Wednesday, March 30, 2005


Johnnie Cochran was a talented lawyer who will be remembered for one thing. Thanks to G. for the tip.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Your Congress in action.

Mark Schmitt has a small gem.

For all intents and purposes.

A curious reader asked in one of the comments -- which comment, I don't know, because I can't find the question anywhere, but I've got things arranged so that the comments get whisked straight to me through the miracles of e-mail -- whether the title is a play on words.

The answer is, yes. Thanks for asking. Relatedly, here is a Jon Carroll column on mondegreens.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

More Voysey.

I added some thoughts to the post about The Voysey Inheritance, below.

And, as a bonus, here is another article from the Chronicle about Mamet's adaptation of the play.

Democracy marches on in Central Asia.

Henry at Crooked Timber discusses an interesting article in the Financial Times about the causes of events in Kyrgyzstan.

From the FT:
There is certainly a domino effect at work. Supporters of the US’s democracy campaign have been quick to cast Kyrgyzstan as the latest state to join “the global march of freedom led by President Bush”, as the conservative Wall Street Journal said on Friday, praising Washington’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, of more relevance to Kyrgyzstan have been the peaceful revolts against authoritarian leaders in the former Soviet Union, in Georgia and Ukraine. Television and the internet has spread the message. The common element has been a drive to get rid of self-serving corrupt cliques which have often been in power, as in Kyrgyzstan, since Soviet times. These cliques have generally been supported by Moscow, but the revolts against them have not been principally anti-Russian or pro-western. Domestic issues have mattered most.

Crooked Timber adds:

The FT article identifies two effects at work in Central Asia. First, there’s a geographic contagion effect – countries are more likely to move towards democracy if other countries nearby are established democracies (or have recently moved towards democracy). This was a key causal variable in the last wave of democratization – Jeff Kopstein and David Reilly have a nice paper providing statistical evidence in favour of geographic proximity as a key factor explaining the degree of democratization in Central and Eastern Europe. Here indeed, US policy has had some indirect effects – the US support for regime change in Georgia has probably had unanticipated consequences as Georgia became an example of change for other countries in the post-Soviet space.

Second, there’s a particular institution that has played a vital role – the OSCE. The FT anticipates that the OSCE has been important in Kyrgyzstan, and could help push for change in forthcoming elections in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

As in Georgia, Ukraine and, now, Kyrgyzstan, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which organises election monitors, could play a key role. Its criticisms of polls have given anti-government forces vital ammunition.

It takes a Moslem to mediate between six Christian sects.

Here's a neat article in the SF Chronicle about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the place that most Christians believe was the site of the crucifixion, tomb and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The church is a major attraction for both pilgrims and tourists. A vast warren of chapels, tunnels and caves, with architectural remnants that date back to the 4th century, it spans a broad range of traditions, from the westernized cathedral of the Catholics to the icons of the Orthodox churches. It houses the final stations on the Via Dolorosa -- the last journey of Jesus to the crucifixion.

The church is jealously managed by five competing and often disputatious Christian denominations -- Roman Catholic (also called Latin here), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox (sometimes called Jacobite). There also is a small Ethiopian Orthodox chapel on the roof. Sometimes the tensions over the right to clean or to pray in a particular area of the church spill over into violence.
These different sects sometimes don't get along, and it often falls to the church's doorkeeper, Wajeeh Nuseibeh, to mediate. Nuseibeh's father, grandfather, and ancestors dating back 1,300 years have held the position of doorkeeper.
For his hereditary labor, Nuseibeh receives $15 every month, an income he supplements by giving tours of the church. But the ancient honor is worth more to him than the token payment. When tensions boil over between the denominations, Nuseibeh is the one who calms the waters.

"Like all brothers, they sometimes have problems. We help them settle their disputes. We are the neutral people in the church. We are the United Nations. We help preserve peace in this holy place," he said.
Worth reading in full.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Crossing guard.

The New York Times has a story in tomorrow's paper about a Texas state official, Darin Kosmak, the railroad section director in the Texas Department of Transportation, who has been helping railroads sued after accidents at crossings by signing affidavits stating that federal money was spent on crossbucks (railroad warning signs). Apparently courts have ruled that if federal money was spent, that is enough to pre-empt state-law claims that the warnings were insufficient. (This sounds bizarre: The use of federal funds can hardly amount to a federal determination that the warnings suffice, but no one asked me.) Kosmak's affidavits have helped many a railroad escape liability, or settle on favorable terms. The very fact that a state official is providing declarations in this fashion to the railroads strikes me as corrupt in some sense, though the Times does not pause for that notion.

No, it turns out that Kosmak has been signing affidavits stating that he had personal knowledge that federal funds had been used for the signage at specific crossings when that wasn't -- how to put this -- true.
But now, the truth of those affidavits is being called into question. According to his court testimony, Mr. Kosmak recently admitted that his sworn statements misrepresented - unintentionally, he says - what he knew about those crossings. He repeated that admission in an interview last week.

* * * * *

In the Enriquez case, Mr. Kosmak, who is the railroad section director in the Texas Department of Transportation, signed an affidavit saying that all of Union Pacific's crossings in Texas protected by crossbucks had "received the benefit of federal funds between approximately 1977 and 1981." He said he based his assertion on either "personal knowledge" or records of a federal program that operated for those years.

But last October, Mr. Kosmak admitted that he had no proof that those federal funds were used at any Texas rail crossing.

"We don't have specific records that exist any longer of any specific location," Mr. Kosmak said in an interview.

Mr. Crow said the federal program was intended only to bring all crossbucks up to certain standards; those already meeting standards were left alone, he said.
In other words, he perjured himself.

It appears that Kosmak is going to suffer no consequences -- apart, perhaps, from being exposed in the national newspaper of record as a dolt who signs documents without bothering to read or think hard about them. Which is more than you can say for some of the families of those who were killed or injured at crossings with allegedly deficient crossbucks.
Nancy J. Stone, a lawyer in Amarillo, Tex., said important claims in a lawsuit she filed arising from the death of a father and two children at a Texas grade crossing were dismissed on the eve of trial in late 2002 because of Mr. Kosmak's testimony. "It's an unbelievable injustice," Ms. Stone said, adding that the ruling left her no choice but to settle the case.
No offense to Ms. Stone, but you have to wonder about the plaintiffs' attorneys who didn't bother to cross-examine Mr. Kosmak. Good thing someone finally did.

The Voysey Inheritance.

That play I saw last weekend? The SF Chronicle's drama critic really liked it. I thought the acting was terrific, but that there were problems with Mamet's script, which he adapted from a much longer original play.

I don't disagree with much that the Chronicle's critic says, but he says little about about the resolution of the play's conflict in the second act, doubtless to avoid giving the plot away. (If you don't want to learn plot spoilers, stop reading here.) I had expected to see Edward Voysey corrupted in some fashion once he takes over his father's role and crime, but not so. He charts his course, and sticks to it. One of the beneficiaries finds out, and threatens to expose him. Voysey is resolute, and that is that. Certainly there is conflict between these characters, but it doesn't expose much that we hadn't already seen about them. There is a relatively minor surprise that I won't unveil here, but it is tangential to the plot.

Maybe I'm missing something, and someone will use the comments to enlighten me. I'm a Mamet fan, but wouldn't call this his most compelling effort.

A man with principles.

Grover Norquist, quoted about the Schiavo affair in today's Washington Post: "Advocates of using federal power to keep this woman alive need to seriously study the polling data that's come out on this."

Friday, March 25, 2005

The cost of good schools.

Carol Lloyd writes here about the difficult choices people make in the Bay Area about housing and schools.

At the least, it is widely accepted that most Bay Area public schools are not all that, and this boosts the price of housing in those communities which are the exceptions to this rule: "According to one East Bay real estate agent, a home in Oakland identical to one across the street in Piedmont might cost $150,000 less." You would think that property owners in Oakland would have a powerful incentive to improve the quality of their public schools, to try to capture some of these gains. I don't know much about education reform, but I suspect the problem is that no one really knows how to take a school system like Oakland's and turn it into a school system like Piedmont's.

Most farmers around the world don't sell to criminal cartels -- are they a model for Afghanistan?

On the news of reports that our military is going to get involved in suppressing opium production in Afghanistan, Matt Yglesias worries about the importance of that industry to the rebuilding and stability of that country and our man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai:

WAR ON TERROR, MEET WAR ON DRUGS. The U.S. military is going to start getting more involved in the efforts of the Afghan government to crack down on the cultivation of poppies and the production of opium and heroin. There's no question that the burgeoning drug trade is the single biggest threat to Afghanistan's stability and possible emergence as a democracy. Concentrating vast wealth (by Afghan standards) in the hands of the leaders of criminal enterprises can only prevent the emergence of a real state infrastructure and a meaningful politics.

