December 2014, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Bret Stephens Is Struck by this disconnect.
Perhaps because I grew up as an American living abroad, I’ve always been struck by the disconnect between American achievement and self-perception.  To this day I find it slightly amazing that, in the U.S., I can drink water straight from a tap, that a policeman has never asked me for a “contribution,” that my luggage has never been stolen, that nobody gets kidnapped for ransom, that Mao-esque political purges are conducted only in the editorials of the New York Times .
And by the sources of those achievements, which he discusses in the rest of the column.

(Yes, I laughed at that jab at the Journal's competitor.)
- 12:32 PM, 24 December 2014   [link]

A Christmas Story From Ernie Pyle:  In 1943, Ernie Pyle was in Italy, covering the war in his own way.

Among the people he talked to were the examiners who questioned the German prisoners.   From one of them, he got this story.
One of the German kids who came through seemed terribly depressed.  When the examiners strike a case like that, they try to find out the trouble, other than the normal depression over being captured.  But they couldn't seem to get at this boy.

Finally, just to make light conversation, one of them said, "Well, cheer up, at least you'll be able to spend Christmas with us."

Thereupon the boy sat up and said eagerly, "Do you celebrate Christmas, too?"

He didn't know that we knew about Christmas, and apparently he had been brooding over the prospect of spending it with a heathen people.  After that he was bright and chipper.
He may even have gotten some presents from his captors, if there was a kindly chaplain around.

(Recycled from last year.

Pyle calls the soldier a boy, but doesn't give his age.  Eventually, the Nazi regime was drafting boys as young as 16, but I don't believe they had done so in 1943.

Incidentally, Pyle says that most of the prisoners still expected Germany to win.  They were wrong; on any reasonable assessment of military capabilities, they should have recognized that defeat was nearly inevitable after the Battle of Kursk, and the almost simultaneous allied landings in Italy.  In fact, some members of the regime, including the SS head, Heinrich Himmler, did understand that, though most soldiers did not.)
- 12:09 PM, 24 December 2014   [link]

Ten Lost Days:  Two weeks ago, apparently I fainted while sitting down having my lunch, fell, cracked the side of my head, and knocked myself out.

I say apparently because I don't remember any of the exciting part, just waking up to see three worried looking firemen, who were urging me to let them take me to the nearest emergency room.  I agreed to go, but felt well enough to tell them a joke along the way — which they were nice enough to laugh at.

At the emergency room, they checked me out, but found nothing wrong with me, other than the big bruise on the side of my head (which is almost all gone, though it does still hurt, a little, when I yawn).  I told the doctor and the attendants another joke — which they were nice enough to laugh at, and, after the tests, asked for a cup of coffee, which they were nice enough to give me.

They strongly suggested that I stay over night for observation, but I didn't think that was necessary, and, besides, I didn't want to pay the fine for leaving my car in the city parking garage over night.

Other than that, I got reminded of a useful word, "idiopathic", which means, roughly, that the doctor doesn't have a clue as to the causes, either.

Since then, I have had no other symptoms (and had none before), so I have tentatively decided not to have more tests done.  But I did take it easy for about ten days, doing little more than put up a few posts, and play some computer games.

So, to some folks in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Arizona, this message:  I'll be operating on more of an Armenian Christmas schedule this year.

(Naturally, I've been trying hard to think of causes myself, or even hints that would suggest further tests, and the best that I have been able to come up with is this:  I had a very sugary breakfast cereal that morning, and sat still at my computer for much longer than usual.  But I'm not sure either of those even constitutes a clue.  But I am going to try to avoid sitting still for more than an hour at a time, from now on.)
- 3:55 PM, 23 December 2014   [link]

The New York Times Gets More Out Of Touch With Ordinary Americans:  Our newspaper of record is dropping its Automobiles section.
The Sunday Automobiles section will no longer be published after this issue.

Autos coverage will continue to appear in Business Day, including a new Automobiles page in the Friday newspaper.
I rather liked the section, often finding it an oasis of political incorrectness in a sterile desert of political correctness.  And I have wondered, once or twice, how the writers there could get away with saying some of the things they said, in that newspaper.

That they will no longer give special coverage to automobiles tells us something about the Times, and how far they have drifted away from what matters to those Americans who are not wealthy Manhattan leftists.

