Thursday, November 30, 2006

Instapundit mocked



Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dennis Prager really is an ass

Andrew Sullivan linked to this inanity from Dennis Prager: "America, Not Keith Ellison, decides what book Keith Ellison takes his oath on." Keith Ellison is a newly-elected Congressman from Minnesota, the first Muslim in Congress, and he's said that he'll take his oath of office on the Quran. Well, duh, he's a Muslim. Why on earth would a Muslim swear on a Bible? And, contrary to Prager's headline, America doesn't decide what book Keith Ellison takes his oath on. I can't refute any law Prager cites in defense of his position, because he doesn't cite any law. He doesn't cite any law in his defense because no such law exists. In fact, the Constitution itself, in Article VI, comes right out and says:
The Senators and Representatives ... shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
A Sullivan reader notes further that
The very first law passed under the Constitution was ... "An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administering certain Oaths." That law says nothing about what someone taking the oath of office is supposed to do with his hands; nor does it say anything about Bibles or any other books being involved in the process.
I took an oath of office myself two years ago when working for the City of Pico Rivera and was only asked to raise my right hand while reciting it. My understanding is that courts regularly use Qurans, Bibles, or an absence of books, depending on the swearer's preference.

After arguing essentially that Christianity is the state religion of the U.S., based on nothing but vigorous assertion, Prager (a Jew, actually) then just appeals to tradition, noting that Jews and atheists have taken their oaths on Bibles that they do not believe in. I have no idea if this is true or not*, but in making this argument, Prager has gone from offending me as an American to offending me as a Christian. What he's saying is that the Bible should be used not because the oath-taker believes it is the holy word of God, but merely because of its symbolic link with tradition. Sorry, bud, but to me the Bible is more than just a prop, and if my representative in Congress didn't believe in it, I would be more offended if they did use a Bible than if they didn't.

It's also worth noting that Prager isn't just an anti-American pro-blasphemy moron, but goes out of his way to be inflammatory. He doesn't just object to Ellison's use of the Quran, he says it "undermines American civilization" and compares it to Hitler's Mein Kampf. Some of his commenters are worse, lumping Ellison in with the Islamic theocrats and terrorists who hate America and want to see us destroyed. No, you idiots, Keith Ellison is precisely the kind of man I'd like to see more of in the Middle East, a leader who understands that being a Muslim doesn't mean you have to oppose democracy and religious freedom.

*This article notes that atheist California governor Culbert L. Olson omitted the words "so help me God" from his oath of office, but doesn't note whether he used a Bible.

Update: Eugene Volokh writes eloquently on the subject. Excerpt:
Much folly has been urged in the name of multiculturalism. But this is no reason to dismiss the core notion that a nation should both create a common culture and leave people with the freedom to retain important aspects of other cultures — especially religious cultures.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Spears on Antigone

Britney Spears's handwritten book report on Antigone is up for auction at Christie's. Commentary on Defamer.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

100 Most Influential Americans?

The Atlantic Monthly* has published a list of the 100 Most Influential Americans, as voted upon by a panel of historians. Editor James Bennet says that the list is intended to stimulate debate, not serve as some sort of etched-in-stone last word on the subject. That's good, because while this is better than most lists of the sort (remember how Princess Diana somehow ended up on the Discovery Channel's list of the greatest people of the Millennium?) there are still plenty of things I'd change. Otis Hart makes some good points; I agree that while writers like Walt Whitman or William Faulkner may certainly warrant inclusion on a list of "Greatest Americans," it's difficult to argue that they're more influential than, say, Willis Carrier, whose invention of air conditioning has certainly done a lot to change our lives. It's difficult to imagine the growth of the South over the past few decades without it, and impossible to imagine the growth of Phoenix or Las Vegas without it. Speaking of writers, if you're going to include eight of them, where is Edgar Allan Poe?

Carrier is in the position of being both an inventor and a business leader, so we can at least point to him and say, "this is the man who brought us air conditioning." But who's responsible for the rise of television? Philo T. Farnsworth, who invented it? Vladimir Zworykin, who developed it into a practical consumer product at RCA? Or was it Milton Berle, who gave people something worth watching?

