Monday, August 31, 2009

Our Cups Runneth Under

Much of what I've written here lately has been, shall we say, somewhat pessimistic. Sadly, I'm not alone, as Paul Krugman proved yesterday:

I find myself missing Richard Nixon.

No, I haven’t lost my mind. Nixon was surely the worst person other than Dick Cheney ever to control the executive branch.

But the Nixon era was a time in which leading figures in both parties were capable of speaking rationally about policy, and in which policy decisions weren’t as warped by corporate cash as they are now. America is a better country in many ways than it was 35 years ago, but our political system’s ability to deal with real problems has been degraded to such an extent that I sometimes wonder whether the country is still governable.

Missing Richard Nixon

While I didn't have President Nixon in mind when I wrote this:

Compare those leaders and their accomplishments to what we are seeing from our "leaders" today. The Republicans today are the epitome of the "What about me? What about my needs?" impulse. They whine about how minorities and the poor have it so much better than they do. The Democrats seem to be following their own path to uselessness. The Democrats in Congress didn't get it done when it came to ending the useless war in Iraq. They didn't resist the urge to pander to the telecom industry instead of bringing an outlaw President to justice. They couldn't even handle the banking crisis. We've listened to these people snivel about how hard it all is to do these things, even though anyone who could hold a thought in his head knew they were necessary. You'd think they hadn't even applied for the jobs they now have.

If We Can Put Men On The Moon ...

he's still way ahead of today's "leaders" in that regard. Nixon could snivel with the best of them, of course, but he could also get things done. He went to China, and helped make our relations with the Soviet Union less confrontational, as well. He did thing that were likely to offend his supporters, and Middle America.

Of course, you can get away with more when you're willing to hire ratfuckers.

Krugman's conclusion is scarcely more hopeful:

I’m not saying that reformers should give up. They do, however, have to realize what they’re up against. There was a lot of talk last year about how Barack Obama would be a “transformational” president — but true transformation, it turns out, requires a lot more than electing one telegenic leader. Actually turning this country around is going to take years of siege warfare against deeply entrenched interests, defending a deeply dysfunctional political system.

Missing Richard Nixon

I'd have to take exception here. First of all, one of the things you have to do to have a true transformation is elect a leader who wants transformation. I have yet to see any evidence that Obama does. Second, it's going to take electing legislators who want change. That too, is something we've been mistaken about in the past. That's going to be even harder now, with Obama's numbers starting to tank.

Krugman may have the bigger brain, but my pessimism can still kick his pessimism's ass.

Why The News Is In Decline

Image credit: Pharyngula. Remainder of comic is here.

Two articles caught my eye today, both having something to do with the deplorable state of broadcast journalism. The first is Glenn Greenwald's. After noting that MSNBC is hiring Jenna Bush as a "reporter", he goes on to observe:

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it's really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from.

It's Time To Embrace American Royalty

As Glenn notes, there are plenty of experienced and professional journalists who can't find jobs nowadays, and yet MSNBC hired a woman whose only real accomplishment in life is being born to someone who occupied the White House. That so many of these folks are conservatives who rail against affirmative action and civil rights legislation is particularly ironic, but not the worst thing about this trend. The worst thing is that place where most people in America get their news from is becoming increasingly incompetent at providing it. That trend is at least partly to do with who it hires and who it doesn't.

In an interview this spring on Bill Moyers Journal, TV producer and former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon summed up the changes that have hit the news business in the last twenty-five years when he talked about what happened to his former employer:

[W]e were doing our job. Making the world safe for democracy. And all of a sudden, terra firma shifted, new technology. Who knew that the Internet was going to overwhelm us? I would buy that if I wasn't in journalism for the years that immediately preceded the Internet because I took the third buyout from the Baltimore Sun. I was about reporter number 80 or 90 who left, in 1995. Long before the Internet had had its impact. I left at a time - those buyouts happened when the Baltimore Sun was earning 37 percent profits.

You know, we now know this because it's in bankruptcy and the books are open. 37 percent profits. All that R&D money that was supposed to go in to make newspapers more essential, more viable, more able to explain the complexities of the world. It went to shareholders in the Tribune Company. Or the L.A. Times Mirror Company before that. And ultimately, when the Internet did hit, they had an inferior product - that was not essential enough that they could charge online for it.

I mean, the guys who are running newspapers, over the last 20 or 30 years, have to be singular in the manner in which they destroyed their own industry. It - it's even more profound than Detroit making Chevy Vegas and Pacers and Gremlins and believing that no self-respecting American would buy a Japanese car in 1973. That - it's analogous up to a point, except it's not analogous in that a Nissan is a pretty good car, and a Toyota is a pretty good car. The Internet, while it's great for commentary and froth doesn't do very much first generation reporting at all. And it can't sustain that. The economic model can't sustain that kind of reporting. And to lose to that, because you didn't - they had contempt for their own product, these people.

Bill Moyers Journal: Transcript: April 24, 2009

The same short-term, greedy behavior that's ruined much of our economy was at work on the news business, too. That reference to R & D was an apt one - reporters and their support staff represented the future of those papers. You don't just go to journalism school and know what it is to be a reporter on a beat, any more than you know how to be an engineer at a car company by getting a mechanical engineering degree. There's still an apprenticeship, followed by lots more acquisition of knowledge that makes future efforts easier or better. When the newspapers and broadcasters of America shed themselves of these people, they killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. How in the world could someone not be satisfied with a 37 percent profit? Only in America.

What you have at the end of that process is celebrity news people covering things they don't understand, and the result of that is situations like the one in the cartoon that leads this article. A reporter who specializes in medical and biological subjects would know the significance of what he'd been told. Dilettantes like Jenna Bush or Jonah Goldberg wouldn't.

The other article is Steve Benen quoting former Reagan Republican Bruce Bartlett on what has happened to the news in this country:

"Finally, the decline of the mainstream media because of the Internet and other economic forces has been critical to its loss of influence and standing. It no longer has the resources to pay reporters to look into things deeply and write about issues authoritatively. Reporters even at the best newspapers often seem like glorified bloggers who get their basic facts from the Internet instead of their own research, substitute speed for thoroughness and accuracy, and have no time to become experts on the subjects they cover because they are covering the waterfront. And since television news has always depended upon newspapers as their basic sources of material, the decline of newspaper reporting led inevitably to a decline in television reporting. All this has created a death spiral for the mainstream media that, as I said, liberals still largely depend on to represent their viewpoint.["]

The Penance Has Not Been Paid, Part II

Steve Benen goes on to observe:

But much of this is very compelling, most notably the rise of Fox News with no progressive counterpart. We talked earlier today about Rick Perlstein's "tree of crazy." Far-right conservatives of recent eras have been every bit as hysterical, irresponsible, and ridiculous as the one we see today, and as Rick noted, in recent generations, they were dismissed as "extremists" outside the American mainstream, and unworthy of serious thought.

Fox News, however, changes the game. If you're crazy, Fox News will have you on as a guest to spew nonsense. If you're really crazy, Fox News will give you a show of your own to spew nonsense all the time.

The Penance Has Not Been Paid, Part II

For my part, I'm not sure that Fox News alone is responsible for this change. The other networks have gone along with this nonsense, and they have a choice not to do that. They pander as much as Fox, it's just that they're not as honest about it.

