June 2015, Part 4

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Since It Is Now 1 July In Greece, the country is in default, having been unable to make a last-minute deal.

Negotiations continue, but, unless the referendum on Sunday results in a new government, they are unlikely to succeed.

Tonight, BBC America interviewed Nicholas Burns, who has been, among many other things, the American ambassador to Greece.   Burns said, though not in these blunt words, that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had zero friends in the European Union governments, that he had managed to alienate them all during his brief time in office.

(I assume all of you know that often negotiators will continue to negotiate, not in hopes of an agreement, but because they want to show various publics that they are not the ones responsible for the failure to reach an agreement.  It's my impression that Greece's creditors have reached that point, though I'm not sure just when they did.

For entertainment, and some useful background, you might want to read this George Will column.)
- 6:38 PM, 30 June 2015   [link]

The NYT Science Section Is Substituting Pictures For Stories:  Today, as in several previous weeks, the front page of the section is dominated by a large picture; in fact, the picture takes up about three-and-a-half times as much space on the front page as the article it illustrates, poorly.

For some years now, our newspaper of record has been cutting back on their Tuesday Science section.  Here's how good it used to be:  Some years ago, I was working in an organization that did science and engineering.  Then, as now, I read the Times most days.  Co-workers found that section as interesting as I did, and so I started circulating it with an informal distribution list.  As I recall, eventually there were more than ten people sharing that section.

Now, although I still read all of the section every week, and still often learn things from it, it has much less science in it than it once did.  Recently, the Times has even been trying to disguise the lack of articles with those giant pictures.

Today's section is typical.  The front page has that giant picture; the second page has most of the lead article, and some smaller pieces, none of which show any original reporting; the third page has an article on the lack of ethics in Chinese genetic research, a review of two books on medicine, and some letters; the fourth and fifth pages are labeled "Well" and have articles on health issues; and the sixth page has an interesting article by John Tierney on slow-developing love, an article on autistic kids and pets, and an article on poisonous sports fish in Florida.

And that's it.

As I said in March, I agree with Alex Berezow that the science coverage at the Times has declined though, as I also said then, I wouldn't go as far as he did.

It is worth speculating — and that is all I am doing — on why this has happened.  And for that I turn to this observation from one of the more interesting science writers around, John Tierney, who happens to work for the Times.
Liberals have an easy time mocking creationist conservatives, whose impact on the practice of science I consider to be nil.  But I wonder who on the Left would be willing to defend its overall record, which includes the promotion of so many unscientific fears (of genetically modified foods, fracking, nuclear power, etc.) and the ostracism of researchers who pursue taboo topics (like the effects of single-parent families, or innate differences between the sexes).
As our newspaper of record has become more and more politicized, it has become less and less willing to cover those issues, and others where scientific findings cast doubt on leftist ideas.   And so they have been cutting back on their coverage of science, so much so that they are even substituting large pictures for articles.

But, I repeat, I am speculating.  But I haven't seen a better explanation.  And other sections where leftist ideas are less likely to be threatened, notably "Style" and "Arts", do not seem to have suffered the same cutbacks.

(Oh, and that lead article?  It's interesting enough to deserve a post of its own, which it will get, soon, I hope.)
- 4:18 PM, 30 June 2015   [link]

John Lott Refutes President Obama:   Again.
In the wake of the murders in Charleston, President Obama has made more exaggerations and false claims about gun violence in America.   He made two public addresses this past week — one to the nation on Thursday and one to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Friday.  On both occasions, he gave distorted impressions of how rates of violence in America compare with those in the rest of the world.

In his address to the nation, Obama claimed that, “We as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.  It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.”
Actually, it does, as Lott shows in the rest of the opinion piece.

But this refutation, like others, will have no effect on Obama.  He will continue to say things that he should know are false.

And he has had every opportunity to learn these things.  He and Lott were colleagues at the University of Chicago, but Obama didn't act like a colleague.
"I don't believe people should be able to own guns," Obama told Lott one day at the University of Chicago Law School.

Lott explains that he first met Obama shortly after completing his research on concealed handgun laws and crime.

"He did not come across as a moderate who wanted to bring people together," Lott writes.

After he introduced himself to Obama, Lott suggested that they have lunch one day to discuss their views on guns.  According to Lott, Obama "grimaced and turned away."   That was the way many conversations with Obama ended, Lott says.

