The Truth in Iraq

Juan Cole is one of the most widely read bloggers on the web, focusing on the Middle East, which is his specialty. He is a history professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He speaks with some authority on events in Iraq (for his creditials, click here). As such, he has listed the top ten myths about Iraq. They are worth reading to get a better understanding of what is (and isn't) happening over there.


A Comedic Loss

I just found out today that a comedian I really like, Mitch Hedberg, died back in March (how observant am I?). Here's some favorite lines by him:

The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how much you play, you'll never be as good as a wall. I played a wall once, they're f**cking relentless.

You know, people think I'm into sports just because I'm a man. I'm not into sports. I mean, I like Gatorade, but that's about as far as it goes. By the way, you don't have to be sweaty and holding a basketball to enjoy a Gatorade. You could just be a thirsty dude. Gatorade forgets about this demographic. I'm thirsty for absolutely no reason. Other than the fact that liquid has not touched my lips for some time. Can I have a Gatorade too, or does that lightning bolt mean "No"?

Swiss cheese is the only cheese you can bite and miss. "Hey Mitch - does that sandwich have cheese on it?" "Every now and then!" I got some swiss air on that bite.

I think Pringles' initial intention was to make tennis balls. But on the day that the rubber was supposed to show up, a big truckload of potatoes arrived. But Pringles was a laid-back company. They said "F**k it. Cut 'em up!"

I recently took up ice sculpting. Last night I made an ice cube. This morning I made 12, I was prolific.

My belt holds my pants up, but the belt loops hold my belt up. I don't really know what's happening down there. Who is the real hero?

When I was a kid, I used to lie awake in my twin-sized bed wonderin' where my brother was...

A snake bite emergency repair kit is a body bag.

I went to the park and saw this kid flying a kite. The kid was really excited. I don't know why; that's what they're supposed to do. Now if he had had a chair on the other end of that string, I would have been impressed. Imagine trying to fly a chair. You'd have to run like a motherf**ker.

I don't own a cell phone or a pager. I just hang around everyone I know, all the time. If someone needs to get a hold of me, they just say, "Mitch," and I say, "What?" and turn my head slightly.

I hate turtlenecks. I have such a weak neck. Plus if you wear a turtleneck it's like being strangled by a really weak guy ... all day. And if you wear a turtleneck and a backpack it's like a weak midget trying to bring you down.

I bought myself a parrot. The parrot talked. But it did not say, "I'm hungry,"... so it died.

In England, Smokey the Bear is not the forest fire prevention representative. They have Smackie the Frog. It's just like a bear, but it's a frog. I think it's a better system; I think we should adopt it. Because bears can be mean, but frogs are always cool. Never has there been a frog hopping toward me, and I thought, "Man, I'd better play dead. Here comes that frog..." You never say, "Here comes that frog" in a nervous manner. It's always optimistic, like, "Hey, here comes that frog, all right. Maybe he will settle near me so I can pet him, and stick him in a mayonnaise jar, with a stick and a leaf, to recreate what he's used to. And I'd certainly have to punch some holes in the lid, because he's damn sure used to air. Then I can observe him, and he won't be doing much in his 16-ounce world."


Republican Economics

Via Brad DeLong:

The Tax-Cut Zombies - New York Times : Since the 1970's, conservatives have used two theories to justify cutting taxes. One theory, supply-side economics, has always been hokum for the yokels. Conservative insiders adopted the supply-siders as mascots because they were useful to the cause, but never took them seriously.

The insiders' theory - what we might call the true tax-cut theory - was memorably described by David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's budget director, as "starving the beast." Proponents of this theory argue that conservatives should seek tax cuts not because they won't create budget deficits, but because they will. Starve-the-beasters believe that budget deficits will lead to spending cuts that will eventually achieve their true aim: shrinking the government's role back to what it was under Calvin Coolidge.

True to form, the insiders aren't buying the supply-siders' claim that a partial recovery in federal tax receipts from their plunge between 2000 and 2003 shows that all's well on the fiscal front. (Revenue remains lower, and the federal budget deeper in deficit, than anyone expected a few years ago.) Instead, conservative heavyweights are using the budget deficit to call for cuts in key government programs. For example, in 2001 Alan Greenspan urged Congress to cut taxes to avoid running an excessively large budget surplus. Now he issues dire warnings about "fiscal instability." But rather than urging Congress to reverse the tax cuts he helped sell, he talks of the need to cut future Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Yet at this point starve-the-beast theory looks as silly as supply-side economics. Although a disciplined conservative movement has controlled Congress and the White House for five years - and presided over record deficits - public opposition has prevented any significant cuts in the big social-insurance programs that dominate domestic spending.

