The Columbia Critic

A place to debate anything we want to. We'll talk Columbia campus issues. We'll talk up the homosexual problem. We'll talk China. And we'll talk without resorting to partisan rhetoric. We may be left. We may be right. But we aren't going to be quoting any party line. We're leading the discussion. But feel free to chime in. Hannity and Colmes this is not.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

2008 Election Pool

Given that there is some sort of election today, I thought it would be appropriate to have an Election Pool. I originally thought of saying that everyone should put in a dollar, but then I remembered that we are all cheapskates, so this Pool is free to participate. Just provide answers for the following questions, e-mail them to me at I’ll announce the winner tomorrow or whenever we know all the answers. The winner will enjoy a few pats on the back if the losers are feeling magnanimous.

Presidential Questions

1) Who will win Ohio? -

2) Who will win Georgia? -

3) Who will win North Carolina? -

4) What will the percentages be for both candidates in Florida?

5) What percentage of the vote will Obama get in California?

6) What percentage of the vote will McCain get in Arizona?

7) What will the final Electoral College totals be for both candidates?

Congressional Questions

1) How many seats in the House will Democrats pick up?

2) Will Democrats reach 60 seats in the Senate?

3) Who will win in Minnesota, Senator Norm Coleman (R) or Al Franken (D)?

4) Who will win in Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu (D) or John Kennedy (R)?

5) In 2006, Tim Mahoney replaced Mark Foley (he of the congressional page scandal) in Florida District 16. Now, Tim Mahoney has been revealed to have had several mistresses, and is expected to lose. What percentage of the vote will he receive?


1) At what time and on what day will the Associated Press first declare a winner of the election?

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Notes from the RNC

I'm watching the RNC right now and writing down some notes that come to mind...

-Why is Fred Thompson so orange?
-What's going on with this random guy screaming "Yeaaaaa yeaaaa yeaaa!" every few seconds, he's kind of obnoxious, you can hear him over the speaker at the podium.
-Everyone keeps chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"... I just don't get it.
-There are a lot of people there dressed like Tucker Carlson.
-Lieberman? Why hasn't he been kicked out of the Democratic Party yet?
-"Country First"... are they saying Obama doesn't put country first? What's first, ego? Isn't that the insinuation? What happened to running a respectful campaign.
-Wow. Did they just applaud Bill Clinton? WTF?
-I can't believe Lieberman just said that Obama voted against equipping troops in the field. That's such a ridiculous distortion of the truth. What a backstabber. So much for helping him "reach to the stars".
-"yes we will"? Can't they come up with their own original chant...
-That's a big flag they have on screen... and on everyone's lapel. Patriotism isn't about how many pieces of flair you have or how big your flag is. I most people in that room realize one day that Republican policies are not in their best interest.

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Black Swans

In this NYT editorial, Prof. Nassim Taleb gives his account of Black Swan theory as it relates to the events of September 11th. For a more in depth discussion, I highly recommend Dr Taleb's book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. 

In essence, "black swans" are statistical outliers that, as a result of human predictive and computational limitations, are viewed as random or unthinkable events. To that effect incidents like 9/11 can, when treated epistemologically, rightly be considered as random events due to the critical lack of information of any prognostic value available prior to their occurrence. Certainly, with the correct information, such events could be predicted with relative ease, just as a storm might be predicted if one has knowledge of changes in barometric pressure over time. However, given the near infinitude of variables with which we must cope on a daily basis, predicting every possible event, even those resulting from potentially calculable human actions, is simply impractical. Indeed one could argue that, given the highly entropic nature of the human brain, such deliberative acts are even more difficult to predict on a global scale with any degree of certainty.

Nontheless, we as cognitive, rational actors attempt to do just this in an effort to make sense of the world around us. As such, from our limited purview we wind up classifying the great majority of possibile events that have yet to occur as improbable, thereby invoking a sense of randomness. This is particularly true for abstract events for which we lack the necessary information to predict. But, in reality, the occurrence of such events are no more random than any other event. They are simply perceived as such. As Taleb asserts, "almost all consequential events in history come from the unexpected." It is in hindsight that these events are generally "explained," through the lenses of history, science, philosophy, and the like. Randomness is, in effect, a matter of perspective.

Given that "black swans" are, by their very nature, unpredictable events, Taleb argues that U.S. national security efforts should focus on general protective measures rather than specific measures aimed at preventing events that have already occurred (such as planes crashing into a building). What general protective measures might be broadly applicable accross the spectrum of both the possible and predictable and the as of yet unconceived threats? Does the shift from protection towards resiliency add to or detract from these generalized defenses?

In light of the overwhelming amount of data with which we are constantly bombarded, what can we as a nation do to make better sense of it and to make better use of the intellectual resources availed to us in our efforts to more accurately predict future events, and so-called "black swans" in particular?

Much has been made, in recent years, of prediction markets like the Iowa Electronics Market and DARPAs Policy Analysis Market as means to more efficiently and more accurately predict future events. These speculative markets incentivize accurate predictions and form what might be considered the human analyst's version of distributed computing. Might not tools such as this be useful in predicting "black swans?" 

Monday, December 17, 2007

Deja vu all over again ...

MOSCOW (AP) - President Vladimir Putin told a party congress Monday that he would accept the prime minister's post if his longtime protege is elected president, guaranteeing Putin an ongoing heavyweight political role in Russia.

Couldn't help but think of this old column I wrote in '04 after reading about how Putin has installed himself to keep pulling strings, even more directly than Jiang Zemin did after he stepped down as the president of China

The Greatest Catch of Them All
By Brian Wagner

Created 09/21/2004 - 2:00am

Every autocratic leader believes his cause to be righteous, his
actions just, and his ideology greater than any force that can
block his path. We assume that in a democracy there is no room for
autocrats. But as President Vladimir Putin has continually shown in
Russia, when those in power do not respect the notion that power
rests in the people, but instead place full faith in their own
capacities, a democracy can become just as illiberal as a
dictatorship. Putin wins every argument about his leadership style
by stating that his actions are for “the good of the
state,” a blanket concept that is the greatest Catch-22 of

Strong executives like Putin, who must deal with neither
balancing branches of government nor a powerful middle class, face
few obstacles to exerting power. It is important to understand the
mind-set of men like Putin, or in much more extreme cases, Stalin,
Mao, and Hitler. Fervent believers not in a system but in an
ideology, they live in a world created within their minds, where
“the good of the state” means not “the good of
the people,” but the degree to which the autocrat’s
conception of the state is being fulfilled.

Welcome to the deadly world of egocentrism, population one,
where even as autocrats destroy their country and kill their
people, they believe that they are serving the good of the state.
Thus, as Mao Zedong was pursuing agricultural reform that starved
30 million people in 1958-1960, he never questioned the
righteousness of his leadership, because he was convinced that only
he knew what was best for China.

As an old woman in Joseph Heller’s novel said,
“Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we
can’t stop them from doing.” In a country with a single
strong leader, Catch-22 is the be all and end all. Everything the
autocratic leader does is for the good of the state, and the good
of the state is served by every action performed by the leader. It
is a self-sustaining catch, as it helps leaders avoid the odious
task of questioning their actions or suffering from a moment of

“Pour l’utilité de la
démocratie,” wrote the 18th century philosopher Baron
de Montesquieu to justify the partial suppression of equality in a
democracy. Machiavelli argued that all monarchies and republics
would have to resort to crime to survive, but such actions were
justifiable because they were for the good of the state. Plato
referred to the right of rulers to lie in order to serve the good
of the state.

Every government in the world has at one time or another
suppressed the actions and freedoms of its citizens in isolated
incidents to achieve what it perceived to be good for the state.
That is why nearly 50 percent of the world’s 119 democracies
have been found to be pursuing policies that are classified as
illiberal, meaning that they don’t respect basic liberal
values such as freedom of speech, assembly, press, and

Yet few of those offending democracies have strayed as close to
autocracy as Russia has under Putin. Anointed by outgoing president
Boris Yeltsin in 1999, he has never actually had to deal with the
will of the people. In order to facilitate his efforts to serve the
good of the state, he has ordered the Russian media gagged, big
business oligarchs hobbled, political parties outside of
Kremlin-friendly United Russia discouraged, and potential
candidates for office harassed at every turn.

Russia’s fledgling democracy, as I have written in the
past, is collapsing under the weight of Putin’s
quasi-dictatorship. He cannot be challenged from within, because he
has successfully built up a system that is justified merely by its
goal of serving the good of the state.

