June 2013, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

If You're Going To San Francisco, Don't Plan On Becoming a landlord, says Scott James.
I feel a twinge of guilt for those who want to settle in this glorious city but can't find a flat.  But after renting out a one-bedroom apartment in my home for several years, I would never do it again.  San Francisco's anti-landlord housing laws and political climate make it untenable.
After evicting a destructive tenant, James learned this:
A few days later, I happened to receive a call from the city about our property-tax appraisal.  Among the questions: was anyone renting our downstairs?

Not right now, I said.

Well, the clerk explained, because of the city's troublesome rental laws, a tenant-free property is much more valuable.
Not a little more valuable, much more valuable.

Former landlords, like James, prefer paying higher property taxes to having a tenant.

(This is the kind of thing Obama was probably thinking of when he made his joke about Democrats favoring a "light touch" with regulations.)
- 2:46 PM, 8 June 2013   [link]

President Obama Does Tell A Good Joke, occasionally.
Making a pitch for Democratic candidates in 2014, President Obama told big donors in California Thursday night that Democrats favor free-market solutions and less government regulation.

“It turns out we’re pretty common-sense folks,” Mr. Obama said at a fundraiser at a private home in Palo Alto, Calif.  “We believe in the free market [and] a light touch when it comes to regulations.”
Note the way he sets up the punch line with the "common-sense" and "free market" phrases, so that you are aware that he is joking by the time he gets to "light touch" with regulations.  Good joke tellers often use that trick, telling you a series of increasingly implausible things, until you realize they are joking.

(I am aware, of course, of other interpretations.  It is possible, of course, that Obama was trying to please his immediate audience, as politicians often do, and it is also possible — though dismaying — that Obama actually believes what he said, or something close to it.

But I think my explanation is the most pleasant of the three.)
- 2:17 PM, 8 June 2013   [link]

Like You, I Have Heard The Stories About The Data Mining Of Phone And Internet Records:  So far, I have come to no strong opinion on either program, in large part because I am not sure, even roughly, what the programs are doing.

I will pass along, without endorsement, this Wall Street Journal editorial, supporting the NSA phone records data mining.
Well, another day, another Washington furor.  This one is over a National Security Agency phone data monitoring program, but unlike the other White House scandals there seems to be little here that is scandalous.  The existence of the program was exposed years ago and such surveillance is a core part of the war on terror, if we can still use that term.
The editorial does not mention the mysterious PRISM program, which might be more worrisome, if we knew what it was actually doing.

I will add two general thoughts:  First, the Internet and the spread of surveillance cameras everywhere in urban areas has decreased our expectations of privacy — while we are in public places.  As I have said before, we are returning to what anyone who has lived in a small town would find familiar:  We should assume that almost anything we do in a public place can become public knowledge.

Second, private companies have been collecting immense amounts of data on us, sometimes with our explicit consent, sometimes with our implicit consent, and sometimes without our consent.  In my billfold, I have two supermarket cards.  Every time I use one, the company records my purchases.  I knew this when I accepted the card, and decided that access to their specials was worth the loss in privacy.  (And, if I want to preserve my privacy on a particular purchase, I can buy with cash at a store where I am not recognized, without handing my card to the checker.)

Similarly, Google gives me a free email account, in return for scanning my emails for data it can sell to advertisers.  I'm not sure that I quite understood just how much privacy I was giving up when I signed up for the account, though I did read the terms.  (And I have been thinking of switching to a different, more private, email account because I trust Google less now than I did then.)

So we have even less reason to expect privacy than we once did, and there is nothing unusual about large organizations collecting, and analyzing the data they collect about us.

I am not implying that either of those programs is appropriate in principle, or that they haven't been abused by the Obama or Bush administrations.  I simply don't know enough, now, to come to any conclusions on those questions.
- 9:37 AM, 7 June 2013   [link]

Like Ski Masks, Burkas are good disguises for crooks.

Even better in some ways, since you rarely see ski masks in urban areas, except in the coldest weather, and you can conceal weapons in a burka, easily.

Expect to see other crooks use them in the same way this gang did.
- 8:50 AM, 7 June 2013   [link]

"US Secretary Of State John Kerry Looks Like A Bit Of An Idiot These Days."  It's hard to resist reading a column with that lead sentence, and so I didn't.

Here's the context:
US Secretary of State John Kerry looks like a bit of an idiot these days.  On Monday he announced that he will be returning to Israel and the Palestinian Authority and Jordan for the fifth time since he was sworn into office on February 1.  That is an average of more than one visit a month.

