Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Art of the Fugue" at Number 1? Whassup?

Here's a neat story about J.S. Bach's "The Art of the Fugue," one of his most esoteric pieces. It's 14 fugues based on the same theme, likely written as an exercise. I have it on vinyl, played by a 13-piece chamber group. But a new recording by French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a solo piano version, has shot to the top of the Billboard and iTunes charts. Jan Swafford offers one of the best explanations of what a fugue -- essentially a complicated round -- can be in the hands of someone like Bach, playing the melody upside down, backwards and more. It has links to several audio versions (I can't figure out how to link directly from here or I would) that are worth a listen. Nice to hear the old Swingle Singers version, which I loved on vinyl many moons ago. Bach is incredibly adaptable, sounding pretty darn good on every kind of keyboard, and especially in jazz versions.

Conviction in stillbirth supposedly related to cocaine reversed

With all the mostly grim political news it's hard to remember there's an occasional bit of good news. Here's something I should have passed along some time ago. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that one Regina McKnight didn't get a fair trial in 1961 when she was convicted of homicide by child abuse when she suffered an unintentional stillbirth. The conviction was based on the jury accepting a scientifically unsupported claim that the stillbirth was caused by her cocaine use.

I remember, geeze, it must have been in the '80s, when the warriors convinced most of the mainstream media that cocaine use was causing an epidemic of stillbirths. Trouble is the evidence just wasn't there. But the urban myth persisted, and some states started charging women who had stillbirths with homicide if there was eidence they had used cocaine.

It illustrates that the drug warriors often use outright lies to sell their war on users of (certain) drugs.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

McClellan seems remarkably credible

This is a preliminary impression, of course. I haven't read the book yet, though there's a good chance I'll have a copy tomorrow. But I watched the Scott McClellan interview with Keith Olberman tonight, and he seemed pretty credible, in the sense that he seemed to stick to what he had reason to know about and to resist speculating on what he didn't or couldn't know about. I'll have more to say later.

I still think he wasn't much of a press secretary, especially in the sense that he wasn't especially good at communicating what the administration was trying to do. I guess I'm not surprised it took him so long to get disillusioned; loyalists can often overlook vague and growing uneasiness for a long time. My preliminary impression, however, is that he did the book for what he conceives to be patriotic motives. The White House, and Ari Fleischer, of course, are trying to say he didn't have enough access to say what he has said, but of course nobody will admit to having read the book yet. So far I haven't seen a convincing refutation of any of the facts or incidents he's written about.

If he's right that Bush's impulses from an early date were more Wilsonian than defensive -- that he wanted to attack Iraq to impose "coercive democracy" (nice turn of phrase) more than because the intelligence was so supposedly airtight on WMD, it's an important thing to know. It would mean that Bush is an even bigger fool than we thought.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

McClellan: just a few words

I obviously haven't read the book yet, though the publisher says a review copy is on the way. But although I'm sure there's a fair amount of self-serving in former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's new book, "What Happened" -- and he was a lousy press secretary, though he may have been operating with a guilty conscience -- there's enough of a serious nature there to make it worth some attention. I hope I'm not just having my own view of the Bushlet reinforced, but unreflective, equating stubbornness with strength, capacity for gross self-deception sure sounds like Bush to me. If he really had the grandiose and foolish Wilsonian vision in mind from the outset but decided he had to sell it with the pipsqueak danger posed by Saddam and a hope that WMD would be found, that's pretty mendacious.

Campaign silly season

Here's a link to the Register's editorial today on the ridiculous campaign make-believe discussion over presidents talking to foreign leaders. The two sides make it sound as if the only two alternatives are military invasion or talking for the sake of talking, without any prep work. Obama would have been smarter last July to clarify his comment about talking to Ahmadinejad, but he acted like a politician and pretended he had never misspoken. Nonetheless, it's a non-issue. If he gets to the White House he'll do talks, if at all, after fairly extensive preparation; the bureaucracy will see to that.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Hillary keeps plugging

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the outcome last week of the latest primaries, which give Hillary just enough of a rationale to stay in it, though her chances seem to dim with each passing day. Since then, of course, she made the reference to the RFK assassination in June (which wasn't malicious in context, but could turn out to be the defining gaffe anyway). I'm still not sure if she would really take the veep nomination of Obama broached the subject, which I'm not convinced he well. I'll give her props for persistence, but that's about it.

I should have linked to this earlier, but the trip to San Antonio, followed by a weekend as a househusband with guests coming over for Memorial Day, got in the way of the Constant Blogger.

