Archive:

March 2007, Part 2

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



Sea Level Changes:  Al Gore has received criticism from scientists for exaggerating the likely sea level changes from global warming.  He says the seas will rise 20 feet; the UN says about 23 inches.

But, as I was reminded when I was reading the Roadside Geology of Virginia, the earth has seen far larger changes in sea levels than even Al Gore predicts, in recent (by geological standards) times.  For example:
During Pleistocene time, advancing glacial ice on the continents to the north captured water from the world ocean and caused sea level to drop at times as much as 400 feet below its present level.   During interglacial periods, sea level rose as much as 100 feet above its present level building barrier beaches and eroding sea cliffs now preserved as scarps. (pp. 28-29)
With those sea level changes in mind, let me pose two questions:  What is the right sea level for humans?  And is there any reason to believe that the current level is the best for us?   (If you are curious, my own answers to those questions are: "I have no idea," and "Almost certainly not.")

(Here's a review on the Pleistocene, should you need one.  And if you are wondering why I was reading the Roadside Geology of Virginia, it's simply because I found it for sale in a local Half Price Books store.  I plan to collect the whole Roadside Geology series and so when I saw one for sale cheap, I bought it.  And the book on Virginia does have some fascinating material.  I would not have guessed, for instance, that Virginia has only two natural lakes — or that geologists can't explain why one of them exists.

Incidentally, the Pleistocene glacial advances may have small compared to some way back in the pre-Cambrian)
- 9:09 AM, 16 March 2007   [link]


Is The BBC Biased?  Well, yes, it is.  Or at least a part of it is, according to this op-ed.   And what makes the accusation even more interesting is where the op-ed appears — the New York Times.
[The BBC] has been broadcasting in Arabic on the radio for more than 60 years and has a huge audience.
. . .
But the World Service in English is one thing, and the World Service in Arabic is another entirely.   If the BBC's Arabic TV programs resemble its radio programs, then they will be just as anti-Western as anything that comes out of the Gulf, if not more so.  They will serve to increase, rather than to diminish, tensions, hostilities and misunderstandings among nations.

For example, a 50-minute BBC Arabic Service discussion program about torture discussed only one specific allegation, which came from the head of an organization representing some 90 Saudis imprisoned at Guantánamo.  This speaker stated that the prisoners were subject to disgusting and horrible forms of torture and suggested that three inmates reported by the United States to have committed suicide were actually killed.  Another participant insisted that the two countries guilty of torturing political prisoners on the largest scale were Israel and the United States.

At the same time, the authoritarian regimes and armed militants of the Arab world get sympathetic treatment on BBC Arabic.  When Saddam Hussein was in power, he was a great favorite of the service, which reported as straight news his re-election to a seven-year term in 2002, when he got 100 percent of the vote.  President Bashar al-Assad of Syria enjoys similar favor.  When a State Department representative referred to Syria as a dictatorship, his BBC interviewer immediately interrupted and reprimanded him.
Unlike the author of this op-ed, Frank Stewart, I don't have that much respect for the BBC's programs in English.  But it is still horrifying to learn how much worse they are in Arabic.  What the Arabic World Service has been doing, it appears, is broadcasting enemy propaganda.  And they may have been doing it for "more than 60 years".

It may get worse.  As Stewart explains, the BBC is planning to start an Arabic television service.

Whoever has been running the Arabic World Service has some explaining to do — after, of course, he is forced to resign.

(My friends at the Biased BBC should find this op-ed fascinating.)
- 1:45 PM, 15 March 2007   [link]


Are Americans Working Harder Than Ever?  Not unless they are rich, as Steven Landsburg explains.
In 1965, leisure was pretty much equally distributed across classes.  People of the same age, sex, and family size tended to have about the same amount of leisure, regardless of their socioeconomic status.  But since then, two things have happened.  First, leisure (like income) has increased dramatically across the board.  Second, though everyone's a winner, the biggest winners are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
. . .
About 10 percent of us are stuck in 1965, leisurewise.  At the opposite extreme, 10 percent of us have gained a staggering 14 hours a week or more.  (Once again, your gains are measured in comparison to a person who, in 1965, had the same characteristics that you have today.)  By and large, the biggest leisure gains have gone precisely to those with the most stagnant incomes—that is, the least skilled and the least educated.  And conversely, the smallest leisure gains have been concentrated among the most educated, the same group that's had the biggest gains in income.
And even if they are rich, they have about as much leisure as their counterparts did in 1965.

