Hogan's Alley

Friday, April 28, 2006

Off For The Weekend

I'm heading out for a visit with my lovely granddaughters in the DC area. Back next week.

The top picture is me with baby Emma in the Central Park Boathouse in 2004.

Don't Expect Any Good News On Oil From Iran

In case anyone out there was hoping that Iran to come into compliance with the UN's IAEA demands and thereby reduce the tensions that are, in part, driving up oil market prices, sorry.

The IAEA had now reported that Iran is persisting in pursuing its nuclear efforts. At the same time Iran's beloved President, Ahmadinejad, told a rally that, "The Iranian nation won't give a damn about such useless resolutions", referring to a potential Security Council resolution against it.

InstaPundit and Captain's Quarters Both Down, Coincidence?

As of this writing anyone trying to access Glen Reynolds or Captain Ed's blogs at the moment will find they cannot be accessed. Technical problems at their blog servers or denial of service attack on these prominent conservative bloggers?

Speaking Of Gasoline Prices, How Big Is Big Oil's Take?

Much of the current demagoguery on the topic of gas prices, especially from the left, focuses on the clearly extraordinary profits being reported by the oil companies. Clearly, they have been the beneficiary of enormous windfalls as prices at the pump have risen. None of them have yet signed on to a commitment to screw their stockholders and voluntarily forswear some profit. Of course if they did we could then expect less spending on the development of new oil sources or refining capacity.

So, the question is, given these "large" profit margins, how much of the price of a gallon of gas goes into the oil companies' profit ledgers? For the answer lets turn to the website of Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, Democratic leader of the Senate. Clearly no friend of Big Oil.

Sen. Reid's website has a chart (scroll down for it) that breaks down the components that make up the cost of a gallon of gas. At the time the chart was created a gallon of gas in Nevada cost $1.68, so all figures need to be raised proportionately. At that time, the component called "Refiner Margin", which includes the oil company profits and refining costs, was $0.25. For the sake of argument, lets say that the price has now, or will soon, double to $3.36. If the "Refiner Margin" still stood at the same percentage of the total, it would now be $0.50.

Assuming, generously, that fully one half of this new figure, or $0.25, is oil profits and that politicians foolishly mandated that the companies forswear all profits, consumers at the pump would then still be paying $3.11. At a cost still above the magic $3.00 figure, consumer, and more to the point voter fury, would not abate in the slightest. And they could look forward to dramatic reductions in supplies with no reinvestment of profits and yet higher market prices.

Oil Demagoguery - Everybody Dance!

Americans appear to be angry about the rise in gasoline prices. Just look at any local or cable newscast. You know the routine: reporter standing in front of large sign with prices (often the highest to be found in their local area); short interview with driver upset at having to pay $60 to fill his or her tank; no follow up question to ask why the person is driving an Escalade that gets 15 miles to the gallon.

Of course we are not privy to the number of calm and rational drivers who the reporter had to screen out in order to get "good interview". But the truth is that bemoaning gas prices is the currency of water cooler conversations these day, especially in a week without a new "LOST" episode.

Every rational thinker I have seen, including almost every living politician, understands that in the long run America's dependence on oil is harming the environment and making us beholden to those states with large reserves, from Saudi Arabia and Iran to Venezuela. Everyone knows our "addiction to oil", to quote the President, must end.

Simultaneously, every politician is calling for steps to reduce current oil prices, a step that will sate the American appetite for cheap gas, exacerbate the problems created by that dependence
and postpone the efforts necessary to cure our addiction. It is the equivalent of attempting to reduce addiction to heroin by reducing the street price and removing some of the profits of the drug dealers. Politicians don't live in the long term world, their world is bound in cycles of 2 - 4 years. Let solving the oil dependency be the next guys problem.

Charles Krauthammer has a splendidly lucent piece in today's WAPO on the topic, and Andrew Sullivan piles further argument on the topic. Meanwhile, over at Daily Kos and Matt Yglesias, silence. Kevin Drum can only manage a state of mild peevishness at the Republicans. Pelosi and others may be stupid politicians, but they're our stupid politicians.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Tony Snow, New Target Of The Left

Left-leaning analysts have been poring over the sayings and writings of Tony Snow for anything that was less than complementary of his new boss. The silly assumption of their hunt is that the President is either too stupid or too lacking in confidence to tolerate the presence in the White House of a non-sycophant who has a record of expressed personal opinions. The fact is that Snow's appointment was no doubt very purposeful and was intended as providing a veneer of credibility in the Press Office that has always been lacking during the McClellan era.

Since in this morning's public announcement of Snow's appointment the President directly acknowledged Tony's disagreements with him and welcomed his fresh input, that argument has been totally disarmed.

The new tactic now appears in the leftist press. Snow is accused of saying the following perfectly reasonable thing:

"Here's the unmentionable secret," Snow said on an October 2003 edition of Fox News Sunday, "racism isn't that big a deal anymore." Snow argued that "no sensible person supports" racism, arguing that the problem is "quickly becoming an ugly memory."

This tidbit, which we can now expect to be the first issue to be raised with Snow by the crack White House Press Corps, is meant to provide raw meat to the Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson wing of the party who maintain that all problems in the African-American community are the product of an active and virulent racism. Please ring the bell Dr. Pavlov. No matter that a growing number of African-Americans from Shelby Steele to Bill Cosby are moving beyond the tragic history of white racism and slavery, the original sins or our nation, to seek effective means to change the remaining scars of that history from within the community.

It is all about a desperate attempt to maintain the monolithic ownership of black American's votes by the Democratic Party. It will be interesting to see if and how Tony Snow will respond.

Is CIA Leaking OK, Always, Never, Sometimes

The matter of the dismissal of Mary McCarthy from her CIA position has, it a way, clouded the issue of whether or when intelligence officials should provide secret information to journalists. McCarthy was discharged for allegedly leaking information about the rendition of terror suspects to the tender mercies of prisons in the former USSR. Focusing on McCarthy, who has now declared that she did no such thing, moves us away from the core issue. She may or may not have leaked. There are signs in the Washington Post article(s) by Dana Priest that multiple leakers may exist.

It is also true that the administration has no claim on the moral high ground since it has engaged in revealing formerly classified information on WMD. The fact that their leaks had been declassified prior to the actual leakage is a difference without a distinction if, as Bush previously did, they want to decry all leaks.

But the fact remains that no one in the CIA or any other intelligence agency has the authority to declassify anything on their own motion. When they leak, the material will always be secret. The fact that the administration has been the leaker of first instance in this matter does not absolve those who serve the government of the United States from their moral and legal obligation to maintain the secrets with which they have been entrusted.

The argument has been made that the leakers are heroes because they and their supporters believe that rendition is wrong, illegal or immoral and represents an unconstitutional usurpation of power by the President.

Let's do a small thought experiment. Suppose that in 2008 a Democrat, let us say Russ Feingold, is elected to the White House. Now suppose that several years into the Feingold administration a policy decision is made to provide Iran with nuclear weapons in the hope that such an action will provide a semblance of nuclear balance between the Arab states and Israel. Suppose further that this deal is declared top secret and done without any proper notification to the Congress. Now suppose there is one or more CIA employees who are familiar with this action and they oppose it on the grounds that it is geopolitically foolish and that the President has violated the Constitution by singlehandedly arming avowed enemies of the United States, thereby violating the central promise of his oath of office. Suppose further that these CIA staff members believe that such a weapon will be directly conveyed to terrorists for use against the US or its interests.

Would those who approve of the current leaks find leaks against a Democratic administration equally heroic? As with all human organizations, intelligence agencies will always have some employees who disagree with the policies or practices of the elected political leaders. Are CIA employees to be empowered to speak to reporters whenever their personal judgment or level of moral or political outrage requires them to do so? That way lies chaos.

The plain answer is that those who are in government service, or the military for that matter are required by our system to follow the dictates of elected officials and their appointed managers. The ethical thing for a disgruntled employee to do in such circumstances is to quit, rather than to continue to play a part in what they consider wrong. To remain is to facilitate the wrong doing and serve it's designers.

Leaving one's career is very difficult. There are not that many spy jobs in the private sector. Career civil servants often come to regard the current occupants of the White House as temporary interlopers, whereas they are the true, stable servants of the republic. To grant them, as unelected technocrats, the right to impact the policies of the nation is to encourage the kind of anarchism and power grabbing that South American states are famous for. It may be politically expedient for Democrats or liberals to champion their leakers, but as surely as the sun rises in the East they will come to regret this new empowerment of the unelected that has been unleashed.

Russ Feingold, A Laugh Riot

The Progressive Patriots Fund, a PAC run by Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin has put out a TV ad in which an actor portraying a presidential advisor suggests to President "G.W" that, ""The war still got everyone running scared. They'll go along with whatever you say. Forget the rules and quit treating the Constitution like it's set in stone. For starters, we should be eavesdropping on anybody who has the nerve to disagree with you - court order or not."

