Saturday, December 30, 2006

Who Was Winston Churchill's Wife?

Driving to Ali Baba and Rural America's wedding rehearsal tonight, I sparked conversational fireworks.
[Someone:] "...and who you marry is the most important decision of your life..."
[Me:] "I hope I get to make decisions in my life more important than who I marry."
I had no intention of setting off so explosive a debate, but with young married friends in the car, I should have known better. We all engaged in friendly fracas, throwing out Scripture and invoking everyone from Jesus Christ to Hitler.

This may seem like a triviality or a debate over definitions, but I believe something of substance is at issue. Clearly, one's choice of spouse is a weighty and ticklish matter, and all the more important in a liberated society, one where neither women nor men are firmly wedded to societal norms. But what could be more important? Deciding to pursue a career that leads to a cure for cancer? Deciding to take a nation to war? No less a dignitary than Mrs. Hill agreed that for truly remarkable, influential people, their choice of spouse could be a decision of less import than other decisions they must make. As I asked a few times, Who was Winston Churchill's wife?

Most of my friends, however, seem to believe that for ordinary folks, a marriage is the most vital decision one can make (outside of choosing to follow Christ). Taking as given that we as Christians seek to glorify God above all, and that we generally do so in human life through relationships, it follows (they argue) that this most intimate of all human crucibles is thereby the most important; the more so because it greatly affects every subsequent relationship.

Furthermore, one friend argued, ambition is dangerous. To desire a decision of more import than marriage is to desire greatness, that unmeasurable but undeniable quality of but few of our race. This desire, I am told, leads to pride, running counter to the attitude of a Christian.

I concede this point to the degree that said ambition becomes the driving force in a man's life. But why does marriage get off so lightly? Is not the desire for a noble spouse just as selfish as the desire to be the best athlete or most successful CEO? Is it not a more godly attitude in any area of life to hope that one has the opportunity to make important decisions - and that one makes them well - than to avoid responsibility to the wider world?

When did Christianity cease to have as a central interest the state of the world around it? When did the family become the sole sphere of godly action and selflessness? Is not a man who delays marriage to care for his parents - my Moroccan friend Driss, a reader of this blog, comes to mind - more noble than one who marries wisely but neglects his aging parents? Jesus, speaking in Mark 7:11, certainly suggests so. Or does Mr. Churchill's choice of Clementine Hozier (after, Wikipedia notes, being turned down by Ethel Barrymore) loom larger in God's economy than his decision to go to war with Nazi Germany? And cannot the same be said for many people in many fields: that their decision for good or ill in some area of their life had a far greater impact - on people's lives, on world history, or on the advancement of God's peace on earth - than their decision of whom to marry.

Marriage is a God-given institution and dear to many hearts, married and single. To speak personally, I find in myself many oft-conflicting desires, impulses, appetites, and goals. Among these is the desire to marry and become a father. But these are not somehow more sanctified nor more important than, say, my desire to help my fellow man or my impulse to compete and excel. This perspective is borrowed from C.S. Lewis, who notes in The Screwtape Letters that even as 'good' an impulse as patriotism or mother-love can be wrong if not controlled by the will. Scripture is not silent on this issue:
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband...But this I say by way of concession, not of command...

But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
-I Corinthians 7:1-8, exerpted
To Paul, the fetishism of marriage in the American church would be a humorous reversal of first-century norms. Enshrinement of temporal relationships is as foolish as their denial.

Thus, it is rather in the manner I carry out the business of my life than in the content therof that God is chiefly glorified. Thus, the decisions of what career to pursue, where to live, or whom to marry are of import - but not of as great import as my friends suggest. Decisions of significantly greater magnitude are, I believe, a rare privilege, and one to be desired. As the Lord said,
"His master said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'"
-Matthew 25:21

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Mog Falls

The NYTimes just reported that Mogadishu has fallen to Somali Transitional National Government (TNG) and Ethiopian forces after being abandoned last night by the Islamic Courts. The Times' quick-and-dirty rundown of the backstory up to today is an echo of what Global Review predicted two nights ago:
The Islamists started out as a grass-roots movement of clan elders and religious leaders who banded together earlier this year to rid Mogadishu of its notorious warlords, earning them a lot of public support. But much of that good will seems to have been sapped by their decision to go to war against the transitional government and the Ethiopian forces protecting it.

The Islamists attacked Baidoa, the seat of the transitional government, on Dec. 20; a few days later, they announced that Somalia was open to Muslim fighters around the world who wanted to wage a holy war against Christian-led Ethiopia. That provoked a crushing counter-attack by the Ethiopians, who command the strongest military in East Africa. For the past week, the Islamists have lost one battle after another, their adolescent soldiers no match for a professional army.
But that doesn't mean the war is over. In fact, with the Islamists out of the way, Somali clans are taking up their favorite hobby again: wasting each other.
Mogadishu's new powers immediately had to deal with a rising level of chaos, as armed bandits swept the city and fragmented clan militia began to battle each other for the spoils of war. Witnesses said an intense gun battle raged around a former Islamist ammunition dump and that clan warlords had instantly reverted back to setting up roadside checkpoints and shaking down motorists for money. Many terrified residents stayed in their homes behind bolted doors and the few that ventured into the streets carried guns. "No one is really in command," said one adviser to Western diplomats who has close contacts with both the Islamists and the transitional government. "Chaos is in command."
The next 48 hours may be the most crucial in the war. If the Ethiopian-backed TNG can pacify Mog, peace may actually come. Otherwise, we're back in 1992.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Now if only he could tell us what birds are thinking...

The BBC notes an astoundingly intelligent parrot, who appears to speak English as well as a young child.
The bird, a captive African grey called N'kisi, has a vocabulary of 950 words, and shows signs of a sense of humour. He invents his own words and phrases if he is confronted with novel ideas with which his existing repertoire cannot cope - just as a human child would do...

He uses words in context, with past, present and future tenses, and is often inventive. One N'kisi-ism was "flied" for "flew", and another "pretty smell medicine" to describe the aromatherapy oils used by his owner, an artist based in New York. When he first met Dr Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert, after seeing her in a picture with apes, N'kisi said: "Got a chimp?"

He appears to fancy himself as a humourist. When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he commented: "You got to put this bird on the camera."
Yes, indeed.

Seeing Somalia

U.S. papers are following the experts closely in their 'reporting' on the war between Ethiopia and Somalia's Islamic Courts Union the past few days, in no small part because there are only a handful of reporters in the region. For their part, the experts are following Iraq's example to predict what will happen in Somalia.

The Washington Post quotes David Shinn, a former ambassador to Ethiopia:
"Over the long term, I don't see where this gets them. And one wonders how long they can hang on in this situation, because eventually it's going to turn into a nasty guerrilla war, and I don't think the Ethiopians have the stomach to carry on with that kind of campaign."
It was unclear where the Islamic fighters went. Some were spotted with their battle gear around Mogadishu; analysts said it was likely that most headed into the bush to prepare for a war on their own terms.
And in another article:
"Hasn't anyone heard of Iraq?" said John Prendergast, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Washington. "A military strategy of 'countering terrorism' never works and will likely blow up in their faces."
This is precisely what the Islamic Courts want their enemies to think. If true, it makes them dangerous; if false, it amounts to a good bluff.

So what's a civilization to do? Western secular democracy is threatened by a violent world force - militant Islam - which has proven to be as deadly to eradicate as to ignore. Prendergast, Shinn, and others would have Ethiopia leave Somalia to the Islamic Courts. What would result? Taliban-like laws have already been enacted, and conceivably the Courts could reconquer autonomous Puntland and independent Somaliland (sidenote: it's better late than never for the U.S. to recognize Somaliland). A government relying on theocratic fear and uniting its people using militant anger towards outsiders is bound to go to war; else it loses its legitimacy.

