Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2003 January 1-31

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Home Again

Hello Reason people! I'm finally back in 70 degree Los Angeles, after two weeks in D.C. My travel experience was EXEMPLARY: quickly through security, no delays, and tailwinds that coasted us into LAX 45 minutes early. My United experience was very good, except for one oddity: A co-pilot with a strange sense of humor. As we started our descent over L.A.'s 100 miles of suburbs, he came on the intercom and said, in a somewhat sinister voice: "It's time to say goodbye." I exchanged a wary glance with my seat mate. Then he continued, "because we're descending into LAX." Sighs of relief all around...

Now, here's an actual piece of news: Daschle isn't running.

Television Without Pity

ER's Noah Wyle shaved and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's season of darkness lightened up for the same reason: a TV fansite called televisionwithoutpity.

The site is devoted to schlock (as its webmasters define it), and intentionally institutionalizes catty couch-potato reaction. But this British account reports that its lurkers include a number of the writers and producers of the shows that the site is devoted to criticizing, and that producers are making script adjustments, big and small, based on what they read there.

Fan intervention like this is another nail in the coffin of the Frankfurt School's still-influential "cultural industry" argument. That posits that cultural consumers are powerless, and eat whatever crap is shoveled at them by cynical cultural marketers. That was never true. Now, thanks to the technological tools in the hands of the audience, fans are only getting more powerful.

Illegal Video

With copyright law extending its reach, an artist's right to build on other people's work has been eroded, pushing some of the most creative material produced today into a legal gray area. The Illegal Art Exhibition has illustrated the problem by putting some of the most famous films from that gray area online.

Some of the movies here, such as Todd Haynes' Superstar, have been blocked from commercial distribution; others, such as Craig Baldwin's Tribulation 99, are merely risking such challenges. All of them would be perfectly permissible if the courts would take free speech and fair use seriously.

Kid-Flavored Prozac

Ritalin may not be a gateway drug, but Prozac has been OK'ed for use by kids as young as seven years old.

According to Reuters, Prozac is the "first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to receive approval for treating depression in children."

Among (m)any other questions, I'm left wondering if a desire to grow the market for Prozac, now competing with generics since its patent expired in 2001, is part of the mix here.

Link courtesy of Plastic, which also features a characteristically lively, free-wheeling conversation about the story.

Put Down That Beer and Step Away From the Bar

When state and local governments started banning smoking in bars, the joke was that drinking would be next. It's still a joke, but that doesn't mean it's not happening. Police in Fairfax County, Virginia, are going undercover to nab people for the crime of being drunk in a tavern (considered a "public place"). Soon they'll be raiding local gyms, hauling away anyone caught sweating.

"Thought only works if it is unplugged"

That, hilariously, is the concluding line of a proudly Luddite piece from the American Conservative. Oddly, it's available online.

Writes the director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism of the Free Congress Foundation, William S. Lind:

"The image is substituting itself for the Word, the Logos. The West spent three thousand years struggling to substitute the Word for the image. The war of the Word against the image is perhaps the most basic theme of the Old Testament. Thousands of Christians gave their lives in that fight. Now, thanks to the video screen, history is running backwards because on video screens images are far more powerful than words. Not surprisingly, paganism is on the rise, beyond and within the Church."

One might have thought such an olde-tyme conservative would have railed against print culture, which destroyed memory and was but an halfway house to the current hellish situation of not just video, but video on demand. In any case, Lind seems to be one more con who would vote for a flag-burning amendment.

Should the Homeless Be Locked Up?

Interesting article from the Chronicle of Higher Education delves into the question of involuntary commitment, particularly with reference to homeless woman Joyce Brown. A decade-plus ago, Brown was briefly a cause celebre after she was picked up under a newly passed NYC law that mandated taking in street people under certain weather conditions.

One thing the various experts in the story never really grapple with is how who pays for treatment affects policy. For instance, one academic "would like to see many more public resources devoted to treatment. Care for mentally ill people and the legal standard for detaining them should be separate issues, she says. 'If a homeless person wants treatment, she shouldn't have to show that she's 'dangerous,' just that she's very ill and wants help.'"

Maybe. But clearly once the state is paying, it's going to be calling the tune in a very significant way--and ways that will always leave large numbers of people unhappy with any given policy. [Link courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily]

Reason's own Jacob Sullum and Brian Doherty have recently treated similar issues at length here and here.

