Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wall - my memories and thoughts

This is a little more serious than I usually am when posting here, but I feel like it's appropriate today.

20 years ago, when the Berlin Wall ceased to imprison a nation, I was 8 years old. I didn't understand how the Cold War came to be, but the earliest times I remember hearing of the Cold War, Communism, and the wall itself they were facts of life to the adults who talked about them. There wasn't any sense that the situation would ever change, much less that it would do so imminently. Knowing what I do now I think that my family's attitude toward the Cold War was fairly typical.

I was probably aware of the existence of Communism and of the Berlin Wall at some point in 1986 and 1987. I was much too young at the time to understand the ideologies behind the conflict; however my parents vividly imparted to me that behind the Iron Curtain the people had a fundamental lack of the freedom that we Americans enjoyed. They also told me of the Wall, the most prominent symbol of the bondage of millions - and I was happy that I lived in a free country, though I didn't completely understand what made us free and the East Germans not so.

I remember when the Wall was breached, watching the jubilant German people on the evening news, and thinking that those people were now free too, just like me. I still didn't understand entirely what it meant to be free, but I knew that it was better than the alternative - and the people on the TV looked like they thought so too.

I'm asking myself now, what were those people on the TV 20 years ago seeking to be free from? What were they seeking to get away from, and why? What, ultimately, was so bad about Communism that millions would want to escape it, would embarrass its administrators in dozens of nations with this desire, would result in those governments constructing fortifications to keep people who shared their language and cultural heritage from fleeing?

As easy as it would be to think of it as a conflict between good and evil people, I've come to the conclusion that the real battle was, and is, between good and evil systems of government. Not that the systems of government "forced" people to do various good or bad deeds; but that on one side of the Wall 20 years ago was a system that resulted in behavior beneficial to others, and on the other side a system existed that promoted the more undesirable tendencies of humanity.

On one side of the Wall, the system effectively restrained the desire of the people to force their preferences onto others; on the other side the system enabled those harmful desires.

On one side of the Wall, loyalty to one's family was generally treated as a virtue; on the other side, it was more likely an impediment to career advancement.

On one side of the Wall, a candidate winning 60% of the votes in an election was an extraordinary success; on the other, "winning" 90% or more was routine.

On one side of the Wall, goods and services were sold for whatever the market would bear, and the people generally prospered; with time and money for leisure and less basic concerns, many took an interest in the environment and started one of the most prominent Green parties in the world. On the other side, government officials enforced "fair" prices on everyday staple items, which however were frequently unavailable. The environment wasn't nearly as much of a concern for the workers, and it deteriorated to a great extent.

The people on one side of the Wall could cross to the other side almost anytime they wished, unmolested. Relatively few stayed for long.

Those on the other side, until that day 20 years ago, risked being shot for trying to cross to the West, and could never return. Yet they continued to attempt to escape.

I think the Wall was so memorable because it illustrated, like no other barrier in existence, the differences between the Free World (markets, open elections, and relatively limited government) and the Communist world (lacking all of those). This was not a barrier between hostile ethnic groups or nations, imposed by both sides to keep peace. It was built by one side alone, and separated people who shared 1000 years of a common language and an illustrious history in commerce, the arts, and craftsmanship. It showed the failure of one system and the success of another.

We must be constantly vigilant not to forget that lesson.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Christopher Renner Is Presumptuous And Thinks He Can Explain Twitter To You, Assuming You're Unfamiliar

I like Twitter, which I think is pretty well evidenced by the Twitterfeed on the right side of the page here. I also think that it's highly polarizing - opinions I've heard can be neatly divided into "it's awesome!" and "it's the stupidest thing I've seen! You're on it too much". Additionally, the social networking benefits aren't as immediately visible as, for example, MySpace and Facebook with their many pronged user interface, and the fraction of new users who remain on Twitter is significantly lower.

So I've decided to share a few thoughts (and improve my screenshot skills) on what exactly Twitter is all about, and why I think it's useful.

Also I think it's worth noting at this point - every service I mention here is FREE to the user.

Here we go:

What's in a Tweet?

The individual 140-characters-or-less Tweet is the basic element of Twitter. Below is a screenshot one of my recent Tweets; I'll talk more about the specific parts of it momentarily. You can click this image and any other for a full-screen view.

This looks pretty simple, but there are quite a few cool links within that tweet that aren't noticeable until you move the mouse over them. I'll start with the first, the "@reply" (spoken as "at-reply"), which I've highlighted here.

The "@ reply" magically transforms my tweet from a boring blurb about my breakfast to a delightful public conversation, welcoming all the world to join in. Well that's a slight exaggeration on my part. "@ replying" does, however, go a long way in making one's tweets less of an expression of vanity and more of a means of communication.

Here's how - when I include the @, followed in this case by "emdesign" (my friend Erin's Twitter username), anywhere at all in the Tweet - the Tweet becomes specifically addressed to her. It's still viewable by everyone else, but Erin can also view a list of @ replies addressed specifically to her, which will now contain my Tweet. (To see what this looks like in practice, here's a feed of Tweets that have mentioned me.(@chris_renner))

I think the @ reply is probably the best feature of Twitter - it easily enables you to communicate directly with other users in an amazingly simple fashion. And unlike Myspace, Facebook, and instant messaging, you can address more than one person simultaneously this way.

On to the other features of a Tweet:

In this photo I've highlighted the timestamp. This actually does more than simply illustrate the time that I sent it, it contains the permalink to the specific tweet.
I didn't notice this feature for the first several months of using Twitter, but it's useful to know if you want to share a specific tweet, particularly with someone who's not on Twitter yet. For example when a breaking news event happens. Or your favorite celebrity posts something even dumber than usual. Or in a much less inane use, you've got a cause to rally people for.

Next, the method of updating:

This shows how the Tweet was posted; at other times it might say "from web"(i.e. from, or "from txt"(i.e. sent via text message from a mobile phone).

2 important features of Twitter are shown here. First, there are multiple methods of posting a tweet. This is quite handy, since poor cellular coverage or an internet outage alone won't interfere with your communication - a fact which may have saved lives during the Iranian election protests earlier this year.

The second feature is the availability of separate applications for use with Twitter; in my case I've posted this tweet via TweetDeck. Twitter's API allows programs such as TweetDeck, developed by third parties, to download others' tweets, view Twitter profiles, and post new tweets.

This last link appears when you reply to a specific tweet, either from the web or from a third party app such as TweetDeck. Like the timestamp it links to one tweet - the tweet which I was replying to. This makes it easy to view complete Twitter conversations.

Another Tweet Examined

This tweet of mine illustrates a few more Twitter fundamentals: the Re-Tweet, the hashtag (#XXXXXX) and the shortened URL.

Here, the Re-Tweet is highlighted. The RT wasn't developed by Twitter but the community of users accepted the format long before I joined. It's a beautifully simple way of passing along someone else's tweet, when you want to share it with your followers (apologies if I'm insulting your intelligence here - the people who receive your tweets are called "followers" as opposed to "friends").