For Ethiopia, a third war with Somalia was inevitable under the Courts. Ethiopia had the luxury of being able to choose the time. They chose wisely.

The Courts are not yet deeply rooted, and if there is any hope for a peaceful, secular Somalia, it is to abort this government before it takes full form. The people can still withdraw their support, and the Courts have almost no bureaucratic infrastructure. A swift punitive thrust by a powerful neighbor may be sufficient to turn Somalis away from the Courts.

The best-case scenario is that support for the Courts dries up quickly, and the recognized government can imitate the Courts in public works, and accomplish calm, but without the violent rhetoric and daily executions.

This is unlikely, but in any event it is difficult to imagine Somalis waging any kind of war - terrorist or otherwise - against the Ethiopian homeland. If the Courts survive, Ethiopia will quickly and convincingly respond to any attack. If the Courts collapse, their potential recruits will be swallowed up by whatever configuration of the ongoing Somali civil war follows this one. Either way, Ethiopia won't dawdle in Somalia, so they won't be there to kill.

So Somalia isn't Iraq; or, perhaps more insightfully, Ethiopia isn't America.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

VR-Day: Victory in Rochester

The Giants win the pennant. The war in Europe is over. Sic semper tyrranis. I will resign the presidency effective noon tomorrow. I got an A- in Macro.

Monday, December 18, 2006

This Is Why Democracies Don't Fight

Generally, democracies don't go to war. There are, of course, exceptions, like Israel's assault on Lebanon this summer. But generally, democracies don't go to war because they don't want to.

Two democratic countries, considered enemies by all and potential combatants by some, have been pulled back from potential conflict - not by the UN, not by international mediation, but by their own indigenous democratic processes.

I'm referring, of course, to the U.S. and Iran. While neither country saw its warlike leader up for reelection, midterms in both countries have repudiated nationalist policies. The results of the U.S. elections are well known. Iran's election returns are coming in today, with victories for moderate conservatives.

Iran is not a full democracy by any stretch of the imagination. Parties and candidates must be approved by a central council, civil society is constrained, sometimes brutally. And Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is a brute. But it should be apparent that even this severely limited version of democracy is preferable to the alternative - even if the "alternative" (the Shah, for instance) is U.S.-friendly.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Free-for-All 2008

I did not expect this month's rankings to be much more helpful than last month's. Candidates who are announcing that they will (or won't!) run generate more news than they should. However, things actually look remarkably stable, and not only at the extremes. On the Republican side, the results are almost astounding: two non-contenders who were big newsmakers in the 2006 cycle have dropped off the map, Sam Brownback has leapt to 'contender' level, but everyone else has held their relative places, despite newly announced candidacies and publicity stunts.

Likewise, while Obamania has propelled Illinois' junior senator to the two-hole, Hillary still reigns supreme. After the elections, the Democrats have a clear advantage, with Nancy Pelosi taking center-stage as a combative Washington insider, enabling her compatriots to rack up frequent-flyer miles to Manchester and Des Moines. Their electoral success probably helped "new" Democrats (Obama, of course, but also Clinton and Richardson) and hurt establishment warriors Kerry, Edwards, and Gore. Pelosi and co. proved that Democrats can win nationally, suggesting that the problem in 2000 and 2004 wasn't the message, it was the messengers.

The monthly prediction...
Dec '06: Clinton & Obama over McCain & Giuliani
Nov '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Oct '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Sep '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Aug '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Jul '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Jun '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
May '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Apr '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Mar '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Rice
Feb '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Rice

Rank Candidate ChatterRank Change
R.1 Sen. John McCain 8,9700
R.2 Gov. Mitt Romney 4,170+1
R.3 Rudy Giuliani 3,810+1
R.4 Sen. Bill Frist 2,450+1
R.5 Sen. Sam Brownback 2,170+7
R.6 Secy. Condoleezza Rice 1,940+1
R.7 Gov. Mike Huckabee 1,640+1
R.8 Rep. Duncan Hunter 1,520+1
R.9 Newt Gingrich 1,110+1
R.10 Gov. George Pataki 1,100+1
R.11 Sen. Chuck Hagel 863+2
R.12 Sen. George Allen 718-10
R.13 Tommy Thompson 658+1
R.14 Gov. Jeb Bush 308-8
D.1 Sen. Hillary Clinton 6,9700
D.2 Sen. Barack Obama 5,780+1
D.3 Sen. John Kerry 4,440-1
D.4 Sen. John Edwards 3,710+2
D.5 Gov. Tom Vilsack 3,3500
D.6 Sen. Harry Reid 2,970-2
D.7 Sen. Joseph Biden 2,5800
D.8 Sen. Evan Bayh 2,260+6
D.9 Gov. Bill Richardson 1,760+2
D.10 Sen. Christopher Dodd 1,220+3
D.11 Al Gore 1,210-3
D.12 Howard Dean 917-2
D.13 Sen. Russ Feingold 726-1
D.14 Gov. Mark Warner 684-6
D.15 Wesley Clark 4470

Notes: The Chatter Rankings are created by searching each candidate's name plus "2008" in the Google News database. Last month's rankings had errant counting on the GOP side; that has been fixed.

See graphs of the past Chatter Rankings plus Chatter Rankings from November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, December, August, July, June, and May.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Iraq II or World War III?

The NYTimes reports on the coming war between Ethiopia and the newly unified Somali Islamists. After fifteen years of chaos, Somalis are united around a common - and old - enemy. Shades of Mohamed Siad Barre. Shades of the Taliban. Shades of the Crusades.
"I am ready to die," said Osama Abdi Rahim, dressed head to toe in camouflage and marching around with a loaded rifle. He is 7 years old.
Ethiopia is the West's 'agent' in the region (as it has been since 1500), shoring up the pitiful, internationally recognized government in Baidoa (map here). The Islamists control Mogadishu and enjoy the support of most Somalis.
Their troops, which United Nations officials say are secretly getting weapons from several Arab countries and Eritrea, have encircled Baidoa and are vowing to wage war against the Ethiopian forces unless they leave. Ethiopian convoys have been attacked, and the Islamists recently skirmished with soldiers from Baidoa, with dozens reported killed. That taste of war seems to have whetted the appetite for more.
America has an ugly history in this region. You've all seen Black Hawk Down, and you should read it, so you know how swimmingly the 1993 UN intervention went. More recently, the U.S. covertly supported the warlords against the Islamists. That backfired.

Ethiopia's history isn't much better. It's been a holdout against Islam in East Africa for centuries, and is a 'Christian' country where 60% of the citizens are Muslims, and treated as an unpopular minority. Many of these live in the Ogaden desert and identify as Somalis; Ethiopia fought off Somalia in 1977-1978 for control of the Ogaden.

Using Ethiopia as a proxy to fight the Islamists could lead to a spreading war. Chad is already in civil war, as is Eastern Sudan. The Sudanese might be able to end the Darfur crisis by following the Somali model: unite against a common - Christian - enemy. If Ethiopia is attacking a fellow Islamist government, Sudan could force a two-front war by attacking from the north. Likewise, Eritrea, always scrappy with its former lords, could engage from the east. Uganda's civil war has seen a break in the clouds of late, but Joseph Kony couldn't resist finding a new role for his LRA in a general East African war. That could link up the East African conflicts with the Central African conflicts, which the UN has been damping for ten years in the Congo and all its neighbors.

Admittedly, that's a doomsday scenario. More realistically, Ethiopia could quickly annihilate the pathetic Somalian military. But then what? The Times reports that the Ethiopians have already seen the first Iraq-style roadside bombs and suicide bombs ever used in Somalia. Pacifying Somalia is out of the question.

The other option is to negotiate with the Islamists. The Times presents that option:
"The Islamists aren’t going away, so the sooner we talk to them, the better," said Representative Donald M. Payne, the New Jersey Democrat who is expected to become the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa when his party takes control of Congress in January.

