Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Five to four

Ed Stein's comments:

The New York Times noted that in the four months the Supreme Court has debated overturning the Chicago gun ban, 10,000 Americans have died as a result of gun violence. In another bold foray into judicial activism, the Roberts Five has imposed its preferences on the Constitution, blithely ignoring  half of the Second Amendment. The full amendment reads, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” How does an unaffiliated bunch of armed citizens, packing whatever weaponry they can get their hands on, constitute a well-regulated militia? Well, never mind, the originalists on the Court have decided to ignore the original text in this case and apply only the second half of the amendment, concocting an individual right where none clearly and plainly exists.

I’ll be the first to admit that localized gun control laws don’t work particularly well, mainly because it’s far to easy, say in Chicago, to leave the city and purchase an arsenal elsewhere. The NRA, along with its allies in Congress and in local governments, has been spectacularly effective in preventing a rational system of gun control to take root in this country, and the result is a nation awash in gun violence. Worse, as the available weaponry becomes more and more sophisticated and lethal, police are losing the arms race to criminals, who find it far too easy to acquire whatever they want.

None of this seems to matter to this court, which has an agenda and will find a way to bend the meaning of the Constitution to suit its liking. Let’s see, it’s taken me about four hours to draw this cartoon and write this blog. That means about fourteen people died from gunshot wounds while I was sitting at my desk. What a country!

I'll just point out that, even in the rare cases where the Roberts Court does something right, the decision is usually 5-4. In recent decades, the GOP has packed the Supreme Court with four members who are just completely batshit crazy. The swing vote, Anthony Kennedy, is a right-wing conservative appointed by Ronald Reagan, and he's all too ready to listen to the far-right fanatics. Unlike them, he doesn't seem to be a complete lunatic, but he doesn't stand against them very often.

This is how close we are to losing America. This court has already overturned precedent and decided that multinational corporations are just like people. Even freedom of speech has limits, but apparently not gun ownership. And we're just that close to losing freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Yes, that close to putting the Christian Taliban in power in America.

This is an activist court to end all activist courts. Forget the right-wing propaganda. This court thinks nothing of overturning Congressional laws and even overturning its own long-standing precedent. And all they'd need is just one more loony. Get the Republicans back in power to appoint just one more right-wing fanatic and it's all over - for a generation, at least. It's that close.

And now that multinational corporations can spend all they want to elect their own president, the odds aren't good. They've already got Fox "News" pushing far-right propaganda day and night. And the entire Republican Party is determined to slow or stop this economic recovery, no matter how badly that will harm America, just to get back into power again. (Hmm,... isn't that treason, to deliberately harm your own country?)

You think George W. Bush was bad? Just wait until you see the lunatic they'll nominate next time.

Relax and enjoy it

From the Huffington Post, via Jerry Coyne (HuffPo is too loony, in certain respects, for me to want to direct you there), comes this radio interview with Sharron Angle, Republican candidate (NV) for U.S. Senate, in which she describes rape and incest as all part of God's plan:

Manders: Is there any reason at all for an abortion?

Angle: Not in my book.

Manders: So, in other words, rape and incest would not be something?

Angle: You know, I’m a Christian and I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations and we need to have a little faith in many things.

I'm sure that's comforting to rape victims, knowing that Angle thinks their suffering is actually a good thing, all part of God's plan. (I suppose that preventing a rape would be helping Satan, then?)

Actually, I'd say that shows why we shouldn't allow people to force their own religious beliefs on the rest of us. Angle's weird religious views would be no problem at all if she didn't try to legislate them. She can believe any loony thing she wants, personally. What she can't do - or, rather, what she shouldn't be able to do - is force her own beliefs on other people.

But that's exactly what she intends. So how is that any different than the Taliban?

PS. I also like the comment from Deen:

If your God’s plan includes rape and incest, then I want nothing to do with your God, or you.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Doomsday Bunkers

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Shades of the 1950's, huh? (Except for the zombies, I guess.) OK, you're too young for this, I'm sure. But when I was in grade school, there were always big piles of Civil Defense pamphlets at every school function, urging Americans to build bomb shelters. Well, we didn't have Fox "News" back then. Nice to see this stuff privatized, isn't it? (Next up, Social Security.)

These days, so many people seem to be eagerly awaiting the collapse of civilization. It's funny, isn't it? (Well, it's funny provided they have no political power. If the Republicans take power again, it will just be scary.) I suppose it's great fun stocking up on guns and non-hybrid seeds, just waiting for the hordes of starving children to stagger into your killing fields.

Of course, if you're one of the elite in these fancy doomsday bunkers, you can wait out the carnage and emerge, well-fed, into a cleansed world, ready to take your rightful place as the new aristocracy. (Surely a year will be long enough for the radiation to die down and the mutant plagues to run their course, won't it?) I wonder how they plan to split up the world? Draw straws? Hey, with any luck, they'll have two worlds to divide between them.

This is just the modern version of gathering on a hilltop, waiting for the world to end with the Second Coming of Jesus. Unfortunately, we still have that type, too. What's with this eager anticipation for the end of the world? Heck, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 40% of Americans think that Jesus will return sometime in the next 40 years. No wonder they're not worried about global warming or the energy crisis! Sorry, people, but Jesus died a long time ago, and he ain't coming back. We human beings must fix our own problems.

And hiding away in a bunker or a survivalist camp is not going to help, nor is praying for the end of the world. Hello, are there any sane people left in America?

Smart career move?

(photo by Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison, via Wikipedia)

Did General Stanley A. McChrystal want to be fired? Was it all a clever plot? That's what David Brin suggests:

Why, then, has nobody in the mass media even considered the simplest hypothesis --

-- that McChrystal did it all on purpose? ...

Consider the Liddy-North Effect, named for convicted criminals G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, whose conspiratorial efforts to undermine lawful government should have ensured perpetual infamy, but who instead went straight from prison to cushy roles as ranting hatchetmen in an oligarchy-subsidized punditry. What these men proved is that, unless you are caught eviscerating small animals or children on video, there is nothing -- no misbehavior -- that will prevent a prominent and macho critic of democrats from getting a paid gig on Fox News or Venom Radio.  Indeed, the more choleric, insulting and pyrotechnically disrespectful the behavior, the more likely you will get a plum slot.

Hence, it is with no lack of grudging respect that I predict this fellow will slip comfortably into whatever retirement engagement he has lined up, and we will see his face and hear his voice for the next 20 years, reading whatever talking points are put in front of him, whining - like Ollie North - about his Martyrdom at the hands of cursed liberals.

Hey, you gotta hand it to a tactician, who -- upon approaching inevitable retirement -- maps out the perfect campaign to optimize his results, forcing the hand of his boss, creating a situation where the president has no option at all, but to fire a “fighting general” and send him on his strategically planned way.

What do you think? Will McChrystal reappear in a lucrative gig on Fox News? Will he write bestsellers or get his own talk radio show? Was all this a plan to make loads of money, never mind what it would cost our country? Brin discusses the evidence and makes it all seem very plausible. And although he doesn't mention Sarah Palin, her leap from being a half-term governor to multimillionaire quitter might have been persuasive, too. But right now, it's all just speculation.

