Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for January 4th, 2010

US moves in Yemen show same mistakes as in Afghanistan and Iraq

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Those who do not learn from history are doomed to look very stupid. Patrick Cockburn in the Independent:

We are the Awaleq

Born of bitterness

We are the nails that go into the rock

We are the sparks of hell

He who defies us will be burned

This is the tribal chant of the powerful Awaleq tribe of Yemen, in which they bid defiance to the world. Its angry tone conveys the flavour of Yemeni life and it should give pause to those in the US who blithely suggest greater American involvement in Yemen in the wake of the attempt to destroy a US plane by a Nigerian student who says he received training there.

Yemen has always been a dangerous place. Wonderfully beautiful, the mountainous north of the country is guerrilla paradise. The Yemenis are exceptionally hospitable, though this has its limits. For instance, the Kazam tribe east of Aden are generous to passing strangers, but deem the laws of hospitality to lapse when the stranger leaves their tribal territory, at which time he becomes "a good back to shoot at".

The Awaleq and Kazam tribes are not exotic survivals on the margins of Yemeni society but are both politically important and influential. The strength of the central government in the capital, Sanaa, is limited and it generally avoids direct confrontations with tribal confederations, tribes, clans and powerful families. Almost everybody has a gun, usually at least an AK-47 assault rifle, but tribesmen often own heavier armament.

I have always loved the country. It is physically very beautiful with cut stone villages perched on mountain tops on the sides of which are cut hundreds of terraces, making the country look like an exaggerated Tuscan landscape. Yemenis are intelligent, humorous, sociable and democratic, infinitely preferable as company to the arrogant and ignorant playboys of the Arab oil states in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.

It is very much a country of direct action…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 3:18 pm

Posted in Daily life

Monopoly capitalism in the US

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Sounds like a very interesting book:

Something is rotten in the state of American capitalism, and if you agree with Barry C. Lynn, almost all stinky paths lead to the monopolization of our economy. The rise of behemoths like Wal-Mart and Viacom are not only lowering the quality and safety of the products you use, but also undermining our so-called democracy.

I had a chance to speak to Lynn about just how bad things are — and what we might be able to do about it. Lynn’s new book, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, from Wiley Press, will be out in January.

Q: In the book you say we have no choice but to reverse the process of monopolization in our economy. How can we practically achieve that, at this stage of the game?

Barry C. Lynn: We can achieve it and there’s proof we can because we’ve done it in the past. In the late 19th century there was a really incredible process of monopolization. In the Gilded Age, you ended up with really tight concentration of control over finance in Wall Street. Think of Standard Oil, of U.S. Steel. There was some effort to break up those companies in the early 20th century but the real change took place after what people call the Second New Deal. The Roosevelt administration ended up breaking up a number of companies. What they did most successfully is stop the growth of massive companies and created space for new companies to grow.

In the middle of 20th century century, again there was a case in which we actually undid many of the powers and protected the entrepreneur. It was policy that at least three or four companies had to be competing with each other in each industry — and preferably eight or ten. There’s the Alcoa case, for example. They had a 100 percent monopoly through the end of World War II. After the war, the government created opportunities for new companies and forced Alcoa to share its technology with new companies.

We have a lot of experience with this, we’ve done it on a whole-scale in the past, and doing so would be creating a lot of interest in these companies. There are lot of managers in Wal-Mart, for example, who won’t rise up in the ranks in such a large system, but if there’s 30 smaller Wal-Marts, lots of individuals can reach their full potential. Companies aren’t monolithic in nature. They’re made of people, and lots of these people have an interest in breaking them up.

Q: What about shareholders’ and board members’ interests? They surely wield more power and sway over these kinds of decisions than associates at a huge company like Wal-Mart…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 3:14 pm

David Sirota’s top 10 quotations of the decade

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David Sirota in Salon:

While I’m loath to write a top-10 list, if only for fear of falling short of Dave Letterman’s legendary bit, I’m making an exception in this first week of 2010 — a moment when we get to not only make New Year’s resolutions, but resolutions for the new decade. As we make those prospective pledges, let’s take a moment to look back at the top 10 quotations from the last 10 years — the ones telling us some painful truths about our country, society and worldview; the ones that might inform us of what we need to do as we move forward.

10. "They frankly own the place." — Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in 2009 admitting the taboo about banks’ influence in Congress.

9. "Haven’t we already given money to rich people … Shouldn’t we be giving money to the middle?" — President George W. Bush in November 2002, acknowledging to advisors that he knew his tax cuts were giveaways to the super-wealthy.

