September 30, 2006


SWM seeks younger M for discreet fun, friendship & more ?!?!? No freaks or FBI informants, plz. IM w/pic to Maf54.

In case you're interested, the transcript of the instant messages between Congressman Foley (aka Maf54) and a 17-year-old Congressional page can be viewed on the Wikipedia biography of the former member of the House of Representatives.

It looks like it's going to be too late for the Florida Republican party to find a replacement candidate for Foley's moderately-competitive district.

September 28, 2006


The sad thing is that this article will surprise a lot of people. The good news is that it is a signal to parents everywhere that this is the way to go for your kids.

Another Reason To Like Rudy

Why should people like Rudy Guiliani to be the next President? Well, for one thing, he's not foaming at the mouth about his partisanship. No doubt, he's a Republican who campaigns hard for fellow Republicans against Democrats. But he also realizes that not only are we all Republicans or Democrats or moderates or whatever, we're also all Americans, and at the end of the day, that counts for more. Sounds like someone else I kind of like in office these days.

Look, Bill Clinton melted down in front of the entire world the other day, and may have done his wife's Presidential ambitions incalculable damage. That's plenty of fodder for professional Clinton-haters and Karl Rove wannabes. But Guiliani is exactly right to say "Hey, Chris Wallace and all the rest of you trained Dobermans at FOX News, blame the terrorists."

Okay, so when do the campaign committees form? It may be a lost cause but Rudy's seeming like the last sane person in America who I could even stand to see be President in 2009.

September 27, 2006

Naming Rights

From my University of Phoenix e-mail inbox:

Dear Faculty.

We are pleased to announce that University of Phoenix has become the naming rights partner of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. As such, the Cardinals' world-class stadium will now be called University of Phoenix Stadium.

Our investment grants the University stadium signage, advertising, marketing, merchandising, promotional and charitable opportunities. In addition, we have campuses in almost every NFL city. The NFL is the country's most successful and visible professional sports league and their demographics overlap significantly with ours. This exclusive partnership will enable the University to reach a broader array of students in an exciting venue.

Here in Arizona, there is a great deal of excitement surrounding the Cardinals as a result of the new stadium. And this is no ordinary stadium … it is one of the most spectacular facilities of its kind in the world. The stadium has been recognized for its bold design, world-class architecture, cutting-edge technology and fan environment. Throughout its history, University of Phoenix has been synonymous with innovation. So it's fitting to place the name of the world's most innovative university on the world's most innovative stadium.

As you might imagine, this partnership is generating a lot of media coverage, much of it silly (to increase entertainment value) and some of it serious. We're sure there will be a lively debate about it for some time and this is just the type of free speech that we value as a higher education institution. As a University of Phoenix faculty member, we hope that you too will feel free to express your opinion in the public marketplace or directly to us by replying to this message.

This partnership is a precursor to a larger national branding campaign scheduled to begin in January. Many faculty and students have told us that you strongly believe in the value of our programs, but as a young institution, you have also told us that we need to invest more in telling this story. That's what this branding opportunity will help us do. But the story won't stop there… please be assured that we are making similar investments in our academic programs and services. What has made the University so successful over the years is just this willingness to invest in both the academic and business operations equally. Of course, we hope you'll share our excitement as we focus on the University's brand and image through a variety of communication strategies.


Dr. Bill Pepicello, President
University of Phoenix

Okay then. "University of Phoenix Stadium." More advertising. Very expensive advertising. That means more tuition is projected to come in, meaning more students are anticipated.

I've already noticed in the past several months that the bell curve of the quality of my students has grown steeper; I'm getting some pretty good students, and I'm getting some real duds, people whose skills and intelligence suggest that they really don't belong in college at all. Already, in my current cycle of classes, I've got students who can't read, can't write, and can't follow instructions. I've also got a handful students who are quite bright and getting near-perfect grades. If my class ended now, I'd hand out as many "A's" as "F's," and very few "C's." But, my average would be what it always has been -- somewhere between C- and C+.

Somehow, I think that the enhanced advertising is only going to make this problem worse. To compound the problem, the University is dropping its critical thinking requirement for the overall curriculum, and de-emphasizing writing skills. What, exactly, is this well-marketed degree going to mean? Do I want to continue to be associated with this sort of thing? I'm really becoming concerned that this is nothing more than a diploma mill -- and when I'm told to pass through students who don't demonstrate competence in my subject, that's the bright line and I'll give them my resignation.

A nine-figure, twenty-year deal to advertise in as prominent a venue as an NFL stadium suggests to me that the process has moved another significant step in that direction.

Don't Forget To Win First Place

This article is not surprising. I've seen it from a long time ago; even when I was in high school it seemed there were some teenagers who tried hard to do everything and excel at everything. It's no wonder that the pressure of being an überkinder like this causes depression in young people. When a 4.0 grade point average isn't good enough, when lettering in a sport isn't good enough, when you have to be more than perfect, all the joy in doing these things goes away and, to a significant degree, the meaning of "excellence" is redefined.

I think it's easy to shake off a concern like this as pity for "poor little rich kids." And it's certainly true that a lot of these kids will be affluent, to support all of the activities that they have to do. But it's indicative of society at large, and we're all under pressure to constantly be on the go, constantly be working and be productive, to constantly distinguish ourselves.

Although it's important to try to excel and be excellent at what we do, and it's good to demonstrate these things, it's also important to be happy. That, after all, is the real reason we are doing so much in all of our lives, and our teenagers are no different. I take this as a reminder to not put so much pressure on myself and slow down. Distinguishing myself will happen, too, but it's more important to be happy.

September 26, 2006

Presidential Professions

A day after I considered the widespread (and possibly premature) political obituaries about George Allen's Presidential ambitions, the Wall Street Journal has suggested someone who might step into the shoes of Senator Allen -- Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Not a perfect fit for the religious Republicans, perhaps, but close enough.

Romney has the advantage of being a governor, and thus a member of the executive class. Consider for a moment the backgrounds of the Presidents who have been elected since the start of the twentieth century:

26. Theodore Roosevelt -- Vice-President of U.S.A., Assistant Secretary of Navy, military service, Police Commission of New York City
27. William Howard Taft -- Governor-General of the Philippines, Secretary of War
28. T. Woodrow Wilson -- Governor of New Jersey, President of Princeton University
29. Warren G. Harding -- U.S. Senator
30. J. Calvin Coolidge -- Vice-President of U.S.A., Governor of Massachusetts
31. Herbert C. Hoover -- Secretary of Commerce
32. Franklin D. Roosevelt -- Governor of New York
33. Harry S. Truman -- U.S. Senator, briefly Vice-President of U.S.A.
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower -- General, U.S. Army
35. John F. Kennedy -- U.S. Senator
36. Lyndon Johnson -- Vice-President of U.S.A., U.S. Senator
37. Richard Nixon -- Vice-President of U.S.A.
38. Gerald Ford -- Vice-President of U.S.A.
39. Jimmy Carter -- Governor of Georgia
40. Ronald Reagan -- Governor of California
41. George W. Bush -- Vice-President of U.S.A., Director of CIA
42. Bill Clinton -- Governor of Arkansas
43. George W. Bush -- Governor of Texas

Of these eighteen men, only four (Harding, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson) had significant amounts of legislative experience in their backgrounds. The other fourteen presented backgrounds of executive experience. The most common item on that list is service as the governor of a state (7) followed closely by service as Vice-President of the United States. The last time a President whose background was legislative was elected President was 1964 -- and Johnson was the incumbent President and had served for two years as Vice-President. To find a man elected President from within the ranks of the legislature, you need to go all the way back to the dark horse candidacy of Warren G. Harding in 1920.

We Americans like to elect executives to be our chief executive, simple as that. It's a trend that transcends partisanship. So forget people like John McCain, George Allen, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. Start thinking about people like Wesley Clark, Bill Richardson, the aforementioned Mitt Romney, and Rudy Guiliani.

