Wednesday, May 31, 2006

One week till Satan's Primary

The State of California will hold its primary election next Tuesday, 2006-06-06, which is to say 6/6/06. Clearly the primary has the mark of the devil upon it.

Read more...The top of the ticket is the office of governor. On the Republican side, Arnold Schwarzenegger is running unopposed, but several candidates are vying for the Democratic nomination. If you've ever even heard of Barbara Becnel, Vibert F. Greene, or Michael Strimling, though, you are very much in the minority. The two "major" candidates are state treasurer Phil Angelides and state controller Steve Westly. Angelides is a career politician, which for some peculiar reason many people see as a handicap. Westly was part of the team that created eBay. It's pretty difficult to sift through the flurries of attack ads to discern any meaningful differences between the two.

Westly charges Angelides with proposing to add $10 billion in new taxes to "working families" in California, which is an outright lie. On the flip side, Angelides charges Westly with supporting tax breaks for the wealthy, which he hasn't done. Each blames the other for "going negative" first. Both candidates have been endorsed by the Sierra Club, never mind Westly's attack ads charging Angelides with being a nasty real estate developer who paves over wetlands and mangles cute fuzzy kittens for sport. Both candidates have solid credentials as environmentalists, pro-choice advocates, supporters of LGBT equality, and prudent fiscal managers. Unfortunately both candidates have discovered the value of slinging mud.

On down the ballot, we have two propositions, which I haven't even read yet. There's a proposal to provide public pre-school to all children in California — a laudable goal, but the devil is in the details, especially on 6/6/06. There's another proposal to issue bonds (i.e., borrow money) to improve our public libraries. There is a principled argument to be made against the proposal, but you won't see it in the voter's guide: the argument there is that we should fund our libraries by cutting welfare to illegal aliens.

We also have to vote for Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Insurance Commissioner, Controller, Board of Equalization, and Superintendent of Public Instruction.

I'll leave inscribing a pentacle in pig's blood for Cousin Curveball, but I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to vote on Tuesday. By the way, in addition to the Democrats and Republicans, five other parties will be holding primaries in California: Libertarian, Peace & Freedom, Natural Law, American Independent, and Green.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

More on Hugo Chávez

Well, it seems that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is not nearly the power-hungry would-be dictator who has been portrayed in much of the world press this month, including right here on The Third Path. The wires were abuzz with reports that Chávez was seeking election to a single 25-year term as President. The problem — the inconvenient truth, to borrow a current buzzphrase — is that it ain't true.

Read more...In fact, he is seeking only to end the two-term limit, allowing him to run again if he is re-elected this year, and the referendum proposal is conditioned on a continued boycott of national elections by the opposition party. In other words, he's trying to compel the opposition to run a real campaign instead of smears and innuendoes and empty claims of electoral fraud.

Having said that, it raises my eyebrows more than a little to think that any President would need more than two 6-year terms, not to mention five consecutive terms. As the U.S. Republicans and the British Labour Party are amply demonstrating, any party in power for too many years — even with regular election cycles intervening — inevitably becomes complacent, inefficient, and ineffective.

I remain concerned about the proposed referendum and the possibility that Venezuela might drift towards dictatorship, but the facts are not nearly as bad as early reports suggested.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

Manx-Americans on Postage Stamps

Tomorrow, 2006-05-23, the Isle of Man Post Office will issue a set of six commemorative stamps celebrating Manx links with Washington, D.C.

  • Joseph Gurney Cannon, Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1903 to 1911, was a son of Manx immigrants. His portrait appeared on the cover of the first issue of TIME Magazine on the day he retired from political office, 1923-03-03.
  • Journalist Mary Clemmer, daughter of a Manx mother, who coined the term "First Lady."
  • Letitia Christian Tyler, wife of President John Tyler.
  • Matthew Stanley Quay, political boss in 19th-century Pennsylvania.
  • Henry Watterson, journalist and politician, Liberal Republican (before that became a contradiction in terms) turned Democrat, helped convince Theodore Roosevelt not to seek a third term as President.
  • Ewan Clague, who led a team of number-crunchers who fleshed out the details of the Marshall Plan after World War II.
The denominations of the stamps range from £0.28 to £0.83. The Isle of Man pound is fixed at 1:1 with the U.K. pound sterling.

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Independence for Montenegro

Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics, four of which became separate independent countries in the early 1990's: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. That left only Serbia and Montenegro, which in 2003 changed the name of the country to Serbia and Montenegro. However, the people of Montenegro (or Crna Gora, pronounced "chur-nuh gora," in Montenegrin) voted on Sunday on the question of independence. Preliminary results indicate that slightly more than the 55% required to pass the referendum said yes to separation from Serbia.

The people of Montenegro hope to be able to join the European Union more quickly by distancing themselves from the emotional scars of the violent conflicts that erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990's, including ethnic cleansing and outright genocide. President Slobodan Milošević and many others sought to create a "Greater Serbia," but the status of Serbia has fallen from the heart of Yugoslavia to a land-locked country with two of its own provinces (Vojvodina and Kosovo) already autonomous and agitating for even greater independence from the Serbian national government. Rightly or wrongly, the people of Montenegro are associated with violence mostly to the degree they are associated with Serbia, although Montenegrin leaders (current Prime Minister Milo Đukanović and others) stood with Milošević during the time of the atrocities. We can only hope that Montenegro's separation from Serbia will be more peaceful than the separation of the other four republics.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

How about fully funding the Border Patrol?

