May 31, 2004

How to Support the Troops

As Atrios says, "Who woke the Post?" They are starting to do some genuine reporting on Iraq (as opposed to simply reprinting various pre-packaged news stories from propaganda arms of the executive branch or using Chalabi types as anonymous sources), and they are starting to write some editorials that sound like common sense. Take this one from Fred Hiatt. Where the hell has this guy been in the last 18 months?

Generals who should be leading troops and debating tactics are instead huddling with lawyers and testifying to Congress. NATO countries that might have supported a larger role for the alliance in Iraq after June 30 now have to be persuaded not to pull out altogether. American soldiers in Iraq shoulder an ever greater burden of suspicion, and Iraqis who might have wanted to cooperate have to think twice, and then twice more. [...]

By now you'd have to have your own head in a bag to believe that a few badly trained reservists are at the core of this scandal. The Pentagon has acknowledged that 37 prisoners have died in U.S. custody across Iraq and Afghanistan, and at least 10 of the deaths were homicides by Americans. Even more frightening, none of these deaths seemed to have sparked serious investigations before publicity forced the military to confront the issue.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, we now know, has been regularly bringing evidence of ill-treatment to U.S. officials in Iraq, and was regularly rebuffed until the photos were released. In cases of people deemed to have intelligence value, the ICRC found that harsh treatment was "systematic." Even for ordinary prisoners, ill-treatment was "frequent." It "went beyond exceptional cases and might be considered as a practice tolerated by the CF [coalition forces]."

You have to wonder why this didn't become a story until the photos were released. I mean, what happened to investigative journalism? This stuff has been known about for a long time, we are now discovering. People released from Guantanamo and Iraqis released from their own local prisons during the war have been saying this kind of stuff is going on all along. Why wasn't this front-page news?

One reason is that the media feels intimidated by this administration and by the legions of right wing nutjobs who lob death threats at anyone who dares to criticize the Bush administration. Another is they feel is it somehow patriotic to support an awful leader during wartime. Well, you know what? It is exactly these true patriots who should be concerned about the damage Bush is doing to America. It's the people who preach about how we should all support the troops.

Of all the missed opportunities since Baghdad fell, surely this is one of the most heartbreaking. Iraqi detainees might have been going home to their families and saying, as German POWs did so many decades ago, that these American soldiers are for real, that they treated us humanely -- that maybe they mean what they say about liberation, not occupation. Instead, the United States is reduced to pleading that it's not as bad as al Qaeda and obfuscating the reality that policies adopted in the White House helped lead to this breakdown of law and discipline.

Bush could have responded differently. He could have embraced the heroes such as Spec. Joseph Darby, who sounded the alarm; William J. Kimbro, the Navy dog handler who refused to sic his dogs on prisoners; Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who wrote an honest report. He could have apologized to the people of Iraq, appointed an investigator from outside the chain of command, pledged to abide by the Geneva Conventions. Instead, he opted for a Nixonian strategy of damage containment, and a summer of piecemeal disclosure.

Who pays the price for the president's dishonesty? Soldiers such as Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli and his troops, who, as The Post's Scott Wilson reported last week, are out in Baghdad's slums, fighting insurgents one hour and fixing sewers the next. The prison scandal and the administration's failed response haven't doomed those efforts, but they've lengthened the odds. They've given aid and comfort to the enemy.

I support the troops. I have all along, and that means that I opposed this pointless nonsense from the beginning, and I continue to oppose it. It means I will vote against Bush in November, even though it won't make a difference in my stupid red state. I will support John Kerry, because he will have the credibility and the intellectual capacity to steer us on a better course in Iraq (we could hardly be doing any worse over there), and he will reverse cuts in funding to VA hospitals, cuts in hazard pay for troops, etc. He won't sacrifice that kind of money to fund more tax cuts for people who just plain don't need them.

I wonder how many CEO's say they support the troops and support America but don't pay taxes because their companies are based offshore? It's like the whole "taking responsibility" thing. It is one thing to say you support the troops or to say you take full responsibility for something. It is another to actually walk the walk. These guys are all talk. Disgusting and shameful.

Posted by Observer at 01:07 PM | Comments (0)

May 30, 2004

The Third Movie

We saw "Matrix Revolutions" last night at last. I have really kept clear of information, spoilers and reviews of this movie, just so I could see it with a fresh pair of eyes. I couldn't help but hear all the negative vibe about this one, but I thought it was ok. Ebert's review sums up a lot of the positives in the movie. Michelle thought it sucked, of course.

I'll grant that at this point, the philosophy that made the first movie so cool is pretty much shot to hell. It is now just filler between gigantic action sequences, and it no longer adds much to the movie for me. In the first one, both parts (the ideas and the action) were great. Now it is just an action flick, but I thought it was just fine as action flicks go. Unpredictable and over-the-top.

I mean, I had to laugh at the end when the whole movie was gearing up for this final confrontation with Neo and Smith, and then all they do is have another kung-fu fight. I mean, didn't Neo make that stuff pretty much old news at the end of the first movie? Why all the fighting? Just one of you dive in to the other, let your unknowable insides fight it out and give us the answer, whatever it is.

It would've been better in the theater. At home, I guess the acoustics in our living room or the TV itself just doesn't have good sound quality. We have to crank it up very loud to hear all the different dialogue, then crank it back down for the next explosion (always less than three minutes away). I finally just gave up, turned on subtitles and watched the movie at a normal volume. Seems a lot of movies we watch on DVD are like that (Return of the King, to name one we watched recently), so it must be us, not the movies. A nice sound system for the living room is waaayyyyy down on the want list for this house, though. We just need dual headphones with really long cords.

Posted by Observer at 07:20 AM | Comments (3)

May 29, 2004

Krugman and the Press

First off, I have to say that I enjoyed watching "Return of the King" again. Yes, it has too many endings, but so does the book. I can't wait to see what's in the extended edition. We watched some of the special features on the 2nd disk last night, and I can safely say that I have never had a better experience while watching a documentary film. I'll just leave it at that.

Anyway, Paul Krugman has an interesting column from a few days ago and the press and the Bush administration. This is partly because the New York Times has recently written a piece saying they're questioning their own pre-Iraq reporting (i.e. Judith Miller's reprinting of baseless nonsense from Chalabi and his pals) and partly because he thinks there's some dogpiling going on because Bush is down in the polls.

Some news organizations, including The New York Times, are currently engaged in self-criticism over the run-up to the Iraq war. They are asking, as they should, why poorly documented claims of a dire threat received prominent, uncritical coverage, while contrary evidence was either ignored or played down.

But it's not just Iraq, and it's not just The Times. Many journalists seem to be having regrets about the broader context in which Iraq coverage was embedded: a climate in which the press wasn't willing to report negative information about George Bush.

People who get their news by skimming the front page, or by watching TV, must be feeling confused by the sudden change in Mr. Bush's character. For more than two years after 9/11, he was a straight shooter, all moral clarity and righteousness.

But now those people hear about a president who won't tell a straight story about why he took us to war in Iraq or how that war is going, who can't admit to and learn from mistakes, and who won't hold himself or anyone else accountable. What happened?

The answer, of course, is that the straight shooter never existed. He was a fictitious character that the press, for various reasons, presented as reality.

The truth is that the character flaws that currently have even conservative pundits fuming have been visible all along. Mr. Bush's problems with the truth have long been apparent to anyone willing to check his budget arithmetic. His inability to admit mistakes has also been obvious for a long time. I first wrote about Mr. Bush's "infallibility complex" more than two years ago, and I wasn't being original.

So why did the press credit Mr. Bush with virtues that reporters knew he didn't possess? One answer is misplaced patriotism. After 9/11 much of the press seemed to reach a collective decision that it was necessary, in the interests of national unity, to suppress criticism of the commander in chief.

Another answer is the tyranny of evenhandedness. Moderate and liberal journalists, both reporters and commentators, often bend over backward to say nice things about conservatives. Not long ago, many commentators who are now caustic Bush critics seemed desperate to differentiate themselves from "irrational Bush haters" who were neither haters nor irrational — and whose critiques look pretty mild in the light of recent revelations.

And some journalists just couldn't bring themselves to believe that the president of the United States was being dishonest about such grave matters.

Finally, let's not overlook the role of intimidation. After 9/11, if you were thinking of saying anything negative about the president, you had to be prepared for an avalanche of hate mail. You had to expect right-wing pundits and publications to do all they could to ruin your reputation, and you had to worry about being denied access to the sort of insider information that is the basis of many journalistic careers.

The Bush administration, knowing all this, played the press like a fiddle. But has that era come to an end?

A new Pew survey finds 55 percent of journalists in the national media believing that the press has not been critical enough of Mr. Bush, compared with only 8 percent who believe that it has been too critical. More important, journalists seem to be acting on that belief.

