Friday, July 16, 2004

the Cheney headhunt

Rich Lowry has an article on Democrats who want Bush to dump Cheney. But he fails to point out that there is a strong Republican reason too: Cheney will never run for president. I'm a great admirer of Dick Cheney. In fact I like him a lot better than I do Bush. But I do not want him to be president. Secretary of State? Sure! I'd replace Powell with Cheney in a second. But with his heart condition, I just don't think it would be wise to have him as president.

Thanks to DGCI for the link.

new Kerry endorsements

Donald Sensing reports that Kerry has received the endorsement of the Godless Americans (no really, go read the link) and the Communist Party USA. Now Kerry has also received an unofficial endorsement from the
Mall Groper:
Town police are looking for a man who sexually groped two women in a mall parking lot last week. The incidents July 8 happened within minutes of each other in the same area of the Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall, police said.

In the first incident, Lisa Hayes of the Town of Poughkeepsie was with her children and about to get into her car about 12:30 p.m. when the man approached her.

''I was putting the stroller in the trunk and was walking to get in the car and all of a sudden, I felt a presence behind me,'' she said.

Startled, Hayes said she pulled back as the man reached for her hand while peeling off homemade John Kerry stickers he was carrying.

''He was saying, 'Are you going to vote for Kerry?' '' Hayes said. ''He started sticking them on my breasts and feeling them.''
Yeah, this is a cheap shot against Kerry, but it was just too good to pass up.

Link from my right-wing resource, James.

terrorist jokers

By now, you've probably read this article about fourteen suspicious-acting Arab men on a US domestic flight (from Michelle Malkin). I'd like to focus on a few details:
...we watched as, one by one, most of the Middle Eastern men made eye contact with each other. They continued to look at each other and nod, as if they were all in agreement about something...
The man in the yellow T-shirt got out of his seat and went to the lavatory at the front of coach -- taking his full McDonald's bag with him. When he came out of the lavatory he still had the McDonald's bag, but it was now almost empty. He walked down the aisle to the back of the plane, still holding the bag. When he passed two of the men sitting mid-cabin, he gave a thumbs-up sign. When he returned to his seat, he no longer had the McDonald's bag...
Then another man from the group stood up and took something from his carry-on in the overhead bin. It was about a foot long and was rolled in cloth. He headed toward the back of the cabin with the object...
Suddenly, seven of the men stood up -- in unison -- and walked to the front and back lavatories. One by one, they went into the two lavatories, each spending about four minutes inside.
I picked these out because they are the hardest to explain as innocent. And of course the totality of all suspicious behavior cannot be explained innocently.

There has been some speculation that this was a dry run, or that it was an event that was called off. I think it is unlikely that it was an event that was called off. If they had actually been doing anything in the bathrooms, it could hardly have been hidden from investigators. I also doubt that it was a dry run because it was just too obvious. If they had been trying out a plane-takeover technique, they would have been more subtle. There would have been no making eye contact and nodding. There would have been no thumbs-up or throat-slashing gestures; the signs would be unrecognizable. There would have been no congregating except just before the attack.

These cartoon-terrorist activities suggest the most likely explanation: a practical joke. Fourteen Arab men traveling together on an American plane. It probably seemed like a great opportunity to screw those Americans. Maybe they even hoped to get some publicity for their band.

It wouldn't be the first time this has happened. Shortly after 9/11, a woman called police about two Arab men talking in a restaurant in a sinister way. The press predictably made her out to by a hysterical racist, but it was pretty clear that they deliberately provoked her.

I suspect this situation is similar. I also wonder whether what the men did was not criminal and/or actionable. There were certainly terrified people on that plane. If several passengers would confirm the activities I quoted above, a jury could very well believe that it was deliberate. If so, I believe it meets the definition of assault. And even if it does not, they caused deliberate pain and suffering to a bunch of strangers for no reason other than their own pleasure. It that's the case, I expect they could win in civil court as well.

What would be the effects of either case? I think they would get a lot of media attention. Much of the media would no doubt paint the accusers as hysterical racists. But on the other hand, it would bring Pineta's suicidal policies into the spotlight for the election. It would be nice to have one or more presidential candidate go on record for effective terrorist profiling.

