Tuesday, January 31, 2006

How Many Terrorists Are There?

How big is the threat of terrorism in the US? In the last 15 years, I am aware of only a very few incidents of terror not carried out by the United States government or by one of the states. Some eco-terrorists have burned down buildings. Somebody put a bomb in the parking garage of the World Trade Center. The perpetrators were apprehended and tried through ordinary law enforcement channels. Somebody blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City. Again, law enforcement was called in, the perpetrators were caught, and they were brought to justice. A gang of about 20 Arabs and other Middle Eastern men hijacked some passenger planes and flew two of them into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon. The perpetrators died in the act. Thousands were killed in the incident, but the apprehension of co-conspirators was properly a matter for law enforcement.

In each case, the acts of terror were undertaken by relatively small groups of conspirators. Costs were low, and the technology employed was primitive. Frankly, there was probably not a heck of a lot anyone could have done to prevent the attacks. It is relatively easy to get into the US and to blow something up and kill people, especially if you are willing to die in the process. There’s not much anyone can do to prevent this, any more than we can prevent high schoolers from gunning down their classmates or postal workers from going postal. It follows, therefore, that there are not all that many people who are interested in committing terror attacks in the US. They would have done so by now, and if the US government had thwarted any such attacks they would be crowing about it.

My conclusion is that the risk of terror attack is small. I am much more likely to be a crime victim or to be killed in a car accident or to fall off a ladder. How much good does it do for the US to use military power in the Middle East in terms of reducing the threat? It can’t do much, since the threat is almost nonexistent already, and it seems to me to be a huge waste and misallocation of resources if the aim is to reduce the threat of terrorism. The threat is a nuisance and might be better ameliorated through law enforcement and intelligence. Some might argue that the use of the military as has been done actually increases the threat and inspires even more people to want to kill Americans. That seems to me to be stupid, unless the aim is to create a more credible threat. Let us give the government the benefit of the doubt and assume that their goal is to create more terrorists.

Too Much Organization in Sports Can Backfire

I used to follow the West Indies in international cricket. They were amazing, especially during their Decade of Dominance when they were all but invincible. The most astonishing thing about the West Indies cricket dynasty was that the West Indies had the smallest pool of players to draw from and the fewest resources of any country or region that fields a Test side. They had a merciless pace bowling attack, and their batsman were incredible. They weren’t too shabby on defense either. An analogous situation that my fellow Americans might grasp is how the Dominican Republic produces incredible baseball players despite extreme poverty and poor playing conditions.

In talking with other fans and cricket aficionados, including some old heroes of the game, a leading explanation offered for West Indian success was the early development of cricketing skills in West Indian youth. Almost every boy in the West Indies played cricket year round in any open field, on the beaches, in the streets, anywhere and anytime that they could. There were few other sports to compete with cricket, and boys were encouraged to pursue cricket if they showed any aptitude at all. They had the chance to play in school and, even if they never became first class players, they could expect to play for a club in a cricket league until they were in their forties or fifties.

Moreover, West Indian boys had very little equipment and crappy playing fields. They learned to bat without helmets or pads and on surfaces that made for some wild movements of the ball. They used anything they could get their hands on for bats and balls. When they were finally well equipped and introduced to good playing fields, the game seemed so much easier than it was out in the pastures and on the streets.

Now and for the last ten or fifteen years, the West Indies are not as great as they once were, although they have some outstanding players. Almost all of the players came up through organized youth cricket leagues and advanced according to a system of selection that has developed as cricket has become increasingly organized.

When I was in Barbados doing fieldwork, I was struck by how few kids I saw playing unorganized pick up cricket matches. Instead, kids were playing informal soccer games. The boys I spoke to indicated that cricket was more of an organized affair and that playing cricket outside of organized teams didn’t really “count”. And playing on the organized teams was not much fun; it was too serious, and there was a lot of “pressure”. Sandlot cricket had been driven out by the proliferation of organized youth programs in which boys were progressively weeded out of the game as they grew older. Less promising players are cast aside, sometimes at an early age, and they may never return to the game as players later on.

The youth cricket system is designed to identify and cultivate talent that might add to the West Indies Test side, but it seems to me that it prematurely reduces the size of the pool of talent and decreases interest in cricket among boys. Too much control is killing the game by taking all the pleasure out of it and eliminating alternate paths for players to follow. Also, an early emphasis on individual achievement and statistics in organized leagues produces players with an individualistic rather than team focus.

Monday, January 30, 2006

An Incident of Shunning

I am interested in ways to managing conflict and resolve disputes peaceably. When doing fieldwork in Barbados, I witnessed many examples of peaceful conflict management among cricket players. One incident stood out as an example of peaceful enforcement of norms.

Cricketers pride themselves on how civilized and gentlemanly they are, and this is true even when the players come from the lowest orders of society. League cricket is supposed to be, and generally is, marked by high levels of propriety. It is considered very bad form to dispute calls of the umpires in a prolonged and emotional manner or to engage in tantrums over poor play or disputed calls. Spectators may, of course, call the umpires “thief” if they wish, implying that they have stolen runs or outs from the side they are supporting. This is done in a fairly subdued manner. Taunting is frowned upon, as is unseemly celebration.

Umpires have authority to eject players, and their reports to the league may result in suspensions or outright banning. The leagues also have officials known as referees who attend matches and report on crowd and player deportment. I have never seen the powers of umpires or referees exercised to maintain decorum, and this is mainly accomplished through social norms. Propriety is part of the demeanor of a cricketer, and a big part of development of players is training in sportsmanship and decorum. Also, major cricket stars model appropriate behavior, and young players emulate them.

The clubs enforce standards of propriety among their members and partisans. Bad behavior brings shame to the club, and bad actors may find themselves out of the club no matter how skilled they may be as players.

In the incident that I recall vividly, the visiting club had a couple of players who insisted on taunting the home team mercilessly by pointing out how well the visitors were batting, how poorly the hosts were fielding and bowling, and how low the hosts had come from their days of glory. There were no aggressive moves or profanities involved, so the conduct was not really actionable under league rules. Nonetheless, it was inappropriate. One of the non-playing members of the host politely asked the captain of the visitors to reign in the incessant yammering of the taunting players, but the visiting team took no action.

The hosts did not answer the taunts. When it was time for lunch, the visiting team was provided with food and drink, as is proper, but the host team stayed in the locker room and shunned them. After lunch, the taunting players were quiet for a while, but one of them had batted a century and could not contain himself in his gloating and taunting. The hosts had many runs to make up but managed to do so and won the match. Afterwards, the hosts opened the bar to the visitors but declined to drink with them. Instead, they showered and went home. Nothing was wanting in the hospitality offered by the hosts except for their presence.

The next meeting between the clubs was conspicuous for the absence of the taunters and a more collegial atmosphere at the match. Shunning was all it took to bring about this correction.

Critical Reading of Scripture is a Good Thing

My take on the Bible differs significantly from that of many other Christians. Some Christians assume that the Bible represents the actual Word of God as dictated to its human authors. Every part of the Bible, therefore, has equal weight. For example, the epistles of Paul would be just as important as the teachings of Jesus.

I don’t take this view at all. I give the greatest weight to the teachings of Jesus and the narratives of the Gospels and less weight to the letters of Paul. I hold Peter above Paul since Peter actually knew Jesus and participated in his ministry, whereas Paul knew Jesus only by way of the miraculous encounter on the road to Damascus.

What I know about the origin of the New Testament is that it was compiled several centuries after the time of Jesus by certain Church leaders, and that they sought to include the most authentic and widely accepted texts in the collection of sacred writings. Presumably, they excluded those texts that might undermine orthodox positions of the authority of the Church. Moreover, a number of other accounts may not have survived the first few centuries. I reckon that the compilers of the canon did the best they could with what was available to them and in light of their own agendas. I do not reckon that they were infallible, however, in this enterprise. It is conceivable that a heretofore undiscovered text might be found and considered as authoritative as any of the texts in the canon.

The letters of Paul would naturally be part of the canon since he was an important early Christian teacher, and his views would be instructive. Moreover, a number of these letters were preserved. This does not mean that his every utterance should be considered tantamount to the Word of God. Paul was an important teacher, certainly, but he was not divine and certainly does not compare in authority with Jesus Himself. Indeed, other important Christian teachers over the centuries or teaching even now, might be considered just as authoritative as Paul. Certainly, such teachers can instruct and inspire in life changing ways even though their writings have never been appended to the canon.

I don’t like to quarrel with folks who choose to regard Scripture as the inerrant Word of God, and I do not wish to be divisive. So I rarely discuss my own views on the Bible in the company of literalists. Some people seem to need a Bible that was dictated by God, and they are not interested in the work of interpretation and critical reading. But, in my view, a religion predicated on one set of early teachings presumed to be divinely dictated and immune to reinterpretation is doomed to irrelevancy. If the Koran was dictated by Allah, it cannot be reinterpreted, and Islam is stuck forever in the 7th Century. A literalist reading of the New Testament fixes Christianity forever in the 1st Century in a very specific cultural and historical context. Such a Christianity is a dead thing.

