Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jeremiah Wright

I like Jeremiah Wright. I watched his speech on Sunday to the NAACP and then I watched his press conference the next day. He has a lot of fascinating things to say. He is an extremely engaging speaker. And he is off the charts charming.

When I listened to Wright on Sunday and Monday, I thought that he was speaking out because he wanted to use the opportunity he had been given to say some important things that Americans should hear. That's why his speech to the NAACP was about the differences between black and European American culture. It was an important message and in an ideal world we would be debating the issues he raised. At the press conference on Monday he was kicking off a conference on the African-American religious experience. Pundits on CNN are making it sound like Wright has been speaking out as part of a grudge match with Obama, but I don't see any evidence of that.

I totally missed the part where Wright "dissed" Obama, and from what I've heard it was a pretty subtle diss. Apparently he said that Obama may have distanced himself from Wright's views because he had to in the election campaign. I doubt this was an intended slur at all. One thing you can immediately tell about Wright is that he's a straight shooter: he says what he thinks. And he has pretty good reason to think that Obama agrees with him. After all, Wright has been saying these things for the 20 years that Wright has been his pastor, and Obama has drawn Wright increasingly closer, even involving him in the launch of his campaign. Obama only started to disagree with Wright when it looked like those views would hurt his campaign.

I don't want to say that I agree with everything with Wright says. He said that the US Center for Disease Control developed AIDS and the US government spread it, which sounds like a dangerous conspiracy theory. He said things I disagree with about Israel.

But Obama went too far in criticizing Wright. He described him as a hate-filled lunatic. (Listen to the speeches I link to above: Wright's mission seems to be to join people together, not create dissension and hate.) Now Obama supporters are ripping the man to shreds. Over at HuffPost they're describing him as an attention-seeking troll, mad, a two-bit celebrity. We have, it seems, lost a valuable new voice just days after we got to hear him.

On the topic of AIDS, by the way, Wright seems to really believe that the US government developed the virus. He cites two books on the subject. My guess is that he is just one of many people who believe this, and it's probably worth a rational debate.


Monday, April 28, 2008

"Entitlement" Another Sexist Code Word

I cannot recall ever hearing the charge that a politician running for office had a "sense of entitlement" about winning - until Hillary Clinton. In criticisms of Hillary, you hear it all the time - never substantiated, just presented as an unformed character indictment.

Early on in the campaign when she was way ahead of other candidates, "sense of entitlement" was used to criticize her for being the establishment candidate; it was used to imply that she was supported by the backroom boys and was propelled into the lead by her connections and position. As the campaign unfolded, this characterization was shown to be utter fiction - not just because she does not have the backroom boys sewed up, but also because everyone has had to admit that she's an enormously hard working, scrappy politician who keeps trying her hardest day in and day out, even in the face of terrible setbacks.

Now that she's losing, Hillary's critics are twisting the sense of entitlement barb to characterize her as some sort of latter-day Marie Antoinette - a vain aristocratic bitch who feels the party owes her the nomination and so will not back down from the race, even if it means destroying the party's chances in November. But the reality is that it's a tight race and it isn't over. Democratic primaries are won when one candidate gets a majority of delegates, and neither candidate has enough support for that. Hillary's popularity took a nose dive during a key part of the primary season, but her recent 10-point margin of victory in Pennsylvania indicates that Hillary has her momentum back. Hillary has a strong case to take to the superdelegates, given her uncounted victories in Florida and Michigan, her margin of victory in electoral college votes, her success in strategic states, and her wins in every big state except Illinois. It's not a slam dunk for Hillary by any means, but it's not over.

Hillary's public record shows a person who has never had a sense of entitlement. As first lady she didn't bask in the glow of her husband's success; she was the most active presidential spouse in history. She took on major policy initiatives, took risks, got pummelled sometimes. When she became a US senator Hillary was widely praised for her hard work, for listening to all sides, and for sticking to her junior status when she could have used her fame to grab the limelight.

Serious contenders for US president are, by definition, supremely ambitious, political and confident. They have to appear ready to take on the most powerful job in the world. In campaign speeches they always say "when I am president" not "if I am president." In this sense they all have a "sense of entitlement".

But in its use as a condemnation of Hillary, "sense of entitlement" has other connotations: that she is haughty, arrogant, the sort of person who makes other people do her dirty work. It's a code word for "rich bitch." It's also a way of saying that she has stepped out of her place - that as a woman she does not deserve to feel entitled to run for president. It's just another in a long long list of sexist criticisms that have undermined Hillary as a serious candidate for president.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hillary Currently Leads in Popular Vote

From Real Clear Politics: "One thing many people haven't noticed about Hillary Clinton's 55 percent to 45 percent victory over Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania primary is that it put her ahead of Obama in the popular vote. Her 214,000-vote margin in the Keystone State means that she has won the votes, in primaries and caucuses, of 15,112,000 Americans, compared to 14,993,000 for Obama."

It's funny how, when Obama was ahead in the popular vote, we heard about it all the time.

Update: As several commenters have pointed out, that figure includes Florida and Michigan, which the DNC is not including. Here's the breakdown. Sorry about that... I read the article last night, got excited, and posted without thinking enough about it.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Waterloo's Student Ghetto

Residents living in an area near the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University are demanding that the city rezone their neighborhood. The reason is that so many houses in the area are rented to students that the area is a nightmare for the few families left, and yet it's not easy to sell their houses because they are not zoned for multi-person rental.

The real issue is not zoning. It is that - while many students are perfectly respectable neighbors - some of the students are insensitive drunken pigs. There is a great deal of vandalism around the universities, like wires yanked out of utility boxes and toilet paper and other garbage in trees. Some student houses have unmowed grass, chairs in the front yard, and beer bottles everywhere. Some students have loud, late parties. Many do not seem to understand garbage collection, resulting in garbage blowing in the street and on lawns.

