January 2006, Part 2

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Disgraceful And Dangerous:  Jim Hoagland's grouping of Pat Robertson with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Praising the Almighty for striking down Israel's Ariel Sharon (or anyone else) expresses a particularly odious fanaticism.  American evangelist Pat Robertson and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both deserve condemnation for the warped sense of religion and the indecency each showed in attributing political motives to his own vengeful version of God.
Except that Pat Robertson did no such thing.  President Ahmadinejad has been calling for Israel to be wiped off the map and has not excluded nuclear war to accomplish that end.  (And he has been willing to accept the deaths of millions of Muslims, if necessary to accomplish that evil goal.)  Reverend Robertson speculated that God might have been unhappy with Ariel Sharon for giving away the Gaza strip.   A journalist who does not understand that those are two incredibly different things is not trying very hard.

I am tempted to reply in kind and draw a parallel between Hoagland and some Communist or Nazi hack, but there is a far more important point to make.  (Go ahead and draw a parallel yourself, if you want.)

When Hoagland groups Robertson and Ahmadinejad together, he smears Robertson.   That's disgraceful.  But, more important, that's dangerous, because it trivializes Ahmadinejad's threats by bringing them down to Robertson's level.

(Credit where due:  The editor of the Seattle Weekly, Knute Berger, who is not especially fond of Pat Robertson, got it right.
But I don't understand what Robertson did that was so wrong.  He simply expressed his belief that there was divine intervention in the political and military affairs of people at war in the so-called Holy Land.

Whether or not you agree with Sharon's politics or Robertson's faith or timing, surely speculating that God had a hand in things is not an unprecedented concept for their region.
And this is hardly the first offense for the Washington Post.  In 1993, the newspaper called the followers of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command".  More recently, columnist Richard Cohen called President Bush an "American Ayatollah.)
- 5:04 PM, 16 January 2006   [link]

"Fiery Belafonte Focuses On Injustice", Says The Headline:  Too bad he favors it, thought I.  That was not a thought that occurred to the reporter, Michael Biesecker, who covered Belafonte's appearance at Duke.   Did Biesecker not know that Belafonte has been supporting Communist causes and leaders for years?  For example:
In June 2000, Belafonte was a featured speaker at a rally in Castro's Cuba, honoring the American Soviet spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.  Tears, one observer reported, "streaked down" Belafonte's face, "as he recalled the pain and humiliation his friend [Paul] Robeson had been forced to endure" in 1950s America.   Undoubtedly, he was pleased to hear Cuba presented "as an example of keeping the principles the Rosenbergs fought and died for alive."
Or did Biesecker consider that part of Belafonte's resume another plus?

I can't tell from the article, but I would not be surprised if the answer to my last question is yes.
- 4:17 PM, 16 January 2006   [link]

You Have A Right Not To Be Offended:  Even if you are a career criminal.
A detective is facing disciplinary action by his force for referring to a career criminal as "pondlife" in a private conversation with another officer.

The detective constable, who faces possible dismissal from his job, has been told that the criminal "might have been offended" had he heard the remark, although he was not present at the time.
You might think that this happened in one of the sillier California cities, but actually it happened in Robin Hood's Nottingham.  It is only fair to add that many in England think this is nuts.

(An American officer would have said "pond scum".  I don't know whether different phrases are more popular on that side of the Atlantic, or whether the constable was trying to be discreet.  In any case, "pondlife" includes many plants and animals that most admire.  I can't say I followed the Muppets closely, but I would assume that Kermit was an example of "pondlife".)
- 3:40 PM, 16 January 2006   [link]

Fake Photo:  In the New York Times.   The artillery shell that the Times says is an exploded(!) missile is so obvious a fake that anyone with even a little knowledge of military matters would have known it was a fake.  Apparently, that large group does not include some of the reporters and editors at our newspaper of record.

In fact, you don't need any knowledge of military matters to recognized that the photo is a fake.  Just a little common sense would tell you that the artillery shell had not exploded.

You can find more on the Times' blunder in this informative post.
- 8:08 AM, 16 January 2006   [link]

The Dust is back.  And safely, apparently.
A spacecraft that could be a time capsule carrying the history of the solar system made a predawn landing in a muddy Utah desert yesterday, completing a seven-year journey of almost three billion miles with a fiery, pinpoint descent to Earth.

