Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Parole and Pat Nolan

This article on prisoners and parole for the Register's Sunday Commentary section came out of a certain amount of reporting and a little bit of research. Sitting in on Parole and Community PACT meetings was not exactly eye-opening -- I've had contact with parolees and the enforcement system, especially during Three Strikes campaigns. Nonetheless, some people surprised me -- not that what they did at one meeting necessarily predicts how they will handle parole or whether they will take advantage of the opportunities various volunteers offer them.

It was good to see Pat Nolan, now with Chuck Colson's Justice Fellowship. He and I go back a long way -- probably to '67 or '68 -- but I hadn't seen him in about 20 years. He seems happy, doing something he believes is worthwhile and designed to bring a bit of benefit to the world -- probably much more constructive than anything he did as an elected official.

Monday, October 19, 2009

What gets reactions

After almost 30 years in the newspaper business, I still find myself surprised at what gets reactions from readers. Last Friday I did what struck me as a fairly innocent post for the Register's Orange Punch blog on Rush Limbaugh, suggesting that he got a fairly raw deal from the NFL in response to his desire to be a minority owner of the St. Louis Lambs, while noting that while I don't think he's a racist, he does indulge in race-baiting. It got more than 100 comments and they're still coming. Of course several readers got on their own hobbyhorses instead of staying on-topic, but that's fine.

Quote of the Day

"If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceful revolution, if any such is possible." -- Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Can the Bruins bite the Bears?

It was too painful to write about last week's game with Oregon because the lapses just put it out of reach and the offense was so ineffective. I hope it was just Kevin Prince being rusty and that he'll come out of his funk on Saturday. Richard Brehaut, the true freshman, had some good sequences and showed that he has a pretty good arm, and the defense actually held Oregon's effective offense to 10 points, but they just couldn't get into the end zone.

I don't know what to make of Cal. Were they overrated early, or did they have lapses? I suspect they'll be eager for redemption after the embarrassing loss to USC. and Jahvid Best is a helluva running back, though the record shows he can be kept in check. So I just don't know how the Bruins, a 3-point underdog, will do on Saturday. I'm hoping they come into their own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Jack Herer released from hospital

The most recent news I have of my old friend Jack Herer, the "Emperor of Hemp," who had a serious heart attack mid-September, is that he is out of the hospital in Portland, seems alert from what his eyes follow, but isn't speaking yet. He's scheduled for therapy. Will update when I find out where he is staying, whether in Portland or going home.

Bach celebrates Obama's Nobel

Courtesy of "A Tiny Revolution," here's a YouTube of Bach's BWV 13, with the text going on about "groaning and weeping" and the Bass selling the idea. There's also a nice little essay from Bernard Chazelle on the improbability of a provincial German musician turning out to be such a towering genius whose greatest music was consciously written to glorify God. Whence comes such genius? A lot of us have some talent for music, and some composers (think of Schubert) must have had melodies running through their heads pretty much all the time. But somehow Bach towers over them all, as geniuses like Mozart and Beethoven acknowledged.

ObamaCare not a done deal

Most of the media are treating Senate Finance Committee passage of the Baucus bill as a sure sign that some sort of bill Obama can sign and embrace as real hopeychange will be passed by Congress this year. Naturally the Register had to beg to differ. Our editorial suggested that some of the most divisive and contentious days are yet to come.

The most prominent (or at least numerous) holders of the "Cadillac" health insurance policies Baucus wants to tax (at 40%!), for example, are union workers, though I imagine some fatcats have them as well. Will left-Democrats actually vote against a bill that doesn't include the sacred "public option," or will they grumble and vote for something they think is a half-measure they see as a giveaway to evil insurance companies? How Blue will the Blue Dogs be with an election staring them in the face in a year or less?