And yes, when you're less honest than Fox "News", you're not very honest.

The major news outlets, broadcast news in particular, are no longer about reporting the news. They are now about making a profit, and if that can be done by reporting, that's OK. Unfortunately, there are so many other more profitable uses for paper and broadcast channels that actually delivering news has become, at best, a byproduct. As I've observed many times before, this is a disturbing trend, with ominous implications for us as a society if it's not corrected or compensated for. As David Simon observed on Bill Moyers Journal:

BILL MOYERS: ... And as you say, you were spit out by the forces that work in the journalistic world. And now journalism is spitting out reporters like teeth.

DAVID SIMON: Left and right. You know, listen, I was not the last [to lose his newspaper job]. That's true. And it's heartbreaking. And I say this with no schadenfreude just 'cause I got a TV gig. It's heartbreaking what's happening. And I feel that the republic is actually in danger.


DAVID SIMON: There is no guard now on assessing anything qualitatively. Of pulling back the veil behind what an official will tell you is progress, or is valid, or is legitimate as policy. And - absent that, no good can come from anything. Because there is an absolute disincentive to tell the truth.

BILL MOYERS: Nobody's de-juking the stats, right?

DAVID SIMON: Exactly. And ultimately I have the utmost confidence in the ability of any ambitious soul anywhere to take what is not progress and what is not valid and to gloss it up and to say, "We're doing a great job."

Bill Moyers Journal: Transcript: April 24, 2009

Without news organizations that are willing and able to find the truth, and the means to disseminate that truth to its citizens, America will continue to experience more of what it's seen this century. In fact, some day these may look like the good old days of the 21st Century.

Afterword: If you haven't watched David Simon's interview on Bill Moyers Journal, I heartily recommend you watch it in its entirety. It's a testimony to the decline of America. Whether you think there's a chance for things to improve or you are utterly pessimistic, the truths Simon tells are essential to know.

Discovery Arrives

Caption: Billows of smoke and steam rise above Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida alongside space shuttle Discovery as it races toward space on the STS-128 mission.

The STS-128 mission is the 30th International Space Station assembly flight and the 128th space shuttle flight. The 13-day mission will deliver more than 7 tons of supplies, science racks and equipment, as well as additional environmental hardware to sustain six crew members on the International Space Station. The equipment includes a freezer to store research samples, a new sleeping compartment and the COLBERT treadmill.

Image Credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph and Kevin O'Connell

The space shuttle Discovery arrived at the International Space Station this morning. As reports, it wasn't without difficulty:

Sturckow flew Discovery without the aid of six small thrusters, which are usually extensively used during docking, because one had a leak. Instead, he used Discovery's larger, more powerful thrusters, which use more propellant and can make for a louder ride and more challenging docking.

"He just flew it like a champ today," shuttle flight director Tony Ceccacci told reporters after docking.

A rendezvous first

Sturckow has trained to use the larger thrusters during docking, but NASA never had to try it until today, Cain said. The smaller thrusters will not be used for the duration of Discovery's 13-day mission, he added. Sturckow also had to compensate for a slight misalignment of the space station, which was 1 degree out of position during tonight's docking, NASA officials said.

Shuttle Discovery Arrives at Space Station

Rather than being some sort of improvisation, this possibility was foreseen and a plan devised for it. One of the most amazing things to me about these flights is that someone seems to have foreseen most of the possible failures in the shuttles' systems and come up with a workaround.

Discovery's mission this time is mostly to supply the ISS with new experiments and a new crew member. As Reuters reports, there's a hodgepodge of stuff to deliver and take back to Earth:

The first spacewalk, scheduled for Tuesday, will be to replace a tank of ammonia coolant and retrieve two European science experiments that will be coming back to Earth for analysis.

Nicole Stott, a rookie astronaut who will be transferring to the station crew, will perform the spacewalk together with astronaut Danny Olivas.

Stott is the last station crewmember to launch aboard the shuttle. NASA is turning over station crew transport to Russia while it studies proposals from aspiring U.S. commercial carriers.

Discovery's cargo includes new laboratory gear for science experiments and a second freezer to store samples until they can be transported back to Earth.

Also aboard is a $5 million treadmill named after Comedy Central television host Stephen Colbert, who won naming rights to the station's final module after fans swarmed a NASA publicity campaign.

Space Shuttle Reaches Space Station For 9-Day Stay noted one other interesting bit of information from the NASA handouts:

Discovery docked at the space station on the 25th anniversary of its maiden launch on Aug. 30, 1984. That mission, STS-41-D, deployed three satellites and tested solar array technology for a future space station.

Shuttle Discovery Arrives at Space Station

Yet another indication, I think, that we Americans aren't thinking about the future as other countries are is that it's now been a generation, more than 25 years, since the shuttle was designed. In that time, no replacement has been developed. NASA is now scrambling to develop a more conventional set of crew modules and launch vehicles. The shape of the replacement crew module should look familiar:

Caption: The Orion crew module that will be used for the Orion Launch Abort System Pad Abort-1 flight test is photographed prior to loading onto a Mississippi Air National Guard C-17 at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center Aug. 18, 2009 for airlift to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The first of five planned launch abort flight tests in NASA's Constellation program, Pad Abort 1 is scheduled for early 2010 from the new launch pad at White Sands.

Image Credit: NASA

since it took us to the Moon forty years ago. In the meantime, we've gone from somewhat reusable space planes back to "spam in a can".

There have been limited efforts to design a follow-on space plane, but thanks to disinterest in Congress and the White House, there has been no funding for anything beyond studies.

As with the earlier Hubble repair mission, what we are watching is the end of an era.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards XVI Sets Sail

Updated Aug. 31

It's the end of another month, and so it's time for another Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards. This month's carnival is hosted at Stephanie Zvan's Quiche Moraine.

Meanwhile, Yours Truly has not one, but two sideshows in this carnival. Enjoy.

UPDATE (Aug. 31): Added the link to this month's COTEB.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Economy Of Unreason

Caption: A telescope used for Moon viewing at the Japanese Gardens at The Arboretum, in Seattle, Washington.

Image credit: Cujo359

It's hard to describe the cognitive dissonance that followed reading these two articles this morning. The first is from Dana Hunter at En Tequila Es Verdad:

Learning is one of those endeavors without end. If you stop at a taste, you may believe you've been sated - I know people like that, people who nibbled at knowledge and then wandered away in favor of something easier. Maybe it's because they were force-fed rather than allowed to develop an appetite. Perhaps they came to believe learning was too hard, or they weren't good at it, or some other bollocks. If they're lucky, later in life, they'll get a second chance at the buffet and realize they've been starving all along. Maybe they'll realize how much they need to know.

Maybe they'll wander down to Ballard Locks and see a man with a telescope.

Wait a second, you say - a telescope at boat locks? In broad daylight? That's one of the things I love the most about this city, the incongruity of enlightenment, lodged in the most unexpected places. My friend and I headed down to watch the boats travel between Lake Union and Puget Sound, and stumbled into an astronomy lesson. A gentleman had his telescope set up on the lawn across from the visitor's center, pointed at the sun. He had a passel of people there waiting for their chance to have a close look. And while they sat and stared in awe at solar prominences and the mottled texture of the sun's surface (yes, it really does look like an orange peel), he gave a little lesson on our nearest star. All for free.

