Friday, December 31, 2004


Who is Dante (Alighieri)?

Poets and Poetry for $1200
While residing in Dumfries, Scotland, he wrote "Auld Lang Syne."

Tomorrow rings in a new Jeopardy! calendar. Unhappily, they didn't see fit to continue the same category in the new year. So it'll be a different category for tomorrow's $2000 question.

Time to start anew

There's a lot of other stuff, but the heck with it. It can wait until tomorrow. It is, after all, New Year's Eve.

No, I'm not going to do one of those retrospectives and I'm not going to spend a few paragraphs getting philosophical. I do enough of that as it is. I do have to admit that I wonder where I will be a year from now: It occurred to me over the holidays that I've spent each of the last four in a different place. And while some stability would be nice, I don't know that it's coming. "The only thing that doesn't change is the fact that everything else changes."

No matter. What I wanted to mention is that January 1, a completely random time to start a new year (in Europe, until the latter part of the 1500s it was common to start the new year in late March with the arrival of spring, which makes as much sense as January 1 does), stands as a symbol of the idea of starting anew.

Sometimes, that's not such an easy symbol, as the Seattle Times noted on Thursday.
Let's face it, New Year's Eve is practically a festival of pressure.

Pressure to choose a memorable way to enjoy the evening. Pressure to spend that evening in a gown or tux, with someone special. Pressure building up to midnight, and that perfect kiss at that magical hour - which, of course, inaugurates the pressure of all those many resolutions.

"It's a sad holiday. It never really delivers," said Brian Battjer, a New Yorker who speaks for everyone who winces at that inevitable question, "What are you doing for New Year's?"

A Gallup Poll taken Nov. 19-21 quantifies the angst. The organization asked 1,015 adults to pick their favorite holiday: 63 percent chose Christmas, 27 percent selected Thanksgiving, a mere 9 percent said New Year's. (The remaining 1 percent had no opinion.) ...

Many Americans want ... an evening of quiet contemplation. Although tens of thousands turn out for raucous celebrations - an estimated 500,000 annually in Times Square alone - most opt to spend the night at home.

That's what a survey by Domino's Pizza has revealed for the past two years.

Last year at this time, Domino's and Impulse Research queried 1,232 persons on their New Year's Eve plans. Sixty-seven percent said they planned to stay home. And while 31 percent had planned to go out to party the previous year, only 28 percent actually did. ...

"New Year's. I hate it," [Battjer] said.
But like the man said, it's just another New Year's Eve. And I'm spending it at home. With my wife, our dog and cats (and the visiting guest dog), and our first real Christmas tree, watching "Holiday Inn" (being appalled at the "Abraham" scene and thinking that despite our frequent pessimism, we have come a distance) - and contemplating renewal.

Happy New Year. Let's make it the best.


It's time for that traditional holiday treat, making resolutions. Every year for a very long time I have kept mine without fail. Really, I have. Every year I make one and only one resolution and I always keep it. I resolve to make no other resolutions.

But something it is a good idea to resolve to do is to keep track of your credit record. Thanks to the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, consumers will be allowed to obtain one free copy of their credit report each year from each of the big three credit reporting firms: Experian, Trans Union, and Equifax. What some have suggested is that you rotate through them, asking for your report from a different one every four months. The request can be made by phone, in writing, or on line.

The law set a roll-out schedule for this: Since December 1, residents of fourteen Western states have been able to do this; those in the Midwest will become eligible on March 1; those in the South, on June 1; those on the East coast, September 1.

There is one small hitch: The credit companies are going out of their way to keep people from knowing about it. According to a mailing earlier this month from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC),
the credit reporting agencies have blocked external web links to the free report site, claiming that links create security risks.
The result is that this link, which is to, where you can find instructions in how to get your free report, will not work. You can cut and paste the link into your browser to get there, but I can't link you to it. Feel free to try it.
EPIC and a coalition of consumer and privacy groups have urged the Federal Trade Commission to order the credit reporting agencies to refrain from blacklisting links to the site. The coalition letter argues that blocking links violates federal regulations; that it drives down search engine rankings for the free site, making it more likely that individuals will find a fee-based site; and that "every subtle and not so subtle web design tactic has been employed to make [the site] difficult to find and use. It appears this is unlikely to have occurred by accident, because many of the tactics represent bad web design, mistakes that only beginner HTML authors would make."
The kind of information they hold about you is available to and used by a wide variety of businesses and agencies. But god forbid you should find out. By the way, EPIC also notes that
[t]he free report requirement also applies to "nationwide specialty" credit reporting agencies, such as ChoicePoint and the Medical Information Bureau, that collect and sell employment, tenant, medical, and insurance reports
under the same roll-out schedule as the credit reports.

Thursday, December 30, 2004


What are the Pentagon Papers?

Poets and Poetry for $400

A trip to Ravenna in 1819 inspired Byron to write "The Prophecy of" this "Divine Comedy" poet.

Just for laughs

You know I don't get too much into GOPpy v. Dummycrat deals, and I know you've probably heard about this, but this is just too good to let pass without notice here.

Republican Joe Rossi seemed at first glance to have won the governor's seat in Washington. A machine recount, required by state law because of the closeness of the election, showed him ahead by 42 votes. But Democrat Christine Gregoire wanted a manual recount.

The GOPpy response was immediate and predictable: They declared victory, had a party, and called on her to drop the whole idea and concede defeat. If she failed to do so, she'd "have to answer to the public" if things "dragged on" into January - and, they warned, even if a recount reversed the result, it would be "very difficult for her to be seen as a legitimate governor."

But the recount happened. When in the course of it, King County found a few hundred ballots that had mistakenly not been considered, Gregoire wanted them counted. The GOPpies tried to prevent it but after failing, muttered darkly about the county being "completely corrupt." Republican Party Chair Chris Vance said the party was "absolutely convinced that King County is trying to steal this election."

Well, the recount was finished and Gregoire was shown the winner by 10 votes. Adding in the margin from those additional King County votes kicked the margin up to 129. And what do we hear now from the people who didn't want this "dragged out" and demanded her concession when she trailed by 42 votes? AP for December 30 tells us:
After three vote tallies and nearly two nerve-racking months of waiting, Democrat Christine Gregoire was declared Washington's governor-elect on Thursday. But her Republican rival did not concede and wants a new election.
That's right - now that he's lost, Rossi wants a do-over. What's more, he's wielding the threat of a dragged-out court case, the very thing his party supposedly didn't want, in an attempt to get one.
While noting that he could contest the election, Rossi said a legal challenge could drag on for months. The better way to clear up the mess, he said, would be to ask lawmakers to pass a bill calling for a special election as soon as the state Legislature convenes in early January for the 2005 session.
This is just hilarious. Classic French farce has nothing on this. I actually heard a talk-show host in Las Vegas suggest that John Kerry call for a revote in Ohio by simply adopting Rossi's arguments about "legitimacy" and inserting "Ohio" wherever Rossi said "Washington."

Some of Rossi's supporters have groused that the dispute has made Washington a laughingstock. No, it hasn't - until now, that is.

Finally for now, just to remind ourselves

The Christian Science Monitor for December 30 carries the message that
[w]hen war and natural disaster saturate the news, it's easy to forget that beauty can still be found.
The article is about a new installation by "the renowned large-scale artists Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude." It will consist of 7,500 "gates" bearing "shimmering flags" of saffron-colored nylon panels laid out along 23 miles of pathways through New York City's Central Park for 16 days in February.
A visitor to Central Park this February is not likely to forget the experience, and a later visit will bring it to mind again. In this way, beauty carries on, even without the physical expression of it.
Yes. I first became aware of Christo in 1976 at the time of "Running Fence," a 24-mile long fabric wall running west through central California to the sea. The installations are always temporary, always environmentally-sound and carefully planned, always publicly-accessible. They frequently recycle the materials. They are always on a grand scale. And always, each in their way, quite startling and quite beautiful.

I've never seen a Christo/Jeanne-Claude installation, only pictures of them. And even then, the memory stays. I wonder if I can make it to New York in February.

It ain't over 'til it's over

Updated The Christian Science Monitor's valuable Daily Update for December 29 fills us in on the aftermath of the election of Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine. And it ain't pretty.

Defeated candidate Viktor Yanukovich, despite pre-election promises to the contrary, refused to concede. Instead, Reuters said, he
lodged complaints with the election commission and the country's top court detailing violations during a re-run of a presidential poll....