Now that they've caught by Factcheck.org at this bald faced lie, they claim that it was just a parody. Does this sound like Feingold is kidding? According to Factcheck:

The ad concludes with Feingold's voice saying, "Our country hasn't stood for this kind of abuse of power in over 200 years. Let's not stand for it now."

Feingold may be forgetting his history. President Lincoln threw people in jail without charges during the Civil War, including members of the Maryland legislature and at least one former member of Congress from Ohio. Franklin Roosevelt moved 112,000 Japanese Americans out of their homes and held them in internment camps during World War II. They had support at the time but would be considered "abuses" by most today. In 1988 Congress declared that the WWII internments constituted "fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights" of citizens. The wartime measures of Lincoln and FDR were far more serious that warrantless eavesdropping on overseas conversations.

What a kidder that Russ is.

Monday, April 24, 2006

More Evidence Of Westernization Of China

Today's edition of U.S. News has a cover photo of a group of Chinese young people duded out in what appears to be totally Western style. The young man in the outrageously flowered jacket is also, in true hip hop style, is flashing what he may or may not know is the gang sign of the Latin Kings. I bet he has at least seen images of rappers or other young American celebrities posing with just such a hand gesture.

The Sopranos - God Bless Betty Bacall

In an otherwise boring episode of The Sopranos last night, the evening was saved by the sight of the legendary Lauren Bacall in a cameo appearance. The payoff was the scene in which, Christopher Moltisanti, the show's resident dreamer and junkie, dressed as a mutant ninja, cold cocks Ms. Bacall and steals the basket of goodies she was given for an appearance at a Hollywood affair.

Saving Darfur Now Declared Part Of "Crusader" War Against Islam

Osama bin Laden has once against emerged from his rabbit hole to pronounce, in part, that his followers are to take up arms in preparation for the coming invasion of Sudan by the "Crusaders". According to Mr. bin L, "The US was not satisfied by all the sedition and crimes, but went on to incite sedition, the largest of which was the west Sudan sedition by exploiting some disputes between the tribes and sparking a savage war between them that will spare nothing, prior to sending in Crusader troops to occupy the region and steal its oil wealth under the pretext of peacekeeping."

There are two points to be made here: first, progressives are already wary about US military action in Sudan. Their general opposition to any foreign involvement has now been hammered into a solid steel belief system by the war in Iraq. The progressive impulse to stop the genocide in Darfur has been reduced to a hope that by some magic the UN will actually, for the first time in its history, use force to stop such crimes or that peaceful means such as sanctions will do the job. By incorporating Sudan along with
the progressives' other favorite middle eastern country, Palestine, bin Laden has practically sealed the opposition of the left to any truly effective means of stopping the Janjaweed slaughter.

Secondly, bin Laden drags out the old saw that the US is motivated by our demonstrable addiction to oil. For the record, Sudan has estimated oil reserves of 1.6 billion barrels, ranking 34th in the world. The daily oil consumption of the United States is over 20 million barrel every day. Thus, all of Sudan's reserves, assuming we took total control of it, would be gobbled up in a mere 80 days. Personally, I'm more inclined to snatch the oil of the 38th ranked country, Denmark. That way we'd at least get open access to their wonderful Tivoli gardens and nifty statue of the Little Mermaid.

The Internet And The Future Of China

Much has been made lately of Google's kowtowing to the Chinese government's insistence that they be able to block searches for political, religious and other issues the government wants to continue to censor in this brave new medium. The Sunday Times Magazine has an interesting piece on the reality of the internet as it now exists in China, and where it is likely to go.

While much of this article and much of Western focus has been on the inability of Chinese web surfers to access information that might exacerbate hostility to China's authoritarian orthodoxy, the subtle impact of the vast areas of information that remain available has largely been ignored. This point is made at the very end of the article, when the writer, Clive Thompson, reports on a conversation with Ki Fu Lee, Google's man in Beijing:

In the eyes of critics, Google is lying to itself about the desires of Chinese Internet users and collaborating with the Communist Party merely to secure a profitable market. To take Lee at his word is to take a leap of faith: that the Internet, simply through its own inherent properties, will slowly chip away at the government's ability to control speech, seeding a cultural change that strongly favors democracy. In this view, there will be no "great man" revolution in China, no Lech Walesa rallying his oppressed countrymen. Instead, the freedom fighters will be a half-billion mostly apolitical young Chinese, blogging and chatting about their dates, their favorite bands, video games — an entire generation that is growing up with public speech as a regular habit.

At one point in our conversation, Lee talked about the "Super Girl" competition televised in China last year, the country's analogue to "American Idol." Much like the American version of the show, it featured young women belting out covers of mainstream Western pop songs amid a blizzard of corporate branding. (The full title of the show was "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest," in honor of its sponsor.) In each round, viewers could vote for their favorite competitor via text message from their mobile phones. As the season ran its course, it began to resemble a presidential election campaign, with delirious fans setting up Web sites urging voters to pick their favorite singer. In the final episode, eight million young Chinese used their mobile phones to vote; the winner was Li Yuchun, a 21-year-old who dressed like a schoolgirl and sang "Zombie," by the Irish band the Cranberries.

"If you think about a practice for democracy, this is it," Lee said. "People voted for Super Girls. They loved it — they went out and campaigned." It may not be a revolution, in other words, but it might be a start.

The other big impact of widespread Chinese access to the intenet is the influence of Western culture, but all of it in stolen form. The Chinese users, with no basis for understanding the concept of private property, traffic in pirated versions of Western music, movies and books:

In China, downloading illegal copies of music, movies and software is as normal and accepted as checking the weather online. Baidu's [the leading Chinese search engine] executives discovered early on that many young users were using the Internet to hunt for pirated MP3's, so the company developed an easy-to-use interface specifically for this purpose. When I sat in an Internet cafe in Beijing one afternoon, a teenager with mutton-chop sideburns a few chairs over from me sipped a Coke and watched a samurai movie he'd downloaded free, while his friends used Baidu to find and pull down pirated tracks from the 50 Cent album "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Almost one-fifth of Baidu's traffic comes from searching for unlicensed MP3's that would be illegal in the United States. Robin Li, Baidu's 37-year-old founder and C.E.O., is unrepentant. "Right now I think that the record companies may not be happy about the service we are offering," he told me recently, "but I think digital music as a trend is unstoppable."
What happens to an ancient authoritarian and socialist culture whose children become used to the anti-authoritarian posture of American rappers who navigate the world in blacked out Esclades? It's not going to be your father's China, that's for sure.

Bush, Kerry, Kennedy - Is There Any Wonder More People Vote For American Idol Than For President?

We are all familiar with George Bush's smirking inability to construct intelligent sentences in English. Sundays talk shows provided with a clear view that the other party is also not littered with geniuses.

John Kerry, as Capt. Ed says, was against leaking before he was for it. He seems to be the master of saying things that sound, if one is not listening carefully, like he is hewing the progressive line, but then also taking the opposite view. Extraordinary!

Then we were treated to the sight of Edward Kennedy fumbling to not answer Tim Russert's questions while delivering his pre-tested talking points. Russert, of course, asked the "tough" questions, but then let Kennedy repeatedly get away with not actually answering them. For example:

MR. RUSSERT: If you were the president, you’d go for sanctions against Iran before the U.N., and if that didn’t work you’d apply them unilaterally?

SEN. KENNEDY: I would to—I’d go to the U.N. first. If we can’t—it does appear that Russia and China will probably exert a veto, I think that we have to go to a bilateral sanctions, and I would certainly think that that’s absolutely necessary, and I think they ought to be working on that at the present time.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you keep the military option on the table?

SEN. KENNEDY: Not the nuclear military option. I think that that is not a constructive or positive discussion. Other military options ought to be kept on the table.

MR. RUSSERT: But you would say publicly, we would not use tactical nuclear weapons?

SEN. KENNEDY: I would not rattle the nuclear saber with regards to Iran. I think that’s counterproductive, it’s dangerous, and we don’t need to have that at the present time, and I think it’s counterproductive. The other military options are clearly—would be left on the table.

MR. RUSSERT: What if the military advisers told you only tactical nuclear weapons could take out those bunkers?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the—I cannot think of circumstances today where I, I would think that you’d want to even consider using the tactical nuclear weapons in those, in those circumstances. I think we ought to retain a military option, but I think the nuclear option is a condition which is not what we ought to be thinking about. The idea that the United States is thinking about a first strike capability in, in Iran is not the message that the United States ought to be giving to the Iranians, to that region of the world, to the world. I think it would be very dangerous and very, very counterproductive.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

"Communication" In The 21st Century

Walter Kirn, filling in during Andrew Sullivan's vacation, has posted an insightful piece on the way we no longer talk to each other while we focus on our electronic umbilicals to the rest of the world. Check it out.

