Archive:

December 2008, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



Best Headline Yesterday:  Was on a blog entry:  Obama team probe of Obama team finds no Obama team impropriety
The Barack Obama presidential transition office today finally released its own report on its own internal investigation of its own contacts with legally challenged Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.  And you'll be comforted to know the Obama folks found no impropriety whatsoever by Obama folks.
I am comforted, and I'll bet you are, too.

But mostly because at least one reporter, Andrew Malcolm, saw the humor in yesterday's report.
- 12:02 PM, 24 December 2008   [link]


An Arithmetic Problem For Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels:  Seattle has chosen not to clear city streets of snow and ice, because clearing them would require the use of salt.

The city's approach means crews clear the roads enough for all-wheel and four-wheel-drive vehicles, or those with front-wheel drive cars as long as they are using chains, [Alex] Wiggins said.

The icy streets are the result of Seattle's refusal to use salt, an effective ice-buster used by the state Department of Transportation and cities accustomed to dealing with heavy winter snows.

"If we were using salt, you'd see patches of bare road because salt is very effective," Wiggins said.  "We decided not to utilize salt because it's not a healthy addition to Puget Sound."

I am not quite sure how to tell Mr. Wiggins and Mayor Nickels this, because I don't understand why they don't know it already, but here goes:  Puget Sound already has salt in it.  In fact Puget Sound is connected to the Pacific Ocean, which has a lot of salt in it.  And rivers all over the world are constantly adding salt to the Pacific, naturally.  (Some is also being removed, mostly by natural processes, but also by man.)  I don't know how to explain these facts more simply, other than giving Nickels and Wiggins water from Puget Sound and asking them to taste it.

But let me assume that they understand me to this point, so that I can give them the rest of this little arithmetic problem.  Although we give the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the other oceans different names, they are all connected, all the same ocean.  Salt put in the Puget Sound will, through currents and diffusion, eventually spread all over the world ocean.  So, when we worry about the damage that salt might do, we have to look at the entire ocean.

For the purpose of this problem, let's use the Wikipedia estimates for the salinity and the volume of the ocean.

Average oceanic salinity is around 35 parts per thousand (ppt) (3.5%), and nearly all seawater has a salinity in the range of 30 to 38 ppt.
. . .
The area of the World Ocean is 361 million square kilometers (139 million sq mi),[5] its volume is approximately 1.3 billion cubic kilometers (310 million cu mi)[6], and its average depth is 3,790 meters (12,430 ft).[5]

For the next step, Mayor Nickels should consult Mr. Wiggins and ask him how much salt would have been required to clear Seattle's streets.  With that number, Mayor Nickels should be able to calculate how much the salinity of the world ocean would have increased, if Seattle had used salt to clear its streets.  Only grade school arithmetic is required to solve this problem, and I have no objection if the mayor uses a calculator.

Having that number would help us understand just how damage to the world ocean the current Seattle policy is preventing.  We could even compare the number to the estimated damage caused to Seattle citizens and visitors by the current policy.  (Many in this area prefer not to think about costs and benefits when discussing environmental policies, but I am hoping to gently persuade them to give that approach a try.)

(Mayor Nickels and Mr. Wiggins could alleviate the harm caused by using salt.  They could buy "salt credits" by paying some company to remove salt from the ocean.  Frankly, I am surprised that they have not come up with that solution already.)

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 7:59 AM, 24 December 2008   [link]


Worth Reading:  John O'Sullivan compares Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin.
But, as it happens, I know Margaret Thatcher.  Margaret Thatcher is a friend of mine.  And as a matter of fact, Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin have a great deal in common.

They are far from identical; they rose in different political systems requiring different skills.  As a parliamentarian, Mrs. Thatcher needed forensic and debating skills which her training in Oxford politics and as a tax lawyer gave her.  Mrs. Palin is a good speaker, but she needs to hone her debating tactics if she is to match those of the Iron Lady.