Unfortunately, there's every reason to think that mere military crackdowns and eradication campaigns will do little to improve the situation. These sorts of efforts may well reduce poppy cultivation (and hence improve the heroin problem in drug-consuming countries) but they'll do little to make things better for Afghans (indeed, they'll make things much worse) unless the inhabitants of that country are given non-poppy economic opportunities. Afghan farmers need to be able to sell something for export in order to earn money. The problem here is, in part, one of inadequate development aid. But the terms of trade are also important -- if the rich world is serious about bringing stability to Afghanistan, we need to make sure that legitimate agricultural products can be brought to market at prices that the people who have money will pay.

Archer Daniels Midland notwithstanding, most farmers around the world don't go to market to concentrate vast wealth in the hands of a few corrupt middlemen. Farmers presumably sell opium for good economic reasons, and would be even happier if a competitive marketplace let them sell to someone other than oligopolistic or monopolistic criminals. If "the rich world" were "serious about bringing stability to Afghanistan," letting Afghan farmers grow their cash crops of choice -- say, opium poppies -- might be a terrific way to do it. In other words, our "war on drugs" is handicapping our "war on terror." Maybe cracking down on the opium trade involves the right set of trade-offs -- hey, perhaps interdicting supply at the start of the distribution chain is a terrific way of suppressing demand in First World cities, though one suspects that the choice has something to do with a preference for shooting up Third World countries instead of attacking the end users' demand in other ways -- but let's not assume that our policy is serving the interests of Afghan farmers, or even ourselves.

They noticed that he has plenty of time for that Schiavo thing.

Bush to Indians: Hey, did you drop dead?

Thursday, March 24, 2005

All Murakami, all the time.

Here's some bad-ass shit for fans of Haruki Murakami, and make sure your computer's sound is on. Real fans doubtless discovered this before me.

Sure, it sounds like a heartwarming story now...

... but little did Cpt. Katrina Lewison realize that her Purple Heart would someday prevent her from becoming President of United States of America.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Rum, sodomy, and the lash.

An odd connection between two sites linked by different posts (here and here) on Unfogged.

First, #8 on Tom Waits' list of his 20 favorite albums:

Rum Sodomy and the Lash by The Pogues (Stiff) 1985
Sometimes when things are real flat, you want to hear something flat, other times you just want to project onto it, something more like.... you might want to hear the Pogues. Because they love the West. They love all those old movies. The thing about Ireland, the idea that you can get into a car and point it towards California and drive it for the next five days is like Euphoria, because in Ireland you just keep going around in circles, those tiny little roads. 'Dirty Old Town', 'The Old Main Drag'. Shane has the gift. I believe him. He knows how to tell a story. They are a roaring, stumbling band. These are the dead end kids for real. Shane's voice conveys so much. They play like soldiers on leave. The songs are epic. It's whimsical and blasphemous, seasick and sacrilegious, wear it out and then get another one.
And then, this one, posted by Susan at SueAndNotU (a Johnny Cash tribute site? apparently not):

(As I type, it occurs to me that this is not going to be so belly-achingly hilarious in the re-telling. But wait! Don't go! I have more! While out for drinks last night to celebrate Charles' birthday, we were trying, as good friends do, to think of the most disgusting drink combinations that would induce maximum turmoil in his stomach. Grand Prize goes to Tommy, who came up with a trio of three drinks entitled "Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash." Although nobody has yet been drunk or masochistic enough to try this concoction, it consists of: one shot of Rum, followed by one shot of chocolate liquer (that's right), followed by the Lash, which can only be tequila. Rum, chocolate, tequila, and undoubtedly, puke. Happy Birthday Charles!)
Carry on.

What won't tell you.

This is either a reason to favor Wikipedia or a reason to avoid it, but I'm not sure which.

Too much Schiavo blogging.

But this is perhaps the best thing I've read about it all.

So much for the commitment to marriage.

As Dahlia Lithwick points out, the Schiavo Ruckus shows us just how deep the conservatives' commitment to marriage is: not very. The sacred bond between Teri Schiavo and her husband isn't sacred enough that cultural conservatives mind trashing it to do what they think is best for her.

Economic and political freedoms.

Over at the Becker/Posner blog, Gary Becker assesses the state of thinking about the relationship between political and economic freedoms:

Since both economic and political freedoms are highly valued, it is essential to understand how they interact as nations evolve. The history of different countries during the past century strongly indicates that economic freedoms over time typically push societies toward political freedoms. To take a few examples, South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile all started their economic development under military regimes. Korea and Taiwan both began freeing their economies around 1960 after centralized direction of their economies failed to produce economic growth. Chile began opening its economy under General Pinochet in 1981, also after his centralized approach to the Chilean economy failed. Within two decades, all three nations had achieved, or were moving rapidly toward, political democracies, with vibrant competition for elections among competing parties, and a mainly free press.

The path from political to economic freedom, by contrast, is slower and more uncertain. It took India over four decades to begin to loosen its extensive controls over private companies, labor markets, start-ups, imports from abroad, and numerous other activities. It still has a long way to go. Mexico has had a free press and considerable political freedom for a century or so, but economic freedoms did not begin to evolve until the latter part of the 1980’s. Israel has fierce competition among political parties, but continues to have an overly controlled economy.
As a counterexample to the first paragraph, what about Singapore? And this sort of thinking is, perhaps, a little too determinist for my way of thinking. Last year I read the memoirs of James Lilley, who was the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea in the late 1980s. By his account, there was nothing fated about the decision of the right-wing rulings to decline to crack down on pro-democracy protesters -- it was a very near thing.

Monday, March 21, 2005

More important than clearing brush.

M. points me to this blog, which notes that when Bush returned to D.C. to sign the Terry Schiavo emergency legislation, it was the first time in more than four years that he had cut short a vacation to deal with the nation's business. Neither the tsunami nor invading Iraq had interfered with his plans.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Kafka on the Shore: A review.

What do any of Murakami's books mean? I'm never sure. And when people ask me who he's like, I never know what to say, either.

Though I have no coherent thoughts, plenty of other people on the web do. John Updike's review in The New Yorker is here. Charles Taylor's review in Salon is here. A blog comparing these reviews is here. The Complete Review has a Murakami page , and a page linking to reviews of Kafka on the Shore. More reviews are linked at
Beatrix, a book review reviewer, talks about three reviews, including Updike's and Taylor's.

An update from the work to uphold human dignity and affirm a culture of life.

The Washington Post reports on federal legislation to prolong the Schiavo ordeal, not to mention the poor woman's life:
The legislation, which congressional leaders said they plan to pass today or tomorrow, would allow a federal court to review the case. Lawmakers said Schiavo's feeding tube will have to be restored while that review is underway.

President Bush said he will return early from his ranch in Crawford, Tex., to sign the bill. The legislation would prolong a medical and legal drama that has pitted the incapacitated Florida woman's husband against her parents.

Republican officials declared, in a memo that was supposed to be seen only by senators, that they believe the Schiavo case "is a great political issue" that could pay dividends with Christian conservatives, whose support is essential in midterm elections such as those coming up in 2006.
What we need, evidently, is a new standard-form durable power of attorney that specifically contemplates federal legislative grandstanding.

Surely there's a way to blame this on the CIA.

According to a story in Sunday's Washington Post, the U.S. lied to Asian allies, blaming North Korea for nuclear aid actually provided by Pakistan:
In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. That was a significant new charge, the first allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons state.

But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction. North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride -- which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium -- to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key U.S. ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The U.S. government had no evidence, the officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction.
Pretty clear what the M.O. is, right? Just what is there to say about this?

People unclear on the concept.

The Washington Post's website is featuring at this hour a story about reforms planned by Kofi Annan, including "adopting a tough anti-terrorism treaty that would punish suicide bombers."

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Seen tonight.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Rebuilding Weligama.

The Washington Post's Michael Dobbs, who was swimming in the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit, has been keeping a blog recounting the efforts to rebuild Weligama, a Sri Lankan town near where he was staying. It's worth a look.

Not to belabor the obvious, but that's too many.

"One female student in seven attending the nation's military academies last spring said she had been sexually assaulted since becoming a cadet or midshipman, according to a report on the first survey of sexual misconduct on the three campuses released yesterday by the Defense Department." WaPo.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

It's not Social Security, stupid.

At Angry Bear, Kash discusses the effects of the Bush tax cuts.

The problem is that by the next decade, the debt will almost certainly be having substantial negative effects on the economy (primarily through higher interest rates), and will certainly put the government in a poor position to do the borrowing that will be needed to fund the baby boomers retirement (see the Social Security debate here).

On the other hand, as the following chart shows, without the Bush tax cuts these problems would have been non-existent.

They're still trying to decide where they'd put a Gingrich presidential campaign.

