April 28, 2010

Badly Fragmented Court

I haven't read the opinion yet -- or I should say, all six opinions, because the concurrences and dissents interweave to create the result in Salazar v. Buono.  It would appear that the cross can remain up, so if the only thing you care about is the result, that's likely what's going to happen.  I say likely but not certainly because the matter has been remanded for further fact adjudication, but the signal from Justice Kennedy is that to him, there are some contexts in which a cross is not reasonably understood to be a religious symbol but rather a symbol commemorative of death or, more accurately, a memorial of the dead.

For what it's worth, I don't think that is an unreasonable position.  I'm not entirely sure I agree with it -- a Jewish cemetery, for instance, is devoid of crosses -- but on the other hand I cannot think of a non-religious symbol that occupies a similar place in our overall culture as the cross for use to symbolize the concept of in memoriam.  We might use the grim reaper, a scythe, a skull and crossbones, or something else to refer to death and dying, but as a call to remember the deceased, about the only thing that is as immediately evocative that I can think of as a cross would be the round-top tombstone, and that seems somehow less dignified than a cross.

So if what it really comes down to is, "Hey, it's a war memorial and you're going to find crosses at war memorials," I suppose I can live with that.  But given that there are six opinions and no majority decision at all, the reality of what we're seeing in Salazar v. Buono is akin to the mess that was made of race discrimination law after Bakke v. U.C. Regents.  What I'm really looking for in Salazar is the question of whether Justice O'Connor's "Endorsement Test" is still viable or whether a minimum of five justices affirmatively stated that they were abandoning that approach adopted by a majority of the Supreme Court in Doe v. Santa Fe Unified School District.

And I have some significant law and motion practice going on all this week, the culmination of several months' worth of work, so I really haven't as much time as I would like to read new con law cases for pleasure.  I'll just have to leave that to the academics.  But it does look like the cross can stay up.  If you are driving between Baker and Las Vegas, and you just exactly where to look, you can see it, way, way, wa-a-a-a-ay off in the distance from the freeway should you stop at that rest stop just north of Baker. 

And if you're celebrating the likely retention of the cross, consider this:  The government gets to put up and maintain crosses only when some combination of nine amateur art critics accredited with law degrees decide that, in context, the crosses lack religious significance.  If I were a Christian, I'd be moderately unsettled at the idea that the fundamental symbol of my religion was deemed to lack religious significance.

April 26, 2010

Writing Again

It's been quite a busy time in the real world, a place that I occupy much more often than the intellectually interesting but not-very-interactive land of Law And Policy Blogging.  So before I get into some thoughts about immigration reform, an update for those who care about such things.  Or indeed, I may not jump on immigration reform just yet; it's a complex and ambiguous enough subject that it does not lend itself to a one-off policy rant -- although I'll tell you right now, I'm no moatdigger and cannot imagine how the current policy regime can be feasibly sustained.

Anyway, for weekend guests, baby back ribs turned into pulled pork almost immediately as literally dozens of rib bones simply slid out of sheets of moist, tender, succulent pork and into whiskey-chipotle barbeque sauce served atop creole rice.  The Wife made tequila-lime-chipotle custard to go with it.  My shoulders and back and neck are still aching from breaking through layers of granite and quartz underneath my back yard so that The Wife could have her climbing roses and we could replace a set of fallen Italian cypress trees with a red-leafed plum.  And far too much time was spent today waiting in a doctor's office for a consultation that The Wife was required to attend due to the nature of the visit.*  The weather has turned nice and we're finally starting to get some evenings without gale force winds, so it's possible to spend a good part of the evening outdoors in the newly-reimagined back porch reading or writing.  And reading has been a pleasure, too, since a comment on a blog led me to track down a delicious fantasy novel.  Recreational reading is a pleasant change of pace from history and law.

So maybe I'll give some thought to immigration next.  Or maybe I'll play with The Sims some more.  I'm not dead, just not writing a lot for a while.


*  Warning: Linked cartoon video depicts violence inflicted upon an anthropomorphisized beaver and is in such bad taste as to be unsuitable for viewing by anyone.

April 23, 2010

Beaten To The Punch

Patrick beat me to today’s Amazingly Stupid Government Trick – when we are found to be subsidizing our cotton farmers so as to disadvantage more cost-efficient Brazilian cotton farmers, rather than agreeing to pay the sanctions, or to reform our cotton subsidies because we don’t need them in the first place, we choose instead to deficit-spend more to subsidize the Brazilian cotton farmers, too. If that doesn’t count as “Lighting Our Money On Fire” I don’t know what does.


As for blogging – well, I had work to do today. I guess Patrick didn’t.

Pornography Did Not Cause The Great Recession

First of all, I hate the phrase "Great Recession." We've got to think up something better. "The Panic of 2007" would be more historically accurate.

Second, it's astonishing that we're being told "more regulation" is the answer to what we are told is a serious and systemic problem when it turns out that the regulators seem to have spent more time looking at websites with names like "skankwire" and "naughty.com" than they did scrutinizing guys like Bernie Madoff. True, Madoff made his financial statements look good but real investigation under existing regulations would, could, and should have revealed that the published financial statements were founded on smoke and lies. It's hard indeed for me to accept the idea that new regulations are necessary when the old ones appear to have simply not been enforced. We'll see what happens with the SEC lawsuit against the giant vampire squid, which is predicated on existing laws, turns out.

