January 31, 2008

The Essence Of Beruit

Remember a year ago when Israel invaded Lebanon? What the hell was that about? Lebanon used to be the Paris of the Middle East. Now, here's what you get in Beruit:


Syria continues to poke its fingers into Lebanon's government. Iran continues to not-so-covertly fund Hezbollah, whose power in the southern part of the country remains unclear. Israel can knock out any installation it wants but it can't secure the territory, so what's the point? Syria can't annex Lebanon, any more than Jordan could -- so it's kind of floating out there on its own, and no one really knows what to do with it or what kind of a future the country will have.

A guy from Toastmasters told a touching story once about his childhood in Beruit and his family fleeing their home on Christmas day because the Syrians were raiding the housing complexes for food. The old Lebanon had universities, nightclubs, good restaurants, lots of scenes like that photograph only with beautiful hotels instead of bombed-out shells dotting the skyline of Beruit. My guess is that there are still lots of people who want to see an open, democratic, liberalized society flourish in Lebanon. It looks like it would be a really interesting place to visit, with tons of history and lots of natural beauty.

Prolific January

I've done well this month, and set a new record for most posts in a month-long period. It helps that the primary season was going on, and that the primaries became so interesting so quickly. The blog has been awash with political material. The Packers were doing well, and that was exciting, too. I can't guarantee this will keep up after February 5; I suspect that will be the end of the GOP primary and by then the Super Bowl will be over, too. The prolific posting seems to be rewarded with hits, too; my daily hit count has nearly doubled over the last month. I'll have to do something else to keep reader interest high, but without so much politics and sports to talk about and attract eyeballs, I don't know what it will be.

Dick jokes? Do you like dick jokes?

One Wonders

When the primaries are over -- which may not be Tuesday night, as it turns out -- the Democrats will likely be able to reconcile themselves to whoever wins. Obama fans will, I have little doubt, be able to say, "Hillary isn't my first choice, but I'll certainly vote for her over the Republican." Alternatively, Clinton fans will be able to say, "Barack -- I think he's a little green, but he's our guy and he gets my vote."

But will Republicans be able to do the same thing? I'm beginning to question that pretty seriously. Maybe I'm reading too many pundits. Assuming, as seems more likely every day, that McCain gets the nomination locked up on Tuesday, will this sow the seeds of a schism? Democrats would absolutely love that crap, let me tell you. But I simply can't believe the vitriol that I'm seeing out there on the internets about McCain. There is serious derangement going on out there in right-wing-land.

Conservatives! You got behind George Bush's dad back in 1988. He wasn't one of you and didn't make any bones about it. But he was better than Mike Dukakis and those were your damn choices. Hold your noses and do what's right. The Democrats find a way to do it, and that's how they elected Bill Clinton, who back in 1992 was not universally popular within the Democratic party, if you will recall. You're acting like a bunch of spoiled children whose toys are being taken away. See, it's not so hard to do if you give it a little bit of thought.

Could I hold my nose and vote for Romney if he gets the nomination? I didn't think so at first, but I'm beginning to come around to thinking that yes, I could. Romney's toned down some of the pandering and is getting back into Mitt-the-businessman mode. I'm beginning to think that the early primaries in places like Iowa and South Carolina give a very distorted view of the GOP -- Florida and New Hampshire seemed to not be dominated by social concerns so much as economic ones, and that's the Republican party I know and like. Most of the time. The party that makes business wonks like Mitt Romney contort themselves over gay marriage is an unpleasant and ugly one. But as we get farther away from those kinds of states, the more acceptable a guy like Romney seems to be. Of course, I still think he's more than a little bit veracity-challenged.

John Edwards Endorsement Announcement

With the Democratic race narrowing, the endorsement of John Edwards might just prove decisive. So of course we've all been waiting to see if this tips the balance.

They're Becoming Unhinged (Updated)

For some conservatives, ideological purity is much, much more important than keeping the Clintons out of the White House, apparently. I just don't understand this sort of thinking.

Democrats must love it.

Update: If you're a Republican who is unsatisfied with McCain, who may think that Romney is a better choice, go read Captain's Quarters. Ed agrees with you and prefers Romney, but he's kept his perspective on things, unlike Ann the Detestable.

Starting To Come Together

I met with the kids again today. It's really energizing -- they're doing a good job putting their case together. These are bright kids and they're starting to really get it. I had them do a round of table topics -- some of the same ones I did with Toastmasters a couple months ago -- and they all did fine. They actually all had a lot of fun with it, especially when they figured out that they could tell the most outrageous stories they could think of in response to the questions. When I told them all that they had just used the same skills they'd need to think on their feet during trial, they all beamed.

There's a pre-trial argument as part of the exercise; today I heard one of the two students who is putting together that part of the case make her presentation. She's a sophomore, and I think she's from the Caribbean. Her accent is delicious. So far, she hasn't progressed beyond reading prepared remarks from paper, but she's motivated to do better and I'm quite confident she'll be able to handle the vagaries of an inquisitive judge in three weeks.

I think, though, a little bit more preparation is needed. While it's coming together well, the absenteeism is a source of irritation for me. We haven't had a full meeting of the entire team since I started showing up to coach them. I'm thinking maybe next Saturday I should have them over to the office so that they can do a full run-through with no time limits.

Absentee Ballot

My absentee ballot came today. I guess it's a good thing that it took so long to come -- had it come before Tuesday, I'd have voted for Giuliani. As it turns out, that would have been throwing my vote away; California is a winner-take-all state and as it turns out, I have a preference between the remaining candidates. But this way, I could vote with der Governator.

January 30, 2008

Ugh, I Can't Stand The Whining Pundits

Right-wing pundits -- the same sort who have stood resolutely by George W. Bush as he has nearly set the White House on fire these past seven years, the same sort who would have responded to Bush actually slitting a man's throat during a press conference by saying that maybe the dude had it coming -- are having fits of apoplexy over John McCain's win in Florida, gathering of momentum and endorsements, and seemingly unstoppable path to the GOP nomination. For instance, Hugh Hewitt is simply in denial.

These commentators strike me the same sorts who seem to think that McCain is some sort of "liberal" because he co-sponsors compromise legislation with Democrats, moatdiggers who incorrectly think McCain is an advocate of "open borders" (he favors the idea of a guest worker program, which is hardly the same thing) and that his policy platform is functionally indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton's. They think he sold out the GOP by forming the "Gang of 14" and seem to forget that without his having done so, no further judges would have been confirmed by the Senate for all of Bush's Presidency; apparently, stalemate would have been preferable to getting those judges appointed. Their policy platforms are quite different: compare McCain's policies to Clinton's. To these people, John McCain is a "liberal" or, worse yet, a RINO.*

That's not to say that McCain is above criticism, and some of the right-wing criticisms levelled at McCain score hits. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms raises deep Constitutional questions and I remain convinced that the Supreme Court was wrong to affirm most of it.

So the meme they've been circulating is that the "closed" Florida primary was hijacked. Michelle Malkin, for instance, highlighted a story about some election workers who apparently defied the law and allowed independents to vote in the primary. Flip Pidot, taking the right-wing outrage a step further, is "flummoxed" and points to exit polls that, in his mind, "prove" that nearly one in five voters in the Florida Republican primary are not Republicans. Ed Morrissey, however, has a more than reasonable explanation readily at hand -- voters are not dumb and will re-register despite their personal preferences so that they can participate in a primary of interest to them. Changing parties is simply a matter of filling out a form and declaring yourself to be something that you weren't before.

To the partisans, this sort of thing smacks of all sorts of malign chicanery. They would never do such a thing. Switching parties for a single election? That's... that's... that's like having no party at all! (Which is kind of what it means to be an "independent" or "unaffiliated" voter.) To them, it means that "real" Republicans would never have chosen that untrustworthy John McCain. I have some good personal friends with a profound distrust of McCain, for some of these same reasons and a variety of others. I'm reminded of a story still floating around from 1968 -- the editor of the New York Times was heard to say, "Nixon got elected? How could that have happened? I don't know anyone who voted for Nixon!" Just so.

I'm not in that column. I agree that McCain is flawed, and my preference lay with another candidate (who was not without his own flaws). His age is a factor. His firey temper is a factor. He's come close to giving the store away when he's rolled logs in the Senate.

