Weekly Hit & Run Archive 2007 January 1-31

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A Surge in Public Works Jobs Too?

From a Wash Post piece outlining the generally negative reception about a potential troop surge in Iraq comes this tidbit about plans to restart the moribund-- (update based on comments below) or is that booming, or maybe both at the same time? --Iraqi economy:

A fourth option would add major funds to a short-term work program to hire Iraqis to clean up trash or do repairs after U.S. and Iraqi troops secure neighborhoods. This Pentagon-run program is a way to lure unemployed men who had joined militias back into the mainstream economy, at least briefly, with the U.S. intention that Iraq would eventually spend its own money to create permanent jobs.

Whole thing here.

Roll Over, Rover, and Left Pfizer Take Over

Yet another sign--in an endless series--that we are living in a post-Rapture world:

The world's first weight-loss drug for dogs has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Slentrol, made by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, is intended to significantly reduce the appetite and increase fat absorption in canines.

The FDA's head of veterinary medicine said the drug was a welcome addition to animal therapies because of an apparent increase in dog obesity in the US.

Americans own 65 million dogs and almost 40% of US households have one.

According to the FDA, veterinarians generally define a dog that weighs 20% more than its ideal weight as obese.

Surveys have found that approximately 5% of dogs in the US are obese, and another 20-30% are overweight, it says.

It'll cost between $1 and $2 a day. Given the amount saved on food, who knows, maybe it's a boon for pet owners (and where's the feline version, which is just waiting for a Garfield ad campaign?). More here.

Of greater concern to all of us should be the slowdown in new drugs coming to market, which seems to partially due to well-known FDA regulatory red tape and dubious decisionmaking by pharmaceutical companies.

Operation George Romero

Oh, so this is how we're going to surge troops into Iraq.

The Army said on Friday that it will apologize to the families of deceased and wounded officers that it mistakenly encouraged to re-enlist via letters sent out in late December.

About 75 families of deceased officers and 200 families of wounded officers received such letters sent to more than 5,100 officers between December 26 and 28, the Army said in a statement.

Yes, they received them in the days after Christmas. This is seriously heinous for the families of these soldiers, but it should be emblematic of how twisted our Iraq debate has become. Just a couple of weeks ago I heard Wall Street Journal editorial board member and multiple Purple Heart winner (we've got to assume, right?) Robert Pollock assuring that a troop surge would be easy because all it "means is decreasing the length of some breaks from tours of duty and increasing the lengths of some tours of duty." But it's not that easy to turn a volunteer military into an occupying army on the sly.

"It is time to bring the war to a close"

I remain underwhelmed by the Democrats' generally and much-ballyhooed legislative agenda for their first 100 hours in office. Who would have guessed that trimming student loan rates was that pressing a national concern? And the fact that the Dems kicked off their new majority with a bunch of lame parties rather than digging right in is hardly inspirational.

So I was surprised--and heartened--to read this in today's Wash Post:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid declared yesterday that "it is time to bring the war to a close" and warned President Bush that sending more U.S. troops to Iraq would be unacceptable to the Democratic majorities that have just taken over Congress.

Directly challenging Bush's wartime leadership on their second day in charge on Capitol Hill, Democrats Pelosi (Calif.) and Reid (Nev.) sent Bush a letter suggesting that, instead of starting a short-term escalation, he begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces in the next four to six months. The mission of remaining troops, they said, should be shifted away from combat toward more training, logistics and counterterrorism.

More here.

Study Reveals: Pregnancy Makes You Fat

On the heels of the the trans-fat travesty , a new public health menace rears its porcine head. In a word, kids:

Adults living with young children eat significantly more fat than grown-ups with no kids at home, a new study shows.

Adults with kids consumed nearly 5 more grams of fat and 1.7 more grams of saturated fat every day, the equivalent of an individual pepperoni pizza a week, Dr. Helena Laroche of the University of Iowa in Iowa City and her colleagues found. Adults living with children younger than 17 also ate more salty snacks, cheese, beef, ice cream, cakes and cookies, pizza, and processed meats like bacon.

Here are a few excruciatingly obvious reasons why this would be true: Kids are stressful and annoying enough to send the entire pro-ana movement headed for a vat of corn syrup; eating well takes more time than frazzled parents are likely to have; parents buy empty calories for their carb-happy kids and then engorge themselves on the same stuff. Or this:

"These findings suggest that food advertising aimed at children may influence not only the child's diet but also indirectly affect parents' diets," they note in their report.

The report comes out in February; expect to see a push to limit kid-friendly food advertising, lest overfed parents be forced to cave to their kids' demands at the supermarket and then cave to their own cravings at home.

Via To the People.

And Apparently Not Dead: Ayatollah Ali Khameini

Despite what you might have heard. DailyKos has a very harshly worded account (the word "wingnut" features prominently in the headline....) of how the story of the Iranian religious dictator's death started in the blogosphere and, for now, seems to have stopped. Hey, at some point, death-rumor-spreader Michael Ledeen will turn out to be right....

People Who Died: 2006 Edition

The Baltimore City Paper has published its annual salute to the lesser-known notables who died in the past year. 2006's roster ranges from Thrasher founder Fausto Vitello to the anti-authoritarian feminist Ellen Willis.

Bonus links: We've already marked a couple of these deaths in Reason. Amy Sturgis wrote a tribute to the novelist Octavia Butler in our June issue, and David Weigel (one of the Daves I know) noted the passing of the fire-breathing Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci on this very blog.

Too Wacky to Be a Religion?

Last week a federal judge in New Mexico rejected an Arizona couple's claim that their possession, use, and distribution of marijuana is protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Dan and Mary Quaintance, who were picked up in February near Lordsburg, New Mexico, with 172 pounds of pot, are the founders of the Pima-based Church of Cognizance, which follows this credo: "With good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, we honor Marijuana...as the teacher, the provider, the protector." Last summer I predicted the Quaintances' RFRA defense would not fare well because marijuana is so popular that the idea of allowing members of their church to use it arouses plausible fears of diversion and of proliferating RFRA claims from suddenly religious pot smokers. Given that prospect, I thought, punishing the Quaintances (who face up to 40 years in prison) could easily be deemed the "least restrictive means" of serving a "compelling state interest," as RFRA requires for laws that impinge on religious freedom. But U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera did not even get that far, instead deciding that the Quaintances' neo-Zoroastrian faith is phony, a cover for smoking and selling pot. "Defendants cannot avoid prosecution for illegal conduct simply by transforming their lifestyle choices into a 'religion,'" she wrote.

Although some church members may just be in it for the pot, the Quaintances, whose trial is scheduled to begin on January 16, seem pretty sincere to me. They've been open about their religion since founding it in 1991, filing a "declaration of religious sentiment" with the Graham County Recorder's Office, maintaining a Web site, and issuing certificates to the "couriers" who distribute marijuana to the church's members. If all they wanted to do was smoke and sell pot, they've gone out of their way to call attention to themselves for no apparent reason. As for the quantities involved, 172 pounds, assuming it was a year's supply, amounts to a couple of joints per day for each member in Arizona (the Quaintances say there are about 50 in the state), which is not out of bounds for religious use, to judge by the Rastafarians.

But perhaps Judge Herrera means that even if the Quaintances are sincere, what they call a religion is not really a religion. (I have not been able to get a copy of her opinion yet, so I can't say for sure.) In a widely cited 1996 case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which includes New Mexico, relied on the distinction between true religions and mere "lifestyles" to reject a RFRA claim by a Church of Marijuana minister whose sincerity it did not question. The 10th Circuit endorsed the district court's reliance on the "indicia" that characterize real religions, including "metaphysical beliefs," "important writings," prophets, rituals, holidays, and special clothing. (It also repeated the lower court's caveat that "no one of these factors is dispositive.") This sort of official inquisition into people's deeply held beliefs hardly seems consistent with the ostensible goal of protecting religious freedom, especially when the penalty for having the wrong beliefs is a 40-year prison sentence.

You Down With SUV? (Yeah, You Know Me!)

Philip Klein blogs about ghost riding, "the latest trend among stupid suburban teenagers in which they put their car in neutral, let it pick up moderate speed, and dance on the hood and roof of the moving vehicle." Which sounds... awesome. Assuming these kids are as stupid as they are rich and have dentist moms and dads who pay for the fire hydrants they destroy. (I think this is a safe assumption.)

There's a YouTube miscellany of ghost riding vids here, but YouTube is so 2006. Who's going to star in the inevitable exploitation flick (Mad Ghost Style) that'll be adapted from the fad? I mean, besides Kevin Federline?

The Associated Press's Supermarijuana Meets Its Kryptonite

The AP story I blogged about last month about supposed superhybrid marijuana strains in Mexico--which various commenters here were, wisely, skeptical about---gets a full and hearty slam from Jack Shafer over at Slate, longtime expert at debunking crappy, breathless mainstream reporting on drugs. Some excerpts:

.....A "new high-yield hybrid" that is "genetically improved" sounds scientific, even coming out of the mouth of a Mexican general. But what does it really mean? Hybrids are created whenever planters crossbreed varieties of a plant or between species, and by definition the successful ones are "genetically improved.".....

Should we be impressed with the supergrass's high yield? AP reports that "traffickers can now produce as much marijuana on a plot the size of a football field as they used to harvest from four or five hectares (10 to 12 acres)."......A football field—exclusive of its two end zones—covers a little over an acre. If AP is saying that growers now produce as much pot planting the hybrid on one acre as they once did planting conventional marijuana (whatever that is) on 10 acres, I say, so what? Why attribute the higher yield to the hybrid alone? Smaller plots of most crops outyield larger plots because planters tend to extend more TLC to each plant under cultivation, whether the plant is marijuana or tomatoes.

One clue that TLC—and not an exotic hybrid—should deserve credit for higher yields in the Mexican plantation can be found in the long version of the AP article. Not every newspaper carried AP's paragraph about some of the raided plots having "sophisticated irrigation systems with sprinklers, pumps and thousands of yards (meters) of tubing." Irrigated plots tend to produce greater yields than nonirrigated plots, a fact mankind has appreciated for 4,000 years.....

Finally, Gen. Garcia alleges that the Dracuweed is resistant to herbicide, although he doesn't say which herbicide. As every farmer and cultivator of weed-free lawns knows, plants develop resistance to herbicides via natural selection, without any guidance from breeders. If growers have deliberately bred a herbicide-resistant plant or exploited one that they discovered, I'd love AP to get a botanist—as opposed to a Mexican general—to confirm it......

I should have known better than to link to the AP's report so uncritically or to take it at all seriously.

Music Sales and the Internet: Together in Perfect Harmony?

From Jon Healey's "Bit Player" blog , on "Hollywood's love/hate relationship with technology":

The numbers from Nielsen SoundScan are in, and for the first time, the number of downloadable albums sold (32.6 million) more than offset the decline in physical CD sales (-30.7 million).

Me from Reason's March 2004 issue on why music industry cries that the Internet and file-sharing were killing them softly were premature--and nothing more than the same old song, with a lazy new rhyme or two.

Senators Behaving Badly

Right now John McCain and Joe Lieberman are giving their incredibly serious speeches about how we need to throw more troops into Iraq even though (in McCain's words) "there is no guarantee of success." McCain closes his comments by joking: "We invite the crowd outside for a polite Q&A session." Hilarious! The crowd outside protesting McCain is a segment of the 89 percent of the country that opposes the McCain-Lieberman "surge" plan.

And here comes Lieberman: "It is 1942. We have already had our Pearl Harbor, on September 11." Yeah, let's trust this guy to deal with numbers.

