Saturday, November 28, 2015

Who is prison for?

Whence comes this idea that prison is only for nonviolent offenders? Every week someone comes into the tool shop to tell me his tools were stolen (sometimes along with his truck sometimes just the tools). That can have serious consequences for the victim. It can make him homeless.

It doesn't matter whether drugs were involved or not, although often they were.

Property criminals are like rats: they destroy 10 times as much as they eat.

Is prison the only way to get property criminals off the street? Sometimes, for sure.

I had been thinking about a post on this subject for some time, as there was a spate of reports about long terms of imprisonment in the weeks before the president announced plans for early release of some drug criminals. This unperceptive op-ed in the Washington Post pushed me to go ahead and write.

I have nothing to say, right now, about drug laws as such, only about a baseline assumption that only violence is deserving of imprisonment.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Death score: Rightwing bigots 3; Syrian refugees 0

According to early reports.

I went shopping for a Christmas tree today. There were Air Police patrolling the tree lot armed with M16s and automatic pistols. I did not feel safer.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Biscuit tortoni

After a heavy Thanksgiving feast of creamed vegetables, dressing, etc., finishing with a heavy dessert (pumpkin pie, pecan pie) seems like a poor idea. Try this:

Biscuit (pronounced like bisque the soup) Tortoni 

This used to be on the menu of every Italian restaurant in New York City but for some reason has disappeared. An additional reason for making it part of the Thanksgiving table is that it is easy to make and scalable. It takes about the same effort to make biscuit Tortona for 50 as for 4.

My recipe follows that of Colette Black in her “Southern Italian Cook Book.” I learn from the Internet that there are extravagantly complicated versions involving making a custard or using marzipan, or easy versions made with ice cream. But Black’s version has the virtues of ease, simplicity and elegance. Hers does not need to be topped with a maraschino cherry.

For 6 or 8 people:

Whip a cup or so of heavy cream. I use a hand whisk rubbed back and forth between the palms. This is easy, gets your heart pumping and allows more control over how firm the cream gets than using a power mixer.

Blend in powdered sugar, any amount but less is more here.

Separate 1 or 2 eggs, whip whites till silky and very firm.

Toast a handful of almonds. If you start with whole almonds, boil water, pour over almonds, pour off water after 30-45 seconds, then pop off the skins. Toast almonds at 325 degrees for 5 minutes or less, then grind.

Combine cream, egg, almonds and add half teaspoon vanilla and a teaspoon to a tablespoon of sweet Marsala, sherry or Madeira. (Marsala is authentically Italian.)

Put 1 to 2 heaping tablespoons in ramekins or (preferred) paper cupcake cups. Freeze.

Most recipes say to defrost for 20 minutes prior to serving, but I prefer biscuit Tortona frozen almost hard. Defrost just a few minutes.

Frozen biscuit Tortoni goes perfectly with hot coffee, garnished with a cookie (Amaretto or a Chinese almond cookie). Or serve wth a fruit liqueur like framboise or maraschino.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


I saved this Washington Post story from Saturday in case it turned out to be correct, which it did.
If Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wins today's runoff election for governor of Louisiana, it will be the second time in a month that a Republican defied public polls to walk into a state house. But it would be the first time an election clearly turned on the issue of Syrian refugees being allowed into the United States -- and it would overcome the almost unheard-of factor of an incumbent governor apparently trying to sink his own party's nominee.
In Louisiana, it's an open secret that Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) concluded a years-long blood feud with Vitter by ending his presidential campaign on Tuesday.
If you haven't read Harnett Kane's "Huey Long's Louisiana Hayride: The American Rehearsal for Dictatorship 1928-1940" I urge you to do so. 

There are lots of lessons to be learned from Long's career, not least that ordinary people take democracy, if not exactly seriously, then to heart sometimes. Long was not at all a product of the famously baroque upper class politics of New Orleans.

