Saturday, February 28, 2009


Consider two options.

While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes [...] $140 million for something called 'volcano monitoring.' Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC.
While some of the projects in the bill make sense, my experience has taught me that some things just aren't handled well by the Federal government, and that the funds allocated to them are likely to be mis-spent. Rather than have $140 million dollars for monitoring volcanoes spent from Washington DC, we should trust that if we allowed the citizens of Alaska, Washington state, Oregon, California and Hawaii to keep more of their money, they would work with their state and local governments to create solutions uniquely tailored to their specific circumstances, without interference from bureaucrats three thousand miles away.
One of these options adheres to stated conservative principles - smaller government, lower federal taxes, and more local control over local issues. It even strikes a bipartisan tone, implying that even citizens of Blue states can care for themselves locally, without needing help from DC.* The other option makes the speaker sound like an insensitive jackass who belittles real problems so that they can be critical of the opposition in the name of fiscal conservatism.

One of these was written by me, after thinking about it for about five minutes this morning, after having read the transcripts of Tuesday's speeches. The other was written, presumably, by a professional speechwriter, hired by the Republican party to help craft Bobby Jindal's response to President Obama's address to the nation this past Tuesday.

I'll trust the Republicans to be good shepherds of my tax dollars, once they've demonstrated that they can hire competent wordsmiths with their own money.

* Now, as a resident of Washington state, the LAST people I want to be keeping an eye on (and attempting to mitigate) anything that might go catastrophically wrong anywhere near here is the state government. Considering that they just got around last month to deciding what to do about a major elevated highway that was damaged in an earthquake EIGHT YEARS AGO (to the day, in fact), I suspect that we'd all be up to our armpits in lava, and they'd still be studying warning systems. You could outsource the work to India and likely get better results.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Note to Bobby Jindal

I can see Mount Rainier from a vantage point less than a mile from my home, and Mount Saint Helens is about one hundred miles away. Given this, I think that monitoring volcanoes isn't exactly a waste of money. And when you consider the fact that ash from the last major eruption of Mount Saint Helens (back in 1980) came down as far away as Oklahoma, I think that there are other people who could see it as useful.

I understand that as a Republican, Jindal has a certain partisan obligation to poke holes in the President's plans, but I don't think that pitting parts of America against the rest of the nation is a good strategy for unity in a crisis.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Wrong "Ex" Word?

During this podcast with NPR's Planet Money blog crew, Amir Sufi refers to the idea of "externalities" in the home market - that is, everyone suffers if foreclosures get away from us, and therefore it is in everyone's best interests to cough up some dough to halt the slide. Home prices suffer, infrastructure crumbles, crime rises, schools get worse, et cetera.

So the message to (self-described) "responsible homeowners" and other sorts of upstanding citizens is that it's going to suck to be you either way - you can pay us, and it will suck to be you somewhat, or you can not pay up, and it can suck to be you a lot more, so you're better off paying up.

I think that "extortion" is the word that comes to everyone's mind...

While Mr. Sufi's point is well taken, this really comes across as a lose-lose for those people who had the sense/luck/foresight to stay out of trouble. If there's no way to convince people that they're some real way in which they win with this, this plan will engender little other than hostility.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Frying the Big Fish

Remember Jdimytai Damour? He was the poor sod who was trampled to death on Black Friday of last year, when a crowd of crazed shoppers broke down the doors to a Wal-Mart trying to get the best deals. Despite the fact that his name has faded from the public consciousness, the legal proceedings against Wal-Mart have started, and a grand jury has been empaneled, it seems. But the initiative by police to find the people who actually trampled Mr. Damour to death, and possibly press criminal charges appears to have quietly died away.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Funny - Ha, Ha

So this past Thursday on The Daily Show, Jon ran a segment called American Grandstand, during which he rightfully mocks several members of congress who seem to have come to the conclusion that their best hope for re-election comes from dragging high-ranking bankers to Washington, and attempting to humiliate them on C-Span. Stewart knows pandering when he sees it, and invites his audience to join him in sneering at the rather transparent efforts of our nation's legislators to elevate their own standing at the direct expense of currently unpopular citizens.

But left unsaid was one very important point. The congress members shown were publicly flogging bankers because it works. They understand that despite the laughability of it all to the cynical, someone back home watched the charade, and was convinced that their legislator was, in fact, standing up for them to the evil Powers that Be.