On the other hand, Mrs. Palin rose in state politics to jobs requiring executive ability.  Her successful conduct of the negotiations with Canada, Canadian provinces and American states over the Alaska pipeline was a larger executive task than anything handled by Mrs. Thatcher until she entered the Cabinet and, arguably, until she became prime minister.
Allowing for the difference in political systems, the attacks on the two women, early in their national careers, are surprisingly similar.
- 10:18 AM, 23 December 2008   [link]


Obama Admits Bush Was Right About Iraq:  In the clearest way possible; he has asked the Bush people to stay on in the Defense Department, temporarily.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has asked most Bush administration political appointees except those targeted for dismissal to stay on in the Pentagon until replaced by the Obama administration in the coming months.

"I have received authorization from the president-elect's transition team to extend a number of Department of Defense political appointees an invitation to voluntarily remain in their current positions until replaced," Mr. Gates said in an Dec. 19 e-mail to political appointees.

The chance to stay is "available to all willing political appointees with the exception of those who are contacted individually and told otherwise," he stated.
Imagine, just for a moment, that you are watching Obama speak to Iowa audiences before the Iowa caucuses.  He is saying that the surge has been such a success in Iraq that he will ask Robert Gates to stay on at Defense, and that he will ask most of the Bush political appointees to stay on for the time being.  Boggles the mind, doesn't it?

But that's what Obama has just done.

(It is usual for the US attorneys to stay on during a transition, but I can't recall it happening with any other group of political appointees, when there is a party change.)
- 7:31 AM, 23 December 2008   [link]


Dinosaurs Went Extinct — Before they Existed:  Which is a good trick, you must admit.  Here's the offending article.
Washington, Dec 13: A new theory has suggested that the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs 250 million years ago, was caused by the Earth's magnetic field going into complete disarray, exposing the planet to a shower of cosmic radiation.

According to a report in Discovery News, the theory has been put forward by Yukio Isozaki of the University of Tokyo.

The Permian-Triassic mass extinction event happened 250 million years ago, snuffing out 90 percent of life on the planet.
For the record, the first dinosaurs appeared in the late Triassic, roughly 230 million years ago.

(This new theory for the Permian-Triassic extinction sounds interesting, but I wouldn't trust the description of the theory in this article.  That extinction was the worst ever, far worse than the Cretaceous-Tertiary event that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  Scientists are not certain what caused the Permian-Triassic extinction, but many think the extinction was caused by immense lava flows in what is now Siberia.)
- 5:22 AM, 23 December 2008   [link]


Chuckle:  The New York Times made a small goof.
Earlier this morning, we posted a letter that carried the name of Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, sharply criticizing Caroline Kennedy.

This letter was a fake.  It should not have been published.
Now here's the best part:  The Times never verified that the letter had actually come from Delanoë.

(I haven't read anything by the mayor, but the fake letter doesn't sound like something written by a prominent French politician.  And it is unlikely that a French politician would intervene in American politics in this way, especially since Kennedy may become a senator — and the Kennedy family is famous for holding grudges.)
- 4:43 PM, 22 December 2008
More:  Ann Althouse speculates about why the New York Times published the letter.
Now, why did the Times fall for this? The correction says they didn't follow their own procedures, but why didn't they follow their own procedures?  Were they just a little too delighted that he was saying what they hoped to hear?  American decline.  The French think America is in decline . . .
Plausibly speculates, I would say.
- 10:00 AM, 23 December 2008   [link]


Kirkland In Winter:  We see scenes like this about once a decade, so we might as well enjoy them when they come.

Kirkland winter, December 2008

The cross country skiing has been good to excellent these past few days, by the way.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 2:33 PM, 22 December 2008   [link]


Non-Consenting, Non-Adult:  But she still can't get a divorce until she is older.
An eight-year-old girl who was married off to a 58-year-old must stay with the man until she reaches puberty, a Saudi court has ruled.

