Tuesday, November 30, 2004

 

Horrors! Who will change our national mood lighting now?

Tom Ridge, America's Secretary of Swatches, has announced his resignation. I'm sure I speak for everyone reading this when I say - I'm terrified. I'm shitting bricks, my heart is fluttering like a CEO afraid his bonus might drop this year from $20 million to only $15 million or a Bush facing the prospect of an honest election.

Who will change the National Color from puce to eggshell, or from mauve to chartreuse? Who will tell us the threat of a new Taco Bell commercial has gone from serious to grave? Or that the chance of Madonna making out with a pile of dead leaves is now 142% higher than the likelihood that Michael Powell will realize every TV set ever made has an "off" switch?

I feel so unsafe.
 

Stop us before we spend again

I should point out that I am usually in favor of the players in any dispute between athletes and team owners. In the case of the NHL lockout, I can understand the owners wanting and perhaps even needing to lower player salaries, which are much higher than the sport's revenues can sustain. But read this:
Bettman stands firm

Says luxury tax won't work


EDMONTON (CP) - NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has reiterated the league's position that it won't consider the players' proposed luxury tax.

"They claim that will fix our problems, I'm here to tell you today ... that a luxury tax will not work and it will create a potential for future disaster in the NHL," Bettman told a packed Edmonton Chamber of Commerce breakfast Tuesday.

The NHL and NHLPA haven't had a formal collective bargaining session since Sept. 9 in Toronto when the league officially rejected the union's luxury tax-based proposal.

The league has said it doesn't believe in a luxury tax because it's not predictable and doesn't guarantee what it calls cost certainty. Some teams will continue to overspend and pay the tax, the league believes.
So, in other words, the owners are incapable of showing any restraint, therefore it's up to the players to do it for them?

In which case, how would you - how could you - enforce a salary cap? If an owner wants to cheat, he's going to cheat.

I love ice hockey, but it is not really a "major sport," as sportswriters and broadcasters use the term. It's certainly not up there with the NFL, MLB, or even NBA in terms of television ratings. (ESPN has been running a lot of celebrity and other poker during the lockout - apparently to higher viewing figures than its NHL games got last year.) The NHL is a major sport by courtesy, since it is fairly prominent in a few of the bigger cities with lots of media, but it simply does not resonate with the country as a whole. This is not a criticism of the sport itself, which, I mentioned, I love (even though the lockout means the Rangers are having their best season in years).

The NHL has been paying its stars like they have NFL-size revenues, which is a recipe for disaster. As I said, I usually take the players' side; in this case, I can't really be sure. Forbes Magazine recently reported that the NHL owners have not lost anywhere near as much money as they've claimed, which the owners (naturally) dispute; who knows what the truth is? That said, salary caps only work when both sides trust each other, which is not exactly the case here. Especially when Bettman has as much as said that he can't trust his own owners! Why should the players trust them, then?

As an NHL fan, I'd love to see them work out a settlement so we could have game on. I fear that the longer the lockout lasts, the less likely it is the 2004-05 season will take place. Worse, if and when the league does come back, it may have fallen off too many sports fans' radar. For awhile in the early to mid 1990s, the NHL appeared to be poised to challenge the NBA as the third major team sport in the USA. They can only dream of those days now. At this point, they're fighting for their survival. It's time for both sides to figure this out and deal.
 

I should know better than to read the Rude Pundit at work

A Tyranny of Motherfuckers (Part of the "We Are So Fucked" Series):

...Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert is a fat man. No, wait. That's an understatement. He is a huge, obese, wheezing hulk of a lard balloon. ...

 

At least a decade?

I hate to be negative about Iraq - I really do - lest I be seen as desiring a U.S. defeat. Which I certainly don't, but how can one remain sunnily positive after reading this?
U.S. Officials Say Iraq's Forces Founder Under Rebel Assaults

By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. and JAMES GLANZ

MOSUL, Iraq, Nov. 29 - Iraqi police and national guard forces, whose performance is crucial to securing January elections, are foundering in the face of coordinated efforts to kill and intimidate them and their families, say American officials in the provinces facing the most violent insurgency.

For months, Iraqi recruits for both forces have been the victims of assassinations and car bombs aimed at lines of applicants as well as police stations. On Monday morning, a suicide bomber rammed a car into a group of police officers waiting to collect their salaries west of Ramadi, killing 12 people, Interior Ministry officials said.

While Bush administration officials say that the training is progressing and that there have been instances in which the Iraqis have proved tactically useful and fought bravely, local American commanders and security officials say both Iraqi forces are riddled with problems.

In the most violent provinces, they say, the Iraqis are so intimidated that many are reluctant to show up and do not tell their families where they work; they have yet to receive adequate training or weapons, present a danger to American troops they fight alongside, and are unreliable because of corruption, desertion or infiltration.

Given the weak performance of Iraqi forces, any major withdrawal of American troops for at least a decade would invite chaos, a senior Interior Ministry official, whose name could not be used, said in an interview last week.

South of Baghdad, where American troops are still trying to drive out insurgents after the recent offensive in Falluja, American officers warn their own troops to be prepared to "duck and cover" to avoid stray shots fired by Iraqi recruits.
"At least a decade."

"'Duck and cover' to avoid stray shots fired by Iraqi recruits."

And, according to our Fearless Leader, the war is going well? Blow me over, I'd hate to try to imagine what it would be like if it were going badly!
 

If you are even briefly contemplating being a Bush apologist, please learn this lesson yourself

From Matthew Yglesias:
Lesson Learned

Noam Scheiber underestimates the cynicism and mendacity
of the Bush administration's Social Security plans. You really can never go wrong on this front. Policy in all areas will be maximally cynical and maximally mendacious.
I was talking to a close friend yesterday, who really should know better (he's gay and his partner worked for both Dean and Kerry this year). He told me that he thinks Bush will begin to move to the center. I tried to bring him back to reality. There is no chance this will happen, and the sooner moderates and progressives with a bipartisan bent begin to realize this, the sooner we will have some chance of whipping a decent opposition into shape. The only realistic stance for the next two years, at least, is (as Charles Pierce puts it), NO. Simply that. No. N-O.

No on everything. Every nomination, every bill, every resolution. Period. Don't even try to accommodate or compromise. Make it clear that every single thing George W. Bush does is wrong. That every thing that goes bad over the next two years is 100% his fault, that we had absolutely nothing to do with it. That there is a clear difference between us, a chasm the size of the Valleys Marinaris on Mars (which is wider than the United States).

Now, we're not going to be able to make every "No" stick. And yes, Bush and the Republicans and their slaves in the press will shriek loud enough to hear on the Moon every time we say "No." But the only thing those motherfuckers respect is power. Morality for them is only a stick to beat their opponents with, and bipartisanship is just a word in the dictionary between bastard and bribe. If the Democrats really hold together and just say, "No," the Republicans will eventually realize that they can't continue to smack us around with impunity. That there will be a price to pay. That's why I'd love to see Bill Clinton as chairman of the DNC, because he could say no and get away with it, make at least some of the press like it.

In any case, please disabuse yourself of any notion that George W. Bush will govern from the center or propose anything simply because it's the right thing to do. (And, should he somehow do so, keep in mind that he will 100% guaranteed refuse to fund it once the positive pub attending his proposal has died down.) We are in a shitstorm; now is not the time to lower the umbrellas.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

 

Wal-Mart believes in unions!

In China, that is.
Wal-Mart gives in to China’s union federation

By Richard McGregor in Shanghai

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, said on Tuesday it would agree to establish officially-sanctioned unions in its 40-odd Chinese stores, but only if its workers requested that it form one.

Wal-Mart, which has long battled to keep unions out of its stores in the US and around the world, has been under pressure from the All China Federation of Trade Unions, an official organisation, to allow it to establish branches in its stores.

Wal-Mart said in a statement that the company was in full compliance with Chinese law “which states that establishing a union is a voluntary action of associates.” Wal-Mart refers to its workers as “associates.”

“Currently there are no unions in Wal-Mart China because associates have not requested that one be formed,” the statement said. “Should associates request the formation of a union, Wal-Mart China would respect their wishes and honour its obligation under China’s Trade Union Law.”
Not here at home.
UFCW: Wal-Mart Workers' Right to Talk Union on Job Upheld by Judge; Company Also Raised Wages at First Sign of Union Activity, Judge Says

AIKEN, S.C. /U.S. Newswire/ -- Wal-Mart's effort to silence workers through a 'no solicitation' policy its managers interpret as prohibiting any talk about union organizing is blatantly illegal, a National Labor Relations Board Judge has ruled in a case involving the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Aiken, South Carolina.

Administrative Law Judge John West also found that Wal-Mart illegally used wage increases for 89 employees at the first sign of union activity to take away one reason the workers were organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union.

The judge ordered the company to admit the purpose of the wage increases in a posting for employees was to influence them not to join a union. This was contrary to Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz's insistence to a reporter in February that the judge would order the wage increases rescinded, showing that the union was "acting in a way contrary to the interest of those associates," Wal-Mart's term for employees.