His complete disconnect from logic and reality is evidenced in
his reaction to the recent Beslan school hostage crisis in North
Ossetia, where 330 adults and children were killed during a
standoff between Chechen separatists and Russian troops. Under the
guise of securing the country against terrorism, Putin announced a
further centralization of powers under himself. Russians will no
longer elect their regional governors; independent candidates can
no longer run for seats in the State Duma, the national assembly;
and more money has been shunted to military and security services
without any concrete plans on how such expenditures will be used to
prevent future terrorist attacks. Yeltsin, who oversaw
Russia’s transition to democracy, spoke out on Friday to the
Moscow News, criticizing Putin’s actions: “We should
not allow ourselves to step away from the letter—or the
spirit—of a constitution that the country adopted in a
national referendum in 1993. ... The strangling of freedoms, the
rollback of democratic rights—this can only mean that the
terrorists won,” he wrote.

Putin is making the most of Catch-22 in Russia today, committing
gross injustices against the nation’s democratic institutions
with little justification beyond invoking the good of the state.
The international community, led by the U.S., must act decisively
to awaken Putin, and other leaders of illiberal democracies, to the
reality that the true utilité de la démocratie can
only be achieved when government serves and is answerable to the
people. Otherwise, Russia will remain:

One nation/ Under Putin/ Illiberal/ With Liberty and Justice/
For None.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Even the Democrats Don't Get It

There is a reason why my voter registration card lists me as an 'independent' and not a 'Democrat'. Most of the time, I would associate myself with the Democrats, I would consider myself socially progressive, I would say that I'm a liberal, but... there are times when I listen to the Democrats and I wonder how they just don't get the issue at hand.

I'm watching the CNN debate and they were discussing what the future President of the United States should do about trade with China given that there has been an uproar about unsafe products coming out of China. Everyone is talking about enforcing the WTO law and shut off trade with China, they are talking about how bad China is this, and how bad China is that, is that the real heart of the issue? I think they are missing it.

At my workplace, we make consumer electronics. No they aren't immediately threatening products like a medical device, but they still need to be safe. The products need to be lead-free, they need to not explode in your hand, in short, we test them extensively to make sure they don't hurt people. At the same time, we manufacture things in China, like everyone knows, manufacturing at places like Foxconn just makes financial sense, they do it fast and they do it well. If something went wrong, the attention I think is on us, not on China. It is our responsibility to make sure that everything is defined to a T. This includes giving them materials so that we know the resistors and capacitors are in fact Pb Free/RoHS compliant, that the paint we use has no lead in it, it is our job to make sure that things are so explicitly defined that no shortcuts can be taken. It is ridiculous in my opinion to not do these things and then turn around and plead ignorance when something bad happens.

There were very few people on the debate stage that identified the problem, that we should be checking what China exports to us. But they are going about this incorrectly, they want to set up a foreign FDA/watchdog type arm of the US government to inspect exports. Why? This is a complete waste of money. This is one of those things that is very Republican in a way (although I haven't heard any of the Republican candidates even bring this up), we live in a capitalist system, we keep preaching how market forces drive things; market forces should drive safety.

It should be up to each individual company to define everything that goes into the product, to test a sample of the products before they are exported and sold into the American marketplace. I find myself in disbelief when we are blaming China for what happened. Even Mattel apologized to the Chinese government and Chinese people about the lead in the paint ordeal. It's not for the most part, China's fault. If Mattel didn't define what goes in the paint, if they aren't testing the products for lead, if they aren't the first line of defense, they should be held criminally liable. We don't need a government organization to check this kind of stuff, there is no way that a government organization can have the expertise to know exactly what safety concerns they should be looking for. It needs to be up to the experts, it needs to be up to the corporation designing the goods. What's so hard about this? We need to stop being so afraid of holding American corporations liable and scapegoating China. We manufacture in China because it's cheap, and we should understand that you get what you pay for. If you as a company find that it is no longer financially beneficial to build in China because of all the safeguards you need to implement, don't build there!

Let's stop blaming China for things that we should be responsible for. Now alternatively, if we do everything we can to be explicit about how they are to manufacture things, how to be safe, and things still go wrong, then and only then should we be making a public issue about it. Then and only then should we be going after Chinese manufacturing. We need to start being really on the ball about this issue, it is inevitable in my opinion that as profits begin to grow in China, Chinese business owners are going to start realizing that cutting corners can mean more money in the pocket. That's what we need to be watching out for, but first and foremost we should be doing our due diligence and making sure we take all the precautions necessary. As you can read in the news, due diligence is what has been lacking in almost every one of these public scandals.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Diplomats upset at being sent to Iraq

I thought this an interesting state of affairs:

Diplomats angry over forced posts in Baghdad
"At a rare, contentious meeting, foreign service officers told senior State
Department officials that the move to fill vacancies in Baghdad puts them in
danger, jeopardizes the well-being of their families, and could deplete the
ranks of those willing to serve overseas at a critical time."

A great many people, from congressmembers to DoD leadership, have long been insisting that success in Iraq can only arise out of a political solution, and not a military one. That the military is there to provide stability so that a political solution can be had. Now, while thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines continue to serve multiple tours in Iraq and face danger every day, the members of the foreign service - literally the tip of the spear in diplomatic terms, on whom the responsibility for working towards a political solution rests - are angry that they too might be required to go to Iraq. Who else do they think is going to perform their diplomatic duties? It certainly isn't the military's job. At least it isn't supposed to be, despite the fact that the military has frequently acting in such a capacity in many ways since the occupation began.

Now Gen. Sir John Hackett has noted that military servicemembers are unique in the realm of occupations in that they accept what he calls ‘the contract of unlimited liability.’
"A soldier gives up some individual rights (such as the right to withdraw his
labour), accepts collective standards which contribute to the common good, and
undertakes, in the last analysis, to kill or be killed for a purpose in which he
may have no personal interest."

Even in dangerous civilian occupations, such as Police and Firefighting, an employee has the right to quit if he or she does not wish to serve any longer. A soldier does not have that right, and their obligation under oath to serve extends to any situation to which the government, and by extension the public, wishes to deploy them. Such an obligation is crucial to enabling the military to function under even the most dire of circumstances.

The State Department cannot force its employees to deploy. And this may be the problem.
It is yet more evidence of the need for a more robust multifaceted force with obligated deployable diplomatic assets. Or, at the very least a dedicated quickly deployable corps of "Diplomatic Special Forces" at State, with capabilities great enough to coordinate an effort in a country the size of Iraq or Afghanistan or continent-wide as in Africa. The status quo at the State department just doesn't work in the contemporary operating environment.

Monday, October 01, 2007

alumni to alumni

Dear xxxxx,

Although I think the decision to invite Ahmadinejad was wrong, I think Caroline Glick's article is fundamentally flawed. I think it is clear that Columbia itself is not anti-Semitic, Bollinger is not, and providing a platform for Ahmadinejad to speak does not constitute a legitimization of holocaust denial. It bothers me that Columbia is presented as synonymous with a terrorist and a dictator, merely by extension of an invitation; it may have been selfish, hurtful, and ill-timed that Bollinger wanted to confront one of the more prominent dictators face to face, but I fail to see how Columbia now represents "depravity by renouncing the intrinsic sanctity of human life".

Glick's article was written as if she did not know what the content of the speech was, as if it was still weeks ago, transcripts unavailable, videos of the speech not at her fingertips. Whether or not the University should have invited Ahmadinejad is a separate issue, but Bollinger took the President to task, directly criticizing the Iranian president's claims that the Holocaust was a fabrication, that Israel should be wiped off the map, etc. In light of the controversy, Columbia, its president, and its students intellectually mauled the speaker, co-workers have been approaching me all week saying "Wow. Your school's president wiped the floor with Ahmadinejad". Bollinger was absolutely correct that Ahmadinejad looked absolutely foolish, in every question posed to him at the end of the speech the answer was nothing short of ridiculous, the logic nothing short of profoundly flawed. I think Iranians will be hard pressed to re-elect a man whose government already failed to be re-elected, and who shows such intellectual contempt. We heard Ahmadinejad claim that the Holocaust is like medieval scientific belief, that more research needs to be done, what was true then may not be true now; to anyone even remotely intelligent, this makes no sense and he was rightfully chided for such a poor answer, he should have been challenged to say "your election victory is history, does it need to be re-examined for historical accuracy, could you perhaps NOT be the President of Iran?, what is true then is not true now?". We heard him claim that homosexuals do not exist in Iran, another ridiculous claim that those in Iran will also know to be a lie, it wasn't too long ago that two homosexuals were put to death; homosexual relationships are explicitly enumerated in Iranian law to be punishable by death (these laws don't exist if they don't ever happen).

