Friday, January 25, 2008

Edwards to win, Obama to place

Sorry about the light posting; I've been buried in homework for my Web design classes. The good news: I really like it and have an aptitude for it. The bad news: when I really like something new, I tend to devote unhealthy amounts of time to it. The "every waking moment" kind of unhealthy. And learning a programming language is time-intensive anyway.

But I'll poke my head into the real world long enough to make a prediction on the South Carolina races:

Edwards: 35%
Obama: 34%
Clinton: 31%

I know this goes against every poll there is, but Edwards just has to do better than 16 percent in the state of his birth, while Obama is establishing a trend of showing huge leads in polls that disappear as voting approaches. And I just don't see Clinton having a natural constituency in the state.

Yeah, it's a flier. But if I'm wrong, no big deal. And in the unlikely event I turn out to be right, I'll look like a genius!


Monday, January 21, 2008

Jefferson on the stand

Rep. William Jefferson testified at a pre-trial hearing Thursday, attempting to get evidence from the FBI raid on his house thrown out.

But it didn't go well for him. He claimed the FBI intimidated him when they interviewed him during the raid -- even though he's a member of Congress and a Harvard-educated lawyer, both of which tend to make him unlikely to be intimidated.

He said the FBI agents yelled and swore at him -- even though they apparently weren't loud enough to wake up his sleeping wife and daughter.

The prosecution said the day before that he made a bunch of phone calls during the raid, which would indicate that he was hardly coerced or intimidated. Jefferson denied it. The prosecution responded by brandishing phone records showing various calls from his house that day. It's unclear from the story, however, if the calls were made during or after the interview, which began at around 7 a.m.; the main phone call is from 8:29 a.m.

In any case, what you have here is not a man vigorously defending his innocence, but a man trying to suppress damning evidence against him, notably the $90,000 they found in his freezer. That is an important legal right -- the police are not allowed to use illegally collected evidence -- but it hardly burnishes his claims of no wrongdoing.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

California eyes thermostats

About a week ago, it came out that California's energy regulators were seeking the power to control thermostats in private buildings. They would install a radio-operated controller that would let them raise or lower temperatures by a couple of degrees during severe power shortages, preventing system overloads and blackouts.

That provoked plenty of outrage about the idea from the usual suspects as well as others. So much so, in fact, that California withdrew the plan on Wednesday.

Me, I understood what regulators were trying to do, and they do have a legitimate interest in managing power consumption during an emergency. Further, it's pretty clear that access to electricity is not a right. The power company can, and does, shut off parts of the grid when necessary, and that's just life.

But it is intrusive. So here's what I would have done.

1. Make participation in the thermostat program voluntary, in return for a small reduction in the customer's monthly electric bill. We have a similar program here in Minnesota, and my air-conditioner is hooked up to it.

2. Anyone that didn't participate in the thermostat program would be bumped to the top of the list of people who would have all of their power shut off in an emergency, if necessary.

Voila! No intrusion, but a strong incentive to shoulder a small pain in order to avoid shouldering a much bigger one.

But that's not really my point in making this post. Because I think the situation illustrates an interesting clash of collective interest and individual rights.

Concerns about Big Brother and bureaucracy aside, the regulators had a compelling "greater good" argument. Turning everyone's thermostat down (or up) a couple of degrees would inflict only minor suffering (if it can be called that) on each individual customer, while reducing demand enough to stave off a power shortage.

Leaving it up to individuals, on the other hand, would prevent that minor discomfort -- right up until the entire system overloaded and people lost power completely, with far more severe effects on comfort and the wallet.

Thus you have the intellectually unsatisfying conclusion that everyone would be better off if they went with the remote thermostat control -- yet such a plan is politically undoable.

There's a name for this -- the tragedy of the commons. It affects all sorts of resources, notably fisheries and the like, and there are myriad demonstrated cases of such individual acts destroying the shared resources that a given group depends upon.

At this point you might be tempted to shake your head and say "people are stupid." But they're not. Especially in this case, because this isn't just an economic calculation.

Oh, there's an economic aspect: For example, adopting the thermostat plan requires confidence in both the government's intentions and its competence. If you don't think the program will work well or fairly, why give up control of your thermostat to it? That's an economic calculation -- feeling that the payoff will not be worth the cost.

Then there's the question of who gets to define what the "greater good" is.

But the biggest issue comes down to rights: who has the right to control my thermostat? And the problem there is that individual rights are not economically rational; indeed, by definition, they are roadblocks in the functioning of the larger society. Police need to get warrants; that's inefficient. The government must prove its case to a unanimous jury; that's inefficient. You can cause as much trouble with a printing press as you want; that's inefficient.

Individual rights, fabulous as they are, come at a certain price in economic or social efficiency.

Note I'm talking about rights, not freedoms. Freedoms are a different beast altogether; they are the absence of regulation and control, and they create economic and social efficiency.

But freedoms, too, have their limits, because they often assume limitless resources, no cheating and rarely account for externalized costs. The tragedy of the commons establishes a sort of upper limit on freedom: Too much freedom can end up destroying the shared resources that a given group depends upon.

The key to addressing "tragedy of the commons" situations such as this one is to align individual behavior with the interest of the group.

This can be done through enforcement -- in the case of a fishery, you might limit the number of fishing boat licenses available, thus limiting the catch to sustainable levels.

But it can also be done less coercively. The proposed solution in California, for example, creates a market incentive to accept the greater-good approach. This leaves all the power in the individual's hands -- they can always opt back out of the program if it doesn't work for them.

My purpose here is to get people to recognize two things:

1. The greater good is not an absolute good. It may be too violative of individual rights, or the definition of "greater good" may not be widely accepted.