In Mogadishu the Islamists are continuing their hearts-and-minds campaign, organizing neighborhood cleanups, delivering food to the needy and resuscitating old national institutions like the Supreme Court, which was given a fresh coat of paint and reopened in October.

Streets that were clogged with years of debris are now clear and bureaucracy is budding, with more rules and more paperwork, including forms at the airport that ask name, age, nationality and religion — Muslim or non-Muslim being the only choices.

All the talk of slaughtering Ethiopian invaders and their American sponsors, though, seems to have brought out a harsher side of the Islamic administration. Nearly every day, rings of people gather on Mogadishu’s streets to watch lashings, and the crowds cheer as leather whips cut canals into flesh. One Islamic leader in a town north of Mogadishu recently issued an edict threatening that anyone who did not pray five times a day would be beheaded.

"It’s black and white," said the leader, Hussein Barre Rage. "The Koran says people must pray."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Even Shaughnessy

Even Dan Shaughnessy can't say 'humbug' to this one. His column today (an open letter to Dice-K) is good for a few laughs:
Be wary of a large teammate with a blond mullet wearing No. 38. He will explain that he is a spokesman for all of the other players and instruct you on everything from tipping the clubhouse kids to throwing the splitter. He will show you his copious notes on all major league umpires. He will tell you which media members to trust and which ones are snakes. He will also urge you to vote republican.

You will be impressed with your new catcher. Japanese ballplayers traditionally work harder and put in longer days than American players. You will appreciate the work ethic of Jason Varitek. He will be the best catcher you’ve ever had. Do everything he says. He will not tell you how to vote...

Do not be surprised or insulted when a Spanish-speaking playing wearing No. 24 greets you at spring training with, ‘‘Hey, who are you? When did we get you? Were you in Pawtucket last year? I love playing in Pawtucket.’’ This man will turn out to be the best hitter you have ever seen.

If you don’t want to learn English, we understand. In fact, it might not be a bad strategy. All you really need is one stock answer. Try ‘‘It is what it is.’’ You will be amazed how well that works.

Stalkerbook Item of the Day

With apologies to Sniper and Hutton, here's my 'Stalkerbook' (i.e. Facebook feed) item of the day.
Daisuke Matsuzaka left the group I Hate Scott Boras. 2:57pm
This day is indeed a beautiful one in Boston: the Sox get a top-flight pitcher for six years at $17m a year, much of which in the form of the posting fee, and the possibility of endless Japanese revenues. Assuming even Scott Boras can't derail a deal over the minutia, there's just one question left: Who will start at Kansas City on April 2?

Monday, December 11, 2006

The World According to Grad Students Intelligence Chairmen

World? What world? You mean there's something outside this tomb we call Harkness?

Yes there is, and Brownpau gives us a review of the literature (that's Harknesspeak) of several perspectives on said world. Based on a comparison of the several perspectives, I conclude that a 'world' does not in fact exist; if it did, it would have more consistently observable characteristics.

Update: The incoming House Intelligence Committee chairman is Rep. Silvestre Reyes, whose primary qualification was being Hispanic. He represents Nancy Pelosi's Solomonic compromise between white insider Jane Harman and corrupt black outsider Alcee Hastings. Mr. Reyes had an interview in Congressional Quarterly. It's a puff piece:
His long-term agenda includes determining "what are the emerging threats, what are the challenges we will see in the future that we’re going to have to face and prepare for. In that category would be things like Iran, North Korea, and some of the other areas of the world that we haven’t paid close attention."
A completely different story on CQ's website tells, well, a completely different story:
Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week... Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You’re talking about predominately?"
"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.
"Predominantly — probably Shiite," he ventured...

And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?
"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah...Why do you ask me these questions at five o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"
The world according to Silvestre Reyes.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Love Labor's Last

Today we had our last labor class of the semester (and hopefully the last of my life). We went over a paper that modeled fertility as a jointly dynamic process.

But isn't that obvious?

Mighty Lake Effect

Casey Zak's blog is always mighty, but this week it's also majestic, with some terrific photos of lake effect evaporation off Lake Ontario. Very little of that snow makes it as far south as UR, but Irondequoit gets buried on a regular basis.

Thursday, November 30, 2006


From WaPo, hat tip to Drudge.
It was a solemn pledge, repeated by Democratic leaders and candidates over and over: If elected to the majority in Congress, Democrats would implement all of the recommendations of the bipartisan commission that examined the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Some of those recommendations, of course, are more easily implemented by the executive branch, or at least with executive cooperation. But others are completely within the realm of the legislature, and a majority party could simply and easily implement them.
But with control of Congress now secured, Democratic leaders have decided for now against implementing the one measure that would affect them most directly: a wholesale reorganization of Congress to improve oversight and funding of the nation's intelligence agencies. Instead, Democratic leaders may create a panel to look at the issue...
Unlike the Bush administration, which only made cosmetic changes to address the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, the Democrats are serious. They might create a panel.
In 2004, the commission urged Congress to grant the House and Senate intelligence committees the power not only to oversee the nation's intelligence agencies but also to fund them and shape intelligence policy. The intelligence committees' gains would come at the expense of the armed services committees and the appropriations panels' defense subcommittees. Powerful lawmakers on those panels would have to give up prized legislative turf.
Fortunately for America's recipients of taxpayer largesse, legislators of both parties are clear: national security is all well and good to talk about, but we won't ever prostitute our special interests to national security!
The commission was unequivocal about the need. "Of all our recommendations, strengthening congressional oversight may be among the most difficult and important," the panel wrote. "So long as oversight is governed by current congressional rules and resolutions, we believe the American people will not get the security they want and need."
The more I learn about our side, the more I understand the terrorists.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Civil War

In our brief review of Nir Rosen's "Anatomy of a Civil War" last week, we consciously chose the title 'The Iraqi Civil War', joining with Rosen and others in crossing the line from 'insurgency' to 'civil war' in describing Iraq's internal conflict.

The label is spreading. NBC caused a kerfuffle today by officially initiating use of the phrase; Dan Froomkin agrees emphatically, and notes that Fareed Zakaria and others do too.

The 'civil war' moniker is appropriate because large segments of the population in a significant portion of the country have taken sides clearly in a conflict with unambiguous differences. This is not a conflict between those in power and those out of power, as the Baathist resistance in 2003 was; nor is it the case of outsider terrorists attacking a society, as the al-Qaeda attacks of 2005 were; this is purely Iraqi-on-Iraqi, with the national security forces aiding and abetting whichever side they identify with.

Civil wars are brutal affairs in the most civilized and cohesive of nations. Spaniards, Chinese, Russians, Koreans, Greeks, Indians, Afghans, Cambodians and others all have more shared history and national identity than Iraq does, and all slaughtered their erstwhile neighbors during 20th-century civil wars. Americans, French, Mexicans, Japanese and others were no better in the 19th century. Iraq does not have a very auspicious future, if these great, historic, civilized nations are any indication.

What should the U.S. do? Either call a duck a duck and dramatically intervene, or withdraw posthaste a la John Murtha. Staying around merely gives Iraqi warlords like Moqtada al-Sadr cover for their actions. What would dramatic intervention look like? I think the best option going forward is a forceful division of the country. Give the Kurds their homeland - and all its oil, as a reward for being nonviolent - give the Sunnis the center of the country, and the Shia the south. Make Baghdad a divided city; force each onto its own side, keep a U.S. Green Zone in the middle, and blow the crap out of whoever crosses the line. This would require population exchanges en masse; the same thing was done in India to staunch the bloodbath following partition. This sounds drastic, and awful, but the alternative is the almost total evacuation of Sunni Arabs from Iraq, an eventuality that would be almost certain in case of a U.S. withdrawal.

mu = 0

My day just got 100% better... mu = 0 AND we can use the same gridpoints for every update in every case! I've never had a conference with a prof go this well, ever.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Fatih: "You don't get those penile enlargement spam emails?"
Me: "No. I used to, but I wrote back to them with some measurements, and the emails stopped."

