Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2006 April 1-31

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Computers, Freedom & Privacy, May 2-5 in DC

Reason is proud to once again be a media sponsor for the annual Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference, whose theme this year is Life, Liberty[*], & Digital Rights.

CFP--"the most important computer conference you've never heard of" according to USA Today--takes place from May 2-5 in Washington, DC.

Keynote speakers include science fiction novelist Vernor Vinge, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Stewart Baker of the Department of Homeland Security. For more information and to RSVP, go here.

Los Angeles?? Speak English in America!!

An addendum of sorts to my essay on immigration and the welfare state today--though an L.A. resident, I was out of town during the big immigration street rallies. Gathering a half million to the streets of downtown L.A. is an impressive achievement--ask any of its struggling merchants. Some white progressives saw it marking one of those moments in L.A. history, as discussed in an interesting cover story in Los Angeles's CityBeat, in which our tortured, torn city is confronted vividly with the deep divisions that continue to deeply divide us--an Oscar-winner of a theme to be sure.

But the fact that it came as a surprise to White LA that the efforts of a bunch of radio stations we didn't listen to and some lefty unions we aren't members of got a half million to fill our streets is not a sign of some cancer in the Angeleno body politic.

Rather, it's a sign of the general overall civic and political peace of our city--white L.A. does not tend to feel waves of ominous resentment and fear from Latino L.A., even if in many ways those two realms segregate themselves, including in media. The elections of Antonio Villaraigosa and Loretta Sanchez to mayor of L.A. and congresswoman from the OC is all part of the same phenomenon--a quiet phenomenon of people of different languages and native lands living together, mostly peacefully though occasionally slightly chaotically, the eternal shifting of America's ethnic makeup and political power (though Latinos' share of voting Californians is still a lot lower than its share of Californians) that has been happening ever since the Germans, and later the Irish, and Italians, began upsetting and destroying America's vital and constituitive ethnic balance.

And they did, no question about it, in the process creating the ruined America that today's nativists are striving to protect.

The recent huge street demonstrations, in many southwest cities, the Los Angeles school district's 25-40,000 strong walkout, next week's planned repeat of the national pro-immigrant turnout on April 10--do represent a powerful new moment in our immigration debate. The only next step in flexing their influence for Southwest immigrants would be re-enacting the message of the pro-immigration dramedy A Day Without A Mexican and letting us see exactly how well we'll cope with paying others for all the jobs they are stealing from us. Despite another OC congressman, Dana Rohrabacher's, casual "let the prisoners pick the fruit" comment (I'd be amused to hear the former libertarian folk-singing hippie troubadour set that one to music), it is highly unlikely most Americans will still be thrilled to have put their casual ressentiment where their dinner bills are.

Post Yenta Makes Stalkerazzi Look Like a Class of Ed Murrows

I've always figured gossip journalists were better at newsgathering than regular journalists. Now it turns out they're also better at scrounging for shady money. When NY Post Page Six Fop Jared Paul Stern wanted to cash out, he didn't just chase Peter Ferrara/Maggie Gallagher-sized chump change under the table—he dunned a billionaire for $220,000, a monthly stipend, and other favors. Sadly for Stern, his ambitious (and I would expect, felonious) effort to hold up the supermarket tycoon and scenester Ron Burkle was caught on tape by the feds. Post rival Daily News has the squirm-worthy details. Look for the fall line of orange jumpsuits from Stern's Skull & Bones clothing label.

The Messianic Legacy

My view of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has been ratified by London's High Court: It may be a ripoff of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, but that doesn't mean it was plagiarized from that book. Brown almost certainly lifted the central conceit of his novel -- that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene spawned a line of godly descendants -- from Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln's classic of crank history. But it isn't plagiarism to adopt someone's factual claims. Since Holy Blood purports to be true, any historical novelist should be free to borrow its ideas. (Indeed, I know of at least two pre-Da Vinci novels that did just that. The Magdalene yarn is one of several intertwined conspiracy theories in Robert Anton Wilson's The Widow's Son, and it has a cameo in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. Both books, by the way, are better reads than anything Brown will ever write.)

The suit seemed a little churlish as well. I can guarantee you that Holy Blood has sold many more copies in the last few years than it would have had Dan Brown died in 1995. Note to Mr. Brown: When you write your next potboiler, please feel free to plagiarize Rebels on the Air.

Next up: The debate over Ron Howard's Da Vinci Code movie, due out in May, which promises to provoke a culture-war battle the likes of which we haven't seen since ... oh, let's say V for Vendetta.

The Straight Dope on Global Warming

Cecil Adams speaks on climate change to millions of readers of alternative weeklies.

Fact is, there's little that can be done to reduce CO2 emissions regardless of their impact on the environment. CO2 isn't just an incidental result of human activity that you can get rid of with smokestack scrubbers. Rather, it's an inherent product of the combustion of carbon-based fuels such as coal and oil. The only practical way to produce less in the short term is to use less organic fuel....

Kyoto calls for drastic cuts in emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases--5.2 percent below 1990 levels, or 29 percent below projected 2010 levels. These numbers alone suggest the implausibility of the goal. To brutally oversimplify, greenhouse-gas emissions = energy use = economic activity. (Again, I'm speaking short-term--long-term we'll switch to nukes and other inorganic energy sources.) To produce fewer emissions now your one choice is to shrink your economy, i.e., become poorer. (Russia, to cite a grim example, is among the few industrialized nations that can meet its Kyoto target due to its economic collapse since 1990.) No nation is going to voluntarily impoverish itself, however noble the cause....

A more realistic approach is to say, OK, we're going to burn this fuel and cope with whatever dire result, but let's put the stuff to good use while we've got it. That means distributing improved technology to use energy more efficiently and pollute less. Amazingly, just such an approach was agreed to last year when the U.S., Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea formed the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which may go down as Dubya's saving grace after having screwed the pooch in Iraq.

Whole thing here.

My take on the Asia-Pacific Partnership here.

Many thanks for Sean Higgins for the heads up.

Schumer's Praiseworthy Punt

An editorial in yesterday's Times reminds me that I'd meant to blog a bill introduced by Chuck Schumer that would give a clear legal cause of action to anyone whose speech has been curtailed as a result of a reasonable fear that they (or their interlocutors) might be targeted by the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretap program. (The ACLU has already filed such a suit on behalf of various journalists and academics, but it was unclear whether they'd be found to have standing, since none of the plaintiffs can know for sure that they've been targeted.)

The top legal scholars not actively employed by the Bush administration seem mostly to agree that the wiretap program plainly broke the law. But a proposal to even censure the president for this sends Democrats scurrying, and polls suggest a slim majority of the public is all too happy to be tapped. Since the program's secret, that will mean that the government can get away with breaking the law so long as it's politically popular unless the courts have some hook to grab on to. While I'm not holding my breath for its passage, the Schumer bill would at least let legislators hand off the problem to the courts, who are more likely to make the right decision, without opening themselves to charges they're "soft on terrorism." In fact, supporters can turn it around: If you're sure this program's legal, why not let the courts vindicate you?

Addendum: It'd be good to get this moving soon, since apparently Attorney General Alberto Gonzales won't rule out tapping totally domestic conversations as part of the president's "inherent authority." Which is funny, because I'm pretty sure that the Supreme Court already ruled it out.

Churchill vs. Horowitz vs. Humanity

Superman vs. Muhammad Ali it ain't.

Indeed, the much-ballyhooed brouhaha between ersatz Indian Ward "Little Eichmann" Churchill and diminutive former Marxist turned GOP shill David "Left-wing nut turned right-wing nut" Horowitz on Hannity & Colmes doesn't even rise to the theatrics of Dracula vs. Frankenstein, even as the contest robs the audience of any rooting interest (other than for immediate thermonuclear disaster). Indeed, this sort of contest reminds me of the Bonnie Frankin vs. Linda Lavin dream fight a friend of mine cooked up once in the late '70s when asked to imagine a fight-to-the-death in which the audience would be rooting for both participants to lose in the first round.

But here's a partial transcript, for future use in Gitmo on detainees. And go here for video.

A while ago (2003), Reason's Jesse Walker argued convincingly that Horowitz's jihad for an "academic bill of rights" was more likely to "chill speech than to encourage it." Read all about it here. And check out Horo's reply and Jesse's backatcha here.

Ward Churchill plagiarism charges here.

Say what you will about Frankenstein, he was one monster who looked good in a sportscoat.

Tax Extension Catch-22

Since I'll be in Israel for the next couple of weeks, I thought I'd apply for an extension of the deadline for filing my income tax return, something that (as will soon become apparent) I've never done before. It turns out that you can put off doing your taxes for up to six months, but you still have to pay your taxes by April 17. To pay your taxes, however, you have to do your taxes--i.e., run the numbers and fill out the forms. You could take a wild guess, I suppose, but there's a penalty for estimating wrong.

Then I noticed you can get an automatic two-month extension, with no payment or application required, "if, on the regular due date of your return, you are 'out of the country.' " Well, I thought, this is the extension for me. But then I discovered that, although I will literally be out of the country, I won't legally be "out of the country." Not only is being abroad not enough to place you "out of the country," but you can legally be "out of the country" even if you're actually in the U.S. on the filing deadline.

I already have a headache, and I haven't even begun working on my return.

Cato Critiques Mandatory Health Insurance

Massachusetts has just mandated that its citizens must purchase health insurance. In a new policy analsysis, "Individual Mandates for Health Insurance: Slippery Slope to National Health Care," the Cato Institute's director of health and welfare studies, Michael Tanner, offers some thoughtful criticism of such mandatory private health insurance schemes. Tanner highlights the difficulties in enforcement, in distributing insurance subsidies to the poor, and the problem of mandate creep.

Tanner writes:

Individual mandates cross an important practical and philosophical line: once we accept the principle that it is the government's responsibility to ensure that every American has health insurance, we guarantee even more government involvement with and control over large portions of our health care system. Compulsory, government-defined insurance opens the door to even more widespread regulation of the health care industry and political interference in personal health care decisions. The result will be a slow but steady spiral downward toward a government-run national health care system.

Of course, we are already on a slow steady downward spiral to a government-run national health care system. The Fed and states already pay for nearly 50% of all heath care. Tanner's way out of this death spiral?

On a fundamental level we must shift the health care debate away from its single-minded focus on expanding coverage to the bigger question of how to reduce costs and improve quality. That will require the introduction of market mechanisms to give consumers more control over and responsibility for their health care decisions.

Lowering costs and thus making coverage affordable to more people is a great idea, but the political dynamic driving the debate is the fear by a large segment of the public that they will lose their health insurance and become bankrupt. That fear is what is driving us toward nationalized health care.

One model for mandatory private health insurance is Switzerland, though it is admittedly not perfect. Every Swiss must buy basic coverage, and people can choose to purchase additional gold-plated coverage. I hope Tanner is right and that we can change the debate in time, but mandatory private health insurance seems to me to be only politically viable way to preserve some private health care and medical innovation. It's sad that we've arrived at this sorry situation, but there it is.

How Drug Warriors (Read: Taxpayers) Pay for Their Crimes...

...against children and other living things.

Remember the infamous 2003 Goose Creek PD screw-up, in which some of South Carolina's finest barged into Stratford High School, guns a-drawn, plasti-cuffed a bunch of kids, and turned up zippo illegal drugs (we're confident Coach Kleats and the rest of the P.E. staff were packing human-growth hormone, minoxidil, Viagra, what have you)?

Well, now the final curtain may be drawn on that Barney Fife-level fooferaw:

The controversial drug sweep in 2003 at Stratford High School also could be a costly one - to the tune of $1.6 million, according to a plan to settle a class-action lawsuit stemming from the raid.

Under the plan, students in the hallway during the sweep would split $1.2 million. Their lawyers would divide an additional $400,000.

And, needless to say, nobody--the school district and the cops and the other defendants--would have to admit they'd done anything wrong. Because, to parphrase Love Story, the drug war means never having to say you're sorry.

I look forward to following the tax bond campaigns that will be launched to pay for the fines.

Full account here.

Stoner Update/Erratum: Jacob Sullum blogged this yesterday man.

Zacarias Moussaoui Is A Big Jerk

I doubt that Zacarias Moussaoui had any prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks, and as Jeff Taylor noted in his masterful story on the attacks, the FBI ignored the clues he inadvertently provided by his behavior; so strictly speaking he is going to be executed (probably) for a crime he didn't commit. But has anybody ever given a more persuasive performance as a terrorist supervillain? I was going to say "a Central Casting terrorist supervillain," but even a Central Casting character actor couldn't come up with Moussaoui's maddening antics: For that you'd need a real Method genius. (His "Burn In the USA" rendition has even made me go back on my longstanding principle that anybody who takes a swipe at The Boss is OK in my book.) How would you like to be the guy testifying about how his daughter is coping with his wife's death while Moussaoui mocks him? There's something humiliating about this whole process: It's like when they send neo-Nazi wiseacres to get lectured by Holocaust survivors on the assumption that this encounter will finally make them see the error of their ways.

I have no big insights. It's just frustrating for two reasons: Because Moussaoui deserves to be scalped and bastinadoed and crocodile-sheared and bamboo-fingernailed, not executed. (That's an emotional reaction, not a policy recommendation.) And because, as with all the other post-9/11 bait-and-switches, I'm getting mad at somebody who probably had nothing to do with the attack.

Did We Really Expect a Man Named Scooter To Be a Tough Nut To Crack?

I never expected indicted former Dick Cheney capo I. Lewis Libby to be a holdout with federal investigators--I figured any guy his age called "Scooter" would do anything to stay out of the pokey. But the ease with which Libby has turned state's evidence is pretty stunning. Ultra-short recap: Libby is the only guy indicted so far in the Valerie Plame case, in which a CIA agent's name was leaked to the press. He's charged with lying to a grand jury and federal investigators.

His cooperation seems like it might spell trouble for the Bush admin. Not necessarily legal trouble--as the Christian Science Monitor reports, the "leaks are probably legal but 'amount to using sensitive intelligence data for political gain.'"

