March 2007, Part 4

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

This Seems Almost Too Symbolic:  The government established by Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat is incompetent at many basic tasks.  So it is no surprise to see it fail, but the way it failed two days ago seems symbolic, almost too symbolic.
An earthen embankment around a sewage reservoir that was filled to capacity collapsed Tuesday, and officials said it spewed a "tsunami" of waste and mud that killed five people and forced residents to flee Umm Naser, a village in the northern Gaza Strip.

One local official blamed the collapse on shoddy infrastructure, and United Nations officials said they had warned of such a catastrophe for more than two years.
But Arafat's heirs had other things on their minds than protecting their citizens from sewage.

Sadly, those who died — two old woman, two toddlers, and a teenage girl — were probably innocent of most of the sins committed in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

(By way of Kate McMillan, I learned that some of the pipe from Israel intended for sewers may have been diverted to terrorist rockets.

And Hamas and their allies, who are now competing for authority with Arafat's thugs, have brought still another form of terror to Gaza, hunting women.
So-called honour killings have been carried out here in the past, but even in this ramshackle, anarchistic and fractured society, women have never before been hunted down so blatantly.
As I have said before, most recently in this post, the best solution for the Palestinians is probably to re-educate them and then disperse them to other Arab states.  And a significant number of Palestinians agree with at least part of that prescription.)
- 1:15 PM, 29 March 2007   [link]

The Chicago Tribune catches up with the Daily Mail, and comes to similar conclusions about Barack Obama's autobiography.
More than 40 interviews with former classmates, teachers, friends and neighbors in his childhood homes of Hawaii and Indonesia, as well as a review of public records, show the arc of Obama's personal journey took him to places and situations far removed from the experience of most Americans.

At the same time, several of his oft-recited stories may not have happened in the way he has recounted them.  Some seem to make Obama look better in the retelling, others appear to exaggerate his outward struggles over issues of race, or simply skim over some of the most painful, private moments of his life.
These differences between what happened and what Obama says happened lead naturally to this question:   Does Obama believes his own tales about his father and his childhood?  Or is he just telling these tales for political reasons?  (Or perhaps for personal reasons.  Having been abandoned by both his father and his mother, it would be understandable if he preferred not to face parts of his past honestly.)
- 10:57 AM, 29 March 2007   [link]

Email Suggestions?  Next month, as I switch over to my new site, I'll also be changing my email.  There are, broadly speaking, three possible ways to go.  I could host my own email, I could use my DSL provider, Verizon, or I could use one of the free services, such as Google or Hotmail.

The first sounds like too much extra work, though I'll admit that I haven't checked into what it would involve.  (And I should add that I am, at most, only mildly interested in being a systems manager.) The second ties me down a bit, but is the simplest choice.  The third I am still thinking about.  If you have any suggestions, let me know.  (Of course, I could do two of the three, or even all three, though offhand I can't think of any great advantage to that.)
- 1:00 PM, 28 March 2007
Update:  I've decided to try Google's Gmail and have set up an account for experiments.  (The email address is, if you want to try it out.   I would have used just "jimxc", if it had been available, but Gmail requires at least six characters in the user name.)

An emailer suggested a fourth alternative.  Some professional associations offer email services to their members.  That allows you to keep the same user name no matter what provider you have, at the cost of a tiny delay in the mail.  Some colleges and universities offer a similar service to their alumni.  For many people, those would be good choices.
- 8:18 AM, 29 March 2007   [link]

Semi-Identical Twins?  Sounds impossible, and it is, because twins can either be identical or not be identical, can either have the same genes or not have the same genes.  But scientists have found a pair of fraternal twins where the semi-identical label seems semi-appropriate.
Researchers have discovered a pair of twins who are identical through their mother's side, but share only half their genes on their father's side.

The 'semi-identical' twins are the result of two sperm cells fusing with a single egg — a previously unreported way for twins to come about, say the team that made the finding.  The twins are chimaeras, meaning that their cells are not genetically uniform.  Each sperm has contributed genes to each child.
The two children, now toddlers, appear to be normal in development and intelligence, but not in every way, as you can learn from the article.

These twins show, by the way, that it is possible for a child to have two genetic fathers, since the two sperm cells could, in principle, come from two different men.