But at the same time, it's pretty clear to me that Florida voters made a rational choice, and one that will work to the Republicans' ultimate benefit in this election. First, McCain is more electable than Romney; he's polling ahead of Clinton and tied with Obama, while polls suggest that Romney would get handed his ass by either Democrat. Second, what's with all the sudden characterization of Romney as the 'conservative' choice? This is the guy who's reversed himself on nearly every position imaginable from abortion to health care to Iraq. Third, Republicans cannot afford to win another election running toward the base. The growing moderate middle of the country, who eschew party identification, have found themselves repelled by George W. Bush but can distinguish between him and McCain. McCain has appeal to the center, which the Republicans cannot afford to concede any more. Finally, McCain has appeal to Latino voters; while not a decisive segment of the electorate, it is a growing one and one that could easily be alienated by the moatdigger faction in the GOP. So yes, the ideological thrust of the party may have to be diverted from its current path. Maybe it's fun to skateboard downhill but keep in mind that where you wind up may not be so pleasant.

I can live with McCain as the Republican nominee. He wasn't my first choice, but a hell of a lot better than most of the other options. Republicans: remember the one one about "half a loaf is better than none"? Even if you don't think McCain is reliably conservative, at least he's going to do more conservative sorts of things than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would. Sometimes, it's about choosing the least bad option from the available choices, and if it's come to that for you, who exactly is a less bad option this time around? Would you really want a President who governs the country the way Willard governed Massachusetts? That's a better indication of what he'll actually do if elected than the empty, meaningless words he says today.


* If you don't know what that term means, you probably aren't interested in politics and have therefore skipped this post.

January 29, 2008

McCain-Crist

Some scuttlebutt floating around the Internets has it that McCain's win in Florida was the result of a last-minute endorsement by Charlie Crist, Florida's governor. The juicier rumor was that Crist demanded to be named McCain's running mate in exchange for the endorsement.

Just a rumor. But it kind of makes sense. Crist is reasonably popular and his endorsement carried some weight. Florida is a populous state, critical to either party's strategy for winning the general election, and one where the two parties are at effectively equal strength. Crist has a strong machine at his disposal there, so having him on the ticket could be the extra push that McCain would need to tip it into the red.

Just a rumor. If it's not true, there are several other interesting choices that McCain might make. Mitt Romney. Elizabeth Dole. George Voinovich. Upon further consideration, I think that a McCain-Giuliani ticket would be asking too much of the GOP core, so that likely won't happen, endorsement or no.

Just a rumor. But I thought I'd spread it a little bit.

Early Returns (Updated)

The Florida polls just closed about fifteen minutes ago, and some early voting and absentee ballots have been reported. McCain has about 34% of the vote and Romney has about 33%, and if the early numbers are any indication, a winner will not be called for several hours. Giuliani and Huckabee are fighting it out for third place, splitting the leftover one-third of the vote nearly equally between themselves. Giuliani looks right now like he'll win that fight, although he had hoped not to be on the undercard and even winning there is far from certain.

Early returns are sometimes a bit skewed from the regular live vote, but it doesn't seem to be that way this time around. The patterns are more or less the same in random samplings of counties across the state -- rural and urban, north and south, alike. So I'd expect that those two will get the lion's share of the delegates, and Giuliani and Huckabee will wind up with a few each.

So -- given the format of the upcoming elections on February 5, Rudy will probably keep on campaigning to pick up some delegates and support. Then he'll probably drop out and wind up endorsing McCain. Which is not the right move if he really wants to be the kingmaker between McCain and Romney -- he needs to drop out and make that endorsement tomorrow because he has proven that his efforts and charisma can and do attract votes -- and this would throw a ton of votes McCain's way, adding nearly half again to his support and giving him a decisive lead against Romney instead of merely a statistical one.

Maybe Rudy could do that tomorrow night, on live TV, during the debate. That would be fun. He'd have to work out a substantial compensation to himself for doing so, of course (Vice President? Secretary of Homeland Security?), and that's something that his people need to negotiate with McCain's people right quick.

Interestingly, my folks reported a lot of negative thought about Hilary Clinton from the people they'd spoken with during their recent trip; they believe that they met with about equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans and no one had anything good to say about Senator Clinton. But she's handily beating Senator Obama and as soon as they could, all the networks called the primary there for her.

UPDATE: McCain did win, and it does look like Giuliani will drop out and endorse McCain. Huckabee, however, says he's in to play "all nine innings." While that sounds nice, he's also quickly going to become not much of a factor; exit polls in Florida show that the evangelical voters in Florida split evenly between Romney, Huckabee, and McCain. Florida is somewhat more evangelical than the rest of the GOP (nearly 4 in 10 exit poll respondents self-identified as evangelical) but even so, if Huckabee's draw leaves that bloc of voters split more or less evenly, his participation or non-participation in the race won't affect the outcome of what has become a two-candidate race.

There are GOP caucuses in Maine on Friday, but that's a non-event since the delegates that will result from the state convention delegates selected at those caucuses are required by Maine law to go to the convention unpledged. No, the big deal is that Giuliani will throw his support behind McCain, and although Hizzonner's numbers are nothing like what they used to be, there is still some force there and between his win tonight and that endorsement, Romney is now at a significant disadvantage.

Barring a substantial resurgence by Mitt Romney this week, the United States will elect its first sitting Senator to the White House since 1960.

SECOND UPDATE: John Edwards is out, too. A trial lawyer acquaintance from Nashville will be very disappointed, but it's hard to see what exactly Edwards would have gained by continuing. It remains to be seen if Edwards will endorse or not, but I'd expect more of his supporters to go to Obama than to Clinton.

Oh. Yeah.

I'm really looking forward to The Dark Knight this summer. All the principal photography finished well before Heath Ledger died, so the only problems with production will be if they need to get re-dubs on his voice. The only real problem the producers will have is that obviously he won't be available for doing publicity - but come on, it's not like people won't go to see this movie. It looks like it will be every bit filled with verisimilitude, storytelling, and rich character development, as Batman Begins (which I thought was the best movie of any genre that I saw in 2005).

January 28, 2008

Premortem Analysis

It may be too early -- by about twenty-three hours -- to start dissecting what exactly went wrong with the Rudy Giuliani campaign. How did he go from front-runner with an innovative and high-risk, high-reward strategy, to utterly irrelevant, in less than a month?

Ryan Sager for the New York Post has two answers, and I agree with them both:

First, Giuliani abandoned his basic identity. He was always a moderate conservative at best, and true moderate probably describes his basic personal ideology better. Tough, tell-it-like-it-is, and pragmatic were the basic components of his appeal. He's pro-choice, not averse to the idea of gun control, thinks gay people are A-OK Americans if they pay their taxes and don't jaywalk, and doesn't let religion get in the way of governing his personal life. So he was never going to be a comfortable fit for the Christian right. But he's also a personification of law-and-order government, strength and resolve in the face of foreign challenges, competence in government, and did a convincing job of explaining that "I may be a sonabitch, but I'm going to be your sonofabitch."

When he started to pander to the religious right -- a group of voters that he must have known, or at least should have known, would never back him in the primaries -- he was sacrificing that identity for the chance to appeal to people who would always have distrusted him. David Brooks took him to task for this just over two months ago. Other Giuliani supporters were highly alarmed at this quite a bit earlier in the process, and when it didn't stop, some of his original supporters bailed out. Problem is, he failed to convince more new people to replace them than were leaving.

He lost faith that there were a significant number of pro-choice Republicans (last time I checked, something like 40% or more of Republicans identify as "pro-choice," which is a significant cleavage within the party.) He tried to toughen up on immigration, despite the fact that a majority of Republicans prefer a streamlined, liberalized naturalization process -- well, they don't use the word "liberalized," but they do want to see workers come here and play by the rules.

But the moatdiggers were the large minority in the party Rudy did try to listen to -- and they were never going to trust him, either. In fact, the moatdiggers have found themselves without any real standard-bearers once Tom Tancredo failed to make any significant impact in the primary. The best they found was Fred Thompson, and even he wound up being kind of squishy for them.