George W. Bush proposes to use National Guard troops to help patrol the U.S./Mexican border. The idea is misguided and downright dangerous. There is a reason that our forefathers provided for a strict separation (posse comitatus) between the military and civilian law enforcement: when that distinction is blurred, democracy itself is threatened.

The President makes this proposal to militarize our border despite having refused to fully fund the civilian Border Patrol. It is ridiculous to send the National Guard in place of proper funding for the Border Patrol, especially since the federal government must pay the entire cost of using the Guard for such a purpose: protecting the national border is not a state-level responsibility, but rather a part of Homeland Security, the bumbling fiefdom of Michael Chertoff. More to the point, though, is it really worth sacrificing the second-longest non-militarized border in the world just for a cheesy political stunt motivated mostly by the "emergency" of disastrously low poll numbers?

Saddam Hussein blurred the line between the military and the police. Do we want to make the same mistake?

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P.S. Posse comitatus is Latin for "the power of the county." In the post-Civil-War South, federal marshals called on the Army to enforce Reconstruction policies, leading to the prohibition that has stood for 128 years.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Taiwan Problem

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about China policy. Back in 1972, President Nixon changed the absurd U.S. policy that the Republic of China (Taipei) was the one legitimate government of all of China, both Taiwan and the mainland, to the only slightly less absurd policy that the People's Republic of China (Beijing) is the one legitimate government of all China, both Taiwan and the mainland.

Since then, the United States has made it clear that we will vigorously oppose any move by Beijing to reunite Taiwan with the mainland by military force, and indeed we continue to sell extensive armaments to the Taiwan government, even though we officially regard it as a renegade province in a civil war. Diplomacy has never been heavy on reality — one of the reasons I never pursued it as a career option — but this is an unstable situation screaming for some realpolitik.

The realities of the situation, as I see it:

  • Taipei does not control the mainland, and Beijing does not control Taiwan.

  • Taipei is never going to control the mainland, and Beijing will never convince the people of Taiwan to merge into the PRC as just another province without extreme coercion.

  • Taipei's foreign policy involvement is limited mostly to keeping Beijing out of Taiwan.

  • Taiwan's economy is dependent on capitalism, free from the sort of bureaucratic interference that is inextricably part of communism.
I see two obvious paths to reconciliation. The first, likely more practical, path is to negotiate an agreement by which the province of Taiwan will become some sort of Special Administrative Region within the People's Republic of China, similar to the SARs of Hong Kong and Macau, with considerable local autonomy. Beijing gets the triumph of reuniting China, but the people of Taiwan get to continue their prosperous commercial activities. Of course, in order to get the people of Taiwan to agree to such a deal, there must be some solid guarantees against a future "Taiwananmen Square" situation.

The second path, the lunatic wildcard if you will, is for the government of the Republic of China — established on 1911-10-10 by Dr. Sun Yat Sen — to officially recognize the fact that most of the country has parted company with the ROC government. Beijing has made it abundantly clear that they will consider any declaration of independence by Taiwan unacceptable, but what if the ROC were to grant independence to the thirty-odd provinces that comprise the PRC? "Okay, folks, civil war is officially over. 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities, and 2 special administrative regions have chosen to separate from the Republic of China. We grant their independence and recognize their government as the legitimate government of the mainland."

I harbor no illusion that option #2 would be greeted with cheers in Beijing, but it would put the PRC government in the awkward position of rejecting independence from its predecessor government.

Is there a third path? Despite the name of this blog, I can't think of one. No military solution is possible from either side. There is no democratic path to unqualified reunification. The status quo is unstable, and an economic drain especially on the ROC.

Surely in the 21st century there is some way to resolve this lingering thorn in the side of both Chinas.

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Come join our zombie robot army to destroy the Internet!

Doesn't sound like a very appealing sales pitch, does it? It's the truth-in-advertising translation of a scam spam I received today under the subject line "You have received a postcard!" As usual, a quick check at what you're actually clicking on when it says "click here" tells the real story: instead of a nice .GIF image of a postcard, you're connected to an .EXE file on a server in Romania.

Romania's new tourist slogan: "Not quite as much organized crime as Bulgaria!!" They're sure to win quick entry into the EU with that one.

I would say that it's a safe bet that the program on the Romanian server will plant something nasty in your computer, probably making your PC a "zombie" with which to spew spam, host child pornography, attack innocent websites, or facilitate some other wholesome, legitimate activity. These programs are called Trojans, but they are neither condoms nor university students.

Be careful out there.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Another spam-related quickie

I got a spam today that used a particular technique for disguising itself that has fallen into disfavor lately. Many spams ask you to click on a link, especially when they're trying to convince you that your online bank account is about to be suspended. The link text (the part that shows up as underlined blue text on your screen) looks normal, but the actual underlying code directs you to some completely different website.

Today's PayPal phishing spam appears to direct you to, but it is actually pointing to http://0xde4204f2. Most of you have no idea what that means, but it's a different way of writing, which is in fact a travel agency in Shanghai, China. Supposing that PayPal had a security issue with your account, do you think they would use the web site of a travel agency in China to resolve it?

If you get an e-mail that appears to be from your bank or eBay or PayPal or anything similar, telling you that the sky is falling, NEVER click on the link in the e-mail itself. If you have any doubt at all that it's a fake, just open your web browser and type in the real URL by hand or use your own existing bookmark.

