July 31, 2006

Dark Comedy

This weekend, we discovered that our cable provider has free movies on demand. They're not first-run or even first-release movies or anything like that, but they are a nice supplement to a DVD library. We watched Heathers, the 1980's teen-clique movie with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater doing the best Jack Nicholson impression yet filmed short of that guy from Something's Gotta Give who really took the Nicholson impression over the top, but I've got to admit that he really looked like Nicholson did before the animatronic preservationists responsible for the Alex-Trebek-o-bot got to him. (Damn you, Disney, for laying all these guys off work and making them as dangerous as former Soviet nuclear scientists! They were under control when they made Abe Lincoln but now look what you've done!)

And then last night, I saw Chicago, and was again tickled by the singing and dancing, and Richard Gere's Billy Flynn -- who wins an acquittal for a confessed killer by planting evidence in his own client's diary and arranges to have it "discovered" by the prosecution. As dirty and sleazy a trick as you could ask for, and one sure to get a real-life lawyer suspended, if not disbarred. But hey, it was just a movie, and a musical at that, so insisting on Ridley Scott-like realism is probably not the best policy..

Then today at lunch, we were discussion (among other things) what happens when all the parties to a contract die, and it's difficult to infer their original intent other than by looking at the objective physical evidence of the documents they wrote.

It occurred to me that an unscrupulous lawyer would find it convenient to selectively eliminate adverse parties from time to time. It would be especially funny if he billed his clients for the time it took to murder their adversaries, and that was how he got caught in the end.

Jeez, I don't know why I just give this stuff away.

July 30, 2006

Profile in Humanism: Culbert Olson

Many people suggest that atheists are necessarily barred from holding high political office by virtue of the unpopularity of their world view. Whether that is true or not today, the fact remains that at least one freethinker has achieved high political office in this century.

On November 7, 1876, Culbert Levy Olson was born in Fillmore, Utah, to a devoutly Mormon mother and a skeptical father. He attended a school run by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, but at an early age got into trouble. In a 1961 interview, he described his experiences:

…the children would become so emotional that they would declare they saw angels. Of course I did not see any angels and therefore did not join in the emotionalism stirred up by the preacher. I was called into the principal's office by him. He said that he noticed that I didn't participate in the spirit of the occasion. I told him that I didn't see angels and I didn't believe that the other children did.

Nevertheless, he was admitted to Brigham Young University and graduated at age nineteen in 1895. After graduation, he pursued a career in journalism, finding his way to Washington, D.C. There, he attended a lecture given by Robert G. Ingersoll, and found a tremendous sense of relief and community, realizing that there were others who shared his skepticism about the supernatural.

Thus energized, he entered Columbian Law School, today known as George Washington University School of Law, taking an L.L.M. degree (the equivalent of today’s J.D.) in 1901 with a year’s study at the University of Michigan in his second year. He passed the Utah bar in 1901 and opened a private law practice in Salt Lake City. He married Kate Jeremey in 1905, and described her as a “freethinker” who had some degree of religious faith but was critical of most religious institutions. They had three sons, one of whom followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the practice of law.

By then, Olson had begun a life of political activity (which began by working in 1896 as a campaign volunteer for, of all people, William Jennings Bryan) which increasingly supplanted the practice of law. He was elected to the lower house of the Utah Legislature in 1916, and served two terms until 1920 where he pushed for an end to child labor, support for labor unions, and progressive taxation. A strong proponent of the “reform” movement sweeping the nation at the time, he sponsored and shepherded through the Legislature laws to fight political corruption, establish minimum wages and safe working standards, and to improve the level of social services provided by the state government.

Olson moved to Los Angeles, California in 1920, and was admitted to the California Bar in September of 1921. He was only the 6,335th lawyer in the history of the organized legal profession in California. He became a great supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and worked to implement the principles of FDR’s New Deal in California. Initially a behind-the-scenes operator, he was elected to the California State Senate in 1934 and served one term. He became the head of the Roosevelt wing of the Democratic party, which at that time was split between FDR’s faction, Progressives led by Upton Sinclair, and those who favored compromising with the Republican majority on economic issues, led by the man who would become his Lieutenant Governor, in order to obtain moderate social legislation.

In 1939, Olson ran for Governor and, with FDR’s personal endorsement and an alliance with Sinclair’s progressives, became the first of only four Democrats elected to the California Governor’s office since 1895. His swearing-in was delayed and conducted in private because he refused to include the words “to God” in his oath of office; eventually, a member of the Supreme Court was persuaded to administer the oath in the Capitol building and to accept the words “I affirm” instead.

A friend of Olson in the entertainment industry once said, "If you'd called Central Casting for a governor, Culbert Olson is what they'd have sent you.” Sadly, it seems that Olson’s personality was not as good a fit for the job as his appearance. His problems began with a political mishandling of the then-controversial “Ham and Eggs” initiative. Olson’s campaign carefully ducked this proposal to establish generous state pensions for all retired Californians as a supplement to social security. Once in office, however, Olson sided with economic conservatism over his progressive political instincts and opposed the initiative when it went before the voters, leaving the progressives feeling betrayed.

They should not have; Olson was a dedicated adherent to the generally-progressive social and governmental policies of the Roosevelt Administration and was dedicated to implementing mirror images of those policies at the state level. He took great pains to provide for social welfare programs while attempting to balance a large deficit left over from previous administrations – however, he failed in this regard because his party did not obtain majorities in both houses of the Legislature, and Republicans allied with the fiscally-conservative wing of the Democrats to deny Olson the money necessary to fund his requested social welfare programs.

The most controversial thing Olson did as Governor was to pardon labor activist Tom Mooney, who had been convicted in 1919 of involvement in an attempted bombing of a series of Pacific Gas and Electric Company facilities. Mooney has since been exonerated by further evidence demonstrating that he had been framed, justifying Olson’s pardon. Olson expanded California’s public education system significantly, in particular focusing his efforts on increasing the endowment and number of locations of the University of California. He also recognized, perhaps before any other leader of California, that public utilities required careful regulation and control by the government in order to provide for what were becoming necessities of life such as electricity and natural gas. The Republican-dominated Legislature, however, successfully obstructed Olson’s desires to impose greater regulation, if not public takeover, of these vital entities.

Fulfilling his desire to see an active government in California stimulate economic activity in the midst of the Depression, Olson he established the California Conservation Corps, which hired otherwise unemployed young men to preserve California’s wilderness areas, plant forests and preserve other natural resources. He was an advocate of prison and penal code reform, steering California’s prison system firmly down the road of providing counseling and vocational training to prisoners to encourage them not to commit crimes upon their release, and setting in place reforms to the juvenile justice system, and mental illness treatment provided in conjunction with the criminal justice system, which survive essentially intact today.

World War II came to America in Olson’s administration and Olson largely deferred to military authorities on all significant issues after December 14, 1941 when Olson declared a state of military emergency at President Roosevelt’s request. It is not clear how Olson felt about the military’s decision to relocate Japanese citizens to “holding camps” in the valleys of California’s deserts to the east of the Sierra Nevada mountains; however, Olson did not protest the decision in any fashion. It is also likely Olson became somewhat depressed after the death of his wife after the first year of his administration; he never re-married.

Olson was opposed for his re-election by the Attorney General, Earl Warren. Warren cross-filed and ran for both the Democratic and Republican nominations; he came within 100,000 votes of beating Olson in the Democratic primary because of internecine disagreements between organized labor and progressives within the Democratic party leading to a low turnout. This presaged a solid win by the Republican Warren in 1942. Olson returned to his private law practice in 1943, and while he was still honored in Democratic circles for years afterwards, his political power had clearly vanished. He attended Earl Warren’s inauguration and famously told the future Chief Justice, “If you want to know what Hell is like, just be Governor.” Perhaps out of respect for Olson’s interest in and respect for the University of California system, Governor Warren appointed Olson to the UC Board of Regents, the governing body of that institution.

