Tuesday, August 30, 2005

New Orleans not out of the woods yet

New Orleans dodged a direct hit from Katrina. But it's not over there. A breached levee late Monday sent more water pouring into the heart of the city from Lake Pontchartrain. The flood waters are still rising, hampering rescue efforts and causing more damage. It's a big mess and it's getting worse.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Frank Rich, Bush appeaser?

The left is believing its own PR over Cindy Sheehan's success. Its leaders appear to fancy leading a Vietnam-like political/cultural tidal shift against the war, then riding it to electoral victory as Bush recedes, Johnson-like. This is a pipe dream. The country may be turning against the war and Bush, but that doesn't mean it's going to embrace the Michael Moore position on things. The left's incipient resurgence could drive a wedge through the Democratic Party and ruin its national political prospects for another decade.

This piece blasting Frank Rich for being insufficiently anti-war illustrates the aggrieved attitude of frustrated entitlement on the left. Its message is: We've been right all along. We ate it when Kerry ran. Never again.

Yes, let’s trash Frank Rich. No columnist has except Paul Krugman has so consistently devoted himself to ripping the Bush presidency, week after week, with a gusto that was quite entertaining before it got so f***ing repetitive. Rich’s focus has gotten so laser-like he has even dropped the forced, framing pop cultural allusions (low point: The Day After Tomorrow captures the national mood) in favor of all-out scornful invective!

Rich is accused of “triangulation,” the worst of Clintonian sins in the eyes of both hardcore liberals and conservatives - making this a shot across Hillary's bow as well. But triangulation is the only thing that might save the Democratic Party here – and the U.S. effort in Iraq. If some sensible pullout plan can be engineered that holds some promise of self-government and stability, it is the best course between the Bush’s mindless “stay the course” and the left’s strategically dangerous “get out now.” But as Rich notes, the right will tag any such policy, no matter how sensible, as cutting and running. How can the Democrats address this problem? With some grownup Republicans fretting over this, bipartsanship holds the most promise both for an actual withdrawal policy and for a political way forward for Democrats. Unless the left, flush with Sheehanesque righteousness, makes that impossible.

Thank you, New Orleans

It takes a hurricane to get someone to articulate what should have been said to the cable networks long ago:

SHEPARD SMITH: You’re live on FOX News Channel, what are you doing?

MAN: Walking my dogs.

SMITH: Why are you still here? I’m just curious.

MAN: None of your fucking business.

I saw Shepard Smith briefly this morning. He appeared to have only a limited grasp of what was going on around him - whether the city was going under, what damage had occurred, etc. They had to bring on a New Orleans Fox station anchor a little later to clear up some of his goofs.

New Orleans - still there

Katrina is one badass hurricane, but it appears that New Orleans has dodged the worst-case, flood-the-bowl scenario. The Big Easy apocalypse depends on a lot of factors in addition to the hurricane's overall strength: The storm must be moving along a particular track, at a particular angle and at a relatively slow speed, so that so much water is pumped from the Gulf of Mexico into Lake Pontchartrain it overtops the city's levee system.

But Katrina moved just far enough east that this didn't happen. Some good news on an otherwise difficult day.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Hoping the NEA is not involved

Via Althouse, here is the latest from the art world:

Artist plans to exhibit sculpture of Ted Williams' severed head
PHOENIX --A Connecticut artist plans to exhibit a sculpture of Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams' severed head at a New York gallery next month.

Daniel Edwards of Moosup, Conn., said the inspiration for the sculpture came to him when it was revealed that the Hall of Famer's head was removed and cryogenically frozen with his torso at Scottsdale's Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

The sculpture shows Williams resting his chin on a baseball.

"I think the piece isn't ghastly," Edwards said.

How does he achieve that effect?

I think he borrowed this idea from Futurama.

More on the media debate

The interesting back-and-forth continues in the new/conservative/mainstream media debate. Tim Rutten has a column in the LATimes today in which he takes apart the politics-is-everything modus operandi of Hewitt's and many others on the right:

[Talk radio] may be politically preoccupied and loyally Republican, but it isn't conservative in the traditional sense. Historically, the West's conservatives have believed in the persistence and profound influence in human affairs of all sorts of nonpolitical institutions — religion, family, tradition, social convention and property, for example. It's a conception that respects privacy, proportion and restraint, and resists the urge to reduce all human activity to the product of a single source or impulse — whether economic (communism) or historical (fascism).

While the political talk-show hosts and right-wing bloggers claim to have a quarrel with mainstream media's alleged bias, their real gripe is that the news media's traditional values stand between them and what they'd like to accomplish, which is the total politicization of all reporting and analysis. Combine this with the messianic confidence that new media — mainly talk radio and the Internet — inevitably will undermine and destroy the economic health of mainstream media — especially newspapers — and you've pretty much got what Yeats had in mind when he wrote:

If Folly link with Elegance
No man knows which is which

Political talk-show hosts see everything through the prism of their partisan politics and insist, as an article of faith, that everyone else is always doing the same. In this sense, their approach to current affairs is less a conservative one and more a creature of that most powerful of American vices: narcissism.The controlling assumption is: I look at the world in this fashion and, therefore, everyone else does too.

Hewitt (who graciously, though critically, links to me again) says Rutten is wrong: He believes Nick Lemann is genuinely fair and balanced. The problem is that the Nick Lemanns out there are few and far between, and disappearing:

Unlike what Tim Rutten would have you believe I believe about old media --wherein every reporter of every MSM outlet is a deeply dishonest lefty conspiring to subvert Bush and his allies in every paragraph-- old media has many fine reporters doing much good work life this piece by Lemann, but their numbers are dwindling as successive generations of new hires move the newsrooms farther and farther to the left, and as agenda journalism goes uncorrected because it is undetected, so complete is the shared values and ideologies of the rank and file of the newsroom staffs.

Is this really true, though? Most journalists I know are bourgeois liberal good government types who have a vested interest in the economic status quo - not political leftists. They might not agree with Bush's tax cuts or the Iraq war, and those attitudes can influence coverage - but they're not trying to build socialism in America. And newspapers and TV are, to varying degrees, starting to pay attention to the liberal bias and transparency problems - thanks in part to the drumbeat on the right.

Why shouldn't journalists reveal their politics?

One more thought about the piece on Hugh Hewitt in The New Yorker. Toward the end, writer Nicholas Lemann personally addresses Hewitt's (quite valid) point that by keeping their politics secret, mainstream journalists sow doubt about their motivations, preconceptions, etc., which are mostly liberal. Hewitt posits that this means the entire mainstream media enterprise is a just a liberal charade.

Lemann writes:
If Hewitt does write about me, he will surely ask me to reveal whom I voted for in the last Presidential election. I might as well get started with the transparency now. Although I do vote, I'm not going to tell him. Like the house of the Lord, journalism has many mansions, and the one Hewitt inhabits is surely one of them. But in another of the mansions, reportorial journalism, the object is different. One can be curious or not, fair-minded or not, intellectually honest in the use of evidence or not, empathetic or not, imprisoned by a perspective or not. For a reportorial journalist to announce his voting record is to undermine his work. It dishonors the struggle to do it right.

I don't quite follow this, and don't really buy it. And if I don't, Hewitt and a sizable segment of the population probably won't either. It's always awkward for the media to be withholding information. (Just ask Judy Miller.) We don't need to know everything about media people, such as what DVDs Lemann rents, where he buys his granola, or whatever (though David Brooks might find it interesting). His work - which defies easy ideological categorization - speaks for itself.

But voting and party registration do reveal something about the way he thinks about the world of politics and policy, which is what he's writing about. Why would disclosing them "dishonor the struggle to do it right"? It's information that may be relevant in judging whether the writer is "imprisoned by a perspective or not." The flip side, of course, is that the vote for Kerry (or Bush) becomes a way to unfairly dismiss the journalist in question as shilling for the Democrats or whatever, and his/her journalism as nothing more than propaganda. But that's already happening anyway. The current omerta approach has become a big problem - a little honesty might actually help.

