Sunday, August 31, 2014

Practical and impractical politics

It is perhaps unfair to criticize the Arabs, with an unbroken political history of straightup despotism, for spoiling their attempts at democracy, considering that with our two centuries of experience, we still haven’t figured out the simplest things. Three current local examples:

The Puna vote

This one raises questions that it would take a lot of effort to answer.

The immediate case is only mildly troubling. The Hawaii Supreme Court decided the appeal narrowly, merely saying the statute did not give it review jurisdiction, or that some of the complainants did not have standing. No doubt, if it had thought the outstanding issues were really important, it could have found a way.

In this case, there was only the smallest chance that the Puna votes could have swung the Democratic senatorial primary. To win, Colleen Hanabusa would have needed about 65% of all the votes if all the registered voters who had not voted early did vote. While she did about that well in her home area, she got less than half the votes in Hawaii County.

I do not know anything about local Big Island politics, so cannot speculate about what the missing votes could have meant in local Puna races.

People allegedly trapped by hurricane debris were not totally disenfranchised; they had had the option of voting earlier (though not of deciding to do so after the prospect of the hurricane became evident). And besides, it does not take a tropical storm to keep voters away from the polls; even an ordinary rainstorm will do it for significant numbers of people.

There are mishaps in most elections, and despite what civics books or even statutes may say about it, as a practical matter there has always been a very strong pressure to get the result confirmed, even if not every possible or even plausible doubt has been resolved. However much mischief has been done in the runup to the voting, experience suggests that leaving the results hanging opens the way to even more mischief.

We have a current example in the Afghanistan presidential election, and if that is not really the best laboratory for voting experience, we have also the infamous Hays-Tilden election in our own past. (Some people would cite the 2000 presidential election, but not me. The handling of the count was unsavory on both sides, but I was persuaded at the time that either candidate would have been a disaster. Experience proved me at least half right.)

However, there is a bigger issue forming. We no longer have Election Day. It is now Election Month, or at least Election Fortnight, and the day the polls open at the local school (Aug. 9 for the primary) is really the end, not the beginning.

Permanent absentees were able to vote from July 28 through Aug. 2. Early walk-in voters were allowed to vote between July 28 and Aug. 7.

More and more people are voting early.

In one way this is good. It becomes less and less effective to spring a last-minute smear, of the kind John Waihee used to beat Cec Heftel, when so many votes have already been cast. And so last-minute smears have dropped off, it seems to me.

On the other hand, sometimes important information comes out late legitimately, and if you have already voted you don’t get do-overs. (The Mitt Romney 47% videotape was revealed in mid-September 2012, which gave it plenty of time to stew in the gullets of ordinary Americans, but it might have been held later.)

I am uncertain how spreading out the voting affects the habit of voting, but I am sure it does. Part of what drives participation is anticipation and a big, culminating event. The four quarters of the Super Bowl are not played over four days but all at once.

Going to the polls was a civic sacrament. It also gave you a sense of community and some insight into who else was voting. I vote early about half the time, but I like going to my Makawao precinct. I always see a few people there who I haven’t seen for a long time -- maybe not since the last election.

Anonymizing elections will not, I suspect, have a good long-term effect.

The Calvin Say residency challenge

It amazes me that residency challenges come up in every election. How hard can it be to live in the district you want to represent; or alternatively, to offer your candidacy in the district where you live?

And voters do not give a damn. Time and again they have shown themselves ready to elect people who were probably no longer residents in their districts, sometimes even candidates who were never in their districts. The moving factor seems to be a feeling that they know the candidate. That is enough.

The Say challenge raises a perennial question about independence of the legislative branch, but those conflicts are baked in. They are never going away. A better-crafted statute would leave less room for the disputants to maneuver, but they will find a way.

Patsy Mink, a local girl if ever there was one, did not live in the 2nd Congressional District; she had moved to her mother’s house, which was (by a short distance) in the 1st. There is no requirement that congressmen live in the districts they represent so long as they live in the state. But the indifference to where Mink lived is telling.

And the issue of where the legislator beds down most nights -- currently causing a flap which, I suspect, will amount to nothing for Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieux -- is mostly bogus. Mink told me she ran for Senate (and lost) because she wanted a six-year term instead of two so she wouldn’t have to come back to Hawaii so much.

And the travel is a serious matter for us westerners.

