Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hubble repair mission is a go!

Woo hoo!!

It's scheduled for May 2008. As discussed previously, the repairs will keep it operating until the James Webb telescope comes on line in 2013.

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The real battle is in the statehouses

While much attention is focused on the federal elections, a more profound change might be underway in state legislatures across the country.

Controlling the statehouses is important for two reasons. One, that's where the future leaders of both parties cut their teeth. Being in control means being able to point to a track record of legislative achievement. It's better practice for governing on a national level than being a perennial opposition party.

More directly, it's the state legislatures that draw Congressional districts after each census. Whichever party controls the statehouses in 2010-11 will be able to draw those districts to their advantage, cementing a decade-long advantage at the national level.

Right now the parties are almost evenly divided. Republicans control both chambers in 20 states; Democrats have that advantage in 19. They are virtually tied in the number of statehouse seats they hold.

If the Democratic wave at the national level is mirrored in local results, Democrats could be poised to take over a solid majority of statehouses. If they retain that control in 2010, it could redraw the political map in their favor.

To be clear, I think gerrymandering is terrible. I've written before about the need to come up with objective formula for drawing districts, and even discussed some proposals for doing exactly that.

So I'm not celebrating the idea of Democrats being able to gerrymander in 2010. But it's hard to overestimate the long-term significance of the local races.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Is luck genetic?

I've always thought of myself as a pretty lucky person.

Not lucky in the sense of "being born into a middle-class, well-educated American family", although frankly that's like hitting the jackpot right there. But actually, you know, lucky. I've always seemed to beat the odds more often than most -- winning a raffle, avoiding speeding tickets, winning luck-based games, avoiding random trouble, that sort of thing. Computer errors tend to work in my favor. And despite being a registered voter my entire adult life, I've never once been called for jury duty.

Now I'm beginning to wonder if luck is genetic.

My oldest daughter is 6 years old, and takes after me in most ways (our youngest takes after their mother). A couple of days ago we went to a Halloween party at school. They had the usual array of Halloween activities -- face-painting, trick-or-treating, cookie-decorating, and so on.

But they also had a Bingo table, where five kids played at a time, and you needed to get three numbers in a row to win.

My oldest daughter sat down and won. First time. In three numbers.

Down the hall was a prize room, with a twist: Kids had to stand on squares numbered 1 to 10. If they drew your number, you were allowed to go in and pick a prize. Every time a child went in, their place was taken by a waiting child.

My oldest daughter walked up, stepped on a square, and won. First time.

So in rapid succession, she beat odds of 10 percent and roughly 20 percent. Combined, she beat odds of 2 percent. Less, really, because she won the Bingo game in three draws, an unlikely event in itself.

That's not lottery-winning luck, but it's not bad.

The science-fiction writer Larry Niven wrote several stories set in his Known Space universe that explored the implications of breeding humans for luck. His novel "Ringworld" included one such human, Teela Brown; the short story "Safe at Any Speed" takes the idea into the far future, where generations of breeding have produced extraordinarily lucky people. It's kind of boring.

It was always a neat idea, if not one to be taken seriously. But now I'm beginning to wonder if Niven was right.

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Shoe on the other foot?

Speaking of electronic voting machines, Republicans haven't seemed overly concerned at the prospect of them being hackable.

But boy, this seems to have them in a tizzy:

The federal government is investigating the takeover last year of Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, a leading American manufacturer of electronic voting systems, by Smartmatic Corp., a small software company that has been linked to the leftist government of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

The federal inquiry is focusing on the Venezuelan owners of the software company, the Smartmatic Corp., and is trying to determine whether the government in Caracas has any control or influence over the firm's operations, government officials and others familiar with the investigation said.

Smartmatic denies any influence, and they may well be telling the truth -- although their connections to the Venezuelan government are more tangled than those of Citgo.

So to recap: A Republican-run company says its machines are secure despite mounds of evidence to the contrary? No problem. A leftist government may have access to our voting machines? Call out the dogs!

Okay, to be fair, the Diebold flap is an issue for state and local election boards, not the federal government, while a Venezuela connection is a federal responsibility. And frankly, I don't care how it happens; any attention or investigation that leads to actually doing something about the integrity of our voting process is a good thing.

But it's still pretty funny.

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Will voting machines trip up the GOP in Texas?

The race to replace Rep. Tom DeLay has tightened, with GOP write-in candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs polling well against Democrat Nick Lampson.

My money's still on Lampson; telling a pollster you don't mind the write-in candidate, and actually writing her name on the ballot, are two different things.

Especially because of this:

The third option on that ballot is "write-in." Voters who make that selection on the electronic voting machines that most will use are directed to an alphabet screen, where they use a wheel to spell out their choice's name a letter at a time.

I think this is terrible; writing in a candidate's name should be a lot easier than that. As it is, I suspect only the most ardent write-in supporters will go to the trouble.

But it's also rather ironic that an electronic-voting machine glitch may end up costing the GOP one of their safest seats.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

To the sun (and Hubble)

A couple of days ago, NASA launched a major new scientific mission: the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory.

No, it's not a diplomatic effort, though as an aside that is part of the plot of the science fiction novel Cusp, by Robert Metzger. It's a mission to observe the sun and study solar flares.

Scientists hope the $550 million, two-year mission will help them understand why these eruptions occur, how they form and what path they take.

The eruptions _ called solar flares _ typically blow a billion tons of the sun's atmosphere into space at a speed of 1 million mph. The phenomenon is responsible for the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis, the luminous display of lights seen in the upper latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

Besides being just plain cool -- the twin spacecraft will send back 3-D images of the sun -- and likely to provide a torrent of scientific data, this mission demonstrates why exploring our solar system is important. Besides causing the Northern Lights, solar flares damage satellites and disrupt communications networks. Learning how and why they develop will have a practical payoff back here on Earth.

With STEREO launched and on its way, NASA is now turning its attention to a more problematic issue: whether to mount one last repair mission to the Hubble telescope. A decision is expected to be announced on Tuesday.

If Griffin says "go," the mission could launch as early as 2008, providing 7,000 astronomers worldwide with five more years of access to the famous telescope — along with better instruments to explore the depths of the universe and its evolution.

But a Hubble mission would also be the only flight before the shuttle's retirement in 2010 that could not reach the International Space Station in case of emergency. That scenario has worried NASA since 2003, when the shuttle Columbia was damaged by debris on liftoff and burned up during reentry. All seven crew members died.

If NASA decides not to save Hubble, astronomers would be without an orbiting telescope until its successor, the James Webb telescope, is launched in 2013.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Gay marriage in New Jersey?

Not quite marriage, no. But New Jersey's Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples have the same legal rights as heterosexual couples.

In a ruling that fell short of what either side wanted or feared, the state Supreme Court declared 4-3 that homosexual couples are entitled to the same rights as heterosexual ones. The justices gave lawmakers 180 days to rewrite the laws.

Here's a nice Q&A on the case.

The justices stopped short of recognizing a right to same-sex marriage, but they concluded -- logically enough -- that benefits made available to straight couples have to be made available to gay couples, too.

And that 4-3 vote? Not what you might think. The three dissenters argued that the court didn't go far enough. They wanted the court to recognize gay marriage as a right.

So now the state Legislature has 180 days to legalize either gay marriage or civil unions. Meanwhile, state Republicans said they would try to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions. And one, Assemblyman Richard Merkt, said he would try to have all seven justices impeached. What a charmer.

The score so far? Massachusetts allows gay marriage; Vermont and Connecticut allow civil unions. 16 states have amended their constitutions to ban gay marriage, and eight more are considering doing so.

