August 27, 2006


Milwaukee, Wisconsin -- The Wife and I have spent two and a half days visiting with family. We're both happy to have been able to spend time with some people close to us. But we're also both exhausted and ready to go home tomorrow. We miss our critters, we want to return to our regular lives. We're staying at a cruddy hotel near the airport, but it has an internet connection and a shuttle to the airport that leaves at 0-dark-hundred tomorrow morning. So it's good enough for one night.

August 26, 2006

What You Ask For

Johnson Creek, Wisconsin -- Our flight to Milwaukee was as good as a flight can be. The Wife and I were sat next to each other, and the flight took off on time. We flew over most of the interesting sights in California, Nevada, and Utah before cloud cover took the views away from us -- the lakes and reservoirs in Southern California's mountains, our new home in the Antelope Valley, the massive urban sprawl that is Las Vegas, Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, the Canyonlands, and the mesas of the painted desert. The food on the flight was good, too -- yes, we had to pay for it, but it was good. I had a turkey, cranberry sauce, and brie cheese sandwich on freshly-baked wheat bread with a fresh romaine salad; The Wife got a "fun box" with various kinds of cheeses, bread sticks, chips and salsa, and chocolate treats. Personnel on the flight were friendly and did not make frequent interruptions to our conversations and activities. The flight landed early and our bags arrived along with us. Midwest Express even served fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. This is basically everything you could ask for in modern air travel. Hopefully our flight back Monday is as good.

I've fewer nice things to say about today's family reunion. My in-laws worked very hard to make it happen; they put in a lot of effort and care into it. They enlisted The Wife and I to cook and we cleaned and put stuff away. They got a whole pig roast taken in, and made many, many trips to get everything they needed to throw the party. And many of the relatives who showed up were quite nice and pleasant -- some drove from as far away as Iowa to be at the event. Others seemed to take the event less seriously and the less I say about them, the better.

Wisconsin is very humid, very green, and very different from California. I'm too mentally worn out from today's -- festivities is as good a word for it as anything else -- to comment further about that. Anyway, it was a big day, draining for a lot of us. Tomorrow, we'll go back to Milwaukee for my aunt's birthday party and to visit with my grandmother before our return flight early Monday morning.

August 24, 2006

And You Thought History Was Boring

Lots of people think history is boring. That's probably because they had boring history teachers who tried to get them memorize mind-numbing lists of dates and battles without ever trying to make anyone understand why they are important. But if you made a movie about an invasion, a conflict of radically different cultures, questions about moral right and wrong, and best of all, cannibalism, you'd have yourself the makings of a pretty good story.

Such, we now know, was part of the Spanish invasion of the Aztec Empire in the early sixteenth century. A scant twenty years after Columbus reported the existence of the New World to Europe, armed Spanish expeditions came and set up camp on their own. Legend has it that because the Spaniards had white skin, the Aztecs worshipped them as gods, and that they put up only a platry resistance to the Spanish invasion.

We know better now. First of all, we know it is likely that the Aztecs had, about one generation beforehand, made contact with other colonists and traders from beyond the sea -- the Chinese. Artifacts strongly suggesting trade between the Aztecs and the Chinese have been found in sites all along the Pacific coast of Mexico. So too is there evidence of pre-Columbian incorporation of chickens into the Aztec diet -- chickens not being indigenous to the Americas, they had to have come from somewhere. Then there is the issue of the source of the legends about fair-skinned "gods" from beyond the seas. Where would the Aztecs have come in contact with fair-skinned people before the Europeans came? It is easy for us to forget that to the eyes of a fifteenth-century Aztec, a person from China would appear to be very fair-skinned. And finally, there are reports of Spanish explorers in the Americas finding descendents of the Chinese, describing them as uncharacteristically fair-skinned, speaking a language unlike any of the other "natives," and (here's the clincher) wearing silk clothes. The descendents of Chinese colonists were found in areas known today as Wisconsin and Colorado; to this day, there is a village in Peru where all the inhabitants speak a pigdin form of Mandarin Chinese. Compelling, but admittedly not conclusive, evidence that the Chinese treasure fleets visited the Pacific coast of the Americas in the 1450's.

So, it is entirely possible that the Aztecs were not so impressed with the Europeans as we have been taught -- because they came from a different ocean than the previous visitors. It is also quite likely that the Aztecs figured out right away what the Spaniards' armor and guns were and understood quite well who they were intended to be used against. These were not stupid people. What they did not know was that the Spaniards' best weapon against them was one they could neither see nor comprehend; the Spaniards defeated the Aztecs not by force of arms but through biological warfare. 200 conquistadores on horseback with steel swords, armor, and muskets could certainly mow through large numbers of soldiers armed with stone, wood, and bronze weapons -- but they would still not be able to overwhelm a determined army of tens of thousands of strong soldiers. But they didn't have to, because those soliders were weakened and killed by bubonic plague, smallpox, and a host of other bacterial and viral pathogens not previously known by the Aztec people. (This begs the question of whether the Chinese traders of the 1450's communicated Asian pathogens to the Aztecs, and in all likelihood they would have done exactly that.)

So imagine you're an Aztec in the early 1500's when Cortez lands. Your grandparents told you stories about the mighty ships that came from the west when they were young, bearing gifts of great luxury to trade, wearing shiny fabrics of stunning beauty, and new foods to eat. The fair-skinned sailors never came back. In the meantime, you've been at war with your neighbors to expand the Empire, and participated in the religion you've been raised to honor all your life. You're pretty proud of yourself for being part of the most technologically advanced, richest, and most powerful nation on earth.

Suddenly, from the east, more ships come. They are big, but not overwhelmingly huge; perhaps three to four times the size of the outriggers you are used to seeing ply the coasts of your homeland. On the ships are men who are fair-skinned -- but they do not wear colorful fabrics and instead wear shiny metal plates. They offer little food and are uninterested in trade. Soon, they begin demanding gold and that you forsake your gods in favor of theirs. They carry what are obviously weapons -- strange weapons, but clearly powerful ones. You would have realized almost right away that these were not the traders from the west you heard stories of. These are clearly warriors -- enemies -- come to conquer your lands. It wouldn't have taken you very long to realize that war had come to visit you in your own back yard.

Shortly after they arrived, a great pestilence would have begun working its way through your peoples. You likely wouldn't have known that it was not doing something similar to the invaders, because after enough of your countrymen had been enslaved and stripped of their gold, you would have started to fight to defend yourself, your nation, your family. You likely would have questioned your earlier hubris about your wealth, power, and technological sophistication, but it doesn't matter if the alien invaders had weapons different than yours -- the need to defend yourself would have been overriding. Perhaps you would have tried to have learned how to use their weapons; you would certainly have wanted to have taken their strength to use against them and thus neutralize their advantage. (Thus the cannibalism, a teaching of the prevailing religion of the way to take strength from one's enemies.) You would certainly have seen that these were mortal men who could die in combat. If you had ever entertained the thought that these were gods on earth, you would have quickly disabused yourself of that notion.

Perhaps this is not as comforting as the thought that the primitive natives were awed and overwhelmed by the mighty European settlers. But I'd rather know the truth than a pleasant legend. And the original legend wasn't even particularly pleasant. I'll leave whatever parallels to modern events you care to draw to yourself; what intrigued me about this story was not so much the lurid evidence of ritualized cannibalism but rather the fact that it demonstrates that a fierce, and for a while successful, resistance to the invasion was mounted, poking a hole in the traditional history we learned as children in grade school.

August 23, 2006

Follow Up

Yesterday afternoon, my computer arrived at my office. Last night, I transferred all my files from the backup computer to the laptop. But at least it's working. And the screen is delightfully free of glitches and errors. Why Gateway's CSRs were operating with information 24 to 48 hours old is beyond me.

August 21, 2006

Los Angeles Has No Country

At least, not on the airwaves anymore. Apparently, New York doesn't, either. Los Angeles' last country music station switched to playing soul-pop last week with little fanfare and little publicity.

I suppose that lots of people from professional sociologists to armchair pop culture analysts will try and read a lot into this. But actually I don't think it's all that significant. It's not like people don't listen to country music in Los Angeles. Far from it -- there are hundreds of thousands of country music fans here. I'm not one of them, but I suppose that if people like a particular kind of music, they're going to find a way to listen to it. I've lots of friends all over America who like country music; it's popular with a lot of folks from all walks of life and that's as true in Southern California as it is anywhere else.

When I grew up here in the Antelope Valley, we couldn't get any of the cool radio stations from Los Angeles. But somehow the cool kids found a way to listen to the cool music. I wasn't a cool kid, so I listened to whatever did come on the radio stations we could get, and as a result I have a taste for music closer to that of people half a generation or more older than me. That's not to say that when I did get out into the larger world and found other kinds of music, I didn't like it. But I never really figured out where kids here got exposed to groups like Depeche Mode or Duran Duran. But they did find this music, and they did listen to it, and while I might have been a bit slower than my peers to get on board, I did too.