New Prime Minister Designated In Iraq

Quickly on the heals of the resignation of former Prime Minister al Jaafari, the political parties in Parliament have agreed on Jawad al-Maliki as new Prime Minister. He now has 30 days to assemble a cabinet that can be approved by Parliament, under the new Iraqi Constitution.

Iraq is not out of the woods yet to be sure. The cabinet must be formed and approved and then it must begin to make a functioning government a reality in the lives of most Iraqis. This event is best viewed as a giant leap of a first step on the road to civic order in that tortured nation.

Gas Price Politics

Watching the cable news networks today one is struck by the large number of people willing to blame the current spike in gas prices on someone they don't like. I would suggest the following rule of thumb for use in watching the news: whenever anyone stands up and blames the President or the Democrats or the Republicans or the oil companies or the auto makers or any other person or group, assume they are lying.

Gasoline prices are the result of a market. They are responsive to the law of supply and demand. Worldwide demand is up while demand in the US has stayed virtually flat. It is easy to stand in front of a TV camera and act outraged at the $3.10 a gallon you just paid, but the truth is that these prices have not yet moved Americans to effectively do anything to change either their behavior or the policies of their government. Available data through 2004 indicates that overall sales of automobiles are up, with SUV's and light trucks making up an increasingly large share of the market. Among SUV's, the sale of gas-guzzling Hummers has been steadily increasing. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

In my judgment we are a long way from a price per gallon cost that will motivate significant numbers of Americans to act. What is that number? I don't know, but my guess is that it will require something above $5.00 per gallon. Only then will people refuse to buy cars that aren't very efficient, or hybrids, or flex-fuel, forcing the manufacturers to produce cars to meet that demand. Also, only then will people force our politicians to move beyond platitudes and recrimination and towards creating the laws and incentives that will begin to make alternative fuels high efficiency vehicles a reality. Not to mention taking other steps to achieve pollution and cost lowering measures in the rest of our fossil fueled culture.

Until that time, those interviewing politicians should demand to know what the person in front of them is doing now to solve this problem. If they blame someone else for blocking the way, what are they doing now to reach some sort of compromise or quid pro quo to assure that progress occurs. Short of positive answers to these questions, these politicians are only demonstrating the growing total impotence of the American government in our age.

The Umphrey's Concert Was Great

Umphrey's McGee's 45 minute set at the Green Apple Festival yesterday was top drawer. Their crew got them set up in the fifteen minutes after the previous act cleared the stage and they began at about 3-4 minutes after 1:00. They opened with "In the Kitchen" and then did 4-5 additional numbers that I did not recognize. They were in a very improv intense mood which featured long instrumental explorations that varied between jazzy and rocking. Very satisfying.

As for the scene, Vanderbuilt Ave. was closed from 42nd St. to 45th. The stage was at the 45th St. end and there were booths for various products and causes lining both sides of the street between 42nd and 44th. The remaining block was given over to the crowd, most of whom, but clearly not all, came to enjoy a band they knew. It was fun to see passersby listen for a minute, register approval on their faces and ask who the band was.

The scene, except for the aroma of grass in the air, was not the stereotype of a retro-hippie jam scene. Most listeners seemed to be taking a break from their day, some even in ties and jackets. One guy pushed his way to within a few feet of the stage-left speaker stack holding two large parrots or macaques above his head. I suspect that the only thing those birds will be saying for a while is, "What? What did you say?". One young woman brought her superbly calm Great Dane. One of the largest of that breed I've ever seen, he could have easily been saddled and ridden in by its owner.

One typically New York event occurred at the nexus of jam scene culture and the City's characters. An atypically hefty hippie chick was using the space at the side of the stage to work it out with a large hula hoop. A passerby in a muscle shirt, jeans with a 5 inch cuff and shiny black business shoes sought to engage the young woman in a joint activity. He seemed to fancy himself some sort of choreographer and was, using sign language and broken English, attempting to teach her how to go beyond spinning the hoop and move toward using it as a prop for styling dance poses. The young woman was a first patient, but became increasing angry, finally screaming at the man, "Get the fuck away from me!". Very un-mellow. He moved on to attempt his strange pas de deux with a two-person Chinese dragon that had just entered the area. I love the city.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Off To See Umphrey's McGee

Photo Credit: Dan Merlo, 2006

I'm headed into "the City", as we in the New York area say, to see a performance on the street outside Grand Central Terminal by a band I've come to really enjoy, Umphrey's McGee. There is a "Green Apple Festival" this weekend at venues all over town in connection with Earth Day, which is tomorrow. Umphrey's played last night at the Jammy Awards show at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and are appearing tonight at the famed, tiny and soon to close, CBGB's on Bowery.

Never one to pass up a freebee, I'm going to soak up some of their sound. If you're not in the area, give them a listen at their website. If you like good rock and roll played by excellent musicians, I think you'll like them.

Gasoline Prices And Commodity Markets

The Washington Post today makes a valiant attempt to explain the recent steep spike in the cost of gas at the pump. But somehow, it doesn't seem quite complete.

The piece mentions the commodity markets but doesn't clearly explain their impact. As of this writing, the price of unleaded gas on the NY Mercantile Exchange is $2.2148 for May '06. Assuming that this is a per gallon price, which is a pure assumption on my part, how does this set the base price we will pay at the pump in May? What additional costs are added to the street price, aside from taxes which vary from locale to locale, that result in a retail cost that is now hovering at about $3.00 per gallon?

If anyone can enlighten me or provide a helpful link I would greatly appreciate it.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Good News From Iraq

Both the NY Times and Washington Post are reporting tonight that current Iraqi Prime Minister has agreed to step down. This would seemingly open the way for the formation of a government of national unity. This could occur as soon as the next scheduled meeting of the Parliament on Saturday, but an outside date of May would not be out of the question.

It is the formation of such a government, with fully functioning ministries, that holds the best current hope for creating the conditions that will lead to a reduction in violence and the beginning of a viable civic life for Iraqis.

Julia Roberts On Broadway

I don't usually pay much attention to the ebb and flow of shows on Broadway. Their price alone makes them a too rare event in my life. However, Ben Brantley has a splendidly written notice of Julia Roberts' opening in a play called, "Three Days of Rain".

The review is less about the play than it is about the stunning and captivating beauty of Ms. Roberts seen live in the theater. Money quote:

And Ms. Roberts often gives the impression that she is parsing her lines, leaving lots of dead air between fragments. And yet, and yet. I found myself fascinated by the way her facial structure (ah, those cheekbones!) seems to change according to how the light hits her. In repose, her face seems impossibly, hauntingly eloquent. She has a scene — all right, a few seconds — of flirtation with Mr. Rudd in the second act that is absolutely charming. And on the few occasions when she smiles, it's with a sunniness that could dispel even 40 days and 40 nights of rain.

Bush's Status In History

Sean Wilentz, in the current Rolling Stone, declares Bush the "Worst President In US History." If you hate Bush with every fiber of your being, proceed to the link and take a long, languorous bath in the soothing waters of self-congratulation. If, on the other hand, names of Presidents like Nixon, Hoover, Andrew Johnson, Lyndon Johnson, etc. come to mind when you hear such hyperbole, check out the streaming audio or transcript of a recent radio interview Christopher Hitchens gave with Hugh Hewitt on the Radio Blogger site for some much needed perspective.

Fewest Deaths Recorded In 60 Years

The National Center for Health Statistics, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, reports that in 2004, the last year for which full data is available, almost 50,000 fewer people died that in 2003. This is the largest decline since 1944, when the dropoff was no doubt affected by the winding down of WWII.

These numbers are in spite of the fact that Americans are living longer, a large chunk of the population, the baby boomers, are entering "senior" status, and we are demonstrably fatter than ever. Life expectancy has risen five months over the previous year to 77.9 years.

Another example of the nefarious influence of those damned, criminal bastards in the pharmaceutical industry with their statins, beta blockers and improved chemo-therapies.

"United 93", What Controversy?

TV news reports, like this one, almost universally say that the upcoming opening of the new film that details the events that led to the crash of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania on 9/11/01 is "controversial". Why?

By all accounts the producers contacted every family of those lost on that day and all approved of the concept and of the final product. The story linked to above at least quotes one "man on the street" as fearing that seeing the movie will be too painful. That is an understandable human emotion. I still cannot watch extended documentary footage of that day without tears.

But the word "controversial" implies that someone has a political or ethical objection to the film, yet none have come forward. One can assume that if people like Rush Limbaugh are celebrating the film's opening, there will be an automatic reaction against the film from the left. So far it has not materialized.

In any given month films are released that some portion of the population will find disturbing, horror films or films with a sexual content, for example. These rarely merit special mention in the newscasts.

Whether or not one likes the terminology, we have been and are under attack by Islamofascist terrorists. Hollywood has a long and honorable tradition of making films during wartime that celebrate the actions of heroes and simultaneously mourn their loss. "United 93" appears to be solidly in that tradition. I plan on seeing it and I fully expect to be moved by it. Facing up to our pain is a good thing.