8. "Keep your government hands off my Medicare." — Anti-healthcare protester at an August 2009 congressional town hall meeting in South Carolina — the single most succinct sign that our country has become an idiocracy.

7. "We did this for the show." — Falcon Heene on Oct. 15, 2009, telling CNN that the Balloon Boy chase was a hoax. The declaration demonstrated that the media‘s 24-7 knee-jerk sensationalism is irresponsible and proved that America’s culture of celebrity aspiration is completely out of control.

6. "As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know they’re some things we do not know. But there’re also unknown unknowns; the ones we don’t know we don’t know." — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Feb. 12, 2002, effectively telling us that the government had no idea what it was doing by invading Iraq.

5. "Bring ‘em on." — President George Bush on July 2, 2003, daring al-Qaida to attack U.S. troops — yet more proof that the elite defines "toughness" as politicians flippantly sacrificing young American lives for Washington’s hubristic ideologies.

4. "The investment community feels very put-upon. They feel there is no reason why they shouldn’t earn $1 million to $200 million a year, and they don’t want to be held responsible for the global financial meltdown." — Daniel Fass, chairman of Obama’s financial-industry fundraising party on Oct. 19, 2009, insisting that despite wrecking the economy and then being handed trillions of bailout dollars, Wall Street is a victim.

3. "$500,000 is not a lot of money, particularly if there is no bonus." — Wall Street compensation consultant James Reda on Feb. 3, 2009, giving the New York Times a good example of just how totally out of touch the super-rich really are.

2. "I didn’t campaign on the public option." — President Obama on Dec. 22, 2009, expecting the public to forget that his presidential campaign platform explicitly promised to pass healthcare legislation giving all Americans "the opportunity to enroll in (a) new public plan."

1. "It doesn’t matter." — Vice President Dick Cheney on Nov. 5, 2006, referring to polls repeatedly showing the majority of Americans oppose the Iraq war — a sign the ruling class truly does not care about the demands of the public.

These epigrams expose a nation that has internalized and accepted the forces of avarice, corruption, dishonesty, incompetence and insensitivity. Some of them are darkly funny, some of them are gut-wrenchingly sad — but all of them are warnings. Whether we listen to them or not will be the difference between repeating the last decade’s folly or learning from it.

Here’s to resolutions for the new decade that finally choose the latter.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Daily life, Politics

Good thoughts on living in fear

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Glenn Greenwald a couple of days ago:

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but David Brooks actually had an excellent column in yesterday’s New York Times that makes several insightful and important points.  Brooks documents how "childish, contemptuous and hysterical" the national reaction has been to this latest terrorist episode, egged on — as usual — by the always-hysterical American media.  The citizenry has been trained to expect that our Powerful Daddies and Mommies in government will — in that most cringe-inducing, child-like formulation — Keep Us Safe.  Whenever the Government fails to do so, the reaction — just as we saw this week — is an ugly combination of petulant, adolescent rage and increasingly unhinged cries that More Be Done to ensure that nothing bad in the world ever happens.  Demands that genuinely inept government officials be held accountable are necessary and wise, but demands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive.  Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens:  please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe.

This is what inevitably happens to a citizenry that is fed a steady diet of fear and terror for years.  It regresses into pure childhood.  The 5-year-old laying awake in bed, frightened by monsters in the closet, who then crawls into his parents’ bed to feel Protected and Safe, is the same as a citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe.  A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values can only be degraded and depraved.  John Adams, in his 1776 Thoughts on Government, put it this way:

Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 3:08 pm

Washing sans soap or shampoo

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This post in Boing Boing caught my eye. I haven’t used soap in the shower for years, ever since I read a comment by a Brit that Americans are crazy about soap.  He said that you need soap in the shower only if you are really dirty, with ground-in dirt, grease, and the like. Otherwise, if it’s just sweat and the daily grind for an office worker, water is plenty.

I tried it, and he’s right. What caught my eye in the story is that shampoo can similar be put aside, though it takes one’s hair a while to get right. I do know that some people don’t use shampoo except once a week or fortnight, and simply use conditioner.

I got a haircut today and made it short because I want to try the no-shampoo approach.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Daily life

The happy outcome of anti-smoking ordinances

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I was reading a Wisconsin blog that leaned decidedly right, when the issue of banning smoking in restaurants, bars, and public places arose. My, how they responded! First was the effort to deny any dangers from secondhand cigarette smoke (dismissing all the research findings as "hooey" — the usual tactic of the Right: ignore scientific evidence and history), then the idea that the free market would solve the problem (dismissing the fact that the free market was NOT solving the problem). I don’t recall what happened in Wisconsin, but here’s what has happened in Virginia. Faye Fiore writing in the LA Times:

The changing face of the Old Dominion can be seen in the stuff Jimmy Cirrito sweeps up off the floor of his bar every night. It used to be cigarette butts — now it’s gum.