In 1947, Olson began a campaign of advocating significant changes to California’s constitution, including reform of the Legislature as a unicameral institution, permitting the Governor to appoint Constitutional officers such as the Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State, and permitting executive deliberation in the process of drafting laws. While his views found some adherents in members of both parties, not enough support has ever been garnered for these ideas to be presented to the voters, and the general structure of California’s Constitution remains one of multiple executives elected independently from one another with a bicameral legislature. He also actively, and successfully, campaigned against the adoption of the phrase “In God We Trust” as California’s official motto.

During his political life, Olson kept his personal atheism quiet and only confided that facet of personal information to trusted colleagues and close family members. Nevertheless, he stated on several occasions that his policies were motivated by “secularism,” which he defined as “…an ethical system founded on natural morality which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of man to the highest possible point.” He joined the United Secularists of America in 1952 and became its President in 1961. When asked in his later years about his religion by the press, he bluntly replied, “I am an atheist.”

However, he struck a public nerve in May of 1959, when he published an essay entitled “The Problem of Separation of Church and State,” based on an address he had intended to give to the California Commonwealth Club the previous month, but which the Club requested he not give once its subject became known. He presented his view of moral atheism and strict separation of the government from all religious institutions (particularly the Roman Catholic Church) on several television programs in 1959 and 1960, usually writing or speaking on the topic “God is a myth.” He also filed an amicus brief, laced with firey rhetoric, in the California Supreme Court, protesting a lower court’s decision exempting the Catholic Church from paying property taxes because it was a religious institution.

Olson died at the age of eighty-five on April 13, 1962, in a nursing home in Los Angeles and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. It is easy to see his term as Governor of California as largely failed because of a lack of tact and misreading of the political landscape; however, it is difficult to see how anyone else could have done much better, given the highly fractious state of politics and the extreme economic, and later military, pressures that California faced during Olson’s term in office. Not all of his political proposals were good, and he was guilty of permitting his late-life criticism of the Roman Catholic Church to cross the line into invective. But, Olson did achieve a very high political office as a freethinker, guided an economically and culturally complex state through some of its hardest times, was a steadfast advocate for bettering the lives of working-class people through civil liberties and economic opportunities, and he laid the foundation for substantial reforms in government and social policy which endure to this day. He remains one of the most ambiguous, and historically controversial, leaders of the Golden State’s history.


American Atheists, Inc. biography of Culbert Levy Olson.

California State Library, Biography of Culbert L. Olson.

H. Brett Melendy and Benjamin F. Gilbert, The Governors of California: Peter H. Burnett to Edmund G. Brown (1965).

State Bar of California, profile of Governor Culbert Olson (deceased).

Spartacus Educational, Biography of Culbert L. Olson.

Problems With Books On Tape

One of the lawyers at the office listens to a lot of books on tape. I've found them convenient to listen to while I do something on the computer, like write or goof off playing Civilization. I even bought a special tape player to sit on my desk and play these tapes while I did other things.

So, I borrowed a series of tapes of lectures about the history of England under the Tudors and the Stuarts (actually, it started with Henry IV, a Lancastrian, and is supposed to end with George I of the House of Hanover). Problem is, he only has volumes one through three of a four-volume set, so I finished off halfway through the realm of Charles II, as he is wrangling with the Cavalier Parliament for money in the midst of skepticism about Charles' less-than-anti-Catholic foreign policies.

So I have tried to find volume four somewhere, and so far haven't. Scouring the two local libraries, though, I found another book on tape I had been interested in reading, Rudolph Giuliani's Leadership. I could deal with the somewhat generic and nasal voice of the narrator (Jonathan Marosz, whose nasal voice you may have heard on PBS bumpers). Tape 1 of this book on tape describes Guiliani's experiences on September 11, 2001, which was quite dramatic -- at least until I had to flip the tape.

After that, I realized one of the biggest problems with a book on tape is that the book is on a tape. Tapes are physical devices that must physically move over other moving parts, and like everything that has moving parts, things can go wrong. Tapes, in particular, are susceptible to getting stuck on moving rollers, capstans, and heads during playback, resulting in sticking, followed by bunching and jamming outside of the cassette itself. The result is tens of feet of strands of tape being pulled out of the cassette and finding its way into hidden corners of your tape deck.

I would really like to stick to CD's for something like this. But there's so much media out there on tape, still, that it's hard to go down that road.

So for now I'll have to forego listening to the rest of Rudy Guiliani's narrative about his 9/11 experience, which so far (up to the point that WTC tower #2 came down while he was trying to get on the phone with Vice-President Cheney) was pretty interesting. I'll have to forego learning about the attempts of the hapless James II to re-introduce Elizabethan-style religious tolerance and Queen Anne's sad ending to the troubled reigns of her ancestors. Maybe I'll be able to get these things at a later date, but it looks like not for a little while.

Well, I need to get back into the habit of writing regularly more than I need to be reading (or listening) regularly. I can get Guiliani's book as a book (imagine that), hopefully soon. And I can think about getting the expansion pack for Civilization, too, although I'm not sure I need it and pretty sure I can find a better use for the thirty bucks. But I just can't abide by more incidents like the one depicted to the right.

July 25, 2006

Ken Jennings Has A Blog

...And it's damn funny. A sample:

...we regret the insinuation that Mr. Alex Trebek is a robot, and has been since 2004. Mr. Trebek’s robotic frame does still contain some organic parts, many harvested from patriotic Canadian schoolchildren, so this technically makes him a “cyborg,” not a “robot.” Ken-Jennings.com regrets the error.

(Ken may have a point here.)

I also get trivia e-mailed from Ken-Jennings.com every week. It's good stuff. Sure, I know the blog is out there in part to promote a book, and he probably has ghostwriters punching up the humor -- on the blog, in his book, and in his colum in Mental_Floss. But that really doesn't matter to the end user, which is this case would be you, Loyal Readers. Good writing is good writing, and at the end of the day, Ken's stuff is a lot of fun to read.

Mulder and Scully may have to re-open the "Ick" Files

This may be one of the few cases in which the patron of a nudie bar offered to give a head to a dancer, as opposed to...

I'll stop now.

July 24, 2006

An Interesting Article About Counterfeiting Currency

More later, after work, when I can read it in detail.

Sideways Gentrification

This weekend, The Wife and I went with our friends to go wine tasting in the beautiful Santa Ynez valley. I've long been a fan of this region and have grown familiar with the area's geography and many of the wineries. While it had been a few years since I'd been there last and a little bit of my geography was rough around the edges (I forgot a few place names) for the most part it was very nice to be back there. The landscape is gorgeous -- rolling hills and rocky river canyons, covered with golden grass and neatly-manicured grapevines, studded with gigantic green oak trees. The wine was quite nice and the companionship everything we could have asked for.

One problem, though, is the local fascination with an arthouse movie from about two years ago, Sideways. The filmmakers, as enchanted with the region and the fruit of the vine available there as I was, decided to use real wineries as locations, and used their real names for publicity. As a result, the day trip to Santa Barbara for wine tasting, and particularly the wineries that were featured in the movie, have become much more popular. This has changed their character somewhat -- they are offering "megatastings" of ten to twelve wines, and asking ten to fifteen dollars for each. I preferred the six-wines-for-five-dollars deal that used to be the market price there; after about six wines in reasonably quick order, the palate begins to dull and it's all grape juice.

