Monday, February 28, 2011

And then there were none...

The New York Times is reporting that the last American veteran of the First World War has died.

Frank Buckles, who drove an Army ambulance in France in 1918 and came to symbolize a generation of embattled young Americans as the last of the World War I doughboys, died on Sunday at his home in Charles Town, W. Va. He was 110.

My mother's father, Benjamin Davis, was also a WW1 veteran. He served in the Army Air Corps in France, just as his son, my Uncle Fred, did a generation later in WW2. Ben sewed canvas patches on damaged airplanes when they came back to the airbase. Fred was a navigator on bombers, mostly ones which flew out of Great Britain to attack the Nazis in Europe.

Grandpa Davis, who was in his early 30s when he was drafted to fight in that conflict, passed away at approximately age 92 in 1978. (We don't know for sure what year he was born in Poland.) After the war Ben was accidentally reunited with his family who had, unbeknownst to him, moved to Los Angeles from Poland. Ben had been in the Czar's army in Siberia 15 years or more earlier when he fled to China and lost all contact with his parents in Poland. By chance Ben was living just blocks from them in the garment district of East L.A. in 1920 when the were reunited.

He was only a corporal and he never got closer than 30 or so miles from the Western Front trenches, but Mr. Buckles became something of a national treasure as the last living link to the two million men who served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France in “the war to end all wars.”

In its time, the First World War was generally called The Great War. I've read a number of excellent books detailing it. My favorite was probably A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin. That book tells the story of the war and its aftermath in the Middle East.

For a general history of the war, I recommend, The First World War: A Complete History by Martin Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert's book is very well written and gives an interesting insight into the many poets who served in that conflict. He quotes from a variety of poems penned by soldiers in the field of battle. The most famous poem from WW1 was, of course, In Flanders Fields by a Canadian doctor named Lt. Colonel John McCrae.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Should a Congressman step down because he is ill?

The story of David Wu, a Democratic member of Congress from Oregon, has gotten a lot of play in Washington, DC and in his home state, but not too much nationally.

According to those closest to Rep. Wu on his staff, he is mentally ill. Based on the stories, it is unclear to me what specific condition he has. The stories simply cite his "erratic behavior" and various "strange episodes," such as emailing pictures of himself dressed up as a cat.

The National Journal today sums up editorial opinions from Oregon, calling for him to resign:

Even as several of his Oregon papers have called for Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) to resign, the seven-term congressman is showing no signs of stepping aside, and even filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday to begin organizing a reelection campaign for 2012.

The newspapers requesting he quit Congress are small and large:

On Thursday, the Beaverton Valley Times wrote that "Wu's troubles should force him to seek an immediate leave of absence from Congress or resign from office altogether" but that they did express hope he "receives professional help and recovers." The Times also wrote that Wu's latest actions weren't "all that surprising" though, as the Portland congressman has been rumored to have eccentric tendencies for years, but nothing as extreme as what happened last fall.

I don't know enough about Wu to say that resignation is the right course. However, it appears that the newspapers calling for him to step down don't believe treatment from a psychiatrist will lead to a satsifactory outcome, where he can perform his job. (My guess is that the newspapers are as ignorant as I am when it comes to his diagnosis and prospect for improvement.)

The Eugene Register-Guard wrote Wednesday that it was the fact that Wu was less-than-forthcoming about his problems that should cause him to step down. Wu "says he has sought professional care, and supporters claim that seeking treatment should not disqualify a person for public office. They're right, but that's not the issue. The real problem is a lack of candor, and for that he should resign."

Beside the stigma and embarrassment of mental illness, it is also true that many patients lack insight into their own disease. If you have skin cancer, you can see that your skin is not right. But when you have a brain disorder, there is nothing tangible and you might not realize that you are sick, even when others tell you that you are. As such, it seems a bit strange to suggest that "the real problem is a lack of candor." The real problem is likely that he is mentally ill and has not yet figured that out. If he gets good psychiatric treatment, perhaps he will recover and then his candor or lack thereof matters not at all.

The Daily Astorian was more sympathetic, writing that "Wu's situation appears to involve symptoms of mental illness, and that is sad to observe." But the paper ultimately comes to the conclusion that it "would be the better part of smartness for Wu to resign, but political decisions are more often emotional than rational."

I find it interesting that these newspapers want Wu to step down because he is sick and as such cannot serve his constituents. I don't think they are wrong to think that way. But compare Wu to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head and is, likewise, unable to serve her constituents. Would all of these papers call for Ms. Giffords to resign her seat?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It is very unclear that Libya will have a good future after Kaddafi

As the Libyan civil war grows in violence every day--meaning Col. Kaddafi has been more and more ruthless trying to remain on his gilded throne--there have been suggestions floated in the United States that we ought to get involved, that we ought to side with the rebellion in order to help push Kaddafi from power.

Paul Wolfowitz, for example, wants the "imposition of a NATO-supported 'no fly' zone over Libya to halt further bombing by Qaddafi’s forces."