Can Bob Barr make the LP relevant?

Nominating former Republican Rep. Bob Barr, whose conversion to libertarianism is still of recent vintage and not quite complete, was an interesting move for the Libertarian Party, and one that could have some good outcomes. But it's not easy to say how it will pan out. As I had predicted, it wasn't surefire that Barr would get the nomination; it apparently came when Wayne Allyn Root, who got the vice-presidential nod in what may have been a deal (I don't know yet), threw his support to Barr. At that, he only got a 54 percent margin. The move has been internally divisive within the LP. Even if that gets patched up, there's no guarantee Barr can exploit the nomination effectively.

Some aspects of the convention suggest that he might be able to. This was the most newsworthy LP convention I can remember, largely because "convert" Barr (and former Alaska Dem. Sen. Mike Gravel, whom I met at a conference and liked quite well; he has some libertarian instincts in my view, but is hardly consistent, though a good guy) declared for the nomination. The shot at relevance, of course, is the possibility that Barr could serve as a spoiler by running well enough in a few battleground states to throw the election one way or another, most likely (though not inevitably) against McCain.

To me, the best source of ongoing info about the convention was Dave Weigel's (of Reason) on-the-scene blogging, but other bloggers reported and the convention did get time on C-SPAN and CNN, and much more coverage (and generally less focused on libertarian oddballs, who do exist) than usual.

Of course, I'd like to think Barr's turnaound on the drug war was sealed when I presented him a copy of my book, "Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana," at an event in Los Angeles where he and Grover Norquist were prime speakers in a day-long conference critical of the Patriot Act (for which Barr had voted when he was in congress, a secular sin for which he has repented copiously). Truth to tell, however, I don't know if he even read it. Ah, well!


I'll say this for coach Greg Popovich, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. They showed a lot of class in postgame interviews not to shout "we wuz robbed" after that last play, Where Derek Fisher clearly touched shooter Bret Barry. Actually, if the proper foul had been called, before the shot, it would have been a two-shot foul, with Barry just having a chance to send it to overtime. I would have liked the Lakers' chances in overtime, though overtimes can be effectively decided by the first couple of shots made, and the Spurs might have had momentum.

The Lakers played better, leading out of the gate, and deserved to win. But I could live without clock-management mistakes that gave the Spurs the chance to get back in it, chances they took advantage of in the last minute much better than they had in the rest of the fourth quarter. I must say it was a convincing nailbiter and fun to watch.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Weigel at LP Convention

Here's a link to Reason's Hit&Run blog, where Dave Weigel is posting from the Libertarian Party convention in Denver. This is the most interesting LP event in years, for a couple of reasons. Former Republican Rep. Bob Barr (GA) and Democratic Sen. Mike Gravel (AK) have declared that they're libertarians now and are running for the presidential nomination, in a year in which a considerable LP vote in a few key states might -- just might -- swing the election one way or another, most likely against McCain. In addition to the new converts, LP veterans like Wayne Allyn Root, Mary Ruwart, and Steve Kubby are also in the presidential race.

I don't have a horse in this race, though Steve Kubby is an old friend and Mary Ruwart a long-time acquaintance. I met George Phillies in New Hampshire. As Dave Weigel notes, Bob Barr has to convince LPers that he has come over convincingly, from a conservative record, on issues like the drug war, gay marriage, and Mike Gravel that he isn't still for socialized health care.

So far I don't have a sense of how it's likely to turn out.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Texas FLDS decision

Here's a link to the Texas appeals court decision in the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints alleged polygamy/early marriage/child abuse case Please read it if you're so inclined and decide for yourself.

State overstepped in Texas polygamist case

I was beginning to get bits and pieces of this story from some of Freedom's Texas editors and writers during Freedom School. Now a state appeals court has pretty much confirmed it. It has ruled that the state acted improperly when it seized more than 400 children from the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints church "compound" near Eldorado, TX. The state simply didn't have sufficient information of endangerment to warrant such a wholesale seizure. Apparently not all the children are being released, only those of 48 mothers who had refused to be separated from their children and had been housed in a barracks. But attorneys say that by implication it should apply to all 455 of the children seized.

What I've been hearing from Texas writers is that while it seems likely that there were polygamous marriages at the ranch, the state just swept up everybody, including children born into monogamous marriages. Another problem, hinted at in stories when the raid was conducted in April, is that the telephoned tips about abuse and young girls forced into marriage may not have come from inside the compound but from a more-or-less professional polygamy-buster who claimed to be a young girl. At any rate, the girl who was supposedly the informant has never been identified or found.