The wine itself is still good and the day up in the area is still very enjoyable. But it's more commericalized now than I remember it being in the past. My favorite places have not changed the way they do business, but several others have, and that's too bad. For the Sideways-ized wineries, the tasting rooms themselves are now independent profit centers rather than break-even operations intended to advertise wine sales. Wine prices have gone up a little bit, too, although this was not as dramatic a rise in prices as to have been much more than inflation. I guess this kind of commercial gentrification was inevitable -- whether there had been a movie or not, the secret was not bound to last. But why did they have to take away all the flush toilets and replace them with porta-potties? When you're drinking wine, this can become an issue.

The Wife was not feeling very well in the afternoon; I think the heat got to her. She was a good sport and didn't foist off her discomfort on the rest of us, although I was still concerned that she was not having a good time. It was bloody hot Saturday -- one of the booth workers said it got up to 112 degrees that day. Still, a day wine-tasting is still a day well-spent. We had a great lunch at a nice bistro in Los Olivos; we bought a custard kringle strip in Solvang; we drank some nice wines and enjoyed the company of our friends. And that's what it was really all about.

Electricitus Interruptus

California has been in the midst of a heat wave. It got up to 119 degrees in Woodland Hills yesterday. A lot of heat means a lot of demand for electricity to keep buildings cool and, at that point, safe for human habitation. As a result, there have been losses of power all over the state for about a week now. And, the heat and some unusual humidity has caused thundershowers to form in my neck of the woods.

Just as buildings in Tennessee are not made to withstand significant earthquakes, things in the desert are not made to withstand thunderstorms -- or in the cities, heat this intense. Here in the desert, yes, but electrical power demand applies everywhere.

This has affected me in two ways -- the heat made travel on Saturday less enjoyable (see above) and the interruptions in electric service knocks out my internet service. I need to re-start both the modem and the router after service gets knocked out, and yesterday, something went fubar at the cable company and we were without internet for most of the day. So, no posting, no teaching. When we finally did get service back, I had to make my students my top priority and over 120 messages had stacked up.

We all are hoping for some relief to the heat, but it's simply not likely to happen for at least the next few days.

July 22, 2006

Shame Gene

Dogs are fun becasue their shame gene is so recessive. If a dog thinks it's time to lick her crotch or roll around on her back like a fool on the floor, she just does it. After she has been misbehaving, and she knows what she's done is not something the people approve of (like digging in the back yard), she almost immediately starts begging for treats. No shame.

July 21, 2006

Looking For A Teaching Gig

Last night, I put in for a job teaching a year-long Constitutional Law night class as an adjunct professor at a law school in Glendale. I would rather that my friend got the job so he could move to California, but that's not likely to happen for at least a year, so I figured I might as well go for it.

I really love the subject, and I really like teaching. I think I'm eminently qualified for the task, too -- I have a great background, having actually practiced Con Law for some time now. Granted, my most recent try at the subject was a loss, but that's not really the point; the point is I've been there, in front of a panel of the Ninth Circuit, arguing about what the Constitution does and does not permit the government to do to individual people.

This would be the most ambitious educational endeavor I've ever taken on, but I'd really like the challenge. As I just wrote, the campus is only about an hour away, so getting there once a week to teach wouldn't be that heavy a burden. Putting together a global syllabus and a series of lesson plans will be quite a bit of work, but of course I can do it. I loved teaching paralegal students tort law; how much more would I love teaching law students Con Law! So here's hoping.

The Best Route

I had a deposition today in Pasadena. Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, and Mapquest will all tell you that the way I should have gone was Highway 14 south to Interstate 5 south, and then to merge to eastbound Interstate 210. In the mornings, that commute would be about two hours.

So instead, I stayed off the freeways almost entirely and took the Angeles Forest Highway. It goes through several segments -- Kentucky Valley, Aliso Canyon, Mill Creek and Monte Cristo, Big Tujunga Canyon, and Clear Creek. Then it merges into Angeles Crest Highway, going down the side of the San Gabriel Mountains into La Cañada-Flintridge. From the time I left Palmdale to the time of my arrival at my destination in Pasadena was one hour and one minute. To the right is a picture of the kind of scenery one encounters up in the San Gabriels; I believe this picture is actually of Devil's Canyon next to the Crest Highway somewhat to the east of of the Forest Highway route, but you can get a taste of the flavor from this picture.

It helps to know the area. Here, I'm a native. Here, I know the tricks -- I know the mountain route is twisty and not as safe as a regular freeway, so I respect the mountain. But I also know that if you give the mountain respect, it will give you rewards. In this case, it gave me an hour of my time each way, and it freed me from the frustration of what is becoming Southern California's most greuling commute.

Of All The Things

President Bush used the first veto of his presidency to stop Congress from funding and encouraging research into stem cells. At the same time, he signed into law two other bills allowing other kinds of research into stem cells. What was the difference between the two bills? The other two bills only funded research into existing lines of stem cells from previously-harvested cells; the one that was vetoed would have permitted and paid for harvesting new stem cells from fertilized embryos stored in vitro which otherwise will be burned and discarded.

If you are going to take the position that when sperm enters egg, a human life is formed, this is a more or less consistent stance; your objection will be that these fertilized embryos are being discarded at all. If you are going to take the position that humanity is not yet invested in that cellular structure until some later point in fetal development, the distinction drawn by the President is nonsense. Either way, the potential for scientific and medical knowledge that can be garnered from this research is tremendous; this is where human biology is happening right now. Concrete medical goals can be identified from this research, like cures for degenrative neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's and Huntington's, as well as possibly assisting patients with other kinds of damage, like severed nerves, heal and get better. Certainly no one is suggesting that the President is opposed to finding cures and new medical techniques for healing, but he does think that the ends do not justify the means of killing all these embryos.

To which I add a few caveats. The embryos are going to be destroyed anyway. The veto just means that they cannot be put to research use paid for by federal dollars. The research is not illegal; it just cannot be federally funded. For instance, Gov. Schwarzenegger is scrambling to find money for California's state-run stem cell research center in the face of a variety of lawsuits against that center getting off the ground. Private research can also pay for this work. But federal funding is important because so much other research is underwritten by federal money in some fashion and the current state of affairs requires substantial segregation of money and knowledge to maintain federal eligibility for other kinds of research support.

I'm personally closer to Schwarzenegger's view on the issue, which should come as no surprise to all of you Loyal Readers. This research is going to happen, whether here or elsewhere in the world. Taking the strong pro-life stance that it is immoral to destroy a fertilized embryo to conduct this research, no matter how noble the goal is, requires not just refusing to fund the research -- it requires outlawing it completely. This Bush has failed to do or to even advocate. In part his failure to do so is motivated by the popularity of the research and in part from the impracticality of the position that the research should not happen at all, for reasons set forth above.

Presidents have the veto power for a reason -- to impose his own judgment and policy preferences over those of Congress. Presidents use the veto power at their risk; as in this case, the program being vetoed is quite popular with pretty much everyone but his base of core supporters. He invoked the power for a moral reason, which I suppose I admire on one level even if I disagree with the moral imperative that he claims motivated him.

But really, if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound. If you're going to tolerate the research, then that means you approve of it. Denying federal funding for the research but permitting it to continue is a half measure that does not fulfill the moral mandate claimed for the refusal to fund. Maybe it's the best the President can do, but I would have preferred that he had not done it at all -- and acting from a position of moral idealism means that it is not time for realpolitik. So it really seems to me that this veto has not accomplished very much, if anything, other than requiring the administrative burdens of stem cell researchers.