Those looking for substitutes can find them in many places, including the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal.

(There's an appreciation of the section, and its long-time editor in, of all places, Mother Nature Network.)
- 8:48 AM, 23 December 2014   [link]

"Did North Korea Really Attack Sony?"  Computer security expert Bruce Schneier asks that question, and concludes that the FBI (and the Obama administration) haven't proved their case.
I am deeply skeptical of the FBI’s announcement on Friday that North Korea was behind last month’s Sony hack.  The agency’s evidence is tenuous, and I have a hard time believing it.  But I also have trouble believing that the U.S. government would make the accusation this formally if officials didn’t believe it.
But then admits that he hasn't seen all the evidence.
Tellingly, the FBI’s press release says that the bureau’s conclusion is only based “in part” on these clues.  This leaves open the possibility that the government has classified evidence that North Korea is behind the attack.  The NSA has been trying to eavesdrop on North Korea’s government communications since the Korean War, and it’s reasonable to assume that its analysts are in pretty deep.  The agency might have intelligence on the planning process for the hack.  It might, say, have phone calls discussing the project, weekly PowerPoint status reports, or even Kim Jong Un’s sign-off on the plan.

On the other hand, maybe not. I could have written the same thing about Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction program in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of that country, and we all know how wrong the government was about that.
(The news that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, and that there is strong evidence that some were sent to Syria, has apparently not reached Mr. Schneier.  Nor has the news reached him that Saddam's regime was pursuing weapons programs that we didn't know about.)

Since I haven't seen the rest of the evidence either — and couldn't tell you about it if I had — I would agree that the public evidence against the North Korean regime is not conclusive.  (If I had to describe it in a single phrase, I would say it is strong circumstantial evidence.  If I had to put a probability on this being a North Korean attack, based on the public evidence, I'd put it at about 80 percent.)

But, unlike Schneier, I would not venture an opinion on the FBI's conclusion, thinking it as foolish as trying to describe a man's poker hand when only two of his cards are face up.

Not coming to a conclusion when you haven't seen all the evidence is the honest thing to do, in this case, and in many others.  It may not be pleasant, since we prefer certainty, prefer to know what those hidden cards are, prefer to know what the North Koreans have been doing, but it is the honest thing to do.

Otherwise, we risk coming to a conclusion based mainly on our ideology, or, if you prefer, our biases.)
- 8:15 AM, 23 December 2014   [link]

It Couldn't Happen To a nation with a nicer leader.
North Korea was having a bit of trouble getting online on Monday.  Actually, "a bit" is probably an understatement.  What little Internet infrastructure the country has is suffering from widespread outages right now, according to North Korea watchers.

The connectivity problems are coming just days after President Obama warned of a "proportional response" to North Korea, which is suspected of breaking into Sony's network in a major cyber hack.  It's not yet known whether the United States is responsible for the downtime.  But according to Dyn Research — which earlier this year bought the respected network analysis firm Renesys — North Korea's Internet is currently showing unusual amounts of instability.
For some reason this reminds me of that famous Bruce Banner warning: "Don't make me angry.  You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
- 2:14 PM, 22 December 2014   [link]

Why Is There So Much Awful Christmas Music On The Radio?   In the last two weeks, I've been listening to more Christmas music on the radio than usual — I'll explain why tomorrow — and have been depressed by how awful most of it is.

Oh, there are exceptions, but most of it sounds like the kind of music you might play over and over, in an attempt to make a terrorist prisoner talk.

And I think I know why so much of the Christmas music we hear on the radio (and in public places) is so bad:  The people who play it are uncomfortable with religion (or think we might be), and so they play songs like "Holly, Jolly Christmas", which doesn't mention religion at all, rather than, for instance, "Silent Night", which is all about religion.

And, if you don't know that the second is a far superior song, then you need to listen to the two, again.

And I think that is generally true:  The better Christmas music is mostly religious.   There are exceptions like "White Christmas", but not many of them.

