Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yankees Prop Up Nation's Economy

Undeterred by their failure to even make the playoffs in 2008 despite their league-high team payroll ($207 million) that was one-and-a-half times the combined total of that of the World Series finalists (Phillies-$95M; Rays-$43M), the New York Yankees decided that it would be best to double-down on their failed "strategy" of spending vast quantities of money to sign up the most high profile free agents. Their off-season spending spree continued today with the Yankees signing coveted free agent, Mark Texeira for the bargain-basement price of $180M over 8 years. The account of how the deal was completed contains this illuminating nugget:
Early Tuesday, after midnight New York time, Cashman received a telephone call from Boras stating that Teixeira’s preference was to play for the Yankees, the person said. While the Boston Red Sox had also pursued Teixeira, offering an eight-year deal worth about $170 million, New York is closer to the player’s family in Maryland.
Goes to show that Scott Boras (Texeira's agent) is a negotiating genius. The same dude who was responsible for the quarter-billion dollar Alex Rodriguez contract monstrosity with the Texas Rangers in 2001--a contract offer that by many accounts far exceeded the next best offer--managed to get the Swankees to pay $10M more than the next best offer after telling them that Texeira preferred to play in New York. That's some negotiating; as anyone who's dealt with a used car salesman knows...don't act too interested if you want the best deal. But, in the land of Boras, all nutty things are possible.

With this signing, the Yankees have now committed to shelling out $185M in 2009 to just 16 players on their 40-man roster; proof of their staunch belief in those timeless words:
'Tis better to have paid and lost
Than never to have paid at all.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Struggling Private Jet Manufacturers Request Bailout

In an economy largely fueled by spending, the fuss over the auto execs' recent use of corporate jets to travel to Washington seems ironic. Now comes more breathless "news" by the Associated Press that, horror of horrors, Wall Street executives are "still" flying by company-owned jets. This excellent and timely piece of journalism simultaneously points out that the use of corporate jets is a "coveted executive perk" and that the "jets serve as airborne offices, time-savers for executives for whom time is money - lots of money." The article goes on to say:
After years of railing against such costs, billionaire investor and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. CEO Warren Buffet broke down in 1989 and bought a Gulfstream IV-SP using $9.7 million in company funds. He named the aircraft "The Indefensible."
Yes, the WB-oracle himself, that champion of fiscal prudence, found it necessary to use a jet, presumably for reasons of efficiency. Now, I recognize that the use of jets is bad optics in this time of hat-in-hand-begging-for-money. Still, anyone who has traveled commercial knows how much time is wasted in waiting for planes and connections. That is a trade-off that is worth most people's time, but is probably not a prudent choice for everyone. The President, for example.

But, there you go. Here's your pyrrhic victory:
Many U.S. companies are giving up the perk. The inventory of used private jets was up 52 percent as of September, according to recent JPMorgan data on the health of the private aircraft industry.
How long do we have before private jet execs start asking for help and be harangued by the public for traveling by their own jets? This is what we get for mandating behavior instead of demanding results.

Freedom of Difference

The hullabaloo over Obama's selection of Rick Warren to lead the invocation at the Inauguration has exposed the limits to which progressives are willing to embrace "post-partisan politics." While I can understand their disdain for a man who rejects gay marriage and supported Prop 8, those who protest his selection make the critical error of perpetuating the mentality that one must only associate with those that agree on everything. For all his faults--and there are enough--Rick Warren is hardly a Pat Robertson or James Dobson, those luminaries who blamed 9/11 and Katrina on the presence of gays in this country. Moreover, Warren has consistently tried to move evangelical Christians toward social causes such as poverty-alleviation, an important service for which the nation ought to be grateful. If for nothing else, Warren ought to be embraced for his attempt to change the evangelicals' dismaying record of being one-trick ponies, for their willingness to ignore social injustice so long as "higher values" such as a public expression of faith are allowed. In this context, Obama's invitation to Warren ought to be commended because someone evangelicals admire will now publicly lead them in praying for the new president and his leadership. If you think this is a meaningless gesture, then you are no more interested in having a government for all Americans than were the cast of characters who "led" for the past eight years. Warren's presence at the Inaugural stage ought to be more disconcerting to the Christian right than for the progressive left. This is a splendid opportunity to engage the two parts of the country that do not care to acknowledge each other, let alone tolerate their differences in views. The fight over gay marriage will continue as it should in popular culture, values, and in government--including in the courts. That should not prevent collaboration in other important areas, particularly in tackling poverty. An acknowledgment of the other might be a good first step toward increasing collaboration. And, who knows, it might actually lead to greater dialogue and the chance for persuasion, as opposed to legal coercion.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mad Guy Loses Remaining Bearings

Zimbabwe is now accusing the West of waging biological warfare against that country by deliberately introducing cholera, which has killed nearly 800 people since August. The country's information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, called it a "genocidal onslaught" and a "calculated racist attack" aimed at paving the way for an invasion. As an example of how Mugabe's craziness continues to astound even the most jaded observers, the Associated Press stoically suggests that "Experts, however, blame the epidemic on Zimbabwe's economic collapse." U.S. Ambassador James McGee warned that the country was "turning into a failed state."

Yes...Zimbabwe is "turning" into a failed state. If the deterioration continues much longer, Zimbabweans might begin to starve or die of epidemics, and crime might explode.

A Zimbabwean friend of mine once suggested that they should argue that Al-Qaeda has taken root in Zimbabwe so that the West does actually invade and put Mugabe out of his misery.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Bombay. Not Mumbai

The city was called both names for centuries; the Marathi-language locals called it Mumbai, English-speakers called it Bombay. Which came first is not easily determined. Some say that Bombay is the anglicized corruption of the pre-existing local name, Mumbai. However, the Portuguese, who arrived in the area before the British, called the city Bombaim. As the wikipedia entry on this subject points out, Bombaim probably derived from a Portuguese name meaning "good bay." In other words, I believe Bombay is the anglicized version of Bombaim and not Mumbai.

In 1996, the ruling, Hindu-nationalist, Shiv Sena state government renamed the city to Mumbai in the English version as well, as part of a rash of colonial rejection that swept India. This moronic "restoration" disease was responsible for such atrocities as changing Calcutta to Kolkata (the local Bengali name), Madras to Chennai (Tamil), and Bangalore to Bengaluru (Kannada). Substituting symbolism for competence, these state governments sought to restore their cultural "pride" as a step to solving all the nation's problems. Read here for more gory details about the loaded reasons for these name changes.

This "logic" has also extended from time to time to the idea of making Hindi the sole official language of India, an honor it shares with English. Unsurprisingly, several regional groups (including the Tamilians and Kannadigas) have rioted at this brazen attempt by the Hindi-speaking "Northies" to suppress regional cultures.

Wonder why I persist in calling it Bombay? The name India itself is derived from the Greek characterization of the area where the Indus river is located, which dates to at least the time of Alexander the Great. Try and remove all the "foreign" influences and what have you left?

Perhaps these Indian "nationalists" should redirect their energies to upgrading the country's police forces, like, I dunno, giving them some real guns instead of the World War I-era, .303 Enfield rifles that they carry, if they're lucky enough to have one. Seriously, these are collectibles:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Mettle of Indian Security

Right on the heels of my last post that talked about the inept Indian security system and how, in my experience, metal detectors in India are little more than annoying obstacles that people simply walk around, the NY Times published this picture yesterday:

(The Times' caption:) Metal detectors beeped and the word 'stop' came on, but commuters at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station in Mumbai, ignored them. Some commuters even squeezed between the metal detectors in their rush to move in and out of the station.
This is not to say that the Indian government is incapable of wielding its formidable bureaucratic muscle to improve things on occasion. According to the AP, security at airports around the country has been stepped up following threats of airborne attacks:
Several extra layers of security were set up and some passengers' bags were scanned for explosives.
"Passengers have been asked to pass through six-stage security checks," said Brij Lal, a senior police official organizing security at the airport in the northern city of Lucknow.
Nirmala Sharma, a passenger who flew from New Delhi to Lucknow, said her bags were checked a half dozen times and she went through a metal detector three times. "Sometimes it seemed tedious, but it seems to be the need of the hour," she said.
Indian airport security always seemed pretty good to me, actually. But, six-stage checks sure sound good. If only they could move one of those stages of security to other parts of the country, things might have a chance of improving.