2. Individual rights are not an absolute good. They introduce inefficiencies and, taken to extremes, can destroy economies and societies.

Any reasonable social policy must balance the two, maximizing individual rights wherever possible while efficiently serving society as much as possible.

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Michelle Bachmann is still clueless

MPR's Mid-morning show interviewed Rep. Michelle Bachmann (and Rep. Tim Walz) yesterday. You can find the audio of the hour-long show here.

They both have interesting things to say about Iraq, though Bachmann continues to come across as a clueless right-winger. But for my money the best part starts at the 40:29 mark, when Kerri Miller asks Bachmann about the utterly, ignorantly crazy statement she made about Iran last year -- a statement she later claimed meant something entirely different.

In the interview, she spends 4 minutes babbling non sequiturs in response to Miller's question. Then she's handed an economic question, in which she says the best way to avoid a recession is to cut corporate taxes -- something that not even Bush or Ben Bernanke agree with.

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Cool or ooky?

This isn't political, per se, but I stumbled across this site and found myself equal parts fascinated and repulsed.

When your loved one dies, you can subject their body to exceedingly high temperature and pressures and turn them into a diamond, which is then placed in a tasteful setting of your choice so you can wear them on your hand all day.

Since my wife and I intend to be cremated, I guess the general idea shouldn't bother me -- although I don't actually expect my kids to keep our ashes around. But for some reason, though the science-geek side of my brain says "cool!", another part of me thinks this is just a little out there.


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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ex-Congressman charged with supporting Al Qaeda

Didn't see this one coming.

A former congressman and delegate to the United Nations was indicted Wednesday as part of a terrorist fundraising ring that allegedly sent more than $130,000 to an al-Qaida and Taliban supporter who has threatened U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan.

Mark Deli Siljander, a Michigan Republican when he was in the House, was charged with money laundering, conspiracy and obstructing justice for allegedly lying about lobbying senators on behalf of an Islamic charity that authorities said was secretly sending funds to terrorists.

Without trying to assess the strength of the charges -- there's not enough information to do that -- let me just point out a couple of thoughts:

Thank goodness it was a Republican. Can you imagine all the apoplectic aneurysms among right-wing bloggers if it had been a Democrat? With Siljander, they'll of course explain that he's just one guy, doesn't represent all Republicans and was probably a RINO anyway. Had it been a Democrat, on the other hand, he would have been a representative poster child for the Democratic Party, damning evidence of the corruption and disloyalty inherent in the Democratic character, and something that all current Democratic officeholders must answer for. Ain't blind partisanship fun?

The charges aren't all that explosive. He's essentially accused of lobbying on behalf of a charity, a charity that we declared a terrorist supporter because some of its money ended up in the hands of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Hekmatyar's a bad guy now -- a declared supporter of Osama bin Laden -- but his is a common story in the region: we were a big supporter of his when he was fighting the Soviets, walked away when the Soviets left, and then found ourselves fighting against him when we invaded Afghanistan. Sending him cash may well constitute "terrorist support", but it's not a simple thing. And Siljander's guilt will rest largely on how much he knew about the charity's activities.

The most damning charges address how his lobbying was funded: it claims he conspired with the charity to illegally use money donated by USAID. He also denied doing any lobbying for the group. If true, that's enough to sink him for corruption, and cast doubt on on his truthfulness, which in turn would suggest greater involvement and culpability for money reaching Hekmatyar.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post notes that the problem might be Siljander's district, inasmuch as his predecessor was also a Republican, and is also in hot water:

It was a shocker when David A. Stockman, the one-time congressman from the Sixth (actually the 4th back then, before redistricting) who went on to become President Reagan's White House budget director in the early 1980s, was indicted last year on charges of conspiracy and securities fraud involving a Michigan auto parts company.

Now we learn that Stockman's successor in Congress, Mark Deli Siljander, was indicted today for his role in an alleged terrorist fundraising ring.

Such an observation requires taking two data points and calling it a trend, while ignoring that the current officeholder, Fred Upton, is also a Republican and has served since 1986. But it's still interesting.

All in all, more evidence that claiming one party is inherently more patriotic, loyal or honest than the other is dumb.

Hall of Shame updated.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Holocaust archive begins opening its files

Maybe now the Holocaust deniers will shut up.

The Bad Arolsen documents — transportation lists, Gestapo orders, camp registers, slave labor booklets, death books — contain references to about 17.5 million people, Jews and non-Jews. It is the largest registry of Holocaust victims ever.

Why is this only coming out now? The transcript (pdf) of a Congressional hearing back in March explains:

The information at Bad Arolsen was originally collected and maintained to help reunite non-German families separated during the war and trace missing family members. Countless files and documentation from across Germany were relocated to Bad Arolsen by allied forces after World War II. Shortly after the end of the war, the Bonn Accord treaty was signed by 11 nations, including the United States, forming an international commission to govern the International Tracing Service (ITS), which was charged with maintaining the massive Nazi archives.

And thus became a captive of international politics, with both East and West having incentive to keep the records shrouded. Both countries employed people who might have been exposed as Nazi collaborators had the archive been open. As well, the archive likely records the involvement of many nationalities, which would be embarassing to the countries involved. And finally, there was always the risk that revelations might expose countries, companies and individuals to demands for restitution.

Cynically understandable as that may be, it's shameful, and yet another example of how excessive secrecy is harmful. By keeping the archive away from public view, the commission robbed survivors of closure and provided space for Holocaust deniers to operate. There may be times when short-term healing takes priority over truth, but I can't think of a good example right now. In general, openness speeds healing by removing doubt.

I hope we remember that principle the next time someone proposes sealing public records to protect the public good.

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ACLU comes to aid of Sen. Craig

The ACLU throws its support behind a sitting Republican senator!

