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January 31, 2006

Welcome Back My Friends to the Show that Never Ends

Ladies and gentlemen: the Democratic Party. The thing about the Democrats is, they eat their own.

Posted by jeff at 6:49 PM | TrackBack


I AM shocked, stunned even, to find that some people are offended that AOL is using the words I AM to market their product, AIM. (hat tip: Classical Values)

In fact, I AM as stunned by this as I AM by Muslims offended by an ice cream cone lid that had a stylized swirl on it. Or at Muslims who rioted after (false) reports of American military guards at Guantanamo defacing a Koran. In fact, I AM convinced that it is time for me to start being deliberately offensive to anyone who is so easily offended. I AM hoping people will get a bit of a grip. In the interest of gratuitous offense, I AM posting the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Mohammed, courtesy of di2.nu.

Annette Carlsen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Arne Soerensen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Bob Katzennelson cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Claus Seidel cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Erik Abild Soerensen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Franz Fuchsel cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Jens Julius Hansen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Kurt Westergaard caroon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Lars Refn cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Peder Bundgaard cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Poul Erik Poulsen cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten
Rasmus Sand Hoyer cartoon of Mohammed from Jyllands-Posten

So there.

I should note that some Muslim countries are trying to get the UN to ban "attacks on religious beliefs". Presumably, any such ban would include these and this and this? Somehow, I doubt it.

Posted by jeff at 5:29 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Yearning for the Mud

Gerard Van der Leun has a must-read essay on why some people simply can't get their head around anything that might be good for America.

Posted by jeff at 10:16 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Pressure on Iran

I have to admit that I'm shocked that the Administration has gotten Russia and China to agree to refer Iran to the Security Council over the Iranian nuclear weapons program, or more formally, over Iranian violations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is, as Mark notes, a stunning feat of diplomacy. As Mark also notes, the odds of the President getting any credit for it are zero. In fact, that may overstate the odds, as doubtless some of the critics will bash the administration for being too multilateral (as they do about Korea). I suspect that the critics feel this balances their criticism of the administration for not being multilateral enough in other cases.

Nonetheless, it's a good step forwards towards resolving the crisis, although in the end I do not expect diplomacy to effectively end Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Posted by jeff at 9:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 30, 2006

Future Carriers

Brian Dunn of The Dignified Rant has doubts about our next generation carriers, an extensive redesign of the current Nimitz class called CVN-21 (Nuclear-powered Attack Carrier for the 21st century). His major concern is that, in an networked warfare environment at sea, big platforms are very vulnerable, and their loss potentially devastating.

I do not think that there will be another generation of aircraft carrier past CVN-21 that will bear any resemblance to our current concept of carriers. The reason for this is simple: UAVs combined with excellent anti-air warfare equipment and sensors on modern ships.

Why, after all, do we need aircraft in our military? The main reasons are logistics (rapid delivery of small amounts of critical material or personnel), reconnaissance, support of ground forces, preserving our ability to carry out those tasks, and preventing the enemy from carrying out those tasks. But UAVs will soon be taking over — indeed, are currently in the process of taking over — a large part of the reconnaissance and ground support tasks, and that will grow in the future. If UAVs are capable of being adapted to fighter roles (protecting our other aviation assets and eliminating enemy aircraft), the only necessarily manned aircraft will be cargo planes, and perhaps specialty sensor platforms that for some reason need an on-board crew. A small number of manned aircraft in each category (for missions unforeseen by the software developers of the UAVs) will suffice to cover gaps, while most missions are carried out by unmanned aircraft. Combined with increasingly effective air defense systems — particularly at sea — it becomes possible that carrier-based manned aviation will become unneccessary.

In that event, the follow-on carriers to CVN-21 (sometime around 30 years from now, the way ships last these days) will likely be more like cruisers in size, with the ability to carry perhaps 50 or 60 UAVs of various types (mostly sensor platforms and attack craft). These ships can be smaller because UAVs will be smaller than manned aircraft, and (because they have fewer systems) need less maintenance, and there will be no aircrews and smaller maintenance crews required. Thus more vehicles and their support staff and equipment can fit in a smaller volume, which will reduce the size of the ships that carry them. These will, in particular as a component of a networked fleet, still be very, very capable ships, likely as capable as the CVN-21s they will replace in most or all ways, despite being dramatically smaller and cheaper. In some ways, they would be much more capable. (For example, it would make sense to equip such a ship with VLS, which current carriers do not have, along the lines of how the Soviet carriers were to be armed.)

In the meantime, the larger the carrier is, the more efficient it is (thus, the more aircraft it can carry). This comes from a simple cause: increasing the size of the ship does not increase the size of the engineering spaces, crew or many other factors by a similar amount, meaning that above a certain size, virtually all size increases translate directly into increased mission equipment. In the case of carriers, that means more aircraft. And as Brian notes, doubling the number of aircraft is worth a 50% bigger and more expensive target, because it means that there is less chance that the enemy will be able to target the carrier in the first place.

Posted by jeff at 8:49 PM | TrackBack

Some Realignment Necessary

There is a deep flaw in US politics at present. It goes beyond the near-universal substitution of vicious ad hominem attacks for studied policy debate. It goes beyond the corruption that taints both parties, from vote buying via special interest money to vote buying via earmarks (pork). It goes beyond the unwillingness to offer ideas from the Democrats, who would rather snipe at the Republicans than have responsibility themselves; and beyond the unwillingness of Republicans in the House, apparently, to even allow the Democrats in on the process of drafting laws. It goes to the very heart of what it is to be American: the policy-making cores of the two parties fundamentally disagree on what America is.

Let me explain what I mean by "policy-making cores". Let's say that you or I, people of modest means and without the ability to marshall millions of dollars of special interest money, dedicate all of our time and effort to getting the party of our choice elected, and are successful. Now, let's say that we decide to write a letter, or make a phone call, or visit the office of our representatives, the ones we worked so hard and spent so much to elect. Would that contact make a policy difference, ever? If you answered "no", you are on to something: even if our representative himself has much influence on making policy (perhaps especially if he does), our opinion will have the exact weight of a tally mark in a column that, if it favors our representative's interests, would be disclosed of evidence of how much support our representative's policy has among his constituents. That's it.

Who does have influence? It's a small club, consisting of the leadership of the party in the House, some key committee chairmen from the House, key Senators (particularly those who head an important committee, or who represent a large state, or who have some particular gift of eloquence or fundraising or outreach to a critical consituency), key unelected party leaders (like Howard Dean and Ken Mehlman) and lobbyists representing large voter blocs and with vast sums at their disposal (the term "lobbyist" includes here activist organizations for each party, which at least represent votes and fundraising influence; this is why Kos gets the time of day from Democrats: he has the eyes and influences the votes and actions of hundreds of thousands of activist Democrats). And this club is possible, but difficult, to get into; in practical terms it won't happen unless that is your overriding goal and you are willing to sell your soul and children to do it.

The policy making cores of the two major parties are so far apart right now that civil dialogue seems impossible to find. Worse yet, the way in which the cores differ feeds the vitriol, because the Democrat core believes the Republicans are evil and the Republican core believes the Democrats are traitors or "useful idiots". And since they cannot have any discussion, and since ordinary people cannot have any influence, the reality is that our cohesion as a nation is deeply threatened. This despite the clear fact that, exluding the parties' policy making cores and the activists, most ordinary Americans believe more or less the same things: that America should aggressively defend itself from foreign threats, but only when we have to and then overwhelmingly and competently; that the government should have some role in providing a social safety net, but should not simply transfer wealth from one group to another without condition; that education is important, and our government has a role to play in making sure that a quality education is available to everyone; that legal immigration is good, and illegal immigration is bad; that jobs are important, and the economy is important, and that the government has some role in ensuring that the economy stays good and we all have jobs, but not at the price of taking over private companies; that abortion is wrong, but should be legal at least early in pregnancy or if the mother's life is endangered. We may disagree about how those ends should be achieved, but there is pretty broad agreement on those principles. Now, which party represents them in their policy-making cores?

The Republicans by and large mirror the public consensus on defense and welfare. The Democrats by and large mirror the public consensus on education and jobs. Neither represents the consensus opinions on anything else, really. Indeed, it is not surprising that almost 2 in 5 of the voters (me included) associates itself with neither of the major parties. I would suspect much, much larger numbers of the 45% of eligible voters that do not vote would similarly not associate with either party. Here's the thing: we've seen all this before.

In the late 1840s, the Whigs began to fall apart. The major issue over which there was internal dissent was slavery, but a bevy of other issues were pulling the party in different directions, including a number of minor parties that were forming as groups split away from the Whigs, including what would eventually become the Republican Party. The Compromise of 1850 so battered the Whigs that their candidate for President in 1852 did not even win his home state! Then in 1854, the crisis came: the Kansas-Nebraska act so inflamed northern, anti-slavery Whigs that they left the party en masse, mostly to the infant Republican Party, and some to the Know-Nothings or other truly radical parties. The Whigs rapidly declined, and by the end of the Civil War were effectively not a force in American politics.

With our current situation, the environment is slightly different. There are several groups that are essentially permanent minorities within both the Democratic and Republican parties. These include the strong foreign policy/socially liberal groups best exemplified by Lieberman and McCain in their respective parties, the libertarian caucus primarily in the Republican Party, the DLC (more or less Truman Democrats) in the Democratic Party, conservative Democrats like Zell Miller, and groups like the Log Cabin Republicans. In policy terms, which drives electoral success to a large degree, the Democrats are in the hands of radical progressives, and the Republicans in the hands of an odd coalition of business-over-everything groups (whence the lobbying problem, to a large extent) and foreign policy hawks with a sprinkling of social conservatives (who have less policy influence outside a small number of issues, but bring a lot of votes). The Republicans can probably sustain themselves on their internal structure, but the Democrats cannot: either the Democrats must move to the center — isolating the radical activists, the abortion-is-everything zealots, and the transnational progressives — or they will be unable to present realistic candidates for offices that are not, via districting or overall state proclivities, essentially sinecures.

If the Democrats fall apart, it would most likely be because of people like Lieberman, Zell Miller, and possibly even Hilary Clinton uniting with people like McCain, Olympia Snowe and Jim Jeffords. There is actually ample ground for a party there, in policy terms, that would resonate with large numbers of voters who currently feel left out, or forced to vote for someone they profoundly dislike to avoid electing someone they despise. Without such a high-profile effort, though, similar to what recently happened in Israel with Sharon and Peres forming a new party, the Democrats may be doomed to a slide into irrelevance, ceding a virtually one-party state (for a while) to the Republicans.

Posted by jeff at 5:49 PM | TrackBack

January 29, 2006

A Bit of a Stretch

Glenn Reynolds notes:

WRITING IN THE NEW YORK TIMES, Hossein Derakshan blames Bush for the rise of Ahmadinejad. Seems like a bit of a stretch, to me.

A bit of a stretch is right! But that's not even the problem with the article: Derakshan fundamentally does not understand democracy. In order to demonstrate, I'm going to take a bunch of quotes without context. (For the original context, see the original article or the extended entry, where I quote Derakshan's entire article against the day when it falls off the Times' web site.)
Iran's electoral process "ignores the basic requirements of democracy," Mr. Bush declared, and these elections would be "sadly consistent" with the country's "oppressive record."

An American administration that had called on other Middle Eastern populaces to vote in flawed elections greeted the Iranian electoral process with nothing but open disdain.

Can anyone now doubt that Iranian elections, however flawed, really do matter?

It's true that Iranian elections are not quite democratic, because the unelected Guardian Council reserves the right to bar candidates. But the real problem here is that boycotting semi-democratic elections ultimately will not make such a system more democratic.

[P]romoting apathy in a semi-democratic system can only strengthen the radical anti-democracy forces.

Contrast the "don't vote" message that President Bush sent to Iranians to the one delivered to Iraqis through a major media campaign and other costly means: "Your destiny is in your own hands. Disappoint the anti-democracy radicals and go out and vote."

If the United States is serious about promoting democratic change in Iran, it needs to try the same approach that brought Iraqis to the polls despite mortal danger. Mr. Bush and his supporters should encourage the people of Iran to participate in the next election.

Derakshan seems to think that elections — any elections under any circumstances — define democracy: they do not. Democracy is about institutions of governing that respond to popular will. Elections are one way of determining the will of the people, but if those elections are rigged, as in Iran's case where the candidate pool is limited by the existing governing bodies, the ability of the people to voice their will in that manner is circumscribed, and thus the results are likely not to be an accurate reflection of popular will. That's not democracy: it's just voting.