As Landsburg points out, this adds a twist to the arguments about increasing income inequality.   If part of it is caused by the free choices of those with lower incomes, then most Americans would see it as less of a problem.  ( A quick calculation shows how much difference that 14 hours a week could make in incomes.  If a person worked at the federal minimum wage (currently $5.15) for 14 extra hours a week for 50 weeks a year, they would add $3,605.00 to their gross income and more if they are eligible for the earned income tax credit.  But even in the lowest 10 percent, few people receive the federal minimum wage, so most in that group could increase their incomes by significant amounts just by having the same amount of leisure that their 1965 counterparts did.)

As someone who has traded income for time over the last decade, I can say that the choice is often rational.  Working on this site is the most enjoyable job I have ever had.  (And I like to think that it makes a small difference, too.)

By way of the Brothers Judd.

(Why do so many think that we now have less leisure?  Mostly, I suspect, because we tend to forget the bad and remember the good about the past.)
- 8:53 AM, 15 March 2007   [link]


As You Almost Certainly Have Heard, a movie about a battle fought in 480 BC, was a smash hit this last weekend, in spite of mixed and even hostile reviews.

Opinions differ as to why the movie had such a big opening.  Deborah Netburn, of the Los Angeles Times, gives this explanation:
The consensus seems to be that this movie was a success because of its specific and arresting visuals.  "Warner Brothers had this with the 'Matrix' in 1999," said Gray.  "That was another movie that was sold on its unique look."
"David Kahane", a Hollywood writer using a pseudonym, gives this explanation:
Because the dirty little secret is, we used to write these movies all the time.  Impossible odds.  Quixotic causes.  Death before surrender.  Real all-American stuff, in which our heroes stood up for God and country and defending Princess Leia and getting back home to see their wives and children, with their shields or on them.
One says the appeal was pretty pictures, the other says the appeal was an old-fashioned, heroic movie.  I think "Kahane" is probably closer to the truth.  The success of 300 may encourage some Hollywood producers to make some movies that test his theory.  May, because as you can see from the Los Angeles Times article, there are many in Hollywood who don't even want to consider that idea.  (For what it's worth, I plan to see the movie — and I won't be going for the pretty pictures.)

(Fun facts:  Although the movie is named after the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae, there were far more Thespians than Spartans in the force commanded by King Leonidas.  I suppose that 700 + 300, though more accurate, wouldn't be a snappy enough title for a movie.

There is no agreement at all on the number of Persian troops at the battle.  The always sensible Colin McEvedy makes this suggestion in The Penguin Atlas of Ancient History:
It has been suggested that Xerxes took with him half the Empire's total levy of 360,000 men.
That sounds more plausible than most other estimates.)
- 2:01 PM, 14 March 2007   [link]


Eyeglasses On Line:  I spent much of yesterday and this morning learning about buying eyeglasses on line.  When I felt I had learned enough, I took the plunge and ordered a pair.  After I receive them, I'll identify the seller and give you a brief review, but until then all I can say is that the price was certainly reasonable, $62.80 (including shipping) for a pair of photochromic glasses with metal frames.

If you do the same sort of searches I did, you will probably reach this site, run by Ira Mitchell, an enthusiast for online eyeglass purchases.  He appears to know what he is talking about, but I am no expert in these matters.

Some of the commenters at the site think that insurance payments help keep prices for eyeglasses high.  By providing fixed amounts for glasses, as most insurance plans do, they set a floor under prices.  That seems plausible, though I don't know what proportion of the public has insurance that covers glasses, so it is hard even to guess how large an effect insurance payments might have on prices.