Friday, November 24, 2006

Photos: Thanksgiving Morning

Thanksgiving dawned frosted and sunny. These are some pictures from Turning Point Park and Holy Sepulchre Cemetary.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Dutch Ballot

The Dutch are suffering from the introduction - and preemptive sidelining - of fancy new voting machines, reports the BBC. Reduced to selecting from a morass of parties and politicians with red pencil, many of them have turned to for advice. The site is about as sophisticated as an online personality test, but with blurbs of each party's position on 30 issues (from "Should Schiphol Airport expand?" to "Should Turkey become a member of the EU?"), it's a helpful resource.

I took the "quiz", and came up as a middling match of EénNL (One Netherlands), a moderate nationalist party, and the ruling ChristianUnion (English site) party.

Keep Manny

The Soxaholix said it right [again]: "it comes on suddenly a couple a times a year like a case of the runs."

Does it ever. Yesterday it was Gerry Callahan in the Herald: The Sox got six good years out of him. He turns 35 in May. They shouldn’t push their luck. The night before that was Evan Brunell of All-Baseball: It doesn’t seem like a long shot. As a matter of fact, it seems like we could get some actual value in return. And today it's Himself, the CHB, in the Globe: Rats. I was pretty sure Manny Ramírez was going to win the MVP award. Too bad he was topped by winner Justin Morneau, runner-up Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and an ensemble cast of American League worthies.

What gives? Do they think Mr. Ramirez's skills are on the decline? No; all expect comparable production in future years. Do they think Mr. Ramirez is disruptive in the clubhouse? No; David Ortiz likes him as a friend as much as he likes him as lineup protection. The CHB trots out some mangled tripe about how Manny "gave up" on the Red Sox after they were knocked out. Guess what: Terry Francona gave up too. It was over. I gave up on the Red Sox by September 1st. Manny has shown that he's driven by competition, and he performs when it matters (as CHB duly notes, he was MVP of the 2004 World Series).

The other two writers focus on the craziness of this year's market. I don't know if they're channeling the "Great in '08" movement, but if this year's market is so tight, doesn't that precisely mean we shouldn't so much as budge on Ramirez? If he's a bargain I want him! The suggested trades involve prospects, second-rate outfielders, and pitchers who need "readjustment". Like Byung-Hyun Kim, maybe?

How about this: we have a future Hall of Famer still putting up peak numbers. Let's let him enjoy Brazil all winter, and then hand him a bat somewhere around February 26th, and let him do what he's done the past six seasons. If we're in tight competition, I expect him to be focused. If we're out of it in August, I expect him to lose interest. Just like me.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Iraqi Civil War

Prof. Joshua Landis links to "Anatomy of a Civil War", a lengthy but incisive Boston Review piece by Nir Rosen, who has lived in Iraq the past three years. He gives names, details, and concludes cuttingly:
Three years later, Shia religious parties such as the Iran-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (its name a sufficient statement of its intentions), or SCIRI, controlled the country, and Shia militias had become the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, running their own secret prisons, arresting, torturing, and executing Sunnis in what was clearly a civil war. And the Americans were merely one more militia among the many, watching, occasionally intervening, and in the end only making things worse. Iraqis’ hopes for a better future after Saddam had been betrayed.
He profiles the followers of Iraq's most powerful military sect:
The Mahdi was a ninth-century Shia leader who is said to have disappeared into an occult realm when he descended into a hole in Samarra to escape assassins. Shias see him as a messiah and believe that when he returns he will restore justice. Many view his return as imminent. Among Muqtada’s followers it is common to hear that the American army has come to kill the Mahdi. In a September 2006 sermon in Kufa, Muqtada told his followers that the Pentagon had a large file on the Mahdi and would greet his return with their military. But I was often assured that the Mahdi would kill all the Americans, and all the Jews, too, for good measure.
He notes the complexities of the Shia movement:
Muqtada also joined Sunnis in condemning the draft constitution. Like them, he opposed giving the Kurds local political control of their region in the north and also opposed the Shia SCIRI leader Abdel Aziz al Hakim’s goal of establishing autonomous Shia regions in the south. Muqtada’s followers demonstrated against the constitution, sometimes marching with Sunnis. In the summer of 2005 militiamen loyal to Muqtada clashed with SCIRI militiamen in several Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, Nasriya, Najaf, and Amara. The two Shia movements had a historic rivalry dating back to the time when competing clerics sought to succeed the first martyr. But Muqtada and his followers also resented SCIRI for living in exile and for returning on the backs of American tanks. They suspected SCIRI of being controlled by Iran, while accusing it publicly of collaborating with the United States. Most importantly, this was a turf war: each faction hoped to establish power among the Shias...

By the time I saw Muqtada in the spring of 2006, he was no longer meeting with the media for security reasons. While the rhetoric of nationalism still pervaded his sermons, so did thinly veiled references to Sunnis as infidels. All hope of an alliance between Sunnis and Shias was gone.
He describes how the conflict descended from America versus al-Qaida to Iraqi versus Iraqi:
But it all started in the last months of 2004. Shias had fought alongside Sunnis in April in the first battle of Fallujah, but by November, when a second battle between Americans and insurgents destroyed the Sunni city of Fallujah, some Shias were beginning to think that the Fallujans got what they deserved for harboring Zarqawi and his killing force. The near-daily insurgent attacks against Iraqi policemen and soldiers had taken on a sectarian tone, because these forces were mostly composed of poor Shia men; Sunnis avoided joining. And as Shias grew indifferent to Fallujans’ suffering, Sunnis became resentful, and some turned murderous. Sunni militias started targeting Shias as Shias, not as forces of the occupation.
And Rosen doesn't think things are about to get better any time soon:
The death of Zarqawi last June was not the long-awaited turning point. A new Zarqawi has already emerged, this time from among the Shias. In the summer of 2006 rumors began spreading through Baghdad of a shadowy killer known as Abu Dira, a nickname meaning "the armor bearer." In the Shia uprisings of 2004 he was said to have held off the Americans in southern Sadr City... All information about this man is based on rumor, but he is said to be in his 30s and called either Salim or Ismail.
Which is great news for me if I want to fly anywhere soon.

Overall, Rosen's piece is apocalyptic. While he may take the most negative view possible, it's hard to reject the possibility - indeed the probability - that he's largely correct.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Economics of Suicide

To my knowledge, nobody has ever committed economist-assisted suicide.

Nonetheless, the value of continued life is one that implicitly comes up in many Macro models. In Overlapping Generations models, for instance, agents live (a maximum of) two periods, with a chance d of dying after the first period. Implicitly, the utility of dying is zero. Likewise, in almost any Macro model, the beta with which agents discount the future can be considered to include the probability of dying. This is valuable: it allows us to use infinite-horizon models, where agents consider themselves likely to live one more year - no matter how old they are.

As long as death is considered strictly exogenous (i.e. the agent can't affect his chances), this isn't a big problem. But what about when he makes choices that do affect those chances? This issue came up in a discussion of army recruiting. According to my math, the chances of dying in Iraq if one joins the U.S. military are something on the order of 1/500; not huge, but not infintesimal. Compare this to the 2.8% of U.S. Army personnel who perished in World War II (the same figures for Japan, Germany, and the USSR are upwards of 24%) (Wikipedia). Probability of death similarly factors into models of cigarette smoking and other risky behavior.

