Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ooh! Barracuda! (with apologies to Heart)

"'Sarah Barracuda' -- she's proud of that name now, she uses it in her campaigns," said her former mentor. "But she got that name from the way she conducted herself with her own teammates. She was vicious to the other girls, always playing up to the coach and pointing out when the other girls made mistakes. She was the coach's favorite and he gave her more playing time than her skills warranted. My niece was on her team; she was a very good player. I used to sit there in the stands, and I would wonder, Why on earth is Sarah getting so much playing time?"

from Sarah Palin's Wasteful Ways

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Monday, May 28, 2007

supporting the troops

Right now, the most popular troop transport vehicle for soldiers on patrol in Iraq is the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, developed in the 80's by a still-functional arm of the now-defunct American Motors Corporation. This division was sold when AMC was wholly acquired by the French car company Renault. The HMMWV is still assembled by AM General in their only assembly plant, in Mishawaka, Indiana. The overwrought civilian counterpart of the HMMWV, the Hummer, was part of the Jeep-Eagle line sold to Chrysler and brought home to plague the narrow streets and parking spaces of our nation. The HMMWV's first use was in the Panama conflict of 1989, known as Operation Just Cause.

Like its predecessor, the WWII-era Jeep, the HMMWV was designed for personnel and light cargo transport behind the front lines, where it would need no armor or protection from NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) threats. Basically, it was designed for UN peacekeeping-type missions, which by all accounts, it did capably in Somalia with its lightness and agility. It was not designed with the vagaries of low intensity conflicts or asymmetric warfare which embroil soldiers in Iraq today, offering little protection against sustained small arms fire, to say nothing about heavy arms like machine guns, anti-tank mines or rocket-propelled grenades. Although armor upgrade kits are available, these were not provided at the outset of the Iraq conflict, spurring the rapid evolution of the most-dreaded weapon in this war, the improvised explosive device (IED), a homebrew concoction which can take the appearance of a variety of otherwise mundane items. There is a new book out for military leaving for Iraq which records advice for servicemembers to help them survive their first 100 days. About half of this book concerns the threat of IEDs. As Congressman Marty Meehan of the House Armed Services Committee (D-MA) described it, the shortage of armored vehicles is "a dangerously exposed center of gravity" of America's military presence in Iraq, and the lack of preparedness for insurgent tactics such as deploying IEDs were "symptomatic of a headlong rush to war."

As a result of this confluence of deficiencies, American soldiers and Marines stationed in Iraq have taken it upon themselves to improvise additional armor layers for their HMMWVs from scrap metal and other materials, known colloquially as 'hillbilly armor'. This follows a long history of improvised protection by American armed forces, such as WWII tank crews welding spare strips of tank track to the hulls of their tanks and Vietnam-era trucks reinforced with sandbags. Some officers were even disciplined over their refusal to carry out missions in vehicles they considered to be improperly armored. While reassuring to soldiers stuck policing an intercenine civil conflict with vulnerable unarmored transportation, hillbilly armor has several unintended consequences which make it more dangerous to passengers: the added weight makes vehicles slower and less fuel-efficient, overloading the drivetrain and suspension components; the higher center of gravity and weight increase the propensity towards sway and rollover; and additional shrapnel is created when an IED attack is successful.

The intractably high loss rates of the unarmored HMMWV has caused a great deal of concern, especially the incredible vulnerability to attacks from underneath the vehicle. The US DoD has contracted AM General to make new improved HMMWVs with turbo-charged engine, a windshield with ballistic protection and side/rear armor plates. Already the HMMWV's failure at force protection has boosted the popularity of the eight-wheeled Stryker, whose apt name is actually in tribute to a family of noted veterans. The first new vehicle in the US military developed since the Cold War-era M2 Bradley 'tank-killer' tank, the all-wheel drive Stryker was based on an idea by the lamentably retired General Eric Shinseki and is highly recognizable due to its catcher's mitt-like slat armor, which deflects anti-tank rpgs.

The Stryker has a whole suite of protective measures never contemplated by the HMMWV designers, like automatic fire extinguishers and NBC and radiological air purification and sealing system for the interior. Most of the criticism of the Stryker is that it is both too heavy, making it prone to rollover in the crumbling shoulders of Iraqi and Afghanistani roads and that it is too light in comparison to tracked vehicle like the M2 and less capable on unpaved road. However the superiority in urban settings and against IEDs led to overwhelming testimony in support of its continued use, including its exuberant defense by Colby Buzzell, former Stryker Brigade Combat Team member and milblogger.

A few years back, alerted by the failure of the HMMWV, the US Army has launched a search for its successor, a truly multipurpose vehicle. Candidates include the Ultra Armored Patrol (AP) designed by Georgia Tech's applied research arm, which is built on the skeleton of a Ford F-350 truck and includes NASCAR enhancements like shock-absorbing seats and multipoint safety harnesses and also, in a suggestion from soldiers in the field, sits occupants back to back in a diamond shape within an egg-shaped armor and bulletproof glass 'blast bucket', keeping allowing surveillance in all directions and protecting from exploding tires. There is also the Military Xtreme Truck (MXT) by International Trucks, based on their limited-edition Commercial Extreme Truck, the largest pickup truck currently in production, capable of towing 20 tons and costing $115, 000 dollars to start. At 7-10 miles per gallon, the CXT prompted Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program to say: "Shame on International for making this thing...This is a monster truck that only a Hummer could love, and it shows that without government leadership, the auto industry will lead us to more irresponsible, gas-guzzling vehicles." The most buzz-worthy entry, however, is the RST Shadow. Within its lightweight aluminum body is a hybrid diesel/electric motor which enables a silent electric mode. Basically, a Prius gone bad-ass. If nothing else, the Shadow would change the perception of hybrids as lacking in power and fortitude.

An MRAP is a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle. They are designed with a v-shaped single-shell body which assists in the deflection of mines and IEDs, increasing the survivability when on patrol 'outside the wire.' Billions are needed to fund the MRAP program, a significant cost but one has become politically untenable to refuse due to casualty rates in excess of Vietnam War loss rates. Already the UN uses the MRAP vehicle RG-31 Nyala as the transport of choice to protect its personnel against landmines.

The program to retire the HMMWV and replace it with the MRAP was part of the supplemental appropriation based by Congress last week. What amazes me is not that Democrats caved to the pressure to send a funding bill for the war without timetables but that they lasted as long as they did on the original bill. There is an awful lot of magical thinking coming from the netroots on this issue, namely the idea that anything less than a veto-proof majority will be able to force George to do anything legislatively that he doesn't want to do. Yes, yes the American people clearly want an end to the occupation of Iraq and Bush is at historically low levels of approval, so this should be a 'slam-dunk' but the reality is more nuanced than this.