What's fascinating about all this is that most of the news media have been cheering on and gloating about the raids and generally pining for more. All it takes to arouse the seizure-lust of most of the media, apparently, is allegations of child abuse along with the fact that members of the group are just plain weird. I'll admit that the group I saw once on TV sounded like Stepford Wives. And if there really is child abuse, it should be sought out and prosecuted. But the government seems allergic to doing things properly; it has to conduct a military-style raid and take custody of hundreds of children. Apparently the state learned nothing from Waco.

My Texas acquaintances say the San Angelo Standard-Times has done the best job of covering this story and is just about the only media outlet to do skeptical stories rather than cheerleading for the government. Here's a link to its Website and to today's story on the release of some children.

I maintain that many of the apparent problems associated with sects like this would be less likely of the government were smart enough not to outlaw polygamy. When a practice is forced to go into hiding or underground, there's a strong tendency for its practitioners to get more insular, paranoid, and just plain weird. If polygamists could live next door, fewer would go into compounds. And compound residents who didn't have to hide and lie and feel persecuted might not be so psychologically dependent on leaders whose subsequent power (like any power) is likely to be abused.

Stuck in airport limbo

Well, so much for prompt travel. My flight (it's ExpressJet, and the flight here was just fine) from San Antonio to California is delayed by about 4 hours. I'll blog a bit here and on the Register's blogs, and read from the books I always have in the evnt of such exigencies.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Blogging at Orange Punch

I blogged a little more about the Freedom Inc. Freedom School over at the Register's Orange Punch blog if you're interested in taking a gander.

Traveling tomorrow

I'm flying back to California from San Antonio tomorrow and have to attend some meetings in the morning, so the blogging may be a little light unless I have down time in the airport and a free WiFi connection.

How 'bout them Lakers?

I have to admit that I was on the verge of losing hope when the Lakers fell 20 points behind the Lakers in the third quarter of their game against the San Antonio Spurs. But Kobe Bryant, who had been pretty quiet until then, took over the game and virtually willed the Lakers to the win. Jordan Farmar and Vujaicic also brought a lot of energy on a night when Odom and Fisher weren't quite on their game.

I don't expect it will be an easy series. The Spurs may be getting a little long in the tooth, but they are the defending champions and an excellent team. Tim Duncan may be the best power forward playing now, and maybe ever. I expect them to bounce back from what must have been a demoralizing loss and give the Lakers all they can handle.

As I've mentioned before, I'm strictly atavistic in my sports loyalties -- quite primitive for a guy who makes a living with his brain. I fell in love with the Lakers back in the Baylor-West days, when they were terrific but the Celtics were great. It will seem like old times if it's a Lakers-Celtics final again. The Lakers lost my wife when Kobe Bryant did whatever he did with that girl in a Colorado resort, and there's little doubt in my mind that he was up to no good even though he beat the rape charge. But he seems to have grown up some since then, and he has developed into probably the best basketball player on the planet.

Downtown San Antonio

It's interesting. Although San Antonio's Riverwalk is a wonderful and popular place to walk, eat and have a drink -- moderately crowded at midnight last night -- much of the rest of the downtown area, apart from the luxury hotels, looks only moderately healthy. I saw several buildings that were boarded up, and most of the buildings themselves obviously had some age and wear on them. A few even looked marginally seedy. That's similar to many of the downtowns I've seen in America. Downtown in America -- or at least that's my impression -- is no longer the center of things, if it ever really was. Apart from the trip from the airport I didn't see all that much of the suburbs, but I got the distinct impression that most of the real action is on the outskirts or the suburbs.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Freedom's underlying principles

At the Freedom School here in San Antonio we held a session moderated by Tom Palmer of the Cato Institute, who was sent local-issue editorials from almost all the Freedom newspapers and asked to analyze them. Tom is a very smart guy and a good synthesizer, and he teased out the principles underlying the editorials he was given to read, with these results:

1. Freedom papers tend to support the widest scope of personal freedom consistent with equal freedom for all.
2. The rule of law is an important principle, meaning that societies should be guided by institutions that operate consistently rather than by the personal predilections of leaders or rulers — and that the law applies to the rulers as well as the ruled.
3. Economy in government — that the primary purpose of government is to provide justice and other genuinely essential services, that choices have costs, and that when services can be provided without coercive action, the voluntary route is better.