Where does Sheehan go from here?

I just saw Cindy Sheehan on Bill Maher's Real Time. I still don't get her. She looked pleasant, seemed like a real person. But when Maher tried to tease out something genuine from her, all he got was boilerplate rhetoric we've heard from the left for, well, years: Bush lied, Downing Street Memo, peace is better than war, etc.

Sheehan has nicely checkmated Bush. The old divide-and-slime approach isn't working, and that's immensely gratifying. But is Sheehan really the stuff of a mass movement?

But then again, it could have been Jude Law

I don' t have the mental bandwith to follow the Able Danger story about whether somebody somewhere IDed Mohammed Atta prior to 911. But you know a story is getting ready to jump the shark when you see something like this:

Smith acknowledged that the picture of Atta he claims to have seen on the chart was very grainy, but he says he recognized Atta by his distinctive cheekbones.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The New Yorker dips its toe in the blogosphere ocean, then withdraws it

Welcome Hugh Hewitt readers. He's right about The New Yorker not putting the Lemann piece online. It's crazy. What were they thinking? They seem to be hazily aware that the blogosphere exists and has political/media influence, but unaware of its basic operating principles.

The New Yorker takes a fair and balanced look at Hugh Hewitt

Nicholas Lemann’s New Yorker piece on conservative radio host/blogger Hugh Hewitt (inexplicably unavailable online) is a fascinating cultural artifact. A hundred years from now historians will find it a useful distillation of the trends now roiling the media landscape, especially the conservative media’s attack on traditional journalistic standards.

In this piece mainstream media coolly regards conservative media. Writer and subject are each symbols of the competing empires. Lemann is the dean of the Columbia Journalism School and an accomplished practioner of the craft. Hewitt is a hyperpartisan ideologue whose main purpose, aside from destroying the Democratic Party, is to expose the mainstream media for being a big cabal of “far left” liberals.

Lemann’s point of view is that of the thoughtful, fair minded liberal intellectual meeting a man and a cultural phenomenon. Hewitt’s point of view (at least as Lemann presents it) is that Lemann’s approach is essentially dishonest, masking a tissue of political biases and attitudes.

Of course there is no real comparison between these takes. Hewitt is a hack whose political agenda determines everything he does. Lemann’s journalism is interesting because it’s unpredictable.

Lemann portrays Hewitt as unencumbered by reflection or doubt, genially multitasking his way through the day, spreading conservative memes via radio, the web and TV. But he bends over backwards not to condescend or dismiss – at one point going a bit too far in insisting on Hewitt’s independence from the conservative echo chamber.

In the most interesting part of the piece, Lemann watches Hewitt grill Dana Milbank of the Washington Post on his radio show. Hewitt is right about one thing: the MSM does tend toward self-deception. It purports to be fair and politically detached, but attitude – especially anti-Bush attitude – seeps into the coverage, which journalists then preposterously deny. Hewitt delights in exposing this, twisting his prey – even the redoubtable Milbank - into knots.

But if the piece illustrates one thing, it’s the essential rigidity of the conservative media enterprise – something that will one day be its downfall. Hewitt’s belief that politics determines everything – that it is everything – sounds little different from the guiding principals of various Marxist-Leninists and ivory tower liberals he despises. They had their day, he’ll have his. With luck the Lemanns of the world will survive them all.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

And get the audiobook read by Dick Cheney

This is a real book. From the press release:

The full-color picture book tells the story of two brothers who open a lemonade stand only to encounter a Kennedy-esque mayor determined to tax away their profits while a pants-suit clad Hillary outlaws sugary drinks and an ACLU lawyer confiscates their picture of Jesus.

“With left-wing books like 'Rainbow Fish' and 'King & King' flooding our nation's classrooms, 'Liberals Under My Bed' lets conservative parents share a story with their kids that reflects their values, while having fun doing it,” says World Ahead president Eric M. Jackson. “Not only is it important to teach kids about the American Dream, they must also understand that there are people out there who don't believe in freedom and traditional values.”

Rainbow Fish a liberal plot to destroy America? Who knew?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Keith Woods proposes that media outlets edit out all offensive team names such as "Redskins." Impractical? No, he says:

Take this example: We may report that a man "suffered head injuries" in a traffic accident. That's accurate. Or, we may say that "a huge gash was opened just below the left temporal lobe of the brain and small portions of brain matter were scattered on the asphalt." That, too, is accurate. It's just that the second one's likely to hurt many people, not least among them the family of the person on the pavement.

Yuck! But this argument is preposterous. He is suggesting the media selectively filter out facts, stigmatizing certain words as a means of shaping public perception. Never mind the basic unworkability of this idea (Should TV pixilate team logos, helmets, jerseys, fans who dress up like Indian mascots? Who decides what's offensive? What do we call them, the "Florida Fighting S-------s"? Hasn't the liberal media taken enough hits for exactly this kind of paternalistic idiocy?) - there is a debate about these team names, and its proper place is in the public square. If the public rejects the stereotypical names, they will disappear from sports. If the media want to hasten that process, they can comment on and spotlight the issue. They don't have to protect our virgin ears from all offense.

As Dumbledore tells Harry Potter, always use the proper name of a thing.

More Mush from the Wimp

I almost never agree with David Frum. But he is on target with this observation:

Again and again during the Bush presidency - and yesterday most recently - the president will agree to give what is advertised in advance as a major speech. An important venue will be chosen. A crowd of thousands will be gathered. The networks will all be invited. And after these elaborate preparations, the president says ... nothing that he has not said a hundred times before.

If a president continues to do that, he is himself teaching the public and the media to ignore him - especially when the words seem (as his speech yesterday to the VFW seemed) utterly to ignore the past three months of real-world events.

It's true - Bush hasn't given a truly "major speech" in months - maybe years. It's just more mush from the wimp, again and again. As Frum goes on to say, repetition has its uses. But message discipline is useless if your message has been out there forever and has diverged ever farther from what people see and are thinking about.

Kevin Drum notes that Frum's suggestions on how to address this are weak - based as they are on the assumption that this is more a rhetorical/communications problem than a disconnect from reality. Drum suggests several more substantive things Bush could do - encourage people to enlist, let gays serve openly in the military, come up with a real energy plan. Of course, none of these things will happen because each disturbs some segment of Bush's carefully-assembled, Rove-approved 51 percent majority (which ceased to exist not long after election day, but never mind that now):

If Bush isn't willing to take even a single one of these modest steps and run the risk of annoying even a single one of the interest groups that support him, why should any of the rest of us take his "central front in the war on terror" seriously? Obviously he doesn't.

This is the central failing of the Bush presidency. True leadership sometimes means rising above politics. That confers credibility in tough scrapes like the Iraq war - a sense that the leader in question can see the world in three dimensions. But Bush is so vested in not doing anything that suggests political weakness or doing something his political enemies might want, he's trapped.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

But the only editorials he reads are in the Washington Times

The publisher of Editor&Publisher is calling on newspaper editorial pages to call on the president to get out of Iraq:

It's time for newspapers, many of which helped get us into this war, to consider using their editorial pages as platforms to help get us out of it. So far, few have done much more than wring their hands, or simply criticize the conduct of the war, or the lack of body armor for our troops. Not many months ago, in fact, some papers, including The New York Times, were calling for more U.S. troops for Iraq. Now it's literally do-or-die time.

If it is literally do-or-die time, it's equally imperative that all those who write about those who write about the media call on the media writers to call on newspaper editorial pages to call on the president get us out of Iraq.

