Thursday, May 30, 2013

Quote Of The Day

PZ Myers reviews a movie:

I went in with low expectations: I’d heard it was just a fun action movie, mere mindless entertainment. The reviews underestimated the movie; it wasn’t just mindless, it was in a vegetative state. This movie was so stupid it was stillborn with acephaly. This movie sucked so bad it was a miracle that the Hawking radiation didn’t kill the audience.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

What makes the quote for me is he's a biologist who thought of using Hawking radiation as part of a black hole metaphor.

I don't share the world's fetish for J.J. Abrams. Something about incoherent story lines that never quite end just doesn't appeal to me. So it's unlikely I'll be subjecting myself to whatever bad radiates out of this one. If I just stick to reading the reviews, I suspect I'll find that at least as entertaining.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

From The E-Mail Inbox

Image credit: National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia

This little gem arrived this morning:

From: Democrats 2014
To: Abfxvrhxdue
Subject: this is CRAZY
Date: May 29, 2013 9:14 AM

BREAKING NEWS: Michele Bachmann Quits!

Friends --

Late last night, Michele Bachmann released a crazy web video announcing that she's leaving Congress next year.

THIS IS HUGE! Now that the Tea Party's ringleader has called it quits, Boehner has to be wondering who's next to go. If we can sweep up 17 Republican seats, we can take Boehner's Speaker's gavel and win a Democratic House for President Obama!

In 48 hours, our FEC fundraising deadline hits and we'll report how many supporters we have standing behind us. Will you help us reach 500,000 strong standing behind our campaign to kick out the Tea Party House?

Name: Not Confirmed Abfxvrhxdue
Supporter record: XXXXXXXXX
Suggested Support: $8.00

As you can see, they've modestly suggested I send them $8.00 to help celebrate Ms. Bachmann's departure from the House of Representatives. They haven't picked a better pseudonym for me than "Abfxvrhxdue", but they think I should send them $8.00. I think there's a better way to celebrate, which is to give them no money at all.

After all, what does it matter to me if the Democrats are the ones who cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? What's more, why would I pay them to screw me and every other working class American? Supreme Court Justices? Are you kidding me? As Robert Reich noted today:

Now the President is nominating judges to fill all three of these crucial D.C. court of appeals vacancies at once. He’s also looking ahead at the strong probability that at least one Supreme Court justice, most likely Ruth Bader Ginsburg, will retire within the next two years, and he’ll need to get a replacement through the Senate.

Senate Republicans under the cynical direction of Mitch McConnell have abused the filibuster system, preventing votes on almost everything the President has wanted.

A Time for Harry Reid’s Backbone

Once again, as that title implies, Dr. Reich has given us the wrong diagnosis. Harry Reid's title isn't Majority Leader For Life. It's just Majority Leader. That's a post he could be voted out of. Yet even after failing to deal with the filibuster issue for three Senate terms, he still has his job.

It's pretty clear that he's doing his job well enough to satisfy Senate Democrats.

Ironically, if there's one thing that Michelle Bachmann was good at, it was at least attempting to do what her supporters wanted. Granted, what they want her to do is insane, but they insist on it, and Bachmann's work is, at least in part, a product of that insistence. I respect her more than I do the average congressional Democrat these days, despite her bigotry and bone-headed rhetoric (see NOTE 1). At least she had enough integrity to not take a dump on her supporters every chance she could.

This is yet another reason I'm going to make support for any political party contingent on its actually exercising the power we've given them on our behalf. The Democrats haven't done that. In fact, they seem to have gone out of their way to be useless. When we reward failure, all we will get is more failure.

Maybe when we progressives find our backbones, Harry Reid will remember he has one, too.

NOTE 1 In keeping with modern website design methods, users of Javascript filters like NoScript won't be able to see the photos on this page until they allow the and domains to execute Javascript.

If I find a better collection of Bachmannisms that doesn't require this nonsense, I'll change the link. Lousy website design shouldn't be rewarded, either.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Quote Of The Day

Juan Cole discusses the relative threat of Islam versus the West:

Listening to Newt Gingrich, the great bloviator, go on this morning on the alleged Muslim threat, set me off. Gingrich did his dissertation on Belgian educational policy in the Congo, where he managed to miss the genocide perpetrated by the Europeans. Gingrich knows better, he is just hate-mongering. But since he brought it up, it is Westerners like Gingrich (who supported illegally invading and occupying Iraq, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths) of whom one might justifiably be a little afraid…

Who’s the Threat? Western Powers have invaded and Killed Millions of Muslims

He then presents a short table showing a rundown of who has invaded or attacked whom since the end of the 18th Century. Let's just say it doesn't look good for our side, unless you think that killing more people is winning. I can't think of any Muslim invasions to add to that list, that's for sure.

Islam, as a religion with some incredibly intolerant adherents and leaders, is certainly a source of evil in the world. But when I'm almost simultaneously presented with a Foreign Policy article extolling the virtues of signature strikes, and Secretary of State John Kerry lying his ass off about how America isn't bombing targets where civilians are present (see NOTE 1), I have to say that Muslims aren't the only ones who can go to extraordinary lengths to avoid admitting the human costs of what they're doing.