"Judge West has given Wal-Mart workers everywhere the roadmap to a wage increase: start talking about forming a union on the job," said UFCW Executive Vice President Michael E. Leonard, director of the union's Strategic Programs Department.

The ALJ's ruling said that Wal-Mart workers discussing the union at work is not "soliciting by any stretch of the imagination." Federal law gives workers the right to organize for a voice on the job. Wal-Mart has taken drastic steps to silence its workers and deny them the opportunity to participate in the democratic process to make a choice for a voice at work.

Aiken Wal-Mart workers Barbara Hall and Kathleen MacDonald were frustrated by Wal-Mart's low wages and set out to try and organize their co-workers. Hall and MacDonald talked to their co-workers about the union and asked people if they could call them after work. Wal-Mart managers and Bentonville "People Managers" descended on the store with their usual carrot and stick approach to union busting - silencing some workers by giving them a bump in wages and then disciplining vocal union supporters.

The ALJ said, "To ask and employee for their telephone number to discuss the union, if the employee is interested, after work is not soliciting by any stretch of the imagination."

Wal-Mart has used its 'no solicitation' policy in stores across the country to intimidate workers from talking about the union and attempts to use the policy as an excuse to discipline or fire workers who it suspects are union supporters. Larry Allen, a Wal-Mart worker from Las Vegas, was fired in August for supposedly violating the 'no solicitation' policy. Allen had traveled to San Francisco to talk with reporters at the UFCW International Convention about Wal-Mart's lousy health insurance plan for workers. After returning to work, Allen was singled out and fired by Wal-Mart. His case is pending before the NLRB.

Over the past four years, Wal-Mart has changed its 'no solicitation' policy at least four times - each change based on a legal ruling against them that its policy is illegal. Charges are pending before the NLRB that the current policy violates workers' rights.
So, America is more concerned about democracy and elections in Ukraine, Palestine, and Iraq than in Florida or Ohio. And Wal-Mart workers may soon have more protection in China than in California.

Hey, is this a great administration or what?

(Thanks to the Progress Report for this.)
 

Dan who?

Words of sense from No More Mister Nice Blog:
Dan Rather Stepping Down

For as long as I can remember, he seemed half nuts. A few years back I used to watch his news broadcast regularly; it was in a period when he was obsessed with, transfixed by, El Niño. When he had a non-weather story, he'd introduce it by saying, "We're going to bring you a hard news look at" whatever the subject was -- big emphasis on "hard news." It was weird. And the news wasn't always "hard" -- sometimes it was the same old TV pseudo-news, oversold in this eccentric way.

That's how I'll remember Dan Rather.

Dan Rather was not a hero to any liberal or leftist I know. Only right-wingers think he was. They're deliriously happy. We're not even mildly upset.
Maybe you're not upset, but I'm in mourning. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't concentrate on my addiction to Internet porn. To think that I will never hear that annoying Canadian accent again, see that pinched face, that oh-so-superior smirk of a smile...I can't go on...

Oh, wait - you said Dan Rather is retiring. That's very different.

Never mind.
 

His Majesty needs more yes-men!

Great. More people to tell Our Leader exactly what he wants to hear:
Bush Orders the CIA To Hire More Spies

Goss Told to Build Up Other Staffs, Too


By Walter Pincus and Dana Priest

President Bush has ordered CIA Director Porter J. Goss to increase by 50 percent the number of qualified CIA clandestine operators and intelligence analysts, an ambitious step that would mean the hiring and training of several thousand new personnel in coming years.

Bush also ordered the doubling of CIA officers involved in research and development "to find new ways to bring science to bear in the war on terrorism, the proliferation of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and against new and emerging threats." In the presidential order, dated Nov. 18 and released by the White House yesterday, Bush also called for a 50 percent increase in the number of CIA officers proficient in "mission-critical languages" such as Arabic.
Unless they're gay.
The 50 percent increases he called for "are huge," requiring a new training facility "and even more aggressive recruiting, or lowering the quality of people," a former CIA official involved in the recruiting effort said.

The exact number of CIA officers in one area targeted for increase -- the clandestine service, officially known as the Directorate of Operations -- is classified, but former officials say it is around 4,500. Only about one-third are in the field as case officers who recruit agents, a former official said. The rest provide support from headquarters and overseas. Overall, the agency is believed to employ about 20,000 people.
In general, I'm a supporter of extensive spending on intelligence. I think it can prevent unnecessary wars and other problems. But that's obviously not the case with this administration, which has never heard a discouraging word and probably wants to make sure it never does.
 

And the Oscar doesn't go to...

I'm blogging this cause it made me laugh out loud. Okay?
A Nation Founded by Criminals Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

It's been a while, but here are a few steaming piles of what could loosely be called movie news from the Weekly Recap:

* Rosario Dawson and Adam Pascal will star in RENT, Revolution's adaptation of Jonathan Larson's Tony-winning play that Chris Columbus is directing. Meanwhile, my "Slightly Escalated Community Association Dues" script is unjustly languishing in cinematic purgatory.

* Queen Latifah will team with Darryl Taja to produce a sequel to the 1996 pic SET IT OFF for New Line Cinema. I mean, how could Hollywood ignore eight years of uninterrupted national outcry for this project to get done?

* Pierce Brosnan will star in THE TOPKAPI AFFAIR MGM's sequel to THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. The new film will draw on material from 1964's MGM pic TOPKAPI. I really do appreciate the concerted industry effort to double-up on its various desecrations.

* David Hubbard has sold his untitled comedy pitch to 20th Century Fox about a guy who -- after 15 years of marriage -- is beginning to wonder what his life would have been like had he remained single. When he comes face-to-face with himself in a "magical" elevator, he manages to switch places with his single self. If Hubbard didn't come up with this, a gang of syphillitic monkeys slinging their shit against a wall would have.

* Micky Dolenz will direct G'DAY L.A. about two brothers living in the outback who dream of going to California and meeting their pin-up gal. Nothing about that sentence makes any sense, unless that burly Road Warrior extra guy from those 80s Energizer commercials is attached.

* DreamWorks has landed rights to make BAYWATCH, a feature film version of the global TV phenomenon about a group of lifeguards who patrol a California beach. The premiere of this movie should coincide nicely with locusts and frogs descending on the Midwest and one of the Great Lakes turning into blood.

* Jon M. Chu is no longer directing BYE BYE BIRDIE for Sony. The young helmer was taken off the project due to the pic's escalating budget and risky nature. It's the Heaven's Gate of stupid, pointless, shitty remakes of movies that pretty much sucked to begin with!
And to think that Ishtar spent 11 years in development Hell...where's the justice?
 

Whose problem is it, really?

Don't worry, this is not a sort of violation of Godwin's Law (it only seems like one at first reading).
The Iranian problem

There's a lot of talk these days about a possible confrontation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. Leaving aside the admittedly big question of nuclear weapons for a moment, it's pretty easy to see the reasons for concern.

The country is ever more dominated by conservatives and advocates of political religion. There was a time in the 1990s when the country seemed to be moving in a more liberal direction, but those days are long past. Conservatives and religious movements have spent the last few years consolidating their control over the major political institutions - the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judiciary, even the media. Indeed, in the most recent elections, the conservatives routed their liberal counterparts. These conservatives and their religious base express open contempt for liberals and their values. Pretty much the only remaining opposition seems to be among university students and among some liberal newspapers, but their limited power doesn't really threaten the ruling coalition. What's more, the country has recently been very active inside of Iraq, which threatens important national security interests. Leading conservative figures, including some known for very close ties to senior government leaders, have openly declared their hostility and have even spoken about the need for military action. Even relatively moderate foreign policy officials have been sounding pretty hawkish lately.

You can see why the Iranians might be worried about a country like the United States these days.

Not to mention Americans.

(Note to the irony-impaired: I am not in fact claiming that the United States is identical to the Islamic Republic of Iran; nor am I claiming that the Christianist movement in the United States is identical to the Islamist rulers of Iran. Just pointing out some amusing similarities, is all, and wondering how supporters of the Bush administration can, with a straight face, make certain kinds of criticisms of the Iranian system. This preventive strike footnote provided as a public service to save bandwidth in the comments section).
The point is, of course, that Bush and his supporters have not the slightest clue (nor inclination to go hunting for a clue) as to how their actions make the United States look to the rest of the world. In fact, to the extent that they even have the slightest notion that they have dragged down our reputation, that only seems to them like a validation of their delusion that the rest of the world is inexplicably hostile to the United States because of their degeneracy and lack of "morality." The fact that Abu Aardvark could get away with fooling the reader even briefly is a sign of just how low we have sunk.
 

Science on the retreat

Matthew Yglesias has it pretty much exactly right:
A Bit Rich

I don't know if John Derbyshire is being factually accurate when he states that certain kinds of genetic research are impeded by a chilling effect that can basically be laid at the door of liberals. He says researchers worry that if they do something that turns up race-correlated differentials or whatever, that they'll be pilloried. I can't say if that's true or not, but it has a certain plausibility to it. What doesn't have much plausibility is the notion that this sort of thing is really a bigger deal than the right's effort to expunge the main bit of science underlying all of contemporary biological research. But conservatives elites could hardly complain about that sort of thing.