The youngster was married off by her father in exchange for a £4,000 dowry.
Her mother, who is divorced from the father, tried to win the little girl's freedom, but failed.
- 1:30 PM, 22 December 2008   [link]


Some Subjects Are Best Covered By A Frivolous Reporter:  And so it is not surprising that Robin Givhan has written the best comments I have seen on Governor Blagojevich's hair.
Much has been made about Blagojevich's thick mop of brown hair, which is about one salon visit away from impeding his eyesight.  Such long hair could conceivably have given him a kind of bohemian sensibility.  And it is particularly thick, which, for a man of 52, is not something to be mocked but envied.  The disconcerting thing about Blagojevich's style is this: He wears bangs.

His is a hairstyle that typically has not been seen on grown-ups since the 1970s when it dominated the pages of Tiger Beat magazine.  In earlier, happier times, one would have been tempted to call the feathered hairdo boyish.  But against the backdrop of charges that make the governor sound proudly egocentric, that thicket of hair makes him look foppish and vain.  Neither characteristic provides reassurance that perhaps this whole corruption business is just an unfortunate mix-up.
I am not too proud to admit that I have been wondering about Blagojevich's hair style.  (Not often, and mostly as a relief from important subjects.)  And Givhan does conclude with a plausible political point.

(Here's the Tiger Beat site, in case you, like me, were unfamiliar with this serious publication.  If you believe the Onion — and I almost always do — readers of the magazine did have a favorite in last November's presidential election.)
- 10:10 AM, 22 December 2008   [link]


You Have To Love the title of Bernard Goldberg's latest book: A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (And Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance Between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media.

All right, you don't have to love the title, but you will if you have a sense of humor.

(By way of Hot Air, where you can find an amusing suggestion.)
- 4:02 PM, 21 December 2008   [link]


Hummingbird In Winter:  You can see a three second video of one of my guests here.
- 3:29 PM, 21 December 2008   [link]


Hanging Buses:  Florida became famous in 2000 for hanging chads.   Seattle topped that last Friday with these two hanging buses.

We can all be grateful that no one was seriously injured.
- 3:04 PM, 21 December 2008   [link]


FDR And State Department Cryptography:  While reading parts of David Kahn's The Codebreakers, I came across an old scandal.
No such dramatic feats were required by the British or by anyone else to read American diplomatic codes.  The cryptanalysts who worked on them did not even have to furrow their brows excessively.   For these codes of a great power were, from before World War I to the middle of World War II, as puny as those of many smaller nations.  The United States must have been the laughingstock of every cryptanalyst in the world.  And during World War I, the twenties, and the thirties, American diplomacy must have been conducted largely in an international goldfish bowl.
. . .
Why did the Department of State not introduce improved methods of cryptography—perhaps the Vernam machine or the one-time pad—at least for its secret messages?  Apparently nothing more than bureaucratic inertia, probably compounded with some budgetary tightness. (pp. 488-489, 492)
This scandal was not a secret — except, possibly, from the State Department bureaucrats, who for so long refused to move to secure systems.

Now here's the astonishing part.  Among those who knew that the State Department codes were insecure was FDR.  He even refused to use State Department codes when sending messages to the more important American ambassadors; instead, he used Navy codes.  But neither he, nor the Secretaries of State during this period, bothered to fix the problem.

Why not?  Kahn does not explain, though bureaucratic inertia must have been part of the reason.   Even a president as powerful as FDR often prefers not to take on bureaucracies, especially on what the president sees as side issues.

(For fun, imagine what the New York Times editorial board would say if President Bush were as careless as FDR was for all those years.)
- 3:26 PM, 20 December 2008   [link]


Hummingbird Update:  So far, so good, though, if the weather forecasters are right, tomorrow and Sunday will be the roughest days yet for the little birds.  (The weather forecasters are predicting an ice storm, with gusts up to 90 miles an hour in some parts of the Puget Sound.)

This morning I put the feeder out a little before eight, and a hummingbird was drinking the artificial nectar almost as soon as I had closed the door to the deck.  I have a couple of poor quality videos showing a hummingbird at the feeder, good enough for evidence in a courtroom, but not good enough to share.  Maybe I'll get lucky some time.

