation submit itself to the untender mercies of transnational corporations as the price for aid to its poor and good reasons not to make such a demand. Any proposal pointing in the direction of such a requirement should not be part of any program to aid the world's poor.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Who is Meat Loaf?

Top 40 Albums for $2000

Her 1990 album I'm Breathless featured songs from and inspired by the movie Dick Tracy.


Three environmental items worth noting before they get too far out of the news

- Shrub's fatuously-named "Clear Skies" plan to dismantle air quality regulations under cover of improving them
would not reduce pollution as much as existing Clean Air Act regulations, according to an interim report by the National Academy of Sciences [released January 14]. ...

The National Academies report, written by an independent panel of university professors and researchers, stated that Clear Skies, currently under consideration by Congress, is less stringent than a set of regulations known as New Source Review,
which requires utilities to install upgraded pollution controls along with plant upgrades. The program, created in 1977 to stop the practice of utilities' evading air quality laws by expanding existing plants grandfathered into the Clean Air Act rather than building new ones,
triggered dozens of state and federal suits against more than 50 power plants during the 1990s and forced some to install new pollution control,
said the Washington Post.

Shrub's Blear Skies plan would create an emissions credit-trading regime - thus allowing rich, polluting plants to continue polluting, even to increase their pollution, so long as it's cheaper to buy credits than to clean up their act. And I'm never quite sure how this is supposed to reduce pollution; seems to me all it really does is serve to concentrate it in fewer areas. The supposed "success" of a similar program related to acid rain-related emissions doesn't impress me not only because the technology is different but because so far as I'm aware, there's nothing to indicate the reductions achieved are in any way beyond those that would have been expected anyway.

In any event, this is what I noticed, from the San Francisco Chronicle's version of the story:
"The new source program is not an emissions-control program - it's an enforcement program," said Scott Segal, spokesman for the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a utility group. "And in order for enforcement to produce reductions in emissions, you have to win the case, and the process can be a long and arduous one."

Cynthia Bergman, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, agreed.

"Case-by-case litigation ... is a blunt tool that will never achieve the across-the-board reductions that the acid rain program has done and that we anticipate" from President Bush's proposals, she said.
Now, besides the fact that the argument is based on the nonsensical premise that utilities will now fight tooth and nail against living up to their obligations under current law but would never violate their responsibilities under a cap-trading program, does it make anyone other than me itchy to hear the corporate lobbying group and the EPA make the exact same argument?

Footnote: A spokesman for Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK) said "Clear Skies is more protective of human health because we know we're going to get early and guaranteed reductions from it."

Inhofe is the 40-watt bulb who called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people and the world."

- Speaking of global warming, the chief scientific adviser to the government of Great Britain said he is being targeted by American lobbyists trying to discredit his views about its dangers.
Sir David King said he was being followed around the world by people in the pay of vested-interest groups that want to cast doubt on the science of climate change.

Last year, Sir David said the threat from global warming was greater than that posed by international terrorism and he has criticised the Bush administration for pulling out of the Kyoto treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Since then, he has given many lectures to international audiences but found individuals among them who are there solely to create the impression that he is presenting biased information. ...

"You have a group of lobbyists, some of whom are chasing me around the planet, which I'm chuffed about because it means they are worrying about what I'm saying, and these lobbyists stand up after I've given an hour's talk and say, 'There are scientists who disagree with you'," Sir David said.

"I always say, 'Which bit of the science that I've just presented to you are you challenging'? I don't get the answer."

Last November, Myron Ebell, from a right-wing Washington think-tank called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said on BBC Radio 4 that Sir David is an "alarmist with ridiculous views who knows nothing about climate change".
So the chief scientist of the UK knows nothing about climate change but Myron Ebell, so scientifically illiterate he doesn't even understand the concept of models, is. Right.

By the way, the remark lead to a motion in the House of Commons to censure Ebell for his "unfounded and insulting" assertion.

(Note:, source of the above link, is actually a right-wing outfit trying to undermine public knowledge of global warming under a veneer of claimed impartiality.)