Finally, he was given a fair shot at making nice with the gun lobby, and he absolutely blew it. He should never have taken that phone call. Seriously, what better way could you have thought of to have said to the most reliably Republican, and easiest-from-whom-to-fundraise, and intensely motivated constituency within the GOP that "My hot wife is more important to me than your support" than what he did? He'd have been better off skipping the speech entirely.

So much for his first mistake. But he made another one. Skipping Iowa, that was a good move. But bailing out of New Hampshire was not. If he was ever going to have a chance to show that he could compete for votes in an early state, New Hampshire would have been a favorable place to do it. And he invested a substantial amount of resources in New Hampshire. Spent a lot of time there.

This was a place where he had some local familiarity; not as much, perhaps, as Mitt Romney who had been the governor right next door for four years, but he had the northeastern Republican vibe still to his advantage. And New Hampshire is a much more secular place than Iowa or South Carolina, and much less Mormon than Nevada or Wyoming. There was no better opportunity for Rudy to be able to be himself than in New Hampshire. But by the time New Hampshire had rolled around, Rudy had stopped being himself and started to be the product of a bunch of a squadron of campaign consultants, who vanilla-ed down the core of his message and told him that he needed to win, and a win wasn't certain against a resurgent John McCain campaign.

Now, it's true that McCain was very much the second choice for a lot of the voters who liked Giuliani. But that was precisely the reason to compete for those voters. By abandoning the New Hampshire primary, after investing weeks of time and millions of dollars there, Giuliani created McCain's momentum. He obviously did not intend to do so. Maybe he would not have won. Likely, had he competed, he would have thrown the race there to Romney. (McCain and Giuliani combined for about 98,000 votes in New Hampshire; Romney got about 75,000.) But either way, he would have been seen as a significant factor. That would have meant getting his share of free media, his share of momentum.

But that's not what he did. Instead, he created McCain's momentum by conceding -- not New Hampshire, but more specifically by conceding those 100,000 moderate Republican voters in New Hampshire -- to another candidate with proven viability there. Giuliani didn't need to win in New Hampshire. He needed to beat McCain there, even if that meant coming in second place to Romney. He could have walked away with head held high, saying that Romney had home-field advantage and that he was the clear alternative to Governor Flip-Flip. Then he could have creditably skipped South Carolina and put all his eggs into Florida and the Super-Duper Tuesday states like California and Missouri, where he has done quite a bit of campaigning.

By conceding those moderate Republican voters in New Hampshire, Giuliani permitted similar voters elsewhere to take a second look at McCain and allowed them to like what they saw there. The result, for instance, is a nineteen-point surge to the lead in polls here in California. Quoth one Golden State pollster: "McCain's gains have come primarily among liberal and moderate Republicans as well as GOP voters under the age of 50. ... Among liberals and moderates, McCain's support doubled from 25 percent to 50 percent in the last two weeks. McCain also gained 29 points among GOP voters under 50 years old." Those younger, less conservative members of the party are both the party's future and Giuliani's current natural support group. Gaining their support has made all the difference for John McCain, who should have bottomed out before the starting gate when he ran out of money seven months ago.

Instead, by failing to fight for his core constituency and instead competing for primary votes he could never win, Giuliani conceded every one of his advantages (now, including money) to John McCain. Military tacticians from Sun Tzu to Napoleon have stressed, again and again, the importance of picking favorable terrain for your battles. Picking the right terrain upon which to fight allows you to wage the war you want to wage, not the war your enemy wants to fight.

Giuliani should have been himself, not Zombie Ronald Reagan. He should have competed in New Hampshire. And if he had played his cards right, he could have been looking at an annointment next week instead of a concession speech.

Health In The Media

I’m normally often irritated by news coverage of medical studies. Medical studies suggest all sorts of things, most of them contradictory, and they are just studies. They constitute part of the massive project of assembling data used to evaluate various hypotheses, and it is my considered opinion that laypeople are by definition not properly equipped, intellectually, to understand the true significant of most of these reports. But the media, particularly broadcast media anxious to appeal to its ever-aging demographic, seizes upon each new medical study published by not just any credible doctor but a lot of quacks,* too, as if these were pronouncements of holy writ.

The sum total of all of this Delphic wisdom is a mass of contradictions.

You should both abstain from alcohol completely, to take it easy on your liver, and at the same time drink alcohol in moderation, so that your heart stays healthy. When you do drink alcohol (that is, when you aren’t also abstaining) you should drink red wine to reduce cholesterol. Except when you can drink white wine, too, because it is high in antioxidants. But always in moderation. Except when you should allow yourself to become a little bit intoxicated. This is especially true if you are pregnant – in which case you should abstain because it can lead to certain kinds of birth defects. Except when you should have a half a glass of wine every once in a while, because that reduces the risk of certain kinds of mental retardation in your baby. Or except when you should have a full glass of red wine, because that will keep your blood pressure low during your pregnancy.

You also should avoid red meat, because it increases your risk of heart disease. Except when you should eat it, because it helps flush your liver. In fact, you should avoid meats of all sorts, altogether, because it’s bad for your kidneys. Especially fish, because of the mercury. Except that fish is good for you because of the fatty omega acis. And meat, in general, is also good for you, because it’s rich in amino acids that improve brain functioning. You shouldn’t eat carbohydrates, either, because you’ll gain weight and induce heart arrhythmia. Except you should, because not eating carbohydrates is bad for your kidneys again. Your vegetable garden is a veritable minefield of dietary hazards found in the same salad bowl as astonishing health benefits, too.

Exercise is good. You should exercise as much as you can. Except when you exercise too much. Then you should exercise less. There are no substitutes for exercise, except when there are, like drinking alcohol or reading books. You should lift weights, except when you shouldn’t. You should also run, job, or otherwise engage in intensive cardiovascular exercise. But then again, you shouldn’t do that; you should engage in moderate cardiovascular exercise. And also, the amount of cardiovascular exercise you do actually doesn’t matter a bit. You should also, or alternatively, do yoga and other isometrics, except, again, when you shouldn’t.

You should take nutritional supplements. Except when you should take herbal supplements. Or except when you should take multivitamins. But, if you take any of these, you’re taking your life into your own hands, because any or all of these things can kill you, too.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Here’s the thing, and you know it to be true as much as I do. If you want to lose weight, then you need to figure out a different ratio in your life of eating to exercising, with more exercise and less eating. Period. Full stop. If you want to live longer, or better, you need to find the right ratio of eating to exercising. Period. Full stop. These things take willpower. Even surgical intervention intended to deny the ability to choose to eat more than you ought to winds up failing for quite a few people.

Stuff like reports that a glass of wine or two per week is a substitute for exercise is sure pleasant to hear, just like it's scary to hear that something you just ate last night can kill you.

Of course it can kill you. Everything you eat is hazardous to your health. Exercise, of all sorts, will kill you. The very drugs your doctor prescribes can and will kill you. They’re also all essential, because without them, you’re going to die. And sometimes, people just get cancer and die, no matter how many risks they avoid, and there’s no apparent cause. Cosmic rays and sunlight contain radiation that causes cancer, so you can never avoid all risk factors. Even if you don’t get cancer, you are going to get old, and sometimes old people just plain die.

Just like me and everyone else who is capable of reading this message, you are going to die. Something is is going to kill you. That's not a threat, it's a simple, inevitable fact. It's not a choice you get to make. It's not within your ability or anyone else's to change that fact. What, then, will you do with the time you have? Obsessing about prolonging that time is stupid -- you'll get more value out of the time you have actually living your life than you will acting from fear of death. Eating yourself to death (Charles Hapsburg, the fifth Holy Roman Emperor, did this after his abdication) is a decent way to go, I suppose, but that's more than a bit excessive and that isn't living, either.

Aristotle, as so frequently is the case, is the one who got it right. Happiness lies at the golden mean -- in this case, the consumption of a sensible, balanced diet, and the participation in a balanced, sensible amount and kind of exercise. So go ahead and eat the bacon -- understand that there is a point beyond which you've eaten "too much" bacon, and eat less of it than that. Same thing with the wine, with the weight-lifting, and all the rest of it. You're going to die anyway, so live well in the meantime because you're not getting a do-over.

And for crying out loud, ignore the damn ignoramuses on in the press who don't know the difference between the contents of a science textbook and bullshit in a press release that some idiot pulled out of his ass just to get on TV.


