Monday, December 29, 2003

I wonder if you can use an almanac to find the White House
Sometimes it’s just too hard to think of something smartass to say.
The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning.


"The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning," the FBI wrote.

Some of them actually plan? The bastards!

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Knocking down herrings
The news part of this is Viceroy Paul Bremmer insulting our noble ally Tony Blair, by my favorite part is the mangled metaphor.
Tony Blair faced new charges of exaggerating information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction last night after America's senior official in the country rejected his claim that "massive evidence" of secret laboratories had been found.


The Tories leapt on the contradiction as proof that despite the Hutton Inquiry into the death of the Government scientist Dr David Kelly, Mr Blair continued to "sex up" information about Iraq's weapons in order to defend his political position.


In his Christmas message to troops a fortnight ago, which reached British soldiers in the Gulf, Mr Blair said the Iraq Survey Group searching for evidence of Saddam's weapons had unearthed "massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories". This, he claimed, showed that the former Iraqi dictator had attempted to "conceal weapons".

But Mr Bremer, interviewed on ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby Programme, who was initially unaware that it was the Prime Minister who had made the claim, ridiculed the comment.

"I don't know where those words come from, but that is not what [ISG chief] David Kay has said," he told Dimbleby as the interviewer tried to interrupt to tell him the source.

"I have read his reports so I don't know who said that. It sounds like a bit of a red herring to me. It sounds like someone who doesn't agree with the policy sets up a red herring then knocks it down."

When Dimbleby finally managed to tell him it was Mr Blair who made the comment, Mr Bremer beat a partial retreat, saying: "There is actually a lot of evidence that had been made public."

“Sets up a red herring then knocks it down." I like that. After that he drags a straw man through the underbrush to create a false trail. This still falls into a distant second place behind my all-time favorite mangled metaphor, made by then Alaskan governor Jay Hammond who announced, “the ship of state is breaking new ground.” Now that was a herring that deserved to be knocked down.
Quote of the day
Rev. Al Sharpton at the Commonwealth club in San Francisco (courtesy the Left I):
This is an administration where the Vice-President says, 'I'm not going to tell you what I was meeting with Enron about in the executive office of the White House, but I want the right to know what your librarian gives you as a book to go to your home. We want the right to eavesdrop on lawyer-client conversations; we want the right to do anything we want to invade your privacy, in the name of [fighting] terrorism.' We cannot say to the world to join us, we are the land of the free and the home of the brave -- and then say, we are going to suspend freedom and you better not be brave enough to question us.

Friday, December 26, 2003

The White House is missing
This is over a week old, but it’s too fun to pass over.
Call it the case of the missing White House. Users of Mapquest's free aerial photo database recently noticed that details of several Washington D.C. government buildings were no longer discernable in overhead images of the U.S. capital.

A comparison of old and new images posted on the government secrecy watchdog site Cryptome shows that portions of overhead color photos of the Capitol building and the grounds of the Naval Observatory, where the Vice President's residence is located, have been distorted -- pixilated into an digital blur.

The White House and the adjacent Old Executive Office Building and Treasury Department headquarters were subject to more subtle tampering: the buildings are still sharp, but the roofs have been digitally painted over with featureless solid colors seeming picked from the surrounding landscape. The lot at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue now resembles a White House-shaped dirt field more than the seat of executive power.

Kevin Poulsen of SecurityFocus followed the trail from Mapquest to EarthData International of Maryland, the company that processes the aerial photos under contract with the U.S. Geological Survey. According to the USGS, the digital airbrushing was done at the request of the Secret Service in exchange for permission to fly in restricted Washington, DC airspace. “Analyst John Pescatore, a former Secret Service agent, says the image distortions could be a response to real, if unlikely, attack scenarios: like a homemade drone aircraft armed with explosives, remotely piloted by a terrorist using aerial photographs as a navigation aid.”

There is a great comedy routine in this. There are hundreds—probably thousands—of good road maps, street maps, satellite photos, and aerial photos of Washington, DC available to tourists and terrorists. Many of these views are available from the DC department of tourism and the White House itself. Picture a wild-eyed terrorist having just launched a remote control, balsa-wood V1 armed with a generic Iraqi WMD. He’s hunched over the controls staring at the flickering image broadcast from the V1’s nose camera. His regularly dart to the MapQuest photos at his side. Photos that are necessary for this mission. Photos that he has not even casually glanced at before this moment. The V1 follows the street grid as he counts down the addresses to his target, “1900 Pennsylvania Avenue, 1800, 1700, big cow pasture, 1500… What wizardry is this?!!”

