Saturday, January 23, 2010

On The Predisposition Of Engineers To Become Terrorists

What was that noise (looking around)?

Let's see, Jim was trying to tell me something, waving an incendiary article in my face, but it was, like, days and days ago, and, for an engineer-of-sorts (they called me the 'air clerk' back when I was a postdoc at ASU), I have more trouble than most just keeping myself organized.

Ah, here it is! An ominous article regarding the predisposition for Muslim engineering students to become Muslim terrorists:
Amid all the discussion of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his activities prior to boarding flight 253 for Detroit, the fact that he spent three years in London studying mechanical engineering has attracted relatively little attention.

A degree in engineering has no obvious connection with terrorism or religious/political extremism – and yet some research published earlier this year suggests it may be highly relevant.

..."Relative deprivation" happens when high expectations or ambitions run into high levels of frustration. In Muslim societies engineering is an elite profession and the entry requirements set by universities are correspondingly high. Engineering has also been promoted by governments in the Middle East and elsewhere as part of their rhetoric of modernisation and technocratic development.

The rhetoric, however, has not been matched by reality – and the researchers suggest it could be a radicalising factor:

Individuals with above-average skills selected on merit are, one would expect, particularly exposed to the frustration and the sense of injustice that comes from finding their professional future hampered by lack of opportunities. This happened on a large scale as a result of the economic and technological development failures that Middle Eastern countries have witnessed since the 1970s.

...More interesting, and perhaps more likely to apply to Abdulmutallab, is the "engineering mindset". The idea here is that engineering as a subject – unlike, say, history or literature – appeals to students who like to deal in certainties and adopt a rather mechanical view of the world. "A lot of piecemeal evidence," Gambetta and Hertog write, "suggests that characteristics such as greater intolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can be made to work like clockwork, and dislike of democratic politics which involves compromise, are more common among engineers".
Jim senses a lot of unsupported assumptions, and says:
It is an interesting study in use of statistics in the social sciences. Data from disparate sources varying in both space and time are gathered together, reduced by tossing out instances that do not fit the model, processed to produce a statement that X is Y times the expected value, therefore (insert unrelated narrative statement without any proof), tested by analysing the same data in a different arrangement. The conclusion is that the "relative deprivation" in Muslim society (high expectations of academic training in engineering frustrated by low opportunities due to inept management and economic failures) combined with the "engineering mindset" (tendency toward right wing politics and rigid thought processes) result in gravitation toward radical extremism.

Ummmm, yeah. I can identify with the above except for the right wing politics. That's OK though because they offer statistical proof that 19th and 20th century anarchists were mostly left wing and had few engineers among their ranks. Of course, in the 19th and 20th centuries "engineers" drove locomotives designed and built by "mechanics". Based on this study it is obvious that all unemployed engineers must be prevented from boarding any aircraft or public transit at all costs.
My own take is that educated terrorists (like the 9/11 hijackers, or the Mumbai terrorists, or the Anarchists of the early 20th-Century) tend to study in those fields that society at the moment considers to be unusually-glamorous. Newbie terrorists don't want to be original thinkers: like Sarah Palin's dead fish, they want to go with the flow.

Engineering has been very popular for the last seventy years in societies eager to gain technocratic merit, and so terrorists for the last 70 years have tended to come from that milieu. But one hundred years ago, literature was considered far more glamorous than it is today, and I bet anarchists then were likelier than most to have any number of awful romantic manuscripts stashed in their closets ("Oh, Gavrilo, Gavrilo! Don't shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand!" "Darling, I love you forever, but I must do what is right for Serbia!").

In America today, the legal professions and acting are very popular. Thus, I would expect Hollywood to be filled with terrorist wannabes. And every so often, you meet someone who combines both tendencies: a show-business lawyer. I remember we had one of these fellows in the 2003 California Gubernatorial race, and his combination of moneyed disdain and open mockery - call it his "divaness" - terrorized all the rest of us candidates. And does the TSA keep show business lawyers from boarding planes? You'd hope so, but, sadly, they get waved on board, along with all the frustrated Gulf State civil engineers and bad French romance novelists.

And what did the quote say?:
"suggests that characteristics such as greater intolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can be made to work like clockwork, and dislike of democratic politics which involves compromise, are more common among engineers".
Substitute the word "actors" or "lawyers" for "engineers" and the quote rings just as true!

Role Reprise

No matter how much you like the stage version of “Mary Poppins,” the original 1964 Disney movie is never far from mind. Which is why the Ahmanson Theatre audience went crazy Friday night when it was told Richard M. Sherman, one of the film’s songwriters, was in the house and went even crazier when it learned Dick Van Dyke, one of the film’s stars, would make a surprise appearance during the show.

The effervescent actor did not portray Bert, the Cockney chimney sweep he made famous. Instead he reprised his other (and less well known) screen role–Mr. Dawes Sr., the crotchety bank president and boss of Poppins’ boss, Mr. Banks. Van Dyke had to cajole Walt Disney into giving him the part because Disney thought Van Dyke–then in his 30s– was too young to be the ancient moneyman. The actor reportedly won him over by acing a screen test, agreeing to portray Dawes for free and making a donation to the California Institute of the Arts, which Disney co-founded.

Van Dyke had a much easier time getting the chance to play the tottering, doddering banker at the Ahmanson. After seeing the Disney-Cameron Mackintosh production of “Poppins” when it opened here in November, he volunteered to join the cast for a cameo. Dawes--a character not included in the stage musical--was written into a pivotal scene in which Banks finds out whether he’s going to lose his job.

Although he’s 84, Van Dyke still cuts a spry figure and flashes a familiar impish grin. During his Big Moment late in the second act, he was easy to spot as he staggered through the bank’s doors, gummed and mugged to the crowd’s delight, sputtered a few choice words and then burst into “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” accompanied by a jig.

"Old actors don't die," Van Dyke quipped after the show. "They keep doing the same part over and over."

U.S. To Appeal Blackwater Case Dismissal

Good. The Blackwater slaughter was inexcusable. Murderers must be punished.:
US Vice-President Joe Biden says the US government will appeal against a court ruling dismissing manslaughter charges in the Blackwater shootings case.