Whatever else is done about zoning, the behavior of the bad students has to be improved. The university administrations, student organizations, city by-law officers and police all need to work on the problem:

- During orientation, students need some training in being citizens. Most are living on their own for the first time, and it is evident that many do not understand how to put their garbage and recycling on the curb. They also need to be told what the noise by-laws are and what the penalties are.
- There needs to be enforcement. If residents call the police about loud parties after 11 or rowdy behavior, the police need to show up immediately and they need to be effective. During peak partying times the police should patrol student neighborhoods, both to curtail loud parties and to prevent vandalism.
- The universities need to step up. Students should be penalized for repeated bad behavior, with a note on their transcript, with rustication/debarment, or with something else.
- Perhaps we should try something new. If landlords faced fines for egregious problems, they might make students pay a fine deposit (akin to a damage deposit) that students get back if there are no fines. Another option is for the city to fine the universities for the costs of cleaning up after students.

When I was a graduate student at UW I went to a couple of big parties at Sunnydale that were appalling: smashing of beer bottles against trees, trashing of townhouses, competing stereos blaring distortedly. There is a culture in this town that that sort of behavior is not just fine for students, but almost de rigeur. I've studied at other universities and that is not the case everywhere. I think the whole town has bought into some notion that if you're a student you should be allowed to get stinking drunk and keep everyone awake all night. There is a sort of implicit "boys will be boys" mentality that applies only to students.

I'm not suggesting these measures because I love law and order, but because there is a crisis in our town caused by the rowdy behavior of some students. The problem goes far beyond the so-called student ghetto.

We have a problem and we need to fix it. It's not fair to the residents of Waterloo, and it's not fair to other students.



Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Tackling Violent Crime

In its 2+ years in power, the minority government of Stephen Harper has done a lot to change Canada's approach to crime, and they're planning a lot more. (Here is their own description of their efforts.)

Harper's approach is to follow the American example and "get tough on crime": impose longer sentences and legislate more mandatory sentences in order to incarcerate more criminals. In their PR mailings, the Harper government particularly targets youth as a group it wants to lock up in greater numbers.

As I have argued before, this is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.

Here are some highlights from an article in today's New York Times (Inmate Count in US Dwarfs Other Nations):

- The US has 5% of the world's population but 25% of its prisoners.
- In the US, 751 people per 100,000 are incarcerated. (In Canada, there are 108 per 100,000.) If you count adults, the US incarcerates 1 in 100.
- One of the reasons for this is that judges are elected, and in the last 40 years crime has become very politicized.
- The US incarceration rate was stable from 1925-1975, but then it shot up dramatically.
- The murder rate in the US is four times higher than it is in European countries.
- The US is the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad cheques.
- In 1980, there were 40,000 people in US jails for drug crimes. Today there are 500,000.
- While many believe that American legal penalties have reduced crime in the US, studies have found that over the last 40 years, crime trends have been the same in Canada and the US, but Canada has not increased penalties. This suggests that it is not increased incarceration that is lowering US crime, but shifting demographics.
- A legal expert at Yale concludes, "Far from serving as a model for the world, [incarceration policy in] contemporary America is viewed with horror."


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Case for Biofuel

Biofuel has been taking quite a beating recently. The arguments for biofuel are:

- We need a replacement for oil, if not now, then not far in the future.
- Biofuel is less polluting than fossil fuel because carbon is absorbed while the plants grow, which offsets the carbon that is produced when the biofuel is burned.
- Biofuel can be produced and used locally, unlike oil which typically must be shipped long distances and refined in central locations.
- The process of producing and refining biofuel is less polluting than oil.

The objections to biofuel are:

- Chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as mechanized farm equipment required to produce biofuel and trucks to transport it, all use a lot of oil - meaning that biofuel is not "carbon neutral."
- Fields are being diverted for biofuel crops, which is contributing to the current international food crisis. If biofuel took the place of oil (as proponents hope), the land required would be so great as to cause enormous disruption to the food supply.
- Biofuel crops are leading to deforestation. In the Amazon rain forest, farmers are clearing forest to plant corn that is needed because US corn farmers have converted to biofuel production. In Malaysia, forests are being cleared to grow palm oil that is used in biodiesel.
- Huge government subsidies are required for biofuel; these could be used for more effective environmental programs.
- Biofuel production requires a lot of water (although some claim that the water is cleaned and released as steam which falls locally as rain).
- The main proponents for biofuel are US corn producers and their lobbies, who are interested in their own wealth, not the environment. Politicians who support biofuel are just pandering to an influential lobby.

The case against biofuel has become pretty fierce recently. However, I think we should take a step back. Thirty years ago it was not uncommon to hear similar arguments against solar and wind power: they would never produce as much energy as it took to produce them; they were not reliable enough to put on the energy grid. But technology increased their efficiency and solutions were found for their problems. The same is happening with biofuel: now that money is being poured into the technology, not just in the US and Europe but also in places like China, Brazil and Venezuela, biofuel technology is in a state of rapid change. One day we may get most of our biofuels from waste and sea algae.

The compelling argument for biofuel is that we need a replacement for oil. The cherry on top is that biofuel can be much less polluting than oil. It seems sensible to build this technology, even if it has drawbacks at the moment.


Eight Reasons to be an Environmentalist

There's an excellent environmental primer over at AlterNet. I especially like the links for further reading. See Eight Reasons Our Changing World Will Turn You Into an Environmentalist, Like It or Not.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Turning Back the Tide on Disposable Appliances

The Globe & Mail recently published an article encouraging people to repair and reuse their belongings rather than throw them away; unfortunately, the article focused on things like silver tea services ("hammer out dents!"), leather luggage ("restitch and replace zippers") and designer shoes. What could have been a useful article was just another distraction from the real issues.

A far better take on the same theme was published recently by Intervention magazine: in Junkland, William Marvel takes on appliances, computers, and printers. Appliance manufacturers only produce spare parts for a particular model for ten years, and the computer industry is all about forcing people to upgrade every few years.

It’s easy to make the argument that consumers should pay more for better, longer lasting appliances, but it’s not that simple anymore. I have a high-end Bosch dishwasher that is 7 years old; I have had it repaired twice in the last 8 months and as it is starting to act up again, I am probably going to have to replace it. The appliance expert on CBC's Radio Noon phone-in said a few weeks ago that it’s difficult these days to find any appliance that is reliable and long-lasting. Reviews of cars and appliances rarely - if ever - estimate longevity.