This patchwork will create some interesting situations going forward. The continued existence of same-sex union states will belie the "sky is falling" rhetoric used to oppose it. A growing number of marriages recognized in one state but not another -- and the injustices caused by that -- will put pressure on states to adopt a uniform treatment.

Most promising, civil unions likely will spread as a reasonable compromise, hindered a bit by overly broad constitutional amendments passed too quickly and carelessly. And that may help nudge the nation toward the one solution that could be acceptable to all: getting the government out of the marriage business. The law would then become civil unions for everyone, marriage for those who want it.

Which, by the way, is a near-perfect example of how keeping the government out of religion ends up being the best guarantor of religious liberty. The government can provide legal and tax benefits based on objective criteria, serving its secular purpose. And marriage, its direct connection to those benefits severed, can be freely bestowed or withheld by each church as it sees fit.

I truly believe that in 20 years, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

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Let the mudslinging begin

We take you first to Ohio, where Ken Blackwell has gone completely off the deep end.

With polls showing him so far behind that he could drag the entire Republican ticket down to defeat, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell launched an attack last week that took political discourse in Ohio to unplumbed depths.

In the last of four debates, Blackwell accused his Democratic rival for governor, Rep. Ted Strickland, of covering up for a campaign staff member who exposed himself to children and supporting the platform of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association.

By the week's end, the allegations had become more bizarre and outlandish.

More bizarre and outlandish? Well, yes. Not from Blackwell himself, but from two of his prominent supporters, who for some reason feel it's important to imply (or, indeed, openly speculate) that the married Strickland is gay.

The "coverup" allegation involves a staffer convicted of public indecency -- a misdemeanor -- in 1994 for exposing himself near an elementary school.

Strickland says he received an anonymous letter in 1998 during a heated campaign, asked the man about it and dropped the matter after the staffer denied it. After the campaign, the staffer accompanied Strickland on a trip to Italy. He left Strickland's staff in 1999.

Coverup? Of an incident that occurred four years previously and had nothing to do with Strickland? Criticize him for being incurious, perhaps. But then one might ask how relevant a four-year-old misdemeanor conviction is.

The NAMBLA allegation revolves around this:

But LoParo said Blackwell also questions Strickland's judgment for agreeing with NAMBLA by not supporting a congressional resolution in 1999 that condemned an article about child sexual abuse.

Strickland, a psychologist, said he disagreed with the resolution's assertion that an abused child cannot have healthy relationships as an adult.

Way to go, Blackwell. You've proven that there are still unplumbed depths of political mudslinging.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What if the Democrats win?

In what strikes me as a sign of desperation, Republicans have been trying to scare people with the prospect of what the Democrats might do if they take over Congress. Socialized medicine! Tax hikes! Impeachment! The destruction of the country! You just know that a bunch of people are going to go trick-or-treating as Speaker Nancy Pelosi this year, claiming it's the scariest thing they can think of.

I won't get into the silliness of such claims, like the National Review claiming Charlie Rangel would eliminate 529 savings plans or abolish the child tax credit -- all because he said he couldn't think of a single Bush tax cut he liked.

Then there's the little matter of Pelosi specifically ruling out impeachment proceedings.

And I'll content myself with briefly noting that Democrats have been in charge for much of this century and the country is still standing, still a superpower, still the biggest economy on earth, and best I can recall we haven't been invaded and conquered during that time.

Set all that aside. Let's assume the Democrats are in fact Communists in Donkey dress, and if elected they will shed their disguises and put a bust of Lenin in the House chamber.

So what?

Even if the Democrats take both the House and the Senate, they will not command veto-proof majorities. Bush may have to exercise his veto pen for once, but his vetoes will stick unless his own party revolts against him. And the Republican minority will use all the procedural tricks they've decried for the past decade -- filibusters, Senatorial holds, what have you -- to derail Democratic bills they don't like.

The most significant threat, in fact, doesn't involve Pelosi at all; it involves Harry Reid. Because if the Democrats manage to take the Senate, they can block a lot of Bush's judicial appointments. But even that power is limited; they can block, but they can't nominate. And Bush can make recess appointments, or simply make hay out of all the judicial vacancies the Dems are letting pile up.

So the plain fact is that all the nation risks by letting the Democrats take over is a two-year standoff with the White House. That may actually be a good thing; but in any event I'd rather risk that than let the GOP remain in charge after the hash they've made of things in the past six years.

It's time for a change. Republicans had their chance; let's see what the Democrats can come up with.

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The moving target of Nov. 7

Predicting who is going to win the upcoming election is a bit of a fool's game. But here are two interesting and slightly contradictory factors.

On the Democrat side of the ledger, the GOP's effort to lure minority voters appears to be in jeopardy.

A major effort to draw Latinos and blacks into the Republican Party, a central element of the GOP plan to build a long-lasting majority, is in danger of collapse amid anger over the immigration debate and claims that Republican leaders have not delivered on promises to direct more money to church-based social services.

President Bush, strategist Karl Rove and other top Republicans have wooed Latino and black leaders, many of them evangelical clergy who lead large congregations, in hopes of peeling away the traditional Democratic base. But now some of the leaders who helped Bush win in 2004 are revisiting their loyalty to the Republican Party and, in some cases, abandoning it.

This has been a major and, I believe, sincere push by Ken Mehlman at the RNC, with some help from the White House. But he's been frustrated by members of his own party, particularly by the border-fence bill.

Separately, Dick Morris is claiming that recent polls show GOP candidates closing the gap on their Democratic rivals. Take that with a grain of salt, because it's Dick Morris and he's relying in part on what he says are internal candidate polls.

More tangible is the GOP advantage in cash and get-out-the-vote organization. As the link explains, the effect of the last is hard to gauge. But it's worth noting that Howard Dean's "50 state" project is in part an emulation of the GOP, trying to build effective grass-roots organizations all across the country both to improve Democratic turnout and force the GOP to spend money defending seats they currently take for granted.

A lot of moving parts. It'll be interesting to see how it turns out.

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Bombast and bloviating

With Ann Coulter apparently keeping a low profile (for her), let's check in on Rush Limbaugh. Sure, it's like shooting fish in a barrel, but that's why we have celebrity loudmouths. So lessee. What is Rush up to?

Oh, my.

A political ad in which a Parkinson's-afflicted Michael J. Fox talks about stem cell research was criticized Monday by conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who asserted that Fox was "either off his medication or acting" while filming the commercial.

"Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democrat politician," Limbaugh said of the ad for Senate candidate Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Setting aside the condescension oozing from that last remark, let's check out the rest of his claims.

Here's the ad in question. Fox similarly slammed Michael Steele of Maryland, for similarly opposing stem-cell research.

Yup, Michael sure is weaving around a lot. Does Rush know something we don't?

No. He's just ignorant.

SIDE EFFECTS: Most patients receiving levodopa-carbidopa experience side effects, but these are usually reversible. Occasional involuntary movements are the most common of the serious side effects of levodopa-carbidopa therapy. These may include chewing, gnawing, twisting, tongue or mouth movements, head bobbing, or movements of the feet, hands, or shoulder.

So apparently Fox wasn't "off his medication;" his medication was causing the problem. Having established that Rush is more than willing to pontificate about things he knows nothing about, let's move on to the more substantive issue of slamming Fox for doing the commercial.

Here's how Rush defended his statements about Fox and Amendment 2.

