Monday, October 30, 2006

So Close, But Yet...

"This sounds a lot like Cat Stevens. What's his name now? Yusuf... Israel."

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Understanding Trademark Law

So if I understand this correctly, it's okay to talk about the yahoos at Google, but not to mention the Googles at Yahoo!.

Thinking vs. Doing

Over at MedRants, rcentor has an interesting post,
We live in a society that has a love hate relationship with thinking. Geeks are chic, but usually at a distance. We rarely show intellectuals the respect they deserve.

We all want the benefits if great thinking, but I fear that most in our society do not really respect the thinkers. We clearly respect the doers.

Perhaps that is why fees for surgery and procedures exceed fees for thinking. Cognition makes one a nerd.
Needless to say, this emphasis on "doing" extends well beyond the world of medical reimbursement.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bipartisanship as an Inevitability?

I keep hearing talking heads declare that even if the Democrats win majorities in both the House and Senate, they will have to seek "bipartisan compromise" in order to navigate past Republicah filibusters or save themselves from Bush's veto pen. Oh, really?

What if the Democratic Party passes legislation that is popular with the public, even if it goes against Bush's policies. Let's say, for example, that a significant majority of the public supports broad federal funding for stem cell research or an increased minimum wage. Or allocation of a greater portion of "homeland security" funds to states and cities which are at the greatest risk. They pass the legislation. Is this really the type of legislation which the Republicans in the Senate are going to filibuster? And although GW can't run again, does he want his legacy to be that of an (unpopular) President who vetoes (popular) legislation? Does the Republican Party want to run its 2008 Presidential campaign on that foundation?

In this era where "bipartisanship" has often been defined as "accepting scraps from the table of the majority party", there is room for some turnabout.

... But How Unfair Is It?

Listening to George Bush recently, it's interesting to hear how six years of experience have made him a much better public speaker. I'm still not buying the sales pitch, reminiscent of a famous SNL skit about Reagan, that he's somehow astonishingly brilliant and articulate in person but somehow loses his magic whenever he's in the presence of an electronic recording device. But there may be reasons why that might appear to be the case.

Over at Fragmenta Philosphica, Paul Craddick recently related an insult issued by Christopher Hitchens to Bill Maher's "Real Time" audience for laughing at jokes about Bush's intelligence. The insult, more or less, was "If you laugh at jokes about Bush being stupid, you're stupid." As I've noted in the past, and this hasn't changed, I'm still waiting to be impressed by Hitchens. Unless I'm supposed to find it sufficient that he comes up with witty insults and uses them to avoid substantive debate - he's good at that.
You know what I think? - this is now the joke that stupid people laugh at. It's the joke that any dumb person can laugh at because they think that they ... can prove they're smarter than the president (like the people that make booing and mooing noises in your audience ... none of whom are smarter than the president).
But how fair is his comment? I think jokes over Bush's intelligence are tired and overdone, but what about jokes about what Bush is saying? Jon Stewart's jokes on the Daily Show tend not to be "Bush is stupid" as such, but tend to be a reductio ad absurdem where he plays a Bush quote and adds a few extra lines to highlight the problems with a position Bush has taken. Sure, the jokes depict Bush as stupid, but primarily as a consequence of his making public pronouncements that are absurd and very much deserving of ridicule.

Here's a slightly different spin on it - Bush talks down to the American public, spinning carefully scripted and packaged positions which are designed to advance his agenda while satisfying the largest possible number of likely Republican voters. If you accept that he believes what he is saying, some of those positions can make him seem stupid. This can even help explain some of the "he's wonderfully articulate in private" contradictions. In a private, off-the-record moment he is freed from his script and can actually address the facts and issues as opposed to hiding behind insipid sound bites. (Surely he does have a better plan for Iraq than "adapt to win", even if that's all he seems to say when asked about the situation in public.)