Has anyone proposed shipping these clowns over to a barren patch of desert where they can make their bones as lounge singers? No? Let me be the first to suggest it.

UPDATE: Huh. McCain and Lieberman now inhabit a fantasy world that even Oliver North won't enter.

Best Headline Today: Miliband muses on farm farts ban

Miliband is David Miliband, the British government's environment secretary. Livestock, especially cows and sheep, let's just say, emit methane which has a global warming potential 21 times worse than carbon dioxide. The headline is from an article in Green Business News which did note that Miliband's concerns are unlikely to

"...result in a 'fart-tax' with civil servants chasing cows round with breathalyzer style methane measurers, [but] Miliband did argue that farmers should act to reduce methane emissions by feeding cattle different food, breeding them to live longer, altering the handling of manure and getting farms to generate 'biogas' or 'biofertiliser' from animal waste."

Is this a call for genetically modifying livestock to produce low-emission cows and sheep?

For more information see Green Business News article here .

Fun fact: Sheep flatulence is the greatest source of Kyoto Protocol signatory New Zealand's greenhouse gas emssions which is why the government is considering a plan to reduce those emissions.

Lock Up De Judge

ABC reports:

The FBI's file on former Chief Justice William Rehnquist made public more than a year after his death indicates the Nixon and Reagan administrations enlisted its help in blunting criticism of him during confirmation hearings.

The file also offers insight into the hallucinations and other symptoms of withdrawal that Rehnquist suffered when he was taken off a prescription painkiller in 1981. A doctor was cited as saying that Rehnquist, an associate justice of the Supreme Court at the time, tried to escape the hospital in his pajamas and imagined that the CIA was plotting against him.

The most enticing tidbit in the files:

In one previously secret memo from 1971, an FBI official wrote, "No persons interviewed during our current or 1969 investigation furnished information bearing adversely on Rehnquist's morals or professional integrity; however …" The next third of the page is blacked out, under the disclosure law's exception for matters of national security.

Elsewhere in Reason: In 2005 I interviewed the historian David J. Garrow about the long history of incapacitated justices sitting on the Supreme Court bench. At one point he bemoaned the fact that "in all the coverage of the chief justice's thyroid cancer battle, there's been virtually no mention of his disability in the early '80s, his excessive dependence on pain medication for his longtime back ailment."

The Attack on Rabbit-Human (and Other) Chimeras Goes International

Last year prospective GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) proposed legislation banning the production of embryos made by combining animal eggs and human genes (chimeras). Why? Because the senator believes that experiments using chimeric animals and embryos threaten our "respect for human dignity and the integrity of the human species." President Bush also condemned such experiments in his 2006 State of the Union speech and urged that they be banned.

With all due respect, the senator and the president are speaking complete and utter nonsense, as I explain here.

Now it turns out that efforts to outlaw this research have jumped the pond. According to the Times (London), a white paper issued by Britain's Department of Health

bowed to pressure from religious groups for an all-out ban. The technique, which produces embryos that are 99.5 per cent human, aims to address the shortage of human eggs for stem-cell research.

But British researchers are pushing back. Whole Times article here.

The West Is Lavender

Doug Ireland reviews a disturbing book about the lives of gays and lesbians in the Middle East. One interesting tidbit:

In dissecting the wide gap between portrayals of homosexuality in Arab media and official discourse, and the lived reality of Arab same-sexers, Whitaker writes that "Arab portrayals of homosexuality as a foreign phenomenon can be [plausibly] attributed to a reversal of old-fashioned Western orientalism. Western orientalism, as analyzed by Edward Said in his influential book, highlights the 'otherness' of oriental culture in order (Said argued) to control it more effectively. Reverse orientalism -- a comparatively new development in the Arab world -- taps into the same themes but also highlights the 'otherness' of the West in order to resist modernization and reform. Homosexuality is one aspect of Western 'otherness' that can be readily exploited to whip up popular sentiment....Where symbolism of this kind applies, the sexual act must necessarily be described in terms that maximize the reader’s disgust: there is no scope for portrayals of homosexuality that are anything but negative."

For more on this "Occidentalism," see Chuck Freund's pioneering Reason essay of December 2001.

Stunting the Growth of a Mentally Disabled Child—Is It Moral?

Physicians have treated a 9-year-old girl, who is severely mentally disabled, by removing her uterus and injecting her with estrogen in order to stunt her growth . The girl, Ashley, is unable to talk, walk, lift her head, clean or feed herself. Her mental development is perpetually stuck at 3 months of age. The stunting was done at the request of her parents who argue that keeping her small means they can more easily care for her at home.

Naturally, this decision has provoked some bioethical handwringing. Uber-bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, at the University of Pennsylvania argues :

"Keeping Ashley small is a pharmacological solution for a social failure — the fact that American society does not do what it should to help severely disabled children and their families."

Actually, we don't know how much help Ashley's family has received from their church, local charities, or even government social services. Even if the family was showered with such "help" as Caplan believes the rest of us should pay for, it is quite possible that they would come to the same conclusion about what is best for Ashley. Such tough decisions should remain in the hands of parents. For what it's worth, based on the evidence I've seen, I think they made the right decision. 

Ashley's parents make their case here. Photos of Ashley here.

Stockholm Syndrome, by Way of Baghdad

This interview with three new Democratic congressfolk, conducted by ABC's Charles Gibson, is fascinating. Quizzing three members from Kansas, Pennsylvania and North Carolina on what they'll do if the commander-in-chief wants to escalate the war, Gibson is so taken aback by Kansan Nancy Boyda's response that he presses her even further.

Gibson: Would you vote in favor of money to support another 20,000 to 40,000 troops in Iraq?

Boyda: I think we're going to vote to support what the commander in chief and head of military asks to do. At least, I am certainly going to vote to support it.

Gibson: If he wants the surge, he'll get it.

Boyda: Yes.… He is the commander in chief, Charlie. We don't get that choice. Congress doesn't make that decision.

Gibson: But the polls would indicate, and indeed, so many voters when they came out of the ballot box, said, "We're voting because we want something done about the war and we want the troops home."

Boyda: They should have thought about that before they voted for President Bush not once, but twice.

What the hell? What did Boyda have to say about this when she was running her shocking upset campaign?

Out of respect for the Iraqi people and in honor of the American patriots who have already died, we have stayed for over three years and helped Iraq restore at least minimal government functions. But our assistance cannot be a blank check extending indefinitely. "Stay the course" is a political slogan, not a military strategy.

News flash: "surge and accelerate" isn't a military strategy, either. It's a political slogan. Not even the proponents of the surge like Fred "Whatever" Kagan think a short deployment of 20,000 more troops will change the course of the occupation.

Look, there's something wrong with this. Democrats must know that the idea of slaughtering more American troops for no end is one of the least popular policy proposals ever. They have said before that they are against it. Do they really think the 2002 Joint Resolution precludes the Congress from exercising its right to fund or not fund military operations? Or are they so knee-meltingly terrified at the prospect of being blamed across the media and political spectrum if they don't give the CIC whatever he wants? It's the Stockholm Syndrome, kind of - they're so used to being captive to this moronic policy that they want to help it work.

Saddam's Brain

Richard Dawkins, fresh from his merciless treatment at the hands of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is arguing that Saddam Hussein should have survived the gallows so the West could have poked and prodded his grey matter.

Imagine that some science-fiction equivalent of Simon Wiesenthal built a time machine, traveled back to 1945 and returned to the present with a manacled Adolf Hitler. What should we do with him? Execute him? No, a thousand times no. Historians squabbling over exactly what happened in the Third Reich and World War II would never forgive us for destroying the central witness to all the inside stories, and one of the pivotal influences on 20th century history. Psychologists, struggling to understand how an individual human being could be so evil and so devastatingly effective at persuading others to join him, would give their eyeteeth for such a rich research subject.

Kill Hitler? You would have to be mad to do so. Yet that is undoubtedly what we would have done if he hadn't killed himself in 1945. Hussein is not in the same league as Hitler, but, nevertheless, in a small way his execution represents a wanton and vandalistic destruction of important research data.

Dawkins gives no consideration to what Iraqis would have thought of this, which is almost refreshing - the argument that "it was up to the Iraqis" to decide what happened to Saddam during the trial was always bunk. Why was an idea like Dawkins' completely absent from public debate? Is the shadow of Mengele over any proposal of "experimenting" on a captured prisoner, no matter how bad the prisoner and how promising the experiment?

Jews vs. Israelis vs. Wesley Clark vs. Some More Jews

Stephen Bainbridge has looked into Gen. Wesley Clark's soul and found - what else? - a bottomless pit of anti-semitism.

If we are to believe Arianna Huffington, ex-General and possible 2008 Democratic presidential primary candidate Wes Clark worries that the Bush administration will bomb Iran and blames pressure from "New York money people" on "office seekers." Specifically, or so it would seem, "Jewish" money people.

Wow! That's not actually what he said.

When we asked him what made him so sure the Bush administration was headed in this direction, he replied: "You just have to read what's in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers."

It's now anti-semitic to suggest that American Jews have some influence on Israeli politics. So you know.

The McLaughlin Report: Libertarianism! Mirth! Correct! Next!

Presented without comment, this from John McLaughlin on this past Sunday's McLaughlin Group in his "predictions for the next year" wrapup:

Erosions of civil liberties, religious fundamentalism also, have created a backlash. Personal freedom will now be in demand. Our culture and our politics will be modified by an attitude of favor toward libertarian thinking. This translates into political support for moderates and liberals. Authoritarianism is on its way out. The shackles are off, Pat. The mirth revolution is underway, along with the libertarians....

When Pat Buchanan chimes in with "authoritarianism is not dead," McLaughlin snaps back: "Libertarianism is on its way!"

John Edwards Gets Set To Move Into a Third, Even More Exclusive, America

Slate passes around some real estate poop on John Edwards, notorious PlayStation 3 enthusiast and spokesmen for all of us who have been banished to trailer park section of the "Two Americas."

Edwards, a leading--some would say the leading--Democratic presidential candidate for 2008, has just sold his Georgetown mansion for $5.2 million. That's almost $1.5 million more than what he paid for it back in 1998. 

Goodbye To All That

The lice were animatronic and waved legs and feelers. Animatronic pubic lice and knighthoods to rock singers sum up one aspect of the Blair Government's cultural legacy pretty well.

That's the conclusion to a piece by Hal G. P. Colebatch over at The American Spectator (which seems strangely invested in ye olde Englande's aristocratic traditions for a U.S. mag started in Indiana).

Colebatch has got his knickers in a twist over Bono from U2--and even worse, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland--being given a knighthood by Bush poodle Tony Blair. Feel the anger of a man who despises the "proletarianization" of the Sceptred Isle and who "has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers":

To make it plain that knighthoods, or other honors, are regarded as really meaning nothing is to admit that the whole Marxist-deconstructionist mindset is correct and there is no objective value of worthiness to be recognized and honored, only baubles to be used for cynical political advantage, or to be deliberately abused in order to distress and demoralize class or political enemies. It is, in a queer way, part of the social totalitarianism that has never been far below the surface in Blair's Britain.

Whole thing, well worth slogging through for the animatronic pubic lice punchline, here.

I'll grant Colebatch his discontent but he's got it all wrong. Giving knighthood to rock stars isn't an insult to English traditions. As I argued in the wake of Dee Dee Ramone's death, it's killing rock and roll.

Clap for the Clap!

Via feministing, a priceless peak into Louisiana's taxpayer-funded "Governor's Program on Abstinence":

Is the point that wearing your own underwear will give you HPV? Or is it just the slutty kids' unmentionables that carry the stated trio of disease? If only there were a way to get laid without contracting gonorrhea. Some kind of "safe sex."

