February 28, 2007

Hitting Home

So I go into the front office of our department today to heat up my lunch, and our departmental secretary is sitting there reading the paper (the same one I complained about in the update to yesterday's post). So while I'm waiting on the microwave, she says to me, "Heh, did you see this article about Al Gore's big electric bills! Ha!"

I have no idea what her politics are, and she probably doesn't know or care much about mine. I try my best to avoid political discussions around the department. There's just no point, we have enough to disagree about.

Anyway, she got me mad, so she got a two-minute sermon on how "news laundering" works, which I'm sure is about 115 seconds longer than she wanted my answer to be. I tried to convince her that the story is why that story with that headline is even IN THE PAPER, let alone ON THE FRONT PAGE, but I probably just came off as an Angry Liberal.

Fighting crap like this is like blowing into a stiff wind. It's just so discouraging how easy it is to weasel something into the subconscious of so many Americans. It's at the core of why Republicans win elections (and yes, probably some Democrats, too). That's why the media is so incredibly important and why I spend more time bitching about it than talking about actual issues. The issues don't matter if no one can or will be educated.

Posted by Observer at 01:02 PM | Comments (2)

February 27, 2007

Case In Point

Updated below (twice).

This is a perfect example of why Al Gore cannot run for President, and it is the same kind of slime machine that will also drag Hillary down, more likely than not. It only works when people have had myths drilled into them for years by the mainstream media, so there is some hope that maybe Obama or Edwards can avoid it, if they win the nomination.

It works like this: There is a small group of people who are paid (indirectly, of course, think of it like money laundering) by companies like Exxon. Much like a tobacco lobbyist's or tobacco scientist's job (see movies like "The Insider" or "Thank You for Smoking"), these people make a career out of discrediting environmentalism and the leaders of its movement.

Take what happened to Gore in the last 24 hours. It was a professional hit, basically. A couple of guys who are paid for by Exxon issued a "press release" that says Al Gore has high utility bills, so he must be a hypocrite for promoting conservation, etc. No mention in the press release of the fact that he is a former VP with secret service protection and all of the baggage of that position. No mention of Gore's pledge to be "carbon neutral", which is that he offsets all energy expenditures with purchases of carbon-free energy.

Basically, it is just trying to make Gore look like a hypocrite to the Moron American so that he doesn't have to be taken seriously. They're trying to muddy the waters so the morons will say "ah, it's a pox on both houses thing" and ignore it. So Drudge picks it up, then the right wing talkers pick it up, then Fox, then the traditional networks. By the end of the week, there will be competing editorials in the papers about it, perhaps articles in prominent positions with misleading headlines ("Gore is an energy hog, records show" is the head while the story which nobody reads is more balanced).

Morning radio talk shows will bring it up, and that's where it gets credibility. The morning funny guy or girl who makes a career out of being the "neutral observer" poking fun at both sides, will get a good segment out of this, laughing it up with the rest of the cast in the studio, happy to kill another 10-15 minutes of airtime before the next commercial. See, if they invited Mr. Exxon on to read the press release, everyone would tune out, but that's the professional part of this.

The news is "laundered" by the time it reaches most people so that it comes from a source not perceived to have much "bias". Bill O'Reilly tried to play this role in the past, but he has been a little too transparent and so now is properly seen as essentially a wingnut. And most of the people who propagate this story figure they're just doing their job. After all, they criticize both sides equally, don't they? And if they get critical emails from liberals, oh well, they get criticism from both sides, so they must be doing something right. Ho ho!

That's where the real wingnuts come in. By criticizing everything remotely not-Bush-worshipping, they poison the well for those of us with legitimate complaints. Any broadcaster will tell you they get dozens of wingnut emails anytime Bush or the war is mentioned on the air, accusing them of treason or sedition if they say anything that isn't 100% behind the president. So they figure they'll mollify these people (who, honestly, are never mollified ... they live to NOT be mollified) by poking fun at Gore when a gift-wrapped opportunity presents itself.

Anyway, the actual truth of the matter is now irrelevant. Does it matter that Gore is "carbon neutral" and does everything he can to minimize energy use and set an example? Nope. Tomorrow, someone will mention he probably flies around on private planes like all those Hollyweird types, which use up all kinds of energy, without the exculpatory mention of why or how he makes up for it. It's like the Kerry story that he was sleeping with some intern. It was a 24-hour story that vanished quickly and was discredited, but it did the job: made people associate Kerry with Clinton in their subconscious, was "laundered" through news sources seen as legitimate, and it had its effect.

This is another example of how the media is broken. I'm sure there will be a good article, much better written than mine, later on Media Matters or from Peter Daou or Glenn Greenwald about this, and I'll update with a link at that time. This strategy works best, as Bob Somerby of "The Daily Howler" has repeatedly stressed, when the traditional media's script about someone (Gore as an exaggerator, Hillary as a mean, lying, corrupt bitch, Kerry as a flip-flopper) gets drilled into everyone's consciousness. I wish I knew how to fight it. People like stories and scripts, even when they're false.

Update: Anonymous Liberal has a good post where he goes through the math of the actual numbers in the energy bill used in the original press release. Turns out Gore's problem isn't that he's an energy hog. It's that he has a big house (and he probably needs it). This isn't even a story, on any level. There's no news here. That's why it is so interesting to follow the thread of where it came from, where its going, and who it is being told to and why. THAT's the news here, or it should be.

Update 2: I should write for the paper. It's really that easy and predictable. Today's headline: Gore is labeled a hypocrite for electricity use. First two paragraphs, on the front page:

Al Gore, a leading voice in the fight against global warming, is being called a hypocrite by a conservative group that says his Nasville mansion uses too much electricity.

The Gore family's 10,000 square foot home used about 190,000 kilowatt-hours in 2006. The average Nashville homeowner uses about 15,600 kilowatt-hours per year.

Here is an updated diary with more on why a former Vice President who works out of his home along with his wife just might use more energy than an average person (but less per square foot than most). Oh, and here we find one of the originators of the story that did the original digging into Gore's electricity bill and forwarded it to the Exxon guys. Yes, that's right, it's the local "liberal media" outlet, the newspaper in Nashville called "The Tennessean". I'm sure someone will play "follow the money" here and end up at an oil company, no matter which path you choose. This was "message laundering" at its finest.

Posted by Observer at 08:52 AM | Comments (0)

February 26, 2007

If This Is Winning, I'd Hate to be Losing

Glenn Greenwald compares a couple of editorials by Joe Lieberman, one written today and one written a couple of years ago. Not surprisingly, both indicate that our current strategy is working very well and is different from previous failed strategies. Also, both indicate that war critics should shut up.

The only thing that will stop Lieberman is some kind of McCarthy vs Welch "at long last have you no decency?" scenario, shaming Lieberman in front of a huge national audience much like the infamous Joe McCarthy was shamed in Congressional Hearings, finally ending the self-aggrandizing Communist witch hunt that McCarthy started in the 50's. I find this possibility extremely remote for so many reasons, but I can always dream, I guess.

Posted by Observer at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

Beer and Oil

As coal and oil usage gets more limited in the future either due to Hubbert's peak supply issues or global warming initiated switches to alternative energy sources, you can expect beer prices to go up. That's mainly because biofuels, like corn-based ethanol, are an easy, low-tech substitute for burning oil and coal, and so farmers are growing more corn and less barley for beer.

The bottom line is that we need to pour money into research to make solar and fusion power technology viable. After all, isn't cheap beer the most important American resource?

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

February 25, 2007

That's All You Got?

I'm finding it increasingly hard to believe how the Republican field is shaping up for the 2008 election. The front-runner right now is Rudy Giuliani, for crying out loud. He's pro-life, friendly to gays and has a very liberal track record as mayor of New York. Of course, he's got those Republican qualities that I hate, too (like pandering to the super rich, stupid economic ideas, pro-Bush), so I could never vote for the guy, but I can't imagine wingnuts voting for him either because of all of his litmus test issues fall on the wrong side.

Same with McCain. I can't believe they got on Kerry for flip-flopping while McCain is the "straight talking maverick". McCain has switched his stance on abortion and just about all of the religious right issues so many times, you have to genuinely wonder if he has any real core values. And of course, McCain is disastrously wrong on the Iraq War and loves the same kinds of stupid economic "screw the working poor" ideas that make Republican donors wet themselves with excitement.