A spacecraft carrying comet and star dust it had collected in space streaked through the sky, then made a successful landing in a muddy Utah desert Sunday, completing a seven-year journey of nearly three billion miles.

The craft, a 100-pound sample container jettisoned from the Stardust explorer and bearing comet and star dust, landed at the Utah Test and Training Range of the Air Force, southwest of Salt Lake City, at 5:10 a.m. Eastern time after the sequential deployment of its two parachutes.
The aerogel used to catch the comet and star dust, without destroying it, is weird stuff.  You can read about it here and here.

And if you would like to help with the analysis of the dust, you can.   The researchers need many volunteers to find the tracks left by the dust grains in the aerogel.
- 7:50 AM, 16 January 2006   [link]

What Do People In Washington, DC, Watch?  It's not even close.
Washington likes to think of itself as a unique center of cosmopolitan life, a wonky place consumed with doing the world's business, a city where serious and diverse minds from around the globe hammer out matters of great import.

Perhaps Washington should take another look at itself -- if it can tear itself away from the tube.

You, there, in the seat of power, check out this revealing little statistic: The 20 most-watched programs on television in the past four months in the Washington area are about football.  Football.  Almost all Redskins, of course.
And I'll be joining the Washington fans this afternoon, though cheering — mildly — for their opponents, the Seattle Seahawks.

(There is a small political point to the game this afternoon; the Washington team's nickname, "Redskins", is more than a little politically incorrect and so the Seattle Times has directed its writers to avoid it.

These fights over nicknames mostly amuse me.  It turns out that there are a few other teams that use the "Redskin" nickname — all of them located on Indian reservations.  And my favorite example comes from the Portland Oregonian, which has an even more stringent rule against using these politically incorrect nicknames.  That prevented them from calling one high school team the "Braves".  The high school was located — you guessed it — on an Indian reservation.)
- 12:45 PM, 14 January 2006   [link]

Duck Blogging:  Last week, during a brief break in our rain, I saw these ducks playing in the waves.

The ducks on the right deserve a closer look.

(I took the picture using the Olympus C-765's sport mode, which does a good job of stopping the action, at least in sun light.)
- 2:45 PM, 13 January 2006   [link]

But What Was His Motive?  He murdered a Turkish editor and attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II.  We are reasonably sure we know the motive for the murder, but we are still uncertain about the motive for the assassination attempt.
The release from prison of Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turk who narrowly failed in his attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, has understandably revived interest in one of the great unsolved whodunnits of the 20th century.
The help he received from the Bulgarians, who were then controlled by the Soviet Union, has made many suspect that the KGB was behind the assassination attempt.  But there are some oddities in the case, as the editorial notes.

Why didn't these ties to the Soviet Union receive more attention?  I've always thought that Claire Sterling, who wrote a book about the case, The Time of the Assassins, was right when she argued that authorities in the West wanted detente with the Soviet Union so much that they did not want to know about any connection.

(It's of less importance, but it is worth noting that, having killed a man in one country, and almost killed a man in another country, Agca is free.  I can understand why some object to capital punishment, but I can not understand why some countries choose not to impose real life sentences on this kind of criminal.)
- 6:29 AM, 13 January 2006   [link]

Science Shorts:  

(Picture by Jeff Martz.)

  • An early flying dinosaur, Microraptor gui, was a biplane, anticipating the Wright brothers by about 125 million years.  Aeronautical engineers say this parallel makes sense, because, although biplanes do not perform as well as monoplanes, they are more stable.

  • Mirror neurons are smarter than most neurons.
    The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.
    No one seems to have any idea how they do that.

  • The Stardust has gone on just one trip and only has three billion miles on the odometer.  And the dust that it is bringing back should get a very high appraisal on the Antiques Roadshow, if only for its age.

  • Opportunity and Spirit have been on Mars for two years (or one Martian year) and just keep going.  That's about six times as long as the mission's principal investigator, Professor Steven W. Squyres, expected.