The ad is misleading in countless ways, primarily in the most fundamental of ways. Remember that the Amendment 2 in Missouri is simply a cloning amendment that would legalize cloning in the state of Missouri. It is called the stem cell research and cures initiative and has nothing to do with stem cell research. The Michael J. Fox ad says that Jim Talent and Michael Steele want to criminalize stem cell research. They don't. Stem cell research is legal in both states, and it is ongoing at universities in both states.

Here's the full text of the proposed Amendment, which Jim Talent opposes.

So, Rush is (big suprise) dead wrong when he says Amendment 2 has nothing to do with stem cells. It would specifically legalize stem-cell research, with certain restrictions. And it would specifically outlaw cloning. Rush needs to get new researchers.

Talent opposes Amendment 2. Because Amendment 2 would explicitly legalize and protect stem-cell research, Fox says Talent opposes stem-cell research.

One may be able to split hairs by claiming "well, Talent supports such research if no blastocysts are harmed" or the like. But such fine and impractical distinctions aside, Rush is off base. Talent, quite clearly, opposes an amendment that would legalize stem-cell research.

Meanwhile, Steele opposes stem-cell research in even stronger terms.

Rush says any claim that Talent and Steele want to criminalize such research is off base because stem-cell research is already legal. That's a bit of sophistry, however; the legal status of such research is far from clear. The whole point of Amendment 2 is to provide clarity by crafting a specific and narrow protection.

Another reason why listening to Rush kills brain cells.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

God and the Founding Fathers?

You often hear the claim that the United States is a "Judeo-Christian" nation, founded on "Judeo-Christian" values. This is usually used as a preface to argue that the government should be heavily involved in religious speech.

But it's bunk. And it has never been so eloquently pointed out as it was this weekend by George Will, in a review of "Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers" by Brooke Allen.

I'll let Will do the talking on this one:

Eighteenth-century deists believed there was a God but, tellingly, they frequently preferred synonyms for him — “Almighty Being” or “Divine Author” (Washington) or “a Superior Agent” (Jefferson). Having set the universe in motion like a clockmaker, Providence might reward and punish, perhaps in the hereafter, but does not intervene promiscuously in human affairs. (Washington did see “the hand of Providence” in the result of the Revolutionary War.) Deists rejected the Incarnation, hence the divinity of Jesus. “Christian deist” is an oxymoron.

Allen’s challenge is to square the six founders’ often pious public words and behavior with her conviction that their real beliefs placed all six far from Christianity. Her conviction is well documented, exuberantly argued and quite persuasive.

When Franklin was given some books written to refute deism, the deists’ arguments “appeared to me much stronger than the refutations; in short, I soon became a thorough deist.” Revelation “had indeed no weight with me.” He believed in a creator and the immortality of the soul, but considered these “the essentials of every religion.”

What Allen calls Washington’s “famous gift of silence” was particularly employed regarding religion. But his behavior spoke. He would not kneel to pray, and when his pastor rebuked him for setting a bad example by leaving services before communion, Washington mended his ways in his austere manner: he stayed away from church on communion Sundays. He acknowledged Christianity’s “benign influence” on society, but no ministers were present and no prayers were uttered as he died a Stoic’s death.

Adams declared that “phylosophy looks with an impartial Eye on all terrestrial religions,” and told a correspondent that if they had been on Mount Sinai with Moses and had been told the doctrine of the Trinity, “We might not have had courage to deny it, but We could not have believed it.” It is true that the longer he lived, the shorter grew his creed, and in the end his creed was Unitarianism.

Jefferson, writing as a laconic utilitarian, urged his nephew to inquire into the truthfulness of Christianity without fear of consequences: “If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comforts and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.”

Madison, always common-sensical, briskly explained — essentially, explained away — religion as an innate appetite: “The mind prefers at once the idea of a self-existing cause to that of an infinite series of cause & effect.” When Congress hired a chaplain, he said “it was not with my approbation.”

There's more. It's a good read for anybody interested in the religious underpinnings (or lack thereof) of our nation.

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Use. Paper.

Yet another report out about how vulnerable electronic voting machines are to hackers.

But ABC News has obtained an independent report commissioned by the state of Maryland and conducted by Science Applications International Corporation revealing that the original Diebold factory passwords are still being used on many voting machines.

The SAIC study also shows myriad other security flaws, including administrative over-ride passwords that cannot be changed by local officials but can be used by hackers or those who have seen the discs.

The report further states that one of the high risks to the system comes if operating code discs are lost, stolen or seen by unauthorized parties — precisely what seems to have occurred with the discs sent to Kagan, who worries that the incident indicates the secret source code is not that difficult to obtain.

"Certainly, just tweaking a few votes in a couple of states could radically change the outcome of our policies for the coming year," she said.

Gee, ya think?

This has been a known problem for at least two years now. The fact that Diebold is still denying that a problem exists does little to enhance their credibility.

The solution is simple: a verifiable paper ballot that can be counted as a backup system. It's a step Diebold has fought tooth and nail.

I'm at the point where I think any vote conducted by electronic voting with no paper trail should be presumed to be fraudulent if the outcome is even remotely close -- say, within 10 or 15 percentage points.

Republicans rail about voter fraud and push through photo ID requirements for voting -- not coincidentally, a move expected to depress Democratic turnout. But they seem to be resistant to doing something about potential hacking of the voting machines themselves, a more equal-opportunity vulnerability.

Both are flaws that need fixing. This is not about partisan politics; it's about ensuring the integrity of the voting process.

If the security of the new machines cannot be established in time, they should not be used for the Nov. 7 vote.

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How much lockstep?

No commentary here, just a great resource: A list of how faithfully every Representative voted with Bush over the last two years.

Give it a look when deciding whether to send an incumbent back to Washington on Nov. 7. Principled agreement I respect; slavish obeyance I don't.

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Will Rumsfeld resign after Nov. 7?

That's what Sally Quinn thinks.

I suspect that he has already told the president and Cheney that he will leave after the midterm elections, saying that the country needs new leadership to wind down the war.

And he will resign to take a job in some sort of humanitarian venture, thereby creating the perception that he is a caring person who left of his own accord to devote the rest of his life to good works.

While I fervently hope that she's right, I don't buy it. If all the previous pressure didn't induce Bush to can him, what could spark such a move now?

If he's simply sick and tired of the flak, fine. But as a political calculation, I don't think the logic is there.

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Who watches the watchers?

Our elected officials. Which, during election season, is at least enough to make you go "hmmm":

The House Appropriations Committee has let go about 60 private contractors who made up most of an investigative unit that was auditing billions of dollars in government spending, including the $62 billion federal relief package for Hurricane Katrina, the panel's spokesman said Thursday.

The investigators, attached to the committee's Surveys and Investigations division, were released during the past week, committee spokesman John Scofield said. He said that the quality of the unit's work had been questioned by leaders of the Republican-controlled committee, including some Democrats, but he declined to say who.

The shake-up — which leaves only 16 full-time employees in the investigative unit — comes about a year after the Appropriations Committee's chairman, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., launched the Katrina review by saying the unit would "conduct a wide-ranging assessment and analysis of disaster spending." At the time, Lewis said the unit had a tradition of "comprehensive" reporting.

Firing 60 of 76 full-time auditors? What's going on?

Well, there's this to consider: According to Think Progress (and I take that sourcing with a grain of salt), it might have something to do with the fact that Lewis himself is under federal investigation for corruption charges related to jailed former Rep. Randy Cunningham. Although that doesn't make a ton of sense; calling off the Appropriations auditors wouldn't affect the corruption investigation.

Meanwhile, Citizens against Government Waste isn't happy.