First, the Democratic majority in both houses is softer than shit in a sneaker: 15 seats in the House, mostly centrist or conservative Dems who replaced highly conservative Republicans in the last election and in the Senate, not even a real majority if you consider a still-ailing Tim Johnson and secret Republican Joe Lieberman. And who breaks a tie in the Senate? Anyone? Oh yeah, that's the Vice President, the man who just this week mocked the Geneva convention and the idea of Constitutionally protected civil liberties at the graduation ceremony for West Point.

The willingness to automatically convene a circular firing squad over the appropriations debacle can only play into the hands of the GOP. No recognition of the fact we were one pen stroke away from calling an end to this a few weeks ago. Nope, just a wishful understanding of the mechanisms of the US government: that if Bush had no bill giving him money, he would have to withdraw the troops. To be sure, the Democratic leadership was not helped by the media's immediate assumption of this issue being a false choice between 'supporting the troops' and abandoning them in the field without bullets. The problem is that the perfect is the enemy of the good here and too many people expected too much out of their congresscritters.

It also doesn't help that the Democrats are so afraid of being painted with the 'pussy' brush that they act indecisively and then wonder why people think they are wimps. And I don't think many progressives really considered how damaging the phrase 'surrender date' was to public opinion. But...but...we elected the Democratic majority so that they would end the war, you say, which may be sort of true, but, like our soldiers in their poorly defended HMMWVs, we gave them juuuuuust enough seats to lose this battle. Polls are soft as well especially when unidimensonal, so that a majority of people could believe both that timelines are sorely needed AND that defunding the war would leave soldiers stranded in Samarra and out of gas to get back to base. You should all know W better than that, when he would have just held them hostage anyway. It wasn't going to happen, in the same way that impeachment is not going to just magically happen on the basis of a public opinion poll. There isn't even agreement within the Democrats as to how withdrawal would occur. There might be consensus that we need out of Iraq but there is not yet a majority for the idea of an immediate withdrawal, much less a defunding.

The only way to get a overriding majority for the timetables is to fracture the GOP caucus and have enough of them fear for their political lives cause them to override a veto. Which is to say nothing of childish notion that withdrawal wouldn't cost alot of money in itself and take alot of time. Instead, let's form a third party to draw away just enough votes from the Democrats to have them lose their elections while we mentally wank off about how a purist Green congress would have done things while the Republicans sweep back to power and chortle at the fractiousness of the Dems (a la Cindy Sheehan) or a primary challenge to anyone and everyone that seeks to do what Kennedy did to Carter in 1980.

Unless there are technical changes in the voting system, Duverger's law shows that we always be in a two-party system, as votes that would go to a third party would need to be taken from one of the two main parties in order to achieve any critical mass. You won't change that structure by proving it to be true -- by going off into a tiny huddle and saying you're a new party, but only succeeding in siphoning off enough of a handful of votes from the Democrats to give us the next incarnation of George W. Bush. No, they should have stuck to making symbolically meaningless gestures that do nothing (a non-binding withdrawal timeline) and engage in a stubbornness contest with Bush. Because threat worked so well when the GOP tried it with Clinton in 1995. And the result would be the same, Bush shuffling around money while blaming Congress for leaving the troops to starve in the desert. The man thinks he's on a mission from God and folks, he has nothing to left to lose if he gives this up. Not even the sainted Founders could have imagined a chief executive that is this big of an asshole.

Oh, just keep sending him the same timeline-containing bill as before, over and over again until the pressure is so great that he will have to sign it. However, the strategy of 'do nothing and the war will end' is, perversely, also is opposed by a majority the American public. Clearly, stomping their feet, holding their breath and taking their barbie dolls home to play by themselves is not going to fix anything. But the netroots seems so willing to give ownership of the failed war to the Democrats that Karl Rove must be ecstatic at the progressive community's boundless capacity for self-destruction.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

welcome to the desert of the real

The Eiffel Tower, Paris - Las Vegas

Your weird fact of the day: the Las Vegas Strip is not actually in Las Vegas, Nevada. Most of the Strip lies in the unincorporated Clark County township of Paradise, Nevada for a variety of legal and tax purposes.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

what timing

Two stories leap out of the news today, the first from the Times in the UK:
Diabetics using stem-cell therapy have been able to stop taking insulin injections for the first time, after their bodies started to produce the hormone naturally again.

In a breakthrough trial, 15 young patients with newly diagnosed type 1 diabetes were given drugs to suppress their immune systems followed by transfusions of stem cells drawn from their own blood.

The results show that insulin-dependent diabetics can be freed from reliance on needles by an injection of their own stem cells.
In fact, the US Congress is taking up this very issue right now, which you political junkies will remember, spurred Bush to use his first veto of his term in office to ban embryonic stem cell research. Well this is such an unpopular stance from an unpopular lame duck that there may be the votes in both houses for the first veto override of the Administration. Key swing vote is John Sununu, Senator from New Hampshire up for re-election next year in an increasingly blue-trending state. This limitation on our science prevents us from saving hundreds of millions of our loved ones, friends and family from ailments, the cure for which now hangs just outside our grasp. Call the good Senator (800-828-0498) and tell him to save our families and not cast another party-line vote for medical know-nothingism.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

public service announcement

This Wednesday afternoon, before snow showers blanketed the area, a 22-year old man was struck by a taxi on Huntington Avenue in Boston near Forsyth Street. The taxi clipped the cyclist's rear wheel, sending him under the rear wheels of a dump truck full of scrap concrete. Despite a helmet and other protective gear, the bicyclist was pronounced dead once transported to Brigham & Women's Hospital. The cyclist was a recent Mass Art graduate whose artwork can be seen above, taken from where it hangs on my wall.

I know I have not been the most considerate driver towards cyclists in the past and expressed contempt for cyclists who think they 'own the road', but I've also been a cyclist who realizes that most drivers resent having to share any of the road with a guy on a bike and will make this known in no uncertain terms.

Boston is not one of the easiest places for cyclists to get around, despite efforts in recent years to improve bikeways made from old train railbeds. Critical Mass is planning on putting a ghost bike there to memorialize the killed cyclist. A ghost bike is a junker bike that has been painted stark white and affixed to the site where a cyclist has been hit or killed by a car driver.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

did anybody hear the starting gun?

Right now, months before the first ballot is cast, we already know who will be the next President of the United States. At least, we think we do, because now it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to run for the office (and win) and we think we know the people who are capable of doing that right now. For the Blue team, HRC is the media-nominated front-runner, with the most cash and personnel, as well as the best surrogate in America. As most people who look to the cash first and foremost think, its her race to lose. And certainly her candidacy in the general election would give new inspiration to the flagging conservatives.

But then there is Obama, who has a powerful generational and multi-ethnic draw. He has an inspiring quality that, frankly, none of the other candidates on either side possess: 500 volunteers showed up for a rally he had recently in Oakland, California. John Edwards would be lucky if that many people came to see him speak at a rally and while Hill may be able to give some middle-class professional women the chance to cheer, Obama has a Kennedyesque charisma which provides a greater draw across the progressive base. And last on the top tier is John Edwards, who talks the best game and is the vanilla choice if Hillary is not liberal enough and Obama seems unelectable to those wobbly centrists in control.

