Saturday, February 27, 2010

Patriot Act extended

There was a little noise from some civil-libertarian-inclined Democrats about adding some privacy protections before renewing the obnoxious Patriot Act. But when the Obama administration called for renewal, they got in line and renewed it. Now that their party has executive-branch power they're no longer so concerned about excesses and abuses. I'm just sorry the Republicans haven't developed a qualm or two, but maybe at the congressional level they're still enchanted with executive power, surveillance and all the unnecessary excesses the Bushies brought in after 9/11.

Sad for both parties.

Obama, health care losing public opinion battle

In the wake of the so-called health care summit Thursday, Obama seems to be losing public-opinion ground. I noted this in a post on yesterday's Orange Punch blog at the Register, but today's Rasmussen daily tracking poll shows him losing another percentage point, and health care reform, Democrat-style, continues to be unpopular.

The notion that it's a good idea for Democrats to push through a reform proposal that has been unpopular with Americans since about August and hasn't gained any ground no matter what Obama has done, strikes me as surrea -- and most Americans are more worried about the economy and unemployment than the fond dream progressives have nursed ever since Teddy Roosevelt, but they just might do it

Trial balloons for a longer stay in Iraq?

I understand that the military is constantly making contingency plans for things that are most unlikely to happen. But the fact that the top military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told the press that he had briefed top officials on Washington on contingency plans to keep U.S. combat troops in Iraq past the end-of-August deadline -- after which there will still be 50,000 troops but supposedly not combat troops -- has me a little concerned. Is he launching a trial balloon to see how much resistance there is to the idea because he rather thinks they just might keep combat troops in Iraq longer?

I've been doing some research for a piece to run March 7, the date of the Iraqi parliamentary election, on the political situation in Iraq. It's far from stable, and we're starting to see some ramping-up of violence as the day comes closer. The election commission has disqualified several parties and almost 500 individuals from eligibility to run, most of them Sunni. Remember, the Sunni ran things under Saddam and for a long time before that, and the Shia have grievances. It could take months to form a government after the election and instability is likely to be accompanied by increasing violence. That just might be the justification/excuse for U.S. combat troops to stay longer.

I hope not, but . . .

Friday, February 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

"If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl." -- H.L. Mencken

Creating a health-care abyss

Apparently Obama thought today's -- yesterday's now -- marathon health care "summit" would give his and/or the Democrats' plan some traction. I suspect -- though public opinion can be a fickle mistress -- that it did the opposite. Here's the Register editorial previewing the event, pointing out that Obama's problem is not so much with the Republicans, who seemed surprisingly calm, although as Tibor Machan pointed out, they can no longer lay much claim to being the party of limited government, but with the Democrats. There are all kinds of stories about working behind the scenes to get enough Democratic votes, but abortion, of all things, may prove the sticking-point. Here's the Register's after-show review. Just to broaden the scope of reacrions, here is one of Andrew Sullivan's roundups and here is another. When I talked to Bob Moffit at Heritage the other day, we discussed the last-ditch supporters of ObamaCare, like those at the New Republic, who somehow seem to think there's a burning desire out there among the public for federalized health care and the Democrats will get plenty credit for going it alone, despite the clear evidence of the polls that a majority of Americans oppose it and wish Obama would do something to fix the economy rather than adding another crippling entitlement. Bob likened them to people at a UFO convention. I think he's about right.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

All six deserved medals

My wife Jen said I'm too sentimental, but I thought all six of the girls -- ladies, I guess -- in the final six deserved medals. I don't have a real complaint about the order. Kim Hu Na was clearly the best -- loved the choice of Gershwin music too -- and I loved the orchestration of the Rachmaninov prelude the Japanese girl, Mao Asada, skated to. I'm not sure but what Arcadia's Marai Nagasu wasn't better than the Canadian, Joannie Rochette, but who can begrudge her a little home ice advantage with what she's been through, with her mother dying Sunday night. And she did skate marvelously. No falls, lots of artistry, plenty of fire on ice. I don't know when I've enjoyed an Olympic skating competition more.

Maybe for the Bruins?

It's hard to get this in between lady skaters, all of whom have been simply wonderful so far, but I am so pleased with the way the Bruins played tonight. Their characteristic has been inconsistency, so I don't know about Saturday -- Oregon beat the Trojans , who slaughtered the Bruins. But they came out with energy, withstood a couple of runs, and played solid defense,. Tyler Honeycutt looks like a star of the future -- and to some extent the present.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A reminder: cannabis might cure some cancers

I put this post up on the Register's Orange Punch blog as a reminder. I have known for some years about the studies and experiments done by Manuel Guzman, a biochemist in Madrid, that showed injections of THC into the brains of rats with brain tumors lengthened their lives compared to a placebo and in some cases cured the cancers. Guzman has since done subsequent studies that have confirmed the results. And it turns out that similar studies gave the same results in the U.S. way back in 1974 -- and the feds suppressed the results. It is almost impossible to overstate just how cruel and misguided such actions are, how fanatic these drug warriors are. A substance shows promise in treating the most feared disease in America and the drug warriors so everything in their power to keep the information from getting out.

And yet, as you can see from a comment, at least some people in the U.S. prefer to remain invincibly ignorant, to believe in myths and lies even in the face of strong scientific evidence. Marijuana has strong properties to cloud the minds -- of drug warriors and their acolytes.