(And once again, Condi doesn't want to be President!)

September 25, 2006

This Man Will Not Be President

Formerly the great hope of the religious right for President in 2008, Senator George Allen appears to have fatally wounded his own Senate re-election candidacy through incautious use of racial slurs. He called an Indian-American observer of his campaign a "macaca," which turns out to be the name of a particular kind of monkey. Now, there are rumors of more overt kinds of racist attitudes, although Allen vociferously denies them and I should be fair to Senator Allen and emphasize that these are only rumors.

It's certainly a good thing that the use of this kind of questionable language is unacceptable. It's odd, though, that he could have come so far with these kinds of things floating around about his past and his apparent attitude.

In any event, it looks like the more religiously-inclined members of the GOP will need to find a new darling. This guy's damaged goods. In the meantime, we've already heard the worst about my favorite possibility -- shacked up with his girlfriend in Gracie Mansion and later the house of some of his gay friends before his divorce was final. But no one has ever whispered a word that he's a racist, and having a girlfriend while separated from his wife while a divorce was still pending is certainly no worse than a lot of respectable Southern Baptist ministers have done themselves.

The Ten C's in Cumberland County

A friend from Tennessee writes:

Right now we have an interesting problem in Cumberland County. Someone has placed a truly awful piece of chainsaw art - Moses and the 10 C's - on the sidewalk in front of the county building. As far as anyone can tell the county did not give permission for the placement but everyone's too scared to remove it. It certainly does not pass constitutional muster because it lacks the name of the placing organization and a notice that the government does not indorse it. I've explained this in a letter to the editor of the local paper some weeks ago.

I intend to contact the ACLU for legal advice about my proposed course of action. I intend to deliver the statue to the police department, claiming I'm turning in lost or abandoned property. I'd like some other ideas that may be better. I've considered bringing it to the recycling center and may do so if the police return it to the county building. Any thoughts?

As I see it, the government can't help it if somebody puts a statue like this on public property. But if the responsible authorities don't remove it in a reasonably timely fashion, then they can fairly be seen to be endorsing its message. While perhaps the "10 C's" (particularly the last 6 or 7) are not bad at all, they are also explicitly religious (especially the first 3 or 4). Non-Christians (and non-Jews) would look at the statue and think, "That building isn't for me." And no American should feel that way about their governmental institutions.

What a Nice Day!

Today was one of those great days here in the desert. The right amount of wind was blowing, the temperature was just right, and the right amount of clouds were in the sky. It seemed like visibility went on forever. Here at the house, I could see all the way to the wind farm in Mojave, up to the junction of the San Gabriels and the Tehachipis, and out to the east, I could see past Mount Baldy, past the Buttes, and out to the start of the Chocolate Mountains near Barstow. The air tasted fresh and clean; no dirt and no smoke from the fires.

It's a shame I had to spend so much of the day inside. But that's how it goes. They don't pay me for enjoying the weather!

September 24, 2006

Damn Good Steak

Times are a little tight in The Desert Mansion. But, my birthday produced a new barbeque, and some gift money got diverted to buy propane and a marinated tri-tip from Costco. Initially high heat, progressively turned down as the cooking continues, sears in the juices and produces a nice char on the outside, and leaves the steak nice and rare inside. The Wife and I agreed that it was one of the best steaks ever.

We went to a dinner party tonight at a friend's house with lots of dogs; we took our critters along to socialize them. After a little initial trouble getting acquainted, things worked out pretty good.

Aside from that, I've been frustrated with an underperforming fantasy football team. I really need the St. Louis Rams to start coming alive and living up to their potential.

Next week promises to be even more stressful than last. But there's nothing to it but to do it.

September 23, 2006

Well It's My Birthday Too, Yeah

I've never quite understood why it should be that birthdays are such big deals. People have been fussing over me for three days now. It's not that I don't like it or that I'm ungrateful -- quite the opposite -- but it makes me just a touch uncomfortable. It's that there doesn't seem to be much good reason for it. After all, it was my mother who did all the work, not me, and that was thirty-six years ago. Whatever trauma I endured as a newborn is long gone and I have no memory of it today. I don't feel any different than I did last week, and I predict I feel about the same as I will a week from today. I haven't achieved much of anything today, other than surviving for thirty-six years. Survival is its own reward (assuming you enjoy life, which I do).

I don't dislike having a birthday, but it's kind of like having a friend take you out to a nice meal for no reason at all. You wonder what it's all about; while you're grateful and you enjoy it, it doesn't feel earned or even deserved. So I guess it makes me feel guilty, like I'm taking advantage somehow.

Because my attitude about my own birthday is "Um, hey, no big deal," I sometimes assume that other people feel like I do about birthdays. That makes me guilty of ignoring them until the last minute; I don't treat them like special occasions and that might hurt other peoples' feelings. It's not that I don't care about these people or want to insult them through disregard. Rather, it's that, as with a religious ceremony, I just don't feel a tremendous amount of emotional power to the event so it's easy for it to slip my mind. Few people celebrate the anniversary of the first time they did their own laundry, and fewer still would think that was an event worth celebrating with an exchange of gifts, unusually nice meals, or special songs. So if I've missed your "laundry day," you probably won't be all that offended.

For instance, I found out this morning that my mother-in-law let the date slip her mind and only today did she remember. Doesn't bother me a bit. Why should it? She's a nice woman and I like her very much and she likes me; that doesn't change because of some arbitrary date that's supposed to be "my" holiday.

Another example: my wife wants to do all sorts of nice things for me today and feels moderately guilty about leaving the house to do something for herself with her Toastmasters group. I say, go, do your thing and enjoy it! I'll still be here when you get back and we'll spend time together then. My allergies are acting up this morning anyway; hopefully the medicine will have taken effect by the time she returns.

Like I said before, I'm grateful for the gifts and the attention; it's nice to have those things and to see people I know and love step up and do and say nice things for me. That includes a lot of the Loyal Readership, who get a special thanks from the TL here. You think it's important, and maybe that's what really counts. So thank you, everyone, I do very much appreciate it.

Other famous birthdays of the day. Two great emperors: Gaius Octavius Augustus Caesar, ruler of the Roman empire ("as empires go, this is the big one!"); and Kublai Khan, who ruled over the largest empire the world has ever seen and sponsored the travels of Marco Polo. More recently and familiarly to three generations, Mickey Rooney and Bruce Springsteen, and (born the exact same day as me,) Ani DiFranco. Signfiicant events of this day in history include the Concordat of Worms, the Seige of Vienna, the first graduation ceremony at Harvard, Richard Nixon's "Checkers speech," Bob Marley's last concert, the peaceful division of Sweden and Norway, and the formation of the nation of Saudi Arabia, the Nintendo Corporation, and the New York Knickerbockers, the first modern baseball club. It's also the first day of Rosh Hashanah for our observant Jewish friends, so happy new year to you all!


Are there really moderates in America's political landscape? Of course. Are they a political force to reckon with? Of course not. The reasons people define themselves as "centrists" or "moderates" are very diverse, to the point that it is next to impossible to define an unifying school of thought. The Republicans are increasingly appealing to people with a religious school of thought; as Kevin Phillips is describing in the book I am currently reading, American Theocracy, the GOP finds that it can succeed by strengthening its marriage to only those Americans who think and act religiously, and the further it pushes that envelope, the more secure those political successes become. The GOP's margins of victory will not be great, but as long as they are good enough, that seems to be satisfactory to its leaders.

The Democrats, for their part, seem to be spending more and more time and effort keeping their winning coalition from the Sixties together -- unions, racial minorities, anti-war activists, and feminists. The country and the political debate has moved on, however. There are proportionally fewer union members in America now than there were in the 1890's; anti-war activists have found their arguments pre-empted by reality and their numbers diminished by a desire to avoid being seen as dirty hippies; racial politics are too complex in today's world to simply lump everyone who isn't caucasian into the Democratic camp; and feminisim has, for no good reason I have ever been able to figure out, somehow fallen into disrepute. The Democrats' failure to adapt to these changes and either rehabilitate or replace these pillars of their coalition has proven responsible for their big-picture failures to recapture the majorities.

