Later On

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

Archive for April 12th, 2009

Is Robert Gates a genius?

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Fareed Zakaria asks the question in his article, which begins:

When a true genius appears," the English satirist Jonathan Swift wrote, "you may know him by this sign; that all the dunces are in confederacy against him." Genius might be a bit much as a description of the secretary of defense, but Robert Gates‘s budget proposal has certainly gathered all the right opponents. There are the defense contractors, worried that decades of fraudulent accounting are coming to a halt; the Beltway consultants for whom the war on terror has been a bonanza; the armed services, which have gotten used to having every fantasy funded; and the congressmen who protect all this institutionalized corruption just to make sure they keep jobs in their state.

If you’re wondering where to come down on the Gates plan, here’s a simple guide: John McCain, the most thoughtful, reform-minded legislator on military issues, "strongly supports" it. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe—who has compared the EPA to the Gestapo, Carol Browner to Tokyo Rose and environmentalists to the Third Reich—warns that it will lead to the "disarming of America." You choose.

In recent decades, defense budgeting has existed in a dreamland, where ever-more-elaborate weapons are built without regard to enemies, costs or trade-offs. In 2008 the General Accounting Office said cost overruns for the Pentagon’s 95 biggest weapons programs—just the overruns!—added up to $300 billion. The system has become so pervasive and entrenched that most people no longer bother to get outraged.

The endless flow of cash from the taxpayer has prevented strategic thought. Much of the Pentagon budget is based on wish lists from the services, often …

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Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 12:40 pm

Founding narrative of Israel examined

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Interesting post by Morgan Strong. It begins:

The founding narrative of the modern State of Israel was born from the words of Moses in the Old Testament, that God granted the land of Israel to the Jewish people and that it was to be theirs for all time.

Then, there was the story of the Diaspora – that after Jewish uprisings against the Romans in the First and Second centuries A.D., the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel and dispersed throughout the Western world. They often were isolated from European populations, suffered persecution, and ultimately were marked for extermination in the Nazi Holocaust.

Finally after centuries of praying for a return to Israel, the Jews achieved this goal by defeating the Arab armies in Palestine and establishing Israel in 1948. This narrative – spanning more than three millennia – is the singular, elemental and sustaining claim of the State of Israel as a Jewish nation.

But a new book by Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand challenges this narrative, claiming that – beyond the religious question of whether God really spoke to Moses – the Roman-era Diaspora did not happen at all or at least not as commonly understood.

In When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?, Dr. Sand, an expert on European history at the University of Tel Aviv, says the Diaspora was largely a myth – that the Jews were never exiled en masse from the Holy Land and that many European Jewish populations converted to the faith centuries later.

Thus, Sand argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land. According to Sand’s historical analysis, they are descendents of European converts, principally from the Kingdom of the Khazars in eastern Russia, who embraced Judaism in the Eighth Century, A.D.

The descendants of the Khazars then were driven from their native lands by invasion and conquest and – through migration – created the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, Sands writes. Similarly, he argues that the Jews of Spain came from the conversion of Berber tribes from northern Africa that later migrated into Europe.

The Zionist Narrative

Sand, himself a European Jew born in 1946 to Holocaust survivors in Austria, argues that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion, not because they possessed a direct lineage to the ancient tribes of Israel.

However, at the turn of the 20th Century, Sand asserts, Zionist Jews began assembling a national history to justify creation of a Jewish state by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion and that they had primogeniture over the territory that had become known as Palestine.

The Zionists also invented the idea that …

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Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 12:37 pm

Diplomats’ role in US foreign policy is increasing

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Interesting article:

KABUL, Afghanistan — The meeting with the Afghan clerics was just ending when Richard Holbrooke, America’s irrepressible new envoy to the region, approached one of the aging imams and pulled him aside. “Didn’t you used to be in the Taliban?” Mr. Holbrooke asked, towering over the Afghan.

“Yes, I was,” he said.

“Why did you leave?”

“That’s a very long story,” the cleric said.

“If I come back,” Mr. Holbrooke asked, “would you tell me about it?”

The cleric took both of Mr. Holbrooke’s hands in his and shook hard.

“Yes, I would.”