The point is that the kids who wanted to listen to modern music found a way to do it, even though there was no radio outlet for those genres which they could tap into easily. There was MTV, there were trips to the big city (for some reason, the richer kids who could afford to go to L.A. more frequently seemed to find new music faster), there were magazines and newspapers and television shows that reported on the music scene, and there was good old-fashioned word of mouth. And there were some artists so big that they even penetrated into a podunk area like the Antelope Valley, like U2, Prince, and Madonna. Even we knew who they were.

Today, it's even easier than it was in the eighties to find the music you want to listen to without the assistance of radio. The internet has made it possible to listen to radio stations, watch videos, spread word-of-mouth, and generally disseminate music all over the world, for cheap. Kids aren't just listening to the radios; they listen to iPods and watch streaming videos over the net; cell phone manufacturers seem to think we'll want to listen to music on our phones so that's in the future; under pressure from competitors, MTV is even playing music videos again. The technology has become so easy to use and so widely-disseminated that even folks who are technophobic can use it easily.

So country music fans in Los Angeles (and New York) need not fear very much. If they want to keep up with the developments in their favorite genre of music, it won't be hard for them to get information, news, music, and everything else they want. Country music has its own cable television station that plays nothing but country videos and has country music news. Music stores and Wal-Mart aren't about to stop carrying such big movers. The entertainment media is not going to stop reporting on his genre of music, and there's always the internet.

So I don't think this is particularly significant, nor does it indicate some sort of cultural rejection of middle America by coastal cities. Before she died, Patsy Cline said something like, "Country music is never going to go away. The things it is about are a part of us -- loving, cheating, feeling bad, and feeling good later -- and that's what the music is all about."

My Gateway Customer Service Story

August 1: I call Gateway and ask for a warranty repair. CSR at Gateway's center says that he will send out a box for me to return the computer in the mail.

August 2: FedEx calls, unable to deliver my package. Two digits in the middle of my street address have been transposed. I advise of the correct address and the package is dropped off.

August 3: I pack up the computer in the box and ship it back to Gateway's repair facility in Houston.

August 4: Package is received at Houston. Repair made the same day.

August 5: Package shipped back to me. Again, the same two digits in the middle of my street address are transposed and FedEx is unable to deliver my package. Unlike August 2, no one calls me. The package sits in FedEx's delivery facility unattended.

August 10: I call Gateway, asking for an update on my computer. The CSR tells me that the computer is still being tested in the lab and that the process will take three to seven business days to complete. (This, the attentive reader will notice, is not true. See entry for August 4.). I ask if the return address on the order can be changed, because my initial delivery address was faulty and I wanted to make sure that the return address was fine. I am told that unfortunately, the order is already in the system and it cannot be changed, but I can call once the shipment is made and make arrangements with FedEx to pick up the address. Length of call: 39 minutes.

August 15: The package is shipped back to Gateway's facility in Houston. Attentive readers will notice the absence of any entries between August 8 and 15 indicating any attempt on the part of FedEx or Gateway to contact me with any problems.

August 16: I call Gateway, asking for an update. I am told that there was a delivery problem, and the product is available at my FedEx facility for pickup. I get a tracking number and log on to FedEx's website and find out that the product is on a truck on its way to Houston. I ask what can be done to get the computer back to me (since I need it to teach my classes while I am on my trip to Wisconsin for my wife's family reunion, not to mention that I am fed up with the slow, slow pace of my backup computer). I am told that there is nothing they can do while the package is en route and I will need to wait for the package to arrive. It is scheduled to arrive August 18. But, I am assured that the CSR will see to it that the issue is "escalated." Length of call: 42 minutes.

August 18: I check FedEx's website and note that the computer has been delivered to the shipping facility in Houston. I call again, and the CSR tells me that the package is ready for pickup at my local FedEx facility. I reply that no, it is not, it is in fact at Gateway's facility two time zones away. The CSR says no, there is the tracking number showing that it's been at my facility since August 15. I ask the CSR to go to FedEx's website and actually track the package. There is a lengthy pause and when I am taken off hold, I am assured that the matter will be "escalated." I ask what that means since the last time didn't seem to do much good, and I'm told that means that a supervisor will handle the problem from here on out. Reassured, I vow to call back. Total time on phone: 52 minutes.

August 19: I call again, trying to find out what's going on. I am told that the warehouse is closed on Saturday and I should call back on Monday. I express anxiety about getting the computer back in time and offer to pay extra for overnight shipping. I am told that it simply is not possible, they have only the one rate and it's the bulk shipping rate, but things usually get resolved in two to three business days. I explain that I don't have two to three business days any more. In response, the CSR assures me that the matter will be "escalated." Like my blood pressure. I express my displeasure and my burning desire to tell everyone I know about my experience. I am told that the CSR is disappointed that I am having a bad experience. Yeah, right. I'm a statistic to this mouth-breather. Total time on phone: 52 minutes.

August 21: I call again. Twice in one day. My first call (just after lunch) results in a half-hour hold resulting in the CSR identifying the tracking number for the original shipment and a chirpy advisement that I can pick up my computer at the FedEx facility. Once again, I explain the history of this sorry affair and express my frustration with Gateway's inability to properly interface with its own vendor. The CSR then says, "Oh, I see this has been escalated." (No shit.) I explain that Gateway and its vendors have had this computer for three weeks and the guys in the lab only used one day to fix the damn thing so I would really like it back. The CSR says that she is unable to locate the computer but that these things usually ship out in two to three days, and they ought to have it going out tonight. Skeptical, I ask for a tracking number. She tells me to call back later in the evening. Total time on the phone: 48 minutes, I'm ashamed to say. The office manager scolded me because she saw my door closed and didn't know where I was. (Why didn't she knock?)

My second call, at 7:40 tonight, results in another 37 minutes, most of which is spent on hold listening to Randy Travis and Bette Midler songs, while a CSR tries to locate my computer and fails. The CSR then spends another 11 minutes finding a "Customer Satisfaction Supervisor," who tells me that he will send a message to the warehouse, but they usually take 24 hours to get back to him, and delivery is usually done within three to four business days after that. I explain that I don't have three to four business days, and again offer to pay myself for overnight delivery. I am told, again, that this is simply impossible and I should call back again in about 24 hours. Total time on the phone: 57 minutes.

So far, I've spent a total of 260 minutes -- more than four precious, irreplaceable hours of my life -- dealing with a company that obviously doesn't know how to keep track of its packages. So now, I'm giving vent to my desire to tell of the quality of my customer serivce experience. And I'm concluding with some advice:

Dude, get a Dell.

August 18, 2006

Lebanese Tea Party

Both Hezbollah's TV network and Israeli TV news have aired, and the rest of the world has picked up, video of a Lebanese general and his staff serving glasses of tea to invading Israeli soldiers after they surrendered their station near the border without a shot during the recent war. Hezbollah has done this because it discredits the regular Lebanese army with its Shi'ite supporters in southern Lebanon.

The general did the right thing by surrendering to the Israelis, from what I can gather. He had a skeleton crew of troops at his disposal, and the Israelis were pounding the hell out of anyone who shot back at them. He had been sent to this post by the government to dispense and coordinate humanitarian aid to displaced civilians, and his soldiers were minimally armed. Resistance would have been futile, would have hampered his fulfillment of his mission, and resulted in escalating the military conflict to positioning the government of Lebanon against Israel after the government had carefully tried to isolate Hezbollah as the real target of the fire, and the Israelis obliged them by concentrating their attacks only on Hezbollah-controlled sites.

Perhaps what Hezbollah is upset about was the Lebanese general's refusal to escalate the war and bring the government around by necessity to Hezbollah's side of things. That, however, is not what is inciting all the anger. No, the real treason, Hezbollah implies, was treating the Israelis like human beings and showing them hospitality at all. I suppose the Lebanese soldiers could have surrendered in a more contemptuous way, and officially the government of Lebanon forbids its citizens contact with Israelis.

The Lebanese are not a homogenous people. There are Shi'ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Druze in that country, and there are more Christians in the south of Lebanon than Muslims. There are ethnic Arabs, Turks, and Persians; many people have English and French blood flowing through their veins as well. If Israel is likely to ever have a good Arabic neighbor, the likeliest candidate for that good neighbor would have been Lebanon rather than Egypt or even Jordan.

I think this general should be praised by his countrymen. Not because he surrendered, but because he saw the situation for what it was and acted appropriately. He saved the lives of his men and the civilians in the area; he did not create an obstacle to the tenuous cease-fire that even then was in the works; he kept himself in a position to fulfill his mission of dispensing humanitarian aid. He also made Hezbollah look bad along the way, and showed his countrymen that they can co-exist with their Jewish neighbors to the south. And that's another reason why I say that he's the hero of the Lebanese Tea Party.