Yanukovich's aides also lodged complaints at the Supreme Court, a spokeswoman said.
The heart of the 27-page complaint is the claim that 4.8 million old and sick people had been unable to vote because they couldn't make it to the polls. (The Ukrainian Supreme Court had ruled that changes to election laws which banned so-called "mobile voting," allowing people to vote from home, were unconstitutional.)

However, AP reported on Thursday,
[e]lection officials on Thursday rejected Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's voluminous challenge to results showing he lost this week's presidential revote, saying he did not prove any widespread violations.
Yanukovich will appeal to Ukraine's Supreme Court, but his campaign sounded pessimistic about the outcome, as reflected in an aide's statement that "In a year, we will change power" - a reference to Parliamentary elections coming in 2006.

The Court could still decide that Yanukovich's claim has merit; but in any event, it is highly unlikely to alter the outcome: Since Yushchenko won by about 2.3 million votes, Yanukovich would need to get 74% of those questioned 4.8 million voters to overcome that margin.

What's actually more important here is that the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) reports that
[s]ince it became clear that he was set to lose, Mr Yanukovich has accused America and western Europe of engineering his rival's victory.
Reuters echoes that
he has vowed never to acknowledge Yushchenko's victory
and the same aide quoted above called on Yanukovich's supporters "to not recognize Yushchenko as a legitimate president."

Looming in the background of all this is the attitude of Ukraine's powerful - and until now dominant - neighbor: Russia. The Morning Herald says that, again, despite previous assurances, Russia is suggesting it might not recognize Yushchenko's victory and is claiming the European observers who said the election was fair were "not objective." Apparently we're supposed to believe that the observers from the Russian-dominated CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) were completely unbiased and the fact that the government's own exit poll matched the others in showing Yushchenko winning by a comfortable margin is irrelevant.

Since Yushchenko is already going out of his way to make nice with Russia, calling it a strategic ally, it might not be immediately clear why Russia is threatening to make a big deal out of this. One possible reason was suggested by Dmitri Trenin, Deputy Head of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, who was quoted by the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman. He
described the developments in Ukraine as a 'middle range democratic bourgeois revolution' and said that Ukraine has different, but extremely critical importance for Russia, the European Union (EU), and the US. Trenin expressed that the Kremlin perceives the government overturn in Ukraine as a 'revolution threat' and indicated that this was the most serious foreign policy test for Russia since 1991.
By "revolution threat," Moscow means a concern that a similar movement, with Western backing, could develop within Russia. That is,
[s]everal members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are anxious following the successes of the 'rose revolution' in Georgia last year and then the 'orange revolution' in Ukraine. ...

Experts tell Zaman that the movement in Ukraine that originally stemmed from internal dynamics, despite its external affects, might lead to concern that it may set an example for all CIS members.
Or, more simply put, it's good, old-fashioned narrow self-interest talking: They're scared that the idea of "people power" being able to overthrow ossified bureaucracies could spread - mirroring, interestingly enough, our Cold War paranoia about the spread of "communist insurrection."

Well, I would hope that people power revolutions do spread. Because if they do, well dammit all, maybe we can have one here.

Footnote: Still, it's important to keep in mind that the victory here is not who won but how, that it was, again, people power that overturned the fraud. Yushchenko himself is no jewel; a former head of the state bank, he is quite enamored of "Western markets." In fact, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder congratulated Yushchenko by saying: "I am convinced that Ukraine under your leadership will continue to forcefully pursue its course towards democracy and a market economy under the rule of law." And we all know how well those "market economies" have worked in other places in the region - like Russia.

Updated to reflect the decision of the Electoral Commission to reject Yanukovich's appeal.

And a few things that actually will warm you the good way

Updated - One step at a time. Yes, it's only one step, but it is a step. From the BBC:
A final peace deal between the Sudanese government and southern rebels should be signed next month, officials say.

Talks between the government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) are set to continue into the new year to resolve outstanding differences.

But a government spokesman said a signing ceremony would be held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on 10 January. ...

It is hoped that an end to Africa's longest-running civil war - in which the Muslim north has been pitted against Christians and animists in the south - may also help to resolve the conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region, where separate rebel groups challenge the government.
Other sources say no date has been set for the signing ceremony but significantly, apparently do not dispute that a deal is close.

- Three years ago, Argentina's economy collapsed and it declared a debt default of more the $100 billion, the largest in history. As the New York Times tells it,
doomsday predictions abounded. Unless it adopted orthodox economic policies and quickly cut a deal with its foreign creditors, hyperinflation would surely follow, the peso would become worthless, investment and foreign reserves would vanish and any prospect of growth would be strangled.

But three years [later], the apocalypse has not arrived. Instead, the economy has grown by 8 percent for two consecutive years, exports have zoomed, the currency is stable, investors are gradually returning and unemployment has eased from record highs - all without a debt settlement or the standard measures required by the International Monetary Fund for its approval.

Argentina's recovery has been undeniable, and it has been achieved at least in part by ignoring and even defying economic and political orthodoxy. Rather than moving to immediately satisfy bondholders, private banks and the I.M.F., as other developing countries have done in less severe crises, the Peronist-led government chose to stimulate internal consumption first and told creditors to get in line with everyone else.

"This is a remarkable historical event, one that challenges 25 years of failed policies," said Mark Weisbrot, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal research group in Washington. "While other countries are just limping along, Argentina is experiencing very healthy growth with no sign that it is unsustainable, and they've done it without having to make any concessions to get foreign capital inflows."
The banks, investment houses, speculators, and the rest of the vultures are hovering around, looking for any signs of slippage or slowing that they can use to justify renewed demands for Argentina to surrender to the embrace of the IMF and its cookie-cutter "slash social spending, open markets to transnationals, screw the people to serve the banks" solution to developing nations' economic troubles. So far, they've failed and instead attribute Argentina's success to luck or, bizarrely, the claim that Argentina is actually doing what the IMF recommends, even though a centerpiece of its recovery has been levies on exports and financial transactions, exactly the sort of programs which IMF types insist have to be repealed lest disaster strike.

- CNN reported on Monday that
[o]pponents of gay marriage concede victory will not be swift in their attempt to amend the U.S. Constitution, even after prevailing in all 11 states where the issue was on the ballot last month.

While the Nov. 2 election also increased the ranks of amendment supporters in both houses of Congress, the gains were relatively small.

"We're going to have to see additional court cases come down" supporting gay marriage before congressional sentiment shifts dramatically, predicted Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who supports the amendment that failed in both houses of Congress this year.
Catch that? Despite all their bluster and fuming, they actually want "activist judges" of the kind they claim to despise - because they want to lose more times in court (as they just did in Montana, in a case involving access to health insurance rather than marriage) in order to panic people into supporting a Constitutional amendment. Hypocrites. Meanwhile, in another sign that this is not the big winner issue the GOPpies like to claim it is,
White House political adviser Karl Rove said after the election that President Bush intends to continue seeking a constitutional amendment that says marriage must consist of a man and a woman.

At the same time, GOP congressional aides who attended a series of closed-door meetings recently said Rove did not mention the amendment when he outlined the administration's key legislative goals for the year ahead. Nor did the issue figure prominently in strategy sessions held by GOP congressional leaders, added these officials, who declined to be identified by name because the proceedings were closed to the press.
- On a somewhat different but still upbeat note,
[t]he Food and Drug Administration has approved a pilot study looking at whether the recreational hallucinogen [known as Ecstasy] can help terminally ill patients lessen their fears, quell thoughts of suicide and make it easier for them to deal with loved ones. ...

The small, four-month study is expected to begin early next spring. It will test the drug's effects on 12 cancer patients from the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in the Boston area. The research is being sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit group that plans to raise $250,000 to fund it. ...

The FDA would not comment, but this will be the second FDA-approved study using Ecstasy this year. South Carolina researchers are studying the effects of Ecstasy on 20 patients suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
- One more for the road. And this is a good one.
Across the developing world, [the Christian Science Monitor for December 30 says,] some 700 million people have gained a household connection to drinking water since 1990 - and helped the world reach a crucial tipping point. Now for the first time, more than half the globe's people have drinking water piped into their homes, according to an August report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.

Such progress, along with the spread of sanitation systems, has reduced hygiene-related illnesses, pushed more students into schoolrooms, and begun to break the cycle of urban poverty by making water much less expensive.