I know there is something to be said for not making a potential terrorist’s job too easy, but surely there are more effective uses of the Secret Service’s time than this.
How to end terrorism
It’s Christmas and, infused as I am with the spirit of good will and giving, I’m going to give the Bush administration the secret to getting reelected. I’m going to tell them how to end terrorism by the end of the summer.

It’s probably no surprise to you, dear readers, when I tell you that the administration has gone about its War on Terror all wrong. From day one they have been charging 180 degrees in the wrong direction. And unnecessarily so. There is a tactic that they have consistently misapplied in the War on Terror. It is a tactic that is well tested, effective, inexpensive, and philosophically consistent with the values demonstrated by the administration. Redefine terror out of existence.

This is hardly a new technique. Governments and administrations of all stripes have massaged statistics almost as long as statistics have existed. Look at unemployment. The government doesn’t even try to count the actual unemployed. They count those who apply for Unemployment Insurance. They count them only as long as they qualify for the program. They do not count those who don’t seek out the program. They do not count those who don’t qualify for the program. Even then, they calculate adjustments for a long list of categories that might qualify to collect Unemployment Insurance but aren’t counted into the officially announced statistics. Every administration tinkers with the numbers. It goes without saying that almost all adjustments reduce the number of unemployed.

I’ve been unemployed about two dozen times in my life. Most of those times I was carried over to the next job on savings or by freeloading off my sisters. Only during one of those times did I file for unemployment. So, I was only part of the statistics that one time. Had I remained unemployed three weeks longer, I would have disappeared off the other end and ceased to be counted, even though I would still have been unemployed.

Other statistics are similarly adjusted in the name of making the party in power look more effective and responsive to peoples needs than it really is. The technique is simple, change the definition of a problem to reduce the scope of that problem. Just Tuesday The Wall Street Journal reported an incident of this (quoted in the American Prospect online):
The Bush administration released a pair of much-awaited reports on the quality of American health care, after extensive revisions that made the findings more upbeat than some experts thought justified.
Some outside health-care advocates suggested that the two studies were toned down and delayed until after the Medicare overhaul and prescription-drug bill passed Congress for fear Democrats might seize on the reports to press for greater funding for quality initiatives, possibly complicating Republican efforts to pass the bill.

Last August, just as everybody was leaving for the Labor Day weekend, the Bush Environmental Protection Agency (who really shouldn’t even be allowed to use that name) announced that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. Voila, in one shot they reduced the amount of pollution produced by the United States by an order of magnitude. In that same spirit the administration and its supporters have redefined logging as fire prevention, affirmative action as racism, and gay rights as religious persecution.

Obviously, the current administration understands the technique and has no qualms about using it. But for some reason they blow it when they get to terrorism. Instead, they keep expanding the definition of terrorism.

To be fair, they didn’t start this. Sometime around 1990, the FBI began investigating Earth First as a terrorist organization. About this time logging industry public relations people and Wise Use property rights activists began using the term “eco-terrorist” to describe any crime in the name of the environment, whether it be tree-spiking, moving survey stakes, arson, pie-throwing, tire-slashing, or graffiti. The mainstream media indiscriminately accepted the term and have used it ever since. Needless to say, if the Clinton administration was merely unwilling to object to the term, the present administration has enthusiastically continued its use.

Last March, a Republican Oregon State Senator, upset at anti-war protesters in Portland, introduced a bill in the legislature that would have made blocking traffic a crime punishable by life in prison. Section one of John Minnis’ proposal (Senate Bill 742) stated:
A person commits the crime of terrorism if the person knowingly plans, participates in or carries out any act that is intended, by at least one of its participants, to disrupt: (a) The free and orderly assembly of the inhabitants of the State of Oregon; (b) Commerce or the transportation systems of the State of Oregon; or (c) The educational or governmental institutions of the State of Oregon or its inhabitants.

