2013/12/20

American Hustle


Cool flick! Very good drama and awesome characters. Probably the most decent, stand-up hero of a guy in the film was Mayor Carmine Polito, the guy who makes the introductions between our heroes and the gangsters. But seriously, his heart was clearly with the people of New Jersey, even though he was willing to cut some corners and make some deals.
Very impressed by Amy Adams. I first really noticed her in Enchanted, where she played a generic Disney princess. Her movements were perfect for the role and she convincingly stepped out of the cartoons. In Hustle, it just looks like she said “C'mon, enough of the respectable women, I wanna play a slut!” Which she does quite well here.
Jennifer Lawrence was, sexually, completely uninteresting in The Hunger Games, but plays a much more interesting, messed up character here.

2013/12/06

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


The second round of The Hunger Games very clearly has more rounds to go after this as the chief bad guy is still at large when the movie ends. It's made clear early on in the film that discontent is rising across the land. Naturally, our heroine doesn't try to provoke hate and discontent against the regime, but hey...

Strong suggestions of 1780s French aristocracy (The Bastille fell in July 1789), with the “beautiful people” appearing like, well, like no one will miss them when the series ends.

2013/11/22

Fainting couch over loss of the filibuster


Y'know, Dana Milbank, as a Washington Post editorialist, gets very well compensated for doing what a blogger does. One would think his job would involve just a bit of research. Even a minor blogger like me (I blog when I gol durn jolly well feel like it) knows that the filibuster is not in the Constitution. Yet he states:

“Congress is broken,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday before holding a party-line vote that disposed of rules that have guided and protected the chamber since 1789.

*Sigh*, no Dana, in order for the filibuster to have been around since 1789, it would have to have been established along with the Constitution and it wasn't. According to Wikipedia “The first Senate filibuster occurred in 1837.” It was only a theoretical possibility up until then. Frankly, when you look at the legislation it's been used to block, it's a wonder it's survived up until now. The cloture, the method of breaking a filibuster and allowing the Senate to get on with its business, was not developed along with the filibuster. It was developed in 1917, nearly a century later.

The filibuster is nothing more than a Senate rule. It's not a Constitutional Amendment or some other kind of sacrosanct procedure that should be preserved at all costs.

But Reid’s remedy—calling a simple-majority vote to undo more than two centuries of custom—has created a situation in which the minority leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.), is expected to use the minority’s remaining powers to gum up the works, and to get revenge when Republicans regain the majority.

Milbank at least gets that right. The Democrats ended a “custom,” not anything that was codified in legislation. This tells me that Milbank isn't stupid enough to think that the filibuster is part of the Constitution. It suggests that he's simply pandering to what he sees as an ignorant audience.

The really annoying thing is this:

In fairness, Milbank’s column acknowledges Republican “abuse,” and I’m glad. But he and other critics of Senate Democrats have offered nothing constructive on what the majority party was expected to do in the face of unprecedented abuses.

Y'know, it's funny, but somehow, the British Parliament and the US House of Representatives seem to get along just fine without a filibuster. And as the Daily Kos article says

As if it could get any worse! As if Republicans haven't already gummed up the gears to the point [where the Senate has] ground to a halt. Take just this week. There's significant bipartisan support for both of the sexual assault amendments to the defense authorization bill—a bill you'd think Republicans would want to get passed, and soon. But no, they've refused to allow votes on those amendments...

Well, the right-wing blog Weasel Zippers recommends denying Democrats the tradition of “unanimous consent” until the filibuster is restored, but that sounds to me like a recipe for even more loss of the Senate minority's powers to the point where they'd become completely irrelevant. And as the piece points out, it's been quite clear for some time now that were the Republicans to regain their majority status, the filibuster would quickly become history anyway.


2013/11/18

Looking at it from the other side

The other day, I and a group of others were asked to try and see things from the other political side's perspective. I saw these two comments below a Smerconish article:

  • 0 like this / 0 don't   •   Posted 9:26 AM, 11/17/2013
    If this summary below from a law professor is true, are you sure you want to encourage more and more people who are dependent on the government welfare voting for more and more politicians who support more and more taxpayer funded welfare? Also encouraging college students to vote is always a bad idea since they mostly are uninformed, irrational, lead astray by professors and have not paid taxes yet.

    Food Stamps for Thought!

    "In aggregate, the map of the territory Romney won was mostly the land owned by the taxpaying citizens of the country. Obama territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in low income areas and living off various forms of government welfare..."

    If we want fair elections, have party affiliation removed from all candidates names and ballots and force the voters to vote for the candidate's beliefs and not for any party.
    GAC
  • 0 like this / 0 don't   •   Posted 11:05 AM, 11/17/2013
    A Republic ceases to exist when the people realize they can vote themselves benefits. Shame on the Obama/Smerconish line of thinking.
    Thoughtful&concernedvoter

  • Read more at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/inquirer/20131117_The_Pulse__Why_so_many_roadblocks_on_the_way_to_casting_a_ballot_.html#8lmi576l3C6PU6xu.99

    Posted 9:26 AM, 11/17/2013
    If this summary below from a law professor is true, are you sure you want to encourage more and more people who are dependent on the government welfare voting for more and more politicians who support more and more taxpayer funded welfare? Also encouraging college students to vote is always a bad idea since they mostly are uninformed, irrational, lead astray by professors and have not paid taxes yet.

    Food Stamps for Thought!

    "In aggregate, the map of the territory Romney won was mostly the land owned by the taxpaying citizens of the country. Obama territory mostly encompassed those citizens living in low income areas and living off various forms of government welfare..."

    If we want fair elections, have party affiliation removed from all candidates names and ballots and force the voters to vote for the candidate's beliefs and not for any party.
    GAC
    Posted 11:05 AM, 11/17/2013
    A Republic ceases to exist when the people realize they can vote themselves benefits. Shame on the Obama/Smerconish line of thinking.
    Thoughtful&concernedvoter
     GAC doesn't give us the link to the fellow who makes this observation, but I have no reason to doubt that the observation is entirely true. Problem is, it's incomplete. If we look at Alexander Cockburn's description in The Nation:
    On March 23, 1983, a friend of mine watched as a naval officer and a defense contractor in the Fort Myer Officers' Club in Virginia listened impatiently as Reagan churned his way through a longish overture to his excited launch of Star Wars. Then, as Reagan began to token forth the billion-dollar feeding trough of SDI, they screamed to each other in incredulous delight, "He's going to do it...he's doing it...he's done it! We're rich, we're rich!" With these words, they both made a rush to the telephones.
     What's that you say? That, somehow, what motivates the already-wealthy and the not-so-wealthy are in some strange way distinct from each other? That's obvious nonsense. Out of the $3.8 trillion in the 2014 budget in total spending, the Farm Bill, which contains the Food Stamps/SNAP program, is 4% of the total budget, keep in mind that the bill also contains farm price supports. Defense is 17%, Veteran's benefits are 4% and transportation, housing, education and energy are 4%, 2%, 2% and 1% respectively. Medicare and Social Security make up around 58% of all spending.

    If we look at total Federal spending by county, we can see that rural, i.e., Republican-heavy counties, are pretty flush with Federal cash. So what GAC and TCV are going along with is called "cherry-picking of the data," choosing to look at very small slices of highly select and chosen data to reach really broad conclusions.

    2013/11/17

    8 things about me


    1. My grandfather, my dad and me were named Richmond P., Richmond and Richmond L. avoiding the junior, senior, III thing, but as it's a fairly unusual name, all clearly of the same family.

    2. My grandfather joined the service after World War I, but left well before World War II; Dad joined after World War II, but was serving at a shore command before Vietnam heated up; my service began just as the 1991 Persian Gulf War was finishing up and I was long out of the service before the 2003 Iraq War started up. We all served, but we all missed seeing any action.

    3. Two aptitude tests I took, one was a color choosing test that said I have a hard time really settling on and committing to anything and the other was an extensive battery of tests that concluded I'm in the top 1% when it comes to knowledge of words, top 10% organizational ability, bottom 5% creative imagination and bottom 10% ability to make a plan and stick to it. I've always appreciated the value of teamwork as I have both great strengths and great weaknesses.