Yet for millions of women ... the most immediate and surprising benefit of the new water systems is the gift of time.

"When we ask women how water projects have changed their lives, their first answer is always, 'We have more time with our kids,'" says Marla Smith-Nilson, cofounder of WaterPartners International, which has projects in Central America, Africa, and Asia. "We're focused on sanitation and health, but we're always hearing stories of how lifestyle has improved." ...

Among the forces driving progress has been an approximate $3 billion in annual investment from among the 189 nations whose heads of state in 2000 signed onto a common goal: to cut in half by 2015 the proportion of people worldwide who lack sustainable drinking water and basic sanitation. Progress is measured against benchmark data from 1990.

The effort so far has produced mixed results. The world is on track for its drinking water target, with South Asia leading the way in terms of rapid progress, according to the WHO/UNICEF report. But sanitation tells a different story, as Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania are falling behind the timetable.
There are still many problems from tight money to engineering problems to politics to war. And it may be that the projects completed so far are the easy ones and the hard ones still lay ahead. It is still a disgrace before humanity how many of our brothers and sisters have no clean water and no proper sanitation available to them. But still, we should take a moment to celebrate that
in locales where running water has arrived, health is measurably improving, according to studies conducted by the Center for Global Safe Water at Emory University. Rural Honduran communities with water projects demonstrated fewer incidents of diarrhea and less growth stunting than in unimproved areas, according to the center's 2003 studies. In such areas, where intestinal diseases kill more infants than does any other cause, family life is apparently being transformed.
And for the first time, more than half the people of the world have water in their homes. It's way too few, but dammit, it's still more than there used to be. And that's worth a smile.

Updated to include the reference to the Montana court decision and a bunch of links: Ecstasy, the SPLA, IMF (and its programs), WHO, UNICEF, the water report (which is also available in .pdf format here), and the Center for Global Safe Water.

Something that will burn you up

An article at CNN for December 28 addresses the growing tendency of rightwingers on college campuses to make accusations of "anti-American bias" against their instructors and to issue demands for an increased focus on their own particular views even to the exclusion of others. In one case, students actually sued the University of North Carolina, claiming that including a book on the Qu'ran in a required reading list for incoming freshmen violated their freedom of religion.
Traditionally, clashes over academic freedom have pitted politicians or administrators against instructors who wanted to express their opinions and teach as they saw fit. But increasingly, it is students who are invoking academic freedom, claiming biased professors are violating their right to a classroom free from indoctrination.

In many ways, the trend echoes past campus conflicts - but turns them around. Once, it was liberal campus activists who cited the importance of "diversity" in pressing their agendas for curriculum change. Now, conservatives have adopted much of the same language in calling for a greater openness to their viewpoints.
But that is absolute crap. This doesn't "turn around" past conflicts, it makes a mockery of them and a mockery of the term "academic freedom." It has nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with dominance.
To many professors, there's a new and deeply troubling aspect to this latest chapter in the debate over academic freedom: students trying to dictate what they don't want to be taught.

"Even the most contentious or disaffected of students in the '60s or early '70s never really pressed this kind of issue," said Robert O'Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and now director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
Damn straight. In the '60s, the struggle was to include ideas. These corporate-toadies-in-the-rough want to exclude ideas. In the '60s, the goal was a wider range of opinion; the goal here is a narrower range. In the '60s, it was about exploring new ideas; for these smug, intellectually-slothful buffoons it's about avoiding them.

In short: For us, academic freedom meant freedom to. For campus reactionaries, it means freedom from. Freedom from anything that will challenge their constricted, constrained, constipated view of the world around them. Like many such self-referential efforts, it finds comfort in internal sharing of tales of woe, nowadays of course on websites, where cries of "oh woe is me, I'm such a victim and anybody that challenges me is just MEAN and UNFAIR! And they're all anti-American, that's what they are!" ring across their postings.

Well, I say they're narrow-minded, immature, whiners who've arrived on campus with too great a sense of their own importance and their own entitlement and too little awareness of the real world and the rights of others and who, if they can't stand the rigors of a open intellectual environment where their ideas have to compete rather than being blindly endorsed by all and sundry, should just go back home where they belong until they grow up. Assuming they ever do.

Footnote One: According to some recent poll cited in the article, 31% of students said they felt there were some courses in which they needed to agree with a professor's political or social views to get a good grade. Perhaps that's even true - but so what? I mean in terms of the immediate issue. That is, is this supposed to be a new thing? When has it not been that way? I recall some years ago reading a paper my wife had done for a sociology class about "rites of passage" in societies. I disagreed with the conclusion she reached - what it was is irrelevant - but said I would have given the paper a high mark because it was well-written and clearly argued. She was surprised: She expected I would have marked it lower because of my disagreement. She figured that was just the way it was: Disagreeing with the beliefs of the instructor resulted in a lower grade. I remember, too, when I was in college, there was always advice floating around about what professor thought what about what topic, so you'd know what to say in your papers. It was, again, just assumed.

That doesn't mean it was true, mind you, although I'm sure that in some cases then and now it was. (I actually knew one professor who was very definitely that way. I was working as a learning aide in the polisci department of a community college and I heard this professor counseling a student about a paper she was going to write. She wanted to write about problems with health care in the US, but he said that was too big a topic and she should narrow it down. "Why not write about why socialized medicine always fails?" he asked. Not only did he give her the topic, he told her what conclusion to reach! But then again, he was a conservative so I guess that doesn't count as an example of "bias," does it?) The point is, the belief among students, right or wrong, that agreeing with the prof was a requirement for a good grade is not anything new.

Footnote Two: The guru of the movement, at whose shrine the rest worship, is David Horowitz. To give you an idea of the level of "intellectual" rigor he brings to the field, consider the case of Prof. George Wolfe of Ball University. After a student posted claims he was "anti-American" in his peace studies course (a charge refuted by other students and the university provost), he began to receive volumes of hate mail.
Horowitz, who has also criticized Ball State's program, had little sympathy when asked if Wolfe deserved to get hate e-mails from strangers.

"These people are such sissies," he said. "I get hate mail every single day. What can I do about it? It's called the Internet."
I could just see his chest puffing up - if not something else puffing up - when he said that, splashing his machismo all over the questioner. And at the same time, let's note, avoiding the question: He wasn't asked if he got hate mail, he was asked if Wolfe deserved to. But never let answering a question take the place of a cheap slammer, eh, Davy?

Oh, and by the way, Davy-boy, how much of that hate mail you feel so tough and manly because you get threatens you with actual physical harm as opposed to merely engaging in name-calling? And of that portion, how much do you actually feel obliged to take seriously?

Another memory from years back: picketing with about 20-25 other folks outside the local FBI office; one lone counter-demonstrator, a middle-aged man, in the middle of our circle. I didn't care: I knew full well anyone driving past, lacking the time to read all the signs, would assume he was with us. But it did occur to me that he was there because he felt safe enough to do it. He knew that, despite being outnumbered 25-1 (and no cops in sight), he was safe. And I wondered - and I still do wonder - if the situation was reversed, if it was 25 of them and one of us, would that one be able to feel safe the way he did. I very strongly doubted it - and, again, I still do.

And that is a fundamental difference between the left and the right.

Something else to warm you up - really

"God bless the grass," sang Pete Seeger. But truth be told, sometimes grass is something you don't want to see. Why? Because, the Australian told us on December 27, it has
become established in Antarctica, showing the continent is warming to temperatures unseen for 10,000 years.

Scientists have reported that broad areas of grass are now forming turf where there were once ice-sheets and glaciers.

Tufts have previously grown on patches of Antarctica in summer, but the scientists have now observed larger areas surviving winter and spreading in the summer months.

Some fear the change portends a much wider melting of the ice-cap that formed at least 20 million years ago.

"Grass has taken a grip. There are very rapid changes going on in the Antarctic's climate, allowing grass to colonise areas that would once have been far too cold," said Pete Convey, an ecologist conducting research with the British Antarctic Survey. ...

The latest research was carried out on the Antarctic peninsula, which juts northwards towards Cape Horn, and the islands around it. ...