Some sea salt might help

Glad we cleared that up:

Andrew Sullivan just called me a paleo-con. That's hitting below the belt. As I've explained before, I am a Russell Kirk-style Tory crossed with Michael Novak/Richard Neuhaus-style Catholic neo-conservative, with a mild dash of libertarian for seasoning.

Intelligent Design vs. Darwin everywhere 24/7

If we must endure the idiocy of the Bush/Frist teach-all-points-of-view position on evolution in the public square, Christopher Hitchens says, let's just take their argument to its logical conclusion:

If we take the president up on his deceptively fair-minded idea of "teaching the argument," I think we could advance the ball a little further in other directions also. Houses of worship that do not provide space for leaflets and pamphlets favoring evolution (not necessarily Darwinism, which is only one of the theories of evolution and thus another proof of its scientific status) should be denied tax-exempt status and any access to public funding originating in the White House's "faith-based" initiative. Congress should restore its past practice of giving a copy of Thomas Jefferson's expurgated Bible—free of all incredible or supernatural claims—to each newly elected member. The same version of the Bible should be obligatory for study in all classes that affect to teach "divinity."

Hitchens also makes the quite sensible suggestion that you can "teach the controversy" - in a history or social studies class. And when you do, the anti-evolutionists of the past 150 years inevitably end up looking silly.

Monday, August 22, 2005

"And the future really does look a lot like Minority Report"

Six Feet Under is no more. The final episode was very good, but for one jarring note: Did David really have to dream he was wrestling with the hooded demon that's been stalking him, then pull back the hood and find ... his own face? Then embrace the Demon-David and get on with living his life?

I like Star Wars and Earthsea as much as the next person, but we're expecting a little more here.

At least this didn't break down along red-blue lines

The latest hot debate in the media is whether to add a hyphen into the grammatically challenged title "The 40 Year-Old Virgin":

Those adding the hyphen included: The San Francisco Chronicle, New York Post, Seattle Times, Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Daily News, USA Today, The Boston Globe, San Diego Union-Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Newsday.

But many others went along with the movie-makers and left it out, including the the influential Los Angeles Times, both in its review by Carina Chocano, and a story today on its box office triumph. Others going along with the error include The Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Sacramento Bee, Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard, and Toronto Star, not to mention the magazines Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone.

Balanced practicality?

Apparently, you can't be a true player on the world stage these days without your own empty catchphrase (via Drezner):

Mr Hu's catchphrase is “balanced development”. This will be a central theme in a new five-year economic plan (a still cherished relic of the central-planning era) due to be discussed by the Central Committee in October and ratified by the legislature next March. It will be Mr Hu's first opportunity to put his stamp on a long-term economic strategy.

What happens when Hu's "balanced development" runs into Rice's "practical idealism"?

Against Sheehan's righteousness

Cindy Sheehan offers what looks like a magical elixir of righteousness for Democrats – an addictive and dangerous one. Addictive because she’s making Bush look bad; because for once the right is having a hard time sliming and dismissing a Bush critic; and because she’s voicing what a lot of people on the left have been thinking and feeling since 2002. They just haven’t had a truly resonant national spokesperson before now. Being a stay-the-course guy, John Kerry sure didn’t fit the bill.

It’s dangerous because it's all too reminiscent of the kind of brain-dead stuff we've been hearing from the other side for years.

Since before the whole Iraq mess began, the right has held a near-monopoly on emotion in the public sphere in the form of chest-thumping patriotic anger about 9/11. For a brief period that anger was a truly unifying national sentiment, but then Bush ... well, you know the rest. His politicization of 9/11 and the Iraq war has been both cynical and, well, sentimental to the core. Strip away all the arguments about WMD or terrorism or democracy and the whole Iraq war is just an emotional, gut-response by Bush&Co. They wanted to kick someone's butt, and Saddam was available. Their mastery of this post 9/11 psychological landscape – even in the face of their Keystone Kops performance in an actual war - has helped the GOP maintain its grip on power.

But politically speaking, do liberals really need or want to go head-to-head with Bush in a contest of righteous anger? As a short-term tactic, maybe it works because it does crystallize a lot of disquiet about Iraq. And as a genuine expression of grief it is entirely legitimate. But what does it really mean? Not much, Jonathan Chait argues:

The left seems to be embracing the notion of moral authority in part as a tactical response to the right. For years, conservatives have said or implied that if you criticize a war, you hate the soldiers. During the Clinton years, conservatives insisted that the president lacked "moral authority" to send troops into battle because he had avoided the draft as a youth or, later, because he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

So adopting veterans or their mourning parents as spokesmen is an understandable counter-tactic. It was a major part of the rationale behind John Kerry's candidacy. The trouble is, plenty of liberals have come to believe their own bleatings about moral authority. Liberal blogs are filled with attacks on "chicken hawk" conservatives who support the war but never served in the military. A recent story in the antiwar magazine Nation attacked my New Republic editor, Peter Beinart, a supporter of the Iraq war, for having "no national security experience," as if Nation editors routinely served in the Marine Corps.

The silliness of this argument is obvious. There are parents of dead soldiers on both sides. Conservatives have begun trotting out their own this week. What does this tell us about the virtues or flaws of the war? Nothing.

If liberals and Democrats want to call Bush to account for the shenanigans of the past few years, isn't the best course to be the grown-ups - the ones who see things as they are and offer powerful arguments to set them aright? This is not to discount emotion in politics, or even the occasional dose of Sheehan-style righteous anger, just to say that alone they won’t win the argument – and might end up losing a lot of votes.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Mid-August musings

To my small universe of readers, apologies for not posting much this week. I’m on vacation.

This is great:

Pretty much all of my life, with occasional moments of imbalance, a cup of coffee and a gallon of gas have been about the same price. A few years ago, coffee took the lead, but recently gas caught up. Yesterday, gas took the lead, however, and I bet it will stay in the lead at least until Starbucks invents a new gimmick such as blending bee pollen with java and infusing it with ionized oxgygen to create a ten-dollar morning super-drink. In fact, yesterday was the day when gas officially became a luxury item for me, much as coffee did a couple of years ago and water did, too, come to think of it.

If we can afford $3 for a cup of coffee, why not for a gallon of gas? Isn’t our whole way of life like the $3 cup of coffee – a weave of pleasant but mostly unnecessary indulgences that Dick Cheney would have us believe is “our due”?

Matthew Yglesias goes to the movies in Iceland. Years ago I went to Norway on vacation and had a similar experience. Not only was there an intermission, there were also assigned seats. The movie was Nuns on the Run, in which Robbie Coltrane and Eric Idle play petty criminals who cross their boss and are forced into hiding as nuns (a possible inspiration for Sister Act, which came along a few years later). It was called “Nonner pa Flukt” in Norwegian, which for some reason remained stuck in my head. Nonner pa Flukt.

I don’t know Norwegian, and Babelfish doesn’t do it, but I assume this is pretty much a straight translation – “Nuns in Flight,” “Fleeing Nuns” or something like that. Of course, depending on where you are abroad, American movies are likely to have more liberally translated titles. I remember renting Annie Hall from a video store in Mexico, and it was called “Dos Extranos Amantes,” which means “Two Strange Lovers.” Prosaic, but at least accurate. Some pop-cultural effluvia don’t translate well. “Batman” is known as “Batman” – not as the “Hombre Murcielago” for obvious reasons.

On a related point, I am reading Snow by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk. It's great. Michiko Kakutani would employ the word “limns” to describe what it does for the modern Turkish identity – and for the whole current, epochal clash between fundamentalism and post-enlightnment modernity. More on this later. One thing that jumped out at me: The Turkish city of Batman plays a minor role in the political drama. Coming across this is, well, slightly jarring to the pop-culturally attuned American. It of course fits perfectly well with the geography in the book, which is set mostly in the provincial city of Kars, and I’m not saying Pamuk should avoid it because it may sound odd to Western ears. But Pamuk is also cosmopolitan to the core, and his books are aimed in part at an international audience. He must be aware of the cultural meanings embedded in his text, flowing easily in the Turkish and jumping out in the English translation. What can he mean by it?