(Some public areas compromise by playing instrumental versions of Christmas songs, which is fine with me.)
- 1:46 PM, 22 December 2014   [link]

Worth Reading:  The Wall Street Journal's lead editorial on the Wisconsin attack on free speech.
The Wisconsin assault on political speech has been in a lull, but it reappeared with a bang on Friday with a fresh document release by a state court.  The disclosures include evidence that Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board wanted to go after Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes and Sean Hannity of Fox News.
. . .
As we’ve been reporting for more than a year, Mr. O’Keefe has been the target of a secret John Doe probe investigating alleged “coordination” between Gov. Scott Walker ’s 2012 recall campaign and independent conservative groups.  He was subpoenaed and others had their homes raided by prosecutors in October 2013.  Mr. O’Keefe has fought back in court, and his complaint refers to GAB documents that were obtained during discovery in the case.

The documents support the charge that the GAB was working with Democratic prosecutors to smash the political operation of anyone defending Mr. Walker’s collective-bargaining reforms.  And in the fevered ambitions of investigators, the supposed conspirators included Messrs. Sykes and Hannity.
Eric O'Keefe, as a political activist, was a natural target for the leftists at the GAB, but it is a little surprising to see them going after talk show hosts, too.

I suppose that it shows us, again, how obsessed the leftists in Wisconsin were (and may still be) with Scott Walker, and his union reforms.

(The GAB is formally non-partisan, and is, theoretically, supervised by a panel of judges from both parties, but I think the evidence shows that it has been run by insiders for years, now.

Their obsession with "coordination" makes me wonder whether they know about such "coordination" — on the Democratic side.)
- 1:05 PM, 22 December 2014   [link]

In 2008, Barack Obama Said That Restored Diplomatic Relations With Cuba would require them to release all their political prisoners.
Obama laid out his proposal in a May 23, 2008 speech in Miami. Noting the "unanswered cries of the political prisoners heard from the jails of Havana," Obama said his policy toward Cuba "will be guided by one word: libertad."

"The road to freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuba's political prisoners," Obama said.  The value of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Obama went on to explain, is that it "provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: If you take significant steps towards democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations."
The Castro regime did release 53 political prisoners, as part of the agreement the Obama administration made with Cuba — which leaves more than 8,000 still in prison, in a country of about 11 million.

(For the record:  The Cuban regime regularly releases a few political prisoners, but it is more significant that the number of political prisoners there has been increasing, sharply, in recent years.

Also for the record:  I don't recall seeing Obama's 2008 condition, but I would have thought that it was impractical, that the Castro regime would never agree to release all their political prisoners.)
- 8:12 AM, 22 December 2014   [link]

Mayor De Blasio's Three Legal Names:  It probably isn't important in understanding his politics, but I find it fascinating that the New York mayor has had three legal names, in this order: Warren Wilhelm, Jr., Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm, and Bill de Blasio.  That's right, he has twice changed his name, legally.

No doubt there are psychiatrists and psychologists who are even now trying to figure out what those changes tell us about his psychology.  (And, if you see an interesting effort along those lines, let me know.)

But you can learn much about him simply from that Wikipedia biography.  It is, I think, significant that he has never held a a regular job, never worked in the private sector.  In fact, I would go further and say that, as far as I can tell, he has never held a regular public job either, that all of his jobs fit under that old-fashioned, but still useful term: political agitator.

(Some will also find it of interest that his wife, Chirlane McCray, has a better natural tan than I do, and once claimed to be a lesbian, or that the two spent their honeymoon in Communist Cuba.)
- 7:33 AM, 22 December 2014   [link]

Were You Surprised By The Murder Of The Two New York Policemen?  I wasn't, and you shouldn't have been either.  When millions feel that the police murder young black men for no reason, and when thousands openly urge retaliatory murders of policemen, it becomes almost inevitable that some young man — and it is almost always a young man — will act on those feelings, will do what so many are urging him to do.

The late killer, Ismaaiyal Brinsley, acted on those feelings, acted on those urges, and so bears the direct responsibility for the deaths of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

But there are others, including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who bear some indirect responsibility for the deaths, for encouraging those feelings, and for tolerating those urges.

(In Seattle, the anti-police demonstrations have usually included attacks on the police, typically bottles thrown at them.  In general, the police — presumably acting on orders — do not arrest those attackers.  That this tolerance of violence is likely to encourage more violence either has not occurred to the city's leaders, or does not bother them.  I suspect that similar policies are being followed in other cities with "progressive" leaders.)
- 7:01 AM, 22 December 2014   [link]

The Curious Case Of The Missing Banks:  In Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, there was a pair of articles that puzzled me.  In the second article (which I won't bother to link to because I found it confusing), the Journal described the findings of a McKinsey report on world-wide banking profitability.
U.S. banks are leading the recovery, though profitability is still well off precrisis highs.   With profits of $114 billion in 2013, U.S. banks earned slightly less than the record they produced in 2007.
So — take your pick — US banks are almost earning record profits, or they are still far from their peak.