(Curious fact:  According to Mitchell, federal law requires optometrists to include pupillary distance in their eyeglass prescriptions, though many leave it out, as the one I consulted on Tuesday did.   Some seem to think these omissions are deliberate, to make it more difficult to fill prescriptions on line.  I suspect most omissions are not deliberate, and that optometrists leave that out because opticians usually make those measurements.)
- 1:06 PM, 14 March 2007
Maybe Too Good A Price:  A few hours after I put in my order, I got a phone call telling me that they were out of that frame model.  Looking at the web site again, I noticed that a very large proportion of their frames were not yet in stock.  So I will cancel that order.

But I haven't given up.  Yesterday, I ordered a pair of prescription sun glasses from another, better known place on the web.  With polycarbonate lenses and shipping they will cost $64.90, and should be here in about ten days.

Incidentally, I decided not to get photochromic lenses after all, since most do not darken when you are behind a car's windshield — and I wanted them partly for driving.
- 7:48 AM, 15 March 2007   [link]


The Costs Of Moving From Virtues To Values:  Almost four years ago, I wrote a post describing two remarkable trends; crime rates fell in Britain (and probably in the United States) during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but rose in both nations during the 20th century.  I argued, somewhat tentatively, that the reversal of the long term decline was caused changes in the culture, or as most would say, changes in our values.

Today, I found this Gertrude Himmelfarb essay making the same general argument, but being more precise about the timing.
Or let us take another "moral statistic": crime.  In England between 1857 and 1901, the rate of indictable offenses (serious offenses, not including simple assault, drunkenness, or vagrancy) declined by almost 50 percent.  The absolute numbers are even more graphic: while the population grew from 19 million to 33 million, the number of serious crimes fell from 92,000 to 81,000.  1857, by the way, was not the peak year; it is simply the year when the most reliable series of statistics starts.  The decline (earlier statistics suggest) actually started in the mid or late 1840s, about the same time as the decline in illegitimacy.

The low crime rate persisted until the mid 1920s, when it started to rise and continued to do so through the war years, levelling off or declining slightly in the early 1950s.  A dramatic rise started in the mid fifties, increasing more than fivefold by 1981 and almost doubling in the following decade.   By 1991 the rate was ten times that of 1955 and forty times that of 1901.  (In 1955, the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer remarked upon the extraordinary degree of civility exhibited in England, where "football crowds are as orderly as church meetings."  Within a few years, those games had become notorious as the scene of mayhem and riots.)

National crime statistics for the United States start only in 1960, but local statistics suggest that, as in England, the decrease of crime began in the latter half of the nineteenth century and, except for a few years following the Civil War, continued into the early twentieth century.  A rapid increase started in 1960, the rate doubling within the decade and tripling by 1980.  A decline in the early 1980s was followed by another rise, bringing the 1992 rate to a level somewhat lower than its peak in 1980.  The rate of violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) followed a similar pattern, except that the increase after 1985 was more precipitous and continued until 1992, making for an almost fivefold rise from 1960.
In the rest of the essay — which you should read in its entirety — Himmelfarb argues that we may have something to learn from our Victorian ancestors, that they may have been right to put virtue at the center of society.  That idea has been unfashionable for more than a century, but not because it is unsupported by the data.

(Himmelfarb essay by way of Laban Tall.)
- 4:25 PM, 13 March 2007   [link]


Postal Votes And Postal Workers:  I have no idea whether these charges are true.
A Shropshire MP has said he has been told that Labour Party councillors who work at his local sorting office are "manipulating postal votes".

Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, told the Commons he was concerned by the allegations but had not contacted police.
But they do point to a weakness in any ballot system that uses mailed ballots.  Inevitably, postal workers become de facto election officials — without any of the controls that we usually require for election officials.  There are many ways in which a single postal worker could change the results of an election, with very little risk of being caught.  (I won't discuss them here because I don't want to give tips to crooks, but I am sure you can think of some, without much effort.)

(There are a few more details on the allegations in this local newspaper story.)
- 9:46 AM, 13 March 2007   [link]


AL Gore Wasn't A Very Good Science Student In College:  And he still isn't a very good science student.  Who says so?  Scientists.
Hollywood has a thing for Al Gore and his three-alarm film on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," which won an Academy Award for best documentary.  So do many environmentalists, who praise him as a visionary, and many scientists, who laud him for raising public awareness of climate change.