Pray for gridlock. Only if the gumbo that emerges from the legislative back kitchen doesn't make it to the table (or is sent back indignantly by customers) will there be a chance for real cost-cutting or even (dare we even imagine?) consumer- and patient-oriented reform.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The degradation of the Nobel Peace Prize

Perhaps it is just as well that the Nobel Peace Prize, in the wake of the award to Obama, has become more widely perceived as a bit of a joke, a source of punchlines. Here's the Register's take, written that day and rather restrained, I thought. I don't think enough people, in all the bursts of jokes, blogs and editorials, noted the irony of receiving the Peace Prize at a time when one is considering how to ramp up an utterly unnecessary and ill-fated war in Afghanistan. Ah, well.

Can the U.S. accept a victory?

I would like to hope that this article in the WaPo represents a possible administration trial balloon or preparation for significantly reducing the military footprint of the U.S. in Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan as well. Karen De Young and Walter Pincus (one of the people in the world I'm glad I took the initiative to meet) provide information, largely overlooked, to my knowledge, that certainly could provide a rationale for such a sensible step.

The word from the intelligence officials they interviewed is that various techniques -- "improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with the increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorists organization's effectiveness." Indeed, "Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks."

This jibes with what Stratfor.com and some other intelligence-oriented outfits (and I) have been saying for years -- that al-Qaeda Central, so to speak, has been seriously degraded. It doesn't seem to have had a hand, let alone a coordinating role, in attacks such the Madrid and London train bombings and other attacks. It no doubt has some value to the terrorist cause as an inspirer of would-be terrorists or as a label for already-existing local groups to assume. But it has little operational ability.

Well, isn't that what the U.S. has said is the central goal -- disabling al-Qaeda? It seems to have been largely accomplished (though continued vigilance is no doubt warranted), and not through conventional military means or classic counterinsurgency methods, but through a combination of intelligence, which helped to identify drone targets with increasing effectiveness, collaboration with others, and police-like work. How a classic counterinsurgency campaign that would first have to legitimize the pathetic Karzai regime, in Afghanistan would contribute to further success is unclear, to say the least. By extending the unpopular de facto U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, it might even aid terrorist recruitment.

I hate to think that the U.S. has evolved into a regime that must have constant wars, regimes designated as pariahs to justify constant hostility, and leaders inflating threats to justify its military-industrial establishment. But if we can't accept victory over al-Qaeda, or at least decide to keep doing what's working and abandon the military-centered actions that aren't, one wonders.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Private schools and the poor

It's not just Facebook, though you can waste a lot of time there, but especially busy times at work and in-laws coming for a few days that have kept me from my appointed blogging rounds. Part of it was reading the entirety of James Tooley's extraordinary book, "The Beautiful Tree," about his discoveries of private schools serving the poor throughout the Third World -- in India, Africa and even in China. I did this piece for the Register's Sunday Commentary section, and judging by the comments it stirred a certain amount of interest (although asd is often the case with commenters they addressed the article only glancingly before climbing on their personal hobbyhorses -- but better that than no response at all). I wish hundreds of thousands of people would read this remarkable book.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Jack Herer out of intensive care

I haven't been able to get the link to work, but CannabisCulture is reporting that Jack Herer is out of intensive care now. He still isn't talking, but seems increasingly conscious and aware. Is scheduled to begin physical therapy. I hope this is an accurate report. IU'll keep checking and see what else I can find, perhaps tonight, perhaps tomorrow.

Celebrating James P. Johnson

It's encouraging to know that in the midst of living in the "interesting times" the Chinese viewed as a curse, some heartwarmingly positive things are happening as well. One of the more encouraging I have encountered recently was a concert in a West Village club celebrating and raising money for James P. Johnson (he wrote "Charleston"), the leading exponent of "stride" piano (perhaps along with Willie "The Lion" Smith), a style developed in the 1920s featuring a strong rhythmic left hand giving impetus to sometimes delicate melodies and elaborate riffs in the right hand. Stride was in many ways the transtion between ragtime and jazz as it came to be known in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond. YouTube examples here, here, here and here.