No, the trouble may worse than legal--it may be political for an embattled White House that's sporting a sub-40 percent approval rating while sliding into midterm elections. The spells tough toenails for the GOP.

But who cares about them: It's nothing short of fucked-up (even if it is politics as usual) if Libby's version of events re: Plame, etc. is true. Not just libertarians but virtually all sentient Americans have gotten so used to government at all levels lying most of the time and engaging in constant scumbaggery and hypocrisy that we may well have lost that sense of moral outrage former drug czar Bill Bennett used to talk about all the time until his gambling habits became public knowledge.

More on Libby's testimony here.

Won't Somebody Please Think of the Puppies?!?!

How many goldfish died during Katrina? Porktastic Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) demands a pet section in every superdome:

Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and one of his colleagues from New Jersey have introduced a measure to increase the safety of pets in emergencies.

Stevens and Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act of 2006. The legislation requires state and local authorities to include evacuation procedures for household pets and service animals in their emergency preparedness plans.

Stevens promises to resign here.

Stevens explains why he will not resign here.

Via To the People.

I'm a Foot Soldier?

So, apparently I'm name checked in an exceedingly silly New York Observer story about "the way that the conservative media machine enlists its young foot soldiers and transforms them into wonder-boy pundits." (Since I turned 27 a few weeks ago, I'd have thought I was safely out of wünderkind territory and well on my way to curmudgeon.) The prime example of this vaguely conspiratorial sounding process is Matt Continetti from The Weekly Standard, who interned at National Review while he was at Columbia, then got a fellowship his first year at the Standard, where his editor helped him get a book contract. The only remotely "machine" sounding part of this is that he got some help at various points from the Collegiate Network (libertarians have the Institute for Humane Studies). Beyond that, the glimpse we get into the secret inner workings of this conservative media cabal consists of the shocking revalation that a right-leaning young journalist would intern at one conservative mag, then get a job at another, and that his editor would help him do a book. Fiendishly clever. Can I get my decoder ring now?

The weirdest thing about the article is that it suggests this is something the right is especially skilled at. We're told:

THERE'S A PERCEPTION IN SOME CIRCLES that the right is much better at reaching out to young people and drawing them into the fold: A progressive-minded college student is lucky to find a job licking envelopes for Greenpeace, but a conservative one might be given his own talk show.

Well, that's an interesting report about what "some circles" perceive, but I'm curious what reason there is to think it's true. The right has IHS and Collegiate Network. The left has Campus Progress. The Observer mentions a handful of 20-something dudes working at right-ish magazines. Do I really need to go through a tedious list of liberal 20-somethings I know in D.C. who are in exactly the same position? As Ross Douthat notes, it's not exactly tough to think of liberal publications where our counterparts cut their teeth and go on to further pundity pursuits. Especially odd, as Ross points out, is that of the five people specifically named, it's really only Ben Domenech who could pass as a "movement conservative." I'll be offered a gig at the Standard exactly one week after Satan opens a ski resort, and Matt's book, which is about GOP corruption, doesn't exactly strike me as Republican cheerleading. Still, it might be fun to put "right-wing foot soldier / wonder boy pundit" on my business card.

Fourth Amendment Watch

Radley Balko provides some useful background on Hudson v. Michigan, a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. If you're not familiar with Hudson, here's a quick precis:

The Hudson case the court is now considering deals with illegal no-knock raids. That is, raids in which police couldn't even manage to follow the almost-perfunctory hoops they're required to jump through to get a legitimate no-knock warrant.

In Hudson, police in Michigan knocked and announced themselves, but waited just 3 to 5 seconds before breaking into the home of Booker T. Hudson. Once inside, they found a substantial amount of cocaine and charged Hudson with various drug crimes. When a trial court found the wait time insufficient to satisfy the knock-and-announce requirement, Hudson moved to have the evidence suppressed.

The case eventually reached the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled that suppressing the evidence seized in the raid wasn't a proper remedy for police violating the knock-and-announce rule, and cited the inevitable discovery doctrine: Because police had an otherwise valid search warrant, their failure to announce was inconsequential. They would have found the drugs anyway.

But the exclusionary rule's primary purpose is to serve as a deterrent against Fourth Amendment violations. If police know that breaking a particular Fourth Amendment protection will result in the suppression of any evidence they find, there's strong incentive for them to follow the law.

I'd actually be willing to give up the exclusionary rule, if it were replaced with real sanctions for police and other officials who violate suspects' Fourth Amendment rights. As long as that's a pipe dream, I'll take the rule as an imperfect substitute.

America - Illegals + Gay Marriage = Harmony!

The Nation's Richard Kim points to one of the more surreal counterblasts in the illegal immigration debate. Journalist Jasmyne Cannick, a former "People of Color Media Manager" for GLAAD, writes that gays were already in the Civil Rights queue - and hey, illegals! No cutting!

With all due respect, Mr. President, there can be no guest worker program until we resolve the issue of making sure that all lesbian and gay legal workers have the right to take up to 12 weeks of leave from work to care for a seriously ill partner or parent of a partner and the right to purchase continued health coverage for a domestic partner after the loss of a job.

I've never thought of this as a zero-sum issue before, and I can't say Cannick has convinced me. Kim's own response: "Honey, if you don't want to be viewed as a racist, then don't write like one!"

Heads-Up Action: Poker Players vs. GOP

I like poker. I like booze. And I especially like free booze that accompanies poker. So after a few preparatory drinks to celebrate Kerry Howley's richly-deserved Felix Morley Prize, we ambled over to the University Club to meet Gillespie and an assortment of our favorite bloggers and pundits at a tony shindig hosted by the Poker Players' Alliance, staring poker rockstars Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Howard Lederer. The event was part of PPA's push to drum up opposition to three seriously wrongheaded laws being pushed by Republican legislators that would attempt to prevent Americans from gambling on overseas poker Web sites.

Much as I appreciate being able to order Talisker all evening without weeping as I crack my wallet, the proposed legislation is stupid enough that I'd be happy to oppose it even without the free liquor. First of all, it's unlikely to work. The provisions that order Internet Service Providers to try to police their users connections will create significant hassles for the ISPs, but they seem unlikely to work. As Kerry has observed, even honest-to-God authoritarian regimes like China's can't seem to keep their citizens away from the Web sites they want to visit. Between the $12 billion online poker industry and its millions of happy customers, love (and money) will find a way. And as Radley Balko argues, the attempt to control the payment services through which poker winnings flow will not only require huge intrusions on financial privacy, it'll simply push them overseas. If, as legislators say, they're worried about these overseas sites being used for money laundering or to fund terrorist groups, Radley points out there's an easy solution: Just legalize online gambling in the U.S., so the sites can set up shop here, where they'll be subject to more effective regulation geared to prevent those things. Of course, the real point of legislation like this is probably to protect state lotteries, legal bricks-and-mortar casinos, and other forms of favored, exempt betting from competition. Let's take a look at the biggest contributors to the bans' sponsors, shall we? There's Virginia's Rep. Bob Goodlatte: The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is one of his second-biggest funders. And, as chance would have it, online bets on horce racing are exempt from the bills. How about Arizona Sen. John Kyl? His number four contributor last cycle, who went all-in for $22,500, was the Phoenix-based Viad Corp., which is the parent company of GES exposition services, a Las Vegas firm that puts on trade shows and conferences, many of them at, yep, Vegas casinos. (Viad also used to own a company called "Game Financial Services" that provided check-cashing and cash-advance services for casinos.) I don't see anything similar for Iowa's Jim Leach, so maybe he's just a sincere puritan.

Politics aside, incidentally, the event was a blast. Thanks to ESPN, Lederer and Ferguson really are minor celebrities... and in the right crowd, major ones. The ex–Taj Mahal dealer hired for the evening (who mostly managed to hide his annoyance at having to repeatedly remind a bunch of loose-playing journos and bloggers of rules like "raise by what's bet into you") went wide-eyed when "Jesus" Ferguson strolled by, and asked whether he might please deal the champ a few cards in a voice normally reserved for middle schoolers meeting pro athletes. Also, the University Club is the kind of environment in which poker ought to be played: oak paneling, felt tables, and oversized leather chairs. It'll be rough going back to the rear patio.

The Raid That Paid

The city of Goose Creek, South Carolina, and the Berkeley County School District have agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle a class action lawsuit stemming from a ham-handed, fruitless drug raid at Stratford High School in 2003. Assuming the federal judge overseeing the case approves the agreement, students caught up in the sweep will split $1.2 million, while their lawyers will get $400,000. According to a press release from Students for Sensible Drug Policy that does not seem to be online yet, students "named in the suit and those who received psychological counseling after the raid...could receive about $11,000 each," and other students in the hallway during the raid...could receive about $6,000 each." The principal, who defended the operation after it attracted national attention, is long gone.

Mycoherbicide Mania!

The good guys at the Drug Policy Alliance are trying to hip right-thinking Americans to the latest buzz-harshing legislation in Washington, D.C.:

Congress is considering a drug war idea so bad that even Drug Czar John Walters is against it. The House has authorized, and the Senate is considering, a proposal to revive research on the use of toxic, mold-like fungi called mycoherbicides to kill drug crops in other countries....

Mycoherbicides have already been extensively studied over the last thirty years - and the results make it clear that they are not an option for controlling crops of coca or opium poppies. They attack indiscriminately, destroying fruit and vegetable crops, causing open sores and feminization in reptiles and other animals, and sickening humans as well. The toxins mycoherbicides produce contaminate soil for years, so that nothing can grow where they have been. Mycoherbicides are so destructive that governments have even stockpiled them as weapons!

Now, as much as I'd like to live in a world finally free of fruits and vegetables and populated only by oozing girlie-lizards and sickened humans, I'd rather see that utopia come about through some sort of "magic nano" spray gone awry, not as an extension of the drug war.

For more info on mycoherbicide, go here.

"Magic Nano" Spray Recalled In Germany

Nanotech proponents and companies better hope this is a false alarm, but a spray designed to enhance water and dirt resistance for glass and ceramic tiles has been withdrawn from the German market after 74 users complained of difficulties breathing. Some users apparently have suffered edema (fluid collecting their lungs). It is not known if the product actually uses nano-sized particles or if the "nano" name is simply a high tech sounding marketing gimmick.

"Even if the problem here is attributed to a non-nano issue, some people and groups are on high-alert, so the industry needs to take care to mitigate these issues before a problem occurs with a real nanotech product," says Patrick Lin, research director of the Nanoethics Group. Lin is right. There are already anti-nanotech activists who would only be too happy to take advantage of any public alarm over nanotech.

Of course, perfect safety for new technologies can never be guranteed in advance, but more research on the environmental and health effects of nano-particles needs to be done. In most instances, nano-sized components will be incorporated in larger structures or be confined in enclosed manufacturing processes and unable to interact with the environment as reactive particles. However, loose nano-particles can cause problems and need extra scrutiny. If the industry doesn't police itself, the regulators surely will.

Minimum Wages, Immigration, and the Rise of the Machines

A Washington Post editorial today takes up the question of whether (and to what extent) illegal immigrants depress wages for low-skilled workers by flooding the market with cheap low-skill labor. It cites Harvard's George Borjas, who argues [PDF] that wages for high-school dropouts are 7.4 percent lower than they'd be without immigration, as a "pessimist" on the question, though as Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias have both argued, even when you're just looking at workers (as opposed to consumers and employers, who obviously benefit), that still makes it a massively winning proposition on net unless you decide to just not count in your calculus the welfare of people with the bad luck to be born on the wrong side of the border.

On the more optimistic end, the Post cites a paper by Berkeley economist David Card [PDF] which compares high-immigration and low-immigration cities and finds a negligible wage effect. Here's how the Post sums up his findings:

In low-immigration cities, it seems, employers don't necessarily respond to a paucity of low-skilled workers by bidding up wages to attract more of them. Instead, they may respond by investing in machinery that allows three low-skilled workers to do what six might do in a high-immigration city. Construction workers get extra trucks and power tools; gardeners get electric trimmers instead of manual shears.

Now, what's interesting here is that Card is most famous for being the co-author, with Alan Krueger, of a pair of controversial studies comparing fast food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and concluding that Jersey's minimum wage hike hadn't lowered employment. (This is typically cited as proving that "minimum wages don't cause unemployment," which is a ridiculously broad claim no sane economist would make: Of course minimum wages at some level will cause unemployment. But the studies did purport to find that you could get away with moderate hikes from current levels without an unemployment effect.)

The curious bit is that the immigration and minimum wage questions seem like they ought to be mirror images of each other. In other words, if a relative shortage of unskilled labor leads employers to substitute capital for labor rather than bidding up wages to the level necessary to do the job with a higher number of unassisted people, then why don't they do the same thing in the face of minimum wage hikes? Presumably, employers don't care why labor is costlier, just that it is.

The simplest explanation is that one study or the other is just wrong. Another possibility is that the magnitude of the difference in wages that would be necessary for employers to attract enough workers is greater than the hike Card and Kruger looked at. If that seems unlikely in light of the relatively small effect even Borjas claims, bear in mind that employers in most cases are going to have to raise wages for all their workers, not just the marginal ones, to attract that marginal worker. That is, imagine an employer can do the same job with either 75 unskilled workers, or 50 plus machines. At $5/hr, the employer can only fill 50 jobs; to attract 75, she'd have to pay $6/hr. But since it'd probably be hard to wage-discriminate here and only pay $6/hr to those additional 25 workers, she's going to have to raise the wage she's paying the original 50 workers by $1/hr too. That makes the labor/capital substitution that much more attractive. But now assume the minimum wage is raised to $6/hr. That $1/hr raise for the 50 workers becomes, in effect, a sunk cost. Which means that the additional cost of going with the 75-workers-no-machines option becomes lower, so depending on the cost of the machines, that might now make it the more attractive option.