I agree with you, he should have never come to the University, but I strongly disagree that his being allowed to speak is even remotely an acknowledgment of his fanatical beliefs. Glick says that Columbia's forum made genocide a legitimate subject of debate, again, during the speech, Bollinger, the head of SIPA, and student questions made it explicitly clear that even the mere question of the historical accuracy of the Holocaust was dubious. An invitation is not an endorsement or a legitimizing factor. Was the invitation putting Jewish lives on the table and under debate, I don't think so, but not being Jewish perhaps I lack the capacity to see that that is not the case. Saying that the school believes that genocide is a reasonable subject for debate seems to me to be a spurious claim that is not even a logical conclusion one could make.

Glick's main criticisms of the University lie not in the shortcomings of the University, but in the same enumerated list that you and I have stated in our own emails to Bollinger, the shortcomings and idiocy of the Iranian president. Glick's article in turn reads like your average FOX News broadcast, that Columbia actively teaches a far-left political worldview and is actively engaged in stifling conservative ideology and Zionist beliefs. As a Columbia graduate who attended the school during a lot of major media firestorms, I can only help but feel that Glick is out of touch from the University, that her call to dissociate from the University are based on a selective representation of events on campus, a flawed belief that Columbia now represents anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

In my time at Columbia, we have seen speakers ranging from John McCain, David Horowitz (who I would say is rather far to the right), John Ashcroft, Alan Dershowitz, Benjamin Netanyahu, Norman Finkelstein, and Hilary Clinton. The reality is that Columbia is not anti-Semitic, it has a vibrant Jewish community and Hillel, and is if anything vocally Zionist and slowly becoming increasingly conservative. To be honest, while trying to recall speakers that had come to Columbia during the time I was there, there are few prominent/controversial "liberals" other than Finkelstein that immediately come to mind. The majority of speakers are great men and women who have been positive catalysts for change in their field, be they progressive heads of historically repressed states, Nobel Prize winners, or great artists. The claim that Columbia somehow is closed off to conservative speakers, at least in my opinion, is ridiculous. It was only a few months ago that Tamar Jacoby spoke to the journalism school. Ideas like that are perpetuated by those on the outside of the school; because Columbia has not invited a Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, or Ann Coulter, is not an indication of an aversion to conservative voices.

The media's negative portrayal of Columbia is largely a product of... the media. I can't even describe the overwhelming number of students, professors, alumni who scratched their heads when Columbia was deemed to be rampantly anti-Semitic based on a documentary created by a pro-Israel corporation, largely hearsay and unsubstantiated accusations against professors, and anti-Zionist lecture material and academic publications by a few MEALAC professors. The MEALAC controversy was fueled by papers like the NY Sun, the poor grievance policy and subsequent composition of the investigative committee, poor decision making on the Professor's part and Zionist campus sentiment. What was not heavily publicized was the sentiment expressed by a large number of... for ex. Professor Massad's Israeli and Jewish American students that they found him to be an extremely engaging, thought provoking, and excellent professor. Nor were Massad's reactions, clarifications, and the opinions of other Columbia professors like J-School Dean, Ari Goldman presented with the same fervor. It should be clear that anti-Semitism is not the same as anti-Zionism, one is pure racism, the other is cultural and historical disagreement. The same goes for Ahmadinejad's invitation; an invitation is not the same as an acknowledgment or agreement of beliefs. Was the invitation unnecessary, not sound judgment in exercising free speech, and largely insensitive to military veterans and the Jewish population? Sure, there is very little disagreement. I have to strongly disagree with the Columbia name being further tarred and feathered and being made synonymous with the name of a dictator.


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Thursday, August 16, 2007

What have we become?

Have you ever read something so disturbing, so troubling, that it made you sick? As I neared the end of Sean Flynn of GQ's article about Army Major Tom Fleener and Lt. Commander William Kuebler, my arms and legs still aching from a debilitating workout the day before, my stomach started to turn over on itself.

Flynn was writing about Guantanamo. The focus was not torture, terrorists, or abuses; it was about the circumvention of law and the policy changes that have molded the current day United States into the antithesis of what the country was founded upon. I know, lofty.

President Bush and his proponents have always been right, 9/11 changed our world; it was not however, towers collapsing that changed things, it was the direction our nation was steered towards as a response. Our world is changed. Instead of a country based on principles of freedom, freedom that we are trying to export to the rest of the world, we are a country guided by Machiavellian/Bill Parcels accountability. It's not how you do it, it's simply that you do it and you get the results you wanted. This should come as a surprise; as a nation we are socially at odds with that concept. I want to re-iterate, by "as a nation", as I am referring to a nation of Democrats, Republicans, Independents, etc. perhaps it should resonate even deeper with those that consider themselves Republicans. How you do it is always a fundamental concern; the practices of Enron were largely criticized as it ruined thousands of people at the expense of the few, the lip synching of Milli Vanilli signaled their fall from grace, we extol the virtues during every presidential election of the self-made man who climbed the social ranks out of poverty, and you better be ready to defend yourself if you get caught with a sleeve full of cards at a poker table. In short, we hate cheaters. In the opinions of Major Fleener and Lt. Commander Kuebler, that's just what the government and military have transformed us into, cheaters. We are not upholding the spirit or the principles upon which our laws were created and that they exist to defend. There should be a real debate over what is more important, a hypothetical protection of ethics and morals or an at-any-cost defense of our soil against any perceived threat, real, unsubstantiated, or fictitious. I think while pragmatics would steer you towards the latter if there actually was a real immediate threat, but if the former is not what we are embracing, our war on terror/expansion of freedom is a nothing more than a sham. Without principles, what exactly are we defending?

In the interest of fighting a "war on terror", the rule of law has been thrown out the window. You can argue to no end that those in Guantanamo are real live terrorists and hundreds of crisis was averted by their detention. The reality of the situation is that we have subverted the presumption of innocence, denied habeas corpus, and made no attempt to uphold the "prevention of ex post facto application of criminal laws". Flynn points to the updating of the Military Commissions Act (MCA) of 2006, "It was an astonishingly radical law. For one, it gave the president the authority to declare anyone, captured anywhere, an enemy combatant who can be jailed indefinitely and without charge, precisely the sort of power against which the colonists fought the revolution." Precisely what the colonists fought against, that should mean something to all of us that wave the American flag and put a yellow ribbon on the back of our cars, it really should. What makes and has made our nation great is not our symbolism, but protection of the basic tenets of our democracy. Fear and fear mongering has changed the meaning of 'protection' from building on principles laid out in the Constitution and Bill of Rights to a very real policy of detain, torture, or kill anyone who supposedly threatens our nation. That alone should give us pause.

We should think hard, if it were an American that was suspected of terrorism by a foreign entity and jailed indefinitely without due process, habeas corpus, knowledge of the evidence being presented against him, the presumption of innocence, and all other aspects of the American justice system, would we find that acceptable?

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Have they not seen the movie? Oy vey.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Media Restraint?

Brian Ross and Richard Esposito of CBS News' "The Blotter" have reported that President George W. Bush authorized the CIA to engage in non-lethal destabilizing efforts within the Iranian government. They report that the plan involves "a coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions".

Although I have always defended the media as having a Constitutional duty to serve as a checks and balances system against the government, this one made me raise my brow. When it was revealed that the Bush administration had actively engaged in the use of warrantless wiring tapping of our communication systems, I was glad that someone within the government blew the whistle. Someone thought, hey, this is wrong, and the media told us about it.

In 1991, current Deputy National Security Advisor, Elliott Abrams, pleaded guilty to witholding information in regards to the Reagan administration's destabilization efforts during Iran-Contra within the Nicaraguan Sandinista government. Again, giving weapons to the Contras, who were known drug traffickers, for hostages, was a bad idea. (It's kind of funny in a way, that National Security Adviser, Robert McFarlane got Reagan's approval while Reagan was in a hospital bed recovering from cancer surgery, in the same way that Alberto Gonzalez went to John Ashcroft's hospital bed to ask him to override the Justice Department and reauthorize the domestic wiretapping program).

However, this story about modern day Iran feels different. Let us pretend for a minute that Iran was oblivious to America's meddling. America is now a lot more unsafe now that the "covert action" has been caught with its pants down. Let's be honest, Iranian President Ahmednejad is not someone who has been entirely consistent and who even the most far-left "liberal" would not trust. One day he is claiming he is developing a nuclear program ONLY for energy, the next day he is making power posturing and flaunting his indigence to well meaning nuclear oversight. Is it too much of a stretch to be hesitant of trusting a President that publicly states that he wants to blow Israel off of the map, with nuclear weapons? If he didn't know before, now Ahmednejad knows we have been actively trying to derail his government. The repercussions, given America's spread out military, is unnerving and scary. This is one of those times when I think the media, could have shown some restraint in releasing this story.

