Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Nameless Piano Man Identified

via Yellow Doggerel Democrat

On May 17:
[A] tall blonde man was found in a soaking wet suit and tie and wandering the streets of a coastal town [in England] more than a month ago. Since then, he's refused to talk but has played lots of classical piano.

The man doesn't seem to be a virtuoso. The hospital's chaplain says the patient has played a small number of tunes over and over.

The staff says he's been crying lately and is very anxious, but relaxes at the piano.

Today, in the LA Times, it was announced that
Several musicians from the Czech Republic said they believe that the forlorn figure, who has not spoken to the doctors caring for him but has played for hours at a piano, is Tomas Strnad, a keyboardist from Prague who yearned to become a star and had spoken of going abroad to seek his musical fortune.

Doctors believe he may be suffering from amnesia.
(Mike Gunnill/EPA)
Permalink 5:11 PM

Sudan arrests second aid worker for rape report

From Yahoo News:

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan arrested a second aid worker from the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) aid agency on Tuesday over a report on hundreds of rapes in the troubled Darfur region, the agency said.

Vince Hoedt, Darfur coordinator for MSF Holland, said he was under arrest and police were escorting him to Khartoum. It was not clear if he was charged with the same offences as the country director who was arrested and released on bail on Monday.
Permalink 10:36 AM

Earthling Wins Miss Universe

Bangkok, Thailand, May 30, 2005 -This evening, during one of the year's most exciting live television events, a star-studded panel of judges chose Natalie Glebova, Miss Canada, as MISS UNIVERSE 2005.

Though nominally open to participants throughout the universe, this pageant has been won by contestants from Earth every year since its inception in 1952.

Miss Universe 2005, Natalie Glebova from Earth

Miss Universe 1952, Armii Kuusela from Earth
Permalink 10:15 AM

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Guantanamo Prisoner Retracts Charges

From Yahoo News

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Guantanamo detainee who told an
FBI agent in 2002 that U.S. personnel there had flushed a Koran in a toilet retracted his allegation when questioned this month by military investigators, the
Pentagon said on Thursday.
The news article doesn't say what techniques were used to extract the retraction.

(Sorry, that was snarky...)
Permalink 5:36 PM

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

FBI Records show Koran Abuse Charges from 2002

According to this article in Yahoo News, FBI records confirm that prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison told U.S. interrogators as early as April 2002 that military guards abused them and desecrated the Koran. (Note, this is not confirmation that the desecration events took place, only that the accusations had been made.)
Permalink 4:43 PM

Republican Blowout Scam

Teresa Nielsen of Making Light has the Republicans pegged.

Huh. I've suddenly realized that I know the form of this scam: it's a blowout.

Here's the deal: Your basic blowout starts when crooks take control of a legitimate business that has a good credit rating, most often by entering into an agreement to buy it from its original owners, and possibly making a token initial payment.

In the next phase, the crooks start placing large orders for easily liquidated merchandise with the business's regular suppliers, and also with new suppliers who think they've acquired a valuable new customer. And since the orders are coming from an established business with a good credit rating, the suppliers don't ask for payment up front.

Meanwhile, the goods are being resold as fast as they come in, often at a fraction of their value. It's hugely wasteful, but the crooks don't care. Essentially, they're selling off other people's stuff and keeping the money, so anything they make off the deal is pure profit for them.

The suppliers send in their bills in due course, and meet with delays in payment. That's not an uncommon thing; and in the meantime, nobody wants to lose a customer that's obviously doing so much business. It takes some time for suppliers to start balking, and more time for them to start aggressive collection procedures.

At that point the business's new owners vanish, and all the money vanishes with them. Since they've never actually paid the agreed-upon price for the business, it reverts to the original owners. Unfortunately, what they get back is a plundered company that's deeply in debt to its suppliers and has a wrecked credit rating.

Thus with the national situation. The looting has been swift and efficient, but it's taken a while for the full extent of the plundering to become apparent. We're going to be feeling this one for a long time to come.
Permalink 2:38 PM

Terrible News

No, not war, death, or politics. Joan of Arcadia has been cancelled. Via Rich Magahiz.

With the strange exception of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", which ran for seven years, my favorite shows from recent years have all been cancelled while still in their prime. Thankfully, you can get the episodes on DVD:

  • Firefly, created by Joss Whedon of Buffy fame, one of the best science fiction series ever. You can order the DVDs from Amazon.

  • Freaks and Geeks, one of the best TV shows about high school ever. You can order the DVDs here as well as a cheaper version at Amazon.

