December 2009, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

The Seattle Times On Trade With Cuba:  Here's what the Seattle Times said:

Sen. Maria Cantwell calls our attention to a law, signed by President Obama, allowing Cuba to buy U.S. farm produce and pay after the goods are shipped.  The law reverses a Treasury ruling during the Bush years that Cuba had to pay in advance — a ruling that stopped the trade altogether.

(Emphasis added.)

And here are the facts

Many Americans think their government's 45-year-old embargo blocks all trade with the communist government, but the United States is the top supplier of food and agricultural products to Cuba.  In fact, many Cubans depend on rations grown in Arkansas and North Dakota for their rice and beans.

(Again, emphasis added.)

The US Department of Agriculture has numbers, and other basic facts, about our agricultural exports to Cuba here.

(I discovered those facts by using an obscure research technique: I searched, using Google, with this search string: "US + exports + Cuba".  I apologize for revealing this secret technique, but it seemed necessary for this post.)

But I could have learned those facts from reading the New York Times, or even the Seattle Times, which has covered Senator Cantwell's efforts to expand agricultural exports to Cuba.

So, why didn't the editorial writers at the Seattle Times know them?

I don't know the answer to that question, and I am nearly certain that they will not explain they how got something so simple, so wrong.  But I would guess that they got them wrong because they created a "fact" that fit their theories of how the world works, rather than testing their theories against the facts.  It is a mistake that nearly everyone makes at one time or another.  We have all, for instance, known lovers who kept believing the most unlikely things about their loves, long after the sad truths were obvious to those less partial.

Many "mainstream" news organizations — definitely including the Seattle Times — are now especially prone to this kind of mistake because they have become ideologically narrower over the last decade.  They are much less tolerant of moderates and conservatives than they once were, and, I would guess, much less likely to seek out opposing views.

Am I saying that the Times has become closed-minded?  That's too harsh a judgment, but I would say they have been moving in that direction.  And that is unfortunate for all of us, but especially for our monopoly newspaper.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Is selling food on credit to Cuba a good idea?  Probably not.  At least not until they compensate American owners for property the Communist regime seized a half century ago.  And I have my doubts about whether they are a really great credit risk.

Humberto Fontova has an illustrated post, giving his own reaction to this Seattle Times blunder.)
- 7:57 AM, 23 December 2009   [link]

For The Interest Of The President Of Stevens Institute:  For years I have been impressed by Adam Smith's insight on universities and colleges, that they are run, not for the students, but for the masters.

Today's New York Times has a particularly good example of that tendency.
In the 1990s, the president of Adelphi University was accused of receiving excessive compensation and forced from office.  Since then, the leaders of American, Towson, Texas Southern and other endowment-poor universities have also crashed to earth after plunging their institutions into turmoil for similar excesses.

Now, charges are swirling over Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.  The state attorney general has sued the institute and its president, Harold J. Raveché, accusing him of plundering the endowment and receiving $1.8 million in illegal low-interest loans for vacation homes, with half of them later forgiven.
There have been public protests against his actions since at least 2005.  He has survived them all but he may not survive his current legal troubles.

(Assuming he is convicted on some of these charges, could the board members who protected him all these years also face legal problems?)

I'll repeat something I have said before:  Our colleges and universities need reform — badly.
- 3:53 PM, 22 December 2009   [link]

A Cheaper Way To Buy Ink Cartridges:  This won't surprise most readers, but it still amuses me.  It was time to replace the ink cartridges in my Epson R300 photo printer, but I decided, instead, to buy a brand new printer, specifically an HP D7560.  The decision was easy.  The HP printer, which comes with cartridges, costs $80; the Epson cartridges cost $65 plus $17, just slightly more than the cost of the HP printer, which comes with a set of cartridges.

And, if you look around, you can find a refill package for the HP that makes it an even better bargain.  (The package does not include a regular black cartridge, but, since I will be using the printer almost entirely for photos, I won't often need to replace that one.)