NOTE 1 Since when have we refused to bomb valid targets that don't happen to have civilians in the area? In World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, our clear policy was that, while we might try to minimize civilian casualties, that wouldn't stop us from destroying something we thought was important enough to send planes to bomb.

And for those not familiar, please note, I've defended some of those bombings in the past. I just recognize those statements of Kerry's as the utter horse shit that they are.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Twitter Message Of The Day

What more needs to be said?

Twitter Message by @TheTweetOfGod: May 21, 2013

When you accept the ideas that there is an entity who is all powerful, and that human beings are made in this entity's image, there's really no room to argue with this one.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Progressive Idiocy: Missing The Obvious

Updated May 15, with new observations by Marcy Wheeler. Scroll to bottom of article to see.

The recently revealed targeting of Associated Press phone records by the Justice Department, which appears to have been both far reaching, unexplained, and possibly contrary to DoJ policy, is becoming yet another chance to see which liberal and progressive commentators have been asleep at the wheel these past few years.

First up is Steve Clemons, who wrote this in a Twitter message today:

Twitter message by @SCClemons

What's sad about this is that I've always thought of Clemons as being an astute observer of what's going on in DC. Yet here he is, basically without a clue as to what the Obama Administration have been up to these last five years regarding leak investigations and other actions against whistle blowers. Glenn Greenwald attempted to set him and others with this point of view straight today:

The key point is that all of this takes place in the ongoing War on Whistleblowers waged by the Obama administration. If you talk to any real investigative journalist, they will tell you that an unprecedented climate of fear has emerged in which their sources are petrified to talk to them. That the Obama administration has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers under espionage statutes as all previous administrations combined has already severely chilled the news gathering process. Imagine what message this latest behavior sends to journalists and their sources: that at any moment, the phone records of even the nation's most establishment journalists can be secretly obtained by the DOJ, which has no compunction about doing so even in the most extreme and invasive manner.

Justice Department's pursuit of AP's phone records is both extreme and dangerous

[link from original article]

Even more sadly, Clemons is one of the smarter liberal pundits on this issue. At least he recognizes it as a problem. For an example of a journalist who doesn't seem to understand the problem, there's inveterate Obama-explainer Josh Marshall. After publishing an anonymous e-mail defending the DoJ's actions (which, as several of those links have said, the DoJ refuses to explain), he wrote:

I think there’s still a very live question of whether this was a prudent action on the part of the DOJ, as maximal restraint should always be used when subpoenaing journalistic records. But I do think he’s at least on to something that such an article would definitely have included more and different context if AP weren’t the party at issue and the ‘secretly’ phrasing does perhaps knowingly mislead.

A Conflict of Interest?

When a government agency retains records it obtained without notifying the target of those records long after its own guidelines say it should have, then that is as "secret" as I ever want to see it get. The DoJ is still refusing to purge or return those records, too. What does that tell you, Josh? Let's just say I find that article title more than a little ironic.

This is just the latest in a rather disturbing pattern of trying to control leaks that it doesn't want through any means at its disposal while freely making use of leaks it wants by the Obama Administration. As Greenwald points out, the Obama Administration has attempted to use the Espionage Act against whistle blowers more than all other presidential administrations combined. That such a longstanding and obvious policy could be such a surprise to people engaged in the profession of journalism is astounding. At least, it would be if I had been in a coma for the last few years. As it is, this is really just another example of the ability of progressives to not see what they don't want to see.

UPDATE: Kevin Gosztola notes that the AP may not have been the only news organization targeted:

“The Justice Department did not respond to a question about whether a similar step was taken in the other major government leak investigation Mr. Holder announced last June,” according to [New York] Times reporter Charlie Savage. So, it is unknown if the Times has been subjected to a similar fishing expedition. Regardless, the Justice Department engaged in this unprecedented act because people like Feinstein declared, “The leak really did endanger sources and methods,” and, “The leak, I think has to be prosecuted.”

No justification for Obama’s war on First Amendment

Like most of the links in this article's first paragraph, Gosztola's article is a good one for background on this issue.

UPDATE 2 (May 15): Marcy Wheeler makes an interesting point and a compelling one at her blog Emptywheel. First, the interesting one, concerning the subpoena the DoJ used to grab the AP's phone records:

[A]s this great piece by the New Yorker’s counsel, Lynn Oberlander on the issue notes, one of the worst parts of the way DOJ seized the AP records is that it prevented the AP from challenging the subpoena — and the details that are now being disputed — in court.
The cowardly move by the Justice Department to subpoena two months of the A.P.’s phone records, both of its office lines and of the home phones of individual reporters, is potentially a breach of the Justice Department’s own guidelines. Even more important, it prevented the A.P. from seeking a judicial review of the action. Some months ago, apparently, the government sent a subpoena (or subpoenas) for the records to the phone companies that serve those offices and individuals, and the companies provided the records without any notice to the A.P. If subpoenas had been served directly on the A.P. or its individual reporters, they would have had an opportunity to go to court to file a motion to quash the subpoenas. What would have happened in court is anybody’s guess—there is no federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to testify before a criminal grand jury—but the Justice Department avoided the issue altogether by not notifying the A.P. that it even wanted this information. Even beyond the outrageous and overreaching action against the journalists, this is a blatant attempt to avoid the oversight function of the courts.
I obviously don’t know better than Oberlander what would have happened. But I do suspect the subpoena would have been — at a minimum –sharply curtailed so as to shield the records of the 94 journalists whose contacts got sucked up along with the 6 journalists who worked on the story. Moreover, I think these underlying disputed facts — as well as the evidence that the gripe about the AP story (as opposed to the later stories that exposed MI5′s role in the plot) has everything to do with the AP scooping the White House — may well have led a judge to throw out the entire subpoena.