Third, the failure of a regulator to prevent a crisis is not the same thing as causing the crisis in the first place. FEMA did not cause Hurricane Katrina. FEMA failed to mitigate the damage from the hurricane by botching the rescue and cleanup efforts. Failing to mitigate the damage is not the same thing as causing it in the first place. What caused the financial crisis was 1) the collapse of the residential real estate and critical commodities (oil, strategic metals) bubbles, which was fueled by 2) the innovation of easy terms of highly flexible credit terms and governmental assent to easy innovative credit, which in turn was fueled by 3) the willingness of financial institutions and their shareholders to richly reward financiers who consistently delivered short-term equity appreciation and unwilling to tolerate financiers who failed to deliver it.

I say "financiers" instead of "executives" because that's what a lot of them were and indeed, still are. They view their job as doing what is necessary to increase shareholder value, rather than maximizing earnings. Therein lies an intractable issue – so long as stock is freely alienable, there will always be an incentive to focus on market price rather than on dividends. The solution, or at least a part of it, may well be really unpopular in a diverse range of political quarters – increasing the costs (that is, taxes) on equity trades while decreasing the costs (that is, taxes) on dividend payouts. Shareholders will then prefer to see the return on their investments as based more on dividend payouts rather than on churning stocks.

Are Opening Pitchers Really A Good Idea?


Today at Freakonomics Blog, the idea of an "opener" position in baseball is thrown around – again. While George Will considered the idea and in fact it has been experimented with for over a hundred years in minor leagues, it's still unusual enough to merit inclusion in a place that touts "new" or "outside the box" ideas. The basic concept of an "opening pitcher" is that if you've got a good pitcher who can consistently deliver a good inning or two, why not use that pitcher to start a game rather than as a closer or a middle reliever? It's kind of a tasty-seeming alternative – you could free up some resources if you start with a really good pitcher even if that pitcher suffers from low endurance.

The big downside to this idea comes from the confluence of the sub-out rule and the fact that while all pitchers have good and bad nights, some pitchers nevertheless have more endurance than others. So if you've got a pitcher who can sustain 100 pitches or so, but who is having a bad night, you want to know that as early as you can so you can make substitutions while they're still on the roster. If you use up your consistently-good-but-low-endurance middle reliever by having him open up the first two innings of the game, you can't go back and put him in again. You still need a middle reliever.

Put yourself in the shoes of a major league manager considering this option. If everything goes as planned in a typical modern MLB game, a pitcher ideally will throw an average of about 15 pitches per inning, needing, 5 pitches to an out. (These are averages.) If things go well, your inning pattern goes like this:
1st inning
2nd inning
3rd inning
4th inning
5th inning
6th inning
7th inning
8th inning
9th inning
A: 1-15
A: 16-30
A: 31-45
A: 46-60
A: 61-75
A: 76-90
A: 91-100
B: 1-5
B: 6-20
Closer:
1-15

Here, "A" is the starter, who throws an industry-standard 100 pitches. "B" is the middle reliever, who throws 20 pitches, and the ace of the squad, the closer, throws the last inning. This works great if you can average out 15 pitches an inning and your starter does not give up a lot of runs in the 6 ⅔ innings he's asked to throw. (Oh, and if your bats get you ahead of the game by the close of the eighth inning.) You use three pitchers, one of which you need to rest for several days and the rest which you can draw on for tomorrow's games because they haven't dislocated their shoulders all that badly.

The "opener" proposal, when things go well, looks like this:
1st inning
2nd inning
3rd inning
4th inning
5th inning
6th inning
7th inning
8th inning
9th inning
B: 1-15
B: 16-30
A: 1-15
A: 16-30
A: 31-45
A: 46-60
A: 61-75
A: 76-90
Closer:
1-15

That's a little bit less strain on "A", who is now a "stretch pitcher" rather than a "starter," so he recuperates a little bit faster. You're putting only a slightly heavier workload on "B," and getting the same job done. In fact, you're probably at a bit of a defensive advantage, because switching the pitchers from "B" to "A" in the third inning will throw the batters off and not let them settle into a rhythm or a read of the pitchers early on in the game. They'll get there, but only towards the end. And you can always pull "A" and put in "C" if you sense that is happening.

But things don't always go to plan. In a regular-strategy game, let's say that "A," the starter, has a bad night. He's throwing wild, or just plain gives up too many hits and runs and you have to pull him in the third inning. Now, your anticipated pitching scenario looks like this, assuming that you are able to salvage a win with your offense:
1st inning
2nd inning
3rd inning
4th inning
5th inning
6th inning
7th inning
8th inning
9th inning
A: 1-30
A: 31-60
A: 61-65;
B: 1-15
B: 16-30
C: 1-15
C: 16-30
D: 1-15
D: 16-30
Closer: 1-15

To dig yourself out of the hole "A" gets you into, you need five pitchers, and "A" is now fatigued enough that he has to wait for the regular rotation to go around before he's ready to play again. And you need to rely on offense to do it for you, which may mean pulling pitchers for pinch-hitters if you're in the NL. An ugly game to win, but a "W" is still a "W" even if you wind up winning with a score like 14-12. Now, what happens if we change a former relief pitcher ("D" in the above example) into the "opener," and the guy you used to call a "starter" and now is expected to pitch for endurance, starts going wild and giving up the hits?
1st inning
2nd inning
3rd inning
4th inning
5th inning
6th inning
7th inning
8th inning
9th inning
D: 1-15
D: 16-30
A: 1-30
A: 31-60
A: 61-65;
C: 1-15
C: 16-30
E: 1-15
E: 16-30
Closer:
1-15

Now, you've got two fewer innings for your offense to save you, and one fewer pitcher in your bullpen to rescue you if the former starter, A, also starts giving it up like it's prom night. You've cut your margin of error, in exchange for a very small marginal defensive advantage, which has already been squandered by virtue of the bad night your stretch pitcher has suffered. So the reality of it is you're likely looking at a stop-loss spiraling out of control rather than a game in which you can salvage a win. So I think the idea of the starter being expected to last six or so innings makes sense, because you shouldn't put players in until you need to.