If you read that last AP article I linked to, the remarkable thing isn't the newly overly convoluted security checks, but the discussion of how Indian officials are interrogating the lone captured terrorist:

Meanwhile, police officers said they were trying to get as much detail as possible from Kasab.
"A terrorist of this sort is never cooperative. We have to extract information," said Deven Bharti, the head of the Mumbai crime branch.
Indian police are known to use interrogation methods that would be regarded as torture in the West, including questioning suspects drugged with "truth serum."
Bharti provided no details on interrogation techniques, but said "truth serum" would probably be used next week. He did not specify what drug would be used.

As the Times (the British one) points out about the drawbacks of "truth serum":

The method was widely used by Western intelligence agencies during the Cold War, before it emerged that the drugs used – typically the barbiturate sodium pentothal – may induce hallucinations, delusions and psychotic manifestation.
The point being, of course, not that the interrogators were concerned for their subjects' well-being, but that these drugs are more effective at causing verbal diarrhea where the person speaks any gibberish that comes to their minds than tell the truth.

Those who criticize the Indians for using these drugs are missing the larger issue: the interrogators are merely seeking to confirm what they have already "extracted' from the terrorist through torture.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Indo-Pak Strategery

The madness of the terror attacks in Bombay has focused the world's attention on South Asia for the moment. India's first reaction, predictably, was to blame Pakistan instead of taking coherent action to take out the terrorists who were still alive and murdering people. Naval-gazing is just beginning, with the consensus so far pointing fingers at a completely inept Indian security apparatus. Helpful intel insiders are clambering over themselves to point out that they had warned so-and-so that this was going to happen, as if that would have mattered when India's anti-terror capacity is non-existent. Here's a revealing bit:
The information was relayed to domestic security authorities, but it was unclear whether the government acted on the intelligence.
The Taj Mahal hotel, scene of much of the bloodshed, had tightened security with metal detectors and other measures in the weeks before the attacks, after being warned of a possible threat.
But the precautions "could not have stopped what took place," Ratan Tata, chairman of the company that owns the hotel, told CNN. "They (the gunmen) didn't come through that entrance. They came from somewhere in the back."
There you go: "tightened security" means that they didn't even think of covering every damn entrance. In fact, having experienced India's security measures first-hand, I bet that the metal detector (I doubt there was more than one) in the front was active for no more than a day before people simply ignored it and walked around it. India has vowed before to take a comprehensive look at gaps in [insert security need] and prevent [insert crisis name] from ever happening again. I think Mark Tully gets it exactly right when he says about what will likely happen this time: '...will India wake up? If the past is anything to go by the answer has to be "no". '

The U.S. and other major powers are worried about an Indian military response against Pakistan and the likely resultant nuclear conflagration. Secretary Rice and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm Mullen are headed to the region to calm India and pressure Pakistan to help with the investigation. Marc Ambinder helpfully calls the region "A Second Middle East":
It's the Middle East with nuclear weapons on both sides. If soft power doesn't work, do you despose the Pakistani government and take possession of their nuclear program? Let them have a nuclear exchange and hope that it somehow does not spread? The next steps for the US aren't clear. President Obama might appoint an envoy to the region, empowered to engage in shuttle diplomacy a la Richard Holbrooke, Geroge Tenet or Dennis Ross.
Which brings us to how the Obama administration thinks it needs to deal with the region. I think it is a mistake for them to put too much emphasis on solving the Kashmir issue in order to normalize Indo-Pak relations. By comparison, I believe it is much more straightforward to solve the Israel-Palestine border issue than to sort out the messy ethno-religious tangles that bog down the Afghan-Pak-N. Indian region. IMHO, it is probably better to look at a region-wide (to include Central Asia) economic strategy of increasing trade and reducing barriers to investment as a means to achieving the political end goals. Natural gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan? Check. Central Asian hydropower to India and Pakistan? Check. Joint Tourism initiatives in Kashmir? Demilitarized borders? Infrastructure projects? Removing tariffs on cross-border trade?

History shows the way. For centuries, Afghanistan and Central Asia (and Iran) were most closely linked to the Indo-Pak region in terms of cultural and economic ties. There is still more that these regions have in common than not. Just figure out where India's Bollywood movies are most popular (outside India).

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sad Day in Pakistani Politics

Pakistan's powerful spy agency, the ISI, has unilaterally decided to withdraw from domestic politics. As the BBC reports, the agency was widely believed to have been heavily involved in the political process over the last several decades in order to "safeguard national security." These benevolent manipulations included funding rival political factions and vetoing potential ministerial and gubernatorial appointments. Without these essential acts of watchfulness, the people might well have elected treasonous leftists who would have gutted the military and capitulated to the country's enemies through "peace agreements."

However, in a commendable display of self-control, the ISI has now decided to retool and focus on its core competencies instead:
A senior security official, requesting anonymity, told the BBC Urdu service on Monday: "The ISI is changing, it wants to keep out of politics and concentrate on counter-intelligence."
...ISI insiders believe the agency's over-indulgence in politics has cost the service the trust of the public.
Public trust being the thing that politicians safeguard most jealously, the agency is once again modeling selfless devotion to the greater good above narrow, parochial interests. Most remarkably, the ISI's withdrawal from domestic politics emphatically disproves the conventional wisdom that those in power do not let go of it voluntarily. Those that despair of the country's future now that the spy agency has recused itself from politicking, should take hope in the fact that the ISI did not actually fire its political wing, merely inactivated the wing's staff. These fine public servants are presumably undergoing major job skills training because they have not yet "been given any new assignments."

The news report did not mention whether the ISI plans to also withdraw from its international politics efforts such as ensuring the Taliban have sufficient support to survive in Afghanistan's young democracy.

Friday, November 21, 2008


In an uncharacteristically far-reaching assessment, the National Intelligence Council warned yesterday that, "...If nuclear weapons are used destructively in the next 15-20 years, the international system will be shocked as it experiences immediate humanitarian, economic, and political-military repercussions." This gloomy prediction came in the context of discussing a potential nuclear arms race in the broader Middle East if Iran were to acquire nukes. The Council aimed its extraordinary remarks at conventional wisdom that believes nuclear weapons could be used so long as they are judiciously aimed at achievable objectives, such as taking out terrorists or excavating large quantities of earth for building swimming pools. The Intelligents warned that nuke use would actually exacerbate the current financial crisis by, for example, reducing tourism to the affected areas, a major economic driver in Middle Earth. Detractors, however, pointed out that the report failed to take into account the numerous benefits associated with nuclear weapons, including a reduction in global warming effects due to the ensuing fallout cloud, and a much-needed elimination of those pesky butterflies that plague much of the earth. Nuclear hawks were tearful on reading the report, bemoaning the Intelligents' "extreme liberal activist tendencies," and warning that this would destroy the immensely profitable global nuclear arms market. "If that happens," they muttered ominously, "we will have no choice but to ask Congress for a bailout." They were also concerned that the report would cause the Iranians to hastily cancel their nuclear plans, but took comfort in the fact that the Iranian censors were unlikely to let their leadership read the study.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Where Conservatism Needs to Go

'Tis the season to think aloud about the future of the conservative moment, and most seem to agree that some change is needed, even if what is needed still eludes consensus. But, that hip young conservative thinker, Douthat, puts it well:
This problem is not, repeat not, a matter of conservatives needing to abandon their core convictions in order to win elections, as right-of-center reformers are often accused of doing. Rather, it's a matter of conservatives needing to apply their core convictions to questions like "how do we mitigate the worst effects of climate change?" and "how do we modernize our infrastructure?" and "how do we encourage excellence and competition within our public school bureaucracy?" instead of just letting liberals completely monopolize these debates, while the Right talks about porkbusting and not much else.
Conservatism, to me, is about being prudent, weighing evidence, and worrying about unforeseen consequences before embarking on a course of action. These principles derive from a recognition that human reason is fallible, that "majority think" is not the same as being right, and that rash actions are usually far more dangerous than carefully considered ones. What passes for conservatism now, however, is fossilized sloganeering that simply ignores mounting evidence contrary to long-held beliefs.

