Archive for June 2011
A skinny tan mocha, please. No whipped cream.
Is WC the only one who sees a striking similarity between a classic scene in Blazing Saddles and GOP tactics on the federal debt ceiling?
You’ll recall the newly appointed black sheriff Bart is threatened by the town folk of Rock Ridge with lynching. He resorts to desperate (and politically incorrect) measures, points his own pistol to his head:
Bart: [low voice] Hold it! Next man makes a move, the nigger gets it!
Olson Johnson: Hold it, men. He’s not bluffing.
Dr. Sam Johnson: Listen to him, men. He’s just crazy enough to do it!
Bart: [low voice] Drop it! Or I swear I’ll blow this nigger’s head all over this town!
Bart: [high-pitched voice] Oh, lo’dy, lo’d, he’s desp’it! Do what he sayyyy, do what he sayyyy!
[Townspeople drop their guns. Bart jams the gun into his neck and drags himself through the crowd towards the station]
Harriet Johnson: Isn’t anybody going to help that poor man?
Dr. Sam Johnson: Hush, Harriet! That’s a sure way to get him killed!
Bart: [high-pitched voice] Oooh! He’p me, he’p me! Somebody he’p me! He’p me! He’p me! He’p me!
Bart: [low voice] Shut up!
[Bart places his hand over his own mouth, then drags himself through the door into his office]
Bart: Ooh, baby, you are so talented!
[looks into the camera]
Bart: And they are so *dumb*!
The GOP is holding a pistol to its head, threatening to blow up the U.S. economy if the GOP doesn’t get its way and is forced to compromise on taxes. One move, the Republicans in the U.S. House are saying, and the economy gets its brains blown out.
The only question is whether the voters are as dumb as the town folk of Rock Ridge.
Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1996)
Bad news. The Apocalypse is coming. Soon. Luckily, Heaven and Hell have left the business with the Anti-Christ in the hands of Crowley and Aziraphale, demon and angel respectively. They have accidentally misplaced the Anti-Christ and pretty much decided they really like humanity a lot more than their either of their bosses. As you might expect, their bosses are looking for them.
In the first edition, the full title of this book was “The Nice & Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.” “Nice,” in this context, meaning precisely correct. Because Agnes saw it all coming, from her being burned alive as a witch to the air force base where Armageddon will begin (“Peas is our professiune.”). Agnes, her descendant, Anathema, the Four Horseman – Horsepersons – and the Other Four Horseman (a different chapter of Hell’s Angels); it all comes together with the serried ranks of angels and demons gathered overhead.
Yes, this is an hysterically funny book. A satire and a parody, it lampoons everything in sight. From Elvis sightings to televangelists to the destruction of all intelligent life (“nothing left but dust and fundamentalists.”), little escapes the scathing wit of Gaiman and Pratchett.
Of course the demon, Crowley, drives a 1926 Bentley. Of course any tape left in its glove box for more than two weeks turns into something by Queen. Of course the flaming sword used by War is delivered to her by International Express. And what happens to the telephone solicitor, Lisa Morrow? Come on now, you secretly thought all telephone solicitors deserved it, right?
In the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain, the satire makes a point. That point may be unpalatable to the religiously inflexible, or to those whose sense of righteousness hampers their sense of humor. Critics of Swift and Twain would find much to criticize in Good Omens. But Pratchett and Gaiman demonstrate that we don’t need Heaven or Hell to have Good and Evil in the world; we have all we need in ourselves. It’s the humanity of Adam Young, the Adversary, the Angel of the Bottomless Pit, etc., it’s his human-ness that ultimately makes all the difference.
Don’t read this book in bed; you’ll keep your spouse awake, laughing out loud. But there’s nothing else bad that can be said about it. Ineffability may be beyond our understanding, but humor, even humor in the face of the End of the World, we can understand.
Try this book. WC predicts, with Agnes, you’ll like it.
As most readers know, the Affordable Care Act is under sustained legal attack in at least four federal court districts. To this point, the decisions had all been by U.S . District Judges; interesting, but not authoritative.
Today, the first court of appeals decision was announced. While everyone thinks that ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of health care reform, unless and until the high court does, the federal court of appeals decisions are very important. And not just because the U.S. Supreme Court has to take those intermediate court decisions into account.
The Sixth Circuit out of the midwest ruled the Affordable Health Care Act constitutional today. A three judge panel – two Republican appointees and one Democrat appointee – found unanimously that the Commerce Clause empowered Congress to take the actions that it did. The 64-page opinion is straight up; there’s no legal games being played. The law is held up against precedent and found to be constitutional. It will be interesting to see how the opinions that are expected soon from panels in the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., and the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta are affected by their Sixth Circuit cousins.