  • Don't jump out of bed and drive off to work.
    If you're the type to stumble about as though drunk on first getting out of bed, scientists can now back up your behaviour as reasonable.  A team has shown that people are as woozy when they wake as they are after drinking several beers.
    Time will sober you up in either case.

  • Trained dogs are as good as lab tests at detecting some kinds of cancer.

  • On the other hand, the most common tests for prostate cancer, prostate specific antigen and digital examination, do not appear to improve survival rates.  If you are an American man of a certain age, you'll probably get both tests, anyway, since doctors fear lawsuits.
- 1:29 PM, 12 January 2006   [link]

Post-Bork Hearings:  After the Democrats defeated Robert Bork, the hearings on Republican nominees have become much less interesting.   As everyone (except, perhaps, Robert Bork) understands, Bork was defeated because he answered the questions.  And so, ever since, Republican nominees have avoided answering questions.  Democratic senators, led by moral exemplars such as Ted Kennedy, have tried to fight back by looking for dirt.  And since no one has led a perfect life, they have generally succeeded in finding a splatter or two on every nominee, but seldom enough mud to stop the nomination.

As a result, the hearings on Republican nominees are both boring and, from time to time, mean-spirited, which is why I haven't been paying much attention to the hearings on Samuel Alito.   And I see that others are doing the same.  Dan Drezner, rather than discuss the hearings, has asked his readers to identify the single dumbest thing said by a senator during the hearings.  And, as I learned from Marty Mazur, Sean Gleeson has responded with photo captions, which are way more fun, in my opinion, than listening to the hearings.

(If you have different tastes, you can follow the hearings at this special Pajama Media site.  And I noticed this morning that Captain Ed has a whole set of posts on the hearings.)
- 11:02 AM, 12 January 2006   [link]

You'd Think The Market For Cars would be brisk in France.  
PARIS, France (UPI) -- PSA Peugeot Citroen SA, Europe`s second-largest carmaker, Wednesday issued its third profit warning in as many months.
. . .
The company said its worldwide sales rose 0.4 percent during 2005, reaching 3.39 million units, but sales in its core European market actually dropped 2.1 percent to 2.36 million.
Considering how many cars have been torched there.  By the way, the "youths", as the journalists like to call them, have not stopped burning cars, though the numbers are down; they just aren't getting as much attention for their acts of arson.

(Speaking of businesses, I would hate to own a company that insures French automobiles.)
- 5:46 AM, 12 January 2006   [link]

Not Sure We Should Believe this story.  
Beijing - North Korean leader Kim Jong II has disappeared in China. His luxurious special train which reportedly crossed the border into China Tuesday morning at Dandong was nowhere to be found Wednesday.

'We really would like to know where he is, but we simply don't have a clue,' said a South Korean military attache, who added he felt he was left in the lurch by his own intelligence services.
. . .
Instead of visiting Shanghai or Beijing, Kim Jong Il would do better to get to Macao as quickly as possible, observers joked, referring to an investigation into North Korean deposits in a bank in the southern Chinese enclave formerly administrated by Portugal.
. . .
Kim Jong II's financial problems began in September when the United States took punitive measures against Macao's Banco Delta Asia, which allegedly helped North Korea distribute counterfeit U.S. dollars.  The U.S. authorities are said to have seized fake U.S. bank notes produced by North Korea estimated at 45 million dollars.
. . .
The U.S. also froze the assets of eight North Korean companies suspected of involvement in the proliferation of technology used for weapons of mass destruction.  The measures struck at the heart of the North Korean regime.  The U.S. wanted to destroy the North Korea system with the sanctions 'by stopping its blood flow', the North Korean foreign ministry complained bitterly.
Sounds too good to be true, though I like the idea of getting rid of a dictator by cutting off his allowance.

(I did a very quick search on news stories about Kim to see if other reporters confirmed this story.  A number said that he had disappeared, though it was not clear whether they had independent sources.  One story said that Kim had arrived in Shanghai by jet — which would be his first airplane trip, ever.  (Note that the source for that story was an unidentified South Korean diplomat.)  And the cautious New York Times mentions the report that Kim is visiting China, but is not sure how Kim got there.  And I don't know anything about the reliability of the Deutsche Presse-Agentur, or their reporter, Andreas Landwehr.)
- 5:23 AM, 12 January 2006   [link]

Talk Like A Sailor?  Then you had better not join the Navy.  
Navy Lt. Bryan D. Black, a U.S. Naval Academy faculty member, thought he was just shooting the breeze when he told a midshipman that getting on a battleship turned him on.