But put that aside (unless you have some reason to analyze the banking industry) and consider this point:  The US banking industry is making more money than it did a few years ago.   Profits, in other words, are growing.

So, you would expect those growing profits would attract new entrants, that businessmen would be founding new community banks, especially in fast-growing communities.

But that hasn't been happening according to the first article, describing an unusual case of an unhappy businessman setting up his own bank
Bill Greiner is fed up with banks. But instead of quietly seething or complaining to customer service, the 48-year-old is taking a more radical approach: He is trying to launch his own lender.

Mr. Greiner’s proposal, filed with regulators in October, is the first deposit-insurance application for a new bank that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has received all year.  If Primary Bank, Mr. Greiner’s proposed firm, wins approval, it would be only the second new bank the FDIC has cleared in the U.S. since 2010.  The FDIC declined to comment on Primary Bank.
If you read the whole article, you'll see that Greiner is planning to exploit a niche market of local businesses that have had trouble getting loans from larger, branch banks.  This is a standard tactic, and was often successful in the past, because a community bank can exploit local knowledge to make loans that a large bank wouldn't.

So, why is Greiner the only one doing this, the only one setting up such a bank?

The article mentions "renewed regulatory scrutiny, competition for a limited pool of loans and low interest rates" as problems for banks, but doesn't explain why they are such severe problems for new community banks.  Recall that banks as whole are profitable, and that their profits have been growing, which should make it easier to start new banks.

No doubt fear of another collapse is part of the explanation, but I can't help wondering whether increased regulation, especially Dodd-Frank, isn't the main reason we aren't seeing the new banks that we ought to see.

Something to think about, especially if you happen to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" this Christmas season.
- 8:32 AM, 19 December 2014   [link]

The Baby Bird That Pretends It's A Caterpillar:  A poisonous caterpillar
Let’s say you’re a baby bird.  In particular, you’re a chick belonging to the species Laniocera hypopyrra, which also goes by the elegant common name of the cinereous mourner.  You hatch out of your egg and find yourself in a nest up in tree in a rain forest in Peru.  You can’t fly. You can only wait for your parents to bring you food.  You are, in other words, easy pickings.

So what might you do to avoid getting snatched up by a predator?  Perhaps you might hold very still so as not to attract attention.  Perhaps you might also grow dull, bark-colored feathers to help you blend into you background.

If you’re a cinereous mourner, however, this is not what you do.  As you can see in this video, you grow brilliant orange plumage.  You make yourself absurdly easy to see.
And you look and act like a poisonous caterpillar (as yet unnamed) that is found in those same tree tops.

(This example of Batesian mimicry is the first to be found in a bird.)
- 7:10 AM, 19 December 2014   [link]

Methane On Mars:  Astronomers have detected "plumes" of methane on Mars.

Methane plumes on Mars

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.  "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif."

Methane -- four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom -- is the main component of natural gas on Earth.  It's of interest to astrobiologists because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients.  However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane.  "Right now, we don’t have enough information to tell if biology or geology -- or both -- is producing the methane on Mars," said Mumma.  "But it does tell us that the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense.  It's as if Mars is challenging us, saying, hey, find out what this means." Mumma is lead author of a paper on this research appearing in Science Express Jan. 15.

If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface, where it's still warm enough for liquid water to exist. Liquid water, as well as energy sources and a supply of carbon, are necessary for all known forms of life.
Bacterial life is so ubiquitous here on earth that I have long thought that we would find it on Mars, too, with the right kind of search.  It is just possible that such life might be very useful to us, as a few extremophiles have proved to be, here on earth.

The Curiosity Rover also detected the methane, and has found some carbon compounds, which gives us more weak evidence for life on Mars.

(Here's the Wikipedia article on methane.)
- 10:17 PM, 18 December 2014   [link]

I Can Think Of Two Countries Where Relations With The United States Have Improved Since Barack Obama Became President:  Iran and Cuba.