Anyway, it turns that Johnson died in 1955 and while people knew his grave was in Queens somewhere, nobody knew exactly where it was. Recently Scott Brown, a Johnson scholar, found it, and the club Smalls hosted a gathering of a dozen pianists on Sunday,playing and riffing on Johnson classics, to raise money for a headestone. Nice to see an American innovator is still remembered and celebrated.

Did U.S. bugging out really create the Taliban?

Bruce Cameron over at consortiumnews.com has an interesting piece that makes a fairly decent case that the conventional wisdom -- the U.S. losing interest in Afghanistan after the Soviets left was responsible for the Taliban coming to power (with the implication being that we can't afford to "bug out" again) -- is not quite right -- thought the presentation is a little convoluted for my taste.

Cameron does point out that far from losing interest, the U.S., thought the CIA, pursued an active intervention in Afghanistan after the Soviets left, operating mainly through the Pakistani ISI, figuring the Soviet-backed Najibullah government would fall quickly. But Najubullah held on until 1992. He was replaced by a moderate Islamist, Ahmad Shah Massoud, but Pakistan's ISI, and therefore the U.S., kept funding other contendors, notably Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The scramble for power, aggravated by CIA-ISI funding for anti-government forces, paved the way for the ISI to groom the Taliban to take power in 1996. The U.S., far from being inattentive, worked with the ISI, hoping the Taliban would at least bring stability (and cement Pakistani influence, not necessarily the U.S. goal).

There's more to what is really a convoluted history, but in essence a case can be made that U.S. attention rather than inattention contributed to the rise of the Taliban -- which didn't come until seven years after the Soviets left.

If there's a lesson for now it is that the U.S. doesn't have a history of diagnosing Afghani politics accurately and influencing them in a democratic or even a modestly tolerant direction. Hamid Karzai, our chosen vessel (or the one we're stuck with) may have less legitimacy now than Najibullah did then, and certainly less than Massoud. Without a respected central government to defend -- which may never be in the cards for Afghanistan, which might not be a tragedy -- the kind of counterinsurgency program McChrystal is proposing has precious little chance of success.

Bruins come back to earh

It was rather painful to watch the UCLA-Stanford game Saturday. This blog post from Adam Maya at the Register tells a good bit. UCLA's defense was supposed to be its strong point, but the combination of Toby Gerhart, the stanford offensive line and some boneheaded mistakes led to Stanford dominance. It was nice to score some points in the fourth quarter, but aside from a few brief moments of hope the outcome was not really in doubt from early on.

I'm not sure what to make of the season so far. I guess SD State, Tennessee and Kansas State are rather inferior teams, but it was not nothing to beat them, especially Tennessee. The Pac 10 could be wiuld. USC has taken its annual dive to a low-ranked team, this time Washington, and Cal lost to Oregon. Then Stanford beat Washington. Kevin Prince has been out for UCLA and the coaches don't seem to trust Kevin Craft to try to stretch the field. Whether that would have made a difference against Stanford is difficult to guess.

I don't have a good feeling about playing Oregon on Saturday. I'd love for Prince and the Bruins to surprise me and everybody else. It's at least possible.

Supreme Court term could be interesting

I doubt that the presence of Sonia Sotomayor will make much difference in the way the Supremes decide things this term -- although news reports say she was active in questioning on the first day the court heard cases yesterday. Kennedy will continue to be the justice to whom lawyers direct their arguments and he will likely continue to side with the "liberal" bloc sometimes and the "conservative" bloc more often.