It used to be that the Republicans were a coalition of various interest groups with common interests, as were the Democrats. Candidates would run to the ideological edge of their party in primary elections, and then run to the center to appeal to moderates. But now, left out from these equations are people who otherwise agree with the platforms of one or the other party except for a few big issues, people who are repelled by the corruption and vacuity of political debate, and people like me, who are irreligious but libertarian and find themselves marginalized out of the GOP because we are no longer needed to ensure electoral success. "Pragmatism" is not a unifying ideology.

Small wonder, then, that politics seems to be more about the extremes than the middle. Yes, it's true that Democrats who have enjoyed greater than local success have done so by appealing to centrists who are not part of the traditional Democratic coalition, thus earning the sneering disregard of those liberals who look back on Bill Clinton as some kind of a sell-out. The reason that both parties like to appeal to their extremes rather than their moderates is that a) it's more fun, b) if they win, they can more easily claim a mandate, and c) where are the moderates going to go, anyway?

I don't know of many historical models that illustrate where this kind of political polarization goes. I can't think of a time that both sides of a political discussion simply ignored those whose views were sympathetic to but not in lock step with the ideologically pure arguments offered by one or the other side. All the examples of polarization I can think of end in protracted, bloody, and morally ambiguous struggles: the French, American, and Russian Revolutions, the American or English Civil Wars, the takeover of the Weimar Republic by the Nazis. Not very happy historical precedents, I'm sure you will agree. I've heard it said that "history repeats itself, but only in outline form," or alternatively put that "while history doesn't truly repeat itself, it rhymes a lot."

The self-destruction of the Weimar Republic is an illustrative example; not to suggest that the political actors of today are as mean-spirited as the downright evil Nazis were in Germany, but rather because when confronted with the rising power of ideologues, moderates chose to abidcate their power rather than fight to retain what they had. So is the polarization of the body politic in England before its civil war -- that conflict had religious, economic, and political ideologies in play.

I don't buy in to the idea that the 1960's were some kind of second American Civil War. Yes, there was sharp ideological conflict between different parties, but there seemed to also be a significant moderating force in the middle which buffered the extremes and facilitated generally harmonious (if occasionally acrimonious) co-existence of people with different opinions. That moderate buffer seems to be marginalized out of the political debate today, at least at the national level. I don't see a ready solution.

September 21, 2006

That's A Little More Like It

It's good to see that yes, there are limits to professional Bush-hating. I'm reminded of big brothers (and sometimes sisters) who go out of their way to protect their younger siblings from bullies. "Only I get to beat up my little brother!" Only we get to criticize our President this way.

So I join Chuck Rangel and Nancy Pelosi in saying "Hey, Hugo Chavez! Suck it!"

September 20, 2006

Hyperbole Reveals A Real Problem

Today, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said that U.S. President George W. Bush was "the devil."

Mira, Señor Presidente, no estoy un big big fan of el Presidente del Norteño myself. But I think that may just be overstating the case just un poco.

While Chavez' breach of protocol at the U.N. is unseemly, of somewhat greater concern than the ravings of one guy is that a lot of world leaders are jockeying for positions near the center of what appears to be a coalescing anti-U.S. group of nations, who collectively have quite a bit of power and money behind them. They are currently called the non-aligned movement but they seem to be aligning themselves up against the U.S. and Israel, and to a lesser extent, the European Union and Japan. The NAM's recent summit in Havana resulted in Fidel Castro being named the President of the movement for the next several years -- a pointed slap in the face of the United States.

Perhaps this is a symbol of the tremendous loss of prestige the U.S. has suffered over the past several years. Perhaps it is a symbol of the resentment of the underdeveloped world of the wealth enjoyed by the West. Perhaps it is nothing more than geopolitical theater being played out for the political advantage of world leaders seeking advantages at home. No one in power wants to wind up like the Prime Minister of Thailand did yesterday.

But it's disturbing all the same. The U.S. cannot afford to continue blithely disregarding the rest of the world. That doesn't mean we disregard our own interests or we do self-destructive things or that we submit our own policy decisions to the United Nations. But it does mean that we should listen to our friends elsewhere in the world before acting, and think carefully and objectively about criticisms they levy at us. It also means that when we act on the global stage, we take the concerns and needs of our friends into account.

Maybe it's better to be feared than to be loved, but only if you have the stomach and the ability to follow through on the threats which inspire the fear in the first place. We won't please everyone, all the time. But if we at least show some other countries a little respect, maybe we wouldn't see so many countries doing their best to play the "I hate America even more than you" card, which is pretty much never going to be to our advantage.

Free Will

Is there free will? A vexing question. I've given it a lot of thought for some time now, and I'm still very, very vexed.

Part of the inquiry needed to examine this subject involves figuring out what free will is in the first place. The distinction between a free act and an autonomic response to stimuli is that of the motive for the action. If I reach into a fire, my hand and arm jerk back as a reflex caused by the pain. I am not moving my hand back of my own volition – it is an automatic reaction. It takes a significant act of willpower for me to hold my hand in the fire despite the pain. Holding my hand in the fire despite the pain would be an act of free will, perhaps not the most positive way I could exercise my free will, but still a demonstration of my mind’s power to override an autonomic response.

It is when one matures and acquires a sense of one’s own identity and place within a larger world that the distinction between an autonomic response and an act of free will becomes very problematic very quickly. For instance, I decided to go to college as a teenager. Why? Was it my own free decision? Was it the result of a conscious set of calculations about whether it would be to my advantage to do so? Or was I reacting to the stimuli of my environment in which most of my peers were planning on college, most of the authority figures in my life were guiding me to that path, and most of the models of success that I admired had college in their background? Was it a decision made to please my parents and friends, who very much wanted me to go, and if it was, was that decision a reaction to the pressure of my parents and peers or were those pressures merely part of the economic calculus of the decision? Why did some other teenagers with whom I associated choose to not go to college? Were their sets of stimuli that different than mine? Did they not think they would enjoy it? Or did they simply exercise their free will in a different manner than I? It is very difficult, at least from a psychological level, to really grasp everything that was going on.

Consider a baby. The stimulus-and-reaction set of babies is quite limited. Babies are reactive to the world. Their ability to experience the world is limited compared to that of an adult. A newborn’s sense of sight is limited to seeing colors and brightness, because the brain has not yet learned how to process binocular vision into shapes and recognition of figures. The baby’s other senses are similarly-limited. Through a combination of the accumulation of experience and physiological development, the baby’s senses – and ability to make us of the sense data generated through those senses – develop and the baby’s abilities to perceive the world improve.

A baby reacts to stimuli. The stimuli may be internal and not obvious to its parents – hunger, for instance, or temperature – but all it does is react to stimuli. The baby does not act of its own volition at all; it responds, in a more or less universal fashion, to what happens around it and to it.

Culture, race, sex, and a variety of other things that seem important to adults has nothing whatsoever to do with the way a baby relates to the world. A baby in the U.S. has the same reaction to hunger or a dirty diaper as a baby in a rural, underdeveloped country of Africa. The baby cries (or not) in reaction to the stimulus. At a very young age, the baby lacks the strength and dexterity to even manipulate or attempt to manipulate things in its environment – it lacks the power of speech, the ability to hold a bottle, or even to control its own bowels. It doesn’t matter where the baby is from, who the baby’s parents are, or even if the baby is sick or healthy – the baby is a helpless, reactive being.

So babies do not have free will at all. They are purely reactive; they cannot make independent decisions and they do not act in ways that differentiate one from another in any significant way.