While it's easy to mock politicians when they blatantly pander to other people, do we understand when they're telling us what we want to hear? Sure, we tell ourselves that all we want is the truth, no matter how much it might hurt, but is that ever really true? Sure, Representative Brad Sherman seems like a sanctimonious jackass in the video, but the public, lead by the national media, was pretty bent out of shape about the whole flying-in-private-jets episode, and what politician wouldn't have rushed to lead that parade (or lynch mob, as the case may be)?

Jon Stewart's smart enough not to obviously do so on the air, but I suspect that he was actually laughing at us, and not with us. Because we never seem to figure that part out, either.


Maybe it's because I'm old and cranky, but I have lost interest in Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, described simply as peoples' tendency to act in accordance with a set of personal maxims that they will at the same time to be universal law. I have beaten pretty much all of my personal maxims into just that - personal maxims. I'm too old to be concerned with attempting to control what other people do.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Great Expectations

Thinking a little bit more about the Dymond Milburn case (the subject of the previous post), and other cases like it, I'm struck by something.

"The city has investigated the matter and found that the conduct of the police officers was appropriate under the circumstances. It's unfortunate that sometimes police officers have to use force against people who are using force against them."
William Helfand, lawyer for the officers in the Milburn case.
Now - to be clear, I've never been a police officer. I've never been to a police academy. But, in a past life, I was a child care worker. For a time, I worked on a unit with nine thirteen year-old children, of both genders, some of whom had mental health issues. Because there were occasional issues with violence and other out-of-control behaviors, we were taught how to restrain a child, if needed. Over the space of a few hours over a couple of days we were trained to restrain a child such that three things were true:
  1. The child was unable to injure themself.
  2. The child was unable to injure the staff member(s) (generally only one or two of us).
  3. The child themself was not injured in the process.
Given this, the only way that police officers are trained to respond to someone who may try to harm them is with escalating force? Someone whom the police are taking into custody freaks out - and the only way to bring things back under control is to beat the subject into submission? Really? This is a reasonable expectation for police officers, when it's not a reasonable expectation for social workers? Granted, you can make the case that social workers aren't trained to use force, while police officers are - but isn't that the point? Just because police officers have access to the use of force as a tool of doing their jobs, does that mean it should always be used?

I think that there's a slight hole in the training regimen.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Not News?

Here's the basic story, substantially abridged...

A Galveston man calls the police, reporting that three white women that he thinks are prostitutes are soliciting a mixed-race group of men on the street near his home. Four police officers go to investigate. Two blocks away from the scene they were called to, they encounter a 12 year-old black girl, alone, walking around her home. Deciding that her shorts make her look like a hooker (no - I'm not kidding), three of the officers exit the unmarked van, and attempt to take the child into custody. She clings to a nearby bush for dear life, screaming for her father, who exits the home to find the officers beating his daughter, who needs to be hospitalized for her injuries. Some weeks later, officers show up at the child's school, and arrest her - for resisting arrest and assaulting the officers. After two mistrials on the charges against her, prosecutors decide not to try her a third time.
I'm not going to get into the he-said, she-said of just what exactly went down (did the officers properly identify themselves, et cetera) - I wasn't there, and it's really beside the point. The basic facts of the case aren't really in dispute. Galveston prosecutors placed a 12 year-old girl on trial twice for resisting arrest after she was beaten by police officers who were supposed to be looking for three grown women of a different ethnicity blocks away.

This has been all over the blogosphere - but you can't find hide nor hair of it in the mainstream media - I searched NPR, USAToday, ABC News, NBC News, MSNBC, CBS News, the Associated Press, Reuters, Newsweek, Fox News and CNN. Between them, I found NO news hits. Not one. Now, some of the sites mentioned also have a "search the Web" feature, and that turned up a bunch of hits, and of those, only a very few were actual news organizations, newspapers in the Galveston area. Now, according to the Houston Press' Hair Balls weblog, they sparked a blogosphere wildfire with their initial post on the matter, such that "big boys like CNN, Good Morning America and Inside Edition" were attempting to get the family's attorney on to talk about the case. They claim that Griffin completely ignored all requests for interviews, due to hurricane cleanup.