Although the Law School was famous for the openness of its faculty and friendly engagement, Lott says, "Obama...preferred silent, scowling disdain to collegiality."
Obama has learned how to pose as open minded — but has never learned how to be open minded.

If a colleague of mine had come to conclusions that I thought were wildly wrong, I would want to hear what he had to say.  I would be confident enough to think that — most likely — I would be able to see where he had gone wrong.  And if he was right?   Then I would have learned something.

(The story can be found in Lott's book, At the Brink.)
- 11:01 AM, 30 June 2015   [link]

Has Mattel Ruined The American Dolls Line?  Sure looks that way.  Alexandra Petri reacts:
Dear American Girl,

What, what, what are you doing?

The Atlantic points out the dreadful change that the once-famed catalog of historic yet personable dolls is slowly undergoing.  Forget Samantha the Victorian girl, Molly the plucky World War II doll with the Victory Garden, or original Colonial girl Felicity.  Felicity’s been retired to the Upstate Doll Farm.   So’s Samantha.  Kirsten the pioneer?  Gone.  Instead, get a Girl of the Year, or a My American Girl who Looks Just Like You.
I always thought the point of the line was the historical connections.  And I don't think too many people here think we have too little narcissism in the United States, or that our kids know too much history.

(It's possible that Mattel got tired of the controversies associated with some of the historical dolls and decided to go contemporary and bland — while keeping prices high.)
- 9:14 AM, 30 June 2015   [link]

Grexit Delayed?   Maybe.
The Greek government has requested a new bailout deal from the eurozone, just hours before its bailout expires and it must repay €1.6bn (£1.1bn) to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Greece is reportedly asking for a new two-year aid deal from the bailout mechanism for eurozone countries.
We can simplify that:  Greece wants to borrow some more money in order to pay back a small portion of the money it has already borrowed.

The deal might make financial sense if the Greek government agreed to impose even more pain on Greek voters — and then actually did that.

To me, it looks like an attempt by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to stay in power for two more years, somehow.

(That BBC article has enough links to other articles to satisfy almost anyone's curiosity.  As far as I can tell, their coverage of the Greek crisis had been reasonably balanced, if sometimes less clear than it should be.

Two follow-ups:  According to the BBC last night, "Grexit" rhymes with "exit".  Also according to the BBC, Tsipras has said he will resign if the referendum on Sunday passes.)
- 8:35 AM, 30 June 2015   [link]

DARPA Is Thinking Ahead:  Decades ahead.
Modifying a planet's atmosphere to make it habitable for humans could soon be a possibility, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Darpa has announced it is developing terraforming technology in a bid to recreate the conditions needed for live to thrive.

It would see a number of organisms introduced to the Martian environment, making regions on the surface suitable for humans.
Thinking decades ahead is just what they should be doing, of course.

(The idea of using bacteria to terraform other planets has been around for decades.)
- 7:53 AM, 29 June 2015   [link]

The European Creditors Have Given Up On Greece:  Because, they say, they were unable to reach an agreement with the Tsipras government.  So they are cutting off his allowance.
Greek leaders planned to shutter their banks for six business days starting Monday and impose strict limits on ATM withdrawals amid rising global concerns about the nation’s economic future.

Sunday’s decision to declare a bank holiday was a signal that Greece’s five-year battle to stay in the shared euro currency may swiftly be coming to an end, as leaders elsewhere urged steps to find a way to avoid that.  Panicked citizens tried to pull their money from their accounts while they still could.  ATMs in Athens were running out of money, and tensions were running high as Greeks stood in line for hours to scrape together cash for basic supplies.  Lines mounted at gas stations as worried residents topped off their tanks for what could be a protracted period of time in a cashless nation.
. . .
The decision to close the banks came after the European Central Bank announced Sunday that it would not enlarge an emergency loan program that has been a vital lifeline in recent weeks to Greece’s overextended financial institutions.  Fearful Greeks have been pulling their money out of the banks, worried that they could lose access to it altogether or that it could turn into a less valuable currency in the event Greece is kicked out of the euro zone.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras triggered this crisis by refusing to agree to enough reforms to satisfy creditors, and by scheduling a referendum on the European proposals — a referendum which he hopes will lose.

And, if the July 5th referendum does lose, then what?  I assume Tsipras thinks that will give him more bargaining power, so he can go back to asking for more money and time, and offering fewer reforms.

If he does think that, he's probably wrong.  Central bankers almost all believe that they often must go against popular opinion.