Such was the sentiment, at least, though the language was saltier than the Chesapeake Bay, where an inspired Black was serving as safety officer on an oceanographic cruise aboard a "yard patrol craft."

Unfortunately for Black, among the midshipmen was at least one sensitive female.   He also made some other equally spicy comments about his ex-wife, of whom he apparently is no longer fond, that were overheard by, but not spoken in front of, female midshipmen.
Lieutenant Black apologized, but that was not enough for the midshipman's (midshipwoman's?) supervisor, Lieutenant Commander Michelle Whisenhunt.  Lieutenant Black is now facing a court martial.  For talking like a sailor.  I am not making that up.

What do I think should happen?  The Navy should get rid of Commander Whisenhunt for the good of the service and the nation.  And the Navy should take a careful look at the officers who promoted her into her present position.

(I am quite consistent in my position.  I try to keep this site suitable for children, even old-fashioned children, but I think that a sensible person should not take great offense at a few overheard words.

Or even, in most cases, a few words directed at them.  Late last year, a comment of mine over at the academic site, Crooked Timber, inspired, if that is the word, an obscene and perhaps slanderous attack by the author of the post.  I was mostly amused, though I do plan to come back to the subject because of what it shows about the standards that are now accepted in our colleges and universities.)
- 9:00 AM, 11 January 2006   [link]

Abramoff Scandal May Snare Republicans:  And Democrats.
A Justice Department investigation into influence-peddling on Capitol Hill is focusing on a "first tier" of lawmakers and staffers, both Republicans and Democrats, say sources close to the probe that has netted guilty pleas from lobbyist Jack Abramoff.   Law-enforcement authorities and others said the investigation's opening phase is scrutinizing Sens. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican; Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat; and Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, along with Reps. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican, and Bob Ney, Ohio Republican.
If those five were indicted, it would damage both parties about equally.  I still expect, as I said here, that the scandal will be less important than many past Congressional scandals.
- 8:00 AM, 11 January 2006   [link]

Does James Risen Believe In Democracy?  The New York Times reporter who broke the NSA story gets interviewed by Katie Couric and reveals strange views.
COURIC: Meanwhile, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet do not come across very well in this book.

Mr. RISEN: Well, I--I think that during a period from about 2000--from 9/11 through the beginning of the Gulf--the war in Iraq, I think what happened was you--we--the checks and balances that normally keep American foreign policy and national security policy towards the center kind of broke down.  And you had more of a radicalization of American foreign policy in which the--the--the career professionals were not really given a chance to kind of forge a consensus within the administration.  And so you had the--the--the principles [sic] --Rumsfeld, Cheney and Tenet and Rice and many others--who were meeting constantly, setting policy and really never allowed the people who understand--the experts who understand the region to have much of a say.

COURIC: You suggest there were a lot of power-grabbing going on.
Michael Barone, who spotted this, had this reaction.
What a scandal!  Presidential appointees like Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, and Condoleezza Rice and an elected official like Dick Cheney were meeting together!   How dare they?  And they were settling policy!  Astonishing! What will such people dare to do next?

Risen makes it quite clear how he thinks the government should be run.  Elected officials like the president and vice president and top presidential appointees should sit quietly in their chairs.  They should not meet, at least not very often.  They should wait for career government employees—"the experts who understand the region"—to "forge a consensus."  Policy should always be kept "toward the center," regardless of what the American people or their elected president think.
Couric's reaction says it all; elected officials and their direct appointees were trying to grab power from the bureaucracies.  That, she and Risen agree, is terrible — in spite of the fact that the bureaucracies had failed so badly before 9/11.  And in spite of the fact that, in democracies, elected officials are supposed to set policy.