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Bill Maher's season-closing editorial

On this week's season-ending closing episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill took President Bush pretty well square on. Most particularly, "breaking the law is not cute." HBO doesn't have the transcript or the video available on its web site, yet, and the only transcript I found on the web was from a Swedish blogger, and Jag talar inte schweiziskt. (Den min svävfarkosten fylls med ålar.)


Now, this is our last show of the season, and I'm rather proud that we've gone all 13 weeks without once making George Bush the subject of our show-ending editorial, because I didn't want to start sounding like a broken record — or, to you kids, a degraded MP3 file. Oh, there may have been a stray George Bush punchline here and there, but, c'mon, I am a comedian and he is a retard. But fuck it, this is our last show for a while, and I just want to say that when we come back on August 25th, the week of Bill Clinton's 60th birthday, and a great time for him to do the show — your move, Mr. President. But when we come back, I hope we're only months away from the beginning of impeachment proceedings — but not for what you think. Of course, there is a laundry list of valid reasons for impeaching this President, but George Bush and his nest of vipers don't deserve to be impeached with dignity, for transgressions involving lofty affairs of state, they deserve the far worse fate that Clinton got: being impeached for absolutely nothing at all.

That's why I want to impeach Bush over the fact that he lied about that fish. He said he caught a perch twice as large as any perch that's ever been caught, and that's a lie about a fish — in a time of war. And if he will lie about a fish, then something something something what do we tell the children? What do we tell Mrs. Paul? That perch was as American as a McDonald's fish sandwich, assuming for the sake of argument that a McDonald's fish sandwich contained fish. So, Mr. President, don't laugh at yourself, because breaking the law is not cute. Having Americans torture people isn't adorable. Leaving poor people to drown wasn't enchanting, and WMD's wasn't a shaggy-dog story. So, I'll make a deal with you: we won't impeach you if you just stay on your estate — I mean ranch — and fish on your man-made lake, for perch. Maybe you'll beat your own record. But for the next 3 years, just don't touch anything. I was wrong when I criticized you for taking too much vacation — it couldn't be more the reverse. Take all the me days you want. But if you get any big ideas and try to do something, like go to Mars, or put the Ten Commandments on the flag, or turn the ports over to the Amish, then we're going to have to put you in the only place we can be sure we can be safe from you, and it looks like this: [David Blaine's water bubble]
You see, Mr. President, Stephen Colbert really wasn't joking when he said that you're rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenberg, and Bill Maher really isn't joking when he says that you're stupid and dangerous. Fox News personality Bill Gibson was on earlier in the show, and he, like so many apologists for the President, really just doesn't get it: we're not kidding when we say that we believe that President Bush is the #1 threat facing the United States of America today, and we're not crazy, either. We're absolutely serious, and we are coming at you from the heart of the reality-based community.

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Newt on MtP: 2006 election

Newt Gingrich's interview on this morning's Meet the Press continued onto the subject of the 2006 elections, and the strengths and weaknesses of the Democrats and Republicans.


[Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean] can’t be clear what they would do—raise taxes, create more big bureaucracy, have a much weaker system of defending America. I mean, just go down the list.
Utter bullshit. Will the Democrats raise taxes if they retake the Congress? You damned well better bet they will, but the Republicans will have to raise taxes if they keep the Congress. There is no magic formula for ending our ruinous deficit spending that doesn't involve raising taxes; it cannot be done. Will the Democrats create more big bureaucracy? Just look at the record: the number of federal government employees shrank under Clinton by 7%. Bush, on the other hand, created major new bureaucracies (Homeland Security and the National Intelligence Directorate) and an enormous new entitlement program (Medicare Drug Benefit). So it is laughable to say that the Democrats would create more big bureaucracy than the Republicans have in the last 5 years. As for the system of defending America, nothing could possibly be weaker than what we have now. The Democrats want to take a sensible approach to problems, instead of just throwing around a lot of laser-guided cruise missiles. It's a sign of weakness, not strength, to reach for the launch button every time you're confronted with a threat to the nation.
[Newt Gingrich, quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer] said there had been a series of blunders under Republican rule, from failure in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to mismanagement of the war in Iraq. He said the immigration bill passed by the House was unrealistic and too harsh toward undocumented immigrants. He called congressional efforts to regulate lobbying 'much too weak,' and said the government had squandered billions of dollars in Iraq.
The last 5 years of Republican rule has been very nearly a non-stop series of blunders, but yes, Katrina and Iraq top the list. The immigration bill won't reduce, much less eliminate, illegal immigration; it will only divert more money to bureaucratic waste and prison cells for non-violent offenders. The main answer to the illegal immigration problem is a broad, sustained, nationwide crackdown on large employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. We should start by enforcing the laws we already have, rather than passing a draconian measure that will be unevenly enforced. I don't have the whole answer on lobbying, but the Republicans have taken at best a baby step when a full-grown marathon is needed. The situation in Iraq is deplorable, and thoroughly symptomatic of the evasion of personal responsibility that is the hallmark of the Bush administration. By Gingrich's own figures, $16 billion of the $18 billion in economic relief for Iraq was wasted. That's not exactly the businesslike efficiency we were told to expect from our first M.B.A. President.
When you look at Katrina and you realize that we, we—the United States government paid $1.75 to a general contractor who paid 75 cents to a contractor who paid 35 cents to a subcontractor who paid 10 cents to put the blue tarp on that was the temporary roofing, you know something has to change.
Bingo. The Republican "culture of corruption" is inextricably woven into the contracting process in the Bush administration. In order to get something done, we have to pour a heap of gravy onto the middlemen who have paid off the Bushies. Ninety-four percent overhead is not an acceptable cost of doing business. Back on the subject of illegal immigration, Gingrich points out that the U.S. government received $6.4 billion just in Social Security payments to accounts that do not exist. Shouldn't it raise a red flag if an employer is making payments to Social Security numbers like 660-45-5432 or 960-45-1234?
If you ask me is America safer with Saddam in jail than it was with Saddam in charge of the government, I think we’re much safer today than we would have been, because it's very clear from United Nations reports, and as you know I co-chaired with Senator George Mitchell a task force on, on reforming the U.N., it's very clear from the United Nations information that sanctions were breaking down.
Is America safer with thousands upon thousands of new terrorists gaining battlefield training in killing Americans than it would be if Saddam were still in power? No way in hell! America is far worse off as things turned out than we were with Saddam still in control of Iraq. Certainly there were problems with the U.N. sanctions, and with French, Russian, and American companies helping Saddam evade the sanctions, but a full-scale invasion wasn't the only option to address that problem.
But, by the way, remember Saddam was paying $25,000 dollars to the family of every suicide bomber. Saddam had a direct relationship with al-Qaeda, and if you read the recent joint forces command report, which is declassified and has been published, which goes through all the information we’ve learned from the Iraqi generals, it’s very compelling that this was a dangerous dictatorship and that we had a very good reason to be worried about it.
First of all, Saddam was paying $25,000 dollars to the family of every Palestinian suicide bomber — not al Qaeda. You can't lump the Palestinian terrorists in with al Qaeda just because they're all Muslims. Secondly, we know that Saddam had NO direct relationship with al Qaeda. Yes, Newt Gingrich told an absolute 100% pure bald-faced lie. In reality, Saddam and al Qaeda were mortal enemies. The bottom line is, Saddam Hussein posed no proximate threat to the United States, to Kuwait, to Saudi Arabia, to Iran, or to U.S. interests in the Middle East. He was not a "clear and present danger" to the United States, as the Bush administration would still have us believe he was. He was a "clear former danger" and a "possible future danger," but not a "clear and present danger."

