Tuesday, January 31, 2006

State of the Onion afterparty

First things first. I counted 63 applause breaks. C-SPAN counted 61. This means that NCLitigator, with a guess of 59, wins the pool. I'd mention your name, but I don't know what it is. I'm also somewhat hampered in sending that certificate.

Also, here's my commentary on the State of the Union. I haven't seen any of CNN's certainly vapid commentary on the speech, so this is all my notes from during the speech. (I am, however, listening to Tim "Citizen" Kaine while I write this.)

Started with a lot of platitudes, and didn't really get substantial for a while. His call for civility and goodwill rang hollow, as did his setting up of straw-man arguments against his position. He threw out a lot of things we all can agree on - end of tyranny, etc. He brought up 9/11 briefly and referred to countries that had supported 9/11 seeking weapons of mass destruction. I didn't know Afghanistan was after WMD.

He claims that the administration has a "clear plan for victory" in Iraq. He laid out a few steps that are more comprehensive than what we've heard coming from the administration recently - but that's not saying much. He still failed to address the current problems Iraq is having, and overstated past victories in Iraq. One comment stood out: he claimed that he'll let military leaders rather than politicians make decisions on troop levels. But it's fairly common knowledge that his political wing made decisions on troop levels before the war, and overrode the military establishment. Ask Eric Shinseki.

Also, he couldn't resist the opportunity to characterize those who support a withdrawal of troops as defeatist. He refuses to honestly address the valid point that our presence in Iraq may be doing more harm than good.

His Iran policy seems shaky and not well defined. He calls it a dictatorship in the first few minutes of the speech - a characterization that oversimplifies the situation in Iran. He refers to a "small clerical elite" that is causing all the problems, but it's the popularly elected Ahmadinejad that's a pain in the ass. And he still can't pronounce "nuclear" (though in fairness, neither can Mark Warner, who I saw on C-SPAN a couple of days ago). Fortunately, he didn't even bring up military action.

Kaine's response is going well, by the way. Better than Bush's speech.

Bush didn't address the criticisms of the Patriot Act or of the wiretapping. He barely touched on those. He also claimed that the Constitution gave him the right to wiretap without warrants. I must have missed that amendment. That section of the speech insulted my intelligence, quite frankly.

Then there were lots of platitudes about spreading democracy and encouraging economic growth and fighting disease throughout the world. I appreciated that he made it clear that democracies in the Middle East won't look like ours, but there was really nothing of substance here.

His description of our economy was well out of touch with our actual economy. He cited meaningless figures on economic growth but said nothing about how that growth was being distributed or what he would do to help job security. He pressed for the continuation of his disastrous tax policy. Most disturbingly, he brags about a budget that cuts funding for 140 programs. Which programs are these? They're "not accomplishing essential priorities," he says - but what does that mean? Is alleviating poverty an essential priority? Something tells me it's not. The Post's E.J. Dionne writes a wonderful commentary on Bush's proposed budget that I suggest reading.

I find it funny that he asked for the line-item veto, which is something Clinton asked for, received, and then had taken away by Bush's own Republican Party. Many of the current Republican members of Congress voted against the line-item veto when Clinton was in the White House. What will they do now?

He wandered into the Social Security minefield again. Oh, goody. A commission will be interesting - I wonder if he'll pay attention if it doesn't give him the exact result he's looking for. Either way, the Democratic interruption was awesome.

He said it was the government's job to ensure that everyone has access to affordable health care. That's good. He says we're already accomplishing that. Now I wonder what planet he's living on. He pushes health savings accounts, which will help very little among the poor, especially if he keeps cutting Medicaid. He pushes malpractice reform, which will have very little overall effect on health care costs.

He talked about energy policy, and here's a rare moment when I actually found myself agreeing with the Dubmeister. He proposed an increase in renewable energy research funding from the DOE and tax credits for alternative energy research. I honestly like this idea, and not just because I want to do research in renewable energy someday. Also, he didn't mention ANWR at all. I'm amazed at that. Doubling research dollars for basic scientists is a good idea too. I appreciated the shoutout to nanotechnology, even though I seriously doubt Bush could tell you what nanotechnology was.