    4. I appreciate it when people are humble and can admit mistakes, but got very tired of the advice columnist Ann Landers constantly having to reverse herself and apologize for giving bad advice. Miss Manners was much more my type of columnist. I don't remember her ever having to reverse herself. I just believe she took her time and gave her answers more thought and thereby simply didn't need to go back and reverse herself.

    5. I read a lot as a youth. I had a problem with science fiction because I had no way of knowing which authors were good and worth following. I decided to focus more on reading history as I knew the general outline of what happened and to whom. I could get a general outline of the actions that “would” take place in the books. It wasn't the endings that mattered, it was the journey and how people got from A to B.

    6. In my youth, the late 60s and early 70s, we got lots and lots of popular, paperback histories of World War II. I decided that I wasn't interested in following the stories of generals like Patton and Eisenhower because they had it relatively easy. They had well-supplied forces and a competent and moral Commander-in-Chief. The German generals didn't have either of those advantages, so I found their stories much more interesting.

    7. Did ten years in the Navy, six of them in Norfolk, VA; two of them in Gaeta, Italy (Halfway between Rome & Naples) and two in Pensacola, FL. Good times!

    8. Not many paid jobs since then, but been doing lots with web sites and other stuff.

    2013/11/08

    Thor: The Dark World


    Very good. Probably an overload of grandeur, they try to put in a few human touches and quieter parts, but it's generally so many vast, epic happenings that it all comes across as far larger than life and one kind of loses track of the smaller, human parts of the story.
    What's probably the best single run of Thor is reprinted in the Thor Omnibus, covering Walter Simonson's run on the series from 1983 to 1987.
    I followed the comic on and off up through 2011, but haven't read it much since. Jane Foster has been pretty scarce lately, but Sif was until very recently featured in Journey into Mystery. This short run had both a female writer and a female artist, so it explored lots of aspects that the male superheroes usually don't explore.

    2013/11/02

    12 Years a Slave


    Very inspiring to see how tough and resilient some people can be. Horrible to see how inhumane others can be. As with Django Unchained, it's made clear that slavery wasn't something you just walked away from. It was a very powerful and dehumanizing institution that was so difficult to escape that masters and mistresses had no problem telling a slave to go to another plantation or to a shop in town to do an errand. There was no easy escape.
    I read James Michener's Texas many years ago and one passage really struck me. It concerned how some just-freed slaves made an arrangement with their former owners. They agreed to stay with the people who were now their employers, they agreed to keep doing the same work, but they insisted on a corner of the plantation to be their own property. They commuted to work each day, but now got to go home to their own property each night. It wasn't the work or in many cases the people that slaves found intolerable, it was being owned and not being able to make decisions about their own lives or being able to build up something for their future or to arrange anything for their descendants.

    2013/10/27

    Machete Kills


    This was getting so few viewers, I felt I had to grab a showing before it left town and would only be available as a rental (All the Blockbuster Video shops in my area have closed, so that means I'd have to get it from either my cable company or from the Internet). Good stuff! Machete (Danny Trejo) is visually believable as the guy who survives whatever the movie can toss at him, and hoo boy! Does the movie toss a lot at him!
    Believable? Not a bit. The body count goes way beyond believability very early on. Some actors whose careers have seen better days get to have a lot of fun chewing the scenery here. And of course, lots of hot women are trying to either kill Machete or to get his romantic attention (It's tough to be one 'a them thar super-heroic types).

    2013/10/11

    Gravity


    Saw Gravity tonight. Cool stuff! I had seen some items on the science versus the drama of it and yeah, there are a number of scientific problems with it, but both of the pieces I looked at agreed with my assessment that it was an enjoyable film. Yeah, I'd chalk up all the bad science to the plot/drama needs of the film. Definitely recommend seeing the film before reading about the science.

    The “New” Media Matters


    Media Matters For America (MMFA) announced that right-wingers Ben Shapiro and David Horowitz were collaborating on a right-wing competitor to MMFA. MMFA cheerfully reproduced Shapiro's comments to his fellow right-wingers as Shaprio explained to his buddies that MMFA was an extraordinarily powerful and competent foe that they'd do well to copy.

    I took a look at one of the pieces on Shapiro's site. I took a screenshot and highlighted two of the sentences.

     
    The sentence that says: “Maddow smirked, reviled the Senator's reasoning, then employed the most trusted tactic amidst the left's arsenal – dismantle a law's merits by employing one fringe case as the rule, not the exception.”

    I took the screenshot to emphasize how this assertion was immediately followed by Rachel Maddow's own description of the case: “Two years after the bill became law, the Nebraska state supreme court issued their first verdict under the parental consent law.” [emphases added]

    Yeah, that's kind of a problem. How can “the left” be “employing one fringe case” when there's only one case to examine?!?!?

    One interesting question comes up. “The girl at the center of the case is now more than 4 months pregnant and she was only ten weeks pregnant when the state of Nebraska first denied her permission to have an abortion." Maddow discusses how the girls birth parents are no longer around to give their permission for an abortion.

    But, the blogger points out, “Maddow did not mention ... the girl's foster parents...” Well, okay, but the blogger clearly has no information as to how the girl's foster parents are related to the case. There might be a legal reason as to why the girl's foster parents don't figure into the case. My own suspicion is that the court decided that, for whatever reason, the foster parents didn't have a say or didn't want to have a say in the case. The court then decided to protect their privacy by leaving them out of the case entirely.
    The blogger is stretching well beyond the available evidence to make any assertions about how the foster parents fit into the case. Obviously, the blogger simply doesn't know.

    A look at the comments shows lots of people clucking their disapproval of the fact that a 16-year old girl was engaging in sex to begin with. Maddow states that “A Nebraska court dissolved their parental right because they physically abused and neglected their daughter.” Sounds an awful lot to me as though the girl became pregnant as a result of incest, but again, the privacy of various people is clearly being protected here. My presumption is that, again, there are sound legal reasons for this.

    The most obvious conclusion that I draw here is that there are very good reasons why the State of Nebraska shouldn't be meddling in pregnancy/abortion decisions to begin with. The case is obviously beyond their competence and it clearly should be left to those who are immediately concerned with it. Also, Shapiro's “TruthRevolt” site doesn't appear to be very competent at this whole media criticism thing as neither the blogger nor the editor seems to have any idea as to what they're doing.

    2013/10/07

    Social Principles Conference


    On Saturday, the 5th of October, I went to the Social Principles Conference of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, where we listened to "The Social Principles: Our Call to Action" by Jim Winkler, of the General Board of Church & Society, followed by a series of workshops. Nancy Tkacs later told me she was also there, though I didn't see her at the time.

    I attended the Climate Change and the Implementing the Social Principles in Your Church workshops.

    The sermon by Pat Hoerth of the Perry First United Methodist Church of Perry, OK, has a good run-down on the challenges faced by the people of this planet (Pat gives facts and figures about Global Warming starting on page 10 of the PDF) concerning the enormous amount of carbon dioxide that industrial society is pumping into the air and the effect that all that carbon is having. Unfortunately, Hoerth reports that we might reach 399 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere (275 ppm is the proportion that we all enjoyed in ages past, 350 ppm is the maximum safe limit) by the end of this century and 350.org reports that our air is already at 400 ppm. And yes, certainty that Global Warming is caused by humans has now reached 95%, meaning we as a race, are long past the point where action became necessary.

    The official Methodist position on Global Warming is contained in the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church - 160.D Global Climate Stewardship:

    We acknowledge the global impact of humanity’s disregard for God’s creation. Rampant industrialization and the corresponding increase in the use of fossil fuels have led to a buildup of pollutants in the earth’s atmosphere. These “greenhouse gas” emissions threaten to alter dramatically the earth’s climate for generations to come with severe environmental, economic, and social implications. The adverse impacts of global climate change disproportionately affect individuals and nations least responsible for the emissions.  We therefore support efforts of all governments to require mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and call on individuals, congregations, businesses, industries, and communities to reduce their emissions. 