In case this was unclear, by "the main bit of science underlying all of contemporary biological research" I mean the theory of evolution, and not anything as mundane as embryonic stem cells which, though certainly promising, are tangential to a lot of what one might want to do. If we don't teach evolution to the next generation of kids, it's hard to see how any biological or medical research could possibly go forward in this country.
[Emphasis added]

This is kind of analagous to eating one's seed corn or perhaps killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

However, it is actually part of a larger process, of not understanding what has made this country so economically dominant in the first place. Morality is fine, and I understand the impulse to want to believe that God has "blessed" us in the past and will continue to do so - but how do the "moralizers" think God has blessed us throughout our history? What do they think that "blessing" entails? Could it not be that we have been "blessed" with incalculable natural resources, with a favorable geographic position (two enormous oceans), a hospitable climate? Could it not also be that we have been "blessed" with a population of enormous entrepreneurial spirit, probing curiosity, a willingness to enjoy and exploit our freedom - and also the genius of our scientists and engineers?

We are in serious danger of losing our edge on the rest of the world, and if and when that happens, we are in deep deep shit. Already, there are signs that young technical students from other countries are choosing not to study in the United States, due to our cumbersome visa procedures. Given that fewer and fewer Americans are going into scientific and technical fields - probably in some part because of the assault on science by the religious right wing - this is going to lead to a weakening of our scientific research establishment. Not training our youth in true scientific methods will make things worse. Twenty or thirty years from now, we will find ourselves falling behind the rest of the world and wondering why we are no longer enjoying the kinds of breakthroughs we used to routinely expect. Those of us paying attention will be able to say, I warned you, I told you so - while we are coughing up our guts or otherwise suffering the consequences we were afraid would occur.
 

Happy birthday, Doctor

41 years ago today, in the UK, an adventure started that is still going strong. The first episode of Doctor Who, "An Unearthly Child," aired on the BBC. There's far too much about Doctor Who out there (some of it written by me!), so all I want to do now is, pay tribute.

As its fans know, Doctor Who is a unique amalgam of science fiction, fantasy, history and nonsense (mostly nonsense, which is why we all love it so much). The Doctor is one of the true heroes of modern popular culture, a scientist, an explorer, a moral guidepost with dauntless courage, endless wit, unquenchable curiosity, and alarming amounts of whimsy. The show is very British yet equally universal. I've been a fan since the early 1980s; in fact, I'm just about to attend Chicago Tardis, one of the annual Doctor Who conventions.

Doctor Who is coming back next year, hallelujah, so with luck a whole new generation of fans will discover it.

Vworp vworp!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

 

You have perfect religious freedom - you're free to follow my religion

From Jill of Brilliant At Breakfast:
In the Name of God

Scalia's at it again, with his selective use of "original intent", claiming that a nation that litters everything that isn't nailed down with the word "God" is not religion-neutral.

Since he said this in front of a Jewish group, he decided to invoke the Holocaust this time to demonstrate the inevitable result of separation of church and state:
"Did it turn out that, by reason of the separation of church and state, the Jews were safer in Europe than they were in the United States of America? I don't think so."
For Scalia to play the Holocaust card in trying to convince Jews that an imposition of a Christian theocracy is what the Founding Fathers wanted is just appalling. And he doesn't know his Hitler very well either:
I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work." -- Adolph Hitler, speech to the Reichstag, 1936

"I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator." -- Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, pg. 46
Gee, that sounds like the thought patterns of another world leader we know, doesn't it?
"I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job." -- George W. Bush, Lancaster County, July 2004

"God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East." -- George W. Bush
Note: I don't think this qualifies as a violation of Godwin's Law, merely a rather easy comparison. If the shoe fits, etc., etc.

What she says about Scalia is dead on. His shameless attempt to impose his narrow views on society - while pretending he is doing no such thing - along with his cruel contempt for the consequences of his rulings on actual living, breathing human beings trying to live real lives, make him only the most objectionable of current so-called "conservatives" infecting our society. For him to attempt to feign any genuine human feeling - such as sympathy with the victims of Adolf Hitler - merely makes his breathtaking hypocrisy almost - almost - appealing as an art form if nothing else.
What part of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" does Mr. Scalia not understand? As for spattering the word "God" like graffiti all over the place, obviously Scalia is ignorant of the fact that the words "In God We Trust" were added to the currency during the Civil War, NOT by the Founding Fathers. "God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance not by the Founding Fathers, but in the 1950's as a McCarthyite response to "Godless Communism."
Nice bit of history there, but probably useless, considering that Scalia has at times denied the value of knowing anything about history, such as the actual intent of Congress when passing a law he decides he doesn't like.

Basically, in George Bush's America, it has somehow become a denial of someone's religious freedom to argue that he doesn't have the right to force his beliefs on everyone else. I seriously doubt that's what the Founders had in mind.
 

Dig we must

From today's New York Times:
Beneath the Harbor, It's Dig or Else

By ERIC LIPTON

It is nearly 3 a.m., and traffic on the Bayonne Bridge is so light that this link between New Jersey and Staten Island looks almost like some rural river crossing. Yet from down beneath the graceful steel-arch span, in a spot illuminated by the moonlight, comes an angry roar, followed by a tremendous rumble. The Beast of the Kill Van Kull is out feeding again tonight.

This giant rock-eating machine, its long arm capped with steel teeth strong enough to shred a dump truck, is part of a fleet of equipment that has been working around the clock, seven days a week, for four years on one of the largest and most expensive harbor-dredging jobs in the nation's history.

This public works project is as invisible as it is epic. Although the region's residents, commuters and airport users are footing the nearly $2.25 billion bill with help from the federal government, the dredging has proceeded far out of earshot and eyesight of millions of New Yorkers living just a few miles away.

New York City's version of the Big Dig is motivated by a threat like those made by professional sports teams seeking a plush new stadium. Either dig a deeper harbor, the world's biggest ship lines and terminal operators have bluntly told the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, or the $100 billion a year in goods that move through New York Harbor will start shifting to other, deeper ports in North America. New York's channels, they warn, are too shallow for the ever-bigger freighters that are plying the seas.

A major milestone will be reached, and celebrated, within the next month when the dredging clears a depth of at least 45 feet in the Kill Van Kull, the narrow, four-mile-long tidal channel that connects Upper New York Bay to Elizabeth and Newark, the two busiest spots in the harbor. But the work had barely begun when the Port Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers, which are sharing the cost, realized that 45 feet would not be not deep enough for the newest generation of ships. So the dredging will continue, to a minimum of 50 feet, for much of the next decade.

"We have to go back and start over again," said Steve Frey, one of the operators on the Dredge Tauracavor, the floating platform where the excavator nicknamed the Beast is mounted.

What makes this task so hard - and requires supremely powerful devices like the Beast, instead of conventional clamshell-style dredging rigs - is that crews are not simply scooping up soft clay and silt. The depths required in the Kill Van Kull are so far beyond the harbor's natural bottom that contractors must blast and carve a new underwater canyon through as much as 10 feet of diabase, the same sort of bedrock that forms the Palisades cliffs that tower over the Hudson River.

And all the blasting, excavating and hauling must be done without interrupting the vital flow of ships through the port. "It is like building a highway with the cars still coming in," said Harold J. Hawkins, who is helping manage the project for the Army Corps.

From a distance, the dredge and its excavator resemble a long-necked dinosaur feeding in a primordial swamp. And the work out in the harbor's narrow straits proceeds like something from the early days of the Industrial Revolution: loud, violent and unrelenting for the men who carry it out.

It is hard to imagine a lonelier spot in New York than the cab of the Beast during the 12-hour overnight shift, in the closet-like space where Mr. Frey and the other dredge operators started working in August 2000, when Bean Excavation of New Orleans arrived to begin digging in the Kill Van Kull. With a windshield three panes thick and a prisonlike steel cage to protect from ricocheting rock, this closet-size, sound-insulated compartment can be reached only by climbing up three grease-slicked ladders from the deck of the barge.

The interior is a cross between a tractor-trailer cab and the cockpit of a "Star Wars" X-wing fighter. It smells of stale cigarette smoke, and a battered FM radio blasts pop music. But just to the left of Mr. Frey's seat are two computer monitors that merge data from satellites tracking the barge's location with intricate sonar readings of the shape of the channel floor. They produce three-dimensional images like those in a video game, telling Mr. Frey exactly where his excavating bucket sits relative to the rock, even after the Beast's arm has reached out and disappeared into the muddy water.

Mr. Frey's job now is to use this extraordinary computer imagery, and two joysticks fast in his grip, to slow the bucket as it approaches the rock, and to make sure that as he applies its 337,100 pounds of digging pressure to the bottom, it hits at just the right angle so that it rips the rock, instead of snapping off the bucket's metal teeth.

Even without the video monitors, there would be no way to miss the moment he makes contact with bedrock. The entire barge shakes wildly. So jarring and constant are the vibrations that screws all over the cabin wiggle loose, and the air-conditioner and other appliances have to be replaced every few weeks. But as the hours pass, the Beast's assaults acquire a certain rhythm, and even grace.

