Wednesday, April 29, 2009

overreact much?

Let's take a moment to ponder the wisdom of this:
Fort Worth ISD Out For Swine Flu

The entire Fort Worth Independent School District and several other schools have closed as swine flu cases spread across North Texas.

The Fort Worth ISD is closing all of its campuses beginning Thursday until May 11.

"This is a time the citizens of the community have to come together and support each other," Superintendent Melody Johnson said. "This is a very rare event in our history."

Johnson said she made the decision after county health officials recommended the mass closing.

"It's not our thinking that it's spreading so fast we have to do this," said Dr. Sandra Parker, of the Tarrant County Health Department. "But we want to prevent the spread."

Gleemonex and her commenters have the scoop on the general overall overblowniness. Now, let's consider a few specific points from the quoted portion of the article above:

1. "Fort Worth ISD Out For Swine Flu" Note that the FTWISD comprises 144 schools with 80,000 students and 11,000 employees. They have documented one confirmed case, and 10 "probable" cases. And not a single death or, presumably, even a single serious illness.

2. "...flu cases spread across North Texas..." Um, not so much. There are 17 confirmed cases in the entire state. And even if it were "spread[ing] across North Texas[!]", so what? Some kids get sick, have to miss school, have to lay in bed a couple of days... big f'ing deal.

3. "This is a time the citizens of the community have to come together and support each other..." Well, not come together, obviously. Stay apart, rather. Stay very very far apart. Because of contagion, ya know. And "support each other"? What the fuck does that even mean?

4. "Johnson said she made the decision after county health officials recommended the mass closing." So, yeah, uhhh... if this turns out to be a massive, supremely ill-advised overreaction, well, then, I was just following the recommendation of the, uh, you know, the "health officials", who practically begged me to close all the schools.

5. "It's not our thinking that it's spreading so fast we have to do this." Said the "health official". I mean, I'm certainly not the one who's overreacting here. I never said it was spreading fast, I just said it seemed to be, you know, spreading. Who's to say, after all, how fast it might, conceivably, spread. And of course we can stop the spread by all coming together and... uh, no, actually. Well, nevermind. Did I mention our children are our future?

The Global War on Poppies

This is like an absurdist parody of imperialism gone crazily, irredeemably off the tracks.

The New York Times tells me that the U.S. military is sending 20,000 soldiers on a mission to violently obstruct Afghans from planting and harvesting their crops.

This is exactly the role our founders imagined for our federal government: sending thousands of soldiers to the other side of the planet to engage in a bloody struggle against flowers and the farmers who grow them.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

before anyone is alarmed

... thinking that, you know, I've gone insane, let me clarify:

1. I didn't intentionally set out to obtain a pet mouse; and
2. That's the first and (likely) last haiku of my blogging career.

Update: for further clarity:

The original plan for the mouse was that it would be a fun, temporary playtoy for the other pet (a cat). The cat, after all, likes to play around with little fake mice, and it gets more interested in them if you kind of dangle them, or throw them, or move them around. So I figured an actual mouse, which moved on its own, would get even more interest. I pictured the cat batting the mouse around a bit, chasing and stalking it, etc. Maybe giving it a friendly bite on the neck or so.

But let me back up a bit. A mouse costs $3.00 at the pet store. I am reliably informed that people often purchase them for use as meals for pet snakes. So purchasing one for use as a cat toy didn't seem to me to be a breach of any kind of pet store etiquette.

But, uh, on the contrary... at the pet store when I told the lady I wanted to buy a mouse, she gave me a long look and asked: "For a pet?" I hadn't expected this, but I think I recovered well. I said yes. Or maybe I didn't recover all that well, because then she asked me if I had a cage, and mouse food, and etc. "Oh, yeah, of course. Got a cage. Uh huh. Lots of mouse food, at my house. Yep."

The pet lady's suspicions were again aroused when my companion and I also purchased a large container of kitty litter. "The mouse isn't going to, er, be a "playmate" for the cat. Is it?" "Ohhh, no. No. Of course not! Noooo. Nope."

I had been asked (not by the pet lady) what I planned to do with the mouse once the cat, inevitably, got bored with it. (The assumption, rather optimistically, being that the mouse would still be, like, alive at that point.) I said I planned to set it free. You know, return it to nature. These answers were met with some skepticism. Nevertheless, the plan went forward.

