October 31, 2006


No trick-or-treaters came by the house tonight. The Wife and I did step out for about forty-five minutes to get some milk and bread at the grocery store (and almost got killed by a really foolish teenage driver, but that's a different story). So it's possible that we just missed them all. But I doubt it, even though there are a lot of houses with kids in them up and down the street.

I guess the neighborhood that our house is in is too new and there just aren't enough people living here yet to make it worth the while of costumed moppets to beg for candy here. We don't plan on being here next year so we'll probably never know if this turns in to a trick-or-treating neighborhood. I'd heard that kids from bad neighborhoods in the area have been bussed to better neighborhoods to go out tonight because there are some areas that are just not safe at night.

It's kind of disappointing, actually. Do kids even do this any more? Or have all the stories about creeps putting poison, razor blades, and drugs in candy, as well as somewhat more-justified concerns about generalized crime and violence, killed this charming custom that I enjoyed so much as a child?

Jerry Brown's Qualifications

The chairmen of five county Republican committees have filed a lawsuit against five (generally heavily-Democratic) county registrars to prevent them from counting votes for Jerry Brown in his campaign for Attorney General. The theory is that Government Code § 12503 requires the Attorney General to have been able to practice before the California Supreme Court for at least five years prior to taking office:

No person shall be eligible to the office of Attorney General unless he shall have been admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the state for a period of at least five years immediately preceding his election or appointment to such office.

A search of the State Bar's records for Jerry Brown shows that, indeed, he allowed his license to practice law to fall into inactive status from 1992 to 1996, and then again from 1997 to 2003. So he was rather clearly not an "active" member of the bar. Brown claims he let his membership lapse while he was Mayor of Oakland, but that doesn't hold water -- he was elected mayor in 1998, and had allowed his membership to lapse before that.

So the question is whether the phrase "admitted to practice before the Supreme Court" (from the statute) is the same thing as "able to practice before the Supreme Court" (which an inactive member cannot do). If these are the same thing, Brown is not qualified to be Attorney General. Allegedly, there is a 1980 opinion of then-Attorney General George Deukmejian, which included in dicta the statement that "inactive members are members of the bar." If so, that would be strong authority that these two phrases are not the same thing, and that Brown's admission to the Bar was always valid. I haven't found that opinion in a quick search, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Regardless, the point seems fairly persuasive to me. Brown never stopped being a lawyer even if his license was inactive; he has over 40 years of experience as a lawyer, even if much of those 40 years was spent in politics rather than the practice. That doesn't mean that I particularly want Moonbeam to be the state's top lawyer, but he is legally qualified for the job.

Standard Time

I don't like standard time. When I get up it's already daylight and when I leave work it's already dark. I like daylight savings time better -- the longer day means there's more time to do things. The Wife and I were taking the dogs out for long walks in the evenings (more intermittently than would have been ideal, but better than nothing) but now it's just too dark to do that anymore.

October 30, 2006

Dinner Parties

We had a great dinner party on Friday; our friends from Beverly Hills (she's one of my oldest friends; we went to high school together out here in the Antelope Valley) deposited their kids with grandma and grampa, and we had a great time.

They're both attorneys but we really didn't talk about law all that much (well, us guys did while we were barbequing the steak). I think that next week you can see their house on one of The Wife's "lampshade shows" (watch for episode 404). We had an absolutely wonderful time with them -- they've promised to cook next time, and we can't wait.

Next, we have to find a time we can have one of the partners and his wife over; for some reason they claim to rarely go out to other folks' houses so it's quite a special occasion to have them over. I accidentally picked a date for the dinner party that The Wife had reserved for an all-day event, so we'll need to reschedule. But all the same it's a great thing to entertain and I hope we can do more of it in the future.

Sharing good food and good wine with good friends is what it's all about.

The Law of BSG

I am not the only one taking notice of the fact that Battlestar Galactica is one of the best-written shows on television. One guy has suggested that this show is a fantastic lens for analysis of contemporary legal issues. He's absolutely right. This is not a "space opera" with vapid adventure stories, silly monsters, and bad special effects. (For that you can enjoy the classic series.) Science fiction is one of the best vehicles available for exploring contemporary issues in a rapidly-changing society, and it has been so since the first science fiction book was ever written.

BSG has explored the role of military tribunals, succession of office, the ethics of terrorism (and of fighting losing wars against it), political and electoral corruption, the proper role of the legal presumption of innocence, and the oft-explored moral issues of ends and means, desparation for survival versus ethical ideals, and the emotional impact of surviving a catastrophe. There has certainly been some exciting space and military combat, and unusual twists in the plot arc and character devleopment.

Seriously, if you're not watching this show, you're missing out.

Bad Move, Rush

I realize that people who make their living selling political pornography (both on the right and on the left) have to be outrageous sometimes, and unafraid to take on the conventional wisdom, in the hopes of scoring a big hit. But Rush Limbaugh challenging Michael J. Fox was a serious gaffe, and an unkind cut at that. While Limbaugh accused Fox of "under-medicating" himself for his campaign commercial to help Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill, it turns out that Fox was actually over-medicated at the time -- so that he could at least deliver his message while his body engaged in open, painful rebellion against his consciousness.

While the whole affair may not help Claire McCaskill's campaign for Senate in the critical toss-up race in Missouri, it certainly isn't going to help the Republican. Indeed, it does nothing but make Limbaugh look bad, even to people who might otherwise have liked him. I'm reasonably confident that Missouri voters can distinguish between the statements of Jim Talent and those of Claire McCaskill and that this whole sorry episode will likely not impact the election in any significant way (other than the impact of Fox's commercial).

But the whole thing has done at least two good things:

1. It has publicized, in a way that ordinary politics could not, the horror of neurological diseases like Parkinson's, and the role that stem cell research could play in combatting these terrible medical conditions. Seriously, if you've ever interacted with anyone who suffered from a degenerative neurological disease, you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. The worry that stem-cell research is going to incentivize abortions is asinine and another example of the kind of anti-science that gets me really upset.

2. It has left a big, slimy egg on Rush Limbaugh's face. Even his half-hearted retraction of his earlier statements is effectively drowned in an avalanche of blustery revisionism and attempts to prove that he was right after all. I take as much relish in seeing Limbaugh exposed for the mean-spirited, intellectually bankrupt diminisher of the popular debate that he is as I do in seeing Air America go financially bankrupt as a result of its failure to be funny, commercially viable, or to present any kind of effective counterpoint to the right which so outraged its unfunny, unoriginal talent.

Copyright Application

Today I got to do something new at work. The firm has commissioned a map to the courthouse to help our clients get there for the unlawful detainers. One of the partners asked if we could trademark it, and I said, "No, but we can copyright it." He said, "Okay, then do it." (No reason for him to have learned the fine distinction between different kinds of

I'd never done a copyright application before and it turns out to be ridiculously simple, for an original piece of art or writing. A copyright on a derivative work or modification to a previously-copyrighted work would be a bit more complex, but again, I doubt it would be out of the ability of a reasonably intelligent layman (who had the information requested). So that was pretty fun and easy, and now my collection of skills and experience has expanded yet again.

Argh! Me Wife Be A Pirate!

The Wife gets to dress up for Halloween at her work tomorrow. (I do not; I have to go to court and there are rules against "bizarre dress" for attorneys). So we got her some props for her costume and she is now the cutest pirate in all the desert!

Stepping Up To The Starting Gate

Congressman Duncan Hunter, a Republican representing East San Diego County, sees himself in the White House. Apparently he's trying to appeal to big-defense, gun-loving "hardy republicans". Translated, this means "Many Republicans (and the women who love them for being manly) who distrust John McCain and think Mitt Romney is kind of weird." So I suppose there's an audience there.