The Hashtag:

Putting the "#" before a string of characters in Twitter turns that into a link which will search for that character string. In this case, "thebcast" will probably bring up a feed related to their show, and tweets from fans. (If you're thinking, "wow, couldn't someone use a hashtag for spam or mild vandalism?" the answer is yes, and they were especially inclined to do that when the homepage of Skittles was displaying a Twitter search feed for the brand(Linked page contains foul language, etc.).)

Last, and certainly not least:

The shortened URL(as always, apologies if I seem to be condescending - the URL is what gets you to a particular place on the web. The long string of characters you might type at the top of your browser that include "http", ".com", and a bunch of slashes. The "web site number".)

Jokes aside, since tweets are limited to 140 characters, the URL shortener makes it possible to share a web link in a Tweet without using up those precious characters. More happily still, the shortening process is automated: Twitter's web site entry automatically shortens any URL longer than 26 characters with, and TweetDeck now shortens any URL in the Tweet and allows you to choose between several URL shorteners.

That's really about all I can think of - Twitter, again, is a delightfully simple, and yet profound tool for communication and socializing. I hope I've been enlightening here, feel free to leave comments, and by all means please follow me if you join and/or start tweeting in earnest.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Hitler can be funny! (To normal people, not to those who think mass murder is funny.)

I never realized this until now, but there's a great meme that's been on YouTube for over a year now - clips from "Downfall", with the subtitles altered for humorous effect.

Here's one recent example:

And another(warning: Though the audio is entirely in German, the English subtitles on this are NSFW):

Thanks to Caleb at RedState for his effort to promote Hitler-parody awareness, and to the commenters as well.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Horndogs in Government, Part II

And another great example, from Vladimir at RedState.

William "Freezer" Jefferson, the former Congressman(D-LA) is alleged by the FBI to have taken $100,000 in cash from an informant; $90,000 was later found in his freezer. Informant Lori Mody wore a wire during meetings with the Congressman, and the resulting tapes were essential to the prosecution's case. Vladimir's comments:

Now comes news that Mody’s FBI “handler” (double entendre intended) left the Bureau last December rather than answer questions about his relationship with Mody. The Bureau kept the relationship quiet, rather than telling the judge about it, and has thereby handed Jefferson one more issue to pursue on appeal.

Great job, FBI.

The original news article can be found here.

Horndogs in Government, Part I

From the Washington Times, reassuring news that the National Science Foundation is completely focused on their core mission and rigorous in screening out fraud among their grant recipients. Or not...(bolding is mine)
Employee misconduct investigations, often involving workers accessing pornography from their government computers, grew sixfold last year inside the taxpayer-funded foundation that doles out billions of dollars of scientific research grants, according to budget documents and other records obtained by The Washington Times.

The problems at the National Science Foundation (NSF) were so pervasive they swamped the agency's inspector general and forced the internal watchdog to cut back on its primary mission of investigating grant fraud and recovering misspent tax dollars.

The records lay it bare. And what a wonderful defense this guy offers!
The budget request doesn't state the nature or number of the misconduct cases, but records obtained by The Times through the Freedom of Information Act laid bare the extent of the well-publicized porn problem inside the government-backed foundation.

For instance, one senior executive spent at least 331 days looking at pornography on his government computer and chatting online with nude or partially clad women without being detected, the records show.

When finally caught, the NSF official retired. He even offered, among other explanations, a humanitarian defense, suggesting that he frequented the porn sites to provide a living to the poor overseas women. Investigators put the cost to taxpayers of the senior official's porn surfing at between $13,800 and about $58,000.

"He explained that these young women are from poor countries and need to make money to help their parents and this site helps them do that," investigators wrote in a memo.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

G20 Summit and Protests

As of right now, I'm planning on going to observe some of the protests tomorrow and Friday - but no definite plans on a location just yet. At the very least I'll be Tweeting extensively - follow me!

With more luck, I'll get a bunch of good photos/video to share, and possibly some interviews. This ought to be an interesting couple of days to say the least.

Friday, September 11, 2009

In remembrance of Gayle R. Greene (d. September 11,2001)

Gayle R. Greene was 51 years old, a vice-president at financial services company Marsh & McLennan, an enthusiastic Christmas decorator, and a young-at-heart woman who enjoyed spending time with her close-knit circle of friends.

Though she was heartily committed to her work, almost always having her laptop at hand, Gayle was also widely traveled, and took her expeditions seriously. She loved Alaska, having stood on a glacier there, and Hawaii - her ashes were scattered off of the Na Pali coast on Kaua'i several months after her death, as she had asked for.

Her brother-in-law Don Welch writes this on the Legacy guestbook in her memory:
Gayle will be greatly missed, not only by Eileen, Donna and Janel, but many others who's lives she touched. Gayle was very special and caring for others. This is evidenced by the life long impact that she has made on these 3 women's lives. We will miss you Gayle, but never forget you.

On September 11, 2001 Gayle Greene had planned on finishing her work in advance of another trip with her friend and roommate Eileen Carey. Sadly, she would never get the chance to make that journey; her office was on the 100th floor of 1 World Trade Center, which was shortly to be struck by American Airlines Flight 11.

Let's celebrate the life of Gayle Greene, and the lives of the other 2,996 which were cut short 8 years ago, and remember the evil men and those behind them who perpetrated this crime. Let's remember, and have the resolve to keep this from happening again.

Gayle Greene, you are loved and missed, and I hope honored by this as well.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Constructive criticism and free markets

This post is inspired by a draft blog post that I've read, by Jason Robb. He designs user interfaces - and in the interest of not horribly misportraying his skill by elaborating on a subject which I have no expertise in, I'll say that it primarily involves web sites - and please check his site out.

The post of Jason's in question is basically a suggestion on how a specific incident of criticism, well known to his readers, could have been better handled had the person doing the criticizing been "constructive" and not antagonistic towards the subject of his complaint. Now it's not as though I'd never heard of constructive criticism before; it's one of those things that everyone's mother told him or her to practice. For some reason today the aspiring economist in me thought about this bit of common sense and the following bold conclusion emerged:

Constructive criticism in a work environment is much more common when the work is part of a free market.

At first glance, this seems like a complete non sequitur. But think this through...

First, let's take a hypothetical situation. Alan has some kind of work interaction with Bobby(this could be direct supervision/subordination, contractor, vendor/client, etc.), and is dissatisfied with some nontrivial aspect of Bobby's work. Alan at this point has several choices:

  • Not mention the dissatisfaction.
  • Politely complain about the problem(i.e., constructively criticize).
  • Rudely complain about the problem,
  • Tell himself and others that "it's not a bug, it's a feature", so to speak.
The next question we have to ask is "Which choice is Alan likely to make?"

Here's where the economics come in. Possibly the most basic principle in economics is "People respond to incentives." So what incentives does Alan face here? Possibly Bobby is a good friend or family member of Alan's, which will significantly affect their work interaction. More likely, though, their work relationship is dominant*, and the set of incentives facing them is determined by this.