It certainly raises a lot of questions.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Boy Scouts and discrimination

Be careful what you ask for, because you might not like what you get.

Six years ago, the Supreme Court ruled -- correctly -- that a private organization like the Boy Scouts could not be forced to accept gays as either Scouts or leaders.

Since then, however, the Boy Scouts have learned a lesson about the other side of freedom of association: the rest of society can choose whether it wishes to associate with you.

Parents have pulled their children out of Scouting. Cities, schools and governmental organizations have stopped sponsoring Boy Scout troops, or stopped providing them with subsidized services or facilities, or stopped listing them on employee charity forms.

The Boy Scouts have sued, claiming victim status. But as long as governmental services are provided (or not) based on objective criteria, the Boy Scouts have no leg to stand on. Cities aren't required to give the KKK free access to city facilities, and they are similarly not required to provide such access to the Scouts.

This is a shame. I was an Eagle Scout and an Order of the Arrow member. I was senior patrol leader for my troop. I spent 10 years in Scouting, and the experience was phenomenal. The Scouts, at their best, provide young boys with camaraderie, self-confidence, skills and experiences that can be hard for city dwellers to come by another way.

But the anti-gay facet of Scouting was never a factor in my experience. Had it been, the whole experience would have been different, and lessened. We recited the Scout Oath, but "morally straight" never meant "heterosexual"; it meant "upstanding and honest."

Similarly, religion wasn't central to Scouting back in my day. It was about camping, and knot-tying, and hiking, and being of good character.

Religion intruded on us only once while I was a Scout. Our longtime Scoutmaster bowed out, and the new Scoutmaster began holding mandatory "nondenominational" church services on campouts. They were nondenominational only if you were Protestant Christian, and many of us weren't; besides Catholics, we had Jews, Muslims and assorted nonbelievers in the troop.

I led the Senior Patrol in a boycott of the services, and told the Scoutmaster that most of the senior Scouts would quit if he didn't stop. That led to a meeting of troop parents in which the Scoutmaster was indeed told to knock it off.

Later, when I was finishing up work for my Eagle badge, I had to choose one part of the Scout Law to write an essay on. I chose "Reverent", and argued that it didn't mean "religious"; it meant having respect for religion and the beliefs of others.

I also asked my Scoutmaster to write one of the three required recommendations. To his credit, he did so.

I fondly remember my time in Scouting. But what Scouting has to offer is not tied to religious beliefs; it's tied to the values and citizenship it promotes. Some may argue that those values are rooted in religion. I disagree, but it's irrelevant. Whatever they're rooted in, they do not need religion in order to propogate. And the current Scout leadership, by emphasizing the religion over the common values, do a great disservice to both and to the value Scouting has provided to American society for decades.

So based on the values taught to me by Scouting, I conclude that they deserve everything they get. I only hope that they abandon their current folly before they do too much harm to future generations, for whom Scouting may not have the meaning or the value that it had for previous generations.

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Monday, October 16, 2006

More GOP shame

The sleaze is coming fast and furious with the election just three weeks away. This time it's a Republican, Curt Weldon.

FBI agents raided the home of a daughter of U.S. Representative Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, as part of an investigation into whether he used political influence to steer business toward her consulting firm, a person familiar with the case said.

Federal Bureau of Investigation agents raided Karen Weldon's home today in Philadelphia as well as the home of her business associate Charles Sexton, the person said.

On Oct. 13, McClatchy Newspapers reported that the FBI asked the Justice Department to investigate Weldon's efforts from 2002 to 2004 on behalf of two Russian companies and two Serbian brothers. Karen Weldon's firm received lobbying and consulting contracts to represent the firms, including a $500,000 contract to represent a Russian energy company, McClatchy reported.

This would be a daughter with no previous lobbying experience and no particular connections other than her father. And as icing on the cake, the companies she was representing had ties to former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Weldon joins Reid and Jefferson in the Hall of Shame's on-deck circle.

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Daddy daycare

Posting may be a little light this week. My oldest daughter is out of school all week, and I'm home making paper crowns, reading picture books and otherwise reliving my childhood.

As always, enjoy the excellent coverage at Donklephant, Blogcritics, the Moderate Voice, Centrisity and the other fine sites in my blogroll.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

WaPo takes Reid to task

The Washington Post has weighed in with an editorial on Harry Reid's land dealings, and it's harsh.

Mr. Reid's professions of transparency and full disclosure are transparently wrong. His investment was not reported in a manner that made clear his partnership with Mr. Brown. It's true -- under the inadequate financial disclosure rules -- that even if Mr. Reid had listed the newly formed corporation, Patrick Lane LLC, that wouldn't have by itself demonstrated Mr. Brown's involvement. Nonetheless, that Mr. Reid no longer owned the land, but instead had sold it for an interest in the Patrick Lane corporation, was not some mere "technical change," as the senator would like to brush it off. It's an essential element of financial disclosure rules, the purpose of which is to know how and with whom public officials are financially entwined.

I wait with interest for Reid's discussions with the ethics board.

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Air America files for bankruptcy

Financial, not moral.

Think Progress reported it a month ago, but nothing came of it. But they clearly were on to something. Air America said it only recently decided to file after negotiations with a key financial backer fell through, but it's been obvious they were having money troubles for a long time.

They're going to stay on the air during reorganization.

I like fellow Minnesotan Al Franken, so I listened to a couple of his shows when they first went on the air. But although I'm a political junkie, I found I had no appetite or time for partisan radio, liberal or conservative.

So my question in all this is: Does anyone here actually care? Will this have an effect on the political landscape? And does it say anything substantive about liberal talk radio, or talk radio in general?

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Was it a nuke? Nobody yet knows

The evidence remains inconclusive.

But determining just what caused the seismic spike is such a delicate art that after five days of intense work, analysts still cannot say for sure whether the test was a success or a dud—and there is a remote possibility the blast was not nuclear.

Early stories said we would know in a few days. Now they're talking weeks.

Other reports quote intelligence officials as saying they think it was a failed test of a plutonium bomb, and that they yield was even smaller than previously thought: 0.2 kilotons. In addition, no plutonium has been detected in air samples collected since the blast.

Whatever it was, it seems clear it wasn't good news for North Korea. Either they don't have a bomb, or they have one that didn't work.

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McCain's 1994 speech

Here's the 1994 speech in which John McCain criticized the Clinton administration for its North Korea policy. This is the basis of McCain's claim that he argued all along that Clinton's policy was a failure.

Read the whole thing. And then compare it to this timeline of Korea-related events.

I'm struck by how alarmist and wrong McCain was about much of what he said. The only thing he got right was that North Korea should not be trusted -- but that ignores the fact that the Agreed Framework did not require trust. Instead, it required IAEA inspections and verifiable actions.

He predicted the talks would fail; they didn't. He predicted North Korean artillery would hold Seoul hostage while they withdrew from the NPT; they did neither. He predicted the North Koreans would reprocess the plutonium; they didn't -- at least not for eight years, until after we had officially killed the Framework following the exposure of their uranium program.

His push for "counterbattery fire" was remarkably toothless. Counterbattery fire simply means using artillery to shoot at other artillery in an attempt to suppress or destroy it. But the North Koreans have 11,000 artillery tubes, most of that on the border, most of it dug in and hardened over the last 50 years. No amount of counterbattery fire would seriously diminish that in time to save Seoul.

He posits an early test of administration resolve: whether IAEA inspectors would be allowed to visit two nuclear waste sites for the Yongbyon reactor. What happened? Check the timeline.