Norway to MPAA: Drop Dead

That's the subtext of a ruling by Norwegian court that found nothing wrong with writing a piece of software to play DVDs on Linux boxes.

The Motion Picture Association of America had argued the only possible use of the decryption utility was to pirate DVDs. The judge found no evidence that piracy was the intent.

The decision sets up a kind of fair use safe harbor, at least in Norway, for non-MPAA approved software. It also keeps alive the distinction between private, non-commercial use of legally acquired products and criminal theft. The big content guys have been hammering hard at that distinction in court cases and in legislation literally across the globe.

Let's see if US courts can grok the difference.

Faramarz Farahani

For the latest INS imprisonment horror story, go here.

Baba Booey Hugo

Poor Hugo Chavez, reeling from a month-long general strike and the steady desertion of allies, thought pal Fidel Castro was calling to cheer him up the other day. Sadly, Chavez appears to have been pranked by wacky DJs using taped snippets of Castro conversation:

The tape appears to have Chavez, who is struggling to end a month-old national strike by opponents, happily answering what he thought would be a friendly call Monday morning from Castro, one of his closest allies.

But on the other end of the line were WXDJ-FM disc jockeys Joe Ferrero and Enrique Santos, who ended the conversation by calling Chavez "terrorist" and "animal," along with a few expletives.

Supposedly Santos and Ferrero's boss is upset about the prank, but it turns out Chavez is quite a practical joker himself—even if you don't count sending the hemisphere's most oil-rich country into a depression as a world-class gag:

For the past Day of the Innocents, Latin Americans' version of April Fool's Day that is celebrated Dec. 28, he announced on the radio that he was tired and going to resign. He then changed his tone. ''Ha ha! You fell for it!'' he laughed.

Jesus, Back In the USSR

Merry Russian Orthodox Christmas. You wouldn't have needed me to remind you of the day if you were going to school in contemporary Russia, where public schools around the country are introducing religious education, despite a federal prohibition of religion in schools and a constitutional separation of church and state. Apparently school adminstrators get around the law by teaching a "Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture" course, rather than the Czarist-era theology course "God's Law." This AP story notes the irony of a religion class in a school that boasts a statue of Lenin—strongly indicating that the conversion of Russia promised by Our Lady of Fatima has still not happened.

One Hyphenated Word: Jar-Jaromir

Is it possible to absolutely nail two rabid fanbases in just a coupla grafs? BBspot does it and leaves you wanting more. Meesa thinks.

Audio Cut-Ups

If you liked those quasi-legal movies I linked to earlier today, you'll probably enjoy the latest feature on John Anderson's always-interesting DIYmedia site. It's a page devoted to audio collages, in which pranksters rearrange politicians' words to comic effect -- sometimes satiric, sometimes sophomoric, sometimes downright spectacular.

Anarchy in the GA

Who says deregulation is dead? Last month, Habersham County, Georgia, abolished all its land use regulations, eliminated its planning commission, and fired all its building inspectors. "We're going to see if people truly need to be regulated," Commissioner Jerry Tanksley explained.

Needless to say, the American Planning Association is upset.

News Monopoly?

Journalism sages -- really, just ask them -- Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel pen a howler in The New York Times warning that changes in the FCC ownership rules for local TV stations will lead to communication monopolies in TV, radio, newspapers, billboards, sandwich boards, matchbook covers, and, hell, probably those cheap pens that insurance guys give away.

Look around, guys. Local TV anchors aren't exactly trying to scoop their local daily. Many TV stories are cribbed straight from A1 and no one minds. They're complementary, not competing goods much of the time. Consumers and advertisers want and get different things from them.

The local news consumer probably doesn't know or care that his paper is Knight Ridder and his TV station Cox, two media giants who pursue the same safe, middle-of-the-road path no matter the market. How exactly would the world change if Cox one day bought the paper? Only carry TV listings for the Cox channel?

Kovach and Rosenstiel are saying that barriers to entry to info markets are so high that one company could lock down a community. This view ignores or doesn't understand all the simple tools out there for individuals to route around content they don't like -- even create content they do like.

If online alternatives seem too ephemeral, then let's radically overhaul the one absolute barrier to entry into TV and radio markets, FCC licenses. Hands up who's for handing out low-power licenses like condoms at a SoBe circuit party? Thought so.

But I will make this offer to Cox: Get out of the junk mail biz, and you can own all the radio and TV stations and papers you want. Deal?

