Thursday, January 31, 2008

Michelle Obama at DSU: Eyewitness report

OK, first the good news: the auditorium was full to nearly bursting, the crowd was spirited, and Michelle Obama is, I must admit, one of the best pure speakers I have seen or heard in some time. You could tell she is exhausted (she would occasionally flip words from sheer fatigue), but she was passionate, pointed, and funny, and the Obama campaign has identified some clear issues for her to focus on.

My son thought she reminded him of Martin Luther King, Jr. (that is, when he looked up occasionally from the laptop).

His twin sister loved what she said about public education (and I admit I was thrilled to hear somebody talking about the elimination of No Child Left Behind).

In many ways Michelle Obama strikes me (possibly because of the slight physical resemblance) as what the neo-cons hoped Condi Rice would become.

The bad news: I really question the choice of venue at DSU for the campaign's purpose. The 1,200-strong crowd was dominated by DSU students, staff, and faculty. Standing in line outside I would say that less than 20% of the audience there was from outside DSU. Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled for my university to be hosting this, but....

Here's my problem: I know (because I teach them and we talk about these issues) that less than half of those students are actually registered to vote. Moreover, less than 20% of those students are Delaware residents in the first place, and I will guarantee you that the non-DE residents (even if they are registered) did not bother to sign up for absentee ballots in their home states.

So I am guessing that at most 300 of the 1,200 people in the crowd are actually potential voters in Tuesday's primary. So unless, from the Obama campaign perspective, this whole appearance as about getting media shots with a large crowd (which I admit is possible), it seems like a poor use of Michelle's time and the campaign's effort to set up an event that reaches so few voters.

I compare this to 1996 when Elizabeth Dole visited Dover to do a similar surrogate appearance for Bob Dole. She appeared in the auditorium of the local middle school, in front of 800-1,000 people, almost all of whom were actual registered voters.

I guess my perception is that this is somewhat indicative of a campaign staff that maybe doesn't have quite as much experience as it needs for a successful national campaign--but I could also be way off the mark.

As to the specifics of the speech:

1) I was interested in the approach that "our differences are far less significant that we think they are"--this seems to be a good, workable line

2) Without ever mentioning Hillary, she managed to hit her hard three or four times, and to lump the previous Clinton administration as being part of a contiguous pattern forward from Reagan.

3) She did a really good job of countering the experience argument, by pointing out that with his 8 years in the Illinois state legislature and 4 years as a US Senator, Barack can claim more legislative experience than Hillary.

4) She also did an excellent job of managing to limn Hillary as a status quo candidate. You often hear conservatives complain that John McCain is a Democrat in everything but party affiliation; Michelle makes an equally compelling case that Hillary is in many ways a Republican in everything but party affiliation. I'm not sure that the claim will stand close scrutiny, but close scrutiny isn't what this kind of speech is about; leaving a lasting emotional impression is.

5) She constantly hit on Barack's empathy and commitment to public service, and noted that he had worked his way up to this position, starting from community work on Chicago's Southside. This was tacitly contrasted to Hillary, who stopped to make her fortune before really discovering her call to public service. Again, not airtight logic, but a good political comeback against some of the Clinton attack machine assertions.

6) She sold family values and human dignity far better than Hillary ever has. She wasn't so interested in "helping people" as Hillary's commercials suggest, but in ensuring that people have the support to do it for themselves. Not so sure where this translates into actual Obama policy, but it sure makes a better soundbite than anything the Clintons are putting out there.

My overall impressions:

Grade for the campaign in scheduling this event (location/audience): B-

Grade for the overall quality of the presentation: A- [not enough campaign literature available going in or out]

Grade for Michelle's performance as a speaker: A+

Grade for Obama campaign themes in terms of political effectiveness: B+/A- [while these themes were very good, I have not seen them tied into the campaign TV advertisements]

Conclusion: Despite my positive impressions, I think this race to the Democratic nomination is a game of percentages and inches. It's the tiny little organizational things that are going to matter. Obama has more money for advertising, but I'll bet that there will be more Clinton Co. buses and vans taking supporters to the polls to vote. I think that Barack may get as close as Reagan got to Ford in 1976 (losing the nomination by maybe 25 votes).

Which is a shame, since it will leave us with Clinton-McCain, an election in which no matter who wins, everybody loses.

I'm from the Government, and I'm here to improve your salt shaker....

This from Nanny Knows Best, concerning a British town council that got concerned with the excessive salt intake of patrons eating fish and chips:

As we know, Nanny hates salt.

The fact that people can die of salt deprivation (eg if they are sweating profusely and don't increase their salt intake, or drink too much water) seems to have escaped Nanny.

Nanny is determined to cut our salt intake.

To this end her chums on Rochdale council have come up with a brilliant solution. They have reduced the number of holes in the traditional chip shop saltshaker from 17to 5.


The theory being that the less holes, therefore the less salt will be shaken onto the food by the customer when he/she is applying the "salt and vinegar".

Takeaways are being issued with catering-sized salt pots with just five holes in the lid, rather than the usual 17.

Of course now they'll have to regulate how many times you shake the shaker.

Beck and the Worst Lawyer in Texas

The Girl in Short Shorts once again has the most interesting post of the day, regarding a murder case in Texas, which (surprise, surprise!) includes an incompetent judge, an ineffective defense lawyer, and a woman who finally decided to take justice into her own hands.

Her worst crime, in my estimation, is that she attempted to clean up afterward.

Besides, you should read this story just because Becky manages to work the word skank into the narrative in a satisfying way.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Some technology should be banned by Big Brother

This from Faith Central at TimesOnline, regarding a Bluetooth innovation that somebody is going to hell for:

O no. The evangelists have got a new gadget, to be unveiled at the Heart of England Christian Resources Exhibition next month (21-23 Feb 08). It is the Gabriel Communicator. It takes up no space but uses Bluetooth to beam text messages to all mobile phones within a 100-metre radius. Txxtouch managing director Nicholas Maguire says 'This is a culturally relevant way to contact people regardless of their age.' Coming soon to a railway carriage near you. Be very afraid. R U SVD? Txt JXT fr SALV8TN

The mind races with ideas: first responders being controlled almost effortlessly from a central hub ... viral advertising committed by winos who would otherwise be wearing sandwich signs you could ignore ...

Some doors shouldn't be opened, should they?

Slippery Slopes: Not Just for Libertarian Paranoia any more

About two weeks ago I got into it with Jason on Delawareliberal over (of all things) opera.

What's interesting is the comment Jason made in critiquing one of my argument:

The logical fallacy that Libertarians like most, above all logical fallacies is that slippery slope argument.

I pointed out in rebuttal:

Not all slippery slope arguments are invalid–you guys use them all the time about Republicans when it suits your purposes, so get real.

And Dana Garrett agreed with me:

“Not all slippery slope arguments are invalid”

Now there is a truth few know. Any chance you could teach it to Al Mascitti? If you tell him the predictable consequence of some action (that he likes, of course), his knee twitches and out comes the “You are committing the slippery slope fallacy.”

Here’s the scoop on it folks:

“If A happens, then by a gradual series of small steps through B, C,…, X, Y, eventually Z will happen, too. Z should not happen. Therefore, A should not happen, either.”

The whole bit disappeared from my mind (things often do; it's cluttered and things get lost) until I was cruising the website of George Lakoff's Progressive think-tank, the Rockbridge Institute, and found an article on Strategic Initiatives. Here's the lead-in:

There are many types of Strategic Initiatives. The most far-reaching type is a Multiple Issue Strategic Initiative but another important one is a Slippery Slope Strategic Initiative. Both introduce wedge issues to divide opponents and make it easier to accomplish ambitious, long-term goals.

More specifically,

A Slippery Slope Strategic Initiative is so called because the first step is intended to be only part of what you want, but is a step that opens the door to further steps on the way to your ultimate goal. This works by making the first step on the slippery slope so attractive or palatable that traditional opponents have a hard time countering it.

For instance, the issue and ideas behind a Slippery Slope Strategic Initiative are presented in such a way that you put your opponents on the defensive, placing them in a difficult spot, and making it more likely that you will succeed. Critically, the first step puts a new frame in place. Once the first step is accomplished, the next step is easier because the new frame can be elaborated once it is in place. Using the same reasoning, you continue down the slope step by step, gaining momentum toward your final goal.

An important feature of both a Multiple Issue and a Slippery Slope Strategic Initiative is that they divide your opponents by operating as wedge issues—each drives a wedge between members of your opponent's usual coalitions.

The article cites bans on partial birth abortion as a successful Conservative Slippery Slope Strategic Initiative and clean air/clean water initiatives as similar potential strategies on the Progressive side.

In fact, the article argues,

What Can Progressives Do? Craft Our Own Slippery Slope and Wedge Issues.

There follow detailed instructions for creating and carrying through such initiatives.

So I guess it's not a matter of Libertarian paranoia.

European Central Bank: Excessive government taxation and spending harms economies. Who knew?

