December 2006, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

The Pumice Desert:  Some readers may think that when I call my tours of Pacific Northwest volcanoes "disaster area" tours I am joking.  But, as beautiful as the volcanoes can be, they are, in fact, disaster areas.  Consider, for example, the pumice desert on the north side of Crater Lake.

pumice desert

(That's Mt. Thielsen, another Oregon volcano, in the background.)

The eruption that created Crater Lake occurred about 7,700 years ago, and vegetation has still not come back in some areas.  Fairly extensive areas, as you can see in this picture from Google Earth.

Crater Lake from Google

(The light colored splotch in the top middle is the pumice desert shown in the picture above.)

Almost eight millennia have passed, and the area is still recovering.

(I stayed at Diamond Lake for two nights while I was visiting Crater Lake.  The lake is beautiful, and the campground is pleasant, with good facilities.  It even has hot showers, something I appreciate more now than I once did.  (The campground was marred slightly, while I was there, by a few dead tui chub on the shore.  I had visited just after the US Fish and Wildlife Service had wiped out all the fish in the lake in order to get rid of these interlopers.  They had collected most of the dead chub, but not all of them.)

You can find the earlier posts from my 2006 disaster area tour here, here, here, here, here, and here.

You can find the last post from the 2005 disaster area tour, with links to all the other 2005 disaster tour posts, here.
- 2:20 PM, 8 December 2006   [link]

Facts Don't Matter:  Talking points do for Philadelphia Daily News senior writer Will Bunch.   When I saw that claim in Taranto's Best of the Web I was skeptical, so I found Bunch's post and read it, several times, along with a number of other posts at his blog.   Here are the key passages in the post:
Now comes the flap over a mosque attack in Baghdad, and a dispute over the news account -- trumpted on this Daily News front page at top -- that six Sunni worshippers were burned alive.  This Huffington Post post does a good job of breaking down the mixed signals on whether this event really happened as reported by the AP.  It's clear to me that a) The AP based its article on information from a trusted and previously reliable source, which is no guarantee of avoiding an error but is also the proven and accepted way all over the world that journalists gather news and b) even if the report were wrong, and I'm not convinced that it is, it was in the context of horrific -- and demonstrably true -- escalating violence in Baghdad.
. . .
In fact, it's almost not worth swatting at these gnats from the 101st Fighting Keyboard Commandos.   I'd rather just concede, and let them have as their main talking points on the Middle East: The fact that smoke was added to a picture of a real Israeli bombing of Lebanon, that the AP printed an incorrect story about one of the hundreds of deadly acts of sectarian violence in Iraq, and even the allegation -- totally unproven and not resulting in any actual charges -- that one Iraqi photographer who has worked with the AP has ties to the insurgents.

For our main talking points that the Iraq war is immoral and that U.S. involvement needs to end, we'll take the lies about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam's ties to al-Qaeda that didn't exist, and the unrelentingly sad fact that more than 2,900 Americans and tens upon tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have now died in an unnnecessary civil war, all for this mistake.

Let's see who wins that one.
Let's summarize: Bunch concedes that the story on the mosque attack (and other stories) may have been wrong.  He nonetheless says that the informant (police Captain Jamil Hussein) was a "trusted and previously reliable source", even though the Associated Press has been unable, or unwilling, to produce him.  (What kind of source, one wonders, would Bunch find untrustworthy?  Actually, I think I know the answer to that question; Bunch would not trust any source who said something positive about President Bush.)

But the facts on this particular story don't matter because Bunch (and others he does not name) have their "talking points".  And Bunch may even believe those talking points, though the ones he mentions are debatable, or provably wrong.

But I don't think he cares whether those "talking points" are true, because, as he says in the final line of the post, they are winning points.  That's the language, not of a journalist, but of a cynical political operative, who does not care whether what he says is true, only whether it will let him win.

We can be grateful to Will Bunch for this confession — for that is what it is.  He has told us that we have no reason to believe anything he writes.  That makes him worse than worthless as a journalist, which is worth knowing, especially for those unlucky enough to rely on the Philadelphia Daily News.

It will be interesting to see if other journalists object to Bunch's preference for "talking points" over mere facts.  I suspect that few will object, which will suggest that other journalists share his preference for talking points over facts, though they may not be willing to say so, openly.

