Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saddam's hanging by masked, jeering jackals.

From NYT:

A new video that appeared on the Internet late Saturday, apparently made by a witness with a camera cellphone, underscored the unruly, mocking atmosphere in the execution chamber.

This continued, on the video, through the actual hanging itself, with a shout of “The tyrant has fallen! May God curse him!” as Mr. Hussein hung lifeless, his neck snapped back and his glassy eyes open.

The cacophony from those gathered before the gallows included a shout of “Go to hell!” as the former ruler stood with the noose around his neck in the final moments, and his riposte, barely audible above the bedlam, which included the words “gallows of shame.” It continued despite appeals from an official-sounding voice, possibly Munir Haddad, the judge who presided at the hanging, saying, “Please no! The man is about to die.”

The Shiites who predominated at the hanging began a refrain at one point of “Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!”— the name of a volatile cleric whose private militia has spawned death squads that have made an indiscriminate industry of killing Sunnis — appending it to a Muslim imprecation for blessings on the Prophet Muhammad. “Moktada,” Mr. Hussein replied, smiling contemptuously. “Is this how real men behave?”

Economics of plug-in hybrids

Former CIA director James Woolsey in WSJ:
Once plug-ins start appearing in showrooms it is not only consumers and utility shareholders who will be smiling. If cheap off-peak electricity supplies a portion of our transportation needs, this will help insulate alternative liquid fuels from OPEC market manipulation designed to cripple oil's competitors. Indian and Chinese demand and peaking oil production may make it much harder for OPEC today to use any excess production capacity to drive prices down and destroy competitive technology. But as plug-ins come into the fleet low electricity costs will stand as a substantial further barrier to such market manipulation. Since OPEC cannot drive oil prices low enough to undermine our use of off-peak electricity, it is unlikely to embark on a course of radical price cuts at all because such cuts are painful for its oil-exporter members. Plug-ins thus may well give investors enough confidence to back alternative liquid fuels without any need for new taxes on oil or subsidies to protect them.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Cockburn on Saddam

London Times
He will leave behind an Iraq in which the rule of law, which at least retained some outward form under Saddam’s tyranny, has all but disappeared, both in form and substance, supplanted by the regime of the death squad and suicide bomber. True, Saddam’s trial and appeal had the outward show of a regular judicial procedure, but there were enough flagrant irregularities — with defence evidence routinely excluded by the judge, and the results of his appeal pre-announced by an Iraqi government official — to have reminded the defendant of the way he used to run things.

Hitchens on Ford

To have been soft on Republican crime, soft on Baathism, soft on the shah, soft on Indonesian fascism, and soft on Communism, all in one brief and transient presidency, argues for the sort of sportsmanlike Midwestern geniality that we do not ever need to see again.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Publicity seekers' catfight

"It's too bad a degenerate is able to get away with things like that."

-- Donald Trump on lesbian Rosie O'Donnell, after she called him "the comb-over."

Monday, December 25, 2006

Rising seas, caused by global warming, have for the first time washed away an inhabited island -- Lohachara island, in India's part of the Sundarbans where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Why retailers love Christmas

From WSJ: In theory, smoother sales throughout the year would be better for retailers, enabling them to avoid the extra costs of planning and stocking up for the holidays. But most tend not to see it that way. "Christmas is the lifeblood of the retail business," says Elliot Braha, who has been selling collectibles such as Swarovski crystal for 30 years as owner of Edwardo Galleries of New York. "It's a time of year when people don't have a choice. They have to spend."
A motivated buyer generally means a higher price and bigger profit for the seller.

Book notes

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides
  • Maps in the 1840's assumed the existence of Buenaventura, a river connecting the Great Lakes to the Pacific. Fremont was looking for it.
  • Is James K. Polk the most underrated President of the United States? In a self-limited single 4-year term, he took on the Mexicans and the British and established the western 1/3 of the continental U.S., opening up the Pacific and Asia. Since the criteria for being on Mt. Rushmore (we discovered this summer) is the expansion and preservation of the nation, Polk strikes me as being more deserving to be up there than Roosevelt, despite T.R.'s significant contribution to the enterprise.
George Will
The average weight of American men (191 pounds) and women (164 pounds) has increased 25 pounds since 1960. And according to one study, in 2003 Americans' 223 million cars and light trucks burned an extra 39 million gallons of fuel for every additional pound of passenger weight. So Americans are using almost a billion gallons of gasoline more each year than they would if they were as (comparatively) svelte as they were in 1960.

