Friday, December 28, 2007

Lost and Found

Sometimes I lose my faith in humanity.

I suspect anyone reading this will have already heard about the killings in Carnation, WA a couple days ago, where a woman and her boyfriend first killed the woman's parents, then for an encore when the woman's brother showed up with his family while the murderer's were hiding the original pair of corpses, they shot him, his wife, their six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.

Six bodies, two of them two young to really understand what was occurring, all for reasons which remain unclear, although apparently a money dispute between the woman and her brother may have been involved.

How do you cold-bloodedly put a bullet into the head of a six-year old? A three-year-old? Especially children you have likely known, hugged ... perhaps just given a Christmas present to a short time before? How do people ever get to a point where this seems like a good decision?

Then there is this story about how a group of Panamanians spent their Christmas voluntarily searching through the mountains for a small plane crash, persevering in horrid weather that caused most searchers to turn back. They were fortunate enough to find the wreckage, along with the 12-year-old girl who had miraculously survived.

While most of the group stayed with the girl, helping keep her warm and awake, one brother made his way back down mountains, in the dark, the cold, the winds, the rain, returning with more help at dawn to extract the girl from the plane, after which the group spent five more hours struggling to move her to a location where a helicopter could airlift her out.

All for someone they had never met, never known.

I find my faith in humanity restored.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Joyous Kwanza, Happy Boxing Day

Since x4mr was nice enough to provide us a thorough overview of the origins of Christmas, I thought I would provide a similar (but much less thorough) introduction to a pair of Dec. 26 traditions.

I'm not sure if Kwanzaa really merits the term "tradition" yet though, as it was created from scratch just four decades ago. Dr. Ron Karenga, an activist in the civil rights movement of the 1960's, invented the festival as a means of uniting different African American cultures and celebrating their heritage. The festival begins Dec. 26 and runs for a week, concluding on Jan. 1.

The name of the festival derives from the Swahili word "matunda ya kwanza", meaning "first fruits". The extra 'a' was purportedly added to the original Swahili term in order to give the name of the festival seven letters - one for each of the seven principles of Kwanzaa: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity) and Imani (Faith).

Kwanzaa is intended to be celebrated in addition to, rather than in lieu of, other traditional festivals of the season (such as Christmas or Hanukkah).

Boxing Day, on the other hand, has a much more established tradition within Commonwealth Nations, the tradition dating back to at least the middle ages. On the day after Christmas, lords, business owners, etc., would distribute gifts to their servants or employees, although the origin of the name itself seems unclear.

The day is celebrated differently (and named differently) in different nations of the Commonwealth. Some treat it as a national holiday, in some retailers are closed while in others it's a traditional day for big holiday sales and so on. In general, though, it's another excuse to eat lots of food and watch lots of sports (soccer in Britain, hockey in Canada, cricket in Australia, etc.) ... and, really, what more could one hope for on a day off?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Greenspan, Rand and Reality

NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman has a piece up today the housing bubble. I found it an interesting read, particularly this passage discussing Ayn Rand's influence on Alan Greenspan:

In a 1963 essay for Ms. Rand’s newsletter, Mr. Greenspan dismissed as a “collectivist” myth the idea that businessmen, left to their own devices, “would attempt to sell unsafe food and drugs, fraudulent securities, and shoddy buildings.” On the contrary, he declared, “it is in the self-interest of every businessman to have a reputation for honest dealings and a quality product.”

I have read before about Greenspan's allegiance to Rand's philosophies, particularly her belief in "unfettered capitalism" (Krugman's term). Krugman goes on to discuss how such a belief might have led Greenspan to discourage economic regulation in general and encouraged the bubble to develop.

Greenspan's belief in the honesty of businessmen seems naive to me. Yes, there is some level of truth to it when one is thinking about small, local businesses. It might also be true if all businesses always weighed long-term benefits/cost with the same care they weigh short-term gains.

In an ideal world this would extend to large, faceless corporations as well .... but it doesn't of course.

In an ideal world, where everything is transparent, maybe all businesses and businessmen could be trusted to do the right thing. However, in the real world (you know, the world where we don't "make our own reality"), given enough leeway large businesses inevitably seem to find a way to push beyond the boundaries. Ultimately, when everything goes bad, it never seems like those who most contributed to the problem end up being those who suffer most.

In an ideal world, unfettered capitalism might work, and markets might be perfectly efficient, and everyone might earn rewards in proportion to their hard work, and life would always be sunny and bright.