Measurements made over the past three decades show the peninsula and islands are among the fastest-warming places on earth, with winter temperatures already 5C higher than in 1974.
Let's get this straight, folks: A rise in average temperature of 5o Celsius (9o Fahrenheit) in 30 years is not "natural variation" or caused by variation in sunspots or any of the "see no evil" excuses brandished by the nanny-nanny naysayers denying global warming. It's much too dramatic, much too fast. This is the result of an external forcing - that is, something added to the natural processes of climate.

Shall I be more direct? It's our - that is, people's - fault. We're doing it to ourselves. And the more industrialized we are, the more fossil fuel we burn, the more CO2 and other greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere, the more we look for economic growth as opposed to economic sustainability, the more we are to blame.

Footnote: The December issue of Extra!, the publication of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has an excellent article using media coverage of global warming to show how a fetishistic devotion to "he said/she said" reporting can be "a form of informational bias" by allowing a small minority to create an image of controversy where none actually exists.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


What is Titanic?

The New York Times Timeline for $1000

The Times won a Pulitzer for its publication of these purloined documents in 1972.

A few more things to give you that warm holiday feeling

Okay, my cockles have cooled some, so let's see what we have.

- From the New York Times for December 24:
Some federal doctors and medical researchers do not enjoy the same protections to blow the whistle on wrongdoing as other government employees, an administrative law judge has ruled.

The Nov. 9 decision, by Judge Raphael Ben-Ami of the United States Merit Systems Protection Board, held that Dr. Jonathan Fishbein, a specialist for the National Institutes of Health, could not invoke the Whistleblower Protection Act to keep from being fired. ...

Judge Ben-Ami ruled that Dr. Fishbein was not covered by the law, because he was a so-called Title 42 employee and therefore enjoyed "no appeal rights" during his probationary period.
Title 42 employees are consultants hired outside the civil service system in order to pay them salaries that compete with the private sector.

Fishbein was one of several employees of NIH who raised concerns about a study in Africa involving the AIDS drug nevirapine, one which was sloppily done and violated federal patient safety rules. Nonetheless, use of the drug in Africa was approved. And Fishbein wasn't.

The decision strips whistleblower protection from the 3,900 Title 42 employees now working for NIH.

- From the Kansas City Star for December 25:
Muslims planned to turn an old sod farm near Memphis into a cemetery, but angry neighbors protested, complaining the burial ground could become a staging ground for terrorists or spread disease from unembalmed bodies.

It was not the first time a group faced opposition when trying to build a cemetery or a mosque, but the dispute stood out for the clarity of its anti-Muslim rhetoric.

"We know for a fact that Muslim mosques have been used as terrorist hideouts and centers for terrorist activities," farmer John Wilson told members of a planning commission last month. ...

Opponents told the Fayette County planning commission in November that power lines would be prime targets for terrorists in the region about 20 miles east of Memphis.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you may think this is farfetched, but that is what the Jewish people thought when the Nazis started taking a small foothold, a little at a time, in their community," Wilson said. ...

One woman yelled, "We don't need bin Laden's cousins in our neighborhood."
The article also mentions that similar opposition to plans by Muslim groups have arisen elsewhere, including Voorhees, NJ, and Atlanta. Must be some of that fabled Christian forbearance we're always hearing about.

- From the Baltimore Sun for December 25:
As legislators in Maryland and other states try to curb skyrocketing medical liability costs, President Bush and Republicans in Congress are renewing their push for a sweeping national measure that would strictly limit payouts to patients in malpractice cases.

The state and federal efforts are fueled by Bush's strong support and by a well-funded lobbying effort from insurers and physicians designed to convince Americans that a malpractice crisis is driving up the cost of health care and threatening to cut off patients' access to their doctors.
"Designed to convince" is the key phrase. I'm sure this will get (and deserve) more attention in the near future, but for the moment just consider that according to a Congressional Budget Office report from last January (available here in .pdf format), malpractice costs are just 2% of overall health care spending. So even cutting such costs dramatically - by even say, 50% - would reduce health care costs by no more than 1%.

So what's at stake? Not protecting patients, not protecting access to health care. But protecting first doctors who refuse to effectively police their own profession to get rid of the relative handful of incompetents whose blunders drive higher insurance rates and second the insurance companies who intend to maintain their profit and they don't care at whose expense. Doubt it? Check this out:
Medical liability reform "doesn't tend to rate as high as the economy or affordable health care, but it's very, very easy to connect medical malpractice and the need for legal reform in a broader sense to those issues, and people get it; people make the connection," said Lori Weigel, a partner at the polling firm [Public Opinion Strategies, a Virginia-based outfit hired by the Republican Governors Association].

"It's not very difficult at all to move this issue up on voters' agenda," Weigel said.
Note well: She's not saying the argument is accurate or even relevant. Rather, she's bragging about how easy it is to manipulate people into thinking that limiting their own access to legal redress is for their own good.

Nearly 30 years ago, in response to an earlier supposed malpractice "crisis," this one in New Jersey, I proposed having the state become an issuer of malpractice insurance, which it could do on a non-profit basis and very likely at far lower administrative costs (based on the federal experience with Medicare and Medicaid). I still think that how one views that or a similar proposal is a good indicator of if the concern is for patient protection or profit protection.

Footnote: The next time someone tries to lay something on you about "the powerful trial lawyers' lobby," another right-wing shibboleth, let them know that according to data compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine, which monitors money spent on lobbying, since 2002 the American Medical Association has spent more than four times as much lobbying Congress as the American Trial Lawyers Association has ($41 million to $10.2 million).

Another footnote: An interesting and as far as this non-expert can tell, reasonably balanced consideration is found in this article, which appeared in the January 21, 2004 issue of Health Affairs.

Short night

The local electric company is doing some street work overnight and I'm going to be without power for several hours both tonight and tomorrow night, so obviously no blogging during those times. So let's see what I can get up in the time I have.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004


What is the Gettysburg Address?

The New York Times Timeline for $600

First word in the Times scoop headline on April 16, 1912; the second word was "Sinks."

Three quick things to warm your heart for the holiday season

The Most Nauseating Speech of the Season Award: Really no contest, this just outclassed the field in so many ways that the judges didn't even have to count the votes.
President Bush urged Americans to help the neediest among them by volunteering to care for the sick, the elderly and the poor in a Christmas Day call for compassion.

"Many of our fellow Americans still suffer from the effects of illness or poverty," the president said in his weekly radio address. "Others fight cruel addictions, or cope with division in their families, or grieve the loss of a loved one."

"Christmastime reminds each of us that we have a duty to our fellow citizens, that we are called to love our neighbor just as we would like to be loved ourselves," Mr. Bush added.
The "Fanaticism is Forever Busy" Award: This was more contentious, with such a wide variety of possibilities, including most anything coming out of the mouth of Jerry Falwell or Osama bin Laden, to name just two contenders. But the judges went for subtlety, for a less-noticed but high-quality example.
Outside are protesters, praying or proffering pamphlets with grisly photos. Inside, young women sit quietly in a room furnished with a TV set and a gumball machine, waiting for their appointments at Mississippi's only abortion clinic.

These are busy - but worrisome - days for the Jackson Women's Health Organization, which has added many clients since the other remaining clinic closed last summer. The clinic's staff and supporters know their adversaries will try relentlessly to shut their office down, taking another step toward making legal abortions in the state virtually nonexistent. ...

"Mississippi is the picture of the future," said Susan Hill, a North Carolina-based businesswoman who owns several clinics, including the one in Jackson. "It's the perfect laboratory for any restriction - there's no way, politically, that it won't sail through the legislature." ...

"I would love our state to be the first to be abortion-free," [anti-abortion activist Roy] McMillan said. "The governor should send the Highway Patrol and the National Guard to close this clinic down."
The Most Transparent Bullshit Award: This is usually a tricky one because of the shifty nature of really quality BS, but this time it was easy because of the sheer audacity of the transparency.
She lies curled up, fetal, vulnerable: like a homeless person hugging the marble of a grand doorway on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Except her doorway is a ledge 50 feet in the air. ...

She is Jamie Loughner, 40, an activist for the homeless who was once homeless herself. She won't come down. She won't eat, either. She has taken the traditions of the hunger striker, the flagpole sitter and the tree sitter and blended them into a new form of protest that has the authorities baffled and fuming.
She's trying to get the city to keep open a downtown shelter for the homeless now in a building the city council voted to sell to the Corcoran Museum.