In August, John Ashcroft took to the road to push the “Victory Act.” This Orwellian named gem contained significant parts of the wish list of expanded powers that had earlier been leaked as “Patriot Act II.” Among other things, the Victory Act would have elevated a whole raft to drug crimes (including possession) to the level of terrorism. They even created a catchy name for these crimes: narcoterrorism.

At this point, it seem the goal of the Right is to reclassify everything they disapprove of as terrorism (unless you’re an Ann Coulter reader, then you’d rather call all nasty things treason). This reminds me of a Mad magazine gag from the sixties where they proposed simplifying the courts by having one penalty for all crimes: assault and battery—ten years at hard labor, littering—ten years at hard labor, burning down the orphanage—ten years at hard labor, spitting on the sidewalk—ten years at hard labor. Only now if you monkeywrench a bulldozer, you’re an eco-terrorist; if you score some pot for your mom’s glaucoma, you’re a narcoterrorist; if you protest against a Ten Commandments monument at the courthouse, you’re a secularoterrorist; and if you call John Ashcroft an idiot, you’re objectively pro-terrorist.

This trend is not only dangerous, insulting, and un-American, it’s counter productive. How can Bush go before the American people and claim we’re winning the War on Terrorism if, by their own policies, there is more and more terror every day? They’ve tried out the line that more terrorism means we’re winning, but that line of argument doesn’t seem to be that effective. They need a big chart with a jagged line headed down towards zero and victory.

They can only get that result two ways. One is by actually ridding the world of terrorism. That’s just not possible. Aside from the obvious fact that the world will always have angry and alienated young people ready to die for a cause, we’ve been on the loosing side of a technological race ever since the introduction of gunpowder (appropriately enough during the crusades). Prior to that, killing was a personal business where the skilled guys with swords always beat an equal number of unskilled guys with sharp sticks. Gunpowder made it possible for a small number of people, with limited skills (light fuse, run), to inflict large casualties on the authorities. On 9/11, those 19 young men killed approximately 150 times their own number.

The other way is to just define terror out of existence. Sure, a couple people at the Justice Department seem to understand that. They do their best to keep the numbers down by charging white guys who try bomb Planned Parenthood clinics only with weapons violations. But that’s not enough. The whole administration needs to get behind this. Monkeywrenching needs to go back to being vandalism. Drug smuggling needs to go back to being a controlled substances violation. At each step, the administration pulls out the chart, points out the drop in terror crimes, and, with a straight face, credits their policies and moral clarity for the drop.

I'm offering this advice in the spirit of goodwill and too much eggnog. This is a sure-fire plan to beat terrorism. That is, if you really want to beat terrorism. If you have some reason to want to keep the public in a state of anxiety and emergency... well, I won't speculate. That would just be giving aid and comfort to our enemies.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Not the worst idea I've heard
Svein Olav Nyberg, a correspondant of Ken Macleod's, seems to have a worthy suggestion to cosider on dealing with spam:

Beating spammers to death with baseball bats is a terrible idea. But beating them to death with v.i.a.g.r.a. bottles and pe.nis exten.sors may not be.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Time to take the pledge
Kos has established a policy for the rest of the primary season that I think we all should adopt (if we aren't already doing so):
It is clear that our nominee will be either Dean or Clark. No one else has a shot. Therefore, I will not criticize or point to criticism of either of those two candidates. Each one of those guys has his plusses and his cons, and each one of them can beat Bush. That's all that matters.

I sincerely suggest you footsoldiers in the Dean vs. Clark flamewars start reconsidering your tactics. Stick to being positive about your guys. Don't gleefully point to every anti-Dean or anti-Clark smear coming from a wingnut or mediawhore. You are doing their bidding.

We are all on the same team, and the time to "merge the tribes" is just a month or two away. We need to start coming together for the sake of the party and our country.

I've been pretty disgusted lately as Democrats do what they always do in times of pressure, that is pull the wagons into a circle and fire inward. It's not helpful to moan that our party is suicidal, weak-willed, or useless; we need to actively change our behavior. Nothing is more important to us, as a party, as Americans, and as inhabitants of this planet, than getting Bush out of office. The first step is--as in the Hippocratic oath--to do no harm. For us that means do not damage our eventual candidate (at this point it looks like that person will be Clark or Dean, but Kerry, Gephardt, Edwards, or Lieberman could still pull off an upset, so I'm saying don't hurt any of them). Do not tolerate flamers, even if you agree with them. Do not provide material for the Republicans to use against us later.

