Monday, July 29, 2013

Zimmerman riots

Oh, sorry. There weren't any, despite the promises from the rightwing noise machine. But, never fear, there were riots.

By surfer dudes:

Huntington Beach riot: bike shop workers fought off looters


A Washington Post reporter had lengthy access to Mitt Romney's memory banks for a book about last year's campaign. Democrats are crowing about the revelations, especially Romney's explanation of the leaked "47%" remarks.

Basically, Romney says it never happened. Who are you gonna believe, your lying ears or Mitt Romney?:

The president said he's writing off 47 percent of Americans and so forth. And that wasn't at all what was intended. That wasn't what was meant by it. That is the way it was perceived.
Not  being a Democrat, I am not rejoicing. I am appalled to think how close the country came to having another fantasy-prone mental case at the top. Reagan was bad, Bush II was worse.

Imagine Romney negotiating with a foreign power. "Hey, I never said that!"

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Toto, I don't think we're in Tennessee any more

I was born and raised in Tennessee in a Catholic family. We were very much a minority. I sometimes joke that native-born Southern Roman Catholics are America's smallest minority.

That's an exaggeration but not by much. Outside the seaports and Louisiana, most Catholics in the South had moved there recently, when I was a boy. The Protestants were ignorant beyond belief. I knew people, and not just one or two, who thought that there was a tunnel from the Vatican to Washington and if Jack Kennedy ever became president, the pope would come over and tell him what to do.

I cannot count the times that people, usually strangers, told me I was condemned to hell's fires forever because I had not accepted their savage god as my personal saviour. And so on.

I despise Christians of that sort, although possibly not as much as they despise me.

When I was small, I thought that were the only kind of Protestant there was. I now realize I was wrong. There were decent Christians, but with very few exceptions (none in my personal experience), they were too cowardly to speak out against the haters.

(For what it's worth, I first encountered decent Christians in black churches during my time as a civil rights demonstrater. They were not cowards.)

So I was quite bucked up today to read the comments in the Oak Ridge newspaper, and even more so, the comments in the Knoxville paper (but not quite so happy with the statements of the Christians to a followup story, once they had caught their breaths) about a coup by Anderson County Baptists to turn the county courthouse into a temple of intolerance.

I suspect the reason for the newfound backbone is economic. In the Old South, in most communities, you had to tug your forelock and do what the local bigwigs wanted if you wanted to make a living, and the local bigwigs were almost always bigots. They still are, in many ways, but the evolution of the Southern economy to more modern, non-agrarian lines means that the bigots don't have the economic power they used to.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Remember when?

Remember when President George Bush and the rightwingers had a better idea about your retirement money? I do. We were supposed to be better off if we just all got Wall Street accounts and let the market take care of it.

It was a great notion if you were a Wall Street insider, not so great if you were John Q. Citizen. Bloomberg reports:

 The government has presented a case that it’s likely to win, given the success rate Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office has had against insider traders. The office has won convictions at trial or in guilty pleas in 100 percent of the cases brought. That could herald the demise of Cohen’s fund, which has about $13.9 billion under management, of which about $7.5 billion is part of Cohen’s own $9 billion fortune.
This is notable because the alleged scamster, Cohen, was one of the most admired of all Wall Streeters. The game is rigged.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book Review 294: Fiasco

FIASCO: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks. 482 pages, illustrated. Penguin, $27.95

Ordinarily, if a book is titled “Fiasco,” you could not accuse it of understating its point. But as brutally condemnatory as Thomas Ricks is, he leaves out plenty of the bad.

The premise is easily stated. It was obvious before the war began in 2003. In fact, it was obvious when Bush I declined in 1991 to push on to Baghdad: The United States does not have enough infantry to conduct a moderate-size occupation. It would not have mattered that much if even most of the other assumptions and decisions had been better grounded. We would still have lost.

In fact, as Ricks relates in infinite detail, hardly any of those assumptions and decisions were based in reality. It was hardly a surprise when Bush II and his Texas yahoos displayed zero understanding of the place they had decided to interfere in. The Old Testament is a lousy guide, but that is the only guide Texas Christians know, and they firmly accept it.

One might perhaps have hoped that the prophets of invasion, like Paul Wolfowitz, with their Ivy League backgrounds, would have had a somewhat broader experience. But they didn’t; the neoconservative filter was perfect.

Anyway, the idea that the United States, or anybody else, could midwife a modern nation state in Iraq was  pure delusion. The people who live there do not have a common history, language, religion, customs, food habits, education or anything else that could unite them. The only thing they share is a fondness for soccer.