Wonkette shares a draft Homeland Security chart of threats to the country:

Isn't this why the CPA was staffed with partisan hacks?

Matt Yglesias observes, "So far, the Iraqi state looks less like an emerging liberal democracy than a reflection of the Republican Party's id."

It's the party, not the man.

I'm hardly a fan of Tom DeLay, but the Democrats should not build an entire strategy around attacking him. At some point, he'll be gone, and then what?

From Darfur.

Not many Westerners have the courage and recklessness to go to the Sudan. Brian Steidle is one of them, and in this interview in The American Prospect he describes witnessing the genocide in Darfur, including an attack on the village of Labado, population 20,000, by government and militia soldiers and helicopters. Steidle and others protected the next village on the road by stationing less than a 100 African Union troops there, deterring an attack. "They were not going to attack our position because they knew that the eyes of the world are on the African Union troops.... This success story of the African Union can be replicated throughout Darfur, but only if they see their numbers increase. Right now there are fewer than 4,000 troops there. To repeat this kind of success all over Darfur, they need 25,000 to 50,000 troops."

For a fuller account of Sudan's troubles, if not Darfur's, and the sort of Westerner who may end up there, I recommend Emma's War, by Deborah Scroggins.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Bolton and now Wolfowitz.

If Bush's recent visit to Europe was a listening tour, what exactly did he hear?

Oyster roast.

Alameida describes a Low Country oyster roast. Sign me up now.

Bad trolls.

On the subject of mommy blogs (and here), Ogged points out that the fucked-up people on the internet tend to flock to the mommy blogs to leave vile comments. Ick.

Drunken sailors.

To starve the beast, apparently you're supposed to fatten it first.

I read this article and think, Sen. Grassley can't possibly believe what he's quoted as saying, can he? Or he is just that dumb?

Bob Denver, gateway drug.

Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer (sorry, no permanent link):

I’d like to interpose my Maynard G. Krebs Dog-Whistle Theory of the pop-culture transmission of subversive, sometimes spiritual ideas. The unacknowledged influence of stupid pop-culture icons on the dissident tradition in American life.

You may not recall Maynard G. Krebs, but he was the “beatnik” on the idiot 60’s sitcom Dobie Gillis.

Played by Bob Denver (later, of course, famous for Gilligan’s Island), Maynard G. Krebs was about as inauthentic a representation of Beat culture as you could possibly get. With his beret and goatee signifiers and his unconvincing invocation of Thelonious Monk, he was a travesty.

And yet, it is the mysterious, inexorable power of mass culture in America to have this effect: If just a tiny fraction of those millions who saw Maynard G. Krebs were motivated enough to listen to Thelonious Monk, and only a tiny fraction of those who listened to Monk made the transition, crossed over from the culture of Maynard G. Krebs to the culture of Thelonious Monk, it was enough to sustain an entire alterna-culture. You just needed a few people to hear the siren’s song, the dog’s whistle inaudible to most. I’ve met old Beats who told me they were turned on by reading about Beats in Life magazine when they were kids in Kansas.

Judson to Judy.

This is a neat story. You just hope it's all working out as well as the reporter suggests.

What's the connection between Iraq and Lebanon?

From Ezra Klein to Daniel Schorr (subscription required), American members of the commentariat who don't usually pay much attention to Lebanese politics have been falling all over themselves to explain that recent events in Lebanon are the happy fruit of our invasion of Iraq. I appreciate the integrity shown by people normally more prone to criticizing Bush, but I think what they're seeing is the media's template for recent coverage, and not the full picture of what's happening in the Middle East. Writing from Beirut, where she has a better vantage, Annia Ciezadlo debunks this meme:

To Americans desperate for good news from abroad, the Beirut Spring is the apotheosis of a Middle Eastern perestroika. To the White House, and many American pundits, the crowds in Martyrs' Square have vindicated the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. The image of Iraqis voting freely, so the narrative goes, struck a chord in other Arabs that finally gave them the courage to reach for the prize. NPR's Daniel Schorr argued that President Bush "may have had it right" when he said, "A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region." Dennis Ross, writing in the Financial Times, attributed Lebanon's uprising to the "Iraq effect." Washington Post columnist David Ignatius made the same point, citing Lebanese opposition leader Walid Jumblatt, who told Ignatius, "It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. ... When I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world." Jumblatt's quote caromed across the Internet, cropping up on numerous conservative blogs and in other columns. In The New York Times, David Brooks quoted Ignatius quoting Jumblatt and concluded, "People around the Arab world look at voters in Iraq and ask, 'Why not here?'"

There's just one problem. The idea that the Lebanese were inspired by the Iraq war doesn't have much currency in Beirut. "I've never heard it from anybody except Walid Jumblatt," laughs Jamil Mroue, editor-in-chief of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper. "I've heard the Lebanese say, 'What the heck, are [the Syrians] going to take us back to the Stone Age?' They're saying 'Fuck it, we're not going back. And, if it means demonstrating in the streets, and if it means changing the government, then so be it.' But I don't think they thought, 'Oh, the Iraqis voted, so we can, too.'" In actuality, some Lebanese have been struggling for reform for decades, hating their Syrian overlords. "Lebanon has been the only satellite state in the world since the end of the cold war, and no one lifted a finger," says Farid El-Khazen, a political science professor in Beirut. "It was business as usual until 9/11, and U.S.-Syria relations began to deteriorate. Internally, there was a movement all along that pushed for an end to the occupation. ... There is a linkage, if you like, with Iraq, in the sense that American policy has changed toward Syria due to their interference in Iraq. But [the Lebanese opposition] has been going on for a long time."
If you haven't given Lebanon much thought for a while -- which probably includes most us -- then you might think that democracy is a recent innovation there. Not so. As Juan Cole noted, "[t]he Lebanese have been having often lively parliamentary election campaigns for decades. The idea that the urbane and sophisticated Beirutis had anything to learn from the Jan. 30 process in Iraq is absurd on the face of it. Elections were already scheduled in Lebanon for later this spring." Ciezadlo echoes the point. "What has happened in Lebanon ... is fundamentally different from events in other parts of the Middle East. Unlike other Arab states, Lebanon is not a dictatorship and never has been. It already has a civil society and a democratic infrastructure -- the freest press in the region, a long history of relatively free elections, and a tradition of pluralism."

The commentariat also overlooks the fact that Lebanon's parliament is based on an outdated census from 1932, modified only somewhat by the 1989 Taif Accord, ensuring that the Maronite Christians and Druze -- who are touted as the avatars of democracy -- are overrepresented and Shi'ites -- represented by Hezbollah and tending to support Syria's presence, so the opponents of democracy in the recent template -- are underrepresented. As this suggests, the issue in Beirut is not so much democracy as sovereignity; indeed, Ciezadlo quotes El-Khazen saying as much.

Ciezadlo also suggests that the protesters in Beirut drew more inspiration from events in Ukraine than from those in Iraq:

"If there is a model, they're looking at the Ukrainian model," says [Beirut professor] Kulchitsky. "The people here want to preserve their democracy, not to create one. And they want to do it in a peaceful way. I don't think that the Iraqi situation carries the model of a peaceful situation." ... After the [Harari] funeral procession, Letayf and other campus organizers--now the moving force behind downtown Beirut's peaceful sit-in--came to Kulchitsky and asked him to advise them on how the Ukrainians had pulled it off. The professor told them to try to emulate the Ukrainian youth: Keep it peaceful, ban drinking and fighting, camp down at the square to keep attention on them.
Whatever good may have come from Iraq, it's not a very helpful model of mass mobilization. If some kind of democracy succeeds there, it will be have been imported at gunpoint.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


This is my kind of geographic fun. Via Julie Saltman (who continues to have a fine-looking site) and Alameida.

bold the states you've been to, underline the states you've lived in and italicize the state you're in now...

Alabama / Alaska / Arizona / Arkansas / California / Colorado / Connecticut / Delaware / Florida / Georgia / Hawaii / Idaho / Illinois / Indiana / Iowa / Kansas / Kentucky / Louisiana / Maine / Maryland / Massachusetts / Michigan / Minnesota / Mississippi / Missouri / Montana / Nebraska / Nevada / New Hampshire / New Jersey / New Mexico / New York / North Carolina / North Dakota / Ohio / Oklahoma / Oregon / Pennsylvania / Rhode Island / South Carolina / South Dakota / Tennessee / Texas / Utah / Vermont / Virginia / Washington / West Virginia / Wisconsin / Wyoming / Washington D.C /

(Go here to have a form generate the HTML for you.)

edited to add:

Via Sam Heldman, here is a site that will generate maps showing the states, provinces and countries you've visited.

But where are the links to them?

Ogged on the rise of the mommy blogs and mommies in the public sphere.

Can we have some daddy blogs?