This should be obvious. If you can't say something nice about a Democrat, don't talk about Democrats. Save you're bile for the Busheviks and Ralph Nader.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Will this affect our grades?
CONYERS, Georgia (AP) -- The estranged husband of a high school Spanish teacher burst into her classroom during a final exam and tried to stab her in the chest before students tackled him and pinned him to the floor, authorities said.


"Me and a couple of other guys grabbed him and threw him to the ground and basically sat on him until the cops came," said [Nimesh] Patel, [17].
What the --
Kevin over at Calpundit has posted a disturbing quote from Glenn Reynolds. Kevin can't figure out what the hell he's getting at and neither can I.
The story linked above is right to heap scorn on Condi Rice's statement that the attacks were unimaginable before they happened. There was plenty of reason to imagine them before they happened. That in itself doesn't mean that they could have, or even should have, been prevented -- I can imagine a lot of things that I couldn't prevent -- but Rice's statement has always struck me as absurd to the point of being insulting.

Even as a semi-traitorous, Bush-hating liberal, I find the suggestion that there might have been some reason to let those nineteen terrorists fly four planes full of people into four buildings full of people (the fact that they missed one of the buildings is beside the point) to be completely outrageous. What on earth could he mean? Bush's reelection might be more difficult if he actually had to base it on his policies rather than a reflex rally around the leader response to threat? This blow was necessary to mobilize the American people into discarding the Bill of Rights? Do we have some kind of Ultra-like hotline into their communications that stopping the hijackings would have exposed? We needed this to lure fifth-columnist pacifists into the open?

The kindest explanation I can think of is that Reynolds has started inserting weasel phrases like "or even should have" into his prose as a matter of habit and this one just slipped by on autopilot. His mouth got ahead of his brain I hope something like that's true, because the other possibility is means he's finally slipped over the edge from merely annoying to dangerously unhinged.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Circular firing squad alert
Democrats now find themselves sniping at each other over Iraq rather than at the President…

This is from the BBC. If our inability to keep our eyes on the prize is this obvious to foreigners, we are doomed. Whatever respect I once had for Lieberman, Kerry, and Gephart (and I did have some) has completely flown out the door this last week.
Man at work
I’m tinkering with my template and trying out a few new features. When I figure out all the details, I’ll take the whole thing down and replace it. Meanwhile, since I only have one browser to test on, I’ll need visitors to tell me whether anything doesn’t work, disappears, or just looks crappy. Thanks.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

We got him
Saddam was peacefully captured. He’s in custody. The Iraqis, who never quite believed he wouldn’t come back, will sleep better tonight. From the sounds of things, it was a thoroughly professional operation on the part of the US military (despite the dumb name: Operation Red Dawn?). All in all, a good thing.

And yet, it seems oddly anticlimactic. My own feeling is along the lines of, “that’s nice, but what next?” I’m glad the bastard is out of circulation, but I was already thinking of him in the past tense. I’m more concerned about what this means for the future. Here are some of the first questions that I thought of this morning:

What does this mean for the resistance? At one time, the official line was that the resistance was a centrally controlled, werewolf-like operation by Ba’athist bitter-enders. If we could just decapitate the movement it would collapse over night. Then we went to the thousands of foreign terrorists theory. Now we’re back to the Ba’athist bitter-enders theory. In his official announcement, Bush warned Baathist holdouts largely responsible for the current violence, [that] there will be no return to the corrupt power and privilege they once held.” Later he backed away from the decapitation theory by saying, “The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq.” Personally I never believed the resistance was centrally coordinated by anyone, let alone Saddam. I’m of the opinion that a lot of groups are attacking us for a lot of different reasons. Some of them were probably pining for a Saddam restoration. Whether his capture discourages them or angers them should be apparent in the next couple days. But I expect the rest of the violence to continue as before. Of course, if I’m wrong and it really was al the work of Saddam directed Ba’athist bitter-enders that too will be evident in a very short time.