But the first round goes to the rule of law.
Robert Parry argues that since the early 1990s, the Republican strategy for dealing with Democratic presidents has come the CIA manual on destabilization of foreign regimes. His premise:
Modern Republicans have a simple approach to politics when they are not in the White House: Make America as ungovernable as possible by using almost any means available, from challenging the legitimacy of opponents to spreading lies and disinformation to sabotaging the economy.
He holds up Nixon and Kissinger’s destablization and alleged assassination of Chile’s Salvadore Allende as an example:
Indeed, if one were to step back and assess this Republican approach, what you would see is something akin to how the CIA has destabilized target countries, especially those that seek to organize themselves in defiance of capitalist orthodoxy. To stop this spread of “socialism,” nearly anything goes. Take, for example, Chile in the early 1970s when socialist President Salvador Allende won an election and took steps aimed at improving the conditions of the country’s poor.
He points to the tactics on Clinton’s election, and the striking similarity to the Right’s tactics following Obama’s election. He points to the utter deference in the face of George W. Bush’s repeated catastrophic decisions. His conclusion:
The hard reality in the United States today is that the Republicans and the Right are now fully organized, armed with a potent propaganda machine and possessing an extraordinary political will. They are well-positioned to roll the U.S. economy off the cliff and blame the catastrophe on Obama.
it’s a long leap from the ability to vote as a block, as the Republicans in the House and the Senate usually do, to Machiavellian schemes lifted from the mind of Henry Kissinger. WC’s not prepared to go that far. It’s also a stretch to attribute every stone in the road for non-Repblicans as a giant conspiracy. The Democrats are perfectly capable of tossing rocks at their own house. But WC acknowledges the temptation to believe is there.
WC has had a couple of requests for additional recommended reading. Rather than be topical, WC has some suggestions from the roots of science fiction and fantasy, works that were seminal, and hugely influential, but are now mostly forgotten.
William Morris, The Well at the World’s End (1896) (Amazon link) (Gutenberg link). William Morris may have been the last Renaissance Man. Artist, philosopher, politician, utopian and, as this marvelous book demonstrates, epic romanticist. The Well at the World’s End was very nearly the first of its kind, an epic romance filled with magic, intrigue, guile, love, sex and long journeys to strange places. Plainly, these are the elements of three-quarters of modern fantasy. But Morris did it first, and he did it very, very well (sorry). Ralph of Upmeads is the youngest son of a king. The king of a very small, but very real kingdom. He runs away, but as he runs away his godmother gives him a simple necklace with a bead on it. And, all unknowingly, his path is then destined to the Well at the World’s End. Along the way he has adventures that have since been copied or simply stolen by Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, Mercedes Lackey and most everyone else. But Morris did it first.
David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) (Amazon link) (Gutenberg link). This is Calvinist mysticism, written on the boundary between fantasy and science fiction, and qualifies as one of the strangest tales you are likely to ever read. As the protagonist, Maskull, tries to understand the layers of deception in a world where the struggle between good and evil is real as rain, you will never, ever be able to predict what will happen next.
Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1950) (Amazon link). This novel by the late Walter M. Miller, Jr. is an astonishing meditation on religion and science, set across a the centuries following a nuclear war. The story opens with a novice monk’s accidental excavation of a possible holy artifact: a creased, brittle memo scrawled by the hand of the blessed Saint Leibowitz himself, that reads: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels–bring home for Emma.” To the Brothers of Saint Leibowitz, this proof of the existence of their founder sets in motion an astonishing chain of events. Delightful and sobering, much of the scholarly wing of science fiction owes a lot to Miller.
Jack Vance, The Lyonesse Trilogy (1983-1991). WC has saved the best for last. Vance is a very good writer, and prolific, but his best books are the three novels in the Lyonesse Trilogy: Suldrun’s Garden (Amazon link), The Green Pearl (Amazon link) and the wonderful Madouc (Amazon link). The richly imagined land of Lyonesse and the Elder Isles, the drowned islands of fantasy between France and Britain, is alive with magic, vivid characters, devious schemes and Old Folk. In a wonderful synthesis of Tolkein and Old English myth, kings and children, magicians and knights, faeries and ogres wander in and out of each other’s stories. You should read the whole Trilogy. If for some reason you cannot, read Madouc. It’s a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful trilogy. This is WC’s test for great fantasy: when you finish a book, the real world too which you return is just a bit grayer, just a bit less vivid, than the world you have left. WC promises you Lyonesse will pass that test.
quits changes her mind, the TTWNF will be attending a screening of her hagiographic propaganda biopic in mighty Pella, Iowa tonight. According to the Sarah Palin Dictionary and Salad Shooter:
Undefeated — Not admitting to having been defeated.
