Sunday, November 13, 2005

Editorial on the Miers Nomination (10-17-05)

This was written the week before the Miers withdrawel. Prescient?

---

President Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court has drawn criticism from many conservatives recently. Many liberals have chosen to view these conservative critiques with glee, believing them to be penned by new allies in their own fight against President Bush. To do so is folly.

There are two main critiques levied against the Miers nomination. The first critique, advanced by critics across the ideological spectrum, concerns her qualification. Is Meirs, as the President claims, the best person that could be found, or even in the top 100, as George Will asks? If unqualified, what could possibly account for her nomination other than her close professional relationship with George Bush?

The second, and more politically interesting, critique concerns her conservative credentials. Narrow majorities on the Court have issued judgments many conservatives consider to be unsound. In light of judgments on issues from abortion to religion to eminent domain, many conservatives view the Court as out of control, and yearn to see appointments of justices who would, in their words, “strictly interpret the Constitution.” Many conservatives are worried that Miers’s past reveals an alternate judicial outlook. The lobby group Concerned Women for America asked, for instance, “If Miss Miers does not support abortion, why did she continue in leadership positions in the American Bar Association, which does support abortion?” Many liberal critics of the Miers nomination may respond that, although the conservative critique is different intellectually, it is the same functionally, and that any opposition weakening the nomination is welcome. However, if Meirs is not confirmed, it will be a victory of the right, not of the left. The next nominee would surely be less palatable to liberals than is Meirs. Liberal critics should reconsider their joy. Although fighting the same fight, liberal and conservative critics are not on the same side.
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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Editorializing

Esteemed friends and colleagues,

I have come upon a revelation! A revelation in two parts.

1) I'm taking an Editorial & Persuasive Writing class this current fall semester, in which I need to submit a one-pager every week.
2) I haven't been posting anything because I couldn't think of anything about which to write.

Seem contradictory? You betcha! That's why, starting soon, I'm going to repost my editorials here on the ol' blog. So y'all can read my thoughts and comment upon them. Sure, some of them will be out-of-date, but that's okay. Most of them are still relevant. (Although my bit on the Miers Supreme Court nomination remains a tad dated.)

No matter. Onwards!

Friday, November 11, 2005

Shooting pumpkins

The Economist online recently decided to run a column called "The Meaning of America," wherein it describes a curious tradition in Millsboro, Delaware. Apparently, lots of folks get together each year for "Punkin Chunkin" to build machines to launch pumpkins as far as they possibly can.

My curiosity engaged, I decided to go to the official site and mucked about there. This thing is truly an event. They have so many categories and rules (e.g. no gunpowder) that anyone who wants to launch a large, orange fruit a long distance can get in on the fun. Surprisingly, they even have a "Theatrical" competition where the objective isn't to launch the pumpkin as far as possible, but to look great doing it, and I'm sure many creative people find great ways to look good getting pumpkins into orbit. It's all great wholesome fun, it seems. Last year's winning machine "Second Amendment," launched their pumpkin 4331.72 feet.

I adore reading about these kinds of things, where random people get together and do something stupid just because it is fun and they want to. Reading about it on the Economist website, I found myself not only admiring these pumpkin launching nuts in a field in Delaware for their supreme awesomeness at doing something fun that really has no point, but admiring the fact that we live in a society that respects people for these things. I love American civil society that allows people to have fun together doing stupid competitions. The Economist, of course, got to the point first. The final paragraph of their piece:

"All in all, Punkin Chunkin is a symbol of what makes America great. Only in the richest country on earth could regular guys spend tens of thousands of dollars building a pumpkin gun. Only in a nation with such a fine tradition of inventiveness, not to mention martial prowess, would so many choose to. And only in a land of wide open spaces would they be able to practise their chunkin without killing their neighbours."

America wows me sometimes.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

William Bennett's "racist" comments

After former Secretary of Education William Bennett said that "you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down," the media jumped on his back because he seemed to advocate a form of ethnic cleansing to reduce the crime rate. There would be quite a story here, if that was, in fact, the entirety of what he said. But, of course, it wasn't.


What Bennett actually said in full shows not only a lack of racism in his remarks, it explains why he said what he did. The full transcript is as follows:


CALLER: I noticed the national media, you know, they talk a lot about the loss of revenue, or the inability of the government to fund Social Security, and I was curious, and I've read articles in recent months here, that the abortions that have happened since Roe v. Wade, the lost revenue from the people who have been aborted in the last 30-something years, could fund Social Security as we know it today. And the media just doesn't -- never touches this at all.