Ok, maybe that's painting a bad picture of the donors. I doubt they're emotional. It's a business. If they donate $10k to a candidate, they can expect $100k in benefits from tax policy changes or corporate law changes, etc. Simple, really. And that's fine as long as those same people aren't waving a flag in my face and questioning my patriotism.

Anyway, third place right now is apparently Newt Gingrich. I can't imagine that guy getting elected to anything. Is he even seriously running?

Of course, with the Dems, unless Al Gore gets into the race, I can't imagine getting overly excited about anyone. Edwards is okay. I don't know enough about Obama. Clinton would be fine, but I worry about the way the media would sabotage her candidacy. I kinda wish Wesley Clark were running, because he could be great, but I guess he isn't a good campaigner.

Anyway breathing Democrat, of course (hell, even Lieberman) would be about ten thousand times better than any of the Republicans on the list, just because the executive branch and the entire apparatus of federal appointees clearly needs to be cleaned out and scrubbed after eight years of Republican crony loyalty-over-competence appointments. The damage done to our federal infrastructure, from disaster preparedness to the national park system to the Indian tribes to veterans affairs, is only going to become clear to everyone (since the traditional media has seriously failed in its responsibility with this in order to spend more time talking about Brittany or how "bold" Bush is today) with revelation after mind-boggling revelation that will come out in Democratic Congressional hearings over the next 10-20 years.

Posted by Observer at 09:12 PM | Comments (0)

February 24, 2007

The "Antiwar Left"

Glenn Greenwald takes the ultra-super-duper-liberal-media bastion known as the New York Times to task for perpetuating the myth that those who oppose the Iraq war are on the "fringes" of the political debate. In fact, as poll over poll shows, those who support Bush and the "surge" and keeping troops in there until whatever nebulous "victory" we can claim are the ones on the fringe, in the minority:

This New York Times article today, by Sheryl Gay Stolberg and John M. Broder, on the debate among Congressional Democrats over how to end the Iraq War, encapsulates so much of what is wrong with our national media. These are the first two paragraphs of the article:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 23 -- Congressional Democrats, divided over how to press President Bush to alter his policy in Iraq, are wrestling over whether to use the power of the purse to wind down the war, and they seem headed for a confrontation among themselves, possibly as early as next week, over a proposal to revoke the 2002 resolution authorizing the war.

Some Democrats acknowledge that they are in a sticky situation as they try to map out a strategy that will appease the antiwar left, which is pushing for conditions on war financing, without alienating moderate Democrats and Republicans who fear being painted as unsupportive of the troops.

[...] In what universe is it the case that demands for an end to the Iraq War are emanating from the dreaded and cliched "antiwar left"? According to the latest Pew poll:

Public support for the war in Iraq continues to decline, as a growing number of political independents are turning against the war. Overall, a 53% majority of Americans believe the U.S. should bring its troops home as soon as possible - up five points in the past month and the highest percentage favoring a troop pullout since the war began nearly four years ago.

That's not a majority merely against the war, or against the surge, or wanting a gradual withdrawal. Those numbers are much higher. This is a majority of Americans favoring "bring[ing] troops home as soon as possible." That's quite an "antiwar left" we have here.

Note well that the 53% is among Independents. The numbers among Dems are far higher (70's) and among Republicans are in the 20's.

And:

[I]n the current survey, 55% of independents say they favor bringing the troops home as soon as possible, compared with 40% who believe the troops should remain.

And, for good measure: "Among Democrats, roughly two-thirds (68%) want Congress to stop funding in an effort to block the troop buildup" and "more Democrats also support a troop withdrawal than did so in January (74% now, 66% then)." So apparently, 3 out of 4 Democrats -- along with a majority of independents -- are now part of the "antiwar left."

And they're not the only ones: "By roughly three-to-one (71%-23%), Republicans believe that U.S. forces should remain in Iraq until the situation there is stable." So almost a quarter of Republicans are now part of the "antiwar Left." And this December, 2006 CNN poll makes the point clearer still.

The national media continues to depict demands for an end to this war as the by-product of the fringe "antiwar left," and perpetuates the banal myth that Democrats face political peril because they have to satisfy this fringe element of their party. In fact, the true fringe group is the group of hard-core war supporters who support the President's desire that the war continue indefinitely. [...]

The entire theme of the article is factually false and fictitious. It is designed to perpetuate a cliched drama where none exists, and to depict war opponents, rather than war supporters, as a small and radical fringe whose unreasonable demands are -- just as happened in 1972 -- endangering the Democrats. There is not a word about the danger to Republicans of continuing to tie themselves to one of the most unpopular wars in our nation's history.

They talk about this a lot on Kos, and it gives me tired-head, but I know it is important. It's all about framing. The problem we liberals have with the news media comes when the traditional media frames our positions as "fringe" or "leftist" when they are, in fact, held by a majority of Americans. Republicans are good at exploiting this, calling themselves the party of "family values", as if Democrats don't value their families!

The antiwar position is belittled by associating it with the "dirty fucking hippie" crowd that isn't "serious" about foreign policy. They just smoke pot and want peace and love forever, man. Except it looks like, when it comes to war, more and more independents and Republicans these days are starting to wear the tie-dyed shirts.

Greenwald continues with his own comments about the press:

Virtually no bloggers call for journalists to advance partisan storylines or advocate partisan views. Rather, bloggers want journalists to report on matters with factual accuracy, and not slothfully pass on claims from government officials without investigating them for truth or perpetuate lazy storylines that have no basis in fact. That means that reporters should not disseminate anonymous government claims about Saddam's bulging weapons arsenals and expansive alliances with Al Qaeda, nor should they recklessly repeat patently false claims about Nancy Pelosi's demands for large private planes, nor should they falsely attribute anti-war views or demands for the war's end to the "antiwar left."

The laziness of reporters and their insatiable quest to curry favor with government officials continuously causes them to uncritically pass on false information, to protect the officials over whom they are supposed to be exercising scrutiny by granting them anonymity to disseminate government propaganda, and to perpetuate myths which their inside-government sources want to maintain. The complaint about journalists is about inaccuracy, gullibility and sloth, not a lack of partisan vigor. This New York Times article illustrates the fundamental deficiency in our nation's press -- as well as a principal element of media criticism -- quite vividly.

I would add bias to that list. There is a very strong corporate bias in the media, a tendency to downplay stories critical of certain corporations, a tendency to make the rich look put upon by high taxes, a tendency to make government bureaucracy seem corrupt or incompetent and money wasting (without nearly as much attention paid to the enormous shortcomings of the corporate world in this area). Since these things are typically Republican qualities, the idea that the media is somehow biased in favor of Democrats is sadly laughable.

Posted by Observer at 04:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 23, 2007

Priorities

Via The Sideshow comes this article by Matt Taibbi about the priorities in the newly proposed Bush budget:

I'm not one of those curmudgeons who freaks out every time that Bradgelina moves the war off the front page of the Post, or Katie Couric decides to usher in a whole new era of network news with photos of the imbecile demon-spawn of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. I understand that we live in a demand-based economy and that there is far more demand for brainless celebrity bullshit than there is, say, for the fine print of the Health and Human Services budget.

But that was before this week. I awoke this morning in New York City to find Britney Spears plastered all over the cover of two gigantic daily newspapers, simply because she cut her hair off over the weekend. To me, this crosses a line. My definition of a news story involves something happening. If nothing happens, then you can't have "news," because nothing has changed since the day before. Britney Spears was an idiot last Thursday, an idiot on Friday, and an idiot on both Saturday and Sunday. She was, shockingly, also an idiot on Monday. It will be news when she stops being an idiot, and we'll know when that happens, because she'll have shot herself for the good of the planet. Britney Spears cutting her hair off is the least-worthy front page news story in the history of humanity.

Apparently, from now on, every time a jackass sticks a pencil in his own eye, we'll have to wait an extra ten minutes to hear what happened on the battlefield or in Congress or any other place that actually matters.