New Intelligence Bureaucracy, Whose Fault

The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee are reported to be upset with Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte. Republican Peter Hoekstra and Democrat Jane Harman assert that Negroponte, "is creating just another blanket of bureaucracy, muffling rather than clarifying the dangers lurking in the world."

Most of us are, I think, unfamiliar with the particulars of Negroponte's actions since taking office. Therefore an open airing of his activities would be useful. But I do wonder if the fault, dear Congresspersons, is not in our bureaucrats, but in ourselves.

After all, Negroponte's job was created by Congress in a rush to adopt the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission whole hog. After all, a new office set up above the various intelligence agencies and their competing interests is, on its face, another layer of bureaucracy. It was doomed to add staff to the government who would of necessity delay the travel of intelligence to the various customers of that intelligence in the White House. The question is whether the delay is worth accepting because it serves to coordinate and interrelate disparate pieces of information and forges them into a better product.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Clueless Joe Wilson

Christopher Hitchens continues his provocative and well deserved poking of Joseph Wilson, hero of the anti-war movement, about the failures of his infamous report about Iraq's attempt to obtain uranium from Niger. In a Slate piece titled "Clueless Joe Wilson" Hitchens continues to probe the visit of one Wissam al-Zahawie, Saddam's former envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, who Wilson knew, to Niger in February 1999.

Key quote

In other words (I am prepared to keep on repeating this until at least one cow comes home), Joseph Wilson went to Niger in 2002 to investigate whether or not the country had renewed its uranium-based relationship with Iraq, spent a few days (by his own account) sipping mint tea with officials of that country who were (by his wife's account) already friendly to him, and came back with the news that all was above-board. Again to repeat myself, this must mean either that A) he did not know that Zahawie had come calling or B) that he did know but didn't think it worth mentioning that one of Saddam's point men on nukes had been in town. In neither case, it seems to me, should he be trusted with another mission that requires any sort of curiosity.

Rumsfeld's Departure - The Worst Thing That Could Happen To Democrats

In the continuing wrangle over the future of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, Democrats and anti-war pundits have generally sided on the side of getting rid of Rumsfeld, while Republicans and those who have supported the war in Iraq favor his retention. I think the Democrats are miscalculating.

First, the history is commonly agreed upon; Rumsfeld, through strength of personality browbeat the Pentagon and perhaps the President into believing that 150,000 troops, though sufficient to initially defeat Hussein, were also sufficient to establish and maintain civic order in Iraq. They were not. Secondly, at this moment in time, there is almost universal agreement that reducing our troop levels, at the earliest possible time, is the goal. No one now wants to add troops. What would have helped in 2003 - 2004 would now be counter productive. Lastly, the game is now principally in the hands of Condoleza Rice's State Department and Ambassador Khalilzad. Only their ability to finesse a government of reasonable unity and effectiveness in Iraq will permit the responsible troop drawdown that virtually all reasonable people desire. (I exclude here the Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan wing.)

What then would be the outcome of Rumsfeld's departure in the next few weeks or months? Democrats could figuratively hoist his head on a pike and joyously parade about with torches and celebratory music. The next tape from bin Laden would celebrate the victory of al Qaeda over this greatest enemy of Islam. Nothing would change on the ground in Iraq.

What if the following scenario, which I believe is likely, transpires? In May or June a unity government forms in Baghdad. Rumsfeld uses that moment to resign. Bush thanks him for his service and appoints a replacement promptly. Voters see Rumsfeld's departure, along with improving prospects in Iraq as evidence that Bush is listening and is turning things around. The Spring of 2006 could be seen in retrospect as the turning point for Bush's standing in the polls.

By November 2008, a full two and a half years from now, Iraq will be much more distant on voters' radar. Democrats will call for change and rail against the Bush administration of 2003 - 2006, but Americans will, assuming the economy remains stable or grows stronger, find that they are less and less unhappy with things as they are. Rumsfeld who?

If the Republicans nominate John McCain, the maverick who argued for more troops in 2003-2005 and who is seen as a straight shooter and genuine human being, and who can speak the English language, the Democrats, with any currently listed candidate, will loose. From the perspective of purely Democratic political advantage, the best thing that could happen to them is that Donald Rumsfeld is actively snarling from the podium of the Pentagon press room in the run up to November 2008.

The Truth Is, There Is No Truth

There are bloggers, and then there are bloggers.

Some craft paragraphs on the internet just to say what they think out loud to a world that wouldn't hear them under normal circumstances. Only the privileged few publish books or articles or appear as talking heads on television. For the rest of us, this wonderful 21st century technology makes us feel better about our anonymity. We can shoot the shit about any damn thing we like, trivial or important, it doesn't matter, without having to endure people excusing themselves or falling asleep.

For others, blogging is about screaming out loud the anger they feel toward the morons who occupy the other side of their view of the world. They are not about the marshalling of facts and careful structuring of argument. Joyous, delicious fury and name calling is all they are about. Examples abound on the left and the right, but currently the most famous example of this breed is Maryscott O'Connor, recently profiled in the Washington Post. Their fans love them for their reflection of the very anger the fan feels, "thank God I am not alone in this madhouse, there are others like me."

The last group, the ones generally regarded as the heavy hitters of the blogosphere, write lengthy expositions on topics of world and national import. They look at the world, turn it over carefully in their hands and pluck out the salient facts and figures. For the most popular of this class of blogger, magically the careful examination of fact always ends up supporting their clear, not to say ideological, view of reality. Kos only finds facts that support the progressive-Democratic perspective, Malkin never saw a conservative idea or politician that wasn't plainly supported by the facts.

An Op-ed piece in last Sunday's NY Times by Prof. Daniel Gilbert of the Harvard Psychology Department reminds us of the only real truth there is in the opinion game. All of us see the world through the lens of who we are in our totality as persons; persons who think and evaluate, but also persons who feel, and who have emotional bonds and financial interests. Gilbert provides examples of a number of recent experiments in the field of social psychology that demonstrate two main truths:

Much of what happens in the brain is not evident to the brain itself, and thus people are better at playing these sorts of tricks on themselves than at catching themselves in the act. People realize that humans deceive themselves, of course, but they don't seem to realize that they too are human...And yet, if decision-makers are more biased than they realize, they are less biased than the rest of us suspect. Research shows that while people underestimate the influence of self-interest on their own judgments and decisions, they overestimate its influence on others.

Of course Gilbert uses the kinds of examples in modern life that will assure his continued welcome at the diner tables of Cambridge: doctors and pharmaceutical company-supplied drug samples, Supreme Court Justices and participants in a case they have a financial interest in, or Dick Cheney's assertion that Haliburton receives no favorable treatment in government contracting. I would add another important example that is often overlooked in the MSM.

Press releases are issued daily by not-for-profit organizations containing "studies" that prove the point of view they advocate. In the language of scientific research, these advocacy groups purport to show that the facts support the positions they happen to advocate. The sad thing is that these "studies" are routinely taken as gospel by the press. The reports of Public Interest Research Groups, Sierra Club, Food Banks, etc, are regurgitated without the usual skepticism that is a normal part of a journalist's makeup. Why?

I believe it is because of two factors (I am leaving aside the reporters own biases on the issue in question, since this applies to reporters of all stripes): an almost universal ignorance of the scientific method and statistics, and a blindness to self-interest that is not driven by corporate greed or election victories.

I am aware of no school of journalism that requires a semester of statistics of its students. Math or mathematical concepts are anathema to those called to the left brain activities of language.

More importantly, most reporters are never motivated to carefully examine the details of purportedly objective studies if the author is not obviously in it for their own political careers in public office or their own financial profit. Thus, a passionate advocate from a not-for-profit organization, even if he or she is earning a comfortable six figure salary, is granted a form of sainthood. Reporters never consider the benefit to that person's benefit in spreading their point of view, their competitive drive to win, or their desire to continue and enhance their own salaries and the funding stream of their organizations.

As Dr. Gilbert has titled his article, I'm O.K., but they're all biased.

Update: James Joyner at Outside The Beltway has an interesting piece in a similar vein to this entitled, Blogging, Red Meat, and Reasoned Debate. Check it out.

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Sopranos - Live Free Or Die, But Not In Yonkers

Last night's episode of The Sopranos found the recently outed Vito hiding out with his "gooma" and then on the run in New Hampshire. All the while the Tony's capos are crying for his head for his having disgraced them, and just on general principals for "following the Hershey highway", as one says.

Homophobia was on full display. Yet Tony, newly enlightened by his brush with death, seems inclined to let what ever goes on in Vito's bedroom, "consenting adults and all that", remain his business. After all, Vito is his best earner and Tony has never been known as someone who ignores his own interests. By the end of the episode his Consigleri, Silvio, is reminding Tony that the guys won't respect him if he lets Vito slide and Tony agrees.

