Friday, February 29, 2008

Ah, spring

As someone--maybe me, I no longer remember--once said, news means paying attention to the boring because it's important, and sports means paying attention to the unimportant because it's exciting.

Do you realize that they are already playing Spring Training games?

Every year around this time, anyone and everyone who writes about sports seems to feel compelled to put forth his or her annual paean to the glories of the game of baseball in terms both philosophical and poetic. OK, been there, done that (check "In Spring, A Young Man's Fancy Lightly Turns" from The Sinister First Baseman & Other Observations), and don't feel a need to repeat it.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Spring Training is that teams actually base roster decisions on what they see there. Amazing. A man spends months and years playing the game at the professional level, typically after some years at an academic level, all of which results are neatly recorded and available for inspection, in an activity in which experience has taught in an unsubtle manner that the leopard changeth not his spots, and these clowns decide who will play--at least for a few roster opening--on a few hours of performance. No wonder the handful of teams that know better typically run away with everything.

For all the things that the people who own and run baseball try to do to ruin the sport, it is so naturally delightful that they can never quite manage to do it in. I suppose that now that baseball scoring is approaching parity with football scoring, the next goal will be to approach parity with basketball scoring. It never seems to dawn on these dunces that there is clearly such a thing as an optimum score.

Score totals in baseball ought to be such that on the one hand, the observer does not spend most of the game waiting to see if there is going to be a run or two scored, but also does not yawn when two or three runs score, on the theory that there's always more where that came from. Runs, that is, should be scarce enough to be individually treasured without being actually rare.

What that translates to in numbers is to some extent subjective, but by no means wholly so. My sense is that a combined runs total between the two teams--speaking always of the average per game--needs to be no less than 6 and no more than 10; I myself feel that 7 or 8 is about right. (That means scores like 5-3 or 4-3 or 6-2--scores in which, as a rule, even the losing team in the bottom of the ninth is not comically without hope.) Naturally, if that's the average, we will still see 1-0 and 12-9 games, but they will be outliers, just enough of each to satisfy, on an occasional basis, our desire for a real pitchers' duel, or a real sock-em blowout.

And that is a matter easily controlled, merely by specifying more exactly the resilience of the actual baseball itself. It could easily be implemented with the stroke of a pen. But it will not be.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Now we know

It was an interesting question: which would be a more troublesome matter, a presidential candidate who is black or one who is female? The flavor of even the major media's coverage makes it clear--a man, be he white, black, brown, green, or purple--is clearly more acceptable than a woman.

The MSM ("mainstream media" if your not a blogaholic) seem to really, really write off Hillary Clinton as done and over without the tiresome bother and fuss of primaries and conventions. Get the damn broad outta here so we good ol' boys can get back to business as usual. MSNBC is perhaps at the head of the pack here (well, maybe Fox--I wouldn't know as I don't pollute my eyes with it), but they're all, print, broadcast, and web, pretty much running that way.

The rest of the world has been paying attention not so much because a black man is in the race as because a woman is. Everywhere else in the first world, women national leaders are not news, so it is, if we may put it this way, news that it is news in the U.S.

Well, Ms. Clinton is a ways yet from being out of it. It is said that even Mr. Obama's own campaign is, right now, seeing her winning both of The Big Two still coming, Ohio and Texas.

I hope so. Mr. Obama is clearly a bright and well-intentioned fellow, but he has a lot of dues yet to pay before he is ready for the #1 job (and his health-care "plan" is one evidence of that).

We shall see . . .

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Still plugging away . . .

. . . at The Induction Site re-do.

All I will note today is a silly headline relating to the Congress asking DoJ to investigate Roger Clemens: Baseball continues to lose its credibility.

No, whatever jerk editor wrote that, that should read: Congress continues to lose its credibility. (Although, in fairness, the editor may have thought that since Congress has no credibility left, that would be a perplexing lead.)

(Side note: writers, and columnists, write story text: editors write the headlines for them.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

And don't hold back

I have been immensely busy with updates to The Induction Site (about cooking with induction, which is the only way to cook), and "immensely" is putting it mildly; I even skipped yesterday's entry here, not something I do much (either the first or second time, I forget, since I started).

All I have time for today is to take note of Ralph Nader's stupendous gall in running yet again.

Will somebody please take this creature out back of the barn and beat the crap out of him? Slapping is too gentle for this thing.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bless 'em all

All the tiny little minds at Amazon's programming corps, that is.

As an Amazon "Associate", offering books and sometimes other things from Amazon on most of my web sites, I have to create software to deal with Amazon's database-search interface. I have been doing that, on and off, for many years now. It never gets any easier.

Is it so hard these days to find competent programmers?

The folk at Amazon seems convinced that the idea of system design is to make the programmers' jobs easier, and the blazes with users' abilities to make use of the output.

Anyway, that's why I have no time today for a real post--I'm trying to catch up with their latest snafus.

Maybe tomorrow, or may be not . . . .

Friday, February 22, 2008

Grinding it out--or off

As of today, I have lost 15 pounds since the start of the year. That would be more exciting were it not that that's only the half-way point toward my goal. Moreover, that goal would still leave me, by my reckoning, about 7 or 8 pounds over my ideal weight.

I can, it seems, reliably lose about 2 pounds a week over the long run, by maintaining a pretty strict 1,200 calories a day. That implies that I burn about 2,300 or 2,400 calories a day, which is the same result I have had in the past, and which fits most guidelines.

It is remarkable how well someone like me, who loves to eat, can manage on 1,200 calories. It's not fun or easy, but it's by no means a daily nightmare, either. I'd try even fewer calories, but from what I've read, below about 1,200 and the body goes into a sort of "starvation defense" mode, in which it makes much more efficient use of food energy, so that dieting at that level (but short of starvation) becomes counter-productive.

My typical intake is almost disgustingly healthy (I am a long-time vegetarian anyway, which helps a lot). I get my protein, either as cottage cheese (which goes very nicely on a large, well-dressed green salad, as opposed to the usual disgusting single, wilted dry leaf of lettuce) or as one or another of the soy-derived "veggie-burger" type products; I get my modest amount of monosaturated fat from the salad dressing; carbos are not a major requirement; and we have long taken a carefully examined and computed set of vitamin and mineral supplements. And I have a "fiber bar" for dessert, which gives me, yes, fiber, and is also mighty tasty. Plus I have the recommended glass of red wine (and it ain't Annie Greensprings).

It's remarkable how much myth and nonsense there is out there about losing weight and about nutrition. Losing weight is simple physics and chemistry: if you take in more food energy (measured in calories) than you burn up in activity, the excess is stored as fat; if you take in less, the deficit is obtained by burning existing stored fat. It's that simple: when calories in = calories out, your weight is stable. But people simply do not want to believe anything that easy: they want to eat multiple banana splits and still lose weight, so they seek out the hucksters only too pleased to take their money for this or that "magic" method of losing weight without any least discomfort. Pfui. In this case, no pain, no loss. (Though, as I have said, the "pain" can be pretty modest.)

When I look about me at the average citizen (and I live is an especially fat part of the world), I am often struck with how hard these folk must be working at eating to maintain the monstrous tubs they push around all day. I felt grotesque being almost 40 pounds over what I feel is my right weight, but I was as a reed compared to the average hereabouts (and, by and large, nationally). How do they do it?

It's ironic. We evolved in an environment in which we needed to spend a lot of calories just staying alive, and efficiency in converting food energy to bodily energy was a definite evolutionary plus. Today we have appetites and metabolisms suited to eating--and burning--maybe seven or eight thousand calories a day, and sedentary lifestyles that burn up 1,500 to 2,500 a day, and that may be above average. The people who avoid overweight without even trying are those who, not so many generations ago, would have starved to death. T'ain't fair.

As to nutrition, most Americans seem to not do very well at it, because they like convenience foods, and that phrase is oxymoronic: the more "convenient" a stuff is, the less like "food" it is. Not that lots and lots of excellent real food is necessarily a nuisance or chore to cook--but these things are relative. To all too many, opening a pull-tab package or tin is already more "work" than they care to go through. That's why so many people who are straining to make ends meet in their household still eat out for a substantial fraction of their meals--not just lunch at work, but dinner for the family, and, often, even breakfast. I suppose parking their asses in a cheesy fast-food outlet's booth is still harder "work" than they care for, but it beats opening boxes, huh?

