September 28, 2007

Does It Really Matter?

How much does it really matter if the next President is Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, or someone else? Realistically, the following things are going to happen no matter who sits in the Oval Office:

We're still going to have troops in the Persian Gulf region, with high tensions brewing with Iran and continued unrest, civil disorder, and outbreaks of violence in Iraq.

Israel will continue to be our catspaw in the region and because of the religious tensions involved, will continue to be the locus of hatred and political agitation within the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Russia will continue its degenration from fledgling democracy into a quasi-autocracy, while also continuing to lurch forward on an economic modernization program that will be, at best, only half-successful.

Nothing will be done to challege the economic growth of China and India as industrial and high-tech competitors against the United States and the EU.

The dollar will remain weak against the Euro and strong against the yuan.

Taxes will not be reduced or raised in any significant way.

Some kind of incremental health care reform is going to slowly work its way through Congress and once it takes effect the only real change in the government's functions will be increased spending and there will be no substantial improvement in either the quality or quantity of healthcare dispensed in the US.

Muslim terrorists will continue to try to blow things up that will hurt or offend us greatly, and we will have to take pro-active action to prevent those things from happening.

Immigration reform will continue to fail and whatever problems currently exist with immigration will persist and probably increase.

Our roads and highways will continue to deteriorate. More people will continue to die on those roads and highways every month than do every year in overseas military operations, and no one will care.

Kids will continue to graduate from high school barely able to read and locate their own country on a world map, but they will continue to have the lyrics to rap music songs memorized on or before the release dates of the albums. At the same time, our universities will continue to graduate some of the best-educated people on the planet and international student exchanges will continue to be the best method available to us of attracting the best and the brightest from around the world to come to our land and work to make us prosperous.

The stock market will continue to climb, with occasional market corrections. The real estate market will stagnate for about a year and then begin to climb again. Low levels of inflation will occur. The national debt will continue to increase unabated. Some businesses will make money, some businesses will fail.

There will very likely not be any kind of miraculous technological breakthrough that makes energy cheap and plentiful. There will be no meaningful progress made on global warming nor any effective action taken to protect the environment from this or any other of the depradations of global industrialization. Species of animals and plants will continue to go extinct, but probably not the cute fuzzy ones.

Incremental improvements in technology, particularly in the areas of consumer electronics, information transmittal, and biotechnology, will continue and the level of material comforts and conveniences will rise. Little of this will make any of us any happier, although those fortuante enough to sample these technological miracles will probably experience increased levels of pleasure.

There will be natural disasters, and the government's response to them will be sharply criticized regardless of how effective the response may be.

Despite well-intentioned efforts to make a meaningful difference, racial and gender equality will not be achieved by 2016. Even if the President is a woman.

The Supreme Court will not overturn Roe v. Wade; it will, however, continue to carve away the focus of those rights at the margins. No one will actually come to take away your guns, unless you're convicted of a felony.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Fish Wrapper will continue to be dominated by liberal writers and editors seemingly out of step with the ideas and world views of mainstream America, as will the holders of most administrative and prestigious academic positions at most of the major universities and colleges around the country. The Fox News Channel will continue to be praised as the paragon of "fair and balanced" reporting, but only by people who self-identify as "conservative" to "very conservative" and who are more likely to vote Republican than the average resident of Utah -- or the average registered Republican.

We will continue, inconclusively, our debate about balancing civil liberties and protecting our national security. Almost no one will be happy with whatever equilibrium is reached in that discussion and very few people will ever understand that this debate is not a zero-sum game.

Sprawl in suburbs and exurbs surrounding our major cities will continue.

People will be born, go to school, fall in love, get married, have sex, have children, grow old, and die. (Not all the same person at the same time, of course.) All of this will occur at rates that we can demographically predict right now with reasonably high degrees of accuracy (except the falling in love part; we'll just have to take their word for it there).

As a practical matter, the identity of the President will have very little effect on any of this. So why do we care so much about who that person will be?

It Really All Comes Down To This

You can see more cartoons like this here.

Atheist Charities

In an ongoing discussion about the role of religion in American life, Dr. Richard Land, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, asked: "Where are the great atheist-sponsored charitable and reform movements? Where are the atheist children homes and orphanages? Where are the atheist leaders who are taking vows of poverty and giving themselves in sacrificial service to others?"

Well, for starters...

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Here.

Although, in fairness, I must admit that an atheist, even a charitable one, would probably not feel any need to take a vow of poverty. But then again, I doubt that Dr. Land has taken such a vow himself; that might tend to get in the way of receiving tithes.

Small, Small Claims Indeed

I confess: I sort of lost my cool judicial demeanor yesterday serving as a pro tem in small claims court, this time right here in the Antelope Valley. After hearing all sorts of discussion between two people who just plain didn't like each other, I told them that I was astonished that adults could not have resolved this dispute on their own, and that "your case today is, if you'll forgive me an indulgence in a Shakespeare paraphrase, full of sound and fury, yet it signifies very, very little." My net award was under a hundred dollars.

I also had to consider the significance of an agreement of the parties in one of my cases to submit their dispute to the Judge Judy show. No, I'm not making this stuff up. (It's an arbitration agreement, by the way, and if I'd seen a copy of it with the opposing party's signature on it, I'd have kicked the suit out of court.)

Finally, I got a case with a trilingual argument -- a real estate sale between a Turkish-speaker and a Spanish-speaker. It was slow going and it was not assisted by the fact that the seller's real estate agent skipped the hearing and the buyer's agent had apparently never read the escrow instructions and was unfamiliar with the basic language of a standard residential real estate purchase contract. I wonder sometimes what value it is that some of these agents bring to their clients. In my own purchase, I was very pleased with the work and help my agent brought to The Wife and I; he was knowledgeable, pro-active in getting paperwork and behind-the-scenes arrangements lined up, and gave us good negotiating advice.

The courtroom staff seems to like me, though; both the baliff and the clerk told me they thought I made good rulings and were impressed with my patience with the parties, and the court reporter is pleased that I keep only one person talking at a time.

Cashier's Check

Today is the day for closing escrow on Soffit House. The Wife and I needed to produce $8,600 in the form of a cashier's check to close on our house. So yesterday, I went to Wells Fargo to have that check drawn up, and was told by the perky 19-year-old teller that a cashier's check was for amount in excess of $10,000, and that she could give me an official check instead which would be just as good.

No, I said, it isn't the same thing. Patiently, I explained the taxonomy of commercial paper to her. A cashier's check is an instrument for which both the drawee and the drawer are the same party (in this case, Wells Fargo), and therefore is payable upon presentment. An official check is guaranteed by the bank, but it is not payable upon presentment as it is subject to Federal Reserve Regulation CC. (Well, okay, maybe I didn't feel very patient inside as I explained this, but I did try to be polite while explaining myself.)

No, sir, the teller said, at Wells Fargo, the cashier's check is for $10,000 and the official check is for less than that amount. Would you like to confirm that with my manager? Sure, of course you would.

Amazingly enough, the manager did confirm the teller's statement and would not authorize issuance of a cashier's check in the amount of $8,600. Perhaps she believed something she read on the internet. Needing to get back to court rather than continuing the argument, I took the official check, and the manager's card, and told her to expect a call from my escrow officer about the exact nature of the instrument that Wells Fargo had just sold me and whether it qualified for escrow.

Wells Fargo. The only stagecoach that robs you.

Ten Hand Gestures You'd Better Get Right

A quick guide, with handy illustrations. Particularly amusing for the picture of Jenna Bush showing the "devil horns" to her dad.

September 26, 2007

A Thought On Ontology

Sometimes, one theory is better than another. Having overheard a conservation today at lunch about how evolution is “just a theory,” and trying my best to not jump out of my chair and bitch-slap the participants, I take this opportunity to vent here. After all, what’s a blog for if not that?

If you asked me, “TL, how did you come to be,” I’d answer that I was the product of a sexual union between my father and my mother, which resulted in a pregnancy. There is no tangible evidence I can point to in order to corroborate this theory (other than my own physical existence, which is tautological evidence). Since I can’t find any tangible evidence that corroborates the theory, and the only other witnesses to the event (my parents) can only provide testimony with no tangible evidence they can point to, this theory is doomed to remain just that – a theory.