On global warming, for example, a healthy skepticism was a reasonable reaction back when scientific evidence in favor of this phenomenon wasn't quite as robust as it is now. Today, many conservatives spend their energies denying that climate change even is, as it were. Therefore, there is no conservative input into the real issue, which is, what, if anything, should we and the government do about it. The left mostly begins from the assumption that, of course, the government ought to step in and fix it, like require lower emissions, create green technologies, etc. If, as Douthat says, conservatives discussed ways of applying their core principles to this issue, they might offer a range of conservative solutions, including market-oriented ideas, that do not automatically assume that government will take charge and fix this thing. So long as conservatives stay in denial-land, all they accomplish is to appear anti-evidence and anti-intellectual. Without conservative participation, we all lose when the only solutions we talk about are what government is going to do about this or that problem.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sure, That Makes Sense

Federal prosecutors in Nebraska attempting to convict a felon for possessing a gun (it's not allowed), had just one problem: the man did not have a firearm.
What attorneys had on their hands was an American double-action revolver that was manufactured between 1880 and 1941.The problem is that federal code states that the weapon is not a firearm unless it was manufactured after 1896. Without a definitive production date, the gun was inadmissible as evidence.
Undeterred by this minor obstacle, they put on their creative thinking hats, doodled ideas on their conference room dry-erase board, voted on their favorite suggestions, and selected the winner: prosecute him for possessing live ammunition. Which worked, natch.

The morose criminal's defense had rested on the entirely plausible claim that some angry pedestrians he narrowly missed running over threw the gun into the back of his car, which was obviously easier for them to do than to shoot him with said not-a-firearm. There being no legal requirement that ammunition be of a certain vintage, the dude now faces 15 years in prison.

ZORG complains that this case demonstrates the problem of criminal laws that are excessively specific. And he raises the point that a functioning revolutionary war-era musket can just as easily kill someone as a modern revolver. (Thought experiment: would the musket's ball and powder be considered ammunition? Also, how exactly would prosecutors convict a dude who kills someone with such a weapon? By proving he "threw" a bunch of tiny pellets, because he couldn't have "shot" them with the not-a-firearm?) My question: does this case not in fact show the larger problem with having multiple laws that can be separately used to prosecute the same crime?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Expanding Cabinets

The current political buzz is all about the horse race, for Obama's cabinet, that is. The biggest question in this age of ever expanding government is who he will appoint as Secretary of Bailouts: Larry "I already did this" Summers? Or, Tim "oh yeah? I'm cuter" Geithner? Or, perhaps, Paul "I was the Oracle before that Greenspan guy" Volcker.

The other biggest question is who will be his Secretary of Two Wars.

Not to forget the biggerer cabinet post of Secretary of That Diplomacy Thing. After all, that person would merely be fourth in line for the presidency.

Then, just as important, you have the most biggest departments of Color Coded Scare Alerts; Lawyer Central; Drill, Baby, Drill; Trains & Planes; and so on ad infinitum.

Which got me thinking...how complicated was this process for earlier presidents, and how many cabinets did their houses have? A little too much free time (and infoplease) and--presto! This nifty little chart (click for full image):Number of Cabinet Members by President

Monday, November 10, 2008

Infinite Power: Active and Well

Lost in the election hullabaloo is the fact that our worthy, wigless wonders have been going about their quiet business of protecting (or, circumscribing, depending on your point of view) our freedoms, unaffected by the rabble's screams in favor of this most-incredibly-wonderful candidate or the other. The most supreme arbiters are considering such matters as whether a failure to report to prison counts as a violent crime, or whether a prohibition against granting asylum to individuals that themselves were engaged in persecution applies to those who were forced to do so. No less important is one question, currently in Circuit Court, but inexorably moving up the food chain: simply put, should our government be able to hold someone indefinitely?

The case centers around 17 Chinese Muslims being held at Guantanamo despite the fact that they are no longer considered enemies. Our compassionate government, concerned for their well-being, has refused to deport them to China because of the persecution their community has faced there. At the same time, showing a nimbleness that belies its girth, the government refuses to release them into the U.S. mainland because, wearing its anti-illegal immigration hat, it claims the plenary authority to "exclude" aliens who reach our shores. Under the wide brim of this second hat, the powers-that-be elegantly claim, "even if the detention is indefinite, it is still lawful."

Rejecting the involuntary guests' claim that the gracious host has given up on trying to find a country that will accept them, the owner of the five-star Guantanamo hotel says it '"is actively continuing its efforts to resettle" them, and that negotiations "are ongoing."'

Given that beautiful piece of bureaucratese, it is worth recalling Private Secretary Bernard Woolley's explanation of the difference between "under consideration" and "under active consideration" to the Right Hon. Jim Hacker in Yes Minister: "Well, under consideration means we've lost the file, under active consideration means we're trying to find it."

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama Picks Rambo For Chief-of-Staff

In a stunning departure from his campaign message of hope and unity, President-elect Barack Obama tapped macho movie star, Sylvester Stallone to be his right-hand man in his new administration. Stallone, who starred in the hugely popular Rambo movies, is known for his bare-knuckled, take-no-prisoners, testosterone-fueled approach to solving conflicts, preferring to use dynamite and knives as his primary tools of persuasion. He is expected to bring his unique style to implementing the new President's agenda on Capitol Hill.

Senior Obama advisors could barely contain their shock when they heard the sudden news. "Why Stallone?" wondered one high-ranking aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "He has zero legislative experience, beyond testifying on the Hill about his steroid use. What could Obama have possibly seen in him?"

Another operative was equally bitter: "It's clear that Obama just wanted some prominent biceps in the White House. But, why not go for someone with a lot more political experience, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger? Obviously, we didn't know Obama as well as we thought we did."

But, some in the new administration enthusiastically praised the pick. Vice President-elect Joe Biden: "Let me tell you something. Sly Stallone is going to totally revolutionize the way we do things around here. There will be no more excuses for not getting things done. Let me say that again: No. More. Excuses. If Sly hears any whining, pffttt. Off with their heads."

On the Republican side, fear was palpable. "I can't believe the new President is going to be so mean," said one prominent lawmaker tearfully. "We were prepared to give him our utmost cooperation during the initial 1 month honeymoon, but now he is clearly going to break our arms any time we don't go along with what he wants." Several others planned on resigning immediately, rather than risk their lives in dealing with what promises to be a highly confrontational presidency.

Stallone, or, Rambo, as he prefers to be called, spoke at a press conference following the announcement, but was mostly unintelligible.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

November 5th - The Morning After

My take on some reactions out there regarding last night's events (there was an election...):
Yes! We won! Finally! (overwhelming majority, er, 52% of Americans)

Oh crap! What did we get ourselves into? (47% of pop.)