...Mr Biden said the dismissal of the Blackwater charges was just that and "not an acquittal".

Expressing "personal regret" over the 16 September 2007 shootings in Baghdad's Nisoor Square, he said the US justice department would file its appeal against the court's decision next week.

"The United States is determined to hold to account anyone who commits crimes against Iraqi people," Mr Biden added.

"While we fully respect the independence and the integrity of the US judicial system, we were disappointed with the judge's decision to dismiss the indictment, which was based on the way some evidence had been acquired."

Iraq maintains the Blackwater guards fired without provocation. Blackwater said the firing followed an ambush on one of its convoys.

The US rejected attempts for a trial in Iraq but charges in the US were thrown out when a judge ruled in December that the guards' constitutional rights had been violated and that the justice department had mishandled evidence.

The ruling provoked anger in Iraq and this month the Iraqi government began collecting signatures for a class action lawsuit on behalf of people killed or wounded in incidents involving Blackwater.

Iraq said it would seek compensation for a number of such cases and would continue to "act forcefully and decisively to prosecute".

The 2007 incident caused widespread public anger against foreign security companies operating in Iraq and their activities have been severely curbed since then.

Game With The Devil

As a fundraiser, it's got more edge than a bake sale:
A French artist has struck an unusual deal to sell his latest work: instead of paying up front, the buyer will hand over a regular fee until the artist dies.

Christian Boltanski said his deal with Australian professional gambler David Walsh was a "game" with the devil - but not a pact.

The work involves four video cameras filming Boltanski's studio in suburban Paris, day and night, from January until his death, with images relayed live to a cave in Tasmania, Australia.

"This man (Walsh) thinks he can beat the odds and he says he never loses," Boltanski, 65, told AFP in an interview at the studio in Malakoff, in the southwest Paris suburbs.

"Anyone who never loses or thinks he never loses must be the devil."

Rather than handing over the price of the work in one lump sum, Walsh will make regular payments - monthly or annual, the artist did not say - until Boltanski's death.

The longer Boltanski lives, the more Walsh has to pay.

Walsh, a professional gambler who made his fortune in casinos, worked out that he would make money from the deal if Boltanski dies within the next eight years.

"If I die in three years, he wins. If I die in 10 years, he loses," Boltanski said.

"He has assured me I will die before the eight years is up because he never loses. He's probably right. I don't look after myself very well.

"But I'm going to try to survive. You can always fight against the devil."

...Walsh has a passion for the macabre, the Boltanski said, and collects Egyptian mummies.

"He wanted to buy my ashes, but I refused. I don't want to end up in Tasmania. There's a little temple in Japan that will suit me just fine," he said.

Polygamist Bus Tours

Add this to the Haight-Ashbury hippie bus tours of the Sixties, and last year's LA cholo bus tour. But if they have an ATV portion, I'm off the bus (I'm pretty wishy-washy on polygamy, but I hate ATVs with a passion):
We slow down to allow for a group of playing children to run away from us. They’re beautiful, rosy-cheeked, towheaded kids, the girls all in prairie dresses and the boys in long-sleeved plaid shirts and jeans. The oldest among them, a teenage girl, ushers them across the street and up the driveway to a walled-in home. It’s vaguely safari-ish: I stare from the truck window and say, “Oh, they’re so precious!” to my driver, who charged me $70 for this tour, “The Polygamy Experience.”

...“I’ve had thousands of people ask me about (the polygamist towns) since I moved to St. George,” he says. “I always shied away from talking about it. But then it seemed the time was right, there was a business aspect here, an opportunity.” So he and another apostate brother bought a 29-seat bus last year, took out some ads in nearby newspapers (including the Review-Journal), created a Web site offering “stories of growing up in this unique religion, a picnic set in the beautiful Vermillion Cliffs of southern Utah ... and intimate views of markets, parks and cemeteries,” and began trucking people through the land of assigned multi-wife marriages and prairie dresses.

...“I came and talked to the mayor of Hildale and bought a business license,” Holm says. The mayor was not thrilled. “He told me, ‘If you start doing this, you’re going to find that people will start building walls around their property,’ ” Holm says. “And I told him, ‘You’re going to find that the more you build a wall, the more people want to see behind it.’ ”

...“I feel like people need to know they’re not gun-toting, sly, sinister, wicked, evil child molesters out here,” Holm says. “They’re hardworking and honest.” In this light, I envision tourism as some army of light, dismantling misinformation and stigma, or breaking open tightly closed communities and providing insiders with a view of the outside: Fundamentalists here do not watch TV or movies or troll the Internet, but now they can associate outsiders with a short-haired woman in a park interrupting their picnic to take their picture.

...Holm says, “Our long-term success is really going to be from Vegas and Zion and the touring buses that come out here. We’ll probably go through our market in St. George rapidly. One of the things we want to do eventually is develop an ATV part of the tour, too. The scenery out here is fabulous.”

What's New At U of A?

Making algae work for you:
You know algae - you've probably grown it inadvertently. It's a stream-clogging, pool-fouling aquatic plant that some scientists have spent careers trying to prevent.

But it has its good points. It removes the carbon from carbon dioxide. It thrives in wastewater and can even clean it up. It produces fatty lipids that can be easily turned into clean-burning biodiesel and other fuels. The leftover green mass can be fed to cattle or burned as fuel.

...The goal, said Michael Cusanovich, regents professor of biochemistry, is $3-a-gallon algae biofuel.

...Algae isn't tough to grow, she said, but it takes a lot of water to produce a small amount - a liter contains 2 to 3 grams, she said.

"Dewatering" those batches of algae using traditional methods such as a centrifuge is an energy-expensive process, Ogden said, and any process that uses a lot of energy to produce a fuel is self-defeating.

Solving the problem isn't just about solving that step. Rather than aim for one big breakthrough, the team wants to improve each step of the process and integrate all those steps, Ogden said.

...Cusanovich, who is concentrating on developing the most productive strain of algae, said his goal is 50 percent lipids - the fats that produce a clean-burning biofuel.

Then, especially in the water-starved Southwest, you need to find ways to cut down on the use of water.