Only in Maui County is the residency requirement cogent. The imbalance among the three islands would assuredly mean that only seldom would Molokai or Lanai ever have a resident on the County Council, and Hana almost as rarely. (On the other hand, when I covered my first Hawaii elections in 1988, I was assured that never again would a Neighbor Island control the top committees in the House and Senate the way Yama and Souki did then. This prediction was only modestly successful.)

It is virtually impossible for the Lanai and Molokai members to do much living on Lanai or Molokai. Bob Carroll commuted every day from Hana, a grind but not that exceptional. Numbers of Mauians chose long commutes in order to sleep in their favorite part of this so-diverse island; Mike White is unusual but not exceptional.

The expense of maintaining two residences is a genuine barrier, though, to people of ordinary incomes trying to win the Lanai or Molokai seats. Perhaps the county should provide a duplex for each council member to bunk in in Wailuku, college dorm style, as a reasonable accommodation.

The GMO initiative

Susan Halas posted the language that will appear on the November ballot on her Facebook page this morning, and it is ugly:

“Should the proposed initiative prohibiting the cultivation or reproduction of genetically engineered organisms within the County of Maui, which may be amended or repealed as to a specific person or entity when required environmental and public health impact studies, public hearings, a two thirds vote and a determination by the County Council that such operation or practice meets certain standards, and which establishes civil and criminal penalties, be adopted for Maui County?”

Although initiative has been allowed in Hawaii for a long time, it has not been used, which helps explain how such a ridiculous statement is to be presented to the voters; but places like California that use initiative a lot have not done that much better.

Or perhaps it is not so ridiculous; perhaps the lawyers have an agenda not concerned with the substance if the initiative.

As a practical matter, I don’t care. The anti-GMO drive is based on lies and confusion and I will have no difficulty in voting against it.

IANAL, but it seems probable that if that passes it will be rejected by the judges on several grounds, including vagueness and not being limited to a single issue.  The words “certain standards” will be the crux.

What standard? Written by whom?

An initiative asking “Shall Maui County establish standards for cultivating crops?” would make a legitimate political question, although it would still be silly from a scientific viewpoint.

Who dunnit? Officer Friendly . . .

. . . in the laundry, with a clothes dryer.

I started to type what a weird story this is, but when it comes to frearms, it isn't weird at all. A little imaginative, though.

Heaven knows there's been more than plenty of material for a gun-grabber like me to work with lately, but stories about toddlers gunning down other toddlers are so old hat, y'know. But then along comes this story -- full of doubts and uncertainties though it is -- from Wisconsin, and it has it all:

The perp was a law officer, so trained in the responsible use of firearms (ha!). The victims were his (apparently) loving wife and her sister. No black-on-black street violence here; all in the family home by white folks. No word about who in the home was armed or how heavily.

There are suggestions that the lawman was crazy, possibly (who knows) as the result of disease (ALS, a bad one) or perhaps its treatment. Or maybe he wasn't stitched together, ever.

Trying to commit suicide by clothes dryer was a new one on me. The guy probably skipped science class.

I cannot wait to hear Wayne Lapierre explain how owning firearms improved this situation.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Evolution of politics

Estimates that National Impeach Obama Day would draw dozens of patriots into the streets were wildly overhyped. (The group, which is perhaps the most transparent in politics, has a counter on its website, which has yet to hit 16,000, and I suspect half of those visits were from tourists like me who are not sympathizers.)

But I have a more vital question: When did political rallies start taking place on highway overpasses, looking down on motorists whizzing by at 60 mph? With the ralliers behind chainlink, looking for all the world like monkeys in the monkeyhouse?

We don't have overpasses like that on Maui. Can we complain that we are politically oppressed?

UPDATE: There was a Hawaii rally. According to the organization's Facebook page, 1 (count 'em, one) person went. You got to admire their transparency, or maybe they just haven't figured out how to disable the counter thingy.

UPDATE OF UPDATE: Wonkette, which has pictures of the Washington impeachment rally, reports that no one showed up there. A commenter claims the Hartford protest drew 1 person.

It is useful, perhaps, to recall that 99% of Americans do not watch Fox News. It may be that loud noises from a very small number of mouths have been mistaken for loud noises from many mouths, because decibel levels are not additive, y'know.