Amazing things have been happening lately. The usual suspects have tried to silence reporting about prison abuses by accusing critics of undermining the troops — but the reports keep coming. The attorney general has called yet another terror alert — but the press raised questions about why. (At a White House morning briefing, Terry Moran of ABC News actually said what many thought during other conveniently timed alerts: "There is a disturbing possibility that you are manipulating the American public in order to get a message out.")

It may not last. In July 2002, according to Dana Milbank of The Washington Post — who has tried, at great risk to his career, to offer a realistic picture of the Bush presidency — "the White House press corps showed its teeth" for the first time since 9/11. It didn't last: the administration beat the drums of war, and most of the press relapsed into docility.

But this time may be different. And if it is, Mr. Bush — who has always depended on that docility — may be in even more trouble than the latest polls suggest.

I think most of this is wishful thinking. The press still isn't holding Bush personally accountable for anything bad that happens on his watch. They ask if anyone is going to resign, and when Bush says no, they're all doing a superb job in fact, the press walks away befuddled. At some point, the press needs to start connecting the dots and demanding some accountability from Bush.

Instead, we're going to get more stories about whether Kerry threw his medals or his ribbons (and what was Bush doing at that time, again? oh yeah, he was going AWOL, and the press *still* isn't doing what it should to prove it), more stories about Kerry "flip-flops" from 15 years ago (without any corresponding references to Bush's numerous flip-flips from 15 freakin' DAYS ago), more stories about Kerry's wealth and "patrician manner", etc. It's going to be the Al Gore invented the Internet bullshit all over again. It has already started.

Remember that Al Gore speech from a few days ago? Already I've heard three different people in casual contexts mention that "wasn't that sponsored by MoveOn.org, the same ones who compared Bush to Hitler?" Isn't it nice to be able to think like that? To completely dismiss everything in the speech without thinking about it? Holy fucking shit, when I say Moron Americans, I really do mean Moron Americans.

I mentioned this a while back, and I showed what an absolutely ridiculous claim it is, but the conventional wisdom these days about MoveOn.org ("they're so liberal, they think Bush is Hitler!") is purely a product of the mainstream media propagating the idea. Of course, all the conservatives who have compared Clinton or Hillary with Nazis or worse in the past, they are given a free pass by the same media.

So while I do appreciate Krugman's cautious optimism, I think history calls for a lot more cynicism when it comes to our ridiculous press and the people it successfully manipulates because (for whatever reason) they just don't want to be bothered to think things through themselves. You want to know what MoveOn.org stands for, go visit their freakin' website and find out! It's easy to find since it is their name and everything. They're critical, sure, but they aren't irresponsible. They back all their claims up extensively, if you care to check, and they aren't the ones throwing around terms like "feminazi".

Posted by Observer at 07:29 AM | Comments (1)

May 28, 2004

Politics and Friends

I had a great birthday yesterday. Lots of loot (most of the things on my list, with some very nice clay poker chips to come according to my mom), some good eating and even a pretty thunderstorm rolled through which cooled things down so that I got a quick 9-hole disc golf round in with some of my new discs.

I was going to respond to Meg's comment yesterday with a comment of my own, but I decided it was better to turn it into its own long post. As I've said before (at length), I learned from a painful experience not to discuss politics with family or close friends who disagree with you (unless they are very open-minded). Much better to talk politics with acquiantances who may or may not be open-minded. Otherwise, it turns into a frustrating and bitter affair. It is most definitely not worth risking ties of close family or friends over.

As I've also said before, I can understand why some principled people vote Republican. If they believe on principle that government should be an arm of any particular religious faith (or their highly selective or misguided reading of some holy text), for example, even though history has shown that is an awful, awful idea, then they should express those idiotic beliefs and vote. That's what America is about. Similarly if they believe things like the Patriot Act are good ideas whose time has come, that civil liberties are more trouble than their worth, then I can understand people voting that way on principle, provided they are going into it fully aware of what they are supporting.

What drives me crazy is the people who say they are voting Republican because they think Republicans are doing a bang-up job in Iraq, or because they think Republicans are the one to trust on fiscal issues, or because they think Republicans are better for our military, or because they are ethically superior somehow, or better on taxes (see the "waitress and the lawyer" story from Franken's book for examples of new taxes/expenses/costs we all have because of Bush's tax cuts for the rich ... there's no such thing as a free lunch).

Or because they knee-jerk think Democrats are worse than Republicans on issues like these, in spite of our experiences with Democratic and Republican controlled legislative and/or executive branches during the past 25 years (even taking into account things like the famous business cycle). Things like that are *really easy* to disprove (I've spent over a year doing so), and when someone refuses to look at the incontrovertible facts in front of his or her face, then that tells me I'm talking to someone who doesn't take his or her right to vote seriously.

Clearly, a lot of liberals vote with blinders on, too, and I am equally frustrated by them. With rights come responsibilities, and people who vote have a responsibility to get informed. When they refuse to do so, and *especially* when they get all cocky about it (and act like anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot), then I used to get really mad about it. Now I just don't bother with such people. They are a waste of my time. Life is too short to suffer fools, you know?

I don't blog here to convince anyone, to sway anyone's beliefs, to win political arguments (though I do sometimes enjoy such arguments), etc. I blog here to vent, to inform, to create a record of my own of the things in my life and in my country that are important to me. And I'm glad that some people find that worthwhile to read. But please don't take anything personal when I throw around terms like "idiot" or "moron" or whatever. I'm obviously being hyperbolic, and I do not mean to offend.

I'm sorry that people who otherwise seem perfectly nice and normal (i.e. Lauren) have it in their heads that they want to vote for Bush. I'm sure they feel the same way about me. Live and let live. I'm not going to go invade their blog (well, not much anyway, I try to be on my best and most respectful behavior) and prosletyze against Bush. They are welcome to come here and get informed and/or open up a debate (provided they don't freak out, piss me off and humiliate themselves a la Doc), but I'm not holding my breath.

For a fuller story about politics and personal relationships, see this from the archives (and the link to Neiwert's post is worth following).

Posted by Observer at 07:02 AM | Comments (1)

May 27, 2004

Two Speeches: Reality and Fantasy

First off: great, great speech by Al Gore yesterday. Much too long to quote, but give yourself 5-10 minutes to read through it and ask yourself how much better off this country would be if we had this kind of intellect and ability in the Presidency after September 11. I would love another chance to vote for Al Gore for president someday, but it's my birthday and a day for purely wishful thinking. Meanwhile, in the depressing real world of American politics...

Art Silber's "The Light of Reason" has had some really great Iraq commentary lately from a Libertarian perspective, and he points me to this excellent article from William Saletan of Slate magazine, regarding Bush's most recent speech about Iraq, in which he basically said that what we need to do for Iraq is to continue doing exactly what we've been doing so far, only more so. Here's part of Saletan's commentary, which I believe cuts to the heart of the whole problem with Bush:

Here's how Bush, in his speech this evening, described Iraq's place in history:

In the last 32 months, history has placed great demands on our country, and events have come quickly. Americans have seen the flames of Sept. 11, followed battles in the mountains of Afghanistan … We've seen killers at work on trains in Madrid, in a bank in Istanbul, in a synagogue in Tunis, and at a nightclub in Bali. And now the families of our soldiers and civilian workers pray for their sons and daughters in Mosul, in Karbala, in Baghdad. We did not seek this war on terror, but this is the world as we find it. We must keep our focus. We must do our duty. History is moving, and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy.

The description is almost biblical. The narrative—"this war on terror"—is a moral test arranged by higher powers. Postwar Iraq, like 9/11, Madrid, and Bali, is "the world as we find it," not as we made it. "History," not Bush, has placed the demands of occupation on our country. "Events," not Bush's mistakes and their consequences, have come quickly. We must focus on the "duty" defined by our situation, not on how we got here.

Bush's ignorance of his part in the tragedy infects everything he says. "The swift removal of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring had an unintended effect," he observed tonight. "Instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, some of Saddam's elite guards shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. [They] have reorganized, rearmed and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics." Note the passive construction. The mistake isn't that Bush failed to prepare for guerrilla tactics commonly adopted against occupiers. It isn't even a mistake; it's an "unintended effect." The cause of that effect is Saddam's "swift removal," not Bush or anyone in his administration who engineered the removal.

This goes back to the Bush press conference where he famously couldn't think of any mistakes that he had made when asked repeatedly. There's a reason for that, and it's not (only) because he's a dimwit. It's because he genuinely doesn't think he's made any! How could he? God himself is guiding Bush, in Bush's mind, so there can't be any mistakes! I heard a Bush-supporter claim the other day that liberals "hate" Bush, wish him failure and paint the Bush administration as evil, so the poor conservatives, they can't have a rational debate about things. The people who think they were anointed to power by God are complaining about the absence of rational debate? Complaining about their opponents labelling *them* as evil?