Not a bad set of principles. Having been to a couple of them, I can't help but think that the Freedom Schools, where top-notch scholars and speakers are invited to give presentations and lead discussions on applying freedom principles to everyday issues, have something to do with this kind of consistency. I'm very pleased that Freedom Communications thinks this is important and invests some of its profits in the endeavor.

A young Milton Friedman prize winner

For some reason the Register didn't post the editorial we did congratulating the Cato Institute for giving the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty (which comes with $500,000!) to 23-year-old Yon Goicoechea, the Venezuelan law student who was a key leader in defeating Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's bid to change the constitution so he could have even more arbitrary power and the potential to be dictator for life. That victory in the referendum in December was a surprise to almost all observers, and it's gratifying that it came mostly as the result of activism by young people.

The subject did come up, however, at Freedom Communications' Freedom School in San Antonio today, where I am sojourning. Cato President Ed Crane gave the luncheon speech, and it was preceded by a Cato video about Yon Goicoechea. Ed gave a brief overview of American history, noting that the country was originally about freedom and individual rights, but underwent what amounts to a revolution during the New Deal, after which government grew continually grew and freedom and individual rights retreated. He managed a smidgen of optimism, noting that people are onto the teachers' unions and ready for more choice. He thinks Bush blew it big-time on Social Security by talking about numbers rather than ownership, but reminded us that the numbers dictate that something will have to be done before the system goes into default. He also stressed that the freedom movement, as Nobel economist James Buchanan noted, can't hope to be successful if it's about economic efficiency more than the ideals of human liberty.

He would be the first to acknowledge that it isn't all his doing, but Ed has really done the remarkable with Cato. It has an annual budget of $25 million and gets 40,000 hits a day on its Web site. In talking with Ed the other night, I learned that it now has blogs in several foreign languages, much of it written by people in other countries. This is largely the work of Tom Palmer, who is also here this week.

That damn farm bill again

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the farm bill, urging President Bush to veto it as threatened, even if it turns out to be little more than a gesture. The persistence and even the increase of farm subsidies when farm prices and farm profits are higher than in recent memory should be a surprise, but unfortunately it isn't. It's the old public choice analysis -- that when there are concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, the people getting the concentrated benefits will win out in the political game every time, and that bureaucrats act in their own interests, just like everybody else rather than being dispassionate, disinterested avatars of virtue.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Working for freedom

It had been longer than I had remembered since I was in San Antonio. Like everybody, apparently, back then, I had been mainly impressed by just how small the Alamo (or the part that is left; I understand there was more to it back in 1836) seemed as compared to the large mythology surrounding it. I don't think I spent more than a few minutes on the Riverwalk -- which is underneath the streets cars go on, virtually invisible if you're just driving around -- on that previous trip. This time I spent about an hour, walking through countless outdoor cafes and enjoying the entire scene. Quite a bit of good music. Come and enjoy it if you get the opportunity.

At the reception Tibor Machan introduced me to Jonathan Rauch and we had a good time chatting at dinner. He's a smart guy, but not (quite) a libertarian, as advertised in the program. We'll see if we can jolly him along a little bit. Not much of great substance at dinner tonight, more a matter of getting acquainted or reacqauinted. Tomorrow we'll tackle immigration, hear Ed Crane on whether freedom is on the march or in retreat, and discuss church and state with Tim Sandefur.

Musical chairs in Moscow

Here's a link to the piece I wrote last week for on the changing of the presidential guard in Russia. I can't help but think that in time Medvedev will evolve into something other than Putin's sock-puppet, as the presidency has more inherent powers than the prime ministership. Then it will be interesting to see how much conflict comes about. Making Medvedev a real president might just be Putin's plan, but I suspect he'll want to keep his hand in.

Here in San Antonio

Well, I made it to San Antonio for Fredom Communications' Freedom School. Flew on Express Jet, apparently a new airline. It uses smaller je ts (56 passengers) and the flight was smooth and generally trouble-free. The event starts at 6:00 local time (4pm PDT), so I'll meander on the Riverwalk a bit, then change clothes. I'm looking forward to it. It will be interesting to see how widely the perception that the newspaper business is changing in fundamental ways is shared, particularly in smaller cities. And to get a little refresher course in freedom. I'll report my perceptions beginning tonight.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Register approves gay marriage decision

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the California Supreme Court's decision that a law restricting marriage to man-woman couples was invalid under the California constitution. This should be a "teaching moment," reminding people that a written constitution, and especially one that includes a bill of rights or sets forward a set of protected individual rights, exists partly to limit government power, as a protection against government, by whatever majority, violating those rights. Thus a supreme court using a constitution to invalidate a law is not being "activist," but doing its job. Courts have been known to go over the line and invent "rights," but having read the decision, I don't think that's the case here.