And holy cow -- 230+ comments?!? That is outrageously far from the mean for Unfogged posts . . . .

Good news if you like that sort of stench.

Jonathan Chait writes, "The stench of death is everywhere around Social Security privatization."

The fascination with torture.

I'm thinking Kieran Healy heard the same story on NPR this morning that I did, and we shared some of the same reactions. What is with the obsession with the "torturing the terrorist to find where the ticking bomb is" story? Why does anyone think it proves much of anything?* Happily, unlike me, he had the time to pursue the chain of thought over at Crooked Timber. As he points out, torture never takes place under circumstances where you know you need just that one additional piece of information to save lives. For example, the abuses at Abu Ghraib started, as I recall, at a time when the insurgency was gathering steam and our military knew very little about what it was facing.

Kieran links to other stuff here.

* This reminds of the passage in Richard Clarke's book in which he describes Bill Clinton and somone (Lloyd Cutler?) debating whether to have a terrorism suspect or witness rendered -- extralegally -- from another country. Al Gore walked into the conversation and said, essentially, so break the rules already and get the guy.

What, in Scalia's view, is the Establishment Clause supposed to do?

A couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case involving the display of the Ten Commandments in Texas and Kentucky. In her coverage, Dahlia Lithwick suggested that Scalia is the only justice on the court being honest about the issues. The lawyers supporting the state-sponsored display suggested that it was all about history and tradition, not religion. But Scalia said: "When someone walks by the commandments, they are not studying the text. They are acknowledging that the government derives its authority from God."

Apparently Scalia has explained his views in a journal called First Things in 2002, saying there that "government . . . derives its moral authority from God." Scalia cited Romans 13:1-5, which says (in the King James version):

[1] Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. [2] Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. [3] For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: [4] For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. [5] Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

Scalia seems to think that the Bible is authority enough to construe the Constitution, so long as an overwhelming majority of the country agrees ("probably 90 percent of the American people believe in the Ten Commandment").

Leon Wieseltier, writing in The New Republic, adds to Lithwick's account. "At the court last week, [Scalia] dripped certainties. 'Government draws its authority from God.' 'Our laws are derived from God.' 'The moral order is ordained by God.' 'Human affairs are directed by God.' 'God is the foundation of the state.'" In a different context, like a sermon, this might seem ordinary enough, but coming from the bench it is more than just a little bit shocking. It takes a certain arrogance and blindness, as Wieseltier says:

These are dogmas, not proofs. Scalia simply asserts them and moves on to incredulity and indignation. But how does he know these things? Does he hold these opinions, all venerable ones, by the authority of his reason or by the authority of his tradition? If by the former, then he should do my reason the honor of giving an account of his reason, so that I might be able in good conscience to assent; and if by the latter, well, his tradition is not my tradition, and so his assurances do not compel me. Certainty, as Maimonides warned his student, must not come by accident. It is an insult to democratic discussion to introduce these doctrines without an accompanying sense of the obligation to argue for them. But Scalia dispenses with argument, he lives after argument; and in its happy sensation of its own rightness, life after argument is very much like life before argument. Scalia's undisturbed experience of obvious truth is a kind of mental decadence.
Maybe the Court will uphold the displays in Texas and Kentucky, but God forbid that Scalia writes the majority opinion.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Banjo opera.

According to Wikipedia: In her 2004 autobiographical performance The End of the Moon, Laurie Anderson said she once contacted Thomas Pynchon asking permission to adapt Gravity's Rainbow as an opera. Pynchon replied that he would allow her to do so with one condition: the opera had to be written for a single instrument, the banjo. Anderson said she took that as a polite, "No."

"And so they are ever returning to us, the dead."

Death apparently has helped W.G. Sebald become a much more prolific writer. He had four books out when he was killed in a car accident; three more have come out since then, including a new collection of essays, Campo Santo.

Sideways: A review.

Like just about every other wine-swilling member of my demographic cohort, I saw Sideways last year and enjoyed it. I'm not sure that it would have lived up to all of the hype, but luckily I saw it before I knew anything about it. Now I've read the novel by Rex Pickett. I'm not sure what prompted me to pick it up, but there was a copy around, so . . . . (Zinfandel meets the same fate around me.)

The novel wasn't published when the movie's director, Alexander Payne, read a copy and decided it should be a film, and the book is much like the movie. Pickett's acknowledgements thank Payne for his faithful adaptation, but if you've read through the book to get there, you hardly need this pointed out.

You can find lists of the differences between the movie and the book on the web if you like; most are fairly subtle. The plot was simplified for the big screen, cutting a number of scenes entirely. The memorable dialogue betwen Miles and Maya after they dine together the first time was written for the movie, but in print the two drunkenly fool around that night. It's a little easier to understand what Maya might see in Miles, since he's somewhat less of a loser. The relationship between Miles and Jack is generally more nuanced; the strains and differences between them are developed in a way that ultimately makes their friendship (and Jack) more believabel and meaningful. However, Maya and Terra (who becomes Stephanie in the movie) are cardboard characters, with only a whiff to them of the characters played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh.

The book shares the movie's love of wine, with admirable accuracy and attention to detail, though like listening to wine snobs talk about what they're drinking, I'm not sure it helps you pick up anything you're not already tasting. Pickett has said that he think the setting is particularly important, and I think that's right -- it's hard to imagine the movie being set anywhere else, and this is even more true of the book. It makes me want to go back to the Central Coast and drink some pinot.

My verdict on the book is that it's quaffable but not transcendent. I enjoyed it, but I'm not ready to spring for a case.

Here are an interview with Rex Pickett on Fresh Air, and an article about him in the Guardian. And here are the movie's web site and a trailer.

Plus, Washington pundits tend to be rich.

Picking up on Josh Marshall's recent musings about the essential conservatism of the D.C. commentariat ("the yearned-for plaudits of an increasingly right-leaning dinner-party centrism"), Matt Yglesias takes apart a recent column by Sebastian Mallaby -- who is generally decent, especially on subjects he knows (e.g., the World Bank) -- on Social Security, and asks why Washington pundits are so hostile to Social Security:
Mallaby insists, contrary to all the evidence, that Democrats will pay a price for opposing the president's grossly unpopular plan and that this price could be lowered by proposing tax hikes and benefit cuts. This is almost too silly to be worth responding to. It does, however, raise the time-honored question of why the Washington press corps hates Social Security so much. Why, in particular, they hate it so very much that they dogmatically believe the American people to hate it, too, even when they evidently don't. It has something to do, I suppose, with the fact that journalism is a profession that's almost uniquely sheltered from the risks Social Security is supposed to guard against. You can keep working as a pundit at a very old age. Even severe physical disabilities of the sort that Social Security offers protection from need be no major impediment. If I lost my left leg tomorrow, that would suck in a whole bunch of ways. But I could keep on working much more easily than could most people. And I could keep on doing it at the age of 67 or 77 or even 87 should I be so lucky as to live that long.
Jonathan Chait also takes Mallaby's column apart on substance ("I’m sorry this site is devoting so much space to beating up on a normally astute writer. But his view is so influential, at least among elite circles, that it’s worth dissecting."), as does Marshall (who is about to disappear for a week to get married).

Sunday, March 13, 2005

A silver lining to the dark poo-poo-head cloud.

This makes me think that the 4 y.o.'s vocabulary is about two years ahead of schedule. Which is something, all things considered.

Nothing new to report, but ....

When I read The Decembrist, I can feel my brain growing.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Where we stand.

Digby takes a stab at describing the values that Democrats hold dearest:
The case for responsive government that provides services to the people and keeps the market functioning in a healthy way springs from the liberal belief in justice, equality and liberty. The bill of rights is the founding document of American liberalism.

We believe that while property rights are fundamental to American law, liberty means more than property rights only. There is a reason that Thomas Jefferson wrote "life liberty and the pursuit of happiness" instead of the more familiar (at the time) "life liberty and property" in the declaration. Even then, America was about more than this cramped view that freedom is nothing more than freedom from taxes. Freedom is also the inherant right of each individual to dominion over his or her identity, body and mind.

We believe in free speech and freedom of religion with almost no exceptions because no individual can be trusted to make such distinctions without prejudice. We believe in the right to a fair trial and we believe that those who represent the government must be held to a very high standard due to the natural temptations the government's awesome judicial and police power can present. We cannot have a free society where government does not adhere to the rule of law.

We have fought for universal suffrage, labor laws, civil rights and the right to privacy among many other things because we believe in fairness, equality and social justice. We believe those principles require a society such as ours to ensure that all people can live a decent and dignified life. We think that democratic government, being directly accountable to the people, is the best institution through which those pinciples can be successfully translated into action. We are always on the side of progress, looking forward, stepping into the future.

The founding fathers were liberals. Our tradition is as American as apple pie.

Not that he's not a partisan hack, too.