But that's not the best part. This is the best part.

In an effort to help Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, the American Civil Liberties Union is arguing that people who have sex in public bathrooms have an expectation of privacy.

Funny thing is, they apparently have a court precedent:

The ACLU wrote that a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling 38 years ago found that people who have sex in closed stalls in public restrooms "have a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Bless them. They're out in left field on this one -- though I'll see if I can get a look at that precedent they cite. But I love to see them following a legal principle without fear or favor, even if they're following it out a window.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

We had to destroy the village in order to save it

That seems to be the logic behind spy chief Mike McConnell's breezy description of his plan to monitor every bit of communication on the Internet. This according to a wide-ranging interview (not yet online) in New Yorker magazine.

The nation's top spy, Michael McConnell, thinks the threat of cyberarmageddon! is so great that the U.S. government should have unfettered and warrantless access to U.S. citizens' Google search histories, private e-mails and file transfers, in order to spot the cyberterrorists in our midst.

It's hard to believe he would actually suggest such a thing. But it's not just an outraged Wired blogger saying it. So is the Wall Street Journal. And myriad other outlets.

Unless McConnell's own description of his plan is completely off the mark, I can't think of a meaningful debate to have over it. Even if he's right -- that massive eavesdropping is the only way to catch cyberterrorists or terrorists using the Internet to organize attacks -- the proposed solution is so violative of common notions of privacy that it is simply beyond consideration.

And what happens when the terrorists switch to snail mail -- will the government suddenly find it necessary to open and read everybody's letters?

McConnell's NSA background really comes through on issues like this. The NSA, after all, is a giant data vacuum, sucking up information a thousand different ways from a thousand classified sources. That's the hammer he's used to, and it's natural that every problem he encounters looks like a nail.

But the NSA listens in on overseas conversations, not domestic ones. What McConnell has essentially proposed is turning that capacity inward, on to our own citizens, in a surveillance society that would put the secret police of even the most tightly controlled dictatorship to shame.

Sure, there would be legal protections: no getting thrown in a dark hole simply for saying something unkind about the government. At least, not yet or not often.

But it shifts the whole balance of power between citizen and government. A limited government is prevented from knowing too much about you, and thus is powerless to misuse information it does not have. A limited citizenry surrenders the information but trusts government-enforced laws to protect it from ... the government.

Fox guarding the henhouse, anyone?

Its like the apocryphal crocodile bird, which walks into the mouths of crocodiles and picks junk off their teeth. Generally, it doesn't get eaten. But it's totally at the mercy of the croc. Is that freedom?

The government has legitimate law-enforcement and national-security needs, and surveillance is part of their toolbox. But it's a limited tool for a reason. If we cannot protect ourselves from terrorists by using warrants, then we either have to come up with a different strategy or just get used to living with a higher level of risk. Freedom isn't free, to put a different twist on an overused saying.

So, to McConnell: Not just no, but hell no.

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A lot less pork

I missed this while on hiatus, so forgive me for noting what may be old news to some of you. But after the federal government's fiscal year 2007 ended on September 30, Citizens Against Government Waste toted up the earmarks.

Their conclusion? After hitting a record high of $29 billion in FY 2006 -- the last year under Republican control -- earmarks fell to $13.2 billion, the lowest amount since 1999.

They credit the House Democratic leadership, as well as Republican senators Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint and Jeff Sessions. In other words, divided government. Division keeps costs down by pitting Congress against the president and giving formerly muzzled fiscal conservatives in the Republican ranks freedom to tie Congress in knots rather than allow excessive pork to pass through.

The victory might be temporary, however, inasmuch as it's largely because Congress failed to pass 9 of 11 appropriations bills. When those bills finally pass, they could end up being larded with pork. So we'll have to wait and see what the 2008 number looks like before crediting Democrats (and a handful of Republicans) with restoring some minor measure of fiscal discipline.

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Innovative teacher contract passes

Woo hoo! In an update to this post, Minneapolis teachers yesterday ratified a contract that, rather unexpectedly, gives principals the right to pick their staffs -- rather than letting teachers pick their own positions based on seniority.

The vote wasn't even close: 68.72% in favor. Teachers also get a 2% raise this year and a 1% raise next year.

It'll be interesting to see what happens next year when principals start assembling their staffs. But this is good news overall, putting the interests of students first.

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Ron Paul is a Jedi!

Or rather, Obi-ron Paul-obi is.

Widely respected for his stubborn belief that the whole universe should be run just like his neighborhood on the backwater planet Tatooine, Obi-ron spends a lot of time wistfully remembering the Old Republic. He practices a peculiar interpretation of The Force, in which reducing government to only local control and returning to the gold standard is the answer. Obi-ron reluctantly returned the contributions of the Tusken Raiders and Jawas, whose politics of ethnic slaughter and droid slave trade he justifies as "states rights". While his anti-Empire foreign policy excites the Rebel Alliance, it's pretty much a Jedi mind trick. He's still a crazy old guy living in the desert.

Yes, it's another "which Star Wars character would each candidate be?" But it's pretty funny. Here's the take on Mike Gravel (Chewbacca):

Mrrrrrawwwwkkk!!!! Gronnnnkkkk!!! Mrran... wua ga ma uma ahuma ooma. "Whobacca?!?!"... GRONK! "Gravelbacca!!!" Hnn-rowr yrroonn nng rarrr!

(h/t: Volvodriver)

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Waiting for version 2.0

Finally fixed the site by reverting to my old template and reposting the html section by section until I found the problem. It appears the Feedburner ad code got messed up during the upgrade, and then stayed messed up after I reverted.

I'll be avoiding the upgrade for a little while, until I'm persuaded the problem won't recur.