All of this points to rational actors placing a finite utility on death. Happily, this coincides with the needs of most models. Some popular utility functions are strictly negative (which appeals to the pessimist in me), asymptoting to zero at the highest levels of consumption, and diverging to negative infinity for zero consumption. Economists modeling risky behavior - or suicide - should take heed and avoid such utility functions: otherwise, agents will optimally commit suicide!

One Bank

Congratulations to Bank of America and MBNA on their merger song. I've never seen so many levels of bad in one place. Hat tip to Adora.

Horatio at the Bridge

Robert Novak offers a story of courage in the face of pork: Republican Senators Jim DeMint, Tom Coburn, John McCain, John Sununu, and Jeff Sessions have united to block $19,000,000,000 of ear-marked appropriations in the lame-duck session. Novak reports:
The bipartisan dismay the dissenters have caused cannot be exaggerated. Hard-working staffers are beside themselves that their lame-duck feast of pork is being thwarted. K Street lobbyists are frustrated that they are being deprived of a vehicle for their special-interest amendments...

These senators may well temporarily close what Tom Coburn calls the "favor factory" maintained by Republicans. Will the Democrats try to reopen it next year?
My guess is that a bipartisan minority of, say, 25 senators would be sufficient to grind pork to a crawl (if not a halt), mostly by making a big deal of every single bill and shaming their colleagues into ethical behavior. However, there are so few principled lawmakers that this seems unlikely.

The Democrats have promised to curb ethics violations (see below). They are focusing on one side of the transfer - from special interests to lawmakers. But they ignore the other side - from lawmakers to special interests, and thus leave the entire proposal toothless. As long as power is its own reward, the special interests can fulfill their side of the quid pro quo by keeping the lawmakers in office. The ethical emperor has no clothes.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman, RIP

One of the greatest economists of all time passed away last night at the age of 94, according to sources.

Free-for-All 2008: Garbage

I assume, before seeing this month's rankings, that they are garbage. "Sideshow 2006" has thrown the political news machine off its normal course for the past few months and this should be worst of all. Starting next month, we should see the chatter take off, perhaps doubling within a few months.

Two politicians with little name recognition outside the Beltway announced their candidacies this week: Duncan Hunter (R-CA), Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and HHS secretary. Nevertheless, for the record:

The monthly prediction...
Nov '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Oct '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Sep '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Aug '06: McCain & Giuliani over Clinton & Warner
Jul '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Jun '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
May '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Apr '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Romney
Mar '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Rice
Feb '06: Clinton & Warner over Allen & Rice

Rank Candidate ChatterRank Change
R.1 Sen. John McCain 5,2400
R.2 Sen. George Allen 3,590+1
R.3 Gov. Mitt Romney 2,440+1
R.4 Rudy Giuliani 2,160+2
R.5 Sen. Bill Frist 2,060-2
R.6 Gov. Jeb Bush 1,360+2
R.7 Secy. Condoleezza Rice 1,160-2
R.8 Gov. Mike Huckabee 1,040+2
R.9 Rep. Duncan Hunter 957+4*
R.10 Newt Gingrich 754-1
R.11 Gov. George Pataki 723-4
R.12 Sen. Sam Brownback 624-1
R.13 Sen. Chuck Hagel 370-1
R.14 Tommy Thompson 2760*
D.1 Sen. Hillary Clinton 6,1600
D.2 Sen. John Kerry 4,2900
D.3 Sen. Barack Obama 3,490+2
D.4 Sen. Harry Reid 2,160+3
D.5 Gov. Tom Vilsack 1,710+7
D.6 Sen. John Edwards 1,640-2
D.7 Sen. Joseph Biden 1,470+6
D.8 (tie) Al Gore 1,150-2
D.8 (tie) Gov. Mark Warner 1,150-5
D.10 Howard Dean 1,130-2
D.11 Gov. Bill Richardson 1,080-3
D.12 Sen. Russ Feingold 1,030-1
D.13 Sen. Christopher Dodd 792+1
D.14 Sen. Evan Bayh 709-5
D.15 Wesley Clark 2560

Notes: The Chatter Rankings are created by searching each candidate's name plus "2008" in the Google News database.
Additions this month are Hunter and Thompson. Since the latter was only announced as a candidate yesterday, he's had far less time to break into the news; expect those two to equalize next month.

See graphs of the past Chatter Rankings plus Chatter Rankings from September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, December, August, July, June, and May.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sox Gone Wild

The Boston Red Sox have given themselves the dubious distinction of spending $51m for permission to talk to Scott Boras about a pitching prospect. A good pitching prospect. A top pitching prospect, even. But the insanity of spending that kind of money on an unproven commodity (even in Japan he pitched in the B-league) is exceeded only by the insanity of the pressure Daisuke Matsuzaka would face in Fenway.

Of course, there's another possibility here: the Sox have their enemies in a fork. If Scott Boras drives too hard a bargain, the Sox can let the deal go, and keep their $51m. Then the system has to be done all over again, and the Yankees will have to keep the $51m figure in mind when bidding next time around. The whole shenanigan will throw a wrench in their off-season signing works, and will end up costing them more.

Thus, by having a low ceiling wage (say, 5 years, $30m), the Sox could either get themselves a commodity at a sensible price or prevent the Yankees from doing so, and in addition, either deflate the legend of Scott Boras or stick a needle in George Steinbrenner's eye.

Of course, the more likely course of action is that the Sox will spend $60m for four years of Mr. Matsuzaka's services (this ratio seems in line with the previous 'post' signings), and wind up with a $28-million-dollar-a-year starter. This from the team that couldn't blow the extra cash to keep Pedro Martinez or Johnny Damon, and had supposedly made a religion of paying a player his value and not a cent more.

Monday, November 13, 2006

RIT Hockey

I enjoyed an RIT hockey game (that's Div. 1 NCAA hockey for all you ROC-haters!) with a bunch of friends on Saturday. The best part of the game, of course, is the rowdy, sometimes uncouth crowd. The best cheer of the day was,
The refs are out to lunch!
The refs are out to lunch!
Eat me, ref! Eat me, ref!
Munch, munch, munch.
with the last line accompanied by the entire crowd "munching" at the refs with outstretched hands.

Los Tigres de Brighton won handily, 6-1, with 5 goals coming in the first period-plus-a-minute.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Democratic Leadership in the 110th Congress

Starting in January, Democrats will lead both houses of the Federal legislature for the first time since 1994. Back in '94, the leadership was headlined by Tom Foley, Dick Gephardt and George Mitchell (Wikipedia). In 2007, the only notable position that will return to its 1994 holder is President Pro Tempore, which Robert Byrd has help whenever Democrats are in the majority since 1989.

Senate arcana aside, who will be running things in 2007?

In the House, Nancy Pelosi (CA) will be speaker - the first woman to hold the office. Pelosi's San Francisco district has never given her less than 76% of the vote, and her record is uniformally liberal. She is a millionaire, has five children, and a politically powerful family background.

Second-in-command in the House is up for grabs. The heir-apparent, Steny Hoyer (MD) will be challenged by outspoken John Murtha (PA) for Majority Leader. Majority Whip will likely go to Jim Clyburn (SC), unless Hoyer fails to move up and keeps the post.

The likely committee chairs are Democrats John Conyers (MI, Judiciary), David Obey (WI; Appropriations), Chuck Rangel (NY, Appropriations), Bennie Thompson (MS, Homeland Security), John Spratt (SC, Budget), Ike Skelton (MO, Armed Services), Louise Slaughter (Rochester NY, Rules), Harry Waxman (CA, Government Reform), Barney Frank (MA, Financial Services), Alcee Hastings (FL, Intelligence) John Dingell (MI, Energy and Commerce) among others. (Sources: OpenSecrets and WaPo chairman profiles). Most of these are staunch liberals, with a large contingent from the Congressional Black Caucus. No women or Hispanics are in line for top committees; the Democrats may attempt to address this before January. A few - such as Dingell and Spratt - are more moderate, "good-old-boy" politicians.