When you choose a "man of the people, blue collar, weekend cowboy, guy you want to have a beer with after work" image, you're fashioning a persona that will come across as less erudite than that of, well, the sort of guy who might make a documentary about global warming. And if you choose to take public positions on issues which are at significant odds with the facts and with science, even if you're smart enough to know better than to believe yourself, you bear significant responsibility for how that makes you look in the eyes of others. As politically brilliant as it may have been for him to adopt a public persona that can appear credible to a majority of Americans even as he openly rejects logic, fact and science, those positions make him an appropriate target for criticism - and for jokes.

If it's just play-acting then yes, it's not proof of itself that the people who think they are smarter than Bush are in fact smarter, and I would venture that Hitchens is correct that many are not (although "all" is an overstatement). It's a bit like thinking you're smarter than Michael Richards because your knowledge of him is limited to his Seinfeld character, Kramer. Perhaps Hitchens should try a different tack - rather than once again insulting people who disagree with him, perhaps he should instead attempt to convince Bush to break from from character. (The problem with that? Once the public knows you're intelligent, you can't go back.)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

I've Been Traveling, So I Must Have Missed It....

What's the official explanation for the frequent announcement at Detroit Metro Airport that the terrorism alert has been raised to orange? You would think there would be useful information here, but... no.
The United States government threat level remains at Code Orange, or High for all domestic and international flights. The ban on liquids and gels in carry on baggage remains in full effect. Nationally, in other sectors, the threat level remains at Code Yellow, or Elevated.
I will give TSA credit for this - they are diligent about rounding up those rogue tubes of toothpaste and cosmetics.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Non-Proliferation Silliness

Charles Krauthammer today suggests how we can keep North Korea from proliferating nuclear weapons:
This is how you keep Kim Jong Il from proliferating. Make him understand that his survival would be hostage to the actions of whatever terrorist group he sold his weapons to. Any terrorist detonation would be assumed to have his address on it. The United States would then return postage. Automaticity of this kind concentrates the mind.

This policy has a hitch, however. It works only in a world where there is but a single rogue nuclear state. Once that club expands to two, the policy evaporates, because a nuclear terror attack would no longer have a single automatic return address.
Given Pakistan's proliferation of nuclear technology, including the sale of technology to North Korea, doesn't that caveat make this proposal a non-starter? (Would he have us assume that such technology sales will never happen again?)

Further, why should we automatically assume North Korean involvement when our technology allows us to pinpoint the source of plutonium used even after a nuclear blast? Attacking North Korea for a different nation's carelessness with or sale of its nuclear technology offers no deterrent value whatsoever.

Also, what are we going to do to North Korea? There are perfectly valid reasons why, as Krauthammer previously acknowledged, the U.S. doesn't want to launch "a second Korean War", let alone one which would "presumably [involve] in-kind nuclear retaliation". I'm sure South Korea and China would be thrilled with that proposal.

Am I the only one who scratches his head a bit when people who tell us how horrible it would be if a "rogue nation" obtained nuclear weapons don't even take a breath before arguing that it would be an appropriate military response to "nuke the desert to glass" or "nuke their country into a parking lot" if they cross certain lines? I didn't hear that particular argument from Krauthammer in response to "what if Iraq uses biological weapons or poison gas against U.S. troops" - apparently for him somebody must actually use nuclear weapons before a nuclear response should be "presumed". But I still have this vision of him sitting on the bomb as it falls from the sky, waving his cowboy hat in the air.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Even a Flat Earth Has Speedbumps