As this Register editorial explains in truncated form, however, it should be an intersting term. The Hillary Movie case, with the potential to disassemble a good deal of the restrictions on the practice of democracy known as "campaign finance reform," has been argued. There's a cross on federal land in the Mojave Desert likely to further confuse church-state jurisprudence. There will be a couple of terrorism-related cases, one involving designating a "humanitarian" organiuzation as providing "material support" to a terrorist organization. And perhaps most interesting, Maloney v. Chicago, which challenges Chicago's strict gun laws in the wake of Heller, which pronounced the right to bear arms an individual, not a collective, militia-conditioned right. Heller applied to the District of Columbia, a federal enclave. The question is whether that right will be "incoporated," as most of the Bill of Rights have been by the courts, to apply to states and municipalities. Don't look to me for predictions. Not yet. Maybe I'll get foolish as I read reports on oral arguments.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Bill Safire one of the best

One way or another I never did meet Bill Safire, but the Register ran his column for years and I really enjoyed his "On Language" pieces. He took such obvious delight in the written word and in playing with language, coining neologisms that it was difficult not to share his enthusiasm. Here's the Register's appreciation.

Here's an appreciation from Maureen Dowd, and another from Howell Raines (and a criticism thereof), neither of whom shared Bill's political convictions, but both of whom appreciated the man. Also some words from Rich Richman and from John Podhoretz.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

No stake through the heart of the public option

The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday rejected two amendments to the Max Baucus version of health care deform, but as this Register editorial explains, that's probably not the end of the matter. Four of the five versions that have made it through various committees have the government-run insurance "company" in them, and there's little doubt it's a stalking-horse for single-payer.

If I do say so, I was rather pleased with the phrase "politicians who see the essence of progressivism as making the U.S. more like the Europe of yesteryear." It's fascinating how backward-looking most American "progressives" are. The landmark era is the Great Depression and the avatar is the cheerful rogue Roosevelt. Oh, for a return to those Glory Days! That would be progress! Wow.

Jack Herer still in hospital

The most recent news I have on Jack Herer is from Saturday. Paul Stanford says he opened his eyes and seemed to follow people in the room. But still not communicative. I will e-mail Paul tomorrow (later today I guess) to see if I can get a more recent update.

Iran: all choices bad so go for the symbolic

Although I am nowhere near so frightened about Iran eventually getting a nuclear weapon as almost everybody else feigns to be, there is little question that the Iranian regime knows how to push buttons and create tensions. The problem from the U.S./West perspective is that there are no good options. People thrust their chests out and say Israel will bomb them, but not only would Israel have to cross Iraqi airspace (which would mean explicit U.S. approval/cooperation), there's little likelihood that it would locate and damage all or even most of Iran's secret nuclear facilities. If the Iranians have any ambivalence -- several Iranian experts I talked to said it was quite possible they're enriching right up to the point of having the components of a bomb that they could then finish like a "turnkey" operation whenever they decided, but might not build it as soon as it was technologically possible, rather wait until a propitious moment to announce it. Diplomacy might work, but it's hardly guaranteed and would take a long time.

So the feel-good option of imposing economic sanctions is the fallback position. But such sanctions seldom harm the regime that inspired them; indeed, they're more likely to hurt the people who are already oppressed but reinforce the rulers' power. And besides the fact that China is likely to cast a Security Council veto and Russia is hardoly a sure thing, it shouldn't be hard for Iran to beat a sanctions regime with smuggling, probably fuirther enrichjing the Revolutionary Guard along the way.

Perhaps the best choice is to quit meddling and quit paying attention to Ahmadinejad's rants?

Foreign crises enfolding Obama

No wonder Obama wants to run to Copenhagen and talk about the Olympics and act like a Chicago wardheeler. He's discovering that giving speeches is not the same thing as actually governing, that selling policies few who are not hopeless ideologues feel any sense of urgency about (health care) is not easy, especially when your method is to repeat the same vague assurances over and over and over and over again. And now he's getting a taste of making decisions about foreign policy that are likely to have actual consequences. I pointed out some of the difficulties with the counterinsurgency idea in Afghanistan in this article for the Register's Sunday Commentary section. Aside from the smart-ass remark about military intellectuals, which alienated some readers and kept some from reading the piece dispassionately and considering its arguments, I think it holds up pretty well. And now Iran rears its ugly head with ugly promises (though I suspect not all that much progress toward a weapon). I'd run off to Copenhagen too.

Couldn't happen to a more deserving fella.