Similar questions can be asked in other fields. Is John F. Kennedy responsible for the space program? Who gets credit for the internet? The list credits Louis Sullivan as "the father of architectural modernism" and "the defining American building, the skyscraper," but how can he be in without Daniel Burnham, and is the skyscraper any less a defining American building than the single-family detached tract house? Who invented that? They were around for half a century before William Levitt took them into high gear. If P.T. Barnum is in there for making money off of suckers, how about Ray Kroc?

Another quibble - James K. Polk is the only person associated with the annexation of Texas to make the list. How about Sam Houston or Stephen Austin? Were pre-Revolution colonists disqualified? What about Native Americans? You could make good cases for Sequoyah, Sitting Bull, and some others.

A few other ideas: Samuel Brannan, for starting the Gold Rush. Thomas Merton, monk. Dorothy Day, activist. Joseph Glidden, who patented barbed wire. D.W. Griffith, who invented the language of film as we know it today. Oliver Winchester, rifle maker. Levi Strauss, whose clothes and their imitators are worn by everybody. Phil Knight of Nike. Various aviators beyond the Wright Brothers. Milton Friedman. Jane Jacobs. Glenn Seaborg. Luis Alvarez. Robert Moog. Les Paul. OK, some of those are stretching it. But they're worth mentioning.

*What's the deal with them referring to themselves as just The Atlantic, anyway? Are we all supposed to pretend that the "Monthly" that appears in their masthead is just some sort of graphical flourish that isn't actually part of the name of the magazine?

Weather Complaint

It cooled down a bit today, but Monday it was 91 frickin' degrees Fahrenheit in Downtown L.A.! Let me remind you that that was November 20th, and we're in the Northern hemisphere. What the hell is going on? I've lived here my whole life, but let me tell you people, being sunny and warm all the time can be a pain, too. The sunlight glares. It's still warm in my apartment at night with the windows open. And every single day I look outside and it's the same damn cloudless sky. Is November still too early to ask for weather that doesn't make me wish I was wearing shorts when I'm wearing long pants? Clouds, fog, maybe a drop of rain? Seriously.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

RIP, Robert Altman

Robert Altman, one of the greats of world cinema, died yesterday. Like Woody Allen, Altman was incredibly prolific, maintaining a pace of about a film a year for decades, but unlike Allen, even his movies that weren't very good still had interesting things to say about the human condition, particularly the American strain of it. Furthermore, he was great with actors and really allowed situations to breathe and develop organically in his movies, all while keeping things tight and free of extraneous crap. Probably my favorite of his is the slacker-huckster Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but I'm also a big fan of the wonderfully loopy Brewster McCloud.

Update: Appreciations from Greencine, Victor Morton and the Onion AV Club. An Altman course syllabus from Michael Sicinski.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Mike Tyson, Male Prostitute

In one of the more disturbing celebrity news bits of recent times (well, besides OJ Simpson's If I Did It), convicted rapist Mike Tyson has been hired by Heidi's Stud Farm.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

RIP, Milton Friedman

Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman has died at the age of 94. Friedman was the best advocate of free-market economies of the latter half of the 20th century, a true intellectual giant. Reading Capitalism and Freedom was instrumental in convincing me that given a choice between leaving an economic issue to the market to sort itself out vs. having the government control the outcome, the burden of proof should lie with the side advocating government intervention. A top-down command economy simply can't see the differences between individual needs, respond as efficiently to change, or inspire innovation the way a free economy can.

That's speaking generally. Getting specific, I disagree with a lot of Friedman's conclusions, such as his dislike of anti-discrimination laws, or his being against occupational licensure. I think that he has a bit too much confidence in the efficiency of the market and isn't willing to recognize, for example, that it may not always be so easy to simply patronize a competitor to a discriminating institution, nor the precarious position that unlicensed incompetent, untrained, or unscrupulous professionals put their clients in. In other words, I think that in many cases he sets the bar too high when determining where the government should impose regulations on the market. But I accept his premises and feel that he lays out the case against socialism very well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Cat Flushing a Toilet

It doesn't get much funnier than a video of a very intense cat flushing a toilet.
(From Cute Overload, of course.)