He derived from the rednecks in Winn Parish -- locally known as the Free State of Winn -- up in the piney woods, geographically and spiritually closer to Arkansas and east Texas than to New Orleans -- and today, to the Tea Party.  He was much like Donald Trump.

He is why I do not think Trump cannot get the Republican nomination. Franklin Roosevelt, whose political instincts were seldom wrong, was frightened of Long. The tendency of historians has been to think that Roosevelt overreacted, that Long would not have had staying power.

Maybe not, but barely six years after Long was shot to death Joe McCarthy -- who frightened Eisenhower -- tapped the same vein, and 12 years after McCarthy drank himself to death, Richard Nixon -- who frightened me -- tapping the same vein, was elected president.

There's a dark stratum in democracy. The men who operate most successfully in it are sociopaths with personally destructive tendencies, but we cannot count on their always imploding to save the republic.



Saturday, November 21, 2015

Syria's Gordian knot

The Washington Post's David Ignatius has a piece on getting the factions in Syria to agree to   a cease-fire, as prelude to a breakup of monolithic Syria into a "more federal" system of cantons.

It might be nice if the TP and rightwing crazies read this piece, not to get them to agree with it, but to introduce them to the notion that politics there is complicated.

(More complicated than even Ignatius lets on; the problem of Syria/Lebanon, whether they are one country or two, remains.)

Well, RtO thinks this part is a non-starter:

Diplomats have also discussed ways to get Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias out of Syria. One approach would allow the regime to get support from foreign militaries, such as Russia’s, or even Iran’s, to support the regime, but not foreign militias. The Syrians and Iranians are said to be willing to consider such a formula
Not because it's a bad idea (although it might be at that), but can you imagine the howls of rage from the Republicans? Of course you can.

As we learned this past week, the factions in Syria are sweet reasonableness itself compared to the crazies in the American rightwing.

Now that the Republicans have come into the open with their racism, bigotry and fascism, at least we do not have to argue about whether they are racists, bigots and fascists. They say so themseleves. Case closed.

SIDELIGHT: It was a tempest in a teapot, but the mayor of a small southern city, Roanoke, came out on the bigots side, but after getting schooled by, among many others, the daughter of my former Maui News colleague Gary Kubota, he changed his mind. He learned something.

This would hardly be worth mentioning except for one thing. He's a Democrat. You cannot name a Republican who's learned anything from this national embarassment.

I wouldn't bet many nickels that Ignatius's optimism is warranted, but this negotiation interests RtO because of one of RtO's persistent themes (along with the succculence of greasy pork): the moral and political desirability of America's backing a free and independent Great Kurdistan.

To get this will require the breakup of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. We are halfway to that goal already, thanks to Bush II. If Syria is modified into more or less self-governing cantons, one will be Kurdish. And then the cantonal government can coordiante with what is already a pseudo or de facto Kurdish province in what used to be Iraq.

Little by little. I don't think I will live to see a Great Kurdistan, but I can see its stirrings of emergence.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Book Review 357: 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 lead him to 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 by the body.

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.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

The insanity of the gold standard

I did not hear the debates, so I was not aware till today that the Republicans have seriously started pushing for a gold dollar. Crazy.

Two articles (the one in the Atlantic has a link to a more extensive background piece) on why this is nuts are worth reading, if you don't already see the problem.

The real problem is not mentioned in either of the articles, though both are fine as far as they go. Today, there is so much commerce that there is not nearly enough gold to support it. This has been a problem even in the past when economic life was much more restricted.

But in a world of 8 billion people, most of whom get most of their income from commerce and not personal production, there just isn't enough gold to give each one a doubloon.

UPDATE: I see Krugman has joined in.