I understand why printer companies price their products this way — but I don't like it.  And I am pleased to see that HP has come down a bit with their prices for ink cartridges.  (Perhaps because of the threat of competition from Kodak?)

(My printer choice was constrained because I want a photo printer that prints on CDs and DVDs, and works well with Linux.

Fortunately for me, HP makes printers that can print on CDs, and is good about supporting Linux.  (You can use Epson printers with Linux, but I don't think the open-source drivers produce as high quality prints as Epson's own drivers do.)

I could have saved $10 by buying this printer.  As far as I can tell, the D5460 will do almost everything that the D7560 will do, and just as well, but it doesn't have that pretty color LCD screen.  You may be able to find a real bargain on the printer.  I noticed that HP had a special on it the other day, selling it for $30, if I remember correctly.  They were out of stock when I looked, but those looking for a cheap photo printer may want to check the HP site from time to time.)
- 10:21 AM, 22 December 2009   [link]

Michael Goodwin Knows He Made A Mistake:  And is honest enough to say so.
Mugabe and Chavez are treated with respect and the United Nations is serious about wanting to regulate our industry and transfer our wealth to kleptocrats and genocidal maniacs.

Even more frightening, our own leaders joined the circus.  Marching to the beat of international drummers, they uncoupled themselves from the will of the people they were elected to serve.

President Obama, for whom I voted because I believed he was the best choice available, is a profound disappointment.  I now regard his campaign as a sly bait-and-switch operation, promising one thing and delivering another.  Shame on me.

Equally surprising, he has become an insufferable bore.  The grace notes and charm have vanished, with peevishness and petty spite his default emotions.  His rhetorical gifts now serve his loathsome habit of fear-mongering.
I expect to see many more similar confessions over the next three years — from those honest enough to make them — but few as eloquent as this one.

(Goodwin, unlike Joanathan Freedland, does not think elected leaders should be worshiped, or that international organizations should be given respect they have not earned.)
- 8:21 AM, 22 December 2009   [link]

Barack And Michelle Obama As Icons:  Jonathan Freedland gets most of the facts wrong, but comes to a correct conclusion, anyway.  For the international left, Barack and Michelle Obama are religious symbols to be worshiped:
Either way, the Obamas are already icons of the age in a way that goes far beyond the Kennedys' influence on 60s style.  Simply put, they express a profound breakthrough: the most powerful couple in the world are black, a fact that many Americans, and many others, never thought would come to pass in their lifetime.  Even if they did nothing else, and even if prosaic reality means the Obama presidency fails more often than it succeeds, this has made the Obamas truly iconic for millions of people — their image acting as a kind of votive touchstone, conveying hope for a better world.
Note that Freedland explicitly says that the Obamas should be worshiped even if they never accomplish anything.  (He does not consider the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that they will do great damage to the United States and to our friends abroad.)

That argument should make it clear, if anything can, why we have seen so little serious criticism of Obama from journalists like Freedland.  To criticize Obama would require him to go against his religious views.

(The facts Freedland gets wrong?  I don't have time to do a systematic fisking, though his column deserves that, but these paragraphs will do for a start:
Put simply, Obama emerged as a kind of inverse of everything that had gone before.  He was the unBush, a photo negative of the president who had spanned the decade.  While George Bush snubbed allies and revelled in America-rules-the-world unilateralism, Obama was a citizen of the world — raised in Indonesia, with roots in Africa and a middle name from Arabia — who saw diplomacy as equally valid as force.  Bush derided the United Nations as a talking shop for limp-wristed do-gooders and Euroweenies; Obama treats international institutions with respect.  (That last fact alone was, it seems, enough to win him the last Nobel peace prize of the decade, even before he had really done anything.)  So if Obama ends the decade as a defining face of the noughties, he does so, in part, by being the chemical opposite of — and a proposed antidote to — the man whose presidency dominated it.