It’s difficult to imagine such a conversation, between a senior American diplomat and an ex-member of an armed group with which the country is at war, happening at almost any other point since September 2001. In the nearly eight years since the 9/11 attacks, the foreign policy of the United States has often appeared to be an exclusively military affair, if not always conducted by men with guns then practiced by civilians not shy in reminding their foes that they had force at their disposal. The diplomats, for the most part, watched from afar.

As a result, America’s engagement with dangerous parts of the world in that time became largely militarized — good at projecting force but sometimes, it seemed, missing opportunities that might have been better exploited by an earlier and more vigorous use of people without guns. Not just in Afghanistan, but in Iran, North Korea and the Middle East as well.

The military itself, straining to fight two wars, groaned under burdens it had not intended to take on.

Mr. Holbrooke — relentless, experienced, charismatic — seems the embodiment of a new paradigm, …

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Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 12:29 pm

An end to marijuana prohibition?

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Interesting article by Nathan Comp, which begins:

As a medley of border violence, recessionary pressure, international criticism and popular acceptance steadily undermines America’s decades-long effort to eliminate drugs and drug use, the U.S. movement to legalize marijuana is gaining unprecedented momentum.

Once derided and dismissed by lawmakers, law enforcers and the law-abiding alike, marijuana reform is sweeping the nation, although the federal government appears committed—at least for the time being—to largely maintaining the status quo.

A week after Attorney General Eric Holder announced in March that raids on state law-abiding medical marijuana dispensaries would end, the Drug Enforcement Agency effectively shut down a San Francisco dispensary, claiming it violated both state and federal laws.

But to paraphrase Victor Hugo, not even the strongest government in the world can stop an idea whose time has apparently come.

Indeed, support for legalization is at an all-time high, and continues to grow. In 1969, just 12 percent of Americans favored legalizing marijuana, the Holy Grail of cannabis advocates; this number had tripled by 2005, according to a Gallup poll. Barely three years later, another poll showed 44 percent of Americans support legalization.

“If we continue on this curve—and there is no reason to think we won’t—we’ll hit 58 or 60 percent by 2020,” says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “We’re seeing also that the government is finally playing catch up with the people.”

In February, a California state lawmaker introduced a bill to legalize and tax pot, and marijuana reform bills are being debated in at least 37 other states. (Last November, Massachusetts became the thirteenth state to decriminalize adult possession, while Michigan became the thirteenth state to legalize marijuana for medical use.) All told, more than one-third of Americans now live in a state or city that has legalized medical marijuana or decriminalized its recreational use.

“It’s the busiest period for marijuana law reform ever,” says St. Pierre. “Legalization is definitely on the political horizon.” …

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Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 12:18 pm

Uncertain justice

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An interesting post by clammyc at Open Left:

Lately, republican Gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie has had to explain some very questionable federal monitoring contracts he granted to his former boss and the man who decided not to indict his brother for securities fraud.  

While much of the focus on these cracks in Christie’s "ethical armor" has been on political contributions that smell an awful lot like pay-to-play, very little has been paid to a multi million dollar contract that Christie awarded to David Kelley – who just so happened to indict 14 colleagues/employees of Christie’s brother on criminal securities fraud charges while letting his brother avoid any punishment.

Oh, and according to the SEC:

Todd Christie committed more that 1,600 improper trades between January 1999 and March 2003, generating "riskless profits" of more than $1.59 million for Spear Leeds (his own company) and costing investors $1.4 million. Fifteen of the 20 specialists facing civil charges were also charged with allegedly ripping off investors to the tune of $19,000,000.00, in the biggest crackdown on illegal trading in the Big Board’s History.  

As it related to Todd Christie, 3 people above him and the 11 below him were all indicted.  What is amazing to note is that one of the indictments was for someone who profited to the tune of $14,000.00 while Todd Christie, who profited to the tune of $1,590,000.00 was never indicted

With Christie on the defensive, the Asbury Park Press isn’t really buying the so-called "explanation" by Christie over his deferred prosecution agreements:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie’s defense this week of his handing out a multimillion-dollar, no-bid contract to a former federal prosecutor who let Christie’s brother off on stock fraud charges was unconvincing. He needs to do better.

If Christie wants to keep the issue from haunting him throughout the campaign, he must provide a full explanation of the selection process. As former Republican state Sen. Dick LaRossa said, the citizens "need full and open disclosure as to the process and criteria used by Mr. Christie to select Mr. Kelley, if only to put our minds at ease."