In other words, Derakshan seems to think that Iran's democracy is flawed because its voting system is flawed. In reality, Iran's voting system is flawed because Iran is not a democracy. Crucial distinction, that.

OK, from here down is the entire NY Times article:

THE day before Iran's ninth presidential elections last June, President Bush sent a discouraging message to potential voters. Iran's electoral process "ignores the basic requirements of democracy," Mr. Bush declared, and these elections would be "sadly consistent" with the country's "oppressive record." For Iranians, there was no mistaking the American president's point: he was tacitly sanctioning the call that some Iranian exiles and activists had issued for an election boycott, based on exactly this logic.

An American administration that had called on other Middle Eastern populaces to vote in flawed elections greeted the Iranian electoral process with nothing but open disdain. It is worth revisiting this odd judgment call at a time when Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections has raised even more questions about Washington's confused strategy of democracy promotion.

In Iran last June, the call for a boycott resonated with frustrated and apathetic voters. Many, if not most, moderates and reform advocates stayed home from the polls. And we all know what followed: the philosophy-loving moderate, Mohammad Khatami, was replaced as president by a radical militant, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a former military commander who presides over one of the most extreme governments post-revolutionary Iran has yet had.

That's right: with what appeared to be the endorsement of President Bush and dozens of American-backed satellite television channels that broadcast in Farsi, the disillusioned young people of Iran effectively took one of the world's most closely watched nuclear programs out of the hands of a reformer and placed it into the hands of a hard-line reactionary.

Can anyone now doubt that Iranian elections, however flawed, really do matter? When Mr. Khatami came to power, his declared goals were to establish the rule of law, demand equal rights for all citizens and reconcile Iran with the world. He may not have succeeded in all of those endeavors, but Mr. Ahmadinejad has entered government with manifestly opposite priorities.

The new president's allies in Parliament recently concluded that nearly 80 percent of the books published under President Khatami violated revolutionary values and should be placed under restrictions. Films that promote feminism, secularism and liberalism are to be banned. And while President Khatami built his international reputation on his call for a "dialogue among civilizations," President Ahmadinejad has reached out to racists and anti-Semites instead.

It's true that Iranian elections are not quite democratic, because the unelected Guardian Council reserves the right to bar candidates. But the real problem here is that boycotting semi-democratic elections ultimately will not make such a system more democratic.

The rise of Mr. Ahmadinejad, and the threat he poses to the stability of a volatile region, demonstrates that promoting apathy in a semi-democratic system can only strengthen the radical anti-democracy forces. And it raises a question as to whether that is what hawks in Washington actually wanted.

Contrast the "don't vote" message that President Bush sent to Iranians to the one delivered to Iraqis through a major media campaign and other costly means: "Your destiny is in your own hands. Disappoint the anti-democracy radicals and go out and vote."

If the United States is serious about promoting democratic change in Iran, it needs to try the same approach that brought Iraqis to the polls despite mortal danger. Mr. Bush and his supporters should encourage the people of Iran to participate in the next election. And they should urge Iranians to vote for someone who will make their country more open and democratic, rather than more threatening, as Iran under President Ahmadinejad has become.

Hossein Derakhshan writes the Farsi-English blog "Editor: Myself."

Posted by jeff at 9:07 AM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

January 28, 2006

It's in the Koran

Sing along with the jihadis, because It's in the Koran. (hat tip: LGF)

Here's the lyrics:

In our days of glory
now centuries past
The kingdom of Islam
stood mighty and vast
Then we failed our faith
and watched your power grow
But soon our greatness will return
And this is how we know

Because it's in the Koran
It's writen in the Koran
A world united under Allah
Is the future of man
How could it not be so
when most opposing us panic
and surrender once a few of them have bled

We're happy to torture
We're eager to rape
We savor your last screams on videotape
We massacre children
We ransack a shrine
And all our acts are sanctified
By Suras 2 through 9

Because it's in the Koran
It's written in the Koran
that we should fight and slay the infidels
however we can
We'll blow ourselves to bits
if that gives us an advantage
Or we'll slit your throats
while youre asleep in bed

Those heathens who scold us
are wasting their breath
over the millions we've butchered
and starved
We're men who would let girls
be trampled to death
Rather than see them in public

So don't look for mercy
when you're at our feet
The justice we'll give you
is harsh and complete
We danced in delight
when your Twin Towers fell
And you'll weep with your slaughtered
as you burn with them in Hell

Because it's in the Koran,
it's written in the Koran
Your fate was settled long before
this latest battle began
We've found our holy purpose
and we'll never abandon it
as long as there's a sinner to behead

In other words we won't rest
tlil everyone in the West
is a slave, a Muslim or dead

Posted by jeff at 10:38 PM | TrackBack

The Task of the Living

Nemo and Brian have both noted the terrible anniversaries this week brings: the losses of Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia. For anyone who believes, as I do, that we must go into space, as a species, in order to survive, in order to thrive, these are terrible dates to remember, indeed. But there are other dates of equal terror: April 23, the loss of Vladimir Komarov when his parachute failed to open on re-entry; June 30, the loss of three cosmonauts on board Soyuz 11, when a stuck valve suffocated them; and there may be others shrouded in the old Soviet programs' secrecy. These dates are terrible because they are the dates when brave men and women were lost in the exploration of space.

Their reasons for going were a complex mix of national pride, a sense of duty, a sense of adventure, a desire to advance mankind and countless other reasons. But above all, they died to advance an idea: that we need not live in a demon-haunted world; that our powers of reason are sufficient to overcome any obstacle; that man can be better tomorrow than today. These ideas, all of them, are undergoing the sternest challenge that they have faced since their spectacular rise during the Enlightenment, and possibly their sternest challenge since the barbarians, with the help of the indolent and pampered Romans themselves, overran Rome and brought a thousand years of darkness to the world. This challenge is being brought by the jihadis, and by the indolent and pampered in our own society. Their shared idea is that nothing is real and meaningful in this world; they differ only in thinking this is because only their god and his invariant commandments are real and meaningful, or that it is because nothing is meaningful at all except their own selfish lives. As Wretchard notes, a great many of us are embracing the coming darkness.

But it is the task of the living to make meaningful the sacrifices of the dead, and so it is to my mind the most fitting memorial to those who sacrificed for knowledge and meaning and light, to commit to the advancement of those great principles, and to stand against ignorance and debasement and darkness. That is the way to make their sacrifice meaningful.

Posted by jeff at 3:02 PM | TrackBack

Remembering Challenger

President Ronald Reagan:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

I think it's safe to say that Challenger is my generation's "where were you when ___?" moment. I was a freshman in college when Challenger went up. We heard the news on a break from class. At first, some were convinced it was a cruel joke. We were quite simply shocked to learn different.

Our instructor didn't bother with the second half of class. Students gathered in the Union watching the replays on the big screen as they played it over and over. I think I must have sat there for over an hour watching.

I didn't bother with the rest of classes that day - I'm not even sure if they were held or not. I went home, and just sat transfixed - stunned.

My main fear that day was that we would stop moving forward with manned space travel. Twenty years later, I almost think my fears have come partially true. NASA seems locked into an aging shuttle fleet, leaving it to private efforts like SpaceShipOne to pick up the effort.

I can only hope that the next twenty years bring more for space travel than the last. The Challenger crew certainly deserve it.

Posted by Nemo at 10:38 AM | TrackBack

In Memoriam

They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind's final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.

Thirty-nine years ago yesterday, the crew of Apollo I, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, died during a training exercise.

We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

Twenty years ago today, the crew of Challenger, Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, died shortly after liftoff.

The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.

Three years ago on Wednesday, the crew of Columbia, Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Michael Anderson, Ilan Ramon, Kalpana Chawla, David Brown and Laurel Clark, died during reentry.

In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth. These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly, knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life. Because of their courage and daring and idealism, we will miss them all the more.

The cause in which they died will continue. Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on.

Lastly, now is a good time to read Bill Whittle's COURAGE, even if you've read it before.

Posted by Brian at 1:25 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 27, 2006

Ah Ha!

We are closing our old bank accounts, and cleaning up the last few things that draw from them. The last one was DirecTV. Now, we like our satellite TV service: the signal is fantastic, and since we put up the dual-LNB antenna has not once rain faded that I've noticed (better aligned than the last one, because we paid a professional to do it); the programming is quite good, and we get the services we want for a price we can pay, along with about another 200 channels that we don't care about; the DVR allows us to record two shows while watching one we've already recorded, and it's TiVo rather than some less-functional knock-off. But their customer service is execrable. That's not fair: their customer service personnel are fine, when you can reach them.

Well, after half an hour of digging through voice menus, and not being able to find an option to let me do what I want or to talk to a person, I finally figured out how to get a person. In the hopes of saving someone else the trouble, here's how to do it: lie.

When you dial DirecTV's customer service number, any option you pick will ask you to enter the service phone number. Enter a nonsense number (you need 10 digits; I entered the correct area code and switch, and a random last 4 digits). The service will ask if you are sure that's your phone number. Assure it that you are, and its inability to find your account is certainly the computer's own fault. It will then ask you for your account number. Be sure to tell it you have no clue what your account number is. At this point, the computer will metaphorically throw up its hands in frustration and transfer you to an actual person, who in my case resolved the actual issue I had within 5 minutes.

If the alternative was anything but Comcast, I'd likely switch providers if I ever have to call them again: it's easier.

Posted by jeff at 11:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 26, 2006

What if Everything you Know is Wrong?

What if Iraq did have WMDs, and they were smuggled into Syria just before the war? If this is true, we may soon know that in fact all the intelligence agencies were right and conventional wisdom is wrong. Not to mention the utter collapse of the whole "Bush lied, people died" meme, or what is left of it.

Posted by jeff at 11:53 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

I Exist; All Else is Consequence

There have been some interesting discussions on what natural rights are, and why they are, in the blogosphere recently. First, to summarize:

Max Borders postulates that rights have meaning only because we give them meaning; all rights are socially constructed. Borders likens rights to money, without understanding the difference between fiat currency and money. (But then, he doesn't appear to understand anything about civil vs. natural rights, either.)

Jon Henke is impressed by this argument, and talks about rights in a manner implying civil rights, but he is apparently thinking about natural rights. This confusion leads Henke to conclude that rights are essentially polite social fictions.

Dale Franks has a much clearer understanding of rights, and lays out why natural rights exist, in a clear and straightforward manner.

Meanwhile, Francis Porretto recently tracked rights and Christianity together through the two Great Commandments. UPDATE: And a follow-up to this post on social construction of rights.

I have a couple of observations to make, on "good" vs. "bad" religions (yes, I'll judge), "good" vs. "bad" social orders, and the cultures that arise from them. All because of the simple observation that I exist, and so do other people. This is going to be long, so the rest is below the fold.

The fact that I exist has certain consequences, including these: I want to keep on existing, and via having children to extend the meaning of my existence beyond my own lifetime; I want to be prosperous, happy and able to better myself, and to provide more for my children than myself; I don't want to be forced to do things, because that would likely prevent me from being prosperous and happy. Because I want these things, badly, I would be willing to go to great lengths to ensure that I get them.

Other people also exist, and want the same things, and are also willing to go to great lengths to ensure that they get them (though not to great lengths, necessarily, to ensure that I get them).

Anyway, the nature of our existence as rational beings possessed of free will leads to the three most important natural rights, so called because they arise as a consequence of man's existence and nature: life (keep living, have children, etc), liberty (not be forced to do things), and ability to pursue happiness (prosperity would be part of what makes me happy, certainly: starving, for example, sucks). The ability to pursue happiness has a requisite though: property. If I am dependent for my living on someone else's whim, I am not free to pursue happiness, because they could use their hold over my continued existence to compel me to do things for their happiness. So having property — enough property to grow food to support my family, at a minimum — is a requisite for pursuit of happiness, and that is why the original formulation was "life, liberty and property". Visually, thus:

liberty foundations.png

Immediately we find the first place that cultures often go wrong. A culture which denies natural rights to its citizens is inherently violating human nature at its most primal. Thomas Jefferson very succinctly defined the purpose of government and its relationship to natural rights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The legitimacy of a government derives not from elections or other means of representation nor from structural concerns. The legitimacy of government derives entirely from whether or not that government protects the rights of its people, against each other and against outsiders and against the government itself. For if the government does not protect those rights, for what reason does government exist? For the provision of justice is not a sufficient answer, though it is a common one, because justice demands the protection of natural rights, and the abrogation of those rights is thus inherently unjust.

