Saturday, August 30, 2008

Yeah, still can't believe it

The more I think about it, the more incredulous I am about Sarah Palin. I think this is truly a "jump the shark" moment for McCain. This is like Harriet Miers all over again. But worse.

First, let's start with some perspective out of Alaska:

Before her meteoric rise to political success as governor, just two short years ago Sarah Palin was the mayor of Wasilla. I had a good chuckle at’s claim that she had been the mayor of “Wasilla City”. It is not a city. Just Wasilla. Wasilla is the heart of the Alaska “Bible belt” and Sarah was raised amongst the tribe that believes creationism should be taught in our public schools, homosexuality is a sin, and life begins at conception. She’s a gun-toting, hang ‘em high conservative. Remember…this is where her approval ratings come from. There is no doubt that McCain again is making a strategic choice to appeal to a particular demographic - fundamentalist right-wing gun-owning Christians. And Republican bloggers are already gushing about how she has ‘more executive experience’ than Obama does! Above is a picture of lovely downtown Wasilla, for those of you unfamiliar with the area. Behind the Mug-Shot Saloon (the first bar I visited when I moved to Alaska long ago) is a little strip mall. There are street signs in Wasilla with bullet holes in them. Wasilla has a population of about 5500 people, and 1979 occupied housing units. This is where your potential Vice President was two short years ago. Can you imagine her negotiating a nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Discussing foreign policy? Understanding non-Alaskan issues? Frankly, I don’t even know if she’s ever been out of the country. She may ‘get’ Alaska, but there are only a half a million people here. Don’t get me wrong….I love Alaska with all my heart. I’m just saying.
Now, let's see some reaction from more serious conservative pundits, and not just McCain surrogates and wackjob Fox News types:

* Charles Krauthammer: "The Palin selection completely undercuts the argument about Obama's inexperience and readiness to lead.... To gratuitously undercut the remarkably successful 'Is he ready to lead' line of attack seems near suicidal."

* Noah Millman, presenting a defense for Palin: "I realize, of course, that she's totally unqualified to be President at this point in time. If McCain were to die in February 2009, I hope Palin would have the good sense to appoint someone who is more ready to be President to be her Vice President, on the understanding that she would then resign and be appointed Vice President by her successor."

* Ramesh Ponnuru called it "tokenism," adding, "Can anyone say with a straight face that Palin would have gotten picked if she were a man?"

* David Frum: "The longer I think about it, the less well this selection sits with me. And I increasingly doubt that it will prove good politics. The Palin choice looks cynical.... It's a wild gamble, undertaken by our oldest ever first-time candidate for president in hopes of changing the board of this election campaign. Maybe it will work. But maybe (and at least as likely) it will reinforce a theme that I'd be pounding home if I were the Obama campaign: that it's John McCain for all his white hair who represents the risky choice, while it is Barack Obama who offers cautious, steady, predictable governance.... If it were your decision, and you were putting your country first, would you put an untested small-town mayor a heartbeat away from the presidency?"

* Kathryn Jean Lopez: "As much as I loathe Obama-Biden, I can't in good conscience vote for a McCain-Palin ticket. Palin has absolutely no experience in foreign affairs. Considering both McCain's advanced age and the state of the world today, it is essential that the veep be exceedingly qualified to assume the office of president. I simply don't have any confidence in Palin's ability to deal effectively with Iran, Russia, China, etc."

On top of all this, McCain doesn't even know her. Before this week, he had met her once. Once. And had one other phone conversation with her earlier this month. What kind of working relationship do they have together? None.

Maybe if he knew her a little bit better, he would have known better than to pick someone who is under investigation for abuse of power (and that probe is scheduled to present its findings the first week of November; nice!).

Here's some nice schadenfreude, courtesy of Karl Rove:

With all due respect again to Governor Kaine, he’s been a governor for three years, he’s been able but undistinguished. I don’t think people could really name a big, important thing that he’s done. He was mayor of the 105th largest city in America. And again, with all due respect to Richmond, Virginia, it’s smaller than Chula Vista, California; Aurora, Colorado; Mesa or Gilbert, Arizona; north Las Vegas or Henderson, Nevada. It’s not a big town. So if he were to pick Governor Kaine, it would be an intensely political choice where he said, `You know what? I’m really not, first and foremost, concerned with, is this person capable of being president of the United States?
That was him questioning the wisdom of Obama picking Governor Kaine of Virginia as VP (which he didn't, going with the more experienced Biden), just a couple weeks ago. We already know that Rove is a fat sack of shit, but this is just priceless.