A simpler possibility, though—and one I find both the most plausible and the most interesting—is that you've got significantly more leeway for labor/capital substitution in sectors like landscaping and construction (to pick the two examples the Post uses) than in fast food restaurants. There might just not be that many cost-effective ways to automate a short-order kitchen so that fewer employees can do more work, beyond what most restaurants of that sort have already done. That's a possibility worth investigating, because it would imply that even if Card and Kruger's results for New Jersey restaurants are correct, they're of limited application. The same wage hike that has relatively little effect on fast food restaurants might cause significant labor/capital substitution in other sectors.

Before You Think, Vote!

Two public polls (well, one private but leaked to the Washington Post) on hot U.S. Senate races reveal an interesting aspect of how we elect our fearless leaders. First, Democrats conducted a poll in the Maryland Senate race that shows 44% of black voters could abandon the party if they "hear the messaging" of black Republican Michael Steele. Second, a poll by Rasmussen Reports shows signs of life from dead-man-walking (and man-on-dog) Sen. Rick Santorum - but only if voters in Pennsylvania learn that the National Organization for Women has refused to endorse Santorum's anti-abortion opponent, Democrat Bob Casey.

The connecting tissue here: Ignorance. In both cases, political consultants realize their worst-case scenario is that voters get to hear the candidates explain themselves and interest groups explain their positions. The consultants, then, are looking for ways to blot out or muddle their opponents' messages, then sit back and win. This isn't breaking news, but it's nice to have it spelled out by the pollsters themselves.

In February, Kerry Howley spoke to Going Dirty author David Mark about how politics might be more responsive if everything - ideas, scandals, whatever - just got out into the open.

Not Enough Fish To Eat, Not Enough Women To Fish...

Reader Steve Leibel sends word from Ye Olde Merry Englande that the Brits are spending $33 million over the next decade to lure more "women and minorities" into fishing. Some of the money will go to a pamphlet that says in part:

"Angling does not discriminate against gender, race, age or athletic ability" and the "Government is interested in angling in the context of social inclusion in deprived urban areas," the leaflet says.

There are also pilot programs, such as an effort in Swansea that taught Muslim women and children to fish by experts from the Salmon and Trout Association.

Question: What the status of hip waders for women in Islam? Whole UPI story here.

How Can I Take the Necessary Steps If You Won't Give Back My Shoes?

"Have you ever lied to the authorities?" That's a question the Russian security service will begin asking passengers at Moscow's Domodedovo airport this summer, reports the Wash Times:

Millions of passengers traveling through Russia soon will have to take a lie detector test as part of new airport security measures that could eventually be applied throughout the country.

The machine asks four questions: The first is for full identity; the second, unnerving in its Soviet-style abruptness, demands: "Have you ever lied to the authorities?" It then asks whether either weapons or narcotics are being carried.

To cut delays, passengers will take the tests after taking off their shoes and putting baggage through the X-ray machines. He doesn't get his shoes back until he satisfactorily answers the questions.

Some clarification would be helpful here: Which authorities? Is there a statute of limitations? Do lies to third-grade schoolteachers about missing math homework count? No word on any of that, but an official reassures:

"We can understand that something like this could be uncomfortable for some passengers, but it is a necessary step."

Mario, Our Muse

"Imagine that all you knew about movies was gleaned through observing the audience in a theater -- but that you had never watched a film. You would conclude that movies induce lethargy and junk-food binges. That may be true, but you're missing the big picture."

That's Sims creator Will Wright sticking up for video-game culture. Here's some more from the same essay:

As computer graphics advanced, game designers showed some Hollywood envy: They added elaborate cutscenes, epic plots, and, of course, increasingly detailed graphics. They bought into the idea that world building and storytelling are best left to professionals, and they pushed out the player. But in their rapture over computer processing, games designers forgot that there's a second processor at work: the player's imagination.

Now, rather than go Hollywood, some game designers are deploying that second processor to break down the wall between producers and consumers. By moving away from the idea that media is something developed by the few (movie and TV studios, book publishers, game companies) and consumed in a one-size-fits-all form, we open up a world of possibilities. Instead of leaving player creativity at the door, we are inviting it back to help build, design, and populate our digital worlds.

And our physical worlds too, as long as the bomb squad doesn't spoil the fun.

Elsewhere in Reason: Jacob Sullum looks at the latest threat to game designers' free speech here. Kevin Parker explores the politics of gameplay here. I look at a more Hobbesian game landscape here, I consider the blurry line between games and reality here, and I compare the early days of video games and the early days of movies here.

Elsewhere not in Reason: Henry Jenkins' classic essay, "Games, the New Lively Art."

"Fishapod" Confounds Creationists

Just kidding. Nothing confounds creationists, neither the old-fashioned young earth types nor the newfangled intelligent designers. As I heard one creationist explain it when I was covering the Creation Mega-Conference last year, "God said it. That settles it."

Science doesn't work that way. Paleontogists are reporting the exciting discovery of a fossilized 375 million year old fish with the beginnings of digits, elbows, wrists and shoulders. In other words, it's a fish with leglets, or a fishapod. Dubbed Tiktaalik roseae the fossil fits nicely between eusthenopteron fishes and the amphibious ichthyostega.

Look for creationists of all stripes to demand, "So where's the transition between eusthenopteron and tiktaalik, not to mention the transiton between tiktaalik and ichthyostega?" Essentially what they are requiring for proof of evolution are the fossils for every creature that ever lived because without them, there will always be a "missing link." Nevertheless, the discovery of tiktaalik forces their God into ever smaller gaps.

Fear of a Black Hat, or, I See 'Dem Too

Jack Abramoff, what have you done? Angry at sartorial profiling by the NYPD, Borough Park's Hasidic community shows that the real Jewish drug is rage.

Though the Borough Park demos have calmed down, the cops and the Hasidim have a troubled history.

Stephen I. Weiss explains the difference between a Jewish "protest" and a Black "riot."

John Gilmore sends in some historic examples of fightin', ass-whuppin' Hasids.

White Foragers Report Threat Of Black Looters.

My favorite Hasidim joke.

That Explains the Horns on My Bag of Weed

V.S. Herrell, leader of Tennessee's Christian Separatist Church Society, reveals that marijuana is "a Jewish drug." Rastafarians might disagree.

My favorite part is Herrell's discussion of the drug policy reform movement's financial backers:

It is clear, from this author's point-of-view, that [George] Soros and his fellow-travelers are merely front men for a world Zionist conspiracy to destroy America....While we were unable to locate conclusive proof that John Sperling, CEO of the Apollo Group, and Peter Lewis of the Progressive Corporation Insurance Company are indeed Jewish themselves, they are undoubtedly Jewish fellow-travelers.... George Zimmer, founder and president of the Men's Warehouse [sic], was also difficult to pin down as a known Jew. However, he did attend the 26th annual menorah lighting in San Francisco as an honored participant.

I'm accepting nominations for the Catholic drug, the Buddhist drug, the Mormon drug (a toughie), the Muslim drug, etc.

[Thanks to Allen St. Pierre for the link.]

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Soros

Last night the House of Representatives passed the 527 Reform Act by a 218-209 vote. The bill raises the cap on individual donations to the political parties to $25,000, while cutting off the amount they can give to 527 groups - formerly an unlimited amount - at $5,000. You'll notice that the bill won the vote of noted reform advocate Tom DeLay (R). That's because the law was written to neuter Democrat-friendly groups like America Coming Together and MoveOn.org, who been collecting hearty donations from millionaires (like conservative Goldstein figure George Soros) to go after Republicans. It's also going to kneecap groups like the Club for Growth and the (still extant) Swift Boat Veterans, but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few international Jewish financiers.

As the Washington Post notes, the Democrats who voted against the bill were supported by Americans for Tax Reform and the Free Congress Foundation. Eighteen Republicans also voted no, including leaders of the Republican Study Committee like Mike Pence and failed majority leader candidate John Shadegg. (Nine pro-"reform" Democrats saved the day by voting with DeLay et al.)

Milton Friedman Guest-Edits the New York Times

That's one way of explaining this sunshine and lollipops report on the school vouchers experiment in Washington, DC. Reporter Diana Jean Schemo tackles the subject with a mix of understanding and pathos.

In one sixth-grade classroom, two of six students said they would probably go to charter schools next year, unless Adams could get its seventh grade started.

"I'll probably go to Washington Latin," said Jhontelle Johnson, setting her sights on a new charter school opening in August. If not, she said, "I'd probably be home-schooled."

A teacher's aide, Sheonna Griffin, looked askance. "You don't like public schools?" she asked the child.

Jhontelle turned back, her young eyes flashing. "You can't make me go," she said.

World Without Pitney

The darkly brilliant and too neglected singer Gene Pitney is dead at age 65. His "Greatest Hits of All Times" compilation on Musicor (MS-3102) is one of the few albums I became obsessed with enough to listen to three times and more a day. No one ought be without regular doses of "24 Hours from Tulsa" or "Town Without Pity" or "Only Love Can Break A Heart" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." His voice was eerie, impassioned, maniacal, deep, shimmering, a river of feeling undammed. He will be missed; luckily, his voice is still with us.

"She's On Her Own Now"

Almost 48 hours after Reason's Brian Doherty chimed in on Rep. Cynthia McKinney's run-in with the law and the story still won't die. The congresswoman is hitting the morning shows, fending off charges of racism (from Tom DeLay), and being told to shut up by the neoconservative horde at The Nation. The magazine's excellent reporter Ari Berman kisses her off in five short paragraphs.

The Nation defended McKinney when the right-wing and AIPAC slimed her as an anti-Semite back in 2002. But, as far as I'm concerned, she's on her own now.

Reason Editor Nick Gillespie first diagnosed McKinney's unique brand of sanity in 2002.

UPDATE: McKinneygate 2006 is bringing out the best in our pundit class. The folks at Media Matters offer a clip of radio host Neil Boortz opining for a really, really long time about the congresswoman's "ghetto trash" hairstyle.

(Reason's web editor Tim Cavanaugh e-mails that he has "mixed feelings about the new 'do: It makes her face look a bit rounder, but takes at least five years off her age.")

And the Felix Goes to ...

Congratulations to Reason Assistant Editor Kerry Howley, winner of the 2005-2006 Felix Morley journalism competition.

The award page has a link to some of Howley's articles - her Reason archive is here.

(Tip of the hat to John Tabin, who says it was "an honor just to be dominated.")

Guarding the Homefront

The last time I played a video game with either of the Mario Bros. in it, Reagan was in his first term and Mr. Mario was chasing an ape. So I might have missed some of the nuances in this story from GameSpot -- but I think I've got the gist:

In the town of Ravenna, Ohio, five teenage girls, ages 16 and 17, crafted some life-sized power-up boxes modeled after those in [Super Mario Bros.]. The cardboard boxes were covered in shiny, gold wrapping paper and had the black question marks familiar to most gamers. As an April Fools joke, the girls laid 17 of these boxes around the town in public spaces Friday morning.

The humor was lost on some residents, however. After noticing one package on the steps of a church, a concerned citizen reported the "suspicious package" to local authorities, who called in the county's hazardous materials unit and the bomb squad.

Upon further inspection, no materials designed to harm people, mushrooms to increase a person's size, or flowers that bestow the ability to project bouncing fireballs were found inside the boxes. The packages were empty.

According to the Ohio Record-Courier, "the incident will be referred to the Portage County Prosecutor's Office for possible charges against the girls."

[Thanks to Tim Dreier for the link.]

My Brain Made Me Do It

Over at STATS.org, Rebecca Goldin rips into ABC's incredibly lame coverage of anti-porn activism:

In one of the most biased pieces on pornography we've seen by the mainstream media, ABC says that some activists are "raising funds for high-tech brain research that they hope will fuel lawsuits against porn magnates," and then quotes one activist who says "we'll demonstrate in the not-too-distant future the actual physical harm that pornography causes." They leave this scientific question dangling before the reader, as an assured reality that a link will be found given funding for the high-tech research. The main expert quoted to support the view that "you're damaging your brain" by consuming porn is... (drum roll) an auto executive.

Throughout the ABC piece, activists argue that porn is not only dangerous, but powerfully addictive -- so much so that we can't possibly expect men to resist its pull without federal help. The evidence? They're still hashing that out. But as a self-described former porn "addict" explains:

"Sometimes it's not a matter of free will...It's a matter of invasion."

Big Brother: A Private-Public Partnership

Cato's Daily Dispatch links to a Washington Post story by No Place to Hide author Robert O'Harrow noting that private information databases with which government agencies contract often fall short of meeting the standards the agencies themselves are supposed to follow under the 1974 Privacy Act. An extensive Government Accountability Office report on the privacy practices of private info brokers was the subject of a Congressional hearing yesterday. Declan McCullagh wrote about the economic benefits of such private databases—and the importance of keeping them segregated from government's—in a much-discussed 2004 Reason cover story.

Sex and Death In George W. Bush's America

By blaming American prudishness for the box office massacre of Basic Instinct 2, Paul Verhoeven, the man who should have directed V For Vendetta, has brought the wrath of the anti-Bush-bashers down on his own weaselly Dutch head. Sez the Robocop, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers helmer:

Anything that is erotic has been banned in the United States... Look at the people at the top (of the government). We are living under a government that is constantly hammering out Christian values. And Christianity and sex have never been good friends.

Nicholas Meyer, whose Wrath of Khan, Voyage Home, and Undiscovered Country were the most artistically successful of the big-screen Star Trek efforts (and whose TV movie The Day After took a bold and original stand against nuclear war), says the whole culture's gone kerblooey:

"We're in a big puritanical mode," he said. "Now, it's like the McCarthy era, except it's not 'Are you a communist?' but 'Have you ever put sex in a movie?'"

For writers like Meyer...the erotic genre has become a tough sell for studios increasingly leery of adult-themed material. Despite receiving glowing coverage, he and co-writer Ron Roose have found no takers for their sexy screenplay "Spoils."

"Every studio that read it said, 'This is going to get made.' They just didn't want to be the one to make it," he said.