Remembering the Alamo

It's off to San Antonio tomorrow morning, to attend the Freedom Communications Inc. Freedom School. The company that owns the Register (and about 27 other papers and a half-dozen TV stations) has one of these events every 12-18 months, mostly for editors and editorial writers to get a little refresher course in libertarian thought, and with any luck ways to apply it to the kinds of issues that arise in communities as well as nationally and internationally. Tibor Machan, who's now teaching at Chapman U. in Orange, and is an adviser on freedom issues to Freedom Inc., puts these events together. The main speakers this yhear will be Jonathan Rauch (I've read him for years but never met him), Ed Crane, Tom Palmer and Timothy Sandefur. I'm very much looking forward to it. Should be gone through Thursday but plan to find some time to blog.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

California Supremes validate gay marriage

The California Supreme Court handed down its decision today on the subject og gay marriage -- or perhaps more precisely, whether California's constitution allows the government, whether through initiative or legislative action, to forbid same-sex marriage or refuse to grant it equal standing. The court (4-3) concluded that it could not. I think it was a good decision.

I haven't read the full 172-page decision yet, but I read enough of it to get the gist. The court (Chief Justice Ron George wrote it), after disposing of some procedural and standing matters, noted that the constitution contains an equal-protection-of-the-laws provision, and the court in previous decisions had affirmed that various constitutional provisions recognize the right to marry as a fundamental individual right of such importance to society and of such value to individual people that government cannot restrict it. To deny it to a class of people because of their sexual orientation is discrimination of a kind that demands "strict scrutiny" (the highest standard of review) of laws that deny or restrict it. The state could show neither "compelling" nor "necessary reasons to deny it, therefore the laws that did so could not stand.

I found it pretty persuasive, and the Register's editorial tomorrow approves it. We'll hear a lot about activist judges inserting themselves into a policy decision that is rightly the province of the legislature and the people. After all, an initiative declaring that only marriage between a man and a woman may be valid or recognized in California passed by a healthy margin in 2000, and the Supremes just invalidated it. But in this case that argument doesn't hold. One of the purposes of a constitution -- the most signal simple example is the Bill of Rights of the national constitution -- is to declare which rights of citizens are so fundamental that the government may not violate them. If the legislative power enacts a law that does so it is the court's duty -- its most important duty -- to invalidate it and uphold the integrity of the constitution. That's what the court did here.

Immigration Ironies

On the same day yesterday two developments regarding immigration were interestingly juxtaposed. Federal agents conducted the biggest immigration enforcement raid of the year at an Iowa Kosher meat plant, rounding up about 300 people suspected of being in the country illegally and/or using a Social Security number fraudulently.

On the same day the Manhattan Institute (generally conservative with some mildly libertarian leanings) released a study that used various measures to show that recent immigrants (past quarter-century) are assimilating into the United States at a faster rate than did previous generations, even though they have less mastery of English and earning power than did those who came at the turn of the 20th century. The study used factors like rates of citizenship, military service, rates of homeownership and English facility to see how quickly immigrants came to resemble native-born citizens. The results seem to demonstrate, as Jacob Vigdor of Duke, who conducted the study, put it, "that the nation's capacity to assimilate new immigrants is strong."

A troubling aspect of the study was that Mexicans have a relatively low assimilation rate (as compared to Vietnamese, for example), which can mainly be attributed the the fact that so many are here illegally. Being illegal cuts off a lot of paths to assimilation. To me, the conclusion should be that we should get those people legalized as quickly as possible (if the buzzword "amnesty" doesn't make it politically impossible) and adjust or eliminate the quotas so the marketplace rather than bureaucrats laying down arbitrary numbers decides how many immigrants the U.S. economy "needs" and can absorb without undue friction. The workplace raids can't get them all and turn out to be disruptive (in this case a small town's primary business is crippled, at least for a while). We need to change our policies to be open to more immigration (but not to subsidize immigrants) which will make assimilation easier.

Israel at 60

If I do say so myself, I think this Register editorial on Israel's 60th birthday is about as well balanced as anything printed that I've seen. Fairly succinctly it acknowledges accomplishments and presents challenges that Israel will have to face.

