March 31, 2007

She Got "Riviera" on The Last Turn

This morning's Scrabble score:

The Wife TL
10 44
26 14
11 22
24 29
15 14
9 16
16 22
40 17
38 31
14 15
35 26
15 19
74 -8

Total: 327

Total: 261


Official Language

I've resisted the idea of English being the official language of the United States in the past. While it's certainly the dominant language, this is a nation of immigrants and people bring their cultures with them here. Part of those cultures include their languages. We aren't Englishmen anymore; we are our own nation and we can decide for ourselves what languages we want to speak. That said, I am fluent only in English and I do not have enough Spanish to do more than fumble my way through basic situations like asking for directions or ordering food in a restaurant; I have a bit of very stale high school French, which was enough to cause Parisians to look at me with a mixture of contempt and sadness before volunteering "I have English, can I help you?"

I've a stronger command of Italian, from some study as an adult and experience traveling to Italy to visit and interact with family there. Of course, there isn't much demand for Italian in the U.S., but I can borrow from Italian when talking with a Spanish speaker and that seems to work out pretty well most of the time. But you can't live in California for long without encountering not only Spanish but also Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Tagalog, and a variety of other languages, and you just have to learn to deal with it.

I also notice that I am in a distinct minority regarding the English-as-official-language issue. Most (English-speaking) Americans seem to feel quite strongly that we need an official language and that it might as well be the dominant language that most Americans speak. So there are official language laws in most states, including California. I am under explicit instructions when I sit as a pro tem judge to only conduct the proceedings in English, even if I know enough of the other language to communicate with litigants in a different tongue. (I've seen "real" judges break this rule all the time, particularly with Spanish.) So that's the law, and I have to accept that even if I would prefer the law be other than it is.

So it's delicious for me to see this story about Italian -- the non-English language I know best -- finally becoming, in 2006, the official language of Italy. Like the U.S., Italy is contending with issues arising out of immigration from other countries; Turks, Poles, Russians, Arabs, and other groups are coming to Italy to seek their fortunes and this displeases some Italians while others like it fine. Like the U.S., there is a very dominant language but many dialects, some so extreme they seem like languages unto themselves. (Sicilians and Venetians can barely understand one another.) And like the U.S., there are other languages spoken within Italy's political boundaries as a matter of tradition even without the influence of recent immigration; French is the dominant language in the Val d'Aosta and German is spoken in some other Alpine regions of the north, and Croatian is seeping in to the area around Trieste.

So the Italians seem to have found the same sort of solution to the same sorts of perceived social problems arising from a multiplicity of languages as most U.S. states. I still say that language is an easily-solved problem and it is sometimes a rather transparent tissue for xenophobia, whether it's in the U.S., Italy, or elsewhere. It's good to learn other languages and be able to speak with others on terms you're not 100% comfortable with; it keeps balance and perspective. But people do have to communicate, too, and this seems to be the way that the issue will be resolved, both here and elsewhere.

March 30, 2007

How's About Them Sailors Back?

Rebuttal to Criticism

My posts on Oval Office are supposed to be objective thoughts about the race. This post is advocacy, so it goes here.

Rudy Giuliani is going to take some criticism for his handling of 9/11 in the next few days – inadequate radio communication between NYPD and FDNY; the Mayor walking the streets instead of hunkering down in a safe bunker with communication equipment; locating an emergency command center within the World Trade Center after it had been attacked in 1993. There is lingering resentment over the pace of the clean-up operations and the failure of the SAR parties to extract all the human remains from Ground Zero before major debris removal began. And, there will be criticism of him that he lacks substantial governmental experience; his official resume is as the #3 guy in the Justice Department, then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and then Mayor of New York City; that he badly estimated Bernie Kerik’s corruption; and everything else Rudy has been saying about himself has been exploiting 9/11.

My expectation is that, especially if Rudy posts impressive numbers in tomorrow’s FEC fundraising disclosures, these attacks will intensify.

It seems to me that substantial defenses can be offered to all of the criticisms. Last one first, you don’t really get to know the quality of a person until you see them in extreme circumstances. We got that with Rudy and everyone was, and remains, impressed. It’s simply not exploiting 9/11 to remind people that Rudy did a good job leading New York City through some extraordinarily difficult times. Rudy acquitted himself very well and he is right to extol his accomplishments on that day – he has always been extraordinarily respectful of the memories of those who lost their lives that day and continues to be so. I defy partisans of any of the other candidates to proffer reasons why their people would have done any better than Rudy if they had been mayor. Most of the other candidates’ leadership skills have been demonstrated by leading their own legislative staffers to happy hour at the Palm on Capitol Hill.

Locating the emergency response center in the WTC in retrospect posed some significant disadvantages as things actually unfolded. But remember that the 1993 attack on the WTC failed to achieve any kind of structural damage to the building. Remember how unthinkable the actual event was when you watched it on TV. No one anticipated this sort of thing outside the realm of military fiction. Without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, this was not a bad decision to have made.

Should Rudy have gone to a safe location? I think it was a good thing that Rudy was on the ground, seeing things with his own eyes – communications networks were disrupted anyway, so Rudy in a bunker would have been even more blind and deaf than he was several blocks away from where the buildings were coming down. He did the right thing by going to the scene.

Communications among the first responders? NYPD and FDNY didn’t want compatible radio systems and actively resisted the idea when it was floated. Should Rudy have forced them, kicking and screaming, to integrate their systems? I question exactly how much good that would have done. Would more firefighters and police have been saved had they been able to talk to one another directly rather than relaying information through a command center? The sad answer is, probably not.

Bernie Kerik? Yeah, turns out he was not altogether a good guy, which I realize is something of an understatement. But then again, we’ve seen plenty of Presidents in the recent past have people who aren’t such good guys around them, too. Scooter Libby. Sandy Berger. David Rosen. And other candidates have personal involvement in some questionable dealings in their pasts. Others lack many years of substantial political experience, at least at the federal level, on both sides of the aisle. If you’re going to hold Rudy Giuliani accountable for not having held Federal elected office in the past, you need to also criticize the relative inexperience with Federal politics of Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, or John Edwards, and the lack of executive or managerial experience against John McCain or Hillary Clinton. So none of the major candidates offers the kind of substantial Federal executive background that, for instance, a Vice-President or Secretary of State could offer.

As for the cleanup, that had to start at some point. Cleanup crews are still finding body parts in the rubble at Fresh Kills and even at Ground Zero. If the city had waited until all the body parts had been found, the ruins of the site would still be there today. It wasn’t disrespectful to the fallen to start clearing the area; but it would have been disrespectful to the living to not get up and start rebuilding. It was a triage situation. There was simply no other choice to be made.

The criticisms I’ve heard floated so far seem to be demanding perfection. No one can offer that – not the current President, not Giuliani, not Clinton, not anyone. It’s all well and good to criticize the response to the disaster in retrospect. But the real measure of Rudy’s leadership in those dark hours should be based on the information available at the time. We cannot know the challenges that the future will throw at us as a nation. But we can, this one time, know the quality of the person we pick to lead us through those challenges.

Prayer and Medicine

We've seen this story before; the only "news" in it is that the study demonstrating that there was no appreciable effect of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery (indeed, in terms of raw numbers, the prayed-for patients actually did worse) is being published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, which I assume has some prestige within the medical academy.

What caught my eye in this story was the wealth of column space given to religious people attempting to rebut the results of the story. "Critics said the question of God's reaction to prayers simply can't be explored by scientific study. '[W]hy would God change his plans for a particular person just because they're in a research study?' ¶ Science 'is not designed to study the supernatural.'"