A democracy can be illegitimate (in fact, a pure democracy will inevitably become so, while an impure democracy apparently will inevitably become so at a slower rate), and a tyranny can be legitimate. The key to legitimacy is not the organization of government, but its ability and willingness to protect the rights of its people.

I should mention, here, that this is essentially a moral judgement. The whole set of concepts of rights and justice and liberty are inherently moral judgements. If you believe, for example, that it is just fine to, say, kill people on a whim, then you will not be very persuaded by any of this. In that case, the only end to our disagreement will be for one of us to change our mind for internal reasons, or for one of us to die.

Back to rights. Each person's natural rights are self-contained; in fact, it is a necessary part of the definition of a natural right, what distinguishes a right from a mere desire. That is to say, if I assert a right, but exercising that claimed right requires an infringement of your rights, than my claim is false: what I want to do is not a right at all.

I can live without denying others their own right to live, can act without coercion (to do or not do, as the case may be) without denying others their own equivalent rights, and can own property — and thus work to guarantee my happiness — without denying others their right to own (different) property and similarly to work for their own happiness. While I can assert my rights without violating another's equivalent rights, there is also the possibility that I might not want another to enjoy their natural rights. For example, I might want to take another's property for my increased happiness, or coerce another to do something to make me happy even though it has negative consequences for them. In that case, since you would do virtually anything to secure your rights, you would perhaps decide to use armed force, if necessary, to prevent me from infringing your rights. From this it follows that self-defense is a natural right, as well. Similarly, other natural rights arise from the consequences of exercising and defending the basic natural rights, including the right to control one's own body (which arises from the life and property rights) or the right to engage in an occupation (which arises from the property and liberty rights).

Some rights, such as self-defense, arise as first-order consequences of the basic rights, but others arise as second- or third- or higher-order consequences. For example, the right to self defense implies a second-order right: the right to have a means with which to defend myself. Visually, our social structure becomes:

second order rights.png

From these rights, and the nature of man, two basic rules emerge for interacting with others. These two rules are called "natural laws" because they describe the proper exercise of natural rights, and they are these:

  • Do what you agree to do. (This is the basis of contract law.)
  • Do not encroach on others' rights. (This is the basis of tort law and much criminal law.)

Natural laws mediate the interactions of men in the same way that economic laws mediate the interactions of an economy. Visually, thus:

natural law.png

This is the second place that cultures frequently go wrong. If the interactions between people, or in particular between the government and the people, are not governed by natural laws, the result is inevitably a degradation in the observance of natural rights. In other words, failing to govern interpersonal interactions via natural law leads inevitably to tyranny.

In England, a justice system developed that was, as far as I know, unique in the world. The characteristics of that justice system that are important to this discussion are these:

  • All justice is based on natural law; and any violation of natural laws is thus an injustice.
  • Natural law is higher than statute law (law made by governments), and thus acts of government must be nullified if they conflict with natural laws.
  • It is the duty of judges to discover and apply natural law.

This system is called a common law system, and the American justice system is based on it. However, it is important to note that there aren't really any places which are purely based on common law: governments, seeking greater power as is in their nature, tend to override common law wherever and whenever it is to their convenience to do so. Those countries which still have vestiges of common law (the US, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland, for example) are those in which people are most free and, for reasons beyond the scope of this post, generally most prosperous as well.

Those people, including our Founding Fathers, who thought deeply about Liberty and governance during the Enlightenment came up with a novel understanding of the purpose of government, which is spelled out in our Declaration of Independence: government exists to protect natural rights by enforcing natural laws. Visually, thus:

government purpose.png

The different types of law each exist to enforce natural law. But there is a problem with this: what exists to stop the government from becoming all-powerful, once the government has come into existence? The first answer is respect for natural law, including the right of people to self-defense. After you stop laughing at the concept of government respecting anything but its own power and privilege, we'll get to the other things that keep the government from being all-powerful. Ready?

OK, a government instituted by free people who are not idiots will take into account human nature, which is where we all started. It is a fact of nature — a fact below even the level of human existence — that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. (If you don't believe me, go study entropy.) But it is a fact of human nature that we all want the free lunch anyway. And since government by its nature must have the power of taxation, government disposes of other people's money. So if you are in the right place in government, you dispose of other people's money. And there's what looks a lot like a free lunch, at least to the degree that you don't consider the long-term effects. Here are the long-term effects:


The government becomes a tyranny: it exerts control over the individuals subject to it, while extorting or stealing ever higher levels of taxes.

So to prevent that, a government designed to foster freedom requires safeguards. The right to keep and bear arms, for example, is a consequence of the natural right to self-defense. But it is also a necessary check on the power of government: an armed population can prevent the government from abrogating its rights, by force of arms if necessary. Other rights, which our Constitution also prohibits the government (theoretically) from interfering with also arise from this need to keep government within bounds: freedom of expression, habeus corpus and warrants, freedom of worship and from compulsion to worship, and so on. These are civil rights, and are only ours to enjoy until government decides to take them away. In addition, the very structure of government defined by the original Constitution was designed to keep the government from excessive taxation (no direct taxes except proportional to headcount) and excessive accumulation of personal power (checks and balances). Thank you the progressive movement for stripping away those protections! We have actually done this final wrong thing that government can do, and if we do not reverse it, we will eventually and inevitably slide into increasing tyranny. Already, we live in a less free society than our parents lived in.

The government can, of course, grant additional civil rights beyond these, and frequently does. Sadly, the government even more often uses the rhetoric of rights to mask the fundamental violation of rights. For example, claiming a right to free health care denies the more fundamental property rights of both doctors, compelled to practice in ways that they may disagree with, and of taxpayers, who must hand over ever more taxes to fund such programs.

Hmmm, I ended up going a bit off topic, so let me get back onto it. You might have noticed that I mentioned religion earlier, and didn't come back to it. Well, here we are.

Religion comes into this because we started with the fact of human existence. But prior to human existence comes the creation of humans: whence did we arise? And that is certainly a religious question. The Declaration of Independence merely notes that natural rights derive from the endowment of the Creator, but does not make any speculation as to the nature of the Creator, for what should be obvious reasons. But I think that it's possible to derive some idea of the possible divinities from examination of natural law, coupled with the observation that a just god would not create life to torment and destroy. (No one would call, say, Cthulu a just god, for example.)

Divine law governs how man may achieve salvation (Christian tint courtesy of Aquinas, but the principle is broader than that), and is not discoverable by reason (the way natural law is) or reading (the way statute law is) or experimentation (the way eternal laws, such as gravitation or thermodynamics, are), but only through faith. But here's the kicker: any divine law which abrogates natural law automatically goes against human nature, because natural law is just the set of rules that describe human nature. So if a divine code of law goes against natural law, that divine code, and by extension the religion that embodies it, is inherently bad: by denying human nature, it is unfit for human consumption.

This is in fact the basis of my break with Christianity, or as I now recognize it, the Judaical basis of Christianity: what kind of god says "Don't touch that one thing" to a curious being who is curious because that's how the god created the being and then eternally damn the being for touching? As far as I can tell, the Levitical covenant is still in effect, and thus at its core (though not in broad practice) Judaism has a serious problem with human nature. Islam, too, has this problem. The covenants of Islam deny natural law to a breathtaking extent.

Now to be fair, most Jews and most Muslims seem fairly decent sorts. Except, of course, for the very hard line fundamentalist Jews and Muslims, who take the covenants quite seriously. (Similarly, many hard line fundamentalist Protestants, who adhere to the Levitical covenant in spite of the two Great Commandments, are nearly unrecognizable as human in their relations with those who don't share their beliefs.)

But Christianity has at its heart the possibility of something better: the two Great Commandments, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. (38) This is the first and great commandment. The second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." And most Christians, really, follow that covenant rather than the earlier and harsher one. The implications of those two commandments, when fully thought through (and I recommend you read Porretto's religious writings) are actually quite beautiful. And note how closely those commandments adhere to natural law: those are the divine laws of a god that understands the beings of his creation.

Wicca and similar religions, too, have divine laws that are congruent with natural law. The Wiccan Rede ("Do what thou wilt, an harm none" being my favorite formulation) corresponds directly to the principle of not abrogating another's rights, while exercising one's own rights. The Three-Fold Law (that which you do comes back to you three-fold) expresses the consequences of not keeping your agreements.

I'm sure that there are other religions, too, whose core law matches well with natural law. And there are other religions equally dangerous (I suspect scientology falls in this category, from what little I know of it). If you want to know why the jihadis are so dangerous, you just need to look at what their covenant is, and how seriously they take it. Hopefully, as with the Catholic Church since its rethinking of itself after the Reformation, they are amenable to reform.

Contra Henke, natural rights and the associated natural laws are quite real. There are consequences to ignoring them, and those consequences go far, far beyond living and dying. They go to your very soul. So in the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "be excellent to each other."

Posted by jeff at 4:21 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

And the Dessert Cart Rolls On

This is the best SNL skit I've seen since the 2000 elections. Swallow liquids first.

From The Political Teen via Q and O.

OK, embedding is harder than I thought. How do I get the controls for the video to show up?

UPDATE: In the meantime, you can get it directly from here. (Don't just click the link: download it.)

Posted by jeff at 10:52 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 25, 2006

How to Hire a Good System Administrator

I am asked, periodically, how to hire good systems administrators, DBAs and integration people. Since it seems to be a topic of somewhat general interest at least among IT managers, I decided to address it here. But since most of my readers seem to come here for the political posts, I'll put it in the extended section.

Q: What are the qualities to look for in a good admin?

A: You want to get someone who is intelligent, capable of both intuition and logic, lazy, egotistical but not subject to easy shame, and a little bit compulsive (a lot persistent).

The kinds of systems installed in an enterprise are very, very complex. It takes someone with a fair degree of intelligence to be able to remember the interconnections and interactions of the various systems, as well as the components on each one, and know where to start looking when problems surface. For the same reason, you need someone capable of intuition (no one will ever completely understand the behavior of sufficiently complex installations), so that he'll know where to start looking, and with a very structured, logical mind, so that he'll know what to investigate and what to discard.

You want someone lazy, because lazy people hate to do work. Well, you've got the computers to do the work, so why should administrators have to do things? Things break, or are just not quite polished enough. A lazy system administrator will sometimes take weaks fixing things so that they don't break again, ever, or polishing the edges on something to save himself 5 minutes of work in a day. These kinds of improvements add up, in both system stability and reduced workload. That means that you can expand your environment without expanding your work force.

You want someone egotistical, because an egotistical person does not want to admit they cannot solve a problem. So they will work quite hard to solve a problem. And again, these are very complex systems, so someone without the ego investment will often fail to solve the really odd problems, the ones that you can work around at a cost, but whose causes are not apparent. However, you can't get someone so egotistical that they cannot admit to anything that would shame them: that type covers up their mistakes, and complete openness is required in order to track down unintended side effects. (Managers can help this along by not shooting the messenger, even when he's there to tell you that he just unintentionally took down your entire production environment.)

The reason that you want someone who is a bit compulsive, and quite persistent, is that some problems hover just below the level of "must fix now", so they don't get fixed. This is, again, often the case with difficult problems of uncertain provenance that have a (painful, but workable) workaround. A good admin will use his spare time to track down and fix these problems, because they bug him, and he can't leave them alone.

Q: How can I gauge an admin's true experience level, given how misleading resumes often are?

A: I've found that the best way to do this is to offer him the root password on a really big, really fast, really new system. If he's all eager to try it out, he's not very experienced. (If he starts asking about detailed OS levels, configuration and such, that's a clue.) A mid-level admin will just accept the password and ask what the machine is used for. A very experienced admin will groan, at least inwardly, and try to figure out how to avoid having the root password: he's been here before, and it's a jading experience after a while.

Q: What are good questions or tests?

A: Well, assuming that you are not particularly proficient yourself, find someone who is. Those kinds of questions vary by system, and it's hard to generalize. There are a few things you can do even if you don't understand the systems very well yourself:

Break the system (a test system, that is) in a known way. (For UNIX machines, setting application startup files to mode 000, or an invalid owner, is a good way to do this. Or fill up the filesystem on a box with a large file, open the file in an editor, then delete the file from the filesystem and leave the editor running. See if the candidate can figure out why the filesystem is full even though there aren't any files in it.) Let the admin fix it. It doesn't necessarily matter if he does; what you are looking for is whether he goes for the right ideas or not. The cleverer the break, the better the test, and the more likely the admin will be way off at first as he looks for the simple things. (If you see hoofprints, it's a good troubleshooting technique to look for horses before you look for zebras.)