One of algae's attributes is that it thrives in nonpotable water. Cusanovich is among several researchers using partly treated wastewater to grow his varieties of algae.

Joel Cuello, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, grows algae in a photo-bioreactor he developed and patented at the research greenhouses on Campbell Avenue. He said Southern Arizona is a great place to grow algae with that one exception. "We have a lot of sunlight and land, but not a lot of water," he said.

Sewage that hasn't been totally treated for waste is one solution. "We consider it waste, but from the point of view of the algae - it's nutrients," he said.

Another of algae's alluring attributes is its ability to capture carbon. It grows better in a CO2-enriched atmosphere, which is why carbon dioxide is bubbling through beakers of green liquid all over campus these days.

One thought is to locate algae farms next to power plants. The Department of Energy recently awarded a $70.5 million grant to Arizona Public Service to do just that at its coal-fired Cholla Power Plant near Holbrook.

Catastrophe Arriving In Cape Tribulation

Category Two Tropical Cyclone Olga should cross the Queensland coast in just a few hours - by sunset tonight, California time:
JANUARY 24, 2am: Cyclone Olga has picked up speed and is now expected to cross the coast near Cape Tribulation, north of Cairns and Port Douglas.

...At 1am category two Tropical Cyclone Olga was estimated to be 215km east-northeast of Port Douglas and 210km east-northeast of Cairns moving west-northwest at 22km/h.

...Gales are expected to develop about the coast between Cape Melville and Cardwell this morning.

Destructive are likely to develop about the coast between Cooktown and Cairns by late morning.

Very heavy rainfall with localised flooding is expected to develop about the North Tropical Coast during the day.

At 1am, Cooktown had already recorded 51mm of rain since 9am Saturday.

Between 11pm and 1.30am, Cairns recorded 27.4mm of rain 16.8mm, and at Green Island winds of 70km/h have been recorded.

Meanwhile, power outages have affected homes in the Mission Beach and East Palmerston area. The cause is not yet known.

As the cyclone crosses the coast, abnormally high tides are expected between Cape Tribulation and Innisfail, but the sea level should not exceed the highest tide of the year. Large waves are likely along the beachfront.

People between Cape Melville and Cardwell should complete preparations quickly and be prepared to shelter in a safe place. Boats and outside property should be secured as quickly as possible.

'Free Bird'

I rarely watch television, but I made an exception last night for Conan's last show.

Friday, January 22, 2010

"The Producers" Promotional Video

Two more weekends!

Stop The Panic - Now!

Americans in search of perfect security are just one step away from paralyzing air travel altogether. It's time to take our destiny away from the security dictators:
This country needs to get a grip. We need a slap in the face, a splash of cold water.

On Saturday, 57-year-old Jules Paul Bouloute opened an emergency exit inside the American Airlines terminal at Kennedy airport. Alarms blared and sirens flashed. Bouloute later told police that he'd opened the door by accident.

Which is what you'd assume. Sure, the exit was clearly marked, but it happens all the time, does it not? In office buildings, shopping malls, hospitals and airports, well-intended people become distracted and pass through restricted doorways. And you would think our airport security force would keep this in mind and react accordingly, and not with the assumption that every errant traveler is a terrorist poised for mass murder.

...Unfortunately, this is America 2010, and the response at JFK was neither rational nor surprising. All of Terminal 8 was evacuated for more than two hours. Police then swept through the building with dogs and SWAT teams (because, you see, a terrorist wouldn't quietly drop an explosive device into a trash barrel; he would first set off alarms, in order to...?).

...But what shocks me the most is that throughout all the coverage of the incident, including numerous interviews with ticked-off passengers and somber-voiced officials, not once has anybody raised the point that maybe — just maybe — we overreacted. Everyone, instead, is eager to blame Bouloute.

...What caused the delays and what hassled so many travelers was not the defendant's actions, but our mindless and hysterical response to them.

The media and officials, in all possible gravity, keep describing the incident as a "security breach." Not to harp on semantics, but am I the only person who finds this silly? Granted I'm not privy to every detail, but let me go out on a limb here: It was an accident. A simple and minor accident. As Bouloute's attorney told reporters, "He just walked through the wrong door."

...What has become of us? Are we really in such a confused and panicked state that a person haplessly walking through the wrong door can disrupt air travel nationwide, resulting in mass evacuations and long delays? "The terrorists have won" is one of those waggish catch-alls that normally annoy me, but all too often it seems that way. Our reactionary, self-defeating behavior has put much at stake — our time, our tax dollars and our liberties.

And where is American Airlines in all of this? It has refused to comment, citing the "ongoing investigation."

...And that's a shame. I realize that airlines are in a very tough position. They face extreme liability issues and cannot be seen as lobbying against security, even if what they're complaining about is justified. And the airlines, remember, caught an awful lot of flak, most of it undeserved, in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But at some point they need to stand up. Needless security woes make their customers angry and are one of the prime reasons that many people choose not to fly. At times the industry's silence and squeamishness suggest a business model of masochistic capitulation.

In Europe carriers have been feistier. After the foiled liquid bomb plot in London in 2006, British Airways threatened to sue the British Airports Authority over a draconian carry-on ban that resulted in scores of cancellations and massive delays. A group of airlines led by budget carrier Ryanair prepared a half-billion-dollar lawsuit against the British government, hoping the threat of legal action would inspire ministers to rescind some of the luggage restrictions, described by Ryanair as "illogical and unworkable."

Eventually the rules were relaxed.

Never mind screening delays, how about the cost of unscheduled diversions? Ever since 9/11, skittish fliers have touched off a plague of in-flight false alarms. A passenger looks at somebody the wrong way, and the next thing you know fighter jets are scrambled and you're headed to Newfoundland. Aircraft are evacuated while canine units inspect hundreds of suitcases. For an airline the trickle-down price of such disruptions — fuel costs, crew costs, passenger misconnects and downstream delays — can run well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

...Calming down will not make us "less safe," as security zealots are wont to argue. Quite the opposite, it would free up time and resources, allowing us to focus on more credible and potent problems.