The digging has become so ingrained in Mr. Frey's bones that about the only time he cannot sleep in the living quarters downstairs - where aluminum foil and cardboard cover the windows to keep daylight out - is when the Beast breaks down and the vibrations stop. "It sounds crazy, but it kind of rocks you to sleep," said Danny Aguado, 42, of Tampa, Fla., another operator on the Dredge Tauracavor.

Ten men live on this barge for two weeks at a stretch, taking turns sleeping and operating the Beast. They are flown home for a week, then head back to the barge. The excavator can clear anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 square feet a day, depending on the material, filling up as many as three scows, which then carry away the debris. But it is merely one of 81 pieces of dredging equipment that have been out on the harbor at various times over the last year.

Finding the best combination of blasting and digging, in some cases, took months of trial and error. In another part of the Kill Van Kull, Weeks Dredging and Contracting crews failed to scoop up the rock with a clamshell dredge, and even multiple jabs with a 20-ton spike could not break it up. By the time explosives were brought in, work had fallen more than six months behind schedule.

In total, 1,324 blasts, sometimes three a day, have been set off over the last three years in the short stretch between the Bayonne Bridge and Port Elizabeth, rattling homes on Staten Island and in Bayonne, N.J. The clanging and scraping of the dredges fill the silence between them.

"You can put your air-conditioner on and close all the windows - it makes no difference," said J. P. O'Hara, a retired auto worker who lives in Bayonne. "It is absolutely unbelievable, like the guns of Navarone."
I'm not sure why I'm blogging this, except that I found it fascinating. Infrastructure is one of the less obviously scintillating topics, but I've always been interested in transportation and construction. If I could do math, I probably would have become an engineer.

In his novel God is an Englishman, the late R. F. Delderfield has a character say that the history of any tribe is the history of its transportation system. While that is obviously highly reductive, the fact is that you don't invest in your infrastructure, eventually you don't got no suprastructure. This doesn't mean that every construction project is worthwhile (hear that, Army Corps of Engineers? Are you listening, Donald Trump?), but some are vital, even if ongoing and annoying. I'm sure I would not like to be living near the dredging, but those people would like the eventual effects of not dredging even less.

In any case, this is one example of the government spending our money that it would be difficult to take serious issue with. Boats are the single most efficient means ever found of moving anything big and heavy; with all our high-tech, this is still the case.
 

They're God's people, so they can be victims as much as they like (and boy do they like)

Wise words from Digby:
Pandering To Hypocrisy

Yes, we may be in different tribes. But vast numbers of people from both tribes are watching the same "trash" on television and getting divorced and having children out of wedlock and all the other horrible outgrowths of a society that is evidently in horrible decline. The difference is that one of the tribes seems to like to consume this crap and then pretend not only that they don't, but that the other tribe is forcing it on them.
This is akin to the right-wingers who, notwithstanding that they are in complete control of the country, keep pounding away on the myth that they are being chased out onto the ice by the mean ol' Simon Legrees of the all-powerful and implacably evil lib'ruls.

And as long as it keeps working, they are obviously going to keep pounding away.
 

This would explain a lot about George W. Bush...

...except he grew up in Connecticut...
Texas: A Great Place To Raise The Children Of Someone You Hate

You know, if heterosexual marriage is threatened by simply not referring to it directly, it must not be a particularly strong thing.
At the urging of Leo and several other members — who describe themselves as Christian conservatives — the board this month approved new health textbooks for high school and middle school students after publishers said they would tweak references to marriage and sexuality.

One agreed to define marriage as a "lifelong union between a husband and a wife." Another deleted words that were attacked by conservatives as "stealth" references to gay relationships; "partners," for example, was changed to "husbands and wives." A passage explaining that adolescence brings the onset of "attraction to others" became "attraction to the opposite sex."

Leo said she pushed for the changes to combat the influence of "liberal New York publishers" who by "censoring" the definition of marriage were legitimizing same-sex unions.
Now, I'd think that "partners" would be easier than using "husbands and wives" because it encompasses the same idea in fewer words...but we must not allow anything that could possibly ever be interpreted as having any opening for homosexuality. Although, gay and lesbian couples do have husbands and wives...

Okay, new phrase, and we'd appreciate it if all the textbooks were printed to reflect this: "fully heterosexual adult consenting nonrelated human being men marrying fully heterosexual adult consenting nonrelated human being women." Otherwise, the gay agenda could sneak in under our radar - and then what?

Alas, this was just disturbing:
Conservatives' efforts over the years to edit textbooks are legendary here. In a nod to those who believe God created the Earth 6,000 years ago, a sentence saying the ice age took place "millions of years ago" was changed to "in the distant past." Descriptions of environmentalism have been attacked as antithetical to free-enterprise ideals; a passage describing the cruelty of slavery was derided as "overkill."
I'd love to have seen that resolution.

"To Whom It May Concern:

We need books that are less negative about the whole slavery thing. Nothing too big, just, you know...got any pictures of slaves hugging their masters? And could we drop the whole thing about the Middle Passage? It's too depressing.

Thanks!"
(Actually, I just posted this because I loved the headline. But the article's pretty good, too.)
 

Hey, he's only the president - it's not like he has any real power

Tom Burka always makes me giggle:
Bush To Seek To Revive Intelligence Bill He Blocked
Pledges To Work Harder To Push Agenda He Pulls


President Bush pledged today that he would "take a running start" at crafting an intelligence bill that he will later totally shitcan.

"I am very disappointed that I stopped the intelligence bill from making its way of out committee and I vow to work harder to see that that bill goes farther before I once again make sure that it never becomes law," Bush said, returning to his ranch in Crawford,Texas. Bush said he was planning on clearing the brush in an area that he had grown brush on last week.

The intelligence bill was to enact 9/11 Intelligence Commission recommendations for intelligence reform that Bush had at first decried and then embraced. Bush had earlier opposed the creation of the Commission before calling for its immediate assembly. He then completely stonewalled its investigation until fully cooperating with it.

Bush denied today that he had blocked the intelligence bill on Friday.

"I didn't block it," said Bush. "I asked ranking House leaders to pass it while making absolutely sure that they knew that I didn't want it to be passed," he said. "That's totally different."
Next, he's going to take credit for bringing about intelligence reform, and his catamites in the media will praise his bold leadership, while blaming Bill and Hillary Clinton for having let our intelligence community sink to such a parlous state.
 

President Bush and his magic word-box

Meteor Blades on Daily Kos has it exactly right:
Many Americans love their tough-talking president. Makes them think, I suppose, that he’s actually doing something while he’s spouting Eastwoodisms and Schwarzeneggerisms. However, as is so often the case in so many arenas, the Bush Administration has, as Graham Allison points out, no coherent policy for dealing with the threat of loose nukes, even though the president says his “highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction."
As with everything else, George W. Bush acts as if merely announcing something is exactly the same as doing it.

I know someone who constantly screws up, after which he invariably apologizes. His attitude at that point is, apologizing essentially means whatever he did, he didn't do, so you should stop being angry at him for what he did because he didn't do it. Once he apologizes, if you're still angry, it's your fault, not his. Of course, he doesn't stop doing whatever it was that he did/didn't do that made you angry.

In the same way, once George W. Bush says he's going to do something, that means, to him (and, apparently, his supporters) that he has done it. AIDS funding, No Child Left Behind, whatever - the word is the deed. (Magic, as an anthropologist would describe it, meaning a belief that manipulation of symbols can alter physical reality.) To insist that Bush then actually do what he said he was going to do is, therefore, not only churlish but irrelevant.
 

"Looks like we're in big trouble now, Tonto" "What you mean we, paleface?"

The Washington Post bemoans the growing crisis in US science and technology:
The facts are plain. U.S. visa procedures have become far too cumbersome, and bureaucrats are turning down far more applications than ever before. One crucial result is the dramatic decline of foreign students in the United States -- the first shift downward in 30 years. Three new reports document the magnitude of this fall. Undergraduate enrollment from China dropped 20 percent this year; from India, 9 percent; from Japan, 14 percent. The declines are even worse in graduate schools: applications from China have dropped 45 percent; from India, 28 percent.

Some Americans might say, "Good riddance, it's their loss." Actually the greater loss is ours. American universities benefit from having the best students from across the globe. But the single most deadly effect of this trend is the erosion of American capacity in science and technology. The U.S. economy has powered ahead in large part because of the amazing productivity of America's science and technology. Yet that research is now done largely by foreign students. The National Science Board (NSB) documented this reality last year, finding that 38 percent of doctorate holders in America's science and engineering workforce are foreign-born. Foreigners make up more than half of the students enrolled in science and engineering programs. The dirty little secret about America's scientific edge is that it's largely produced by foreigners and immigrants.

Americans don't do science anymore. The NSB put out another report this year that showed the United States now ranks 17th (among developed nations) in the proportion of college students majoring in science and engineering. In 1975 the United States ranked third. The recent decline in foreign applications is having a direct effect on science programs. Three years ago there were 385 computer science majors at MIT. Today there are 240. The trend is similar at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of California at Berkeley.

The hegemony of ideas is often a greater and more lasting source of power than brute force. When historians write about our times, they will certainly note that America dominated the international agenda for decades through this distinctive form of power.