Sad to say, though, if we are obliged to hold our average calorie intake down to avoid ballooning, we are not going to easily be able to get all the nutrients we need. Some of them, such as Vitamin D, we couldn't get no matter our diets. So we have to study up on what we really need, estimate what our normal eating gives us, and take supplements for the rest.

That is no easy task. First, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation around concerning just about every nutrient (and some "quasi-nutrients") that anyone has ever dreamt of. Second, many important nutrients interact, so that increasing your intake of X means you need a different amount of Y (the many B vitamins especially interact in that way--you can create a mild deficiency in some by OD'ing on some others, which--because they're the ones cheap to make or extract--tend to dominate "multi-vitamin" pills).

Well, enough for now. My dinner is ready.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Yeah, and . . . ?

So The New York Times reports that John McCain may have had an affair. That is not, or should not be (as we learned to our disgust in the Clinton administration), news, in the sense of anything the public either needs to or should know.

What is news, in that same sense, is the extent to which Crusader Rabbit has been figuratively, not literally, in bed with lobbyists while simultaneously bad-mouthing them as the domestic Evil Empire.

Howard Dean (who would have made a great President) has some pithy remarks to offer on the subject; slightly less partisan but equally cutting are Joe Conason's in Salon.

Heaven save us from such "purity" as McCain's.

Meanwhile, in a classic too-little/too-late, others are beginning to wonder aloud whether Barack "let's sing Kumbaya" Obama has what's needed to take on the inevitable filthy right-wing smear campaigns that would assuredly dog a candidacy and, if it comes to that, presidency. Hillary Clinton is hanging on Texas and Ohio, and let's just hope it's not too late, that some artificial sense of "inevitability" has not become attached to the Obama candidacy.

Y'know, it's a stinking shame, really. Here is this fine man, honest, intelligent, clearly well-meaning and determined, and he is just in the right place at the wrong time. If either this were a time for simply licking our wounds and reassembling our national priorities (as it was in Gerald Ford's brief day), or if Mr. Obama were just able to step through a time machine and acquire the savvy and toughness that only experience in fighting hard fights against dirty scum (I mean, name one hard fight this man has had so far in his career--and this primary campaign does not count as "hard"), that would be another matter. But as things are, Mrs. Clinton is what the nation needs right now.

Well, right now it's too early to say what the latest debate may or may not have done for either Democrat, but the early thinking on the McCain thing is that it is definitely not good news. With so many Republicans already feeling (however illogically) that they would need to hold their noses to vote for such a "liberal" Republican (hey, it's their idea, not mine), many may just write it off and stay home (a phrase that is rapidly becoming obsolete with mail-in voting) on Election Day.

Sleep tight.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

At last

At last, indeed: we have normal electricity service. We're out a couple of thousand already, and we haven't got the bill yet from the backhoe sub. What joy.

Anyway . . . .

Since I had to roll out so early (for me, anyway) this morning to deal with the electrician and the backhoe guy, I am sleeping on my feet (or in my chair, anyway). Thus, once again, a really short entry.

The horse-race pundits are amusing, as always. Read one bunch, and you see it's impossible for Clinton to win; read another bunch, and you see it's impossible for Obama to win. Let me give you all a clue: one of those two sets of fools is wrong.

It looks crystal-clear at this point that neither candidate is likely to come into the Convention with enough "pledged" delegates (the ones the primaries and caucuses select) to be the clear nominee. Thus, barring a medium-to-large miracle, it's going to come down to the automatic delegates, aka "super delegates" (though there's not much super about any of them).

If one candidate or the other has a marked lead, even if short of the needed minimum on pledged delegates alone, most likely the automatics will swing to her or him. But if the difference is small enough (as it is likely to be) that only spinmeisters could call it material, then the fun starts. It's anyone's guess, but in that case were I a betting man I'd bet on Clinton. I suspect the party elders will feel more comfortable going into the general election with a candidate who has political assets beyond a convincing and exciting ability to chant "Kumbaya".

We shall see.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

It costs nothing but money

So the electrician (see yesterday's entry) was unable to simply pull the defective power-line wire through the undergound conduit for the simple reason that there isn't any: the cable was simply buried.

That is legal, and the cable technically is able to withstand being buried, but--self-evidently--it doesn't fare well over the long term without being protected from rodents, moisture, and who knows what-all else by an encasing conduit. So we'll have to have a backhoe over, and spotters from the telephone comapny to tell us where their lines to our house lie, and then a dig and a conduit placement and finally more backhoe work.

What this will all cost frightens me: the cable wire itself is probably close to half a thousand, going at near to $4 a foot. And it should not have been necessary. We thought we had specified conduit, but when I look back at the actual specifications for the house, I find:

2.2.3 Electricity Capacity. The secondary-service lines shall be capable of supplying a minimum of 200-ampere service to the building site, but conduit suitable for a second 200-ampere line shall be included in the trench as a reserve against future expansion; the house panel, as described 8.1.2 below, shall be 200-ampere service.

2.7 Pipes And Conduits

2.7.2 Trenching--Specific Main Electricity-Supply Conduit. You shall bring the house electrical line from the nearest power pole to the house by underground supply. The trenching and conduit shall be as required by code and the local electric utility company for such undergrounding.
While at first glance that seems to demand that the buried service be placed in conduit, I see that a weasel could easily claim that the phrase "as required by code and the local electric utility company" could in principle be read as excusing bare cable if Code doesn't actually mandate it, regardless of clear the implication of the rest of the text seems to be. And believe me, the contractor who worked on that phase of the house was the very thing whose picture they put in dictionaries to illustrate the word "weasel".

Another one for the lawyers to contemplate. Sigh . . . .

Meanwhile, we were again without power for some while today, as the electrician did what he could, and ran a temporary of heavier cable for us, so we can at least function normally (till tomorrow, when construction work begins anew). That leaves me a long ways behind on many things, so this ends this chapter as as the world whirls.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Monday, aarghh

So, feeling under the weather, I try to sleep in a bit today. Hah! It's Monday, fool!

Half of our incoming power is down. For those unacquainted with electrical matters, the supply to a residence is typically three wires; one is ground or neutral, while the other two are each about 120 volts with respect to that ground/neutral. But the power company cleverly sets the "phase" of the two hot lines (they're AC, alternating current, which means that the voltage vaires in a sine-wave form 60 times a second) are opposed, such that there is a 240-volt difference between them.

Items that run on 120 volts--lights, wall plugs, minor appliances--are wired as one hot and the neutral; the load is more or less shared (by the way the installing electrician wires up the main board) between the two hot lines. Heavy-duty appliances (such as electric stoves or ovens, air conditioners) run on 220 volts, which is wired as the two hot wires.

Well, somehow one of the two hot legs from the power pole to our house gave out. Apparently the break is in the buried conduit, which makes it more fun yet. So for a good while today, we have had only partial electrical service, meaning some lights and some wall plugs. Our water-pressure pump (we are on a well) wasn't running, meaning no running water, nor was our cooktop or oven available.

We have had an electrician in, and we now have a temporary run, meaning we can use most things; but, because he didn't have a sufficiency of really heavy-gauge wire on his truck, we are a little limited. We have turned off the hot-water heater, and believe (or hope) that that is enough to keep the load manageable even if we are cooking something when the water-pressure pump (3 HP) cycles on.

As a TV character once said, "This is not fun; I've had fun, and this is not it."

A couple of brief notes.

The Washington State primary, which is wholly meaningless to Democrats (all Washington delegates were selected by caucus) and nearly so to Republicans, is still expected to turn out at least 6 times the vote that the caucuses did. I repeat, and will continue to repeat: caucuses are a horrible way to select candidates.