On the other hand, what if we do away with the idea of pitchers being asked to throw 100 pitches a night altogether? Your typical team has twelve or thirteen pitchers, four or five of which make up the starting rotation, one of which is the "ace" who is the closer, and the rest who are relief. But the rules only say that you have twenty-five spots on your roster and once a player is substituted out, he cannot come back in. So the half-pitcher rule isn't set in stone. You could have, say, nine pitchers, each of whom is expected to play only one or two innings every night. Perhaps this means not every pitcher faces every batter, but so what? An ideal playout here looks like this:
1st inning
2nd inning
3rd inning
4th inning
5th inning
6th inning
7th inning
8th inning
9th inning
A: 1-15
A: 15-30
B: 1-15
B: 15-30
C: 1-15
C: 15-30
D: 1-15
D: 15-30
Closer:
1-15

That looks pretty good, but we can't judge the strategy only by how well it works out under optimal conditions. The obvious downside here is that you are increasing the chances of putting in a pitcher who has a bad night. So if things go wrong and you have a guy who has a bad night, you pull him after one inning. Let's say, in fact, that you have two guys who have bad nights – then you might get something that looks like this:
1st inning
2nd inning
3rd inning
4th inning
5th inning
6th inning
7th inning
8th inning
9th inning
A: 1-15
A: 15-30
B: 1-30
C: 1-15
C: 16-30
D: 1-30
E: 1-15
E: 15-30
Closer:
1-15

In this example, pitchers "B" and "D" both have bad nights and it takes them twice as many pitches to get their three outs. A single pitcher makes up for two bad pitchers, which is good for long-term rotation and wear and tear; no one throws more than 30 pitches in the night so they call can recover and pitch again in a day or two. With this, you wouldn't need a twelve-to-fourteen deep bullpen but could probably do with maybe only nine. That frees up three to five spots for offensive players. That, in turn, gives you margin for error on the defensive side of things. (Fortuitously, it also means a higher-scoring game, which the fans and TV tend to like, increasing advertising revenues.) You could even pull the pitchers who are doing badly after 20 pitches or so of their floundering around:
1st inning
2nd inning
3rd inning
4th inning
5th inning
6th inning
7th inning
8th inning
9th inning
A: 1-15
A: 15-30
B: 1-20
C: 1-15
C: 16-30
D: 1-20
E: 1-15
E: 16-30
F: 1-15
F: 15-30
Closer:
1-15

Sounds good, right? Sure, you use most of your bullpen each night. But each of them has only seen light work, and they're all ready to go again the next night because you've chosen pitchers who are all middle relievers and have fast recuperation. If you're losing, well, that sucks, but again, pretty much your whole squad will be good to go again the next night. Here's the real scary risk to this low-endurance, high-substitution strategy: extra innings. If you wind up having 10 or 11 innings on a night when at least some of your pitchers are a little off, you're going to need a deep bullpen.
1st inning
2nd inning
3rd inning
4th inning
5th inning
6th inning
7th inning
8th inning
9th inning
10th inning
11th inning
A: 1-15
A: 15-30
B: 1-20
C: 1-15
C: 16-30
D: 1-20
E: 1-15
E: 16-30
F: 1-15
F: 15-30
Closer:
1-15
(blows it)
G: 1-20
H: 1-15
I: 1-15

Ten pitchers you go through. If you've shorted your bullpen to load up on offense, you are ass-out at this point and have to start having your backup catcher pitch when "I" gets worn out. So maybe you'll stick with 12 or 13 pitchers on your roster, and just play them differently? Now you've given up the offensive advantage that this strategy is intended to give you – you're supposed to have enough good batters filling those pitcher slots that you don't often need to get to using all nine pitchers on your squad. This also takes effectively out of contention the possibility of bringing in an opposing-handed pitcher specially to face down your opponent's best hitter in a clutch situation – a strategy used now in quite a lot of games. Because you need to eke at least one inning out of each pitcher, if the batting rotation lines up unfavorably for a particular pitcher, he might be stuck or you might have to take on an unreasonable risk to swap him out with someone better-suited to face a dangerous batter.

The protest may be, "Yes, these are foreseeable risks, but are they significantly more dangerous than the sorts of risks that a manager faces now?" Yes, I think they are. If your starting pitcher now gets into a clutch situation and the other team's power hitter comes up to bat with the bases loaded, it's not a huge cost to pull the starter and bring in a lefty to get a single out. And the more pitchers you have taking the mound, the more you're spreading around the risk that each pitcher is going to perform poorly. On balance, I think it's better to start out with a pitcher who will last six innings or so and not give up very much, and then start shifting pitchers around in the later parts of the game. The alternative – constantly-shifting pitchers and a depleted late-inning bullpen – deprives the manager of flexibility towards the end of the game, which is precisely when flexibility and options are needed most.

My verdict is that an "opening pitcher" style rotation only works well over time if you've got at least six pitchers who can all be counted on to deliver between 20 and 40 good pitches every night.  And if you've got that, well, you've got more options than you needed anyway.