"I got Nicorette and Bubblicious and green and yellow and purple. It looks like a circus down there," said Cirrito, owner of Jimmy’s Old Town Tavern in the northern Virginia suburb of Herndon, where patrons once smoked so much they burned holes in the curtains. Now they chew to fight the urge.

It’s been one month since Virginia became the first Southern state to ban smoking in bars and restaurants. For about 400 years, that was an unthinkable proposition. George Washington grew tobacco at Mount Vernon. Marlboro-making Philip Morris USA is headquartered in Richmond.

But the same demographic shift that helped Virginia pull off another unlikely feat — supporting Barack Obama for president — has fueled a smoking ban in the state where the tobacco industry was practically born. A more moderate, college-educated batch of newcomers is changing the cultural landscape here and across the South. In North Carolina, the king of tobacco producers, a similar law took effect Saturday.

"They are people who go to white-tablecloth restaurants, not barbecue joints. They don’t want their kids to smoke, they don’t smoke, and they are not tied to the tobacco economy," said Ferrel Guillory of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Now Virginia hovers at that odd intersection between what was and what will be. The "golden leaf," as it is affectionately known, still flourishes in the red soil of a few farms. But Virginia counts itself among 29 states and the District of Columbia to restrict smoking in just about any public place where people eat or drink. Private clubs and separately ventilated smoking rooms are exempt.

This did not occur without a fight. Gov. Tim Kaine was pushed back more than once in his quest for a more smoke-free Virginia. The tobacco, restaurant and hospitality industries rose up. Businesses would suffer, they cried. Owners should decide how to run their restaurants, they protested.

Cirrito was among them. "This is America, and we’re supposed to have freedom," he said. But as he closed out his December books, Cirrito had to admit the law has its good points.

His business, a tavern and restaurant in a historic, crooked building, was booked solid for New Year’s Eve. Food sales are up. He added extra shifts in the dining room, which means more money for his wait staff, most of whom were thrilled to work in cleaner air. "We can smell things in the bar now we never smelled before," he rejoiced.

Smoking was banned on a Tuesday, and on Friday there was a line of families out the door, waiting for a dinner table.

"They didn’t come before because they could see the smoke in the bar or were allergic to it or had to walk through it to get to the bathroom," said Cirrito, who’s a nonsmoker but never begrudged his customers the pleasure.

To his surprise, a lot of the chain-smoking regulars came too, lighting up outside in the cold, chewing gum between smokes and, in the end, smoking less.

"I’m sticking by my guns; it should be the owner’s choice. But I have to say it’s nothing but a good thing. It’s fantastic. I can breathe. We can all breathe again," Cirrito said. "People who were smoking two packs are smoking one." …

Continue reading. Mr. Cirrito’s guns, to which he is sticking, are unfortunately defective. If he gave the matter a moment’s thought, he should realize that businesses in general, and businesses that serve food or drink to the public, are subject to a great many laws regarding health and safety. And, since cigarette smoke is dangerous to one’s health, whether or not he or she is smoking a cigarette or simply breathing the smoke from someone else’s cigarette, it is natural to regulate it. American is indeed a free country on the whole (though some whom the US has detained and tortured despite their innocence may disagree), but that does not mean restaurants and bars will be free of regulation. If Mr. Cirrito had the sense God gave a green apple, he would realize that.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:57 pm

Katrina flood followed by a flood of lawsuits

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Sheri Fink at ProPublica:

Three years before Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, a senior executive at Pendleton Memorial Methodist Hospital assessed its vulnerability to the sort of flooding that had been long feared there.

His conclusion is now evidence in a lawsuit against Methodist that could have significant implications for hospitals nationwide.

“The first question is, do we have generators placed to accommodate an emergency flood with 15 feet of water?” wrote Cameron B. Barr, then an executive vice president. “The answer to that question is no.” One of the two main generators was located on a roof, he said, but another “would be nonfunctional at about two feet of flood water around the generator.”

Not only would it have to be relocated, he said, but the power plant and an underground tunnel connecting the plant to the hospital would have to be protected.

As a “back of the envelope” estimate, Mr. Barr wrote, “to protect the Hospital, East Tower, power plant building and to relocate the emergency generators and fuel supply would probably be a $7.5 million project.”