BENNETT: Assuming they're all productive citizens?

CALLER: Assuming that they are. Even if only a portion of them were, it would be an enormous amount of revenue.

BENNETT: Maybe, maybe, but we don't know what the costs would be, too. I think as -- abortion disproportionately occur among single women? No.

CALLER: I don't know the exact statistics, but quite a bit are, yeah.

BENNETT: All right, well, I mean, I just don't know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don't know. I mean, it cuts both -- you know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up. Well --

CALLER: Well, I don't think that statistic is accurate.

BENNETT: Well, I don't think it is either, I don't think it is either, because first of all, there is just too much that you don't know. But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.

I bought Freakonomics last summer and read it in a few days, and I thought the notion that Roe v. Wade lowered the crime rate was interesting, but the authors Levitt and Dubner did put in some good analysis of an admittedly callous way of studying both crime and abortion. They first consider the worth of a human fetus from two standpoints, one who believes that a fetus is worth as much as a human being, 1:1, and for this person, abortion should obviously be illegal because the sheer number of people killed far outstrips the number that may be saved later from their murderers being aborted from the get-go. The second person believes that a fetus isn't worth any part of a human being, and that abortion isn't a crime or morally wrong at all. For this person, the link between abortion and a crime drop is a good thing: a proof that legalized abortion is good for society. They then consider a third person. From the book (italics mine):

"But let's consider a third person. (If you identify strongly with either person number one of person number two, the following exercise might strike you as offensive, and you may want to skip this paragraph and the next.) This person does not believe that a fetus is the 1:1 equivalent of a newborn, yet neither does he believe that a fetus has no relative value, and he decides that 1 newborn is worth 100 fetuses.

There are roughly 1.5 million abortions in the United States every year. For a person who believes that 1 newborn is worth 100 fetuses, those 1.5 million abortions would translate - dividing 1.5 million by 100 - into the equivalent of a loss of 15,000 human lives. Fifteen thousand lives: that happens to be about the same number of people who die in homicides in the United States every year. And it is far more than the number of homicides eliminated each year due to legalized abortion. So even for someone who considers a fetus to be worth only one one-hundredth of a human being, the trade-off between higher abortion and lower crime is, by an economist's reckoning, terribly inefficient."

This is the end of the chapter in the book Bennett was referencing. I have a feeling Bennett didn't read the book, or he would've seen the sentence I put in italics, and he would've known that the authors of Freakonomics didn't intend their analysis to be prescriptive. It was simply descriptive. But to his credit, he did get a general notion of the gist of the (quite interesting) chapter.

Now, why did everyone jump on Bennett? Was it because his assertion was wrong? Not really. He should've replaced "black" with "poor" in his statement, as it would've been more correct and not racially loaded, but because blacks are disproportionately poor in the US, and the poor commit the most crime, his statement wasn't untrue. It was callous, but not untrue. (On an aside note, those on the left who jumped on Bennett's case for making a leap comparing poor to black don't seem to have a problem making the same leap when, say, criticizing Bush's reaction to hurricane Katrina, calling the lack of help for New Orleans's poor racist.)

Back to the call-in show, it is also worth noting that Bennett was responding to a caller implying that Roe v. Wade was responsible for the current social security money problems. This is an insult to the pro-life position (I am opposed to the criminalization of abortion, by the way). What some people don't realize is that the majority of those in the pro-life camp aren't against Roe v. Wade because they don't like women, don't like privacy, and don't care about the health of those who are pregnant. They are simply defending, in their minds, human life. For someone to come along and tell an aptly-named "pro-lifer" that "We should save thousands of innocent human lives from being slaughtered for social security solvency" is as bad as telling an aptly-named "pro-choicer" that "We should infringe on the rights of millions of women to save a few bucks." Either way, the caller had a gross misunderstanding of the abortion debate.

What Bennett did was argue against aborting black babies, which is quite obvious in the sentence after. He argued against the ludicrous assertion of the caller by positing another ludicrous assertion and arguing against it. It is an effective tool of argument, but unfortunately, some in the media didn't take it that way.

It is a tired rant that the media is slanted toward the sensational at the expense of the truth, but I'm tired of it. Ears perk up if the words "black" or "abortion" are used in a sentence, and if both are, all reporters are ready with their laptops. The fourth estate needs to develop more than their sense of smelling blood. They need to develop common sense.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Howdy, all.