A brief piece from Thoughts on Freedom, the Libertarian blog hosted by our colleagues "down under":

[Before you read, to get the context right, you have to remember that "liberal" in Australian politics is much more accurately equated with "conservative" in an American context]

‘Big government is bad for economic growth.’

No shit, Sherlock, i hear you cry.

But this isn’t my view, nor one of a neo-liberal free market think tank.

It’s from that respected inflation-fighting institution, the European Central Bank, which has come to this conclusion all by itself. No surprise to readers of this blog but papers like this will help spread the gospel of smaller government.

The paper concludes that each additional 1% of government spending reduces growth by 0.13%.

One interesting finding. The taxes that have the least harmful effects on growth are income taxes. Those that hinder growth the most are consumption taxes and government subsidies.

Something to chew on.

So I went to the ECB report mentioned in the article, and found this:

Breaking up total revenue into direct taxes, indirect taxes and social contributions, our results suggest that among total revenue the variables that are most detrimental to growth, both in terms of size and volatility, are indirect taxes and social contributions. At the same time, analysing the components of total spending (transfers, subsidies, government consumption and government investment) the results suggest that, while for both set of countries both subsidies and government consumption have a significantly negative impact on growth, government investment does not significantly affect growth, and transfers have a positive and significant effect only for the EU countries [as opposed to OECD countries]. Moreover, for the EU countries, public consumption and investment volatility have a sizeable, negative and statistically significant effect on growth. These results are also in line with some available related empirical evidence pointing to the negative effects on growth of public spending, particularly in the case of developed countries.

There are relevant policy implications to be drawn from these results. It seems that revenue reductions that occur mainly in terms of indirect taxes and social contributions, and cuts in government consumption and subsidies may contribute positively to fostering economic growth in the country samples analysed. Moreover, public capital formation may indeed turn out to be less productive if devoted to inefficient projects, or if it crowds out private investment. These conclusions also provide useful indications to policy makers when deciding which components of public finances to adjust (namely by redirecting spending towards more growth enhancing activities, in a context of limited public resources and
fiscal constraints).

Direct taxes I understand--and so do you. Indirect taxes refer primarily to employer payroll taxes. I was stumped on social contributions, until Wiki brought me up to speed with this reference to Denmark:

All income originating from terms of employment or self-employment are levied a social contribution at 8% before income tax. This contribution is widely regarded as "gross tax". The highest total income tax is therefore 62.28%.

You've got to wonder what European political leaders are going to do with this, given that they have consciously pursued a high taxation strategy to provide social services.

As noted above, Denmark charges up to 62.28% in national income taxes, with local flat taxes from 20-26%.

In the Netherlands, the highest marginal income tax rate is 52%, but if your house increases in value (even if you don't sell it), that's considered income.

In Sweden, income taxes, mandatory pension contributions, and municipal taxes can rise above 72% of total income.

At what point does any government--even a European socialist government--realize that if you suck all the air out of the room, there's none left for anybody to breathe?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Michael Moore loves Cuban health care, but apparently forgot to look at Cuban prisons

This from Human Rights First, regarding the case of Cuban journalist and political dissident Dr. José Luis García Paneque, currently serving a 24-year sentence in Fidel's prisons:

Dr. García Paneque was arrested in March 2003 as part of a major crackdown on peaceful dissent in Cuba. He was charged under Law 88 and sentenced at a summary trial to 24 years in prison. Since 2005, he has been held in the “Las Mangas” prison in Bayamo, Cuba, where his health has been dangerously deteriorating.

In addition to developing severe digestive problems from the poor prison food and lack of movement and sunlight, Dr. García Paneque has been harassed by the common criminals in the prison. Dr. García Paneque cannot digest lactose and gluten, and such dietary restrictions are not accommodated by the prison diet. His wife reports that he has lost nearly 50 percent of his body weight.

In early June 2007, Dr. García Paneque informed his mother that the prison doctors had taken him to a hospital in Bayamo, Cuba, after he complained of intense abdominal pain. An ultrasound revealed a cyst measuring 36 by 38 mm on his kidney, which prison doctors want to surgically remove. Dr. García Paneque was transferred to the medical ward of “Las Mangas” from the beginning of June until the end of July 2007. The ward is not equipped to properly treat Dr. García Paneque’s health condition. Medical exams at the “Carlos Manuel de Céspedes” Hospital in Bayamo revealed that he is suffering from a cyst on his kidney and from pneumonia.

Despite his fragile health, Dr. García Paneque was returned to a humid cell without windows in early August 2007, sharing the space with more then 15 criminal detainees who reportedly subject him to harassment and beatings. On August 28, 2007, a common criminal entered Dr. García Paneque’s cell and beat him about the head. The injuries required four stitches above his eyebrow.

Members of Dr. García Paneque’s family, including his four young children, have been repeatedly harassed at home and at school, culminating in their fleeing the island in March 2007. Yamilé Llanes Labrada is an active member of the Ladies in White.

His family’s petitions for his release based on health concerns, as well as requests that he be treated by an independent medical professional, have gone unanswered by the Cuban authorities.

I continue my quixotic quest to find the true socialist workers' paradise.

(Being sure that Dr. García Paneque’s ill treatment in prison can be attributed to the US trade embargo.)

The Transitive Property and Our Government: A Conundrum

Mid-Atlantic States Labor reports that nationwide union membership rose last year from 12.0% of the American work force to (STOP THE PRESSES) 12.1%!!!!

OK, seriously, the 311,000-worker gain is the largest gain since 1983, when unionized workers represented over 20% of American labor.

Here's the part I found particularly interesting:

A total of 7.5 percent of private-sector workers were in unions, and 35.9 percent of public-sector workers.

What this seems to mean is that public-sector unions now form the bulk of the labor movement, which would include government unions, police, firefighters, and teachers.

Now, for a second, let's bop over to Delaware Watch, where Dana has an article on Christine O'Donnell dropping her suit against her employer:

Or does the sensible intuition lurk in the recesses of O’Donnell’s pretty head that since, for most people, our society is structured to require employment for survival and to thrive that no employer should have the right to threaten one’s survival or capacity to thrive without a compelling reason to do so?

Hopefully, O’Donnell will develop her intuition further and realize that when working individuals can’t afford the expense of justice through lawsuits, they naturally join forces and form unions. It’s the only way in our society that most of the “little people” in the workplace can make themselves significant.

What occurs to me is this: Remember the transitive property from math?

If A=B and B=C, then A=C.


If (A) avaricious employers don't value workers or pay attention to the rights of the little people, who must be protected from their depredations....

And (B) the best protection from such violations is to unionize....

And (C) the largest segment of our economy that has unionized is the public sector (which is a synonym for government)....

Does it then not follow that the government (C) is an avaricious employer that doesn't value or pay attention to the rights of the little people?

I know this is a smartass way to raise an important question, but think about this: if--as our Progressive friends tell us--government is to be the primary protector of our rights and liberties (therefore being essentially beneficent), then why do the people who work for the government find the need to organize to protect themselves from it?

More Sarkozy watch: France leads EU peace-keeping force into Chad

French troops form the bulk of a newly deployed European Union peace-keeping force in Chad and the (completely misnamed) Central African Republic intended to protect relief workers and streamline delivery of humanitarian aid to the starving population in Darfur. Eventually, this force will reach 3,700 troops from 14 countries, now that Austria has also signed up.

This is the largest peace-keeping force ever deployed by the European Union (and it's six months late due to internal bickering) as an entity that doesn't (A) revolve around a US cadre or (B) function as a subsidiary of the UN.

There are two ways to look at this.

One is to be pleased that the damn Europeans are finally getting off their butts and taking responsibility for some of the world's hot spots, so we don't have to....

Or you can recognize that France is carefully positioning itself in all kinds of ways to rival the US as a major geo-political player around the globe, competing under an entirely new paradigm that our current crop of wannabe Presidents don't even understand....

(By the way, this is again from Al Jazeera, because US media doesn't cover it.)

Who is Wayne Allyn Root and why he is bothering the Libertarian Party?

This is why people often don't take Libertarianism seriously.

From Third Party Watch comes this statement from Libertarian Party Presidential hopeful Wayne Allyn Root upon his return from Great Britain:

I learned many lessons on my trip to UK this past week. The most important one is that the solution to any problem is simple- less government, lower taxes, more personal responsibility, more rights for the individual, more choice, more free market competition (to solve the education and health care mess), and far more freedom. That’s the Libertarian message. That’s not the message you’ll hear from any Democrat or Republican Presidential candidate.

I'm not really sure how Wayne learned this in the UK--I'm not even sure what a guy supposedly pursuing the US presidential nomination is doing in London in the first place.

Here's the problem: pure ideologues of any stripe scare the hell out of me. Anybody who thinks "that the solution to any problem is simple"--from a Libertarian, Progressive, or any other perspective in between--is someone you don't want anywhere near serious power.