"[A]ny director who can turn a movie about lapdancing into a stultifyingly dull 3 hour movie may not actually have a good grasp on what is erotic," scoffs one observer. "Make a bad movie, blame George Bush," sniffs another. A third avers, "People didn't go to see "Showgirls" because it was a derivative piece of tripe with a bad script, bad acting, bad directing, and bad editing." "[M]aybe Hollywood is indeed so depraved that the normal American culture, sex-drenched though it may be, looks Puritanical by contrast," another warns. "Scary, if true."

Some of these objections are baseless: Verhoeven has no excuses to make because he had nothing to do with Basic Instinct 2. If anything, he's got an incentive to gloat over the sequel's failure and claim that he was the key to the original's success (more on that in a moment). And while you can call Showgirls many things, "derivative" is not one of them; if ever a Hollywood movie was a true original, Showgirls was that movie.

Every tale of outrage about entertainment depravity starts with an anecdote about how the teller had to sit helplessly, unable to stir a hand toward the remote control, while some offensive show played in its full torturous length. So here's mine: After watching one of the NFL playoff games at the home of a friend who has only rabbit ears TV reception, I caught one of those endlessly replicating CSI-type shows (whichever one stars Mark Harmon), and it was as grisly and violent as an Italian gut-muncher from the seventies. The plot revolved around a killer who was sending the cops "meat puzzles"—thoroughly dismembered bodies with the pieces thrown together in a random pile. Now one thing I know about the coroner shows is that their audiences skew much older: Everybody's mom gets off on watching the MEs go about their suety business with fancy equipment. Presumably this audience includes at least some of the people Brent Bozell musters to bombard the FCC with complaints. So I'm thinking Maybe they're getting away with all these lingering closeups of bloody, mangled torsos and feet and faces because the audience sees some kind of educational value—you're getting the lowdown on how the cops solve crimes. But by the end of the show I had to give up even that excuse: As the killer finds himself cornered by the cops, he grabs a scalpel and cuts open his own throat, and the scene is done with full latex-and-squib effects and shooting blood.

I have not written an angry letter to the FCC because I want more explicit violence, not less, on my TV. But comparing the silence that met that show with the FCC's $3.6 million fine for a dimly lit orgy scene (on another violent cop show), I am willing to consider the possibility that American popular culture really does have a pretty fucked-up and schizophrenic relationship with depictions of sex and violence. I don't blame President Bush for that, but I don't praise him either: He put Kevin Martin in charge of the FCC, and Martin, despite his disturbingly hairless chin, is not exactly an innocent party here.

Obviously, it's a leap to go from that to saying Bush prevented people from lining up to spend money on a way-out-of-date movie franchise. Adult-themed films have been dying out for years, and the Hollywood Economist has the most persuasive explanation for that. If you want to know why Basic Instinct 2 tanked, it's because they didn't bring back the one person who was the key to the original movie's success: Wayne "Newman" Knight. Go watch the famous crotch sequence again, and it's clear: Without Newman's sweaty reaction shots that scene would have fallen completely flat.

In a related case of defining Bush-bashing down, Polyphonic Spree, the massive, robe-wearing, vaguely cultish pop ensemble, is getting dragged into the gutter of party politics. Dangerously charismatic frontman Tim de Laughter says the band's next song will be an "ode to Bush," and the liberal media give it the headline, "Polyphonic Spree Bash Bush On New Album." (The only thing more dangerous for the president than a Polyphonic Spree defection would be if Doug Henning and Shields & Yarnell teamed up to help the Democrats.)

A Confederacy of Dunces or, Stupid Post-Katrina New Orleans Vending Rules

Josh Wexler, a New Orleans bookseller who made Reason's pages a few years back by fighting idiotic street-vending laws in the (so-called) Big Easy, has a sharp piece up at National Review Online about how the muckety-mucks down there are screwing up the recovery. A snippet:

The New Orleans city council--which oversees a city desperately in need of opportunity and services--recently passed an ordinance banning "retail sales outside of enclosed buildings" anywhere in the city, unless they are explicitly authorized by other laws.

As a longtime book vendor on the streets of New Orleans, I would like to say I was surprised by this government-issued nonsense. But doing business in the Big Easy is anything but easy for those with entrepreneurial drive....

The sweeping city-council measure, introduced by my councilwoman, Renee Gill Pratt, outlaws the very activity that has restored life to city sidewalks. The penalty for engaging in such commerce or for displays, signs or advertisements for outdoor sales? Six months in jail and/or a $500 fine.

Whole tale of woe here.

And Wexler's intriguing blog about "premodernist life in postapocalyptic New Orleans" here.

Here's a Story About Dave and Diane

Last summer, I wrote about the case of Diane (formerly Dave) Schroer, a 26-year Special Forces vet who'd been offered a position as a terrorism analyst at the Library of Congress as Dave, then—just before he was due to start—had it rescinded when he revealed he'd be showing up as a she. Last week, a federal judge issued an opinion ruling that Schroer's discrimination lawsuit against the library, brought with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, can go forward.

My feelings about the suit were somewhat mixed from the outset. On the one hand, I take it for granted that it's wrong for the government to revoke a job offer on the basis of transgendered status under ordinary circumstances. But the suit was brought under Title VII--which covers private employers as well--on the theory that "sexual stereotyping" is a form of sex discrimination. That argument's based largely on the seminal case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which a woman sued her employer because she was denied a promotion at least in part on the grounds that she was regarded as insufficiently "feminine." The Supreme Court held that "sex discrimination" covers not just discrimination against all members of a particular sex, but also discrimination against those who fail to fit the gender stereotypes associated with their sex. And while I'd like Schroer to win, I'd be worried about a victory on that theory generating a precedent that could burden the rights of private employers... maybe (and I'm just making up hypotheticals here) making it "discriminatory" to have different uniforms (dress vs. suit, say) for female and male employees. The ideal scenario would be for Schroer to win on another, more novel argument that her attorneys proposed to me: That there are a line of cases, most famously connected with abortion, establishing a protected sphere of private medical decisions that the government (as opposed to private employers) may not burden. And there's apparently case law to support the notion that denial of a job based on a medical decision in that sphere counts as an undue burden.

The opinion issued last week hits a kind of middle ground. On the basis of my skim of the ruling, the judge seemed to say that there was little chance of Schroer's prevailing on the "sexual stereotype" theory, but perhaps a chance of winning a straightforward sex discrimination claim: If David was good enough for the job, and Diane isn't and they're otherwise similarly qualified (exactly similarly, in fact!), that's sex discrimination. And that actually seems to be the argument that treats transgendered people in a more respectful way: The stereotyping theory essentially involves viewing Schroer as a man who's acting like a woman and being punished for it. The straightforward discrimination argument starts from the assumption that Diane just is a woman in all the relevant senses, even if she hasn't yet completed the physiological transition. And a victory on those grounds would yield the correct result in this case without shaking up sex discrimination laws--and the expectations of private employers and employees--too much.

I'm Gonna Wash That AIDS Right Outta My Hair

Here's a story that reveals plenty about the problems African societies face in controlling the spread of AIDS. South African politician Jacob Zuma, on trial for an alleged rape, had shocked AIDS prevention campaigners when he testified he'd had unprotected sex because "chances were very slim" that a man could contract HIV from a woman. He followed up that testimony by claiming that after sex with an HIV-positive woman, he had taken a shower to "minimise the risk of contracting the disease."

Before this trial, one of Zuma's political jobs was heading up the National Aids Council and the Moral Regeneration Campaign.

John Blundell offered a more optimistic take on South Africa's problems in the August/September 2004 issue of Reason.

Get Your Ephedra While You Can

It's been almost a year since a federal judge in Utah ruled that the FDA's ephedra ban did not have a sound legal basis. Although she enjoined the FDA from taking enforcement action against Nutraceutical, the company that brought the case, for selling dietary supplements containing a daily ephedrine dose of 10 milligrams or less, Nutraceutical has not resumed sales of such products. But a few other companies have, including World Class Nutrition, which last month announced a new line of ephedra-containing supplements: Powerdrine, Ripped Mahuang, and Metabo Mahuang. "These products are going to take the over the counter diet pill industry by storm," the company predicted, adding, "A spokesman for WCN suggests taking advantage of the availability of the weight loss pills while they are available."

As that sales tactic suggests, the ultimate legal status of ephedra is still up in the air. Instead of writing a new ephedra rule that complies with the Nutraceutical ruling, the FDA has appealed the decision. There does not appear to be any mention of the case on the agency's Web site, where a search on "ephedra" turns up nothing more recent than the February 2004 imposition of the ban. Maybe the FDA was hoping it could ignore its defeat and no one would notice.

Three Cheers for Appeasement!

The American Prospect's Matthew Yglesias cites our own Julian Sanchez, among others, in a perceptive piece on Spain and its Socialist government. A little more than two years ago, terrorists killed 201 Spanish commuters in a train bombing. Within a week, Spanish voters ousted a pro-war conservative government and installed the Socialists, who had pledged to remove the country's troops from Iraq.

If anything, Yglesias downplays the hysteria this caused in the Homeland. It wasn't just a few pro-war columnists who accused Spain of "appeasing" al-Qaeda. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said the Spanish had chosen "to change their government and to, in a sense, appease terrorists." Gen. Richard Myers, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, grumbled about how "weakness is provocative." Two years later the Spanish government is happily thwarting terrorists, and Reason's original take (see Doug Bandow, too) is looking like the right one.

"Now War is Declared, and Battle Come Down"

Taste in ominous, martial-sounding rock n' roll gets a British mobile phone salesman "hauled off a plane and questioned for three hours as a terror suspect." In the cab on his way to the Durham Tees Valley Airport in Britain, he played over the cab sound system both The Clash's "London Calling" with its warning that "war is declared, and battle come down" and Led Zeppelin's tundra-burner "The Immigrant Song" in which Robert Plant wails that "The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands, to fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!"

Harraj Mann, the man in question, says

he was 'frog-marched off the plane in front of everyone, had my bags searched and was asked 'every question you can think of'.

He added: "It turned out the taxi driver alerted someone when I arrived at the airport and had spoken about my music.....Durham Police said the action was taken 'as a result of information received' and the flight was stopped before take-off.

Old fashioned record geeks beware: Brian Eno's "Burning Airlines Give You So Much More" and "This Is Your Captain Calling" by Colin Blunstone (or even Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods!) are right out.

ADDENDUM: For nostalgia's sake, revisit this 2004 tale on Hit and Run of Syrian musicians creating a terror scare on a U.S. airline.

Homesteaders Everywhere!

A couple months ago, I wrote a column about the temporary, informal system of property rights in parking spaces that emerges after an urban snowstorm. Apparently, our Lockean instincts don't desert us after winter: Manuel Lora and Jeffrey Tucker have just applied a similar analysis to Mardi Gras and tailgate parties.

Pig (Congress)man, Ha Ha, Charade You Are...

Citizens Against Government Waste has released its annual Congressional Pig Book, which details in all its lardy goodness the stomach-turning volume of pork-barrel spending in these United States. From the intro:

This year's list includes: $13,500,000 for the International Fund for Ireland, which helped finance the World Toilet Summit; $6,435,000 for wood utilization research; $1,000,000 for the Waterfree Urinal Conservation Initiative; and $500,000 for the Sparta Teapot Museum in Sparta, N.C.

This year, there was good news and bad news. For fiscal 2006, appropriators stuffed 9,963 projects into the 11 appropriations bills, a 29 percent decrease over last year's total of 13,997. Despite the reduction in the number of earmarks, Congress porked out at record dollar levels with $29 billion in pork for 2006, or 6.2 percent more than last year's total of $27.3 billion. In fact, the total cost of pork has increased by 29 percent since fiscal 2003. Total pork identified by CAGW since 1991 adds up to $241 billion.

Go whole hog here.

Reason's Tim Cavanaugh drives off last year's biggest pork project, Alaska's bridge to nowhere, here.

Obscure headline allusion explained here.

Obscure tie-in to earlier post: Shouldn't the World Toilet Summit be held in Belgium, what with all the chocolate, beer, and Smurfs?

How Corrupt Is the U.N.?

That's the question Claudia Rosset asks in Commentary. The short answer: pretty damn corrupt. After running through various scandals and such, she gets to a more-general point about the group:

The founding purpose of the UN was to bring peace and prosperity to the globe. As to the former, the UN in the age of terror has been in most ways useless and in some ways positively dangerous. The lesson that Saddam Hussein quickly grasped was that the UN lends itself to money-laundering. With its big flows of funds across borders, its many contractors and public-private partnerships, its gigantic bureaucracy and lax controls, its diplomatic immunity, and its culture of impunity, the UN operation is a prime candidate not only for graft but, as Charles Duelfer discovered, for arms deals masked as medicine and soap. Further protecting those arms deals, and the rogues and tyrants making them, is the fact that in its capacity as a deliberative body, the UN has repeatedly urged appeasement in the face of real threats to world peace and just as repeatedly tried to constrain those (like the U.S. and its allies) willing to act to remove them.

More here.

A decade ago, Reason's Brian Doherty took a long look at the "Unimportant Nations" before channeling the Amityville Horror and whispering insistently, "Get out!" Brian's case is online here.

In the U.N.'s favor--and this is no small point--you'll recall that last year the group (via Unicef) produced an anti-war cartoon in which the Smurfs are literally bombed back to Belgium or whatever Fourth World hellhole from which they sprout like so much fungus. More on that delightful scenario here. Here's looking forward to a U.N.-approved "Tin-Tin in Abu Ghraib" cartoon next.

Iran's Enlightened Prohibitionists

A New York Times story about alcohol prohibition in Iran notes that the government has stopped requiring that legally produced ethanol be adulterated with methanol to discourage recreational consumption. Nowadays a 600-milliliter bottle of unadulterated ethanol can be purchased in a pharmacy for less than $3. "The common recipe," the Times reports, "is to mix one shot of alcohol with two shots of juice, preferably pineapple." The story quotes an unnamed official who "said the decision to permit such widespread production of alcohol was made to limit the number of deaths and casualties caused by illegal drinks. Some 19 people were killed in 2004 after drinking bad bootleg liquor."