A similar scenario is playing out right now in France, where they are holding their presidential election this year, as Jacques Chirac is retiring. The putative front-runner was Segolene Royal of the rather mainstream Socialist Party. But a string of media gaffes and missteps has imploded her candidacy. Although her main rival, Chirac's successor the right-leaning populist nicolas Sarkozy benefits from Royal's meltdown, the real winner has been Francois Bayrou, a centrist parliamentarian who recently threw his hat into the ring. Even if the situations aren't totally analogous, Edwards must be hoping to pull a Bayrou now and get ahead by stealing the floor. Obama really is the anti-Bush though and his election would represent a historic turnaround in the American polity to go from Bush to Obama, which is why I remain skeptical but optimistic. Has America put to bed racism and sexism enough for this to be a good bet? We'll see...

Meanwhile, on the Red team we have a field of front-runners which must keep Pat Robertson up at night, crusty war hero Senator John McCain, who if elected would be the oldest president in American history; former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani whose platform makes it seem like he's running for President of 9/11; and former Massachusetts governor Williard 'Mitt' Romney, of whom we could say alot about his governance, but let's just say that he spent more time runnign for president in the past year (and failing to get his protege to follow him thus depriving the state GOP of their one remaining power base) than actually doing something for the citizens of the Commonwealth.

But of course before we start painting any heroic portraits for the National Gallery, we should recognize the multitude of hidden variables which could wreak havoc on this tidy pre-packaged narrative. Like if Hillary wins and she faces a nader challenge which draws juuuuust enough votes for Romney to win. Picture a McCain-Obama match of the generations or a Giuliani-Obama match (which i'll bet would give Al Sharpton serious indigestion). Second-tier candidates could have an unexpectedly good showing on either side. An independent candidate could get a boost dependent on who each party selects. Even the choice of a strong vice-presidential candidate by either side could be a vote mover. Polls don't tell us much at this point: even though a generic Democratic presidential candidate would beat a generic Republican candidate by 20 points, John McCain and Giuliani look like they could take Clinton in a head-to-head and maybe Obama too.

Right-wing media types are already salivating over the prospect of either getting one of their favorite targets, the former First Lady who made many of them rich by inspiring their best-selling Whitewater series by Regency OR a guy who has never had a difficult major race before having glided into a Senate seat with pitiable opposition and has the last name of Hussein OR a former trial lawyer who according to Ann Coulter is, like, 2QT2BSTR8.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Going Dutch

Finally I have an ending in one of the more intricate election results of recent memory: the Dutch parliamentary elections, which were held in late 2006 and only now have resulted in a working administration. While Americans favor the operatic finality of elections like football fans painting themselves red or blue, the Dutch have multiple parties with form into coalitions, some of which have been proved to be more tenuous given the opposition.

Because of the funny alchemy of the system even the party which got the most new seats, the Socialists, doesn't auto-magically get their chief to be the Prime Minister. So the various parties have to cobble together this union, which could possibly be either very much to the left, moderately left, moderately right, or very much to the right. Dutch politics has several prominent paradigms which I cannot fully detail in justice, such as 'pillarization' and the 'poldermodel', but suffice it to say, that consensus amongst groups and polite talk over coffee is a norm within a society for which talk radio and Fox News are an unfathomable political media. All parties can their own equal access to the media. Usually only two parties make a coalition, ever since the reorganization of the Christians into a cohesive party, rarely three. But with more and more parties taking their share of the parliament, bigger coalitions will be needed.

Problems are also personal, as the heads of the two biggest parties, (lets call them the Christian Democrats) CDA and PvdA (they can be the Labor Party) failed at uniting their parties in 2003, even though they admit they aren't so different. The other major possible centre-left coalition member would be the Socialists, who have some pretty major differences of opinion with the party that has the largest number of seats (CDA), as well as Labor. The Socialists have grown the most in influence though, having been seen to have architected the recent rejection of the European Constitution. The Greens (GL) were invited to join, but this was provisionally rejected by them. Also landing in the opposition are the big losers of this cycle, the Neoliberals (VVD), the Neoconservatives (PVV) and the SGP (umm, the Theocons). Plus the D66 ('66 Democrats? I don't know what to call them...) who lead to the breakup of the last cabinet when they dropped out, have been shown the door. Oh, and I don't think the Animal Rights Party (PvdD) will have much sway.

Besides CD and Labor, the big winner is the Christian Union, who rejected a union with the right-wing VVD because of the onerous immigration policies of one of their ministers, Rita Verdonk. They grew from 3 to 6 seats, and espouse a lite social conservatism more concerned with ethics then morality and strongly centre left perspectives on immigration, environmental and economics. Verdonk took a hardline stance on the integration of immigrants into Dutch society. This won her, like the assassinated Pim Fortuyn, no small measure of populist appeal. She marched straight over the line though when she held an extensive public debate over the removal of citizenship from one of her fellow party members, the Somali-born MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali had had some admitted inaccuracies on some of her immigration forms, but these were subsequently and dramatically reversed. The fact that Verdonk had placed herself in the leadership race for her party, the Neoliberals, had gone unnoticed by no one. She titillated the Dutch polity with quasi-xenophobic comments like the one she made in a Moroccan ghetto: "I do not understand why these Moroccans come to the Netherlands. There is so much work to do here".

Verdonk's overreach though was poorly-viewed, especially by her parliamentary colleagues, because it was against one of her main political rivals and was seen as a perfect storm of opportunism, political payback, grandstanding and nativism by the woman admirers knew as 'Iron Rita'. The Greens desired a vote of no confidence based upon Verdonk's actions and they were joined by coalition member D66. This lead to the fall of the cabinet, which resumed only following this fall's parliamentary elections. Her portfolio (the issues she acts as executive, or minister of) was reduced to running the juvenile corrections systems. As retribution, Labor leader Wouter Bos proposed a general pardon to an estimated 26,000 asylum seekers whose rejections were among Verdonk's proudest examples of her toughening of immigration laws.

Of course, once the parties agreed who was in or out, then they have to figure out how to make their policies and proposals mesh with one another, inspiring another round of debate. Of course what emerges makes no one really happy, but the most people somewhat satisfied. The new Coalition agreed to: continue buying the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft; not offer another referendum on the Euro Constitution; increase education spending; to not privatize the largest airport in the country, Schiphol; increase spending on renewables; tax pollution more; tax air travel more; halt new investments in nuclear; ban burqas in public; and various other minor reforms.

Major complaints included the Socialists lamenting the cancellation of a parliamentary inquiry into the involvement of the Netherlands in the Iraq War; the Greens saying that taxation of pollution should be 15 times as much as proposed; and the Neoliberals and the Neoconservatives criticizing the general pardon for asylum seekers.