Fainting Couch Conservatism

Peter Wood, author of a very good book about diversity, might have just written a very silly book about anger. I haven't read it, but a long, doting review by scholar Stanley Kurtz* gave me the shakes.

Yet (sic) sharpest barbs of A Bee in the Mouth come as Wood jabs our political anger back into its larger cultural context. The exhibitionist pleasures of contempt on the blogosphere are foreshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s movies, Bob Dylan’s music, Jimi Hendrix’s riff on the Star-Spangled Banner, much contemporary music, and even, Wood argues, by The Return of the Jedi. (Wood’s superb music chapter is especially strong on Dylan.)

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is. Do you, Mr. Instapundit?

Anyway, Wood promotes his book today with an essay on Liberaltarianism that argues that liberals and libertarians can't be friends because liberals are angry while libertarians are merely sarcastic. Wood comes off like a man so thrown by the tone of political debate that he shudders and faints onto a couch.

Reflecting on the intensification of political anger in the last few years, some commentators have pointed to the extraordinary acrimony between partisans of Jefferson and Adams in the 1800 election as proof that the nation has seen worse. But that comparison misses something. Go back and read the vitriolic diatribes of 1800 and you will find numerous attacks on Jefferson as a would-be tyrant and a man of low morals; and numerous attacks on Adams as a scoundrel who would sell the nation back to the British. But you will nothing remotely like, “I hate Thomas Jefferson,” or “I hate John Adams.”

But... those sentiments are sort of implied, aren't they? "Thomas Jefferson is a bastard who wants the French to rape this country like he rapes his own slaves! Not that I hate him or anything."

But Wood is very interested in the difference between implying visceral hatred and saying the words "I hate." He imparts almost supernatural power to a 2003 cover story in the New Republic by Jonathan Chait, wherein Chait admitted that he "hated" President Bush. This essay "turned out to be the signal that New Anger was waiting for." And "New Anger came bubbling up in Chait’s 2003 article like the Texas crude in Jeb Clampit’s swamp."

Really? Chait's essay was the kind of "hey guys, let's meet halfway and have some coffee" stuff he usually writes (and excels at). He was answering the charges that criticism of Bush in early 2003 (when he was overwhelmingly popular) was deranged by saying "yes, some of it is as bad as the hatred of Bill Clinton, but it has a more rational basis." Wood seems to think that readers saw this and figured "henceforth they too would be free to present a firm declaration of anger as though it were the functional equivalent of intellectual analysis, evidence, and argument wrapped up into one." That would have been weird, since Chait was trying to step back from the anger and explain why it existed. He invited National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru to hash out the issue, which doesn't seem like the thing a writer who thinks anger is its own argument would do.

Wood thinks anger goes a ways to explaining why libertarians are considering shacking up with the party of Chait (and Hate!). As "anyone who has ever touched a libertarian nerve can testify, libertarians also tend to be argumentative, sarcastic, and rude." I spent a couple minutes this morning being argumentative and sarcastic in response to a Victor Davis Hanson post. How you could read that VDH post and come away thinking he was anything but argumentative and sarcastic (and a little low on blood sugar) is a mystery to me. Pretending that libertarians are thin-skinned and bitchy, unlike those conservative grown-ups, is patronizing and, yeah, angry-sounding. It assumes that there's really nothing wrong with the way conservatives (and Republicans) are operating right now, which is pretty ridiculous, too. But libertarians aren't as angry as liberals.

Libertarian sarcasm, however, only now and then dips all the way into the well of New Anger. That’s because the libertarian is caged in his self-image as someone who is moved by enlightened self-interest and rational thought. His anger, he mistakenly thinks, is just a good tool for getting his point across. By contrast, New Anger in its pure form is its own point. The Newly Angry are moved by a sense that they are most authentic, most transcendently themselves, when they are unleashing their anger. New Anger is the narcissistic self in high dudgeon.

Is there any way to prove this? Wood seems to think you can prove it by spelunking into a couple elite essays and blog posts. I really don't agree; I think any liberaltarian alliance that matters is going to involve hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of voters, of whom maybe a small fraction will ever read these essays and blog posts. It's more interesting to examine that; why many libertarians (and people who wouldn't call themselves this but care about the 2nd Amendment, or government spending, etc) are considering voting Democratic. And Democrats are not winning them over by simply screaming about how bad Bush is. Several of them - Jon Tester, Ted Strickland, Jim Webb, Heath Schuler, probably more I'm forgetting - have said they will meet libertarians on the 2nd Amendment, and won't go after their guns. Tester, like most of the Democrats, has said he wants to protect the 4th Amendment and roll back government surveillance, which is something conservatives used to be in favor of before they grew obsessed with whether or not people were mean to George W. Bush.

I haven't read Wood's book, just this essay and Kurtz's review. But doesn't the undercurrent of those essays seem to be: "We give up?" It's not usual for scholars who are defending unpopular positions ("conservatism is the best governing philosophy" is unpopular at the moment) to confront dissenters by asking why they're so angry. They (we) disagree with you. Don't diagnose us: Prove us wrong. Knuckling under and trying to understand why we're angry about your incorrectness is just so weak.

But I don't know. Maybe I can't shake the irony of a finger-wagging lecture on anger, and how people like me are responsible for it, coming from the digital pages of William F. Buckley's magazine. Put another way: Now listen, Wood. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddamned face. And you'll stay plastered.

*this is how Sen. Sam Brownback refers to him, and who am I to argue?

Amazon's Jeff Bezos Has Liftoff!

Blue Origin, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos's space tourism company, has successfully launched for the first time. Bezos has been playing close to the vest, so this is some of the first real information about his project: "Our first objective is developing New Shepard, a vertical take-off, vertical-landing vehicle designed to take a small number of astronauts on a sub-orbital journey into space. On the morning of November 13, 2006, we launched and landed Goddard – a first development vehicle in the New Shepard program. The launch was both useful and fun." Blue Origin has just released pictures and video here .

Bezos also says, "My only job at the launch was to open the champagne, and I broke the cork off in the bottle. : ) Fortunately, our other valve operations went more smoothly."

Be sure to check out my article "Space Travel for Fun and Profit" in the January print edition for more about the near-future of private space travel.

(Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is a supporter of reason and one of our 35 Heroes of Freedom. He is also a badass, donations or not.)

Real Estate Protectionism

Another gem from the pile of magazines and professional journals I've been trying to catch up on around year's end: From the June 2006 issue of Governing, a long and detailed account of the political power of the realtors lobby in various states. It notes that given ongoing improvements in the ability of people to spread information and make deals about houses for sale, that the pro realtor might be in as much danger as the professional old-style travel agent has been in these days of Expedia and priceline.com. Author Alan Greenblatt then notes that realtors (a registered brand name, by the way, that the real estate agents themselves would like to see always capitalized) are doing their level, and influential, best to stop that from happening:

It might be too soon to bet on that scenario, and the reasons are
the involvement of Realtors in the political process and the
protections they have already crafted to stave off the threat. The
many state rules governing their profession, including the newly
created ones such as minimum-service requirements, serve as serious
barriers to entry, helping Realtors preserve their control over the
market.In the opinion of critics, the rules mean both higher fees for
Realtors and higher prices for houses. For Robert Lande, a professor
at the University of Baltimore School of Law who is associated with
the American Antitrust Institute, the new minimum-service laws are
merely the latest phase in a permanent campaign by Realtors to keep a
stranglehold on property transactions. "They've got a sweet deal,"
Lande says. "You fix the rules of the game to insulate each member
from hard competition."

And Here's Another Clue for You All: The Coke-Snorting, LSD-Tripping, Binge-Drinking, Pot-Puffing Walrus Was Paul

Over at 10 Zen Monkeys--really one of the best newish webzines/sites around, thinks I--RU Sirius quotes Sir Paul McCartney, not only the "cute" Beatle but possibly the most perpetually stoned, on the subject of drugs:

In today’s climate, I hate to talk about drugs because it’s not the same. You have someone jumping on your head the minute you say anything, so I’ve taken to not trying to give my point of view unless someone really very much asks for it. Because I think the “just say no” mentality is so crazed.... [People are always saying,] “No no, all drugs are bad."... I hate that unreasoned attitude. I really can’t believe it’s thirty years since the sixties. I find it staggering. It’s like the future, the sixties, the sixties to me, it hasn’t happened. I feel like the sixties are about to arrive. And we’re in some sort of time warp and it’s still going to happen.

More, including a timeline of McCartney's public drug use, here.

Ryan Sager Interview

Over at New West, Christian Prabasco interviews former Reason intern, current contributor, and Elephant in the Room author Ryan Sager about the relationship between libertarians and the GOP. Snippet:

Probasco: Do you think the losses the Republicans experienced in the last election were primarily due to libertarians splitting from the party?

Sager: No, I don’t think the libertarians did it all by themselves, but I think a lot of the things Bush has done, as far as big government conservatism, are responsible. And certainly the corruption issue was huge and so also was the South’s captivity of the Republican Party. You really saw essentially no losses in the South outside of—well, the big one was Senator George Allen, who was somewhat of an anomaly with his idiocy in the macaca incident, and even then it was a razor-thin loss. You saw huge losses in the Northeast, some losses in the Midwest, and some very important losses in the West. So as far as the Republicans becoming the party of the South, that absolutely happened in this election. The less you went to church, the more likely you were to switch from Republican to Democrat in this election. We saw about a 14-point loss among Latino voters because of the Tom Tancredos of the world and the whole anti-immigrant sentiment. You certainly can’t blame Bush for that. He has always understood the importance of trying to bring Hispanics into the GOP coalition. But the ultraconservatives did quite a bit to push Latinos away this time.

More here.

Whole Earth Optimists

Edge marks the new year by asking 160 notables what they're optimistic about these days. Here's part of Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand's answer:

Cities have always been wealth creators. Cities have always been population sinks. This year, 2007, is the crossover point from a world predominantly rural to a world predominantly urban....

Hence my optimism. Cities cure poverty. Cities also drive birthrates down almost the instant people move to town. Women liberated by the move to a city drop their birthrate right on through the replacement rate of 2.1 children/woman. No one expected this, but that's how it worked out. As a result, there will be another billion or two people in the world total by midcentury, but then the total will head down -- perhaps rapidly enough to be a problem, as it already is in Russia and Japan.

Poverty in the megacities (over 10 million) and hypercities (over 20 million) of the developing world will be highly visible as the disaster it is. (It was worse out in the bush, only not as visible there. That's why people leave.) But the poor who were trapped in rural poverty create their own opportunity once they're in town by creating their own cities -- the "squatter cities" where one billion people now live. They recapitulate the creation of cities past by generating a seething informal economy in which everyone works. The dense slums, if they don't get bulldozed, eventually become part of the city proper and part of the formal economy. It takes decades.

Globalization and urbanization accentuate each other. Medical care that couldn't reach the villages can reach slum dwellers. The newly liberated women in the slums create and lead CBOs (community based organizations, some linked with national and global NGOs) to handle everything from child care to micro-finance. If the city has some multinational corporations closely surveiled by do-gooders back home, their pay rates and work conditions will raise the standard throughout the city.

The sudden urbanization is a grassroots phenomenon, driven by the resourcefulness and ambition of billions of poor people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can.

Brand overstates the extent to which people are leaving the countryside voluntarily -- he notes that China "helps the process," but doesn't mention that one way it does this is by seizing people's farms -- but his larger points about the benefits of urban life, and of do-it-yourself neighborhoods run by the people who live in them, are well-taken.

