January 31, 2009

Curing Concrete

Laying a hardwood floor is a much more complicated task than I had anticipated. Now it seems that we need to cure the concrete subfloor before applying the mastic to lay the bamboo flooring. That's going to take two-thirds of a day to dry.

So it looks like today will be cure-the-concrete day, and tomorrow, on Super Bowl Sunday, I'll be laying the floor instead of watching the game. Well, I don't really have a dog in that fight anyway. I wonder what other complications are going to come up. Like, moving the planks out of the room while the subfloor dries -- where do we put them? This is a problem I'll solve in a few hours, after I wake up from my insomniac's sleep.

Not Going Back There

I said I wasn't going back to the Ted Haggard well, and I meant it. Yes, the man has more legal and financial problems and more scandal has come to light involving him. Google it if you're curious about the subject. Frankly, I just feel sorry for him now. Allowing him the opportunity to re-make his life with some dignity means allowing him some shelter from the spotlight. Good luck, Mr. Haggard; you are as entitled to a second chance as anyone else.

January 30, 2009

Mr. Smoothie

I've cut way back on drinking coffee. In the mornings, I'm making fruit smoothies for breakfast instead. One banana, one small apple, a tablespoon of crushed pineapple, one-half of a canned pear, a tablespoon of vanilla yogurt, and a dash of orange juice. Sometimes I swap out the pear and put in frozen berries. It gives me plenty of energy, and I think it's healthier than coffee.

Rudy!'s Tin Ear

Ever a believer in trickle-down economics, Rudy! defends banks and other businesses that received bailout money paying their executives big bonuses with what look like taxpayer dollars. Now, I think there's something to the idea that when people have money, they spend it, and this creates economic activity and wealth in a generalized sense as well as enlarging the tax base for various levels of government. So it's not like, if you read everything that Rudy! says, it's just weird and wrong. But I still have two problems with this.

First, Rudy!'s timing is all wrong. This is about the worst time imaginable to be offering yourself in the public forum as a defender of really rich bank executives paying themselves millions of dollars in bonuses. The public has something of an idea that those same bank executives made a bunch of risky loans and when things didn't work out, they dragged the whole country down into the economic morass that resulted from that. And there is some truth to that perspective on things, too.

Second, assume, arguendo, that we should credit Rudy!'s defense of trickle-down economics somewhat. It's still not the case that money trickles down into hugely productive areas of the economy. Rich people already have lots of stuff. So when they get more money, they tend to spend it on service-sector consumables (stuff like dinners in restaraunts that lack menus*, litigation, rent-an-island vacations, and call girls). Now, to some extent, this is what Rudy! is talking about, but what we'd much rather see are things like durable-goods purchases, reinvestment in manufacturing industires, or entrepreneurship, which tend to have more powerful wealth-multiplying effects than service jobs. (I should know, I'm a service provider myself.)

I'm also a defender, in the general sense, of paying corporate leaders posh compensation. A good corporate leader should bring management and leadership to a corporation such that it generates profits for the stockholders. This is, after all, the very purpose for a corporation. But, what I favor are livable but not extravagent basic salaries for corporate leaders, with rich, scaled incentive plans. If the corporate leader can generate healthy profits for the stockholders after bringing in enough money for her own compensation, well, I say she deserves every penny of that compensation. If, however, she fails to bring in that money, she has failed to produce profits or protect shareholder value and has presumptively not earned her pay. If they produce, they should get paid phat cash, G.

And as a group, corporate leaders, particularly banking leaders, have most demonstrably failed to produce earnings and profits for their shareholders. Which is why it feels inappropriate for these types to be paying themselves the big bonuses, particularly when they've left their investors ass out and contingent on the beneficence of the government to rescue them from the mistakes made by the very people skimming that beneficience to pay themselves apparently unearned "incentives."

* With the irony that some of the fish served at said restaraunts is caught by New England fishermen in Long Island Sound, flown to Tokyo, bought by the restaraunt, and then flown back to New York City, where it is called "fresh."

Blagojevich's Defense

It didn't work, obviously. But instead of going on the floor of the legislature in Springfield, claiming he did it all for the children and whining about how he was special, he would have been much better off trying this -- and doing it behind the scenes:

"Oh, you're going to oust me for corruption, are you? Well, Tom, what about you that that teenage boy you're calling an 'intern'? Maybe you ought to vote 'no.' And Vic, come on, you're a little bit too chummy with that contractor who donated $100,000 to your last campaign. If you vote 'no,' I'll 'forget' that bit of trivia whenever I have to respond to a subpoena." Wash, rinse, repeat, a minimum of 31 times.

Really, would there have been any other way for Blagojevich to have saved his job? Well, a new haircut wouldn't have hurt -- a friend last night joked that Blagojevich had "guilty hair." Anyway, he didn't do it, so go, Blago, and never darken our political doorsteps again.

January 29, 2009

Intellectual Ancestor Of America

On this day in 1737, Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England. If we look to men like George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton as our founding fathers, we should look to Thomas Paine as the irritable, curmudgeonly, and morally judgmental grandfather of our nation. Paine's political philosophy lies at the foundation of the American Republic. It strikes me as unlikely that America would have been prodded to revolution were it not for the political genius of this remarkable man.

As a young boy from a rural town, he managed to demonstrate intellectual ability at an early age. In an age when most farm-town boys were not educated at all, Paine earned a grammar-school scholarship and earned good grades. He was profoundly moved to pity when he saw a townsperson sentenced to time in the local stockade and developed a stern sense of justice as a result. He also listened to many arguments between his father, a Quaker, and his mother, an Anglican, concerning religion and morality. When he got older, he apprenticed himself to his father (a corset-maker) and then served for a time as a privateer.

After that, it was kind of downhill for young Tom. Upon his return to England from his maritime adventures (his ship earned fewer spoils than had been expected), he married and tried his hand at running his own corset-shop. His marriage ended sadly when his wife died in childbirth, and his business failed shortly thereafter. After that, he washed out as a customs officer, took employment in another corset shop and fared poorly there, applied for a job with the Church of England and that didn't work out either, and could not make enough money to survive as a valet.

He started to come into his own, however, when he took a job as a schoolteacher at the age of thirty at a medium-sized school in Cornwall (the southwestern part of England). There, he found enjoyment and success using the political affairs of the day as a springboard to enliven his lessons with the boys placed under his care. His mind re-sharpened from the experience, he took another position collecting taxes, joined an intellectual salon, and began to become an important man in Cornwall's civic life. He started a tobacco shop which enjoyed modest success as well. He argued passionately against slavery, admired the ancient Greeks and Romans for their successful republican governments, and published mental experiments with the idea of universal free education and a minimum wage. Though thought a radical for these advocacies, he lived in a time when radical ideas found purchase.

By 1772, he was making trips to London to petition Parliament about unfair labor conditions, taxes, and -- for which he later became famous -- relations between the mother country and her colonies in America. Finding himself spending more and more time in London, he eventually abandoned his other ventures, rarely returned to Cornwall to visit his wife, and found himself effectively a full-time political pamphleteer -- the 1770's equivalent of writing a blog for a living. He supplemented his income with tinkering and engineering, and came to own several patents for things like a single-span iron bridge and a (purportedly) smokeless candle.

On June 4, 1774, he met Benjamin Franklin, who was then in England as an emissary from the colonies to persuade Parliament to create a system of more meaningful local government in the colonies, and the two became good friends. Already sympathetic to the plight of the colonists, Paine agreed to visit the colonies with Franklin. This was, however, too much for Paine's long-suffering and long-estranged second wife to take, and the two divorced as a result of Paine's agreement to visit America.

After setting up shop in Philadelphia in early 1775, Paine wrote what would come to be his seminal work: the somewhat lengthy pamphlet Common Sense. Paine condemned the idea of hereditary monarchy, distinguished between "society" and "government" and declared that government ought to serve society and not the other way around, and issued a call for America to become independent -- reminding the colonists that they had sufficient numbers, resources, and intelligence to stand on their own if only they could shake off the heavy yoke of British oppression. He used stirring rhetoric in his writing, always keeping his language plain and easy to understand. Some of his phrases still ring powerfully today: "These are the times that try men's souls," "Lead, follow, or get out of the way," "If we do not all hang together, we shall surely hang separately," "That government governs best which governs least," "That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly," and "It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry."