By the way, thanks, Dyre, for the suggestion to switch templates and then switch back. That got me started down the right path.



Friday, January 11, 2008

Still in upgrade hell

I have been unable to fix the display problems with the blog, and Google Support has been entirely unresponsive. This weekend I may strip it down to the basics and see if it will display properly, then build it up slowly.

Thanks for everyone's patience as I work through this. Ain't technology grand?



C'mon already

Anyone else getting sick of the endless analysis of Hillary Clinton's crying jag?

Sure, the reaction to it is an interesting sociological study in gender bias and the politics of projection. And there's a side story about how Hillary is perceived as so controlled that anything spontaneous -- including tears -- is a notable break in the facade.

But c'mon: it's embarassing that grown men and women, supposedly deeply knowledgeable political observers, can aver with a straight face that Hillary tearing up is the reason she won in New Hampshire.

Besides seriously dissing the intelligence and judgment of the average New Hampshire voter, let's try to follow the logic.

Polls showed Obama with a pretty good lead. The undecideds generally weren't big enough to be the swing factor.

So we're supposed to believe that there were a large number of voters who intended to vote for Obama (for instance) but then saw footage of Hillary crying and thought, "Wait a minute! That's the one for me."

Does that make sense to anyone?

As I noted before, the results in New Hampshire were surprising mostly because they contradicted the pre-election polls. But if you hadn't been paying attention to the polling and someone came up to you and said Clinton and McCain had won in New Hampshire, you'd say "Well, duh." Because in their respective primaries they're the closest match to that particular electorate.

There certainly is a story into why the polling was wrong. My pet theory: A bunch of Biden, Richardson and (particularly) Edwards supporters threw their vote to either Clinton or Obama at the last minute, knowing that their preferred candidate had little chance and wanting to influence the frontrunners. Or maybe the polls were just, you know, wrong. It happens.

And I certainly understand why embarassed pundits had to scrap around for something to blame for their poor prognostication.

But putting it down to Hillary's tears is contemptuous of both Hillary and the voters.

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Blind fish, sighted offspring

From researchers in New York:

Researchers crossed four populations of blind fish from caves in northeast Mexico. Sightless for at least half a million years, the fish evolved from sighted surface fish.

By creating hybrids of the different cave fish populations, researchers found that nearly 40 per cent of some hybrid crosses could see.

The farther apart the caves of the hybrids' parents were, the more likely it was that their offspring could see.

The reason? Sight arises from a combination of genes. Different populations of cave fish had different sets of genes knocked out. One group might have a functioning Gene Set A but a nonfunctioning Gene Set B; another group might have the reverse. Both were blind, but for different reasons.

So when the populations were crossbred, some of the offspring inherited working versions of the full gene set.

From an evolutionary perspective, this illustrates the huge size of the genetic toolbox -- one of the things that makes evolution work, by providing a large number of variables and mechanisms to effect change in an organism. It also highlights one mechanism whereby a major shift -- from sightless to sighted -- could occur in a single generation. It provides a logical basis for rapid evolution in the face of rapid environmental change.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

150,000 Iraqi deaths?

Hot on the heels of the National Journal's critique of the Lancet study (which said as many as 650,000 Iraqis had died since we invaded), we have a new, apparently sterling study which indicates that 150,000 Iraqis died between the invasion and the end of 2006.

I'll accept that. When the Lancet study first came out, I counseled taking it with a grain of salt. Plus, it matches an Iraqi government estimate from November 2006.

Back in March, on a discussion board I frequent, I suggested a reasonable number was between 200,000 and 400,000. That appears to have overshot the total -- but not by much at the lower end. Indeed, my number overlaps the study's numbers, since it actually says the death toll could be as low as 104,000 or as high as 223,000.

Anyway, if we accept the 150,000 figure, we then have to add the 2007 death toll, which included some of the bloodiest months of the entire war. Say another 30,000 or 40,000 people. Now we're bumping up against 200,000.

In a nation of 26 million people, that's a lot. It's the equivalent of 2.3 million Americans dying -- something not even World War II accomplished. And it means people are still dying at a rate far higher than they did under Saddam -- two or three times higher. It remains to be seen if the security gains made at the end of the year can be sustained, and if 2008 will see a dramatic drop in deaths. Let's hope so.

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An unusual school contract

This one caught me by surprise. Over in the troubled Minneapolis school district, teachers have tentatively agreed to let principals pick their staff -- rather than forcing them to pick teachers by seniority.

A lot of rank-and-file teachers aren't particularly happy with the idea, but I hope it survives. Seniority is a wonderful way to reward long-serving workers, giving them very strong job security. But the downside is that you're picking teachers by longevity, not talent. The two aren't necessarily linked, and even great teachers can get burned out as they get older. In those cases, what's good for the teacher isn't what's good for the students or the school.

My oldest daughter has had two wonderful-but-young teachers. Both were uprooted because they lacked seniority. One had to change from kindergarten (her strength and love) to first grade. The other had to leave the district. My daughter now is taught by an older teacher -- who does okay, but is not inspired. Even in a meritocracy not every teacher can be a marvel, but it is always sad to see teachers you love forced to go elsewhere simply because they lacked seniority.

Teachers do have a legitimate concern that the new plan would make it easier to get rid of the most senior -- and thus most expensive -- teachers. That's why most unions have a seniority rule, to make layoffs generally not worth the employer's while. Most of the time, when a union shop needs to shrink, employers opt for buyouts instead.

But that shouldn't be a big problem if principals aren't responsible for a teacher's salary. If they aren't the one's paying, they shouldn't care if a given teacher is pricey or cheap. I don't know how school budgets work, but that might be a tweak worth considering: principals fill slots, and the district picks up the bill.