"no bills received"

That's the result you currently get when requesting THOMAS to list all bills introduced in the 108th Congress.

http://thomas.loc.gov/home/c108bills.html

Don't know if this is because the new Congress officially convened less than 90 minutes ago, or if it's because THOMAS is being redesigned today.

Whatever the reason, enjoy it while it lasts.

Dexedrine Defense

The two U.S. pilots who mistakenly dropped a bomb on Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last April apparently plan to argue that their judgment was clouded by the uppers the Air Force pressured them to take. This defense sounds desperate to me, but it's interesting that the U.S. military uses dexamphetamine in a way that would be condemned as abuse in the case of a college student or truck driver. An Air Force spokeswoman calls the drug a "fatigue management tool."

The International Program on Chemical Safety lists hyperactivity in children and narcolepsy as appropriate indications for a dexamphetamine prescription. (The Physicians' Desk Reference mentions these two, plus obesity.) "Perfomance enhancement" is listed under the heading of "misuse."

Bill McKibben's Incoherence on Genetic Science

Perennial eco-alarmist Bill McKibben (author of the apocalyptic and ethically obtuse, The End of Nature) takes the occasion of the Raelian cloning claims to oppose future progress in medical biotechnology. Why? Because he claims that cloning research is a threat to "our coherent human future." However, what is "incoherent" about a future in which parents could use genetic science to protect their children against disease and give them a better chance at fuller richer lives by providing them with stronger immune systems, more physical stamina and cleverer brains? McKibben and other political ecologists are joining up with conservatives like Leon Kass and Bill Kristol in a growing Neo-Luddite movement that wants to "stand athwart history, yelling stop."

The Hamdi Case

Also in The Village Voice, Nat Hentoff reviews the case of Yaser Esam Hamdi. Hamdi, an American citizen, has been imprisoned indefinitely without being charged with any crime, on the grounds that he is an "enemy combatant." Judge Robert Doumar, a Reagan appointee, asked the government defend its behavior; in response he received a two-page document that barely began to answer his concerns. For more details, go here.

You Sure You Got Today's Codes?

In The Village Voice's year-end review of movies, critic Michael Atkinson notes a three-minute short called The Spirit of America, "reportedly shown in thousands of theaters," that "assembled a litany of chest-swelling movie moments subtitled with helpful generalities like 'diversity,' 'family,' and 'patriotism.'" Apparently, the film wasn't as effective as its maker intended -- not, at least, if you're familiar with the source material. "Amongst other foolhardy equations," Atkinson writes, "Dr. Strangelove was summoned to evoke 'courage' -- excerpting George C. Scott's notorious speech advocating nuclear holocaust: 'I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed!' but leaving out, 'But I do say, no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops! Depending on the breaks!' We may all remember 9-11, but Hollywood would have us forget virtually everything else."

Iran, So Far Away

A sad story of what American communities can lose by strict enforcement of immigration laws here. An family from Iran -- the artist father feared persecution for cartoons critical of the regime there -- with deep roots and many contributions to Austin, Texas', artistic community are being booted from the country after their asylum appeal was denied. It may or may not have to do with post-9/11 fears of Middle Easterners. It will definitely hurt the six-member family and the arts community of Austin, with no discernable benefit.

Penn vs. State

An entertaining and inspirational account of fighting back against officious federal airport security personnel from the libertarian magician Penn Jillette here. Apparently, though, it helps if you are a celebrity.

Ritalin Not a "Gateway" Drug

The folks over at the Office of National Drug Control Policy must be relieved to hear that Ritalin is not a "gateway" drug according a Reuters report of new study in the journal Pediatrics. Now they get back to trying to ban the gateway drug that all known addicts have abused, mothers milk.

Sanitizing Sin City

The moral crusaders are even stripping the fun out of Las Vegas.

"[Clark County, Nevada] Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates first proposed cleaning up steamy lap dances after an undercover police investigation found that the dancing could progress to sex for money.

"The proposal led to a raucous meeting last summer in which one man said lap dances had health benefits and another accused Ms. Gates of being sexually repressed.

"'I'm not doing this for my sexual anything!' the commissioner yelled, banging her gavel. 'I'm doing this because I think it's right.'"