Everyone who reads this blog is probably fed up with all the Beltway bickering about the CIA leak scandal, the supreme court confirmation battle, and other such things. You probably want something different than yet another person's opinions on these and other such matters.

You're in luck!

To this end, I've decided to make my return to the information superhighway by telling y'all about what I've been up to. (To what I've been up?)

This summer, I've been doing two major things. I've been working at City Hall for Councilman Christopher "Chip" Haass. I've also been working in my backyard on various things.

First, to City Hall.

I got the job roundabout three weeks into the summer. I say "job" when, in fact, it is an unpaid internship. I'm free labor. Wahoo! I head on in to City Hall two days per week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Actually, this experience may be a bit more useful than an internship on 'Da Hill, as these guys actually let me do stuff that's important. (From what I hear, interning for a US Congressperson involves lots of clerical work, filing, and giving tours.)

Over the past few weeks, I've been researching two major pieces of federal legislation, and the San Antonio reaction to them; getting feedback from various cities around Texas, writing briefs for the Councilman on various issues. They consistantly say I'm doing good work, so that's good.

Then again, I did have to resort to copying, collating, and licking envelopes on Thursday. We were sending out a mailing to various constituants who had questions about the new Animal Care Facility. (San Antonio has the dubious distinction of having put down the most animals out of any city in the nation. Perhaps we need to watch more "The Price is Right.")

It does get hot in downtown San Antonio, though. Walking from the UTSA downtown campus, where I park, to City Hall is about six blocks. It's always good to get inside the air conditioning.

My other job is somewhat less taxing on the brain and more taxing on the brawn. The other three days, Monday, Tuesday and Friday, I work in the backyard. (I take weekends off.)

Curiously enough, whereas I don't enjoy walking to and from City Hall for six blocks two days a week, I actually don't mind working outside in the heat all day for the other three. In my backyard, I'm underneath a large, shady red oak, on top of grass and dirt, which retains less heat than asphalt, and I dress in different attire. Downtown, I wear a longsleeve shirt and pants with a tie and jacket. In my backyard, I wear shorts and shoes. Much cooler, I say.

In my backyard, I've done three things so far. I've torn down the skeleton of an overhang onto a patio in the backyard, which wasn't really doing anything. I then sledgehammered out the concrete slab that formed the patio. Finally, I repaired and painted a fence.

On the first job. The skeleton was made out of 2x4s and 4x4s, connected to the concrete slab base and to the house by nails, screws, and bolts of all shapes and sizes. When I started the project, my greatest concern was to make sure that the structure didn't fall down into the house. (The House was supporting parts of the skeleton, after all.) When I began, I wanted to remove the screws and nails from the boards connected to the house, but this eventually became rather taxing, as the screws' heads were stripped, and nails were sunk into the wood. So I eventually gave up on that tactic and began to think of other ways to solve my problem. I decided to take the direct route and saw through the wooden support system itself, bypassing all of the untidy business of removing joints and metal.

It worked for a while, until my wonderful saw with the large teeth broke in the middle of a board. All my other saws were duller than rocks, which meant that either I could try to saw through the 2x4s at a pace of one board every 45 minutes, or I could get a new saw.

I searched Home Depot, Sears, and Lowe's, but none seemed to carry big-toothed hand saws. Apparently, they don't make them anymore. I did buy a new saw, and although it worked perfectly well, it just didn't have the same feel.

No matter. I finished demolishing the structure in short order and piled the wood next to my fence.

The next project: getting rid of the concrete slab itself!

For all of you who haven't yet had the sublime pleasure of smashing a 10 pound sledgehammer against something, let me tell you, you're missing out. There are some frustrations for which hitting a pillow simply will not do. Let me warn you, however. It does get tiring after a while, and you may need to adjust your swinging method. Some methods twist your back too much, and some aren't fast, and some methods are just plain ineffective. If you ever need tips, I'd be glad to share my two best swings. I'm sure they'd work equally well for sledgehammering, pick-axe-ing, or even driving railroad spikes.

Sledgehammering is fun.

In any event, though it may be a joy to smash things up, it is filled with difficulties. For instance, you have to consider the balance of actual sledgehammering versus the clearing of broken pieces of concrete. Clear too little and you obstruct your hammering. Clear too much, and you waste time.

My particular experience was made more difficult with two complications.