Need to Know

We humans have a need to learn. It is wired into us. Our minds are like machines that are ready-made to make guesses about how our universe works. When those machines lack quality fuel, like a good education and an intellectually stimulating environment, they often make inferences that are, shall we say, gravely mistaken. As psychologist and skeptic Michael Shermer explains:

Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern — call it “apatternicity”). In my 2000 book How We Believe, I argue that our brains are belief engines: evolved patternrecognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the descendants of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

Unfortunately, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. (Thus, the need for science with its self-correcting mechanisms of replication and peer review.)


What turns an inference into a mistaken belief is lack of knowledge, coupled with a lack of willingness to try to expand that knowledge through learning and reason. The many mistaken beliefs in our culture, creationism, 9/11 denialism, birthers, and so on, are a product of these lacks. As a society, we seem to be becoming more ignorant and unreasoning, even as our knowledge increases. Why this is has at least as much to do with our lack of interest in education and learning as it does to anything.

Which brings us to the other article, which was on National Public Radio, about one more gift left to us by the Bush Administration. It concerns the end of the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) series Reading Rainbow:

The show's run is ending, [WNED manager John] Grant explains, because no one — not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show's broadcast rights.

Grant says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.

Grant says that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read — but that's not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do.

"Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read," Grant says. "You know, the love of reading — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read."

'Reading Rainbow' Reaches Its Final Chapter

In a country that seems to be drowning in ignorance, no one can find a few $100k to keep a show on the air that teaches children why learning and reading is important. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The Bush Administration, after all, had no use for science when it didn't fit in with their propaganda. George W. Bush bragged about never reading newspapers. If there was ever an Administration less interested in intellectual endeavors, I haven't had the misfortune to live under it.

Learning to be a skeptical, smart, observer of the world is a difficult thing. It requires acquiring an education, which requires considerable effort. That effort is often at the expense of doing other things that might be more fun, like going to movies, playing video games, or just hanging around with friends. As Dana wrote, it's an effort that has to continue for the rest of a person's life. For anyone who doesn't find that effort intrinsically fun, there needs to be some inspiration. That doesn't come from something as prosaic as wanting to earn a living when you're a child. Helping children realize that reading and learning can lead to interesting experiences can help provide that inspiration.

With our population seemingly becoming more ignorant by the day, it's a shame that we place so little value on inspiring our children to be more interested in learning. The money spent on Reading Rainbow wouldn't put a new coat of paint on an F-22. Yet we can't manage to find the means.

Maybe someone can take the money they saved on Reading Rainbow and add a few more explosions to the next Masterpiece Theatre. In a few years, that's what their audience will be looking for.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Remembering Ted Kennedy

Image credit: Senator Kennedy's official Senate website.

Mike Taibbi wrote an interesting article today about why Sen. Edward Kennedy was so popular in Massachusetts, and why they re-elected him eight times:

[T]here was something else about him that made him an untouchable here: He came from a patrician family that often, as an entity, angered people but he was the one that plain people seemed to be able – and eager – to relate to.

There are a lot of stories about his "everyman" qualities being told around Hyannis, where he was often just another guy in the produce aisle. But he carried that accessibility everywhere.

Jimmy Sullivan, the co-manager and bartender at the Union Oyster House, a landmark restaurant in the center of Boston, explained how Kennedy exuded those qualities whenever he came in over the years – often by himself.

"You sit at the Oyster Bar and you can't help but be a regular guy," said Sullivan. "You're sitting face to face and back to back with all the regular people. He used to come in all the time…For a guy who came from wealth, he had a genuine soft spot for the working guy."

Why Boston backed Teddy Kennedy

It was that quality that we all liked about him. He really was a mensch. He was a rich mensch, but that makes his being a mensch all the more remarkable.

Taibbi's is a wonderful remembrance, and well worth a read.

For my own part, I've written letters a few times over the years to his official e-mail account. Even though they were usually of the "thanks for doing a good job on ..." sort of thing, his staff nearly always wrote long answers that explained his positions, even though I was never a constituent of his. I don't think that was ever just good politics for Ted, I think it was a reflection of the sort of man he was.

And that's why I think mean little people like Andrew Breitbart will always hate him. For all his money, Ted had more empathy for the rest of us than they will ever manage.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Just Don't Let Him Bleed All Over Me...

Via Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo comes this gem:

Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) says the GOP must find its "great white hope" to lead the party back to power in Washington.

Cat Outta The Bag

[link from original]

Maybe Chuck Wepner's available?

A Worthy Attempt

Caption: A Korea Space Launch Vehicle (KSLV) lifts off from the launch facility at Goheung, South Korea, Aug. 25, 2009. More pictures at Monsters And Critics.

Image credit: KARI

Yesterday, I didn't even know South Korea had a space program. Apparently, it's just getting off the ground, as Al Jazeera reports:

After years of delays, South Korea successfully launched its two-stage Korea Satellite Launch Vehicle 1 (KSLV-1) from the Naro space centre in the south of the country on Tuesday, but Lee Myung-bak, the president, called the exercise only a "half success".

"We must further strive to realise the dream of becoming a space power," Lee's office quoted him as saying after the satellite failed to achieve its intended orbit.

South Korea spent more than $400m on the satellite and rocket, the first stage of which was built in Russia and the second stage by South Korea.

S Korea Satellite 'Burnt And Lost' fills in a bit of the background:

Russia's Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center, which built the KSLV-1's liquid-fueled first stage, said in a statement Aug. 25 that its hardware performed as designed during the launch. "The Russian side of the joint project should regard the launch as successful while for the Korean side it is only partially so," Khrunichev said in a statement posted on its Web site.

South Korea built the rocket's second stage and payload.

A glitch with the first stage of the KSLV-1 forced South Korean officials to postpone an Aug. 19 launch attempt.

South Korean Launch Ends in Failure With Missing Satellite article was written before the fate of the satellite had been determined. As Al Jazeera reports, the satellite did not reach orbit, because the payload doors opened improperly. The resulting drag prevented the rocket from putting the satellite into orbit.

The rocket is designed to put smallish satellites, such as communications satellites, into low Earth orbit (LEO):

According to Khrunichev, the KSLV is 33 meters [108 feet] tall, 2.9 meters [9 ft., 6 in.] in diameter and weighs 140 metric [150 english] tons. It is capable of placing a satellite weighing 100 kilograms [220 lb.] into an elliptical orbit with a perigee of 300 kilometers [180 mi.] and an apogee of 1,500 kilometers [900 mi.].

South Korean Launch Ends in Failure With Missing Satellite

Things that are in such orbits include the International Space Station (ISS), Global Positioning System (GPS), and many earth observation satellites. While there are already launch vehicles that can do this, this is a worthwhile capability to develop.

Caption: Test of Vanguard launch vehicle for U.S. International Geophysical Year (IGY) program to place satellite in Earth orbit to determine atmospheric density and conduct geodetic measurements. Malfunction in first stage caused vehicle to lose thrust after two seconds and vehicle was destroyed.