Indeed, if the events underlying the theory were to be re-created, identical results would most definitely not recur (even though my parents would probably have a lot of fun trying). Even if they were to have attempted to re-create those events during their childbearing years, we can all be very, very certain that someone other than me (or, perhaps more accurately, someone who was a clone of me) would result. So this theory has not only been posited in the absence of any tangible evidence supporting it, the theory is scientifically untestable and unverifiable in any objective sense.

And, if you think about it, sexual reproduction is an astonishingly counter-intuitive way for a member of the species to reproduce. It necessarily involves the dilution of that individual’s genes and it provides little tangible benefit other than a few moment’s pleasure to the male – and to the female, the few moment’s pleasure (sometimes) is followed by months of physical inconvenience and distress. It carries the risk of communicating diseases and of killing the mother during pregnancy or childbirth, absent the use of powerful scientific techniques, developed over hundreds of years of experience, to mitigate those risks. The sexual organs of homo sapiens are particularly vulnerable to both physical injury and a panoply of diseases. Really, if you were God (which would mean I would have to capitalize the second-person pronoun) and You were designing humans from scratch, is sex the mechanism You would have picked? Really?

So the theory lacks tangible evidence, is based strictly on the unverifiable testimony of a very small number of purported participant/eyewitnesses, and cannot be reproduced under even the most ideal laboratory conditions imaginable.

But no one sane suggests that because of this, the “stork theory” of existence deserves to be taught as the intellectual and scientific equivalent of the “sexual reproduction” theory. The idea that I came into existence as the result of sexual reproduction is, however flawed a theory it might be, nevertheless so overwhelmingly likely to be correct that it can be treated as the equivalent of fact. And, the “stork theory” is so overwhelmingly improbable, and so unhelpful an explanation, as to be properly disregarded completely.

No one would seriously suggest that the “flat earth” model of cosmology be an equally valid model of astrophysics as compared to “conventional” celestial mechanics.

So why does creationism (or its thinly-veiled clone, intelligent design) deserve to be taught side-by-side with evolution? It doesn’t. It’s not science, and it’s not even science fiction. It’s just plain fiction. And saying evolution is “just a theory” doesn’t bring evolution down to the level of being equivalent to the creation myth of a tribe of bronze age nomads.

(UPDATE: To clarify, what made me upset about the conversation was not that the people were ignorant of evolution, it was that they were willfully so, and wanted public schools to teach religion as an equivalent alternative to real science.)

September 25, 2007

Iran, Islam, and Human Rights

Yesterday I wrote (and today I updated) about some of the terrible things the government of Iran does to its people. Iran has an unusual governmental structure. Formally, the government is called the "Islamic Republic of Iran" and much (although not all) of its law is taken directly from the Koran. The power-sharing relationship within the government is very complex, as described by the CIA:

chief of state: Supreme Leader Ali Hoseini-KHAMENEI (since 4 June 1989)
head of government: President Mahmud AHMADI-NEJAD (since 3 August 2005); First Vice President Parviz DAVUDI (since 11 September 2005)
cabinet: Council of Ministers selected by the president with legislative approval; the Supreme Leader has some control over appointments to the more sensitive ministries

note:
also considered part of the Executive branch of government are three oversight bodies: 1) Assembly of Experts, a popularly elected body of 86 religious scholars constitutionally charged with determining the succession of the Supreme Leader - based on his qualifications in the field of jurisprudence and commitment to the principles of the revolution, reviewing his performance, and deposing him if deemed necessary; 2) Expediency Council or the Council for the Discernment of Expediency, is a policy advisory and implementation board consisting of permanent members, who number over 40 and represent all major government factions and include the heads of the three branches of government, and the clerical members of the Council of Guardians (see next); permanent members are appointed by the Supreme Leader for five-year terms; temporary members, including Cabinet members and Majles committee chairmen, are selected when issues under their jurisdiction come before the Expediency Council; the Expediency Council exerts supervisory authority over the executive, judicial, and legislative branches and resolves legislative issues on which the Majles and the Council of Guardians disagree and since 1989 has been used to advise national religious leaders on matters of national policy; in 2005 the Council's powers were expanded, at least on paper, to act as a supervisory body for the government; 3) Council of Guardians of the Constitution or Council of Guardians or Guardians Council is a 12-member board made up of six clerics chosen by the Supreme Leader and six jurists selected by the Majles from a list of candidates recommended by the judiciary (which in turn is controlled by the Supreme Leader) for six-year terms; this Council determines whether proposed legislation is both constitutional and faithful to Islamic law, vets candidates for suitability, and supervises national elections.

Supreme Leader appointed for life by the Assembly of Experts; Assembly of Experts elected by popular vote for an eight-year term; last election held 15 December 2006 concurrently with municipal elections; president elected by popular vote for a four-year term (eligible for a second term and third nonconsecutive term); last held 17 June 2005 with a two-candidate runoff on 24 June 2005 (next presidential election slated for 2009)

The Majles is the unicameral parliament (the word apparently translates to "consultive assembly"), a 290-seat body dominated by religious conservatives.

Most importantly, the Council of Guardians screens out candidates from eligibility for election, so most of the "moderates," secularists, and other politicians who would take positions disagreeable to the ruling elite are never on the ballot in the first place.

So what you have in Iran is a hybrid -- day-to-day government and most civil matters are handled by a popular, indirect democracy, which has some substantial internal checks and balances and while it may not be friendly to the U.S. or the west generally, we can't really complain that the form of the government is not republican in structure or disenfranchising to the average Iranian, who seems to have as much power over this civil government as do westerners over theirs. Elections to the parliament and presidency seem to be not any more rigged than elections in any other country and in the past, presidents have been elected who did not please the Supreme Leader. There is substantial criticism within Iran of the government and its leaders and the policies it pursues, at least with respect to Iran's economy. This is all for the good.

But sitting atop this is a self-appointing Muslim theocracy that controls who has access to the civil government and the ability to re-write anything the civil government does. And when the criticism of the government becomes too pointed, the journalist or academic who is behind the criticism is often hauled off to some dungeon somewhere and tortured.

While the religious arm of the government looks like it is under indirect popular control, in practice, the Council of Experts is a self-appointing body of clerics and the Council of Guardians are a self-appointing body of military leaders. Remember, it was the creation of a revolutionary military force, allied with the clerics, that set the 1979 revolution in motion and overthrew the Shah of Persia in the first place.

And then you have the basiji, the paramilitary force that serves as "morals police" who occupy an informal position within the civil government and seem to be controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, the successors to those revolutionaries who carried the guns that displaced the Shah's government. The many hands-on human rights abuses in Iran seem to be perpetrated by basiji and not the civil government, which turns a blind eye to the activities of this thought police.

So, it's an ambiguous situation. There is democracy and criticism of the government. Just not too much of it that the real and ultimate control of the government by the military and religious elites is ever actually threatened. On the books, it seems like a reasonably progressive and open society.

But the reality on the ground is quite different. In public, at least, women wear robes that conceal their body and many of them wear veils. Religious police discourage public displays of affection between men and women, and as I linked yesterday, women who publicly show themselves as anything but asexual servants of their men can pay for that mistake with their lives. "Honor killings" are a hallmark of rural life. Critics of the government risk their liberty and torture, and possibly death. So do gays.

Apologists for Islam beg to point out that the regulations of women's public behavior, honor killings, and the rest of these things are contrary to certain provisions of Shari'a law, point to passages of the Koran that seem to urge humane treatment of others, and finally resort to foisting the blame for such appalling behavior on local culture rather than on religion. Such behavior is unknown in some Muslim countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance. They also point out that treatment of women in non-Muslim cultures can be bad -- some African cultures still practice female circumcision, for instance, and the Hindu custom of sati seems horrific to outsiders.

But I notice that the bulk of the torture, persecution, and killings based on personal attributes seem to be more or less exclusive to countries that are Muslim. And while such things have happened in non-Muslim countries, it does seem to happen only within Muslim immigrant communities there (there have been stories of such incidents in Italy, Brazil, and France). The kind of persecution faced by gays in the United States pales in comparison with what gays go through in Iran or Pakistan; here, if a gay man is killed for being gay, the authorities will prosecute the perpetrators of that act for committing murder. Elsewhere in the world, the killers would be quietly celebrated as guardians of the community's moral uprightness.