Other criticisms are less persuasive.

With this being year-to-year, this doesn't give students the consistency in their schools. They need structure, and I can see a revolving door in the schools, and this would discourage teachers from even wanting to the work for the district.

This one doesn't fly. First, consistency is not a virtue in and of itself; if a teacher is consistently bad, they should go. Second, since students change grades (and teachers) every year, how much consistency can there be? Third, this assumes principals would want a school with high turnover. I can't think of a reason why they would.

Kudos to the teachers for agreeing (even tentatively) to a system that puts the kids' needs first. If it survives, I hope the district exercises it in good faith. If they don't, it will destroy trust and -- most likely -- precipitate a serious confrontation at the next contract negotiations.

I'm curious what Centrisity's Flash -- a working teacher in St. Paul -- thinks about all this. Flash? Care to comment? Or do a post of your own? I'd love to hear a teacher's perspective.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Upgrade hell

I spent the morning upgrading the blog to the latest version of Blogger so I could take advantage of some widget functionality. The upgrade automatically reverts the site to its original "vanilla" version, so it took a lot of time to tweak the colors, fonts and various badges and counters back into place.

I think I've got it squared away now, but if you see something that doesn't look or work right, please let me know.

Also, let me know what you think of the italic blockquote style in this post. Do you prefer it, or the previous bold-type style, as in this post? Or do you not care?

Might have some substantive posts later, but this took a lot of my available time.

Update: Putting up this first post-upgrade post apparently screwed up the site pretty well -- notably by malforming the post itself and dropping the sidebar to the bottom of the page. Deleting this post didn't help; it simply malformed the next post in line. Working on it....


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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

New Hampshire results

The latest numbers from MSNBC show the following results from New Hampshire:

McCain: 37%
Romney: 32%
Huckabee: 11%
Giuliani: 9%
Paul: 8%

Clinton: 39%
Obama: 36%
Edwards: 17%

To some extent, the results are entirely unsurprising. Libertarian, conservative New Hampshire has always loved McCain, and was going to be more comfortable with Massachusett's Romney than southern preacher Huckabee. Likewise, centrist Clinton was a better play than liberal Obama or populist Edwards.

I think Obama did surprisingly well, given those political realities. Clinton won her must-win race, but Obama is still the one to beat. Edwards, for his part, is pinning his hopes on South Carolina. He'll need a strong showing there to avoid becoming the odd man out in the Democratic dance.

McCain, likewise, had a must-win here, but it does not mean he has recovered and is now a frontrunner. Had he lost, he was probably out; winning simply means the Republican race is still totally up in the air.

Of more interest is the showings of Giuliani and Paul. I expected Paul to do better in the Granite State, given his politics. People can and will debate whether his old newsletters played a role, but it doesn't matter all that much: the number is high enough for him to keep going. Giuliani, meanwhile, largely ignored Iowa and New Hampshire (this report notwithstanding) in order to focus on Florida and Super Tuesday. He risks losing momentum before then -- and the poll numbers from Florida aren't encouraging. He needs a win, and soon, to remain relevant.

So enjoy the vote results, but don't read too much into them. Basically, nothing much changed. Nobody died, nobody broke out ahead of the pack. On to the next!

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Bye bye, Ahmadinejad

Some good (and somewhat counterintuitive) news out of Iran: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to be losing the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The reasons are twofold:

1. His populist economic policies aren't working. Inflation has jumped from 12 percent to 19 percent, with the cost of many basic necessities jumping sharply.

2. His confrontational rhetoric appears to have hurt him, too. The article says that the release of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate -- which said Iran had suspended work on a nuclear bomb and essentially deep-sixed any plans to attack Iran -- relieved a lot of pressure on Iran and is allowing internal divisions to show, divisions that were kept under wraps by the unifying force of a possible war with us. But if Khamenei thought the rhetoric had been helpful, he would have rewarded Ahmadinejad for standing up to the Great Satan. His decision to weaken the president suggests that Khamenei thinks Ahmadinejad was part of the problem.

The article is also a reminder that, for all the attention neocons, Muslim bashers and others pay to Ahmadinejad, he has very little actual power. Iran is only a quasi-democracy, and it's a parliamentary form to boot. The presidency is mostly a ceremonial post; the real power lies with the Guardian Council, a group of clerics headed by Khamenei. They have their own huge faults -- notably being repressively conservative and antidemocratic -- but they're not anywhere near as fiery or confrontational as the president.

Of course, the Revolutionary Guards are a whole other kettle of fish, trying to provoke U.S. warships and implicated in supplying weaponry to militia groups in Iraq. They're a reminder that the Iranian government is not nearly as monolithic as we like to think. Iran saying the Gulf encounter was "routine" is portrayed as Iran putting forth a bald-faced lie. It might be; but it might also be a case of the central government either not knowing what really happened, or not wanting to admit that it doesn't have full control over the Guard.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency is seeing progress in its efforts to monitor and disclose the full extent of Iran's nuclear program, specifically the weapons program it hid from inspectors and then mothballed once it was discovered.

We'll see how things go, but it seems possible that we're on the verge of a broadly satisifying resolution in Iran: the sidelining of Ahmadinejad, effective oversight of their nuclear program and the marginalization of those here in the United States who were banging the drum for war. It's a win, win, win.

If it happens. This is the Middle East, after all. Stay tuned.

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Ron Paul, racist?

The blogosphere brouhaha of the day is a New Republic report on Ron Paul, in which they comb through his old newsletters and come across some surprising articles. Some choice excerpts are here. My excerpts from the excerpts:

This 1978 newsletter says the Trilateral Commission is "no longer known only by those who are knowledgeable about international conspiracies, but is routinely mentioned in the daily news."