Though Paine was raised in a Quaker household and did seek work with the Anglican Church, by the time he came to America he seems to have lost any his faith in at least organized religion, and found in America a place of relaxing and welcoming tolerance. He encouraged ecumencialism and stressed morality over the form of religious observance: "Every religion is good that teaches man to be good; and I know of none that instructs him to be bad. " He was a great opponent of church and state co-mingling: "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."

He was himself an avowed Deist, and by the time of his active writing career had affirmatively rejected Christianity altogether and adopted nothing in its place: "Is it not a species of blasphemy to call the New Testament revealed religion, when we see in it such contradictions and absurdities. ... It is not a God, just and good, but a devil, under the name of God, that the Bible describes." (Many of these quotes came not from Common Sense but a later work of his, The Age of Reason.)

Common Sense caught fire in the New World, quickly needing reprints and ultimately selling over 100,000 copies. Given that there were likely something like a million to a million and a half colonists in America at the time, and something like half of them could read at all, this was a remarkable feat of market penetration. That would be the equivalent of selling 30,000,000 books in today's market.

Irascible, curmudgeonly, and seemingly incapable of diplomacy, he had managed to levy insults at nearly every political and social figure of his day. Paine made his mark on the world attacking his own King, and it was really downhill from there. During the Revolution, he was a poor keeper of secrets and wrote remarks that made their way to London and indicated that the Continental Congress sought funds from the Dutch Republic and France, creating an international incident for the would-be funders, delaying critical payments to keep the war going, and getting Paine kicked out of the revolutionary government.

After the Constitution was adopted, President Washington himself was seen as something of a sacred cow, who would only be attacked by proxy. People directed their criticism at either Vice President Adams, Secretary of State Jefferson, or Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton, depending on the aspect of Washington's policy that they wished to criticize. But not Paine. He was one of the few Americans willing to directly criticize decisions of the Washington Administration, openly questioning the wisdom of the first President. Most other Americans thought Paine terribly uncouth, and something of an ingrate (Washington had stuck up for Paine during the troubled war years despite Paine's indiscretions).

Paine stayed on in America until 1791, when he returned to London to oversee publishing another tract, The Rights of Man, advocating explicit limitations on the power of the British government not unlike those that had been enacted in America. Running afoul of the Royal censors with respect to this new pamphlet, he fled to France in the midst of the Revolution. He was tried for libel in absentia and found guilty; he also entered into a lively debate in correspondence with Sir Edmund Burke concerning the Revolution in France, and lived in post-revolutionary France for a time. He eventually became a great critic of Robespierre, calling him a fraud and a tyrant and getting arrested from time to time for his inability to stopper his acid pen.

Slated for execution, he narrowly escaped by the most bizarre of circumstances -- the jailer marked the doors of prisoners slated for execution, but did not notice that Paine's jail cell door was open at the time. When he shut the door, it appeared unmarked. This bought Paine four critical days, in which time Robespierre himself fell from grace and quite literally lost his head. Afterwards, Paine was a favorite of Napoleon but could not restrain himself from criticizing Napoleon's turn towards tyranny. France's First Consul turn up the political and legal heat on the British rabble-rouser, who accepted an invitation from President Jefferson to return to the United States.

At that point, Paine had managed to alienate the Hamiltonian Federalists, the Jeffesonian Republicans, the Jacobins and the Girondists in France, and the King, the Tories, and the Whigs in England. He died nearly friendless in 1809. As described by another remarkable American, Robert Ingersoll, in the 1890's:
Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death, Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.
A poor remembrance indeed, the result of a prickly personality rather than a condemnation of the force of his ideas. Paine was also idolized by Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison, both of whom saw much to praise in his consistent and unflinching demand to apply rational thought to life and in particular to government. His principled stand for classical liberalism, human rights, and individual freedom drove him to his personal unpopularity, but also provided the driving force of the ideas that underlay the American Revolution. Let us remember him not for his failings of personality but rather for the nobility and power of his idealism.

January 28, 2009

Good Reasons To Pick These Guys

Pretty fun video to promote fantasy football.

Fun. But I'm going to need some convincing before I believe it isn't done with special effects. I mean, if Jason Campbell and Marc Bulger really had that kind of throwing accuracy, you'd think they'd have combined to accumulate more than twenty-six touchdowns in sixteen games each (and Bulger would have had fewer than 13 INT's).

Hat tip to football fan Sister Toldjah; I was previously unaware of these and apparently there's lots more than these out there. Her site's recent redesign is also quite impressive, if you're into that sort of thing.

I'm Going To Say This One Time

Do not set your webpage to autostart any audio of any kind at any volume.



The De-Stimulus Package Of 2009

You've heard the news by now -- the President's $820 billion proposed "stimulus" package passed through the House of Representatives today, with functionally no committee analysis, scanty debate on the floor, and zero -- that's right, zero -- Republican floor support. Each and every Republican in the House voted against the bill.

I'm relieved. I actually get to applaud Republicans for once for fighting the good fight.

I know, some of you left-leaning Readers are aghast that I would say such a thing. But come on. It's nearly a trillion dollars that has barely been analyzed by anyone. Alice Rivlin, Bill Clinton's budget director, thinks that Congress has acted too hastily and has urged that the immediate stimulus be separated from the long-term infrastructure buys and rejiggering of government, so the second set of spending priorities gets done intelligently.

The Director of the CBO, who theoretically serves all of Congress but in practice needs to please the majority more than the minority, has staked out a very skeptical position on the stimulus bill, because he simply cannot believe that the money can be spent fast enough to constitute an effective economic stimulus, knowing what we do about how government agencies spend money:
Lags in spending stem in part from the need to draft plans, solicit bids, enter into contracts, and conduct regulatory or environmental reviews. Spending can be further delayed because some activities are by their nature seasonal. For example, major school repairs are generally scheduled during the summer to avoid disrupting classes, and construction and highway work are difficult to carry out during the winter months in many parts of the country.

Brand new programs pose additional challenges. Developing procedures and criteria, issuing the necessary regulations, and reviewing plans and proposals would make distributing money quickly even more difficult—as can be seen, for example, in the lack of any disbursements to date under the loan programs established for automakers last summer to invest in producing energy-efficient vehicles. Throughout the federal government, spending for new programs has frequently been slower than expected and rarely been faster.
As Steve Verndon notes, this guy must be some kind of a right wing hack.

Even Democrats in the House like Peter DeFazio of Oregon are concerned that this is 100% pure deficit spending, demonstrating, in the spirit of our new-found bipartisanship, that the ability to see the insanity of paying for a present ambitious domestic spending agenda for the next thirty years is not limited to Republicans -- who, it must be admitted, have not exactly staked out a principled history for themselves as we-really-mean-it budget hawks over the past ten years or so.

And then there's the question of what, exactly, all this money is going to buy. If I'm supposed to give my political support to this bill, I've been asked to do it on the premise that it will jump-start the economy and create jobs. I'm far from convinced that this is what will happen. The Wall Street Journal sounded off on that today, noting that this doesn't look so much like an economic stimulus package but a wish list of liberal social welfare programs forty years in the making:
There's $1 billion for Amtrak, the federal railroad that hasn't turned a profit in 40 years; $2 billion for child-care subsidies; $50 million for that great engine of job creation, the National Endowment for the Arts; $400 million for global-warming research and another $2.4 billion for carbon-capture demonstration projects. There's even $650 million on top of the billions already doled out to pay for digital TV conversion coupons.

... Some $30 billion, or less than 5% of the spending in the bill, is for fixing bridges or other highway projects. There's another $40 billion for broadband and electric grid development, airports and clean water projects that are arguably worthwhile priorities.

.. some $252 billion is for income-transfer payments -- that is, not investments that arguably help everyone, but cash or benefits to individuals for doing nothing at all. There's $81 billion for Medicaid, $36 billion for expanded unemployment benefits, $20 billion for food stamps, and $83 billion for the earned income credit for people who don't pay income tax. While some of that may be justified to help poorer Americans ride out the recession, they aren't job creators.
The WSJ notes that even if the relatively modest business tax cuts are included, only 12% of the bill provides "something that can plausibly be considered a growth stimulus." Now, I'm not really all that bothered by funding the NAE or the program that everyone seems to have been talking about, sex education and distributing condoms. But these, too, are not things that are going to have a very significant impact on the economy as a whole or help create jobs.

Are these all unbiased sources of analysis? Of course not. But then again, the country has had about ten days to look at the bill, and less than half of that to analyze it in any real detail. Partisan, or at least slanted, analysis is about all that there is.