This is a slippery and deceptive response. Science studies facts, phenomena, and causes. Either prayer has some effect on the objective, external world, or it does not. That is a factual proposition. The hypothesis that prayer has the power to change the objective, external world can be objectively measured and tested. It can be disproven. That makes it susceptible to scientific study.

Looking to prayer -- saying words, thinking hopeful thoughts, begging for divine intercession in a desperate situation -- this doesn't seem like religion or faith to me. I would call it "magic." Wave or hold your hands in a particular way, say certain magic words, exercise your willpower in a certain way, and the laws of physics and biology will be temporarily altered according to your desires. It should surprise no one that upon statistical analysis, this sort of thing works no more often than would be expected by the operation of chance.

Magic is religion in its most primitive form, if it is even properly considered religion at all. Substituting magic for medicine is antiscience.

If science is incapable of studying the supernatural, so too is religion is not designed or intended to study matters within the realm of the objectively factual. Religion is intended at its best, to offer insights into the study of human behavior and morality. At its worst, religion is an instrument of political control used to subvert morality. Most of the time, it's somewhere in between -- sometimes benign (like when it encourages people to give to charity) and sometimes malign (like when it encourages people to strap dynamite to their chests and blow themselves up in the hopes of taking a few infidels out, too).

But religion is mostly about the numinous -- it's about the fate of things that are incapable of verification or measurement, and their relationship to other things equally incapable of being observed. Religion concerns itself with matters that by definition are beyond human comprehension or experience. "God works in mysterious ways" or "God has a plan and a purpose that we don't fully understand" are common phrases offered by the faithful when they are unable to explain something otherwise -- when a religious person relies on these kinds of statements, they are really saying, "I give up, there is no rational answer to your question." And indeed, particularly given the existence of an unmeasurable, unseen, infinitely powerful, infinitely intelligent, and apparently infinitely subtle actor interfering with a variety of observable phenomena, it's astonishing that any scientific observation has taken place at all.

So I must conclude that religion and science are, at the end of the day, incompatible. I reach this conclusion sadly; I know there are many religious scientists and many people who hope for a happy and productive social dialog between the faithful and the scientific. But religion is based on irrational experiences and irrational thoughts. (That doesn't mean these thoughts or experiences are bad, by the way.) It is emotional. Science is, in those terms, the opposite of religion -- science must be as rational as it can be, it must be as unemotional as it can be.

Science advances by the act of disproving previously-advanced propositions in response to newly-gathered information. Religion is based upon the act of maintaining the truth of previously-advanced propositions no matter what information is proffered against it.

In this case, the question is whether prayer has the power to heal. As objectively measured, it does not. Those who hold a religious belief in the power of prayer will simply not care about the objective facts of this study. "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!" is perfectly good logic to the religious person. (To religious readers: substitute "Lenin" or some other name you want for "God" in that sentence and you may begin to understand the reason why I recoil from such 'logic'.) So to the religious, the study simply doesn't matter; science is incapable of measuring the power of prayer. But to the scientific, the study is devastating to the hypothesis that prayer affects the external world at all. A hypothesis was advanced and disproved. Science marches on.

Prayer may help a sick or suffering person cope with their situation. It may help those who love and care for the sick person cope, as well. This palliative effect ought not to be ignored and the easing of people's pain and suffering should be a significant focus of enlightened, moral medical practice. But this should not be confused with a cure. And religion should not be confused with science.

March 29, 2007

An Act Of War

Imagine this. The Iranian Navy sends a boat out from its far-western port of Bandar-e Mahshahr to patrol against smugglers. The boat finds a Saudi-flagged ship it does not recognize in their territorial waters, and sends over a boarding party to inspect the cargo. Then, the USS Bataan enters Iranian seas, seizes the Iranian inspection craft, and arrests the Iranian sailors. Then, it sails back into international waters. The U.S. insists that the Saudi ship was in Iraqi waters and that the Iranians appeared to have “accidentally” boarded it, but that the captain of the Bataan couldn’t be quite sure that the Iranians weren’t trying to engage in some act of sabotage.

Would you consider this to be an act of war by the U.S. against Iran? Would you not expect the entire world to be howling in outraged protest against this act of naked, barefaced American aggression? Of course you would. And if the U.S. published two sets of locations indicating where there seizure took place, the first one being clearly within Iranian territory, you would say that the U.S. military are not only liars, but bad liars at that, and expect even greater outrage from world opinion.

But sometimes, the U.S. and in this case, one of its allies, are the victims of treatment like this. In real life, it’s our good friends in the UK who have to deal with the situation. And it’s outrageous.

The exact geographic coordinates of the location at which the fifteen British sailors and marines were taken by Iran is 29° 50’ 36” north, 48° 43’ 8” east. The map to the right, produced by the British Ministry of Defence (note the delightfully British spelling of that word), illustrates the two locations that the Iranian government has given for where they say they took the sailors. “In Iranian waters,” my ass. The British had every legal right to be in Iraqi waters and conduct coastal defense operations there, including inspecting Indian-flagged cargo ships for contraband – which is what these sailors were doing when the Iranians arrested them.

Now, riddle me this. If the Iranian government is so convinced that this so-called invasion of their territorial waters was an “accident,” why don’t they condemn the clumsy navigation of the British sailors and let them go? An accident is obviously not an act of war, it is by definition something done unintentionally. So why hold fifteen sailors hostage until their government admits that they made a mistake? (Which they didn’t, but that’s beside the point now, isn’t it?)

I realize that we Americans are not in the best position possible to provide guidance about getting Iran to release hostages. And let’s not forget, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad knows a thing or two about the value of taking western hostages. But unlike 1979, both the US and the UK do have basically all of our military right across the Shatt al-Arab.

I realize that the U.N. Security Council today expressed "grave concerns" with the situation, but somehow, that does not satisfy. What’s the U.N. going to do to Iran? Sanction Iran some more? Ooooh. Ahmadinejad’s gotta be shitting himself now.

I realize that diplomatic solutions must be used to resolve disputes before military force is undertaken. The UK Government is right to try and use talk and legal pressure to get their people released first.

And finally, I realize that we need to tread with great caution with respect to Iran, which is a powerful, wealthy, and sophisticated nation and one which has complex internal dynamics of its own which are even less well-understood to us now than those of Iraq were in 2003. I understand that a good argument can be made that this is exactly how we got into the mess we are in right now and we should proceed cautiously. And I accept that argument's validity.

But a big part of me wants to see the Iranian government taught that Jimmy Carter isn't calling the shots any more.

New Post on Oval Office

Senators Obama and McCain are using one another as foils to appeal to their parties' ideologically-motivated elements. I ask, are they wise for executing traditional "run outside, then run inside" strategies?

March 28, 2007

Worst Team Ever

The 1899 Cleveland Spiders finished their season with a 20-134 record. On today's 162-game schedule, that would be a record of 21-141.

Version 2.4

A few minor changes in the blog, mostly a subtle color scheme change, a new graphic, and updated links to other pages. Most importantly, the links now include my father's new blog. Check it out -- my folks just got themselves a really cute Yorkshire Terrier. I've also got a link there to Oval Office 2008, to easily cross-post when I analyze the progress of the election.

Going to the Oval Office

It’s official; I’m now a blogger on Oval Office 2008. It should be fun co-blogging with a bunch of other political junkies, especially ones of a variety of political persuasions and backgrounds. The blogmaster is British, which gives him an outsider’s perspective on U.S. political developments. My first post on Oval Office is up right now.

New Name For A Used Car

By the way, since it turns out that we've picked a really lame name for the new car, there seems to be a need to come up with a new one. Suggestions from the Loyal Readers are welcome. A reminder, the car looks like this:

Now It's Done

It's easy to let time slip through your fingers, and that's a bad thing for lawyers to do. Fortunately, I can log in remotely from home and find the time, and juggle that with teaching my online class. Now, I've got to actually get to work and start generating new time! As Sui Generis says, it's time to "go forth and bill!"