Commenter Billy_Reuben (who I suspect is a medical researcher; just a guess) was pretty funny:

Remember last week when we were all laughing and joking about how maybe only a dozen or two angry losers would show up? How did they manage to *still* under-perform to our predictions? Where do we go from here to recalibrate future expectations of their grabassery? Will future events be attended by fractions of a single protester? Negative integers? Imaginary numbers? How can you even try to model something so weird and dumb?
He then added:

Once we get to functions that involve a probabilistic number of demonstrators less than unity, we have arrived at "Schrödinger's nutjob" paradox.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book Review 333: Pegasus Bridge

PEGASUS BRIDGE: June 6, 1944, by Stephen E. Ambrose. 199 pages, illustrated. Simon and Schuster paperback, $14

The story of the British Airborne’s coup de main on the left flank of the Normandy invasion is an old one, but it has its relevance for events, or would-be events, today.

The seizure of the bridges over the Orne River and the Caen Canal succeeded, as such bold strokes so seldom do. The attempt to rescue American hostage James Foley this month, foiled by the simple fact of moving the target, is usual.

But the British stroke did not deserve to succeed. As author Stephen Ambrose shows but fails to apprehend, the stroke failed except that Hitler’s orders controlling panzers from Germany prevented the local commander from crushing the small Pegasus force. He had more than enough time and muscle to do it.

Would that have ruined the British portion of the invasion? Who can say? It would have made it more difficult.

This was Ambrose’s first book, before he became a sort of figurehead for assembly-line war narratives, and like the British soldiers, he took plenty of time --  two years for the paras, 20 for Ambrose. (His reputation for truthfulness, challenged later when he became rich and famous, is not improved by his claim in "Pegasus Bridge" to have examined 2 million documents, which works out to 300 a day non-stop.) This allowed him to interview some of the veterans in depth, making the narrative of the attack clear and convincing.

The wrap-up is much less persuasive. He faults the British Army for expending its highly trained force as ordinary infantry -- a cogent point and another mark against the shredded reputation of Montgomery, who, as we now see, was all show and very little go. But he goes way beyond probability when he speculates that the same force, if available, could have repeated its success at Arnhem, thus (perhaps) turning that defeat into a victory.

First, at Arnhem the invaders would not have had the detailed intelligence they had in June. Second, they would have had at most weeks, not years to train. Third, at Arnhem as at Caen, the paras would have landed in the lap of skilled, veteran armored forces, and at Arnhem those tanks would not have been on a leash.

It might have worked, but the odds would have been very long, and anyway, Montgomery made the same mistake as that other overblown fool MacArthur that got the US 8th Army destroyed in Korea: extending a force on a single line of supply far into hostile territory with no prospect of flank support.

It might be as well, if you read this book, to stop at the end of Chapter 9.

Found Sounds 18: Open Pipe Symphony

I thought a long time before deciding I was willing to risk an hour listening to "Open Pipe Symphony" (JL Productions USCD 666; 1997)

As it turned out, it was more musical than most modern symphonic compositions -- whose premieres are often their last performances, too -- and very like a composed symphony -- 19th century kind -- in structure, with movements, development and so on.

The skimpy liner notes say to play it at full blast although "divorce threats may result." In one of 2 Amazon reviews, Meg Estey says, "My hubby loves this CD it is not for me and drives me crazy. But he puts it on in the garage and zones out while doing a project."

In reality, the noise has been detuned so that you get the Formula One whine and crescendo/diminuendo without the earthshaking volume.

All the recordings were made in France and Monaco, mostly during races but some also in the garage or on a test run. The sound is, therefore, very different from what you hear at an American race.

Cars include Ferraris, Peugeots, Porsches, Renaults, Matras, Mercedes and a bubbly 1928 Bugatti. Most of the engines are V-10s and V-12s.

The producer was Jean Lerust, a  racing journalist for Echappement and Le Dragon.

Lerust began writing in 1969, a little after I published my first auto racing (and first newspaper) story in 1966. It would never have occurred to me, though, to make a recording of a race, because Billy had already done that, and the results were not pretty.

Billy was a big, slovenly, slow, friendly, mostly toothless wizard who hexed NASCAR drivers. No, really. All of them believed he could do it, or said they did; and they would pay Billy to slow down particular opponents.

Billy did this by standing in turn 3 and scraping one forefinger across the other as his target came by. He was absolutely concentrated on his job.

Billy, who was a high-functioning moron, hung out at the body shop of the local racing promoter, Hank Hankins, and would have loved to have been included in all that manly ricin' talk, but a little of Billy was all anybody could take.