(When I saw this post, I wondered about Bunch's record as a journalist.  If you believe what he has posted on his blog, it's impressive.  But he has managed, with one post, to throw doubt on everything else he has done as journalist.  If I were an editor who had published his work, I would bring in an outside person to check it — now.)
- 5:38 AM, 7 December 2006   [link]

Worth Reading:  Victor David Hanson gives a careful description of the two main schools of thought on Iraq.  Here are the first paragraphs on each school:
The Majority Opinion
The new majority school of thought — often described as the more nuanced and more sophisticated — seems to conclude that the "global war on terror" (if that's even what it ever really was) is insidiously winding down to a police matter.  Billions spent in lives and treasure in Iraq did not make us any safer; the passing of time, the dissipation of passions, and increased vigilance did.
. . .
The Minority Brief
We really are in a global war.  Its dimensions are hard to conceptualize since our enemies, while aided and abetted by sympathetic Middle Eastern dictatorships, claim no national affinity.  Indeed, the terrorists deliberately mask the role of their patrons.  The latter, given understandable fears of the overwhelming conventional power of the United States military, deny culpability.
Hanson holds the minority view (as do I), but he is honest enough to admit that he is in the minority.

I think those in the majority are guilty of, at the very least, wishful thinking.  But read the whole thing and make up your own mind.
- 12:59 PM, 6 December 2006   [link]

Yes, It Is Your Fault, Ms. Brodeur:  In this Sound Politics post, I argued that following "progressive" ideas had made the schools in Seattle (and similar cities) worse.  I was answering a column by Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur, who believes that "progressive" cities ought to have good schools.

In a follow-up column, Brodeur says she received considerable criticism for her argument — and the fact that she enrolls her own child in a private school.  She begins the column with these two defensive paragraphs:

What's really wrong with Seattle Public Schools?  Apparently, it's people like me.

We private-school parents pull our kids out of the public-school classrooms and then throw stones.   Readers threw plenty back my way after my column on how the state of some of Seattle's public schools can negatively influence some homebuyers.

Brodeur's critics are right.  It is her fault — but not because she sends her child to a private school (just as Bill and Hillary Clinton did when they lived in another "progressive" city, Washington, D. C.)  It is Brodeur's fault because she consistently supports "progressive" politicians and "progressive" schemes, in spite of abundant evidence that those politicians and schemes have damaged our schools.

Need an example?  Try busing for racial balance.  The Seattle schools were never segregated, but the Seattle school system brought in busing for racial balance, and clung to that policy for years, in spite of the obvious damage it was doing to the schools, and to the city, something I discussed here.

Need another example?  Try "constructivist" mathematics, something I discussed here, here, and here.  That "progressive" curriculum has set back mathematics education all over the United States.

And I could add many more examples without much effort, as could anyone who is familiar with our schools.  But somehow Brodeur, and others like her, do not know these facts.

It is not a coincidence that Seattle has mediocre schools, that San Francisco and Washington, DC, have terrible schools.  It is a natural consequence of the "progressive" ideas that dominate the politics in those cities.

Finally, let me tie up a loose thread from my earlier post.  I had promised there to give you my best guess on whether Brodeur would stop backing "progressive" ideas and politicians if she were convinced that they damaged our schools.  I don't think that there is any combination of evidence that would convince Brodeur of that, but if there were, I think that she would continue to back "progressive" ideas and politicians.  I think that for Brodeur — and many other journalists — "progressive" equals "good" — and they are simply unable to think about the subject beyond that point.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(I put "progressive" in quotation marks because Brodeur used it, but I think that "leftist", or perhaps "reactionary", would be a better description of the ideas she calls "progressive".  There is nothing, for instance, progressive, about assigning pupils to schools by race.  And many other ideas about education held by Brodeur's "progressives" have long since been discredited.

Those familiar with this area will be amused by the argument made by Brodeur's colleague, Danny Westneat.  He thinks that Seattle schools aren't so bad because they are better than the schools in, for example, Tacoma.  No word from Westneat on how Seattle schools compare to the schools in, for example, Singapore.)
- 10:42 AM, 6 December 2006   [link]

Another Powerful Argument against earmarks.
In the last year, lawmakers of both parties have criticized earmarks as fostering waste and corruption.  But few are complaining about the Iraq Study Group, which will release its much-anticipated report on Wednesday.

Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, created the commission single-handedly last year when he inserted a $1 million earmark into a supplemental spending bill for the war.
Though Congressman Wolf doesn't see it that way.

I haven't said much about the Iraq Study Group because I thought it was so obviously a silly idea that nothing much needed to be said, but I suppose, now that it has released its report, I should.   And maybe I will get around to it later this week.
- 9:41 AM, 6 December 2006   [link]

We're Journalists.  We're Special:  And we ought to be treated that way.  That's the message of this unintentionally revealing column from Steve and Cokie Roberts.