Here's a shocker: people without good medical insurance are grossly underdiagnosed for cancer, and large numbers of them die needlessly, in terrible, protracted agony, because the condition wasn't diagnosed at a stage where treatment could have helped. Gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling about medical insurance, doesn't it? We are the unhealthiest "first-world" nation in the world, yet we pay more per capita for such lousy health insurance as we have than most or all other first-world nations. Think about it.

As I and almost everybody keeps saying, the next president is going to have a historically monumental number of serious problems to deal with, all created by the monsters who have run things for the past two administrations. Here's a modest list of just the foreign-policy matters needing major attention.

And the title of this Scientific American article says a lot: "Many States Elect Not to Use Flawed E-Voting Technology".

Am I the only one getting awfully tired of George "I saved Ireland" Mitchell's endless claims of saving Ireland, because Mr. "Saved ireland" a) didn't save Ireland, and b) had he, would still have made a mockery of sense and fairness with his baseball "report"? Mitchell and Ireland get tied more often than Giuliani and 9/11, and that's saying something.

Good night and good luck.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Genre fiction and the mainstream

A complaint often heard in speculative-fiction circles is that it is (as Harlan Ellison, I believe, first called it) a ghetto. Mainstream readers and critics are condescending and arrogant when they notice the work at all. In the rare event that they run across something that they have to consider good work, they contort themselves into pretzels to explain how and why it isn't "really" science fiction or fantasy.

That is all too well known to need much further comment. But what I think sometimes gets overlooked is the reverse phenomenon: the extent to which speculative-fiction readers, at least the more literate ones who are beyond exploding spaceships, cheat themselves out of some mighty fine reading by not paying attention to "mainstream" work that is, in plain fact, speculative.

I am reminded of this by the novel I am currently reading, The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. Do a Google for that title and "review" and see what you get: The New York Times, the Village Voice, Salon, Au Currant [sic], CNN, even Entertainment Weekly, and a further assortment, as deep as you care to go down the list, of establishment "mainstream" venues. Not one speculative-fiction venue, though, not one. And a backup cross-check of the top three sites that come up under a Google for <science fiction fantasy> shows not one mention of Ms. Davis or her works.

Yet, as she herself has put it,

I’m interested in the plight of a character embarked on a journey through an utterly unfamiliar (and frequently fantastic) landscape…. The quest itself has never interested me as much as the chance to describe that other world.
And she does that, remarkably well, in smooth, lucid, often pungently clever prose. I'm not sure I can remember the last author who impressed me nearly as much with her ability to capture the essence of a person--major character or minor--in one dead-on zap of a sentence.

Ms. Davis has by now a roll call of six novels, all but one of which have a fantasy element. The fantastic does not, in most, dominate (which is curious in a tale in which a child can raise the dead), but it's there and it matters.

But my point here is not to single out and promote Ms. Davis, though her work is worthy, but to use her as an example of what literate speculative-fiction readers are mssing out on owing, I suppose, to the tendency of most of the channels through which they receive news to focus on the Kiddie Krap that too often passes for literature in the ghetto (which is why it is the ghetto).

That, of course, is why I run a web site--Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works--dedicated to the literate in speculative fiction. But I, too, all too often, end up discovering gems like Ms. Davis only fortuitously. (Often it is descriptions in the latest Daedalus Books catalogue that catch my eye.)

I don't know what a good answer is. One can scarcely peruse every book release to see if has a speculative element; the sheer number of avowedly speculative-fiction books published every year already forbids careful raw review. I guess one just keeps one's eyes and ears open, and hopes for the best.

So many books, so little time . . . .

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Roger Clemens

There is much that can be said about whether and why we should even care whether any ballplayer used any PED ("performance-enhancing drug"), and most of it already appears on my Baseball, Steroids, and other "Drugs" web site. Right now, let's just look at the Clemens hGH-usage question as a demonstration of how the media and the Congress are handling this entire subject. I hope you have a strong stomach.

The matter is being presented as a "he said/she said" controversy between Clemens and Designated Sleazester Brian McNamee. Those who dislike Clemens--and he is not, by consensus, an innately likeable person--are crying out that Andy Pettitte's testimony clearly supports Mcnamee and damns Clemens. This has been repeated so very many times in the press--just Google on Pettitte affidavit--that anyone could be excused for believeing it to be fact. But is it?

Why don't we look at Pettitte's own actual words as they appear in his sworn affidavit? I have yet to locate a copy of it on line, but here are three verbatim extracts:

  • Well, obviously I was a little confused and flustered. But after that, I was like, well, obviously I must have misunderstood him.

  • I'm saying that I was under the impression that he told me that he had taken it. And then when Roger told me that he didn't take it, and I misunderstood him, I took it for that, that I misunderstood him.

  • I don't think I misunderstood him. Just to answer that question for you when it was brought up to me, I don't think I misunderstood him. I went to Mac immediately after that. But then, 6 years later when he told me that I did misunderstand him, you know, since '05 to this day, you know, I kind of felt that I might have misunderstood him.
Pettitte says that at the time the subject first came up, he understood Clemens to have said that he himself had used hGH; but his impression from that occasion was not so definite that he had any problem when Clemens told him at a later time that he, Pettitte, had misunderstood what Clemens had originally told him.

Is that proof that Clemens had not originally said he had used hGH? No. But is it, as it is being almost universally blared out, proof that Clemens did tell Pettitte that he, Clemens, had used hGH? No, of course not. In fact, it is probative of exactly nothing save that the two men had a couple of apparently rather casual and brief chats on the topic.

(For more discussion of what Pettitte did or didn't say, and the significance thereof, see also the Sabernomics site, the Baseball Prospectus site, and AOL's "Fanhouse".)

Another datum not getting much ink (or electrons) is the letter from Dr. Bert O'Malley, the Tom Thompson Professor and chairman of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor College of Medicine, who was given Clemens medical records for review:
"I have examined a large series of records provided to me by your office and which relate to Mr. Roger Clemens . . . .

"I have not found any of the above listed [in the letter] positive indications of steroid abuse during this period of time for Mr. Clemens. The record is remarkably uniform and devoid of suspicious indications. In short, my examination of the records provided to me by the Hardin office is completely negative and remarkably within normal limits for an athlete of his physique and age."
Speaking of doctors, what about McNamee's assertions that Clemens had abscesses on his buttocks from steroid shots? From ESPN:

The [New York] Times reported that in interviews, former Blue Jays trainer Tom Craig, former team general manager Gord Ash, and team physician Dr. Ron Taylor all said they did not remember Clemens being treated for an abscess. Taylor said he believed if Clemens had been treated, it would have been noted in Clemens' medical records.

Hardin said Craig and Scott Shannon, the other team trainer in 1998, told his investigators that they did not recall Clemens being treated for an abscess, according to the Times.

The abscess is not mentioned in the Mitchell report.

Then, of course, there is all the medical trash that McNamee has suddenly--after not once even hinting about it to the Mitchell gang, meaning also to the Federal investigators-- remembered (picture slap of forehead, "Oh, gee, I almost forgot . . . .") he had stashed in his attic or whatever. McNamee claims he kept all that stuff owing to some sort of mystic prescience that he would someday need to validate testimony against a then good friend and client. Hey, wouldn't anyone? And, of course, as a trained expert in evidence (former NYPD), he did such a marvellous job of preserving it all, in, uh, like cofee cans and the like. Oh, yes: very good, very solid, very, very plausible. (Take a look at the SI article "Burden of Proof", especially point #3.)

But I've saved the best for the last. Baseball Prospectus, an excellent team at the forefront of baseball analysis, has, under the guidance of analyst Nate Silver, developed a remarkable piece of analytic software they call PECOTA; it is essentially a sophisticated performance predictor--you can read the details at the Wikipedia link I just gave--and on the evidence a pretty good one. Recently Silver used PECOTA with ten-year-old stats to "project" Roger Clemens' career; that is, what he did was effectively travel back in time 10 years bringing along the PECOTA system (which did not exist then) and use it to look at Clemens as of that time to see what his probable "future" (our past) would be.
"Specifically, we will step back in time exactly ten seasons, and analyze what we might have expected out of Clemens from 1998-2001—the period during which he’s accused by the Mitchell Report of using PEDs—based on his performance through the 1997 season. . . .