(Here's a review of chimeras, should you need one, and here's one of my posts on children with two genetic mothers.)
- 7:39 AM, 28 March 2007   [link]

Those Mysterious Youths are rioting again.
Riot police firing tear gas and brandishing batons clashed Tuesday with bands of youths who shattered windows and looted shops at a major Paris train station, officials said.  Nine people were arrested. Officials said about 100 people were involved in the melee at Gare du Nord, one of Paris' most important transport hubs.  Officers, some with police dogs, fired tear gas and charged at groups of marauding youths, some of them wearing hoods and swinging metal bars.
There is a hint about who those youths might be near the end of the article.
The train lines from Gare du Nord radiate out to the same suburbs north of Paris where three weeks of rioting erupted in 2005.  That violence was born of pent-up anger - especially among youths of Arab and African origin - over years of high unemployment and racial inequalities.
Could any of these youths be M------?  The Associated Press doesn't think we need to know.

French riot police once had quite a reputation for tough tactics.  They were not called out for minor tiffs.  If that's still true — and the use of tear gas suggests it is — this must have been a sizable riot.

(More:  ¡No-Pasarán! has four videos, which may give you some idea of what happened in the riot.

And a personal note:  In 1994, I passed through the Gare du Nord.  It did not then seem like a dangerous place, though the commuter train I rode from the De Gaulle airport had passed through some nasty slums.

I wandered around the station while I was waiting for a train to the English Channel and was surprised to find child pornography sold openly at some of the news stands.  One magazine's cover, for example, advertised pictures of little Canadian girls.   More evidence, I suppose, of French sophistication.)
- 6:24 AM, 28 March 2007   [link]

Guess I Won't Have To Replace that St. Helens picture right away.
Mount St. Helens may be following the example of Kilauea in Hawaii with magma being replaced from a reservoir beneath the volcano as fast as it emerges as lava at the surface, scientists say.

While the two volcanoes are different in many respects, St. Helens appears to have become an "open system" as its domebuilding eruption that began in the fall of 2004 continues at a pace that has been unchanged for the past year, said Daniel Dzurisin, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory.
. . .
"That situation could go on for a long time," Dzurisin said.  "The ongoing eruption (at Kilauea) in Hawaii, for example, started in 1983."
This article is accompanied by a whole set of pictures, including video and slide shows.  TV stations are good for some things.
- 7:47 PM, 27 March 2007   [link]

Corruption At A French Oil Company?  Impossible!  Well, maybe not totally impossible.
Christophe de Margerie, the new chief executive of Total, France's largest corporation and one of the world's big energy companies, was formally placed under investigation last week on suspicion of paying bribes to win a huge gas project in Iran.
. . .
Total insists that its chief executive, who took office last month, is innocent and that the company abided by all "applicable law" in winning the Iranian gas concession.  That is not necessarily saying much because bribes paid abroad were tax-deductible in France until 1997 and not totally outlawed until 2000.
The New York Times seems awfully cynical in its reporting of this story.  Why they are even suggesting that high officials of the Iranian theocracy, including former President Rafsanjani (or at least his children) may have accepted bribes.  I can't imagine where they get such ideas.
- 5:14 PM, 27 March 2007
More:  The Wall Street Journal reminds us that Monsieur de Margerie and Total have been accused of similar behavior before.
A French judge is investigating bribes that Total executives allegedly paid Iranian officials to secure business in the Islamic Republic.   Last week, the judge issued preliminary charges of abuse of company funds and corruption of foreign agents against Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie.   The company and Mr. de Margerie deny any wrongdoing, but the Total experience is all too typical of the way European firms cut deals with dictators while their own governments provide political cover.

Meanwhile, the same French prosecutor continues to investigate Total for alleged kickbacks paid to Saddam Hussein in return for Iraqi oil.  In his report on Oil for Food corruption, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker found that Total, through intermediaries, had purchased some of the 11 million barrels of oil that former Iraqi officials claim was allocated to French Senator Charles Pasqua in thanks for his support of Saddam's Iraq.  Total and Mr. Pasqua also deny any wrongdoing.
Significantly, the Clinton administration believed that the Total deals with Iran were a "violation of the U.S. 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act", and considered sanctions against Total.
- 12:29 PM, 30 March 2007   [link]

Worth Reading:  Bernard Lewis, who probably knows more about Islamic history than anyone else, finds some lessons in the long history of conflict betwen Europe and Islam.
That was, as I said, at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century.  From then onward, the heartlands of Islam were no longer wholly controlled by the rulers of Islam.  They were under direct or indirect influence or control from outside.