Blame It On The Soviets For Going Away

A random thought from a psychologist:  If it seems that our country's political discourse has grown increasingly polarized, intractable, and hostile, blame the Soviet Union for it. 

Specifically, blame the Soviets for collapsing and depriving us of a meaningful enemy.  If we have a common enemy, a common repository for our instinctual aggression and hostility, then whatever differences we have amongst ourselves will pale in comparison and be kept within the realm of manageable political disagreements. 

But each of us has 'X' amount of hostility, aggression, and need for dominance within ourselves, and that holds true for our elected officials, opinion leaders, and everyone else who is making decisions or even simply involved in politics through self-selection.  Since they don't have the Soviets to rally against, their aggression has to find an outlet elsewhere in the form of conflict. 

Thus the viciousness with which we aim rhetoric at people little more threatening than common criminals (now re-named "terrorists") and the venomous state of internal political discourse.  There must be conflict, there must be aggression, there must be a struggle for dominance -- that is built in to being human.  Freud calls it the "id" and Jung calls it the need for the "Other."  So since we have no external enemies against whom we may direct these aggressive impulses, we find new enemies and the only sources of conflict visible are internal disagreements.  Thus, liberals and conservatives scarcely even recognize one another as being loyal to America anymore.

I'm not entirely sure I buy it.  Europe has nasty politics, but Europeans for the most part recognize it as "just politics" and maintain national identity and cohesiveness.  Europeans are just as human as the rest of us, and there isn't a lot of political expression of aggression within Europe, either external or internal, that compares to what can be seen in the U.S.  Consider the leaders of Europe's largest national economies -- Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Dmitriy Medvedev, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Silvio Berlusconi.  Of them, only Berlusconi has any discernibly aggressive qualities in his public personality, which in his case manifest not in fiery rhetoric but rather in a mercurial pattern of sexual excess and casual corruption.  The others are dull technocrats.  And before you protest that it's Putin, not Medvedev, running the show in Russia, recall that Putin has his technocratic side as well (although I'll concede he demonstrates more aggression than Medvedev in his public persona).

Still, it's an interesting idea to chew on for a while.

April 22, 2010

Reagan Not To Be On The Money

Once again, Americans prove to be remarkably conservative with their money – at least, with the issue of who and what is on their money. A proposal to take Ulysses S. Grant off the $50 bill and replace him with Ronald Reagan is almost universally thought of as a bad idea, according to a recent Marist poll. Even Republicans were 71% against the idea. Was this seriously on someone's agenda somewhere?

Now, I could file this under "Really Bad Ideas," but a proposal to change the face of the fifty from Grant to Reagan lacks the Wile E. Coyote-like, inherently destructive and easily-predictable but counter-productive qualitative results for which I reserve that tag's use. So instead, I'll just call this "Unimportant but Mildly Amusing."

Amusingly, I have it on good authority that the Ronald Reagan State Office Building is lovingly called the "Reagan SOB" by a good number of the civil servants who work there. I'm overall a fan of President Reagan, but I can see why people would critique him. And just because we're now a generation removed from his Presidency and can start to look back on it with some historical perspective doesn't mean he gets to be on the money. Frankly, I think it's too soon to have Eisenhower ("silver" dollar coin) or Kennedy (half dollar coin) on any money and even FDR on the dime is pushing it.

And here's your trivia -- without looking it up, who are the only two non-Presidents to appear on paper money that is currently recognized as legal tender in the United States? One should be easy to name, the other a little bit less so. It's easy to find that with a search engine, so you're on the honor system as to looking it up.

Hat tip to Ezra at Popehat.

Admitting It

I said that giving billions of dollars to General Motors was wrong.  I said it was lighting the money on fire, we'd never see it back again, and it was being used to keep a dinosaur alive.

While I'm not quite ready to retract the dinosaur remark, I am very glad to have been proven wrong about getting the money back.  Over eight billion government dollars are being paid back by GM today and GM plans to sell new stock to repurchase the equity currently held by the American and Canadian governments.  Five years ahead of schedule -- aided, perhaps, by the fact that GM's cars, for all their faults, at least have properly-functioning brakes.

TARP money continues to come back in, too -- not all of it, but a healthy fraction.  And at a reasonable profit, to boot.  So that's a more than acceptable result from this cynic's perspective.

April 20, 2010

How 420 Got Its Start

Although I don't actually like the stuff very much personally, I think it's long, long past time to legalize it -- and I've never quite understood why pot smokers place such mystical significance in the number 420.  The Waldos' story is as likely as anything else, I suppose.  I'm just disappointed that the marijuana legalization initiative will likely be called Proposition 19 instead of allowing me to become a "Californian For 20."  Come on, Legislature, we need another bond measure or something on November's ballot! 

Clay and Harold

The plaintiff, Clay Greene claims that he was forcibly separated from Harold Scull, his partner of twenty-five years, with whom he had made a home for twenty, and with whom he was still deeply in love.  Greene he was put into a nursing home he had no need to be in, denied hospital visitation rights, had his partner's medical power of attorney ignored and had their mutual possessions taken and sold at auction.  All because Sonoma County would not recognize that he and his male lover were, in fact, a couple and chose to dismiss the other man as a mere "roommate".

On the other hand, I have to wonder why they never registered as domestic partners or got married when they had a chance to do so.  In its defense, Sonoma County says that the two had been involved in a domestic violence situation which is why they were separated.