In short, if you're concerned about human rights, and in particular freedom from state-sponsored violence resulting from one's personal choices, you would not want to be in a Muslim nation. You would prefer to be in a secular Western democracy.

My big question is whether Islam is unique in this regard. Fanatic Muslim fundamentalists have been permitted to seize absolute power in many parts of the world, and this is the awful result. The idea of a Christian nation treating its people this way seems odd -- but maybe it isn't. The Inquisition executed witches until 1782 and heretics until the middle of the nineteenth century. Sodomy was punishable by death in Puritan England and in colonial Massachusetts Bay. Just a few years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention urged women to adopt subordinate roles and to defer to their husbands as part of their Christian duties. It would not take long to comb through the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, to find all sorts of passages that offer a religious justification for human rights abuses not dissimilar to what we see in Iran (if only the persecutors were to be of the right religion, of course).

So it's not as though Christianity is substantially tolerant by comparison, either inherently within its doctrines or practically as seen through history. I would suggest that the brakes put on the mostly Christian cultures of the West, which prevent these kinds of awful behaviors, is secularism. For westerners, secular ideas of human rights, secular ideas of equality, secular ideas of tolerance, are ingrained in our culture and written into our foundational laws. The reason Muslim countries present us with such uniformly horrible pictures of the treatment of people who aren't "normal" (meaning they are not heterosexual Muslim males) is because these nations have either discarded or never had the kinds of governmental restraints imposed by enlightenment secular philosophy.

Generally, to the extent that such restraints existed in the first place, they came about as part of the colonial governments that had conquered them in the past (Britian, France, and Portugal in the historical past and Britain, the USSR, and the USA in the twentieth century) and have been eschewed in favor of the reliance on Shari'a law. But religious law is intolerant, cruel, and unforgiving, and without the moderating check of secular government, this is what it produces. I decline to compare and weigh the relative horrors of life under the Spanish Inquisition as opposed to life under the thumb of Iran's Supreme Leader. Instead, I point out that those kinds of horrors are rare and punished severely by secular Western governments.

September 24, 2007

Not Just A Pack Of Lies...

But some laughably bad ones, at that. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke today at Columbia University in New York, having previously been denied permission to go to Ground Zero and lay a wreath there, ostensibly to pay respect to the victims of the attacks on September 11. That was probably a good call, at least from a security perspective – it’s quite likely that someone would have taken a potshot at the guy, which would have been an unmitigated disaster. And frankly, I feel good about it happening, anyway.

Lee Bollinger, the President of Columbia University, introduced Ahmadinejad by saying that he "exhibit[s] all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." Yet however correct those comments might be (that would be “very”), Bollinger nevertheless gave Ahmadinejad a forum at his campus anyway. This seems very odd to me. Would Bollinger have done the same for Augusto Pinochet? I rather doubt it.

Now, okay, I know that the U.S. ought not to deny a travel visa for foreign diplomats and other officials traveling to New York on official United Nations business; it defeats the point of having a forum like the U.N. unless it is open to all comers. I also know that there have been no direct links between 9/11 and Iran – although there are some indirect ones. And finally, I know that we cannot hope to engage, contain, transform, or otherwise achieve any kind of foreign policy success with Iran unless we have some kind of dialogue with that nation, on some level.

But bear in mind the legal principles, oft repeated at trials throughout this nation of ours, that “Failure to explain or to deny unfavorable evidence may suggest that the evidence is true,” and that “When a witness is willfully false in one are of his testimony, the other areas of his testimony are to be looked at with skepticism.” Now, among the remarks made by President Ahmadinejad at Columbia were:

1. "Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom." (Really? Tell that to this girl. She's being half-buried alive, in order to prevent her from running away while the men of her village stone her to death for going out on a date. She would not need access to an abortion should she have become pregnant -- she would need a forged passport and travel visa to escape her country in order to survive.)

2. "Over and over again the [IAEA's] reports indicate that Iran's activities are peaceful, that they have not detected a deviation." (Really? Read the IAEA's report on September 17, 2007, on Iran's nuclear program. Highlights include: "Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, and is continuing with its construction of the heavy water reactor at Arak." and "the Agency so far has been unable to verify certain important aspects relevant to the scope and nature of Iran's nuclear programme." The Iranian government said that it needs to make heavy water, not for breeder reactors that will produce weapons-grade plutonium, but rather because heavy water cures cancer and AIDS.)

3. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country." (This last remark earned both lengthy guffaws and sustained boos from the audience at Columbia. Too much even for that crowd, I guess.) (LATE LINK ADD: The statement that there are no gay people in Iran is laughable, but the way Iran treats gay people is not. Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

4. When the President of the University asked, "Why is your government providing aid to terrorists? Will you stop doing so and permit international monitoring to certify that you have stopped?", Ahmadinejad did not answer the question but instead implied that the U.S. does the same sort of thing.

Ahmadinejad is a Persian blend of David Duke and Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the former Information Minister of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He denies that the Holocaust took place, and questions the academic freedom of people who are criticized for doing the same in the West. Never mind the hundreds of thousands of pages of meticulous records kept by the Nazis of the millions of Jews (and others) they exterminated. And never mind that academic freedom is a pipe dream in Iran, where academics critical of the government, the mullahs who really lead it, Islam or Shari’a law, or Ahmadinejad himself, are routinely jailed and tortured indefinitely.

Another reason I feel good about Ahmadinejad not going to Ground Zero is that Iran is the guiltiest of all parties in the Middle East and Central Asia of fomenting hatred towards the United States, as a means of consolidating the internal political power of the ruling autocracy. Even if Iran had nothing whatsoever to do with the events of that day, Iran did and continues to have a lot to do with hurting the U.S. Ahmadinejad, in particular, is not an ambassador of peace or reconciliation – he proposes wiping our staunchest ally in the world off the map and remains likely to have had a history as one of the pistol-men involved in the holding of U.S. Embassy personnel hostage in 1979 and 1980.

No good would have come of letting Ahmadinejad in to Ground Zero, and he would have netted himself valuable political cover for denying Iran’s well-documented complicity in sponsoring terrorism by crying his crocodile tears over what has become the most expensive construction site in American history.

He and the rest of the world should, however, marvel that we permit such a man to be here and to tolerate his spleen-venting as we do. Would similar tolerance be exhibited to someone traveling to Tehran or Qon and directing such criticism at the Republic of Iran? Laughable. Yet it is not even a close question that we should tolerate him here – such tolerance is a source of strength, not of weakness, for a country as great as ours.

After all, by letting him take the stage in this fashion, we Americans have now allowed him to reveal himself for what he is – an insecure, ill-informed, ignorant bigot who suffers from an extreme veracity deficiency in his public speech, and a man who should not be trusted with control of a military armed with pointy sticks, much less nuclear weapons.

September 21, 2007

Cocktails

Cocktails are good sometimes. Not often, but a combination of bitter and cold enhances the taste of alcohol. Cocktails should not be sweet. They can have sweet elements -- tonic water, for instance, is mildly sweet, but it is more tangy and bitter than sweet. Limes have sweetness, but they are more tart than sweet.

Cocktails are for grownups. They aren't kid drinks, precisely because they aren't sweet. A candy-apple red martini is not a cocktail. It's alcoholic, to be sure, but that's not a cocktail. Calling it a "drink" is probably the most diplomatic label for such a concoction; "girl drink" is more like it. Enjoy such sweet girl drinks if you wish, but don't expect to get a lot of respect from me for knocking back a choco-tini and then giggling about how you feel tipsy.

Men, learn how to drink something suitable for grownups. About the sweetest thing a (heterosexual) man should ever drink is a margarita.

Everyone who indulges in a drink from time to time should pick a cocktail that they like, so that they always have a fallback. An adult should never have to peruse a "cocktail menu" to decide between the Midori Melon-Strawberry Martini and the Blue Razzelberry/Pineapple Delight is the right drink for the night.