Follow me on Twitter, I guess

Heaven help me, at the prodding of the powers that be at the Register, I have opened a Twitter account. Now the thing to do, I guess, is to get as many "followers" as possible so I increase my vast influence and power! So I'm making a blatant plea to follow me on Twitter. If you follow me, I'll follow you. If you're not on, it's easy and free to sign up at Not that I would coerce anyone.

UPDATE: My Twitter handle is alanwbock.

No subsidized nukes

Since I wrote this Register editorial on Obama's proposal to guarantee loans to the Southern Co. to build two more nuclear reactors, I've become even more convinced that nuclear power at this point simply doesn't make economic sense at this time. Maybe sometime in the future. And to some extent the costs of building and insuring reactors are to some extent due to unnecessarily stringent regulations and catering to the knee-jerk anti-nuke crowd. But while the Federal Financing Bank (i.e., taxpayers) is formally the back-up to private financing, in reality it will be the eventual financer. If a project can't get private financing, that's a pretty good hint that it's not economically viable.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ice dancing: a strange new appreciation

I don't remember for sure when I became aware of the Winter Olympics. I suspect we watched some as a family in the '50s, but I wouldn't swear to it. I distinctly remember Peggy Fleming, who was the ice princess in -- what, 1968? I fell in love with Katarina Witt even when she was purportedly a Commie. I also remember going to a rink in Palm Desert probably 15 years ago and as I was struggling to maintain balance seeing somebody really showing some form -- and lo and behold, it was Dorothy Hammill.

When they introduced ice dancing to the Olympics I thought it was just an excuse to give more people something to compete in, and it seemed to me that for the first few years it was kind of bland. Then Torvill and Dean taught me that it could be artistic and maybe even thrilling. Now I have turned around completely. The pairs skating at this year's Olympics was nothing but jumps and throws and lifts, which requires a great big guy and a teeny girl, which looks incongruous -- athletic but ultimately not all that interesting. Ice dancing now seems to me more like pairs skating was back in the day -- couples skating together, flowing together, matching one another, working together, with the addition of mostly interesting costumes (the Russians with their lame attempt at an Aborigine outfit seemed misconceived -- though the negative reaction was overblown, done by people who have learned the modern dark art of professional offense-taking). I now enjoy ice dancing more than pairs skating.

And oddly enough I don't care a whit about the judging. Let the judges screw things up as they will, I just enjoy them all, My favorites were the Russian couple dancing to Stravinsky's "Firebird, the Canadian couple who danced to Mahler (!) and the Italian couple.

Taliban capture not bad, but strategic?

It certainly counts as good news that one Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said to be the Taliban military commander and second-in-command to the reclusive Mullah Omar, was captured a week or so in Karachi -- a port city far from the embattled frontier provinces -- in Pakistan. As this Register editorial notes, the war in Afghanistan was and is a bad idea, but any time an enemy of U.S. troops is neutralized, especially if there's a chance of getting actionable intelligence from him, that's not a bad thing. The people in the military don't set policies.

It's fascinating how many different stories about the capture are being bandied about, however. David Ignatius of the WaPo, who has a lot of CIA sources (and on some occasions is something of a shill), says the US and Pakistani intelligence folks had a surefire "no-fooling" tip that Baradar was going to be in that house. On the other hand, the NYT reports that Baradar was a bonus of the raid -- they had no idea he was there and it took them a while to figure out what -- who -- they had.

It's likely that it will be weeks before we have a semi-accurate idea of how Baradar was captured, and there are certain things we will never know. The important things is that it shouoldn't have been necessary and may not be the least bit important to U.S. interests. The only real U.S. interest is al-Qaida, not the Taliban, and being in a military adventure in Afghanistan and working with the sinister Pakistani ISI may well be the worst possible ways to do anything effective about al-Qaida -- which is nowhere near as formidable as our masters want us to believe anyway.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fuddy-duddies wrecking Olympics a bit

I have really been enjoying the Olympics -- I even watched a bit of curling today and can almost appreciate it as a sport. But the news that snowboarder Scotty Lago has been kicked out of Vancouver comes close to spoiling it for me.

Apparently Lago committed one of those indiscretions that nobody knows are against the rules until the suits interpret things. At a party, after being up 36 hours, he held his gold medal below the waist (!!!) and a girl kissed it. Somebody took a photo and it showed up on TMZ. The suits told him to leave Vancouver now or go through a process that could well have led to him being formally ejected, and possibly ineligible to compete in the next Olympics.

Boo to the suits!!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ukraine results not so bad

There's been a certain amount of handwringing over the fact that Viktor Yanukovych, generally considered the most pro-Russian of the candidates, won election as president Of Ukraine. It's hard for me to get worked up. There was certainly excitement surrounding the 2004 Orange Revolution when Yanukovych was prevented from stealing the election. But Viktor Yuschenko, who was elected then, proved to be something of a dud, and the Ukrainians dismissed him in the first round of voting.