"In fact, if we analyze Clemens’s performance over the four-year period, we see that the retrospective PECOTA projection comes quite close to the reality . . .

there is nothing particularly unusual about Clemens’s performance over this four-year window [emphasis in original]—pitchers of Clemens’s caliber quite often do remain successful late into their thirties. . . .

"But where his statistical record is concerned, there is no smoking gun."
Got that? His achievements are entirely reasonable given his career history. Where his statistical record is concerned, there is no smoking gun.

Does any or all of this prove that Roger Clemens did not take any PEDs ever? No, of course not. What it does prove, to anyone with an IQ bigger than a Congressman or a brick (but there, as Mark Twain once said, I repeat myself), is that there is no evidence whatever that he did use such substances besides the word of a proven and admitted lying sleazeball.
(Twain's actual comment: Suppose you were an idiot. Suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.)
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Friday, February 15, 2008


What should be the biggest news of the day isn't, to most people: "Scientists Find Solar System Like Ours".

One reason this is important is that it is the first fruits of a newer way of searching for extra-solra planets. That it gave such interestibng results so quickly is a strong indicator that solar systems like our own are quite common.

The search technique most commonly used till now had a built-in bias for finding systems with very large planets orbiting very close to their suns, and such systems are not likely to possess planets with what we currently consider optimum conditions for "life as we know it"; but the new method, which is more sensitive in some ways, can find--and now has found--systems where there are likely to be planets of a reasonable size in the so-called "habitable zone" around their star.

Conjectures on the probability for life on other worlds have tended to make or break depending on the likelihood of solar systems like our own being common. Now we are pretty sure they are common, making the probability of life, which almost necessarily includes intelligent life, quite high.

That is what excitement is, not who seems to be winning what political horse race.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

And that's all for today!

(Because the rest is too depressing.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Just the numbers

All I have time for today is a few quick numbers from the Democratic race so far. (These data are from the Wikipedia article "Results of the 2008 Democratic Party presidential primaries".)

In places where Democrats could actually vote--not be obliged to fight snow and ice to sit on their butts for hours--the overall results so far are these:

  • Obama: 9,024,521 = 51.5%
  • Clinton: 8,513,353 = 48.5%
The difference is about a half million votes.

But, that does not take into account the results from Florida and Michigan, which for now do not officially count. Michigan is truly meaningless because Obama was literally not even on the ballot there; nonetheless, it is interesting that Clinton's total there exceeds the current Obama margin. But Florida, though the votes don't "count", is still a valid measure of voter alignment, since each had the same non-opportunity there. With Florida results counted (by us, here, anyway) the numbers become:
  • Obama: 9,600,315 = 50.6%
  • Clinton: 9,383,656 = 49.4%
The difference is then under a quarter million votes.

What is interesting now is a look-ahead view: what are the big prizes still in play in primary (as opposed to caucus) states? Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania. No one knows how those will play out--that's why we hold elections--but the betting is that Clinton will win, probably by good margins, in Texas and Ohio (Latinos and blue-collar voters, groups with which she does well), and possibly in Pennsylvania, too.

Should that be the case, the arguments for how the "super delegates" should go becomes clearer: they should go with Clinton, as she will (we are assuming here) have won a clear majority of those Democrats in the nation who actually got a chance to vote on who they want to represent them in the election.

(CNN states that 60 percent of the remaining delegates are in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — all states where polls show the New York senator is leading Obama; if she takes a three-state cumulative lead of significantly over a quarter-million, which at this time seems highly likely, she will be the clear winner in true-primary states.
Also left to go as primary states are, in order: Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Vermont, Mississippi, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota; it seems unlikely that either candidate will have any clear net sweep of voters in those states, even cumulatively.
And for my money (and based on my personal experiences), they can take the caucus-state results and stick them up a tree.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How stupid?

How stupid, indeed, do you have to be to believe the bilge the Obama campaign is handing out about their "big victories"?

In a column today in The New York Times titled "As Maine Goes … ?" we find this:

[T]urnout in Maine on Sunday set a record, with more than 45,000 people participating in the Democratic caucus; the previous record was 30,000, set in 1980.

“To blame it on the caucus is silly because turnout was so high,” Ms. Fried [Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine in Orono] said.
Ahem: in 2004, Maine produced roughly 400,000 votes for John Kerry (exactly 396,842, plus there were 8,069 for Nader). So those 45,000 caucus participants being touted as obviously representative account for scarcely over 11% of actual Democrats who vote in Maine presidential elections (not just registered Democrats). That is a triumphant vindication of the validity of the caucus process? Whatever was Ms. Fried smoking?

Mr. Obama still can't seem to understand why this nation needs to unite behind a universal health-care plan. Perhaps he should ask some doctors, and this would be a good time, inasmuch as physicians nationwide are up in arms over the latest insurance-company vileness:
Doctors across the country seethed with indignation Tuesday over a request by insurance giant Blue Cross to California physicians to report patients' pre-existing health conditions, possibly causing them to lose insurance coverage.
Here's a sample of quotations (in just that article) from physicians about the situation:
  • "This is outrageous," says Dr. Arthur Feldman, chairman of medicine at Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia. "The 'Blues' are sitting on billions of dollars while most cannot afford health insurance and 46 million have no insurance. This will require congressional action."

  • "This so simply and succinctly exposes what health care 'insurance' in the United States is: a business," says Dr. Joanna Cain, director of the Center for Women's Health at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

  • Dr. Richard Frankenstein, president of the California Medical Association, said that the letter sent by the insurer asks doctors to "violate the sacred trust of patients to rat them out for medical information that patients would expect their doctors to handle with the utmost secrecy and confidentiality."

  • "Personally, I believe it is another corrupted concept by insurers," says Dr. Joel Saper, director of the Michigan Head Pain and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor.

  • Dr. Sanjeev Saksena, professor of medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, stated that "One of these days our public will realize that not-for-profit payers are needed for health care and finally appreciate what all other Western nations know -- universal health care is needed and cannot be provided by the for-profit sector."
Listening, Mr. Obama?

Some other news notes:

From CNN: The images in the Basra police file are nauseating: Page after page of women killed in brutal fashion -- some strangled to death, their faces disfigured; others beheaded. All bear signs of torture. The women are killed, police say, because they failed to wear a headscarf or because they ignored other "rules" that secretive fundamentalist groups want to enforce. Just folks like you and me, except different.

From The New York Times: The electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday, effectively suspending executions in the only state that made sole use of the practice. . . . Gee: it's unusual, and it's cruel--does that make it "cruel and unusual"? I guess so.

Are military veterans knee-jerk Republican voters? Apparently not.

From Time: One billion people will die from tobacco-related causes by the end of the century if current consumption trends continue, according to a global report released Thursday by the World Health Organization (WHO). I think Mr. Darwin once coined a phrase that covers the ground.

Scientific American reminds us why we need a president who is not a grandstanding ignoramus about elementary science matters.

Again from The New York Times
: Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, two studies being published Thursday have concluded. That would be interesting news if it were news, but it's nothing people following this issue haven't known since Day One; but will that stop the parade of idiots and liars who march us "forward" into the age of biofuels?

Finally, if you want to keep an eye on Mr. Obama's roll toward a nomination that the Democratic Party will be ruing for at least a generation, the 2008 Democratic Convention Watch is as good a place as any to look.

Obama is, in essence, Ralph Nader grown to unmanageable size. Each offers the same basic formula: everything and everybody but me is vile and corrupt, we need C-H-A-N-G-E, elect me and we'll all live happily ever after, and never you mind how or why, angels will descend from heaven to fix it all for me because my heart is pure.

Worst of all, Obama, unlike Nader, might get nominated and elected. If you're a Democrat and a masochist--and apparently most Democrats are--you're going to have a really great next few years.

Bye, now.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The evil that men do

First, a good look at what the next president will have to deal with, and why, in an article entitled "Bush Ad Infinitum", which emphasizes that the evil men do outlives them. It concludes by saying:

To save time, I suggest the next president start with Executive Order #1: Every executive order issued by George W. Bush is hereby rescinded. Effective immediately.
But you really should read the whole thing to see, to feel, how badly off we are and how deep a hole the next president has to dig a way out of before we can get to new business.