As to how long this all lasts, the answer is likely: not too much longer. Provincial elections next month will no doubt add another act to this ongoing drama.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

the year in geopolitics

I write alot about American politics, but its not like I don't spend time reading about the politics of other countries. In fact, there have been several great political stories from across the world in the past year, some of which I have even blogged about. So without further ado, here is what I think have been the most underreported stories from the past year in geopolitics:

The military coup in Thailand: Like many Americans, my first exposure to Thai culture was their fabulous cuisine. One thing I noticed at just about every Thai restaurant was a picture of the king, Bhumibol Adulyadej aka Rama IX. The Thai people are said to hold him in the highest regard: Thailand was the only country in southeast Asia to never be colonized by a foreign power. Thus rather than a military junta (Burma) or Communist government (Vietnam/Laos), it is a constitutional monarchy where the prime minister leads the country's government.
That was, until this past fall: on September 19, less than a month before the scheduled national parliamentary elections, military leaders lead a coup against the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The junta abrogated and dissolved the 1997 Constitution, suspended Parliament, banned all demonstrations and rallies, censored the media, and ruled by decree.

Shinawatra came to power in 2001, as the country was still reeling from the 1997 economic crisis. Shinawatra was a telecommunications tycoon who promised a CEO-style management of Thailand's shaky economy and greater aid to the rural poor. Even after winning a landslide reelection, discontent among middle-class taxpayers lead to massive protests in the streets of Bangkok against Thaksin. At best, Shinawatra has not run the company like any modern CEO but like a telco owner used to monopolistic government concessions, cutting off dissent to his policies in the media and with a contempt towards constitutional checks and balances. Reporters Without Borders world-wide Press Freedom Index 2005 ranked Thailand 107th out of 167 countries, dropping from 59th in 2004
So the king's silence on the coup was notable, and influential given his quasi-divine status and his material status as one of the wealthiest people in the world. An unintended consequence of the coup has been the cancellation of Thailand's participation in the One Laptop Per Child project which seeks to provided low-cost computers to elementary school children in developing nations.

Loktantra Andolan, or the Nepalese democracy movement which is pushing the country towards parliamentary democracy from the absolute rule of King Gyanendra. The King had declared martial law, blaming Maoist insurgents for his pressing need to dissolve parliament. Political parties formed an alliance with the Maoists and held a general strike, which forced the King to capitulate to the restoration to multiparty democracy. The most dramatic move of the post-Loktantra Andolan government came on 18 May 2006 when the Parliament unanimously voted to strip the King of many of his powers. The bill included:

* Putting 90,000 troops in the hands of the parliament
* Placing a tax on the royal family and its assets
* Ending the Raj Parishad, a royal advisory council
* Eliminating royal references from army and government titles
* Declaring Nepal a secular country, not a Hindu Kingdom

The act overrides the 1990 Constitution, written up following the Jana Andolan (People's Movement) and has been described as a Nepalese Magna Carta. Elections for a constituent assembly will be held in Nepal in June 2007. This assembly also will draft a new constitution, deciding the fate of the Nepalese monarchy.

The political crisis in Fiji:
The military played a pivotal role in another unstable democracy, this time on the Pacific island nation of Fiji. Commander of the Republic of FIji Military Forces, Commodore Josaia Vorege 'Frank' Bainimarama, had been growing increasingly and publicly discontent with the civilian government. Bainimarama accused te government of dealng too leniently with convicted perpetrators of two army mutinies and civilian coup that devastated the country in 2000.

On the occasion of his 65th birthday on 4 February 2006, Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase stated that if re-elected in the election that was duly held on 6-13 May, it would very likely be his last term in office. He won reelection, but continuing disagreements between his government and the powerful Republic of Fiji Military Forces culminated in a military coup on 5 December. Fiji Village reported the next day that he had been flown to his home island of Vanuabalavu by the Military, while Radio New Zealand claimed that he had fled there. He told Radio New Zealand that he was "down but not out"; he intended to fight on, and called for a peaceful popular uprising. The BBC reports that after being warned by Commodore Bainimarama not to "incite violence", Prime Minister Qarase plans to return to Suva, from which he is banished, but has been warned that he faces arrest if he returns. From Vanuabalavu, he has remained outspoken in condemning the military takeover, comparing the new regime to those of Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, and Idi Amin, in an interview quoted in the Fiji Times and Fiji Village on 13 and 14 December 2006.

Acting President Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi was removed from office on December 5th of last year by Bainimarama, who forcibly evicted with from his official residence the next day. An underlying reason for the unrest which has lead to four coups in the past twenty years of Fijian politics, was the cultural and religious differences between mostly Methodist ethnic Fijians and mostly Hindu Indian Fijians. On January 4, 2007, Bainimarama restored Ratu Josefa Iloilo to the Presidency. The President made a broadcast endorsing the actions of the military. The next day, Iloilo formally appointed Bainimarama as the interim Prime Minister, indicating that the military was still effectively in control.

The death of Niyazov in Turkmenistan:
Turkmenistan is a where the President is the head of state and head of government within a single-party system. Of course, this means a Stalinist autocracy run by President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov from 1985 through independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 with monomaniacal zeal right up until his death last month. His face can be seen on everyday objects from bank notes to vodka bottles to the dials of all watches and clocks, as his cult of personality has proclaimed Niyazov to be Türkmenbaşy, the leader of all Turkmen. He named the days of the week after members of his family and erected a 50-ft gold-plated statue of himself.
Linguistic irony: the ruling former Communist Party is the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, while the current opposition party in is the Republican Party of Turkmenistan.
The current acting President of Turkmenistan is Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow, a former dentist, Health Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Berdimuhammedow is perceived as a pawn of the ruling elite centered around the State Security Council by the still-exiled opposition.

"Democracy on the March" is a Bush slogan which sounds like the title of a hokey newsreel, but many countries had real pivotal elections in the past yearwhich either put new faces into power or gave a boost to incumbents. By far, the most pivotal was the Palestinian Authority elections, which put the militant Hamas party in charge in a stunning upset over the Fatah movement of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Other notable newly elected heads of states include Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Alan Garcia of Peru, Ehud Olmert of Israel, and Romano Prodi of Italy. Survivors include Ignacio Lula of Brazil, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia. Landslides for the tyrants of Belarus(Lukashenko) and Uganda(Musevani). Narrow victories were pulled out (along with some violence) by Joseph Karbila of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Felipe Calderon of Mexico. And in typical fashion, no one won the Dutch election, with the parliament becoming so evenly split amongst the multitude of parties that neither the left or right sides can easily form a majority coalition, leaving the government in deadlock.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

a hidden connection

From an abstract in the Fall/Winter 2006 CNS Drug Review:

Tylenol/Paracetamol (acetaminophen) is one of the most popular and widely used drugs for the treatment of pain and fever. It occupies a unique position among analgesic drugs. Unlike NSAIDs it is almost unanimously considered to have no antiinflammatory activity and does not produce gastrointestinal damage or untoward cardiorenal effects. Unlike opiates it is almost ineffective in intense pain and has no depressant effect on respiration. Although paracetamol has been used clinically for more than a century, its mode of action has been a mystery until about one year ago, when two independent groups (Zygmunt and colleagues and Bertolini and colleagues) produced experimental data unequivocally demonstrating that the analgesic effect of paracetamol is due to the indirect activation of cannabinoid CB(1) receptors. In brain and spinal cord, paracetamol, following deacetylation to its primary amine (p-aminophenol), is conjugated with arachidonic acid to form N-arachidonoylphenolamine, a compound already known (AM404) as an endogenous cannabinoid. The involved enzyme is fatty acid amide hydrolase. N-arachidonoylphenolamine is an agonist at TRPV1 receptors and an inhibitor of cellular anandamide uptake, which leads to increased levels of endogenous cannabinoids; moreover, it inhibits cyclooxygenases in the brain, albeit at concentrations that are probably not attainable with analgesic doses of paracetamol. CB(1) receptor antagonist, at a dose level that completely prevents the analgesic activity of a selective CB(1) receptor agonist, completely prevents the analgesic activity of paracetamol. Thus, paracetamol acts as a pro-drug, the active one being a cannabinoid. These findings finally explain the mechanism of action of paracetamol and the peculiarity of its effects, including the behavioral ones. Curiously, just when the first CB(1) agonists are being introduced for pain treatment, it comes out that an indirect cannabino-mimetic had been extensively used (and sometimes overused) for more than a century.

- Bertolini et al., University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy

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Monday, January 15, 2007

thoughts needed now more than ever

"Don't let anybody make you think God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with justice and it seems I can hear God saying to America "you are too arrogant, and if you don't change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I will place it in the hands of a nation that doesn't even know my name. Be still and know that I'm God. Men will beat their swords into plowshafts and their spears into pruning hooks, and nations shall not rise up against nations, neither shall they study war anymore." I don't know about you, I ain't going to study war anymore."
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here?, 1967

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

meanwhile, in oppositeland

Everybody is probably writing about the President's big speech tonight, probably the most horrible of a career short on verbal brilliance. Rather than talking about this old strategy, how about something new in the political world: a transnational caucus. Due to the development of a transnational parliament in the European Union, political parties in different nations have formed an alliance. Of course, the views of this group are as far into the right as possible: anti-immigrant, anti-EU constitution, and barring the door against Turkey joining the club. Prior attempts at forming a far-right bloc in the European Parliament were stymied by restrictions requiring a minimum number of members representing more than 20% of all member states. The group chartered on January 9th of 2007, calls itself Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) and was made possible largely due to the admission on the 1st of this year of Romania and Bulgaria to the EU. ITS is comprised largely of the Holocaust deniers of France's National Front, but also members of Austria's Freedom Party, Belgium's Vlaams Belang (who are barred from the Belgian government by agreement of all the other parties), Bulgaria's National Union Attack (who even sound like they should be a skinhead band), Italy's Alternativa Sociale(specifically Il Duce's granddaughter Alessandra Mussolini), and Romania's anti-Roma Greater Romania Party. the threat of a Muslim Turkey joining the EU got the previously fractious nationalists to put aside their personal animosities to better bash gays and immigrants. By making a formal transnational caucus they get funding by the EU so that they can carry out the business of obstructing any attempts at a European Constitution. Its like some bizarro version of the GOP. Other, more inspiring coalitions of MEPs hopefully will be seen.

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

annual penance

Well its been two weeks since, I last updated..so here is a language-related selection from the top 100 new facts of the year from the BBC:
  • The word "time" is the most common noun in the English language, according to the latest Oxford dictionary.
  • Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobiacs is the term for people who fear the number 666.
  • English is now the only "traditional" academic subject in the top 10 most popular university courses.
  • Involuntary bad language, a symptom affecting about one in 10 people with Tourette's syndrome, is called "coprolalia".
  • The medical name for the part of the brain associated with teenage sulking is "superior temporal sulcus".
  • Cows can have regional accents, says a professor of phonetics, after studying cattle in Somerset
  • Thirty-four percent of the UK has a surname that is ranked as "posher" than the Royal Family's given name, Windsor.
  • The clitoris derives its name from the ancient Greek word kleitoris, meaning "little hill".
  • Publishers have coined the term "Brownsploitation" for the rash of books that have sprung up in the wake of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code blockbuster.
  • The term "misfeasance" means to carry out a legal act illegally.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

the best show you haven't seen gets better

I try to make a point of blogging about television shows as little as can help. But an unexpected plot twist in the second season of one of my favorite shows is highly inspirational. Read and be spoiled. Sleeper Cell is a show about a California-based al-Qaeda cell planning a terror attack on Los Angeles. Last season, it was a chemical weapon in Dodger Stadium. This year, things look nuclear.
On last night's episode, "Faith", one member of the cell had a same-sex fling in the gym steamroom. And then he went to assassinate an Islamic televangelist. It provided for a fantastic character moment, when Salim's destructive rage and judgemental nature are revealed to spring from a reaction-formation of Haggardian proportions. In the second episode of this season, Salim had chopped off the hand of an arms salesman with a meat cleaver when he thought he had been cheated on a surface-to-air missile.

Rounding out this season's supporting cast of terrorists is a Dutch nanny/explosives expert; a Latino former gang member ably played by the actor who plays Justin's father Santos on Ugly Betty; and of course, our able protagonist, Special Agent Darwyn al-Sayeed. Two other terrorists survived from last season's cell, but both are overseas in very disparate places. There's been a (off-screen) beheading of a supporting character from last season, one of the more gruesome torture scenes ever made for tv involving a piece of wire and a blowtorch, the slow and violent death of unsuspecting 9-11 conspiracy-spouting pseudo-hippie, a dramatic prison escape, and a fight to the death in one of those DIY car washes. It is the anti-24 in terms of plausibility and each day of the eight part series is being presented one night a week all week long. Watch it and be impressed by its daringly nuanced exploration of Islam within and without America.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

know your history

By now we have all heard the greybeards of the Baker-Hamilton Commission or the Iraq Study Group and their 79 recommendations. You will note that the word 'victory' does not appear in the text, nor is there any language about the promotion of democracy in the Arab world. The Iraqis themselves are said to unanimously dislike the commission's report and the President, while agreeing in principle to this repudiation of his war, is busy undercutting their effectiveness, like attaching what must be humiliating conditions to having Iran and Syria even be allowed to join the big boy's table. Finally, the Beltway is taking the first step, admitting there is a problem, like that the consistent undercounting of the Iraqi dead. But the brewing civil war is more than most Americans can understand.