    The introduction to the Implementing the Social Principles in Your Church module makes it clear that supporting social justice goals requires both justice and charity. If you don't work to perform works of charity (and thus perform direct services for those who are unable to provide those services themselves), then there's no guiding purpose behind your actions. If you don't perform those actions for the cause of serving justice (and thus press for social change that will provide more permanent solutions), then you might grow to eel superior to those you're helping.

    The Methodist Church has Peace with Justice Grants, money for pursuing various goals:

    • Objective 1: Assist United Methodists in understanding and responding to violence and militarism.
    • Objective 2: Involve United Methodists in efforts to end conflicts and violent aggression around the world.
    • Objective 3: Promote just national and international policies and actions (governmental and non-governmental) seeking to restore communities and respond to the disproportionate effect of injustices on racial and ethnic persons.
    • Objective 4: Support policies that promote systematic economic justice and the self-development of peoples.
    They also support groups like Equal Exchange, a program that sees to it that small-scale farmers are paid fair, honest and reasonable prices for their produce.
    What does The Bible say about paying a living wage? A Methodist Church pamphlet lists four passages supporting living wages and quotes the 1908 Social Creed, which calls for “A living wage in every industry. The highest wage that each industry can afford and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.”
    The UMC statement on the government shutdown appears a bit too even-handed and “both sides are to blame” for my own tastes, but it calls attention to both the Federal employees and the regular people that are being hurt by the shutdown and contains no arguments that oppose the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, the ostensible target of the shutdown.
    All in all, a good and useful gathering.

    2013/09/21

    The Family

    Aww, the relationships between the family members here are all so warm and cuddly, they truly all love each other! As to how they treat people they don't like? Wel-l-l, let's put it this way, they manage to rack up quite a body count by the end of the film.

    2013/08/24

    Kick-Ass 2


    The story of un-super-powered people who dress up as super-heroes and super-villains and then clobber each other, along with clobbering and getting clobbered by plenty of people who don't bother dressing up at all. Interestingly, the movie has the characters as much more sexually active than the comic does. It helps that the actors who play the characters are considerably older than the characters who appear in the comic. It's much easier to see that their hormones are raging.
    There was a discussion recently about books versus their movie versions, how movies have to take 200 to 300 pages and squeeze the contents down into an hour and a half movie and how much gets lost in the translation. Kick-Ass 2 was written and drawn with the movie version in mind, but the similar, heavily visual language of the comics and the movies also helped to make the movie greatly resemble the comic.
    And, of course, there's a Kick-Ass wikia.

    2013/08/10

    Comics panel and demographics


    I largely agree with the blogger and not really with the comics creators on this. The creators are represented pretty well by Len Wein's comment:

    “I think every time you take a female character, a black character, a Hispanic character, a gay character, and make that the point of the character, you are minimalizing the character,” he said. “I have written anything you can possibly think of. I have created Storm who was the first black female superhero. I created a number of other characters, and it never matters to me what the color of their skin was. I was writing about who they were as human beings, and it wasn’t Black Storm. She was Storm.”

    Essentially, the writers on this panel think that the writing takes precedence over the specific situations that the characters find themselves in, that storytelling involves presenting characters as being certain types that transcend certain characteristics, i.e., their ethnicity or gender or sexual preference.

    I read a review of Supergirl in The Comics Journal back during the 1980s and the reviewer looked at possible new directions for the character to take in a new series. The reviewer's approach to thinking about a new series for her was to think of problems that she could be confronted with and ways that she could go about solving them.

    Once, in the TV series Family Ties, Alex P. Keaton filled in his sister Mallory about an American president of the 1800s. He had a couple of seconds to get her to think about this president, not just as an old figure from musty, yellowing history book pages, but as a real and once-living person that she could immediately identify with and understand. He took the tack of describing the problems that the president faced, the decisions the president made in response to those problems and the reactions that various groups had to his decisions. Alex's approach worked and Mallory understood the president as a real person who faced understandable problems.

    This, to me, is what drama is all about. Wein is right in that an author shouldn't just place characters in a limiting box and shouldn't just think of how an African-American or a gay Iranian would approach a problem, but I think that could be a good starting point for many interesting stories.

    it's valuable to get other perspectives into the comics field. I think it's valuable to be aware of how other demographic groups see situations and to take an approach to comics that's not dependent on being a white, straight male. Writers can then increase the number of the kinds of problems that characters can face and increase the number of ways in which characters can go about solving problems.

    Update: Do comic stories have to be violent? The superhero stories certainly are, even though they've had "day off" stories from way back when where the superheroes take their colored, skintight outfits off and just hang out and enjoy the day. They can also have scenes that are visually jazzed up, but where the main point is a dialogue between some of the characters, but yeah, there's not much point in having muscular men and tough-looking women in body-hugging outfits if the authors can't toss two or three fight scenes an issue in.

    But do comics stories in general have to be violent? Not at all. Fantagraphics publishes a whole series of comics where the violence is either completely absent or is kept at a minimum and when it's used, is clearly relevant to the story. Love  & Rockets is one of their flagship titles. That has a bit of nudity here and there, but again, it's clearly relevant to the story when it's used. Hate is another cool series they published at one point.

    2013/08/03

    Sirius XM Radio


    When I purchased my present car about two years ago, I got a Sirius XM radio with it. A very cool feature is that I can get channels much, MUCH farther away from home than before. I managed to get my usual station, WXPN (88.5 FM), all the way up into central New Jersey. I would have preferred to have gotten the Sirius channel 741 – The Village, their only Folk music station, but that's only available on a home set, not on a car set. I settled for a near substitute, channel 31 – The Coffee House. It was okay. My sister was riding with me a few months ago and complained about hearing the same songs over and over. I agreed that the station was a bit repetitive.
    Recently, my radio got re-set to the zero station, so I switched around and listed to a few different stations. Settled on channel 27 – Deep Tracks, a rock 'n' roll station. Naturally, they play all of the really big hits, but one thing I really like about it is that they play a lot of secondary songs too, songs where I could immediately identify the artist, but not the particular track they were playing. One doesn't usually hear those songs on the radio.
    Artists like Madonna play songs that you either hear ALL the time or they play completely forgettable tunes that one dismisses immediately. Artists like The Bangles play lots of in-between songs, songs that are enjoyable, but you can see why they're not super-awesome mega-hits. And yes, naturally, I collected lots of Bangles albums, but no Madonna ones.

    2013/07/27

    The Wolverine


    I could tell from the previews that this movie would have a lot to do with the 1982 mini-series (Four issues and called just plain “Wolverine”). Is the movie based on the mini-series? Yes, but VERY loosely. Marvel does indeed have a page on their wikia about it, but they warn the reader that it contains spoilers, so I recommend checking that out after one has seen the film.
    Reminds me a little bit of the film Hansel and Gretel, which I saw on DVD a little while ago. In both films, the hero takes lots and LOTS of physical punishment. The difference with Wolverine is that we know he can take it. Hansel doesn't take too much punishment, but Gretel sure did. She ends up being victorious and none the worse for wear, but her being non-super-powered means that I winced a lot more than I did with Wolverine.

    2013/07/06

    Despicable Me 2


    An amusing trifle. Completely unserious comedy. Good view on romance, that it's far more likely to occur when two people are focusing together on a mission of some sort than when they're deliberately seeking romance per se. The “minions” are lots and lots of fun. They're so popular, they're slated to get their own film in 2014, with Sandra Bullock doing the voice for the villain of the movie.

    2013/06/28

    The Heat


    Fascinating to see that the first real moment of female bonding in the picture comes when the Boston cop Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) shows off her weapons collection to New York Federal Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock). Lots and lots of laugh-out-load moments.