But the money was never spent, the power went out, and the hospital’s life-support machines stopped working. Now, the family of Althea LaCoste, a 73-year-old patient who died in what her family’s lawyers allege was sweltering heat after nurses spent hours pumping air into her lungs by hand in the pitch dark, is raising a potentially far-reaching legal question: How prepared do hospitals have to be for the worst possible circumstances?

More than 100 deaths occurred in New Orleans-area hospitals and nursing homes after Hurricane Katrina when emergency backup power systems failed and patients languished for days awaiting transport. About 200 lawsuits have been filed in Louisiana alleging that these institutions are liable for the deaths and for the suffering of other patients who survived because corporate failure to plan adequately for flooding and implement evacuation constituted negligence or medical malpractice.

The LaCoste trial is set to begin on Monday…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:43 pm

Tasty beverage

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Juice of one Meyer lemon and one Clementine mixed with 20 oz water. Very nice.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Daily life

Training the aging brain

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Now that I’m involved in this self-renewal project, this article in the NY Times by Barbara Strauch caught my eye:

I LOVE reading history, and the shelves in my living room are lined with fat, fact-filled books. There’s “The Hemingses of Monticello,” about the family of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress; there’s “House of Cards,” about the fall of Bear Stearns; there’s “Titan,” about John D. Rockefeller Sr.

The problem is, as much as I’ve enjoyed these books, I don’t really remember reading any of them. Certainly I know the main points. But didn’t I, after underlining all those interesting parts, retain anything else? It’s maddening and, sorry to say, not all that unusual for a brain at middle age: I don’t just forget whole books, but movies I just saw, breakfasts I just ate, and the names, oh, the names are awful. Who are you?

Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted. Start boiling water for pasta, go answer the doorbell and — whoosh — all thoughts of boiling water disappear. Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into what’s called the default mode, during which the mind wanders off and begin daydreaming.

Given all this, the question arises, can an old brain learn, and then remember what it learns? Put another way, is this a brain that should be in school?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:39 pm

Posted in Daily life, Education

Rush Limbaugh, praising things he opposes

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Ben Armbruster at ThinkProgress:

Last week, Rush Limbaugh was rushed to a hospital while vacationing in Hawaii after complaining of chest pains. Shortly after being released from Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Limbaugh said his doctors didn’t know what caused his symptoms, and he praised the U.S. health care system based on his experience at the hospital:

“The treatment I received here was the best that the world has to offer,” Limbaugh said. “Based on what happened here to me, I don’t think there’s one thing wrong with the American health care system. It is working just fine, just dandy.”

ThinkProgress noted that it was odd that Limbaugh would cite his experience in Hawaii given that the state has previously passed a measure mandating that employers cover full-time employees, a provision that is similar to those being considered in Congress as part of comprehensive health care reform. SEIU’s blog notes that some of the health care reform measures before Congress wouldn’t even affect Hawaii:

In fact, Hawaii is so forward-thinking that the Senate bill excludes Hawaii from some of its provisions, because Hawaii’s requirements on employers go farther than the federal legislation.

But most interestingly, SEIU’s also points out that Queen’s Medical Center’s nursing staff are represented by the Hawaii Nurses’ Association union and that “Hawaii has one of the greatest percentages of organized workers of any state and also had the highest percentage of organized RNs.”

The New Republic notes some other aspects of Limbaugh’s endorsement of health care reform:

Hawaii’s experience refutes, with real-world evidence, the opposition arguments that employer mandates are “job killers.” Recent studies of the employer mandate in Hawaii — and in San Francisco, the other place in the United States with a strong employer requirement to contribute to health care — show that there was no measurable impact on jobs. [...]

Both Hawaii and San Francisco have higher requirements on what employers must provide than what is envisioned in either the federal health reform proposals.

While Limbaugh has repeatedly attacked Democrats’ efforts at health care reform, he also regularly vilifies unions, calling them “thugs.” “Find a business in trouble,” Limbaugh has said, “and you will find a union involved.” Apparently, this isn’t so for Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:32 pm

Losing the war in Afghanistan

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Our coalition forces continue to disregard collateral damage, which in fact enrages the local population against us. The latest thing is that some school children in grades 6, 9, and 10 were taken by coalition forces, handcuffed, and then shot to death. You can read more about it here, where TPM quotes several newspaper accounts.