But part of his scientific audience is uneasy.  In talks, articles and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Mr. Gore's central points are exaggerated and erroneous.  They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism.
Including many scientists who support his cause.

Given Gore's exaggerations and errors, should his movie be shown in science classes?  Not without presenting alternative views.  And not without telling the students that the movie contains errors.

(Some have recommended a British documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, for such an alternative.  I haven't seen it and may not, since I don't think movies are the best way to understand this issue.  If you do see it, you should know that one of the scientists quoted in the movie has said that it misrepresented his views.

For those who want a brief alternative, I can recommend this op-ed by Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT.

As always, when I discuss global warming, I urge you to read my disclaimer, if you have not already done so.)
- 8:09 AM, 13 March 2007   [link]


Death Threats!  The debate over climate change is, shall we say, heating up.
Scientists who questioned mankind's impact on climate change have received death threats and claim to have been shunned by the scientific community.

They say the debate on global warming has been "hijacked" by a powerful alliance of politicians, scientists and environmentalists who have stifled all questioning about the true environmental impact of carbon dioxide emissions.

Timothy Ball, a former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg in Canada, has received five deaths threats by email since raising concerns about the degree to which man was affecting climate change.
It seems a little foolish to say that death threats are an inappropriate way to conduct a scientific debate, but apparently it has to be said.

(As always when I mention global warming, I urge you to read my disclaimer, if you have not already done so.  As you can see from the disclaimer, my own views are moderate enough (or, if you prefer, wishy-washy enough) so that I will not be the source of angry letters to either side.)
- 2:05 PM, 12 March 2007   [link]


Worth Reading:  Robert Kagan asks about backup plans.
A front-page story in The Post last week suggested that the Bush administration has no backup plan in case the surge in Iraq doesn't work.  I wonder if The Post and other newspapers have a backup plan in case it does.

Leading journalists have been reporting for some time that the war was hopeless, a fiasco that could not be salvaged by more troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy.  The conventional wisdom in December held that sending more troops was politically impossible after the antiwar tenor of the midterm elections.  It was practically impossible because the extra troops didn't exist.   Even if the troops did exist, they could not make a difference.

Four months later, the once insurmountable political opposition has been surmounted.  The nonexistent troops are flowing into Iraq.  And though it is still early and horrible acts of violence continue, there is substantial evidence that the new counterinsurgency strategy, backed by the infusion of new forces, is having a significant effect.
As regular readers know, I have long argued that it is obvious that we can win in Iraq — if we want to.  That so many American journalists do not understand that, do not even want to do the simple toting up of force strengths that would demonstrate that we can win, is, to say the least, discouraging.

It's discouraging for two reasons.  First, it shows widespread intellectual failure.  It is absurd to claim that the United States can not defeat approximately 50,000 terrorists, especially when we have the support of a large fraction of the Iraqi population.  In fact, we have the capacity to win a dozen such conflicts, simultaneously.  To argue otherwise is to show a willful ignorance of the facts, and of centuries of military experience.

Second, and far more important, it is discouraging because it has hampered our efforts to win, in large ways and small.

(Some American journalist have become so invested in defeat that I fear for their mental health if we win.  If the surge continues to succeed, I would not be surprised to see, for instance, stories on columnists and editors at the New York Times getting psychiatric counseling, or even stories on them resigning to pursue other work.  And I am not joking when I say that.)
- 1:42 PM, 12 March 2007   [link]


"A Bit Of Doubt":  While sorting through old newspapers, I found a New York Times $article from August, 2005, describing the Palestinian plans for Gaza, after the Israeli pullout.  Here are the second and third paragraphs:
Looking ahead 10 years after the Israeli departure from the Gaza Strip, the picture this isolated, conflict-blown strip of sand transformed into a tidy place linked internally by light rail and a coastal parkway and connected to the world by an airport and seaport.