Hmmm...the world is still in one piece...in a manner of speaking...You mean to say that the four horsemen didn't come after all? (paranoid righties)

Oh crap! What did we get ourselves into? (smart lefties)

No fair...how do we keep hating America if you do things like this? (Euro kill-joys)

It doesn't matter who you put up there, we'll still hate you. (Most of the mid-east)

This is the end of history. No more progress is possible. (elite liberals)

Oh crap! What did we get ourselves into? (out-of-work bloggers)

I don't care! Gimme back my TV shows! (Joe the Consumer)

This sucks. I'm moving to real America. (elite east coast conservatives)

I'm glad I don't have to move to Canada after all. (Jane the Latte Sipper)

We won't tell him about the leaks in the White House master bathroom. (GWB)

What's going on? How can they "project" the winner before counting any votes? (my wife)

Today we are all Obamas. (Kenyans)

Back to obscurity. (Saturday Night Live)

Back to obscurity. (CNN)

At least we can play the part of the "constructive" opposition. (Rupert Murdoch - Fox News)

But...but...but...capitalism is a fundamental right! (Rupert Murdoch - Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Great American Voting Project

is underway and I participated in it. Got to my polling place in N. Virginia by 5:30 this morning, sleep lines and all, only to see 75 people already waiting in line, gabbing excitedly as if this election were important. Ran into a few friends and neighbors, did the obligatory small talk with some strangers, calculated the profit potential of a coffee & bagel cart (if only I had had the foresight to exploit this historic moment...alas), and thanked my stars (meaning, of course, my wife) for having the wisdom to show up early. By the time the doors opened at 6, the line had occupied a city block.

Inside, a helpful lady explained how to work the electronic voting machine (no paper trail, natch), and brightly encouraged us to simply trust that the technology would work just fine. Fortified by this knowledge, I waited in yet another line for the privilege of announcing to the poll worker that I (full name), of (full address), born in (city, state, and birth weight), late of (previous address), and being of sound mind (evidenced by having woken up this early) and body (proven by having stood in line), unencumbered by knowledge of the candidates' views was ready to exercise my constitutional obligation and cast the tie-breaking and crucial vote that would decide the election.

And so, after fiddling with the necessary dials, I did. And I have the "I Voted" sticker to prove it.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

What Voting Means to Me

Just two blessed days until America votes, bringing a merciful end to the two-year-long competition for the right to inherit all these problems. Or so we hope, fervently wishing that we have a final result on Tuesday and not have it dragged out through multiple overtimes. Our anxiety over the outcome of this election unfortunately overshadows the best part of all: the actual ritual of voting. On this day, millions will walk into their nearest polling place, stand in a miserably long line, chat with friends and strangers nearby, cast their vote, and retreat to their individual routines. And, I never cease to marvel at the spectacle.

Much has been written around the world about the importance of voting, the meaning of suffrage, the duties of citizenship, and there is nothing I can add to that body of work. These are just some of my favorite nuggets and images about voting that stir my heart. The actual elections may not always work well, or fairly, leaders may disappoint, but I still believe the right to vote is a special thing. So, please, please, vote. If you don't care about any candidate, write someone else's name in. Just vote. It's a beautiful thing to do.

Daughter of Slave Votes For Obama:
Amanda Jones, 109, the daughter of a man born into slavery, has lived a life long enough to touch three centuries. And after voting consistently as a Democrat for 70 years, she has voted early for the country's first black presidential nominee.

Amanda Jones' father urged her to exercise her right to vote, despite discriminatory practices at the polls and poll taxes meant to keep black and poor people from voting. Those practices were outlawed for federal elections with the 24th Amendment in 1964, but not for state and local races in Texas until 1966.

She is too weak to go the polls, so two of her 10 children — Eloise Baker, 75, and Joyce Jones — helped her fill out a mail-in ballot for Barack Obama, Baker said.

Iraqis Defy Threats as Millions Vote (2005):
Lines that began small at polling stations grew during the 10 hours of voting, sometimes dramatically. After casting ballots, many Iraqis triumphantly pointed their index fingers, stained with the purple ink that indicated they had voted, and hardly flinched at gunfire and explosions that interrupted the day.

Across town, three Iraqi soldiers carried an elderly man in a wheelchair two blocks to a voting booth.

The Great Indian Poll Show (2004):

More than 350 million Indians have braved intense heat, pouring rain and snow to take part in the largest democratic exercise in the world.

Voting in the world's largest democracy has its own idiosyncrasies. Poll officials travelled by yak and elephants to reach remote polling stations high up in the mountains, some of which only had a few hundred registered voters. Others trekked for three days or were dropped off by helicopter.

"Faces Filled with Joy": The 1994 South African Election

When eight white policemen burst into the polling place at Eshowe Town Hall, the fears and suspicion that had plagued the buildup to the election were suddenly manifest again. I felt the general panic. What was wrong? What had we failed to observe? And then I laughed out loud as the officers disarmed and stood in line to cast their ballots.

The people came; the ballot boxes filled and were sealed with sealing wax. They switched to collecting ballots in mail bags. The people came, and the people in the great majority put Mandela in the box.

Liberia (2005)
On 11 October, voters began queuing as early as 2 a.m. to cast their ballots at polling stations set up in churches, schools, dilapidated public buildings and even tents and rural huts. Some carried benches to sit on and umbrellas to shield themselves from rain and sun. Queues spilled out of the voting precincts winding through streets. More than 3,500 national and 421 international observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter, who monitored Liberia’s first postwar elections, endorsed the exercise as free and fair.

Pennsylvania Reality Check

Horse race junkies are hyperventilating about the importance of Pennsylvania to the candidates' chances on Tuesday. In particular, some polls there have shown a 4 point lead for Obama compared to the double-digit lead that most other polls have shown. This has naturally led to cautious optimism among Republicans and anguished bed-wetting among some Democrats. There is broad consensus that McCain absolutely needs to turn Pennsylvania red for him to have any chance of winning the election; this is a state that has been one of the reliably blue states for a while (both Kerry and Gore won here).

Not to extinguish such entertaining anxiety on both sides, but, it may be worthwhile to compare current polls with those from 2004 when John Kerry carried the state by 2 points. First, the current polling trend from Real Clear Politics, where the spread of the averages for the week leading up to the election is 8.5 points:

Now, from 2004, my compilation of RCP data from September through November:

Not too difficult to spot the amateur graphic, right? However, I tried to use the same scale on the left, so the comparison should be clear: there is none. Kerry's highest lead during the period was never more than 4 or 5 points, and in some polls he was down by as many as 4 points to Bush (RCP average for the final week before the election was Kerry leading by 0.9 points!). Yet, the final result (the yellow tick mark above) of a 2 point victory was pretty much in line with the polls. Obama, by contrast, has averaged nearly a 10 point lead, and has not even trailed in a single poll since April!

Yes, anything is possible, there are worries about a Bradley Effect, etc. But, I would just like to say the obvious: if Obama loses Pennsylvania, he will have lost in a landslide to McCain, not in a squeaker. Also, I would expect much wailing and gnashing of the teeth among pollsters for years and decades afterward to figure out what the heck happened. This would be a cataclysmic event in the science of polling, falling into the "damn lies" category of how Benjamin Disraeli described statistics.

But, please, keep the anxiety going. It is very entertaining.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

David Frum Can't Google

Frum is ordinarily one of the more reasonable opinionators over at National Review, which, these days, is a bit like praising the designated driver at a frat keg party. But, ol' Frumps decided to burnish his anti-liberal credentials a bit this week by posting this gem, modestly titled, "The International Case Against Obama":
From a regular correspondent, a young Indian national doing graduate studies in the United Kingdom:
An Obama presidency will embolden terrorists. I admit that this administration made too many inexcusable errors, but Obama will only offer palliative prescriptions, not permanent cure to the problem. If his presidency is a peaceful one, it will be so not because he has gone after the terrorists, but because he has conceded. That's really not leadership.