Monday, August 15, 2005

Internet biodiversity on the rise

Need a pet tiger for your towheaded, pixilated child? Check eBay.

Hillary and Rupert, sitting in a tree

David Carr has an interesting column in the NYT describing the unexpectedly cordial relationship between Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and Hillary Clinton. This has recently played out in the pages of the New York Post, which has been trashing her GOP senate opponent Jeanine Pirro in much the same way it trashed Hillary in her 2000 campaign - at least until Giuliani dropped out. But that's just part of a broader trend:

Just last month, The Post's editorial page, which has historically viewed Mrs. Clinton as the female version of Beelzebub, called her "the unlikely warrior," lauding her support of increased troop strength in Iraq. And Ms. Clinton was busy last month assailing the corrosive qualities of Grand Theft Auto, suggesting that the government needed to help the video game industry develop some standards. It is an upside-down, crisscross world where the rubrics "conservative" and "liberal" lose any sort of meaning. Even within the company, Mr. Murdoch's political bent does not prevent him from working with Democrats. Peter Chernin, the News Corporation's president, is a major Democratic figure who contributed more than $100,000 to John Kerry's failed presidential campaign. Gary Ginsberg, a vice president for corporate affairs and the company's chief spokesman, is a former Clinton White House aide.

"The company has a cordial and respectful relationship with both Clintons," Mr. Ginsberg said.

And the Clinton camp chose to smile and wear beige as well.

"The New York Post and other media outlets are just reflecting the reality that Senator Clinton has worked tirelessly and done a good job for New York," said Philippe Reines, her press secretary. Things changed when the former first lady added senator to her title.

When Clintonites say the Post is "reflecting reality," you know something odd is happening. Carr makes several stabs at deciphering the tea leaves - Murdoch respects power; Murdoch doesn't see the need to trash people in power who can help him in Washington; Hillary has moved rightward; the Post, Fox News and other News Corp. outlets want to keep Hillary around now so they can trash her when she runs for president - because she gins up great ratings and readership.

Obviously, with Murdoch business comes before politics. It helps him to get close with Hillary, at least for now. And Hillary is smart to encourage it - the constituencies she wants to reach overlap with those of the Post and Fox News. But to take the final point above a step further, this rapprochement shows how much, even now, conservatism depends on liberals to keep itself afloat both ideologically and financially. Without political lodestars like the Clintons, whom would conservatives rage against? Ted Kennedy is so 1980. A centrist liberal like Hillary is much more useful to the right. Whether tacking left or right, she is an automatic buzz-generator for the VRWC (her term, still creating buzz seven years later). And this reflects the basic parasitical nature of American conservatism - 90 percent of conservatism amounts to a critique of liberalism, liberal programs and liberal attitudes, real and imagined. Without people like Hillary around, conservatives might have to take responsibility for running things.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

WMD found in Iraq!

I saw this headline:

Chemical Weapons Stash Found

...and for a split second thought "Wow! They found some of Saddam's WMD!"

But no. This is a chemical weapons factory created by the insurgency. Saddam's missing WMD - that's so 2003.

This is distressing, to say the least. Laying the democracy issue aside for a moment, we can say now say one thing about Iraq: Not only was the original strategic rationale for invading (WMD, long-term threat to the United States) flat-out wrong, the invasion has accomplished exactly the opposite of its original aims. Iraq didn't have many ties to terrorists. Now it's the new Afghanistan. There weren't any WMD. Now they're making them to use against U.S. troops.

When they try this in Iraq, the U.S. can withdraw

"Jenin is well known for fighting the Israeli occupation, and we wanted to give a civilised view of the city," project manager Samir Abu al-Rub told the Reuters news agency.

The symbol of civilization? A 750-meter-long sandwich. Actually, it's heartening to see the Palestinians pursuing this kind of community-minded frivolity. A shame it was too hot to make the record-setting sandwich:

A mere 10 minutes under the burning sun turned the freshly-baked baguettes rock hard.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Crush! Kill! Destroy! Cindy Sheehan!

Here's a good critique of the right-wing attacks on Cindy Sheehan - the ridiculous, Rovian drumbeat of "charges" and "questions" about her character and her motivations:

Something else about this story that infuriates me is the vision of feckless, smarmy smearsters and cowards hiding behind keyboards in cities like Washington and New York (and yes, Miami), punching out electronic missives in a pathetic and desperate attempt to impugn the integrity of a woman sitting in the dust and August heat of Texas---a woman who, along with her dead son, embodies everything that's right about this country. The growing division between the professional class of spinning punditry and the vast expanse of Middle America that actually does the working, the fighting and the dying so the pundits can spend their time chattering has never been more clear than with this story.

It's rule number one in politics today: Anyone whose criticism of the president has some credibility and gets attention must be automatically, robotically smeared by elements of the right-wing echo chamber. It's stupid and it doesn't really help Bush. In this case it's hurting him. Common decency dictates you don't go out and slime grieving mothers - even if they do make friends with Michael Moore. So I think the Cunning Realist is correct: the right has crossed a line and lost its claim to a common touch here.

One can only hope this means that the everything-is-politics-and-thus-fair-game MO is finally running its course.

Are science and common sense compatible?

John Horgan has an interesting op-ed in the NYT today arguing that with the rise of counterintuitive theories such quantum mechanics and relativity, scientists have come to regard common sense as anti-scientific:

Scientists' contempt for common sense has two unfortunate implications. One is that preposterousness, far from being a problem for a theory, is a measure of its profundity; hence the appeal, perhaps, of dubious propositions like multiple-personality disorders and multiple-universe theories. The other, even more insidious implication is that only scientists are really qualified to judge the work of other scientists.

I agree. But he goes a bit overboard in denouncing any theory that can't be tested experimentally as innately preposterous, focusing on string theory and the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics:

My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.

Horgan is a smart fellow, but here he seems to be taking the cliched role of the naysayer whom history eventually proves wrong. Can we really say definitively that no genuine insight exists amid the faddishness and flux of various speculative theories, in physics or any other branch of science? A hundred years from now, maybe 99 percent of the theories du jour will no longer be with us. But I suspect we need that 99 percent to churn up the 1 percent that emerges as the new scientific consensus.

The other odd thing about this piece is that it makes no mention of Intelligent Design, which is of course the one unprovable theory everyone's talking about right now.

Breasts and getting high banned in Kentucky

Garrison Keillor is apparently too racy for radio listeners in Kentucky. Station WUKY has decided to stop airing Keillor's Writer's Almanac segments because they contain what the management considers "offensive language":

The warnings, issued by the program’s production company, came about Curse of the Cat Woman by Edward Field, which contained violent themes and the word “breast”; Thinking About the Past by Donald Justice, which also used the word “breast”; and Reunion by Amber Coverdale, which contained the phrase “get high.” The poems were scheduled for broadcast between July 23 and Aug. 12.

WUKY never heard complaints about The Writer’s Almanac because the station always edited potentially offensive language, [station manager Tom] Godell said. Prairie Home Productions and American Public Media, the segment’s producer and distributor, do not edit or select the content.

“It’s not a terrible burden to edit, but my concern is that something slips through,” Godell said. “We have certain standards of decency, and I expect our national producers to do the same thing.”

How lame is this? The people running this station may be laughably prudish, but it looks like he real reason they're cancelling Keillor is because they're too lazy to keep editing the segments.

You can see why the preposterous decision to edit would lead to problems. How would you edit these poems from PG down to G? One alternative is to audibly bleep out the word "breast" - thus evoking raunchier, or just plain weird, imagery with various alternative body parts:

The BLEEP of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit...