Almost all of this was about Obama himself.  He could say of the most vexed foreign policy decision of the age — the invasion of Iraq — that he had opposed it, even when it was popular, calling it a "dumb war".  Where Bush led with his gut and read little, Obama was thoughtful and deliberate, his Nobel prize acceptance speech, according to historian Simon Schama, being on a par with Roosevelt and Churchill and "summoning the spirit of Cicero".
(Was it fair to humiliate Schama by reminding him of that foolish statement?  Perhaps, though I would like to see more context before deciding.)

It is true that — in some ways — Obama and Bush are opposites.  But not in the ways that Freedland thinks.  It is Obama who has gone out of the way to snub allies, not Bush.   It is Bush who is the thoughtful reader, not Obama.  Both Bush and Obama see diplomacy as more valid than force; we have yet to learn whether Obama considers force — in defense of American interests and values — valid at all.  (Even his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan looks more like a concession to political reality than something that he is doing from conviction.)

(Some, even now, will find it hard to believe that Bush is a reader, and Obama isn't.  For those who want to see the evidence, look here, here, and here.)

But Bush and Obama are not opposites in everything.  Even some on the left have begun to notice that Obama has adopted many of Bush's foreign policies and tactics, and has even tacitly admitted that Bush was right and Obama wrong on the surge in Iraq.

There's much more to criticize in the column but I have other things to do today.)
- 7:49 AM, 22 December 2009   [link]

"Principles Have Not, However, Been Entirely Absent"  George Will heaps scorn on Barack Obama's and Harry Reid's latest accomplishments, the Copenhagen meeting, and the Senate anti-reform health insurance bill
Nebraska's Ben Nelson voted for the Senate bill after opposing both the Medicare cuts and taxes on high-value insurance plans -- the heart of the bill's financing.  Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln, Indiana's Evan Bayh and Virginia's Jim Webb voted against one or the other.  Yet they support the bill.  They will need mental health care to cure their intellectual whiplash.

Before equating Harry Reid to Henry Clay, understand that buying 60 Senate votes is a process more protracted than difficult.  Reid was buying the votes of senators whose understanding of the duties of representation does not rise above looting the nation for local benefits.  And Reid had two advantages -- the spending, taxing and borrowing powers of the federal leviathan, and an almost gorgeous absence of scruples or principles.  Principles are general rules, such as: Nebraska should not be exempt from burdens imposed on the other 49 states.

Principles have not, however, been entirely absent: Nebraska's Republican governor, Dave Heineman, and Republican senator, Mike Johanns, have honorably denounced Nebraska's exemption from expanded Medicaid costs.  The exemption was one payment for Nelson's vote to impose the legislation on Nebraskans, 67 percent of whom oppose it.
Since Republicans are helpless to stop this idiocy by themselves, they can stick to their principles, without affecting the results.  Let us hope that they continue to stick by those principles, after their expected gains in the 2010 election.
- 6:52 AM, 22 December 2009   [link]

The New Four Horsemen:  Even if you have never read Revelations, you have probably heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Or at least seen one of the many depictions of the terrible four.

But the senior senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry, either really dislikes Obama — or doesn't know that the Four Horsemen are not a positive symbol.

(For the record:  I have some disagreements with President Obama, but I would never say that he is one the Four Horsemen.)
- 11:16 AM, 21 December 2009   [link]

The First Senate Vote For ObamaCare Was A Loss For The Nation:  Robert Samuelson tries, once again, to tell us why.
Barack Obama's quest for historic health-care legislation has turned into a parody of leadership.   We usually associate presidential leadership with the pursuit of goals that, though initially unpopular, serve America's long-term interests.  Obama has reversed this.  He's championing increasingly unpopular legislation that threatens the country's long-term interests.  "This isn't about me," he likes to say, "I have great health insurance."  But of course, it is about him: about the legacy he covets as the president who achieved "universal" health insurance.  He'll be disappointed.