A week before his speech, North Korea had said inspectors could remain at the reactor. The same day he spoke (June 23), they said they would fully comply with the NPT and the IAEA, On July 12 they said the IAEA inspectors could stay at Yongbyon, the fuel rods would not be processed and the reactor would not be restarted. By Sept. 13 the IAEA was able to issue a report of its inspections, saying no plutonium had been extracted there since 1993.

By November 1994 the IAEA was able to certify that North Korea had frozen all operations at Yongbyon.

The timeline might have been a bit longer than McCain implied it should be, but the end result was the same: North Korea, contrary to McCain's prediction, fully submitted to IAEA inspections at all of its known nuclear sites.

Other than showing him questioning Clinton's approach, I don't know why he thinks this speech helps him make his point. It shows him to be wrong on every specific count, and his main alternate proposal -- counterbattery fire to prevent NK from holding Seoul hostage -- ineffective.

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Former Foley aide testifies before Congress

The session was behind closed doors, and the aide, Kirk Fordham, was ordered not to talk about it. But his lawyer says his sworn testimony was a repeat of his public comments.

The House ethics panel also questioned Rep. Shelley Capito, who sits on the board that oversee the page program. Rep. John Shimkus, the head of that board, will testify today.

So far the Republican defense seems to be holding: leaders admit they knew about -- and took action over -- the relatively tame e-mails, but not the lurid IMs. But with less than four weeks to the elections, it remains to be seen whether more will come out, or whether voters will accept that explanation as sufficient.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

It's back!!

My favorite polling roundup site, Electoral-Vote.com, is back up for the 2006 elections.

I like them because they aggregate all sorts of different polls in an easy-to-use format, and provide the underlying data so you can drill down as far as you want.

I've added them to my list of Resources in the sidebar, and put a daily projection graphic there as well.

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Clinton, Bush and NK

I intend for this to be the only post I do on the finger-pointing aspect of the North Korean nuke test. Not that it isn't a fair topic, it's just that deciding what to do now is more important.

Who is to blame for North Korea building nukes? Well, North Korea mostly. And China for sheltering them, even though China itself isn't at all happy about the nuke test.

But as far as U.S. policy, who did what? Who could have done more?

Fred Kaplan at Slate weighs in with a detailed rebuttal of John McCain's effort to lay the blame at Bill Clinton's feet, so we'll start there. It's opinion, but it's fact-based:

In the spring of 1994, barely a year into Bill Clinton's presidency, the North Koreans announced that they were about to remove the fuel rods from their nuclear reactor (as a first step to reprocessing them into plutonium), cancel their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (which they had signed in 1985), and expel the international weapons inspectors (who had been guarding the rods under the treaty's authority).

Did Clinton "reward" them for doing these things, as McCain claims? Far from it. Not only did he push the U.N. Security Council to consider sanctions, he also ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up plans to send 50,000 additional troops to South Korea—bolstering the 37,000 already there—along with more than 400 combat jets, 50 ships, and several battalions of Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles, multiple-launch rockets, and Patriot air-defense missiles. He also sent in an advance team of 250 soldiers to set up logistical headquarters for the influx of troops and gear.

He sent an explicit signal that removing the fuel rods would cross a "red line." Several of his former aides insist that if North Korea had crossed that line, he would have launched an airstrike on the Yongbyon reactor, even knowing that it might lead to war.

At the same time, Clinton set up a diplomatic backchannel, sending former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang for direct talks with Kim Il-Sung, then North Korea's dictator and the father of its present "dear leader," Kim Jong-il. (The official Washington line held that Carter made the trip on his own, but a recent memoir by three former U.S. officials, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, acknowledges that Clinton asked him to go.)

This combination of sticks and carrots led Kim Il-Sung to call off his threats—the fuel rods weren't removed, the inspectors weren't kicked out—and, a few months later, to the signing of the Agreed Framework.

Ah, the Agreed Framework. More on that later. For now, Kaplan notes that in a 1995 annex to the Framework, North Korea agreed to export its spent fuel from the new light-water reactors rather than processing them itself -- exactly the approach suggested for Iran.

Kaplan sums up:

At the end of 2002, when the North Koreans really did unlock the rods and kick out the inspectors—when they crossed what Clinton had called the "red line"—Bush didn't take military action, he didn't call for sanctions, nor did he try diplomacy. It's Bush, not Clinton, who did nothing.

Now, he's comparing what Clinton aides say Clinton would have done to what Bush actually did in the event. So the comparison is a bit squishy. But there it is.

Critics say Clinton "appeased" North Korea, and the Framework was a failure. But what actually happened?

First, read the Framework. It's short.

The Framework laid out the following major points:

1. North Korea would remain part of the Nonproliferation treaty, halt construction on two proliferation-friendly nuclear reactors, and place its nuclear materials in the care of IAEA inspectors. It would also allow continued inspections of its nuclear facilities.

2. The U.S. agreed to replace those two reactors with two modern light-water reactors, which besides being safer also produced far less divertable plutonium. While those reactors were being built, they would provide North Korea with fuel oil for electrical generation. We also agreed to move toward normalization of relations.

North Korea's known nuclear program was based around plutonium, and it is that program that the Framework deals with.

Note that the agreement was built around major, verifiable acts by North Korea. We weren't just giving him stuff with no strings attached and hoping for the best. We were rewarding specific behavior with specific payoffs.

And for eight years, with one huge exception, North Korea scrupulously adhered to the Framework, even while a Republican-led Congress forced us to renege on various aspects of it -- notably, timely delivery of the fuel oil and the lifting of Korean War-era sanctions. For eight years their plutonium program was frozen. That seems like a significant achievement to me.

But what about the nuclear reactors we were building? Due to various delays, construction on the first reactor didn't even begin until 2002, and was halted a year later. The construction sites remain mere holes in the ground.

So what was the big exception I mentioned? While adhering to restrictions on its plutonium program, North Korea -- being unscrupulous nutjobs -- secretly started a uranium-enrichment program. It's not clear when that program began, and uranium enrichment is much harder to do than plutonium. In many ways they were starting over from the beginning, with a much higher mountain to climb in order to achieve nuclear status.

So the Agreed Framework was a failure only if you include a secret program that wasn't covered by the Framework except in spirit. That's a bit like saying a filter that catches 90 percent of particulates is a failure because it misses 10 percent. The Framework achieved exactly what it set out to do: it halted North Korea's nuclear program in its tracks. For eight years North Korea didn't make measurable progress, all for the price of some fuel oil.

After Bush was elected, he continued with the Agreed Framework, even while expressing reservations about it. In March 2002 he waived a certification requirement in the Framework in order to continue providing aid to North Korea. As mentioned above, he also allowed construction of the light-water reactors to begin in August 2002. These are not the actions we would expect if the Framework were clearly irresponsible on its face.

Then, in October 2002, we uncovered evidence of the uranium program. We immediately suspended the Framework, and justifiably so -- although fuel oil shipments continued until December, and work on the reactors continued for another year. But we didn't replace it with anything; we just demanded action from North Korea. Maybe that made us feel good, but as a practical approach it left a lot to be desired. North Korea, hiding under China's protective wing, was never going to respond to all but the most credible and extreme threats. And with the looming invasion of Iraq, our threats were no longer remotely credible.

We finally got around to proposing multilateral talks, while North Korea withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty, kicked out the IAEA inspectors and resumed reprocessing fuel rods. We let the talks drag on with no serious results. Then we sat on our hands after North Korea withdrew a year ago, while they tested missiles and built a nuke.