...What is it about us, as a nation, that has made us so unable to remember, and unable to cope?

Take A Club And Pummel PG&E Half To Death

Electricity markets are quintessential examples of regulated markets (they have to be regulated, because customers can't really shop for power - they are the mercy of the available utilities).

There are few avenues for using market mechanisms to control costs in electricity generation, but one mechanism that can work (albeit disjointedly) is to place investor-owned utilities in competition with public-owned utilities for customer turf.

As might be expected, investor-owned utilities hate not being able to set any rates they choose. The idea of competition makes their skin crawl, and they fight back. For example, two years ago, PG&E fought back when SMUD tried to muscle in on Yolo County. I so much wanted that effort to succeed - Yolo County would have really benefited! - but PG&E forced SMUD to gain approval from Sacramento-area voters first. Sacramento-area voters saw little to gain for themselves and turned down the bid. Yolo County continues to labor under the onerous oppression of PG&E.

PG&E never sleeps, though. They've now unleashed a new weapon against the people....

PG&E is well on the way to placing itself out-of-reach of any efforts to restrict its ability to set just about any electricity rates it wants. The Sacramento Bee took the unusual step, however, of issuing a blistering condemnatory editorial before PG&E's campaign really started.

As Treasurer of a non-profit group located in PG&E country, every single damned day, I feel the difficulty of supporting some of the highest utility rates in the country. PG&E is a direct threat to the continued survival of many non-profit groups, as well as profit-making businesses and simple residences, and to lock that existential threat into the California Constitution is unforgivable. When we go to the polling place in June, we must vote this thing down!

Here is the Sacramento Bee editorial in its entirety:
Pacific Gas and Electric spent $3.5 million to collect more than a million signatures to qualify what it calls the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act for California's June ballot. The self-serving title makes it sound like motherhood and apple pie. It is neither; the opposite, in fact.

If voters approve the measure, it will protect the investor-owned utility from dissatisfied customers angry about bad service and high costs. The initiative makes it virtually impossible for those customers to escape PG&E and create their own public power agency or to be annexed by a neighboring government-owned and operated utility. Under its provisions, a super majority, or two-thirds of the voters, in any jurisdiction would have to approve a proposal to switch from an investor-owned utility and move to public power. Stated another way, one-third of the electorate, a minority, would get to decide this vital issue for the majority.

PG&E's motives in this effort are obvious. Northern California's largest investor-owned utility has among the highest electricity rates of any power provider in the country, and those rates will likely go a lot higher soon. Currently PG&E has some 10 rate hike requests worth more than $5 billion pending before the California Public Utilities Commission. Increasingly, customers straining to pay those high electric bills are turning to public power for relief. PG&E charges its average customers 15.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity. Sacramento Municipal Utility District customers pay 11.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, 25 percent less. Roseville's rates are comparable to SMUD's.

In recent years PG&E has spent tens of millions of dollars to fend off efforts by ratepayers in San Joaquin, San Francisco, Marin and Yolo counties who've tried to form their own public utilities or annex themselves to public power agencies. If its initiative passes, PG&E won't have to worry about fighting small battles all over the state. The constitutional amendment makes it virtually impossible for any jurisdiction to escape the PG&E monopoly.

It also makes it difficult for cities that have public power agencies to extend that coverage to areas they annex in the future without going through onerous and expensive public votes. Given the two-thirds threshold they face under the initiative, they would likely lose. It gets worse. Attorneys for the Northern California Power Agency, the organization that represents public utility districts, say the way the initiative is drafted may prevent public agencies from providing power to a new subdivision, apartment building or business built within their own jurisdictions without first getting a two-thirds vote of approval from the public.

Finally, the PG&E ballot measure is another troubling example of the initiative process going dangerously awry in California, of a powerful special interest seizing the initiative process for its own narrow benefit. The measure the utility is bankrolling is not a simple statute. It is a constitutional amendment. If it passes, it enshrines unfair protections against competition for PG&E, one of the richest, most powerful corporations in the state, into the California Constitution.

It is unusual for The Bee to come out against a ballot measure before the campaign has really started. The PG&E initiative deserves special attention. It's that bad.

Creeped Out By The Testimony In The Mary Ourk Murder Trial

Because all this happened on streets I frequent every day:
At first, the 28-year-old Anguiano testified, she didn't make a whole lot out of West's drunken, late-night ramblings he purportedly related to her in November 2007.

It wasn't until the next summer, Anguiano said, that she started to put it all together – after she became friends with another former girlfriend of West's, and after the other ex said he also told her about the shooting, with more incriminating details.

"She told me that he had called her in the middle of the night saying that he had shot someone," Anguiano testified, under questioning from Deputy District Attorney Jeff Ritschard. "She said that it was outside a club, and that he followed someone. … She told me that he killed a random girl and I asked her where this happened and she said in Sacramento, and she told me the exact location."

Supreme Court Upends Federal Campaign Spending Laws

Our whimsical but supposedly more-conservative, strict-constitutionalist, tradition-respecting Supreme Court upends two-generation's worth of federal campaign finance laws:
WASHINGTON — Overruling two important precedents about the First Amendment rights of corporations, a bitterly divided Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.

The 5-to-4 decision was a vindication, the majority said, of the First Amendment’s most basic free speech principle — that the government has no business regulating political speech. The dissenters said that allowing corporate money to flood the political marketplace would corrupt democracy.

The ruling represented a sharp doctrinal shift, and it will have major political and practical consequences. Specialists in campaign finance law said they expected the decision to reshape the way elections were conducted. Though the decision does not directly address them, its logic also applies to the labor unions that are often at political odds with big business.

...The justices in the majority brushed aside warnings about what might follow from their ruling in favor of a formal but fervent embrace of a broad interpretation of free speech rights.

“If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, which included the four members of the court’s conservative wing, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

...The five opinions in Thursday’s decision ran to more than 180 pages, with Justice John Paul Stevens contributing a passionate 90-page dissent. In sometimes halting fashion, he summarized it for some 20 minutes from the bench on Thursday morning.

Joined by the other three members of the court’s liberal wing, Justice Stevens said the majority had committed a grave error in treating corporate speech the same as that of human beings.