Image credit: U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

The malfunction will no doubt be investigated and corrected. As I've mentioned before, rockets are complicated machines that perform difficult tasks. Failures are inevitable with a new design. The picture of this Vanguard rocket test, one of our early rocket programs, shows how badly things can go in this field. One of the peculiar problems of rocket design is how spectacular and expensive those failures can be.

South Korea is to be commended for attempting this. Of the nine nations that have successfully launched their own satellites, most are much larger than Korea, with much larger gross domestic products. Their leaders were willing to risk spectacular, expensive failures in the pursuit of an important capability.

I wish our leaders were as interested in the future as theirs.

The Lion Is Gone

Image credit: Senator Kennedy's official Senate website.

It shouldn't surprise anyone, given his long illness, but Senator Edward Kennedy died late Tuesday:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who carried aloft the torch of a Massachusetts dynasty and championed a liberal ideology during almost a half century in the Senate, but whose personal and political failings may have prevented him from realizing the ultimate prize of the presidency, died Tuesday night at his home in Hyannis Port. He was 77 and had been battling brain cancer.

Overcoming a history of family tragedy, which included the assassinations of a brother who was president and another who sought to occupy the White House, Kennedy seized on the role of being a "Senate man." He became a Democratic titan of Washington who fought for the less fortunate, who crafted unlikely deals with conservative Republicans, and who ceaselessly sought support for universal health coverage.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy Is Dead

Ian Welsh summed up his work on health care:

Many will speak of his lifelong desire to see universal health care passed, and what a pity it was that it didn’t occur before his death, but I don’t think it was yet time. Nothing like his own bill, which was Medicare-for-all, can pass in this Senate, a Senate corrupted by money and steeped in conservative ideology which despises helping ordinary people. Instead his legacy is simply that he fought the conservatives and their selfish, destructive ideology to the end of his life.

The Last Liberal Lion

The Kennedys are rich in ways few of us could ever imagine, but the three Kennedy brothers all had a sense that life wasn't as kind to others as it was to them, and they tried to make the world a better place for all. I love that picture of Ted that leads this article. It captures the man somehow, somewhat apart from the lives of the rest of us, but still with us, and still interested in us. I think that's why many conservatives hated them so. The Kennedys, in contrast to them, didn't assume that their natural place in the world was where they were. Maybe the tragedies in their lives, the death of Joe during World War II, and John and Bobby being assassinated later, made them realize how fickle fortune could be.

At Bobby's memorial service, Ted recited these lines from George Bernard Shaw:

Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.

It's a quote they lived by, whether it was JFK sending men to the Moon, Bobby trying to end the Vietnam War, or Ted trying to bring the country universal health care.

Whatever the reason, they were bigger than life, with hearts seemingly bigger than whole conventions full of their detractors'.

Now, the last of them is gone.

UPDATE: Taylor Marsh, who has studied the Kennedys for years, has written a summary of Ted Kennedy's life.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mr. Smith Comes To Lakewood

Caption: Rep. Adam Smith makes introductory remarks to the crowd at a town hall meeting, August 25, 2009.

Image credit: Cujo359

U.S. Representative Adam Smith (WA-09) held a town hall tonight in Lakewood, Washington. This was the first time I had attended one, and I hope it won't be the last.

I must admit to a certain amount of trepidation. Lakewood is Wingnut Central in Smith's district. Its mayor is a Republican, as has been nearly every mayor who has been elected since the town was incorporated roughly thirteen years ago. In addition, this town hall was being held in an outdoor football stadium at a local high school. Given the behavior of conservatives at many earlier summer town halls, it's not exactly the place one would expect decorum.

Caption: Part of the crowd at the Smith town hall meeting in Lakewood, Aug. 25, 2009.

Image credit: Cujo359

What the town hall had going for it, though, is that Lakewood is also home to a great many current and former military people. There were quite a few pieces of camouflage clothing in the crowd, at least one Marine corps hat, and some T-shirts and ballcaps with various unit, navy ship, or defense contractor names on them. These are people who prize respect and order. That, plus Smith's determination to not let the meeting get out of hand, kept things civil for the most part. Smith explained that the more time that was taken up by booing and clapping would not be spent discussing issues, and people generally seemed to understand this. Apart from one jerk who was holding a positively disgusting sign and getting it in the way of as many people as he could (and wouldn't you know it, he was an anti-abortion activist) things were pretty civil. Considering that there must have been at least 2,000 people there, this went amazingly well.

As you can imagine, the most discussed topic was health care.

At the moment it's hard to sort out all the things that were said and responded to, so I'll just have to try to relate some of the more important points:

  • Smith said at least twice that he supported some form of public option. What that might be, I'm not sure.

  • He made a point of saying that he thought the bill was too complicated. The one thing I remember he mentioned eliminating was setting up a federal insurance regulating commission. Yet later on, he also mentioned that if interstate insurance sales were to be authorized, which he seemed to favor, such regulation would clearly be necessary. I'm not sure what to make of this.

  • He also expressed concern about the end-of-life provision. It was hard to hear him at this point due to crowd noise, so I don't know if he favored eliminating it or just limiting it. He did explain, rightly, that it was not mandatory counseling.

  • Several people in the audience spoke in favor of the public option. One spoke in favor of single-payer, or Medicare for everyone. This latter was a theme that Smith picked up on. He doesn't favor it, but seemed to be interested in this in a more limited way.

  • A great deal of discussion surrounded the costs of medical care. Smith made the point that it was possible that if more people were covered for basic medical care, costs, including the government's costs, might go down. He put this as a possibility, rather than a certainty, which I think is smart given the circumstances. Anyone who says he knows for sure what will happen there, particularly given that the bill itself hasn't been finalized, shouldn't be trusted.

  • Someone felt that since the Sioux Indians weren't being provided with proper health care, that the government wouldn't be able to provide us adequate care. As Smith pointed out, there are plenty of things the government gets wrong when it comes to indigenous people, and that doesn't mean it hasn't done those things well for other American populations.

  • Someone demanded that Rep. Smith affirm that he supported capitalism, in contrast to that socialist Obama. Smith replied something to the effect of "My name's Adam Smith. What do you think?" He also pointed out that there were clearly times when the market alone couldn't do what needs to be done. He illustrated this point with what I would call the unfortunate example of the banking crisis, where, as he put it, only the federal government had the money needed to keep things from going completely south.

  • One woman asked if the rules about insurance could be changed so that she could cover her mother under her policy. Because the woman's father had been treated for cancer, he lost his insurance and the mother's. While he was old enough for Medicaid, she wasn't. Now she's on the all-too familiar "survive until Medicare" plan.

I realize that this all sounds pretty sketchy, but between interruptions (such as the aforementioned jerk with his sign getting into an argument with a pregnant woman) and crowd noise, it was tough to be sure what was said. I recorded the first hour or so of the discussion, and if it turns out that makes any of these impressions clearer, I'll update this article.

Meanwhile, it wasn't as bad as I'd feared. There were many strange questions, of course, and a few rude people. For the most part though, things went smoothly, and lots was discussed. I'm not sure what impressions Rep. Smith took with him, but I think he heard a fairly broad range of opinions.

UPDATE (Aug. 26): Added story about the woman who wants to cover her mother on her insurance. It's an interesting question, I think.