- Corporate-funded nay-sayers like Ebell continue to pocket their blood money even as the crud their employers produce continues to kill.
Women who breathe air polluted with smoke and exhaust fumes[, reports The Independent (UK) on January 17.] are up to four times more likely to have children who develop cancer, a study shows. Research at the University of Birmingham suggests atmospheric pollution from oil-fired furnaces and vehicle exhausts may be the principal cause of childhood cancer.

By linking pollution "hot spots" round the country with the incidence of cancer, the findings show that pregnant women and those about to conceive who live near factories, power stations or major road junctions are at greatest risk.
The study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Emeritus professor of epidemiology George Knox, who did the study, said the evidence indicated that exposure to pollution accounts for at least half of all childhood cancers.

And under Drear Skies we face the prospect of still more.

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SWLers, listen up! DXers, get your ears on! New Scientist has the skinny:
After the tsunami hit Sri Lanka on 26 December, Victor Goonetilleke, head of the island's amateur radio society, delivered a short-wave radio set and two 12-volt car batteries to the prime minister's emergency headquarters in Colombo. At the same time, three of his friends drove through the devastation to Hambantota, on the hard-hit south-east coast, where they set up another battery-powered short-wave radio.

For two days, while the military struggled to restore electricity supplies and phone lines, the prime minister was able to use the short-wave link to talk to staff on the ground.

Short-wave signals from Sri Lanka, the Andaman Islands and mainland India also helped to spread news of the disaster around the world. The same happened after the 9/11 attacks and last year's hurricanes in the Caribbean. When phones and mains electricity are down, making the internet unusable, short-wave radio enthusiasts are able to maintain emergency communications.

But not, perhaps, for much longer. Plans to deliver broadband internet signals to homes and businesses down mains electricity cables, rather than telephone lines, could cause interference that will drown out the faint signals from distant short-wave transmitters.
It develops that electric companies in the US have gotten, and those in Europe are about to get, permission to pursue a technology called broadband over power line (BPL), enabling them to compete with telephone companies in providing high-speed internet access to private homes. This is accomplished by having a high-frequency signal piggyback onto the normal 50 or 60 Hertz (cycles per second) current running through the lines. Electric power supply is what's called a "noisy" environment: What with all switches going on and off, machines running and stopping, and so on, there'd be a fair amount of electrical interference, which would dramatically slow the transmission of data. The solution is to have that data sent at a bunch of different frequencies.

That "solution" is exactly where the problem here lies. The cables used to carry power were designed for that 50-60 Hertz current, so they're not shielded against the high frequencies of the carrier wave carrying the internet data - and instead of acting like shields, the wires would act more like broadcasting antennas. What's more, the best frequencies for transmitting the data prove to be those up to about 30 megaHertz: Exactly the same band that is best for international radio transmissions, including national and private shortwave radio stations, ham radio, some emergency services, and a number of other applications. Which means that any shortwave radio near a power line could find that instead of producing music and news from dozens of countries around the world, it put out nothing but static.

What's more,
[u]nless interference of this kind is tightly controlled, it could spell the end for emergency short-wave communications. "A few extra decibels of interference from future networks and I would not have been able to hear the news from amateurs in Sri Lanka, India and the Andaman Islands," says Hilary Claytonsmith of the International Amateur Radio Union's UKbranch.
Supposed protections based on the use of filters were included in the FCC's approval, but they are singularly unimpressive, not only since they require proof of interference with nearby shortwave radios - and how long do you think that will stand in the face of corporate complaints about the cost involved in dealing with the "selfish complaints" of a "tiny handful of people" - but because outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said that the FCC
must balance the benefits of BPL against the relative value of other licensed services,
which radio amateurs take, as do I, as hinting that filters will only be used if they don't significantly affect the speed of data transmission over the power lines and the shortwave spectrum be damned.

New Scientist says that
[s]ome technical fixes may be in the works though. The BBC, for instance, is developing a PLC modem that makes use of the fact that the short-wave frequencies for broadcast radio change throughout the day, as ionospheric conditions dictate. The BBC modem detects which frequency bands are in use at any one time - and filters them out. Such technology is not part of any PLC or BPL system currently in trials, however.
It also seems quite inadequate since I can't see what such detection could be based on other than time of day at the receiver, even though time of day at the transmitter and the difference between the two are also relevant.

So I have a better fix: Don't do it. Drop BPL as an idea that is simply not ready for prime time and may never be.
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