Political ideologies provide a conceptual framework for thinking about the world, not a blueprint for solving individual problems.

Try to remember that if you want anybody to take you seriously as a candidate for anything.

Monday, January 28, 2008

As usual the Daily Kos gets it wrong: Libertarians oppose FISA

From the Daily Kos (I was forced to do it by a regular reader, ouch):

Where Are All the Libertarians on FISA?

For all the talk of "freedom" that the Paulbots claim to believe in, they sure as heck have been silent on the horrible FISA bill we're fighting to fix in the Senate right now. Same for Ron Paul. Why the silence? And the CATO people and the libertarian publications like Reason, where are they?

Here we are engaged in a huge civil liberties issue, and progressives are being forced to fight this thing alone. It's easy to talk about "liberty". It's much more impressive to actually do something about it.

Of course it's easier to take cheap shots than do your homework.

From the Libertarian Party Website:

Washington, D.C. - The Libertarian Party has sent letters to 22 Democratic Senators who voted for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments in August of last year, urging them to reconsider against an upcoming Senate bill that would make those amendments permanent. The letter was also sent to Democratic Senators who did not vote at all for the amendments. "Given that Republicans have shown such disrespect for civil liberties and freedom in the past few years--evidenced by the fact that not a single Republican Senator voted against the FISA amendments--Democrats have an instrumental role in acting as a counterbalance in Congress," says Shane Cory, executive director of the Libertarian Party.

The Senators receiving the letters are: Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE), Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Sen. Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA).

The following is text from the letter:

Coming up in the near future, you will be deciding on a matter of great importance to freedom in the United States. You and your colleagues will soon be voting on Senate bill S.2248, which makes permanent the amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 that were passed in Senate bill S.1927 in August of last year. We are sending you this letter because of your position on S.1927, and strongly urge you to reconsider against S.2248.

During this prolonged War on Terror, numerous American civil liberties have been sacrificed in the name of "safety" for all Americans. As a nation founded by men escaping the tyranny of an authoritarian State, it greatly disturbs us to see America headed back towards tyranny again. We feel the amendments to FISA only take us farther down this ominous path.

A famous man once said:

"The liberties of our country, the freedom of our civil constitution are worth defending at all hazards; and it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors: they purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood, and transmitted them to us with care and diligence. It will bring an everlasting mark of infamy on the present generation, enlightened as it is, if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, or be cheated out of them by the artifices of false and designing men."

This man was none other than Sam Adams, one of the most celebrated men of the American Revolution. I'm sharing Adams' quotation with you because I think there is much truth to what he had to say so many years ago. Tyranny can come from enemies both domestic and foreign, and we must not forget about one while focusing on the other. Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have been focusing so much attention on those who want to destroy American liberty from outside our borders that we ignored those who wish to do the same from the inside. Their tactics may be different, but their intent is still the same.

This is why your opposition to the FISA amendments is so crucial. You, as Democratic Senators, have the power to act as a counterbalance to the further expansion of the powers of the federal government and the erosion of civil liberties. American citizens rely on you to protect them and their rights from this encroachment.

So, please, when considering S.2248, remember that protecting liberty now is easier than trying to win it back in the future.

As for Ron Paul, maybe their Web Browser won't bring up his page on government surveillance.

At last! A Wind Power post at Delaware Libertarian

This one from Eco-Worldly (not one of my usual stops, but I get around) discusses the end of cheap energy in Europe, and what the continent is seemingly unprepared to do:

Many governments have been caught short as the decommissioning of old power stations, increasing demand for electricity and new EU targets for renewable energy have all coincided, causing many analysts to predict a demand / supply deficit of up to 20% over the coming years.

For obvious reasons, cheap oil, coal and gas power plants are out of favour. Nuclear power is expensive and is still viewed with deep suspicion, meaning that additional capacity is unlikely to be available for some time. Many believe, therefore, that the time for renewable energy has finally arrived.

But naturally there are problems, and the post details some of the specific challenges of wind farms, which is one of the reasons I thought it would have some legs in Delaware. Here is the bit that most stood out in my mind:

To put the issue in to perspective, the world is currently building a wind turbine every four hours. To provide enough wind energy to provide 20% of the EU’s current demand we would need to build a new turbine every 15 minutes for the next 20 years.

There's a stat just for Tommywonk.

Markets and social change: a speculation

Free markets today are in somewhat ill repute, having been tarnished, I think, by eight years of mishandling by a Republican administration that essentially shit on the Libertarian wing of the party at every opportunity. This has allowed proponents of managed capitalism or welfare state capitalism to stage an intellectual comeback of sorts, arguing that all we've see from the market is a massive transfer of wealth upward: the rich get richer, the middle class gets worried, and the poor get poorer.

I want to point out a different perspective on free markets, but I will warn you ahead of time that I'm not going to provide a bunch of easy URLs to check out the facts behind my reasoning, mostly because it comes from studies in those most antiquated of sources: books. There will be a bibliography at the end; do your own homework.

Here's my thesis: it is sometimes the case that unfettered free markets lead rather than follow with respect to positive social change.

Case in point: Brown v the Board of Education of Topeka KS (1956) laid the groundwork for ending decades of separate but equal public education in America. The NAACP had filed multiple lawsuits over the previous decade seeking this result, and it came as a huge shock to everyone concerned that it was Chief Justice Earl Warren (who, as governor of California during WW2, had spearheaded the internment and property seizure of Japanese-American citizens) who put together that majority. Throughout my youth, when we were driving to visit my maternal grandmother (no Interstates!) in Powhatan, Virginia, we would always pass a huge IMPEACH EARL WARREN billboard, erected courtesy of the John Birch Society.

Segregated education required a Supreme Court decision to abolish it.

Ironically, market dynamics had forced professional baseball in 1946, followed by minor league baseball in the early 1950s, to de-segregated without benefit of court orders, strikes, or massive resistance. It can be argued that the integration of professional sports (minor league being equally important here because there was no major league team south of DC or Baltimore) helped create the atmosphere that made school integration a possible outcome for the Supreme Court.

Why did it happen?

African-Americans had played professional ball in small numbers going back into the 1870s, but soon after the turn of the century (certainly Plessy had something to do with it), they began being systematically excluded from pro teams. Since the games were also segregated (or at least the Black fans were crowded into small stands far away from the whites), there was a demand in the African-American community for their own teams. Traveling teams developed into teams affiliated with certain cities (often owned by the richest Black businessman in the area): the Homestead Grays, the Newark Eagles, the New York Cubans....

Though never as tightly organized as the majors (and operating under the handicap of having no reserve clause) the Negro Leagues had organized into an ongoing business by the early 1920s, with both a Negro National and Negro American League.

During the off-seasons, the very best players like Josh Gibson would head to Cuba to play. Others stayed home and joined traveling teams. One or two legitimate Negro League stars and a bunch of wannabes would barnstorm around the country playing exhibition games against white teams composed of (you guessed it) one or two legitimate Major League stars and a bunch of wannabes (Bob Feller was big on the barnstorming tour). So people began to get used to watching Black and White players compete under certain conditions. By this time there were also universities in the north that fielded integrated teams (although they usually left the Black players at home when playing below the Mason-Dixon Line).

Ironically, if you peruse the team photographs of the mid to late 1930s you will see a lot of apparent Black guys--aha, you fool, they're all Cubans, not Negroes, so we can play them! Plus, they play cheaper than real white guys.

Had all things been equal the draw of big Negro League stars like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Satchel Paige would probably have led to baseball's integration in the late 1930s. Washington Nationals owner Clark Griffith gave tryouts to several Negro league stars then, but didn't sign any of them partly because (ironically) he was making more money renting DC's Giffith Field out to the Homestead Greys that he was making from his own franchise. He was actually afraid that he'd scuttle the Greys and his own income. Bill Veeck came up with a plan to buy last place Cleveland, fire all the players, and replace them en masse with the Negro League Newark Eagles. There were a variety of other attempts, mostly because the Negro League teams even drew some white fans, and their stars were widely known.

But all of these foundered on the Commissioner of Baseball, Keenesaw Mountain Landis, a dedicated segregationist who killed every single idea that crossed his desk. Not until Landis died in 1944, to be replaced former Tennessee Senator Happy Chandler. Chandler--like Earl Warren--would have been nobody's bet to allow baseball to integrate. As a Senator he had repeatedly rejected the attempts of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP to get him to support a Federal anti-lynching law. But World War Two had convinced Chandler, baseball's owners, and the fans that the talent pool among white players was pretty damn thin, and everyone knew national expansion of the sport was on the horizon. So when Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers floated a plan to have Jackie Robinson play for a year in AAA ball in Canada and then come to the Dodgers in 1946, Chandler accepted it. The rapidity with which other teams scooped up the available Negro League stars from 1947 on suggests that they'd been scouting the territory for some time.