Eight of the justices did agree that Congress can require corporations to disclose their spending and to run disclaimers with their advertisements, at least in the absence of proof of threats or reprisals. “Disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way,” Justice Kennedy wrote. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on this point.

...“The difference between selling a vote and selling access is a matter of degree, not kind,” Justice Stevens wrote. “And selling access is not qualitatively different from giving special preference to those who spent money on one’s behalf.”

Justice Kennedy responded that “by definition, an independent expenditure is political speech presented to the electorate that is not coordinated with a candidate.”

...But Justice Stevens defended the restrictions struck down on Thursday as modest and sensible. Even before the decision, he said, corporations could act through their political action committees or outside the specified time windows.

...Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion said that there was no principled way to distinguish between media corporations and other corporations and that the dissent’s theory would allow Congress to suppress political speech in newspapers, on television news programs, in books and on blogs.

Justice Stevens responded that people who invest in media corporations know “that media outlets may seek to influence elections.” He added in a footnote that lawmakers might now want to consider requiring corporations to disclose how they intended to spend shareholders’ money or to put such spending to a shareholder vote.
The court's reasoning is specious -ridiculous even - in one important respect: corporations are not individuals, nor are they groups of assembled citizens. Applying rights intended for individuals or assembled citizens to corporations will cause no end of trouble.

Nevertheless, I'm optimistic about the supposed disaster of unrestricted corporate campaign finance spending on elections. Unrestricted corporate spending can be problematic to those writing the checks. Corporate spending can backfire in elections - it has in the past - provided the electorate is informed about what corporate or labor union spending is occurring, or has a way to find out.

Paradoxically, simplifying protective campaign finance laws can help limit confusion about who is doing what in electioneering. The blunt club of power is easier to see when it isn't being hidden behind PACs and 527 groups.

Disclosure is the key, and the Internet provides channels whereby such spending can be disclosed nearly in real-time. Disclosure has to be immediate, however, or very-nearly so, to catch the wave of spending that occurs just prior to elections, and expose the underhanded dealmaking that inevitably occurs. That lack of information, not the spending itself, is what caused so much trouble in the past!

Disclosure laws must be rigorously-enforced to prevent the excesses of the past from returning.

Lethargic Obama Finally Twitches

But is it too late?:
President Obama is now, finally, getting tough on Wall Street. Today he’s giving his support to two measures critically important for making sure the Street doesn’t relapse into another financial crisis: (1) separating the functions of investment banking from commercial banking (basically, resurrecting the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act) so investment banks can’t gamble with insured commerial deposits, and (2) giving regulatory authorities power to limit the size of big banks so they don’t become "too big to fail," as antitrust laws do with every other capitalist entity. A few days ago the White House demanded that the biggest banks repay the $120 billion or so still owed the government from the bailout.

All good, all correct, all important. The President deserves at least two cheers. Why not three? It took him over a year to finally get here. The House has already completed its work on financial reform and may be reluctant to start over. The Senate is in disarray since Chris Dodd, chair of the Banking Committee, announced recently he wouldn’t seek reelection, and is poised to compromise with Wall Street on a number of big issues. Neither chamber has shown any interest whatsoever in resurrecting Glass-Steagall or limiting the size and risk of big banks. In other words, much of the game is over.

It’s possible, of course, that Congress could go along with Obama’s new proposals. A populist backlash against the big banks is growing among Americans who can’t understand why Wall Street is back to its old ways even though most Americans are worried about losing their jobs and homes as a result of Wall Street’s massive implosion in 2008. And they’ve never been able to understand why taxpayers bailed out Wall Street while Main Street still languishes.

A cynic might conclude that Obama’s born-again populism is for the cameras. Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts revealed the strength of I’m-mad-as-hell populism in the electorate right now. Add in the $150 billion of bonuses the Street is about to bestow on itself and the outrage meter could blow. With sky-high unemployment and surly voters, Democrats have to show they’re on the side of the people, not the powerful, as Al Gore put it in the last days of the 2000 election (too late to help himself).

For almost a year now, Democratic pollsters have been pointing out how much the public hates the bank bailout and despises Wall Street. But there was no reason for Democratic leaders in Congress or the White House to pay much attention. After all, it was a Republican president and a Republican Congress that came up with the bank bailout plan to begin with. Some stalwart Republicans had grumbled about it, of course, but Republicans have always been on the side of Wall Street and big business and weren’t likely to call for strong measures to prevent the Street from getting into trouble again.

Larry Summers and Tim Geithner scuttled Paul Volcker’s plan to separate the banks’ commercial and investment functions, and didn’t want to limit the size of banks or the risks they could take on. Summers and Geithner have wanted to get the banks back to profitability as soon as possible. And Dems in Congress have had no stomach to take on Wall Street, a major source of campaign funding.

But suddenly the winds are blowing in a different direction over the Potomac. The 2010 midterms are getting closer, and the Dems are scared. Their polls are plummeting. The upsurge in mad-as-hell populism requires that Democrats become indignant on behalf of Americans, and indignation is meaningless without a target.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Problem With 'Tradition'

It's scary:
The US Airways Express captain diverted the New York-Louisville flight and landed in Philadelphia after crew and passengers became concerned about the young man and the unidentifiable boxes.

Turns out, the 17-year old Orthodox Jew was actually just using "tefillin," a set of black boxes that contain Biblical verses, and are traditionally attached to the arms and head during Jewish prayers.

The young man explained the ritual to crew members, but was questioned by the FBI after the pilot landed the plane.

I Had A Community Musical Theater Dream

It was a real interesting dream, full of local musical theater notables. Sadly, however, I must keep it private.

Not that it was nasty, or anything. It's just that words and images have multiple meanings.

For example, one woman in the dream produced a magical hula hoop, through which a sagebrush plain could be seen, with mountains in the distance (almost like looking at "Bonanza", on TV). In ringleader fashion she shouted: "And here comes a cougar!" And, sure enough, a cougar came leaping out of the hoop and gracefully leaped across the stage until it disappeared into the wings.

But for any woman of standing in the local musical theater community to proclaim: "And here comes a cougar!" Well, that will just get me in all sorts of trouble.