Risen's views, however undemocratic, are understandable if you realize that reporters often come to identify with their sources.  He is just passing on what many bureaucrats believe, that only they have the knowledge to make decisions.   That this is fundamentally undemocratic probably does not occur to them, or to Risen and Couric.

(The whole transcript is worth reading if you want evidence for the view that talking heads like Couric are not necessarily very well informed.  For instance, she asks Risen whether Saddam's WMDs had not been destroyed by the "bombing strafe" during the first Gulf War.  Even setting aside her confusion on military teminology, that shows a remarkable ignorance about both the first Gulf War and the inspections that followed.
- 7:25 AM, 11 January 2006   [link]

Global Warming Debate Settled, claims Australian economist John Quiggin.  The debate in the comments following his post shows that he may be a little premature.

Let me begin with an essential mathematical point that I have made before.  Some climatologists believe that climate is chaotic, that it is inherently unpredictable.   I am not an expert on the subject, but I know that the long term climate record, which shows sudden changes in the climate long before man came on the scene, supports that view.  And let me add a point about simulations that I have also made before:  The predictions about future climates do not come from the solution of a simple equation or two, but from running very large computer simulations.  How good are those simulations?  It is hard to tell, even for experts in the field.  Or fields, I should say, because judging them requires the expertise of — at least — computer experts and climatologists.

In the past, those simulations were not very good.  I have read that they were unable to "postdict" past climates, that they gave seriously wrong results when applied to the 19th century.  Perhaps the simulations are now far better than they were, though the difficulty of the problem makes me dubious about that possibility.

And the debate has not even begun over what I would consider the most important question:  If the earth does warm a few degrees, would that be, net, a good thing or a bad thing?  Quiggin and his supporters in the comments simply assume that it would be a bad thing, but every serious student of the subject agrees that some areas might benefit from slightly warmer climates.  Would there be more of those areas than areas which are hurt by the change?  If Quiggin knows the answer to that question, he never reveals it.  And Quiggin never really confronts the argument made by (among others) Bjorn Lomborg.  It may be, Lomborg has argued, that global warming will be a bad thing, net, but avoiding it is not the best policy, because avoiding it is so costly.  It would be better, Lomborg has argued, to spend the money on programs with higher payoffs, such as providing clean water to the hundreds of millions in the third world who do not have it.

Finally, since Quiggin began by noting that "2005 was the warmest year ever recorded in Australia", I will end with these bits of news from Japan
With yet another round of heavy snow falling Sunday along the Sea of Japan, the Japan Meteorological Agency issued a warning that avalanches could occur, especially in many mountainous areas capped with more than 3 meters of accumulated snow.
And from India.
Millions of people in the Indian capital woke yesterday to the coldest weather in 70 years, as the death toll from northern India's cold spell rose to 116, a police spokesman and the Meteorology Department said.

The toll included nine people who froze to death overnight in Uttar Pradesh state, Mahendra Verma, a spokesman for the state police, said in Lucknow, the state capital.
People in those countries might be forgiven for thinking that a bit of global warming might not be all bad.

(As always when I write about global warming, I urge you to read my disclaimer, if you have not already done so.)
- 3:47 PM, 10 January 2006   [link]

What Kind Of People Are Our Enemies?:  In Iraq, the kind of people who murder children while they are getting candy from American soldiers.   And in Afghanistan, the kind of people who murder teachers who include girls in their schools.
Suspected Taliban gunmen burned down a primary school in Afghanistan's main southern city Sunday, the latest in a spate of attacks against teachers and institutions that educate girls.
. . .
On Tuesday, however, suspected rebels beheaded the headmaster of another coed school in the region.

The Taliban maintains that educating girls is against Islam and also opposes government-funded schools for boys because they teach subjects besides religion.
This is one of the many reasons I am not bothered by learning that we sometimes listen to our enemies' conversations.
- 10:57 AM, 10 January 2006   [link]

Jane Fonda Peaked with her movie, Barbarella — at least in my humble opinion.  And now we have conclusive proof that Harry Belafonte peaked with the Banana Boat Song.
The American singer and activist Harry Belafonte called President Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world" on Sunday and said millions of Americans support the socialist revolution of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Belafonte led a delegation of Americans including the actor Danny Glover and the Princeton University scholar Cornel West that met the Venezuelan president for more than six hours late Saturday.  Some in the group attended Chavez's television and radio broadcast Sunday.