Interestingly enough, Branch Rickey was not just significant for Jackie Robinson, he also essentially created the modern farm-team system, linking specific minor league teams at different levels to a parent pro team. Because the pros started by cherry picking the all stars from the Negro Leagues, professional baseball ironically integrated from the top down--the minors were the last to have Black players.

The first Black players hit the minors in about 1950, and were, for the most part, guys who were near the end of their careers in the bigs, who'd been picked up for a season or so, and then shipped down to AAA. Most of these assignments took place north of the Mason Dixon line, and some of these players enjoyed long, successful twilight careers in places like Rochester NY or Milwaukee WI. The real integration of the minors didn't start until the Negro Leagues had been pretty well mined of ready talent, and there was a need to recruit rookies from high schools and colleges and bring them up through the farm system. Problem was--most of the A and AA leagues were in the South.

This was a pretty painful process, as documented in an incredible book by Jim Adelson, Brushing Back Jim Crow, The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South, that documents--league by league--the story of sports integration in the Jim Crow South during the 1950s. What's interesting is that roughly two-thirds of the Southern minor leagues had already been thoroughly integrated by the time of Brown v Board of Education.

Amazingly, major league--and then minor league--baseball achieved integration without a single lawsuit (OK, maybe there were one or two nuisance suits against integration in the South). How? A mixture of the profit motive and the supply & demand of true big league talent. World War Two [when the best players were away in uniform] convinced the owners thoroughly that people would not come out to see mediocre players. Two decades of integrated non-league play and the sharing of some stadiums convinced them that Blacks could play, no matter what white supremacists said.

Why did baseball manage to integrate well in advance of the public schools? I'd offer the explanation that the public schools, being government organizations, were covered under Plessy v Ferguson, and had no market incentives whatsoever to change until the courts ordered them to do so. This seemed such an unlikely event that no one--not even people who actually wanted integration ever did any serious planning for what would happen in a court decision's aftermath.

Moreover, once the basic decision to integrate baseball happened, the other professional sports fell rapidly into line. Admittedly there remained a definite ambient racism (no Black quarterbacks or coaches for a long time) behind the scenes, but contrast that to the truly messy, divisive process of implementing the Brown decision and you have a critical contrast.

I wonder seriously if, writing in another two decades, a future historian will attribute the sea change that has taken place with respect to gays and lesbians in this country since the late 1980s to Affirmative Action and government programs or market forces. (Note that I am certainly not saying discrimination has ended, but you cannot deny there has been a huge movement in this area.)

My conclusion? The comparative study of integrating professional baseball and public education suggests that at least in some cases the market is a more effective agent for positive social change than government and the law.

This is something we would do well to remember.

Partial bibliography

Jim Adelson, Brushing Back Jim Crow, The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South

Brad Snyder, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays

Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams

Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

Peter Golenbock, Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers

For the precious little privacy remaining in our society....

I just picked this up; I don't know if a corporate attorney really said this or not, but Libertarians and other American citizens could probably benefit from these common-sense ideas to protect their privacy, their money, and their credit history:

A corporate attorney sent the following out to the employees in his company.

1. The next time you order checks have only your initials (instead of first name) and last name put on them. If someone takes your checkbook, they will not know if you sign your checks with just your initials or your first name, but your bank will know how you sign your checks.

2. Do not sign the back of your credit cards. Instead, put "PHOTO ID RE QUIRED".

3 When you are writing checks to pay on your credit card accounts, DO NOT put the complete account number on the "For" line. Instead, just put the last four numbers. The credit card company knows the rest of the number, and anyone who might be handling your check as it passes through all the check processing channels won't have access to it.

4. Put your work phone # on your checks instead of your home phone. If you have a P.O. Box, use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a P.O. Box, use your work address. Never ha ve your SS# printed on your checks. (DUH!) You can add it if it is necessary. But if you have it printed, anyone can get it.

5. Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Do both sides of each license, credit card, etc. You will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place. I also carry a photocopy of my passport when travel either here or abroad. We've all heard horror stories about fraud that's committed on us in stealing a name, address, Social Security number, credit cards.

Unfortunately I, an attorney, have firsthand knowledge because my wallet was stolen last month. Within a week, the thief/thieves ordered an expensive monthly cell phone package, applied for a VISA credit card, had a credit line approved to buy a Gateway computer, received a PIN number from DMV to change my driving record information online, and more. But here's some critical information to limit the damage in case this happens to you or someone you know:

1. We have been told we should cancel our credit cards immediately. But the key is having the toll free numbers and your card numbers handy so you know whom to call. Keep those where you can find them.

2. File a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where your credit cards, etc., were stolen. This proves to credit providers you were diligent, and this is a first step toward an investigation (if there ever is one).

But here's what is perhaps most important of all: (I never even thought to do this.)

3. Call the 3 national credit reporting organizations immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number. I had never heard of doing that until advised by a bank that called to tell me an application for credit was made over the Internet in my name. The alert means any company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen, and they have to contact you by phone to authorize new credit.

By the time I was advised to do this, almost two weeks after the theft, all the damage had been done. There are records of all the credit checks initiated by the thieves' purchases, none of which I knew about before placing the alert. Since then, no additional damage has been done, and the thieves threw my wallet away. This weekend (someone turned it in).

Now, here are the numbers you always need to contact about your wallet, etc., has been stolen:

1.) Equifax: 1-800-525-6285

2.) Experian (formerly TRW): 1-888-397-3742

3.) Trans Union: 1-800-680-7289

4.) Social Security Administration (fraud line): 1-800-269-0271

A solution to a social problem that couldn't be tried here

Mexico is now joining a number of other countries (Japan, Brazil, Egypt, and South Korea), reports World Changing, in offer "women-only" transit.

Sexual harassment is a maddeningly ubiquitous problem for female transit users in Mexico City, where subways and buses carry an estimated 22 million passengers every day. Women on the city's overcrowded buses face lecherous comments, groping, and worse. Efforts to stop sexual harassment on public buses have been futile; women report having men put hands up their skirts, kissing them, and following them off the bus.

Mexico City has long had "ladies cars" on subways during rush hour. This month, the city rolled out the first two of what will eventually be more than a dozen women-only buses; the buses are plainly marked with a pink (ugh) sign that says "WOMEN ONLY."

While "separate but equal" public accommodations raise legitimate concerns (will women get the oldest and least reliable buses? will segregating women from men be seen as legitimizing harassment on regular transit? does it create a false sense of security?), it's worth noting that the service originated with requests from women for a safer way to get around the city. Virtually all of the women quoted in stories about the buses speak positively of them, calling it a relief to be free from pinching, groping, and leering. "Traveling among women is so much more pleasant," one said. "With this type of transport, I can dress a little bit better, wear skirts without anyone bothering me," another added.

While I'm not sure that I think this is a good solution, what struck me about this story is that you couldn't try this in the United States, because you run immediately afoul of everyone from the ACLU to the Department of Justice.

When did we get to the point where we allow the government or self-appointed watchdog organizations to tell us, American citizens, what remedies to social problems we may or may not try?

Fox: No Mormon wannabes to advertise during the Super Bowl

Here's one where you actually have to have worked in the media to get what is not being said.

Fox gives two reasons for not allowing Presidential campaign ads during the Super Bowl.

1) Since the show is sold out and not everybody could get in if they found an open spot, it would not be an "equal opportunity."

2) They don't have to guarantee placement of political ads and have the right to exclude them from "unique, one-time only" events.

If you believe this, I've got some property in Florida that they've just discovered land on.

What's at stake here is Fox revenue. FCC and FEC rules require that networks and individual media outlets sell advertising time to political candidates at the lowest bulk rate they have sold any ads within the past six months. That's why TV and radio stations, as well as networks, carefully jack their rates in tandem with upcoming major elections.

It's about the money, folks. Always follow the money.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The World and Barack Obama

In my continual quest to improve American understanding of the rest of the world, here's Alvaro Vargas Llosa with an essay about how Europe and Latin America view a potential Barack Obama presidency.

What's truly interesting is his perception that Obama appeals more to European conservatives than liberals, and that neither Europe nor Latin America believes that an Obama win would substantively change American foreign policy:

The European right appears more enthusiastic about the liberal Obama than the left. French political scientist Dominique Moisi seems to think the Democrat will give pro-American Europeans some arguments to “sell” the United States among anti-Americans. “Why is Obama so different,” he asks in a recent syndicated essay, “from the other presidential candidates? After all, in foreign policy matters, the next president’s room to maneuver will be very small. He (or she) will have to stay in Iraq, engage in the Israel-Palestine conflict on the side of Israel, confront a tougher Russia, deal with an ever more ambitious China, and face the challenge of global warming. If Obama can make a difference, it is not because of his policy choices, but because of what he is. The very moment he appears on the world’s television screens, victorious and smiling, America’s image and soft power would experience something like a Copernican revolution.”

The whole article--which is not very long--is worth your time.

Because Monday sucks....