Such is the outline sketched in an internal 10-year plan for the strip, obtained by The New York Times.  The plan assumes the population will grow by one million to 2.3 million. &nbp;It also assumes that the violence will not resume, that Israel will let Palestine planes take off and that the governing Palestinian Authority will develop the land competently.
As the article goes on to say: "No one is more wary of such assumptions than the Palestinians themselves."

And, if anything, they were not wary enough.  But everyone, at least everyone official, went ahead and pretended that such plans made sense, anyway.

But the plans never made sense for a simple reason:  Arafat, and the rest of his gang so inculcated young Palestinians with a desire for war with Israel (or with other Palestinian factions) that no plan that assumes peace had any chance of success.  That should have been evident in August, 2005.  It should be even more evident now, considering the terrible conditions in the Palestinian territories, described in another New York Times article, this one published today.  The reporter, Stephen Erlanger, obviously sympathizes with the Palestinians, as do so many others.  But that sympathy prevents him — and many others — from seeing that the Palestinians must change their ways if they want better lives.  They can not simultaneously expect to war on a much a stronger power (and with each other) and have the rewards of peace.

The world would do the Palestinians a great favor by telling them that.

(What would be the best solution for the Palestinian problem?  By now, there is no good solution, but the best practical one is probably for them to give up their goal of an independent state.   Some, in the West Bank, could become citizens of Jordan; others should be re-settled, after they are re-educated, politically.  They have to be taught not to hate, or at least not to act on their hate.

How many Palestinians would leave if they had a chance?  Many.
According to Nader Said's polls for Birzeit University, 35 percent of Palestinians over the age of 18 want to emigrate.  Nearly 50 percent of those between 18 and 30 would leave if they could, said Mr. Said.
Those percentages are, almost certainly, underestimates of the true numbers, since Palestinians who say they want to leave might face reprisals.)
- 10:49 AM, 12 March 2007   [link]


Michael Barone Comes To The Same Conclusions About Sandy Berger's Crimes As I Did:  And then goes a step farther.
The first of these criminal proceedings, not much noticed, was the plea bargain of former national security adviser Sandy Berger for removing classified documents from the National Archives, where he had been reviewing them under the authorization of Bill Clinton in preparation for testimony about 9/11.  What he admitted to doing, after first denying it, is extraordinary.  On multiple occasions he removed documents from the room where he was reading them, concealed them in his pants and socks, hid them at a construction site outside the building, took them home, and, in some cases, destroyed them.

No copies.  Some of these documents may have been unique and may have contained handwritten comments that could have looked bad in light of what happened on September 11.  I have known Berger for more than 30 years and find it unlikely that he would have done something like this on his own.  Did Bill Clinton ask him to destroy documents that would make him look bad in history?   I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I ask that question.  But this or something very much like it seems to be the only explanation that makes sense.
I don't know Sandy Berger, so I can't make a judgment about Clinton's part, if any, in Berger's crimes.  But as for the rest, I have to agree.  The most plausible explanation of Berger's actions is that he destroyed some documents.

There's more in Barone's column, which begins with some thoughts on who writes history and goes from there to a comparison of the Berger and Libby cases.

(Here's my most recent (and most damning) post on Sandy Berger.  Note the dubious part played by prosecutor Noel Hillman, whom I will have more to say about soon.)
- 6:42 AM, 12 March 2007   [link]


Here's A Curious Bit Of History:  Near the end of this long article on boxers at the Naval Academy is this bit:
"Jim Webb had a problem.  His problem was Ollie North," Robert Timberg wrote in The Nightingale's Song.  "It was March 1967 and North stood between Webb and the 145-pound Brigade boxing championship he had coveted for nearly three years."

The fight went the distance, and North won by a unanimous decision.  Webb reportedly complained that North was given preferential treatment by boxing coaches leading up to the bout.
He's Senator Jim Webb now; unlike Ollie North, he was able (with enormous help from the Washington Post) to convince the voters of Virginia to put him in that office.

If the article is correct, Webb held a grudge about losing the fight for decades.  (And may still hold a grudge.)  That he held that grudge so long may say something about the character of the junior senator from Virginia.
- 6:06 AM, 12 March 2007   [link]


Kayaks At Sunset:  The picture was taken late last December.  That's Seattle in the background, as you may have guessed.