The Roberts are worried because courts are treating journalists just like everyone else.  And they want this equal treatment to stop.
When the new Congress convenes next month, it should pass a Federal shield law enabling journalists to protect their secret sources.
In other words, Congress should protect journalists when they break the law or help others break the law.  If Congress does pass such a law, President Bush should veto it.  We don't need a class with special privileges in this country.

(The Roberts would have more credibility if they did not appear to believe absurdities such as this one:
The independence of American journalists has eroded so badly that Reporters Without Borders, an international watchdog group, ranked the United States 53rd among 168 nations in its "press freedom index" for 2006.  Such bastions of liberty as Bulgaria (35th) and South Africa (44th) outpaced the "land of the free," which tied with Botswana and Tonga.
If they can believe that, they can believe anything.

Let me end with a bit of advice for my journalist friends:  They would get a more friendly reception from people like me if they did not, almost universally, support restrictions on our freedom of speech, restrictions they call "campaign finance reform".)
- 6:05 AM, 6 December 2006   [link]

Back To The Moon:  This time for good.


Here's the Washington Post story.
NASA unveiled plans yesterday to set up a small and ultimately self-sustaining settlement of astronauts at the south pole of the moon sometime around 2020 -- the first step in an ambitious plan to resume manned exploration of the solar system.

The long-awaited proposal envisions initial stays of a week by four-person crews, followed by gradually longer visits until power and other supplies are in place to make a permanent presence possible by 2024.
It's about time.

And as Stephen Hawking reminded us recently, we really have no choice about the matter, in the long run.

(In one of my earliest posts, I argued that we have made so little progress in space in the last three decades in part because of a mistake made by President Kennedy.)
- 4:10 PM, 5 December 2006   [link]

Somehow, I Suspect that there is more to this story.
A St. Louis man was shot to death Sunday night over a warm beer, police said.

St. Louis police say a woman shot her husband, who was about 70 years old, four to five times in the chest after he tried giving her a warm can of Stag beer.
I've had warm beer from time to time.  It isn't that bad.
- 1:57 PM, 5 December 2006   [link]

Worth Reading:  Mark Tapscott explains the latest AP scandal.
You've probably not read much about it because only a handful of mainstream media outlets have covered it, but the Associated Press - for decades America's largest and most trusted wire news service - is at the center of a credibility crisis largely of its own making.

You probably have heard of the AP story that started it - a horrifying dispatch from Iraq the day after Thanksgiving claiming that six Sunnis had been doused with kerosene as they left their mosque following Friday prayers and burned alive by Shiite-aligned militiamen.

The story, which was quickly picked up by virtually every major news organization in the world, also claimed that "the Shiite-dominated police and Iraqi military" stood by doing nothing as the six people were gruesomely murdered.  The story was sourced to "police Captain Jamil Hussein."

The problem is there appears to be no such person as Captain Jamil Hussein, at least not who is employed by the Iraqi police.  The U.S. military says Hussein doesn't exist and has demanded that AP issue a correction.  The Iraqi government says no such person is on its police payroll.
And there are other problems with the story, and with other Iraqi informants used by AP.

So far, AP seems intent on attacking its critics, rather that examining the truth of the story.   They have yet, for example, to produce Captain Hussein.  But that won't work in the long run, not with bloggers on the case.

(It is possible, of course, that some of the discrepancies will be explained by the variant spelling of Arabic names, when translated into English.)
- 1:09 PM, 5 December 2006   [link]

Vote Fraud In Appalachia, Virginia:  What happened there in the 2004 town election is entertaining (unless you are a resident of Appalachia), and it has some lessons for the rest of us.  First, a brief summary.
A sweeping indictment alleges a town election fraught with fraud, with two candidates and their supporters buying votes with beer and cigarettes, stealing mail-in ballots and voting repeatedly for themselves in the name of a deceived electorate.

The indictment returned Thursday by a Wise County grand jury contained more than 1,000 violations of election laws -- about two crimes for every vote cast in the May 2004 election in Appalachia.

At the center of the alleged conspiracy is Ben Cooper, the mayor and acting town manager of this small town in far Southwest Virginia.
. . .
According to the indictment, the candidates and their supporters offered beer and cigarettes to residents in exchange for their votes, often canvassing low-income neighborhoods where people "would be less likely to understand they were being victimized by voter fraud."

Once someone agreed to vote by absentee ballot -- often listing a false reason at the encouragement of one of the defendants -- the person's application was mailed to the county registrar's office, according to the indictment.

In most cases, the registrar approved the application and mailed a ballot back to the voter.