Even if Congress passes legislation -- a good bet -- the finished product will fall far short of Obama's extravagant promises.  It will not cover everyone.  It will not control costs.   It will worsen the budget outlook.  It will lead to higher taxes.  It will disrupt how, or whether, companies provide insurance for their workers.  As the real-life (as opposed to rhetorical) consequences unfold, they will rebut Obama's claim that he has "solved" the health-care problem.   His reputation will suffer.
Some Democrats know this, but are gambling that, once an entitlement is in place, it is hard to get rid of as crab grass or kudzu.

The Wall Street Journal would agree with Samuelson on the substance of his criticism, and they are unhappy, very unhappy, with the process.
Mr. Obama promised a new era of transparent good government, yet on Saturday morning Mr. Reid threw out the 2,100-page bill that the world's greatest deliberative body spent just 17 days debating and replaced it with a new "manager's amendment" that was stapled together in covert partisan negotiations.   Democrats are barely even bothering to pretend to care what's in it, not that any Senator had the chance to digest it in the 38 hours before the first cloture vote at 1 a.m. this morning.  After procedural motions that allow for no amendments, the final vote could come at 9 p.m. on December 24.
Unhappy with good reason.  If you wanted an example of how not to legislate, Harry Reid and company have just provided one.

The fight is not completely over.  It is possible that a conference bill, even one based almost entirely on the current Senate bill, would not pass the House, because pro-life Democrats would not support it.  But we have to accept that Pelosi and Reid might, between the two of them, buy enough votes in each house to pass this monstrosity.  And so we should start thinking about to repeal most of it, after the Republicans gains in 2010, and perhaps 2012.

Many, perhaps most, of the congressional supporters of this bill know that the arguments that they have been making are false.  Many, perhaps most, in the Obama administration know that, too.  They know, for instance, that it will not cut costs — but they say so anyway.

When they make those claims, they insult our intelligence.
- 10:50 AM, 21 December 2009   [link]

Basketball Players Often Come From Tough Neighborhoods:  But few come from neighborhoods this tough.
Nicknamed the Terror, Majok, the oldest of six children, was hardened by his roots. Refugees from the war in Sudan, Majok's family moved to Egypt when he was a child.  The scar on his left ear came from a Muslim gang member's knife when he attacked Majok, a Catholic, after his family was moved to Egypt.  The wound on his right thigh came similarly.  To communicate, he had to learn four Arabic dialects.  Majok never forgot his father's command, "Don't back down."

"American kids discuss backgrounds, but it's a little different for Africans," said Memphis Grizzlies center Hasheem Thabeet, a Tanzanian who helped lead UConn to the Final Four last season. "You don't know if relatives have been murdered.  I don't go there with them."
Although the article is vague on these details, Ater Majok almost certainly came from southern Sudan, whose pagan and Christian inhabitants have been persecuted by the Muslims in the northern part of Sudan, approximately forever.  The Bush administration was able to persuade the Sudanese government to sign a truce with the main guerrilla groups, and even to grant a substantial degree of self government to the area, which should help the millions left behind, even if they are not tall enough and athletic enough to be basketball prospects.
- 5:54 PM, 20 December 2009   [link]

How Efficient Can Home Insulation Be?  More efficient than I would have guessed, before I read this New York Times article on "passive houses".

Having used a thermos bottle, I know that home insulation can be remarkably effective, but I always assumed that the need for fresh air would put limits on that effectiveness.  It does, but much less than I would have guessed.
From the outside, there is nothing unusual about the stylish new gray and orange row houses in the Kranichstein District, with wreaths on the doors and Christmas lights twinkling through a freezing drizzle.  But these houses are part of a revolution in building design: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in.  There is, in fact, no furnace.