Put our minds at ease…..make sure there is no legal or ethical violations…..

And, here’s another thought…find out why Christie’s brother was never indicted in the first place.

The Philly Inquirer lays out the heart of the case against Christie’s brother and colleagues: …

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Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 12:16 pm

The Mercedes Electric Roadster

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Pretty cool looking, eh? This is from Treehugger, which has lots more photos and info. Their post begins:

This car is exciting, really exciting. Maybe the most exciting electric car of 2009. But it is not the killer retro-modern look that I am praising. Sure, stagecoach meets Formula One achieves a wham-bam-this-is-new-ma’am effect. But there are a lot of mind-boggling concept cars if you just want eye candy.

So why is it so exciting? Not because of its speed 0-60. Nor because of breakthrough technology nor cutting edge power options. But I am not going to just tell you. You will find four clues sprinkled among more photos in the extended. Can you figure it out before the last photo?

Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 12:10 pm

Great moments in presidential speechmaking

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Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 11:56 am

Posted in Daily life, Video

Republicans not thinking through what they say

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It’s endemic, and Amanda Terkel gives an excellent example in ThinkProgress:

In February, only three Republican senators broke party ranks to vote for the economic recovery package. Zero House Republicans voted for passage. Part of their opposition centered around the belief that an increase in government spending would do nothing to create jobs:

– “And first off the government doesn’t create jobs. Let’s get this notion out of our heads that the government creates jobs. Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job. Small business owners do, small enterprises do. Not the government.” [RNC Chairman Michael Steele, 2/2/09]

– “Instead of focusing on three major issues — job creation, housing and compassion for Americans who have lost jobs through no fault of their own — to boost the economy, this bill has morphed into a bloated government giveaway.” [Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), 2/10/09]

– “When it comes to slow-moving government spending programs, it’s clear that it doesn’t create the jobs or preserve the jobs that need to happen.” [House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), 1/21/09]

However, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans to end production of the F-22 at the current 187 planes — down from the 381 planes the government was expected to order — many of these same conservatives were up in arms over the jobs that would be lost.

Chambliss, in particular, said that he was concerned people in his state would lose jobs if F-22 production was cut, because “when it comes to stimulating the economy, there’s no better way to do it than to spend it in the defense community.” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who also voted against the economic recovery package, similarly said, “I also believe that it is unacceptable that this administration wants to eliminate 2,000 jobs in Marietta and potentially 95,000 jobs nationwide at a time when unemployment rates are rising across the country.”

Today on ABC’s This week, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called out this hypocrisy:

KRUGMAN: What’s so wonderful is watching Republican congressmen saying, “But this will cost jobs!” The very same Republican congressmen who were denouncing the stimulus, saying government spending never creates jobs, but cutting defense spending costs jobs. It’s wonderful.

Watch it:

Military correspondent David Axe has pointed out that it’s possible very few workers will lose their jobs because of Gates’s announcement. In fact, thousands of workers will likely be “snapped up for active production lines churning out F-16s, F-35s, C-130s and modernized C-5s for Lockheed, not to mention the prospect that industry rivals Boeing and Northrop might lure Lockheed workers for their own active production lines for the F-15, F/A-18 and others.”

Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 11:53 am

Push for a lobbying Web site

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Watchdog groups want President Barack Obama to take his lobbying disclosure goals a step further by creating a Web-based system to aggregate and track reports of meetings between lobbyists and federal agency executives.

The Obama administration issued a memo March 20 that established rules for lobbyists seeking funding for clients under the economic stimulus law. The memo asks agencies to post all written communications from lobbyists about that law on the Web site.

The Sunlight Foundation and OMB Watch advocacy groups want the lobbying disclosure forms to be expanded and grouped together on a single, searchable site.

The Sunlight Foundation unveiled a design on April 8 for a Web-based system that would display daily reports on meetings between agency officials and lobbyists. The system would display the name and agency of participants and lobbyists in the meetings, client names, and other details about the topics discussed.