And aside from frequent flier miles, the only thing he has to show for it is a big black eye from PLO chief and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Which is exactly what anyone who has been paying attention to the Middle East over the last twenty years would have expected.

Kerry's trips haven't gotten much attention in the United States, thanks to the many Obama administration scandals, but you you may want to read more of the column, if only to learn about Kerry's fantasy plan for $4 billion in aid to the PLO.

And you may want to remind yourself that this fantasy plan must have been approved by President Obama.

(Do either Obama or Kerry know about the study that found that increases in aid to the PLO are correlated with increases in terrorist attacks by the PLO?  Probably not.  But they must know that very large amounts of that aid was stolen by the kleptocrats who run the PLO.)

When Obama chose Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton, I expected Kerry to be less competent than Clinton.  Clinton had no significant accomplishments as secretary of state, but her failures were, relatively, small.  (She may have benefited from her husband's failures, and his advice.  It is no secret, for instance, that Bill Clinton failed to get Yasser Arafat to agree to move further toward peace with Israel, and that he advised George W. Bush not to put much effort into that kind of "peace process".)  Similarly, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is less competent than Leon Panetta, and Susan Rice is less competent than the man she will be replacing, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

Even worse, according to a number of reports, Obama now feels less constrained — I think that's a polite way to say it — by his critics, especially his critics in the Republican Party.

All in all, we have good reason to fear that the Obama-Kerry-Hagel-Rice foreign policy team will commit serious blunders before Obama leaves office in January 2017.
- 7:15 AM, 7 June 2013   [link]

The Pilot Pickup Didn't Hit The Skagit River Bridge, according to the driver.
In a statement released through a public-relations firm, the driver, Tammy DeTray, said she took her responsibilities “very seriously.”

At the time of the May 23 accident, DeTray said she was driving with an indicator pole set above the clearance height for the truck “and in compliance with regulations for a pilot car.”

She said she was talking on a cellphone with her husband about a work-related matter, using a hands-free device “in complete compliance with the law.”

At no time did the indicator pole touch the bridge, DeTray said in the statement — her first public comments since the accident.  If the pole had hit the bridge, DeTray said, she would have radioed a warning to the truck driver.
The Seattle Times reporter, Jim Brunner, notes that DeTray did not say which lane she had been in.  (The left lane has about two more feet of clearance than the right.)

But he does not note — perhaps because he had not seen the same picture of the pickup that I did — that the indicator pole was mounted at the center of the pickup, mounted, in other words, where there would have been about one more foot of clearance than there was at the far right.

(The authorities are looking for a truck driver who may have passed the over-height truck, pinning it in the right lane.)
- 1:18 PM, 6 June 2013   [link]

Capra's D-Day Photographs.

(The book that has taught me the most about D-Day is John Keegan's Six Armies in Normandy.  (The six armies came, in order, from the United States, Canada, Scotland, England, Germany, Poland, and France.)

What I found most interesting about in the book was Keegan's discussion of the making of the grand strategy that preceded the invasion, and the problems that each nation faced.  Until I read the book, I had not known that our grand strategy was set in large part by Albert C. Wedemeyer, then an obscure lieutenant-colonel, who had a "unique insight into German tactical operations", and, I must add, German strategy, since he had studied at the "German war college Kriegsakademie in Berlin, 1936-38".  Nor had I known about the World War I conscription crisis in Canada, or the remarkable records of the Polish 1st Armoured Division (1 Dywizja Pancern) and the French 2nd Armoured Division (2e Division Blindée).

Keegan does not spend much time explaining why the Allies won in Normandy, since he does not see it as a difficult problem:
The result might have been foreseen: the instantaneous concentration of eight first-class divisions against three weak divisions and the almost immediate reinforcement of the attackers by another four divisions.  On the first day, therefore, the Allies were to achieve a superiority of four to one on the ground, which the intervention of a single panzer division could do almost nothing to redress. (p. 332)
(I would say two weak divisions, and one regular division, the 352nd, which opposed the landings at the Omaha beach.  In contrast, the Canadians, landing at Juno beach, faced part of a bodenständige division, the 716th.))
- 10:01 AM, 6 June 2013   [link]

Those "Tolerant" Cantabrigians And Muslim Radicalization:   Yesterday, the New York Times published a very funny article describing the distress that many residents of Cambridge, Massachusetts feel about the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers.

(The reporter, Jess Bidgood, did not intend it as a humorous piece, which makes it even funnier.)

The Cantabrigians are distressed because they can't understand how the brothers could have become so radicalized, in a place so tolerant — by local standards.