But everyone treated him kindly. Drivers -- some very famous ones -- would give him $20 to hex a race. Although Billy wanted to travel with everybody else, no one wanted to be cooped up with him in a truck for hours, or even minutes, so he had to take the 'Hound. Someone always arranged for entry tickets.

After I had known Billy for a couple of years he acquired a cigar-box sized battery tape recorder, which he used to record races. He then held the recorder up to his ear and played it, continuously, as loud and as long as the batteries held out. Unlike the song of the screaming Ferrari P4 running down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans, a musical rise and fall, the sound of 40 modifieds snarling their way around a half-mile track was insufferable, but it made Billy happy.

He may have been the happiest man, overall, in Virginia, despite not riding with the mechanics, at least as long as his batteries held out.

Book Review 332: The Great Hedge of India

THE GREAT HEDGE OF INDIA: The Search for the Living Barrier that Divided a People, by Roy Moxham. 234 pages. Carroll & Graf paperback, $14

When I saw the title of Roy Moxham’s “The Great Hedge of India,” I had the same first thought that he did when he encountered entries about it in books he was conserving: Probably another example of dotty sahibs left out too long in the noonday sun; or, if not that, perhaps one of the numerous attempts by the Government of India to figure out how to modernize the place.

But, as we learn in a few chapters and as Moxham learned over several years in the 1990s, the story is darker. Murderous, in fact.

The thorn hedge -- 2,500 miles long, around eight to 12 feet wide and 14 feet high -- was at its peak in the 1870s, but the story begins earlier.

Moxham skillfully weaves the threads, the question of the human requirement for salt, the development of salt policy by the East India Company in Bengal in the 18th century, the corruption, death and suffering that followed, and Moxham’s search for some remnant of the hedge, which was second only to the Great Wall of China in size.

It was also nearly forgotten; much of Moxham’s labor involved trying to find maps at a large enough scale to find remnants of the hedge -- if any were left.

Along the way, we get a vivid picture of how unchanged India is; Moxham’s guide came from a village not reached by any road, with no electricity, running water or post office. But also of how much it has changed; the guide is a modish city dweller, and the hedge has been almost obliterated by roads, extension of cultivation and harvesting of the trees and bushes for firewood. It adds to the drama that the out-of-the-way places where the hedge might have been left alone today are the home now, as then, of ruthless robber gangs.

In the heat of India, an adult requires about an ounce of salt a day -- thankfully Moxham does not bother with metric measures -- for health. And salt cannot be stored.

The Company imposed a tax so high that it would have required two month’s income of a ryot (landless farm worker) to pay for it. The hedge was made to stop smuggling of salt from western India, where the taxes, though high, were not murderous.

As so often when capitalists are involved, greed and individualism resulted in less, not more income for the capitalists, since salt-deprived workers are sickly, weak -- when not dead -- and unable to produce wealth. It goes without saying that the Bengalis were made poorer, but that was not a concern of the British.

It is impossible to say how many people were killed by the salt tax, but at least millions and probably tens of millions. When you add in the toll from famines caused by the secular decline in the value of silver (the currency of India) against gold (the money of Britain) the total reaches into hundreds of millions, but that is a story for another day -- you can find it in Mike Davis’s “Late Victorian Holocausts.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The whole world is watching

Americans were shocked this month to see pictures of police — looking like, in the deft phrase of Doktor Zoom, Keystone Stormtroopers — threatening citizens with machine guns and tanks. Our grandparents or great-grandparents would not have been shocked.

It was only the New Deal that, among many other civilizing gifts to the public, changed the role of police and militia from agents of labor control into, more or less, guardians of property and ordinary order. As late as 1932, it was nothing unusual to see a governor — a Democrat no less — turn a machine gun on farmers protesting low prices. This happened just a few miles from Ferguson, Missouri, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Imaginary cop

The idea that the cop is Officer Friendly would have seemed outlandish to our forebears. Police were agents of repression in service of the rich, and everybody understood that.

This was true of both formal and informal police. It was most obvious with the “paterollers” of the upper South, white men conscripted to serve a few nights each month as cavalry to terrorize blacks and catch runaway slaves.

But it was also the case with formal police forces, once these began to be enrolled. Every boss knew that if he could not keep his workers in line with low wages, payment in scrip, company stores, eviction, blacklists and strong-arm men, he could call the mayor or governor to have the police or the militia shoot them, or their families.