It is also the case that Russia has traditionally been concerned with what it calls its "near abroad," whether it has sought to incorporate neighboring states into the empire (as the Soviets and to some extent the czars did), and it's not hard to understand. As this Register editorial explains, Napoleon and Hitler both invaded Russia through the flat plains of Poland and the Baltic countries, which offer no geographical barriers to invasion. Extending NATO after the Soviet Union collapsed was a huge mistake in that it made the Russians more paranoid than usual without accomplishing anything useful. NATO should have been disassembled instead. With Ukraine apparentoy in the Russian camp now -- or at least unlikely to cause Russia grief -- Russia might even be a bit less bellicose.

More flawed judging

I don't have a complaint at the top. Tonight -- or last night, I guess -- Evan Lysacek was clearly the winner. His program was better, he skated it more cleanly and with more style than did Plushenko. But I think the judges fell into the trap I identified in my earlier post -- giving scores based more on reputation and past performance than on this particular performance.As a result, Johnny Weir was badly cheated. In fact, this night, taking nothing away from the Russian, I thought he deserved a higher score than Plushenko got and should have had the bronze. But the judges, though recognizing that Plushenko was not quite as inspired in this performance as in the short program, mostly stuck with their judgment from the short program. Somebody ought to be able to skate a possibly substandard short program, then come back and nail the long program and get rewarded for it.

I didn't see any echoes of my previous complaints in the bits and pieces of news coverage I looked at, and perhaps nobody else will agree with me on this. But I thought the judging was, if not downright shameful, at least more than a bit flawed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

T.S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday"

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign? Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

II Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

III At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair. At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man's mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark. At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs's fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair. Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only.

IV Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary's colour,
Sovegna vos
Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing
White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse. The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew And after this our exile

V If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word. O my people, what have I done unto thee. Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose O my people, what have I done unto thee. Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed. O my people.

VI Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
This is the time of tension between dying and birth The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away Let the other yew be shaken and reply.
Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated And let my cry come unto Thee.

Maybe judging not so bad

My essential impulse, given my general fondness for misfits, eccentrics and troublemakers, especially those who also have talent and skills, was to root for Johnny Weir to blow away Evan Lysacek in men's skating last night. I had to admit, however, that while Weir was very good, Lysacek was close to phenomenal and deserved to rank well ahead of Weir. Actually, I'm sorry Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland had a couple of glitches in his program; he was actually my favorite when it came to style. I'm like many people; I've followed stories about Weir and Lysacek in the newspapers without having seen either of them skate for at least a year -- I just don't follow skating as closely as I do football or basketball and Jen hasn't pushed me to watch. So seeing Lysacek skate was something of a revelation. I had thought that nobody would really push the Russian Plushenko, but Lysacek did.

My previous complaint about judging had to do with judging the final pairs programs, and the essence was that the scores didn't show country favoritism so much as they followed conventional wisdom and scores in the short program. It seems to me that one should be able to have a mediocre of poor short program and still make up ground by doing well -- reverting to one's real ability level in some cases -- in the long program, as I thought Denny and Barrett had done in the pairs. But the judges didn't seem open to that; their first impression seemed immutable, based on reputation more than performance. That could happen again tomorrow night. We'll see.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Another rogue DEA agent -- in Denver

Remember Obama's and Eric Holder's promise that it would be the policy of this administration not to send the feds after medical marijuana users, growers and distributors of medical marijuana in states with medical marijuana laws, so long as they were compliant with state law? Well, the DEA in Denver last Friday raided a home where a guy was growing for patients in his basement. As far as I can tell his "crime" was getting a little publicity. So the thuggish liar Heffrey Sweetin, head of the local DEA office, went after him, repeating the lie the feds are still so arrogant as to think they can make you believe, that "marijuana is not medicine." Maybe they have to convince themselves, but it is such a low lie and anyone who knows even a tiny bit knows it.

I still think that such thuggishness will backfire, that it will only convince more people to support initiatives like the tax-and-regulate initiative that will be on the California ballot in November. If the authorities aren't willing to cooperate in carving out an exception to prohibition for people with cancer, multiple sclerosis and the like, people will be ready just to legalize and take the decision out of their hands.

Evan Bayh the pretentious

Pardon me if I'm not all that impressed with Dem. Ind. Sen. Evan Bayh's explanation of why he won't run for a third term come November. He talked all about the Senate being dysfunctional and hyperpartisan, but he has done almost nothing to bridge any gaps. I suspect he resents the fact that nobody looks to him, the quintessential moderate, to take a leadership position or be the go-between, but I suspect that's largely because he's a bland split-the-difference kind of guy without notable leadership qualities. He seerms like a nice guy and that's about it.

He's also more likely top lose or face a serious challenge in November than he lets on. And there's nothing especially commendable about being a moderate. Most of the time it means you don't have very firm convictions or the courage of whatever convictions you have. Don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out.

James Fallows issued an interesting challenge. If he's so disgusted by the behind-the-scenes deals and absurd bowing to special interests ad nauseam, spend the rest of his time in office identifying and denouncing them, and naming names. Don't hold your breath. The guy couldn't even face Reid or Obama face to face because the poor dear was afraid they might try to talk him out of it. Profiles in courage.