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Newt on MtP: espionage

Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich (R–GA) was the guest on the first half of this morning's NBC Meet the Press with Tim Russert [full transcript]. Newt went all over the map, making some criticisms of both the Democrats and the Republicans that were dead-on bullseyes, but then rambling off into total fabrications.

Read more...The interview began with the newest NSA scandal, the database of telephone call records of ordinary American citizens.

First of all, the amazing thing is that everything that has been done is totally legal. Just look at the specifics of what they're doing: it is totally legal. The real problem is, the Bush administration refuses to come up front and explain it in advance.
My regular readers may be surprised that I pretty much agree with that assessment. The Supreme Court has already established that you do not have a right to privacy with regard to the basic summary information about your telephone calls: the number you called, when, and for how long. In fact, I would even agree that it is entirely appropriate and necessary for the government to track down associates of people who are under investigation for connections to terrorists, particularly since the information can be used to cross people off the list. For instance, one of the 9/11 hijackers had a girlfriend with whom he had frequent contact, but she was not involved in, and in fact was not even aware of, the terrorist conspiracy. A quick check of her phone records would have revealed that none of the other known terrorists had any contact with her, moving her quickly into the "probably not involved" column.

However, I believe that far greater safeguards are needed to rein in the obvious potential for rampant abuse of this database. The Congress needs to have rigorous oversight over the program as a whole, and there needs to be a clear paper trail documenting every single use of the database. If there is a specific person in focus ("Who are the associates of Person X?"), that person's identity must be noted. On the other hand, if the database is being used for a broader dragnet, the specific parameters of the search (e.g., domestic call under 2 minutes, inbound or outbound, followed within 5 minutes by an overseas call; or more than 3 instances of the same two numbers appearing in immediate proximity) must be recorded. There must be a paper trail to ensure that the database is not being used to track down the political affiliations, personal details, or other private information about innocent people, especially political opponents of the present administration.

Also, even though I believe that the government's program is probably legal, the telephone companies' participation in it is probably not. Specifically, it represents a breach of contract with their customers. Take, for example, this excerpt from AT&T's privacy policy:
We must disclose information, when requested, to comply with court orders or subpoenas. We will also share information when necessary to prevent unlawful use of communications services, when necessary to repair network outages, and when a customer dials 911 and information regarding their location is transmitted to a public safety agency. [emphasis added]
The NSA presented neither a court order nor a subpoena, and a blanket release of all call details cannot be justified as "necessary to prevent unlawful use." In short, AT&T unambiguously violated its own privacy policy, and it did so because the NSA did not use legitimate channels to obtain the raw data.

The other NSA program that has been in the news lately, the surveillance of the content of telephone conversations to or from "U.S. persons" (U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, plus anyone physically in the United States), is unambiguously illegal and unconstitutional. There is no wiggle room in the Fourth 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.
In other words, you have the right to refuse any search of your person, your home, your papers, and your belongings, unless the authorities have a warrant, signed by a judge, supported by a sworn affidavit, stating specifically what is to be searched and what the authorities are looking for. There are very limited exceptions, such as allowing the police to search someone who is being detained for weapons, but the government is not allowed to go on "fishing expeditions" in your private details.