Besides, if the United States were standing for what used to be its own principles, it would not have wanted a unified Iraq. It would have supported a free and independent Great Kurdistan. That would have required breaking up Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, which will have to come if peace ever is to come to southwest Asia, but that has never been a policy of any American administration.

Both the civilian and the military high commands were (and are) incompetent, and the military is widely corrupt. The disastrous performance of all arms in the previous pinprick escapades in Lebanon, Panama, Grenada and Somalia ought to have given the civilian leadership doubts.

Doubt was never in the makeup of Incurious George and his crew. Hicks relates in detail, using tens of thousands of pages of internal documents, how incompetent the military was.

To take only the most obvious example: there was no attempt either to seal the borders or to sequester the thousands of munitions dumps around Iraq. When the factions caught their breath, they had at hand millions of tons of free explosives to blow up Americans and each other.

Every single American casualty of the post-invasion era is attributable to the criminal irresponsibility of the high command.

Ricks wrote in 2006. Since then the war has been definitively lost, although the American political public does not care, because we cut and ran. But that nothing was learned is clear enough. Of all the fools and screwups in “Fiasco,” none gets a colder shoulder from Ricks than Ray Odierno. He is as I write the Chief of Staff of the Army.

Ricks is a reporter with long experience covering the military. The only thing I really fault him for in this excellent book is a sometimes Pollyannaish attitude. For example, at one or two points he comments that the Army had forgotten what it learned in Vietnam. I do not believe the Army did learn anything in Vietnam.

I also note that Ricks almost entirely ignores the derelictions of supply. He does quote Rumsfeld’s lame “you fight with the army you have” remark, but there is nothing in “Fiasco” to indicate how awful the failure to supply the troops was -- nothing about the wives who purchased flak vests for their men because the commanders -- mainly Bush and Rumsfeld -- refused to do so.

True voices

Today's Washington Post has two stories that ought to be read together: one about immigrants, and one about voter fraud. What connects them is the question: Just how racist is the Republican Party?

Note that one story is about leaders (very few in number) trying to distance themselves from one of the party's (take your pick) more honest or less cautious spokesmen. "Hateful" sounds pretty definite, and normally if a politician labels something hateful, I'd say it's sin to him and he's agin it.

These are not normal times in the GOP, though. Jacob Javits is dead and all the Republicans like him. So it is reasonable to wonder whether the nice-sounding GOP leaders will follow through with legislation that demonstrates they really do find Representative King's views "hateful."

RtO will withhold a decision about that till later.

On the other issue, the verdict is in. The rightwing assault on voting rights is pure racism, and everybody knows it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book Review 293: Petrified Wood

This month, after intending to do it for the past 50 years, I visited the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. Had the park pretty much to myself, too. At Rainbow Forest, I picked up several books, including:

PETRIFIED WOOD: The World of Fossilized Wood, Cones, Ferns and Cycads, by Frank J. Daniels. 170 pages, illustrated. Western Colorado, $75

“Petrified Wood” is aimed at collectors – pretty pictures and not much else. The text is accurate, so far as it goes, which is not very far.

There is almost nothing about lithology, nothing about botany. No maps, although the specimens pictured come from all over.

If the pictures were outstanding, the book could stand as a coffee table book for the incurious. They are not, so at the price, it was a poor bargain.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Book Review 292: Carving Grand Canyon

CARVING GRAND CANYON: Evidence, Theories and Mystery, 2nd edition, by Wayne Ranney. 190 pages, illustrated. Grand Canyon Association paperback, $16.95

Looking into the Grand Canyon (or even many smaller erosional surfaces), it is hard to imagine what goes on in the minds of Young Earth Creationists. It wasn’t done in a day.

But when was it done? Geologist Wayne Ranney’s little survey ought to accompany any visit to the canyon. It makes the big hole even more interesting.

Reconstructing past landscapes is not simple, and it will startle most people to learn that the Colorado River (or whatever was the major drainage of the region) used to run the other way.

As the Rockies rose (or, alternatively, as the Basin and Range province sank), the flow switched direction. An outstanding question is whether any of the old northeast drainage canyons were saved to be incorporated into today’s canyon.

Ranney has good discussions about how quickly rivers can saw through mountains -- very quickly if the gradient is steep enough. Today’s canyon falls eight feet in the mile, compared with much less than a foot in the mile for the Mississippi.

Yet the Grand Canyon is not getting any deeper, not even by fractions of a millimeter, now. The bedrock is    buried in around 75 feet of gravel, cobbles and silt. It would take a mighty flood to scour the canyon so that the cutting could begin again.