A town that includes Harvard and MIT is likely to have residents that are more highly educated than the average, but somehow these educated Cantabrigians have failed to notice that for centuries universities in the West, and university towns in the West, have turned out radicals.  In recent decades, those have included violent Muslim radicals, notably Mohamed Atta.

They have also failed to notice that conservatives do not see our universities as tolerant places, but, often, as "island[s] of repression in a sea of freedom".  And those same conservatives will tell you — if you are willing to listen — that most university towns do not welcome certain kinds of diversity.

They are, as James Taranto says, hypocrites
But it's important to understand the way these people think, because their way of thinking has wide cultural influence.  And naiveté isn't the only problem with the ideologues of "diversity" or "multiculturalism."  They're also quite frequently hypocritical, which is to say that they are selectively and sometimes harshly intolerant even as they extol tolerance.  Anyone who's spent time on an American college campus in the past 30 years--and that includes a large proportion of Cambridge residents--is familiar with that phenomenon.
Above all, they have failed to notice that leftist critiques of the West, especially the United States and Israel, often inspire Muslim radicals.  The radicals accept those critiques — but propose a different solution.  It is not an accident that Osama bin Laden often sounded like Noam Chomsky, for years the most famous Cantabrigian.  (He lives in nearby Lexington, but he did his research and teaching in Cambridge.)

The most likely places, in the West, for a young Muslim man to become radicalized are the places where Chomsky's ideas have the most support, places, in other words, like Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But few residents of that university town know that — and almost none of them want to know that.
- 8:15 AM, 6 June 2013   [link]

You May Have Thought I Was Joking When I Suggested That Susan Rice's Basketball Skills Might Have Something To Do With Her Latest Appointment:  Before you conclude that I was joking, listen to what President Obama said about her, when he announced her appointment as National Security Advisor.

Start about 7:40 into the video and you'll hear Obama say that she has a "great tennis game, and a pretty good basketball game".  Note that this came in the middle of Obama's praise for Rice, not as an introductory, or ending, light note.

And then there is the very high proportion of basketball players among Obama's friends, and close advisors.  The first group shouldn't matter to us, but it is fair to wonder about the second.
- 7:30 PM, 5 June 2013   [link]

My Math Friends Will Probably Like this New Yorker cartoon.
- 6:48 PM, 5 June 2013   [link]

In Nominating Susan Rice And Samantha Power To New Positions, President Obama Has Chosen Two Women With Distinctly Different Positions On Genocide:   Or at least distinctly different past positions, on that terrible issue.

First, the news, just in case you missed it.
In a move sure to provoke congressional Republicans, President Obama appointed embattled U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice Wednesday to serve as his national security adviser.

And Mr. Obama nominated former aide Samantha Power, who once referred to Hillary Rodham Clinton as a “monster” in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, to succeed Ms. Rice as U.N. ambassador.
While Rice was in the Clinton administration, she urged silence on the Rwandan genocide, in order to help the Democrats in the 1994 election.

And the person most responsible for revealing that was Samantha Power.

Which position, that you should ignore genocide if it will help you politically, or that you should not, comes closest to President Obama's thinking?

Here's a hint from 2007, during his first presidential campaign:
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.
That sounds more like the 1994 Susan Rice position than the 2002 Samantha Power position.

For what it is worth, the National Security Advisor would usually be more important on issues of genocide than the UN ambassador.

(Here's a list of our National Security Advisors.   Most were more impressive than the both the current advisor, Tom Donilon, and Susan Rice; few were as good basketball players in high school as she was.)
- 2:19 PM, 5 June 2013   [link]

Jonathan Alter, Leftist Ideologue/Real Reporter:  I can't say that I have paid much attention, over the years, to Jonathan Alter, but I was struck by the interesting mixture that comes out in Michiko Kakutani's review of Alter's latest book, The Center Holds.

First, the leftist ideologue:
Mr. Alter's thesis is that the 2012 election was possibly "the most consequential" in recent times, and a "hinge of history" — "a titanic ideological struggle" that put the "social contract established during the New Deal era" on the line.  He readily acknowledges that he thinks the United States "dodged a bullet," in 2012 and that in re-electing Barack Obama and rejecting the Republicans' "extremist" views, America reaffirmed its identity as an essentially "centrist nation".
Hence, Alter's title, The Center Holds.

To believe that President Obama is a "centrist", or that Mitt Romney was campaigning as an "extremist" requires one to be blind, or to be a leftist ideologue, who sees everything from the far left.  That closed-minded view is a serious, perhaps even fatal, defect in a political analyst, but that hasn't prevented Alter from being employed as one by "mainstream" news organizations, for decades.