Recently, an Indian newspaper asked Obama what he knew about India. His ignorance was startling. Other than Gandhi, he couldn't mention a single name. I can almost imagine the day when Pakistan strikes India, and Obama asks Indians to follow the example of Gandhi and sit still. McCain at least recognises the importance of democracy.
The chief, and probably, only, merit of this post is that it brings to attention an important topic (at least for India-watchers): what would a President Obama's policies toward the Indian subcontinent look like? Would he continue Bush's unprecedented expansion of cooperation with India? How would he deal with the thorny India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir?

Leaving aside the tortured "logic" of this young graduate student's missive, what this piece accomplishes is to painfully expose dear Frumpy's complete ignorance of India matters, something that should be clear to even a casual India-observer. However Obama may view India, ignorance is not the problem. A simple Google search on "Obama India" would have revealed a wealth of information on the candidate's positions to Frumpelstiltskin.

First, Obama (and McCain) voted for the recent U.S.-India nuclear agreement, one of Bush's most significant foreign policy achievements. Hardly a "Gandhian" peace dove-y view; controversial to be sure, even in India, but not quite "anti-India." Second, Obama criticized U.S. assistance to Pakistan on the grounds that it was being used not to fight terrorists but to arm against India; a nuanced position that is obviously more "pro-India" than even this administration who accepted, maybe unwillingly, the tacit compromise when funding Pakistan. Third, Obama has been the most plain-spoken of the candidates in asserting a willingness to take out high profile terrorists in Pakistan if that government does not do so itself. Obama has been criticized for saying that, and this position certainly did not make him any friends in Pakistan, but I have a hard time visualizing hawkish Indians being dismayed at this stance.

Now, my point is not to defend Obama about his India views, just to say that Frumpsky does not know what the hell he's talking about. To be sure, Obama has some positions related to India that concern some people there. For example, his constant railing against outsourcing (read software and call center jobs) and his generally protectionist stances on trade. There are many others; if you'd like to know more, do your own damn Google search (and tell the Frumpster what you found).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bias? Common Sense? Journalism?

What do you, noble reader, expect of your journalists?

a) Present the facts and let the smarty audience decide.
b) Go ahead and point out outright falsehoods when reciting the news.
c) Make up stuff that I want to hear.
d) News? Ha!

Many journies brag about following the first approach, but it is clearly difficult to present all the facts of any given situation due to space/time constraints, so, the reportahs must, to some degree, present what they think is relevant. But, what about "simply relaying" something that Ms. X and Mr. Y said when you know Mr. Y's talking gibberish? Is that making a false moral equivalency, if you pretend not to notice that one is a raving lunatic, all in the name of letting the audience decide?

CNN's Campbell Brown seems to think so, and is attempting to "cut through the bull****" in her new show: No Bias, No Bull. Campbell uses the following example to make her point: If one person says it's raining outside, and another says it's sunny, the journalist should have the common sense to look out the window and report which person ought to be gently led away. ('gram to Campbell: Suggest tweak example STOP It possible both sun and rain STOP)

Personally, I applaud her efforts, if she is truly sincere and not just toying with our emotions, to wrest back the mantle of "no bias" from the Bill O'Reillys and the Keith Olbermanns whose shrill partisanship is dismaying. (Not, of course, that there's any moral equivalency between the two; one of them is a complete jackass.) By some stroke of luck, Campbell Brown's show is scheduled for the same time slot as the aforementioned shrillsters. (Centrism...that's our rallying cry! And money maker!)

This whole discussion brought to mind something Paul Begala (no shrinking violet himself, in terms of the spin ability) said last month (ignore the candidate-bashing):
If John McCain and Sarah Palin were to say the moon was made of green cheese, we can be certain that Barack Obama and Joe Biden would pounce on it, and point out it's actually made of rock. And you just know the headline in the paper the next day would read: "CANDIDATES CLASH ON LUNAR LANDSCAPE."
Why doesn't somebody call Neil Armstrong? He's been there. Or go to the Smithsonian and open the glass case that contains a piece of the moon. The moon is a rock. That's a fact, Jack.
Hyok, hyok. Mr. Begala, here's the truth: Neil Armstrong never went to the moon. NASA faked it all.

How's that for journalistic excellence?

Monday, October 27, 2008


If you had had the misfortune of wandering over to Drudge tonight, you would have noticed the following cryptic screamer (without a link to an article):

His sludgeness, Mr. Matt, is questioning whether the 16 news organizations listed above might all be wrong in their polls which have consistently shown Obama ahead of McCain at the national level. Your immediate response to this "question" probably reveals your political preference. Obama devotees are probably incensed at the Dreg Depot's ignoring of all pro-Obama news in favor of manufactured skepticism such as this headline. McCain grit pals are the ones ardently hoping against all evidence that the Grudge Resort is correct.

And a very small minority out there--known as the independents--wondered whether it is possible that Matt Fudge is hedging his bets by asking a question that could be read as being self-refuting, i.e., can sixteen independent polling outfits all be wrong in the same direction?

By a remarkable coincidence, Faux Noise, the sludge echo, leads its online political coverage tonight with the following gem of journalistic excellence:
Pollsters Struggle to Handicap Presidential Race: Barack Obama's leading in virtually every national poll, but his margin fluctuates wildly -- suggesting that in some cases, the numbers do in fact lie.
The article "finds" that even though virtually every poll out since late September has shown Obama ahead, his lead has varied wildly, from 1 to 13 points in the past two weeks alone. From this observation, Flax News infers that, naturally, McCain must be leading somewhere in some sets of voters, which means the polls are suspect, never mind that the overwhelming majority of polls have shown Obama ahead all the time. (I could point you to professional critiques of the "close" polls such as this one, but I'll spare you.) The compounding problem that is causing such fits to the poor pollster babies? Not a dearth of data, as one might expect, but an excess of the squigglies:
FOX News political analyst Karl Rove said by his count, there have been 177 national polls conducted as of Oct. 24, compared with 55 at the same time in 2004.
"The proliferation of polls, particularly polls run by universities that may not have the skill and capability that a professional polling outfit has, are really not helpful to the process, in my opinion," Rove said.
So, having more than three times the amount of data showing one candidate consistently ahead is the problem? What are the odds that that many trollsters could all be chucked into the polling feeding frenzy and almost all emerge with the same result?

The sharper-eyed among you would notice whom Flack Nays quoted above: yes, the Prez's favorite Turd Blossom himself (see #9). The other pollsters mentioned by the article in order to justify the title of this dingbat piece of journalism? Dana Blanton, FOX News polling director, and Karlyn Bowman, who studies public opinion for the American Enterprise Institute (I'll save you the suspense...they lean pro-McCain.)

All said, whom do you think this type of coverage best helps? McCain, in order to gin up some more enthusiasm? Or Obama, who has worried about complacency?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Live Every Day Like It's Your Last...

is, roughly, how the saying goes, intending to encourage us to live fuller, more meaningful lives than our current, presumably desultory, ones. The sentiment finds expression in a variety of settings, whether it be coaches exhorting their players to play each game passionately, as if it were their last, or "life coaches" suggesting that being conscious of the fact of one's mortality can make one shed self-imposed inhibitions to greatness. Preachers, too, have a habit of pleading with their flock to return to the straight-and-narrow, pointing out that Judgment Day will arrive suddenly, perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, and that this event will extinguish all second chances at redemption (i.e., you're screwed).

The Latin phrase, Memento mori, captures this idea, essentially saying, "Remember that you will die." Naturally, this morbid idea spawned an entire school of art in Rome during the 17th and 18th centuries. Sir Robin Williams, in the movie, Dead Poets Society, inspired his students to carpe diem, Latin for "seize the day." This, of course, is slightly different from memento-ing your mori. The former merely points out that because we don't know when our mori will overtake us, we ought to carpe the heck out of our diem and make the most of it.