No, she doesn't get the award. The DC Protective Services police, and particularly their chief, Gerald Wilson, do. Wilson has declared that
communicating with the hunger striker is forbidden [because] such conversations might distract Loughner and cause her to fall.
That alone would deserve the award with oak-leaf cluster, but add to that the fact that in another touching display of their deep, deep concern for her welfare, police are refusing her requests for water, apparently under the notion that dehydration will make her safer, and you have a runaway winner.

Okay, my cockles are warmed enough for one night.

Lifted out of comments for more attention

Tim at Democratic Left Infoasis lets us know that this page at CNN has links to 28 organizations accepting donations for relief work among those devastated by the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean.

As of now, the reported death toll has passed 56,000. And if you want an especially tragic note, consider the fact that
[m]inutes after a massive earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean on Sunday, international ocean monitors knew that a tsunami would likely follow. But they didn't know whom to tell.

"We put out a bulletin within 20 minutes, technically as fast as we could do it," says Jeff LaDouce of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. LaDouce says e-mails were dispatched to Indonesian officials, but he doesn't know what happened to the information.
It's actually not clear that it would have made much difference because the speed at which the wave moved would have left little time for evacuation - but it could have made some.

Beware the voice of authority

Expressing "moderate confidence" that the voice on a recently-surfaced audiotape is that of Osama bin Laden, US intelligence analysts believe he
has shifted from outright calls for violence to political arguments in recent taped messages in hopes of driving a wedge between the United States and its allies....

The analysts believe bin Laden is making the tactical shift to try to exploit some allies' concerns with U.S. policy in the Middle East and to attract more moderate Muslims who distrust the United States but have not embraced al-Qaida's violence, the officials said.
In that tape, bin Laden - assuming it was him speaking - called the Iraqi constitution "infidel" and said participating the in the upcoming election is apostasy. He also
praised [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi's operations and welcomed his group's joining forces with al Qaeda. ...

[He] asked "all our organization brethren to listen to him and obey him in his good deeds"
as he labeled Zarqawi "the prince of al Qaeda in Iraq."

Intelligence officials were almost effusive in their praise.
Roger Cressey, who was the deputy to former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke ... said the most recent message shows bin Laden trying to broaden his audience.

"He is trying to position himself as speaking to a global Islamic community in a way that further defines the fight against the West in his terms," Cressey said. ...

"Bin Laden gets the benefits of Zarqawi's notoriety," said Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism official. "He (al-Zarqawi) has got the pre-eminent insurgency in Iraq." ...

Ben Venzke, president of the private IntelCenter in Alexandria, Va., and a government consultant, said bin Laden's taped messages show "al-Qaida is very savvy when it comes to understanding public perception, its media campaign and messaging and its image."

Peter Bergen, a fellow at the New American Foundation, a Washington think tank, said ... "[t]he tapes are coming thick and fast, which means they (the terrorists) are feeling secure...."
All so authoritative. All so sure. All so confident. And, bluntly, I think all so wrong.
"If there's one thing I learned in the Army, it's always sound positive - especially when you don't know what you're talking about." - Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger) in "White Christmas"
I think our "experts" here are suffering from a form of demonization (the tendency to see one's opponents as intractably evil) in which the evil opponent is invested with near-miraculous powers of intelligence, cleverness, and persuasion. Much like during our own communist witch hunts, during which we had to insure there was not a single communist teacher anywhere in the country - because we just knew that if a student was exposed to just one such teacher, it would overwhelm every other influence in their lives. Much like many now still regard gay/lesbian teachers. Much like, on our side of the aisle, some saw Moqtada al-Sadr last spring, much like some view Karl Rove. Everything the enemy does is, or at least is part of, a brilliant plot.

Bin Laden, in our experts' view, is "feeling secure." He's "very savvy," "position[ing] himself" to gain "the benefits of Zarqawi's notoriety." Except that Zarqawi is not uniting people in opposition to the occupation and the US, he's causing divisions. He may be the most notorious, but it can hardly be said he's the most effective. And in the past, he and bin Laden were, despite having overlapping ideologies, rivals. Indeed, in some ways they were ideological opponents, since until now bin Laden, while a Sunni, has never, to my knowledge, endorsed attacks against Shiites or applied words like "infidel" and "apostate" to them.

It's easy to see what Zarqawi gets out of this: a mantle of legitimacy in the eyes of some which he lacked before. But what does bin Laden get? He gives a rival that legitimacy, he ties himself to a figure even more divisive than he is, he cedes the initiative to a supposed underling, he labels a significant portion of Iraqis "infidels" - where is the "savvy positioning" in this?

Frankly, I don't buy it. I think this declaration, this new arrangement, is not a sign of bin Laden's media savvy or his sense of security. I think it's a sign of his weakness, his effective isolation, a sense that he is out of the loop, that he is in fact becoming "Osama bin Forgotten." He's not trying to keep the initiative, he's trying to regain it - and I don't mean the initiative against the US, I mean in leadership battles among violent Islamic fundamentalists.

Monday, December 27, 2004


What is Swahili? (Acceptable: Kiswahili)

The New York Times Timeline for $200

The Times put the entire text of this November 20, 1863, speech on its front page.

What do you say?

What can you say?
Bodies washed up on tropical beaches and piled up in hospitals ... across a 10-nation arc of destruction left by a monster earthquake and walls of water that killed more than 22,000 people. Thousands were missing and millions homeless. ...

More than 12,000 people died in Sri Lanka, nearly 5,000 in Indonesia, and 4,000 in India.
It started with an earthquake, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, one of the biggest in the region in the last 200 years, a force roughly equal to a million Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs, a force sufficient to make the Earth "wobble a bit" in its rotation.

The tsunami it generated swept across the Indian Ocean at 500 miles per hour to bring devastation and death at least partly because there is no warning system in place in the Indian Ocean that could tell people of its approach - and so people went about their daily lives, swimming, shopping, working, not knowing until they saw
the tide off [the] beach recede suddenly.

Out it went, leaving about 200 meters (yards) of exposed sand, like a giant drawing breath.
And maybe not even then, not until it all returned as a wall of water as much as 20 feet (6 meters) high, sweeping away, smashing away, everything in its path.

And nobody is kidding themselves that the destruction has ended.
Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions face a hazardous future because of polluted drinking water, a lack of sanitation and no health services....

The International Red Cross, which reported 23,700 deaths, said it was concerned that diseases like malaria and cholera could add to the toll.

Late Monday, Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla was quoted as saying he believed the toll in the country could be as high as 25,000, that would be 20,000 more deaths than confirmed there so far and push the overall death toll to 42,000.
Sometimes, we are so aware of our power against each other, so aware of our power to kill, so arrogant in our notion of what we control that we forget how frail we are in the face of nature. Sometimes we forget how small we are. And small is what we are. Do you want to know how small? Do you? Here's an example I used to use in astronomy lessons:

Imagine squashing Mt. Everest down to sea level. You will have made only about 2/3 as much difference in the radius of the Earth as removing one sheet from a ream of paper makes in the thickness of that pile.

We are small. We depend on the Earth, it doesn't depend on us. It got along quite well for a few billion years before we came along and would do quite well for a few billion more - until the Sun dies and quite possibly fries the Earth in its death throes - if we were to disappear. Global warming? Pollution? Resource depletion? It doesn't matter to the Earth. It only matters to those of us who depend on it.

We are small. We are weak. We need each other. Which only makes what we are doing to each other in the name of our ideologies, our god-figures, our greed, our arrogance, that much more an expression of madness, of an insanity that has afflicted humanity for millennia. I remember several years ago writing to a friend who had made a difficult confession of how he had finally faced up to a problem he'd been denying and was harshly critical of himself for having taken so long to do so. I offered some words of comfort, noting that it was always hard to "rethink ourselves, possibly from scratch" and that we as people are terribly clever at finding ways to avoid "the terrifying 'threat' of change."

We as a species have avoided that rethink for far too long, maybe - and maybe not, I even think not, but maybe - past the point of no return. But as I said just yesterday, when the choices are dreaming or despair, I prefer to dream. I prefer to hope.

But even hope has its limits. Change we must, somehow, some way. So where do we go from here: chaos or community? The choice still faces us. Time has not run out. But it is running.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


What is (Dr. Seuss's How) The Grinch (Stole Christmas)?


Kwanzaa derives its name from a phrase meaning "first fruits" in this African language.