When we got home with the mouse: disappointment. The cat was interested for about 90 seconds, at which point -- upon perceiving, I believe, that this cat toy was, in fact, an actual live animal -- the cat retreated into a corner of the room and managed to simultaneously look bored and horribly frightened. Subsequent attempts to engage cat with mouse failed miserably. You can see the results of one such effort below.

So. In conclusion, I have now been prevailed upon to keep this mouse as a "pet". His home is now a clear plastic storage box with no lid. We dumped junk mail from the paper shredder into the bottom of the box. The mouse made a little nest. He eats stale Ritz crackers. He has now, a week later, managed to acquire an exercise wheel. I can't tell whether he is happy (nor, frankly, do I particularly care), but I suspect it is better than an alternate destiny as snake food.

new "pet"

mouse on wheel is dumb
he thinks he's going somewhere
but he never will

Saturday, April 18, 2009

pride of the profession (for real this time)

Meet Thomas Tamm. Mr. Tamm was also a lawyer in the Bush Justice Department. But confronted with direct and undeniable knowledge of egregious lawbreaking by elements of the administration, Mr. Tamm, in diametric counterpoint to Mr. Bybee, didn't look the other way and didn't sacrifice his ethics by dishonestly inventing specious rationales to conceal the illegal conduct and ensure that it continued.

Instead, he risked his career, his personal freedom, and the welfare of his family to expose this criminal conduct. Mr. Tamm was the primary source for the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the illegal NSA wiretap program. You may recall that the NSA was for years using an electronic dragnet to spy on Americans without the warrants required by the Fourth Amendment and the version of the FISA law then in effect. Each individual instance of this surveillance was a felony.

Mr. Bybee was awarded a lifetime appointment as a federal judge for his despicable behavior. Mr. Tamm's reward for courageously exposing an ongoing series of blatant felonies committed by Bush and the NSA? He was fired from his job, ruthlessly slandered and libeled, and hounded into poverty as a result of aggressive harrassment by the Justice Department.

And the cause for which he made this sacrifice? Barack Obama and the Democratic controlled congress retroactively and prospectively legalized the entire series of crimes and gave blanket immunity to everyone who had any part in committing them.

When Barack Obama, by way of excusing from accountability the many architects and implementers of Bush's torture programs, says we must"turn the page" on this "dark chapter in our history" and look to the future, does the plight of Mr. Tamm ever enter his mind? Mr. Tamm is still being harrassed by the FBI and threatened with prosecution. This man deserves a full presidential pardon, a Medal of Freedom, and a high-ranking job in the NSA or the Justice Department. And he deserves an apology.

Chavez still getting his shots in at "Mr. Danger"

After exchanging a friendly greeting with Obama at a Latin American summit, we get this:
"I think it was a good moment," Chavez said about their initial encounter. "I think President Obama is an intelligent man, compared to the previous U.S. president.
I'm still a bit surprised that the Bushies didn't black-bag this guy and send him off to rot in one of their secret gulags.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

pride of the profession

It's late, and I've had a long day, so I don't feel like getting too deep into the torture memos right now. But I'm up for a quick comment.

Meet Jay Bybee. Mr. Bybee worked hard to become a top flight attorney. He was magna cum laude at BYU, cum laude at BYU law school, made the school's law review, gained a sought-after clerkship with a federal judge, worked as a law professor for 10 years, and co-authored two books.

All so that he could find himself working for George W. Bush in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, where the crowning achievement of his stellar legal career was to legally authorize CIA interrogators to torture a man with, among other things, "stinging insects".

You see, the CIA had been torturing the man for some number of days or weeks (or months or years) using other methods such as controlled drowning, beatings, imprisoning him in a tiny box for long periods, swinging his body against the walls of his cell, hanging him by his wrists for hours at a time, and during this laborious process they had learned that he had a mortal fear of insects. Naturally, their first instinct was to use this fear to torture him further. But before they could carry out such a thing, they first needed to avail themselves of the Torture Hall Passes that the Justice Department was churning out during the Bush years.

Enter Jay Bybee, fresh off a stint teaching "Constitutional Law" to our newest crop of young lawyers-to-be. Bybee opined that locking the man in a dark box, approximately the size of a coffin, and inserting an insect in the box with him for the night, would only be ok if they inserted a non-stinging insect and told him it was a stinging insect. But, otherwise, no problem!