Then try Bob Herbert's New York Times essay "Where’s the Big Idea?" for an idea of whether either of the Democratic candidates has a big enough shovel:
Where, in this alleged season of change, is the big idea?

What’s missing in this campaign is a bold vision of where the United States should be heading in these crucially important early years of the 21st century. In their different ways, Senators Clinton and Obama have shown themselves to be inspirational and at times even heroic figures. But neither has offered the vision that this moment in history demands.
It's enough to make grown men cry, to consider this wasteland we have made of what, literally within living memory, was a great nation.

Yes, there were numerous very horrible things wrong in our post-war America; no one should gloss over them and fantasize some Golden Age of peace, prosperity, and brotherhood. But the difference was that there was a largely shared ideal, and a sense that if things are wrong, we can and will work on them and fix them. But apparently as ye sow television, so ye shall reap the bored and uninvolved: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what's on tv tonight.

For a brief, glimmering couple of centuries there it looked like maybe, just maybe, this time civilization could beat the Toynbee Trap:
When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. When it fails to respond to a challenge, it enters its period of decline. Toynbee argued that "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder."
I'd like to believe I'm being unduly pessimistic, but that's not what the evidence says.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Caucus thoughts

My opinion of the caucus process as a way of selecting a nominee for the presidency (or anything else) is about the same as it is of the Electoral College: if this is such a good idea, why does no one else use it?

Aside from the presidency of the United States, there is no political office in the known universe for which a goofy system like the Electoral College is employed. So when its defenders speak up, let them answer that question: why does no one and nothing else use it?

As to caucuses: well, we elect the president, don't we? We don't caucus to decide who will be president of the United States. Why, then, should we caucus to decide who will run for president?

The caucus system, which, thank heaven, only a minority of states use, is a stupid idea made up by stupid people trying to solve non-problems. Let's go to basics--and the most basic principle is that in a free society, no one's vote is supposed to carry more weight than anyone else's: one person, one vote. It's the law of the land and the obvious moral choice, too.

Primary contests obviously satisfy that requirement, at least within a state (and there's nothing we can do, right now, about the abominable Electoral College). Anyone who wants to vote can, and his or her vote counts just as much as any other voter's. In a caucus, that is very far from the case.

To begin with, merely getting to vote is not easy: there are not an awful lot of people who really want to put in a mostly boring and tedious hour or two (or three or more) fussing and feuding with their neighbors and filling out paper after paper just to get their choice of candidate registered.

Next, owing to the Byzantine schemes the parties have put in effect, for correspondingly Byzantine reasons, a given voter's vote can mean vastly more or less than some other voter's vote. And the difference is not even under anyone's control--at the area caucus I coordinated, one functional illiterate determined two next-level delegates simply because no one else from his precinct cared to fight the icy roads that afternoon. Total attendance at caucuses in any state will ineluctably be far less than voter turnout for an election, even a primary election.

(We can wait and see how many Washington State Democrats end up voting in the state's primary as compared to the number who showed up for caucuses even though the primary is absolutely meaningless because it doesn't control even a single delegate; I'll bet the empty primary draws more voters by far than showed up for the caucuses.)
Washington State's own law creating the primaries--which came though an initiative process--reads in part:
The…presidential nominating caucus system in Washington State is unnecessarily restrictive of voter participation in that it discriminates against the elderly, the infirm, women, the disabled, evening workers, and others who are unable to attend caucuses and therefore unable to fully participate in this most important quadrennial event that occurs in our democratic system of government.
That, I think, covers it tolerably well. But, despite the many, obvious, and severe drawbacks of the caucus system, both parties rely on it, the Democratic exclusively. That is toxic to democracy.

The parties try to gloss over all this. Go to the Washington State Democratic Party web site and try to see how many people participated; you'll get delegate counts and percentages, but not voter counts. My guesstimate is that in our county, perhaps 5% of the Democratic electorate participated.

A SurveyUSA poll taken shortly before the Washington caucuses showed that 33% of polled registered voters said they would attend their precinct causus, while 85% said they would vote in the primary. And that is probably optimistic, in that 1) many who said they would attend, when it came time to step out into the slush and ice, almost surely did not do so; and 2) the primaries mean nothing--literally on the Democratic side and effectively so (owing to McCain's unstoppability) on the Republican side. So the polled 5:2 dominance of primary over caucus turnout, gross as it is, doesn't tell the whole story.

Nor is this like voting itself used to be before everyone went wild for mail-in voting, where critics could say "if you can't make the minimal effort to go vote, you have no right to complain about the results", because the effort involved in in-person voting is vastly less than the effort involved in attending a caucus.

The problem with all this caucus foofaraw is not merely that many voters are effectively disenfranchised, just as the law's text notes, but that the disenfranchisement is selective: the candidate delegate-vote allocation is not representative of the preferences of the electorate. I happen to think that Hillary Clinton would make an equally effective candidate and a much better president that Barack Obama, but my opinion is not the issue: what is the issue is that I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that the Obama rout in the caucuses is far from reflective of the results a primary would have turned in (and may yet turn in, though it will be tainted by its irrelevance).

The upshot is that candidates in both parties are getting a lot of delegates--all those picked through caucus methods--that reflect the activism and energy of those candidates' supporters, not their actual numbers. That's a pretty awful way to select a candidate.

Looking in particular at the Democratic race, I come back to that economic divide: Democratic voters earning uder $50,000 a year--which is still well above the median national income--go very heavily for Clinton; in general, the higher the income level or educational level, the more the trend to Obama. Say what you want about whatever you think that shows about the candidates' qualities (and I think it shows that the head-in-the-clouds Kumbaya crowd is what makes up Obama's support), the one thing it shows is that Clinton's appeal is necessarily much larger than Obama's. When the general election rolls around, there aren't going to be caucuses in which a handful of stridently over-optimistic college kids can turn the day for their hero: the Democrat is going to have to win with the majority of the voters, and the blue-collar electorate, which is the majority of American households and voters, has shown a oreference for Clinton.

No wonder Democrats are famed for snatching defaet from the jaws of victory.

In any event, sometime between now and the next election cycle, we need, urgently, to drop the caucus system altogether in every state in which it is now used, and let the people of this nation vote their choices for candidates.

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Saturday, February 9, 2008

I'm with Will

Will Rogers once, when asked about his political affiliation, famously replied "I'm not a member of any organized party--I'm a Democrat."

I just finished being the chair of a set of area Democratic caucuses out here in rural eastern Washington State (which, despite the state's overall leaning, is very strong Republican country). It's like herding cats.

I put a lot of the blame for the confusion--and there is confusion galore statewide--on the party. They apparently tried to make the printed procedures infant-simple and all spelled out in excrutiating detail. Well, they got the excrutiating part, ok. Look, I used to write procedural manuals for a living: trust me when I say that this was a lousy job, almost as if they wanted people to be unable to understand what they were doing and why (not to speak of how). The stuff read like an IRS form: take the figure from Column F and divide by that from Column D and enter the result in Column G. (That's not exact and literal, but awfully close.)

(The state party also runs a terrible web site, ill-conceived both as to layout and as to mechanical operation.)

And the whole thing was wildy ill-suited to a rural area where many precincts (or "wards", technically, in these parts) had literally zero caucusers and several had only one or two. My own precinct, despite being an outlying area, had a relatively huge draw for the day: four--my lady and I and another couple. We were for Clinton, they were for Obama, and (needless to say) none of us was able to sway the others. According to the official rules, that means we were supposed to toss a coin to decide who would get our lone delegate. Fortunately, the woman, who had no strong feelings, decided to go to "uncommitted", which gave the precinct to Clinton by an awesome margin, 2-to-1 over Obama.