Another former Whole Earth editor, Howard Rheingold, answered Edge's question as well. Here's an excerpt:

The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds....The eager adoption of web publishing, digital video production and online video distribution, social networking services, instant messaging, multiplayer role-playing games, online communities, virtual worlds, and other Internet-based media by millions of young people around the world demonstrates the strength of their desire -- unprompted by adults -- to learn digital production and communication skills. Whatever else might be said of teenage bloggers, dorm-room video producers, or the millions who maintain pages on social network services like MySpace and Facebook, it cannot be said that they are passive media consumers. They seek, adopt, appropriate, and invent ways to participate in cultural production. While moral panics concentrate the attention of oldsters on lurid fantasies of sexual predation, young people are creating and mobilizing politically active publics online when circumstances arouse them to action.

As an increasingly cheap and portable Internet penetrates the Third World's squatter cities, expect lots of fascinating surprises as Brand's favorite trend intersects with Rheingold's.

Elsewhere in Reason: In 2003, I interviewed Rheingold about smart mobs. Later that year we named Brand one of our 35 heroes of freedom.

We Think 'Ride the Gwazi Lion' Is Code for Terrorist Training

In its case against dirty bomber cum building saboteur cum Al Qaeda sympathizer Jose Padilla, which is scheduled for trial later this month, the Justice Department has to persuade jurors to interpret apparently banal telephone conversations in the most sinister possible light, as evidence of a conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism. I have to admit Padilla's discussion of a possible trip to Busch Gardens gives me the chills, but not because of the implications for the worldwide struggle between radical Islam and Western civilization. (To be fair, I've only been to the one in Williamsburg, which has a European theme; the one in Tampa, which Padilla was thinking about visiting, offers "an array of fascinating attractions based on exotic encounters with the African continent.") Some of the other wiretapped exchanges do seem pretty fishy, although what exactly they signify is hard to say. The government needn't be too worried about proving its case, though: Padilla, who has gone from "material witness" to "enemy combatant" to criminal defendant during the last few years, can always be sent back to the brig if any reasonable doubts materialize during his trial.

Have a Nice Day...Whitey!

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports on a study of Queen City police which found that cops are more polite to whites than blacks after traffic stops:

Cincinnati police officers walking away from a traffic stop of a white motorist are more likely to end on a courteous note, saying, "Have a nice day," or "Take care."

To black drivers, they're more likely to say, "You're getting off easy," or "The ticket could have been for twice this amount."

The good news?

Overall, the report found no statistical evidence of systematic racial bias by Cincinnati police and concluded that - when comparing similar neighborhoods and circumstances - black and white drivers were treated similarly.

More here.

I wrote about Cincinnati's race issues--and more--shortly after the city's 2001 riots for Suck here.

William Anderson and Gene Callahan wrote about "The Roots of Racial Profiling" for Reason here.

Meanwhile, on the ChurlCam

The swearing in of the new Congress isn't the most exciting news event, but I notice that CNN and MSNBC are covering it live, starting with the House Chaplain's prayer, while Fox News is informing me that an "Ivy League Prof [is the] Leading Suspect in Wife's Death." Fascinating.

UPDATE: I checked back at 12:25 or so, and they had two talking heads debating Nancy Pelosi and Cindy Sheehan, which is sort of like covering the swearing in. After this, host Bill Hemmer has returned to stories about missing sailors, stranded cattle in New Mexico, and the resignation of White House Counsel Harriet Miers.

Fox covered the Ford funeral, which was (if possible) more predictable and uneventful than the swearing in, from beginning to end and with cameras at every stage of the ceremony: California-DC-Grand Rapids. There's really no reason for the network to avoid covering the GOP's terrible day, especially when it features stuff like Robert Byrd saying "So help me Gaaaaahd!" as he points his bony hand toward the rafters.

UPDATE II: This is fascinating stuff; I occasionally forget that our congresspeople are twelve years old. Instead of merely saying "Pelosi" or "Boehner" in the vote for speaker, the occasional rep is trying to "zing" the name with something like "I proudly cast my vote for the first woman to serve as speaker, the honorable Nancy Pelosi!" Many are unable to avoid shouting "woo!" or "yeah!" as, from the viewing section, Tony Bennett and Richard Gere look on. Republican Michelle Bachmann voted Boehner in some funny way that didn't get picked up by the mics, but visibly caused her side to chuckle.

However, some cattle are lost in New Mexico.

I Got Your Stamp Right Here

Speaking of taxes on illegal sources of income, last year Tennessee's "tax" on "unauthorized substances" generated $1.8 million, slightly more than its 2005 haul. But the drug tax also ran into some legal trouble: In July a state chancery court judge ruled that the levy, which is typically collected from drug offenders after they're arrested (along with penalties for noncompliance), is a punishment disguised as a tax. Chancellor Richard H. Dinkins said it therefore violates the constitutional prohibition of double jeopardy when applied to someone who faces state prosecution for possession of the "taxed" drug. Since the tax is assessed presumptively without a hearing, Dinkins ruled, it also violates the right to due process. And despite language in the tax law promising confidentiality, he concluded, it may lead to compelled self-incrimination.

One argument that Dinkins rejected, because there was insufficient evidence in the record to support it, nevertheless vividly illustrates the bad faith of legislators in Tennessee (and in two dozen or so other states) who pretend a criminal penalty is a tax:

Plaintiff asserts that, since the stamp which dealers are required to purchase is too large to affix to each gram of marijuana or to "any amount of unauthorized substances"...compliance with the statute is impossible. The impossibility of compliance, plaintiff further charges, is a "complete defense to Mr. Robbins' noncompliance" with the Act.

A few years ago in Reason, Stephen F. Hayes told the story of an Indiana man's Kafkaesque encounter with that state's drug tax.

Bribes, Theft, Freebies, and Other Taxes You Didn't Know You Owed

"Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone contended, 'The government can't collect legal taxes from illegal money,' but he was wrong and wound up with eight years in prison for tax evasion," reports MSN Money. As tax time comes back around, the IRS would like to remind you that ill-gotten gains are taxable:

Illegal income. Illegal income, such as money from dealing illegal drugs, must be included in your income on Form 1040, line 21, or on Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040) if from your self-employment activity.

Kickbacks. You must include kickbacks, side commissions, push money or similar payments you receive in your income on Form 1040, line 21, or on Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040), if from your self-employment activity.

Stolen property. If you steal property, you must report its fair market value in your income in the year you steal it unless, in the same year, you return it to its rightful owner.

Found property. If you find and keep property that does not belong to you that has been lost or abandoned (treasure-trove), it is taxable to you at its fair market value in the first year it is your undisputed possession.

Gambling winnings. You must include your gambling winnings on Form 1040, line 21. If you itemize your deductions on Schedule A (Form 1040), you can deduct gambling losses you had during the year, but only up to the amount of your winnings.

Read about other "other income" here.

President Barr? (or at least Spoiler Barr?)

Cicero at the Political Insider blog wonders whether freshly-minted Libertarian Bob Barr can be convinced to run for president.

Barr looked beyond the House throughout his political career. He ran for Senate in 1992 and openly mused about a 2000 presidential run in 1998. While he would not win the presidency as a Libertarian, he would be the party's highest-profile candidate since it nominated ex-Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, also a Republican, in 1988. Paul's candidacy led for many calls for his inclusion in the presidential debates, and a Libertarian candidacy by Barr would draw similar calls.

Why would Barr run? His post-congressional focus on privacy issues and the domestic excesses of the War on Terror could give him a real base. None of the leading Republican candidates has offered substantial criticism of post-9/11 U.S. civil liberties policies, nor has Sen. Hillary Clinton. A third party candidate stressing such issues might find a following.

That's interesting speculation, but Barr himself says he won't take the plunge. And third party candidacies aren't observable in utero like major party candidacies. We can see how interested Mitt Romney is in running by how many advisers he signs up, how much money he raises, how many fags he smashes up with baseball bats. He needs to do that to edge out the many other competitors for the job and win over the millions of primary voters. But third party candidates can win their party's nominations with only a little organization and planning, so there's no way of telling if Barr is quietly interested in a bid. We have to take him at his word that he's not.

Small Country for Sale, Slightly Damaged

The offshore Principality of Sealand, recognized by no major nations and burned badly in a fire last year, is up for sale. Sorry: up for "transfer." Apparently you can't just sell a principality.

On a related note, Things has posted a comment about micronations, squatters, vacation communities, and the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia.

For more on micronations, go here.

The Callotomized Pundit

Victor Davis Hanson is confounding: He's a writer who knows an awful lot about military history and apparently nothing about why people don't want to send more troops into Iraq. He didn't used to remind me of the Stanislaw Lem character whose left brain and right brain weren't communicating, but now he does. Witness this graf in his latest grunt about "the present anti-war movement (if it is that)," probably the stupidest thing you'll hear anyone say about Iraq this year. I realize it is January 4.

We have gone from Hezbollah and Dr. Zawahiri referencing Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky to excurses on impeachment from deep thinkers like Bill Maher and Keith Olbermann to Halliburton plots to "no blood for oil" to "the world's greatest terrorist" to novels and movies dreaming of assassinating the President to George Soros's Nazi allusions and now to the ultimate trivialization of the anti-war crowd-that the war is a monumental uncool drag, a has-been distraction from more important things like fighting with Rosie or bucking up a naughty beauty queen or staged "you're fired" poses.

Goo goo ga joob!

If you crack out your Captain Midnight ring and massage this prose, it sounds like Hanson is saying "the people who criticize the progress of the war are deranged hippies." Well, fantastic. This may be true on Earth-2, where the Coalition of the Willing won the war by dumping crudely translated Bill Kristol pamphlets that convinced the Iraqis of the West's essential correctness. On this Earth, however, the war was poorly planned and executed and experts ranging from Jim Baker to John Murtha are arguing, convincingly, that an increased American presence won't solve the problem and all that's left to try is extracting American troops. The neoconservative response to that is... well, it's Hanson's drivel. Truly pathetic.

Mork Calling Marcus! Mork Calling Marcus! Nano, Nano!

Forbes has an interview with Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, who has given massive green to fund nanotechnolgy at Georgia Tech (let's hope the Rambling Wreck's fortunes at manipulating molecules at the atomic level is more successful than their football program). Marcus forked over $15 million and was named "Forbes/Wolfe 2006 Nanotech Person of the Year" for his largess.

A snippet:

Is it the government or the private sector that drives it forward?

Government has the advantage of enormous amounts of money. When used intelligently, great things can happen. NIH does tremendous work in helping with medical research. Putting a man on the moon had a great positive effect on science and product development. The military has made great inroads in medicine. They are creative, entrepreneurial and wonderful when it comes to medical research. They are motivated by a basic need: to learn how to take care of our soldiers. The research has yielded treatments that have saved lives of soldiers who'd have died 10 years ago.

But I think the free enterprise system of investors, entrepreneurs and great ideas is what really drives nearly all of this forward. I'm not too old to not be amazed by the young entrepreneurs of today and what they have done. It took me 27 years with the Home Depot to create the value it did for the U.S., it put more than 350,000 people to work, created wealth for shareholders and owners. Some of these young entrepreneurs are doing it in three years, and it's all about creating value and embracing technologies. The next Bill Gates will come from nanotechnology. There is no doubt in my mind.

Whole thing here.

Back in 1995, Ed Regis did a great profile of nanotech visionary K. Eric Drexler for Reason. Check out the small print on the big idea here.

Reason's Ron Bailey on nanotech here.

Drug Propaganda Thursday

DEA Administrator Karen Tandy defends alcohol prohibition.

Consider also this graphic from the DEA's website :

More drug warriors defending alcohol prohibition here and here .