UPDATE: Donald Sensing doubts the truth of the story. He has some good points, but I think he is comparing witness statements about a very quick and surprising event with a witness statement about a long and drawn-out event. There really isn't that much detail for four hours of frightened observing. Also, the reporter probably conferred with her husband on details, so we are getting the union of two witness statements. And finally, some of the most unlikely-sounding stuff (the conversations with the stewardess) would have to come from the husband.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

the link between the FMA and judicial nominees

How many Democrats are going to be unavoidably out of town for the vote on the FMA? I can't say I'm a big fan of the FMA in its current incarnation, but this is a good opportunity for the Republicans. Why not schedule votes on all of Bush's filibustered court nominees on the same day as the FMA? Maybe enough Democrats will be out of town that the Republicans could get these fine jurists on the bench where they would be of valuable service to their country.

I always wondered why the Republicans didn't do this during the Democratic primary season. Why didn't they schedule cloture votes every week to interfere with all the Democrat senators on the campaign trail? Why can't the Republicans respond to the Democrat hardball minority-party politics with a few fast pitches of their own? The Democrat minority has exercised far more influence than they should have due to the fact that they are willing to fight and the Republicans are not.

bringing up Vietnam

From my right-wing informant James:
"I am saddened by the fact that Vietnam has yet again been inserted into the campaign, and that it has been inserted in what I feel to be the worst possible way.....The race for the White House should be about leadership, and leadership requires that one help heal the wounds of Vietnam, not reopen them....We do not need to divide America over who served and how."
-Senator John F. Kerry, February 27, 1992 Congressional Record.

invasion of privacy

Kathryn Jean Lopez passes on this report
Jack Dunphy tells me when he went to amazon to buy WFB's new book, Miles Gone By, he saw this on the same page:
Customers interested in this title may also be interested in:
Luxury Nude Vacation
Hidden Beach Resort Luxurious Nude Resort in Mexico
What if Mr. Dunphy was at Amazon looking for the book because it had just been recommended by his daughter? What if she had also told him that she bought some vacation books too, and was planning to take a vacation to Mexico this summer? Could this not lead Mr. Dunphy to wonder about his daughter's vacation plans? He would have to guess that only one person has made this particular buying decision. And he would have to guess that it has been recent. It's easy to come up with related scenarios where someone's privacy is invaded and it has serious consequences.

I read Amazon's privacy notice, and it doesn't mention anywhere that information about your buying habits might be made available to other customers. Even if they did tell us about this, they would claim that they only share information in aggregate, with no personal identifying information. Yet in this case it is possible to extract that personal identifying information.

I don't want to leave it up to some random programmer to decided what constitutes a safe and anonymous use of my information. I have no idea how conscientious or thoughtful he is. In this case, whoever wrote the program was an idiot. You should never provide sensitive "aggregate" information without using a lower bound on how many customers have been aggregated. Not only are you risking the privacy of your customers, you are providing useless information.

People who are using Google mail and other web services that gather personal information should keep this in mind. They say they aren't going to abuse their position but you don't know that they are even competent enough to keep their word, much less whether they are ethical enough.

On a related note: people should not provide a friend's personal information to a web site. Those harmless-looking links that say "email this to a friend" are a likely SPAM trap. You enter your friend's email address into a web form and they may have a lifetime of junk mail to thank you for. Of course this isn't a danger if the "email this to a friend" link just pops up your email program, only if you enter data into a web form.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

blues and bands

I just stopped by a small blues club near Fisherman's Warf. They leave the doors open so you can hear the music from outside as you walk by. I've always wanted to go in, but I've never been with someone who likes blues before. I love blues and R&B. Tonight my sister was visiting and she's usually up for anything so I got her to go with me.

I especially like blues harp (that's a harmonica) and the guy playing tonight was wailing. He shared the spotlight with the guitar. Blues guitar is good too, but it just doesn't have the soul of harmonica. Also, I don't play guitar.

The music selection could have been better. There were two vocalists, one (guitar) sang good songs and the other (keyboards) sang boring songs. But the band was terrific.

I was just thinking: you know, I've never gone into a club and found a band playing that wasn't terrific. Even small bars have great bands. I think this must be a consequence of the recording industry. I speculate that the easy access to recorded music has lowered the demand for live music to the point where only the very best bands can hope to play even semi-professionally.

Has anyone else ever run across a mediocre band playing professionally?

more power for the powerful

Bob Wenz has an interesting article on formalist criticism, which he calls "the intentional fallacy". He argues that this fallacy is at the heart of several important issues today: the Supreme Court's disregard of written law, various churches disregard of Scripture, and the idea of gay marriage.