Joe McGinnis has a nice start on a list of what everyone else would described as “defeats.”
WC notes that Jim Crawford has a “Compass” opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News this morning. Crawford complains that AHFC and AIDEA – the state agencies charged with subsidizing and making residential and business loans, respectively – are charging fees interest rates that are too high. He complains that they are making too much money. Mr. Crawford is described as “a third-generation Alaskan, is an Anchorage real estate broker, property manager and investor.”
If this is the same Jim Crawford that owned the late, unlamented City Mortgage, his chutzpah rating is off the charts. City Mortgage is bankrupt (fee link), a result of very serious mismanagement by its president, Jim Crawford. Crawford was alleged to have converted (read: stole) escrow deposits from City Mortgage’s customers, converted (read: stole) its employees 401(k) contributions, and converted (read: stole) IRS withholding taxes from employees’ salaries. When the whole house of cards came crashing down, a lot of people lost a lot of money as a consequence of some very poor decisions by City Mortgage’s management.
So for Mr. Crawford to opine in Alaska’s largest newspaper that the business practices of two successful state agencies are too conservative, well, there’s not enough salt in Alaska you can take to swallow his comments. Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; apparently, those who failed recklessly and catastrophically write opinion pieces.
Q: What’s the difference between a nature photographer and a large pizza?
A: A large pizza can feed a family of four.
Many species of birds migrate extraordinary distances to Alaska to breed. It’s a complicated trade-off: the hazards of migration and the very short breeding season here, in exchange for abundant food and, perhaps, reduced competition. Birds aren’t the only animals to use the strategy, but they do it the most enthusiastically. The very short breeding season leaves them a very tight interval to court, breed, feed and fledge the kids.
Savannah Sparrows like brush margins to fields, or stands of willows along alpine tundra. The male’s call – “sa-sa-savannah” – names the species for you.
At one time, WC thought the Denali Highway was the northern limit of this pretty little flycatcher’s breeding area, but they also nest in the rocky valleys between 12 Mile Summit and Eagle Summit on the Steese Highway. The odd background color is a hillside of dwarf birch and alder that hadn’t greened up yet.
WC thinks that only American Robins are more successful than White-crowned Sparrows at adapting to a wide range of habitats. At the peak of their singing, there’s no place you can stop along the Denali Highway you won’t see and hear a White-crowned. This one has a caterpillar, which implies the eggs are already hatched.
No collection of Alaska bird photos would be complete without at least one warbler. Wilson’s Warbler, with its shiny black cap and hyperactivity, is one of the harder warblers to find, but worth the effort.
It would be sweet if these beautiful birds stayed longer. But they are here on business. A few days after the kids are fledged, they start their long migration south again.
There’s some dispute whether this was “real” or “faked,” in the sense of inviting the Gull to engage in larceny. You can decide:
It’s pretty amusing either way.
Thanks to Mia MacPherson for the tip.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia opined in State v. Marsh that, “the dissent does not discuss a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.” Well, Justice Scalia, what about Cameron Todd Willingham?
The facts of the Willingham case are well know and well described in a fine New Yorker article. The forensic science in support of the claim of arson was utterly flawed. The drug-addled jailhouse snitch who claimed Willingham had confessed to him recanted. The State of Texas – it would be Texas, of course – hired an expert who completely refuted the State’s case. Five years after Texas Governor Rick Perry permitted Willingham to be executed. Not only was Willingham innocent; the evidence is overwhelming that no crime had been committed.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing the New York Times, speculates that Governor Perry’s refusal to stay the execution of an innocent man will come back to haunt the Governor if he attempts to run for president. WC thinks that’s probably wishful thinking.
So, Justice Scalia, does Willingham’s wrongful execution answer your challenge?
Andrew Sullivan has an excellent screed on current Republican tactics in the face of the looming debt crisis. Here, as Sullivan would say, is the money quote
This is brinksmanship with all of our lives, our money, our core financial stability and future growth. It is an outrageously reckless way to run a government. And Cantor’s refusal to take any personal responsibility for the result of these talks is of a piece with the record of this shallow, callow fanatic who has the gall to call himself a conservative, even as he launches a wrecking ball at the very fabric of the American and global economy.
Tell it, Brother.
So what is it about Republicans in the 21st Century? Why do they quit?
Alaska’s Shame, The Quitter, famously bailed on the Alaska governorship. Never mind that oath of office. Never mind the folks who voted for her. The going got tough. She quit.
Now, far more seriously, U.S. House majority leader, Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, has quit the debt ceiling negotiations chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. The talks are at an impasse, according to reports, and undoubtedly difficult. So, when it got tough, Rep. Cantor quit. There’s a pattern here.