Olympics mostly quite wonderful

Despite my complaint in the previous post -- and I think it's a valid complaint; I wonder if others will see what I saw -- I have generally enjoyed the competition. As this Register editorial notes, the Canadians for the most part have handled the situation very well -- although not having the ice properly prepared for today's 500m short-skate event was a major amateurish blunder. And BodeMiller -- who is judged by the clock rather than a panel of, shall we say, imperfect judges -- got a bronze in the downhill. Good for him.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Skating judging: still a problem

Don't get me wrong. The Chinese couples were exquisite and deserved to win, although I would have reversed the gold and silver -- as I guess the judges did, but the married couple, Shen and Zhao returning from semi-retirement had a better short-program score. But the German couple, with their several falls and general listlessness, did not deserve the high score they got that earned them the bronze. The real trouble, to my mind, however, came much earlier. The first American couple, Denny and Barrett, skated mistake-free and got 105-something? I didn't think the second American couple, Evora and Ladwig, were better, And then later couples had falls and obvious mistakes and got higher scores -- in some cases much higher scores? I know I'm not a real expert and may have missed things, but they all had to do required elements. Something is rotten in Vancouver.

There were obvious problems in Salt Lake City including obvious favoritism for the judges' countries and allegations of vote-trading. They said they fixed it and maybe they tried, but quite obviously they didn't succeed. As this Slate article explains, what they did was to report the scores anonymously and then randomly select only 7 of the 9 judges' scores. The last was not a bad idea, but what made them think anonymity, which completely eradicates accountability, was going to eliminate favoritism. Instead it encourages it, and Dartmouth economist Eric Zitzewitz, who has studied the results over the last several years with economic tools, finds that home-country bias is now 20% worse.

I'm not saying the Americans should have medaled; both teams did poorly in the short program. But what it looked like to me was that the judges judged on the basis of scores in the short program rather than performance in the long program. Terrible!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Loving the Olympics

I understand a lot of the criticism of the Olympics -- too commercial, too nationalistic, too focused on often phony heart-tugging stories, too many smarmy commentators filling dead time with nonsense -- but I can't help it. I'm a a complete sucker, summer or winter, once they're on. Every time there are athletes who make you want to swell with pride about the human race who manage to come through with inspiring performances.

The death of the Georgian luger was a terrible tragedy, and although they mostly handled it tastefully before and during the opening ceremonies, I didn't think Olympic officials did very well today. The death was due to an athlete mistake rather than a poor course design -- even as the course was being modified to make up for the obviously over-dangerous aspects, like a too-low wall and unpadded pillars (though I'm not sure how much good padding would do at 95 mph)? Give me a break!

The opening ceremony was really quite impressive. My favorite was when Joni Mitchell was singing "Both Sides Now" and that guy was flying around on whatever kind of contraption he had. But the use of lights and mirrors to create the appearance of solid structures throughout? Marvelous. They did stretch it out a bit at the end, but I even liked the fact that there was a technical problem with the torch at close to the end. Them Canadians -- it's fascinating how many entertainers and sports figures we think of as quintessentially American are Canadian -- know how to put on a a show.

I have a weakness for individualists mainstream commentators think of as troublemakers (I loved John McEnroe best when he was really a "bad boy"), so I'm rooting for Bode Miller and Javi Smith to have wonderful performances.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Los Angeles and the dying empire

Almost every night on local TV there's another story about the dire fiscal condition of Los Angeles city, accompanied almost always by various employees or union officials protesting loudly against anything like layoffs to cope with the budget crisis. Mayor Villairagosa has shown much more in the way of trying to instill a sense of reality than I thought he had in him. He called for laying off 1,000 workers last week and is saying this week that it might require 2,000 more layoffs. (I'm fascinated that there are as many as 3,000 people working for the city government in the first place and suspect that most of them make work for each other more than they "serve" the public.) But the desire for denial is strong. In many ways it resembles Washington DC, an Sacramento, where almost all the officials blithely proceed with spending plans as if the respective capitals were not alrady beyond broke.

It strikes me as symptomatic of a declining empire. As the structures of the institutions crumble about them, the officials find ways to pretend none of it is happening and they can maintain their extravagant ways forever.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

John Murtha, Prince of Pork

I can't resist sharing a letter Don Boudreaux of the economics department at George Mason University in Virginia sent to the Washington Post a couple of days ago:

Your favorable front-page remembrance of the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha inadvertently testifies to the abysmally low standards to which politicians are held (“John Murtha dies; longtime congressman was master of pork-barrel politics,” Feb. 9). By your own account, Mr. Murtha was the “King of Pork.” He was known for skillfully using Congressional procedures to earmark funds for his district – that is, to prompt Uncle Sam to take money from Americans at large and give it to the relatively small number of Pennsylvanians who elect Mr. Murtha to office.

His justification? “I take care of my district.” Nothing here about spending taxpayer money wisely; nothing about the general welfare; nothing about principles or fiscal responsibility.

If Mr. Murtha on his own had traveled the country picking pockets, robbing banks, and burgling houses, only to bring the booty back to western PA and share it with his friends, he would have been rightly despised as a common criminal. But because Mr. Murtha joined forces with persons having similarly questionable morals, who together pass off their thievery as “lawmaking,” he’s celebrated in your pages – celebrated for doing, save on a grander scale, exactly what common thieves do.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

Iranian regime keeps protests in check

To many observers it looks as if the regime won in Iran today. Andrew Sullivan was particularly active tracking events and linking to live-bloggers. Green Movement protesters came out on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic republic/dictatorship, but the regime was prepared with thousands of police and security people. They were able to keep protesters away from the official gathering at which Ahmadinejad gave a speech announcing that Iran is now a "nuclear state" because it is enriching uranium to 20% U-235, which is said to be enough for medical purposes, whereas it takes 80-90% enriched uranium to make a bomb. The police were often brutal with the Greenies, and several leaders were arrested. But what many of us had hoped for -- that the anti-regime protests would be so massive that it would be obvious that the regime was on the verge of falling -- doesn't seem to have happened. Still, Iran will not emerge from this period unchanged, I suspect. Whether the Greens can force reforms -- the mildest would be reducing or eliminating the veto power of the mullahs and ayatollahs -- remains to be seen.