* I think that the public in general, and in particular the media, can be educated enough to distinguish between quacks and doctors engaged in scientific medicine. This is not the present circumstance, because for some reason people don’t use their bullshit detectors, but the tools are available to tell us when we’re being sold a bill of goods. The media, in particular, could and should filter out junk science from its reporting, but often fails to do so. Bullshit detectors are saddeningly underutilized in the mass media.

Voter's Guide

In preparation for this week's poll here on Not A Potted Plant, I've readied some pictures of the spouses of the varioius Presidential candidates. Important stuff here:

Ann Romney:


Michelle Obama:


Cindy McCain:


Judith Giuliani:


Janet Huckabee:


Elizabeth Edwards:


Bill Clinton:

Chicken Skin Flip Flop

Mike Huckabee has famously lost a bunch of weight. Good for him; I wish I had the kind of willpower he did to resist larger-than-necessary portions of tasty food. So you think he would praise, not criticize, Mitt Romeny for taking the skin off of his fried chicken. Yes, the chicken skin is the tastiest part of even the most juicy fried chicken. It’s also the fattiest. (Strangely, these two facts are related. Oh, wait, that’s not so strange at all.) And seriously, is this how the Republican party is going to pick its Presidential nominee? Is this the best Huckabee could come up with the day before the Florida primary? At least John McCain could respond to Romney’s swipe about loyalty to the party by criticizing his conservative bona fides. Oh, and I get a twofer here – I get to take a swipe at Huckabee and a swipe at the Fish Wrapper. Its reporter is simply wrong to call Huckabee’s reference to Oklahoma as a “great Southern state” a gaffe. Oklahomans think of themselves as Southerners.

By the way, since I’m thinking about Republicans – here’s all you need to know about the status of Rudy Giuliani’s campaign: for the past two weeks, he’s been trailing McCain in New York. So much for six months of being the “front-runner.” My guess is that you Readers are right, and that McCain will win Florida, and Giuliani will then have to decide what, exactly, he can possibly do after he loses his firewall and becomes less relevant to this race than Ron Paul. But losing in New York -- if Rudy can't make it there, he can't make it an-y-where!

January 25, 2008

The Tom Cruise Test

There’s been a lot of talk about a truly bizarre Scientology recruitment video made by Tom Cruise about four years ago. (If you watch the video and are confused because you can’t make any sense of what Tom is saying in between his fits of maniacal laughter, MTV has a glossary for you.) But really, how much more bizarre is Scientology than, say, Mormonism? Or, for that matter, what Primitive Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists believe?

Now, I absolutely agree that Scientology is a profoundly weird set of “teachings” and everything I’ve seen about the Church of Scientology looks a whole lot like it’s a scam meant to relieve Tom Cruise of his surplus money. But people who are in the Church of Scientology don’t feel that way about it at all.

Keep in mind, I’m an atheist. I don’t see any reason to think that the theology of Scientology is any more or less credible than the various Genesis creation myths or the idea that the universe is banana-shaped and rests atop a giant turtle. When I abandoned Roman Catholicism (well, actually quite a bit before that) I found myself lacking the ability to distinguish one form of mythology from another in any principled way; some of it seemed more familiar to me than the rest, but none of it seemed any more credible than the rest of it. But I also realize that people join churches and profess belief for a variety of reasons, some of which include being attracted to the spirit of community and fellowship that the church offers, sympathy with the moral teachings of that church, the pleasant feelings and emotions generated from pursuit of that version of spirituality which the church offers, or a desire to support the charitable activities for which the church works.

So while I don’t feel that way myself, I can understand that maybe some people find those pursuits worthwhile. (I think supporting charity is worthwhile, but there are plenty of opportunities to support a wide variety of charities in a secular manner.) It seems to me that Scientology provides at least some of those things to its members. It’s expensive, by all accounts, beyond the entry-level membership.

If the kinds of reasons I said above that seem valid for joining a “mainstream” religious organization like a church or a synagogue, aren’t they equally valid reasons to become a Scientologist? Why should I distrust Scientology any more than I would distrust, for instance, a Baptist church that tithes its members? Does the Church of Scientology give nothing to its adherents in exchange for the money they pay to it? If you say “yes,” then how is that different than this hypothetical Baptist church? Put another way, where is the line that separates Scientology from Roman Catholicism?

I posit that whatever dividing line results from that analysis will become the “Tom Cruise test.” If someone can explain to a thoughtful skeptic why one “church” is a valid religion and the other is a “cult” or a “scam,” that will be a very useful social science tool indeed.

Conosce Che Cosa Gradisce (She Knows What She Likes)

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

Doggie-Friendly Wanderlust

As many of my friends know, I have a penchant for travel, for going to places different than my usual haunts. Even when we lived in a place as beautiful as Tennessee, I found that being in the same old place for months at a time was soporific. I remember meeting people who said, with pride, that they had never left the borders of Knox County in their lives, not even to go to Gatlinburg or Nashville -- while they seemed proud to be so "home town," that sounded akin to a prison sentence to me.

A trip out of town, even for a weekend, is a generally effective tonic to the problem of one's surroundings becoming insipid. Now, as I wrote at some length the other night, having pets is a drag on that sort of plan for recreation. Pets need maintenance and attention, and I feel badly enough that we work so much and have to confine the animals for hours at a time. I realize that dogs and cats don't see confinement as a necessarily bad thing, but all the same I know they like human company as much as we like theirs. (I can't even imagine what it would be like to have a baby. Over several iterations in the past few years, we've seen various friends try to travel with their babies. It's a moveable feast, a festival of schlepping around hundreds of pounds of stuff.)

So, I found the right wife, one who shares my disinterest in having kids. But we like our animals very much, and we also like to take these trips, which creates something of a tension with respect to the time involved.

The cats are significantly less work to tend to than the dogs -- we can buy timed feeding devices, for instance, and leave out big bowls of water, and they'd be fine for three or four days at a time completely on their own. (We'd have to figure out a way to deny them access to the kitchen cabinets in the interim or they'd eat all of our food, too -- but that's a problem we can solve later.) I'd suggest simply leaving the food out for the cats, but they compete to eat food faster and seem to always be hungry; so I fear they would plow through a five-pound bag of cat food in about twenty minutes.

But the dogs require more maintenance, because they have to poop outside and need a higher degree of human interaction and exercise. So that's what keeps us coming home instead of traveling. Kenneling the animals is an option, but a little bit pricey. And I feel less bad about asking a friend to come by once every two days or so to check up on the cats than I would about asking a friend to come by three times a day to check up on the dogs.

We can take day trips without too much difficulty; if we can get mobile in the morning after feeding the animals and getting the dogs out in the back yard for a few minutes, we can drive an hour to an hour and a half, do something for a few hours, and then drive home, in pretty much the same amount of time that we would normally spend at work. That gives us about a hundred-mile radius for such a trip. Enough to go do one thing, and maybe have a meal, in Los Angeles; if we push the time a little bit, we can go as far as Santa Barbara.

I've reached the point mentally that going to Los Angeles is simply not different enough from my usual circumstances that it would satisfy my desire for geographical variety. I need something different. I want to see green things that aren't juniper bushes or Joshua trees, and water that isn't stagnant mud in a ditch. I want to eat somewhere that isn't a branded chain or franchise. I like going to hilly places where wine is grown; I've wanted to take The Wife to see the sequoias and the Sierras since we moved back to California (but she was more interested in San Francisco, and that was fun too).

So it was with no small amount of pleasure that I stumbled across Dog Friendly Travel. I'm not being paid to endorse the website and there are surely several others similar to it. But the idea of taking our dogs with us on a weekend jaunt is appealing in its own right -- we can do dog-friendly things like taking walks in the woods (yes, we know the dogs would drive away a lot of the wildlife but so be it) and strolling through little towns, and having the dogs hang out while we eat outside in a cafe is very appealing. But mainly having the critters with us, knowing that they're safe and tended to, while still being able to go visit somewhere new or at least different, is the real attraction. I found some B&B's that like dogs in the Sierras, so that's the way I'm leaning. I doubt The Wife wants to go now -- it's cold there and she doesn't do cold well. But in May or June, when things start to get warm, a little retreat to the high country with the dogs sounds like a great thing.