Jacob Sullum attacks their myopic views of the 1920s here. Harvard's Jeffrey Miron questions the assumption that prohibition caused a decline in consumption here. Mark Thornton on alcohol prohibition's failure here. My only tangentially-related paper on the "neoprohibition" movement here .

Stop Me Before I Regulate Again!

In the latest issue of Wired, always-interesting Lawrence Lessig admits he was wrong about Microsoft:

I was one of those reluctant regulators. As the evidence of Microsoft's practices became clear, I remember well thinking, "Of course the government needs to do something." And I remember very well the universal impatience with the notion that the market would solve the problem. How could it, when any other company was likely to behave just as Microsoft did?

We pro-regulators were making an assumption that history has shown to be completely false: That something as complex as an OS has to be built by a commercial entity. Only crazies imagined that volunteers outside the control of a corporation could successfully create a system over which no one had exclusive command. We knew those crazies. They worked on something called Linux.

I wanted to believe that Linux would prevail. But I'm a lawyer, and lawyers aren't programmed to see how profitable innovation might happen without commercial control. I didn't like the idea of regulation; I just didn't see any alternative. The suits would always beat the rebels. Isn't that why they were so rich?

The success of Linux and Firefox's bite into IE's market share shows how even a seemingly invincible Godzilla like Microsoft is susceptible to competition if it lets its market dominance breed cockiness and complacency.

Lessig applies this lesson to the "net neutrality" debate, but only to admit he has failed to learn it. He calls himself a "reluctant regulator" on neutrality, though he concedes that he may be making the same mistake there that he made with Microsoft.

Jesse Walker interviewed Lessig for reason in June 2002.  And Joseph Bast and Dave Kopel blasted the Microsoft antitrust case in November 2001.

Questions for Drug Warriors

Cato's Jerry Taylor asks supporters of the drug war:

Exactly what would it take to convince you that the drug war was causing more harm than good? Is there any bit of data, any hypothetical fact, or anything at all that would cause you to give up the policy ghost? Because if there is not, then we are in the realm of religious belief...

In my experience, steadfast drug warriors fall into one of three categories: Law and order types who see the drug war as culture war (think the silent majority versus the liberal hippies); religious types who think the prohibition of intoxicants is a moral imperative; and people who confuse the consequences of prohibition with the effects of illicit drugs themselves. The third group might be susceptible to persuasion. Not so much with the other two.

Still, as Taylor suggests, it would be fun to ask the Bennets, Walterses, and Tandys of the world if there's any evidence they could see that would convince them it's time to end this continuing tragedy.  Given that Tandy and Bennet still defend the merits (and ignore the costs) of alcohol prohibition, I suspect not. 

Wednesday Mini Book Review: Catch a Wave

Fifth in a series of short weekly book reviews :

Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, by Peter Ames Carlin (Rodale, 2006). It's difficult for me to be entirely sure how interesting non-obsessives will find books on this topic--I'm one of those who can listen with pleasure to Brian Wilson's music and the Beach Boys' voices most of every day with enduring pleasure and wonder. But I also think his story has been treated unusually well in book form, with almost every attempt having a lot to recommend it even to non-fans--from the juicy to-the-bone gossip mongering of Stephen Gaines' Heroes and Villains to the read-between-the-lines drama of Brian's autobiography (ghostwritten under the control of his svengali psychotherapist Eugene Landy), Wouldn't It Be Nice?, to Timothy White's erudite, highly contextualized bio of the Beach Boys in the form of a history of Southern California's pop cultural influences, The Nearest Faraway Place, to the inspired and groundbreaking fan worship of David Leaf's The Beach Boys and the California Dream, to the embarassment-of-riches in-depth curator archeology of Dominic Priore's Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!

I've either loved, admired, or at least gotten a kick out of every one I've read, but with Catch a Wave, Peter Ames Carlin has written the definitive (and probably never to be equalled, given the undoubted and continuing rarity of Carlin's combination of reportorial skills, access to the players, and smart, sensitive love for the music and its context) educated, feeling, and--most difficult virtue of all in writing about the Beach Boys--fair account of the dramatic tale of the tortured pop genius who had it all and left it all behind, and his band of brothers, cousin, and pals who had to deal with a very difficult man who both gave them everything he had and made their lives possible, but was simultaneously difficult, passively aggressively demanding, and let them down for decades in dozens of ways.

Difficult as objectivity can be for a Brian Wilson fan, which Carlin definitely is, he is fair to all the characters involved, giving them all their own voice and respecting the complicated reality of their motives and feelings in a story whose emotions and twists are more complicated than the stark heroes-and-villains story that's common among fans, with Brian the supersensitive genius brought low by the philistine machinations of his evil cousin, Beach Boy Mike Love (the one with the nasally voice that sang lead on most of their early hits). Carlin makes you see how it makes perfect sense that watching your beloved relative--unquestionably the reason for your wealth and success--collapse into decades of self-abuse and non-productivity could create understandable resentments and often fumbled, but ultimately loving, attempts to both save the Golden Goose and manage him.

Carlin does a fair amount of myth debunking, maintains a high level of readability and drama throughout, and hits all the right notes regarding the major relationship dramas in Wilson's life, all of which involves paradoxical and conflicting emotions and motives, from Brian and the Wilson brothers' coping with their superdemanding stage father, to Brian's first wife Marilyn coping with his emotional retreat from her and their daughters into excessive drugs and eating through the 1970s, to Brian's love/control/hate/escape folie a deux with Landy, who took over his life and his business in the 1980s even as he saved them, to Brian's decades long wrestling with the legacy of his greatest piece of music, Smile, whose abandonment in 1967 marked the end of the Beach Boys dream of constantly rising success and achievement and whose revival in 2004 marks the seemingly impossible redemption in Carlin's subtitle--a happy ending for both Wilson and his fans that seemed utterly impossible as recently as 2000.

Carlin captures that particular hold Brian has on his audience, and his audience has on him (what was maybe even better expressed by Reason's own cartoonist Peter Bagge, who perceptively called Brian Wilson "the straight white nerd's Judy Garland"), with such captured observations and quotes as Brian's "my particular fans aren't ever going to be satisfied. It's like a mom taking care of her baby" and Carlin's own noting that Wilson's fans hear "Brian's sad wail as the voice of your own wounded inner self. His suffering became your own, only larger and more beautiful" and that Smile became "a metaphor for every other fragmented dream and broken ambition in the world."

And this, from Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, should appear as wise caution above the computer of every driven, twitching-eared fan who writes books or articles or blogs about the passions that their favorite music arouse in them. Johnston emailed Carlin: "I can tell that you are far deeper into the Beach Boys thing than I will ever be in 100 lifetimes! It's only business to me."

For those of us whom the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson could never be just business in a 1,000 lifetimes, and for those interested in the passionately reported and told story of one of 20th century America's most interesting myths of success achieved, run from, and re-embraced, Carlin's book is a wonderful gift.

Mitt Happens (Feel The Big Love Edition)

The Wash Times reports that outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is officially throwing his hat in the presidential ring:

[American Enterprise Institute scholar John C. Fortier] said [the lack of a clearly conservative frontrunner] has left an opening for Mr. Romney, who early in his governorship seemed to stake out moderate positions but moved toward the conservative side later in his single term.

"There's a lot of mystery here because he's got a lot of ways he could go, but politically the place to go in the Republican field is to the right of McCain, to the more traditional part of the Republican Party," Mr. Fortier said.

Romney's run is setting off discussions about religion and politics. Romney is a Mormon, the religion not only at the center of HBO's popular polygamous dramedy Big Love but the very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, and, if memory serves, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage and John Ford's underappreciated pre-revisionist revisionist Western, Wagon Train (1950). Which is a way of saying that Mormonism has long been a real wild card in discussions of religion and politics, as many traditional Christians view the creed with skepticism and scorn, and many secularists see it as little short of a cult that's even more bizarre than good ol' fashioned religion that's been around for thousands of years rather than since 1829.

The New Republic has an ish out apparently attacking Romney for buying into Joseph Smith's dogma (I say apparently because I haven't read the story, which is not available online, but is the pretext for an online debate at TNR's website). In the first entry, Richard Lyman Bushman attacks the author of the TNR piece, Damon Linker, for fomenting historically unfounded hysteria about Mormons. He writes:

We can judge the actual dangers of the Mormon Church to national politics from the historical record. Have any of the church presidents tried to manage Smoot, Ezra Taft Benson, Harry Reid, or Gordon Smith? The record is innocuous to say the least. There is no evidence that the church has used its influence in Washington to set up a millennial kingdom where Mormons will govern the world or even to exercise much sway on lesser matters. It's a long way from actual history to the conclusion that "under a President Romney, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints would truly be in charge of the country--with its leadership having final say on matters of right and wrong."

But over at American Heritage's excellent and lively blog, Joshua Zeitz makes a strong case that Romney's statements about religious faith, if not Mormonism per se, need some real explicating precisely because Romney says religion is central to his political identity.

In a campaign swing last year, Mitt Romney said, “Most people in South Carolina want a person of faith as their leader. But they [South Carolina voters] don’t care what brand of faith that is. . . . I believe Jesus Christ is my savior. I believe in God. I’m a person of faith and I believe that’s the type of person Americans want.”

There is considerable ambiguity in this statement. Does Mitt Romney mean to suggest that Americans want a person of “faith” to govern their affairs, or someone who accepts Christ as his or her personal savior? If he means the latter, then I beg to differ. If he means the former, then is it not fair to ask, faith in what?

I find Romney's statement quoted above fully in line with a significant shift in American culture over, say, the past 25 years or so. Back then, the divides between and among religious groups were much sharper--evangelical Christians would routinely refuse to endorse Catholicism, much less less-established faiths. Giving in to ecumenicalism was akin to giving in to one-world government. Nowadays, the divide is between secularists and religionists or believers. The specific faith is less important than the fact that you are "religious" (with the possible exception of being a Muslim in today's climate). It seems to me that's what Romney is signaling in the above quote, though it's a message that will likely cause some confusion coming from a Mormon rather than an adherent to a more mainstream creed.

Some bits from South Park's very accurate "All About Mormons" episode.

Reason's interview with South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker here.

Reason columnist Cathy Young poured some holy water on the religious-secularist divide here.

Bonus Mormon link here.

Forget Transfats! Step Away from that Copy of Seventeen Magazine!

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wants legislation to ban "junk food" advertising to children. To wit:

“A serious approach to childhood obesity would not allow corporations to appeal directly to children and convince them to eat foods that harm their health—period,” said CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.

Now the Washington Post reports a new study that finds that "reading articles about diet and weight loss could have unhealthy consequences later."

The article continues:

Teenage girls who frequently read magazine articles about dieting were more likely five years later to practice extreme weight-loss measures such as vomiting than girls who never read such articles, the University of Minnesota study found.

It didn't seem to matter whether the girls were overweight when they started reading about weight loss, nor whether they considered their weight important. After taking those factors into account, researchers still found reading articles about dieting predicted later unhealthy weight loss behavior.

Get it? Advertising makes you fat; diet information makes you anorexic. Kind of a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" situation. It won't be long before the food and nutrition busybodies conclude that since information is toxic that we need to suspend the First Amendment. Of course, they'll do it "for the children."

100 Hours To Kill

Via Drudge comes this summary of tomorrow's historic happening:

On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi will take the gavel as the first woman speaker in the history of the House, and immediately launch a 100 legislative-hour march to quickly put the Democratic stamp on the new Congress.

Before President Bush arrives on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23 for his State of the Union address, House Democrats intend to update ethics rules, raise the minimum wage, implement 9/11 Commission recommendations, cut subsidies to the oil industry, promote stem cell research and make college educations and prescription drugs more affordable.

More here.