I'm sure Mr. Wolfowitz is well-intentioned. However, I think the risk that the rebellion there is seen as a coup by foreign powers is far greater than the risk of letting the Libyans defeat Kaddafi on their own. If the rebels are judged to be tools of foreign powers, then Kaddafi will gain strength from his nationalists.

It's possible that this war will go on for a long time and will cost a lot of lives and destroy a lot of that nation's infrastructure. That, I am sure, is what Wolfowitz would like to avoid. But I think it is far more dangerous than just letting things play out.

What ultimately comes of this war is hard to know. I doubt in the end Col. Kaddafi can win. However, once he is dead--it looks like he won't go into exile--there are a great number of possible outcomes I can fathom, many of which are bad for us (and probably bad for the Libyan people):

1. Dissolution. It's entirely possible that Libya breaks up into multiple, tribal-based smaller countries. If that happens, there would be a chance that those new states would fight each other over borders and minerals;

2. An Islamic state. Col. Kaddafi is now claiming that Osama bin Laden is the force behind this rebellion.

In a rambling discourse, he blamed the uprising on the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, saying he had drugged the people, giving them “hallucinogenic pills in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe.”

I doubt in any country anywhere at any time there is a genuine desire among a majority of citizens for an Islamic Republic where dirty old mullahs hold sway. However, in the absence of truly democratic parties, it's always possible in the Muslim world that Islamists are the best organized and most ruthless opponents of the regime in charge. If a vacuum arises, no one but the Islamists may be able to fill it;

3. Chaos. Somalia is a fine example of this. It's been 20 years since they had a central government which actually ruled that country. It's entirely possible that no one group will be able to take charge of Libya after Kaddafi is gone. What could follow is the rule of petty warlords over small patches of territory, each, like a mafia godfather, ruling with violence over his own people and fighting endlessly against other gangsters. In that scenario, Libya no longer produces much oil, and the standard of living drops off considerably, even from its current pathetic state;

4. A new strongman. It may take a decade or more for one to emerge, but I think this is a likely outcome in Libya. A new strongman, who personalizes power much like Kaddafi did, will be able to rule over the entire country by installing loyalists everywhere at the local level and quickly destroying anyone who would challenge him. No strongman rulers are ever entirely benevolent, but if Libya is lucky they might end up with one who advances that country, creating a vibrant market, investing in better public infrastructure and improving their basic public education. On the other hand, he could be a despot, just like Kaddafi has been for 42 years;

5. A democracy. Libya lacks just about everything you need to succeed as a democracy. It is poor and full of illiterates. It has no capitalist middle class. It has no tradition of democracy and civil rights. It is divided along tribal lines. And, because the people are Muslims, it is culturally not geared toward democracy. The people expect their leaders to be authoritarian. I don't expect a democratic outcome. However, if it comes, it may be because nothing else would work. Maybe the Libyans realize that a strongman is apt to end up being another brutal dictator. Maybe the Libyan people love Libya as a country and don't want to live as tribesmen. Maybe the Libyans have seen how horrible Islamism is in Iran and Saudi Arabia and everywhere it has been tried and will reject that as an option. Hopefully they will behave collectively and avoid the chaos of an anarchic state.

A best case scenario for Libyan "democracy" would be free and fair elections which put in a parliament which is broadly representative; and gives Libya a president whose powers are checked by the parliament. I expect they would have to start off in a socialist manner, making sure that the country's oil riches are collectively owned and serve the best interests of the infrastructure of their entire country. In time, they need to encourage the development of capitalist investment and better basic education. Hopefully they can figure out a way to respect the Islamic religion without letting the religious impose themselves on the state.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Morons: Don't believe the scientists; we know better than y'all

On average, I estimate, being a Southerner costs you 20 IQ points. How else to explain why such a large percentage of people from the South are blithering idiots?

In the 1950s and '60s, the stupid cause of the South was its indefensible defense of racist laws--most notably the suppression of the rights of blacks to vote and enjoy other civil rights. Once being a racist became unpopular, most of the Southern bigots pretended that segregation had nothing to do with racism and that no one they knew harbored any ill-will toward blacks. It was as if they thought, by saying the South was not a bastion of idiot racists, everyone else would forget that the South was a bastion of idiot racists.

In the 1920s and '30s, the stupid cause of South (and the Midwest) was the indefensible offense against the Darwinian science that human beings and other animals and plants evolve over millions and tens of millions of years. The idiot promoters of Creationism--yes, a few still exist to this day--based their anti-science attack on the Bible. Fundamentalists, unaware that the Bible is filled with errors and a whole lot of nonsense, take its words literally. So Adam was the first man and Eve was made from his rib; and the Earth is but 7,000 or so years old, created in six days by the magic father of Jesus.

The cause of causes of the South was its defense of the Lost Cause--the Civil War. Some idiot Southerners to this day pretend that their cause was not about fighting to retain slavery. It was. The enslavement of blacks was "the Southern way of life."

Today, the idiots of the South (and other parts of our country) have a new idiotic cause--their attacks on climate science. Never mind that most of these morons have no scientific education. Certainly none of them is an actual climatologist. But like their forefathers' attacks on the science of evolution, these retards feel like they know science better than the intelligent people who have dedicated their lives to studying the climate.