If the people of Afghanistan turn seriously against us, the war is lost. And we’re doing our part to turn them against us.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:30 pm

Healthcare reform will bypass a formal conference

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Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic:

Now that both the House and Senate have passed health care reform bills, all Democrats have to do is work out a compromise between the two versions. And it appears they’re not about to let the Republicans gum up the works again.

According to a pair of senior Capitol Hill staffers, one from each chamber, House and Senate Democrats are “almost certain” to negotiate informally rather than convene a formal conference committee. Doing so would allow Democrats to avoid a series of procedural steps–not least among them, a series of special motions in the Senate, each requiring a vote with full debate–that Republicans could use to stall deliberations, just as they did in November and December.

“There will almost certainly be full negotiations but no formal conference,” the House staffer says. “There are too many procedural hurdles to go the formal conference route in the Senate.”

One reason Democrats expect Republicans to keep trying procedural delays is that the Republicans have signaled their intent to do so. On Christmas Eve, when the Senate passed its bill, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell memorably vowed in a floor speech that “This fight isn’t over. My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law."

“I think the Republicans have made our decision for us," the Senate staffer says. "It’s time for a little ping-pong.”

“Ping-pong” is a reference to one way the House and Senate could proceed. With ping-ponging, the chambers send legislation back and forth to one another until they finally have an agreed-upon version of the bill. But even ping-ponging can take different forms and some people use the term generically to refer to any informal negotiations…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:24 pm

Signs of progress from the Marijuana Policy Project

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From an email:

By any measure, 2009 was the best year for marijuana policy reform in U.S. history. Check out these 10 signs of progress, most of which have been spearheaded by MPP:

1. The governments of Massachusetts and Michigan implemented the ballot initiatives we passed in these two states on November 4, 2008. As a result, marijuana possession is now a $100 ticketable offense in Massachusetts, and the possession and cultivation of medical marijuana is now legal in Michigan.

2. On October 19, the Obama administration announced that the DEA and the Justice Department would de-prioritize any new raids of medical marijuana establishments in California and elsewhere that are abiding by state law. This is the most significant, positive change in federal marijuana policy in 31 years!

3. On November 10, the American Medical Association rescinded its previous support of classifying marijuana alongside LSD, PCP, and heroin under federal law.

4. MPP has made significant progress on medical marijuana bills in Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New York. If we succeed in seven states between now and the summer of 2011 — which is actually looking likely at this point — the number of medical marijuana states will jump from 13 to 20.

5. We’ve already collected 200,000 of the 250,000 signatures that are needed in Arizona to place on the November 2010 ballot an initiative to legalize medical marijuana, including authorizing 120 dispensaries statewide, which would give Arizona the best medical marijuana law in the country. Fully 65% of Arizona voters support this initiative.

6. In California, a bill to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol is pending in the state Assembly, the introduction of which generated a huge wave of positive news coverage nationwide, which we followed up with a TV ad that generated an even bigger wave of news coverage. We’re working to build support for this landmark piece of legislation, which has a chance to pass out of committee in January.

7. MPP opened an office in Las Vegas, for the purpose of building a statewide coalition to pass a ballot initiative to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. We plan to pass this initiative in November 2012, which would give Nevada the best marijuana law in the world.

8. Other than California and Nevada, there are at least four other states that are now in play for being the first to end marijuana prohibition entirely: (1) Colorado, which has seen an explosion of medical marijuana dispensaries since January and is now polling at 48% in favor of regulating marijuana like alcohol; (2) Rhode Island, which recently overrode its governor’s veto in order to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, and which has since launched a study commission to draft a bill to regulate marijuana like alcohol; (3) New Hampshire, where a bill to regulate and tax marijuana has been introduced for the 2010 session; and (4) Washington state, where six representatives have prefiled a bill to tax and regulate marijuana.

9. After 11 years of MPP’s congressional lobbying efforts, the U.S. Congress finally removed the federal ban on implementing Washington, D.C.’s medical marijuana law. Medical marijuana could be available in our nation’s capital starting this spring.

10. And it looks like, finally, we’ll soon have a bill introduced in Congress that would wipe out marijuana prohibition entirely on the federal level, which is our ultimate goal in Washington, D.C. This will take years to pass, so we might as well get started now.

Our accomplishments in 2009 were made possible by the generous support of our 29,000 members. Please help us kick off 2010 with a bang by making a donation today.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:17 pm

Odd flowers

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Just back from the walk (and, for the record, have also done Nordic Track and the Nelson weight training) and thought these flowers would be of interest. Click any of the photos for a larger image.