Scientists, being scientists and unable to leave such morbidity alone, prefer to conduct experiments on lab rats. Calling it "mortality salience," one scientist tested the idea on judges in Arizona, attempting to see the effect of awareness of one's mortality on one's world views. The honorable lab rats confirmed the scientist's premise that mortality salience "increases positive reactions to those who share cherished aspects of one's cultural worldview, and negative reactions toward those who violate cherished cultural values or are merely different."

Keep that in mind when you tell someone to live their day as if it were their last; all you may be doing is to make them more rigid in their existing views.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Thank God She's Not Going to Have to be President from Day One"

(H/T to Halperin) That's McCain supporter, Sen. Lieberman, talking to Connecticut reporters about Ms. Palin's readiness to be vice president. In fairness, that's just half of his quote; the rest goes, "McCain's going to be alive and well."

My first reaction was that he just botched the delivery of that sentiment; presumably he was aiming for a statement of confidence in McCain's health, and not an "Oh God! President Quayle!" type shudder that went through a lot of people everytime Bush Sr. was taken ill. But, he continues:

"When I endorsed John in December of last year, I cited ... he was ready to be commander-and-chief on day one," Lieberman said.
Palin has come under fire from members of both parties as being ill-prepared to assume the role of commander-and-chief if necessary. Lieberman himself was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2000 and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004.
"Let's hope she never has to be ready because we hope McCain is elected and live out his term," Lieberman said. "But if, God forbid, an accident occurs or something of that kind, she'll be ready. She's had executive experience. She's smart. And she will have had on-the-job training."

My emphasis. As Jon Stewart might say, they really don't want to win this thing, do they?

Bring Out Yer Soapbox

Each Friday evening, on my way home from work in the nation's capital, I walk by a group of opinionated individuals gathered by my metro (subway) stop. The supreme leader passionately expounds on the merits of his point of view and on the plentiful shortcomings of the opposition's. Generally, but, not always, his oratory is directed at issues of faith. Some days, he warns about Judgment Day (I'm told it's on its way); on others, he rails against [insert name of religion]; yet other times, he assures us that [insert politician's name] is the devil's favorite child. The scene is the same each week: a handful of intent listeners surrounding the head ranter, a gaggle of bemused onlookers milling about (actually, waiting for their bus), and the vast, silent majority of passers-by, going dourly about their business as usual. Every Friday, I am reminded of the time I went to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, London, during a brief visit to that city ten years ago. Soapboxes and orators have a long history in that corner of the world; I trust that that noble tradition continues to this day.

I admire those that have the passion to stand up and boldly proclaim what they believe, regardless of the quantity or quality of their audience, undeterred by inclement weather or the Thought Police. When ideas and beliefs are vigorously debated, I think the world is the better for it. Some might see blogging as the modern-day equivalent of speaking on a soapbox. We articulate, debate, gesticulate, and pontificate in an online community (sorry for going all Jesse Jackson there). More power to those that are secure enough in themselves to lay their thoughts out in the public domain.

But, surely blogging is just a pale imitation of the real thing. Unlike in Hyde Park, we don't have to face our critics in person in the internet world; such an encounter might temper our more extreme opinions and improve civil discourse. On the other hand, you might be assailed by sputum or pies.

So, here's to "soapboxing" in all its forms: may it continue to keep us sharp, engaged, and slightly drunk.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Today's Moral

Don't mess with the Brits. Or pedants, for that matter. In response to my last post, "Greenspan: Wherefore Art Thou, Capitalism?", Phillip Philip (a well known British curmudgeon) writes:
Pedantry Warning As is clear from the context of Juliet's speech (Act II, scene ii), "wherefore" means not where but why, hence the absence of commas in the original. Were Baron Alan Greenback poetically inclined, he might prefer to go with Milton's "Whence and what art thou, execrable business practices?", or Marlowe's "Why, this is recession, nor are we out of it".
I'm somewhat partial to Milton myself.

Thank you for the correction, friend. Serves me right for having readers smarter than myself. No matter, I welcome pedants and their unprovoked outbursts if it serves the greater good.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Greenspan: Wherefore Art Thou, Capitalism?

Oh man...the Oracle, himself, is shellshocked about the collapse of the free market system, calling it a "mistake" in his views that banks would be more prudent in their lending practices. Self-interest gets body slammed by irrational exuberance...don't we, then, risk further moral hazard by bailing out the markets? If they no longer have to worry about pricing in the risk of failure, it seems to me that there is little reason to expect rationality any time soon.

FYI: New Address

I decided to take the plunge and get my own domain: www.eatsblogsandleaves.com.

Mystery in Obama-Biden Land

Althouse rightly points out the media's double-standard on not pushing Biden to better explain his comments. What on earth did he mean when he said, speaking to donors and mentioning that in four or five scenarios, their administration's response would initially not "be apparent that we're right"?

What types of international incidents is he envisioning? More importantly, what unorthoodox response is he promising? In what way? Is he saying that if we get attacked by terrorists from one country that we'll invade a different one? Already did that, thank you. I want to know his explanation and details on all five scenarios.

On Sober Reflection

I think George Will did have a point after all. (Note to self...lay off the rantorade a bit.) I do believe that people crave moral certitude, and that they are increasingly being drawn to traditions that demand something of them. Until someone shows me that the mainline Protestant traditions are losing members for a different reason, I am inclined to agree that we have lost our edge in these movements. The Gospels are still edgy; Jesus' words still can be harsh and prophetic. The question for Christians, then, is how to deal with vigorous disagreements on scriptural interpretation. Do we agree to disagree? Or do we battle it out to the point of division? I have a personal bias in favor of Churches staying whole because I think secessionism too easily devolves into disintegration. I can see why people might feel compelled to draw a line in the sand for whatever reason and say: no more! But, is that a problem with them, or does it show our inability to talk about difficult things?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Palin v Global Warming - Redux

I discussed this before and I'm still confused by what Sarah Palin is trying to do with this topic. Is global warming caused by a) natural cycles of cooling and warming, or b) by human behavior? If you select the second option, then it appears fairly clear what you might do to reverse g.w. But, if you select the first option, what on earth can you do about it? In that last post of mine I sarcastically suggested several policy solutions, such as building giant sea walls, etc. I assumed that the campaign wonks would consult with Ms. Palin and refine her position in case she was asked this again. Here's the latest from an interview this week:

Identical response. Obviously, she is attempting to take on the persona of practicality and go-do-itness, which is admirable and a great political tack. But, how on earth can you continue to present such illogic? Palin says: we don't know if human activities have a small or large part to play in causing g.w., but it's clear we need to do something, like reducing pollution, etc.

My question: Why? If humans are only causing 1% of the phenom, then clearly it's not worth worrying about (unless you're a tree hugger elitist).

Unless...her position is that it's probably a natural thing, but, we still need to something about it. In that case, and I'm being serious here, the only options left are along the lines of sea walls or mass evacuations from the coast.

My advice is to pick one option and stick with it. Nuance doesn't serve you well here. Full disclosure: I don't particularly care about the global warming issue except in some distant academic way. It's the illogical statements about it that drive me batty.

Daily Eat 10/22

Do you know where to vote? Google Maps just released this incredible tool.

Two British counterterrorism experts criticize the U.S. for taking an "overly militaristic approach" to fighting terrorism.

Tiger Woods takes a break from his knee rehab to caddie for a fan who won a sweepstakes.

Ambinder doesn't like "W".

The Curmudgeon is not happy with Britain's wind power approach.

Rod Dreher summarizes the mood among some Dallas Republicans (they're not happy).

Here's a sciency take on why we crave the taste of unami.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

George Will Eats, Dumps and Leaves

To echo what seems to be a popular sentiment, I enjoy George Will's typically penetrating insights as he applies his formidable intellect to matters of politics and baseball. His most recent column--on Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church--, however, falls far short of the standard he is known for, taking half-truths, substituting analogy for theology, and smugly taking aim at his real target: "progressive politics."