  • Joan of Arcadia. A modern-day "Joan of Arc" talks to children, janitors, homeless people who are actually God. They give her mysterious tasks to perform, which affect the lives of those around her in unexpected ways. Get DVDs for the first season on Amazon.

  • Wonderfalls. A funny, moving and magical series that is in some ways a "light" version of Joan of Arcadia (interestingly, both the creators of "Joan" and "Wonderfalls" independently conceived of the idea of a modern-day "Joan of Arc"). Tim Minear, who also worked with Joss Whedon on Angel and Firefly, was the executive producer. Get the DVDs from Amazon.

Permalink 12:28 PM

Life under the New Regime

Let's review:
  • Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House.

  • Conservatives control much of the judiciary.

  • Mainstream media is controlled by corporate interests and cowed by conservatives, and there is increasing conservative influence over once-liberal media sources like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

  • Schools and universities are under continual conservative assault to purge them of liberal influence.

  • Lobbyists are increasingly required to be Republican in order to keep their jobs.

  • The separation between religion and politics is breaking down, and increasingly one must be politically conservative in order to be a good Christian, and one must be a Christian to be a loyal American.
I really don't think that there is much paranoia or exaggeration in the above statements. I consider them a sober look at where America is headed, based on evidence that should be clear to anyone who follows the news. The questions that are raised are: (1) What do these trends mean? (2) What can/should we do about them?...Click permalink for the rest...

As to what the trends mean: (Here I'm not sure to what extent I'm exaggerating---I certainly hope I am!) Conservatives are working to acquire absolute power over all aspects of American life. They don't hold the view that diversity of opinion is a source of strength. They don't believe that good government comes about through the give-and-take of people with different interests. They don't agree that a country needs both "bleeding heart liberals" and "hard-nosed conservatives". Instead, they believe that there is only one set of correct opinions, correct political views, correct religious views, and that tolerating "wrong" opinions is foolish weakness.

It is certainly an exaggeration to say that we are heading towards something like Germany under Hitler, or the Soviet Union under Stalin, or Afghanistan under the Taliban. However, I don't think it is much of an exaggeration to say that we are starting to look more like Russia under Putin, or Pakistan under Musharraf, or Egypt under Mubarak, or Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew.

As to what to do about it: I see three broad strategies for life under the new regime. They aren't completely mutually exclusive, but I think that there are times when they work at cross-purposes. In those cases, you have to decide which strategy best fits the current situation:
  1. Work within the system. Find what common ground you can, and try to improve conditions for the environment, civil rights, the poor, minorities, and alternate sexual orientations, without making these issues into "liberal" issues. Appeal to conservatives' self-image as "good guys" on the side of Christ to try to get them to do the right thing.

  2. Work outside the system. Realize that conservative dominance of government is a fact for the near-to-medium-term future. Accept the truth of what conservatives said before they got into power (and libertarians still say): "Government is not the solution, government is the problem". If you want to make the world a better place, don't rely on government to help. Instead, look for ways that small groups of dedicated, concerned individuals can make things better in spite of a government that is indifferent, or even hostile, to your concerns.

  3. Work on regime change. Realize that nothing good will ever come out of the thugs, charlatans and incompetents that run the country, that it is foolish to cooperate with screwing the country, and that the only hope lies in getting rid of this scourge.

Permalink 9:47 AM

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Does anybody know anything about Gush Shalom?

I have a link to the organization Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace group. On superficial acquaintence with them, they seemed like a good organization, dedicated to justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. However, a colleague of mine who is Israeli said that in his opinion they are a bunch of wackos. Does anybody else have a different opinion?
Permalink 10:55 AM

Store Wars

Here is a hilarious Star Wars parody acted with organic food, with characters
Cuke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Cannolli, Princess Lettuce, Ham Solo, Chewbroccoli, and the evil Dark Tater.

The video is about organic farming, but you can enjoy it just as a parody.
Permalink 10:01 AM

Nuclear War in US Senate Averted---For Now

As I'm sure you've already heard, a last-minute compromise between Democrats and Republicans resulted in a de-escalation of the threat of the "nuclear option" that would change the rules so that filibusters cannot be used to block judicial nominees.

According to the compromise, the Democrats agree to allow votes to proceed on three nominees, Priscilla Owen, William Pryor, and Janice Rogers Brown. In return the Republicans agree not to invoke the "nuclear option".