Debate over Mary Cheney

From Slate
It's true that two parents are better than one. It's also true that married parents are better than unmarried ones. But those aren't arguments against gay parenthood. They're arguments for gay marriage.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The waste of Christmas consumerism

From TNR

According to New York department stores, each year about 15 percent of all retail dollar purchases at Christmas are returned. Allowing for the fact that many misdirected gifts are retained because people feel obliged to keep them (such as appliances, tablecloths, etc., which must be displayed when the relative who gave them to you comes for a visit), and allowing for the widespread inability of children to return gifts, this indicates that up to a third of purchases may be ill-suited to their recipients. Christmas is really a throwback to all the inefficiencies of the barter economy, in which people have to match other people's wants to their offerings. Of course, money was invented precisely to solve this "double coincidence of wants" problem. One solution would be to require people to give each other cash as presents, but that would quickly reveal the absurdity of the whole institution.

"Forced giving" also artificially pumps up consumption and reduces savings, since it is unlikely that all the silly and expensive presents given at Christmas would be given at other times of the year. One particularly noxious aspect of Christmas consumption is "conspicuous giving," which involves luxury gifts such as Tiffany eggs, crystal paperweights, and $15,000 watches that are designed precisely for those who are least in need of any present at all ("the person who has everything''). Most such high-priced gifts are given at Christmas; the fourth quarter, according to a sampling of New York department stores, provides more than half the year's diamond, watch, and fur sales.

Naturally, gratuitous spending delights retailers. Christmas accounts for more than a fifth of their sales and two-fifths of their profits, which suggests a Marxist explanation for the holiday--a powerful economic interest underlying the season's gift-centered ideology. But for the nation as a whole it increases the burden of consumer debt (almost a quarter of Christmas season sales are financed by credit cards or charge accounts, and January is the peak month for credit card delinquencies) and reduces our flagging savings rate (now below 5 percent of national income).

For parents, one especially exasperating aspect of Christmas is mindless toy fetishism. Christmas now accounts for 60 percent of the United States' annual $17 billion expenditure on toys and video games, according to the Toy Manufacturers Association. Much of this rapidly depreciating toy capital consists of TV-show tie-ins (there are 350 separate Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle products and scores more of Ghostbusters and Bart Simpson figures) and expensive gadgets that do not work or hold interest for more than a day. According to the toy association, the country now spends nearly as much on video games like Nintendo's Super Mario and Gameboy (nearly $4 billion), activity figures like World Wrestlers ($500 million), and dolls like Barbie and My Pretty Ballerina ($1.1 billion) as on all retail book sales ($6.6 billion). Since six of the top ten toys are made by Japanese companies, one might adduce a subtle long-run Japanese strategy here.

And, presumably, most of the remaining toys are made by the Chinese.

Jesus = $$$

From SF Cronicle

After 30 years of onscreen carnage, resulting in a triple-digit body count, Sylvester Stallone is promoting his new "Rocky Balboa" by talking up his rediscovery of Christianity. In conference calls with religious leaders over the past few weeks -- and with the help of a marketing expert who promoted Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" -- Stallone said he thinks Hollywood should make more movies the whole family can see.

Like, say, "Rocky Balboa," which opens today -- 21 years after Stallone's character killed 57 people in "Rambo: First Blood, Part II."

"We need the God-fearing script, the script that really deals with compassion and deals with the word of Jesus and God, and believe me, people will rally behind it because we need it."

Some Thomas Friedman rules about the Middle East

Rule 1: What people tell you in private in the Middle East is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language. Anything said to you in English, in private, doesn’t count. In Washington, officials lie in public and tell the truth off the record. In the Mideast, officials say what they really believe in public and tell you what you want to hear in private.

Rule 3: If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all — they won’t believe it.

Rule 8: Civil wars in the Arab world are rarely about ideas — like liberalism vs. communism. They are about which tribe gets to rule. So, yes, Iraq is having a civil war as we once did. But there is no Abe Lincoln in this war. It’s the South vs. the South.

Rule 9: In Middle East tribal politics there is rarely a happy medium. When one side is weak, it will tell you, “I’m weak, how can I compromise?” And when it’s strong, it will tell you, “I’m strong, why should I compromise?”

Rule 10: Mideast civil wars end in one of three ways: a) like the U.S. civil war, with one side vanquishing the other; b) like the Cyprus civil war, with a hard partition and a wall dividing the parties; or c) like the Lebanon civil war, with a soft partition under an iron fist (Syria) that keeps everyone in line. Saddam used to be the iron fist in Iraq. Now it is us. If we don’t want to play that role, Iraq’s civil war will end with A or B.