So, I will continue to dream away until I have a socially-acceptable dream to report....

On The Weaknesses Of Martha Coakley As A Candidate

Via Daily Kos:
To say she wasn’t a good communicator is an understatement. As a friend told me, Martha Coakley made Mike Dukakis look like James Brown.

Old People Rule!

Young people spend 7 hours, 38 minutes a day on TV, video games, computer
Well, I spend 7 hours, 39 minutes a day on TV, video games, computer.


Why Cold Winters Don't Mean The Globe Is Cooling

Jerry sends this excellent video explaining why Global Warming continues unaffected, despite the apparent paradox of a cold winter.

They Can See The Supplies, But They Die Anyway

America's racist impulses are difficult to contain when poor black people need help. Just like with Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Government's hyper-security-conscious reaction to the Haiti earthquake ignores the urgent necessity of speed:
By the weekend, it was clear that something perverse was going on in Haiti, something savage and bestial in its lack of concern for human life. I'm not talking about the earthquake, and certainly not about the so-called "looting," which I prefer to think of as the autonomously organized distribution of unjustly hoarded goods. I'm talking about the U.S. relief effort.

For two days after the quake, despite almost unimaginable destruction, there were reasons to be optimistic. ... Taking advantage of "our unique capacity to project power around the world," President Barack Obama pledged abundant aid and 10,000 troops.

Troops? Port-au-Prince had been leveled by an earthquake, not a barbarian invasion, but, OK, troops. Maybe they could put down their rifles and, you know, carry stuff, make themselves useful. At least they could get there soon: The naval base at Guantanamo was barely 200 miles away.

The Cubans, at least, would show up quickly. It wasn't until Friday, three days after the quake, that the "supercarrier" USS Carl Vinson, arrived—and promptly ran out of supplies. "We have communications, we have some command and control, but we don't have much relief supplies to offer," admitted Rear Adm. Ted Branch. So what were they doing there?

"Command and control" turned out to be the key words. The U.S. military did what the U.S. military does. Like a slow-witted, fearful giant, it built a wall around itself, commandeering the Port-au-Prince airport and constructing a mini-Green Zone. As thousands of tons of desperately needed food, water, and medical supplies piled up behind the airport fences—and thousands of corpses piled up outside them—Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled out the possibility of using American aircraft to airdrop supplies: "An airdrop is simply going to lead to riots," he said. The military's first priority was to build a "structure for distribution" and "to provide security." (Four days and many deaths later, the United States began airdropping aid.)

The TV networks and major papers gamely played along. Forget hunger, dehydration, gangrene, septicemia—the real concern was "the security situation," the possibility of chaos, violence, looting. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of on-the-ground accounts from people who did not have to answer to editors described Haitians taking care of one another, digging through rubble with their bare hands, caring for injured loved ones—and strangers—in the absence of outside help. Even the evidence of "looting" documented something that looked more like mutual aid: The photograph that accompanied a Sunday New York Times article reporting "pockets of violence and anarchy" showed men standing atop the ruins of a store, tossing supplies to the gathered crowd.

The guiding assumption, though, was that Haitian society was on the very edge of dissolving into savagery. Suffering from "progress-resistant cultural influences" (that's David Brooks finding a polite way to call black people primitive), Haitians were expected to devour one another and, like wounded dogs, to snap at the hands that fed them. As much as any logistical bottleneck, the mania for security slowed the distribution of aid.

Air-traffic control in the Haitian capital was outsourced to an Air Force base in Florida, which, not surprisingly, gave priority to its own pilots. While the military flew in troops and equipment, planes bearing supplies for the Red Cross, the World Food Program, and Doctors Without Borders were rerouted to Santo Domingo in neighboring Dominican Republic. Aid flights from Mexico, Russia, and France were refused permission to land. On Monday, the British Daily Telegraph reported, the French minister in charge of humanitarian aid admitted he had been involved in a "scuffle" with a U.S. commander in the airport's control tower. According to the Telegraph, it took the intervention of the United Nations for the United States to agree to prioritize humanitarian flights over military deliveries.

Meanwhile, much of the aid that was arriving remained at the airport. Haitians watched American helicopters fly over the capital, commanding and controlling, but no aid at all was being distributed in most of the city. On Tuesday, a doctor at a field hospital within site of the runways complained that five to 10 patients were dying each day for lack of the most basic medical necessities. "We can look at the supplies sitting there," Alphonse Edward told Britain's Channel 4 News.

...This leaves the more disturbing question of why the Obama administration chose to respond as if they were there to confront an insurgency, rather than to clear rubble and distribute antibiotics and MREs. The beginning of an answer can be found in what Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell, calls "elite panic"—the conviction of the powerful that their own Hobbesian corporate ethic is innate in all of us, that in the absence of centralized authority, only cannibalism can reign.

But the danger of hunger-crazed mobs never came up after the 2004 Pacific tsunami, and no one mentions security when tornados and floods wipe out swaths of the American Midwest. This suggests two possibilities, neither of them flattering. The first is that the administration had strategic reasons for sending 10,000 troops that had little to do with disaster relief.

...Another answer lies closer to home. New Orleans and Port-au-Prince have one obvious thing in common: The majority of both cities' residents are black and poor. White people who are not poor have been known, when confronted with black people who are, to start locking their car doors and muttering about their security. It doesn't matter what color our president is. Even when it is ostensibly doing good, the U.S. government can be racist, and, in an entirely civil and bureaucratic fashion, savagely cruel.

Arizona Doesn't Get Rain For Eons - Then Wham!

Deborah will be happy, though:
Flights into and out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport were expected to stop around midday Thursday because of high winds and low visibility.

Sky Harbor spokeswoman Deborah Ostreicher says flights that hadn't left for Phoenix by about 10:30 a.m. local time probably won't take off for Arizona until Thursday evening.

...Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor says airlines are opting to cancel flights because of expected very strong crosswinds.

The winter storm causing the problems was dumping heavy rain on the Phoenix area and several feet of snow to the north, which closed roads and made driving difficult.

So Many Movies - Where Does One Find The Time To See Them All?