Because it's Sunday night, and Monday sucks, here's a series of motivational posters now making the rounds:

Becky provides the Gay and Lesbian voters' guide

Once again Becky, the Girl in Short Shorts, has the scoop. Not only does she take you through the nearly uniform anti-gay positions of the major presidential candidates, she also lays out the issues that are critical, especially to gay and lesbian couples.

She ends up with the conclusion that gays have no other choice than to vote Libertarian.

[No, sorry, Ron Paul doesn't come out very well.]

[Outright Libertarians has already endorsed Libertarian presidential hopeful George Phillies. I don't know much about Phillies as a candidate, but I do remember him as the original dominant American player of Avalon Hill's Stalingrad game back in the 1960s-70s.]

Beyond the gay/lesbian issue, this situation raises a fundamental question about a two-party system, as opposed to a more open multi-party system.

With only an either/or choice pragmatically available, we are virtually guaranteed to elect least common denominator candidates. No serious candidate for national office can afford to oppose the prejudices of the great mass of the electorate. If 75-80% of the American population opposes gay marriage, then guess what?

Sunday Night SF at Delaware Libertarian: New story

This week starts an attempt at hard SF; a three-part story that takes place around Gliese 581c, famous earlier this year as the first extra-terrestrial planet discovered that has the spectral signature of water.

Incident at Gliese 581c

An original Science Fiction story by

Steve Newton

(c) 2008; all rights reserved

They had finished cataloging two large and thirty-nine small moons circling 581D, completing the flyby, and were turning their attention to the inner planets when Raaj Penstock asked Centavi Mbolo to drift over to his workstation.

“What is it?”

“Look for yourself,” he insisted. “If I tell you, you’ll think I’m crazy.”

The tall woman with the shaved head and the nu-clan tattoos leaned down to the eyepiece. The scope targeted Gliese 581C, 2.95 Earth masses, once briefly famous as the first exo-planet discovered capable of harboring liquid water. After thirty seconds, she lifted her face, turned to the keypad and typed in a series of inquiries. She studied the output for nearly two minutes, and said, “That’s not possible. Is it?”

Penstock was a squat man whose normal, affected British accent disappeared under stress. Two months before the Zheng He launched from Earth, they had enjoyed a brief, passionate fling that neither could remember.

“Forget whether or not it’s possible. What does it look like to you?”

Mbolo fingered a design on her cheek, idly tracing its curl down toward her chin; there was another tattoo swirling around her neck, but she didn’t know how it had gotten there, and never touched it. “It looks like a communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit, is what it looks like.”

“That’s what I thought, too. We’d better tell the Captain.”

“The hell with the Captain. We’d better tell Rothmann.”

Hoobart Rothmann was the enfant terrible theoretical physicist who developed the Rothmann Negative Mass Drive, and whose fortune had bankrolled the mission to Gliese 581. Nobody liked Rothmann The standing joke among the crew was that they were the only people who had ever spent twenty years in proximity to Hoobart Rothmann without trying to kill him—although doing so required them to be in Coldsleep.

Raaj took the lead in attempting to explain what they had discovered, “Sir, this thing checks out as a Class Four communications satellite. It appears to be the same configuration that we’re carrying for deployment into the same orbit.”

Rothmann was a florid, pudgy man, whose features simultaneously seemed regular and scrambled. He sneered a lot.

“Which just happens to be orbiting 581C when we arrive? Far more likely, Penstock, that some cretin on the observation staff has decided a little practical joke is in order. When I find out who to blame for this outrage, they will be having a very long year.”

“Then verify it yourself, Doctor Rothmann, if you don’t believe us,” Mbolo snapped. “We were extending a professional courtesy by informing you of what we found. You can act on it or not, but neither Raaj nor I are going to stay here and take your abuse.”

“Professional courtesy exists between intellectual and professional equals. Subordinates such as yourself are merely expected to do your jobs competently without getting in the way. So get out of my quarters and try to make yourself useful somewhere else.”

They took the sighting to Captain Kirk Leath, a lean man who wore a perpetually amused look. Leath asked a series of polite but penetrating questions, and then sent Penstock and Mbolo back to their stations for a full workup. Ogda Chien, the mission’s cosmologist and back-up astrographer, appeared soon after, and became drawn into the mystery. Within hours, all seventeen people aboard knew about the sighting, and speculation ran rampant.

Rothmann remained isolated in his quarters.

Nineteen hours later, Captain Leath used a proprietary code to override the privacy lock-out on the physicist’s door. Without preamble, he said, “Professor Rothmann, this is neither a prank nor an equipment malfunction. As Penstock and Mbolo told you yesterday, there appears to be a communications satellite orbiting the planet.”

Rothmann stared at him as if the potato on his plate had just engaged him in conversation. He said, “All right, Captain. Let’s assume for the moment that your underlings have found something in orbit. Of four possibilities, one is still that this so-called satellite is either a ghost in your machine or a piece of juvenile humor. Perhaps your astrography staff has misidentified a tiny moon. Only after those are completely ruled out do we have an artificial satellite. Then we determine its origin, which is more likely to be alien than a human satellite that somehow wandered twenty light years out of the solar system.”

“Then, sir, how would you suggest we proceed?”

“That is the first intelligent question anyone has yet asked. I gave the matter the ten minutes of thought that it deserved yesterday,” Rothmann said, turning away and touching his keypad. “I’ve sent you a detailed protocol, both in terms of determining whether this is in fact a hoax, and in narrowing down the origin of the item. For a start, everyone should stop referring to this object as a communications satellite—such a premature conclusion will prejudice your ability to see what’s actually there.”

Leath retreated. Dealing with Rothmann always made him feel disoriented, perhaps even daunted. He knew that Rothmann did not like him, and had originally vetoed his selection as mission commander. His record, however, had been good enough that Deep Space Exploratory Command insisted on Leath’s assignment as back-up commander during train-up. Sometime during the six months prior to launch, he had replaced Captain Masood. Nobody on board—Leath included—knew why.

Coldsleep had merged late 21st Century understandings of cryogenics with neuropsychological research on comatose and permanently vegetative trauma victims. Even before the Slingshot mission to Alpha Centauri, Coldsleep had delivered colonists to Mars, Vesta, Ganymede, and Titan economically and safely (a fatality rate of less than .001%). Extensive testing had discovered only one significant side effect: the necessary preliminary injections wiped out the subject’s last five or six months’ memory prior to chill-down. Thus Penstock and Mbolo did not recall their affair, technician Jahn Boone didn’t know the sex of his first grandchild, and even Rothmann would have lacked any memory of the critical responses to his last paper on solving the Takai Transforms.

Despite his uncertainties about the reasons why he had awoken light years away from Earth rather than in the control chambers a year after the Zheng He’s launch, Leath took his obligations as mission commander seriously—more seriously in fact than Rothmann would have preferred. Leath had considered, for instance, that while the professional crew aboard was first-rate, none of the other scientists belonged to the top tiers of their profession. Ogda Chien was a second-string cosmologist, Phineen Slattery an exo-biologist with only minor publication credentials, and Andrej Malvoux a planetary climatologist past the prime he may never have had. It was difficult to escape the conclusion that Hoobart Rothmann desired no intellectual competition during his year in the Gliese system.

Leath did not, therefore, ignore Rothmann’s protocols, because he doubted that anyone else aboard could have generated anything better. Instead, he initiated them without crediting their source. Everyone might have suspicions, yet suspicions were not certainty, and the resultant ambiguity allowed the work to continue without too much rancor. By the time the ship cleared 581D’s surprisingly strong magnetic field, Mbolo picked up a faint transponder code, which almost matched that of their own satellites waiting in the hold for deployment.

Almost, but not quite.

“The signal compression rate’s just a hair different,” Boone said. “The identification code has sixteen digits, not fourteen.”

Per the protocols, a rigorous search for other signal sources ensued before Leath would authorize transmitting a dump query to the satellite. Likewise, the Zheng He altered course to drop below the ecliptic and pass around the tidally locked, sun-facing hemisphere of Gliese 581B before swinging around into proximity with the anomaly. The captain approved of this cautious approach. If there was anybody out there, Leath wanted to know as soon as possible.

Apparently there wasn’t.

Unfortunately, the dump query also failed to stimulate the comsat into downloading its core memory. Leath ordered a shuttle dispatched for Boone to dump the satellite’s memory manually. Everyone except Rothmann found themselves glued to a screen as the technician approached his prey.

“This is pretty damn strange, Captain,” Boone reported. “According to the access panel markings this is a Siemens Class Four, Mark Seven, Communications Satellite.”

“Why is that so strange?”

There was a short pause before Boone replied.

“Well, sir, it’s like this. The ones we’ve got are Siemens Mark Fives, and when we left home that was the latest model available.”

Leath tried to ignore the spreading chill in the pit of his stomach.

“Boone, do you think you’ll be able to conduct a manual dump?”

“Let’s see. Yeah, I think so. The couplings are the same. Get in there you little bugger. The keypad’s also the same. C’mon baby, listen to papa.”

