Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Trivia In Uniform

I'm going to try and budget me some time for the soccer book today (Slavia Sofia of Bulgaria, team #400 to get the once-over, is on deck), so let's make a quickie.

What percentage of American soldiers that served in World War 2 were draftees? What percentage of the Army specifically were draftees?, I'm not going to give you the answer because you wouldn't click otherwise.

Monday, August 30, 2010

On Entitlement and Dependency

If a Wisconsinite were to look at Ron Johnson, Russ Feingold's Senate opponent this year, based solely on his ads and website, one wouldn't learn much of anything about him. He seems to play the campaign on the basis of 'the less people know about me, the better'.

One must learn about him by his live appearances at campaign stops. And if his strategy is in fact 'the less people know about me, the better', it is a wise one. It has, for one, as previously reported, forced Feingold into making blind stabs at what he thinks Johnson's record might be, allowing Johnson to later attack Feingold for distorting his record when he turns out to be wrong.

When one does see Johnson in action, he turns out to be exactly the Tea Partier he is billed as being. I want to focus on this article from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The piece details a pair of recent campaign stops in Wisconsin Rapids and Marshfield, in which he, among other things, refers to the health care reform law passed earlier this year as "the greatest single assault on our freedom in our lifetime." He is 55 years old, and since he has yet to reveal a specific birthdate, we can best assume that he was born in 1955. A lifetime that has included the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11, which makes healthcare reform legislation pale in comparison. Add in Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and something Vietnam-related if you want to as well. You get the point.

There's also this passage:

Conservatives, he said, just want to be left alone. "The problem is (liberals) are not leaving us alone," he told supporters. "They haven't left us alone. They are threatening our freedom."

This from a party that has sent Jan Brewer into superstar status for signing an immigration law that, whatever they may claim as intent, is pretty much designed to not leave Hispanics alone. This from a party that brought us warrantless wiretaps, "free speech zones", and "enhanced interrogation techniques", among other things. So that's a patently ridiculous claim as well.

But neither of those were the part of the article that really popped me between the eyes. That honor went to paragraphs three and four, right at the top of the piece.

At campaign stops on Friday before groups at a Wisconsin Rapids restaurant and later at the Marshfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Johnson said he sees a society that is lurching toward a culture of entitlement dependency.

"People are saying, 'That's my right, give it to me.' That's not the America I recognize. I think we're losing America. That's what's at stake in this election."

Damn straight America is a culture of entitlement dependency.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Let's hit the 'entitlement' part of it first. Yes, Americans, as individuals, should be doing their level best to work for what they get in life. But there are things in life that one should not have to work for, that one should in fact feel 'entitled' to. A decent home. A decent education. A loving family, whatever its makeup. A job, should they wish to have one. A long and healthy life. Not having to put oneself in the poorhouse to get that health. A voice in their government. Government officials who can ably and ethically do their job. Safety and security. The ability to travel abroad without having to stick a maple leaf sticker on their luggage so they don't get beat up or mugged. (By the way, they can see right through that.)

These, among others, are things that every American has every right to feel 'entitled' to, that no American should have to earn. These are things every American should be able to simply start out with, and then be able to earn whatever they get past that. If that's entitlement, I'm all for it. One should not expect everything in life to fall into their lap. But one should be able to expect a starter set of amenities such as these.

As for 'dependency', Mr. Johnson.

Dependency is not something to be taken lightly. Dependency is not something to be derided. Dependency is one of the most critical characteristics of not just Americans, but all of humanity. You may have heard someone say, at some point, that when things are at their worst, humanity is often at its best. This saying celebrates those who simply refuse to let anyone fall through the cracks if they have anything to say about it. When the earthquake has struck, when the flood waters are rising, when the building is coming down, when someone is living in quiet desperation every day of their lives, there is someone out there that will do everything in their power, lay their jobs, their bodies, their lives on the line to find these people, hold out their hand, and help as many of them as possible back to their feet.

What would happen to these souls if they did not have these people rushing to their aid? They would simply be left to their miserable fate. And any help that arrives knows it. That help also knows that if, one day, they should be so unfortunate, they would hope someone else in turn comes to their aid.

If we have no other redeeming qualities as a species, we at least have that. We have support structures, haphazard as they may sometimes be.

My brother recently lost his job. He is of course looking (and looking, and looking), but in the meantime, unemployment notwithstanding, he is dependent on friends and family to help him through. An extra set of eyes to catch that extra job opening he may have missed. People to watch his baby nephew while he's out of the house looking (or for any other purpose). The odd bit of financial support (because just because the paychecks stop coming doesn't mean the bills do). Lord knows where he'd be if it weren't for people he knew he could depend on. I don't even want to think about it.

And if the same thing were to happen to me, I know that, should I need it, he and they would be there for me as well.

And as for dependency not being the America you recognize, let me tell you that if it weren't for dependency, America never would have come into existence in the first place.

Flashback to the Declaration of Independence. The signers of that document knew that, by affixing their names, they would be committing treason against the British crown. They had a wide variety of backgrounds- some richer than others, with different lifestyles and viewpoints and background and lineages, but every one of them was risking everything they had by putting their name to the parchment and allowing King George III to know exactly who was to be arrested. And yet, 56 people did so, depending on each other for backup. One man, Charles Carroll, wrote his hometown by his name, reading 'Charles Carroll of Carrollton.' (He had always signed his name like that, but still.)

As Ben Franklin said on that occasion, "We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

And then there is the very job for which you apply. Congress is supposed to be there for when things get to be too much for a friends-and-family support structure, even an entire community. Congress is there, through high-profile legislation as well as low-profile casework, for when someone needs nothing less than the full power of their country to rescue them from some wretched fate. When people mockingly use the phrase "I'm from the government and I'm here to help", they are mocking the government's all-too-frequent failure in that task. They don't want to have to mock it. So many people have been voted in and out of office for their success or failure in doing so. Ron Paul is untouchable in his district because of his full understanding of this concept; a realization that, whatever his votes, he is supposed to be there to help. He knows his constituents depend on him when they need help finding work, finding housing, finding lost war medals. Kissing babies? He'll deliver them.

Whether you realize it or not, this is what you ask of the people of Wisconsin. You ask them to depend on you. You ask them to count on you when the chips are down. You ask them to trust that, when they fall, you, Ron Johnson, will be there to pick them back up.

If you do not understand that basic concept, if you are seemingly campaigning on the concept of leaving our most in need to suffer, how are you possibly qualified for this job?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Smart Things Said By Other People

I've always wanted to do a quote post. So, hey, why not.

Yeah, not much of an intro, but hey. The intro's not the point anyway.


"I find it interesting that the meanest life, the poorest existence, is attributed to God's will, but as human beings become more affluent... God descends the scale of responsibility at a commensurate speed." -Maya Angelou

"After I'm dead I'd rather have people asking why I have no monument than why I have one." -Cato the Elder

"Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events." -Winston Churchill

"Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. But information is the first essential step to all of these." -Arthur C. Clarke

"All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind." -William Congreve

"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." -Philip K. Dick

"Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them." -Frederick Douglass

"If men can develop weapons that are so terrifying as to make the thought of global war include almost a sentence for suicide, you would think that man's intelligence and his comprehension would include also his ability to find a peaceful solution." -Dwight D. Eisenhower

"The man who is too set to change is dead already. The funeral is a mere detail." -Henry Ford

"I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something." -Helen Keller

"The severest justice may not always be the best policy." -Abe Lincoln

"How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling the tail a leg doesn't make it a leg." -Abe Lincoln

"If this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle [equality]... I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it." -Abe Lincoln

"Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can't build on it; it is only good for wallowing in." -Katherine Mansfield

"The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." -Friedrich Nietzsche

"If more politicians in this country were thinking about the next generation instead of the next election, it might be better for the United States and the world." -Claude Pepper

"If you have a weak candidate and a weak platform, wrap yourself up in the American flag and talk about the Constitution." -Matthew S. Quay

"I'm really glad that our young people missed the Depression, and missed the great big war. But I do regret that they missed the leaders that I knew. Leaders who told us when things were tough, and that we would have to sacrifice, and these difficulties might last awhile. They didn't tell us things were hard for us because we were different, or isolated, or special interests. They brought us together and they gave us a sense of national purpose." -Ann Richards

"Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there." -Will Rogers

"The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you got to admit that each party is worse than the other. The one that's out always looks the best." -Will Rogers

"The only way to stop terrorism is to say 'I'm not scared of you.'" -Salman Rushdie

"I think we ought always to entertain our opinions with some measure of doubt. I shouldn't wish people dogmatically to believe any philosophy, not even mine." -Bertrand Russell

"In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know, that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. It happens every day, but I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion." -Carl Sagan

"It is easier to exclude harmful passions than to rule them, and to deny them admittance than to control them after they have been admitted." -Seneca

"If all our misfortunes were laid in one common heap, whence everyone must take an equal portion, most people would be content to take their own and depart." -Socrates

"I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare - I have no use for him either." -Sophocles

"The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off." -Gloria Steinem

"We're in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone's arguing over where they're going to sit." -David Suzuki

"Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer." -Shunryu Suzuki

"If you cannot feed a hundred people, then feed just one." -Mother Teresa

"The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane." -Mark Twain

"It is very easy to break down something. Throw a stone through that window; that is easy. Try fixing it, and that takes longer." Desmond Tutu

"If you are neutral towards injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." -Desmond Tutu

"A witty saying proves nothing." -Volitare

"It is lamentable that to be a good patriot we must become the enemy of the rest of mankind." -Volitare

"Never be ashamed to ask for information. The ignorant man will always be ignorant if he fears that by asking he will display ignorance." -Booker T. Washington

"Bad facts make bad laws." -Frank Zappa

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Shameless Excuse Post

According to the most recent available figures, one in every 31 people is either incarcerated, on parole or on probation in the United States. So it's entirely possible someone in the audience will be arrested at some point.