In the real world, market-based incentives are not always best, incompetence and nepotism thrive ... and sometimes capitalism needs to be fettered. Unless there is some realistic expectation of suffering consequences, businessmen have, with sad consistency, demonstrated a willingness to engage in improper behavior in order to rake in immediate profit, as long as it was others who were suffering any costs which might be entailed.

Rand herself was never able to live up to the ideas her philosophy espoused. Why Greenspan would expect "every businessman" to be rise to these standards, I don't know. I do know history had already demonstrated many counter-examples to his claim when he originally made it, and is in the process of showing to him once again just how misguided his beliefs were.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

End the strike now!

President Bush was quoted this morning, in response to a question about Hillary Clinton's notion of sending Bush pere and Bill on a world-traveling goodwill trip (hat tip Tim Grieve at War Room):

"It's what I do during my presidency," Bush said. "I go around spreading goodwill and talking about the importance of spreading freedom and peace."

You just know ... know ... there are some striking writers on their knees sobbing with grief at missing out on such a comedy-ready line.

Immigration matters

BusinessWeek has a recent piece discussing the impact of Republican immigration positions on some portion of Republican voters. In particular, they discuss how the emphasis all the current Republican presidential candidate's place on "enforcement-only" approaches is driving some members of the "fiscal" wing of the party to re-register as Independents, or even to actively support Democrats (Oh, the humanity!).

Arizona's new law features prominently in the article:

Arizona Goes After Employers

One state where employers are becoming especially concerned is Arizona. A new state law (, 12/13/07) scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1 will suspend for up to 10 days the operating license of any company caught knowingly employing an undocumented worker. If caught a second time, the company loses its license altogether. Business groups—including the Arizona Contractors' Assn. and an employer coalition called Wake Up Arizona—tried to fight the law on legal grounds, but their case was thrown out by a U.S. District Court. The business groups are asking for a preliminary injunction while the case is under appeal.

In the meantime, employers are looking to make a statement with their votes. "The Republican Party has held a corner of support from the business community, but the level of frustration is high," says David Jones, president and chief executive of the Arizona Contractors' Assn., which represents about 300 general subcontractors and suppliers. "They're so wrapped up in ideology that they're willing to throw anything else out the window. That's why the Democrats are starting to realize a potential friend in the Arizona business community."

The most strident advocate of the "throw the bums out" approach has recently ended his campaign, but that seems unlikely to lower the rhetoric. The Republican field seems to have decided winning the primary requires tacking waaaaaaayyyyy out to the extreme on this issue, and whoever receives the nomination is likely to find it impossible to then successfully tack back to the middle. It's not like Hispanic voters don't notice these things.

It seems so recently that conservatives would regularly accuse Democratic candidates of "catering to their extremist liberal base" or some other, similar, formulation. Now the shoe seems to be firmly on their foot, and they seem to be busily pelting said shoe with shotgun pellets.

A large majority of people prefer some form of comprehensive solution to the problem (and it is a problem), perhaps something similar to what x4mr recently proposed, or the bill which died this past summer. Particularly given the significance of the potential Hispanic votes in closely divided states (Florida, Arizona, New Mexico for example), it seems unquestionable this immigration rhetoric is hurting Republican chances (a topic ThinkRight has regularly addressed). Unless McCain somehow rallies to win the nomination, this will just be another weight around the neck of the Republican nominee.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A happy discovery

A blog post I saw somewhere yesterday mentioned a BBC radio show which, undoubtedly, will sound like the epitome of tedium for most people, but pegged my interest meter at the high end.

The show is titled In Our Time, and features a weekly episode where the host and a panel of three scholars discusses some esoteric topic for about 40 minutes. The most recent show, which I just finished listening to (you can subscribe to the podcast for free on iTunes), discusses the Sassanian Empire, which was centered in modern-day Iran, succeeded the Parthians, fought the Romans, and lasted for over four hundred years before themsleves being overthrown by the Islamic expansion of the 7th century.

I knew a little bit about Sassanian military institutions, but learned a great deal about their religious traditions, culture, influences, etc. Absolutely fascinating, absolutely terrific ... not to mention the British accents were mesmerizing.