I also note that, despite many claims that Israel indiscriminately bombed out Lebanese infrastructure like Beruit's international airport, that airport is now open for business again; flights from Syria, Turkey, and Iran landed today; British Airways and Air France will resume flights there on Sunday. No war can achieve surgical precision, but Israel has tried using strong language and diplomatic scolding before, and it just didn't work. So could it be that Israel really did only try to knock out enough easily-repairable facilities to prevent Hezbollah from being re-armed by its Syrian and Iranian sponsors, and that it tried to leave as many innocent civilians alone as it could?

There are still good guys and bad guys in this fight, and while there's a truce going on right now, don't be fooled -- this war is not over; it's been going on since 1948 with various pauses in the action. This is just another chapter, and I'm not even sure this chapter is over yet.

Meanwhile, the top headline on nearly every news page for nearly every U.S. news outlet is that apparently, the creepy guy who might or might not have killed that creepy girl nine years ago might or might not have been telling the truth when he confessed and his story might or might not make sense in light of the other facts of the case. Stay tuned for more details, plus weather and a special report on the hidden killer in your medicine cabinet!

August 17, 2006

Today's Ruling

(This is kind of more important than JonBenet.)

In today's decision in ACLU v. NSA, the District Court took, head-on, the arguments advanced some months ago by the Attorney General, which were commented upon in January right here in this very blog. The Court, in the person of Judge Anna Hicks Taylor (a Carter appointee) found one of the government's arguments valid, but most of them lacking.

Judge Taylor ruled in favor of the government on the data-mining issue, specifically that the case could not be adjudicated without disclosure of classified information and therefore that portion of the case was simply not justiciable. The data-mining was one of the issues I have had the most concern about because by definition it involves some level of governmental scrutiny over a very broad range of communications, the bulk of which, by necessity, will not even create a reasonable suspicion of untoward activity.

But, after that, the government started taking some hits. In particular, the ACLU Court found that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington is itself harmonizable with prior Congressional activity regulating the President's exercise of powers granted to him by Congress, and also harmonizable with the Constitution. However, the manner of the exercise with respect to the NSA's warrantless wiretaps (tactfully called the "Terrorist Detection Program" for political gloss) was not harmonizable with FISA, the First Amendment or the Fourth Amendment. Judge Taylor also made short work of the "inherent powers" argument that the President is the Commander in Chief and therefore can do what he wants as the head of the military:

In the Youngstown case the same “inherent powers” argument was raised and the Court noted that the President had been created Commander in Chief of only the military, and not of all the people, even in time of war. Indeed, since Ex Parte Milligan, we have been taught that the “Constitution of the United States is a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace. . . .” Ex Parte Milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2, 120 (1866). Again, in Home Building & Loan Ass’n v. Blaisdell, we were taught that no emergency can create power.
I hadn't given a lot of thought to the First Amendment angle and I'm not sure that it holds up very well. But I've always been a believer in the Fourth Amendment side of things, and the decision made an interesting historical linkage, delving into pre-Revolutionary history to illuminate the Framers' minds regarding His Majesty's use of General Warrants in the early 1770's to seize papers, pamphlets, printing presses, and persons suspected of spreading sedition. (Geez, TL, alliterate much?) So that deserves some thought -- was the President claiming for himself the modern-day equivalent of a General Warrant? Either way, the Court was entirely correct to note:

...the Office of the Chief Executive has itself been created, with its powers, by the Constitution. There are no hereditary Kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution. So all “inherent powers” must derive from that Constitution.
Usually, the best parts of an opinion come at the very end. But I was particularly moved by this passage, which is smack-dab in the middle:

It was never the intent of the Framers to give the President such unfettered control, particularly where his actions blatantly disregard the parameters clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights. The three separate branches of government were developed as a check and balance for one another. It is within the court’s duty to ensure that power is never “condense[d] ... into a single branch of government.” Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507, 536 (2004) (plurality opinion). We must always be mindful that “[w]hen the President takes official action, the Court has the authority to determine whether he has acted within the law.” Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681, 703 (1997). “It remains one of the most vital functions of this Court to police with care the separation of the governing powers . . . . When structure fails, liberty is always in peril.” Public Citizen v. U.S. Dept. of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 468 (1989) (Kennedy, J., concurring).
One of the reasons why I care so intently about the structural side of the Constitution, things like federalism and the separation of powers, is precisely what the Court is discussing here. Even more important than specific guarantees of individual rights like freedom of speech and privacy are the Constitution's system of distributing power over multiple centers within the framework of government. By requiring different people within government to interact with one another regarding the exercise of their powers and the wisdom of how those powers are exercised, collective wisdom and collective decision-making is built in to the system. The price of this is inefficiency, but the Framers believed, and they were right, that this was a small price to pay for a government dedicated to maintaining rather than diminishing the liberty of its citizens.

Interestingly, where the Court seemed to feel it was on the weakest ground was the exigent circumstances doctrine. This received very little treatment. The Court is right to point out that the President could have sought Congressional assistance with practical difficulties in implementing the various laws like FISA which attempt to balance the government's legitimate need for gathering intelligence and the necessity of preserving individual rights, and that the President had not done so. But I think the Court should have addressed the cases in which exigent circumstances permitted warrantless searches more thoroughly.

Rather than finish with a rhetorical flourish like other opinions I have enjoyed recently, ACLU v. NSA finishes with a quote from Chief Justice Earl Warren:
Implicit in the term ‘national defense’ is the notion of defending those values and ideas which set this Nation apart. . . . It would indeed be ironic if, in the name of national defense, we would sanction the subversion of . . . those liberties . . . which makes the defense of the Nation worthwhile. U.S. v. Robel, 389 U.S. 258, 267 (1967).
Quite so. Certainly we should defend America from her enemies. But we should not cease to be Americans in the process.

The case is from the Eastern District of Michigan. The Attorney General has already filed an appeal. Michigan is in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most deferential of the nine circuits to the government and one of the least friendly to plaintiffs. It's also one of the most geographically odd circuits, in my opinion; it stretches from the border of Canada on Michigan's UP all the way down to Chattanooga, yet it only contains four states: Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan. Well, that's the way Congress drew the maps.

So I would predict that this appeal will be heard by the Sixth Circuit within about a year, and the government will prevail at the intermediate stage. From there, of course, the case will be picked up by the Supreme Court; whether on a circuit split with what we may reasonably anticipate will be an adverse ruling to the government from the Ninth Circuit from the pending appeal of the case of Hepting v. AT & T Corp., 2006 WL 2038464, (E.D. Cal. June 20, 2006) case (which the government won at the District Court level).

It certainly seems as though Judge Taylor, in writing today's opinion, was fishing for friends on the High Court, noting wherever possible when she was quoting from opinions written by sitting Justices (in particular, Justice Kennedy and his former and frequent colleague, Justice O'Connor) and throwing in an extended discussion of original intent clearly aimed directly at Justices Scalia and Thomas (and by extension, Roberts and Alito). Whether this ploy is successful or not is a good question; Eugene Volokh, one of my intellectual heroes, criticizes her for the shrill and partisan tone she strikes, and his colleague Dale Carpenter suggests that she blew the call on standing.

It will be at least 2008, and more likely the summer of 2009, before the Supreme Court makes its ruling on this issue and we have the last word. By then, the personnel on the Court may change; by then, we will have a new President. So the world is very likely to look a little bit different when this ruling reaches its final form than it does today. Hopefully, the Constitution looks the same way then as it does now, too. Because the Constitution is what this is all about.

Michigan Judge Rules NSA Warantless Wiretaps Unconstitutional

U.S. District Court Judge Anna Hicks Taylor of the Eastern District of Michigan issued a ruling about an hour ago finding the NSA warrantless wiretapping program unconstitutional. I've been saying that for months now. More later when I have time to read the opinion.


For a news junkie like me, the "We found JonBenet's killer" story is a huge annoyance. It captures headlines all over the place, obscuring real news. So some creepy middle-aged white guy killed some creepy childhood beauty princess. So what? The JonBenet story is interesting only because it is so very creepy. But this shouldn't have ever been anything more than local news in central Colorado.

Hey, Mainstream Media: Tell me about the war. Tell me about the economy. Tell me about changes in technology and science. Tell me about real crime. Tell me about law and politics. Tell me about natural disasters. But don't bother me with Britney belching. At least, not on the front page of all your websites.