More than agree, in an act of total disregard for Meadow's boyfriend, Finn, he drags him before the high court of mob capos and forces him to recount his witnessing of Vito felating a security guard on a job site. Finn looked like he came out of the meeting with stained undies.

The episode ends with Vito happily exploring the antique shops, B&B's, and gay-tolerant ambiance of New Hampshire.

For me, a native of Yonkers, NY, the best line of the night was Tony's. After Chris reveals that his acquaintance reported Vito's presence in the gay bar, Tony says, "Are we supposed to condemn a man on the word of some douche bag from Yonkers?" Where's the respect?

Another interesting feature of last night's episode was a brief scene in Satriale's back room between Tony and Chris during which Chris references the demonstrations in Islamic countries over the Danish Cartoons. Since all previous reports were that the current episodes were filmed last summer, the producers clearly wrote, shot and pasted in this scene, since the cartoon-related events in January of this year. Perhaps this explains the presence of four writers, including David Chase, in the credits for this episode.

All in all the episode spent far too much time displaying the foul prejudices of the mob culture. We got it in the first fifteen minutes. Let's move on.

Iranian President Claims Use Of Centrifuges Capable Of Producing Enriched Uranium Quickly

A new report in the NY Times quotes Iran's President and resident nut job, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as claiming that Iran is now utilizing a centrifuge technology called "P-2" that would significantly advance the timetable for Iran to achieve enough nuclear material to make a bomb. The question that the IAEA and western intelligence agencies are trying to resolve is whether Ahmadinejad has slipped and let the cat out of the bag, or whether he is lying for strategic or internal political reasons. Iran has denied for the last several years that it has P-2 technology.

Since it is now known that Iran had dealings with A. Q. Khan, Pakistan's master exporter of nuclear technology who sold similar technology to Lybia and North Korea, Iran needs to explain why it alone declined to buy the best technology.

The Times article further points out:

Other pressing questions include Iran's reluctance to discuss a document found by inspectors — one that the Iranians were not willing to let the inspectors take out of the country — that sketches out how to shape uranium into perfect spheres, the tell-tale shape for a primitive weapon. Investigators say that document, too, appears to have come from the Khan network.

It is also unclear whether Dr. Khan sold the Iranians a complete Chinese-made bomb design similar to the one Libya turned over to the United States when it gave up its weapons program. Questions about other copies of the bomb design have been met with silence, in Iran and in Pakistan.

The Iranian program increasingly seems to walk like a duck and quack like a duck, yet claims to be a pussy cat. The only comfort one can take if the Iranians achieved a bomb is that its use against either the US or Israel would provoke nuclear retaliation that would destroy Iran. Rational governments would bdeterreded. But is Iran a rational government or is icontrolleded by those who believe the suicide of the entire Iranian people is required by their peculiar view of Islam? More problematic would be the delivery of a suitcase bomb in Israel or the west by agents. Would anyone be able to trace the origins of the bomb back to the Iraqis with a level of certainty that would justify the terribldestructionon of a nuclear retaliation? This is a very dangerous game of chance we are playing.

Juan Cole, perenial apologist for radical Islam, would have us believe that the Iranians would never use an atomic weapon because such use has been declared immoral by its "supreme jurisprutent"(sic), Ali Khemenei. Yet thArabicic translation website, Memri, has published a report by the reformist internet site, Rooz, quoting Iranian clerics:

"The spiritual leaders of the extremist [circles in Iran] have accepted the use of nuclear weapons as lawful in the eyes of shari'a. Mohsen Gharavian, a disciple of [Ayatollah] Mesbah Yazdi [who is Iranian President Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor], has spoken for the first time of using nuclear weapons as a counter-measure. He stated that 'in terms of shari'a, it all depends on the goal.'
Cole's assertions are based on the presumption that his mullahs speak the definitive injunction of Shia Islam and that their dicta will be binding on the Iranian officials. I am less sanguine about their control over the behavior of the government since there are already public religious pronouncement to the contrary and because it is very unclear that the religious leaders are truly in control of the civil government. Further, for every Islamic cleric who has asserted that "ordinary" suicide bombing is against shari'a law there are several who have issued fatwas claiming that such actions are, in fact, demanded by the Koran. As we know, the later view has produced action for decades.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Stanley Fish, Professorial Blogger

Now blogging for the NY Times, Prof. Stanley Fish, prominent literary theorist and Milton expert. Prof. Fish, who has been associated in the past with Ivy League and other "most selective" universities, now teaches, of all places, at Florida International University's College of Law. What possible courses could he be teaching? Legal strategies for regaining paradise? Apparently this provides him with more time to attempt to educate the rest of us boobs via a new blog in the NY Times.

The folks at Wonkette point out that Fish's latest entry, entitled "Forget Barack, Run With Hillary", is overly long, but still right up their street:

Wow. That was breezy, superficial, catty, and looks-obsessed. It was highly opinionated, yet devoid of substance. We wish we had written it ourselves.

Dr. Fish is so into his current foray among the political classes that he even prescribes the kind of commercials that he thinks will work for the Democrats and suggests casting Sam Elliot or Donald Sutherland for the voice over job.

Immigration - Time Out For Some Facts

Whoever you choose to blame in Congress for the failure to craft a compromise on bills to deal with illegal immigration into this country, they have granted us a breathing period in which it might behoove all of us to gather some of the facts about immigration in America.

One excellent source is the Center for Immigration Studies. In particular, a publication for them by Steven A. Camarota titled Immigrants at Mid-Decade: A Snapshot of America's Foreign Born Population In 2005.

Dealing with both legal and illegal immigration, Camarota's thorough analysis of Census Data provides a detailed view of who they are, their numbers, where they come from, and how they compare to native-born citizens in socio-economic terms.

It's a treasure trove. Check it out.

Report Of Iraqi Clerics United In Call For Quick Formation Of Government

At a time in American journalism when it is difficult to find any positive reports on events in Iraq, Mudville Gazette has an email from an Iraqi-American who translates a report from an Arabic language newspaper. According to this report the most common theme of speakers in mosques across Iraq during Saturday's services was a call for all sides to put aside their differences and form a government rapidly. The quotes point to the formation of a government as the best means to bring stability to the country.

Not exactly the kind of speeches from the pulpit one would expect in country in full blown sectarian civil war.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Which Raises The Question, Are We Playing Into The Iranian President's Hand?

It is becoming clear, as many in the Bush Administration believe, that there is a strong undercurrent of dislike for the regime of the Mullahs among the people of that country. In fact, could Ahmadinejad's recent and repeated threats against Israel and his push to achieve nuclear nation status be explained largely as the classic ploy of countless leaders to unify his country via hatred of, fear of and threats from outside states?

It surely wouldn't be the first time a tyrant has mobilized anti-Semitism in his own self-interest.

What does this mean for the US' currently antagonistic approach to Iran? While the presence of some level of threat of force is no doubt an essential part of attempts to coerce the Iranians to call a halt to their nuclear development, are we pushing the threatening angle too strongly and thereby perversely helping Ahmadinejad to foment a patriotic unity in Iran that protects his status? Just asking.

Ahmadinejad Can't Take A Joke

Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently took umbrage at jokes about him circulating on the cell phone text messaging circuit. As reported by the Guardian, Ahmadinejad had directed his minions to purge the SMS system in the country of such offensive material. More ominously, as the Guardian further notes:

The clampdown is in line with the authorities' uncompromising stance on the internet and bloggers. Wary of modern communications as a means of spreading political dissent, Iran is second only to China in the number of websites it filters - using technology made in America.

Large numbers of the nation's estimated 70,000 to 100,000 bloggers have faced harassment or imprisonment. The regime has acknowledged monitoring text message traffic.

Bring Me The Head Of Donald Rumsfeld

It is clear that a concerted, and probably organized, effort is under way by retired generals of various ranks, to make Donald Rumsfeld pay for his sins in Iraq. Sins clearly were committed in the period following the downfall of Hussein when chaos was allowed to take over the land of Iraq. I know of no reasonable person who holds that the tactics and troop levels of the past three years were correct, except for the President, who has foolishly maintained throughout that if any additional troops were needed or requested he would make it so. It now seems clear that in a Rumsfeld administered Pentagon, no such request would ever see the light of day, such is the assertiveness and bullheadedness of the Secretary of Defense.

But aside from spreading joy throughout the precincts of those who have opposed this policy all along Rumsfeld's departure will mean little or no impact on the conduct of events on the ground in Iraq. We are long past the time when a extra 100,000 or more troops would make a difference. The Iraqi army is finally beginning to stand up and function. It is difficult to imagine anyone in the nacent Iraqi government who would not be required to oppose any troop buildup at this juncture. In fact, opposition to an American troop buildup might be the only thing that might unify the factions in Iraq.