That is, of course, referring to very young babies; newborns and infants. As the infant matures, the senses come in to focus and there is physiological development. The more a baby acquires experience and physical maturity, the more psychological development takes place. After acquiring a quantum of experience, and after the baby’s body (including its brain) grows to a certain point, the baby begins to exhibit preferences of various stimuli. Here, babies start to differentiate from one another. They begin to distinguish between the tastes of different kinds of food, they prefer light or dark or warm or cool environments. At this point, not all babies are alike. They still lack the ability to give effect to their preferences within their environment and are dependent upon their parents and others around them to satisfy their needs and desires. But, their preferences show some signs of individuality.

Individuality, at this stage, is not necessarily free will. Determinist psychologists, particularly Freudians, would say that babies exhibiting preferences for one or another kind of stimulus do so because they have acquired the ability to remember past stimuli, and associate pleasure or pain with them. The association of one stimulus with another may not be logical in any fashion discernable to adults. For instance, if the baby experienced hunger when in a dark room, for instance, the baby may develop an aversion to dark places and a preference for well-lit ones.

The accumulation of sense data experience and the development of the baby’s body and brain are gradual, continuous processes. But the point at which the baby reaches the quantum of development that is necessary to truly possess memories and associations likely is reached as a quantum jump, not at all unlike the excitement of an electron within an atomic structure. If we were to quantify this, we could say that a baby acquires one “developmental unit” with every week of life. A baby with 19 units does not have enough development to associate one experience with another; a baby with 20 units does. A determinist would place great emphasis on the set of experiences the baby has just after reaching this point along its development curve, to account for varying preferences between individuals.

But, automatic behavior does not vanish at this point. Virtually all babies have similar reactions to some similar stimuli, such as teething, physical proximity to their caregivers, hunger, and recognition of faces and facial gestures. Autonomic, unfree responses to external stimuli never really end, even for mature adults who claim free will for themselves.

At some point, a human develops the ability to consciously override preferences and act contrary to them. A child may exhibit a preference against eating vegetables, for instance, but the child can muster up the willpower to eat a piece of broccoli despite thinking it will taste bad. If the child then finds that she likes broccoli, the behavior will be reinforced and the child will select broccoli later. But, if the child’s suspicions about the vegetable are confirmed with a displeasurable taste, it is likely that future attempts to get the child to eat broccoli will be met with increasingly greater levels of resistance, requiring increasing levels of willpower on the child’s part to overcome the aversion.

This is all determinism. Free will means that the person can choose to eat the broccoli or not. The exercise of free will is something that becomes easier as the child matures into an adult, much the same manner as the perceived amount of strength required to lift an object can change with maturity – while an adult might easily lift a heavy object, a child is simply not strong enough to do it. So too can adults easily overcome so small an aversion as a dislike of a vegetable and eat it, while the marginal effort needed for a child is much greater. Thus, parents’ great struggles of authority to get their children to eat their vegetables, a battle of wills familiar around at least much of the developed world.

All of this suggests that it is easier for an adult to exercise free will than a child. It also suggests that free will is rarely, if ever, an absolute state of existence, even for adults. Nor would absolute free will necessarily be desirable. What would an adult able to override all autonomic, reflexive, or unconscious reactions to the world be like? Probably that person would be perceived by others as virtually catatonic. At some point, this person of absolute free will would experience hunger or exhaustion and have to eat or sleep – if the person chose to ignore those internal stimuli, he would risk doing great harm to himself.

Questioning the existence of free will is thus reduced to the “broccoli question.” A child, who claims to dislike broccoli, nevertheless eats it when commanded to do so by a parent. Is the child exercising free will when she eats the broccoli or is she reacting to a stimulus?

At some point even the most deterministic of psychologists would look at a person subject to multiple and contradictory stressors and concede that the person was making some kind of balancing test: “I’m weak from exhaustion because I’ve been working for eight hours without a break and without food. Should I stop doing my work and go eat and rest?” Sometimes a person answers that question “yes” and sometimes “no.” An adult can ignore hunger or exhaustion, if only for a short time perhaps, and complete a task despite a lack of food or rest.

The child, instructed to eat broccoli against her preferences, is balancing the foreseen stimulus of an undesirable taste against the stimulus of an undesirable reaction from her parent. She weighs the outcomes of either eating or not eating the broccoli and decides which course of conduct is more favorable to her.

If “free will” exists at all, it is found in the making of that judgment.

The exercise of free will is thus reduced the exercise of free will to an economic calculus. Certainly it is true that, under similar circumstances, different individuals will make different choices. But if “free will” is the weighing of consequences of one’s actions for relative or marginal desirability, then all “choices” can be reduced to what is ultimately an economic calculus – which of several options will produce the maximum net benefit? The only difference between individuals is in how we calculate that “maximum net benefit” and the best we can hope for is to educate ourselves to enable ourselves to optimize those economic judgments.

To prove that free will exists, then, we must find an example of a person who intelligently makes a choice perceived to be sub-optimal. All of us have made choices that have turned out to be sub-optimal, but that’s a retrospective analysis. If one would prospectively and intentionally choose something known to produce a sub-optimal result, then one has truly exercised free will.

That is an unanswerable question, I think. I might hold my hand in the fire despite the pain. But I might do so for the pleasure of convincing myself that doing so is proof that I have free will. If my gain of pleasure in my exercise of “free will” exceeds the pain I experience from the flame, then I have made an optimal choice. A determinist can always argue that a person who makes an obviously sub-optimal choice has done so by virtue of an advantage calculus that is askew.

Finally, there is a third alternative to the free will versus determinism argument. Rather than portraying humans as autonomous actors or reactive automata, perhaps it is the case that our actions are, at least at times, random. Our actions are ultimately governed by our brains, which physiologically are astonishingly complex masses of electrical-chemical circuits made up of organic matter. Science well knows that complex systems react randomly to identical stimuli, and has been able to attribute such differential reactions to random events at the subatomic level of observation. So perhaps my response to a given set of stimuli is not the result of my free will at all, perhaps it is not a trained response based on an economic decision, but perhaps it is based on where in its orbit a particular electron is within one of my neurons at the precise instant that another neuron sends an electrochemical pulse to it.

This last notion is, in many ways, scarier and more bleak than either the idea that we have free will or that we do not. If we are deterministic, then with wisdom and forethought, we can at least condition ourselves and hope to improve our lot in life and circumstances by teaching ourselves, individually and collectively, to make better decisions. That would be some consolation for having lost the free will we incorrectly believed that we possessed. But if at root our decision points are decided by random factors, then we drift on a sea of probability and statistics with neither the illusion of control nor, ultimately, the hope of improvement.

September 19, 2006

Bite Me, Ahmadinejad

It's easy for me to appreciate the daunting challenges faced by diplomats and world leaders. Trying to find some kind of common ground with guys like the President of Iran must be a huge challenge. He complained to the United Nations today that there was no outcry of human rights violations levied against Israel during its recent war with Hezbollah, claiming that there was "blanketed and unwarranted support" for Israel during that conflict.

Dude, I know good and well that you can get CNN in Tehran. I know that the BBC is available there, too. And I know good and damn well that you can watch Al-Jazeera all day long in Iran. And I know that there were lots of talking heads, lots of Palestinian, Syrian, and Iranian mouthpieces, proxies, PR flacks, and spinmeisters hitting the airwaves every damn day. I remember lots of images on TV of ruined Lebanese villages, piles of rubble where apartment buildings used to be and pictures of Lebanese people, rendered homeless, grieving over their lost loved ones. That there were also similar pictures coming from Israel only proves that 1) the Israelis took their lumps, too, and 2) Israel, unlike Hezbollah-controlled southern Lebanon, permits a free press.

So I don't want to hear about how the Western media and the people of the West uniformly gave blanket support to Israel. Because we didn't. A lot of us, myself included, had to go out of our way to remind others in the West that yes, there were good guys and bad guys in that war and that Hezbollah is not an organization of good guys.