A 1986 newsletter names Jeane Kirkpatrick and George Will as "two of our enemies" and notes their membership in the Trilateral Commission.

An October 1990 edition of the Political Report ridicules black activists, led by Al Sharpton, for demonstrating at the Statue of Liberty in favor of renaming New York City after Martin Luther King. The newsletter suggests that "Welfaria," "Zooville," "Rapetown," "Dirtburg," and "Lazyopolis" would be better alternatives--and says, "Next time, hold that demonstration at a food stamp bureau or a crack house."

The January 1991 edition of the Political Report refers to King as a "world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours" and a "flagrant plagiarist with a phony doctorate."

"A Special Issue on Racial Terrorism" analyzes the Los Angeles riots of 1992: "Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks three days after rioting began. ... What if the checks had never arrived? No doubt the blacks would have fully privatized the welfare state through continued looting. But they were paid off and the violence subsided."

A January 1994 edition of the Survival Report states that "gays in San Francisco do not obey the dictates of good sense," adding: "[T]hese men don't really see a reason to live past their fifties. They are not married, they have no children, and their lives are centered on new sexual partners." Also, "they enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick."

If you want to look at PDFs of the newsletters in question, visit TNR's selections link and click on the red type in each example.

You'll see that I ignored some topics. That's because I'm not that concerned with the sections on Israel, secession and the Mises Institute; I can see principled explanations there.

Libertarians -- and Andrew Sullivan -- are dismayed. Reason Magazine got a comment from Ron Paul, whose campaign later issued a statement. The defense is notable for its blandness and lack of specificity, but the basic argument is that this was old news, and reflective of poor oversight on Paul's part, not racism.

Ron Paul supporters, of course, are apoplectic. Just read some of the comments under TNR's main piece. They do have one valid point: the timing of the piece was a bit precious, coming on the day of the New Hampshire primary. Sure, given that we're in primary season, just about any date will have some timing-related effect. But it wouldn't have killed TNR to publish it tomorrow or Thursday, giving Paul enough time to respond before the next primary.

So how much is smoke and how much is fire?

Let's start with the indisputable facts.

1. For decades, various newsletters went out with Ron Paul's name on them.

2. Some of the issues contained material that was far, far, far beyond the pale of being defensible.

3. Paul himself didn't always edit them, and it's unclear which articles, if any, he wrote himself.

4. In particular, Paul disowns the racist, homophobic issues of the early 1990s, which he said were written and edited by others while he was retired from politics. He accepts a "moral responsibility" for not paying closer attention to what was being said in his name.

5. It's also clear that the views expressed in the newsletter are not what he espouses now. Indeed, he flatly told Reason that he considers MLK a hero and spoke in support of Rosa Parks in a Congressional speech in 1999.

But there are troubling questions involved here.

1. I cannot imagine letting a publication be put out in my name without being aware of -- and concerned about -- its content. So if Paul is to be believed, we're talking about a truly stunning lack of oversight.

2. Paul says this is "old news." I'd be willing to dismiss the conspiracy stuff as too old to be relevant -- except that he continues to believe much of it today. The rest is too recent to simply dismiss. It may indeed not reflect his views, or at least his views today, but they're recent enough to require at least some explanation.

3. The "poor oversight" argument would be more persuasive if we were talking about one bad issue or an article here or there. But I bolded the dates in the excerpts above for a reason. Here's how the categories break down:

Conspiracy theories: 1978-present.

Racism: 1990-92.


Militia movement:1992-95.

These things went on for years. Is it possible to be that completely out of touch with a publication bearing your name?

4. Even if we (rather charitably) accept Paul's claim that he was totally uninvolved with the newsletters and never even read them, we come to the question of who Paul entrusted to edit and publish them. I don't see how he would have consented to let someone use his name unless he knew that person and felt they would reflect his own philosophy more often than not. It seems to me that he must have known the political views of the editor, if not the writers. For one thing, a person capable of publishing some of the newsletters TNR discusses could not hide their extremist views very well or for very long. Indeed, the editor presumably had no desire to hide them, seeing as how he or she volunteered to print them up in a newsletter and mail them off to subscribers.

So the explanation that Ron Paul owes us is severalfold:

1. Did the writings reflect your views?

2. Did you ever read the newsletters published in your name?

3. Why did you lend your name to publications you totally disagree with?

4. How did you pick the editors, publishers or writers of these publications?

5. Who were the editors and writers involved, and do you still associate with them today?

For what it's worth, while I think Paul is a conspiracy-minded extreme conservative from the nutty end of the libertarian spectrum, I never had him pegged for a racist. I'm willing to believe that the newsletters do not reflect his personal views. But he then must explain why and how he put his name on the publication containing such trash.

Update: Stubborn Facts has some cogent commentary.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Two faces of religion

Two more examples of the good and bad sides of belief, both from Minnesota.

On the bad side, there's the case of Chris Lind. He was fired as a hallway supervisor in the Prior-Lake/Savage school district for talking to students about abstinence, despite repeated warnings to stop. He would also question them about their sexual orientation, and reportedly told one student that it was "National Pick On Lesbians Day."

The story doesn't end there. After being fired, he went out and got elected to the school board, prompting the popular school superintendent, Tom Westerhaus, to resign in protest.

Now Lind is threatening to sue the school board he is now a member of, if it doesn't pay him a settlement for wrongful termination.

The school board may have overstepped its bounds a bit, because the cause for firing included activities Lind pursued in his off time, off campus. But unless the conversation is consensual, teachers have little to no business discussing an individual student's sex life, faith or sexual orientation, either on campus or off.

Outside the legal realm, overstepping boundaries is wrong and rude, even if it's motivated by sincere belief.