Ironically, on the political front, as Bush supporter Fred Barnes has argued in the Wall Street Journal, jettisoning Rumsfeld and others in the cabinet is Bush's best means of maintaining the viability of his administration for the balance of his term. It may be the smartest move Bush could make, assuming he allows his self-preservation instincts to outweigh his widely acknowledged loyalty to the people who serve him.

More importantly, what a new Secretary of Defense might accomplish is to return some level of confidence to the American people that a truly objective evaluation of events on the ground is driving the choices being made by the Pentagon. The American people need and deserve to believe that when decisions to reduce, or not reduce, troop levels are made in the coming months they are not being made in part by an effort to justify the prior faulty choices of one man.

In the end it is not our faith in Bush that is at stake, but rather our likely future inability to place any faith in the Presidency that is on the block, along with Mr. Rumsfeld's head.

Update: Apparently Bush cannot be steamrolled into abandoning his first principle, loyalty. Too bad.

Knee-Jerk Liberal Award

Seeing evil and stupidity in everything said or done by anyone not a certified member of the progressive ranks, the classic knee-jerk by the left simultaneously is incapable of recognizing when their hated enemy takes reasonable action.

This month's award goes jointly to Justin Rood of TPM Muckraker and Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. Rood links to a Homeland Security memo sent, according to him, to businesses across America. The memo warns of possible attacks by eco-terrorists and animal rights extremists. In addition to warning of serious activities like attacking staff and families of offending corporation and hacking into company computers. It also warns about lesser acts of vandalism such as tying up fax and phone lines and the perfectly legitimate activity of flyer distribution.

Fair enough, DHS bureaucrats deserve ribbing for going overboard. That, however, is not enough for the knee-jerkers. Rood goes on to bemoan:

The real outrage in this is that on the very day some DHS yahoo spent time and government money producing this bulletin, a jury was convicting a white supremacist on five counts of trying to obtain a chemical weapon and stolen explosives. The man's dream: to explode a briefcase "dirty" bomb inside the U.S. Capitol.

Needless to say, I'm told DHS has yet to send out a warning on wackos like him: white supremacists, militias, anti-abortion groups or other violent far-right groups that have actually killed people. It's the vicious left-wing flyer brigades that pose the greatest danger.

Josh Marshall, using the same language, calls this DHS activity "scary".

I hate to call for facts and logic whenever a juicy political swipe is possible, but...

1. While eco and animal rights terrorists do target businesses across the country as their enemy, right-wing militias, white supremacists and anti-abortion types see other entities as the enemy. The militias rarely move from their fortified compounds until surrounded by armed forces of the government. Supremacists, like the man cited by Rood for a bomb plot against the US Capitol, hate the government and its civil rights legislation. The anti-abortion nuts have targeted abortion clinics and medical personnel. None of them have any history of attacking business across the board. A warning to business about these groups would be silly.

2. The federal government, even during the hated Bush administration, has prosecuted the right-wing extremists to the full extent of the law. Convictions have been obtained against such characters as James Kopp, shooter of abortion doctor Barnett Slepian, Eric Rudolph bomber of a Birmingham clinic, and Clayton Waagner, convicted of mailing anthrax threats. Bush's brother, the Governor of Florida, refused to intervene in the execution of Paul Hill, who was convicted of shooting an abortion doctor and his bodyguard.

3. As to the lack of warnings to abortion providers and advocates which might have been warranted in the face of the numerous killings and bombings, the fact is that we have had none of those in the last five or more years and DHS has only been in existence since 2002.

Although it is emotionally satisfying for the writers of such tripe and for their aficionados, such reflexive stereotyping is plainly incorrect and abandons the difficult work of thinking that is required in political debate. It is also true that this kind of nonsense is not the sole province of the left. The right is equally prone to such laziness and I will be on the prowl for examples from right-wing quarters to duly award with my Sullivanesque award scheme.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Dissembling On The Pre-war WMD Issue

The Washington Post has published a story with a deceptive lede today that starts with the news that a team of Pentagon analysts in 2003 concluded that the famous trailers (used by Colin Powell at the UN to bolster the White House case for action against Iraq) were not likely being used for weapons development. The left side of the blogosphere is all over this piece as further proof of the lies of the administration. The only problem is that the article itself reports that two other Pentagon groups simultaneously found that the trailers were likely weapons related. Thus the Bush administration had two of three reports pointing toward a WMD connection when it went to the UN.

Key quote from the WaPo piece:

Intelligence analysts involved in high-level discussions about the trailers noted that the technical team was among several groups that analyzed the suspected mobile labs throughout the spring and summer of 2003. Two teams of military experts who viewed the trailers soon after their discovery concluded that the facilities were weapons labs, a finding that strongly influenced views of intelligence officials in Washington, the analysts said. "It was hotly debated, and there were experts making arguments on both sides," said one former senior official who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
This is paragraph 12, found at the bottom of the first page of the web version of the article. Apparently too far for most of those poised to jump to conclusions to read. Thanks to Capt.
for pointing this out.

Iran - Scary Events, Serious Choices

Today the government of Iran has announced that it has enriched uranium for the first time, using its 164 centrifuges. The government of the Mullahs further states that it intends to expand to the use of 3,000 centrifuges as quickly as possible and that its ultimate goal is to expand to production using 54,000 centrifuges.

Of course the Iranians say that their intention is purely to produce enough enriched uranium to fuel a 1,000 megawatt nuclear power station to produce electricity. Many may have been persuaded that electricity is Iran's only goal by a recent Op Ed piece in the NY Times by Iran's Ambassador to the U.S., Javad Zarif. Jacqueline Shirer, consultant for ABC News, in a Bloggingheads video blog interview with Richard Wright explains why virtually no knowledgeable people believe him. The most persuasive rationale for disbelief is that the Iranian refusal to accept enriched uranium produced in Russia would have been far less costly for them. So their plans to ramp up to 50,000 centrifuges makes no economic sense. The suspicion is that they really desire the weapons grade plutonium that is the byproduct of uranium enrichment. In terms of time, the increase to 3,000 centrifuges would permit the building of two nuclear weapons in one year, not the 10 year timetable that has been widely discussed. That timing was based on a 164 centrifuge program.

Even the Federation of American Scientists, no friend of the U.S. military, concludes:

It is generally believed that Iran's efforts are focused on uranium enrichment, though there are some indications of work on a parallel plutonium effort. Iran claims it is trying to establish a complete nuclear fuel cycle to support a civilian energy program, but this same fuel cycle would be applicable to a nuclear weapons development program. Iran appears to have spread their nuclear activities around a number of sites to reduce the risk of detection or attack.

Given that no western expert is confident that Iran's intentions are purely civilian in nature and that they are open in their desire to wipe Israel off the map of the middle east, what is America to do? Obviously, a diplomatic solution in conjunction with the rest of the world's major powers is the desirable goal. To date, however, I have seen no expert assert a diplomatic plan that seems likely to succeed in the face of Iran's plain spoken intention to achieve major power status itself by joining the club of nuclear nations. It also seems obvious that the treat of military action, as fraught with dangers of effective retaliation in Iraq and at home via suicide agents of Iran, has to be on the table to provide some incentive for the Iranians to negotiate. Currently they are moving ahead on their own timetable with no regard for the concerns of any foreign nation.

In the face of this lack of an effective diplomatic course, it would be absolute dereliction of duty if any White House and Pentagon had not developed contingency planning for military action. Yet here we have the recent spate of outraged journalists, headed by the perpetually outraged Sy Hersh, claiming to have discovered that such planning exists. I am shocked, shocked to discover planning going on here!

In case anyone thinks these recent revelations are actually news, read this recent piece William Arkin's "Early Warning" column in the Washington Post. Arkin points out, not without some signs of a bruised ego, that he has been reporting on such planning for months and he links to his prior articles.

There are only two broad options. Either we can accept a nuclear armed Iraq or they must be stopped. We have not yet come to the point where diplomacy is hopeless and the outcome of military action, both immediate and long term, are not yet unarguably necessary. What is needed is broad debate and creativity to develop an effective multilateral initiative that works to bring Iran's program to a halt while assisting them in verifiably peaceful nuclear development.

Essential for this outcome is a Bush administration capable of listening to broad input from outside its collection of the usual suspects, not something they have shown themselves capable of in the past. Open debate also requires that those outside the administration get beyond their reflexive hatred of anything that emerges from the current White House. This is too serious to play by the recent rules of normal behavior, especially among politicians and the blogosphere, where playing to one's base is the holy road to increased donations, or increased traffic and ad income.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

To The Barricades For Mediocrity

The French government has knuckled under to its young people, who will now be rescued from the horrid existential uncertainty of having to actually perform in their first jobs, or risk being fired if, and only if, their employer can establish that they did something worthy of dismissal.

A new standard employment contract had been proposed that would take away the guarantee of a job regardless of one's ability or performance. The intent of the government was to attempt to deal with an unconscionable youth unemployment rate of 23 - 24%, the result of anti-capitalist protections set up by prior governments.

