October 2014, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Barack Obama, President And "Shocked Outsider"  Charles Krauthammer says that Obama's standard reaction to his administration's failures is absurd.
The president is upset.  Very upset.  Frustrated and angry.  Seething about the government’s handling of Ebola, said the front-page headline in the New York Times last Saturday.

There’s only one problem with this pose, so obligingly transcribed for him by the Times.   It’s his government.  He’s president.  Has been for six years.   Yet Barack Obama reflexively insists on playing the shocked outsider when something goes wrong within his own administration.
And that reaction is no longer working, politically, as it once did:  "These shows of calculated outrage — and thus distance — are becoming not just unconvincing but unamusing."

A head football coach — with complete authority over personnel choices — could not get away, year after year, with acting shocked when his team loses, again and again.

To extend the football metaphor, when I learned that Obama had barely talked to Kathleen Sebelius while she was trying to implement ObamaCare, it was like learning that a head coach hadn't talked to his offensive coordinator during an entire season.

I didn't expect Obama to be good manager as president — he had no executive experience, and executive talent, especially political executive talent, is rare, — but I did expect him to go through the motions, to at least, from time to time, check on what his subordinates were doing.

When he poses as a shocked outsider, he is confessing that he isn't even going through the motions.

(It's hard to know how much of that "shocked outsider" is just a pose.  I am inclined to think that he really doesn't spend the time managing that he ought to — and that he is in fairly close touch with the political efforts of his underlings.  We still don't know why some IRS officials visited the White House so often, but you don't have to be a Republican to be suspicious about those visits.)
- 7:29 AM, 24 October 2014   [link]

What Happens When You Serve Food From McDonald's To Organic Food Experts?  They love it.
A pair of TV pranksters passed off McDonalds food to a group of food experts who declared how great it was and how much they loved it!

A pair of Dutch TV pranksters have pulled the ultimate trick at a fresh and organic food expo full of grub experts when they served them food they had bought at the local McDonalds.   What’s more though, these so called experts fell for it saying how much they bloody loved it!
The pranksters, Sacha and Cedrique, cut up the food from a McDonald's and added a few touches to make it look more "high end".

Here's the video, with English subtitles:

That is funny, but we should recognize that almost all of us can be fooled in similar ways.  Example:  When the brown coloring is removed from cola drinks, most of us don't recognize them, from the taste alone.
- 6:36 AM, 24 October 2014   [link]

Good News on Amber Vinson.
Barely a week after being diagnosed with Ebola, Texas nurse Amber Vinson is free of the deadly virus, her family said on Wednesday night.

“We are overjoyed to announce that, as of [Tuesday] evening, officials at Emory University Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control are no longer able to detect virus in her body,” read a statement from a family spokesperson.
Here's hoping she makes a complete recovery, and soon.

(I don't have anything new to add to my speculation on why she and Nina Pham are doing so well.)
- 8:36 AM, 23 October 2014   [link]

The Terrorist Who Killed The Canadian Soldier And Attacked The Canadian Parliament had a very multicultural background.
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the slain 32-year-old suspected killer of a Canadian Forces soldier near Parliament Hill, was a labourer and small-time criminal – a man who had had a religious awakening and seemed to have become mentally unstable.

Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau was born in 1982 and was the son of Bulgasem Zehaf, a Quebec businessman who appears to have fought in 2011 in Libya, and Susan Bibeau, the deputy chairperson of a division of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.  The two were divorced in 1999.
(Zehaf-Bibeau is often described as a Muslim "convert", but by Muslim law he was a Muslim from birth because his father was Muslim, so the Globe and Mail may be right to say he had an "awakening", rather than a "conversion".  And, as you may have guessed from the name, his father was an immigrant to Canada.)

Most will conclude, from that marriage, that Susan Bibeau was not hostile to immigrants, even immigrants with very different values from most Canadians.  Which makes her particular government job interesting, to say the least.

(The Daily Mail has the full tabloid treatment of the attack, along with many links to other accounts.