To suggest that Westerners gave their uncritical and unflinching support to Israel is revisionism at its finest. To make that suggestion before the gathered heads of state of the entire world is revisionism writ upon the largest of all possible canvases. Would that we had actually done as Ahmadinejad suggests we did. Perhaps we would have been able to wipe those bastards off the planet entirely. And then we could credibly tell this dude that we mean it when we say we want his mullahs to stop enriching uranium.

Terrorist Detainment Bill

I haven't blogged at all about the controversy surrounding the President's bill to request authority to detain terrorism captives and try them before military tribunals, other than expressing my approval for the President's decision to work with Congress on the subject. I haven't blogged about the defection of between six to fifteen Republican Senators from the party line and their insistence that, among other things, the defendants have some ability to confront the evidence to be used against them. I haven't blogged about who I think is right and who I think is wrong; I haven't blogged about the Republicans who support the original White House bill, what I think of the new and revised White House proposal, what I think of the split in the GOP, what I think of the Democrats snickering up their sleeves about Republican disunity on the party's core issue, or the President's frustration with not getting exactly what he wanted out of Congress.

I haven't blogged about these things because there really isn't a lot for me to say. This is how the political process works. Congress is supposed to critically evaluate, deliberate about, and if necessary imposed modifications to, the proposals of the President. There is supposed to be a diversity of opinions about how we should do things. The people making these decisions are supposed to make them based, on political pressures, their own wisdom and intelligence, and their own visions of what is both patriotic and advantageous for the country. It's the reason that Congress was created as a deliberative body.

There doesn't seem to be much doubt that Congress is going to give the President some form of authority to detain and try these people. And there is no doubt that we are talking about people who cannot be trusted with pointy sticks, much less dangerous information and the liberty to take advantage of it. And, there is no doubt that this pivotal group of "moderate" Republicans is committed to seeing that the resulting scheme is both fair and effective. I would hardly call Lindsey Graham and John McCain "moderates" without noting that if that label really fits, the entire spectrum has moved very far to the right from when I first came to political awareness.

The process is messy, frustrating, overrun with competing egos, divisive, electoral cannon fodder, time-consuming, and the result is not guaranteed to favor one or the other side of the debate. That's why they call it "politics" and not "dictatorship." That's why the Supreme Court insisted that another branch of government be involved in making these decisions. That's the way it's supposed to work, and the system seems to be working the way it's supposed to work. That's what the Framers intended to happen and it's what ought to be happening. So I'm pretty much satisfied with the process, I don't have a super-clear picture of what the result is going to be (I don't think anyone does), and again, I'm pleased to see the three branches of government doing their respective jobs.

September 17, 2006

Chipotle Marmalade

A friend came over tonight, and we had to set up some nosh. One thing I really like is pepper jelly and cream cheese. But, we couldn't find any pepper jelly at Trader Joe's, so we had to do a substitute.

It turned out to be surprisingly simple. Four ounces of orange marmalade and one tablespoon of chipotle powder. For an extra taste and texture bonus, I sliced up some cucumbers on top of the cream cheese. It was really tasty and yummy -- the marmalade gave a tangy, citrus flavor and the chipotle powder was smoky and spicy.

We never got to the salad at all -- it has a lot of stuff including greens, alfalfa, pomegranate seeds, cranberries, bleu cheese, candied walnuts, and persian cucumbers. It ought to be good.

We'll use the other half of the marmalade at some point this week for crepes. We've done lemon crepes a lot; I'll look forward to the different taste of orange crepes.

A Part Of My Life

We haven't been to the Hollywood Bowl in some time; The Wife and I were supposed to go two years ago but we wound up moving to Tennessee instead. So it was with great pleasure that I accepted one of my best friends' invitations to join him and his family at the Bowl last night.

Later, I was reminded that The Wife really dislikes the Bowl. She gets frustrated with traveling there, she dislikes the crowds, she doesn't like that it gets quite cool in that canyon, she becomes infuriated with the parking and the post-show evacuation of the area, and I don't think the music really lights her fire all that much. I don't think she even likes the pre-show picnic all that much. So I think the next time I get an invitation to the Bowl, I may wind up accepting on my own behalf but not The Wife's.

This is something of a disappointment for me; I really enjoy the Bowl experience and with all the good things in my life, I want to share them with my dear wife. I'm willing to put up with the traffic difficulties in exchange for the great time in a beautiful location and the wonderful music. I like the Bowl so much that was where I chose to propose to The Wife; a fact which she is aware of and takes into consideration, but which still fails to change her opinion of the overall experience. I've also very much enjoyed the lead conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, John Mauceri. He has a wonderfully rich, deep voice and makes me, a member of a 17,000 person audience, feel like I'm sitting in his living room while he hosts a dinner party and maybe shows off a little bit with a musical instrument. Last night was his farewell concert. It was longer than usual, had more than the usual number of Mauceri-staged encores, and fireworks. Given the special occasion, the crowd was willing to forgive Mauceri his indulgences in his love for muppets and encores. He started at the Bowl in 1990, the year before I first moved to Los Angeles and began enjoying shows at the Bowl. I don't know who will lead the orchestra next year but he will have some big shoes to fill.

The Bowl is new, also; as the low-res picture taken with my phone illustrates somewhat poorly, the acoustic orbs have been replaced with a circular overhead rack of lights and speakers; it looks something like a flying saucer over the orchestra. There are also permanently-mounted viewscreens at four locations along the side of the theater. This is very nice for those of us in the cheap seats to see detailed action of what is going on -- the bass players spinning their instruments on their spikes, or the dancers, or the singers, or the conductor doing his dance previewing the changes in the music.

So I will continue to want to go to the Bowl; it's one of the best nights out in California. It's a special place for me, it's one of the big attractions to life in Southern California, and I'm going to continue to enjoy it in the future. If The Wife wants to continue to accompany me, that would be great; but if she doesn't, I'm just going to have to go on my own.

September 16, 2006

More Visions of the Future

All of this week (and much of last) has been spent in reflection and rememberance of the attacks on America five years ago. It's preferable to think about the future, however; certainly we should not forget but we also should look ahead and make things better.

So with that in mind, and with a futuristic focus (variously optimistic and pessimistic depending on the subject) in the past several posts, here is a vision of downtown Manhattan in 2012, at what today we call Ground Zero:

I like it.

The tallest of the new buildings, the Freedom Tower (officially named World Trade Center Tower 1), will be 1776 feet tall and will shoot a beam of light up into space. Its next-tallest companion, World Trade Center Tower 2, has a very distinctive look to it, with its four diamond faces appear to be many buildings combining into one. World Trade Center Tower 3 will have a diamond-shaped lattice which reflects from WTC 2. The profile of World Trade Center Tower 4 is not as remarkable but it will still be taller than the New York Life Tower and nearly as tall as the Empire State Building, and its lower stories, more visible from the street level, promise to be elegant and graceful.

Hopefully the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation comes up with some better names for WTC 2-4. But now that I think about it, LMDC will probably sell the naming rights for those buildings, so they will become the T-Mobil Tower or the FedEx Building or the AIG Tower or things like that. Still not terribly interesting but better than "World Trade Center Tower 4."

The four towers will gather around a large memorial park with the footprints from the original towers kept intact, like so:

Whatever the buildings are called, the World Trade Center will once again rule New York's skyline. The old towers were, while overwhelmingly impressive feats of engineering, not terribly beautiful. These new towers add an artistic element befitting one of the world's great cities.

I would see tremendous significance in the new site being dedicated by President Rudolph Guiliani, but it's still a little early to make a prediction of that nature with any degree of plausibility.

Il Futuro Del Sud

The future of southern Italy may, or may not, start construction in the very near future. The Straits of Messina are, at their easternmost point, just over two miles wide. The Italian government decided some time ago to bridge the Straits, and a private consortium has been created to build the bridge. It would be, by far, the longest suspension bridge in the world.