Now, I'm not sure Duncan Hunter is the right guy at the end of the day to be President, and he has the disadvantage of coming from the legislative branch of government -- and the lower house, at that. The last sitting member of the House of Representatives to be elected President was James Garfield. But he seems to think that Republicans are going to want a "tough guy" to be their nominee. Still, I'm willing to listen to what he has to say before I vote.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could eat Hunter for lunch (either with or without ketchup) in a Presidential debate. I'm also not real sure where Hunter would raise his money unless he becomes the darling of both the religious right and the gun nuts. So I'm pretty much joining the conventional wisdom in that, although the timing of Hunter's announcement is canny (he's getting in before the 2006 election is over, to establish his credentials) his candidacy is rather transparently one for the Vice-Presidency.

Learn A New Arabic Word

Words have power. Words have meanings -- exact meanings. And when words are translated from one language to another, they can lose their meanings. Tonight, I heard a very interesting bit of commentary about the word "jihad."

You may think you know what that word means. If you live in the United States, or western Europe, it probably means to you "a religiously-motivated war," with a particular emphasis on the religion in question being Islam. You might think of the Crusades of the medieval period as a kind of "Christian jihad" against Muslims.

But, it turns out, the word "jihad" (in Arabic, جهاد) means a "struggle in God's name." It carries a connotation of nobility, moral righteousness, and religious obligation. The first series of jihads were within Islam and were to enforce moral and theological purity; only later in Muslim history was the word directed against followers of faiths other than Islam.

Some language experts suggest that by referring to Muslim terrorism as a "jihad" against the West, or calling the terrorists themselves "jihadis," we are unconsciously giving them political credence and support among the Arab world. We are calling them something like "holy warriors" or "soldiers of God." They suggest instead using the word "hirabah," which originally meant "brigandage" (preying upon travellers in the wilderness, the opposite of the virtue of hospitality) and that has evolved to mean "sinful war." Even the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security has been considering this idea as being of some importance, although there is some concern that the word is somewhat archaic and might not be well-understood by the average contemporary Arabic speaker.

Still, maybe it's high time we started learning, and using, a new word. I doubt it could hurt if we learn about the culture and language that will produce both the battlefields and the warriors of the next generation -- and a more nuanced approach to the politics of that region and area could produce significantly better results than we've been realizing during this bloody Ramadan.

October 29, 2006

Tracking the Polls

This is shaping up to be one of the most exciting, unpredictable elections in memory. It's hard to get into the House races in any meaningful way, because they are going to be local rather than national in their focus. That makes the whole thing hard to predict. The best compilations I've found so far that look at the data on a district-by-district basis are Pollster.com and the New York Times.

Pollster has the Democrats pegged to have a one-vote majority of seats in the House, with 24 additional seats as "toss-ups." The New York Times, on the other hand, lists its polls at 205 for the GOP, 214 for the Democrats and 16 races as "toss-ups." But I have to think both of these are somewhat exaggerated in favor of the opposition party; incumbency has a great deal of power and influence, and people have fewer beefs with their own Congressman than they do with Congress in general.

In the Senate, there are now three "toss-up" races according to Pollster, namely Missouri, Tennessee, and Virginia. According to the Times, New Jersey is also a toss-up, but Pollster is anticipating that the Democrats retain that seat. If the Times is right, the results will be 48-48, with the remaining four seats determining the balance; if Pollster is right, the Democrats will need two out of the three toss-ups to get a majority in the Senate. Both present reasonably plausible scenarios for an exact 50-50 split in the Senate (assuming one counts Joe Liberman as a Democrat, which I know some do not). Senate races tending to be more about national issues, I'm a bit more confident in the reported poll results being more reliable.

This is shaping up to be one of the most exciting, down-to-the-wire elections in memory. It's hard to get into the House races in any meaningful way, because they are local. That makes the whole thing hard to predict. Which, of course, makes it tremendous fun to watch -- as long as you don't have a vested interest in one side or the other winning. I would not be surprised to see either party with control of the House in single-digit margins, and I would not be surprised to see the Senate split within one vote, for one of the most closely-divided Congresses in history. The race will be quite exciting, and will right down to the wire. We may not know the final results for a few weeks after November 7.

October 28, 2006

Gays in New Jersey

The New Jersey Supreme Court last week came to the conclusion that under that state's constitution, the rights of marriage cannot be lawfully withheld from same-sex couples.

If you read the opinion (linked again here) you will see a 4-3 split. The decision was not a one-vote majority in favor of extending the rights of marriage to same-sex couples. On that point, the New Jersey court was unanimous. Rather, the 4-3 split was on the issue of the use of the word "marriage." The minority would have mandated that "marriage," using that word, be offered to same-sex couples. But the majority of the New Jersey Supreme Court voted to give the Legislature six months to decide whether to call this arrangement "marriage," "civil union," or something else, or else the court will take action on its own and likely extend marraige to same-sex couples. It is very likely, given this ultimatum and the politics of the issue, that New Jersey will adopt "civil unions," much like the Legislature in Vermont did back in 2000.

Interestingly, there's one guy a lot of political jukies might remember who would marry his lover if he could.

And predictably, the Republicans are using the decision as a tonic to revitalize their hopes of retaining control of the government, a goal which had been starting to look all but conceded to the Democrats. Socially conservative activists are thrilled to have a bogeyman to rally against and to "energize the base." Sadly, though, the GOP needs to overcome a problem, in that the party's national leader has already endorsed the idea of "civil unions" for gay couples:

That Bush and his cronies today rail against the "judicial activism" of a decision that Bush himself invited is hypocrisy on a high level, which of course is no barrier to political activity.

I have been saying for a long time that there is no logical reason not to extend the rights of marriage to same-sex couples. Like the majority of the New Jersey Supreme Court, I am concerned more with substance than labels and I do not care if the legal institution to be created is called "marriage" or something else; a rose by any other name and all that. But I have consistently insisted that gay Americans be treated like Americans and be given the same ability to plan their lives with the people they have fallen in love with that heterosexuals enjoy. It should be as easy for them as it was for The Wife and I.

Dale Carpenter writes about the issue on Volokh, praising the "rights-forcing" but not democracy-reliant nor "status-forcing" middle way on the issue found by the New Jersey Supreme Court:

Of course no court can mandate social acceptance; but that is not what gay-marriage litigants asked for. What a court can do is remove any role the law might play in reinforcing social inequality. Denying the status of marriage to gay couples lends some continued legitimacy to the idea that they should not be accepted socially as the equal of married couples. For many people, that may be the correct message to send. But we cannot deny that it is sent and that law has played a role in sending it. Erasing that final status distinction at least ensures that, if social inequality between gay and straight couples remains, it will be no fault of the law.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has given that state's political leaders the option to avoid using touchy terminology while preserving and promoting substantive equality for all Americans. Social acceptance of these relationships can come later, and if it does, it will do so as a result of observing that homosexual relationships are created and dissolve in much the same manner as heterosexual ones, and seeing that indeed, the recognition of such relationships causes no harm to anyone else.

Prof. Carpenter also makes an interesting observation -- there are now five states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont) that have some form of recognition for gay couples. One in six Americans lives in a state that has adopted such recognition through democratic processes; one in five has had substantial democratic input into the process of recognizing this clash of the demands of equality with the shibboleth of "tradition" and observed not a single ill social effect.