But that hegemony is weakening for four reasons. First, America has become less attractive in the eyes of the world. Second, Washington is making it tougher to come here. Third, there is greater competition and more alternatives for the world's best students. (The biggest beneficiaries of the American decline have been universities in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.) And, finally, there are more opportunities around the globe. A software engineer in India can make a good living in Bangalore and not have to leave his country, culture and family behind.

Some of these problems can't be solved by the next secretary of state. But America's image abroad is something Rice could help improve. And visas will be entirely under her control. I understand the need for greater scrutiny after Sept. 11. But it has given already cautious bureaucracies a new rule: "When in doubt, deny the application." Every visa officer today lives in fear that he will let in the next Mohamed Atta. As a result, he is probably keeping out the next Bill Gates.
Notice that they say nothing about the war in Iraq, which is probably the single biggest cause of America's diminished image abroad. No mention that George W. Bush and his supporters are ignorant of science and its intersection with economics. Not a word about how conservatives seem to think that American dominance is somehow ordained by God and therefore not susceptible to the workings of history.

Just more pious advice to an administration that, if nothing else, has proven over the past four years that they just don't care what their critics say. If the Post really wanted change, it would start rousing the Democrats in Congress (especially in the Senate) to fight, to ask tough questions every chance they get. The administration is not going to listen to anyone. And too much of the public will never blame them for their failures. The only thing that will effect change is a shift in the balance of power. That will take time, and it will take even more time if it doesn't start now, or at least soon. The Post is preaching to exactly the wrong choir. They should talk to people who will at least listen.

As for the crisis in US science and technology, this has been brewing for a generation. Millions of American kids are being actively shielded from a decent scientific education by ignoramuses who think God will smite them unless they hold their fingers in their ears and go "La la la, I'm not listening!" any time someone else tries to say the word "evolution" in their presence. Considering that George W. Bush himself doesn't appear to accept the indisputable fact that evolution happened, how can anyone expect him to be a tribune for reversing the decline in Americans pursuing science as a vocation? Another point the Post, in its namby-pamby "Please, oh please, listen to us" bleat to Condoleeza Rice, completely misses.

Twenty years from now, when we are a second-rate power, some Americans will scratch their heads and say, "Wha' hoppen?" One benefit of a scientific worldview is, it teaches you to predict consequences (you may be wrong, which is the entire point of doing things scientifically, to learn from your mistakes how and why you made them, so as to do better in the future). Americans who don't know anything about science are continually surprised when things go wrong - and utterly incapable of figuring out what went wrong and how. The rest of the world will happily leapfrog us, if we let them.

Monday, November 22, 2004

 

"Think about the children!"

From Digby:
I do have a couple of questions for Real America on this. If vast numbers of middle Americans are upset about the loose morals on television, how can we explain this:
Parents who own a TV set manufactured after January 1, 2000 have a blocking technology called a V-chip that can be programmed to screen out shows with TV ratings they deem inappropriate.

By 2001, 2 out of 5 parents (40%) owned a V-Chip TV set and 7% had used it to monitor their children’s TV viewing. Of all parents who have a V-Chip TV set, more than half (53%) don’t know it. Of all parents who know they have a V-Chip TV set, two-thirds know(64%) have chosen not to use it and one-third (36%) have used it.

The two most common reasons parents give for not using the V-Chip are that an adult is usually nearby when their children watch TV, and that they trust their children to make their own decisions.

Approximately one-third of parents with home Internet connections have installed blocking technology such as filtering software or Internet Service Provider (ISP) controls to prevent children from accessing objectionable material.
It sure sounds to me as if somebody's not taking personal responsibility for what their children are watching.

Unless, of course, this isn't about children at all. In which case this is really about a bunch of tightassed, busybodies sticking their noses where they don't belong because they want to control everybody's lives.

Welcome to Massachusetts, Red States. Massachusetts circa 1692, that is.
Actually, that's what it has always been about - just a club they can use to beat up anyone they decide they don't like. Whenever you hear someone publicly talk about "morals," check to make sure you still have your wallet.
 

"We say one thing and do another"

Guess it's time for the religious right to start policing what its own people watch on TV.
Many Who Voted for 'Values' Still Like Their Television Sin

By BILL CARTER

The results of the presidential election are still being parsed for what they say about the electorate's supposed closer embrace of traditional cultural values, but for the network television executives charged with finding programs that speak to tastes across the nation, one lesson is clear. The supposed cultural divide is more like a cultural mind meld.

In interviews, representatives of the four big broadcast networks as well as Hollywood production studios said the nightly television ratings bore little relation to the message apparently sent by a significant percentage of voters.

The choices of viewers, whether in Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, New York or Birmingham, Ala., are remarkably similar. And that means the election will have little impact on which shows they decide to put on television, these executives say.

It is possible that some secondary characters on new television shows will exhibit strong religious beliefs, and an occasional plotline may examine the impact of faith on some characters' lives. But with "Desperate Housewives" and "C.S.I." leading the ratings, television shows are far more likely to keep pumping from the deep well of murder, mayhem and sexual transgression than seek diversion along the straight and narrow path.

"It's entertainment versus politics," said Steve McPherson, the president of ABC Entertainment. He dismissed the notion that program creators might be developing ideas specifically to chase voters who claimed moral values as an important issue in this election. "I have not heard an idea of that kind," Mr. McPherson said, "none whatsoever."

So if it is true that the public's electoral choices are a cry for more morally driven programming, the network executives ask, why are so many people, even in the markets surrounding the Bush bastions Atlanta and Salt Lake City, watching a sex-drenched television drama?

"Desperate Housewives" on ABC is the big new hit of the television season, ranked second over all in the country, behind only "C.S.I." on CBS. This satire of suburbia and modern relationships features, among other morally challenged characters, a married woman in her 30's having an affair with a high-school-age gardener, and has prompted several advertisers, including Lowe's, to pull their advertisements.

"We say one thing and do another," said Kevin Reilly, the president of NBC Entertainment. "People compartmentalize about their lives and their entertainment choices."

The divide between what people accept as proper in public and what they choose to enjoy in their private lives is, unsurprisingly, nothing new in the history of the world or this country.

"When the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock left behind writing, it was William Bradford's, and you can clearly see what they believed in and what their values were," said Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University, referring to the colony's first governor. "Then you look at the court records and you see all kinds of fornication, adultery and bestiality."

Herbert J. Gans, professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of "Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste," said, "For some people it's a case of 'I am moral therefore I can watch the most immoral show.'"
That point was echoed by Gary Schneeberger, the senior manager of issues for Focus on the Family, an influential evangelical Protestant group that urged its supporters to vote on values. "History has shown that even people who could be described as values voters are prone to sinful behavior and watching representations of sinful behavior," Mr. Schneeberger said. "Is it shocking that people would be enticed by it? It's not shocking, but it is tragic."

He said he understood how some viewers might enjoy the murder-mystery aspects of "C.S.I.," the No. 1 show his group has assailed for its graphic depictions of violence, even though justice is served most weeks. But, he added, "is it worth having to go through all this garbage to solve a mystery?"

There have been successful series with religious overtones, like "Touched by an Angel."

But since that show went off CBS, the record is less impressive, said Leslie Moonves, the co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, which owns CBS and UPN. On the CBS show "Joan of Arcadia," God is a recurring character. But he is not pulling in the viewers, and that goes for almost all states.

If moral and religious values were truly what people most wanted to see depicted on television, Mr. Moonves said, "I guess we'd be seeing 'Joan of Arcadia' doing better than 'C.S.I.'" Mr. Moonves said his network had no plans to tinker with its shows. "As soon as you think of something that makes you start putting other things in a show, you change the nature of the show," he said.

Mr. Reilly of NBC, however, said, "I do think we tend to give short shrift to certain areas of the country."

"One of the things we're playing with is having characters with strong religious beliefs included in some of our new shows," Mr. Reilly added. "This would not be the premise of the show, but we could have a character who simply has this strong point of view."

And over at Fox, Preston Beckman, the executive vice president for program planning, said he had some advice, however marginal, for producers pitching the networks. "Make sure that a lot of them are at least located in red states," he said. "And give the characters a dog."
There have been plenty of shows set in the red states (Dukes of Hazzard, Grace Under Pressure, Reba, Dallas, etc.) But someone's watching Will and Grace, Friends, E.R., Law & Order, C.S.I., etc. If there really were a market for the kind of bland, "uplifting" stuff narrow-minded right-wing fools like Schneeberger wishes we would all consent to be satisfied with, PAX would be the number one rated network. Even that bastion of Christian moral values, Fox News Channel, is in serious trouble now that Scott Petersen has been found guilty.

To be honest, I don't care at all what people watch. (Although I have to say, I wish pro wrestling would just shut up.) And I'm hardly surprised that so-called "moral" people are hypocrites. After all, people who claim they believe in self-reliance and responsibility voted for a president who has never earned a damn thing he's received in his entire life and never taken responsibility for anything either. So why would it shock anyone that they pretend to be moral while watching filth and trash on TV?

Not that there's anything wrong with filth or trash...as long as it's well-made filth and trash.