March 27, 2007

My Morning Project

It's got to be done.

Losing Sucks

It's not quite as good as winning. Not much more to say than that.

March 26, 2007


Waiting for a jury verdict sucks. There's nothing to do but sit around and be anxiously idle. And tired.

March 25, 2007

All Along The Watchtower

Us fanboys (and a few fangirls, like The Wife) have been waiting for a while for a really, really good episode of the best show on television. Tonight, the writers delivered, in a big way. Good acting, good writing, plot twists, plot points resolved and new ones opened up, and a gigantic cliffhanger of a season finale. The next episode won't be until 2008. That's, like, a long time from now.

There will be a straight to DVD movie that will provide background to the story arc. I may not be able to resist the impulse to buy it when it hits the stores, because I'll be starved for more by the time it's there.

There will be no spoilers here. But if you're a fan of the show -- and if you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I've been exhorting you to watch it -- you need to see how the trial of Gaius Baltar ends... and what happens afterwards.

Poll Results

After a week, the votes are in. You Loyal Readers come here to read about:

Stories from California (5 votes)
Politics and News (2 votes)
Religion and Atheism (2 votes)
History (2 votes)
Writing (1 vote)
Education (1 vote)
Entertainment and Pop Culture (1 vote)
Law (1 vote)

Thanks for your votes and participation. My focus will shift somewhat -- but not completely -- in response to your voiced preferences. Hopefully the webmasters at Oval Office 2008 will get around to adding me to the authorship there, so that will provide a different forum for many of my political ramblings, which seem to only interest a fraction of the readers here.

So now we have a new poll. Some friends of ours are going to get married in a few months. Any gift ideas? Feel free to offer ideas not on the list in the comments to this post. No fair if you're the friends in question, and you know who you are!

UPDATE: The Wife says that the friends in question should be able to vote, too. I guess they're interested parties.

A Decision I Would Not Have Made

I can't say whether continuing his campaign for President is the right decision for John Edwards or not. That's a call that only he and his family can make, given his wife's very unfortunate medical condition.

Certainly they are well off and she will not want for good medical care, but her cancer is metastasized and that's not a good thing at all, whether you are well off and running for President, or financially challenged in obscurity. No one would want that sort of thing to happen in their lives, although of course thousands of people confront this very issue every day. Certainly it lends some urgency to Edwards' health care platform. But at a human level, obviously, Democrats and Republicans alike are wishing Elizabeth Edwards and their entire family the best in the face of bad news and trying circumstances.

For me, it would be an easy call -- I would want to be with my wife as much as possible, no matter what, and it would be a no-brainer, no-second-thoughts kind of decision. But when I mentioned this to The Wife last night, she said that if I were in that position, she would want me to pursue my dream and wouldn't want to feel responsible for holding me back.

I wonder if John and Elizabeth Edwards didn't have a similar sort of conversation, only for real, and the results were kind of the same. I can't imagine how it could be otherwise in a loving relationship. It would be a hard decision for a couple to make, that's for sure; obviously, they've decided that Senator Edwards should continue his campaign, and as the linked article says, they want people to evaluate the Senator on his merits, not on sympathy for Elizabeth's condition.

Like I said, I can't say whether this is the right decision or not; my family is not the Edwards family and they had to figure out what would be the right call for them. And maybe it's an easy decision for me to make, or at least to say I would make, because I do not have a burning desire to be President. But if it were me, I would have put the campaign into a low-key mode to be with my wife as much as I could.

Bye Bye Beater

We're going car shopping today.

Both The Wife and I are sick of the junker. Yes, it's paid for, but it's got close to 110,000 miles on it, no power steering, a seat that makes both of our backs ache when we drive it, the little three-banger engine doesn't have the pickup of a two-hamster exercise wheel, and The Wife knocked the left-side rear window off of it and the deductible on the repair is more than the repair itself. Leave aside cosmetic issues like the dings and dents on the door and the peeling paint on the rear fender -- the car is just not up to snuff any more and we can do better. When the summer really comes here in the desert, the air conditioner is almost certain to drain out any remaining power in the motor.

So we're going to go look for a reasonable used car. We'll see what we can get; when we're back this evening I'll finish up my trial preparations and get ready for my class Monday night. Until then, I'm wondering what we should get. Maybe a nice Toyota. I've never owned a Japanese car. I liked my BMW when I had that, but we're still a few steps away from getting back into a Beamer -- getting a house is more important than getting a BMW. That's the only non-American car I've ever owned; my experience was great and my impression of the mid-range car market is that Toyotas are the highest-quality and most-reliable cars we could get in the range we're at. But I'm open to anything that will be reliable and safe and be of reasonable quality. It doesn't have to be a status symbol. After all, B.B. the Saturn is not a great car but it's quite sufficient for our needs. All I'm really looking for is "good enough." "Good enough" means safe, reliable, and functional.

UPDATE: Six hours later, we are now the proud new owners (well, after the loan is paid off we will be) of the replacement to the junker. I was going to hold off on the naming process, but The Wife was impatient and gave the 2004 Nissan Altima a new sobriquet on the way home. So meet.... The Green Ninja!

A little more than I wanted to spend, and the payments are a little higher than I would have preferred, but the money involved is within our range of ability. The mileage is what you would expect for a car of its age and history (a former rental). The color is nice -- a kind of gray-green that I haven't seen on any other cars out there. We can get a key fob for remote entry from Nissan, and we'll have to order a replacement owner's manual, too. Tomorrow or the day after I'll research how often I have to change the oil and so on. But for now, the Green Ninja is ready for action. And we had no idea of the Urban Dictionary's meaning to the phrase "Green Ninja" when The Wife adopted it for the car.

What Wakes You Up In The Middle Of The Night?

I don't know what wakes up you Loyal Readers in the middle of the night and leaves you tossing and turning, unable to fall back asleep again. For me, a jury trial gone horribly out of control is one such thing.

Maybe one day I'll be able to explain the absolute horror show that this trial has become. Suffice to say that thinking about it still gets me very upset at our bench officer for allowing things to reach the point that they have, and I have some real concerns that need to be resolved in as discreet a fashion as I can get them resolved. I'm not mad at my adversary for doing his job or asking questions that have answers uncomfortable to my side of the case -- that's his job, after all, and I don't ever get mad at an attorney for doing his job. But it is awkward indeed with him being inexperienced and the bench officer's attitude about the proceedings. So, while I know that leaves you all wanting more details, I'm going to leave things at that because my concern is about the bench and not the bar.

Anyway, three days of jury trial is enough to get anyone on edge, especially when the trial should have taken about thirty minutes. And we're going into our fourth day on Monday. We've finished evidence but haven't got jury instructions read or final arguments submitted.

I feel terrible for my client, who is going to wind up spending five figures on something that ought to have been handled for less than a thousand dollars. That's something I'm moderately upset at my adversary about -- he could easily and efficiently have raised his client's arguments and evidence in a bench trial and quickly obtained a decision. Trying a case like this before a jury is a gigantic waste of everyone's time and effort, particularly the jury's.

That's part of why I woke up at one in the morning Friday night and couldn't fall back asleep again until four. After trying to get back asleep for half an hour, I realized it was no use, and came downstairs to write my closing argument, which took me until four, by which time I had both vented out my emotions, the arguments and issues running through my head, and reached the limit of what adrenaline and outrage will do to keep one awake while the sun is on the other side of the world.