The conclusion that drinking, while a sin, does not merit the death penalty makes Iran's mullahs look enlightened and compassionate next to America's drug warriors, who reject "harm reduction" measures such as the distribution of clean needles for heroin injection because making drug use safer might make it more appealing. From this point of view, the unsanitary practices, unreliable quality, and unpredictable purity associated with the black market are not unfortunate side effects of prohibition but added deterrents to drug use. Defenders of mandatory adulteration during America's ignoble experiment with alcohol prohibition had a similar attitude: If you don't want to risk blindness, paralysis, and death, don't drink bootleg liquor.

Another way Iranian alcohol prohibition is milder than America's war on drugs: The penalties imposed on dealers--74 lashes, a fine, and three months to a year in prison--are nothing to sneeze at, but they don't compare to America's mandatory minimum sentences of five, 10, or 15 years, let alone the possibility of life imprisonment or execution for drug "kingpins." Maybe we should send James Sensenbrenner on a fact-finding tour of Iran.

Damn, Imagine What He Could Get Away With If Dad Was a U.S. Senator

From the Mother Jones blog:

Clifton Bennett, 18-year-old son of Arizona state Senate president Ken Bennett, and his friend, 19-year-old Kyle Wheeler, were charged in January of 18 counts of aggravated assault and 18 counts of kidnapping. The charges refer to incidents which occurred at a boys' student government leadership skills camp in June of 2005, at which Bennett confesed that he and Wheeler sodomized several 11- to 14-year-old boys with broomsticks and flashlights in 40 separate incidents.

Wheeler has an additional assault charge based on his choking three boys until they passed out.

Yesterday, the pair was offered a plea agreement that will include no record of sexual assault; they will likely receive 90-day jail sentences, though the judge could reduce the charges and give them no jail time at all.

It was just hazing, you see, so despite some of the boys' having continuing problems as a result of their injuries, no sexual assault charges. Maybe when they get out they can look into careers as Department of Homeland Security spokesmen.

Gravity Is To Rocks, As Competition Is To ?

Of course, the correct answer is "prices." The FDA has recently stumbled upon this insight in a study that finds that (gasp) competition lowers pharmaceutical prices. The AP reports,

Prescription drug prices soften dramatically even with moderate competition, the Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday in an analysis that shows the arrival in the marketplace of just two generic versions of a brand-name medicine can nearly halve the price consumers pay.

The AP story further notes,

Release of the analysis comes amid ongoing criticism that the FDA is slow to approve generic versions of brand-name pharmaceuticals. The agency has a backlog of roughly 800 generic drug applications.

Not being one to let the way-too-cautious bureaucrats at the FDA off easily, it still bears pointing out (as I have many times before) that pharmaceutical companies whose 20 year patents have run out also stifle competition by means of shady legal tactics aiming to delay the approval of generics.

Video of Dead U.S. Pilot?

From the AP, via Forbes:

An extremist group posted an Internet video Wednesday that it said showed a U.S. pilot being dragged along the ground, burning, after the crash of his Apache helicopter. The video, posted by a group that called itself the Shura Council of Mujahedeen, claimed that its military wing had shot down the craft, which the U.S. military said went down Saturday.

More here.

Massachusetts Adopts Universal Mandatory Private Health Insurance Plan

Massachusetts will require all of its citizens to buy private health insurance and subsidize those too poor to afford it. The Massachusetts plan incorporates features of a proposal for mandatory universal private insurance I made a while back. One feature that seems to be lacking in the Massachusetts legislation is rolling Medicaid and SCHIP monies into vouchers that allow the poor to select the private health insurance coverage they want. Of course, the devil is in the details, but ideally by experimenting with various health insurance systems on a state by state basis, the rest of the country can learn what works and what doesn't. Still, this could be a way to avoid national single payer government provided health insurance, a.k.a. completely socialized medicine.

God Bless You, McCain-Feingold

Via Josh Marshall comes this delightful tale of campaign finance law in action. Apparently, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay had wanted to quit Congress for months now - but he never stopped fundraising for re-election. He kept collecting cash (around $3 million of it) because "under federal campaign rules, any reelection money a lawmaker raises can be used to pay legal fees stemming from official duties."

All you conservative activists who kicked in a check because you wanted Tom DeLay to win his election and give those rotten Democrats what for? I hope you're Woody Allen fans.

UPDATE: There's some confusion as to whether I think McCain-Feingold is responsible for this. Not specifically. But this is an example of a ridiculous, incumbent-protecting slice of campaign law that - amazingly! - has never been targeted by campaign finance reformers who are so concerned about matters like citizens getting involved in politics via 527s.

Reform, Syrian Style

This, from a Michael Slackman piece in the New York Times on the continued stifling of dissent in Syria:

"I may not be keen on early morning arrests, but this regime was being threatened," Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Dardari, a London educated technocrat charged with steering Syria's economic overhaul, said in an interview. "The survival of this regime and the stability of this country was threatened out loud and openly. There were invitations for foreign armies to come and invade Syria. So you could expect sometimes an overreaction, or a reaction, to something that is really happening."

Threatened? Mostly the Bush administration made rumblings about "behavior change" in Syria, but it never came close to threatening the regime. The U.S. does back a United Nations investigation into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, but if Syria has something to fear there (and it does), that's because it was almost certainly behind the assassination. As for describing the jailing and beating of Syrian regime critics as an "overreaction", Dardari certainly did pick up one noted British trait: understatement.

Why is this important, after all describing the Syrian regime as thuggish is as original as saying that Arctic nights are cold? Very simply, because Dardari has been held up by many a naif on Syria, by those who are convinced that Bashar Assad is deep down a secret reformer, as the great hope of newfound Syrian openness. You see, if an Arab official speaks English, he must be a reformer. I recall similar optimism greeting the former information minister, Mehdi Dakhlallah, who was supposed to be a Baathist version of Peter Jennings. That is until a former guest in a Syrian prison reported that Dakhlallah had participated in his interrogation.

Well, maybe there is change in Syria after all. Dardari did admit to "early morning arrests." In the past, they tended to occur in the dead of night.

Saudi Sex Surgery Skepticism

The story of the five Saudi women getting F-M sex changes that Jesse Walker noted earlier seems too good to be true. I spent 45 minutes yesterday trying to get my Arabic-reading brother in law to find the original story on the website for the Saudi paper al Watan, but it wasn't there or on any of the other al Watans. I do think there was an original story in al Watan, because this Jordanian paper has slightly more detail than is found in any of the other versions—all of which are clearly reading the same original. But nobody has any names or specifics.

It's weird the way these third-world post office stories—in which everybody passes along an article about how a bunch of Egyptians drown trying to get a chicken out of a well, etc.—have survived into the web age. The sex-change story certainly may be true, but I don't think I believe anything anymore in this post-Frey/LeRoy/Blair/Glass/Finkel/Jones/Forman/Cohn/Rothman*/Newton world. A few weeks ago I read David Remnick's excellent story on the Palestinian elections, and when he mentions his conversation with a Gazan whose first name is "Eichmann," my first reaction was Good for Remnick, that even at his high level of career achievement he can still get into crazy situations like that. But my second reaction was Remnick made that shit up!

That was just my reaction: I'm not really accusing Remnick of making anything up. But if he did, who's gonna go scour Gaza proving that there is not a local resident by the name of Eichmann? For that matter, there probably are five Saudi trannies out there somewhere. But like St. Thomas, I'll believe it when I can put my fingers through their...nevermind.

Update: Just as I've always suspected, my inlaws can't read. Commenter anon (my favorite writer) sends in the original story, which includes some interesting details about how the wo/men got their new identity papers, and citing some dubious-sounding verses from the Prophet condemning gender reassignment. That seems pretty forward-looking for a person speaking in the seventh century, but I guess for a man born without a foreskin all things are possible.

* John Gilmore gives a spirited defense of Rodney Rothman in the comments.

Update of the update: My inlaws can read. Not only that, here's a complete translation/commentary of the al Watan story from my brother in law Tony Karam:

After reading your story about the five Saudi women who changed their gender in Saudi Arabia, I believe the same way you believe. I am also like St. Thomas. I don't believe unless I witness because they don't mention the names of the women or the country and hospital where the surgery was done.

Here are more details of what the Alwatan Newspaper dated April 3, 2006 says:

The Assistant Director of Dr. Orfan Hospital in Jeddah, Dr. Mohammad Abdel-Mawjud, told "Alwatan" that five (5) Saudi Women changed their gender within one year and became men. Dr. Abdel-Mawjud said that those five (5) women refused to be labeled as mentally ill patients, that they knew exactly what they were doing and why they did it. But it looks like the Saudi society wanted those women to be labeled as "mentally ill" like the Afghani Muslim men who became Christian. This doctor continues to say that those five women traveled to other Arab countries where the surgeries were done, then went back to their country with legal documents different than the ones they used to leave their country issued by Saudi Embassies in those countries (i.e., indicating that they are men.)

Dr. Abdel-Mawjud says that those women decided to do this surgery because men dominate the Saudi Society.

Dr. Abdel-Mawjud mentioned that there is a black market that is encouraging Saudi Women to do this surgery in some Arab Countries, India and Far East, which allows those women to go back to their countries only two weeks after the surgery.

Dr. Abdel-Mawjud added that most of the women who have had this surgery and changed their gender regretted this and wanted to become women again after it was too late because this kind of surgery is irreversible.

Sheikh Abdallah Bin-Beih, the vice-chairman of the Muslim Imams at King Abdel Aziz University in Jeddah, said that according to the Holy Koran we have to accept what God gave us and do not change God's creation.

Sheikh Abdallah Bin-Beih added that this is mainly a psychological problem and it is coming from the Western World.

The story adds that according to Mr. Mohammad Al-Asmari, the director of Saudi Customs in Jeddah, none of those women who had this surgery were put in jail and they are being treated as mentally ill patients.

The story says that the Saudi Embassies outside Saudi Arabia have the right to give those papers to women who became men. The Saudi Embassy gives this person a passport, which can be used only once to allow that person to go back to Saudi Arabia and finish the rest of the legal paper work.

Absolute Justice Against Absolute Power

Over at Lew Rockwell.com, a (very long) defense of the libertarian bonafides of Lord Acton, who is to most people probably reducible to his wonderfully quotable quote, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This piece by Anthony Flood contextualizes him nicely, with a good account of the great Catholic liberal's fight against the doctrine of papal infallibility, and what followed that famous one liner:

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means.

Then after accusing Anglican Archbishop Mandell Creighton, in a letter to whom this was written, of being softer on the crimes of the politically great than justice demanded, Acton wrote:

You would spare these [powerful and exalted] criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them higher...for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.

Quod licet Jovi, non licet bovi, they say. But who, then, are the cows supposed to be? Why, you and me. Acton would have none of it, and good for him.

You'd Like Me When I'm Angry

The Economist's oh-so-smart columnist "Lexington" has filed a curious study of America's "rebirth of outrage." It's a big target, but somehow the columnist misses it. He identifies the "tabloid titans" as a handful of cable chat show hosts, and then claims they appeal "only to narrow slivers of the country." Sure, they do. But any study of American outrage has to take in the apolitical rage-mongers who hype up local crime and kidnapping stories. O'Reilly's modest audience is only a fraction of Rush Limbaugh's, and Limbaugh is merely the most successful of the hundreds of rageholic radio hosts sharing the AM dial. And they're not all political, either - I'm assuming Lex has never listened to a sports call-in show.

The column lacks any real evidence of, or reasons for, an outrage boom. There's speculation about the 2000 election, gerrymandering, Roe v. Wade, and the feuds between Puritans and Cavaliers. Despite the hectoring tone, there's nothing here that explains why American outrage is bad (you'd expect a few stats on cholestoral and heart attacks, at least). If you wanted to explain why America has fast-paced, endlessly amusing media and culture, you might end up with a very similar column.

"Soy Ateo, Gracias a Dios"

So said Luis Buñuel, famously, but he might've been less sanguine if he'd seen this study by a team of University of Minnesota sociologists revealing a profound public hostility to atheists in America. Ilya Somin, guest-blogging at Volokh Conspiracy, posts about the findings, and then in a pair of follow-ups considers whether the godless themselves are to blame for their PR problem and why it all matters anyway. Andrew Sullivan had a series of posts on the same topic last week, and both he and Somin mention Eugene Volokh's recent law review article on discrimination against atheists in child custody cases.

Now, I live in the bizarro bubble of D.C. policy/journalism where, at absolute minimum, 90 percent of my social circle is atheist or, for those without the courage of their lack of convictions, agnostic. The situation in Manhattan, where I lived previously, was pretty similar. So I remain happily immune from any effects of this apparently pervasive attitude. But for the heathens among the Reasonoids: How's the situation in the rest of this great land of ours? Any horror stories? Pleasant tales of tolerance?

Have You Seen the "bin Laden" Punchcard?

The FBI has finally transcribed its vital records from cuneiform on stone tablets to the newfangled electronical vacuum-tube brains, according to Slate. It's becoming a little clearer how a gang of medieval throwbacks operating out of caves managed to blindside us.

Who's the Most Cunning Linguist?

The Washington Post's Richard Morin reports on a recent study by University of Texas at Austin researchers who plugged speeches from the 2004 POTUS and Veep candidates into a text analysis program. Their findings:

Cheney easily sounded the smartest of the four, while Edwards and Bush favored the least sophisticated language patterns, Slatcher and his colleagues report in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Research in Personality. When it came to sounding presidential, both Bush and his running mate scored considerably higher than Kerry or Edwards. Bush was the oldest-sounding candidate. Edwards also was the most likely to use feminine speech patterns and "female" words (Bush was a close second), while Cheney sounded most like a man's man.