In Berthold Kaufmann's home, there is, to be fair, one radiator for emergency backup in the living room — but it is not in use.  Even on the coldest nights in central Germany, Mr. Kaufmann's new "passive house" and others of this design get all the heat and hot water they need from the amount of energy that would be needed to run a hair dryer.
How do they do it?  Lots and lots of insulation — and a heat exchanger that is far more efficient than I would have thought possible.
Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold.  But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system.  The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency.
Even now, I would like to see evidence that a heat exchanger can really be that efficient, but I will concede that these houses appear to be remarkably efficient.

Though the article doesn't mention it, there is a danger in these almost airtight houses, a danger that you would not find in conventional houses:  If the recirculation system fails, you could have a deadly buildup of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.  But there are dangers in every kind of house, and proper design and engineering should be able to reduce that risk to a minimum.

Probably it would not be practical to refit most old houses with these systems, but people building new homes might want to take a look at them — assuming local building codes allow this kind of innovation.

The New York Times has a diagram, if you want to see how these passive houses work.

(There's more, including lots of numbers, in this Wikipedia article.)
- 2:14 PM, 19 December 2009   [link]

More Evidence for global warming?
In a strange twist, a Washington snowstorm is forcing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to make an early departure from a global warming summit here in Denmark.
I am sure that it is, though I don't know how to make the connection myself.  But Al Gore could do it.
- 3:25 PM, 18 December 2009   [link]

Worth Study:  Researcher Cliff Mass's thoughts on "Climategate".  Sample:

This defensiveness has now gotten unhealthy for both the science and society.  Scientists who attempt to publish material indicating the global warming due to manmade causes is not evident or weak, or who doubt the severity of the problem, are not treated well by some.  I have had first had experience with this.  I am known as somewhat of a skeptic regarding global warming effects in the NW--although I do believe that greenhouse gases are a serious problem in the long-run.  A group of us noted that the snowpack in the Cascades was NOT rapidly melting away, in contrast to some publications by some local climate scientists and publicized by Mayor Nickels.  The reaction was intense.  One of my colleagues, Mark Albright, who was the first to notice the lack of snowpack loss was fired as associate State Climatologist and the media went wild . . . we called it Snowpackgate . . . and it got national attention.  I was told in the hallways to keep quiet about it . . . the denier types would take advantage of it!

We then wrote a paper on the subject (the main contributor being Mark Stoelinga) and submitted it to the Journal of Climate.  I have published a lot of papers in my life (roughly 100) and I never had problems like we had with this paper.

Read the whole thing.

On one important point I disagree with Professor Mass.  He sees this as an argument with two sides, with himself somewhere in between the two.  Though I have sometimes described myself as a "lukewarmist", that is, someone between the extremes of "coldists' and "warmists", I have come to think that a continuum, with "warmists" on the left end, "coldists" on the right end, and a few people in between, is not a good way to describe the debate.

The subject is too complex to treat in a brief post, especially while I am still trying to sort out my own thoughts on the subject, but I can mention one example, which will show you why I don't think a simple warm-cold continuum is a good way to understand the climate change debate.  Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, accepts the UN panel's predictions on global warming.  Does that put him in Al Gore's camp?   Not really, because Lomborg then goes on to argue that we would be better off accepting some warming, and spending money on more serious problems, such as providing clean water for the poor in developing countries.

(Incidentally, Lomborg generally uses numbers from the UN to make his arguments.)

In short, Lomborg accepts the diagnosis from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but then rejects their proposed cure, because it doesn't meet a simple cost/benefit test.

Lomborg is not the only important figure who doesn't fit neatly on to a warmist-coldist continuum.  Both Pielkes, father and son, would probably reject a simple continuum, though for different reasons than Lomborg would.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 10:07 AM, 18 December 2009   [link]

Becoming An OEM Again:  About every four years, I replace my desktop computer, partly to gain performance, partly because hard disk drives don't last forever.  Unlike most people, I build a new system, rather than buying it.  It's been almost four years since I built my current system, so I am starting to look at PC hardware again, and even starting to make tentative lists of parts.