I'm figgering the 100 hours--and by the way, are they working through the weekend or are they, like Loverboy, working for the weekend?--is going to seem more like a 1,000 days.

And who among the Dem leadership is going to wear the headband?

Bush Competes with Colbert

Aspiring pundit George W. Bush of Washington, D.C., gives an ominous warning to an incoming Democratic legislature ("Democrats will control the House and Senate, and therefore we share the responsibility for what we achieve.") and indulges in some Colbertish political irony over at the Wall Street Journal.

First, he straightfacedly refers to the need to "to build a bipartisan consensus to fight and win the war" (a war that 61 percent of citizens in this democratic republic think wasn't worth fighting) and later to his firm belief in "spending restraint" (as the president whose first term saw real discretionary outlays increase about 35.8). If he had recorded himself speaking these straight-faced absurdities in front of a camera, it would be an instant You-Tube comic classic.

Five-Finger Discount on Seattle Kidneys

Bodies…The Exhibition is a traveling exhibit of dissected, preserved human cadavers. It’s a clone of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibit, the wildly successful tour of dead bodies in wacky (and gender-stereotyped) poses. Bodies…The Exhibition (love that ellipsis!) is playing to crowds in Seattle, among other places. And some disgruntled Seattleite, it seems, has just made off with a preserved kidney. I have no idea where you resell a stolen plastinated kidney, but apparently the organ is worth $1,000.

I have a lot of sympathy for von Hagens' supposed mission: confronting the elitism of the medical profession and demystifying the human body. There is no reason why legitimately obtained organs shouldn't be on display for curious people willing to pay. (The exhibits bill themselves as "educational"—which I suppose they are in the same way that freak shows are educational.)

But in researching an upcoming story, I’ve listened to a bunch of anatomists gripe about both shows. There are serious questions as to where the cadavers came from and whether anyone bothered to obtain informed consent. There is also the matter of profit, given that exhibitors are making money off of hefty entrance fees. Whether you're for or against trading kidneys for cash, the legal status of Body Worlds should seem strange. You can’t sell a kidney to someone who needs it, but apparently you can charge someone $21.50 to stare at it.

Via Kevin, M.D.

Another Premature "Mission Accomplished" Moment in Somalia?

The official line at the top of this longish Reuters report from the freshly Ethiopean-invaded Somalia is that Ethiopean troops will "stay 'for a few weeks' while the government pacifies the chaotic nation." However, reading on you find Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi insisting "The Ethiopians will leave when they clear terrorists and pacify Somalia. It will be ... weeks and months, not more."

As the story continues, we learn that Somalians are still taking potshots at their Ethiopean liberators, and that although "The government has told Mogadishu residents to hand over their weapons by Thursday or be forcibly disarmed.....at one [collection center] seen by Reuters, not a single gun had been handed in. Traders said gun prices had gone up and some were still buying weapons."

And don't miss the ominous last sentence of the story, horror movie hints of a grim sequel:

U.S. warships were patrolling off Somalia to stop SICC leaders or foreign militant supporters escaping, diplomats said.

How long can the U.S. ships stay offshore? Stay tuned.

Straight Talk Express, Baby!

Quote of the day:

By the way, I think the fence is least effective. But I'll build the goddamned fence if they want it.

Sen. John McCain on the minor issue of whether to build a huge honking fence across the Mexican border. (Via the Hotline, in Vanity Fair.)

How About 'Please Go to Hell'?

I do and don't understand the dismay at the behavior of witnesses to Saddam Hussein's hanging. On the one hand, it's a sad commentary on the state of Iraq's security forces that the government was unable to find a few guards disciplined enough to keep their mouths shut during the execution instead of shouting "Go to hell!" and chanting "Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!" (One of the guards reportedly has been arrested, not for his disorderly conduct but for recording the scene on his cell phone.) On the other hand, I'm a little puzzled by the expectation that one really should be polite to a gentleman one is about to kill. A prosecutor who was present at the hanging implored Saddam's hecklers, "'Please, no. The man is about to be executed.'" Well, yeah. He's being executed because he's a savage mass murderer. Does suggesting his ultimate destination go too far, rendering his punishment excessive?

No, the taunts bother people because they're undignified and emotional, revealing too much about the true nature of the event, which is a dressed-up, cold-blooded version of vengeance, prescribed and limited by law. They bother people for the same reason we don't have public executions anymore, with crowds gathering to jeer and cheer after a nice picnic lunch. But what is the right way to kill a man who deserves to be killed? Calmly, professionally, and rationally, or angrily and triumphantly, while shouting "die, motherfucker, die"? 

Manassas Park Saga Continues

Over at The Agitator , I've posted lots more information on the Virginia city of Manassas Park's apparent efforts to run a local businessman out of town, including harassment of the man's customers that I witnessed firsthand.

Original post here .

Obama's Drug Habits

Barack Obama is attracting praise for his candid discussion of youthful drug use and even for his adult cigarette habit, both of which are said to humanize him and offer a welcome contrast to the sort of robotic overachiever—cough, Al Gore, cough, John Kerry—who has been planning his presidential campaign since grade school. If authenticity really does help you get elected, of course, more politicians will learn to fake it. But taking Obama at face value, it is indeed refreshing to hear a politician admit that he used illegal drugs and enjoyed them, rather than stonewalling à la Bush or lying like Clinton. Likewise, the senator's willingness to smoke in front of reporters suggests he is not utterly consumed by what other people think of him. Yet Obama's drug habits still follow the conventional narrative of sin and redemption. He calls smoking pot and snorting cocaine "dumb" "mistakes" leading down a road to "the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man" as a "pothead" and "junkie." And he reportedly has given up cigarettes, "except for the occasional lapse." I'm still waiting for the politician who is an unrepentant pot and tobacco smoker.

[Thanks to Gary Larson for the Dallas Morning News link.]

Dustbin of Literary History

Libraries in Fairfax County are consigning Charlotte Bronte, William Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust and Alexander Solzhenitsyn to the dustbin of literary history. At the bidding of a new cataloging program, the libraries are tossing books that haven't been checked out in more than two years to make room for in-demand books.

National Review's John Miller, writing in the Wall Street Journal, asks:

What are libraries for? Are they cultural storehouses that contain the best that has been thought and said? Or are they more like actual stores, responding to whatever fickle taste or Mitch Albom tearjerker is all the rage at this very moment?

If the answer is the latter, then why must we have government-run libraries at all? There's a fine line between an institution that aims to edify the public and one that merely uses tax dollars to subsidize the recreational habits of bookworms.

Miller suggests that libraries stop stocking according to what their "customers" want (John Grisham, etc.), since books are cheap and easy to get elsewhere in the era of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Instead, they "should seek to shore up the culture against the eroding force of trends."

Now How Will We Find What We Are Looking for on the Web?

The French government knows what its people need: a new government-funded search engine. The short-sighted Germans, however, after their initial partnership with France on this forward-looking scheme, have now backed out of this plan for European betterment:

Germany and France had initially discussed plans to commit €1 billion to €2 billion, or $1.3 billion to $2.6 billion, over five years to Quaero. The project was to have been paid for by the French and German governments, with contributions from technology companies like Thomson and France Télécom on the west side of the Rhine, and Siemens and Deutsche Telekom to the east.

But never fear, those of you in dire need of a way to find things on the World Wide Web: even if the Merkel regime in Germany has walked away, France will not be discouraged:

French participants in the secretive project, called Quaero, which means "I seek" in Latin, vowed to continue their efforts to develop the search engine, possibly with funding from the European Union.

Full story from the International Herald Tribune. In unrelated news, an obscure American company with the unlikely name "Google" is at a market cap of $145.28 billion.

Hat tip to Manuel Klausner.

Don't Mug Me: I Voted for Barack Obama

On NBC's surprisingly funny sitcom 30 Rock, Tina Fey feels betrayed when her TV show's black star pumps her for favors by pretending he's illiterate.

Tracy took advantage of my white guilt, which is to be used only for good, like overtipping and supporting Barack Obama.

And as usual, comedy writers and Steve Sailer are the only people who see a smoldering racial issue and want to talk about it instead of running full tilt in the opposite direction.

Supporting Obama for President, like supporting Powell a decade ago, is seen by many whites as the ultimate in White Guilt Repellent.
...
Plus, I suspect there's an even more hidden reason many whites wish Obama is elected President: They hope that when a black finally moves into the White House, it will prove to African-Americans, once and for all, that white animus isn't the cause of their troubles. All blacks have to do is to act like President Obama—and their problems will be over!

Sailer is right about Powell and mostly wrong about Obama. Unlike Powell, Obama is a serious politician who's run for office, won, and developed a political philosophy he's exposited in countless speeches and one and a half books (most of his first book wasn't about politics). Powell, like Obama, released a best-selling book as the campaign season ramped up, but My American Journey was a memoir with brief passages about race and serving in the White House that pundits had to torture to squeeze out any political grist. The Audacity of Hope is a political book with some memoir trimmings. The Powell boomlet is more comparable to the Dick Morris-fueled (maybe "greased" is a better word when we're talking Morris) Condi Rice boomlet than the real (and getting realer) Obama campaign.

It's true that Obama's support is mostly emotional, but that's not out of the ordinary for presidential candidates. (After you tamp down the "first female president" talk, what's Hillary's qualification to be president, after all? She's not even the most accomplished female senator.) The feel-good factors Obama benefit from are, in order:

1) The "uniter" factor. Obama wasn't in Washington for the Clinton scandals or the Iraq war builup and vote, both eras that the detestable, responsibility-shrugging American voter wants to forget. They don't get that chance with Hillary or McCain, or even dream candidates like Gore and Rice, but they get it with Obama. And Obama's actually made a couple small efforts to reform the way the Senate works. The Coburn-Obama transparency bill wasn't world-changing, but it's a wonderful thing to explain to voters.
2) The "fresh start" factor. Voters don't actually reward the young, insurgent candidate in every presidential race, but give them a choice between Kennedy and Nixon or Carter and Ford or Clinton and Bush I and they'll go all gooey. They tend to support the insurgent after a long period of political turmoil like, say, this one. Obama can be that insurgent. (A corollary of this is Obama's openness about his past drug use and current smoking habit, which political reporters find incredibly refreshing.)
3) The "white guilt" factor.
4) The "alternative" factor. Only Obama can defeat an anti-matter humanoid who threatens to destroy space and time. Oops, wait...

There are probably more factors that'll become apparent as Obama runs, but "white guilt" will never be the preeminent one.

Don't Be Stupid, Be A Smarty! Come and Join the Lieberman Party!

While Sen. Joe Lieberman was traipsing around Iraq and spooning John McCain, a Connecticut college professor was engineering a takeover of Lieberman's third party - a takeover that has officially succeeded.

Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz has recognized Fairfield University professor John Orman's takeover of the Connecticut for Lieberman Party and its bylaws limiting membership to critics of the senator and anyone named Lieberman.

"If someone wanted to challenge it, they'd have to go to court," said Ted Bromley, a state elections attorney for Bysiewicz's office.

Guys, you're dealing with Joe Lieberman. Expect lots of whining about "partisanship" and exactly zero action.

Virgil Goode Bigotry Update

My congressional representative, Virgil Goode (R-Va.), denounced in a bigoted letter incoming Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for taking a private oath of office while holding the Koran. A native-born American Ellision is the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress.

Making Goode look even more pathetically ignorant, the Washington Post's Reliable Source deliciously reports:

Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, found himself under attack last month when he announced he'd take his oath of office on the Koran -- especially from Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, who called it a threat to American values.

Yet the holy book at tomorrow's ceremony has an unassailably all-American provenance. We've learned that the new congressman -- in a savvy bit of political symbolism -- will hold the personal copy once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson's home Monticello is in Goode's district.