January 24, 2008

That's Two Smoking-Hot Potential First Ladies Out Of The Race Now

There are now no more sprites, pixies, leprechauns, elves, or dwarves left in the Presidential race. (According to The Wife, there is still one gnome.) The release of one Democratic delegate to "uncommitted" status will ... not affect things at all. However, it will significantly alter my next poll for the blog, which will ask Readers to vote for the most attractive spouse of any of the presidential candidates. I was figuring Elizabeth Kucinich would win that one handily.

No Savings Allowed

I like low taxes and I like getting tax refunds. I like money.

But from a policy perspective, I’m not sure I like the idea of nearly every man, woman, and child in the country getting cold, hard cash from the government. That, however, looks like exactly what is going to happen. $600 for each adult taxpayer and $300 for each dependent minor. We're already running a horrific deficit -- and selling that debt to China, which doesn't seem like a particularly good policy (for either us or for China, when you think about it). I don't know that this is so poorly-concieved that it counts as a Really Bad Idea, but it just doesn't seem necessary to me.

Consider -- The Wife and I are already in relatively comfortable circumstances; at least, we're comfortable enough to want for no necessities of life and to be debating where and when we will take a vacation this year. I'm well aware that we're quite fortunate to even be able to have that discussion. We will simply be given twelve hundred unearned dollars, and an instruction from the government that we go spend it on something. No, we are not to put it in our retirement account. No, we are not to use it to pay down the mortgage. We should buy a big-screen TV with it, or go on a nice weekend trip. In short, we are to inject the money, immediately if possible, into the economy. So are you, Reader (assuming you are a taxpayer in the United States). Buy groceries if you like, or hire a contractor to help out finishing up that home improvement project. But whatever you do, don’t save it. Don’t invest it. No, no, no! Be a good American, and consume. Oh, and please remember this in November!

The Horror

It's a slogan in our justice system that it's better that a thousand guilty men walk free than one innocent man go to prison. Somehow, though, a lot of people people don't seem to actualize that slogan.

The media has picked up the story of Tim Masters, a man convicted in 1999 of a murder that took place twelve years beforehand, who has recently been freed on the basis of DNA evidence that strongly suggests he was not the killer. He says the detective in charge of the investigation let his ego get in the way of dispassionately investigating the facts, and that the evidence against him -- stories he wrote and cartoons and drawings he made, the fact that he reported finding the victim's body and a forensic psychologist's expert opinion -- does not link him at all to the murder. I'm going to mention his case to my students today; it may be particularly useful to the kids on the defense team.

Here, I want to explore two other ideas. First, we need to take the slogan about keeping innocent people out of prison seriously. Prison is a terrible, awful place. It's a horrific thing to take a person's freedom away. Try to imagine, Readers, what it would be like to be imprisoned. You don't get to spend comfortable hours on your couch reading blogs. You get to share a cell with three to five bunkmates. You are at constant risk of violence from them and your fellow prisoners. You get an hour a day to exercise. You get to eat when you are told to eat and what you are given to eat. You likely have to go to the bathroom in front of your fellow prisoners. You have nothing to read or otherwise occupy your mind. You are surrounded by bad, violent people. Even if the prison is run with professionalism and all of your other rights are recognized, your every action, every second of the day, is directly controlled by the state and you live not at all unlike a caged animal. When you do get out, no one will hire you for any real job, and no one believes you when you insist that you are innocent. Your liberty is never fully restored; you must report to police and parole officers wherever you go and register as a paroled felon; you may not be able to leave the state or even the county of your release.

This man lost nearly ten years of his life on the basis of a legal system run amok. I can see how judges -- most of them former prosecutors -- are pressured to admit any relevant evidence, and the Supreme Court has given strong signals for nearly twenty years that the state is to be permitted wide latitude in introducing evidence for criminal prosecutions. Prosecutors, too, are under great public and political pressure to secure convictions, from a public justifiably concerned about violence. But the legal system exists precisely in order to serve as a check on that kind of zeal, and the power of its ability to check and balance zeal against justice and fairness must not be diminished.

That is why a wrongful conviction is so terrible. That is why we have such elaborate safeguards in our legal system. That is why we should not take criminal procedure casually or see it as an obstacle to justice.

Second, I can't help but notice that Mr. Masters is a good-looking white guy from Colorado. He is photogenic and articulate. He had a high-profile case that attracted some media attention during the trial. His family must have some means; they may not be affluent but they had enough money to pay detectives and forensic scientists to conduct tests and there was a competent lawyer working on his behalf -- so there were some resources available to him to help prove his innocence. These characteristics makes him very unusual amongst the population of people who have served time in prison. Most people in prison are black or latino men. I don't recall ever seeing so much publicity or press or sympathy for a black man who was found to be wrongfully convicted. But his time and lost life is worth every bit as much as Masters' is. We should be as outraged for these people as we are about Masters. But those stories don't catch fire.

I guess this is no different than media reports on missing pretty blonde girls; black and latina girls go missing at least as often as rich white girls do, but we never seem to hear about that. Black and latino men (and women) get convicted of crimes they did not commit, too; but we don't hear very much about that, either. While our sense of injustice about Masters' case should not be diminished in any way because of these facts, we should remember that race plays a role in the criminal justice system and try to work, hard, to treat people in a more evenhanded way.

Congratulations to Mr. Masters for getting his freedom back and, apparently, for proving his innocence -- and the best of luck to him in building a new life for himself. Would that all wrongfully-convicted prisoners be so fortunate.

Nothing -- He's Learned Nothing At All

What is it with Presidents named Bush? They like to leave messy foreign policy entanglements for their successors to deal with. The first President Bush left Somalia and Bosnia, and his successor could no more find a clean, politically satisfactory response to those situations than did GHWB. And now, we have this.

On its face, the "Declaration of Principles" sounds like a bunch of vague, squishy diplomatic language, the bulk of which is entirely unobjectionable and meaningless. So it was not submitted to the Senate as a treaty. But there is a clause that states that the U.S. will guarantee the stability of the elected government in Iraq against all future threats, internal and external. That means we'd have to take up sides and arms in the event of a new civil war in Iraq.

It also means that if a party hostile to the U.S. takes power through democratic means in Iraq, we would be bound to support it in such a civil war. Obviously, we wouldn't actually do such a thing, but that would represent breaking our word at that point. And there are ample precedents for democratic governments being hostile to the U.S. Hamas winning the elections in Palestine is only the most extreme example of this. Even archrival Iran seems to have a government that incorporates principles of meaningful checks and balances within the government and which yields final decision-making power to the people via indirect representative democracy, which in that sense is not so very different than our own government. The lesson here is not that Iran is our equivalent, the lesson is that democracy does not always produce results that are ultimately desirable, either in a cosmic ideological sense or from a short-term, foreign policy realism perspective. Marrying ourselves to democracy when it is feasible for a democratic election to produce such catastrophically awful results does not make any sense at all.

More importantly, it looks a lot like the President is trying to slip in to this document a binding commitment to continued military action in Iraq -- one that will tie his successor's hands and prevent a withdrawal from Iraq. Now, I think that we need to stay in Iraq indefinitely and in that sense I tend to agree that this is a good idea. But that doesn't mean that I think that the President should be able to do this. I think the President's successor ought to figure that out for herself, as I'm pretty confident she already has, and govern accordingly.

We have a legal and proper way of firming up our commitment to Iraq. That way is called a "treaty." A treaty requires the collaboration of the Senate. The President is unwilling to submit his proposal to the Senate, so he simply proclaims it to be law -- and thereby stakes a claim for the ability to reach a binding commitment to another nation. This bypasses an important check and balance in our Constitution, and it is that bypass to which I object. After all, if the people of this country decide that my take on the Iraqi situation is wrong, and insist that the troops be pulled out, that is what needs to happen even if the consequences are bad. That's what it is to be in a democracy -- you submit to the legitimate will of the majority, even if you think its decisions are unwise. So if it is clear that the voters want the troops home now, that's what the President needs to make happen.

Yet another example of the tendency of the President to gravitate towards one-man rule. Even as a lame duck, stripped of control of Congress in a public repudiation of his policy in Iraq, George W. Bush continues to act as though the other two branches of our government are mere obstacles to be sidestepped or ignored in the relentless pursuit of imposing his will on the rest of the world.