Explain that each of your 45 boxes has a separate root password, that these are cryptic and random and changed monthly, and that this is done for security reasons. If he does not vociferously question your sanity, he either does not understand security or he is not assertive enough to stand up for himself when he knows he's right. Or, alternately, he figures he can get around that behind your back. In any case, if he doesn't protest, don't hire him.

Another good one is to posit a situation where a critical security patch has been made available by the vendor, and his manager is insisting it be installed immediately. What process does he use? If he starts with the production systems, or doesn't consider outage windows, he may not have ever worked in a true enterprise shop: the value of the data being compromised and the application run-time being threatened almost always outweighs the risk of an unpatched system over the short term, so expect protests that "now" is not advisable as a good time to install things, unless "now" is already in an outage window and the patch has already been tested.

Oh, and ask what kind of puzzles he liked to do when he was a kid (or likes now). Every good admin I know did puzzles as a kid: word finds, crosswords, cryptoquotes, logic puzzles — something.

Q: What did you mean before about resumes being misleading?

A: System administration is an apprenticed art. There are no formal methods to administration that are worth the time to learn, because problems are too complex, diverse and non-repetitive (well, the meaningful problems don't repeat, anyway) to reduce to a set of rules. As with auto mechanics, it's a process of accumulation of techniques and insights that leads to good results. The quality of an admin depends more on how he was mentored, or whether he was capable of self-mentoring (some are), than on how many machines of what kinds in what circumstances he has worked on. That kind of stuff doesn't show up on a resume. The best admin I ever hired had something like 6 months of formal experience, and boxes he played with at home. (He was a security guard before I hired him.) The worst admin I ever hired had 15 years' experience on UNIX systems. Don't trust resumes.

Posted by jeff at 12:26 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Reduction to an Absurdity

Planet Moron has reduced the term "living document" to its absurdly pathetic core, writing about the NSA surveillance controversy:

Although these actions may appear to be illegal, the President claims that Congress gave him tacit approval when it passed the “Authorization for Use of Military Force” legislation shortly after 9/11. Sure, it doesn’t explicitly authorize his actions, but the President tends to take a more activist, expansive view of the text, believing the legislation to be more of a “living document” in which his authority resides within a penumbra or if not that, then almost certainly an emanation. Surely the wise men who put finger to keyboard one-fifth of a score ago didn’t mean for us to take the words literally, frozen in place for all time.

Posted by jeff at 8:01 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Don't be Evil ... Much

Google's motto is "Don't be Evil". In order to gain access to markets in China, Google has accepted the need to censor it's Chinese offerings, at the behest of the Chinese Communist government, to filter out dangerous ideas like freedom, democracy and human rights. (hat tip: Winds of Change) In other words, Google, founded by Leftists out to Change the World™, is acting like all companies do: it is accommodating its ideals to the market to increase its profitability. But, I think that means that they need a new motto. Here are my suggestions; feel free to leave yours in the comments.

Don't be Evil ... Much
Don't be mumble mumble
mumble mumble EVIL
Don't be Less Profitable
Don't be Evil. Patronizing, Censorious and Anti-Democratic is Fine.
Is Going Against Our Ideals to Aid a Tyrannical Government by Censoring Access to Freedom and Democracy Really Evil, Anyway?


Posted by jeff at 7:39 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 24, 2006

Target Rich Environment

When I hear about large groups of people shouting "Death to America!", my first thought is, "Targets!" I mean really, how can, say, Israel even resist dropping cluster bombs on Hamas funerals, for example? Yeah, it's kind of a war crime, but there's a certain element of satisfaction in hearing people chant your death, and responding, "You first."

Posted by jeff at 9:09 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

January 23, 2006

How Appropriate

The concession speech in Canada's election will be given in French.

Posted by jeff at 11:02 PM | TrackBack

Interesting Google Game

Just out of curiosity, after seeing a comment to an old Kevin Drum post, I went and googled the terms:

bush impeach
clinton impeach

Bush got 2.86 million results. Clinton, who was actually impeached got 1.11 million results. Odd, that.

Posted by jeff at 7:40 PM | TrackBack

Mullahs Across Texas

I would do my part to ensure that they were scared to death. (Commenting on Dean Esmay's blog because I can't comment at Dean Esmay's blog. Read here for context.)

Posted by jeff at 6:28 PM | TrackBack

January 22, 2006

This Would Not Happen at a Home Birth

Via Q and O, we have the story of a woman who went to the hospital to have a baby, and ended up with both arms and legs amputated. Now, that's bad enough, but understandable: she had complications after delivery, and apparently developed a strep infection (which can in some cases lead to a disease that literally rots flesh away).

No, the tragedy, the absolute I-cannot-understand-this-balls-on-effrontery of the situation is that the hospital will not tell the woman what happened because it might violate other patients' privacy! Think about that for a second. They refuse even to say something like, "another patient in the same area had strep and it spread to you via (method) and that caused..." No, not even that. Just: oh, well, we aren't going to tell you how you ended up a multiple amputee.

I don't much believe in punitive lawsuits, because their abuse is a drag on our social fabric as well as our economy. But this is the kind of case that makes me reluctant to outlaw punitive lawsuits and stratospheric damage awards, because this behavior is so arrogant that you know that the hospital will do this again. Are they covering up bad sanitation practices? Employee misconduct? A careless mistake? Or do they just think that they are gods, and unanswerable to the little peons who they deign to allow to enter their doors?

If you can't tell, I'm really annoyed whenever I see people act this way. It is unforgivable, inexcusable and disgusting.

Posted by jeff at 9:37 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 21, 2006

Well, Coming Anarchy is Keeping me Entertained Tonight

Swallow all liquids before watching this.

Posted by jeff at 11:38 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Gods and Monsters

Never has one of my category names been better exemplified (though I didn't necessarily mean "human monsters") than at Coming Anarchy. And yet this post is in another category entirely. Go figure.

Posted by jeff at 11:32 PM | TrackBack

"Omar then closed his eyes and began to rock slowly back and forth."

The best article on bin Laden's recent "truce" speech I've yet seen is at the Onion.

Posted by jeff at 11:27 PM | TrackBack

Have You Checked The Children

Sony has remade the 70s suspense/thriller When a Stranger Calls. I remember the original scaring the hell out of me when I was young (and doing the occasional babysitting job). This one has been updated: cell phones, caller ID, callbacks, etc. This one seems to try to build on the original, though: it goes a lot further showing the sitter trying to escape from the caller.

I don't see too many of these types of movies. The Sixth Sense may have been the last one, actually. I have my doubts this remake will hold up very well, but I have to admit that childhood memories sent a chill down my spine thinking about it.

Posted by Nemo at 2:57 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 20, 2006

If Only the MSM Would Help So Much

Congratulations due to "Rusty Shackelford" of the Jawa Report for his part in helping to get a wannabe terrorist convicted.

And note to the Democrats: my mind is now made up on the library provision beyond a doubt, so flogging that issue just makes it that much less likely that you'll win my vote.

Posted by jeff at 5:34 PM | TrackBack

January 19, 2006

Bin Laden's "Truce"

Jawa Report has both an excellent transcript of the latest bin Laden message and some good commentary on it, in particular comparing the positions of the American Left with the statements of bin Laden, who is basically repeating many of the Left's talking points, to their discredit.

The one thing that I want to see, but haven't, is the word bin Laden used, in Arabic, that is translated as "truce". If it was hudna, as I suspect, then you should be aware that this is a common mistranslation in both Western and in terrorist apologist media. The Arabic word hudna means not a "truce" in the Western sense, but a pause in fighting while they rebuild their forces to resume the fight later. The absence of conditions to the "truce" could be because al Jazeera didn't broadcast the whole tape, or it could be because bin Laden is actually announcing hudna. However, I think it is irrelevant, because I don't believe bin Laden is in operational command of al Qaeda — at least not in Iraq — and that therefore the fighting will not ramp down regardless.

Posted by jeff at 4:39 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack


Dave Schuler has a list of things he doesn't care about, and why. I agree with every word except for the bit about health care costs. (The problem isn't the insurance companies, but that insurance is not paid for by the insured, by and large. My health insurance is relatively cheap, but that's because I have to completely pay for it myself, so I get what I need and no more. If that were the case by and large, we would likely have a rational and affordable health care system.)

Posted by jeff at 1:35 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 18, 2006

No, It's Not Just You

"Issues with men" might be understating things a bit.

Posted by jeff at 7:15 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Free Markets Work; Who Would Have Guessed?

Offshoring low-skill (call center) and medium-skill (Java web app coding) work to India, China and other low-labor cost countries has been going on for some time. Long enough that the labor pool there is drying up, leading to a shortage of workers, leading to rapidly rising wages. Hey, guess what: markets work.

(hat tip: Karl Gallagher)

Posted by jeff at 12:54 PM | TrackBack

January 17, 2006

A Spring In His Step

I just laughed out loud when I read this. From Trek Today:

Stewart Has 'Never Felt Happier' Since Returning to UK

Patrick Stewart is having the best time of his life since leaving Hollywood and returning to his native Britain.
Stewart told a reporter at The Huddersfield Daily Examiner that he has "never felt happier" since moving back to the UK, saying, "I missed the career that I'd been building here...I missed the shorthand and the detail of being here, of picking up references, of feeling the fabric of English life around me, in all its subtlety and complexity - and infuriating aspects."
"Don't get me wrong, what happened in the States was absolutely fantastic," Stewart quickly added. "I wouldn't change any of that." But the newly named Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield said that he has been thrilled to return to British theatre and is happy with his new ITV series Eleventh Hour. "If I had fantasised about how I'd like to be spending my time on my return, this past year would have been it," declared Stewart, refusing to discuss his private life but conceding that his romantic relationship with a 25-year-old woman has enhanced it greatly. He said that his earlier heart problems have improved and he works with a personal trainer three times a week to stay in shape.
(emphasis mine)

I think a 25-year old woman would enhance the life of most 60+ year men, don't you? :)

Posted by Nemo at 9:03 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The Origin of "Size Doesn't Matter"

It must have been South Korean. (hat tip: Mark in Mexico)

Posted by jeff at 7:33 PM | TrackBack

January 16, 2006


They could, you know, establish their own school instead.

Posted by jeff at 10:10 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Priests and Kings

I was somewhat disheartened reading Kevin Drum's thoughts on Iran. Not because of Kevin himself: it's sad that he sees this only as a political issue (though not to the extent of the hyperpartisan Duncan Black), but at least he's trying to look at what a serious Democratic policy position might be. No, it's his commenters, who tend to the Chimpy McBushitlerhalliburton end of the Left that worry me. Oddly enough, of the very few commenters who seriously attempted to offer a position, the most eloquent and sustained was "Jimm", whose position is basically that we take care of Iran by disarming all nuclear states of all their weapons, and in the process eliminate nuclear power, too. Then everyone in the world would certainly agree that any country that starts developing nuclear weapons should be invaded. Well, it's not a realistic position, but at least it's coherent and arguable. More typical is this:

I prefer (c) - impeachment. That would make me feel a lot safer.

Maybe so, until the Iranians develop and use nuclear weapons, which would lead to at least one, and possibly two, genocides. But this is not really about the consequences of not dealing with Iran, or whether Iran would or would not develop and would or would not use nuclear weapons. Instead, it is about whether or not we can indeed have a reasonable, civil political debate about policy in the United States.

Signs are not good. Since the late 1960s, something with only two precedents in US history has been happening: the two parties are coming to embody militant fealty to a set of interrelated (often loosely) positions, and seeing the other party as the enemy, rather than an opponent. Those two precedents: the run up to the Civil War, and the early 1930s. In both cases, radical change was in store for America, and it appears we may be heading in that direction now. After all, there is not a possible reconciliation between "gay marriage is a moral obligation of society" and "gay marriage leads to polygamy, pedophilia and incest"; or between "the United States has done horrible things, and has no right to push its beliefs on anyone else" and "if we don't fight now, we face nuclear war in a few years". (Abortion, ironically, would likely settle itself quickly to being legal in some circumstances almost everywhere if it were to be made subject to political forces; it's not an unsolvable issue, except that Roe v. Wade makes solving it impossible for now.) Without a reconciliation between these extremes, can there be meaningful dialogue? Do the two parties even believe in the same vision of what the United States is, let alone what the United States should do? Apparently, no.