Therein lies much of what has been happening in the caucuses, especially in the less-populous states: the delegate counts are often reflecting a tiny, indeed trivial, number of voters. We had one precinct, entitled by population to two delegates, for which one person showed up, one who was (as another attendee put it) essentially a "street person". He had to ask how to spell "Adams", the name of the county in which he resides--and got it wrong on the first try ("Adms"); but he sent two delegates on to the next level of caucusing, both (both being, by the way, him) pledged to Obama. Those "two" were one-third of Obama's total from out area: 7 for Clinton, 6 for Obama. There were not, by the way, such anomalies for Clinton, as best I recall; the Clinton precincts typically turned out four or five voters each.

Granted, the statewide delegate counts cannot be known accurately for some time; but they will derive in the main from today's activity, and that should give us serious pause in considering just what the much-discussed and much-touted totals nationwide represent in terms of actual voter support: when Obama "outpolls" Clinton by a large majority, or vice-versa, in a caucus state, we could well be seeing a significant fraction of those delegates as having been allocated based on whether one or two people decided to attend or stay home that day.

Meanwhile, for all the foofaraw, a point that many are overlooking, or ignoring, is that unless one candidate or the other can win roughly 80% of the outstanding delegates to be selected (including today's), neither can come to the convention with a winning total. It will be either a "brokered convention" (that is, the nominee will be decided by wheeling and dealing on the convention floor) or else the so-called "super delegates" will settle the matter if they go heavily for one candidate or the other. (Right now, those who have taken a position favor Clinton by a large margin, but a) not that many have taken a position yet, and b) even those who have could change their minds at any time.)

The problem with the "super delegates" breaking a near-tie is the uproar that would be generated if they favored the candidate with fewer selected delegates. Say the convention opens with Obama ahead of Clinton by a few delegates, perhaps as few as 10 or 20 ahead, but well short of a majority; if the super delegates divide so as to give the nomination to Clinton, imagine the reaction from Obama backers: We wuz robbed!

It is clear in hindsight--about the only way politicians ever see anything--that the "super delegates" were a super-bad idea. But that's water over the dam now: we have to live with the reality. The super delegates are going to have to support the front runner as determined by the selected delegates, unless perhaps the difference is very small, small enough that it can legitimately be called "a virtual tie" without that seeming absurdist.

Howard Dean, the national chairman, has spoken of "intervening" before the convention if it looks like things are heading for a floor battle, but it is profoundly unclear just what he could do. Taking the two candidates into a locked room for a knock-down, drag-out negotiating session that ends up with one of them withdrawing in favor of the other seems wildly unlikely: if one is so far ahead as to have it locked, there's no point in such a ploy; if they are almost tied, which of them is going to take a dive "for the good of the party" when he or she feels they have a fair chance to take the big enchilada?

Let's face it: neither of the two is going to be interested in being the vice-presidential candidate, or in the promise of any other post-election reward--each is too big for that now. So we'll just have to see.

But nothing I saw today went against, and much went for, my opinion that Obama's support remains rooted in the join-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya school of unrealism. It might even get him nominated. It might even get him elected. if so, look for 8 to 12 years minimum of Republican presidency starting in 2012.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

No soap, radio

No entry today: tomorrow I have to run a caucus, and am spending tonight trying to figure out all the obscure and frequently silly things required.

It will be interesting to see how this goes. Obama is supposed to to big in caucuses, but this is a rural, conservative region (with correspondingly few Democrats), so it will be instructive.

Till tomorrow, then.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Another shortie

Apparently some other people have also noticed what I mentioned the other day: Hillary Clinton was, at least on the Democratic side, far and away the winner with working-class voters, defined in this context as people making less than $50,000 a year.

That is a big, big point, because the median household income in this country is well under that figure--meaning that her appeal is strongest to the clear majority of households. Putting that another way, the vote and delegate counts from "Super Duper Tuesday" are deceiving, because they do not reflect the population as a whole. The demonstration is obvious when one considers that Obama prevailed chiefly in the caucus states, where a relative handful of devout activists can swing the outcome.

The problem for the Democrats is that the general election is just that: an election. There are no caucuses involved in selecting the next president. Having an appeal to a class that can waltz in and dominate caucuses, whether because (as the higher-income and thus better educated class) they are more persuasive or whether they are simply more ardent, does not make Mr. Obama a strong candidate in an election, and that Mrs. Clinton outdid him in most states where people voted as the term is generally understood ought to be a waving red flag to the Democratic Party.

Mind, I suspect that in this age of appearance over substance, Obama still has a good chance of being elected, even if not as good as Clinton's; after all, we don't know how the appeal of either plays out in Republican demographics. But still . . . .

My chief problem with Mr. Obama is that while I believe in his intelligence and sincerity, those things are not--as Jimmy Carter (who had both galore) so regrettably demonstrated--enough to get anything done in Washington, D.C. My fear is that Obama will get the nomination, be elected, then be eaten for lunch by the Republicans and even the less-dealistic members of his own party (is Obama ready to tell harry Reid to go to the place in Hell he so richly deserves?). After four years of muddling about and getting little done on the economy, the war, or much of anything, the nation will be left vulnerable to a Republican return under the slogan "See? We told you so."

I hope I am wrong about at least some part of that, but I have yet to see clear and convincing evidence to suggest it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Follw the money

Since polls show that the #1 concern of many if not most voters is the economy, it is worth taking a little time to look at where we are and how we got here. Since Shrub just announced his latest practical joke, which he calls a budget, quite a few publications have weighed in on the topic.

The Washington Post titles their article "Budget Mess", and sub-titles it President Bush's last spending plan only adds to a disastrous fiscal legacy. So no comment needed there.

Another "no comment needed" title is the Huffington Post's "Read it and Weep: Bush's Last Budget" article. Or, from the same source, "Three Ugly Little Truths About The Federal Budget".

At The American Prospect, Robert Reich--who knows somewhat on this topic--titles his remarks "Financing the Common Good", with the sub-title After three decades of government starvation of necessary resources, the next president needs to champion progressive taxation with the proceeds invested in social outlays that make for a more productive economy. That one looks past the Bush debacle to what urgently needs to happen in the next administration. It is perhaps the most important of all.

And while we're following money, cast a side glance at the news that "For Japan, a Long, Slow Slide" is what is happening. Japan, remember? The boom economy that was going to rule the world? It's not really important except as an indicator of how much trust to put in the financial pundits and prognosticators and their "expertise".

There are many subtleties and complexities about economics and economic analysis, and some of them get into higher mathematics. But the long-cherished idea that economics is as abstruse as quantum mechanics is a fraud perpetrated on the public by politicians, who don't want anyone looking at that man behind the curtain, and abetted by economists themsleves, who revel in being seen as priestly keepers of profoundly occult knowledge.

In reality, if you have a good grasp of the law of supply and demand (which, in fairness, many people who think they do in fact do not), you can usually see through most economic questions. There is, for example, no mysterious magic called up from another dimension that allows anyone, or any entity, to go on spending more than they're earning without an eventual smash-up. A household or a nation can safely and healthily have a sizeable debt so long as that debt can comfortably be serviced; that's the basis of buying a house or funding governmental services. You can borrow all you like, provided you have the income to pay the principal-and-interest costs on your debt without squeezing your other everyday expenditures too hard.

What the modern Republican party has done, and quite deliberately, is to run up ever-huger debts, in the hope of--as they put it--"starving the beast", meaning running the debt-service payments ever higher so that ever less of governmental income is available for other things, like oversight of plundering corporations, or even the major and critical services that the Republican governing powers would love to see back in the oh-so-generous hands of private industy (starting with killing Medicare, the Social Security, then unemployment insurance, and so on down the line).

Do you really suppose the arguments about "socialized medicine" have anything to do with the quality and quantity of medical care the average person would receive? As opposed to the profits to be made by medi-busiess, the pharma companies and ever-more-privatized hospitals and HMOs? If so, bless me, the child is simple.

Meanwhile, on another money-related topic, we find that "Republicans Block Stimulus Bill". This is an ugly, purely political ploy, playing football with the urgent needs of the American people. As the AP article says,
Senate Republicans blocked a bid by Democrats to add $44 billion in help for the elderly, disabled veterans, the unemployed and businesses to the House-passed economic aid package.