There are about twenty kinds of cocktails out there. You can get a tonic (gin or vodka), a collins (gin or vodka), a martini (gin or vodka), a juice-and-booze combination, and various kinds of whiskey with (or without) water or ice. Try them out, find one you like, and that's your drink. When you go out with friends, you shouldn't have to think too hard about ordering a cocktail; you should already know what you want, order it, and be done with it.

Go Hunting Where The Ducks Are

Just a question, for those who pay attention to politics: should the Republicans court the African-American vote? They are unlikely to get much success. But is it worth it to do anyway?

Another Take On The Greatest Story Ever Told

Margaret George wrote a novel based on the legends of the Trojan War, from the first-person perspective of Helen, last year. I just finished it. It was an interesting and ambitious take on a subject that was probably quite challenging to research and bring to life.

The young Helen was very difficult for me to relate to. The adolescent Helen, the subject of the competition between all the Greeks vying for the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world, would have been an interesting study in psychology, but not an inspiration for empathy. A lot of the early parts of the book were Helen talking about her feelings, which was uninteresting and left Helen seeming unsympathetic and cold.

I felt the most empathy for Menelaus, Helen's cuckolded first husband, who seemed to have done nothing wrong at all, other than failing to inspire passion in his wife. Even at the last day of the war, when he popped out of the horse and found his wife in the city, he didn't do anything really bad to her but yell at her for what she had done. Menelaus' only real fault was that he did not want to stand up to his belligerent brother Agamemnon and therefore spent most of his life in Agamemnon's shadow, both politically and personally. (Yes, he fooled around with a slave girl before he knew what was up with Paris, but then again, Helen fooled around with Paris before she learned about the slave girl, so there seems to be some equivalency there.)

Helen's sudden romance with Paris, at least while they were in Sparta, really did not ring true. Paris was sixteen and Helen a twenty-four year old mother of a five-year-old girl. Certainly, people do foolish and sometimes terrible things because of love, so I suppose I could get over her running away from her daughter. But, once Helen fled Sparta and got on the boat to Troy, both she and Paris came into their own as characters, and the reasons for Helen's affection for the handsome boy became much easier to see. The romance started to seem more real and the story started to be more interesting.

Particularly in light of what happened later, Helen deciding to run away with Paris has to rank as one of the most colossally bad ideas -- ever.

Also off-putting, at least to me, was the treatment of the Olympian Gods. The author chose to portray them as real, and interactive with the characters, although only sporadically so. She did a good job of suggesting that the gods were engaged in struggles and activities of their own, and interacted with the affairs of men only when it suited their purposes to do so. But at the same time, the intervention of the gods into the story made it less credible and less human in its exploration of why people did the things they did. In part, though, the story may be an accurate reflection of the attitudes of the day -- I should remember that the ancients did not always think the same way that we moderns do about things like the sanctity of life, the flow of fate, free will, or the value of individual happiness.

Things really got going after the Greeks landed and the war started. At this point, the story shifted away from Helen and her feelings and turned more towards the development of political and military events, taken from the legends. I learned more about the legends of the Trojan War, too -- the most famous events are those in the Iliad, but I hadn't been aware, for instance, that Achilles had a son who fought in the war, or of the five prophecies that foretold the end of Troy. Nor was I aware that Helen had a third husband -- Paris' older brother, whom she did not love but whom she married so that he would take over leadership of the defense after Paris' death.

The final days of the war, when the siege had taken its greatest toll on the city and the Greeks withdrew before playing the ruse of the Trojan Horse -- as well as the bloody sacking of the city -- were very well-done. But what has never rung true, in any telling of the story I have ever heard and in this novel, too, was the story of the Trojans taking the horse into the city. It seems such an obvious ruse; it seems too clear a trick to infiltrate enemy soldiers into the city; there were too many people (not just Cassandra but undoubtedly Helen herself) who warned of the obvious deception.

The story was most touching when it portrayed Helen reconciling with her family back in Sparta after the sack of Troy. A part of the legend that gets glossed over is what happened to the rest of the Greeks, not just Odysseus, after the storm broke the return fleet up. Menelaus' ship, with Helen and some of the other Spartans, drifted to Egypt, where they were held captive for seven years until their ransom could be arranged by Helen's father. Menelaus seemed to be gentle and kind to Helen at this time, and she reciprocated his tentative affections. It must have helped that Menelaus had been badly wounded during the war and was no longer able to exercise his "prerogative" as Helen's husband, so that was no longer an issue between them. But all the same it was a nice touch at the end of the book to see them become friends again and to see them display some true affection for one another.

Historians have no real idea whether the Trojan War, or anything like it, really happened. They are pretty sure that there was a prosperous and powerful city of Troy, and that it was sacked and rebuilt many times. It seems more likely, though, that the city would have been sacked by the Hittites rather than the Greeks. And the legends surrounding whatever historical events really did happen have obviously grown so distorted over the years that by Homer's day half the characters of the story were demigods.

Margaret George's novel is not her best (that seems to be Henry VIII, which was gripping and delicious from cover to cover) and it drags in some spots. When it's good, it's quite good, and for that reason it's worth your time. Like any novelist would, she had to make some choices about how to tell the story and may have compromised the integrity of the story in places from what you may have learned of it elsewhere. It's hard to say that she deviated from "history," because it's impossible to say what "history" really was.

But it's a good story all the same. There are so many elements of the story that are timeless: love and passion, betrayal and fear, individual achievement, nationalism, sacrifice, keeping and breaking promises, deception, youth and age, piety, bravery, rage, jealousy, pride, mischief, nobility, wisdom and folly. It is no wonder that, whether they are real or not, the story has become immortal and so have the names of Helen, Paris, Agamemnon, Hector, Achilles, Odysseus, and Cassandra.

The Trojan War is truly the greatest story ever told.

School on Saturday

I can't believe that Rudy Giuliani took a phone call from his wife in the middle of a speech -- a speech to the NRA, to boot. Judy Giuliani would not be the first First Lady to misbehave and cause her husband some measure of embarrassment, but this one is on Hizzonner, not Hizzwife.

Good Judging, Bad Judging

Another day sitting in small claims court.  Payment disputes, mostly – lots of contractors and payday lenders, as well as a chiropractor.  Some procedural irregularities that had to get cleared up.  And a few civil cases, including a trial readiness conference, thrown in just so I would have the pleasure of talking to some other lawyers.  I wasn’t as sure, this time, that I made the right rulings in all my small claims cases.  In retrospect, I would have denied a motion that I granted and not taken a “split-the-baby” approach; and I had to cut one case short – but while I feel bad about not letting the people talk through their cases, it would have gone on without end and to no point, so you’ve got to put an end to it sometime.  And I wish I had the creativity of this judge.  Maybe that sort of thing comes with experience, which I don’t have much of yet.

Blue Ribbon Night

When The Wife suggested I join Toastmasters, I decided that if I'm going to join it, I may as well really do it and give it a good effort. So that's what I've done; I've given three speeches now and been to most of the meetings. For my three speeches, I've won two blue "Best Speaker" ribbons, which is pleasing. The second ribbon came last night for my speech, "I'm The Decider," in which I drew on my experience as a temporary judge to describe five techniques for presenting a case well in small claims court.

For the record, the five techniques are:

1. Know the Issue -- understand what it is that's being disputed so you can focus your case on what matters;
2. Understand Relevance -- figure out what you're going to say and whether it helps, hurts, or does not affect the ultimate issue of the case;
3. Practice "Succinctitude" -- don't offer a lot of irrelevant information and instead keep your focus on the dispute;
4. Answer Questions -- if the person making the decision asks you a question, it's because he wants to know the answer to help decide; so listen to the question and answer the question you've been asked (and not some other question);
5. Have Evidence -- you can't expect to win a "my word against the other guy's" contest; have some other kind of evidence that backs up what you have to say. Oh, and if you have evidence, bring it with you to court, because it doesn't do you any good at home.

I had made an effort to keep my body language and movement around the stage under control, and I guess I did, because the only critical feedback I received was for not being animated. But I know I made effective use of my visual aids, and my timing worked out very well. I was also surprised at how light the speech came out; I got more laughs, and laughs from more people, than the "humorous" speech for the night (which I'd heard before and hadn't got that much funnier with practice because the speaker is both not very funny and doesn't understand the setup-punchline rhythm of a joke). So I felt confident that the speech was going to be a strong one after it was done.