So, we are left with several important questions, as the Senate considers its own version of the bill and the two houses of Congress meet to reconcile what they've done.
  1. Is it even possible to stimulate the economy at all by massive deficit spending?
  2. If it is possible to do that, will spending money on increased unemployment benefits, sex education for high school students, and upping Amtrak's subsidy do it?
  3. If this kind of spending will stimulate the economy, will it be done in an expeditious enough fashion to do anyone any good?
The answers to that, as far as I can tell are 1) no one really knows, 2) doubtful, and 3) even more doubtful. Which brings me to a final question. Are you most pissed off that:
A) The government is deficit-spending $820,000,000,000 of your money and your children's money in the first place?
B) The government is spending that money on stuff that isn't going to do anyone any good, thus lighting that money on fire?
C) The government is doing it without even bothering to have a decent debate about it first?
D) You've been lied to about why the government is doing it?
My vote is "E," all of the above.

Not An Ideal Solution

Some taggers pulled off an extraordinary feat -- they enveloped several blocks' worth of the bank of the Los Angeles River with their tag. Take a look at the photograph in the Fish Wrapper article -- I had to look twice before I realized just how huge that graffiti was.

The City of Angels is going after the tagging crew for the $3.7 million bill that the Army Corps of Engineers will charge for removing the tag in an environmentally-friendly way. Obviously they won't have even a tiny fraction of the money. And the crew is being prosecuted for Federal crimes -- seems they did big ol' tags like this in San Francisco and (here's where the Feds come in) Las Vegas, too. Meanwhile, the city is goint to start removing the graffiti.

I've got to think that there is a better solution to this situation. Obviously, the tag can't be allowed to remain in place; that only incentivizes future taggers. But on the other hand, I don't see much point in spending nearly four million dollars to produce... tan concrete. So here's my question -- why not spend a quarter of that money to commission a gigantic mural over the tag? Los Angeles is far from devoid of artists up to the task.

A Religion Must Earn Respect Like Anything Else

I can do little more than steer you towards this passionate expression of righteous outrage.

Until recently, I have not seen the UN actually be an instrument of morally condemnable conduct. But now, under the guise of "respecting religion," its officials will be required to whitewash morally objectionable practices, and seek to silence those who would speak out against them. The only beneficiaries of this highly questionable endorsement of blatant censorship will be those nations whose evil governments and cruel social customs, which rightly earn the criticism aimed at them, are propped up by claims of religious justification. In practice, the vast bulk of them are Muslim states.

Shame on the UN for betraying its own charter of universal human rights.

January 27, 2009

What The Wife Learned In Her Cake Classes

First, tonight's wedding cake.Then, the cherry blossom cake from Chinese New Year.I can't stand that she's full of criticism and doubt about the cakes. She does nothing but point out flaws. I think they're really pretty. And I'm proud of her.

Alternative Stimulus

Criticism without construction isn't all that useful. I'm a big critic of the stimulus program because it will be a huge drain on our national finances for many years to come. But if we must deficit-spend our way out of the economic mess we're in, I think that maybe this is a better way to go about doing it.

As the video from Cato I posted last night points out, government spending is very rarely the answer. But if you insist that we need to deficit-spend our way out of the current economic mess, Reynolds' proposal is certainly better at incentivizing job creation than what's working its way through Congress now.

And if you really look into what's actually in the proposed stimulus bill, it seems there's a lot less infrastructure purchases and upgrades than is being used to sell it -- and a lot more bureaucracy and welfare. And nearly seven-eighths of it won't be spent until 2010, which seems to defeat the purpose of stimulating the economy right now. And there are precious few tax cuts and no spending cuts at all. The President, as my "quote of the moment" shows, is not following through on his campaign promise to create a net spending cut at all.

This is as ill-thought out a response to a difficult and sudden situation as the PATRIOT Act was to a national security emergency. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of a tax cut (permanent or temporary) instead of simply printing more money.

Oh Just Impeach Him Already

Get out your Kool Aid and pointy tinfoil hats. President Obama said nice things about Muslims, and refuses to engage in rhetoric suggesting that Islam is a virulent threat to all normalcy, moral goodness, and civilization itself. Indeed, he gave his first Presidential interview today to an Arabic news network, and look what he said!
THE PRESIDENT: Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.

AL-ARABYIA TV:The largest one.

THE PRESIDENT: The largest one, Indonesia. And so what I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I've come to understand is that regardless of your faith -- and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers -- regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams. And my job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.
I can hear the gasps of fright from the Gates of Vienna even now. This is practically treason! Aid and comfort to the enemy!

Okay, let's cut the sarcasm for a minute. This is a good move, diplomatically. The Islamo-whackjobs have been doing everything in their power to say that Obama is just as bad as Bush, that America is still the enemy, that the missile attack done on his watch targetting al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan proves that nothing has changed. They have to, because without an enemy to rail against, they really have very little to offer politically.

And Obama is simply not George Bush. He's clearly a man of the world, a man who understands that people have different ideas and perspectives and one who takes an active interest in listening as well as lecturing. American foreign policy will be different and the whole world knows it. Not radically different -- we're still going to align with Europe and Israel and Japan and Australia; we're still going to prefer diplomatic and trading partners who have democratically-elected government; we're still going to protect our significant economic interests overseas. But we're also not going to call our foreign adventures "crusades." We're not going to make enemies out of people because of their religion or talk seriously about nuking Mecca. We don't have a leader who sees things through the lens of messianic Christian faith or one hell-bent on launching wars of conquest regardless of the evidence.

If anything, our risk is that we may be too gentle rather than, as we've been for the past several years, too rough with the rest of the world.

And this has to have set a deep despondency on the lives of the guys whose job it is to recruit hopeless young religious fanatics to strap dynamite to their chest and blow themselves up. Sure, they still have the Jews and Israel to demonize, but with an America under Obama's leadership, it's much harder to paint us as bullies and thugs ourselves. When Obama says he will be respectful of Muslim traditions and Muslim nations, you get the feeling he's being sincere. Bush never quite conveyed sincerity when he said those words. And that sense of sincerity, a genuine desire for respect, is something that (I hope) is disseminating throughout the globe.

In that sense, while I have great doubts about his domestic agenda, I have to admit that President Obama represents a nice improvement to the face we present to the rest of the world.

And to the Kool Aid Drinkers who would have written those first few paragraphs of this post with sincerity (where I wrote them with irony) remember that if we go picking fights, we're going to get them. Our enemies will choose us, but that doesn't mean we have to reciprocate.

Could This Be The Twenty-Eighth Amendment?

Senator Russ Feingold, an unabashed liberal representing Wisconsin, is (or shortly will) introduce a resolution to amend the Constitution. His proposal is to eliminate the power of a state's Governor to appoint Senators when a seat becomes vacant, and instead to call for special elections. I'm moderately opposed to the idea -- not because I think it's a bad idea, but because I just don't see the need for it.

Now, it's certainly the case that historically, appointed Senators tend to lose elections the first time they're put up for a vote, which is usually the next general election after their appointment. But, before this year, six out of the last eight times an appointment has to have been made, the appointed Senator has gone on to win election in his or her own right. In one of the other two times, the appointed Senator chose not to run at all, and in the last, the appointed Senator (Jean Carnahan) lost her election bid by a margin of .2%. To get to a time where an appointed Senator really got trounced, you need to go all the way back to Sheila Frahm of Kansas, who was appointed to fill Bob Dole's seat when he resigned from the Senate to run for President full-time in 1996.* Senator Frahm lost in the primary to Sam Brownback and has never been heard from again.

So, it seems to be the case that at least recently, Governors have been doing a reasonably good job of picking Senators to appoint. But Feingold looks at the controversies surrounding the appointment of Senator Burris of Illinois and Senator-Designate Gillibrand of New York, and he sees something deeply wrong and undemocratic. I can't say that special elections are a bad idea, although I'm not sure they're necessary.

Recall that originally, the Framers intended the Senate to be an inherently conservative body. Analagous to the House of Lords in England's Parliament, the Senate was originally to be constituted of members selected by the Legislatures of the various states. As originally drafted, it was possible that no Senator would have won election. It was anticipated that the Senator would reflect the general opinions of the State by virtue of the indirect popular backing of the Legislature, but free up the Senator from direct political pressure so as to exercise independent judgment. This is confirmed by the relatively long terms served by Senators -- each term in the Senate lasts six years, which is half again as long as a President's term and three times the terms served by a Representative.