"No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush says, we're here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people ... support your revolution," Belafonte told Chavez during the broadcast.
Bush demonstrated his tyranny by ignoring Belafonte and company.

Oh well, the song is still fun.  But UNICEF might want to look for a better "goodwill ambassador".
- 9:32 AM, 10 January 2006   [link]

Unpleasant People Aren't Necessarily Wrong:  By most accounts, anthropologist Margaret Mead was a pleasant woman, even after she became famous.  According to a new psychological biography by Hiram Caton, anthropologist Derek Freeman had a narcissistic personality disorder.
People with a narcissistic-personality disorder are generally arrogant, exploitative, and unempathetic, while exhibiting a grandiose sense of self-importance, observes Mr. Caton.  They are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success or brilliance, and they believe that they are "special" and can be understood only by other special people.
Freeman was, in short, an unpleasant and troubled man.

But Freeman was right and Mead was wrong, terribly wrong, about Samoa.  The easy going, sexually casual place that Mead depicted in Coming of Age in Samoa never existed, as Freeman showed in his book, Margaret Mead and Samoa, and in other works.  And Mead and her mentor Franz Boas were wrong to believe that culture determines nearly all, that humans are more malleable than we really are, and that the right nurture can shape our societies to almost any desired pattern.

I would even argue — assuming Caton is right in his diagnosis — that Freeman's personality disorder may have made him just the person to debunk Mead.  It takes, after all, a certain arrogance to claim that the world's most famous anthropologist completely botched her first assignment.  A less arrogant man might have suspected that Mead was wrong — but chosen other problems to work on, if only to help his own career.

(Overemphasizing culture, as Boas and Mead did, had many unfortunate effects on policies in United States and other western countries.  For example, many of the programs in Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty assumed that people are easy to change, just as Boas and Mead believed.  We learned from the failure of those programs just how wrong that belief often is.  And the tuition for that lesson was appallingly high.)
- 8:06 AM, 10 January 2006   [link]

Worth Reading:  The Weekly Standard has a pair of pieces on the links between Saddam and terrorism.  As we slowly learn more about his regime's policies in its last years, we are learning that his links to terrorists were greater than we thought before the liberation of Iraq .
The former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein trained thousands of radical Islamic terrorists from the region at camps in Iraq over the four years immediately preceding the U.S. invasion, according to documents and photographs recovered by the U.S. military in postwar Iraq.  The existence and character of these documents has been confirmed to THE WEEKLY STANDARD by eleven U.S. government officials.

The secret training took place primarily at three camps--in Samarra, Ramadi, and Salman Pak--and was directed by elite Iraqi military units.  Interviews by U.S. government interrogators with Iraqi regime officials and military leaders corroborate the documentary evidence.  Many of the fighters were drawn from terrorist groups in northern Africa with close ties to al Qaeda, chief among them Algeria's GSPC and the Sudanese Islamic Army.  Some 2,000 terrorists were trained at these Iraqi camps each year from 1999 to 2002, putting the total number at or above 8,000
Perhaps much greater.
Other officials familiar with the captured documents were less cautious.  "As much as we overestimated WMD, it appears we underestimated [Saddam Hussein's] support for transregional terrorists," says one intelligence official.
We are learning slowly because we are slow in exploiting the millions of documents captured in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The Defense Department can't (or won't) analyze these documents quickly and is unwilling to release them to others, even though many are not classified.  The Weekly Standard has complained before about the unwillingness of the Defense Department to release these documents, and I think they are right to complain again.
- 1:14 PM, 9 January 2006   [link]

The Holiday That Dare Not Speak Its Name:  If there is a toddler near by, ask them to look at the picture below and tell you what it is.

They'll probably think you are a little silly, but they will almost certainly tell you that it is a Christmas tree.  They will be wrong.  The tree is the official Kirkland tree and, as such, must be not a Christmas tree, but a "holiday tree".  And if you look closely at it, you will see that the decorators tried hard to keep it a holiday tree.  At first glance, it appears to have a star on top, but with a closer look, you can see that the decoration is actually a snowflake.  The "Peace on Earth" slogan below the tree may be Christian in origin, but it is not specifically Christian.   And so on.