Who gets to try him? The Iraqi Governing Council has already said he’s theirs. I have trouble believing the same guys who made up a new category of combatant to avoid observing international law, would let him out of their control. Although I personally prefer an international tribunal, I also can see how trying him at home would be a useful cathartic for the Iraqi people. Although, if the Bush administration is willing to recognize the legitimacy of the Governing Council in this case, they don’t have much ground denying them the authority to conduct a census or count their own dead. It will be interesting to see if the Governing Council decides that it is a government and gets more assertive after this.

What will this do to the election? My first thought when I saw the headline this morning was, “well, there’s an election stunt Rove can’t use next fall.” Today, Bush gets a bounce from this, but it will be gone by the time the primaries take our attention. Rove and the boys are going nuts today trying to figure out how to milk this for the most electoral value. Can they push the trial or at least the execution into next fall? How will the Democrats handle it? They have to approve of the good job the army did, approve of bring the bad man to justice, not give too much credit to the political leadership, and not look two-faced doing it. Lieberman is probably in the best position to pull it off honestly. If he does this right he could be back in the running. Dean has to be the most careful to say what must be said and not appear slippery. A risky but possibly profitable strategy might be for the Democrats to focus on pride in our military and aim a few slaps at the leaders who have cut their benefits and deprived them of the allies they need to continue their job. Actually, for both sides, there are a lot of ways for this to blow up in their faces.

What does Saddam know, what will he say, and what will we be allowed to hear? He has the potential to be very embarrassing to a lot of powerful people in a lot of countries. He might be evil, but he’s not stupid. He will negotiate for all he’s worth (literally). What kind of deal will he try for? What kind of deal will our leaders offer back? In the end, will we be able to believe anything he says?

What will Right Blogistan have to say about this? I suppose I could just go check, but what would be the point. It’s going to be ugly. First, the triumphalist gloating as if they personally were in on the collar. Next, the attempts to one up each other in bloodthirsty fantasies about what to do with him. Third, they turn on us. Naturally, since we’re all Saddam-loving traitors we must be heart broken. Have fun kids; actually, most of the Left pretty happy with this.

Who gets the movie rights? Let the bidding begin!

Update: One of my questions was answered even before I got to post this. My second thought after I read the headline this morning was, “whatever happened to all those Saddam look-alikes?” The army doctors took DNA and confirmed that we got the right Saddam before they made the announcement. Good move guys.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

Map nerds
I love maps. I have all of the National Geographic maps back to the late forties. I have a box full of gas station road maps even older. I have atlases going back to the 1880s. Whenever I shop for new history books, I check out the maps first. I even have a favorite textbook cartographer (Theodore R. Miller). Naturally, I love anything that promises a new way to view human spatial activities (a fancy way of saying geography). This week was a good week for this map nerd.

The online version of the Massachusetts magazine Commonwealth has a fascinating article by Robert David Sullivan, “Beyond Red and Blue.”
One of the most awful prospects of the next presidential election is the return of…that damn map. Depicting the results of the 2000 election, the reigning graphic of American politics divides the United States into two colors, red for Republican and blue for Democratic. It's also the basis of a lot of simplistic political analysis.
But this primary-color collage resonates only because it turns up the contrast. Given that more than 40 percent of voters in the blue states backed Bush and more than 40 percent of voters in the red states backed Gore, doesn't the red vs. blue model seem, well, a bit black-and-white?

Sullivan divides the country into ten regions based primarily on voting patters (from both state and federal elections), and only secondarily on cultural, economic, and geological considerations. Like a good top ten list, his map is more useful for stimulating discussion than for establishing a meaningful truth.

Anyone who looks at his map and reads the accompanying descriptions of the regions will immediately object that he has failed to understand the subtleties of their home turf (wherever that is). That, of course, is inescapable. Sullivan has rather arbitrarily chosen to divide the country into ten regions of approximately equal population. Before going into any of the detail of his map, the first point of discussion should be to question both of those assumptions: is ten the best number and is it a good idea to force the units to be the same size? (The answers are why not and no.)

As to the number of units, Sullivan points out that he needed to pick a number between two and infinity, so he picked ten. Fair enough. My problem is with insisting that they be the same size. In doing so, Sullivan has allowed himself more subtlety in dividing the more populous areas (including where he lives) and less subtlety in the less populous areas (including where I live). The Boston-Washington megalopolis is divided into three regions, while the rural West includes such diverse areas as California’s central valley, west Texas, and all of Alaska.