The Wife had an event that she was speaking at Saturday morning. I wanted to go and support her but this kind of got in the way. She won her contest, and I regret not going; I like to support her and let her know that I'm proud of her achievements. But after the events of Friday I'm not surprised to have had the stress finally get to me, and I'm glad that it at least happened on the weekend when I could sleep it off the next morning and not have to be at court in the morning, well-rested and alert. Monday I'll be fine again and I'll be able to present my closing argument like a reasonable lawyer again, and hopefully consider the larger problem of what's going on up on the bench in a more rational way.

March 22, 2007

Finally, A Good Website!

If you've not checked out Rudy Giuliani's revised website yet, you should. The website is improved. Streaming video, a better look, better descriptions of the issues under debate right now, lots of pictures, lots of content. This looks like the website of a front-running candidate for President.

Vicissitudes of Jury Trials

Since Tuesday, I've been focusing all my work and energy on a single case. Today we finished picking a jury and I put forward my case in chief. I promised the jury a quick case, and I delivered. Now, if we hang around for a long time, it's the defendant's fault and not mine.

So far I'm feeling confident, although of course anything can happen. Tomorrow will be the bulk of the defendant's case, my cross-examination of the defendant, and my rebuttal case. Hopefully, we can close tomorrow, too. I've got some research to do tonight yet and another revision to my special verdict form and jury instructions.

The thing of it is, you can never know how it's going in the middle of it. There are some things that can feel good -- I think I drew a really good jury, for instance -- you never really know. My clients did great on the witness stand, I thought. I wonder whether my adversary thinks so, too. Certainly the jury is hungry to hear both sides of the case, and they haven't heard much from the defense yet. You generally don't have a trial unless both sides are convinced they're going to win and I've no way of knowing just how compelling the evidence is going to be.

So I can't really know until the verdict is in and I talk to the jurors who are willing to talk to me. In the meantime, I should quit procrastinating, turn off the tournament, and get back to work. Jury trials are all-consuming and while I've had some great support from my firm, the fact is that ultimately there are some things -- a lot of things -- that only the lead attorney can do, and that's me this time around.

It's a lot of work. But I'm having fun. We'll see if I still think it's fun after the verdict.

March 21, 2007

Oval Office 2008

Good news to the majority of poll respondents who seem to favor "Stories from California" as a category of posts to my musings about politics. It appears that I will be posting the bulk of my observations on the upcoming election cycle -- at least at the Presidential level -- on another website devoted exclusively to coverage of the 2008 election. That website attempts to provide non-partisan, objective analysis, and while I do not conceal my preference for Giuliani, my focus will be to provide a realistic analysis of events in the campaign rather than to promote my candidate.

Coverage of political issues here will be analysis at the non-Presidential level and the more partisan of my ramblings. I will provide cross-references here so those readers who do enjoy my political thoughts with respect to the Presidential campaign can pursue them in the new forum. I am told to expect this "New World Order" will come in to effect over the weekend.

March 20, 2007

Critter Chomp

So I'm sitting down this morning, teaching my class online while I eat my breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. Karma the dog is curled up on the other end of the couch. Jordan the cat jumps up and sits down next to the dog. She starts licking and grooming the dog's face. This is cute, so I look up and watch. Just as soon as I do this, I see Jordan open up her mouth and clamp her teeth down on either side of the dog's eye.

"Hey!" I shout. "Don't bite the dog's eye!"

The cat looks back at me, as if to say, "What? I do this all the time when you aren't here. She likes it."

The dog obviously does not like it. But she's too gentle and well-socialized to do anything to the cat, and it a little bit apprehensive because the cat has her fangs encircling her eye.

"Go on, leave her alone!" I get up, and the cat lets go of the dog. Who turns around and turns her back on the cat. The dog is happy that I've rescued her, and starts wagging her tail. Which the cat starts grabbing at with her claws, the way she would a dangly-toy. Eventually, I have to shoo the cat away from the couch altogether so she'll leave the poor innocent dog alone.

Even tonight, Jordan has been pestering Karma -- following her around, nuzzling her, and continuing to lick her. I wonder if these are aggressive behaviors rather than gestures of affection and familiarity.

Welcome To The Club, Tommy

Well, you know what we needed. Another Republican entering the race for President. I'm not really sure what it is that Gov. Thompson brings that is new.

Plusses: He did some pretty interesting things as governor of Wisconsin, mainly with welfare, but also to some extent with school vouchers (although that was, as I recall, an experiment confined to Milwaukee rather than statewide).

Minuses: Thompson is not very photogenic and very, very vulnerable to criticism from the Democrats on healthcare after having taken credit for reforming the system -- about the worst scenario I can think of is having to have an election against Senator Clinton and having the election turn into a referendum of whether the country's health care system is working well. Very few people are going to remember when things worked well, too many people will remember when things frustrated them or didn't work out quite right, and it's too easy for the Democrats to trot out horror stories of bureaucracy run amok.

(Since when was bureaucracy run amok an issue that worked for Democrats? Things have changed since I was in college.)

A friend offers some wisdom. "Pretty much everyone who gets elected to anything wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and thinks about the Oval Office. Doesn't matter if you're a Senator, a city councilman, or a water commissioner." Certainly if you're getting re-elected so often that people think "Governor" is your first name, you probably have a pretty strong sense that people like you. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, with a wide-open field, that there are so many entrants.

But there's a reason that there are only a few "big" candidates at this stage of the game. While the field of available candidates is expanding (so far only one candidate has dropped out) the process is one of winnowing out, and the extraordinary thing this cycle is how early the process has gotten started. But the process has its own dynamic, and one of those dynamics is that if you get into the game too late, there isn't enough money and there aren't enough people to go around. I have a hard time seeing Thompson attracting the talent and the dollars. Sorry, Tommy.

Jury Trial Tomorrow

I found out only this morning that what should have been a simple unlawful detainer is turning into a jury trial. We're set to go tomorrow. I spent all day trying to draft jury instructions and special verdict forms because nowhere are there reasonable jury instructions for unlawful detainers -- and fewer still that apply to mobile home parks. So when that sort of thing happens, we have to make it up ourselves.

I've been working at full speed ever since getting back to court -- and it seems like every attorney in the area wanted to talk to me about it. Strangely, it never occurred to many people that I needed to actually prepare for this trial if I'm not going to look like a complete ass tomorrow, and I wound up having to spend what felt like half my time on the phone and talking to people rather than assembling exhibits, drafting motions in limine, and my jury forms. Only after most of the staff left and we could put the phone on night ring could the partner and I actually dig in to the work a little bit.

I guess I was kind of a stress case today after court, but the thing of it is, a jury trial will do that to you. Between having no guidance, and no time, and lots of people interrupting me, and kind of a greater pressure than I'm quite used to, I'm reasonably sure I was kind of a prick today, which is not a good thing, but there's nothing I can do about that now.

Rule of Evidence 350

Judge Schwarzenegger makes his ruling. I'm not sure I agree, although I admit I'm not unhappy with it.

Donations to Afghanistan

To send gifts or donations to Afghanistan and get them to the kids in Kabul, the address is:

Chap. Brown
APO AE 09356
Do not put any rank, unit or 'Áfghanistan' on the box.

March 18, 2007

More From Afghanistan

Another heartbreaking letter from my friend, serving in Afghanistan:
Serving in a combat zone we sometimes forget the true casualties of war. Certainly the comrades that I have lost over here in Afghanistan come to mind. In fact, they never leave your thoughts. But the ones who suffer day in and day out are the refugees.

I was fortunate enough to visit (although briefly) a refugee camp in Kabul , Afghanistan just the other day. I hesitate to describe exactly where the camp is since the Taliban like to attack anyplace where the international community is providing support. In fact, just to drop off relief supplies we had to travel in a well guarded convoy.