The New York Times has a story about a leading anti-science moron--of course he is from the Bible Belt--named Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II. Cooch was elected as the attorney general of Virginia.

For nearly a year, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Virginia’s crusading Republican attorney general, has waged a one-man war on the theory of man-made global warming.

Invoking his subpoena powers, he has sought to force the University of Virginia to turn over the files of a prominent climatology professor, asserting that his research may be marred by fraud. The university is battling the move in the courts.

At the same time, Mr. Cuccinelli is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its ruling that carbon dioxide and other global warming gases pose a threat to human health and welfare, describing the science behind the agency’s decision as “unreliable, unverifiable and doctored.”

So this ding-dong with a law degree thinks every one who studies climate science is engaged in some conspiracy?

Now his allegations of manipulated data and scientific fraud are resonating in Congress, where Republican leaders face an influx of new members, many of them Tea Party stalwarts like Mr. Cuccinelli, eager to inveigh against the body of research linking man-made emissions to warming.

“There’s a huge appetite among the rank-and-file to raise fundamental questions about the underlying science,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist and energy lobbyist.

It would help the retard cause if they could find some reputable climatologists to support their cause. Instead, they tend to rely on the "findings" of petroleum engineers working for the oil and coal-mining companies. It doesn't quite hit the fundamentalists that those "scientists," who don't study the climate, might be biased in favor of their employers?

Responding to those concerns, the new Republican majority has introduced legislation that would strip federal regulators of their power to police the industrial emissions that contribute to climate change. But party leaders, treading warily, have cast their arguments against regulation largely in terms of economic consequences, playing down the prospect of major hearings to examine the scientific basis of human-caused warming.

Even dedicated opponents of climate action concede that hauling climate scientists before Congress and challenging their findings could easily backfire, as many representatives lack a sophisticated grasp of climatology and run the risk of making embarrassing errors.

Saying they "lack a sophisticated grasp of climatology" is another way of saying we are dealing with a large group of retards.

“It’s a trap for a lot of members,” said Marc Morano, a former Republican staff member on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee and publisher of Climate Depot, a Web site that advances the arguments of climate skeptics. “They’re apt to make mistakes.”

You mean to say retards don't know what the fuck they are talking about?

After fighting for decades to defend slavery, after fighting for decades to defend Creationism, and after fighting for decades to defend Jim Crow, the South lost every one of its stupid causes. But each time it lost, the morons of the South pretended that the position they faught for was not the position they really held. It was something else.

My guess is that for the next 20 or 30 years the South will fight against climatology. And then when all is lost and their cause is dead, those retards who claimed that they knew the science better than the scientists will pretend they never held such moronic views as they now hold.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Maybe it is not such a good thing to be the heir to the throne these days?

The little man standing next to President Obama in the photo above is H.E. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea. He is a serial murderer, a debaucherer, a kleptocrat and a megalomaniac along the lines of Saddam Hussein. With tremendous reserves of oil and natural gas in and around his country, Mr. Mbasogo is one of the world's wealtiest and most corrupt dictators.

Despite all the money in Equatorial Guinea, the people who live there have one of the worst standards of living in the world. They have high infant mortality rates and very low life expectancies. Disease, poverty, malnutrition and misery are ubiquitous in that oil-rich land.

Ken Silverstein, in this week's Foreign Policy magazine, details the lavish California lifestyle of the son of the dictator in Teodorin's World. This son is the heir to his father's throne. But maybe the people of his country will follow the steps of Egyptians in denying their dicatator's son that throne? If Col. Kaddafi is ousted in Libya and his son, Seif, is denied the reins of power, a trend could be emerging in which long-time dictators are being overrun just before they can hand off power to their filial heirs.

Here is how Silverstein's long piece begins:

The owner of the estate at 3620 Sweetwater Mesa Road, which sits high above Malibu, California, calls himself a prince, and he certainly lives like one. A long, tree-lined driveway runs from the estate's main gate past a motor court with fountains and down to a 15,000-square-foot mansion with eight bathrooms and an equal number of fireplaces. The grounds overlook the Pacific Ocean, complete with swimming pool, tennis court, four-hole golf course, and Hollywood stars Mel Gibson, Britney Spears, and Kelsey Grammer for neighbors.

With his short, stocky build, slicked-back hair, and Coke-bottle glasses, the prince hardly presents an image of royal elegance. But his wardrobe was picked from the racks of Versace, Gucci, and Dolce & Gabbana, and he spared no expense on himself, from the $30 million in cash he paid for the estate to what Senate investigators later reported were vast sums for household furnishings: $59,850 for rugs, $58,000 for a home theater, even $1,734.17 for a pair of wine glasses. When he arrived back home -- usually in the back seat of a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce or one of his other several dozen cars -- his employees were instructed to stand in a receiving line to greet the prince. And then they lined up to do the same when he left.

Was it just a fantasy? No escape from reality?

Probably like a lot of people with too little money to actually do it, I have long fantasized the notion of taking off in a yacht and sailing all the way around the world, traversing the Panama Canal, circumnavigating South America and Africa, rounding the Indian subcontinent and the coast of Australia, passing through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, visiting Hanoi and Hong Kong and Hawaii, before making my way back to California under the Golden Gate Bridge.