It would be disastrous for the U.S. to get involved with overt or covert support for the greens (and almost certainly harmful to the cause), but there is one step the U.S. could take that would make some sense and correct an injustice. Back in the 1990s, at a time when the Clinton administration was hopeful of an opening with Iran, it agreed to designate the Peoples Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI) or Mojahedin e-Khalq (MEK), an opposition group that opposed the shah before it opposed the mullahs, a terrorist organization to please the Iranians. Since the the EU and UK have done through investigations and determined that the designation is unfair, and decided to lift it. By keeping PMOI/MEK on the official terrorist list the U.S. is in essence siding with the regime. Lifting the designation would be an act of neutrality. The U.S. should do it tomorrow at the latest.

Jack Herer leaving the hospital

It's become pretty obvious that what's going on with Jack Herer depends to a great extent on who is telling the story. According to this story, his wife Jeannie has won a suit in Oregon on February 3 that makes her his official guardian, and the power of attorney of Joy Graves and CharlesJacobs was revoked. (This news was announced on the Web site Jeannie apparently maintains.) Then in Los Angeles reports that Jeannie has established a home in Portland, OR, and Jack is expected to leave the hospital and join her there for what is expected to still be a lengthy recovery period. The story also claims that their roommate Beau went to the hospital to watch the Super Bowl with Jack.

I don't have first-hand information. I just hope that Jack recovers and ends up all right. He's been a stalwart in the marijuana legalization movement.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Murtha hardly a role model

I'm not all that sure why the death of Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha was big news, or why the Register felt compelled to do an editorial about him. It's probably because in addition to his role as a wheeler-dealer he was one of the first Congresscritters to come out against the Iraq war, in 2005, and he had his own military history and a history in Congress as an advocate for those in uniform. Thus he had more than average credibility as a war critic.

At least we resisted the impulse not to speak ill of the dead. He was also a legendary pork-barreler and earmarker, and utterly unapologetic about it, taking campaign contributions from contractors and faciuli9tators he directed federal projects to. It was just the ordinary corruption that is much of federal spending, done on a slightly more flamboyant scale. If he had lived much longer he might well have been caught up in an FBI investigation of no-bid military contracts. He was a target of the Abscam sting in the early '80s; He declined a bribe but kept the channel open, so he escaped indictment.

How essential is the federal government?

Tomorrow will be the fourth day in a row that the federal government will have been shut down because of the unprecedented blizzards (no doubt caused by global warming -- some actually say so) in Washington, DC. Yet the country hasn't fallen apart, there isn't panic in the streets, life has not come to a standstill in the rest of the country. Could it be that we just might be able to get along without Washington's tender ministrations, and perhaps do it on a longer-term basis? That the federal government is not essential to our civic and personal lives? Of course we could do quite nicely without those windbags and busybodies.

Obama stubborn about all the wrong things

I am simply fascinated at how stubborn Obama and his advisers are about health care "reform." They don't have the votes, largely because of divisions among the Democrats and Massachusetts sealed that deal for good. Yet he still wants to throw a hail-Mary pass by inviting Republicans to some kind of televised dog-and-pony show that they'll probably have to go to and which he will dominate.

Perhaps he is appealing to his left-wing base by continuing to beat that dead horse. One would wish he had chosen to appeal to that base on foreign policy, by doing the sensible thing and deciding not to get deeply involved in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida is not operating. Instead, his foreign policy looks like Bush III. Disastrous.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Will it be Green Day or regime day?

Thursday, Feb. 11, is the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the regime plans extensive, massive staged demonstrations to celebrate. It is almost certain that the Green Movement that has bedeviled the regime ever since the (probably unnecessarily) stolen presidential election in June will stage demonstrations as well. As Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford, notes in this piece, it is a delicate time for the regime. Despite efforts to suggest to the public that the Green Movement has become reconciled to the regime -- newspaper stories saying Mohammad Khatami accepts Ahmadinejad's legitimacy, as does Mehdi Karroubi. The government wants to convince the people that the movcement has petered out, but Milani makes a strong case that this isn't true. The allegedly conciliatory statements by Green activists were taken out of context. I expect massive peaceful demonstrations. We'll see if the government feels the need to repress them violently.

Gabriela Montero an inspired improviser

As I write I'm listening to pianist Gabriela Montero's album "Bach and Beyond," (here's a link to an MP3 downloadable version) in which she starts playing various Bach pieces fairly straight and then improvises. Of course Bach improvised, as did most Baroque musicians, MOzart and others whom we think of as sticking to the music as written. I rather doubt if Bach improvised quite the way Gabriela does -- she has jazz-like riffs and 20th-century harmonies at her disposal (although one of Beethoven's late sonatas, I forget which one, suddenly goes into a variation that sounds just like jazz, so maybe Bach approached something like jazz as well, though I would be surprised. Gabriela was part of the token classical ensemble (including Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman) at the inauguration just over a year ago, so I guess I'm not the only one who appreciates her.