...and everywhere!

- In Ukraine, AP reports that Viktor Yushchenko has declared victory.
"There is news: It's over. Now, today, the Ukrainian people have won. I congratulate you," he told the festive crowd in Kiev's central Independence Square....
Yushchenko spoke after returns from 80% of precincts showed him with 55% compared to Viktor Yanukovych's 41%. Those results were in line with three exit polls, including one done by the government, all of which showed Yushchenko winning by a comfortable margin.

Earlier, the BBC reported that Yanukovych seemed to be
preparing for defeat as polls closed.

"If we fail, we will form a strong opposition," he said. Mr Yanukovych, however, has not so far not conceded.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will accept, and work with, whoever wins the poll on Sunday.
Some 12,000 international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were in Ukraine for the vote.

- On the other hand, an election given little attention by OSCE, which sent just 21 observers, was that for parliament in Uzbekistan. But maybe that was because, according to the BBC,
no opposition parties were allowed to run.

Many ordinary Uzbeks say they see no difference between the candidates, who all support President Islam Karimov.

Some independents did try to stand, but officials rejected their applications on technical grounds.
But I suppose that doesn't really matter, does it; after all, Karimov
insisted Uzbekistan has no "real" opposition.
I guess the thousands of political prisoners "held in cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions" don't actually exist. Amnesty International must have just dreamed them up.

Footnote, "But, uh..." Award: Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov said
"[t]he OSCE cannot have the exclusive right to assess elections. It represents Europe while we're in Central Asia."
Uzbekistan is a member of the OSCE.

- In the West Bank, Hamas has shown surprising strength in elections for local councils. Haaretz (Israel) reports that of the 26 races, Fatah won control of 12 councils, Hamas took seven, with the other seven undecided as no party had a majority of seats.
In the next few days, Hamas and Fatah will try to win the support of the independent candidates and other organizations that fielded candidates, namely the Popular Front, the Democratic Front, and People's Party. According to the voting procedure, the party that can command the majority of the seats - through deals brokered with other small groups when the election is indecisive - then determines who head these local authorities.
That is, each village or city council is like a mini-parliament, using coalitions to form majorities where no single party can do so. The two things that are significant here are that
voter turnout was very high, around 81 percent. It is also clear that Hamas beat Fatah in elections for authorities traditionally considered Fatah bastions.
Some - I among them - speculated that the first elections were held where they were precisely because many of them were thought to be at least more or less safe areas for Fatah. So these results can't look good to them.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the opposite, that sentiment for continuing "armed struggle" as advocated by Hamas is surprisingly strong. Instead, what this may - may - indicate is that even though an increasing number of people have become exhausted with violence and are prepared to look for other means of struggle, they still are looking for an aggressive stance, even if not a violent one, against Israel and the occupation. That combination of avoiding violence while continuing to push for a just settlement was reflected in a statement by
[s]ome 560 prominent Palestinians, including senior PLO officials, cabinet ministers, lawmakers, intellectuals and poets, [which] urged an end to militant attacks and a push for democratic reform to advance the quest for a state.

"We reaffirm our legitimate right to confront occupation, but call for restoring the popular character of our intifada and ceasing actions that reduce the range of [international] support for our cause and harm the credibility of our struggle," they said in a front-page advertisement in Palestinian newspapers.

They also pressed Arafat's successor not to compromise on long-held Palestinian demands for a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a "fair solution" for Palestinian refugees.
That from Haaretz for Sunday, which also reported in the same article that Israel, to its credit, is easing some security restrictions prior to the January 9 Palestinian elections for president. (However, there have been incidents involving two of the presidential candidates.)

One thing did strike me as significant, though:
East Jerusalem campaigning will be permitted only in private homes. An Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity said the measures would include allowing candidates to campaign in private areas, hang posters and distribute campaign literature. But rallies in public places that could be seen as threatening Israel's sovereignty in the disputed part of the city will not be permitted.
The status of Jerusalem, which both sides want as a capital, remains possibly the touchiest, thorniest issue on the table. How that can be settled short of some sort of separation or some cobbled-together form of joint administration, I don't know. Perhaps one possible solution would be for it to become an international city and the capital of neither nation; the Israeli capital could return to Tel Aviv and the Palestinian capital could be in Ramallah.

I know, I'm dreaming. But the choice seems to be dreaming or despair and I never seem quite ready for the latter.

And speaking of the January 9 elections, which I just was, the formal campaign has started. There are a total of eight candidates, with the clear favorite being interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who opened his campaign by urging
Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

He also urged the Jewish state to free all political prisoners. ...

"Israel must pull out of all Palestinian lands occupied in 1967. We must end the occupation," he told a cheering crowd of hundreds of supporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"We cannot compromise on Jerusalem," he added,
as reported by the BBC on Saturday.

Abbas's main challenger is Mustafa Barghouti, an advocate of non-violent struggle, who tried to take on the mantle of Yasser Arafat by putting on a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh of the kind Arafat made a symbol of the Palestinian resistance and opening his campaign at Arafat's gravesite in Ramallah.


What's sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander in the eyes of the WHS*. While still stomping around here, wiggling their butts in a touchdown taunt and bragging about their "mandate" based on squeaking out a 2% majority among those who thought it mattered enough to vote, the Shrub gang is proposing proportional representation in Iraq. According to Sunday's New York Times,
[t]he Bush administration is talking to Iraqi leaders about guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a certain number of ministries or high-level jobs in the future Iraqi government if, as is widely predicted, Sunni candidates fail to do well in Iraq's elections.

An even more radical step, one that a Western diplomat said was raised already with an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, is the possibility of adding some of the top vote-getters among the Sunni candidates to the 275-member legislature, even if they lose to non-Sunni candidates. ...

Guaranteeing a certain number of positions in government for certain ethnic groups is not without precedent, though. Lebanon, for example, has a power-sharing arrangement among its main sectarian groups. The Parliament in Iran has seats reserved for religious minorities.
The proposal was, let's say, not widely embraced.
"This idea is a nonstarter," said Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq's deputy permanent representative at the United Nations.
And Iraq's Electoral Commission rejected the idea outright.
Speaking of "unacceptable" interference, Electoral Commission spokesman Farid Ayar said: "Who wins, wins. That is the way it is. That is the way it will be in the election. ...

"The Americans are expressing their views and those aren't always the same as the Commission's," Ayar told Reuters.

"But the Commission is absolutely independent. It is not acceptable for anyone to interfere in our business."
I wonder how much of this goes back to a concern I expressed back on March 23: the question of just what the word "democracy" means to different people. Technically, it means "rule by the people" and is usually equated with majority rule. But it's not quite that simple in practice. Because we have operated under a Bill of Rights for so long, we tend to forget that our concept of democracy actually is majority rule with protection for minority rights. I do think there is a serious question whether or not the Shiite community in Iraq sees it that way - or do they simply see it as "we're in charge now?" Shrugging off concerns with "who wins, wins" in the absence of any guarantees for the minority is not, to my way of thinking, an encouraging sign.

Footnote, Non Sequitur Award: After saying the idea for some sort of proportional representation was a nonstarter, Ayer added
"[b]ut what it tells you is that inherently people are concerned about the problems with respect to legitimacy of the elections, not because people are going to boycott, but because people are going to be afraid to vote."
No offense, but, uh, how exactly does it tell you that?

Footnote, Non Sequitur Award, Runner-Up: Colin Powerless
said last week that the United States did not favor talking with any leaders of the insurgency to get them to lay down their arms and take part in the election. "They're terrorists, they're murderers, and they have no interest in a free, fair election or democratic participation in such elections," he said.
So in other words, the only people you try to convince to support elections are those who already agree with you?

Well, now that I think about it, after the election, Bush grandly allowed as how he was willing to work with anyone from "the other side" or "across the aisle" or whatever cliche it was he used who was willing to help advance his agenda, i.e., with anyone who agreed with him. So I guess this actually is in keeping with White House policy.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Elections! Here...

Ohio Republicans aren't the only ones trying to hinder recounts of election results. The Green and Libertarian parties have also filed for a recount in New Mexico, and the Democratic administration there is throwing up as many roadblocks as it can, with support from state courts, which are no more eager than are those in Ohio to deal with these upstart outsiders eager to disturb the established order.