[When I first read this, my immediate thought was of "Room 101" and the passage in 1984 where O'Brien explains the concept of "the worst thing in the world". Striking similarity. Unfortunately, Sullivan blogged it before I did.]

Mr. Bybee's former law professors must be very proud. As must the judge he clerked for, his former students, and undoubtedly his Mom and Dad. But don't worry. The story has a happy ending. Thanks to our illustrious former president, Mr. Bybee now enjoys lifetime tenure as a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

More here (long post, scroll down for the good stuff).

teabag clarification

Robert takes me to task in the comments. In the service of cleverness, I implied that all the tea party participants were incipient klan members.

This is not true, of course, and my apologies for lumping all the protesters together in this manner. In a more general sense, I do get the idea that a lot of the people (mostly poor, and white) who are most upset by the government's recent policies are motivated by, shall we say, less than appropriate ideas of what makes a person a full citizen of this republic. Not to dwell too much on the point, but growing up in Wise County I had a rather keen insight into the kind of person who is downtrodden in one way or another and who, in a fruitless search for ways to feel better about themselves, ends up settling on, for example, differences in skin color as a way of looking down on others.

But yeah, not everyone is like that, and clearly there are many rational and well-thought-out reasons why one might protest our government's policies. You can read this blog and see a few, in fact. And your humble blogger isn't exactly downtrodden. (And, I would be remiss if I didn't ask where these teabag folks were during the last 8 years as George W. Bush was implementing massive increases in the size and power of government.)

But to address the substantive point here, I think it is correct to say that this particular protest was somewhat incoherent. (See this Sullivan post for the hodgepodge of "issues" represented -- it is truly laughable.) As I pointed out, T.E.A. apparently stands for Taxed Enough Already. Well, taxes are low -- at least relatively speaking, compared to the last several decades. And yet, government spending is high -- compared to just about any historical context. In my view this is unsustainable. This country has far too much debt, public and private.

But, ultimately, if these protests are to be taken seriously, then they have to drop the "high taxes" focus (taxes aren't high), and concentrate on something else. And if that something else is government spending, that's fine, but then you have to say where you want to make cuts. Social Security? Medicare? Military? Cutting any of these items is politically impossible, and together they represent over 60% of the federal budget. Debt service is another 8%. All the other many many things the government does and pays for are part of the remaining 30%. Presumably some of this stuff is worthwhile. Some of it is almost certainly not, but you're never going to be able to cut out even half of that even if you performed your budget-cutting with a chainsaw. And even if you could, you're still looking at a reduction of only 15%. Which could be used to pay down the debt. Or, of course, you could lower taxes by 15%, which wouldn't really be that big of a cut (especially for the type of lower-income folks who make up the bulk of the Fox News protesters).

And then you have to confront the idea that cutting government spending in the middle of a massive economic downturn may very likely represent a monumental disaster of an economic policy. I'm certainly no economist, but from my admittedly cursory investigation of this topic, it appears there is somewhat of a consensus of economic thought that says that this is a very bad idea. (Think Hoover.)

Anyway, I'm not prepared to argue this last point. But it definitely is arguable, and in fact it was argued by the candidates in the last presidential election. One of them won, and the other one lost.

But beyond all of that, the fact is, we are going through a very painful period in this country because we -- collectively -- lived beyond our means for a long period of time. This needs to stop somewhere, or we're likely doomed. On this, I'm sure Robert and I can agree. Furthermore, I agree -- in the abstract -- that there is an almost exact inverse relationship between the size of a government and the amount of freedom enjoyed by its citizens. And, as a believer in the concept of maximizing freedom, I too would, in principle, love to see a great deal of government shrinkage. The trouble is in how to apply that principle in the current context. It's not simple.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

these teabagging parties

Apparently Fox News has organized some folks around the country to go out and protest today. What are they protesting? Your guess is as good as mine.

Since it's April 15, we can assume it might have something to do with taxes. The problem with this theory, however, is that taxes haven't gone up. Taxes for most people have gone down. Or have been offset by government checks being sent out to people. Obama has said he will raise the marginal rate for the highest tax bracket (which I'm quite sure has a high level of applicability to your average Fox News viewer), but only back to the level it was at under Clinton. Same with the capital gains tax. Seems like things were pretty good -- economically speaking -- during Clinton's presidency. But that was during the long long ago (during the "before time"), so the records are a bit sketchy, and, for all any of us know, maybe it was really like hell on earth rather than a time of relative peace and prosperity. Or something.