For my part, I trust in the guidance of the Holy Ghost to permit me to read the Bible critically with a view to understanding the message and ministry of Jesus. If it seems to me, in consultation with the Holy Ghost, that Paul is off the mark, I am free, thank God, to read Paul critically. I am happy that I live in a time and place where I need not fear being the guest of honor at an auto da fe on account of my religious beliefs.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Out of Control Cops

Radley Balko http://www.theagitator.com/archives/026197.php#026197 reports on the police killing of a man during service of an arrest warrant for gambling offenses. Why a SWAT unit was necessary to arrest a man for a non-violent crime is unclear, and why arms would even be un-holstered under the circumstances is a mystery.

When we were living in Bellingham, it happened that my neighbor right across the street was apprehended by police in a violent assault on his home just as I was going out to walk the dogs. I got to see the whole sorry affair. Over five cop cars and 10 cops from various agencies descended on the man’s house by storm, broke down the door with a battering ram, entered guns drawn and screaming, hurled the man to the floor, cuffed and shackled him, and hauled him away as his wife and infant child looked on. His crime? Poaching Dungeness crabs. He had a recreational license only but had been taking crabs and selling them to other people. The cops had had him under surveillance for weeks from an RV that had been parked from time to time just down the road.

I had bought quite a few crabs from the man, and I supposed that I was on tape making crab buys and would be taken in the middle of the night by the SWAT unit of the Bellingham PD. Luckily, buying crabs from an unlicensed vendor was not high on the cops’ priority list. The man had large day-glo signs advertising that he had crabs for sale. All you had to do was knock on his door and ask for some crabs. The cops could have done the same thing and taken him peaceably, and there was never any claim that the man was known to be dangerous or violent. The violent storming of the house was evidently done just for kicks. Good thing the baby wasn’t killed.

The police are an occupying force, not our friends.

Marry Your Cousin

I am an Appalachian. I grew up in the mountains of North Georgia, and I still live within a stone’s throw of the Appalachian Trail here in Dutchess County, New York. I am proud of my heritage.

Many people don’t seem to realize it, but we Appalachians are a little sensitive about ethnic slurs that are routinely directed at us. One of the most hurtful is the oft repeated charge of rampant incest. Mountaineers are no more apt to engage in incest or to marry a close kinsman than anybody else.

As a family historian, I have found that I have to go back eight generations to find any repeats in ancestors. My maternal grandparents were fourth cousins, but I doubt that they were aware of the relationship. This means that my mother is her own fifth cousin. My sister and her husband are seventh cousins as I gleefully informed them last year. It would have been difficult for me to marry a woman from my hometown who was not a distant kinswoman since most families had come there by similar migration routes and had been in contact for two centuries. I married a Yankee woman, however, and we would have to go back to at least the 17th Century to find any possible common ancestors. Since she is mostly Slavic, and I am mostly Scots and English, we would probably have to go back a lot further.

But when you really think about, what is wrong with marrying your cousin? My maternal cousins were kind of like sisters to me, so that would have been a little weird, but I didn’t know my paternal cousins very well at all and might have dated them without any such awkwardness. In 26 states, there is no prohibition on marrying your first cousin. In the other 24, there are prohibitions, and I am not sure at all why this would be the case.

Right off the top of my head, I can think of a number of benefits of marrying your cousin:

You already know your in-laws; they are your beloved uncle and aunt and not some wackos that you will come to hate.
Your wedding guest list will be about 33% smaller since you will have a lot of common invitees.
You can keep family legacies within families more easily.
You already know your cousins and should be able to choose a mate from among them more wisely than from among a population of strangers.
Your cousins will probably be compatible with you in religion and culture and social status.
Holidays won’t be such a big problem, since both sets of parents are in the same family.

I delight in confounding Yankees with tales of the complicated family relationships we Appalachians enjoy:

My father’s ex-wife is my nephew’s grandmother.
My wife’s brother was married to her nephew’s mother.
My half-brother’s sons are both my and my step-sisters’ nephews.
My grandfather’s youngest son is my mother’s ex-brother-in-law.
My mother’s great grandson is also the son of my niece’s husband.
My uncle married my mother’s sister-in-law.

What a bunch of wacky hillbillies we are.

Failing Memory

I meant to blog about this topic earlier, but I forgot. My memory is getting worse every year. When I was a kid, I had a phenomenal memory, and my ability to retain almost everything I read or heard or saw made it seem as if I was a genius. Not that I was really stupid or anything, but an excellent memory made me seem even smarter than I really was. It really came in handy in school and test taking and in lawyering, especially trial work.

A good memory meant that I could get away with being extremely disorganized and that I didn’t need to spend time on taking notes, cleaning up files and developing systems for keeping facts straight. Nowadays, I depend more and more on organization.

A movie I saw a few years ago, “Memento”, really made me think about memory. In the film, Guy Pearce plays a man who, due to a head injury, cannot form new memories. Each morning he wakes up in a strange place, and he doesn’t know what he has been up to for the last few years. He has notes everywhere, even some tattooed onto his body, and he relies on deeply ingrained habits and other methods to construct the narrative of his life. This is complicated by the fact that he is trying to avenge his wife’s murder. The film is told from the end to the beginning, and this makes the audience experience some of the disorientation of the character. “Memento” was one of the most creative movies I have ever watched.

Now that memory is not as clear as it once was, I am learning the value of organization. As I testified in a deposition last month, I don’t keep most of the business information about my company in my head. I keep it in the files where I can refer to it on an ad hoc basis. The files have to be complete and retrievable to be of any use, and I spend a lot more energy on maintaining files than I used to. I am pretty good about deciding right away what is file-worthy and what is superfluous, and this makes the files more useful than if I just threw everything in. I don’t even try to remember most things or keep information handy inside my brain. I used to know the TV lineup by heart; now I keep that information in the TV Guide.

Another method of dealing with failing memory is habit. Your body learns to go through an unchanging routine. My morning ritual is in a set order from which I never deviate (otherwise I might forget to shave or some such thing). My own washing and dressing is followed by a dog walk, bird feeding, and e-mail checking. God forbid the phone should ring and disrupt the pattern. I might end up at work without pants.

Notes abound. We keep a calendar on the fridge with all appointments marked, heartworm dosage dates marked, and any other things we need to remember. I insist that dentists and doctors give reminder calls, and I arrange for my appointments to be at the same day of the week and time.

I keep a lot of information in the world itself. For example, I always keep my keys by the door where I will see them as I leave. Otherwise, they will be lost. Glasses are only in one of two places when they are not on my head. Hats and coats and umbrellas are always in the same place.

Most of my memory, however, is kept in Mrs Vache Folle’s brain.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

On Being Bowled for a Duck

The longest walk you can take in the world is the walk from the pitch back toward the pavilion after you have been bowled for a duck. Imagine, if you will, that you have waited eagerly for your turn at bat and that you have walked out slowly and haughtily to take your ground before your wicket. Moments later, the integrity of your wicket has been compromised by the spheroid. “Howzzat?!?” The upraised finger. The long humiliating walk back to your merciless teammates. Nothing is worse in all of sport.

Anarchist Baseball

When I was a kid, I loved to play baseball, not so much in organized leagues, but in pick-up games in pastures. Looking back, one of the most interesting aspects of these games was the informal way we resolved disputes. We had no umpires, and we relied on the honor system to make calls in the games.

For example, the fielder got to call whether a ball was fair or foul. There was no visible foul line; it was entirely imaginary. The fielder was expected to call it rightly and to resolve uncertainty against his own interest. We did not have bases on balls, as we did not have an umpire to call balls and strikes. The batter was expected to swing at any decent pitch close to the strike zone. This is not to say that you couldn’t take a pitch now and then, but you were not supposed to be too picky about your pitch. Base runners decided whether they were out or safe if they could tell, and the infielder decided otherwise. A fielder who trapped a ball was expected to admit it.

If you were a jackass, you could abuse this system. The penalties were that nobody wanted to play with you in the future, and it was entirely possible that the other players would quit the game right then and there over your dishonesty. Some dishonest players were readmitted to games on the condition that they could not make any calls, and this was a humiliating status to be in.

Sometimes, it was not possible to drum up enough players for full teams, and we had to make rules to account for being short. This made it even more important to play fairly and honestly. One solution frequently employed was to have the batting team provide the catcher, the pitcher or both. The pitcher was expected to do a decent, if not masterful, job of pitching, and the catcher was expected to put out his own team mate if need be in a play at the plate. When even fewer players were on hand, we would use “invisible men”, eg an imaginary base runner would substitute for the actual runner who had to bat again. It took a good deal of cooperation to be fair about what the invisible man was up to.

Other solutions involved setting up fields with only two bases and home plate, having offensive team players play other defensive positions for the opposing team, and having home runs be outs instead (this was especially important as balls were hard to come by, and a home run often meant lost balls).

One reason the honor system worked for us was that we did not have fixed teams. Today’s opponent was tomorrow’s team mate. The rural character of the area meant that playing opportunities were scarce, and you had to play fair to be accepted into the games. Also, we were somewhat poor, and not everybody had his own glove or bat. You needed to be on good terms with players who would lend you their gear. The disincentives for cheating were greater than the incentives. Nobody kept track of who won anyway, and nobody kept statistics on individual performances, so cheating or abuse of the honor system got you nothing but the most fleeting benefit.