The Audacity Of Dopes: Bernanke Re-Appointed

I'm sure you recognize the guy on the left. The abandoned building on the right is the Fisher Body Plant. Image credit: Jalopnik

In case you haven't heard yet, we're in for another four years of Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve:

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, named today to a second term as central bank chief, pledged to work toward restoring stability to financial markets and the economy.

“I will work to the utmost of my abilities” to help “provide a solid foundation for growth and prosperity in an environment of price stability,” Bernanke said today in a Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, news conference in which President Barack Obama nominated the 55-year-old Fed chairman to a second four-year term. Obama praised him for “preventing” another Great Depression.

Bernanke Pledges to Restore Stability to Markets, Economy

As someone who isn't an economist, I'm struck by the difference of opinions on this subject from economists who are worth listening to. By "worth listening to", I mean those who had the intellectual honesty and knowledge needed to predict the bank collapse of last year. Among those people, there is a mix of opinions about whether this is a good appointment.

On the "pro" side, we have Princeton Prof. Paul Krugman:

Generally, I’m pleased. Bernanke has done a good job in the crisis — he’s been far more aggressive and creative than almost anyone else would have been in his place, partly because he’s a scholar of the Great Depression, partly because he took Japan’s lost decade seriously and was therefore intellectually prepared for a liquidity-trap world.

I do have one qualm, though, which isn’t really about Bernanke, but rather about the broader symbolism of the reappointment — namely, it unfortunately seems to be a reaffirmation of Serious Person Syndrome, aka it’s better to have been conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.

On The Reappointment Of Ben Bernanke

NYU Prof. Nouriel Roubini, who was one of the Wall Street eoconomists most aware of the conditions that caused the crisis, concurs:

To be sure, an endorsement of Mr. Bernanke’s reappointment comes with many caveats. Mr. Bernanke, a Fed governor in the early part of this decade, supported flawed policies when Alan Greenspan pushed the federal funds rate (the policy rate set by the Fed as its main tool of monetary policy) too low for too long and failed to monitor mortgage lending properly, thus creating the housing and credit and mortgage bubbles.
Still, when a liquidity and credit crunch emerged in the summer of 2007, Mr. Bernanke engineered a U-turn in Fed policy that prevented the crisis from turning into a near depression. He did this largely with actions and programs that were not in the traditional toolbox of monetary policy. The federal funds rate was effectively pushed down to zero to reduce borrowing costs and prevent the collapse of consumer demand and capital spending by business. New programs encouraged skittish institutions to resume lending. For the first time since the Great Depression, the Fed’s role as lender of last resort was extended to investment banks.

The Great Preventer

What I get from these two recommendations is that while he could have done better regarding policy, Bernanke plays the political balancing act as well as one could expect, and he improvised pretty well. Both recommendations certainly came with caveats.

Meanwhile, there are a few folks who might disagree as to the effectiveness and the quality of Bernanke's actions. One is National Bureau of Economic Research economist Anna Schwartz:

AS Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke has committed serious sins of commission and omission — and for those many sins, he does not deserve reappointment.

Mr. Bernanke seems to know only two amounts: zero and trillions. Before 2008 there were only moderate increases in the Federal Reserve’s aggregate balance sheet numbers, but since then the balance sheet has exploded by trillions of dollars. The increase was spurred by the Fed’s loans to troubled institutions and purchases of securities.

Why is easy monetary policy such a sin? Because in such an environment, loans are cheap and borrowers can finance every project that they dream up. This results in excesses, and also increases the severity of the recession that inevitably follows when the bubble bursts.

Man Without A Plan

Ironically, as I've observed before that capital hasn't been easy to get for industry and other concerns that need it. What we seem to have is the kind of economy Krugman predicted months ago - an economy doomed to slow or negative growth for the next decade or so. That's the price of the government's making the choice to prop up the banks versus letting that part of the economy re-establish itself.

Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith also seems not to be a fan of Bernanke's, as she stated in a review of another New York Times editorial on Bernanke's potential appointment:

Of COURSE Wall Street loves Ben. He's written lots of blank checks to them, and demanded nothing in return. The fact that the New York Times isn't willing to consider the obvious self-interest in their views, and further consider that what is best for Wall Street is not what is best for America shows a remarkable lack of perspective.

New York Times Joins Bernanke Fan Club

Finally, Ian Welsh noted today:

Bernanke bailed out the banks and the rich. You know this, but what is not clear to many people is that bailing out the banks and fixing the banking system were not connected at the hip. It was possible to fix what was wrong with the banks by taking the big banks into receivership and then using them to lend directly. Wipe out the shareholders, write down the bondholders to the actual value of the banks, but keep lending to the real economy, and indeed increase lending and capital flows, by, say, deciding to refit every single building in America for energy efficiency and generation, and to take every clunker off the road.

Road to Ruin: Bernanke’s Reappointment Is Just The Status Quo

Ian has summarized well the alternatives that Bernanke faced. The consequences of letting the banks that were to fail go into receivership would have reached beyond the filthy rich, of course, but I have to think that we're seeing some of those consequences anyway. Thanks to Bernie Madoff and other fraudsters, many funds that depend on banks are in trouble already. The fact is that the federal government's lack of real regulatory powers in the last few years has already hurt the little investor big time.

The government's monetary policy these last couple of decades has favored the financial interests over manufacturing and small business, not to mention homeowners. Bernanke's been a willing part of that policy.

My own take on the Bernanke appointment is that it's yet another sign that nothing is changing as a result of the trauma our economy has been through, and that things aren't going to improve for the foreseeable future.

In addition, I think that the nearly universal observation that Bernanke didn't see this catastrophe coming is very telling. Why didn't he? It's his job, and he'd had it for nearly three years when the crisis hit in early 2008. It certainly looks to me like he didn't do that part of the job well. That he might have done as well as anyone else could have in that environment is a conclusion I find suspect on that basis.

If you can't see what's coming, how can you see where to go?

Odds And Ends

As in, people with odd ideas about mathematics and we're nearing the end of a campaign.

In Des Moines, things aren't looking too good for the plucky bus driver who thinks that people declaring themselves to be atheists is offensive:

A bus driver who was suspended last week for refusing to drive a bus with an atheist group’s advertisement returned to work today.

Angela Shiel, 41, faced possible termination from the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority after walking away from her assigned bus on Aug. 17. The bus had an ad for the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers that read: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."

Shiel said the message was offensive and went against her Christian beliefs.

Bus Driver, Suspended Over Atheist Ad Incident, Is Back At Work Today

Who wouldn't risk her job in the face of such insults? Anyone who wasn't dumber than an engine block, I suppose. The Des Moines Register goes on to explain:

Shiel said today that her views on the ad haven’t changed and she still will not drive any bus with the ad.

“Hopefully I won’t get the sign anymore,” she said. “It’s a chance I have to take. …I like what I’m doing. I don’t want to start all over.”

The ads are featured on 20 of DART’s 120 fixed-route buses. They were first put up in late July, but removed following complaints from riders. DART returned the ads to the buses earlier this month after receiving new complaints, including from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

The ads will remain on buses through the second week of September.

Bus Driver, Suspended Over Atheist Ad Incident, Is Back At Work Today

We've now been given all the clues we need to determine Ms. Shiel's chances of keeping her job. One in six DART buses carry the sign she objects to (20/120). Her chances of riding on a bus without the sign on any given day is 5 out of 6, or 83.3 percent. Assuming she works fifteen days in the next three weeks, that's (0.833)15, which my little calculator widget says is 0.065, or 6.5 percent. Thus, there is a 93.5 percent chance that she will be looking for other work, assuming she doesn't change her mind.