Police were kept on a payroll in order to have them available to brutalize workers. The rest of the time they filled their days serving eviction notices for landlords and collecting bribes from whorehouses.

There is no instance known to me when police or militia refused to act as the bosses’ enforcers. Legislators chipped in by passing laws that excluded workers from civil rights protections.

It was usual to ride down workers and their wives and children with cavalry, and not unusual to place cannon in the streets to intimidate them.

In the South, the sheriff was also expected to organize and lead lynch mobs.

If the local arms of law and disorder were inadequate, in exceptional circumstances the regular army was available. In fact, President Washington used regulars against protesters because that was the only force he had available. Later, the militia was usually sufficient.

Despite what it says in the 2nd Amendment to the Bill of Rights, the United States has never had — nor even attempted to create — a well-regulated militia. When used in war, the militia has performed poorly, usually running away (as recently as 1942); and in peace it has done nothing much beyond murdering women and children. Chivington’s Colorado “Volunteers” were a particularly noisome example.

Frank Murphy

Since the New Deal, however, bosses have not been able to call the governor and have him send out troops to shoot workers. The governor who changed this was Frank Murphy of Michigan, who called out his National Guard to protect workers who were under attack from police and mobs of company goons. It was the first time in American history that the militia were used to protect ordinary citizens instead of bosses. It was a startling change for the Michigan National Guard, which President Wilson had sent to Murmansk in 1919 to shoot Russian workers. The Russian workers fought back and over 500 Michigander militia were killed, most left behind in unmarked graves.

Murphy was punished by losing the next election, but his precedent has generally held. Nowadays, regular troops are even called out to uphold the rule of law, as President Eisenhower did at Little Rock; or sometimes when real disorders occur.

There is backsliding. Murphy’s adherence to lawful principles was shocking and unwelcome to the oppressing classes, who screamed, through their corrupt newspapers, for him to have the workers shot. At times, as at Kent State and Ferguson, large police or militia forces are deployed in order to create riots — as admitted, memorably, by Mayor Richard Daley who said his Chicago cops were there to create disorder. And the frightened right-wingers still want to go back to the good old days when Douglas MacArthur used panzers against unemployed veterans. Gov. Rick Perry has game wardens armed with machine guns in Texas.

But for the most part, the trajectory of policing over the past 70 years had been toward professionalism, training and enforcement of actual laws. The memorandum did not reach all districts, and racism is still in control in too many places, from the biggest to the smallest.

Still, the pictures of a masked cop training his rifle on women in the streets last week was shocking, because we do not know our own history. We have come that far. Or maybe we only thought we had.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book Review 331: The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang

THE SILK ROAD JOURNEY WITH XUANZANG, by Sally Hovey Wriggins. 326 pages, illustrated. Westview paperback, $25

The destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan got the attention of and outraged the world in 2001. It also brought to some in the West the name of Xuanzang, famous for centuries in the East, who was the first traveler to describe the statues.

The concurrent and continuing destruction of idols in the Pacific by (mostly white) Christian missionaries is unknown to the wide world; and no doubt American Christians would not care if they did know. Some do know, and pay for it to happen.

Therein lies one difference between East and West. Xuanzang was a Buddhist missionary, one of the four most important in spreading Buddhism to China, but he was not about destroying idols. He spent 15 years collecting manuscripts and images of he Buddha in India, and back in China, with imperial favor, was involved in building pagodas, including the Big Wild Goose pagoda in Xian, still standing, to house the 500 horse loads of sacred writings he brought back.

In Sally Hovey Wriggins’s description, Xuanzang is a most attractive character, a man of intellect and of action, bold enough to defy emperors and savvy enough to negotiate with kings. Singleminded, both in his devotion to Buddhism (especially his patron Maitreya) and in his mission to find the best sources of Buddhist thought and to translate them into Chinese.

Though a partisan — he was Mahayana, and beyond that a fervent proselytizer of an Idealist school of philosophy, now extinct — he also brought back and translated other documents, both religious and secular.

His versions of the Heart and Diamond sutras are commonly known in Asia still.

Wriggins calls him the greatest traveler the world has known after ibn Battuta (a spot that might be disputed in favor of, among others, James Cook), but Battuta did not also contribute a mighty intellectual transfer that changed the future of hundreds of millions of people.