What if the Greeks accept the European terms in that referendum?  It isn't clear, at least to me, what would happen.  A conventional politician might resign and call for a new election in those circumstances, but Tsipras has never been a conventional politician.

(There's more on the Greek crisis here, here, and many other places.)
- 7:22 AM, 29 June 2015   [link]

Can You Say "Grexit"?  I can't, since I don't know whether it has a short "e" or a long "e".  For an ordinary English word, the first would be more likely, and the word would rhyme with "exit".  But, since it's formed from "Greek" and "exit", it might be pronounced the other way.

There's a good chance that I will hear the word in the next few days, since the Greeks are getting closer to being forced to exit from the euro, and perhaps even the European Union, getting closer to going bankrupt, or, to be less charitable, closer to officially admitting they are bankrupt.
The eurozone is facing its gravest crisis in its 16-year history.  Greece is on the verge of defaulting.

Almost certainly it will fail to repay a loan to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on Tuesday.  The risk of Greece leaving the eurozone has increased significantly.   Both Europe and Greece have entered a period of turbulence with neither side in control of events.
Naturally, Greeks have been trying to get at least some of their money out of banks, before the banks are closed, which may happen on Monday.

Predictions vary as to what would happen after a Grexit; the Wikipedia article summarizes the extremes:
Proponents of the proposal argue that leaving the euro and reintroducing the drachma would dramatically boost exports and tourism and encourage the local economy while discouraging expensive imports.  Opponents argue that the proposal would impose excessive hardship on the Greek people, cause civil unrest, destabilize and harm the reputation of the eurozone, and could cause Greece to align more with non-EU states.
I suspect that, if it does happen, the result will be between those extremes of salvation and catastrophe, but haven't any idea which is more likely, in the short run.  In the long run, I favor a Greek exit, considering how badly the euro experiment has worked out for them.

On the other hand, the only two Greek parties that favor the Grexit are the Communists and the Golden Dawn, a fascist party, which does make me worry that I might be missing something.

(The money folks also think there might be a "Graccident", an exit from the euro forced by events, even though neither the Greek government, nor its creditors, want that to happen.)
- 4:35 PM, 28 June 2015   [link]

"Every State Flag Is Wrong"  Alexandra Petri makes a fairly good case for that sweeping conclusion.

Here, for instance, is what she said about the Washington state flag:
Come on.  You can’t just pass a crude rendition of a dollar bill off as a flag.  I don’t care if your name IS Washington.
But I would quibble with a few of her attacks.  For instance, I think the Arizona flag looks good.

(To my eyes, most of the state flags fail by being too specific, by looking like state seals (which they often incorporate), rather than flags, which should be simplified, even abstract.  I think the Anmerican and British flags get the level about right.

You can go too far in the other direction; I've long thought that the French tricoulour was too abstract, perhaps because the French are still arguing over much of their history, and so didn't want to be specific.)
- 8:17 AM, 28 June 2015   [link]

Local Suicide Attack:  Very local.

Yesterday, about 5:30 AM, I heard a bang and the lights went out.  I immediately guessed that a squirrel had decided to sacrifice itself in order to attack our power grid, and quickly found out that I was right.  It took three or four hours for the power company (Puget Sound Energy) to replace the transformer, which I gave me an excuse to go out for breakfast, and then skip putting up any posts.

This is at least the second, and possibly the third or fourth, attack by a squirrel on that particular pole-mount transformer while I've been living here, which makes me wonder why it is so vulnerable, and why squirrels find it attractive.

(For what it's worth, the cable company (Comcast) showed up an hour or two before the power company.)
- 6:49 AM, 28 June 2015   [link]

Did The Google Car Deliberately cut off the Delphi car?
Two self-driving prototype cars, one operated by Google Inc and the other by Delphi Automotive Plc, had a close call on a Silicon Valley street earlier this week, a Delphi executive told Reuters on Thursday.
. . .
[John] Absmeier was a passenger in a prototype Audi Q5 crossover vehicle equipped with lasers, radar, cameras and special computer software designed to enable the vehicle to drive itself, with a person at the wheel as a backup.

As the Delphi vehicle prepared to change lanes, a Google self-driving prototype - a Lexus RX400h crossover fitted with similar hardware and software - cut off the Audi, forcing it to abort the lane change, Absmeier said.
Almost certainly not, but it was fun to play with the idea for a few minutes — and Google is a tough competitor.

On a more serious note, it occurs to me that it is at least possible to design self-driving cars to be aggressive, or yielding, or even adjustable.