A long minute passed. From the workstation to Leath’s right, Lieutenant Dany Detroit said, “Good work, Boone, I’m receiving data.”

Leath allowed himself a brief smile, felt the cold within him lessen just bit, until the technician said, “Uh, Captain, there’s a product run identifier on the inside of this panel. It says that the satellite was produced in 2217.”

Glaciers surged forward inside him. The Zheng He had departed Earth on 2194; according to the vessel’s mainframe (which told time based on calculating the observed time onboard at .995 C during the trip as registered by a cesium-decay clock and comparing that to predicted time-dilation caused by their velocity), on Earth right now it was 2215.

This satellite wouldn’t be built for two more years.

* * *

“There are really only four viable solutions to this problem.”

Rothmann loved an audience more than anything, which explained why people outside the scientific community thought he was urbane, charming, and witty. They’d only known him through netcasts, and had been spared his pre-show green room rages when the sauvignon blanc wasn’t properly chilled. With everyone onboard tuning in, he reverted to his media persona.

“Possibility number one is that we encountered some kind of space-time fold during our voyage here. Those of you who have been following my work on the Takai Transforms will recall that several theorists have proposed this solution as a possible answer. Entering such a fold would transport you not only in space, but in time as well. That would only leave the question of whether or not we have actually exited the fold.”

“Something as large as the Gliese system could be caught in one of these folds?” Penstock asked.

Rothmann was magnanimous; he doted on questions that gave him to opportunity to clarify theoretical physics for the masses. “Actually, Takai speculated that if such folds existed they could be large enough to contain entire galaxies, which might explain any number of observational anomalies over the past two centuries.”

He paused theatrically, sipped some water, and continued: “The second possibility involves the structural quantum relativity theory that Benvenides proposed in 2157. Difficult to explain without the math, you understand, yet think of it like this: Perhaps time does not pass in the way we subjectively experience, but expands in a fashion analogous to space. We know there was an inflationary period in the early universe wherein space actually expanded faster than the speed of light. Benvenides suggested that not only does time expand, but also that gravity causes it to expand at different rates in different places. We could therefore be caught in a region of quantum chronological differentiation.

“Now, as to the third poss—“

Malvoux interrupted the physicist, who had become so enmeshed in his own rhetorical brilliance that he did not realize that absolutely no one had any idea what he had just said. “Could you explain what a quantum chronology difference is? I’m sure everyone else knows, but I’m confused.”

“What? Of course. It means essentially that local time here at Gliese may be passing either faster or slower than local time on Earth, regardless of the time dilation effect of our voyage. Strange things happen to the numbers when we postulate passing differential borders. It’s possible that we arrived here after we had already departed.”

Mbolo sounded skeptical. “Even if that’s true, professor, how does it explain the satellite? Maybe my face already left before my butt got here, I can get that. What I don’t understand is how that makes it possible for me to have left a satellite behind that I never had with me in the first place.”

Rothmann dismissed this objection with a wave of his hand. “That particular comsat could have been left behind by another expedition that—by local Earth time—left for Gliese twenty years after we did, but crossed the differential at a more acute angle and ended up here ahead of us.”

“So does it get home before it left?” jabbed Chien. “Or before we left? Which would be pretty difficult since we don’t remember it.”

“Maybe it happened during the last six months and nobody bothered to leave us a note,” someone said sarcastically.

Rothmann took a deep breath, visibly controlling his temper now, and said, “Clearly all the paradoxes have not been worked out. That’s why they’re still paradoxes. However, it’s also possible that we’ve been caught in a closed time-like loop, and have—quite frankly—either been shuttled into or have even created a parallel reality.”

“Which means what, in terms of what’s going to be waiting on us when we finally get home?” demanded Slattery.

“Who knows? We could find a world indistinguishable from our own, a world in which the Southern Hemispheric Union never existed, or even an Earth where it’s forty years later that we thought it would be.”

“All of your scenarios, Professor Rothmann, appear to have in common the idea that we have unknowingly slipped into some other spacetime,” observed Chien. “Shouldn’t Occam’s Razor demand at least one explanation that doesn’t involve the wholesale changing of natural laws? Such changes, I might add, that have yet to be reported from any other interstellar venture?”

Listening to the discussion without any intent to contribute, Leath had to admit that he agreed with her. He wondered how Rothmann would handle the question.

The physicist smiled sadly and spread his hands. He said, “That’s the crux of the problem, Ogda, isn’t it? A satellite produced two years before we arrive—not to mention the time involved in transporting it here—appears to demand some sort of temporal dislocation, doesn’t it? If not, the only potential explanation I can imagine is my fourth possibility. What we think we’re seeing is not what we really are seeing. Some party or force capable of casting a consistent cognitive illusion is distorting our perceptions of reality. Personally, I don’t favor that alternative, because by definition we have no way to verify or disprove it.”

“So unless the aliens with the thought projectors announce themselves,” said Detroit, “we can never be sure they’re here.”

Rothmann nodded sagely, having recovered his audience. Then he used the line that Leath had been waiting for, the line designed to cement his position as de facto leader, if not de jure commander: “Now, as to how we proceed, I’ve amended the mission profile to allow those concerned with the regular planetary studies to undertake their tasks with only minor modifications, while our crew assists me in some observations to clarify our physical-temporal situation. You’ll all be receiving it in a few moments.”

This was the instant for a resolute captain to speak up, to retain control of the situation. Leath could feel Detroit’s eyes on him from the adjoining station, waiting for some pronouncement.

But the captain said nothing.

* * *

There had been an additional problem with the comsat besides its putative date of manufacture. The core memory downloaded into the Zheng He’s mainframe had been encrypted with a quantum-entangled key, and was thus unreadable. Leath briefly considered having the satellite brought onboard and disassembled to search for more clues.

Yet doing so would have required several hours to rematch orbits, while Malvoux had already begun champing at the bit to deploy his climate surveillance package. Both the climatologist and Slattery, the exo-biologist, would fight any delays, which would cement Rothmann more firmly as the final arbiter of mission-critical decisions. While Leath was not yet prepared to challenge the physicist’s informal power, he did not have any intention of helping solidify it.

A second reason for leaving the satellite alone was the fact that the captain could not dismiss completely Rothmann’s fourth scenario. If something had altered their perceptions, then the last act they should be committing was to take onboard a potentially alien artifact of unknowable power and intentions.

So again, he said and did nothing.

The first interstellar captains had been men and women noticeably larger than life. The panache of Abner Jolly, the intensity of Susan Heynan, and even the bland unflappability of Yekial Masood had been writ large in the netcasts as the hallmarks of heroic adventurers. Gliese 581 was a second-line mission, an almost routine scientific odyssey to a fairly insignificant red dwarf star that achieved media prominence more due to Rothman’s presence than to the personality of its mission commander. Indeed, Leath speculated that Masood might simply have exercised his option—even during the last six months—to bypass the Zheng He in favor of more important commands he was sure to be offered.

Not so Leath. The adjectives most often applied to his fitness reports were “steady, “reliable,” and “conscientious.” Heynan characterized him as “a somewhat better than average officer when things are progressing normally, and the man you’d most like to have working with you in a crisis.” Both of his ex-wives, Leath suspected, would have framed the observation differently, though they would have agreed with the sentiment.

He considered himself a man of broad intelligence and a penetrating ability to focus, but admitted his lack of a long-term ability to sustain his intensity for any single discipline. Leath tended to make sporadic forays into obscure sub-sections of highly complicated areas, even to the point of achieving a narrow mastery that could masquerade as professional attainment. He had managed, over the decades of his extended life, to publish papers in refereed journals on subjects as disparate as early Christian theology, the filament structure of irregular spiral galaxies, and political indoctrination in the Egyptian Army prior to the 2017 coup.

So it would not be precisely correct to say that, during the three weeks following the satellite’s discovery, Captain Leath did nothing. He simply did nothing about Rothmann’s overt attempt to seize control of the mission. At the same time, he became punctilious about the minutiae of his responsibilities, checking the performance of his officers and technicians, the reliability of their various systems, and—strictly per mission profile—conducting a meticulous inventory of ship equipment and stores. Leath was, Lieutenant Detroit told Boone during one long watch, “a man who’s lost control, and who’s attempting not to notice by reminding us of his remaining authority over petty details.”

Boone, who unlike Detroit had served with Leath before, emulated his captain and said nothing.

Meanwhile, within the solitude of his cabin, Leath set out on one of his patented, intensive periods of study, taking as his subject the life and writings of Hoobart Rothmann. The physicist had already penned two self-serving autobiographies, five “popular” scientific books, and three full-length technical monographs, as well as being credited as principal or co-author on a staggering 276 published papers. Leath was unsurprised to discover all of them on the mainframe, including pre-prints of four that had yet to be published before the Gliese mission had launched.