Or would they do what's now standard practice for movies airing on basic cable - have someone who sounds like Garrison Keillor dub in a less offensive word that sort of sounds like the original?

The brassiere/brulee/bratwurst of Mary Something, freed from a white swimsuit...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

An argument for moderation

Should computer game addicts in Internet cafes be treated like social drinkers in bars or parties - go past a certain point and they take your mouse away?

SEOUL, South Korea - A South Korean man who played computer games for 50 hours almost non-stop died of heart failure minutes after finishing his mammoth session in an Internet cafe, authorities said on Tuesday.

The 28-year-old man, identified only by his family name Lee, had been playing online battle simulation games at the cybercafe in the southeastern city of Taegu, police said.

Lee had planted himself in front of a computer monitor to play online games on Aug. 3. He only left the spot over the next three days to go to the toilet and take brief naps on a makeshift bed, they said.

If a tree falls on Cindy Sheehan in the Drudge Report, does it make a sound?

I've been avoiding saying anything about Cindy Sheehan. I doubt that protesting the Iraq war by the side of a road in Crawford in August is the best way to work out your grief. There is clearly nothing Bush could say or do to mollify her, just as it's clear there is nothing Bush is willing to do in that vein. It's just a sad situation.

In the "not helpful" category: A certain problem of logic arises when someone claims to be "silently, respectfully grieving" and supporting the president and troops "silently, with prayer and respect" by broadcasting it the Drudge Report.

Circular reasoning on Intelligent Design

Maybe something is eluding me here, but does the ordinarily brilliant Jacob Weisberg miss the boat in this piece about the Intelligent Design debate?

Evolutionary theory may not be incompatible with all forms of religious belief, but it surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world's great religions (and most of its not-so-great ones as well). Look at this 1993 NORC survey: In the United States, 63 percent of the public believed in God and 35 percent believed in evolution. In Great Britain, by comparison, 24 percent of people believed in God and 77 percent believed in evolution. You can believe in both—but not many people do.

He goes on to recount how evolution led Darwin to doubt his Christian faith, and cites others thundering about evolution’s incompatibility with church doctrine. He concludes that we ought to stop pretending that evolution is not a threat to believers.

This is OK as far as it goes. Evolution is indeed a threat to what a lot of people believe – otherwise school boards wouldn't be arguing over it. But in trying to rise above it all, Weisberg buys back into the simplistic notion that evolution and religion offer roughly equivalent explanations for our presence here on earth. It’s the same “let’s debate it” position that Bush took - with the addendum that the debate’s already over and evolution has won and we should stop pretending otherwise.

Certainly, a backstory linking human existence to God is central to many people’s religious beliefs, and evolution chafes against this. But is the principal function of religion to offer a factual explanation of how we got here – or to help people understand why we're here and how we ought to lead our lives?

Sometimes religions demand that people believe things that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. But the fact that religion shouldn’t be taught in science class doesn’t mean religion is invalid, or that science can’t coexist with religion. Science simply doesn’t address the core religious questions, the "why" and the "what" as opposed to the "how." If we could scientifically prove or disprove God's existence it would put an end to these stupid political debates - and to a lot of dorm room bull sessions. But it would have the downside of eliminating the essential mystery of existence. That mystery is still with us, as is the question of how to orient ourselves toward it, something that science can't get into. We need a bright line between the two.

Not to be snarky, but here's a correction to the excerpted paragraph above: Evolution is not doctrinally incompatible with Buddhism, which is non-theistic and doesn't address the origins of humanity in its canonical texts.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Army's latest solution for detainee abuse

The Defense Department could respond to widespread abuse of its detainees by putting a stop to torture and holding the brass who enable it accountable. Instead, it's decided the way to go is to crack down on adulterers.

What else to make of the strange case of Gen. Kevin P. Byrnes, whom the Army pulled from duty because he had an extramarital affair with a civilian:

Having an extramarital affair can be deemed adultery and a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But such cases rarely go to court-martial and usually end in administrative punishment such as a letter of reprimand, according to military lawyers. Relieving a general of his command amid such allegations is extremely unusual, especially given that he was about to retire.

The Army has been hurt over the past year by detainee-abuse cases and has been accused of not going after top officers allegedly involved in such abuse. Army officials said relieving Byrnes was meant to show the public that the service takes issues of integrity seriously.

"We all swear to serve by the highest ideals, and no matter what rank, when you violate them, you are dealt with appropriately," said one Army officer familiar with the case. "Relief of command is a huge consequence. He's had an extraordinary career, but at the end of the day, the Army has to hold people accountable for their conduct."

Update: Here's one theory on why Byrnes has been canned - bureaucratic infighting over an IT project. How prosaic.

More reaction/speculation here, including some from my fellow koan-blog, One Hand Clapping.

Kyoto Zen garden

Originally uploaded by edgeofkaos.
A few years ago we visited Japan. It was wintertime and the light was pale. I took some photos of temples in Kyoto. I don't remember the name of this one, but it was a striking place.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

These are the days of lasers in Afghanistan

An artist aims to recreate the Afghanistan Bamiyan Buddhas using wind- and solar-powered laser beams.

Britney biology 101

Should someone explain to Christina Aguilera the concept (which she may find horrifying) that it's typical for pregnant women to gain weight? And then, like, they can lose it again?

The mission was going well until the Klingons at Fox News violated the Neutral Zone

Overextended metaphor alert:

He was Mr. Spock to Brokaw's folksy Bones McCoy and Rather's impetuous Captain Kirk -- an alien intelligence from the planet Canada, offering not a hug or even a reassuring pat on the shoulder, but a poker face that was accented, on rare occasions, by a faintly raised eyebrow.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Releasing books into the wild

Ever wonder what to do with books you've read and no longer have use for? We have a lot of these lying around - it doesn't feel right to toss them, but neither does it do much good to stack them up in the basement, never to be read again. Here's one solution:

Many of you wrote in to recommend www.bookcrossing.com for discarded books. The system works as follows:

Read a good book (you already know how to do that)

Register it here (along with your journal comments), get a unique BCID (BookCrossing ID number), and label the book

Release it for someone else to read (give it to a friend, leave it on a park bench, donate it to charity, "forget" it in a coffee shop, etc.), and get notified by email each time someone comes here and records journal entries for that book. And if you make Release Notes on the book, others can Go Hunting for it and try to find it.

Harry Potter and the MPAA Ratings Board

The movie version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, due for November release, will be rated PG-13, not PG like the previous films.

This makes some sense, as the story involves blood-drawing and dismemberment for a pseudo-Satanic ritual. Plus a murder. Pretty strong stuff. But I'm looking forward to the movie version of the climactic confrontation between Harry and Voldemort - among the best scenes in the series thus far.

Still, bad news for all six-year-old HP fans.

"Will 'Half Blood Prince' be R?" one commentor jokes. "SECTUMSEMPRA! Maybe Tarantino could direct it."

Jack Abramoff, old economy guy

Josh Marshall has been looking into the latest Jack Abramoff scandal:

To recap the details, Abramoff's clients in Guam paid him $324,000 in 36 separate checks for $9,000. They didn't pay it to him directly but used a Laguna Beach, California attorney, Howard Hills, as the cut-out. The Guam clients sent the money to Hills; Hills sent it on to Abramoff, etc.

Now, as we also noted, the $9,000 number jumps out because it's just shy of $10,000. And banks must report all transactions over $10,000 to federal regulators.

I was curious whether bundling payments like this is a crime even if there's no other criminal activity tied to the transaction. And the answer seems to be: absolutely.

Abramoff's activities recall an episode from season 4 of The Sopranos. Carmela, fearing for her own financial security, swipes $50K that Tony has stashed in a backyard bin.