What are the incentives for Alan and Bobby? This is where the bolded hypothesis above is significant. The set of incentives in a free market work environment are very different from those in a government workplace, or a regulated monopoly(e.g. a local utility company), or some other organization such as an educational institution which is not subject to market pressures.

When Alan and Bobby operate in a free market, Alan has an incentive to maximize the value of his work output whenever he's able to do so. By proving his ability to add value, he can increase the demand for his labor and thus get a higher income or a broader customer base. And of the 4 choices listed above, the one which will add the most value to Alan's work is constructive criticism of Bobby. Leaving the problem alone or claiming that it's not a problem won't work for long, and being rude to Bobby is less likely to solve the mutual problem than courtesy would. Giving constructive criticism to solve a problem is thus the most beneficial solution in a free market.

Now if Alan was working for a government, or at a non-profit institution, or in a regulated industry, he no longer necessarily has an incentive to demonstrably add value to his work's "customers", for several reasons. First, he probably won't be rewarded monetarily for doing so - salaries in these workplaces are determined generally by a fixed schedule based on Alan's rank (or specific position) and time of service, or by credentials amassed. Second, he won't pay any price for failing to add value to the customers unless he does so in such a flagrant manner as to embarrass the organization. Third, it's simply hard to define a measure of "value" in these workplaces, whereas the free market organization has profits or losses which are quite a clear indicator of how much its services have been valued.

So how will Alan deal with Bobby in this case? It's anybody's guess. His personal pride in his work might motivate an effort to effect a change in Bobby - but suppose they both work in a government bureau, and Bobby's on the verge of retiring and couldn't care less what Alan asks him nicely to do. In this case Alan's logical decision might be to annoy Bobby continually until Bobby agrees to change something.

Suppose Bobby is Alan's superior, and can exert significant influence on Alan's career prospects. Is Alan more likely to criticize, and receive a negative evaluation if he's seen as insufficiently polite? Or will he swallow his pride and tolerate the inefficiency?

What if Alan is an admissions officer at a university, and Bobby is touring the campus with his teenage daughter? Alan knows that the school's football program loses money on the whole, and distracts many students from their academic work. When Bobby and his daughter mention the team, is he likely to discuss these facts that he knows quite well or will he emphasize the team's Bowl game appearances?

In a non-market workplace, "constructive" criticism may indeed exist - but only because of the courtesy and professionalism of the individual, not the inherent behavioral incentive in the organization.

That is all.

*U.S. Census statistics show that in 2006 approximately 82% of employees were in workplaces of 2o people or larger. I'm not aware of any figure on how many close friends or family members the average person has, but for purposes of this post I've assumed that the number is sufficiently small as to not affect the general conclusions about workplace incentives.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Who the hell are the U.S. Justice Foundation?

I've gotten a bunch of fundraising e-mails from them lately, and they're about the looniest things I've ever seen - even by the standard of Things Forwarded By WorldNetDaily And Other Birthers. Here's probably the best example, in all its "glory":
Obama's Biggest Con ... A Constitutional Convention‏
From: WorldNetDaily (
Sent: Mon 8/31/09 9:34 AM
To: Christopher Renner (
Dear Christopher:

People are always asking me what they can do to further the eligibility issue. The answer? Support the groundbreaking and relentless work of the United States Justice Foundation, a public interest law firm with high principles.

Below, please find an important update from their Executive Director, Gary Kreep.

Joseph Farah
Joseph Farah
Editor and Chief Executive Officer


Dear Friend,

Barack Obama and his allies are trying to change the U.S. Constitution WITHOUT FOLLOWING THE AMENDMENT PROCESS -- in fact, they're trying to rewrite the ENTIRE CONSTITUTION -- and they're close to succeesing!

What would you think if an amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced by liberal Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, which repealed the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights -- taking away our right to Free Speech?

What would you think if an amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced by liberal Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which repealed the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights -- taking away our right to Keep and Bear Arms? (A right that the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld!)

"That could never happen," you say. "No one would allow it!" Right? Well...

Did you know that there are TWO ways that our Constitution can be changed? And did you know that Pelosi, Reid and Barack Obama are using the less well-known way, without having to actually introduce amendments?

IT'S TRUE -- and WE have to stop it NOW!

One way to change the Constitution is to go through the amendment process -- a long and tedious process requiring two-thirds of both houses of Congress to pass an amendment, and then three-fourths of the states to ratify it.

That means a "super-majority" of our representatives at the National and State levels would have to be in favor of the amendment -- which safeguards us from the possibility of really "bad" amendments.

BUT... there is one other way that our Constitution can be changed... and it DOES NOT require all of those elected representatives to be in favor of it. It's called a Constitutional Convention, and all that it requires is 34 states to ask Congress to call one.

In fact, right now, all that is needed is for two more states to ask for a Constitutional Convention... and the basic law of the land could be changed forever by Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid!


Most people don't realize that Article V of the Constitution requires Congress to call a new Constitutional Convention (a "Con Con") if two-thirds (or 34) of the states request it. We've only had one other "Con Con" in our history: the one where the original Constitution was written in 1787!

The language of Article V is mandatory: it says that Congress "shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments" whenever requests are received from two-thirds of the states. Note that the word "amendments" is used in the plural. These are the only instructions we have about a Constitutional Convention. There are no other rules or guidelines.

We don't know how a Constitutional Convention would be apportioned, or how the delegates would be elected. We don't know what rules the Convention would operate under. We don't know whether changes to the Constitution could be proposed by a simple majority, or would require a super majority, of those attending. We don't know if the agenda could be limited or would be wide open to any proposal.

We don't know ANYTHING about how a Con Con would work -- which means that it will come down to Congress setting the rules!

And Congress is controlled by the most radically liberal Democrats in American history! Is that who we want to be in charge of a new Constitutional Convention?

Do we want BARACK OBAMA, NANCY PELOSI, and HARRY REID to completely rewrite our most basic document of law?


The fact is, under the vague language of Article V, a Constitutional Convention cannot be limited. It would be wide open, and able to consider ANY change in the Constitution that was proposed!

Former U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger once said, "There is no effective way to limit or muzzle the actions of a Constitutional Convention. The convention could make its own rules and set its own agenda."

The Stanford Law School Professor whose case-book is used in the majority of U.S. law schools, Gerald Gunther, said that, even if Congress tried to limit the Convention to one subject, the delegates could decide for themselves that the Convention "is entitled to set its own agenda."

This means that, even if supporters of a "Con Con" claim that the convention would only cover one issue -- whether it's a balanced budget amendment or removing the requirement that to be eligible to serve as President, one must be a "natural born citizen," or anything else -- there is NO WAY to stop the Convention from changing EVERYTHING that we hold dear in America!

Barack Obama and his far-left supporters would be able to get THEIR people appointed as delegates to the Convention, so that THEIR agendas would be the Convention's agenda, and THEIR plans for socialism in America would come to pass.