Also recall that the Senate was created as a compromise to smaller, less populous states. Remember that the original conception of the United States was just what the name implies -- a permanent alliance between sovereign nations. So each of these nations needed to have power and dignity equal to the others; it was thought unfair to a small state like Delaware or Rhode Island that a large state like Virginia or Pennsylvania could, by virtue of its larger population, drown out the political power of another sovereign nation. So, all the states are equal in the Senate. Again, we see that majoritarian principles are subsumed to other priorities in this original Constitutional balancing act.

So, the idea was to have "wise men" chosen to represent sovereign states on an equal footing with one another, still subject to the popular will but buffered from the ever-shifting pressures of everyday politics. A nice idea in theory, but it created the danger that Senators would stray far from the popular will and reduce the upper house of Congress into something that was not in tune with the way the people wanted things to be. So over time, several states began the process of having popular election for the Senators and having their Legislatures confirm that appointment, or to simply devolve the legislative power to those elections.

In 1913, the Constitution was amended. Thanks to the Seventeenth Amendment, now all the states have popular elections for their Senators. Which is fine and has worked out well. The Senate is still an institutionally more conservative body than the House, in the sense that it is slower to change in response to movements in the body politic owing to the longer and staggered terms of its members. But the question is, is it undemocratic? Is it in tune with the rest of the Constitution to have a governor appoint an interim Senator?

Feingold has a point that it seems to be contrary to the spirit of the Seventeenth Amendment. And a state can certainly enact a law that requires a special election rather than a gubernatorial appointment; Feingold's own state has such a law, but most do not. One advantage that an appointment has over a special election is that it's cheaper and faster. And it's also a decision that is subject to relatively quick popular confirmation or rejection.

At the end of the day, I don't see any problem with the way things are now. It's not a bad idea, but there's certainly no compelling need to change the way interim Senators are placed in office. Yes, Illinois' Governor appears to have tried to sell the seat, but there are ways to corrupt an election, too, so this isn't an anti-corruption measure. And yes, there were a lot of people who wanted New York's Governor to appoint Caroline Kennedy and are now disappointed with Kirsten Gillibrand. But someone is always disappointed with any political choice whether arrived at through appointment, devolution of office, or election; Gillibrand doesn't seem so bad to me; and Ms. Kennedy never really seemed to have anything going for her but a magnetic pedigree.

So I guess it's a nice idea, Senator Feingold, but I just don't see how appointing interim Senators isn't working just fine. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

* What was Dole thinking? I thought about that even then. Bill Clinton was hugely popular and no one had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky in 1996. Dole was not dumb; he had to know he was going to lose. I can only continue to maintain my now twelve-year-old speculation that it was a retire-while-on-top exit strategy.


A woman in Bellflower gave birth to octuplets yesterday. All eight tiny babies survived and are expected to survive, in what is thought to be only the second time in history that has happened. Personal details on the mother and her eight children have not been released other than that she plans to breat feed all of them. (I can hear all the mommies I know saying "Good luck with that, honey!")

Holy crap. From no kids to eight. Just like that. I've known dogs and cats to have litters with fewer offspring than that. That's a... that's a... a reality show, is what it is.

Which gives rise to an interesting question. Obviously this happened with the use of fertility drugs. My guess is that the family here is somewhat economically challenged -- and if they're not now, it's a good bet they're going to be, very soon with eight kids running around the place. Is this something that we're strictly comfortable with? Yes, it's her body and her family and she (and her husband) get to decide whether or not to use these things. But is this a good idea? I can't see how it is.

In Defense Of Political Viewpoint Discrimination

I know, the very idea of academics discriminating against conservatives is just, well, shocking. But that's exactly what a new lawsuit alleges happened at the University of Iowa College of Law. I think this proves that whiny, meritless lawsuits sure to earn the tag of "frivolous" by those who believe in such things are not confined to generally politically liberal "trial lawyers."

Here's the converse case -- let's say I'm a big ol' Democrat and I find out a ditch digger who works for me is a Republican. I fire him. Obviously, that sucks; the guy has a right to be a Republican if he wants. So should I be able to do that? Or should he be able to sue me for firing him?

1. The Law Does Not Protect Political Viewpoint Discrimination

Political affiliation and opinions are the sorts of things about which employers can and do take notice. Very few laws protect political viewpoint discrimination, and almost everywhere, it is one of the things that an employer can use to help make employment decisions. This is appropriate, I think.

I probably don't really care whether a ditch digger is a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative. That's why firing a Republican for a job like that seems so unfair; the politics are well within the mainstream and obviously have nothing to do with the job. But what if he's a Nazi? Or, on the other end of the scale, a Communist? This is a guy who's going to be interacting with my customers, and representing my business (and, by extension, me personally). Do I want some guy who, in his free time, is going to make a spectacle of himself parading down the street in a robe and pointy white hat shouting about "white power"? Of course not -- and if I know that about a prospective employee, I should be able to use that information to not hire him.

Sure, he has a First Amendment right to be Republican if he wants. But he doesn't have a First Amendment right to work for me. Same thing if he wants to have a beard and mustache and wear his hair long -- I have the right to impose a dress code despite his right to "express himself" by looking like the ZZ Top guys. The law trusts me to make the decision about what political point of view is within the mainstream and which is sufficiently weird that I can refuse to hire (or fire, or whatever) someone for. And that level of tolerance may very well be different for one position that it would for another -- I might be more willing to hire the Nazi to dig ditches than I would be to hire him to serve as my press agent, for instance.

2. Academia Is Extremely Competitive

Now, here we're talking about a public institution rather than my hypothetical private ditch-digging company. But we're also talking about a full-time teaching position at a top-tier law school (University of Iowa ranked #27 overall in the admittedly flawed U.S. News and World Report ranking of law schools), so it's reasonably possible that the school's defense -- there were better-qualified applicants -- is legitimate. A full-time job at an academic institution of this caliber and prestige is one that people will seek out and move across the country at their own expense to get. There were almsot certainly dozens of well-qualified liberal candidates who came away from that process disappointed.

And I get it that the theory here is not "discrimination" in the race-based or gender-based sort of context. This is First Amendment territory -- the plaintiff says she has a First Amendment right to hold whatever point of view she wants on a constellation of issues, and the state of Iowa cannot punish her for holding those points of view. Which is certainly correct. But it is also almost certainly of so little significance in this sort of an environment as to approach irrelevance.

So let's take the sort of case that never actually happens, and probably theoretically never could actually happen. Let's say we have two identical candidates for such a competitive position. They are, let's say, identical twins, who have gone to the same schools and got the same grades, and published articles in the same journals, within months of one another. Whatever game you want to play to distinguish between the two, they have followed the very same path, with the same degree of success, and the two of them are head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. The only discernable difference between the two of them is that candidate A has been politically active in the "Happy Fuzzy Puppy Party" and candidate B has been active in the "Cute Cuddly Kitty-Cat Party." To an outsider, the "Puppy Party" and the "Kitty Party" are equally valid political parties to join. In such a situation, lacking any other kind of way to distinguish between the two candidates, can you consider the "Puppy" and "Kitty" affiliations?

Maybe you have to, at that point. There is nothing else to distinguish between the two, and there is only one spot open. Flipping a coin seems somehow more arbitrary than picking between Fuzzy Puppies and Cuddly Kitties. So if, in an objective sense of the word, you've got a bunch of Puppy people on your faculty and almost no Kitty people, you've got no choice but to pick one over the other.

3. Money Talks

Which means we have to trust that people in those decision-making positions pick between the Puppy candidate and the Kitty candidate the right way. If it's an academic position, maybe way to do that is to pick the point of view that will make for the best teaching environment. Or the one that will enhance the candidate's chances of getting published in prestigious journals. Or the one that will create the best dynamics in faculty interaction.

Or -- and here's what is really at stake -- you pick the one that will be more attractive to the kinds of people who donate money for research grants and fund scholarships and write endowments.

Just like I, as the guy running a ditch digging company, have to consider how my customers will react to my employees' off-duty political activities, so too does a law school dean have to consider how donors and funders will react to how faculty members' activities will affect the donor base because there is no school, public or private, that can afford to offend its donors.

Now, it might be that if you pick some Kitty People, you'll open up the purse strings of other Kitty People out there in the world. But if your donor base is made up mostly of Puppy People, you've probably already got a network of donors and sponsors who are Puppy People or at least like Puppy People. So the safer choice is to go with another Puppy Person. Not because you like Puppies more than Kitties, but because you need to keep the money flowing in.