Where was he six months ago?

Now Secretary General Annan is worried about a major humanitarian disaster. Thanks for paying attention, dude.

July 18, 2006

Get That Man A Dwarf

In medieval royal courts, the jester's job was to amuse the courtiers, and to that end, the jester was given great license to speak truths that no one else would say. If the king had a gigantic wart on his forehead or the queen snored during religious ceremonies, the jester could speak truth to power and make a joke out of it. This actually served an important role of pointing out how the masters of the realm could improve themselves, and in the pointed jokes and asides from the court jester real flaws in policy could be identified.

In Scandinavian countries, a public position called "ombudsman" evolved over time as local republican governments gradually supplanted feudal rule. The ombudsman's job was to be a conduit between the people in power who made decisions and the people who were not in power, who were affected by those decisions. Not quite an advocate for the little guy, but also not a crony of the people calling the shots, the ombudsman could be a trusted source of information and ideas by giving voice to the concerns of the public rather than those of the elite -- and if those in power chose to use him in such a fashion, a valuable tool for making decisions which were both popular and effective.

After the Watergate scandal in the early 1970's, America created its own, somewhat less colorful way of finding people whose job it would be to speak truth to power. Independent counsel were chartered to wield the power of the government but not be directly accountable to the executives and legislators they were investigating. Independent bodies of prosecutorial agencies were created to provide independent opinions and advice about what government officials were doing. While not as humorous as court jesters, and not as steady as the ombusdmen, these people (lawyers, mostly) fulfill a critical role of telling our leaders when they are overstepping the boundaries of their power.

It is with great apprehension, therefore, that I read today a linked article from The Mighty Middle that President Bush and Attorney General Gonzales have denied security clearances for attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department who were trying to investigate the legality of the National Security Agency's use of warrantless wiretaps. In other words, the White House is going to not allow these people to gather enough information to render an opinion about whether the program is legal or not -- and then turn around and say that no one but they are qualified to issue such an opinion because only they have access to the information. The circularity of the argument is breathtaking.

So is its imperiousness. Bush simply does not want to hear people say what ought to be intuitively obvious to a first-year law student -- the government eavesdropping on someone's conversation requires a warrant. He also does not want to be reminded of the breathtaking ease with which those warrants are available to investigators. To do so would be to admit that he was wrong and that he walked all over the Constitution, even if it was for the noble cause of trying to protect America from attack.

Americans want to be safe and secure. But we should not be willing to stop being Americans. America is a country of divided government, a country of checks and balances, a country where there is transparency to decision-making, a country where civil liberties are cherished, and a country where our leaders are held accountable for their actions. This, however, is not George Bush's vision of America.

I am reminded of another historical anecdote. Roman generals would return to Rome after a successful military campaign and ride their chariots in parade down the streets of the city to the Forum, preceded by their soldiers and the spoils of war on display for the adoring crowds. Tens of thousands of Romans would cheer on the general, celebrating his triumph, as he was dressed in full military regalia and wore red paint on his face, which made him a living symbol of Mars, the god of war. The general's political popularity and power would never be so great as they were during his triumphal parade. But here's the rub. The triumph, and all the glory and power and everything else that went along with the pinnacle of this man's career and probably the best moment of his life, had one inflexible condition. There had to be three men in the chariot -- the triumphing general, the driver, and a third man, traditionally a dwarf or what we would today call a "little person." The dwarf's job was to periodically stand up and whisper in the general's ear: "You are only a man." See, the general had to be reminded that although he looked like a god, and the crowds worshipped him like a god, he wasn't. He was only a man.

George Bush just silenced and cut off at the knees the best chance he had of getting a friendly but firm push back towards the right side of the Constitution -- a push his administration desperately needs. What this man needs, clearly, is a dwarf.

July 17, 2006

Profanity and Truth

Today, a camera and microphone caught President Bush and Prime Minister Blair in a candid moment at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The intelligible part of the conversation -- since I'm not sure if the link in the title will work or not -- goes something like this. Let me set the mood for you.

Bush is sitting down, eating a buttered roll. (Well, the man's got to eat something, some time.) Blair is standing behind him and leaning in to speak. They are discussing Secretary-General Kofi Anon's proposal that there be an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Hezbollah war. The subject is, initially, what the Secretary of State's involvement will be, and Bush and Blair are ironing out the subtle differences between their two countries' positions on the pending posposals for achieving an end to the violence.
Bush: She's going. I think Condi's going to go pretty soon.

Blair: Right. Well, that's all that matters, you see, it will take some time to get out of there. But at least it gives people...

Bush: It's a process, I agree. Oh, I told her your offer, too.

Blair: Well, it's only... Or if she's gonna, or if she needs the ground prepared, as it were. Obviously, if she goes out she's got to succeed, as it were, whereas I can just go out and talk.

Bush: See, the irony is, what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over.

Blair: [Initial reply inaudible, takes seat]. Cause I think this is all part of the same thing... What does he think? He thinks if Lebanon turns out fine, if he gets a solution in Israel and Palestine, Iraq goes in the right way, he's done it. That's what this whole thing's about. It's the same with Iran.

Bush: I feel like telling Kofi to get on the phone with Assad and make something happen. We're not blaming Israel, and w'ere not blaming the Lebanese government.
Now, there's a lot of agitation about Bush's use of profanity. There are lines that people can cross in diplomatic and public life, and things you can say and not say. Bush thought his microphone was turned off, and it wasn't. But he didn't cross the line.

And the thing of it, he's dead-on right although perhaps not as graceful with his language as he could have been. (Stuttering Tony is not in a position to throw a lot of stones himself on that note, but again, it was a candid moment, not a press conference.)

It's not about getting Israel to stop attacking Lebanon. The government of Lebanon has been a proxy of Syria and Hezbollah for years. The Lebanese themselves got sick of this not too long ago. The Lebanese, long among the most cultured and cosmopolitan of the various Arab nations, have no inherent desire to make war with Israel or anyone else; they would rather be an agricultural exporter and tourist destination. But Hezbollah, thanks to generous financial and military subsidies at the hands of its Syrian and Iranian puppetmasters, is actually stronger, richer, better-organized and better-armed than the Lebanese government itself. Without collaborating with and earning the support of Hezbollah, it is a real possibility that another civil war could break out in Lebanon, resulting in its ultimate annexation by Syria. It is this calamatous result that Israel seeks to prevent.

Israel is not the party who decided to gain leverage by kidnapping citizens of its enemies; Israel is the party that is trying to prevent terrorism and violence. Israel has negotiated and tried diplomacy and concessions and everything else suggested to it. Israel and her leaders and military are not lily-white and totally without blame in all things, but she is not the aggressor here, nor is she the aggressor in the medium- or long-range historical perspective. The day after Israel went out from under the protection of the international community, she was attacked. She was attacked on the Jewish high holiday. She was attacked for taking land; she was attacked for giving it back. Every time Israel gives a little, it is rewarded with more violence and more aggression against it. It is perfectly obvious to everyone who is ultimately behind it -- Syria and Iran. Is is perfectly obvious that conciliatory language and concessions will not bring Israel the peace it so desparately deserves. It is perfectly obvious that Israel simply cannot afford to play nice any more. It is perfectly obvious that Hezbollah is well-armed and very, very dangerous; it has amply demonstrated its willingness to destroy buildings, attack and kill civilians, bankroll and supply suicide bombers, kipnap hostages and blackmail the Israelis, and otherwise generally undermine if not attack outright the sovereign nation of Israel, which has never in its brief history engaged in a war of aggression. At this point, Hezbollah's continued existence is incompatible with Israeli national security, and Israel is right to defend itself.