As I say and write often, the U.S. would do better to understand that it can't force an Israeli-Palestinian accord; if it happens it will be when the parties involved are ready. But every U.S. president seems to consider it obligatory to give it a try during his last year in office. What fools these mortals be!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mortgage bailout falling apart

Why the MSM keep calling what is obviously a mortgage-bailout bill a "housing" bill is one of life's mysteries. But there's just a chance that the bill is dead anyway, which the Register called for yesterday. Talks broke down in the Senate between aides to Dem Chris Dodd and Rep Richard Shelby, the two main Senate negotiators. Maybe the Bushlet's veto threat had an impact.

Democratic rifts

Here's the editorial the Register ran after last week's primaries, and I think it holds up pretty well after Hillary's expected win in West Virginia today. I'm not persuaded that the long primary has harmed the Democrats as much as some believe, but it has exposed interesting rifts. Wellesley-Yale Hillary has become Ms. Blue Collar, and has actually mentioned her dominance among white primary voters. Hard to say if Barack can win them back in a general election. But if the supers put Hillary in, will African-Americans, the Dems' most loyal constituency, feel betrayed?

McCain's temper

Just in case anyone missed it out there, the WaPo article on John McCain's temperament is worth the trouble for anybody considering voting this November. As Matt Welch's book, "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick," lays out clearly, John McCain has had a fiery temper from the time he was a small boy. Perhaps at 72 he has it under control-- he's been on reasonably good behavior this year -- but instances of really unconscionable bursts of temper bordering on the abusive haven't been that rare.

Former Republican Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire worries: "His temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger. In my mind it shoudl disqualify him." His handlers say that as long as no fists fly why should anybody talk about altercations. But there have been several. Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and he came close to fisticuffs. He screamed at Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby. He has cussed out campaign workers and threatened people and tried to get people fired. Not a nice man.

Nothing totally outrageous in the story, but much that is disturbing.

Not so different

Here's a link to the column I wrote last week for, comparing and contrasting the three remaining possible candidates for president on the Iraq war and foreign policy. I concluded that even though their rhetoric is rather different, when you get to likely policies they aren't all that different. Obama will face the fact that even a prompt withdrawal will take more than a year just to get all the people and equipment out, and might face a situation that makes him want to delay withdrawal a while. McCain, obviously more militaristic, will face the prospect of the military being thoroughly "hollowed-out" if he stays in Iraq much longer. Likewise Hillary.

The striking thing is that when it comes to what the political scientists call Grand Strategy there's not more than a dime's worth of difference among them. They all believe the U.S. should play a grandiose role in the world at large. Even Barack does, though he calculated that Iraq was a mistake at the outset, which was not all that tough to do.

Veto the housing bill

President Bush has threatened to veto the "mortgage relief" bill in the form the House has passed it. It's a bailout of people who made bad judgments (not always their fault but still their responsibility. As this Register editorial argues, he should carry through on his threat. The veto is just about the only thing that makes him relevant these days (though I wouldn't be surprised if he is still accruing executive power quietly). To my way of thinking the "acceptable"Republican compromise is not acceptable either.

A commercial space race

Has it been four years already since Burt Rutan, backed by Paul Sperry of Microsoft and Richard Branson, the Virgin Atlantic guy, won the Ansari prize by getting an aircraft built by his company Scaled Composites into space and then doing it again within 30 days? Anyway, I went up to Mojave to see the final qualifying flight (joined by thousands of other enthusiasts). Saw Adrian Moore there and met a bunch of interesting people.

Having met Burt Rutan at a Reason event and talked with him at some length, I believe he is probably in fact thrilled that he now has some competition in the commercial space race (at least a dozen hopefuls had booths or exhibits at Burt Rutan's event). Xcor Aerospace, also of Mojave (it's a small airport, with almost no commercial flights, which may be attractive to innovators), has a space ship it expects to have ready to fly in two years. The Air Force has given the company a contract as well, to demonstrate the spacecraft's capabilities.

At least a half dozen other companies are designing space tourism vehicles, and even the FAA now thinks space tourism could be a !1 billion a year industry by 2021. I think it will happen faster than that. There's nothing like competition to spur innovation. As Burt Rutan has pointed out, the important thing is to get out there and start having fun, playing, experimenting. The Internet was available for years before people figured out what to do with it, and the process involved a lot of playing and just noodling around.

I think that having space be a government monopoly for all these years since the Apollo flights has retarded progress toward space travel. The space shuttle was like a giraffe -- a horse built by a committee -- and never especially promising. Now that it's becoming a commercial enterprise, I would be surprised if we don't see a lot more progress in space travel.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Performance-enhancing swimsuit

This isn't a new story by now but still rather interesting. The Speedo LZR racer swimsuit. "designed with input from NASA," was introduced in February ans has been worn by swimmers who have set 22 of the 23 new world records that have been set this year. That's raised questions about whether the suit is an unfair performance-enhancer -- "drugs on a hangar" as one swim coach calls it. There have been suggestions that the tight fit not only streamlines the body but engages the central nervous system. Or maybe it enhances a swimmer's buoyancy.