But why is this the case? I believe that the reason the two parties have crystallized so far apart on so many issues is that, since the late 1960s, each has attracted a different sort of power-seeker. Unlike in the early 1800s, when both parties were essentially parties of libertarians seeking wealth and freedom, or the late 1800s, when both parties were essentially parties of progressives seeking social justice, or the 1950s and early 1960s when both parties were essentially parties of benign statists seeking a fair and prosperous society, today the parties are split in their moral foundations, and thus in their political reasoning. It has been summed up as "liberals feel and conservatives think", but I believe it's deeper than that. Certainly, Al Gore and Kevin Drum and Lance Mannion are capable of thinking clearly, and George Bush and Francis Porretto and Bill Whittle have emotional depth. So where does the distinction lie?

Man will only truly be free when the last Priest is strangled with the entrails of the last King. — Diderot

Historically, libertarians and democrats are loathe to rule. At best, you can get them to govern, but those whose deepest political instinct is that the individual or the society at large knows best tend to shy away even from governance. What rule, or even governance, offers is power and control, and the people attracted to rule or governance are those who are attracted to power and control. (It is for this reason that any government not fundamentally limited in practice will eventually become tyrannical. If you don't believe me, try to sell liquor at retail or to grow marijuana. The US in only "free" in relative terms.) Those who are attracted to power and control are typically either priests or kings, and most governments throughout history, and even today, are one or the other.

To a priest, the right to have power over others, to exercise control, is moral. Fitness to rule is proved by allegiance to their vision of the One True God. Because they are the anointed of the One True God, questioning the decisions of a priest is questioning the wisdom and will of the One True God, and that of course is heresy: the highest crime against the priestly order.

To a king, the right to have power over others, to exercise control, is meritorious. Merely by rising to the height of power, the king has shown his ability to rule, and thus must rule by right. Secure the power enough, and don't inbreed, and your descendants will acquire the same right, not so much by inheritance as by the merit of staying in power against all comers. Fitness to rule is proved by ruling. Questioning the decisions of a king is questioning his fitness to rule, and that of course is treason: the highest crime against the princely class.

For a priest, the chief fear is descent into evil: that the society will take up the call of an alternate view of morality, and thus make the priest irrelevant. For a king, the chief fear is descent into anarchy: that the society will question the need for a powerful guiding hand, and thus make the king irrelevant. For a priest, you prove your worth by your purity. For a king, you prove your worth by your loyalty.

For a priest, the end of politics will come in a cataclysmic clash of good and evil, after which their purity and fealty to their One True God will shine forth so that all acclaim them. Priests are always looking for their evil nemesis. For a king, the end of politics will come in a cataclysmic contest of strength, after which they, standing alone on the battlefield, will have proven their fitness beyond doubt. Kings are always looking for a strong challenger.

Normally, the priests and kings rule in accord: the king provides power and the priest provides moral cover, and together each benefits, generally to the detriment of individuals who are not part of the ruling elite. But at times, such as now, the two types of power seekers are in conflict. And then each attempts to raise its armies and go forth to fight the foe — and generally not an external foe, but the internal one.

And so you have the Republican kings and the Democrat priests, far apart and gunning for each other. (Yes, there are exceptions, like Pat Robertson and Bill Clinton. But in general it is the Republicans acting like kings and the Democrats acting like priests.) George Bush claims Presidential authority of a very broad sort, and it is the argument of a king: I am President and so deserve to rule as I see fit. Howard Dean's priestly counter-argument is that the President has no moral authority to rule because he has all the wrong ideas about how to do so. And so the government lurches on, at loggerheads and without resolution.

And the priests of the Democrats drive people away for insufficient purity (read Daily Kos or Democratic Underground to see what I mean) while the Republicans demand absolute loyalty (read Hugh Hewitt or Ann Coulter to see what I mean). And I wonder what it will be, this time, that brings us out of our national navel-gazing. The precedents — the Civil War and WWII — are not encouraging.

Posted by jeff at 5:47 PM | TrackBack

January 15, 2006


Belmont Club, The Glittering Eye and The Dignified Rant have all recent written on our options regarding Iran. As Iraq's former rulers may attest, getting a lot of Americans talking about options in how to deal with your nutball regime is not a recipe for staying in power for long. Especially when your regime is as fragile as Iran's is.

Iran has a couple of problems: it has significant domestic opposition, though it is mostly dormant at present, to the theocracy; significant foreign enemies of its own making, mostly because of long support of very violent terrorist and extremist groups; a critical economic dependence on the export of a single commodity, oil; and the next-door presence of significant forces from the most powerful military in the world, which happens to be from the country that has overthrown more tyrants than any other, perhaps than all others combined.

And for all of these reasons, Iran has decided that it is critical that they have nuclear weapons to ensure their survival. Ironically, it is their quest for nuclear weapons that will ensure their destruction. Certain fires are too hot to grasp and live.

It is certain that neither the United States nor Israel is prepared to live with a nuclear-armed Iran so long as the Ayatollahs are in charge: the danger is too great; the threat too apparent. It is possible that the US, for domestic political reasons, might fail to act against Iran in reasonable time, accidentally letting Iran develop nuclear capability as we did with N. Korea (though the situation in Iran is not being deliberately kept quiet, as was the situation in N. Korea). The Israelis will not fail to act, because the alternative would be their almost-certain destruction. Because of geography and the characteristics of the Iranian nuclear program, the Israelis could not effectively act short of a nuclear attack. And as the old saying goes, if you strike at a king, be sure to kill him.

But the US would likely preempt Israeli action, should we know it to be imminent, by striking first. The reason for this is simple: the US would have to be complicit in the Israeli action, letting Israeli bombers through (the Israeli nuclear missile force appears too small to do the job by itself), and that means that we would take the consequences anyway. A conventional attack by the US would have less blowback against the US than a nuclear attack by the Israelis, which would be opening Pandora's jars in a most definitive manner, and would almost certainly push any near-nuclear states into crash programs to arm themselves with nuclear weapons.

There are many who say that the US cannot invade Iran and win. The reasoning usually includes the following elements: Iran is much larger than Iraq, too large to be occupied; US forces are committed deeply in Iraq and cannot be used elsewhere; the din raised by the anti's (anti-war, anti-Republican, or on the other side) for the last three years makes it politically impossible, and either the US population or US political leadership would not allow action; Iran's military is more powerful than Iraq's was, and we cannot sustain the casualties; attacking Iran would result in terrorist attacks against the US and Israel. There are more arguments of course. But as Dave Schuler noted in his piece, the real answer is not one of capability but of will: of course the US could effectively attack Iran, but would our political leaders be capable of mustering the will to do so.

I think the answer might be, surprisingly, yes, at least for the next few years. President Bush has certainly shown an inclination to act in what he believes to be the nation's best interests, almost regardless of political repercussions. There are still three years left in his term, and he will not serve another because of Constitutionally-mandated term limits. This gives the President amazing freedom of action, should he decide to attack Iran: let the critics yell; it won't change anything for the President, himself, politically. So the political will arguments might not be enough to restrain the President, anyway.

But what about Congress: would they pass another declaration of war (or authorization to use military force, really, since Congress is all about ducking responsibility these days)? Probably not, but they don't have to. You see, the Congress, in the wake of 9/11, passed S.J. Res 23, which was the authorization that the President used to go to war in Afghanistan and since then to pursue terrorists worldwide. In relevant part, this very short resolution states:

[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Now, it's been pretty widely discussed that Iran has been harboring several top al Qaeda leaders and sponsoring terrorism against the United States forces in Iraq. This alone is arguably sufficient to bring into force the President's powers under this declaration. In other words, the President could, without further recourse to Congress, attack Iran and claim sufficient justification. The Congress would not cut off funds for the warfighting effort while it was underway, at least presuming that the President notified key Congressional leaders prior to undertaking the attack. And the leaders of the opposition, loyal or otherwise, in Congress could simply claim that the President is wrong, but they can't undercut our troops by forcing a pullback via cutting off funding. Thus, the attacks on the President could continue with impunity, while the attack on Iran also could continue with impunity. And frankly, with a decent explanation to the American public of why the President feels the attack is necessary, the American public would probably countenance such an attack. The anti's are loud, but a distinct minority of the population. I don't think that there's a real political limitation against action in Iran, so long as President Bush is in office.

But what about what we can do? Can we overthrow the Iranian government as we did in Iraq? Probably not, at least, not with building up a replacement government afterwards: the force commitment would be too large to be sustainable, and we could not count on friendly nations to help us. But, who says that's what our objectives have to be? We have sufficient troops to occupy the southwestern oil fields and terminals, to ensure the oil keeps flowing, and to occupy Iranian territory at key points like the Straits of Hormuz. We have sufficient forces to strike Iranian nuclear, security, military, government, and key infrastructure sites (like power plants) effectively indefinitely, and can ruin Iran, both in their nuclear program and their military and their civilian infrastructure. If this does not bring about regime change by revolution, it at least moves the security threat several years, or more, down the road.

In other words, we can strike Iran if we have to, but it would be a very different war than we fought in Iraq. If I were Iran's leaders, I wouldn't count on bluster being enough to ensure their safety.

UPDATE: Marc Schulman of American Future has many more topical links. I'll go through them later and probably have more to say. Just from the summary, though, Duncan Black's (Eschaton) point of view once again leaves me furious. If it came to losing New York in a nuclear attack but winning the White House, or keeping New York and letting the Republicans keep the White House, I fear Black wouldn't think twice before consigning New York to the fires.

Posted by jeff at 9:49 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 13, 2006

Good News, If True

I hope we got the bastard. Sadly, as Rumsfeld often says, "first reports from the field are often wrong."

Posted by jeff at 9:45 PM | TrackBack

Democracy, Republic, and Insurgency

Callimachus has an excellent post at Winds of Change about the difficulties democracies have in winning guerilla wars, insurgencies and against terrorist campaigns. There are four tracks that need to be explored in detail, and as I don't have the time at present, I'll sketch them out.

The first track is whether or not the historical evidence is on Callimachus' side. From what I know without looking up a lot of minor wars and conflicts, I would think it is. But there are a lot of minor wars and conflicts that might make his thesis weaker and would need to be addressed.

The second is whether it is only democracies that have this problem. In other words, would a republic have the same difficulty? The campaigns against the Indian tribes in America, when we were still constituted a republic, rather than a representative democracy, and against the Barbary Pirates indicate that there might be a difference worth looking into.

The third track that needs detailed consideration is whether the US strategy in Iraq is not, in light of Callimachus' observations, the best strategy we could have adopted. After all, the US never, apparently, intended to fight and win against the insurgency in Iraq. Once the insurgency and terrorist campaigns really got going, towards the end of 2003, the US switched from trying to stand up a conventional Iraqi army to trying to stand up Iraqi police and light infantry to fight the insurgency, while the US focused on buying the Iraqis time until they could successfully fight those battles. If that is indeed the best strategy, what are the implications for American warfighting doctrine, and for that matter for Barnett's grand strategic vision of having separate forces for conventional and insurgent wars?

The fourth track to be thought through is whether alternate governmental arrangements could overcome such a problem. For example, if we required an unambiguous declaration of war from Congress before committing troops to offensive actions overseas, and gave Congress an unambiguous power to similarly declare peace without the consent of the executive, but in exchange gave the President nearly unlimited authority to pursue war aims within the confines of geometry and time and funds set by the Congress — to the extent of abolishing Presidential elections until such time as the war was over, or the President died, resigned or was impeached for his conduct of the war — would give a democratic country (obviously, I based this on the current US model, but other models could be similarly reconstituted) the ability to win a bloody, ugly and protracted war. The other possibility here, too, is to have two separate executives, one for foreign policy and warmaking and one for domestic matters. The domestic executive would be more of a Prime Minister, answerable to Congress, while the President would be head of state rather than government, and would be far less constrained, but unable to act within the United States absent specific and limited Congressional action. Whether or not this is a good idea, and how to improve it, has to be part of that discussion.

Posted by jeff at 4:14 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack


I'm certainly on board with this statement. (Thanks to Bat1 for bringing it to my attention.) I do not think that governmental corruption is the biggest problem we face, but it is a persistent drag on the government and economy, without which solving the bigger problems would be much easier. One irony is, it's such an easy problem to end: representatives simply have to remember that the interests that lobby them are indirect representatives of a voter block, while the representatives are direct representatives of a segment of the population that includes the one voter block most important to them, their constituents, and act accordingly. Another irony is that campaign finance reform makes the openness and transparency necessary to good governance harder, rather than easier, to accomplish.