I found myself agreeing with him on education as well. He wants to improve math and science education, which is a worthwhile goal. Improving the AP program helps. One wonders how this meshes with his ridiculous support for unintelligent design. Also, during his all-too-brief acknowledgment of the existence of poverty, he talked about making sure everyone graduates with job skills. This is a noble ideal, though he produced no substance to accompany it.

His brief shout-out to the culture wars was a quixotic, pointless one that completely interrupted the flow of his speech. He tried to take credit for the reduction in welfare rolls that occurred during the Clinton administration, as well as for the drops in teen pregnancy and crime that have taken place over the past decade. The plug for abstinence-only education was not appreciated, especially because it generally has the effect opposite from the one desired. But it was quixotic because he coupled his cultural fearmongering about gay marriage and stem-cell research (both were veiled, but not well) with a platitude about hopefulness and our independent cultural strength that undermined his whole point. If we're morally that strong of a people, why do we need moral legislation like gay marriage bans?

The corruption issue came up, but Bush said nothing of substance here. This surprised nobody.

The rest of the speech was short on substance and ideas and long on generalities. I don't care about the generalities.

And the Lincoln reference - WTF?

All in all, the foreign policy section and war on terror section added nothing new to the national debate on either subject, and indeed were only attempts to reinforce his own traditional talking points. There was no imagination, no attempts to address criticism, and no new directions or changes in direction on those fronts. On the domestic front, the energy and research initiatives and the education initiatives were welcome, substantial proposals. His health care ideas will do nothing to help our system - indeed, he does not even grasp the scope of this problem. Sadly but unsurprisingly, the issue of American poverty and the struggles of the working family were shamefully absent from this speech. He presented no new ideas for making the economy work for the middle and working classes, and seems to be in denial about the problems being faced by anyone in the bottom 50% of the income distribution. Even though I liked parts of it, overall I was disappointed. Bush's 2006 agenda looks to be a little bit better than his 2005 one - but not much.

Thoughts? Comments? Post here.

State of the Onion, part 1

As many of you know, the State of the Union Address is coming up tomorrow (Tuesday) night. Predicting the basic content of major speeches is somewhat of a hobby of mine, so I'll dispense with my predictions forthwith.

First, though, I am holding a contest. Readers, submit a guess as to how many times the President's speech will be interrupted by applause. My guess is 71. The closest to the actual number gets a mention in my next post and a letter of my appreciation.

Anyway, on with the predictions:

- The following words will appear at the beginning: "The state of the union is strong."

- Iraq has turned a corner and is getting better.

- The war in Iraq has made us safer.

- So have the domestic spying programs.

- Also the Patriot Act. Which needs to be renewed without any changes. You didn't need those civil liberties anyway.

- If my critics had their way, we'd all be blown up by now.

- Everyone who disagrees with me has a pre-9/11 mindset. I don't. That's why I rock. Get it? "I rock?" "Iraq?" Ha, ha, ha.

- We need to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. We need to go to the U.N., since everyone listens to what John Bolton has to say. But we also need to reserve the right to turn Iran into a parking lot. (There will be no mention of helping anti-Ahmadinejad groups protest and gather support.)

- No mention will be made of: Afghanistan, rendition of prisoners to torturing countries, the destruction of a small village in Pakistan that may or may not have killed a minor al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden (though thanks to his "recent" missive he has an outside shot)

- On the domestic front, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is progressing well. The administration is tending to everyone's well-being. To illustrate this, I'll invite someone who lost their home in Katrina/Rita.

- Two new justices are either on their way to the bench or are already there. They won't legislate from the bench. (Unless they have to in order to push the conservative agenda - but then, that won't be mentioned.)

- Oh yeah, we need to address the corruption problem in Congress. Moving right along...