I wish they'd stop all this stuff about performance enhancers and let athletes do whatever they want to improve their performances, and take on the risks themselves as well as reap the rewards. From what I know about steroids I have no interest in taking them, but I'm not a professional athlete to whom a small increase in strength could mean the difference between starring and sitting on the bench. To be sure, athletes are hardly role models for judgment (and I wish people would stop whining when they turn out not to be good role models in all areas of life), but if they're adults they should be able to decide for themselves what to put in their bodies or what to wear, just as they can decide what trainer to hire or how intensively or intelligently they will train. Having "performance-enhancing" drugs (whose performance-enhancing qualities are mostly dubious) legal would also make information about their pluses and minuses more readily available and most likely more reliable. When they're banned, the tendency is to talk only about their bad side effects and to assume that the performance enhancement is some sort of miracle.

Russian succession

Last week there was either a changing of the guard or a game of musical chairs in Russia, as Dmitri Medvedev was sworn in as president and Vladimir Putin, termed-out after 8 years as president, was, as expected, appointed prime minister. Nobody really knows whether this is really Putin's third term or a real transition to new leadership. With Russia prosperous -- thanks more to the price of petroleum than anything the government has done except to take an inordinate cut from the state-owned or state-controlled oil companies -- Putin is still popular and could no doubt have won a third term if it had been an option. Medvedev is untested except as Putin's student for the last 20 years or so, but the presidency is institutionally a more powerful position than prime minister, so leadership conflicts may be in the offing -- or not.

Anyway, here's the Register's editorial on the uncertainty in a country where few if any U.S. core interests are at stake, but which bears watching because Putin, and apparently most Russians, think it's time for Russia to reassert herself as a Great Power.

Yawn. It's so old-school nation-state.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Myanmar getting worse

Things have gotten considerably worse in Myanmar (Burma) since this Register editorial was published, but it is still unclear whether the junta there will allow enough outside aid into the country to be of substantial help. The Burmese regime has purposely isolated itself from the outside world and unlike North Korea, which would like to break out of that isolation, it has no desire to change policies. It recognizes (and exaggerates) the dangers any contact with the outside world poses to the regime. This disaster may prove to be of such proportions as to force the regime to allow more outside forces to lend a hand, which might (or might not) eventually lead to a loosening of its grip on the beleaguered country.

Etahanol fizzles out

Here's a link to the Register's editorial today on the fizzling out of the ethanol craze, as it becomes increasingly apparent that government subsidies for ethanol have been a bust when it comes to cleaner air and have had the side effect of making food of various kinds more expensive. If I do say so myself, it's a pretty good combination of a theoretical explanation of how subsidies distort markets and an outline (brief, leaving out lots of details) of the some of the practical impacts of those distortions.

Ethanol may eventually prove to have some genuine value, but it's simply the latest example of the government trying to "force" a politically-selected technology that doesn't have a real market demand -- and it turns out that even with subsidies and mandates it doesn't work either. Someday electric cars and liquefied coal and wind power and various other faddish alternatives to petroleum may be economically viable, but they can only prove their viability in a market free of government distortions.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Trying to rescue conservatism

Here's a link to my review in Sunday's Register of former Congressman (OK) Mickey Edwards' new book, "Reclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost -- and How it Can Find its Way Back." I talked with Mickey on the phone -- he's teaching at Princeton after a decade at Harvard -- and he sounded remarkably upbeat considering his thesis is that conservatism got hijacked and twisted almost into its opposite by the religious right, the neocons and the allure of power. Has especially critical things to say in the book about George W. and Newt Gingrich. He didn't support Ron Paul but was glad he ran, wished he had spent more time on foreign policy and less on monetary policy.

It will be fascinating to see whether the kind of limited-government conservatism embodied by Barry Goldwater and (to a lesser extent) Ronald Reagan will make a comeback in the U.S. Will time in the wilderness (where such conservatives will be no matter who is elected in November) lead to renewal or diminishment?

Big night for Barack

At this hour Indiana is still a nailbiter, (CBS called it for Hillary early, all the others see it as too close) but however it turns out it's a big win for Obama. Can't see how Hillary can recover from this though she may still contest the rest of the primaries. If you're interested, here are exit poll results from North Carolina and Indiana.