Here's how TWOP describes it:
Anyway, now we go to Carmela, who is counting out cash at her local bank. She's investing precisely $9,900, and the broker is nice enough to inform her that he's required to tell the IRS about any transaction of $10,000 or more. "Oh, really?" wonders Carmela, before opening her notebook to reveal that she's made four other identical deposits. "I want it in something safe," she adds. "Something old economy."

Can GSAVE be saved?

I almost gave up last week trying to figure out exactly what was going on with GWOT and GSAVE. Was it all just about having an acronym with some uplift? No, it wasn't. It was the result of a long process of policy development/retrenchment within the Defense Department and National Security Council. They sensibly concluded that focusing all resources on killing and capturing terrorists wasn't enough.

But while "global struggle against violent extremism" may be a more nuanced - er, accurate - description of the nature of the problem, it makes a lousy slogan. It sounds even vaguer than a "war on terror." It addresses causes, not effects, and Bush doesn't do root causes. With GSAVE the aim is to stop people from being extremists - a worthy and neglected goal. With GWOT, the goal is to stop the extremists from blowing us up. Simpler and easier. You can see why Bush quickly switched gears and went back to the "terror" mantra.

But what of the underlying policy shift? Does Bush's repudiation of the slogan equal a rejection of the whole GSAVE package? Ed Kilgore postulates that it might, and that the conflict reflects growing divisions between the White House and Pentagon over Iraq:

...there's the constant drumbeat of suggestions from the Pentagon that things are going so swimmingly in Iraq that we might be able to begin bringing home troops by next spring--in sharp contrast to Bush's repeated argument that any talk of withdrawal prior to the military defeat of the insurgency, or a dramatic increase in Iraqi security capabilities, offers encouragement to the enemy.

A lot of Democrats think the Pentagon is finally getting out of denial. But on the Republican side of the punditocracy, there's neoconservative editor Bill Kristol , who thinks Rummy and the boys are turning coat and undermining Bush after having concluded that Iraq is a military disaster that's redeemable only by an Iraqi government that's showing us the door, even as Bush still holds out for a U.S.-led victory over the insurgents.

Is this, the most "disciplined" administration in memory, about to be torn apart on the issue it has made its very signature? Hard to imagine, but it's starting to look that way. It would sure be ironic if Rumsfeld finally got the sack not for his incompetent handling of Iraq, but for his belief that a change of course is necessary.

All that is solid melts into air

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Warning: globalization metaphor overload

Via Drezner, Jagdish Bhagwati argues that the world isn't flat - flatter, perhaps, but still pretty bumpy:

In truth, the flat road is not flat at all. Take the supply of educated manpower in India. Of the numbers in the age cohort for college education, only about 6% make it to college. Of these, only two-thirds graduate, and just a small fraction can read English. Of these, a further fraction can speak it; and of these, a smaller fraction still can speak it in a way which you and I can understand. The truth of the matter, therefore, is that even for the call-answer and back-office services, the numbers who will compete are only a very small fraction of the numbers being thrown about. India's huge size and the dazzle of the few Institutes of Technology are totally misleading. The road is not flat; the gradient becomes steep as wages rise for those who can manage while others cannot qualify.

A good point: There are still all those people out there living in poverty, somewhere out beyond the edge of Friedman's flat earth, missing out on the frictionless flow of goods and services.

Bhagwati goes on to point out that global competition is increasing. This isn't exactly flatness, but more like a bumpy roller coaster:

The real problem in the increasingly globalized economy is rather that most producers in traded activities -- an expanding set because services have become steadily more tradeable -- face intensified competition. A specific producer here will find rival suppliers stealing up on him from somewhere, whether Portugal, Brazil or Malaysia, indeed from sources which may not include India and China. In consequence, almost no producer is truly relaxed. I was at a Parents' Day at my daughter's camp in 1991 in Vermont and talked to a father producing chips in Silicon Valley. He lamented, as did Bill Clinton soon after, that competition from Japan and South Korea was fierce (and wicked). So I turned to another dad listening in on us and asked him what he did. "I grow mushrooms," he said. "Ah, you must be happier," I remarked. He replied, tearing at his hair: "Oh no, Taiwan is killing me!"

Rushdie's anti-absolutism

I walked around stunned in the first few weeks after 9/11, feeling confused and put off by the flood of trite “why do they hate us” speculations. Then, while working out on a stairmaster at the gym one day, I read this essay by Salman Rushdie. It made me begin to think hey, there’s a way forward here.

The piece offered no grand plan to defeat Islamic extremism, no perfect insights into why they hate us. It was a more personal statement, of a kind missing at the time – and, unfortunately, mostly missing ever since in the great divide over the Iraq war – the voice of sensible cosmopolitan humanism, free of the jingoism of the right or the cravenness of the left:

The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex. These are tyrants, not Muslims. (Islam is tough on suicides, who are doomed to repeat their deaths through all eternity. However, there needs to be a thorough examination, by Muslims everywhere, of why it is that the faith they love breeds so many violent mutant strains. If the West needs to understand its Unabombers and McVeighs, Islam needs to face up to its bin Ladens.) United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has said that we should now define ourselves not only by what we are for but by what we are against. I would reverse that proposition, because in the present instance what we are against is a no-brainer. Suicidist assassins ram wide-bodied aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and kill thousands of people: um, I'm against that. But what are we for? What will we risk our lives to defend? Can we unanimously concur that all the items in the above list -- yes, even the short skirts and dancing -- are worth dying for?

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.

How to defeat terrorism? Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

I wish we could say that, especially in the United States, we had followed this advice. We've made some attempts, but some of our own worst (and absolutistic) impulses were unleashed as well.

Rushdie argues in a piece today that it’s time for an Islamic reformation. The current Muslim clerical establishment is, by and large, invested in a view of the Quran and the faith as existing outside of history, immune to any understanding not of the absolutistic, revelatory kind:

It should be a matter of intense interest to all Muslims that Islam is the only religion whose origins were recorded historically and thus are grounded not in legend but in fact. The Koran was revealed at a time of great change in the Arab world, the seventh-century shift from a matriarchal nomadic culture to an urban patriarchal system. Muhammad, as an orphan, personally suffered the difficulties of this transformation, and it is possible to read the Koran as a plea for the old matriarchal values in the new patriarchal world, a conservative plea that became revolutionary because of its appeal to all those whom the new system disenfranchised, the poor, the powerless and, yes, the orphans.

Muhammad was also a successful merchant and heard, on his travels, the Nestorian Christians' desert versions of Bible stories that the Koran mirrors closely (Christ, in the Koran, is born in an oasis, under a palm tree). It ought to be fascinating to Muslims everywhere to see how deeply their beloved book is a product of its place and time, and in how many ways it reflects the Prophet's own experiences.

However, few Muslims have been permitted to study their religious book in this way. The insistence that the Koranic text is the infallible, uncreated word of God renders analytical, scholarly discourse all but impossible. Why would God be influenced by the socioeconomics of seventh-century Arabia, after all? Why would the Messenger's personal circumstances have anything to do with the Message?

The traditionalists' refusal of history plays right into the hands of the literalist Islamofascists, allowing them to imprison Islam in their iron certainties and unchanging absolutes. If, however, the Koran were seen as a historical document, then it would be legitimate to reinterpret it to suit the new conditions of successive new ages. Laws made in the seventh century could finally give way to the needs of the 21st. The Islamic Reformation has to begin here, with an acceptance of the concept that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities.

Injecting this notion of historicity into Islam, of course, would be a highly dangerous enterprise. If something like this goes forward, there will be tensions, violent at times, in the dialectic between the Word-of-God absolutists and the historical contextualists, and everyone who finds himself somewhere in between. But let’s not worry about that right now, because there is effectively no “in between.”