Today, safely behind the firewall, Thomas Friedman laments that the "post-cold war" seemingly ended two days ago, with North Korea's test of a nuclear bomb. Dare I ask, where has he been for the last five years?
This post-post-cold-war era will be defined by three new features — if things continue as they are. First is a nuclear Asia, triggered by North Korea’s flaunting of its nuclear weapons. How long will Japan, Taiwan and South Korea remain nonnuclear with Kim Jong-il brandishing his bomb? Second is a nuclear Middle East. Iran is almost certain to follow North Korea’s lead, and once the Shiite Persians in Iran have the bomb, how long will it be before the Sunni Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even Syria have one too? Third is a disintegrating Iraq in the heart of the Arab world, with its destabilizing impact on oil prices and terrorism.
Okay... for that "first" thing, giving all due consideration to the fact that I may have been looking at a globe as opposed to a flat map, to this point I had been under the impression that India and Pakistan were in Asia. That India went nuclear first, inspiring Pakistan to follow its lead. And in terms of nuclear proliferation, I had been under the impression that Pakistan has had a thing or two to do with the spread of nuclear weapons technology, including to North Korea. So in the post-cold war area in which Friedman sees India as a leader in peaceful economic development, he should also consider its role in expanding the "nuclear club" and in undermining non-proliferation. It's not a question of whether we trust India with the bomb, are suspicious of Pakistan, and are aghast at the notion of of a nuclear-armed North Korea. It's a matter of whether or not we truly stand for nuclear non-proliferation.

That's where point two comes in. If Iran develops nuclear arms, Friedman argues, it's only a matter of time before the other Arab states get them as well. As if it's that easy, particularly now that Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist no longer selling its arms technology. Friedman neglects to mention the elephant in the living room - the one nation in the Middle East with nuclear weapons technology - or the complicity of the U.S. in helping it become a nuclear power with some of the most advanced nuclear weapons in the world. But no... it couldn't be that Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would want nuclear weapons because Israel has them. I'm sure that doesn't even occur to them - it's all about keeping up with Iran.

The point again isn't whether or not we trust Israel with nuclear weapons more than we would trust any other Middle Eastern nation with them. We obviously, and quite reasonably, do. But if we are going to pretend that a non-nuclear Middle East is necessary to maintain peace for that region and for the world, and if we're going to acknowledge that nations will attempt to develop nuclear arms if a regional adversary already possesses nuclear arms, we can't ignore Israel. Just as you can't be "a little bit pregnant", you can't be "a little bit for non-proliferation". We either have proliferation or we don't. Friedman's implicit defense to why it's okay for Israel, Pakistan and India to possess nukes, but not North Korea or Iran, seems to be "that's different". And you know what? There are very real facts which make it different, and make their possession of nuclear arms less of a present or probable future threat, but it's still proliferation.

Friedman also proposes a solution... for Iran and North Korea.
Unless China and Russia get their act together and understand that the post-post-cold-war world is a much bigger threat to their prosperity than a post-cold-war world in which U.S. power is pre-eminent. You read me right — the post-cold-war world can be preserved only if Russia and China get over their ambivalence about U.S. power and if the Bush team gets over its ambivalence about Iran and North Korea.

How so? The U.S. is sanctioned out when it comes to Iran and North Korea. We don’t have any more unilateral sanctions with which to pressure either regime to halt its nuclear adventure. The only countries that could have an impact on North Korea and Iran are China and Russia.
Unfortunately, Mr. Friedman is not able to articulate a plan to save Iraq.

In Mr. Friedman's "flat" world, it would appear that he believes national interests are also "flat" - that is, he seems to believe that all nations fear equally the prospect of a nuclear armed North Korea, and that all nations have an equal interest in preventing North Korea and Iran from gaining nuclear weapons technology. He may be pretty close to correct with regard to North Korea, but I'm not so sure about Iran. Also, while Mr. Friedman depicts Europe as spineless for not already joining the U.S. in its sanctions against Iran, exactly what is he proposing? At one moment he's lamenting that disruptions in the world's oil supply are bringing an end to the post-cold war era. In the next he seems to be proposing an embargo against Iranian oil. Or perhaps he has a clever (yet secret) plan to have the world continue to buy Iranian oil, yet somehow preventing Iran from spending its cash.