Philly's Mummers Didn't Expect the Spanish Inquisition

In the end, yesterday's running of the 102nd annual Philadelphia Mummers Parade did not feature its much-anticipated parody of the clergy sexual abuse scandal. The skit by the Slick Duck Comic Brigade had promised altar boys, the pope, priests being chased by cops, and even nuns in a go-go cage. When it hit the streets, however, the Ducks' parade car, according to AP, "still had the theme 'The Devil Made Me Do It' ... But the group's dozen or so performers offered no sex or religion, just rock 'n' roll, as they strutted to the tune of Elvis Presley's 'Jailhouse Rock.'"

If I know the Mummers, the sticking point was that everybody insisted on playing a nun, but the public reason is pressure from Philly Mayor John Street and Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua. Just to show that Bevilacqua's priorities are in order, the Philadelphia Archdiocese is still not even in compliance with the sex abuse guidelines set up with by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the cardinal has resisted the policy of informing civil authorities about priests dismissed in sexual abuse cases (though to be fair, Philly has had to pay a relatively minor $200,000 in settlements).

Despite the fact that the Mummers Parade is the largest collection of Irish Catholics ever assembled outside a drunk tank, Bevilacqua did not hesitate to call the sketch an "attack on the Catholic faith." Catholic League funnyman William Donohue went the Cardinal one better, rushing to the defense of "homosexual priests," and of course not failing to note that the parade does not allow blackface performances. Apparently, Bill Donohue believes being black is a crime comparable with child rape. More to the point, the Mummers were dressing up like ladies and happily enduring the catcalls before Bill Donohue knew how to spell homophobia.

Neocons for Leary

While reading an essay collection about Timothy Leary -- Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In, edited by Robert Forte -- I stumbled across an interesting historical datum. A gaggle of intellectuals on May 10, 1966, issued one of those always-effective open letters of protest regarding Leary's first pot arrest. The letter stated that:

"The infringement of constitutional rights of privacy, interference with religious and scientific practice, excessive enforcement and public anxiety have grown to crisis stage--through the application of irrational marijuana statutes"

and

"The long imprisonment given to the psychological researcher Dr. Timothy Leary...illustrates the irrationality of present marijuana laws, and is a cruel and unjust punishment."

Among the signers, unsurprisingly, were Peter Fonda, Anais Nin, Gary Snyder, Susan Sontag, and Alan Watts. Also among them were Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. I wonder if those neocon godfathers have changed their minds -- and if so, why. Or if they'd sign a similar letter on the injustice of marijuana laws today.

Music Stand

Speaking of musical archives, classic jazz, rock, and opera recordings from the 1950s are entering the public domain in Europe, where copyrights last a mere half a century, compared to 95 years in the U.S. Record companies worry not only that they will lose sales in Europe but that imports of European knockoffs will eat into their profits here. As usual, they couch their concerns in moral terms. "The import of of those products would be an act of piracy," says Neil Turkewitz, executive vice president of the Recording Industry Association of America. "The industry is regretful that these absolutely piratical products are being released."

Thus Turkewitz claims that sales of these recordings amount to thievery in Europe as well as the U.S., regardless of what the law says. Is a 95-year copyright term an inalienable natural right? Or is Turkewitz laying claim to a perpetual copyright, in which case selling material that has entered the public domain in the U.S. also would be piracy? The latter, absolutist position would be more credible than the implication that any particular copyright term has been divinely ordained.

The Hi-tech Hand Crank

This attempt to bring the Internet to Laosian villages via wireless networks, low-wattage computers, and hand-crank generators is one of the Web�s hot stories right now. It�s the brainchild of Bay Area genius Lee Felsenstein, whose organization needs money to get the system in place before the monsoon season. Will people be as generous with him as they were with another Web charity hit, the New York chic chick who raised more than enough Internet donations to pay off her towering Bloomies bills? I'll let you know...

Burn On Demand

One benefit of Napster, may it rest in piece, was all the long-out-of-print music it made available again, allowing listeners to find recordings that simply weren't available in stores. Now the same Internet that allowed file-sharing services like Napster to flourish is giving record companies the means to bring that old music back onto the market. The Vox Music Group, which has published around 5,000 recordings since the 1940s, will now make custom CDs of its out-of-print music for any consumer willing to pony up $20 for a single disc, $30 for a double, or $40 for a three-CD set.

Traditionally, small pressings haven't been very cost-effective for large record companies, while custom pressings have been downright unthinkable. "But we've been able to eliminate the middleman by dealing directly with the listener through the Internet," Vox's Gene Gaudette tells the Washington Post. "We've bought some high-level technology -- including top-of-the-line computers and CD burners -- and we are now able to make single copies available from our offices on Long Island, without ever putting the records on sale in brick-and-mortar stores. This way, even if only 20 or 30 people in the world want one of our records, our expenses will still be covered and the record will be out there."