Although Alter is trapped by his ideology when he attempts to analyze policy, he is enough of a real reporter to tell us some disturbing things about President Obama.  Obama is poor at working with other politicians, lacks experience in negotiations and management, is handicapped by his obsession with race, and is a poor judge of other people.

For example, according to Alter, Obama believed that Mitt Romney was a "liar and an empty suit".  Romney, from what I have seen, is somewhat better than the average politician at telling the truth — and way better than Obama.  A man who simultaneously earned business and law degrees from Harvard, had a spectacularly successful career in business, ran a successful Winter Olympics, has helped raise a wonderful family, and was a solid governor of Massachusetts is about as far from an "empty suit" as I can imagine.

In short, Obama is incompetent at being president, though quite good at running for president.  Alter would, I am nearly certain, reject that conclusion, but I think it follows from what he has observed about Obama.

(Caveat: I assumed that Kakutani's description of the book was reasonably accurate.  I have no reason to think it wasn't, but have not checked the review against the book — and probably won't, unless I get a free copy, and maybe not even then.)
- 7:56 AM, 5 June 2013   [link]

Inspector Generals Mostly Cause Trouble For Presidents:   After all, the Inspector Generals are supposed to look for problems.  If they find problems, there will be big negative stories; if they don't find problems, there will be no stories at all, usually.

That may be one of the reasons President Obama has not been in a rush to fill those positions.
For years, President Obama has neglected his duty to fill vacant inspector-general posts at the departments of State, Interior, Labor, Homeland Security and Defense and at the Agency for International Development.  The president has nominated only two candidates to fill any of these six vacancies, and he subsequently withdrew both nominations.  All told, an IG has been missing in action at each of those cabinet departments and the AID agency for between 18 months and five years.
. . .
The story at the State Department underscores the problem.  For Hillary Clinton's entire four-year tenure as secretary of State, she relied on a retired foreign service officer, former Ambassador Harold Geisel, to function as an inspector general—though he could never hold the title.
Because, if you are wondering, Geisel is a career member of the Foreign Service, and thus legally ineligible to fill that post.

(Washington insiders know this, but not all of you are insiders, so I'll mention it.  Many investigative journalists simply mine the reports of the Inspector Generals if they want to do scandal stories.  Nothing wrong with that, but I do think those journalists should give more credit to the people who are actually doing the investigations, and I do think that journalists should be more wary of their dependence on those reports, and more willing to do some digging on their own.)
- 7:03 AM, 5 June 2013   [link]

The Scandal-Plagued Obama Administration?  Sure, and if you have friends who need a scandals review, you can refer them to this post:

First, for a quick read, here's the Instapundit's "Scandalpalooza".
The Obama Scandalpalooza continues.  It’s gotten so bad that some pundits have even suggested that they’re bringing everything out at once to induce “scandal fatigue” and make it all fade away.  Well, maybe — there’s certainly a lot:
Second, here's a list of the top twenty administration scandals from Keith Koffler, beginning with the IRS scandal, and ending with:
20. I’ll pass my own laws: Obama has repeatedly been accused of making end runs around Congress by deciding which laws to enforce, including the decision not to deport illegal immigrants who may have been allowed to stay in the United States had Congress passed the “Dream Act.”
Third, here's a review of Obama scandals from Andrew Malcolm.  Malcolm includes a few scandals from before Obama became president, such as this one:
Remember the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?  He was the Chicago pastor who over 20 years married the Obamas, baptized their children and somehow delivered his startlingly racist, anti-Semitic, anti-American sermons only on Sundays when Obama was absent.
You had to try awfully hard to believe that one — but many of our "mainstream" journalists did, or at least said they did.
- 1:15 PM, 4 June 2013   [link]

The Lead Story In Today's Seattle Times Is a change in REI's return policy.  Which has been abused by a few people.
An Internet search of REI’s “100% Satisfaction Guarantee” turns up all kinds of stories about overused merchandise returned for a full refund or store credit.

There’s the mom who returned a stroller for no other reason than her children simply had outgrown it.  Or the dad who took back an old bike rack because it clashed with his new car.
So now REI is going to limit their regular returns to one year, and their outlet returns to 90 days.

Why is this their lead story?  I'm not sure, but I suppose it is one way of saying that the area is changing, and not entirely for the better.  And I suspect the editors would really rather give more attention to this story than to another story about the scandal-plagued Obama administration.

For what it is worth, I have been a member for more than thirty years, and have never had a reason to return any of their products.