There’s a Place for Resolving Disputes, and the Administration Chose Not To Use It

So, the DoJ was trying to get around having to prove its case in court, which it quite probably would have lost. That brings us to emptywheel's compelling point, which should have been obvious to the Obama apologists in the press. That point is embodied in the article's title - there's a place to resolve such issues, and it's the courts. The Obama Administration simply went around that process and did what it wanted.

We're becoming more removed every day from being a government of laws.

IRS Scandal: Some Answers

Caption: The IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. Evildoers or overworked public servants?

Image credit: U.S. Treasury/Wikimedia

More information has come to light concerning how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) dealt with the rising tide of supposed "social welfare" organizations that were actually political front groups applying for 501(c)4 tax-exempt status. The first bit is from Dave Levinthal of Public Integrity:

Amid withering accusations the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party and other conservative groups with enhanced scrutiny, the agency faces another problem: it’s drowning in paperwork.

The IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division, which finds itself at the scandal’s epicenter, processed significantly more tax exemption applications in fiscal year 2012 by so-called 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations — 2,774 — than it has since at least the late 1990s, according to an analysis of IRS records by the Center for Public Integrity.

Compare that to 1,777 applications in 2011 and 1,741 in 2010, federal records show. Not since 2002, when officials processed 2,402 applications, have so many been received.

Meanwhile, Exempt Organizations Division staffing slid from 910 employees during fiscal year 2009 to 876 during fiscal year 2012, agency personnel documents indicate.

IRS nonprofit division overloaded, understaffed

Levinthal goes on to add:

During the 2012 election cycle, however, numerous 501(c)(4) organizations — most of them conservative, a few left-leaning and all endowed with new spending powers thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — together spent tens of millions of dollars overtly advocating for or against political candidates.

IRS nonprofit division overloaded, understaffed

When the vast majority of organizations that are misusing this tax-exempt status are of one political persuasion, it stands to reason that most of the organizations investigated will also be of that persuasion.

Chris Hayes provides some historical perspective about how this scandal came about. As he put it, there are two scandals really, the scandal involving the IRS targeting groups who used particular key words, like "Tea Party" in their applications, and the scandal that brought that one on - the flood of applications by clearly political groups for 501(c)4 status:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As Hayes mentions, this scandal arose because the IRS has been put in the position of having to arbitrarily decide what constitutes an organization that is "primarily political". It has done it in a way that is, at best, somewhat ham-fisted, in that keywords belonging to one particular ideology were identified as flags for further investigation. Was any thought given to what might be similar keywords coming from libertarian, liberal, socialist, or green organizations? That's a question we should be asking as this is investigated. Even though most of the organizations applying were conservative, that's no reason to assume they'd be the only ones abusing the system. As Hayes also mentions, at least one such organization is a progressive one.

To me, the picture that is emerging here is of a government agency that was snowed under by a sudden and poorly-defined workload, which it then made mis-steps in addressing. That doesn't mean it's not the only possible explanation, of course. It's the one that rings truest with me, though, particularly since I spent much of my career working for one government agency or another.

We should also bear in mind that one of the reasons we're hearing about all this is that these organizations are trying to create more wiggle room so their applications won't be scrutinized so carefully. This is a rather obvious point, but one that we should keep in mind when listening to the expressions of outrage from various and sundry politicians and political operatives like Karl Rove. Still, there is a clear possibility for abuse here, and no one in his right mind could simply assume that such abuse is not happening here.

UPDATE: Thanks to a question by a reader, I tracked down the source of that assertion about most of the 501(c)4 applicants being from conservative groups. It's a paragraph about three-quarters of the way down at that link.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What If It Was Terrorism?

Image credit: Aaron Tang/Flickr

A few weeks ago, I'd written about the misuse of the word "terrorism":

In the context of the bombing in Boston last Monday, whether or not it's terrorism depends on the motivations of the bombers, not on whether or not people were frightened by it. That is why I've avoided using the term, and will continue to until such time as the people responsible have been found and tried for what they've done, or until they admit what they've done and explain why in some other circumstance that doesn't involve duress.

Any opinions expressed using the word "terrorism" should, I think, be viewed in that context. Words mean particular things. When people use those words in other ways, then their opinions should be viewed more skeptically.

Word Use: Terrorism

[unless otherwise noted, all links are from original articles]

Today, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan looked at how we view terrorism from a different angle. Suppose the Tsarnaev brothers' actions actually were terrorism, in the proper meaning of that term. What does that say about our reaction to it, relative to Sunday's shooting in New Orleans?