The ballots were then intercepted, either stolen from voters' mailboxes or lifted from the mail as they passed through the Appalachia post office, the indictment alleges.
Serious students of vote fraud will want to read the indictment, which is quite entertaining in its dry legal way.

And the lessons?  Two stand out.  First, absentee ballots are not safe in the our postal system.  Cooper and the others in on this fraud were able to get the help of town's Postmaster, Sid Patton Cooper (Ben Cooper's brother), and a mail carrier, Don Houston Estridge.  As I have said before, the widespread use of absentee ballots makes it possible for a single person in the Post Office to tip a close election, all by themselves.  There were two in this case, but either probably could have done it by themselves.

Second, when you are buying votes, you want the voters to use absentee ballots, so that you can make sure that they voted as they promised they would.  (Cooper and company also "assisted" some voters at the polls, another way to make sure those you have bought stayed bought.  That is, by the way, a much used trick by political machines.  A high proportion of assisted voters is often a sign of fraud.)

(Which party does this gang belong to?  The town elections are nonpartisan, so we can't tell from that.  Virginia does not register voters by party, so we can't tell from that either.  None of the news articles on the fraud mentioned Cooper's party — which makes me suspect that he is a Democrat.  For what it is worth, the town of Appalachia voted for Democrat Jim Webb in this last election.  Judging by the indictment, I would say that, no matter what party Cooper belongs to, he always works for the success of the Ben Cooper party.)
- 11:10 AM, 5 December 2006   [link]

Haven't Been Able To Get To My Web Site?  Neither have I.  But I have kept writing posts, which is why you see some posts with timestamps during the time this morning when the site was inaccessible.
- 7:28 AM, 5 December 2006   [link]

Ambassador Bolton Steps Down:  And the country is worse off for that decision.  (And so is the UN.)  The decision may have been inevitable after the Democrats won control of the Senate in last month's elections, but it is still regrettable.  Critics of Bolton said that he was too "brusque".
Unable to win Senate confirmation, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton will step down when his temporary appointment expires within weeks, the White House said Monday.

Bolton's nomination has languished in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for more than a year, blocked by Democrats and several Republicans.  Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican who lost in the midterm elections Nov. 7 that swept Democrats to power in both houses of Congress, was adamantly opposed to Bolton.

Critics have questioned Bolton's brusque style and whether he could be an effective public servant who could help bring reform to the U.N.
President Bush has a different view:
"He served his country with extraordinary dedication and skill, assembling coalitions that addressed some of the most consequential issues facing the international community," the president said.  "During his tenure, he articulately advocated the positions and values of the United States and advanced the expansion of democracy and liberty.

"Ambassador Bolton led the successful negotiations that resulted in unanimous Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea's military and nuclear activities.  He built consensus among our allies on the need for Iran to suspend the enrichment and reprocessing of uranium," Bush added.  "His efforts to promote the cause of peace in Darfur resulted in a peacekeeping commitment by the United Nations.  He made the case for United Nations reform because he cares about the institution, and wants it to become more credible and effective."
In my opinion, what really offended Bolton's critics is what Bush praises him for in that first paragraph.  Bolton "advocated the positions and values of the United States and advanced the expansion of democracy and liberty".  You can't do those things and get along well with either the UN bureaucracies, or many of the member states.

It is no secret that American ambassadors often switch sides; they begin as the ambassadors from the United States but, after a few years, become the ambassadors to the United States.  That Bolton was unwilling to make this switch makes me admire him even more.

(The article touches on one important point, but does not elaborate, perhaps because it would make Bolton's opponents in the Senate look even worse.  Bolton had the support of a majority of the Senate.  The Constitution requires the Senate to consent to the appointment of ambassadors, but it does not require a super majority for that consent.  And most students of government believe that presidents should be able to choose their own ambassadors — within very wide limits — so that the president can effectively conduct foreign policy.  It is disgraceful that the Senate Democrats, in the minority, were able to block even a vote on Bolton's confirmation.

Some might think that the many UN scandals require a US ambassador who is, at the very least, "brusque".  Scandals such as this this one.
Nearly 180 soldiers, civilians and police in UN peacekeeping missions have been targeted for disciplinary action since the beginning of 2004 for sexual abuse and exploitation and the problem persists, a UN spokesman said Thursday.
. . .
The UN Peacekeeping Department's conduct and discipline team reported since it was established in November 2005, its list of peacekeepers repatriated on disciplinary grounds for sexual exploitation and abuse includes 12 peacekeepers from Nepal, seven from Uruguay, four from Nigeria, four from Senegal, two from Benin, two from Ethiopia, two from Togo and one each from France, Ghana, India, Niger and South Africa.
. . .
Cases of sexual abuse have also been reported in other peacekeeping missions from Bosnia and Kosovo to Cambodia, East Timor and West Africa.
Just reading about that scandal makes me feel a little "brusque", but perhaps I am too much like John Bolton, and am too inconsiderate of the feelings of the UN bureaucrats who are responsible for these outrages.)
- 2:12 PM, 4 December 2006
Correction:  Ambassador Bolton did not resign, as the AP headline said.  Instead, he chose to leave at the end of his recess appointment.  I've corrected the text above.