First, consider the differences between Sunni and Shiite:
By Western estimates of the worldwide Muslim population, 80% are Sunni and 15% Shia with the remaining 5% forming other groups. Besides minor differences in worship and culture, the major difference between Shia and Sunni is doctrinal: the Shia believe in the Mahdi, the hidden Imam. An imam is sort of like a priest in Catholicism, but since there's no Pontiff in Islam, where does an imam get his authority as an imam from, his imam license? In fact, imammah is the doctrine of leadership particular to Shi'a Islam. The Imam of Time, a certain leader is a guide and guardian for all Muslims. This is different from a caliph, appointed by the community-at-large in Sunni Islam. In a Sunni system they replace the imam as the final word on religious matters with the Koran. Even within the concept that there should be an Islamic spiritual leader by the Shias, there is a factional dispute as to who that should be. Some disagree that imammah can pass within the family, preferring only the first-born male son.

When Muhammad died, leadership in the nascent Muslim community passed to his father-in-law, Abu Bakr. The Shi'a, or Shi'at Ali, the party of Ali, believe that Muhammad chose his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, in accordance with God's command, making Ali the true successor. Other Muslim groups disagree. The largest denomination in Islam, the Sunni, hold that Abu Bakr was chosen by the community, and that this method of choosing or electing leaders was endorsed by Muhammad.

Other things to consider: Moqtada al-Sadr. He has a family history that traces itself back to the daughter of the prophet Muhammad, Fatima Zahra. This direct and meticulously documented lineage is unprecedented even among the illustrious families in the Islamic world who claim such lineage. And since the Shia consider themselves the followers of Prophet Muhammad's bloodline, a great deal of respect and reverence is paid to the Sayyids throughout society. Sadr has been the most resolutely anti-American of Iraq's postwar political leaders.

Although he lacks in Islamic scholarship, his bloodline and his family's consistent presence in Iraq, not running off to exile in Iran, have given him an authority which no other major leader can match. Some think he is building a messianic movement, calling for an "Islamic democracy" or what we would think of as a theocracy, in Iraq. In June of 2003, he raised a resistance movement estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, the Mahdi Army. The name of the resistance refers to the Mahdi, an imam who is said by Muslims to be due to appear in messianic form during the last days of the world. This resistance has several times engaged in violent conflict with Coalition forces and has formed its own religious courts and prisons. Sadr’s considerable leverage was apparent early in the week of 16 October 2006, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the release of one of Mr. Sadr’s senior aides. The aide had been arrested a day earlier by American troops on suspicion of participating in kidnappings and killings.

Sadr City is a suburb which covers most of northeastern Baghdad which Sadr is de facto ruler of. It was built in 1959 in response to a grave housing shortage and originally named 'Revolution City', becoming a refuge for the urban poor who moved to Baghdad from the countryside and a stronghold of the Iraqi Communist Party. It was renamed Saddam City following the Baathist coup in 1963. This seething cauldron of poverty, religious fervor and sectarian division has been the cause of much of Iraq's postwar chaos, much to the dismay of US forces. It was here that soldiers such as Casey Sheehan, son of peace activist Cindy Sheehan, lost their lives fighting the new threat of armed anti-American militias.

The other major Shiite power-broker is Sayed Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, leader of the Badr organization and the Iranian-sponsored Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). That's Ayatollah Al-Hakim to you and me. What is Hakim's relationship to Sadr like? Well in August 29, 2003 Al-Hakim's brother, another Shia cleric, was leaving the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf when a massive car bomb killed him and at least 84 others. Some thought that his brother's death was just part of a campaign by anti-Shia Sunnis or Baathists angry at the rising influence of Shias in the government. But there's always been a similar violent history between Shia factions and with the unexplained circumstances of the attack has led people to think that supporters of Sadr did it to rid themselves of the leader of a faction growing increasingly conciliatory towards the US. According to US officials, it was Zarqawi's crew.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime minister, is from the Dawa or "Call of Islam" party. He spent twenty years in exile in Iran and Syria before returning to Iraq in 2003, becoming the head Shiite in the new government. The stability of Maliki’s government depends on a tenuous peace between Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls one of the largest voting blocs in parliament, and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who leads the Badr Organization and the country’s largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. A generations-long feud between their families has carried over into a personal and political rivalry between the men, and their militias have periodically clashed.

If Iran is funding alot of the Shiite death squads, then who is funding the Sunni insurgents? Why other wealthy Sunnis. most from the neighboring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. AP:
"Several truck drivers interviewed by The Associated Press described carrying boxes of cash from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, money they said was headed for insurgents...."
And how will Bush take all of this, the complexities of Iraqi politics and the desire in our political establishment for some kind of change in policy? Not well, or like a petulant child being told that his attitude is not helping, if recent reports are any indication. Bush has been described as the ultimate neo-conservative; as such he has shown the same immunity to reason and reality cloaked in disingenuous paeans to history:
"Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.

Bush said that "in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America," recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism."

Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now - work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.

Bush, Durbin said, "reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response" and emphasized that he is "the commander in chief."

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

monumental petulance

Last week, the President was greeted the incoming class of lawmakers on the State Floor of the East Wing of the White House. One of them, who had be assiduously avoiding having his picture taken with the miserable failure, was Senator-elect Jim Webb of Virginia, former Secretary of the Navy and Vietnam veteran. Webb's son is a Marine lance corporal currently serving in Iraq. Bush went out of his way to go to Webb and ask him: "So how's your boy doing?" Webb replied, "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President," "That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"" Webb, struggling to control his urge to deck Bush, responded "That's between me and my boy, Mr. President,"

This as Bush's own children are busy ignoring their Secret Service details and threatening to cause riots in Argentina. I think I know a place that could use the services of those able-bodied young Americans. It is well known that Webb refused to talk about his soldier son during the election. This was an attempt by Bush to be the alpha-dog, the schoolyard bully, on par with his penchant for nicknaming people. No doubt, Webb will be known as "Hard Ass" to W now, providing another manufactured excuse for him not to work with the incoming Congress. His question is kind of sinister, like a little kid asking, as he hangs a puppy by its hind legs out of a second-floor window, "How's your dog?" (Just nod your head Jimbo, or he'll be walking point in Ramadi for the rest of his tour.)

This as Bush shrugs of the sober "centrist" advice of Bush family fixer James Baker and their non-binding middle-of-the-road suggestions for how to extricate ourselves from the biggest foreign policy blunder in our national history.

Meanwhile, Bush is building a monument to his failed administration: a presidential library which will cost a staggering half-a-billion dollars. Who is lining up to pony up for this staggering atrocity? Various oil-rich autocrats from the sheikdoms of the Middle East, including Oman, Morocco, Qatar and Dubai in the UAE. One wonders what exactly this library will feature, considering the number of classified documents multiplying. The jokes, inaugurated here by Arianna, are the only good thing to come out of this news:
Will visitors to the Iraq War Wing be handed rose-colored glasses before entering and having flowers thrown at their feet? Or will they don blinders as they stagger forward, sinking deeper into a man-made quagmire?