The shooting of nineteen innocent people, including two children, at a Mother's Day celebration in New Orleans yesterday was an act of violence only gaudy enough to hold the nation's attention momentarily. Shortly after the bodies were cleared, the FBI said they "have no indication the shooting was an act of terrorism. 'It’s strictly an act of street violence in New Orleans.'" At that, we were free to let our attention drift. In America, all villainy is not created equal.

Terrorism and the Public Imagination

All too true, I'm afraid. For instance, how many people are up in arms about the mayhem occurring in some of our major cities, that often involves victims who are children under the age of 19? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted back in 2009:

Gang homicide victims were significantly younger than nongang homicide victims in all five cities [that were included in this report] (Table 1). Whereas 27%–42% of the gang homicide victims were aged 15–19 years, only 9%–14% of the nongang homicide victims were in this age group. Approximately 80% of all homicide victims were male in each city; however, Los Angeles, Newark, and Oklahoma City still reported significantly higher proportions of male victims in gang homicide incidents compared with nongang homicide incidents. In Los Angeles and Oakland, a significantly higher proportion of gang victims were Hispanic and, in Oklahoma City, a significantly higher proportion of gang victims were non-Hispanic black compared with nongang victims. In at least three of the five cities, gang homicides were significantly more likely than nongang homicides to occur on a street and involve a firearm (Table 2). More than 90% of gang homicide incidents involved firearms in each city. For nongang homicides, firearms were involved in 57%–86% of the incidents. Gang homicides also were most likely to occur in afternoon/evening hours in the majority of the five cities; however, comparisons were not examined because the data were missing for 23% of nongang homicide incidents. In Los Angeles, Oakland, and Oklahoma City, gang homicides occurred significantly more frequently on weekends than did nongang homicides.

Morbidity and Mortality: Gang Homicides — Five U.S. Cities, 2003–2008

While this information is five years old, I doubt it's gotten that much better since then. Besides, does anyone remember seeing live television feeds all across the country of police shutting down Los Angeles to hunt suspects in a drive-by shooting? Me neither.

I've excerpted the stats from the CDC report's Table 1 below for Los Angeles:

Age group (yrs)No.(%)

Morbidity and Mortality: Gang Homicides — Five U.S. Cities, 2003–2008 (Table 1)

In one major U.S. city alone, almost 400 young people under the age of 25 were killed due to gang-related violence. Of course, L.A.'s gang problem is among the worst, but once again, we see no huge outcry about this. Why is that? Part of the reason is undoubtedly that the victims are mostly poor and non-white, but partly it just seems to be what we expect in some parts of America. Yet it kills far more children than terrorism has in the last decade.

Now that I think of it, there was a much greater stink about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, wasn't there? In L.A. alone, the equivalent of one Newtown happens every three years or so due to gang-related violence, if we just look at the first line of that table. If all other forms of homicide whose victims that age are included, there's one a year there.

To me, this seems utterly irrational - obsessing about something that has proven to be pretty harmless in comparison to the things that are really killing us, and ignoring or downplaying the things that do, but could be prevented. It's the state of American political discourse these days.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Wallpaper Of The Day

Still busier than a one-armed paper hanger, so there's no Sunday Photo yet again. Still, you can go to today's APOD offering for some lovely wallpaper. It's one of those photos you could wait your whole life to be able to take.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Just What Should We Expect?

Caption: The IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. What evil are they up to now? Image credit: U.S. Treasury/Wikimedia

It's a day of the week ending in 'y', so it should be no surprise that someone thinks the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is up to no good:

Let’s be very clear: because the Internal Revenue Service holds so much private data, and because it can make people’s lives absolutely miserable, it is of paramount importance in our political system that it both is, and is perceived as, an apolitical entity. If it discriminated against tea party groups that attempted to register as 501(c)4 social welfare organizations, then that’s a grave offense, and it needs to be investigated thoroughly and dealt with severely.

The IRS was wrong to target the tea party. They should’ve gone after all 501(c)4s

Face it, anyone who has ever had to fill out a tax form, and perhaps gotten advice from the IRS that it is in no way to be held responsible for, is going to want to give the IRS the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, that's not a valid reason for assuming it's wrong.

Most of the folks I've seen criticizing this on Twitter, at least, haven't bothered to find out what is actually the norm here. To tell you the truth, I haven't either, but the difference between me and them is this:

I don't assume I know what's going on.

Let's try a thought experiment - suppose you have what you think is a winning strategy for picking lottery numbers, yet you don't ever win the lottery. Is the lottery commission conspiring against you? Of course not. The reality is that the numbers are chosen at random, so even if you understand how those numbers were chosen, the small sample size of winning numbers just about guarantees that you aren't going to win any particular lottery. Any honest mathematician would tell you that.

What we expect isn't necessarily the truth, even when we use logic and reason to arrive at that expectation. In order to understand what you should be expecting, you have to understand what's normal, and how the system works, and what's possible. How the system works in this case is that the IRS is expected to investigate claims for non-profit applications. If, as is the case with the Tea Party, there's a lot of money behind that applicant, then there's probably more reason to investigate.

But what's the norm? How often does the IRS investigate such claims? In a set of Twitter messages today, CNBC's John Harwood explained the IRS's position:

Twitter message(s) from @JohnJHarwood

I've combined the content of several messages into one screenshot graphic. As you can see, to some extent the IRS went beyond what it's expected to do, but there were a great many other organizations investigated for similar reasons.