Now, today I'm going to sit in small claims court in Santa Clarita. Hopefully my litigants this morning follow my suggestions themselves.

God Answers

I wrote Tuesday about Chambers v. God, the decidedly strange lawsuit in Nebraska offered as what seems at best a misguided protest to another ill-conceived lawsuit. But now it gets sillier -- not one but two people have filed answers. One came from a law office in Corpus Christi (of course) and the other, according to the court clerk, "miraculously appeared on the counter" (suggesting that the clerk wrote it himself). It's not clear which one will be accepted by the court. At least one of the briefs, following the holding of U.S. ex rel. Mayo v. Satan, challenges the jurisdiction of the court.

Okay, stop it, folks. This is getting silly. Now, nobody likes a good laugh more than I do. Except perhaps my wife and some of her friends.

September 20, 2007

A Profile In Courage

Here’s something you don’t see every day.  A politician, confronted with an issue upon which he has made popular statements, engages in some introspection and moral contemplation and then announces to the world that he was wrong and that he’s going to do what he now thinks is right, damn the consequences.  Jerry Sanders has endured quite a bit of criticism since he took office as Mayor of San Diego, but he should get high praise for this – whether you agree with his stance on the political issue or not – because he’s willing to take what will certainly be a firestorm of political heat based on a considered understanding of the moral consequences of an uncomfortable decision thrust upon him.

You Want Fries With That?

Only recently did I have the misguided fortitude to take on the 3 X 3 burger at In-N-Out.  It was quite enough food all by itself.  They do quad burgers, too – four patties, four slices of cheese.  There are variants, like the 2 X 4 (two patties, four cheese slices) and other off-the-menu possibilities like the famous “Animal Style” in which the burger is cooked in mustard and served with extra pickles and thousand island dressing.  But nothing can ever top the disgusting mass of this hundred-dollar masterpiece of American gluttony:  the Century burger, a 100 X 100.

Snack Foods

The winner of the weekly poll is chocolate, followed closely by french fries, for the Loyal Readership's favorite snack food.

You're Not Special

If you're going to have a pickup truck that is the size of a 767, don't expect sympathy when you can't find a parking space. You still should only get one spot, just like the rest of us.

September 18, 2007

It Came Out Of The Sky... And It Killed A Bull

A mysterious object fell in rural Peru; many think it's a meteor and a crew is on its way to verify that. And it seems to be making people quite sick. This is the sort of thing you read about in a Stephen King novel. I hope there's some follow-up; this is quite interesting.

Maryland Rejects Same Sex Marriage

Dale Carpenter at Volokh Conspiracy has apparently given up on the idea of judicial challenges to promote same-sex marriage.  This is because of an exceptionally long decision of the Maryland Supreme Court, ruling against same-sex marriage by 4-3 vote (two of the majority votes were retired Justices; it is unclear how their successors would have voted).  Noting that since the Massachusetts case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, no state court has interpreted a right to same-sex marriage into their various state Constitutions.  The only significant remaining pending case is here in California (there is another one going in Iowa widely expected to fail); the Supreme Court here has already ruled that in the absence of a clear legislative or judicial finding that a prohibition on same-sex marriage is improper for some reason, local officials may not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

 

As Prof. Carpenter says, “If [same-sex marriage] is to advance much in the near future, it will probably have to come legislatively.”  This has not stopped, however, those gay couples who want marriage from finding it somehow.  Including one of my favorite bloggers, the generally libertarian-conservative and observant Roman Catholic Andrew Sullivan, who exchanged romantic, yet mature, vows with his partner Aaron Tone last month.  (Congratulations to Messrs. Sullivan and Tone, by the way.)  Prof. Carpenter is probably right – the courts do not seem anxious to step in to this issue and risk the significant loss of popular support that would inevitably come with it.  That’s too bad, I think.  Courts need to be politically courageous and make their decisions based on a principled vision of the law and not on the face of popular pressure.  If there is an overwhelming democratic rejection of the court’s ruling, the democratic process can step in and overrule the court, in any of a number of ways.  I’ve looked at the issue a lot of different ways and I can’t find a principled reason to withhold marriage from same-sex couples if it’s given to opposite-sex couples.  Opponents of same-sex marriage, please recall that I have stated, many times, that I have yet to hear a same-sex marriage advocate explain why a “civil union” that is the legal equivalent of marriage would not satisfy the government’s obligation of equal protection.

 

But, if the issue is to be one to be resolved through the democratic process, by convincing legislators that there is popular support for the idea of same-sex marriage, then the strong advocates of the idea need to get their forces mobilized and rallied.  They will have a tough road to hoe, for a lot of reasons, and will probably a generation-long struggle to make it happen.  It is probably a better way to go, anyway – it’s much more difficult for an opponent of same-sex marriage to argue with the result of a democratic process and it would deny politicians the right to hide behind popular opinion should the legislative process produce a same-sex marriage bill anyway.

Legal-Religious Silliness

Longtime readers know that I am not a believer in the supernatural and critical of religion. I must restrain myself from cheering on other critics of religion from time to time, but today it was easier than in other circumstances for me to exercise that kind of restraint.

Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers sued God (yes that's right I said he sued God) on Friday, accusing Jehovah of both making and fulfilling "terroristic threats of grave harm to innumerable persons, including" his constituents, in the form of "fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes, pestilential plagues, ferocious famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects and the like."

Skeptics like me will be quick to point out that service of process is likely to be a problem, if only from a logistical point of view.

Believers, who might otherwise be forced to admit that the divinity's omnipresence and omniscience renders service of process a superfluity, might instead prefer to focus their arguments on a lack of jurisdiction over such a defendant.

Both arguments have been considered by a previous court with regards to a lawsuit against Satan filed in 1971. That lawsuit, at least, had the benefit of an obviously unsympathetic defendant. Obviously, the real problem is stating a claim upon which relief can be granted -- the court cannot issue an injunction against floods, rainstorms, tornadoes, diseases, or birth defects; effective enforcement mechanisms have yet to be devised. Although, I read in the Atlantic this month that scientists have thought of ways they might mitigate the force of a hurricane; besides, spreading 20,000 tons of finely-ground coal dust on top of a forming hurricane just might pose an environmental hazard independent of the storm, thereby raising a Clean Air Act concern arising from the State court level injunction, and now you've got yourself a federalism issue to contend with, too. What a mess.

Senator Chambers, by the way, is the Chambers of Chambers v. Marsh, the Supreme Court case that held, 6-3, that opening a session of a legislature with a prayer led by a publicly-paid chaplain did not violate the Establishment Clause. The rationale was that the "establishment" thus represented was minimal and not a credible threat to the creation of a state religion since it merely recognized the powerful force that religious traditions have exerted on the country, and besides, the Founders couldn't have possibly meant to exlcude prayers in the legislature by way of the First Amendment since the First Congress had a chaplain that began sessions with a prayer. Fans of the decision should at least read the dissent; critics of religion intruding on civic life, on the other hand, must acknowledge that this decision is the law of the land and that it is unlikely to change any time soon.

So there it is. Senator Chambers' lawsuit will almost certainly be dismissed at some point in the near future. While I may be an atheist, I'm also a lawyer, and there's no substantial public benefit to be realized from this lawsuit. And while I like the idea that there are Ernie Chamberses out there to challenge religion's intrusion into secular political life, it's possible to take things a little far.

September 17, 2007

Right Now

Right now, I've passed the saturation point for overexposure to Carrie Underwood's anthem to infidelity-motivated felony auto vandalism. I got sick of that annoying, meandering Maroon 5 song about picking up on an immature girl on the rebound from a bad breakup, and now I'm sick of this one, too.

Well Played, Yerhonner!

A lot of Republicans were upset about MoveOn.org's "General Betray Us" advertisement. Indeed, a lot of sensible Democrats thought it was a bonehead play. But instead of being another right-wing whiner, Rudy Giuliani did something about it. He asked for, and was given, the same discount price given to MoveOn.org to run an ad ostensibly responding to the attack on General Petreaus -- and which included a prominent attack on Hillary Clinton. In so doing, he took back some of the initative in the Republican primary, which had been all about Fred Thompson, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee for about a week.