So I applaud -- stand up and cheer, really -- this opinion. And Republicans who would use this issue as a wedge should remember that in so doing, they are running afoul of the President's inartful attempt to dodge the issue.

October 26, 2006

Tennessee Senate Race

There is one thing that I miss about being in Tennessee right now -- the Senate race between Bob Corker and Harold Ford, Jr. They are neck and neck and the balance of power in the Senate may well turn on the outcome of this single race.

And it looks like there's some great advertisements going on. This one is easily the best -- an attack ad against Ford by the RNC. Ford and his supporters claim the ad is racist, and the accusations have stuck enough that the RNC pulled the ad from broadcast, but frankly I just don't see it. It's really funny.

Now, if Ford really wants to play with the big boys, he needs to learn how to respond to something like this with a punch in the mouth. Wonkette apparently did that on his behalf, this time.

Damn, this is good stuff.

Stephen King Would Approve.

Stephen King wrote in his lengthy essay on the craft of writing fiction, Danse Macabre, that terror is the purest emotion, because it captures the entire mind and emotion of a person. If he can't terrify his reader, he would like to at least horrify his reader with a sense of danger and fear. And if that doesn't work, he'll go for the gross-out.

This story would surely qualify as belonging somewhere in that pecking order. I don't know if my favorite line is "Those fluids can be very flammable ... Sort of like a grease fire" or "The crematorium is back in business and the funeral director said they'll notify the family to assure them their loved one wasn't harmed."

Terrifying? Probably not. But this is at least a gross-out.

Student Loan

I'm taking a short break from grading papers for my recently-concluded online classes and going through some bills that came in the mail today. I notice that my bill for my student loan is unusually low. So I scrutinize the bill and discover that the amount due is equal to the account balance.

This is not an accounting peculiarity. It means that I have finally paid off this student loan! I'd been paying it aggressively for about a year -- more than the minimum balance every month. That's two down, one more (the consolidation loan) to go.

The last one will take a while unless I come in to some money suddenly and can't think of anything better to do with it (like buy a house) but it's also the one with the most gentle interest rates, so the smart thing to do is pay it off slowly since there won't ever be cheaper money than that loan.

All the same it is a nice thing to have that particular weight taken off my shoulders. With the high cost of living in California, having one less bill to worry aobut each month, and another item out of my debt-to-income ratio, is an unvarnished good thing.

October 25, 2006

The Politically Incorrect Richard Dawkins

There are fewer better explainers of evolution than Richard Dawkins. There are also fewer bigger critics of religion than he, and perhaps it's no wonder. No field of science has been attacked more directly, consistently, or successfully than evolution in recent years so it's unsurprising that someone who had decidated his professional life to understanding and advancing that field of knowledge would feel besieged.

I just watched a ninety-minute piece that Dawkins made for the BBC going outside of Dawkins' own field of scientific inquiry (evolutionary biology) and exploring the role of religion in Western society. You can see them here, in two parts -- part one is called "The God Delusion" after his most recent book, and part two is called "The Virus of Faith." Unfortunately, the last segment is cut off about halfway through, although you can get a good sense of where he is going with it before it ends.

Those among the Loyal Readership who adhere strongly to monotheistic religions should be warned. These videos will make you mad. Not only does Dawkins take the (I think) unremarkable position that people without a belief in God are every bit as moral and compassionate and interested in building a good society as theists are, but he goes so far as to suggest that quite often, belief in God gets in the way of morality and in some cases, provides a moral whitewash for things that are downright evil.

The title of the series, according to some sources, was not Dawkins' idea and he claims to have objected to it. I suspect he would have preferred to have used the title of his book rather than the title assigned to the series by the BBC, which suggests that there are limits to even his tolerance for confrontational rhetoric.

But, there is a telling moment early on in the show. Dawkins is accused by a minister in Colorado of arrogance, and I think the shoe fits. (The minister, himself, comes off as wanting in humility, too.) For all of his professing that science and a rational approach to life is fundamentally humble and anxious for being proven wrong, he spends very little time offering a defense for what he proposes in discussions of issues like evolution, Biblical inerrancy, political and individual freedoms, and the morality of (for instance) abortion. He proceeds instead as if it were a given that he was correct, which is not a particularly productive stance to take if meaningful dialogue is the objective. Rather, Dawkins often appears to be picking a verbal fight for the sake of getting good copy on camera. Granted, the subject of his documentary is not evolution but rather religion and morality; there is no pretense that this documentary, like any other, is unbiased and neutral in its approach to its subject. All the same, the discussions of evolution and faith left me wanting more on that subject and less attempts to protray obviously intelligent people who disagreed with Dawkins as rubes and hucksters because they drive big American pickup trucks.

He also seems to have selected outrageous or extreme examples of the religiosity which he so roundly criticizes. For instance, he found an American Jew who moved to a kibbutz in Israel and then converted to Islam -- who launched into a virulent attack, full of hate and ignorance and religious zeal against the sexual excesses of Western society and the moral intolerability of atheism. While Dawkins claimed to have been surprised by the man's attitude during their interview, that seems a little bit facile. The recent convert, and particularly a convert who has undergone so extreme a religious transformation, is bound to possess very strident views.

One thing that Dawkins described, while visiting another fundamentalist Christian church in the United States, is a phenomenon I had never heard of before -- the Hell House. Terrifying and somewhat gory portrayals of various kinds of politically unpopular sins, like abortion or gay marriage, are enacted in a live stage format that is intended to terrify the audience. An actor with an outrageous stage presentation and flame-red hair to play the role of Satan, gleefully refusing to let a woman who changed her mind about getting an abortion up from the operating table where her womb was being mangled, and presiding over a marriage ceremony of two women smirking at one another. He forgot one of his lines about how evil homosexuality was an had to be cued by the pastor, breaking character. The pastor organizing the Hell House Dawkins toured quite freely admitted that he hoped that children as young as twelve would come see the show and be scared, horrified, even terrified into accepting Jesus as their saviors and following the moral commandments of the Bible as a result of what they had seen. Dawkins called this "child abuse." It's worth a view to decide for yourself if the pastor or Dawkins hit the nail closer to the head.

Now, I must admire Dawkins for not conceding the point that atheists are any less moral than theists, he also did not give these people much of a chance to explain why they believe what they believe. He also mentions, in several places, that he believes that most of the people he has spoken to are well-meaning and that not all practicioners of religion are so extreme in their expressions of faith. But his concessions ring hollow as the soundtrack plays Elvis singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers."

In apparent effort to demonstrate that America is a more diverse land than a country of Christian fundamentalists, Dawkins also attends a meeting of "freethinkers" which reminded me in tone and content very much of the group in Tennessee that I enjoyed participating in so much. In that sense, it made me miss many of those friends from Knoxville. But it also made me think of my religious friends from Tennessee, none of whom seemed to have any of the really unpleasant or disturbing qualities of the people Dawkins interviewed. More than anything else, having the experience of knowing these people makes me question Dawkins' choice of interview subjects.

Dawins did interview a "moderate" Anglican priest, and shot some of his most pointed criticism at this man and notes ironically that his criticism of the religious moderates is the same as that of a religious fundamentalist. If you're going to claim to believe in a religion and miracles and God and all of that, don't do it by half measures. After all, how are we to pick and choose what parts of the Bible are real and what parts aren't; the Bible is either true or it is not and nothing in the Bible gives the reader a guide as to how to segregate putative allegories from putative literal reports of historical events. Just because a religious moderate says or believes something that is generally pleasing does not make it either logically or theologically correct.