To put this in some context, Xuanyang arrived in India just as Muhammad was dying. Buddhism was more than a thousand years old and had been brought to China hundreds of years earlier; but it was in retreat in India, what are now Pakistan and Afghanistan and along the Silk Road.

Xuanzang recorded thousands of empty monasteries; all the kingdoms he visited have long since disappeared.

“The Silk Road Journey” is a bit of an odd book. The framework traces Xuanzang’s 10,000-mile journey from China to India and back, at each important node noticing the Buddhist artwork found there later by (mostly European) investigators, notably Aurel Stein. Important images are reproduced, though in small size and not in color. Along the way Wriggins inserts a small — very small — dose of Buddhist doctrine.

All in all, it makes for a readable small book, a good invitation to western-oriented readers to start familiarizing themselves with the historical personages familiar to Asians.

For Xuanzang in particular, this is made more difficult by the very large numbers of ways to spell his name in the Latin alphabet: a reader of several books who encountered Hwen Thsang, Yuan Chwang, Hieun Tsiang, Hsuan-Tsang and Xuanzang could be forgiven if he did not immediately recognize that they were all the same man. And there are other variants, too.

Witchcraft, wicked witchcraft

Look into my eyes. You can trust me

To the surprise of no one, the entrepreneurs have rushed forth with worthless Ebola fever cures and prophylactics. The Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have issued a warning against them.

The  New York Times report is unfortunately reticent about who these evil capitalists are. The FDA is restricted in what it can say by idiot congresscritters who have made the supplement business a libertarian paradise -- anything goes. But the Times is not restricted.

The Verge does a better job, at least with one particular fraud, garcinia -- and also uses the Internet in useful ways that the Times has not caught up with:

There's nothing new about companies capitalizing on fear. For every health scare, there's a bogus cure, and for every existing illness there are a ton of supplements and sham products purported to treat or prevent it. Yet there’s something particularly sinister about promoting products that can "prevent" or "treat" Ebola
(Witch cures are not exclusive to capitalism; they are universal. But capitalism is unique in having generated a political philosophy that glorifies this kind of wickedness.)

Of course, nutritional supplements are not just worthless against Ebola. They are worthless period.  Irony piles on irony here.

The US government (and news outlets of a more respectable kind) tell us we can be confident Ebola will not break loose in a country with an advanced public health system, so the damage -- other than in lightening wallets -- to Americans from taking, say, colloidal silver, is small. Yet tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars are siphoned off to crooks each year without any significant warning campaign from the overseers of public health; in fact, with the active encouragement of some crooked elected officials.

The situation is different in West Africa. There the supplement sellers, some based in America, are active participants in what should be called what it is -- cold-blooded murder for money.

This episode also has a lesson for anyone concerned about controlling health care costs. To the extent that schemes to do this rely on a better-informed citizenry, that battle has already been lost. We have known this for a long time.

In the late '70s and early '80s there was a lot of talk about transferring responsibility to the potential patient. The company I worked for went so far as to give employees a $500 health care account we could use however we chose; for example, to pay for precautionary tests not  covered by our (not especially generous) company medical insurance.

Supposedly, we would cleverly direct resources to where they would do ourselves and our families the most good. But the money was just as readily spent on quacks and worthless nostrums as on real medical care, and the experiment was quickly given up.

(An amusing, but unanticipated result arose from the fact that the company, which had a lot of family members working for it,  decreed that the $500 was per family, not per employee; so that a husband-wife pair did not get $1,000. There were enough husband-wife pairs, and there was a particular husband who was so aggrieved by the supposed unfairness of this that his bitching became a serious morale problem. But, it was soon discovered, his wife was screwing one of the men she was reporting on, so he shut up and left the paper. But by then the "medical savings accounts" were dropped anyway.)

The notion that a better-informed citizenry will use medical resources more wisely still lingers, but it is obviously fatuous. And it is not a matter of better general education. My observation is that consumption of worthless supplements goes up, not down, with greater formal education, if only because better educated people have more income, and that stuff ain't cheap.

No doubt, too, fear of Ebola will goose ammunition sales. Everything does.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

They only come out at night

People make a fuss about the long hedge of night-blooming cereus at Punahou, but there is more (much more) and bigger (much bigger) all along Baldwin Ave. Unfortunately most of it is obscured by haole koa. But the flowers are at their fabulous peak right now.

Plus, you can eat them.

This one was growing on my mailbox.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Are libertarians really as stupid as they look?