Is it January 20 yet?

January 23, 2008

Looks Like It'll Be Awesome

When the technical kinks get worked out, it'll cost you $200,000 for a ride into outer space. You'd get about four and a half minutes of weightlessness and the view would be astonishing. I can only imagine what the stars must look like. Then you'd land in something that would look and fly like a small jet aircraft.

I don't have that kind of scratch to burn on that kind of an experience. But I wish I did.

We Don't Need Tort Reform

We need judges and juries. People whose critical thinking skills are not under anesthesia. We need to trust these people to sort through the good cases from the bad ones. The system works fine with smart people who can see through bullshit.

Today I was pleasantly reminded that even weak judges can see through bullshit, as my colleague won a case that has dragged on for far too long; after five weeks of trial (it should have taken only one) the plaintiff rested and the judge granted my colleague's nonsuit motion because this was the Seinfeld Trial -- a lot of talk about nothing. If the judge had been stronger, it wouldn't have taken this long to get to this point. But we did get there.

Then I see all these ads floating around the internet saying that "Lawsuit Abuse Is Real," with the picture of those poor people who got sued by that OCD former administrative law judge on a poorly-written law in D.C. for the missing pair of pants. So sure, lawsuit abuse happens. Our client shouldn't have been sued in that case my colleague just won. But it would be worse if people couldn't file lawsuits. The guardians against lawsuit abuse ought not to be legislators -- they are judges and juries.

Those Damn Cats

The Wife goes to bed these days at something like 7:30 in the evening. (She gets up very early, too, which is why it seems on some days I barely see her.) So that leaves me on many nights to get the animals put away, which is not a chore I mind very much. But the cats have become a gigantic pain in the ass to tend to at night.

Here's the root of the problem: the vent into our bedroom does not work very well, so we can pretty much only get adequate heat in there if we open the doors into the hallway. That's particularly important to The Wife, who complains of being cold all the time, so I'd like her to be comfortable at night while going to sleep. But, leaving the bedroom doors open is an invitation to the critters to come into the bedroom and sleep with us. One cat, which from shoulder to ass is less than twelve inches long, can and will find a way to take up eight square feet of surface space on a queen-sized mattress intended to comfortably sleep two regular-sized adults. The dogs also have a taste for sleeping on people beds, so they too will share the bed with us given any opportunity. And, we have found that any room to which the critters are given access is quickly covered in fur. Therefore, they must be confined to other areas of the house at night. Soffit House being considerably smaller than Rented Mansion In The Desert, we have found only a few options for this, and the one that seems to work best is the spare bedroom.

The dogs are pretty good with this. They like the routine of having somewhere to go at night and the spare bedroom has a people bed in it. Only the big dog can get on it, since the bed is astonishingly high off the ground. I don't think the little dog can jump up that high. But there are dog beds on the floor and they both like having their own place to go at night and during the day when we're both at work. No, the problem is the cats.

The one cat cannot stop getting in to things. The entire time she is at liberty in the house, she is trying to open cabinet doors, drawers, and constantly knocking things over. She is why we can't have too many nice things out. Bang! Bang! Bang! go the cabinet doors all day as she prowls about the house, opening cabinets to look for food. Or plastic. She likes to chew on plastic. Anything that's in a plastic bag, she will chew on. She'll eat what's inside it, at least some of it, but she'll chew through an empty plastic bag, too. She likes to take our food out of the kitchen cabinets and chew on it. Whether raw spaghetti, instant oatmeal, or almonds are good for cats, I have no idea. We've tried velcro on the cabinet doors, and she figured out how to get around that. I really don't want to install the child safety catches on every cabinet in the house -- they're a gigantic pain in the ass, as far as I'm concerned, and I can't figure out how they install anyway. I'm not made for a child-proofed house. No kids, so no reason to child-proof.

Fortunately, this cat is also somewhat dim, and she tires easily. It doesn't take too much chasing or trickery to catch her. We put her in the spare bedroom at night so that we can get some rest -- but we found that she doesn't like being in the spare bedroom, and will scratch and claw at the closed door, nonstop. It's very loud, and will wake me up. She does it about sixty seconds out of every two hundred when she wants out, which is all the time that she's confined to the spare bedroom. So, we have to kennel her in the bedroom.

But the other cat is pissing me off more tonight. This cat is the prima donna. The scardey-cat. She does not like to be touched or approached very much anyway, and does not like the dogs at all. (Neither dog is ever actually hostile to her, but they do want to play sometimes, which behavior she interprets as a threat. So she runs from them -- which to a dog, is play, aggravating the situation). She particularly does not like to be confined in any fashion. Left loose and alone in the house, she will wander about the kitchen and dining room, getting up on the counters to scavenge for food -- and miaowing loudly to beg. The Wife indulges both cats during mealtimes, by the way, by letting them sit on her lap and be near the people food; consequently, she has taught the cats that people food is just within their grasp. Cats being cats, they are ready to take the next step and actually go for it -- especially when unsupervised. So, if this cat is left loose at night, in addition to sleeping in our bed, she will cry until she is given a cat treat and track her dirty paws all over my nice marble kitchen countertop.

Unfortunately for me, this prima donna cat, unlike her counterpart, is very smart. She learns the very first time she is subject to something unpleasant. Everything associated with anything she finds unpleasant later generates fear. So when we go to get dog treats, she runs and hides -- because she knows that means the dogs will act rambunctiously. She is also not so strongly motivated by a desire for treats as she is by fear of being exposed to something unpleasant. So, I've been able to tempt her with treats once or twice, but now she will not go for treats when I am present, because she knows that sometimes, when I leave treats out for her, that means I'm going to pick her up and put her in the spare bedroom with the dogs. Then she'll have to hide inside the box spring because she doesn't think the dogs know she's in there. I've done this enough that I can no longer tempt her with treats to either go in the spare bedroom on her own, or to get herself in an area long enough that I can pick her up to carry her in there. Same thing with the cat food -- she likes the food just fine, but she's constantly wary and if I approach while she's eating, especially if it's dark outside, she will abandon the food in favor of her liberty.

At night, she runs and hides from me, knowing that I will seek to confine her to the spare bedroom so as to be able to open the master bedroom door and not sleep in a room as cold as a meat locker. So, she has found all sorts of spots where a human can't readily reach down and pick her up. She'll hide under the coffee table -- and when you move the table, she'll run behind the couch. Reach behind the couch, and she runs under the dining room table, in the forest of table and chair legs. Move a chair aside to get her there, and she runs under the kitchen island. Move the island, and she's back under the coffee table. She also keeps her macro-geography in mind, and will not run down the hall to the area where the spare bedroom is. She does not seem to tire very easily, and because she is quick to find spots that are just out of human reach, she can grab quick rests while the human has to move things around or bend down awkwardly. And she's a fast runner, one of the original feline missiles. So, when she wants to evade me, she can do so more or less indefinitely. If The Wife helps, it's pretty easy for one of the two of us to catch her, and the game's up. But I can't do it on my own.

Now, sure, she's come up to sleep right next to me after spending ten minutes licking her ass (charming behavior, that). But like most cats, she's a very light sleeper. She's learned that when I move the computer off my lap, that means I'm going to get up, and that means that I might try to pick her up and put her in the spare bedroom. So she looks sweet and calm, sleeping on the corner of the sofa. But every time I set the computer aside, she runs and hides again. The result is that now I'm tired, and frustrated, after having chased my cat all over the damn house only to have her wander in to the office and sit down next to me as if she owned the place. I don't see her cuteness paying the mortgage, I can tell you that much.

I wonder if life might not be easier if we didn't have the cats at all. We could take dog-friendly road trips on the weekends, and not have to worry about feeding the felines. I wouldn't have to chase the cats all over the damn place. They wouldn't scratch up all the furniture, bang cabinet doors obsessively, or hork up hairballs periodically. Of course, we chose to have a menagerie and this is the result of that choice. It's all I can do to stop the place from filling up with puppies and kittens, which are both really cute, but also really labor-intensive, messy, and smelly. But actually reducing the herd to a more manageable number is out of the question.

Update: An hour and a half after sitting down to vent my frustrations about those damn cats, the little prima donna finally fell asleep within arms' length of me. I let her sleep for a while and then threw her fuzzy butt in the spare bedroom with no fuss -- I don't think the dogs even woke up. So now I can at last, at 11:00 p.m., open up the master bedroom.