Although many Democrats view this compromise as a victory (including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid) and many conservatives view it as a defeat (James Dobson, for example, considers it a betrayal by the Republican moderates), I have a hard time understanding what the Democrats got out of the deal. The whole point of filibustering nominees is to prevent the worst of them from getting appointed. If the Democrats are not going to use the filibuster against terrible candidates like Owen, Brown and Pryor, then what's the point of preserving the right to filibuster?

Presumably, this agreement leaves the Democrats able to filibuster in a more serious future approval battle, such as a nomination to the Supreme Court. However, I don't see how there is any guarantee that the Republicans won't go back on their deal and invoke the nuclear option then.

The best way of looking at it that I can see is that the compromise deal shows that at least some Republicans are willing to stand up to the bullying of sanctimonious religious conservatives like James Dobson.
Permalink 10:00 AM

Friday, May 20, 2005

The Brink of Nuclear War

In the US Senate over the filibuster. I haven't said much about this, because it's just the same old story: The US is currently ruled by thugs, charlatans, and incompetents.

Disgusting Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum says

So the Democrats threatening filibuster is equivalent to the Nazis in Paris? I cannot find words enough to say how outrageous that is.

The amazing thing is that the Republicans have the gall to describe things in terms of unprincipled, unreasonable Democrats. As anyone who has actually looked at the facts knows,
  • The Democrats have not been reckless in opposing Bush's nominations. A very large of number of Bush's nominations have been approved.

  • When the Republicans were in the minority, they used every trick in the book to prevent up-or-down votes on nominees that they didn't like.

Some of previously used Republican tactics include
  • Filibuster. Yes, the Republicans have used filibusters to block judicial nominees. Bill Frist, the leader of the Republican assault on the filibuster, has participated in such filibusters.

  • Blue slip rules. There once was a Senate practice that allowed a nominee to be blocked if both Senators from the nominee's state disapproved. When the Republicans were in the minority, this was changed (under Orrin Hatch's leadership on the judiciary committee) so that only one Senator was required to block a home-state nominee. So it became much easier for the minority to block nominees. Then when the Republicans became the majority, this was changed back to two Senators, and then the blue slip rule was eliminated altogether. This history is explained in this article by the People for the American Way

So the Republicans enjoyed expanded minority privileges when they were the minority Party, and are asking for eliminating minority privileges when they are the majority. Okay, so you could just say that that's playing hardboil---if you're going to play, play to win. But what makes me sick to my stomach is the breathtaking hypocrisy. The Republicans are talking about the Democrats being unprincipled. It truly makes me sick to my stomach. If I only had faith that thugs will eventually be seen as thugs, I could take heart, but that just doesn't seem to be born out by the evidence of recent years.

Note: I'm not actually disagreeing with Kyle's arguments as to why the filibuster is a bad thing, undemocratic. I'm just bothered by the Republicans having one set of rules when they are in power, and different rules when they are out of power.
Permalink 9:18 AM

The Mystery of the Finger: Solved!

I'm sure all our many readers are dying to find out...Let me start over.

It's possible that one of our two or three readers would be mildly interested in the resolution to the mystery of the finger found in a bowl of Wendy's chilli.

Here's the story: Earlier this year, Anna Ayala claimed to find a human fingertip in her bowl of chilli served at a Wendy's restaurant in northern California. The woman was considering suing Wendy's over the incident, but the police were skeptical of her story. They believed it might be a hoax to extort money from Wendy's. (Note, there was an earlier story reported here that turned out to be erroneous, in which a woman was identified as the owner of the finger.)

After a nationwide manhunt for a man with only nine complete fingers (spurred by a $100,000 reward offer from Wendy's), the following information turned up: A man (whose name is being withheld) once worked with Anna's husband, James Plascencia, in a Las Vegas paving company. The man lost the tip of his finger in a work-related accident. James Plascencia offered to take the man's finger as payment for a $50 debt.

The full story is in The Guardian. Why can't American newspapers do this kind of groundbreaking investigative reporting?
Permalink 9:03 AM

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Ruling on Cheney's Secrets

(via Seeing the Forest)

The LA Times

A federal appeals court threw out a lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday and ruled that he was free to meet in secret with energy industry lobbyists in 2001 while drawing up the president's energy policy.

In contrast to this ruling on Cheney's secret meeting,
During the Clinton administration, the same appeals court gave the 1972 law a broader scope, saying it applied to the health policy task force led by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then, the court said outside participants in a White House advisory group were "de facto members" of the group, and therefore the public had a right to know about the meetings.
Permalink 8:46 AM

Thought Experiment on Torture

(via Sebastian Holsclaw)

George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen explains why legalized torture is such a bad idea:

Let us say that you have been captured and threatened with torture. You are, for whatever reason, entirely willing to betray the information you hold. Your primary goal is to avoid pain, and perhaps you positively want to squeal. How should you present what you know? I see a few options:
  1. Break down immediately, beg for mercy, humiliate yourself, and spill the beans. (If you talk right away, will they torture you anyway? And since no further good information can be offered why should they stop?)