So, yes, I would like to see the Republicans clean their own house first. Being generally supportive of the Republicans, in no small part because of the anti-corruption efforts of the Republicans near the end of the Democrats' decades-long malgovernance, I believe it is critical that they uphold a high moral standard. I also believe that it's important to hold Democrat lawmakers to a high moral standard, but frankly being from Texas, none of them represent me.

Posted by jeff at 3:20 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Shocked, Shocked!

Every once in a while you find someone who sums things up rather nicely:

Wiretapping, FISA, and the NSA

Let's start with a little reality check here. Much of what the NSA and the intelligence community does is in violation of some law somewhere. Indeed, much of what the military does is as well. When the NSA intercepts a communication from France to Afghanistan, it probably violates the privacy and electronic surveillance laws in both countries. When it installs alligator clips on a phone in Turkmenistan, it probably violates some local burglary or trespass law. Espionage - the staple of the CIA - is a felony in almost every nation, and a capitol offense in the U.S. In fact, it is part of the intelligence community's job to try to get people to commit treason. So we are hardly shocked or offended that our government or any government is violating the law.

I still haven't seen much that makes me feel like this is anything worth the investigation and hand-wringing. The program was not kept secret by the White House to the other branches, and was under almost constant scrutiny for reauthorization.

However, as this week's Alito hearing show, Congress likes nothing better than to stand around wringing their hands about their authority.

Posted by Nemo at 2:42 PM | TrackBack

Oh, Grow Up

OK, this I don't need. You know, the one thing that annoys me more than holier-than-thou One True Way Abrahamites (Christians, Muslims and Jews)1 is the unholier-than-thou types that don't realize that they are Christian. This guy is a Satanist. Satanism is a Christian heresy, not a Pagan religion, and it has nothing to do with Witches.

Following Anton LeVey, modern Satanists have been more or less shock-seeking hedonists than anything else, and it really, really bugs me to see this guy claiming to represent Witches, and for that matter Pagans in general. Just like it must really bug many Christians to see Pat Robertson say, well, anything really. I mean, this Jonathan Sharkey guy wants to be a 42 year old Goth who can't get over his attempts to shock his parents' sensibilities, or a Darth Maul wannabe, that's fine. But it doesn't make him cool, or mature, or particularly useful.

1I should note that I do not mean all Christians, Muslims and Jews. I mean the ones who think that anyone not following their religion exactly means that you will be punished by God, and hey, as a believer in God, they should take it into their own hands to punish you here and now. You know, the real theocrats, not the imagined ones of the Left.

Posted by jeff at 12:00 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Arguing Past Each Other

Kevin Drum points to a Michael O'Hare post that succinctly differentiates the divide on the Judiciary Committee, and by extension between the Democrats and Republicans generally on the purpose of judges:

I also have a sense of a man with, as my friend Ed Reilly once said of another public figure of our acquaintance, an "unrelenting instinct for the capillary". He was described by various witnesses, some admiringly, as always deciding cases on the narrowest possible grounds. This is generally a virtue in a judge, but not always and especially not always in a judge of high or highest appellate jurisdiction. Brown v. Board of Education could have been decided like Plessy, or so narrowly as to demand only (say) equal per-pupil spending, but that wouldn't necessarily have been a better holding. Alito knows the law, but he doesn't seem to know, or care about, The Law. Every issue in the hearings was immediately reduced by the nominee to a technical question of almost bureaucratic rule manipulation. This approach is a good one for nearly all the cases courts hear, but it's not what the Supreme Court is about.

He doesn't have a screw loose; what he has is a piece missing, conspicuously, radiantly, displaying the absence of any sense of, well, justice. Not a case came up for discussion in which he registered that one or another outcome was just wrong, outrageous to a sense of decency, or to him. He's on record in a memo as believing that to shoot an eighth grader, known not to be armed, who was trying to climb over a fence in escape, is a proper use of deadly force by a policeman. In a discussion of immigration cases that have been regularly occasioning inexcusable, vile, un-American heartbreak on people who missed obscure deadlines or violated arcane requirements, all he could say was that the courts get bad transcripts and it was hard to find translators for some of the plaintiffs, but that was a problem for Congress. It wasn't exactly Pilate washing his hands, but the man appears to be completely comfortable dealing with frightful social wrongs by moving the issue down the hall to another office. Sometimes the Court has to do this, but to Alito it's an especially good day's work, not a disappointment.

OK, what O'Hare is saying is that a judge's job — particularly the job of a Justice on the Supreme Court — is to settle cases according to abstract ideas of Justice and Right, or "The Law" as O'Hare put it. In other words, the law and what it says is not the end of a judge's job, but the starting point. The judge should not only decide on the case, but also on the advisability of the law.

This is fine as far as it goes, but it is a perversion of our system that would require other adjustments to make logical sense. You see, it is the legislators under our system who are intended to decide if a law is good and just, and if the consequences of enforcing the law are Right. In other words, those who make the law are charged with ensuring Justice and "The Law" are met by the actual legal code. Only in extraordinary cases should a judge depart from the law, and those cases are generally when the law has consequences manifestly different from those expressed by the legislators as their aim. If, for example, following the law strictly in a particular case would cause a law intended (as shown by Congress' findings on the law, for instance) to prevent excessive appeals would actually result in a defendant not getting any appeals, a judge is justified in setting aside the strict interpretation of the law until such time as Congress amends it.

For the Left, judges are legislators in a real sense: they must decide whether a law is Right and Just (by the Left's standards, mind you). For the rest of us, a judge's job is to decide what the law allows and compels: to judge, not legislate.

And again, if that's the system you want, that is OK. I don't think that it's inherently wrong: it's just not the system we have. But there are some flaws with simply taking our system as is and letting judges decide the law rather than the law's application to a case. Let's look at them.

The first problem is that judges at the circuit court and Supreme Court level, those whose decisions on the law would have wide and binding power, serve life terms and are appointed: they are not accountable to the voters and cannot be easily removed for making bad decisions. What happened to Daschle or Gingrich when they messed up cannot happen to a Federal judge, who can only be removed by impeachment. Unless you want to live in what amounts to an oligarchy, this needs to be fixed. Either limiting judges to a short tenure (say, 10 years) or making them periodically stand for election would do the trick.

The second problem that I see is that the law becomes unpredictable: since any case can result in changes to the law, it would become impossible to understand the law. This means that behaviors which appear legal may not be. A corporation, for example, could be acting as corporations always have under both statute and common law, but a single corner case could overturn all of that and make past legal actions suddenly illegal: effectively, having the judges decide the law to this extent would create a system of ex post facto laws. Such unpredictability would dramatically limit the scope of freedom not just of corporations, but of individuals. Would you fly a small plane if you could be penalized for landing in someone's field, even though that was the common understanding of what was legal when you did it? There would have to be some kind of prevention against ex post facto laws or the search for what is Just and Right would fail quickly.

The separation of powers doctrine would be dead. With legislative and judicial powers combined in one set of people, a vindictive judge would have extensive and near-dictatorial powers. Imagine, for example, a judge who believed marijuana dealers should be hung, or conversely one who believed that pedophilia should not be criminalized. Do you really want such a person having the power to act on his beliefs, or should he be able to do so only within the confines of the law as written, and as interpreted by precedent? If you are OK with that, you would need a much more extensive appeals system to prevent such powers from being abused. In particular, you would need to ensure that judges' findings of fact and the law would both be appealable.

What would the duties of legislators be? Clearly, their budgetary authority would remain, but not their regulatory authority. Would the Congress become mostly a stage for grandstanding, plus passing the budget and declaring war, with no other real powers? If laws are basically just suggestions, why not throw out the statute law altogether and allow law to develop entirely by common law means? It would make more sense, and might even do less damage to the legal system.

On the other hand, it seems to me that what the Congress as a body really wants is to have the power to make laws, but not the responsibility for the outcomes. No dice, from my point of view. Others may differ.

Posted by jeff at 9:35 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

January 12, 2006

Warrantless Home Searches

My Pet Jawa notes that the President ordered not just warrantless monitoring of terrorist communications, but an actual warrantless search of a Virginian terror suspect's home!

Two civil liberties groups filed legal briefs this week in support of a Virginia man accused of helping to fund Mideast terrorists, arguing that federal agents had no right to search his home without a warrant in 1993.

Wait a sec: 1993? That means it was President Clinton who ordered the warrantless search (or at least allowed it). And it wasn't even undertaken under a declaration of war. Wonder if this will show up on any of the Lefty sites that have been arguing for impeaching President Bush for allowing wiretaps of calls from or to overseas terrorism suspects, when the other end of the call was in the United States? Somehow, I doubt it.

UPDATE: And I had forgotten about Echelon.

Posted by jeff at 9:41 PM | TrackBack

Podcasting How-To

Apple has put up a series on podcasting, giving a fairly complete how-to. (You need iTunes to listen to it, but it's applicable to podcasting from any platform.)

Link via InstaPundit.

Posted by jeff at 3:47 PM | TrackBack

January 9, 2006

A Piece of the Action

There has been considerable debate, in the wake of the Abramoff scandal (actually, that's bad metaphor: how about "in the first surging of the bow wave of the Abramoff scandal(s)"), on how to keep corruption out of politics, or at least minimize it. The proximate cause of this post is Dave Schuler's What a Good Fisherman Knows, while Dave was inspired by Thomas Sowell and James Joyner. All of them miss the fundamental point.

If I may summarize far too briefly, and thus possibly unfairly:

  • Sowell argues that our representatives are underpaid and thus use public money to buy their re-elections, and handing out this public money draws corruption;
  • Joyner argues that we need to tighten up and enforce ethics rules, require lobbyists to itemize their "gift giving", "promote a culture of ethics" and raise congressional salaries, the last to attract better people to Congress, which Joyner apparently sees as underperforming due to poor quality of members;
  • Schuler notes that attracting members to Congress by paying them more simply gives more incentives to those who are more passionate about money, and thus presumably more easily bribed.

Schuler is closest to the truth, but all of these ideas miss the reason why corruption happens, and Sowell misses it by so wide a margin that it is stunning, particularly given his normally very powerful capacity of reason. Corruption exists for one reason and one reason alone: the Federal government disposes of something like a third of the national economy directly, and virtually all of the national economy and most non-economic matters indirectly.

When that amount of money and power is in play under the control of an entity which alone has the power to use force without legal sanction, no one sleeps easy in their beds at night. When people don't sleep easy in their beds at night because of the government's possible actions — or just hope to get a bit of the action, as it were, for themselves — they petition the government for redress of their grievances, prevention of future grievances, or perhaps a nice tidy lump sum, as allowed by the Constitution in respect of centuries of Anglo-Saxon tradition.

Now, I can go down to the city council, and as one of a few dozen people there and one of a score of thousands represented, make a reasoned argument, and have some chance of swaying the direction of the council. I can go to my representatives to the state government in Austin, and probably get heard directly by them (though not by those who don't represent me), but the odds of me alone effecting change are slim to none. I can go to my representatives at the Federal government, and sit in their offices, and talk to a powerless, well-meaning staffer, and have essentially no impact on even my own representative, never mind the policy actions of the Federal government.

Or, I can get a lot of like-minded people on a particular issue together, and we can each contribute less money that it would take us to travel to Austin or Washington, D.C. and stay for a few days. We can then use that money to hire an agent, who will go to that place for us (and in fact, likely already lives there), and will take the money that is not his pay, and will use that money to get entrance to the offices not only of my representatives, but of all representatives. That agent, let's go ahead and start calling him a lobbyist, will be able to get that hearing, and make those points, because he has the ability to contribute significant amounts of money to that politician's re-election fund. Nothing else separates me from my agent but the aggregation of funds and, the representative will undoubtedly conclude, votes. Well, and one other thing, but it's a minor factor in corruption: a lobbyist on a particular issue will already have position papers, briefings, and probably even legislation already drafted, which makes a representative's staffer's job far, far easier when such items are needed.

Now, once there are lobbyists for me, and there are lobbyists for others, the question becomes: how does my lobbyist ensure that he has a better chance of getting my preferences enacted than does his competitor who has my opponent's interests at heart? Say that I want to get the Congress to make health insurance tax deductions an individual, rather than corporate, benefit. Then my lobbyist has to have either more votes or more money or more public opinion on his side than the lobbyists for the large corporations that benefit from this provision. Since public opinion is volatile, it is nearly meaningless as currency; and since votes may or may not materialize, they are less valuable than cash. Cash has the benefits of being fungible and nearly irrevocable: there's little question of whether cash has value, while a promised vote may or may not be meaningful.