I'm not exactly sure what to think about the County's defense.  I suppose that yes, a domestic violence situation could arise between a 75-year-old man and an 85-year-old man.  All couples quarrel from time to time and I guess for some of them such things escalate into violence.  This is alien to my experience but I must concede that it does happen and I've no reason, one way or the other, to know if Greene and Scull were in such a situation.  It seems so unlikely to me that even if the two men had been arguing, it would have resulted in blows so serious as to need hospitalization -- at least, not without the use of weapons, and had weapons been used, well, Scull would quite likely have been dead.

Moreover, other couples in domestic violence situations don't wind up with all their possessions being seized and auctioned off.  And old folks do fall, and get hurt badly when they do, in ways that younger folks recover from quickly.  If Greene is telling the truth, that Scull fell and whatever it was Scull said in the hospital was a result of being dazed from the fall, it seems like the County of Sonoma went way overboard.

Now, these men weren't registered domestic partners, although if the plaintiff's version of facts is to be believed, that scarcely would have mattered.  Indeed, if hostility to gay men were motivating official actions, it wouldn't have mattered if they had been married.

Still, these men should have been able to get married and the rest of the world shouldn't have cared that they were men.  Maybe they would have had a happy, peaceful marriage.  Maybe their marriage would have been unhappy and marred by episodes of violence.  Who knows?  Who can ever know?  They seemed to have a fairly happy co-existence for most of their time together.
 Greene should have been able to visit Scull in the hospital.  The state and the doctors should have recognized and deferred to the medical power of attorney that Scull had executed to allow Greene to make decisions.  Regardless of the legal formalities, there should have been some compassion and recognition of a lengthy relationship.  If there were real fears about violence, someone could have watched Greene during the visitations.  And frankly, if it had been a man accused of beating up his wife, he'd have been allowed to visit her in the hospital -- maybe with a chaperone, but likely not.

What happened to Greene when his partner Scull was hurt is what will happen eventually to one-half of all people in long-term relationships.  Everyone dies.  When you choose to live your life with someone, you choose a fifty-fifty chance of having to care for them on their way out of life and into death and to take care of things after they're gone.  That's part of what you signed up for.  Maybe you're older than your partner or in bad health, but you can't know who will die first.  There are auto accidents, strokes, who knows what will happen.  Any of us can go at any time; that is one reason we couple up together.  A loved one's impending death must surely be a truly awful time, a time of grief and fear and despair -- but it is also a time for compassion and love and support from other loved ones and, at minimum, a time for the government to keep its big nose out of private citizens' business.  These two should have had that.  Every couple should, for both of their benefits and indeed, for the benefit of society as a whole.

Which is yet another reason why we Californians have a moral imperative to repeal Proposition 8.

It's Not A Victory For Animal Cruelty

I'm a bit tired of the headlines. Today's Supreme Court case is not about the Supreme Court striking down a law prohibiting animal cruelty.  No one on the Court is in favor of animal cruelty.  It's about Congress overreaching and writing bad laws and intruding on a basic, fundamental American right.

And of course the speech in question is awful.  Stomach-turning.  That's not the point.  The point is that if the majority gets a veto on speech simply because it is distasteful, the next step after the dog fight videos will be movies with children and sex, and you've lost not only Lolita but Romeo and Juliet too.  And after that, it becomes speech that is critical of the government because that tends to be unpopular too -- and now you've created a police state.

Popular, unobjectionable speech doesn't need the First Amendment.  A movie about well-groomed schoolchildren who like their parents, stay out of trouble, study and get good grades, respect the President and their Congressman, and play cooperatively and quietly together will offend no one -- and will never, ever, ever be in danger of being censored or getting its authors in any kind of trouble.  (Other than financial trouble because such a movie would be of so little interest to anyone that it couldn't help but lose money.)  It's the people who say and do things that offend and make people upset who are the ones that are at the vanguard of our freedoms. The Clarence Brandenburgs and Paul Robert Cohens and now the Robert J. Stevenses of the world who do and say really reprehensible things are the ones to whom the law must look to show the boundaries of our freedoms -- because our freedoms are as against the government, and it is the Brandenburgs and Cohens and Stevenses who attract the government's attention precisely because what they do is so reprehensible.

So we must send Congress back to the drawing board to combat the national emergency of "crush videos."  As repellent as I find crush videos and other depictions of animal cruelty to be -- and let there be no doubt that it I join all right-thinking people in finding them really, really awful -- it is a small price to pay for affirmation of the vibrancy of the First Amendment.

Photographic Discipline

I saw myself in a photograph yesterday. This led to my decision to eat three-quarters of a salad for lunch today, and to tell myself quite falsely that I didn't really want the pasta quattro formaggi. This exercise of discipline was mitigated somewhat by my request to have anchovies on the salad. I probably didn't need an entire gram of sodium on top of the Caesar dressing.

Still, I suppose that looking at photographs of myself more often will prod me to make at least better dietary choices, even if it is not so much fun from a self-esteem point of view.

April 19, 2010

Fast Food The Five Thirty Eight Way

It's the KFC "Double Down."  I'd call it a "sandwich" except it's, well, a big mass of meat.  First you take a fried chicken breast.  Then you put some cheese on it.  Then some bacon.  Slather it with something they call "Colonel's Sauce" and it seems to me that the less you know about what's in the "Colonel's Sauce," the better.*  Then, top it all off with another fried chicken breast.  If hardcore pornography has a culinary equivalent, this must surely be it: a bacon sandwich that uses fried chicken for bread.