Of interest to anyone is the way that overtly anti-religious propaganda reflects on its subject. Intellectually, Dawkins' special did not cover any new ground in my thinking or knowledge, at least not for me -- although he did present some of the arguments in a very direct and in-your-face way that seemed almost calculated to offend and shock people of faith. This seems new to me, both in its overt disapproval of all religion as well as in its confrontational tone.

While at the end of the day, I agree with the bulk of Dawkins' message, I really wish he had found a more respectful way of presenting that message than what was on the BBC special. If you're interested in Dawkins' ideas but would prefer to see them expressed in a more humorous and less confrontational format, you might want to consider his book plug on the Colbert Report. The Colbert interview wound up being more about evolution than religion anyway.

October 24, 2006

Gritty Realism

I'm reading Dan Brown's Deception Point right now. I'm unimpressed with the realism. Supercruising planes landing on glaciers, a rather callous disregard of national boundaries, juvenile politics, patently silly escapes from certain death, ice guns, the Aurora project, and and super-micro-robots. It's a reasonably entertaining suspense story, but it lacks the verisimlitude of Angels and Demons. And I'm also pretty sure I've already figured out who the bad guy is after about halfway through the story (which was about when I figured out who the Teacher was while reading Da Vinci). But, the story is well-structured and tense -- and cinematic in its imagery and breathless pacing. I suppose I could do worse than pattern my own writing after this -- Dan Brown's obviously shallow potboilers have made him a very, very rich man.

October 23, 2006

Role of Parties

For better or for worse, America has a two-party system. As one commentator pointed out recently, this is not likely to change for the foreseeable future. Assuming that the Democrats re-take control of Congress, about all we're promised is a bunch of TV fluff and a hike in the minimum wage.

But what the New York Times wrote about today is really kind of old news. Particularly in the West, but really kind of everywhere, people are more and more saying that they "vote for the person, not the party." One wonders whether this is really a good voting strategy, or even any kind of strategy at all -- and it certainly doesn't do anything to send a message to the recently-elected leaders about what it is that the voters want out of their government other than appealing personalities.

We can whine all we like about how things would be better if there were five or six parties -- a moral-values party, a labor party, a libertarian party, an environmental party, and so on. But from there it's a short step to ethnic and religious parties, and all of a sudden we start being Israel. And that's not the vision of political stability that our Founders had in mind for us -- an Italian-style government paralyzed by having to continually remake itself with ever-shifting coalitions is even less efficient than we would otherwise tolerate.

But the big problem with a two-party system is polarization and oversimplification. Too often we have to distinguish between "libertarian Republicans" and "religious Republicans" and "establishment Republicans" and "tax hawks" on the one hand and any of about twenty flavors of Democrat on the other hand (although the "Dixiecrat" of yesteryear is definitely a dying breed).

I'm also mindful of my experiences living in two states. In Tennessee, party identification is a combination of a person's heredity, views on abortion, and zealousness about guns. In California, economics, race, and a vision of the proper role of government are bigger issues. Where Democrats in Tennessee were reasonably palatable to me, there are very few Democrats in California who I would even flirt with the idea of lending even a vote to. For instance, Phil Bredesen seemed to be doing a reasonable job as Governor and the collapse of TennCare cannot be laid at his feet (although his failure to rescue it can). I've no idea if I would have considered voting for Harold Ford or not; Bob Corker doesn't seem to be a particularly attractive figure to me.

Moreover, the relative parity between the parties seems to keep the balance of power such that the will of the voters gets enacted most of the time. The result is actually one of the more libertarian states in the East despite significant power-holders from both parties anxious to impose their vision of the world, through government power, on the rest of the state. (Query, however, whether the state's libertarian skew in government policy is the result of actual voter preference or the necessity of a government starved for money by the absence of an income tax.)

Here, though, I find my feelings are different -- in no small part because I know very well what happens up in Sacramento when you elect Democrats into power. Taxes go up, quality and quantity of public services decrease through the mechanism of corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency, and individual freedoms decrease through increased regulations and enhanced gerrymandering. California confronts some significant problems and there is a role for the government; no one else is going to protect the environment, for instance. But the fact of the matter is that Californians are not under-taxed, they are not under-regulated, and they are not able to cast meaningful votes because there are almost no competitive districts at any level in the state.

So as I recently contemplated when looking at my absentee ballot, it doesn't matter much that I've grown disenchanted with the Republicans. Here in California, there just isn't any real alternative for me. The Democrat running for Assembly here, for instance, has said a lot of things in the local media that appeal to me. But it doesn't matter and I know it. This is a safe, secure Republican district because it was drawn that way. The Democrat just doesn't have a chance -- and even if he did, he and his apparently moderate points of view would be absolutely swallowed by the far-left wingnuts and any pretense of reasonability will vanish -- unless there is a Republican governor to exercise meaningful veto power.

If you are in the United States this November, you've got two realistic choices. (Even in Connecticut, where your choices are Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont; the Republican in that race is a nonentity who might as well be a Libertarian or a Green.) Certainly you should pay attention to the personality of the person in question. Obviously you should consider the issues that matter most to you. But don't ignore the "D" or "R" after the person's name. It matters.

The Field Narrows

I suspect that this will help Phil Angelides more than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Seriously, how many of her voters were going to vote Republican otherwise?

But, um, I'm still thinking that we're going to see the Governator re-elected.

October 22, 2006

The Crux Of The Problem

As my good friend at the Valley Press points out in an unsigned editorial (that I know perfectly well he wrote) it's clear that the Republicans in the Administration have made a bloody, awful mess of things. But no one has yet explained how they could have done better.

With just over two weeks to go to the mid-term elections, the Republicans stand on the brink of losing Congress as a result of the terrible job they have done running the economy (which actually is not terrible despite an enormous deficit) and running the war. A war which, as was pointed out to me this morning at breakfast, has now lasted longer than the formal definition of America's involvement in World War II. Things have gone so badly that it's clear that the Republicans have lost their mandate to govern.

But the Democrats simply don't deserve to win -- because they haven't come up with anything better. They haven't been able to identify any singificant strategic mistake that the Republicans have made. They haven't been able to point to any policy or decision which, once the war started, they would have made differently. Sure, some of them wouldn't have gone to war with Iraq in the first place and maybe that was the right decision at the time. But since we've done it, and a lot of Democrats thought it was a good idea to go to war too, it's a bit late to be arguing about that now.

So the crux of the problem is that no one really knows what to do. Our alternatives seem to be 1) keep on doing what we're doing (a strategy otherwise known as "stay the course"), 2) immediately pull out and bring our troops home, 3) escalate the extent of our occupation of the government, removing the facade of setting up a democracy, or 4) something that no one else has thought of yet. If anyone can think of what exactly option #4 might be, please feel free to leave a comment -- because numbers 1-3 all look like poor ideas.

October 21, 2006

It's Not Just Here

Turns out one in five schoolchildren in the United Kingdom does not have the ability to locate the United Kingdom on a map. For a long time, we've been bemoaning the lack of education in the United States.

I suppose it's comforting that it's not just American schoolchildren who cannot find their own countries on a map. I suppose it also is useful to deflate the myth that people with British accents are necessarily smart.

But really, it's kind of sad. It's a map. You are on it, somewhere. Knowing where on the map you are is a good thing and it's worth the time to figure that out.

Big Boxes

Is Target better than Wal-Mart? Oh, come on, do you have to even ask? I have had every single experience this guy complains about.

Of course, there's still nothing like Trader Joe's anywhere. Tomorrow The Wife and I need to go do some shopping and if we can avoid Wal-Mart altogether I'll count myself very lucky. TJ's, Petsmart, and the supermarket. And for other stuff -- I'm voting Target.