Hardware longevity is only part of why appliances don’t last as long as they should. Consumers discard appliances not only because they are broken, but also because new models come out that offer different functionality, or because they just want something new. Poor government programs are also a factor: it would be interesting to know how many perfectly good appliances have been discarded because of government incentive programs to promote energy efficiency.

Here’s an estimate of the lifespan of things we buy for our home; with government regulation and public education, we could increase these numbers. In our global world, a small market like Canada may have limited options. We need better national regulations, but we also need global standards. Here are some suggestions for what we can do:

1. Manufacturers - Set standards for how long appliances should last. Require manufacturers to keep parts for longer periods. Engage manufacturers in discussions of how to improve longevity (for example, the same plastic part keeps breaking on my mother’s newish Maytag dishwasher; the repairmen tell her that until recently this was a durable metal part, and now they replace them all the time). Give rankings to appliances that last longer and are easier to repair - just as we rank appliances on energy efficiency.

2. Disposal – Electronic waste is the major toxic waste problem in North America, according to this report. We should improve ways that discarded appliances can be reused. Also, we need to be smarter about handling toxic waste. My local dump charges $10 per item for electronic equipment, which just encourages people to hide their old VCR or CD player in a garbage bag. We need curbside pickup for batteries and fluorescent lightbulbs, along with better public education.

3. Consumers - Globe columnist Margaret Wente wrote a really insightful column about smoking a while back; she said that the thing that finally convinced her to quit smoking was that it became declassé. She had tried for years to quit and took the health warnings very seriously, but it was when she was at a party and had to huddle outside on a cold porch with some other addicts that she finally had the incentive to give it up. Likewise, we should use public education to try to make a dent in our rabid consumerism. We may never destroy the sense of satisfaction and status that comes with owning something new and expensive, but we must try to counter it.

4. Smarter technology - I see promotions like this one (a product that claims to reduce electricity costs by 30%) and wish there were better public education about serious ways to improve our consumption. Does this thing really work? When you google it, there are no hits except for the manufacturer. We seem to be constantly bombarded by suggestions that trivialize environmentalism and distract us from real improvements (as this Greenwashing site tries to counter). We are not going to make any headway by diverting funds to green rooves or by hammering out dents in our silver tea services. Time magazine writes: "According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 75% of all the electricity consumed in the home is standby power used to keep electronics running when those TVs, DVRs, computers, monitors and stereos are "off."" The situation is similar in offices, where computers are regularly left on overnight. Surely there is a technological solution?


Friday, April 18, 2008

On Toilets

Proposition: There is not enough public discourse about toilets.

Here's an example. When I think of the relationship Europeans have to their bodies, I tend to think of it as being more easy-going than in North America; I think of things like topless beaches and unshaved armpits. But a German colleague once told me about her first trip to the US. She said she was so horrified by the public toilets that it took her a long time to be able to use them. The reason? In Europe, public toilet stalls are little rooms with high walls and close-fitting doors. In North America, public toilet stalls are low cubicles with big gaps around the doors. There is a decided lack of both visual and auditory privacy.

Until she mentioned this, I forgot that at my first job in a big office building I had a similar reaction to the public toilets; and that I've noticed over the years that some of my colleagues never seem to go at work. I wonder if the way we build public toilets (which presumably are designed to reduce the time a cleaner has to take to mop the floors) has led to any public health issues. Do people become constipated because they don't like using them? How many hours of work are lost because of toilet design?

On the topic of public health, there's also some room for discussion of hygiene. Increasingly, we find our public toilets with autoflush (as well as motion-detector soap, water and towel dispensers), all presumably designed to keep us from spreading germs and bacteria. But toilet roll dispensers are often enclosed structures with giant toilet paper rolls (again, designed to reduce cleaning costs), and they frequently necessitate sticking ones hand up inside the thing to try to get the paper started. Does anyone ever clean those things? Does anyone ever clean the door handles inside the stalls?

Here's another toilet issue. Why do we find poop jokes so funny? I can still remember howling with laughter in primary school when someone poured raisins in the toilet, part of some long-forgotten joke. And yes, I tend to grin whenever I hear the name of Windsor MPP and the Minister Responsible for Women's Issues, Sandra Pupatello. The name is definitely part of why I like eating at Pupuserias. Last year I was on a committee tasked with coming up with a name for a new object-oriented software product, and we all repeatedly got sidetracked by suggesting names that had the acronym POO and POOP. It's hilarious. I'm not sure if the humor comes from poop being a forbidden topic (in the same way that people tend to laugh when someone swears on TV), or if it's a throwback to our adolescence. Or maybe, in the categories of humor, poop has its own place.

Finally, there is an interesting cultural difference in our naming of toilets. I travel a lot and have found that "toilet" is a universally understandable word, so I have fallen into the habit of using it, but it makes some people uncomfortable. In Canada we ask where the washroom is, but Americans have no idea what a washroom is. Americans tend to say restroom. When you think about it, both are kind of odd. But then, so is water closet.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obama and the Democratic Party

When Michelle Obama said that she had never been proud to be an American before her husband's run for the Democratic candidacy, it was no slip of the tongue. It has been the central theme of the Obama campaign that he, as The New, stands in opposition to The Old, and The Old that Obama opposes includes not just the Republican party but also almost everyone in the Democratic party. In the Obama world, Clinton and Bush are part of the same group.

Responding to Obama's comment that "[small towns] fell through the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration," Paul Krugman provides evidence that small town America fared extremely well under Clinton. Krugman adds, "it’s just crazy for the likely Democratic nominee to denigrate the economic record of the only Democratic president most Americans remember."

But that's just what Obama has been doing, over and over and over: deingrating the record of Bill Clinton. And the reason is that Obama is not really running as a Democrat. Obama is essentially running as an independent. Furthermore, that is the mainstay of his platform, and so the people who are electing him are giving him a mandate to be an independent.

What this means for the future, I'm not sure.