Truly, the concepts of irony and shame are dead in this country. Certainly among Bush-supporters. Here's more from Saletan:

Is Bush embarrassed that a year of occupation has failed to substantiate his claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to global terrorism? No. He hasn't even noticed. "I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security," he repeated tonight, adding, "Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror … This will be a decisive blow to terrorism at the heart of its power and a victory for the security of America and the civilized world." Never mind the emerging evidence that North Korea, not Iraq, was engaged in the kind of WMD proliferation that Bush attributed to Saddam. In his speech, Bush simply repeated that Iraq was the headquarters of terrorists who "seek weapons of mass destruction."

For a still more airbrushed version of history, consider Bush's account of his relationship with the United Nations. "At every stage, the United States has gone to the United Nations to confront Saddam Hussein, to promise serious consequences for his actions, and to begin Iraqi reconstruction," the president asserted. Forget the part where Bush reneged on his pledge to call a Security Council vote on the use of force. Forget the part where he invaded Iraq against the wishes of a majority of the council.

Now wait a minute. Wait juuuuust a minute. Are you telling me that Bush made a pledge, and then flip-flopped??!? It can't be! He's never wrong!

This, of course, gets to the heart of my depression and cynicism about this country. It's not enough that these clowns have at minimum 237 days left to fuck this country up (my countdown timer goes all the way to inauguration day, if I have it set right), not enough that the media is falling down on the job, not enough that America is in more and more danger with every passing day as Bush plants the seeds for future terrorists far and wide. No, what gets me down is that Bush has a very good chance of getting re-elected.

And yes, part of it is the fault of the political campaign finance system, the bought-and-paid-for legislation, tax breaks, etc., that fund the media onslaught (it isn't just commercials, of course, conservatives save themselves money by just buying up whole networks and slanting everything). But a more important (and more fixable) part is the supposedly objective mainstream media that refuses to do its job. And from what I can tell, they have zero accountability. Remember Judith Miller, who channelled Chalabi's WMD claims through the front page of the New York Times, providing critical support for the administration's baseless claims (follow the link for even more damning details)? She's still working. Hell, I'll bet she got a fucking pay raise for selling so many papers with her horseshit.

Ah well. Happy 36th birthday to me and happy 36th birthday in a couple of days to Cody's soccer coach, and happy 10th birthday to Cody in three days. I'm going to eat some good food (Cheesecake Factory!) and forget about politics for the rest of the day.

Posted by Observer at 07:29 AM | Comments (3)

May 26, 2004

Bush Voters

Lots of people say they don't support Bush now, including lots of people who voted for the guy. I'm sure many of them are genuine and almost surely won't change their mind between now and the election. But I think a lot of people are saying they are against Bush just because it's cool to be against the current mess right now. People are embarrassed to share some of the responsibility for the huge mess we're in.

I think a lot of people who say in polls that they won't vote for Bush may change their tune. Why? Lots of reasons. First, there may be another terrorist attack on us between now and the election. Keep in mind that a big Bush talking point right now is that the lack of terrorist attacks on America since 9/11 "proves" that Bush is keeping us safe. So naturally, if we are attacked, Bush-supporters will fall all over themselves apologizing for being wrong.

Right? Ha.

No. Instead, they will say that the attack underscores the desperation of the terrorists. Bush has them on the ropes, they'll say (remember the spin on bombings in Iraq a few months ago?). We can't change leadership in the middle of a war on terror, they'll say. Voting against Bush means that the terrorists win, they'll say (remember Spain?). Hell, if the attack occurs close enough to November, they might even suspend elections.

I've thought about this before, and the scary thing is that it is plausible. And you may think it is beyond the pale, but ask yourself, which "conservative" media personality is going to stand up and oppose such a thing? Which Republican congressperson is going to stand up and say we should hold elections? And I think a lot of people who are going with the flow and saying they don't like Bush right now will fall right into line like good Morons and agree with whatever Bush says is best for the country if it gets right down to it.

I also think that Bush will sow enough uncertainty in the minds of voters to make it close enough for Bush to pull it out, and the media will help. How many people think John Kerry is a rich "patrician" who is out of touch (Bush is plenty wealthy and his "upkeep" is incredibly expensive ... remember the $2000 suits)? How many think John Kerry is a "flip-flopper"? The Center for American Progress has extensively documented a lot of serious flip-flops for Bush, so the facts are out there if anyone wants them. Hell, we knew about Bush flip-flops before the 2000 election (e.g. all the Texas legislation he fought against to the very end, then claimed credit for), and they were reported (see Molly Ivins' book), but no one cared.

But I hear a lot of "former" Bush-supporters saying, "Oh, I don't know if I can support John Kerry. He sure flip-flops a lot, etc." I see it entering the common lingo of cartoonists, columnists, etc. that Kerry is a flip-flopper (just like the old "Gore is an exaggerator" meme that the mainstream media propagated without Bush's help a few years ago). That tells me that a lot of people are just saying they don't like Bush because it's cool not to like him right now, and that makes me distrust their dedication to change. Because their change isn't based on actual facts, research, critical thinking.

It is based on what the current media message is (and the war dominates that message, which is what Bush originally wanted coming into the election but now maybe doesn't seem like such a good idea to them). As the election gets closer, that message will change, and so I don't really care right now that Kerry is ahead in some polls. Without fundamental positive changes in the media, our country will continue to operate under the risk that its leadership will not be chosen on merit.

Our leaders have never been purely chosen on merit (or in some cases, even mostly chosen on merit), but today we are further from that ideal than we ever have been, and we have the media to thank for it. So I hope you'll excuse my pessimism. I think maybe I'll go back to more book reviews.

Posted by Observer at 08:07 AM | Comments (8)

May 25, 2004

Harry Turtledove

In my latest attempt to avoid the depressing reality these stupid people in power have put our country in, I will review another speculative fiction author. Today it's Harry Turtledove, who writes a lot of alternative histories. For example, he has written a series about what would happen if an alien race had tried to conquer the Earth during World War II. This series, like many of his storylines (he's very prolific, I wish I liked his work better) has been expanded past the original four, but I never read further. He has also written a book ("The Guns of the South") about a bunch of white supremacists who go back in time to 1864 and provide the confederacy with AK-47's for every soldier in order to turn the tide of the war (also expanded upon in later books). Both are decently readable, not great. Turtledove is consistently good.

Anyway, my favorite of his is "The Videssos Cycle", about a Roman legion transported to a fantasy world. They become mercenaries for the dominant power, and the four-book cycle follows their adventures (the four books, in order, are "The Misplaced Legion", "An Emperor for the Legion", "The Legion of Videssos" and "Swords of the Legion"). Sort of like Glen Cook's "Black Company", but the characters weren't quite as memorable, so the quality is not quite as good as Cook's original trilogy (it does compare favorably to Cook's later books, though). There is a companion trilogy to this called "The Tale of Krispos" ("Krispos Rising", "Krispos of Videssos" and "Krispos the Emperor"), sort of a prequel to the Videssos books, and it stands well on its own, and there are a few other books set in the same world lately, I believe.

Posted by Observer at 04:15 PM | Comments (3)

May 24, 2004

Benford's Books

Reading Niven's work lately brought to mind another similar author I've enjoyed before, Gregory Benford. I've read some of his books, and the sad truth is that the one I enjoyed the most is thought by most people to be one of his worst. It is called "Artifact". The idea is that a strange cube-like artifact is discovered in an ancient tomb. It's surface is like nothing ever seen before (and it's got a big horn sticking out of one side), and various scientific measurements of the thing turn up some really weird facts that all fall together neatly as the main characters figure out its purpose. Like Niven's "Ringworld", the book has a fairly thin plot with some pretty ridiculous characters and situations, but the science, the mystery, the discovery, the investigation are really cool. What's better is that this is set closer to present-day, so it is a little easier to suspend disbelief.

Another work of his that I enjoyed was a series that begins with "In the Ocean of Night", This actually works ok as a stand-alone, and if you like it, you can continue with the even better sequel, "Across the Sea of Suns". The story begins with a comet whose course changes somehow so that it threatens Earth. Scientists, including one of my favorite all-time characters, Nigel Walmsley, travel to the comet and discover an interesting secret that unlocks a neat future for Earth (the story is sort of a "first contact" situation with a detailed and unpredictable history of the decades that follow).

The problem with this series is that it basically completely changes into something else (and something much worse) starting in book 3, with a story and characters almost completely unrelated to the first two books. It's like a different series they sold under the series name "The Galactic Center" just to sell some crap, and the books were written many years apart. By the time we see people from the first two books again, it is book six, and that book was dreadful.

The only other thing I've read by Benford is one lots of people point to as their favorite, and it is called "Timescape". The idea is that some scientists in the year 1998 find out they can send messages 35 years into the past (the book was written in 1979), but they aren't sure exactly what gets through, who sees it, what will happen if a paradox is generated, etc. Very interesting premise, but Benford only had enough material for a short story here. Some stupid editor allowed him to expand it out into a novel, and it was boring as all hell. It's funny, because people say the same thing about "Artifact", that it is a good idea bloated, but I liked the bloat for some reason in that one.