Here's hoping more companies will soon follow Vox's lead. There's gold in them thar archives.

Clone Hoax Endgame?

Just as I predicted, it looks like Clonaid is resorting to the privacy gambit to avoid testing baby "Eve's" DNA to prove she's a clone according to the Associated Press.

Of Fires and Frying Pans

Tech Central Station is having some fun with anti-smoker obsessives -- like lawyer John Banzhaf -- who have lately become anti-cheeseburger litigants leading a jihad against fat. Columnist Duane D. Freese notes that:

One irony of the war on tobacco is that evidence suggests that the anti-smoking campaign may even be connected to weight gain. The rise in obesity in the United States coincides with a plummeting in tobacco use, as per capita cigarette consumption has plunged 60 percent since 1985. And what is true here has also happened abroad.

The explanation is pretty straightforward. It's physiological. Smoking increases metabolism levels, which means people burn more calories when they smoke. When people give up smoking, though, they often don't increase their exercise level to raise metabolism or cut back on the amount they are eating. Thus, they store the extra calories as fat, and over time some have likely become obese.

Shouldn't Banzhaf and his fellow tobacco crusaders have foreseen that outcome? Shouldn't they have warned people to reduce their calorie intake when they gave up smoking? If you want to play the blame game, shouldn't they be held liable for leading people to exchange one unhealthy lifestyle for an even, according to the nonprofit RAND institution on health, unhealthier one? Maybe it's time to lower taxes on cigarettes and have the lawyers give back some of their Big Tobacco earnings?

Actually, the estimable Freese believes that "people who gain weight are responsible for their own eating habits, even after giving up smoking." But then, he's neither an obsessive nor a courtroom jihadi.

Toy Control

The City of New York is considering a bill to ban all toy guns. Couldn't they just mandate safety locks?

Lifestyle Drugs

"Do we need lifestyle drugs?" asks this BBC report.

"The drug industry has been accused of turning women's sexual problems into a disease.

"It is the latest stage in a battle between those who believe so-called lifestyle disorders such as obesity and baldness should be treated, and those who believe they should not be 'medicalised'.

"The debate is not over whether people experience these conditions.

"Instead, it is about how they should be defined, and whether they are diseases which can be treated with a pill."

If this is the debate, it's a dumb one. Drugs can have benefits beyond treating conditions labeled as "diseases." While fretting about pharmaceutical companies making money off of drugs that people want, like Viagra, the article seems to ignore the possibility that the person with the "so-called lifestyle disorder" might have something to say in all of this.

What's wrong with people deciding for themselves (in consultation with their doctors) whether they want to simply cope with these conditions, try dealing with them through lifestyle changes, or take drugs to address them?

George Carlin Is Not a "BAD American"

I Am Your Worst Nightmare. I am a BAD American.

I am George Carlin.

I believe the money I make belongs to me and my family, not some midlevel governmental functionary with a bad comb-over who wants to give it away to crack addicts squirting out babies.

I'm not in touch with my feelings and I like it that way, damn it!

I believe no one ever died because of something Ozzy Osbourne, Ice-T or Marilyn Manson sang.

So begins a popular e-mail message currently circulating in cyberspace. The real George Carlin wants you to know that he didn't write it.

Reacting to various phony bits attributed to him, Carlin writes:

Some are essay-length, some are just short lists of one and two-line jokes, but if they're flyin' around the Internet, they're probably not mine. Occasionally, a couple of jokes on a long list might have come from me, but not often. And because most of this stuff is really lame, it's embarrassing to see my name on it.

And that's the problem. I want people to know that I take care with my writing, and try to keep my standards high. But most of this "humor" on the Internet is just plain stupid. I guess hard-core fans who follow my stuff closely would be able to spot the fake stuff, because the tone of voice is so different. But a casual fan has no way of knowing, and it bothers me that some people might believe I'd actually be capable of writing some of this stuff.

That's fine, as far as it goes, but what explains this excerpt from Braindroppings that Carlin has posted to his official site?:

"Sometimes, a person who is some distance away from you will say something you don't quite understand, so you ask them to repeat it, and you still can't make out what they�re saying. So you ask them two or three more times to repeat it, and by that time you're getting embarrassed, so you pretend to understand and say, "Yeah!" You know, just to be done with it. Then later, it turns out what they said was, "We're coming over tonight to remove your wife's ovaries. Will that be all right?"