So if you are, please note that the police, such as this cop which another video on the topic identifies as Tom Mumford of San Miguel County, New Mexico, hate it when you do this after they have arrested you for starting a bar fight:

According to another show that interviewed Mumford, the assault-for-spitting charge wasn't pursued. An unedited clip shows that the bleeped words included the F-word for 'gay', and the N-word (which he used on a white officer).

Of course, if the clip shown here isn't enough, apparently you can purchase the entire 28-minute session, with an optional six bonus minutes. If that's how you want to spend your money.

Is California Adopting?

Holy frijoles. Isn't Wisconsin, politically, supposed to be one of the SMARTER states?

Because we're really kind of not this year.

Wisconsinites. I know you're out there. Reading this. Wisconsin makes up a large plurality of the hit counter. Read the damn byline: BE LESS STUPID. We're embarrassing ourselves in front of the other states.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In Which Pete Rose Takes Up Teaching

I don't need an incentive to learn anything. Self-education is a big selling point of mine. My public schooling experience drove home the message more than a few times that if I wanted a halfway decent education, I'd have to go get it myself. Middle school in particular seemed particularly uninterested in teaching me things, greatly favoring the alternative method of placing me in close proximity with people who wanted to beat me up. (To this day, I still cover one eye when driving past it, so I don't have to look at it. Let's not discuss further.)

Had I left things purely to the schools, I'd be a hell of a lot dumber than I actually am. Besides, learning doesn't stop when school does. It goes on. After you get out of school, you need to start motivating yourself. It's one thing to learn when there's something on the line- when there's a job on the line, when there's a promotion on the line, a grade on the line, a life on the line. It's quite another to learn when there's nothing on the line except for a sense of self improvement.

Which is why this story troubles me. There is a site,, that allows college students to bet money on them achieving a certain grade. Currently, 36 schools are part of the program. This is technically legal, as while online gambling is illegal in the United States, that applies to contests in which you have no control, and you do have control over your grades.

But there's just something seedy about it all. It's betting money on school. The student's own money. It's one thing to create an incentive program for getting good grades; lots of places do that for elementary school students. There's a video rental place in town that offers free rentals for every A on a kid's report card. Plenty of parents offer their kids money for good grades. There are two key differences between those and this:

1. The elementary school student does not have any skin in the game. If he doesn't meet the goal, he doesn't lose anything. The college student does.
2. The elementary school student has a lot fewer financial concerns on his mind than the college student. The elementary school student doesn't have any living costs; the parents provide everything. The college student has some pretty crushing student loans looming right after he gets out.

It may be more of an incentive to hit the books, but more likely, it's simply an incentive to win that bet. If a student put some fairly significant money on a grade, and is skirting the bare edge of it going into a final exam, the pressure of that bet is going to be enormous. At that point, the possibility exists that studying may take a backseat to cheating. Money gets some pretty base reactions out of people. There's going to be somebody, eventually, probably sooner rather than later, that is going to forget about studying and just focus on hitting the goal grade by any means necessary.

Which teaches a lesson school was never meant to teach.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Random News Generator- El Salvador

The RNG gives us El Salvador today, and not much in the way of explanation because the two major stories out of the country don't require much in the way of explanation.

First off, last week Barack Obama used a recess appointment to name Maria del Carmen Aponte embassador to El Salvador. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Jim Risch of Idaho had placed a hold on a vote on her up until now due to dealings with Cuban diplomats, an issue that had previously kept Bill Clinton from getting her through as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic. There wasn't anything particularly going on in the talks. They just talked, and that was enough.

We're a bit nutty about Cuba.

Oh, and don't read the Politico comments. Never read Politico comments. You know, if you enjoy having a non-melted brain.

Secondly, anyone in El Salvador may want to think about boarding up the house, as there is a nationwide warning in effect for what is actually just now becoming Hurricane Frank off the Pacific Coast. That will be in effect for the next two days. Mexico, though, should be particularly concerned.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I have already laid out my general views on religion in this space. I'm not concerned with what religion you follow, what you believe, or even if you don't have a religion at all, so long as whatever it is you believe makes a decent person out of you.

But that, obviously, is not the religious issue at hand lately. The religious issue at hand revolves around the proposed so-called "Ground Zero Mosque". We'd deal with the facts surrounding that, but they seem to have fallen by the wayside as far as importance to the debate, which has morphed from a single 'should we build this at this site' question to a broader... you hate to call it a "discussion" because it's more of a "shouting match"... no ,wait, that's not really the right term either; let's go with "shrieking aural hellscape" concerning Islam in general. It's not about 'should this mosque be built here'. It's 'should any mosque be built anywhere', and in one case noted on the Rachel Maddow Show earlier tonight, it has actually gone as far as 'should Islam be legal in the United States'.

Clearly, the "Ground Zero Mosque" itself has become vestigial. It's not the subject anymore. It is simply the backdrop of a larger subject, perpetuated in a country that is mostly Christian with a decent Jewish contingent.

So to all three of you, here comes a bombshell.

You're all worshipping the same guy.

Let me repeat that, a bit louder:

God, Yahweh, and Allah are the same guy.

Seriously, did the three of you think it a coincidence that you're all fighting over the same city, Jerusalem? Because it's not.

Collectively, the three faiths are known as the Abrahamic religions. They started out on the same page, with the same historical lineage.

Everybody originally started out as Jewish. There was a gradual, growing split that saw off the Christians, but it's generally accepted that the major event that kicked things off was the Rejection of Jesus in 30 AD. For our purposes, that's enough. We just need enough historical backstory to establish the fact that the two began as one, but split off somewhere along the way. The split centers around the fact that while the Christians held Jesus up as a messiah, the Jews did not, because of a number of factors shown here. We'll stick with one- that the Messiah must be descended on his father's side from King David. As Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, this is impossible. Claims that Mary herself is descended of David are dismissed by, among other things, the fact that family lineage is passed on only through the father. And, of course, what father?

That's Jesus, though. God never appeared as human. In fact, he is not mortal. This, the Jews have zero scriptural issues with- according to our previous source,

Maimonides devotes much of the "Guide for the Perplexed" to the fundamental idea that God is incorporeal, meaning that He assumes no physical form. God is Eternal, above time. He is Infinite, beyond space. He cannot be born, and cannot die. Saying that God assumes human form makes God small, diminishing both His unity and His divinity. As the Torah says: "God is not a mortal" (Numbers 23:19).

Any of the three faiths will tell you that their high deity takes many names. Yahweh, of course, is the Jewish name, or, as it is officially, YHWH, all capitalized and without the vowels.

If you Christians will crack open your Bibles, most of you will not-so-coincidentally notice a name in there that is also written in all caps, a practice begun by one William Tyndale in the 16th century. What is it?


The problem is, the New Testament writers- different from and chronologically later than those who did the Old Testament- had their own idea of who should get the 'lord' label, and they picked Jesus. This results in a certain amount of confusion within the Bible itself, as 'lord' is meant to refer to two different entities. The way you can tell the difference is to look at how it's written. 'Lord' is Jesus. 'LORD' is the mutual God.

So that's those two. We must still establish Islam's connection, and remember that we're not necessarily trying to establish a triangle link of Islam/Christianity, Christianity/Judaism and Judaism/Islam; only establish a common ancestral origin.