There are at least two hummingbirds who use, or try to use, the feeder.  I know that because I sometimes see one bird chasing another bird away.  Both birds may be using the feeder; there is at least one more feeder in the neighborhood.  The two feeders are far enough apart so that one bird can't guard both.
- 10:52 AM, 19 December 2008   [link]


Planning To Buy Books For Kids?  You'll probably want to skip any recent books that have won Newbery Medals.
The Newbery Medal has been the gold standard in children's literature for more than eight decades.  On the January day when the annual winner is announced, bookstores nationwide sell out, libraries clamor for copies and teachers add the work to lesson plans.

Now the literary world is debating the Newbery's value, asking whether the books that have won recently are so complicated and inaccessible to most children that they are effectively turning off kids to reading.   Of the 25 winners and runners-up chosen from 2000 to 2005, four of the books deal with death, six with the absence of one or both parents and four with such mental challenges as autism.  Most of the rest deal with tough social issues.
Assuming you are fond of the kids, that is.

I noticed this problem years ago.  Prize winning kids books are almost all written by authors who do not understand kids, dislike kids, or both.

That even the literary world is catching on to this problem shows just how bad it is.  Perhaps a few in the literary world will even realize that it is especially hard to find good new books for real boys.  But that may be too much to hope for.

By way of Joanne Jacobs.

(In this area, it would be wise to avoid any kids books recommended by the Seattle Times.)
- 10:31 AM, 19 December 2008   [link]


Will The Economic Downturn Cause The "Bezzle" To Shrink?  That's what John Kenneth Galbraith would predict.
In many ways the effect of the crash on embezzlement was more significant than on suicide.  To the economist embezzlement is the most interesting of crimes.  Alone among the various forms of larceny it has a time parameter.  Weeks, months, or years may elapse between the commission of the crime and its discovery.  (This is a period, incidentally, when the embezzler has his gain and the man who has been embezzled, oddly, feels no loss.  There is a net increase in psychic wealth.)  At any given time there exists an inventory of undiscovered embezzlement in — or more precisely not in — the country's businesses and banks.  This inventory — it should perhaps be called the "bezzle" — amounts at any moment to millions of dollars.  It also varies with the business cycle.   In good times, people are relaxed, trusting, and money is plentiful.  But even though money is plentiful, there are always many people who need more.  Under these circumstances the rate of embezzlement grows, the rate of discovery falls off, and the bezzle increases.  In depression all this is reversed.  Money is watched with a narrow, suspicious eye.  The man who handles it is assumed to be dishonest until he proves himself otherwise.  Audits are penetrating and meticulous.   Commercial morality is enormously improved.  The bezzle shrinks. (pp. 137-138)
I suspect that he is probably right, though I don't know of any formal studies that support his argument.  Now, the bezzle must amount to billions, not millions.

(Before his discussion of the "bezzle", Galbraith examines the data on suicides.  Some investors did commit suicide after the 1929 crash, but not enough, Galbraith concludes, to affect overall rates, even in New York.  The rate of suicide was rising in New York before the crash and continued to rise after the crash.  So the idea that the crash caused many suicides is probably, as Galbraith says, just a "legend".

For what it is worth, the rate of suicide peaked in 1932 and then fell in 1933 and 1934.  Also for what it is worth, the rate of suicide is a bit lower now than in was in 1925, about 10 or 11 per 100,000 instead of 12.  The rate is lower now in spite of the fact that our population is much older, and older people are far more likely to commit suicide.)
- 2:20 PM, 18 December 2008   [link]


Russia Revives An Old Tradition:  Rewriting history.
Stalin, the brutal Soviet dictator responsible for the deaths of millions of his citizens, has been undergoing a makeover of sorts in recent years.  Russian authorities have reshaped the Georgia-born dictator's image into that of a misunderstood, demonized leader who did what he had to do to mold the Soviet Union into the superpower it became.
That revisionism has even included a raid on a human rights organization — a real human rights organization — the Memorial Research and Information Center.

This is, to say the least, troubling, but not surprising.