In fact, two years ago the Bush administration actually pushed through a major expansion in Medicare. True, the prescription drug bill clearly wasn't written by liberals. To a significant extent it's a giveaway to drug companies rather than a benefit for retirees. But all that corporate welfare makes the program more expensive, not less.

Conservative intellectuals had high hopes that this year President Bush would make up for this betrayal of their doctrine by dealing a death blow to Social Security as we know it. Indeed, he tried. His proposed "reform" would, over time, have essentially phased out the program. And he seemed to have everything going for him: momentum from an election victory, control of Congress and a highly sympathetic punditocracy. Yet the drive for privatization quickly degenerated from a juggernaut into a farce.

Medicaid, whose recipients are less likely to vote than the average person getting Social Security or Medicare, is the softest target among major federal social-insurance programs. But even members of Congress, it seems, have consciences. (Well, some of them.) It took intense arm-twisting from the Republican leadership, and that tie-breaking vote by Mr. Cheney, to ram through even modest cuts in aid to the neediest.

In other words, the starve-the-beast theory - like missile defense - has been tested under the most favorable possible circumstances, and failed. So there is no longer any coherent justification for further tax cuts. Yet... even as Congressional leaders struggled to pass a tiny package of mean-spirited spending cuts, they pushed forward with a much larger package of tax cuts. The benefits of those cuts, as always, will go disproportionately to the wealthy.

Here's how I see it: Republicans have turned into tax-cut zombies. They can't remember why they originally wanted to cut taxes, they can't explain how they plan to make up for the lost revenue, and they don't care. Instead, they just keep shambling forward, always hungry for more.


Need a Gift Suggestion?

I just received my copy of the movie Serenity in the mail. It was a fantastic film and a worthy sequel to the tv show, Firefly. My great hope is that enough DVD's will sell to prompt Universal to make another one. Joss Whedon has indicated he has more to tell, and dammit! I want to see it! So, go get yourself a copy and one for a friend. You won't be dissapointed.

Science Breakthrough of the Year 2005

The journal Science has given the honor this year to: Evolution in Action. This seems timely considering the recent Dover decision, but it is in fact based on considerable strides made in understanding mechanisms of evolution. In particular, the complete sequence of the chimpanzee genome yielded insights into the molecular changes important to evolution, and field studies have expanded our knowledge in the processes of speciation, which are generally hard to come buy. This of course doesn't count the hundredes of other papers published this year, further advancing our understanding of evolution and the diversity of life. To read through the paper, click here. They also have a video that talks with the major scientists involved with this year's studies; very interesting. Click here to watch it.


Wave Power

Slowly and quietly there has been a movement toward alternative energy sources besides solar and wind. It hasn't received a lot of attention yet, but that may change soon. Discover magazine had a short article about a device that uses the motion of the ocean to generate electricity. Called Pelamis (after a type of sea snake), it is showing much promise.

Bright red and roughly 450 feet long, this sinuous piece of hardware lets the heaves and sways of the ocean drive pistons which in turn power generators. The electricy flows via cables (which also help anchor it) to the shore. Pelamis is made by Ocean Power Delivery of Scotland and already has trial runs operating off Portugal, and soon off Oregon, Washington, Maine, and Hawaii. The long term feasibility of Pelamis looks very good.


Daily Humor

Great Floor Speech

Here's an excellent speech by Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) today on the House floor concerning Republican tactics:

As we gather here today, the Sunday before Christmas and Chanukah, it is the process and the way the Republican leadership are running this House that I strongly object to. These last few days, in fact the entire year, I think is a great example of how not to run a government.

Sometime today we expect to consider and vote on the Defense appropriations bill. No one will have time to read and examine the final product. We will not know what last-minute goodies are tucked into the bill. Mr. Speaker, we read news reports that drilling in the Arctic will be in the bill, but we do not know if ANWR is included because we have not yet seen it. And what drilling in Alaska's wilderness has to do with the Pentagon is beyond my comprehension, but there are some in the Republican leadership who do not care about the regular process and want to tuck this in the Defense bill because they know it cannot be enacted on its own. [...]

Mr. Speaker, whether you are a liberal, a conservative, or whether you want more government or less, I think most of us would agree that whatever government we have must be competent and responsive to the people. Now, the Republicans control all of government. They control the House of Representatives, they control the Senate, and they control the White House. It is clear that they are unable to be effective stewards of our government.

