Archive:

September 2014, Part 4

Jim Miller on Politics




Pseudo-Random Thoughts



An Amateur Scientist captures pictures of thunderstorm "sprites".
LAMY, N.M. — Every summer evening at 7 o’clock, Thomas Ashcraft receives a personalized weather report.  It is monsoon season, and he is getting advice from a meteorologist in Colorado on where to look for the massive thunderstorms that erupt over the western High Plains.

Armed with sensitive cameras and radio telescopes, Mr. Ashcraft hunts for sprites — majestic emanations of light that flash for an instant high above the thunderheads, appearing in the shapes of red glowing jellyfish, carrots, angels, broccoli, or mandrake roots with blue dangly tendrils.  (Weather buffs call the tall, skinny ones “diet sprites.”)  No two are alike.

And they are huge — tens of miles wide and 30 miles from top to bottom.  But because they appear and vanish in a split-second, the naked eye tends to perceive them only as momentary flashes of light.  It takes a high-speed camera to capture them in detail.
A very high-speed camera, the right location, and much patience.

The Times has one explanation for those thunderstorm sprites.
Since their discovery, some basic questions have been answered.  Not all thunderstorms produce sprites, but those that do feature a type of lightning that carries a positive charge — which, for reasons still not understood, tends to be more powerful than negatively charged bolts.

When positive lightning drops vast amounts of electrical charge to the ground, the electric field in the thin upper atmosphere simultaneously increases and, within thousandths of a second, breaks down to form a huge spark — a sprite — some 45 miles high.

The sprite then generates house-size balls of ionization, called streamers, that speed downward, then upward, at 10 percent the speed of light, exciting nitrogen molecules that glow blue or red depending on pressures at different altitudes
Wikipedia has another.
Sprites are sometimes inaccurately called upper-atmospheric lightning.  However, sprites are cold plasma phenomena that lack the hot channel temperatures of tropospheric lightning, so they are more akin to fluorescent tube discharges than to lightning discharges.
And I am not sure I really understand either — or that the people who wrote them did, completely.

But the sprites are fun to look at whether you understand them, or not.
- 2:23 PM, 30 September 2014   [link]


Author Stephen King Is Most Famous For His Horror Stories:   Which might explain this quote about Obama: "Under the circumstances he's done a terrific job."

If you are looking for new ideas for horror stories, you can find many in the Obama administration.
- 8:11 AM, 30 September 2014   [link]


Google Gave One Of My Favorite Sites their Good Housekeeping seal of approval, so the owner of the site moved it.

(I don't know who complained, or why.  The site often has posts describing Muslim misdeeds, and has more copyrighted material than most sites.  I suspect the first is the reason for the complaints, but it could be the second, or some other reason.)
- 6:19 AM, 30 September 2014   [link]


How Big Will The Republican House Majority Be After November?  Possibly the largest in 86 years, the largest since the 1928 election when they won 270 seats.
The Rothenberg Report moved eight more seats toward the Republicans. In total, it has 229 seats that Republicans are likely to win to the Democrats' 190.  The Cook Political Report, which does similar assessments, puts the Republican number in the same place, but figures 187 seats are pretty safe to give to Democrats.  That means that Rothenberg sees Republicans holding 229 to 245 seats; Cook sees it as 229 to 248.  The Post's projection tool figures Republicans will hold 244 seats at this point.
By way of comparison, the Republicans held 242 of 435 seats after the 2010 election, and 234 seats after the 2012 election.

Because of the extensive redistricting — or, if you prefer, gerrymandering — after the 2010 election, it's hard to make a straightforward votes-to-seats projection.  Having said that, I'll note that, excluding this week's Rasmussen result (which I am inclined to do), the Republicans have led in every generic poll in September, and, if anything, their lead appears to be growing.

In 2010, their popular vote margin was 6.8 percent.  If they were to do that well this year, I would expect them to do even better in seats.

(In recent years, I've seen a number of odd results from Rasmussen, so I have used them less.)
- 6:02 AM, 30 September 2014   [link]


Those Gambian Pouched Rats Are Continuing to detect land mines (and tuberculosis).
[APOPO's Bart] Weetjens' rodents have many talents.  Mostly, though, they are highly trained to sniff out land mines and detect tuberculosis -- two scourges that have had a tremendously negative impact across the African continent.

And his rats are fast.  A single rat can clear 200 square feet in an hour (done manually, the same area would take 50 hours to clear).  A TB-detection rat can evaluate 50 samples in eight minutes (almost a day's work for a lab technician).
I first wrote about these "rats" in 2010, reacting to (and correcting) a Nicholas Kristof column.