Posted by Observer at 08:08 AM | Comments (0)

May 23, 2004

Birthday List

Ok, so I have it written down somewhere, here is my birthday list (the partial one I mentioned a few days ago needs more):

Bookstore Gift Certificates

These I will bundle together in order to buy "The Complete Far Side" and other things at the bookstore (I am tempted to also buy Brunson's pker book "Super/System", and I saw it at Sam's for less than $20 ... it used to be $50). I could also spend the rest on more "Ringworld" books (though I have been told long ago that the rest aren't as good as the first). Hell, I can always find something to spend for at Bookstop.

Yu-Gi-Oh Cards

Yes, we're still playing, and we can always use more cards. I love opening packs. They're overpriced, and I want them, so that pretty much fits the perfect definition for a birthday gift.

Return of the King

Well, we already got suckered into buying the regular versions of the first two, why not the third? We'll watch it (among everyone in the house) several times I'm sure before the extended edition comes out, so we'll get our money's worth, and it happens to come out two days before my birthday.

LOTR Soundtracks

I'd like the CD's from the extended versions of the first two movies (and ultimately I'll want the third as well). If I don't get them, I'll probably check them out of the library, if I can find them, and dump them into iTunes, but I'd rather have the CD's. I hope they have good (extensive) liner notes similar to the way they re-released the Star Wars trilogy music. I learned a lot from that.

Barbecue Table

You can never have too much countertop space when barbecuing, and right now, I'm using up one of those long office-type tables. It has lots of grease spots and such on it that won't come out. I'd like one of those hosable plastic long tables like the kind I've seen at Academy.

Frisbee

The frisbee I got from back in my grad school days (the last time I was on an Ultimate team) was lost two weeks ago. Some stupid little shit friend of Cody's walked up to us while we were at the park (right next to the school building). Cody was playing with the soccer ball, and I was sitting in my chair devouring a Brust novel, and the kid picks up the frisbee and just flings it straight up for no apparent reason. The wind caught it and sent it sailing onto the roof. I've never gone to recover it, so we need a new disk. I chewed that little kid out, though.

Matrix Revolutions

Yeah, ok, it probably sucks, but I own the first two on DVD and I haven't seen the third. I want to own it to complete the set. I've waited a long time for this just so I could maybe get it for my birthday (I'm bad about buying stuff for myself so that when holidays roll around, no one knows what to get me).

Poker Chips

I mentioned this a few days ago. I want some of those heavy wooden casino style chips. I'm about ready to start playing with the boys again (maybe during the summer when they need some structure and some indoor activity), and it would be nice to have some smooth chips. I've caught a lot of poker lately while riding the exercise bike (thanks to the DVR), and I love the way the chips stack and spill over onto the felt when a professional poker player throws them in.

So what am I missing? What should I be asking for?

Posted by Observer at 07:31 PM | Comments (6)

May 22, 2004

Ringworld

I just finished "Ringworld" by Larry Niven, a classic SF novel from a few decades ago. Set in the far future after humans have made contact with many different civilizations (Niven's work exists in its own universe, otherwise called "known space"), in this novel, a small team of explorers travels to a distant star to learn about an alien construct around it. The world is basically a one-million-mile wide ring with a tall wall on either edge to hold in the air, and it rings the parent star with a surface area millions of times greater than Earth.

Niven describes it as a compromise between a regular world and a Dyson sphere (which completely encapsulates the parent star). As with a lot of older SF, character development is pretty thin, but the ideas are thick. It is fun to read about the "what if" possibilities here, and this kind of book reminds me of why I like science fiction, just to read about new, futuristic ideas. I also liked the idea of Teela Brown, the human who has been eugenically engineered to be lucky. I think I would enjoy a whole series of novels based on that idea and all of the implications.

Posted by Observer at 05:25 PM | Comments (4)

May 21, 2004

Disc Close

We went to a party for 11-year-old Sarah's hapless (but sometimes fun and funny) soccer team last night at a nearby park. This park is a couple of miles away, and I had never seen it before. Well, it turns out there is an 18-hole disc golf course there! Not the best course in the world or anything, but I played a few holes, and it seemed pretty well laid out (except for one hole that was ridiculous through a bunch of trees and brush next to a creek ... looks like one of the stupid holes at Seattle's course up by Northgate Mall).

Sometime, I'll have to take the boys down there. Or maybe just Justin ... Cody gets discouraged too easily at this kind of stuff because he doesn't have the patience to throw it right, even though he can actually throw it as far as Justin (I've seen it). Nice to have something close, but to discover this just at the onset of five months of ovenlike heat ... doh!

While we were there, Justin was in his 14-year-old hormone glory, flirting with one of the girls on Sarah's team (who is two years younger than him but girls grow faster than boys at this point so she's actually about his height and arguably more mature). At one point, trying to impress her, he tried to run and jump across a shallow creek about three feet wide.

I don't think it was possible for him to have wiped out more profoundly. He planted his foot square in the middle of the creek, upon which it slipped out from under him, plunging him over so that he landed on his ass in the muck of the far edge of the creek. He spent the rest of the time at the party half covered in caked mud all over his clothes.

Graceful, he's not.

Posted by Observer at 03:40 PM | Comments (3)

May 20, 2004

Shifting the Blame

Today's theme is the situation in Iraq, depressing as it is. To start, check out this Kevin Drum post with a summary of the latest prison scandal news. Really. Take the time to check it out. If you want to be informed, you need to keep up with things, especially when they suck. Now for the reaction from the people who started or supported this thing from the beginning:

(crickets chirping)

Seriously, it seems like a lot of the bloggers who are normally all over the news on the pro-Bush side of things are talking about everything but the war now. If they're saying anything, it is to react to liberals like me who are pointing out the obvious. When we talk about the consequences of this horrible news, it is tantamount to sedition, undermining the war effort, criticizing our war president, etc.

We get criticized for not expressing appropriate outrage over the Nick Berg beheading, for example, as I talked about last week. Atrios responds appropriately along the lines of: There is a difference between things being done in my name as an American and things *not* being done in my name.

Josh Marshall has a very good entry today about the reaction of Bush-supporters to the situation in Iraq. Long quote here, but it is important to understand the depths to which Bush-supporters will sink to spin this for the Moron-American set:

Now, another related point: the increasing velocity and ferocity of war-hawks trying to shift the blame for their own goofs by inventing a new stab-in-the-back theory (nicely patterned on the original one from Weimar Germany) to cushion their consciences from the brunt of recognizing the dire pass to which their own foolishness and reckless zeal have brought their country.

The chief example I've seen -- though there must be many others -- is John Podhoretz's column in The New York Post from last Friday, May 14th.

The column is a string of accusations. The first is against The New York Times for, according to Podhoretz, blaming the United States, rather than his murderers, for Nick Berg's death. "The Times," writes Podhoretz, in concluding this section of his piece, "is leading the mainstream media in turning the United States into the bad guys in Iraq."

Podhoretz's evidence is an article in the Times which reports the Berg family's claims that the Bush administration somehow bears some of the blame for their son's death.

Now, just as Berg's death shouldn't have been cynically exploited by Bush partisans, what his family says shouldn't be exploited in the other direction. But simply reporting what the family says in a news article hardly seems to merit anything Podhoretz says. What he wants is a black-out on anything the family says -- and that in the context of the saturation coverage of the murder itself -- because it is politically off-message.

Then there's the Time magazine cover with an Abu Ghraib image which reads "Iraq: How Did It Come to This?"

After blowing some smoke about the war's aim of "liberat[ing] 25 million people and rout[ing] Islamic extremists, terrorists and those who thirst for the mass murder of Americans" Podhoretz calls the Time cover "a vile and grotesque slander against every American in uniform in Iraq."

At length, the column concludes with these four grafs ...

So let's be clear what's going on here. As we speak, 138,000 Americans are serving under dangerous conditions in Iraq. And our forces in Karbala are fighting against the goons and thugs of Muqtada al-Sadr with some success. They're risking their lives for freedom and honor and duty and love of country.

And conventional liberal opinion wants them to lose.

Conventional liberal opinion believes that the Abu Ghraib photos are the true meaning of the war, and that Nick Berg is just another victim of callous U.S. policy.

Conventional liberal opinion is actively seeking the humiliation and defeat of the United States in Iraq.

Let's be a little more clear about what's going on here. Having led the country perilously close to humiliation and defeat, the architects of the war want to shift the blame for what's happened to their opponents who either said the whole thing was a mistake in the first place or criticized the incompetence of its execution as it unfolded. They take the blame, the moral accountability, by 'wishing' for a bad result. That at least is Podhoretz's reasoning.

If ever there was an example of moral up-is-downism, this is it. And claiming that their political opponents -- liberal, in Podhoretz's usage here, is just a catch-all -- want defeat and humiliation for their country is certainly the most gutterish sort of slander there is.

There's something almost uncomfortable about watching the mix of desperation, panicked zeal and projection evidenced in Podhoretz's column. It's like the pornography of watching someone beg for his life or shift the blame onto someone else when they've been caught in the act -- with the added twist of spasms of aggression mixed in. But on a broader level, it's in character. Not for Podhoretz -- this isn't at all directed at him as a person -- but for the movement, the crew, he's part of and is trying to defend.