- Health care in this country is horribly inadequate. We need to make sure everyone has access to health care. The only viable solution is to privatize the whole thing. Health savings accounts will be mentioned. They'll help the poor, since they have all kinds of money just lying around to put into these accounts.

- We need to achieve energy independence. The only way to do this is to drill in ANWR. I won't mention putting research dollars into alternative sources of energy.

- Long shot: I'll comment on how we need to bail out the dumbasses in Detroit who thought we wanted SUVs even after the gas prices shot up. 30,000 people got laid off. What a shame. Can't help them, though. We need to be funneling aid to the people who need it: CEOs.

- And that's why you should make my tax cuts permanent.

- No mention will be made of: Social Security, Medicare, education, and - going out on a limb here - gays.

Check back tomorrow when I tell you whether I have a job waiting for me as Bush's speechwriter.

Friday, January 27, 2006

And You Thought Americans Were Litigious

If someone held a competition to determine the filer of the stupidest lawsuit in history, one would expect that the winner would be an American. Right? Wrong. The odds-on favorite has gotta be this Italian guy.

I don't know which is worse: the fact that someone filed this lawsuit, or the fact that it didn't get laughed out of court.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Meanwhile, Up North...

Stephen Harper has pledged to spend $5.3 billion Canadian ($0.50 American) protecting the Arctic waters from the Americans, Russians, and Danes, who are apparently planning to take it over for... um... for... um... well... uh... I got nothin'. Maybe polar bear pelts. That's it. Canada must protect her polar bears. Hey, it's better than any other reason I can come up with.

Apparently, Canada has no better use for $5.3 billion Canadian. Hey Harper, why don't you give it to us? We could use the help with our deficit.

Another Brick In The Wall

Q: What happens when a bunch of homicidal maniacs get elected to a parliament?

A: We're about to find out.

Of course, the characterization of Hamas as "a bunch of homicidal maniacs" is an oversimplification. Hamas is known to Palestinians as a charitable organization that helps the poor of Palestine more effectively than the current government. Hamas is also a change from the current corrupt Fatah government.

That having been said, they're still officially known as the Islamic Resistance Movement. (This, even though they're obviously reading doctored versions of the Koran that condone baby murder, and even though they couldn't effectively resist their way out of a paper bag.) This speaks volumes about Hamas' real intentions.

Perhaps being a part of a government will moderate them and get them used to the compromises necessary in pragmatic politics. However, Hamas has pretty much had the run of things in Gaza since the Israeli pullout, and they have done absolutely nothing to demonstrate that they know what it takes to craft a viable state. Meanwhile, they continue their counterproductive belligerent rhetoric and refuse to disarm.

It was once easy to dismiss Hamas as a fringe movement. I once thought that both Palestinians and Israelis wanted peace. But today Palestinians have spoken, and they have said in no uncertain terms that peace is way down there on the list of priorities. I used to be in opposition to the security barrier being built along the West Bank, reasoning that two peoples should not be torn apart by the deranged actions of a bunch of crazies. But if Palestine is going to be run by these crazies...

Perhaps Hamas will surprise all of us and prove their maturity. Maybe they'll realize that peace - or at least nonviolence - is in everybody's best interests, including their own. Either way, having an honest Palestinian government that has the trust of its people is a good thing. One thing that the peace process has been lacking is a viable bargaining partner on the Palestinian side. The Fatah government was corrupt and widely distrusted. Problem is, Hamas is showing no signs of coming out of its petulant-five-year-old shell and coming to the bargaining table.

There is another silver lining. Israelis were unable to make peace with any of their neighbors for the first thirty years of their existence. They were under a Labor government during that time. In 1977 Israeli voters gave the hard-line Likud party, under Menachem Begin (who masterminded a massacre of Arabs at Deir Yassin some years earlier), a chance at a government. A year later, Begin signed the Camp David Accords with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat. The moral of the story: sometimes the hard-liners, who have the trust of the most radical citizens of their country, are the best equipped to make peace.