Speaking of Cleanliness

I've sort of noticed this phenomenon, too, although not really to the degree that the Times describes. When I've last flown, the planes have been reasonably clean. Of course, my last flight was on Midwest Express, which might be a small enough airline to fall under the radar screen of these kinds of surveys.

It's Better To Be Clean

Sometimes, things happen that make me realize that I've a lot for which I should be grateful. I am grateful for my parents, who have provided unfailing and unflinching support for me in recent years, especially when times were hard. I am grateful for my friends here in Palmdale, who found a way to share a portion of their prosperity and hard work with me. And most of all, I am grateful to the wonderful woman who agreed to spend her life with me. She's cleaned up my act in a big way.

The impetus for this gratitude was a trip to da LBC (that's Long Beach, for those of you who aren't street like me) to pick up some things from my brother-in-law's apartment. When The Wife and I started dating, her brother moved out here to California and took over her apartment as she and I moved in together. He's decided to move back to Wisconsin and we went down there to get some of her things back. We borrowed a co-worker's pickup truck (for which I am also grateful) and fought traffic for three hours to get there.

The brother-in-law has a somewhat different attitude about moving out of a place than either The Wife or I would have -- he's not going to move most of the things he doesn't want out of there and would rather forfeit his security deposit than clean the place up. I also know his primary hobby is smoking, so mentally I was prepared for the effects of three years of tobacco use. But a non-smoker surrounded by other non-smokers most of the time is never fully prepared for close contact with heavy smoking.

So I knew the place would not be in not very good condition, and indeed it wasn't. No physical damage but the place is filled with crap. Trash bags everywhere, sinks and other fixtures innocent of cleaning products for a three-year period, and the acrid odor and film of cigarettes permeating everything. I'd given him a blond wood table which now looked more like oak, but not in a good way. But worst of all was the bathroom. He knew it was bad, because he warned The Wife not to use the bathroom; however, I'd had a few diet Cokes before and simply could not wait.

How is it that certain specimens of the breed homus bachelaris can tolerate astonishingly high levels of grime and buildup of, um... things... in the bathroom? It looked like a three-dimensional watercolor painting in there, using only rust, black, and soap-scum colored paints that had oozed everywhere in sight. While my brother-in-law has grown a beard and claimed to have not shaved his face for three weeks, there was a cone-shaped pile of whisker shavings from an electric razor occupying a corner of the sink.


Anyway, after emerging from this chamber of horrors, I realize that while The Wife gets on my case for cleanliness from time to time, it's for the good that she does. As we air out the bedframe and other recovered artifacts in the garage (they too smell of her brother's cigarettes) I am grateful indeed that The Wife has impressed upon me the importance of keeping a clean house and not living in filth.

October 19, 2006

Slow News Day

For a news junkie, a slow news day is kind of a drag. Today to find something worthwhile to read in the New York Times, I found an article about how normally conservatively-dressed women like to wear sexy, revealing costumes on Halloween. Really. Trust the Gray Lady to be on the cutting edge like that.

So instead, I've been enjoying checking in on the adventures of these two dudes, who are trying to hitchhike from Times Square to every state capitol in 50 days. The genius of their website is a tie-in to Google Maps and a GPS indicator that they carry with them everywhere. It seems to be a lot of college students helping them out. I don't know if they've figured out how to do Juneau and Honolulu just yet; obviously they can't go by land.

I also contemplated a fantasy football trade, Charlie Frye for Shaun Alexander. My team hasn't used Frye at all and the team that has Alexander needs a QB. We have some other RB's, so we can wait out Frye's injury but the other team needs to build up its points right now and has been weak in that area. Frye's done better than expected, so maybe they'll go for it. The trade makes sense on both ends, as I see it.

It's just as well, I've been busy at work. As I discussed with The Wife tonight, a day of constant interruptions is not a good way to complete any tasks at all. I need to learn how to filter out communications to me during the day better than I have been doing.

They Have Begun To Eat Their Own

If there's one thing politicians are really good at, it's explaining why every problem and difficulty is caused by someone else. If there's one thing that Republicans like doing more than fighting Democrats, it's fighting each other. And if there's one thing that inevitably happens in parties that lose power is that internal leadership will shift; obviously the old leaders couldn't keep the house in order. So seeing this sort of thing happen now, three weeks before the election, is a really good indication that now, Republicans are really expecting to lose Congress. Maybe even all of it.

And it seems I'm far from the only one who thinks of himself as right-of-center but nevertheless has come to the conclusion that this imminent sea change is a rich alloy of a well-deserved result of a blend of incompetence and arrogance. While the Democrats promise nothng better, the Republicans have done so badly that a change is necessary simply to indicate that what we've been getting is simply intolerable.

October 17, 2006

Spam, Spam, Spam (and Eggs)

People get different kinds of spam. Some people (amusingly a lot of women) seem to get penis-enlargement or performance-enhancing herbal supplement advertisements. There was also the enticements to buy straight-up porn. Time was, I could count on having to devote time every day to deleting unsolicited e-mails cluttering up my inbox promising release for my darkest fantasies and hot teen college girls doing naughty things I was promised that I just wouldn't believe.

But I don't get spam like that anymore. Now all I get are stock prods ("we've got a runner, get in now before it's too late!") and the occasional offer to refinance my house at low-low-low rates. This shift seemed to happen all of a sudden, and let's face it, compared to the thrill of spycam photos revealing forbidden lesbian lust, stock tips are pretty lame.

In a way, it makes me sad. It strongly suggests that spammers use the same kind of demographic filtering techniques that more legitimate advertisers do. Is there some database out there that says that now that I'm out of the 18-35 demographic, I'm apparently assumed to no longer be interested in enhanced manhood and skanky girls, and now all I care about is the promise of an engorged portfolio? Maybe it's the same folks who decided I was ready to dispose of my mortal remains and join the AARP that decided I wasn't buying enough internet pornography and needed to shift the advertising focus.

It'll be ads for fiber supplements and denture cream next!

300,000,000 New Cars

According to the Census Bureau, the U.S. population exceeded 300,000,000 people at about 5:00 this morning (Pacific Time). You can see a current estimated population count here.

To make our national debt go away, each and every one of these people would need to pay in to the Treasury the equivalent of the MSRP of a 2007 Pontiac Grand Prix, about $28,500 each. Nice car. Too bad you don't get to drive it.

Some national debt is probably useful as a control on the cost of money and inflation. Some borrowing is necessary to keep the government afloat. But we've taken it way too far. The debt is only increasing, and soon we'll all have to buy Mercedes instead of Pontiacs.

October 16, 2006

An Loyal Old Soldier Speaks The Truth

Dick Armey has not held elective office for a few years. He was the House Majority Leader (second-in-command of the House of Representatives) from the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 to his retirement in 2003. Some say he, and not Newt Gingrich, was the author of the "Contract With America" that was singularly responsible for putting the Republicans in power in the first place. From the comfort of a think-tank where he was the successor to Jack Kemp, he's still writing about public affairs, still active in Republican politics, and he's been dead-on in the past few weeks.

On September 23, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal that fiscally-minded conservative voters are up for grabs in this election cycle, and if the Democrats are clever or the Republicans are foolish, those voters who care about the economy and the budget may well be wooed to vote for los burros instead of los elephantes.