Newt goes on to make a false dichotomy between the NSA programs as currently operated and abject surrender to the terrorists:
[Suppose] you find out one morning that we now have five terrorists in the U.S. who are part of an active network who want to destroy New York City or Buffalo or Atlanta, and the government says, "You know, we could've tracked every call they made for the last 10 years, but that would’ve been wrong, Tim. So we don't know who they've been working with. We don’t know what their network is and we can't stop it." ... Nobody who's making normal phone calls should be at risk. But the idea that we're going to say to the United States government, for libertarian reasons, "We'd rather lose a city than have you gather data," I think is totally out of touch with the danger of the modern world.
The choice is not "allow the NSA the unbridled authority to collect whatever data it wants about anyone and everyone, and use that data however it wants, without oversight by Congress or the courts" versus "let the terrorists kill us all." If some group of people is in a position to destroy New York City or Buffalo or Atlanta, and we don't have any solid leads on anyone in that group sufficient to get a judge to sign a warrant to look into their "social network," then all the raw data in the world won't help us one bit.

I don't know who said it, but, We're looking for a needle in a haystack. Just piling on more hay isn't going to help.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Money = Shit

I like to have money so that I can buy shit, but that's not the connotation I'm looking for. A friend was talking over brunch about how wonderful a world we could have if there were no such thing as money. I suggested that such a transformation of our culture and society might not only be highly unlikely, but also cause quite a few new problems. I came up with an analogy that I think expresses a more reasonable attitude towards money:

Have your guesses ready...Dealing with money should be like taking a shit. Provided I've eaten enough fiber, I take a shit every so often. It's something essential to life, and it's something everybody has to do, but it's not really something I want to fixate upon too much.

Just as "Remember the Alamo, Remember Goliad!" has been shortened by history, so we seem to have forgotten that it is not money itself, but rather obsession with money, that is the root of all evil. Some people, the obsessive wealthy, have more money than they could spend in a dozen lifetimes, but yet they continue to pursue it. For a few, it's a game, an adrenaline rush, or something like that. For some it's a bitter campaign to compensate a thousandfold for the lack of money in their past and sometimes also their present. For others, though, it's an obsession because they know they might have to choose between feeding the kids or paying the rent. That side of preoccupation with money is not the subject of nearly so many soft-focus fantasies as the bling-bling version.

And right now, whatever else you say about them, the team currently at the helm in Washington are the very definition of obsessive wealth. Dubya is obsessed with cutting taxes and getting back at Saddam Hussein; he will let no inconvenient reality derail him. Cheney is obsessed with expanding the powers of the Executive Branch to Kremlin-ish new degrees and protecting the public from any knowledge of those inconvenient realities.

OCD — the real thing, not the colloquialism — is a real mental illness, with real science and medicine to diagnose and treat it. I don't know that George Bush fits that clinical definition, or dry alcoholic or sober drug addict, but I think they're all fair questions. Since the fate of our nation rides on them, I think they're urgent questions.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Funny, I don't REMEMBER driving drunk....

In the midst of the discussion of the government's program of amassing an enormous database of telephone records of ordinary, innocent American citizens, it's a bit disconcerting to see just how far astray such database records can go. Today, I received a form letter, hand-addressed to me personally, dated yesterday, offering the services of an attorney to defend the D.U.I. [Driving Under the Influence of alcohol or drugs] charges against me in Tuolumne County, California.

The thing is, I've never even been detained on suspicion of possible D.U.I. anywhere, and better yet, I haven't set foot — much less operated a motor vehicle — in Tuolumne County in more than a decade. I'd like to go back there some time, since Yosemite National Park is in Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties, but I don't exactly relish the prospect of being thrown in jail on an outstanding warrant that I've never seen or heard of before, for a crime I couldn't possibly have committed. I don't much care for handcuffs, and I'm positively allergic to the very idea of jail — well, except for that time I spent the night in the maximum security wing of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, but that was with the doors left open. Prison isn't so bad if they let you come and go as you please.

Does this Sacramento attorney know something I don't, or did he just waste a 39¢ stamp? Did the great government database in the sky just have a massive hiccup?

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Apple system update woes

Since the readers of this blog seem to be about twice as likely as the general population to be Apple Macintosh users, I wanted to bring to your attention some problems that have been reported with Apple's latest Security Update. If you go to "Software Update," either in the menu or in System Preferences, it will try to get you to download and install Security Update 2006-003. First of all, you should probably go ahead and install any other updates that Apple recommends.

However, some users — mostly but not exclusively on the new Intel Macs — have reported that installation of the new security update causes the computer to freeze up at the login screen when you reboot at the end of the install process. There is a workaround, but the best solution may be to wait for Apple to release a revised security update. In particular, the workaround involves fiddling with deep-seated system files in a trial-and-error sort of procedure. A friend reports that his old G4 Mac Mini is still awaiting resuscitation, although my G4 iBook updated just fine.

For more information:

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

How Molecular Is Your Sidewalk?

I get a lot of spam e-mail, literally hundreds per day. Most of it just drops through my filters into electronic oblivion, but every once in a while I check in on the filters to see how they're doing and to make sure I'm not dropping any legit e-mail. Much of the spam I get is sent to addresses that I've used publicly on the Internet; any address that has ever appeared in a Usenet newsgroup or that has appeared on a web page is a wide-open target. Some of it is harder to explain, though.

About 12 times a week, I get spam addressed to I've never used that address anywhere for any purpose. I've never seen or heard of an address with a user name of "SidewalkMolecular." (If the spammers find, they will also try,, etc.) It goes beyond the usual "dictionary attack" because it joins two unrelated words. And yet, about twice a day, my spam filters reject an attempt to deliver some fabulous commercial offering sent to that address.