Everything Is Offensive, or, Left-Wing Idiocy Obviously Not Confined To The Western Side Of The Atlantic Ocean

A prize-winning cartoon based on the classic story of The Three Little Pigs has been deemed ineligible for British governmental award eligibility because... Wait for it...

It might offend Muslims
.

The thing of it is, the kinds of Muslims who might be offended by something so innocuous as The Three Little Pigs would be offended by a dhimmi sneezing or the existence of a BLT on whole wheat toast. And the spineless bureaucrat who made this decision is not Muslim herself -- she's just worried that some Muslims might be offended by it despite the fact that, so far as I can tell, no actual Muslim has actually complained about it.

If the standard for praiseworthiness of something is that someone, somewhere, might somehow be offended by it, then there would be nothing published at all. It would be an intellectually sterile world indeed if everything were required to be completely and totally inoffensive. That's not to say we should deliberately mock people for their religion -- but this is taking it way too far in the other direction.

The Italians Are Better At Government Than Anyone Else

From time to time, because I do things like talk with students about political theory, I hear arguments that a parliamentary system is better than what we have in the U.S.A. Italy, for instance, has a parliamentary system, and there is news from there today. Now sure, to us in the United States, it appears that the center-left coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi is on the verge of collapse because a small party with a few seats in Italy's upper house of parliament decided to pull their support of the government. Sure, that looks like a tiny splinter group with the support of only a tiny fraction of the Italian electorate is capable of bringing the government there to a screeching halt; it looks like that tiny minority can therefore make demands and get what it wants despite the large majority of Italians not being in favor of their proposal. That's what it looks like. But appearances can be deceiving. We need to remember, the Italians have been in the business of governance for three thousand years. They excel at government. Why, since the end of World War II, they've had thirty-nine governments.

How To Try A Case With No Witnesses, or, Never Underestimate The Didactic Power of Television

So I'm in court the other day, doing not one, not two, but five evictions. I'm busy doing settlements and it takes me four hours to get four of them done. When I look up, and the last one is still there, I noticed that my client still hadn't checked in. So I called her up. She picked up her cell phone right away (she is a real estate agent, after all).

"Hey, there, Client. This is TL, the lawyer you hired to handle that eviction."

"Yes, yes. What's going on?"

"Well, it's 10:30. Trial was called two hours ago. Where are you?"

"I'm... I'm in Los Angeles. There was a bad accident on the freeway and it's raining, so traffic was really bad. I just went back to my office." (I guess she just had better things to do than actually show up at trial for a lawsuit she wanted filed.)

"Well, I kind of need you here, Client. The defendant is here and so far I've been able to defer the Court from calling the case. The defendant has made a totally unreasonable settlement offer."

"What does this have to do with me?"

"I won't take her settlement offer so I need a witness to try it. With no witness, I'll have to dismiss the case."

"What? Why?"

"Because I don't have a client here to provide testimony."

"What do you need testimony for? You're the lawyer, why don't you take care of this?"

"Do you ever watch Law and Order on TV?"

"Yes."

"Have you ever, once, seen the prosecutors get up in court, without any witnesses, and say, 'Hey, Your Honor, take my word for it, he did it.'? That doesn't get them a conviction."

She paused. "I understand. What should I do?"

"Get here, or give me unlimited authority to settle the case." She chose the latter, I got the case settled -- everybody's happy. Well, I was a little frustrated, but I guess that's sometimes part of a good story.

January 22, 2008

A Waste

It's such a shame to see reports that Heath Ledger died. Unknown and probably unknowable if it was a suicide or an accident, but it seems he overdosed on sleeping pills. Young, good-looking, the world at his feet. He had some build-up-the-career roles, then he really showed some substantial acting chops, and jerked real tears, in Brokeback Mountain. He'd just finished playing the Joker in the next Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and that would have taken his career to a whole new level. He had everything imaginable going for him. Maybe it was more success than he wanted, and this was the only way out that he could see. Such a shame.

What Was That All About?

As expected, Fred Thompson has dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. He did it a day later than I thought he would. He never really seemed to be in the race, to me -- there were sure a lot of Fred Heads around the Internets but the candidate himself did not seem to be doing the sorts of things that candidates do. In terms of policy, he didn't seem to bring anything to the table that wasn't already there from the other candidates; he had ideological credentials as solid as anyone else's. He had both good sound bites and some thoughtful policy papers but also seemed to want to step away from campaigning to do things like take naps. In one sense, I think he was trying to do a different kind of campaign -- but this cycle has seen that the way national politics is being practiced successfully is to do it more and early, not less and late. Well, Fred Heads, it's over now. Thompson has not endorsed any of his five rivals, so his delegates are now functionally released. I've removed him from the delegate counter.

January 21, 2008

Patronizing Headline

Something about this headline, and the story that follows it: "Gender or race: Black women voters face tough choices in S.C.", strikes me as offensively patronizing. Can a voter in South Carolina pick between several available candidates based only on demographics?

Or might the voters be able to discern something more than race and sex?

Isn't it possible instead that the voters might prefer one candidate over another based on what they might do as President, based on their policy platforms, based on their intelligence and their abilities to govern and lead? Might not an African-American woman in South Carolina, who is registered to vote as a Democrat, rationally prefer John Edwards to Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? After all, Edwards is offering a substantively different set of policy proposals than the very similar packages offered by Obama and Clinton.

Indeed, might not an African-American woman in South Carolina choose to be registered as something other than a Democrat? I realize that a great majority of them are Democrats, and there probably aren't very many African-American women in South Carolina who had to choose between John McCain and Mike Huckabee last week, but I think that people these days are a bit more complex and heterogenous than CNN is giving them credit for being.

No News From Florida

I spoke with my parents today, who have been travelling around Florida for the past couple of weeks. They have seen no political ads on television or heard any on the radio. TV is not much of a surprise; they’ve been staying with and visiting friends who have DirecTV, so they wouldn’t have been seeing any local commercials anyway. The only signs they’ve seen have been for Romney and Ron Paul and politics has apparently not figured prominently on peoples’ minds, at least as far as the people they’ve been interacting with have gone. This seems amazing to me, since my parents and their peers with whom they would have been interacting are all demographically high-propensity voters who should be directly targeted by any intelligent campaign, and they’ve been in areas with dense enough populations (the Palm Beach area, the I-4 corridor, and now up in the Panhandle) that those areas should all be in saturation coverage only one week before an election.

All the campaigns seem to be broke right now. Haven't the four biggest campaigns raised something like a hundred million dollars each? And media buys in Florida? One week before the primary there? Where did all the money go?

Then again, with retail politics like this, I can't imagine how going wholesale would be an improvement. Willard... dude. You're a sixtysomething white boy from Massachusetts, and you've got no business complimenting an African-American teenager in Daytona Beach about his "bling bling." If you don't know when to use one "bling" or two, you aren't going to be able to keep it real in the first place. You won't know that a Baha Men reference is so eight years ago. Just be yourself instead, people will at least respect you more.

His Wife Is Smoking Hot, After All

I heard a rumor yesterday that Fred Thompson was going to drop out of the race, after his disappointing showing in South Carolina. He has other things to do:

Barack Obama's Rhetoric

Senator Obama’s speech yesterday at Ebeneezer Church in Atlanta reads beautifully. In the hands of a skilled public speaker like him, it must have been moving to hear. Make no mistake, it is populism and it suggests some policies that would work to the ultimate detriment of the country. But it also contains a message of hope and unity, of self-examination, of a call to a moral high ground that seems to have been abandoned.

It would be too nice and idealistic to think he is re-casting himself as the next great moral leader of the country, a worthy successor to Martin Luther King, Jr.; but it would also be too cynical to think he is doing nothing more than going through the motions in order to get elected. The truth, I think, is somewhere in between – he’s plying the political trade, but for all the right reasons, the reasons why politicians get into the game in the first place, before they too become cynical and jaded.

It would be easy to be carried away with the promise and the hope he is selling; but it is also worth considering that our long march towards fulfilling our national ideals of equality and liberty is not yet complete, and somebody has to lead us to the next step. I don't have a crush on him, but I can easily understand why Democrats do. (Ah, if only he were a Republican, advocating sensible policies, coupled with that extraordinary charisma.)