So Clinton had success in reining in North Korea, while Bush didn't. That alone isn't conclusive; lack of success regarding North Korea isn't necessarily a sign of inaction, giving that the North Koreans are lunatics. But with Bush insisting on talks while doing essentially nothing to cajole North Korea to participate, it's hard to see how he expected anything to happen.

But inaction, too, is not necessarily damning. Sometimes waiting a stubborn adversary out is the best course, especially when the alternative is to reward bad behavior. One could make a principled case that refusing to engage a bad actor is the right thing to do.

But there are two things that are simply absurd:

1. It is absurd to blame Clinton for many North Korean actions that occurred on Bush's watch, notably withdrawing from the Nonproliferation Treaty and resuming fuel reprocessing. It is especially absurd to blame Clinton for North Korea testing missiles and a nuke six years into Bush's term.

2. It is absurd to claim Bush has actively achieved anything regarding North Korea's nuclear program. He has had some success shutting down North Korean criminal enterprises, such as their smuggling and counterfeiting operations. But as far as their nuke program, he has gotten nowhere.

One can speculate as to whether he could have done better. Perhaps not; North Korea is a complex case. But it seems clear that Bush's simplistic, all-stick-and-no-carrot approach was doomed to fail. If his goal was to keep North Korea from going nuclear, his chosen approach was the wrong one.

Update: Added details on the transition from Clinton to Bush, and smoothed out the writing a little bit.

Update II: Here's a look at McCain's 1994 speech criticizing Clinton's policy on North Korea.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Reid gets $1.1 million windfall

We may have a prospective new Democratic candidate for the Hall of Shame.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid collected a $1.1 million windfall on a Las Vegas land sale even though he hadn't personally owned the property for three years, property deeds show.

In the process, Reid did not disclose to Congress an earlier sale in which he transferred his land to a company created by a friend and took a financial stake in that company, according to records and interviews.

The deal itself isn't quite as bad as it sounds -- Reid didn't directly own the land, but he owned a stake in the partnership that did.

However, his failure to report the sale of the land appears to be a clear violation of disclosure rules. And the "informal" arrangement with a rather shady partner sure doesn't polish his ethical resume.

he joins Rep. William Jefferson in the Democratic on-deck circle. Stay tuned.

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Cash not accepted here

NPR had an interesting take on the evolving cashless society this morning, telling the story of a small cafe in Washington, D.C. that has stopped taking cash (you'll have to click on their audio link to hear the story). The downside? Occasionally upset customers. The upside? No need to make change, no need to worry about having large amounts of cash on hand, no need to worry about serious employee theft, easy and accurate accounting of all sales and a lower fee from their electronic-payment processor.

Privacy advocates may note another downside if this becomes universal: every purchase you make will be tracked and recorded. That probably doesn't bother most people, and for those it may give pause, the convenience may outweigh the intrusion.

Meanwhile, a much-predicted occurrence -- cashless vending machines selling everything from snacks to cell phones -- may soon be arriving, bringing us one step closer to the Japanese, for whom buying all sorts of things out of vending machines is old hat.

Long a staple of science fiction, our lifetimes may see the disappearance or even criminalization of cash (after all, when every transaction can be electronic, the only purpose of losable, bulky cash becomes transactions that you don't want recorded). And a strange day that will be.
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Iraq death toll as high as 650,000?

That's what researchers at Johns Hopkins University are saying.

"Deaths are occurring in Iraq now at a rate more than three times that from before" March 2003, said Gilbert Burnham, lead author of the study and co-director of the Bloomberg School's Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, in a statement.

The total exceeds what other groups have found over a similar period, including the Iraq Body Count estimate that between 43,491 and 48,283 died up to Sept. 26.

That's an eye-opening number, especially because Iraq only has a population of about 26 million. Most of those deaths are attributed to violence, but some were credited to Iraq's creaky health-care system, which has deteriorated since the invasion.

But take it with a grain of salt. Such estimates are notoriously difficult to do. In this case they surveyed 1,850 Iraqi households containing 12,801 people. They then extrapolated the results to the entire country. The quality of the estimate depends on how representative the sample was, and how accurate the information received.

The study's authors, using the same methodology, estimated a death toll of 100,000 in 2004. And they acknowledge the potential unreliability of the data:

In accounting for error and bias in the study, the authors acknowledged that "extreme insecurity" in the region restricted the size of survey teams, the number of supervisors and how much time could be spent in each location. Family members might also have misreported deaths and ``large-scale migration'' out of Iraq could have affected overall numbers, the study said.

But I think it's safe to put the number of dead at "lots." And the death rate is substantially higher than it was before the invasion -- three times higher if you take the number at face value. Even if you discount the number substantially, it seems clear that the invasion has not saved Iraqi lives.

People die in war, and the civilian death toll is not necessarily a comment on the justness or the conduct of the war. But in this case it seems that yet another justification for invading -- Saddam's violent repression of his people -- is weakening fast. Because if this was the cure, the cure is apparently worse than the disease.

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Army plans no Iraq troop cuts before 2010

Just in case.

Not a good sign, but also just standard operating procedure: it's the military's job to be prepared for any contingency, and as Schoomaker says it's easier to cancel a planned deployment than to quickly dispatch extra troops.

That should, however, put the kabosh on any happy talk of looming troop withdrawals. It should also refocus attention on the strain the military is under to maintain the current troop levels -- including efforts by the Pentagon to cut the Army's budget. Responding to howls from the Army, Rumsfeld has essentially abdicated responsibility -- giving the Army permission to plead their case directly to the White House, but not weighing in himself. He granted similar permission to the Air Force and Navy, thus absenting himself from one of his main jobs.

What a way to run a war.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Republicans spin conspiracy theories

Remember how much conservatives and Republicans jeered when Hillary Clinton said she and Bill were victims of a "vast right-wing conspiracy"?

Well, now the shoe's on the other foot.

Leading Republicans, with the support of conservative media outlets, are charging that the Mark Foley scandal was a plot orchestrated by Democrats to damage the G.O.P.'s electoral prospects this November. According to the Washington Post, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert appeared on Rush Limbaugh's radio show and "agreed when the host said the Foley story was driven by Democrats 'in some sort of cooperation with some in the media' to suppress turnout of conservative voters" before the midterm elections.

Conservative talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt has said that Hastert had become the "target right now of the left-wing media machine," and House Majority Leader John Boehner has charged that the release of the Foley documents so close to the elections "is concerning, at a minimum."

The rest of the article is one journalist's explanation of how the Foley e-mails came to light, which shoots down many of the theories outlined above.

But the theories were junk to begin with. Was it plausible that the Democrats might pull something like this? Sure. Was there any evidence that they had? No. And the "suspicious timing" argument was silly, too. The e-mails and IMs are three years old; why wouldn't the Dems have released them in 2004 instead of waiting for the 2006 by-election? And if they were going to wait, why release them five weeks before the election? Why not two weeks, or one?

It was all just speculation -- pure, partisan speculation masquerading as fact. And a sad spectacle, too, because let's just say that it turned out to be true -- that Democrats released the e-mails. So what? Does that change their substance? Does that let GOP leaders off the hook?

The only way this could tar the Democrats is if they had the far-more-lurid IMs and sat on them, waiting for a moment of maximum political advantage. But again, there's no evidence that this happened.

What we do have, however, is clear evidence of right-wing hypocrisy and double standards when it comes to crying "conspiracy", and intellectual dishonesty when it comes to separating fact from fantasy.

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North Korea may have miscalculated

Looks like everyone is mad at North Korea -- including, significantly, China:

North Korea must face "some punitive actions" for testing a nuclear device, China's U.N. ambassador said Monday, suggesting that Beijing may be willing to impose some form of Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang.