Does anyone seriously believe that the Abramoff scandal would have happened had Congress not had the power to give massive benefits to Indian-operated casinos?

Without that, the Indians would not have hired Abramoff, and Abramoff would not have had that money to throw around. (Contra Sowell, representatives who are paid ten times what current representatives are paid would still bribe voters with other people's money rather than their own. Not only are the amounts larger, but there's the benefit (to the representative) of not having to use his own money, which still applies no matter what he is paid.) And Abramoff threw a lot of money, at representatives from both parties, and they took it, because they are rational human beings who want to get reelected and know money helps them do that. And now they are trying to say they weren't bought, because they are rational human beings who know scandals reduce their future chances of reelection, and because they hope that we are not rational beings and will therefore not realize that all politicians, all people, are corruptible, at least when the corruption accords with their own personal desires. If you were offered thousands of dollars, legally, to do what you already wanted to do, would you take it? If you answered no, you're a saint or a liar. I haven't met any saints, but I've met a lot of liars.

So there are only a few possible ways to minimize or eliminate government corruption. The first way is to remove the ability of the representatives to buy votes with public money; the second is to remove the requirement that politicians be elected.

The first way was the choice of our Founders. They prohibited direct taxation (which effectively makes all taxes avoidable, at least in theory), and they strictly limited the powers of the Federal government. In addition, the Founders set up a system where Congress itself represented multiple interests; the House represented the people from a small locale, and the Senate represented the States themselves, as distinct from the population of the States. The 16th and 17th Amendments removed, respectively, the financial and political limits on the powers of the Congress.

As far as money goes, you read about Teapot Dome, but that was peanuts compared to what is an everyday occurrence now: the oil fields in question at Teapot Dome were government owned, but now the government can regulate who can make money, and how much, from oil fields the government doesn't own. With the current effectively unlimited ability of the Federal government to tax and regulate, there is essentially no limit to their power and thus no monetary limit to the corruption. With both Representatives and Senators being elected by, and thus responsible to and needing the votes of, the people at large, and with less than half of the population paying essentially the whole cost of government, there is no political limit to the corruption, either.

The second method, limiting the ability of politicians to be reelected, is not essentially bad, but does have some serious problems. The first serious problem is that good representatives, when they are found, do not stay for long, because they cannot be reelected. The second serious problem is that just when they begin to get real experience on the issues government faces, the representatives are out of office (and this may actually increase the need for lobbyists by the representatives and their staffers). I would argue that having the Congress reelectable without limit and the President reelectable only once is likely the worst of both worlds.

Anything besides prohibiting reelection or limiting the powers or reach of the Congress is, frankly, just window dressing.

If I were writing the Constitution from scratch, I would likely have a tricameral Congress, with one chamber consisting of whomever shows up that day and to which of course you could appoint an agent (but having very, very limited powers), another consisting of people elected to represent particular parties (party slate tickets, essentially) and a third elected based on the tax burdens of its electors. Thus you would have one chamber that is very, very representative of popular will; another that is explicitly representative of popular ideologies; and the third that is representative of the individual burden shouldered by its electors. The first would have the power to propose legislation to the other houses, to set tax rates within limited bounds, and to impeach sitting officials; the second would have the power to pass legislation proposed by the first, subject to veto by the President or the third chamber, to override the vetoes by supermajority, and to allocated collected funds; the third would have the power to strike any legislation that had been active for at least a year, to veto any legislation passed by the second chamber, to try impeachments, and to consent to treaties or Presidential appointments. A declaration of war would require the affirmation of all three chambers and would be required before committing US troops to offensive action overseas. I would not have any limits on reelection or campaign finance, except for disclosure of receipts. Instead, I would count on the manifestly different interests to balance each other out.

Of course, I would also make a requirement that no Constitution could be kept in place for more than 75 years without having a Constitutional Convention. This is, among other reasons, why it is unlikely anyone would ever let me write a Constitution.

Posted by jeff at 4:28 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Vince Young to go Pro

And Sooner fans everywhere will get better sleep:

Young says so long, Longhorns, hello NFL

He played an amazing game against USC. Some are predicting he will be among the first of many next-generation quarterbacks in the NFL. Maybe so, but they said the same thing about Vick and other strong, mobile QBs, and so far the pro game is still dominated by the drop-back passer.

Posted by Nemo at 9:47 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 7, 2006

Pronoun Trouble

Francis Porretto at Eternity Road asks if there should be a national identity card, and a lot of subsidiary questions about why you might want one, and how to control its use. My answers are too big for a comment, as were Mark Alger's. I will not reproduce — or likely even answer — the questions here; you can go to the aforementioned sites to read up so you know what was in my head while I was typing this.

The first question that needs to be asked is what constitutes your identity as relates to the government. There are, as Mark notes, two answers to that. The first is who you actually are, and the second is what you actually are. Who you are, that which separates you from all other entities from the point of view of an outside observer, is really just a set of differentiating characteristics such that no two people share the same set of characteristics, the characteristics do not change (at least over a sufficiently short period of time for the purpose your identity needs to be demonstrated), the characteristics cannot be easily falsified and the characteristics cannot be alienated (transferred to another entity).

The most detailed identity characteristic that we know how to measure is one's DNA, which has sufficient individuality to be useful almost by itself — the odds of a two people sharing a duplicate DNA fingerprint when a complete and un-degraded sample is available is so close to zero as to be not worth worrying about in practical terms. And given a certain period of time in which to examine the samples, two people — even identical twins — can be reliably distinguished with only human error to worry about. The DNA fingerprint is also essentially unchanging over a person's natural life span and is inherently inalienable. But DNA fingerprinting would constitute an unacceptable claim of identity to most people, because who wants to walk around getting poked or otherwise sampled every time you have to demonstrate who you are?

The most meaningless identity characteristic we can measure is one's name — at least if one's name is sufficiently common. Even name and birth date do not work. Nor do name and place of birth, or name and height and weight. But if you pile on enough of these not-very-individual characteristics, you eventually get to something reasonably unique and permanent and non-transferrable. As Mark notes, this is hardly an efficient way to demonstrate identity, and is certainly an intrusive way to do so. Worse, the characteristics are largely falsifiable.

Biometrics other than DNA fingerprinting have different degrees of stability and uniqueness, but all are inalienable. Any document you could carry around is alienable and falsifiable, and thus useful only as a shorthand, rather than as a reliable identifier.

So demonstrating who you are as a unique individual can be quite difficult to do with sufficient reliability and precision and security. As Mark also notes, it's much easier to denote what you are than who you are. What I mean by what you are is really a way of saying what you may do because of some characteristic that attaches to you. For example, a citizen of a certain age may vote in a national election. A holder of a state or Federal identity card may fly on a commercial aircraft or enter a courthouse (most courthouses, at least). But while it is easy to document someone's status in such a way as to determine whether a person may do a thing, it's not easy to do that in a verifiable way. All status is granted by some agency or method. You are a citizen because you were born here, or born to American parents abroad, or naturalized by the appropriate government procedures and rituals. You demonstrate your citizenship by showing a passport, a birth certificate, a State Department certification of natural birth abroad, or a naturalization certificate. As a shorthand for any of these, you can obtain from the Federal government a passport that says that you have somehow proved to the satisfaction of the government that you are a citizen.

But these methods are all inherently alienable and falsifiable, so merely demonstrating what you may do is not very reliable. It may work for you, but may not work to, say, the TSA's standard of reliability. In other words, knowing what you may do without being able to demonstrate who you are, so that it can be verified that you legitimately carry the documents or instruments that demonstrate what you are, is essentially meaningless because it is essentially unreliable.

So to reliably show what you are, you have to have some instrument that ties together who you are and what you are: both sides of the identity question are meaningful. You must authenticate in order to authorize. (This is not true in all cases. For example, your bank does not care who you actually are when you authenticate to their online banking system, only that you are eligible to access a certain account because you have authenticated to the system's satisfaction as an entity with the characteristics appropriate to accessing that account.)

Generally, there are two reliable classes of instruments for this purpose: either a combination of something that you have and something that you know, tied to a centrally-available record of what permissions apply to an entity so authenticated; or something that can be reproduced from your physical presence, tied to a centrally-available record of what permissions apply to an entity so identified. Because centralizing records across so many domains of ownership, control, and purpose is effectively impossible, either multiple identities, each suited to a subset of possible purposes, are required or some portable instrument easily verified (at least to a reasonable accuracy, as with a photograph) is required. The determination of what kind of instrument to use is dependent on technological limitations, but even more so on the consequences of a wrong assignment of identity. (Courts, for example, must have very reliable identities to work with; liquor stores may require much less reliability; the TSA has to have good but not perfect reliability.)

The second question that must be asked is to what extent the government has a right to know your identity. I think that it would be relatively uncontroversial to say that the Federal government has a right to know your identity in so far as you are getting access to something controlled by the Federal government or services from (or serviced by if you are unlucky or deserving enough to have to deal with Federal law enforcement) the Federal government; state governments have a similar right within their own domains of action; one government may or may not take the instrument of another government at face value, and may or may not require the holder of an instrument from another government to undergo further verifications; individual non-governmental organizations have similar rights and abilities within their own domains of ownership or action; and that no one should be able to force you to demonstrate identity except for a court, but anyone may deny you access or services if you fail to demonstrate identity.

Therefore it should be uncontroversial to say that the Federal government can create an instrument of identity and require it to be shown for any benefit, access or service within the Federal government's domain, and any state government or private entity could likewise accept and utilize such an instrument. The reason that this in actuality is controversial is that there are insufficient limits on the ability of Federal, state and local governments as well as private entities in obtaining and utilizing such information.

In particular, the worry that most people (me included) have is this: that the Federal government will create an identity document for people that is inalienable, difficult to falsify and quite accurate at distinguishing individuals; that other governments will require this identity document as pre-requisite to their identity documents (or just use the Federal identity document directly); and that private organizations will similarly use the Federal identity document as their identity document. The practical upshot of this is that, even were the government not to randomly stop people on the street to verify their identity documents, a person is still trapped within their identity: they could never be clear of anything they had done in the past, could never prevent their information from being freely shared among all kinds of organizations without their consent, and that they therefore would have no privacy worthy of the name. What privacy is there when the government could easily determine what shows you watch, and corporations could easily determine your income and benefits?

So in order for such a scheme to be workable, there is a layer of laws that must be put in place. Specifically, it must be possible to refuse to use your Federal identity as an identity for any other government or organization (and vice versa), requiring other organizations to independently establish your identity; it must be possible to prevent the transfer or sharing of information tied to your identity except in very limited circumstances (with a court order, for example); and it must be possible to opt out of the system entirely, though the price of that may be forfeiture of services to which you are otherwise entitled.

Without that, it will be impossible to obtain public acceptance of a universal government-issued identity.

Posted by jeff at 1:36 PM | TrackBack

January 6, 2006

Talk About Reservations

The President signed HR2863, a bill that "provides resources needed to fight the war on terror, help citizens of the Gulf States recover from devastating hurricanes, and protect Americans from a potential influenza pandemic." But he apparently had a few reservations. (hat tip: Hugh Hewett)

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January 5, 2006

Fear and Perspective

Here is an interesting talk from Michael Crichton, about fear, perspective and complexity.

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January 4, 2006

The Darkness, Whispering

If you are going to read this post, there is prerequisite reading to do.

It's the Demography, Stupid by Mark Steyn
Dark Gods by Francis Porretto
Toying with Genocide by Gerard van der Leun

The way of the end of the world is an open question. Some say the world will end in fire; some say in ice... The only answer that is worthwhile is to hope never to know, or to see it from your distant home somewhere off Earth. But I have lived my whole life perched on the lip of the Abyss, and for almost my whole life I've known it. I am a child of the Cold War.

My father was an Air Force NCO. We lived near military bases. When I was a kid, I used to look for maps of the base to see if we would die quickly when the inevitable nuclear strike came, or if we would die slowly. Usually, the answer was quickly, if the enemy's weapons were at all accurate and reliable. In fact, my house in Oklahoma was exactly on the "total destruction" ring. I was not comforted by the thought that our back yard was in the "massive destruction" ring in which everyone still died, but a few brick walls might stay standing. From the time I first started thinking about military history and the world situation (about the time I was 10 or 11), to now, with the exception of a few years in the 1990s when I, too, was lulled into a false sense of security — for all that time, I have been very, very aware of the silently whispering darkness.