A commenter at Small Dead Animals pointed out that Zehaf-Bibeau's family background has some eerie similarities to that of Canada's most famous mass murderer, Marc Lépine.)
- 7:36 AM, 23 October 2014   [link]

Second Terrorist Attack In Canada:  On Monday, a Muslim convert, Martin "Ahmad" Couture-Rouleau, ran over two Canadian soldiers, killing one of them.  Couture-Rouleau was shot and killed by the police, and probably died as he wanted to.  (Earlier, he had been blocked from going to Syria to join ISIS.)

The authorities believe, as of now, that he was a lone wolf, not part of some organized conspiracy.

This morning, there was an attack in Ottawa, which may be ongoing as I write.   Early reports in these attacks are often wrong, but this BBC story is probably more right than wrong.
A gunman shot a soldier at a war memorial in Ottawa, then ran into the nearby parliament building where he exchanged gunfire with police.

According to a government minister, the wounded soldier later died. One gunman is also believed dead.

More shots were fired outside a nearby shopping centre and several buildings around the city are on lockdown.
I must add, immediately, that though I suspect that these two attacks have similar motivations, I don't have any direct evidence on the second.  And may not, for a while.
- 10:20 AM, 22 October 2014   [link]

Nina Pham is getting better.
Nina Pham, the first Dallas nurse to contract Ebola, has had her health status upgraded from "fair" to "good," according to a statement released on Tuesday evening by the National Institutes of Health.
We can all hope that she gets well soon — and that we learn from her recovery the best ways to treat others infected with the Ebola virus.

This CNN article describes some of the advantages that Ebola patients have in the West.
Early, high-quality treatment

This may be the most critical factor in beating Ebola.

The survivors in the United States all have one thing in common -- they were rushed to two of the country's four hospitals that have been preparing for years to treat a highly infectious disease such as Ebola.
Please note the "may", and remember that thousands in West Africa have received much less treatment, and still survived.

I'm inclined to think, on general grounds, that if you can keep Ebola patients stable with rehydration, and other standard supportive care, most will survive because their immune systems will eventually create antibodies against the virus.  And it may be significant that Pham received antibodies from an earlier survivor, Dr. Kent Brantly.   And that Brantly had received a similar donation, earlier, from another Ebola survivor.

(Could West Africa survivors be a regular source of antibodies that could cure others?  It's an possibility that should be explored, in my opinion.)
- 9:01 AM, 22 October 2014   [link]

Dreadnought:  I got out of bed late this morning because I was unable to resist spending some more time with my current night time book, Robert Massie's Dreadnought.

I have been studying it because, like many others, I am struck by the parallels between now and pre-World War I Europe, with China now acting much as Imperial Germany did then.

Want an example of the parallels?  Here's a minor one:  Republican presidents have, on the whole, had more success since World War II in negotiating with our enemies than Democratic presidents.  (Think of Nixon's opening to China, if you need an example.)   Similarly, British Prime Minister Salisbury was more successful negotiating with European powers than his Liberal rival, William Gladstone.   Gladstone, like Jimmy Carter, annoyed many other leaders with his open religiosity.   (There's a famous quip that captures that annoyance:  "I don't object to Gladstone always having the ace of trumps up his sleeve, but merely to his belief that the Almighty put it there.")

If those parallels are what most interest you about the book, then you do have to study it because Massie structured his history in a way that is fascinating, and difficult.  The book is (mostly) a series of mini-biographies of the leaders of the European nations involved in the naval arms race that began with the revolutionary British ship, Dreadnought.  Chapter 19, for instance, is titled "Joseph Chamberlain and Imperial Preference".  (If you are wondering what that's about, you can find some answers here.)

The mini-biographies are fascinating; Massie has a wonderful set of characters to work with, and a gift for finding the anecdotes that make them come to life.

But they also break up the underlying narrative, the story of the naval arms race that led to World War I, so a reader who is interested in that has to skip back and forth in the book.