Will says that the Episcopal Church has become "tolerant to the point of incoherence" and intent on furthering what he derisively refers to as "inclusiveness." Doctrinal elasticity, he claims, has caused a dwindling following, secessionist dioceses, and a rift within the broader Anglican Communion.

As George Will might say: well.

First, as Lutheran Zephyr points out, this drive-by piece begins by misrepresenting Luther, attributing to him a manufactured ideology of "the primacy of individual judgment and conscience":
For Luther it was not his individuality but the Word of God which called him to take his stand. Luther viewed the power structure of the Roman Church as corrupt and failing to live up to its God-given mandate, but he never called for that power vacuum to be filled with raging individuality. Rather, he and his fellow Reformers affirmed the conscience-binding authority of the early ecumenical councils, the creeds, Scripture, and - most importantly - the Living Word of God that those creeds, councils and Scripture proclaim. Rather than asserting "the primacy of individual judgment" as Mr. Will claims, Luther asserted the primacy of the Word of God in one of the most beloved slogans of the Reformation - Word Alone. Quibble what you will with the impact of Luther's claims and the ways in which his successors used (or abused!) his legacy, Luther was no modern individualist.
It is the primacy of scripture that Luther advocated which underpins Protestantism, not, as LZ calls it, "a theological free-for-all, choose-your-own-adventure approach to ministry and faith." In fact, it is precisely an overindulgence in individualistic interpretations of Scripture that has arguably led to the proliferation of secessionist movements in Protestantism since Luther's time.

I came to Anglicanism from a conservative evangelical denomination that depended myopically on the primacy of Scripture. Myopic because that denomination like many of its ilk split voraciously on differences of scriptural interpretation, large and small. From disagreeing on evolution to the "proper" role of women to whether instruments are permissible in worship, arguments about how to "rightly" interpret Scripture frequently hinged on who yelled the loudest. And, just as frequently, these disagreements led factions to break-away, secure in the knowledge that they were the "true believers."

The reason I came to Anglicanism was that it represented a sensible way out of the quandary that two reasonable individuals might heartily disagree on how to interpret any given Scripture. Churches in the Anglican Communion are distinguished by their sharing few, broad characteristics, such as the use of the Book of Common Prayer and a belief that Scripture is God's word for us on earth. What Anglicanism does not require, however, is that one believe a laundry list of doctrines, precisely because to do so would fossilize interpretations made in a certain time and place, leading to untold quarrels over the modern-day applicability of this or that tenet, whether now or at some future point.

The question of homosexuality has been angrily debated in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Will says:
It is not the secessionists such as Duncan who are, as critics charge, obsessed with homosexuality. The Episcopal Church's leadership is latitudinarian -- tolerant to the point of incoherence, Duncan and kindred spirits think -- about clergy who deviate from traditional church teachings concerning such core doctrines as the divinity of Christ, the authority of Scripture and the path to salvation. But the national church insists on the ordination of openly gay clergy and on blessing same-sex unions.
The last sentence betrays Will's (and others') ignorance of the Episcopal Church's structure and laws. There is no "national church," at least, not in the sense that he means. Rather,
The Episcopal Church is governed by a Constitution and a set of laws (known as “canons”) which it establishes for itself by Convention, but the diocesan bishop is the ecclesiastical (or “church”) authority in his or her particular diocese. The bishops of the Episcopal Church have no jurisdiction outside of their dioceses, so they meet together twice per year to pray and make decisions about the life of the Church. Every nine years, the Church elects a “Presiding Bishop” who represents the Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion and “presides” over meetings of the bishops, known as the “House of Bishops.”
My emphasis. Gene Robinson was elected Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire--a choice of members of that Diocese and that Diocese alone. The "national church" has limited powers of ratification--limited because they are enumerated in the Church canons--and could/should only have overruled the Diocesan election in certain limited situations. It would have been improper activism if the delegates to the Convention had suddenly expanded the canons to include a litmus test on sexual orientation.

If you note similarities between constitutional conservatism (of the sort George Will espouses) and the Episcopal tradition, this is no accident. After all, what Will calls "America's upper crust" was once the same group that gave us both.

Curses! Part Deux

In yesterday's post on politicians and their habits of lying or using expletives, I closed with the following:
I miss the days of plain ol' spin. Orwell himself would have blushed on behalf of our politicians of today.
But, reader Scott calls me a big lout and correctly points out:
...I have to disagree with the closing line. I don't think Orwell would blush at all, as Hughes' and Palin's behavior are completely consistent with what he described here: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm I doubt he'd find the behavior shocking in the least
So, my apologies to the great Orwell for mischaracterizing his views. (On the other hand, perhaps, to pay homage to his spirit, I should pretend that there is no inconsistency at all.) Nevertheless, my closing statement yesterday was striving for emphasis and effect. But, common English was insufficient to express my incredulity. I should've used the f-word instead and avoided criticism from smarty readers like Scott.

Freak! Faugh! Flak!

(for the record, all real words...look them up.)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wherefore Art Thou, Racism?

Not that I'm clamoring for it, but one of the strange things in this election has been the unexpected ways in which racism has appeared (and not).

Some observers expected to see the so-called "Bradley Effect" whereby Obama would end up doing worse than predicted by pre-election polls; according to this view, some white voters would rather tell a pollster they would vote for the black guy/gal than admit that they harbor negative feelings about that candidate. However, as Nate Silver quite comprehensively demonstrates, this effect appears to have been vastly overstated for this election cycle.

Which is not to say that racism is entirely absent. Indeed, just a short search on YouTube brings up disturbing videos from recent political rallies where people say nasty things about the Democratic candidate. Some old hate groups have resurfaced in certain parts of the country (h/t to Ben Smith). My point is not to hash out how prevalent racism is, but merely to marvel at how economic conditions have so soured that even some that are racist are actually considering voting for Obama. Ben Smith has a great story today that explores this phenomenon:
Anecdotes from across the battlegrounds suggest that there’s a significant minority of prejudiced white voters who will swallow hard and vote for the black man.

“I wouldn’t want a mixed marriage for my daughter, but I’m voting for Obama,” the wife of a retired Virginia coal miner, Sharon Fleming, told the Los Angeles Times recently.

One Obama volunteer told Politico after canvassing the working-class white Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown recently, "I was blown away by the outright racism, but these folks are … undecided. They would call him a [racial epithet] and mention how they don't know what to do because of the economy.”

The notion that there might be “racists for Obama,” as one Democrat called them, comes against the backdrop of a country whose white voters largely accept the notion of a black president.

“The economy is trumping racism,” said Kurt Schmoke, the dean of Howard University Law School and a former Baltimore mayor. “A lot of people who we might think wouldn’t vote their pocketbook because of race — now they are.”

“If you go to a white neighborhood in the suburbs and ask them, ‘How would you feel about a large black man kicking your door in,’ they would say, ‘That doesn’t sound good to me,’” said Democratic political consultant Paul Begala. “But if you say, 'Your house is on fire, and the firefighter happens to be black,' it’s a different situation.”

“The house is on fire, and one guy seems like he’s calm and confident and in charge, and that’s the only option,” he said.
But, my favorite anecdote (and my real reason for writing all this) comes via fivethirtyeight.com:
So a canvasser goes to a woman's door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she's planning to vote for. She isn't sure, has to ask her husband who she's voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, "We're votin' for the n***er!"

Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: "We're voting for the n***er."

In this economy, racism is officially a luxury.
Hey, does it really matter whether behavioral change follows attitude change or if it happens in reverse? As one of Nixon's henchmen once said, "If you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."