Oddly enough, the boys I played baseball with were not the most pacific fellows in the world. We never fought over a baseball game, but we fought over plenty else and nothing at all from time to time. Fights almost always occurred in the schoolyard where you were thrown together with boys you might not voluntarily associate with and with whom you had no long term relationship to cultivate.

The Lincolnesque Bush Regime

Back in law school, I took a course in “Political Crime and Terrorism”. We examined anti-terrorism laws in other countries such as Israel and South Africa, and we looked at various uprisings and rebellions in American history. It was an enlightening course. I had not previously known, for example, that Rhode Island had undergone a Constitutional crisis with two governments acting under two distinct constitutions claiming legitimacy. Also, there were many more uprisings in colonial times than I had ever read about in my public school education.

We had to write a longish paper, and I chose to write about the suppression of rights during the War Between the States. I grew up in the South, and history classes all ended in 1865. It’s not that history ended in that year, but we spent so much time on the War that there was usually only a day or so left in the term to cover the robber barons, gilded age, world wars, etc. I never had much liking for Lincoln in view of his ruthless suppression of my ancestors’ freedoms, but my research for the paper was shocking to me. I had not known that Lincoln had so brazenly suspended habeas corpus, even in areas where there was no rebellion, that he had jailed dissidents without charges, that he had interfered militarily with elections in Maryland and Kentucky, that he had suppressed the press, that he had threatened judges, that he had, in effect, chosen to disregard the Constitution of the US. In sum, Lincoln had assumed the powers of a dictator.

Last year, I read Thomas DiLorenzo’s “The Real Lincoln” and was disabused of the last vestiges of regard that I might have had for Lincoln. (I gave the book to my father as a gift, as I knew that he would be interested in the crimes of Lincoln.) I had always figured that he had resorted to evil means in order to promote what he regarded as a worthy cause. The man was not at all well intentioned, I have come to realize, and his goal was nothing less than the creation of a centralized state with a cozy, synergistic relationship with the railroads and industry. He used abolitionist sentiments to further these ends, and the end of slavery helped to obscure other motives and consequences. He preserved the Union, it is said. What this really meant was that Lincoln preserved the domination of the industrial North over an unwilling South, and he strengthened the central state in the process.

Lincoln underwent apotheosis. There is a monstrous Temple of Lincoln on the Mall in Washington. His likeness is carved into Mount Rushmore, and he shares a feast day with Washington. This monstrous tyrant somehow became one of the greatest presidents ever in the judgment of court historians. He was the father of leviathan, and one cannot deny his significance. That his party dominated national politics for the next half century doubtless helped in forming this image of Lincoln the Good. I know now that he was Lincoln the Terrible.

There is precedent, therefore, for the Bush regime’s seemingly insane power grabs. The GOP controls the judiciary, and Bush knows that Alito and his ilk will approve of any accretion of power by a GOP president. The GOP controls the Congress, and Bush knows that he will never be impeached by his own party no matter what he does. As long as the GOP is in power, with no checks by the Democrats, the increase in executive power and abuses in its exercise will go unabated.

In the face of this, the Democrats are not nearly as forceful as they might be in opposition. I, for one, would like to see them stand up and go toe to toe with the GOP. They are not such a minority that they would be ineffective, but they render themselves so by their caution. This is perhaps understandable. All Bush needs to sway the public to his side is to have a massive security failure, a terrorist attack on US soil. Despite the fact that this would be his screw up and failure, it is the nature of the American electorate to reward government failure by giving the government more money and more power. And the GOP puppet media will broadcast the GOP talking points about how the Democrats had obstructed the President in his work and how he did not have enough resources and power thanks to the treasonous Democrats. This possibility makes the Democrats anxious about appearing to be too critical of the regime. They can almost taste the gains in the mid-term elections, and they don’t want to mess that up.

I think the Democrats should get ahead of this strategy by problematizng Bush and Company's corruption and incompetence in both Homeland Security and the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Be stronger on security than the GOP by emphasizing that “security theater” and window dressing are not helpful and that squandering security resources endangers us all. I would assume that a massive security failure will occur between now and the mid-terms and strategize around that contingency.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Another Soldier I Would Rather Not See Back in the US, Except Maybe Leavenworth

Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer, an interrogator for the Army, was convicted of negligent homicide for murdering a prisoner of war, an Iraqi general in the custody of the US. He beat the man with a hose, put him headfirst into a sleeping bag, and sat on his chest until he suffocated. He claims that he was following orders.

I suppose that he might not have intended to kill the man, just to torture him, and that might explain the seemingly lenient verdict.

I hope he never moves into my neighborhood.

A New Theory of State Formation

Brad Spangler http://www.bradspangler.com/blog/archives/296#comments
speculates about possible connections between the domestication of the cat and the rise of the state. The state came with sedentary agricultural subsistence strategies, as did the domesticated cat as a guardian of granaries from rodents. Exposure to certain cat-borne pathogens is associated with schizophrenia; therefore, the madness of statism may have originally been brought on by proximity to cats.

This looks all but ironclad as a theory, except that I would put less emphasis on the feline etiology of psychoses. Rather, control of the cats led to the state. Instead of a Hydraulic Theory of state formation, I propose the Fluffy Theory of state formation. Any aggressive fellow or gang who could monopolize the cats would have a stranglehold on power. Without the cats, the rodents eat your surplus, and you starve. With the cats, your surplus is safe from rodents. Having a ruler is a small price to pay for access to the cats.

Later, you realize that cats are not that hard to attract and to keep. Heck, you can’t get rid of them fast enough. But by then, the rulers are firmly entrenched, and you can’t remember that you ever got along without them.

We Have Nothing to Fear But Spiders and Heights

I am afraid of spiders. I grew up in Georgia where we had lots of spiders, some of which were venomous. The fiddleback, as we called the brown recluse spider, was much dreaded, and my sister was recently bitten by one with ensuing pain and medical treatment. We weren’t sure whether she would lose a leg for a while there. The black widow was hard to avoid. Even the non-venomous spiders came with some scary folklore. For example, the writing spider, as we called the orb weave spider, was always listening for your name so he could write it in his web, whereupon you would be cursed and die. To complicate matters, it was considered very bad luck to kill a spider.

One of the most harrowing events of my childhood was when I was biking through the woods to my after school job at a small textile factory. I rode into an enormous web across the path, and the biggest spider I ever saw jumped on my shirt. When I extricated myself from the web and got the beast off me, I saw that the meadow I was riding through was riddled with these giant webs. It took me an hour to go about 100 yards as I was panic stricken and afraid to get near any of the webs.

As a boy, I dreamed of emigrating to Australia and having a pet kangaroo like Skippy of TV fame. When I found out about the funnel spider and all the deadly arachnids on that continent, this dream was dashed. I don’t think I can go to Australia at all, even as a tourist unless they eradicate the spiders.

Here in the Hudson Valley, the spiders are harmless. If they are not, please do not inform me. They are everywhere, even in the house, and I have learned to live with them. Mrs Vache Folle takes care of any spiders that want killing. Over the years, my spider fear has abated considerably, even though I never underwent any kind of treatment. Oddly, the daddy long leg never scared me at all, and I delighted in throwing them on my sister, who was scared of them.

On the other hand, I have developed a fear of heights that I never had before. When I was a teenager, I rappelled down cliffs and into caves. I hiked along precipices without anxiety. I went hot air ballooning. Being at a great height was not problematic. I never jumped out of a plane or scaled El Capitan or anything like that, but I was not height phobic. That is, until the incident at Moro Rock.

It was 1997 or so when Mrs VF and I visited Sequoyah National Park. One of the must see features of the park is Moro Rock, a triangular piece of rock that juts out over a drop of thousands of feet. There is about a quarter mile trail from the parking area out to the point where there is a magnificent view. I didn’t know if it was the altitude of 7,000 feet plus, but I became short of breath as we neared the point, and the guard rail, a single rail less than waist high, began to seem to me to be designed to trip people and send them over the edge. The path was so narrow along a ledge that I couldn’t avoid looking down, and returning hikers meant squeezing up against the rocks or the ledge to allow passage. Little children were running on the path, and I was sure one of them would fall. At the point, I was suddenly seized with panic at the idea that I would lose control of myself and jump off the cliff.

It took a long time to make the trek back down the trail. I hugged the rock and fought back panic. Mrs VF, seeing my distress, decided to torment me by pretending to lose her balance or skipping along the precipice. We were having marital difficulties then, and she apparently didn’t like me very much. From that time on, I have had a problem with heights. I don’t know why. Even getting up on a ladder bothers me. Air travel and being in a tall building does not trouble me, but don’t ask me to stand on the edge of a cliff or to watch someone else stand on the edge. That 1997 vacation was hard to get through as Sequoyah and Yosemite, the main stops on the tour, both involve cliffs. We went horseback riding along cliffs, and I thought I would not make it. We went to the top of the domes at Yosemite, and I couldn’t wait to get down. We foolishly hiked down, and the trail was narrow and fraught with many opportunities to fall.