Will there be exhibits on waterboarding, illegal wiretapping, and the quaintness of the Geneva Conventions? A room devoted to the nobility and greatness of the Hanging Chad? A holographic image of Osama bin Laden (try and grab him and he slips right through your hands)? The Abu Ghraib Game Room (must be over 18 to enter)?

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Monday, November 27, 2006

america the ugly

(Editorial comment: this is my first post made using my new MacBook laptop, truly the best computer I have ever owned, and I have had a computer since I was 3 and built a number of them from scratch. if loving something inanimate this much is wrong, i don't want to be right)

Ugly Betty not only the most watched show of the new fall season, it is also the most socially subversive primetime show in recent memory. Technically it is two shows: one about Betty Suarez, a frumpy but bright and determined Latina who has become executive assistant to the new editor-in-chief of Mode magazine (a thinly disguised Vogue, complete with a not-quite-dead Anna Wintour type); and the other show a more soapy and dramatic Americanization of the original Colombian telenovela.

The most poignant of these dramatic storylines came with the revelation that Betty's father, Ignacio, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico. Thus Betty, as the child of an illegal, is exactly the type of strawmexican bashed by nativist politicians like Pat Buchanan as taking college tuition and jobs away from more deserving Anglos. It just illustrates how susceptible we are to the divide-and-conquer class warfare tacitly perpetrated every time the issue of illegal immigration is brought up. The characterization is all about contrasts, such as between glamorous Wilhelmina Slater (played with diva elan by Vanessa Williams) and Betty, or between Betty's functional but impoverished family in Queens and her boss Daniel's highly dysfunctional family back in Upper Crustington. Even Wilhelmina, the daughter of a senator, finds herself trapped by the nepotism that made the son of the boss the new EIC, over her, even though the show demonstrates how much more immensely qualified she is for the position.

Glimpses of Latino culture, from Ignacio's flan to the problem Betty's effeminate nephew Justin has with his macho father, lend a crisp authenticity to what at other times tends towards slapstick comedy. In its initial weeks, the show had to endure endless comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada, whose protagonist had a much worse boss and much better fashion sense. Clearly, this is the right show at the right time. For a country that still proudly touts that it is classless, more and more the superrich is becoming divorced from even the merely rich, as society goes ever toward the pyramidal model of a very few on top and everyone else stuck on the bottom. Betty gives us all hope that despite not having won the genetic lottery of beauty and money, with the help of family and loyalty to those who deserve it, we can all succeed.

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Thursday, November 23, 2006


Thanksgiving is the most American of holidays: there are no heroes to be commemorated; no religious sentiments; no cards to be bought; and no political message. It is the one day Americans are encouraged to stop pushing themselves, to relax with friends and family and to share their food with others. It is the least commercialized of any holiday, despite its boon to many agricultural niche products. Although it is not well known outside of North America, the fourth Thursday in November is a day in which 95% of the households in the USA serve the same food. Beyond cooking and eating, most households will also be doing other similar activities: arguing over this year's elections, watching the Lions and the Cowboys, reheating food later tonight and planning the Winter holidays which are another month away.

Many any angry radical has pointed out that the day marks the beginning of the genocide of the indigenous people of this country, but you could make a much better case that Columbus Day marks that genocide better. Thanksgiving marks the cooperation between the two cultures, a moment of multicultural hope, that was sadly squandered by subsequent generations. But then as today, it should be the Native Americans that we honor and thank, for they were the agents and initiators of today's feast. The country is 99.9% of immigrant stock, but those original settlers would not even have any descendants were it not for their generous allied native neighbors. But there's no way this is going to become a national day of mourning from its current celebratory state. We should not forget the crimes of past generations, but the best we can do is hope for the future.

For this reason, I would like to propose that we reverse the staggering rudeness with which we have been treating people coming to our country since 9/11. Many of the nicest people in the world have been disgusted by the gauntlet you are now forced to run through upon arrival here. We should give thanks for them coming and bear in mind that such a journey was not always so easy.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

if at first you don't succeed

Rather than comment on tomorrow's secret ballot for the Majority Leader position between John Murtha and Steny Hoyer, a literal 'lesser of two evils' between a defense industry-funded pro-life unindicted Abscam co-conspirator and a pro-Iraq War DLC shrill owned by K Street, let's look at the big issue undergirding the political moment: Iraq.

Everyone is holding their breath waiting for the vaunted 'bipartisan' wizards of the Baker-Hamilton Commission to reveal their magic bullet for gettin beyond 'stay the course' and 'cut-and-run', but as one wit said, "all the Gates and all the Bakers couldn't put Humpty-Dumpty together again." It seems that Bush, according to this article in the Guardian, has not only given up on working with the Democratic Congress to find a way out of his Iraq debacle, but hasn't learned a goddamn thing from the electoral 'thumpin'. He's set up a parallel policy review timed to have its report released concurrently with the Iraq Study Group's so that he can get the recommendations he wants to hear, like ones not including any reductions in troop levels.

Clearly he's still in denial. He's got Henry Kissinger, that unconvicted war criminal, whispering in his ear about how this is all a matter of 'political will'. His strategy is to have one last futile push at making chicken soup out of chickenshit. This would consist of four points, all of which seem to have Cheney's greasy fingers all over them:
  • Increase troops by up to 20,000
  • Bring in 'friendly' Arab regimes like the Kuwaitis and the Saudis to negiotiate diplomatically. Including Iraq and Syria in this regional summit is still being resisted.
  • Try to bring the Shia and the Sunni together
  • Get more money for equipping and training the Iraqi army and police.
More of the same tired old shit, in other words. And too little, too late. Of course, any more troops and you would need a draft. Good luck with that... Oh and umm forget what we said about democracy and all those high-falutin' ideals. This past week, the US commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, gave a piece of Bill O'Reillyesque advice, saying more troops weren't necessary but neither was withdrawing any troops, just that the Iraqi army needed more pressure to do its part. All of this is to give the GOP cover for the 2008 campaign. Expect withdrawals to begin in the fall...finally.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

what now?

Now that the bubbles in the champagne have all popped, it is time for some sober reflection on how best to use the opportunity given to the Democrats in last week's election to change the course of the ship of state. Some may be already looking for an excuse to dismiss the Democrats with a 'pox on both their houses' dismissal of the entire political process or just some good old-fashioned librul demonization. Of course, the 110th Congress is bound to be not radical enough for some and not conservative enough for others, but that begs the question of what is the right balance to strike. The right plan would weigh a variety of concerns, such as getting legislation which is popular enough to get past the veto pen, reducing intra-party squabbles between the progressive and 'centrist' caucuses, and setting the stage for a retaking of the Executive Branch.