Brad DeLong defends Alan Greenspan's policy record.

Friday, March 11, 2005

A Coffin for Dimitrios: A review.

I picked up Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios on the recommendation of the reader's notes at the end of Alan Furst's Blood of Victory, and now that I've read it I can see the debt that Furst owes Ambler. (As this reflects, Furst would no doubt agree.) Ambler writes a spy thriller (more or less) with a premium on plotting and place, and relatively little violence, with characters drawn from the underbelly of pre-WWII European politics. The action moves from Istanbul to Sofia to Geneva to Paris, against a backdrop of events that have been forgotten now -- a coup in Bulgaria -- but which were still relevant with the book came out in 1939. Paradoxically, for his distance from those days, Furst's work better captures the mood and sense of those locales, and particularly the sense of historical moment. Perhaps this is because when Furst writes, he knows how it will all come out in the end, and so he works harder to capture what was fleeting.


Matt Yglesias has a few thoughts, and winds his way around to this:
A better solution for such states might be to appoint a commission that was mandated to gerrymander in accordance with some objective criteria. You could come up with an operational definition of a "competetive district" and then mandate that the commission draw up the maximum feasible number of competetive districts. That would mean states would include a few super-safe districts in the hands of the local majority party but would still mostly be competitive. The resulting boundary lines might well look very odd, but most members of congress would need to face contested races every two years. On the other hand, leadership autority in both parties would naturally pass to people holding super-safe seats who would rack up seniority. But the House's legendary party discipline might well break down -- thus rendering the seniority issue less pressing -- if most members had to live in constant fear of getting booted from office.
I'm thinking something along these lines as well, and one of these days I'll get around to doing it justice here.

Books I Do Not Want To Own Dept.

Or read, for that matter. Enough said.

When I saw the pictures of Abu Ghraib, I said I couldn't believe it, but I meant something a little different.

"I don't need an investigation to tell me that there was no comprehensive or systematic use of inhumane tactics by the American military, because those guys and gals just wouldn't do it," said Senator Jim Talent, a Republican from Missouri. "Everything about the culture and the training in the military and at home works against that. That's why the terrorists are attacking us -- because we're not the kind of society that would do that."
From Low Culture.

Following Brown v. Board, Justice Burger discovered similar limits on the courts' authority.

The judge presiding over the Michael Jackson trial ruled today that Jay Leno, who may testify, nonetheless may tell jokes about the case in his Tonight Show monologue. The judge also joked: "I'd like him to tell good jokes ... but I guess I can't control that."

When bloggers attack.

Garance Franke-Ruta on how Republican political operatives use blogs for dirty tricks aimed at the press.

High times in Colorado Springs.

Some dancing at the Air Force Academy.

They make them into cartoons.

Julie Saltman and some others blog about how Hollywood dumbs down comic books when it puts them on the big screen. (If that sounds redundant to you, hey, don't click on that link, 'kay?)

Too much for me.

Even this recommendation from James Wolcott won't be enough to get me to watch Fat Actress.

Or, now that I think about it, would not be enough to get me to watch if I had Showtime.

Perverse incentives.

Via &c., the Wall Street Journal suggests (subscription only) that the bankruptcy bill may actually increase the number of bankruptcies by lessening the disincentives to lend to people who are bad risks.
Some bankruptcy economists theorize that there's an inverse relationship between strong consumer-protection laws and bankruptcy filings. In states where it's harder for lenders to get judgments against consumers, bankruptcies might be lower because lenders are pickier about who gets credit. In states that make it easy for creditors to repossess property, bankruptcies might be higher because more consumers are extended credit.

That, the economists say, might explain why many Southern states--known for the creditor-friendly laws--have higher bankruptcy rates. Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee provide a wide range of prejudgments, creditor remedies, attachments, garnishments and wage assignments with limited or no litigation, Mr. Gerdano says.
Gerdano is the executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, a Washington group composed of bankruptcy judges, and accountants and lawyers who represent both borrowers and lenders.

Corporate lawyer of the day.

It was a tough competition this time around, but our corporate lawyer of the day is:

Henry "Hank" Chinaski

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The new breed of Republican.

Take a look at this very interesting interview with former Minnesota Senator and Republican David Durenberger. “They talk about freedom and values, but they really don't believe in representative government.”

Though I liked Moneyball.

Michael Lewis is a jackass.

Frist for veep.

"Bill Frist is beginning to look like the John Edwards of the Republican Party—a presidential candidate who is running for vice president, even if he doesn't yet know it." Aside from his lack of charisma and his failure to accomplish much of anything in the Senate, Frist's candidacy will also suffer from the fact that he's a Senator, something many people erroneously think to be a plus. The last Senator to be elected President was Lyndon Johnson. Failures since then include Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole and John Kerry. (Whereas governors elected President since Johnson include Carter, Reagan (with an asterisk), Clinton and Bush.)

On the other hand, he's got Karl Rove in his corner. So best not to count him out yet.

Principled obstruction.

Someone should sit Joe Lieberman down and read to him this article by Jonathan Chait about the Social Security battle.

Something was rotten in the state of Ohio.

Christopher Hitchens has an article in this month's Vanity Fair (which can be found here) about voting irregularities last November in Ohio that's worth reading. A sampling of the odd events:

In Montgomery County, two precincts recorded a combined undervote of almost 6,000. This is to say that that many people waited to vote but, when their turn came, had no opinion on who should be the president, voting only for lesser offices. In these two precincts alone, that number represents an undervote of 25 percent, in a county where undervoting averages out at just 2 percent. Democratic precincts had 75 percent more under- votes than Republican ones.

In Precinct lB of Gahanna, in Franklin County, a computerized voting machine recorded a total of 4,258 votes for Bush and 260 votes for Kerry. In that precinct, however, there are only 800 registered voters, of whom 638 showed up. Once the “glitch” had been identified, the president had to be content with 3,893 fewer votes than the computer had awarded him.

In Miami County, a Saddam Hussein-type turnout was recorded in the Concord Southwest and Concord South precincts, which boasted 98.5 percent and 94.27 percent turnouts, respectively, both of them registering overwhelming majorities for Bush. Miami County also managed to report 19,000 additional votes for Bush after 100 percent of the precincts had reported on Election Day.

And, by Hitchens' account, the irregularities overwhelmingly benefited Bush.

I had heard complaints about this stuff before, but always discounted them as the likely work of crackpots and wingnuts. Hitchens may be a crackpot -- a discussion for another day -- but he was a Bush supporter with no love for Kerry, so his account cannot be dismissed as sour grapes or partisan.

Of course, Ohio law provides for a recount, "which was completed in late December and which came out much the same as the original one, with 176 fewer votes for George Bush. But this was a meaningless exercise in reassurance, since there is simply no means of checking, for example, how many “vote hops” the computerized machines might have performed unnoticed." That Ohio's Secretary of State was the co-chair of the state Bush/Cheney campaign, and that Diebold's chair is a prominent Bush supporter "who proclaimed in 2003 that he was 'committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year'" -- these things certainly do not inspire confidence in the recount.

All of this is corrosive for democracy, and for the legitimacy of the government. There are many reasons for election glitches: Elections are complicated affairs, with lots of moving parts, and they take place episodically under the supervision of elected officials. Some error is inevitable, but what Hitchens describes is another thing altogether. There should be a serious, credible investigation of what happened, and -- no matter what an investigation reveals -- that reforms are needed to protect public confidence in voting.

Who can argue with this? On principle, it's hard. Although few seem to want to say it outright, Republicans don't seem to want to look very hard under these rocks because they've been winning recently. But that's exactly why they should care the most. Without antiseptic measures, these problems will fester and grow worse. And if Republicans are presiding over the government hit by the inevitable crisis of confidence, they will have the most to lose.

Parenting tips.

"I think it is an important part of being a father of boys not to get hysterical when you discover they have built a man-trap on your property." More at The Right Coast.

The two halves of the political blogosphere.

Kevin Drum discusses a study by Lada Ademic and Natalie Glance (n.b. -- .pdf file) about linking between and among blogs on the left and right. They generated this table:

If you're interested in this stuff, read the study, or at least Drum's synopsis. Tellingly, both the left and right are far more likely to link to other blogs with the same views. (Two relative exceptions to this rule are the Volokh Conspiracy and Crooked Timber.)

A thought prompted by the news from Milwaukee.

Do we all owe those white supremacists an apology now? They got Jewelled (a term I'm sure they'd particularly appreciate).

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Montana evening.

The Medium Lobster on the Middle East's march to democracy.