Say BYE-BYE to the First Amendment's freedom of speech -- Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity could be taken off the air.

Say BYE-BYE to the Second Amendment's right to bear arms -- a total gun ban could be the law of the land!

Say BYE-BYE to the Constitution's requirement that to serve as President a man or a woman must be a "natural born citizen"!

You KNOW that's what they'll do if given the chance -- and we're only TWO STATES AWAY from seeing a Constitutional Convention convened!

You see, Article V says that it takes a request from two-thirds of the states to force a "Con Con" -- but it doesn't say there's any time limit on getting to that total!

Thirty-two states have already issued a call for a "Con Con" over the last few decades, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.

It only takes 34 states to REQUIRE a Constitutional Convention be convened!

Some states, like Georgia, Virginia, and others, have since voted to "rescind" their call for a "Con Con" -- BUT no one is sure whether those "rescission" votes are actually the danger is REAL!


The United States Justice Foundation is launching a major campaign to STOP a "Con Con" from taking place -- WE MUST CREATE a tremendous outpouring of publicity and public scrutiny to be given to this danger, so that Barack Obama and his radical liberal allies can't "sneak this past us" without anyone noticing, until it's too late. Right now, our staff is conducting legal and historical research, and preparing legal opinions, to submit to every state legislature, if necessary, and we'll be offering to represent any state, or state legislator, in fighting the Con-Con based on those documents.

We're also going to be leading a grassroots effort to attack this issue at both the state and federal levels: At the state level, leading the charge in every state to either NOT VOTE for a "Con Con" (if they haven't voted yet) or to RESCIND their past vote in favor (if they have). And, at the federal level, we'll be mobilizing citizens across the country to contact their Representatives and Senators to DEMAND that they come out, NOW, and announce their support for a state's right to rescind, and that they won't support a call for a "Con-Con." In addition, we'll be calling on the Attorney General of the United States, and the Attorney General of each and every State that has passed a "Con-Con" resolution, to issue an official Opinion on the legality of rescission.

THIS DANGER IS REAL. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called for the exclusive purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation. Once the Founding Fathers assembled in Philadelphia, however, they threw out the Articles of Confederation and wrote an entirely new Constitution, and even changed the ratification procedure so they could get it adopted more easily. The 1787 Convention is the only precedent we have for a national Constitutional Convention.

There's no guarantee that all of the changes to our Constitution passed at a Constitutional Convention would need to be ratified by 34 states this time -- if a "Con Con" can change our structure of government as defined in Articles I, II, and III, of the Constitution, then it can also change the Article V requirement that three-fourths of the states are needed to ratify any changes. The Convention of 1787 reduced the number of states required to ratify a change from 100% of the states to 75%, and a Convention today could "follow their example" and reduce it further, to 66%, or 60%, or even 51%!


There's very little time to ramp this project up to FULL SPEED -- we need to raise at least $100,000 to prepare and distribute legal opinions, lobby state legislators and begin our grassroots activism campaign this coming month. Please, CLICK HERE NOW to make your best possible donation, and let's STOP Obama, Pelosi and Reid from ripping our Constitution to shreds, and re-writing it to their own socialist goals!


Gary Kreep, Executive Director
United States Justice Foundation

P.S. President Barack Obama has already expressed his belief that the U.S. Constitution needs to be interpreted in the context of current affairs and events. Can you imagine what he and his supporters would DO to that document if given the chance to re-write it completely? Our Bill of Rights could disappear overnight!

In fact, all the way back in 2006, Obama already had his lawyers researching how someone could get around the eligibility requirements to serve as U.S. President -- these people simply don't CARE about whether we preserve the supreme law of the land!

Remember -- when the last Constitutional Convention met in 1787, the original goal was to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead, delegates simply threw them out and wrote a whole new Constitution.

That's EXACTLY what Obama, Pelosi and Reid would do this time -- but this time, the result would destroy our freedoms. Please, CLICK HERE NOW to help us STOP them. Thank you!


To donate by check, make payable to:
United States Justice Foundation
932 D Street Suite 1
Ramona, CA 92065

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Seriously...would anyone actually give money to these people? The far left is planning a new Constitutional Convention, and 32 states have at some point requested this!...Righhhhhht. Well I hope Obama at least has the decency to get GWB's advice - this will go over a lot better if the people who pulled off 9/11 are involved.

Jon Henke's also got a great idea in regards to WorldNetDaily.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Why Health Care is so complicated - part I

American health care has been widely talked about lately, not least because of proposals by the President and Congress to radically alter the current system. Some thoughts of mine on the subject follow - I expect this will be a multiple posting topic, as I'll continue to discuss it with others.


First, we need to define terms properly, which is much harder than it seems at first, and too seldom done. As Thomas Sowell says, for example:
The biggest of the big lies in the "health care" hype is that a lack of insurance means a lack of medical care. The second biggest lie is that health care and medical care are the same thing.

"Health care" is simple enough to define - any action, taken by an individual or another party, that affects the individual's health. If the definition sounds broad, it is; try thinking about something you do which never has any effect on your health.

"Medical care" is a bit tougher to define exactly. I think it works to define it as professional services rendered by doctors, nurses, any medical specialists(including but not limited to opthalmologists, oncologists, urologists, orthopedists, Lasik surgeons), paramedics, EMTs, first responders, and any similar person, performed generally with the expectation they will be paid for their services. (Some EMTs and first responders are volunteers, but this is uncommon and even in this case the EMS service/fire department will often bill for medical supplies and transport expenses.)

"Health insurance" is tougher yet because the term usually describes far more than is meant by "insurance" in any other area, namely the payment of a premium in exchange for the guarantee that a third party will pay a specified sum in the event of certain nonroutine losses/expenses. For reasons to be mentioned below, the U.S. tax code has given a strong incentive for routine expenses such as prescription drugs, annual physical checkups, and dental cleanings to be included under the rubric of "insurance", whereas for example car insurance does not commonly cover an oil change or a trip to the detail shop.

I think for my purposes of explanation, health insurance can be defined as any contractual system by which medical care for a given patient is directly paid for, in full or in part, by a third party(i.e. a party other than the medical professional and the patient). This can include systems like Medicare/Medicaid which are paid via tax revenues, employer-based coverage, or personally purchased policies; but the most important and relevant detail is the third-party payment system. The incentives for conduct of patient and doctor are much different when a third party is paying, as opposed to when the patient is paying out of pocket, and this is the fundamental source of administrative complication in modern medical care.

Next to come - a brief history of modern medical care.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Being "new media" savvy: not a requirement for a Congressman

I recently received an e-mail from my Congressman, Mike Doyle(D, PA-14); like any good elected representative he updates his constituents on a regular basis. I found this a bit amusing, however(...