On the good side, there's the case of Tom and Polly Wiley, an Iowa couple who went on a missionary trip to Tanzania in early 2007, helping to put a concrete floor into a preschool near Arusha. There they met 5-year-old Zawadi Rajabu, a girl born with two club feet.
They found a surgeon who helped them find Dr. Mark Dahl, a St. Paul specialist who is one of only a handful of surgeons in the country familiar with an arcane technique for straightening club feet. He agreed to do the surgery for free, and the Wiley's then raised the money to fly Zawadi and her mother to the Twin Cities -- and found a Tanzanian physician that they could stay with while they're here.

Here's the difference between the two cases: Lind spent his time pointing out the flaws he perceived in others, while the Wileys simply lived their belief, showcasing their faith by humble example, compassion and sacrifice on behalf of others. Lind demonstrates why many people associate believers with sanctimony and the bedroom police; the Wiley's demonstrate the power and hope that true belief can engender.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Deconstructing the Lancet Iraq death toll study

The National Journal, ideologically motivated though it may be, has a thoughtful compilation of criticisms leveled at the October 2006 Lancet study that estimated as many as 650,000 Iraqis had died in the war.

They don't actually claim to debunk the study; instead, they raise specific methodological questions, and identify what they see as the weakest link: a heavy reliance on a single Iraqi researcher, who trained and oversaw the work of the surveyors who carried out the study.

As I said at the time, the specific number -- 650,000 -- needed to be taken with a grain of salt. Even if you think the researchers were totally on the up and up, the inherent difficulties of conducting statistical surveys in a war zone give reason for pause.

But given that even conservative estimates placed the number of dead at 50,000 (it's up to 80,000 now), and a month later the Iraqi health minister gave an estimate of 150,000, we're still talking about a lot of dead Iraqis. Even a total debunking of the Lancet study wouldn't alter the fact that the war is killing people faster than Saddam ever did.

Such a death toll, though, says nothing about the relative justness of this war. War kills people. The human toll needs to be part of the equation both when deciding to go to war and when considering how to prosecute it, but intent and execution matter.

The Russians in Chechnya, for example, were roundly and justly criticized for their indiscriminate use of heavy firepower. For the most part they didn't care at all how many civilians they killed.

The U.S. military, by contrast, generally takes pains to minimize civilian casualties. And one thing the Lancet study doesn't do is make a distinction between true civilian deaths and the deaths of insurgents. It's hard to feel sorry for a guy who gets dead because he opened fire on U.S. troops.

We can be held responsible in a general way for people killed by car bombings, on the theory that our invasion set off the chain of events that led to the instability in which car bombings occur. But that's a different sort of critique than "the U.S. is killing Iraqis in huge numbers." And it ignores the counterargument that the war is (hopefully) temporary, so that even if the short-run is horrific, Iraqis will be better off in the long run.

Strong antiwar types are in the uncomfortable position of wanting the 650,000 figure to be true, because it would support their argument that the war is a human catastrophe that can only be put right by immediate withdrawal. Strong prowar types are in the equally untenable position of arguing that the war has "only" killed 150,000 (or 100,000, or 80,000). That comes uncomfortably close to the logic of some Holocaust deniers, who try to minimize Hitler's crimes by arguing that the common estimate of 6 million dead Jews is exaggerated -- the true number was "only" a million or so.

The truth is, a lot of Iraqis have died because we invaded Iraq. We must bear that responsibility, not shrug it off. Whether it was worth it will only be known with certainty 10 or 20 years from now, when the outcome of our intervention is discernable. For now, the death rate is high enough to derail one late-arriving justification for the war -- that Saddam was killing his own people -- but not high enough to justify a withdrawal now that we're knee-deep in the mess and maybe -- just maybe -- starting to see a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

But let this serve as a reminder that war, while sometimes necessary or the best choice out of a set of bad options, is always a catastrophe. This one was entered into far too lightly; let's hope it ensures that the next one won't be.

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Obscure election, outsized result

While the nation's attention was focused on Iowa, here in Minnesota we had our own touch of drama: a special election for the State Senate.

This normally wouldn't be a big deal. But it's got irony and surprisingly large political consequences.

Last fall, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (a Republican) appointed State Sen. Tom Neuville (also a Republican) to be a county judge. Neuville had been in the Senate since 1991, and his seat, in Northfield (a college town just south of the Twin Cities), was thought to be pretty safely Republican.

Until last night. That's when DFLer (Democrat to everybody else) Kevin Dahle defeated Republican Ray Cox, 55 percent to 42 percent, to win the seat.

So what, you might ask? Well, in the irony section, that one seat happens to be what the Senate DFL needed to secure a two-thirds majority -- giving them the power to override a Pawlenty veto.

So to recap: Gov. Tim Pawlenty, by appointing a Republican judge, ended up drastically weakening his political clout.

He's not totally irrelevant: the DFL only has 85 seats in the state House, five short of a veto-proof majority. But there often are enough Republican collaborators in that body to get an override on important issues. And if past trends continue, the DFL may secure a two-thirds majority in both houses this November -- the prospect of which makes it easier to find Republicans willing to support an override in the meantime.

November looks like it will be interesting on both a state and national level.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

A quick three

Three quick items of note in the presidential race.

Push-polling in Iowan about Obama and Edwards -- with Hillary as the obvious suspect, though her campaign denies any connection. Considering her third-place finish, it didn't do her much good.

A handful of ministers who support Huckabee got letters warning them that they could be sanctioned for violating church-state separation. This could just be a lone whackjob rather than an effort by someone's campaign, and again, it totally failed to intimidate anybody. But it's a pretty obnoxious attempt.