On the other side of the Capitol, Reid (NV) is set to hold sway as majority leader, but many Democrats want a leader who is more incisive and important, such as Hillary Clinton (NY). The Democratic Whip will likely remain Dick Durbin (IL), and important committee chairmen will include John D. Rockefeller IV (WV, Intelligence), Max Baucus (MT, Finance), Kent Conrad (ND, Budget), Ted Kennedy (MA, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions), Patrick Leahy (VT, Judiciary), Robert Byrd (WV, Appropriations), Joe Biden (DE, Foreign Relations), Joe Lieberman (CT, Homeland Security and Government Affairs), Carl Levin (MI, Armed Services). Clearly, this group is more moderate, fulfilling the Founders' design for the upper house.

For the first few months, expect U.S.S. Democrat to run smoothly and swiftly; a backlog of a dozen years' common goals will lead to popular legislation, such as the minimum wage hike (more on that later) and a Medicare drug benefit. Stickier issues, however, will reveal the fissures in the broad Democratic coalition. Expect contention over education reform, free trade, tax hikes, tax code reform, energy policy, pork, and above all how to deal with an unfriendly administration. Legislators who earned their political capital in the minority by hectoring the administration will lose credibility with the base if they fail to fight Bush with all their newfound power; equally, however, they will lose credibility with independent voters if that's all they do.

Friday, November 10, 2006

New Photos: Meknes

Last but not least, a slideshow of Meknes, the city of Moulay Ismail.

New Photos: Midelt

Some more photos of hiking trips around Midelt, in yet another slideshow.

New Photos: Essaouira

Yet more photos uploaded, these of Essaouira, my current favorite-place-on-earth. This slide show - Essaouira, Pearl of the Atlantic - contains a few old photos and dozens of spectacular new ones.

New Photos: Marrakech

Check out the newest batch of photos to be uploaded: 101 images of Marrakech, one of the most exotic, frightening, magical cities one could ever hope to experience - also one of the most opulent and verdant.

From the photos I took there, here is "Study of a French-Looking Lamp":


Thursday, November 9, 2006

Don't Read This Blog

Free this week only, NYTimes columnist John Tierney noted Tuesday the effects of deliberation by a group of even somewhat like-minded individuals. "Groupthink" - a form of group self-deception by very similar people - has long been noted, but it's surprising to see that the result even occurs with fairly diverse groups.
But what really happens when people discuss politics? Consider an experiment last year, when groups of Coloradans convened separately in Boulder and Colorado Springs to discuss global warming, affirmative action and civil unions for same-sex couples. Before the discussions, the people in Boulder were on average more liberal than the ones in Colorado Springs, but there were also moderates in both places whose opinions overlapped.

After the group discussions, the people in Boulder moved to the left, and those in Colorado Springs moved to the right. The researchers — David Schkade, Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie — concluded that “the major effect of deliberation was to make group members more extreme than they were before they started to talk.”...

Thanks to cable television, talk radio and the Internet, it’s easier than ever for people to have their opinions validated around the clock. As the media audiences segregate themselves ideologically, they become more extreme in their views — and more convinced than ever that they represent the sensible middle.
So what's a nation to do? Either stop reading blogs and listening to talk radio and discussing politics with friends - or expose ourselves to a diversity of opinions, something Global Review has always striven to do for readers.

Rum for Rummy

We had an impromptu party at my house last night: in celebration of Rumsfeld's resignation, we resigned ourselves to finishing off a bottle of Screech. The rum, like Rummy, is gone.

For some reason, my pictures of 10 of us crowded into the kitchen drinking rum and cider didn't download properly... nonetheless a jolly time was had by all.

We agreed that if Mr. Cheney resigns, we will not have an equivalent celebration.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006


"Secretary of War" Donald Rumsfeld has been slain on the altar of public opinion as a peace offering to Nancy Pelosi. Developing...

BBC story...
AP story...

Update (1:30): The new Defense Secretary is likely to be Robert Gates, a CIA agent who rose to become Director of the CIA under George H. W. Bush. Gates has a Ph.D. in Russian and Soviet history from Georgetown, according to his Wikipedia biography. In 2005 Gates turned down an offer to become Director of National Intelligence, choosing to remain president of Texas A&M.

This is an astounding move by the President. Even if Gates declines again, he is 'coming home' to his father's administration, much of which has roundly criticized his decisions in Iraq. Gates brings the staid credentials of both a Washington bureaucrat and a non-beltway academic, a far cry from the cowboy diplomacy of the early years.

Update (1:35): A longer AP article confirms Global Review's instant analysis above:
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the House speaker-in-waiting, said at her first post-election news conference that Bush should replace the top civilian leadership at the Pentagon.
It's easy to understand why Rummy could be happy to bail at this point. Pelosi's committee chairmen would be dragging him in for questioning so often he'd wear out the pavement between DoD and Capitol Hill.

Update (1:44): has live streaming Bush right now... after the press conference the transcript will be there. A reporter just fed Bush the perfect softball: immigration reform, an issue on which he agrees with Democrats more than Republicans in Congress.... press conference just ended, look for the transcript shortly.

Just Say No to Pinot Grigio

Can anybody explain to me why Massachusetts voters rejected Question 1, which would have allowed wine sales in grocery stores? The vote was close - closer than the gubernatorial - even though the only people with an obvious reason to vote 'No' are liquor store owners and employees. Seriously, what went on here?

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

The Democrats Don't Have a Plan, They Hope

WaPo columnist Michael Kinsley wants us to vote Democratic. But he hopes Nancy Pelosi was kidding when her party released "A New Direction for America" a few months ago. Fortunately for America, few Democrats have built their campaigns around this document. However, if it represents the lowest common denominators of Democratic politics, we'll be running back to the GOP like scalded dogs in 2008. Kinsley notes:
The document is full of bromides, of course, and like all good bromides, they come in threes. The Democrats promise "security, prosperity, and opportunity" in "diverse, safe, and vibrant communities." Not to mention "integrity, civility and fiscal discipline." They will "protect Americans, secure our borders, and restore our country's position of international leadership" through "homeland, energy, and diplomatic strategies." And we're only up to Page 3...

Democrats call for ending the "Disabled Veterans' Tax" and the "Military Families' Tax." The what? There cannot be any such thing as a Disabled Veterans' Tax. It is a label dreamed up by people wanting special treatment, like the Republicans' brilliant "death tax" for the estate tax. Maybe they deserve it, maybe they don't. But why can't we leave this bullying-by-terminology to Newt Gingrich?...

"New Direction" quite rightly denounces the staggering fiscal irresponsibility of Republican leaders and duly promises "Pay As You Go" spending. But in the entire document there is not one explicit revenue-raiser to balance the many specific and enormous new spending programs and tax credits...

Maybe "A New Direction for America" is just a campaign document -- although it seems to have had no effect at all on the campaign. My fear is that the House Democrats might try to use it as a basis for governing
I found it difficult not to quote the entire editorial. The rest of it includes an incisive discussion of the problem with tax credits - they're like a pork giveaway, but without the accountability. Go read it.

Monday, November 6, 2006

It Really Doesn't Matter

Don't listen to the media, don't listen to the (other) bloggers, and for the sake of all that is holy don't listen to the politicians. The bottom line is, this election really doesn't matter.

Compare this election to previous midterm contests. In 2002, Bush presided over a divided legislature; the voters gave him the ability to fight the War on Terror on his own terms by swinging the Senate sharply to the right. In 1994, '96, and '98, Clinton's vision for a center-left Federal government was repudiated by the voters; forcing compromise.