(A minor but important technical point:  In general, guns are compared by their diameters; we say, for instance, that the Iowa class had 16-inch guns.  It is easy, if you haven't followed military affairs, to slip into thinking that the shells from these guns are proportional to their diameters, rather than their volumes.  Everything else being equal, a 16-inch shell will have about four times the volume of a 10-inch shell.)
- 1:22 PM, 21 October 2014   [link]

Karl Rove As "Satan" For Some On The Right?  It is not surprising that Karl Rove became a kind of "Satan" figure for many on the left.  After all, Rove managed two winning gubernatorial campaigns for George W. Bush in Texas, two winning presidential campaigns for Bush, and a winning off-year election in 2002.

And Rove has been trying, with somewhat less success, to defeat Democrats since then.

But what is surprising is that Rove has become a similar "Satan" figure for some on the right.
Karl Rove targets attorney general race in California.”  “Who’s afraid of Kamala Harris? Karl Rove!” “Karl Rove Attacks — We Need Your Help!”  Karl Rove’s starring role in the 2010 California attorney general’s race came as a surprise to Karl Rove, who wasn’t actually involved in that particular contest.  This happens with him all the time.   For the Left, Rove served for many years as the go-to bogeyman, the marquee name with which to conjure before Democrats discovered Charles and David Koch.  “Karl Rove” was how the Left pronounced “Satan.”

What has been peculiar in the years since then is Rove’s transformation from left-wing hate totem to right-wing hate totem, an all-purpose villain whose name is used liberally by tea-party groups and conservative populists raising funds for races in which he has no involvement.  On and on they go: “Don’t let Karl Rove squish Allen West!”  “Gingrich: We can’t let Karl Rove and a bunch of billionaires handpick GOP candidates for Senate.”
Kevin Williamson explains why those attacks on Rove from the right are unwarranted, explains, for instance, that Rove has generally stayed out of Republican primaries.

It's a good read for anyone who usually votes Republican, or for anyone who just wants to understand some of the stresses in the Grand Old Party.

(For a very crude example of the attacks on Rove, take a look at the first comment, here.)
- 1:10 PM, 20 October 2014   [link]

The Chicago Tribune Says That Senator Dick Durbin Is A Hyper-Partisan Obstructionist And Often Wrong On The Issues:  And that's in their editorial endorsing him.
We recalled the last time an Illinoisan rose to the top of the Senate: Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen, a Republican, was known for his civility and his willingness to set partisanship aside and get things done.  We contrasted Dirksen with the 2008 incumbent, then and now the second most powerful man in Democratic leadership and a practitioner of needless partisanship.  When TV cameras are on, we wrote, you can count on him to show up and whack a Republican.

In the end we endorsed Sen. Dick Durbin for re-election; his Republican opponent wasn't ready for prime time.  And now, with sincere respect for Durbin's long service and comparable concerns about his 2014 Republican opponent, we endorse Durbin's candidacy for another six-year term.  We often disagree with Durbin on issues.  But we would rather have Illinois represented by a highly capable partisan than by a less capable partisan.
(Emphasis added.)

As they admit, their argument "may elude the many Illinois citizens who tell us they're livid not only over Washington tribalism but also Washington gridlock".

The argument doesn't elude me; I just think that — if you are opposed to obstruction — you ought to prefer a less capable obstructionist to a more capable obstructionist, because the less capable obstructionist will do less damage.

Apparently the Tribune believes that it is almost required to endorse one of the candidates in this race.  (Similarly, the Seattle Times felt compelled to endorse Seattle's "congressman-for-life" Jim McDermott, since his opponent — in their view — is not qualified.)  They would have been better off not making no endorsement in this race.

(Here are the Wikipedia articles on the 2014 Illinois Senate race, Dick Durbin, and Durbin's opponent, Jim Oberweiss.  And here's the campaign site of the Republican the Tribune preferred, Doug Truax.)
- 12:44 PM, 20 October 2014   [link]

How Good Are Government Economic Forecasts?   "Not very."
Government economic forecasts receive a great deal of attention and are used to make a case for or against legislation or public policies.  How good are the forecasts?  The answer: not very.  Forecasting is an inexact science at best, and the trust that Congress and the public invest in these estimates is not warranted.
. . .
My analysis of 1999-2013 reveals that the CBO’s real GDP growth forecasts for the next year were off, on average, by 1.7 percentage points, either too high or low.  Administration forecasts were similarly off by a slightly larger 1.8 percentage points on average, also to high or too low.  Given that the average growth rate during this period was only 2.1%, errors of this magnitude are substantial.