To the left is a Google Earth image of the straits that I created this afternoon. The island of Sicily appears to the west and north, Calabria (the toe of Italy's boot) to the east and south. The image is from a simulated eight of just under eleven miles above the earth, and the line representing the approximate path of the bridge is 2.11 miles.

There are three main objections to the project. One is environmental, in that the bridge may distrupt the habitat of certain marine animals that live in the strait. This seems to be a relatively minimal problem (at least after construction is completed). The second is the expense; Romano Prodi's new center-left government of Italy is balking at the six-billion Euro cost of the bridge. The third is that the infrastructure on Siciliy is not up to par -- there is no highway linking the proposed landing point of the bridge and major Sicilian cities like Siracusa. There are also fears that the Mafia will take over construction (what, corruption in Italy? I'm shocked, shocked at the idea).

Still, it seems to me that the bridge project would be a very good thing for Italy and particularly for Sicily. The linkage of an Italian mainland autostrada with the Sicilian road network will facilitate commerce and business on the island, and provide growth opportunities for the area, and the rest of the infrastructure -- as well as other forms of economic growth -- will come as a result. The bridge will also become a tourist attraction in its own right, just as the Golden Gate, Brooklyn, and Tower Bridges have.

Governments and peoples have to continually invest in and upgrade their infrastructures. People also have to have great projects to believe in and work towards their collective greatness and rally towards. One of the finest hours of the United States was the Apollo Program. This bridge, and the preservation of Venice, are such big collective projects for Italy in particular, and Europe as a whole. So good luck to our friends in Italy in their projects for the future!


In the past three days, I've seen or heard of hydrogen cars at least three times. It's a promising technology and its long-term implications are tremendous. The BMW model is pictured to the right; you can see a video from the BBC describing GM's prototype -- not only is it hydrogen-powered but has some other interesting features.

As I've read elsewhere, it takes a lot of energy to create energy, and this would be no different than the energy it takes to pump oil out of the ground, move it to a refinery, turn it into gasoline, and then distribute it to tens of thousands of local stations that sell it. Extracting hydrogen from seawater will be the same. There is also the problem that hydrogen can't be compressed, and there is as of yet very little infrastructure to distribute it.

But, hydrogen promises to be somewhat cheaper than gasoline, the environmental impact of widespread adoption of hydrogen engines would be tremendous, and most of all, it would significantly diminish the geopolitical significance of oil-rich regions of the world. Just like my previous hopes about the nearness of efficient oil-shale extraction technology, there is the danger that this is putting all my hopes in a gee-whiz technology basket instead of urging the adoption of more funadmental kinds of reforms and changes, but at least now there is some diversity of such baskets.

I still think it bears some thinking about what the world would look like in fifteen years or so if the energy axis of the world is tipped so far to one side. Petroleum power would not go away, either in the industrialized or the developing world. But with the U.S. as a net exporter of petroleum derived from Colorado's shale, OPEC broken, and the primary source of motive power for individual vehicles shifting from gasoline to hydrogen, the U.S. would regain a substantial amount of hegemony which we currently feel slipping away. At the same time, energy policy would diminish in importance, and geopolitical alliances currently formed because of petroleum rivalries would dissolve. Countries would start finding other reasons to jockey for position and alignment. Religion would be one such axis; so would access to the ocean (as a source of seawater for hydrogen-powered vehicles). Refinement and extraction plants would also become very important. Landlocked nations would become dependencies on their neighbors or would begin to deplete their own freshwater resources. Environmentally, it's likely that the world would become somewhat more humid with more water vapor and heat emitted into the atmosphere, and continued greenhouse effect from use of petroleum-driven engines and the massive amounts of coal used to power plants that power the electrolicization of hydrogen plants. Environmental changes would not stop; they would slow perhaps, but we would also see more examples of extreme weather like super-hurricanes.

Perhaps this world would best be explored, for the time being, through the vehicle of near-future science fiction. Ah, another writing project I've invented for myself.

September 14, 2006

Look Into The Future

Apparently,in the view of at least one judge, this man was not a dictator. He was just surrounded by people who made him look like one.

Oh, I see. Here, I thought a guy who held absolute power himself, maintained a chokehold on the military, suppressed all forms of political opposition, and brutally repressed his own people was a dictator. How could I have been so foolish all these years?

Having just done some study of English history, I recall that Englishmen celebrated the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England as a return to freedom and liberty. It seems strange to us to think of a king as a figure of liberty. But they did, because the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell had sucked so badly and dissolved into such chaos that even submitting to the rule of a monarch seemed closer to liberty than what they had.

So I suppose it's possible that maybe in the mind of this judge, a "dictator" is something other than what we Westerners think of when we hear that word. Maybe something got lost in the translation. These are possibilities. Also on the list of possibilities: the judge is as incompetent and corrupt as pretty much every other Iraqi governmental official.

How this country would stay united and not dissolve into outright civil war should we ever withdraw our overwhelming military presence -- and continue to take casualties from the near-daily terrorism in place there -- is absolutely beyond me.

I'm losing my faith in the ability of even the well-intentioned, powerful, and capable men and women we've sent there to create something worthwhile in the cradle of civilization. You can't save the world unless it helps you along. And it seems to me that the Iraqi people would much rather dissolve into sectarian and ethnic subunits than create a nation in any meaningful sense of that word.

Thanks to this judge's rather non-judicial show of bias, we have a glimpse into the future. Come, peer into the crystal ball with me, and tell me if you like what you see: The United States will vie with Iran and the Saudis for influence in small countries with names like Anbar, Samarra, and Kabarra, which in turn will jockey with one another for oil extraction and water use rights, with the great game of trying to keep a mollified Turkey in NATO instead of allowing it to enter Iran's orbit aligned against an independent Kurdistan.

Tell me why I'm wrong.

September 12, 2006

No Hay Agua

Once again, plumbing problems confound the Rented Mansion In The Desert. This time, the rear yard's sprinklers had a PVC coupling bust in half. Water has shot out uncontrollably for several days. The landlord has not fixed the problem -- admittedly, information about the problem has been slow getting to him -- and now one of our meddling neighbors took it upon himself to turn off our water main so once again, we live in a house, in the desert, with no water at all. That this situation infuriates me should not be a significant surprise to anyone. So I'm going to Wal-Mart to find a cap and some super-glue and I'm going to cap off the pipe so we can have water again. I am sick and f****ng tired of the water not working around here.

September 11, 2006

All That's Changed Is The Debate

A lot of people have complained that the public has not been asked to make sacrifices for the "War on Terror" the way people made sacrifices in World War II and Vietnam. For instance, nylons were not available to women during the war, and many foods were reserved for the military. To this day, my father-in-law won't drink coffee because when he was growing up, a wheat product called "Postum" was used in its place so that the troops could have the "real" coffee that was available.

If we had, would our commitment to the struggle be greater or less than it is today? Probably about the same. There is a lot of debate about the particulars and the role of Iraq, but it seems to me that there is substantial resolve to see the struggle through across the spectrum. If we civilians had suffered more privation these past five years, would we have had greater success than we have enjoyed in our various battlefields or in the world political arena? Probably not. But the terms of the debate would be different -- there would be greater pressure to bring things to a conclusion, so that the sacrifices could come to an end.

One such commentator is Sideways Mencken. Reading his blog reveals an interesting take on the way that the terms of the political debate have changed since the 2000 election. In essence, he observes that the Republicans used to play to voters' anger, but have switched to playing to voters' fear. In response, the Democrats gave up playing to voters' guilt, and have picked up anger as their emotional touchstone.

If he is right, I would suggest that the Democrats find a different way to direct their message. The Republicans tried "anger" during the Clinton Presidency, and the public correctly saw that the anger was little more than sour grapes about losing the White House. The public has also correctly seen the same attitude within the Democrats' reflexive Bush-hating. Hate is not enough to set a political agenda in motion.