So seeing the Secretary General wring his hands at Israel and beg for an immediate cease-fire is disgraceful, and Bush is right to say so. Being told that Israel is at a moral equivalency with Hezbollah is intellectually and morally insulting, and Bush is right to say so. And turning a blind eye to the patently obvious fact that Syria and Iran are underwriting Hezbollah's aggression and terrorism, and that they could make this stop in a day if they chose to, is to engage in willful ignorance for no apparent purpose. And Bush is right when he says that if people really want peace, Syria needs to yank its support and really make Hezbollah "stop pulling all this shit." And until and unless that happens, Israel needs to continue to make the equation very simple for its enemies to understand: Don't screw around with the big dog.


I'm feeling optimistic and confident today. So here's a little bit of history and an allegory.

Today in 64 (the year 64, I mean) was the beginning of the Great Fire of Rome. Two-thirds of the city burnt down and was subsequently rebuilt by the Emperor Nero and his minions. More his minions than him, although he did appropriate enough of the Palatine hill for himself so that he could build himself a house that would have made Aaron Spelling jealous. It got blamed on Christians, although that looks like it was not a fair cop in retrospect.

Coincidentally, I listened this morning to a lecture about Tudor and Stuart England, describing the Great Fire of London of 1666. (The anniversary date of that tragic incident was not today.) It started out small; so small that the Lord Mayor went to sleep after seeing the flames, announcing that it was "but a trifle; a woman could piss it out." Turns out, no, not so much. One week later, three-quarters of London, including St. Paul's Cathedral, most of the financial center and the ancient Roman walls, were all destroyed or rendered useless.

Both Rome and London came back after these immense disasters, better than before, bigger than before, and most importantly, to go on to become the centers of civilizations even richer and more powerful than they had been before these huge setbacks. It got me thinking -- sometimes you have to go through some tough times, but in the end if you work hard you can bounce back from them and things are better than they ever were before. It worked for Rome, it worked for London. It worked for Chicago and San Francisco, too.

There's no reason that can't work on the individual level, too. This doesn't mean you welcome the fire, but it does mean you push as hard as you can to recover. Just a bit of inspiration to make the day brighter.

A Great Relief

Today, with the clearance of the check representing my share of the proceeds of that case back in Knoxville I had with Happy Bachelor Lawyer, I was able to repay just about all of the people who provided financial help to get The Wife and I out here to California. It feels good to be able to pay them back and better to realize that yes, we can stand on our own feet. We're starting to feel like real people again.

We are both very grateful for the help that our friends have given us and the support that they've shown us in this most recent major transition in our lives. Hopefully there will not be another one like it for a little while.

(GIS is for "money" and "stand up"),

July 14, 2006

Tickle Tickle Tickle

For the past several days, I've had a tickle in my throat, and it's been really aggravating.

You know that little tickle, it feels like a hair on your uvula. It creates a cough, a persistent one. Nothing dislodges it. Nothing makes the tickle, the itch go away. It makes my throat contract and I have to gasp for air -- and then it goes away a few minutes later. But in the meantime, it's embarrassing.

I don't know what causes it. I've not a clue what to do about it. Any suggestions, Loyal Readers?

Coffee and Clark Gable

"Hey, office manager, when you order supplies next, can you get a quart of vinegar?"

"Vinegar? Why?"

"Because the coffee tastes horrible. I want to clean the coffee maker."

"We used to do that!"

"You stopped?"

"Well, no one wanted to do it."

"Okay. I want to do it. I drink that coffee and it tastes like there's years' worth of oils built up in there."

"Yes, and that vinegar cleans it right out! We should really do that more often."

"You get the vinegar, I'll do the cleaning."

"Oh, and, don't clean out the partner's coffee maker. He's like Clark Gable."

"Um... Clark Gable?"

"Oh my, yes."

"I... I don't understand."

"Clark Gable was in that movie where he got very upset at his lady friend for cleaning out his coffee maker, because he liked all the residue. He said he got it to taste just right."

"Ohhh-kay. So, anyway, how about that vinegar?"

July 12, 2006

They're Both Right

On NPR this morning, I heard a report that this year's federal budget deficit came in about $100 billion less than originally projected. President Bush is proclaiming victory and progress in his promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his term. Democrats are accusing Bush of using smoke and mirrors to hide massive fiscal irresponsibility.

They're both right. It's great that we're not going into debt as fast as we had feared and we should be happy that the deficit is less than it had been projected. And it's also unacceptable that a wealthy, powerful nation like ours is deficit spending at all.

Bush's long-term plan to cut the deficit to $150 billion annually in fiscal 2008 is not a sufficiently ambitious one.

Funeral Politics

Thinking about the funeral today made me realize that my post yesterday reads as a bit morose; I was trying for a more philosophical tone. While it's true that I find myself in a place and a situation I had never really planned for, the fact of the matter is that I've a lot to be happy about. Such dissatisfaction as I feel is primarily focused on large issues of money and finance, and this is only a relatively small piece of the puzzle of happiness.

In virtually every other area of life, I've got few worries. I've got an interesting, challenging job doing something I enjoy. It pays enough to support our lifestyle, and soon enough The Wife will have a job (with some luck) and we can use her earnings to save up to buy a house in a year or so. I've got a good education, I'm smart, I have hobbies I like. I've got some good critters and a nice place to live. I'm blessed with a supportive, loving family, and many good friends. I'm healthy and alive. Most of all, I have a wonderful wife who is my best friend and an ideal life companion. And there is no reason that long-term, larger-scale wealth cannot come in the future.

And my friend Nancy Spungen is right about quite a few things in her comments: a) women don't really like Pink Floyd all that much and growing up I wasn't a cool kid in part because I didn't have much access to hip contemporary music; b) the major career choices I've made were, especially viewed in context, about as good as could have been made; and c) different choices could easily have resulted in a much worse situation than I am currently in, due largely to factors beyond my control.

So mine has been a mixed bag of some good and some lukewarm results in life. But the question remains -- to what extent am I here due to good choices I have made and to what extent am I here due to forces beyond my control? The more I think about it, the more I'm coming to believe that I have a lot less ability to influence my path in life than I would like to believe.

July 11, 2006

The Crazy Diamond Shines No More

Like a lot of men my age, I've always liked Pink Floyd. I like the psychedelic tone, the bizarre lyrics sometimes revealing deep meaning or tortured insights into the human condition, as well as the melodious, varied textures of the music. Most of the music's appeal comes from late addition and now lead man David Gilmour. But the tortured, deep lyrics (as well as a lot of the nonsensical ones) came from Syd Barrett. And Syd Barrett died recently. This got me thinking some morbid thoughts, motivated in part by having a funeral to attend tomorrow.

Syd Barrett was the epitome of the artist tortured by unseen demons who did not have to be there. Pink Floyd at its peak was a popular, profitable, and critically-acclaimed band. After its first few big hits, it was clearly destined for its place in the pantheon of pop music -- maybe not as big as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but on the same scale as its contemporaries the Who or Led Zeppelin. Yet Barrett simply could not handle all the success. He withdrew from the limelight, eschewed the rock-n-roll lifestyle, did lots of drugs, and engaged in a wide variety of bizarre, self-indulgent behavior like shaving off his eyebrows. (This, in turn, inspired one of the more visually arresting images from Pink Floyd's The Wall.)

One of the attorneys at the firm mentioned this problem a few days ago: "How much success can you handle? When you have too much, you'll start destroying yourself so you don't have it anymore." The Wife also mentioned recently that a lot of people don't want to have money and success, and that they do things to prevent themselves from having that kind of life. Syd Barrett was obviously like that. I don't know if that's a Freudian way of looking at the human psyche or a Jungian one -- but it is a school of thought so pervasive as to constitute the conventional wisdom.