On the same day that Britney was shaving her head, a guy I know who works in the office of Senator Bernie Sanders sent me an email. He was trying very hard to get news organizations interested in some research his office had done about George Bush's proposed 2008 budget, which was unveiled two weeks ago and received relatively little press, mainly because of the controversy over the Iraq war resolution. All the same, the Bush budget is an amazing document. It would be hard to imagine a document that more clearly articulates the priorities of our current political elite.

Not only does it make many of Bush's tax cuts permanent, but it envisions a complete repeal of the Estate Tax, which mainly affects only those who are in the top two-tenths of the top one percent of the richest people in this country. The proposed savings from the cuts over the next decade are about $442 billion, or just slightly less than the amount of the annual defense budget (minus Iraq war expenses). But what's interesting about these cuts are how Bush plans to pay for them.

Sanders's office came up with some interesting numbers here. If the Estate Tax were to be repealed completely, the estimated savings to just one family -- the Walton family, the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune -- would be about $32.7 billion dollars over the next ten years.

The proposed reductions to Medicaid over the same time frame? $28 billion.

Or how about this: if the Estate Tax goes, the heirs to the Mars candy corporation -- some of the world's evilest scumbags, incidentally, routinely ripped by human rights organizations for trafficking in child labor to work cocoa farms in places like Cote D'Ivoire -- if the estate tax goes, those assholes will receive about $11.7 billion in tax breaks. That's more than three times the amount Bush wants to cut from the VA budget ($3.4 billion) over the same time period.

Some other notable estimate estate tax breaks, versus corresponding cuts:

* Cox family (Cox cable TV) receives $9.7 billion tax break while education would get $1.5 billion in cuts

* Nordstrom family (Nordstrom dept. stores) receives $826.5 million tax break while Community Service Block Grants would be eliminated, a $630 million cut

* Ernest Gallo family (shitty wines) receives a $468.4 million cut while LIHEAP (heating oil to poor) would get a $420 million cut

And so on and so on. Sanders additionally pointed out that the family of former Exxon/Mobil CEO Lee Raymond, who received a $400 million retirement package, would receive about $164 million in tax breaks.

Compare that to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which Bush proposes be completely eliminated, at a savings of $108 million over ten years. The program sent one bag of groceries per month to 480,000 seniors, mothers and newborn children.

Somehow, to me, that's the worst one on the list. Here you have the former CEO of a company that scored record profits even as it gouged consumers, with gas prices rising more than 70 percent since January of 2001. There is a direct correlation between the avarice of oil company executives and the increased demand for federal aid for heating oil programs like LIHEAP, and yet the federal government wants to reward these same executives for raising prices on the backs of consumers.

Even if you're a traditional, Barry Goldwater conservative, the kinds of budgets that Bush has sent to the hill not only this year but this whole century are the worst-case scenario; they increase spending generally while cutting taxes and social programming. They commit taxpayers to giant subsidies of already Croseus-rich energy corporations, pharmaceutical companies and defense manufacturers while simultaneously cutting taxes on those who most directly benefit from those subsidies. Thus you're not cutting spending -- you're just cutting spending on people who actually need the money. (According to the Washington Times, which in a supremely ironic twist of fate did one of the better analyses of the budget, spending will be 1.6 percent of GDP higher in the 2008 budget than in was in 2000, while revenues will be 2.6 percent of GDP lower). This is something different from traditional conservatism and something different from big-government liberalism; this is a new kind of politics that transforms the state into a huge, ever-expanding instrument for converting private savings into corporate profit.

That's not only bad government, it's bad capitalism. It makes legalized bribery and political connections more important factors than performance and competition in the corporate marketplace. Beyond that, it's just plain fucking offensive to ordinary people. It's one thing to complain about paying taxes when those taxes are buying a bag of groceries once a month for some struggling single mom in eastern Kentucky. But when your taxes are buying a yacht for some asshole who hires African eight year-olds to pick cocoa beans for two cents an hour ... I sure don't remember reading an excuse for that anywhere in the Federalist Papers.

I also don't remember reading much about this year's budget. It was a story for about half a minute when it came out two weeks ago. It barely made TV newscasts, and even when it did, only the broad strokes made it on air. There was some fuss about the Alternative Minimum Tax and a mild uproar over the fact that the 2008 budget failed to account for estimates of the costs for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But overall, the budget was a non-starter as a news story. As it does every year, it takes a back seat to hot-button issues like gay marriage, the latest election scandal, etc. Already, the 2008 election presidential campaign has gotten far more ink than the 2008 budget. As entertainment, bullshit politics always triumphs over real politics.

Here's the thing about the system of news coverage we have today. If the Walton family, or Lee Raymond, or the heirs to the Mars fortune actually needed the news media to work better than it does now, believe me, it would work better. But they have no such need, because the system is working just fine for them as is. The people it's failing are the rest of us, and most of the rest of us, apparently, would rather sniff Anna Nicole Smith's corpse or watch Britney Spears hump a fire hydrant than find out what our tax dollars are actually paying for.

Shit, when you think about it that way, why not steal from us? People that dumb don't deserve to have money.

I'm not really sure what leg conservatives have left to stand on. It used to be that someone would support a Republican because they were (a) fiscally prudent, (b) socially conservative or (c) isolationist (not into "nation building"). About the only thing Republicans have left as a draw is (b), and that's just a facade. Everyone knows they only trot out "defense of marriage" crap to get the fundies to the polls, that Republicans controlled Congress for how many years and never passed a meaningful measure to outlaw abortion because they know they have to keep the issue alive, pardon the pun.

It seems to me the only reason a person would vote for or support a Republican these days is that they're too humiliated to admit that they were so deeply mistaken and have so deeply damaged America as a result. That, or they're morons.

Posted by Observer at 01:13 PM | Comments (0)

February 22, 2007

Blast from the Past

This is from February 2003, prior to the Iraq invasion, my second blog post ever:

I'm ambivalent about it. I doubt we'd get anywhere without a credible threat of force, and I would very much like to see Saddam out. HOWEVER, I think the idea that he will be replaced by some kind of representative democracy in a region sorely lacking in that tradition ... that is a fantasy.

I think we'll get a replacement who is just as bad, or possibly worse considering that Saddam represents the (generally) corrupt faction of Muslims instead of the fanatic-great-satan-kill-America faction (like Iran), which is the majority of Iraq's population. The alternative is that we stay there long enough to completely change the culture of the country, and I mean stay there in force, effectively becoming the entire governmental apparatus. And we simply don't do that.

I regret not being more forceful about opposing the war, given that I had a pretty good idea of what the outcome was going to be. I should've thought more about how much of a burden this would be on our troops.

Posted by Observer at 11:51 PM | Comments (0)

February 21, 2007

Run With That!

Jeff Vogel works at Spiderweb Software designing lots of multiplayer fantasy RPG's. I've played Avernum 4 from them, but didn't really like it that much. The interface gave me a headache, so I had to stop playing. Anyway, he's spent a lot of time developing and playing online RPG's, and he hates them with a passion that he reveals in this interview about lessons he's learned that could be applied to WoW, EverQuest, Clan Lord or just about any other MMORPG:

The other day, someone in the game saw my character and told me how impressed he was. He was embarrassed that he had only bought the game the day before, and he wasn't uber yet. I told him, "All you need to do to get this cool gear is to spend lots and lots and lots of time. I suggest uninstalling the game, returning it to the store, and living your life." Unsurprisingly, I didn't get a response to that. But hey, he can't say that nobody warned him. [...]

If you are new to this activity, let me tell you what I have learned. It may help your life make a little more sense.

First, people who inhabit online forums are idiotic losers. Oh, my God. Where do they get these people? Are they bred in vats? Is there a giant, invisible conspiracy of married cousins with DSL? What is it about game company online forums that makes people so dumb... that makes it so even the simplest, most obvious comment or complaint is met with arguments and flames?

There is something infuriating about hearing someone say something truly stupid. It's true in bars, it's true at family reunions, and it's true online. Don't open yourself up to suffering. The first lesson is this; stay away from online forums. If you can't stay away, refuse to let those people get under your skin. And, if you do end up in a giant flame war, a holy war in which you will not back down until they admit that they are totally wrong and you are totally right, don't tell me about it. I will laugh at you.

Oh, and by the way? No sane game designer reads the forums. No matter how sensible a change you make to a game, there will always be a pack of screaming yahoos tearing it apart. If you let those people get into your head, it'll paralyze you. That's why they stay away. Just so you know.