August 16, 2006

Must Have Been A Tough Call

The story: 16-year-old kid gets Hodgkin's lymphoma, a nasty form of cancer that is often incurable and fatal. He undergoes treatment which includes chemotherapy. He reacts badly to chemo. So he wants to discontinue chemotherapy, and start taking an "alternative" treatment instead. The "alternative" treatment, called the "Hoxsey Method," has not been legal in the United States since 1960 and the herbal components of which must be imported from Mexico, had not survived any kind of scientific testing for efficacy on Hodgkin's lymphoma.

This tears me up inside. Some sixteen-year-olds are likely to be intelligent and mature enough to understand what it means to forego medical treatment that the overwhelming weight of conventional treatment wisdom tells him to take; to understand that not following a doctor's advice while undergoing treatment for cancer is literally risking one's own life; and that such a young person is able to weigh that risk against the alternatives (including doing nothing). I can see someone with maturity and intelligence comparing the trauma of chemotherapy to his curent medical condition and deciding that maybe the pain and weakness isn't worth the marginally improved chances of survival that he would gain.

But a lot of sixteen-year-olds would not be so mature, I think. They would tend to make more impetuous decisions and deal with the issue from the standpoint of a disbelief in personal vulnerability. Death was a hard concept for me to understand as a sixteen-year-old, and I think I was a pretty mature and intelligent sixteen-year-old. Not until some of my relatives and friends died did I start really thinking hard about death and my own mortality. Still, let's give this young man the benefit of the doubt -- he's been sick for a while and has probably pondered these things much more than his peers.

So who are we, as a society, to require a person of sufficient maturity and intelligence to accept medical care that he does not want? Certainly we should satisfy ourselves that he is really making an informed, voluntary choice in not getting this medical care, but once we have satisfied ourselves of that, my basically libertarian principles tell me that society's role in the process is now complete and he can make his own decision and live (or die) with the consequences.

But then I see that he is relying on an effectively disproved treatment method, one which is probably being pushed on him by charlatans espousing the evils of the "traditional medical establishment" with some foggy-headed appeal to hope based on nothing reasonable or provable. If this young man is a person of faith, then by all means, an appeal to the diety of his choice for healing or palliation is in order, and that can be done consistently with getting medical care. But an appeal to quack medicine is just not something I can endorse. Suggesting that this alternative treatment is somehow equivalent to chemotherapy is simply incorrect. The shame of it is if he really thinks this other procedure will help him.

I guess if he has faith in it, that's worth something. But faith and prayer simply aren't good tools for healing the sick. At best, they create a kind of placebo effect; one recent study actually had cardiac patients who received intercessory prayer suffering more complications than those who did not. Of course, there are also statistical apologetics for prayer's purported healing effects, and I tend to think that the real value of scientific studies on the medical value of prayer neither confirm nor deny its value but instead strongly confirm the observer-expectancy effect. This comment isn't directly about the medical value of prayer anyway -- and seeking divine aid to recover from his illness is not mentioned in a lot of the reports about this story.

The point is that this young man is consciously choosing to take therapy that has been amply demonstrated to be quackery. He seems to be placing real hope in this course of treatment that lacks substantial scientific support. That suggests that perhaps his decision to forego chemotherapy is not so well-informed after all.

[The previous two paragraphs were edited from a previous version of this post -- TL]

I wouldn't have wanted to have been the judge in this case. That must have been a very difficult decision. But I suppose, on balance, that allowing this young man to get quack medicine instead of chemotherapy was effectively the same thing as allowing him to get no treatment at all if that were his decision. So I guess it was the right call. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

(A footnote, directly appropos of no substantive issue this story raises -- the 16-year-old in question bears the unlikely name "Starchild Abraham Cherrix." If he's sixteen now, that means he was born in 1990. What kind of a parent decides in 1990 to name their son "Starchild"? They can do it if they want, I guess, but that seems like the sort of thing that hippie parents would have named their kids in the late 60's or early 70's. This young man with a lot of more important things on his mind than silly issues like baby-name fashions apparently prefers to be called by his middle name, "Abraham," which seems like a pretty good idea to me, or at least a less flaky one.)

August 13, 2006

It's Not You, It's Us

This appears to mark the end of at least one genre of "reality TV": dating shows. The last, and greatest, of all TV dating shows, Blind Date, will only be renewed in reruns and syndication. The market appears to have got its fill of really bad dates. A lot of people, myself included, are becoming more frustrated with all the "unscripted" television out there. The future, I think, will be series-scripted dramas, dramatic shows with story arcs plotted out for an entire season (or five seasons, even).

Hey, reality TV, it's been fun. But I can't let myself change my mind about this. I need more. I need writing, you know, some level of thought going in to the programming? And you're really great, you'll find a nice audience somewhere, I'm sure of it. We can still be friends and maybe hang out every once in a while. I just need to, you know, move on to a different stage; I need to focus on me some more than I have been. Aww, don't cry, this is hard enough as it is.

August 12, 2006


I got a haircut today at one of those discount haircutting places. The haircut is OK, but now my sideburns are shaved off, and the line between hair and no hair is uneven between either side of my face. I look at myself in the mirror and it's like my head is permanently tilted to the right.

Not every man looks good with sideburns. Like this fellow here. But I wish I still had my sideburns. Right now I look like an alien or a child's action figure with a plastic switchable helmet for hair. I hope my sideburns grow back again soon. When they do, I will love and protect and cherish them.

Achieving Goals

The Wife today asked me about goals. She wondered why we hadn't spent a lot of time talking about what our goals were and how to achieve them. It seems to me, though, that we spend quite a bit of time doing both. What she meant, it turned out, is why we haven't written them down on a piece of paper and created logical action plans to realize them. The answer, I thought, was that I didn't think that was necessary.

When she asked what my goals were, I was momentarily at a loss because there is really only one right now -- getting into a position to buy a house in about a year. Other goals I have had in the recent past have actually all been realized.

I wanted to find someone wonderful that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Check that one off the list -- I've got The Wife and I couldn't possibly have done better on this one.

I wanted to get myself into a position where I could earn enough money on a reliable basis that The Wife didn't have to work. Check that one, too -- it took moving to Tennessee and back again and a lot of hard times on the way, but it seems that we are finally in a place where we needn't be anxious about money all the time, and we can make it just on what I earn practicing law and teaching.

I wanted to do something with my life that was more than just lawyering. Check. I'm teaching and writing and those things are helping me grow professionally and personally.

So all that's left is getting back into a position to buy a house and get in the game of home ownership and equity appreciation. That was a primary motive to our move to Tennessee, because the cost of housing there is so low. But finding work to power the payments proved much more difficult than we had thought, so we've come back to California. Here, the money is turning out to be adequate, and the challenge will be saving enough to break in to the market. The cost of entry here is prohibitively high. But if The Wife's business takes off, then we can use the money she makes to save up for that price of admission.

After that goal is realized, I suppose I'll need to devote more attention to my other professional projects, which will be coming along nicely by then. But for now, keeping control of my professional life, helping The Wife get her business off the ground, and saving money to put my family in a better position by next summer is where I'm at.

These are good goals, ambitious but within my grasp. Here's hoping that you, Loyal Readers, are on the path to realizing your goals, too.

The Xbox Experience

Last night, The Wife went to our friend's baby shower. I hung out with her husband at their house, and he and I drank beer and played on his Xbox 360.

When I was a kid, the Atari and the Intellevision game consoles were toys for kids to play with. Things have come a long way since the 1980's. The Xbox 360, and I assume its competitors like the Playstation 3 and the Nintendo 360, have some serious computing power and some serious programming. The games are for grownups and they are intensely fun. The games have high-definition graphics that are photo-realistic -- at a glance, which is about all you can devote to most things while playing one of these games, the background and other characters look like they were shot with a low-resolution video camera, meaning that the quality of these animated characters is almost as good (until you pause to examine the graphics closely) as what you see on a regular TV show.

We played Call to Duty and Need for Speed. Call to Duty is a first-person shooter game with a World War II setting. The controls are very complex and not exactly intuitive. Need for Speed is a driving game and while its controls are more intuitive, they are very sensitive. Possibly the coolest thing about that game is when you drive your car off the road, the hand controller vibrates to mimic the rough feel of the terrain your car is driving on.

Also of great interest is the split screen mode. My friend played on the top part of the split screen, and I played in the bottom, and our characters in the video game world could interact with each other and see one another from differing perspectives.

I liked Need for Speech much better because it was too easy to get killed in Call to Duty and there were fewer things to do. Xbox controllers, and I suppose all these games now, have a complex mechanism with two mini-joysticks, a four-bottom arrow pad, four press buttons, two trigger buttons, and two bumper buttons. If you grew up with this stuff or if you play with them regularly, I'm sure that using these controllers seems like second nature. My friend demonstrated another game for me, Oblivion, which is a Dungeons & Dragons kind of game, and the speed and fluidity that he moved around with was enough to give the rest of us vertigo. But I've little experience with these controllers and trying to control my video game character was difficult -- often I knew what I wanted to do but I could not make my hands respond appropriately to do those things.