I wonder what I will become afraid of next.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

It's Not Easy Being Green

The Green Party lists its “10 key values” on its web site at


I was surprised at how much I found to agree with, and I reckon that the principal area of disagreement between me and a Green would be in the choice of methods. The Green might prefer to use the state to achieve his aims, whereas I would advocate non-coercive solutions. Take a look at the values (I have edited them somewhat):

Every human being deserves a say in the decisions that affect their lives and not be subject to the will of another.
All persons should have the rights and opportunity to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment. We must consciously confront in ourselves, our organizations, and society at large, barriers such as racism and class oppression, sexism and homophobia, ageism and disability, which act to deny fair treatment and equal justice under the law.
Human societies must operate with the understanding that we are part of nature, not separate from nature. We must maintain an ecological balance and live within the ecological and resource limits of our communities and our planet. We support a sustainable society which utilizes resources in such a way that future generations will benefit and not suffer from the practices of our generation. To this end we must practice agriculture which replenishes the soil; move to an energy efficient economy; and live in ways that respect the integrity of natural systems.
It is essential that we develop effective alternatives to society’s current patterns of violence. We will work to demilitarize, and eliminate weapons of mass destruction, without being naive about the intentions of other governments.
Centralization of wealth and power contributes to social and economic injustice, environmental destruction, and militarization. Therefore, we support a restructuring of social, political and economic institutions away from a system which is controlled by and mostly benefits the powerful few, to a democratic, less bureaucratic system. Decision-making should, as much as possible, remain at the individual and local level, while assuring that civil rights are protected for all citizens.
We recognize it is essential to create a vibrant and sustainable economic system, one that can create jobs and provide a decent standard of living for all people while maintaining a healthy ecological balance. A successful economic system will offer meaningful work with dignity, while paying a “living wage” which reflects the real value of a person’s work.
Local communities must look to economic development that assures protection of the environment and workers’ rights; broad citizen participation in planning; and enhancement of our “quality of life.” We support independently owned and operated companies which are socially responsible, as well as co-operatives and public enterprises that distribute resources and control to more people through democratic participation.
We have inherited a social system based on male domination of politics and economics. We call for the replacement of the cultural ethics of domination and control with more cooperative ways of interacting that respect differences of opinion and gender.
We believe it is important to value cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, religious and spiritual diversity, and to promote the development of respectful relationships across these lines.
We encourage individuals to act to improve their personal well-being and, at the same time, to enhance ecological balance and social harmony. We seek to join with people and organizations around the world to foster peace, economic justice, and the health of the planet.
Our actions and policies should be motivated by long-term goals. We seek to protect valuable natural resources, safely disposing of or “unmaking” all waste we create, while developing a sustainable economics that does not depend on continual expansion for survival. We must counterbalance the drive for short-term profits by assuring that economic development, new technologies, and fiscal policies are responsible to future generations who will inherit the results of our actions.

I share these values and would like to live in a world informed by them. I also believe that these values can be realized through peaceful, non-coercive means. Indeed, they cannot be realized any other way. Is there a libertarian caucus in the Green Party? The Green values seem so much more appealing than anything the Libertarian Party is selling.

Libertarians for the State

I have been thinking about the concept of “legitimacy” lately and what makes a government legitimate. In my opinion, there is no objective standard of legitimacy, and a government will be more or less legitimate depending on how many of its subjects acquiesce in it or consent to it and the depth of this acquiescence or consent. The more legitimacy the government enjoys, the less costly it is for it to rule its subjects. The government has to engage in a balancing act in which it optimizes returns to the rulers by fleecing the subjects as much as possible while simultaneously avoiding increased costs that will ensue if the subjects resist governance.

Repressive government can be expensive. If you tax too much, you will stifle the economy on which you are preying. Jack booted thugs don’t come cheap, and surveillance programs and prisons and other forms of overt coercion are all expensive and counterproductive. It is far better to convince a gullible population that the government is serving them and is necessary to protect them from foreign and domestic enemies. In order to do this, you may have to arrange to give the appearance of serving and protecting and to make it seem as if the subjects had freely chosen the rulers. This is a neat trick, and it is easier to pull off than you might imagine.

Is there a libertarian definition of “legitimacy”. I imagine that the young fellow at Positive Liberty is talking about a form of “legitimacy” when he writes, claiming to enlighten his readers about libertarian theory:

“Iran is simply not a sovereign nation, in accordance with libertarian theory at least. According to libertarianism, “sovereignty,” if it exists at all, exists only when a government respects the natural rights of the citizenry and is based on some form of consent (although, again, this last element is in some dispute). No sovereign is legitimate who tramples on individual rights and enslaves its people; such a “sovereign” is in fact a criminal, and can be dealt with as such, either by his own people or by bystanders who choose to intercede.” http://positiveliberty.com/2006/01/thoughts-on-the-questions-and-answers.html

In his view, the legitimacy of a government is determined not by its subjects but by other governments! If the rulers of government A believe that government B is not sufficiently deferential to the rights of B’s subjects, A is entirely justified, from a libertarian standpoint, in attacking B. It is hoped that the oppressed subjects of B will not be unduly inconvenienced by this intervention.

I am not among the libertarian intelligentsia (it would be a sad state of affairs for libertarianism if I were), but even I can tell that the idea that libertarianism advances the notion that the legitimacy of a government is granted by yet another government is absurd. If all the governments in the world suffered a repressive regime to exist, perhaps because of its military might, that would not confer any legitimacy on it at all.

The Positive Liberty contributor's view of things would justify, on a “libertarian” basis, a government’s intercession in another state’s civil war on the side of the government against its rebels. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish the Positive Liberty contributor's view of things from the view of the Neo-con Death Cult. Presumably, it is up to the government to decide when another government is sufficiently legitimate and when aggressive war would be justified.

UPDATE: A commenter has pointed out that Positive Liberty is a group blog and that the post I have referenced does not reflect the views of the other members. Accordingly, I ought not to refer to this as the "Positive Liberty" view, and I have changed this to the "Positive Liberty contributor's view".

The 4th Amendment

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. "

The foregoing is the text of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. So when one of your wingnut conspecifics recites the right wing talking point that the 4th Amendment standard is “reasonableness” alone, you can confront him with his ignorance. It won’t help the wingnut as he will still be stupid, but you’ll feel better watching him sputter and try to call up some other inane talking point. Let’s make the wingnuts work a little.

The Bush regime is evidently relying on the people to ignore the illegality of the domestic spying program and to let them get away with assuming increasingly dictatorial powers. This is not unprecedented in history. The Roman Republic became the Roman Empire in a similar manner. The forms of the Republic were maintained, but their substance was perverted. The “people” were largely complacent about this, and your typical US subject is just as apt to acquiesce in a dictatorship as any people.

Monday, January 23, 2006

My Belated Blog For Choice Day Post

I did not realize that yesterday was Blog For Choice Day. Here’s my two cents about why I am pro-choice.

I am for individual liberty and opposed to government intrusion. Decisions about whether to bring a pregnancy to term are among the most intimate and private matters I can imagine, and I would not advocate allowing the state to poke its leprous nose into them. Here’s how I interpret the anti-choice position in a nutshell: advocacy of having prosecutors, policemen, judges and politicians decide how much risk a woman should be willing to assume because the state owns her womb. It’s not about the rights of blastocysts so much as it is about authoritarian meddling with women’s bodies and lives. Could you look a woman you loved in the eye and say that you valued the abstract rights of a blob of protoplasm over her individual sovereignty? I could not.

And the issue is more complex than anti-choicers would frame it. No pregnancy is risk free. Women still die from complications in pregnancy, and there is still risk of injury. Who am I, or any prosecutor or judge, to dictate how much of this risk a woman will be required to assume? That is a private matter best left to the woman in consultation with her doctor or others she may choose to consult.

What about those women who abort as a form of irresponsible birth control? It can’t be helped. It is not worth the increased government power and intrusiveness to set up a system to ensnare women whose motives we might not admire.

If we let the state into the womb, it won’t be long before it takes up residence in every cell of our bodies. Perhaps that is what the anti-choicers have in mind.

Wherein I Claim to Be an Evangelical

Pastor H posed the question in his sermon how many of the congregation would claim the descriptor “Evangelical”. He didn’t ask for a show of hands, but he speculated that a third might say “Yes, with qualifications”, a third would say “No way”, and a third would say “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I fall into the first category. I have no difficulties sharing my faith, and it is so important to me that I would have a hard time keeping quiet about it. I claim the adjective “Evangelical” with reservations because of the potential for misunderstanding that comes with a word that has become associated with the religious right. I would not want anyone to confuse me with the kind of evangelical that charges around proclaiming his own righteousness and judging everyone else as falling short of the glory of God. I am not the kind of evangelical that is hoping and waiting for God to break out his smiting stick. I am not disappointed, as Pastor H suggested some might be, that God is gracious.