Kayaks at sunset


(Incidentally, I might have gotten a better picture if I had shot in burst mode.  You can't tell for certain where a digital camera will stop the motion — at least without a lot of practice — so it would have been better to have shot a series of shots, hoping to catch the paddles in better positions.  Eventually, I'll buy a digital SLR, which will get rid of the shutter lag, and make such shots easier.)
- 3:46 PM, 10 March 2007   [link]


Thanks To NYT Columnist Paul Krugman For Reminding Us About A Basic Fact Of American Politics:  In his most recent $column, Krugman provides data supporting an old generalization:  Democratic politicians are more likely to be crooks than Republican politicians.
Donald Shields and John Cragan, two professors of communication, have compiled a database of investigations of candidates and elected officials by U.S. attorneys since the Bush administration came to power.   Of the 375 cases they identified, 10 involved independents, 67 involved Republicans, and 298 involved Democrats.  The main source of this partisan tilt was a huge disparity in investigations of local politicians, in which Democrats were seven times as likely as Republicans to face Justice department scrutiny.
I think any honest student of American politics would say that that's about the right disparity; local Democratic politicians are about seven times more likely to be crooks than local Republican politicians.  There are many reasons for the disparity, but the fact of the disparity is well known.  And very old.  Though the Republicans have had crooks in their ranks since the founding of the party, the Democrats have had many more during that same period of time.

The disparity should not surprise anyone who lives in New Jersey, as Paul Krugman does.  That state is famous for its corrupt politicians, almost all of them Democrats.  For example, former senator Bob Toricelli.  For example, former governor Jim McGreevey.  And a real student of New Jersey politics could add hundreds more names.

This disparity should give us more confidence in our current Justice Department.  Apparently, prosecutors there are not letting Democrats off just to create an appearance of bipartisanship.

(Minor technical point: One reason there are more Democratic crooks than Republican crooks is that, for most of the 20th century, Democratic officials heavily outnumbered Republican officials, and were more likely to hold offices where they could steal.)
- 2:47 PM, 10 March 2007   [link]


Worth Reading:  George Will tackles traffic congestion.
It is perverse: In today's information-intensive economy, the costs of information often approach zero and the speed at which it moves approaches instantaneousness.  But the speed that many users of information travel to where they use it to produce goods and services is slowing, and the costs of this are rising.
What is bizarre is that this congestion is the result of deliberate policy changes made (mostly) by our state and local governments.  They have chosen not to meet highway needs by building new highways, and in other ways have made it harder for those who want to, or need to, drive.

Washington state is a good example.  In the last twenty some years, the population here has increased by about fifty percent, but the state has built approximately zero new miles of roads during the same period.  (Not entirely coincidentally, we have had only Democratic governors since the election of 1984.)  The state (along with our local governments) has spent large sums trying to get people to take buses and (in the future) light rail, with little success.

The costs from these policies, here in Washington state, and elsewhere in the United States, are considerable.  And the solutions are, mostly, obvious, and have been for some time.  Read the whole column if you haven't seen these solutions in your local newspaper.

(Many citizens are willing to support money for buses and light rail, in the hope that other people will use them and get off the roads.  Unfortunately, the other people are almost all making the same calculation.  One result, in my area, is the many empty, or almost empty, buses on the roads, adding to the traffic problems, rather helping solve them.)
- 12:51 PM, 10 March 2007   [link]


Imagine The Reaction If President Bush had proposed this.
The biggest clampdown on the freedom of cyber-speech so far occurred this week in France.  The French Constitutional Council approved a broadly worded law banning mere citizens from filming acts of violence and broadcasting them on the net.
. . .
The law was first proposed by presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy in a dubious attempt to crackdown on 'happy slapping' — the teenage prank where one person slaps a complete stranger and a giggling sidekick films the outraged response.
But as written, the law may also suppress much desirable citizen journalism.  As is so often true when people try to limit freedom of speech, they aim at unpleasant examples, but hit much more.
- 10:52 AM, 9 March 2007   [link]