More recently, he wrote an eloquent piece about why religiously-motivated voters should support libertarian agendas instead of attempting to legislate their version of morality. Bear in mind, the man is himself a devout Christian and describes himself as a "values voter." Still, this is sweet music to sing indeed. Whether it will sound so sweet to the target of his attacks -- James Dobson of Focus on the Family -- is rather unlikely. But then again, Armey isn't trying to make friends with Dobson. He's trying to re-create the Reagan Coalition of the 1980's: fiscal conservatives, social libertarians, pro-military advocates, and evangelical Christians.

Armey best distilled his campaign, his clarion call for the Republicans to return to their roots, in the New York Times last week. The critical portion of his short op-ed in the Gray Lady reads:

Let's be frank. America is facing a catastrophic fiscal meltdown that has the power to cripple our society. Americans are waiting for a serious, adult debate on retirement security and the appropriate size and scope of government.

Republicans need to return to the ideas that inspire their voters -- lower taxes, less government, more freedom. That vision brought us into the majority in the first place. Reining in federal spending, reforming a broken tax code, passing realistic immigration reform and creating an ownership society through entitlement reform are all big ideas that resonate with voters.

The dude is dead on. We're spending ourselves into oblivion and no one in power seems to care. We've become blinded by trivialities which, on acute analysis, are actually quite offensive. Republicans need to get off the big-government train and start espousing conservative principles about the role of the government in society, and getting the heavy burdens of taxes and public debt off of the backs of the American taxpayers and American businesses. The GOP has been doing a damn poor job of these things in recent years.

This is heresy to some of the people who have been calling the shots while wearing elephant pins. But as far as I'm concerned, he's just about the most loyal of Republicans out there. Armey is saying that the party's imminent loss of Congress is a symptom, not the disease, and the way to hang on to power is to cure the disease. To hold on to power, the Republicans need to get back to doing what they're supposed to be doing -- reducing the size, power, and cost of government.

He's saying what he's saying because he wants to see Republicans stay in power and he wants to see them use that power wisely and for the public benefit. We need people like him around; it's a shame we don't still have him in office still, although perhaps it is his very freedom from the need to run for re-election every two years that enables him to speak these truths.

One wonders what reception these unpleasant truths will earn him.

Strange Junk Mail

I got some junk mail today from the Neptune Society, trying to sell a "pre-need" package. It's left me feeling weird.

Now, I fully accept that I will die one day and something will need to be done with my corpse. And I do not want to have to burden The Wife with that issue during a time of grief, and it seems like the right thing to do would be to make sure that things are paid for.

My general thoughts are that any useful organs should be harvested and used to help the living who need them. My eyes are astygmatic and myopic, but they are better than no eyes at all to a blind person. My kidneys, liver, spleen, heart, and pancreas all work fine (so far). After anything useful has been taken out and been transplanted to people who can use the organs, I guess burning up the rest is as good a way of disposing of the remains as anything else. The body is just going to be a hunk of dead meat, after all -- I won't be using it again.

Well, I wonder if the expenses can be addressed by way of an assignment of a portion of life insurance proceeds rather than being prepaid with cash. That would make the financial side of things easier to address and provide the cremation vendor with a guaranteed source of payment. And if the company goes away, then that give us some time to make adjustments.

Still, mature contemplation about life insurance and disposal methods aside, it is odd to be confronted with mail like this. I'm not exactly ready to kick it yet, and being confronted with a question about what to do with my corpse is a bit unnerving. Being confronted with the issue by way of unsolicited junk mail is even more off-putting.

Oh, and I also got a solicitation to join AARP. It's about 14 years early. But I suppose I should take it as another harbinger of my apparenty imminent doom.

October 15, 2006

Neck and Neck at the Sixth Post

If the New York Times is to be believed, the race for control of Congress is coming down to the wire and is too close to call.

According to the Times' survey, with three weeks to go, control of the Senate is going to come down to fights in Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee, with Democrats needing to sweep these three to take a clear majority and if two of the three go Democrat, the Senate being evenly tied at 50 votes each (resulting in effective Republican control as the Vice-President casts tiebreakers).

The House is very much in play also, according to the Times. It is projecting 210 seats for the Democrats and 209 for the Republicans, with the remaining 16 races too close to call. An even split of those 16 races -- 8 for Hezbollah and 8 for los burros sin pistas -- results in Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Where is the Times getting its data? From the most recently published polls for each area. For this reason, the data is both suspect and limited. It does not let us in on the knowledge of the polls for the house seats in question for the House seats, so it's particualrly hard to know if these projections are accurate at that level. There pretty much is no ready data on the House seats. And the Times was, not very long ago, projecting a moderate Democrat win in the California gubernatorial race -- although this has since been reversed and the Times is now projecting a Schwarzenegger victory which anyone on the ground in California could have told you two months ago would have taken a Mark Foley-like disaster to have derailed.

These last three weeks of the campaign season are the most intense and the most interesting. The last act of the season opened with the Mark Foley issue hitting the fan. How it will close is a good question. I'm still thinking that the Republicans are going to hang on to the House; the Senate seems to be much more in play as in the three key states, the Democrats are all leading. A lot is going to happen in the next 23 days.

Stay tuned, and vote!

A Surprise From The Fish Wrapper

From the Antelope Valley Press I would expect this, and even from a slightly more middle-of-the-road paper like the San Jose Mercury-News or the San Diego Union-Tribune. But to see an endorsement to re-elect Governor Schwarzenegger in the Los Angeles Fish Wrapper is something of a surprise.

It's not often I agree with the Los Angeles Fish Wrapper. Take any political or social proposition, "A." If the editorial board of that newspaper thinks that "A" is a good idea, chances are it's actually a horrendously misguided notion that deserves round criticism. So now I may have to think twice about voting for the Governator.

Good News from the NFL

Today, the Green Bay Packers did not lose. Of course, that's because they didn't play.

Now, if you follow sports news, you've heard all the rumors and speculation and prognostication about #4. But I don't buy in to all the talk of why it would be a good thing to trade Brett Favre. Good on paper, bad in practice. Sure, the Packers could get some value for him, and sure, it might be nice to see Favre play for a team with enough talent to have a credible shot at winning the Super Bowl again. But there's also value to the fact of his continued identification with the team. He's come to define the franchise. And a new system would be as much of a struggle for him as anyone else; it seems unlikely that he would really be able to single-handedly turn a team around. More likely, his interception percentage would go up with a new receiving corps unused to him and a set of defenses that have studied his every move for the past twelve years.

Bestides, it was not nearly as much fun to see Joe Montana wear a Kansas City Chiefs uniform and perform only moderately well in a new system for his last two years; it would be just as not much fun to see Favre wearing a Cleveland or Oakland or Miami (or Kansas City) uniform. Everybody wants to remember Favre as a Green Bay Packer, and that's how it ought to be. So ride it all the way home to Mississippi, Brett, and tell Aaron Rodgers everything you know about how to do it with the joy and style that you've brought to the game.


I've been thinking a little bit about travel and getaways. We've got a friend who would likely watch our dogs for us over the weekend if The Wife and I wanted to get away again, so that's handy. I've been thinking a lot about seeing the Sierras, where I've not been for several years, but that's not a very Wife-friendly sort of trip. So instead I've been wondering about how I could make good on my promise to take The Wife up to San Francisco. She's never been and I've always told her I'd take her.

I'm not actually a huge fan of San Francisco but it is certainly has some good points from a tourism perspective. It's as picturesque a city as you could ask for. It has some fantastic restaurants and good shopping. I'd rather go a few hours north and enjoy the wines in Sonoma and Napa, but there's no reason we couldn't do both the city and the wines if we had a few days up there.