Incidentally, here's another interesting section of Brin's post:

...McChrystal's antipathy for democrats is not universal among his peers.  Indeed, I have long made a strong case that the US Officer Corps should be considered among the top victims of the insanity known as Neoconservatism.  That movement’s relentless war against every reservoir of sagacity and expertise - its one consistent program - has extended far beyond Tea Party populism, the War on Science, and the campaign to demolish and disable the US Civil Service (with effects we now see in the Gulf of Mexico).  It also featured the most outrageous meddling by politicians in military affairs - for political reasons - that we have seen since the Vietnam War.

The harm done by the neocons to the military, and especially the US Army is well-documented; when Bill Clinton left office, every Army and Marine brigade was deemed by military auditors to be  “fully combat ready.”  After George Bush was done, the number of “war ready” brigades was precisely zero.  And though the conversion of our land forces from supremely potent battlefield dominators to bedraggled counter insurgency swat-teams went uncriticized on the right, it contributed to desperate worry among the top members of the Officer Corps.  Well, most of them.

But the rational members of the U.S. officer corps stay out of politics, so by and large, we citizens haven't heard any "desperate worry" about political meddling - and we probably won't. Besides, in the public mind, the GOP is firmly linked with supporting our military, just because that's their reputation (erroneous though it might be). The Democrats are just the reverse. When Barack Obama increased funding for the military, the Republican Party claimed that he was cutting military spending. And although the evidence was clear, the uninformed general public seemed to buy the lie, just because it fit with that long-term mental image.

The right-wing may be terrible at governing, hopeless at science, and embarrassingly bad with economics, but they seem to be very good at politics.

Monday, June 28, 2010


Sometimes I wonder if the entire Republican Party isn't just a big practical joke being played on the American people. Have they always been this crazy?

Here's Gomer - excuse me, Rep. Louie Gohmert (from Texas, naturally) - explaining on the floor of the House of Representatives a diabolical terrorist plot: sneaking young pregnant women into America so they can give birth on American soil, then raising the kid to be a terrorist and send him back to our country in 20 or 30 years!

Heh, heh. I trust I don't have to explain how batshit crazy this is. No doubt it was meant as support for Rand Paul's wacko idea of repealing the 14th Amendment (and also, I suppose, as a nod to the even loonier birthers, who refuse to accept a black man as legitimately President of the United States). But how stupid must we Americans be to keep electing dim-bulbs like this? Gohmert is supposed to be a leader in our country, not some homeless guy wearing a tinfoil hat who rants about conspiracies as he's digging through a dumpster.

How could any elected official get away with saying something this insane without immediately losing any chance at reelection? What has happened to our country that the crazies have taken over the GOP with hardly any repercussions at all?

And then we've got Jonathan Chait cheering us up with stuff like this:
If economic conditions remain terrible, it's likely that the Republican Party will regain power. 9% unemployment would give even a radioactive figure like Sarah Palin a decent chance to win the presidency, and a double-dip recession would give her a very strong chance of success. This means there's a significant chance that by 2013 the country will be governed by a Republican Party that makes the Bush-era version appear benign by comparison.

Good luck getting to sleep tonight!

Dara O'Briain

Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Hidden in Sight" by Julie E. Czerneda

Hidden in Sight is the final volume of Julie E. Czerneda's Web Shifters space opera trilogy. Like the other two, Beholder's Eye and Changing Vision, it's a complete story in itself, though the books do need to be read in order.

I read this book while sitting in a hospital all week, so there were plenty of interruptions, and my mind wasn't entirely on the story. But it was a good book for that. Since it's so very long (nearly 500 pages in my paperback copy), I'd been delaying starting it. That's one of the problems with books this big. It takes a real effort to start them. But needing to wait at the hospital gave me the incentive I needed. And since it's the third volume in a trilogy, I already knew most of the characters. So concentration wasn't essential.

In fact, there really wasn't much new at all in Hidden in Sight. Esen, the young (600-year-old) shapechanger, is a delight, as always. And her human companion, Paul, is loyal, caring, and fiercely determined to keep her safe. Czerneda always does a superb job creating characters you care about, and this book is filled with them. But again, we've met most of them before.

As shown in the previous book, Paul and Esen have made a new life running a trading company on Minas XII, their real identities - and Esen's real nature - carefully hidden. Now, though, attacks on their home and business put them on the run. Meanwhile, someone is mining Picco's Moon, where Ersh lived, and is killing Tumblers who get too close.

One thing I like about Czerneda is that her villains tend to be understandable. In fact, often they're not really villains at all, just people doing what they think is right. And her heroes recognize that. That doesn't make the danger any less, but it opens up new opportunities for solutions. It's an intelligent way of thinking, and IMHO, far more plausible than super-villains, serial killers, and the like.

Likewise, her aliens tend to do things for alien reasons. If you understand them, you can understand their actions. They may not be right, they may not be admirable, but there are still reasons. It makes her books seem more plausible to me (even books about 600-year-old shapechangers). And there's a basically optimistic attitude to her novels that I really like.

Once I actually started Hidden in Sight, I had no trouble sticking with it. But I wonder if 500 pages was really necessary. Czerneda can't seem to write short novels, and I think this one is the longest of all. It's really kind of ridiculous, especially as the third volume in a trilogy. And as I say, there's not much that's new here (note that they were even on the run in the previous book, though the circumstances weren't identical). However, we do learn something new about shapeshifters, and the story seems to be a fitting end to the trilogy.

Do I seem to be damning with faint praise? I don't mean to. But I loved Beholder's Eye. And Changing Vision was also lots of fun, while adding a bit to the story. This one is sort of... more of the same. If you liked the previous books, you'll like this one, but it probably won't have the same impact. It's a fitting conclusion, but not something you really need to read (although I did love the very end of the book).

PS. I read the previous two books in the trilogy before I started this blog, so you won't find the reviews here. But you might check out my post on Czerneda's Species Imperative trilogy. I really am impressed with her writing ability. Her characters are great, and so are her aliens.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rand Paul and the Fourteenth Amendment

Rand Paul, Tea Party hero and candidate for U.S. Senate (R - KY), has become more cautious lately, after that initial debacle about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Worried about "gotcha" questions from the mainstream media (like "what newspapers and magazines do you read?"), Paul has been avoiding direct answers about his extremist political views. And like Sharron Angle in Nevada, he's been granting extended interviews only to right-wing media, where he's guaranteed softball questions.

Nevertheless, Paul's opinions are so extremely radical, he's having a hard time hiding them completely. Recently, he suggested amending the U.S. Constitution to remove the 14th Amendment guarantee of citizenship for anyone born in America. The idea is to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants, even when those children are born in this country.

Now think about that. Think about what kind of country we want. Rand Paul's America would be one with a permanent underclass of non-citizens. Obviously, this would not deter most illegal immigrants, if it deterred any at all. But their children would not be citizens, and their children's children would not be citizens. We'd be creating a permanent underclass in this country - an underclass of Americans in all but name who constantly feared discovery and expulsion.