These are not uncommon out here. I don’t know what they’re called. I believe they come from Hawai’i (which, though I notice Eastern pundits cannot quite grasp this, is a state and part of the United States—and, in these parts, a common vacation spot).

Then these large flowers in this tree:

These things are the size of large ear of corn and are covered with what feels like soft, thick bristles, which I assume are the flowers.

Later, it seems that they become catkins:

Here you see one of the large flowers and, to the right in the image, a couple of candlestick-sized catkins.

UPDATE: It’s a Banksia Praemorsa.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Daily life

Simon’s cat has a visitor

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 1:25 pm

Posted in Cats, Daily life, Video

Remember that Bush said he would wait for history’s judgment?

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It’s here. Alex Seitz-Wald at ThinkProgress:

During President Obama’s December speech announcing a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, he noted that the effort was finally getting the resources it needed. During the previous administration, Obama said, “commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive.” “In early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war, in Iraq,” Obama said, and “for the next six years, the Iraq war drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy, and our national attention.”

Former Bush administration officials fired back, claiming the Iraq war did not deprive resources from Afghanistan. Former White House adviser Karl Rove said “the United States had, at the time what the military felt was an appropriate level of resources.” Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Obama’s comments a “bald misstatement, at least as it pertains to the period I served as Secretary of Defense.” Later, Rumsfeld spokesperson Keith Urbahn turned up the heat, accusing Obama distorting the facts.

Unfortunately for Rumsfeld, Rove and their neo-con allies, the Army’s official history of the first four years of the war completely contradicts their claims. The New York Times reported this week that according to the official history, as early as late 2003, the Army historians assert, “it should have become increasingly clear to officials at Centcom and [the Department of Defense] that the coalition presence in Afghanistan did not provide enough resources” for a proper counterinsurgency campaign. Paraphrasing the history, the Times notes that American forces were “hamstrung by inadequate resources” and thus “missed opportunities to stabilize Afghanistan during the early years of the war.”

A Different Kind of War,” the title of the account, to be published this Spring, is written by a team of seven historians at the Army’s Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth and covers the period from October 2001 until September 2005. Rumsfeld was secretary of defense during this entire time. The Army writes such reports after major military engagements in order to train future commanders.

Contradicting Rove and Rumsfeld, the historians blame the Iraq war for the lack of resources in Afghanistan, as well as top Bush officials and the president himself:

The historians say resistance to providing more robust resources to Afghanistan had three sources in the White House and the Pentagon.

First, President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had criticized using the military for peacekeeping and reconstruction in the Balkans during the 1990s. As a result, “nation building” carried a derogatory connotation for many senior military officials, even though American forces were being asked to fill gaping voids in the Afghan government after the Taliban’s fall. [...]

Third, the invasion of Iraq was siphoning away resources. After the invasion started in March 2003, the history says, the United States clearly “had a very limited ability to increase its forces” in Afghanistan.

The historians also note that, as was the case in Iraq, Bush officials had neglected to properly plan for what to do after the government fell. “[T]here was no major planning initiated to create long-term political, social and economic stability in Afghanistan,” the historians write. “In fact, the message from senior D.O.D officials in Washington was for the U.S. military to avoid such efforts.”

Despite Rove and Rumsfeld’s attempts to salvage their legacies, it’s widely accepted that the Bush administration neglected the Afghan war. But as the Times notes, these new findings are “notable for carrying the imprimatur of the Army itself.”

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 12:18 pm

NY Times: It was torture, after all—and illegal

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Today’s editorial in the NY Times:

Bush administration officials came up with all kinds of ridiculously offensive rationalizations for torturing prisoners. It’s not torture if you don’t mean it to be. It’s not torture if you don’t nearly kill the victim. It’s not torture if the president says it’s not torture.

It was deeply distressing to watch the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sink to that standard in April when it dismissed a civil case brought by four former Guantánamo detainees never charged with any offense. The court said former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the senior military officers charged in the complaint could not be held responsible for violating the plaintiffs’ rights because at the time of their detention, between 2002 and 2004, it was not “clearly established” that torture was illegal.

The Supreme Court could have corrected that outlandish reading of the Constitution, legal precedent, and domestic and international statutes and treaties. Instead, last month, the justices abdicated their legal and moral duty and declined to review the case.

A denial of certiorari is not a ruling on the merits. But the justices surely understood that their failure to accept the case would further undermine the rule of law.

In effect, the Supreme Court has granted the government immunity for subjecting people in its custody to terrible mistreatment. It has deprived victims of a remedy and Americans of government accountability, while further damaging the country’s standing in the world.