(For those not familiar with the organization, it's a consumer cooperative that sells outdoor equipment, and clothes.  If you are a member, you receive yearly rebates, typically close to ten percent of what you spent.)
- 12:35 PM, 4 June 2013   [link]

When The French Drove The Radical Islamists Out Of Timbuktu, they freed many slaves.
TIMBUKTU, Mali — Her light-skinned master no longer beats her with a camel whip.  He no longer makes her work from dawn to night without pay.  He fled with his family four months ago, along with the Islamists who briefly ruled this historic city.

“I am free,” said Aminaya Traore, a 50-year-old woman who was born into slavery.  “I can do whatever I want.”

Across this sand-swept city, hundreds of modern-day slaves are experiencing a sense of liberation, many for the first time.  Nearly all the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arab Moors who for generations exploited them have fled the city, fearing reprisal attacks for supporting supporting the Islamists or the Tuareg separatists whose rebellion helped ignite the Islamist takeover of Mali’s north last year.
This was, by the way, Traore's second escape from slavery.

(The Wikipedia article on the Tuaregs is defensive, but quite interesting anyway.)
- 10:07 AM, 4 June 2013   [link]

Michele Bachmann's Retirement Will Help The Republican Party:  And conservatives.
But conservatives can’t be naive here.  I’ve noticed some on the Internet lamenting that her seat will now surely be lost to the Democrats (highly doubtful), and others are even convinced that she’s the victim of some kind of GOP leadership conspiracy.  Some have suggested that her problems stemmed from a lack of financial help from the national Republican Party.

All of this is untrue.  If anything, Bachmann’s exit means that the conservative movement is about to be better-funded, because conservative small-donors won’t be spending over $10 million to re-elect her to a completely safe House seat every two years.  Campaign money is a limited resource, and Michele Bachmann may hold a lifetime record for wasting it.
David Freddoso makes an argument that almost every election analyst would agree with.   They would do what he did (and what I did in 2011), look at her election record and conclude that, for all her virtues, she was not a politician that enough voters found attractive.

But I would go a little further and say that, fairly or unfairly, she damaged the Republican and conservative brands in Minnesota and the United States, and that she hurt the chances of other candidates, as well as her own.

(When I look at potential presidential candidates, almost the first thing I do is look at whether they have run ahead of their party in their districts or states.  That is, I think, the best quick guide to whether they can win — and, if a candidate can't win, there is not much point, usually, in nominating them.

I think most Republican voters would agree with that general approach — but many activists don't.

Of course that isn't my only criteria, but I do try to start out by figuring out which candidates could win, and then I mostly ignore the rest.  In 2012, for example, I concluded that Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney could win, and that Rick Perry might be able to win, but that none of the other candidates had much of a chance.  As you may recall, Bachmann knocked Pawlenty out of the race, and damaged Romney.)
- 9:34 AM, 4 June 2013   [link]

Another "Cash-For-Questions" Scandal in the British Parliament.
Patrick Mercer, a long-time adversary of David Cameron, quit the party whip to "save my party embarrassment" and has referred himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.  He will not contest the next general election.

The sting operation, conducted by the Daily Telegraph and the BBC's Panorama programme, had undercover reporters posing as lobbyists representing businesses seeking to end Fiji's suspension from the Commonwealth and signed a £2,000 per month contract.
. . .
It is alleged that after being paid £4,000, he tabled five parliamentary questions related to the country that had been drafted by the bogus lobbyists as well as a parliamentary motion.
("quit the party whip" = resigned from the party)

The Times of London ran a similar sting, and caught three lords:
The three peers caught out by a Sunday Times sting operation are John Cunningham and Brian Mackenzie of the main opposition Labour Party and John Laird of the Ulster Unionist Party.
This kind of scandal occurs from time to time in Britain, but has no close parallel in the United States.  Our congressmen and senators do take bribes from time to time, but they are usually expected to do more for those bribes than ask a few formal questions.

The difference in behavior isn't hard to understand; our congressmen often can do more for lobbyists, while the backbenchers in the British Parliament often can't do much more than ask questions.

It is hard to think of a parallel to the role of the news organizations in this affair, but try this:  For a parallel to the Mercer case, imagine that the Wall Street Journal had joined with PBS to offer bribes to a Republican congressman who had been an opponent of George W. Bush.  (You'd have to ask a lawyer whether a sting operation like that, conducted by news organizations, would be legal in the United States.  I suspect not.)

Sounds implausible, doesn't it?
- 6:31 AM, 4 June 2013   [link]

Somehow I Acquired A 1968 Netherlands One Crown Coin:   Which I discovered when I tried to use it in a laundry machine this afternoon.  It is almost exactly the same size, shape, and color as a quarter.  (But not quite, because the machine rejected it.)