The vice president sounded the most honest of the four, and Kerry the least. Kerry's language also was most like that of a depressed person, followed by Edwards. Perhaps that's inevitable; after all, challengers must sound gloomy and doomy about their opponents' records, though in doing so they run clear risks.

Hold Off on Those Clone Vats

Andrew Sabl at Reality Based Community tries to deflate some of the panic over declining populations in Western Europe. I think he misfires on a couple points: Other things equal, cultural dynamism will tend to vary with population size for the familar reason that division of labor depends on the extent of the market. A society consisting of a few thousand people isn't going to be able to support rich communities specializing in different kinds of artistic or scientific production to the same extent a larger one can—though there are very likely sharply diminishing returns to scale here. The key point, though, is that it's silly to freak out over dire scenarios that emerge when you do straight-line extrapolations of current trends. As Sabl notes, for instance, if people are having fewer children partly because population density makes larger houses prohibitively expensive, you can't just presume they'll continue reproducing at the same rate indefinitely, because less dense populations will lower housing prices, and the opposite effect will kick in.

Reporting the News Without DeLay

I'm not really sure what the import of this is, but Drudge is stirring up a controversy over who broke the DeLay resignation story. Was it Time correspondent Mike Allen, who got the news from DeLay in an exclusive Sugar Land interview, or MSNBC hothead Chris Matthews, who broke into a broadcast claiming he too had gotten the news straight from the disgraced congressman? Was it a Newton/Leibnitz controversy, wherein two parties can reasonably claim to have been the pioneer? I say the newsbreaker is Reason's Dave Weigel, whose headline "Tom DeLay to Seek Lucrative Consulting Job" may not have been first, but was the most accurate. According to Drudge:

This morning, TIME's Mike Allen was interviewed by CNN's Miles O'Brien to discuss his exclusive with DeLay. CNN's O'Brien opened the interview by saying: "Mike Allen, the White House correspondent for TIME magazine broke the story. Glad to have you with us."

Meanwhile, on NBC's "TODAY SHOW," host Katie Couric introduced Matthews during the show's DeLay package by describing the flamboyant cable host as the person "who broke the story." The interview closed with Couric saying "Congratulations on breaking the story." Matthews replied "Thank you very much."

As my mom once answered when asked where my dad was, "Who cares as long as he's gone."

Doha Deathwatch

The Doha round of WTO negotiations, launched in 2001 to lower trade barriers around the world, is locked in stalemate. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said it was time to get out and move on:

"The US and the EU have irreconcilable differences on trade, and when you have irreconcilable differences the best thing you can do is call it off," said Mr Thomas, Republican chairman of the influential House ways and means committee, who will retire from Congress this year.

He also warned about the growing influence of protectionism in the US, saying the "anti-free trade forces" were poised to capture control of Congress in this year's election.

"For anyone hoping for a significant conclusion to the Doha round, my apologies," he said on Monday at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Whatever the last whiney note is at the Doha round, we should soldier on, but it should not be where the US puts the majority of its resources.

"I don't know the exact day the music stopped, but it stopped and we need to get off the merry-go-round," he added.

When talks in Cancun collapsed in 2003, Reason's Ron Bailey was there.

Most Toxic Air In America—Big Deal (Yawn)

New York and California have the most toxic air pollution in America according to the EPA. But how bad is it really? Not so bad, according to Joel Schwartz, writing over at TCSDaily. According to Schwartz, the EPA calculates that "breathing 1999 pollution levels over a lifetime gives New York State residents an average cancer risk of 68 per million people. For Californians the risk is 66 per million, and the national average is 42 per million." Sounds terrible, right?

Not so fast, says Schwartz. He points out:

About one-third of all Americans--330,000 per million--will develop cancer sometime during their lifetimes. On a nationwide basis, EPA's estimates therefore imply that only one of every 2,400 cancers (0.042%) is caused by air pollution. While it would be wonderful if no one contracted cancer for any reason, it is clear that reducing air pollution will do virtually nothing to reduce the total burden of this terrible disease.

Of course, how you look at air pollution cancer risks depends on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty. Even at one of every 2,400 cancers, air pollution would still be responsible for more than 500 cancers per year nationwide. We would all choose to avoid these cancers if we could, and in a world of infinite resources we would. But even if we could eliminate all cancer-causing air pollutants for the unlikely sum of just $10 billion per year, that would still amount to a cost of $20 million per cancer case avoided. At that price, reducing air pollution would have to rank pretty low on any list of priorities for cancer prevention.

Of course, cancer's not the only thing. Air pollution looks ugly and exacerbates (but does not cause) asthma.

Whole thing here.

Disclosure: I enjoy talking with Joel Schwartz (we sat next to one other at a policy dinner last month). I assume that I must own some minor amount of stock in some companies or other that cause some kind of air pollution, but I can't think of them off the top of my head and I'm not going to look them up now.

Welcome David Weigel!

I'm happy to announce officially what Hit & Run readers already know: David Weigel has joined the staff of Reason as an assistant editor. A D.C.-area-based journo, he's been blogging for the better part of a week and he's already contributed some excellent articles to the mag in the past (such as When Patriots Dissent: Surprise: Standing up to the PATRIOT Act can be good politics and Welcome to the Fun-Free University: The return of in loco parentis is killing student freedom). Go here for a list of more Reason-related scribblings.

Dave graduated from Northwestern a few years ago and has worked for USA Today and Campaigns & Elections. He blogs here. Welcome aboard Dave!

And just so no one is confused: Reason is still looking to expand its staff by hiring an assistant editor. Details here.

A Serial Second

This has no political content, it's just kind of fun. I may stay up and toast the precise moment:

On Wednesday of this week, at two minutes and three seconds after 1:00
in the morning, the time and date will be: 01:02:03 04/05/06.

That won't ever happen again.

Though there is May 6 next year, 3601 seconds later (and so on).

Addendum: OK, I obviously wasn't thinking very hard when I posted this, since as multiple commenters observe, far from being something that "won't ever happen again," as the original poster suggests, it'll happen every hundred years. If I can get some of those nanobots Ron Bailey keeps talking about, maybe I'll be around to toast the next one. Bar that, I'll hang on for 1:01:23 on May 8, 2013 and toast Leonardo Fibonacci.

Badr Boys, Badr Boys, What You Gonna Do?

Guardian Baghdad correspondant Jonathan Steele claims the country's Interior Ministry "is refusing to deploy thousands of police recruits who have been trained by the US and the UK" and elevating sectarian cops instead. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, and he's integrated some of the SCIR's armed wing - the Badr organization - into police efforts. How much can we trust the Interior Ministry?

It emerged late last year that the interior ministry has been running secret detention centres. US troops discovered two prisons in which more than 800 men and boys, mostly Sunnis, were held in shocking conditions. Under the Iraqi constitution only the ministry of justice is allowed to run prisons.

Many Sunnis now say they would rather be detained by the Americans than the Iraqi police.

Iraqi democracy - a little less Iowa, a little more Five Points.

Maybe They Need Affirmative Fractions?

The Corner links to a report that the Virginia Beach police department has signed a consent decree with the Department of Justice, in which it agrees to end a "discriminatory" hiring practice and cough up a total of $160,000 to compensate applicants adversely affected by it.

The discriminatory practice? Requiring job candidates to score 70 percent or better on a math test.

There was no suggestion that the requirement was initially imposed based on racist motivations, mind you. But white candidates were passing it at significantly higher rates than black and Hispanic applicants, and that constitutes a "disparate impact," which someone decided was unjustified because beat cops don't need to be proficient in math. Now, obviously, there is a kind of racial injustice here—that we have some crappy school systems that disproportionately fail minority students. Weeding out neutral tests that reveal this unfortunate fact, however, seems like a suboptimal remedy.

Postrel on Kidney Donation

Former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel spills everything about kidney donation to Glenn Reynolds and Dr. Helen Smith on the Instapundit's podcast.

Go here for details, including why the Scottish liberals (Smith, etc) were probably more likely to cough up an organ than Ayn Rand.

And while we're on the subject of the Instapundit, go here for my NY Post review of his new book, An Army of Davids.

Wasn't There a Foo Fighters Video About This? (Sky-High Drug-Smuggling Edition)

Not the fresh-making power of Mentos, but drug-smuggling airplane types?:

Two U.S. air marshals pleaded guilty Monday to accepting money to smuggle cocaine on a flight to Las Vegas and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

The marshals admitted they accepted $15,000 to use their positions as air marshals to bypass airport security and smuggle 15 pounds of cocaine....

The men face 10 years to life in prison and a maximum fine of $4 million on the smuggling charge, and 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on a bribery charge.

More here.

The Man vs. The Economist

One drawback to the anonymity of The Economist's authors: You don't know who to blame when someone gets something really, really wrong. Timothy Virkkala points to one recent example -- a discussion of Herbert Spencer written by someone who doesn't seem to have read any Spencer.

Protecting the Little Guy

An NBC News consumer reporter busts two tax preparers who helped a part-time waitress who earned $11,000 last year get a tax refund. They told her not to tell the IRS about her $4,000 in cash tips. The waitress was undercover for NBC News, and the tax advice was captured on hidden camera.

Both H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt say what happened to us is a clear violation of their policies and unacceptable. They say they have taken actions against the employees involved. (On the video, the preparers look like recent college grads.)

Ok, cheating on your taxes is wrong. But what kind of investigative reporting is this? Does the IRS really need network news to help it enforce tax laws against low-income filers?

Insured Patients Overcrowding Emergency Rooms

Emergency rooms overcrowded with uninsured patients is a staple of our debate over the woes of our health care system. Representative headlines include "Uninsured patients flood emergency rooms" from Reuters on MSNBC, "Uninsured patient load is straining emergency rooms" from Cox News, and "Emergency rooms feel fiscal pain; Uninsured patients cost hospitals, docs millions, study says" in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Hospital emergency rooms may indeed be overcrowded, but they are mainly filled with people who have some form of health insurance. The New York Times reports a new study which finds:

People who frequent emergency rooms are widely assumed to be there because they lack insurance, the implication being that their complaints are too minor to take up the E.R.'s valuable time. A new study argues that this is largely a myth. In Annals of Emergency Medicine, researchers say they have found that most patients who make frequent emergency room visits are insured and have a regular source of health care....The study found that 84 percent of the frequent users had insurance and that 81 percent had regular health providers.

Of course, hospitals have to cover their costs for treating the 16 percent of emergency room patients who don't have health insurance by boosting the bills for insured patients. If every patient could pay for emergency room care, then hospitals that are losing money on their ERs now would not be forced to close them down. This is why mandatory private health insurance (with vouchers for poor people) is a good alternative to our slow slide toward socialized medicine.

Canadian Cannabis Criminalization Continues

As expected, Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has nixed a Liberal proposal to reduce penalties for marijuana possession. The legislation, which had been kicked around for three years, would have made possession of less than 15 grams (half an ounce) a noncriminal offense punishable by a modest fine. The most revealing thing about the episode was the over-the-top reaction from the U.S. government, which threatened to retaliate against Canadian decriminalization by holding up tourists and exports at the border, even though a dozen U.S. states have essentially the same policy. In a leap of logic that still puzzles me, American drug warriors argued that treating possession of personal-use quantities less harshly would boost the wholesale flow of Canadian cannabis into the U.S. It seems likely their real worry was that Canada's relatively enlightened brand of drug policy would start to leak across the border.

Exporting Pyongyang

I told myself I'd never link something through The New York Times' moronic "Times Select" firewall, but if you've got access through Nexis or one of those pulped-tree versions hanging around John Tierney's column today made me smile:

This is a special edition of ''Lou Dobbs Tonight,'' news, debate and opinion. Live from Pyongyang, North Korea, Lou Dobbs:

Good evening from North Korea. We had to go halfway around the world, but we've finally got good news for the working men and women of America angry about illegal immigration. Tonight you'll hear our exclusive report from the nation that proudly calls itself the Hermit Kingdom.

But first, more bad news from Washington. Despite my personal trip to Cancun for last week's summit meeting, President Bush remains hostage to foreign interests. My soaring ratings apparently mean nothing to the White House or the Senate Republicans working on an amnesty plan for the illegal immigrants now carrying Mexican flags through our streets.

I think someone actually needs to start the "Minutemen Institute of Research Study Analysis."

You'll Watch Eurovision And You'll Like It

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry - the other hemisphere's answer to the RIAA - has launched around 2,000 new lawsuits against European file-sharers. Among their rationales for the new blitz: "Digital music sales soared in 2005, but not enough to make up for a continuing decline in physical formats like CDs, sending total sales down 3 percent." That's not bad compared to last year's 7.2% decline in the US, but Europe's just learning the ropes of this fan-suing jazz.

Jesse Walker originally took on the anti-filesharing hysteria in 2000.

High Court Pooh-Poohs Perturbed Padilla Appeals Pitch

The Supreme Court has punted on hearing the latest appeal of "dirty bomber" suspect (and American citizen) Jose Padilla, thereby sidestepping a challenge to the "enemy combatant" designation that allowed the government to hold Padilla for three years in military custody before filing charges against him in a federal court. From the Wash Times account:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices John Paul Stevens and Anthony M. Kennedy issued a brief opinion yesterday, saying there were "strong prudential considerations" requiring the high court to reject Padilla's appeal.

"Even if the Court were to rule in Padilla's favor, his present custody status would be unaffected," Justice Kennedy wrote for the others....

Justice Ginsburg said the case raises the question of "Does the President have authority to imprison indefinitely a United States citizen arrested on United States soil distant from a zone of combat, based on an Executive declaration that the citizen was, at the time of his arrest, an 'enemy combatant?'?"

"It is a question the Court heard, and should have decided, two years ago," she said. "Nothing the Government has yet done purports to retract the assertion of Executive power Padilla protests."

Whole thing here.

The SF Chronicle editorializes on the Supes' "cowardice" thus:

By taking a pass on whether President Bush has the right to detain a U.S. citizen indefinitely without trial, the Supreme Court missed a chance to reassert the balance of powers that are being challenged at every turn by this White House.

More here.