Second, guilds are highly political, and people in them will be mean to you, won't value you properly, and will screw you over. Those nice people you've been working with night after night to slay the fearsome dragon Onyxia? They don't love you. They are not your friends. You are nothing but pixels on a screen to them. They will happily take from you that magic, Tier 2 helmet you clearly earned... even if it makes you cry.

Actually, this is a valuable lesson about life. Everything gets political. Put three people in a room, and soon, two of them will be plotting against the third. And guild politics are lightweight, beanbag stuff. You want to see some ugliness? Check out office or church politics sometime.

Sometimes, my friends who are new to the game come to me with tales of the idiots in their guild... the treasures and raid spots they were cheated out of... the guild leader who didn't realize what precious, unique snowflakes they are. And I nod sympathetically. Hey, I've gotten crazy angry about guild crap myself.

But the worst thing that can happen is that you'll leave the game and return to real life. Which brings us to the third lesson: If you ever feel like quitting, QUIT!

Seriously. Every once in a while, you'll start to lose your energy. You'll feel like taking a little break. Read books. Go out. Meet people. When that happens, when you get an itch to take a break, RUN WITH THAT!

Feeling like quitting one of these horrible games is the sweetest gift life can give you. You can shake the addiction and get all those hours back. It's like if you were a hopeless heroin addict, and one day, you woke up and said, "You know something? I don't feel like any heroin today. I'll go for a walk. See a movie. Get a job." Yes! Do that! You caught a lucky break. Run for your life!

Sure, you'll be back. Eventually. But at least you might get some sunlight in the meantime.

I have long felt that these massive online RPGs are the best educational games ever created. If you pay attention, you can learn a world of things about human nature, and about working with and motivating people. And they're pretty fun.

I've learned a lot. Now all I need is to learn to stop. Once I manage that, golly, how smart I will be.

I feel this way after I quit a long binge with a particular game, whether it is Clan Lord or Diablo or Poker. I feel so productive, like I can suddenly get so much done and live such a full life. But then I find I have too much time on my hands, and playing games is more fun than reading books continuously or keeping up with politics obsessively or whatever, so I go back to a new game. What I need to find is a highly addictive, fun game that I don't feel like I need to spend every waking second of free time playing.

Maybe Heroes V for the Mac will fit the bill whenever Freeverse finally releases it.

Anyway, some of Jeff's other columns are good, too, like this one about how most RPG's are just about teaching you to love tedium by rewarding you with some pixels that show your character getting stronger:

Sure, it might be cool to make a game where your character starts out a level 50 badass and then just trashes bozos. But it just wouldn't sell as well. The addictive, statistic-increasing, time-eating quality isn't the problem with these games. It's the point.

Exactly.

Posted by Observer at 09:56 AM | Comments (2)

February 20, 2007

Freakonomics

I found "Freakonomics" in the library over the weekend and decided to look through it. Didn't take very long to read, maybe a few hours. I was surprised, actually, at how thin it was, content-wise.

Still, there were some interesting chapters, kind of like reading a Paul Krugman column where he might have the space to back up every assertion he makes with a more substantive argument and references, etc. There's a lot in the book about risk assessment that was interesting. For example, having a swimming pool in the backyard is about 100 times more dangerous to your kids than owning a gun, based on statistics.

And then there's the famously controversial (but convincing) argument that the crime rate in the 90's dropped precipitously not because of more cops or better policing methods or more prisons (though some of those may have helped a little). No, it was mainly because it has been about two decades since abortion was legalized, so a lot of kids who would've been criminals simply don't exist. It's a horrible statement to make, but it's what comes out of the studies.

There's also a couple of chapters in there on parenting which basically conclude it is more about who you are (partly genetics and partly your way of life) that dictates how your kids turn out as opposed to what you do. A conscientious parent's kids have a better chance than most kids not because of a particular parenting strategy but instead because the parent is the kind of person who strives for that extra advantage for their kids, if that makes sense. One of the chapters, though, was just a big space-filler about name popularity and how names do and don't shape a kid's destiny. Basically two interesting paragraphs in twenty pages.

Anyway, it was a good book to check out because I wouldn't want to pay for it, and it comes in several interesting 15-minute chunks, which is about the longest continous stretch of free time I have these days. I don't know if it is so much about economics as it is about statistics and risk assessment. I would almost think of it as a good book to read after you've already read some of the better, similar books by John Allen Paulos such as "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market".

I wonder why this one because such a hot seller compared to Paulos? Probably it got a lot of press from taking on more controversial topics like abortion, guns and parenting.

Posted by Observer at 10:34 PM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2007

Trusted Sources

Glenn Greenwald looks at the right wing response to the story about the atrocious conditions our returning wounded war veterans are facing. Most of them, of course, are ignoring it. For them, "support the troops" apparently just means "support whatever Bush is saying" instead of actually, you know, supporting the men and women in uniform when they need help.

The few who have looked at it, like the embarrassing Jonah Goldberg, have made fools of themselves. And why does this moron get an editorial printed in our local paper once per week? What in the fucking hell are his qualifications? His column is always a bunch of poorly slapped together wingnut talking points, prefaced by a false "I'm actually a centrist" parable, kind of like Bill O'Reilly.

Anyway, Goldberg reacts to the incredibly detailed article, pieced together from dozens of interviews and days at Walter Reed, etc (you know, "journalism") by saying he doesn't trust the reporter because she once wrote something critical about Bush. And also he has a friend who knows someone who says this is all overblown, and an anonymous emailer agrees. So on the one hand, you have a respected, prize-winning reporter with numerous on-the-record sources and a track record, and on the other hand, you have a wingnut buddy and an anonymous emailer.

Huh, who can decide which is probably right? Can you believe people who think this way are published in any kind of forum that is based upon merit? I would never pretend that my writing is of the quality necessary for a weekly newspaper column, but even I could do better (if I were paid) than this clown. I can't believe the "liberal" media supports the wingnut welfare network by paying Goldberg to syndicate his pointless, dishonest hack pieces.

Posted by Observer at 03:59 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2007

Editorials

If you don't know much about the whole Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame thing in which an undercover CIA operative was outed by the Bush administration for political purposes, then you can ignore this one.

A major news outlet prominently runs opinion pieces on consecutive days that (a) proclaim Valerie Plame was never covert and (b) Scooter Libby shouldn't even be on trial as he couldn't have done anything wrong. Both are demonstrably false claims, about as ludicrous as claiming that the Sears tower was attacked on 9/11. I mean, they are THAT obviously wrong, but since not many people have bothered knowing about this case, they figure they can slide by an article so voters will figure they're both lying, pox on both houses, etc. and forget about it.

Did I mention the name of the news outlet?

The Washington Post.

Posted by Observer at 10:14 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2007

Cost

It is, of course, necessary and appropriate to talk about the consequences of ending the war. By the same token, it is necessary and appropriate to pay attention to the costs to American soldiers (not to mention Iraqis whose best interests all the war supporters seem to have in their hearts when they don't relapse and wish the whole place were a radioactive parking lot).

Read this about what is happening at the Walter Reed medical facility. Keep in mind while you read this that the entire operation, from start to finish, has been under the complete control of Republicans for 12 years now, including the war that put so many soldiers there.

And they have the soulless gall to encourage people to believe they are the party that supports the troops, that can be trusted with our military. What a sick, evil joke. I sure hope now that the Dems control both houses, they'll at least put some serious money into treating our returning veterans like the heroes they are.

They'd better. I'll be watching. Jim Webb (newly elected Democratic Senator from Virginia who unseated a nasty Republican named George Allen) has already introduced a bill intended to ensure all veterans get the same level of educational benefits that World War II veterans received, but I don't know the status of that bill. It's doesn't involve a blowjob or a celebrity, so it isn't easy to find it in the paper or on the main traditional media news sties.

Anyway, that's a start. But health care and rehabilitation need some big funding, and I want to see it. And don't give any crap about it costing too much either, not with a war that costs on the order of hundreds of millions per day.