"One of these new Facebook pages", huh? Come on Congressman, you don't have to make it that obvious you've never used the site before! And telling the reader to search, using your full title? Nope, Facebook's search isn't as smart as Google, and won't get them any results if they do that.
Before you send the e-mail, it's really not too much to ask that you include a hyperlink to the page!

That's all. I wonder if any other local reps are any better with their interweb communication.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Standard American English is right for everyone

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently published an excerpt from this letter:
Dear Sir or Madam,

Letter writer Erin Donnelly(Friday May 29) has given Trib readers a piece of thoroughly academic, well-cited nonsense. Teaching African-American students in vernacular English is a waste of valuable class time, promotes ethnic separatism, and adds nothing whatever to the knowledge demanded in the highly competitive adult world.

Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., (and undoubtedly Ms. Donnelly herself) were educated in what she derisively refers to as "Standard American(white) English". These could certainly speak in the vernacular among fellow African Americans, but they understood the need to interact with the larger society, using a standard tongue.

It's a shame that modern academics reject that unfashionable truth for teaching fads with no track record of success, and in doing so place a phenomenal handicap on the futures of so many bright young African Americans with so much potential.

Christopher D. Renner
West Mifflin, PA

The letter which I wrote in response to can be found here.

White House quietly trying to shut people up?

Mark Tapscott at the Washington Examiner reports.

Michelle Malkin has also covered this matter.

The White House blog reads as follows:
Friday, May 29th, 2009 at 5:35 pm
Update on Recovery Act Lobbying Rules: New Limits on Special Interest Influence
Another update from Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, in the spirit of transparency as always:

I am writing with an update on the President’s March 20, 2009 Memorandum on Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds. Section 3 of the Memorandum required all oral communications between federally registered lobbyists and government officials concerning Recovery Act policy to be disclosed on the Internet; barred registered lobbyists from having oral communications with government officials about specific Recovery Act projects or applications and instead required those communications to be in writing; and also required those written communications to be posted on the Internet(this, and all other emphasis in this post, is added). That Memorandum instructed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review the initial 60 days of implementation of the stimulus lobbying restrictions, to evaluate the data, and to recommend modifications.

Following OMB’s review, the Administration has decided to make a number of changes to the rules that we think make them even tougher on special interests and more focused on merits-based decision making.

First, we will expand the restriction on oral communications to cover all persons, not just federally registered lobbyists. For the first time, we will reach contacts not only by registered lobbyists but also by unregistered ones, as well as anyone else exerting influence on the process. We concluded this was necessary under the unique circumstances of the stimulus program.

Second, we will focus the restriction on oral communications to target the scenario where concerns about merit-based decision-making are greatest –after competitive grant applications are submitted and before awards are made. Once such applications are on file, the competition should be strictly on the merits. To that end, comments (unless initiated by an agency official) must be in writing and will be posted on the Internet for every American to see.

Third, we will continue to require immediate internet disclosure of all other communications with registered lobbyists. If registered lobbyists have conversations or meetings before an application is filed, a form must be completed and posted to each agency’s website documenting the contact.

OMB will be consulting with agencies, outside experts and others about these principles and will publish detailed guidance, but we wanted to update interested parties on the outcome of the initial review. We consulted very broadly both within and outside of government (including as reflected in previous posts on the White House blog) and we are grateful to all those who participated in the process.

There are several alarming details in this post, but what most disturbed me was the barely reworded admission("restriction on oral communications") that the executive branch is attempting to restrict free speech and the right to petition government, both rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Of course the White House can be expected to reply that the restrictions only apply to lobbyists and special interests, but the Constitution protects their rights to free speech and petition as much as it does anyone else's.*

Also, if the rules Eisen lists here aren't more specific in practice, they're basically worthless to the cause of transparency. The requirement to "post on the Internet" could be satisfied by a comment on the MySpace page of the lobbyist's 14-year old child.

Additionally, this and any other restriction on communication with government officials will inevitably handicap the average citizen more than the big K Street lobbying firm, which has armies of lawyers keeping track of new rules that apply to them.

Last thing - though transparency is usually preferable to secrecy, it says nothing at all about the wisdom or foolishness of any government act. It's far too easy to forget this.

*A brief thought on this matter - "lobbyists" and "special interests" are frequently misunderstood political bogeymen, just like "hedge fund managers", "big business", and to some extent "rednecks". Whether or not such people are inherently evil, it's in the politician's advantage to treat them as so because the majority of voters will never closely examine the bogeyman in question enough to know that the politician has misled them.

Lobbyists are good villains because they've apparently always got their hands out, ready to corrupt another otherwise virtuous government official. Who can't be sympathetic to the official when the situation is portrayed this way? But if you think one step further and ask why the lobbyist exists in the first place, the obvious answer is that government officials are extremely profligate with the revenues they receive in taxes, to say the least. More on this matter to come in the future.

Friday, May 15, 2009

On the rule of law(and not of men)

Todd Zywicki, of the Hoover Institution and George Mason University, writes this excellent article on the ideal of the rule of law, and the economic and political dangers of its recent breach with the Chrysler bankruptcy settlement.

I'd only add a bit in one way. Zywicki states:
The rule of law, not of men -- an ideal tracing back to the ancient Greeks and well-known to our Founding Fathers -- is the animating principle of the American experiment. While the rest of the world in 1787 was governed by the whims of kings and dukes, the U.S. Constitution was established to circumscribe arbitrary government power.

The ideal goes even further back than that, to the Mosaic Law. For example, Leviticus 19:15(New American Standard): You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.

Update: Richard Epstein(also of Hoover) also discusses the Chrysler bankruptcy here, with focus on bankruptcy procedures.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sowell on "torture"

From NRO. My favorite part:

Whatever the verbal fencing over the meaning of the word “torture,” there is a fundamental difference between simply inflicting pain on innocent people for the sheer pleasure of it — which is what our terrorist enemies do — and getting life-saving information out of the terrorists by whatever means are necessary.

$2 trillion in healthcare "savings"

From Philip Klein, of the American Spectator, reporting on a conference call with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. To summarize it, there was a remarkable lack of details on where exactly the alleged savings were going to come from.

Perhaps the most revealing passage:
"Well the discussion today was if we were able to achieve the significant success that the stakeholders today felt was very achievable(emphasis added), we're talking about cutting 1.5 percent out of the rising cost of health care, about $2 trillion over the next decade," Sebelius explained. "So, that would achieve the kind of individualized savings of $2,500 per family."

In other words - we "feel like" we're going to save $2 trillion dollars, and that's all the evidence we need.

New blog

I've started another blog, located here.

The new blog will be primarily focused on transportation and emergency response issues. I'll be posting more regularly on this blog, and focusing on general political commentary, from a conservative/libertarian/classical liberal POV. (Not that I'll apply one of those labels categorically to myself anytime soon, though.)

Happy reading, feel free to e-mail me with questions, gripes, etc.

Friday, May 01, 2009

On Air Force One

I can't believe I've not posted anything in 10 days. What a slacker I am! Anyway, this speaks for itself:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sowell on Health Care

A quickie. Thomas Sowell reiterates the fact that "health care" and "medical care" do NOT mean the same thing, nor are "insurance" and "medical care" interchangeable.