    2013/06/15

    The Man of Steel


    The Man of Steel reminds me of The Avengers in terms of the widespread destruction that the super-fights cause (Superman battles some fellow Kryptonians, so they have no trouble tearing up the city like tissue paper). I think The Avengers movie does a better job of alternating quiet moments with loud ones. Man of Steel is very, very loud, fast and destructive. In the Guardian, some people utilized an insurance program to look at The Avengers movie and to estimate the cost of the damage that Loki caused to New York City. Comparable real-life costs are “9/11 ($83bn), Hurricane Katrina ($90bn) or the Japanese tsunami ($122bn) to fix.” They estimate the damage from The Avengers fight to be around $160bn. The Man of Steel fight? Whoof. That's got to be in the neighborhood of $220bn at least, as several sections of New York, er that is, Metropolis, end up looking as though they've suffered a really heavy B-52 strike.
    Interesting to see that the Clark Kent-Lois Lane relationship is carried out very differently from the usual one. It's a good deal more plausible than the usual one is.

    2013/06/05

    Troubling to see two kinds of drone strikes


    NBC News reports that US drones can launch a “personality” strike or a “signature” strike. The personality strike relies upon intel collected from the field and the target is very specifically identified. Drone operators know the name of the person being assassinated from a distance. That's troubling, but the signature strike is far more troubling. The signature strike depends on following behavior patterns in the person being observed. As a blog post of 2006 observed, our intel services have “been there, done that.” Person A might call Person B. B might call Person C's number. Person A might later call the number for Person C as well. Is this a small group of terrorists keeping in touch with each other? Actually, probably not. These connections actually got a nickname: “Pizza Hut connections.” Person A might indeed be calling Person B because B is a friend, but Person C often turned out to be a pizza delivery place or some similar business that both A and B used. Countless man-hours were wasted running down just such useless connections. Of course “According to President Bush, the NSA spy program was used only for gathering intelligence on citizens suspected of plotting with Al Qaida inside the United States,” and hey, we all know how reliable and truthful Bush was, eh? So, it's really far from clear that the targeting the US Government used was anywhere near as precise in reality as it was in theory.
    It certainly sounds from the NBC piece that today's drone strikes are much better planned and that the intel is much more substantiated, but there is the past to consider.

    How seriously should we take Politifact?


    So, a sort-of, kind-of liberalish columnist publishes this. Gets lots and LOTS of comments. A liberal commenter (Comments are deleted after a few days, so these won't be up for the long term) stated the following:

    Almost two and a half years ago, John Boehner and the flood of new Tea Party winners in the 2010 election promised that House Republicans would be the ‘jobs creators’, since President Obama and the Democrats were doing such a slow job at it.
    So where are the jobs? Since then:

    • Number of Republican-introduced jobs-creation bills in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives – ZERO.

    • Number of Democrat-introduced jobs-creation bills allowed to come to a vote in the GOP controlled House of Representatives - ZERO.

    And of course, not one of those GOP members mentions that they blocked an increase in funds for embassy security. But you'd never know if this if you watch Fox religiously.

    A conservative commenter responded that Politifact had “ruled” that Republicans had indeed created lots of “jobs bills.” They get this assertion by counting up the number of bills that are labeled as having something to do with creating jobs. Politifact makes an extremely important observation near the end, though:

    "Job creation" means different things to different parties.

    Most conservatives today are dead-set against traditional forms of government-based economic stimulus known as Keynesian economics, primarily spending initiatives. So if "job creation" is defined to primarily include Keynesian initiatives, then Republicans aren’t going to be sponsoring any "job creation" bills. Instead, Republicans argue that tax cuts and budget cutting will help the economy prosper.

    Frankly, if I were the editor of Politifact, I would have started with this undisputed fact (That the parties disagree on what constitutes “job creation”) and would have then explored just what Republicans mean by labeling bills as “jobs bills.” In 100% of the cases where I've seen the term “jobs bill,” it's referred to a bill that's specifically about Keynesian stimulus. I've never seen a bill referred to as a “jobs bill” when the creation of jobs is merely a by-product. Sure enough, the liberal digs into the data and spells out just what these alleged Republican “jobs bills” are all about:

    18 of these so-called "jobs bills" reduce or eliminate government regulations in nearly every business sector, especially of energy and pollution


    6 give more tax breaks to the same big businesses that are sitting on record profits and not hiring people right now.

    One is an anti-union bill.

    Another makes it even easier to bring foreign high tech workers into the country to replace American workers at lower wages.

    One eliminates imaginary regulations against "farm dust".

    And one is the Paul Ryan budget that lays out a 'Path to Prosperity' that includes massive layoffs and gutting social programs.

    In other words - not a single job created, but plenty of reduced wages and lost jobs. 

    In other words, Politifact's research doesn't go anywhere near deep enough to be meaningful. Labels are affixed to bills by political parties for all sorts of reasons, not merely to be factually descriptive. As a body that “rules” on the truth of political rhetoric, they don't put enough research into the questions they look at to have any serious credibility.

    I “rule” that Politifact is a moderately useful source, to be cited when they agree with you, but otherwise to be ignored.

    2013/05/27

    The Great Gatsby


    My sister says that The Great Gatsby was a novel that had a real influence on her growing up, she and a buddy would observe a fancy house giving a wild, noisy party across the water and they'd feel like they were observing one of Gatsby's parties. And yes, the mix of 1920s music and modern hip-hop in the movie certainly makes the 2013 version timeless.
    As to the philosophical question at the heart of the book, “Does wealth help you get the girl?” I had a serious crush, let's call her Brunhilde (She was of German descent), many years ago. She turned me down because she already had a boyfriend. He was wealthier, but that wasn't really the point. She felt that he was more mature than I was as I was still trying to get my degree whereas he was long out of college and progressing in his career. So I never saw Brunhilde or other women as gold-diggers or people who insisted on fancy dinners as the price of their company. They're looking for guys who are at least reasonably successful in material terms. Because of today's crappy economy, having a career or even just having money that's a bit beyond what I need just to get by on is a hard thing to have.
    Do I pine after Brunhilde? Would I do as Gatsby did and go after her with money, however I obtained that money? Nah, her boyfriend was way ahead of me in maturity way back when and the two of them (Did they stay together? No idea) have probably only gotten more so over the years. I don't think my attraction to her was something that was irreproducible, I don't think it was a one-time thing. There aren't very many women that I'll develop a similarly strong attraction to, but they're out there. If I ever get to a comfortable level of wealth, I'll then proceed along Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to the point where I'm ready to move up to romance.

    2013/05/22

    TV Shows


    My shows generally fall into three categories, news, historical-type fiction and outlandish fantasy. Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow are news shows that I don't tape, I watch them in an “Appointment TV” style, that is, I get to the TV when the show starts, watch the program, often channel-jumping during commercials, then at the end of the show, I turn off the TV and go on to something else.

    The Good Wife and The Client List are historical-fiction type shows. Good Wife covers various aspects of the legal profession from within a fictionalized context. The individual, specific actions, the details, are pretty trustworthy. We can be sure they're based on real institutions and events. It's the overall framework , the personal details about the characters and the context that's fictionalized. In one episode, our protagonist Alicia (Julianne Margulies) is sulking because she was appointed as a partner in her firm to fulfill a financial need on the part of the firm, not so much because she was an amazing lawyer. Her senior partner Diane (Christine Baranski) tells her to get over it because Diane was appointed as a partner for similar reasons. The lesson here is to take promotions for whatever reasons they're offered. Don't get so pure that you get in the way of your own career. Client List covers massage parlors that “give their customers a little extra” and cover all sorts of issues that arise from being a sex worker. A continuing, recurring problem is “What does one do with all of that money?” Obviously, that's problem a lot of us would like to have, but the show demonstrates that it can be a real logistical problem to deal with piles and piles of cash and to still maintain a cover. Our protagonist Riley (Jennifer Love Hewitt) is speaking with some policemen about her husband's legal problems and one of them loudly notes that the clothes she wears are not exactly of the standard for those of modest means. He notes that they're a bit more expensive than one would expect from an ordinary housewife. Riley gets through the encounter, but the point is made, that someone with a lot of extra, illicit money, has to be careful how she spends it. In both cases, the show are generally successful at being both informative about their subjects and good dramas.