During Chief Justice Roberts' confirmation hearings, Reason's Jacob Sullum lamented the Senate's unwillingness to query the judge on this very question:

That's a shame, because due process is under assault by a president who claims the authority to lock up anyone he deems an "enemy combatant" until the end of the war on terrorism, which seems likely to outlast Roberts' tenure as chief justice.

Still, Jacob held out the hope that, "When Roberts hears terrorism cases, I hope he shows the same respect for process and the same aversion to letting the government make up the rules as it goes along."

Ah well. More here.

Back in January '05, Harvey Silverglate argued that the widely hailed Supreme Court decisions in Rasul v. Bush, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld v. Padilla were really pretty awful when it came to protecting civil liberties. Read all about it here.

Huddled Masses, Yearning to Breathe Fareed

Fareed Zakaria has a sharp Washington Post column that I think hits on the best objection to "guest worker" programs, to wit: Large populations of people with no real prospects of becoming full members of the community (by way of citizenship) aren't particularly likely to integrate well while they're around. Or, as he puts it, why would we decide to start doing immigration on the French model?

Another Mystery of Faith, or, Why Americans Are Still Fat Slobs

Another study has discovered that regular church attendance "accounts for" longer life spans. Regular religious observance provides better longevity returns, at a lower price, than statin-type therapies.

"Our culture, particularly our medical culture, tends to have a strong secular bias. This data shows in ways that are unquestionable that there's something going on in people's beliefs and practices that makes them healthier," says Daniel Hall, author of the report "Religious Attendance: More Cost-Effective Than Lipitor?" in the current issue of The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine (available in its entirety here). "To ignore this phenomenon would be foolish."

Hall, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center physician and a "priest" in the Episcopal church, plays up the value of being "knit into" a religious community and having "meaning" in your life, but leaves for the jump page the news that regular exercise gets you many more years of life at a much lower price than either drugs or religion.

The study doesn't go into it, but I suspect that as in previous such reports, the real key is that religous observance correlates highly with abstemiousness, regimented daily habits, and other behavior patterns that tend to lengthen your life span. But with the evolution brouhaha winding down (for now), I wonder again why the biggest opponents of natural selection tend to be religious people. They outbreed the rest of us; they live longer; they're better at nurturing the necessary survival mechanisms in their young; they're so much more numerous it's not even worth discussing—by any measure, the religious are the big winners in the natural selection lottery. So why are they so opposed to it?

John Banzhaf, Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Obesity, thy name is Graco! More than 250,000 Americans under the age of 6 are now so fat they can't even fit into age-appropriate car seats.

Car seat manufacturers have already weighed in: Cosco last year introduced a harness for 65-pounders last year, while Britax has introduced a much larger and wider "Husky" seat.

This is the kind of accomodation Nick Gillespie foresaw in an article that remains a must-read even after nearly a decade:

This is all about rising standards of corpulence, of defining fatness upwards. While our society seems content to lower expectations with regard to general civility, the SAT, and the behavior of the Kennedy clan, it has continued to raise the bar, to push the envelope, to bust the britches of what we consider fat. Indeed, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, which publishes standard weight-and-height charts, has over the years simply upped the allowable poundage to accommodate a fatter America.

As the U.S. government resorts to huggin' and chalkin' its relentlessly expanding population, Reason has been plumping for an accomodation with the fact that we are, in fact, getting fatter. Jacob Sullum a few years ago imagined an absurd, impossible, Soylent Green scenario in which fattening foods would be regulated like tobacco. More recently, he took a bite out of fat lawsuits. A.S. Hamrah explained why skinny celebrities must take extreme measures to look like their audiences.

Life, Liberty, Digital Rights & CFP, May 2-5

Reason is proud to once again be a media sponsor of the annual Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference, "the most important computer conference you've never heard of." This time the gathering is in Washington, DC, from May 2-5, and the theme is "Life, Liberty, and Digital Rights."

Keynote speakers include Senator Patrick Leahy; Congressman Joe Barton, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee (invited); Lydia Parnes, Director of the Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Consumer Protection; Stewart Baker, Assistant Secretary for Policy for the Department of Homeland Security; and Vernor Vinge, Mathematician, Computer Scientist, and Science Fiction Author.

Details and registration online here.

What It Takes to Get Arrested in D.C.

U.S. Capital Police have requested an arrest warrant for Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.). In the old days, one could get away with with cane-beatings and duel challenges on the House floor; nowadays, merely hitting a House cop who tried to grab you when you wouldn't stop on his orders gets you threatened with the dock. America: a nation in decline.

Poor Thinking

I wanted to say something about a very silly New Yorker piece by John Cassidy arguing that we should switch from our current method for measuring poverty (as a multiple of a household's minimum food budget, which for all its problems, keeps the idea tied to how well off people are in absolute material terms) to a relative scale that counts the "poor" as all those making less than half the median income. Fortunately, Will Wilkinson has a long post saying pretty much everything I'd wanted to and then some, so I can make this (ahem) relatively quick.

The obvious problem with the proposal is that even if you buy Cassidy's arguments for why relative position in the income distribution is important to people's well being in various ways, his proposal massively overcorrects by making it so that absolute income doesn't matter at all. On this methodology, if the income of every household in America quintupled overnight (in real terms, not just dollar terms), the poverty rate wouldn't budge at all. That's got to be wrong. Cassidy semi-anticipates this objection, and points out that the poverty rate can drop if the society's income distribution becomes more equal. But even that's not really true. Imagine the middle class gradually becomes miserably poor (in archaic absolute terms) while the top ten percent of the population becomes fantastically wealthy, leaving a sharp divide beween the Apollonian few and the Morlock many. That is, intuitively, a profoundly unequal society. But on Cassidy's methodology, the poverty rate might dwindle to almost nothing, provided the Morlocks were fairly uniformly immiserated.

Another odd thing about this is that Cassidy notes that it's problematic to calculate an "absolute" poverty line for a whole country: An income that leaves you at least somewhat comfortable in some rural town might not even cover rent in, say Manhattan—whether you're poor is going to be at least in part a function of what things cost locally relative to your income. But the same's going to be true when it comes to how people's comparison class affects their own subjective sense of poverty. Someone in that same rural town might feel poor if you dropped them on the Upper West Side, but not regard themselves that way at home. But at least with the absolute scale, you can measure local costs and try to adjust. How do you figure out what people's subjective comparison class for poverty or affluence is? And, incidentally, does this mean people in the developing world become poorer when they get access to global media and start comparing themselves to the rich West?

Wave That Flag, Wave It Wide and High

There's a link rich post up at Daily Kos on conservative outrage over the prevalence of Mexican flags at the recent protests against legislation that would crack down on illegal immigrants. It got me thinking about a little thought experiment: Imagine you've got a community of proud Americans living abroad for whatever reason, say in England. And suppose that even if they're perfectly happy there and doing what they can to fit in to their adopted society, their identities as Americans remain important to them. Now imagine—and this shouldn't be a stretch—that they begin to feel as though they're under attack as Americans, that the prevailing attitude in the country has become anti-American. They respond by staging a rally at which they wave lots of American flags, asserting their pride in who they are and where they've come from. Do the people who're livid over the Mexican flags find any part of this offensive?

Some Children Still Left Behind

A press release from the Alliance for School Choice announcing a legal action they and the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education (CURE) (Star Parker's operation) filed last week which

demands that the Los Angeles and Compton Unified School Districts immediately provide and publicize public school transfer options for children in failing schools as required by [No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)].
...........
The Alliance also called upon U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to cut off applicable federal funds to the districts until they comply with the law or make other suitable educational opportunities available to children in failing schools.

NCLBA requires that school districts offer to children in schools that have failed to make "adequate yearly progress" for two years under state standards the option to transfer to better-performing public schools within the district. Lack of capacity is not a basis to fail to provide transfer opportunities under the law.
.......
The complaints filed against the school districts charge that of at least 250,000 schoolchildren eligible for transfer in Los Angeles, only 527 (.2 percent) received transfers to better-performing schools; while in Compton, zero students have received transfers despite appalling educational conditions. The complaints charge that the districts have failed adequately to make information available to parents or to provide sufficient options.
.......
Because NCLBA does not provide a private right of action, the parents and their organizational partners must file complaints in the first instance with the school districts, demanding compliance. That is what they did....in a pair of complaints prepared by Robert Boldt, partner in the Los Angeles office of Kirkland & Ellis, but Secretary Spellings has authority to take action to cut off certain federal funds to the districts until they comply.

Lisa Snell wrote back in October 2004 in Reason of the failures of No Child Left Behind--including noting that past lawsuits along these lines in New York got rejected by federal courts.

AP coverage of the complaint here.

Details and links on another lawsuit against NCLB--this one from Connecticut's attorney general claiming it constitutes an illegal unfunded mandate against his state and others--here.

Say That Dirty Word! Socialism!

Writing in The Nation, author and professor Ronald Aronson calls for progressives to grow a pair and proudly proclaim their commitment to "socialism," a word that many on the left seem to regard as an annoying strip of toilet paper stuck to their collective shoe. Don't do it Ronald! Don't throw me into the briar patch!

The Long Cornea of the Law

Over at the Cleveland Scene, Denise Grollmus writes about WCRS, a radio station whose hosts read "breaking news, magazines, obituaries, and grocery store ads" for their blind listeners. The station's troubles began last year, when Ohio's attorney general warned them that their bingo night fundraisers were happening outside the law. The story that followed is one of bureaucratic scrabble (the station is knocked for calling itself "educational"), conveniently-raised fees, and good old-fashioned tragedy. (It's also a strange plank for the attorney general, Jim Petro, to run on in his campaign for governor.)

Still Up Against the Birth Monopoly

A New York Times story about the prosecution of an Indiana midwife notes that 10 states still prohibit birth assistance by anyone other than a doctor or nurse. In those states it is legal to give birth at home, but it is illegal to hire anyone without one of the requisite medical degrees to help you, and people who have those degrees tend to insist on hospitals or birthing centers attached to hospitals.

Reason has been following this issue for many years: Sarah Foster made the case for decriminalizing midwifery in the September 1982 issue; a decade later, in the March 1992 issue, Archie Brodsky took a fresh look at the legal barriers to midwifery. (Neither issue, unfortunately, is available online yet.) For a more recent update, check out Midwifery Today.

Moussaoui Can Die

Jury says yes to death penalty.

Update: In a post-decision interview with Fox News, Carie Lemack, a 9/11-family member, said of the arguments in the trial, "It sounded to me like the government screwed up," rather than that he had any information that could have unraveled the plot. If you haven't read Jeff Taylor's masterful article on the real withheld information, now's the time to do so.

But Why Should They Have To?

Jeff Jarvis reports some heartening findings from a recent TV Watch survey. The pollsters found that 87 percent of respondents agreed that parents are fully capable of regulating the content that comes into their home using widely-available blocking technology, and (despite the apparent view of FCC Chairman Kevin Martin that this is a terrible burden), 82 percent agreed that individuals, rather than the government, should do just that. (Though proving that TV has shortened attention spans to the point where people seem to change their minds from one question to the next, only 66 percent thought the government should refrain from making "subjective decisions about when the use of explicit language is necessary, whether in educational or artistic programming.")

This is a handy reminder that for every mortally offended busybody who clicks the "bitch" button on some Parents Television Council auto-complaint generator, there are thousands more viewers who didn't mind. Which is more or less what you'd expect: It's bad business practice to offend a majority of your own target audience, after all. Which does make you wonder: Even if you think there ought to be some kind of content-based oversight over "the public airwaves," why should the preferences of a tiny minority who find a program offensive—a minority who have the option of either flipping or blocking the channel—prevail over those of the majority of viewers who enjoy the content? So to turn Martin's infamous remark about employing parental controls around: Sure, the majority who prefer that their television programming not be bowdlerized can always find racier fare on pay subscription or On Demand channels like HBO... but why should they have to?

Bush the Budget-Buster Redux

USA Today tells the world what Hit & Run readers knew last fall: that George W. Bush is a budget-busting behemoth who has cranked up discretionary spending in a way that would make LBJ blush. Indeed, in his first five budgets Bush (and the GOP Congress) increased total discretionary spending 7.16 percent per year compared to LBJ's 5 percent per year.

Go here for an explanation of "discretionary" versus "mandatory" spending, etc. Briefly, discretionary spending includes like most defense spending, farm subsidies, and education while mandatory spending includes entitlements such as Medicare and student loans. Discretionary spending is subject to annual review and cuts or increases. Mandatory spending requires more legislative action to change. Both account for about 50 percent of the federal budget, though significant expenditures, including Social Security, are "off budget" and don't show up in such tallies.

From USA Today's reckoning:

The federal government is currently spending 20.8 cents of every $1 the economy generates, up from 18.5 cents in 2001, White House budget documents show. That's the most rapid growth during one administration since Franklin Roosevelt.

More here. There are some reasons to discount the measure of spending as a percentage of GDP (overall economic growth can mask spending increases; recessions tend to shrink economies and boost spending on welfare programs; etc), but significant increases are significant increases.

In a related story, USA Today charts how presidents since LBJ (the first one to fall whose terms fall under the budget analysis still in use today, thus allowing direct comparisons with predecessors) have done in terms of overall federal spending. Try to match the presidents and their overall, inflation-adjusted increases: LBJ, Nixon-Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush. The average annual increases: 2 percent (twice), 3 percent (twice), 4 percent, 5 percent, 6 percent.

The answers online here.

Muslim Rage Over Intoonfadeh Invades America's Borders

Our Borders book stores, that is. What used to be one of my favorite American megastores refuses to carry the April/May issue of Free Inquiry magazine, a fine publication of the Council for Secular Humanism, Paul Kurtz's operation, because it reprints Those Cartoons of Muhammed. Objectivist Robert Bidinotto calls for a boycott and collects some relevant links.

A comic book artist friend of mine who insists on remaining nameless for his own protection drew a funny little cartoon of a fuming Prophet on a coffee cup recently to amuse his companions. The prophet had those great squiggly cartoon lines coming off of his angry face in abundance, which can often signify shock or stench. What did they represent in this drawing? he was asked. "Muslim rage!"