Which doesn't mean I like that result, since it would tend to promote viewpoint uniformity rather than viewpoint diversity in the makeup of faculty members at elite institutions. But it is the right result to reach. When conservatives start funding the academy the way that liberals do, the universities will respond by hiring more conservative academics to please those donors.

4. Conclusion -- How To Succeed In Academia (Or Anywhere Else) Despite Having Unpopular Opinions

Seems to me that it's simply not a disqualifier to be conservative in academia. I'd agree that in some places, and with some decision-makers, it's a strike against you if you wear your conservative credentials on your sleeve. But with others, they may find it quirky but at least see the value in having a diversity of viewpoints -- provided that you can back up your conservative opinions with arguments of reasonable strength and gather reasonable amounts of support for your point of view. It may not feel like it at times, but in fact your liberal colleagues will generally have to do the same thing. As with any other job applicant, you must labor to not give offense, to discern both the objective and the intangible things that really matter, to listen more than you speak, and (given that you are likely to hold a minority viewpoint) appear to be reasonable and open-minded.

What you don't want to do is appear to be picking a fight over politics. No one wants to hire someone who is going to pick fights with them, regardless of the subject matter of the fight and regardless of their own willingness to tolerate points of view other than their own. Likewise, if it looks like someone there is going to pick a fight with you, maybe that's something you'd rather avoid entirely.

If you've got good academic stuff to bring to the table, you can overcome the strike. You've got to do be really smart, write and publish really good papers, and demonstrate how your commitment to academics is at least as important as your political opinions, so don't walk in to a hiring meeting wearing a "Reagan Was Right!" T-Shirt, or at least wear a shirt that covers up the elephant tattoo on your arm. But then again, it would be a good idea to wear a shirt that covered up a death's-head tattoo, too.

In academia, there is still such a thing as tenure. Once you have tenure, you're free to do and express anything you like. Until then, though, you may need to exercise a little bit of circumspection about saying or doing things that will piss off your peers. The limits of what will be socially tolerated extend well beyond politics, too. But the big lesson is -- be better than your competition at what you do. If you're that good, then the rest won't matter.

I don't think the plaintiff in this case was so well-qualified for the job she wanted that her politics were a significant factor in the school's hiring decision. They couldn't be, not at that level. And if she wasn't smart enough to figure out that 1) she was a Republican asking a bunch of Democrats for a job, and 2) how to emphasize those portions of her resume and background that would be pleasing to the decision-makers, well, maybe she wasn't smart enough for a full-time position at a top-thirty law school in the first place.

Experimenting Equals Expulsion

Prof. Shaun Martin (who runs one of the best California law blogs out there) is right to be morally judgmental about this case, Jane Doe v. California Lutheran High School Association et. al. The facts are simple. The outcome is not based on a controversial legal proposition. The result is odious.

Start with a private, sectarian high school. Add one principal who spends his time browsing his students MySpace pages. He finds two of his students who self-identify as bisexual or "not sure" of their sexual identity. Then, have the principal call the two girls into his office and ask them what they've done together. Here's the critical part of the recipe -- the students have to be honest, confess that they have indeed kissed and that at one time they felt like they were in love. To finish it off, of course, the principal has to expel these two young experimenters.

I say "experimenters" rather than "lesbians" because it's far from clear that they are lesbians. Maybe they are, or maybe they're experimenting during confused teenage years. That happens sometimes, you know. You would think that an institution that attempted to combine ministering the word of a compassionate and forgiving Jehovah with a mission of educating and preparing teenagers for life as adults would find something to do with girls who hadn't actually had gay sex yet other than simply casting them out of the house. But then again, who am I to tell a Lutheran principal how to handle a situation like that?

The girls got lawyers and sued under the Unruh Act, California's state-law cognate to the Federal Civil Rights Act. And they lost. The reason they lost is simple -- they were going to a reilgious school, which is not a "public accomodation" within the meaning of even the very broadly-construed act, which does prohibit proprietors of public accomodations against discrimination based on homosexuality. Since the school is not a public accomodation -- you have to take a test to get in, Lutherans are given preference for enrollment, and the funding for the school comes from private tuition rather than government funds -- it is not within the scope of the Unruh Act. It didn't matter that there was a history of greater punishments for violations of the "Christian Conduct" code for girls than boys, proven with a variety of evidence.

No, the girls didn't have a right to privacy, either -- the school told their parents what they had done. There is substantial legal precedent that minors do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to consensual sexual activity with other minors. I'm not sure I agree with it or like it, but there it is, that's the law.

So it's the right result, legally. But it sucks. As far as I'm concerned, those girls didn't do anything wrong morally. I hope that one day we all look back on a story like this and shake our heads sadly and are a little bit ashamed of this part of our history, the way we are (or should be) about slavery.

January 26, 2009

Taking Down The Stimulus

Not change we can believe in. This video is about 90% right:

"Bush on steroids." Is that what you really voted for, Obama backers?

Song Of The Month

Trim The Quack Fat

A theme I've been hitting for months (indeed, since before the election) is that the government is simply spending far too much money -- for the very good reason that "too much" means "more than is collected in taxes, by a significant margin." We've got to cut spending somewhere or face a painful tax increase. If you think that not stimulating the economy now would be bad, just think about how it would be if we couldn't do it at all and had to raise taxes at the same time.

That's what we're setting ourselves up for the next time around. Either that, or a default on our debt, which would be even worse.

So here's one place we can cut funding. A division of the National Institutes of Health is called the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. You don't have to get past the splash page of this agency's website to see that it is spending your taxpayer dollars on woo. Acupuncture, varied forms of herbal therapy, echinacea for everything, green tea for rheumatoid arthritis -- and that's just on the first page. As might be expected, since its establishment in 1993, NCCAM has yet to produce a single proven alternative method treatment regimen that has survived double-blind testing or even preliminary critique from the peer review process. Of course, the researchers there have identified all sorts of "promising areas" upon which money must be spent and their own nonsense-based employment prolonged.

NCCAM is budgeted at around $121 million a year. Not a lot, but it's a start. NCCAM also gets major funding from a similar sub-division of a different branch of NIH, the Office of Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Cancer Institute, which is also funded at about $121 million a year. So now we're talking a quarter of a billion dollars, which is approaching the realm of real money. A more careful search through other NIH and other kinds of HHS and Agriculture funding could probably reveal some other places where government money is spent on woo. I wouldn't be surprised if a reasonably thorough search of government programs could double that number and take us to nearly a full billion dollars a year spent on pseudoscience and quackery.

At least as importantly, defunding this government-funded quackery will serve to de-legitimize it. Whether or not it has a budgetary impact -- and I submit that saving a billion dollars of government money is not insignificant -- it also cloaks sixteen years of failure to produce scientifically validatable results in the legitimacy of the Federal government. (Skeptic: "Magnet therapy doesn't do a thing for the human body." Believer: "But the government thinks it's a promising enough field of research to fund a scientifically rigorous study of it!")

In his inaugural address, President Obama promised that "We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost." He also promised "The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end." Spending half a billion to a billion dollars less on researching quack medicine would be a good start towards that goal.

Cutting Medicare funding for quack medicine would be the next step. That would multiply the cost savings significantly -- and at no detriment whatsoever to public health since we're talking about stuff that doesn't work anyway. No more taxpayer funding of treatment modalities like acupuncture, chiropractic, or homeopathy. The only political pain suffered would be the squawks of the alternative medicine providers who would have to go look for real jobs, and the patients breaking themselves of their placebo addictions. The benefit realized in return would be tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars worth of savings.

Frankly, I don't see how we can afford not to do this.

Hat tip to Dave Gorski at Science-Based Medicine.

Here's The Bill, Mr. President

Ken at Popehat has found an absolutely fascinating piece of information -- the White House bills the President for his food. Not for state dinners, but for regular meals he and his family eat, he gets to pay out of his own pocket. It works like a hotel with room service, and apparently it's priced accordingly. "[F]ormer White House chief usher Gary Walters said that he couldn’t remember any first families not complaining about the high prices of the food."