Think about it. What kind of society would this create? Instead of "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all," we'd have a nation of two separate populations, one entitled to liberty and justice and one not. And the fact that this underclass would be almost entirely Hispanic would make it even worse. We'd have a government-sanctioned racial division of America for the first time since the end of segregation and worse than anything since the end of slavery. Is that the kind of America you want? I certainly don't!

And how would we enforce this? Could you really prove that your parents were American citizens, especially if that depended on whether or not their parents were citizens, and their grand-parents before that? Almost inevitably, it would become a matter of national identity cards and other favorites of authoritarian regimes (and the corruption that would come along with them). Meanwhile, who would really have to prove their citizenship, as a practical matter? Yup, Hispanic Americans. I don't know if my German and Irish ancestors were here legally or not, but I wouldn't be needing to demonstrate that, would I? Only Hispanic Americans would need to worry about proving their citizenship.

Racists are in favor of proposals like this, because they're terrified that white men are losing their privileged position in this country. You wouldn't see this concern about illegal immigration if they were Englishmen, Germans, or Swedes. Obviously, this hysteria has erupted now because of the symbolism of our first black president. (The "birther" mania is another symptom of that.)

But it's far too late for that now. Like it or not, we're a diverse nation and we're getting more diverse all the time. Trying to legislate an upper class will only destroy what America stands for. We're far better off teaching all children what it means to be an American - and that it has nothing to do with the color of your skin, what language you speak at home, or your holiday traditions. Bigotry has a long, sad history in this country, but it is fundamentally un-American.

PS. Due to a family emergency, posting is likely to be a rather light this week. And next week, I might need to be catching up on other chores. So please bear with me.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Orwell Diaries

(Orwell's press card photo, 1933, via Wikipedia)

I hate to publicize a competitor, but did you know that George Orwell has a blog? Here's the start of his post last Thursday:

The French have surrendered. This could be foreseen from last night’s broadcast and in fact should have been foreseeable when they failed to defend Paris, the one place where it might have been possible to stop the German tanks. Strategically all turns on the French fleet, of which there is no news yet…

Considerable excitement today over the French surrender, and people everywhere to be heard discussing it. Usual line, “Thank God we’ve got a navy”. A Scottish private, with medals of the last war, partly drunk, making a patriotic speech in a carriage in the Underground, which the other passengers seemed rather to like. Such a rush on evening papers that I had to make four attempts before getting one.

OK, as you might have guessed, these are actually posts from George Orwell's diary, 70 years ago to the day. That one was originally written June 17, 1940. It's a neat idea, isn't it? Each "blog post" is that day's diary entry. It's as if you were reading about these events in real-time. And, obviously, it's a fascinating period of time.

Many of the "posts" right now concern worries about a possible German invasion of Great Britain. Think we have problems now? That must have been absolutely terrifying. But the British held up under the strain. Indeed, it was perhaps their finest hour. (Winston Churchill's "This was their finest hour" speech was delivered to Parliament the following day, June 18, 1940.)

Here you can follow along and relive those events of 70 years ago with George Orwell.

It is impossible even yet to decide what to do in the case of German conquest of England. The one thing I will not do is to clear out, at any rate not further than Ireland, supposing that to be feasible. If the fleet is intact and it appears that the war is to be continued from America and the Dominions, then one must remain alive if possible, if necessary in the concentration camp. If the U.S.A is going to submit to conquest as well, there is nothing for it but to die fighting, but one must above all die fighting and have the satisfaction of killing somebody else first.

We must remember that it's in times like this that nations either rise to the challenge or falter and fail. Do we live in difficult times? Well, this is nothing like World War II or even the Great Depression. So, can we show even half the courage our ancestors did? Or have we become timid little people, gullible, frightened of shadows, and easily led by demagogues?

We've certainly failed to show much courage or common sense so far, in the first decade of the 21st Century. Can we recover our nerve now? I guess we'll see. Given the current teabagger lunacy, the anti-immigrant hysteria, the "birther" idiocy - and, just basically, Fox "News" making money hand over fist - I can't say that I'm optimistic. But I hope I'm wrong.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Day 62

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Note that the Democratic Party is working hard to keep the Joe Barton apology - and the initial comments from other Republican leaders - in the public eye. For example:

Interrupting Father's Day

Jonathan Chait has a rather humorous post at his New Republic blog about the reaction to President Obama's fatherhood initiative. Here's the beginning:

Most everything associated with President Obamahis policy platform, his public style, his personal storyhave become grist for intense partisan conflict. I had thought that the one remaining uncontroversial scrap was his endorsement of fatherhood, which he has been doing periodically since he appeared on the public scene. But even this can now spur outrage, at least by Ira Stoll, who has attracted a lot of attention with a column denouncing Obama's fatherhood initiative:
President Obama interrupted my Father's Day with an e-mail announcing the launch of "The President's Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative" ...So I ignored my children for a few minutes of Father's Day and did what the president asked which was to check out the Web site, and especially the government's "Tips for Parents." They were infuriating.
I'm no technological wizard, so I am not sure how an email "interrupted Father's Day." I have one of those email systems that you only read when you want to check email. Perhaps Stoll has his email set up to buzz loudly every time a message arrives, and he hasn't figured out how to disable the feature. I would suggest that, if the arrival of an email is going to interrupt Father's Day, try leaving your computer or smart phone off, or in a different room. (I thought about emailing this suggestion to Stoll, but I worried the message might interrupt his sleep.)

Heh, heh. You really have to wonder about these people, don't you? According to them, Barack Obama just can't do anything right. Democrats didn't do this to George W. Bush in his early years in office - not until we got the invasion of an innocent country, torture, and everything else that made his administration such a blight on our nation. But for Obama, this sort of thing began before he even took office, and it's just become more and more hysterical since.

Anyway, check out the rest of the post. It's pretty good (especially the part where muting TV commercials is un-American!).

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Oath of Fealty" by Elizabeth Moon

Oath of Fealty is the new sequel to Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion fantasy trilogy (Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold) first published more than two decades ago. (Yes, confusingly it's also the title of a 1981 science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but I'm talking about the 2010 fantasy novel here.)

Beginning immediately where Oath of Gold left off, this is epic fantasy, with events spread across several lands already familiar from the previous trilogy. If you've read The Deed of Paksenarrion, you'll know exactly what to expect (and you do need to read that story first). It's fun and exciting, and I could hardly put the book down. But when I finished, I had a couple of problems with it.

First, let me talk about what I loved here. Rather than continuing with a typical sequel, Moon very wisely chose to focus on other characters in this book. After all, after the first three books, is there anything we don't already know about Paksenarrion? We followed her from her start as a runaway and an apprentice mercenary through all manner of danger and disaster, and eventually to her becoming a paladin of the gods. What could Moon add to her story at this point? Well, Paks is still around, but she's a minor character in this book.

And have you ever wondered, at the end of a fantasy novel where good has triumphed, what life is like afterward? Sure, you might see the hero riding off into the sunset, but what about everyone else whose life has been affected, sometimes drastically, by the events of the book? Oath of Fealty focuses on several people who must now accept new challenges: Kieri Phelan, who has become king of a land he doesn't know; Jandelir Arcolin, senior captain of mercenaries, who must unexpectedly take command of the mercenary company; and Dorrin, another senior captain, who returns to her despised family holdings in Tsaia as Duke Verrakai.