Being a Calvinist takes the pressure out of evangelism. Knowing that God ordains who will believe and whom God will save means that I need not worry that my witnessing will be so ham handed that I will turn someone off and consign him to Hell through my negligence or poor people skills. I don’t see any need to sell my faith to others, but I will talk about it freely if you show any interest (and sometimes even if you don’t). I don’t have to try to work my faith into conversations unnaturally, and I don’t have to be overbearing about it. I find that people generally like to talk about spiritual matters, especially if you are respectful of their own beliefs and spiritual journey. I realize that I can’t prove that my beliefs are right (I am agnostic) or appropriate despite how profoundly I hold them, so I find it easy to acknowledge diverse of opinions and to talk about them.

My Scary Conspecifics

My conspecifics appear to be soiling themselves out of fear of terrorism. I posed the question whether Pakistan would be justified in bombing a motel in Tampa to kill some suspected “terrorists” even if it meant killing all the innocents also in the hotel. To my dismay, some of them were entirely OK with this scenario. “Whatever it takes,” say they. How many innocents would have to be killed before it would not be OK? They conceded that one would have to “draw the line” somewhere, that killing 50,000 innocents might be morally unacceptable. I am glad that they are not completely unprincipled.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Winning the War on Chastity

I was overcome with a deep sense of pride when I read the Atlantic Monthly article about how adolescent girls are more apt than ever to engage in fellatio and that they don’t even consider it sex. This comes many decades too late for me, but I like to think that the small part I played in the War on Chastity back in the 1970s contributed to this glorious moment. The campaign that my cohort waged to convince the mothers of these girls that fellatio was (a) not sex and accordingly not Biblically prohibited and (b) not disgusting seems to have paid off. To the teenaged boys of America, I say “You’re Welcome”. No, don’t thank us. There is no need to publish tomes about our being the “real greatest generation”; just knowing that teenage fellatio has reached “epidemic” proportions is thanks enough.

You see, we never blamed the girls. They were simply victims of a massive propaganda campaign. It was the propaganda that we attacked; ideas versus ideas. I like to think that we convinced the girls of the righteousness of our cause and that, although they themselves never overcame the revulsion that the act incited, they decided to let their daughters decide for themselves.

The War on Chastity was particularly hard fought in the Bible Belt where I grew up. The “sexual revolution” had passed us by, and we were up against preachers that exhorted abstinence from all coeducational contact of any kind before marriage (and most contact after marriage). No dancing, no swimming together, no kissing, no nothing. We resolved to fight this tyranny using the Bible itself, and we became adept at Biblical scholarship and exegesis. We had to, or we would explode.

We were taught that thinking about a sin was just as bad as actually engaging in it, and this was an enormous hardship for libidinous teenage boys. We had already overcome the bogus prohibition against Onanism. Onan was smitten not because his seed was spewed on the ground per se; rather, he refused to impregnate his older brother’s widow as required by the Levirate. So auto-erotica was OK, but we had to solve the thorny issue of how to engage in it without sinning “in our hearts”. So we scoured the Good Book and came to the conclusion that adultery and fornication involved actual intercourse and that anything else was not sex, just “fooling around”. Bill Clinton was telling the truth when he denied having “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky.

Having solved this problem, it didn’t take long to extend this reasoning to activities with non-imaginary girls. As to fellatio, I never succeeded in my high school days in getting girls to grant me that favor to completion, despite my brilliant arguments. The disgust factor was too strong.

Osama Bin Laden is Smarter than Tucker Carlson

Rachel Maddow reported this morning on Air America that some of the smegheads at MSNBC, namely Tweety, Bow Tie Boy, and O’Reilly Light, were going off on the right wing talking point that “Osama Bin Laden sounds like a Democrat” in the recently released tape. My response is that nobody ever said Bin Laden was stupid. He is as apt to be right about things as anyone, more apt certainly than those three bed-wetters at MSNBC.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Jesse Lou Baggett

Our beloved Ruthenian Shepherd Keeping Watch Over Invisible Flocks.

William Jasper Stone

This is a typical Jasper pose.

Money Pit Sweet Money Pit

As I was walking my dogs up the mountain this morning and surveying the storm damage from the recent torrential rains and snow melt, I comforted myself with the notion that my property was probably not stolen from anyone ever. The part where the house and back yard is located was at one time filled in with rubble, probably from the mountain, and the land was formerly most likely as swampy as the water supply reservation next door. It is almost a swamp now. The rest is the side of a mountain. No self respecting Indian would have lived here.

I am not sure when my property was settled. The older section of our house was just a log hunting cabin, probably built in the 1940s or later. It has been added onto over the years, and we have had to pay for bringing the underpinnings and infrastructure up to snuff. The houses on the road all seem to have been built within the last 50 years except for the one at the Lee farm over half a mile away. This is the top of a mountain, and it is not until the Lee farm that you get enough flat land that is also not a swamp for any pioneer to want to settle down. I figure I have as just a claim to our real estate as anyone, and I don’t expect any Indian to be able to cloud our title.

Besides paying an exorbitant purchase price, we have added our labor to the land and thrown a lot of money at the place. We built our pond one rock at a time by hand. We planted flowers and perennials and shrubs a plenty. We personally painted the interior. We fenced in the back yard. We replaced the septic tank, replaced and rerouted the main drain to the septic tank (the old one was crushed, and we were flushing our toilet into the bowels of the earth apparently), replaced and rerouted all the plumbing in the basement, and replaced and rerouted the grey water and sump pump outlets. We replaced a good bit of the roof. We put on all new gutters and drainpipes. We put in a new furnace. Our contractor is, even as I write, replacing the sagging support beams in the basement. Some idiot had cut holes in them to run pipes through them, and they are sagging so much that I put in jacks just to be on the safe side. We are hoping the current repairs will result in level floors in the old part of the house, in which case we need to put in some new flooring in the downstairs bedroom.

The next thing is a generator. We lose power a lot up here on the mountain, every time a tree falls on the power lines for instance, and we need power to run the well pump, the sump pump, the Voice Over Internet phone, the aquarium heater, etc. We have a wood stove, and our range is propane, so heating and cooking are not a problem. But running water is nice to have, and not having a lake in the basement is desirable.

And the electrical is not up to snuff. If you make coffee and toast at the same time, the breaker shuts off.

I also want to do something about the flow of water from the road onto the driveway. When it freezes, the driveway becomes a glacier.

Finally, the upstairs bathroom has a hot tub in it. It doesn’t work, but I don’t want a hot tub. I want a tub with a drain and a faucet, perhaps with spa jets.

Fortunately, we have found a contractor who actually shows up and does the work. We will be keeping him busy.

Some Random Thoughts

Let’s say the government of Pakistan suspects that some bad guys, suspected terrorists, are holed up in a motel in Tampa. Let’s say that the government of Pakistan blows up the motel and kills some of the bad guys along with some of the rest of the motel’s guests who are not suspected of anything by anyone. That would be OK, right? We are allies, after all, and collateral damage just can’t be helped if you want to get those terrorists. Is there a flaw in my moral reasoning?

When the Soviet Union broke up, how is it that the huge threat that it was supposed to represent all those years suddenly evaporated? Could it be that the threat was a con job? Were the Soviets conning the US government, or was the US government conning its subjects? Seriously, all my life up until then I supposedly had thousands of missiles aimed at me. What happened to all those missiles?

What is Senator Clinton up to trying to out-hawk the administration on Iran? She’s starting to freak me out. It’s not like I was ever in love with her or anything, but now she’s scaring me. I wanted her to win the Senate just because it would piss off a lot of wingnuts, and now she is starting to sound like one.

How long is it going to take the Ellis Island immigrants to assimilate, for crying out loud? I know lots of Italian Americans whose families came over about a century ago, and they still eat lots of pasta and practice Catholicism. They even use some Italian words now and again. And the men tend to wear more jewelry than I consider proper. I know a bunch of Jews whose families came over about the same time, and they still cling to their Judaism. They eat knishes and bagels and use Yiddish expressions (all of which seem to mean penis). Mrs Vache Folle’s Slavic ancestors came over between 1889 and 1902, and many of her relatives still adhere to Roman Catholicism and eat pierogies and beet based dishes. Mrs VF has adopted good old American Protestantism and otherwise can pass for an American. Maybe that’s because she is part English. Why can’t these other immigrants be more like her?

In defense of immigrants, on the other hand, let’s all try to be more careful with stereotyping. For example, let’s try to keep in mind that less than half of Italian Americans are involved in organized crime.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Some Free Advice to Moms Getting Divorced

Here’s some free advice to women with children who are getting divorced. Right now, you may be thinking that one of the best ways to punish the bast**rd for robbing you of the best years of your life would be to make sure that he sees his kids as little as possible. You’d be wrong. Remember how little effort he put into fatherhood while you were married? How it was easier to get him to donate a kidney than spend time with his kids? How he called looking after his own children so you could go to the supermarket “babysitting”? When he says now in the middle of the divorce proceedings that he wants to co-parent and be with his kids, he’s conning you. It’s probably a kind of Brer Rabbit “Don’t Throw Me in the Brier Patch” thing. He’s hoping that you will make concessions on economic issues in exchange for giving up his time with the kids. Don’t let spite blind you to what makes sense for you and the kids in the long run.