Friday, November 19, 2004

 

Special extra bonus Friday Blog Blogging!

Can't resist this (I should know better than to read Corrente at the office):
It's kind of like donating your body to science...

And a chance to show some Christmas spirit!

From the other side of the pond:
Bakers of mince pies, Christmas puddings and other traditional British treats have been warned that they might be facing a lard-free Christmas this year. (via AP)
So, um, Rush? Are you up for it? Helping the Brits out with their shortage?
Good thing I didn't have anything in my mouth when I read this or I'd have done a spit-take...
 

Friday Blog Blogging

A site I try to read every day is Bob Harris. (He used to contribute to Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World before recently branching out on his own.)

Excellent, funny, sharp stuff. (And I'm citing him not just for his Friday Pudu Blogging! Although they are ridiculously cute.)

Attention Iran: We Are Sneaking Up On You... Very, Very Sneakily... Look How Sneaky We Are!

Wednesday, 17 November 2004

So. This USA Today story reveals that Porter Goss and his cronies are brilliant:

CIA plans riskier, more aggressive espionage

WASHINGTON — CIA Director Porter Goss told his new chief of spy operations this week to launch a much more aggressive espionage campaign that would use undercover officers to penetrate terrorist groups and hostile governments...

The new spy bosses apparently consider this spying so important that they're leaking it to the press. In advance. So everybody knows just how big a secret it is.
The risky new strategy would be a sharp departure from the CIA's traditional style of human intelligence...Those methods don't work with terror groups...
Or with Robert Novak and someone high up in the Bush administration, who in particular have damaged the Bush administration in the past.
The new strategy is dangerous — agents could gather much better information but would run a much higher risk of being killed if found out.
And yes, this really is the very next sentence -- wait for it, then compare to the one just before:
Goss hinted at this strategy during his confirmation hearing...
Naturally. We don't want to waste any time in telling North Korea how secretly we're secretly spying on them. Secretly.

When did Porter Goss turn into Elmer Fudd?

Shhh... be vewy, vewy, quiet... we ah hunting Iwanians...
Another great site is alicublog:
Sunday, November 14, 2004
CULTURE WARS CONT. The Liberty Film Festival, a place where right-wing filmmakers can show their product and perhaps work out some deals, should be an encouraging development for those of us who believe in the marketplace of ideas. One may imagine that most Hollywood product advances a conservative agenda -- i.e., worship of money, status, and easy answers -- and still welcome the contributions of strong-minded folks who believe themselves to be advancing fresh concepts. But from this Weekly Standard account, it sounds like another Republican pity party:
LIBERALS WHO FLOCKED to see Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 report that more than the film itself, they were exhilarated by the communal experience of sitting in an auditorium filled with likeminded people who all cheered and booed at the same things. So, too, but in reverse, at the Liberty Film Festival. Attendees loudly jeered whenever a liberal icon such as Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy appeared on-screen, and they energetically applauded every on-screen Republican. "It was thrilling to be in an audience that would applaud when Ed Meese was on the screen," said Douglas Urbanski, a prominent producer and talent manager who appeared on the panel with Breitbart.

"It was very emotional. I had women coming up to me with tears in their eyes," co-organizer Murty told me. "There is an enormous public out there who feel their views have been despised, who've had their patriotism ridiculed," Murty said. "It was such a relief for everybody to have other like-minded individuals to talk to."
Poor conservatives, getting no respect from people they despise! These guys seem more interested in razzing their political opposition (two anti-Michael Moore docs played the Festival) than in actual artistic achievement. I haven't seen these movies, but even the Standard's sympathetic reporter had difficulty praising them ("As for the films themselves, they often seemed an afterthought. Many of them approached their subject-matter from an almost purely rational standpoint, trying to reason with their audience rather than to move them").

By and large conservatives seem to be falling back on their traditional strategy of harshing on works of art made by others. At OpinionJournal, Meghan Cox Gurdon decries the attitude toward abortion in the Alfie remake and in Vera Drake. Though she ends with a prayer for intercession by Mel Gibson, clearly Gurdon doesn't hold out hope for any big anti-abortion epics in the near future. She just wants us to know that our moviemakers are advancing an abortionist agenda.

It may puzzle the rational mind that anyone could believe that a nation which so recently returned right-wing Republicans to power has been brainwashed into fetuscide by a couple of low-grossing movies, but culture warriors have ever been about the counter-intuitive. At the Washington Times, the amusingly-named Christian Toto tells us that Lenny Bruce isn't funny. Now, I have not heard the recent Bruce collection that Toto claims is his only experience of the celebrated comic, and it's possible that judging Bruce by this is like judging Jimi Hendrix by "Crash Landing." And funny is more a matter of taste than just about anything else. But generally if you're going to go out on a limb and tell people that, say, Mozart isn't really so musical, you have to make some kind of case. Toto mainly says that Bruce's "references are dated" and that he was a very bad man ("an opportunist... proclaims his martyrdom, then uses it for marketing purposes"), and that Bruce reminds him of Howard Stern, whom he also dislikes. The summation is that "shock" humor will not last, etc.

One might think this is just a tin-eared review, but Toto's a credentialed culture warrior. Along with WashTimes he writes for the right-wing Insight and The World & I, where he can be seen praising events for Zell Miller and the Media Research Center (Lenny Bruce isn't funny, apparently, but Brent Bozell is a riot), the values-centered and short-lived sitcom "Kristin" ("It's a sad statement that when a sitcom character doesn't lie, cheat or engage in raucous premarital sex, she is treated like a creature from another planet"), the "Singles with Scruples" dating site, and other such approved subjects. (He does turn in some pans, e.g. of Chris Rock, whose "political rants too often skew predictably liberal and lack the incisive bite of his best commentary.") Since the days when John Podhoretz did movie reviews for WashTimes with a little meter indicating how conservatively-correct was each film on offer, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's publication axis has empowered agreeable arts critics to spread the gospel, and we may reasonably read Toto's Bruce review as part of that effort.

They run everything, but as long as someone's making fun of them, even from the grave, they will never rest.
Wish I could write (and think) like these two. Check them out.
 

If all the poor people die of disease, who will wax the rich people's cars?

From Brad DeLong (after quoting Matt Yglesias):
Eliminating the deductibility of health insurance will, especially in combination with the president's plan for Health Savings Accounts, render the employer-based health care system unworkable, thus paving the road for socialism down the line. In the interim, no good will come of this. As a word of advice to the Democrats, it would be best not to just get stuck defending the status quo and getting labeled as "against tax reform" while hoping that the media sorts out the details of this complicated boondoggle. Far better to devise a progressive, revenue-neutral, tax reform counterproposal, hopefully before Bush's planned commission is done spinning its wheels.
It is interesting that the Bush administration appears to believe that one of our problems is that too many Americans have health insurance, and that we would be better off with more uninsured.
Obviously, they don't really think that. (I mean, even George W. Bush isn't that out-of-touch with reality - or evil - is he?) I think they want to destroy the idea of income tax along with any kind of tax on anything other than consumption, and in order to pay for it they are looking for something - anything - to get rid of. Health insurance is just one of those cookies in the jar.

And since they obviously have concluded that they can do anything they want without provoking outrage either from the press or from at least 51% of the voters, they might as well do whatever they want. Plus, they have concluded that when things go wrong, when the unintended (even if fully predictable - and predicted) negative consquences of their actions come to pass, nobody who counts (i.e., the press and at least 51% of the voters) will blame them for it.

In a world free of judgment, why not sin?
 

"How do you treat a friend's punctured lung?"

Keep in mind: She's one of the lucky ones. (Thanks to Matt Yglesias for this.)
A deadly dateline

Increasing dangers in Iraq make reporting the whole truth tough


BY HANNAH ALLAM, Knight Ridder Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq - My 26th birthday party was perfect.

Stars glittered over the Baghdad hotel where I blew out the candles on a cake decorated by my four closest Iraqi friends. We stayed up until the dawn call to prayer rang from a nearby mosque, telling stories and debating the future of a country I'd grown to cherish.

A year later, only one of those friends is still alive. The poolside patio where they sang "Happy Birthday" in Arabic is empty most days, because foreign guests are afraid of snipers and mortars. The hotel has become a prison, and every foray outside its fortified gates is tinged with anxiety about returning in one piece.

Baghdad has never been tougher for journalists. Treacherous roads and kidnapping squads restrict travel. "Embedding" with the military or going with Iraqi government officials is the safest way to leave the capital. Our ability to uncover and tell the truth about Iraq - good and bad - has suffered terribly.

At least 36 journalists have been killed covering this war. Everyone seems to know someone who's been taken hostage. We share our nightmares of terrorists cutting off our heads. Word of new abductions brings guilty relief: Thank God it wasn't me.

I first came to Baghdad in July 2003, sweltering days when electricity was scarce, but at least targets were clear: American troops were attacked; reporters just wrote about it. My stories from back then sound like a grim list of "firsts": the first big car bombing, the first hostage video, the first helicopter shot down, the first mosque raided.

Now we barely take note of those commonplace events. Satellite television soon arrived, beaming rap videos and Dr. Phil into our hotel rooms. Cell phones replaced crackling, unreliable satellite phones, and our jobs grew easier. We hadn't yet been introduced to a Jordanian militant named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, so we wrote stories about the horse track and American troops watching the Super Bowl.