Or is it?  As it turns out, the best statistical analysts out there have turned their considerable talents away from politics for the moment and instead offer us a double-lensed comparative analysis of this seeming monstrosity from KFC.  The bottom line is that if you are just looking at calories, well, it's actually not so bad compared to the competition.  But, as you might suspect, that doesn't really give you the whole picture.  But you need to read the link and learn more before you go out and get one of these things -- because similar to the way taking a bump of cocaine was once described to me, chances are that once you have one you're probably going to like it far too much for your own good.


* Seriously, isn't there a marketing department or an advertising agency somewhere the couldn't have come up with a better name than "Colonel's Sauce"?  The sexual innuendo potential is through the roof.

Who Let These Guys Unionize Anyway?

Here's an interesting and penetrating look at how California got into its budget mess -- one that I think contains a great deal of truth.  It gets played out in microcosm with prison guards, but really the issue is public employee unions wielding such great political clout.  In the private sector, unions can only get so much strength -- when a company stops being profitable, it can start laying off workers, even in unions, and ultimately reorganize under Chapter 11 to get out from under an oppressive memorandum of understanding.  But a state does not really have that option, particularly when functionally all of its political leadership is captured within the orbit of the interest groups that are leeching the state dry.

It's tough to say to any particular employee of the public -- teachers, police, prison guards, public engineers, even clerks at places like the DMV -- that they are doing unimportant work and deserve low pay.  Of course they deserve decent pay and everyone benefits when the state can afford to pay enough money and benefits to such people to attract competent workers for those jobs.  But when it gets taken too far, you get, well, you get California in 2010.

One wonders, again, what the state-level equivalent of Chapter 11 might be.

Where Geology And Religion Collide

I bet you didn't know that women engaging in promiscuous behavior like wearing their head scarves low enough to expose their hair, and show off their figure under knee-length coats, are actually causing earthquakes.  The sluts.

See, you didn't know that because you don't have the benefit of Muslim religious scholarship:  "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes," says Hojoatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, Iran's acting national Friday prayer leader.

Which would make Sedighi the Iranian equivalent of Pat Robertson.  See, wacko religious thinking isn't exclusive to any particular religion.  It's not the flavor of the religion one subscribes to, it's one's propensity to take its ancient mythologies literally, to impute one's own personal morals to the deity, and to view any dissent as heresy worthy of violent retribution.  The more fanatical you are about your religion, the more you gind yourself agreeing with patent nonsense like Sedighi's or Robertson's.

I'd hope the Iranian people laugh off Sedighi the way most Americans laugh off Robertson.  Problem is, some influential people do not laugh at this stuff, they take it seriously and use it to make policy.  That's why it's important for non-religious people to speak out.  That's why it's important for people who subscribe to more moderate versions of their religions to consign nutjobs like this off to the fringes rather than welcoming them as co-religionists.

The Sixty Second Patriot #10

Stephen Decatur was, perhaps, the first war hero of an independent United States.  He was born in 1779 and when he was 17 he found himself working for a shipbuilder and then serving on board a U.S. navy ship.  He liked it and joined the navy outright, and with his studies in college he quickly became an officer.

In 1803, he was a Lieutenant in the Navy serving on board a ship in the Mediterranean, patrolling against pirates.  Some of the pirates were sponsored by the Sultan of Algiers and they captured a U.S. ship called the Philadelphia.  Stephen took command of a smaller ship called the Enterprise and used it to capture a pirate ship which he re-named Intrepid.  He then sailed Intrepid into the harbor where the pirates were trying to take the guns and other supplies off the Philadelphia.  After steering a course directly for the captured ship, he lit the Intrepid on fire and jumped off at the last second, swimming back to the Enterprise before sailing away to safety.  For his heroics he was made captain at age 25.

He saw action again in the War of 1812.  He was the only person in the Navy to capture a British ship, and sailed it home safely so the U.S. Navy could use it in the war; after that, he sailed again and this time captured an entire British squadron.  Then peace was made between England and the U.S., and Stephen was sent back to the Mediterranean, where he captured more pirate ships.

In the last few years of his life, he was a commissioner of the Navy, working to make the military strong and able to handle threats against the country.  It was at this time that he said of the country he loved so very much, "may she always be in the right, but our country right or wrong!"


The Sixty-Second Patriot series of posts is intended to provide teachers who are required to engage in patriotic exercises with truthful, age-appropriate, meaningful, educationally-rich, non-controversial, secular alternatives to rote recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as brief meditations on American history, civics, and values accessible to all people. Suggestions and contributions to this series from Readers are welcome.

More On Proms

It's a shame all schools can't be like the one in Bleckley County, Georgia.  A boy there brought another boy has his date.  No one got riled up, no one made a big deal out of it, and by all accounts, everyone had a good time at the prom. 

Why?  Because the school district didn't stick its nose in the kids' dating decisions, because people shrugged off other individuals' dating decisions as their own individual choices, and at the end of the day, no one got so prejudiced and alarmed about teh ghey that they had to hold a secret prom to avoid the contagion of homosexuality.  That's not to say there wasn't some conflict and resistance:

After discussion with the superintendent and school board, officials eventually granted permission, saying they had no policy in place against it. “You don’t have the right to say no,” principal Michelle Masters said in a previous interview.

The move had been met with some conflict, such as talk of a separate prom.

A few weeks back, a small group of students held an opposition rally in front of the town courthouse to protest. Martin’s parents also kicked him out of his home after the publicity.