The irony of a nation's young people using the glorious traditions of revolutionary France to protect themselves from having to deal with anything the least bit precarious in their lives is eloquently displayed by Charles Krauthammer in Time. 1968 this is not.

As Krauthammer points out:

The vibrancy of a society can almost be measured by its precariousness. Free markets correlate not just with prosperity and wealth but also with dynamism. The classic example is China today, an economic and social Wild West with entire classes, regions, families and individuals rising and falling in ways that must terrify today's young demonstrators in Paris. In France not a single enterprise founded in the past 40 years has managed to break into the ranks of the nation's 25 biggest companies.
Clearly Chirac and company have concluded that what they saw as a gathering storm of economic failure is seen by 50 million Frenchmen as a slight shower. France will not alter its ways until abject economic failure and the ire of its companions in the European Union force the French people to finally see the light. Sadly it is only a matter of time until this once great nation is surpassed by the former third world economic powers like India.

The important question will then have to asked, why is France still entitled to sit as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council?

Godfather of Godfathers Caught

The man who the Italian police allege is the "Boss of Bosses" or "Capo di tutti Capi" of the Mafia in Sicily was captured today. His name is Bernardo Provenzano, who is 73, has been sought unsuccessfully for a full 43 years. Of course, the degree of effort put into the "manhunt" is probably questionable. I imagine that the families of the police and prosecutors will not sleep very comfortably for awhile.

But here is the kicker: the man was caught hiding in Corleone. You couldn't credibly write such an ending to this story.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Althouse On McKinney

Ann Althouse has posted a sympathetic review of Rep. Cynthia McKinney's alleged assault of a Capitol police officer. Key quote:

Now, it's quite clear to me that she should have stopped when asked and certainly not hit anyone, but I can understand her being irritable about the subject of not being recognized. There is the well-known problem of white people thinking it is hard to tell black persons apart, and she's entitled to be touchy about that. She says there have been incidents in the past where she has been taken as the assistant to someone much younger than her when that younger person was white and male. I'm not black, but I am female, and I know a little something of the kind of experiences she's had.

Althouse is specifically reacting to McKinney's appearance on Wolf Blitzer's show yesterday. It can be seen here.

Everything Ann Althouse says is true, women, especially black women, are and should be sensitive to dismissive reactions. Nothing, however, gives anyone of any sex or ethnicity, high mucky muck or not, the right to physically strike any perceived offender. It's against the law and it's called assault. As I wrote yesterday, the video tape will be important in resolving McKinney's story.

Althouse's other point is that McKinney is speaking not to the nation, but to her constituency. Also true, but so what? She, like all Congressmen, is virtually safe from serious challenge and she has a track record of saying some of the most extraordinary things to emerge from the mouth of any politician with apparently no recriminations.

Prof. Althouse's final point, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that this incident points out that the present security requirements for entry by members of Congress is woefully inadequate. Their current simple lapel badges can be easily faked. As for face recognition, that can only work if there is no turnover of security staff and of members. New people will always be a problem. Face recognition can also only work if no male member is allowed to add or remove facial hair (not to mention toupees) and no female member is allowed to change her hair style or color. Further, if McKinney's racist assumption about all white people being unable to distinguish one African American from another were true, then such a scheme is doomed to fail.

Despite their lofty position, members of Congress or the Senate should be subject to the same level of security that applies to their staffs, encoded, laminated ID cards, fingerprint readers or retinal scans, whatever is used.

There might have been a time when no one would dare to try to impersonate legislators. After this brouhaha and its exposure of the weaknesses in the system we no longer live in those times.

Meredith Vieira To Replace Couric On Today

According to the Times reporter, Jacques Steinberg, Katie Couric will be signed by CBS to become the anchor for their evening newscast. Bob Sheiffer, who made the CBS program watchable will apparently be kicked back to the corner of the Sunday morning Face the Nation show.

By Labor Day, Couric will be replaced on Today by Meredith Vieira, currently of The View and Who Wants To Be A Millionare's daytime franchise.

Let's hope that Campbell Brown, cohost of the weekend Today show, who is currently on her honeymoon following her wedding last weekend, is somewhere very remote, like Pago Pago, and has taken a vow with her newsman husband to forswear newscasts and papers for the duration. Surely she must have harbored some hope of ascending to Couric's throne.

For me the departure of Couric and her horrible interviewing skills will be a welcome change. All she does is to read the staff-prepared questions, barely listening to the guest's response, and rush on to squeeze all the questions into the miniscule allotted time. The only time she seems to genuinely engage with a guest is when they are a regular joe with a sad story to tell. Then, even when they are accompanied by their lawyer and are publicizing a lawsuit, she becomes all empathy and credulity. No tough followup questions then.

Vieira seems a nice and intelligent person from the few times I've seen her shows. Of course, anyone can quickly wear out their welcome when they magically appear in your bedroom five days a week for two hours. And there is always Imus as an antidote to the treacle often served up on the network morning shows.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Chattering Classes, A Definition

Anne Kornblut has an amusing piece in Sunday's Times about the meaning and origin of the term, "chattering classes". It includes this gem from William Safire:

"Both chattering classes and nattering nabobs of negativism are attacks on critics, usually eggheads," Mr. Safire wrote. He also noted a continuing need "for a phrase that columnists, pundits, commentators and other harangutangs can use to flagellate themselves and one another."

9/11 Transcripts - Almost Too Much To Bear, Again

The NY Times yesterday published the transcripts of a number of calls placed by people in the World Trade Center to the city's 911 Emergency system. Reading these transcripts, which include only the 911 operators' part of the conversations, one could viscerally feel the hopelessness and agony of these civil servants as they tried, to the limits of their training and the system's capabilities, to calm and reassure the no doubt panicking callers.

As with every prior reading or viewing of the events of that day, I was again brought to tears. Although I lost no friends or relatives that day, both my sister and daughter-in-law worked in nearby buildings. The agony of not knowing their whereabouts for hours and the frantic attempts to call anyone who might help in the face of an overwhelmed telephone network come back strongly to me each time. I take the attacks of 9/11 personally. This no doubt colors all my response to terrorism, but I hope that it does not overwhelm my ability to think these issues through.

9/11 also deeply affected most Americans, although it is hard to remember our grieving unity of those post traumatic days in the face of our constant current bickering over the proper ongoing response. It is crucial to take opportunities such as the publication of these transcripts to both learn from the failures and improve emergency response facilities and to remind us all of the threat we have faced and continue to face. It is a miracle that they have not been able to strike us again. Surely they are trying.

The Sopranos - Oh What A Tangled Web

David Chase and company are to be congratulated. They have provided us with yet another season of shows that cannot be missed. In last night's sterling example Tony is now out of his coma, but not yet up to full speed. He is even tolerating the ministrations of a fundamentalist preacher who asserts that the earth was created 6,000 years ago and that dinosaurs and humans lived together, as Tony says, "like the Flintstones."

Paulie has run amok after his "aunt", a nun on her deathbed, revealed that she was really his mother; Johnnie Sack has had it with accommodating Tony and Tony is settling for deals he wouldn't have accepted before the shooting; and Carmella has warned Tony not to trust his own capos, especially Vito, who has shown a continuing interest in Meadow's boyfriend Finn. The plot possibilities are endless. And how about savoring the richness of the mix in Tony's hospital ward. A philosopher-scientist played gloriously by Hal Holbrook, a whining recently wounded rap star and, as the rapper calls Tony, an "old time G", all of them watching a prizefight via badly tuned satellite in a hospital room? Just sit back an enjoy the ride.

Compare the glories of this best of the HBO series with the painfully slow exposition in possibly the best of commercial TV dramas, Lost. Virtually every episode is dragged almost to a stop by the flashbacks. Obviously these are meant to provide background about the shows characters, but writing these distractions keeps the show's writers from doing the heavy lifting of driving forward the story line in this most improbable of mysterious islands. The problem is, the unfolding of the storyline is what this viewer and I suspect many others, crave. The flashbacks are something we must survive, at least until the whole enterprise becomes boring, at which the show will have jumped the proverbial shark.

UCLA vs Florida, The Winner Will Be...

Like 99.99% of NCAA Men's Basketball bracket jockeys, I did not pick UCLA and Florida for the final, to be decided tonight in Indianapolis. The result will, by the way, not be known till an ungodly hour on the East coast, when most of us will have fallen asleep. So who will win?

I am going with UCLA. I think they have a very talented team that has been underrated all along, in large part because of the fact that most of their games didn't begin until 10:00 PM or later in the Eastern centers of sports journalism. Florida, on the other hand, has the celebrity presence of Joakim Noah, son of French tennis star Yannick Noah and some significant scoring talent of it's own.

It should be a great game. Pick 'em and weep.