How government mostly created the financial crisis

The alternative narrative dominates the media, which mostly follows the lead of Obama. The financial crisis was created on Wall Street by greedy rule-breakers who just weren't regulated heavily enough. Fortunately the benevolent government saved us from complete meltdown just in time and has the answer to preventing such disasters from happening again. Trust us -- and give us more power.

The truth is rather different, as Johan Norberg's excellent book, "Financial Fiasco," which I reviewed for the Sunday Register, explains in reasonably irrefutable detail. Yes, there was greed and excessive risk-taking and bad judgment in the private sector. But it was operating in the environment created by government -- mainly the Fed's expansion of the money supply, the rules created to put teeth in the Community Reinvestment Act, which pressured/mandated banks to hand out risky mortgagaes, the shenanigans of the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Bush's fixation on the "ownership society" and much more.

Other books tell much the same story. Perhaps the best is Tom Sowell's "The Housing Boom and Bust," and Thomas Woods' "Meltdown." Economists and historians who understand the market got the story into print fairly quickly, but it may be that they have preached only to the converted. For anyone willing to probe a little, however, the story of how the mesltdown was almost entirely the government's doing is available. If only a few more people in the media were willing to probe that far.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Time -- past time -- to let gays serve openly in the military

I'm thinking I understand the attitude a little bit. When was 12-13-14 and starting to think about sex (and wishing I was doing it) the idea of guy-on-guy sex just struck me as unspeakably yucky. Beyond that knee-jerk attitude, which most of us eventually grow out of, I simply don't understand what seems to0 me to be an inordinate fear of homosexuality and the hostility to gays that seems so obvious in certain circles. It can't really be Christianity or the Bible properly understood. Jesus never said Word One about homosexuality and you have to search deeply to find the 3 or 4 references (some rather oblique) to homosexuality, all of which seem to me to reflect standard cultural biases more than religious statements.

All of which is prelude to this Register editorial yesterday urging the military -- well, I guess it has to be Congress to get it done this time around, which doesn't necessarily portend an enlightened approach -- to end the misbegotten "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military and allow gays to serve openly. Not that I would suggest anybody of any orientation serving in the military in such an empire-besotted country these days, but if they want to, let them.

Another Jack Herer update

Here's another comment from Eve Lentz on Jack Herer's post-heart-attack condition:

Hi, again, Alan. I also wanted you to know that Jack WAS speaking and singing during the 12 days that Joy Graves and I were with Jack Herer at the Care Center he was in (Avamere Riverpark of Eugene) and in the hospital when he went into Renal Failure (Mckensie-Williamette Hospital). He was, at that time "in there" and I do not believe that he will be allowed, now, to get expert treatment and therapy, as I know he deserves.
As Jack Herer's Secretary and editor of his manuscript "The Most High- Plant Secrets of the Gods and Explorations Revealing the End of the World as You Know It", I have seen many things these past months. You wouldn't believe me if I told you even some of the awful things that I have seen done in the name of Jack Herer, that ARE NOT done in his best interests or for his sake. The freedom of Jack to choose his own Powers of Attorney to protect his manuscript from his estranged wife, (who has said she will not let it be published) has now been taken away. I am now fighting to protect Jack's manuscript, with every fiber of my being, so that it will one day be published as Jack wished it to be. Thank-you, again, for reporting his condition and giving us the chance to comment!

Any hope for Haiti?

When I agreed to write this piece on Haiti for the Register's Sunday Commentary section, I thought I might be able to deliver a marginally upbeat verdict on Haiti's chances for improving its condition post-earthquake. After all, Haiti's criminally corrupt government is largely responsible for Haiti being so impoverished, and the erthquake virtually destroyed the government. Maybe, just maybe, it might be possible to start with a relatively clean slate?

The more people I talked to and the more I read, however, the less optimistic I became. There's a formula (adaptable to local conditions,and customs, of course) for poor nations becoming rich, as this book rather persuasively demonstrates, but it involves protection of private property rights and a welcoming environment for entrepreneurial activity. It turns out that Haiti's government has been ineffectual for years and that what governance Haiti has experienced recently has come from the UN, which doesn't come close to understanding what might work; indeed, it's wedded (not surprisingly) to the kind of top-down model that makes "experts" from international organizations the key players. Haiti's best chance is for the experts to get out of the way (once private property rights are secured), but the chances for such a development approach zero. Too bad. I'd love to be wrong.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Guantanamo deaths: some pushback

Since I did a post earlier about Scott Horton's article that raised serious questions about the official investigation into three deaths at Guantanamo in 2006 -- strongly suggesting that an unacknowledged site might have been where they met their deaths rather than by hanging themselves in their cells -- I thought it only fair to note that Horton's article has been criticized by people whose opinions I believe are worth considering. Jack Shafer, who does media criticism for Slate, is to my mind the best media critic out there and a long way from being a kneejerk apologist for the government, so his comments that Horton “never comes close to making its case that prisoners Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani may have been murdered at a secret CIA installation at Gitmo . . .” is worth considering. There's also a blogger at First Things, the theocon site, named Joe Carter, who has critiqued Horton's piece here, here, here, and here. Neocons are seldom right, but his posts are mostly critiques and some of his p[oints are worth considering.