Still, it was a good time and it made me want to get my own Xbox. We have so many other things to spend our money on that this is a very low priority. We're going to divert our extra money into The Wife's new business for a time, and after that gets off the ground, we're going to save money to buy a house. In terms of things I want, I'd much rather have a barbeque than an Xbox. But goofing off with the video game console sure was fun.

August 11, 2006

A Clever Bit Of Diplomacy

The joint U.S.-French proposal to the U.N. Security Council regarding the war in Lebanon is quite clever, in its own way.

A buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon would be created along Lebanon's southern border, of about 400 square miles -- basically everything south of the Litani River. Hezbollah militia (presumably meaning any Hezbollah personnel carrying weapons of any kind) would have to evacuate that zone. In their place would be 15,000 members of the regular Lebanese Army and 15,000 members of a U.N. peacekeeping force. In theory, this is a good way for everyone to claim victory. Hezbollah can claim victory because it continues to exist. Israel can claim victory because it drove Hezbollah out of missile range of its borders. The U.S. can claim victory because its terms are the ones that were accepted. Iran and Syria can claim victory because they were able to project their power into the region painlessly and to withdraw with their regional tools intact and public deniability of their involvement.

I don't know if it will work or not. I see three big problems.

First of all, Hezbollah, the last time I checked, is not a member of the United Nations. So it and its leaders, who have painted themselves in a corner by demanding death or absolute victory (read: the destruction of Israel), are not bound by the terms of the agreement -- and even if they were, it's doubtful that they could be trusted to do what it says.

Secondly, the nationality of the U.N. peacekeeping force has not yet been determined. It will likely not include any Americans. In fact, it is likely to contain quite a few French soldiers. The French did an absolutely terrible job of securing the peace in the Ivory Coast's civil war. The French are not particularly motivated to help Israel so much as they are motivated to secure peace in Lebannon. And the Lebanese Army is, while certainly motivated differently than Hezbollah, not an entirely reliable force since the Lebanese government remains a puppet of Syria.

Third, it's far from clear to me that the proposed buffer zone is really going to do anyone any good. It includes the cities of Tyre and Nabatea, which are both (by Lebanese standards) large urban areas. It would be easy for a Hezbollah operative to hide a considerable stash of weapons, even of missiles, in one of those cities. And even if Hezbollah does move north of the Litani River, it's not clear to me that this really is out of missile range. There have been Hezbollah missle strikes as far south as Nablus (which is in the West Bank; one suspects that this missile missed its intended target, as indeed have most of Hezbollah's missles).

But, it appears that this proposal is acceptable to Israel. It will certainly be acceptable to Lebanon, which will have its own army in its own borders, and its own government will gain a greater degree of control over its wayward southern provinces as long as its peacekeeping force is present there. So at this point, chances look good that the proposal will be adopted and its terms implemented by the various nation-states who will be party to it. Whether the violence actually ends will be up to Sayyed Nasrallah and his evil minions.

Peace is good, no doubt. But victory would have been better.

August 10, 2006

People Get Ready

The professional football season starts in a month. The first game of the season is in four weeks, when Miami goes to Pittsburgh. Green Bay opens at home against the Chicago Bears on September 10, one month from today. So people, get ready for some football.

August 7, 2006

A Speech That Ought To Be Given, But Won't

Practice Tip Of The Day

To begin an appeal in pretty much any case pending in pretty much any court, a doucment called a "notice of appeal" needs to be filed. The document is very short, usually a one-pager. Typically, the language and format are a little bit more formal than this recent example of an appeal filed in a habeas corpus case, but this is probably enough to get the process started:

A copy should also be filed with the appellate court, in this case the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, concurrent with the filing in the trial court. Note to professional practicioners: the statement of grounds for the appeal need not be stated at all, but if you're going to set forth the grounds, "You're not getting away with this shit that easy" is probably insufficiently precise to place the adverse party on notice of the grounds for the appeal. Still, the guy gets brownie points for zeal.

August 6, 2006

Proxy War Not Ending Soon

The picture to the right is from Getty Images and France Presse, taken from today's Gray Lady, and it shows a Hezbollah-fired Katyusha rocket taking off on its way to some target in Israel. The rocket was fired from the middle of a civilian neighborhood near the city of Tyre. Israel is being roundly criticized the world over for its strikes within Lebannon, which have resulted in civilian casualties. This may have been the strike that killed twelve Israeli soldiers on a kibbutz (one inside the Green Line, I might add).

But here's the thing. What is Israel supposed to do about this rocket blast? Here's some options:

1. Israel can take zero military action, and attempt a diplomatic resolution of the situation. It has tried this in the past, so as Dr. Phil would say, "How'd that work out for you?" Let's see, Dr. Phil -- three years of diplomacy from 2003 to 2006 resulted in constantly-escalating levels of terrorism within Israel's borders, beginning with street shootings, escalating to suicide bombers, and finally reaching a crescendo in a border incursion to capture of Israeli military personnel on border patrol. Diplomacy has been a singular failure because Hezbollah and Hamas are not states; they have no territory to lose and their leaders have gained power through advocating platforms of implacable hatred of Israel and advocacy of its utter destruction. So if Israel lays down its arms, Hezbollah and Hamas are not going to stop attacking Israel -- they may not even pause to notice the tut-tuts of the United Nations because guess what? They don't give a damn about the United Nations. So stopping the fight would be a victory by these two quasi-states. And remember, Israel's fate is that it gets to fight lots of wars, but it only gets to lose once. After Israel loses a war, it is extinguished.

2. Israel can send commando troops on the ground to look for the source of the rocket. This means, in the case of a rocket fired from suburban Tyre, dropping paratroopers in the middle of a city with no feasible extraction plan. What's more, the Katyusha is a mobile-launched rocket, which means that by the time the commandos find the source of the fire, the bad guys will have moved on to some other location, so that leaves Israeli commandos on the ground, surrounded by hostile civilians, with no way to safety. This does not seem like a very good plan to me, particularly not for the commandos involved. I know those guys are good, but no one is that good. Not even in the movies did Rambo or Chuck Norris navigate 100 kilometers of hostile urban territory, in the middle of a war zone, to get back to safety after being given a certain-to-fail mission.

3. Israel can respond with an immediate airstrike. Having seen a rocket fired at them from this precise location, it is difficult to see how a strike at this location is anything but a legitimate counterattack intended to knock out a hostile military objective. The problem is, some civilians are going to get hurt and likely some will die. To this, I say, whose fault will that be? The Israelis did not choose to launch this Katyusha rocket from a suburban neighborhood. Hebollah's soldiers could have moved the rocket out to the open field in view in the very photograph pictured above. So, option #3 is about the only workable one that I can see available.

Now, let there be no doubt: Israel's military adventure, now entering its fourth bloody week, is a proxy war between the United States and Iran just as surely as any Cold War conflict was a proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Who is supplying these entities with all these rockets? Iran. And Syria. Who is supplying these entities with money? Iran. And Syria. And maybe the Saudis, we're not sure yet.

Why are they doing this? Simple -- it makes them better-off than they were otherwise. Pretty much every Muslim who lives in a country that touches either the Mediterranean Sea or the Persian Gulf hates Israel. The leaders of these countries know this and know that they will be popular and their brutal, repressive, dictatorial regimes will enjoy greater popular support if they blame their economic and political troubles on Israel. Hezbollah and Hamas provide a cheap, convenient way for these countries to project their power beyond their borders with sufficient deniability and cover that those who, for their own reasons, want to side against Israel can do so. So do death squads wandering about Baghdad, killing Sunnis and various Shi'ite factions there.

If these tendrils of power extended from Damascus and Tehran are severed, the coalescence of Shi'ite superstate rallying around the extinction of Israel will be set back tens of years. As it is, the only thing preventing a nation stretching from Zahedan to Tyre from forming is the inability of its would-be leaders from agreeing on a command structure. That battle, for those who haven't been paying attention, is being fought with suicide bombers and assassins in Baghdad as we speak. Yes, I know this sort of thing has been tried before, based on nationalistic and ethic impulses, but the pervasive power of religious fundamentalism and focused hatred of a common enemy -- Israel -- may prove that hate rather than love is better at unifying these disparate nations into a single entity, and if a capable leader emerges at its helm, there could be real problems.

Rome never vanquished Parthia; the British never vanquished the Ottomans; we would be hard-pressed to contain such a superstate.