This got me thinking about myself -- I've tried to have success in my life, but I don't seem to have it yet. In the context of my own career, I'm no Syd Barrett, but then again, I haven't exactly become David Gilmour, either. I've not done badly, but I've had some big stumbles, too. I don't begrudge any of my peers their success, but it feels like a lot of success has passed me by. I could have bought real estate a long time ago and rode the bubble up to present-day market values; that opportunity has passed me by because I made different choices. Many of my professional ventures didn't work out as well as I would have liked, like starting my own firm and relocating to a more affordable part of the country.

Don't get me wrong, Loyal Readers. I've much to be grateful for and I know it. Like I said, I'm not a Syd Barrett, turning into a recluse in the face of plenty. But if it's true that people create their own realities, if it's true that we all eventually become what we want to be, then am I now what it is that I unconsciously wish to be? That is an uncomfortable thought and it feels sort of defeatist. Why haven't my previous paths led me to the places I consciously wanted to go? What will happen with the new path I'm on now? I want to do more than tread water the rest of my professional life. At least, I think that's what I want.

The cruel twist on the Protestant work ethic that "some people just don't want success so they sabotage themselves" is so pervasive in contemporary thought that people react emotionally when that notion is questioned. I wonder, though. Maybe people think this about the world because the idea that success and failure is really just random, or powered by forces so large and chaotic that they may as well be random, is too unacceptably terrifying to contemplate seriously. Maybe Syd Barrett came to the conclusion that it really was all chance and chaos instead of choice and creation, and rather than risk a catastrophic fall through the vicissitudes of random happenstance, he chose to opt out and at least keep some measure of self-control over his own fate.

We'll never know now, other than what clues we can glean from the oft-confusing lyrics to the music he wrote in the sixties and seventies. I'm not a believer in the afterlife and I don't think if there was one, Syd Barrett would be in a happier place. Rather, I think we can ask ourselves whether he wound up the way he did because of chance or choice. The question has real implications, most of them unpleasant.

If you are successful because of choices you have made, then how do you know if you're going to reach a point where, like Syd Barrett, you suffer from an irresistible impulse to destroy everything you've created? If you are unsuccessful because of choices you have made, particularly at an unconscious level, what can you possibly do to change those choices in the future? And if your success or lack thereof is the result of factors beyond your control which are effectively random, what can you really do to change, control, or even guide your fate?

What's important here is to come up with the honest answer, and not the one that simply feels good.

July 10, 2006

Pulling Rank

I don't usually "pull rank" at court. But today I did. The line was out the door and wrapped around the outside of the parking lot when I got to court this morning. So I took advantage of the sign on the wall that said "Attorneys may proceed to the front of the weapons screening line upon showing their bar cards."

Normally, my attitude is that I'm no better than any of the other people with business at court and I should stand in line with the rest of them. And when the line takes ten minutes or so, I do. When I have a chance of being seen by a juror, I do.

Today, though, I was suffering the echoes of a migraine that I had medicated away with near-constant aspirin use -- one full gram every six hours -- and sheer willpower to make it through a day. And I was in no mood to wait an hour to verify that I didn't have any weapons. So I cut in line, flashed my bar card, and proved that I had no weapons. The deputies took one look at me, determined I was harmless, and let me through despite my tie-tack that set off the metal detector.

Migraines can really knock someone down and out. Yesterday, I couldn't take time out to let it hit me, and so I did what I could to suppress it. When I get the migraine, the headache pain can be quite intense. It localizes in the frontal lobes of my head and sinuses. Even under a lot of aspirin, it still hurt to lean forward, bend over, or turn my head suddenly. I fatigue easily, and I feel the pain circling around my skull like a circlet. If I let it go, I get nauseous, dizzy, and I lose the ability to tolerate bright lights and loud noises. When the migraine hits, it echoes for days afterwards. I've found with huge doses of aspirin, I can dull the pain enough to function -- if I catch it early enough.

So when I had the echoes going this morning, that was it. I put aside my small-"d" democratic tendency, pulled rank, got into the courthouse, and found myself a quiet part of the hallway to sit and read my papers. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait too long before my case was called and I could go back to my relatively quiet office. Tonight, I'm going to try and get a nice full night of sleep so that I can recuperate some more and hopefully deal with my full court calendar tomorrow morning.

...And hopefully avoid making more scatalogical jokes about Congress.

I would suggest prunes, leafy vegetables, and higher fiber generally

Read the headline first.

July 9, 2006

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean 2

Yes, The Wife and I were part of a record-breaking Hollywood weekend. Like so many other movie-goers, we went to see Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest this weekend. We went because we liked the first one, because I like movies with lots of action, and The Wife thinks that Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom are the two sexiest men in Hollywood and having them together in one movie is irresistible.

The movie itself is not a deep meditation on the subtle complexities of the human soul and its eternal struggle with the competing demands of morality and survival. No, not so much. It's pretty much a pirate movie with some silly supernatural villians and sea monsters thrown into the mix. There are some nice touches, though: the good guys are really good, the bad guys are really bad, and the movie pays nice homage to all sorts of classic adventure movies, particularly pirate movies, from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

True to the the spirit of Captain Blood, our heroes fight, and deceive, and fight, and double-cross, and fight some more, in a variety of gorgeous sets and locations, with thrilling choreography and action. The banter is silly but not quite over the top; Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow remains one of the most interesting characters yet devised in that actor's remarkable career, and as far as I am concerned, the movie more than delivers on its promises of good action, family-friendly but winking-at-the-adults comedy, and slick, high-production-value entertainment. Its cliffhanger ending, while somewhat predictible, nicely sets up the stage for what is sure to be next year's big summer hit, Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End.

The Wife seemed disappointed, though, and I can't figure out why. There was ship-to-ship combat, swordplay, plenty of shots of her handsome favorites, resolute and clever trickery from the winsome Kiera Knightley, magic, double-crosses -- everything you wanted in this movie. I was certainly happy with it; while its screenwriter may not be winning any Oscars for this effort, the movie overall was worth the price of admission.


It took a heart-stopping first half, recovering from the first hostile goal scored on Gianluigi Buffon in the entire tournament, a well-deserved red card on France's come-out-of-retirement superstar for a mean-spirited head-butt to the chest, and a flawless performance on penalty kicks. But Forza Italia emerged triumphant -- the winners of the 2006 World Cup. The score reads 1:1 (5:3) but there's a lot more to the story than the score.

This is Italy's fourth World Cup (Brazil, with five, is the only country to have won more) in six appearances in the final and it's a big triumph after all the competition along the way. The Brazilians looked scary, and there's the old saying that what we Americans call soccer "is a simple game with 22 players who chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end the Germans win." But I've been pulling for the Azzurri ever since my own country got knocked out of the tournament.

There will not be a sporting event of this magnitude on Earth again until South Africa 2010. Now, it's time for me to start thinking about American football.

Change of Command

Today The Wife and I took a trip to Azusa to witness a change of command ceremony for the California Army National Guard. My friend, and former law partner, was recently promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in the Guard and today was his ceremony to take command of a cavalry battalion. For those of you Loyal Readers unfamiliar with how the military is organized, this is a very big deal and a sign of great success for my friend in his military career. A big enough deal that I gladly (although I admit not without some regret) dropped watching the World Cup final match at halftime so we could go and be on time.