As in the previous books, there are all sorts of minor characters, too - and some not so minor - who have their own stories. They seem like real people, and their actions have consequences, with events rippling through society. No one acts in a vacuum, and no one person can do everything. Every character depends on others, and every action affects other people, too. It's really great. In this book, we see the effect of events in the previous trilogy, the effect on whole societies and the personal effect on individuals.

One minor problem at the end of the book is that it just... stops. It doesn't end in the middle of a sentence, but it's almost that bad. This is apparently the beginning of a series (a trilogy?) and the books will definitely not stand alone. As I say, there are a number of different threads in this book, widely scattered across many lands, and none of them come to any kind of conclusion, not even a temporary one. There aren't any cliff-hangers, either. Apparently, the book just ends because of length (471 pages in this hardcover edition).

That might not be a problem, especially if you expect it (I didn't). But I had a more serious problem with one of the story threads, where the person becomes so magically powerful that she's virtually another Paks. I'm not crazy about all-powerful superheroes, especially when they're born with an advantage that other people just don't have (and can't compete against). OK, this is a world of magic, but still.

One of the great things about The Deed of Paksenarrion was that it featured mercenary soldiers who relied on their training, experience, and hard work to succeed. The gods would help out occasionally, and mages were useful and/or dangerous, but in general, it was their own effort that mattered. Even a lowly sheepfarmer's daughter could join the troop and become a highly-skilled fighter. By the end of the story, Paks had become more than that, but it was, after all, the end of the story. And as I noted, Elizabeth Moon wisely chose to keep Paks as a minor character in this book.

Unfortunately, she then created another character at least as wildly overpowered as Paks (and probably even more so). It's not a bad storyline, but it's not to my taste. And it's too similar to what we've seen in the previous books. I would have much preferred a different direction to this story thread. I thoroughly enjoyed the other threads in the book, and even this one was entertaining, but I really don't like the direction it took. (My disappointment is probably greater because I liked this story thread so much at the beginning of the book. And the fact that her enemies are also supermen doesn't help much.)

So, while I was wildly enthusiastic about the book when I was reading it, at least most of the way, I wasn't quite so enthusiastic when I finished. It's still a very good read, though, and I do plan to buy the next book in the series, whenever it's released. If you liked The Deed of Paksenarrion, I'm sure you'll like this book. I definitely wouldn't start with this one, though. You do need to read the previous trilogy first.

PS. In a way, Oath of Fealty is oddly typical. I enjoy Elizabeth Moon's writing, but there's usually something that bothers me in most of her books. I loved The Deed of Paksenarrion, but I could have done without the torture scene in the third book. I loved The Speed of Dark, but I wasn't as fond of the ending. And Trading in Danger just didn't ring true for me, for some reason. But I love her characters. I always care what happens to them, and that's very important for me in any novel.

Note: My review of the sequel, Kings of the North, is here.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Joe Barton would like to apologize to...

... BP, for soaking up all your valuable oil with our worthless pelicans.

Oh, Internet, you're such a kidder! Who comes up with these things? It's great, anyway.

Joe Barton, of course, is the Texas Republican - the ranking Republican on the House Energy Committee, in fact - who thinks that the "tragedy of the first proportion" isn't the current oil spill in the gulf, but rather that President Obama has persuaded BP to pledge $20 billion to clean it up.

Keep in mind that the President didn't - couldn't - order BP to do this. So how was this a "shakedown"? Furthermore, how could Barton think that asking BP to clean up their own mess was somehow wrong? Well, maybe the fact that he's taken more campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry than anyone else in the House of Representatives? Maybe because his biggest single contributor owns 25% of the Macondo Project, the site of this Deepwater Horizon explosion?

And yes, this is the lunatic who'll be chairman of the Energy Committee if the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives this November. In fact, we've seen him in action before. He's the guy who thought he'd "baffled" Energy Secretary - and Nobel Prize-winner - Steven Chu by asking where the oil in Alaska came from. (I think Stu was stunned by this level of ignorance in a member of Congress.) And Barton's "natural response" to global warming is to sit in the shade. Great, huh?

But whenever you're depressed, the Internet inevitably rides to the rescue, this time with a Joe Barton would like to apologize website. Click on the random apology to get a new one.

Among others, Joe Barton would like to apologize to...

Al Capone, for our totally unfair income tax system.

The Confederacy for taking all your slaves away. Totally a shakedown move on our part. Sorry.

Germany, for D-Day. Seems like you guys would have really liked to keep all of Europe. How about if we just give you Texas for your troubles. Fair trade?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Rachel Maddow for President!

Great speech! However, I should also note Jonathan Chait's comments:

Few people follow the arcana of Congressional debate. They attribute all political outcomes to the president, and thus when the outcome is unsatisfactory, the reason must be a failure of presidential willpower. I wrote about this phenomenon, with relation to the BP spill, in a recent TRB column.

Rachel Maddow offered a perfect example of the phenomenon the other night. She delivered her fantasy version of the speech President Obama should have given. It was filled with unequivocal liberal rhetoric. I was struck by this portion, explaining how she would pass an energy bill:
The United States Senate will pass an energy bill. This year. The Senate version of the bill will not expand offshore drilling. The earlier targets in that bill for energy efficiency and for renewable energy-sources will be doubled or tripled.

If Senators use the filibuster to stop the bill, we will pass it by reconciliation, which still ensures a majority vote. If there are elements of the bill that cannot procedurally be passed by reconciliation, if those elements can be instituted by executive order, I will institute them by executive order.
In reality, you can't pass any of the climate bill by reconciliation. Democrats didn't write reconciliation instructions permitting them to do so, and very little of its could be passed through reconciliation, which only allows budgetary decisions. Maddow's response is to pass the rest by executive order. But you can't change those laws through executive order, either. That's not how our system of government works, nor is it how our system should work.

If Maddow's speech had to hew to the reality of Senate rules and the Constitution, she'd be left where Obama is: ineffectually pleading to get whatever she can get out of a Senate that has nowhere near enough votes to pass even a stripped-down cap and trade bill. It may be nice to imagine that all political difficulties could be swept away by a president who just spoke with enough force and determination. It's a recurrent liberal fantasy —Michael Moore imagined such a speech a few months ago, Michael Douglas delivers such a speech in "The American President." I would love to eliminate the filibuster and create more accountable parties. But even if that happens, there will be a legislative branch that has a strong say in what passes or doesn't pass. And that's good! We wouldn't want to live in a world where a president can remake vast swaths of policy merely be decreeing it.

What's your passion?

Here's a neat post by Phil Plait at his Bad Astronomy blog. An excerpt:

My trash-hauling chore was forgotten. I suddenly had a flashback, visceral and total, of being a teenager. Standing at the end of my family’s driveway, I watched the sky. Every clear night you’d find me out there. I spent hundreds of hours, thousands, either gazing with my eye to the telescope or simply with my chin tipped up, the Universe unfolded above me. I would always have to pause when a car drove by, and while my absorption with the task didn’t allow it to occur to me then, I now wonder how many of those people saw me and thought to themselves that I was wasting my time.