(By deliberately, I mean only that Google designed the car to be aggressive.)
- 1:30 PM, 26 June 2015   [link]

Which Presidents Appointed The Nine Supreme Court Justices?  Here they are, by their votes on gay marriage.

John Roberts (George W. Bush)
Antonin Scalia (Ronald Reagan)
Clarence Thomas (George H. W. Bush)
Samuel Alito (George W. Bush)
Anthony Kennedy (Ronald Reagan)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Bill Clinton)
Stephen Breyer (Bill Clinton)
Sonia Sotomayor (Barack Obama)
Elena Kagan (Barack Obama)
Having a Republican president improves the odds of getting conservative judges on our courts, but doesn't make that certain.

(Roberts, Scalia, and Alito were confirmed when Republicans controlled the Senate, the other six when Democrats did.)
- 1:10 PM, 26 June 2015   [link]

Seattle Warming:  Enough so we are even getting an official warning.
The hottest temperatures of the year -- the hottest since August in many locations -- will occur on Saturday. An excessive heat warning is in effect for the Puget Sound region for Friday at noon through Sunday at 5 a.m.  High temperatures will reach the lower 90s in Seattle and even some mid-90s across southern sections.  It will be well into the 80s for locations like Everett and Bellingham.
That may not seem like it deserves an official warning, but people here are less adapted to heat, and are much less likely to have air conditioning than people in warmer areas of the country.

(So far, I haven't been bothered by it at all — but that's because it hasn't even reached 80 where I am.  When it does get to 80, or a little higher, I'll probably shut down the computer, gather some reading material, and walk down to the lake, where it will a little cooler.)
- 12:29 PM, 26 June 2015   [link]

Does President Obama Know About The Barbary Pirates?   And our two wars with them?

I suppose, in some very general sense he must, though I doubt that he spent much time on them at Punahou, and am almost certain that he spent none at his other schools.

It is not, I am almost certain, a subject that he has studied, or even thought about.   But he should, because the historical precedent is instructive.
Until the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, British treaties with the North African states protected American ships from the Barbary corsairs.  Morocco, which in 1777 was the first independent nation to publicly recognize the United States, in 1784 became the first Barbary power to seize an American vessel after the nation achieved independence.   The Barbary threat led directly to the United States founding the United States Navy in March 1794.  While the United States did secure peace treaties with the Barbary states, it was obliged to pay tribute for protection from attack.  The burden was substantial: in 1800 payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of United States government's annual expenditures.[23]  The United States conducted the First Barbary War in 1801 and the Second Barbary War in 1815 to gain more favorable peace terms; it ended the payment of tribute.  But, Algiers broke the 1805 peace treaty after two years, and refused to implement the 1815 treaty until compelled to do so by Britain in 1816.
(Emphasis added.)

We learned, the hard way, that paying ransoms encourages hostage takers.  But now President Obama is encouraging private citizens to pay ransoms to ISIS, and other terrorist organizations, and is even offering to help with the transactions.

The Washington Post thinks this is a serious error — and so do I.
- 7:59 AM, 26 June 2015   [link]

We're Going To Have Think Hard About Ways To Rein In Our Judges:  That's something I have been thinking for years, though I can't say that I have come up with many practical ways to do it for federal judges.  (In Washington state, judges are elected. so we have some control over them — and I believe, without much direct evidence, that that control has prevented them from behaving as badly as they would have, otherwise.

But it is much harder to punish federal judges when they misbehave, and almost impossible to punish those on the Supreme Court.

(In the 1950s and 1960s, there was talk about impeaching justices on the Supreme Court, after some unpopular Warren Court decisions.  But talk is about as far as it went.)
- 7:31 AM, 26 June 2015   [link]

Here's the Daily Mail story on the terrorist attack in France, complete with a map showing the location of the factory.
A man has been decapitated and dozens more injured at a gas product factory in France by terrorists carrying Islamist banners.

The attack took place at the headquarters of the American owned Air Products, in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, near the city of Lyon, in the south east of the country.

The murder is believed to have been accompanied by several explosions on the site cause by a terrorist igniting small 'gas bombs' that injured dozens of factory workers.  It is thought the explosions may have intended to blow up the entire factory site but failed.

The murdered man's head is understood to have been found 30 feet away from his body, hanging on the factory's fence and covered in Arabic writing.

A 30-year-old man - named by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve as father-of-three Yassine Salhi who is understood to have been known to security services since at least 2006 - has already been arrested at the scene, telling police officers that he is a member of the Islamic State terror group.  The man is believed not to have a criminal record but was considered to have 'possibly been radicalised'.