To Save the Planet, Kill 90 Percent of People Off, Says UT Ecologist

At first, I thought someone was making a really stupid April Fool's joke, but apparently it is true that the Texas Distinguished Scientist of 2006, University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka told a meeting of the Texas Academy of Science that 90 percent of his fellow human beings must die in order to save the planet. A very disturbed Forrest M. Mims III -- Chairman of the Environmental Science Section of the Texas Academy of Science, writing at The Citizen Scientist -- reported:

Professor Pianka said the Earth as we know it will not survive without drastic measures. Then, and without presenting any data to justify this number, he asserted that the only feasible solution to saving the Earth is to reduce the population to 10 percent of the present number.

He then showed solutions for reducing the world's population in the form of a slide depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. War and famine would not do, he explained. Instead, disease offered the most efficient and fastest way to kill the billions that must soon die if the population crisis is to be solved.

Pianka then displayed a slide showing rows of human skulls, one of which had red lights flashing from its eye sockets.

AIDS is not an efficient killer, he explained, because it is too slow. His favorite candidate for eliminating 90 percent of the world's population is airborne Ebola (Ebola Reston), because it is both highly lethal and it kills in days, instead of years. However, Professor Pianka did not mention that Ebola victims die a slow and torturous death as the virus initiates a cascade of biological calamities inside the victim that eventually liquefy the internal organs.

After praising the Ebola virus for its efficiency at killing, Pianka paused, leaned over the lectern, looked at us and carefully said, "We've got airborne 90 percent mortality in humans. Killing humans. Think about that."

The Seguin, Tex. Gazette-Enterprise also reported another recent doomsday talk by Pianka:

A University of Texas professor says the Earth would be better off with 90 percent of the human population dead.

"Every one of you who gets to survive has to bury nine," Eric Pianka cautioned students and guests at St. Edward's University on Friday. Pianka's words are part of what he calls his "doomsday talk" -- a 45-minute presentation outlining humanity's ecological misdeeds and Pianka's predictions about how nature, or perhaps humans themselves, will exterminate all but a fraction of civilization.

Though his statements are admittedly bold, he's not without abundant advocates. But what may set this revered biologist apart from other doomsday soothsayers is this: Humanity's collapse is a notion he embraces.

Indeed, his words deal, very literally, on a life-and-death scale, yet he smiles and jokes candidly throughout the lecture. Disseminating a message many would call morbid, Pianka's warnings are centered upon awareness rather than fear.

"This is really an exciting time," he said Friday amid warnings of apocalypse, destruction and disease. Only minutes earlier he declared, "Death. This is what awaits us all. Death." Reflecting on the so-called Ancient Chinese Curse, "May you live in interesting times," he wore, surprisingly, a smile.

So what's at the heart of Pianka's claim?

6.5 billion humans is too many.

In his estimation, "We've grown fat, apathetic and miserable," all the while leaving the planet parched.

The solution?

A 90 percent reduction.

That's 5.8 billion lives -- lives he says are turning the planet into "fat, human biomass." He points to an 85 percent swell in the population during the last 25 years and insists civilization is on the brink of its downfall -- likely at the hand of widespread disease.

"[Disease] will control the scourge of humanity," Pianka said. "We're looking forward to a huge collapse."

Professor Pianka is apparently a brilliant herpetologist, but like brilliant Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb nearly 40 years ago, he is completely ignorant of economics and demography. Pianka might start alleviating his ignorance by reading some of the analyses by Jesse Ausubel, head of the Human Environment Program at Rockefeller University. Relying on human creativity and wealth creation, Ausubel foresees the 21st century as the beginning of the Great Restoration of the natural environment.

Admittedly, predicting a bright future for humanity and the planet has never made anybody rich or famous, but at least such forecasters have the satisfaction of knowing that they are right.

Stupid Rep. Tricks

Since Tom Suozzi's "Some of my best friends are dark-skinned!" photos got a good reaction last week, I humbly offer The Hotline's collection of "funny photos on official congressional websites." You've got your expected photos of Westerners riding horses and Hawaiians with leis, but you've also got stuff like Bill Nelsonzilla holding a space shuttle prisoner in his terrifying grip.

And now you know why they're too busy to pass Social Security reform.

McCain Makes Falwell Flippy-Floppy (Or Not)

Straight Talk Express Conductor and Keating Five Cabalist Sen. John McCain, circa 2000:

"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."

John McCain, recently announced as the spring commencement speaker for Jerry Falwell's Liberty Baptist University, circa yesterday: "We agreed to disagree on certain issues, and we agreed to move forward....I don't have to agree with everything they [Christian conservatives, who have a major role to play in the GOP] stand for."

More here. Semi-predictable outrage from Dems here. In-poor-taste discussion of McCain's best day ever here.

McCain has said he won't decide about running for the White House until 2007. I don't think he's flip-flopping by addressing this audience, but I'll be interested in hearing what he's got to say to this crowd. Especially if he'll lay out some vision of governance that isn't as incredibly awful as the one that is shot through his signature accomplishment, the passage of a really shitty campaign-finance law that accomplishes precisely nothing but the shredding of the First Amendment.

Speaking of that, check out an undeniable McCain flip-flop--on the topic of those dreaded "527 groups" that did so much to enliven the last presidential election cycle--here.

With This Blog, I Wish Thee Dead

Liberal bloggers are feeling their oats about the Jill Carroll story; specifically, they're feeling pretty good about not engaging in the "Stockholm Syndrome" theorizing that arose on some conservative blogs. The anti-Carroll commentary ranged from speculative to conspiratorial to downright creepy, and all of it sounded amazingly callous even before the truth of Carroll's story came out. While the crew at ThinkProgress hounds the offenders for apologies, Matt Stoller of MyDD sees right-wingers just being right-wingers.

The Carroll thing is a fairly standard storyline that predates blogs. Right-wingers tend to hate a free media. Right-wingers tend to say creepy and racist things. Right-wingers tend to hate reporters who say that all isn't apple pie in Iraq. This is true on the AM talk radio circuit, at the RNC, in the Oval Office, and on right-wing blogs. I mean the GOP.com blog even has a tag 'good news from Iraq'.

This has NOTHING to do with blogs. Zero. This has to do with a flat-out racist and warmongering right-wing movement that doesn't like a woman whose survival cuts against their narrative.

That might be over the top, but the advent of blogs has started to reveal how many people think like Don Imus.

You'll Wonder Where the Yella Went

Here's a zen koan to ponder: When the director Rob Marshall got slammed for casting Chinese actors as Japanese characters in Memoirs of a Geisha, was that controversy actually a sign of progress? This old article, keying off the hubbub over the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce's casting as a Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon, gives some perspective. Not too long ago, fully Euro thespians were donning "yellowface" to play Asians:

"Giving the audience what they want" was a common justification for this one-sided deal, which was a nice way of saying that audience members didn't want to have to look at Oriental actors for any extended period of time (this was the primary reason given for the now infamous casting of David Carradine in the 1970s television show Kung Fu, over original choice Bruce Lee). Another justification was that there just weren't any "qualified" or talented Asian or Asian-American actors, a sentiment echoed by Miss Saigon's casting director, who stated that if there had been a suitable Asian actor for the role of the Eurasian pimp, "we would surely have sniffed him out by now" (a tellingly weird metaphor, in any case). Of course, this type of thinking is a catch-22 for so many Asian actors, who can't find work because they lack experience, and can't get experience because all the good Asian roles go to white actors.

A third justification for yellowface was that white actors simply made better "Orientals" than Asian actors did. This was probably true, since the white actors were often actively trying to play "Orientals," trying to play the stereotypes, while the Asian actors were perhaps trying to play humans. Whatever the reason, the depiction of "real" Asian characters was not a high priority for Hollywood filmmakers. When one critic asked the producer of The Good Earth why he didn't cast any Asian actors in leading roles in the film, he responded, "I'm in the business of creating illusions."

The article, by one Robert B. Ito, contains some humor (and Mickey Rooney's "Mr. Yunioshi" is singled out for well deserved abuse), but I don't understood why a 100-percent Asian actor would have been more appropriate to play a Eurasian than a 100-percent Euro actor. Should we insist on precise 50-50 genetic makeup for mixed-race roles, and if so should mixed-race performers be allowed to play 100-percenters? Back in the glory days of "passing" dramas, white actresses like Susan Kohner and Jeanne Crain brought home the kudos for playing troubled mulattos, while Jennifer Jones turned in an admirably anti-communist performance as a Eurasian in the otherwise unwatchable 50s dinosaur Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing. Today, on the other hand, Halle Berry acts like she's Harriet Tubman in her Oscar acceptance speech, even though her white mother is her only family member in the Kodak Theater.

Ito also leaves out some of the richest material in the history. There's no mention, for example, of Khigh Dhiegh, the Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese actor who made a career out of playing inscrutable Asiatics, most famously the recurring villain "Wo Fat" on Hawaii Five-0. Maybe Dhiegh, like Jones, gets a pass because he didn't wear grotesque makeup. (Interesingly, Dhiegh became a notable I-Ching scholar and founder of the Taoist Institute of North Hollywood, suggesting an Iron Eyes Cody-level submersion of self into a reverse-ethnic signature role.) Nor is there any mention of Keye Luke, who started out portraying the ultimate ABC—the jazz-age, roadster-driving Number One Son—but ended up voicing Charlie Chan himself in The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and playing the guy who sells Hoyt Axton the gremlin in Gremlins. That must make Keye Luke the Bert Williams of yellowface.

What of the Caucasian version of yellowface: the rich tradition of all-purpose "ethnics" in film? Tony Shalhoub, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, Anthony Quinn—what would we do without all you wonderful Italian Greek Slavic Colombian Arab Jews? Should the same leeway apply in Asian casting? Memoirs of a Geisha seems like lateral progress: Instead of a Caucasian group standing in for an Asian group you have two Asian groups who hate each other exchanging roles. Since the movie and the source novel are really works of Asian fetishism suited to the David Belasco era, there may have been no way to get it right. As it turns out, Geisha pretty much tanked, bringing in $48 million and being categorized as a "loss marker" or "bomb" in a recent Film Comment roundup of the 2005 box office. Little, yellow, different, better indeed.

Compare the catchphrase deliveries, as Charlies Chan Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters take turns saying, "Thank you so much."

It Makes No Censure

On Wednesday, Julian Sanchez took note of a Republican memo warning GOP candidates not to distance themselves from the POTUS. The Republican National Committee saw that pitch and swung from the heels, releasing an internet-only ad that pits the president against black-hooded terrorists, FISA courts, and Dick Durbin.

It's a curious little ad. Most of the running time is handed over to Democrats who accuse Bush of "breaking the law" and refuse to rule out censuring or impeaching him to correct any wrongs. In the conversation between the RNC and anyone who's viewing the ad, this talk is "weakening our national security." In the world beyond GOP.com, the president's approval ratings are cruising around 35-40%. This is a nation that, when presented with the return of Sharon Stone doing what she does best, decided to watch some other movies. I'm not sure if a robust Bush comeback is in the cards. And if not, the GOP should refrain from warning voters that Democrats want to kick him where it hurts.

An Army of David LaChappelles

George Clooney has been burned by bloggers recently, but who knew it would turn him into a vigilante? Angered by the existence of Gawker.com's "Stalker" page, Clooney has asked his peers to unite and "render these guys useless."

Flood their Web site with bogus sightings. Get your clients to get 10 friends to text in fake sightings of any number of stars. A couple hundred conflicting sightings and this Web site is worthless. No need to try to create new laws to restrict free speech. Just make them useless.

I think any webmaster who's been hit by junk traffic or denial-of-service attacks can appreciate that wisdom.

UPDATE: On reflection, my first take was too hard on George Clooney. If fulfilled, this would actually be a positive, people-powered development - instead of taking out his anger via the usual team of lawyers, a celebrity is politely asking people to get on their Blackberries and start spamming. And remember, Hollywood was using Blackberries when they were just a whisper.

Steaming Douglas

Before an audience at a British soccer clubhouse in Blackburn, England, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has apparently learned that the best attack involves self-immolation, had this to say about the U.S. war in Iraq, according to the Washington Post:

But in response to a question about whether the administration had learned from its mistakes over the past three years, she said officials would be "brain-dead" if they did not recognize where they had erred. "I know we've made tactical errors, thousands of them I'm sure," Rice said. "But when you look back in history, what will be judged is, did you make the right strategic decisions."

Unfortunately, Rice is wrong. History has little patience for "right strategic decisions" if they later prove to be unsuccessful. That's a shame, because getting rid of Saddam was nothing if not "right." But perhaps the most galling aspect of Rice's partial mea culpa is that she allowed that avatar of British old-school realist pomposity, Douglas Hurd, to brush off the mildew and utter a phrase of such smug duplicity, that one is tempted to reach for whatever Mappin & Webb implement is sharp.

"It is quite possible to believe" that democracy is essential, Hurd said to the crowd after [Rice] spoke, but also to "believe that essentially the path must grow from the roots of its own society and that the killing of thousands of people, many of them innocent, is unacceptable whether committed by a domestic tyrant or for a good cause upon being invaded."

Indeed, mass murder is unacceptable committed by anyone. However, if Hurd cannot distinguish between the actions of Saddam Hussein, whose Baath regime was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths through the conscious implementation of plans of extermination, for example the successive Anfal campaigns against the Kurds in 1988, or the savage repression of Iraq's Shiites and Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War; if he cannot distinguish between all this, and far more, and what the Americans are doing today in Iraq, then he really is living proof that life peerage is a repository for cretins.

But Baron Hurd is no cretin, or is one only figuratively. This was, of course, the man who refused to arm the Bosnian Muslims during the war in Bosnia during the 1990s, effectively perpetuating Serb military superiority; the man who peddled NatWest's wares to Slobodan Milosevic when he became deput