I suggest Ms. Shiel place a little more faith in mathematics and consider that wonderful quote from Matthew 6:5-6 I saw the other day:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

and then make her beliefs a bit less of a public spectacle.

Meanwhile, during the night this happened:

The campaign to reward good behavior among our U.S. represenatives on health care has cracked the $400k barrier. According to Jon Walker, that makes it the highest-paying individual campaign contributor on this issue:

I'm very impressed that Jane Hamsher at has had so much success raising money to thank House members for standing up for the public option. In the past week her “Stand Up For The Public Option” page on has raised $397,684 for progressive Democratic House members.

Is Firedoglake Now The Largest Health Insurance PAC?

Yay, us! Of course, we aren't yet spending tens of millions of dollars on lobbying, or making ourselves at home in the White House, so there's still ground to make up.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I R Cmptr Xprt

This is why I try to avoid helping people with their computers:

Image credit: xkcd

There are so many different hardware and software products and processes out there that it's impossible to keep on top of them all. While I can sometimes help people who are having trouble with Microsoft Windows, it usually works so differently from the operating systems I'm used to that I'm left there scratching my head right along with the person I'm "assisting". Knowing the current state of development can be difficult, particularly since different kinds of software have different ways of disseminating that information. There could have been a fix for the thing you're dealing with last week or last year, and you might not know it, and you might not be able to find out if there is, either.

So, here it is folks, your very own general purpose computer troubleshooting flowchart. Now, snatch the pebble from my hand and get out of here.

Somehow, I Don't Feel Smart

Updated at 1:30PM

Image credit: Generated by the quiz

Dana Hunter mentioned this science quiz over at En Tequila Es Verdad:

How are we supposed to feel all super-superior and stuff when that's the level of difficulty? I'd feel proud of my results if I were better than, oh, say, 5% of the country. But to be in the top 10% with questions that bloody simple - that's like beating a bunch of drunk people at coordination tests. It's bloody meaningless, is what it is. A Pyrrhic victory of sorts.

How ... Sad

Thankfully, I don't have to admit being dumber at taking this quiz than Dana or George W., whose article tipped Dana off:

I took the Pew Research Center Science Quiz, and got 100%, so I should be happy. But I’m not, because the questions were really easy (every single one has been in the news lately) and I read the “scores by demographic” part. It gave me that “we’re all doomed” feeling.

A Depressing Score

Four of the questions, two of which were about the solar system and two related to biology, represented recent knowledge. I think if you had much knowledge of the solar system, those would have been easy to guess. The biology questions have been discussed endlessly both in the news and popular entertainment. The others were about knowledge that's been around for decades. As with knowing who gave the Gettysburg address, you can't feel special about knowing this stuff. Yet it's more than 90% of the people who took it seem to understand, and that is depressing.

Looking at the demographics really is depressing:
Image credit: Generated by the quiz. Screenshot by Cujo359

The biggest underachievers are college graduates. I can see not knowing something, or forgetting one or two things over time, but if you're a college grad between the ages of 22 and 60 and have no medical problems that affect your mind, and you can't score 11 out of 12, you really ought to be ashamed. It's also sad that young people don't know more of these things. As George wrote, most of this is discussed on TV and in other communications media quite a bit. Of the knowledge that's been around for decades, nearly all of it I learned in high school.

The Pew Research study this test came from is an interesting read. On the one hand, it is clear that the general public supports science and technology, and thinks that these are positive forces in their lives. On the other hand, as this test bears out, the public isn't terribly well informed about science and engineering, or about how they work:

While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations. Fully 85% see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem for science, and nearly half (49%) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Science and engineering are intellectual processes toward achieving an end. In the case of science, that end product is knowledge, and it may come in a form that the scientists hadn't anticipated. Engineers use scientific knowledge to create something, and that, too, is a process that is subject to both reassessment and error.

Yet the public, whose understanding of these processes seems to be based on the things they see in TV shows, seem to know little or nothing of how these disciplines operate.

We see this ignorance play out in debates on the causes of 9/11, the supposed dangers of vaccines, and creationism. In the case of 9/11 "truthers", I love being lectured about how the laws of physics work by people who, in most cases, clearly don't understand them. These statements, though, reveal a more fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between science and engineering. Any engineer, when confronted with such a statement, first has to ask "Which physics are we talking about?" We use the physics that apply to a given situation. Civil engineers use classical physics, and pay little attention to quantum mechanics or relativity. Electronics engineers mostly pay attention to quantum mechanics. Even within those specialized fields of physics, there are concepts that apply in particular designs, and concepts that can be safely ignored. Part of engineering is figuring out what the correct things are. Any civil or mechanical engineer who thinks that steel has to melt before it can fail to hold its designed load needs to find another line of work.

Belief in creationism flies in the face of most of what we've learned about our world in the last three centuries. Yet more than half of Americans think it might be true.

As bad as the lack of knowledge of the basic facts of this quiz may be, I think it's worse that the public doesn't seem to understand how it is that the scientists who discover them and the engineers who create them do their jobs.

For example, the Pew study observed:

Most scientists had heard at least a little about claims that government scientists were not allowed to report research findings that conflicted with the Bush administration’s point of view. And the vast majority (77%) says that these claims are true. By contrast, these claims barely registered with the public – more than half heard nothing at all about this issue. Only about a quarter of the public (28%) said they thought the claims were true.

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

The free exchange of ideas is vital to science. Without it, errors will go uncorrected. Yet few in the public were aware of the Bush Administration's deliberate censorship of scientific discussion. In all likelihood, few of them realize what a disaster such policies can be for science, and for engineering and medicine.

Image credit: Pew Research

Which brings me to one final point. This study had one result that I've seen widely quoted in progressive blogs:

Yep, the smart people tend to be liberal, at least when they're not rich. So, when people say that 70% of Americans agree on something, what you should be thinking is, which 70 percent? Is it the 70 percent who couldn't answer at least ten of these ridiculously easy questions? The seventy-plus percent who didn't know that the Bush Administration was censoring government scientists?

In that case, I'll be happy to be part of the minority.

UPDATE: Added many more expository links and a bit of editing.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Slight Change In Comments Policy

Image credit:

Zip is back with an announcement about a site policy change, and a tip for managing your Blogspot blog.

Actually, I've been doing this for a while, but it's going to continue. For three or four months now, I've been putting comments to articles that are older than 31 days into moderation. I've now changed that to be 14 days. The only reason I'm doing this is to deal with the increase in spam comments that have been showing up here recently. Please feel free to comment on older articles if you wish.

In fact, moderatiing those comments also makes it more likely that I'll notice them. So, if you're trying to communicate your ideas to me, it's actually better this way. As long as they follow the rules, I'm glad for all comments, pro and con.

There will be times, like when I have an older article in COTEB or some other blog carnival, that I'll temporarily expand the unmoderated period again. For the most part, though, this is what the policy will continue to be.

As for those spam comments, if you see them, please don't click on any links that they provide. Anyone who does this sort of thing is fundamentally dishonest, and you probably shouldn't be doing business with them, or rewarding them by increasing their hit counts.