Yikes. Think about a really nice hotel -- let's say, The Plaza in New York. A contender for best big hotel in the country. How much do you think room service costs at The Plaza? Those are the kinds of prices we're talking about here -- $50 a plate for dinner, easily. That means that a family of four probably can't get away with less than $500 a day. And the fact of the matter, as Ken points out, is that they can't really shoot up Seventeenth Street to get their own groceries (and if they did, they'd be going to the Soviet Safeway, which has no food to buy anyway). So it does seem a little bit unfair and certainly exclusionary of people of middle-class means to charge those kinds of prices.

January 25, 2009

Meet The Grubbers

Our friend the LACMA curator invited us to join a group of foodies who have irregular, rotating themed potlucks. Go back and read that again -- from time to time (although not with any regular timing) they meet at someone's house. The host selects the theme and provides beverages. The guests each bring a dish that meets the theme. Today the meeting was in Santa Monica at a lovely house and the theme was the Chinese New Year. (新年快樂的牛年, by the way.)

I made a wonton soup. It turned out to involve substantially more work than the fifteen minutes' prep time that the recipe indicated. First, you have to find ground pork. This is a little more difficult than you might think; my local grocery store does not sell ground pork. I solved that problem by buying a pack of pork shoulder and grinding it at home in the food processor.

Seasonings added to the food processor during the grinding phase included mustard seed, powdered garlic, rice vinegar, sherry, toasted sesame oil, black pepper, green onions, and turmeric. It was a great temptation to use savory, sage, and bay leaf -- but that would be a French pork, not a Chinese one. I also added a can of water chestnuts and a couple stalks of celery to the mix. Captain Cuisinart reduced the slices of pork shoulder and Chinese-seeming spices to a pink-gray paste. This became my wonton filling.

This took about ten minutes and was easy enough. Hand-rolling wontons, however, is quite labor-intensive. I had a packet of about 50 wonton skins, and each one needs only a small amount of the filling -- about a teaspoon's worth. Turns out I'd made about twice as much filling as fifty wonton skins could hold -- a few skins ruptured during the folding process. One advantage that the wonton skins have over Italian pasta is the ease with which a new piece can be grafted on a mistake -- the skin is very thin and simply applying a "bandage" over the "wound" on the wonton with a wet finger melds and seals up the wonton nicely. Still, each wonton probably took me a minute to make once I was set up, so that worked out to nearly an hour of prep time assembling these little guys. And I never got the shape right -- they came out looking a lot more like Japanese gyozo than Chinese wontons. But at that point, I realized it probably wouldn't matter all that much. I wound up with just under four dozen wontons.

Cook the wontons by bathing them in boiling water, with a little salt added, for six or seven minutes. A few will break free from the bottom of the pot and float to the surface when they're cooked through. The pork filling inside should be firm to the touch, indicating that the pork is cooked all the way through. Don't overboil them or the meat will become tough.

The soup stock is pretty easy -- it's simple chicken broth with green onions floated in it. If you really want, you can leave it there. But I added a couple teaspoons of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and a dash of sherry to it. This gave the stock a little bit of sourness, but it was also much more interesting than plain chicken broth. Bring it all to a boil, then allow to cool a bit. Then add the precooked wontons.

Most of the foodies and urban hipsters who showed up said they enjoyed it quite a lot. Our hosts were happy to keep the leftovers and said it would be their dinner. So that was gratifying.

The Wife stole the show, though. Sure, I made a nice soup. But she made ginger cake with plum filling, from scratch, and hand-decorated it with a beautiful picture of a cherry tree in blossom, with the chinese hieroglyph for an ox (牛 -- it is now the year of the ox, after all) on each side. Several people refused to cut into the cake because it was too pretty, and at least two people asked if it had been professionally-decorated. Several people took photographs of the cake before some teenage guests cut into it, unable to resist any longer.

The Wife could only see the flaws and mistakes she made. She pointed them all out to me in several fits of self-doubt, so I could see what she was talking about. But no one else could see any of them. This was a seriously beautiful cake -- she's profited immensely from her classes, which fit perfectly into her artistic talents and love of baking. I'll try to figure out how to get the photo of the cake from her cell phone camera to here soon enough.

And I might add that a gingered white cake with the plum filling is a delicious combination. There were leftovers of my soup. There were no leftovers of her cake. There were only two other dishes -- the mu-shu barbequed pork (tender, juicy, and tasted like I-want-more) and our friend's homemade fortune cookies -- that were completely consumed. I was also a big fan of the szechuan eggplant and a shrimp-and-rice-noodle dish that looked suspiciously like Pad Thai.

The Wife and I are both quite enthusiastic about starting a club like that up here in the Antelope Valley. We have some friends who enjoy cooking and I bet if we found maybe two other people, we could put together a good rotating feast.

Observations Of A New Dishwasher Owner

Since The Wife and I got a new dishwasher, we've been using the dishwasher a whole lot more. I don't think it's a function of our staying in and cooking more. We're simply more willing to use the new dishwasher now that we have it.

It's easier to use than the old one, it's more effective for dishes and glasses placed on the top rack, and it rinses cleaner. We're more willing to run it while we're home because it's much more quiet. Or, I can set it on a three-hour start delay when I'm done with my breakfast before going to work, so I can shower without using up all the hot water on the dishes -- and The Wife comes home to clean dishes.

This unit isn't drying the dishes particularly well, though, which is a problem The Wife is taking the lead on solving. Once that's accomplished, we'll be in clean dish nirvana.

True Origins Of Calculus Obscured By Prayer Book

Can we agree, at the threhshold of this post, that calculus is an immensely significant area of knowledge? It enables us to build bridges, send astronauts into space, and generate electricity by splitting atoms. I don't pretend to understand calculus in depth but I certainly respect its intellectual power and both you and I owe the mode of communication by which this blog is published to technology making use of it.

It has been taken as an article of great interest by historians, scientists, and mathematicians that a major controversy erupted in the early eighteenth century between Isaac Newton and Gottfried von Liebniz as to which one of them invented what we today call "calculus" first. The consensus seems to be that Liebniz published before Newton, but Newton advanced a substantial claim to have invented it first and refined his version of "fluxions" prior to publication.

Well, it turns out that Archimedes beat them to it by nearly two millenia. At least, certain portions of the concept. Archimedes did not use Leibniz' concepts of integrals and differentials, at least not in the same way that we do now, but he did tackle the basic problem that led both Newton and Liebniz to reach the solution -- computing the area under a curve in what we today call a Cartesian measurement system. ("Cartesian," in turn, refers to Rene Descartes; this attribution, too, appears to have been created by Archimedes rather than the pre-Enlightenment scholars whom we celebrate today.)

How do we know this? It seems that in the 1300's, a monk in France was assigned to copy a prayer book. So he did what was customary for the day -- he found an old book that it didn't seem anyone else was using, scraped off the ink on the vellum (that is, sheepskin) pages, and set to work copying devotionals. He chose what appears to be the only copy of an essay by Archimedes titled The Method, describing how to (among other things) measure the area under a parabolic curve. Only through very modern methods of analyzing the book can we now peer through the top layer of medieval Latin to see the priceless knowledge to be found underneath.

The monk clearly did not understand, or did not care about, the scientific significance of what he was obliterating. His job was to make copies of prayers, and that's what he did. He is not to be blamed personally for setting back western science by hundreds of years -- it's quite likely no one had been using the book. What is to blame is the scholastic school of thought that prevailed in "educated" circles of European Christians at the time. Everything worth knowing was already known, no knowledge was useful or valid without determining its relationship to Jehovah first, and all knowledge was only important insofar as it glorified Jehovah and/or Jesus, and brought man closer to the Godhead. The job of a scholar under this world view was to preserve, memorize, and explain the knowledge so as to help other people reconcile their souls in preparation for the afterlife.

So of what use towards that goal would be computing the area encompassed by a parabola? Of what moment the distinction between the "actual infinite" and the "potential infinite" which so vexed Isaac Newton? Even if a) the monk in question had been able to read Greek (more than a few words related to Scripture, that is), and b) the monk understood mathematics, and c) the monk knew that this was a copy of one of history's greatest geniuses, the monk still would have probably been within the realm of reason to believe that other copies of the work existed somewhere else. So he just did his job.

I would like to say that this is a profound metaphor for religion eschewing science, discounting its importance. Certainly if I were to do so I would have to aim that fire at religion in general, not just Christianity, because all of the major world religions have at least gone through phases of history in which worldly knowledge was sneered at for its insignificance compared to reconciliation with the (ficticious) divine. But that would be unfair to religious people, many of whom (I am confident) share my horror at the prospect of this knowledge having been lost forever and who see no problem reconciling their faith with science. Instead, I will point out that this sort of reconciliatory attitude is relatively modern and recent; the bulk of history indicates that a rational, rather than scholastic, approach to knowledge and learning has prevailed only during the middle to late Classical eras and the age of Modernity.