I can tell you that in my matrimonial practice, a number of women clients came back a year after the divorce and asked if I could get the judge to make their ex-husbands take the kids more. They had begun to remember how thankless and difficult parenting can be and that it is not necessarily a reward to be stuck with 90% or more of the duties. They had come to realize that they had let their exes off easy and that he was happy as a pig in mud that all he had to do was whip out his checkbook every month. Sure, he moaned about I, but deep down he knows that he has it made. All he has to do is pick up the kids every now and then, feed them lots of sugar, show them a good time, and let his ex-wife clean up any disciplinary messes.

So unless your soon to be ex is genuinely a threat to the health and safety of the children, see to it that he gets them at least 50% of the time. Trust me, you’ll be glad of the time away from the kids. And you can be sure that this is a better way of getting back at your ex. Picture him having to do all the kid care crap that he left to you all those years.

Also, even if your ex is a complete chump, your kids will be better off for having more rather than less time with their old man. They won’t resent you later for depriving them of their father who, if absent, may begin to look more and more heroic in their eyes. Your ex will be more likely to pay child support on time and to contribute additionally to the well being of his children if he is a bigger part of their lives.

The down side is that you are going to have contact with your ex on a regular basis for the rest of your life. It can’t be helped. If you have kids together, you are a family, a weird sort of family, but family all the same. The sooner you reconcile yourself to dealing with this issue like an adult, the better off everyone will be.

Should I Run for President?

JL Wilson http://independentcountry.blogspot.com/2006/01/good-president-and-almighty-dollar.html posts on what a good president would be like. He lists a few characteristics of a good administration:

“1. Peace: America avoids military conflicts.2. Deep cuts in American troop presence throughout the world, and the military budget substantially reduced.3. Overall federal spending substantially lower than population growth and inflation would project, with the ax falling hardest on corporate welfare. 4. The burdens of regulation on business, of mandates on states, and of laws on individuals substantially reduced by executive orders mandating that officers in the executive branch enforce laws only in ways consistent with the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. 5. A significantly reduced federal prison population, through pardons of nonviolent "criminals" who were convicted of unconstitutional laws.”

I am thinking of throwing my hat in the ring. I have all the qualifications, having been born more than 35 years ago in one of the 50 states and having been a resident of the US almost all my life. I would be willing to fulfill JL Wilson’s agenda in spades. (I might go even further and be the Gorbachev of the US and oversee the peaceful breakup of the union.) I pledge to veto just about everything that comes out of Congress. As Commander-in-Chief, it will be my policy to defend the US in the least violent and least costly way possible consistent with legitimate national security considerations. I will fight for budget and tax cuts, starting with an end to corporate welfare and ending taxes on wages. I will respect the prerogatives of the several states.

In addition, I will do the American people a huge favor and submit my State of the Union report in writing instead of speechifying. I won’t hold any press conferences, but I will answer as many e-mails as I can. I will continue to blog to keep the people informed, but there won’t be any weekly radio address.

I pledge not to campaign for re-election. If I am doing a good job, you will re-elect me.

I will do everything in my power to diminish the significance of the office that I hold.

In exchange for this commitment to run and serve, I ask only a few things:

1. Don’t delve too much into issues about my character and past history. In fact, let’s say that anything that happened before next Monday doesn’t count and is off limits. I am not the same person as I was then, as almost every molecule in my body has been replaced several times over, so it would not be fair to hold me to account for any youthful indiscretions that may have occurred in the past or which may occur between now and next Monday.
2. I wish to keep my actual identity a secret and to run and serve as Vache Folle.
3. I want to be allowed at least as many vacation days as GW Bush has taken.
4. I would like to have the summer White House in Tuscany instead of Camp David.
5. I would like to be referred to as “Your Adequacy” or “Your Sufficiency” rather than as “Mr President”.
6. I want the White House to be casual. No ties. I might not even change out of my pajamas on some days.
7. I do not jog or play golf. You can’t make me.

Once I get a commitment to these requirements from enough folks, I will announce my candidacy.

One good thing about GW Bush is that he has really lowered the bar so that someone with my questionable abilities and dubious character can grow up to be President.

Economists Don't Know Everything

My knowledge of economics is only slightly more extensive than that of a graduate of Father Guido Sarducci’s “Five Minute University”, although I have been picking up a few pointers from the libertarian blogosphere. I took one undergrad intro course and decided that economics was the “dismal” science, not the “queen” science. All those graphs and numbers made my brain hurt. It is for this reason that I express very few opinions about economics.

Some economists (they know who they are), on the other hand, seem to feel that they are qualified to pontificate about just about anything. After all, every phenomenon is ultimately tied to economics, isn’t it? So when an economist opines about the existence or causes of global warming, that should carry some weight, right?

I think not. I am not a geologist or a meteorologist or a climatologist, so I have to get my global climate information from people who are. You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t consult economists or lawyers or radio talk show hosts on the issue. Here’s where I come down on the issues based on my "research":

§ Global climate is warming. Most climate scientists say so, and the naysayers are by and large affiliated with major polluting interests. As a rule of thumb, I am skeptical of claims by interested parties, e.g. I pay less heed to claims about the health benefits of chewing tobacco raised in a study funded by the Tobacco Association.

§ Some of this warming is due to natural cycles, but the speed and extent of change may be impacted by human activities. Even small changes can have enormous impacts in our complex climate system. If pollution contributes even 1% to the problem, this could have serious consequences, and we might be missing an opportunity to save ourselves a lot of grief down the road. I don’t have kids or anything, and I expect to be dead before the worst impacts are experienced, but some folks may actually care about the world their descendants will inherit. They have a longer time preference than I do.

To those who say that the climate is too big for humans to have an impact, remember that we once thought the lakes and oceans were so vast that we could dump all our waste in them with no adverse consequences. We thought the atmosphere was so vast that any amount of industrial pollutants could be pumped into the air without hurting anyone.

Another issue that some economists feel qualified to expostulate about is the merits of intelligent design theory versus Darwinian evolutionary theory. I acknowledge that economists call their field a “science”, just like political “scientists” and other social “scientists”. But let’s face it, social sciences are very different from biological or physical sciences, and an economist is only a little more qualified to opine about biology than a certified public accountant with a subscription to Discover magazine.

I generally consult biologists about biology, and I give less weight to opinions about biology from economists, accountants, lawyers or clergy. Here’s where I come down on the issues:

§ Intelligent design is not science. It’s just a way of giving up on a thorny problem by saying, “Oh, well, I personally can’t imagine how this feature might have happened without a designer, so let’s posit a designer with unspecified characteristics and stop thinking about it.” You can’t build a research design around ID.

§ Darwinian evolutionary theory is not perfect. It’s a work in progress like any really powerful theory. The flaws generate problems that lead to research that lead to refinements and so on. This is how hard science is supposed to work.

§ Whether to teach ID or evolutionary theory has nothing to do with science. This is a political matter. What would best serve the interests of the state? If you think the state would benefit from scientifically trained students, you will go for Darwin. If you think the state would be better served by students who reject the scientific consensus and adhere to a belief in a designer, ID is your bag.

I'm not saying that economists can't express opinions about these issues. I hope they do, but they will forgive me if I give them less weight than the opinions of some others.

What the economists can do for me is tell me what's up with the Iranian idea to trade oil in Euros? Should I stock up on canned goods and morphine?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Time I Judged a Black Beauty Contest

Many years ago, I visited Grand Turk, at that time not a well known tourist destination despite its fabulous reefs. There were perhaps 10 tourists on the entire island as it was July and off season. On our first day there, a woman approached me and two other tourists, a married couple, in the hotel bar and introduced herself as the Minister of Something or Other. She asked if we would be willing to judge the national beauty pageant. The Turks and Caicos is a small country, and it would be hard to find unbiased judges among the residents. We jumped at the chance.

A couple of hours later, the Minister picked us up and drove us to the prison some 5 blocks or so away from the hotel where the contest was being held. The prison yard was packed with spectators on folding chairs or standing around in front of a makeshift stage. The local TV crew was there, and we were interviewed briefly. We sat at a table up front and were supplied with all the alcoholic beverages we could tolerate.

It was when I met the winners from the two previous years that it dawned on me that the contestants were all going to be black and that I was going to be judging the beauty of black women, an exercise with which I was unfamiliar at that point in my life. The two beauty queens were light skinned with European facial features, and I surmised that the white judges from the prior years had selected the whitest looking women as the most beautiful. I feared that I might fall into the same trap and that contestants with more African features would be unfairly slighted.

To my relief, none of the contestants had much in the way of European features, so I was free of the dilemma I had imagined I would be facing. Instead, I faced the dilemma of picking the most beautiful among several lovely young ladies of a different race from my own. My fellow judge had confided that he was a tad worried that there would be trouble if we picked the wrong girl, and the crowd had been drinking for several hours and was becoming animated.