Expecting the IRS to investigate all of these organizations, as Ezra Klein did in the article I quoted in that first block quote, may be somewhere between difficult and impossible. The IRS, too, will feel the sequestration crunch. Do we really expect them to investigate all organizations, whether they are known to have ties to big money or questionable people or organizations? My guess, and once again it's only a guess, is that we can't really. The number and type of such organizations is bound to increase, given that there is little legal framework for them at the moment. Plus, as we've seen recently, enforcing regulations and the law on those with power and money isn't a big government priority right now.

I can't say whether this is the norm or not at this point, but any serious investigation of this claimed discrimination needs to include a discussion of that point that involves actual evidence. That may take a while, which is probably beyond the attention span of the American public. Meanwhile, though, I'd say if there was any political organization in this country better able to take care of itself, it's probably one of the two major political parties. I suspect they'll soldier on somehow.

Meanwhile, what we should learn from all of this is to ask those basic questions with any story, both of ourselves and the press. What is normal? What is possible? How is the system supposed to work? Ask those questions, and at least you'll have some credible notion what the problem is.

The Free Market Fairy Strikes Again

Image credit: Still dunno source

Al Jazeera reports that Texas law enforcement may be looking into the causes of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion:

Texas law enforcement officials are launching a criminal investigation into last month's deadly fertiliser plant explosion.

Investigators had largely treated the West Fertiliser Co blast that killed 14 people and injured about 200 others as an industrial accident in the northern rural town of Waco.

But the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement on Friday that the agency has instructed the Texas Rangers and the McLennan County Sheriff's Department to launch a criminal probe into the explosion.

Texas launches criminal probe into Waco blast

What could they be looking into? Common Dreams notes:

The fertilizer plant in West, Texas that exploded on Wednesday night killing 14 people was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985, and had failed to disclose to the Department of Homeland Security that it was storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would bring oversight from that agency.

Little Oversight at Texas Fertilizer Plant That Exploded Killing 14

[I added that first link to replace a broken one at the original article]

Lack of inspections led to this situation, as reported by RT:

Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate due to its widespread use in the manufacture of bombs.

However, at the time of the blast, at least 540,000 pounds (270 tons) of ammonium nitrate was in a storage building, according to recent filings with both the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which were not passed on to the DHS. The plant was also holding anhydrous ammonia and several other agriculture chemicals.

Texas fertilizer plant flew under Dept. Homeland Security radar

Image credit: Mark M./Occupy Together

To some degree, this looks like the usual conservative agenda - make government so incompetent at enforcing regulations and laws on businesses that it might as well not even be there. As Texas Governor Rick Perry tried to explain away:

The deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West wouldn't have been prevented had the state earmarked more money for industry inspections, Gov. Rick Perry said Monday.

Perry told The Associated Press on Monday that he remains comfortable with the level of state oversight after last week's blast at West Fertilizer Co.

He said Texas residents have sent the same message through their elected officials.

Investigators say they have yet to determine what caused the explosion that killed 14 people and injured 200 others.

Perry: More Oversight Wouldn’t Have Prevented Deadly West Explosion

You need to have some kind of chutzpah to say something like that after such a colossal failure of government, but this is the state of governance in America these days. "What can we do? Our taxpayers don't want to pay taxes for things that make them safer", they seem to be saying, as if they have no responsibility to explain to the public what they're doing with our money.

Of course, the people who vote for these clowns, and the "progressives" who go along with this behavior so as not seem liberal (otherwise known as "being realistic"), are as much to blame. There's lots of waste in government, and more than a little abuse of power, but the answer isn't to stop governing. The answer is to fix the waste and prosecute the abuse of power, not to let the magic "free market" fairy take care of it for us.

That's because this is how the free market fairy takes care of things.

Whatever Texas law enforcement finds, and they're sure to find something if they bother to look, I'm pretty sure that neither the governor nor Texas voters generally will be among those blamed. That doesn't mean they are blameless, though.

Afterword: If you want to learn more about the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion, I'd suggest reading Joyce Arnold's analyses of the blast here, here, and here. She lives in the region, and understands the players pretty well. Those articles were the sources for several of the links you see here.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Robert Reich On Fiscal Folly

This interview from Monday between PBS host Tavis Smiley and Robert Reich is definitely worth watching:

Watch Former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

Reich explains clearly and understandably why the current budget priorities of our government are contrary to both good sense and America's self-interest. In particular, he notes:

Tavis: Why is this [current economic depression] so stubborn?

Reich: I think largely because America is suffering something that people don’t talk enough about in my view, and that is widening inequality. Most of the gains of economic growth – in fact, all of the gains of growth since the recession have gone to the top, the very top, the top 1 percent, the top 1/10th of 1 percent.

The middle class and everybody aspiring to join the middle class, it just doesn’t have the purchasing power to go and keep the economic going. You can’t have a strong economy without a strong and growing middle class.

Interview With Robert Reich: May 6, 2013: Transcript

This quote from Reich neatly nails the foolishness of our government's current fiscal policy:

Austerity is not the answer. In fact, austerity economics of the kind we’re practicing right now has shown to be a huge failure. If you look what’s happening in Europe, they are moving into – in fact, most European nations are already into recession because they decided that cutting their budget deficits was more important than creating jobs.