This, for Islam, is a more complicated matter. One has to start delving into the theology of it all rather than just relying on straight history. But let's start with the origin. The Muslim faith, of course, began with the prophet Muhummad, who received his first revelation from God at age 40 in 610.

You'll note I just said 'God'. I didn't say 'Allah'. This is because I'm speaking English. 'Allah' is nothing more than the Arabic word for 'God'.

The big question, obviously, is how do you know it's the same God that the Jews and Christians worship?

The Qur'an says so itself, in verse 46 of Surah 29, Al-Ankaboot. Three translations are shown in the link; we'll just go ahead and show all three.

YUSUFALI: And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)."
PICKTHAL: And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say: We believe in that which hath been revealed unto us and revealed unto you; our Allah and your Allah is One, and unto Him we surrender.
SHAKIR: And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our Allah and your Allah is One, and to Him do we submit.

A more detailed argument in favor of this passage can be seen here.

Now, an argument exists as to whether this is enough of a statement to qualify; whether the 'your' in 'our Allah and your Allah' refers to Jews and Christians, or simply other Muslims, and whether the 'Book' or 'Scripture' means the Talmud and Bible, or just the Qur'an.

Remember, though, Islam is known as an Abrahamic faith. Muhummad was only the last of many prophets of Islam. Abraham was another, known as 'Ibrahim' in the Qur'an. Among the others, some of which are more questioned than others but all of which show up in some interpretation or other and some spellings of which are disputed: Adam, Idris, Nuh, Lut, Ismail, Is'haq, Yaqub, Yusuf, Ayyub, Musa, Harun, Dawud, Sulaiman, Ilyas, Al-Yasa, Yunus, Zakaria, Isa, Yahya.

Those names, translated respectively: Adam, Enoch, Noah, Lot, Ishmael, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Job, Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha, Jonah, Zechariah, Jesus, John.

Any further questions? Any of you? What do you think that one, singular God is thinking up there? How do you think this all looks to him, with everybody praising him and fighting for him while at the same time yelling to his other followers that he's not the correct god? He must think you're all stupid. He might love you all, but in the way one loves a dog that will excitedly chase a squirrel, bonk its head into a tree, smear himself in something disgusting, and then walk around pooping on the lawn.

Anyone want to look stupid in front of the Big Guy? Anyone? Anyone want to have a long, depressing conversation with whoever's guarding the entrance to Heaven/Paradise? Then calm down. All of you.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Do You Know Aboot How Fast You Were Going, Sir?

Not overly in the mood for a big piece today, so it's YouTube time. I give you a timelapse of a trip from Montreal to Vancouver in eight minutes.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Democracy's Ultimate Subversion

One may hate a politician. One may hate everything the politician stands for. One may work tirelessly to convince him to vote a certain way, or get him voted out to prevent him from any further votes against one's interests.

However, it is generally accepted that once they reach the chamber floor to cast that vote, there's nothing more that can be done by people who don't belong on the floor. All one can do at that point is wait and hope. One can't physically stop a legislator from casting a vote, right?

I wouldn't be bringing it up if people haven't tried.

1908: 'Fightin' Bob' LaFollette of wisconsin was opposed to the Aldrich-Vreeland Act, which in hindsight was a perfectly good bill. It would establish the National Monetary Commission, which in turn recommended the creation of the Federal Reserve. LaFollette was most likely opposed to the part of the bill that allowed banks to issue emergency currency in response to the Panic of 1907; he was not a fan of the banks. He proceeded to filibuster the bill.

Or at least, he tried to. Over the course of the filibuster, starting at 12:20 PM on May 29, he would drink a mixture of milk and raw eggs to keep his strength up. (It would have to be for strength, I hope, because, ew.) Somewhere past his tenth hour, he drank one such mixture... or at least began to, before noticing something tasted different. He stopped drinking it, had it removed for analysis, and continued the filibuster.

But he had drank enough for it to take an effect. He would last until 7:03 the next morning, but then conked out with symptoms of dysentery, and the bill passed and was signed by President Teddy Roosevelt by the end of the day.

What was in the milk and egg that LaFollette noticed? Ptomaine poison, enough to kill a man, according to the book 'Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder & Mayhem in America's Capital' by Troy Taylor. Someone had tried to kill him to stop the filibuster. (Nobody was ever arrested for it. And by the way, 'ptomaine' is a word no longer used scientifically- think alkaloids now- but back then that word was used, so we use it here.)

1954: Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth since 1952, and has since existed in a kind of limbo between statehood, independence, and the status quo. Independence is not a commonly-held position these days, but in 1954, so soon after the declaration as a commonwealth, tensions were high.

On March 1, 1954, as Congress was debating an unrelated immigration bill, four independence-minded Puerto Ricans- Andres Figueroa Cordero, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Lolita Lebron, and Irving Flores Rodriguez- would make their way into the Ladies' Gallery of the House of Representatives. A guard asked if they had cameras; they did not.

They had guns.

While the House was debating, the four unfurled a Puerto Rican flag, Lebron screamed "Viva Puerto Rico libre!", and they opened fire. 29 rounds were fired; five Congressmen were hit; all would recover. Two current members of Congress were pages on the floor that day, Bill Emerson of Missouri and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania.

President Eisenhower commuted the very-predictable death sentences to a minimum of 70 years in prison. Jimmy Carter commuted Cordero in 1978, and the others in 1979 as part of a spy swap with Cuba.

Lebron died earlier this month at age 90.

The backs of the chairs on the floors of Congress are now bulletproof.

1989: The state level's not entirely immune either. Bo Pilgrim, the owner of chicken processor Pilgrim's Pride, was worried that the Texas State Senate might vote against his interests on a worker's compensation bill.

Pilgrim's solution: Walk right onto the State Senate floor and start handing out $10,000 checks.

As Pilgrim put it, "The common practice of mine is to give large contributions to people -preachers, educational institutions and politicians - and $10,000 or $100,000 is a common practice with me. It's primarily just for the name identification with the politicians. They will answer your calls and give you an appointment and listen to you describe an issue. It does not infer a bribe."

While a number of the Senators accepted the checks, almost nobody that wasn't actively involved thought it could possibly be anything else. (And when the media caught wind of it, just about all of the checks were returned in a hurry.)

Amazingly, in Texas, this was legal to do at the time. It was nearly impossible to ring someone up on a bribery charge, and during special sessions of the legislature- which this was- the campaign finance laws were even looser than usual. Not for long, though. Pilgrim's actions proved so utterly beyond the pale that the bribe backfired. Not only did Pilgrim lose the vote, the incident spurred a series of campaign-finance reform laws, including- it seems so obvious- a ban on accepting contributions within the Capitol, and the creation of the Texas Ethics Commission.

Two years later, Pilgrim won the Bonehead of the Year award from the Bonehead Club of Dallas. In his acceptance speech, he said he had learned something from the experience, which "may be summed up in a few simple words:

Automatic fund transfer."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Earthquake Predictions

Has anything ever been a more sure-fire way since the days of alchemy to be more reliably, predictably wrong?

We have here an article about how earthquakes hitting Southern California have been more frequent than previously suspected, and how the supposed 'Big One' could be right around the corner.

Okay, great. What is someone exactly supposed to do with this information? We aren't even able to predict an earthquake down to the precise month. There are early warning devices that can be used once an earthquake has begun, and aftershocks are common, but that doesn't give anyone a chance to leave or take cover before the earthquake actually starts. Which makes any prediction functionally useless. Hurricanes, tornadoes, thunderstorms, blizzards, you can see those coming with a reasonable amount of lead time: enough to say 'there's something coming, make yourself scarce', but not enough to where you're asking people to make themseves scarce for a ridiculously long time. 'Uh, yeah, can you take April off and hole up with friends in Nevada? We think it's April, at least. Maybe. We're not entirely sure. You know what, go ahead and take May off too. Perhaps June.'

When one can say 'There is an earthquake warning until Thursday at 8 PM for Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties and the Baja Peninsula', then you've got something useful. Until then, what is the point of this?

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Journalistic Sweet 17

The other night at work, I was chatting up the upcoming elections with some of my coworkers, and it was... disturbingly easy to play up my side of the ticket, particularly to a store full of Republicans.

Then I found out why, and it just got even more disturbing.

You see, I've been working at my current place of employment for three and a quarter years now, about, and over that time I seem to have become the resident political wonk. Over this time, I seem to have wedged myself into a position where I have become the sole conduit of political news for a number of my coworkers.

Now, on one hand, this is kind of cool. Hey, I can tell these guys anything I want and they'll swallow it whole! I could just make stuff up! Why not? They'll believe me! Where else are they getting their news?