I don't know, specifically, where I acquired this coin, but I am fairly sure I know, generally.  Most likely, the original owner somehow mixed it in with his American coins and used it to pay for something at one of the places I often buy things.  The cashier wasn't paying attention, accepted it, and put it into the drawer with the other quarters.  (Or possibly in a coin dispenser.)  I wasn't paying attention when I accepted my change in a recent purchase, and put it in with the rest of the quarters.

So at least three people had to fail to pay attention to make this acquisition happen.  And I am pretty sure that at least three did — since I have long thought that incompetence is a more likely explanation than malice.

And, of course, any malice explanation becomes less likely if you think that the coin is worth more than 25 cents, here in the United States, as I suspect it might be, since it is a collectible, though not a rare one, I assume.

You will have noticed that, assuming my theory is correct, the laundry machine was smarter than at least three people.  That should humble me more than it does.

(You can see some pictures of similar coins here, if you are wondering just how much it resembles a quarter, other than in size, color, and shape.)
- 7:01 PM, 3 June 2013   [link]

"EPA Honors Fake Employee"  And not just any old fake employee, either.
Richard Windsor may be the most famous Environmental Protection Agency employee.   Oddly, he does not exist.  “Windsor” is the e-mail alias that Lisa Jackson, former head of the EPA and now an environmental adviser to Apple, used to correspond with environmental activists and senior Obama-administration officials, among others.

Windsor, we have learned, was also an employee of significant achievement.  Documents released by the agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that, for three years, the EPA certified Windsor as a “scholar of ethical behavior.”
Those weren't the only awards "Richard Windsor" won, but they are the most amusing.
- 4:50 PM, 3 June 2013   [link]

NYT Columnist Paul Krugman Shows Up in today's Dilbert cartoon.

(I hope Krugman will be a regular character there.)
- 3:33 PM, 3 June 2013   [link]

Moderates Will Like The Name of this Latvian party.
A political alliance led by the Harmony Center party collected 58.5% of the municipal vote in Riga, according to preliminary results posted Sunday by the Latvian Central Election Commission.  The strong showing came only a few months after Harmony Center deputies in the Latvian Parliament voted down administrative procedures that will be needed to adopt the euro and phase out the current currency, the lat. Riga Mayor Nils Usakovs, who heads the alliance, is seen as having steered the local economy in the right direction.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis's Unity party collected just 14.1% of the vote in Riga, despite a "Dombrovskis's Team" Internet advertising campaign mounted by city council candidates in the days leading up to the vote.
So the Harmony Centre party is opposed to adopting the euro — and that makes it popular with the voters — but their electoral success won't prevent Latvia from joining the euro zone, anyway.

But when I saw the name, I thought of barbershop quartets, and similar music groups.

Come to think of it, moderates may like the name of the governing Unity party, too.

(Here's some background if you are wondering, as I briefly was, what the Harmony Centre party stands for.  As you can see, immigration is a hot issue in Latvia, too, though for somewhat different reasons than in the United States.)
- 2:31 PM, 3 June 2013   [link]

Are Those Bridge Numbers Useful?  Not very, according to Carl Bialik, and several experts he talked to.

One lesson from the collapse of an interstate bridge in Washington state more than a week ago: When it comes to measuring a bridge's safety, so-called sufficiency ratings aren't sufficient.

After a truck crashed into an overhead girder on the steel bridge, sending cars and drivers into the Skagit River beneath it, news reports on the nonfatal accident fixated on the ratings inspectors give bridges, based on about 20 factors.  But nearly half of any bridge's sufficiency rating, used until last year to determine which structures are in the direst need of federal funding for repair or replacement, has nothing to do with a bridge's condition.

And the rest of factors don't seem to be good predictors of a possible collapse.

What are the numbers good for?  Until recently, the federal number was used to direct federal funds, but Congress, recognizing that the numbers weren't telling us which bridges really need fixing, changed that last October.

But that change will not solve the problem.

But the newer models still will be based partly on visual inspections—a decidedly imperfect data source.  "In many ways you might view our bridge-rating system like going to the doctor and receiving a thorough visual examination of the outside of your body, without any lab tests or pulse and blood-pressure measurements or X-ray checks, and predicting your chance of living for another five to 10 years," said Mike Oliva, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(It would be interesting to know exactly what the inspectors who looked at the Skagit River bridge did during their inspections — and what civil engineers think of their inspection procedures.)

We can, I suppose, take some consolation in the fact that bridge failures are rare in the United States, and have been getting rarer, as far as I can tell.  So we are doing some things right, though we don't know exactly what they are.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 9:42 AM, 3 June 2013   [link]

Another Disease Outbreak Traced to an "organic" food.
Thirty people have been infected with Hepatitis A, and nine of them hospitalized, in an outbreak across five states traced to an organic frozen berry mix sold at Costco.