First, the person who put the patio down was smart enough to include metal rebar to make it more stable. This increases the life and durability of your patio which, in all cases except mine, is quite desirable. The rebar is a sort of metal grid of thick wire, making a mesh of six-inch squares. My patio was about 4 or 5 inches thick. The wire made the patio stronger and more difficult to break. Second, there's a great red oak tree that sort of grew into the slab, obstructing my swinging. Now that the slab is gone, the red oak roots are sort of square. It looks funny.

Needless to say, it was hard work. But I eventually got it done. (A word to the wise. When dealing with broken concrete or swinging a sledgehammer, wear really strong gloves. They prevent blisters from the swinging and cuts from the handling of jagged pieces of concrete. I bought some good leather work gloves and even they got worn through after a few days.)

Luckily, I did take the advice of experts. I wore safety goggles, for one does not want errant pieces of jagged rock to fly at one's eye unexpectedly (or expectedly, for that matter.) Alas, the bugspray I wore sort of did some chemical thing to the goggles and made them a bit cloudy. Luckily, mine was not precise work, and this cloudiness did not hinder my efforts. (It was, however, strange to take them off every hour and see things more clearly.) The bugspray helped keep away the nuclear mosquitoes. And I took a 15-minute break after every hour of work, as the heatstroke experts suggest. I drank lots of water (from a purple Nalgene bottle) and listened to music and talk (from a slate portable radio/CD player.)

The music thing was strange. On either side of me live older folks. One of my neighbors enjoys taking a dip in her pool every day. I don't blame her. Texas is hot in the summer. But she and her husband, I imagine, are not the type of folks who enjoy the same kinds of music I enjoy. Typically, when I worked outside this summer, I put on Green Day, Weezer, or System of a Down. When she came outside, I luckily had a classical music CD to put on. She never commented on my choice of music, but I like to think she appreciated my changeover from El Scorcho, The Death of St Jimmy, and Chop Suey to The Emperor's Hymn, A Little Night Music, and Ode to Joy.

I avoided putting on talk radio. Can't stand the stuff, and there's no beat to keep while swinging the hammer.

The third thing took the smaller part of today. Usually, I take Saturdays off, but today I decided to do something, as I was slacking off this week. I repaired and painted the new boards on a fence in the backyard. As some of you remember, I painted the same fence two years ago. (This was the same summer as my ill-fated excursion into Michigan to sell books.) I went to Home Depot today to buy some 1'x8' planks of wood. Alas, they didn't have them as cheaply as I wanted, so I ended up buying some 6''x8' pickets. After some difficulty in putting them into my minivan, I drove home and nailed them to the fence. (I needed to saw about 2'' off of each piece, so I used my new saw. Freshly cut cedar smells grand!)

Next on my agenda was finding the paint I used two years ago to paint the new boards the same as the old boards. I looked all through the shelf in our garage with the old paint, and found many paint cans I had used before. The Ultra Pure White Behr paint I used on the inside of my house, the tan paint I used to paint the outside of my house, even the primer I used to prime the paneling before I painted our dining room. I did not find the brown paint, until I looked again outside. Apparently, I had left the paintcan outside in my backyard for two whole years. The previously shiny lid had completely rusted over and the label was illegible, but the lid was still on tight. When I shook the can, I heard the telltale swishing inside. I shook the can up for about fifteen minutes to re-mix the paint. After fifteen minutes with a screwdriver, I pried the lid off.

Paydirt!

I learned that you can leave a paintcan outside in the strange San Antonio weather for two straight years, and as long as the lid is on tight, it will keep.

In any event, I painted the fence this afternoon. Fun stuff. In fact, it looks so good, we're considering replacing additional boards.

Oh, and the pickets I bought are made of cedar. I had to saw them down a small amount to make them fit on my fence. Freshly cut cedar smells great.

I have a decision to make in the next few days on what I want to do these last weeks of summer. Any suggestions?

I'd also appreciate suggestions on courses to take this fall. I'm looking for a fun/interesting/easy class. Suggestions, anyone?

Currently, I'm watching a movie on the WB called "Futureworld," a film quite obviously made in the 1970s. Apparently, it's a world of robots that look human, or something.

Enjoy the last few days of summer!

Saturday, February 05, 2005

And on the Yemini Front...

Because every piece of bad news should be countered by a piece of good news...