Mainly what I want is a few days away from the Antelope Valley. Aside from three nights in Wisconsin, I've slept every night here in the Rented Mansion In The Desert -- a very nice, big, and empty house on the far west side of Palmdale that has a view of the Tehachipi and San Gabriel Mountains, with a vast expanse of a well-developed desert plain in between that lately has begun to seem more than a little bit dreary. The same landscape I remember as a teenager. It's making me a little stir crazy -- my world seems so small all of a sudden!

But, sensibly, I don't think it's going to happen any time soon. We've the holidays coming up soon and gifts to buy for then; after that we need to save up our money to buy a house when the lease on this gigantic, empty house expires in June. Spending several hundred dollars on gas, lodging, and food for a trip to San Francisco, while pleasant-sounding, is not the best use of our money.

Hawaiian Earthquake

We mainlanders don't often think of Hawaii as an earthquake zone; perhaps we think of the spectacular but generally benign eruptions of the volcanos on the Big Island, with red-hot flows of lava tumbling into the sea. But where there are volcanos, there are earthquakes, and one happened this morning. Google Maps has an indicator to show where it happened. I'm sure you'll join me in sending best wishes go out to the people of the Kona Coast, who took the brunt of the temblor.

I still want to go to the Big Island most of any of the Hawaiian Islands, earthquakes or no. One day.

Dinner With The Monk

Saturday night was supposed to be the big dinner party -- our friend the Buddhist monk and one of Becky's friends, the Area Governor for Toastmasters. The Toastmaster friend fell ill and could not join us, so we wound up with (guess what) a surplus of food. Dinner, in classic Italian style, consisted of antipasta, primi, secondi, and dolce.

Antipasta was asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto with a little lemon juice and olive oil, garnished with fresh avocado. Blanch and lightly steam the asparagus first; wrap the asparagus in the prosciutto first and while the asparagus is still warm, or else it will never stick without a binder like mayonnaise. Serve chilled.

Primi was mostaccoli carbonara. To make carbonara sauce, fry up some bacon and grind it into small pieces. Sop up most, but not all, of the grease, and then sweat a finely-chopped onion in it. Reserve. Meanwhile, mix four eggs, a pint of cream, black pepper, garlic powder, and generous amounts of chopped parsley until a pale yellow liquid (with the parsley floating on top) is formed. Boil a pound of pasta until al dente. In a warm pan (like a heated crock pot) melt 1/4 cup of butter. Then mix all the ingredients in the pot, stirring until the sauce thickens around the pasta. This is not health food.

Secondi was my famous steak (marinade for at least four hours in teryiaki sauce, red wine, and green onions), cooked rare over a grill with steamed broccoli seasoned with dill. I've described this before, so I need not go in to elaborate detail for it.

Dolce was tasche delle rum mele, which translates into "pockets of rum apples." An invention born of necessity -- the absence of a muffin or pie tin -- they turned out wonderfully. Slice 3 small apples very thin using a mandolin. Mix in sugar, vanilla, cinammon, ground ginger, cloves, and nutmeg. Cut pie crusts in half. Wrap the half pie crust around a quantity (4-5 tbsp) of apple mixture, and fold over until the apples are wrapped in the crust. This is a basic apple turnover, so far. Now for the rum sauce: make a simple syrup (boiling water and sugar). Reduce the heat, and add spiced rum. Bring to a low boil. In a separate container, thoroughly mix some flour in to very cold water. Add to the rum syrup, and stir constantly until the sauce boils, reduces, and thickens; leave over lowest heat until the sugar begins to carmelize. A generous dollop or two on top of each turnover, with some whipped cream, turns a normal apple turnover into a decadent treat.

Writing Gives Under Stress

An interruption in the blogosophere took place last week, as TL was up to his eyebrows in life. Two classes online, a faculty meeting for a live class, heavy workload at the office, and a busy home life with many house guests and evening activities. So, something's got to give under all this stress, and this week it was blogging. Thus, no posts for six days.

Hey, you survived.

October 9, 2006

One Way To Find A Job Right Out Of Law School

Great. Twelve years of practice and I'm resigned to the fact that my own political views and lack of religious belief have condemned me to never take a seat on the bench. A price I'm willing to pay to be true to myself, but still, I'd like being a judge if I could be one. So I think I can be forgiven for being just a bit bitter and envious to run across an article about a guy who is exactly my age who gets a black robe despite being out of law school for less than a year.

I mean, yes, congratulations to Judge Miller and I'm sure he'll do a fine job.

And yes, I know that this little puff piece from his law school isn't telling us the whole story. Maybe the guy is hard-wired into his Governor's machinery and spent his pre-law career raising money for Governor Blunt. It doesn't escape my notice that he got appointed after winning the Republican primary -- he hasn't yet won election outright but it's a good bet that the GOP nomination is effectively the election, particularly in a rural district. So he's connected in ways I'm not and likely will never be, and so he gets the kind of work I'd like very much to do but never will.

That may well make him immensely more qualified for the job than I would be. Like I say, I know what the real qualifications for a job like that are, and I don't have them. I haven't made friends in Governor Schwarzenegger's office and I suppose I might have had a chance to have done that back in 2003. Leaving for two years to another state does not exactly demonstrate my commitment to California and its Republican leadership, either. Then there's all the things I've said critical of party leaders. (I've said plenty of things critical of Democrats, too.) No, I know I'm too unreliable, too unpredictable, too much of a wild card, and I don't have "Deputy District Attorney" on my resume. So I'll never get that job.

Local Wisdom

One of our weekly dinner companions is the editor of the local paper. I see his fingerprints all over this one. And you've got to admit -- the guy has a point.

Updated Blog

I've migrated my blog to the "beta" model of Blogger. The best new feature is the ability to have keyword search. I've updated about fifty past posts for keywords. You can search the blog for entries by subject; the keyword list appears on the bottom. I don't have much energy for going back much further than that, but future posts should all have keywords. I'll need to re-post the national debt counter, but that shouldn't be a big deal. In the meantime, the extra functionality is nice.

If You Don't Think This Is A Worst-Case Scenario, You Haven't Been Paying Attention

A friend asked "How is it that North Korea has adopted such an 'us-against-the-world' mentality?" At the risk (read: certainty) of sounding shrill, I have to protest that this is nothing new and nothing that we in the West have created. It is, however, something we in the West will need to deal with.

North Korea has hardly been "alone against the world" since the end of the Korean War and the U.S. was not the only architect of the division of the country. Korea was divided between the Soviets and the U.S. before the end of World War II when it became apparent that the Japanese protectorate that the area had been living under since the early 20th century was going to dissolve in the face of Japan's imminent defeat.

Kim Il-Sung (Big Kim) was a tool of the Soviets, armed, funded, and paid for by the then-cooperating USSR and PRC, who were hoping to evangelize their vision of expanding socialist polities.

Since the truce that ended the conflict (technically, the war is still going on) Big Kim Il-Sung's government promoted a policy of "self-reliance," which initially made it one of the most industrialized nations in Asia; but that title to his policies was pretty much a joke, as North Korean "self-reliance" depended on rich subsidies from ideological allies China and the Soviet Union.

For most of the sixties, North Korea was a pawn in a struggle for ideological supremacy between the PRC and the USSR, which Big Kim thoroughly mishandled by first siding with the Chinese on most geopolitical issues, and after learning to his dismay that the PRC had less to give by way of foreign support, he then began to roundly criticize Mao's internal politics. Having alienated both of his major-power sponsors, Big Kim got to watch his formerly (relatively) advanced country stagnate and slide into poverty. His solution was to clamp down harder on his control of the military, and to borrow money from Western sources. He defaulted on those loans in the late 80's, and thus made himself a pariah to the West. Big Kim died in 1994 (but the office of President of the DPRK is still held open for him) and his excerable son, Kim Jong-Il (hereinafter "Lil' Kim") took over.