They could have waited until Iran figured it out and made an angry statement on TV. Then the media could have piled on about how stupid it was to try and destabilize Iran which is represented by someone who you could refer to as a "slam-dunk" of a threat to the US. Which is more worth it, exposing another ill thought out Bush plan, or having a severely pissed off Iranian leader who gives updates on his nuclear capabilities like he was a weather man?

"I think everybody in the region knows that there is a proxy war already afoot with the United States supporting anti-Iranian elements in the region as well as opposition groups within Iran... And this covert action is now being escalated by the new U.S. directive, and that can very quickly lead to Iranian retaliation and a cycle of escalation can follow,"- Vali Nasr, adjunct senior fellow for Mideast studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

McGovern PWNS Cheney

Former Presidential Nominee George McGovern:

VICE PRESIDENT Dick Cheney recently attacked my 1972 presidential platform and contended that today's Democratic Party has reverted to the views I advocated in 1972. In a sense, this is a compliment, both to me and the Democratic Party. Cheney intended no such compliment. Instead, he twisted my views and those of my party beyond recognition. The city where the vice president spoke, Chicago, is sometimes dubbed "the Windy City." Cheney converted the chilly wind of Chicago into hot air.

Cheney said that today's Democrats have adopted my platform from the 1972 presidential race and that, in doing so, they will raise taxes. But my platform offered a balanced budget. I proposed nothing new without a carefully defined way of paying for it. By contrast, Cheney and his team have run the national debt to an all-time high.

He also said that the McGovern way is to surrender in Iraq and leave the U.S. exposed to new dangers. The truth is that I oppose the Iraq war, just as I opposed the Vietnam War, because these two conflicts have weakened the U.S. and diminished our standing in the world and our national security.

In the war of my youth, World War II, I volunteered for military service at the age of 19 and flew 35 combat missions, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross as the pilot of a B-24 bomber. By contrast, in the war of his youth, the Vietnam War, Cheney got five deferments and has never seen a day of combat — a record matched by President Bush.

Cheney charged that today's Democrats don't appreciate the terrorist danger when they move to end U.S. involvement in the Iraq war. The fact is that Bush and Cheney misled the public when they implied that Iraq was involved in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks. That was the work of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda team. Cheney and Bush blew the effort to trap Bin Laden in Afghanistan by their sluggish and inept response after the 9/11 attacks.

They then foolishly sent U.S. forces into Iraq against the advice and experience of such knowledgeable men as former President George H.W. Bush, his secretary of State, James A. Baker III, and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft.

Just as the Bush administration mistakenly asserted Iraq's involvement in the 9/11 attacks, it also falsely contended that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. When former Ambassador Joseph Wilson exploded the myth that Iraq attempted to obtain nuclear materials from Niger, Cheney's top aide and other Bush officials leaked to the media that Wilson's wife was a CIA agent (knowingly revealing the identity of a covert agent is illegal).

In attacking my positions in 1972 as representative of "that old party of the early 1970s," Cheney seems oblivious to the realities of that time. Does he remember that the Democratic Party, with me in the lead, reformed the presidential nomination process to ensure that women, young people and minorities would be represented fairly? The so-called McGovern reform rules are still in effect and, indeed, have been largely copied by the Republicans.

The Democrats' 1972 platform was also in the forefront in pushing for affordable healthcare, full employment with better wages, a stronger environmental and energy effort, support for education at every level and a foreign policy with less confrontation and belligerence and more cooperation and conciliation.

Cheney also still has his eyes closed to the folly of the Vietnam War, in which 58,000 young Americans and more than 2 million Vietnamese died. Vietnam was no threat to the United States.

On one point I do agree with Cheney: Today's Democrats are taking positions on the Iraq war similar to the views I held toward the Vietnam War. But that is all to the good.

The war in Iraq has greatly increased the terrorist danger. There was little or no terrorism, insurgency or civil war in Iraq before Bush and Cheney took us into war there five years ago. Now Iraq has become a breeding ground of terrorism, a bloody insurgency against our troops and a civil war.

Beyond the deaths of more than 3,100 young Americans and an estimated 600,000 Iraqis, we have spent nearly $500 billion on the war, which has dragged on longer than World War II.

The Democrats are right. Let's bring our troops home from this hopeless war.

There is one more point about 1972 for Cheney's consideration. After winning 11 state primaries in a field of 16 contenders, I won the Democratic presidential nomination. I then lost the general election to President Nixon. Indeed, the entrenched incumbent president, with a campaign budget 10 times the size of mine, the power of the White House behind him and a highly negative and unethical campaign, defeated me overwhelmingly. But lest Cheney has forgotten, a few months after the election, investigations by the Senate and an impeachment proceeding in the House forced Nixon to become the only president in American history to resign the presidency in disgrace.

Who was the real loser of '72?

THE VICE PRESIDENT spoke with contempt of my '72 campaign, but he might do well to recall that I began that effort with these words: "I make one pledge above all others — to seek and speak the truth." We made some costly tactical errors after winning the nomination, but I never broke my pledge to speak the truth. That is why I have never felt like a loser since 1972. In contrast, Cheney and Bush have repeatedly lied to the American people.

It is my firm belief that the Cheney-Bush team has committed offenses that are worse than those that drove Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew and Atty. Gen. John Mitchell from office after 1972. Indeed, as their repeated violations of the Constitution and federal statutes, as well as their repudiation of international law, come under increased consideration, I expect to see Cheney and Bush forced to resign their offices before 2008 is over.

Aside from a growing list of impeachable offenses, the vice president has demonstrated his ignorance of foreign policy by attacking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for visiting Syria. Apparently he thinks it is wrong to visit important Middle East states that sometimes disagree with us. Isn't it generally agreed that Nixon's greatest achievement was talking to the Chinese Communist leaders, which opened the door to that nation? And wasn't President Reagan's greatest achievement talking with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev until the two men worked out an end to the Cold War? Does Cheney believe that it's better to go to war rather than talk with countries with which we have differences?

We, of course, already know that when Cheney endorses a war, he exempts himself from participation. On second thought, maybe it's wise to keep Cheney off the battlefield — he might end up shooting his comrades rather than the enemy.

On a more serious note, instead of listening to the foolishness of the neoconservative ideologues, the Cheney-Bush team might better heed the words of a real conservative, Edmund Burke: "A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood."

Friday, April 20, 2007

Commuting and Mass Transit

Paumgarten, N. "Annals of Transport: There and Back Again". The New Yorker, 2007-04-16.

This article appeared in this week's issue of the New Yorker, and I found it to be quite telling about our modern day state of living.

It details the commuting practices of people across the country and describes the effects that increasing average commute times are having on society. Among the subjects are riders of the incessantly congested Atlanta beltway driving from edge city to edge city and avoiding the downtown city itself at all costs; seemingly efficient yet rare carpoolers who share a van daily from Georgia to Tennessee on a countryside route the congestion along which seems entirely out of place; and a woman who commutes three and a half hours each way between Pennsylvania and her New York City law firm simply so that she may enjoy her own 'countryside' suburban paradise. In the most extreme category were commuters such as the Cisco Systems engineer who travels three hundred and seventy two miles each day from the Sierra foothills to San Jose and back, while among the notably happier and more comfortable end of the spectrum were those who made use of mass transit.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam was "Shocked to find how robust a predictor of social isolation commuting is. There’s a simple rule of thumb: Every ten minutes of commuting results in ten per cent fewer social connections. Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.”

One might question what, then, might compel a person to drive over two hours, for example, to reach work in a bustling city and then to drive over two hours back to arrive home within a suburban enclave nearly a hundred miles away. The primary cause is the provision of space and lifestyle. Generally, in commuting these great distances, one trades "time for space, miles for square feet." Anyone who has lived a significant time in a New York City apartment has no doubt experienced at least a small pang of envy after hearing about an old friend or acquaintance's recent purchase of a 4-bed 3-bath house in the suburbs when, just a few years back, he or she lived in the same 400SqFt closet-like studio that you did. Little does one realize that what happiness has been gained in square footage or impressive architectural grandeur is often lost in hours of solitary commute time with only a cup of coffee and the incessant vociferations of Rush Limbaugh for company.

"Three years ago, two economists at the University of Zurich, Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, released a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox.” They found that, if your trip is an hour each way, you’d have to make forty per cent more in salary to be as “satisfied” with life as a noncommuter is. (Their data come from Germany, where you’d think speedy Autobahns and punctual trains would bring a little Freude to the proceedings, and their methodology is elaborate and thorough, if impenetrable to the layman, relying on equations like U=α+ß1D+ß2D²+γX+δ1w+δ2w²+δ3log y.) The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory, at least), commute even though it makes them miserable. They are not, in the final accounting, adequately compensated."