    Grimm, Merlin, Nikita, Beauty & The Beast, Vampire Diaries, Once Upon A Time, Lost Girl and Being Human are outlandish fantasies. They all have explicitly stated rules for what their characters can and can't do, but all of those rules go well beyond what regular people can do. Being Human is a show where a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost all share a house in the city. One of the premises is that if a vampire drinks werewolf blood, it gives him what essentially amounts to an immediate and really bad case of food poisoning, so a young werewolf (Lydia Doesburg) who was staying in the house decided to temporarily disable the vampire (Sam Huntington) by putting some of her blood into the vampire's usual refrigerated supply and to then attack him when he was weakened. Our vampire prevails, of course, but it's a real challenge for him to do so.

    Now, I think I can be reasonably certain that this is a problem that will never occur to me. That's the fun of it. Someone once said the whole point of watching disaster movies is to compare the problems of the characters there with those of your own life and to comfort yourself that “Well, at least I don't have to hide my magical abilities from my king (Merlin) while trying to defend my kingdom from all manner of mystical foes.” The show Two Broke Girls doesn't interest me because I'm far too often actually broke myself, so it's far too real to me to be of any interest to me as a TV show. It's more amusing to follow storylines like those of Nikita's secret organization that undertakes covert missions in the manner of a superhero team or Vampire Diaries that examines the many problems of vampires, witches and werewolves that regular people aren't even aware of (A marvelous scene occurred when the werewolf (Michael Trevino) comes to the conclusion that a young woman he's sweet on is more than human “You're a werewolf, too!” She (Candice Accola) replies that, well, uh, sort of. She's actually a vampire, but yeah, he's right, she's not human). By the way, it seems to me that Grimm, Once Upon A Time and Lost Girl all more or less take off from the idea presented in the comic-book series Fables, which also freely pulls in characters and storylines from a wide variety of fables and legends near and far. Of course, that also borrows from a lengthy tradition of freely plundering the past to get stories, as Beauty & the Beast is a direct continuation of an old legend, just as the comic-book Thor is a direct continuation of old Norse legends.

    Update: Very interesting! Grimm and Vampire Diaries both improved their ratings this past season.

    2013/05/20

    Star Trek Into Darkness


    Quite good! Lots and lots of close calls. Kirk succeeds in bringing everyone back alive time and again, but he has to cut a few corners and ignore a few orders to do so. Villain is quite formidable and takes quite a few really hard punches from 
    Kirk (Played by Chris Pine) without much reaction. We immediately recognize him once he's named, of course. As with any other prequel, we know that certain things will end up a certain way, so my reaction at one point was “Oh, man, how are they gonna fix THIS one!?!?” Interestingly, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Spock (Zachary Quinn) appear to have a romantic relationship, a relationship that we know doesn't survive into the series, so that's a story we know we'll see in a  sequel.
    The Independent blanches at the tacky capital city of the Federation. The reviewer remarks on the London of the film: “Our capital in the 23rd century now resembles Dubai on steroids – thank God we won’t be around to see it.” I always wondered, seeing the original series, how the citizens of the Federation related to the Enterprise and its crew. The movie doesn't add much to what very little we know.

    Update: The Rachel Maddow blog compares Admiral Marcus to Dick Cheney. Has some mild spoilers.

    2013/05/10

    The Benghazi situation




    Jon Stewart's Daily Show covers the Benghazi "scandal" where no one has ever identified what was being covered up or what the Obama Administration ever hoped to achieve with it. As this piece reviews the three events, Watergate, Iran-Contra and yes, even Whitewater, all had some discernable motivation behind them. In each case, there was a good reason for the Nixon, Reagan and Clinton administrations to want to carry them out. In the case of Benghazi, the actions took place in early September of last year, here it is May and no one has yet defined exactly what the Obama Administration was attempting to achieve. Rachel Maddow covered the Benghazi hearings from the perspective of general Republican/right wing craziness (Her specific comments on Benghazi start at the 12:50 mark). She states straightforwardly that she can't "reverse-engineer" why and how Benghazi was supposedly a positive for Obama.

    Daily Kos examines various questions: "Why wasn't the Special Forces unit sent to the scene of the fighting?"

    ...they weren't some fully outfitted Delta Force unit ready to obliterate the men who had dared attack American facilities. They were just four guys in all, no doubt brave and eager to go. But they weren't combat ready, being armed solely with 9mm sidearms.

    "Why weren't jets sent?"

    They couldn't have gotten there in time, something examined in full by the Accountability Review Board's independent report.

    "There was a '40-man Special Operations CIF [Commander's in-Extremis Force] unit in Europe at the time of the attack,' why weren't they sent?"

         The nearest airfield where the 40-man team could have landed was 30 kilometers away from where the incident took place. Yes, they had a plane that could have carried vehicles that could have gotten them there on time, but it  takes time to load those appropriate vehicles onto a plane. By the time that could have been done, the fight would have long since been over. No, there was no realistic way that the team could have gotten to the fight in time to make a difference.

    In short, there was really no conspiratorial explanation for why the personnel in the Benghazi diplomatic compound could not be saved. There simply wasn't time to do much. There were too few forces, too far away, to have made any difference.

    Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) asked all three expert witnesses at the May 8th "whistleblowers" hearing if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's name at the bottom of all of the relevant cables meant anything. All three witnesses replied that it is standard protocol to credit all cables to having been written by the SecState whether she had anything to do with them or not. So no, Clinton's name at the bottom of all the cables meant nothing. Did the House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) learn anything from the hearing? His own statements indicate that the hearings were a complete waste of time and that nothing was learned. Heck, even Fox News was cutting away from their own coverage because there was so little that was new and interesting coming out of it.

    So what's the point? Why are Republicans putting so much time and effort into the story? Daily Kos figures it's "The GOP's Benghazi investigation, aka the Stop Hillary 2016 campaign." After all, President Obama was mentioned 29 times whereas Clinton was mentioned 71 times.

    Update: And did anybody truly think that Republicans would be embarrassed into silence? Ha. Ha. Ha.  Not Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK)!

    “Of all the great cover-ups in history — the Pentagon papers, the Iran-Contra, Watergate and all the rest of them — this … is going to go down as the most serious, the most egregious cover-up in American history,” Inhofe said during an appearance on The Rusty Humphries Show.

    Obviously, Inhofe just speaks for himself, but it seems pretty clear that there will be some never-say-die fanatics on this. 

    2013/05/05

    Iron Man 3


    This is one of those stories that I wish I had read in a comics form so that I could flip back through and get a better sense of how all of the parts fit together. I finished up the story of Sif in Strange Tales and they ended up the story with a cool twist ending/revelation, so I was able to go back and read all of the issues in the story from start to finish and ended up with a much better understanding of what the authors were trying to convey.
    It helped that I was able to get a detailed review of Iron Man 3, as the review went through many of the various threads and details that I wasn't fully able to recall from Saturday night. The “thinking/feeling drone” aspect is a very interesting one as that fantasy very clearly comes out of stories like this July 2002 piece on a bombing that allegedly had a ground observer in place to confirm that the plane was actually hitting a target that was really a hostile. It was a wedding party and it makes sense that it came to the attention of bombers because you had a large group of people and weddings in that region often involve shooting off guns into the air at certain points during the ceremony. 30 people in that party died. In Iron Man, James Rhodes as Iron Patriot/War Machine comes into a sweatshop where women in chadors are busy sewing garments. Had Iron Patriot not been a human in a metal suit, had he been an actual drone, the entire shop would simply have been blown to bits.
    Tony Stark/Iron Man apparently suffers some PTSD from the Avengers movie, not a debilitating case of it, but it recalls his “Demon in a Bottle” storyline in his comic in the late 1970s. The studio nixed the idea of having this Iron Man battle alcoholism, but a bit of PTSD was apparently okay.