In World of Warcraft, that is -- after a political rally wherein they marched to the very gates of doom. Having to kill monsters en route to the rally must really get the blood pumping....


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Increased transparency -- or not

On Monday, President Bush signed a bill that purports to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, by improving response time to FOIA requests and changing the rules agencies use to decide what is secret and what isn't -- with a bias toward "not secret."

The legislation creates a system for the media and public to track the status of their FOIA requests. It establishes a hot line service for all federal agencies to deal with problems and an ombudsman to provide an alternative to litigation in disclosure disputes.

The law also restores a presumption of a standard that orders government agencies to release information on request unless there is a finding that disclosure could do harm.

Trouble is, it apparently does no such thing.

The new law makes several constructive procedural changes in the FOIA to encourage faster agency response times, to enable requesters to track the status of their requests, to expand the basis for fee waivers, and more.

One thing it does not do, however, is alter the criteria for secrecy and disclosure. Whatever records that a government agency was legally entitled to withhold before enactment of the "OPEN Government Act" can still be withheld now that the President has signed it....

The widely-published AP account continued, "The legislation is aimed at reversing an order by former Attorney General John Ashcroft after the 9/11 attacks in which he instructed agencies to lean against releasing information when there was uncertainty about how doing so would affect national security."

But that is incorrect.

Although the original House version of the OPEN Government Act did include a provision that would have repealed the Ashcroft policy and established a "presumption of openness," that provision was removed from the bill prior to passage.

Oops. Turns out the bill is mostly light and noise, signifying nothing. Score one for style over substance.

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Iowa predictions

Just for fun (and recognizing that I have been essentially boycotting the presidential race up until this point), here are my guesses as to how the Iowa caucuses will shake out:

Edwards, Hillary, Obama

McCain, Giuliani, Romney, Huckabee

I have a small side bet with my wife, whose list is:

Edwards, Obama, Hillary

Romney, Huckabee, McCain, Giuliani

We shall see who is closest.

UPDATE: Guess that proves I wasn't paying close attention. Currently CNN is projecting an Obama, Edwards, Hillary finish, with the Republicans stacking up as Huckabee, Romney, Thompson, McCain and Giuliani.

Maybe I should turn the blog over to my wife....



Another Hall of Shame candidate

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, convicted Republican Gov. George Ryan, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, is at the center of a deepening federal probe.

Federal prosecutors for the first time brought their corruption investigation to the desk of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, making public Friday the allegations of two convicted insiders who say the governor offered them state business for their political backing.

In a 78-page court filing that identifies the governor only as "Public Official A," federal authorities detailed the accusations of the two former political operatives who have already pleaded guilty in a shakedown scheme and are cooperating with prosecutors.

Blagojevich told one of the men he "could award contracts, legal work and investment banking to help with fundraising," according to the filing.

The other insider, Stuart Levine, described a flight home from a New York trip during which he thanked Blagojevich for reappointing him to an influential and allegedly corrupt state hospital board.

"You stick with us and you will do very well for yourself," Blagojevich replied, according to the court document.

This is Illinois, of course, where corruption is a bipartisan endeavor. But that hardly excuses it.

For now, all we have is unsealed accusations -- no charges, much less a trial or conviction. But it doesn't look good, so Blagojevich goes on our Hall of Shame watch list.

(h/t: The Glittering Eye)

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

When one size doesn't fit all

The Star Tribune had an interesting piece this weekend about the latest refugee influx into Minnesota -- the Karen people of Burma (er, Myanmar), who are a growing presence in the St. Paul suburb of Roseville.

They're here because for years they've been part of an insurgency against Burma's military dictatorship. They're also a religious minority: about a third of them are Christian, and Burma is a majority Buddhist country.

But interesting as that is -- and it continues a Minnesota tradition of providing haven to various ethnic groups fleeing warfare in their homeland, like the Hmong and Somalis -- I found a detail buried near the bottom of the story to be telling in a different way.

The refugee kids -- about 140 -- know no English and are unfamiliar with American customs and culture. So the school district has been working overtime to educate them, scrambling to find translators and additional teachers.

Elementary schoolers attend regular classes for part of the day, but the nuances of English make it hard to keep up.

More than 10 percent of Roseville's students are classified as having limited English proficiency, meaning ELL teachers like Onstad have more than just Karen students to help, said Chris Sonenblum, district director of student services.

The Karen students need so much attention, however, that Onstad finds herself spending much of the day teaching the new refugees simple consonant-vowel-consonant words.

And no one expects much success when the students take state standardized tests for the first time, especially when everything, including how to fill out the test form, is new.

"We're teaching them how to bubble-in answers and write their name," Onstad said. "They're not going to be up to snuff to take grade-level tests."

That, undoubtedly, will hurt the district's chance of making "adequate yearly progress" with No Child Left Behind in coming years.

That's because NCLB requires that the kids meet testing standards after one year -- a flatly ridiculous requirement.

So unless an exception is made, the school district will be penalized thanks to circumstances beyond its control.

I have no problem with the idea of standardized testing -- it is useful, after all, to actually measure student achievement against a common standard, and it's a good way to identify underperforming schools that either need assistance or reform. My biggest gripes about NCLB were its inflexibility and the fact that Bush underfunded his own initiative.

The rigidity is on display in this example. It's ludicrous to expect immigrant kids to meet federal standards after only one year -- especially because they're going to hvae trouble just reading the test questions, much less answering them.

There are a million different kinds of students, and so when it comes to education policy "one size fits all" doesn't necessarily work. There needs to be flexibility for special situations like this one. If the federal government won't provide it, the state needs to weigh in on the side of the school district -- both as an advocate for change at the federal level and with specific help at the local level, so that the school district doesn't suffer unfairly while it absorbs this educational challenge.

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