China's U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya told reporters that the council must give a "firm, constructive, appropriate but prudent response" to North Korea.


Okay, there are a lot of weasel words in there. But it does show that there limits to what China is willing to put up with from its oddball neighbor.

Meanwhile, a former military intelligence analyst weighs in with some additional options for dealing with North Korea. The include a naval quarantine, restrictions on air travel, aiding defectors, selling anti-missile technology to South Korea, Japan and Taiwan and cracking down on North Korea's criminal financing network.

Several of those would probably be considered acts of war by North Korea, and several would probably upset China, most notably selling advanced weaponry to Taiwan. But they do represent options short of war that could be used to pressure the regime.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

What can we do about NK?

Okay, so I'm not sure why we're suddenly all atwitter about North Korea demonstrating it has nukes, since we've credited them with nukes for years.

And there's a possibility they don't actually have them.

But assuming they do, it would be churlish not to try to lay out some ideas for a solution.

The blogosphere is abuzz with the usual solutions -- bomb them, nuke them, invade them, bribe them, send them flowers, blame Clinton -- but let's disregard those. This is reality, not a video game. And reality, in this case, is messy.

Is there the will and capability to attack NK? Limited amounts of both, as long as China is willing to shelter its lunatic neighbor. But even if that weren't a problem, we'd have to choose a method:

Assassination? Beyond the moral and practical implications -- do we really want to send the message that trying to kill heads of state is okay? -- killing a paranoid recluse is technically very difficult, especially if you're not willing to kill massive numbers of innocent civilians in the process.

Bombing? Destroying underground nuclear facilities -- assuming we actually know where they are -- is also difficult. And North Korea's geography would lessen the impact of a bombing campaign.

Invading? Interestingly, the UN resolution that authorized the Korean War remains in force -- NK and SK are still technically observing an armistice (text here). But North Korea is home to some of the most rugged and most heavily militarized terrain on earth. It would take a serious application of force, and would be potentially very costly. Further, an invasion could trigger a nuclear explosion -- if Kim Jong-Il were crazy and desperate enough. More importantly, though, invading NK would almost inevitably lead to a confrontation with China. No sane person on either side wants that.

Sanctions? Sure. Except that NK is already one of the most isolated nations on earth. It will be difficult to harm them more than we are harming them now.

So what can we do?

If it came down to it, I would support targeted strikes to reduce NK's nuclear capability -- hitting the reactors, testing facilities, factories and mines that support their nuclear complex. We wouldn't get it all, but we could set them back a good ways, as well as sending a message to other would be nuclear powers.

But given the risks involved, that would be in extremis. Military force really needs to be a last, desperate alternative.

Our best and, really, only hope is to press China to do something about its client. China may feel an obligation to NK, and they may find NK useful as a buffer and a thorn in the side of the West -- a distraction from China's growing economic and military power. But China will never put NK's interest ahead of its own. And unlike Iran, NK doesn't have economic significance for China. Make the price attractive enough, and China will do what it considers necessary regarding NK -- either reining them in or deposing the Great Leader.

But China does not respond well to direct pressure. They will do things because they want to, not because we want them to. Any attempt to strongarm them will fail, as will any attempt to get them to act against their own best interests.

Luckily, there appears to be a relatively simple way to make China's interests coincide with our own.

With North Korea increasing its saber-rattling to nuclear proportions, it's only natural that South Korea and Japan would feel the urge to improve their defensive capabilities. And, since they're our allies, it's only natural that we would want to help them. Further, a more self-reliant SK and Japan would help reduce the military burden we bear in defending them. It's about time both countries assumed more responsibility for their own defense, and North Korea provides a convenient pretext for doing so.

But the last thing China wants is a spiraling arms race in the region. And it especially does not want a remilitarized Japan -- the memories of World War II are still too fresh and formative for that. It wants to become a regional hegemon, and it can't do that if two of its closest neighbors join Taiwan in becoming armed to the teeth, their weapons all pointed in China's general direction.

So without threatening China directly, we should start a program to help SK and Japan increase their military capabilities to deal with North Korean threats. Faced with the prospect of an arms race , I think China would instead choose to rein in NK or even depose Kim Jong-Il.

It would cost a fair chunk of cash -- but not anywhere near as much as another Iraq. And there's no guarantee it would work. But if it doesn't, then at least we have given SK and Japan the means to defend themselves, which is our fallback position anyway. And it carries much less risk, and a much higher likelihood of success, than the alternatives.

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Iraq alternatives.... after the election

I've written before about the Iraq Study Group, a commission headed by James Baker that is looking at alternative strategies regarding Iraq.

But now it seems that one of the goals listed in the earlier post -- preventing a GOP train wreck in November -- won't be achieved.

Why? Because it won't issue its report until after the November elections.

There are a lot of ways to interpret that, but none of them particularly favor Bush. By the simple fact that it exists, a Republican-led commission of experts who think the current course is misguided undermines the administration position. The fact that they won't release the report until after the elections also suggests that what they're coming up with wouldn't prove helpful at the polls. For certain, sparking an internal GOP debate over Iraq right before the elections might hurt more than it helped, no matter how good his recommendations are.

Baker is spinning the change as best he can, of course, saying he wants to "take this thing out of politics". Maybe he really is, or maybe he's doing it at the behest of Democratic commission members. But I doubt it.

And it's telling that the administration is so insulated from new thinking that an outside commission is needed to come up with new ideas. By setting up the ISG, Bush has essentially outsourced the policy-making work of two Cabinet posts -- Defense and State -- as well as the National Security Advisor. Arguably he's also abdicated much of his own responsibility to lead in this matter. After all, blue-ribbon commissions are where difficult political questions are usually sent to die. And while the commission has pursued its work over the months, U.S. policy has remained relatively unchanged. Either Bush really believes the current course is the right one -- in which case the commission is irrelevant -- or he's waiting for someone to tell him what to do. Neither choice inspires much confidence.

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So North Korea has the bomb....

.... Or does it?

They're claiming they do, we've long assumed they do, and yesterday's supposed test would seem to support that.

But the estimated yield is small enough (as little as half a kiloton, maybe as big as a kiloton), that two alternate possibilities suggest themselves:

1. It's a fake. I suggested this last week, when NK first started saying it would test a nuke. Could NK simply have blown off a thousand tons of TNT? It was an underground explosion, after all, so the amount of direct evidence will be limited. There might not even be any release of radioactive particles, which would be the best evidence that the bomb was, in fact, a nuke -- although even that might be spoofable.

And there is precedent for it, although the earlier case involved an open-air explosion easily proven to be nonnuclear. (h/t: Adventures of Chester)

2. It was a dud. Note the comments thread, too, where other people raise the "pile of TNT" theory.

Here's a guy who discusses why the test could have been a success even at 1 kiloton.

So it appears that we don't yet know enough about what actually happened to decide what to do. I bet NK is gathering all sorts of useful data on the world's reaction, though.

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ah, campaign season....

.... that time to reflect on how low human beings can go.

From 10 Zen Monkeys:

1. “My opponent parties with lingerie-clad Playboy bunnies! And then goes to church!” That's the National Republican Senatorial Committee, going after Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford.

2. “It was unbelievably demoralizing to be painted as a pampered slut!” The NRSC again, this time targeting Jim Webb in Virginia.

3. "(everything she says) depends on your area code.... she just tells you what you want to hear." NRSC ad against Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

ZM lists two others, but for my money they don't compare with these:

Brad Miller even spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia.” An ad by Republican challenger Vernon Robinson in North Carolina.