Let's give Friedman his wish - we'll pretend that diplomacy and national interests are now flat, and that Russia and China see nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea in the same light as does the United States. Mr. Friedman uses the term "sanctions" as if it represents a magic bullet - but how often do they actually work? And what sanctions could conceivably work against a nation like North Korea?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Difficult Parents

An editorial in the Washington Post about overmedicating children reminds me of a documentary I saw a decade or so ago.
But setting aside the children with legitimate mental illnesses who must have psychiatric medications to function normally, much of the increase in prescribing such medications to kids is due to the widespread use of psychiatric diagnoses to explain away the results of poor parenting practices. According to psychiatrist Jennifer Harris, quoted in the January/February issue of Psychotherapy Networker, "Many clinicians find it easier to tell parents their child has a brain-based disorder than to suggest parenting changes."
The documentary was about a "difficult child" whose parents had agreed to have hidden cameras placed in their house such that their interaction with their child could be monitored. I believe that the parents were also being given some coaching on how to be better parents, but in the scene I recall none of those lessons had held - a rather atrocious two-on-one verbal bullying of the child resulted in an outburst of bad behavior by the child. The voiceover then explained, rather than how bad parenting can trigger bad behavior, that it's "hard to be a parent for a difficult child". (I think it's probably harder to be the child of difficult parents.)
Parents need to be more careful with whom they entrust their child's mental health care. Doctors need to take the time to understand their pediatric patients better and have the courage to deliver the bad news that sometimes a child's disruptive, aggressive and defiant behavior is due to poor parenting, not to a chemical imbalance such as bipolar disorder or ADHD.
Sure, but as the author previously indicated, many parents will respond to such news by getting the "help they want" somewhere else - that is, a doctor or counselor who will blame the kid and, increasingly, recommend medication.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

New Policy?

According to Reuters,
Summoning reporters as U.S. lawmakers were beginning another investigation of the case that has sparked a political firestorm four weeks before critical U.S. elections, House Speaker Dennis Hastert planned to outline proposed reforms, the aides said.
I can only imagine..... "Our new policy is that, when presented with information upon which it is obvious that we should take immediate action, next time we promise to stand up to the staffers who to this date have blocked us at every turn. We're calling them 'staffers' because it would be gay-basing to call them gay. But they are. Staffers."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Who's Responsible For That Exit Strategy?

From The American Conservative:
It is idle to discuss the administration’s refusal to recognize failure in Iraq and its insistence on the goal of victory as if this represented a serious military strategy or foreign-policy plan. “Victory” is not really defined and cannot be. Virtually all the concrete goals of the original Bright Promise of Victory in Iraq propaganda have already been tacitly abandoned and are no longer mentioned. * * * Against this lurid background Bush & Co. challenge the Democrats: if you are serious, show us your plan for meeting these dangers, solving these problems, and avoiding these disasters while getting us out of Iraq.

It is easy to show how absurd in logic and fact this demand is. It is like insisting that a man who shows you that your $100 bill is counterfeit owes you a real one, or—to use Molly Ivins’s illustration—to argue that those who warned against hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick must now, after the administration has done so and caused the hornets to swarm and attack everywhere, either propose a concrete plan for getting the hornets back into the nest or else join in efforts to kill them with the stick. Worst of all, the demand calls on others to solve the problem the Bush administration created while rejecting the fundamental condition for any solution, a recognition that wrong policy and failed leadership created the problem and that both must first be changed.
HT: Eunomia

Sunday, October 01, 2006

No Child Left Behind, eh?

Let's see.... If you combine the following elements:
  • A big government solution which uses conditions on federal funding to restrict local options;
  • The imposition of a set of options which are not scientifically validated; and
  • The exclusion of options and existing programs which are scientifically validated
while simultaneously lining the pockets of government insiders.... Well, you have "business as usual" for the Bush Administration. But if you actually care about childhood education and literacy, the Bush Administration's application of "business as usual" to elementary school reading programs should give you pause.