Let's hope this is how it goes with Hamas. They certainly have the trust of the Palestinian radicals. Hell, they are the Palestinian radicals.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Meet The New Bosses

A new year ought to bring change - hell, it better, after that shitty year - and what better way to celebrate that change than by bringing in a new head of state?

Bolivia's Evo Morales: Morales is the first American Indian to serve as the leader of a country. He ran on a Socialist platform that focused on getting rid of restrictions on growing coca, the plant whose leaves serve as a remedy for altitude sickness. Also, it's used to make cocaine. This makes sense, since he was the leader of the coca growers' union. This sort of strikes me as akin to the U.S. electing the leader of NORML to the presidency, but hey, whatever works.

So far, Morales has taken a liking to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro, though as of now, there's no reason to believe that he would run as repressive a regime as either of those two. He seems like someone with Chavez' social conscience without the annoying authoritarianism. Bolivia's been a traditionally poor country, and if Morales can succeed in fighting some of that poverty, it'll be a huge boon for the left in other countries. My hopes are up, anyway.

On the center-left, we have Chile's Michelle Bachelet. She'll be the first woman to lead Latin America's most socially conservative country. (Though they're getting more liberal. They legalized divorce last year.) She's also a single mom. Let's take a moment to appreciate this. Honestly, how long would an agnostic single mother last in an American political race? Chile was already governed from the center-left, so no real change here. Bachelet wants to give more of a voice to women and indigenous people, so that's cool.

Speaking of pioneering women, Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist, is the first female head of state in Africa since Judith "the Fire" of Ethiopia. Who took office in 950 or so. So yeah, a long time. She's vowed to fight corruption, which is good. Her finance minister was head of a World Bank program, which is not so good. Her defense minister was trained in Israel, which is odd. (Incidentally, he was Chief of Police during the interim government, and did a very respectable job.) But Johnson-Sirleaf's election and peaceful assumption of power are good signs for a country that is working to get out from under Charles Taylor's ugly thumb. And I don't know how ambitious you can be when your first task as President is to get power back to your capital city.

Finally, there's Canada's Stephen Harper, who will presumably be the first Conservative prime minister of Canada in a long damn time. Harper's Conservatives fell flat on their faces in 2004 pushing a conservative social agenda, so he softened up his image this time around, focusing on frustration with Liberal Party corruption and on fiscal issues. In fact, he all but ignored social issues, saying that he'll leave gay marriage up to a "free vote" in the House of Commons (thus likely dooming any attempt to repeal the law) and that he won't even touch the abortion issue.

Here's the Post on his conservative agenda: "He promised to slightly reduce the national sales tax, replace a sputtering national day-care program with direct payments to parents and increase penalties for gun-related crimes... He proposes giving patients a right to seek outside care if they are required to wait too long for a health care procedure in the national system." Perhaps most notably, he wants to pull out of the Kyoto accords in order to develop alternative means to reduce emissions.

Yup. Real right-winger there.

What's more, Harper'll be doing this with only 125 seats out of a 308-seat legislature. The Liberals got 103, the separatist Bloc Quebecois pulled 51, and the liberal New Democratic Party got 28. (There's one random independent.) Note that these are all left or center-left parties. He won't be able to form a coalition with anyone to get 155 votes, and in a legislature where party discipline is a lot stricter than it is here, he'll have an uphill battle to get anything too conservative past anyone. This is hardly a resounding victory for the Canadian right.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Your Tax Cents At Work

You know that annoying $0.03 that gets added onto your cell phone bill every month? It's called the "federal excise tax." It helps fund the war effort, so we can defeat those lousy Spanish bastards. Cuba Libre!

A Quick Note

Happy belated Dr. King Day. For a good post on that subject, read Mike's blog. I don't have much to add, except that there's gotta be more ways we could honor someone who is certainly on most people's Top 5 List of greatest Americans. Perhaps paying more attention to poor people. Yeah, that might work.

Also, I heard this from the most reliable journalistic source I know - the Colbert Report: Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) apparently dropped the I-bomb in an interview with George Stephanopolous. It was with respect to the wire-tapping thing, and he suggested that if the President had broken the law there, one of the ways of dealing with it could be impeachment. Of course, illegal wire-tapping has lead to impeachment hearings before (Nixon), so it's not totally unexpected, but still. Dude's a Republican. Not your stereotypical member of the "Impeach Bush" crowd (which I consider joining more and more each day).

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Evilness Equation

Thanks to a debate between two of my coworkers on who is more evil than whom, I have invented an equation that will settle, once and for all, this debate.

E = (dD/dt)max * M/(S*sqrt(W))

where D = number of deaths caused = D-D'/P
D' = number of justifiable deaths
P = population directly affected by person's actions
M = masochistic tendency (pain inflicted per person)
S = stupidity (S > 1)
W = access to weaponry (W > 1)

This operates on the idea that deaths caused by stupidity aren't as evil as deaths caused through cold calculation, and that people who have less access to weapons must really want to kill people to inflict the same amount of death as people who can just push a button to do it and are therefore more evil.

It requires tweaking, of course. Anyone who wants to do so can. Just thought I'd throw it out there.

Point and Laugh At The Klan

In these times of simmering racial tensions, I'm glad that the KKK has finally decided to introduce an equal opportunity recruitment policy. They're even willing to promote African-Americans to leadership positions. How... heartwarming.

Scary: Stallworth's investigation revealed that there were KKK members with their fingers on the nuclear weapons triggers. Oh, now that's comforting. They got reassigned to Greenland, which is good. Maybe they got eaten by polar bears while trying to teach them to hate grizzlies. Or something.

Also from Fark: the dangers of being an Alabama fan.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

McDonald's Wouldn't Even Want To Take You Back

This is what I love about D.C.: The more things change, the more they stay the same. I have to wonder if he's linked to Jack Abramoff somehow...

In other news, Whole Paycheck rocks. My favorite factoid of all: Whole Foods now uses more renewable energy than the U.S. Air Force.

And I know that there are weird flag etiquette rules and stuff, but come on, Duluth, GA. This is dumb. I have two simple steps for the VFW, mayor, and town council to follow. Step 1: Place hand on rear end. Step 2: Remove stick.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Sharon and Coal

So it looks like Ariel Sharon is stabilizing after his massive stroke(s). His political career is probably over anyway, so I'll comment on what that means for Israel.

I don't think Sharon's new party, Kadima, will flounder as much as everyone thinks it will. Likud (the right-wingers that Sharon left) will probably pick former PM Benjamin Netanyahu as their leader. Labor (the party on the left that Shimon Peres left) has already settled on dovish Amir Peretz. I think Israelis liked Sharon's efforts to plot a middle course between ultra-hawks like Netanyahu and doves like Peretz, and so Kadima will probably still pick up a plurality. That doesn't mean much in the ever-fractious Israeli political system (how many countries have parties that believe that their country shouldn't exist?), so Kadima's success will rest heavily on the somewhat untested Ehud Olmert's ability to lead.

As far as the peace process is concerned, Sharon's policy of unilateral withdrawal will almost certainly continue under a Kadima government, which I like. And even though Sharon has moderated himself in the past couple of years, Arabs still see him as the mastermind of the 1982 Lebanon invasion and the settling of the West Bank. These are notions that die hard, and so most Arabs remained suspicious of Sharon even as he made overtures for peace. Arabs might be more willing to open up to Olmert than to someone they've been vilifying for the past twenty years. Olmert's first moves as PM are of the utmost importance - he must work to build a rapport with Abbas and the moderates within the Palestinian Authority if he wants to build upon Sharon's progress.

Charles Krauthammer and author Gershom Gorenberg give views on Sharon. Here's Wikipedia's article on Olmert.