Probably the best quote from the article:
When it comes to things where medical care itself makes the biggest difference — cancer survival rates, for example — Americans do much better than people in most other countries.

No one who compares medical care in this country with medical care in other countries is likely to want to switch. But those who cannot be bothered with the facts may help destroy the best medical care in the world by falling for political rhetoric.

More on high speed rail

From the New Republic yesterday. The writers there tend to be much more concerned about greenhouse gases than I am, but it seems to be widely accepted that some of the inputs required to achieve "high-speed" are:
  • separate rights-of-way(in other words, tracks shared with freight rail are out of the question)
  • broad curves
  • elimination of steep grades, whether by earth removal or tunnels.
Author Plumer thinks that the trade-offs are manageable, but as I mentioned previously, the terrain of western Pennsylvania would result in a very high cost to build a track with the above qualities(the Tribune-Review says $13 billion), and I really think the money could be better spent elsewhere, particularly on upgrading highways.

That same Trib article, interestingly enough, mentions the current speed of current trains between Harrisburg and Philadelphia as being "up to 110 mph" according to a PennDOT spokesman. Again, though, that part of the state is relatively ideal terrain for transport, as shown below.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Fredericktown Ferry and the Mon-Fayette Expressway

From the Trib. I've never heard of this ferry before, but it sounds interesting. Its existence is somewhat threatened by the Mon-Fayette expressway, so it seems. The location is shown below.

View Larger Map

The article states that the ferry carries about 130 people/cars a day at $2 each, which adds up to $95,000 a year in revenue; however Washington County and Fayette County also pay about $100,000 per year for its operation.

The ferry is more or less a curiosity in the larger scheme of western PA transportation. What primarily interested me here was the Mon-Fayette Expressway(aka Route 43, Turnpike 43). In 2012, the Brownsville-to-Uniontown section of the expressway will be complete, which means that the entire PA 43 would be finished - except for the glaring lack of progress from Jefferson to Pittsburgh/Monroeville.

I'll be writing more on this in the near future, but it will suffice to say now that I think the incomplete Pittsburgh section of the MFE is the single most urgent transportation project in western PA.

Further reading on the Mon-Fayette plans in general(here) and the Brownsville-to-Uniontown section in particular(here).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

High speed rail to Pittsburgh?

Obama's stimulus plan includes $8 billion for a "start on establishing high-speed rail corridors nationwide". One of the 10 corridors identified for possible service is the "Keystone" corridor between Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia.

I'm really skeptical of this for a number of reasons, most of which are technical.

  • Flying is cheap and readily available between Pittsburgh and Philly(as an example Expedia is showing a roundtrip for $119.20*, fees included). Unless the proposed high-speed fares are heavily subsidized I don't expect they'll be any less.

  • Even allowing for airport security hassles it's possible to fly from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia in about 2 hours. To match that a train would have to average 150 mph, counting waiting times.

  • For a train to be considered "high-speed" by Amtrak standards it has to average only 90 mph. I'm not a railroad engineer, but I'd imagine that given the terrain between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg it would take several hundred billion dollars to build a dedicated track that would allow for those kinds of speed.

  • Achieving "high speed" with shared rail lines is generally out of the question. As mentioned in the linked article, the Acela Express over the Northeast Corridor has to slow down almost constantly because of all the slower passenger and especially freight trains on the same tracks. And again, that's on relatively flat terrain. Freight trains in the Appalachians undoubtedly run slower than on the flat lands near the coast.
Basically I think it's well demonstrated that it will be impossible for high speed rail, without subsidies, to be competitive with air travel on the basis of price or travel time.

Obama's justification for the subsidies, which is fairly consistent with what other politicians say in justifying high speed rail, is that it will relieve congestion(both in the airways and on the road), help clean the air, and save energy.

I don't have hard data on these matters, but anecdotally I've never found the PA Turnpike to be particularly crowded. It's probably busier than the average rural Interstate, and does have heavy truck traffic, but I think it could be upgraded to 3 lanes each way, for its entire direction, for a small fraction of what a new rail line would cost.

PIT and PHL do not usually make the list of airports lacking capacity. A frequent concern viced about PIT is that the airlines are offering fewer flights into it, which suggests that congestion there is not a great problem.

As far as cleaning the air, the high speed trains in other countries generally run on overhead electric wires - which means they appear "clean" because they shift the dirty power generation elsewhere. This doesn't of course rule out that high-speed rail usage could result in a net reduction of pollution - but this would depend on the local means of electric generation(coal, nuclear, natural gas) being "cleaner" than the jet engines, diesel buses, and gasoline engined cars that would be used alternatively.

Pollution reduction would also depend on high speed rail being a sufficiently viable alternative to other methods of long-distance mass transit to attract their current users, which as I've demonstrated above isn't likely. (I haven't mentioned the private automobile, but in general the idea that mass transit will 'get people out of their cars' is fallacious. The convenience of always ending up exactly at your destination, making stops at the store on your way home, and making your own schedule outweigh the inefficiency for most private car owners).

*The fare was calculated today(April 16), departing April 30, returning May 5, with flexible times(9 unique departing flights were available at that price). For comparison, Amtrak's current cheapest roundtrip fare for the same dates is $94.00, with a train that leaves once daily. Greyhound ticket with a 14-day advance purchase is $60.00.

An absurdity on veterans and the "right wing"

Fox News interviews Janet Napolitano about the Mexican violence and the controversial memo issued to law enforcement recently, titled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment".

On the matter of the memo itself, it's suspect whether "rightwing extremism" was chosen as a label to actually help law enforcement or just to subtly bash the administration's political opponents(As an example on page 4, xenophobia and antidemocratic ideals are described as rightwing, which is utter nonsense. Are the unions who vehemently oppose illegal immigration now 'rightwing'? And does the right advocate legislation by the judiciary or the administrative agencies, probably the biggest internal threat to democracy?).

A footnote(p.2) elaborating on rightwing extremism, which has been rightly criticized:
Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and
adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups),
and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or
rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a
single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.
This definition is basically useless. The groups mentioned have nothing whatsoever in common, other than that so-called "liberals" oppose them. Sometimes. Depending on the specific race and religion of the extremist.

In the video, the most absurd statement of all from Ms. Napolitano came at the 4:46 mark, where she said that "Timothy McVeigh was a veteran, that's where he got his training." There is absolutely not one shred of evidence that any military training he had was the least bit relevant to the Oklahoma City bombing.

The only reason this idiotic statement can be made(and to be fair, Ms. Napolitano's not the only one who I've heard say it), is because there's a stereotype of veterans as being brainwashed, programmed to kill, desensitized, &c.; but it only takes one look at the hard facts to realize how untrue it is.