What never occurred to me in that dream was piracy. Yet that is, alas, the dark side of that fantasy, especially in the Arabian Sea. Every day, Somali pirates, usually armed with light military weapons, are capturing seacraft, large and small, and holding them for ransom. That is what happened to four Americans last week on a yachting trip around the world:

The Americans, Jean and Scott Adam, from Southern California, and Phyllis Mackay and Robert A. Riggle, from Seattle, were sailing on their 58-foot yacht for the tiny nation of Djibouti to refuel when they were hijacked several hundred miles off the coast of Oman on Friday afternoon.

When I heard about their capture, it immediately made me think of my yachting fantasy. It was disenchanting. In an instant I knew that the dream of visiting every port from Sydney to Capetown could become a nightmare. I thought of the opening lyrics in the Queen song, Bohemian Rhapsody:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see

The song itself has to do with a "poor boy" who has killed someone and his life is thereafter spiraling downhill. But it works (in my mind) for any time you put yourself in a terrible position, such as getting captured by pirates:

Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body's aching all the time
Goodbye everybody - I've got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooo - (anyway the wind blows)
I don't want to die
I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all

This morning, the New York Times reported that all four Americans aboard that yacht, the Quest, had been killed by their captors:

Four Americans taken hostage after their yacht was hijacked by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa last week were killed early Tuesday when gunfire erupted during attempts by the United States Navy to negotiate with their captors, American military officials said.

Two pirates were also killed in a confrontation with Navy forces and 13 were taken into American military custody.

The 13 pirates taken into custody will surely be tried for piracy and murder in US courts. I would honestly rather none of them get a trial at all. My sincere preference would be that the US Navy, today, place them in a small dinghy at sea and kill all of them with a torpedo blast. They don't deserve our Constitutional protections; we don't deserve to pay the costs of their lawyers and incarceration.

According to the military, the confrontation began after a pirate shot a rocket-propelled grenade at the nearby Navy ship, the Sterett, at 1 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday, which would be mid-morning local time. At the same time, American forces aboard also heard gunfire on the hijacked yacht.

In response, the military said, a small rescue force of 15 Navy Seals in two high-speed assault craft moved to board the Quest and were shot at by several of the pirates on board. In the ensuing gun battle, two pirates were killed.

It's probably a line out of some movie, but 'Who do these dumb Africans think they are dealing with?' They have nothing to gain getting into a fight with the United States Navy. Do they think we are pussies like Europeans?

The American forces then boarded the vessel and discovered that all four of the hostages had been shot. Two had died immediately, and two others succumbed to their wounds shortly after, despite emergency medical care provided by the American forces at the scene. The forces also discovered the remains of two other pirates who appeared to have been killed earlier, possibly by fellow pirates, the military said.

The sad truth is that this squadron of criminals will be instantly replaced by the Somali pirate breeding machine. It's not as if Somalia is not overflowing with human garbage willing and able to do these dastardly deeds. However, if we are as brutal with them as possible, maybe the message will be sent: Don't mess with Uncle Sam.

Despite an international effort to ensure safe passage through the world’s most treacherous waters, pirates have escalated their attacks in recent years, striking more ships and taking more hostages last year than in any year on record, according to the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau.

At the present time, 33 vessels bearing 712 hostages were still being held for ransom. But of those, only one — a South African yacht with two passengers hijacked in 2010 — was a recreational vessel.

This strikes me as an eminently solvable problem: fly a number of unmanned drones over the Somali coast; any time a Somali boat tries to leave port, blow it up and kill everyone on board. That would destroy their fishing fleet and kill a lot of innocents, which is unfortunate. But at the same time it would make piracy a losing proposition. And doing so would return that portion of the Arabian Sea to the civilized world.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Libya: The end of the road for Kaddafi's tyranny?

When anti-government protests spread around the Arab world from Tunisia to Egypt to Jordan to Bahrain, I pointed out that in the most oppressive societies, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia, no such movements had arisen. I thought this was because they had stagnant economies and their brutal regimes would countenance no mild sit-ins filled with protesters carrying placards and asking for change. They would plow their homes, kill the protesters and torture their loved ones before anything could get going. And the citizens of those lands, long afraid of their rulers, understood that.

The last time there was a protest movement in Syria, the Al-Assad regime had murdered roughly 20,000 opponents (mostly Sunni Islamists), killing them with military weaponry and covering their corpses with asphalt. Thomas Friedman, who witnessed the tarmac of death in Hama, Syria, called this response of the regime "the Hama rules."

But right now it appears I was completely wrong about Libya. It looks as if Col. Kaddafi (which can be spelled many different ways*) is losing his grip on power. This is what the New York Times is now reporting:

The 40-year-rule of the Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi appeared to teeter Monday as his security forces retreated to a few buildings in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, fires burned unchecked and senior government officials and diplomats announced defections. The country’s second-largest city remained under the control of rebels.