The canyon probably achieved its present depth during the melt phases of the recent ice ages -- that is, no cutting in the last 10,000 years or so.

Ranney calls attention to the remarkable history of the high, rolling plateaus that surround the canyon. While not dramatic, they have their own secrets.

It diminishes the drama of the canyon itself a little to know that in the Four Corners region, erosion has completely eliminated sedimentary rocks that were once as much as 18,000 feet thick. More than three miles. The canyon is only a mile deep and while big (277 miles long by up to 10 miles wide), it is not even a fraction as large as these vanished rocks.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

America's least-respected economist blurts again

In a review of one of his crummy books (Book Review 174: "America's Housing Boom and Bust," Nov 27, 2010), I once called Thomas Sowell America's least-respected economist. I think that's true.

But that was mild. It is not obvious that having a Chicago Ph.D. in economics qualifies one specially to opine about Trayvon Martin (heck, it isn't even obvious that it specially qualifies one to opine about economics, but that's a topic for another day), but Sowell did anyway.

Wonkette's Alex Ruthrauff provided a funny takedown. Nut sentence:

Thomas Sowell earns a good living by expounding silly, unsupportable, poorly conceived “ideas” that appeal to lunatic right-wingers and make everyone else’s heads explode.
America, land of opportunity.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Handy to have around

Most people who get shot to death in this country are suicides. I've heard gun fans say that having a gun around does not increase the likelihood of a successful suicide attempt.

This seems intuitively unlikely to me. For example, The Maui News reports:

A 44-year-old Napili woman died Sunday afternoon as police said Monday she had shot herself at the Ukumehame Firing Range while taking a firearms education safety class.
Around 3:40 p.m. after loading a .22 caliber revolver, the female "without any indications" placed the barrel of the gun under her chin and pulled the trigger, police said.
The instructors who witnessed the incident had no time to react before the weapon was fired, police said.
I dunno what percentage of suicides are spur-of-the-moment. I had a friend and colleague once who was under a lot of stress (alcoholic, out of work, broke) who was killed when his truck ran into a bridge abutment at highway speed. Most of his friends thought it was suicide, though whether planned or spur-of-the-moment we could not guess. I couldn't anyway.

But I am reminded of a study done of people who had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived (sample size, about a dozen). Every single one said that on the way down, he thought, this isn't the solution.

This seems borne out by the fact that nobody jumps off the Golden  Gate Bridge twice; although, bizarrely, an Iraqi man who jumped and survived did go back a second time, when he lowered himself of the edge in a garbage can and threatened to cut the rope.

Near as anyone can figure, he didn't but the rope slipped. He did not get a third chance.

Unless you live in a very bad neighborhood indeed, the chance that somebody (maybe you) in your household will have "suicidal ideations" is far higher than the chance that some home invader will break in and try to threaten you.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Shhh. The market is asleep

One blog I read often is Volokh Conspiracy, written by libertarian law professors, who are remarkably good-natured about the commenters, who often hang them out to dry. But they keep plugging away, mostly.

Some of the conspirators don't allow comments, or not always. An interesting example, on several fronts, for a market- and property-skeptic like me, was put up by Professor Kenneth Anderson this weekend. It links back to a New York Times story about Valley Fever.

I had not heard anything about Valley Fever and was not pleased to learn that it is all over Arizona, where I am going soon.

It affects mostly poor workers in the soil, so perhaps I will escape.

Anderson says:

The reason for little action on the three fronts of diagnostic tests, vaccines, and treatments is the usual problem with orphan diseases – not enough of a market.  With 20,000 cases reported across the Southwest last year – almost certainly an undercount – and the number rising, while the geographic incidence is turning out to be much more widespread across the Southwest than thought – maybe that will change.  Maybe not.
I'm putting my money on maybe not.

Some years ago, Anderson tried to interest a rich property-owner in doing something about it but no soap. Ah, who else might one conceivably turn to?

Anderson seems unable to think of anyone, and he has turned off comments, so if any RtO readers could possibly, by some flash of insight, get an idea, there's no easy way to clue Professor Anderson in.

What to do? What to do? Such a conundrum.

Book Review 291: On to Kilimanjaro

ON TO KILIMANJARO: The Bizarre Story of the First World War in East Africa, by Brian Gardner. 190 pages, illustrated. MacFadden-Bartell

Writing amusing stories of war is somewhat out of fashion today, but in 1964 it was still possible to be amused by “little wars,” and for anyone with a fine sense of the ridiculous German East Africa (today Tanzania) in 1914-18 was the place.

Brian Gardner says it sometimes seemed to have come from the pen of G.A. Henty (now forgotten but once a very popular writer of war adventure stories for boys), but in the end it hardly came from the pen of anyone. The British started but never bothered to finish an official history.