McVeigh, as a Bradley gunner, was probably taught good gunnery and marksmanship, use of various handheld weapons such as grenades or anti-tank rockets, basic military/outdoor skills, and Army tradition. Perhaps he even operated the Bradley. I challenge anyone to explain what aspect of this training, in the late 80s or now, or ever, has anything to do with creating a 5000 lb. ANFO with a Ryder truck, and placing it next to a building in order to demolish it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Crash Data for Pittsburgh Highway Corridors

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, I've just discovered, has a great deal of transportation data for our region. Among other things they have a Congestion Management Process which is supposed to collect data on highway congestion so that transportation planners know where it needs to be alleviated.

Of interest to an emergency responder, the SPC posts data on crash location and severity for the regional highway corridors. This I found to be particularly enlightening. For example, here(as a PDF) is the data for I-376 between the Turnpike and Downtown. Some points I thought were interesting:

  1. There are noticeably more crashes on Fridays and Saturdays, and I'm wondering why. Instinctively I'd say late night DUI drivers, but that's belied by the next point.

  2. The peak hours for crashes appear to be(in descending order) 14:00, 8:00, 13:00, 15:00, 16:00, and 2:00. Mid-afternoon doesn't seem to me a very accident-prone time, but if these data are correct that obviously needs to be rethought.

  3. 76% of crashes are in non-adverse conditions, which suggests, since Pittsburgh has 152 days annually with rain, snow, sleet, &c., that drivers are less competent or careful when the sun comes out.

  4. 43% of the collisions on 376 were rear-end collisions, and 40% were vehicle into a fixed object(barrier, sign post, and much more).
A couple of notes on the data:

The crash data are from PennDOT's CDART crash tracking system. These are "reportable" crashes only, defined by PennDOT and the SPC as "a traffic accident where someone was injured or where one of the vehicles had to be towed from the scene".

The "severity index" they have listed is a weighted average, with the following weights given to each crash type:
Fatal crashes = 12
Major injury crashes = 12
Moderate injury crashes = 3
Minor injury crashes = 2
Unknown injury crashes = 2
Property damage only crashes = 1

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On basic chemistry

Al Gore's Repower America project, which I registered for some time ago and receive e-mail updates from, asked me to write letters to the editor supporting the idea of a cap on carbon emissions. I happily obliged them with the following:
Subject: Carbon dioxide is NOT a pollutant, and cap-and-trade restrictions on it will kill the economy.

The Alliance for Climate Protection is currently trying to stir up more hysteria about the "pollutant" carbon dioxide, calling for a cap on "emissions" immediately. This is nonsensical.

First, anyone who knows basic chemistry understands that incomplete, inefficient combustion of hydrocarbon fuels(coal, oil or gas) creates real pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and oxides of nitrogen.
Complete combustion produces that bogeyman, carbon dioxide, and the horribly toxic compound, water vapor(incidentally many times better at trapping heat than carbon dioxide).

Second, carbon dioxide is as necessary for plant life as oxygen is for animals. Without it, photosynthesis cannot occur and the plant will die. A GE commercial within the past year showed an anthropomorphic tree embracing an "energy efficient house" with it's limbs, but a more accurate depiction would have had the tree gasping for the precious carbon dioxide that the house was no longer emitting.

In the end, it's rather unfortunate that most of the folks in Washington and in the anti-AGW movement don't seem to be in the category "anyone who knows basic chemistry", for then the ridiculous plan to restrict a compound so essential to life, and handicap future economic growth in the process, would be found strictly on the lunatic fringe where it belongs.

Christopher Renner

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Some thoughts on this blog's purpose

I expect that I'll be posting various random things here - have a Twitter feed, but it's obviously not long enough to explore anything in depth. At this point in my life I don't have a particular focus or area of expertise apart from perhaps car electronic systems, and I can't see limiting this page to one subject.

Transportation has always fascinated me(as an example I think I had almost memorized the general routes of every Port Authority bus by age 11, along with the interstate highway system), and I expect it to be a subject of a number of my posts here.

Also economic and financial issues - economics is relevant to just about anything in life, and arises in a good number of conversations I have as of late.

Other than that, I'm open to write about just about anything.

Comments should be open to anyone. Feel free to offer your input.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Condi on the Tonight Show

Rather interesting...I hadn't watched her speak in a while. She discusses George W. Bush and his ability to grasp ideas very well, even if he's simply horrid at explaining them to others. I can't recall ever hearing otherwise from anyone who knew the former President.

Also she mentions the progress in civil rights, and asserts that the country has come a long way from 50 years ago when her friend Denise McNair was killed in the Birmingham church bombing, to electing a black president.

To be fair, I have to nitpick the factual accuracy(as I do to everyone) of one statement she made, that "we were considered three-fifths of a human being in Thomas Jefferson's original Constitution" - what's wrong with that assertion is that Madison wrote most of the Constitution(Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence).

And hasn't the "three-fifths clause" (found in Article I, Section 2 of the constitution) been a thoroughly overused, inaccurate inducement to guilt for long enough? I guess it would have been better if the founders had counted all the slaves as "full" human beings for Congressional representation. They'd still have been enslaved, vulnerable to abuse, and disfranchised, and their masters would have more representation in Congress relative to the free states, but hey - at least the free descendants of said slaves wouldn't feel so bad!

In any case, my distracting rant aside, I have a hunch it'll be at least 5 years until the Bush administration can be evaluated rationally.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Venezuela's Chavez - he's not Marxist, but fascist(in the original sense of the word)

In this excellent article in the New Republic, Enrique Krauze discusses the philosophical background of Hugo Chavez, his successful appropriation of the personality cult surrounding Bolivar, his contempt for liberal democracy, and the anti-Semitism of Argentinian sociologist Norberto Ceresole, a longtime Chavez adviser. Also mentioned are the importance world oil prices have had in allowing Chavez to buy the affections of the masses, and the potential consequences if they remain at their current levels or lower.

The one thing I'd take issue with is that Krauze follows the conventional practice of describing fascism as "right-wing" and Marxism as "left-wing". This distinction usually seems to be made on the basis that Marxism is supposed to be internationalist in its outlook whereas Italian fascism and German National Socialism were obviously nationalistic. While true, I think that these ideas all had in common socialism, commitment to revolution, and contempt for liberal democracy, and that generally the label "right-wing" precludes at least the first two common traits.

It's interesting for me as well to think about what differences exist between the USA and Latin America that could be traced almost entirely to the fact that the 13 colonies had George Washington leading them to independence, and Ibero-America had Simon Bolivar.

A lot of revisionist history has criticized Washington and some of the other founders primarily on the basis of their continued ownership of slaves, and raised Lincoln far above him in the pantheon of American presidents; but this obscures Washington's real contribution to American politics. The office of the Presidency was created specifically for a reluctant Washington, and the precedents he set gave the position the stability which has lasted 220 years uninterrupted, with peaceful transitions of power throughout.

In contrast to this, Bolivar enthusiastically sought to be president for life, and to unite all of the former Spanish empire under his leadership. I suspect that his actions justified more than a little the many future Latin American dictators, presidents-for-life, etc. who desired similar positions for themselves.