When the Republicans succeeded in the Nineties it was in 1994, with Newt Gingrich and his Contract With America. If you think about it, Gingrich & Co. did not really deliver a lot of the goods promised in the "Contract With America," but that was never the point. The point was to convince the public that Republicans were going to make things better in specific ways. The 2000 and 2004 elections were both very, very close, so it's difficult for either party to claim that their message resonated with the country as a whole.

I also think the Democrats need to reckon with the fact that when fear really resonates wwith people, anger doesn't matter, much less guilt, pride, greed, hope, love, nationalism, trust, or any of the other emotional appeals that have been used in the past.

The Republicans, for their part, need to think carefully about fear as a failsafe message. It's a high-stakes gamble, to manipulate voters' fears. If the voters agree that the enemy you identify should be feared, and the voters agree that your solution to the threat is the right one, you will be richly rewarded. If you miss either, you risk handing your opponent either the opportunity to offer a better solution, or exposing your cynical ploy.

Mencken also ignores another emotional message that the ideological extremes are selling to themselves -- contempt on the right and nostalgia on the left. The Ann Coulters of the world have been dispensing contempt for the left and even for moderates for quite some time now. On the left, and Ralph Nader and the like would like nothing better than to return the debate of the day to the terms of the 1960's, when the issues of the day were the evils of big corporations and when American troops would come home from an unwinnable foreign war. Instead of big auto companies and Vietnam, they see things as coming full circle with oil companies and Iraq cast in the "bad guy" roles.

These products are sold mainly to "energize the base," rather than to appeal to the middle. It does not appeal to the middle to be told, "We've been here before and it didn't work out so well," because that message does not offer any solution for making things better. Nor does it any good to appeal to political moderates by insulting them.

Mencken's picture is significantly incomplete, however, because the target audiences of contempt and nostalgia are probably more important than those of us in the middle. I might be scared, or outraged, into voting one way or the other. But so many of the messages are targeted at those with whom the leaders already agree that I rather doubt that the message of fear is intended to change anyone's mind -- it is a get-out-the-vote strategy.

What's particualrly interesting to think about is how much, or more likely how little, 9/11 did to change the terms of our political debate to this. The Republicans have seized on 9/11 and the fear it created as their lietmotif for the past five years, but if it had not been terrorists, the Republicans would probably have seized on immigration as the polarizing target of fear; even today this issue has substantial resonance with both core and many centrist voters. But the Democrats' message of outrage and rekindling the fires of the sixties would probably have been exactly what it is now no matter what had happened.

So what's really happening is just the continuing realignment of our own internal politics. Three thousand people died five years ago, and about all that seems to have happened as a result of that is that we finally realized that yes, the world is full of very dangerous people who want to kill most of us and convert the rest of us forcibly to their bizarre, extremist version of their religion. But we've all but forgotten Afghanistan -- after knocking that country back to the stone age, we left it alone and focused on obtaining control of an oil-rich area that had little to do with the provocation that started it all. For better or worse, we're stuck there and have tolerated the continuing existence of our national demons in the hills around Jallalabad, the halls of Parliament in Tehran, and the parade grounds of Pyongang. We would rather continue to argue amongst ourselves about how other people have sex, who should get to avoid paying their fair share of the costs of our government (turns out, all of us do) and to listen to mixed messages about an unacceptably ambiguous, chaotic, and bloody situation in our new military protectorate.

So do we need to start making sacrifices? Yes, but the sacrifices we need to make are not the ones that people have been talking about.

The solution to our problems is not to be found in a timetable for withdrawal, it is not to be found in calls to "stay the course," and it is not to be found in appeals to our religious prejudices. We need to address our continuing failure to update our energy infrastructure to have more nuclear power and more efficient personal transportation. We need to commit to balanced budgets. We need to stop rewarding politicians of both parties who distract the public debate from vapid emotional appeals at the expense of offering concrete ideas to improve our collective strength and wealth. If we're going to commit to a military adventure, we cannot allow military strategy to become a political football and must instead be willing to devote the long-term resources to achieve both military and political success.

These things are hard and must be done consistently over the long term. But for too long we have been doing what is easy and expedient in the short term. It is short-term expediency that we must sacrifice, not pantyhose and pork bellies.

September 10, 2006


Game One was not exactly a success for our 2006 Green Bay Packers. We got a big fat donut hole in our own house to start out the season, after giving up twenty-six points. Three turnovers (two of them interceptions), a failure on special teams leading to a touchdown, and three sacks. Not an auspicious beginning.

Recipe Substitutes

Good guacamole has fresh onion in it. When I tried to make guac yesterday, the only onion in the kitchen was starting to go bad, so I needed a substitute. Scallions lend a much, much stronger flavor to the guac than onions.

But it worked out well. We like the guacamole and it's got a nice pungent flavor. Scallions are more expensive than onions but when that's what you've got on hand, that's what you use.

A Pleasant Reunion

Last night, The Wife and I went to a party in Beverly Hills. It was thrown by an old friend of mine; she and I went to high school, college, and law school together. She and her husband now have a beautiful canyon bungalow home, apparently once owned by Howard Hughes. "Bungalow" is a relative term in Los Angeles; in this case that means a house in which a married couple and two young boys are just starting to feel the edges of the house.

The Wife had more to drink than I can ever remember. She is a silly drunk, which is a lot of fun at a party. In her defense, she was the victim of a very charming gay man from Palm Springs (big shock) who kept on plying her with kamakazies and making all sorts of racy jokes. "The last gym I was in moved to Paris!" (I can't even imagine how many times he's used that joke, but I bet it's one that gets funnier every time.) Random quasi-celebrity encounter at the party: Michael Jackson's ex-wife. Yes, the ex-wife of that Michael Jackson. She lives about five miles from us in Palmdale.

The house was recently re-done for a show on HGTV, a show which The Wife watches regularly. One of the designers was at the party also, but strangely, I spoke with her and her husband more than The Wife did. There were some lawyers, some designers, an editor from the Los Angeles Fish Wrapper, a guy who keeps a bomb dog, and one of my former law partners.

Although the bulk of the people at the party were quite well-off, there was remarkably little pretension there. Our friends who hosted the party were particularly down-to-earth. My only complaint about the party was that we had to drive an hour there and back, so we didn't make it home until 1:30 this morning.

We are hopeful that our friends, who frequently come to visit family up here in the Antelope Valley, will come to visit us in our house in the near future. It's been too long and it's such a great pleasure to have old friends around. So here's hoping that we'll be sharing wine and good times soon.

September 8, 2006

Bush and Lincoln

Newt Gingrich was, and remains, a polarizing figure. He's certainly opinionated. But he's also a bit different than he was back when he was a partisan leader. He's also really smart. His recent column, comparing the situations faced by President Bush with the Civil War faced by President Lincoln, is worth a read and worth very serious consideration.

September 7, 2006

More Student Feedback

It's nice to be praised for your work:

This was the most challenging and best class I've had at the University of Phoenix.

The Instructor was the best that I have had since starting UOP.

The instructor did a wonderful job teaching this class. I wish all instructors were as involved as he is.

I really liked this instructor. The course was very challenging.

This course exceeded my expectations. I have developed a genuine interest in law. Before taking this class I abhorred anything that had to do with law and anything legal. The instructor is fabulous. He makes the class very interesting and fun. I hope I have him for the next business law class. … As I mentioned before the instructor is absolutely fabulous. He makes learning the key concepts of the course very easy and he does it in a fun way; to keep his students interested in the class. He gives feedback quickly and gives you advice on how to improve where needed.

Thanks, students. I appreciate it.