Whole item here .

Disclosure: I continue to be mortified that Goode is my elected representative and happy to report that I voted for his Democratic opponent. Though I confess that I am beginning to enjoy watching Goode twist slowly in the wind.

Everything's Sunny in Somalia

The LA Times' Edmund Sanders has a bleak report from inside Mogadishu, finding that a plan to get rebels to turn in their guns to the Ethiopia-backed government is going nowhere.

At one designated weapons drop-off point in the Somalian capital, bored-looking Ethiopian soldiers milled about with little to do. A second collection site, nestled on a bluff overlooking the Indian Ocean, closed early because "no one showed up," a Somalian government soldier said.

... if Tuesday's turnout was any indication, the government is facing a steep challenge to persuade Mogadishu residents to part with their weapons. The campaign is reigniting long-standing clan rivalries and distrust, which are certain to play a big part in the nation's turnaround.

Neoconservatives and their fellow travellers would argue that this doesn't matter; as Ralph Peters wrote, "Will the Islamic Courts Movement resort to terror and guerrilla operations? You bet. But trust me: They would've preferred to stay in power." But it depends on your view of the problem in Somalia. Did the presence of an Islamic government create, as Peters argues, a safe haven for al Qaeda that we've now smoked out? Or does the scattering of the rebels across the country present a long-term, maybe insurmountable challenge for the West? The victory cheers you're hearing about Somalia don't sound too different than what you heard about Iraq in 2003.

I'm Gonna Go Out On a Limb and Say They Shouldn't Have Executed Gerald Ford

After largely ignoring his actual funeral, official Washington has been giving Jerry Ford the grand imperial send-off. I kinda like Ford, at least in comparison to other recent presidents, but this is ridiculous. As Lew Rockwell put it, "Only in the late empire could a vast, six-day militarist extravaganza be called humble, spare, and lacking in pomp and circumstance."

The deluge of Ford revisionism is starting to get on my nerves as well, even though I'm a bit of a Ford revisionist myself. I'd even argue that he and Carter are better than any of their successors, and if that isn't revisionist what is? But all the love for the Nixon pardon really grates. As Christopher Hitchens put it in his anti-eulogy:

You may choose, if you wish, to parrot the line that Watergate was a "long national nightmare," but some of us found it rather exhilarating to see a criminal president successfully investigated and exposed and discredited. And we do not think it in the least bit nightmarish that the Constitution says that such a man is not above the law. Ford's ignominious pardon of this felonious thug meant, first, that only the lesser fry had to go to jail. It meant, second, that we still do not even know why the burglars were originally sent into the offices of the Democratic National Committee....[B]y the standards of "healing" celebrated this week, one could argue that O.J. Simpson should have been spared indictment lest the vexing questions of race be unleashed to trouble us again, or that the Tower Commission did us all a favor by trying to bury the implications of the Iran-Contra scandal. Fine, if you don't mind living in a banana republic.

It's one thing to keep quiet about such sentiments for a while, so as not to speak ill of the newly dead. It's quite another to actively argue the opposite position. But when a president dies, it's now apparently obligatory to praise his term in office. If America elected a leader who went mad his first week on the job, ordered an invasion of Wisconsin, raped a Brownie Scout at a White House photo op, and shot three cops when they came to cart him away, he could rot unloved in a straightjacket for 20 years only to be "reevaluated" on his death as an important historical figure who united the country at a difficult time and was a prescient critic of the Badger Menace.

Look: President Chevy Chase wasn't a grand imperial guy. Just as the Ramones started to teach us that anyone could be a rock star, Gerald Ford was there to remind us that anyone could be a president too. To see him mourned in royal style isn't just silly; it's a betrayal, man. It's like punk never happened.

Best News of the Year

So far.

Hackers claim to have made headway in cracking the HD DVD encryption code. Given what Microsoft plans for Vista with regard to DRM restrictions on "high value" content -- nothing less than nerfing end-users' hardware non-stop -- consumers need to have some arrows in their quiver versus the content mafia.

Talking with some tech savvy friends over the holidays led to the conclusion that Mp3 audio essentially lucked into "escaping" into the wild before anyone could build a fence around it. By the time anyone thought seriously about roping Mp3s in, the standard was too large and embedded -- there was actually money to be made by keeping it wild.

The content dons are not going to make the same mistake twice. They are going to try to build in DRM even if it means degrading the performance of hardware for non-infringing uses -- just to be safe.

Losing the Troops in Iraq

With an Iraq troop surge likely on the horizon, it isn't just the Senate who don't seem to be thrilled with Bush's whole approach to Iraq:

For the first time, more troops disapprove of the president's handling of the war than approve of it, according to the 2006 Military Times Poll.

The account from the Seattle Times goes on to report that "only 41 percent of the military now say the United States should have gone to war in Iraq, down from 65 percent in 2003." It also gives this caveat as to how much this result reflects the opinion of the military as a whole:

The Military Times survey, conducted by mail Nov. 13 through Dec. 22, is the fourth annual gauge of active-duty military subscribers to the newspapers. Results are not representative of the military as a whole. The survey's respondents, 945 this year, are on average older, more experienced, more likely to be officers and more career-oriented than the overall military population.

Still, this is more bad news for Bush's war, whose "surge" will likely prove more "good lives after bad" than that final added expenditure that makes the whole investment pay off.

Great Saddam's Ghost!

India Daily says a dead dictator may be haunting Baghdad, as the Elvis of Baathism follows his execution with cameos "in restaurants, markets and so on." Its reporter reassures us that "None of these possible ghost sightings are confirmed by any reliable sources or Iraqi authorities."

Don't Ask, Don't Tell—You Know Its Days Are Numbered When...

...the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff says they are. In an op/ed in the New York Times, retired general John Shalikashvili, who served as chairman between 1993-1997, writes:

Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine crew. These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers.

This perception is supported by a new Zogby poll of more than 500 service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, three quarters of whom said they were comfortable interacting with gay people. And 24 foreign nations, including Israel, Britain and other allies in the fight against terrorism, let gays serve openly, with none reporting morale or recruitment problems.

I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces. Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job.

Shalikashvili argues that there are more urgent problems that need to be addressed first, so he wants to take a "measured" approach to welcoming gays into the military. Discrimination against gays in the military is just wrong. However, if policymakers do insist on taking a "measured" approach, then military commanders should at least stop drumming gays who are currently serving out. 

Married in Vegas, Divorced at Home Depot

Here's a marriage promotion plan to warm the hearts of straight-partnerships-are-doomed types: Make divorce proceedings so byzantine that couples can't even figure out whether they've done the deed. The L.A. Times reports that can-do couples are adopting a "Home Depot philosophy" about the whole process. And screwing it up:

Driven by rising legal fees, a shortage of legal aid lawyers and a do-it-yourself philosophy, about 80% of people in California handle their own divorces, according to court officials.

Many of them are not quite as divorced as they think they are. Some of them...are even accidental bigamists, carrying not only hopes and dreams but also an earlier marriage to their new one.

At one legal services center in Van Nuys, officials say they see 20 people a month who incorrectly thought they were divorced.

Seems like that whole "do it yourself" approach wouldn't be as much of a problem if the process were simple enough for people to, uh, do it themselves. Analysts in the article instead blame a shortage of legal aid for the poor, the workings of the government being so opaque that government-provided lawyers are crucial to understanding them.

Campaign 2008: Empty Gestures Edition

- Gov. Mitt Romney, who leaves his job in about 48 hours, is managing to keep his coif up even as he's pulled away kicking and screaming.

Romney may refuse to move ahead on automatic pay raises for lawmakers unless they vote next week on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, a top administration official said yesterday.

The state's 200 House and Senate members are entitled to a raise on Jan. 1, but it is up to the governor to decide the exact amount and give final approval. Romney could act on the pay raises before he leaves office on Jan. 4, or leave the responsibility to Governor-elect Deval Patrick.

Patrick is a liberal Democrat (the first Dem governor of the Bay State since Mike Dukakis' tiny shadow left Beacon Hill) who supports gay marriage and pay raises in equal measure. Romney fan Kathryn Jean Lopez thinks this will turn the tide for marriage ban boosters; I think white evangelicals are even less impressed by blackmail than they are by Mormonism.

UPDATE: It looks like the blackmail/bribe ploy worked out. The Constitutional Convention voted against the ban 132-61, but because there were more than 50 "no" votes it gets to survive to the next Constitutional Convention.

- John Edwards is calling out Sen. John McCain and looking handsome doing it.

"I actually believe that this idea of surging troops, and escalating the war, what Senator McCain has been talking about, what I would call now the McCain doctrine it's ..."

"McCain doctrine?" interrupted host George Stephanopoulos.

"McCain doctrine," Edwards responded. "He's been the most prominent spokesperson for this for some time."

If the trend-happiest pundits are right, and making liberal bloggers ooh and aah is going to prove vital for 2008, stuff like this may prove more important for Edwards than actual substance. (It's at least a more winning gesture than Hillary Clinton's ill-advised buddying up to McCain.)

Please Nancy Don't Hurt 'Em

Tired of the eye-roll-inducing theater of the Ford funeral? Check out the eye-roll-inducing theater about to take place in Congress.

In a "Dear Colleague" letter circulated to fellow Republicans, three House GOPers are trying to push a "Minority Bill of Rights" -- based on a two-year-old proposal by then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). You can read the letter here.
...
An ironic case in point: When Pelosi made her proposal to protect Democrats in 2004, GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert (IL) refused to entertain the idea, let alone reply to her correspondence.

The whole document is up at Talking Points Memo's fantastic Muckraker site. Unless Democrats are as stupid as everyone thinks they are, don't expect them to consider this. The GOP minority is on the record planning to "make the Democrats be Democrats," or force the majority to vote on wedge issues that will make life awkward for their conservative members. For example: "This is a nice health care modernization bill you've got. And it would look even better with this amendment posting 'Life Begins at Conception' posters in every hospital waiting room."

And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going (to Stop Digging This Hole)

Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Prester John's kingdom) has taken to the pages of USA Today to showcase his particular version of "damage control." It's a brand new year when people may be ready to forget his jihad against Muslim Rep. Keith Ellison and Muslim immigration in general. What's Goode write?

Let us remember that we were not attacked by a nation on 9/11; we were attacked by extremists who acted in the name of the Islamic religion. I believe that if we do not stop illegal immigration totally, reduce legal immigration and end diversity visas, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to infiltration by those who want to mold the United States into the image of their religion, rather than working within the Judeo-Christian principles that have made us a beacon for freedom-loving persons around the world.

OK. Look. As Ronald Bailey (who has the pleasure of being represented by Goode in Congress) pointed out, Rep. Ellison is not an immigrant. He's a black Minnesotan who converted to Islam. And it's worth pointing out that this convert to Islamism has avoided helping terrorists infiltrate the U.S. or plant bombs in the IDS Center. He's, you know, assimiliated into the political mainstream. But he wants to make a token nod to his faith as he's sworn in, so let's get ready to send a surge of troops in to democratize Minneapolis or something.

Remember Gerald Ford By Not Working Today

I've heard that some workplaces in Washington, D.C., have decided to honor the passing of President Gerald Ford by giving their employees a holiday today. Which seems like a good way to remember a chief executive who wasn't elected either as vice-president or president, who saw unemployment and inflation jack up (remember "The Misery Index"), and then became better known for his golf game than his political prowess.

My Crystal Ball's 10-Year Tune-Up

Unlike Ron, I usually avoid making public predictions. I just realized, though, that we've passed a deadline I set in the November 1996 Reason:

Ten years from now, stories like this won't even sound unusual.