Many records were lost, or never written down in the first place. Yet it retains its interest for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a classic example of the success of the strategic defensive. Defensive wars are often cheaper in  money and lives than offensive ones, but there is not much glory in them, so both generals and politicians  usually prefer offense.

During the runup to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2002-3 (a place where the United States had been successfully conducting a defensive campaign for 12 years), the morons in the Bush administration explicitly claimed that it was impossible to win a defensive campaign. Wellington would have advised them differently.

So would Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander-in-chief in German East Africa, who conducted perhaps the greatest defensive campaign in modern times. He might have changed the outcome of World War I.

Rather than surrendering, Lettow set out to tie down as many allied troops as possible. In the end, the British sent more men against him than were used to subdue the Boers, not to mention Portuguese and Belgians. In the desperate summer of 1917, when the Western Front nearly collapsed, Lettow’s strategy came within measurable distance of winning for Germany.

He seems to have been an attractive character. Gardner does not say what sort of discipline he used to hold his force (mostly askaris, African mercenaries who, however, were not being paid) together for four years of privation, danger and hardship. But evidently he was not as quick with the whip, noose or firing squad as the British.

Sick from malaria most of the time, sometimes so sick he had to be carried in a litter, he was tough enough after four years to mount his bicycle and ride off 40 miles (80 round trip) over rough country to do his own reconnaissance.

Once he surrendered, he carefully gave each surviving askari a paper documenting his back wages, and back in Germany he worked to get them paid. The Social Democratic government, despite its troubles, did pay. Considering the behavior of the British toward the their colonial troops, or the Americans toward theirs, it is impossible to imagine either of those capitalist states doing the same.

It comes as no surprise to learn that Lettow despised Hitlerism.

The conditions were terrible. Both sides starved much of the time, and each had to deal with long list of diseases up to and including plague. After the fighting, ‘flu killed many who survived. Attacks were sometimes broken up by rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses or crocodiles, giraffes kept breaking the telegraph wires and lions ate sentries.

Lettow, who never had more than about 6,000 soldiers, tried to avoid fighting, retreating thousands of miles, but the fighting was real enough when it happened. Toward the end, there was a standup battle in which each side lost about half its strength. The Europeans fared terribly; up to 90% of many units did not survive.

Gardner does not say much about the local people. It wasn’t their fight, but they suffered from it. Each side had to divert effort to putting down insurrections.

Nor does he say much about perhaps the most remarkable people in the story, the wives and camp followers of each army. These women often gave birth along the way. In addition to carrying supplies (the askaris never carried any), they marched with children slung over their shoulders.

The only thing in the 20th century to compare with it was the Long March of the Chinese Communists in the ‘30s.

Gardner is a good story teller. His attitudes seem dated, but the only serious flaw in the book is his reliance on the diary of Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, the British intelligence officer in the early part of the campaign. Meinertzhagen had a fabulous career. Just how fabulous became apparent after this book was published when he was exposed as a liar, fraud and murderer.

Gardner might well have been suspicious of the unlikely adventures that Meinertzhagen enjoyed, always when he was off alone, but he wasn’t. We can now say with confidence that all these episodes were imaginary, and Meinertzhagen’s pithy judgments (always negative) of the other officers are not to be believed either.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Book Review 290: The Gas Station in America

THE GAS STATION IN AMERICA, by John A Jakle and Keith A. Sculle. 272 pages, illustrated. Johns Hopkins, $32.95

Do yourself a favor and skip the first 38 pages, which are 38 pages of the most tedious academese I have ever encountered.

There is a bit of a puzzle here. To no one’s surprise, after the initial stage, in which gas pumps were stuck outside the doors of former livery stables, selling unbranded gasoline, the second stage involved branding and territorial conquests of markets. The competitors often tried to establish themselves by building attractive stations, fitted to existing neighborhoods.

A chapter is given to Pure Oil’s distinctive “English cottage” style. The next stage was the “oblong box,” indistinguishable from one owner to another, and all ugly. Pure was out of business by the time I was driving, but a few of its old stations were still around to show that gas stations could be attractive.

The building of gas stations was a very large business. Many chains developed prefab stations, some even that could be moved if traffic patterns moved. At one time there were over a quarter of a million active stations, and considering how many were abandoned, the total number built must have been around half a million at least.

Curiously, however, despite their enormous resources, no integrated company managed to go national. Texaco came closest but had to shrink.

What is surprising, perhaps, is that no chain ever thought of returning to stage 2 and trying to make inroads by design, especially since all gasoline was the same. The only possibilities of competing were price, location, possibly service, and attractiveness.