But a rally in support of Martin was also held in a Macon park and supporters have donated more than $5,000 for college this fall.
In other words, at the end of the day, most of the people in Bleckley County, Georgia decided to adhere to the classicly American ethic of live and let live.  Sadly, the young man's own parents were not among them, which tells me that there is still a long way to go in terms of fostering and encouraging tolerance. But the school district here, and pretty much the rest of the community here, did the smart thing by shrugging off one individual's decision which did not materially affect them in any way and in so doing both avoided a rash of bad national publicity and served as an example for other communities to follow.

Hopefully this sort of thing becomes repeated more often than the sort of thing we saw a few weeks ago in Mississippi.

Hat tip to Box Turtle Bulletin.

A California Adventure

Over the weekend The Wife and I took a wine tasting adventure in Santa Barbara County.  We had a great dinner with some old friends at an event sponsored by my favorite winery in the region.  I also got a small amount of shopping to re-stock the wine cabinets here at Soffit House.  While a little bit of hunting yielded some nice bottles, they were frankly too expensive for what was being put in them.

I'm becoming more and more disenchanted with the Santa Ynez region.  It is growing too expensive and too proud of its wines; $10-$12 a tasting is a bit steep as compared to the quality of what is being poured; you have to be in a wine club in order to get anything at a reasonable price point.  Well, I am in a wine club in that region and have been for some time now -- so I'll stay, but the region overall leaves me less than pleased.  The ethic in the Santa Ynez Valley seems to be "sell the tastings at as high a profit as the traffic will bear, and cater only to the very wealthy."  This comes close to filtering me out.  I'm very near the point of saying that I'm simply not going to be buying wines at those wineries any more because the economics of it have placed it out of the range in which I'm willing to play.

We also did Danish tourism in Solvang.  Those Danish people up there serve breakfast all day and they serve it fast. I don't think we had to wait more than three minutes for either breakfast we ate, and we're talking substantial food here - omlettes, Belgian waffles. The Wife would likely have been very pleased to spend all day poking around tchotchke shops, but the kitsch meter was off the charts and I'd had my fill of Faux Scandinavian Ultracute after about, oh, three minutes. We compromised at a few hours and then decided to take the long way home.

Our route back was, by my design, very out of the way.  We took the coast highway north to Santa Maria and got on Highway 166 eastbound.  Highway 166 tracks the Cuyama River inland to the Sierra Madre Mountains.  From there, we hung a left on Cerro Noroeste Road and climbed into the Los Padres National Forest.  Cerro Noroeste is one of the higher mountains in the range and the road climbs up to almost the ridge of the mountains.  The Wife got to enjoy some spectacular views and I got to wonder about the lack of guard rails.  After peaking on Cerro Noroeste, the road eventually turns in to Mil Portrero Highway and then Cuddy Valley Road, all of which deposits the traveler in Frazier Mountain Park with access to Interstate Five and back home to the Antelope Valley.  It added about half an hour to the travel time that continuing on the 166 into the Central Valley and taking I-5 would have taken; it was visually more interesting and the road was of a surprisingly high quality -- but I doubt I'll do it again because the isolation was a little bit freaky.

I was struck by the remarkable diversity of climate groups we'd been through on our route; we'd seen both arid and lush Mediterranean areas, rich and fertile river valleys, low Alpine pine forests, a desert dryer than the one we live in, and we drove by the amazingly still-blooming Poppy reserve. California offers a lot of different kinds of places to be in relatively close proximity, which is something of a marvel in itself.

April 15, 2010

Yet Another Thing To Piss Off The Religious

You can see what you want to see on this crucifix on display at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Oklahoma.  The artist says that she based the depiction of the Son of God on an earlier icon, on display in Assisi, Italy, which shows Jesus having some pretty darn incredible abs.

Of course, people see what they want to see and apparently, what people really really want to see is a penis.  A really, really, big penis.  And hey, who doesn't like that?*  I presume the artist knew she had been given a commission for an actual church and wasn't being ultra-subversive in executing the art; it's not like this was intended to be Piss Christ.  So she imitated the original artist's way of showing Christ's Ripped Six-Pack Abs and now, well, we've got ourselves a new candidate for Outrage Of The Week.  After all, many Christians aren't comfortable with the idea of Jesus portrayed as a sexualized being, much less one with a groove unit proportionally better-suited to an equine.  Seriously, is this Jesus on the cross or Priapus?

Personally, I think this inspires some thought, and although thinking is sometimes uncomfortable, it is the most uncomfortable thoughts that are often the most profitable.  So let's assume that Jesus really existed.  An assumption, but not as big a one as many die-hard anti-theists would like it to be.  He would have been a man.  Unless he had suffered some sort of terrible injury or birth defect, he would have had a penis and testicles.  If you go the next step (which Christians by definition must) and say that Jesus was also God Made Man, then he was still a man which means he still had the frank-n-beans going on down somewhere below his tunic.  So if one were to depict Jesus as having a penis, well, that would be accurate, wouldn't it? 

Indeed, if Jesus had a fully-functioning set of sexual organs, he must have had sexual feelings at some point in his life, too.  Why should Christians be threatened by that?  If he was a man, then that means he had at least an impulse, an instinct, to do something with his penis at some point.  Maybe he didn't act on that impulse; who knows, maybe he did?  Seems to me that the Gospels are silent about that.  Well, I think I'm getting too far afield here.  Christians have a right to believe what they want to believe, and it's not for me to tell them what they do or don't think about their deity even if it sometimes seems inconsistent to me.  But the point of good art is not always to inspire you to marvel at its beauty; good art sometimes derives its good qualities from the fact that it makes you think.  A sexualized depiction of Jesus, even if it is only inadvertently sexualized, certainly has the power to do that.