For simple loopiness, there's this one, also by Robinson.

And then there'sthis one from Nebraska, which takes aim at Sen. Ben Nelson.

I cannot wait until Nov. 7, simply to make it stop.

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Hastert to take responsibility for Foley scandal

As the House Ethics Committee meets behind closed doors to discuss the Foley scandal, House Speaker Dennis Hastert is planning to take responsibility for the mess -- though not resign.

At a news conference in his home district in Illinois, Hastert will also ask the Ethics Committee to consider new rules so that anyone making inappropriate contact with pages be disciplined. In the case of staff, they would be fired; lawmakers would be subject to expulsion, the official said.

Hastert also was ready to appoint an outside expert to investigate the scandal and recommend changes to the page program, virtually as old as Congress itself.

Hastert's right about one thing: outside demands for resignation are premature. If it turns out he knew about more than the relatively tame e-mails (rather than the lurid IMs), he should go. But we don't know that yet. So sharp questioning should continue, but it's too early to kick him out of his leadership position.

On the other hand, GOP legislators may toss him out simply for letting this scandal pop up five weeks before a crucial election. A sacrificial lamb may be needed, and he might be it.

Regarding what Hastert knew when, a former GOP aide says he warned Hastert three years ago about Foley (though it's not clear that such a warning included details of the explicit IMs that are really driving this controversy). In any case, Hastert's office flatly denies the claim.

Addressing where the leaks came from, the e-mails appear to have been midwifed by a gay activist named Michael Rogers, who claims to have helped provide the e-mails to ABC, and gave Democrats a heads-up that something was coming.

The original leak, however, may have been a longtime GOP aide. This article from The Hill relies on anonymous sources, but I'd wager that the "source" is in fact Rogers, and at least The Hill goes into detail about the supporting documentation. The article also notes that the IMs surfaced in response to the leak of the e-mails, suggesting that perhaps nobody was sitting on anything.

So efforts to link the scandal to Democrats are so far not bearing much fruit. They jumped on the bandwagon, of course (with Minnesota candidate Patty Wetterling even going so far as to rush out a misleading ad about it), but what we appear to have is the Dems getting nothing more than a heads up from Rogers a few days before Foleygate broke -- a heads up regarding the e-mails, not the IMs. And the DCCC didn't even return Rogers' call until just before the scandal broke.

For now, we have a lot of questions. But not enough yet to firmly tar either the GOP leadership or allegedly conniving Democrats.

Update: It's not Foley related, but in the vein of Republican sex scandals, we have the odd spectacle of Rep. Don Sherwood running a TV ad in which he apologizes for having an affair but denies trying to strangle his mistress. I'm sure that'll win a lot of votes.

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Crying "discrimination" too many times

This NAACP chapter has its collective head in an untenable spot.

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y. — The village chapter of the NAACP has filed a complaint accusing the Ben Gilman Medical and Dental Clinic of religious discrimination for closing on Saturdays.

The complaint, filed Sept. 6 with the state's Division of Human Rights, alleges that the clinic's practice of remaining closed Saturdays in observance of operators' Jewish Sabbath, unlawfully imposes their religious beliefs on others.

Complainants say the practice is an unlawful violation of people's civil rights, particularly since the clinic's operator, Monsey-based Community Medical and Dental Care Inc., has received millions of dollars in federal funding.

In addition to the Gilman clinic, Community Medical and Dental Care operates Monsey Medical and Dental Center.

If you read to the bottom of the link, you'll see that this appears to be an outgrowth of an ongoing battle between the clinic and the NAACP. But let's ignore that and focus on the case at hand.

The NAACP has this exactly backward. Religious discrimination would be forcing a Jewish-run clinic to close on Sunday because all the Christian-run clinics are closed that day. Someone deciding to shut their business to observe their personal holy day is an example of religious freedom, not discrimination.

The federal funding makes the argument a little more interesting, but not compellingly so. For one thing, does the NAACP think their constituents would be better off if the clinic simply shut down rather than accept federal funding with such strings attached? And I'll bet federal funds are used by plenty of Christian-run clinics that aren't open on Sunday.

Each clinic has the right to limit its business by limiting the hours it is open. In response, another clinic is free to set up shop to cater to those who wish to have Saturday hours.

There is a legitimate practical concern here in the context of public health: if these clinics constitute the only practical health-care option for the region, then being closed on Saturday represents a gap in coverage. But I doubt this is the case. Spring Valley isn't in the middle of nowhere; there are undoubtedly hospitals and other care providers within a reasonable distance. And even if it were the case, trying to legally compel a business owner to violate their religious beliefs is not the way to go.

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Free speech and national security

I've written before about the book "Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime". It's a fascinating and comprehensive history of the development of free-speech law, with a sweeping historical view of how free-speech has been treated in times of crisis. It outlines some of the limitations of free speech as well as documented government abuse of security powers.

The author, Geoffrey Stone, was on Minnesota Public Radio yesterday for a discussion of the issue; you can find the audio at the above link. He was in town to give a talk at the University of Minnesota.

If you're interested in a historical perspective on the current free-speech/security debate, it's well worth a listen.

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Blogging lawsuit

A Minnesota-based blogger is suing another blogger in a case that could have larger implications for bloggers as a whole.

It all started with a phone call to Aaron Clarey, informing him that he'd been branded a racist.

Clarey, a Minneapolis economist, blogger and radio host, traced the accusation to a physics laboratory in California. There, a graduate student named Sanjay Krishnaswamy had created a blog on which he posed as Clarey -- photograph and all -- and posted comments about "miserable brown wetbacks" and why "blacks are more likely to commit crimes than whites."

Krishnaswamy's lawyer says the fake blog was clearly a parody, an over-the-top production meant to draw attention to the real Clarey's "outrageous" viewpoints.

But when word of the phony blog reached Clarey's employers in Minnesota, he says he found himself facing the potential loss of his community-education gigs teaching finance courses and salsa dance classes, not to mention his reputation.

That's why Clarey, a libertarian who blogs under the name "Captain Capitalism," is suing Krishnaswamy.

I can't find a link to the fake blog -- perhaps it's been taken down due to the lawsuit -- but Clarey's blog is here.

As a brief aside, since we're on the subject of lawsuits, is Clarey infringing on a copyright with his alter ego?

Back on topic: It's sleazy to create a blog posing as someone else unless the intent is clearly parody. The question, then, is what is meant by "clearly." Since I can't find the fake blog, the strength of its "parody" argument is impossible to judge.

Anonymity isn't really the problem here. People who post under pseudonyms -- like me -- may be shielded from real life personal consequences of what we write, but our words are still our own, and our credibility rises and falls based on those words. And if it came down to criminal activity, I'm sure that Blogger would roll over for a subpoena demanding my true identity, which I imagine could be tracked down through IP numbers.

So the problem is impersonation. And not just any impersonation, but impersonation with the intent to harm the reputation of the target by posting lies about him.

But there are other considerations. Is Clarey a public figure? Most likely, thanks to his prominence as an economist and radio host. But let's look past him. Is blogging alone enough to make someone a public figure?

The question is important, because public figures have a much harder time winning suits like this one. I can call President Bush a Nazi without fear; I could conceivably be sued if I wrote that my neighbor is a Nazi. I could create a fake blog purportedly written by Bush without fear; can I do the same with Aaron Clarey? Or some random blogger I happen to dislike?

Which is why this case bears watching. It could define the legal status of bloggers, as well as the limits of parody in the blog world.

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