The impending debt ceiling crisis is every bit as serious as the financial crisis that triggered the present recession. It has the potential to make the U.S. a permanent second class nation, one whose promises cannot be trusted and whose currency is unsound. A default in payment of U.S. debt instruments would echo through the U.S. economy – and the world economy – for a very long time.
Some years ago, Steve Moore, cartoonist for “In the Bleachers,” had a classic: A group of runners, under a banner announcing the “Underachievers Marathon,” ready to start. A hundred feet ahead of them was the “Quit” line. Faced with a crisis, House Majority leader Cantor has quit. Not exactly Lincoln-like, eh?
Alaska has four breeding species of falcons: Gyrfalcon, Peregrine Falcon, Merlin and American Kestrel. Merlins are next to smallest – although a male Merlin isn’t much bigger than a female Kestrel – and not commonly seen. This male was photographed along the Denali Highway; the white blur across the middle background is the Alaska Range.
There are three subspecies of Merlins in the United States; this is the Boreal subspecies, Falco columbarius columbarius, which breeds here and across the forested portions of Alaska and Canada. The Latin species name, columbarius, reflects its English name, the Pigeon Hawk.
For those who may be curious, this photo was taken with an Olympus E-5 camera, using a 300mm f2.8 lens, combined with a 2.0 teleconverter, all propped in a pickup window.
For a birder like WC, seeing a Merlin is a mixed experience. They are an elegant, graceful species, beautiful perched or in flight. But they forage mostly on small birds, meaning that where you find a Merlin you are not likely to always see a lot of other birds. Still WC can’t look at this species – or photograph this species – without delight.
WC had a chance to do some birding along the east end of the Denali Highway this past weekend. And got photos of two of his favorite birds.
Arctic Warblers, really and truly, migrate to Alaska from southeast Asia. They are an Old Word warbler, one of the few that breed in the Western Hemisphere. Despite the length of the migration flight, the moment they arrive they begin singing.
WC shouldn’t complain about long tedious jet travel; these little birds travel further under their own power, and only then get down to the serious business of courtship and reproduction.
Another WC favorite is the Horned Lark. This species manages the competition problem by nesting and breeding above the vegetation line, up where all that is left is lichens and a few patches of alpine tundra.
This species winters in the southwest, and migrates to, among other regions, Alaska, where it breeds in the harsh, high alpine terrain. The markings on this species are especially nice, and the song is lovely.
WC will have more photos from the trip later in the week.
Long time readers know WC is a fan of statistical graphics. Charles Minard’s portrayal of the losses suffered by Napoleon in his invasion of Russia in 1812-13 is possibly the best example of statistical graphics WC has ever seen:
Popularized (and sold) by Edward Tufte, a framed copy hangs in WC’s house. Beginning at the Polish-Russian border, the thick band shows the size of the army at each in the ill-fated invasion. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in the bitterly cold winter is depicted by the dark lower band, which is tied to temperature and time scales. As Marey said, the chart “defies the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence.” A larger version is here.
The ACLU has a statistical chart out that makes a half dozen forceful points about America’s criminal justice system. It’s not going to make you forget Minard, but it’s effective:
The full quote is,
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” Act II, Scene 2
And WC’s point is that US House Speaker Leader John Boehner’s proposal for means-testing for Medicare is the same tax on the wealthy that already makes Republicans wax hysterical.
Progressives want to increase the tax rates on the wealthiest 10% of Americans to close the fiscal gap created by the Bush-era tax cuts. The purpose of the those tax-cuts was the repeatedly disproven idea that you can grow the economy by decreasing taxes. That didn’t work so well, as evidenced by the worst recession in decades, but that’s not stopped the Republicans from vowing to give the rich even bigger tax cuts.
Speaker Boehner suggested closing some of the Medicare funding gap by creating a means test for Medicare coverage. If, say, you made more than $100,000 a year, you’d pay an extra $10 a month for Medicare coverage for each $10,000 in additional income.
But if you have the intellectual skills of a retarded goldfish, you can see that’s just a tax increase on the wealthy. You’re making the wealthy pay more, but calling it a “Medicare premium increase” and not a “tax” apparently makes it politically palatable to the Neocons. A rose my any other name.
As a form of disguised tax increase, means-testing for Medicare may be more likely to cause economic distortions than a simple tax increase. It’s a selective tax increase, instead of a broad-based one. Seniors will base their retirement decisions on Medicare premiums; that will have hard to predict results.
But if calling a rose something else will get it in the bouquet, then WC has no objection. Medicare means-testing, while not ideal, is far preferable to Ryan’s proposal to kill it.