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Genius of Paul McCartney

So, the other day I was driving, singing along with the radio to Paul McCartney & Wings' "Jet." I thought, "boy, you know what, this is a great song!" Then after singing along with the lyrics some more, I thought, "I have absolutely no idea what this song is about." So I turned to Wikipedia, and they said that the song was about a labrador puppy Paul owned named "Jet." What? That made the song make even less sense than before. Viz. the lyrics, according to the liner notes:
Jet! Jet! Jet!
I can almost remember their funny faces
That time you told 'em you were going to marrying soon
And Jet,
I thought the only lonely place was the moon
Jet! Oo Jet! Oo

Jet! Was your father as bold as a sergeant major?
Well how come he told you that you were hardly old enough yet?
And Jet,
I thought the major was a lady suffragette
Jet! Oo Jet! Oo

Ah, mater, want Jet to always love me?
Ah, mater, want Jet to always love me?
Ah, mater, much later

And Jet,
I thought the major was a little lady suffragette
Jet! Oo Jet! Oo

Ah, mater, want Jet to always love me?
Ah, mater, want Jet to always love me?
Ah, mater, much later

Jet! With the wind in your hair of a thousand laces
Climb on the back and we'll go for a ride in the sky
And Jet!
I thought the major was a little lady suffragette
Jet! Oo Jet! Oo

And Jet,
You know I thought you was a little lady suffragette
Jet! Oo
A little lady. My little lady, yes!
In other words, as far as I can tell it's collection of words that sounded good together when he shouted "Jet!" It's meaningless. And yet it's a great song. That's the genius of Paul McCartney.

Update: corrected the lyrics to the liner notes' version

MLK's Dream Becomes a Reality?

Check out the headline on Yahoo's front page:

So, MLK's dream is finally a reality? People are judged on the content of their character instead of the color of their skin? We've licked racism? Hallelujah!

No, sorry, all it means is yet another monument. I think I missed hearing the speech where he had a dream that he'd be cast in bronze on the Mall. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I do think the headline writer jumped the gun.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veterans' Day

Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham is set to posthumously receive the Medal of Honor, one of only two awarded for service in the Iraq war.

Even the official citations for the Medal of Honor make for compelling reading. Here's the citation for Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii:
With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions.

You can also read up on Tibor Rubin, a Holocaust survivor who later became a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions in the Korean War.

Update: You should also read about Desmond Doss (WWII) and Tom Bennett (Vietnam), conscientious objectors who were awarded the Medal of Honor.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Topock Maze Controversy

There's an interesting case out near Needles where Pacific Gas and Electric were being sued by the Fort Mojave Indian tribe for building a water treatment plant right next to the Topock Maze. The Topock Maze is a fascinating area where the rocks and pebbles have been arranged to form a large field of lines across the desert; the Mojaves hold it sacred as a place where their souls go to reach the afterlife. This article details the controversy; building the plant was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process because hexavalent chromium in the groundwater was in danger of reaching the Colorado River. You can see it on Google Maps here if you pull back one magnification level. Today PG&E issued an apology to the Mojaves and agreed to replace the water treatment plant with another one that doesn't disturb the site. The takeaway lesson here is that even if you get a CEQA exemption (because you're doing an emergency cleanup of the environment), you shouldn't treat it as a free ticket to not pay any attention to the possible environmental impacts of your project.

Anyway, if you'd like to see what the perspective of an insane crank are on this project, look no further than Mr. Wayne Lusvardi, who spends most of his time imagining himself as some sort of truth-teller of follies in Pasadena, seems to think they made up the whole "sacred site" thing and that it's all a shakedown by the Indians looking to extort money from PG&E. Not that any of his ideas were supported by the facts of the L.A. Times article or anything. Now that they've dropped the lawsuit, instead of admitting that this proves his whole "milk cow" theory was bullshit from the beginning, this loony is taking credit (see Nov. 10) for exposing the "phony shakedown" and "deterr[ing] any monetary settlement." Yeah, right.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Coolest Ride that You will Never Ride

NASA's new plan for astronauts to escape the launch pad in an emergency involves a big roller coaster. They even call it the Rollercoaster Escape System. You can watch a video of it here if you click on "More Sci-Tech Video." That kicks ass.