Now, for those of you who blog at Blogspot and want to set up comments this way, here's how to do it. Go to this page in your dashboard:

and then scroll down to this item, click on the Only on posts older than radio button, and then fill in the box with the days you want to leave comments unmoderated:

Then hit the big orange Save settings button at the bottom of the screen.

Health Care: Tom Daschle And A New Widget

The New York Times has an interesting article on former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle today:

Six months have passed since the morning when Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, under fire for not paying certain taxes, called President Obama in his study off the Oval Office to withdraw his nomination as health secretary and reform czar.

But these days it often seems as if Mr. Daschle never left the picture. With unrivaled ties on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, he talks constantly with top White House advisers, many of whom previously worked for him.

Daschle Has Ear of White House and Industry

As I wrote at the time, I thought Daschle's nomination was an early indication that President Obama wasn't serious about health care reform. At least, he wasn't serious about helping anyone who didn't own an insurance, pharmaceuticals, or health care company:

You might find it ironic that Republican Senators plan to grill Daschle on this matter [of his work as a lobbyist for various health care-related corporations], but Daschle's own record shows how pervasive the revolving door culture can be in our nation's capital. All I can say about the irony is that I'm just glad there are still two major parties in DC. If there were any fewer, we probably wouldn't be hearing about this at all.

Even assuming Daschle was willing to say goodbye to all that, it's unlikely that he'll also be willing to work his wife out of a living.

Universal Health Care? Dream On

Daschle's wife, Linda, also worked as a lobbyist for drug maker Schering-Plough Corp. His livelihood is dependent on their well-being. Obama listens to this guy quite a bit it would seem:

[Daschle] still speaks frequently to the president, who met with him as recently as Friday morning in the Oval Office. And he remains a highly paid policy adviser to hospital, drug, pharmaceutical and other health care industry clients of Alston & Bird, the law and lobbying firm.

Daschle Has Ear of White House and Industry

Daschle's failed appointment, and Kathleen Sebelius's appointment, demonstrate where Obama's loyalties lie. Daschle has never been an advocate for patients or insurance consumers. Sebelius, while she seems to have had a good record as Kansas' insurance commissioner, failed in her only attempt to expand health care coverage as governor, and has no record that I can see of advocating anything like public financing of health care. Daschle's influence, and Sebelius's recent statements on the public option, represent continuation of the conditions that have made health care in America the sorry excuse for care that it is.

This is why I've said, since that January article, that Obama isn't going to help us on health care. He's not listening to the people who represent our interests, at least not on a regular basis. He's listening to, as Matt Taibbi described Daschle, the "bought-off Washington whores". If you want a clue to where a leader is headed on an issue, look at who advises him.

The other bit of news is about that widget you may have noticed in the upper left hand corner of this blog. It's for FireDogLake's They Took The Pledge campaign, which is aimed at rewarding the U.S. Representatives who have pledged to vote against any health care bill that doesn't include a public option. This is a worthy goal, because good behavior is seldom rewarded as extravagantly as bad behavior in DC, and that needs to change.

So, please, if you can, give some of the members on that list whatever you can afford. If you'd just like to divide your contribution evenly among all the representatives, which is what I did, go to this page and just fill in the Distributed among the recipients below box with the amount you'd like to contribute.

As you can see from the static version of the drive's thermometer that appears at the top of this article, the drive is pretty near its goal. Don't let that stop you, though. No one's going to complain if we exceed it.

Religious Boneheads Of The Week

Two different people did stupid things in the name of their religions in the last few days. First up, the latest chapter in Des Moines Area Transit's struggles with atheism:

A bus driver suspended for refusing to drive a bus bearing an advertisement for an atheist group met with Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority officials Wednesday to discuss her future.

Angela Shiel, 41, said she was aware her actions could lead to termination when she walked away from her assigned bus on Monday. The bus had an ad for the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers that read: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone."

"I'm not driving that bus with that sign on it. It goes against everything I believe in," said Shiel, a four-year DART driver.

DART Gives Suspended Bus Driver Four Options

Apparently, this woman believes that her religion's founder died a slow, agonizing death so she wouldn't have to be reminded that other people believe differently than she does. I wonder how she feels about bank advertising. I wonder if she understands the irony of that last statement. Now she faces being fired unless she accepts one of the work assignments offered her, which if one excludes the choice of just getting in the bus and driving no matter what the advertising on it says, sound like a demotion to me.

The second honoree is god-bothering imbecile Charlie Crist, governor of Florida. He seems to think that his god spared him the trouble of dealing with hurricanes since he's been in office:

Gov. Charlie Crist believes in the power of prayer.

He recently told a group of real estate agents Friday that Florida has been hurricane free thanks to prayer notes he placed on the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He said each year he has placed them there or has asked someone to place them. The notes, he said, say this: "Dear God, please protect our Florida from storms and other difficulties. Charlie."

Crist Says Prayer Has Spared Fla. From Hurricanes

So, who or what is Crist going to blame when a hurricane finally does reach Florida? If Angela Shiel has anything to say about it, I'm sure it will be DART and atheism, since inevitably these things are caused by whatever annoys thoughtless people like her.

Come to think of it, I suppose that means thought could be blamed.

UPDATE: A commenter to that article on Gov. Crist wondered if Crist had ever read Matthew 6:5-6, which goes like this:

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

I suspect Gov. Crist has read it, but it's not a passage he quotes publicly very often. He's probably counting on the fact that most Christians in America don't know squat about their own religious text.

I also added a link that explains the irony of bank ads.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What? Where am I?

cute pictures of puppies with captions
Image credit: I Has A Hotdog

Looks like I won't be getting much done today. I guess I'll be taking the day off.

Hope yours is as good.

Ted Kennedy Requests A Successor

Image credit: Senator Kennedy's official Senate website.

A voice that has been notably lacking in the health care reform effort has been Senator Ted Kennedy's (D-MA). He has been battling brain cancer for months, and thus largely unavailable for the debates and maneuverings of the last few months. When I last wrote about him, he had collapsed at President Obama's inauguration. He'd had a successful operation to remove a brain tumor in June of 2008, but "successful" in this case meant they removed the tumor without killing the patient. Now it the Boston Globe reveals that Sen. Kennedy requested last June that Massachusetts' governor find a way to appoint a successor quickly:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in a poignant acknowledgment of his mortality at a critical time in the national health care debate, has privately asked the governor and legislative leaders to change the succession law to guarantee that Massachusetts will not lack a Senate vote when his seat becomes vacant.

In a personal, sometimes wistful letter sent Tuesday to Governor Deval L. Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, Kennedy asks that Patrick be given authority to appoint someone to the seat temporarily before voters choose a new senator in a special election.

Kennedy looks To set Stage For Successor

It seems unlikely that Governor Patrick and the legislature will do as Kennedy requests, according to the article:

Democratic lawmakers, then as now in the majority, did not want to give Governor Mitt Romney the chance to fill Kerry’s seat with a Republican if Kerry won the presidency.

Patrick, meanwhile, has dismissed past suggestions that the state change the law back to give him the power to fill a Senate vacancy.