And health officials are bracing for more cases if cafes and restaurants that bought the frozen blend used it to make smoothies, frozen bar drinks and other desserts for customers.
I am inclined to think that we are more likely to get diseases from "organic" foods, not very likely, but more likely.  I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that I should be especially suspicious of stories, and even data, that fits my inclinations, so this morning I spent a little time trying to decide whether I was justified in that tentative conclusion.

And I think that I am, but I must caution you that my conclusion is tentative.  (If there are any formal studies of this question, studies with actual numbers, I'd like to see them.)

I believe — tentatively — that we are slightly more likely to get diseases from organic foods because some common "organic" food practices are inherently risky.   For example, some organic food producers reject pasteurizing milk and fruit juices.  Many organic food producers use animal manure as fertilizer.  Even if they are very careful in the ways they use it, that still allows for contamination.  (For example, sometimes wild animals spread contamination from one field to another.)  And, as far as I know, "organic" producers all reject irradiation, which could make their products safer.

This is not to say that "organic" foods are unsafe, just that they are a little less safe than conventional foods.  And I still buy and eat them from time to time, which should tell you something.

(I put "organic" in quotation marks because almost all of our food — the only exception I can think of offhand is salt — is organic, by the usual meaning of the word.   Unfortunately, I haven't been able to think of a good alternative, though "traditional" comes close.  For example:  I usually buy modern foods, but I do pick up traditional produce from time to time.)
- 8:46 AM, 3 June 2013   [link]

Bradley Manning Should Never Have Been In The Army:   That seemed obvious enough to me, when I first read about his case.  Now I see that at least some in the Army understood that, too.
Commanders judged him ill-suited to military life and during training, he was recommended for discharge.  But his technical skills were perfectly suited to becoming an intelligence analyst and the decision was overturned.
Unfortunately for the Army, and for Manning.

If you were to design a man to be a poor fit for the Army, you might come up with someone like Bradley Manning.

(This weekend, I was re-reading Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn, and learned that some men had become "involuntary AWOLs" when the expedition left the United States for North Africa.  Their commanders, judging them unfit for service, had deliberately left them behind in Norfolk bars and brothels.)
- 6:15 AM, 3 June 2013   [link]

If You Needed Another Reason To Dislike Jesse Ventura, here you are.
The former Minnesota governor and professional wrestler is now suing the widow of a former Navy SEAL sniper for defamation because the soldier wrote about an alleged fight he had with Ventura.
(Some time ago, I read an article that suggested that Ventura won the governorship thanks to a surge in last-minute votes.  At that time, you could register to vote on election day in Minnesota, and many voters, most of them young men, did just that.  Judging by Ventura's performance since he left office, we may want to reconsider that particular innovation.)
- 1:15 PM, 2 June 2013   [link]

"An Upside To Climate Change?"  The USA Today reporter, Wendy Koch, is clearly surprised by that possibility.
An upside to climate change? The issue has been blamed for many problems, including more acidic oceans and rising pollen counts, but a study released Friday suggests a benefit: Arid regions are getting greener.

Satellite data since the early 1980s have shown a flourishing of foliage worldwide, and scientists have suspected this change may be due partly to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas emitted by the burning of fossil fuels.
But she shouldn't have been.  Serious researchers have always known that there would be winners, as well as losers, from an increase in carbon dioxide, and from any resulting warming.

Nor do you have to be a researcher to understand the point.  Just think about how places like Greenland, Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada would change if they were a few degrees warmer.

(Some years ago, I read an account of a study that found that burning coal fertilized areas downwind from the power plants.  Burning coal releases sulfur compounds, some of which you really don't want to breathe, in any large amounts.  But those same sulfur compounds, in small amounts, are necessary for most plants.)
- 10:37 AM, 2 June 2013   [link]

Germany Has 1.5 Million fewer "residents" than they thought they had.
It's as if Leipzig, Hanover, and Dresden had disappeared in the blink of an eye, statistically speaking.

Germany, which has been deeply concerned about its rapidly dwindling population, released the the results of its first census in nearly a quarter of a century on Friday and found 1.5 million fewer inhabitants than previously assumed.
(The census was taken in 2011, but is just now being reported.  Americans will wonder if bad news is often released on Fridays in Germany, just as it is here.)

The article goes on to explain how they had made their mistaken estimates and why they had gone so long without a census.  Most of the over count in the earlier numbers can be explained by foreigners who registered with the authorities when they arrived in a place, but didn't "deregister" when they left.  Germans had rejected censuses earlier, because of privacy concerns, but the European Union required this one.