This particular camp
housed 200 families with a total population of about 500 people. These refugees are people who fled to Pakistan and Iran during the many years of war in Afghanistan . They left behind everything. All of which was eventually lost. They have no land, no jobs, and hardly any clothes. And more importantly, they have no families left to whom they can return.

These refugees subsist purely on donations. Many wear clothing donated by Americans. Their living conditions are terrible. No running water and only outside bathrooms. Their one building, where they all live, is nothing more than a
bombed out shell. Some windows are missing and there are very few working doors.

The sanitation environment is horrible. There is a drainage ditch that runs right through the middle of the camp that is nothing more than an open cesspool. Disease runs rampant throughout the camp. Diseases such as tuberculosis are common here. The average lifespan in Afghanistan is 43 years old. In this camp it is less. The common cold can be fatal in an environment like this.

When we arrived I noticed one little girl who was very shy. She stood away from the others and would not participate in any group activities. It took a long while of being patient and letting her find her own timing and space, but finally we became friends.

She turned out to be very sweet. She has a smile that would melt anyone. She told me about her dream to someday leave this camp. But for now she must live in this nightmare.

Why any military would want to inflict pain and suffering on someone like this little girl is beyond comprehension.

But war does that.

I'm proud that we have people like my friend serving our country in this way. The great thing is, even in the face of such terrible conditions and some of the most deplorable behavior human beings are capable of, his optimism, compassion, humanity, and resolve show through -- and in those respects, he is just like pretty much all of the other men and women serving in the military alongside him. These people are representing the best our country has to offer and I'm confident that they all have the ability to win hearts and minds, just like my friend is doing.

I truly hope we can give that adorable little girl, and indeed all of the children her age in that eternal battleground of a nation, some measure of peace and hope one day. We need to clear out the bad guys for that to happen. As long as the Taliban is active and powerful enough to threaten innocent civilians like this little girl for having the temerity to accept charity from Westerners, we haven't yet completed that mission.

We can't make the Afghans rich or powerful, but we can give them the opportunity to build their own country and help them keep it peaceful and under the rule of law. The obstacle to doing that is a bunch of bad guys that many Americans assumed, incorrectly, were wiped off the planet five years ago. Unfortunately, it's not so, which is why that little girl has to live in the squalor my friend describes.

So let's go get 'em.

March 17, 2007

St. Patrick's Day Dinner

Dublin Lawyer:

12-14 oz. lobster tails
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup Irish whiskey
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat whiskey to just over room temperature, about 90 degrees or so. Remove the lobster meat from tails and cube. Melt butter over low heat in a large saute pan, and when it begins to foam, increase heat and add the lobster meat as butter browns. When just cooked, add whiskey and stir vigorously for several seconds. Flambe. Immediately add cream, salt, and pepper, and reduce cream sauce until thick.

Irish Potato Cakes:

8 parts potato
2 part flour
1 part butter
Salt, pepper, small amounts of cayenne pepper and lemon zest
Chives to taste

Boil unpeeled potatoes; allow them to cool and then peel them. Mash potatoes thoroughly and add spices. In small increments, fold in butter and flour. Dough should be easily pliable. Form mixture into small, flat cakes (less than half an inch thick) and pan-fry on dry (or, if you prefer, lightly buttered) surface.


Oh, come on. I'm not making colcannon tonight. I'm not really Irish. It'll be green beans, the thin French kind that high-end restaurants call haricots verts.

Dessert is a three-berry parfait with whipped cream flavored with Bailey's.

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone!

March 16, 2007

Writing Some More

I've noticed an uptick in my writing recently. The Wife complains that my posts are very long, and she loses patience. So she abandons reading them about halfway through. That's unfortunate, but the fact of the matter is, I don't have enough time to write short posts. The point is to get a thought out and expressed.

In the meantime, I encourage all the Loyal Readers to vote in this new poll. It could influence my choice of topics in the future. So far, though, there is a pretty wide distribution of subject matter preference amongst the Readership.

Writing Again

A new post, finally, from New York Hack -- and it's about jury duty. She's been away from her blog for some time working on her book, but she can really write, so it's good to see more from her again.

Writing On The Wall

It's astonishing to me that this would be what brings down Alberto Gonzales -- something that he had every right to do but could not restrain himself from lying about doing anyway. I guess it's just in these guys' natures. Pray that, if by some bizarre circumstance I should wind up in such a position, I remember this lesson.

Do These Dogs Look Tired?

They should. They were on the loose for nearly three hours today. See, I got home before The Wife, so I let them out of their kennels, fed them, and let them out into the back yard to relieve themselves. Then I went upstairs, fed the cats, changed into shorts and a T-shirt to go take them for a walk, and came downstairs to get the dogs.

That's when I noticed that the lawn had been mowed. Fearing the worst, I checked the side yard. Sure enough, the gardeners hired by the landlord had left the gate wide open. I'd been up in the bedroom for at least ten minutes, maybe more. So I went out looking for them. First, I shouted their names up and down the street. Nothing.

Then I got in the car and started driving around for the dogs. Nowhere. I drove up and down every street in the neighborhood, shouting their names until my throat hurt. Nothing. I expanded my search, and checked the them. They'd been gone for half an hour. I wanted to call The Wife, but I noticed my phone was missing. After a check back at the house -- I don't know why, the dogs have no idea where they live -- I decided to make another circuit of the neighborhood, checking the construction sites nearby.

Half an hour of driving around later, I still hadn't found the dogs, and The Wife still hadn't come home, and I still didn't have my cell phone. Apparently I'd left it at the office. If someone had found the dogs, hopefully they would call the number on the collars, which was my phone. So I had to get it.

On the way out to the office, I saw The Wife driving in to the Mansion. So I turned around and got her, and we looked for the dogs together. We searched in pretty much the same places I had looked on my own, and asked people out walking their obedient, well-behaved, leashed dogs.

I felt terrible. It was my mistake that let the dogs loose. People drive so fast, and the dogs are so dumb. It was easy to imagine the dogs getting hit, splitting up for some reason, getting taken by someone with less-than-kind motives, wandering out into the desert and getting lost, and us never getting to see them again. And it would all be my fault.

The Wife was much more calm about the whole situation than me. She made us get food, which did help. She reminded me that the dogs would get picked up by the pound and while we might have to pay a fine, we'd get them back. It made me feel a little bit better. She had her theories about where the dogs might have gone. One idea was they might have been attracted to the house that burned out down the street and now, four weeks later, is still sitting unrepaired.

Well, they weren't there, but the Rottweiler and German Shepherd across the street were barking like they always do when we walk the dogs past them. So I looked up the street, and sure enough, there were our naughty little doggies, wandering in and out of someone's garage like they owned the place.

It was all I could do to keep a friendly, attracting voice and call them into the car -- I was mad and relieved at the same time. But I got them in the car and got them home. Safe at last, I felt redeemed at finding the missing critters. They must have drunk a quart of water between them, and they were panting like I'd never seen them pant before.

Now, I have to make a sign for the back gate that says, "¡Para el amor del dios cerciórese de por favor que la puerta sea cerrada cuando usted se va!" And worry about whatever it was the dogs ate while they had their big adventure. Hopefully nothing makes them sick. But at least they're home where they belong.

Why Can't We Be Friends?

Fabio, a blogger from Europe that I read from time to time, decries European ignorance of how the United States works. Fairhandedly, many Americans are similarly ignorant of how things work in the Old World. What’s interesting is that Europeans seem to be acquiring the unfortunate tendency of some Americans to not care how things work elsewhere. Not caring is worse than not knowing – indifference breeds contempt.