XP vs Vista

With Microsoft saying it will stop selling XP in June (which may or may not be true), there's been a lot of talk recently about the superiority of XP over Vista and the reluctance many have to move to Vista. There have been petitions and threats of law suits.

I suspect that those creating a lot of the hoopla do not recall the early history of XP. Early adopters found XP to be a disaster. Then the first service pack came out and created even more problems. Finally, with SP2, XP became a decent OS.

I have two computers, one running XP and one running Vista. Both have Office 2007. My main problem with Vista is performance-related. I have a powerful, fast computer that I purchased with Vista installed. It is not overly full and I defrag it on a schedule every week, but it can be reduced to a crawl by using Windows Media Center and Word at the same time. Or maybe the problem is some phantom process that's running in the background. Whatever is causing it, it's a pain.

I'm very iffy on the new face of Office 2007. Why the heck did they get rid of automagical typing? Now when I type an address in Outlook, I have to click on the suggested name. Bill Gates says his goal is an OS that requires less clicking, but Office 2007 requires way more clicking than ever before.

The problem with Word 2007 is that in trying to make it simpler and easier they've made it way more difficult. Loads of arcane actions are front and center, while common actions are buried. Try and insert an en or em dash without the shortcut key; sheesh. It's easier to see how to insert a histogram in a table than how to insert a row. The biggest issue, though, is customizability. For anyone writing substantive documents, Word is not designed to be used "as is" - even Microsoft documentation tells you this. But now the style sheets and properties are buried, and the customization process is bizarre.

Vista's first service pack is coming out soon, and with luck it will solve the performance problems of Vista and introduce fewer new problems than XP's SP1 did. On the new look and feel, I fear we're stuck with them, at least for now.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Obama Strategy

There are two main tenets to the Obama strategy:

1. Discredit Hillary.
2. Discredit Bill.

The reason for the second line of attack is that people may remember how well Bill Clinton ran the country, and vote for Hillary because they think she will be a similar president. So Obama peppers his speeches with lines like, "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that... Bill Clinton did not" and "[small towns] fell through the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration". Obama tries not only to discredit Bill Clinton's presidency but also to paint Clinton's eight years in the White House as no better than the current Bush presidency.

Voters might very well associate Hillary's potential presidency with Bill's past presidency; I don't know. It seems clear to me that Hillary would be a very different president from Bill... so perhaps part of the reason for attacking Bill is to instill fear that he will have a large influence and repeat his past "mistakes." (Prosperity, peace and social justice... hmmm, what a mistake.)

The unfortunate consequence of Obama's strategy is that Bill Clinton's legacy as president is being eviscerated. If you read the Huffington Post, you'd think Bill Clinton was the worst president ever. Today's HuffPost front page has a screamingly large headline, "Bill Clinton Suggests Young Voters are Foolish". The article, itself headlined "Bill Clinton: Older voters too savvy to fall for Obama" contains no quote from Bill about younger voters being foolish. What Clinton is quoted as saying is, "I think there is a big reason there's an age difference in a lot of these polls. Because once you've reached a certain age, you won't sit there and listen to somebody tell you there's really no difference between what happened in the Bush years and the Clinton years; that there's not much difference in how small-town Pennsylvania fared when I was president, and in this decade."

He's saying that older voters were there and remember what happened, not that younger voters are incapable of understanding.


Monday, April 14, 2008

Small Town America Is Seeing Clearly

Referring to small-town Americans who are suffering economically, Barack Obama recently made the much-ballyhooed comment, "It's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Howard Kurtz has defended this statement by saying that Obama's analysis is essentially correct: "The senator was trying to say that these folks voted on social issues, distracting wedge issues, when their real problem was economic."

But Kurtz misses the point. Americans who are hurting ecocnomically - blue collar workers, people in small towns and high-unemployment areas - are voting for Hillary. This demographic has been identified in every primary. They aren't distracted by wedge issues. They are choosing Hillary over Obama because they need a president who has experience, who will be a good manager, who will make America work again. They aren't falling for empty rhetoric about change. They know how important this election will be to their livelihood.

Obama's base is very different from Hillary's base; he is supported by people who are younger, richer, more active in the party and more educated. They are all less economically vulnerable.

The thing is, at this point in history we should all feel vulnerable. We are in the middle of a world financial crisis and a world environmental crisis. The US is in the middle of an illegal war. The world financial system needs to be overhauled. Domestically, the US faces a morass of challenges, from a gutted and ineffectual FEMA that leaves the country vulnerable to catastrophe to a need for overhaul of the Federal Reserve Board. And on and on.

Now is a time for pragmatism. Small town America has it right.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Twelve is Twelve; Or Why the 8-Point X Must Go

I know more about Scrabble than most people. I don't just mean that I play Scrabble. I mean that for about 35 years I have been unable to kick the habit of compulsively adding up whatever I hear in Scrabble scores. Then I take the number of the score of the section of text (word, sentence, name, whatever) and work out the Scrabble score of the number if you spelled it out. Then the Scrabble score of that number, and so on. Everything devolves to one of two possibilities: either the dreaded 4-7-8-9 loop (four is worth 7; seven is worth 8, etc) or the Golden Mean: twelve. Twelve is twelve.

I mention this only to prove my credentials. I really do know something about Scrabble scores. And the thing is that Scrabble scores need to be updated. Now that we have valid words like xi, xis and xu to go along with ex, ax and ox, the X must be devalued. Whoever gets the X in a game gets an unfair advantage: if you have any smarts at all, you should be able to use it on a two-way triple-letter score for a minimum of 48 points.

The Q is also an overvalued tile these days. There are too many Q-with-no-U words: qat, qoph, and so on. (I have a list at home but I'm not at home right now.) At one point we even heard that the next edition of the Official Scrabble Dictionary was going to include qi, but that has not yet transpired. (It will only happen when Qi can be written in lower case.)

The reason for the increased ease of playing Xs and Qs is, in part, internationalization. When Alfred Mosher Butts invented the game in 1938, he based the scores on usage in the New York Times and other sources, and those sources didn't spend a lot of time writing about units of Vietnamese currency or the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet.