Posted by Observer at 09:23 PM | Comments (0)

Perfectionists

Wolcott makes a good point today about how suddenly all of these anti-war Republicans are perfectionists:

Goodwin, never the victim of an original thought, is the News's foremost purveyor of the painfully obvious and invariably incorrect. Column after column, he churns out consensus opinion at its most pernicious, cobwebbed, creaky, and self-satisfied. Sexism aside (though sexism has etched a reactionary smirk into his every banality about the Mommy Party and its mommy dearest, Hillary Clinton), it is particularly galling for Goodwin to chide Hillary for voicing "tired mush" vis a vis American involvement in Iraq.

For years Goodwin, like the Daily News's editorial page, stood stalwart behind George Bush and mocked liberals and Democrats for being defeatist, myopic about the threat of Terrorism, politically emasculated; he ladled out his own mushy words of support as the bad news accumulated; then when the failure in Iraq became so unignorable that Goodwin himself slowly, grudingly gravitated to the point of view some of us had all along, he couldn't lay his Liebermanism aside, no, he saw fit to demand that everyone draw a shining arrow indicating which direction the U.S. should take to extricate itself from the mire. Just so he could find it insufficient. For no matter what the Democrats do, it's either too little or too much, too early or too late, too blatantly insincere or too dangerously naive.

The commonly held view among anti-war Republicans seems to be something like this: Ok, maybe Bush isn't so great. It's not our fault. But if you expect us to vote for a Democrat, they had better be 100% ethically pure, never "play politics" with any issues, and they had better get us out of the war with honor. After which point, we will accuse them of cowardice and find a reason to vote against them the next time a not-Bush is up for election.

The Republican party has run up massive deficits, bloated the size of the federal government beyond any imagined Democratic fantasies, destroyed an enormous list of civil liberties (pretty much everything except gun rights are gone if you suddenly become a terrorism suspect) and mired us in a preemptive war on false premises. I'd mention that our reputation among other countries is now shit, but that's a plus for most Republicans. At any rate, with all of this, you would think that a substantial number would start voting Democratic, but the electorate basically shifted in the last election from 51/49 in favor of Republicans to about 45/55 in favor of Democrats.

It's awfully depressing, but despite the track record of Republicans, most people still just figure "a pox on both houses" because of the way the media tries to make everything equivalent. For example, Republicans enacted legislation that enabled sexual slavery and forced abortion in the Marianas Islands, but hey, Nancy Pelosi wants a big plane to drag her entourage back to San Francisco non-stop every week, so they're both equally bad. That's the media's internal narrative, and it shows in their coverage.

At least, most of the time. Everyone in the country seemed to have the Pelosi plane issue in their awareness somewhere. It was mentioned in late night monologues, etc. How many have heard of what Tom DeLay and the Republicans did in the Marianas?

This is why I spend so much time bashing the media. They are THE problem. Until the media is fixed, we haven't much hope. They're too good at swaying public opinion to minimize some truly horrible and corrupt behavior on the part of Republicans.

Posted by Observer at 06:44 AM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2007

Clinton Rules

Jamison Foser has a good roundup of how the media is implementing the Clinton Rules this time around. This is why Hillary, regardless of her merits, probably has zero chance of winning. The media will savage her ten different ways, even worse than they did Gore, because of the Clinton Rules: You can say anything you want about a Clinton, and you won't get fired. Most of the time, they won't even run a correction.

Foser brings up the point about John McCain really only being a viable candidate for Senate originally because he got married to a very wealthy woman. Remember all the stuff about Kerry and his wealthy wife? If McCain gets the nomination, how many stories or minutes of national airtime will we see about him relying on his wealthy wife's money and influence?

For me personally, I don't care where who McCain is married to. I just want to know what he would do as president. My problem is with the media's treatment of his marriage compared to others.

Posted by Observer at 10:42 PM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2007

School Days

Our little three-year-old, Daniel, goes to "weekday school" every day for either 3 or 5 hours at the church where M*chelle works. We get regular progress reports on his development. Here are some of the highlights:

He sometimes checks the helper chart to see if it is his turn to be a classroom helper. He smiles when he sees his name. "Mrs. Atk*ns, Mrs. Atk*ns, I am the cleanup leader today!"

In Music class, the teacher gives each student an opportunity to choose how he will say hello. When it is Daniel's turn he chooses to say hello by stamping his feet.

Today, Mike is crying after he separates from his mom. Daniel comforts his friend and gives him a large pirate ship that he had been playing with.

Daniel and a friend work cooperatively at the spin art. Daniel says, "Okay, here you go. Now it's your turn."

Today Daniel sang "B*b the Build*r. Can we build *t? Yes we c*n!" as he builds a tower from blocks.

At the bike playground, Daniel pulls his bike up to the gas pump and says, "I need one gallon!"

Posted by Observer at 08:45 PM | Comments (4)

February 14, 2007

Support the Troops!

Maybe we should consider doing what the troops want:

A Military Times poll released in December revealed that only 35 percent of military members approved of the president's handling of the war - despite the fact that 46 percent of them are self-identified Republicans (down from 60 percent in previous Military Times polls) while just 16 percent are Democrats. According to a recent Zogby survey of troops serving in Iraq, 72 percent want American forces home within a year.

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

On Leaving

Atrios comments about various plans for leaving Iraq:

If we had a president who was competent and actually wanted to bring troops home, this position would be fine. But we don't. George Bush is president, and he is incompetent, and the people he surrounds himself with are, for the most part, incompetent. More than that, he has decided that leaving Iraq is equivalent to surrendering to "the enemy," whoever the hell that is (there's an insurgency and a few different civil wars and another one probably on the way). So the choice isn't between Pundit Pony Plan and George Bush's Plan, the choice is between forcing George Bush to leave any way you can or continuing to let George Bush fuck things up.

We don't all get to micromanage the Iraq war - not me, not Joe Klein, not Nancy Pelosi. The choices are, basically, staying or leaving. Maybe Pony Plan X is superior to that option, but Pony Plan X generally involves wishing that competent people who wanted to leave Iraq were going to do that in a sensible way. That just isn't really an option.

I don't necessarily agree with this. I think if Bush loses enough face or support to leave Iraq that someone competent within the military might be able to carry out the strategy for him. At any rate, like I said in a previous comment, I don't like the idea that the debate has to be either "support Bush" or "complete and total surrender, defeat, retreat, humiliation and terrorists invade the United States because they know we're cowards".

There are not really any great options for unshitting the bed in Iraq, but it is clear to me that the longer we stay, the worse it will get. We have to come up with a way to get out, and abandoning the idea of building permanent bases in Iraq would be a good start.

There is also the possibility, as Robert Dreyfuss writes, that things won't get so bad when we leave.

The Bush administration famously based its argument for invading Iraq on best-case assumptions: that we would be greeted as liberators; that a capable democratic government would quickly emerge; that our military presence would be modest and temporary; and that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for everything. All these assumptions, of course, turned out to be wrong.

Now, many of the same people who pushed for the invasion are arguing for escalating our military involvement based on a worst-case assumption: that if America leaves quickly, the Apocalypse will follow. “How would [advocates of withdrawal] respond to the eruption of full-blown civil war in Iraq and the massive ethnic cleansing it would produce?” write Robert Kagan and William Kristol in the Weekly Standard. “How would they respond to the intervention of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, Syria, and Turkey? And most important, what would they propose to do if, as a result of our withdrawal and the collapse of Iraq, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups managed to establish a safe haven from which to launch attacks against the United States and its allies?”

Similar rhetoric has been a staple of President Bush’s recent speeches. If the United States “fails” in Iraq—his euphemism for withdrawal—the president said in January, “[r]adical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions … Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people.”

This kind of thinking is also accepted by a wide range of liberal hawks and conservative realists who, whether or not they originally supported the invasion, now argue that the United States must stay. It was evident in the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, which, participants say, was alarmed by expert advice that withdrawal would produce potentially catastrophic consequences. Even many antiwar liberals believe that a quick pullout would cause a bloodbath. Some favor withdrawal anyway, to cut our own losses. Others demur out of geostrategic concerns, a feeling of moral obligation to the Iraqis, or the simple fear that Democrats will be blamed for the ensuing chaos.

But if it was foolish to accept the best-case assumptions that led us to invade Iraq, it’s also foolish not to question the worst-case assumptions that undergird arguments for staying. Is it possible that a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces will lead to a dramatic worsening of the situation? Of course it is, just as it’s possible that maintaining or escalating troops there could fuel the unrest. But it’s also worth considering the possibility that the worst may not happen: What if the doomsayers are wrong?