Unlike the author of the underlying article Fabio cites, I do not accept as a matter of inevitability that Europeans as a rule hate the United States and its citizens, or at least that the growing contempt is a trend that cannot or should not be changed. Neither we nor our counterparts in the EU can afford to allow our relationship to descend into one of mutual contempt. Too much commerce, too many geopolitical security arrangements, and too many social ties are at stake. We’re stronger and better when we’re friends.

Quack Quack

A sweet, herb-laden concoction sipped through a straw out of and old pancake syrup bottle may help you gain weight and put nutrients in your body. It might even make you feel stronger for a little while. But I seriously doubt it’s going to cure the AIDS. Double-blind testing is probably unnecessary here; simple blood tests of allegedly “cured” patients will almost certainly show the presence of AIDS virus in these no doubt sadly desperate, but shockingly credulous, citizens of The Gambia. Just goes to show you that quack medicine comes from all sorts of different places.

Ending The Myth

Professional courtesy is obviously dead.

My parents lived very near where this happened, once upon a time.

300 Against 70,000,000

Hollywood as apparently succeeded in inadvertently doing what even a hawkish Bush Administration has failed to do: turn Iranian public opinion against the West. I suppose that the visuals in the movie were all put in just to make things look cool. But in retrospect, portraying Persia’s grandest emperor in history as a blood-crazed, bald, bizarrely-ornamented, barely-clothed barbarian probably was not a move calculated to engender mutual respect. But then, it’s likely no one was thinking of that.

I’m reminded of a story I just read about the start of the 1857 Indian “Mutiny.” The British military recruited its infantry from the local peoples, and only imported its officers. The cultural tensions were high but manageable with the help of the local militias. But, in 1857, new breech-loading Enfield rifles were introduced, which required the soldier to bite the cartridge open to load it into the weapon. The cartridges were initially lubricated with a grease made from rendered pork and beef fat, thereby requiring both Muslim and Hindu soldiers, which was basically all of them, to eat foods both socially and religiously taboo to them. By the time the British realized their oversight, it was too late and tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people would die in an unsuccessful two-year revolt against British occupation.

I don’t think I thought of how Iranians might have reacted to the film 300 myself, but then again I’m not one of the producers of the film and I’ve not even seen it yet. I had been very interested in the story, but I’m turned off by the cartoonish look of the previews. I would have thought that the actual story of the Battle of Thermopylae would have been dramatic enough to make a really good movie, with plenty of action and mayhem, without adding magic and monsters and other sorts of superfluous things. World War II movies don’t hold back showing the Germans as an effective and powerful fighting force; that makes the American/British/Russian forces that fight them all the more heroic, and you don’t need to give the Nazi supernatural powers to make them by a scary adversary and a triumph over them a feat worthy of respect. So too with the Persians at Thermopylae.

March 15, 2007

Super Tuesday

Coming to a California primary near you soon! No disrespect to Iowans, New Hampshirites, and South Carolinans, but it’s nice to finally feel some degree of enfranchisement out here in the Salad Bar of the World.

Best Lines Of The Day

When The Wife and I went to Rome on our honeymoon, one of the places we went was the Temple of the Divine Julius, which was to the pagan Romans the site of Caesar's apotheosis. Julius Caesar was assassinated very close to there, two thousand and fifty years ago.

Every day, someone goes to the Temple of the Divine Julius, and puts fresh flowers daily on what looks like a mound of dirt over a concrete block. Legend has it that this mound of dirt was where Caesar's body was laid to rest before it was cremated and that his ashes remain in the concrete block, which was the core of what once was a glorious temple.

In some ways, seeing the fresh flowers there is even more jarring to see that than the big "N" emblem on bridges in Paris or a monument to German war dead from the second world war. Here was evidence that someone, alive today and living in Rome, still wants to see an autocratic government restored to power, and they are using the historical memory of Julius Caesar to embody that wish.

Our view of the assassination is forever tinted by the supremely well-crafted words of William Shakespeare. I say, his best lines from the play about the assassination of Caesar and his aftermath are:

Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.

The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.

The Ides of March have come.
Yes, but they have not yet gone.

Okay, the last is not so much profound as a powerful, chilling, and witty quip. But one that sticks out in the mind as you watch the doomed man walk to his death despite all the warnings available to him. The play also gave us phrases like "It's all Greek to me" and "the most unkindest cut of all."

An interesting and more recent analogy to this event would be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, like Caesar, became a godlike heroic figure after his assassination. But remember that John Wilkes Booth cried "Sic Semper Tyrannis" when he shot Lincoln; to Booth and many others, Lincoln was a dictator and an enemy of freedom. I beg to disagree, despite the fact that Lincoln did many things highly suspect under the Constitution. Both were tremendously polarizing figures, who presided over civil wars in their great and powerful countries, and whose attempts to reconcile and move their nations on to the next challenges pretty much doomed them both.

It's hard to say what a still-alive Caesar would have done back on the campaign trail against the Parthians in the late 40's BCE. Perhaps Caesar would have conquered all of the lands around the Black Sea or he could have gone as far as Alexander and conquered all the way to the Indus, and exchanged emissaries with China, as his successors did. Or perhaps he would have run into the same problems as Crassus did before him and Trajan did after him with over-extended supply lines in Mesopotamia, and found his efforts stalled somewhere around Babylon (a little bit south and east of modern-day Baghdad).

It would be easy to say that Caesar's death was a pivot point in history, especially if you think that further military glory was in Caesar's future (he was assassinated when he was in order to prevent him from leaving Rome at the head of a new army to attack the Parthian Empire). In fact, the real pivot point was when he crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome.

The assassination of Julius Caesar is one of the greatest exercises in futility in political history. No one profited -- not Caesar's allies, not his enemies, not the people as a whole, not the cause of liberty. Caesar's assassins were politically clumsy in failing to seize power for themselves to create the government they preferred to Caesar's rule. The result was many more years of civil war, killing, and strife which merely prolonged the inevitable at a bloody price. Someone was going to pick up the pieces of Caesar's dictatorship and wear the laurels themselves. The assassins tried to effect massive political change and found themselves pitifully poorly-prepared for what happened when they let the genie out of the bottle.

It's been said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it sure rhymes a lot. But I will leave thoughts about modern political analogies to you, Loyal Readers. For now, I'm content to commemorate a significant date in history.

March 14, 2007

Bad Poll

I guess I either picked a bad question for the first poll, or it was too obvious. Everyone's voting for Rudy as the most electable of the potential GOP candidates. So I'm discontinuing the poll early and moving on to the next one.

I Get It Now

After being confused yesterday about why it should be such a big political deal about the U.S. Attorneys being fired, I found as good a write-up about the U.S. Attorney flap as I could have asked for can be found at Right Wing Nut House. It comes does to this. Yes, the President, and by extension his advisors Karl Rove, Harriet Meiers, and Alberto Gonzales, did indeed have the power to summarily fire any or all of the U.S. Attorneys.

But later, Congressional leaders asked them about why they did it and rather than just come out and say why they did it, the Bushmen said instead, “These people were fired for performance-related reasons and politics had nothing to do with it.” That’s why things like glowing performance reviews and a swirl of e-mails are relevant, because it demonstrates that the response to the inquiry was dishonest.

To which I say – what a bunch of idiots.

The Bushmen fell for one of the oldest kinds of political power plays there are – inquire about something delicate, and when the mark reacts defensively, investigate the hell out of it. Somewhere along the way, the mark will do something stupid under the pressure, and then you publicize the hell out of that, leaving the original delicate matter to the side as no longer relevant. Suddenly, an innocuous act turns in to Watergate and you’re talking about the #4 or #5 guy in the entire Administration having to step down, and wiping yet more egg off of the President’s face.