Perhaps most damning: History is a better predictor of annual growth than government forecasts.  Simply assuming that GDP growth will be 3.1% in each year—the average annual rate for the 30 years that precede the study period—results in an average forecast error of 1.5 percentage points.
The economists at the Congressional Budget Office know our economy and our budgets about as well as anyone can.  Nonetheless, they, and other official forecasters, simply aren't very good.

Two thoughts on why this is so, and why it will continue to be so:  First, the elaborate mathematical models constructed by economists are, at best, only rough maps of the economy, for reasons that I hope are obvious.  (If not, try to imagine what hundreds of millions of consumers, just in the United States, will do next year.)

Second, the models do not, and can not, include what British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan may have said to a reporter who asked what might change his government's course:   "Events, my dear boy, events."

Those events can be positive or negative, can include everything from the introduction of polio vaccines to terrorist attacks.

Given this uncertainty, what should budgeteers do?  My own preference would be for them to be a little pessimistic in their budgeting; for example, if the forecasts say we will have 3.5 percent growth in the next year, then we should write budgets that assume a little less than that, say 3.0 percent.

Others, depending on their temperaments, may prefer using the estimates as they are, or even using optimistic assumptions.  (Of course, planners often do the latter, but almost never admit to doing so.)

But what everyone who makes a government budget should do is recognize, openly and publicly, the uncertainty in those estimates.  We have to build our budget houses on the sand of untrustworthy economic predictions, so we should be clear about the risks that the sand will shift underneath us.

(If you read the entire op-ed, you'll learn some interesting process details about our budget forecasts, from a man who helped make them.  And see a few examples of mistaken long-term forecasts.)
- 6:27 AM, 20 October 2014   [link]

This BBC Story isn't exactly news.
Bushmeat is believed to be the origin of the current Ebola outbreak.  The first victim's family hunted bats, which carry the virus.  Could the practice of eating bushmeat, which is popular across Africa, be responsible for the current crisis?

The origin has been traced to a two-year-old child from the village of Gueckedou in south-eastern Guinea, an area where batmeat is frequently hunted and eaten.
Since so many previous Ebola outbreaks had been traced to similar sources.
Bats are considered the most likely natural reservoir of ebola virus.  Plants, arthropods, and birds have also been considered.[1][38]  In the wild, transmission may occur when infected fruit bats drop partially eaten fruits or fruit pulp, then land mammals such as gorillas and duikers may feed on these fallen fruits.
. . .
Bats were known to reside in the cotton factory in which the first cases of the 1976 and 1979 outbreaks were observed, and they have also been implicated in Marburg virus infections in 1975 and 1980.[40]  Of 24 plant species and 19 vertebrate species experimentally inoculated with EBOV, only bats became infected.[41]   The bats displayed no clinical signs and is evidence that these bats are a reservoir species of the virus.
The good news is that most bats don't carry the virus; the bad news is that there is almost certainly no practical way to eliminate it from the bat population in West Africa.

This risk, though low, is so well known that in March Guinea banned the consumption of bat soup.

Although I don't see Ebola as a major health risk for Americans, I do want it stopped as soon as possible here, because of the possibility that it might find a similar animal reservoir in the United States, as the bubonic plague has.
- 7:00 PM, 19 October 2014   [link]

If You Are Squeamish About Spiders, you may want to skip this article about one of the largest, the Goliath birdeater
Known as the South American Goliath birdeater (Theraphosa blondi), the colossal arachnid is the world's largest spider, according to Guinness World Records.  Its leg span can reach up to a foot (30 centimeters), or about the size of "a child's forearm," with a body the size of "a large fist," [Piotr] Naskrecki told Live Science.  And the spider can weigh more than 6 oz. (170 grams) — about as much as a young puppy, the scientist wrote on his blog.
But it's an interesting animal, though not one you necessarily want to get too close to, even if you aren't a bird.

There's a little more in the Wikipedia article, but I didn't find anything there to answer what seems like an obvious question:  How does a spider that big handle circulation and respiration?