Results of a Good Draft

Peyton Manning (he wears #18, thus the reference to the 26th Amendment)
Ben Roethlisberger (appendicitis man)
Marc Bulger (fragile but good)
Charlie Frye
Gus Frerotte (for when Bulger becomes disabled)

Position Players:
Rudi Johnson (the #4 RB in the league; less press than LD, LT, and SA)
Cory Dillon
Clinton Portis (moderately injured at the moment)
Julius Jones
Warrick Dunn
Jeremey Shockey (a holdover from last year's team)
Tatum Bell
Chris Cooley
Joe Horn
Matt Jones
Keyshawn "Just Give Me The Damn Football" Johnson
Todd Heap

Shayne Graham (another holdover)
Jay Feeley

Denver Broncos

As I see it, only two teams had drafts as good as us. We're well-positioned to make a run for the money, at least the way things look now, at the start of the season. Roethlisberger and Portis are temporarily injured but will come back by week 2 (Portis may play this week; officially he's "day-to-day" but we're not starting him) and we've got more elite and "A" list players than our share. We're also very heavy on running backs and in most weeks we can play all RB's and no WR's or TE's.

With Shayne Graham as our primary kicker and Rudi Johnson as our featured RB, we take a piece of the action from one of our primary competitors, who drafted Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson to try and double-dip on Cincinnati's explosive offense.

My big misgiving is Julius Jones -- I've had very bad luck with Dallas Cowboys in the past and all I can do now is cross my fingers and hope that he performs well. There's also a question about whether Mike Bell or Tatum Bell will get goal-line carries in Denver, but we had to take a player of that caliber at that time and Tatum has as good a chance as anyone of getting work that will result in points.

So, the FSM's are optimistic. We'll see on Sunday!

September 6, 2006


A client keeps on bringing these in to the office. I like avocados and I make damn good guacamole. But how many of these things can we eat? An office of twenty people can't keep up with the constant flow of alligator pears that keep on finding their way into our break area. I don't want to sound like an ingrate, because it's a nice thing to have, and not everyone has access to fresh, good avocados all the time. At the same time, avocados are made of, like, pure fat. Yummy, but you can't make a steady diet of these things. So what do you do with this sort of thing?

What I've Been Asking For All Along

As promised, I have a few more thoughts on the President's announcements today.

First, I've never doubted that much of the covert activity, intelligence-gathering, confinement of prisoners, and other controversial parts of the "Global War On Terror" were aimed at real terrorists, at real bad people, people who need to be controlled and interrogated. Some of what the President said today confirmed that, and demonstrated what sorts of things are going on by publicly divulging some details of what's been happening and the kind of people who are being detained and questioned.

No one on the left side of the political spectrum should doubt that these are bad people who mean to do us harm. We as a nation have a right and our government has an obligation to do what is within its power to thwart their objectives. And some of that power is not nice or pretty in its application, but is necessary nonetheless.

Second, I've been saying, for a long time, that while I expect my government to protect me from the bad guys -- by finding them and shooting them if necessary -- I also expect it to do things the right way. My criticism of the Administration has not been that it has been targetting bad guys or based on any love of the people who are on the receiving end of this treatment. It has been based on concerns about the division of powers between our branches of government.

For the first time in quite some time today, Bush made statements that sounded like he understood his role in the government. He is the President, not the dictator. He recognized the role of the military, of covert intelligence agencies, his own office, the Supreme Court, and Congress. And to my tremendous relief, he acknowledged the role of both the Court and Congress in running and protecting our country. His is a powerful position within the government, and rightly so.

Third, I have a hard time deciding, at this point, whether his avowed committment to human rights and constitutional liberties is simply lip service that will be winked at or whether his chastisement in the Hamdan case changed his attitude about those things in any meaningful way. Hamdan has clearly changed his point of view about his relationship with Congress and his ability to unilaterailly exercise power. When a Court of this composition -- as a friend said tonight, "A group of judges so pro-defense that they quiver in their boots" -- nevertheless goes out of its way to lecture the President about exceeding his powers, the President listens carefully. But whether he got the whole message or not is difficult to tell.

Our enemies see us as less than human, that is clear. But this undeniable fact neither gives us the right to reciprocate nor does it mean that it is to our advantage to do so. Rather, I am as convinced now, as ever, that America is held to a different and higher moral standard than its enemies, and we should welcome those exacting expectations. We are not weakened by behaving well. We need not be shackled by our own laws and legal system. We are made of stronger stuff than our enemies have reckoned and we will prevail in the end because of our strength.

So, the President needs to get Congressional authority -- and likely will need to submit to some kind of Congressional oversight -- to have military tribunals provide meaningful and fair trials to our prisoners. This is as it should be.

First of all, we have no reason to believe that the military tribunals will pre-judge these people or give them unfair trials, and we also have little reason to believe that this judicial process will result in the release of dangerous people. Military tribunals, which can hear evidence that due to its sensitive nature cannot be divulged in a standard civilian court, are a reasonable way to deal with evidence as well as security; while I am still not convinced this is the only way trying these men can be handled, it is a reasonable one. The point here is that I believe due process can be afforded in this fashion if the bill that Congress eventually passes addresses that issue in a meaningful way. We have the best justice system in the world in this country and it is gratifying to see the President both submitting to it and finally showing some faith in that system's ability to participate in the governance and protection of the nation.

Secondly, there is no diminishment in the President's powers to have to request this sort of authority from Congress under these circumstances. The panicked five or six days after 9/11 are past us and it is high time that we soberly addressed our position in the world. It is a dangerous world, to be sure, full of enemies and fraught with peril. But it is also not a world where we can only react to what our enemies do; the truth of the matter is that we hold the initiative in this chess game in a variety of theaters of operation and in many respects we hold considerable if not overwhelming advantages. So there is no need for "emergency" action; the point of giving the President the power to act unilaterally in time of war is because there is no time for Congress to deliberate on an emergency issue. The situations we face today permit careful deliberation and thought by our representatives, as well as meaningful and influential participation in that process by the President.

Thirdly, from a results perspective, what we will see happening is going to be functionally the same as if the President had been permitted to exercise these powers unilaterally anyway. He's getting the results he wanted -- and now, he's going to get them in the right way. He's not going to be weidling power and making decisions on his own, or in a military fashion. We are not governed by the military; the military is governed by the political branches of our government, which in turn is controlled by the electorate. This fundamentally democratic system has worked very well in difficult geopolitical sitautions in the past -- the Cold War involved a substantial amount of military, paramilitary, and intelligence operations which were not made public but had tremendous effect, all of which were carried out by the executive branch under Congressional supervision (and occasional intervention) and thereby the goals of efficacy and democracy were both realized.

Fourth, this President has little to fear from submitting to a compliant Congress. I include in that analysis both the current Congress, which is nearly done with its meetings, and the next Congress. I forecast that the Republicans may drop a seat or two in both the House and the Senate, but Republicans will remain in control of both chambers. George Bush will be the first Republican President since (I think) Theodore Roosevelt to have had a Republican Congress for eight years. He's issued one veto in his entire Presidency, and pretty much carries around Congress in his pocket.

So the President has not really lost much on a practical level by going through these steps. But the nation gains immensely. It retains the protection we have enjoyed, and recaptures the forms of liberty and controlled government that distinguish us from virtually every other nation on the globe and in history. If we have a meaningful follow-through on what was presented to us today, this will mark one of the brightest days of the George W. Bush era.

#1 Pick

With some pleasure, I learned that our fantasy football team has the #1 pick this year. Tomorrow my buddy and I will get together with the other Real Men of Genius and we'll draft the players into the 2006 Flying Spaghetti Monsters.

It's a scoring-only league, so running backs, while important, are less important than quarterbacks. No one scores more points than elite QB's, of which I calculate there are eight. Two stand out above the others, so the only question anyone will have is which of the two we will pick. Here's a hint: the Twenty-Sixth Amendment.

More Later

With some excitement, I read about the President's news conference a few hours ago, in which he announced that he would seek Congressional authority for military tribunals for terror detainees. I'm very pleased -- this is exactly what I and many people like me have been demanding for a long time. I will read more, and write more, on this subject later tonight.