It worked with Alexander Hamilton and looks like it’s still working today. Martha Stewart never made an illegal stock trade. Scooter Libby didn’t leak Valerie Plame’s identity. And, come to think of it, as a technical matter it wasn’t getting a blowjob in the Oval Office that got Bill Clinton impeached. All of these people didn’t get hung because of their allegedly bad acts – they got hung because they lied.

What would have been wrong with saying “We fired these political appointees because they weren’t prioritizing their political corruption cases the way we wanted them to”? Nothing. Nothing at all. And we’d still be talking about the war.

Sacramento Shenanigans

Abuses of power are hardly the exclusive province of the Bush White House, and the Bush White House seems to be getting better about this now that there is meaningful political opposition. The same cannot be said of leaders of the California Democratic Party.

To enforce ideological rigidity, three moderate Democrats found themselves locked out of their own offices by the more liberal President Pro Tempore of the California Senate, the day after the three moderate officeholders attended a fundraiser aimed at middle-of-the-road kinds of policies. The next day, the "Mod Squad" got keys that worked.

Petty, stupid, and not good for anyone.

March 13, 2007

What's The Word For That?

In the past two days, I've come across references to patchouli oil three times. Before today, I don't think I'd ever given much thought to patchouli oil and was barely aware that it existed.
You know, for some of you Loyal Readers, maybe patchouli oil seems commonplace or prosaic. But I assure you, it's not something that is part of my world.

The plant is sort of pretty, I admit.

So what's it called when suddenly, from out of the blue, some word or concept or event suddenly comes up repeatedly? "Coincidence" doesn't capture the element of the novelty of the repeated concept.

Maybe I'm Missing Something

Attorney General Gonzales (of whom I am not a very big fan) has been the subject of demands for resignation, apparently because nine U.S. Attorneys were recently fired and he and possibly political advisors in the White House were somehow involved in making that happen.

For those of the Loyal Readership who are unfamiliar with the process, there are about 200 U.S. Attorneys; they are in charge of various geographic divisions of the Justice Department. They are the prosecutors for the Federal Government and they also represent the government in civil cases. Professional federal prosecutors are called Assistant U.S. Attorneys and make their careers prosecuting bad guys -- drug dealers of mid- to large magnitude, money launderers, organized crime bosses, and corrupt politicians are the most prominent kinds of targets of these prosecutors.

And it's the anti-corruption activities that give rise to the calls for Gonzales' resignation. As I understand it, the story goes that Gonzales, or somebody else close to the Oval Office, directed a variety of U.S. Attorneys to investigate political corruption, and directed the focus of that attention to Democrats.

Umm. So what? If they directed that corruption investigations against Republicans cease, that would be something. Trying to protect cronies and allies would be an abuse of power. But investigating other people who are abusing their power is what prosecutors are supposed to do. If the person on the receiving end of this kind of treatment is a member of the opposition party, so what? No one's supposed to be taking bribes.

What's more, the U.S. Attorneys are political appointees. As political appointees, they serve at the pleasure of the President. If the President is unsatisfied with their performance, he can dismiss them. And since these are political appointees, the President is properly subject to political pressure, and properly exerts political pressure, in controlling who holds these jobs. These aren't supposed to be civil service jobs insulated from the rough and tumble of politics. If we were talking about Assistant U.S. Attorneys here, the professional careerists who do the bulk of the work, that would be different. These are the people who direct and control the individual offices, and without a certain amount of discretionary control over these people, the President would be effectively unable to implement his priorities for federal law enforcement. And that is one of the things we elect Presidents to do.

Maybe firing these attorneys was unwise; maybe you or I would have kept them in their positions had you or I been President. But the thing is, you and I are not the President. George W. Bush is. He's the decider. He gets to make that call and we don't.

Like I said before, using the discretion inherent in the Presidency to protect political cronies would be an abuse of power. But I haven't heard any claims that this has happened. The investigations and prosecutions have not been directed exclusively at Democrats, and indeed, at least two prominent Republican legislators -- Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham -- did get prosecuted for corruption. Another prominent political corruption play was the Tennessee Waltz affair from 2004, which caught up Republicans and Democrats in its net. Certainly there was "Dollar" Bill Jefferson, he of the $90,000 stored in the freezer, wrapped in aluminum foil. Jefferson is a Democrat but I hardly think that the government was in the wrong to go after him just because he was in the opposition party, and my goodness! he's still serving in Congress today.

So I don't see any evidence that the political corruption prosecutions were themselves political -- it seems to have been pretty much even-handed; to the extent that more Republicans got harsh treatment, well, let's not forget that they were in the majority in Congress until very recently, so it's natural that more dirty money would flow their way. If you're going to bribe someone, you'll try to bribe someone who can do something for you, so you'll make a good return on your money. Majority members are better able to do that than minority members. Now that Democrats are in the majority again, they will have the opportunity to tap in to filthy lucre once more -- some will, I'm sure, and some won't. But it only seems natural that guys like Ney and Cunningham would have had more opportunities to be bribed than their Democratic counterparts back before January of 2007.

So maybe that's why these attorneys were fired -- revenge for Ney and Cunningham? That just doesn't wash and no report or commentary that I've read suggests that these events are linked. It isn't revenge for Scooter Libby, whose prosecution was handled independently. It seems to be more of a case of these U.S. Attorneys simply not submitting to control by the Attorney General or the White House in a more general sense. And they are supposed to be controlled by the White House; that is why they are political appointees and not civil servants.

So while I have sympathy for these very capable attorneys who lost their jobs due to the whims of politics, and while I would prefer someone else were the Attorney General, this is not a good reason for Gonzales' resignation. As I wrote in the title of the post, I might be missing something here. But it seems to me that the President has the power to control his political appointees.

March 12, 2007

Why'd It Have To Be Him?

America finally has its first openly atheist Congressman in the modern era of politics. Maybe ever. Fourtney "Pete" Stark has "come out" with a public admission of his nontheism. However, he still insists that he is a Unitarian, albeit one without a "God-belief."

Congressman Stark is a Democrat representing California's East Bay (he has never actually lived within the district he represents -- Hayward, Alameda, and Fremont) and serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. In other words, he doesn't have anything to lose by "coming out" -- he will hold his seat in Congress for as long as he cares to. Which may not be for much longer; he is 75 years old and apparently entering the twilight of his political career.

Unfortunately for the likes of me, he's also one of the most liberal members of the House of Representatives. Perhaps this accurately reflects his district, perhaps not; either way, I find it distasteful to be associated with him. Please remember, Loyal Readers -- not all atheists are liberal, any more than all Christians are conservative! About the only thing we agree on is skepticism about the supernatural.

Stark is also rather ill-mannered and has called Republicans things like "fruitcakes," "Nazis," and worse. Other liberal members of Congress are able to advocate their point of view without calling people names, but Carpetbagger Pete apparently gets a pass on the ostensible need to adhere to a standard of civility in public debate.

As poster boys for atheists in politics go, this is not a good start. If it must be a Democrat, I suppose I can accept that. But surely we seculars can do better than this.

Polling Data

A new widget to the blog appears to the left -- the weekly poll. I get to write the polls, so that's kind of fun for me. Not every poll will be about politics. The poll appears in more than one place on the Web, so it's possible that not all respondents will be from the Loyal Readership, although I anticipate that most will. Also note that there is an IP address recognition cookie, so you can only vote once per poll.

Mississippi Renders Me A Lone Voice In The Wilderness

Spoiling for a fight before a new Supreme Court next year (coincidentally during election season), Mississippi is apparently on the verge of outlawing all abortions except in the case of rape or endangerment of the mother.