The X and the Q are no-brainers. Once we open up the revaluation process, however, we should consider some more controversial tiles. This may be too subjective on my part, but I have more trouble with C and V than their values represent. I'd need some input, but I think they should each go up a point or two. And how about removing the point from the S?

Just a thought.

So if Matel and Hasbro (the two copyright owners of Scrabble) would get off their butts and see that the free Facebook game Scrabulous is greatly increasing the popularity of Scrabble, and if Matel and Hasbro could take advantage of that popularity instead of fighting Scrabulous in the courts, then perhaps they could also see that this classic game, celebrating its 70th or 60th anniversary this year (depending on whether you are considering the game or the name), is badly in need of some tweaks.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Renaissance in Public Thought

There are a few people in this world whose work I admire so thoroughly that they are virtually my personal heroes. These individuals keep popping up in my blog in one way or another, and one of them is Jim Balsillie. For a while now I've felt badly about my references to Balsillie (who I like to call Jimbo) because I've only ever written, rather frivolously, about his attempt to buy southern Ontario an NHL team. The idea of the billionaire CEO of our local mega-company (BlackBerry-making RIM) trying to bring the NHL back to the bastion of hockey was so delightful and wonderful that I couldn't even take the idea seriously... and, as it turned out, neither could the NHL. (But we greatly appreciate his effort, all the same.)

However, I'm no hockey fan and my admiration for Balsillie comes from his other philanthropic work. I live practically next door to the think tank he founded, the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and I attend every public lecture I can get to. CIGI provides fabulous public lectures by scholars and diplomats on a wide range of public policy/foreign policy topics. Their noon hour series even throws in a free lunch. Frequently the lecturer will admonish the audience to spread the word about the topic under discussion, and frequently I write a blog entry about it. (For outreach outside of Waterloo, Balsillie also founded the Canadian International Council and the worldwide research exchange institute, IGLOO.)

CIGI, like the Waterloo-based theoretical physics think tank (Perimeter Institute) founded by Balsillie's RIM co-CEO Mike Lazaridis, has made public outreach a major part of its mandate. Not an afterthought - not some pamphlets or a banner - but a fundamental, first or second priority goal. And both institutions have put their incredible intellectual and creative resources to the task.

In an interview earlier this winter, Balsillie described his work to foster public debate: "We are off-the-charts blessed in prosperity and maturity and resources and quality of life. We have never been smarter, we have never been richer, we have never been technologically more advanced, and it's not just all about buying another car or buying another property. ...I'm thinking that there's going to be a renaissance."


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Al Gore's New Talk on Global Warming

Here's the first performance of Al Gore's new lecture (he calls them slide shows) on climate change, "New thinking on the climate crisis". What can I say: it's a must-see.

I captured this picture from his presentation. It shows the petrol usage of about 20 countries on the left, and the petrol usage of the US on the right (in red).


Saturday, April 05, 2008

Unraveling the Mess in Michigan and Florida

Here is the complete text of Could the Republicans Pick the Democratic Nominee? -- The Untold Story of How the GOP Rigged Florida and Michigan by Wayne Barrett:

Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean came out of hiding last week to announce that there is no reason to rush to resolve the fate of Florida and Michigan. He said he was confident that these delegations, disqualified in 2007 by Dean's own Rules Committee, would be seated at the August convention -- but, apparently, only after a nominee is chosen, which he predicted would occur by July 1. This modern-day Metternich, whose two-fisted handling of this two-state controversy has already had more impact on the 2008 race than his candidacy did on the race in 2004, is promising to mediate the dispute once it's already settled.

The Dean plan is that these two swing states -- big enough to decide the nomination or general election -- will eventually be granted "virtual" seats at the convention because, as Dean imaginatively put it in an AP interview, "the campaigns believe that kind of deal is premature right now." Since one campaign (Hillary Clinton's) was amenable to redoes, even financing Michigan's, and the other campaign (Barack Obama's) opposed every feasible proposition, it is, in a strange way, true that the two sides weren't collectively ready for a deal.

In all the buzz about the media's pro-Obama tilt, its indifference to his resistance to including these states in the "actual" nominating process is its most disturbing favor, especially since this brand of "conventional politics," as Obama would put it, flies in the face of his contention that "the people" should pick the nominee. Obama's only proposal so far has been to split the delegates evenly, just like he and Michelle parcel out Christmas presents to their two daughters.

Of course, the column inches and moments of air time spent on how and why these two states and their 366 delegates have been banished adds up to less than the attention devoted to, say, the Wyoming caucus, where a 2,066-vote Obama margin gave him a big enough delegate boost to virtually cancel out Hillary Clinton's 329,000-vote margin in the five March races.

The body count that the mainstream media has regurgitated out of Florida and Michigan is that 2.3 million Democrats voted in primaries that broke the rules, leaving the DNC with no choice but to level both villages, even if the collateral damage might include the party's prospects of carrying those disenfranchised states in November. The DNC and the MSM appear to have simultaneously concluded that even Clinton's 300,000-vote win in Florida, where both candidates competed on a level playing field, shouldn't be counted in the popular vote tally, a calculation that appears nowhere in DNC rules and turns 1.7 million Democratic voters into ghosts.

The irony is that the drumbeat for Clinton's withdrawal -- coming on the heels of her recent wins and right before what may be her biggest in Pennsylvania -- is rooted in the collapse of the effort to redo Michigan and Florida. The theory is that she should quit because there is no way she can win, and that there is no way she can win because two states she could win, at least one of which she actually did win, will not be counted until she gets out. Barack Obama would thus become the nominee -- not because of an honestly earned if precariously narrow lead in the final national vote, but because of two elections he would not let happen.

If that sounds like a curious way to end a nominating contest that 30 million to 33 million voters will participate in before it's done, even stranger is that the DNC is following only some of its rules -- and that the real culprits who caused this debacle are Republicans, who are now relishing the catfight they provoked.

Dems Take the Hit for the GOP
The Republican role is not some irrelevant anecdote. The DNC is charged, under its rules, to determine whether the Democrats in a noncompliant state made a "good faith" effort to abide by the party's electoral calendar, and to impose the full weight of its available penalties, namely a 100 percent takedown of a state's delegation, only if Democratic leaders in that state misbehaved. So the fact that it was Republicans who fomented the move-up of primaries in both these states to dates out-of-line with the DNC calendar is at the heart of the matter.