Preliminary comments: Obama may have gotten past Rev. Wright, Hillary's gas-tax-amnesty proposal didn't help her, and almost all the pundits got it wrong. More live comments here.

Ron Paul still in it

Even the Washington Post finally noticed that while Ron Paul wound down his campaign when it became necessary to defend his Texas congressional seat in the Republican primary (he won handilyamong those who have known him longest as a political figure) he never quite quit the presidential race. He took about 16 percent in the Pennsylvania primary (wonder how many of those votes will go to McCain in November?) and the GOP in Nevada had to postpone its delegate-naming convention last week when it turned out there were more Paul supporters than McCain supporters. I suspect he'll pull some votes in Indiana and North Carolina today; not all of those disillusioned with McCain are crossing over to vote for Hillary.

As I had speculated earlier, he expects to have around 50 delegates at the GOP convention and is angling for a speaking slot, which based on his performance among voters and the intensity of his supporters he certainly deserves. Unless McCain is as nasty as we suspect he is, of course.

Live-blogging results tonight

I'll be live-blogging the Indiana and North Carolina primary results for the Register tonight over at the Horserace'08 presidential election blog, which you could check for the posts I put up earlier in the day on what to watch for, etc.). Check it out if you want instant meta-analysis.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Peggy's not mad about the pastor

I was glad to see that in this column Peggy Noonan, one of my favorite writers even when she's wrong, expressed her lack of outrage about Rev. Nathaniel Wright. It's not that she agrees with him; she disagrees at a rather profound level. "But I am finding it hard to feel truly upset about what Mr. Wright has said," she writes. "I do not feel a sense of honest anger or violation at his remarks, in part because I don't think his views carry deep implications for our country." She can certainly understand black anger, and reminds us that it is hardly a new phenomenon. But she claims that anger, while it can be used for short-term political gains, is "essentially unhelpful and impractical." She compares the prevalence in a time that has seen remarkable advances (though certainly short of utopian gains) to the insistence of some Irish-Americans on reveling in old anti-English attitudes despite the fact that no Englishman has ever oppressed them as a species of ethnic loyalty that satisfies some messy inner need but doesn't leave people wanting to punch somebody's nose.

I don't know if I'm quite as sanguine about hate being impractical. I'm neither black nor Irish, so I can't speak for those identities. I got old stories from my grandmother about anti-German prejudice during WW I (when my grandfather wasn't allowed to enlist largely because of his last name) but she tried to use the stories to teach us never to succumb to that kind of prejudice or to bitterness. It seemed long ago to me and still does. Maybe I can understand bitterness, but I can hope that it will fade as the generations that most embodied it fades.

A more colorful past

Years ago, shortly after I stopped taking classes at UCLA and was living and working in West L.A. (late '60s), an oil-rich Arab bought one of the grandiose houses along Sunset Boulevard, and had the marble sculptures on the part of the grounds that bordered the heavily-traveled boulevard painted, in somewhat gaudy colors. Everyone I knew who passed by and gaped marveled at the sheer tastelessness of the display. Everyone knew that marble statues were intended to be white, for heaven's sake!

Well, maybe not so much. As the WaPo notes, "A flood of recent exhibitions has set out to put their color back." It turns out that some recent scholarship indicates that the Greeks routinely painted their sculptures to make them more accurate representations, the ideal of Greek art. When the statues began to be discovered in the 1500s and beyond, they were generally pretty pure white, but perhaps it was because the paint had worn off. Recent detection methods show evidence of statues having been painted.

Exhibitions of reproductions of ancient statues (they haven't done it to the originals as far as I can tell) tarted up with paint have been seen in Amsterdam, Athens, Basel, Boston, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Munich and Rome. Now there's an exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu. I might just try to get over there and see it.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Fixing a non-problem

Here's the Register's editorial on the Supremes' decision on Indiana's voter-ID law, which requires a state or federal photo ID (essentially driver's license or passport) before voting. Hard to get excited. The problem the law was supposed to fix -- people voting in place of somebody else or with somebody else's credentials -- doesn't exist, but the solution is probably not too onerous and the court decided it wasn't unconstitutional.

The Middle East unraveled and unraveling

Just in case you thought you understood the Middle East, here's a column by Arnaud de Borchgrave rubbing our noses in a little reality. There's not going to be a deal between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights, there's not going to be a contiguous Palestinian state before the Bushlet leave office, (as if!), the U.S. will be in Iraq at least through the next administration, the Taliban will only get stronger. Sorry.