The Medium Lobster has been thinking about everything we've done to promote democracy in the Middle East:
Liberation at Gunpoint: Now More Than Ever

Freedom has been on the crawl of late. From the reforms of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine to the upheavals in Lebanon to Hosni Mubarak’s promise of a slightly less rigged election in Egypt’s near future, the Mideast is taking confident baby-steps toward a more democratic future – and mostly as a response simply to civil demonstrations and diplomatic pressure. One might draw the conclusion that it is therefore possible to nudge corrupt and tyrannical regimes in the direction of freedom and democracy without massive preventive invasions, enormous loss of life, and inaccurate, bad-faith presentations of casus belli. But one would be wrong – oh, so terribly wrong. For had the United States not bludgeoned Iraq into a quasi-democratic shape, the Muslim world would never have thought to try democracy on its own. Indeed, before the Iraq war, Arabs scarcely knew that democracy existed.

News travels slowly in the Mideast, where messages are still passed from place to place by antique methods such as carrier pigeon and satellite television. As a result, most Arabs knew little of the existence or nature of the world beyond them, or of "the West" and its fabled "democracy." In a prewar poll exclusively conducted by researchers at the Medium Lobster Institute of International Studies, 43% of Middle East respondents believed that "democracy" was "a spicy dish made from ground lamb and cinnamon," while 28% believed it was one of several methods for removing female body parts deemed offensive by the Koran. Even more troubling, when asked about "freedom," 68% of Muslims either "disapproved" or "strongly disapproved" of the concept, while 16% were undecided. Nearly two-thirds of all respondents agreed with the statement "If you're Muslim, or perhaps brown-skinned, you can't be self-governing and free."

But all this changed with the January elections in Iraq. Suddenly the Muslim world became aware of a new concept – “freedom” – began to investigate it, and think to itself, “Is this right for me?” The more Lebanese, Egyptians and Palestinians considered their options, the safe, old military dictatorship and permanent foreign occupations just didn’t seem to satisfy them anymore.

One might argue that the progress in Palestine and Lebanon would never have taken place without the death of Yasser Arafat and the assassination of Rafik al Hariri, but why didn’t Palestinians and Lebanese simply say, “Let’s give old corrupt tyranny another go, it’s worth one more shot” when given the opportunity? Because this time they were aware of an alternative: an alternative called freedom. And that alternative would not have been there for them had the American military not been there to invade, occupy, and torture a neighboring country.

Make no mistake: the Iraq war has brought us significant progress. In a poll conducted just days after the Iraqi election, Mideast residents overwhelmingly described their feelings toward freedom and democracy as “positive,” and 66% correctly identified it as “a system of government in which power is vested in the people, who rule either directly or through freely elected representatives”; only 12% described it as “an abomination of ghosts and worms.” Sadly, being only aware of Iraqi democracy, the entire Middle East currently believes that democracy only functions with sporadic elections for anonymous Islamist candidates in the midst of a massive terrorist campaign. What is needed is a better role model: another, more violent invasion of a bigger, more responsive country ought to do the trick. The Medium Lobster is open to suggestions.

And it's been going poorly ever since.

The Army's official historian says we lost control of the situation in Iraq two or three months after the invasion, at which point initiative passed to the insurgents. "U.S. war planners, practitioners and the civilian leadership conceived of the war far too narrowly.... This overly simplistic conception of the war led to a cascading undercutting of the war effort: too few troops, too little coordination with civilian and governmental/non-governmental agencies and too little allotted time to achieve success."

How'm I doin'?

I hope my signal-to-noise ratio is better than 10% -- if not, please feel free to complain via e-mail.

Maybe we should spend more time reading them and less time arguing about them.

William Thatcher Dowell in the LA Times:

There is a certain irony in the debate over installing the Ten Commandments in public buildings. The Second Commandment in the King James edition of the Bible states quite clearly: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the Earth below, or that is in the water under the Earth." Few people take this as a prohibition against images of stars and fishes. Rather it cautions against endowing a physical object, be it a golden calf or a two-ton slab of granite, with spiritual power.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

A realist, and cunning.

A new blog with an interesting perspective on the Social Security debate. And really, really good taste in graphics.

Not cool enough.

In The New Yorker, David Denby didn't particularly like Be Cool:
The humor in “Get Shorty” was broad but not too broad, and, cynical as that movie was, it couldn’t disguise its adoration of a corrupt milieu in which everyone wants to make a movie, be in a movie, live like a movie star. According to “Be Cool,” however, the music business is about nothing but money; no one could love it in the same way that people love the movies. Linda Moon may be a sweet kid, and Chili and Edie certainly want her to succeed, but they want a big chunk of her, too, and the jokes turn rancid. The love has dropped out of the satire, and the comedy falls to clowning burlesque.

Considered as a sequel, “Be Cool” is not an insult, but it’s a lazy, rhythmless, and redundant piece of moviemaking. The story of Linda becoming a star is of very little interest. We know she will make it, and the way she does so is more a business narrative than a heart-stopping series of breakthroughs. And Travolta and Thurman don’t do much for each other. Watching Thurman, who ducks her head and makes eyes at Travolta and can’t seem to find a character to play, I missed Rene Russo’s insolent stare from “Get Shorty.” This movie is soft and slack in all the places that “Get Shorty” was hard and direct. Gray holds scenes a beat or two too long (he leaves Cedric the Entertainer stranded a few times); and he flubs a reprise of the Travolta-Thurman dance sequence from “Pulp Fiction.” The pair go to a club where the Black Eyed Peas are playing “Sexy,” but when they hit the dance floor Gray doesn’t shoot the bodies from top to bottom, as Quentin Tarantino did. He cuts from feet to shoulders, and then back again, and all you see is two cutoff halves moving together.

“Be Cool” is too slovenly to be cool. The movie is an expensive descendant of the miscellaneous, throw-everything-into-the-pot pictures that Hollywood made seventy years ago—jamborees like “The Big Broadcast of 1936,” in which a barely functioning plot served as a clothesline for a variety of musical and comedy turns, some good, some terrible. “Be Cool” feels like a spangled tour of Los Angeles show business.
He's right, but it was still a fun night out. Low standards, I guess.

Oddly enough, I feel the same way about David Foster Wallace mailing lists.

From one such list, via clap clap blog:
I'm one of those who could waste his entire day in front of the TV without even knowing it. It goes by in an instant - and while it's happening I'd feel guilty about it, tell myself that I should be doing something else, complain that there's nothing to watch, and yet not actually turn it off.

A defeat for the USA PATRIOT Act, or not? I'm still confused.

The good folks over at the Volokh Conspiracy were beating up the ACLU a while back (e.g., here) about the ACLU's claim to have overturned part of the USA PATRIOT Act (whose name is an acronym, hence the all-caps). In Slate, Robert Poe, an intriguingly named Bay Area writer, describes the controversy, such as it is. I still can't follow the details of the Electronic Communication Privacy Act and the USA PATRIOT Act well enough to figure out whether the Volokh folk caught the ACLU embroidering their success -- and since the fight is over which law was invalidated, not whether or not it's valid, who cares? What is truly ridiculous, though, is that the law's secrecy provisions prevented the ACLU from announcing that it was challenging the law for three weeks. A federal district court judge in New York upheld the principle of judicial review, though the case now is on appeal.

More Wagner. interviews Bruce Wagner about his most recent book, The Chrysanthemum Palace. Disturbingly, he says he's "a Larry King addict."

But their coffers are hardly empty.

Surely someone has made the obvious joke about our bankrupt Congress, but I haven't seen it yet.

Taking license with the practice of law.

One of Bush's nominees for the federal bench has been practicing law without a license for years. You'd think someone at Justice would see that as a problem, but apparently not.

Frank Luntz, Master of the Obvious.

Ryan Lizza takes a look at Frank Luntz's new advice for the GOP, and is underwhelmed.
One of Luntz's most serious pieces of advice for Republicans--I am not making this up--is to use the American flag, the bald eagle, and the Statue of Liberty in campaign commercials. He insists upon this, and dwells on the strategy at length. (Presumably, the days when Republicans foolishly used the hammer and sickle are over.)

Monday, March 07, 2005

The attractive look of Lebanese democracy.

Why Syria wants to stay?

Cutty, One Rock: A review.

I've just finished August Kleinzahler's Cutty, One Rock: Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained, a short collection of essays, but I don't have much to say about it. This is no condemnation; I'm still assimilating, or something. The first and last essays concern the author's family, and are particularly the moving -- particularly the last, about his relationship with his brother. Kleinzahler writes like no one else I know -- his voice make the form seem new. A couple of the pieces in the middle didn't move me, but I guess I blame myself for that. The perils of reading on mass transit.

Gitmo's hidden costs.

It's pretty obvious that the Bush Administration's policy and practice of incarcerating suspected terrorists on Guantanamo undermines the rule of law by asserting an executive power beyond judicial review. More subtly, though, the Administration thereby has threatened the rule of law by preventing terrorists from being prosecuted in competent courts of law. Steve Clemons explains:

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with one of the top terrorist/Al Qaeda trackers in Scotland Yard. I asked if in his view any of the five or so British citizens who had been detained and later released from Guantanamo were a serious threat. These individuals had become darlings of the British press, talking about how they had been innocent victims and had no relationships to al Qaeda. They spoke openly about the abuse they suffered.