Interestingly, the article notes that "commuter-wise, New York City is an anomaly. New Yorkers have the highest average journey-to-work times (thirty-nine minutes) of any city in the country, but are apparently much happier with their commutes than people are elsewhere." This can be explained quite easily by noting the one apparatus that differantiates the New York city commute from nearly all other commutes in this country - the train.

Public transit is, overwhelmingly, the principal means of travel for New Yorkers. About one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders live in New York and its suburbs. Over 65% of those who commute to the city from surrounding areas do so via mass transit. Contrast this with the rest of the nation, in which 90% of all commuters drive automobiles to their workplace. New York is the only city in the United States where more than half of all households do not own a car (in Manhattan, the number rises to 75%; nationally, the percentage is 8%).

Psychologically and sociologically, travel by mass transit differs from private automobile in a number of ways. First, there is the shared experience of the train commute. Human beings are social animals, and thus generally crave human contact. It gives us comfort, even pleasure, to encounter others and to observe them in their daily lives. Even though travelling with others does not necessarily evoke in-depth conversation or even a high degree of personal interaction, the shared experience does much to civilize us. One does not often hear commuters on a train shouting expletives at one another in the fashion that may often be heard in the privacy of an automobile on the freeway. Face to face interactions and both verbal and non-verbal communication generally prevents the mass-transit equivalent of road-rage from occurring.

Second, travel by mass transit allows one various opportunities for relaxation that are simply not available to car drivers. Whether one wishes to take the time to read a chapter from a book, glance at the Wall Street Journal, watch an episode of the Simpsons on an iPod, or take a twenty-minute nap, the abdication of responsibility for the control and guidance of the vehicle grants one the opportunity to enjoy the commute by any number of recreational means. While some may cite the freedom granted by car travel - to go wherever one pleases whenever one pleases - careful consideration will lead most to the realization that the vast majority of their time is spent following a precise route, on a precise schedule, to and from the same locations. In addition, most of those who espouse the superiority of automotive travel have likely never encountered the New York City transit system, which is far more extensive than any other in the country and meets the needs of the vast majority of the city's residents and commuters.

Finally, mass transit travel is simply healthier than automotive travel. This is largely due to the fact that those who mass-commute are likely to to a great deal more walking than those who drive. Upon reaching the parking lot, drivers likely have no more than a few hundred feet to walk from their car to their place of business (the exception being locales such as the Pentagon where the parking lot alone is the size of a small town). Conversely, unless one's workplace is directly above the train or subway station, users of mass transit are likely forced to walk a few blocks to reach their workplace. Such physical activity leads to a much healthier lifestyle, greater overall wellbeing, and may indicate why New York City is one of the thinnest cities in the nation.

Mass transit is also healthier for the environment. Transporting hundreds of individuals on a single electrically-powered train is far more efficient than moving over two tons of steel per person, by internal combustion, to transport individuals to their final destinations. As a result of this increased efficiency, the average New Yorker consumes just half of the energy consumed by the average American per year, and just a fraction of the petroleum.

All of this offers a great deal of supporting evidence to the common conviction of residents that life in New York City is simply healthier and more pleasant than that of much of suburbia. What the average New Yorker gives up in space and private property, he or she gains in health and sanity.

Paumgarten, N. "Annals of Transport: There and Back Again". The New Yorker, 2007-04-16. Retrieved on 2007-04-16

U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics. "NHTS 2001 Highlights Report, BTS03-05", 2001. Retrieved on 2007-04-15.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "The MTA Network". Retrieved on 2007-04-15.

Pisarski, A. "Commuting in America III: Commuting Facts", Transportation Research Board, 2006-10-16. Retrieved on 2007-04-15.

Stutzer, A., Bruno, F., "Stress that doesn't pay: the commuting paradox", IZA Discussion Papers, Institute for the Study of Labor, 2004-09-01. Retrieved on 2007-04-15

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Man with tuberculosis jailed for not wearing mask

The report below elucidates a very serious bioethical problem, the answers to which are not at all completely clear. A 27-year-old man with tuberculosis has been jailed indefinately as a result of harboring, through no fault of his own, a dangerous drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis known as XDR-TB. Deemed a danger to the public, he was arrested and jailed after violating a court order to wear a mask in public.

Ethically, his situation is a very problematic one. He has lost all rights and privileges due, not to criminal activities or extreme violence, but simply as a result of what he is, or more specifically, what resides within him. While this may seem unjust, the man remains a danger to society.

Such actions have long been standard practice for untreatable cases of infectious disease. Around the turn of the century Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary, was quarantined on North Brother Island in New York City's East River. She was released on the condition that she would never work with food, but after violating this ruling and causing the deaths of two patients at Sloan Hospital while working as a cook, she was imprisoned and quarantined for life.

For many centuries, indeed millenia, before Typhoid Mary, lepers were banished to isolated colonies to live out the rest of their days in agony. Similar methods were used against those who showed outward signs of the plague in the 1300s.

In the modern era, however, in which self determinance and individual human rights hold primacy, does such treatment remain acceptable? I would suggest that, on its face, it does not.

Of course, in the interest of public health and safety the quarantine of infectious individuals is absolutely necessary, and it is the government's responsibility to ensure that actions are taken such that the public remains protected. However, it is also responsible for ensuring that the quarantined retain as much of their personal freedoms as can reasonably allowed. Upon quarantine, these individuals are charges of the state. Thus imprisonment and solitary confinement in cinder-block-framed facilities normally reserved for violent criminals is not an acceptable solution.

These patients should be provided with opportunities for employment, for education, and for freedom of movement. Thanks to modern telecommunication and computing technologies I can think of a great multitude of such opportunities. With telecommuting and online university options abound, what is to stop these people of living a productive and near-normal lifestyle? Only obtuse and short-sighted judicial decisions.

Man with tuberculosis jailed for not wearing mask

CNN: 11:09 a.m. EDT, April 3, 2007

PHOENIX, Arizona (AP) -- Behind the county hospital's tall cinderblock walls, a 27-year-old tuberculosis patient who spent years living in Russia sits in a jail cell equipped with a ventilation system that keeps germs from escaping.

Robert Daniels has been locked up indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of his life, since last July. But he has not been charged with a crime. Instead, he suffers from an extensively drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis, or XDR-TB. It is considered virtually untreatable.

County health authorities obtained a court order to lock him up as a danger to the public because he failed to take precautions to avoid infecting others. Specifically, he said he did not heed doctors' instructions to wear a mask in public.

"I'm being treated worse than an inmate," Daniels said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press last month. "I'm all alone. Four walls. Even the door to my room has been locked. I haven't seen my reflection in months."

Though Daniels' confinement is extremely rare, health experts say it is a situation that U.S. public health officials may have to confront more and more because of the spread of drug-resistant TB and the emergence of diseases such as SARS and avian flu in this increasingly interconnected world.

"Even though the rate of TB in the U.S. is at the lowest ever this last year, we live in a globalized world where, if anything emerges anywhere, it could come to our country right away," said Mark Harrington, executive director of the Treatment Action Group, an American advocacy group.

The World Health Organization warned last year of the emergence of extensively drug-resistant TB. The new strain, which has been found throughout the world, including pockets of the former Soviet Union and Asia, is resistant not only to the first line of TB drugs but to some second-line antibiotics as well.

HIV patients with weakened immune systems are especially susceptible. In South Africa, WHO reported that 52 of 53 HIV patients died within an average of 25 days after it was discovered they also had XDR-TB.

How to deal with people infected with the new strain is a matter of debate.

Dr. Ross Upshur, director of the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto, said authorities should detain people with drug-resistant tuberculosis if they are uncooperative.

"We're on the verge of taking what was a curable disease, one of the best known diseases in human endeavors, and making it incurable," Upshur said.

But a paper Upshur co-wrote on the issue in a medical journal earlier this year has been strongly criticized.

"Involuntary detention should really be your last resort," Harrington said. "There's a danger that we'll end up blaming the victim."

In the United States, which had a total of 13,767 reported cases of tuberculosis in 2006, public health authorities only rarely have put TB patients under lock and key.

Texas has placed 17 tuberculosis patients into an involuntary quarantine facility this year in San Antonio. Public health authorities in California said they have no TB patients in custody this year, though four were detained there last year.

Upshur's paper noted that New York City forced TB patients into detention following an outbreak in the 1990s, and saw a significant dip in cases.