GOP senators banded together Wednesday to thwart the $205 billion plan, leaving Democrats with a difficult choice either to quickly accept a House bill they have said is inadequate or risk being blamed for delaying a measure designed as a swift shot in the arm for the lagging economy.
That is, the Republicans are perfectly happy with $161 billion in aid, but another $44 billion for the neediest of all in our society--"the elderly, disabled veterans, the unemployed"--is just more than their icy hearts can bear.

But best of all, and so indicative of the lily-livered Democrats on the Senate side, is leaving Democrats . . . to . . . risk being blamed for delaying [the] measure . . . Got it? The Republicans block the measure but the Democrats are supposed to be blamed for any consequent delay. That is so precious it ought to be sewn on a sampler and hung on the living-room wall.

But it's what the Republicans have been doing with everything on the Senate side, even--perhaps especially--after their rout in the 2006 elections: tell the Democrats to do whatever President Cheney Bush wants, and nothing he doesn't, or else be labelled as the obstructionists. And Senator Broken Reid, the mis-labelled majority "leader", has fallen all over himself rushing to kiss Republican ass on each and every one of those filthy measures.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Bloody Tuesday

Right now, we're less than a quarter hour away from the first poll closing in so-called "Super Tuesday". I will post an update later in the night, but for now just a couple of preliminary thoughts.

One, it will be quite difficult, especially on the Democratic side (because there are few if any winner-take-all contests) to decide realistically who "won". Indeed, perhaps neither candidate will really "win", meaning they roughly split the delegates and even the popular vote; right now, that looks like a very possible end result.

Second, and only barely peripheral, this from Massachusetts:

Outraged parents at a Randolph school where a little second-grader was run down by an elderly voter’s SUV today are calling for schools to be closed permanently as polling stations.
Say what? The driver was 86 years old. Whatever in the world is this man doing on the public roads at the helm of tons of deadly metal? Don't blame polling-place locators: blame an America where the "right" to operate an automobile is more precious than the right to live.

More later . . . .

[1st add]

I forgot to mention earlier that we need to keep an eye out for defects and problems in the voting process, especially of machines, with six states being at "high risk" for problemsw. Well, we'll see . . . .

The Georgia results look very favorable for Obama. Of course he was going to win, but the margins by which he is winning within various demographic blocks has to be encouraging to his campaign.

More later . . . .

[2nd add]

It's now after 7 pm Pacific Time. Nothing remarkable so far, but if there is a "developing story", it is the insistence of the media in steamroller-flattening out the complexities into a "call X fo" mentality; that may sot of work on the Republican side, but it hopelessly misrepresents the Democratic side. Popular votes don't decide these contests, delegates do, and the delegate counts are scarcely being mentioned (and, when they are, with few or no nyumbers).

Despite the vote splits, on the Republican side, the delegate counts seem to be suggesting that McCain is on the march, however much the Rush-Limbaugh wing despises him.

More later . . . .

[3rd add]

Still no California, or Missouri. It still looks like McCain will ultimately be unstoppable. It also looks, though, like Huckabee will have negotiating power; it would be interesting to see an outspoken advocate of creationism running for a major national office.

In delegate counts, though we still need to see if California does what is expected, it looks as if Clinton and Obama will neither of them have a dominance in delegate count, and each will be arguing the case for "momentum". Obama's campaign didn't do itself any favors by setting expectations high for tonight; by just doing well, they appear to have not done well.

Let's see if California goes as expected . . .

[4th add]

OK, California went, and--critical--went big for Clinton and McCain. Now?

McCain is in: that's that.

Delegate-wise , the Democrats are split. Both candidates will be spinning it. Here are two thouughts:

One, the big "trend" toward Obama, that shows Clinton poll leads in even double digits coming down tonight to close calls, depended heavily on a series of one-time factors, specifically major endoresments. Those boosts are not repeatable: there are few or no more big guns out there not already commited.

Second, and this was news of interest to me, Clinton won across the board as to demographic groups with voters under $50,000 a year income, while Obama wins in those with voters with incomes over $50m000--and especially with the very high income levels.

That can be read in various ways. To me, it confirms my impression of Obama supporters as those accustomed to attacking major poroblems by joining hands around the campfilre and singing Kumbaya. That is the classic attitude of the collegiate professional who rarely is in close tough with the electorate, whose median income is roughly $35,000 a year.

That's me for tonight. Hope we all had fun . . . .

Monday, February 4, 2008

Honest John

The character as played by W. C. Fields is probably little if any less "honest" than today's subject, John McCain. There is a widespread--and carefully nurtured--public conception of McCain as a senior statesman, withg parsed, reasoned, middle-of-the-road positions on just about everything. Let's see, alphabetically.


From McCain's own web site:

John McCain believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned, and as president he will nominate judges who understand that courts should not be in the business of legislating from the bench. Constitutional balance would be restored by the reversal of Roe v. Wade . . . .
From Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America:
He voted against family planning, he voted against the freedom of access to clinic entrances — that was about violence against women in clinics. He voted against funding for teen pregnancy-prevention programs, and making sure that abstinence only was medically accurate. This is very, very extreme.


From McCain's web site:
John McCain will make the Bush income and investment tax cuts permanent, keeping income tax rates at their current level . . .
From a recent debate: I'm very well versed in economics. I was there at the Reagan Revolution. To evaluate that "qualification", note that Ronald Reagan nearly tripled the gap between the amount of money the federal government took in and the amount it spent; when he left office, the national debt was a historical high of over 3 trillion dollars, and the annual budget deficit was $155 billion, also a historical high. More exactly:
In 1982, the first full year after the tax cuts were enacted, the economy actually shrank 2.2%, the worst performance since the Great Depression. And the effect on the federal budget was catastrophic.

Jimmy Carter's last budget deficit was $77 billion. Reagan's first deficit was $128 billion. His second deficit exploded to $208 billion. By the time the "Reagan Revolution" was over, George H.W. Bush was running an annual deficit of $290 billion per year.

Yearly deficits, of course, add up to national debt. When Reagan took office, the national debt stood at $994 billion. When Bush left office, it had reached $4.3 trillion. In other words, the national debt had taken 200 years to reach $1 trillion. Reagan's Supply Side experiment quadrupled it in the next 12 years.
That is the "Reagan Revolution" that John McCain wants to model his economic policies on.

Civil Rights

McCain voted for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which set a federal definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and said states don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages performed by another state.

McCain on religion and politics:
I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. . . .

I think the number one issue people should make [in the] selection of the President of the United States is, "Will this person carry on in the Judeo Christian principled tradition that has made this nation the greatest experiment in the history of mankind?"
On Vietnamese:
I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.
McCain has a 29% lifetime rating from the ACLU, and a mere 19% rating for 2005-2006. (He has an 83% rating in the Christian Coalition's 2006 Congressional Scorecard.)

McCain voted for the so-called "Flag Protection" Constitutional Amendment.

And for all that, his civil-rights policies are considered one of his best points.


While McCain is famously less vituperative in his pronouncements on this topic than his opponents for the Republican nomination, he stiil has clear ideas:
As president, I will secure the border. . . . A secure border is an essential element of our national security.
McCain voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006.


From Wikipedia:
McCain supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the U.S. decision to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime; a continued and increased military presence in Iraq; and most of President George W. Bush's foreign policies. His speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention centered on that theme.
At a campaign stop in January, a questioner said, "President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years." McCain responded, "Make it a hundred."

And who will ever forget (absolutely no one, I devoutly hope) "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran". That from a man who wants us to trust him with the key to the red-button box.

Y'know, there's a lot more, but frankly I'm getting too nauseated to go on right now. Take this as a sort of down payment on what I think the American public needs to know about Honest John and his goofiness.

A couple of further resources for the interested seeker after knowledge are the Wikipedia article "Political positions of John McCain" and the "On the Issues" site page on McCain.

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Just a wild thought

The curse of our times is size, the size of institutions of all sorts, private and public. There have always been nominally huge institutions, such as the Roman Empire, but till modern times all were limited by one simple but stark fact: nothing, not people, not goods, not even information, could get from one place to another any faster than a man can walk. (Over long distances, humans can match the pace of horses, or even exceed them.)