Then and now they seem like efficient solutions to at least two serious problems.  And perhaps others, where their superb sense of smell might be useful.

(I said "rats", because, technically, they are not rats, but belong to a different rodent family.  However, like rats, they can carry diseases, and they have attacked and killed babies.

You probably already guessed that APOPO stands for "Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling" (Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development), but I'll mention it just in case.

Here's their web site.)
- 8:24 AM, 29 September 2014   [link]


Americans Are Easier To Fool Than They Were A Generation Ago:  So says Peter Funt, a man who makes his living fooling Americans.
I spent the summer producing new “Candid Camera” shows, and among the many things I observed after a 10-year hiatus was that people are more easily fooled than ever.

That may seem counterintuitive, but I’m certain it’s true.  Much has to do with multitasking.  When my dad, Allen Funt, introduced the show over six decades ago, he had to work at distracting people.  Nowadays they do it to themselves.
But then Funt backs off, a little:
I don’t necessarily believe 21st-century Americans are more gullible, but they tend to give that impression by protesting life’s little insults without taking time to fully digest the situation.
I don't have any data, or even a strong opinion, on whether we are now more gullible than we were fifty years ago.

But it wouldn't surprise me if we were.  During World War II and the early part of the Cold War, Americans were told, frequently, about enemy propaganda, were told we should be skeptical about what we hear and see.

That may — and here I am just speculating — have made us more skeptical, generally.

(Two examples to think about if you want to take this further:  In 1960, most Americans were badly fooled about the state of John F. Kennedy's health; he was a semi-invalid, but few knew that.  In 2008, many Americans were badly fooled by Barack Obama's campaign into thinking that he was prepared to be president, and that he would be a uniter.  Contradictory information was far more available in 2008 than in 1960, but many Americans were fooled, anyway.)
- 6:23 AM, 29 September 2014   [link]


Obama Goes "Big" In Syria:  This Washington Post article is unintentionally — I assume — comical.

The headline is: "Here’s why the U.S. military went big in Syria on a single day".  As you read through the article, you'll see "heavy bombardment", "large-scale action", and "overwhelming use of force" used to describe the initial attacks on terrorists in Syria.

Comical because of what actually happened.
There were 22 military strikes in all, involving not only aircraft from the United States and partner nations, but 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles delivered from Navy ships in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.
It's a little unfair, but for comparison here's something from near the end of World War II in Europe.
But the Allied conquest intensified and accelerated.  Eleven thousand daily air sorties contributed to what SHAEF called a "systematic annihilation of the German armed forces."  March [1945] proved the heaviest bombing month of the war: 130,000 tons. (p. 567)
(SHAEF = Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force.)

That strikes me as better fitting the adjectives in that Post story.

So why did reporter Dan Lamothe use them for what was, at most, a medium-scale action?  It's just a guess, but since Lamothe starts by reminding us that President Obama promised tough action against the terrorists, I suspect Lamothe felt that he should describe the attacks as "large-scale".

(For the record:  Twenty-two may have been the right number of attacks.  To judge that, you would have to know how much our military knows about where the terrorists are — something I hope is mostly secret.)
- 5:18 PM, 28 September 2014   [link]


The Green Movement Is Now Essentially Religious:  Here's a striking example that may startle those who remember the old Episcopalian Church.
Naturally there was a religious auxiliary to the Global Warming jamboree in the form of the Interfaith Summit on Climate Change, sponsored by the World Council of Churches, among others.  And of course it included earth-friendly worship at the flamboyant Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, whose theologically provocative services some critics have labeled earth worship.

Those critics would have found vindication at the cathedral on Sunday, where “The Religions of the Earth Multi-faith Service” paid homage to Mother Earth by asking worshippers to pile stones on the altar to confirm their climate commitment.  Over a thousand concerned religious activists filled the pews, praying for and at times seemingly to the earth, beneath two giant sculptures of feathered phoenixes that soared overhead in the huge gothic worship space.
This is not unusual for this particular church, which for years has "hosted highly non-traditional rites often focused on earth veneration that verge on pantheism".