    2013/04/26

    Nikita: Black Badge


    Hmm, very interesting. A few intriguing similarities to the movie “Fair Game,” a movie I've referenced a few times, with the episode “Black Badge,” from the TV series Nikita. The show introduces an athletic, in-shape CIA agent with long blond hair who goes by the name of Naomi. Naomi Watts played an athletic, in-shape CIA agent with long blond hair, Valerie Plame Wilson, in “Fair Game.” Naomi Ceaver (Played by Amanda Schull) is a conspiracy theorist who can't quite locate the proof necessary to prove her cases in a satisfactory manner. Wilson's husband uncovered a dastardly plot by President G.W. Bush to blame Iraq for something it didn't do and the Wilsons were never able to follow up his whistle-blowing to get to the proper conclusion.

    2013/04/23

    Astonishing Chechnya

    Guest post by Deena Stryker.

    RT is airing an incredible documentary on the Republic of Chechnya, known to the outside world for having been practically destroyed by repeated separatist wars with Russia.

    According to Wikipedia, the Caucasus mini-state  is returning to sharia law and all its accoutrements, with some resistance to Russian rule still remaining in the mountains.

    The RT documentary  presents a very different picture which does not necessarily contradict this information. It describes a Muslim society deter-mined to appear ‘modern’.  With the help of Qatar, which is the most visible of the Gulf monarchies (think Al-Jazeera), the capital Grozny, has been rebuilt to resemble Doha, with illuminated skyscrapers, shopping malls, fancy restaurants, glitzy spectacles and fireworks – Putin’s version of war benefitting construction investments. But the skaking rinks are sexually segregated.

    A new fashion industry is dedicated to luxury wear for the head-scarfed woman and eager to attract wealthy clients from other Muslim countries with strict female dress codes. The models parading gracefully down the catwalk will soon marry, after which they will be expected to remain at home, according to Islamic custom.  Unmarried women cannot travel abroad.

    If this all sounds terrible, note that the brand of Sunni Islam practiced in the Caucasus is Sufism, which is accompanied by much rhythmic singing and dancing.

    However some families are still sending their sons to madrassas where they are taught the Koran, wrestling and boxing (sports in which it is prohibited to attach the adversary’s head under Islamic law), and Dubai made an exception by sending some of the Prophets personal items to the Russian Islamic republic that boasts the world’s largest mosque.

    Putting these pieces together, what emerges is a picture entirely in keeping with what I described in a previous blog as Putin’s cultural policy.  (“March 18th: …the Russian leader appears to also hanker after an era when ‘fun’ was ‘clean’ and families were intact.  The Pussy Riot trial is less a defense of religion than the belief that all freedoms have limits, in contradiction to Washing-ton’s unqualified commitment to the First Amendment.”)

    Putin’s cultural policy as practiced in the Russian Republic of Chechnya seems intended to assure Muslim populations that a) their religion is entirely respectful; b) while practicing it they can be part of the modern world; and c) that ‘clean’ modernity is better than vulgar modernity.

    In centuries past, Chechen Sufi leaders were already dreaming of a vast califate. With the Kremlin’s help, their modern descendants are busy creating a ‘modern’ Islamic society. Putin is shrewdly betting that if the larger mainly Islamic states on its periphery (the ‘Stans’) bring ‘modernity’ to their masses, they will be less of a threat than if they maintain them in a feudal time warp. It will be interesting to see whether the young women of Chechnya and other Islamic societies will long be willing to sacrifice their independence for the sake of Western glitz.  In any case if Putin’s policies can displace dour Wahab-bism from Saudi Arabia, that will be a good thing.

    2013/04/17

    Gun bill “fails” with 54 in favor and 46 against


    There are two methods of fixing the Senate rules, there's the “Constitutional Option,” where the rules are changed at the beginning of the two-year session and then there's the “Nuclear Option,” where the rules are changed mid-session. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), opted for a really mild, watered-down Constitutional Option this last January in order to deal with the filibuster (Note: the filibuster is not in the Constitution and the first filibuster didn't occur until 1837). We saw today with a vote on an already weakened and watered-down gun safety bill that the Constitutional Option produced an insufficient safeguard against an out-of-control overuse of the filibuster, where a minority of the Senate opposes a measure supported by around 90% of the American people.
    Wonkette replies to a disgruntled conservative with a scathing, NSFW (Not Safe For Work) commentary (The conservative whined and moaned about former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords “bullying” people), which expresses my mood about Harry Reid and the filibuster quite well.

    Update: Excellent reaction by President Obama. Hear! Hear!

    2013/04/16

    The CIA “Hollowed Out”


    Bill Keller writes about the CIA and covert ops people versus intel people and the following passage jumped out at me:

    "The C.I.A., having been hollowed out in the ’90s after the end of the cold war, failed to see the signs of what would be 9/11. Then the C.I.A. got the ostensible Iraqi weapons threat terribly wrong, drowning out more skeptical voices..."

    There are three charges here: 1. That Bill Clinton permitted the CIA to be so underfunded and understaffed that it couldn't do its job while under George W. Bush, 2. that the CIA missed the signs that 9/11 was about to occur and 3. that the CIA thought there were WMD in Iraq when there weren't. The first charge is proven or disproven by the second and third charges. If those other two charges stand up, then we may presume that the first charge is true and vice-versa, if the two charges are not true, then the first is not true, either.

    So how do the two charges stack up against the evidence? Not very well. Ron Suskind relates in his book “The One Percent Doctrine” that “Bush listened to the briefing, Suskind says, then told the CIA briefer: 'All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.'” And from The National Interest:

    Kurt Eichenwald, former New York Times reporter and Vanity Fair contributing editor...”the administration’s reaction to what Mr. Bush was told in the weeks before that infamous briefing reflected significantly more negligence than has been disclosed.”

    As to the third charge, that the CIA failed to see that there were no WMD in Iraq, the movie “Fair Game” tells the story of Joe and Valerie Plame Wilson, drawing heavily on the book by Valerie Wilson and shows that, yes indeed, the CIA did do its assigned job by presenting the President with all of the information that was available to them and that, in fact, there was significant doubt that Iraq had WMDs. The CIA and their buddies across the pond, MI6, were both informed that Tahir Habbush al-Tikriti, who was Iraq's head of intelligence, told them that Iraq had no WMD. Naji Sabri, Saddam Hussein's foreign minister, is also said to have claimed this, although Sabri has denied saying so.

    Now these claims of Bill Keller's really bother me as Keller joined the NY Times in 1984 and was the Executive Editor from 2003 to 2011, so this is no amateur, wet-behind-the-ears, fresh-outta-J-school, eager beaver cub reporter. This guy's been around and knows full well what he's saying.

    To be fair, there were indeed people in both MI6 and the CIA who credited claims of WMD “even after they were exposed as fabricated including claims, notably about alleged mobile biological warfare containers, made by Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, a German source codenamed Curveball,” so it's incorrect to say that the CIA was united in casting doubt upon the Bush Administration's justifications for going to war, but there's certainly no justification for claiming that the CIA as an agency failed either before 9/11 or before the Iraq War.

    By the way, neither former President George W. Bush nor former Vice President Dick Cheney have any regrets or second thoughts about having plunged the nation into an unnecessary war.

    [Bush] reflected on the “realities of the situation 10 years ago”: that the Iraq invasion had bipartisan support and that seeking regime change in Iraq had also been the policy under Clinton.
    “It’s easy to forget what life was like when the decision was made,” Bush said.
    Yes, the invasion had bipartisan support, but that was because Bush was manipulating the intel. And as I pointed out here, Clinton did indeed send Madelaine Albright to get a read on how motivated Americans were to fight a war against Iraq, but found that there simply wasn't anywhere near enough enthusiasm to even attempt to launch such a war.

    As to Cheney, his old company Halliburton made $39.5 billion from the war, so he obviously has no regrets.

    As to Keller's larger thesis, that the “cowboys” of the CIA were an undue influence on the “eggheads” (i.e., that the covert ops people had too much influence on the gathering-of-intel people), I doubt that. I read a few books on the CIA during the 1980s and got the impression that, despite the CIA being a single agency with a single Director, that the intel and ops people perform different tasks in different places and don't interact much.