The rules also demand that the DNC's 30-member Rules and Bylaws Committee conduct "an investigation, including hearings if necessary" into these matters. The purpose of such a probe is to figure out if Democratic leaders in a state that did move up "took all provable, positive steps and acted in good faith" to either "achieve legislative changes" to bring a state into compliance or to "prevent legislative changes" that took a state out of compliance. A DNC spokesman could not point to any real "investigation" the party conducted of the actions of "relevant Democratic party leaders or elected officials," as the rules put it. All that happened with Florida, for example, was that two representatives of the state party made a pitch for leniency immediately before the Rules Committee voted for sanctions.

What a probe might have discovered was a rationale for doing, at worst, what the RNC did to its own overeager primary schedulers in the same two states -- cutting the delegations by half. That's precisely the penalty specified in DNC rules, but the committee, exercising powers it certainly had the legal discretion to exercise, upped the ante as far as it could. In a bizarre reversal of public policy, the RNC, surely aware that the principal miscreants in both states were Republicans, applied a sane yet severe sanction. The Democrats opted for decapitation.

The presumption of much of the national coverage about Michigan, to start with, has been that the Dems did this one to themselves -- a presumption based, in large part, on Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm's endorsement of a January 15 vote, a date far ahead of the anticipated February 9 primary. All Clinton-backer Granholm did, however, was a sign a bill. The bill originated in a Republican-controlled Senate and passed by a 21-to-17 straight party-line vote -- with every Democrat casting a no vote.

Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, is, like Granholm, seen as a prime player behind the state's acceleration of the primary calendar. But Crist isn't half the Florida story; Marco Rubio, a Jeb Bush protégé who runs the nearly 2-to-1 Republican Florida House, drove that bill through the legislature like it was a tax cut limited by law to top GOP donors.

Indeed, the tracks under this train wreck trace back, in each case, to Republican maneuvers in state legislatures, political no- man's-lands for all who've blithely dismissed the disenfranchisement of the millions of registered Florida and Michigan Democrats.

Michigan: Republicans on the Bench and in the Statehouse
Let's start with Michigan, whose Democratic chair Mark Brewer is a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the national party and in that capacity voted to sanction Florida -- a pretty good indication that he wasn't a great champion of challenging the DNC calendar in his own state. Brewer in fact declared the Republican-sponsored move-up bill unacceptable from the start.

When it weaved its way through the divided Michigan legislature last August, only 29 of the state's 75 Democratic legislators (in the House and Senate) supported it. A week after the bill cleared the Senate over unified Democratic objections, these 29 Democrats in the House voted for it, precisely the same number that voted against it or abstained (22 and seven). It was 38 Republican yes votes in the House that made it law. While Democrats like the governor, U.S. Senator Carl Levin, and DNC committeewoman Debbie Dingell favored moving the primary date up, it was a Republican state senator, Cameron Brown, who proposed the January 15 date. Levin and Dingell only supported that date when they concluded that the DNC was allowing other states, like New Hampshire, to defy the party's prescribed schedule while threatening Michigan with sanctions if it shifted its date.

And Levin and Dingell certainly weren't calling the shots for the Democrats in the legislature. Andy Dillon, the Democratic House speaker who'd voted for the move-up initially, walked away from the early primary in November, almost a month before the DNC voted to strip the state of its delegation. When two court rulings found the move-up bill unconstitutional for technical reasons, giving Democratic state legislators who initially voted for it a chance to reconsider, they took it. Dillon and his House Democrats refused to support a bill that would've protected the January 15 date from threatened judicial cancellation by correcting the technical deficiency. The Senate, again voting along party lines, quickly adjusted the bill to the court decisions, but Dillon refused to allow a vote in the House. All of this suggests a "good faith" effort to block an early primary -- as required by DNC rules.

Had not the state's highest court overturned the earlier decisions by a 4-to-3 vote just days before absentee ballots had to be mailed out, the early primary would not have been held. Significantly, all four of the judges who voted to allow the election were Republicans, and two of the judges who voted against it were Democrats.

In fact, it was a Democratic political consultant who brought the lawsuit that almost killed the primary. While the Republican state party filed an amicus brief in support of the bill, the Democrats took a barrage of editorial potshots in the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, the Flint Journal, and other papers for refusing to stand up for the state's interest. Salivating over all the attention and revenue that would come with an early primary, the papers accused Democrats of "withering," "carrying water for presidential candidates," and "blocking a bill to rescue the election." State GOP chair Saul Anuzis declared: "The Michigan Democrats and the House Democrats in particular appear willing to blow up the primary for petty, political, selfish, self-preservationist motives, to protect their hides."

Even before the court rulings, 19 Democrats in the House co-sponsored an October bill to repeal the one that authorized the election, including eight members who'd initially voted for the January 15 date. That bill was doomed from the outset since the Senate would never agree, but it was a measure of how fiercely Democrats had come to oppose the early primary. The ultimate result in Michigan, with a triumphant Clinton the only major candidate on the ballot, is, without a doubt, a Republican result.

In Florida, Crushed by a Republican Supermajority
The Republicans don't just control both houses of the Florida legislature. Their combined 103-to-57 majority allowed them to dictate the terms of the bill that moved the primary to January 29. It is true that all but one of the state's Democratic legislators supported the bill. But a closer look reveals that vote to be more an indication of a realistic and productive compromise with the ruling Republicans than any intent to breach Democratic rules.

Florida's leading news outlets, just like Michigan's, converted an early primary into a matter of state patriotism, and that point of view, coupled with the mathematical inability to even slow the Republican push, forced Democrats to roll over.