The interesting question is what will happen to monetary policy if a Republican wins next year’s election. As best as I can tell, most economists believe that it’s all talk, that once in the White House someone like Mr. Rubio or even Mr. Cruz would return to Bush-style monetary pragmatism. Financial markets seem to believe the same. At any rate, there’s no sign in current asset prices that investors see a significant chance of the catastrophe that would follow a return to gold.
But I wouldn’t be so sure. True, a new president who looked at the evidence and listened to the experts wouldn’t go down that path. But evidence and expertise have a well-known liberal bias.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tradition, TRADITION!

Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
Tradition, tradition! Tradition! (Tevye, in "Fiddler on the Roof")
 I love Christmas traditions.  The ceremonial Condemnation of the Fruitcake. The Maxing of the Last Credit Card. The Mysterious Expensive Christmas Card (Father: Who the hell are Maxine and Floyd in -- looks at envelope -- Columbus, Ohio?).

For an old newspaperman like me, a cherished Christmas tradition is the First Report of a Senseless Holiday Homicide coming over the AP wire (usually something like "Man beats brother to death with unopened can of Stokely-Van Camp Pork 'n' Beans during drunken argument on Thanksgiving afternoon").

But when in the name of sweet baby Jesus did Snowflakes on a Starbucks Cup become a cherished Christmas tradition?

This is -- no lie -- one of a series of emails I've been getting from Christian bigots:

 "Faith Driven Consumer’s #ChristmasBUYcott scores first victory as Dunkin’ Donuts sends clear “we want your business” message to faith community; yesterday, FDC called on 41 Million Faith Driven Consumers to BUYcott—proactively spend their $30 Billion Christmas budget with the most faith-compatible brands"

The "war on Christmas" bigots are both stupid and offensive and -- judging by my Facebook feed last year -- a lot more prevalent than you'd like to think, though I hope (perhaps naively) that they are still in a minority.

Merely stupid is the used gum tradition at Pike Place Market. And, heaven help us, according to Wikipedia also in San Francisco. What is it with these liberals?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Review 356: British Battleships of World War II

BRITISH BATTLESHIPS OF WORLD WAR II, by Alan Raven and John Roberts. 435 pages, illustrated. Naval Institute

General Billy Mitchell has come close to mythic status as the glamorous and visionary airman who preached the future of airpower to an unready America but was sacrificed to the outdated prejudices of the “gun club” admirals of a hidebound Navy.

The real story is that Mitchell was a charlatan, one among a flock of memorable con artists like Charles Ponzi, Wilson and Addison Mizner, Calvin Coolidge, Aimee Semple MacPherson and  Irving Fisher who helped make the ’20s the “era of wonderful nonsense” (the phrase is from Frederick Lewis Allen, who watched it unfold).

The fact is, no battleship was ever sunk — or even inconvenienced — by aerial bombing of the kind preached by Mitchell, and the reasons become apparent in Alan Raven and John Roberts’ “British Battleships of World War II,” although they never mention Mitchell’s name. They do refer to him, contemptuously.

Except for the sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, no American battleship was ever sunk by any means.

British big gun ships had a harder time of it, and of the 15 the Royal Navy had at the opening of the war, 5 were sunk (two by submarine, one by gunfire, one by aerial torpedoes and one by a mine); and of the 4 commissioned during the war, 1 was sunk (by aerial torpedoes). Others were damaged and out of service for long periods, but never by Mitchell-style bombing. (Before Pearl Harbor, the United States violated neutrality by repairing several Royal Navy battleships, and without that help the British navy would have been in serious trouble in 1942.)

However, of the 6 that were sunk, 2 were battlecruisers that by design sacrificed the protection that made battleships so tough in order to get speed. The theme of Raven and Roberts is the struggle to balance protection, armament and speed for the most effective ship.

The British considered their ships were the best balanced, with the American ships underprotected and the Japanese overgunned. (The Italian battleships were well balanced but not well used and 3 of 5 were sunk.)