Now when you have a lot of unemployment, that’s the worst time to cut your budget deficit because the government has got to be the spender of last resort. This is something we understood and learned during the 1930s, 1940s. World War II actually got the economy back going.

I don’t want to suggest or have anybody read me as suggesting that we need another war, but that mobilization, that government spending on such a grand scale, got us out of the Depression and finally into prosperity.

Our budget deficit, in fact, our budget debt at the end of World War II as a percentage of the overall economy was much, much greater than it is now. But instead of hunkering down and cutting the budget, what we did in the 1950s was invest in our workforce, invest in college education, invest in retraining.

We created the interstate highway system. We invested in infrastructure. We built the middle class and helped poor people get into the middle class. That’s what we’re not doing now.

Interview With Robert Reich: May 6, 2013: Transcript

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the foolish notion it was war itself that finally got us out of the Great Depression. In fact, had we spent similar amounts of money on our own needs, we would have been at least as well off, and maybe could have avoided the recessions of the immediate post-war years. After all, when Japan surrendered, most of that war machinery we built became useless junk. It took us a few years to reorient our economy, but wise investments in education and infrastructure eventually paid off.

That's the lesson we seem to have forgotten in the years since. We've been telling ourselves all sorts of fantasies about how "free markets" work, but the reality is that free markets don't exist. What exists is a society and its commerce, and that can go better or worse depending how well it uses its opportunities. We're doing a really lousy job of that at the moment.

Trouble With Numbers

As recently as Monday, I was receiving e-mails like this one from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), regarding the special election in South Carolina's first congressional district:
From: Democrats 2014 <>
To: <Name and address withheld>
Subject: latest reports: (Elizabeth Colbert Busch)
Date: May 6, 2013 3:20 PM

<withheld> -- The math is pretty simple:

Right now, Elizabeth Colbert Busch is down by just 1 point. But 
close isn't good enough. We want to win.

So here's the deal: If we can contact enough voters, fight 
Republican lies with the facts, and run the best damn 
get-out-the-vote operation that South Carolina's ever seen, 
we'll win tomorrow.

If not, we'll lose.

Name: <withheld>
Supporter record: <withheld>
Suggested Support: $8.00

Almost too close to call, as many other e-mails had said earlier. What was the result?

It was a solidly Republican district in South Carolina, and the Republican candidate won. By a wider than expected margin, too - 54% to 45%, with all precincts reporting.

Mark Sanford beats Colbert Busch in South Carolina special election

How did that "too close to call" election turn out to be so easy to call that they called it within an hour or so of the polls closing?

Here's what Real Clear Politics had to say about the polls and the outcome:

RCP: South Carolina 1st District Special Election - Sanford vs. Colbert Busch (screenshot by Cujo359)

What I get from this is that the only polling was done by the Democratic Party's polling firm, and it was, shall we say, very flattering to the Democratic candidate. Assuming that they at least got the trends right, what PPP's results suggest is that Colbert-Busch started out more or less even with Sanford, and went downhill from there. I wonder how they would have spun poll results that reflected reality - "We're going to get our butts handed to us, but send us money anyway"? Hard to think that would have been a good fund raising theme.

On a positive note, at least I'm not out that eight bucks.

Let's just add this to the many reasons I don't trust the Democratic Party further than I can spit into a hurricane.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Islam And The Notion Of Race

Caption: From left, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, and Dzohkar Tsarnaev. None of them "look Muslim", and two of them aren't. (see NOTE 1)

Image credit: Wikimedia. See expository links for details.

Recently, I've noticed a trend among atheists to deny that their discussions of Islam and its dangers are not motivated by racism, because Islam isn't a race. Both Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne have recently expressed this view, which as that first link notes, Richard Dawkins has also supported in Twitter messages. To which I can only reply: Horse pucky. Perhaps that's not erudite enough given the caliber of folks I'm arguing with here, so allow me to rephrase:

It's smug nonsense.

Let's start with definitions, shall we? Here's what Websters, generally considered the reference on American English, has to say about what racism means:

1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary: racism

As you can see from the italic emphasis, all it takes to be a racist is to like your race over all the others.

Just to avoid accusations of parochialism, here's the Oxford Dictionary's online definition of racism:

The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

Oxford Dictionary of English: racism

Once again, I added the italic emphasis.

Belief that one's own "race" (a term I have to put in quotes these days for reasons anyone familiar with how arbitrary the notion of who belongs to what race can be) is the one with better qualities is, in fact, racism. This is a point made in at least some of those articles decrying "racism" against Muslims. Most Muslims are not white. Many Westerners, including Dawkins, Coyne, Harris, are. Christopher Hitchens, often mentioned along with Dawkins prior to his death, was white as well. They're right to wonder whether it's some subtle manifestation of racism, especially when Harris' deeply unfortunate comment that we know who "looks Muslim" is taken into account.

I don't believe for a second that Dawkins or Coyne are racists. I've read their writings for too long to think so. I have my doubts about Harris at times, but he and Hitchens strike me as more xenophobic than racist, with the "xeno" here implying a strange religion and culture, not just the looks of people. Nevertheless, this is a reasonable thing to wonder if you're not familiar with their work. Preference for one's own "race" is as much racism as is prejudice against another.