(When I turned to the general article on spiders, I found no answer to that question — or didn't understand it if I did run across it, but I did find this tidbit: "Unlike most arthropods, spiders have no extensor muscles in their limbs and instead extend them by hydraulic pressure."  Mechanical engineers may want to study those limbs, if they haven't already.)
- 2:42 PM, 18 October 2014   [link]

The Physical Evidence Supports Officer Darren Wilson; The Witnesses Disagree:  That isn't the headline that the New York Times put on their latest front-page Ferguson article, but it could be.

For example:
The officer, Darren Wilson, has told the authorities that during the scuffle, Mr. Brown reached for the gun.  It was fired twice in the car, according to forensics tests performed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The first bullet struck Mr. Brown in the arm; the second bullet missed.

The forensics tests showed Mr. Brown’s blood on the gun, as well as on the interior door panel and on Officer Wilson’s uniform.  Officer Wilson told the authorities that Mr. Brown had punched and scratched him repeatedly, leaving swelling on his face and cuts on his neck.
The article is based on what "government officials briefed on the federal civil rights investigation into the matter" told the Times.  Since these "officials" work for the Obama administration, I think we can assume that they are unlikely to be in complete sympathy with Officer Wilson.

There is, unfortunately, another point that needs to be made:  There is reason to think that some of the witnesses against Wilson are biased, have been tampered with, or both.
- 1:56 PM, 18 October 2014   [link]

Andrew Malcolm's Weekly Collection of jokes. Here's his favorite:
Meyers: The Obama White House wants to require police officers to wear body cameras at all times.  A great way for fans to keep up with their favorite NFL players.
And mine, though there were several others I liked.

(Serious jokesters will notice that Malcolm re-wrote the joke slightly for his title.  His version is better, in my opinion.  But if you are telling it, you should break it into two sentences, to separate the set-up from the punch line.)
- 1:25 PM, 18 October 2014   [link]

Putin Is Trying To Suppress Memorial:  If that sentence doesn't make sense to you, then take a quick look at the Wikipedia article on Memorial.
Memorial (Russian: Мемориал) is a Russian historical and civil rights society that operates in a number of post-Soviet states.  It focuses on recording and publicising the Soviet Union's totalitarian past, but also monitors human rights in Russia and other post-Soviet states.
And then at this fine Washington Post editorial describing Putin's efforts to suppress it.

Here's their concluding paragraph:
No one should underestimate the power of the Russian state to crush a person or organization.  Mr. Putin has done it repeatedly to silence his critics.  But the squelching of Memorial would be an especially grievous blow to the Russian people and their ability to understand, and shape, their history.
There's not much the United States can — or should — do to help Memorial in Russia.  But it would be nice if our diplomats at least expressed a little displeasure at these actions.

(I would like to think that we have been intelligent enough to make copies of Memorial's archives and have brought those copies to safe places in the West.  If not, now would be a good time to do so.)
- 8:43 AM, 17 October 2014   [link]

Seattle Victim Versus Seattle Victim:  A black woman, formerly press secretary to Seattle's gay mayor, Ed Murray, is suing the city for discrimination.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's former press secretary has filed a $1,000,000 claim against the city, alleging she was discriminated against because of her race and gender before being removed from the position after just three months on the job.

In a claim filed on September 26, Rosalind Brazel claims the mayor was "cool and aloof" toward her, while "affable and friendly" with other staff members.  Brazel claimed the mayor was "often snapping at her about media events she had scheduled for him."
It's a typical Seattle political story; anyone who can claim to be a victim — for a politically correct reason — has a big advantage in politics.  (Actual victims, for non-politically correct reasons, don't always do well.)

Not being a lawyer, I won't try to predict the outcome of this lawsuit.  But I can say that, about ten years ago, there was a series of Democratic primary contests in Seattle between non-heterosexual middle class and upper class whites, and working class blacks. As I recall, there were three of them in two or three years, and the whites came out ahead in all three.

(Local talk show host Dori Monson is delighted by this lawsuit, and I will admit that I am not unhappy about it myself.)
- 8:05 AM, 17 October 2014   [link]