Kennedy looks To set Stage For Successor

It's hard to imagine the Senate without Ted Kennedy. He was first elected when I was in elementary school. As bmaz notes:

[T]he question of "what if" about his health is an unpleasant, emotional and difficult one. But recent events have made the question undeniably germane. Senator Kennedy wasn't present for the Judiciary Committee consideration of Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination; you knew he wanted to be there, but his absence was understandable. When he also was absent from the Senate floor for the historic confirmation vote for Sotomayor, the first Hispanic American elevated to the Court, you had a feeling he was seriously ill. A week later, when he could not attend the presentation when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by Barack Obama, a man he likens to his brother John, you knew it was bad. And then he was absent from the funeral for his sister Eunice. Ted Kennedy always gave the eulogies for Kennedy family members; he always had to, and he was always there. Always. Until now.

The Wind And The Lion: Ted Kennedy Mans Up To Mortality

It seems clear that he wants someone there in the Senate who can continue his fight for him. It appears, though, that it won't happen. And, frankly, given what's going on, it's hard to believe there's an adequate replacement.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"I Need To Be In Haiti"

Caption: A special free clinic held in an LA basketball arena by Remote Area Medical.

Image credit: Screenshots of this Real Time segment by Cujo359

On the health care reform front, this has been an interesting thirty-six hours. Early yesterday, people were still reacting to the news over the weekend that certain unnamed White House officials had declared the public option dead:

"The fact of the matter is there are not the votes in the United States Senate for a public option. There never have been," [Sen. Kent] Conrad said on "Fox News Sunday."

His comment signaled a shift in the health care debate, with Obama and senior advisers softening their support for a public option by saying final form of the legislation is less important than the principle of affordable coverage available to all.

At a town hall meeting Saturday in Colorado, Obama said the public option is just one of many issues critical to successfully overhauling the ailing health care system.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius echoed Gibbs, telling CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that a final health care bill will include competitive choices for consumers in one form or another.

"There will be a competitor to private insurers," she said. "You don't turn over the whole new marketplace to private insurance companies and trust them to do the right thing. We need some choices and we need some competition."

Democratic Senator: Public Health Insurance Option Dead

Supposedly, all this was being done to placate Republican lawmakers in the hopes of having some sort of bipartisan bill. This never made any sense to me, because it isn't the Republicans who can stop this bill any longer. They don't have the votes in either chamber. Only the Democrats do.

Progressive legislators, Rep. Anthony Weiner (NY-09) among them, told the White House in a letter to Sebelius on Monday that without a public option, they would not vote for a health care bill:

Last month, 57 liberal House Democrats wrote a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among others, letting her know that they couldn't support a compromise on healthcare reform that had been worked out with the more conservative Blue Dogs. Now, with the public option under increasing threat as the administration appears to be offering it up as a sacrificial lamb, 60 House Dems have banded together to write a similar letter.

House Dems warn Sebelius: No Reform Without Public Option

[links from original]

In an interview on CNBC, Weiner added that there could be as many as 100 votes in the House against the bill if it contained no public option.

Late yesterday, the White House signaled a possible change in direction. The implication was that the search for a "bipartisan" solution on health care reform had been abandoned:

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said the heated opposition was evidence that Republicans had made a political calculation to draw a line against any health care changes, the latest in a string of major administration proposals that Republicans have opposed.

“The Republican leadership,” Mr. Emanuel said, “has made a strategic decision that defeating President Obama’s health care proposal is more important for their political goals than solving the health insurance problems that Americans face every day.”

Democrats seem set to go it alone on health bill

Which sounded very encouraging, until they basically walked that statement back at this morning's press conference:

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs continued to push back against this morning's stories that the administration has given up on getting bipartisanship, even while saying President Obama agrees with the statement that set off those stories.

"Many (Republicans) want to see health care reform," Gibbs said. He also said the three Republicans working on negotiations in the Senate Finance Committee -- Sens. Chuck Grassley (IA), Olympia Snowe (ME) and Mike Enzi (WY) -- "are working in good faith," Gibbs said. "I have no reason to believe they're not."

Gibbs: We're Still Pushing For Bipartisanship, But Obama Agrees With Rahm

Except for all the Republicans, including Grassley, who have said categorically that they won't even support the so-called "co-ops" of Sen. Conrad's, and basically won't countenance anything that has even a ghost of a chance of actually providing health care for people who don't get it now, that's probably true.

Jane Hamsher finally put all this in perspective today at Firedoglake, in an article that draws from a number of recent observations about who's getting support from the pharmaceuticals, medical care, and insurance industries and who could be:

On May 11, "stakeholders" including the AMA, PhRMA, the hospitals and the device manufacturers delivered proposals to the White House promising to "voluntarily" reduce cost increases over the next 10 years. In an effort to keep them "at the table," Baucus's Chief of Staff Jon Selib and Finance Committee staffer Russell Sullivan told stakeholders at a May 20 meeting that their participation in the process of crafting a health care bill was contingent on them "holding their fire":

Sources familiar with the lobbyist meeting described it as collegial, but they said Baucus’ aides made clear that any public opposition to the proposed financing of a reform package would be at their clients’ peril. The staffers’ message to K Street was clear: Tell your clients to let the process work and don’t torpedo it with advertisements, press releases and Web sites.

The goal of keeping stakeholders at the table was threefold:

1. Keep them from advertising against the White House plan
2. Keep them from torpedoing vulnerable Democrats in 2010 so there isn't a repeat of 1994
3. Keep their money out of GOP coffers

You can see the fingerprints in the deals that they made: the $150 million PhRMA was spending on ads for health care reform, the $2.5 million they spent helping vulnerable freshmen (and Blue Dog Mike Ross, who is anything but vulnerable), and the total fury that Boehner has unleashed on PhRMA and other stakeholders for making deals with the White House.

The Baucus Caucus: PhRMA, Insurance, Hospitals and Rahm

I've had suspicions about this personally, I just couldn't put the pieces together as Jane has. The money that these interests can put into campaigns is enormous, and saying no to it would be a courageous move. The Obama Administration has a clear track record of not saying no to such people.

The bottom line is, as the more cynical among us had imagined all along, the bottom line.

Which brings me back to this video of Bill Maher's Real Time show that I saw the other day. It was about two groups of people, one who were protesting health care reform, shouting incoherent nonsense at a town hall organized by a local U.S. representative, and a group of people who were attending a free clinic held by an organization called Remote Area Medical (RAM). RAM is meant to take medical care where people normally can't get proper medical treatment. Yes, an organization that normally treats people in Third World nations was in downtown Los Angeles, treating people our own medical services, from what we're told by the various half-wits in our government and the news is the best in the world, won't help. The segment shows part of an interview with the group's founder, Stan Brock, who said this:

I need to be in Haiti. I need to be in Guatemala. I need to be in Zimbabwe... In large part, these are people who have jobs, and have insurance.

As if to say "Why doesn't this rich country get its shit together and take care of its citizens' basic needs?"

Even if I had no feeling for the people in that clinic, and had complete assurance that neither I nor anyone I cared about would ever be one of them, I would still be profoundly embarrassed by this. We leave so many of our population untreated for even the most basic health care needs that it's humiliating. We need assistance like a Third World government that's been run by corrupt governments for the last several decades.

Well, as Jane Hamsher has shown, there might be a connection ...