The dominating forces in the Islamic world were now outside forces.  What shaped their lives was Western influence.  What gave them choices was Western rivalries.  The political game that they could play--the only one that was open to them--was to try and profit from the rivalries between the outside powers, to try to use them against one another.  We see that again and again in the course of the 19th and 20th and even into the beginning of the 21st century.  We see, for example, in the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War, how Middle Eastern governments or leaders tried to play this game with varying degrees of success.

That game is now over.  The era that was inaugurated by Napoleon and Nelson was terminated by Reagan and Gorbachev.  The Middle East is no longer ruled or dominated by outside powers.   These nations are having some difficulty adjusting to this new situation, to taking responsibility for their own actions and their consequences, and so on.  But they are beginning to do so, and this change has been expressed with his usual clarity and eloquence by Osama bin Laden.
. . .
The other thing more directly relevant to my theme this evening is the signs of a return among Muslims to what they perceive as the cosmic struggle for world domination between the two main faiths--Christianity and Islam.  There are many religions in the world, but as far as I know there are only two that have claimed that their truths are not only universal--all religions claim that--but also exclusive; that they--the Christians in the one case, the Muslims in the other--are the fortunate recipients of God's final message to humanity, which it is their duty not to keep selfishly to themselves--like the Jews or the Hindus--but to bring to the rest of humanity, removing whatever obstacles there may be on the way.  This self-perception, shared between Christendom and Islam, led to the long struggle that has been going on for more than fourteen centuries and which is now entering a new phase.  In the Christian world, now at the beginning of the 21st century of its era, this triumphalist attitude no longer prevails, and is confined to a few minority groups.  In the world of Islam, now in its early 15th century, triumphalism is still a significant force, and has found expression in new militant movements.
Read the whole thing.  And if you can, share it with a "mainstream" journalist.

Kate McMillan, who reminded me about this speech, makes this heartfelt plea to the Canadian journalists and politicians who read her site.
Now, a personal note to a particular segment of the readership here:

My logfiles inform me that a large number of media and those involved formally in Canadian politics visit this site.  I am fully aware that some of you have perceptions of SDA best described as "sneering dismissiveness".

I don't really care about that.

What I do care about is that you read the link from beginning to end.
And I join in that making that request, though I direct it first to American journalists and politicians, and then to all journalists and politicians in the West.  Read what Lewis has to say.  (And you may want to read the comments in Kate's post, as well.)
- 1:48 PM, 27 March 2007   [link]

The Republican Chances Look Good In 2008:  So say political scientists Samuel L. Popkin and Henry A. Kim, who argue that historical precedents give the Republicans reason for hope.
The Democrats' road to the White House in 2008 runs through Congress, and it is uphill all the way.   The last time either party captured the White House two years after wresting control of both House and Senate in midterm elections was in 1920.  Democrats who think that it is their turn to expand their pet programs and please their core constituencies have forgotten how quickly congressional heavy-handedness can revive the president's party.
. . .
It is far too soon to count the Republicans out -- or even bet against them.  At this point in 1995, President Bill Clinton trailed Bob Dole in polls, and only 55 percent of Democrats even wanted him to run for a second term.  The parties that lost control of one or both houses in 1994, 1986, 1954 and 1946 all won the White House two years later.
You may want to read their whole argument, but one can make an even simpler explanation.  When the opposition party captures one or more houses, they give the voters a chance to see what they would actually do, instead of what they promise to do.  The voters get, in short, a lesson in "compared to what".  And the president's party often looks much better after voters make that comparison.

For example, voters who oppose pork barrel spending have already learned — if they were paying attention — that as bad as some Republicans were in recent years, the Democrats are much worse.

Popkin was an advisor to Clinton.  He and Kim wrote this piece to tell Democrats how to win in 2008 in spite of the odds against them.  I doubt that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are smart enough, politically, to follow their advice.

(Amusingly, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who was once a respected economics professor, seems not to know about this history, as you can see from his most recent $column.   And as you can see from the date of his column, he had time to learn about it, by reading Popkin and Kim.)
- 9:05 AM, 27 March 2007   [link]

It Couldn't Have Anything To Do With The Content:  Every year, I see many articles on declines at our "mainstream" newspapers, declines in circulation or, in this article, declines in advertising.
For newspapers, February was the cruelest month.  So far.