Why was judging the beauty of black women so problematic for me? Black women had always been taboo, and it was more than frowned upon where I grew up even to discuss the idea of miscegenation. Granted, a white male’s having an affair with a black female was somewhat less dicey than the other way around, but it was still out of bounds. The prevailing notion was that black women were unattractive unless they had some white genetic heritage. Only high toned black women could be admired for their beauty. Vanessa Williams or Halle Berry come to mind as examples from today of beautiful black women.

Even black women where I lived seemed to buy into the notion that their blackness made them ugly. They moved heaven and earth to “relax” and straighten their hair. They strove for the “clear” skin look, i.e. to homogenize their skin tone, and they seemed to admire the whitest looking among them.

But I soldiered on, had a few more drinks, and resolved to get past my prejudice. And, wonder of wonders, all the girls began to seem beautiful to me, African features and all. I was going to have a hard time choosing which was loveliest. I began to regret that Mrs Vache Folle was present.

Ultimately, the decision rested on the talent portion of the pageant. All but one girl was a dancing student, and they chose to dance for us in performances that were undistinguished and indistinguishable. The other girl sang beautifully and played the guitar and that cinched it for me. In the end, it was close, with all the contestants being within a few points of one another, but the singing girl won and was crowned Miss Turks and Caicos. She would go on to the Miss Universe pageant or some such thing.

Luckily for us judges, the singing girl was the crowd favorite, and great joy ensued. We were not torn apart by an angry mob after all.

Since that night, I have learned to appreciate the beauty of black women even more. I can’t imagine how I ever failed to notice them before or to think that they were ugly. Sure, there are some plug ugly black women, but that is true of any racial category.

Ferguson Can BIte Me

The Great Calamity of 2007 could have been avoided if the Generals had acted sooner. Facing impeachment and criminal charges, the Bush Administration played the one card it played best. It started a war and declared that it would be folly to remove the administration in war time. As the country’s land forces were tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush turned to aerial bombardment of Iran. In the absence of any targets, this bombardment was indiscriminate. Every ally in the Muslim world was alienated, and nuclear armed Pakistan joined Iran against the US. Yadda, Yadda, Yadda. The nuclear exchange was devastating.

It was when Bush declared martial law that the Generals acted and seized the reigns of government. In the military tribunals of Bush, Cheney and the rest of the Neo-Con Death Cult, the full story of the appalling ineptitude and unequalled drive for power of the administration was laid before the American people. Only the staunchest opponents of the death penalty spoke out when they mounted the scaffold on July 4, 2008. It was all the military government in DC could do to keep the crowd from killing them before the hangman could. The leaders of the GOP in Congress are still in protective custody.

One of the Things I Like About My Neighborhood

Down the road about half a mile or so, one of our neighbors has let his home fall into ruin. He no longer lives there as the house has become uninhabitable. The windows are broken, and the porch is falling off. The yard is strewn with junk. He has 113 acres on which he has parked over 30 junk cars. (He is our rural postman, and he buys old cars and abandons them when they wear out.) The place is, to put it mildly, an eyesore, a blight on an otherwise lovely hollow.

To top it off, he keeps goats, and his even crazier next door neighbor releases them from time to time. It is not unusual for the goats to be loitering in the road, and you have to get out of your vehicle and shoo them away before you can drive through. Every year, the goats have kids, and these are about the cutest critters you can imagine.

Yet our neighbor, who is clearly more than a little mad, is an amiable fellow, and our mail is faithfully delivered. Nobody has seen fit to complain about his property. We just roll our eyes and chuckle. A visitor asked me why someone didn’t rat him out for keeping an unlicensed junkyard or creating an environmental hazard or something. I reckon that the denizens of this hollow feel that it would take a first rate a**hole to do something like that. We would rather have a crazy car abandoner than a meddlesome jackass for a neighbor. Also, we want to keep getting our mail. And the goats are fun. They add character to the neighborhood.

From time to time, neighbors have meddled with one another by trying to put the kibosh on development plans or requests for variances. These neighbors get talked about unfavorably and have mainly moved away. For the most part, we feel that you should be able to do just about anything you like on your property as long as you don’t disturb others. We don’t always like it, as when the family across the road engages in constant early morning excavation every summer weekend, but we grin and bear it.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Rightful President Speaks Out


What Would the Dog Whisperer Do?

William Jasper Stone, the oversized bull terrier that shares our home, has some annoying habits that I would like him to drop. His greetings are exuberant, and his being 95 pounds of teeth and muscle makes them a little dangerous. I don’t mind it so much for myself, as I am usually ready for it, but visitors to our house are sometimes put off by what appears to be an immanent mauling. Jasper has no guile and is incapable of malice, so when he jumps up on me he means well. Nevertheless, when I am not braced for it, it can be painful, especially if there is inadvertent terrier head-human genital area contact.

“Damn your eyes, Jasper!” I cried out on the last such occasion.

“The Dog Whisperer would never say that,” Mrs Vache Folle pointed out.

Indeed, the Dog Whisperer would doubtless walk into our home and within seconds cure Jasper of jumping, door crashing, vacuum cleaner eating and his heedlessness in the face of distractions. Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer who appears on National Geographic TV, is like Nanny 911 for dog people. The worst dog in the world with seemingly intractable behavior problems is instantly turned into an obedient and loving companion. All he does, it seems, is acknowledge that the dogs are dogs and quietly assert his own alpha status. Dogs fairly quickly get the message that resistance is futile. Also, he instructs people to exercise their dogs. It is amazing how many people never walk their dogs. We have a huge fenced yard, and we still have to walk the dogs down the road or in the woods so they can check their “pee-mail” every day.

We decided to try the Dog Whisperer technique on Jasper’s obsession with the vacuum cleaner. If you turn on the vacuum, Jasper tries to kill it. The first time I ever vacuumed around him after we brought him home from the shelter, he grabbed the machine and ran off with it until the cord was yanked out of the outlet. Ever since then, we have had to lock him up or out when we want to vacuum. Sunday, Mrs VF wanted to vacuum some dog hair off of a sofa, so we decided to try thwarting Jasper and saying “No” whenever he made a move for the machine. Mrs VF tried this for about 90 seconds, Jasper persisted and seemed to think that this game was even better than the kill the vacuum game without resistance, and Mrs VF gave up. She just wanted to get the chore done and despaired of getting anywhere with the dog.

“The Dog Whisperer wouldn’t give up so easily,” I gently chastised.

When I regained consciousness, it dawned on me that most of the problems that Nanny 911 and the Dog Whisperer confront have their roots in parental and dog ownerly laziness and fatigue. A few minutes with Jasper now might pay off in years of dog-attack-free appliance use, but we are just too tired and busy to invest the time and effort especially if we take no pleasure in thwarting our charges.

UPDATE: Mrs VF used her day off productively and, to my astonishment, trained Jasper not to attack the vacuum. It appears that she reads this blog.

Another Swipe at the Religious Right

Our pastor’s sermons are among the most thought provoking I have ever heard. This Sunday, he posed the question, “If Jesus came back today, would He be a Christian?” Would Jesus look at the churches and say “Yep, this is what I had in mind”? I doubt it.

Pastor H referred to polling data that indicated that 100 million Americans tried something last year, other than Christianity, to make a spiritual connection. A third of Americans have more or less rejected the churches, and I interpret this as a massive failure of the churches in America. Another question Pastor H posed was “What might Jesus say to Christians?” The response that came to my mind at once was “You’re embarrassing me”.

Pastor H reminded us that Jesus was a revolutionary, that the message of Christianity is one of revolution and liberation. We should not be satisfied with anything less than a faith that is world changing and that turns our lives upside down.

But Christianity has been hijacked by counter-revolutionary forces, by men who wield the promise of a heavenly reward and the threat of damnation as tools to enslave their followers and garner earthly power to themselves. The so called religious right denies the grace of God and twists the liberating teachings of Jesus into something unrecognizable. Theirs is a Christianity without Christ. Is it any wonder that the 100 million want no part of it?

How can the news of God’s grace be heard when it is drowned out by all this noise from the religious right? They have placed huge stumbling blocks in the paths of many who might otherwise have believed. They have misled their followers and deprived them of the freedom that comes with understanding God’s grace. This is heartbreaking to me, and I pray about it often.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Clinton Invocation Fallacy

I think that we need a corollary to Godwin’s Law for invoking Clinton. Here’s some examples why:

ME (commenting on a blog): Sam Alito never had a real job in his life.

IDIOT: What about Clinton? He worked for government all his life, too. Does that mean he was unfit for office?


ME (in the cafeteria at the office): I think it’s wrong to kill civilians in Iraq.

MY CONSPECIFIC: Clinton bombed Serbia.

What has Clinton got to do with anything? Did I bring up Clinton? No. Did I invite comparisons with Clinton? Certainly not. It would make just about as much sense to mention that “James K. Polk invaded Mexico on a flimsy basis” as to invoke Bill Clinton. If I criticize the government, it does not mean that I endorse some other administration. The “Clinton was worse” or “Clinton did the same thing” arguments are stupid. My rule (St George’s Law, if you will): If you bring up Clinton when the discussion is not remotely about him, you are deemed to be a moron and to have lost the argument. I suppose the same could be said for bringing up any past President’s foibles in like manner. “Thomas Jefferson slept with his slaves. That’s a lot like outing a CIA operative.”