It looks likes the entire backlog of previous shows can be found here, broken into categories labeled Science, Religion, Philosophy, History and Culture (a quick scan showed some broadcasts were placed in multiple categories). A small sample of titles includes:

* The Discovery of Oxygen - feuds and revolutions at the birth of modern chemistry
* Zero - everything about nothing
* The Devil - A brief biography
* The Mind/Body Problem - does the mind rule the body, or the body rule the mind?
* Tea - an empire in a teacup
* The Epic - from Homer to Joyce

I realize things like this will put most people to sleep, but for me it's a near-religious experience. I will be grinding through all of them over the next few months, as I find time.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

You, too, can be a terrorist

This account details a 17th-century trial for witchcraft in Bamberg, Germany (h/t Digby), during the course of which the accused was subjected to thumb screws, leg screws (also known as the Spanish boot) and strappado during the course of the "investigation".

For a week, including through five days of torture, the subject of the inquiry, one Johannes Junius, continually protested his innocence of all charges. Enough was finally enough, however, and he eventually "confessed" to everything, after which he was further tortured until he eventually bore false witness against fellow townsmen so as to end the torment.

His "evidence" was likely used against those he named, just as they were tortured until they named him, said "evidence" used to justify his torture ... and the vicious circle wound merrily along.

At least he didn't suffer water boarding.

If anyone thinks they wouldn't confess to anything they thought their tormentors wanted to hear when subjected to such abuse, they are childishly naive.

Framer, x4mr, TR, Liza, AZAce, et. al., when they take me in I plan to implicate all of you ... just so you know.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Republican obstructionism

How much gall does it take for the President to complain about not getting things done, while his own party sets records for blocking legislation (and the President declares he will veto anything that accidentally gets passed that doesn't match exactly what he wants)?

I'm not sure, but however much it is, the President has more than enough.

One would think getting crushed in the 2006 elections would have indicated to Republicans the voters wasn't happy with the direction they were leading country. Apparently not, as earlier this month Republicans set a record for most bills filibustered in a Congressional session. With the session not even half completed, and Republicans openly declaring their intent to continue their behavior, the new record, once established, will shatter the previous one.

Their obstructionist tendencies have become completely reflexive at this point (from the second linked article):

In fact, the Senate Republicans are so accustomed to blocking measures that when the Democrats finally agreed last week to their demands on a bill to repair the alternative minimum tax, the Republicans still objected, briefly blocking the version of the bill that they wanted before scrambling to approve it later.

Which would be funny if it were not so ... not funny.

The reason Republicans filibustered the ATM bill? Because the original version tried to recoup some of the billions of dollars of lost revenue from not applying the ATM by raising the tax rate on certain forms of income of hedge fund managers which is currently taxed at the capital gains rate of 15% (and which exploits an unintentional tax loophole to manage it) at 35% instead.

This post by ThinkRight is a good illustration of how conservatives will attempt to spin things. Of course, reality is different - Republicans demonstrated firm, unwavering willingness to do everything in their power defend the unwarranted lower tax rates for a small number of mega-millionaires at the expense of millions of middle-class families.

Yes, Republicans are the proud defenders of you average, middle-class ... multi-millionaire.

Maybe if a bunch more are voted out next year, the message will sink in.

Freedom and Religion

In his speech last week, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney quoted founding father and former President John Adams, saying "Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom."

It's clear religion can exist without freedom, as, for example, the Taliban have illustrated in Afghanistan in the past. However, if one wants to interpret this as saying open, free practice of religion requires freedom, then of course this statement is true - it's impossible to freely exercise anything, including one's religious views, without freedom.

As to whether or not freedom requires religion, on a theoretical level it clearly does not. As I noted in a thread at Arizona 8th, consider the possibility everyone in our country wakes up tomorrow and decides they no longer have a belief in religion. Nothing prevents them from practicing religion, they simply and freely choose not to. In such a situation, no religion exists, yet freedom has in no way been abridged.

Whether this is possible in a practical sense is a different matter. Clearly spritualism and faith is deeply ingrained within nearly all cultures (I'm not actually aware of any exceptions, but I am hedging my bets). Yet, is it necessary? Certainly, one of the benefits of religion is its promotion of some set of standards for individuals to lead moral lives. It's hard to see where freedom can exist for all in a society without such standards.

Still, ultimately creating a free society depends on enforcement of socially agreed laws, not on religion. You often hear concerns expressed about how our nation is becoming increasingly secular, and certainly demographic trends support those views - roughly 1/5 of Americans now self-identify as atheist/agnostic.

Somehow, freedom has managed to withstand the assault.

For anyone interested, or looking for a means to be lulled to sleep, Framer and I had a fairly lengthy exchange of views about this topic in comments to this post.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Romney hates me

X4mr beat me to the punch, and has a good post up explaining why a "secularist", a category into which I would unquestionably fall, might be very concerned by Romney's speech. I'd like to take a moment to note as of 2001 15% of Americans, minimum, fell into that category, with the numbers growing rapidly.