(Here's Memorial's web site, though it appears to be entirely in Russian.)
- 1:43 PM, 18 December 2008   [link]


Republicans Have Been Supporting UAW Members For Decades:  In the most important way of all.  Republicans are more likely than Democrats to buy cars built by UAW members.

That generalization won't surprise anyone who has paid attention to bumper stickers and car brands.   We are not surprised when we see an Obama bumper sticker on a Volvo, or a McCain bumper sticker on a Ford 150, but we are surprised by reverse.  (In my experience, the exceptions, Democratic bumper stickers on American cars or pickups, are often owned by union members.)

But we don't have to rely on just our own informal surveys.  Before the 2004 election, Republicans did an intensive study of the electorate.  (And found, among other things, that Republicans have many reasons to be happier than Democrats.)  Some of the results of those studies were reported in this New York Times article, and in the graphic that accompanies it.

Looking at the bottom of the graphic, we can see which car brands are more likely to be owned by Democrats:  Toyota, Infiniti, Accura, Nissan, Honda, Volkswagen, Kia, Mazda, Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Subaru, and Volvo.  Some of those brands might be made in the United States (or in Canada) by UAW members; here's an official UAW list if you want to check.  But most of the vehicles built by those companies are not made by UAW members.   On the whole, Democrats are more likely to own cars that are not made by UAW members.

For Republicans, the pattern is not quite as clear.  Republicans are more likely to buy performance cars, so, if you see a Jaguar, a Porsche, or a Land Rover you can bet that it is owned by a Republican.   But after those three, the most Republican brands are:  GMC, Audi, Lexus, Jeep, Saab, Dodge, Daewoo, Plymouth, Ford, Cadillac, Mercedes, Mercury, and Chrysler.  Owners of vehicles from Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Buick, Chevrolet, Geo, and Lincoln were about equally likely to be Democrats or Republicans.   The only brand produced by the UAW that is more likely to be owned by Democrats is Saturn.

There are, no doubt, practical reasons for some of those differences.  Democrats are more likely to live in urban areas and less likely to be in large families.  Both would make small cars, which are less likely to be made by UAW members, more attractive to Democrats.  But there is more to it than just practicalities.  Democrats are more likely to see the Europeans (and sometimes the Japanese) as superior to Americans.  (For an unintentionally hilarious example, of that tendency, see this post.)  That often leads Democrats to think that European cars must be better than American cars.  (They aren't.)

Both the practicalities and the prejudices often lead Democrats to choose cars that are not built by UAW members.  These Democrats may not intend to hurt UAW members by those choices, but they do.
- 5:10 PM, 17 December 2008   [link]


Will It Hurt The Democrats?  I did not have time Friday to do a full report on KUOW's Gang of Four show.   But I did listen long enough to hear their discussion of the Blagojevich scandals.

Steve Scher opened the discussion of the scandals with the question I used for the title of this post.  It's an excellent question — if you want to evade a discussion of what Blagojevich did — such as trying to extort money from the head of a children's hospital — or a discussion about what the scandals tell us about politics in Illinois, especially Chicago, the home town of the former junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.  (Incidentally, Obama worked hard to elect Blagojevich in 2002, although he had backed a different candidate in the Democratic primary.)

The question also tells listeners which party Scher supports (almost uncritically).  A Republican partisan would ask whether the scandal would help the Republican party.  By putting it the other way Scher tells us which cheerleader uniform he wears, tells us that his megaphone has a big "D" painted on it.  And knowing which side Scher is on can help clarify matters for listeners — not that many regular listeners can have any doubt about which party he supports.

With that starting question, it is no surprise that the discussion which followed was not very helpful.  Especially for those who wonder just what kind of relationship Obama has had with Blagojevich, and other people in the corrupt Chicago machine.  But that isn't a question that interests many of our "mainstream" journalists, so I am sure the others in the Gang of Four were pleased that Scher found a way to evade it.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Seattle PI columnist Joel Connelly was in the Gang of Four last Friday.  As he so often does, he reminded me of the famous quip about the Bourbons.  Don't know the quip?  Do a search on "Bourbons + learn + forget".)
- 1:59 PM, 17 December 2008   [link]