In the Phoenix area, only one other person has been detained in the past year, said Dr. Robert England, Maricopa County's tuberculosis control officer.

Daniels has been living alone in a four-bed cell in Ward 41, a section of the hospital reserved for sick criminals. He said sheriff's deputies will not let him take a shower -- he cleans himself with wet wipes -- and have taken away his television, radio, personal phone and computer. His only visitors are masked medical staff members who come in to give him his medication.

The ventilation system draws out the air and filters it to capture the bacteria-laden droplets he expels when he coughs. The filters are periodically burned.

Daniels said he is taking medication and feeling a lot better. His lawyer would not discuss his prognosis. Daniels plans to ask for his release at a court hearing late this month.

Daniels lived in Russia for 15 years and returned to the United States last year after he was diagnosed. He said he thought he would get better treatment here, and hoped eventually to bring his wife and children from Russia. He said he briefly worked in an office in Arizona for a chemical company before he was put away.

He said that he lost 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) and was constantly coughing and that authorities locked him up after they discovered he had walked into a convenience store without a mask.

"Where I come from, the doctors don't wear masks," he said. "Plus, I was 26 years old, you know. Nobody told me how TB works and stuff."

County health officials and Daniels' lawyer, Robert Blecher, would not discuss details of the case. But in general, England said the county would not force someone into quarantine unless the patient could not or would not follow doctor's orders.

"It's very uncommon that someone would both not want to take treatment and will willingly put others at risk," England said. "It's only those very uncommon incidents where we have to use legal authority through the courts to isolate somebody."

University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Art Caplan said Maricopa County health officials were confronted with the same ethical dilemma that communities wrestled with generations ago when dealing with leprosy and smallpox.

"Drug-resistant TB, or drug-resistant staph infections, or pandemic flu will raise these questions again," Caplan said. "We may find ourselves dipping into our history to answer them."

Daniels said he realizes now that he endangered the public. But "I thought I'd come to a country where I'd finally be treated like a person, and bam, here I am."

Sunday, April 08, 2007

I'm alive!

My hearty apologies to Sean and Wang for leaving them to talk to each other for this long; working in Congress can often sap the enthusiasm for independent blogging after a day of writing to constituents about Medicare Part D and the U.S.'s clear hatred of the Middle East.

I'm working on a short article, more thematic than event-based, about America's global image. I've got the rhetorical basis set; now I just need to add some meat to its bones. But while I'm working on it, here's my draft for the consumption of the lucky few who have been basking in the joint genius of Sean and Wang.

Brand America

Corporate entities are highly attuned to the need to project their brand in a manner that is well received by their target audiences. When signs occur that their brand image is becoming inaffective, they go into full scale reform mode in order to save their bottom line. It is an overused cliche that government could benefit from business lessons, but branding is one area where the U.S. government could learn from corporate America.

After years of breathtaking global dominance, the U.S.'s global identity--what I'll refer to as Brand America--is mired in a relative slump, as outside criticism and poor performance sully its image and raise questions about the nation's ability to sustain its hegemonic status.

Brand America, first of all, is the representation of America as seen by the world, both in style and substance. What you or I see as Brand America is not nearly as important--companies don't worry about what their employees think nearly as much as they do their customers--as what the rest of the world sees. In the Clinton years, Brand America symbolized benevolent and sometimes somnolent prosperity. But at the same time, Al-Qaeda plotted 9/11, Iran and North Korea worked on their bombs, developing nations watched their liberalized economies founder, and China's juggernaut economy continued to open to the world. Clearly, Brand America of the 1990s is not what we need now.

But there is no question that Brand America must change. Whereas the power of Brand America in the 1990s was based largely on the passive power of its military and its economy, Brand America today has gambled on the awe-inspiring power of its unparalleled active military to reestablish American dominance in the face of shifts in international relations. We were on the way to success in Afghanistan when we bet the house on Iraq. Winning the war in Iraq and failing to plan for a prolonged occupation became a drain on the U.S.'s ability to project its power and influence elsewhere. The challenges we now face are increased by the inability of Brand America to adapt in the face of failure.

The U.S. faces two chief challenges today in restoring Brand America's reputation globally. First, it must continue to adapt to a global environment where terrorism, an age-old tactic of the weak, has become the methodology of small groups with a disproportionate ability to wreak havoc through access to more powerful weapons and an increasingly global reach. The U.S., despite the focus on Iraq, has advanced light years in this decade in its capabilities to counter terrorism. With a reallocation of resources in the next two years from Iraq to the fight against terrorist organizations, Brand America can restore a degree of international acceptance to its military and diplomatic operations. Terrorists scare governments because they are for the large part unmanageable. When the U.S. became mired in Iraq, the pressure on governments like Pakistan to crack down on terrorist operations was lessened. Brand America's message became muddled through its lack of a broad and consistent justification for the invasion of Iraq, and the current tension with Iran only further threatens the coherence of Brand America in foreign policy.

Second, Brand America must return to one of its basic historical purposes; to sell liberalism as a governing theory that is not only morally strong, but that can be construed as having concrete benefits to nations that pursue political liberalization. Brand America's message must take into account the newfound acceptance many developing nations have found for illiberal capitalism, the method of amoral profit-making that China pursues in spreading its economic gains to countries like Sudan that have felt like nothing if not whipping boys for the U.S. Brand America was successfully sold as being superior to the USSR's ideology during the Cold War, but since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has forgotten that while our policies may make sense to our leadership, our Brand is diluted globally when we don't focus on explaining why our policies represent (or should) both the correct and profitable path for other nations to follow.

China's leadership has in recent years pushed the idea of no-strings-attached economic dealings with countries that have been enjoying the disfavor of the U.S. Policy-makers largely assumed that that form of illiberal capitalism was unworkable in economically developed nations, so a common strain of thinking ran in past decades that China would liberalize as its economy grew. We now realize that our hopes are no so easily achieved; and we must restructure our foreign policy to respond to the economic and political challenge China poses to us. Brand America's program of sticks and carrots has for decades followed a path of evangelical rigidity that has lost its luster as nations have realized that U.S. policies don't always lead to future gains--the U.S. needs to expend less time rattling sabers at the Middle East and more time engaging allies, rainy day companions, and even global opponents in negotiations to restore the argument for following the U.S's lead on a host of issues, from trade policy to anti-terrorism activities.

Ultimately, the viability of Brand America comes down to the U.S.'s ability to once again enlist like-minded nations to the cause of liberalism, the delegitimization of all methods and entities relating to terrorism through the isolation of terrorist organizations from the support of host nations, and the revitalization of Brand America as a symbol of achievable prosperity and commonality.

It is not enough for us to believe that we are right or even to change our current course and begin pursuing policies that history will judge as having been appropriate. We must also be able to sell ourselves--image and content--to the rest of the world. Brand America has lost much of its selling power right now, but with the resources we have at our disposal, it is not an impossible task to set about modifying the product we sell.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

At the Pleasure of the President

United States attorneys are appointed by the President of the United States, not coincidentally, attorneys are often of the same political persuasion as the President. US attorneys are expected to enforce United States law, they are not political tools used to investigate and undermine opposition political parties. When President George W. Bush took the oath of office in 2000, he pledged to Americans that he would make national unity a top priority, perhaps the only growth of unity is in the growing discontent with the Bush administration. The forced resignations of 8 U.S. attorneys, has shaped it to be yet another example of political suppression of actions that are contrary to the interests of the administration.

Karl Rove has made the case that the resignations were not political actions but house keeping measures based on job performance. It is interesting to know what the criteria of job performance encompasses, perhaps they were sleeping on the job or maybe criminals were not prosecuted in an efficient manner. It has come out in recent weeks that the attorneys were removed because they were investigating Republicans in corruption cases and there are indications that they refused to be swayed by Republican Congressmen and women, pressuring them for information that they should not have had access to. It is quite obvious that it is not in the interest of the administration, for its members and supporters to be investigated and possibly be indicted on charges of misdoings. By removing attorneys that are in the midst of prosecuting such cases, the executive branch is circumventing the execution of the law.