Now, putting aside the corruption scandals that hang like a dark cloud over the Congress and the White House, what we see is an inability to govern. When Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast, the Federal Government responded miserably. The President put a political appointee in charge of FEMA who was incompetent. The President took responsibility, but ultimately the incompetence and cronyism of his administration led to a disaster that included the loss of many lives.

On the war in Iraq: no weapons of mass destruction, no ties between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda, and no imminent threat to the security of the United States of America; yet we rushed into war. Whether the intelligence was manipulated or not, clearly this government did not do its job. It failed, and over 2,100 Americans are now dead.

But now we are in Iraq, Mr. Speaker. We were there with no post-invasion plan, we are there with no-bid contracts that have led to massive corruption and fraud, our soldiers lack the most basic protective equipment, and with a chain of command that resulted in grave abuses of human rights by some of our own uniformed men and women and some of our Iraqi allies. Ultimately, the President again took responsibility. But, Mr. Speaker, with all due respect, I am tired of the speeches. I, like so many others, want genuine reform and change. I want accountability.

This all brings me to this Congress. There is a reason why this Congress has only a 25 percent approval rating. It is because you are doing a lousy job. You are trashing the rules and regular order. The selling of legislation to the highest bidder, the hard-ball tactics against your own Members to win votes, your lack of oversight and demand for accountability from this administration, all that and more is catching up to you. People are watching. People do care. They believe that you cannot competently run this government, and they want the government back.

The mess that we have before us cannot be blamed on Democrats. After all, as I have said, Republicans control everything. You cannot blame this on Bill Clinton, even though some of you try, because he has been gone now for a full 5 years. This is your fault. The battles going on behind closed doors are between your right wing and your far right wing. For those of us in the minority, and many on your side who want good government, this is a frustrating period.

Mr. Speaker, nobody denies that leadership of Congress is a hard task, but either you live up to the responsibilities or you acknowledge it is time for a change. After this sorry year, it is time for a change.


What Did They Really Know?

Via Daily Kos:

Seems like it was just yesterday, Bush was saying:

Some of the most irresponsible comments - about manipulating intelligence - have come from politicians who saw the same intelligence I saw and then voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein, These charges are pure politics."

Whoops! It was yesterday! Ha ha ha ha ha!

What a difference a day makes, eh? Because today from Knight Ridder, we have:

WASHINGTON - President Bush and top administration officials have access to a much broader range of intelligence reports than members of Congress do, a nonpartisan congressional research agency said in a report Thursday, raising questions about recent assertions by the president.
The Congressional Research Service, by contrast, said: "The president, and a small number of presidentially designated Cabinet-level officials, including the vice president ... have access to a far greater overall volume of intelligence and to more sensitive intelligence information, including information regarding intelligence sources and methods."
The CRS report identified nine key U.S. intelligence "products" that aren't generally shared with Congress. These include the President's Daily Brief, a compilation of analyses that's given only to the president and a handful of top aides, and a daily digest on terrorism-related matters.

Surprisingly, the White House refused to comment on the issue.

We can only hope some fightin' Dems come out tomorrow with plenty to say.


It's Not All Bad News

Tired of the cynisism and angst in the news. Check out this site for a pick-me-up. It only reports the good news out there.



Following up my last post, I'd be interested to hear other people's opinions on the state of education. What's wrong, possible solutions, or just random thoughts.


Why I'm Not a Businessman

Once in while I'll see my students playing a computer game called RuneScape. It's a virtual world where they can play against there friends, battling fantastic beasts and collecting treasure. There are many other online games such as this and apparently some enterprising people are profiting from it. As Lior Strahilevitz states at the UC Law School Blog:

"Essentially, large numbers of Chinese workers are employed playing video games in virtual worlds for twelve hours a day, earning gold, weapons, and armor, which they then sell to Westerners who want virtual gold, weapons, and armor but have more real-world income than time or skill for gaming. If the Times has it right, then this has become a major industry in China."

In case this isn't clear, let me explain. Part of these games is having your online characters accumulate money, weapons, items etc.... So the Chinese, in this case, are setting up online characters who have all of these things in abundance and then selling them to Americans who don't have enough time in the day to find it all themselves.

This type of business would never have occurred to me. I'm always amazed at the means people will use to make money and it is one of the concerns I have for my students now and in the future. Many students want to be lawyers or business executives or athletes because they think it will earn them enormous sums of money. A major challenge is to convince students that the joys in life are not necessarily related to how much money you make. Good family and friends, intellectual challenges and lifelong education, fun and spontaneous hobbies, and contributions to your community are much more fulfilling. In a world dominated by economics, this will be a difficult obstacle to overcome.