The puzzle was made less tractable by the naval treaties engineered by the antimilitary Republican presidents of the ‘20s, which left the British with old ships except for two. Despite some reconstruction (described in great detail in the book),  the Royal Navy entered the war with only 7 battleships that were up-to-date, and none sufficiently armed to cope with dive bombers (which had not been invented when Mitchell ran his fraudulent demonstrations off the Virginia Capes).
Unlike the flyboys, who sold moonshine, the navies of all the powers capable of building a battleship (UK, USA, France, Germany, USSR, Italy and Japan) were using a sophisticated form of what was later to be called operational research to evaluate designs. They were handicapped by an absence of any fighting to provide a final test, but the battleships of World War II were highly capable fighting machines, though very expensive.

Up to 1943, gun club fighting was significant for Britain, in part because aviation was not yet advanced enough to attack warships; not to mention the fact that in the North Atlantic and Arctic, several important battles were fought a night or in weather that was too bad for planes to fly at all. Radar, not pilots in silk scarves, changed that.

“British Battleships” is well-documented, well illustrated and well argued, except for one odd lapse.

The Royal Navy had developed excellent 15-inch guns by 1915 but for complicated reasons that   are explained in the book, it reduced the caliber of the guns in its modern King George V class to 14-inch.

There were only two fights in which the 14-inch guns were crucial: the first encounter with the German Bismarck and the Battle of North Cape. The authors inexplicably declare that the teething troubles experienced by the new (not fully completed) HMS Prince of Wales vs. Bismarck had been corrected by the time HMS King George V fought at North Cape. This is incorrect. King George V won that battle but it had serious problems with its guns.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Peak meddling

The New York attorney general is investigating whether ExxonMobile misled investors in its securities filings over the risks from climate change to the success of its investments.

I do not know Eric Schneiderman, but somehow I suspect that concern for the bank balances of ExxonMobile shareholders like me is not what's motivating him.

However, my first reaction was the same as with all discussions of the business risks sections of  annual 10K reports: Corporate managers do not like the idea of honestly revealing the risks they understand their businesses to be facing and so have taken to stuffing this section with every imaginable piece of obvious, stultifying garbage, so that only someone with lots of time on his hands will read through them. And despite an SEC rule that "climate risk" be considered, someone named Lawrence Taylor (not the retired linebacker) has determined that three out of four do not mention it.

Gee. Possibly they consider it less of a threat than, say, "our future business results also depend on our ability to manage successfully those factors that are at least in part within our control." (From Exxon's latest report.)

Here, by the way, is what Exxon has to say about climate risk:
Climate change and greenhouse gas restrictions. Due to concern over the risk of climate change, a number of countries have adopted, or are considering the adoption of, regulatory frameworks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These include adoption of cap and trade regimes, carbon taxes, restrictive permitting, increased efficiency standards, and incentives or mandates for renewable energy. These requirements could make our products more expensive, lengthen project implementation times, and reduce demand for hydrocarbons, as well as shift hydrocarbon demand toward relatively lower-carbon sources such as natural gas. Current and pending greenhouse gas regulations may also increase our compliance costs, such as for monitoring or sequestering emissions.
Funny, nothing about the next ice age, which is nearly certain although when is hard to say.

This looks like a waste of public resources. The fraud cops might find more productive targets at, oh, I don't know,  Mannatech (which is a much worse offender than Exxon in the obfuscation game; Exxon's 10-K is actually pretty good in the risk outlook section).

It takes a while to find, but Mannatech did warn that "scandals within the industries in which we operate" could adversely affect its business, and, lo and behold, unlike global warming or Obama's declaration of martial law, this one did happen.

 Only the risk turned out golden, so far.

It turns out that predicting the future is really hard.

Comment of the Week

From a Facebook site that my daughter often links to -- We Love GMOs and Vaccines -- someone named Jeph Hurley writes:

There's no better quick and dirty test to tell how first world end of the spectrum you are than by how severely you apply the precautionary principle.
 Someone named Jay Turetzky added:

 I wonder if people realize that this quote applies to some other highly publicized debates as well...