Israel, for its part, is most certainly the client state of the United States; it is our closest and most loyal ally. Our own military is tied down playing whack-a-mold to keep any of the various factions of Muslims from gaining dominance over one another by being dominant over all of them at once. Difficult to do in the face of asymmetic counter-attacks, but we have little choice but to ride the tiger as long as possible, until some modern-day Metternich comes along who can broker an acceptable regional balance of power. Our forces are too strong to attack directly. So the attack is against our client, which must now defend itself since we cannot extend much of a helping hand other than to continue to resupply it with weapons and ammunition.

So there will not be real a diplomatic solution to this problem any time soon. No one really wants the fighting to stop; for the time being, the fighting is in everyone's interest.

Israel needs to extinguish Hamas and Hezbollah's very existence in order to put a (temporary) halt on acts of terror within its borders.

Hamas and Hezbollah, for their part, need to extinguish Israel's existence because that is what they have promised their followers and their supporters.

Syria and Iran need to see limits placed on the power of the U.S. in the region to preserve their spheres of influence and autonomy, and they need to tie up the U.S.'s military resources so that they are free from the threat of U.S. invasion themselves.

We need to prevent, at all costs, the formation of the Shi'ite superstate which will become a new Soviet Union motivated not by political ideology and a need for self-preservation but rather by suicidal, messianic fundamentalism.

The international community, personified by the United Nations, seems to think that the world would be best-served if Israel were no longer a part of the middle eastern equation. It is this part of the equation that is most offensive to me.

Regardless, everyone needs to see who wins on the battlefield. Remember what I said a few days ago: there's good guys and there's bad guys in this fight. And there are consequences to us depending on who wins. To our friends in Israel who are fighting and dying, I say with sobriety and sincerety, "mazel tov." We need you to win.

August 5, 2006

Triumphing Over Tough Trivia

The Ken Jennings super-tough trivia question this week goes something like this:

Charles Lindbergh, Mel Brooks, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Stiller, Shakespeare. Based on what these five people have in common, what other famous historical figure, far and away more than any other, belongs on this list twice?

I figured it out, and I'm sure I'm right. What do you think it is, Loyal Readers? Ken e-mails the answers to his trivia questions on Tuesdays; Monday night I, or the Wife, will put my answer on the comments section here to go on record.

August 4, 2006

Another Lesson From History

I came across an interesting bit of history yesterday. In the mid-eighteenth century, Princess Royal Maria Theresa Hapsburg was the only woman to ever rule her family's imperial domains. She doesn't get as much press in the U.S. as other royals from Enlightenment Europe because her domains were far to the East -- so she didn't get the publicity of, say, Louis XVI or George III. But she presided over a network of duchies, kingdoms, territories and countries which lacked a single name for the global unit, but which included the Holy Roman Empire and much of Eastern Europe. Her lands were collectively, larger, richer, and more populated than European Russia. She was easily the most powerful people on Earth during her lifetime. She had little formal education and somehow never absorbed the formal protocol that bound the counduct of other members of the elite, rich, and ruling classes of Europe of her time.

Perhaps this was why she made Emanuel Count Sylva-Tarouca, a Portuguese nobleman of exceptional intelligence and apparently remarkable diplomatic urbanity, her most important advisor. Count Tarouca's role in the Princess Royal's court was to serve as the Royal Critic. His job was to tell his Queen and Empress every mistake that she made, whether it related to social protocol or entering into a treaty with another country.

It is difficult indeed to imagine the level of trust that must have existed between Maria Theresa and Count Tarouca. In some ways they must have been closer than if they had been lovers. This they most certainly were not, Maria Theresa's deep and passionately requited affection for her husband, Francis Stephen of Lorraine, ranks with John and Abigail Adams and Henry VIII and Jane Seymour as among the happiest love stories of history. But the bond between the Crown Princess and her Royal Critic must have been of adamantine strength for her to appoint the man to such a task.

In Margaret George's historical novel of Mary Queen of Scots, she suggests that Queen Mary's close advisor, David Riccio, also held such a position. The close bond between those two characters was portrayed as a motive for Mary's deranged husband, Lord Darnley, to abduct and kill him in front of the Queen and to serve as motive for the Queen to become complicit in Darnley's ultimate demise. But that is a different story. The point is that a person whose job it is to point out your flaws and weaknesses and mistakes has to be someone who trusts you implicitly to not take the criticisms as insults, particularly when you literally hold the power of life and death over them. And it has to be someone you trust implicitly to always have your true best interests at heart, and to always have a level head with clear thought and wisdom, no matter what.

It is too bad that modern political life lacks figures like Count Tarouca. How much better a President would George Bush be if he had such a person within his inner circle of advisors? What kind of a position would our country have been in had such a position existed, and had the President listened to the criticism? If Gray Davis had had such a person, would he still be Governor of California? If someone had filled this role for Bill Clinton, would he have been literally caught with his pants down in the Oval Office and left with a stained legacy on an otherwise-successful Presidency? We'll never know, because our political process results in our leaders being surrounded by bland affirmers, lackeys, sycophants, and representatives of coalitions rather than by those whose wisdom and loyalty are both such that they can criticize without fear of reprisal.

People need criticism to improve. Maria Theresa was in a position to suborn much of Europe to her ego; she ruled much of Europe and was respected, loved, and feared everywhere. But rather than proceed like a singular figure charting her own course through history (like, say, Napoleon), she instead gave someone the job of constantly criticizing her and put him as close to her as anyone in her court. Make no mistake, she was still a Queen and she still exercised one-woman rule over millions of people. But appointing a Royal Critic is about the most enlightened thing I can think I have ever heard of any ruler doing.

Is Meaningful Dialogue Impossible?

One of the good things about this blogging phenomenon is that if you play "follow the links" and read a bit, you can come across some things that are quite thought provoking and would never have occurred to you (if only you take the time to engage in thought). I find it's very important to expose myself to new ideas and concepts, even if they are not comfortable and I don't always agree with what is said or like how it makes me feel. Learning and growth occur outside of the comfort zone. Here's an example of that experience which I had recently.

I got a comment recently from a Reader I who did not recognize. I looked on his blog and found him to be a devout Christian, employed as a math teacher at a high school in Oregon. Seems to be a thoroughly decent guy. A recent post of his was about why he rejects evolution and accepts creation as an explanation for the existence of life. He is intelligent, clearly well-versed on all of the criticisms of evolution, reasonable in his tone, and has a good, fluid, enjoyable writing style. All good things. He is also intellectually honest in advocating "creation" rather than "intelligent design;" he does not attempt to hide the ball about maintaining that God created man, as opposed to, say, time travelers or aliens.

I absolutely disagree with him about that, of course, but that's not quite what I'm writing about today.

My first thought was, "Well, this is a guy who is clearly smart enough to understand evolution but for some reason rejects it. Let's read more and figure out why." I did, and I wound up concluding that regardless of what the scientific evidence might be -- and he finds it lacking on its own merits -- his faith in the truth of Christianity would override it regardless.

Now, my impulsive reaction to that was a desire to point out that he is probably happy to reap the benefits of science in a variety of other ways (medicine, for instance) that are apparently incongruent with the teaching of the Bible. There are some Christians in America who are morally concerned about blood transfusions, for instance, although to be fair to my counterpart, I've no indication that he is among their number and most Christians do not think that transfusions are prohibited.

But then I stopped to think, "Where would that discussion go?" The answer, of course, was "nowhere." Nothing I said, no scientific evidence or pointing out what I perceived to be an inconsistency, no argument I made, would alter his world view. If anything, a confrontation from me would only entrench him in his world view more by virtue of having to erect defenses to my attacks and quite likely having to arm counter-attacks to me. That, after all, was my reaction to his thoughts about skeptics and non-believers. So confrontation didn't seem to be the right response.

The alternatives to confrontation in a setting like this are three in number: acquiescence, withdrawal, or dialogue. Acquiescence would mean agreeing with him, which would be irreconcilably inconsistent with my own world view. Withdrawal would mean nothing. That left dialogue. But after reading more and more of the guy's blog, it seemed that we have little to discuss. His world view is so motivated and dominated by his religious faith that my own perspective on things would seem nearly alien to him. He has been burned by smug, condescending skeptics in the recent past, and is rightly defensive about their name-calling (and clever about turning that name-calling on its head). Trying to take the role of the "reasonable skeptic" would probably not be productive, either; having been recently burned by a rude skeptic, he might reasonably doubt the existence of any other variety of the species or the motives of someone posing as such.

And what would either of us gain from such a discussion? Going back to square one, it's obvious that neither of us are going to change our minds. Nothing he says to me is going to make me suddenly start believing in Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior; nothing he points out to me will make me start believing in the truth of the Bible as anything other than a compilation of an oral history of legends, archaic rituals, and generalized moral truths. Conversely, nothing I say to him will convince him that the Bible is anything short of God's revealed and direct word to man, that humanity and all the animals and bacteria and all the other life was indeed created through a lengthy process of evolution, or that the best way to look at the world is by way of verifiable and reliable evidence. Indeed, he would likely tell me that the Bible is verifiable, reliable evidence and we could have a long discussion about whether that proposition is true or not.