Camaraderie among foreign correspondents eased the pressures of deadline and danger. We played poker with useless old dinars imprinted with Saddam Hussein's face. New restaurants opened, including a Chinese place with a karaoke bar. Even then, though, we avoided "Great Balls of Fire" on the song list.

Hopping in the car as the sun rose over the Tigris River, we felt like explorers. Mythical places became three-dimensional as we arrived in Babylon and Nineveh, Najaf and Karbala.

We thrilled at covering the most important story in the world. Unlike for many of my colleagues, Iraq is my first war zone. I still feel indescribably lucky to get so close to history as it happens: boarding a Black Hawk helicopter with the Iraqi prime minister, eating beans with Shiite Muslim rebels while they're being pounded by a U.S. airstrike, strolling through Saddam's old Republican Palace with its new American occupants.

Then there's Iraq's incredible diversity. We've met Kurdish wedding musicians trying out a new keyboard, marsh Arabs zipping by on narrow boats, Iranian pilgrims ecstatic in ornate shrines, foreign guerrillas hiding among lush orchards, oil smugglers sweating at southern ports.

This, I thought, is the Iraq I want to show our readers.

It's hard to say when it changed. By last autumn, insurgents had improved their bomb-making skills and organized themselves into sophisticated cells. Reporters waded into an alphabet soup of military terminology: VBIED, vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. PSD, personal security detail.

The CPA, or U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, was derided as Can't Produce Anything. In a matter of months, the AO - area of operations - was unstable.

The pace and scope of attacks grew exponentially. Targets came to include foreign journalists and the Iraqis working with them. Two of the Iraqi friends at my birthday party were shot to death at point-blank range as they drove home one spring night.

Two weeks later, American soldiers opened fire on the third friend, an Iraqi television reporter who was speeding to the scene of a mortar attack. His last gasps were broadcast on live TV. I couldn't work for weeks.

The fourth friend fled Iraq after receiving death threats.

So far, we've been lucky at Knight Ridder in escaping death or serious injury. Our American and Iraqi correspondents have been shot at countless times, attacked by knife-wielding rebels and bruised by stones lobbed from angry mobs. They've been trampled by riotous demonstrators, arrested by a renegade police force, taken hostage by militiamen and burned by red-hot shrapnel.

After one bombing, a young boy shoved a severed hand in my face. Another time, I used a tissue to pick shreds of human flesh off my shoes after covering a car bombing. Gagging, I gave up and pushed the sneakers deep into the trash.

As the close calls grew, the Iraq we knew shrank. The northern mountains and southern marshes are off-limits now because the roads out of Baghdad are lined with bombs and gunmen. Even a jaunt to the grocery store is a meticulously planned affair. Do you have a radio? A flak vest? A second car to watch for kidnappers?

Some of my colleagues have left, their blond hair and pale skin too inviting for militants out hunting foreigners. Other reporters plan to move inside the Green Zone, the American compound that "protects" you from the people you came to cover. Instead of gathering for card games, journalists meet to brainstorm ways to free kidnapped colleagues and trade the latest threat reports.

We rely more on our Iraqi staff members, courageous friends whose brown faces and local accents allow them to navigate the world outside the hotel walls. Many fledgling Iraqi correspondents have blossomed into excellent reporters and probably will remain in this nation's media long after the Western news corps has moved on. Maybe that's our contribution to rebuilding Iraq.

We added first-aid demonstrations to our morning planning meetings. After talk about an election story, for example, it's quiz time. How do you treat a friend's punctured lung? (Answer: Pierce the chest with a ballpoint pen.)

We rolled blast film across our windows, obscuring the view of Baghdad's minaret-speckled skyline. It keeps glass from shattering during a bombing. The fitness-conscious don heavy body armor and run up and down the hotel stairs for exercise. Soccer games and jogs along the Tigris are off-limits.

Knight Ridder hired a British security adviser who promptly walled off our floor with a security gate nicknamed "The Cage." He gives the staff daily safety reports and we impatiently cut him off before his trademark ending. We know, we know: "The threat level just can't get any higher."

My mother begs me to come home. Her Oklahoma accent sounds foreign from so far away as she tries to persuade me: "Darlin', there's not another thing in the world you can do over there. ... Enough is enough. ... There is no honor in having your head chopped off, no honor in dyin' that way."

But it feels too early to leave. American soldiers - 138,000 of them - are still here. There are 26 million Iraqis desperately seeking security and elected leaders. A brutal dictator is awaiting trial. There are still so many stories to be told.

I just turned 27. With the war still raging and the heartbreaking absence of my four Iraqi friends, there seemed little to celebrate. Still, several journalist colleagues sent me inspirational messages laced with the gallows humor of our trade.

One wrote: "Keep your head up - and on."

I'll try.

(Allam is Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers.)
Remember that Allam can leave any time she likes. Even though her remaining friend left, most Iraqis can't. Even those who can are choosing exile over death.

This is the "liberation" we've brought Iraq. I don't see how anyone can argue that things are better there now than before we invaded. Even if you want to persuade yourself that there's a chance things may get better next year - we finally bring the start of real security, the elections actually go off as planned and produce some kind of stable government, reconstruction takes off, jobs are created, etc. - there is no excuse for the horrible job we have done the past 18 months. None. We went in with no plan, not enough troops, corruption and incompetence in issuing contracts for reconstruction, no supervision of spending - that we may, just possibly, in the future, not fuck up quite so much does not justify what we have done.

There were no WMDs - and Bush knew it - there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 - and Bush knew it - how can we justify having gone in to free the Iraqis when we did no such thing? Who wants to be the last American to kill an innocent Iraqi for George W. Bush's imperial dream?

 

And what a great ape it is

With luck, high school science students in Alabama, Kansas, etc., may someday even get to hear about this.
Fossils Found in Spain Seen as Last Link to Great Apes

By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD

Scientists in Spain have discovered fossils of an ape species from about 13 million years ago that they think may have been the last common ancestor of all living great apes, including humans.

The new ape species and its possible place in prehuman evolution are described in today's issue of the journal Science by a research team led by Dr. Salvador Moyà-Solà of the Miquel Crusafont Institute of Paleontology in Barcelona. The fossil remains were found near Barcelona and named Pierolapithecus catalaunicus.

In the report, the researchers concluded that the well-preserved skull, teeth and skeletal bones promised "to contribute substantially to our understanding of the origin of extant great apes and humans."

Dr. David R. Begun, a paleontologist at the University of Toronto who is familiar with the research but not a member of the team, called the fossils "a great discovery," adding, "I am convinced it is a great ape."

About 25 million years ago, Old World monkeys diverged from the primate line that led eventually to apes and humans. About 11 million to 16 million years ago, another branching occurred, when primates known as the great apes - which now include orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and humans - split from the lesser apes, represented by today's gibbons and siamangs.

Although the great ape group includes humans, Dr. Brooks Hanson, deputy editor for physical sciences at Science, said, "it's important to remember that we've had millions of years of evolution since then."

The lineage leading to humans branched off from the chimpanzee line an estimated seven million years ago.

The scarcity of fossils from those periods has handicapped scientists searching for evidence of the common ancestors of great apes that emerged after the split between them and the lesser apes. Some candidates for that role have included Kenyapithecus and Afropithecus, but Dr. Moyà-Solà said their fossils appeared to be too primitive to be the common ancestor.

Dr. Moyà-Solà's team said the overall pattern of their fossil skeleton suggested that the species was either the last common ancestor of great apes and humans, or close to it.

Dr. Begun said some aspects of the specimen's face, palate and teeth made him think that the species was perhaps a little farther down the evolutionary line of great apes than the common ancestor, but was a significant find, nonetheless.

The newly discovered individual, probably a male, weighed about 75 pounds and had a stiff lower spine and flexible wrists that would have made it a tree-climbing specialist. The researchers said its arboreal abilities were more similar to those of later great apes than to the more primitive monkeys.

The Pierolapithecus rib cage, or thorax, is wider and flatter than a monkey rib cage and similar to that of modern great apes, Dr. Moyà-Solà said.

"The thorax is the most important anatomical part of this fossil, because it's the first time that the modern great-apelike thorax has been found in the fossil record," Dr. Moyà-Solà said in a statement by the journal.

In a conference call from Barcelona on Wednesday, another member of the research team, Dr. Meike Köhler of the Barcelona institute, said the Pierolapithecus probably ate fruit, judging by its teeth, and had a flat face and wide nose somewhat like a chimpanzee's.

The age of the fossil species, between 12.5 million and 13 million years, "coincides quite well with ages for the common ancestor proposed by geneticists," Dr. Köhler said.

In their report, the researchers noted that the skeleton showed that those early great apes "retained primitive monkeylike characters" and thus did not seem to support "the theoretical model that predicts that all characters shared by extant great apes were present in their last common ancestor."