How'd we get into this? After 50 years of pretty consistently prudential foreign policy, managed mostly on a consensus of bipartisan agreement (yes, there are exceptions, but by and large, true), they decided to bet the national ranch on an idea. Actually it was a series of ideas, wrapped together in an odd tangle that could look like an odd jumble when viewed from outside. The key, however, was betting the national ranch on steep odds.

Only, they weren't confident the country would get behind such a riverboat gamble. So they lied about what they were doing. They didn't trust the people -- which might be an epitaph we should return to.

Now, what do we expect of people who make reckless gambles with other people's money? Of people who can't discipline themselves enough to distinguish between their hopes and reality? What do you expect of that ne'er-do-well relative who's always hitting you up for a loan because he's come up with a sure thing?

Do you expect those sorts of folks to take responsibility when things go bad? Or do you expect them to blame others?

Character, alas, really does count.

Indeed.

Posted by Observer at 09:57 AM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2004

Falling Back

Well, so much for my hopes for the Rangers after last week's record-setting comeback against Detroit. Since then, they've been hitting below the Mendoza line as a team. This poor hitting combined with their continuing lack of taking walks, means that the offense is sputtering as I feared it would. The pitching is also coming back to reality, with the young pitchers starting to mix in some poor outings and Chan Ho continuing to suck.

The Rangers are now falling back to the pack, and it is possible the Angels (who are currently 3.5 games ahead of them) well do the same thanks to the injury to their offensive stud, Troy Glaus, who is out for the season. I don't know much about the Angels, though. They seem to have a lot of injuries, but maybe they've got some good replacements. My hope is that the Rangers can stabilize and end up 10-15 games over .500, which could be enough to win the division. I'm not optimistic, though, because I think the last couple of weeks (in which they are about 5-7) is closer to their true ability than the first month of the season.

Meanwhile, in another effort to avoid more depressing news about the war and all the stupidity involved in it, I'm trying to get on "Millionaire" again. I've found that the show is actually watchable if you have it on DVR, because you can fast forward through all the chit-chat and then hit "play" as soon as you see the floodlights drop toward the stage. Then it is just an interesting half-hour trivia show instead of an hour full of groans at Regis trying to get to know the contestants. I think if I were in one of those fastest-finger seats and Regis had one of his 10-minute conversations about hamsters with a guy on the hot seat, pissing away my chances to win some money, I might do something regrettable.

Anyway, to qualify, you call their toll-free number during the several hours at night it is available. They take your birthdate and part of your social security number so they know you are unique and aren't entering multiple times, then they ask five questions. Each question, they make you put four things in order. For example, they might ask you to put words from the title of a TV show in order (1-King, 2-Queens, 3-Of, 4-The), and you have 10-seconds to punch in 4-1-3-2 to advance to the next question. They get harder as you go on, though, and I haven't gotten to the end of the five questions yet (they do a lot of "rank these famous people in order by their birthdate, starting with the most recent" or "list these cities in order from North to South").

Long ago when I tried out for the show, I actually got to the end of the list a couple of times. When you do that, they put you in a pool with everyone else who got them all right, and you have a small chance of getting a callback for a second elimination round (but I'm not sure how that works). After that, you can get on the show. It's fun to try out, and I have had no problem getting through. I'd probably be horrible if I actually got on the show, because I have such incredible stage fright.

I have decided, though, that if I do make it, I want a phone-a-friend who has a fast, reliable internet connection and a Google search ready. I've experimented a little with the on-line game, and I can use Google to find about 80-90% of answers to questions I don't know. Last night was the last night to try, though, so I guess I'll have to wait a while to test my theory.

Posted by Observer at 09:16 AM | Comments (6)

May 18, 2004

I Want to Ride My Bicycle

As I hoped, the one thing the new DVR unit has helped me to do is ride my exercise bike again. We've had this stationary bike for two years now, and I probably hadn't ridden it for over a year. I originally got it hoping I could read and/or listen to the radio while riding, but it's just too awkward. I can't hold books well with my sweaty hands while riding, and radio headphones get pretty disgusting with sweat after a few rides.

I usually ride for about 30-60 minutes, burning about 400-800 calories (according to the readout) while going the equivalent of 6-10 miles at various difficulty settings. Turns out about the only thing I can do while riding the bike comfortably is watch TV, but there is almost never something good on TV when I'm in the mood to ride. Now, though, I've always got something backed up (Seinfeld episodes, World Poker Tour, World Series of Poker episodes from ESPN2, Millionaire first runs or reruns, Daily Show, etc), so it's really easy to ride.

I talked to both sets of parents last night, extolling the virtues of the DVR (I'm starting to sound like Humbaba now). They hadn't really heard of it, so I explained how it all works and promised to show them next time they come down to see us. They asked about my birthday (coming up in a couple of weeks, with 9-year-old Cody's three days later), so now I have to come up with a wish list. I'm asking for some nice poker chips and enough bookstore gift certificates that I can pile them together to buy "The Complete Far Side".

Posted by Observer at 09:48 AM | Comments (1)

May 17, 2004

Dealer Thoughts

Busy day today. I had to leave first thing with Michelle so that I could take our Honda van into the dealership for the 7500-mile service after she dropped Daniel off at school (the van has our only carseat). I'm really torn about taking our two cars (Honda and Ford) to the dealerships for service. On the one hand, they stand behind their repairs, and that has helped us out with the Ford. A couple of years ago, the Ford ('97 Escort) had air conditioner problems, some kind of leak. Well, it was bad enough that they had to replace the whole system for something like $800.

A couple of months later, the same problem happened. Well, now they discovered that the cause of this problem and the original problem was that the car was running a bit hot due to an old radiator that was due to be replaced at the 120k mark (but the car was around 110k). That heat caused a hose to melt through and ruined the air conditioner system again. However, since we had the repair guaranteed, they replaced the radiator (which I had to pay for, obviously) and then replaced the air conditioner system again at no charge. So I'm happy to pay extra for that bit of security.

I'm also happy to let the dealership take care of the car because I presume they have more expertise with that make and model that some random repair shop (I went to Pep Boys years ago for some tire problem I had on an old car, and the experience was horrible ... I'd never go back there or to Sears, which also has a poor customer service record, I've read). But I know I'm paying an enormous premium. I just hope it's worth it.

Today, I shelled out $96 for essentially an oil change. Now they also rotated and balanced the tires (but that comes free with the tires I bought from another place anyway) and performed "manufacturer recommended inspections and lubrications" and a couple of other very minor tasks. That's really what I'm paying for ... preventive maintenance, and I hope it is worth it.

Posted by Observer at 01:55 PM | Comments (2)

May 16, 2004

Rotting Fish

Remember how Bush brushed off his lack of experience and expertise by saying that he would surround himself with good people? Well, here's more on one of them:

The roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lie not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists but in a decision, approved last year by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to expand a highly secret operation, which had been focussed on the hunt for Al Qaeda, to the interrogation of prisoners in Iraq. Rumsfeld’s decision embittered the American intelligence community, damaged the effectiveness of élite combat units, and hurt America’s prospects in the war on terror.

According to interviews with several past and present American intelligence officials, the Pentagon’s operation, known inside the intelligence community by several code words, including Copper Green, encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence about the growing insurgency in Iraq. A senior C.I.A. official, in confirming the details of this account last week, said that the operation stemmed from Rumsfeld’s long-standing desire to wrest control of America’s clandestine and paramilitary operations from the C.I.A.

This is the second article from Sy Hersh, who was important in helping bring to light the whole prison abuse problem in the first place. If you want to know what kinds of values America stands for these days, according to the people in charge, you should read it.

Posted by Observer at 08:40 AM | Comments (3)

May 15, 2004

The Viscount of Adrilahnka

I finished Brust's new trilogy, "The Viscount of Adrilahnka" yesterday, and it definitely lived up to my high expectations. What a fun read. I don't think it would be nearly as good without the familiarity I already have with the characters from the Vlad Taltos books, which adds immensely to the experience (take, for example, Morrolan's first meeting with Sethra Lavode, in which he comes to demand tribute, which is much funnier if you know the characters from the much-later-in-the-timeline Vlad Taltos series).

I wish I had reread the two earlier Khaavren books again, though, before I started this. There were a lot of allusions to that earlier work that I didn't quite get, having only read the "Khaavren Romances" once a few years ago. Someday soon, I will go back and re-read everything, starting with the Taltos books and then going back to the first Khaavren book and so on. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he has coming out next. I think I'm about ready for him to move further in the Taltos series.