That then led me to think about these competing world views and how they find themselves expressed in language. Whether the Bible verifiable, reliable evidence depends in part on how you define "verifiable." If your desire is to have the Bible be true, your impulse is to find evidence that "verifies" it. If your desire is to have the Bible be less than literally true, then you will criticize evidence proffered to verify it. So that discussion is ultimately reduced to desire and preference; "faith," if you will, although I eschew using that word when possible. My counterpart in Oregon wants the Bible to be true, so he will view evidence through a lens favoring verification of it; he would say that for some reason I want the Bible to be untrue (not precisely accurate but close enough for discussion purposes), and therefore my lens favors disproof. You find what you are looking for if you go out looking for something.

So this, I think, is partially why advocates of creation constantly refer to advocates of evolution as having to have "faith" in evolution. Having been challenged, both sides of this discussion have become defensive and entrenched, and do a lot of sneering at each other and acting smug in the self-assurance of their own correctness and the utter inanity of their opposites' positions.

(Note to self -- being respectful of others' positions requires minimizing one's own smugness.)

Now, I am not a physicist and I do not pretend to understand the intricacies of the theory of gravity; I understand in broad strokes as the force of attraction between two bodies possessing mass. I understand it works on the macro-macro level of stars, planets, and galaxies; I understand it works on the human scale in the form of dropped objects falling to the earth and large ships at anchor in still waters drifting towards each other; I understand it works at the atomic level in the form of electrons orbiting atomic nuclei. I've not personally observed gravity happening at the galactic or atomic levels. I also know that the theory of gravity is still just that, a theory. It has not been ultimately proven and there is substantial disagreement among scientists as to exactly how gravity works and even what gravity really is. But there is no doubt that the phenomenon of gravitation occurs, so there has to be something there.

Evolution is no different. Why do we need antibacterial soaps today when fifteen years ago there were no such things? The answer is that after years of being killed off by the increasing use of regular soap, bacteria have become resistant and now we need stronger stuff to kill them off. Antibiotics have been made stronger in recent years, too, for the same reason. People are taller now than they used to be. Partially this is because of better nutrition and health, to be sure. But even in parts of the world where people seem to be perpetually malnourished and lack any medical care other than first aid, they are still taller than their ancestors on average. So is it also because a majority of humans have developed preferences for tall sexual partners as opposed to short ones and over hundreds of generations height has become an advantage in the cross-generational attempt to propogate one's genes. The fossil record is incomplete and there are many competing theories about how life came to be the way it is today. But something has been going on. And I don't need "faith," "belief," or personal, hands-on knowledge and expertise in the fields of life science, acheaology, public health, or genetics to know that. There are many competing variants of the theory of evolution. But the phenomenon of evolution is something that (to me, at least) appears to be undeniably true and objectively verifiable.

Gravity, as a broad theoretical concept, is not controversial because its effects are readily observable. This is less true for evolution, however; the process takes generations and large-scale macroevolution takes hundreds of millenia. The phenomenon is easier to observe in organisms with very short life cycles, like bacteria, because in a period of several months or a few years, we can observe hundreds of generations of these creatures reproducing and changing. Evolution also challenges the cherished idea that we as humans are somehow special and different from other things in nature. From there, it is not hard to see its implications that humans lack souls (a soul is not necessary for an animal to survive and reproduce, so why is it necessary for a human). Of course, the fundamental objection religionists make to evolution is its exclusion of the role of a divine creator, as evolution explains the existence of life without reference to such an actor.

This ought to be familiar intellectual ground to anyone who has explored the debate. And I'm sure that my counterpart in Oregon has heard these, or similar, arguments before. And I'm also sure that he has rebuttals to them -- I read some of them already. So that leaves me with a conundrum.

1. We both have arguments in support of our own positions which we find completely intellecutally satisfying to ourselves and to others who already agree with us.

2. We both have arguments attacking one anothers' positions which we and those who already agree with us find intellectually devastating.

3. We both think the others' arguments are fundamentally flawed and weak, for a wide variety of reasons.

4. Anything that one says to the other will not only fail to convince, but rather produce greater entrenchment in the initial position.

5. We both know points 1-4 at the onset of the discussion.

So what's the point of having the discussion at all? What do we really have to say to each other? What value can come out of a dialogue other than frustration? There is some entertainment value to having an argument, I suppose. But down that road lies the intellectual abyss that was CNN's Crossfire -- talking heads shouting at each other about politics presented as a form of entertainment instead of smart people intelligently debating an issue of the day. And particularly with this issue, it seems that two people can look at the same body of evidence and see entirely different things. It also gets difficult, at that point, to avoid giving the impression of smug disrespect for the other, even if that attitude was not intended.

It's easy to dismiss the side of such an issue with which you disagree as misinformed or erroneous doctrine. Down that road lies fanaticism. It's difficult to remember that people tend to do what they do because it seems like the right decision. People subscribe to the religions they do because they think it is morally right to do so; they act on their faith because they think it is morally right to do so. That's even the case when faith motivates people to violence like we see being played out today in the Middle East. We would like to say that such peoples' faith has been perverted and perhaps that is true sometimes. But it is nevertheless the case that they do what they do because they think it is morally right to do so. And if someone opposes them, what is the obvious conclusion to draw about someone who opposes something known to be morally right?

In the law, we deal with irreconcilable views of things all the time. We deal with it by having a verdict -- you know that in every lawsuit, at least one of the litigants is wrong; at least one of the litigants is going to lose. Hopefully, the fear of losing motivates people to compromise, and if that does not work then the high transaction costs of prosecuting your point of view often does. But if fear and expense are not sufficient to induce compromise, you know that the sword will eventually fall.

There are other dispute resolution mechanisms in social contexts. One of them is democracy. Another is violence. A third is dialogue. But the thing about dialogue is that it has a very low transaction cost, and it induces no fear. Unlike litigation, or democracy, or violence, there is no incentive that is part of the dialogue that encourages the parties to resolve their disputes. All dialogue does is provide a way for people who wanted to resolve their dispute to begin with to have a forum in which to do so. But when the dispute takes on moral weight, the parties lose their desire to compromise or resolve their disputes, or ultimately to even tolerate opposing points of view.

What I'm wondering today is whether dialogue on issues like this is even possible. It is clear, for instance, that dialogue on other issues has become impossible. Take abortion -- on that issue, there has been almost complete polarization and there is very little ability to compromise on either side of the issue. One is either pro-choice or pro-life; there is no middle ground, there is no room for debate because the premises underlying both sides of the debate are so radically different from one another -- and more importantly, so heavily-invested in the moral correctness of their position, and the demonization of the other, that dialogue, debate, and discussion are replaced with invective, name-calling, and demonization. That evolution is a simialrly polarizing subject is hardly a new phenomenon; it has caused sharp cries of "foul" from the devoutly religious since before Darwin sailed on the HMS Beagle to the Galapagos Islands.

But what I'm wondering isn't really about abortion, or evolution. What I'm wondering is whether differences of opinion on matters of moral significance are really subject to a social dialogue at all. Like I said at the start of this essay, learning and growth occur outside of one's own personal comfort zone, and disputes like this are uncomfortable. Have we as a people reached a point where willful ignorance has become the ascendant ethic; where winning is more important than being right; where we reject the idea that we can grow and learn from each other?

Backup Computer

My notebook is on its way to Houston to have the screen fixed under warranty. So I'm using the backup computer again. It's slow. Seriously, it takes about forty-five seconds for Firefox or Outlook Express to start after I click on the icons. It's aggravating to click and see nothing happen. And then you wait and nothing happens. And then you wait some more and still nothing happens. So you think maybe you clicked wrong, or the computer missed the command somehow. So you click again. And nothing happens. And then the program's splash screen appears. And then it appears again, because you've opened it twice. I'm learning some patience with more use, but it would be nice if my programs would open at some point during the Bush Adminstration.

August 2, 2006

Some Thoughts on Church and State

I came across this story in the Gray Lady this morning. It's worth a careful read. In essence, the pastor of a 5,000-congregant "megachurch" in Minneapolis told his flock that being a good Christian did not necessarily mean being politically active for the right wing, and that patriotism and piety are different things. The pastor never backed down from plainly stating that as far as he was concerned, abortion was morally wrong and that homosexuality is not God's vision for mankind. Sexual politics are the hot-button issues for evangelicals, and he was and is still in lock step with those ethical stances.

But he refused to make his church the venue for political propaganda on those or other issues, saying that Christians who focused on issues like whether their neighbors were gay or Janet Jackson's millisecond-long exposure of her breast were suffering from "hypocricy and pettiness," and that they should instead follow the example of Jesus, who never once tried to rally his followers with outrage about the sexual behavior of others, or about diminishing their ability to publicly practice their faith.