Security forces loyal to Mr. Qaddafi defended a handful of strategic locations, including the state television headquarters and the presidential palace, witnesses reported from Tripoli. Fires from the previous night’s rioting burned at many intersections, most stores were shuttered, and long lines were forming for a chance to buy bread or gas.

Unlike in Egypt, where American reporters were able to cover the story from on the ground amid the protesters, none of what is happening in Libya is transpiring on my televsion. Nonetheless, this sounds like very bad news for Col. Kaddafi. His opponents are obviously not taking over cities and government buildings without some violence of their own. At the same time, they are surely outgunned by Kaddafi's military and police. So it must be the case that Kaddafi's forces are defecting in large numbers or just refusing to fight.

In a sign of growing cracks within the government, several senior officials — including the justice minister and members of the Libyan mission to the United Nations — announced their resignations. And protesters in Benghazi, the second-largest city where the revolt began and more than 200 were killed, issued a list of demands calling for a secular interim government led by the army in cooperation with a council of Libyan tribes.

Kaddafi's official henchmen would not be leaving their posts if they didn't think the Colonel was going to be deposed from his throne in Tripoli. It's also a positive sign, from my secular perspective, that the protesters want a secular government. I would imagine, nonetheless, that some protesters against Kaddafi are Islamists.

The ubiquitous posters of Colonel Qaddafi around the capital had been torn down or burned, witnesses said.

You know you are in a shit-hole of a country when they have ubiquitous posters and statues and so on of the dictator. It's a message which says: 'I am the state. It's about me, not you, folks. You better bleeping kiss my ass or else.'

Tripoli descended into chaos in less than 24 hours as a six-day-old revolt suddenly spread from Benghazi across the country on Sunday. The revolt shaking Libya is the latest and most violent turn in a rebellion across the Arab world that seemed unthinkable just two months ago and that has already toppled autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia.

Not that the governments in Egypt or Tunisia were democracies, but it's quite unfair to them to even be mentioned in the same breath as a tyrant like Moammar Kaddafi.

In a rambling, disjointed address delivered about 1 a.m. on Monday, Mr. Qaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, played down the uprising sweeping the country, which witnesses and rights activists say has left more than 220 people dead and hundreds wounded from gunfire by security forces. He repeated several times that “Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt, ” neighbors to the east and west.

As Saddam Hussein's sons found out, it's not so good being the son of a toppled dictator. I would imagine that the Colonel's boy will soon be fleeing Libya. I'm not sure where he will wind up. Maybe Switzerland? I doubt he would enjoy living in a theocracy like Saudi Arabia.

News agencies reported that several foreign oil and gas companies were moving on Monday to evacuate their workers from the country. The Portuguese government sent a plane to Libya to pick up its citizens and other residents of the European Union, while Turkey sent two ferries for its construction workers in the strife-torn country, The Associated Press reported.

If this revolt in Libya does not end in a clean victory for the rebels or for Col. Kaddafi, I would think that world oil prices will go up for it. There was some of that with Egypt, just out of fears that the Suez Canal would shut down. However, Egypt is not a major oil producer. Libya is.

Oil prices jumped on Monday because of the ongoing turmoil in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, warned protesters on Sunday that they risked igniting a civil war in which Libya's oil wealth "will be burned." By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark crude for March delivery was up $3.10 to $89.30.

The New York Times story notes that the Libyan regime is trying to protects its petroleum facilities:

The Quryna newspaper, which has ties to Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif, said that protests have occurred in Ras Lanuf, an oil town where some workers were being assembled to defend a refinery complex from attacks.

Quryna also reported that Mr. Qaddafi’s justice minister, Mustafa Abud Al Jeleil, had resigned in protest over the deadly response to the anti-government demonstrations.

How could one be a 'justice minister' in Kaddafi's government and be at all surprised that the Colonel's response to protests would be anything but deadly? I guess Mr. Al Jeleil thinks that Kaddafi is going to lose and that by quitting now the protesters will not want to kill him. I suspect, though, that there are going to be a lot of recriminations against Kaddafi's vassals, if the Colonel is driven from power.

Al-Manara, an opposition website, reported that a senior military official, Col. Abdel Fattah Younes in Benghazi, resigned, and the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Colonel Qaddafi ordered that one of his top generals, Abu Bakr Younes, be put under house arrest after disobeying an order to use force against protesters in several cities.

This is the sort of thing Hitler did when Nazi Germany was in its final days. It makes me wonder if Kaddafi won't end up taking his own life, just as Hitler did.

Protesters remained in control of Benghazi on Monday. Online videos showed protesters flying an independence flag over the roof top of a building in Benghazi, and a crowd celebrating what they called “the fall of the regime in their city.”

If Kaddafi makes a comeback, he is going to level everything in Benghazi. It has been from that second city where the protests against his regime have been strongest.

The younger Mr. Qaddafi blamed Islamic radicals and Libyans in exile for the uprising. He offered a vague package of reforms in his televised speech, potentially including a new flag, national anthem and confederate structure. But his main theme was to threaten Libyans with the prospect of civil war over its oil resources that would break up the country, deprive residents of food and education, and even invite a Western takeover.