My sidewalk is doing fine, but it's not very molecular, thank you, and it really doesn't need any herbal lovemaking enhancements.

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Give your mail carrier an armful

The National Association of Letter Carriers (i.e., mailmen) is holding its annual spring food drive this Saturday, May 13th. You can participate by leaving food items (no perishables or glass containers!) by your mailbox in time for Saturday's rounds. The NALC will distribute the food donations to food banks in your local area. Please be generous in your support. After all, what better way is there to celebrate Mother's Day than by helping a mother in your town to feed her family?

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Eric Shawn on the Daily Show

Eric Shawn of Fox News, author of the new book The U.N. Exposed: How the United Nations sabotages America's security and fails the world, was the guest on Tuesday's Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Mr. Shawn makes some shocking — shocking, I say! — claims against the United Nations as an institution.

Economic interests guide the policies of some of the member states [of the United Nations Security Council].
Read more...Surely you jest, sir! I am certain that "protecting our int'rests" would never guide the policies of the United States of America in our conduct of foreign policy, both at the United Nations and in one-to-one relations. The United States has only ever acted in the purest of altruism, benevolently bestowing upon all humanity the blessings of our presence. (Slavery, for example, was an opportunity program for residents of the area around the present-day nation of Benin to travel and see another part of the world at the expense of American private enterprises.) It shocks my conscience to think that some other countries do not share our unassailable moral rectitude.

Evidently some people don't accept that the United States is not only a uniquely powerful nation, but also a uniquely righteous nation. What fools are those who doubt the U.S.A.! They need only to look at our own pronouncements on the subject to see what virtuous people we are. What more evidence do they need? I mean, the Bible is adequate evidence that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Qur'an is adequate evidence that Muhammad is the greatest and also the last prophet of Allah, so the fact that every President in my lifetime has ended every single public speech with "God bless America" is adequate proof that America is God's One True Chosen People.

Jon Stewart, for one, wasn't willing to let the snarling rabid dog lie. He pressed Eric Shawn on the point:
Jon Stewart: But doesn't that guide — that's the politics of the world in general. Are you saying that that's crept into the politics of the U.N., or that it's always been there and now it's just being exploited?

Eric Shawn: It's definitely crept in, and it was because of Oil For Food, I think at first, because of Saddam. Saddam violated seventeen resolutions. I think one reason we're at this war is because — I could say, U.N. Bribed, People Died.

JS: You're losing me. You're losing me now.

ES: No, let me say, because they had 17 resolutions that Saddam Hussein did not abide by, because he had billions of dollars of contracts that he handed out to France, Russia, and China through what was called the 661 Committee. All you have to do is look at the minutes and see what they did. In the 661 Committee, Russia, China, and France were always — yes, it's a larger issue, but they were always basically against the British and U.S. attempts to clean it up.

JS: But you could make the same case, that the United States has blocked many of their resolutions for a similar purpose, and similarly corrupt or similar business interests, so I don't know that that's necessarily to suggest that Saddam Hussein violated 17 resolutions — I mean, the United States doesn't hold the U.N. sacrosanct, so the idea that he flouted 17 resolutions seems like ...

ES: The difference is that we are trying to do something about it with reform and hold it accountable now.
Yes, the United States has blocked far more than 17 Security Council resolutions, not to mention ignoring the General Assembly altogether on, oh, let's say "a few occasions," and we sent an ambassador who openly espouses the elimination of the entire United Nations, and we don't accept compulsory judgment of the ICJ and we — just like every other nation on earth — are motivated not only partially but primarily by our own perceived self-interest, but it's not our fault that the Security Council can't get its act together to act in the global self-interest. And what's that about reform and accountability? The United States government is moving itself away from accountability to either the United Nations or the American people. Who in the Bush administration has taken accountability for stating falsely that we had to invade Iraq because we were certain that Saddam had stockpiles of Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Beyond that, there's that persistently whiny quality of the complaint: Those other countries wouldn't do exactly what we told them to, so we just went ahead and gave ourselves the authority to do whatever we think is right. Eric Shawn complains that Russia, China, and France consistently opposed the Anglo-American approach to Iraq, but doesn't even consider the fact that the United States and the United Kingdom consistently opposed the Sino-Franco-Russian approach. He takes the view that the rest of the world gets to choose between doing it our way with us or having our way thrust upon them by force, whether they like it or not.

Maybe, just maybe, the United States should stop sabotaging the United Nations if we want its support in creating a world "with Liberty and Justice for All."

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Killing actual babies

A study was just released, based on World Health Organization data, tallying the rates of newborn infant mortality in countries around the world. Thirty-three countries were listed as "modern nations"; among those, the United States was in a five-way tie for second-worst.

Read more...In Latvia, still struggling to adapt to the realities of post-Soviet existence, 6 out of every 1,000 newborn infants dies. In the United States, Hungary, Malta, Poland, and Slovakia, the rate is 5 per 1,000. At the other end of the spectrum are countries like Japan (1.8) and Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland, and Norway (2.0).

  • "The United States has more neonatologists [doctors specializing in newborn infants] and neonatal intensive care beds per person than Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, but its newborn mortality rate is higher than that of any of those countries."

  • "In the United States, the newborn mortality rate for all races combined is 4.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, but for non-Hispanic blacks, the rate is 9.3 per 1,000."

  • The education and literacy levels of females correlate strongly with lower levels of neonatal mortality.

  • Availability and use of modern contraception correlate dramatically with lower levels of neonatal mortality.

  • Higher rates of teen pregnancies correlate strongly with higher levels of neonatal mortality.