I still think Horton's piece is important, and taken with the critique of the official Navy investigation done at University at least make the case that that report is seriously lacking. And Scott was pretty careful not to go beyond his evidence. He doesn't say he's proven the site was a secret CIA installation, he says that's one of the possibilities, and that the official Navy report failed to reach all potential eyewitnesses including the ones he interviewed. Troubling enough.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Newt usually interesting, and he was today

Newt Gingrich came to the Register to meet with the editorial board today, and we had an interesting discussion. As this editorial notes, the topic was mostly jobs, inasmuch as his American Solutions organization held a "jobs summit" tonight in Irvine. Newt's handlers said they had 2,000 RSVPs, but they weren't sure how many would show. Newt talked about a cutting the payroll tax (SS and Medicare) in half for two years, letting the death tax stay dead, cutting the corporate rate to 12.5 percent (like Ireland), and the capital gains rate to zero (like China).

Newt is hardly a libertarian; I suspect if we had touched on foreign policy he would defend the empire, just urge it to be smarter. For a generally conventional conservative, however, he is intellectually aware and interested in ideas as well as strategy. Here's a blog post I did, here is a short interview Brian Calle conducted, and here's a video of the entire discussion/interview (maybe not). I suspect he would still run for president if he thought he had a chance, but I doubt if he does. Nonetheless, an interesting person.

UCLA 77, Stanford 73

The commentators talked of Honeycutt, Reeves, and Michael Roll knocking down free throws late in the game. However, I'm taking full credit for this marvelous victory. At halftime, with the Bruins down -- what was it, 6? -- I donned my UCLA sweatshirt and put on my ugliest old-school Bruins cap in corduroy(!) baby-blue as a rally cap, cracked open a beer, and went to our outside room where I could smoke, yell and cuss without disturbing Jen, and carried them through.

Seriously, they're starting to make a believer of me. And it's worth noting that while the Pac-10 may be a bit down as a power conference this year, a consequence is that the teams are fairly evenly matched and prone to lose games you would think they should win. That makes for generally interesting games, especially if you watch, as I have several non-Bruin Pac-10 games, without a particular favorite in your heart, almost all the games will be tightly contested and generally won by 5 points or less. An example: Cal lost to USC 66-63 tonight, and I think that puts the Bruins, improbably enough, in a tie for first. Those are the kinds of games that, as a generic basketball fan, I most enjoy watching. Every team has one 0r two really top-notch players -- Landry Fields on Stanford was amazing tonight. Of course if you have a favorite in the game, as I did tonight, it can make for tense experiences too.

Airport screening: is low-tech best?

As an update to my recent post about the conventional response to the latest foiled terrorist plot -- further inconveniencing and invading the privacy of airline passengers, something that is invasive, expensive and mostly ineffective, but highly visible so the authorities can say they are "doing something" -- here's a post by Michael Zantovsky, former press secretary to Vaclav Havel and Czech ambassador to the U.S. and elsewhere. He notes that for would-be bombers with a modicum of ingenuity the possibilities are almost endless, while the possible solution, especially the technological ones, the defenses are expensive and hardly guaranteed to succeed. Money quote:

"There are countless ways to disguise, smuggle through, and assemble an explosive. One thing that cannot be easily disguised is the bomber’s mind, high on adrenaline, racing with doubts, insane with fear and hatred. Experience in countries better left unnamed shows that an airport security team of interviewers, trained to look for signs, symptoms, evasions, inconsistencies, and deceptions can do the job faster, less expensively and more effectively than any piece of hardware. Technology is still employed but not relied upon for infallibility."

I'm pretty sure the "left unnamed" country he has in mind is Israel. When I flew there the security was pretty painstaking and included at least a short interview with every passenger. Mildly uncomfortable but hardly unbearable. And for my money much less degrading than a full body scam, er, scan.

More on Jack Herer's condition/situation

Eve Lentz left the following as a comment on my previous post regarding Jack Herer in his post-heart-attack situation. I thought it was interesting enough to make a new post of it. I'll try (maybe tonight when time permits) to get more current news:

Alan, thanks for putting up the Cannabis Culture link to "most" of the truth. As with everything else, many believe different things. After knowing Joy Graves through thick and thin, I believe she is telling the truth; that Jack did sign a Power of Attorney naming her and Chuck to "protect his manuscript" and a Medical Directive giving them the right to medical decisions. I believe that Joy is fulfilling her obligation to Jack and that Chuck has done the opposite of Jack's true wishes.
Jeannie Herer, though,has been untruthful, starting with the statement that she never left Jack to begin with. I have witnessed other lies, myself and there is no reason for them if she has nothing to hide! She has something to hide and it isn't pretty! Ask her where is all of the money she collected from the many benefits and bank accounts, to pay Jack's medical bills with? Why is Joy Graves receiving all of the medical bills? Where are all of the "Get Well" cards that Jeannie and Mark Herer have been receiving for Jack? Why isn't Jack getting any of the many cards his fans, friends and family are sending, to at least "brighten up his room"? So many questions to go, but I will leave that for later!
Before Jack's heart attack, I watched how much he loved Joy as a daughter and how she loved him. I watched the same thing at Avamere, after his heart attack and he showed his love to her there. I also watched Jack scream for me one day while Jeannie was stroking his arm. He is terrified of her, as much as he said he was before his heart attack! Would YOU want the "estranged" spouse who you were divorcing and who you specifically did a POA to protect your manuscript from, to now be IN CHARGE of everything YOU do for the rest of your life? Many know better!!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Terrorizing (and violating) airline passengers