But as I stand outside my house as an adult, gaping up at the sky, I am familiar there. The stars are my friends… no, that’s hopelessly anthropomorphic and somewhat twee. But they are like slipping your feet into well-worn slippers, like the first bite of a recipe you’ve perfected by countless trial-and-error meals, like holding a book whose spine has been softened through years of reading and re-reading.

I’m comfortable with the sky. I’m at home there. When I stand in my yard and look up, my heart sings and my mind reaches out. My weekly chore was interrupted, delayed, but it didn’t matter.

I don’t know what your own passion is. But I will say this, and you hear me well: no time is wasted spent under the stars. And no time is wasted spent doing what you love.

I'm not an astronomer, not even an amateur, but the passion Phil Plait brings to astronomy is obvious. It's great seeing someone with such an intense interest. Even if I don't really share that interest, I find myself drawn to his enthusiasm. Yes, I'll think, that is neat.

I've never been a person with a particular overriding passion. As this blog attests, I find just about everything interesting. I majored in Journalism at the University of Nebraska only because it let me take such a wide variety of other classes, and I never did figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

But that's OK. I've known people who've discovered a lifelong interest, a real passion, something they wanted to spend their life doing. That's great. It really is. Sometimes, it's a hobby. Other times, they're lucky enough to make a career out of what they love. But either way - whether I share that interest or not - it's a wonderful thing.

But me, I tend to serial passions. I find almost everything interesting, but there will be times when I'm particularly enthused at one thing or another. Those enthusiasms may last for years, but not forever. Oh, I remain interested, that's always the case. But I like variety. Sooner or later, it's time to move on to something else. That's just me.

As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing wrong with that, either. You might be better off if you're the type who can focus on a lifelong passion. In fact, I think that's almost certainly the case. But we're all different. We can't try to be what we're not. One way or another, though, you need to find life interesting.

It doesn't matter if no one else shares your passion (although these days, it's easy enough to find fellow enthusiasts on the internet, no matter what your interests might be). It doesn't matter if other people don't get it, or even if they laugh at you. What matters is that you find it fascinating,... and that you're willing to put some effort into it.

Yes, it has to be an active passion. Sleeping till noon isn't a passion. Mindlessly watching television isn't a passion. It must be active, not passive. And generally speaking, you'll get out of it what you put in.

I really admire the kind of kid - heck, the kind of adult - who spends every clear night looking through his telescope. It doesn't have to be astronomy, of course. But that kind of passion is really neat. And if it doesn't last, that's OK, too. No doubt it will always be an interest. And the experience of enthusiasm is important. Enthusiasm is so wonderful that you'll want to feel that way again and again.

Are you bored? As far as I'm concerned, that's a sin. Look around. The world is your oyster.

Speeches are easy. Where's the will?

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Saltation" by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller

(cover image from

A saltation is a leap, a jump, an abrupt transition. (I don't know about you, but I had to look it up.) It's also the title of the brand new sequel to Fledgling (which I reviewed here), part of the long-running Liaden series of space opera by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

If you're familiar with the other Liaden books - and if not, you shouldn't be starting with either of these - Saltation will come as no surprise. That's the problem. At the end of Fledgling, Theo Waitley was about to enter pilot school (starship pilot school, of course), and she turns out to be incredibly gifted - like just about every other character in this series. She wows her instructors, while making some enemies and a few friends...  Stop me if you've heard this before (like in every space academy story ever written, for starters).

For more than two-thirds of the book, Theo faithfully follows along this standard formula of gifted, but misunderstood, misfit at boarding school. It's exactly what you'd expect. It's not badly written. Indeed, it's entertaining enough. Lee and Miller are skilled writers who have a real gift for making appealing characters. But I spent pretty much the whole book just anxious to get to the end of it. Well, any Liaden fan already knows how it ends, because we first saw Theo Waitley in a brief appearance at the end of I Dare. This book is almost entirely just a vehicle to get her to that point. I'm wondering if a preamble would have worked just as well.

There are a couple of other problems with the book. I mentioned earlier that Fledgling was science fiction in which the science was anthropology (or sociology, if there's a difference). After so many books, I doubt if Lee and Miller have much new to say about Liaden culture, so I was glad to see in Fledgling a new world and a new culture or two (not to mention new characters). We don't get that in Saltation. In fact, we don't get much of anything that we haven't seen before.

And although Theo is an appealing character, we discovered all that in Fledgling. There's nothing new we learn about her in this book. And Saltation is pretty much all Theo. In other books in the series, there are several appealing characters. Even the minor characters are great. As I say, Lee and Miller have a real gift for inventing characters we care about. But they haven't bothered to do so this time. Since Theo must end up alone and in trouble at the end of the book (that's not a spoiler, since it's just a description of the scene in I Dare), minor characters in this book apparently had to stay really minor.

All this was disappointing, because I was eagerly looking forward to Saltation. Don't get me wrong, it's an easy read. I read it all in one go. But the best things about this series - the many appealing characters and the great examination of varied cultures - are absent in this book. I normally don't want a Liaden novel to end, but in this case, through most of the book, I was just impatient to get to the end, to get through this necessary middle (Theo must become a pilot) and get on with the real story. That's not what I expect from Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

But things picked up when she finally left Anlingdin Piloting Academy (as we know from the beginning will surely happen, since again we know we're heading for that final scene in I Dare). Yes, we've seen this part before, too - the standard on-the-job training from the old-timer - but the problem which finally causes her to seek out the Delm of Korval was unexpected. Interestingly, it's connected to a standalone book in the series, one with all different characters and not even a mention of Korval, Balance of Trade (which might be my favorite book in the Liaden Universe). That was kind of neat.

At any rate, I am anxious to see the next book in the series. Saltation was very much a middle book - seemingly the ultimate middle book, in fact, with all of a middle book's faults - but we're finally back to where I Dare ended. And there's a new situation which could be very interesting. I'm anxious to see where Lee and Miller take that.

But at this point, I can't say that I'm overly optimistic. Fledgling was great because we got a new planet and new characters, but now we're back on Liad with everyone else, and I'm wondering if Lee and Miller really have anything new to say about that. I Dare itself seemed rushed, as if they wanted to wrap everything up neatly for the conclusion, but now it's not going to be the conclusion. And there's almost nothing in Saltation that gives me hope for a fresh direction. (Yeah, quite a different feeling from after my reading of Fledgling, huh?)

I'll admit that I'm anxious to see what Korval does next. But a series should stop while you still want more. Most series - the vast majority - continue long after the author has anything new to say, with each book being less interesting than the previous. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series is the only long-running series that's bucked that trend (at least, up until the last book, Diplomatic Immunity, anyway). Lee and Miller haven't found anything to replace the Liaden Universe, but I think they must.

But maybe they'll prove me wrong. Despite my disappointment with Saltation, I am anxious to see what comes next. The Liaden Universe is comfort food for the soul. It's not great science fiction, but it's lots of fun. It's the kind of fiction I can - and have - read over and over again. It might not be serious science fiction, but few authors can do this kind of thing even half as well as Lee and Miller.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


When I started this blog, I wondered if I'd run out of things to talk about, at least on occasion. Ha! What I'm running out of is time. This has been more time-consuming than I expected. But I still can't keep up with the posts I'd like to make, not even close.