Brust is one of the very few authors out there whom I will not hesitate to buy in hardback when his books first come out. This series certainly didn't change my rating of him at all. I should also mention that there is a great fan site to accompany Brust's novels set in the world of Dragaera. It is called "Cracks and Shards". Brust refers to it in the introduction to "Viscount". I once did a similar "encyclopedia" of Dragaera back when all I had to go on were five Vlad Taltos books (it was for an assignment in my awesome Parageography class at UT-Austin), so I really appreciate how much work went into this.

Posted by Observer at 09:11 AM | Comments (1)

May 14, 2004

"Botany Bay! Oh no!"

Tested out the DVR, and it works fine. I'm able to subscribe to anything, and it will record all episodes, even giving me the option of only saving the last "N" episodes. I wish I could only record, say, the 10pm Daily Show or 1030pm Seinfeld every night instead of recording it four times a day when it might conflict with something else I want to record without me knowing.

I would also like a quick-advance (30-sec skip) button, but all this has is a roughly-double-speed fast forward plus faster speeds with extra pushes of the buttons. I am able to record one thing while watching something else, and that's nice. The first thing I recorded while testing was a random episode of Star Trek.

When I started to watch the recording, I was just going to watch a few minutes to see if it was working, and they had run across an old derelict Earth ship, then Spock said, "Captain, the ship's registry says it is the Botany Bay." I immediately heard Chekov in my mind (from the 2nd movie, "Wrath of Khan"), "Botany Bay! Oh no!" I had never seen the Khan episode, so I sat down and watched the whole thing. Well, it was neat to watch, but my god what horrible acting and f/x.

Oh well, for now, we have subscriptions to "Baby Story", "ER", "7th Heaven", "Seinfeld", "The Daily Show" and "World Poker Tour". I'm considering looking into recording some premier league soccer from Fox Sports World during the wee hours, but I don't know when the heck I'd find time to watch it.

Posted by Observer at 07:14 AM | Comments (1)

May 13, 2004

Current Events

The big DVR (digital video recorder aka TiVo) experiment begins today. I decided to go with a rental DVR supplied for $10/month from our cable company (I know Feff's eyeballs probably just popped out realizing that I'm volunteering to send more money per month to our evil cable company, which is also providing our internet). I'm banking on the idea that the technology is evolving quickly enough that in a few years, it will be more cost-effective to buy one of our own. Either that, or the cable company will upgrade our box as we go as they've done with our converter (on the other hand, I bought, rather than rented, our cable modem, and that has already paid for itself).

The cable guy is supposed to bring it by this morning, then I'll learn how to use it and start recording stuff. I'll probably subscribe to "The Daily Show", which I almost never get to catch (and last night's was very funny). Michelle will want "Baby Story" and "7th Heaven". The kids will want all the new "Yu-Gi-Oh" and "Pokemon" episodes, and that's fine, but that'll be the first thing erased when we need space, I'll tell you that much!

In other news, every year at about this time, I give practice interviews to aspiring medical school applicants from our university. That's part of my role on the pre-med committee, to help our students prepare for the interviewing process. The interviews are usually fairly interesting. This year, committee members are asking a bit more about current events, since I guess that seems to be a trend among med schools now, to have more informal and less technical interviews. Maybe I'll ask them about the Iraq war! That should result in some pretty funny answers. I've got interviews set up for this Friday and next.

I also had lunch with the people who set up my weekend teaching thing from about a month ago, when I got paid a few hundred bucks to teach a 16-hour-long class to some 9th-grade (+/- 2 grades) students. I told them that the experience was interesting, but if I'm going to sacrifice another weekend of my life away from my family, the pay is going to have to go up dramatically. I was surprised at how vehemently the other faculty who were there agreed with me (but they also had more difficult experiences than I did, mostly due to weird behavior problems from their students).

One guy said he sat down to lunch with his students and started talking to one kid. After he had asked two questions, the kid said, "I don't have to talk to you, do I?" Another guy said all of his kids were sitting around the lunch table playing cards, and he couldn't get them to leave to go back to class! It took him 10-15 minutes to get them going. Some kids were dropped off there for the weekend kind of against their will, and boy did they act out. None of mine, though, so I guess I should count my blessings.

Posted by Observer at 08:16 AM | Comments (12)

May 12, 2004

Relative Outrage

An American civilian contractor was captured in Iraq and gruesomely beheaded on videotape. The beasts who did this said on the tape that it was in response to the prison abuses and that there would be more to come. So now what do we do?

Bush-supporters, like with 9/11, want to make sure that every last ounce of your outrage is directed toward either 9/11 or toward the murderers on this videotape. Believe me, such acts deserve outrage, but outrage is not a finite quantity. It is possible for one to deplore this horrible videotape yet still maintain a deep reservoir of outrage toward the idiots who got us into this war.

Apparently, though, if the actions of Iraqis are not front and center of every conversation you want to have about the war, you are unAmerican, according to Bush-supporters. The Republican mouthpiece known as James Inhofe, senator from Oklahoma, made a fool of himself yesterday by acting as though this prison scandal was just something a bunch of Democratic operatives ginned up to get Bush. You should follow that link to get a better understanding of the depth of the contempt this administration has for the average American.

Bush-supporters are pointing to this video and saying, "Look! See! We *told* you they were worse than us! What animals!" Well, yes, ok, the murderers who did this are, indeed, worse than probably all but the most horrific torturers (who also have an unknown body count to their credit, and who knows what's on video) on our side. But we need to remember that we're supposed to be the *good* guys here. We're supposed to have higher standards than the enemy. We're supposed to set an example for the world to follow. Hell, this was supposed to be some kind of humanitarian intervention, if you believe the after-the-fact justifications by Bush-supporters.

The bottom line is that the actions of the Iraqi murderers in this case are inexcusable, and we need to try to capture them. We could have captured them (they are a part of al Zarqawi, which has loose ties to al Qaeda) before the war, by the way, because we knew where they were, but Bush ignored them, not wanting to undercut his case for invading. But hey, ignore all that, you have to be outraged!

In the broader context, it is still a fact that this war was an enormous mistake, the costs of which will continue to mount over time. Liberals like me knew that ahead of time, and I think many conservatives did as well (but they weren't so vocal about it because they figured it was their guy in charge, so let's see what happens before we criticize). I guess I don't know what else to say that I haven't already said. I'm saddened and deflated by this pointless horror.

Posted by Observer at 08:44 AM | Comments (2)

May 11, 2004

Checks, Balances and Trust

Paul Krugman today explains what has happened with Republicans in charge of all three branches of the government:

When the world first learned about the abuse of prisoners, President Bush said that it "does not reflect the nature of the American people." He's right, of course: a great majority of Americans are decent and good. But so are a great majority of people everywhere. If America's record is better than that of most countries — and it is — it's because of our system: our tradition of openness, and checks and balances.

Yet Mr. Bush, despite all his talk of good and evil, doesn't believe in that system. From the day his administration took office, its slogan has been "just trust us." No administration since Nixon has been so insistent that it has the right to operate without oversight or accountability, and no administration since Nixon has shown itself to be so little deserving of that trust. Out of a misplaced sense of patriotism, Congress has deferred to the administration's demands. Sooner or later, a moral catastrophe was inevitable.

Just trust us, John Ashcroft said, as he demanded that Congress pass the Patriot Act, no questions asked. After two and a half years, during which he arrested and secretly detained more than a thousand people, Mr. Ashcroft has yet to convict any actual terrorists. (Look at the actual trials of what Dahlia Lithwick of Slate calls "disaffected bozos who watch cheesy training videos," and you'll see what I mean.)

Just trust us, George Bush said, as he insisted that Iraq, which hadn't attacked us and posed no obvious threat, was the place to go in the war on terror. When we got there, we found no weapons of mass destruction and no new evidence of links to Al Qaeda.

Just trust us, Paul Bremer said, as he took over in Iraq. What is the legal basis for Mr. Bremer's authority? You may imagine that the Coalition Provisional Authority is an arm of the government, subject to U.S. law. But it turns out that no law or presidential directive has ever established the authority's status. Mr. Bremer, as far as we can tell, answers to nobody except Mr. Bush, which makes Iraq a sort of personal fief. In that fief, there has been nothing that Americans would recognize as the rule of law. For example, Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon's erstwhile favorite, was allowed to gain control of Saddam's files — the better to blackmail his potential rivals.

And finally: Just trust us, Donald Rumsfeld said early in 2002, when he declared that "enemy combatants" — a term that turned out to mean anyone, including American citizens, the administration chose to so designate — don't have rights under the Geneva Convention. Now people around the world talk of an "American gulag," and Seymour Hersh is exposing My Lai all over again.

Did top officials order the use of torture? It depends on the meaning of the words "order" and "torture." Last August Mr. Rumsfeld's top intelligence official sent Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the commander of the Guantánamo prison, to Iraq. General Miller recommended that the guards help interrogators, including private contractors, by handling prisoners in a way that "sets the conditions" for "successful interrogation and exploitation." What did he and his superiors think would happen?