  • High rates of obesity correlate with higher levels of neonatal mortality.
Of course, poorer nations have even higher levels of neonatal mortality, but the commitment of the government is a better predictor than per capita income. For example, Viet Nam, with a per capita income of only about USD $2,500, has made an aggressive commitment to provide prenatal and neonatal care, cutting its newborn mortality rate to the lowest in the developing world — lower than much wealthier countries such as Angola, Djibouti, Namibia, Morocco, Bolivia, South Africa, Indonesia, and China.

Indonesia, Eritrea, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Tajikistan are also outperforming other countries with similar GDP. Malawi has embarked upon several programs to improve health care and education, with an eye to reducing infant mortality.

Some of the war-torn countries of Africa are faring much worse than their GDP would suggest. For example, 1 in 7 Angolan women dies in pregnancy or childbirth. That's about 14%. If the United States had a similar level of maternal mortality, about 2 million women would die every year. The actual rate in the U.S. is 1 in 2,500, and it is substantially lower in other industrialized nations.

The worst nations for newborn mortality are Liberia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Pakistan, Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Mali, Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire), Central African Republic, Gambia, Mauritania, and Guinea. With the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq, all of those countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, and almost all of them have had prolonged armed conflicts in recent years.

However, there are simple, inexpensive, low-tech measures that can cut infant mortality dramatically. Tetanus vaccinations; basic cleanliness; vitamins, minerals, and nutritional supplements; and a commitment to education and community health resources will all produce significant results. Effective family planning is also crucial: contraception helps women postpone their first childbirth and space their pregnancies farther apart, both of which will immediately reduce maternal and infant mortality. Shifting from infant formula back to natural breastfeeding greatly increases a baby's chances of survival, since breast milk contains nutrients and crucial antigens to help the newborn resist disease. Breastfeeding also improves the mother's chances of survival, since it triggers the uterus to contract, reducing post-partum blood loss.

Source: Save the Children, State of the World's Mothers 2006 report [PDF]

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Bush Repeats Himself

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart tonight had a splendid juxtaposition of two quotes from President George W. Bush regarding nominees for CIA director.

Mike Hayden is supremely qualified for this position. He's the right man to lead the CIA at this critical moment in our nation's history. — 2006-05-08

[Porter Goss is] the right man to lead this important agency at this critical moment in our nation's history. — 2004-08-10
Yup, Dubya, you're still doin' "a heckuva job" as President. You even got more specific the second time, saying "the CIA" instead of "this important agency." I hope that doesn't mean that you think the CIA is no longer important. Of course, since your administration outed a covert agent, you obviously don't think the CIA is important. Oh, well; it's only the cornerstone of our efforts to prevent, contain, and deter terrorism.

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Malaria or DDT: is that really the choice?

Tanzania, a country on the east coast of Africa, just south of the equator, signed on two years ago to the international ban on using the pesticide DDT. However, the ban allows an exception for disease control, and Tanzania has a serious malaria problem.

Is there really no pesticide that can combat the mosquitoes that carry malaria without such severe risks of cancer, birth defects, and other serious health problems?

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Moussaoui the Coward

Al Qaeda coward Zacarias Moussaoui is attempting to retroactively withdraw his guilty plea, despite having clearly understood at the time he entered the plea that it cannot be changed after sentencing. He claims that he now suddenly believes that he can receive a fair trial by the infidels, never mind his hyperbolic rhetoric of the last four years.

Read more...Moussaoui made his own bed, and now he gets to lie awake in it, staring at the ceiling. Moussaoui pled guilty. The prosecution produced witnesses to corroborate some of the confession, and admitted that they had no evidence to support other elements of Moussaoui's delusional worldview, specifically including the bizarre claim that he and Richard Reid were supposed to hijack a fifth plane on 9/11. However, the elements the prosecution was able to prove were sufficient to sustain a conviction.

Moussaoui has the right to appeal his sentence, but he does not have the right to appeal his conviction. The judge noted that an appeal of the sentence would be futile, and an appeal of the conviction is even moreso. Lock him up, throw away the key, and let him die slowly in quiet obscurity.

Of course, we aren't likely ever to see a trial for any of the 9/11 conspirators currently in U.S. custody, like Khalid Sheik Mohammed, much less people like Osama bin Laden.

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Rummy stonewalling on mental health task force

Last week, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D–CA) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, taking him to task for his failure to appoint members to the Defense Task Force on Mental Health.

Read more...The National Defense Authorization Act of 2006, a.k.a. the defense appropriations bill, required the Secretary to appoint this task force by 2006-04-07 (April 7th). It is now a full month past the deadline, and Rumsfeld has taken no action, and has not responded to repeated inquiries from members of Congress.

To quote some of Boxer's statistics, originally from the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, almost 1,700 servicemembers returning in 2005 had harbored thoughts of hurting themselves. The suicide rate in the Army was the highest since 1993, 24% above the rate for the previous year. Twenty thousand soldiers reported nightmares or flashbacks. 3,700 reported concerns that they might lose control or hurt someone.

This administration talks endlessly about supporting our troops, but when the rubber hits the road, they stall and try to sweep the soldiers' problems under the rug. No one could possibly have mental health issues from participating in the glorious democratization of Iraq, right? After all, they were greeted as liberators, and were able to wrap up their entire mission inside of six months, right?

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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Hugo Chávez, Dictator in Training

He's not quite as ambitious as Turkmenistan's President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov, who has elevated himself to the status of a god, but Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a persistent thorn in the side of President George W. Bush, is asking voters for a 25-year term.