Short answer: Yes.

In the Times, Paul Krugman has a column making fun of the libertarian position, taking off from the problems caused by algae blooms in Lake Erie. It's a good column but as often happens the comments are even more enlightening.

Someone called Baron95 from the 1%er reservation of Westport, Connecticut, had this riposte:

Dr. Krugman completely misses the libertarian argument and what is actually the root of the problem.

The issue is that the government owns Lake Erie, its tributaries and the water authority.

If Lake Erie was privately owned, people would have to pay the owners to discharge items that would reduce the value of that asset - in this case water quality.

Similarly, if the water authority was privately owned, it would have a contract with the owners of lake Erie for minimum water quality, and another with its consumers. All violations would have simple economic actions, and very quickly things would settle.

For example, the owner of Lake Erie would charge more if water coming in had too much phosphorous, and charge less if it had been pre-treated.

Dr. Krugman doesn't seem to get it. A private owner will always be the one that will protect the quality of its assets the most. That is why a home owner takes better care of its home than a tenant or a rental management company.

The source of the issue is that the US, State, Local governments own more than half the land in the US. All the biggest problems, be it Lake Erie or Detroit, invariably happen on Government owned properties.
Did you catch where Baron95 shot himself in the temple? Right at the start, where he wrote "The issue is that the government owns Lake Erie. . ."

See, Lake Erie already has an owner, interested in its good health. And how does an owner like that manage its property? I see a hand in the back of the audience. Yes, by regulation. Exactly the thing that libertarians want to prevent the owner from using.

I could stop there, but let's state the obvious: Privae owners do a lousy job of protecting their own assets and are actually destructive of everybody else's assets when they get the chance, which in a libertarian world would be all the time because -- ha! gotcha! there woudn't be any effective government.

Surely you wonder if RtO can back up this broadly brushed assertion. Why, yes, yes I can.

General Motors.

Or an even better example: Kodak.

Kodak was not deterred by lack of contracts with Polaroid from stealing Polaroid's patented technology; nor did any libertarians, so quick to scold, ever complain about Kodak's highhanded and lawless behavior.

It took a long while but Polaroid, which did object, finally got some justice by -- gasp! -- invoking the assistance of government (for which it paid through taxes). And so Kodak went bust.

Luckily Polaroid was a large corporation, able to afford  to spend millions and millions of dollars and wait over 15 years for satisfaction.

You may not be a large, powerful corporation. If your property rights are abused the way Polaroid's were, will the libertarians go to bat for you? Let's put it this way: They didn't go to bat for Polaroid.


Friday, August 8, 2014

For lack of a Kurdish state

It is too, too late, but I hope (but do not expect) that Americans are wishing they had looked more favorably on the national aspirations of the Kurds than they have.

RtO has called for America to support a free and independent Great Kurdistan ever since it began in 2008. So far as I know, no one else except Kurds agrees. But consider what would be happening now if there were even a Little Kurdistan.

Well, we cannot know. Perhaps if they had attained their community interests, they would not feel like offering refuge to Christians, Shia Musims or Yazidis. They would surely be of two minds about the Shia, who have been no friends of the Kurds.

Possibly their behavior over the past 11 years has been only cynical, judging all their maneuvers according to how they thought they would play in America. They have not gained much in a positive way, but at least they have mostly managed to present themselves as less bloodthirsty and crazy and incompetent than the others in their neighborhood.

In my view, their strategy has been to avoid antagonizing the American government too much while keeping their powder dry and waiting for an opening to be created by the well-known inability of Arabs to govern anything. Just weeks ago, it looked as if their time had come.

 The Baghdad government is not functioning, and turmoil in Syria, Israel, Gaza and Egypt was occupying attention. The Kurds began grabbing for territory and consolidating a government. By sending oil to market, they forced the US government to take seriously their claims (still muted in public) to be a de facto government with substantial claims to practical ability and legitimacy.

The US government hates that.

Then something interfered. Not something unforeseen; it was almost a given. ISIL grabbed the  heavy weapons that the US had improvidently given -- didn't we learn anything in Vietnam -- to the illegiitmate, corrupt, incapable and failing pseudo-state in Baghdad.

That those weapons would never be used by the mythical Iraq army was certain. Probably the Kurds expected to get them. Too cautious because of their wariness about antagonizing the US, they were beaten to the prize by the reckless ISIL.