So we have something that resembles a Christmas tree, but is not.  And you would find the same pattern in nearly all the decorations in down town Kirkland.  They look like Christmas decorations, but, with the possible exception of a Santa Claus or two, they are actually "holiday" decorations.

To me, this seems bizarre.  Christmas is celebrated by well over 90 percent of the population, but we dare not say its name.  "Christmas" gets replaced by "holiday" even in company with other holidays, as I mentioned in this post.  I think this is a mistake, even for those who do not celebrate Christmas.

If we stop saying "holiday" when we mean "Christmas", it will be easier to see the right thing to do.  For instance, we can see that it would be inappropriate for Kirkland to spend money on an official Christmas tree.  (But acceptable for the town to allow a church to put one up in a public space.)  And those without Christian beliefs might find it easier to respect those who celebrate Christmas for religious reasons.

For instance, if we said "Christmas present", rather than "holiday present", we might understand that recommending a fancy version of the Marquis de Sade for a present, as the Seattle Times did a few years ago, would offend many.  From what I have read about the Marquis, I would doubt that he ever really had the Christmas spirit.  (But even changing from "holiday" to "Christmas" would probably not persuade the book editor at the Seattle Times to ask Christian leaders to recommend appropriate books.)

Changing from "holiday" back to "Christmas" might even make the last weeks of the year a little less crassly commercial, something that would benefit all of us, whether we celebrate Christmas or not.
- 10:27 AM, 9 January 2006   [link]

SuSE's Gecko:  For reasons I have never seen explained, SuSE uses a gecko as its symbol.  (It isn't because geckos are common near SuSE's offices; the company began in Germany and is now a subsidiary of Novell, which is located in Utah.)  Their designers have a taste for flashy backgrounds and so, until I change the defaults, my main screen looks like this:

I suppose I will leave the gecko up for a while, but I don't think I will ever get fond of it.

(This isn't their only flashy background.  They also use a red screen filled with cartoon bombs for the root user.  I suppose the idea is to warn you of the damage that you can do as root (in Microsoft Windows, administrator), but I just find it distracting.)
- 7:13 AM, 9 January 2006
Correction:  Actually, that's a chameleon, not a gecko, as I learned from David Fleck.  (It's a common mistake; a Google search on "SuSE + gecko" got almost twice as many hits as a search on "SuSE + chameleon".)  I still have no clue as to why they used a lizard for their symbol.
- 5:38 AM, 15 January 2006   [link]

Letters Editor Or Censor?  Yesterday, the public editor of the New York Times published 11 letters commenting on the Times coverage of the NSA surveillance story.  Several of the letters included viewpoints seldom seen in the Times — even in letters.  For instance, there was this letter from Steve Cochran of Dallas:
You seem to believe that the wrong was in delaying publication of the surveillance article.  I disagree.  The wrong was in publication of classified information, which is of use to enemies of this country.  It increased the exposure to risk for my family.  For that, I fervently hope the individuals who decided to publish the article, and the paper that published it, are severely punished.
That's a common view, but it is not one that appears often in the Times in articles, editorials, or even letters to the editor.  On this subject, as on so many others, the letters editor at the Times acts more as a censor than a letters editor.

That censorship has annoyed me for years, as I have said here, here, here, and here  And I am not the only one who has raised this complaint.  In the second post, you will find a link to a column by the first public editor at the Times, Daniel Okrent, in which he notes that many readers have the same complaint.  What bothers me most is that the New York Times applies standards to letters that it does not apply to its columns, editorials, or even articles.

Expecting reform at the New York Times would be foolish, unless there is a new publisher or another great scandal.  So let me make a small suggestion:  Rename the position to more accurately reflect the current policies:  The newspaper should call Thomas Feyer not the "letters editor", but the "censor".

(If you have a taste for the absurd, you may want to read this May 2004 column, in which Feyer claims that "healthy, informed debate is the lifeblood of a strong democracy".  If he actually believed that, he would print more letters critical of the Times.)
- 6:05 AM, 9 January 2006   [link]