So this one will be a little different. I've been accumulating some neat articles about science. Instead of posting about each one, I'm just going to list them here with a brief description, along with a link to the original article or blog post. I thought they were all very interesting, so I urge you to check them out.

From Not Exactly Rocket Science, here's a fascinating post about two new nano-scale robots, tiny machines made from DNA:

Two spiders are walking along a track – a seemingly ordinary scene, but these are no ordinary spiders. They are molecular robots and they, like the tracks they stride over, are fashioned from DNA. One of them has four legs and marches over its DNA landscape, turning and stopping with no controls from its human creators. The other has four legs and three arms – it walks along a miniature assembly line, picking up three pieces of cargo from loading machines (also made of DNA) and attaching them to itself. All of this is happening at the nanometre scale, far beyond what the naked eye can discern. Welcome to the exciting future of nanotechnology.

At The Loom, here's a blog post about the difficulty of raising bacteria in a laboratory. The reason we know so much about some species, but so little about others, is because the former are easy to grow in a lab:

Most of life on Earth is a mystery to us. The bulk of biomass on the planet is made up of microbes. By some estimates, there may be 150 million species of bacteria, but scientists have only formally named a few thousand of them. One of the big causes of this ignorance is that scientists don’t know how to raise microbe colonies. If you scoop up some dirt and stick it under a microscope, you’ll see lots of different microbes living happily there. If you mash up all the DNA in that mud and read its sequence, you’ll discover an astonishing diversity of genes belonging to those microbes–thousands in a single spoon of soil. But now try to rear those microbes in a lab. When scientists try, they generally fail. A tiny fraction of one percent of microbe species will grow under ordinary conditions in Petri dish.

(image from NASA/JPL-Caltech, via the NY Times)

There seems to be a pattern here. Do I have a thing for tiny creatures? Well, here's an article in the New York Times about archaea (one species pictured above). Never heard of them? Archaea are apparently one of the three great "domains" of life - the others being bacteria and eukaryotes (animals, plants, fungi, protozoa, etc.):

The third great lineage of living beings is the archaea. At first glance, they look like bacteria — and were initially presumed to be so. In fact, some scientists still classify them as bacteria; but most now consider that there are enough differences between archaea and bacteria for the archaea to count as a separate realm. 

One neat thing is that archaea have their own set of weird viruses that parasitize them, thus demonstrating Jonathan Swift's verse: "So, naturalists observe, a flea Has smaller fleas that on him prey; And these have smaller still to bite ’em; And so proceed ad infinitum."

And speaking of parasites, here's a frightening article in The Economist about a common parasite that seems to change human behavior. In rats and mice, the same parasite causes rodents to lose their fear of cats, indeed to even become attracted to their smell (the parasite then spends part of its life cycle in the intestinal wall of cats). So what's it doing to us?

If an alien bug invaded the brains of half the population, hijacked their neurochemistry, altered the way they acted and drove some of them crazy, then you might expect a few excitable headlines to appear in the press. Yet something disturbingly like this may actually be happening without the world noticing.

(image by Jerilee Wei)

Yeah, science is fascinating, isn't it? Here's an article (audio also available) at National Public Radio about 18th Century science. The title - "No Thank You, We Like Pain" - might give you an idea of how things have changed:

In 1799, a very young chemist — about 21 years old — inhaled a lot of carbon monoxide directly into his lungs, keeled over, was seized by agonizing chest pains, staggered into his garden, got giddy, became nauseous, went to bed, recovered — and then, a few days later, he did it again.

Welcome to the world of 18th century science. Richard Holmes, in his book Age of Wonder, describes how young Humphry Davy went looking for a possible cure for tuberculosis. He tried inhaling very different gases, hoping to improve respiration. In a very un-20th century way, he matter-of-factly experimented on himself, his pets, his friends and even friends of friends.

Finally, on a more serious note, here's a study at PloS ONE, an interactive open-access journal of peer-reviewed science, which shows that researches in the "softer" sciences report more positive outcomes than researchers in the "harder" sciences:

The hypothesis of a Hierarchy of the Sciences with physical sciences at the top, social sciences at the bottom, and biological sciences in-between is nearly 200 years old. This order is intuitive and reflected in many features of academic life, but whether it reflects the “hardness” of scientific research—i.e., the extent to which research questions and results are determined by data and theories as opposed to non-cognitive factors—is controversial. ... If the hierarchy hypothesis is correct, then researchers in “softer” sciences should have fewer constraints to their conscious and unconscious biases, and therefore report more positive outcomes. Results confirmed the predictions at all levels considered: discipline, domain and methodology broadly defined. Controlling for observed differences between pure and applied disciplines, and between papers testing one or several hypotheses, the odds of reporting a positive result were around 5 times higher among papers in the disciplines of Psychology and Psychiatry and Economics and Business compared to Space Science, 2.3 times higher in the domain of social sciences compared to the physical sciences, and 3.4 times higher in studies applying behavioural and social methodologies on people compared to physical and chemical studies on non-biological material. In all comparisons, biological studies had intermediate values.

This is a scholarly article, and I'll admit that I only read the one-paragraph abstract. But I thought it was an interesting example of how science seeks to identify bias - or, more broadly speaking, how science is always on a quest for self-improvement.

Well, I could write a detailed discussion about that - indeed, I'd like to - but that's not the point of this post. I haven't had the time to discuss these articles separately, but I didn't want to let them slide by unmentioned, either. Your results may differ, but I found them all quite interesting.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Here comes Alabama

A few weeks ago, I posted a parody political ad from The Onion. At the time, I mentioned that it wasn't all that much different from the real ad. But now, here's a real ad that's so crazy, I don't know how you could possibly make a parody of it. (Yes, they're both from Alabama.)

Can you believe that? Filling out a tax return is "spying on ourselves"? And, er, "without representation"? This guy is running for Congress. What does he think that's all about if it's not representative democracy? I must admit, I didn't realize there were still lunatics railing about the progressive income tax. But I guess the Tea Party has revived all the crazies, hasn't it?

So now he's going to revolt? He can't stand by to see "these evils" - a progressive income tax specifically permitted by the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified long before he was born - perpetrated? I repeat, the income tax is in the Constitution. So, gather your armies? WTF?

How loony can you get! These people who apparently think that it's the height of patriotism to secede from the Union or rise up in violent revolt against their elected government really kill me. But apparently, nothing is too extreme for the GOP these days.

How could you make a parody of this video? It's already a self-parody.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Nomen Ludi" by Rob Beschizza

This is fiction, but a great story nonetheless, especially for gamers. I always have a hard time explaining to non-gamers why an old, classic game means so much to me. And I didn't play computer games as a child (because there weren't any).

But the experience can be wonderful. I guess you had to be there - not the experience playing any particular game, but just a similar experience.

And I've got to say that this game looks great. I'd love to play it! All in all, this is a superb achievement. Check it out. You'll be glad you did.

The Wikipedia Game

This looks like a real time-waster! It's the online Wikipedia Game. The website gives you a link to a random page on Wikipedia, and your goal is to get to another page, also randomly generated, just by following links from the starting page.