How I Voted

Governor: Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) - lots of negatives, but a better upside than Angelides.
Lt. Governor: John Garamendi (D)
Secretary of State: Debra Bowen (D) - She wants to see accountability in electronic voting machines.
Controller: John Chiang (D)
Treasurer: Bill Lockyer (D)
Attorney General: Jerry Brown (D)
Insurance Commissioner: Steve Poizner (R) - Poizner seems decent for a Republican; he was behind last year's Prop 77, which was a redistricting plan I liked. My main criterion for this office is independence from the insurance companies, and the L.A. Times says that Cruz Bustamante hasn't returned the insurance contributions he pledged he would. Speaking of Cruz, his entire campaign revolved around the fact that he lost a lot of weight. Good for you, Cruz. Now get a real job.
Member, State Board of Equalization, 4th District: Judy Chu (D) - Married to Mike Eng (see below).
U.S. Senator: Dianne Feinstein (D) - I like her leadership on the environment.
U.S. Representative, 32nd District: Hilda L. Solis (D) - She and the Libertarian are the only ones on the ballot.
State Senator, 24th District: Gloria Romero (D)
Member of the State Assembly, 49th District: Mike Eng (D) - Married to Judy Chu, the termed-out incumbent for this seat.

Judicial Seats - I abstained from all of these.

State Measures (I figured the infrastructure bonds were the only ways these necessary improvements would be funded):
1A - Keep gas taxes for transportation - YES
1B - big transportation infrastructure bond - YES
1C - Affordable housing bond - NO
1D - School facilities bond - YES
1E - Flood prevention bond - YES
83 - Go way overboard in punishing sex offenders - NO
84 - Water quality, Flood control, etc. - YES
85 - Parental notification for abortions - YES
86 - Cigarette tax - NO
87 - Oil production tax - NO (alternative energy research will continue regardless)
88 - Small property tax to fund schools - NO (I like 1D better.)
89 - Corporate tax to publicly fund elections - NO (A better reform for third parties would be some form of instant runoff voting)
90 - Cripple local land use planning - FUCK NO

Monday, November 06, 2006

This is pretty bad

ABC News found some U.S. Army recruiters telling prospective recruits that the war in Iraq is over and that we're not sending people to Iraq anymore. For the record, those are both lies.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Election

Hey, have you heard that there's an election this Tuesday?

Out of all the items on my ballot, I actually think the most important one is Proposition 90. Vote NO on California Proposition 90. This is a bad, bad idea. Its proponents are touting it as a corrective to the Supreme Court's controversial Kelo decision that allowed local governments to cast a very wide net in their use of eminent domain. If that's really all that Prop 90 was about, I'd be all for it; Kelo was a bad decision. But as is so frequent with the initiative process, the Kelo corrective is just a cover for something much bigger, namely the gutting of the power of local governments to make any kind of land-use decisions, not just the dreaded eminent domain. Prop 90 would accomplish this by expanding the definition of the "takings" clause in the Fifth Amendment to encompass any government decision that might decrease the value of your land. This goes far beyond any kind of property rights that have traditionally existed in Anglo-American legal tradition and would cover even minor zoning laws that are in place. A lot of those laws are in place to safeguard property values against things like building industrial uses or high-rise apartments next to your single-family home. If Prop 90 passes, say goodbye to all of that.

Take a look at all the different groups united against Prop 90: Democrats and Republicans, business groups and environmentalists, etc. The only people who understand Prop 90's consequences and still support it are hardcore Libertarians divorced from reality and Tom McClintock, whom I used to admire. They know that if Californians knew the truth about Prop 90, there would be no way it would win. So instead of trying to sell it on its merits, they pretend that it's all about eminent domain. It's not. It's about completely stymieing the ability of communities to determine what direction they want land use to go.

I'm actually not yet decided on who to vote for for Governor. I probably agree with Angelides on more issues, but Schwarzenegger has shown some remarkable leadership on global warming and has shown remarkable growth as a politician since his ballot initiatives were all defeated last year, actually working towards solving problems and towards bringing Republicans and Democrats together. There are still way too many big-business groups with him in their pockets, but do I really want to reward the California Democratic Party for giving us another business-as-usual technocrat to vote for for governor? I can see their dilemma; it's hard for anybody to beat Schwarzenegger on charisma, but it's really hard for Phil Angelides to beat Schwarzenegger on charisma. I knew a guy who worked for the state Democrats who assured me that Angelides had a sharp wit... why does none of that show?