  • *Bud Cummins was removed, according to Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, to groom former Karl Rove aide, Timothy Griffin, for the position.
  • *Kevin Ryan, a Bush loyalist, was actually the victim of the poor job performance, but the DOJ had tried to retain him amidst the chatter of large scale firings. He was removed after a judge sought to go to Congress to make public his poor management problems.
  • *Carol Lam was removed because she was said to not be aggressively pursuing illegal immigration cases. The Department of Justice had defended Lam's performance in mid-2006, which asserted that she was pursuing larger scale immigration crimes, as opposed to small border crossing crimes. Emails between the DOJ and the White House, show that concern was growing about her expanding investigation of disgraced Republican Representative Duke Cunningham, which was beginning to investigate Republican Representative, Jerry Lewis (he was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at the time of her firing).
  • *David Iglesias was removed when New Mexico Republican Party chairman, Allen Weh, complained to Karl Rove that he was unhappy about Iglesias' performance on voter-fraud issues, despite his active role of training federal prosecutors and giving symposiums on that topic. There had also been complaints that Iglesias did not prosecute Democrats quickly enough to make an impact on the 2006 elections.
  • *Paul Charlton was removed when his investigation of Republican Representative, Rick Renzi, began to ramp up. He had also created opposition with the Bush administration on his refusal to pursue death penalties in a few cases. Only a few months earlier, he had been honored with the Federal Service Award.
  • *John McKay was fired because he had not convened a federal grand jury case of voter fraud in the 2004 Washington State election for governor, following two recounts giving the victory to Democrat Christine Gregoire. McKay has responded, stating that following an investigation from his office as well as the FBI, they were unable to find credible evidence of federal crimes.
  • *Margaret Chiara was fired, according to the NYTimes, to make room for an attorney the Bush administration wanted to groom for the position.

These firings were not the first instances of politically motivated removals. Attorney Frederick A. Black, was demoted in 2002 while he was prosecuting the Jack Abramoff case through the Guam Superior Court.

Kyle Sampson, top aide to Alberto Gonzales and former UN ambassador, John Bolton (who did so on the Daily Show with John Stewart) have argued that there is no distinction between removing an attorney for politics and job performance. According to them, poor performance can be equated with acting contrary to the political interests of the ruling party.

As far as I know, Department of Justice attorneys do not have a requirement to be impartial. Unlike the Office of Independent Counsel, the advantage of politically moderate attorneys is in facilitating their confirmation by the Senate. As confirmation hearings during the Bush years have shown us, anyone heavily skewed to one ideological direction will get skewered.

In 2005, White House Counsel Harriet Miers approached Alberto Gonzales telling him that President Bush wanted to purge all 93 district attorneys, a move reminiscent of Stalin and Lenin era Soviet Russia. Pursuant with the Patriot Act, the White House would be able to replace removed district attorneys for an indefinite amount of time, circumventing Senate oversight. Checks and balances are effectively eliminated and opposition opinions are never voiced. The removal of those not considered Bush loyalists is yet another example in the Bush legacy of political insulation and suppression of political opponents.

What are they afraid of? Public opinion?

First you terrorize your opponents into silence so that your movement appears to have no opposition. This gives you tremendous power, not only because moderates quietly feel they are alone in their disagreement with you, but also because the ignorant media – especially the foreign media – casts you as the choice of the people. Having succeeded in silencing moderates, the next step is terrorizing them into cooperating with you. Soon passive cooperation is not enough. You want more than their body – you want their soul, so you terrorize the moderates into being "passionate" in your cause.

In the end, your movement appears to have only loyal and active supporters. Now you are in total control, for who would dare speak out against you? As Hitler said, 10 years before he finally rose to power, "The National Socialist Movement will in the future ruthlessly prevent – if necessary by force – all meetings or lectures that are likely to distract the minds of our fellow countrymen." In other words, all opposition is evil and we will protect you from it. Conservative Columnist for WorldNet Daily, Bob Just

Sound familiar?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Who Pays America's Tax Burden, and Who Gets the Most Government Spending?

See: Special Report No. 151

While many studies answer the ques­tion of who pays taxes in America, the question of who gets the most government spending is often overlooked. Just as some Americans bear a larger portion of the nation's tax burden than others, some Americans also receive a larger share of the nation's government spending.

This report summarizes the key findings of a comprehensive 2007 Tax Foundation study of federal, state and local taxes and government spending. The results show that when we consider the distribution of government spending as well as taxes, it provides a dramatically altered view of how U.S. fiscal policy affects Americans at different income levels than is apparent from the distribution of tax burdens alone.

Overall, we find that America's lowest-earning one-fifth of households received roughly $8.21 in government spending for each dollar of taxes paid in 2004. Households with middle-incomes received $1.30 per tax dollar, and America's highest-earning households received $0.41. Government spending targeted at the lowest-earning 60 percent of U.S. households is larger than what they paid in federal, state and local taxes. In 2004, between $1.03 trillion and $1.53 trillion was redistributed downward from the two highest income quintiles to the three lowest income quintiles through government taxes and spending policy.

These findings suggest tax distributions alone do not tell Americans how much the nation's fiscal system is helping or hurting low-income households. To answer that, we must look beyond tax burdens to government spending as well. Lawmakers who ignore the distribution of govern­ment spending risk making policy judgments based on an incorrect set of facts about the United States fiscal system.

Special Report No. 151, PDF, 366.7 KB


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

On the question of life

The question of life, in my view, is not one that can be evaluated merely through cold logic. Giving human life an arbitrary value above all other life, such that the taking of that life is viewed wrong in nearly any circumstance, does not make logical sense. Rather, the absolute value that many place on all human life is one that is intuited through spiritual and emotional conceptualizations. It is a "gut feeling" for lack of a better word. Unfortunately such spiritual and emotional attributions do not match well with a legal system that is based largely on logic. A pre-fetus clump of cells known as an embryo cannot contribute to society. It cannot feel pain. It cannot survive on its own. Nor does it think or contain any semblance of self awareness. Indeed the latter three attributes may be applied to a even late stage fetus. Even at 10 months a child is not yet self aware, lacking the frontal lobe capacity necessary to pass the "mirror test."

Such have been the legal and scientific mechanisms used to determine a legal equivalence to the religious concept of "The Sanctity of Human Life." But they are imperfect at best, as shown by their inapplicability to the unborn.

Indeed a legal determination, based upon reason or logic alone, likely cannot be made to satisfy the requirements for the protection and sanctification of life "from womb to tomb."

For such a decision to be reached requires that a universal assumption be made that human life is "sacred" (in a legal sense, wholly protected) by simple virtue of the fact that it is human life. As a result of the limits of logic and reason to provable notions, such a statement would need to be deemed true a priori, simply because it is, without explanation.

One may argue that such unilateral pronouncements lie more appropriately in the realm of papal or rabbinical rule, and that our system of government does not take part in the practice of religious proclamation. But recall the original universal proclamation that granted to this nation its original moral compass - we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

One would be hard-pressed to pare down this sentence to a logical argument with an outcome of relative certitude that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights, whether endowed by the Creator or not. But such a declarative statements remains a central pillar of our legal system, and lies at the center of the application of ethics and morals to legal determinations.

For the issue of life prior to birth to be finally settled in the legal system, it is my opinion that, first, a similar universal declaration of self-evident truth would need to be made on life. That is, that human life, (in the form of the sum whole of an individual organism, whether 5 cells or 5 billion) is sacred and protected.

Such a constitutional amendment is unlikely, however, and thus the question of abortion rights is likely never to be settled.

From "On Science"

When does human life begin?

The story of when human life begins has a checkered past. Centuries before people knew of sperm and eggs, Aristotle argued that the fusion creating a new person did not exist until "quickening," the first noticeable movements in a woman's womb. He reckoned quickening occurred 40 days into pregnancy (18-20 weeks is the actual time). The 40-day rule was picked up by Jewish and Muslim religions. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV supported this view of delayed animation and ensoulment.

The Catholic Church did not reach its current conclusion that life begins at fertilization until 1896, when Pope Pius IX condemned abortion at any age after the moment of conception. Many Jewish theologians now argue that life begins seven days into pregnancy, with implantation of the embryo.

Gene transcription of male-contributed genes starts even later (well after stem cells are harvested), and many scientists feel human individuality cannot be said to begin until then, when the embryo starts to actually use the genes contributed by fertilization.

The United States Supreme Court takes the position that human life begins much later, when the fetus becomes capable of independent life if separated from the mother—roughly the third trimester.

Early this month researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported suprising findings that could profoundly alter our views of when human life begins. Indeed, if these results, obtained in cultures of mouse cells, can be repeated in human cells, theologians may have to reconsider their ideas about the very nature of life.

The researchers were raising dense cultures of mouse embryonic stem cells for research. Scientists are particularly interested in embryonic stem cells because each one of them has the potential to develop into any cell of an adult individual. In a routine screening, the researchers treated the mouse cells with a fluorescent "marker" protein they had developed to test for early-stage eggs and sperm. The marker protein sticks specifically to the surfaces of eggs and sperm, but not to any other kind of cell. Because these stem cell cultures were not eggs or sperm, the screening should have had negative results.