In the end, price prevailed.

Recently (though not where I live), “design,” such as it is, has reverted to stage 1, a pump (now automated) standing alone.

A detailed study shows how gas and gas-related businesses colonized the highway between Champaign and Urbana, Illinois. No surprises there. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Did space aliens shoot down TWA 800?

Why not?

Since I don't have a TV, I won't be watching a much-hyped sensational documentary on the crash of TWA 800. That one, you may or may not recall, led to the self-exile of Pierre Salinger, one of the strangest fallouts from Camelot.

While I won't watch, I have been following Flying magazine's precoverage with a certain interest. Today, Stephen Pope, who got an advance look, remains skeptical.

I was struck by how similar the stories told by eyewitnesses were to stories coming out of UFO flaps. People see "strange things." No doubt.

The latest iteration of this story requires not just one secret missile, but 3, all of which must have arrived at one point simultaneously, despite having been launched from different places. Not an easy feat.

Pope's debunking follows by one day the release (at last! after only 12 years) of video that "proves" it was a missile that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Scary. To think that there are people walking around, outwardly as normal as you or me, who harbor such a rich interior life.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Who needs more regulations?

The short answer is, you. A longer answer is in Slate, and no doubt if you're a skeptic you can easily find still longer answers.

It turns out the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, that blew up not only had a derisory amount of liability insurance but no sprinklers. I am surprised by only one thing about this.

That it was a reckless private business in Texas is no surprise. That the owners did nothing to alert local firefighters about potential trouble is no surprise.

But I am, slightly, surprised -- though I should not be -- that a private liability insurance underwriter wrote even a $1,000,000 policy for the plant without, you know, finding out whether it had sprinklers.

Chance um, as we say in Hawaii.

Query: if the murderous owners had wanted to take out a bigger policy, generating a bigger premium, would the insurer have inspected the plant? Or would the insurer have acted like AIG and derivative insurance and just accepted the check as free money?

If so, how much bigger?

The lesson from this is that private, for profit business can in no circumstances be relied upon to do the right thing (even in its own interest, still less in the interest of innocent bystanders) on its own. RtO has written about this often, under the name of the FIREPROOF HOTEL strategy.

Do you make more profits by painting FIREPROOF HOTEL on your building without making it fireproof, or by spending money fireproofing it? Obviously, the former (at least up to some point -- say when half of hotels burn down with customers inside -- when the fraudulent gambler with other people's lives begins to think the game is not worth, ahem, the candle). The theory of the free market guarantees that the fraudulent hotel operator will, more often than not, drive the honest operator out of business.

Regulations have to be written minutely, and more onerously than if their targets were reasonable people, because if they are not, the regulated will expend great effort to squirm out of their reach.

Monday, July 1, 2013

War on the poor

It cannot be a coincidence that everywhere you turn, some hardworking Murrican is bitching about the slacker Murrican he saw buying crab legs with his food stamp card.

It even turned up (with lobster playing the role of King Crab) in a letter to the editor of The Maui News.

When that happens, you can bet that something is instigating it. America's most delusional congressman, Louie Gohmert, for one.

There has rightly been pushback from the reality-based community. One commenter (whose location  I cannot recall) pointed out the obvious, that with a typical monthly draw of $130 and legs at $20/pound, nobody is buying a lot of crab legs with gummint handouts.

Remarkably, Arthur Delaney at Huffpost found someone who had bought crab legs with food stamps. He was not a slacker Murrican, though, but a worker, just one of millions being paid peanuts. Apparently, if you are paid peanuts, that's all you are allowed to eat, too.

Some of the complainers are mathematically challenged. Delaney found this:

 The crab complaint has recurred more than a dozen times in newspapers around the country, including this 2007 missive from a reader in the Myrtle Beach Sun-News: "After working a typical 12-hour shift, I had to stop by the local grocery store. Standing in line behind an oversized woman with three kids, I noticed the items going through the checkout. She had two 10-pound packs of frozen crab legs and two large packs of rib-eye steaks among a couple of vegetable items totaling up to an excess of $60."
Quite a bit in excess of $60, I imagine. 20 pounds of crab would have run into the hundreds.

We are, of course, not merely in the realm of urban legend but of Ronald Reagan lying. As Doktor Zoom lectured Gohmert:
Congratulations, Rep. Gohmert! You have resurrected Ronald Reagan’s “strapping young buck” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps! Some lines never get old, do they?
No, they don't. The rightwingers have learned not to insert race words into their texts (well, some of them have), but we get it.