The ceremony took place at a brand-new Guard facility; we were told that it had just opened three weeks ago and the battalion had just moved in. We got the VIP treatment -- a soldier ran over to a parking spot reserved for us, and opened the car door for The Wife; another soldier escorted us into the building and guided us into the VIP room for civilians and retired military personnel. The city's mayor spoke, the general in charge of the division which this battalion is organized spoke. Then the colonel in charge of the brigade spoke, then the outgoing battalion commander spoke, and then my friend spoke.

I was a bit disturbed by some of the general's remarks -- many members of the battalion had recently returned from a long deployment at Guantanamo Bay where they were part of the prison security for the foreign combatant detainees (who, we now know, cannot be detained by executive fiat alone). That the general praised the troops for their good work, for the lack of glamour associated with the work, and the vital need of the work as part of the nation's overall military strategy, was all appropriate and good. What bothered me was when the general referred to the prisoners as "savage dogs and wild animals." These are people -- dangerous people, people who mean to do our country harm, our enemies, whom we should keep careful control over. But they are still people. Dehumanizing them does not enable us to understand them better, and to defeat them we must understand them. Dehumanizing them also excuses us from treating them like human beings. To acknowledge the humanity of our enemies forces certain moral imperatives on us with regards to how we behave towards them, particularly when they are our captives. That our enemies feel no moral scruples about their behavior towards us is irrelevant. We should welcome our moral imperatives and obey them scrupulously, because they make us better than our enemies.

But I digress. A lot of our old friends were there, both military and civilian. It was good to catch up with so many of them. Hopefully we can get together more frequently, and for more happy occasions like this, in the future. And I'm very, very pleased for our friend and the significant success he has just realized for his military career. I wish him all the best for the future.

Public Park Proves Public-Parochial Premium Problem Pervasive

This is kinda B.S. It's the kind of B.S. that I would have expected to have found back in Tennessee.

I've got nothing against parochial schools -- I went to a parochial high school and I'm grateful for the good education I got there. But private schools need to pay for things privately. When the public gets involved, things get ookey. ("Ookey," by the way, is a Constitutional law phrase with a rather precise meaning. That's why I went to law school.) If these schools wanted to buy the land and develop it for their mutual use, that would have been OK with me.

Particularly amusing in the article is the way the city attorney tap-dances around the issue of why, exactly, the city is paying five million dollars for a "public" park that will have more than half of its overall territory, and the bulk of its usable facilities, fenced off from the public for the exclusive use of two parochial schools.

I think I'm going to join Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

July 8, 2006

Six Years Ago, in El Norte

The 2006 Mexican election was decided by a margin of less than 100,000 votes, and the proclaimed "liberal" winner is contesting the results in a legal challenge. Huge rallies are taking place by supporters of the loser and counter-protests for the winner are sure to follow. This all sounds very familiar to us norteños. We solved it; our Mexican friends will, too. What's important is that Mexico adheres to the rule of law and principles of democracy and avoids the lure of corruption. Good luck, amigos.

July 7, 2006

Truth from the Los Angeles Fish Wrapper

The headline to the linked article says it all. It makes me feel a little bit better to see that a great many other people -- particularly well-educated ones -- are making the same choices that The Wife and I are. Although the article references German people (thus the picture of a classicly sexy German), there are plenty of other people out there, some with admittedly sophomoric looking websites and some with somewhat greater sarcasm than I care to apply to this subject, who feel the way we do. See, it's not just us.

Rhythm of the Lawyer's Day

I'm not complaining that I'm busy at work. I like having a full docket and a lot of things to do. I like the work I'm doing. But it's amazing how, like my last three legal jobs, all the work seems to stack up towards the end of the day. It's usually pretty slow in the mornings, unless I'm in court. Gradually, the pace picks up as phone calls get returned and work gets completed and sent to other people and returned to me. Finally, at some point I'm handling five or six cases at once, each with a different person and each with a problem that they think (sometimes correctly) requires immediate attention.

This keeps up until five o'clock, when people go home and the work comes to a deflating stop. Sometimes, when there's a lull in the madness, I'm tempted to just sit and wait for the next shoe to drop rather than start a new project, and whether I do or not, I'm never disappointed. The rhythm of my typical work day is like Ravel's Bolero -- things get faster and more intense as they proceed until finally everything comes crashing to a sudden, cacophonous stop at the end.

Is it just me? Is this something that I'm doing with the way I manage my work day? Or are your days at work like this too, Loyal Readers?

July 6, 2006

Date Night In Palmdale

Tonight, we looked at our finances and found a little money to spare. So it was date night. The Wife likes sushi, so we tried a sushi place in Palmdale. The service was not so good and the sushi, while fresh, had been allowed to warm up somewhat. Sushi should be served chilled to maximize the taste. But, there was toro nigri and unagi, so I was satisfied.

After that, talk about a good time I like to show my wife, I tell ya, we went to Costco. We got industrial quantities of things like string cheese, those yummy sweet-n-salty peanut bars, Bernstein's Restaurant Recipe Italian salad dressing (the salad dressing worth a cross-continental trip for), contact lens solution, and frozen shrimp.

Do I know how to show a girl a good time or what?

July 5, 2006

Unpleasant Symbolism

The photograph to the right is copyrighted by the New York Times (and reprinted here under a claim of fair use). And the inherent contradiction it represents makes my blood boil. Not just for me as an atheist; how would a Jew or a Hindu or a Buddhist feel about this? I imagine they would be somewhat taken aback to see Lady Liberty holding the Decalogue, with the word "Jehovah" written across her crown, and swapping her torch for a crucifix.

There's a lot of ideological claptrap going on out there that this is somehow a "Christian nation." That's just wrong -- it is a nation in which Christianity is the dominant religion. Not the same thing. Some of the Founders were Christians. Most were not. Some were outright atheists; others were deists who believed in a passive creator; others half-heartedly went through the motions of various kinds of Protestant Christianity to maintain a public appearance of moral virtue. Very few were fervent in their religious beliefs. Even the very religious John Adams wrote that America was in no way founded upon the Christian religion.

We are not, and never have been, the Christian States of America. We have a secular government and the secular nature of our government has served us very well throughout our history. But there are a tremendous number of people who want to blur, obscure, and ultimately destroy the separation of government and religion -- specifically Christianity. Religious government has worked well in how many other nations around the world? Iran? Afghanistan under the Taliban? Medieval Europe?

As I've said many times, Christianity is a good thing. It is a noble religion, full of wisdom and compassion and moral virtue. It is also greatly misunderstood, often by people who claim to be practicing it. If more people were true Christians, who did all the things Jesus taught rather than just the ones they find appealing, I think America would be a better place. But true Christianity must be very difficult to practice -- for instance, that part about loving one's enemies would be very difficult indeed. (If I ran into Osama bin Laden, it wouldn't be love I dispensed to him.)

But a lot of people claim to be Christians not because of the moral virtues of Christianity but because of an impulse to conform, and to enforce conformity, to a particular set of social mores. These, no doubt, are the kinds of people who are just as pleased as punch to see a statue like this and they wonder why people like me get so upset by this sort of thing.

Yes, the church in Memphis as a right to erect this statute and argue that America is, or should be, a Christian nation. But I also have a right, and I'm exercising it here, to say that they're wrong.

July 4, 2006

Accendiamo a Berlino ed alla vittoria!

The biggest game so far -- and the Azzurri won, 2-0, at the very end of overtime. This is, I believe, the game-winning goal in the 119th minute.

I sat down and watched the whole game -- I was as tense as I get during a close Green Bay game. The whole time, The Wife was saying that she thought the Germans were really cute (and disliking key Italian player Mauro Camaronesi's long hair) and some amazing saves got made by an extraordinary German keeper. But the Italian keeper made some amazing stops, too, and the Italians played more aggressively.