No doubt there are a few others; there are many countries, and I don't claim to be familiar with our relations with all of them.

But I can't think of any important democratic country where relations with the United States have improved, long term.

Nor can I think of any significant gains for the United States that have come out of Obama's negotiations with Iran and Cuba.
- 8:17 AM, 18 December 2014   [link]

It Isn't Every Week That "Seattle Congressman-For-Life" Jim McDermott And Florida Senator Marco Rubio Agree:  So, it is worth mentioning, when it happens.  The other day, Congressman McDermott said that President Obama doesn't know how to negotiate; today, Senator Rubio agreed.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) laid into President Barack Obama’s impending normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba on Fox News Wednesday morning, saying Obama had traded away concessions for “symbolic gestures,” and that Obama was “the worst negotiator that we’ve had as president…maybe in the modern history of the country.”
This accidental agreement would probably embarrass both men — assuming Congressman McDermott is capable of embarrassment.

And, no, I don't think this agreement reflects a new era of bipartisanship.  (But I do think that some pragmatic Democrats are going to be looking for ways to work with Republicans, even if that puts them in opposition to President Obama.)
- 1:39 PM, 17 December 2014   [link]

Cuba And Venezuela:  Last night, when I wrote that post on the likely bankruptcy of Venezuela, I didn't mention the effects such a bankruptcy would have on the Cuban regime.

But there is no doubt that they would be severe.  In fact, there are some who believe that the Cuban regime would have fallen already, had it not been for the support they receive from Venezuela, especially the almost free oil.  (In return, the Cuban regime has given the security services of the Venezuelan regime important assistance, how important it is hard to tell from public sources.)

So, after the Obama administration announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, I couldn't help but wonder whether Obama just saved the Cuban regime from that almost-inevitable collapse.

And whether we might not have gotten a much better deal, if we had waited a year or two before making that agreement.

(In principle, the Cubans could find another supportive regime, as they did after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it is hard to see a country that would give them the massive support they need, in return for the problems the Cubans can cause for democratic countries in Latin America, and for the United States.  Russia has been hurt almost as much as Venezuela by the collapse in the price of oil.  China doesn't mind causing us problems, for their own nationalist reasons, but it isn't obvious that they would want to spend the money they would have to, in order to prop up the Castro brothers.)
- 12:58 PM, 17 December 2014   [link]

247!  Congratulations to Congresswoman-elect Martha McSally.
Republicans will have their largest U.S. House majority in 83 years when the new Congress convenes next month after a recount in Arizona gave the final outstanding race to the Republican challenger.

Martha McSally won a House seat over Democratic incumbent Ron Barber by 167 votes out of about 220,000 cast, according to results released Wednesday.
And to Speaker Boehner and his team, for recruiting and backing the candidates who made this record victory possible.

(Here's my earlier post on the recount.

In general, recounts in American elections do not change the results, which is mildly encouraging.

Quibble:  I would say in 86 years, since I count these from election to election (1928-2014), not congressional term to congressional term.))
- 10:15 AM, 17 December 2014   [link]

When I Am In A Large Supermarket And See Someone Who Is Looking At The Shelves, but may not be able to reach the top items, I sometimes offer to help them.*  I never thought much of that small courtesy, and never would have been bothered by someone mistaking me for an employee — which has happened occasionally.

So this Michelle Obama incident, in which she describes being offended by being asked to help get something from a higher shelf, struck me as odd.  At first.

But then I realize that I live in a much more egalitarian world than she does.  I don't think of store employees as servants, and myself as a master.  In fact, the whole idea of servants has always been abstract to me, something I read about in books, but didn't encounter in my own life.  (I suspect that's true for most Americans, which may explain our fascination with shows like "Downton Abbey".)

But there are other Americans, I learned long ago from Tom Wolfe, who do not live in that same kind of egalitarian world.  For a celebrity leftist like the late Leonard Bernstein, servants are not just a routine part of their world, but a psychological necessity.

And the division between masters and servants, in their worlds, is sharp.

And so, by analogy, I think I can understand why Michelle Obama was offended.  But she shouldn't have been.

(*All right.  When I have offered my help, it has almost always been to a lady, but I would help a man, too, if asked.)
- 9:38 AM, 17 December 2014   [link]