Rule 11: The most underestimated emotion in Arab politics is humiliation. The Israeli-Arab conflict, for instance, is not just about borders. Israel’s mere existence is a daily humiliation to Muslims, who can’t understand how, if they have the superior religion, Israel can be so powerful. Al Jazeera’s editor, Ahmed Sheikh, said it best when he recently told the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche: “It gnaws at the people in the Middle East that such a small country as Israel, with only about seven million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million. That hurts our collective ego. The Palestinian problem is in the genes of every Arab. The West’s problem is that it does not understand this.”

Rule 12: Thus, the Israelis will always win, and the Palestinians will always make sure they never enjoy it. Everything else is just commentary.

Rule 13: Our first priority is democracy, but the Arabs’ first priority is “justice.” For Iraq’s long-abused Shiite majority, democracy is first and foremost a vehicle to get justice. Ditto the Kurds. For the minority Sunnis, democracy in Iraq is a vehicle of injustice. For us, democracy is all about protecting minority rights. For them, democracy is first about consolidating majority rights and getting justice.

Rule 15: Whether it is Arab-Israeli peace or democracy in Iraq, you can’t want it more than they do.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Anti-straight discrimination

From Boston Herald
“What if I was saying this building is just for heterosexual people, or Muslims, or Jews or Catholics. What’s the difference?,” asked Michael Carucci, head of ERA Boston Real Estate Group. “To take it the next step and say this building is just for gay people - it’s a bit much,” he said.
Joy Malchodi, who hopes to buy a condo at the Fenway’s proposed Stonewall at Audubon Circle, acknowledged that living in a like-minded community is a major attraction for her. The 58-year-old Fort Point resident recalls days when most gays and lesbians stayed in the closet.
“You would really know your neighbors,” Malchodi said. “The boys would have wonderful dinner parties and I would have plenty of women to go golfing with.”
It's unfortunate that
Joy Malchodi had to live much of her life in a gay ghetto/closet and suffer the consequent stunting of social and emotional development. But 58 is as good an age as any to grow up.

Book Notes - Dawkins

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

James Madison: "During almost 15 centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been it's fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry, and persecution"

An evolutionary explanation for the human predisposition toward religion: "More than any other species, we survive by the accumulated experience of previous generations, and that experience needs to be passed on to children for their protection and well being." Transmission of experience is made more efficient by faithful obedience, but faithful obedience makes human vulnerable to malicious memes (mind viruses).

Interesting discussion of the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific, in which natives tried to mimic the odd behaviors of white men in the belief that these behaviors were religious rituals which elicited ship cargos of magical supplies from the gods. The cargo cults even included a Christ-like figure that would return, ending the world and providing abundant cargo for all the natives.

"With or without [religion] you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion" -- Steven Weinberg

To call bin Laden 'evil is to evade our responsibility to give a proper answer -- why did nineteen middle-class men trade their lives in this world for the privilege of killing thousands of our neighbors? Because they believed they would go straight to paradise for doing so. It is rare to find behavior of humans so fully and satisfactorily explained. Why have we been so reluctant to accept this explanation?

The terrorists perceive their acts to be good not because of some warped personal idiosyncrasy, and not because they have been possessed by Satan, but because they have been brought up from the cradle, to have total and unquestioning faith.

If hell was plausible, it would only have to be moderately unpleasant in order to deter.

Why don't faithful visitors at [a dying woman's] bedside shower her with messages for those who have gone before? 'Do give me love to Uncle Robert when you see him. . .

There is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning and point. . .Somebody else most be responsible for my well being and somebody else must be responsible in I am hurt.

Everytime you drink a glass of water, the odds are good that you will imbibe at least one molecule that passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell
Leonard Pitts

I find it telling that Vice President Dick Cheney hews to the hard conservative line on virtually every social issue, except gay marriage. It is, of course, no coincidence that Cheney has a daughter who is a lesbian. Which tells me his position is based not on principle but, rather, on loving his daughter.

It is a fine thing to love your daughter. I would argue, however, that it is also a fine thing and in some ways, a finer thing, to love your neighbor's daughter, no matter her sexual orientation, religion, race, creed or economic status -- and to want her freedom as eagerly as you want your own.