The writer, Mark Tooley, may be too kind.  Judging by his description of the service, the church is now openly pantheistic.
- 11:16 AM, 28 September 2014   [link]


An Encouraging Trend For Republicans In Colorado:  Nate Silver notices a pattern in the polls for the Senate race.
Just 10 days ago, Democrats had been benefiting from a string of good polls in Colorado.   Since then, the Democratic incumbent in Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall, has seen his situation worsen, with the past five polls showing a lead for Republican Cory Gardner instead.
Gardner is a talented and experienced politician, and a good fit for Colorado.  I have been half expecting him to take the lead, and so these new polls are no surprise to me.  Right now, I would make him the favorite, but not the prohibitive favorite.

Here's a graph of all the polls in the race.

(One way to spot bias in newspaper articles is to note the point of view of the reporter.  You can see that in Silver's headline, which I turned around, just for fun.  It is possible to report these trends in a neutral way, but it requires some discipline, and a commitment to even-handed reporting.)
- 10:12 AM, 27 September 2014   [link]


The Extraordinary Resilience Of Islam In Algeria:  The French began their conquest of Algeria in 1830, had mostly completed it by 1845, and held Algeria until 1962.  They encouraged Europeans to settle there, and many did, so that even in 1962 a large fraction of the population was of European descent (mostly French, Spanish, and Italian), and at least formally Christian.

In 1848, Algeria was incorporated into France, and divided into three departments.   But that, and a variety of policies afterwards, had surprisingly little effect on the majority of the Arab-speaking, Islamic inhabitants.

The Scottish historian, D. W. Brogan, writing in the 1950s, gives us a succinct description of that extraordinary resilience.
Algeria and Tunisia were completely subdued and the fiction that Algeria was a 'part of France' was given some plausibility by its economic assimilation, by the rapid growth of French colonization, by the development of the not very abundant resources of the three departments.  Much of the authority of the Governor-General had been restored,  Algeria was France — but with an admitted difference.  The great majority of the population were French subjects, not French citizens, cut off from France — and the modern world — by Islam.  As the great French Arabist, Gautier, was to point out, it was significant that after nearly a century of conquest and settlement, there were no half-castes.  Arabs, in very small numbers, could enter the French ruling class, but only by abandoning Islam, which was not so much a religion as a way of life. (p. 232)
He's describing the situation during the French Third Republic, but what he says about the separation of the populations continued to be generally true during Fourth Republic.

The point about "half-castes" deserves some explanation.  When a people is conquered, there are two nearly universal reactions.  Those oppressed by the old rulers often join the new, and at least a few local leaders attempt to join the new rulers by offering their daughters in marriage.  The first happened, to some extent, in Algeria; the second happened not at all.  Islam forbade such marriages and was strong enough to prevent almost all of them.  (Muslim men can marry non-Muslim women, but not the reverse.)

The usual marital assimilation that takes place after a conquest didn't happen, in spite of all the advantages it would have given those local leaders.

We should, I think, learn from that extraordinary resilience.  Many, perhaps most, Muslims in the West will never truly assimilate, will never join the societies they now live in.   Secular leaders, especially those who did not grow up in religious families, will find that hard to understand, will find it hard to accept the rejection of their beliefs and values by these growing Muslim populations.

(For an American example of that kind of marital assimilation, look at Pocahontas.)
- 9:30 AM, 27 September 2014   [link]


Three Reactions To The Holder Resignation:  From the Washington Post, a mostly positive editorial.
Like everyone, we’ve had disappointments with Mr. Holder’s record, and we don’t presume to predict how history will rank his tenure.  But amid all the noise, we think it’s important to note the substantial contribution he has made in a core element of an attorney general’s job, the protection of civil rights.  His passion for that responsibility expressed itself especially in four areas: defending all Americans’ right to vote; making sentencing and other aspects of the criminal justice system fairer and more color-blind; protecting immigrants from undue harassment; and hastening full equality for gay and lesbian Americans.
From Hans von Spakovsky, a seven-count indictment, including this one:
2. Holder has waged a war on election integrity and “racialized and radicalized the [Civil Rights] Division to the point of corruption” according to one current Justice employee, embedding “politically leftist extremists in the career ranks who have an agenda that does not comport with equal protection or the rule of law; who believe that the ends justify the means; and who behave unprofessionally and unethically.”
(Those who want more along those lines, and some evidence, should be able to find both in this book.)

You'll notice that the Post and von Spakovsky are describing the same Holder actions, though one approves, and the other disapproves.  Mostly, that's because the two have such different pictures of the world; the Post — in my opinion — is stuck back in the 1960s, and von Spakovsky is in the present.