And that's the other hand. That's the problem. If I make stuff up, or even if I simply get my information wrong, I've just made these people dumber for having listened to me. That's the LAST thing I want. No person should be getting their news from only one source. I'm flattered that it's me in this case, but I don't want that kind of status. I really, really don't. Spread your news-gathering around. Get multiple perspectives. At the very least, know that one person can only report on so much in a day.

So what follows is a suggestion from me of some people I suggest collecting news from. News organizations are one thing- you can get your news from organizations, but absent knowing the specific name, one tends to assume that a person follows the organization's in-house stylebook. Some of them are quite good; just yesterday I was sitting here praising Vanity Fair. I mean specific names. Names that you follow from place to place, wherever they happen to be.

My names- there are 17 of them- where you can currently find them, and links to samples of each of them at the top of their game (note that some of the links are the start of multi-parters):

Christiane Amanpour, This Week (ABC)
Stephen Colbert, Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
Anderson Cooper, Anderson Cooper 360 (CNN)/60 Minutes (CBS) (warning: video is on the graphic side)
Sanjay Gupta, Time/CNN
Gwen Ifill, Washington Week (PBS)
Jim Lehrer, NewsHour (PBS)
Laura Ling, Vanguard (Current, though she's on hiatus at the moment)
Lisa Ling, Oprah (syndicated)/Explorer (National Geographic)
Rachel Maddow, Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC)
Soledad O'Brien, CNN
Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight
Shepard Smith, Studio B (Fox News)
Jon Stewart, Daily Show (Comedy Central)
Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic/New York Magazine
Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone
Mariana Van Zeller, Vanguard (Current)
Fareed Zakaria, Washington Post/Time/Fareed Zakaria GPS (CNN)

Ifill and Lehrer's clips are pretty calm, collected. You don't really see why they'd be 'top of their game'. Exactly. They don't really trade in highlight-reel 80-yard touchdown smackdowns. That's not what they do; never has been. They gently steer. They grind out 4-yard gain after 4-yard gain, picking up first downs all day long. They're not flashy. They're not sexy. But when it comes time to decide who's getting picked to moderate Presidential debates- Lehrer repeatedly- they get the call for a reason.

Smith, I've always thought of as the only sane man on Fox News. The guy that will, when the rest of the network has gone too far, step in and make an honest, professional attempt to pull them back. I think he'd be immensely more useful- and probably a lot happier- if he were to jump ship to somewhere else.

Sullivan is by and large a linker- he will throw out a link, give a quote, maybe make a short comment, but he's not going to give very many involved pieces. The thing about him is that you have to keep paying attention, keep up with him, see where his mind is going from minute to minute. And it's going pretty fast; he will blog insatiably. I link to one of his few-and-far-between long pieces.

One might also look at Chris Matthews, but you have to be lucky and catch him on the right day. Most often, he's one more random blowhard, but every once in a while he gets that to work in his favor. Sometimes it takes a blowhard to beat a blowhard, as seen here in Matthews' best moment.

One thing on this list: I need to go find some more good columnists. It's pretty TV-heavy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Day In The Life Of An Unnaturally Patient Man

I'm looking for some time to sink into working on my soccer book, so I'm not going to give this as much attention as it really does deserve, just link it and let you read for yourself.

Vanity Fair- which you don't see in the political arena all that much, but more than pulls their weight when they do show up- has given a look into a day in the life of Barack Obama.

Any rational person would end the day by going onto the roof and randomly firing a bazooka until the Beltway was consumed by soothing, merciful flame, but then, nobody knew Washington to be rational.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Football And Why Its Storytelling Sucks

Football season's on the way, and being a Wisconsinite, it is state law for me to root for the Packers. Football's one of my sports, after all.

But don't expect me to go on about it here like I do with baseball and soccer. That's because as much as I enjoy football, it is terrible at producing the kind of stories I'd want to recount here. We don't have NFL Network in my area, and as far as I'm concerned, it can stay that way.

Why is that? There are a couple reasons.

1: Everyone's face is obscured. That can't be helped. You do have to keep everyone somewhat safe, after all. But when you've got a helmet on, nobody can see who you are. Individualism is gone. You are the name on the back of your jersey, and you are your number. Perhaps you are 'the guy with the dreadlocks coming out of the helmet', but that's really not much to go on. There are no distinctive looks when everyone's got a helmet on, which means no stories about what people go on the field looking like. No afros like half the ABA, no surfer hair like Tim Lincecum, no Snidely Whiplash mustache like Rollie Fingers. Just another guy with the same helmet as everyone else.
2: Highly-choreographed plays. Nobody's got time to be peculiar in any way. Here's your assigned guy, now run away from him/tackle him. That's about it. Run, throw, catch, block, tackle. The most one can do here is make a diffcult catch, or go above and beyond on the tackle, which leads to...
3: Football stories mostly sounding the same anyway. War stories. 'So there I wuz...' After a while, if you're not the war type, they start to blend together in your head. (Unless you decide to go on the speaker circuit, in which case you will tell middle-management types who have spent the last 15 years in a cubicle how what they're doing is exactly like football. These middle-management types deserve every bit of inevitable misdirection they get from a guy that spent a decade repeatedly running headlong into 300-pound college dropouts.)
4: Nobody's running trick plays. Which means no crazy-play stories. They tend to get squashed anyway.
5: The 'No Fun League'. Excessive celebration? 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff. May be good for sportsmanship, but it turns things that much further into a league full of interchangeable dudes who matter to you mainly because of what they did for your fantasy team. Unless you are on defense, in which case you will be stripped of your identity entirely and get lumped in with the rest of your team as one defensive roster spot. A few chosen names may act out- Brett Favre, Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens- but mostly names come and go and that's all there is to it. One day revered, the next day forgotten, and even if you're a Hall of Famer, there is every chance a fair number of fans might not recognize you going in even if you played recently. You don't see that happening to baseball or basketball players.

Many of the best stories in football come from the earlier days, when it was a lot looser in operation. You may not want to return to those days of leather helmets and small-town teams that survive three whole seaons before folding and even frequent deaths, but you know the old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."

More recently, the best stories tend to come when some part of the proceedings goes wrong. The "wardrobe malfunction". "South America's Team". A Packers/Panthers game in 2001 being marred by gigantic clumps of sod being torn from the ground throughout the game.

Most likely, teams' seasons will come and go with little to tell the grandkids about except the final record, and maybe a playoff run or even a Super Bowl win, in which case you'll remember the names of some of the players in the years ongoing.

How'd it happen? The same way it happened every other season. Fun to watch, but difficult to remember.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

UN Reform That Will Never Happen, But Hey

The United Nations is one of the world's more confusing and needlessly vexing institutions, when you get a good look at it. Here is a gathering of all the nations in the world, carrying a mutual goal, ostensibly, of world peace. (A worthy goal even if you never actually get there. You might try and fail to, say, put a man on Mars, but you're sure to invent a whole lot of useful things in the attempt.)

But at the same time, the countries that comprise it have a habit of using that institution's stage as a platform for theater, using the attention of the entire world to simply embarrass another nation.

Here is an organization that seeks to use the force of the entire world to stand up to any nation that acts out in a belligerent manner.

But many other nations elect to either not contribute to the effort, or are utterly hamstrung by political expediency back home, causing many missions to look utterly aimless, and, depending on which countries are involved, can even be counterproductive.

Here, ideally, are representatives of everyone on earth, all the world's many peoples and cultures and ways of life, hammering out how to achieve a brighter future for everyone, rich and poor, moneyed and impoverished, well-fed and starving.

But at the same time, many topics covered of the UN are led by countries with little to no credibility to say anything on that topic, most famously the Human Rights Council, which currently seats countries such as China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the part of the organization with the most teeth, the Security Council, is hamstrung by the collective wills of five countries, all extremely powerful, who can each singlehandedly kill any proposal agreed upon by the entire rest of the world. Countries that were decided upon in 1945.

And yet... through all that, the dream somehow endures. As incompetent and selfish as the body is at times, somehow, someway, everybody keeps pressing gamely forward. The UN, the dream, still endures.

How to improve it, though.

The longstanding most hated part of the UN, the Security Council veto has been the source of no end of anguish among everybody that isn't busy vetoing something, mainly because the vetoes are routinely used for selfish interests, most notably any United States veto regarding longtime ally Israel.

Any change to this arrangement, including any proposal to remove those vetoes, requires approval by... guess who. That's almost certainly not going to happen. But why let that stop us? Worst-case scenario, this isn't the first international organization devoted to world peace. So, for our purposes, let's make a third one. Let's assume that a sufficient number of member nations decide they've had enough, withdraw from the UN en masse, and create a brand new organization, same basic format, that seeks to avoid the pitfalls of the UN, tweaking where needed. We can stick it somewhere in Switzerland or Canada or somewhere else extremely unlikely to act up. The United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China are left just bickering amongst themselves while the rest of the world tries to actually get something done, and if they want in this new organization, they'll have to join on the rest of the world's terms. The US wouldn't be able to act as Israel's diplomatic bodyguard, China wouldn't be able to fend Taiwan off with a stick, etc.