Super Bowl Scuffle

Ah, the Americans with Disabilities Act. Bush the Elder's gift that keeps on giving. Now its infamous "reasonable accommodation" test may halt the Super Bowl. Yes, the Super Bowl.

Back in 1997 an activist for the disabled in San Diego sued the city under the ADA claiming that the city-owned stadium did not accommodate the handicapped. The city finally settled in 2001 and promised to make $5 million in upgrades to Qualcomm Stadium.

Now it is up to a judge to decide if those upgrades have, in fact, been made.

Curiously, the city and the NFL now advance the argument that the upgrades thing is moot as the settlement only applies to public events. And as Super Bowl tix are doled out to insiders or lottery-winning season ticket holders in the host city and not available to just any schmoe San Diegan, the Super Bowl is a private event.

That's kinda odd as about a zillion people will see and hear it.

Citizen, Where You Bound?

Another of these niggling, depressing, "the innocent have no reason to fear" clampdowns on that most precious of freedoms -- to move and live unmolested by officious busybodies with mysterious agendas. Check out this Associated Press report :
The government wants detailed information about every person who comes to or leaves the country by plane or boat, and for the first time will require U.S. citizens to fill out forms detailing their comings and goings.
Under rules proposed Friday, the information would be sent electronically to the government for matching against security databases.
"It's another way to enhance security for travelers," Immigration and Naturalization Service spokeswoman Kimberly Weismann said.
The public will have a month to comment on the plan and the final regulations will take effect later this year.

The scariest part is buried further down:
Once the information is collected, it will be transmitted to the U.S. government and matched against security databases prior to the travelers' arrival. A passenger or crew member whose information raises a red flag could be met by officials when the ship or plane arrives.

In a world increasingly united into one huge database, where (as things like "deadbeat dad" databases and new-hire registries show) the government doesn't hesitate to link any reason it has to clamp down on you with any liberty it decides to treat as a "privilege" (apparently, now, leaving or coming back to the U.S.), one shivers to wonder what will end up qualifying as a "red flag" -- especially, as the AP story says, when "The law also gives Attorney General John Ashcroft leeway in proposing further requirements."

The ACLU isn't concerned about this, according to AP.

Big Gulp of the Gulf

If Fouad Ajami really is optimistic about a postwar Iraq, he does a swell job of making it look like pessimism. Even he doesn't seem to believe the U.S. will have the patience or interest or capacity to remake Iraq after the war is over, nor to establish the MacArthur-style viceroyship he's proposing. His argument seems to boil down to "We failed in Egypt and we failed in Saudi Arabia, so let's give it a try again in Iraq."

That having been said, he has a feeling for the nuances of regional politics (maybe too much feeling, in fact; some of his nuances are so subtle it's unlikely even the people involved take much notice of them). One example is his brilliant dismantling of the notion that Iraq's Shi'a majority will inevitably seek to make the country over as Iran West:

To begin with, the bogeyman of a Shi`ite state emerging in Iraq as a satrapy of the Iranian clerical regime -- the fear that paralyzed American power back in 1991 -- should be laid to rest. The Iranian Revolution's promise has clearly faded. The clerics there are in no position to export their "revolutionary happiness," for they would find no takers anywhere. Then, too, the Shi`a of Iraq must be seen for what they are: Arabs and Iraqis through and through.

Shi` ism was a phenomenon of Iraq centuries before it crossed to Iran, brought to that land by the Safavid rulers as a state religion in the opening years of the sixteenth century. But even long before that, it had been an Arab religious-political dispute. Moreover, the sacred geography of Shi`ism had brought Shi`a religious scholars and seminarians from India, Lebanon, and Persia to Iraq. Thanks to geographic proximity, the Persian component had been particularly strong: it had used the shrine cities of Iraq as sanctuary, checking the power of their own country's leaders in the ceaseless tug-of-war between rulers and religious scholars. But in their overwhelming numbers, the adherents of Shi`ism were drawn from Arab tribesmen. Arab nationalism, which came to Iraq with the Hashemite rulers and the officers and ideologues who rode their coattails, covered up Sunni dominion with a secular garb. As Iran was nearby, larger and more powerful, it became convenient for the ruling stratum of Iraq to disenfranchise its own Shi`a majority, claiming that they were a Persian fifth column of Iran.