Iraq notes

Some thoughts after reading The New Yorker's KNOWING THE ENEMY on the treadmill:
  • Hussein didn't believe that the U.S. would ever invade Iraq because he had build up such a huge poison pill though degraded infrastructure and massive caches of money and weapons to fuel an insurgency.
  • Likewise, the U.S. military built its own type of poison pill after Vietnam. To insure that it would not get trapped in a Vietnam-style counter-insurgency again, it basically shed all its counter-insurgency capabilities.
  • Neither Hussein nor U.S. military strategists anticipated the that a combination of unlikely events would invest so much power in someone as naive as George W. Bush.
  • From a purely strategic standpoint, it would have made perfect sense to completely stabilize Afghanistan before moving on to Iraq. Hussein did nothing to force our hand. The reason Bush jumped the gun on Iraq was to take advantage of the domestic political momentum created by 911. He is driving stakes in the ground to force future Presidents to finish the work he started (or clean up his mess, depending on your perspective)
  • Why was Rumsfeld so reluctant to provide sufficient troops or increase troop levels to the appropriate metrics? His agenda in taking the Sec Def job was RMA -- Revolution in Military Affairs -- replacing troops with smart technology. Increasing troops levels would have robbed him of money for RMA. Conversely, keeping troop levels artificially low would speed the development of RMA and force its acceptance. New military technologies and tactics are never really accepted until validated in a real battlefield.
David Brooks cooments: One gets the feeling from his articles that America’s enemies are playing a different game. They’re waging an open-source campaign for cultural symbols, while we’re oblivious to anything we can’t drive over or kill.

Free-market U.S. beats Eurocrats on growth of CO2 emissions

From WSJ:

Once the supply of permits is more in line with the eurocrats' ambitious environmental goals, though, expect European industry to take a big hit. The number of firms moving manufacturing work to countries without emissions caps, such as China and India, will only grow. That might make Europe's emissions data look good, but it will have zero net effect on the world's production of greenhouse gases.

Some companies may elect to purchase cleaner equipment, but the rising cost of compliance -- i.e., buying more carbon permits at higher prices once the supply is slashed -- will eat into the money available for developing the next generation of clean technology. In short, Europe offers no magic solution for capping greenhouse gases.

America may even have a few things to teach the Old World. The U.S. strategy has been to keep economic growth strong and provide incentives for private industry to develop cleaner technologies. For instance, the Bush Administration has proposed $1 billion in tax credits for nine new coal-fired power plants that will double efficiency and reduce pollution compared with older generations. China is picking up on these tactics. This year it bought $58 million in machines from Caterpillar Inc. that trap methane in coal mines and use it to power electric generators.

If global-warming activists were as interested in lowering air temperatures as they are in expanding the role of the state, they'd understand that the key to reducing carbon emissions lies in unleashing the private sector, not capping it. That's the real lesson from the policies -- and the results -- in Europe and the U.S.

Friday, December 15, 2006

WASHINGTON -- President Bush says he is happy for Mary Cheney, the openly gay daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, who revealed earlier this month that she is pregnant.

"I think Mary is going to be a loving soul to her child," Bush said in an interview with People magazine. "And I'm happy for her."

Bush was asked about Mary Cheney's pregnancy in light of his
previous statements that a child ideally should be raised by in a family headed by a married father and mother.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said on Friday that Bush has not changed his mind. "But he also believes that every human life is sacred and that every child who comes into this world deserves love," Snow said. "And he believes that Mary Cheney's child will, in fact, have loving parents."

Party time in Bagdad

WASHINGTON --Flame-resistant uniforms will be standard issue for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan by early 2007, Pentagon officials say. . .NOMEX, a DuPont-manufactured fiber, resists burning for about 9 seconds, long enough to allow troops to escape from a burning vehicle, Edwards said.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Attention "official liquor donors": our holiday party is still available for sponsorship

At least one product of Kazakhstan managed to gain access to Vice President Dick Cheney’s holiday party on Tuesday night at his Massachusetts Avenue residence.Snow Queen vodka, a product of the central Asian country, was the “official liquor donor” at the 400-strong party of high-powered pols and their staffers.

Money spent worldwide on military jets vs. private jets

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The plot thickens

DENVER (Reuters) - A second Colorado evangelical leader in little over a month has resigned from the pulpit over a scandal involving gay sex, church officials said on Tuesday. . .Barnes was confronted by an associate pastor of the church who received an anonymous phone call from a person who heard someone was threatening to go public with the names of Barnes and other evangelical leaders who engaged in homosexual behavior, [church spokeswoman Michelle] Ames said.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

More on Bush and Webb

Via Think Progress:
But according to Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), Bush was told that Webb’s son had a recent brush with death in Iraq and was warned to be “extra sensitive” when talking to the Sen.-elect. ThinkProgress yesterday spoke with Moran’s office and confirmed the congressman’s statement, first reported by hcc in VA:
Not only did Bush know about it, he was specifically briefed on the incident before meeting with Webb, and was cautioned to be extra sensitive in speaking with Webb about his son.
After such a briefing, Bush perhaps shouldn’t have been so surprised about Webb’s unwillingness to chit-chat about his son.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Creeping dictatorship