The State Canvassing Board demanded that Cobb and Libertarian presidential candidate Michael Badnarik pay the full estimated cost of the recount in advance, even though there is no legal requirement for the campaigns to do so. On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court upheld that decision. In a December 23 press release, Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb called that
an insult to the democratic process and the citizens of New Mexico.

"We are seeking a recount in New Mexico to protect the right to vote and ensure that all votes are counted. We came here expecting cooperation, or at least compliance with the law, from New Mexico's Governor and Secretary of State. However, despite broad support across the political spectrum for an honest audit of New Mexico's voting system, we have been stonewalled and obstructed at every step by the Democratic Party leadership of this state," said Cobb.

"The New Mexico Supreme Court has apparently decided it is more interested in protecting the rights of corporations who make electronic voting machines than the rights of citizens to ensure that their votes are counted accurately. To call this a travesty of justice is understating the nature of the outcome," said Rick Lass, New Mexico coordinator for the recount effort.
The Board estimated the cost at $1.4 million. Why the projected cost of a recount in New Mexico would be so much higher than that of one in Ohio is unexplained.

- Speaking of Ohio, the Greens have asked the federal courts to step in to insure evidence is preserved in the recount.
"It is time for the federal judiciary to step in and ensure the integrity of the recount in Ohio, something which Ohio's blatantly partisan Secretary of State is either unwilling or thoroughly incapable of doing," said Cobb.

Papers filed with the court state that "voting machines in multiple counties may have been tampered with during the recount by an employee of Triad Governmental Systems, Inc.-the company whose computer program tallied the punch-card votes cast in 41" of Ohio's 88 counties.
In the most notorious of the cases, in Hocking Country a company representative
reprogrammed a computer used for tabulating votes and instructed the county's Deputy Director of Elections to create a "cheat sheet" so "the count would come out perfect and we wouldn't have to do a full hand recount of the county."
If a sample check of 3% of ballots produced results clearly different from the overall totals produced by the machines, it was supposed to trigger a full hand recount. What the company agent was telling the elections official to do was to jigger the results so the sample matched the reported total and so avoid a hand recount. Which would seem to be illegal on its face - and if it's not, it damned well should be.
The Cobb campaign has also learned of questionable ballot security procedures in Ashland, Greene and Coshocton counties. Improper interference with voting machines may also have taken place in Union, Monroe, Lucas, Belmont, Fairfield and Harrison counties.
I still doubt that all of this together would change the outcome but the deeper this goes, the slimier it gets. I suggested last month that I didn't think the election was stolen but that the GOPpers were prepared to steal it if it was both necessary and possible: No large-scale cheating (too easy to uncover) but small-scale creepiness that would be harder to suss out but would be sufficient to turn an small loss into a small victory. That appears to me an increasingly likely scenario.

Saturday, December 25, 2004


What is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

Movie Quotes for $2000

2000: Blast this Christmas music! It's joyful and triumphant!


...or maybe not

So much for having hope. It was nice while it lasted. One more from the December 24 The Independent.
This is not a happy Christmas for [Iraq's] troubled Christians. Many of the churches have cancelled midnight mass for fear of drawing the attention of terrorists.

After decades of living in relative harmony with the Muslim majority, Iraq's ancient Christian minority­ who include Chaldeans, with allegiance to the Pope, as well as Orthodox Assyrians and Armenians­ is threatened as never before.

A spate of bombings directed at churches, apparently the work of Muslim extremists, has led many to the painful conclusion that Christians are now equated with the US-led occupation regardless of their actual views. They insist that they are Arab nationalists who oppose the American presence just as much as resistance fighters in Fallujah or Mosul. One in 10 Iraqi Christians has fled Iraq.

Five Baghdad churches were attacked in October. In August, similar attacks killed at least 10 and wounded nearly 50 Iraqi Christians.
More and more the attacks are not against occupation forces. They are against other Iraqis. More and more, the attacks are drawn from the old lie "if you are not with us, you are against us" - they cry of every dictator down through the ages. More and more, this is civil war.


The December 24 issue of The Independent (UK) reminds us how much can be done with how little. The place of this particular example is rural Rwanda, a place where the scars of the horrendous genocide of 1994 can still be seen.
The word imalarungu means "companion after great loneliness" and Jane Nzamugurunyana barely whispered it as she greeted the salvation she had waited a decade of grief and poverty to see. Standing in front of her, pulling at fronds of elephant grass in a central African banana grove, was cow 208322, a heavily pregnant Fresian heifer.
That one cow, which would cost more than she could hope to amass in a lifetime of labor, was celebrated by her village. Crossbred with native Rwandan stock to withstand the climate, the beast will produce about 20 liters of milk a day - 10 to 20 times the amount produced by local breeds. It will provide
manure to feed frail crops and fodder grass and the cow's urine mixed with chillies or ash to make an effective pesticide that will help protect the crops. And the cow will add hitherto unaffordable milk and a little butter to her children's diet, with money to be made from selling her surplus vegetables, fruit and milk.
Money that can provide "other food, salt and sugar, even medicines." And money obtained from the sale of milk and produce that otherwise might not be available to her follow villagers who buy them.

One cow: a minor economic revolution.

The beast came to Nzamugurunyana through a program run by a British charity called Send a Cow, which works in Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Zambia, and Tanzania to help
subsistence-level economies by buying and delivering livestock from goats to cattle to impoverished households.
In Rwanda, it runs a program that also teaches villagers such practical information as how to recycle some of the manure and urine to produce methane, which they can use to cook, slowing deforestation. And the group goes out of its way to erase the notion of the people as Tutsi and Hutu as opposed to village neighbors. The particular cows are distributed by lot among those selected by their fellow villagers as deserving as a result of the suffering and grief they have experienced, regardless of the cause or who inflicted it.

One cow: a minor economic revolution. The means of delivering one cow: a minor social revolution.

Damn, maybe I do still have hope.

Significant Footnote: The Independent notes that the cow cost £600 ($1150). Another story in the same issue says that average spending per adult on celebrating Christmas in the UK this year was £813 ($1560). Meanwhile, according to ABCNews, the average American family will spend about $775 (£404) on gifts alone this year - which is obviously only part of the total cost of seasonal celebrations.

And so this is Christmas

Happy Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2004


What is Field of Dreams?

Movie Quotes for $1200

1969: "Kid, next time I say let's go someplace like Bolivia, let's go someplace like Bolivia."

Minus four

Okay, this will be enough negativity going into Christmas Day. But having decorated our tree tonight - our first actual tree together - trees deserve a mention.

Taking traditional advantage of using the holiday season to slip through regulatory changes you hope no one will notice,
[t]he Bush administration issued broad new rules Wednesday overhauling the guidelines for managing the nation's 155 national forests and making it easier for regional forest managers to decide whether to allow logging, drilling or off-road vehicles.

The long-awaited rules relax longstanding provisions on environmental reviews and the protection of wildlife on 191 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They also cut back on requirements for public participation in forest planning decisions.
Officials give the usual song and dance about efficiency and flexibility and all the rest of the standard crap, arguing the changes will improve response to "threats like intensifying wildfires and invasive species." But even the New York Times knows what's really involved:
The rules give the nation's regional forest managers and the Forest Service increased autonomy to decide whether to allow logging roads or cellphone towers, mining activity or new ski areas.
If the real purpose was to be able to react more quickly to serious and immediate challenges, the regulations could have been written that way, perhaps creating a regulatory version of the "fast tracking" some legislation gets, allowing a streamlined process if it could be shown that the usual process is too slow for an emerging situation that requires rapid response. Instead, the new regulations would allow forest managers to dispense with environmental reviews and public input altogether if they on their own authority decided it wasn't necessary. And get this part:
The new rules incorporate an approach that has gained favor in private industries from electronics to medical device manufacturing. The practice, used by companies like Apple Computer, allows businesses to set their own environmental goals and practices and then subjects them to an outside audit that judges their success.
Well, no wonder industries like it! A company gets to set its own standards and then have someone check to see if it's meeting them. And if it turns out it isn't, what happens? Do the auditors have the authority to impose any sanctions? Why can't the company simply ignore the findings - or, in a better PR approach, quietly change its standards so that they pass and then declare they are cleaner than clean?