In Aiming for the Stars: A Physicist Challenges Humanity’s Limitations, Rothmann had written,

The scientist does not feel daunted by the prospect of spending decades in Coldsleep on interstellar journeys. He doesn’t dwell on lost family and friends so much as he tingles in the anticipation of the opportunities future technology might offer at the end of his voyage. Consider Einstein at the peak of his intellectual prowess given the opportunity to leapfrog forward to the mid-21st Century and use the first reliable quantum computers. Could that formidable mind have thus resolved the question of quantum gravity? Or Takai, whose elegant transforms hold out the possibility of a true warp drive, and who tragically died of cancer at forty-seven, still waiting for the development of sufficient processing power to prove out her equations….

The Takai Transforms appeared constantly in Rothmann’s work. Leath knew that they reputedly hinted at the possibility of utilizing negative energy to create a localized, faster-than-light expansion of spacetime first suggested by Miguel Alcubierre in the late 1900s. Within a decade his concept had been dismissed, primarily on the basis of its apparent violation of various quantum inequalities and the limitations that quantum coherence seemed to place on the use of negative energy. In 2138, Berenda Takai—then a virtually unknown postdoc—had published a series of incomplete equations suggesting that these were not insuperable difficulties after all. The only problem: the Takai Transforms not only required certain values that could only be derived from quantum gravity, but yielded values for time that were essentially meaningless.

Rothmann, however, renormalized the time values, and in 2163 managed to generate the equations necessary to produce not a warp drive, but a workable negative mass propulsion system capable of reaching .995 C. The resulting Slingshot Mission to Alpha Centauri proved that mankind now had a practical technology for probing—at least—the nearest stars, and incidentally left the physicist filthy rich. Yet as Rothmann admitted in his autobiographies, it was the breakthrough moment and the adulation of the masses he craved. That the interstellar captains had soon eclipsed him as media darlings was a bone stuck deep within his throat. Which explained, thought Leath, Rothmann’s last fifteen years bashing his head against the walls surrounding the Takai Transforms, searching for the moment of discovery that would make him immortal.

Thus, on the twenty-third day after the discovery of the comsat, as Leath blacked out his cabin for his sleep period, he was still pondering the most niggling question of all: Why was the man out here, twenty-one light years from home?

To be continued....

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Subsidizing water? Another brilliant idea from California

This one is from our friends at The Eco-libertarian, a story about how many farmers in California now allow fields to lie fallow in order to sell the water they purchase as below-market agricultural rates to drought-struck cities.

Wow. I got that all into one sentence, even if it does run on a bit.

The longer post makes more sense, grammatically speaking, but the logic still defies me.

Evolutionary biologists have saying, used whenever anyone starts to believe they've outwitted nature: "Remember, evolution is smarter than you are."

The same thing, apparently, applies to market economics.

A good story from our Progressive friends (slightly rewritten)

Just because an item is catchy doesn't mean it's accurate.

Here's one that I've seen before, picked up this time from Mid-Atlantic States Labor:

Joe Smith started the day early having set his alarm clock (MADE IN JAPAN) for 6am. While his coffeepot (MADE IN CHINA) was perking, he shaved with his electric razor (MADE IN HONG KONG). He put on a dress shirt (MADE IN SRI LANKA), designer jeans (MADE IN SINGAPORE) and tennis shoes (MADE IN KOREA).

After cooking his breakfast in his new electric skillet (MADE IN INDIA), he sat down with his calculator (MADE IN MEXICO ) to see how much he could spend today.

After setting his watch (MADE IN TAIWAN) to the radio (MADE IN INDIA) he got in his car (MADE IN GERMANY) filled it with GAS from Saudi Arabia and continued his search for a good paying AMERICAN JOB.

At the end of yet another discouraging and fruitless day checking his Computer (Made In Malaysia ), Joe decided to relax for a while. He put on his sandals (MADE IN BRAZIL) poured himself a glass of wine (MADE IN FRANCE) and turned on his TV (MADE IN INDONESIA), and then wondered why he can’t find a good paying job in AMERICA .

Y’all gotta Keep this one circulating, please.!

OK, great union made in American fodder, right?

Let's take a shot at rewriting it:

Joe Smith started the day early having set his alarm clock (MADE IN JAPAN ) for 6am; he woke to Sirius, the American-engineered satellite radio network. While his coffeepot (MADE IN CHINA) was perking, he sat out sugar from Louisiana and cream from Wisconsin. Meanwhile, he shaved with his electric razor (MADE IN HONG KONG), after having lubricated his beard with a shaving gel produced in Illinois. He put on a dress shirt (MADE IN SRI LANKA), designer jeans (MADE IN SINGAPORE), and tennis shoes (MADE IN KOREA). He complemented these with an American-made L. L. Bean jacket, a leather belt produced in Texas, and underwear manufactured in South Carolina.

After cooking his breakfast of American-produced bacon and eggs in his new electric skillet (MADE IN INDIA), he sat down with his programmable calculator (MADE IN MEXICO) that runs on an American-manufactured AMD chip to see how much he could spend today. Later tonight he would upload the data using an American-made Cisco software program into his American-made Quickbooks program.

After setting his watch (MADE IN TAIWAN) (necessary because he was replacing the American-made battery) to the radio (MADE IN INDIA), which was still tuned to Sirius, he got in his car (MADE IN GERMANY) that had recently been tuned up by an American automobile technician who added new American-made platinum spark plugs, traveled on four American-made tires, and had been repainted by an American enterpreneur. He filled it with GAS from Saudi Arabia (because US energy companies have virtually been prohibited from realistic exploration and development of new oils fields in America) and continued his search for a good paying AMERICAN JOB.

At the end of yet another discouraging and fruitless day checking his computer (Made In Malaysia) and running software designed in America's Silicon Valley, Joe decided to relax for a while. He put on his sandals (MADE IN BRAZIL), poured himself a glass of wine (MADE IN FRANCE), grabbed an American-produced frozen dinner, and turned on his TV (MADE IN INDONESIA) to watch the wide variety of entertainment produced in America and exported to the rest of the world.

He wondered why he can’t find a good paying job in AMERICA. He considered for a moment that he should have enrolled at the community college to update his skills, but then dismissed the thought. You should be able to find a decent-paying job with a high school education, right? Didn't the government owe you that?

Moral of story: it's never as simple as the so-called Progressives would like you to believe.

Dana's Child

Lost somewhere over the past few days of intense policy debates between this blog, Delaware Watch, and First State Politics over items like the Prevailing Wage law is this heartfelt response by Dana Garrett:

My special education son has to see his speech therapist in the public school he attends in his classroom w/ the other kids interfering with nothing but two bookshelves and a line of chairs separating him and the therapist from the intruding little kids. Why? Because there is no other place in the entire school for the sessions to occur.

My son is part of a study conducted by the NIH and they say he needs the special education class 5 days a week. Guess what. The school district can only afford to run the program on 3-day and 2-day day schedules.

When I read the entire 2015 report on school expenditures I noted that the the costs to transport charter school kids are so expensive compared to transporting public school kids that they lack economies of scale (p.73), contributing to Delaware having the 4th highest transportation costs in the nation for our public schools.

I couldn't help but think that my kid is doing without the facilities he needs and the frequency of special education he needs just so people like you and Al Mascitti can promote a school system that breaks up teachers unions. That's your interest and damn the children who might suffer as a consequence--children like my kid.

There are many things that Dana and I will never agree on, but public education--especially the education owed by our country to young American citizens with special needs and/or profound handicaps--is an area in which I believe he and I can march shoulder to shoulder.

In 1995 I was just finishing up a three-year stint as co-chair of Delaware's Social Studies Curriculum Frameworks Commission. We were about to unveil the new standards (anyone remember New Directions? or as I prefer, Nude Erections?), and I had been asked to sit down one evening with a group representing special education parents. They were concerned that the move toward standards-based, assessment-driven instruction was going to leave their children behind. I assured them (because this is what I was told by the Delaware education bureaucracy at the time) that the needs of their children would always be considered.

They were particularly anxious about testing. Would their children be tested on grade level or at their functional level? Again I told them (as I had been assured) that their children would continue to be assessed at the functional level required by the IEPs (Individual Educational Plans).

Over the next four years, the Department of Public Instruction (now DOE) made a liar out of me on all counts.

I had occasion to remember that night when my wife and I adopted a special needs daughter out of state custody. Because, for the first few years, she was technically in our house as a foster child, she had an educational surrogate. Educational surrogates are appointed for children who don't have parents to advocate for them; by and large it is an excellent program.

In our case it was a disaster. My wife and I both have extensive postgraduate training and professional work histories with adolescent learning difficulties. Our surrogate was a well-intentioned but barely literate person who thought our daughter should be institutionalized for the rest of her life, could not learn beyond perhaps employment in a sheltered workshop, and was being victimized by the two of us insisting that she would graduate from high school, would attend college, and would become a productive citizen who didn't have to exist on society's charity.