This somewhat snotty CBS note gets the facts right but still manages to attack the Bush administration for trying to correct the record.  On the other hand, this AP story, which appears to have been written later than the one I first linked to, actually stresses the resignation angle, even implying that Bolton had said he was resigning.  One more reason not to trust the Associated Press, I suppose.
- 5:41 AM, 5 December 2006   [link]

Why Did Democrat Jim Webb Win In Virginia?  One reason was the biased coverage of the race, which continues, as you can see in this laughable interview.   The Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter, Peter Hardin, begins with this question:
Q: As an experienced journalist, how would you grade the job the Virginia press corps did during the campaign?
And it doesn't get much better after that.  There is not a single critical question in the entire interview, not one.  By the time I reached the end of the article, I was half expecting Hardin to ask the senator-elect if he could kiss Webb's foot.

(I had not realized that some journalists consider Webb a fellow journalist.  Guild loyalty may help explain why the coverage of the race was so slanted.)
- 6:53 AM, 4 December 2006   [link]

Cheating Is Common In Our Universities:  But it is still amusing to find it here.
Cheating is not unheard of on university campuses.  But cheating on an open-book, take-home exam in a pass-fail course seems odd, and all the more so in a course about ethics.

Yet Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism is looking into whether students may have cheated on the final exam in just such a course, "Critical Issues in Journalism."  According to the school's Web site, the course "explores the social role of journalism and the journalist from legal, historical, ethical, and economic perspectives," with a focus on ethics.
And, of course, Columbia isn't just any old school of journalism.  It's one of the top journalism schools the United States.

The school is trying to cope with the accusations by asking the students to write about them.
As Columbia University continues to grapple with allegations of cheating on a final exam in a journalism ethics course, students have been assigned to write an essay on an issue that parallels the one faced by their own professors.

The topic: What should a newspaper's executive editor do after receiving "a tip from a credible source that one or more unspecified articles in recent editions of the newspaper contain fabricated material"?
In a thinly disguised form.

(This incident reminds me of two arguments that I have been making for some time: We should close journalism schools, and news organizations should treat degrees in journalism as defects in resumes of job applicants.)
- 6:05 AM, 4 December 2006   [link]

South Sister:  The day after revisiting Newberry Caldera and its Big Obsidian Flow, I took the Cascade Lakes Highway south for views of more volcanoes.  The highway, just as its name suggests, runs past a number of very pretty lakes.  Most of the lakes are, indirectly, volcanic features, formed after a lava flow dammed up a stream.  I stopped at several of the lakes, including one of the larger lakes, Elk Lake, where I took this picture of the South Sister volcano.

South Sister

Geologists are moderately worried about the South Sister because of a recent uplift in the area, probably caused by magma moving upward.  (You can see a nifty false color picture of the uplift here.)

(You can find the earlier posts from my 2006 disaster area tour here, here, here, and here, and here.  You can find the last post from the 2005 disaster area tour, with links to all the other 2005 disaster tour posts, here.

Fun fact: The Sisters, now named North, Middle, and South, were once named Faith, Hope, and Charity.

To get an idea just how extensive volcanic activity is in central Oregon, take a look at this map.)
- 1:44 PM, 1 December 2006   [link]

More On The Polonium Poisoning:  Edward Jay Epstein thinks it may have been an accident.

Anonymous British police officials think that the poisoning may have been done by "rogue elements" from Russia (without love).

An Italian academic, who met with Litvinenko, has tested positive for polonium.  And scientists think they already know which plant made the polonium, though I am not sure how they know.  (The presence of other isotopes of polonium, perhaps?)
- 10:09 AM, 1 December 2006   [link]

Interesting Slip from CNN correspondent Bob Franken.
It may surprise conservatives, but CNN reporter Bob Franken alleged on Thursday's "American Morning" that Democrats are eager to label Iraq a civil war in order to undercut U.S. support for remaining in the country.
It doesn't surprise this conservative, since many journalists believe that undercutting US support for victory in Iraq is the right thing to do.
- 9:29 AM, 1 December 2006   [link]