Texas Monthly has a great piece on Oliver Stone's new movie, W., talking in particular about whether or not Bush uses the f-word, as portrayed in the movie. Basically, Karl Rove panned the movie, saying that he couldn't remember Bush ever using that word in the 35 years he's known him. But, Dallas Morning News' Wayne Slater, who extensively covered Bush during his Texas years, remembers otherwise. The post goes on to quote Tucker Carlson (hardly an elitist liberal) who had a hostile discussion with Karen Hughes on the same topic in 1999:
...I heard that (on the campaign bus, Bush communications director) Karen Hughes accused me of lying. And so I called Karen and asked her why she was saying this, and she had this almost Orwellian rap that she laid on me about how things she’d heard—that I watched her hear—she in fact had never heard, and she’d never heard Bush use profanity ever. It was insane. I’ve obviously been lied to a lot by campaign operatives, but the striking thing about the way she lied was she knew I knew she was lying, and she did it anyway. There is no word in English that captures that. It almost crosses over from bravado into mental illness.
Mental illness indeed. I personally am no Bush fan, yet I am not dismayed to learn that he curses like a sailor (why sailor?...why not construction worker?...anyway). I myself used to rely on the f-word in daily conversations for a variety of uses: emphasis, surprise, sarcasm, anger, dismay, and many more. The f-word is versatile, able to fill vocabulary gaps like no other. But, it became for me a verbal crutch, obscuring what vocabulary I did have, and leaving me unable to construct a proper sentence in polite company. That's largely why I completely stopped using it several years ago. That and the fact that my best friend in college was a non-swearer and I wanted to conform. This (amoral reason) is why I object to the use of expletives.

In fact, one can make a general case in favor of the proper use of the English language. Tony Wright, a British politician, wrote in 2001 that "poor English murders clear thinking." I couldn't agree more. I would go on to say that poor English (or whatever your first language is) reflects muddled thinking, an inability to string together coherent thoughts (I know, I'm an eff-ing elitist).

My larger concern is what Carlson called the "mental illness" of lying deliberately, even fully knowing that the listener knows that one is lying. What is the difference between Karen Hughes' apparently brazen behavior and Sarah Palin's baffling statement that the recent TrooperGate report "completely cleared" her?

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin insisted Saturday that a long-awaited legislative report proves she broke no laws in firing the state's top cop.

"If you read the report, you will see that there was nothing unlawful or unethical about replacing a cabinet member," the GOP veep nominee said as she boarded her campaign bus in Pittsburgh. "You got to read the report."

Or, as ABC's Jake Tapper reported in his excoriating article:
"Well, I’m very very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing," Palin said, "any hint of any kind of unethical activity there. Very pleased to be cleared of any of that."
Note the complete lack of nuance and even "depends on the meaning of 'is'"-type parsing. Not even "any hint" of unethical activity? This prompted the Anchorage Daily News editorial board to slam Palin's remarks, saying "Her response is either astoundingly ignorant or downright Orwellian."

I miss the days of plain ol' spin. Orwell himself would have blushed on behalf of our politicians of today.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Humanity Alert!

Too often partisanship clouds our view of politicians, obscuring even their humanity in our eyes. Here are two must-watch videos of McCain's and Obama's comedy routines at last night's Al Smith Dinner in New York.

(pop-up links)
McCain's speech

Obama's speech

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Blinkers Beware

In my previous post I made an off-hand comment about McCain's disconcerting habit of blinking rapidly and shooting dart-like gazes everywhere. Turns out there is an entire field of study on blinking and its relationship to how the mind works, called "psychophysiological studies of eyeblink frequency". Who knew? One study by Boston College compared eyeblink (is there any other kind?) frequency of presidential candidates and the eventual electoral outcome (h/t to Ambinder). Basically, the rapid blinker during debates got fewer votes in each of the last 8 presidential elections.

Also interesting is the discussion of a two-factor theoretical model: blinking frequency increases when attention is divided and also during negative hedonic arousal states. Furthermore, the author proposes that since rapid blinking is associated with stress, it might act as a social cue, thus turning off viewers.

It's always nice to get scientific backing for one's hunches! I guess the moral of this story is "blink not, want not".

Third Presidential Debate: Thoughts

My first thought is that I'm glad there will be no more debates. In fact, I'm ready for the election to be over with already. I'm tired of "Joe, the plumber" and "Joe Six-Pack."

The clear winner to me, besides the afore-mentioned plumber, was the moderator, Bob Schieffer. I thought his questions were on point and edgy enough to elicit the most direct responses we've seen from either candidate so far. I was disappointed that Bob didn't ask about things such as Habeas Corpus, executive branch power, and climate change, but more than anything I had an overwhelming desire to have the thing over with. Yes, even a horse-race nerd like me tuned out repeatedly.

Which brings up the most crucial point of all: I bet that anyone who listened to the debate on the radio thought that McCain won handily. I thought he set an aggressive tone early and put Obama on the defensive. But the optics of the affair were a different matter entirely. McCain had the misfortune of appearing on TV. Seated next to a young man like Obama, the contrast couldn't have been more painfully obvious (just like the last debate). McCain also suffered the impediment (like most normal people) of not being able to conceal the fact that he was furiously thinking while Obama talked. This manifested itself by way of McCain's combination frozen-grin-darting-eyes syndrome, which was disconcerting, to say the least (I think the same problem doomed Hillary Clinton's debate performances during the primaries).

Yes, it is manifestly unfair that such important matters are decided on the strength of visual cues; but we crossed that bridge a long time ago, with the Nixon-Kennedy debates. Then, as now, the apparently unflappable youngster beat out the wily veteran mostly due to the effect of television.

Update: CrunchyCon has a similar, but pithier take on this.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Food Meets Politics

Ahhh...my two favorite topics meet. The White House hosted Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, for dinner tonight (Monday), and this is apparently the last time President Bush hosts an official dinner for a world leader. Here's the menu:




Delicata Squash Soup with Citron

Maine Lobster Fondue

Artichoke and Reggiano Cheese Ravioli

Ponzi Chardonnay “Reserve” 2005

Rosemary-crusted Elysian Farm Lamb

Crispy Eggplant and Swiss Chard

Robert Mondavi Cabernet “Reserve” 2005

“Santa Maria”

Chocolate Napoleon

Iron Horse “Russian River CuvĂ©e” 2003

So, being the bright guy that I am, I noticed they're serving ravioli. To the Italian PM. Is that really a good idea? Not that I doubt the WH chef's abilities, but why risk an international incident by serving Italian dishes here? What if it turns out that Berlusconi grew up eating artichoke with romano cheese ravioli instead? I know Berlusconi likes Bush, so presumably he would take no offense. But still, this is dangerous territory. Would have been safer to have gone American.

On a related note, the ABC article also points out that this is an "official visit" and not a "State Dinner," the latter being functionally the same as the former except for the name. The White House decided that given the current economic worries it would not behoove them to be seen hosting an extravagant State Dinner (even though they're the same thing, with full pomp and circumstance...well, you get the idea).

What's in a name, you ask? In the elitist, rarefied air of international diplomacy, everything. State Dinners are a huge deal and a matter of prestige, symbolic not only by commission but equally by omission. When China's President, Hu Jintao, visited the U.S. in 2006, he got just an "official visit" and no dinner at all, just a "working luncheon"--an intentional indignity. And here is the menu from that event:

Menu for the Luncheon in Honor of the Visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Madam Liu Yongqing

Butter Heirloom Corn Broth
with Scallions

Seared Ginger-scented Dumplings

Wild-caught Alaskan Halibut
with Mushroom Essence

Sugar Snap Peas, Spring Legumes, and Sweet Carrots

Freckles Bibb Lettuce with Grilled Eggplant
Banyuls Vinaigrette

"A Good Fortune"
Melon Three Ways
Candied Ginger and Orange Peel
Warm Almond Cakes

Newton Chardonnay "unfiltered" 2002
Ginger-scented Dumplings? Bibb Lettuce? Candied Ginger and Orange Peel? Are you kidding me? They might as well have ordered take-out.