Titillating snippets from the LDS Film Festival:
OREM, Utah -- According to LDS Film Festival head honcho Christian Vuissa, the opening night feature film, "You're so Cupid," has already been snagged for the television screen at the very least.

It's one of three films that are coming into the 2010 festival of movies, documentaries and shorts that Vuissa predicts may break into the mass market -- like "Forever Strong," "Errand of Angels" and "One Man's Treasure" from festivals past.

(The other two include "Broken Hill" and "White on Rice.")

...Previews shown prior to the screening of "You're so Cupid" included a number of flicks with real possibilities. "I am from Nowhere: The People History Ignored (the story of the Lemko people's persecution)," "Jack'd Up" (a dramatic short involving two athletes competing in motocross events with one in a wheelchair) and "The Yankles" (being screened at a major Jewish film festival this week as well with many of the major parts played by Mormons) among others.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Martha Stewart Explores Pole Dancing

Kind of like what Steve does on those telephone poles south of Elk Grove....

OK, I'm Dead

So are you:
Here's a new warning from health experts: Sitting is deadly. Scientists are increasingly warning that sitting for prolonged periods - even if you also exercise regularly - could be bad for your health. And it doesn't matter where the sitting takes place - at the office, at school, in the car or before a computer or TV - just the overall number of hours it occurs.

Research is preliminary, but several studies suggest people who spend most of their days sitting are more likely to be fat, have a heart attack or even die.

..."After four hours of sitting, the body starts to send harmful signals," Ekblom-Bak said. She explained that genes regulating the amount of glucose and fat in the body start to shut down.

Even for people who exercise, spending long stretches of time sitting at a desk is still harmful. Tim Armstrong, a physical activity expert at the World Health Organization, said people who exercise every day - but still spend a lot of time sitting - might get more benefit if that exercise were spread across the day, rather than in a single bout.

New Zealand Skydiver Tries To Thread The Needle

Skydiver doesn't quite make it through the hole in the rock, but call it a success anyway.

OK, Then, What IS New Mexico Good For?

Well, movies:
Another victory for New Mexico's film industry: a major movie making publication has given Albuquerque an excellent review.

"In the past when people said, 'New Mexico?' They didn't really think of Albuquerque. now they can spell it," Ann Lerner, with the New Mexico Film Office, said.

Now more people will read about it, too.

"Movie Maker Magazine" named the Duke City as the best place to live and work in film in 2010.

The publication credits Albuquerque's 300 plus days of sunshine, diverse terrain and film incentives.

The magazine labeled the Duke City as a mini-movie mecca.

Even Gov. Bill Richardson is taking note of the honor.

"New Mexicans continue to prove we make some of the finest films in the world," Richardson said.

New Mexicans Respond To The Haitiian Quake

As international aid agencies rush food, water and medicine to Haiti's earthquake victims, a United States group is sending Bibles.

But these aren't just any Bibles; they're solar-powered audible Bibles that can broadcast the holy scriptures in Haitian Creole to 300 people at a time.

The Faith Comes By Hearing organisation says its Bible, called the Proclaimer, delivers "digital quality" and is designed for "poor and illiterate people".

It says 600 of the devices are already on their way to Haiti.

The Albuquerque-based organisation says it is responding to the Haitian crisis by "providing faith, hope and love through God's word in audio".

The audio Bible can bring the "hope and comfort that comes from knowing God has not forgotten them through this tragedy," a statement on its website says.

"The Proclaimer is self-powered and can play the Bible in the jungle, desert or ... even on the moon!"

Tens of thousands of Port-au-Prince residents are living outdoors because their homes have collapsed or they fear aftershocks following Wednesday's quake.

Haiti Aftershock

What a mess!:
The most powerful aftershock yet struck Haiti on Wednesday, shaking more rubble from damaged buildings and sending screaming people running into the streets eight days after the country's capital was devastated by an apocalyptic quake.

The magnitude-6.1 temblor was the largest of more than 40 significant aftershocks that have followed the Jan. 12 quake. The extent of additional damage or injuries was not immediately clear.

Yearning For An Authoritarian Liberal

Capitol Hill is awash with fear because Democrats now have a 59-seat majority.

Fifty-nine seat majority. That's more than G. W. Bush ever had, and he started wars with that.

As Machiavelli understood, it's better that people fear you than love you. Right now, no one fears Obama.

I know it's late, but take a stand and fight for it! No more compromise, and make folks like Lieberman pay a price. Public option, or nothing!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Coakley Must Have Run One Helluva Bad Campaign

Bad news. Need to get more liberal, folks!
Boston, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Republican Scott Brown has won Tuesday's special election for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy, CNN projects based on actual results.

Brown, a Massachusetts state senator, had 53 percent of the vote to 46 percent for state Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic contender, with 69 percent of precincts reporting in results from the National Election Pool, a consortium of media organizations including CNN. Independent candidate Joseph Kennedy, a libertarian who is not related to the Kennedy political family of Massachusetts, had 1 percent.

The Dentist Says Don't Worry Too Much About That Dank-Smelling Spot By The LLH Molar

There is a very energetic and pleasant new dentist in the office. She says gum loss is minimal in my worry spot and maybe the bacteria have just found a nice place to pool. But I'm flossing that area five times a day anyway. Bacteria and I have a wary relationship....

She says I need a crown on the URH side. I agreed - it's good to be the king - but that's not what she meant....

On another topic, the dental office is high-end and the receptionists are SO fashion-conscious! Their bubbly public personas are smooth-as-silk! What a strange job! Like TV Weather Girls, but for the mouth....

The Voodoo Priests Are Right, But What Are You Going To Do?

Haiti, the Land of Zombies.

Ted Koppel was just on NPR making a point that Haiti was deforested to make ruinous reparations forced on them by the French to pay release from slavery. The last reparation payments were made in 1947! It's been downhill ever since for Haiti.

Making a better Haiti will require an extraordinary amount of money, time, patience, and love.:
Haiti's voodoo priests are objecting to anonymous mass burials as an improper way to handle the tens of thousands of dead from the earthquake -- and have taken their complaint to President Rene Preval.