The executive branch would administer the system and aggregate data from all federal agencies. The goal is to provide Web-based reports shortly after the meetings are held. The information would be sortable by lobbyist, official, agency, subject matter, client and date…

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12 April 2009 at 10:49 am

US public endorses change in US policy toward Cuba

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Steve Benen in the Political Animal:

The White House plans to "abandon longstanding restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba." It was the right position for Obama to take during the campaign, and it’s encouraging to see him follow through.

But will Americans perceive the change in U.S. policy as somehow "soft on communism"? Apparently not.

President Obama is getting ready to visit to the Summit of the Americas next week amid rising reports the administration is planning to announce new rules on family travel and remittances to Cuba. Do Americans back a plan to relax some of the current restrictions on that island nation?

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released Friday suggests the answer is yes. Nearly two thirds think the United States should lift its ban on travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. And seven in ten think it’s time to re-establish diplomatic relations with that country.

Support for the policy change has increased over the last three years.

On the Hill, Democrats support the change, and leading Republicans support the change. With the polls this one-sided, the administration should have the political support necessary to move away from the same ineffective policy both parties have embraced for far too long.

One can only support continued failure for so long before it gets ridiculous.

Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 10:45 am

US troubles for the 2010 World’s Fair

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Via James Fallows, this Atlantic piece by Adam Minter:

One mile downriver from downtown Shanghai, tractors and construction crews are busy clearing land and erecting national pavilions for the 2010 World Expo – or World’s Fair. At one end, the massive $200 million Chinese pavilion has already emerged from the riverbanks to tower over dozens of others, a fitting symbol of China’s signal role in organizing what will be the biggest Expo in history, and the most anticipated since the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Meanwhile, at the other end, the 60,000 square-foot plot of land that the Chinese government has designated for a United States pavilion remains empty, its future, and the question of U.S. participation altogether, tied up in behind-the-scenes maneuverings and State Department incompetence.

“National pavilions are supposed to represent who we are as a nation and a culture,” explains Barry Howard, a California designer who has been involved with Expos and pavilions for over four decades. “They tell a story of whom we’ve become and who we’ll be.” So far, the story of the U.S. pavilion for the 2010 World Expo has not been flattering for the United States. And on April 15—the deadline day for the U.S. to sign an Expo participation agreement—it may become an outright embarrassment…

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Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 10:43 am

Obama’s imperialist view of Executive power

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Very interesting column by Bruce Fein in Slate, which begins:

President Barack Obama’s claim to czarlike powers in a perpetual global war against international terrorism has been blunted by a judicial appointee of former President George W. Bush. Last week, in the case Fadi al Maqaleh, United States District Judge John D. Bates denied that President Obama could make suspected "enemy combatants" disappear into the Bagram Theater Internment Facility at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan without an opportunity for exoneration. (While President Obama has abandoned the term enemy combatant for Guantanamo Bay detainees, he has retained the label for detainees held elsewhere.)

Bates’ ruling is a welcome check on an emerging pattern of mightily expansive claims of executive authority by the new administration. In early February, President Obama sought another imperial power before the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in the case Mohammed v. Jeppesen Dataplan. The complaint alleged that the plaintiffs had been seized by American personnel, taken to airports, stripped, blindfolded, shackled to the floor of a Gulfstream V, and taken to destination countries for torture and harsh incarceration. The District Court dismissed the complaint because then-President Bush and Vice President Cheney argued that state secrets would be exposed if the case were litigated. During oral argument before the 9th Circuit, Obama echoed the state-secrets argument made by Bush and Cheney. Similarly, the president who promised "change" is wielding the tool of state secrets in aiming to dismiss, without the gathering of evidence, challenges to the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program, which entailed warrantless phone or e-mail interceptions of American citizens on American soil in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. This defense has failed before Judge Vaughn R. Walker in early rounds of the litigation. And, again, the state-secrets privilege is the administration’s response, if ancillary to a defense of retroactive immunity, in a brief filed last week to the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation to sue Bush administration officials for the NSA’s wiretapping.

In principle, President Obama is maintaining that victims of constitutional wrongdoing by the U.S. government should be denied a remedy to prevent the American people and the world at large from learning of the lawlessness perpetrated in the name of national security and exacting political and legal accountability. Thus …

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12 April 2009 at 10:15 am

Surveillance and Sousveillance

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The widespread availability of small, inexpensive digital video cameras is giving a new boost to monitoring (and recording) misbehavior—and in this article, police misbehavior in demonstrations. In Minneapolis, for example, videos were recorded of police violating the law in how they handled demonstrators, though one guy had to hide the storage card (he buried it under a bush in the park where he took the photos) to prevent the police from confiscating it.