Another factor attracting Democratic votes in the legislature for the bill was one the DNC should certainly appreciate. Governor Crist threw a reform long sought by Florida Democrats into the bill: a mandatory paper trail for all votes cast in future elections. "The Democrats have been fighting for a paper trail bill since 2000," said State Senator Nan Rich, "and Governor Bush never would support it. So finally we got a governor who was willing to support it and it ended up connected to the early primary bill. That was unfortunate. If the paper trail hadn't been there, I believe we Democrats would've all voted no. Still, if all the Republicans had voted one way and all the Democrats had voted another way, the bill would've passed." (This Christmas tree bill -- whose title alone was 154 lines long -- had something special for everyone. It would even enable Crist to run as John McCain's vice presidential candidate, revoking a ban against state officials running for federal office.)

But "the driving force behind the move," as the Tampa Tribune put it, was 36-year-old House speaker Marco Rubio, who announced that pushing the primary up was a top goal before he took over the House at the start of 2006. Branded a "Jeb acolyte" by the Florida press, Rubio, a Cuban from West Miami married to a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, was given a gold samurai sword by Bush in a passing-of-the-conservative-mantle gesture in 2005. Rubio is a member of a wired Florida law firm whose chairman is so close to Bush that he rushed down to the county jail when the governor's daughter Noelle was arrested on a drug-related charge. When Rubio's term as speaker ends later this year, he is slated to go to work for a think tank headed by a Jeb Bush business associate. The primary bill originated with Rubio and ultimately passed the House unanimously -- but only after Democrats made what they knew would be a losing effort to alter it.

Martin Kiar and Mary Brandenburg, House Democrats who were cosponsors of the bill, tried to amend it. "We offered an amendment on the floor shifting the date to one within the Democratic party rules," said Brandenburg. "The Democrats all voted for it, and Republicans all voted against it." Actually, the Kiar/Brandenburg proposal did not completely comply with DNC directives, but it was a signal of the concerns Florida Dems had about the move-up legislation. Said Kiar: "No matter what, whether we supported it or cosponsored it, the Republican majority was going to push it through."

When the DNC sanctioned Florida, it critiqued the efforts of the Democratic leaders in both houses, suggesting that they'd merely gone through the motions of feigned opposition. But the House cosponsor of the bill, David Rivera, literally laughed on the floor at the Democratic amendment, according to the House Democrats. Going through the motions was all the outgunned Democrats could do. A DNC critic of Florida Democrats was reduced in a recent New York Times op-ed to citing remarks supporting the early primary made by state leaders after it was a fait accompli, likely because she couldn't make a case about their conduct before the Republican legislature set the date.

Some Democrats Are More Equal Than Others
The Democratic national committeeman who introduced the motion on the party's Rules Committee to deprive Florida of all its delegates -- a precursor to the Michigan decision a few months later -- was Ralph Dawson, a New York lawyer who was Howard Dean's Yale roommate and an advisor to Dean's 2004 campaign. Dawson's role was seen as a signal of Dean's appetite for a kick-ass rebuke.

As much as the DNC tries to pretend otherwise, it had choices. In fact, it later showed understandable leniency to three other states who changed their primary dates--New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina -- seating all their delegates. The tough love treatment was reserved for Michigan and Florida.

The national party had tried -- before New Hampshire's case wound up on its docket -- to leave the impression that zero tolerance was automatic once violations of the schedule occur. Back in June, a DNC spokeswoman, for example, told the Associated Press that neither Dean nor the Rules Committee "has the power to waive the rules for any state," explaining that "these rules can be changed only by the full DNC." Yet a few months later, on the same day that the Rules Committee stripped Michigan of its delegates, it waived the rules for New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina, each of which had also moved up their primaries.

Though Dawson and others on Rules now say, as they did in recent interviews, that states whose contests were always scheduled before February 5 were free to shift dates without sanction, that's not what the delegate selection rules adopted in 2006 say. Those rules provided an automatic 50 percent loss of delegates for any state party that moved its contest to any day "prior to or after the dates" spelled out by the DNC.

That's why Rules powerhouse Donna Brazile said she would "grudgingly support the waiver," warning New Hampshire shortly before the December committee vote that "the days of 'privilege' may end soon."

Not only did "first-primary-or-die" New Hampshire switch from January 22 to January 8, it moved ahead of Nevada, whose January 19 caucus had been deliberately scheduled by the DNC to precede New Hampshire's. But New Hampshire's Democrats got a DNC waiver because their back was up against the wall, due to a decision by the South Carolina Republican Party to move its primary up to January 19. That unilateral decision -- which the Carolina Democrats declined to join in -- forced New Hampshire's hand. The waiver was, in other words, a reasonable response to a Republican provocation. What's unclear is why one Republican provocation is more equal than another. (Once New Hampshire moved, Iowa had to adjust as well. South Carolina Democrats ultimately made a minor switch for other reasons.)

While the DNC implicitly challenged the "good faith" of the Democratic opposition to the Republican moves in Florida and Michigan, it seemed far less interested in gauging what New Hampshire Democrats were doing. The head of the South Carolina GOP actually traveled to Concord, New Hampshire, to announce the decision to move his state's primary up. He stood in the Executive Council chambers of the statehouse with Secretary of State William Gardner and Representative James Splaine, a Democrat who led the legislative efforts to protect the state's first-primary tradition.

Democratic governor John Lynch was at a funeral when the press conference occurred, but his spokesman said Lynch "has faith in Bill Gardner" and "supports whatever Bill decides." And Lynch, who had already derided the DNC decision to put Nevada ahead of New Hampshire, was clearly pleased that the acceleration of the South Carolina Republican primary date was giving Gardner all the justification he needed to squeeze back ahead of Nevada. New Hampshire officials even called the maneuver an "alliance" with South Carolina Republicans. Gardner promptly chose a new date 11 days before Nevada, defying the schedule that the DNC had issued.

The RNC, a veritable model of consistency in these matters, stripped New Hampshire of half its delegates over the date change, even though it was unmistakably prompted by the Republican maneuver in South Carolina. But Howard Dean and company held their fire this time, examining extenuating circumstances with an understanding they refused to extend to Michigan and Florida. In the end, they changed the rules in the middle of the game, throwing the book at some states and discarding it altogether for others.