In 2006, Bush is a lame duck. His domestic agenda was sold for $200 at a junkyard over a year ago. The last two years of his administration will be overshadowed by the 2008 megarace and will involve diddling at home (whether quibbling with Democrats or preparing pork seven different ways with Republicans) and trying to ready Iraqis to take power. He might add a "legacy" project (Darfur, maybe?) a la Clinton-Barak-Arafat (and we all remember how swimmingly that went).

What about Congress? They can set an agenda, right? Maybe. More likely, the majority party will be working with very small margins and great internal divisions. Additionally, leaders of both parties are thinking about their presidential chances, and don't want to get into any serious legislative battles. On Wednesday, this midterm distraction election will be set aside and every eye fixated on 2008.

2008, by contrast, is the real deal. We've grown accustomed, in the Bush Era, to razor-thin margins and the notion of "Red and Blue America". This is only because the parties have managed to carve up the Midwest with a skillsaw. In a typical presidential election, the victor is swept in by mob proportions in the electoral college.

Not only will the presidency be wide, wide open, both houses of Congress will be almost tied, leaving Washington totally up for grabs. Bring on 2008!

(but don't forget to vote tomorrow!)

All Ads Up

Check out the top political ads of the cycle, chosen by Chris Cilizza for The Fix on WaPo. If you're not ending every prayer with "I approve this message", you haven't heard enough political ads!

Stand and Be Counted or Sit Down and Shut Up

If you do not vote tomorrow (or did not take the time to register or absentee-ballot vote), you have no right to whine, nag, or gripe about the actions of the legislative branch of the U.S. government for the next two years. Given the opportunity, 60 to 70% of eligible voters tomorrow will likely sit at home. Even if you are voting in non-competitive races, your vote is important as an exercise of democracy for you personally; if you don't vote, you have chosen to abandon the government of your country, a responsibility you have no good reason to abdicate.

Saturday, November 4, 2006

White and Nerdy

Al Yankovich's biggest hit song ever goes out to all us peckerwoods:
There's no killer app I haven't run (run)
At Pascal, well I'm number one (one)
Do vector calculus just for fun
I ain't got a gat, but I got a soldering gun (what?)
Happy Days is my favorite theme song
I could sure kick your butt in a game of ping pong
I'll ace any trivia quiz you bring on
I'm fluent in JavaScript as well as Klingon...
I'm nerdy in the extreme
Whiter than sour cream
I was in AV club and glee club
And even the chess team...
Shoppin' online for deals on some writable media
I edit Wikipedia
I memorized Holy Grail really well
I can recite it right now and have you R-O-T-F-L-O-L
Checkered cap tip to my main honky Barn. And a shout out to all my other palefaces in the blogosphizzle: Fat & Marbly, Ho'peAnne, Reverand Al, Uncle Steve, D-Masq, Dr. Z, and above all Vitamin D. (If you haven't seen 'Ridin', it's on YouTube as well.)

Friday, November 3, 2006

Hangman is coming down from the gallows

I am not qualified to speculate whether the U.S. or its surrogates in Baghdad have enough influence over the precise timing of the Saddam verdict. If so, it's the immoral, unethical, indefensible equivalent of downing a punt at the 1 yard line. AP reports that Saddam could be sentenced to hang as early as Sunday, in time to dominate the last two days of news before voters decide for whom to vote (or, more importantly, whether to make the trip to the polls).

If the U.S. administration has any influence over the timing of this verdict, it should exercise integrity by requesting that the court adjourn until Tuesday or Wednesday. While the jury is still out on how this verdict might affect our election, a guilty verdict days before the U.S. election would reinforce the notion that this trial is farcical.

Full disclosure: Global Review believes the trial to be travishamockery of a farce.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Another Drawn With the Sword

Is the New York Times trying to do its usual liberal shilling on the eve of the election with this front page story? The gritty, gut-level account of a medic doing his job in Iraq makes red-blooded Americans like me feel staid, not withdrawn. Especially in contrast to the fallout from John Kerry's titanic misspeak, knowing what the soldiers are going through - and knowing that they believe in this war - it's hard to justify second-guessing them with a vote for John Murtha's Democrats. Something not dissimilar occurred four years into our own Civil War, when Union soldiers voted overwhelmingly for Lincoln. Despite being indecisive in the actual ennumeration of votes, it's hard not to believe that many voting at home followed the lead of him who had borne the battle.

Student Poets: Khadija Aamari

Original in Arabic; translated by the author.

Forgive Me

Tomorrow is my wedding to my Helenic king
He gave my family money and strength
But I won’t forget you
Your love and goodness

Tomorrow is my wedding and
day of sadness
Do you think I will forget you?
And every time I remember you
I don’t know why my family sold me
Sold me for money
One man loves long black hair
And white skin
Opposite of you
You told my eyes a story of goodness
I know after tomorrow I don’t have life
Oh, how will the day be passed without you?
A very good life awaits me
With one king
And this man’s grandchildren will command his empire
Forgive me

You are better than everything in life
And you aren’t and will not be forgotten
Take me for life
Please don’t tell me that you are my toy
With which I pass my free time
Because you and I play a game of destiny
And are sentenced to this life
Forgive me

Time sentences us now
And the wedding dress arrives now
Made of silk and expensive jewels
And a queen’s crown
Made of corals and pearls
Shoes made of grass
And best diamonds in this world
But for me, everything is a dark night
Because you are life, strong
And rich
Forgive me

Previous posts in this series include two by Rkiya Bouya, one by Mohamed Mehra, and two by Khadija.

Barack Obama Isn't Black

Somebody had to say it: Barack Obama is not Black. Not of the slave-ship, Emancipation-Proclamation, 40-acres-and-a-mule, Jim-Crow, Birth-of-a-Nation, Harlem-Renaissance, fried-chicken-and-watermelon, I-have-a-dream, Moynihan-Report, American variety, anyway. His skin is dark, of course, and he has an inspiring family story, but it's a story he shares more in common with people like me than with American Blacks. His family has lived the American dream: a poor Kenyan emigrated to the U.S., married into an American (white) family and their children went on to be successful Americans. This American story will resonate happily with the affluent children and grandchildren of poor immigrants, like me, but it bears almost no similarity to the saga of the descendents of the enslaved men and women from the opposite side of Obama pere's continent.

Stanley Crouch, an American Black writer for the NY Daily Post notes
[The Senate race between Obama and Alan Keyes in 2004] was never much of a contest, but one fascinating subplot was how Keyes was unable to draw a meaningful distinction between himself as a black American and Obama as an African-American. After all, Obama's mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan. Other than color, Obama did not - does not - share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves...

So when black Americans refer to Obama as "one of us," I do not know what they are talking about. In his new book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama makes it clear that, while he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own - nor has he lived the life of a black American.
But Mr. Crouch warms my heart with the non-racialist conclusion:
Of course, the idea that one would be a better or a worse representative of black Americans depending upon his or her culture or ethnic group is clearly absurd. Even slavery itself initially came under fire from white Christians - the first of whom to separate themselves from the institution were Quakers. The majority of the Union troops were white, and so were those who have brought about the most important civil rights legislation.
It is unlikely that any of this will matter. Mr. Obama has dark skin, empathizes with and associates with American Blacks. They - along with many whites - will vote for him whether for the color of his skin or the content of his character, and I suspect he'll accept votes for either reason.

Update: I couldn't resist adding the NYTimes' telling "Op-Art" to this post

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Are You Syrious?

The White House sent a not-so-subtle hint to Damascus and Teheran with its statement today:
We are therefore increasingly concerned by mounting evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments, Hizballah, and their Lebanese allies are preparing plans to topple Lebanon's democratically-elected government led by Prime Minister Siniora.
Funny how Lebanon wasn't such an important democratic ally back in August. Funnier still, BBC has the apparently straightfaced response from Damascus:
"We, in Syria, respect the sovereignty of Lebanon, we are not interfering on this, and we call on the United States to follow suit and not to interfere in Lebanese domestic issues"
Who us? Interfere in Lebanon? Where would you get that idea?