It seems to me that groups that organize demonstrations should issue digital video cameras to as many people as they can, with instructions to record any problems. Look at this column by Marina Hyde in the Guardian. The article begins:

Who watches the watchmen? Or, to translate Juvenal another way: who polices the police? The answer this week was a New York fund manager, of all unlikely superheroes, who provided the Guardian with key footage of the minutes leading up to the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests in London. The man came forward because "it was clear the family were not getting any answers".

If there is anything to feel optimistic about today, perhaps it is the hope that we are witnessing the flowering of an effective inverse surveillance society. Inverse surveillance is a branch of sousveillance, the term coined by University of Toronto professor Steve Mann, and it emphasises "watchful vigilance from underneath", by citizens, of those who survey and control them.

Not that turning our cameras on those who train theirs on us is without risk. Indeed, one might judge it fairly miraculous that the man was not forcibly disarmed of his camera phone, given that it is now illegal to photograph police who may be engaged in activity connected to counterterrorism. And as we know, everything from escorting Beyoncé to parking on a double yellow while you nip in to Greggs for an iced bun can now be justified with that blight of a modern excuse – "security reasons".

Yet it will by now have dawned on even the most dimwitted Met officer that it is increasingly impossible for them to control the flow of information about their activities – to kettle it, if you will – no matter how big their army of press officers putting out misleading information in the immediate aftermath of any event may be.

Did the Met genuinely think they could prevent the emergence of a far more joined-up picture of Tomlinson’s passage through the City of London that afternoon, much as they thought they could suppress the details about Jean Charles de Menezes’s tragic final journey? If so, their naïveté is staggering…

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Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 10:12 am

More useful Firefox extensions

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I’m installing at least one of these, maybe more.

Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 9:29 am

Posted in Firefox, Software

Social justice

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The definition of "socialism" that I quoted in an earlier post came from this interesting blog roundup in the NY Times (well worth reading). One suggestion in that column is that the meaning of the term has stretched because of the way it’s constantly applied by conservatives to liberal ideas and programs: as young people have grown up hearing the term that way, they adopt the new meaning and many find "socialism" to be desirable because they are interested in social justice—another term of art. For example, this from the linked column (and do read the entire column: very good discussion):

But Jesse Taylor at Pandagon thinks that while education is a red herring, one of the right’s favorite events of the last half-century actually kicked off the trend:

What element of modern primary and secondary pedagogy over the past, say, 20 years has led our youth to believe that socialism is awesome? Actually, nothing. The real secret is that the Berlin Wall fell, which paved the way for conservatives to call everything Democrats have proposed in the interim socialism (this isn’t to say that they weren’t doing that before, but it became much easier for them to say it without the Giant Socialist Enemy Beast forcing us to duck and cover under our desks every day). I came up in a world where “socialism” was defined in popular parlance as “liberalism”. Bill Clinton, effectively a liberal Republican, was a socialist. Barack Obama, a moderate Democrat, is a socialist. There’s an actual socialist in the Senate, and yet all the Democrats in the Senate (except Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh)? Socialists.

The main people responsible for the embrace of “socialism” are the pro-capitalist conservatives who’ve so diluted its meaning that it’s okay to embrace socialism, because the majority party in the country and our tremendously popular president are socialists.

From Wikipedia:

Social justice, sometimes called civil justice, refers to the concept of a society in which justice is achieved in every aspect of society, rather than merely the administration of law. It is generally thought of as a world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society. (Different proponents of social justice have developed different interpretations of what constitutes fair treatment and an impartial share.) It can also refer to the distribution of advantages and disadvantages within a society.

"Social justice" is hard to oppose, in a way: who wants to come out in favor of social injustice? And the American ideals is one of equality of opportunity, something that doesn’t automatically come to be but must be achieved by the society. And, I find, many of the ideas of social justice spring from the work of John Rawls, about whom I have to admit that I know little. I have some reading to do.

Written by Leisureguy

12 April 2009 at 8:21 am

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