The proposed solution by many seems really, really stupid, though: add more vetoes. There's no end of countries angling for them. Name a country that thinks that they're a major player, or thinks they should be, or even thinks they're a regional power, and they're probably looking for a veto. The problem there is, you're just adding more gridlock to an already gridlocked system, and who says these new countries will still be behaving nicely 50 years down the road?

We'll keep the veto concept- the idea of five countries known to be responsible being able to step in is good- but I say we make the vetoes modular. We'll keep the 15-member, five-veto format. The ten non-veto seats are voted on annually, for two-year terms. The veto seats, however, we'll make annual. And they must be earned.

If one wants the vetoes in the hands of countries that are currently being responsible, make the selection process such that this is enforced through design.

What I would propose is a scoring system. List off as many of the characteristics as possible that a responsible nation would possess. Make it exhaustive, but not overly unfair (for example, biggest producer of various raw minerals wouldn't be usable- no country can control what's underneath them). Then score countries on each characteristic, using raw statistics, making categories competitive whenever possible (e.g. grading on a curve). Weight the categories according to importance (this would be something to hand off to an independent group). After adding up all the points, the five countries that score highest overall are awarded vetoes for the year.

And if you release no information for a statistic, or do not release enough to be independently scored, you are penalized by being automatically given the worst possible score in that category. Some will add points, some will subtract, but it doesn't really matter to the rankings which is which.

I've compiled this group of categories, mostly drawn from here, and no, I am not going to go figure out the scores for fear of accidentally fudging the results in favor of certain countries, though:

*10 points to the nation with the highest literacy rate. Everyone else is scored in relation to first place, for this and everything else unless otherwise noted.
*5 points to the country with the highest life expectancy for men.
*5 points for the highest life expectancy for women.
*5 points for highest combined life expectancy.
*Negative 6 points for the worst equilibrium between birth rate and death rate.
*Negative 10 points for highest infant mortality rate.
*7 points for highest GDP per capita.
*1 point for the largest producer of each of the 20 most widely-used food crops.
*Negative 1 point for the largest consumer of each of those same crops. (To promote sustainability.)
*Negative 1 point for the largest consumer of each of the 20 most widely-used raw minerals. (As stated earlier, the largest producers can't be controlled, but one can control usage.)
*3 points for the largest producer of each of a host of renewable energies- wind, solar, etc.
*Negative 3 points for the largest consumer of each of a host of nonrenewable energies- oil, coal, natural gas, etc.
*1 point for every World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO within your borders.
*Negative 8 points for the highest murder rate.
*Negative 4 points for the highest suicide rate.
*Negative 6 points for the lowest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate.
*10 points for the most equal income distribution, according to the Gini coefficient as the UN calculates internally.
*7 points for lowest poverty rate, with 0 points scored for a 100% rate.
*5 points for lowest unemployment rate, with 0 points scored for 100%.
*Negative 8 points for highest debt-to-GDP ratio.
*6 points for best raw account balance.
*6 more for the best account balance as percentage of GDP.
*6 points for highest student performance in each of science, reading and math.
*6 points for the best score in the Index of Economic Freedom.
*Negative 12 points for most carbon dioxide emissions per capita.
*8 points for highest environmental happiness.
*Negative 15 points for most nuclear weapons.
*Negative 15 points for most military spending, in dollars.
*Negative 10 points for most active troops.
*Negative 15 points for most reserve troops (e.g. troops that you currently do not even need).
*A 10-point bonus if no military is kept at all.
*12 points for most countries with which you have diplomatic relations, as shown by at least one open, functioning embassy. (Combining three or four countries in one regional embassy only counts as one.)
*6 points for highest level of property rights, according to the International Property Rights Index.
*8 points for best gender equality in positions of government leadership.
*10 points for most globalized country, according to the Globalization Index.
*Negative 12 points for the worst score on the Failed States Index.
*Negative 9 points for the worst rating on the Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders.
*10 points for highest Human Development Index score.
*7 points for highest Satisfaction With Life Index score.
*3 points for highest percentage of Internet users.
*5 points for the best score on the UN's Technology Achievement Index.
*A country's Global Innovation Index score, times 3. (Scores currently range from 2.26 to -1.63. Failure to be included here ties you for last place.)
*4 points for highest Digital Opportunity Index score.
*A country's E-Readiness score, out of 10 available.
*7 points for the most charitable country as a percentage of gross national income.
*9 points for the highest score on the Global Gender Gap Report.
*Negative 8 points for the country with the highest percentage of population suffering from undernourishment.
*10 points for the highest score in the Sustainable Society Index.
*A 5-point penalty if the death penalty is used in your country.
*A 5-point penalty if homosexual acts are illegal in your country.
*A 3-point bonus if gay marriage is legal anywhere in the country, and 2 more if it's nationwide.

The weightings are pretty rough, but I gave it my best shot. As stated... add up all those scores in all those categories, give the worst score in a category to any country missing in a category, and the top 5 scores are your Security Council vetoes. Whoever they happen to be.

Anyone want to add it all up?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rapid-Fire Book Club, Some Edition Or Other

Today's additions:

*Beard, Henry; McKie, Roy- Cooking: A Dictionary for Those who Have to Cook, Love to Cook, or Refuse to Cook (had this one back in elementary school, lost it, never figured out where it disappeared to)
*Bourdain, Anthony- Kitchen Confidential (have the other Bourdain books, but for some reason not this one until now)
*Downer, Lesley- Women of the Pleasure Quarters: The Secret History of the Geisha
*Hall, James- Sangoma: My Odyssey Into the Spirit World of Africa
*Hattikudur, Mangesh; Hunt, Elizabeth; Pearson, Will- Mental Floss Presents: Condensed Knowledge: A Deliciously Irreverent Guide to Feeling Smart Again

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Random News Generator- Philippines

The RNG has brought us to the Philippines, and a looming threat on the horizon: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF--

...oh, dear. The RNG has been moody again. Okay, let's wait for everyone to finish up with the inevitable so we can move on.

We good? Good. Let's continue.

The MILF are the nation's largest rebel group. Their rebel status dates back to 1968, when Sabah, formerly part of the British Empire, was transferred to Malaysia (it is now the easternmost part of Malaysia's Borneo property), to Filipino chagrin. According to them, the Sulu Sultanate- a local Muslim royal house- had only leased the land out and was always really the Philippines' to begin with.

The United States had a hand in this dispute, given the fact that, at the end of our military campaign in the Philippines, we made the Sulu Sultanate a figurehead in 1915 via the Carpenter Agreement.

So. 1968. The Philippines, in the Ferdinand Marcos administration at the time, sought to sow dissent between the two biggest non-Malay ethnic group in Sabah, the Tausug and Sama, both part of the larger Moro community, with the aim of eventually annexing not just Malaysia, but also Indonesia while they were at it. A number of Tausug and Sama were recruited for this purpose, and the recruits were excited to help take Sabah and, while they were at it, become elite special forces.

Then came the "specialized training", wherein they found out exactly what it was they'd be doing. Hey, now, wait a minute, you want us to do WHAT?! No. Absolutely not. We're out. We want to go home. Besides, you haven't even paid us!

Faced with this, the Moro were taken to a remote airstrip on a small island and machine-gunned to the last man. ...well, almost the last man. One, Jabin Arula, lived, grabbed some driftwood, and swam for it across Manila Bay before being picked up by fishermen. There was an inquiry- there had to be- but blame was sufficiently shuffled around so that nobody was ultimately punished for what became known as the Jabidah Massacre.

At that, the Moro National Liberation Front- MNLF- was formed, which would later split off the more conservative MILF in 1981 over a dispute during a ceasefire over whether to form an insurgency. The MNLF, which opposed the insurgency, made peace in 1996 and won the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindinao. The MILF, however, fights on, seeking full independence for that region, and have made it onto Al-Qaeda's radar.

In 2008, the MILF very nearly got what they've been fighting for via the Memorandom of Agreement on Ancestral Domain, which would have made it much easier to acquire self-rule in Mindinao, but were thwarted not only by the political backlash, but the country's supreme court ruling it unconstitutional.

Which brings us to now, in another round of peace talks, which for the Philippines' sake one would hope go well, because if they don't, the MILF has announced that they have built their own weapons factory, and have been taking monthly membership fees to pay the bills. Government spokesperson Randolph Cabangbang has cried foul, wondering how exactly one can negotiate for peace while running a weapons factory.