The response from this Scotland Yard guy was important. He said that he had no doubt at all that each of the five (maybe six) detainees was guilty and a serious threat. However, he said that Americans had extracted information from these people in extra-legal circumstances and that none of the discovered information could be used in British courts to charge these alleged criminals.

He said he was bothered by Guantanamo on many grounds -- but the chief reason being that it undermined British security by pursuing a course with these detainees that put them beyond British law when he saw no reason why these people could not have been tried and convicted with the evidence that Scotland Yard had been assembling.

The British had no choice but to immediately release these Guantanamo detainees. That said, he told me that they are all being carefully watched and monitored.

Kinda like the fox and the henhouse.

"Just as it looked like George W. Bush might be nudging toward multilateralism, he goes and appoints John Bolton as his ambassador to the United Nations. There could be no clearer sign that the contempt for the international organization, which was such a prominent feature of Bush's first term, will extend into his second term with still greater force and eloquence." Fred Kaplan in Slate.

Hey, wine fans.

Kermit Lynch now has a web site.

And who can blame the GIs for being quick to shoot?

Jim Henley posts about the problem of trigger-happy GIs at checkpoints in Iraq. American soldiers do not answer to anyone but American commanders, and our military consistently emphasizes force protection over other aspects of our mission there. As a result, accidental shootings at checkpoints are not uncommon -- except, perhaps, when they involve Italians.

Here is the Highest Law in Iraq today: Thou shalt not frighten an American soldier. Not “kill,” not “attack.” Put in fear of his (or her) life. This is a capital crime subject to immediate arraignment, instantaneous investigation and summary execution of sentence. If your most important goal is to safeguard the lives of American troops, this law makes perfect sense. It was not propounded by Iraqis, though, who were not even consulted about it and have, still, no veto power over it. It was not adopted with the consent of the governed. How did that come about? We decided. No country where such a law obtains is “free” in the sense that the US is free, or, well, Italy is free. No Iraqi jury, nor even Iraqi bureaucrat will pass judgment on the actions of the soldiers at that checkpoint. Americans will.

It is dangerous for a people to arrogate that much power to themselves, even, or especially, when they see themselves as Doing Good. When we still had conservatives in this country, they knew that.

Downtown raptors.

For a few years now, a couple of peregrine falcons have been nesting in downtown San Francisco, on a ledge on the thirty-third story of the PG&E building on Market Street. Now you can watch what they're up to on a webcam here.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Wuhan II.

Laura Rozen with more glimpses of Wuhan.

How Cheney runs the world.

Daniel Drezner calls attention to an essay in Foreign Policy by David Rothkopf about the foreign policy divisions within the Bush Administration, and in particular to the institutional clout that Vice President Cheney exercises in setting policy. This puts meat on the bones of a view I've had for a while that Cheney has extraordinary clout because off his mastery at determining how policy is presented to the President. Cheney is a consumate insider, but Rothkopf explains that he has institutional advantages, too -- the Vice President's national security staff is larger than that of any of his predecessors. Put this all together, and you get this:
Richard Haass, who served in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recalls that Cheney had “three bites at the apple. He has his staff at every meeting. He would then come to principals’ meetings. And then he’d have his one-on-ones with the president. And given the views that came out of the vice president’s office, it introduced a certain bias to the system…. As a result, I felt that at just about every meeting, the State Department began behind two and a half to one.”
This is very much the same picture that emerged on the domestic side from Ron Suskind's book about Paul O'Neill's stint as Treasury Secretary, The Price Of Loyalty.

Especially for fans of Spiderman and disco.

Great stuff at New York London Paris Munich.


I keep wishing someone would slap some sense into Senator Lieberman.

Setting women aside, everyone's doing well.

Shakespeare's Sister observes that freedom is not exactly on the march for Iraqi women, who are increasingly subjected to Islamist restrictions.

Only a few feet to spare.

We watched on Saturday as these two cranes squeezed under the Bay Bridge on their way from China to the Port of Oakland. The ship carrying them had been waiting for days for the right tidal conditions, so narrow is their clearance.

For a good time on two wheels.

Rent bicycles here and head for the Golden Gate Bridge.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The port of Norfolk.

Unclear what got Mr. Yglesias blogging about container ports, but if you were wondering which two ports are the biggest on the East Coast, here's your answer.

Big bad credit card companies.

Is there anyone out there who doesn't understand that credit card companies will hit you with fees and interest when you miss payments? So what is Kevin Drum's beef with the business? Where's the market failure? He suggests that business' influence over bankruptcy legislation creates a moral hazard problem for lenders, but isn't that the wrong way around? People can borrow money from credit card companies, knowing that they can file for bankruptcy. Arguably, the law closes that loophole. This is not to say that I support the proposed legislation, but we ought to be arguing on the basis of something other than easy scorn for credit card issuers.

Subject to further reflection.

About Blink, Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Ezra Klein says:
The book tries to prove that your instant, gut reactions are actually more intelligent than your considered analyses. The problem, however, is that my instant, gut reaction is that the thesis is clever bullshit, which means that actually reading the book would be a wholehearted repudiation of its argument. We'll see if he can prove himself wrong and convince me to ignore my quicker instincts tonight.
(This is for you, R.)

Free speech in Maryland.

A nice editorial here by Colbert King in the Washington Post about an ongoing ruckus in Maryland. For what it's worth, I don't see a First Amendment problem in any of this, and generally agree with King.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Reality-based taxation policy needed.

It's probably wishful thinking to suggest that Grover Norquist is toast, but it is nice to see Republican governors struggling with the reality of mindless tax cutting. At the federal level, we haven't reached the reality-based limits yet to the GOP's policy of buying elections by cutting taxes and borrowing to cover the difference, but in states where you can't do this, voters actually like things like roads and schools. Now, if some Democrats could figure out how to run on this.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Syria, go home.

Force Majeure -- a review.

I've finished reading Force Majeure, by Bruce Wagner, and am still trying to sort out what I thought of it. He certainly tells a story well, as one might expect from someone who has written with success for TV. The guns on the wall in Act One always go off by the end of the play, and more often than not they nevertheless managed to take me by surprise with their discharge. Wagner's dialogue is snappy and sounds right, and he introduces a whole zoo of interesting characters, though only a few of them get to sound more than a note or two. But to what end? One of the reviews posted at Amazon refers to the novel as sociological, which sounds right; the book is more about LA (in the movie business sense) than Bud Wiggins, its protagonist. Are LA and the movie business so compelling? If you think so, read Wagner's stuff.

This profile of Wagner from LA Weekly is worth a read if you're interested in him. (Random personal fact: He was married briefly to actress Rebecca De Mornay.) Here's what it says about Force Majeure:

A picaresque novel about a dreamily disturbed screenwriter, Force Majeure leaned heavily on Wagner’s own experience as a down-and-out limo driver to the stars. Inspired by Don Quixote and Fitzgerald’s "Pat Hobby" stories, the book feels unique and almost unclassifiable, presented in a style so deadpan it’s as if the characters are locked behind a wall of bulletproof glass. Alternately poetic and vicious (it ends with the hero molesting a 10-year-old girl), the book demonstrated Wagner’s ability to write about Los Angeles in a genuinely original and lyrical way, and parts of it are very funny. Like the work of his friend (and fellow lover of De Mornay) Leonard Cohen, it is full of mock grandiosity — not art so much as a reverence for the idea of art, the literary masterpiece as spiritual quest. Bud Wiggins, a "lucid dreamer," is a screenwriter, after all, which is to say a near-writer, and his depression is buffered by Vicodin and fantasy.

It also appears that Wagner is one of Ron Rosenbaum's edgy enthusiasms, surely a mark in his favor, but alas the New York Observer now makes you pay to read articles in its archives.

A department store in Wuhan.

Laura Rozen blogs from Wuhan, China, the capital of Hubei Province, on the Yangtze:
[I]t has 7.9 million people, dwarfing even Manhattan in population. With that population, I expected skyscrapers. Not so. It is more like an endless expanse of dusty five story buildings, villages, going on and on....

Today, we went to the New World department store, with Max Mara, Burberry, etc. At this most new world of Wuhan's offerings, they still have the way of paying for merchandise familiar to those who visited the former Soviet Union back during Communist times: the three line system, whereby you identify the item you want to purchase, the sales person writes you up a receipt, you go to a cashier's desk and pay for item, and then return with a stamped receipt to the original salesperson to receive item. And they have one cashier for the entire floor. It takes a bit longer than at Lord and Taylor in Friendship Heights.