Mark Bowden(of Black Hawk Down fame) on torture

Originally published in the Atlantic Magazine, October 2003.

This is definitely the most thorough analysis of the subject that I've ever read - Bowden has interviewed several former interrogators from such diverse organizations as the Vietnam-era USMC, Israel's Shabak[General Security Service], and the NYPD; and he properly distinguishes torture from "enhanced interrogation" and the like, and effective from ineffective interrogation methods; also he cites a few actual examples of the much-hypothesized "ticking time bomb" scenario where extracting information has literally been a matter of life and death for others.

He's more optimistic than I am, however, when he says that "no interrogator is ever going to be prosecuted for keeping Khalid Sheikh Mohammed awake, cold, alone, and uncomfortable. Nor should he be." I think of the "Wall" between intelligence and domestic law enforcement that existed pre-9/11, and I can't rule out the prospect of government lawyers being similarly overzealous in the near future.

What a hard question - can murderers and rapists be good doctors?

From the NYTimes. I am really, really amazed that some people actually had to think this one over. Also I was amused by the headline - "A Quandary in Sweden: Criminals in Med School". I got the initial impression they were worried about street level drug dealers or something of that ilk, but these cases are just a bit more severe.

A year ago, Sweden’s most prestigious medical school found itself in an international uproar after it unknowingly admitted a student who was a Nazi sympathizer and a convicted murderer, then scrambled to find a way to expel him.

It is hard to imagine how the case could get any more bizarre. But it has.

The 33-year-old student, Karl Helge Hampus Svensson, having been banished from the medical school of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm on the ground that he falsified his high school records, has now been admitted to a second well-known medical school — Uppsala, Sweden’s oldest university.
It goes on:

And in still another case, a 24-year-old medical student at Lund University was convicted last April of raping a 14-year-old boy while he slept. A district court sentenced the student to two years in prison, but a higher court reduced the sentence to two years’ probation and medical therapy.

When the dean at Lund sought to expel the student, a national board that reviews expulsions blocked the action, saying that although the man had committed a serious crime, he was not considered a threat to people or property. The decision was then reversed by an administrative court, which upheld the expulsion; the student did not appeal.

Hmm...2 years probation for raping a 14-year-old boy. And a guy who's already raped "isn't a threat to people or property". Seems reasonable to me! Don't we have courts in this country which state similar nonsense?
The lowest point, though, is when they interview some of the other med students:

But another Uppsala student, Karl-Wilhelm Olsson, 23, said that “the important factor is whether a person is a risk to another human being, and it’s hard to draw a line.”

He added that while there is no law requiring a university to bar prospective students because of a criminal past, “a student should be expelled if he or she is viewed as unfit.”

But Gustav Stalhammar, 25, said Mr. Svensson should be allowed to become a doctor. “Who is to say that he might not become a great doctor, even if it in some ways would feel wrong or awkward to have a murderer for a colleague?” he asked. “It is not fair to have preconceptions about his character.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some nonsense from the Secretary of Homeland Security

SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, in your first testimony to the US Congress as Homeland Security Secretary you never mentioned the word "terrorism." Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?

Napolitano: Of course it does. I presume there is always a threat from terrorism. In my speech, although I did not use the word "terrorism," I referred to "man-caused" disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur. The Johnstown Flood, or New Orleans after Katrina, or the various "famines" that Communism produces - those are "man-caused disasters". They are also things that the secretary shouldn't be worrying about when real threats to the security of the homeland exist.

SPIEGEL: You would like the German authorities to share personal data of terrorism suspects, such as fingerprinting and DNA?

Napolitano: That is exactly right. We will also want to share some experiences with counter-radicalization, how the radicalization of young Muslims in our countries can be prevented.

SPIEGEL: Europe has a problem with just such people, young Muslims who grew up in the West and are still susceptible to radical messages. The terrorists responsible for the July 2005 attacks in London are an example.

Napolitano: In some ways, the problem in Europe is greater than in the United States. But the questions are the same. How do you identify a youth who is susceptible to becoming radicalized? How do you work with that youth, his family and community to give them alternatives to radicalization?

I can't help but think that before the USA became so sensitive to other cultures she had a wonderful solution to this problem, called "Assimilation", or "The Melting Pot".

What do you really know about the AIG bonuses?

Maybe this is just wishful thinking, since the country has an abundance of people who get angry in Pavlovian fashion at whatever the charlatan du jour tells them to, and who successfully evade actual thinking on any subject whatsoever(the real critical thinking that isn't taught in schools anymore - it's been replaced by endless blather about feelings and such nonsense).

I would really love to see people take the tiniest bit of interest in actually understanding the economic and political happenings of late. Granted, you've all got a finite number of hours in every day, but can you really say that you can't take a half hour away from your drinking schedule to actually understand what you think you should be mad about?

Getting to some specific questions I'd like to see everyone answer to themselves:

1. About the bonuses paid to AIG employees. Do you understand that a "bonus" is just another name for variable compensation as paid to some people in the financial industry? Surely most of you know someone (a salesperson, or a business manager, or a restaurant server perhaps) who is paid in some way other than hourly or salaried. So why get mad about a bonus, per se?

But, you say, "They're being paid with my tax dollars!", and you're right. The ordinary wages and salaries of the employees are being paid with your tax dollars as well, so why not be angry about those as well? What's the difference between hundreds of thousands of dollars in "salary" and the same amount as a "bonus"? Can you answer these questions to yourself?

2. As to compensation in general. If your taxes are paying for a restaurant which has just spent $1000 on spoiled food, why are you worried about the $1 that they paid to the cook who does oil changes on the side and doesn't wash his hands at either job?

But then that's not the same, you'll assert. Some people deserve $100,000 a year but no CEO or commodity trader deserves $10 million! How about Oprah, or your favorite movie star, or athlete? Can you describe the typical workweek of Tom Cruise, or Albert Pujols, or Tiger Woods? How about the CEO or trader I've just mentioned? I know that I don't have the foggiest idea what any of those people's work consists of. If you don't know either, on what basis do you say that they're overpaid?

3. Government deficits. If I drink 10 beers in an hour, I'll be quite drunk. Does that mean I can't tell you that it's not a good idea for you to drink 30?

Getting much more serious, where do you think $1 trillion is going to come from to finance the deficit of this year alone? And how can the deficit become smaller between now and 2026, when the last of the 1946-1964 Baby Boom begins collecting Social Security? And are those separate withdrawals on your paycheck "Fed Income Tax" and "FICA" really not paying for some of the same things?

4. Perquisites. What are these corporations thinking, giving their executives access to a private jet? What similarities can you think of(assuming a Pittsburgh perspective here) between the 911th Airlift Wing's location at the PIT Airport, which is used by the U.S. President during visits to the area, and the Allegheny County airport? (Hint: think about what you DON'T have at either.) Answer the second question, and you've answered the first.