In anything like an equal fight, the Pesh Merga (who, let us not forget are a kind of commies) will prevail against unmotivated Iraq conscripts and timeservers wearing the uniform of the illegitimate Baghdad regime. But ISIL is as devoted as the Kurds are, so the bigger battalions prevail.

But an armed, independent Kurdistan (even Little Kurdistan) could have been an effective counter to ISIL. Whereas the central government never could have been.

Here, it is useful to restate the fundamental error of the Obama foreign policy as regards the Koran Belt (which is completely different from the Bush errors but no less damaging).

Obama bought into the fantasies of David Kilcullen, making him his unconventional warfare adviser, that religion is not important in the political calculus of the Koran Belt.

Guess what. That was completely wrong. As I said in 2009:
The so-called Awakening in Anbar came about because (we are offered a choice of two) the local tribes objected to bids from the outside Muslims to have them for sons-in-law, or they objected to having their children baked alive.
One can see why they would object to either, but it is harder to see why, up to 2007, they thought it well to ally themselves with people who baked American children. Kilcullen never explains why we should want such people on our side now (or ever) or care what happens to them. Worse, he acknowledges that the alliance of the Anbar (and similar) sheikhs with the Coalition and/or the central (not national) government of Iraq may not endure. Count on it. The sheikhs were not fighting for a unified, free and democratic state. Nothing could be less congenial to them.
As it turns out, the sheikhs joined ISIL.

What else did anyone expect?

Kilcullen was Petraeus's adviser in the Surge. It is a small mercy that the idiot could not keep it zipped up and screwed himself out of the direction of the CIA.  But his replacement has been no better, and the US is still backing ridiculous and hopeless surrogates. Did we learn nothing in Vietnam? 

Ultimate gun nuttery

 Readers outside Hawaii may or may not be aware that 2 tropical storms are heading our way (one has already passed without much impact). So people have been getting ready. Some fill water jugs and buy batteries. And some . . .
I have now seen five posts about people stocking up on ammunition for the hurricanes.
I'm gonna plant my big opinionated flag here:
If you are preparing to shoot, maim, or intimidate people who may find themselves in trouble or lacking supplies instead of trying to figure out ways you can help (even a little) your neighbors and fellow islanders - you are doing it wrong.
No not storm prep. You are doing life wrong.
That's a Facebook post by my younger daughter who lives on Oahu.

 I think she needs to get better quality friends, but I also think we need to confiscate all the guns. Because there is no way to tell who can be trusted to have one.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Old bugbears

It is amusing to watch Mauians, even newcomers, rushing to stock up on rice and toilet paper in anticipation of storms Iselle and Julio.

Buying bottled water makes no sense either.

Batteries, yes. Tank of gas? Half a tank ought to be plenty for most people. Cash? Maybe, where are you going that you will be spending money? If it really does rain 4 to 8 inches Thursday and maybe again Sunday, I am not going anywhere except in an emergency. Nor will I be calling for pizza delivery.

It's been over 20 years since we've experienced a big storm and nearly that long since even a moderately big one. With a population turnover in the neighborhood of 4% a year, probably half the people on Maui (not counting the tourists) have never been through even the outliers of a hurricane.

Stocking up on TP has more to do with memories -- second hand at that for most people -- of dock strikes over 60 years ago. Distribution methods have changed a lot since, and a TP or rice famine is hard to take seriously now.

But rushing to the stores to stock up doesn't hurt anybody and probably has more to do with socializing than real preparedness. It gives people a chance to ask each other if they are being prudent and to reassure themselves that, 1) it won't be that bad; and 2) they've done what they can (short of offering a bed indoors to a homeless person, something I haven't seen or heard any concern about, although the shelterless are one group that could have a rough time even if Iselle arrives as nothing much more than a winter windstorm).

Sustained winds of 55 mph, if that's what we are going to get, are no scarier than the usual winter nights where I live (Makawao), where 60 is common.

Should either storm turn out much worse than current forecasts (always possible, remember that the Butterfly Effect means that forecasts more than 5 days out are pretty much imaginary), or if you have the rotten luck to have a tree fall on your car in even a moderate blow, make sure your insurer will honor its contract.

After Iniki, a lot of people on Kauai and Oahu got stiffed. Amongst all the precautions I have seen being passed around, no one has mentioned that one.

And bottled water. Fill a jug from the faucet. County water is just fine.