This invented history took on a life of its own under Saddam Hussein. But before the Tikriti rulers terrorized the Shi`ite religious establishment and shattered its autonomy, a healthy measure of competition was always the norm between the Shi`ite seminaries of Iraq and those of Iran. Few Iraqi Shi`ites are eager to cede their own world to Iran's rulers. As the majority population of Iraq, they have a vested interest in its independence and statehood. Over the last three decades, they have endured the regime's brutality yet fought its war against Iran in 1980-88. Precious few among them dream of a Shi`a state.

Ajami was born in Lebanon to a Shi'a family with an Iranian background, and sometimes these insights start to sound like advocacy. But he's almost alone in understanding the law of unintended consequences, and, I think, totally without peer in his understanding of how many forms shackles can take—delusional hopes, loser friends, etc. Witness his contention that the Iraqi opposition may actually be better off because nobody else in the Arab world has ever supported them. Thanks to Alan Kornheiser for the link.

Back to Normal

9/11 passes, and all the social classes return to their previous positions. Or so one would gather from the L.A. Times, which reports that New York's beautiful people are getting tired of f�ting their firemen.

Fuzzy Math

Cato's Julian Sanchez on the projected cost of a new war with Saddam: "Lawrence Lindsey...was tactless enough to give a $100-200 billion estimate for the cost of a war in Iraq (and never mind occupation). Now the NY Times reports that OMB head Mitch Daniels has re-evaluated the situation and predicted that the war will cost only $50-60 billion. That's a hell of a trick, given that the original cakewalk Gulf War cost $80 billion, inflation-adjusted."

Global Media Reality Check

MIT's Benjamin Compaine has an excellent piece in Foreign Policy rebutting claims that the media are getting more concentrated, that corporate bean counters are killing "good" journalism, that media coverage drives foreign policy, etc., etc., etc.

He even takes on the popular notion that regulating the media is the only way to safeguard that phoniest of reified abstractions, "the public interest." He writes in part:

...relaxing broadcast regulation may expand competition. When News Corp. put together a fourth network in the United States in 1986, the timing was not random. It followed two regulatory decisions: the Federal Communications Commission raised the limit on local licenses that a single firm could own from seven to twelve and waived a rule that kept TV networks from owning their programming. The first change allowed News Corp. to assemble a core of stations in larger markets that gave it a viable base audience, and the second sanctioned News Corp.'s purchase of 20th Century Fox, with its television production studio. Fox was thus able to launch the first successful alternative to the Big Three in 30 years. Its success also paved the way for three other large media players to initiate networks.

And the Junk Science Oscar Goes To...

Steve Milloy, who wrote Junk Science Judo and publishes Junkscience.com , has listed some "Junk Science Oscars" at Foxnews.com.

A sample:

Best performance by Swedish meatballs. Swedish scientists alarmed us in April that baking and frying high-carbohydrate foods, like potatoes and bread, formed acrylamide, a substance that has been linked with cancer in laboratory animal experiments.

What they didn�t say was that even if lab animal experiments were a good predictor of cancer risk in humans -- a HUGE leap of faith -- someone of average bodyweight would have to eat 35,000 potato chips (about 62.5 pounds) per day for life to get an equivalent dose of acrylamide as the lab animals!

You might not be able to eat just one Lays potato chip, but 35,000?

The list is a welcome reminder of how rotten a lot of science media coverage really is.

Bloody Good Sunday Section

Slate's Jack Shafer plugged the Boston Globe's relatively new Sunday "Ideas" section a while back. I've been enjoying it since debuted in September and caught up on some back issues over the New Year's break. It remains one of the very best reads in newsprint and is available online at http://boston.com/globe/sunday/ .

The latest edition includes pieces on Chinese dissidents by Ian Buruma, Hank Williams and "the Honky Tonk Absurd" by Jefferson Chase, and J.R.R. Tolkien's Christian following by Chris Mooney (who wrote about Tolkien for Reason recently). Definitely worth bookmarking.

Microsoft Corners Another Market?

What a year ago looked like a looming battle pitting AOL and Sony against the Microsoft juggernaut for the right entertain America via game consoles now has all the earmarks of MS beating rivals to the punch -- again.

Redmond is busy signing up broadband providers for its XBox gaming network while Sony dawdles. AOL remains in the Sony camp, but corporate brother Time Warner Cable has already hooked up with XBox Live in a non-exclusive deal.

If, in a couple of years, some Congressperson or attorney general-type thunders about Microsoft's "online gaming monopoly," recall it wasn't always so.