Hat tip to Friendly Atheist.

* That would be "lesbians."  At best, a lesbian is indifferent to the penis.

Obama Plans To Intentionally Violate The Constitution

36 U.S.C. section 119 reads:
The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.
And this, as should have been obvious to even the casual observer, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. A U.S. District Court in Wisconsin has found that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.  The statute's "sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."  Importantly, that court applied the "endorsement" test rather than the Lemon test:
This legislative history supports the view that the purpose of the National Day of Prayer was to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, and in particular the Judeo-Christian view of prayer. One might argue that members of Congress voiced secular purposes: to protect against "the corrosive forces of communism" and promote peace. That is true, but the references to these purposes do nothing to diminish the message of endorsement. If anything, they contribute to a sense of disparagement by associating communism with people who do not pray. A fair inference that may be drawn from these statements is that "Americans" pray; if you do not believe in the power of prayer, you are not a true American. Identifying good citizenship with a particular religious belief is precisely the type of message prohibited by the establishment clause.
The decision will of course be appealed and is sexy enough for consideration by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the National Day of Prayer will go forward on May 6 as originally scheduled. The judge issued an injunction against President Obama from complying with the unconstitutional law, but stayed enforcement for thirty days to allow the government to appeal. May 6 falls within the stay period, and President Obama has indicated that he intends to issue the proclamation.

I said in several places before Obama took office that secular Americans should not consider him an ally.  He has, at least, acknowledged our existence and our citizenship, which is a step up from his predecessor.  But he continues to issue, under his own authority as President, generous subsidies to churches under the auspices of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and despite a finding from a court of competent jurisdiction that the issuance of a national day of prayer violates the Constitution, he intends to go ahead and do it anyway during the stay.  While he isn't violating the exact wording of the court's order, I question whether it is principled for him to do it at all, given the opinion -- and particularly given that he has not opined as to whether the opinion is right or wrong, which debatably he has the power to do as a co-equal branch of government.

Nevertheless, the opinion is a cause for celebration.  Whether the celebration is long-lived or not will be up to the Seventh Circuit and, eventually, the Supreme Court -- and the deciding vote may well be held by a Justice to be named later.

Eyjafjallajokull Dirigibles

A volcano in Iceland, which last erupted for fourteen months straight and bears the utterly unpronounceable name Eyjafjallajokull, has begun erupting again, and scattered ash over most of Europe.  Because this volcano's ash contains a high silica compound, if it gets in to an airplane's engine intake, the silicon will melt and cause the engine parts to seize up, causing what airlines clinically call "major asset loss."

On NPR today, I heard an interview with a guy in Oslo who needed to travel to London, and he was trying to figure out how to take a train from Oslo to Stockholm to Copenhagen to Brussels to London and figured that he could get there in about thirty hours.  Getting back home, well, he hadn't figured that out yet.

So The Wife and I got to talking about what a realistic alternative might be, given that airplanes are, for the time being, simply not safe to fly in Europe.  "Airships," was her answer, and I thought, "Yeah, that's right!"  I thought I had heard that modern airships can sustain ground-speed equivalents of about 60 mph, but a little research shows at least one claim that the Hindenburg got up to 100 mph when it had a tail wind.

A blimp is an airship without a rigid structure to its bag and relies on pressure differentials with the outside atmosphere to keep the shape of the bag in place.  A "blimp" is usually contrasted with a "zeppelin," which is actually a name for the product of a manufacturer, Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik of Friedrichshafen, Germany, which makes rigid-framed dirigibles.  It resumed commercial passenger flight (for sightseeing, mainly) on August 15, 2001 in Germany, Switzerland, and Japan.  The Zeppelin NT advertises an operational range of 900 kilometers and a top sustainable speed of 125 kilometers per hour, or 485 miles at 78 mph -- and it seats twelve passengers.

So for the guy trying to get from Oslo to London, alas, current airship technology won't do.  But it can be done -- the Graf Zeppelin circumnavigated the globe, with stops along the way in major cities.  The direct route is about 780 miles, or more than half again the Zeppelin NT's range, and with only twelve passengers on board, the trip would be prohibitively expensive.  Still, ten hours in an airship would be better than thirty hours on a train, if those twenty hours are valuable enough to be worth purchasing.

April 14, 2010

A Room And A Show

Reservations made yesterday for a hotel room in Las Vegas and a show while we're there to meet up with my mother-in-law and her sister.  The show (Penn & Teller) cost nearly twice what we spent on the room (Luxor, in the Pyramid).  Cirque du Soleil shows were out of this world.  Why stay at a mid-to-low-range hotel like Luxor?  The rooms are perfectly fine, and it frees up more money for other fun things.  While, like the last three trips I took to Las Vegas, are likely to include only minimal time in the casino.

Another Good Government Story

Many people this time of year won't want to hear this.  But it's true, it happened to me today, and taken for what it's worth.  I called the IRS with a question about getting a non-profit corporation's 501(c)(3) application completed.  The agent I spoke with was polite, well-informed, friendly, responsive, and a genuine pleasure to speak with.  I didn't even have to wait on hold for very long before being connected.  In fact, it would be fair to say that the IRS gave me the best customer service I've had since my Kindle broke.

This should not be taken as evidence of my deep love of the IRS or the Federal Government.  But since I reserve the right to bitch and complain about bad customer service experience, I think it is only fair to also dispense props where they have been earned.  And like it or not, the IRS -- an organization with no particular incentive to do so -- gave me good customer service.