He lost about 20% of his congregation.

I thought his most significant insight was “When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses ... When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.” But Christians among the Loyal Readership will probably be more moved (at least to reflection) by this argument: "America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ."

With that in mind, I also see a story brewing on the Religious Right about a high school valedictorian who got quite a bit of friction from her high school because gave the following remarks in her speech:
We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine. He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in Heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don't already know Him personally, I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice He made for you, so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with Him.
She had submitted a very different version of the speech to school administrators, who had previously asked her to edit out most references to religion. So she basically deceived the school about what she was going to say, and admits that she planned to make the evangelizing speech all along. She was not given her diploma for several days after the ceremony and had to agree to send an e-mail to all the parents and students explaining that the remarks were her own and that the school did not endorse what she had said.

I think the school was right to give her flak. First, and most importantly, she lied to her teachers about what she was going to say. For that reason alone, the school administrators were well within their rights to come down on her.

Secondly, she could very well have got the school in trouble. Under the Establishment Clause test in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), any explicitly-religious activity of any state agency can be an unconstitutional establishment of religion unless: 1. it has a "legitimate secular purpose"; 2. it does not have the "primary effect" of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and 3. it does not result in an "excessive entanglement" of the government and religion. Her speech was unquestionably an act of proseltyizing Christianity. Proselytizing, by definition, is something which advances religion. She used the school's venue, the school's microphone, and an audience assembled by the school to evangelize, and by doing so placed the apparent endorsement of the school on her plea for converts to her religion. The school administrators were right to be nervous about this.

I should add that I don't think what she did seems particularly Christian. First of all, lying is an un-Christian sort of thing to do; I seem to recall one of the Ten Commandments having something to say about that. Secondly, I don't know if this counts as public prayer; but I defy any Christian to find an instance in the Gospels in which Jesus voluntarily engaged in prayer in a venue which was clearly public. I have found one instance of Jesus engaging in public prayer -- while being publicly executed on the cross, he prayed, but he didn't have much choice, being unable to remove himself from where he was being tortured to a more private place in which to pray. The point is that Jesus treated communion with God as something best done in private or at most with a small group of intimates. He condemned ostentatious, public displays of piety and religiously-motivated charity as acts of hypocricy carrying no moral virtue, or worse. This speech seems closer to the sort of behavior Jesus condemned rather than the sort of behavior Jesus actually engaged in himself.

I'm glad the girl eventually got her diploma -- she undoubtedly worked hard for the ability to be a valedictorian and deserved some recognition for her achievements. But she also needed to learn another lesson, about respecting people who are different from her and finding the appropriate forum in which to try and "spread the good news." What if she had praised Allah and his prophet Mohammed instead of praising Jesus? Would the leaders of the politicized Christian community be as up in arms about her rights then? I doubt it. Perhaps leftist groups like the ACLU would have hopped to her defense -- but the analysis under Lemon would have been the same.

The Minnestoa pastor made another remark to the New York Times: “America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” he said. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state."

He's about two-thirds right. History proves that Christian theocracies have been every bit as brutal and bloody as Muslim theocracies, and probably even Jewish theocracies. And the U.S. was not founded as a theocracy or with Christianity particularly in mind, and the separation of church and state is indeed a remarkably good idea. But he seems to have forgotten the theocracies created by early colonists, most remarkably the Puritans, who would have been perfectly happy to have set up religious utopias here. I suspect the same impulse that motivated the Puritans and Anglicans and Presbyterians and Catholics and Baptists who set up their colonies in the Americas using the rule of the Bible as law -- and the same impulse that motivated the Taliban and the mullahs in Iran to substitute the Koran for civil law and democracy -- was the same impulse that motivated the eager valedictorian. That is to say: "Because I know and believe that my faith is right, I should do what is within my power to get everyone to subscribe to my faith." Perhaps there are noble motives underlying such a world view. But it never works out well, and history is replete with examples of that.

So it's not quite right to say that religion has never been intertwined with government in our land. But it is right to say that our society has adopted a secular ethic of public life, which has served us very well for 230 years, and we abandon that secularism at our peril.

A Reminder and an Encouragement

It's easy to forget, in the midst of so much media hand-wringing about violence in the middle east and dead civilians. But the Israel-Hezbollah/Hamas war has good guys and bad guys. In case you forgot, the good guys are the ones wearing the Star of David and targetting military objectives, not the ones shooting rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas or the ones who put human shields in front of the "soldiers." And it's also easy to forget, in between hearing so many half-admiring reports marvelling at the ferocity of the "resistance," that the good guys really are winning, just not quite as fast as recent U.S. military expeditions would have accustomed us to seeing.

And You Thought I Made Gratuitous Pop Culture References

I am positively square compared to the linkages that pop out of Ken Jennings' mind.

August 1, 2006

Projections Not Exactly Reliable

For political junkies, following races as we move into campaign season is about the best thing there is to do. The Gray Lady has prepared one of what will surely be many projection and scenario-compatible interactive sites.

Knowing what we know about the New York Times' editorial perspective on the world, and seeing what the projections they are making are, I think we can reasonably rely on the projections here. Or I did before tonight, when it appeared that a lot of Democrats made gains unexpectedly. Like here in California where I cannot see for the life of me what Phil Angelides is doing right.

I'm almost daily becoming a bigger fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger the politician, so perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit, but even from as objective a stance as possible, the contrast between the take-on-the-big-fights course that the Governator has taken on to the corrupt and craven cynicism of former party hack Phil Angelides is stark and obvious. Schwarzenegger has more money, more visibility, name recognition unlike any other American politician since George Washington (think about it, you'll realize I'm right), and frankly, he and his people have made mostly good decisions in the face of very tough challenges.

For his part, Angelides managed to re-elect a statewide slate of Democrats -- in California in 1992, aided by the charismatic national politics of Bill Clinton and the nomination of 800-pound-political-gorilla Dianne Feinstein to the Senate. My dog could have elected a slate of Democrats to the California Legislature in 1992, and she has trouble with commands like "roll over" and "sit pretty." Two years later, in by then quite-solidly-liberal California, he managed to lose election to statewide office against a lackluster Republican whose main claim to fame was that his mother (a Democrat) had been a popular Secretary of State. Since that ignominious defeat, Angiledes has made huge bucks developing suburbs of Sacramento; narrowly won election in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and in a year when Democrats swept every office in play; made poor investment choices for CalPERS, got called a "chowderhead" by Enron executives; and exposed fellow Democrat Steve Westley as not only corrupt but incompetent to boot. (I should know; when Westley was Secretary of State he managed to cause a revolt in his office staff for the business entity section, making me look bad in front of my clients; how do you piss off a bunch of clerks with civil-service jobs that badly?)

So far, he's managed to raise money from pro-choice groups, labor unions, and his business partners -- a very difficult achievement for a Democrat, I assure you -- and criticized Schwarzenegger for being a crypto-pro-lifer, which is demonstrably not true. He's laid low all summer despite trailing in the polls, and doesn't seem to understand that big-win Democrats in California's recent past have succeeded by hitting the airwaves in late June and saturating them with their ideas, faces, and assurances of personal and political reliability. That window of opportunity has passed for Angelides and now he has only the fact that he is a Democrat to run on -- because he sure doesn't want to run on his record.

Schwarzenegger has good positive numbers in all the polls and just managed to keep the lights on statewide despite the worst summer heat wave in recent memory -- and we all remember that when Gray Davis let the lights go out, he got booted out of office in media res. Many of us also remember that Gray Davis' biggest champion (other than the excerable Garry South, Davis' AAA-league version of James Carville) was Phil Angelides. We also remember, for instance, Dianne Feinstein's tepid stance towards the recall, which seemed to only magnify her popularity.

In light of all of this evidence, the New York Times is today switching the California gubernatorial race from "leaning Republican" to a "toss-up." Presumably that is because of one recent poll favorable to Angelides, or the NYT's analysts are living in a foggy leftist dreamland in which everything appears about ten shades bluer than they really are.

So enjoy the interactive chart they provide, but if the New York Times is making such poor observations as to suggest that Angelides has a realistic shot at unseating Schwarzenegger, you might want to look a little bit deeper into its predictions of which races are toss-ups and which are leaning one way or another. When I find a better chart, I'll post it.

Now, consider this. Even playing out the various scenarios as they currently stand, it is hard for me to see how the Democrats can take control of either house of Congress as more than a theoretical possibility. I don't know exactly how reliable that prediction is; but it does seem that the Democrats will remain in the minority until at least 2009, at least without another charismatic leader of Clinton's caliber. And Phil Angelides is about as far away from being that leader as I am from being elected Prime Minister of Krygyzstan.