Read the whole piece to see what I was talking about. Unlike some of my other forecasts, I think that one came out OK.

A Prediction Ahead of Its Time

In my annual crytal ball gazing column last week, I bravely predicted:

Saddam Hussein will be executed for his crimes. Apparently quite soon. In any case, he will go to Hell, if it exists.

Well, as you know, it happened in 2006. A point which fark.com makes for me. I just didn't take into account the, huh, efficiency of the Iraqi government in this matter. 

I will add that at a New Year's Eve gathering, most of my friends who oppose the death penalty could summon little outrage over Hussein's execution. Good riddance! 

Never Say Never Get Busted Again

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Barry Cooper , a former Texas narcotics cop who has apparently not only come out in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, he's putting out a video called "Never Get Busted Again," which claims to offer tips to drug offenders on how to avoid the police.

Last week, the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition -- whom I've worked with in the past and found to be professional, reputable, and pretty hard-core -- disassociated itself from Cooper . The reason stated in the group's press release is that LEAP can't advocate a video encouraging criminal activity, even if said activity violates laws LEAP considers immoral.

But conspiracy theorists take note. The email LEAP's media department sent me about Cooper included the following addendum to the press release:

A lesser reason, not specifically cited by the LEAP Board, but nonetheless felt by many of the active members, is that until we learn more about Cooper, his project should be viewed with a very wary eye by anyone who is an illicit drug user that may buy his video for educational purposes.

Cooper is at this time only accepting credit card payments. In our (specifically me, Steve Heath) humble opinion, this raises red flags. Credit card payments remove the possibility for anonymity on the part of the buyer and also potentially expose the buyer to investigation of his bank activity on the not so off-chance that Cooper's project is in fact an undercover investigation aimed at identifying users of illicit drugs.

Make of that what you will. I don't know anything about Cooper, other than what was in the news stories about him when the video was released. Seems like an awfully elaborate setup for a sting operation. Of course, we are talking about the drug war, here. Stranger things have happened .

Troop Surge To Be Announced Next Week?

Via Drudge comes vaguely supported word from the BBC that President Bush is figuring on announcing a troop boost in Iraq.

The BBC was told by a senior administration source that the speech setting out changes in Mr Bush's Iraq policy is likely to come in the middle of next week.

Its central theme will be sacrifice.

The speech, the BBC has been told, involves increasing troop numbers.

More here.

Recall in mid-December that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), along with other honchos in that deliberative body, signalled thumbs up to a "temporary" troop increase and maybe there you have it.

How "Queen Bees" Sting Women Workers

And don't forget "older" people, either. They're part of the problem, too.

The U.K. Sunday Times, via Arts & Letters Daily, reports on a study showing that women "and older participants" are much tougher on their female counterparts than men when it comes to anticipating job success. Around 700 participants in Spain looked at fake resumes of fake employees for a fake corporation and then were asked to evaluate candidates across a variety of areas. The real results?

“Female participants had a stronger tendency than male participants to view the female candidates as less qualified than the male candidate . . . they also thought that the female candidate would fare worse in the future in her job than the male candidate.”

It adds: “Female participants predicted that the male candidate would show a more laissez-faire leadership style than the female candidate would.”

Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society which campaigns for sexual equality, said stereotyping was more important than female rivalry in holding back women’s careers: “Stereotypes about what is an appropriate role for women are still very strong in people’s minds and there is still a cultural barrier to women making it into senior positions.”

More here.

Given the level of fictiveness built into the study (not to mention the small sample, etc. etc. etc.), I'd be interested in seeing actual employment advancement figures. But can "705 participants living in southern Spain" be wrong? Hmm...

The Unheralded Return to Lower Gas Prices

From the Cincy Enquirer, re: gasoline prices in Ohio and Kentucky (and, by extension, the rest of the country) in 2007:

Matthew Roberts, an agricultural economist with Ohio State University, predicted gasoline prices in January would dip below $2 in Ohio and Kentucky. While prices might sporadically spike for a few days to $2.50, he forecast costs would top out at $2.30 per gallon in 2007.

He said sustained higher prices have spurred overall oil production and exploration as well as conservation. The three factors have stemmed upward pressure on gas prices.

"There's an old economist's saying that the best cure for high prices is high prices," Roberts said. "High prices have caused demand to soften at the same time there's more efficiency and increased production and exploration."

He noted that production cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries earlier this month signal there's now excess capacity - contrary to the conventional wisdom that worldwide production is maxed out.

More here.

Prediction: If Ohio State loses to Florida in the BCS title game next Monday, we'll see $4 gas prices by January 10. Why? Because it'll be a sign that nothing is right in this crazy world.

Remember the glory days of $3/gallon gas here.

Imagine There's No Camembert/ I Wonder If You Can

Britain's stilton manufacturers are about to lose out on the budding legions of preteen cheesemongers, thanks to a government ban.

The Food Standards Agency assessed the levels in 100g or 100ml serving of food or drink.

But the British Cheese Board said the typical portion size of cheese was 30 to 40g. Most cheese would be exempt from the ban if a typical sized portion was used.

Instead it has been branded more unhealthy than sugary cereals, full fat crisps and cheeseburgers.

Ofcom will now ban adverts of cheese during kids’ TV programmes, or shows with a large proportion of child viewers.

It seems like only two months ago that Ofcom (the UK's FCC) was banning advertisements for "junk food"... because it was two months ago. At this rate, expect a ban on advertising that shows people sitting down and not exercising by July or August.

Who's Got the Urge to Surge?

Robert Novak (who, it's often forgotten, opposed the Iraq war) reports that support for a McCain-Bush escalation of the Iraq doesn't exist in Congress.

President Bush and McCain, the front-runner for the next presidential nomination, in pressing for a surge of 30,000 more troops, will have trouble finding support from more than 12 out of 49 Republican senators. ''It's Alice in Wonderland,'' Sen. Chuck Hagel, second-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, told me in describing the proposed surge. ''I'm absolutely opposed to sending any more troops to Iraq. It is folly.''

...

Among Democrats, Lieberman stands alone. Sen. Joseph Biden, as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, leads the rest of the Democrats not only to oppose a surge but to block it. Bush enters a new world of a Democratic majority where the big microphone he talks about is smaller because he must share the stage.

If you want to go with that "stage" metaphor, the Iraq debate is a Comedians of Comedy tour and Bush is coming to the stage as Gallagher. Fewer members of the new Senate support escalation than support a Kucinich-style pullout of all troops. John Kerry's amendment to withdraw troops by July 2007 got thirteen votes in a Senate that didn't yet include Jon Tester, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Jim Webb.

The Senate isn't in the habit of shunning foreign adventures, but if the McCain plan plays out the way it's been playing out, they'll probably cast the first major vote of no confidence in a major foreign conflict since the 1970s. There's literally no political benefit to supporting escalation, and that's all these people care about.

Smart People Talk Trans Fats

Gary Becker and Richard Posner take up the economics of the New York trans fat ban. They are both smarter than I am, but I'm inclined to side with Becker.

Says Posner:

A strict Chicago School economic analysis of the ban would deem it inefficient. The restaurant industry in New York is highly competitive, and so if consumers are willing to pay a higher price for meals that do not contain trans fats, the industry will oblige them; to force them to shell out more money, rather than leaving it to their decision, is thus paternalistic, indeed gratuitous.

...

What is missing in this analysis is a cost that, ironically, a great Chicago economist, George Stigler, did more than any other economist to make a part of mainstream economic analysis: the cost of information. It might seem, however, that the cost of informing consumers about trans fats would be trivial--a restaurant would tell its customers whether or not it used trans fats, if that is what they're interested in, and if it lied it would invite class action suits for fraud. But there is a crucial difference between the cost of disseminating information and the cost of absorbing it.

Says Becker:

The prominence of young persons among the big consumers of trans fats, cholesterol, and calories in foods like French fries and big Macs may not be due to ignorance. Rather, they may have an unarticulated awareness that when they reach older ages where heart disease and other diseases are more common, drugs are likely to have been developed that offset the negative consequences of what appears now to be unhealthy diets.

...

With a small taste benefit from the use of trans fats-- the New England Medicine Journal article I cited earlier does admit positive effect of trans fats on "palatability"-- the total cost of the ban would equal or exceed total benefits. For example, suppose 1 million persons on average eat 200 meals per year in NYC restaurants with trans fats. If they value the taste of trans fats in their foods only by 35 cents per meal, the taste cost to consumers of the ban would be $70 million per year. Then the total cost of the ban would equal the benefits from the ban.

Read the whole exchange here, here, here, and then here.

The Lord of Misrule

Happy Feast of Fools, everyone:

During the Roman Saturnalia all class distinctions were abolished, with slaves and their masters switching roles, and laws that normally governed sensible behavior virtually suspended.

In medieval times, most Europeans adopted the Roman taste for a good time by electing a Lord of Misrule, or King of Fools. This harlequin king went by many names: King of the Bean in England, the Abbot of Unreason in Scotland, the Abbe de la Malgouveme in France. All had the power to call people to disorder. Cross dressing, bawdy songs, drinking to excess, and gambling on the church altar were only a few of the wanton acts reported.

In some places the Festival of the Ass was commemorated. A young girl with babe in arms entered a church riding an ass or donkey. During the mock services, prayer responses that would have normally included an 'amen' were substituted by a hearty 'hee-haw'.

Saturnalia took place from December 17 to December 23, with some variation in different periods of Roman history. There never was a standardized date for the medieval celebrations. Even Boxing Day carries a ghost of the old carnivals, or so I gathered from one of the later, lamer episodes of M*A*S*H. But as the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, the festivities tended to take place "on or about the feast of the Circumcision" -- that is, January 1. Its most famous American descendant, the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, takes place on that same day, and so it is today that we'll mark it on this blog.

Scholars still debate whether the carnivals served as a safety valve, and thus ultimately undergirded the social hierarchy, or if they were something more revolutionary -- in Bakhtin's words, a liberatory "second world and a second life outside officialdom." The two positions are not mutually exclusive, and I doubt that there's a single answer to the question. I should note, though, that the Church eventually cracked down on the celebrations. Clearly, not everyone in the establishment felt that order was being reinforced.

I'll close with two quotes from James Frazer's The Golden Bough. One describes life during Saturnalia, when

masters actually changed places with their slaves and waited on them at table; and not till the serf had done eating and drinking was the board cleared and dinner set for his master. So far was this inversion of ranks carried, that each household became for a time a mimic republic in which the high offices of state were discharged by the slaves, who gave their orders and laid down the law as if they were indeed invested with all the dignity of the consulship, the praetorship, and the bench. Like the pale reflection of power thus accorded to bondsmen at the Saturnalia was the mock kingship for which freemen cast lots at the same season. The person on whom the lot fell enjoyed the title of king, and issued commands of a playful and ludicrous nature to his temporary subjects. One of them he might order to mix the wine, another to drink, another to sing, another to dance, another to speak in his own dispraise, another to carry a flute-girl on his back round the house.

The other recounts a rather forceful restoration of the ancien regime:

Roman soldiers at Durostorum in Lower Moesia celebrated the Saturnalia year by year in the following manner. Thirty days before the festival they chose by lot from amongst themselves a young and handsome man, who was then clothed in royal attire to resemble Saturn. Thus arrayed and attended by a multitude of soldiers he went about in public with full license to indulge his passions and to taste of every pleasure, however base and shameful. But if his reign was merry, it was short and ended tragically; for when the thirty days were up and the festival of Saturn had come, he cut his own throat on the altar of the god whom he personated.

And so the world is turned rightside-up again. Enjoy your holiday. You'll be back at work tomorrow.