Revenue from advertising was in striking decline last month, compared with February a year ago, and were generally weaker than analysts had expected.
And these articles almost always cite a variety of technological changes for the declines, competition from the Internet, and so on.  I don't doubt that those changes have hurt "mainstream" newspapers, but I have been fascinated for years by the unwillingness of those same "mainstream" newspapers to even consider the idea that their bias may be one cause of their declines.

They are unwilling to consider that idea even though polls show many Americans consider them biased.  And they are unwilling even though some have codes for bias for their subscription sales force.  Your own experience may support that. I have found that when I tell someone trying to sell me a subscription to a local newspaper that I can't subscribe because of bias problems, the salesman (or, more often, saleswoman) is never surprised.

But the possibility that bias may be a a part of cause of these declines is almost never even mentioned by our "mainstream" newspapers.  And I really don't know why that's so.  Perhaps the implications are just too hard to face.

(And if the New York Times wanted to look at the possibility that bias may be part of their problem, they could find evidence for that idea in this embarrassing correction from yesterday, or this very funny story about the struggle over the editorial page at the LA Times.)
- 11:23 AM, 26 March 2007   [link]

Hiding The Pork:  In last year's elections, Republicans were hurt because too many of them had become addicted to wasteful pork barrel projects, especially "earmarks" put in by specific legislators.   Democrats promised to control earmarks — and some voters may even have believed those promises.

But Democrats have decided to be more practical; instead of cutting back on earmarks, they have directed the Congressional Research Service to hide them.
Democrats promised reform and instituted "a moratorium" on all earmarks until the system was cleaned up.  Now the appropriations committees are privately accepting pork-barrel requests again.   But curiously, the scorekeeper on earmarks, the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service (CRS)--a publicly funded, nonpartisan federal agency--has suddenly announced it will no longer respond to requests from members of Congress on the size, number or background of earmarks.
. . .
When I asked a CRS official if the new policy stemmed from complaints by appropriations committee members, she refused to answer the question, citing "confidentiality" concerns.

But other CRS staffers are happy to talk privately about the political pressure members often exert, despite Mr. Mulhollan's new directive that all employees inform management within 24 hours of any contacts with the media.  "The director operates out of fear members will get upset," says Dennis Roth, a CRS labor economist who is president of a union representing 250 CRS workers.  "The groundhog doesn't want to see his shadow, so he stays in the dark hole so he won't."

"There is real anxiety members will complain if CRS says something is an earmark when the new appropriations committees say it isn't," says another CRS staffer.
You have to admit that, as a matter of practical politics, that's much more sensible than the Republican policy, which did not restrict earmarks, but made it easy to expose them.  Much better, if you are going to have them, to hide them — unless, of course, you are one of those odd people who think that congressmen should act in the best interest of the nation.

The amounts of money involved are not trivial; according to CRS, earmarks added up to $64 billion in 2006.

(Sometimes congressman not only earmark the money for these projects, but then stick their names on the projects just to make it clear to the voters who did this.  Deroy Murdock has some examples of this particular abuse, including one from one of our favorite porkbarrelers, Nancy Pelosi's choice for majority leader and Abscam co-conspirator, Congressman John Murtha.
Johnstown, P.A. — Devastated in 1889 by a notorious flood, this town today welcomes turboprop aircraft to its tiny airport.  Approaching the terminal — which a decent-sized grocery store would dwarf — a sign greets passengers:
— John Murtha —
Johnstown Cambria County Airport
Inside, a framed photo features Congressman Murtha meeting employees at a local factory and praising their employer for creating jobs.  Another picture shows the vocal Iraq-war critic's face superimposed on the Stars and Stripes.
. . .
So, this whole place is essentially a $125 million political ad funded by America's taxpayers.   Murtha's face greets every constituent who traverses this airport.
Murdock has many more examples of this particular abuse, from politicians in both parties.   (He says, by the way, that the House has a rule forbidding this practice.  I don't think that enforcement of the rule has been vigorous.)

I never expected the Democrats to keep their promises on earmarks, but even I was startled when Pelosi backed Murtha for majority leader, given his reputation for corruption and pork.)
- 10:07 AM, 26 March 2007   [link]