This is why Giuliani is the right guy for the Republican party. I know a lot of social conservatives don't like that he isn't in ideological lock step with them. But Rudy will take the fight to the Democrats, and as President he'll take the fight to the bad guys. It's better to be in a position to score points than to have to stop the other side from scoring them. And it's better for Republicans to criticize Democrats than one another.

And most importantly, it was the right thing to do. General Petraeus was not delivering a political message to Congress and he wasn't carrying the White House's water. Not everything he had to say fit in nicely with the current President's desires and wish-list for achievement in Iraq. But it was real and did not, as Senator Clinton had said, require the "willing suspension of disbelief." Seemed to me he was quite forthright about the Iraqi political leadership's complete failure to take advantage of the shift in military events to reach some kind of political modus vivendi acceptable to the country, and that is a critical failure on the road to something resembling peace in Iraq. But that's not something that America can do for Iraq, only Iraq can do that for itself.

And he did not deserve to be attacked because he failed to toe the left wing's line on the war.

Being President is, ultimately, a political job. You want a good politician in the Oval Office. Someone with skill and the ability to get things done in that kind of world. It's not a gentle world, nor is it one where playing fair is either commonplace or even particularly expected. If there's one thing Republicans should be about in the future, it's about standing for a strong military.

And being President is about standing up for your people as well as standing against your political adversaries. Giuliani showed that he'd stand up for his generals if he were President. He deserves to be back in the political limelight for this -- he earned it.

Happy Constitution Day!

220 years ago today, a handful of men, mostly lawyers, all elites, gathered in Philadelphia to re-create the government of their newly-independent Republic. They had a number of critical contemporary issues to deal with but also found a way, in contending with the challenges of the day, to address timeless matters of politics, government, law, human rights, and the meaning of words like "freedom" and "liberty."


The resulting document and the system of government it created was not without its flaws and imperfections. But for most effectively and meaningfully implementing the highest ideals of the Enlightenment, the Constitution of the United States of America has never been exceeded, anywhere on Earth, at any time in human history. In 220 years, we have made less than thirty changes to the dynamic, strong, and idealistic system of government created by the likes of Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Franklin, and their peers.



We Americans often forget how fortunate we are to live in a country governed by laws and not men, and indeed how fortunate we are to live in a country whose laws result from the democratic process and the embodiment of ideals of freedom. Please take a moment, Loyal Reader, to consider just how important the legacy given to us by the Founders truly is. Though they were elites, they concerned themselves with the welfare of everyone, and in so doing, have built the most enduring monument to free government the world has yet seen.

May we all be good stewards of this legacy even as we enjoy the benefits it brings us.

September 14, 2007

Use The Time Machine

What if we were able to send the bright men and women at MoveOn.org back in time to 1942? I bet we'd have seen an ad a lot like this in the New York Times.


E-e-e-e-ediots!

September 13, 2007

Deconstructing A Failed Joke

Kathy Griffin is a comedian who I usually enjoy because she is willing to make cutting jokes about celebrities that I find amusing. Like me, she is an atheist who was raised Catholic. A few days ago, she won an Emmy award for her reality show "My Life On The D List." Her acceptance speech has set off alarm bells:

"A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus. If it were up to Jesus, it would be Cesar Milan and that damn dog up here. Can you believe this shit? Hell has frozen over. So suck it, Jesus, this award is my god now!"

The Catholic League was quick to condemn her remarks, saying they were the equivalent of Don Imus' "nappy-headed hos" comment that made him lose his job. (One of the women who was the target of that joke recently dropped her lawsuit against Imus, by the way.)

A lot of people say Imus got a raw deal and should not have lost his job, by the way, because he, too, was making a joke that fell very, very flat. (I wonder, if Imus' joke had been funnier, would that have helped his case?)

I certainly disapproved of Imus' joke; I thought it was in bad taste and not very funny on top of that. I did not think he deserved to lose his job. I think he deserved to lose some public standing and deserved public ridicule for it. And I think I need to apply the same standard of judgment to somebody who I identify with who does the same sort of thing (or whose joke I think had the benefit of being actually funny).

No one can fire Kathy Griffin; unlike Imus, she's self-employed. Bravo might or might not renew her show; comedy clubs might or might not book her. But then, they might or might not have done those things anyway; she does not and never has commanded the kind of media attention that Imus did. "D List" might be a bit of self-deprecation, but she's hardly a brilliant star in the firmament of Hollywood.

I can think of three ways we might distinguish Griffin from Imus:

Question 1: Does a higher humor content mitigate the offensive nature of a joke? I think not, although there is far, far more vicious humor than this out there that seems to be accepted with barely a ripple. Ever watch South Park?

Question 2: Does it matter that Griffin made fun of a religion rather than a specific individual? If you're a member of that religion, you probably don't think so; you would, reasonably, feel as though the remarks were aimed at you and everyone like you. (Nor does the fact that she is lampooning the dominant religion of our culture of much help -- if she had made fun of Judaism or Islam, it would be easier to see the problem but the problem would still be the same.)

Question 3: Does it matter that Griffin was, once upon a time, an adherent of that religion? Black comedians make fun of black people and individuals and as a group, generally with social impunity (think Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle). But I don't think that this helps Griffin much, since she is no longer a Christian and has been public about her atheism.

It's just a fact of life -- or at least a fact of show business -- that you've got to set things up carefully if you're going to make fun of people who aren't like yourself so that any reasonable person watching would be certain that you are really making a joke and intend no offense. For some kinds of people, it's just plain easier to do that than others -- it's easy for Dave Chappelle to set up a joke at the expense of "Black Power" activists because Chappelle is black himself. That doesn't mean that a white or Latino comedian could not necessarily do the same thing, but it would take more work to make clear that the white comedian was not making fun of all black people.

Which is what really got Imus in trouble at the end of the day -- he didn't set up the "nappy-headed hos" joke enough that it was immediately obvious that he didn't take what he was saying seriously. So someone did take what he said seriously, and if you do that, it was pretty offensive. So the real issue is, did Griffin set up her joke enough so that no reasonable person would think she was being serious? Someone took her seriously, and I may not be the best person to judge whether they were reasonable to do so or not.

Either way, Griffin is going to have to accept the fact that she put herself at the center of a controversy, whether it is deserved or not. She took a risk with her joke and this is the downside of that risk. I'm glad to see that she's only getting public disdain for the remark, which is all that Imus should have got for doing pretty much the same thing.

And this is also a good object lesson as to why most celebrity remarks are bland and uninteresting.

September 12, 2007

September 11, 2007

Good News (I Think)

The President apparently plans to announce troop reductions to the tune of 30,000 soldiers in Iraq to be completed by next summer. Withdrawing more does not seem to be an option. Withdrawing completely, in my opinion, is not desirable in the sense that it produces too many bad results and leaves us with little, if any, net gain for our five-year misadventure in Mesopotamia.

It's a big, gigantic, and dreadful shame that General Petraeus' report to Congress has been so politicized, so polarized, and built up so much that it has become simply another platform for political theater. I doubt anyone in Congress has actually listened to anything the man has to say. (Don't even get me started on those eeediots at MoveOn, who have lost whatever very minimal credibility they might otherwise have enjoyed as agents provocateurs; they can start hanging out with this guy as far as I'm concerned.)

I've been wondering for a long time whether the surge is working; it appears to be achieving its military objectives but the Iraqis also appear to be fundamentally incapable of using the breathing space it was intended to provide to reach any kind of a political consensus capable of governing that country. As it is, the members of the Iraqi Parliament don't seem able to form enough of a consensus to order a falafel plate for lunch, much less figure out what to do with their oil revenues and unreliable national police. (Mmmm... Falafel. But I digress.)