The census found other errors in the official statistics.  For example, the country has about 500,000 more dwellings than they thought they had.

These failures give us another example of a general lesson:  Governments, even governments that we think of as modern and efficient, often do not have accurate information about even basic matters.  (A favorite example:  During the first Bush administration, the Federal Reserve did not realize we were in a recession until after the recession had ended.)

Central planners are often like ship pilots trying to steer very large ships through the fog.
- 7:17 AM, 2 June 2013   [link]

Surprise Beginning:  In recent years, I have been reading (and occasionally re-reading) the five science fiction novels in Charles Sheffield's "Heritage Universe" series.

The five were written, and take place, in order, with most of the same major characters in all five.  (Two exceptions:  E. C. Tally, an "embodied computer", does not appear until the second novel, and Julian Graves, an "ethical counselor", does not appear in the fourth.)

Although they occur in order, I did not read them in order.  Instead, I read them in this order:  Summertide (1), Divergence (2), Resurgence (5), Transcendence (3), and Convergence (4).  The last I read just this week.  When I began the book, I found an "Introduction" which begins by mentioning Einstein's little mistake with the "cosmological constant", explains some of the background to the series, and then ends with this:
Note that I said finally.  With that fourth book, the tetraology is over.   The Heritage Universe has—at last—stopped its expansion.
I think.
I assume.
I hope.
Would someone kindly pass me the cosmological constant?
What happened, apparently, is that Sheffield tired of the series and ended it, but wasn't sure he could keep his resolution not to write any more stories in the series.

As you may recall, Arthur Conan Doyle did something similar with Sherlock Holmes.

Fans eventually persuaded Doyle to bring back the detective, and fans eventually persuaded Sheffield to bring back Hans Rebka, and the rest of his Heritage Universe characters.

There is one big difference:  Sheffield destroyed much of the "scenery", so to speak, in his fourth novel, so he moved the fifth from our spiral arm of the galaxy to another.  Doyle brought Holmes back to London, rather than relocating him to New York or Paris.

I have never seen a description of Sheffield's writing techniques, but I would guess from this that he is one of those authors who begin with interesting characters in an interesting situation, and then work out the plot as they go along.  The unfinished problems in the first book led Sheffield to write a second, and then a third, and — he thought — finally a fourth.

(Would I recommend these books to other science fiction fans?  Let's put it this way:   I have now read all five, and don't plan to recycle them — but I bought all of them used.  So I like them, but not so much that I had to have them.)
- 2:47 PM, 1 June 2013   [link]

Barack Obama Is — Partly — A Product Of The Chicago Machine:  John Fund thinks that our "mainstream" journalists should recognize that fact.
The scandals swirling around the Obama administration have many journalists scratching their heads as to how “hope and change” seem to have been supplanted by “arrogance and fear.”  Perhaps it’s time they revisit one of their original premises about Barack Obama: that he wasn’t influenced by the Chicago Daley machine.  You know: the machine that boosted his career and whose protégés — including Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, and his wife, Michelle — he brought to Washington with him.
That idea won't be new to regular readers of this site, but I suspect it has still not reached many newsrooms.

(Fund links to a article describing 45 different plays in the Chicago Machine playbook.  There are a few in the list that I hadn't heard of before.)
- 1:54 PM, 1 June 2013   [link]

Grafted Tomato Plants:  An ancient technique is being used in a new way in the United States.  Tomato breeders have worked hard to develop varieties that are productive, and resistant to common diseases and pests.  But, in doing so, many think the hybrid tomatoes they created have less flavor than some of the older varieties.  So now, some gardeners are grafting heirloom tomatoes, such as Brandywine. onto the root stocks of modern hybrids and, they claim, getting the best of both, high yields, disease and pest resistance — and better flavor.
So now comes an answer hundreds of years old.

Grafted Brandywines,  Grafted Mortgage Lifters.  Grafted Green Zebras.  Or picture this:  Sungold, those luscious yellow cherry tomatoes, and Sweet Million, those sweet red cherries, hanging by the handful on the same plant.  Or Brandywines and San Marzanos, those tasty paste tomatoes, ripening on a single plant
You can do the grafts yourself, although you shouldn't expect one hundred percent success, or anywhere close to that, or you can buy the plants from a garden center, or even on line, from companies such as the Territorial Seed Company.

Incidentally, we in the United States are some years behind gardeners in Australia and Italy, in using grafting this way.

(According to this Wikipedia article, grafting has been practiced for "thousands of years".)
- 1:31 PM, 1 June 2013   [link]