At the moment, peace talks are on hold due to Ramadan, but when they resume, boxer Manny Pacquiao, who has entered the Filipino political arena, will be involved, for purposes of raising local awareness of the peace talks. Let's hope they go well.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

History's Last Cavalry Charge

The cavalry charge isn't used anymore in wars. It's been a crucial part of many of them, but, well, weapons of war don't get retired because they win too much.

Quite the opposite. On November 17, 1941, Mongolia became the last country to send a cavalry into battle, deploying the 44th Mongolian Cavalry Division, near Musino.

Musino is in Russia, near Moscow, and in November 1941, Moscow was being contested by the Germans and Soviets. Mongolia, having just arrived from Tashkent, fought on the Russian side, going up against the German 106th Infantry Division in an open field. An open, snowy field.

The Germans couldn't believe it. One German soldier noted, "We could not believe that the enemy intended to attack us across this broad field, which lay open like a parade ground before us."

Well, they did. Fine then, if that's the way you want it, Mongolia. The Germans readied their machine guns and artillery, quickly got their shooting eyes in, and within ten minutes 2,000 horses- and their riders- were absolutely shredded. The horses were thrown into absolute chaos, the riders that weren't shot straight away were dumped unceremoniously onto the ground, where they were picked off just like everyone else.

Then the cavalry- what was left of it- regrouped and did it again. Same result. Horsies go blooey.

No Germans were harmed in the making of this glue.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Best. Beltway. Ever.

Not this particular one, of course.

About the only thing most people can agree on this election is that everybody sucks. Our guys may not be the greatest, but yours are even worse. Even the people in cable news can only muster up half-hearted 'I love elections' generalities, and if you look really closely, there's the chance there will be eye-rolling involved. The incumbents suck, the challengers suck, it is the year of, as South Park so famously put it, Douchebag Vs. Shit Sandwich.

It's not always. I swear. Washington can be better. It has been better. And I can prove it.

I am in the process of making my latest update to a project I had put together back in 2005 and 2006, which I title 'All-Star Washington'. In it, I went through the biographies of every single person that has ever served as President, Senator, House representative, Vice President, Supreme Court Justice, Cabinet member, White House Chief of Staff, or United Nations representative, and created a full-sized all-star team.

Every. Damned. One of them. Ever.

Oh yes. I did nearly lose my mind. Several times. Why did I do it? Why not?

This is a representation of my vision of the absolute very best Washington can be, when everything clicks, when the voters don't get fooled, when the smear ads don't work, when they vote for the right people, and when the people they put in do their damn job. This is what America has proven that it is capable of.

At the end of this piece, I will provide a link to an Excel file, in which sit the contents of the team. Detailed rules for inclusion are provided there, but before we do that, let's go over some basics:

*Yes, it's a liberal-slanted team. It's my vision, remember. You have a better team, you're free to do one yourself. However, I am not averse to making substitutions when suitable suggestions present themselves. The fact that I have updated it a couple times, and am doing so again now, suggests that this is not a project I ever really consider "done". Times change, people change, historical context changes. Maybe I just missed someone, didn't give them enough of a look. People will be swapped in and out of the team as the years go by, and if I overlooked someone good, I'm all ears.

And I'm fairly sure someone got overlooked at some point.

*For the very newest members, potential comes into play as a sort of effort to level the field. Once you've gotten a couple terms under your belt, potential ceases to help your case. (Gabrielle Giffords was swapped out in this most recent version.)

*What you do out of office matters too. I judge total life achievements here, though if you're tasked towards something specific, I only judge job-relevant achievements. You might have done a stint in the Peace Corps and saved a town from getting flooded by a dam, but if you're in the Supreme Court, that doesn't matter much.

*Anonymous backbenchers who never actually did anything have no place here. You're voted in to do something. (The exception is when the rest of the field is downright awful and you're left taking the least-bad of the group. Alaska, Arkansas, seriously, elect better people.)

*Positions are prioritized in the order previously stated: President, Senate, House, VP (historically it wasn't that important until recently), Supreme Court, Cabinet (in order of succession), White House Chief of Staff, UN Representative. All-Stars are universally assumed to take the highest-priority office available to them. I'm not going to sit here wondering if someone would rather be a Senator or Vice President.

*The minimum requirement to qualify for an office is one day served. If you are awarded an office, but die before you're seated, too bad. If you're an interim guy who sat in for two weeks while the President found a replacement for you, you're eligible.

*The House is not apportioned according to current numbers. One free seat was given to each state, and then it became a free-for-all for the other 385. (You must be a state to be eligible. Time as a territory does not count.) This is why the All-Star House sees 33 people from Massachusetts and only four from Florida.

*Back when I did it, I was sick of looking at it by the end and didn't want to add any more positions, but now that the general structure's all in place, I could see myself to add things like key ambassadors or Surgeon General or the like.

*Scandal is a killer. Only a rare few have managed to suffer a scandal and still gain a spot on the team- Schuyler Colfax, Daniel J. Flood, that's pretty much it.

*End of the day, if things work, they work, and if they don't, they don't. Being ahead of your time on an idea that later turns out to be good gets you credit. Making a lone stand on a vote you later turn out to be on the correct side on gets you credit. Falling in line on a popular idea that turns out to fail spectacularly gets you nowhere. It pays to be on the right side of history.

As for the current makeup of the team:

*There are four current Senators on the team: Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Snowe, I'm wrestling on what to do with her re: her role in the healthcare debate, but my inclination is to leave her be. My policy is not to punish or praise entire groups for particular actions; just the ringleaders. Snowe was not a ringleader in that debacle. Feingold is a recent edition, just having passed William Proxmire for a spot in the chamber.

*There are 32 current House members on the team; seven of them Republican. None of them are ringleaders either, and I'd only really move to dock Zach Wamp or Jeff Flake even a little bit. And it won't cost either their spot on the team. The others- Ron Paul, Vern Ehlers, Pat Tiberi, Wally Herger and Chris Smith- won't suffer any ill effect. None of them have an overly large role in the general degradation of decorum the past couple years; I view them as pretty much along for the ride. And Paul's pretty much his own animal anyway. (John Carter of Texas, though, was on the team, but was knocked out because of the degradation.)

*There are three current Senators who didn't make the Senate, but did make the House: Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. Gregg did take some damage for the degradation, but again, not enough to cost him his spot.

*Though the ideologies of the parties have changed over time, I did note parties, and handed out party leaderships. The Senate sees 50 Democrats and 30 Republicans, with six other parties filling the remainder along with two independents. Paul Douglas of Illinois is Senate Majority Leader, with Carl Schurz of Missouri as Senate Minority Leader. (David Davis, an excellent Senator himself, fills the other Illinois seat, so Obama would have a high, high hurdle to clear just to get his Senate seat back, never mind knocking out President George Washington. Despite Illinois' history of scandal, it's a deep field at the top.) The House sees 203 Democrats, 160 Republicans, one independent, and 16 other parties making up the remainder. James K. Polk of Tennessee is Speaker of the House, and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois is House Minority Leader.

That all said... I present, to the best of my ability, the All-Stars of Washington.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Three Or Four Rants At The Same Time, I Lost Count

As you on the left probably know, you hate White House press secretary Robert Gibbs right now, regarding his comments concerning the "professional left". Comments such as, "I hear these people saying he's like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested." Or saying that some on the left "will be satisfied when we have Canadian health care and we've eliminated the Pentagon. That's not a reality."

Gibbs has received pretty much the same reaction that I've seen when the exact same sentiment has been said by numerous people to those same critics in my own circles: it just made them angrier.

I should probably note my personal position: I give Obama about a B right now. He has, contrary to much liberal belief, come through on a whole hell of a lot of his agenda so far in the first two years. Going by Politifact, out of 505 campaign promises made, he's "kept" 120 of them, and managed a "compromise" on an additional 38, which adds up to 31.29% of what can only be described as a massive, massive agenda. That's pretty damn good for the first two years. The "broken" count sits at 20, but I'd place a couple of them on general naivete of just what he was going to be up against. (The five-days-of-public-comment thing, for example. He found out in a hell of a hurry that that wasn't going to work.)

Which is normal. 'Experience' was a big campaign issue concerning Obama, but there's really no way to adequately prepare for being President except to actually be President. No job in America carries that combination of power, resources, responsibility, overinflated perception of responsibility, application process, public scrutiny, required skill set, required knowledge base, subordinates gunning for your job, dedication of opposition, lack of privacy, enforced isolation from the public, and sheer utter stakes. Presidents age twice as fast as a normal person for a reason. No experience in America comes close except, maybe, winning the Powerball. You have a brand new $300 million. Now you have an endless line of people you've never seen outside your door claiming to be long-lost relatives in financial trouble, all of which will guilt-trip and savage you if you don't give them the money.