Adding insult (to our intelligence) to injury (to the forests),
[t]he auditors the Forest Service chooses could range from other Forest Service employees to outsiders, said Sally Collins, an associate chief at the Forest Service. She said the auditors could come from an environmental group or an industry group like timber "or a ski area, local citizens or a private contractor."
So the Forest Service will not only get to set its own environmental standards, it will get to choose who judges if it has met them! Talk about your heads-I-win-tails-you-lose scenario.

Fortunately, at least some in Congress are ticked off enough about this to make something of a stink about it. In the face of administration obstructionism of good sense, they may well fail. But the efforts matters - because, as always, even in failure, the manner of failing matters.

Minus three

Finally facing up to the reality of the massive budget deficits generated by its inane devotion to warfare and the comfort of the rich, the Shrub team has realized the necessity of tightening up the federal budget. Their first target?

World food aid.

That's right, world food aid. The shred of our national treasure that goes to help the hungry of the world become self-sufficient and climb out of their grinding, life-destroying poverty is the first focus of the budget-cutters. And they're not just reducing future spending, they are reneging on their commitments like the greedhead welchers they are. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that
the administration has told representatives of several charities that it was unable to honor some earlier promises and would have money to pay for food only in emergency crises like that in Darfur, in western Sudan. The cutbacks, estimated by some charities at up to $100 million, come at a time when the number of hungry in the world is rising for the first time in years and all food programs are being stretched.

As a result, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services and other charities have suspended or eliminated programs that were intended to help the poor feed themselves through improvements in farming, education and health.

"We have between five and seven million people who have been affected by these cuts," said Lisa Kuennen, a food aid expert at Catholic Relief Services. ...

Ellen Levinson, head of the Food Aid Coalition, said the best estimate for the amount of food that was not delivered in November and December was "at least $100 million."
What's more, it appears that the budget for next year will fall $600 million short of what would be needed to maintain programs at their current level. But have no fear, it's all for the best, don't worry, be happy: Chad Kolton of OMB said that for
programs that have been cut back, ... "We are going to look at a couple of different things, such as the importance of the program and whether it is able to produce results."
So long as it can produce "results," everything will be fine! On the other hand, hearing that from a representative of an administration that burns incense on the altar of "market-based solutions" and whose Fearless Leader said just the other day that Medicare's funding problems had been solved even if "the actuaries haven't come to that conclusion" is hardly reassuring. Especially since Lauren Landis, the director of the Food for Peace program at AID, warned a group of charities last month that
the Office of Management and Budget had been pressing her office "to reduce its spending on development programs, and this has been a consistent message over the past year."
Which raises an important if delicate question: Does the Shrub team actually want to fight poverty? Do they actually want economic development among the poor of the world? After all, that would run counter to their magic-of-the-market mantra, wouldn't it - and it ultimately could empower masses of people sufficiently to challenge their overlords. And we can't have that, can we?

And to those who huffily reply that "we're the most generous nation in the world!" an editorial in the next day's New York Times reminds us that the US was among that nations that pledged to provide an amount equal to 0.7% of their GDP toward development aid for the world's poor.
[T]he latest available figures show that the percentage of United States income going to poor countries remains near rock bottom: 0.14 percent. Britain is at 0.34 percent, and France at 0.41 percent. (Norway and Sweden, to no one's surprise, are already exceeding the goal, at 0.92 percent and 0.79 percent.) ...

[N]o one is impressed when a billionaire writes a $50 check for a needy family. The test is the percentage of national income we give to the poor, and on that basis this country is the stingiest in the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
To put that in a form our faith-based audience should understand:
And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called [unto him] his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living. - Mark 12:41-44
(A farthing was 1/4 penny in pre-decimal English money.)

The measure of generosity is not the amount but the effort. By that measure, despite what we like to believe, we are as a nation, that is, through our government, among the most selfish on Earth.

Footnote: If you'd prefer the Buddhist version of the story of the widow, go here.

Minus two

Apparently still unable to make up their minds about who they want to attack next (or, perhaps more accurately, who they think they can convince the rest of us to support attacking next), the warhawks have again turned their attention to Syria. Friday's Jerusalem Post (Israel) reports that
[t]he US is contemplating incursions into Syrian territory in an attempt to kill or capture Iraqi Ba'athists who, it believes, are directing at least part of the attacks against US targets in Iraq, a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post.

The official said that fresh sanctions are likely to be implemented, but added that the US needs to be more "aggressive" after Tuesday's deadly attack on a US base in Mosul. ...

"I think the sanctions are one thing. But I think the other thing [the Syrians] have got to start worrying about is whether we would take cross-border military action in hot pursuit or something like that."
Consistent with the established pattern, claims are being raised that Syria is linked to attacks on US forces - claims based on supposedly clear evidence which we, of course, are not allowed to see.
The senior official said US anger increased substantially after a prolonged incursion into Fallujah last month, which revealed "how much of the insurgency is now being directed through Syria." The US has not publicly detailed the evidence it has regarding the extent to which attacks are being organized from within Syria. But a report in The Times of London on Thursday suggested not only that Syria is becoming a base for Iraqis to operate, but that Syrian officials are themselves involved.
So rumors and leaks are the means to create the atmosphere of threat that justifies military action. We've been down this road before, many times. And we always seem to wind up in the same sort of bloody mess. When we will ever learn?

Minus One

AP for December 24 reports that heavy fighting has again broken out in Fallujah.
[W]arplanes and tanks bombarded guerrilla positions in the heaviest fighting here in weeks. ...

At least three Marines were killed in combat that underlined how far the city and surrounding area are from being tamed as the United States and its Iraqi allies try to bring quiet before national elections Jan. 30. ...

In the center of Fallujah, F-18s dropped several bombs, sending up plumes of smoke. Tank and machine gun fire could be heard to the south, while howitzers at Camp Fallujah southeast of the city boomed throughout the day. The guns fired illumination rounds after dark to help Marines on the ground spot attackers.
What was all that crap about having "broken" the "enemy?"

Meanwhile, hundreds of Fallujans were trying to get through checkpoints to get back to their homes.
Many may be in for a shock. Marines have said many people staying in refugee camps near Fallujah did not seem to be aware of the extent of damage. Few buildings were left unscarred in the U.S. offensive, which began Nov. 8.

"This is all that's left of my property," one returnee said Thursday, waving a dusty blanket.
Okay, students, compare and contrast with CNN for November 14:
CNN's Jane Arraf, embedded with the Army, said the city was heavily damaged but that little was leveled, with many houses repairable.
As always, the happy news at the time, the admissions later.

Footnote: A plus within a minus. The article appeared in the Star-Tribune of Caspar, Wyoming. At the bottom on the article was a link to a "Braille File" with the explanation
[t]his will download to your computer a computer braille ASCII file of the current story translated into grade 2 braille. This file may be sent to any standard braille embosser.
I don't know if that was the work of AP or the Star-Tribune, but whoever it was, it's a really cool thing to do.

Plus Two

The Daily Star (Lebanon) said on Friday that
Israel has authorized farmers in the Golan Heights to sell 15,000 tons of apples to Syria in the first trade deal between the countries, officials said Thursday.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz "responded positively to a request by the farmers who have an excess of production and authorized the sale of 15,000 tons to Syria," a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

It represents "the first officially authorized commercial transaction" between the two countries which are technically in a state of war, the spokesman added.
The farmers in question are not Israelis but members of the Golan's Druze community, who refused to give up their Syrian nationality when Israel annexed the region in 1981. And the deal is supposedly being done through the UN, not directly, and the apples will exported to Syria by way of Jordan. So like many things before in the region, there's a lot of indirection involved. But everyone still knows where the apples are coming from, where they are going to, and that it's the first time it's been done.

Like the man said, small steps, small steps.

Plus One

The first municipal voting among West Bank Palestinians since 1976 took place on Thursday.
More than 140,000 voters will choose from nearly 900 candidates in the town of Jericho and numerous villages,
the BBC said.

The Daily Star (Lebanon) for Friday added that
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei, who cast his ballot in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, praised the vote as "the first step toward the establishment of the Palestinian state."

"These elections are being held in difficult conditions. But they are a reflection of the democratic voice that we have chosen to build our Palestinian state," Qorei said.
Hamas is boycotting the January presidential balloting, but does have candidates in this election and says it will also run for other municipal and parliamentary offices.
Correspondents say the vote will serve as a barometer of Hamas's level of support beyond its Gaza stronghold.
More elections covering more towns in both the West Bank and Gaza are scheduled for next year, with the first in January.
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