Let's assume for a moment, that the Houston Press has their facts absolutely correct, and that the family hired the most media-unsavvy lawyer in the history of ever. Not hearing back from a lawyer, who was engaged in cleaning up after a hurricane, prompted CNN and ABC to completely drop any attempt to cover the story? ABC couldn't have called their Houston affiliate, KTRK, and asked them for the scoop? (Not, it seems, that KTRK bothered to cover the story, either.) CNN couldn't have asked the Houston Press, or one of the local papers about the story? Really?

Now, I live near Seattle, and as I write this, in the "ap: top headlines" section of one of our local papers, is: "Investigators think missing Fla. girl was abducted." Yet another story about - you guessed it - a random missing 5 year-old in Florida. (With, bizarrely enough, a tie-in to the last overreported story of a Florida 5 year-old in peril.) But is this story any more newsworthy than what happened in Galveston? (And yes, I searched both of our local papers to see if had shown up here. You'd think that P-I would have run with a story like this. They produced an award-winning series about the Seattle Police Department using unnecessary force, and then obstruction charges to tarnish the credibility of people likely to complain. People in Seattle would likely be gratified to learn that this goes on elsewhere.) 12 year-olds being beaten by the police doesn't sound exactly routine. You could make the case that the news media is racist - but there must be a lot of white hoods hiding in news desks to enforce what seems like a complete media blackout on this.

Clearly, this story simply never managed to break into the public consciousness, for some reason or another. Part of it is likely race. (Although I wonder if a video would have helped.) The victim here isn't an attractive white woman or little girl that everyone wants to hear about day after day. Despite what happened to her, he case hasn't generated the sort of broad sympathy that prods the media to shine a light on what went down. Maybe we should wonder about that.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Government Buys the Dollhouse

A quick primer, from NPR's Planet Money podcast, that gives a basic rundown on how banks operate, why the banks are in trouble, and how the bailout plans that have been floated so far would work to correct things, along with some of the risks and benefits. I think that it does a pretty good job of explaining things for laypeople, but as a layman myself, they could have assumed a spherical cow, and I wouldn't know any better.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Ending the Culture Wars?

The Culture Wars in America have a simple goal - to make the United States into a legally mandated monoculture. Damon Linker, at The New Republic postulates that one can end the Culture Wars by returning American jurisprudence to a time when the law and the courts were silent (and thus, effectively neutral) on cultural issues. I like the reasoning, but I suspect that it's deeply flawed.

For starters, because there is a difference between the American legal system (at the Federal level) being silent on the issues that one can say make up the modern culture wars - "church-state separation, homosexual rights/gay marriage, and abortion," and having always been silent on culture war issues, such as civil rights/racial equality. Couple this with the fact that both Congress and the Federal courts have shown a willingness to take sides on certain issues, and, in doing so, impose a legally mandated monoculture on the nation, and it's unlikely that either side would accept losing "fair and square, in the court of public opinion." Instead, they would, as they do now, seek the imposition and legitimation of their views through Congress and the courts.

It seems to me that the Culture Wars will endure until the dream of a monoculture dies, rather than simply being put off. Wars never end until both sides see no more reason to fight. This one is no exception.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Zombies in the News


Okay. Maybe not so seriously. But someone (or several someones) over at KXAN should be given a medal for having a sense of humor.

Justice Delayed

"I find to a 100-percent moral, factual and reasonable certainty that Timothy Cole did not sexually assault" Michele Mallin, [State District Judge Charlie] Baird said at the conclusion of two days of sometimes wrenching testimony.

"I find that Timothy Cole's reputation was wrongly injured. That his reputation must be restored and that his good name must be vindicated," the judge said in an impromptu ruling from the bench.

Rape charge dismissed against Fort Worth man who died in prison

It's good that the judge decided that Cole's record be cleared. I doubt that Lubbock County will fight that, so his mother should have her wish that her son's good name be restored.

But what is a "moral certainty?"

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Grave Error

In March of 1985, Texas Tech sophomore Michele Mallin was abducted and raped. Authorities arrested, tried and convicted Timothy Cole of the crime. The case was problematic from the start. Mallin said that her assailant smoked the entire time - Cole was asthmatic. She'd been driven to a vacant lot by the assailant in her car - Cole's fingerprints were nowhere in evidence. Cole had an alibi - he was at his brother's home, studying during a card party, and a number of witnesses placed him there at the time of the rape. But Mallin, when presented of a Polaroid of Cole, said that he was the man, and assumed that the police had actual evidence of his guilt.