Finally, from Michael Ramirez, a cartoon that could illustrate that indictment.
- 8:09 AM, 27 September 2014   [link]


The Marc Rich Pardon Should Have Disqualified Eric Holder From Ever Holding Another Position In Government:  If you are unfamiliar with the pardon , or just need a review, here's a good one.
Finally, in 2000, he [Rich] saw some return on his efforts.  Eric Holder was the key man.   As deputy AG, Holder was in charge of advising the president on the merits of various petitions for pardon. Jack Quinn, a lawyer for Rich, approached Holder about clemency for his client.   Quinn was a confidant of Al Gore, then a candidate for president; Holder had ambitions of being named attorney general in a Gore administration.  A report from the House Committee on Government Reform on the Rich debacle later concluded that Holder must have decided that cooperating in the Rich matter could pay dividends later on.

Rich was an active fugitive, a man who had used his money to evade the law, and presidents do not generally pardon people like that.  What’s more, the Justice Department opposed the pardon—or would’ve, if it had known about it.  But Holder and Quinn did an end-around, bringing the pardon to Clinton directly and avoiding any chance that Justice colleagues might give negative input.  As the House Government Reform Committee report later put it, “Holder failed to inform the prosecutors under him that the Rich pardon was under consideration, despite the fact that he was aware of the pardon effort for almost two months before it was granted.”
(The $450,000 contribution Rich's ex-wife, Denise Rich, gave to the Clinton library was, almost everyone suspects, one of those "efforts", one of those legal bribes.)

The Rich pardon was one of whole set of dubious Clinton pardons, many of them made on his last day in office.  Holder was involved in many of those other dubious pardons, too.
- 9:43 AM, 26 September 2014   [link]


Another Republican Governor In Massachusetts?  Massachusetts is a very Democratic state.  Democrats have controlled both houses of the legislature approximately forever, and control them by large margins (36-4 and 131-29) now.  In 2012, President Obama beat Mitt Romney in one of his home states, 61-38.  Just 11 percent of voters are registered as Republicans.

And yet four of the last five governors have been Republican: William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Jane Swift, and Mitt Romney.

Weld won in 1990 and 1994, Cellucci won one in 1998, and Romney won in 2002.  That would be an impressive party winning streak in a swing state; it is far more impressive in Massachusetts.

The streak was broken by Deval Patrick, who won in 2006 and 2010.

But now the Republican candidate for governor has taken the lead in the latest poll.
Could Martha Coakley lose again?

Massachusetts' attorney general -- who lost a special U.S. Senate election to Republican Scott Brown in 2010 -- has been favored to become the next Bay State governor.  But a recent poll from the Boston Globe shows her opponent inching ahead just a few weeks from Election Day.

Republican Charlie Baker takes 40 percent of the vote to Coakley’s 38 percent in the Globe survey, which last week showed the Democrat ahead by three percentage points.  Among respondents who are “definitely” voting, Baker leads by 41 percent to 37 percent.
The sample size is small, just 400 likely voters, but recent history tells us we should not be surprised by a Republican victory in November.

It is natural to ask why Republicans have been so successful winning the top office in such a Democratic state.  I don't claim to have a full answer, but two reasons seem obvious.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party has serious problems with corruption; it seems appropriate, for example, that one of the top Democrats, Billy Bulger, is the brother of an infamous gangster, Whitey Bulger.

And then there is the fact that, although Democrats outnumber Republicans heavily, independents outnumber both.  The 2014 Almanac of American Politics has these numbers: Democrats - 1,551,693 (35.7%), Republicans - 484,099 (11.2%), and independents/others - 2,307,049 (53.1%).  So, at least in principle, more than half of the voters say they are willing to vote for either party.

(Even from across the continent, I have been able to see that Coakley is not an impressive campaigner, which makes a Baker victory more likely.)
- 7:40 AM, 26 September 2014   [link]


The Trabant Article In Today's Wall Street Journal Was Disappointing:  Oh, it was interesting to learn that the last models of this polluting little car can now be imported into the United States.
"I can't decide if this car is more of a chick magnet or an old East European guy magnet," said Andy Burzynski as he maneuvered his lime green 1985 Trabant through midtown Manhattan traffic.

Based on the onlookers who waved and grinned on the journey from Queens, where the 48-year-old engineer lives, it is decidedly the latter.  The only exception was a beaming blonde who walked over while he was stopped in traffic on 52nd Street to say she had grown up with Trabants in the former East Germany.
. . .
As Mr. Burzynski and other enthusiasts know, 25 years also is the age that allows cars that fall short of safety and emissions regulations to be imported as antiques—a must in the Trabant's case.  That means that the last Trabant models, 23 or 24 years old, should soon arrive on U.S. shores.
And mildly interesting to learn about the people who collect them.