To put that in perspective, that's more than 10 times as many secularists as Mormons. Secularists would be second only to Christianity in terms of their views vis-a-vis religion in this country (a very distant second, admittedly). If you were to view secularists as their own religious sect (which Romney, incorrectly, does) it would rank third, behind only Roman Catholics and Baptists ... and given trends, secularists have likely moved past Baptists since the linked survey was completed and into second place.

In other words, that's a pretty big minority of people Romney is expressing intolerance for. There are considerably more secularists in this country than Blacks or Hispanics.

X4mr also does an excellent job of explaining why the John Adams "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom" quote doesn't mean what Romney would like everyone to interpret it as meaning. Sadly, he'll get away with it - the vast majority of his intended audience will seize on it as evidence our revered founding fathers always intended our government to be steered by religion, regardless of constraints built into the Constitution. "Oh, they really didn't mean that."

There is another statement out there, Article XI of this document, a document Adams very publicly avowed his support for and signed into law, supported unanimously by Senate, the opening clause of which states in no uncertain terms:

"As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion ..."

Oddly, Romney didn't see fit to include that Adams statement in his address.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Lies and videotape (no sex ... yet)

The NYTimes has an article this morning discussing the CIA's decision last year to destroy videotapes of interrogations the agency had conducted with terrorism suspects. The agency destroyed the tapes during a period when it's secret detention practices were under investigation, and the tapes were never handed over to either the 9/11 commission, Congress or to the courts - all of which, at different times and for different reasons had made requests for information which the tapes would seem to have fallen into.

Legal concerns were among the major motivating factors to destroy the tape was:

"The videotapes showed agency operatives in 2002 subjecting terrorism suspects — including Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee in C.I.A. custody — to severe interrogation techniques. The tapes were destroyed in part because officers were concerned that video showing harsh interrogation methods could expose agency officials to legal risks, several officials said."

So, to be clear, the CIA engaged in activities it knew were, at best, skirting the edge of the law, and likely well beyond what the law would permit. It apparently disregarded legitimate requests from both our judiciary and our elected officials to turn the tapes over, and finally decided to destroy the evidence so as to not suffer (or limit) any potential consequences which might derive from their actions.

This isn't the first set of interrogation tapes to be lost. Tapes of interrogations of Jose Padilla conveniently went missing when they were requested as evidence earlier this year as part of his criminal case. But wait! There's more! As Glenn Greenwald documented last spring, this administration has compiled a lengthy list of documents and other evidentiary items which have wandered off or "been overlooked" or "accidentally deleted" or what-have-you at times coincidentally most convenient to the administration itself, and least convenient to whatever investigating body wanted them.

Of course, destruction of evidence only needs to be relied on when Executive Privilege claims simply won't do.

Still, I am sure there are some number of members of the alleged party of "personal responsibility" (as long as, you know, members of a Republican administration aren't actually held responsible for outing a CIA agent, or illegally torturing prisoners, etc.) who will say "why the fuss - we're talking about terrorists, after all."

Except we're not. As this Washington Post article (and this) make clear, even actually being declared innocent by US intelligence wasn't sufficient to earn Murat Kurnaz his release from imprisonment, where he was kept for four years for no cause whatsoever. It took a personal plea from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to achieve that.

Meanwhile, who knows what indignities Kurnaz suffered. I'm sure any videotapes have been destroyed.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Zogby poll follow-up

There was a small burst of comment last week, both in the blogosphere and the MSM, when a Zogby online poll purported to find Clinton trailing all major Republican presidential candidates in potential-head-to-head match-ups.

If the data were valid it would certainly be newsworthy, but for a number of reasons (which I discussed here), the poll results did not appear credible.

Sure enough, a subsequent traditional Bloomberg poll from 11/30 to 12/3 continues to show Clinton beating both Giuliani and Romney in head-to-head contests (for that matter, Obama beats them both as well). The results are quite consistent with prior polling, and further supports the notion the Zogby poll suffered from bad sampling.

It would have been interesting to see daily result breakouts to see what effect, if any, Giuliani's public financing of his affair had on the polling. The incident was just breaking as the poll started, and garnered a fair bit of publicity as the poll went on.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Green families

A number of news sources are discussing a recent study finding divorced families are worse for the environment. The idea is there is an economy in energy use (electricity, gas, etc.) and other resources when people are unite din one family as opposed to split in two.