I would like to know the truth. I would like to have some idea of what's really going on, unfiltered by either the Fox News Channel narrative or the New York Times narrative. I would like to know if I am safer now than I was five years ago. I would like to know that Osama bin Laden has been caught and will be denied access to dye for his beard in captivity, but that doesn't seem to be happening. I would like to know if the vision of a lengthy struggle against terrorism will be able to join the historical ranks of the struggles against piracy and slavery -- never to be 100% completed, but enough to make such crimes so irregular and unusual as to be remarkable. I would like to one day be able to feel safe traveling in the Middle East. I would like it, in short, if a strong United States of America could lead the world to a more peaceful phase of existence, one in which people would stop fucking killing each other because their neighbors believe in the hallucinative rants of the wrong Bronze Age misogynist.

The Wages of Stress

Didn't I just take a vacation? How come I'm so stressed out?

I've had what feels like an unusually stressful week. Couple of weeks. Work has been at what often feels like a frantic pace. I've bowed to necessity and done what I have to do, but it's been a juggling act on more than one day. I think, after giving a presentation requiring much more research than I had originally anticipated it would, I am over the hump but I am not out of the woods yet.

Buying a house is a stress. Soffit House, because it is in California, commands a much higher price and a much greater financial commitment than the home that The Wife and I bought in Knoxville and I worry that we will not be able to afford it. We will also be able to add less value to the house easily because so much improvement has already been done to it. This is but one of the many ways I find to fret over money. The missing income that University of Phoenix used to provide -- no more can I taste of that, but the money itself would certainly be welcome.

When I get home at night, I've felt so deflated that all I can do is sit. Things that normally would only be minor problems feel like major annoyances and I don't know why I'm taking life's little travails so hard recently. Patience during the day is a greater effort to find than it normally is. My animals, who want attention and love, annoy me more than is fair to them.

The Wife, who has joined Weight Watchers, seems to constantly obsess over food, constantly counting the points of everything she eats. I am inspired to lose weight, too, but I lack the discipline to track all my food intake. I have tried to moderate my portions and help make healthier choices while eating with The Wife. Although I've tried to make portion sizes right for her and use ingredients that will fit with her dietary plans, we still have had a lengthy negotiations about things like sauce for pasta. A lack of food will affect anyone's mood negatively, and we're both eating less than we're ordinarily used to. The result is that we're a little bit more on edge around each other than we normally are. I wonder if losing weight is worth that.

My feet hurt. All the time.

I try reading or watching television. I cannot concentrate. My mind meanders and can only be focused for short periods of time. Crime shows, like CSI or The Closer, feel too real and disturbing; it is sometimes too easy for me to visualize someone I love as the victim. Such thoughts are particularly unwelcome on this of all days, when the nation indulges itself in a day-long remembrance of a very dark day not so long ago, a day that altered our own national perception of, and reaction to, the world and of ourselves.

Sleep? A fleeting zephyr that either smacks me full in the face at a ridiculously early hour, or else flees from me, always just out of my grasp and mocking my feeble efforts to quiet my mind. Tonight, sleep is far, far away from me, though I am very, very tired and as you can read, my prose has become purple as a result. Perhaps tomorrow night I will follow up on dinner with a round of meditation under the guidance of our friend the Monk. It has been far too many weeks without that periodic moment of mental quiet -- perhaps I can achieve it on my own but it seems easier with the trappings of the zendo. As it is, when I lay in bed, unsleeping, and force myself to think of matters other than the stressors that haunt me during the day, dark, dark thoughts of terrible things enter my mind. I've had plenty of intense and disturbing dreams whose content vanishes with the light of the morning, but which nevertheless leave behind an aftertaste of fear, unease, or foreboding. Dreamless sleep is pleasant, but so hard to achieve!

Perhaps all this will pass as I move out of a phase of intense work activity; perhaps when the purchase of Soffit House is complete; perhaps when we adapt to a modified diet; perhaps when some other challenge, as-yet unknown to me, is overcome. But, as you likely know yourself, Loyal Reader, one stressor magnifies another and when many pile atop one another, the effect compounds geometrically.

For now, the wages of stress are insomnia, an inability to stop grinding the teeth at the back of my jaw, an occasional loss of impulse control when given the option of eating deliciously fatty food, horrifically powerful sneezes, and what feels like a constant effort to remain pleasant around the good people surrounding me who have, in reality, done nothing to earn my annoyance and discomfitude. I hope that it does all pass soon, though.

Realignment Redux

I’m apparently not the only one who sees a reshuffling of the Republican Party’s coalitions going on.  This guy’s assessment of the factions is a little bit different than mine (I don’t see a lot of Republicans standing for the status quo out of reactionary resistance to change; I do see a lot of them motivated by immigration as a single issue).  And where this guy tries to graft each candidate into the personification of a particular wing of the party, so as to make the primary is a battle between these wings of the party for primacy, I see the candidates dancing on top of the reshuffling coalitions, trying to straddle at least two of the major factions he identifies.  All the same, it is clear that the social conservatives’ pre-eminence left over from the 1996-2004 cycles is no longer guaranteed.

September 10, 2007

Good Questions For Anyone

Over at Volokh, readers have responded to Fred Thompson's calls for questions on his policy platform with some damn tough questions:

1. What is your view of civil asset forfeiture in the absence of a criminal conviction? Would you make any changes in current executive branch policies, or propose any changes in federal forfeiture laws?
2. Do you believe that Gonzales v. Raich was correctly decided? If you were President, would your Department of Justice take action against patients and providers of medical marijuana who were acting in compliance with state law?
3. If Roe v. Wade were overturned, would your commitment to federalism compel you to veto a congressional bill banning abortion? Or in a post-Roe world would you seek to ban abortion by federal law regardless of the wishes of the individual states?
4. Which Attorney General do you most admire? Why?
5. Which, if any, federal gun control laws do you support repealing?
6. You were instrumental in securing passage of McCain-Feingold. Have your views on either the law's effectiveness or constitutionality changed in the years since it was passed, and what would you do about the continually-increasing purview of the Federal Elections Commission? Would you favor new legislation to protect the Internet or non-profits from McCain-Feingold?

As one reader points out, as phrased, most of these questions are too arcane to be meaningful to voters who are not also lawyers or deep policy wonks. And there are good answers available -- whether the candidate being asked these questions is Fred Thompson, some other Republican, or a Democrat:

1. The government should use every weapon available to fight the war on drugs. Civil forfeitures have a lower standard of proof than criminal convictions, to be sure, but don't forget that the government still must show it's more likely than not that a person has taken drug money before the forfeiture takes place.

2. (Republicans) Yes, the case was correctly decided. Although the states can implement whatever laws they want about drugs, there is a Federal interest in regulating drugs, too. This case may not be one of a recreational user or a massive drug dealer, but it's important to demonstrate that these drugs are illegal to deter other people from trying to sell drugs to our children. It's also important to fight drugs on the demand side as well as the supply side, and enforcing the law like this reduces both demand and supply. (Democrats) We have to reserve the right to enforce our drug laws against serious criminals, and that means we need Federal anti-drug laws. As President, I would direct federal law enforcement authorities to review all state laws to see if they were really carving out only compassionate-use situations or were just a cover for recreational use; if it turns out that it's just getting a doctor's note to cover for kids getting high, then yes, I'd authorize the use of Federal resources to go after these users. But I'd focus on big dealers and the most poisonous of the drugs out there.

3. (Republicans other than Giuliani) Overturning Roe is only one step in the process. For a while after Roe is overturned, some states will permit abortion and others will outlaw it. As President, I would use my political power to urge leaders in the various states to adopt laws that were protective of human life. (Giuliani) If Roe were to be overturned, then the question of abortion would go to the states. If I were President when that happened, I would urge the states to very carefully consider all of the issues -- the moral issues, the legal issues, the tough decisions facing a woman deciding whether to bear a child or not -- before making a decision. But at that point, it would be for the states. For myself, I'd like to see states pass laws that would make it easier for adoption to take place as an alternative to abortion. (Democrats) If Roe were to be overturned, I would lead a state-by-state effort to preserve a woman's right to decide what to do with her own body, and at the same time pursue a Constitutional amendment reinstating that right once and for all.

4. Edward Bates, who was Abraham Lincoln's Attorney General and urged the emancipation of slaves in the south. Bates saw that it was the right thing to do morally, it was the right thing to do legally, and it was the right thing to do to help end the civil war. It took a while, but eventually he convinced his President to follow through on the promise of full equality for all Americans.