That fact placed a great limitation on the ability of any apparently large institution to in fact act as a coherent whole. Large institutions through most of the history of humankind in reality acted more on general conceptions or philosophies than by unified or centralized decision-making.

All that began to change with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the second major change in human culture in all the history of the species (the first being the Agricultural Revolution)--or rather the beginning of a change, for the revolution is by no means over but rather is continuing all around us. The chiefest effect of this revolution has been a staggering shrinkage in times, times to move things around the world and especially times to move information around the world.

In consequence, over the last century or so humankind has been exposed, for the very first time, to huge institutions that can act in a coordinated, monolithic way, thereby bringing their entire force to bear almost instantly on any matter that draws their now-enhanced attention. That is not a small matter: it may be the biggest matter our species has ever had to deal with.

One inevitable byproduct of the new order is that institutions become almost indomitable. If you think you could make an automobile better and cheaper than any out there right now, or publish a better daily newspaper, or any of a host of things, the answer is So what? Just try to actually do so. It'll never happen, even if you really and clearly could do the things you claim. The entry bar, in sheerly economic terms, is simply far too high.

On occasion, major entities may collapse owing to a level of incompetence in central management so great that even a ponderous institutional inertia can't halt decline, but society is already organized to discourage if not halt such collapses (consider the term bailout, as applied over the decades to everything from automobile makers to lenders).

It is well-known fact that it is nigh unto impossible to dislodge a sitting Representative or Senator unless he or she has done something stupendously stupid and criminal, and even then it is not easy. Moreover, the influence of money on elections is pretty well impossible to overstate. Candidates at every level tend to make much of the degree of contributions they receive from "little people", but the reality is that it is the contributions from big spenders that fuel meaningful campaigns.

So what can be done about at least the governmental problem? Realistically, I suspect not much. But as a thought experiment, where we are free to mentally redesign our institutions as we please, it is not an utterly intractable problem.

How do we begin? By recognizing that there is no long-term effective way to stop money from coming in to campaigns. The most draconian laws and eagle-eyed supervision would soon relax back to politics as usual: such is human nature. Instead, we need to think of a way to make it difficult for money to be the dominant factor in elections. And the only way to do that is to keep the size of the constituency small--small enough that knowledge of the candidate can realistically depend on personal contact, and where the spending of money on advertising is overkill.

What I have is not some carefully worked-out scheme with the i's dotted and t's crossed. Rather, it is the germ of an idea. Suppose we made our lowest level of elections comprise an electoral block of, oh, roughly two thousand persons (which is maybe 1,350 qualified voters). In rural areas, that might be one town, or even a whole county; in urban areas, it might be as little as one square block. But it is certainly manageable, since we already vote by precincts (or whatever they're called in this or that locale) on that size scale (the national average is 1,100 voters per precinct). Let's keep using that term, then, precinct, for the lowest electoral level.

A precinct averaging 2,000 citizens elects a precinct representative. A group of such representatives would sit on a council, the lowest level of actual government. Such a council would ideally comprise some small and odd number of precincts, no fewer than five and no more than nine--let's say seven.

That council--let's call it Level 1 government--then elects one of its members to sit on the council constituting the next-highest level of government, Level 2, whose councils also number 7 members. That council, in turn, does the same thing, and so on up the ladder.

How do the numbers work? Assuming a round 300 million Americans, like this:

  • Level 1: 21,429 councils representing 14,000 citizens each
  • Level 2: 3,061 councils representing 98,000 citizens each
  • Level 3: 437 councils representing 686,000 citizens each
  • Level 4: 62 councils representing 4,802,000 citizens each
  • Level 5: 9 councils representing 33,614,000 citizens each
  • Level 6 (9 members): 1 council representing all citizens
Obviously, any such scheme discards all present governmental distinctions, from states on down. But there are rough equivalences; Level 4, for example, is not far out of alignment with what is currently the state level. Level 2 corresponds very closely with the current county level (there are 3,077 current counties in the U.S.). Level 5 corresponds with the concept of "region", and regional state alliances have been growing in modern times. Level 3 has no real current counterpart; it would be like regions of states. Level 1, the closest to the citizenry and the only directly elected one, would correspond roughly, at least in less-populated areas, to the town (or "city" as many towns call themselves).

So that the system does not arbitrarily destroy "natural" interest blocks, it should allow the actual size of a precinct to vary from roughly 1,300 citizens to 2,700 citizens (a 2:1 ratio), so precinct lines can be drawn that keep neighborhoods together as much as reason allows. To deal with the "one person, one vote" issue, each popularly elected representative would get to vote the number of citizens he or she represents: a representative from a precinct of population 1,750 gets 1,750 votes on the Level 1 council; a representative at level 2 votes the combined total of the Level 1 councils he or she represents, and so on. That allows some flexibility in determining precinct (and other levels') boundaries without degrading or boosting any citizen's vote, and by keeping the maximum allowable ratio from most- to least-populous down to 2;1, does not grant any geographical interest block an unduly strong voice. ("Voice" differs from vote: an area with three representatives has more voice than the same area with two representatives, even if the voting powers are identical.)

The chief virtue here is that all representatives are addressing a base population block so small that it is feasible to literally meet each and every one of one's constituents (indeed, that would likely be a political necessity), and in which any interested citizen can get to know the candidate very well indeed (they are probably neighbors). The scale of the electorate means that throwing money at a campaign is largely futile, in that there is no economical way to make money produce a targeted message to so few people, and in any event the poorest-funded candidate can still make a full and highly personal case at the expense of no more than shoe leather. And that, in turn, means that any interested citizen could be a realistic candidate: neither cash nor party support is essential.

The drawback is obvious, but not, I feel, fatal. It is that beyond the Level-1 stage of government, all representation is indirect. The council of nine that constitutes the national legislative body is made up of people each elected by only a microscopic fraction of the populace. But so what? Each has been voted up by a succession of lower councils, whose ultimate authority is always actual voters. (Recall that till 1913, U.S. Senators were elected indirectly--State legislatures selected them.)

If individuals elected by a modest-sized body of their neighbors are not qualified to select one of their number to properly represent their combined constituents' interests, why are those electors in a cumulated mass to be supposed capable of doing the job better? The electors know the people they elect at the precinct level; at levels above that, they would know--as we today know--only a distant, artificially concocted and media-filtered image of candidates, whereas the people they directly elected would know one another, and one anothers' abilities, very well indeed.

Those who might think that a national legislative council of nine members is too small (though why it would be "too small" is less clear) could skip the proposed top level and just let Level 5 be the top: 45 members. But the reality is, as anyone with any real-life experience of decision-making knows, that even nine is probably two too many for maximum effectiveness.

As a generality, governments would be wise to observe the practices of businesses run with the steep incentive of profit. As a trivial but illuminating example, consider the pattern of chips used in Las Vegas casinos: $1, $5, $25, $100 (and up): no "dimes". Why do we waste money coining dimes and printing $10 bills? Habit, sheer habit; they are useless extravagances. Likewise, where is the corporation, however large, whose top management comprises hundreds of nominally equal executives? (Much less two distinct managerial entities--why do we in the modern world need a Senate?) Each level in the proposed system would handle such matters as are appropriate to it. Are 435 men and women somehow better able to come to a reasoned, argued, rational conclusion about any given matter than would nine? I cannot for the life of me imagine who would think so, or why.

Another objection would be the time demands on representatives above the lowest level. Those at the top would be, in effect, simultaneously serving on six different councils. There are several points here. One is that there are ways to work around this, albeit a bit complex (for example, electing, at the lowest level, a candidate and, as a "running mate", an alternate, who could fill in for the chief candidate in cases of illness or other absence, and who could take the seat if that representative were sent on to higher levels). But another consideration is that maybe we do altogether too much legislating as it is. If every council sat once a week (on staggered days, of course), there would be no problem. (Indeed, representatives serving only at the lowest level or two would probably be, as they are now in most small towns and counties, part-time only.)

Is this a panacea, the best possible form of government? Of course not. But what it is, I believe, is a vast improvement over the squalid mess we have now. At the very least, it is a starting point for discussions of ways to rethink our current mess from the bottom up.