Lil' Kim has done nothing in the past 12 years to reform the North Korean economy, restructure his government to permit more individual freedoms, or engage in any kind of meaningful dialogue with the rest of the world. Quite the opposite. There is only one answer to the "guns-or-butter" question for Lil' Kim, and his cholesterol level is not in any danger.

He still begs for money from China, which cntinues to dish out the dough even though Lil' Kim is not a particularly obedient or reliable client. Much of the rest of North Korean's extant industrial capabilities is the result of his periodic rounds of extortion based on the apparently massive military of the DPRK; some of the funds used to develop the current military came from U.S. and European coffers in exchange for Lil' Kim's promises to not a) build up his infantry, then b) not develop mid-range tactical missile technology, then c) not develop breeder reactors, then d) not use the plutonium generated by his breeder reactors to generate warheads, then e) not develop long-range tactical missile technology, and now f) not sell any of his military technology to rich terrorists (like al-Qaeda) for desperately-needed hard cash. The oppressed, uneducated, and terrified millions of people living under his rule starve and the only means of any kind of personal advancement in that country is either to be in the military or to serve its industrial needs; the few observers to travel to the area report a culture best described as a realization of Orwell's worst fever dreams.

However, despite periodic scoldings and generous payments to Lil' Kim's junta by varying segments of the global community, under Lil' Kim's leadership the DPRK has a) built the second-largest infantry in Asia and aimed all of them at targets south of the DMZ; b) successfully built and tested missiles capable of striking Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo; c) created breeder reactors for "peaceful" generation of electricity; d) tested a two-stage ballistic missile with sufficient range to reach Los Angeles; and yesterday e) performed a successful test of a nuclear warhead. However, we are asked to trust him when he says that he hasn't sold any weapons systems to terrorist groups, despite the fact that North Korea's only export of any kind is fear of the lunatic called "Dear Leader" by his subjects.

I am far from encouraged that the response to North Korea's nuclear test is going to be a "measured response" of more scoldings and toothless economic sanctions which will last until he decides to hold the world hostage again. Starving this guy out of power has clearly not worked, in part because he hasn't really been starved and in part because his military isn't starving, just his civilian population. Whether the massive army he has created can do more than sing patriotic songs and goose-step across parade grounds is a good question; however, we should bear in mind the horrific casualty figures from the active war in the 1950's as well as the fact that the young men carrying those guns across those parade grounds are now third-generation creatures of the most oppressive mind-control techniques the world has yet seen. I'm not saying that Lil' Kim isn't the right guy to do business with. That should be obvious. I'm saying he's flat-out evil and can't be trusted with anything as dangerous as a pointy stick.

The reason we aren't taking him on in the only way that could meaningfully alter his course of behavior is that our misadventures from the Tigris to the Khyber Pass have overextended our ability to conduct military operations in any other theater of operations. Having rendered ourselves effectively impotent against this malicious dwarf whose ideological resemblence to Stalin is ultimately defeated by his lack of Stalin's good qualities (that is, a snappy fashion sense and the theoretical desire to feed his own people), I suppose all that we realistically can to is cluck disapprovingly and loudly at his use of nuclear devices and hope that none of our so-called "partners for peace" give in to another round of his fundraising cycle of extort-lie-and-repeat.

October 8, 2006


Tonight, The Wife and I watched a History Channel program about Pompeii. It brought the story to life in a way I hadn't seen before. You know the story -- on August 24, in the year 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, and within two days, three cities nearby were destroyed and preserved under the volcanic debris. The result is quite possibly the richest, most extensive archeaological site in the world, a snapshot of a city.

Recall that the city of Pompeii was the luxury destination for the Roman elite and many members of the luxury class lived there almost full-time. All of the people needed to support their luxurious lifestyle also lived there, in more humble surroundings -- artists, chefs, grocers, bakers, potters, musicians, olive oil pressers, construction workers, bath-tenders, and so on. Tens of thousands of people lived there, a reasonably large city for the ancient world. Then there would have been more lower-class people, too; farm workers, fishermen, household slaves. All of these people (many of the slaves included) lived there with their families. As for the culture of the city, think Las Vegas or Monaco mixed with South Beach or Palm Springs.

The TV show toured the Phlegraean Fields, a few miles west of Vesuvius, which looked exactly like the ancient images of the gates of Hell. Ash-white rock with outcrops of bright yellow sulfur, fumaroles belching out hot, poisonous smoke. There was also a look at Stromboli, an active volcano in the ocean, which erupts several times a day, suggesting that had Vesuvius been producing relatively harmless plumes of smoke and sometimes spectacular showers of glowing magma bombs. The host suggested that this may have been an object of amusement rather than of terror to the Romans who vacationed or lived there.

But I can't be awed by the extent of the city's remains, and the astonishing amount of information we have about Roman life in the first century. At least, not without remembering that this city is also a mass grave. Twenty-five thousand people or more died; buried under what was a twenty-mile high tower of pumice pebbles that fell for twelve hours, and killed in an instant by a hundred-mile-an-hour surge of pyroplastic flow -- a superheated mixture of poisonous gas, lava foam, and rocks. As archeaologists began to uncover the city a century ago, they found that there were cavities in the rock, left over from the victims.

Whole families, terrified at nature run amok around them, suddenly and instantly killed. Mothers and fathers trying against all odds to protect their children from the overwhelming force of the volcano. And their poses, and in some cases faces, are preserved for us now, are preserved and speak to the horror and terror they felt as they died. For whatever reason, it real struck home for me that these were people just like my wife and I, our families, our friends. These were people who lived their lives as best they could; they had people who loved them and grieved over them when they died. In part it was the pets and service animals -- dogs and mules -- and in part it was the plentiful incidents of everyday life, like the plaster image of a child clutching a beloved toy as she died.

It's a reminder that as fascinating, informative, pleasurable, and useful a study of history is, it is also a study of real people, who lived real lives. People like you and me. People who did not know their own futures, people who made decisions and had families. Pompeii and Herculaneum and Stabiae were towns like Palmdale and Knoxville and Watertown. They were victims of a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina last year or the tsunami in southeast Asia the year before or an earthquake or anything else. And the people who died deserve the same respect and grief from us as the victims of these more recent tragedies do.

By the way, Vesuvius last erupted in March of 1944, just after the Allies had invaded Italy. This was a different kind of explosion, one that produced more lava than airborne debris. Lava engulfed San Sebastiano, a small village near the volcano. The deaths in that village -- which had been mostly evacuated -- were caused not by flowing lava (which encased the village in up to twenty feet of the stuff) but by collapsing roofs, overburdened by falling ash. And today, three million people live in and around Naples. It is only a matter of time until there is another gigantic explosion, and now there are almost a hundred times as many people in the area as there were in Roman times. Let us hope that should the worst happen again, the preparations made by the Neapolitan government to evacuate the area spares more lives than were lost nineteen hundred years ago.

October 7, 2006

The Show Returns

I couldn't be more pleased with the return of Battlestar Galactica. The 2-hour season premiere was everything I could have hoped for -- narratively rich, complex, obviously within a large and well-thought out story arc, emotionally compelling, morally ambiguous, and intellectually challenging. What to make of things when the (supposed) good guys use suicide bombers and terrorist tactics? Have we been too harsh in judging Marshal Petain and the Vichys?