And since 9/11, I have been particularly aware that if the darkness has a servant to push billions into its maw, that servant will almost certainly be my servant, also, at least nominally. For the most likely cause of genocide today is frustration: if we cannot move the Arab/Muslim societies towards tolerance faster than the most intolerant among them can obtain nuclear weapons, we will have to destroy the Arab world, utterly, because the simple fact is that once Iran or the jihadis or similarly fanatical and nihilistic parts of the Muslim world obtain the power to destroy the Jews, or the Americans, they will do so. And just before that point, if we are fortunate, or just after the loss of a few millions in the US or Europe or the destruction of Israel, if we are unfortunate, we will be compelled to abolish the threat in the only way possible: at that point, invasion is not an option; there is no time.

The most likely way that the terror wars will end, should Iran succeed in its present quest, is with the simultaneous destruction of Israel and Iran, and possibly Damascus and Cairo and a few other places into the bargain.

There is, of course, the possibility that we will succeed in spreading democracy and tolerance in the Arab world. The Catholics today certainly aren't what they were in the Middle Ages in Europe. If we can keep nuclear weapons away from the fanatics long enough, we may be able to moot the problem by internal reform. Given examples and time, it's possible that the Arab world will politically reform to embrace representative governance, and with it will go down the materialistic road that keeps most of the world too busy with its toys to think of killing someone else over minor differences about the nature of their god and their god's will. That this will almost certainly take an invasion or at least large-scale bombing of Iran is a problem, but not an insoluble one: we have a military conveniently armed and organized for such a purpose.

And should we succeed at reforming the Arab/Muslim world, Mark Steyn's doomsday scenario will never come to pass: the "they" that replace "us" in Europe — and Steyn is almost certainly correct that this will happen, barring Europe reverting to totalitarianism as van der Leun notes — will not be all that different from the "us" that's in Europe now. The end of the world would be, as it were, put on hold until further notice.

Down the alternate road, of course, the darkness still waits, whispering, for the moment of our frustration turning to panic.

Posted by jeff at 11:38 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Three Up, Three Down

This video is amazing. (hat tip: Mark in Mexico) It is night footage from an AC-130 Specter gunship in Iraq. After finding three insurgents apparently planning an attack (they took weapons out in the field, paced off distances, etc), and verifying that they were up to no good, the gunship (from about 2.5 miles away) hit and killed each person, individually, as well as their vehicles. Interestingly, the third guy probably would have lived if he hadn't crawled out from behind the truck: the engine's mass was protecting him. Of course, it's kind of hard to keep presence of mind when you are being shelled by an undetectable enemy and you've just watched your colleagues blown into tiny bits.

Why don't we broadcast stuff like this? Sure, some people would be offended, but I bet that a lot more would be cheering our guys on: these were definitely the bad guys getting waxed. And I suspect there would be a certain deterrent effect against aspiring jihadis.

Posted by jeff at 8:24 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sympathetic Magic and a Slow News Day

From the AP. (link via Democracy Project)

Before you write off the sympathetic magic as silly, ask yourself if praying for a snow day is any sillier. What made me laugh about the article was that the people involved were trying to do magic, but obviously have no theory of how magic works. As a result, they've rediscovered the most primitive level of magical practice: sympathetic magic. An ice cube is cold; snow is cold. Snow looks like shaved ice. Shave an ice cube, or flush it down the toilet (not sure where that even comes from) to bring snow. It's more or less the same as whistling up a wind, or beating drums to bring the rain (and associated thunderstorms).

Some things really are innate to the human soul.

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As a general rule, I tend to be very much in favor of having humans do things. While it is nice that a robot can go to Mars and find out all kinds of things for us, it is indisputable that there are things it cannot do. For example, a rover won't glance at the back side of a rock, see a strange color, and go investigate it; thus a rover might not find something important that a human would find, like water ice. Similarly, it is an open question whether a UAV capable of high-G turns could outfight a human pilot; the future will tell, when we have both available and can test them against each other. But there are some things that just don't require a human, and in fact where a human is a detriment to getting the job done.

Take, for example, aerial reconnaissance. Small UAVs are providing troops on the ground with information they would not otherwise get, because it's too expensive to use a manned aircraft for such missions, and this is costing the enemy dearly while saving the lives of our forces. Larger UAVs have basically gotten to the point, now, that they can do what the U2 can do, and without risking a pilot. So it makes sense that the Air Force will be retiring the U2 shortly. Why risk a manned platform where an unmanned platform will do the job with less cost and less risk? At the altitude that U2s fly, it's not like the pilots are making decisions on where to go and what to photograph: they can't see what they're surveilling.

I suspect that there'll be griping, but I really don't see a downside here.

Posted by jeff at 6:36 PM | TrackBack

Where the Fascists Went

A couple of years ago, Jim Bennett wrote an excellent article about European politics, Where Have the Fascists Gone. In the article, Bennett tied the long strands of anti-Enlightenment movements that sprung up in the late 1800s together, and noted how they survive in European politics today — not just the radical neo-fascists, but the superficially liberal statist politicians running the EU and the nations of "old Europe". But there are two other places that the fascists went, where a warm reception was to be had. One of these, of course, was Egypt, where Qutb grafted fascism to Islam to create the Islamist ideology (which, by the way, is why some call the enemy Islamofascists). The other, though, is not widely talked about other than as a joke.

Fascism went to South America, as fascists (notably many NAZI leaders) fled to Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere. Conveniently, the nations of South America have long had a self-destructive tendency, that flies from the Right to the Left with equal vigor, and similar results. These nations were very welcoming to the fascists, and undoubtedly were also influenced by them, leading to the rise of several right-wing fascist governments and several left-wing fascist governments. (Fascist, in both cases, in the sense of state control of industry, the destruction of personal responsibility while nominally maintaining personal property, blatant racism and violent nationalism.)

In the 1980s, most of these fascist states fell (or in some cases, were pushed by the US), along with Communist states like Nicaragua (sadly, not Cuba), and democracy finally looked to have a chance. Lately, though, the left-wing fascists are starting to stage a comeback in South America. I'm not talking about Brazil's Lula, though he could potentially fall into that mold if things go wildly awry in South America. Rather, I'm thinking of Evo Morales and the very, very up front Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. (He should learn to mouth liberal statist platitudes if he wants to be fêted by Western liberals, rather than ranting about the Jews, which will only get him.... Actually, never mind. Forget I said that.)

Now, it's every country's right to drive itself into economic stagnation, political corruption, genocide, international conflict and even totalitarianism. If that's what they want, they need merely be willing to accept the consequences. Sadly for us, though, we are unlikely to write off and ignore those countries in South America who choose the fascist route. Instead, we are likely to find ourselves intervening, again, to fix the broken nations that will be left when Chavez' madness has run its course.

Posted by jeff at 6:35 PM | TrackBack

Reports and Editors

Glenn Reynolds points out some of the distressingly wrong news stories from the past few months, and notes: "If bloggers had made these kinds of mistakes, Big-Media folks would be pointing them out as evidence that the blogosphere can't be trusted. But where were all those editors, filters, and fact-checkers?" It's actually worse than Glenn notes here, because these are places where the media got things wrong because they were sensational (Katrina), lazy (wolves) or fast and emotional (the miners). Glenn doesn't note here the other news failures, the ones where the reporters were being partisan attack dogs (forged memos), treasonous bastards (the reporting of how the CIA moves captured enemy around, or of where they are held, or of how we monitor enemy communications), deliberate liars (Jayson Blair comes to mind) or simply tools for tyrants (Eason Jordan to Saddam, the AP to the Palestinian terrorists and the Iraqi terrorists, etc). In other words, Glenn's current post only notes the understandable accidents, not the deliberate abuse of their power to control the flow of information.

And it is those deliberate failures, far more than the understandable mistakes, that condemn how the mainstream media works. And frankly, I think that the media gets it half right when they criticize bloggers. The media criticism of bloggers is on two lines: bloggers don't have the resources to uncover facts, but depend on the mainstream media for that; and bloggers don't have the "layers of editing staff, fact-checkers, lawyers, an editor-in-chief, and a publisher". The former is correct, and the latter is bogus.

It is clear that bloggers don't have the resources to have reporters (or stringers) covering all kinds of local events, never mind national and international events. It simply takes a large base of resources to put reporters around the world and have them cover everything of interest. So large, in fact, that only a few organizations even try: even the NY Times or CNN rely on local reporters, foreign stringers, wire services and press releases for their information. Still, combining those sources with the ability to direct a large reportorial staff to cover specific events, or to dig up more information on a story, is critical, and beyond the abilities of bloggers as a corporate entity, notwithstanding the efforts of Pajamas Media. Even the ability to get interviews with senior administration officials or Congressmen, or to embed with the military (Bill Roggio had to be sponsored by AEI, I believe), is difficult for bloggers, but simple for reporters from virtually any news outlet.

But news organizations have been having serious problems. Not only is their readership and viewership generally declining, and with it soon their advertising revenues (apparently subscription revenues have already fallen dramatically), but their credibility is going down the tubes as well. (Which follows the other, or whether they are coincident, it is not my purpose to explore here.) This is, ironically, largely a failure not of the reporters, but of the very things the media companies claim make them the gold standard: the editors and fact checkers. In actual fact, the editors more often insert opinion than excise it, and the fact checkers generally don't check. This combination leads to a downwards spiral in reliability, because no well-gathered and contextualized fact outweighs the failure of the organization's quality control, and one inserted (by the editor, or despite the editor) adjective, like describing a wholly legal and normal activity as "technically legal", can destroy the reliability of a report otherwise laden with useful information.

As far as I, and apparently many others, am concerned, punditry on television or in the newspapers no longer interests me. I can find in blogs a more articulate, more subject-aware and more eloquent set of commentators on all sides of any issue than the media can produce: they have to recycle the same set of pundits for every issue. I would, for example, rather listen to Phil Carter or Austin Bay on Iraq than, say, Daniel Schorr, who is paid to have opinions on any issue that comes to hand and apparently knows very little about history, foreign policy, the military or political theory (as opposed to insider political events). But the media is still essential because, despite these flaws and shortcomings, it is only the media organizations that have the resources to gather the raw data in bulk and to filter it together into a single source.

The moment that the blogs develop this ability, or that some media organization decides to publish raw facts and reports, well indexed and permanently maintained, rather than polished stories, the utility of the established media will rapidly drop away.

And it is that realization, even if unconscious, that makes reporters so afraid of bloggers.

Posted by jeff at 6:15 PM | TrackBack

Where Your Tax Money Goes

McQ at QandO has some interesting information on where the NEA spends its union dues: a raft of hard Left causes absorb millions of dollars. But what McQ does not go on to note is that these teachers are themselves paid out of tax dollars. In other words, you pay your property taxes to the school district; a portion of those taxes goes to teachers' salaries; a portion of those salaries (mandated, not given) goes to the NEA teachers' union as dues; and a large amount of that goes to support groups like "Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Amnesty International, AIDS Walk Washington and dozens of other such advocacy groups".

Have I mentioned how much I hate the way that unions have worked out in reality? I'd kind of like to given Francis Porretto's idea a try: unions without special legal privileges.

Posted by jeff at 5:48 PM | TrackBack

Annoying Airline Stuff

I tend to fly a lot. Generally, because of where I'm going, I've been using AirTran lately. And generally, they've been good to deal with. (Heck, their built-in XM radio led to a great Christmas present. Tonight, however, they get a criticism.

AirTran's hub is in Atlanta. Atlanta is a busy airport. However, you would expect them to be able to transfer a bag from one gate in a terminal to another gate in a terminal. Especially when the gap between the incoming and outgoing flight is something like two hours. And especially especially when the departure of the flight is held up for about a half hour in order to "make sure all our luggage gets on board". But no, apparently not.

There were about 20 people who didn't get a total of about 50 bags on the flight. Apparently there were a similar number of bags not transferred last night. And apparently, this is pretty common (although, to be fair, I've never had it happen before on AirTran).

I understand the complexity of baggage routing: it's not an easy problem to send tens of thousands of bags per day from one point to another, even in the same airport, when the actual flights people are going to be on are themselves changing, so the end point keeps moving. However, it startles me to think that there is apparently not one single airline who can yet do with my bags what FedEx or UPS can do with a package: determine where it is with reasonable certainty at any point in time, and make sure that it gets where it needs to be with little chance of error, so long as circumstances do not change en route (again, a cancelled flight is an obvious reason why a bag might not make it to the right place).

Mainly, I'm annoyed that I'm in Pontiac, Michigan and my heavy coat is in Atlanta. And it's cold here.

Posted by jeff at 2:19 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack