Friday, November 30, 2007

Another Woodhead's Law

School ranking lists are complete crap, unless a school you attended happens to be No. 1.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kerr Rental

One of my favorite moments from last night's debate was when retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr, a gay man, upbraided the Republican candidates for assuming American soldiers weren't professional enough to accept gay and lesbian soldiers in their units. I jokingly asked whether Kerr could run for president.

Turns out he's not running himself, but he's helping someone else... Hillary Clinton.

Anderson Cooper's taking a lot of heat for allowing this guy to ask a question, but I'm okay with it (just as I'd be okay with a Republican asking a question at a Dem debate). The candidates are running for president of the entire country, not just of one party. They need to be able to answer to people from all parts of the political spectrum.

Though I think it's funny that no one noticed Kerr's affiliation before the debate.

Republican Debate Running Diary

I give up.

For some time now, I’ve been trying to fight the idea of politics as entertainment. It cheapens the debate, it trivializes the political process, whatever… but I give up. Politics isn’t just a form of entertainment – it’s the best form of entertainment we have outside the sports world. And when you’re faced with a debate with a goofy format (a bunch of YouTube questions) and a crop of candidates that I’m probably not voting for next November (unless something really bizarre happens and Kucinich gets the Democratic nomination, followed by Romney renouncing torture), well, there’s nothing you can do but enjoy the ride.

So with apologies to ESPN’s Bill Simmons, whose sports event running diaries are sublimely awesome, I’m doing the same for the Republican debate tonight.

All times Eastern, since my computer is convinced that it’s in the Eastern time zone even though I’m in Arizona.

7:57: Auspicious beginning to the debate – some talking head on CNN expects the debate to be “feisty, entertaining, and maybe a bit educational.” This is going to be awesome.

7:58: Talking head: “If Billiam the Snowman doesn’t show up, I’ll be disappointed.” So we’ve come from the Lincoln-Douglas debates to questions asked by snowmen. Ain’t that America…

8:00: Talking head: “After the debate, the party keeps on going!” Oh boy! Will there be a pinata? In other news, Anderson Cooper’s moderating… and he immediately panders to the audience, saying that Republicans submitted more questions than the Dems. Journalistic integrity at its finest.

8:02: Oh, so Charlie Crist’s name is pronounced “krist,” not Christ. Also, he said “duty” and I thought “doody.” Where is my mind?

8:03: I think the introductions would go a whole lot better if we had them come out basketball-style and bump chests with one another, though Thompson’s chest-bump would probably knock Paul on his ass. And I love how, like, six people applauded Tancredo. That’s gotta hurt. Also, I note that Anderson Cooper’s cheer dwarfed that of the other candidates. Cooper ’08!

8:05: Talking head: “lot of elbows thrown.” I hope they have bandages.

8:09: The first video – it’s country music! Oh dear God, can you make this any more stereotypical? Also, this guy thinks the Dems have one candidate? Actually, this song is kind of awesome. He managed to make fun of everyone, which I as a former humorist appreciate.

8:11: Giuliani gets the sanctuary city question. Rudy points out that kids of undocumented workers would be on the streets if not for city-funded education. Good point. Oh, what the hell is a “virtual fence?”

8:13: Giuliani calls Romney on employing illegals, Romney points out that the homeowner can’t confront anyone with a funny accent who a company hired to work on his property. Romney, surprisingly civil.

8:15: Wow, Cooper can’t get Giuliani to shut up. Everybody sing it with me: “Rudolph the red-faced mayor…”

8:17: Question: will you pledge to veto “amnesty”? What BS. I think its interesting how doling out a punishment that fits the crime in question (in this case, crossing the border illegally or overstaying your visa) become “amnesty.” Drop it. Seriously.

8:20: McCain actually brings up the humanity of the immigrants. Shocking. I think I see Tancredo over there marveling at the idea that illegal immigrants are humans too.

8:23: Uh-oh, here comes Tancredo – and he pulls the Joe Biden “you never let me talk” line. I think Joe’s suing for plaigiarism now. Notice that he blames immigration for our problems – not just illegal immigration, mind you, but immigration in general. Apparently it’s hard for a mass immigrant movement to assimilate. One might want to bring that up with his Italian immigrant grandparents.

8:25: Hunter: “I built the border fence in San Diego.” And Gore invented the Internet.

8:26: Huckabee’s actually being humane to immigrant kids, saying they shouldn’t be punished for their parents breaking the law, and that kids of illegals who went to school in-state should be treated like in-state students. Surprisingly humane. Of course, this goes right through Romney’s brain.

8:27: Romney whips out the L-word! Romney apparently doesn’t realize that the kids in question didn’t get something better than the rest of the students, and Huckabee calls him on it. Was Romney even listening? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

8:31: Paul’s first question is about a wacky North American Union conspiracy theory. This is basically the Kucinich UFO question. Paul deserves better. Oh, and how did this libertarian dude get so protectionist?

8:33: The national debt comes up. McCain wants to veto pork bills, which, since he won’t have the line-item veto, will basically shut down the government. Awesome. Romney talks about a “fundamental change” in the way Washington works… of course, that’s worked so well for outsider candidates in the past. Giuliani tells us we shouldn’t replace retiring workers, and that we should cut failing programs. Not bad ideas, really.

8:37: Question: what would you cut? Thompson dodges. Ron Paul, predictably, plays hatchet man, cutting Education, Energy, DHS… yeah, good luck with that. Huckabee wants to replace the IRS with a sales tax.

8:40: A fair-tax question from Uncle Sam wanders into the Iraq war when McCain wants to respond to a Paul crack about intervention costing us money. Uh-oh. McCain is talking about how isolationism caused WWII. Is he gonna Godwin? Is he gonna Godwin?

8:41: GODWIN!!!!!!! Our isolationism allowed Hitler to come to power! Ron Paul will cause the second Holocaust! Pictures at 11!

8:43: Cooper rebukes McCain for bringing up Iraq, but allows Paul to respond. Um… Paul points out the difference between non-interventionist and isolationist, which needs to be cleared up, and we hear boos. Awesome. Someone points out some definitional confusion and gets booed for it. Republicans – they’re FANtastic.

8:44: Only McCain and (oddly enough) Hunter refuse to pledge to not raise taxes, which means that they actually are fiscally responsible and recognize the possibility of an emergency. Shame on Tancredo and Huckabee for making promises they might not be able to keep.

8:45: Next question is on farm subsidies. Why don’t the Democrats get questions like this? Of course the Republican debate is going to be more substantive – the questions they get don’t suck! Anyway, no one wants to cut subsidies, citing competition from overseas… and any pretension to “small government conservatism” the Republican Party ever had just went out the window.

8:49: Ooh, campaign videos. Tancredo first. I don’t think it said anything.

8:52: Thompson’s video. Isn’t that Romney’s voice? Now Huckabee’s? Where’s Fred? After it’s over, Anderson Cooper asks, “what’s up with that?” Note to Fred – any time you do something that induces a “what’s up with that,” you probably screwed up.

8:58: McCain’s video consists entirely of a cheap shot at Hillary Clinton involving Woodstock. You stay classy, John.

8:59: Next question starts with someone shooting crap. Sweet. He asks about gun control, then cocks his gun, and says you can answer however you like. Holy crap, that was awesome. God, I love this country… and Duncan Hunter chastises him for his safety technique. Not, say, for the fact that he’s issuing a half-assed threat to anyone who likes gun control, but for the fact that he’s not doing it safely.

9:00: Giuliani on guns: “Government can impose reasonable regulations.” People boo! Mike – leave Pinellas County. Now. Before you get shot.

9:04: Question about candidates’ personal gun collection. Ah, America.

9:06: Question about black on black crime – and Romney turns it into “need a mom and dad” thing. According to Romney, not having a mom and dad is the root of all crime… not, say, poverty, or desperation, or mental weirdness. Glad you cleared that up for us.

9:08: And here comes the abortion. I’m turning my TV off now.

9:10: Thompson: overturning Roe is our “#1 focus.” Above, say, Iraq?

9:12: Giuliani says he wouldn’t sign a federal abortion ban. He’s perfectly okay with taking drug policy away from the states, but not abortion policy. Romney too. Selective federalism appears to be the latest fad. At least Paul would kick both back to the states.

9:15: Huckabee: “Jesus was too smart to run for public office.” Amen, brother.

9:16: Question: Do you believe every word of Bible? Apparently that tells this guy “all we need to know” about the candidate. Is this a political debate or a theology discussion?

9:18: If there is a God, this amateur (save Huckabee) theology discussion is going to end now.

9:19: Cut to Romney’s video. Lo, we are delivered.

9:23: Giuliani’s video includes King Kong and claims credit for reduced snowfall. That was sublimely awesome. And it didn’t mention 9/11.

9:23: Question: How to repair the American image in Muslim world? Giuliani’s first response – remain on offense against terrorism. Giuliani – completely ignoring the effect of rhetoric, since 1887.

9:24: OK, wait a second, Rudolph. Democrats “put their head in sand” because they don’t mention “Islamic” when they talk about terrorists? Uh, terrorists aren’t just Muslims, dumbass. Remember Timothy McVeigh? And do you really have to mention that the al-Qaeda terrorists are Islamists at every turn? I think we all know that by now.

9:27: Romney says he won’t describe specific interrogation techniques because it’s not wise. Why? I don’t get it… Oh, and then he says that people accused of terrorism shouldn’t be in our legal system, and then jabs at the very honorable folks over at the ACLU. That sound you heard was Romney dropping like a rock in my esteem. McCain proceeds to deal the obvious smackdown, taking the moral high road. I like him now.

9:32: A questioner thinks that a permanent commitment in Iraq will be a “deterrent to troublemakers.” Yeah, it deterred the hell out of Iran, didn’t it? Ooh, and Paul can’t identify the Kurds. He calls them the “people in the north.” Was that a senior moment? He points out that you can achieve in peace what you can’t achieve in war, which is actually logical.

9:34: McCain blames public opinion for the loss in ‘Nam. Dumbass. You just lost any good will the torture thing got you. Paul points out that occupation of a country is a reason that people turn to terrorism. Idiots who don’t understand the truth of that statement boo. You can’t boo facts! Stop it!

9:38: Giuliani brags about keeping Haitian refugees out of Florida. Vote for me! I helped precipitate a humanitarian crisis! Also he claims he reduced abortions. And Hunter built the fence. And Gore invented the Internet.

9:42: Hunter’s video: “He built the border fence. He saved the veterans’ memorial! He leaps tall buildings in a single bound!”

9:46: I look up at Huckabee’s video and the first thing I see are the words “Christian leader.” Mike Huckabee, running for president of 88% of the country.

9:47: Question: A gay vet, who sounds like Marge’s sister, asks why he’s not fit for service. This oughta be interesting. Here’s Hunter: openly gay people are bad for unit cohesion. How? What sense does this make? He mentions that Israel lets gays serves, but says that American soldiers are different because they have “Judeo-Christian” values. Because Israelis don’t have Jewish values, or anything. Good one there, Duncan. Huckabee parrots. Romney thinks that because we’re in a war we can’t let gays in. Apparently gay soldiers are too busy decorating the barracks to fight. You stay classy, Mitchell.

9:50: The vet is in the audience, and says Americans are professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians. Can this guy run for President?

9:51: McCain: “don’t ask, don’t tell” is working. Unless you need Arabic translators.

9:53: Thompson on Social Security: We need to protect your generation from our generation. My wife: “By shooting yourselves?” None of the candidates say anything substantive.

9:56: Question: Who wants to send someone to Mars? This question exists for the sole reason that someone will talk about sending Hillary Clinton to Mars. Huckabee obliges. Also, why do none of the Republicans, with the exception of McCain, refer to Senator Clinton by anything other than her first name? If they started making references to “Barack,” or if the Dems started invoking “Rudy,” don’t you think they’d be ripped for their lack of respect?

10:01: Holy shit! It’s a rebel flag! And he’s asking a question about it! And it directly followed the question on how black people don’t vote Republican! You go, CNN! Thompson comes out against the flag. And he’s from Tennessee! Having lived in Nashville for four years while going to school, I’m now wondering how he got elected down there.

10:03: Paul’s video. I love how he talked foreign policy and snuck small government in there so no one would notice it.

10:07: Paul, on one of his rallies: “We had blacks, we had Hispanics…” Maybe one of them was his Official Black Friend that shields you from claims of racism.

10:09: Mercifully, the last question, and it’s aimed at Giuliani… “Why did you root for the Red Sox?” That’s our nation's political debate, kids.


And if you want a Banditos Theorem proof, look no further than this article that reveals some of the rumors on the Interwebs about Obama.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Naptown Races

Annapolis, one of ONAF's favorite cities, played host to a conference involving Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and a bunch of people from 38 other nations, including Syria and Saudi Arabia. Naturally, not much concrete was accomplished aside from a vague agreement to start the "road map" up again.

Problem is that this is even less feasible than it was back in '03 when the "road map" was first implemented. The first step calls for simultaneous trust-building exercises conducted by the Israelis and the PA. The first step involves Israel freezing settlements in the West Bank while the PA targets anti-Israel militants. But Israel insisted before that settlements wouldn't be frozen until the PA moved, and vice versa. (Apparently, neither Hebrew nor Arabic has a word for "simultaneous.") Furthermore, a good many of the settlements that go up in the West Bank go up outside the law, and the incompetent PA can't pursue Hamas' militants in Gaza, and they're the worst sort. This impasse will take a while to get past, especially when the leaders who are supposed to take these bold steps have questionable levels of support among their people.

But there are good things that can come from this meeting. First, Hamas is criticizing it, which can only mean good things. Second, it means that the lines of communication between Israel, the PA, and most of the Arab world will remain open well into the future.

We can't underestimate the importance of this last point. Remember that during the Cold War, a constant line of communication was kept open between the Kremlin and Washington, with the result being that several near-wars between the US and Russia were averted (Cuban missile crisis, for example). A similar line of communication between the Palestinian president and the Israeli PM would help avert an all-out intifada like the one we saw at the beginning of the decade. And contact between Israel and the Arab states would be a good fall-back should direct communication fail.

Peace isn't going to come anytime soon, not with these leaders, and not with this big of a gap between the two sides. But constant communication can keep the tension at a low boil until the respective leaders can gather the strength to make real progress.


Finally, it's difficult to explain to a non-sports fan what being a fan of a football team means. This sounds hokey, but it's almost as if the team becomes family to you. It means letting a group of 44 guys into your home every autumn week for a few hours, really, honestly caring that they do well, and sharing their joy and their pain throughout the season. You've never met them, and probably never will, but a very small part of your heart is with them.

So a moment of blog silence, please, for the recently passed member of our Washington Redskins family, Sean Taylor. I never met Sean, I didn't know his family, but I let him into my home every Sunday when the TV in my area showed the 'Skins game. The hearts of all 'Skins Nation, and indeed football fans everywhere, are with Sean's family now.

And a note to Reed Doughty, who will probably be taking the field as starting safety against the Bills on Sunday: knock the crap out of Lee Evans just once. For Sean.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Marriage: Not Just For Married Couples Anymore

This column makes a startling amount of sense, although it does make a lot of marriage rights subject to some complicated case law. It also makes alimony and child support a little bit more challenging to dole out. But the basic idea is a good one.

Funny, though, how the people who would yell loudest about a privatization of marriage are often the same people who tell us how privatization of Social Security, health care, etc. is a good thing...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Aw, Fuck It, I Just Want Your Land

Ben jokes about the "Aw, Fuck It, I Just Want Your Money" tort, but it appears that in Boulder, CO, someone can take your land simply by saying "I want that." (More from a conservative Denver Post columnist here.)

Of course there are limits to the bizarre law, called "adverse possession", used for this land grab. If you want to take someone's land, you have to continually use the land and develop an "emotional attachment" to it. In Colorado, the land in question must have remained untouched for 18 years. Furthermore, no attempt may have been made by the owner to assert their property rights, either by attempting to evict you or by granting you permission to use the land.

I wonder if that'll work with things other than land. If I take someone's diamond ring and they don't notice that it's gone for 18 years, is it mine? If I steal a car, then wait 18 years after the owner stops looking for it, can I claim it?

And lastly, how is this law possibly fair?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Your Giant Load Of Crap Alert

I've seen the government try to pull some bullshit before, but this (via Jacob's del.ici.ous feed) is quite possibly the biggest load of bullshit ever perpetrated by the Pentagon.

This guy pretty much says what I wanted to say, so read it. I don't know whose brilliant idea it was to tell injured servicemen and women to give back their enlistment bonuses, but that person needs to have their ass kicked. Hard.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blasphemy! Cuff 'em!

This story contains two things that could only happen in Britain - the staging of a musical portraying Jesus as a coprophiliac, and people suing the producers of said musical for "blasphemous libel."

OK, I know Britain's libel laws were apparently written by retarded monkeys high on acid, but blasphemy as a tort? Really? Isn't that the kind of thing that happens in Saudi Arabia? Oh, and you know the same groups that are going to sue this musical for blasphemy would cry "free speech!" if a Muslim group wanted to sue someone who defamed Muhammad.

Why is it that people don't understand that one of the side effects of free speech is that you hear things that offend you? Is this concept that hard to grasp?

ONAF's Infallible Conservation Plan

It's really important to conserve these days. A lot of material, especially, goes into making clothes. And women, as most of you know, have a lot of clothes. So I think women should be encouraged to save the planet by not wearing any clothes.

C'mon, ladies. The fate of the planet rests on your shoulders.

Windbag Contest

Well, the leaves have turned and there's a chill in the air (or at least that's how I imagine it's happening outside Phoenix - here it's still 80 and there aren't any trees), so you know what that means... time for the "war on Christmas."

This year, I'm giving out a prize. I don't know what it is yet, and it probably won't be much since baby stuff is really eating into ONAF's budget. The prize goes to the first person to find "Winter's First Windbag." Winter's First Windbag is the first person to blather on about how "secularists" or "liberals" or "Democrats" or whatever are trying to take Christmas away. Post the incident in the comment thread and I'll judge whether or not it's windbag-worthy.

(Update: McGill Christy responded in record time with an O'Reilly bit. I kinda thought this would be the year someone besides BO became the standard-bearer - I was personally rooting for Glenn Beck - but it's at least not starting out that way. Keep the windbaggery rolling in, though. I think a "war on wars on the war on Christmas" would be awesome.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hang 248, Dude

This is absolutely awesome. The headline - "Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything" - is pretty sweet. And if it turns out to work... wow.

Debate Thoughts, And Other Stray Ruminations

First, a couple of random thoughts:

- I'm on the consumer product recall e-mail list - with a kid on the way you can't be too careful... okay, yes you can, but you know what I mean - I just got a recall notice for a set of birch bark-wrapped candles. Predictably, the birch bark was catching fire. Which makes me wonder: who the hell thought this would be a good idea? Couldn't anyone with half a brain see this problem coming? Why did no one at this company catch this slight design flaw before the candles were produced? And what consumer in their right mind buys a candle wrapped in an obviously flammable substance?


- Speaking of stupid ideas, here's a doozy that was recently dropped by the LAPD. They apparently thought it would be a good idea to "map" the Muslim community in Los Angeles - that is, use census data to find out where in the city the Muslims were living. The LAPD said the effort was for somewhat admirable ends - extending social services to potentially isolated parts of the community in order to bring all Angelenos into the fabric of the city. But - and this is key - they also called it an anti-terrorism strategy.

It appears that the LAPD was surprised to see that news of this program caused a backlash in the Muslim community. Really? Did they expect to launch a program compiling all the Muslims' addresses and keep an eye on their activities, then have the Muslims be cool with it? "Sure, go ahead, you can keep tabs on us like we're all a bunch of criminals, we don't mind," was apparently the response they were expecting. And I guess they thought that civil liberties advocates (like me) would say that this was a wonderful idea that respected everyone's privacy and freedom of religion. If so, the LAPD is dumber than I thought. Not only did they even entertain this cruel and stupid idea, but they had no PR strategy to deal with the imminent backlash. I don't know which is dumber.

- The Dems debated again tonight on CNN. Blitzer's a slightly better moderator than the clueless sledgehammer Russert, but he still tries to play "gotcha" too much. Worse, he has a habit of asking counterfactual questions or forcing people into false dichotomies. Sen. Dodd calling him on the false dichotomy between security and human rights was tied for the best moment of the debate with Sen. Biden's hilarious whining after the Big Three were allowed to snipe at each other for the first twenty minutes. Blitzer also doesn't seem to understand that driver's licenses for immigrants is a STATE issue. The federal government doesn't issue drivers' licenses. After the first twenty minutes, though, the two questioners came up with some pretty good questions. The merit-pay issue was a great one to bring up, and Yucca Mountain has oodles of local appeal for the Vegas crowd.

Anyway, I thought Biden, Gov. Richardson, and Dodd had the most interesting things to say. Kudos to Richardson for being the lone candidate to have the metaphorical cojones to say that human rights was more important than security, as well as being the lone candidate with anything intelligent to say about immigration. Oh, and thanks for supporting veterans' health care and bringing up mental health. Dodd's comment about school-based merit pay was probably the most significant contribution to the national debate on any issue that anyone had. But Dodd lost points by trying to hamhandedly defend Musharraf by saying that democracy in Pakistan might lead to a jihadist regime. (Earth to Dodd - Pakistan's radical Islamists have roughly the same approval rating as Ehud Olmert in Israel right now.) And Biden's rant about enforcing the existing trade agreement with China was a good point that no one else had the knowledge to make, and he made good points on pretty much every other issue.

Of the Big Three, Sen. Obama did best, actually revealing policy stances and occasionally making interesting points. This was the first time I've ever listened to Obama and said, "you know, he might know what he's talking about." Sen. Clinton didn't stand out, really, but she continued to display good knowledge about the issues. Her willingness to support security over human rights really hurt her in my book (though sadly not in the minds of most Americans). Sen. Edwards had exactly one thing to say: "the system sucks, the rest of y'all suck, and I don't."

And Kucinich was Kucinich. I can think of nothing more to say.

Anyway, here's my revised list:

1. Richardson
T-2. Clinton
T-2. Biden
4. Dodd
5. Obama
6. Edwards
T-7. Kucinich
T-7. Gravel (who seems to have fallen off the face of the earth)

If I were to put the Repubs in there, I'd probably fit Romney and Paul (in that order) between Edwards and Kucinich and the rest below Elf-Man and Grav-EL. Their list looks like this now:

1. Romney
2. Paul
3. McCain
4. Huckabee
5. Thompson
6. Rudolph the Red-Faced Mayor
7. Hunter
8. Keyes
9. Tancredo

VoteMatch gives me the following results from their really vague quiz:

1. Gravel (?!?!?)
2. Kucinich (?!?!?)
3. Biden
4. Clinton
5. Obama
6. Dodd
7. Paul
T-8. Edwards
T-8. Richardson
10. Rudolph the Red-Faced Mayor
11. Romney
12. Huckabee
13. McCain
14. Tancredo
15. Hunter

No Keyes, but he'd probably be in the Tancredo-Hunter range.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Another Godwin Amendment

The new Godwin's Law, at least until November '08: As the length of a comment thread increases, the probability that someone will plug Ron Paul approaches one.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

When Candidates Attack?

This is the second post today - scroll down for the first. This is also my 450th post ever. I rant a lot, is what I'm trying to say.

Anyway, I've been watching CNN promote Thursday's upcoming Democratic debate in Las Vegas for the past couple of days, and I've noticed CNN ads that say things like this:

"On Thursday, THE GLOVES COME OFF!!!!" (TV spot, printed on the screen as pictures of the candidates and moderator Wolf Blitzer float by)

"Don't miss the Democrats go at it again in Las Vegas with CNN's Wolf Blitzer." (on

There was also something about a "Democratic showdown in Las Vegas" on the ticker at one point.

Does anyone else think it's absurd to have a debate promoted as some sort of bizarre cross between The Situation Room and WWE Smackdown? I'm sure there will be a lot of people disappointed if Edwards doesn't grab a chair and come after Clinton with it. Though I have to admit, the sight of Richardson body-slamming Biden and flexing to the crowd afterwards would be awesome.

But seriously, my confidence in this debate has been completely shot. Thanks to the marketing technique - and it's a sad commentary on our society that major political events are forced to adopt marketing techniques - Blitzer will be asking questions that are meant to elicit attacks on other candidates (or the Republicans) as opposed to questions that allow candidates to deliver meaningful policy statements. And guess what the news cycle after the debate will say - it will just validate the marketing technique.

I don't even know if I want to watch this debate. There doesn't seem to be a point. CNN has decided what we're going to see in advance. We're just one step short of having CNN hand the candidates scripted answers to their questions. And when that happens, Hulk Hogan should really start moderating these things.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Remember, Remember

Blogging was suspended for last week while I was in Salt Lake City, but apparently I missed Treason Week. Both November 4th and November 5th are memorable for infamous acts of treason - I'll attempt to remember them both here. The two events are separated by some 390 years, but both demonstrate the danger of moral certitude, and the trouble we open ourselves up to when we believe that God supports our particular political agenda.

On November 5th, 1605, a Catholic zealot named Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the British Parliament building and was caught in the act. The plot was hatched by Catholic agitator Robert Catesby, who died three days later. Catesby had earlier attempted to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I; had Catesby's plot succeeded this time, King James I and a fair portion of the English government would have been killed.

It was not a good time to be a Catholic in England. It was during the time of the wars of religion, and James I was a Catholic. One wonders, however, whether Catesby, Fawkes, and company were really fighting for "Catholics' rights," as some maintain today. Recall that a generation earlier, Queen "Bloody" Mary had ordered the execution of hundreds of Protestants on behalf of the Catholic Church. It seems to me that this was a case of one group of murderous zealots trying to fight another group of murderous zealots - I don't buy for one moment that Catesby would have failed to persecute Protestants if he had been in power.

Fortunately, the plot was discovered and tragedy was averted. This would, unfortunately, not be the case 390 years (minus one day) earlier.

Since it was a Saturday, I was watching college football with my family on November 4, 1995. I think we were watching Penn State-Michigan State, but I'm not sure - some details get fuzzy. But anyway, I remember when the newsroom interrupted the game mid-play - never a good thing. And I remember being absolutely shocked to hear that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated. Worse, this horrible act was committed not by a radical Arab bent on Israel's destruction but by a Jewish zealot, Yigal Amir.

With things as they are now, it's tough to remember how hopeful American Jews were about the prospects for peace under Rabin. It appeared as though Rabin had somehow gotten Yasser Arafat to swear off terrorism and work with Israel. After Camp David, things honestly looked good. Rabin had even managed to keep the peace after Baruch Goldstein's horrific massacre in early '94. And in an instant, all that changed.

No Israeli leader since Rabin has been able to convince both Israelis and the PLO to go along with a peace process. Some, like Netanyahu, never tried, but those who did try simply didn't have the powerful personality and political ability Rabin possessed. By 2000, relations had deteriorated so much that Ariel Sharon's simple act of praying on the Temple Mount was enough to set off a full-scale murdering spree by the Palestinians. The peace process, in effect, died on November 4, 1995 with Yitzhak Rabin

Amir's motive for murder was simple - he felt that God had promised the Jews the entirety of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and that Rabin was going against God's plan for the land. It is impossible to argue with such people, just as it would have been impossible to argue with either the Catholics or the Protestants in 1605, just as it is impossible to argue now with those who believe God tells them they should fly planes into buildings.

Perhaps this is the lesson of Treason Week - we should be very careful about our dedication to right and wrong. Pain is too often caused by those who believe with great certainty that they know what's right and what's wrong. Put differently, when you absolutely know what's right, you're usually wrong.


In other Treason Week activities, Jefferson Davis was elected to preside over the Southern rebellion on November 6, 1861; a bomb blew up in the Senate on November 7, 1983; and Adolf Hitler began the Beer Hall Putsch, an attempt to violently overthrow the Weimar Republic, on November 8, 1923. Hitler later would instigate Kristallnacht, the first major violent anti-Jewish riot in Nazi Germany, on November 9, 1938. I could rant about the moral certitude behind these actions too, but you can insert your own rants here.


And to commemorate Treason Week, I attended a BYU football game... and actually rooted for the Cougars. The reason is that the team BYU was playing, TCU, had five wins, and should Vandy pick up a sixth win, we will need as few other six-win teams as possible on the college football landscape if we are to get to a bowl for the first time since '82. Since I'm a Utah fan, this is absolute, unforgivable treason - imagine being an Alabama fan and rooting for Auburn.

Oh well. I'll have the last laugh on the 24th when the Utes go into Provo and take BYU down.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Correlation, Not Causation

One of my favorite rants is the one about correlation not being equal to causation. That is, simply because two trends seem to be correlated does not imply that one trend causes the other. The folks over at the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster demonstrate this fallacious reasoning excellently with their assertion that a decline in the number of pirates causes global warming (scroll down a bit to see the graph). Unfortunately, this idea seemed to be lost on behavioral psychologists, or at least on the reporters who write the articles on their findings.

Enter this fascinating article from the Washington Post on whether or not teen sex causes delinquency. The two variables are clearly correlated, but the causal link was weak. A PhD student at the University of Virginia put the final nail in the causality coffin by using something called "behavioral genetics." Essentially, she studies pairs of twins - whose DNA and external influences are fairly similar - to investigate the correlation between teen sex and delinquency. This method effectively equalizes the effects of all the other variables present, so if the twin that engages in sex earlier is usually more delinquent, the two can said to be causally linked. However, this was not the case - if anything, the twin that had sex earlier was less likely to be delinquent. So much for early sexual activity causing delinquency.

The proper conclusion here is not, of course, that we have to encourage kids to have sex earlier. It is merely that some other variable is obviously influencing both teen sex and delinquency. The UVA researchers point to genes - that explanation seems like a cop-out to me.

Either way, this new analysis method looks like a powerful tool to address the correlation-causation problem. Let's hope that more and more behavioral psychologists (and health scientists too - their work is notoriously littered with shaky causal links) begin to use this sort of analysis to test their theories. And let's hope that some of the more bombastic conclusions out there about causal links between behaviors can be tested too. There's too many crap conclusions being foisted on the American public, and these conclusions often help direct policy even if they are weakly supported. Attributing causation to correlated data is easy, but it's often not true, and it's important that the public and our policymakers know the truth, not the easy answer.