This idea mirrors the current debates over the Bible, evolution, etc. The important point is that in the West (or the United States anyway) debates are occurring. They’re often reallllly stupid debates, but we can conduct them without blowing things up.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Democracy can wait

It's taking Iraq by storm, but the inexorable wave of democracy sweeping the Middle East has yet to reach the UAE:

"We live in the best democracy ever," says Samir Marzouqi, 19, who lives in a country where citizens never vote.

As a national of the United Arab Emirates, he lives in what is now the only country in the Gulf which has no elected bodies. Political parties are banned.

But he points out that the sheikhs who rule the UAE attend regular open meetings where citizens can air concerns.

And, as many of his peers stress, with free health care and education, a booming economy and political stability, few want to complain anyway.
"Everybody is happy, everything is going smoothly, and I don't think we should jeopardise that to be a democratic country," says UAE national Sharifa Maawali, 27.

Of course, when the gravy train ends the sheikhs could find themselves in trouble. But it's interesting to note what a little political moderation and prosperity can do to sap democratic aspirations.

Friday, August 05, 2005

The Novak crack-up

Bob Novak's sudden exit from "Inside Politics" yesterday, apparently spooked at the sight of a bulky red book, had a distinctly Novakian weirdness to it - huffing self-righteousness underlaid by veins of anger, its original emotional/historical sources obscure. Novak may be cracking under pressure or just dodging Plame questions. But after months of silence, something is obviously up.

The cross-currents of pressure are growing, and Novak's not handling it well. After swearing up and down to every interlocutor that he couldn't say a damn thing about the Plame case, why did he write a column this week disputing what a witness - a CIA spokesman - had said about what happened?

The lawyers also urged me not to write this. But the allegation against me is so patently incorrect and so abuses my integrity as a journalist that I feel constrained to reply.

After publicly declaiming on the case, his pretext for not commenting or answering questions evaporated. The air of obscure, impenetrable mystery around him disappeared. He became just another guy who had testified and was conducting a CYA campaign - "fair game," as Karl Rove might put it. As Jay Rosen describes it:

It seemed to me, as a viewer, that Novak was in an impossible position every time he went on the air to talk politics. If he met his duty to himself (by not speaking up while the Plame case was open) then he could not meet his duty to his peers and his profession.

This was to tell CNN viewers just what he knows about a newsworthy story, and answer a fair-minded interviewer’s questions. To put a man on the air in a situation so constrained is neither fair nor wise. It didn’t make journalistic sense, or human sense.

So what happens now? Novak will disappear from TV for a while. But his credibility and career are now in serious danger.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The God-given right of every American to display a giant, blue, flag-waving muppet on the roof

The latest NIMBY issue:

A giant blue statue of "Sesame Street's" Big Bird character perched above a roof has angered homeowners in a Wisconsin neighborhood, according to a Local 6 News report.

Al Emmons of Greendale, Wis., has been displaying the statue on his home's chimney located at Bluebird Court.

However, neighbors complained that the bird diminished the historic integrity of the community and went to officials to get Emmons to remove the statue.

"It's just an unhealthy obsession," Emmons said. "It's such a silly thing to get upset about. That's also what the big to-do is, is that everyone is wondering why would they get so upset about having a blue bird on a guy's chimney that the kids made."

Lots of cocaine in the Po Valley

A lot more people may be getting high in Italy than previously thought:

Scientists have found large quantities of cocaine residue in a river in northern Italy - suggesting consumption is much higher than previously thought.

They say they found the equivalent of 40,000 doses a day in the Po valley, home to about five million people.

The study, published by the UK's Environmental Health magazine, tests sewage and rivers for levels of a by-product of cocaine metabolism.

The new report suggests that past studies of cocaine use in Italy - mainly based on population surveys and crime statistics - had been optimistic.

According to official estimates, people living around the Po consume about 15,000 doses of cocaine a month.

If accurate, this new estimate means cocaine consumption is 80 times the official figure. Not sure what the broader implications of this are, but it raises some questions - are the official and/or standard academic methods for surveying drug use way off?

Who is the Democratic Grover Norquist?

Mark Schmitt makes a lot of sense in this post - there is no point in Democrats trying to emulate Grover Norquist in terrorizing party moderates in the name of discipline and unity:

...Norquist's merciless treatment of moderate Republicans is not going to be a legacy that he or his allies will be proud of. By forcing the moderates to toe the Club for Growth line, he and his allies may have won some battles, but they will surely regret it in the long run. By placing these moderates in incredibly awkward positions, he has made them even more vulnerable than Bush alone has already made them. And when Democrats make gains in 2006 and later, it will be the moderates who are first to go, with Chris Shays of Connecticut among others joining Maryland's Connie Morella in early retirement. Or, Norquist will succeed in replacing these moderates with more pliant conservatives who will be even more vulnerable in their districts, such as Mike Ferguson of New Jersey.

Also, the idea of a Democratic version of Norquist - who is of course as nutty as they come, even if he knows how to organize the grassroots and toss off soundbites - is truly frightening. I assume that the Democrats who yearn for their own Grover want someone with the organization skills, but not the radical ideology. At least I hope so. Who are the potential Grovers out there, anyway?

Intelligent design and political correctness

It’s atrocious - and an international embarrassment, not that he cares about that - that the president cannot endorse the overwhelming scientific consensus with regard to teaching evolution. Sadly, this is a consensus position in the United States so it makes political sense to take it.

But one reason Bush can make such a statement is its sheer, all-encompassing blandness:

"I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought, and I'm not suggesting -- you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

Let the debate unfold! Evolution, intelligent design, biblical creationism – it’s all part of the landscape of what people believe and we ought to take into accounts all points of view. On the surface, it sounds eminently fair-minded and typically American. And it is reasonable to teach children facts about our society: that many people think evolution is a crock and the world was created 6,000 years ago – in a social studies class. But that’s not what Bush means.

What's most interesting is that Bush's “different ideas” position appropriates the foundation of the left’s now increasingly musty multicultural agenda – that everyone’s unique cultural identity ought to be acknowledged and that no offense should be given to any individual or group – and uses it in service of the religious right, to attack science. It's equally soft-headed no matter who’s using it.

Update: The Washington Post has an editorial noting the irony here:
For more than 30 years, the conservative movement in America has been doing battle with the forces of relativism, the "do your own thing" philosophy that eschews objective truth and instead sees all beliefs and all personal choices as equally valid. Instead, philosophically minded American conservatives have argued that there is such a thing as objectivity and that some beliefs really are better, truer or more accurate than others. Given this history, it seems appropriate to ask: Is President Bush really a conservative?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Do we really need to listen to the aircraft evacuation drill?

On planes poised for takeoff on tarmacs around the world today, everybody's going to be listening for a change when the flight attendants rehearse the evacuation procedures.

By next week, though, Toronto will be forgotten and passengers will be leafing through the SkyMall instead.

And that's probably OK. How many people on that Air France flight listened before takeoff? I suspect anyone who has flown more than a few times has subliminally absorbed the necessary information, and all that's needed is a trained crew to put it into action.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Roller coaster at sunset

Another old, interesting man-made pattern - one of the old roller coasters at Hersheypark.