With no tradition of democracy and with no free capitalist class, it would not be too surprising if theocrats come into power. If so, then the liberty won will soon enough be lost. Time will tell. However, I am heartened that the protesters' only published demands call for a secular government.

With little shared national experience aside from brutal Italian colonialism, Libyans tend to identify themselves as members of tribes or clans rather than citizens of a country, and Colonel Qaddafi has governed in part through the mediation of a “social leadership committee” composed of about 15 representatives of various tribes, said Diederik Vandewalle, a Dartmouth professor who has studied the country.

That makes it sound like Libya might break up into multiple new countries.

Over the last three days Libyan security forces have killed at least 223 people, according to a tally by the group Human Rights Watch. Several people in Benghazi hospitals, reached by telephone, said they believed that as many as 200 had been killed and more than 800 wounded there on Saturday alone, with many of the deaths from machine gun fire.

Compared with Egypt, 223 is a large number. Compared with most historical revolts and civil wars, 223 is nothing. I am somewhat surprised the number of deaths is not yet much larger.


*This is what The Straight Dope reported about the spelling of Kaddafi's last name:

I count at least 12 different ways to spell the colonel's handle, including Qaddhafi (New York Review of Books), Qaddafi (New Republic), Gaddafi (Time), Kaddafi (Newsweek), Khadafy (Maclean's), Qadhafi (U.S. News & World Report), Qadaffi (Business Week), and Gadaffi (World Press Review). Libya's UN mission, in an effort to spread further confusion, spells the name Qathafi, and I know I've seen Gadaafi somewhere. To make matters worse, the Library of Congress and the Middle East Studies Association, to whom one would ordinarily look for guidance, have a fondness for Qadhdhafi, which is an abomination unto God. I think you now begin to grasp the dimensions of the problem.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

With government, there has never been such a thing as "collective bargaining"; it's a fiction of the unions

My first experiences with bargaining came as a teenager in my first trips across the border into Mexico. When I wanted to buy a shirt or shoes in Davis, I would go to the store and pay whatever the listed price was, if I thought a store was offering a good deal. As economists would say, I was deciding that I would rather have that pair of sneakers than I would hold onto my $20 bill; and the store would rather have my $20 bill than they would that pair of sneakers. By trading the shoes for the $20, both sides were better off.

In Mexico, prices were far more pliable for just about everything. A blanket I liked might be listed at $25. But that was just a starting point. I would say to the seller, "I like this one. How about $10?" He would then look away in disgust, as if I had insulted his family's good name. When he looked away, I would start to leave, seeing that along that same street there were dozens of others selling similar goods. Two steps out, he would stop me: "Wait! Wait, Mister! I give this one for you just $20." I would stop and turn back to him and shake my head. "No, that's too much. I'll give you $10." He would then put on the sad face and exclaim, "I need to feed my children, Mister. Please. $15 is the lowest I can go." Feeling guilty, I would nod, "Okay. $15." I got the blanket for 60% of what he listed it at; and the seller was happy to make whatever profit he made. These sorts of bargaining sessions went on--and still go on--all day long in Mexican street markets.

In Wisconsin, the public employees unions are in an uproar, because the reforms of Republican Gov. Scott Walker would impair their bargaining position:

State workers and pro-labor activists have filled the streets of downtown Madison to oppose Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to force many Wisconsin employees to contribute more for their healthcare and pensions and to strip them of most of their collective bargaining rights.

What the government labor unions fail to concede is that there never has been collective bargaining with them. In order to bargain, you have to have both sides fully represented, where those fighting for the interests of the taxpayers are always trying to get the best deal for the taxpayers, just as the union reps are trying to do the same for their members.

Yet the taxpayers are almost never represented. The unions give millions of dollars in campaign contributions to the politicians who are supposed to be working for all taxpayers. Then when the two sides meet at "the bargaining table," the politicians roll over to the unions. They don't just cave in; they screw over the taxpayers with giveaways which harm the long-term interests of the people who elected them.

Part of this, of course, is with the voters. They elect corrupt stooges who take union money. But ultimately, the system is rigged all on the union side. That's why they are turning out in big numbers to keep the system of phony "collective bargaining" in place.

If you question how fake these negotiations are, then answer this: Why is it that all public employees, including those fresh on the job in places like Davis, get 3 weeks of paid holidays, when the norm in the private sector is one week (or 5 days), even for senior employees? Why do public employees in mid-career, including those in low-level positions, get 4-6 weeks of paid vacation time every year, when their private sector counterparts get half that? Why are the medical benefits and pension benefits given to public sector workers worth 5 to 10 times as much as those given to their equivalents in the private sector? Why are public employees often paid by the taxpayers to attend union functions, where they learn negotiating skills to get even better deals from the taxpayers?

The answer to all of these questions is the other side: unions are not "bargaining" with people who are putting their own money, their own interests on the line. They are bargaining with people who they already bought off. It's not a fair fight. If a union runs into someone on the other side of the table who is willing to hold the line, they will work harder in the next election to make sure he is replaced by a stooge whose campaign they funded.