The Iraqi Insurgency, Realities and Solutions

Steve Walser at Belgravia Dispatch has a lengthy analysis of the current state of the Iraqi insurgency based on a report by the International Crisis Group. He provides a thorough status report the present state of the insurgents, American failures to date, and the necessary steps for success. Well worth reading.

NYU's Denial Of Group's Right To Present Controversial Danish Cartoons

Last Wednesday, a student group at NYU, the Objectivist Society (followers of the philosophy of Ayn Rand) bowed to what they say was pressure from the University Administration and did not display illustrations of the infamous Danish cartoons that set off a furor in the Muslim world. The University required that the group either not use the illustrations in their discussion of the cartoons and the resulting riots, or alternately disinvite any guests from outside the university community, i.e., students or faculty.

Eugene Volkh links today to a lengthy speech by NYU President Joseph Sexton, that appears to have predated the current controversy, in which he makes an eloquent defense of the university's obligation to allow the presentation of challenging or extreme positions. How then can Sexton justify his recent decision as made on anything other than the fear of possible reaction, possibly violent reaction, by offended Muslims. His silence on this matter is deafening. The heckler's veto seems alive and well at NYU.

Blaming The Jews For All Our Troubles

A largely unspoken theme among those who dream of glorious days of American isolation and who would like al Qaeda to just go away is that if we let abandoned Israel as an ally, bin Laden would focus all his ire on them and leave us alone. Now we have this position given academic voice by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Steven Walt of the Kennedy School at Harvard.

The central thesis in their piece, published in the London Review of Books, is that the Israeli Lobby in the United States has become so powerful and entrenched since the Truman Administration, that generations of American presidents have, under their influence, made decisions contrary to our nation's interest, which have provoked retaliation by the terrorists. These authors interest in finding rationales for the presumed evils unleashed by post WWII America can perhaps be guessed if one reads only the titles of their most recent books. Mearsheimer's is The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, and Walt's is Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy.

This nonsense has been admirably refuted by two simultaneous rebuttals by Christopher Hitchens and David Gergen.

Hitchens points out that:

As for the idea that Israel is the root cause of the emergence of al-Qaida: Where have these two gentlemen been? Bin Laden's gang emerged from a whole series of tough and reactionary battles in Central and Eastern Asia, from the war for a separate Muslim state in the Philippines to the fighting in Kashmir, the Uighur territories in China, and of course Afghanistan. There are hardly any Palestinians in its ranks, and its communiques have been notable for how little they say about the Palestinian struggle. Bin Laden does not favor a Palestinian state; he simply regards the whole area of the former British Mandate as a part of the future caliphate. The right of the Palestinians to a state is a just demand in its own right, but anyone who imagines that its emergence would appease —or would have appeased —the forces of jihad is quite simply a fool. Is al-Qaida fomenting civil war in Nigeria or demanding the return of East Timor to Indonesia because its heart bleeds for the West Bank?
Key quote from Gergen:

Over the course of four tours in the White House, I never once saw a decision in the Oval Office to tilt U.S. foreign policy in favor of Israel at the expense of America's interest. Other than Richard Nixon--who occasionally said terrible things about Jews, despite the number on his team--I can't remember any president even talking about an Israeli lobby. Perhaps I have forgotten, but I can remember plenty of conversations about the power of the American gun lobby, environmentalists, evangelicals, small-business owners, and teachers unions.

The one true statement in the Mearsheimer/Walt piece is that, "What is needed is a candid discussion of the Lobby'’s influence and a more open debate about US interests in this vital region." That discussion will, I think, make it clear that, as Gergen says, "Harry Truman recognized Israel in 1948 out of humanitarian concerns and in spite of pressure from Jewish groups, not because of it. Since then, 10 straight American presidents have befriended Israel--not because they were under pressure but because they believed America had made a commitment to Israel's survival, just as we have to other threatened outposts of freedom like Berlin, South Korea, and Taiwan."

New Look For The NY Times Online

The Times introduces its new web look today. In a front page note the editors say the new look presents a, "refreshed look, streamlined navigation, expanded use of video and other multimedia and better ways to see what other readers are looking at, searching for and talking about."

My first impression is that it is a full screen wide, causes difficulty for bloggers who need to have their bookmarks always open on the left side of the screen as we jump around the web for our links. On the plus side, the new page includes a "Most Popular" list of stories with a tab that brings up a list of the "Most Blogged". Clicking on those story links leads to a permalink for the story with links to a selection of the blogs in question. We'll see.

The Dangers Of Reporting In Iraq

In yesterday's Week In Review section of the NY Times the superb John F. Burns, the Times' bureau chief in Baghdad, uses the release of Jill Carroll to reflect on the dangers of reporting in Iraq outside what he describes as, "beyond the world of armed guards, blast walls, checkpoints, sandbags and razor wire that have become de rigueur for all news bureaus in Baghdad."

Burns properly calls our attention to the virtual pact with death that reporters make when seeking to report from this terra incognita. When they do, they usually travel with bodyguards, armored vehicles and translators into pre-scouted territory, which makes the likelihood of this armada encountering anything resembling "real life" in Iraq impossible.

To not take on these precautions like Jill Carroll, who traveled only with a translator and dressed in the head-to-tow abaya of devout Muslim women, risked it all. According to Burns, 65 reporters, 45 of them Iraqi, have died covering the war. Further, in every instance the lives of the translators, drivers, guards who accompany them and are seen as "collaborators" by the insurgents are usually forfeit. Witness Ms. Carroll's translator, Allan Enwiyah, who was executed on the spot by her captors.

Burns recounts how he himself, along with eight others, was captured in Najaf prior to the Americans taking that Shiite holy city during the initial days of the war and was held for several hours before being released.

What do these realities mean for the quality of reporting from Iraq? Clearly it means that we will read reporting based largely on press releases. Press releases from the Coalition Forces, the Iraqi Government and the insurgents. The later, ironically, are often delivered in the form of a bomb, with the facts subsequently confirmed by press releases by the former. Add to this reality the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of TV news programming and the deeply felt anti-war sentiments of a large segment of the journalists and their editors and the results are predictable.

As has been the case throughout this war, the media pretend they are providing full and complete reporting, the public accept that what they see and read reflects the reality on the ground and public support for the enterprise withers. As it will forever on in future wars. No weaker force in the future facing a Western army will neglect the lesson of Iraq and assure that most of their country is unsafe for journalists. Any positive reporting about the progress of a war is now a thing of the past.

The important question is whether consumers of news in Western democracies will learn that reporting is not reality. We have not yet done so.

Now that we have learned that governments are not to be trusted in their almost universally positive spin on events and that our enemies have learned how to control the flow of negative spin, how does a citizen unearth to find the truth?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Cynthia McKinney - Who's The Racist? - Let's Go To The Videotape

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's story is that the Capitol Police person who stopped her as she attempted bypass a metal detector while entering a House office building was a racist who deserved what he or she got because they should have recognized her as a Member of Congress. Here is part of the report from the Times:

The encounter took place at a checkpoint to a building across Independence Avenue from the Capitol. According to accounts by police officers and Congressional officials, Ms. McKinney went around one of the metal detectors that are at the entrances and staffed by the police. The officer reportedly told her to stop, and when she did not he apparently tried to stop her, provoking a physical response from Ms. McKinney. Members of Congress are allowed to sidestep the metal detectors.

Ms. McKinney, a lawmaker known for provocative statements, acknowledged that she had not been wearing the lapel pin that would have identified her as a member of Congress. But she said the police responsible for protecting lawmakers should recognize them on sight.

Here is Congresswoman McKinney herself:

"Let me be clear," Ms. McKinney said, surrounded by supporters at the historically black university. "This whole incident was instigated by the inappropriate touching and stopping of me, a female black congresswoman. I deeply regret this incident occurred, and I am certain that after a full review of the facts, I will be exonerated."
Her lawyers and other supporters go on to declare that she was harassed solely because she is a black woman who holds progressive political views.

What a crock of shit.

It seems clear to me that what happened is that Congresswoman McKinney was hurrying into the building wearing no ID, was not recognized by the cop, who appropriately stopped her. She took offence and slapped the officer. The identity of the officer has not been released, but I'd be willing to bet my house that he or she is white. So what we really have is that Ms. McKinney saw a white face who had the temerity to not recognize her, assumed their motivation was racist (as she may view all the behavior of whites) got angry and struck out. It seems to me that seeing evil motivation behind every white face one encounters is plainly racist.

By the way, a Congressional office building must be one of the most heavily secured buildings in D.C. and must be lousy with video cameras. Let's see the video tape. Did the officer behave appropriately or not. Was Ms. McKinney rationally responding to harassment or irrationally acting out of her beliefs and the probable stress of her busy day?

Lastly, does she now propose that a requirement of employment of all Capitol police should be the ability to recognize on sight members of Congress, with either physical punishment or other sanctions for failures? If I were a terrorist I'd be looking to recruit the finest makeup artists in the world to provide me with Congressional lookalikes I could strap a bomb vest on.