Anyway, he's done a lot, especially considering what he's been up against. He didn't get the greatest healthcare bill in the world, but look how many past Presidents have tried and failed to get anything at all. The economy isn't the greatest, but it's been a sizable pullback from the outright tailspin that was inherited. We know when we're getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan- not soon enough for a lot of people, but you know there's a DATE. S-CHIP. Lilly Ledbetter. Dodd-Frank. But he's got his problems. There have been key parts of the agenda on which he's seemingly pulled back. Don't Ask Don't Tell. Guantanamo Bay. (I don't place FULL blame on Gitmo on Obama, as he signed the executive order ordering its closure within a year under the assumption that someone would actually give him money with which to do it, or give him a place to move the detainees. He certainly didn't foresee Congress denying him funding by a vote of 90-6. But, in hindsight, he probably shouldn't have signed the order before he got the money, and at this point, he does appear to have stalled out on the remaining 176 detainees.) So there are points at which I've been a bit miffed.

Okay, a lot miffed.

His big shortcoming, though, is that he really really really sucks at managing expectations, or fighting for legislation, until the last possible moment. You'll see a bill with a whole bunch of stuff that would be really cool to have, above and beyond what Obama actually promised. Awesome!

Then all the extra stuff gets stripped out one by one, while Obama just kind of sits there and allows it to happen. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit. Ow, ow, ow, approval rating death by a thousand cuts, until you get all the way down to right about the exact thing Obama actually promised. Give or take. THEN he hops in, and suddenly things start moving along. (Note the 81 'stalled' promises.) By the time a bill finally limps and staggers its way to Obama's desk, even though it's mostly what he campaigned on, it doesn't feel like a victory anymore. It feels like a disappointment.

See, during the campaign, everyone saw, and voted for, Campaign Obama, as he's been called. Fired up, ready to go, Yes We Can community-organizer Barack Obama. Love that guy. He's so awesome.

Then he got elected, and all of a sudden Campaign Obama turned into President Obama, mild-mannered policy wonk surrounded by people that can't campaign worth a rat's ass and are prone to unnecessary unforced errors. Mild-mannered policy wonk is fine, but when it's clear you're not getting any help from your wingmen in actually getting your wonky policies passed (particularly Harry Reid in this case; Pelosi's been a capable fighter), you've got to get out there and do it on your own. You see little flashes of Campaign Obama, once in a while, but only for the briefest little flashes, and it's frustrating to watch. You know he could be so much better, and that's the big problem. He's hitting 50 home runs on the year, but you feel it should be 60, or 70. He's getting 125 RBI's, but you feel it should be 140, 150.

The unnecessary unforced error is where we meet Gibbs. There are some calls to replace him as White House Press Secretary.

That solves the wrong problem.

That job eats people alive. I don't know why people still line up around the block to take it. You never actually break any news at the daily press briefing. It's kabuki theater. Day after day the old guard of the media ask you to react to stuff that's happened elsewhere. If it's been a bad news cycle, they just beat on you for 45 minutes, all you get to do is say whatever the President told you to say or direct the media guy to some other agency, and you do this day after day after mind-numbing day until you finally snap, say something stupid, and then it's time to get a new press secretary so the cycle can repeat itself anew. And nothing actually happens. The only news that ever gets broken is directly related to the press briefing itself. The whole thing is vestigial.

I think there's a better way.

If it were me, I scrap the daily briefing entirely. Now, that's clearly going to get the media up in arms, understandably, but in its place, I take the briefing room and convert it into a kind of press release clearinghouse. Make it into a sort of library, the shelves of which are filled with all of the newly-public information made available by the federal government. Declassified documents, reports, surveys, studies, whatever, across the scope of the government, has most recently been made public. Put it all in that room- maybe condense the larger pieces into digital form- and tell the press corps to go nuts. One-stop shopping for whatever they want to be writing about that day. If a Press Secretary position is retained, it's to be little more than a curator- 'you're looking for what? Right over there.'

Yes, you lose the personal interaction, but really, when you get right down to it, how much in Washington these days actually gets done on camera? How much is actually being done in front of you, and how much is kabuki theater? The votes on the floor are pretty much known before they call the roll; the debate on the floor is predetermined and as a result extremely disjointed. It's not 'debate' so much as 'a bunch of prewritten mini-speeches on the same topic'. In actual debates (e.g. Presidential debates), answers are heavily rehearsed based on what's most likely to be asked. The politicians on the news in the day-to-day grind have to keep their words straight lest they say something stupid. And they better be that way every waking hour of every single day, lest some guy with comparable job skills to a paparazzi catches them muttering something to themselves while eating lunch. We've hit the point where in order to properly function in Washington, you have to have the mindset, basically, of a reality gameshow contestant. Be outrageous in front of the camera so you get TV time, get your actual work done when you think nobody's watching, hope the enemy alliance doesn't bust you and vote you out, and assume no privacy doing anything ever. Sooner or later, expect to be filmed on the toilet.

At a certain point, you actually want to put them on camera less. You know, so they can do more with that agenda.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fun With Logical Absolutism: Abortion Edition

Abortion has largely been an issue I've steered clear of over the years. Not my place to say, and the sheer vitriol of the debate has been cause for me to largely withdraw from it altogether. I've been content to let people whack each other over the head with their signs as long as they left me alone about it.

This has not been easy. Apparently, you're not allowed to stand down from the debate either. "You HAVE to pick a side!, no, no, not THAT side!" Pretty much, you can either hold women's bodies hostage, be a baby-killer, or you can be both. Not an enticing prospect.

In fact, I kicked this very post down the road a day due to a bit of apprehension over wading into the abortion waters.

Over time, though, I have kind of drifted into positions, largely based on not being stupid or heartless.

The 'stupid' part comes mainly from terminology. 'Pro-choice' and 'pro-life'. What seems to get lost in the debate is the fact that the first one, 'pro-choice', is exactly what it says on the tin. Pro-CHOICE. The pro-life crowd appears to act as if that position is actually 'pro-death', as it is the position that allows abortion. They're baby killers.

More like fetus killers, but as the argument from the pro-life camp contends that life begins at conception, it is at least rhetorically consistent. But then you see some of the pro-life camp say things like "I chose life". Which implies that this is the one and only side that does so.

Okay, listen, geniuses. You CHOSE life, correct? Life was not IMPOSED on you. You chose it of your own free will.

That is being pro-choice, is it not? You had the CHOICE to have or not have your child, and you CHOSE to have your child. That is the pro-choice position: to choose, of your own free will, whether or not to carry a child to term. Being pro-life removes that option: you will carry the child to term, whether you like it or not, and that is that. (Being pro-death, of course, would be aborting all the children whether the mother likes it or not. For more on this position, please consult your friendly neighborhood doomsday cult. What do you mean, you don't have a friendly neighborhood doomsday cult? Go get one.)

The 'heartless' part comes from having some basic level of concern for the person that, in the event of carrying the baby to term, is going to be using her own body to conduct the birth, which most women will tell you is quite possibly the opposite of pleasant, particularly because dying in the act is not unheard of and before modern medicine was actually quite common, and still is in some of your lesser-developed countries. Aborting in the interest of the health of the mother does not appear to be controversial, thankfully. If one must choose between the death of someone who has not technically been born yet, and the death of someone who has, I'm picking the person who has been born every single time.

After that, the next step is abortions in the case of rape or incest: the mother had an unwanted pregnancy imposed on them by someone else. Up until now, abortions in this case wasn't controversial either. Why put a mother through carrying, giving birth to, and raising a child that was literally forced upon them via a sex act that was also forced upon them?

Well, apparently, three Senate candidates- Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sharron Angle of Nevada, and Ken Buck of Colorado, all Republican- have decided that the mother should be made to go through with the birth in this instance. That just doesn't sit well with me. 'But what if YOU were that baby?', I can hear the pro-life camp asking, and to that I say I just so happen to have spent nine months as a fetus myself, and at no point did I even comprehend what was going on. I just showed up one cold day in 1985. Hi, who are all of you? It's really freaking cold! Wait a minute, I haven't learned to talk yet! Agagoogoo waaaaa!

The centerpiece of these particular three is Angle, who had this exchange on radio's Alan Stock show:

Stock: What do you say then to a young girl, I am going to place it as he said it, when a young girl is raped by her father, let's say, and she is pregnant. How do you explain this to her in terms of wanting her to go through the process of having the baby?