Building your own computer isn't particularly difficult, but selecting the parts for it can be, especially, if, like me, you pay little attention to these things in between builds.  So now I am brushing up on SATA and PCI Express, and all the other newer standards.

Making the computer work with Linux as well as Windows adds a little to the complexity, but not as much as it once did, especially if you stay away from bleeding edge components, which I would do anyway, for other reasons.

You don't save money by building a computer yourself, but you can get a PC that fits your needs better than an off-the-shelf system would.  For example, it is worth something to me to have a very quiet PC, and I can get that by choosing the right case, and the right parts to go in it.   Blazing graphics speed doesn't matter much to me, so I can use an ordinary graphics card.   And so on.

(For the perplexed: OEM = Original Equipment Manufacturer.  People who build their own systems are OEMs and can get lower prices on some software and hardware.  For instance, Windows 7, or a Logitech keyboard.  In return, you give up most support, just like any other manufacturer.

To get those prices, you usually have to buy the software and hardware along with components that show that you are really intending to build your own system, such as a motherboard and case.)
- 2:28 PM, 17 December 2009   [link]

Copenhagen Is Probably The Last Global Warming Conference they will hold during the winter.
World leaders flying into Copenhagen today to discuss a solution to global warming will first face freezing weather as a blizzard dumped 10 centimeters (4 inches) of snow on the Danish capital overnight.

"Temperatures will stay low at least the next three days," Henning Gisseloe, an official at Denmark's Meteorological Institute, said today by telephone, forecasting more snow in coming days.   "There's a good chance of a white Christmas."
. . .
Denmark has a maritime climate and milder winters than its Scandinavian neighbors.  It hasn't had a white Christmas for 14 years, under the DMI's definition, and only had seven last century.   Temperatures today fell as low as minus 4 Celsius (25 Fahrenheit).
Because none of the planners will want to risk having photo-ops ruined by an inconvenient snowfall.

(Gore was there, so they should have expected this change in weather.)
- 9:33 AM, 17 December 2009   [link]

If Someone Opposes ObamaCare, Do They Have Bad Motives?  That appears to be the assumption underlying this MSNBC piece.  As you may have heard, Howard Dean has come out in opposition to the current Senate health insurance "reform" bill.  Mark Murray thinks he knows why.
Here's something else to think about: In retrospect, was Barack Obama's conspicuous snub of Howard Dean a big mistake, given the former DNC chairman's opposition to the Senate health-care bill moving through Congress?

Remember that when Tim Kaine was tapped to be the new DNC chairman, Dean wasn't at the Obama-Kaine press conference announcing the move.  Instead, he was in American Samoa, but his allies maintained he would have canceled that trip had he been given a heads up about the press conference.

What's more, Dean never got a plum position in the Obama administration.  Possibly adding insult to injury, few DNC aides who worked for Dean initially got top jobs in the Obama administration.
In other words, Murray thinks Dean is opposing ObamaCare, not out of principle, but out of pique.  And it would not surprise me to see Murray ascribe bad motives to most other opponents of ObamaCare.

Incidentally, Murray is not a cub reporter; he's NBC's "Deputy Political Director".

As far as I can tell, Dean is opposing the Senate bill mostly because he objects to some of the changes Majority Leader Reid has made, in a so-far unsuccessful effort to find 60 votes.  (You can read his explanation for his stand here.)  That Murray believes that Dean acted out of pique may show us more about Murray (and NBC) than about Dean.

(As a former Dean aide notes, if Dean had been brought into the Obama administration, he would have had to make his objections to the Senate bill internally, which would have been less damaging.

I have no idea why Obama has snubbed Dean.  On the face of it, it seems as silly, politically, as his repeated snubs of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.)
- 7:35 AM, 17 December 2009   [link]