Dumping the dead in hurriedly excavated mass graves without proper rites is seen as desecration in a country where many believe in zombies -- dead bodies brought back to life by supernatural forces who could persecute the living.

Haitian officials say so far at least 50,000 bodies have been dumped in mass graves outside the shattered capital, Port-au-Prince, in what they view as the most efficient way to dispose of the fast-rotting corpses from Tuesday's disaster.

"It is not in our culture to bury people in such a fashion," Haiti's main voodoo leader, Max Beauvoir, said in a meeting with Preval.

Local radio is broadcasting messages for Haitians to put bodies recovered from under the rubble of collapsed buildings on the street for collection by garbage and other trucks.

"The conditions in which bodies are being buried is not respecting the dignity of these people," Beauvoir, who was educated at City College of New York and the Sorbonne in Paris, said in the Preval meeting this weekend.

More than half of Haiti's 9 million people are believed to practice voodoo, a religion with roots in Africa. Some 80 percent also are Catholic and most Haitians see no conflict between the two.

Five days after the earthquake, scores of untouched corpses, now bloated and stinking, remain on streets. Red Cross officials have repeatedly said no one should fear disease from dead bodies after the earthquake that is believed to have killed up to 200,000 people.

"I don't understand why everyone is worried about a disease risk," Haitian Red Cross President Michaelle Amedee Gedeon told Reuters. "Do we have cholera in Haiti? No. Do we have the plague in Haiti? No. Rodents, water will not get contaminated. The only bad effect from the corpses is the smell."

Chicken Little Update

So far, not bad: a little rain - not too much anywhere. But more is coming....

But Otherwise I Have Nothing To Blog About!

"I'm getting really tired of reading about all of the explicit details of my life on your blog everyday."

"boom" - B Street Theatre

Through a series of implausible and virtually-unbloggable events, I ended up being invited by M.R. to see "boom" at the B Street Theatre on Sunday afternoon.

Marcus Crowder at the Sacramento Bee reviewed boom:
There's an obvious but rarely asked question regarding the end of the world as we know it. How would the next world then begin?

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's subversively funny and genuinely thought- provoking new play "boom" suggests a biologically plausible theory. You can actually experience the ideas unfolding during director Michael Stevenson's rollicking new production at B Street Theatre.

Nachtrieb's theory (he has degrees in biology and theater) isn't what you likely thought it would be, but then neither is his subtly revelatory narrative.

...Nachtrieb smartly mashes them up in a subterranean university research lab where an Internet-arranged sex date takes an apocalyptic turn.

The tryst has been arranged by Peter Story's gay virgin scientist Jules, and his intimate is Sarah Aili's skeptical student journalist Jo. As first dates go, this one will truly be memorable.

But first let's have a drum roll from the onstage timpani played by our humble narrator Barbara, the sublime Jamie Jones. Barbara oversees the action from her perch at the back of the stage, and occasionally she pauses things with her series of levers on the wall. Samantha Reno inventively designed the intricate bunker set.

When Jo first arrives and Jules surreptitiously locks the heavy door behind her, we seem to be in for a dark modern sex comedy. Jules has advertised for someone who'd like to participate in end-of-the-world sex. Jo has responded thinking the description was more figurative than literal – plus she has a writing assignment to complete and the date seems as fine a subject as anything else.

As Story's likable Jules shows a hesitancy about actually having sex and Aili's incendiary Jo becomes more frustrated and angry, the story begins to shift. When Jo decides she's had enough and tries to leave, Barbara stops everything for some increasingly informative asides. Let's just say her character becomes more and more surprisingly central to the action as the play progresses.

Jones' Barbara has a benignly kooky presence and Story's Jules swoons with sweetness and decency, but Aili's Jo only responds to him with a stream of bile.

After two acts of her continual f-bombs, Jo wears thin, and one wishes Nachtrieb might have written more dynamics and less histrionics into her character. A few bombs gently placed often do more significant damage than than a whole bunch heedlessly hurled around.
Strange afternoon. M.R. fell asleep through almost all of Act 1 despite Barbara's percussive interruptions. The man in front of me jumped every time Barbara banged on her drums (he didn't return for Act 2). Jo dropped F-bombs like General Curtis LeMay ordering incendiaries dropped over Tokyo. And then, the the big "boom" of the Comet striking the Earth!

Jo's scorching language was strangely-exciting, and made me wonder what a first-date with Sarah Aili might be like.

Jules was pleasingly nerdy, but some of his scientific dialogue wasn't scientifically-correct, which the scientist playwright no doubt knew, but decided to overlook. Still, as a scientist, I must object....

With her drums and interjections, the presence of narrator Barbara was often annoying, and beside-the-point, and often detracted from the human drama, but eventually her real purpose was revealed: the real story wasn't about the people at all! Anthropocentric as we all are, we often forget that the Theory of Evolution makes no exceptions and has no favorites!

Hooray for Darwin! Hooray for Natural Selection and the Theory of Evolution! Long live boom!

Now, I wonder if Sarah Aili would like to step out for some yogurt....?

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I was checking the Internet looking for the cresting wave of Greta Gerwig publicity (Greenberg comes out next month!), but instead found this interesting-looking movie-to-be-released-soon.

Retrenchment In Lavender Heights?

Lambda Players needs some assistance:
The press release calls it a “crisis in Lavender Heights.” We call it more economic downturn-style drama. But whatever it’s called, the news that Sacramento’s oldest GLBTQ theater company (and one of the longest-running in the country) needs cash to stay afloat is worth paying attention to—and donating if you can. According to information released by David Stewart, the current president of Lambda Players, the company needs to raise $21,000 by March 1 to keep its doors open. It’s asking for donations both large and small, and can take credit cards on the Web site ( Checks can be mailed to Lambda Players, P.O. Box 163055, Sacramento, CA 95816. For more information, call (916) 444-8229, or attend one of the performances of The Kathy & Mo Show/Parallel Lives, which opens at 8 p.m. this Saturday, January 16, at the Lambda Players, 1127 21st Street.

More Images From "The Producers"

I had so many images from the rehearsal on Wednesday, January 6, 2010, that I just had to post more!