Starting in 1995 (once the statute of limitations had lapsed), the actual rapist (who, incidentally, had been in jail with Cole), attempted to confess to the crime. And was ignored. Throughout multiple attempts. Over 12 years. It wasn't until he sent a letter to Cole, whom he assumed was out on parole, that anyone took him seriously.

But Cole never saw the letter. He'd died from his asthma in 1999. Still in prison.

His family sought to clear his name.

"With Johnson's letter in hand, Cole's family went to the media. In response, the Lubbock D.A.'s office announced it would run modern DNA tests. When the results came back, it was Jerry Wayne Johnson's DNA on the swabs in the rape kit, not Timothy Cole's.

The Innocence Project of Texas sought relief in court to clear Cole's name, but no judge in Lubbock would grant them a hearing. Darnell, the former district attorney who later became a local family court judge, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. However, he told the Lubbock paper that he regretted what happened to Cole."
Although the Lubbock courts refused to revisit the case, the Texas state District courts were more charitable, and granted a hearing. The Lubbock County district attorney's office did not participate.

It's understandable the no-one involved in the original case wants to have anything to do with it now. DNA from the rape kit says that they sent the wrong man to prison, where, still maintaining his innocence, he died. Insisting that Cole was guilty, in the face of DNA evidence proving that Johnson was in fact the rapist, is a pretty much untenable position for the Lubbock County DA's office. Coming clean would open them up to liability. And it's unlikely that making Cole's family whole is going to come cheaply.

Cole refused to plead guilty at trial, or to confess in prison to get a shot at parole. He may have paid for his scruples with his life.
"You are to understand you are not to be blamed for this," [state District Judge Charles] Baird said [to Mallin.] "We're all sorry it turned out this way."
Unfortunately, "Sorry" only counts when it can bring back the dead.

A Better Use For Your Money

Recently, there was yet another teapot tempest when a couple had their deceased dog, Lancelot, cloned. One thing that has become common to these sorts of non-events is someone in the animal-welfare business complaining that the money that the pet-owners poured into staving off bereavement could have done something they consider more worthy.

"Dr. Sara Pizano, of Miami-Dade County’s animal services department, told the Miami Herald that for the price the Ottos paid for having Lancelot cloned, 'we could do spays and neuters for six months.'"
This echoes a similar case from a few years ago, when the now-defunct Genetic Saving and Clone cloned a housecat named Nicky for its owner.
David Magnus of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University said: "Its morally problematic and a little reprehensible. For $50,000 (£26,000) she could have provided homes for a lot of strays."
"Pet kitten cloned for Christmas"
Okay. So what? Why does this matter? I'm always curious when people phrase things in the way that Dr. Pizano or Mr. Magnus does. "We could do spays and neuters for six months." "For $50,000 she could have provided homes for a lot of strays." This is becoming a well-worn refrain whenever someone spends a bunch of cash on something that's widely considered frivolous, or otherwise fails to be properly charitable. In an effort to provide balance (criticism?), someone goes out and finds someone who'll complain that they could have spent the money on something better. But we're never told why it's the responsibility of the people who are spending the money (such as the Ottos) to spend it on someone else's priorities.

And you rarely see such logic being widely applied to more mundane purchases, even very expensive ones. Despite the fact that ZipCars could do a lot with $250,000.00, no one goes to interview their spokesperson complaining about that when some local showoff buys a brand-new Lamborghini.

The idea that there are better things to do with your money, than what you're doing with it, is an old one, and still going strong. The Global Rich List lists a number of things that you might like to do with your money, along with the things that they'd rather do with your money. But the folks at GRL are activists. I expect such out of them. But I don't want activism, especially such selective activism, from the news media.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Wrong Word

If I were attempting to build an advertising campaign around a single word, that word would NOT be "Obey." Mainly because I'm a fan of old-school Doctor Who, and every time I see "1 Flat Stomach Rule: Obey" - I simply can't get away from the image of a bunch of people locked in a health club with a giant self-propelled pepper shaker with a plunger for an arm screaming at them: "You will get in shape with the Daleks! You will perform thirty-thousand sit-ups! Obey! OBEY!" Unlike other would-be alien conquerors of Earth, the Daleks did not sound dark and menacing. Instead they sounded shrill and hysterical - these were aliens in dire need of decaf.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


The Cards gave it a good run, and nearly made history, but they had too many penalties and their defense couldn't hold on...