Local media reported that a second person has since been arrested in relation to the attack - believed to be the man who drove the Ford Fusion car around the factory moments before the attack took place.
You probably don't need reminding that early stories often get details wrong, but I'll do so, anyway, just in case.

(Incidentally, I saw this story on BBC America this morning and found their account confusing, and much less detailed, than this Daily Mail story.)
- 5:39 AM, 26 June 2015   [link]

Confederate Symbol Envy:  "Mainstream" journalists (and Democratic politicians) are excited by the ongoing fight over Confederate symbols, excited by this chance to exploit a tragedy.  (One of the politicians showed how little feeling he has for the victims and their families by making a statement — and then flying off for "four days of fundraising and golf".  I wish that he would at least have pretended he cared about the victims by, for example, giving up one of his golf games for a church service.)

In Washington state, those journalists and politicians are at a disadvantage.  Washington did not even become a state until 1889, well after the Civil War, and, even as part of a territory, played almost no part in the Civil War.  There were never any black slaves here (though some of the Indian tribes kept slaves).  Although Washington, like every state, has some citizens whose ancestors came from the Confederacy, they have never been much of a force here.

But a journalist or politician who wants to find the right symbols to protest can always find them (or invent them) and Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat showed that he was up to the job.  He found Confederate symbols here.

The whole Confederate flag thing isn’t solely a Southern trouble.  Here in Washington state we have our very own Confederate park — run by a group that still believes, 150 years on, that the South was in the right.

A tiny, private park that almost no one in the state had ever heard of, before he wrote that column.

We have to give Westneat credit for finding that park, and remembering it in time to join in the exploitation.  As a quasi-official spokesman for the Democratic Party, he performed well.

(Westneat could have, instead, discussed the history of the Democratic Party, could have explained why it was the home of Jefferson Davis, Robert Byrd (Democrat, KKK), and now Al Sharpton, who in this area is — don't laugh — usually referred to as a "civil rights leader".  But, for some reason, Westneat chose not to tell readers about that very interesting part of history.)

How did Westneat perform as a journalist?  I'll leave that question for you.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(For the record:  I have no Confederate symbols, and never wanted to have one before.  But now I would like to have two or three of those used in Clinton campaigns, just as souvenirs.  If you haven't seen any, you can see examples, here and here.)
- 1:15 PM, 25 June 2015   [link]

If You Want Something On The Iranian Nuclear Threat More Detailed Than A Cartoon, read this open letter from a bipartisan group of strategic thinkers — including some who worked for President Obama.

Here's their bottom line:
Most importantly, it is vital for the United States to affirm that it is U.S. policy to prevent Iran from producing sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon – or otherwise acquiring or building one – both during the agreement and after it expires.  Precisely because Iran will be left as a nuclear threshold state (and has clearly preserved the option of becoming a nuclear weapon state), the United States must go on record now that it is committed to using all means necessary, including military force, to prevent this.  The President should declare this to be U.S. policy and Congress should formally endorse it.  In addition, Congressional review of any agreement should precede any formal action on the agreement in the United Nations.

Without these features, many of us will find it difficult to support a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Or you can read the first five paragraphs of this New York Times article on the letter.

By the sixth paragraph, Scott Sanger has moved from a possible nuclear war to more important matters, like how this letter might hurt (or help) President Obama, politically.
For the White House, the letter may raise the level of political risk in seeking approval of any final agreement.  A judgment from Mr. Obama’s own former advisers that the final accord falls short would provide ammunition for Republican critics who have already said they will try to kill it when it is submitted to Congress for review.

But it creates an opportunity for Mr. Obama as well.  The letter was also signed by a number of prominent Republicans from President George W. Bush’s administration.  A determination by them that the standards set out in the letter have been achieved would undercut the Republican critique.
By now, anyone who believes that those standards will be achieved in an agreement negotiated by the Obama administration is living in a fantasy land.  Which, if the Sanger article is roughly correct, is now home to many in the Obama administration.

(Credit where due:  The Washington Post has been living in real world, when it concerns the Iranian threat.  Here's their latest editorial on the subject.)
- 8:19 AM, 25 June 2015   [link]

This Grim Cartoon By Michael Ramirez shows what we should be worrying about now, Iran's nuclear program — and our administration's feckless response to it.
- 7:36 AM, 25 June 2015   [link]