The idea is to get from one Wikipedia page to another as quickly as possible and by clicking on as few links as possible.

It's kind of clever, but the strict time limit makes it less fun than it could be. (I tried it once, and I was kicked into a new game just as I was getting to my goal.) Just as well, though. I really don't need any more time-wasting activities on the internet!

Getting your priorities straight

Of all the child abuse scandals recently uncovered in the Catholic Church, Ireland was probably the worst. After nearly a decade of work, Ireland's Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released its report in 2009 to widespread anger, disgust, and dismay.

The report was a long time coming, with the first head of the commission resigning in protest at the lack of cooperation she was getting from the government. Well, the Catholic Church is immensely powerful in Ireland. From the Times (London):

An interim report published in 2003 provided a glimpse inside a house of horrors, with hundreds of internees at “industrial schools” describing “being beaten on every part of their body”; some of these beatings being administered in front of onlookers with the victim stripped naked.

Sexual abuse of minors was commonly linked with violence, the report said, and “ranged from detailed interrogation about sexual activity, inspection of genitalia, kissing, fondling of genitalia, masturbation of witness by abuse and vice versa, oral intercourse, rape and gang rape”. Some of the victims experienced abuse throughout their time in the care of religious orders.

Among the orders investigated were the Sisters of Mercy, which was responsible for the largest number of children’s institutions including the now notorious Goldenbridge, and the Christian Brothers, who ran institutions for mainly teenage boys such as Artane and Letterfrack.

And the final report was just as bad as originally feared. From the Independent:

A fiercely debated, nine-year investigation into Ireland's Roman Catholic-run institutions says priests and nuns terrorised thousands of boys and girls in workhouse-style schools for decades — and government inspectors failed to stop the chronic beatings, rapes and humiliation.

High Court Justice Sean Ryan today unveiled the 2,600-page final report of Ireland's Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse, which is based on testimony from thousands of former students and officials from more than 250 church-run institutions.

More than 30,000 children deemed to be petty thieves, truants or from dysfunctional families — a category that often included unmarried mothers — were sent to Ireland's austere network of industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages and hostels from the 1930s until the last church-run facilities shut in the 1990s.

The report found that molestation and rape were "endemic" in boys' facilities, chiefly run by the Christian Brothers order, and supervisors pursued policies that increased the danger. Girls supervised by orders of nuns, chiefly the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse but frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless.

The Catholic Church was, as always, far more concerned with their own institution than with the children under their care:

The commission dismissed as implausible a central defense of the religious orders — that, in bygone days, people did not recognize the sexual abuse of a child as a criminal offense, but rather as a sin that required repentance.

In their testimony, religious orders typically cited this opinion as the principal reason why sex-predator priests and brothers were sheltered within the system and moved to new posts where they could still maintain daily contact with children.

But the commission said its fact-finding — which included unearthing decades-old church files, chiefly stored in the Vatican, on scores of unreported abuse cases from Ireland's industrial schools — demonstrated that officials understood exactly what was at stake: their own reputations.

It cited numerous examples where school managers told police about child abusers who were not church officials — but never did this when one of their own had committed the crime.

"Contrary to the congregations' claims that the recidivist nature of sexual offending was not understood, it is clear from the documented cases that they were aware of the propensity for abusers to re-abuse," it said.

Religious orders were chiefly concerned about preventing scandal, not the danger to children, it said.

The Catholic Church knew what was going on. From Sky News:

The church was aware long-term sex offenders were repeatedly abusing children, the damning report revealed.

The inquiry found that paedophiles were moved from school to school each time their behaviour was uncovered.

Moved to new parishes, whenever their behavior threatened a scandal in the Catholic Church, child rapists could easily find new victims. Is it any wonder this report struck Ireland like a bombshell?

But it's been a year now, so what is the Catholic Church doing in Ireland these days? After all these horrible revelations, what's the big concern of church leaders? Well, liberals, of course! What else?

From the Irish Independent:

Vatican investigators to Ireland appointed by Pope Benedict XVI are to clamp down on liberal secular opinion in an intensive drive to re-impose traditional respect for clergy, according to informed sources in the Catholic Church.

The nine-member team led by two cardinals will be instructed by the Vatican to restore a traditional sense of reverence among ordinary Catholics for their priests, the Irish Independent has learned. ...

An emphasis will be placed on an evangelisation campaign to overcome the alienation of young people scandalised by the spate of sexual abuse of children and by later cover-ups of paedophile clerics by leaders of the institutional church.

A major thrust of the Vatican investigation will be to counteract materialistic and secularist attitudes, which Pope Benedict believes have led many Irish Catholics to ignore church disciplines and become lax in following devotional practices such as going on pilgrimages and doing penance.

It's amazing that "traditional respect for clergy" has fallen off in Ireland, don't you think? What happened to that "traditional sense of reverence among ordinary Catholics for their priests"? Gee, I wonder what could have caused Irish Catholics to lose that? Obviously, it must the fault of those horrible liberals with their secular ideas!

And clearly, what's needed is an intense "evangelisation campaign to overcome the alienation of young people." How could they be alienated, anyway? They just need to forget about the rape of children and the decades-long cover-up by church leaders. So what if the Catholic Church just moved pedophile priests around, helping them find new, unsuspecting victims when their first parish became too hot for comfort?

As cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) was known as "God's Rottweiler," but that wasn't because he was eager to defend children, women, or other innocent members of the church. No, it was because of his vigor in rooting out liberals and enforcing strict obedience to church teachings. Well, the Catholic Church is the last home of the old medieval "divine right of kings" idea, the belief that leaders are appointed by God and so must be obeyed in all things.

Forget child-abusing priests. Rooting out liberals is what really concerns the church, and not just in Ireland. Here's another report, this one from America:

Three Catholic women's communities in Washington state are being investigated by the Vatican. They were chosen for review as part of an extensive investigation into American nuns. The Vatican says it's following up on complaints of feminism and activism.

Oh, no! Feminism and activism? That sounds like it might be... liberal! Get the exorcists, quick! And worst of all, it's a bunch of women! The Catholic Church is a diehard patriarchy, of course, and women must stay in their place. And their place, according to the celibate old men who run the church, is not in any leadership role. This is why an "extensive investigation into American nuns" is a priority for the church. Me? I think they've got their priorities wrong.

I'm just amazed that there's anyone left in the Catholic Church. But religious belief is a weird thing. When you've been brainwashed since you were an infant, I suppose it can be hard to break away. But this is a perfect example of why faith is such a poor way to get your beliefs. You other believers, don't be so smug that you're not Catholic, because faith-based belief of any kind is fundamentally unreliable. (Look at suicide bombers if you want another example. Islamic militants are just as firmly convinced that their faith is right as you are about your own.) Reason and evidence - especially evidence - are much, much better ways to determine the truth.

But consider the evidence of decades of sexual abuse of children, and the massive cover-up by church leaders who simply moved child rapists from parish to parish. And now look at what really gets their angry attention: liberal thinking. Women starting to think for themselves. Yeah, liberals are so much worse than child rapists, aren't they? Women should simply shut up and obey men. And don't get me started about those secularists!