I think it's worth adding that this movement is not only deeply cynical, but deeply anti-democratic as well. The Constitution was set up as a law for the federal government. It was supposed to restrict the federal government and prevent it from infringing the rights and freedoms of the states and citizens. When the federal courts claim that they are allowed to interpret this document in any way they like, they are essentially repudiating the limits on their own powers. They are like a man charged with a crime who gets to interpret the relevant laws in any way he wants.

The situation is similar when church leaders ignore scripture in order to implement their own social philosophies. Church leaders are not supposed to be a law to themselves, they are supposed to be subject to God. When they decide that they are entitled to read scripture in any way they like, then they are essentially rejecting the authority of God in favor of their own wisdom. You can hardly get more anti-Christian than that. The fallen will of man is one of the central teachings of Christianity. Yet these leaders prefer to rely on their own will than on the clear teaching of scripture.

So, if they aren't following the will of God, why do they have a job? What are they getting paid for? Why does anyone listen to them? Surely the members of these churches don't attend sermons to hear the worldly moralizing of some random, Godless, self-important seminary graduate. And surely they don't intend their contributions to support said seminary graduates either. Yet these church leaders seem completely comfortable taking money under false pretenses and undermining the very institution they are paid to shepherd. Have they no shame at all?

These three situations have a common element: they could not get their way with a democratic process. Even though they have the megaphone, they can't convince a majority to side with them. So they abuse their power, using their philosophy of interpretation as an excuse. And they feel good about it because they are so much wiser than the masses. The unruly masses need to be told what-for once in a while.

These leaders have decided that they are not bound by the same rules, laws, and institutions that bind everyone else. And only they have this higher wisdom, not the rest of us. If we did then they wouldn't need to give us so many laws to follow. They always want new laws telling us what drugs we can take, where we can buy them, what kind of car we can buy, how (or whether) we can defend ourselves, where we can smoke, what we can pay people, what we can do with our own land, what kinds of business we can run, what kinds of political advertisements we can run. And they take away a large percentage our money to spend in ways that they think are important, regardless of how we feel about it.

All of these restrictions for us, but not for the leaders. The federal government isn't bound by the Constitution specifically written to bind it. The church hierarchy isn't bound by the Word of the God it supposedly exists to serve. National leaders aren't bound by the tradition and custom that makes civil society possible. These elitists are bound by nothing but their own wisdom and good intentions. Libertarianism for me but not for thee. Just let someone try to pay less than the minimum wage and claim that he is interpreting the intentions of the law.

It is true that the constitution was never followed perfectly and consistently by those in power. And it is certainly true that Christians have not always followed scripture. There have always been philosophies and theories to play against a clear reading of the rules. But this new one, the bald and unapologetic retranslation of anything you don't like, is the most pernicious yet. It lets the powerful do whatever they want, and feel moral about it.

Thanks to One Hand Clapping for the link.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Joe Wilson and rational decision making

Clifford D. May has another great article about Joe Wilson's non-investigation into uranium purchases in Africa. It turns out that Iraq did try to by uranium in Niger (as any reasonable person would have expected) and that Joe Wilson was less than completely candid and professional.

I've had some big arguments with friends over the Bush lied issue. I could never actually pin them down to the two central commitments of a lie: that Bush believed Iraq never sought uranium from Africa and yet said that they did. But you know how these arguments go: they slip away from outright endorsing problematic claims and continue making statements that require those claims. And they never --even before the reports that May discusses-- had any evidence on their side, but that never made them doubt.

For example, they found enormous relevance in the fact that one set of documents purporting to show that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Africa turned out to be a forgery. These are smart guys. Scientists and engineers with graduate degrees. In no other area would they claim that because one piece of evidence gets discredited that you should throw out all the other evidence. Especially when the theory in question predates that particular evidence.

For another example: they are enormously impressed that Joe Wilson failed to find conclusive evidence for the theory. In no other real-world context would they claim that if one investigator failed to find conclusive evidence, that proves the theory is false. And they completely ignored the fact that he did find non-conclusive evidence: a high-level official told him that a high-level Iraqi official had wanted to discuss "trade". Since Niger produced nothing that Iraq might want besides uranium, he (the official) concluded that this is what the Iraqi agent wanted. This is not conclusive evidence, but it is strong evidence. So even a completely inexperienced investigator with a prejudice against the theory in only two weeks staying in one hotel and doing no legwork managed to find strong but not conclusive evidence for the theory. This sort of thing is not usually taken as a disproof of a theory.