During the years our daughter spent in the Delaware school system we have experienced the best and worst of teachers, facilities, administrators, programs, testing, and the whole nine yards. We paid thousands of dollars out of pocket for special tutoring that the State refused to certify her for. We experienced program managers explaining what our daughter needed, and how much less the school was going to be able to provide.

At every step of the way our educational surrogate attempted to overrule our decisions, to keep our daughter warehoused in a non-graduation program, out of the mainstream.

We knew we could sue, at least after the adoption became finalized, but we're frankly not the litigious types.

We cried, we raged, we fought, and we got our daughter an education that was sometimes in spite of the public schools instead of due to them.

If you have not been there, you have no idea what's contained in those few paragraphs Dana wrote at the top of this post.

You have no idea of the little triumphs, the constant heartbreaks, the outright prejudice that is ironically better than the complete apathy of often disinterested functionaries.

You have no idea what it feels like to be able to research and discover what your child needs, only to discover that the cost is astronomically beyond your means, and the system is NOT going to provide it for you, no matter what the law says.

Your child could thrive, his or her condition doesn't have to be a permanent bar from self-sufficiency or at least a personally fulfilling life--and other than the other parents in the same boat or a few dedicated, overworked teachers and therapists, you discover that....

Nobody really gives a shit about your child.

I have no problem with school choice, and as a concept I don't have a problem with charters (although, as I've gone on record here before, I think both Dave Burris and Myopia 2015 are seriously over the edge with them), but I have a severe problem with people who piously intone about the best and the brightest being cheated in our system, and who begrudge every nickel and dime being allocated to American citizens with special needs that sometimes don't show on the surface, or which manifest in less than socially pleasing fashion.

That tends to make me--even as a Libertarian--far less sympathetic towards advocates of pulling additional resources out of the regular public schools for gifted or talented children in charter schools.

[A note for truth in advertising: I've also got twins who are gifted and talented, and they sit right in the regular schools. They each read at least five grades about their current grade level, and would excel in any classroom you placed them in. They have been raised to be independent learners who know they need to keep pace if they want to go to the college of their choice. So please don't tell me I have this position just because I have a daughter with special needs. You can find the full spectrum in my house.]

Frankly, the state bureaucracy would just as soon children like Dana's didn't exist, and it is all too happy to put the screws to the districts to cover the cost of their education.

In one below-the-canal school district about 15 years ago there was a profoundly deaf child whose parents insisted (as was their right under least restrictive environment rules that he be mainstreamed into the classroom and provided a full-time aide at district expense. That's what the law said he was entitled to. The district, hurting for money as districts always are, attempted to skirt the law, got sued, lost, and essentially had to have a referendum to pay for the cost of a full-time aide for one child for the next eleven years.

There are also school districts in this state that go out of their way to avoid classifying students as special education so that they don't become obligated to provide certain expensive services.

What can we do about this? Lots.

At the smaller, individual end of the spectrum, volunteering in the schools makes a huge difference. You know, if there was one parent volunteer in the classroom every day that Dana's son had speech therapy, I'll bet you there would be far fewer interruptions and distractions. A bandaid? You bet.

More substantively we could employ a threshold test that beyond a certain point made the state and not the district responsible for covering the cost of adaptive education. There's a lot more room to cut fat at the Townsend Building than there is in most school districts, and the combined fiscal responsibility for special needs education would make the bureaucrats there a lot more zealous about pursuing additional grant funds to pay for it all.

I say as I have said before: I am a great believer in personal responsibility. But young Americans with special educational needs do fall into the category of a national responsibility. They can't succeed without help from the rest of us.

In that sense, Dana's child is my child, too.

Delaware State University in the Snooze Journal: Toxic

Today's Snooze J carries a front-page article on the Provost search at DSU, and the devastating report issued by the university's search firm about reactions of candidates asked to apply.

The news isn't good.

Yes, the "Steve Newton" quoted in the interview as President of the DSU Chapter of the AAUP is me.

I don't normally do interviews about DSU, and you'll notice that I've never posted about it here.

But the News Journal called me, at the behest of someone very senior in the university hierarchy whom I cannot name.

I felt obligated to answer questions honestly.

Let me be clear: DSU is a great institution with a great potential future. We are currently undergoing a period of uncertainty and transition. We'll come through it as we as a university community work through it.

I'll continue to try to be a positive part of that process, but don't expect to see me in the newspaper like this again, and don't expect me to post on it here. Neither fits the role I play at DSU.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Having nothing to do with politics: A. E. van Vogt and why you should read him

Nothing in today's world is as out of date as a dead science fiction writer who stopped publishing in the late 1980s when Alzheimer's struck him. The technology in his stories is out of date, his futures have been superseded, and unless someone picks him up for a classic reprint, he's relegated to eBay and the second-hand bookstores.

I mean, look at him--even the suit is cheesy.

But I want to make the case that you should go out and find, and then read reverently, some of the best (and even some of the worst) of A. E. van Vogt's work.

The beginning of modern science fiction is generally traced not to the appearance of the first story by Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, but to the appearance of Van Vogt's Black Destroyer in John W. Campbell's Astounding during the summer of 1939. This story would later become a major inspiration for Ridley Scott's Alien movies.

Within a few years Van Vogt would establish himself as one of the titans of science fiction, with his most-remember creations being Slan [which has recently had a posthumous sequel--Slan Hunter by Kevin J. Anderson--crafted from Van Vogt's notes]; a classic Libertarian story The Weapon Shops of Isher [voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the best twenty SF stories of all time back in the 1970s]; and his Null-A trilogy, loosely based on the concepts of General Semantics.

Oddly, none of those--with the possible exception of the first Null-A books is among my favorites, primarily because they are all too ... polished.

Van Vogt wrote based on an obscure system that required him to break every story into 800-word scenes, and to literally try to send you on some kind of plot twist at the end of each scene. He would set his alarm clock at night to wake him up at odd hours, then scribble down what he could remember of his current dream (having gone to sleep with the conscious injunction to think about the plot he was working on), so that he could incorporate that into the next scene.

Then there were the fix-up novels. Having specialized in short stories and novelettes in the early 1940s, Van Vogt gave up writing for a time (wherein he partnered with L. Ron Hubbard at the start of the Scientology movement), but then suddenly needed money. Paperback novels were just coming into play in the early 1950s, so Van Vogt--instead of writing new novels--just apparently randomly gathered together bunches of old short stories and novelettes, fixing them up into short novels of about 60,000 words.

The results were not surprisingly ... uneven.

But that's Van Vogt. You don't read him because all the plot elements get neatly tied up at the end, because sometimes he throws in so many ideas that only a gigantic sleight of hand, complemented by scientific mumbo-jumbo, can bring the story to an end.

Along the way, however, you will find brilliant characterization, incredible investigations of the nature of consciousness, deeply layer future societies, and some of the most interesting aliens you'd ever want not to be eaten by.

By the late 1950s Van Vogt had started writing original works again (including collaborations with James Schmitz and Harlan Ellison), but a lot of people thought he was past his prime, and that his later work couldn't hold a candle to the earlier (somewhat like Robert Heinlein when you think about it). I disagree. There are absolute pieces of brilliance in The Darkness at Diamondia, The Anarchistic Colossus, Future Glitter, and Cosmic Encounter.

One of Van Vogt's least know works is a novel called The Violent Man, a non-SF story of an American held in a Chinese brainwashing experiment in the late 1950s or early 1950s. If you can get past the fact that every woman in the Orient seems to want to fall into the sack with our anti-hero, it is one of the most amazing books on conditions in Maoist China every written.

Baen Books has just republished a bunch of short stories and novelettes in a trade paperback collection entitled Transgalactic, but I don't think it represents Van Vogt's best work (although at that it's pretty damn good).

I can't give you an order in which to read his books, because finding them is becoming progressively more difficult.

But here are my favorites:

Cosmic Encounter Late; hard to find; aliens vs Elizabethan pirates along with multiple timelines and the collapse of the universe into its original constituent atom (no kidding).

Future Glitter Simply the most amazing treatment of a world-wide Stalinist totalitarian state you will ever read.

The Anarchistic Colossus The Fleet went out and beat the aliens and came home (but not really, the aliens just messed with their minds) and now an Earth with no government is about to be invaded, except that.... Naw, I'm not telling.

Earth's Last Fortress [also as Masters of Time] A recruiting station for a future war is opened in the present--but is it by the bad guys or the good guys?

The Man with a Thousand Names Forget the plot, which involves body transmission between the stars and other improbabilities; the thing about this story is that the main character is completely unlikeable, never becomes likable, and yet Van Vogt manages to make you empathize with him and eventually root for him.

Supermind, Quest for the Future, and The Universe Maker are all fix-ups in which--at times--come completely apart. The characterizations are so deft and the ideas so intriguing that you won't care that the last third of the plot makes no sense.

No links except this--to the best A E Van Vogt site on the Net. (It was just updated last week--this guy cares about his material).