Readers, you might consider comparing his remarks to the original speech by Dr. King, unquestionably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, speech delivered in American history. I've made an excerpt of that speech my Quote of the Moment, and included a YouTube video of the speech in the right-hand column. The whole speech is just over fifteen minutes long and if you've only ever read about the speech in history class, it's well worth taking the time to listen to the whole thing. It sends shivers down my spine and puts tears in my eyes -- it is an extraordinary American at his very, very best; indeed, it is America at her very, very best.

January 20, 2008

Simply Outplayed

The New York Football Giants simply made fewer mistakes. Their defense shut down the Green Bay Packers solidly; Green Bay got three (3) first downs in the second half of the game. Special teams were sloppy all around. New York made its living on short yardage and the run; Green Bay lived, and died, by the big pass. Neither team had any shortage of opportunities to score and put things away, and for a while it seemed that neither could seal the deal -- until Favre's interception in overtime gave the Giants the ball at the outside of field goal range. You can't commit a turnover like that and so the exciting 2007 season comes to an end. Well, I said New York would come and play tough, and that's what they did. That's how the beat the Cowboys, too. So, I'll watch the Super Bowl, to see if the Giants can take it to New England like they did on the last game of the season. Those Giants are very adaptable and will have learned from their past experiences. But the big question now, as it was after last season, is whether Favre will step down over the off-season.

January 19, 2008

Super Bowl Poll

With only fourteen hours left to vote (I opted to end voting just before the conference championships) two-thirds of NAPP Readers think that New England will pull it off and win the Super Bowl after their undefeated season. It's pleasing to see that five out of seven readers have enough faith in the Packers to vote for them.

I'll not be posting for most of tomorrow as I'll be with a friend for the game. But you'd better believe I'll be pulling for Brett and the boys. The weather for tomorrow in Green Bay will be Really Damn Cold (about zero degrees and falling throughout the game) with moderate winds, but it will be partly cloudy with little chance of snow. If blogbuddy Leila (a Giants fan) is there, have a good time and stay warm!

South Carolina and Nevada

A bigger night for Republicans than Democrats. The Democrats' primary in South Carolina is next week.

The early results appear to have John McCain winning South Carolina despite a strong showing among the evangelical voters there for Mike Huckabee. It also looks like, by clear majorities, Mitt Romney won Nevada. Ron Paul seems to have come in second place in Nevada, which adds some credibility to his faltering campaign. Duncan Hunter is dropping out and has not, yet, endorsed anyone. Fred Thompson came in third in South Carolina but I don't think that will be enough to keep him viable. But I also can't think of a good reason why he should drop out of the race until at least February 6.

For the Democrats, it seems odd to me that Hillary Clinton is being called the winner despite Barack Obama getting one more delegate than her out of the state. John Edwards got only single-digit support in Nevada and no delegates. I think Edwards is out of steam, but I can't think of what incentive he would have to drop out at this point -- he does not want to be anyone's running mate and has made that very clear.

I've updated the delegate counter to conform with CNN's projections, which includes pledged superdelegates and similar kinds of delegate support, despite the fact that not all the delegates come directly from elections or caucuses. The overall picture is one of uncertainty -- both parties would like to coalesce around a candidate, but both are unable to really decide whether or not to do that yet.

Movie Review: Cloverfield

For some kinds of movies, you go for the story, for the script and the dialogue. For others, you go for the actors. A monster movie, you go to so that you can be be scared by the monster. If you like that sort of thing, you should immediately go see Cloverfield to see that kind of story told a way that you've not seen before.

Okay, you may have seen a story told this way before. You may have seen The Blair Witch Project, for instance. But Blair Witch was not satisfying on one level -- you never got to see the witch or even to learn if there was a witch at all or if it was some psychopath or if the characters freaked themselves out to death or if maybe one of the characters was doing it or what. Cloverfield gives you what you want to see -- it's a monster movie, after all -- but in the verisimilitude-heavy first-person-camera faux-found-film manner that was the hallmark of Blair Witch.

The story begins with a farewell party for a young New Yorker, which is interrupted by the monster's attack. A character is filming the party as a memento for the honoree, and because of that, he starts to record the attack. We follow him and his party of friends as they try to survive. All we ever get to see or learn is what they see and learn. They don't get any background on the mythology or origin of the monster. They don't get to learn why they are being attacked or why the monster came to New York. They don't get elaborate explanations of what's going on from the other characters they encounter. We get a victims-eye view of the attack, from start to finish. In the end, we don't even get to find out... Oh, well, but that would be spoiling it.

The producers made a very good choice to film using a cast of virtually unknown actors. Because you've likely never seen any of these actors before (unless you pay really, really close attention to the few TV series that they've been in), it's easy to set aside the idea that these are actors in a movie and that everything you see has been elaborately staged and choreographed. Instead, you can suspend your disbelief enough to think that this is really what people in New York would be going through if Godzilla attacked or something like that. The jerky, random camera work heightens the idea that this is an amateur using a handheld camcorder rather than a professional setting up a shot for with artfully crafted angles and blocking to assist with the narrative. (It actually is, but the director and the cinematographer do a great job of making it look like it's really the randomly-taken shots of one of the characters.)

Unfortunately, this technique has a significant downside -- there are rarely any shots at all that are stable for more than five seconds or so. If you aren't prepared for this kind of camera work -- and some of it is quite violent and sustained for lengthy periods of time -- the movie will give you a terrible headache and can be very difficult to follow. Once you get used to it, the story becomes a little bit easier to follow, but for a while it's really distracting. Also in order to simulate the cameras-eye-view aspect of the film, a lot of lighting quality had to be sacrificed, which means that some things are not seen very well. Because of this quality of the movie, I'm afraid The Wife did not enjoy the film at all. (I liked it plenty.)

Aside from the deliberately terrible camera work, there are some moments, particularly in the film's third act, that require too great an effort to sustain willing disbelief. This is unfortunate, because the film does a very good job otherwise of drawing you into the world of New York City under attack. The actors are convincing in their roles, especially considering that it's likely they were doing a lot of work against blue screens and some of their foils were likely created by CGI. Sadly, there isn't a lot of character development and as a result, you never really feel a lot of sympathy for or identification with the characters.

The movie is short at 87 minutes, but once you get past the relatively uninteresting first act, it's quite intense. The suspense -- when will the monster attack next, how will the party survive -- dovetails nicely into the lack of explanation for what's going on (beyond the obvious fact that a monster is attacking the city). Oh, and about that monster: it's plenty scary. There will be the inevitable comparisons with Godzilla, but I don't think they're even in the same league. Comparing Cloverfield's monster with Godzilla is like comparing a modern cell phone to a car phone from 1969. They're not even in the same league.

January 18, 2008

This Choked Me Up A Bit

I resolved a case just a few weeks ago. The case involved the proceeds from a life insurance policy; my client was the wife of the man who died and the other party claiming the right to the proceeds was his employer. It was threatening to turn into a bad situation. My client was very much in love with her husband, after many years of marriage, and she valued the life insurance not just for the money but because it represented the fact that her husband cared for her and wanted to provide for her after he was gone.

So, after more fighting than I thought was strictly necessary to reach this result, the other side agreed with my proposal to split the proceeds of the policy equally. Even after my firm took its fee, it was still more money than my client had ever had at any one time in her life. It was a great pleasure knowing that I'd be getting this woman some money to make her life more comfortable and secure, especially now that her husband was gone and his former employer had tried to put her through the wringer.

Today, the settlement check cleared and we distributed funds -- always a happy day, because we like paying our clients as much as we like it when they pay us. So I was taking a deposition for much of today, and this client came in to pick up her settlement check and the other evidence in the case (which is hers, after all). When I got back to my desk, I saw a little gift bag with a jewelry box and a note in it. I opened up the note and it read:

Dear TL,
This is just a token of my appreciation for all the hard work you did for me. These belonged to [my husband] and was one of his favorites. So, please wear them in good health. Thanks again for all your hard work. Sincrely, [client].

In the jewelry box was her late husband's favorite pair of cuff links. I admit they aren't quite the style I'd have chosen for myself, but that's hardly the point. I'll wear them with pride.