To understand why it’s a mistake to assume the worst, let’s begin with the most persistent, Bush-fostered fear about post-occupation Iraq: that al-Qaeda or other Islamic extremists will seize control once America departs; or that al-Qaeda will establish a safe haven in a rump, lawless Sunnistan and use that territory as a base, much as it used Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The idea that al-Qaeda might take over Iraq is nonsensical. Numerous estimates show that the group called Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its foreign fighters comprise only 5 to 10 percent of the Sunni insurgents’ forces. Most Sunni insurgents are simply what Wayne White—who led the State Department’s intelligence effort on Iraq until 2005—calls POIs, or “pissed-off Iraqis,” who are fighting because “they don’t like the occupation.” But the foreign terrorist threat is frequently advanced by the Bush administration, often with an even more alarming variant—that al-Qaeda will use Iraq as a headquarters for the establishment of a global caliphate. In December 2005, Rear Admiral William D. Sullivan, vice director for strategic plans and policy within the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a briefing in which he warned that al-Qaeda hoped to “revive the caliphate,” with its capital in Baghdad. President Bush himself has warned darkly that after controlling Iraq, Islamic militants will “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.”

The reality is far different. Even if AQI came to dominate the Sunni resistance, it would be utterly incapable of seizing Baghdad against the combined muscle of the Kurds and the Shiites, who make up four fifths of the country. (The Shiites, in particular, would see the battle against the Sunni extremist AQI—which regards the Shiites as a heretical, non-Muslim sect—as a life-or-death struggle.)

Nor is it likely that AQI would ever be allowed to use the Sunni areas of Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks on foreign targets. In Afghanistan, al-Qaeda had a full-fledged partnership with the Taliban and helped finance the state. In Iraq, the secular Baathists and former Iraqi military officers who lead the main force of the resistance despise AQI, and many of the Sunni tribes in western Iraq are closely tied to Saudi Arabia’s royal family, which is bitterly opposed to al-Qaeda. AQI has, at best, a marriage of convenience with the rest of the Sunni-led resistance. Over the past two years, al-Qaeda-linked forces in Iraq have often waged pitched battles with the mainstream Iraqi resistance and Sunni tribal forces. Were U.S. troops to leave Iraq today, the Baathists, the military, and the tribal leaders would likely join forces to exterminate AQI in short order.

It’s also worth questioning whether the forces that call themselves Al Qaeda in Iraq have any real ties to whatever remains of Osama bin Laden’s weakened, Pakistan-based leadership. Such ties, if they exist, have always been murky at best, even under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. With al-Zarqawi’s elimination in 2006 and his replacement by a collegial group, these ties are even muddier. Although it’s convenient for the Bush administration to claim that al-Qaeda is a Comintern-like international force, it is really a loose ideological movement, and its Iraq component is fed largely by jihadists who flock to the country because they see the war as a holy cause. Once the United States withdraws, Iraq will no longer be a magnet for that jihad.

The doomsayers’ second great fear is that the Sunni-Shiite sectarian civil war could escalate further, reaching near-genocidal levels and sucking in Iraq’s neighbors. “The biggest danger as we draw down is that the Shiites will run roughshod over the Sunnis,” says Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, whose exit strategy, “Strategic Redeployment 2.0,” is a blueprint for many Democrats on Capitol Hill. Similarly, Wayne White, who advised the Baker-Hamilton ISG, says that because of Baghdad’s importance, both Sunni and Shiite forces would probably rush to fill a vacuum in the capital if the United States withdraws.

In fact, it’s hard to find an analysis of the Iraq crisis that doesn’t predict an expanded Sunni-Shiite war once the United States departs. But let’s look at the countervailing factors—and there are many.

First, the United States is doing little, if anything, to restrain ethnic cleansing, either in Baghdad neighborhoods or Sunni and Shiite enclaves surrounding the capital. Indeed, under its current policy, the United States is arming and training one side in a civil war by bolstering the Shiite-controlled army and police.

In theory, Baghdad is roughly divided into Shiite east Baghdad on one side of the Tigris River, and Sunni west Baghdad on the other side. But in isolated neighborhoods such as Adhamiya, a Sunni part of east Baghdad, and Kadhimiya, a Shiite enclave in west Baghdad, ugly ethnic cleansing is proceeding apace. The same is true along a necklace of Sunni towns south of the capital, in an area that is predominantly Shiite; in mixed Sunni-Shiite towns such as Samarra, the largest city of predominantly Sunni Salahuddin Province, north of Baghdad; and in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. In these areas, it is facile to assert that U.S. troops are restraining the death squads and religiously inspired killers on both sides. And it would be impossible for us to do so even with a much greater increase in American troops than the president has called for.

Second, although battle lines are hardening and militias on both sides are becoming self-sustaining, the civil war is limited by physical constraints. Neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites have much in the way of armor or heavy weapons—tanks, major artillery, helicopters, and the like. Without heavy weaponry, neither side can take the war deep into the other’s territory. “They’re not good on offense,” says Warren Marik, a retired CIA officer who worked in Iraq in the 1990s. “They can’t assault positions.” Shiites may have numbers on their side. But because the Sunnis have most of Iraq’s former army officers, and their resistance militia boasts thousands of highly trained soldiers, they’re unlikely
to be overrun by the Shiite majority. Equally, the minority Sunnis won’t be able to seize Shiite parts of Baghdad or major Shiite cities in the south. Presuming neither side gets its hands on heavy weapons, once you take U.S. forces out of the equation the Sunnis and Shiites would ultimately reach an impasse.

Even if post-occupation efforts to create a new political compact among Iraqis fail, the most likely outcome is, again, a bloody Sunni-Shiite stalemate, accompanied by continued ethnic cleansing in mixed areas. But that, of course, is no worse than the path Iraq is already on under U.S. occupation.

A third fear is that Iraq’s neighbors will support their proxies in this fight. Indeed, they probably will—but within limits. Iran, which is already assisting various Shiite parties (especially the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), would continue to do so. And Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan would line up behind Iraq’s Sunnis. Even so, neither Shiite Iran nor the Sunni Arab countries would likely risk a regional conflagration by providing their Iraqi proxies with the heavy weapons that would enable them to wage offensive operations in each other’s heartland.

The only power that could qualitatively worsen Iraq’s sectarian civil war is the United States. Washington continues to arm and train the Shiites, although so far it has resisted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s pleas to provide Iraq’s Shiite-led army and police with heavy weapons, armor, and an air force. Only if that policy changed, and the United States began to create a true Shiite army in Iraq, would the Sunni Arab states likely feel compelled to build up Iraq’s Sunni paramilitary militias into something resembling a traditional army.

Thus, even if we assume that Iraq’s parties cannot achieve some sort of reconciliation as the United States withdraws, an American pullout is hardly guaranteed to unleash unbridled chaos. On the contrary, each year since 2003 that American troops have remained in Iraq, the violence has escalated steadily.

The third major concern about a post-occupation Iraq—although it gets less attention than it deserves—is the possibility of a crisis triggered by a Kurdish power grab in Kirkuk, the city at the heart of Iraq’s northern oil fields. Since 2003, the Kurds have been waging a systematic, ugly round of ethnic cleansing, packing Kirkuk with Kurds, kidnapping or driving out Arab residents (many of them settled there by Saddam), and stacking the city council with Kurdish partisans.

Though Kurdish Iraq is mostly quiet and relatively prosperous under the Kurdistan Regional Government that controls three northeastern provinces, the Kurds may be tempted to expand their territory and secede from Iraq. Under the occupation-imposed constitution, the Kurds have the right to hold a referendum in Kirkuk later this year that would probably put that oil-rich area under the control of the KRG; the Baker-Hamilton ISG called the referendum “explosive” and recommended that it be postponed. Alternatively, the Kurds might opt to take advantage of the Sunni-Shiite civil war to seize Kirkuk by force. Either way, most Kurds know that a Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk is an essential precondition for their ultimate independence from Iraq.