Surprisingly, in a culture of stem cells that had been maintained 8 days, the marker protein did stick. Over 40% of the cells glowed green, showing the fluorescent protein marker had stuck to them.

Were these egg cells? Studying them more closely, the researchers learned that groups of the cells had begun to produce estradiol, a hormone that converts to the female hormone estrogen. After 16 days, the oocyte-like cells began producing tell-tail proteins typical of meiosis, the special form of cell division that sperm and egg cells undergo. The observations were tantalizing: many of the embryonic stem cells seem to have spontaneously developed over a few weeks many of the characteristics of egg cells (oocytes).

Are they really egg cells? To be sure, the researchers will need to demonstrate that the "oocyte-like" cells can be fertilized and produce viable offspring. Until those experiments are completed, the case that they are eggs is incomplete, although strong.

The researchers continued to observe the aging cell culture, and their perseverance was rewarded with a result that may fundamentally alter how we look at stem cell research. After 40 days, the groups of oocyte-like cells in the aging culture formed what appear to be early embryos!

Examining these early embryos, the researchers found that their cells were manufacturing the sorts of proteins one would expect of normal 16-cell embryos. A few of the embryos in the culture went on to form complex balls of cells resembling blastocysts, the early-stage embryos from which embryonic stem cells are harvested.

What is going on here? These egg cells were never fertilized -- how could they develop into embryos?

Biologists have long recognized that in insects, many fish and some reptiles, adults develop from unfertilized eggs, a process called parthogenesis. That seems to be what is going on here. Normal mouse egg cells can be induced to form embryos parthenogenetically, but despite many attempts to implant them in a womb, none have ever survived to birth.

While there is no guarantee that what happens in mice will happen in humans, there seems a very good chance that similar results will be obtained in human embryonic stem cell cultures, which leads to a very interesting question. What is the ethical status of human embryos created from embryonic stem cells without fertilization?

The very possibility of human embryos produced without fertilization must have some theologians reconsidering their ideas about the nature of life as something that starts at conception with the union of egg and sperm. One thing seems sure. The controversies raised by stem cell research will continue.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Inner Life of the Cell

This set of animations from Harvard's Biovisions Initiative "makes you want to go back and take biology," commented Charles Gibson, anchor of the ABC World News, after the national news show aired a story about The Inner Life of the Cell. This is science animation as it has never been seen before.

Click here to view:


Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Retreat From Big Cities Hurts ROTC Recruiting: Though Army Seeks More Ethnic Officers, It Shuns Northeast

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Greg Jaffe titled "A Retreat From Big Cities Hurts ROTC Recruiting: Though Army Seeks More Ethnic Officers, It Shuns Northeast" highlights a serious problem of inequity in military service. In essence, despite having a population comparable to that of entire states, New York City and its citizens are not granted the same opportunities for service as military officers as many other regions of the United States.

With over 8 million residents, New York City has a greater population than either the state of Virginia or North Carolina. 594,000 students attend universities in New York City, the greatest number of students in any city in the United States. However, while both Virginia and North Carolina maintain twelve Army ROTC programs each, New York City hosts only two. Student access to ROTC is severely limited as well, as all of the programs in New York City are located either in the Bronx or Queens, a significant distance from the areas of the city with the highest concentrations of colleges and universities.

The shortage of ROTC in New York City is particularly poignant given that the Department of Defense is consistently faced with a lack of diversity in the military's Officer Corps. Former Secretary of State and General Colin Powell is a CCNY ROTC graduate, and The City University of New York system boasts more than 450,000 students and confers nearly 3 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded to African-Americans in the United States. Yet today, there is no ROTC presence to be found anywhere in the CUNY system.

Neither is there an ROTC presence in Brooklyn, home to a diverse population about the size of Mississippi, which has five Army ROTC units despite a much lower per capita college attendance. In 2005, two of the top five ZIP codes for Army enlistments were in Brooklyn, yet there are no commissioning opportunities in the borough. Could one imagine no ROTC programs for the population of Mississippi?

New York City is also home to an array of private universities, including the exceedingly well endowed Columbia University and New York University, the largest private, non-profit university in the United States. Both universities are highly regarded as doorways to privilege, yet they fail to graduate more than a handful of military officers per year. The absence of military options at these institutions is an obvious example of upper-class elites being systematically discouraged from sharing the civic burden of military service.

The scarcity of commissioning opportunities in New York City hurts our community and the military. Moreover, in light of September 11th, we have a distinctly personal stake in the Global War on Terror. New Yorkers should be afforded every opportunity to serve as military leaders, and to be granted the responsibility for defending our city and our nation. For this to happen, access to ROTC and commissioning sources in New York City must improve, and the resources allotted to programs in the city must increase to match the population they serve.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Illegal Immigrant Becomes World-Renowned Brain Surgeon


Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa

7:38 p.m. EST March 5, 2007

BALTIMORE - Currently, a wall is being built between Mexico and the United States because many Americans remain concerned illegal immigrants are draining our nation's resources without giving enough back. But one illegal immigrant shared his remarkable journey with WBAL TV 11 News reporter John Sherman -- a journey proving that potential can be hard to judge from across the border.

"I just take off, just like a sprint -- all this adrenaline going through my body. I just go over the fence, jump about 16 feet to the floor and run towards the United States," Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa said, remembering the day he fled to the U.S.

He was one of many Mexicans who flee to the U.S. out of desperation. He said poverty and the hope of a better life drove him to make the leap.

"We had no food. We had no place to live," he said. "I went from pulling weeds to pulling tomatoes, to picking cotton loops to picking grapes."

Quinones-Hinojosa said at first, he wasn't sure why he did it.

"(I thought) 'What am I doing here. Why did I do this.' I didn't have much in Mexico, but at least I had my family, my friends," he said.

But Quinones-Hinojosa doesn't work on a farm anymore. Nineteen years after he jumped a fence into San Diego with a few dollars and no English skills, he is now one of the best brain surgeons at the world-renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

"Every day, everything I do -- it doesn't matter if when I was a welder or when I was a tomato picker -- I gave it my best," he said. "I have been so lucky and I often wonder what set me apart from the rest. The same year that I came, there were thousands of other illegal aliens who also crossed the border."

Quinones-Hinojosa, known as Dr. Q at work, now uses his hands on patients where the slightest movement can separate life from death -- the same hands that separating weeds from dirt not long ago.

"I do look at them sometimes, and I realize these are the same hands who now touch people's lives and brains. Nothing has really changed," he said.

Dr. Q's story bends the definition of possible. It's one that took him from the fence to the fields, from community college to the University of California at Berkeley and from Harvard medical school to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"I had hopes. I had dreams," he said.

As a child in Mexico, cruel poverty was his family's reward for hard work. As a teenager, he said he found his father in tears.

"I found him crying because he just couldn't provide. And I promised myself that I would do everything within my power to make sure that I provided for not just my parents and my siblings, but for my future family," he said.

That commitment led Dr. Q to the fields of California's San Joachin Valley.

"I just knew that if you keep working hard, things are going to turn around. I just had no doubt in myself," he said.

Dr. Q said he slept in a trailer at night, but by day he kept pushing at every opportunity.

"Someone gave me an opportunity to drive a tractor. It just took me minutes to pick it up. Then (there was) an opportunity to drive the cotton picker and it took me minutes to pick it up," he said.

Now, Dr. Q splits his time between surgery and his research lab. He said he believes he can find the cure for brain cancer -- a challenge the medical establishment has all but given up on.

"My heart just palpitates, and I wonder, 'How did I change this person's life today? How did I affect his or her memories? How did I change how this person will interact with his or her loved ones?'" he said.

One patient Dr. Q helped save was Rodney Banks, a 45-year-old construction worker with five grandchildren. Dr. Q successfully removed a benign tumor from Banks' brain.

"That's the thing about Alfredo. You take away his entire background and he's still a superstar in neurosurgery," said Dr. Matt McGirt, who works side by side in the operating room with Dr. Q for dozens of hours every week.

"That's truly amazing. And to do what he does now -- he's been blessed," Banks said after finding out about Dr. Q's background.

"One thing that this country absolutely values is hard work," Dr. Q often says when he tells his story to student groups at least once a month. "If you don't have high dreams, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

If Dr. Q has a secret to success, it may be his unshakeable confidence that you don't always have to know exactly where you're going in life. You just take a leap of faith, knowing there's no safer bet than one on yourself.

"I may never find a cure for brain cancer. But I don't care about that right now. I care about trying," he said. "The potential is in everybody. The question is, 'How do we harvest that potential?'"

Dr. Q became an American citizen in 1997. He lives in Bel Air with his wife and three children.