Think back to my bargaining experiences in Mexico. I had every incentive to buy that blanket for as little as possible. The seller had every incentive to get the highest price possible. We met in the middle. That was bargaining. But if I was buying that blanket for, say, the City of Davis, and I had nothing personally at stake in the purchase, I would have paid the full $25. Why go through the hassle of bargaining, when it's no skin off my back to waste $10 of the taxpayers' money? That's the way public employers have always bargained. That's why public employees are paid so much more than their private sector counterparts. That's why governments up and down California are going broke.

It won't affect me one way or the other what goes on in Wisconsin. However, I hope this governor breaks the unions and ends the fraudulent collective bargaining process. It would set a good precedent for our nation.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Boys should not compete against girls in combat sports

The story of Joel Northrup, a high school sophomore from Iowa who withdrew from his state's wrestling championships rather than compete against a girl, Cassy Herkelman, got a lot of media play this week.

Northrup explained that it was his religious beliefs which told him to bow out of this match.

"Wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times," Northrup said in a statement released by his high school. "As a matter of conscience and my faith I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa."

Critics of Mr. Northrup seemed to think his religious convictions led him to the wrong decision.

Speaking for myself, as a non-religious person, I think Northrup was completely right. It's insane to have boys and girls competing against each other in a violent, combative sport like wrestling.

It has little or nothing to do with the accidental touching of breasts or genitals. It has to do with the fact that in a combat sport you are literally trying to dominate your opponent with violence, something boys ought not be doing to girls, ever.

If girls want to wrestle, they should exclusively wrestle other girls. If there are not enough girls interested, then there is no reason to have female wrestling as a sport.

Outlawing drugs creates a black market and leads to police corruption

The San Jose Mercury News is reporting today that Norman Wielsch, commander of the state's Central Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team, or CNET, was arrested on charges "of running a narcotics-selling scheme, possibly with confiscated drugs." Also arrested by federal agents was "Chris Butler, who runs the investigative firm Butler and Associates."

Both men were booked into County Jail in Martinez on as many as 25 suspected felony offenses, including possessing, transporting and selling marijuana, methamphetamine and steroids, and embezzlement, second-degree burglary and conspiracy.

Probably most narcotics enforcement agents are on the up and up. It's not everyday one is arrested for the crimes Mr. Wielsch is accused of committing. However, it is the case that the rich profits which can be made selling drugs--due to the fact that they are not regulated and illegal--give cops a strong incentive to do so.

My guess is that there is at least one police officer on every police force for a city the size of Davis, 65,000, or larger who is corrupt, who is either stealing drugs from evidence lockers or is shaking down dealers.

Very few of these corrupt officers are ever arrested. I suspect that is so because their departments are either unwilling or unable to investigate them. Yet all the time there are stories in the news about confiscated drug evidence missing from police lockers.

In the last few days there was: 1. a story in Georgia about 2 kilos of missing cocaine; 2. a story in Broomfield, Colo. about missing drugs from their evidence room; 3. a federal lab which tests drug evidence in California missing large amounts of that drug evidence; and 4. a story from Boston where "hundreds of bags" of drug evidence is missing.

Common sense suggests, if some cops are willing to steal evidence from drug lockers after it was placed in custody, far more would just never enter that evidence in the first place. It does not seem hard to imagine that there are many police officers profitting from the drug trade by taking cash payoffs from wealthy drug dealers in exchange for not arresting them or stealing the money from them or confiscating the drugs and never reporting that confiscation.

All of these sorts of corrupt police activities were rife in the days of alcohol prohibition. There is no reason to think they are not common in our times of drug prohibition.

The answer to ridding police departments of these crimes is not just to investigate and arrest bad cops. It's also to legalize and regulate the production, distribution and sale of street drugs, which would wipe out the profits and take away the incentive for cops to be dishonest.

Death of a firefighter

Regardless of whatever political problems I have with the firefighters' union in Davis, I am fully cognizant of the fact that when they have to enter a burning building or they face a raging wildfire, theirs is a very dangerous job which takes a great amount of training and courage.

Today in Los Angeles, a firefighter who was 2 years from his scheduled retirement died in the line of duty:

A Los Angeles firefighter died Friday from injuries he sustained when a ceiling collapsed on him in a house fire late Wednesday night in the Hollywood Hills.

"I don't think any of us as firefighters would expect such a catastrophic failure of ceiling," city Fire Chief Millage Peaks said after announcing the death of Glenn Allen, 61, an L.A. firefighter for more than 36 years.

Allen, who was less than two years from retirement, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. His first grandchild is expected to be born Saturday.

When Allen and dozens of other firefighters arrived at the scene, the fire was blazing across the attic of a house in the 1500 block of North Viewsite Drive.

Running through the attic were plastic pipes for fire sprinklers. The fire melted the pipes, flooding the attic and filling the insulation with water, Peaks said. The weight of the insulation appears to have led a large section of the ceiling to collapse, injuring Allen and five other firefighters.

One of the firefighters was still hospitalized Friday with a broken ankle, but the others had been treated and released, Peaks said.

When the ceiling collapsed, Allen was covered with debris. Rescuers used a chainsaw to reach him. When they found him, he was not breathing and his heart had stopped.