It’s hard to exaggerate the dangers inherent in a Kurdish grab for Kirkuk. Such a move would inflame Iraq’s Arab population (both Sunnis and Shiites), impinge on other minorities (including Turkmen and Christians), and provoke an outburst of ethnic cleansing in the city. Iraq’s two-sided civil war would become a three-sided affair.

But although this scenario sounds alarming, the reality is that, in the event of an American withdrawal, the Kurds would find it exceedingly difficult either to take Kirkuk or to declare independence. An independent Kurdistan would be landlocked, surrounded by hostile nations, and would possess a weak paramilitary army incapable of matching Iran, Arab Iraq, or Turkey. If Kurdistan were to secede without gaining Kirkuk’s oil, it would not be an economically viable nation. Even with the oil, the Kurds would have to depend on pipelines through Iraq and Turkey to export any significant amount. Nor would Turkey, with its large Kurdish minority, stand for a breakaway Kurdish state, and the Kurds know that the Turkish armed forces would overwhelm them.

Conversely, under the U.S. occupation—or, perhaps, because of it—the Kurds apparently feel emboldened to press their advantage in Kirkuk, despite the dire consequences. And if the United States were to adopt the idea floated by some in Washington of building permanent bases in Kurdistan, it would embolden the Kurds further. (The threat of a Turkish invasion is the chief deterrent to any move by the Kurds against Kirkuk, but as long as the United States maintains a presence in Kurdistan, the Turks will be reluctant to check the Kurds, for fear of running into U.S. troops.) Thus, by staying or by creating bases in Kurdistan, the United States is more likely to foster a Kurdish-Arab civil war in Iraq.

Not only is the worst-case scenario far from a sure thing in the event of an American withdrawal, but there is also a best-case scenario. Precisely because the idea of all-out civil war and a regional blowup involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey is so horrifying, all the political forces inside and outside Iraq have many incentives not to go there.

Certainly, four years into the war, passions on all sides have been inflamed, communal tensions bared, and the secular, urban Iraqi middle class has either fled or been decimated. The mass terror perpetuated by armed gangs of extremists now occupies center stage. The broken Iraqi state has ceased to exist outside the Green Zone, the economy is devastated, and unemployment is believed to be hovering around 50 percent.

Yet the neoconservatives and the Bush administration weren’t entirely wrong in 2003 when they expressed confidence in the underlying strength of the Iraqi body politic. Though things have gone horrendously awry, there are many factors that could provide the glue to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom in Washington, Iraq is not a make-believe state cobbled together after World War I, but a nation united by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, just as the Nile unites Egypt. Historically, the vast majority of Iraqis have not primarily identified themselves according to their sect, as Sunnis or Shiites. Of course, as the civil war escalates, more Iraqis are identifying by sect, and tensions are worsening. But it is not too late to resurrect some of the comity that once existed. The current war is not a conflict between all Sunnis and all Shiites, but a violent clash of extremist paramilitary armies. Most Iraqis do not support the extremists on either side. According to a poll conducted in June 2006 by the International Republican Institute, “seventy-eight per cent of Iraqis, including a majority of Shiites, opposed the division of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines.”

In addition, the country’s vast oil reserves, conceivably the world’s largest, could help hold Iraq together. Iraqi politicians are currently devising a law that would ratify the central government’s control of all of the country’s oil wealth. Even the corruption that now cripples Iraq tethers Iraqi political leaders to the central government and to the idea of Iraq as a nation-state. “None of the big players really want civil war,” says an Iraqi military official closely affiliated with Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. “None of them want to give up the regular flow of funds that they get now from corruption.”

What most Iraqis do seem to want, according to numerous polls, is for American forces to leave. Even within the current, skewed Iraqi political system, a majority of Iraq’s parliament supports a U.S. withdrawal. If we add to the mix the powerful Sunni-led resistance, including former Baathists, Sunni nationalists, and tribes, an overwhelming majority wants to end the occupation.

This shared desire could be another crucial force in helping maintain the integrity of Iraq. The catch-22 of Iraqi politics is that any Iraqi government created or supported by the United States is instantly suspect in Iraqi eyes. By the same token, a nationalist government that succeeds in ushering U.S. forces out of Iraq would have overwhelming support from most Iraqis on most sides of the conflict. With that support, such a government might be able to make the difficult compromises—like amending the constitution to give minority protections to Sunnis—that the Maliki government has been unable or unwilling to make but that most observers believe are crucial to any political settlement that might end the fighting.

It is clear that there are many features of Iraq’s current landscape that lend themselves to the eventual creation of a stable, postwar nation—although rebuilding the country will take generations. It is, at this point, the best we can hope for. Like all best-case scenarios, it might or might not happen. But the very same can be said of the worst-case scenario—a scenario that war hawks portray as a certainty and wave, like a bloody shirt, to scare decision-makers and members of Congress into supporting a failed strategy.

I think the only hope we have for a rational withdrawal from Iraq will be if the pro-war wingnuts get back around to the "What Iraqis want" slot on their War Justification Merry-Go-Round. Maybe then they'll realize that what they want and what Americans want just happens to be the same thing, so why not try it?

Posted by Observer at 08:40 AM | Comments (7)

February 13, 2007

Out

Josh Marshall points out that 63% of Americans polled want the troops out of Iraq by the end of the year and wants Congress to pass legislation to this effect. Now, you may say that we don't do military policy by polling, and that's true, but I do wonder (as Atrios does) why that opinion is not represented by the leadership in Congress or by pretty much any television pundit (since I guess Janeane Garofalo doesn't get invited on talk shows anymore).

Must be that liberal media I keep hearing about.

Posted by Observer at 09:06 AM | Comments (4)

February 12, 2007

Giving Dems a Pass?

Glenn Greenwald has a good point here, in his last post before moving behind the annoying-ad-wall of Salon. Why haven't Democrats seriously tried to use their Congressional powers to end the war? All we've got is meaningless resolutions and debates so far. Want to end the war? Pass a new military force authorization bill, defund the war, etc. It's not rocket science.

Why doesn't the leadership take up efforts like this from the few brave sponsors like Russ Feingold? Are they really just going to let the war go on because (a) it is really bad for Republicans and (b) any serious effort to stop it will result in cries of "treason!"? Are they going to let more of our soldiers die out of sheer political cowardice?

I used to wonder (still do) why pro-lifers didn't get mad at Republicans more for controlling so much of the government for so many years but never passing any meaningful legislation to restrict abortion. I wondered why pro-lifers would continue to support Republicans in the face of the inaction, especially since a lot of Dems are pro-life.

By the same token, Dems shouldn't get a free pass on the war just because they're the lesser of two evils. We elected Dems this past cycle mainly to stop the war, and they need to get off the dime and get serious about it. The leadership needs to put some bills out there with teeth and let the grassroots put pressure where it is needed. Ignore the fuckwits in the right wing who will cry "treason!" no matter what you do. Just do the right thing. We're behind you, so show some damned leadership, Dems!

Posted by Observer at 03:48 PM | Comments (2)

February 09, 2007

Cafferty

From CNN's exhaustive coverage of Anna Nicole Smith is this hidden gem from Jack Cafferty, talking with Wolf Blitzer just before a break in the coverage:

JACK CAFFERTY: Is Anna Nicole Smith still dead, Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER: Yes, We’re going to be updating our viewers shortly on –

CAFFERTY: Can’t wait for that.

BLITZER: — the mysterious circumstance surrounding that. Jack, thank you.

Meanwhile, another death receives far less coverage (if any) and leaves one to wonder just how the news media is making the world a better place today. Links via Atrios.

Posted by Observer at 01:49 PM | Comments (2)

February 08, 2007

Pathetic

The ConservaBorg are only good at one thing: Professionally Getting Their Panties in a Wad. They find something to get mad about, maybe it is Prince's guitar phallus, maybe it is that a blogger who works for a campaign made a joke at their expense in a blog five years ago. Whatever.

This time, they're mad that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is being given some kind of special treatment so she can often fly nonstop to her home district on the West Coast. Nevermind that former Speaker Hastert got the same treatment. Nevermind that it wasn't Pelosi's choice but instead the people whose job it is to protect the person 2nd in line for succession behind only the Vice President.

None of that's important. What's important is firing up the rabble enough so that the Moron Americans pick it up on their political radar and file it away under "Elitist Democrat Wants Special Treatment". Doesn't matter that the story gets discredited in less than 24 hours. Just as long as Fox "News" trumpets it long enough for Bill O'Reilly to get a segment out of it or some other blowhard if O'Reilly is smart enough to avoid the story.