Note the absence of the traditional exception for incest. Of course, if you accept the moral argument underlying the pro-life position (the fertilized ovum is a full and complete human being and therefore as entitled to life as an independent adult) then the only exception should be endangerment of the mother – it is not the unborn human’s fault that its father raped its mother, any more than it is that unborn human’s fault that there is a close genetic or family relationship between its parents. That is where the pro-life argument ends, after all – only when one life is threatened by another can it become morally permissible to take one.

Conversely, the pro-choice argument's reductio ad absurdum is the moral condonation of post-partum infanticide. Both extremes are unpalatable.

The answer, of course, lies in the ability of the political process to reach a compromise. Oh, dear. Did I use the “c-word” with respect to abortion? That would mean that advocates for both positions will have to sit down, listen to each other in good faith, modify their original positions to at least partially accommodate the concerns of the other side, and otherwise act like grownups. Pro-lifers would have to accept that since abortions are going to take place anyway, they should at least be safe and not send people to jail for doing them. Pro-choicers are going to accept that after a certain point, the abortion starts to become a morally grave act indeed and that yes, the state really does have an interest in regulating and in some cases preventing it.

Fact is, Justice Blackmun kind of jumped the gun with his reasoning in Roe v. Wade. Perhaps Blackmun reached what would work out to a good political compromise, but he did not allow the political process to move forward to that position and instead figured what he thought would be the right balance himself. That doesn't mean it was the wrong result (in a general sense) but it does mean that the result shouldn't have come in the form of an absolute dictum from the Supreme Court.

Now I’ve done it – no one’s going to be happy with me.

President Fred?

While we’re contemplating possible Presidential firsts (first woman, first African-American, first Italian-American, first Mormon, first Vietnam vet) I don’t think we’ve ever had a President named Fred before, either.

Fred Dalton Thompson is best known to Americans as Arthur Branch, the District Attorney on TV’s Law & Order. He does a very convincing job in that role. Earlier in his acting career, he played a racist bad guy once, but most Americans won’t confuse a role with an actor. We’re willing to accept Anthony Hopkins as someone other than Hannibal Lecter, for instance. And he certainly looks the part of a conservative President from the South.

More important, he’s not an intellectual or political lightweight. He was also an accomplished prosecutor (on the Watergate team) who took down Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton for selling pardons, but whose legal career will forever be defined by being the man who formulated the question that, more than any other, resulted in Richard Nixon’s fall from power: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Thompson is solidly conservative on social issues and has been beefing up his foreign policy credentials at the American Enterprise Institute.

On the other hand, he is closely associated with recently-convicted felon Scooter Libby, having raised over three and a half million dollars for Scooter’s defense fund. While there may be some sympathy for Scooter as being the “fall guy” for Vice-President Cheney in the Valerie Plame affair, that is a simplistic and probably erroneous characterization of what happened – and Scooter did lie to investigators. Even if he was told to, that was still a wrong thing to do. No candidate is perfect, and this is one of several downsides Thompson might bring to the table. But on the other hand, I think he’d be able to make a credible play for the right flank of the GOP.

The biggest problem for Thompson – as it is for Newt Gingrich, another potential right-wing star – is that surprisingly, it’s getting to be reasonably late in the game already. It’s eleven months until the effective end of the primary season. So if these guys are going to go for it, they need to decide to do so very soon before all the money and organization gets snapped up by the other candidates.

Looking Forward to February

You probably read it here two and a half weeks ago. But the Gray Lady has figured it out, too -- a national primary is shaping up, one which will cross regional boundaries and challenge Presidential campaigns like never before. I say, it will test the candidates by fire in the arenas of money and logistics and only the strongest will survive. Small states like Iowa and New Hampshire are simply going to be swamped out; their value will be in their ability to garner free media and little more.

I wonder if either convention could wind up brokered. I think the Democrats have a greater chance of that than the Republicans. But no one can say for sure. Exciting stuff.

Silk Shortage

In the United Kingdom (most specifically in England and Wales) lawyers can apply to become Queen's Counsel, which is an elite status given to attorneys who have shown a high level of competence and impressed their peers with their abilities. Because Queen's Counsel can wear special court dress made of silk, they have the colloquial name of "Silks." An example is illustrated here -- that's Cherie Blair, the Prime Minister's wife, who is an accomplished barrister. Solicitors may also "take silk," although this is a recent phenomenon.

The application process is quite elaborate and not without some restrictions on the lawyer's practice, mainly in the form of requiring the permission of the court before taking on a case against the Crown, such as a criminal defense matter or a claim against the government (although such conflict waivers are routinely granted). It is also quite expensive -- if one's application to the Queen's Counsel accepted the first time, the attorney can count on shelling out at least 7,500 for fees and the new, fancier robes and wigs necessary to take silk. Of course, the initial application fee (2,500) does not guarantee admission; it seems that only about 1 in 3 applications are accepted. The benefit, of course, is that a QC barrister (and now a QC solicitor) can charge a significantly higher fee for legal services. And apparently taking silk gives you a reasonably high (.1% or so) chance of being married to the Prime Minister, but that's a different story.

So it's with some hand-wringing that the Law Society (the equivalent of a state bar for all of England and Wales) notes that applications to become Queen's Counsel are down by about 25% this year. The primary criticism has been the high application fee. But I have to think that can't be the problem -- a silk can charge half again what she charged before getting her letters patent, so it should only take a few cases before the application fee, dues, and expense of the new robes are all paid for.

I wonder whether the QC system is running out of steam for the Brits because they have found a taste for egalitarianism despite their historic and stereotypical obsession with class and rank. This is the country, after all, that gave us the Great Chain of Being and for nearly five hundred years has had some trouble letting go of the concept. So maybe barristers are simply not interested in taking silk and would rather let the marketplace sort out how much fee they can charge. But I just can't see that being the case, either; lawyers in the UK are made of pretty much the same stuff as they are here, and they are just as vulnerable to things that stroke their egos. They would want the distinction simply because it is a distinction. The problem may not be a problem at all -- it may just be a statistical blip, an unusually low year for applications, and the Queen's Bench should have no reason to panic.

There is nothing remotely like this in U.S. law, to my knowledge. The closest it comes is the Solicitor General wearing morning dress to argue before the Supreme Court, but even so this is an incident of the office that the attorney occupies and not a distinction personal to the attorney. I wonder whether we in the U.S. can take any wisdom from the QC system. Does it profit the legal profession to have a special class of attorneys who are recognized for their high skills and abilities?

Lawyers here can take an LL.M. or an LL.D. as an advanced law degree, but that doesn't really affect one's billing rate very much, at least not directly; outside of the world of tax law, an LL.M. is primarily useful for someone looking at an academic career, and even then it does not seem to be necessary. In many cases, the advanced degree is simply the result of a desire to delay entry into the working world for a year.

An attorney can also become a certified specialist; California recognizes certified specialties in nine practice areas, and there are some national certifications as well. This would have a more direct effect on rates, but there is really not much more prestige or recognition within the profession. If I hear "So-and-so is a certified workers' compensation specialist," my response is, "Oh." It just doesn't impress me all that much. Maybe it should, but it doesn't.

And maybe I shouldn't be so impressed with a silk, either. Just because a British attorney takes silk and gets to add the letters "QC" after his name may not necessarily mean much of anything other than that he's been around for the requisite 15 years and has lots of friends who will say nice things about him. My 15-year anniversary as an attorney is not that far in the future and I have lots of friends who will say nice things about me. And I can probably find a better use for $15,000 than buying myself a title and the right to wear an itchy, heavy wig. Maybe that's how more British lawyers feel, too, which would account for the shortage of new silk at London's Inns of Court.