Hat tip to dana at Edge of the American West for this really fascinating piece of history news.

January 23, 2009

Skeptical Humor

From Way of the Woo. I won't repeat the joke here, go there and read it.

If you don't get it, that's probably a good thing, now that I think about it.

BlackBerry One

Before being elected, Barack Obama said that he'd rather give up smoking than his BlackBerry. He's addicted to it. Uses it all the time to keep up on news, e-mail his friends and family, and make phone calls. You know, the way a lot of people use them. And he loves it. They aren't called "CrackBerries" by their devoted users for nothing.

But the Secret Service and the various national security folks (CIA, NSA, NSC, etc.) are all terrified that someone is going to figure out how to hack into the President's BlackBerry and get at all of his information. And his political advisers are all terrified that someone is going to hack into the BlackBerry and forge fake e-mails from the President doing who knows what kinds of mischief. Or who knows what else could go wrong?

These are the reasons why both Presidents Clinton and Bush did not use e-mail while they were serving. It wasn't that they didn't know how to use e-mail; both gave up e-mail accounts they had formerly used upon assuming office.

So, it was a struggle -- the President wants to keep his BlackBerry, all his people don't want him to have one. Well, today, they "compromised" and the President got his way. The only concession he made was a special security chip made by some NSA/CIA wizards being implanted into the Presidential BlackBerry. I'm not entirely sure I like the idea; I fear that hackers are far more clever than they're being given credit for -- this had better be some super-amazing technology to keep BlackBerry One secure.

Strong Dollars Good, Weak Dollars Better!

"A strong dollar is in America's national interest," says Treasury Secretary-Designate Timothy Geithner. Yes, but what exactly are we going to do about that?

Apparently something, and that something is allegedly going to be done against China. Geithner also praises his would-be new boss for having sponsored "...tough legislation to overhaul the U.S. process for determining currency manipulation and authorizing new enforcement measures so countries like China cannot continue to get a free pass for undermining fair trade principles."

But, as The Economist points out, Chinese monetary policy is currently to prop up the strength of the dollar. Which only makes sense, because if the dollar weakens further, the nearly three trillion dollars' worth of U.S. government debt owned by Chinese banks (and thus ultimately controlled by the PRC itself) will decline substantially in value. They can't afford for the dollar to become too weak.

Now, mouthing support for a strong dollar and railing against China are two things that someone in Geithner's position can do to rally political support for himself. But it's quite apparent he doesn't really mean any of it. Nor should he, necessarily. While I think strong dollars really are in the best interest of the U.S. -- we should be importing profits from other nations -- a reasonable argument can be made that weak dollars are at least in our short-term interest insofar as they encourage foreign investment in U.S. industries and thus create jobs here. Given that we are in a rescession, jobs are good no matter where they come from.

And given that China does not want to see the dollar weaken, castigating China's monetary policy suggests that indeed, Geithner really wants to weaken, not strengthen, the dollar on the world index. Which is predictable but disappointing -- it suggests that the Obama Administration is not taking a long view of things and is going to craft a monetary policy that may relieve some pain in the short run but at the end of the day will leave us exporting the profits generated by our own industries without getting a corresponding return from economic activity elsewhere in the world. In the long run, that is not a good policy for us to pursue.

Hat tip to Trade Diversion.

Dynasticism Takes A Defeat

New York Governor David Paterson has, apparently, nominated U.S. Representative Kirsten Gillibrand to succeed to the Senate seat vacated by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. It seems that Caroline Kennedy had some tax and not-precisely-documented household help problems.

Representative Gillibrand is, of course, a Democrat, but we knew that was coming. But she's about as conservative a pick as we could have hoped for. She represents a mostly rural area of upstate eastern New York, and is considered a "blue dog" Democrat. That means we can expect her to be, in the fashionable-again buzzword of the day, a "pragmatist." This is something that makes Democrats palatable to Republicans and apparently, it is something that is celebrated in politicians in general right now.

So good luck to Senator-Designate Gillibrand.

January 21, 2009

Watchmen Coming March 6

Great news from the entertainment industry: Fox and Warner have settled their dispute, and Watchmen will be released on schedule.

This lawyer is unsurprised -- there's too much money at stake for them to not release the movie. They probably needed a pronouncement from the court as to which one of the two studios had the upper hand in the negotiations, which you sometimes need in a case (and which is why judges who refuse to give such guidance and instead encourage the parties to "go settle it" are so useless, but that's another gripe for another day).

This geeky fanboy is excited. The previews look great, capturing the essence of the comic. I'm happy enough to post a smiley-face.

A Very Random Thought

I like the idea of strawberry ice cream a lot more than the reality of it.

Hillary Clinton Has Got To Be Pissed About This

Take a listen to Jill Biden at about 1:45 during this interview with Oprah:

There's a "clarification" later which basically disclaims the whole thing that Dr. Biden blurted out (and which caused her husband's face to turn red).

Why I'm Still A Skeptic

I know that the President's words in his inaugural address are true -- America is, and Americans are, capable of doing great things under very pressing circumstances when they are of a mind to do so. We have done much more remarkable things than we are called on to do now, in more trying times and against greater odds, than we face now. There are yet alive many people who saw America through some of her darkest days and emerge not just victorious, but brilliantly so.

So why can't we do it now? Why can't we remake our nation into something much greater than it is today?

Well, for one, there's no plan in place to do anything. For all of the high-flown talk of hope and change and possibility and responsibility, we have yet to see any substantial and concrete policy agenda from Team Obama. That will change, I know. The question is whether the policies that are ultimately advanced are stopgaps, accomodations, and compromises (which is what I'm expecting) or whether they're going to fit together into some kind of a grand plan like the New Deal's basic idea of using the government as an economic instrument of creating infrastructure. Obama mentioned something like that, but it seems almost an afterthought.

But more to the point, unlike the New Deal -- which was also funded with deficit spending -- we are hip-deep in debt already. Nearly a dime out of every dollar that the government collects from you goes to servicing the national debt. Our national debt right now is more than three-quarters of our GDP. As a nation, we are broke.

If we weren't paying today for things the government did when people were still watching Love At First Bite and The Muppet Movie at the movies, back during the Carter Administration, we could have had more than $260 billion more than we did to spend on all those good governmental things we enjoy so much, like the military, Social Security, bridge building, and prisons. Or even a little bit of governmental regulation and oversight on the financial industry.

To have those things now, we have to deficit spend. Which means financing these things with a variety of instruments, including the beloved 30-year T-bill. What that means is that when my next door neighbor's daughter is my age, she'll still be paying for the economic relief that's allegedly underway right now. That's simply not fair to her and her contemporaries -- they will have problems of their own to address in thirty years, and making them pay for us solving our problems today is going to tie their hands. Probably a lot more than ten cents' on the tax dollar's worth, too, the way things are going.

Now, I'm not the only Obama skeptic out there. But these are my big reasons -- so far, it's all talk, and I'm hoping that by the State of the Union an action plan will be in place; and no one has any idea of how to pay for whatever it is that we're going to do.

I realize that there can never be zero debt. Day-to-day financing of governmental activity requires the use of at minimum short-term debt instruments (things like 90-day, 120-day, and one-year T-bills) and other efforts by the government to cover shortfalls and keep the government operating smoothly. But if we define reducing the federal debt to a manageable and sustainable level -- say, 10% of GDP -- as a great national goal and achievement, that would make me happy.

Won't happen, of course, until we're out of the rescession. But when it does, I'll be looking for the politician and the party who truly embrace and pursue fiscal responsibility.

Oath Controversy

The furor about Obama misstating the Constitutional oath of office doesn't seem to go away. So the Chief Justice traveled to the White House and re-administered the oath, exactly as the Constitution specifies, earlier today. So -- that's it. He took the correct oath, it's all done.

But, the thing has taught me a new phrase -- "multum in parvo." This is Latin. It means "storm in pot" or, more loosely, "tempest in a teapot." So I, for one, have profited from this.