In other news, I want to comment briefly on the mine disaster. What bothers me the most about this tragedy is not the fact that families were told that their loved ones were alive before finding out the awful truth. What angers me is the fact that, as this Post editorial points out, the Sago mine had an atrocious safety record as it was - and nothing was done about it. Eight severe safety citations occurred from September to December of 2005, and yet the mine was still allowed to operate.

This disaster demonstrates the silliness of the deregulation craze and the unworkability of the conservative model of government. Conservatives like to believe that industries can police themselves, but the Sago disaster proves that that simply isn't the case. Companies will cut corners whenever possible if they think that they can get away with it. Since there are no market forces strong enough to punish companies for safety violations, without government intervention they almost always will get away with it. Such is the nature of capitalism. Deregulation is not worth the cost of laborers' lives. Deaths that can be prevented - such as the ones at Sago - should be prevented.

The mining industry is technically still regulated, but these regulations appear to carry no teeth. Most likely, this is because - as the Post points out - the agency that regulates mines (the MHSA) is in bed with the industry itself. Mine inspectors who aren't in a partnership with the industry must be able to punish mine owners for cutting corners when it comes to safety, otherwise regulations are meaningless. The mine received 96 violations in 2005 alone that could reasonably lead to death or injury. Any one of these violations should lead to the temporary closure of the mine so that needed repairs may be completed - instead, the mine was allowed to operate, and the tragic but all-too-predictable disaster occurred.

It is possible to both maintain a capitalist system and provide for the safety of all those who participate in it. Safety regulations do not put an undue burden on mine owners, especially when we consider the high human cost of not implementing such regulations.

We can either use this disaster as an opportunity to create an effective regulatory system, or we can offer our condolences and go back to ignoring worker safety. Somehow, I think Congress will pick the latter. Shame.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Cute, Cuddly Killers

Today, the illustrious Jacob informed Mike, Danielle, and me of the existence of the movie Snakes on a Plane starring Samuel L. Jackson. Apparently some assassin wants to kill someone in the witness protection program, so the assassin does the thing that comes naturally to anyone in that situation - he releases a bunch of snakes on an airplane. According to the press release, the passengers and crew must band together in a desperate attempt to survive.

I saw the word "awesinine" used to describe this movie, and will begin using it in everyday conversation.

Inspired by a) the existence of a major Hollywood film based on such a horrible premise, b) my cat, and c) the fact that it was 2 in the morning, Mike and I came up with the next big Hollywood thriller:


There is a secret government plan to fight terrorism: hundreds of robot cats equipped with industrial-strength lasers. The plan is to release these cute, cuddly killer kitties into the Middle East, where they will endear themselves to the families of terrorists and then dispatch them with lasers. However, one of the shipments of robot cats was lost - and then found by a Des Moines, IA pet shop owner. The cats find their way into the homes of cute, cuddly Iowan kids. Now it is up to a hard-boiled Iowa policeman (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and a nerdy robotics expert (Rick Moranis) to thwart the cats and to thwart a govermnent agent (Nick Nolte) who wants to keep the secret of the robot cats safe - even at the cost of hundreds of innocent Iowan lives.

Along the way, the policeman and the robotics expert fall for the mother (Elizabeth Hurley) of one of the children (Dakota Fanning) who bought a robot cat. In the end, the robotics expert selflessly sacrifices himself by diving between the mother and the deadly feline laser beam.

The final showdown between Jackson's character and Nolte's will take place inside a grain silo (where the additional cat hordes were being stored). Jackson dispatches Nolte with the line: "Fuck curiosity. A bullet works every time."

So, all you Hollywood execs who read my blog regularly, have your people call my people. We'll do lunch.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Playoffs, Baby!

"My beloved Redskins are all but out of a playoff spot..." - ONAF, December 6, 2005

Nostradamus I ain't. So the 'Skins rattled off five straight, and they get to go to Tampa Bay to face the Yuckaneers (which is incidentally the site of their last playoff game in 1999). Cool.

Either way, I'm awarding the Shut Up, You Moron Award for December 2005 to... me, for that stupid statement.