The newly built three-story house was 12,500 square feet, according to Peaks. The Fire Department was continuing to investigate the cause of the blaze on Friday. But officials said it seemed to have started around a fireplace, then raced up the walls to the attic and spread. A couple who had been sleeping upstairs escaped without injury.

My sincerest condolences go out to Mr. Allen's loved ones.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Egypt going forward

Hamza El-Nakhal wrote a letter to The Davis Enterprise, today, regarding the situation in Egypt, his native country.

He wrote:

I am so proud of all the defenseless Egyptian youths who stood up to the dictator and his terrorist regime for 18 days in Tahrir (Liberation) square in downtown Cairo. They endured the shutting down of communication means such as the Internet and mobile phone services, thugs on horseback, criminal drivers who plowed through the pedestrians, rock throwing, rubber and live bullets, tear gas and cocktail bombs, and freeing criminal prisoners and ordering them to cause as much chaos as possible in the civilian population.

I too feel good about the peaceful demonstrators in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt. They behaved admirably. However, it should be noted that, as brutal as the Mubarak government (and the thugs within his political party) could be, that regime was tame compared to most Arab and Muslim governments. It is pure hyperbole to call Mubarak's government a "terrorist regime," when it is seen in the light of Syria, Algeria, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran.

Protests have spread recently to Libya. Not surprisingly, Col. Kaddafi's response was much more violent than Gen. Mubarak's was:

The severity of a Libyan crackdown on its so-called Day of Rage began to emerge Friday when a human rights advocacy group said 24 people had been killed by gunfire on Thursday and news reports said further clashes with security forces were feared at the funerals for the dead.

A later report from the AP says 84 have been killed by Col. Kaddafi's goons.

Mr. El-Nakhal adds that, "Egyptians lived under the iron fist of that regime for almost 30 years." That is true. But it's not the case that before Mubarak Egyptians had legitimately elected or liberal governments. Nasser and Sadat were, like Mubarak, military leaders who became dictators. Before them, Egypt had a king in power.

While Mubarak was no more democratic than his predecessors, he was no less. And in fact, Mubarak had started to liberalize their socialist economy. That liberalization led to the creation of new industry in Egypt, and its byproduct was a rising economy and a new middle class. The protestors in Tahrir Square were not peasants. Nor were most of them workers in Egypt's socialist enterprises. A great percentage of them were educated, middle class people whose fortunes were improved by the liberalization.

I hope the coming elections will be democratic. I have a small wager that they will be. However, because of the widespread illiteracy and bad education in Egypt, the ubiquitous poverty--the L.A. Times reports that about 40% of Egyptians live on $2 a day or less--and the lack of a tradition of democratic governance and the troubling influence of Muslim extremists, I don't have a lot of hope for much democracy after the elections.

One problem is that the military in Egypt is an independent entity which wants to end liberalization and return to the socialist ways which were adopted in the 1950s when Soviet planners directed the Egyptian economy:

The Egyptian military defends the country, but it also runs day care centers and beach resorts. Its divisions make television sets, jeeps, washing machines, wooden furniture and olive oil, as well as bottled water under a brand reportedly named after a general’s daughter, Safi.

From this vast web of businesses, the military pays no taxes, employs conscripted labor, buys public land on favorable terms and discloses nothing to Parliament or the public. ...

Field Marshal Tantawi, the defense minister, and other senior officers were all commissioned before Mr. Sadat switched Egypt’s allegiance to the West in 1979. They trained in the former Soviet Union, where sprawling business empires under military control were not uncommon. ...

(American ambassador to Egypt), Margaret Scobey, wrote of the plans for economic liberalization: “The military views the (government owned enterprise's) privatization efforts as a threat to its economic position, and therefore generally opposes economic reforms. We see the military’s role in the economy as a force that generally stifles free market reform by increasing direct government involvement in the markets.”

One probable political change in the next year, whether there are democratic elections or not, is that Egypt will become more socialist in its economy. The trend toward liberalization will end. And many of those protestors who helped to topple Mubarak will be disemployed as their new industries are shut down and replaced by government companies under the control of the military.

Socialism is not compatible with democracy. A stagnant, uncompetitive economy is not compatible with democracy. A military in charge of an economy is not compatible with democracy. In the end, it looks very unlikely that Egypt will soon be a truly free, democratic country.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Davis City Council -- selecting a new member

Here is my take on the odds of each of the 10 candidates being selected:

Dan Wolk--31.35%
Kari Fry--27.40%
Sherelene Harrison--10.67%
Kerry Loux--10.03%
Walter Bunter, Jr.--6.55%
Steve Williams--4.93%
Linda Parfitt--2.76%
Paul Boylan--2.59%
Vincent Wyatt--1.98%
Robert Smith--1.75%

EDIT: After watching the LWV's forum--which can be viewed here--two candidates stood out to me as much stronger than they did in their videos recorded with Davis Media Access. Those two were Steve Williams and Paul Boylan. I don't mean that to demean the performances of any of the others. Williams and Boylan came across as confident, informed and having a sense what the four members of the council should be looking for in a new colleague.

Target Map

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Conaway Map

This is an aerial map of Conaway Ranch:

Monday, February 7, 2011