5. (Republicans) Most of them. Gun control should be left to the states, and the states need to abide by the Constitution. There should be a system in place to protect against criminals and other dangerous people from getting guns, but like it or not, the Constitution gives law-abiding citizens the right to keep and bear arms and as President, I would use my power to see to it that the government enforces that right. (Democrats) None of them. The production and sale of assault weapons, Saturday night specials, and other cheap, lethal weapons is a national disgrace and a threat to our children that some Americans have to face every day and every night. We owe it to these people to take that fear away from them so our streets and homes can be safe again.

6. McCain-Feingold is intended to reduce corruption in politics. The internet is a place where politics can happen -- and Americans who comment on political events on the Internet are exercising their Constitutional rights, and we should encourage that. I do not interpret McCain-Feingold to apply to individual Americans who simply comment on political issues; it only comes in to play when the website gets used to raise money for a candidate or a cause. At that point, it becomes a special interest group, and it should be regulated like all special interest groups -- that is, by requiring disclosure of where the money came from and where it's going to.

But these are all long, wonky answers to long, wonky questions. And it's unlikely that any candidate -- especially Fred Thompson, who seems to be running a light-on-substance, heavy-on-personality campaign -- would give deep thought to the questions or the answers. I like wonky answers to questions, but that's not how elections are won. And if the Message For The Day is, for instance, the candidate's bold new direction for America's foreign policy, it's entirely likely that the answer to every question would be to support the troops, get them home successfully and safely, and to increase America's prestige in the world.

September 9, 2007

Definition

Man, American: n. A male human being whose nationality is of the United States of America. Essential characteristics include strength, integrity, loyalty, work ethic, competitiveness, and joie de vivre. Behavior motivated by instinctual impulses towards defense of and provision for family unit. Responds to adversity by pushing himself to excellence; can function well both individually and within a team. Diet frequently includes red meat cooked over open flame and fatty snacks. Dresses blandly during week; however, on autumn and winter weekends, frequently wears colorful outfits bearing numerals as part of ritual tribal identification behavior.

Not Different So Much As Better

The idea that the Republican party needs to find a new directions seems to have a counterpart -- it simply needs to find a competent leader. The neo-con ideas of the Bush Presidency, in other words, are perfectly fine ways to think about governing the country; they have just been ineptly executed.

In foreign policy, I can see some merit to this concept. The world has people who consider themselves our enemies and, for better or worse, we find ourselves in hostilities with them. The question is what are are we going to do about it. One of the reasons that I like Rudy Giuliani, despite some anticipated imperfections (weakness on civil liberties, tendency to autocratic governing style) is the fact that he promises, with some credibility, to make the government competent in its foreign policy again.

Bill Clinton made us loved, at least in Europe. George W. Bush has made us despised. Ronald Reagan made us feared -- Hizzonner said in an interview with the Paper of Record, he armed himself and presented an unpredictable face to the world, while at the same time presenting a resolute, audacious grand vision of where things would end up.

We can be both feared and loved, by the way. But if we had to pick between the two, Giuliani has read il Principe and seems to take its lesson to heart. His candidacy is asking whether we want a teddy bear or a tough guy in the White House, and I think that's a winning sort of question for him to ask.

As for governmental competence at home, it's a little harder to identify where things need to be done and where things are best left to work out for themselves. Should the government bail out people who got marginal mortgages and now comprise a massive wave of home mortgage foreclosures? (I heard on NPR last Thursday that one in 200 houses in America is in foreclosure; I wonder how true that statistic is.) Generally, I think that the answer should be "no," the market needs to sort out the problem on its own and in the process, it will re-correct the inflated value of houses that caused this problem in the first place -- and in that way, recycle at least some of these people back in to houses in a few years. If there is a role for the government, it should be in better sorting out the kinds of financial products available and how they are used. A 1% flexible ARM with reverse amortization and a two-year cliff is not appropriate for a young family starting out. (The Wife and I are applying for a plain-vanilla 30-year fixed mortgage, by the way -- I'd sort of like to start accumulating equity right away with my new house, regardless of whether the property appreciates or not.)

Belief in the fundamental power of the government to make things better is more of a Democratic vision of the world than a Republican one, and Republican leaders are generally right to be skeptical of "big government" ideas, particularly coming from leaders within their own ranks. The problem now with demonstrating skepticism about government activity is that after nearly eight years of the Bushmen running the show, the Republicans desperately need to demonstrate that they are not incompetent and can be trusted with the reins of power at all.

September 7, 2007

Now That's A Tough One To Explain

Here's a forceful reminder to all attorneys to periodically stay in touch with their clients. (Second story on the link.)

Charles Riegel and his wife sued Medtronics, Inc. on a products liability suit involving a medical device made by Medtronics. The suit was originally filed in 1999. After trial, it was appealed, and Riegel lost the appeal. His attorneys filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, the Court accepted the petition for cert. -- Riegel's case was going to be heard by the High Court! Exciting stuff, so the lawyer called his client.

Only to find out that his client had died in 2004.

Civil cases can certainly persist beyond the death of a plaintiff. No problem, it's just a motion and a form and badda-bing, badda-boom, you've swapped out the dead plaintiff for his estate, his executor, his heirs or trust beneficiaries, or whatever other title or form the law of your state happens to be for postmortem pursuit of premortem pleadings and proceedings. But the U.S. Supreme Court's rules state that this motion must be filed within six months of the plaintiff's death.

The lawyer's excuse was that most of his communication with his clients was through the mail (yes, many of us have clients like that) and the case was moving slowly (it was on petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, after all) and the clients had moved and not been diligent about reporting their new contact information (which happens quite frequently). So there was little to communicate until and unless the High Court acted in some way, and the best way to do it was the mail. I can understand that, really I can. If there's nothing to do on case "X," you have to focus on case "Y" that's pressing on your time and has imminent deadlines. It's easy to dash off a status letter to a client whose case is just sitting there with nothing for anyone to do, and not pick up the phone and call to chat about how nothing at all has happened, particularly if "nothing at all" is not good news.

But, it's a cautionary tale to all of us lawyers to periodically canvass our active case lists and talk to the clients.

I Said I'd Do It And I Did

In response to an accusation of bias on Oval Office 2008, I was asked when I would report a gaffe on the part of my favorite candidate, Rudy Giuliani. I said, "When he makes one." Well, it looks to me like Giuliani stepped on it today on immigration, so with a heavy heart I reported a Giuliani gaffe. I can't say I was happy about it but if I'm going to be a mini-pundit, and still be intellectually honest, I have to call them as I see them. Giuliani needed to find a better response to the immigration issue than he did, and Hizzonner didn't even pursue an appropriate break-even strategy.

The campaign, by the way, has offered this video (unfortunately, it has a lot of background noise) as a long-form explanation, straight from Hizzonner himself, about his position on immigration. I happen to agree with him on this issue ("cracking down" on "illegal immigrants" would be as counterproductive as trying to grab sand by clenching our fists ever tighter), but that's not the point.



The point is, sometimes you've got to lay one up and play for the middle of the fairway, because if you shoot straight for the green, the ball might just go in the water. It's easy for me to second-guess a Presidential candidate; I'm not the one with the spotlights on me all the time. But then again, I don't want to run for President. If it takes you three minutes to explain why you did what you did, you need to get with your speechwriters and come up with a punchier, faster, easier-to-understand explanation -- and one that does not imply that the people whose support you are pursuing have made a very significant policy mistake (even if they really have done exactly that).

September 6, 2007

Ookie's Dawghouse

Remember, it's a scoring-only league. Yards, fumbles, receptions, completions -- none of that matters. Just touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties. We play two quarterbacks, five position players, a kicker, and a defense every week. The results of the draft are:

Peyton Manning
Eli Manning
Alex Smith
Matt Schaub

Rudi Johnson
Brandon Jacobs
Cedric Benson
Hines Ward
Donald Driver
Santana Moss
Donte Stallworth
Kevin Curtis
Drew Bennett
Fred Taylor
Dallas Clark
Devery Henderson
Ron Dayne

David Akers
Sean Suisham
Green Bay Packers Defense