But the article only included one of the classic jokes:
Some residents of the former Eastern Bloc are shocked to hear that cars are now collector's items.  Scores of them were simply abandoned by the roadside in West Berlin.  A joke at the time was: "How do you double the value of a Trabant? By filling it with gas."
So, I went out and quickly found this collection.   (And was charmed to see that they mis-spelled brakes, which, somehow, seems appropriate.)

(Need a few more jokes from the Cold War era?  You can find some, in of all places, a Wikipedia article.

And , if you are curious about the car, here's another Wikipedia article.)
- 12:54 PM, 25 September 2014   [link]


California Billionaire Tom Steyer Is Trying To Buy the Washington state legislature.
Environmental activist and California billionaire Tom Steyer has given $1 million to a political action committee that supports Washington state Democrats in an effort to influence climate change initiatives here.

Steyer, who pledged $100 million to help elect pro-environmental candidates, gave $1 million to the Washington arm of the NextGen Climate Action group, according to public documents.   Some of that money has already been sent to the Kennedy Fund, a group that backs Washington Democrats, according to the Seattle Times.

The idea is to help get more Democrats elected to the Washington state Senate so Gov. Jay Inslee, one of Steyer's political allies, can push through his climate change bill.  Republicans currently control the Senate.
Steyer has tried to keep a low profile here, but it's hard to hide that big a contribution in a state this size.

Last year, Steyer was a big contributor to the effort to hold a state senate seat for the Democrats.   The Democrat, Nathan Schlicher, lost to the Republican, Jan Angel, in what I thought was a fair contest.  (Schlicher was the incumbent, but had been appointed to the seat; Angel had represented the district in the Washington house for some years.  Both have impressive resumés, though in very different ways.  From what I could tell from a distance, both are reasonably competent campaigners.)

There aren't any useful polls, but I am inclined to think that he will fail again.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Republicans make small gains.
- 8:31 AM, 25 September 2014   [link]


The Following To The Bathroom Will Draw The Most Attention to this Chris Cillizza article, but the article also summarizes, in a useful way, the strained relations between the Clintons and the national media.

Let's start, since Cillizza did, with that bathroom visit.
Amy Chozick is the reporter tasked with covering the Clintons -- and the runup to the now-almost-inevitable Hillary Clinton presidential bid -- for the New York Times.  Sounds like a plum gig, right?  Until, that is, a press aide for the Clinton Global Initiative follows you into the bathroom.
Having gotten that out of the way, let's go to the Clintons' view of the media (which may explain that extreme monitoring).
Put simply: Neither Hillary nor Bill Clinton likes the media or, increasingly, sees any positive use for them.

“If a policymaker is a political leader and is covered primarily by the political press, there is a craving that borders on addictive to have a storyline," Bill Clinton said in a speech at Georgetown University back in April.  "And then once people settle on the storyline, there is a craving that borders on blindness to shoehorn every fact, every development, every thing that happens into the story line, even if it’s not the story.”

That view, according to a terrific story by Politico's Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman over the summer, informs and impacts the Clintons' thinking on a 2016 bid.  Write the duo: "As much as anything else, her ambivalence about the race, [Clinton sources] told us, reflects her distaste for and apprehension of a rapacious, shallow and sometimes outright sexist national political press corps acting as enablers for her enemies on the right."
I agree with that Bill Clinton observation, and am amused by how similar Hillary Clinton's view of the media is to that held by many conservatives.

There's more in the article; Cillizza explains why and how relations between Obama and the media deteriorated, and mentions the extraordinarily favorable treatment that John McCain used to receive from the media.

And there is one quite striking omission:  Cillizza does not even mention either president Bush, not even to compare their relations with the media to how the media treats the Clintons and the Obamas.

You can make your own guess about why Cillizza left out those natural comparisons.

(Younger readers may need to know that some "mainstream" reporters were quite aggressive in investigating the Clintons, especially in the early years of his presidency.  The Whitewater scandal is probably the best example of those kinds of investigations.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia article leaves out one of the most troubling aspects of the Whitewater development:  Customers did not acquire equity as they made their payments, as you would with an ordinary mortgage.  A customer could make every payment except the last, and lose everything.  Something like that, or very close to that, did happen to some families.  That kind of contract was then illegal in almost every other state, but was legal in Arkansas.)
- 7:03 AM, 25 September 2014   [link]