Rudy! On The Reboot

From a new website called New Majority, Rudy! talks about what the GOP has become and how it can get better again:

Yes, to some extent, it's the same thing over and over again in the "Republican Reboot" posts here -- the Republicans have offered too much social red meat, and not paid enough attention to policy issues that actually matter to centrist and suburban voters. But damnit, we need to hear this and more importantly, we need to take action on it. We need to get beyond the point that a criticism like this strikes close to home.

If we don't start changing our ways, our insufficient-to-win-on-its-own voter base will slowly die out over time and the Democrats will become so ascendant that the whole country will become like the South in the 1940's -- the real election will be the Democratic primary; if a Republican even bothers to run, it will be a formality; and if one manages to win, it will be an aberration that will last a single frustrating term in office. This is not a bright future.

Hizzonner also gives a postmortem on the 2008 election here. It's at least as good as the embedded video in making the essential point. I linked to the post, rather than embedding that, because a comment there mirrors the point made in my other link (the one that rightly criticizes the current GOP), which in turn dovetails into the point that Giuliani is making in the video. Kind of a great circle of political point-making.

The inaugural address Obama gave is a great example of how to reach out across the aisle to appeal for support from the center, without giving up the essential values that supported him in the first place. That's the sort of thing Giuliani is talking about here. That's the sort of thing I and all the other right-of-center writers I keep linking to are appealing for. That's the sort of thing that will be necessary if the GOP is going to keep itself from joining the Whigs and the Federalists in the dustbin of obsolescent political parties.


I don't know why I never bothered to look into this earlier -- or why it occurred to me to look into this today. Still, I think it's fun, even if I'm a latecomer. It shouldn't take any of you very long to figure out what this list signifies. If you don't already know, take a guess or two before using the internet's cheat sheet.
  • Renegade
  • Renaissance
  • Radiance
  • Rosebud
  • Celtic
  • Capri
In case you couldn't figure it out (oh, come on, you've got Google), your hint is that the following analagous list is no longer applicable:
  • Tumbler
  • Trailblazer
  • Tempo
  • Turquoise
  • Twinkle
  • Angler
  • Author

I can't make it any easier than that for you. Really.

January 20, 2009

Beauty In Speech

Obama's Inaugural Address is just plain beautiful. I just read it and I find it remarkable. It's no secret that the man is a gifted rhetorician, supported by able and talented writers. But when you approach what he says, the power of his words quite simply amaze:
Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

* * *

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers ... [applause] ... our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

* * *

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you. For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
You may not be a supporter of Obama's political agenda. But even if so, you've gotta concede that this is a really good speech. "The bitter swill of civil war and segregation..." That's a very nice turn of phrase, don't you think?

It doesn't hurt my favorable impression that 1) he managed to give a favorable nod to non-believers, and 2) he seems to agree with something I've been saying for more than four years on these pages -- there is no conflict between national security and civil liberties; we can and must have both. But that he invokes George Washington at his finest hour is also a very good nod to history which I much appreciate.

Yes, these are only words, not actions; there is hard, unglamorous work ahead and I'm not falling in love here. Nevertheless, the whole speech is worthy of review, both as a reminder of our ideals and as a signal of the kind of government he wants to lead. Read the whole thing here. It's as good as any speech given by any President, including really good speech-givers like Clinton, Reagan, and Kennedy.

No Kool Aid For You

Please note for the record:

George W. Bush stepped down today in a peaceful transfer of power. He did not suspend the Constitution or the 22nd Amendment. He did not declare martial law. Army troops in Colorado Springs remain on base, training, and are not assuming command of portions of the state of Colorado.

Osama bin Laden was not captured and produced in an "October surprise" to alter the outcome of the election. Iran has not been attacked. Our only response to the war in Gaza (please note both sides claiming victory; at least one of them is wrong) has been diplomatic.

Bush did not pardon himself for any "war crimes," nor did he pardon former Vice President Cheney or any of his own administration's officials. Yes, he did plenty of damage on his way out, but it's damage that Obama would quite likely have done himself had he been in office.

Bush did not even attempt to ram through last-minute appointments to judicial or administrative agency positions.

Bush opened Blair House to the Obama family for the traditional five days preceding today's inauguration. He said nice things about Obama taking power and went to some effort himself, and directed his staff to go to some effort, to hand over the reins of power to President Obama.

None of these predictions and gripes of blue-colored Kool-aid drinkers came true. Our democratic republic is thriving and alive. George W. Bush is now Private Citizen Bush, a (wealthy) resident of Crawford, Texas. He has his opinions and beliefs, like the rest of us. To be sure, he has a lot of money and a nice government pension and plenty of political contacts. But he has no more overt political power than do I. He doesn't even get an excuse from jury duty if he's summoned.

A Quibble

Barack Obama is not the forty-fourth President of the United States.

No, I'm not talking about the de minimis error in the wording of the oath he swore this morning (which was John Roberts' fault, and Roberts can be forgiven that because he's never done this before, either). What he said has the same meaning as the oath, and he can say the words in the right order later if that will appease the Kool-Aid drinkers who think government is a game of magical rituals, talismans and recital of spells.

No, I'm going to suggest not that Barack Obama is not the President at all, but rather that he is the forty-third President of the United States.

If you count him as #44, then you're counting Grover Cleveland twice. Wikipedia's list of the Presidents is as good as any out there. Cleveland is counted as President #22 and President #24, because his terms were not consecutive. But he was still the same guy. So if you count the number of people who have served as President of the United States since adoption of the Constitution in 1789, Obama is only the forty-third holder of the office.

Cleveland's comeback in 1892 is remarkable. It could never happen again today. Think about it. In 1884, Cleveland eked out a very narrow victory over James Blaine, a Republican Senator from Maine. Cleveland's margin of victory was 219 electoral votes to Blaine's 182; the popular vote was decided by less than .3%, or less than 30,000 votes nationwide (something like 10 million votes were cast total). A squeaker to be sure, probably a corrupted election, and one whose main issues were character assassinations on the various candidates.

Then, in 1888, Cleveland runs for re-election. He loses to Benjamin Harrison, a one-term former Senator whose main qualification was that his grandfather had been President for a month. (Learn more about that here!) Harrison managed to flip two states from the 1894 1884 election -- New York and Indiana. Harrison's campaign was so dicey that he actually lost the popular vote -- Cleveland got 48.6% of the vote and Harrison only 47.8%; the difference was about 90,000 votes out of just over 11 million cast.

Today, would such a candidate -- a President who had managed to conduct so inept a campaign as to bungle a popular victory, got himself voted out of office, and who had previously got in by a whisker after a nasty campaign -- ever stand a chance of getting a third nomination by his party? I say, "no way." The Democrats wouldn't want Jimmy Carter. Republicans wouldn't want George H.W. Bush the Elder. If Obama loses his bid for re-election in 2012, would anyone seriously think the Democrats would nominate him again in 2016? No way.

But Cleveland did exactly that. He managed to convince his party to give him a third bite at the apple. And he pulled it off. Thanks to the admission of some new states, a re-drawing of the electoral college map, new rules allowing states to appoint electors of different parties, the intervention of a significant third party, and most of all, the unpopularity of a tariff system promoted by the Harrison Administration, Cleveland steamrollered Harrison in 1892. His margin of victory the third time around was a full 3.0%, ten times the margin he's first been elected by twelve years previously.

So there's no doubt that Cleveland was the twenty-second President and Harrison the twenty-third. The question is what to do about Cleveland defeating Harrison in 1892. For whatever reason, a convention has arisen such that the second Cleveland Administration, which held office from 1893 to the early weeks of 1897, is counted as the twenty-fourth Presidency. But I think, hey, it's the same guy. How could he be the twenty-second President and the twenty-fourth President at the same time? Wouldn't be at least as accurate to say that when he swore the oath in 1893, Cleveland re-assumed the office and became the twenty-second President again?

As it turned out, Cleveland eventually lost the support of most of his party by supporting the gold standard; he offered a candidacy for re-election with a splinter group of "National Democrats" joining the Republicans in supporting the gold standard, but lost the nomination to Senator John Palmer of Illinois. (Palmer and the "Gold Democrats" had no appreciable impact on the election of 1896, which is an election worthy of a lot of independent study on its own; the point here is that Cleveland desired a third term as President, and there were no rules against him seeking it.)

So, ever since 1893, we've been counting our Presidents wrong, and we continue to do so today. Barack Hussein Obama is actually the forty-third President of the United States. But our convention, which is thoroughly arbitrary, is to count Cleveland twice, which means Obama is given number 44. Either way, congratulations, Mr. President.