  2. Go in acting tough, really tough. At the first sign of serious pain, start crying and switch to strategy #1.

  3. Wait until they apply their "best shot" torture, and then talk. They will feel they have done their job and stop.

  4. First offer (or make up) compromising information to show your disloyalty to the cause your torturers are fighting. Your confession will then be more credible.

  5. Say you don't know anything, try to fight the torture, but break down when you can't stand it any more. You can't fool them, so the best you can do is to actually "go through the wringer." You are stuck in the pooling equilibrium, and trying to deviate only makes you worse off.

Which of these is the most credible signal that you have told all you know?

It's all very well to talk about the hypothetical "ticking bomb" in which torturing a terrorist will save countless lives, but how much more likely is it that torture would be used on the innocent?
Permalink 8:25 AM

Capitalism and Moral Values

I'm sure many people have pointed this out before, but it always amazes me that the modern Republican Party is an alliance between social conservatives, who are concerned with preserving traditional values, and big business. It's ironic, because it seems to me that from the point of view of traditional values, unrestrained capitalism is the single most destructive force in our society. We are well aware of the amorality of big countries like Enron. But to the extent that pop culture (rap music, TV shows, movies) undermine traditional values, that is capitalism at work, not a liberal conspiracy. People choose to listen to rap music, to see those movies, to watch those shows. That's capitalism.
Permalink 7:07 AM

I Like Ike

(via DailyKos)

Actually, not really. Eisenhower was pretty ineffective in preventing the rise of McCarthyism, and helped Richard Nixon get a foothold in national politics. But I do think that Eisenhower was a decent man who gave serious thought to the direction the country was heading. Everyone remembers his farewell address, warning about the military-industrial complex:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications.

But David Sirota has also pointed out a prophetic warning to the Republicans about social security (and about Texan oil men):

"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are [a] few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

- President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 11/8/54
Permalink 6:57 AM

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Auto Taxes

A recent Morning Edition segment on a budding alliance between auto makers and environmentalist reminded me of an idea I had for promoting fuel conservation: shift the cost of owning/operating a vehicle away from owning and toward operating. Eliminate ad-valorem taxes, sales taxes and title fees on vehicles and replace them with higher gas taxes; and require insurers and auto-leasing companies to bill more on a per-mile basis. These simple changes will reduce pollution, congestion, oil consumption, accidents and the problem of uninsured vehicles. Designed to be revenue neutral, these changes will neither raise nor lower the overall cost of driving but will raise the savings from not driving and from driving more efficient cars.
Today, much of the cost of driving is fixed. You get no break on your insurance or tag fees if you occasionally car pool or ride the bus, or if you make fewer trips to the grocery store. Yes, you will save on purchase costs and sales taxes by putting fewer miles on a vehicle, but those costs are so distant that few people weigh them into the cost of making a short trip. Also the fixed costs can overwhelm any benefit of buying a second car or motorcycle to save gas. I, for one, would consider getting a motorcycle or a very small car to commute to work and driving my sedan only when I need to take the kids somewhere. But my taxes and insurance would go up, not down, under the present system. Switching to a pure gas tax and per-mile insurance system would give incentives where today we have dis incentives.
That's where the auto makers come in. This plan would lower the cost of buying and owning multiple vehicles and actually provide an incentive to do so. That would be a bonanza for auto makers. Ford and GM executives should salivate when they read this. Auto makers have huge lobbying resources; they could even offer to build or expand a plant in a state that agrees to adopt this plan. And any state that did would be at an advantage over its neighbors; more of its taxes would be paid by motorists passing through and less by residents and businesses in the state. A state like Virginia or Georgia adopting this could result in a domino effect where all its neighbors follow suit.
This should also encourage more use of public transportation, car-share systems, and car ownership for the poor. High insurance and title fees often prevent the poor from owning even a cheap used car. True, higher fuel taxes will still keep them from driving very much; but having a car for emergencies, work and job interviews can be vital.
If insurance is billed on a per-mile basis, then no one can say, "I'm dropping insurance on this car because I'm not driving it." The state could reasonably require that all vehicles be always insured. Essentially, an insurance company could never drop coverage unless the car is demolished or some other company assumes coverage.
Permalink 12:17 PM