When I pointed out that Bush had qualified his statement by referring to British intelligence, my friends insisted that since the CIA had "proven" that Iraq never sought uranium from Niger, he shouldn't have believed British intelligence. These same people are constantly talking about how bad CIA intelligence is. But in this one case, where there was (they claim) a dispute between the CIA and British Intelligence, they think that Bush going with British Intelligence was "lying". Outright, deliberate lying. Not a judgment call. Not a carefully cited reference to an authority. No. It's a bald-faced, deliberate, malicious lie. In no other area would they make judgments like this.

And in fact, there was no such dispute. The CIA never claimed it had proven that Iraq never sought uranium from Africa. The most that can be said is that they didn't feel certain that it had happened.

Experiences like this sometimes make me doubt even the possibility of objectivity. I respect these guys a lot. Like I said, they are very intelligent. And in technical areas they are very objective. I've witnessed each of them, several times, changing their mind on a technical issue after days of arguing. Eventually someone makes a new point and everyone agrees that it's conclusive. All of the people on the wrong side change their minds without a hint of stubbornness. These people don't let their egos effect their technical decision making at all.

In politics this never happens. The basic facts as I detailed them above were manifest to all of us. In my view, their position was completely indefensible. I couldn't say with certainty that they were wrong, but surely any reasonable person had to see the weakness (more like non-existence) of their case. Someone in the argument, whether them or me, had a failure of objectivity so severe that it led to completely irrational decision making.

I like to think that it wasn't me, but objectively, if I'm postulating the existence of this kind of mental breakdown, I have to acknowledge that there is no reason to suppose that I'm immune to it. How would someone know? It seemed completely clear to me that they were making a case out of nothing, yet it was presumably just as clear to them that they had strong evidence. How could I objectively reassure myself that I wasn't the one who was irrational?

Sunday, July 11, 2004

military intervention in Darfur

In the past, I've suggested a military intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur (black Darfurians being killed by Arab Darfurians, the Janjawid). Direct intervention isn't likely to happen because there is just too much opposition. Too many powerful countries have a vested interest in Sudanese oil. Also, no matter how good the US motives, and no matter how cynical the motives of our opposition (read France and China), the press, led by the BBC and the New York Times, would make Bush out to be the bad guy.

This doesn't mean there are no military options at all. When Ronald Reagan spent the USSR into defeat he didn't do it just by building up our own military forces. Reagan also supported reformers and rebels in places like Poland, Afghanistan and Nicaragua. These insurgencies created funding sinks on the Soviet economy that were even more urgent than the simple need to maintain parity.

George Bush could do something similar in Darfur. He could send trainers to the Darfur/Chad border to recruit, train, and arm black Darfurians in Chad. The "trainers" should be in a large enough force to quash any hope of a Mogadishu travesty. The prospect of American-trained rebels would cause serious worries for the government of the Sudan while largely stymieing the foes of the US. How can they condemn the US for merely training and arming the victims of genocide?

Of course this wouldn't avoid all criticism. The anti-American forces would accuse Bush of raising the level of violence. They would criticize him for not being able to find a purely diplomatic solution (as if anyone else has). They would abuse him for unilateralism. But any publicity will direct more attention at the genocide itself. As more is known about conditions in Darfur, the criticisms of Bush will ring more and more hollow.

It is possible that the government of the Sudan would concede quickly and agree to various demands such as disarming the Janjawid. If they refuse, the next step is to put together a force large enough, and near enough the border, that the Sudanese army would be forced to field a counter force.

With no violence yet perpetrated, this would have three salutary effects. First, it would stress the Sudanese government's resources, making it more difficult for them to garrison the villages and keep black Darfurians from farming. Second, the government would have to worry even more about mutiny in the ranks, as black Darfurian military personnel will suddenly have somewhere to desert to. Third, it would encourage acts of resistance by the black Darfurians still in Darfur.

The Sudanese government would be foolish to let it go this far, especially knowing that the US can effortlessly outspend them. This could be a bloodless victory for Bush. Of course you can't go in depending on a bloodless victory. The most important thing about pointing a gun at someone (after making sure it's loaded) is that the person you are pointing at must believe that you are willing to pull the trigger.