I found this piece by TNR's legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen on those full-body scanners at airports striking and persuasive. His contention is that the millimeter scanners "are a virtual strip search -- and an outrage." They give somebody somewhere in a booth an anatomically correct view of the passenger, but they would not have detected the explosives the panty-bomber carried. Earlier in the development of the machines models that at least blurred facial features, but those have not been adopted. Maximum invasion of privacy almost seems to be the goal.

The upshot is that in response to the Christmas would-be bomber, we have imposed yet another degrading invasion of privacy on ordinary airline passengers, and one that doesn't really increase safety or security. It's like a knee-jerk response. Screw up -- this was a government screw-up caused largely by the fact that we have too much security bureaucracy, too many different agencies looking at various pieces of the terrorism puzzle but so caught up in bureaucratic procedures, turf issues and empire-building that they don't -- perhaps can't -- communicate with one another. A would-be terrorist fails on a difficult, long-shot bombing attempt and the government responds by terrorizing ordinary innocent passengers. Truly the terrorists have won.

Obama's bloated budget

The fascinating thing is that even as Obama unveiled the biggest budget ever (3.8 trillion -- how striking that the T-word has now become commonplace but is still a concept few people can grasp -- one billion minutes ago the Gospel of John was written and a trillion is a thousand times that -- so it becomes meaningless) with the biggest projected deficit ($1.56 trillion) ever, and use the language of fiscal restraint and responsibility. I know, this is supposed to be part of his "I get it" campaign as he tries to convince us that he really-really cares about jobs and the middle class and turning the economy around rather than dabbling with a new open-ended entitlement, but just how dim does he think we are? As this Register editorial points out, it's a bit like the prayer St. Augustine is reputed to have prayed as he was trying to come to terms with what the implications of conversion really are: Lord grant me chastity -- but not just yet. The "freeze is worse than a joke.

Job creation requires capital formation and the confidence to deploy capital in productive or at least promising ways that expand or build a business to the point that one needs more people to help out. The only jobs Obama has "saved or created" so far have been government jobs, which bear a distinctly parasitic relationship to the real economy, and are a deterrent to private job creation. Even aside from the fact that government spending, while it may stimulate a little activity in the short run, is not the key to sustainable economic recovery and growth, the fact that we're in a recession is a lame excuse for not having a plan to control long-term deficits.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Iranian opposition group seeking justice

I talked again Friday with Nasser Sharif of Californians for a Democratic Iran about the unfortunate fact that the U.S. has designated the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), also known and Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) as a terrorist organization. As I explained in a piece I wrote last June, the designation occurred in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration had some hope of breaking the US-Iranian ice with supposed moderates in power in Iran and fulfilled a request by the Iranian regime to make the designation. Both the European Community and the UK have done extensive investigation and determined that the PMOI doesn't deserve the terrorist designation and have lifted it. As Nasser argued, and I think I agree, this not only harms one of the main Iranian opposition groups (and a democratic and secular one to boot), it effectively puts the U.S. on the side of the regime.

Despite support from some congresscritters of both parties and a lawsuit, little or not progress has been made on this issue. I'm afraid that since it was a Clinton-era decision, the job of officially identifying terrorist organizations lies with the State Dept, and Hillary is SecState, that it will take dynamite or the political equivalent to get action on this issue. But it would be smart.

Medical marijuana just might come to Elsinore

It was fascinating to attend the town hall meeting last Monday put on by We the People of Elsinore, a group trying to get the city council, which is inclined to ban medical marijuana facilities, to change its mind or put the issue on the ballot and let the people decide. All the panelists, including my old friends Judge Jim Gray and Ed Rosenthal, but also including a Dr. Fichter and the lady in charge of the medmar ID card program for Riverside County, were quite good. A lot of information was dispensed, a lot of questions were asked and answered, and I got to meet Wayne Williams, a local businessman who put the program together. I hadn't seen Ed Rosenthal for several years and we made plans to get togethernext time he's in Southern California.

Of course it's possible that the issue will become moot if California approves the tax-and-regulate-on-the-alcohol model initiative that officially now will be on the ballot in November. But it is encouraging to see medical marijuana advocates (much of the audience of 150, which filled the cultural center to overflowing seemed to be patients, but not all) and other citizens getting together to take action in the light of recalcitrance from City Hall. Of course none of the citi council members showed up.

Fisking Obama's speech

Now I have been a skeptic of what is laughingly called campaign finance reform, which simply increases the already considerable advantages of incumbency, for decades -- since it was put in place after Watergate, which happened to be when I was working on the Hill. So I supported the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that took the gag off political speakers and advertisers in the period prior to an election. So I have predilections. Still, the more I looked into the Obama/Alito incident at the State of the Union, the more Obama not only looked like the aggressor, the clearer it became that he utterly mischaracterized the case, extrapolating to an unlikely worst-case scenario . Here's the piece I did for the Register's Sunday Commentary section.