Contrary to the view of the lower appellate court, it was crystal clear that torture inflicted anywhere is illegal long before the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling that prisoners at Guantánamo, de facto United States territory, have a constitutional right to habeas corpus. Moreover, the shield of qualified immunity was not raised in good faith. Officials decided to hold detainees offshore at Guantánamo precisely to try to avoid claims from victims for conduct the officials knew was illegal.

Reversing the Circuit Court would not have ended the matter. The plaintiffs would still have had to prove their case at trial. They deserved that chance. There are those who oppose trying to punish Bush-era lawlessness — some who argue that America should not look backward and some who excuse that lawlessness. But the rule of law rests on scrutinizing evidence of past behavior to establish accountability, confer justice and deter bad behavior in the future.

President Obama, much to his credit, has forsworn the use of torture, but politics and policy makers change and democracy cannot rely merely on the good will of one president and his aides. Such good will did not exist in the last administration. And the inhumane and illegal treatment of detainees could make a return in a future administration unless the Supreme Court sends a firm message that ordering torture is a grievous violation of fundamental rights.

Anyone who doubts the degree of executive branch pliability in this realm needs to consider this: The party that urged the Supreme Court not to grant the victims’ appeal because the illegality of torture was not “clearly established” was the Obama Justice Department.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 11:14 am

Inside North Korea

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This sounds like a fascinating book (full disclosure: I just bought a copy for my Kindle), reviewed by Laura Miller in Salon:

The image that opens the first chapter of Barbara Demick’s "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" is a satellite photograph of North and South Korea by night. The southern nation is spangled with electric lights, including the vast, solid blotch of brightness that is Seoul, while the north is entirely dark except for the tiny dot of the capital, Pyongyang. The Western view of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is mostly made up of freakish pictures like this one, official footage of goose-stepping soldiers and automaton-like crowds performing tributes to "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il, eerie samizdat video of crisply uniformed police directing nonexistent traffic on empty streets, the bizarre spectacle of the vacant Ryugyong Hotel (aka the "Hotel of Doom") towering over Pyongyang, and the ubiquitous socialist-realist kitsch seemingly beamed in from the middle of the previous century.

Illuminating documentary images of the nation are almost impossible to come by. Oppressive government escorts control the rare visits of foreign journalists to North Korea, and this inaccessibility is a major source of the fascination that Asia’s hermit kingdom exerts. It’s a demonic version of Shangri-La, that fabled paradise cut off from the rest of the world by insurmountable barriers. The darkness shown in that satellite photo is both literal (the country suffers from severe power shortages) and metaphorical: Outsiders simply cannot see what’s going on in there.

But we can listen, to the thousands of North Korean defectors who have fled to China and — to a lesser degree — South Korea in the past decade. (Before the famine of the late 1990s, only a handful of North Koreans had dared to escape.) "Nothing to Envy" (the book’s title comes from an anthem taught to every North Korean schoolchild) is built on interviews and profiles Demick conducted as the Los Angeles Times’ first bureau chief in Korea. In particular, she focused on former residents of the northern city of Chongjin, a grim area known for its restive population and, due to its proximity to the Chinese border, the hometown of many defectors.

"Nothing to Envy" must do what journalism hasn’t been required to do for nearly a century: …

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 11:11 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Government

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The people shaping your children’s education

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Mariah Blake in The Washington Monthly:

Don McLeroy is a balding, paunchy man with a thick broom-handle mustache who lives in a rambling two-story brick home in a suburb near Bryan, Texas. When he greeted me at the door one evening last October, he was clutching a thin paperback with the skeleton of a seahorse on its cover, a primer on natural selection penned by famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. We sat down at his dining table, which was piled high with three-ring binders, and his wife, Nancy, brought us ice water in cut-crystal glasses with matching coasters. Then McLeroy cracked the book open. The margins were littered with stars, exclamation points, and hundreds of yellow Post-its that were brimming with notes scrawled in a microscopic hand. With childlike glee, McLeroy flipped through the pages and explained what he saw as the gaping holes in Darwin’s theory. “I don’t care what the educational political lobby and their allies on the left say,” he declared at one point. “Evolution is hooey.” This bled into a rant about American history. “The secular humanists may argue that we are a secular nation,” McLeroy said, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. “But we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principals. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”

Views like these are relatively common in East Texas, a region that prides itself on being the buckle of the Bible Belt. But McLeroy is no ordinary citizen. The jovial creationist sits on the Texas State Board of Education, where he is one of the leaders of an activist bloc that holds enormous sway over the body’s decisions. As the state goes through the once-in-a-decade process of rewriting the standards for its textbooks, the faction is using its clout to infuse them with ultraconservative ideals. Among other things, they aim to rehabilitate Joseph McCarthy, bring global-warming denial into science class, and downplay the contributions of the civil rights movement.