A Muslim cleric in Yemen, Hamoud al-Hitar, has decided to take an interesting approach to fighting terrorism. When I first heard about it, my original reaction was "This is so crazy, it just might work!"

As it happens, al-Hitar, who is apparently a judge of some sort, decided to throw down the intellectual gauntlet to captured al-Qaeda members in Yemen. He challenged them to a Qur'anic debate, saying that,
"If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Qur'an, then we will join you in your struggle, but if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence."

Of course, the prisoners naturally agree to this duel, and then al-Hitar proceeds to trounce them...with his mad rhetorical skillz.

After this, apparently many of the prisoners are released, but according to the article, none have continued in terrorism.

From the article:
"
Hitar's belief that hardened militants trained by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan could change their stripes was initially dismissed by US diplomats in Sanaa as dangerously naive, but the methods of the scholarly cleric have little in common with the other methods of fighting extremism. Instead of lecturing or threatening the battle-hardened militants, he listens to them.
...
'An important part of the dialogue is mutual respect,' says Hitar. 'Along with acknowledging freedom of expression, intellect and opinion, you must listen and show interest in what the other party is saying.'
...
Only after winning the militants' trust does Hitar gradually begin to correct their beliefs. He says that most militants are ordinary people who have been led astray. Just as they were taught Al Qaeda's doctrines, he says, so too can they be taught more- moderate ideas. 'If you study terrorism in the world, you will see that it has an intellectual theory behind it,' says Hitar. 'And any kind of intellectual idea can be defeated by intellect.'"

Perhaps as importantly, al-Hitar directs the (former?) al-Qaeda folks after release to places where they can find vocational training and jobs.

Judging by the article alone, this guy should get a medal, or something. He certainly gets my kudos. Perhaps he could be the first recipient of the Ziese Award for Awesomeness. I dunno.

Read the article. I hardly do it justice.

Kids and the First Amendment

Say it ain't so!

A new study finds that our bedrock Constitutional freedoms are possibly not as respected as they should be by America's youth.

From the linked article:
"[W]hen told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes “too far” in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.
...
When asked whether people should be allowed to express unpopular views, 97 percent of teachers and 99 percent of school principals said yes. Only 83 percent of students did.
...
Three in four students said flag burning is illegal. It’s not. About half the students said the government can restrict any indecent material on the Internet. It can’t."

This is very depressing news, especially for such a fan of the First Amendment as I. A grand total of 75% of High Schoolers believe flag-burning is illegal? Only half believe that newspapers should be able to print stories without government approval? A third believe that the First Amendment "goes too far" in securing our rights?

There's really nothing more I can say about this.

(Thanks to Josh for pointing this out.)

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

An empty threat

One of the most poignant visions of the current Iraqi war must be the image of a coalition soldier bounded in front of a slogan-ridden flag. There is a gun pointed at the soldier's head. This picture (or video tape) is accompanied by a warning that if some demand wasn't met by a deadline, the pictured soldier would be killed.

Of course, this kind of image burned in our minds makes us cringe and causes us to be sick. There has recently been another story that, at first flush, seems to be all-too-familiar. However, at (second flush?), it appears that this terrorist group used a toy soldier in the picture. These people, who call themselves the Al Mujahedeen Brigade, apparently took a picture of a toy soldier instead of a real soldier. After the picture and threat appeared on a website, the military was immediately suspicious, for no units had reported anyone missing. An employee at "Dragon Models USA," who made the action figure first in 2003, notes that the image seems to be "Special Ops Cody," a plastic soldier meant to look like a normal American soldier in serving in the war in Iraq. You can judge for yourself whether or not the "hostage," and his clothes look like the action figure.


If it turns out the kidnapping was faked (and it looks like it was), I think I would have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is hard to laugh at an image of a fake kidnapping, for what the picture represents is vile. It's hard to laugh or be happy at the depiction of an imminent murder. On the other hand, it may say something about the state of the Iraqi insurgency. Obviously, the terrorists would rather have a flesh-and-blood soldier than a plastic one. Does this mean that the Iraq terrorists are desperate enough to instill fear that they would resort to such tactics? Is it harder nowadays to capture a soldier? Does this mean that things on the ground are getting safer? Combined with the relative quiet and success of the elections, I feel cautiously optimistic about the direction that country is heading in. Unfortunately, this will probably not be the end of kidnappings murders, but I hope it is an indication that terrorism is getting tougher. Whatever you think of how the war started, if terrorism is getting tougher, it is an unqualified good.