Otherwise, I'm voting a Democratic slate. There's no reason for a bunch of conservatives to try to ride Arnold's coattails; he's very much sui generis. I'm voting for the infrastructure improvement bonds because there's no other way the state's going to be able to build what it needs. Otherwise I'm voting NO on anything that would be better handled by the legislature in Sacramento, which is just about everything else. That, plus I'll cast my futile YES vote on the parental abortion notification bill that failed miserably the last time it was on the ballot.

One more note: I'm voting NO on the new cigarette tax, but I should point out that I think the ads against it are misleading. They're saying it won't reduce smoking because only 10% of the new tax is going toward anti-smoking work. Well, how about the fact that it'll make cigarettes 7 bucks a pack? I think that may do just a leetle bit more towards reducing smoking than another round of ads telling you smoking is bad. I'm still not voting for it, though, because (A) cigarette taxes are already very high here and hardly anybody smokes in California anyway, and (B) I really dislike the trend of initiatives that take a small group --- whether it be smokers, rich people, immigrants, or whatever, and then using them as an easy target for new taxes or service cuts.

Update: The L.A. Times' George Skelton outlines how the Governor was able to turn around from last year's defeat of his ballot initiatives to become a sure thing tomorrow. It's worth noting that he did this bucking the national trend away from the Republicans over the past year. I think what's going on is that the Democrats in California are kind of in the same position as the Republicans nationally, long-entrenched in power and sitting on their laurels. In some ways, though, Angelides is just a placeholder until the Dems can put real candidates like Antonio Villaraigosa or Gavin Newsom on the ballot in 2010. Let's hope that the country's ready for Barack Obama in 2008.

Update #2: It's worth pointing out that Prop 90 expands the takings clause for new land-use laws, but leaves existing ones intact. On the one hand, this means that in most places your single-family home is safe. But on the other hand, it means that you're essentially stuck with the planning laws on the books now. If your town wants to revitalize its downtown by moving used car dealers out, tough luck. This severely limits the ability of cities to do infill development, like in situations where they may want to change the zoning of a parcel to encourage growth. Land-use planning is about limiting growth where it should be limited, encouraging growth where it needs it, specifying design standards to prevent crappy development, protecting the environment, etc. Prop 90 puts the brakes on all of that to the benefit only of property-rights absolutists.

The Further Adventures of Bandit, the Hamster

Hamsters make for good low-maintenance pets, but they're not very smart. Last night, after we cleaned his cage, Bandit worked very hard to construct his new nest... inside his exercise wheel. He worked on this for about an hour or so, building it up, seeing it collapse, and trying it again. When I went to bed he was sleeping in the wheel, but after running in the wheel all night he apparently came to his senses and rebuilt his nest over in the usual place under his water bottle, where he's sleeping now.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Right-wing blogger John Cole of "Balloon Juice" suddenly realized that the Republican Party is full of "frauds and religionists and crooks and liars and corporate shills." Good for him; I agree. I hope more people catch on. I have to say, though, as a Democrat, it's not like everything's rosy over on this side. A few years ago, I think maybe shortly after 9/11, I came to the realization that I was tired of giving demagogues on the left like Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky the benefit of the doubt because they were "on my side." I'm fine with voting and rooting for the Democrats as a whole in elections, but I'm not going to be their cheerleader when they fail to come up with decent plans or viable candidates (*cough* Phil Angelides *cough* John Kerry) and I'm certainly not going to give the hardcore leftists a pass when their entire viewpoint starts by blaming all the world's problems on the evil AmeriKKKan corporate empire.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Insane Quote

Flavor Flav, expecting his seventh child (from someone he dated inbetween the two Flavor of Love winners), offers these words of wisdom:
Asked in September to describe his dream girl, Flav told PEOPLE: "I want a girl who looks good when she wakes up in the morning. We could take her face and dip it in dough and she'll make some nice face cookies. Some girls wake up, man, you could put their face in dough and you'll get a gorilla cookie, for real!"


A couple of months ago, I proposed a meat-tasting event. Today Slate reports on a steak-comparison test. The winner is grass-fed beef.