Plus, as this unfortunate young woman found out while trying to attend a cocktail hour at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, sometimes that racism isn't subtle at all:

As I left the hotel and my husband went to the ballroom for the dinner, I realized he still had my keys. I approached the escalators that led down to the ballroom and asked the externally contracted security representatives if I could go down. They abruptly responded, "You can't go down without a ticket." I explained my situation and that I just wanted my keys from my husband in the foyer and that I wouldn't need to enter in the ballroom. They refused to let me through. For the next half hour, they watched as I frantically called my husband but was unable to reach him.

Then something remarkable happened. I watched as they let countless other women through -- all Caucasian -- without even asking to see their tickets. I asked why they were allowing them to go freely when they had just told me that I needed a ticket. Their response? "Well, now we are checking tickets." He rolled his eyes and let another woman through, this time actually checking her ticket. His smug tone, enveloped in condescension, taunted, "See? That's what a ticket looks like."

When I asked "Why did you lie to me, sir?" they threatened to have the Secret Service throw me out of the building -- me, a 4'11" young woman who weighs 100 pounds soaking wet, who was all prettied up in elegant formal dress, who was simply trying to reach her husband. The only thing on me that could possibly inflict harm were my dainty silver stilettos, and they were too busy inflicting pain on my feet at the moment. My suspicion was confirmed when I saw the men ask a blonde woman for her ticket and she replied, "I lost it." The snickering tough-guy responded, "I'd be happy to personally escort you down the escalators ma'am."

My Racist Encounter at the White House Correspondents' Dinner

Seema Jilani is, as she noted, a native-born American. She is also a Muslim, but if her description of events is not complete fiction, it's hard to imagine that the guards would have questioned any of those white women about whether they were Muslims. Appearance alone seems to have determined her treatment. She could have been an atheist, or possibly even a Christian, and received the same treatment.

That's what "looking Muslim" means in America these days. And yes, that's racism. I can't blame American Muslims, many of whom "look Muslim", for wondering if what all those white folks believe about their religion might not be motivated by racism, too.

That's why I termed the attitude of these particular atheists as "smug nonsense". The world looks a lot different when you're the one who is treated like shit just because of the way you look.

NOTE 1: Tsaernov's guilt has yet to be demonstrated in court, and thus should be considered a possibility rather than a certainty. Let's face it, though, he doesn't "look Muslim", either.

Afterword: Anyone who has taken more than a cursory glance at the atheism or religion keywords here ought to realize that I think all religions are nonsense. Most have a bit of wisdom wrapped up in that nonsense, but you'd probably do better at finding wisdom by reading comic books or watching television. Still, in America we don't have freedom from religion, we have freedom of religion. That means that, as long as they are functioning and law-abiding members of our society, all people are supposed to be treated equally no matter what their beliefs. As I've mentioned before, the Constitution only mentions religion in two places, and in neither place does it say that there's a right or wrong choice in that realm. It just says we all get to be Americans, and government officials, no matter what our convictions are.

Which, as long as people are as they are now, is how it should be.

I've also objected in the past to the over-use of the word "racism", as this article and this one, among others, should make clear. That over-use cheapens the word. It has been used to characterize just about anyone who criticizes President Obama, for instance, as a racist. That's not what's going on here. Right or wrong, this is a different conversation. It's about people being mistreated, if not demonized, because they look a certain way. To say this isn't helpful to either our country or its relations to the rest of the world is beyond obvious.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Quote Of The Day

Bill Maher shows once again why he deserves the title "The Mark Twain Of Our Generation":

Our mania about terrorism reached a crescendo with the Boston Marathon bombings, where a couple of disaffected young men with little or nothing in the way of military training (or common sense) were the focus of a massive manhunt that shut down a major city for a day.

As Maher said in the clip:

After 9/11 we were shell shocked. We didn't know what kind of enemy we were dealing with, but twelve years later, we have a much better idea: Losers, fuckups, idiots!


Bin Laden's plan wasn't to kill us all. It was to scare us into overreacting, and destroy ourselves. Because if there's one thing those terrorists proved they can blow up, it's our balance sheet.

I've mentioned this thought before, but bin Laden succeeded brilliantly. The best thing we could have done to persuade them to try something else would have been to, as the old British war posters said, "Keep calm and carry on". Instead, we reacted like Daffy Duck on his first hit of methamphetamine. Not only did our reaction encourage more efforts from the more-or-less professional terrorists, but it showed the losers that this was one sure-fire way of getting attention.

Nothing about this recent bombing gives me hope that we'll be getting over it anytime soon.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Guns And Atheists

I've largely given up commenting at blogs recently. The reason is that most of the conversations I have these days remind me just how many mindless individuals use computers, not to mention how many of them are progressives. So, you might wonder why I still watch Twitter. It's an interesting question, particularly on days like today.