Now, I agree with the interviewee at the end of the linked article who opines no one is going to stay in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the environment. I just wanted to use this as an excuse to note myself, Framer and ThinkRight, among many, are doing our best to support the environment.

X4mr, on the other hand, is clearly blowing it for all of us.

Clinton disconnect

I've seen discussion lately about the possibility of a "reverse coattails" effect if Hillary Clinton garners the Democratic presidential nomination. The idea seems to be Democratic members of Congress who won seats in 2006 in traditionally Republican districts are concerned the prospect of a Clinton presidency will cause conservatives to rally to the polls, voting against not just Clinton but the Democratic congress-person as well.

Reading this makes be think both sides are having metal disconnect issues concerning Clinton.

One the conservative side, no matter how much one might dislike Clinton's views, she's indisputably the most "centrist" of the leading Democratic candidates ... or all the Democratic candidates for that matter. Not that any conservative would be happy with any Democratic president (just as I am not likely to be thrilled if a Republican wins next year), but I would still think a truly informed conservative voter would be much more concerned about the prospect of a Edwards administration, say, than they would be about a Clinton one. If Obama or Edwards wins office there will be a much sharper "yank" to the left (in my opinion) than if Clinton wins.

From the liberal side, there is concern about Clinton's views, that she's not "progressive enough" ... and I share those concerns. She won't be getting my vote in the primary. Still, to label her as "no different" than the Republican candidates, or to call the prospect of a Clinton candidacy as "Bush's third term" (which Liza does in comments in this thread, with Roger agreeing, and I have heard the expression elsewhere) is going much too far.

There are reasons conservatives are up in arms over Clinton. Yes, a lot of those reasons are historical, but that history includes some real differences on positions. Anyone who doesn't think Clinton is far more likely to promote "progressive" policies on health care, foreign policy, stem cell research, immigration, education, etc. than any of the Republican candidates has blinders on. She may not be as progressive as desired, but if she wins the nomination she'll be more progressive than the alternative, and by a significant margin.

More credit that isn't due

I posted last month about the inappropriateness of the administration trying to claim some of the credit for recent stem cell research which may allow the cultivation of pluripotent stem cells without the need to destroy human embryos.

Late last week, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who knows a great deal about spin but apparently very little about science, authored a column lauding Bush's foresight on the matter, and claiming vindication for his his approach. Krauthammer ends the piece by lauding "moral disquiet" of scientist James Thomson, who is one of the leading researchers of embryonic stem cells and who led the Wisconsin team which announced the breakthrough last month (along with a separate Japanese team).

Well, Thomson had an op-ed piece of his own at the Washington Post yesterday, where he correctly trashes the Krauthammer column as the complete piece of s*** it is. He notes the Japanese team developed it's research independent of any decisions by Bush or his administration, and that teams in a number of other countries unaffected by US limitations are progressing far faster than US researchers are.

Thomson also notes the impossibility developing stem cells with the same properties of ESCs without first understanding what those properties are, a process the President's policies can only have hurt, not possibly helped.

In other words, this research has proceeded despite, not because of, Bush's "line in the sand", and in all likelihood has been hampered by those limitations, although we can never know for sure. If there had been more government funding for more stem cell lines, might this achivement have been reached three years ago?

Thomson (and his co-author Alan Leshner) conclude their piece by pointing out the uncertainty that their research will fully pan out, something we won't know for several years, minimum, and encourage Congress to override the President's veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. It won't happen - too many Republicans in Congress are more committed to supporting the President and furthering their own ideologies than they are to actually furthering a policy a considerable majority of their constituents support.

Maybe though, just maybe, the Thomson op-ed will help stop the wave of idiocy trying to allot some credit to the President for a breakthrough his policies did nothing to help, and much to hinder.

Recent interesting stuff

Some posts from other sites I have found particularly interesting:

1. x4mr has a terrific post on some of the issues with for-profit prisons.

2. ThinkRight, who has experience in the mortgage lending field, has been making a number of posts about the recent crisis and some possible approaches to dealing with it. The most recent are here and here.

However, the most interesting, and horrifying, doesn't deal directly with the crises itself, but rather a victim of mortgage-related fraud. The post is here. Make sure you click through the link he provides and read the full Seattle Times piece.

3. How The World Works provides a pair of YouTube clips of British comedians discussing the subprime lending crises, it's causes, potential impacts, etc. Quite funny in the typical dry, British way, and educational as well. (Note: you will likely have to sit through small ad to access the post, it's well worth the inconvenience.)

I'd like to include something from Arizona8th, but they, like I, have been in hibernation the last few days. Wake up! :)