His biggest success is essentially one of historical perspective. Sullivan has given us a long needed update of Joel Garreau’s 1981 classic book The Nine Nations of North America. Sullivan is aware that the boundaries of his regions are constantly shifting. Units merge and split. Where Garreau had one unit covering most of the Old South, Sullivan has three. Where Garreau had one unit for the industrial Northeast, Sullivan recognizes the Post-industial Era and divides it into four regions. Sullivan at least attempts to consider Hawaii, while Garreau ignored it completely (not part of North America). On the other hand, Garreau did a better job with Alaska, attaching the southeastern panhandle to the west coast and the rest of the state to the resource producing intermountain West.

I’m lacking the prerequisite number of lubricated student friends to properly discuss this at the moment, so I need all of the rest of you to read the article and report back.

Since the seventies I’ve been watching Quebec. Every couple years, Canada has another Quebec crisis. Quebec threatens to secede and Canada weakens its federal system in response. In about 1978 (I’m working from memory here), Canada had another of these periodic crises and the CIA did some prognostication on the scenario of Quebec really seceding. Their thought was that if Quebec seceded, the Canadian parliament would be unable to work, due to lack of a quorum. Power and constitutional legitimacy would revert to the individual provinces, much as happened in the USSR thirteen years later. For a variety of reasons, the maritime provinces and British Columbia would petition to join the US. The rest of the Anglo provinces would reluctantly follow (Ontario coming last). The US would more than double its territory, quadruple its resources, and increase its population by a quarter. And this would all happen so fast, the rest of the world would be unable to muster a response before it was a fait accompli. When the report became public, the Canadians objected, and the CIA was ordered not to pursue the subject lest anyone suspect that we had helped things along.

Since I read that scenario a quarter century ago, I have often pondered it, especially during the regular Quebec crises. What if it is right? During the Cold War, when I lived in Alaska, my main concern was geopolitical, and I thought Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories needed to be united. After the end of the Cold War, my concerns were more social: would the new states be taken into the US constitutional and legal system on a take-it or-leave-it-basis, would they get a special status, or would they be able to spread some of their own values and institutions to the rest of the states?

Canada’s great paper Globe and Mail had an article Thursday that affected my internal discussion of our northern neighbor (or “the colossus in the South” as I referred to them in Alaska).
Americans from the northern states often have more values in common with their Canadian neighbours than they do with their cousins from southern states, according to a leading U.S. pollster.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, rejected assertions by many of his colleagues that Canada and the United States are on divergent paths leading to a widening values gap.

"When we look deeper into the data, we find the gap between Americans and Canadians is not a national gap, it's a regional one," Mr. Kohut told the Canadian Society of New York this week.

For at least thirty years now, every election, my liberal friends threaten to move to Canada if the other side wins. We never do. The Canadian economy is always awful and it never gets as bad here as we feared it would. Now the Canadian economy is looking pretty good and things are getting as bad as we expected. Some liberals are putting their money where their mouths are and moving.

What if we took our states with us? Though I once expected chunks of Canada to be absorbed into the US, it appears that it might make more sense for chunks of the US to be absorbed into Canada. It makes a weird sense. Seattle has a lot more in common with Vancouver that it does with Boise. Boston has more in common with Halifax that it does Charleston.

Although it is fun to draw the maps and play with the idea of some sort of boreal liberal Ecotopia, its actually a bad idea. Leaving aside the butt kicking that any US secessionist movement would get (Ecotopian, Neo-Confederate, Texan, Hawaiian, Californian, or Alaskan) it would be bad for the US and for the world to withdraw the balancing effect of a couple million liberals and moderates have on the worlds largest military power. Imagine president DeLay with a nuclear arsenal. There’s a thought that will keep any of us from sleeping again.

Both articles ask us to look at the nature of border communities. Ernst Hoenicker, the long-time leader of East Germany, in the last days of his state, made the statement that borders unite as much as they divide. He was struggling to save his job, but he had a point. Border peoples often have more in common with each other than they do with their respective hinterlands. State lines aren’t real borders, but lesson is still apt. The lines we have on our maps are there for certain purposes and for those purposes only.