If we had a liberal media in this country, the New York Times would do a front page story tomorrow about how the Right Wing Noise Machine works, with this as a case study. Instead, we'll get Anna Nicole overdosing and more on the Astronaut in Diapers story. If we're lucky, maybe there will be something on the Scooter Libby trial, which after all is implicating the VP and possibly the President in illegal behavior bordering on treason just to score a political point.

But it doesn't involve a blowjob, so don't hold your breath.

Posted by Observer at 10:57 PM | Comments (0)

Fiji

I'm glad Survivor is starting up a new season, because Stargate SG-1 was kind of a bust. After watching "West Wing", it was like nails on a chalkboard to hear the dialogue on Stargate. I think the McGyver guy said "With all due respect" at least four times in the first half hour. The guy who plays Daniel was trying too hard to be like James Spader instead of his own character, and he wasn't good at it. It was distracting.

I was also pretty shocked to see gratuitous full-frontal nudity pop up about 90 minutes into the two hour pilot on a show I thought was just a TV series opening. And it was definitely gratuitous because they had just done a similar scene 15 minutes earlier in which the nudity was artfully concealed. They just used a different camera angle for the 2nd time around that happened to show everything. Weird. Surely it isn't that way for the whole series? Oh well, I'm not going to bother finding out. I'm not THAT desperate for something to have a TV series to watch.

Anyway, Survivor: Fiji looks fine. There are a lot of sea snakes on exile island. What do they do if someone gets bitten? Do they have to leave the game? Looks like they're going to throw two hidden immunity idols in this time, which increases the chances of a totally screwed up tribal council. I like that. I don't like (at this time, anyway), the idea of one tribe living the good life while the other tribe is in the sticks, mainly because when they merge, they'll all probably get the good shelter. This show needs a little bit of suffering and deprivation, especially to make people more desperate and involved in the reward challenges.

Posted by Observer at 10:46 PM | Comments (3)

February 07, 2007

Deductible

Well, the adjuster came today and gave me an estimate, based on average contractor prices in the area, for fixing the problems caused by water leakage. Basically, it is a lot less than I thought, and so it isn't at this point worth filing a claim. So we'll find a contractor to fix everything, and if something unanticipated crops up, we can always reopen the claim if the costs go over our deductible. Good news, I guess.

Posted by Observer at 05:20 PM | Comments (2)

Mac Games

I'm looking around for a solid new time-wasting Mac game. I need a break from Poker, especially the hours-long tournaments that sap too much time and attention away from life. Diablo II is still fun, but I'm done with that for a while. Heroes of Might and Magic (HoMM) III is always a classic, and I will probably download a few more puzzle maps off one of the fan sites and play them. The nicest thing about Heroes III is that it is turn-based, so I can get up from the computer instantly if I need to (which is often), and that's harder to do when you're in the middle of a poker hand (esp. if money is involved).

I read various rumors that Freeverse software is about to release Heroes V for the Mac (which has been out for the PC for a year now), and it only works on the brand spanking new Intel-based Macs (I have one of those that I got for work that I just brought home since I use it more at home than I would in my office). Apparently, the game is done, and Freeverse has been waiting for over a week now for the final OK on their port from Ubisoft, the company that owns all of the Heroes V rights.

I really wish they could just make a version of Heroes III that would work in OS X. Right now it only works in classic mode, which can't even be run on new Macs. We have plenty of old Macs in the house, but I would rather have all of my games on the same neat computer with the giant movie-screen monitor. It isn't likely that anything will be done with Heroes III by any developer because there's no money in it.

I'm told Heroes V is a lot closer to Heroes III compared to the much-reviled Heroes IV that was released a few years ago. I hope so. I haven't played Heroes IV, partly in the hopes that the next version would be better (and why bother if Heroes III is still so much fun?). I hope all of the spiffy new graphics in Heroes V don't slow the game down too much. The point is the gameplay, not the graphics.

Posted by Observer at 02:02 PM | Comments (0)

System Requirements

Here is a sentence I did not expect to read for I can't count how many reasons: "Pong requires Mac OS X v10.2.8."

Posted by Observer at 11:58 AM | Comments (1)

February 06, 2007

Upgrade Time

I guess I'm going to have to bite the bullet and move to a different kind of blogging system or upgrade or something because the spam has gotten so bad that my host has had to permanently disable comments. About 0.001% of the spam comments get through the blacklist, mind you, but the fact that the blacklist script has to run 10,000 times per day or something just to keep out spam is ridiculous.

Until I switch, comments will be disabled here. Sorry. It is quite possible that the next generation of this blog will require some kind of registration like M*chelle's blog. I'd like to avoid that. I just want a blog I can organize easily (preferably transfer these archives smoothly), that I can be certain will still be a good framework in 2-3 years and doesn't get fucking spammed.

Posted by Observer at 11:51 AM | Comments (2)

February 05, 2007

Claims

We're about to find out if we're in "good hands". Over the weekend, the upstairs bathroom toilet overflowed by several gallons before we caught it (combination of a clog plus a stopcock that needed adjusting). The tile floor has enough microscopic cracks in it that the water leaked through it and through the ceiling (including light fixture) in C*dy's bedroom downstairs, ruining a mattress and getting the carpet pretty soaked, not to mention the ceiling and whatever is between the ceiling of the bedroom and the bathroom tile on the 2nd floor.

Then, this evening, we discovered that a double-row of kitchen tile (about a foot wide total and eight feet long) leading away from the sink (and an outside faucet) is now buckling up and down if we walk on it. The temp today got well above 50 for the first time in weeks after a lot of freezing nights, so my guess is a pipe broke and some water froze and expanded beneath the kitchen floor, and now that it thawed, it left a cavity that needs to be filled and/or fixed.

So I called in both claims tonight, and my guess is our house is going to be a war zone for the next few weeks while all this stuff gets fixed.

Posted by Observer at 08:01 PM | Comments (0)

February 04, 2007

Over

We were very sorry to come to the end of Season 7 of West Wing. I would've missed Jed, C.J. and a few of the other departing members, but I would've been more than happy to follow the next administration for some time. I noticed Sorkin himself had a little one second cameo in the last episode, which I thought was cool. The only thing missing in the last episode was what I waited for pretty much the whole episode, which was a reaction from Toby to his big news. I'll miss Toby the most.

Now we've got to figure out something else to start watching from season one on DVD. I'm going to try Stargate SG-1 for lack of a better idea. We've been through "Once and Again" and "Firefly", and a lot of other shows I kinda like I've seen most of. It would be nice to discover a show on DVD that I never got a chance to watch on TV, something that was on for a while (preferably a drama), but browsing the Netflix lists and the movie stores, I haven't seen anything jump out at me.

Posted by Observer at 11:07 PM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2007

My Favorite Conversation

I know I've been over this before, but it happens every semester, so it bears repeating:

Student: "Uh, Dr. Observer, I'm really sorry, but I missed the exam. [Insert any excuse here.]"

Me: "Oh, that's too bad [pointedly refusing to comment on the excuse, no matter how illegitimate it sounds]. I'm sorry to hear that."

Student: "Soooo, ummm, what do we do about the exam?"

Me: "Oh! The exam! Yes, of course. Well, let's set up a time next week to do the oral make-up exam."

Student: (silence)

Me: (innocent look)

Student: "Ummm, an oral exam?"

Me: "Yep!"

Student: "What is that like?"

Me: "Well, I will ask you questions verbally, and then you will tell me the answers. It's easy!"

Student: (look of dread)

Me: (big smile)

Student: "Uhh, ok."

I've never had to give more than one oral make-up to a student during a given semester, even though my oral make-up exams are really no more difficult (in my opinion) than the regular written exams.

Posted by Observer at 11:40 AM | Comments (3)

February 01, 2007

Casinos

The Daily Show's Senior Black Correspondent, Larry Wilmore, had this to say about the upcoming Black History Month:

Making up for centuries of oppression with 28 days of trivia. You know what? I'd rather we got casinos.

I never get tired of the Daily Show. :)

Posted by Observer at 01:33 PM | Comments (2)