Anyway, I've seen where maybe the protests have to do with socialism. And here I'm presuming "socialism", as the term is used by Glenn Beck and his viewership, is actually a clever if transparent euphemism for "stuff that benefits spics and niggers". Which, obviously, is something we should all get very worked up about. So, I'm thinking we all ought to take the day off of work, grab our burning crosses placards, dress up in our best white hoods khakis and knock-off lacoste shirts, and take to the streets.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

good luck with all that

Tom Hicks, owner of local sports teams, can't make interest payments on his credit facility. I don't know the man personally, but he shows up in the media a lot, and my impression is that he's an arrogant dick. He did very well with his investment company during bubble years. Not so well during the bust years. If I were a bit better at convincing people of stuff I wasn't very sure about myself... I could probably do the same. But I'm not, and he is, and so he's got this house to show for it.

From the story:
Hicks announced last week that he was seeking to sell up to 49 percent of both the Rangers and Stars. Such a sale could add between $400-500 million in cash to the HSG reserves.
You know what, Tom? No one wants to buy 49 percent of a sports team, and especially not at those inflated bubble-era prices. Sports teams are generally not a good investment from a purely financial perspective. The reason is that the price of buying them is inflated because of the "toy factor". People who are rich buy them not so that they can make money, but so that they can play at being a sports owner: hobnob with famous athletes, get mentioned on SportsCenter, get quoted in Sports Illustrated, and generally get a lot more fame and publicity than would normally be accorded to a boring (though rich) business guy. This results in a premium being placed on the price of sports franchises. Which means it is hard to make money from them. Which means that a non-controlling interest is worth a heck of a lot less, proportionally, than the controlling interest. But then again, I'm just a lowly blogger with living in a house that would fit in the master bathroom of your pool cabana, and therefore probably don't know what the hell I'm talking about.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

one of these things is not like the other

I am a believer in the Teddy Roosevelt maxim "walk softly and carry a big stick." Having a strong military that can defend our country from any conceivable threat is important.

But what we have right now is a bloated military which is structured for things like invasions, long-term occupations, and nation-building operations on the other side of the planet. While invasions and (short-term) occupations may conceivably be needed as part of a defense-oriented operation (as in Europe during WWII), as a practical matter this capability has, over the last several decades, tended to manifest itself in ill-advised (and ill-conceived) adventures in imperialism, generally in contexts (e.g., Iraq, Vietnam) where we have no legitimate business projecting our military power.

And, now that we as a country are much less wealthy than we used to be, it seems that we might want to at least consider cutting back on some of the more extravagant programs in this area. Will this happen? Well, considering that Obama's proposed military budget is higher than last year's budget, and further considering that this budget is still being met with howls of protest from both parties because it is somewhat less than what was proposed last year by Bush's defense department... I'd say this is highly unlikely. Maybe it will only happen once our checks start bouncing.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Define irony.

Irony. Uh...
It's a noun...
It's when something is... ironic. It's, uh, well I can't really define irony... but I know it when I see it!

And then the elevator doors close.

I am reminded of this scene by a chain email which was just forwarded to me. Below all the various headers picked up through the multitude of forwardings this email had undergone, I read the actual content. Which was a long and laboriously written denunciation of chain emails and the people who forward them, along with multiple listed reasons why persons (e.g., the recipients of this chain email) should not engage in forwarding chain emails, no matter how clever, topical, useful, newsy, or sickly sweet they might be.

Head. Asplode.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I recently re-read this book. Ok, actually I'm not quite to the end yet. But a number of things have become clear to me this time around that didn't quite sink in the first time.

First, while the philosophy laid out in the book will stand or fall on its own merits (I've not formed an opinion on this quite yet), I think the book loses a lot of power once you realize that the entire narrative is essentially a straight-up autobiography. This realization was nagging at me throughout the first couple hundred pages until I finally broke down looked up Robert Pirsig's wikipedia page. Confirmed.

I mean, I hate to be too hard on the guy, because he seems genuinely likable, and his writing style is very friendly and engaging... but once you know he is talking about the actual details of his life the whole thing starts to look like a somewhat embarrassing (if not pathetic) attempt at self-justification and excuse-making for his personal academic and career failings. Or maybe I'm just a cynical hard-hearted bastard. I kind of hope the latter is true.

Update: on further reflection, I'm pretty sure I'm just in a bad mood and being a jerk about this. So, nevermind.