This was especially true in the second overtime period -- you could tell the Germans were confident they could win on penalty kicks, and the Italians were also pretty sure the Germans had an edge if it went that far. So the last fifteen minutes were desparate, balls-to-the-wall play by the Azzurri and as much keep-away as the Germans could muster.

The final is Sunday in Berlin, against the winner of Portugal-France. (The Wife thinks that Portugal are way cuter than France.) Italy will be the favorite. Avanti!

July 3, 2006

Imperial Vehicle Code

Bit by bit, I'm putting together the important revisions to the laws that will come into effect after the revolution comes and our democracy collapses into dictatorship. When that happens, I intend to find myself on top and I will promulgate a number of decrees to modify existing law for the general benefit of all my subjects. As with so many other things, I look to classical history for guidance and wisdom, and I find that Lucius Cornelius Sulla had some pretty good ideas.

The thing is, unlike Sulla, I will be a generally benevolent and kind overlord, and those who know how to behave themselves with a modicum of dignity and intelligence will scarcely notice any change between today's society and that which will blossom under my guidance. But, there are those who will need to make adjustments to their lifestyle. Like the jerk behind us in the Honda mini-SUV last night at the McDonald's drive-thru, whose motor and muffler had been altered to the point that its rumble rendered me unable to communicate with The Wife because of the deafening roar, who thought that was an appropriate way to transport his dog. He'll have a little bit more difficult fitting in after the revolution comes. He won't like this law, which will be early in the course of my Imperial decrees to be issued, representing the importance of this law to The Leader:

(A) Any vehicle which emanates audible noises in excess of 65 decibels for longer than two seconds on or within 100 yards of an Imperial Highway shall be in violation of the Imperial Vehicle Noise Ordinance. The owner and the driver of the vehicle shall share strict liability for violation of the Imperial Vehicle Noise Ordinance, and the judge of the Low Criminal Court shall impose punishments as follows.

(B) Punishment shall be as follows:
For the first offense:
the vehicle shall be immediately impounded and summarily repaired by the Imperial Army's Mechanical Corps, and all offending equipment shall be removed or restored to functional conditioning immediately, and the violator shall reimburse the Imperial Government for all expenses incurred before the vehicle is released from Imperial impound.
For the second offense: the vehicle shall be immediately impounded and replaced with a silent-running electric vehicle equipped with a governor on all internal audio devices. After six months of continuous use of such vehicle, the owner may apply to the Low Criminal Court for return of the original vehicle.
For the third offense: punishment cumulative with second offense, and furthermore, the owner shall be sentenced to two weeks' labor cleaning the Imperial Highways of litter and other road debris.
For the fourth offense: the owner forfeits his right to own a motor vehicle or to operate a motor vehicle on the Imperial Highways for eleven months and twenty-nine days.
For the fifth offense: reference to the High Criminal Court for prosecution for the crime of willful stupidity.

(C) If an animal or child under the age of twelve years is contained within the vehicle at the time it emanates noise in violation of this decree, the Imperial Attorneys shall further examine the facts and refer appropriate cases to the High Criminal Court to prosecute instances of the crimes of animal abuse or child abuse.

(D) If the noise causing violation of this decree is louder than the sirens of law enforcement, firefighting, or ambulance vehicles, observed from either within or without the vehicle, the Imperial Attorneys shall further examine the facts and refer approrpriate cases to the High Criminal Court to prosecute instances of the crime of interference with emergency services.

(E) If the noise causing the violation of this decree is a repeating-sound auto alarm, and such sound persists for longer than twenty seconds, Imperial citizens shall be authorized to immediately disable the alarm through judicious use of aluminim baseball bats, and such conduct shall not be held to be a violation of the Imperial Vandalism Law.

(F) Freedom of speech does not include volume, at least not on the roads. So says The Leader.

Yes, there will be many candidates for the dubious honor of "first against the wall" after the revolution comes, but let's get real. We can't execute everyone who pisses off The Leader. It's too easy to do and that would simply cause a labor shortage. It's better this way -- we'll get the loud cars and trucks off the road, so people can hear the damn sirens and not blow out their pets' or childrens' eardrums, and the rest of us can drive in peace.

Don't worry, Loyal Readers. You will all benefit from your proximity to The Leader (whose initials you should recognize by now). It won't be democracy and that will be too bad -- but perhaps with a little strong guidance, people will be able to learn how to responsibly use their freedom and can be trusted with self-government again.

But I'd better damn well not have any trouble getting my mail after the revolution, I'll tell you what.

Records Will Be Broken

My so-far failsafe way of predicting World Cup outcomes has been stymied. The Wife advises that the guys on the German team are pretty much equally as cute as the guys on the Italian team. This means that if you are betting, you definitely should be taking the Azzurri and the point. The betting market is favoring the Germans by about two to one. Some of that is home-field advantage, surely -- but the thing is, there are a lot of factors on both sides.

Allesandro Nesta still isn't healthy enough to play, but Germany will be without midfielder Torsten Frings, who has been a big part of the game, too, as punishment for a little bit of extracurricular pugilism against an Argentina player after the match. Germany has never lost when they play at Dortmund. But, Italy hasn't given up a goal to its opponents at all this tournament. The only goal counted against Italy, the single point that tied the U.S. in the round-robin matches, was an own goal -- it took an Italian to score on Italy. And, Italy has never lost to Germany in head-to-head competition during the World Cup.

Tomorrow, we'll see which of these two streaks -- the Dortmund streak or Italy just having Germany's number -- will be broken. I'm going to wear my blue shirt and root for the Azzurri and enjoy the game while I make my dish to pass for the Fourth of July party afterwards. Either way, there will be another game after tomorrow for the fans of Italy -- but here's hoping it's for the gold instead of for pride.


Mailbox Woes

Since we've moved in, we've been unable to get our mail. We got a mail key from our landlord, but it doesn't work. First it's the post office's problem. Then it's the builder's problem. Then it's the post office's problem again. Now we have to fill out our forms and get the key and lock replaced ourselves. This is getting ridiculous. We can't get our checks, we can't get our ATM cards, we won't be able to get our driver's licenses, we can't even tell what money we owe and to whom.

The Wife has been working this problem out. I've been pedalling at full speed at work and haven't had time to look into this. I fully trust her ability to get the problem resolved, but Wednesday, when we go to get our driver's licenses, I may have a few words to say to the postmaster myself.

Great Seats in San Diego's Petco Park

Sunday, our very good friends -- our best man and matron of honor -- invited us to a ballgame down in San Diego. They had phenomenal seats. The view from our seats is to the right. I hadn't been to a game at Petco Park since my bachelor party, more than two years ago.

You get a really good sense of exactly how difficult baseball is to play at a high competitive level when you're that close to the action. You see how bigthe strike zone is for even a player of average height. You get a sense of how fastthe ball moves -- a 90 mile an hour fastball seems invisible if you don't keep laser-like focus on the pitcher. At the same time, it's remarkably easy to see where the ball flies across the plate.

The Wife had a good time, too -- especially egging on our friend Katherine, who is quite a lot of fun when a few drinks have been passed around. It's fun to see The Wife out in the sun, having fun. It's fun to be with friends. The drive to and from San Diego is just a bit long for an easy day trip, but it's a do-able day trip. If we can find ourselves a dog-sitter, we can stay the night in the future, which would be a great pleasure, too. Then we could stick around for more than one margarita.

Both The Wife and I really like San Diego. This trip did nothing but affirm our great affinity for America's Finest City.