Sometimes it’s a good exercise to throw the lines out and try some new ones. Look at the US divided into electric power grids, judicial circuits, or air defense regions. Draw new outside edges on your maps. Why should land be in the center of a map with water on the edges? Put a body of water in the center and look at land as edges. Turn the map sideways; why should North always be up? Be a map nerd for a day.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Not in the polls
Gallup has a new presidential approval poll . Bush's numbers are up a little, but there is no real dramatic change anywhere. In a question about the Baghdad trip, people liked it better than they did the aircraft carrier stunt. His war on terrorism numbers went up, his war on the economy numbers went down, and his war on Medicare numbers stayed the same. Gallup says, all in all, he is just about average for a third year president. So, nothing interesting here.

I noticed one trend that hasn't been much commented on. As Bush's numbers have bumped against fifty a few times this fall, the usual observation is to point out that he's back where he was before 9/11. That's not quite true. While his approval rating is back in the Q3 2001 range, his disapproval rating is much higher. On the November 14-16, 2003 poll he hit 50 percent, which just about matched the September 7-10, 2001 approval rating of 51 percent. But his disapproval number in 2001 was 39 percent with 10 percent undecided. His 2003 number was 47 percent with just 3 percent undecided. Essentially, all of the reduction in his undecideds has been toward the negative.

To be at fifty percent with a twelve point lead and to be at fifty percent with a four point lead is not the same thing. That doesn't mean we're winning yet, but it does mean he's vulnerable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Ken Macleod
I just found out that my favorite Scottish, Marxist, hard science fiction writer has a blog. For sometime I’ve wanted to write something about Ken Macleod’s Fall Revolution quartet.

I started reading the Fall Revolution just before the 2000 election and finished the fourth book soon after I was laid off the next year. Macleod’s books amounted to one pleasant surprise in eleven otherwise awful months. The Fall Revolution especially delighted me with its realistic portrayal of left wing politics and people. I’ve always been rather discouraged by the fact that most political content in science fiction (especially by American authors) is little more than right-wing, libertarian, adolescent male fanaticizing. A lot of our science fiction trades in a sort of pre-fascist mythology of superior men of action who make their own rules. This is true of most genre fiction, but the protagonists of mysteries and westerns rarely get to overthrow governments or commit genocide.

But, back to Macleod. The politics in the Fall Revolution are realistic and leftist (which, among other things, means lots of factional squabbling). At the time I read the books I enjoyed the freshness of his history of the early twenty-first century. Macleod breaks with cyberpunk traditions of describing the near future by focusing on culture, economics, and technology by seriously considering diplomacy and ideology. Most cyberpunk deals with power in terms of controlling information and investment. Corporations and innovators are the key players, not governments. Of course, this approach is really just a fusion of the traditional focus of science fiction on powerful men with some of the popular wisdoms of the information age and post Cold War world. Information is king. Ideology is dead. Corporations replace states as the foci of power and influence.

Macleod turns all this on its head. Sure, technological innovation continues and matters, corporations and big money are significant players, but ideology continues. The left, no longer defined by the big, red, Russian-speaking gorilla in the corner, flowers into a hundred new movements. The US, now the only superpower on the planet, throws its weight around becoming increasingly domineering. With more and more of its national effort concentrated on maintaining military might, the US economy withers the US crumbles—with a whimper. Pretty wild stuff. His take on a reflowering of ideology made sense to me. I had come to the same conclusion when I read The End of History. But the US running amok? Possible, I suppose, but not very probable. Yup. Sure glad that can’t happen.

I want to say more about this. Looking back on the last few weeks of my posts. I see I’ve said that about a half-dozen topics. I guess it’s time to pick up some of these threads and finish a thought or two, maybe even bring them together. Stay tuned…

Monday, December 08, 2003

Remembering the old country
In a post on the Nick Smith vanishing bribery case, Mark Kleiman brings up the possibility, mentioned by one of his correspondents, that offering bribes on the floor of Congress might be protected speech.

Smith, you will recall, claims that, in the waning hours of the all night vote on the Medicare bill, unnamed Republican Party and business interests “made offers of extensive financial campaign support and endorsements for my son Brad who is running for my seat." Smith’s chief-of-staff clarified “extensive financial campaign support” to mean $100,000. When Smith refused, the same unnamed interests promised to destroy Brad Smith’s political chances. Now that the Justice Department is looking into the allegation as an attempted bribe, Smith is backing off of the story.