Leave the payroll cap where it is.

Mark Schmitt says it sounds tempting, but don't try to fix Social Security by raising the payroll caps. It's bad politics and bad policy. I see what he's saying on the former; on the latter, I suppose it depends on what the alternatives are.

George McGovern and Hunter Thompson.

Strange Bedfellows Day, part II? McGovern remembers Thompson in the LA Times. An anecdote:
Once, when he was pressed into the back seat of my car with three other people, he tried to escape to a nearby bar when I slowed for a red light in heavy traffic. Foiled by the baby lock that had been inadvertently clicked on, he raged at me: "Get me out of this evil contraption before I start killing."
That must have been some trip.

Sonny Bono and Marcel Proust.

Imagine that you've just finished the new translation of Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and so you have driven down to the mall to buy volume five (The Prisoner). You're more than halfway there! Those madeleines are a faint memory -- though one that stays with you -- and you're on the back stretch.

Then you get to the bookstore, and learn to your dismay that you can't buy the last three volumes until 2018. Why? It turns out that it's Sonny Bono's parting gift. The Sonny Bono Copyright Act, enacted in 1998, extended the copyright by twenty years, and so only the first four volumes have passed into the public domain.

All is not lost. You can go back to the old translations, or you can order the new books from England (though is this legal?). But it's too bad that Congress's giveaway to Disney should stand in the way of reading Proust, though it's not like it should be a surprise.

One wonders why the publisher of the new translation doesn't try to cut a deal with Proust's heirs, or whomever owns the American rights to the works, but apparently that is a question for another day.

Some people have a more refined sense of "bullshit" than I do.

Kevin Drum follows up on some thinking about bullshit by Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt and Slate's Tim Noah. But I'm not sure I can stick with him all the way.

This, I think, is a key characteristic of bullshit: not just that the bullshitter knows he's bullshitting, but that the bullshittee also knows it. He may know it for sure, or he may just suspect it deep in his heart, but part of the essence of bullshit is that both sides implictly recognize that the statement in question is, in fact, bullshit. In this way it acts like a compact between spewer and receiver, a shared secret that brings them closer together. Thus the piquancy of bullshit, as well as its popularity.
This doesn't really fit the way I use the word; it sounds just a little off.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

"A book that feels insular, defensive and wholly predictable."

Michiko Kakutani reviews Ari Fleischer's "tedious and tendentious" new book.
Full of excerpts from Mr. Fleischer's often contentious exchanges with members of the press, it is essentially a collection of talking points hastily pasted together with large slatherings of the vitriol and exasperation the author seems to have accumulated during his years as a "piñata," his word for how he sometimes felt in the White House briefing room. In short, it's an extended exercise in Mr. Fleischer's spinning his own earlier spin.
Let's just say I'll be reading Mankell first.

Mysterious and Swedish.

In the Washington Post, a profile of Swedish mystery writer Henning Mankell. I have been sizing up his books for a few weeks now, but decided to reduce my backlog a little before I picked them up. K., who knows from mysteries, hasn't told me anything about him -- perhaps because he's not a chick, but perhaps because the WaPo explains that he's huge in Europe but not very well known here.
"Americans seem to have a problem," writes a reviewer in Publishers Weekly, "with the austere qualities of his prose and his heroes, and the rather bleak atmosphere that pervades much of his work."
He sounds like a sunny chap.
"Are you a pessimist?" someone asks.

"We live in a terrible world," Mankell says, grimacing.
Equally so his children's books:
He also writes children's books. In one, he says, a cat disappears and never comes back. The book differs from most children's books about vanishing cats. Ordinarily, the pets return and there is a happy ending.

Not in Mankell's dark, out-of-the-ordinary story. When the book was published in Sweden, he says, "it created a scandal." Some critics thought Mankell's view of this planet as an uncertain vessel, full of loneliness and loss, may have crept into the tale a little too much.

None of his children's books, it turns out, have been translated for Americans.

Surf's up.

There are thirty foot waves at the Mavericks contest near Half Moon Bay.

More photos here.

Truth in advertising.

From SFGate: "A Bangkok seller shows a new pack of cigarettes bearing a picture of a patient hospitalized with bronchitis. Thailand has recently enacted stricter controls on smoking. The wording reads 'smoking cigarettes made you suffer from bronchitis and die.'"

Our next Public Enemy No. 1?

James Wolcott detects the early signs of a PR push to scare us all about Hezbollah. "Here's your homework assignment, boys and girls. Study cable news in the coming months, if you can stand the stomach upset, and see how many segments are devoted to the emerging threat posed by Hezbollah, and what America must do to protect itself. Particularly what-if scenarios about Hezbollah obtaining WMDs, and what they could do to American cities. I suspect we'll see quite an uptick."

"This sentence is a lie." Department.


"If I were a congressional Republican, the thing I'd worry about most ... is the unwritten rule requiring me to get a really bad haircut."
-- Noam Scheiber

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

I do not know this fellow, but how could he be worse?

The New York Times has named John Tierney to replace William Safire on the Op-Ed page. You can find some good things to say about Safire, but not many. So often he seemed to be abusing some pretty valuable real estate.


Here is a profile of Tierney from a few years back.


Julie Saltman has some more links re Tierney.

Gerrymandering, part I.

I have an idea about gerrymandering, but first some background from Wikipedia (internal links and a fair amount of text omitted):
Gerrymandering is a controversial form of redistricting in which electoral district or constituency boundaries are manipulated for electoral advantage, usually of incumbents or a specific political party, mainly in two party first past the post systems. Gerrymandering is most effective in electoral systems with districts that elect a single representative, which include first-past-the-post, or single-member district and plurality, electoral systems, and majority run-off, or single-member district and majority, electoral systems.

One form of gerrymandering occurs when the boundaries of a constituency are changed in order to eliminate some area with a high concentration of people who vote in a similar way (e.g., for a certain political party). Another form occurs when an area with a high concentration of similar voters is split among several districts, ensuring that the party has a small majority in several districts rather than a large majority in one. A converse method is to draw boundaries so that a group opposing those manipulating the boundaries are concentrated in as few areas as possible, so as to minimise their representation and influence. Often, such gerrymandering is held to redress a long-overlooked imbalance, as when creating a black majority district.

In the United States, gerrymandering has been used to cut minority populations in half to keep all minorities in the minority, in as many districts as possible. This led to a major civil rights conflict; gerrymandering for the purpose of reducing the political influence of a racial or ethnic minority group is illegal in the United States under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but redistricting for political gain is constitutional.
Certainly there is an ample history of gerrymandering in this country:
The carving of territories into US states was also subject to gerrymandering, where before the American Civil War states were admitted on a formula of "one free state for each slave state". This nearly prevented Maine from seceding from Massachusetts until the Missouri Compromise was agreed upon, and it was decided that Texas and California would both enter as single - but large - states. During the late 19th century, the territories of the Rocky Mountains were split up into relatively small states to help the Republican Party maintain control of the White House — each new state brought in three electoral votes (Compare a map of the United States in 1860 with a map from 1870).
In recent years, the Supreme Court has addressed gerrymandering in the context of the Equal Protection Clause:
As for state-internal gerrymandering, there have been attempts to create "majority minority" districts, also called "affirmative gerrymandering" or "racial gerrymandering", to ensure higher ethnic minority representation in government. However, gerrymandering based solely on race has been ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, under the Fourteenth Amendment first by Shaw v. Reno (1993) and by subsequent cases, including Miller v. Johnson (1995) and Hunt v. Cromartie (1999).

The possibility of gerrymandering makes the process of redistricting extremely politically contentious within the United States. Under U.S. law, districts for members of the House of Representatives are redrawn every ten years following each census and it is common practice for state legislative boundaries to be redrawn at the same time. Battles over contentious redistricting take place within state legislatures, which are responsible for creating the electoral maps in most states, as well as federal courts. Sometimes this process creates strange bedfellows; in some states, Republicans have cut deals with African American Democratic state legislators to create majority black districts. These districts essentially ensure the election of an African American Congressman, but due to voting patterns, end up concentrating the Democratic vote in such a way that surrounding districts are more likely to vote Republican.
While race has been the central focus of the Supreme Court's recent decisions, a less obvious factor driving the issue's prominence is techological change -- the advent of computer technology.
The introduction of computers has made redistricting a more precise science, but the incentives for certain groups to create maps that increase their delegation in Congress remain. Many political analysts have argued that the United States House of Representatives has been gerrymandered to the point that there are now very few contested seats, and have also argued that this has a number of detrimental effects, among which is that the lack of contested seats makes it unnecessary for candidates to attract middle voters and to compromise across party lines.
Thanks to gerrymandering, you get congressional districts like Georgia's Seventh, New York's Twelfth, and Illinois's Fourth:

(Thanks, National Atlas!)

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