I don't think the Catholic Church has its priorities straight. What about you?

Shock absorbers generate electricity

(photo by Zachary Anderson from the NY Times)

Here's an article in the New York Times (registration required, though it's free) about a new invention, shock absorbers that generate electricity when you hit a pothole:

A new type of shock absorber under development by the Levant Power Corporation converts the bumps and jolts of vehicles on rough roads into usable electricity.

Usually, shock absorbers dissipate the energy of bouncing vehicles as heat. But the new shocks can use the kinetic energy of bounces to generate watts, putting the electricity to use running the vehicle’s windshield wipers, fans or dashboard lights, for example.

The devices, called GenShocks, can be installed both in ordinary and hybrid vehicles, lowering fuel consumption by 1 to 6 percent, depending on the vehicle and road conditions,...

Neat, huh? It's clever thinking like this that keeps us increasing fuel economy. At the same time, the increasing cost of fuel makes these kinds of inventions practical. If we'd been smart, we would have greatly increased the tax on fossil fuels years ago, when they were still cheap - using the proceeds to pay off the deficit, lower income taxes, and fund alternate energy research.

Of course, that might have been difficult politically. And not all of the money would have been spent wisely (a large pool of money being irresistible to politicians). But it would have been far better than sending America's wealth to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other oil-rich, but despotic, nations.

The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 should have been a wake-up call for America. Instead, we foolishly frittered away the time, completely wasting the opportunity. As a nation, we just weren't very smart...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Campaign finance reform

Ed Stein's commentary:

The Roberts Court continues its assault on campaign finance sanity, striking down an Arizona law which has worked well over the years to level the playing field, allowing candidates encumbered by the need to raise campaign funds to compete against self-funded multi-millionaires. The Court’s reckless activism is upending decades of legal precedent, and in the process, increasing the pernicious influence of money in the political process. I’m pretty much a free-speech absolutist, but the idea that money is the same as speech, and the notion that corporations, entities that exist only because they are chartered by states, have the same free speech rights as individuals, are frightening concepts. If we don’t have enough evidence already, with the economic meltdown and the oil in the Gulf, of how big money has completely distorted our politics, just wait until this court finishes demolishing any remaining chance we have of controlling the ability of corporations and the very wealthy to stack the deck in their favor.

It's magic!

Jonathan Chait has a brief, but very good, blog post entitled "Lamar and the Magic Climate Plan" (where I took the above Willy Wonka image) that points out the problem - er, one of the problems - with Republicans these days:

Lamar Alexander takes to the Wall Street Journal op-ed page to lay out his clean energy vision. It's a lot like the Republican health care vision: let's do all the popular stuff and none of the unpopular stuff it requires.

Well, of course. That's pretty much what we expect from Republicans these days - nothing serious, just propaganda to fool the uninformed. And it's the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, too - which had some of the looniest editorials in America even before it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch (of Fox "News" infamy).

All of Chait's post is well worth reading (and as I say, it's quite short), but I thought the last two paragraphs were particularly good:

This is not the only problem with Alexander's piece. He outlines goals, like increasing conservation and electrifying half the automobile fleet -- but he has absolutely nothing about how to obtain these goals. His electric car plan is literally what you read above: "Electrify half our cars and trucks." Who would do this? How? He does not say. Cars and trucks run on gasoline because gasoline is the cheapest fuel available. If you wanted half the cars to run on electric power, you'd have to change this so that gasoline was no longer the cheapest fuel available. It could be a tax on carbon emissions, enormous subsidies for electric batteries, regulatory fiat, something. Likewise, if you want people to conserve energy, you need to increase the cost of using energy.

I'm not sure how you have a debate with people like this. It's as if you propose that, in order to get your family out of debt, your 23 year old son living at home gets a job, and the son replies that he likes the part of your idea where he gets paid, but let's leave out the part where he goes to work. This is basically Alexander's case. And he's one of the moderate Republicans! Most of them just deny the science of climate change altogether. The moderate position is that we can fix the problem via magic.

You can't debate people like this, because they're not interested in determining the best policies. Their only goal is political advantage. Everything is presented through the prism of politics. Reality is immaterial. Reason is immaterial. Evidence is immaterial. What's important to them is only how it will fly with voters and campaign contributors. Here's another example:

Just a year and a half after they were tossed out of power, at the end of eight long years of criminal incompetence and unmitigated disaster (12 years in Congress), Republicans are working hard to get back in charge. But according to House Minority Leader John Boehner, they've learned their lesson. So, what's the magic plan that will miraculously fix everything this time? It's tax cuts! Yup, the same old obsession they had during the entire eight years of George W. Bush! Still that old magic...

Here's Talking Points Memo:

"You equate the idea of lowering marginal tax rates with less revenue for the federal government," Boehner cautioned. "We've seen over the last 30 years that lower marginal tax rates have led to a growing economy, more employment, and more people paying taxes. And if you look at the revenue growth over those 30 years, you've got a prime example of what we've been talking about."

This is practically the reverse of the truth. In the years after the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush tax cuts, economic growth and employment were significantly lower than they were after Bill Clinton's 1993 tax increases. According to Michael Ettlinger and John Irons of the Center for American Progress, "Over the seven-year periods after each legislative action, average annual growth was 3.9 percent following [Clinton's 1993 tax increase], 3.5 percent following [Reagan's 1981 tax cut], and 2.5 percent following [Bush's 2001 tax cut]."

But beyond the factual contradiction, Boehner appeared to be in denial about the real impact of the Bush tax cuts. Another reporter followed up: "Are you saying that the Bush tax cuts didn't effect the deficits that we're in now?"

Boehner halted for a moment, then shrugged: "The reductions in '01 and '03 were to respond to an economic problem. '01 was done before 9/11. '03 was done in response to what happened to the economy. But that's not what led to the budget deficit. It's not the marginal tax rates. If you look at the problem that we've got here, it's a spending problem, that has grown over the last five or six years. A real spending problem. "

Bush did use the 2001 recession to argue for tax cuts...but only after running for President on a platform of reducing taxes in response to Clinton's budget surpluses. Tax cuts either way. And as for the latter claim--"that's not what led to the budget deficit"--the numbers tell a much different story.

Take a look at this graph from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Bush tax cuts are in fact the single biggest contributor to the current deficit.

So what, if anything, would Republicans do differently if they got another bite at the apple? The short answer seems to be: very little.

According to Republicans, black is white, up is down, and this time tax cuts really will magically fix everything. Yes, trickle down economics - voodoo economics - really does work, despite all the evidence when we've tried it. You just have to have faith.

And yes, of course, Republicans will drastically cut spending this time. Trust them. Of course, they won't tell us what they'll cut. And when they do propose cutting some specific program, it will have about as much effect on the deficit as spitting at it. But then, their goal isn't to cut the deficit. Their goal is entirely political.

Unless we start getting smarter voters - better informed, more rational, more honest, less gullible, less apathetic, braver - we're going to find ourselves in a world of hurt. Republicans have nothing but the same old ideas that got us into this mess - into all of these messes - in the first place. And they're either cynical as hell or they're crazy enough to rely on magic to fix everything - or both.