So what’s this about protected speech? A reader of Kleiman’s asked whether the bribe attempt would be exempt from prosecution under the "speech and debate" clause because it happened in the House chamber. These are the laws that allow congresspersons to slander each other on the fllor of Congress without facing any legal repercussions. It seems unlikely to me that an overt felony could be protected, but another reader of Kleiman’s wrote in with some court precedents, where bad behavior on the floor was indeed deemed protected under the speech and debate laws (though none of these cases involved bribery).

I’m not sure what standing state cases would have for setting precedent in such a matter, but I do know of one such case. In 1981 Alaska State Sen. George Hohman, (D-Bethel) offered Rep. Russ Meekins, (D-Downtown Anchorage), a share of $30,000 for Meekins' support on the purchase of two firefighting aircraft. Meekins turned Hohman in. Hohman was tried, convicted, ejected from the Senate, and served a year in jail and ten years probation. Hohman was banned from holding state office for the duration of his probation, but his loving constituents elected him to the Bethel city council as soon as he got home. I left Alaska before Hohman finished his probation, so I’m not sure if he managed to stage a comeback to the Senate.

I miss Alaska politics. For entertainment value, they’re world class. Alaskan politics can stand proudly in the same ranks as Texas, California, and Albania.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

I’m so embarrassed
Looking over some of my referrals today, I see that I was hit number five for someone’s Google search of “Dr. Condoleezza Rice Fan Club.” I must be doing something wrong.
Plan B and plan C
And what if we lose?

I have been thinking the unthinkable for the last few days.

It began with the thought that the economy might actually improve enough, in spite of Bush’s policies, that people let him off the hook for the last few years’ misery. I’m not yet convinced that the recovery is here. A few weeks of good indicators are nice, but not enough for me to believe the hype. But what if things are getting better? The Bush machine will make the most possible out of even a slight recovery (they already are). Will enough people be convinced to push him into a legitimate term in the White House?

Then there is Iraq. The Administration’s plan for Iraq is painfully clear. Hold/stage some elections, install a government, and slowly withdraw a division or so of troops. They’re counting on the elections, installation, and parades for returning troops all providing an unbroken series of photo ops that will drive the truth of what a mess we’ve created in the Middle East off the front pages. It has a very good chance of working.

Finally, there is the Dean-McGovern analogy. This has been everywhere this week. If you’ve missed it, it goes like this: the Democrats are doomed to defeat because Dean’s ability to create enthusiasm makes him the inevitable candidate and he is too liberal to be elected. Two things bother me about this. One is the big lie. It makes no difference that Dean isn’t actually that liberal. This is politics; perception is more important than reality. The more this meme spreads; the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Dean can’t win becomes established as the popular wisdom, he will not be able to win. This is always the danger of a vigorously contested primary; our guys plant the messages that their guys use to beat our guy.

The other reason that the McGovern analogy bothers me is that it is a warning about a very real problem. In contested primaries there very often appears someone who electrifies voters and actively thousands of new faces in the electoral process. These people usually fade early in the primary, leaving the favorite of the old party insiders to take the nomination. But, every so often, one of them manages to overwhelm the system and get the nomination. The result is usually disaster for that party. The same characteristics that electrify political outsiders often scare the center (as well as annoy the professional insiders). Republicans fear another Goldwater or Wendell Wilkie, we fear another McGovern or William Jennings Bryant.

Although I like Dean and would be perfectly comfortable voting for him, I don’t have a feeling for how he would play on the big stage. Will he scare the center? Will it be because the center really feels that or because of a carefully placed meme? I just don’t have a feel for it yet.

But suppose we lose, either because of dumb luck on the Texas frat boy’s part, something his people did right, or because we had the wrong candidate. What is our plan B?

To be continued…

Monday, December 01, 2003

Updating the links
Lately I’ve been feeling a bit abandoned by some of my regular reads. Media Whores is on hiatus till the new year and Thomas Spenser at the History News Network (Thinking it Through) has decided to hang up blogging to pay some attention to his family and career. Fortunately, there are many worthy blogs out there and this has provided me with an excuse to browse around and freshen my blogroll. Take a look at the links on the side. Click on a few and read what the nice people have to say.