In the interests of full disclosure, Global Review also occupied Lebanon, but we did so for a much shorter period than Syria and with far less ordnance. In addition, we had a visa.


I'm fond of pointing out when someone has an impaired sense of irony. But this was just too much.

After assigning Swift's "A Modest Proposal" for today's class, I opened up discussion. "That was disgusting..." "I can't believe you made us read that..." "I couldn't eat lunch...". Um, ok, so what was Swift's real point here? "He thinks people should eat babies..." "He says babies taste good..." They took Swift at face value.

The impaired sense of irony, however, was mine: they had conspired before class to do so. They gave up the gag after I started to lecture them on the concept of irony. One more minute and I would have made a total fool of myself.

So if any of my students read this blog: Kudos for a great joke!

In other news, my students' rich meta-irony skills may be needed in Germany, where a Gypsy-rights group is suing Sacha Baron Cohen over his hysterical Borat character, who claims he was a "Gypsy-hunter" back home in Kazakhstan. Will the ADL also pile on Cohen for saying - in character - disparaging things about Jews? Oi ve.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Travel Wishlist

I want to do something better than hanging out in Boston this winter break. How about Cuba? I hadn't had any good ideas until chatting with a Chilean classmate who described it as a "Martian world" and a "museum" - the 1950's cars, the Caribbean culture, and the desperation that drives a few Cubans crazy enough to attempt the channel to Miami. The cigars, the architecture, the music... sounds like a plan!

Now if only the Canadian dollar wasn't so expensive.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Grim Voter

Drudge links to a Journal News story about the voting dead. The paper reports on an effective bit of high comedy investigative journalism:
The [Poughkeepsie] Journal's analysis of New York's 3-month-old database is the first to determine the potential for errors and fraud in voting. It matched names, dates of birth and ZIP codes in the state's database of 11.7 million voter registration records against the same information in the Social Security Administration's "Death Master File."
What I want to know is how one can become a Death Master!

It seems this Death Master is ordering his peons to vote:
A new statewide database of registered voters contains as many as 77,000 dead people on its rolls, and as many as 2,600 of them have cast votes from the grave, according to a Poughkeepsie Journal computer-assisted analysis.
Nor is the Death Master nonpartisan:
Democrats who cast votes after they died outnumbered Republicans by more than 4 to 1.
But it turns out that being Death Master isn't all it's cracked up to be:
In most cases, instances of dead voters can be attributed to database mismatches and clerical errors. For instance, the Social Security Administration admits there are people in its master death index who are not dead.

They include Wappingers Falls resident Hilde Stafford, an 85-year-old native of Germany. The master index lists her date of death as June 15, 1997.

"I'm still alive," she said. "I still vote."
Or, as James Taranto would say, Hilde Stafford is still not dead.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Sahara Saifi

The Post today contains a tale of the gallant, made-for-Hollywood side of the War on Terror.
In February 2003, a band of Islamic extremists began scouring the desert expanse of southern Algeria for kidnap victims. The sparsely populated region's colored sand dunes and craggy mountains were a magnet for European tourists. Soon, foreigners began to vanish, two or three at a time. Within a month, 32 Europeans...had been rounded up.

The leader of the cell, [Amari] Saifi, was a tall, bearded man who dressed in shabby robes and worn-out sneakers; often he wore black eye makeup to ward off the sun's glare. Known as Abderrazak al-Para, or "the paratrooper," he had deserted from the Algerian army in 1991
Cameras pan across the Saharan mountains. They focus on a mysterious desert-dweller esconced in rocks and focusing his telescope on a cloud of dust that eventually disgorges a touring jeep. A few gutteral commands later, guerrillas in cotton robes spring upon the unsuspecting Europeans.

Flash to a control room in Northern Virginia. Angry, constipated commanders are convinced by some young free thinker that this represents a golden opportunity to salvage the place of Free America among the Saharan governments.

Satellite cameras, 700 U.S. special forces, and the armies of six nations careen across the striking red and brown barrens of the Sahel in search of Saifi. Gun battles erupt; Saifi always slips away. Finally, another rebel group captures him on their terrain, and months of tense, secretive negotiations finally result in Saifi's imprisonment. A few years later, perhaps, he is freed as a sadder and wiser man, repentant and wishing only to return to the free air of his desolate mountains.

This one's for you, Hollywood, including the terrific photo gallery.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Congressional Campaigns Play 'Limbo'

How low can they go?

On the morning when WaPo's top politics story is about the "outlandish" negative advertizing this election cycle, Senator George Allen makes news with a press appearance revealing prurient passages from opponent Jim Webb's war novels. Webb has now gone on record saying his novels are "'a little bit inappropriate' to be read on news radio." The controversy is taking on Clintonian dimensions, with debate on what does or does not constitute "a sexual act".

Allen's press release - apparently only published by the Drudge Report as edited news sources couldn't confirm the quotes quickly enough for today's papers - reads:
Webb’s novels disturbingly and consistently – indeed, almost uniformly – portray women as servile, subordinate, inept, incompetent, promiscuous, perverted, or some combination of these. In novel after novel, Webb assigns his female characters base, negative characteristics. In thousands of pages of fiction penned by Webb, there are few if any strong, admirable women or positive female role models.

Why does Jim Webb refuse to portray women in a respectful, positive light, whether in his non-fiction concerning their role in the military, or in his provocative novels? How can women trust him to represent their views in the Senate when chauvinistic attitudes and sexually exploitive references run throughout his fiction and non-fiction writings?
Global Review declines to link to the complete content, which is essentially porn writing.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

L'Bar Nash b'Nishaq

If you have seen the anti-stem cell cloning advertisement "Response to Michael J. Fox" opposing Missouri's Amendment 2 and featuring Jim Caviezel, Jeff Suppan, Kurt Warner, and others, you've probably wondered what Caviezel was saying in Aramaic to open the advert.

Also wondering are the New York Times and most other news sources. Working harder than them for you is Global Review, which went the extra mile and (along with our Senior Latin Correspondent) watched The Passion of the Christ last night in search of the words I heard on the ad.

The words were: l'bar nash b'nishaq. The "l" is the definite article, "bar" means 'son', "nash" is 'man', similar to Arabic "nass", "b" is 'with' (same as Arabic), and we can infer from context that "nishaq" means 'kiss'. In the film, this is the last part of the sentence that is rendered in English as: "Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?" Literally, it means "Son of Man with a kiss".

The only other source that has translated the ad is the Washington Times, which says the words include the meaning 'betray'. While Global Review hasn't consulted Aramaic scholars as the Times claims to have, we're reasonably sure that the word for 'betray' is not in fact included in the ad. The Times also talks to the producers of the ad, and confirms what we suspected:
Cathy Cleaver Ruse, a spokeswoman for Missourians Against Human Cloning, which produced the ad, said the group had Mr. Caviezel say the Aramaic phrase in a contemporary setting but without subtitles "to make the ad a little more intriguing."... "It means 'You betray me with a kiss,' which means Amendment Two is a betrayal because it is deceptive," Ms. Ruse said. "It promises one thing and delivers another."
How did they find somebody whose name is almost "Clever Ruse" to pitch this?

If you don't know the background, note that Michael J. Fox was featured shaking and weaving from the effects of Parkinson's Disease in an ad aired in Missouri during the first game of the World Series. The ad is paid for by Claire McCaskill's senatorial campaign, but relates equally to Amendment 2, which would make stem cell research a constitutional right in Missouri. The response was hastily prepared for last night's game (though the game was rained out, it seems from the news stories that the commercial ran), and was constructed to oppose Amendment 2, and is not affiliated with Jim Talent's campaign.