More Opinions

If anyone who reads this knows me personally and would like to contribute to this blog, let me know. I don't get to post as often as I would like so more perspectives would be welcome. Just fire me an email if you are interested.

A Call to Action

President Bill Clinton is making a surprise appearance at the world climate conference in Montreal. This is causing some consternation among the Bush crowd, since he will undoubtedly call for more progressive action on the US's part to curb emissions. So far, the Bush administration is refusing to even discuss possible strategies for curbing our carbon output. Despite the overwhelming evidence and scientific consensus, they don't believe there is anything to worry about. I've said it before and I'm repeat myself now: the long-term historical opinion of the Bush presidency is going to be very low.


Flag Burning

A ban on flag burning ammendment is making its way into the Senate (co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton). Personally, I think this rates in importance with banning gay marriage. Surely we have greater issues to deal with. Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance points towards an excellent quote from Justice William Brennan:

We can imagine no more appropriate response to burning a flag than waving one’s own, no better way to counter a flag burner’s message than by saluting the flag that burns, no surer means of preserving the dignity even of the flag that burned than by — as one witness here did — according its remains a respectful burial. We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.

Hillary is making some ridiculous decisions to look like more of a moderate. In the end, she's losing credibility as someone who we'd really want to vote for in a presidential election. I want someone who sticks with their beliefs, regardless of whether it's popular or not.


Potential New Mammal

What might be a new mammal species was caught in a couple of images by the WWF in Borneo.

Front view of new species.  Image: Stephan Wulffraat, WWF

Another reason why forest conservation is a serious issue. We still don't know everything that is out there.


Why Citizen's Must Stay Informed

Via Daily Kos:

The remarkable Dana Priest delivers this horrifying story of the war on terror gone wrong:

In May 2004, the White House dispatched the U.S. ambassador in Germany to pay an unusual visit to that country's interior minister. Ambassador Daniel R. Coats carried instructions from the State Department transmitted via the CIA's Berlin station because they were too sensitive and highly classified for regular diplomatic channels, according to several people with knowledge of the conversation.

Coats informed the German minister that the CIA had wrongfully imprisoned one of its citizens, Khaled Masri, for five months, and would soon release him, the sources said. There was also a request: that the German government not disclose what it had been told even if Masri went public. The U.S. officials feared exposure of a covert action program designed to capture terrorism suspects abroad and transfer them among countries, and possible legal challenges to the CIA from Masri and others with similar allegations.

The Masri case, with new details gleaned from interviews with current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials, offers a rare study of how pressure on the CIA to apprehend al Qaeda members after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has led in some instances to detention based on thin or speculative evidence. The case also shows how complicated it can be to correct errors in a system built and operated in secret.

There is a very strong reason why the Founding Fathers were so adamant about the need for due process and the inclusion of the writ of habeas corpus in the Constitution. A state apparatus with no check or review will do things that are beyond the pale. As Justice Brandeis stated in his famous dissent in Olmstead:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent . . . The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

Olmstead v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438, 479 (Brandeis dissenting (1928)

And so it is in the War on Terror. Extraordinary rendition. Torture. Prohibition of due process and judicial review. Avoidance of the Geneva Conventions. Declaration of a heretofore unknown status - unlawful combatants. All these things have been done by and continue to be done by the Bush Administration.

Priest writes:

Unlike the military's prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- where 180 prisoners have been freed after a review of their cases -- there is no tribunal or judge to check the evidence against those picked up by the CIA. The same bureaucracy that decides to capture and transfer a suspect for interrogation-- a process called "rendition" -- is also responsible for policing itself for errors.

The CIA inspector general is investigating a growing number of what it calls "erroneous renditions," according to several former and current intelligence officials. One official said about three dozen names fall in that category; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said.

"They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association" with terrorism, one CIA officer said.

And how many of these "wrong people" were or will be tortured? If Dick Cheney has his way, many of them.


Mixed Messages

Blogging has been sporadic due to work, grad school, parent-teacher conferences, workshops etc.... Things have calmed down and I hope to blog about some things that I find of interest. However, something I read today caught my eye. As the U.S.'s 1000th execution is about to take place in North Carolina, President Bush reinterated his strong support of the death penalty. This is the same man (and party, and also includes many Democrats) who support a culture of life (i.e. anti-abortion). Does there seem to be some inconsistency here?