Angle: I think that two wrongs don't make a right. And I have been in the situation of counseling young girls, not 13 but 15, who have had very at risk, difficult pregnancies. And my counsel was to look for some alternatives, which they did. And they found that they had made what was really a lemon situation into lemonade. Well one girl in particular moved in with the adoptive parents of her child, and they both were adopted. Both of them grew up, one graduated from high school, the other had parents that loved her and she also graduated from high school. And I'll tell you the little girl who was born from that very poor situation came to me when she was 13 and said 'I know what you did thank you for saving my life.' So it is meaningful to me to err on the side of life.

Cue bewildered outrage from everyone who had previously been living under the assumption that being raped and impregnated at age 15, or 13, simply does not qualify as a lemons-into-lemonade situation.

Consider a roadtrip. If your car breaks down in the woods in a national park, that's a lemons-into-lemonade situation. While you're waiting for help to arrive or for Dad to fix the car, go off and enjoy whatever location it is exactly you broke down in. Settle down, have some lunch if you've got food in the cooler.

Now consider a bear coming out of the woods and mauling little Susie. You do not think 'Well, at least that's one less person to lug around! Little Billy, looks like you're going to have some extra legroom!'

But I got to thinking lately-- always a dangerous thing-- and it occurred to me that perhaps a rigid pro-life position like this is still somewhat inconsistent.

After all, if we're going to be absolutist about giving the maximum amount of life, are we not all mass murderers every time we engage in sex, regardless of whether or not a pregnancy results?

An average sperm count is 20 million. That means every time you attempt to concieve- or, in fact, every time a male ejaculates for any reason- he sends out 20 million sperm, on average. But it's unusual for a woman to even give birth to two of them. Many of the sperm never have a chance; the ones that get there first have to spend their energies breaking down the egg wall.

That means when I was concieved, assuming that average sperm count, did my dad not knowingly send 19,999,999 sperm to slave away and give their lives so I might live? After all, even if life begins at conception, are not all sperm sentinent enough to know how to seek out an egg out of a primitive survival instinct? And isn't masturbation considered a sin for the reason that one denies those sperm a chance at life?

How can we save these 19,999,999 other sperm from this fate? Why are top scientists not working on a device or a pill that can pre-emptively break down the egg wall, so that I might have 19,999,999 brothers and sisters? (They shall all be named Pat.) Sure, it might be slghtly uncomfortable for the mother, but just think of-- actually, no, I don't think any of us wants to think about what that might look like, but that isn't the point. We will learn to make it precious and beautiful and 20 million simultaneous miracles. (Minus, of course, any non-viable sperm. They had their chance.)

And what, exactly, is the lifespan of a sperm anyway? Inside of a male, a fully-developed sperm can survive only for about five days. That means, logically, if you are not impregnating a woman with 20 million children every five days- if you are not concieving 1,460,000,000 children every year (minus the non-viables), if you are not ballooning your woman's uterus to the size of a zeppelin- you are dooming untold numbers of potential lives before they are ever born. (And you had better succeed, for while there's a five-day lifespan inside the male, it's sliced to a mere six hours for any sperm that doesn't hit the target.)

Or, you could be logically consistent, and admit there are some cases where it's okay not to go to term.

EDIT: Dammit, Duggars, that wasn't supposed to be taken seriously.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Plane To Nowhere

Ted Stevens, who was voted out of the Senate in 2008, has gone down in a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness. Reports are that he has died, but it doesn't appear 100% confirmed yet. (EDIT: It is now.)

Stevens, now becomes the second Alaskan member of Congress- out of 11 all-time- to die in a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness. Nick Begich did so in 1972; his body was never found.

From this, we can of course only conclude that if you are from Alaska and you get elected to Congress, invest in a dogsled.

Monday, August 9, 2010

What Is An American?

Lately, there has been a quite serious- and quite shrill- "discussion" in this country over what, exactly, constitutes being an American. Legally, an American is anyone born in the country, born to at least one American parent, or who goes through the arduous, notoriously red-tape-laden naturalization and citizenship process. Pretty simple.

That's apparently not the discussion we're having. Instead, we've found ourselves in something more of what an American should be. There are votes- contentious ones- on healthcare for 9/11 responders that might be illegal immigrants. The term "anchor babies" has been rampant. For some time, there has been heated talks about who and what constitutes a 'real' American, as some Americans are apparently fake. Like they were created in a wax museum or something.

And let's not even get into the ongoing yammering about Obama's birth certificate.

The legal part of what should constitute an American, I've already covered earlier. That needs to be made easier. But even that strayed into the deeper philosophical debate about what an American should be.

So let's just go in with both feet on it. Let's answer two things. What is America as a concept, and what constitutes a 'real' American.

America as a concept, to me at least, is not bound by its borders or its legal intricacies. Rather, it is its ideals. That is what it was always really meant to be. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A government of the people, by the people, for the people. Laws can be changed. The Constitution can be changed. The people will absolutely change. The world will change in ways that our forefathers never could have even comprehended. Surely, George Washington never envisioned me making words appear like magic on a screen by pressing buttons labeled with letters, which is exactly what I'm doing right now. Even doing it on paper was beyond him. There weren't even typewriters back then. Thomas Jefferson never foresaw something to replace the horse-and-buggy. Or paved roads connecting the country.

They surely didn't foresee a way to keep track, on a day-to-day basis, of just who was crossing over the border. Even today, there are many international borders that aren't well-marked. There's no real way to know when you've crossed a border- no landmarks, no checkpoints. The Tuareg live on this, crossing the various borders in the Sahara as if they didn't exist-- and to them, they don't. Illegal immigration was the furthest thing from their minds. And besides, their forefathers didn't come in under the grandest of circumstances, so who were they to judge? If you're on our side, welcome aboard. (As long as you're a white landowner, of course.)

A 'real' American was and is, in my mind and in the minds of our forefathers, simply anyone that does whatever they are able to do, to the best of their ability, to make America the best possible place it can be, in their own small way. I don't care if you're not "legal". I in fact don't care if you have never even set foot in this country. Do you hold true to the same ideals? Do you bust your butt, day in and day out, to improve the life in whatever fashion of not only yourself, but your family, your friends, people you've never met, even people that may question your commitment or your very right to be here? Do you make a commitment to better the United States, to make it a beacon of freedom- true, honest freedom, not just 'freedom to do whatever you want unless I don't like it'? Welcome aboard.

Conversely, someone that is not a 'real' American does not do, or attempt to do, these things. They make little to no effort to improve their country, themselves. When their country calls them, they respond with silence. They consume America's resources and do not make, nor have they ever made, a good-faith effort to put any of them back. (Trying and failing to find a job is a good-faith effort. Unemployment happens. Sometimes jobs and applicants just don't match up and somebody gets the butt end of it. But if you're not even sending out applications, that's another thing entirely.)

Basically, you don't have to be American to be American, but you can be American without being American. If that makes sense.

Now, you're probably asking 'what do you mean you don't care if someone's never set foot in this country? Those guys can't POSSIBLY be American! That doesn't even make any sense!'

Follow me.

There are those people that seek to improve, however they can, not just their own country, but all the others as well. The most successful at this tend to be among the world's most revered: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Norman Borlaug, Dag Hammerskjold. These are not just people of their own country, but in fact citizens of the entire world. They are Polish, Swedish, Macedonian, South African, but also Dutch, Chinese, Australian, Argentinian, Tunisian, Qatari... and American as well. They're American; we just share them with everybody else.

Which is what leads to the most maddening part of this all, the recent failed vote to supply health benefits to 9/11 first responders. You would think that this wouldn't even be a question. They're 9/11 first responders, for Pete's sake. Give them whatever they want. They've earned it. However, the vote was turned from a simple-majority vote to a two-thirds vote to avoid an amendment being attached that would deny the benefits to illegal immigrants.

The vote was a majority in favor, but they couldn't clear two-thirds, and the bill was killed.

Consider that a second. There is someone in this country that is so despising of those that are not officially Americans that it does not matter to them if those same people laid their lives on the line to save American lives during one of America's darkest hours. It does not matter. There are people that will jeopardize and ultimately deny health benefits to ALL 9/11 first responders because one or more of them might not be here legally. None of them necessarily are. One of them just MIGHT be illegal, and that is apparently enough for some ungrateful soul to turn on them all.

If you are willing to go through that for the sake of the United States, if you are willing to lay your lives on the line for the sake of people that may later turn on you for the sake of political expediency, I really don't care in the slightest how you got here. You are welcome in my country. You are an American. You are, in fact, an American hero.

You are, at least, more American than they.