Sullivan on Padilla

This, remember, is an American citizen, who was charged with grievous crimes even the government has now dropped for lack of any evidence. Locked away for four years in solitary confinement, and not even allowed to walk down a hallway without night-goggles, in order to keep him disoriented. Padilla may not be successfully prosecuted because his treatment means evidence from his own testimony is too tainted by torture to be admitted in court. (Qahtani has also retracted everything he was tortured to say.) This is the America Bush has created: lawless, brutal, inhumane, and incompetent. We have no evidence that any of this has made you safer. But it has struck at the very heart of the liberty this country was founded to protect and defend.
From George Will

[McCain said] Absent a commitment to send significantly more troops to Iraq, it would be "immoral" to keep asking the same number of troops "to risk life and limb so that we might delay our defeat for a few months or a year."

George Stephanopoulos: "President Bush has said he doesn't want to send more troops now. So by your own standards isn't it currently immoral to keep Marines and soldiers, other service people in Iraq?"

McCain: "Yes it is."

Moments later, Stephanopoulos asked: "At what point do you say, I am not going to be complicit with an immoral policy?"

McCain: "When I think we've exhausted every possibility to do what is necessary to succeed and not until then, because the consequences of failure are catastrophic. . . . We left Vietnam, it was over, we just had to heal the wounds of war. We leave this place, chaos in the region and they'll follow us home. So there's a great deal more at stake here in this conflict in my view. A lot more."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Book notes

NYT 10 best books of 2006

Need to read:

By Gary Shteyngart. Random House, $24.95.
Shteyngart's scruffy, exuberant second novel, equal parts Gogol and Borat, is immodest on every level - it's long, crude, manic and has cheap vodka on its breath. It also happens to be smart, funny and, in the end, extraordinarily rich and moving. "Absurdistan" introduces Misha Vainberg, the rap-music-obsessed, grossly overweight son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia. After attending college in the United States, he is now stuck in St. Petersburg, scrambling for an American visa that may never arrive. Caught between worlds, and mired in his own prejudices and thwarted desires, Vainberg just may be an antihero for our times.

A Memoir.

By Danielle Trussoni. Henry Holt & Company, $23.
This intense, at times searing memoir revisits the author's rough-and-tumble Wisconsin girlhood, spent on the wrong side of the tracks in the company of her father, a Vietnam vet who began his tour as "a cocksure country boy" but returned "wild and haunted," unfit for family life and driven to extremes of philandering, alcoholism and violence. Trussoni mixes these memories with spellbinding versions of the war stories her father reluctantly dredged up and with reflections on her own journey to Vietnam, undertaken in an attempt to recapture, and come to terms with, her father's experiences as a "tunnel rat" who volunteered for the harrowing duty of scouring underground labyrinths in search of an elusive and deadly enemy.

A Natural History of Four Meals.

By Michael Pollan. The Penguin Press, $26.95.
"When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety," Pollan writes in this supple and probing book. He gracefully navigates within these anxieties as he traces the origins of four meals - from a fast-food dinner to a "hunter-gatherer" feast - and makes us see, with remarkable clarity, exactly how what we eat affects both our bodies and the planet. Pollan is the perfect tour guide: his prose is incisive and alive, and pointed without being tendentious. In an uncommonly good year for American food writing, this is a book that stands out.

By Rory Stewart. Harvest/Harcourt, Paper, $14.
"You are the first tourist in Afghanistan," Stewart, a young Scotsman, was warned by an Afghan official before commencing the journey recounted in this splendid book. "It is mid-winter - there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee." Stewart, thankfully, did not die, and his report on his adventures - walking across Afghanistan in January of 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban - belongs with the masterpieces of the travel genre. Stewart may be foolhardy, but on the page he is a terrific companion: smart, compassionate and human. His book cracks open a fascinating, blasted world miles away from the newspaper headlines.

From NRO

What’s gone wrong with the GOP? Let me start by quoting a friend who is both gay and conservative (yes, I know several such): “I’m for low taxes, strong defense and limited government. Why doesn’t the Republican party want me?”

There’s a two-part answer to that question and neither half is good news. The first is that today’s GOP doesn’t really want gays — and it yearns to supervise everybody else’s bedroom and reproductive behavior as well as (implicitly, at least) their relationship to God. The second is that Republicans are no longer really in favor of limited government. Besides having their own version of a nanny state, they want to spend and spend, start program after program, ladle out the pork, make deals with influence peddlers, and spin the revolving door between Capitol Hill and K Street. Yes, they still pretend to favor low taxes but that’s an illusion; they pay for limitless government via huge deficits that will mean high taxes for my granddaughter.