President Bush's reign offers ample reason for Venezuelans to give Chávez's request a resounding no vote. Bush once held 90% favorable ratings among American voters, but is now about as popular as a pork butcher at a kosher vegetarian convention. Furthermore, Bush is doing as much as he can to dismantle the democratic foundation of U.S. politics, even with only 8 years in office. Does anyone really believe that Chávez — and those in his government — will be able to resist that temptation for 25 years?

Indeed, I personally believe that the mere fact that Chávez asked for a 25-year term is ample reason to remove him from office immediately and bar him from ever running again. He is a traitor to the Venezuelan people, so kick him to the curb.

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Update: The press reports on which this article was based have been demonstrated to be factually inaccurate and politically biased, even though I scanned through not only the U.S. English-language press, but also some Spanish-language sources south of the border. Current Venezuelan law permits the President to run for a second 6-year term, but then he is termed out. Chávez is proposing that — if the opposition parties do not run a candidate — he should be permitted to run for re-election to additional 6-year terms of office, not a single 25-year term. The backdrop is that the opposition has attempted to delegitimize Venezuelan elections by boycotting or otherwise tainting them in the view of the world community. Chávez is essentially playing a "put up or shut up" card [either run a candidate and compete in a fair election, or stop complaining that the MVR, Chávez's party, keeps winning].

Still and all, if the proposal goes beyond the sabre-rattling stage to actually keeping the same President beyond the two-term limit, I would see that as moving far too close to dictatorship, and I would be concerned that Chávez's legacy would be completely overshadowed by an unwise power grab.

Thanks to a reader for bringing the facts to my attention. For additional coverage of the reality of the situation, as opposed to the distorted view that has dominated the headlines, see, for example, You can also read my newer (2006-05-26) blog entry here.

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Open Thread for Fur'ners Only

I was watching this week's brand new Real Time with Bill Maher with former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, among other guests, and it occurred to me that one of the greatest failures of the Bush team is that they are trying to figure out why so much of the world hates (or at least dislikes, disrespects, or deeply resents) the United States, but without asking anyone who's ever been much farther than Tijuana or Toronto.

This blog has had readers from over 90 countries across the world, ranging in population from the People's Republic of China to Liechtenstein, in size from Russia and Canada to Saint Lucia and Malta, on every continent except Antarctica, in heavily Christian, heavily Muslim, and heavily neither-of-the-above countries. A few of you I have met personally in my travels, but most of you found this blog from a link or a search engine or a random "next blog" click.

I want to know what you think about America, and what you think America should do. Please keep the tone civil; suggestions that America just fuck off and die already will not be welcomed. On the other hand, suggestions about how America can be a better neighbor and a better participant in the community of nations, will be given serious consideration.

I'm asking that this thread have comments only from foreigners, although I'll let foreign-born Americans slide by if you were old enough to be aware of things in your home country before you came here. As for you Americans, you can add a comment saying, "I would like to comment on XYZ's post about PDQ." (No more than a one-sentence "raising your hand to speak" comment, please.) If there is interest in a particular topic, I'll split it out into its own open thread.

I put it out there, though, that the only way for America to win the so-called War on Terror is by winning more friends than enemies, as well as by not making enemies faster than we can kill or torture them. (Hey, if we can run a national debt of $10 trillion — that's 1013 U.S. dollars — surely we can just keep using the old military charge card, too, and just keep throwing thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars at the problem instead of thinking about what would be the smart way to beat the terrorists.) While we still have friends in the world, we need to ask them to give us some honest feedback. It's not a matter of do the pants make our collective ass look fat, it's more like how do we not push the bullied students to come to school with guns and bombs.

Please, all you godless heathen foreigners who didn't have the good sense to be born in the Yewess O'Vey [U.S. of A.], talk to us. I'll do my best to help with your English if that's a concern.


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Friday, May 05, 2006

Rot in Jail, Crazy Scumbag!

The jury in the penalty phase of Zacarias Moussaoui's trial reached a verdict: life in prison without the possibility of parole. If somehow Mohammed Atta had survived 9/11 and been brought to trial, there can be no question that he would have been given the death penalty, and few people, even at The Third Path, would have batted an eye. But Moussaoui wasn't Atta. Moussaoui wasn't a murderer, he is a wannabe murderer. He was a greater danger to al Qaeda than he ever was or ever will be to Americans. He was and is just a simple nutcase — a scumbag, yes, but a bumbling idiot of a delusional scumbag, and I'm not talking about just your ordinary garden-variety al Qaeda delusions of the global caliphate. The greatest danger Moussaoui ever posed to America was that his death might elevate him to his unearned martyrdom. Leaving him to rot in supermax is a far more appropriate fate, both for him and for al Qaeda.

Ann Woolner at put it very well in her opinion piece, "Moussaoui Verdict Is Win for U.S., Loss for Bush."
The U.S. won the more important victory [than Moussaoui's shouting, "America, you lost, you lost!"] Jurors showed that, in a civilized nation where law reigns over savagery, the government must prove to 12 people that, beyond a reasonable doubt, the accused should die. They showed that the urge for vengeance doesn't always trump a rational assessment of the evidence. And most of all, the U.S. won by showing that ordinary people have the power to say to the national government: No, you are wrong.
Perhaps the Bush administration, abjectly desperate for an al Qaeda death sentence, will now actually find and bring to trial someone worthy of execution. I'll just hold my breath until I turn blue.

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