To their credit, some supporters of the administration are speaking out. "This is about system failure," said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. But do Mr. Graham, John McCain and other appalled lawmakers understand their own role in that failure? By deferring to the administration at every step, by blocking every effort to make officials accountable, they set the nation up for this disaster. You can't prevent any serious inquiry into why George Bush led us to war to eliminate W.M.D. that didn't exist and to punish Saddam for imaginary ties to Al Qaeda, then express shock when Mr. Bush's administration fails to follow the rules on other matters.

Meanwhile, Abu Ghraib will remain in use, under its new commander: General Miller of Guantánamo. Donald Rumsfeld has "accepted responsibility" — an action that apparently does not mean paying any price at all. And Dick Cheney says, "Don Rumsfeld is the best secretary of defense the United States has ever had. . . . People should get off his case and let him do his job." In other words: Just trust us.

Worst. Administration. Ever. As a president, as a conservative, as a patriot, as a human being ... George W. Bush is a miserable failure.

Posted by Observer at 07:16 AM | Comments (4)

May 10, 2004

Ambah Wins

We watched "Survivor All-Stars" all the way through to the bitter end last night. We remain amazed that Rob could talk people into slitting their own throats time and time again. Lex was pretty hilarious. His anger, eye-rolling, theatric sighs, etc. while on the jury at the end of every episode was pretty funny, but he needs to direct that anger at himself. He was the one stupid enough to put Rob in charge when he had no need to.

On the other hand, I'd be pretty pissed off, too, watching him gloat about it so much. I mean, Rob acts all contrite like he still wants to be friends in front of Lex, but when Rob's brother came to visit, they couldn't stop laughing about how Rob stuck the knife in Lex's back. Oh well, that's the appeal ... watching people act crazy and unpredictable.

It was nice to relax for a few hours at the end of a busy weekend. We had three soccer games, and I think I must've spent 10 of my 16 waking hours out of the house running various errands on Saturday. Sunday's game was the worst, as it was another hour of watching Sarah's team get shut out (they haven't scored a goal all season, and this might have been their last game). And that hour came after a 45-minute delay during which time we had no referee.

I'll probably eat these words someday, but I'm really looking forward to Sarah being in the school band instead of soccer.

Posted by Observer at 08:38 AM | Comments (2)

May 09, 2004

Wild Night

Texas is still playing some great baseball, but coming into the weekend series with Detroit, there were some signs that the hot streak was beginning to crumble back to reality. And even though the Rangers have been playing their best baseball in years, the Angels are matching them and battling close for first place. So this is an important series against a decent, improving Detroit team. It is a team that, if we are serious contenders, we should take care of.

Midway through last night's game, it was beginning to look like we might get swept. Detroit had won Friday's game 8-7 in a really disappointing loss for Texas, and by the time the bottom of the 5th came around last night, Texas was behind 14-4. What happened to the pitching? Well, they say that even the best young pitchers have one bad outing in three, and nobody is going to claim we have the best young pitchers. Thus, it wasn't a shock that Dickey (who carried a shutout 8 2/3 innings in his last start ... his outing was extended about 15-20 pitches too long since the manager tried to let him get a complete game shutout) had a poor outing. It was mostly relievers who gave up all the runs, though, since Dickey only gave up 6 in less than 4 innings.

Well, at the end of the Detroit half of the 5th inning, when they had finished piling on eight runs to extend their lead from 6-4 to 14-4 came one of those moments that may go into Rangers lore. Craig Monroe, a random Tiger outfielder, hit a routine fly ball for the last out of the (very long) inning. He had gotten a single earlier in the inning and scored a run, for crying out loud, but that wasn't good enough. He threw his bat down hard in disgust. Well, that didn't sit too well with the Ranger dugout, who thought they were being shown up and treated with contempt by an unworthy team. Manager Buck Showalter got really mad, yelled a few things out of the dugout and at his players, and they responded with a 10-run inning.

Before it was over, Alfonso Soriano would set a new Ranger record with 6 hits in the game (he went 6 for 6). The Rangers would walk *FIFTEEN* times (in the previous 29 games, they've walked 79 times, an average of less than three per game). The score would remain tied 15 to 15 and have to go extra innings. Finally, the Rangers finished off the Tigers in the bottom of the 10th, singling in a run off Ugueth Urbina, the great closer the Rangers had last year (but traded mid-season for some prospects).

The Rangers play Detroit again today and three more times next weekend. If tonight is the launching point for a big winning streak that gets us back out in front and propels us to playoff contention ultimately, you are going to be hearing about the Thrown Bat Incident for a long time. And yes, it is silly. The whole reason it was such a wacky game is that the plate umpire decided to have a raisin-sized strike zone (our pitching coach was thrown out in the 2nd inning for being impolite enough to point that out). The Rangers are going to win or lose based on their abilities, not because they got mad about a thrown bat. But baseball thrives on fans' belief in these kinds of stories, on people buying into "clubhouse chemistry" and so on, and I'll admit it is fun to believe that kind of stuff.

So, for now, I guess I will.

Posted by Observer at 08:41 AM | Comments (1)

May 08, 2004

A Stain on America

Bravo to this essay from the Daily Brew, which says what needs to be said:

We Are All Wearing The Blue Dress Now

Whether Republicans like it or not, if George Bush is elected in the fall, the entire world will view the election as American approval of the torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. It might not be fair, it might not be reasonable, but it is nevertheless reality.

Apologies, prosecutions, firings and courts martial will not be enough to expunge the stain this scandal has placed on the honor of the United States. The pictures are simply too graphic. The abuses are simply too horrible. If George Bush is elected President, the entire world will view the election, at a minimum, as tacit approval of these events.

This election will thus no longer merely determine the Presidency. This election is now much larger than the office. The United States' place in the family of nations is now on the ballot. This election will determine whether the United States will ever again have any standing or moral authority in the rest of the world.

The United States cannot simultaneously stand against depraved sexual torture and the wanton abuse of human rights, while electing the commander in chief upon whose watch these events occurred. The seven hundred thousand or so viewers of Fox News may be able to rationalize such cognitive dissonance; the six billion people who make up the remainder of the world will not.

The stakes are thus immeasurable. For better or for worse, a strong, just and moral United States is not simply a luxury. Instead, it has become a precondition for human progress. For better or for worse, the United States has become the indispensable nation. Our economic, technological, and military position in the world insures that we will remain as such for the foreseeable future.

The only question that remains, therefore, is whether the United States will have a moral authority on par with our economic and military dominance. That question will be answered in the fall. The election will determine whether America can ever again be seen as a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope and freedom the illuminates the entire globe.

Posted by Observer at 10:51 AM | Comments (8)

May 07, 2004

Spinning Torture

Atrios provides some well-written context for the latest news from Iraq:

I'm amazed at the number of right wingers (see Thomas, Cal below and too many hacks around the web to mention) who think that when we talk about US soldiers torturing inmates that it's important to provide context by reminding people that, well, you know Saddam Tortured People Too! Aside from the obviously bizarre low bar we've now set for ourselves, this isn't about how we here at home react to these pictures - it's about how people in Iraq do.

Aside from the horror, this is just a complete and total failure of leadership at every level. It's a failure of leadership which is going to lead to more and more of our troops getting killed. It's a failure of leadership which is going to chip away at our fast-eroding moral authority. It's a failure of leadership which completely undercuts the now-stated purpose of being in Iraq - spreading the flowers of American Democracy. [...]

We'll presumably have the military and economic superiority for a little while longer, but for American Exceptionalism to persist to any degree, we also need [moral superiority].

He also points to Digby, who says:

I'm once again struck by the moral surety of these religious Republicans who don't seem to be upset by the deviant behavior graphically shown in these pictures and who don't seem worried in the least about how they are going to explain it to their children. It seems like only yesterday that every other word from their mouths was "deplorable," "reprehensible," "despicable," "disgusting," and " "revolting," as they relayed their shock and horror at the stunning news of a 50 year old man having an affair with a young woman in his office. If I recall correctly, this was considered to be an act of such depravity that they didn't know how the nation could survive if the perpetrator wasn't removed from office.

I listened yesterday as Al Franken's dittohead pal tried to chastise Al, saying something like, "Boy, you sure like talking about all those graphic descriptions of torture and rape. What is that? Do you get a kick out of it or something? Do you really get a thrill out of talk that makes us look bad?" Where to start with this moronic level of dialogue? The reason we liberals talk about it is because we're outraged and appalled, and we want to grab every Moron American by the collar and force them to see what they voted for and what they say they support in the polls. Why is it that to be critical of this administration is to be UnAmerican?

Then there's the selective outrage argument. Conservatives say, "Sure, I'm mad about the torture, but I am more outraged about what happened on 9/11. Why aren't you?" This pretends that you can't be mad about both. It also brings out the moral equivalence thing as above, "Hey, at least we're not *worse* than Saddam." Sorry, I'd like to set our standards a bit higher.

Finally, here is a don't-miss compilation of Bush quotes. This guy mentions "they're better off now that there are no longer any torture chambers and rape rooms" in just about every speech regarding Iraq, and he hasn't changed his speech a single iota since this tragedy exploded. It's like the administration feels like as long as it stays "on message", no matter the reality, they've got a good chance to win in November.