    2013/04/13

    Oz, the Great and Powerful


    Saw the original 1939 Wizard of Oz many times as a youth as an annual event on TV. In the early 1990s, I read a really neat piece in the paper (Believe it was the Washington Post) about Glinda the Good Witch being the manipulative mastermind behind the events in Oz. Consider the ending. At the end, Glinda's rivals, the two evil witches and the Wizard, have all been dispatched or have left town due to that young woman who has that elusive x-factor, good luck combined with youthful initiative. Glinda is the “Last magician standing,” so she makes the Scarecrow into her Prime Minister, gives positions to the Tin Man and Lion and then proceeds to rule Oz as a benevolent monarch, with of course an iron fist, with her devious, manipulative cleverness being hidden behind a deceptively nice, well-mannered exterior.
    Read the book “Wicked” a few years later. Pretty good, but the author clearly got all sentimental about his character halfway through and Elphaba (His name for the Wicked Witch of the West) ends up being just misunderstood as opposed to really evil.
    Saw the original film during a cruise in 2002. Really cool to see it all in one sitting and without interruption so that I was able to fit it all together in my mind.
    So saw “Oz, the Great and Powerful” last night. I explained to a store clerk that the story takes place before the 1939 film, so it's a prequel as opposed to a sequel. It introduces all three witches, Evanora, the one who dies very early on in the 1939 film (Played by the only actor in the 2013 film that I recognized, Rachel Weisz), Elphaba and Glinda. Elphaba again has a rationality behind her actions that makes her more misunderstood than evil and Glinda and the Wizard both have a bit of a harder edge than in the original film. There's a bit of Mark Twain's “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court” to the film as the Wizard has to make do with what he has and must battle a truly evil army of trained warriors and flying monkeys with farmers and shopkeepers.

    2013/04/01

    AQ & AQI

    Excellent piece from FireDogLake on a WaPo columnist who makes several serious errors in history right off the bat. Jackson Diehl claims that the "United States faced down al-Qaeda and eventually dealt it a decisive defeat” Uh, no, it didn't Al Qaeda proper (AQ) was not al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI started as a separate organization under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who populated it with members of his old group and with jihadists who started migrating to Iraq in mid-2003 to join the fight against the American invaders of that country. Right-wingers in the US claimed that the US was following the "Flypaper" strategy, the idea of attracting jihadists from all over the Mideast and then successfully killing them in Iraq.


    Problem was, most of the jihadists who went to Iraq would most likely have just remained in their home countries and most probably would not have done much of anything had the US not presented them with such an inviting target. There was simply never any evidence that anybody, neither already-active jihadists, nor members of AQ proper, were drawn into the "flypaper." Did AQ suffer any sort of defeat in Iraq? No, because AQ stayed out of Iraq. Sure, okay, AQI was defeated, but had the Iraq War never occurred, AQI would never have existed to begin with.

    Diehl mentions that the Balkans under Clinton and Libya under Obama were successful interventions. True, but in both cases, there was a strong consensus as to the need for action and the US had many allies going in. Neither condition exists in Syria today, so I would be very considerably warier than Diehl is about going into Syria.



    2013/03/31

    Audiobooks


    Now finishing up working a redacting job. When a journalist receives a document that has words, phrases and sometimes whole paragraphs blacked out, that's called a redacted document. So I black out the information on documents that could allow people to take money from our customers. Decent job, but it allows all sorts of time for the mind to wander, so I purchased, took out and downloaded a whole set of audiobooks. I find that the type of attention that redacting requires and that the type of attention listening to an audiobook requires are two completely different types of attention, so I'm easily able to do both at once. Reading any sort of narrative and watching a TV show that has any sort of plot, on the other hand, requires the same type of attention, so I can't do both at the same time. While at work in the Navy, some of my shipmates wanted to watch a football or soccer game while I worked. I had zero problems with that as sports matches don't have narratives in the same way that a Personnel documents do.

    The first audiobook I picked up from the library after “Cleopatra” was “Attack Poodles” by James Wolcott. Written in an attempt to influence the 2004 election, it's a good run-down of right-wing pundits. The saddest one is Dennis Miller, who switched from left-winger to right-winger. As Wolcott points out early on in the book, switching sides is a no-no. It's much better for a pundit to pick a side and stick with it through thick and thin.

    Just as early movies tried really hard to always find a way to get a chase scene in, superhero comics have to get a fight scene in, soap operas have to get dramatic confrontations in, etc., detective stories want to tell us about the social and physical context in which the detective operates. Accordingly, my major window into how the Navajos live today (Hopis show up in these books from time to time and white people are generally represented by the FBI) is through the Tony Hillerman books. They focus on two characters, Navajo Police Sgt. Jim Chee and retired NP Lt. Joe Leaphorn. The audiobook I listened to was “The Wailing Wind.” The books have a relaxed pace and emphasize the wide open country out there on the Great Plains of New Mexico.

    Another series I've enjoyed for a long times has been the Jeeves books (The author P.G. Wodehouse put out about a hundred of these). The one I listened to was “Stiff Upper Lip.” A foppish, excitable and not-terribly-bright young aristocrat named Bertie Wooster has adventures with his pal Gussie Fink-Nottle and the wise and sensible butler Jeeves bails them out all the time. The audiobook clearly designs itself on the PBS Masterpiece Theater “Jeeves and Wooster” series, which is set in the 1920s and Jeeves has a very particular way of pronouncing some phrases.

    And yes, neither series has much to do with sex. None of the heroes in these two series has a whole lot to do with women.

    Went to Librivox, a service that offers voice recordings of works in the public domain. Listened to “The Japanese Fairy Book” compiled by Yei Theodora Ozaki in 1908. Two interesting contrasts between mythology then and now. The first is that legends and tall tales today are told in specific formats. Movies are generally about 90 minutes long, comic books are generally around 20 pages an issue (though a single story can stretch over multiple issues), novels are 200-300 pages long (again, novels can come in a series), etc. Stories back in the day didn't have to be a certain length. Today, we have the movies “Tangled” and “Jack the Giant Slayer,” both of which take the old tales of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk respectively and bulk them out by adding lots of elements that were not present in the originals. 

    In one of the Japanese fairy tales, a man, his wife and their daughter are living happily. The wife passes away. The man remarries. The stepmother makes the daughter's life miserable and then tattles on her. The daughter pours out her heart to her father. The stepmother overhears and apologizes. And they all lived happily ever after. The story is bulked out so that it takes 15-20 minutes to read, but that's essentially the plot. A lot of the stories are similarly cut-and-dried, but fortunately, there are many more complex stories in the collection. Also, some of the stories resemble Rudyard Kipling's “Just So Stories,” where tales are used to explain how certain animals took on the features that they did and how other natural phenomenon got to be the way they are. Did you know that jellyfish used to have hard shells and legs? Neither did I, until I listened to the Japanese tale of how a jellyfish got outsmarted by a monkey and so was punished by having all of his bones and shell removed. 

    The modern comic book story of Sif, the Norse goddess of beauty and frequent companion to and lover of the god of thunder Thor, is killed and the ravens explain how “There were the White Mountains fashioned from her bones and there the night sky from her hair and her blood ran down and filled the mighty seas.” The wolf who is with the ravens growls irritatedly and insists “That is not how the story goes.” 

    The ravens agree and get back to how the story was supposed to go, but that is very typical of the romantic, elevated sort of language that mythology uses. 

    @Marvel Comics 2013 Journey into Mystery 648
     .
    Another difference is that the superhero world is highly integrated. Everybody knows everybody else. In this sequence, Sif talks with Spider-Man. 

    @Marvel Comics 2013 Journey into Mystery 649
     

    Their dialogue here makes it clear that the two are not close friends, but they recognized each other immediately when they met and they know full well what their connections are and that they're on the same side. A number of characters clearly spend a lot of off-page time with each other, but these two are just acquaintances. To have an integrated universe like this, the comics need to keep their characters reasonably consistent from writer to writer and from artist to artist. That takes coordination, which clearly the mythology of yesteryear didn't need, though there are a few Japanese stories where characters appear in more than one story.