There are, in fact, plenty of plans more extensive than the 100 hours wishlist, but the biggest factor is time: not everything can be done simultaneously. Some of the more massive initiatives, like universal health care, will have to wait. The majority is more ideologically spread, being in what other multiparty governments known as a center-left coalition, encompassing everything from socialists to well, Joe Lieberman and his party of one. The more tightly conservative Republicans will be looking to keep legislation under the veto-proof threshold by remaining intractable or peeling off Democrats. Already bush is talking big about working together while pushing through John Bolton as UN ambassador and immunizing himself aginst all that eavesdropping he's been up to. Thus strategy would require a number of highly popular measures which the GOP can't afford to oppose. That said, here is a multi-stage annotated plan:

1) Ethics reform is the most important thing to begin with since judging by the exit polls, it has the broadest base of popular appeal. Not only that, it is bound to hurt the other party structurally more than it hurts the majority and it will preempt any poisonous 'same old tax-and-spend' critiques that have already been taken out of many a pundit's rhetorical fridge to defrost. Right now we are witnessing a number of ethical complaints from spurious to credible about the incoming party leadership, especially vis-a-vis the race between Steny Hoyer and John Murtha for Majority Leader, which is starting to distract from the unified message which brought the current electoral success. Hoyer is likely to resist this key step and establish a power center away from Speaker Pelosi (a reason why she is backing Murtha). Thus, to change the subject back and maximize political capital, the Democrats must quickly pass a reform of political lobbying, earmark distribution (including that of the new popular perk, homeland security funds) and that of Congressional ethics. Oh and throw in some sort of electoral reform, like requiring a paper trail for every vote. Increase penalties for elction fraud, including deceptive robocalls. Try to avoid giving ethically-challenged members like Alcee Hastings and Allan Mollohan, major committee chairmanships. There won't be another chance to do any of these things. With the slate wiped clean by the aforementioned, investigation will have a more justified power to it.

2) Ramp up the investigation slowly, as C-SPAN can only cover so many hearings in a day. I joke, but a bit of research and legwork will be needed to circumvent the more slippery members of the Administration in their chicanery, for even if they actually convinced themselves they would have a permanent majority, I'm sure the paper shredders are at full speed now. Investigations need to be serious, with no Joe Biden mugging for the camera or wild accusations, but yet through and relentless. Clearly, there are no shortage of oversight to be done, particularly in regards to Iraq, but there should be a schedule. Someone suggested a 'bombshell a month' which sounds about right in regularity.

3) The next legislative actions should be undoing the horrible legislation of this decade. Begin with the most unpopular: the inability of the government to negotiate drug prices due to Medicare Part D. Next, raise the minimum wage (with COLA!) triumphantly. If they are truly daring, they could attempt reform of immigration with severe employment sanctions as a funding source for better border enforcement...oh and no physical fence. Find some time to revisit...oh say, the torture bill and the whole issue of wiretapping without a warrant.

4) With the easy stuff out of the way, Bush can be isolated by investigations and nullified with a one-two combination of 'bipartisan' measures which will separate him from his party and other 'bipartisan' measures which can separate his party from him. This rather cynically plays into the press desire to approve of 'reasonable and bipartisan' action. But really give Bush plenty to veto as well, since you'll be accused to extremism no matter what you do. Bush's likely reaction will either to act as-if and continue to push his agenda or to take a page out of Clinton's playbook and try to put the GOP brand on a progressive initiative like alternative fuels. In particular, Democrats should be very wary of any and all attempts to reform Social Security...more of a job for some blue-ribbon commission to make recommendations on, then some divisive and unnecessary battle. Also any and all judicial nominees need a more through vetting. Repeal the archaic DADT policy for the armed forces.

5) Which leads us to Iraq, a mess which needs cleaning up but not the responsibility (hence the importance of those investigations being in progress). Already the GOP is planning to blame the Democrats for what everyone knows is their failed war. That's how they got their 'edge' in national security issues, by blaming the other side for Vietnam. If they get away with this bait-and-switch, we will see more Americans die in yet another forsaken war in a decade. Don’t expect the Baker commission to solve our Iraq problem. They won’t, they can’t. Oh and yes, we are all friends with Israel, but can we stop supplying them with anti-personnel weapons like cluster bombs? Not making a bad situation worse is a good guiding principle in all these things.

6) Having shown an ability to work and get things done, whoever the Democratic candidate in 2008 will be, she (or he) will have a well-researched proposal to get health care for all Americans. Since Bush will veto anything serious, it is necessary to build this into a solid plank. Even if something did pass, Bush would append one of his odious signing statements to it and then proceed to botch it royally. The same lesson applies to climate change. But both must be done, and done by the Democrats.

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Sunday, November 12, 2006

looking inside yourself

This past Friday night, before a cracked radiator doomed my weekend, I went to the Boston Museum of Science with a friend to see an exhibit of dead people. Their bodies had been donated to an institute in Heidelberg founded by a controversial German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, who in 1978 began to perfect the technique to preserving human flesh using plastic. After death but before their bodies decay, they are embalmed and placed in a bath of acetone, which replaces the water in their bodies. Next the acetone can be boiled off and flesh is either infused with polymers, including silicone rubber, epoxy resin and polyester, providing clear views into body parts and systems. The result is part art, part classic sideshow of the bizarre, and part education in the physiology of humanity.

Many of the full-body plastinates were posed in creative positions: some as if to freeze that person in an instant of time, like a ballerina on pointe or a gymnast on a set of rings or a pair of figure skaters; others were in more artistic poses, like the man whose musclature was walking a step ahead of its skeleton or the man whose flesh had been pulled forward in sections like open drawers on a cabinet; others were clinical what-ifs, as in 'what if you sliced a body lengthwise?' or 'what if you showed only the blood vessels?'. Numerous body parts, including ones with deadly conditions like coal miner's lung or an enlarged heart, were on display in cases next to plasticized slices through these parts or systems. Although the pregnant woman with a five-month old fetus was curtained away but displayed with many malformed babies and fetuses at all stages of development, I think we missed a few of the more controversial plastinates shown in the catalogue shown in the gift shop, such as the man holding out the skin on his body like a crumpled suit or the man praying while holding his heart in his hand.

There were some shocking poses there, faces pulled inside out and off of heads to reveal plasticized brains and viscera, all of which made you pause for a second and remember that this was all dead people, wonder about all these people did while living and then think that most people are destroyed after life is over, while these people's bodies will be admired for years in this condition, achieving a sort of immortality reserved only within the proxy making of sculpture in ages past. The donors remain anonymous in name, date of birth or cause of death, the opposite of what we have come to expect from our chiseled stone memorials and other funereal traditions. The array of cancerous lungs, cirrhotic livers and ruptured hearts also delivers a powerful morality by causing viewers to identify these bodies parts with their own body and personal choices. Although you aren't allowed to obvious reasons, you can touch the dead literally in this exhibit, although they do not smell or decay and remain to the most microscopic detail intact. It has been said that, unlike the spiritual immortality of most religious burial rituals, plastination provides 'a uniquely secular, material form of immortality'.

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