The Ring of Free Trade?

Everyone wants a piece of Tolkien. The Christians. The libertarians. And now the anti-globalization left.

Screen Pass

TV producers overseas have discovered the secret of beating exported American TV shows. Hint: It lies in attracting viewers. Confused? Here's another hint: "foreign viewers often prefer homegrown shows that better reflect local tastes, cultures and historical events." Still don't get it? Okay: The secret to overcoming the power of exported (and often overpriced) American culture is to compete with it by producing better or more appealing movies, TV shows, and other such artifacts.

Of course, if you can't do that, or if your cultural industries have lost interest in attracting a real audience because they are subsidized, you can always do the next best thing and decry "cultural imperialism."

Air Commands

Nine states are challenging the Bush administration's new air pollution rules in federal court, arguing that they will increase pollution by allowing power plants to modernize without installing expensive emissions control equipment. The administration's response, as filtered through The New York Times: Will not! The story omits a crucial point that Gregg Easterbrook noted in The New Republic early last year: The Clean Air Act's "new source" requirements perversely encourage utilities to keep old, dirty plants online rather than switch to cleaner, more efficient equipment. In light of this fact, the burden of proof ought to be on the administration's critics to explain how relaxing these counterproductive rules will mean more pollution rather than less.

Burning Semen Syndrome

A dozen years on and researchers are still trying to prove that some Gulf War vets came back with burning semen. Finally someone has looked at the proteins in the stuff and for antibodies to the proteins in their partners, a classic sign of an allergic reaction. They think they've found some.

But here's the catch. Of almost 700,000 vets only 211 report the burning semen thing and 7 percent of those say they had it before they went to the Gulf. We still don't know what the rate of burning semen syndrome might be among the general population. Without that it is impossible to tell if Gulf service has anything at all to do with the issue.

Media Bias

Here's more on conservative media bias, courtesy the New York Times.
(Ron Bailey noted the bellyaching about right-wing media a few weeks ago.)

And then there's this piece in the new issue of The American Prospect which asks, "Why is the media -- assumed by many to start with a liberal bias -- applying the liberal label so readily to [incoming House Democratic leader Nancy] Pelosi but not the conservative tag to [incoming House Republican leader Tom] DeLay?"

The piece blames the supposed uneven treatment on "journalists who treat 'liberal' as a dirty word, the rise of the conservative media and even an element of sexism."

Now I don't have a dog in this fight. Like Ron, I think the real problem is that libertarian ideas rarely get any shake, let alone a fair one. But the allegation that the major media are tougher on liberals like Pelosi than on conservatives like DeLay is silly.

Here's some of the research on which the Prospect piece is based:

"A recent LexisNexis search revealed that 'Nancy Pelosi' and 'liberal' yielded more than 1,000 documents... A LexisNexis search of 'Tom DeLay' and 'conservative' returned only 534 documents from the last 90 days."

Whatever. I just did a LexisNexis search which revealed that "Nancy Pelosi" and "conservative" yielded more than 1,000 documents for the last 90 days. A search on "Tom Delay" and "liberal" produces 443. What the hell does this mean? Nothing, except that Nancy Pelosi is getting more press than Tom Delay. Sure enough, "Nancy Pelosi" alone gets 522 results over the past month compared to 255 for "Tom DeLay." And liberals are complaining? More telling: Of the 522 results for Pelosi, 151 (29%) include the word "liberal." Of the 255 results for DeLay, 112 (44%) include the word "conservative."

And systematic anti-Pelosi bias is hard to find looking through a sampling of the actual articles that turn up in the search on "Nancy Pelosi" and "liberal." Many of the results are either commentary pieces or transcripts from yak shows that featured pundits on the left and the right.

A December 7 AP story reads in part: "Democrats moved to their left in selecting liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California to succeed Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Republicans mirrored that by inching further right in picking Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas to succeed retiring Rep. Dick Armey of Texas as majority leader."

And from a November 14 AP story: "Democrats settled on the 62-year-old liberal to succeed Dick Gephardt of Missouri... As Democratic leader, Pelosi is certain to be at odds with the hard-driving conservative Tom DeLay, the current Republican whip and newly elected majority leader, succeeding fellow Texan Dick Armey, who is retiring."

Enough of these dumb labels. By the way, a Lexis search on "libertarian" returns more than 1,000 documents for the past 90 days. That's not bad. Maybe I should stop complaining too.