Finding the ancestral ape in Spain, and not Africa, posed no problem for scientists. The Mediterranean Sea expanded and contracted frequently in the past, permitting the dispersal of life between Africa and Europe. The Pierolapithecus, paleontologists said, probably lived on both continents.
I am a religious Jew, but not a hidebound one. I do not read the Torah as a science textbook. When it says that G-d made us in His image, I take that to be a description of our moral status, as G-d has no physical form! And I take our messianic longing for Moshiach to be a description of our moral evolution toward the more perfect form G-d wants us to attain through our own efforts.

Therefore, I do not feel my religious faith to be in the least bit threatened by the understanding that we are also, as a species, and indeed as all species, evolving physically from earlier forms, no longer extant, to the current proliferation of species of all kinds all over the Earth.

For one thing, anyone with an open mind must admit that evolution happened. Those who dismiss evolution as "merely a theory" expose their own ignorance; obviously, in scientific parlance "theory" is a technical term meaning a detailed explanation accounting for all the observed facts. It is not simply a guess, as in "You got your theory and I got mine."

When science contradicts Scripture, the latter must give way, either now or eventually. It always has. Those who seek to compel the science to conform to their reading of Scripture traduce both. The late Steven Jay Gould's awkward concept, "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA), is simply a way of saying that science and faith are not necessarily in conflict.

I must admit, I genuinely do not understand the mindset of someone for whom the Biblical account in Genesis must be the literal truth. (That includes ultra-Orthodox Jews, as well.) The current controversy over the National Park Service selling a Creationist tract in the Grand Canyon gift shop frustrates me, as it is not merely a question of someone's right to their belief. Yes, yes, they can believe nonsense if they want. But A) they can't impose their nonsense on everyone else (and yes, no one is forced to buy or read that tract).

Alsi (and more importantly), B) actions have consequences. Anyone who rejects evolution is also, whether they realize it or not, rejecting genetics (how do they think evolution works)? They are rejecting geology and cosmology and ecology and pretty much the entire foundation of science and technology. High school students from states that insist on teaching Creationism or "Intelligent Design" or any other such crap alongside real science are being done a major disservice. How can any college or university they apply to judge their high school science class grades with any confidence? How can they themselves prepare for AP science classes, how can they prepare for college science coursework, how can they expect to go to med school if their entire preparation is based on a lie?

Faith does not tell us what happened to the physical history of our universe and our planet. It can't. It's not supposed to. I'm not a theologian; I'm a historian and a scientist. I'm also a human being humbled by the fact that we are an indivisible part of the history of Earth, not some creation imposed on it and therefore not inextricably bound to its fate. The Biblical tale of Creation is to me an allegory for G-d's concern that we live up to His commandments because He created us and therefore, in a sense, owns us. That faith is in no way lessened by my realization that the actual creation did not happen as it is presented in Genesis. I can hold both concepts in my mind and not be bothered that they don't tell the same tale.

I read the bimonthly Free Inquiry (sort of a Readers Digest for atheists) and fully subscribe to their critique of anti-rational religions. However, I do not feel that religion must be anti-rational, and I certainly do not think that Judaism, properly understood and practiced, is in any way antithetical to a scientific worldview. A lot of scientists and doctors are Jews, of course, and not all of them are fully secular Jews. Judaism reveres study and truth, Judaism believes that humanity is G-d's partner in creation, and that exploring and understanding the natural world is part of that partnership. That some ultra-Orthodox Jews believe, as do too many conservative Christians, that the universe is less than 7000 years old, is unfortunate. At least, when it comes to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, it is also irrelevant, since such Jews withdraw from most contact with the surround culture rather than seeking to impose their beliefs on it. Would that the anti-rational Christians would do the same thing.

The final consequence of rejecting science is that it leads to cultural and economic stagnation. At least some of the turmoil in the Islamic world, especially the Arab region, can be traced to the utter bankruptcy of science and education in those areas. Without people trained to be open-minded, to follow where scientific inquiry leads them rather than ordain the answers in advance and reject anything not prescribed by orthodoxy, they have languished in ignorance and poverty. For all that the Christian Right in America thinks that its moralizing will lead G-d to bless us for our piety and fealty, in reality they would, if permitted to force us down their chosen path, condemn us to the kind of squalor and misery that Islam has suffered since the collapse of their own medieval golden age.

America has been great because it has been truly free. That was G-d's blessing to us. In a sense, America has been great because it has been good to its Jews. Not in any direct sense, of course, but the openness that permitted the Jews to thrive and flourish here like almost nowhere else in human history (interesting, isn't it, that the Islamic world thrived when it, too, was at least relatively good to its Jewish subjects - and began to shrivel when it turned insular and narrow-minded) also was conducive to science and technology and free inquiry and entrepreneurship. Stifle all of that, even in the name of some supposedly superior morals, and you'll get Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. I'm sure that's not what the Christian Right wants, whatever it thinks it wants - but that's the danger they're running. For them and, alas, for the rest of us.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

 

Why does Charles Grassley hate Jesus?

I guess Grassley hasn't yet gotten the memo about how Bush only wants yes-men and sycophants running the world from now on. The Senate is supposed to rubber-stamp whatever Bush eventually decides he wants to do, not think for itself (and certainly not offer unsolicited - or any other kind - advice).
Tax-law rewrite has key skeptic

By Peronet Despeignes, USA TODAY

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said comprehensive tax reform would be "difficult" to do. "I'm not one to spend a lot of time tilting at windmills," he said.

Grassley said Bush would have to aggressively use his "bully pulpit" to win wider popular support. After the election, Bush said he had earned "political capital, and now I intend to spend it" by pushing for changes in the tax code and Social Security (news - web sites), among other things. But Grassley said, "I'm not sure how much political capital (the president) is prepared to spend on it."

Grassley's view is important because all tax bills go through his committee. In an interview with USA TODAY, he said Bush made a mistake by not talking about tax reform more often and more explicitly in the campaign. "I think there was a missed opportunity," he said.

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said Bush "talked daily during the campaign about the importance of making the tax code simpler, fairer and more conducive to economic growth, and he looks forward to working with Congress on this priority."

Bush has called for simplifying the tax code in a "neutral" way that would not significantly raise or reduce tax revenue. That could make changes tougher, because any big tax cuts for some would have to be paid for with increases for others, creating winners and losers. The White House is assembling a bipartisan panel that's expected to make recommendations before Bush settles on a specific proposal next year. Among his options is the replacement of the progressive income tax with a single, "flat" income tax rate or retail sales tax.

Grassley suggested that he favors more incremental changes: making the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent, closing loopholes, shielding middle-income Americans from tax increases, and reducing the tax burden on savings and investment.
Grassley was last seen borrowing Arlen Specter's "The Devil Made Me Do It" scourge-and-flail set, and staffers reported hearing whipping sounds along with moans of pain and cries for forgiveness emanating from inside his locked Senate office.
 

The New York Public Library on the comeback!

At least the news isn't all bad!
Public Library to Expand Hours and Services, and Restructure Branches

By EDWARD WYATT

The New York Public Library, forced to cut services after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hobbled the city's economy, is preparing to expand its hours and services and to restructure itself to coordinate the neighborhood branches more closely with the library's central operations.

As part of the changes, the library's landmark building, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, will adopt a six-day schedule next month, opening on Sundays for the first time since 1970, library officials said yesterday.

In addition, the library will lengthen operating hours at nearly half its 85 neighborhood branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island beginning next month, adding one to four hours a week, mostly in the mornings, when demand is highest. Assuming the city does not cut financing unexpectedly, a sixth day of service will be restored at 14 additional branches early next year, the officials said. The changes do not affect libraries in Queens and Brooklyn, which operate independently. The money for the expanded hours comes from recent additions to the library's budget from New York City.

The library also announced yesterday that it received $25 million, its largest single-party donation, from Robert W. Wilson, the financier and philanthropist, who is a former chairman of the New York City Opera. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave another $5 million.

The additional hours restore some but not all of the cuts in service caused by reductions in the city's budget after the terrorist attacks in 2001. They also represent an expansion of operations being planned by Paul LeClerc, president of the library, and Catherine C. Marron, who yesterday was appointed chairwoman of the library, succeeding Samuel C. Butler.

"We had a serious situation after 9/11," Mrs. Marron said in an interview. "But we are changing to fit the needs of the public." Mrs. Marron, 48, a former investment banker who has served on the library's board since 1993, recently led an effort that raised $18 million in less than three years to buy books and materials for the branches.

About $8 million of the $25 million from Mr. Wilson would support the cataloging of collections that have been unprocessed and inaccessible to researchers at the Library for the Performing Arts, the research branch at Lincoln Center. The other $17 million would pay for materials and technology and preserve existing collections at all the research libraries, including the Schomburg Center, the Science, Industry and Business Library in Midtown and the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, at the main building. The Mellon grant would also support acquisitions and the operating budget of the research libraries.
I spent many hours while in college and grad school doing research at the NYPL's Slavonic Research division, a dusty reading room whose unique musty atmosphere I can still call up in my mind's nostrils (with all due respect to Hamlet), and as a teenager I hung around a lot at the Library for the Performing Arts. The New York Public is one of the world's truly great treasures, and I am delighted to see it start to make a long-awaited and much-deserved recovery. I only hope this is not a false dawn but a permanent improvement.

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