    The Princess & the Goblin” is an 1872 story. In progress. Will update when I've finished with it.

    Update: Eh, it was okay. The female lead character was, I guess, about nine to ten years old. She was just getting to the age where, as a royal child, she realizes that she outranks the maid and can give orders instead of just receiving them. The male protagonist is, I'd say from 14 to 15. Some physical capability, quickness and initiative. The parents are universally wise, sensible and beloved. Have to say, I do kind of like the epilogue, where the villains are scattered and many that remain integrate themselves into the community. Makes for a nice, positive, forward-looking ending.

    2013/03/25

    Ten years ago. The Iraq War in retrospect.



    One of Philadelphia's Gold Star Mothers, Celeste Zappala, was interviewed by WHYY on Tuesday, the 19th of March and the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Zappala lost her son Sherwood Baker in 2004. He was the first National Guard member to lose his life in Iraq. During the Vietnam War, the National Guard was so safe a place to be that the future president George W. Bush signed up for a six-year tour (Notthat he even served the full six years), but in Iraq, the National Guard was a vital supplement to the regular armed forces. Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry (D-MA) charged in 2004 that by keeping National Guard troops in their billets longer than they had planned and by using them as regular forces, the Bush Administration didn't have to impose a draft or to increase the size of the regular armed forces, and thus that using the National Guard in that way amounted to a “back-door draft.” Recruitment for the military to keep enough troops fighting in Iraq was a problem. In 2007, the Army had to spend $1 billion in bonuses to recruit and retain the soldiers it had. The economic collapse at the end of 2007 made it a good deal easier to do keep the military fully staffed.

    Why did the Bush Administration depend so heavily on the National Guard during the occupation of Iraq?

    Much of the planning for the occupation of Iraq was improvised, last-minute and inadequate. The Bush Administration didn't appear to think that many forces or much money would be needed after Baghdad had fallen. The problem then was very ably sketched out by Colonel Harry G. Summers, who built upon the theories of Carl von Clausewitz concerning war and national determination. Colonel Summers' book was entitled “On Strategy: The Vietnam War in context” and it was written in response to the failure of the US to win over the Vietnamese people to the cause of America. The military in both Iraq and Vietnam did everything that was asked of it and it carried out its assigned task with enthusiasm and professionalism. In neither case can America assign any significant blame to the military for the inability of the US to win hearts and minds in the occupied country. The Iraqi insurgents certainly deserve a great deal of credit for making an American victory after the fall of Baghdad impossible. Had all gone according to the plans made by the Bush Administration and had Iraqis quietly accepted the American occupation, there would have been no need for Bush and his people to whip up American enthusiasm and support for the war.

    As it was, the left wing was proven correct by the failure to find any WMDs and was thus completely uninterested in supporting the war and the right wing was perfectly happy to keep their activities in support of the war very sharply limited. The right-wing columnist Jonah Goldberg was asked why he didn't join up and go to Iraq in uniform (Goldberg was at the very upper age limit for joining the military). He later apologized for this response, but it's worthwhile to remember what he said:

    As for why my sorry a** isn't in the kill zone, lots of people think this is a searingly pertinent question. No answer I could give -- I'm 35 years old, my family couldn't afford the lost income, I have a baby daughter, my a** is, er, sorry, are a few -- ever seem to suffice.

    The point here is that Goldberg's attitude was quite typical for right-wingers. People who supported the war didn't feel the need to actually go over to Iraq and spend years in a foreign land actually getting themselves involved in learning a foreign language and dealing with a very different culture. Patriotism only demanded so much.

    According to Summers, yes, any military or any country's political leadership can carry out short, brief military actions without getting broad-based buy-in from the country's civilian population, but any war that costs significant time and resources must get the civilian population emotionally involved. People must be absolutely convinced that the war is of immense significance and that it's worth great sacrifice to win it. Bush failed to get civilians from the right wing to go to Iraq as civilian reconstruction personnel, which explains why $8 billion of the money allocated to Iraqi reconstruction was lost. Without on-the-ground personnel overseeing projects and with Americans attempting to supervise projects from desks inside the “Green Zone” in Baghdad or from the US, it wasn't at all surprising that the US reconstruction effort was a complete flop.

    Getting Americans motivated

    The first step to getting Americans enthusiastically involved in the conquest/occupation of Iraq wassupervised by Madeleine Albright in February 1998. Albright brought several fellow war hawks to a town meeting in Ohio. It was a PR disaster as citizens vigorously questioned why Iraq was considered to be a threat and why that threat had to be neutralized via a war. Albright and her people were unable to answer these objections and the Clinton Administration didn't make any further attempts to whip up the public to supporting a war against Saddam Hussein and his country.

    It's generally accepted among many former skeptics that no, President George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney didn't arrange for 9-11 to happen, but the belief was based on solid facts. Bush and Cheney both had oil industry roots, there was good reason to believe that the US oil industry would profit enormously via an American occupation of Iraq and 9-11 occurred just a few years after Albright's failed attempt to get American citizen buy-in for a war against Iraq. Al Jazeera points out that safeguarding civilians was certainly not on the agenda of the invading Americans:

    The Iraq invasion cannot be reasonably described as a case of "humanitarian intervention" for three reasons. The means used in the war - a "shock and awe" bombing campaign, including the use of cluster munitions in populated areas - were clearly not designed with the objective of safeguarding Iraqi civilians. Secondly, there was no evidence of the triggering mechanism for a humanitarian intervention, such as mass slaughter or crimes that shock humanity. Saddam had a terrible track record but, during the run-up to war, no such crimes were ongoing or imminent. Third, humanitarian motives were clearly not dominant, as the war would probably not have occurred in the absence of the issues of WMD and/or the al-Qaeda connection. During his February 2003 presentation to the UN, even Colin Powell's slides related to Saddam's human rights violations were labelled, "Iraq: Failing to Disarm". 



    Even if regular people didn't buy that Iraq had something to do with 9-11, the Washington DC press corps certainly did. What we do know for certain is that Bush & Cheney manipulated the information suppled by America's intelligence agencies to make it appear that Hussein had something to do with 9-11. 

    The deleted paragraphs in the summary called "Key Judgements" read:

    "Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington a stronger cause for making war.
    Iraq probably would attempt clandestine attacks against the US Homeland if Baghdad feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime were imminent or unavoidable, or possibly for revenge."

    Many on the right wing have made their defense of the Bush Administration center around the allegation that Democratic Senators had access to the same intel that Bush had and that they reached the same conclusion. No, Democrats had access to the intel that Bush edited to make it look as though Iraq was a threat.

    As documented below, by the most scientifically respected measures available, Iraq lost 1.4 million lives as a result of OIL [Operation Iraqi Liberation], saw 4.2 million additional people injured, and 4.5 million people become refugees. The 1.4 million dead was 5% of the population. That compares to 2.5% lost in the U.S. Civil War, or 3 to 4% in Japan in World War II, 1% in France and Italy in
    World War II, less than 1% in the U.K. and 0.3% in the United States in World War II. The 1.4 million dead is higher as an absolute number as well as a percentage of population than these other horrific losses.

    The US absolutely must prevent anything like the Iraq War from ever occurring again. How are we doing on that? Unfortunately, not very well. The US leadership appears to greatly overestimate the effectiveness of sanctions, underestimates the usefulness of diplomacy and has far too much faith in our intelligence agencies. Also, people in Washington DC, both government officials and the press corps, appear to be talking about the deficit in much the same manner that they discussed Iraq in late 2002-early 2003. The good news is that US troops are very highly unlikely to go back into Iraq, no matter how badly the situation there deteriorates. The US couldn't do much there the first time and it seems our leadership knows that it couldn't do much on a return engagement. Could the US invade Iran? Certainly, elements want very badly to do so, but I think the public would be very highly likely to resist.