I’m not saying that it is never appropriate to invoke Clinton. Perhaps your point is that Clinton established a precedent, and you are disputing my characterization of something as “unprecedented”. Or you are putting something in temporal context, e.g. “During the Clinton administration, such and such happened, and this bears on the discussion at hand.” Or, I have invited comparison. “Bush is the worst Presidential golfer ever.” “Au contraire, Clinton sucked at golf more.”

It is particularly annoying to me to have to confront the Clinton Invocation Fallacy. Why would you assume that because I hate Bush that I loved Clinton? There is no rational basis for such an assumption. Granted, Bush sucks so much that Clinton is starting to look like George Washington in comparison, but that’s because every past President looks better next to Bush. Ronald Reagan seems like a genius, and Bush the Elder seems like a great orator. And Nixon seems so much more forthright now.

Some Stuff I Found Interesting

Mrs Vache Folle watched John Stossel on the Colbert Report. She reports that John described himself as a “libertarian” but approved of the government’s spying operations. I wish he would quit calling himself a libertarian. Reason promotes John’s show “Stupid in America”: http://www.reason.com/hitandrun/2006/01/new_at_reason_955.shtml#012254

The bloggers at Lew Rockwell have been talking about disdain for oppression of any kind and tolerance of others as necessary libertarian attitudes. Stephan Kinsella http://blog.lewrockwell.com/lewrw/archives/009708.html , however, just doesn’t get it.

David Friedman http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2006/01/externality-exercise.html has an interesting challenge to his readers. Try doing counterintuitive analyses of externalities, i.e. add up the negatives for things usually seen as positive and vice versa.

Digby http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2006_01_08_digbysblog_archive.html#113712531224574177 takes a look at how Bush compares to Churchill.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Without Wax

Back in the day, pottery vendors would sometimes repair cracked or defective pottery with wax and disguise the repair. Eventually the wax would give out with use, and the vessel would fail. Some merchants began to post placards at their stalls or shops that read “SINE CERA”, i.e. “without wax”. It is from this that we derive our modern word “sincere”. Naturally, every vendor would have to post such a placard whether or not his wares were waxed, because the absence of a placard might be taken to imply the use of wax.

I have sometimes noted a similar practice in the supermarket. One product label will proclaim “Cholesterol Free!” This is true even in the case of products that never had cholesterol, e.g. frozen broccoli. The consumer is then led to believe that the other brands are chock full of artery clogging goo just because they aren’t touted as “Cholesterol Free”. Later, the other brands change their label. I buy all natural chicken, and the label declares that the chicken has not been injected with hormones. I used to think that the other chicken was full of hormones, but I now know that it isn’t. It just never occurred to the vendors to put it on the label. Last week I noticed that my organic chicken had some small print on the label, a footnote to the hormone claim, to wit that federal law prohibits hormones in poultry.

I am waiting for Oscar Mayer to put on its hot dog label “No Fecal Matter”. At least I assume that they can make this claim honestly. Tropicana should brag that its orange juice is “Cat Urine Free”.

Politicians might want to try this out, too. Candidate A could declare that he is “Not in the KKK” or “Never Trolled for Little Boys on the Internet” or some such thing. Let the voters imagine what they will what this means about the opponent.

The State is not the only Source of Oppression

Some folks who describe themselves as libertarians freak me out a bit. I’m not talking about the “big government libertarians”; rather, I mean those folks who correctly rail against government power but who otherwise seem a little too comfortable with all other kinds of power relations. In fact, they seem at times to deny that any other kinds of power relations exist or matter and to assume that all transactions undertaken by people in the absence of the state would be “voluntary”. In the alternative, they promote certain kinds of power relations as entirely proper and desirable, e.g. racial dominance, patriarchy, wealth over poverty, etc.

I’m all for freedom of association, and the idea of using coercion against another to force him to associate or to eschew association is repugnant to me. But at the same time, I think that willfully discriminating against another person based on race or some other physical characteristic is morally wrong. I could never celebrate the exercise of such a prerogative by anyone. My problem is not with the idea that some forms of discrimination are bad; it is the use of coercion to solve the problem that bothers me. I am not dreaming of a world where whites dominate non-whites or where anyone dominates anyone else.

I recognize that people have different ideas about how men and women should relate to one another and about sex roles. The more ideas the better as far as I am concerned. A Muslim woman wants to wear a veil? More power to her. A Muslim man wants to make a woman wear a veil? Screw him. A fundamentalist woman wants to submit to her husband in the way that some fundamentalists say she ought? OK by me. A fundamentalist wants to make all women so submit? To hell with him.

I am all for property rights, but I don’t think that it is a good thing when wealthy people lord it over poorer people or exert economic power over them in unseemly ways or ways that go beyond the relationship itself. Nobody would like it if their employer made demands of them regarding their private lives, especially if the demands had nothing to do with the job. I would not like it one bit if my employer demanded that I become a vegetarian or have sex with my supervisor. Master and servant usually don’t have equal bargaining power, and there is plenty of room for masters to abuse their power. And the masters are not morally superior by virtue of being wealthier or in positions of power. Likewise, let us not despise the poor on account of their poverty. I am not dreaming of a return to a kind of feudalism.

I dream of freedom and individual autonomy, and the state is only one source of oppression. My boss can make my life hell without threatening me with force or using the state against me. My fellow citizens can make me miserable by damning me and my choices relentlessly and by shunning me or refusing to trade with me. If you are a libertarian because the state is interfering with your favorite other form of oppression, then we don’t really have that much in common. A free society, if we ever get one, will not last long if it is populated by busybodies and folks who crave power, even if it is not wielded by the state. A free society depends on an ethos of minding one’s own business as much as possible.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

I Told You Alito was No Good

I've been following the Alito hearings on line a bit. The guy is a sleazeball. He claims he doesn't remember joining a racist organization related to Princeton and at the same time claims that he knows why he joined the organization that he can't remember joining. He put it on his resume in 1985. He says he joined because of some controversy about ROTC, but the dates don't add up. He's lying, no doubt about it, when he could just say, "Yeah, I was a member but I didn't agree with every position" or some such thing. He's lying just for kicks, evidently. He's a liar. He claims that he has espoused beliefs over the years just to get jobs and to suck up to potential employers. Is he sucking up to the Senate now or telling them what his positions really are? Does he have any principles at all?

The guy never met an executive power he didn't like. This is the guy who approved of strip searching and arresting a little girl because she had food or a soda in the Metro or some such minor infraction that wasn't even an arrestable offense. This is a guy that will bend over backwards to come down on the side of the state's screwing you. This is a guy that yearns to see the government in control of women's uteri, or men's uteri for that matter. Any Senator who votes to confirm this guy hates America.

At a time when the executive is out of control, the last thing we need is a Supreme Court Justice like Alito.

UPDATE: I got the strip search case that "Strip Search Sammy" was involved in wrong. The little girl that Sammy said could be searched hadn't even committed a minor infraction. She was just present in a house that was being searched.

Think Hard Before Going to Law School

One of my conspecifics is urging his son to go to law school even if he does not plan to practice law. A legal education, says he, will be useful in any field.

I have heard this said many times before, and I have to tell you that it just ain’t so. Law school is only useful if you plan to be a lawyer. It will not help you otherwise. The process will actually make you less intelligent than when you matriculated, unless you pursue a simultaneous degree in a more meaningful field, eg combined JD/MA in International Relations.

Contrary to what some might say, you don’t learn logic in law school. You learn the peculiar illogic of “legal reasoning”, i.e. you learn to characterize any situation in terms of a set of legal issue or frames. This is not transferable to any other field, just as my younger brother learned that there was no civilian call for tank drivers when he left the army. The law you need to know as a non-lawyer to keep lawyers from scamming you can be taught in one or two business law courses.

You often don’t even learn the skills you might need for lawyering itself. If you are lucky, you will learn competitive negotiation, but you will probably not learn any other conflict management or dispute resolution methods or strategies. You won’t learn client relations or management or the business end of practice.

I urge young folks who think they want to be lawyers for idealistic reasons to reconsider. You will never make an iota of difference in the world practicing law. Sure, you might work in the public interest and help some individuals caught up in the system here and there, but you will not have any impact on the system. It will chew you up and spit you out if you try. If you work in the public sector, you will just be abetting tyranny no matter how well intentioned you may be. If you work in the private sector, your purpose in life will be to help make someone you don’t even like even richer.

Being a lawyer is just about making money without getting your hands dirty (except figuratively). It’s just like accountancy or some other clerical or white collar occupation. You might get paid a little more to compensate you for having to go to hell when you die, but nothing you do will ever matter in the scheme of things.

If you are very bright, it would be waste for you to pursue the law. Society would be better served by your becoming an engineer or a scientist or a philosopher or some such thing. If you become a lawyer, you will hate your job and come to hate yourself. You will come to realize that most of what you do is about force and fraud. As an “officer of the court”, you get to tap into the coercive power of the government and wield it against your clients’ adversaries. This is not good for the soul.