I first noticed this Twitter message from Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist some morons call a "professional atheist" despite his having had a successful career in a far more demanding profession:

Twitter Message by @RichardDawkins, May 3, 2013

This had to do with a recent tragedy in which a two year old girl was killed by her five year old brother with a firearm his parents gave him. Needless to say, Dawkins' remarks didn't sit well with everyone:

Twitter Message by AKgunpimp, May 3, 2013

Since I don't have armed guards ringing my residence, I wondered just what the heck this guy was talking about (you can see this coversation at the attribution link, by the way). His response:

Twitter Message by AKgunpimp, May 3, 2013

After I explained that we weren't talking about disarming police or military people, he responded:

Twitter Message by AKgunpimp, May 3, 2013

On its surface, this would seem to be the ultimate trivial assertion, and foolish just on that basis. Unfortunately, just about anyone in any minority recognizes the subtext here. This probably isn't even the tenth time I've encountered this sort of argument - that there are all those brave, Christian folks out there protecting our sorry atheist asses, and why aren't we just shutting up and being grateful for what they do for us? We atheists need to be constantly reminded of this, on account of our huge egos. In this case, it's even more pathetic, in that it's supposed to be the guns themselves that are the real protector.

There are many, many people in our society who don't use guns in their professions who make our society safer. The lawyers who prosecute and defend criminals don't use them, nor the judges and juries. Firefighters and paramedics don't need them. Foreign Service officers like Chris Stevens and Anne Smedinghoff don't use them, yet they make the world a better place, and keep us safer doing it. Frankly, if every Tom, Dick, and Harry who was out of his mind or a criminal couldn't get hold of a firearm any time he wanted, even the police would have a whole lot less need for them. But here this guy is, explaining how much my life depends on firearms being possessed by law enforcement professionals.

Of course, that wasn't even remotely the conversation. It was about living in a society where idiots can have guns, with little or no training, because it's our right, dontcha know? How letting some dimwit who doesn't understand that five year olds aren't good at understanding things like how dangerous firearms can be have the things makes me safer, I have no idea, however many times these folks try to explain it. It always sounds more like they want their metal sticks, and the rest of us should just shut up, because they're well armed.

That the world is so full of people like this, who think that violence, or being willing to commit violence, is the only thing that keeps us "safe", is a thought so depressing that there are days I wonder how grateful I should be for all their valiant efforts to keep me alive. If it spares me from having to read or listen to the rantings of these pathetic little men, there is at least one thing to be said in favor of dying.

UPDATE/Afterword: Coincidentally, Joyce Arnold wrote an article explaining why LGBT people have been coming out of the closet lately:

This is one of the classics: “Why do you want to talk about your homosexuality all the time? We heterosexuals don’t!” No, you just go through your day completely oblivious to how often you mention and simply take for granted your very public and legally supported opposite gender spouse, or girl/boyfriend, life.

Another favorite from the anti-LGBT side: How dare you be intolerant of my intolerance as law of the land!? The “tolerance” here is about civil rights, not some choice about, say, who has the best radio talk show. Or the best flavor of ice cream.

Queer Talk: Jason Collins, Limbaugh “Rams,” Samuel “Flaunts”

People like AKgunpimp are the reason. When religious and sexual minorities don't come out and make themselves and their opinions known, people like this clown assume we have everything we need, and whatever opinions we have must be the ones they think we should have. Why? Because they won't actually bother to find out by getting to know us or read what we have to say. They'll just ignore us, shout at us, or wave their metal sticks at us.

Ahem, sorry. Meant to say they'll exercise their Second Amendment rights in our general direction.

Oh, and if enough of us "come out", they just might get it through their thick heads that lots of firefighters, paramedics, etc. are atheists, too.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Another Cost of War: Getting Ready For War

Image credit: Lieutenant Hugh Randall Syme/Wikimedia

Democracy Now discusses another cost of war, which is the environmental cost of training for war:

On the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, thousands are commemorating the 10th anniversary of when the U.S. Navy stopped using their home as a bombing range. Since the 1940s, the Navy used nearly three-quarters of the island for bombing practice, war games and dumping old munitions. The bombing stopped after campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, but the island continues to suffer. At the current cleanup rate, the Navy says, it will take until 2025 to remove all the environmental damage left by more than 60 years of target practice. A fisherman recently discovered a giant unexploded bomb underwater. The island of about 10,000 people also lacks a hospital to treat illnesses such as asthma and cancer that may be attributed to the military’s former bombing activity.

Punishing Vieques: Puerto Rico Struggles With Contamination 10 Years After Activists Expel U.S. Navy

The explosives and fuses used in munitions are often made from volatile chemicals. Burying these chemicals in the ground can create toxic chemical hazards for decades afterward, as this Puerto Rican island knows all too well. Given that, it's not surprising that there's increased incidence of cancer in this area. Given that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, it's not too surprising that those people can't get much in the way of medical care, either.

That's what you have to expect from a country that's more interested in blowing things up than it is in the health and welfare of its own people.

Those Other Mountains

The last week or so I've been involved in a project that seems to consume all available time and energy, which is one reason for the recent lack of posts here. Today, on my way to that project, I managed to snap this photo of the Olympic Mountains out the window of my vehicle as I was waiting at a traffic light:

Image credit: Photo taken and processed by Cujo359

Click to enlarge. I was in a hurry, so it's not a great photo, but it will give you some idea why this is one of my favorite intersections in the area.