Posted by Observer at 08:39 AM | Comments (4)

May 06, 2004

Ogg the Barbarian

Only one final left tomorrow, then three weeks off. I will spend it productively building up Ogg the Barbarian in Diablo II. I figured out that I can host a TCP/IP game in OS X mode and then join it in Classic mode so that my old character can interact with my new one. So my growing Barbarian will get the nice plate mail with 4 perfect topazes for treasure finding among other goodies. Wielding two maces results in a very nice rapid fire thunking of the enemy.

Posted by Observer at 08:26 AM | Comments (5)

May 05, 2004

Another Year Done

Work-sensitive enough that I decided to delete it. Sorry.

Posted by Observer at 06:49 AM | Comments (4)

May 04, 2004

Spinning the News from Iraq

A quick baseball fact: Kenny Rogers pitched a complete game shutout, leading the Rangers to victory over the Devil Rays, 9-0, at the Ballpark last night. The Rangers have the best record in baseball right now. I'm starting to peek at some baseball blogs and such, if only to take my mind off of politics, which is just so horrible these days. And on that note, in the world of things that matter...

Your "liberal" media is really on the ball these days. Two days ago, several (I believe it was eleven) American soldiers died in Iraq. The story on the front page was about one civilian contractor's escape from captivity. And conservatives complain the media doesn't cover the "good news" coming out of Iraq! I watched "The Daily Show" last night and thought Rob Corddry hit it on the head when he said something like, "Face it, Jon, the facts are biased. The cost, the corruption, the increasing levels of resistance, the lack of security, the dead and the wounded: the facts in Iraq simply have an anti-Bush bias."

As for dealing with the brutality in the Iraqi prison, here is a good summary of the media's response by Juan Cole:

It is remarkable how the US press allows themselves to be manipulated by the government. When the Abu Ghuraib story broke, Bush just issued a statement that he was disgusted, taking no responsibility. The headlines the next day? "Bush Disgusted by Photos." The proper headline would have been "Permanent Damage to US Image in Muslim World; Bush Fires No One."

I have also been struck by the absence of any Arab or Muslim voice on all this on American television news. The only talking heads who have been allowed to speak have been Americans, most of them conservative Americans. The story broke on CBS Wednesday night. With three 24-hour cable news channels, that equals something like 250 hours of news programming. I haven't seen it all, but if an Arab voice hasn't been excluded altogether, it has certainly been miniscule.

Why does Wolf Blitzer hear from US senators and military men about this, but doesn't invite on any Arab commentator? (He did have on Jalal Talabani, a pro-American Kurdish leader). Wouldn't the reaction of Adnan Pachachi or Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, some Iraqi politician in Iraq (put in such power as they have by the US) be worth hearing? Or how about an ambassador from an Arab state? Some reaction from the Arab street? What is it about the American system that so often degrades television cable news into propaganda and baby-sitting, and makes it an Iron Curtain rather than a window on the world?

More troubling: From the same post, Cole has a link to an Amnesty International press release that claims the torture was *not* isolated but rather systemic. I read in a BBC report (can't find the link right now) that two British soldiers claimed troops were using photos of their humiliated prisoners like trading cards. Again I'll say it: I hope it was isolated, but the more I read (and I'm reading everything I can on this from all perspectives, conservative and liberal, not just the mainstream papers), the worse it looks for us.

Without the proverbial moral high ground, all we are is the bully. We desperately need a president who can reclaim that high ground and a media that can convince Americans it would be best to swallow our pride a bit instead of beating the war drums incessantly. I don't care what order, but it needs to happen real soon.

Posted by Observer at 07:08 AM | Comments (9)

May 03, 2004

Of Events in a Series of Games

It may happen that the attentive reader (or perhaps I should just say "reader" as my readership is so small that demanding an adjective be improperly applied to a reader may leave me with a set of readers fewer than one) to this blog will recall a statement that was made in this space in the not too distant past. More than a statement, it was almost a promise. While plausibly it was not in the most precise way a promise, we will treat it as such and continue on by informing the reader as to the nature of this promise. Here it is, then: I said that if it gets to the end of the month and the Rangers are well over .500 and pitching well, I would have to begin to Pay Attention.

Well.

This weekend saw some remarkable events, which your humble author realizes is within the nature of the game of baseball but nevertheless feels compelled to expound upon at length for the benefit of those who are either unfamiliar with baseball, ignorant of the weekend's events at the Ballpark in Arlington, or both. So, then, it would be proper now to convey a short list of said events. I will proceed to do so immediately: a two hour rain delay in which not a drop of rain fell, a reliever who got three saves in two days, a 15-6 team (said team being the visiting Boston Red Sox) on a 6-game winning streak that got swept, a knuckleball pitcher who didn't walk a single batter and a pitcher's duel at the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the American League.

Now there are those who may dispute my wording of the ultimate item in the aforementioned list, simply because the final score of the Sunday game (the game I assert can be described as a pitchers' duel) was 4-1, not necessarily a score indicative of that type of game unless it involves the Texas Rangers. I must point out, then, that the score was 2-0 going into the bottom of the eighth inning, which indeed was a pitchers' duel between the Rangers' R. A. Dickey and Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, before a couple of relievers got sloppy and, in the space of a single inning, allowed more than double the total number of runs scored in the previous seven and a half innings.

The result of said weekend of baseball has left the Texas Rangers with the best record in the American League and a combined team ERA in the top three. "How, best record in the league?" you may ask, to which I would immediately reply, "Exactly that, yes." To this writer's dismay, the Rangers continue to draw depressingly few walks, which I fear will be their offensive downfall at some point, but for now, they are fun to watch. And so I will watch. For now.

And if you have surmised that I have begun to read and enjoy Steven Brust's latest trilogy, "The Viscount of Adrilahnka", then I do salute you and bid you a good day. I will not, however, continue writing like this because it makes my brain hurt.

Posted by Observer at 06:56 AM | Comments (3)

May 02, 2004

The Biggest Game in Town

Ok, now I feel stupid. A while back, I reviewed James McManus' "Positively Fifth Street", and I gave it pretty good marks. But I now realize that it was really just because it was the first poker book I ever read. I just finished reading a classic, "The Biggest Game in Town" by A. Alvarez, and I now see how derivative most recent poker books are from Alvarez.

This book was written in 1983, shortly after Jack Binion began running the World Series of Poker, and Alvarez is really the first (good) author to tell all those original stories about the history of Binion, Vegas and poker. If you read this and then McManus' book, you will see just how much McManus ripped off from Alvarez without really crediting him (even anecdotes as minor as the guy trying to sell photos for $75, then had better luck selling them for $100). I dunno, maybe McManus' book was meant as some kind of homage, but I never saw him say that anywhere.

I can safely say now that if you want to read only one book about the World Series of Poker (as a spectator) and the whole Las Vegas poker culture, this is the one. It's pretty much all about gambling (specifically, poker) without all the crazy non-gambling side stories that you get in other books. It recently came out in a new trade paperback edition that is worth looking for at the bookstore or library.

Posted by Observer at 07:17 AM | Comments (0)

May 01, 2004

It Just Got Worse

Well, it's all over the news now that some imprisoned Iraqis were beaten, humiliated, tortured and even raped by some "coalition forces", which includes American soldiers as well as some non-governmental forces (mercenaries paid for by us). On the anniversary of his stupid aircraft carrier stunt, Flight Suit Georgie expressed his disgust at the news and said everyone responsible will be held accountable, etc.

Actually, that's not true, because some of the soldiers involved in raping prisoners aren't really under any authority and so haven't been charged. I don't know what, if anything, will happen to them. The Arab world is watching closely, and images of the prisoners and the situation are confirming their worst suspicions about us.

Now that the weapons of mass destruction bit has been exposed as a sham, we were supposedly going in to replace a brutal dictator who tortured his own people. I don't think an Iraq comment passes Bush's lips without a reference to torture and "rape rooms", trying to retroactively justify the war as some kind of human rights intervention. That all sounds pretty fucking hollow now, to say the least, among the Arab world.

This is a prolonged occupation in a country that started out wary and has grown more hostile by the day. Did anyone think this kind of stuff wouldn't happen? They say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, but I don't Bush ever knew any history in the first place.

What's my solution? There isn't an easy answer, but one thing is obvious: the evil bastards who got us into this mess are definitely not the ones to trust to get us out. Does anyone with a capacity for rational thinking still think it is a good thing Gore wasn't president on 9/11?

Actually, I may have to take that back. Gore surely would've been impeached and convicted by now for something 9/11-related by the Republican congress. He'd be trying to focus on fighting terrorism and the mainstream media would say he's "wagging the dog" and trying to distract the country from his failure to stop 9/11 rather than implying it is somehow disloyal to criticize a president during wartime. But at least we wouldn't be in Iraq.

Posted by Observer at 11:32 AM | Comments (6)