History still hasn't ended

John Gray throws cold water on Tom Friedman and the whole globalization-leading-us-to-utopia mindset. He compares it to its most obvious global economic utopian antecedent, Marxism, and finds it shares some of the same flaws:

It is an irony of history that a view of the world falsified by the Communist collapse should have been adopted, in some of its most misleading aspects, by the victors in the cold war. Neoliberals, such as Friedman, have reproduced the weakest features of Marx's thought—its consistent underestimation of nationalist and religious movements and its unidirectional view of history. They have failed to absorb Marx's insights into the anarchic and self-destructive qualities of capitalism. Marx viewed the unfettered market as a revolutionary force, and understood that its expansion throughout the world was bound to be disruptive and violent. As capitalism spreads, it turns society upside down, destroying entire industries, ways of life, and regimes. This can hardly be expected to be a peaceful process, and in fact it has been accompanied by major conflicts and social upheavals. The expansion of European capitalism in the nineteenth century involved the Opium Wars, genocide in the Belgian Congo, the Great Game in Central Asia, and many other forms of imperial conquest and rivalry. The seeming triumph of global capitalism at the end of the twentieth century followed two world wars, the cold war, and savage neocolonial conflicts.
Unfortunately the problems of globalization are more intractable than those of corporate life. States cannot be phased out like bankrupt firms, and large shifts in wealth and power tend to be fiercely contested. Globalization is a revolutionary change, but it is also a continuation of the conflicts of the past. In some important respects it is leveling the playing field, as Friedman's Indian interlocutor noted, and to that extent it is a force for human advance. At the same time it is inflaming nationalist and religious passions and triggering a struggle for natural resources. In Friedman's sub-Marxian, neoliberal worldview these conflicts are recognized only as forms of friction —grit in the workings of an unstoppable machine. In truth they are integral to the process itself, whose future course cannot be known. We would be better off accepting this fact, and doing what we can to cope with it.

This essay argues some compelling points: That globalization isn't pretty, and that history is richly complex and unpredictable, driven not just by economies but by nationalistic passions, cultural and religious traditions, and perhaps now increasingly by global environmental stresses. In this distinctly American world-historical moment, this self-evident truth is something that we - and our leaders - tend to forget or ignore.

Thanks to Frank Foer subbing for Andrew Sullivan for the link.

Does the Judy Miller-as-source theory make sense?

There's continued speculation, and riffing on that speculation, that Judy Miller was a source of information for administration officials in the Plame case, not the other way round. Thus she's actually protecting herself, not some anonymous source, by going to prison.

Isn't this a little farfetched? If it were the case, when the truth eventually came out the NYT would have a scandal on its hands that would have Times executives yearning for the good old days of Jason Blair. Is the management of the paper really dumb enough go to the mat on Miller's behalf, editorializing in full high dudgeon mode about the First Amendment and the role of a free press, yadda yadda, to cover up a lie?

Much of the Miller speculation just seems to be people who hate her dishing dirt about her at clambakes.

Dam of yore

The Kensico Dam in New York - a grand work of masonry completed in 1917. It has fountains, granite gazebos (above - is that what you call this?), a sense of artistry you rarely see today. I wanted to walk up and touch the stones, but there was some police tape blocking the way. There's a big park at the foot of the dam. It's lovely and relaxing - but also interesting to hang out there and think of all that water so close behind that looming wall.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Watch a little "Scarborough Country" and rethink things, Judge Posner

I couldn't get very far into Richard Posner's long essay on the media in the NYT Book Review. I started reading, but he seemed to be stating rather obvious points not particularly well. Then it turned out I didn't have to read the damn thing because Jack Shafer promptly confirmed my impression and eviscerated it as hackwork.

The thing that stopped me was what seemed to be Posner's central point (and the reason the NYT commissioned this - to give us a distinctly Posnerian insight that no one else has had). After reciting common arguments on the left and the right - the left complains that the right wing media are biased and inaccurate and eroding the quality of the MSM; the right complains that the media are liberal - he says this:

Strip these critiques of their indignation, treat them as descriptions rather than as denunciations, and one sees that they are consistent with one another and basically correct. The mainstream media are predominantly liberal - in fact, more liberal than they used to be. But not because the politics of journalists have changed. Rather, because the rise of new media, itself mainly an economic rather than a political phenomenon, has caused polarization, pushing the already liberal media farther left.

Here Posner commits the basic error of many conservative media critics - he buys into the symmetry fallacy: the idea that in our political culture "liberal" and "conservative" describe mirror-images or symmetrical opposites.

They don't. The "conservative media" are explicitly conservative. Sometimes outlets like Fox News theatrically pretend not to be. What Posner calls the "liberal media" do have a lot of liberals working for them - as he notes. Sometimes their collective bias - or more often, just attitude - creeps into the coverage. But the MSM follow a different set of rules than the conservative media - one reason they are falling all over themselves these days. Can you really say that the Washington Post is liberal in the the same sense that the Washington Times is conservative?

These are obvious points familiar to anyone who has followed the endless debate over media bias the past few years. It sounds like Posner is visiting his formidable brainpower on this subject for the first time, like an anthropologist documenting his encounter with a previously undiscovered stone-age tribe. He doesn't seem to know Journalism 101 - for instance, the distinction between an average newspaper's editorial positions (politically/ideologically identifiable) and its news pages (not).

In one section, Posner makes hash not just of journalism, but of economics and political science. He postulates a town with two newspapers, one liberal, one conservative, each occupying a niche analogous to the Democratic and Republican Parties:

One of the two newspapers would probably be liberal and have a loyal readership of liberal readers, and the other conservative and have a loyal conservative readership. That would leave a middle range. To snag readers in that range, the liberal newspaper could not afford to be too liberal or the conservative one too conservative. The former would strive to be just liberal enough to hold its liberal readers, and the latter just conservative enough to hold its conservative readers. If either moved too close to its political extreme, it would lose readers in the middle without gaining readers from the extreme, since it had them already.

But suppose cost conditions change, enabling a newspaper to break even with many fewer readers than before. Now the liberal newspaper has to worry that any temporizing of its message in an effort to attract moderates may cause it to lose its most liberal readers to a new, more liberal newspaper; for with small-scale entry into the market now economical, the incumbents no longer have a secure base. So the liberal newspaper will tend to become even more liberal and, by the same process, the conservative newspaper more conservative.

Leaving aside the alt-weekly market, is there any town in America where the "liberal newspaper" has slanted its coverage more to the left recently to attract more "liberal" readers? If anything, the opposite is true. Newspapers are more concerned now with charges of liberal bias, not less. And as Shafer notes, the idea that CNN has moved leftward to compensate for Fox news is laughable.

Some friendly editor at the Book Review should have sent this back for another draft.

"Some bad things could happen"

The space shuttle has some strips of filler material protruding from its heat shielding:

Wayne Hale, the deputy shuttle program manager, told a news conference that engineers simply did not know enough about the problem to leave it unattended, so they decided to conduct the spacewalk Wednesday to "set our minds at rest."

"At the end of the day, the bottom line is there is large uncertainty because nobody has a very good handle on the aerodynamics at those altitudes and at those speeds," Hale said. "Given that large degree of uncertainty, life could be normal during entry or some bad things could happen."

First the foam, now this. For God's sake - isn't it time to just shut down the whole shuttle program and find some other route to orbit? The shuttle program is like a car with 100,000 miles on it - there are a hundred little things decaying and going awry. But we don't launch cars into space.

Thinking big

For some time my six-year-old son has been obsessed with the googolplex (the impossibly large number, not the Googleplex, the corporate HQ for Google). He had a passing interest in infinity, but it was a little too abstract to hold his attention. But for him the googolplex has the virtue of making the incomprehensible mathematically concrete. And you know something, it is a pretty friggin' big number:

A googol is greater than the number of particles in the known universe,which has been variously estimated from 10^72 up to 10^87. Since this is less than the number of zeroes in a googolplex, it would not be possible to write down or store a googolplex in decimal notation, even if all the matter in the known universe were converted into paper and ink or disk drives.

Thinking of this another way, consider printing the digits of a googolplex in unreadable, 1-point font. TeX 1pt font is .3514598mm per digit, which means it would take about 3.5 * 10^96 meters to write in one point font.

The known universe is estimated at 7.4 * 10^26 meters in diameter, which means the distance to write the digits would be about 4.7 * 10^69 times the diameter of the known universe.

Next year in the Ivory Coast?

Believe it or not, there are some places (but not many - three, to be precise) in worse shape than Iraq.