Battles over textbooks are nothing new, especially in Texas, where bitter skirmishes regularly erupt over everything from sex education to phonics and new math. But never before has the board’s right wing wielded so much power over the writing of the state’s standards. And when it comes to textbooks, what happens in Texas rarely stays in Texas. The reasons for this are economic: Texas is the nation’s second-largest textbook market and one of the few biggies where the state picks what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to the whims of local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. As a result, the Lone Star State has outsized influence over the reading material used in classrooms nationwide, since publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the specs of the biggest buyers. As one senior industry executive told me, “Publishers will do whatever it takes to get on the Texas list.”

Until recently, Texas’s influence was balanced to some degree by the more-liberal pull of California, the nation’s largest textbook market. But its economy is in such shambles that California has put off buying new books until at least 2014. This means that McLeroy and his ultraconservative crew have unparalleled power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come.

Up until the 1950s, textbooks painted American history as a steady string of triumphs, but the upheavals of the 1960s shook up old hierarchies, and beginning in the latter part of the decade, textbook publishers scrambled to rewrite their books to make more space for women and minorities. They also began delving more deeply into thorny issues, like slavery and American interventionism. As they did, a new image of America began to take shape that was not only more varied, but also far gloomier than the old one. Author Frances FitzGerald has called this chain of events “the most dramatic rewriting of history ever to take place.”

This shift spurred a fierce backlash from social conservatives, and some began hunting for ways to fight back. In the 1960s, Norma and Mel Gabler, a homemaker and an oil-company clerk, discovered that Texas had a little-known citizen-review process that allowed the public to weigh in on textbook content. From their kitchen table in the tiny town of Hawkins, the couple launched a crusade to purge textbooks of what they saw as a liberal, secular, pro-evolution bias. When textbook adoptions rolled around, the Gablers would descend on school board meetings with long lists of proposed changes—at one point their aggregate “scroll of shame” was fifty-four feet long. They also began stirring up other social conservatives, and eventually came to wield breathtaking influence. By the 1980s, the board was demanding that publishers make hundreds of the Gablers’ changes each cycle. These ranged from rewriting entire passages to simple fixes, such as pulling the New Deal from a timeline of significant historical events (the Gablers thought it smacked of socialism) and describing the Reagan administration’s 1983 military intervention in Grenada as a “rescue” rather than an “invasion.”  …

Continue reading. And keep in mind that textbook publishers do not do a separate edition for each state: instead, they go for the lowest common denominator and publish one text book that satisfies the major states, like Texas, and other states go along for the ride.

It’s too bad that our textbooks are shaped by scientifically and historically illiterate yahoos and ignorant boosterism, but that seems to be the case.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 11:07 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, GOP

A law that must be changed

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The "trust businesses to do the right thing" crowd pushed through a law a generation ago that today, with almost daily reports of another business that’s betrayed its trust, seems appalling. Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post:

Of the 84,000 chemicals in commercial use in the United States — from flame retardants in furniture to household cleaners — nearly 20 percent are secret, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, their names and physical properties guarded from consumers and virtually all public officials under a little-known federal provision.

The policy was designed 33 years ago to protect trade secrets in a highly competitive industry. But critics — including the Obama administration — say the secrecy has grown out of control, making it impossible for regulators to control potential dangers or for consumers to know which toxic substances they might be exposed to.

At a time of increasing public demand for more information about chemical exposure, pressure is building on lawmakers to make it more difficult for manufacturers to cloak their products in secrecy. Congress is set to rewrite chemical regulations this year for the first time in a generation.

Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, manufacturers must report to the federal government new chemicals they intend to market. But the law exempts from public disclosure any information that could harm their bottom line. [The sole imperative and sole guiding principle of a business: grow the bottom line, whatever it takes. – LG]

Government officials, scientists and environmental groups say that manufacturers have exploited weaknesses in the law to claim secrecy for an ever-increasing number of chemicals. In the past several years, 95 percent of the notices for new chemicals sent to the government requested some secrecy, according to the Government Accountability Office. About 700 chemicals are introduced annually.

Some companies have successfully argued that the federal government should not only keep the names of their chemicals secret but also hide from public view the identities and addresses of the manufacturers…

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2010 at 11:03 am

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