The inconsistency on New Hampshire aside, DNC officials have come up with one other argument for why they were so tough on Michigan and Florida. Dean's spokesman Damien LaVera said in an email to Huffington Post that, despite the unmistakable references in the rules to testing the "good faith" of a state's "elected officials" and examining a state's "legislative" efforts, the DNC's rules "apply to a state party plan, not state legislatures or elected officials." LaVera insisted that the only standard their Rules Committee judges compliance by is what state parties do, and that the parties in Michigan and Florida had options other than the state-designated primaries. A DNC official claimed that the Michigan party had sponsored so-called "firehouse caucuses" in the past and could have set their own date and done them again, ignoring the state-run January 15 primary. The Florida party, the DNC source added, was "offered $880,000" by the DNC to host their own caucus on a date in compliance with the DNC schedule and chose to participate, instead, in the state-financed primary, a "bad faith" decision.

But Florida party officials said the $880,000 would've only covered the cost of 150 caucus sites, with the capacity to draw a maximum of 150,000 voters out of the state's 4 million Democrats. "It wasn't a real offer," a spokesman said. Michigan's party would have had to self-finance caucuses, which, even with added Internet and mail voting, drew only 165,000 voters in 2004, a fraction of the 600,000 who voted in 2008. Stripping both states of their full delegations because the state parties in each refused to run these limited-participation caucuses--which would have occurred a couple of weeks after an official, state-financed primary -- is a bit like punishing Democrats because they like democracy.

Obama's Backers--and the Road to the Nomination
The DNC critique of Florida's noncompliance included a reference to the fact that a Democratic state senator was the initial sponsor of the move-up bill in that house, which was seen as a sign of eagerness on the part of some Democratic leaders to break the rules. That senator was Jeremy Ring, an Obama supporter. Obama even named Ring's 2006 campaign manager to run his statewide Florida effort. Ring was such a champion of the early primary that when Obama, like all the other candidates, supported the sanctions and agreed not to campaign in the state, Ring withdrew his endorsement.

When Governor Crist signed the bill at a ceremony in West Palm Beach, the man at his side was Bob Wexler, the chair of Obama's Florida campaign. Wexler wasn't there because he wanted to defy Howard Dean. He was there for the same reason that almost all the Democrats in the legislature voted for the bill. He is the state's leading foe of paperless voting systems and filed two suits against them. He saw the bill as the governor's fulfillment of a campaign pledge "to make Florida a model state for the nation in terms of our election system."

Similarly, all three of the House Democrats who endorsed Obama -- Coleman Young II, Bert Johnson, and Aldo Vagnozzi -- voted in favor of the bill to push the Michigan date forward. When Obama later took his name off the Michigan ballot, Young and Johnson became sponsors of the bill to cancel the election they had just voted to authorize.

The support of Obama's principal backers in both states for the move-up bills was hardly consequential, but it does raise questions about his current opposition to any counting or recounting of these states. If bad faith is the DNC's standard, Obama doesn't have to look too far to find alleged examples of it, and to recognize that the national party might be unfairly characterizing what the leaders in these states did.

Imagining a convention without delegations from these large and politically volatile states has become the nightmare of every thinking Democrat. Polls indicate that a nominee who refuses to count the 1.7 million Floridians who voted in a level-playing field primary, or to find a way for them to vote again, will wind up wasting whatever time and money he or she spends there in the general election campaign. As close as the general election vote in Michigan has been in recent years, even a small margin of voters disgruntled by the state's Democratic lockout could push it into the GOP column. Obama's stonewalling about both states may offer short-term advantages, but two delegations denied seating because of his maneuvers may well be seen as contrary to his populist rationale now -- and crippling to his candidacy in November.

Ed Pozzuoli, the Republican chair of Broward County, recalls the Florida showdown of 2000, when he says Democrats taunted Republicans, insisting that they should "let every vote count." He gloats now: "I guess that's changed in eight years." He's hardly the only one chortling over the likely consequence of what he calls the "draconian" Democratic spiking of his state's delegation.
What started out years ago as Howard Dean's 50-state organizing strategy for the national party now looks like a 48-state electoral one. Michigan and Florida could become the Ralph Nader of 2000, the great regret that delivers the country once again to four years of darkness.

Research assistance by: Kimberly Chin, Shaunna Murphy, Shea O'Rourke, Marguerite A. Suozzi, Adam Weinstein and John Wilwol. Research support for this article was provided by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund.


Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Room Full of Liars

The Ethics committee has released its report on its investigation into Mulroney-era corruption. The title says it all: The Mulroney-Schreiber Affair: Our Case for a Full Public Inquiry. The report is brief, easy to read, and very, very interesting.

I dearly hope that we have a broadly mandated, full inquiry into the sorry mess of Mulroney's extraremuneratory shennanigans. As far as I can tell, Schreiber, Mulroney, Doucet and MacKay are all lying through their teeth to support their separate agendas. It's a mess. But the few facts we have indicate some serious corruption during Mulroney's days as Prime Minister and beyond (for further details, click "corruption" at the bottom of this post):

* While PM, Mulroney acted to get the Airbus deal approved (for example, he fired all the Air Canada directors and replaced them with pro-Airbus people).
* Airbus paid at least $10 million in grease money.
* Mulroney lived above his means, and he dealt in vast quantities of cash.
* Mulroney received at least $225,000 in cash from Schreiber.
* A Swiss bank account existed to funnel more money to Mulroney.

We may never get to the bottom of this important scandal, but if we do, it's going to take forensic accountants, investigators and other tools of a full-scale inquiry. Will the current Conservative prime minister launch an inquiry into a previous Conservative prime minister? Or will this have to wait till we trounce the Conservatives in the next election?


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Do I Detect an Obsession with the B word?

I'm in New Orleans as I write this. While New Orleans still has some wonderful food, architecture, and music, it also has some of the most godawful tack in the world. Here are a selection of slogans I saw on t-shirts in tourist shops this morning:

I want to be Barbie / The BITCH has everything!

If you can read this the bitch fell off

I may be a cruel heartless bitch but I'm good at it

Kitchen bitch

Kitchen bitch / Don't make me poison you

I'm the bitch that fell off

I'm not a bitch / I'm THE bitch / and Miss Bitch to you