I know this post has been kind of all over the place (the sheer craziness of this has knocked me off balance), but I'd just like to say one other thing.

A lot of conservatives are concern trolling for Obama, gravely warning that he does not want to have a debate over experience, so he should lay off of Sarah Palin. Fine. But this TOTALLY misses the point. Obama didn't want to have a debate over experience, but the Republicans did. The entire thrust of their argument against Obama was that he is "dangerously inexperienced". Even the McCain campaign now privately admits that this line of attack is gone.

McCain's shot himself in the foot here. He's totally undermined everything his campaign is supposedly based on; that you can trust him to make good decisions in a dangerous world, that Obama is not ready to be President, and that he represents something different from the anti-science Christianist worldview of the Bush administration. Thinking that this is going to get him the female vote is downright insulting, when you think about it. It presumes that women voters will vote only based on their gender, and not on the issues. And it presumes that Hillary supporters will accept a weak substitute for their true hero, a woman who got married straight out of high school, has five kids, and is as pro-life as you can get.

I think this is going to backfire big time. Remember, these first couple days are her honeymoon (and there's already a LOT of skepticism out there, as there should be). Pretty soon, she's going to be put under the microscope of the national media, and it will not be pretty.

UPDATE: From the comments over at Ezra Klein:
It's not the years, it's what you do with them. I'd expect Ezra to know more about foreign affairs than Gov. Palin, with the possible exception of fishing rights with Canada, of course, but Gov. Palin certainly has the edge in experience when it comes to beauty pageants, small-town government, and moose hunting.

When the Russians send their trained moose armies against us, we'll be glad to have Palin, believe you me.

For anyone who missed it

It's too bad that there was so little discussion of Obama's speech today, but the utter absurdity of McCain's surprise VP pick caught everyone off guard, I think. 38 million Americans watched it on television, but for those that missed it for one reason or another:

I'd have to say it was the best speech he's ever given. It was positive, full of platitudes about unity and laundry lists of the great things Obama will do as President (how he'll pay for all of them wasn't explained), but it also included some sharp attacks against McCain, long overdue, in my opinion.

Most effective, I think, was the part where he proclaimed that "America is better than this". Because it's true. The US is better than torture. It's better than letting a city drown. It's better than leaving tens of millions of people without health insurance. And it's better than the politics of Karl Rove. That isn't America. That's Bush's America.

Friday, August 29, 2008

McCain's surprising VP pick

Today, McCain did something that no one saw coming. He picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. The collective reaction seems to be "Who?" With good reason. Not only is she from an obscure state, but she's only been governor for two years (and was mayor of some little town before that). She's younger than Obama, and has far less political experience (but Alaska is close to Russia, so she actually does have foreign policy experience; Fox News is just way beyond self-parody these days).

Steve Benen:

Stepping back, we have the man who would be the oldest president in
American history, who happens to have a record of health problems, picking a virtual unknown who's been a governor for less than two years. Amazing.

McCain communications chief Jill Hazelbaker told CBS News this morning that McCain is going to "make the choice from his heart." That seems even more bizarre -- McCain barely knows Palin, hasn't worked with her in any capacity, and hadn't even asked her to serve as a campaign surrogate at any point in the process. For all the talk about McCain valuing personal relationships above all else, McCain has practically picked a stranger, to himself and the rest of the nation.

This strikes me as a tremendously desperate move on McCain's part, which is unlikely to go over well. More soon.

John Cole:

I guess there will be folks among the legions at memeorandum who think this is a daring and bold and mavericky pick (mostly in the media, I would wager), but I just guess I am not one of them. It seems so transparently cynical, so deeply poll-driven and focus-grouped, and so manifestly just a bone to the wingnut pro-life base and the 8 PUMA holdouts, that I really can’t treat this pick seriously.

The Great Orange Satan:

The Sarah Quayle Palin pick is an abandonment of the "Obama is
not ready to lead" attack lines. Those are dead, and to be honest, while that
line didn't work for Hillary and it had limited traction for McCain, it still
had some traction. That attack line is gone.

Andrew Sullivan:

Compare McCain’s pick with Obama’s: a man with solid foreign policy experience, six terms in Washington and real relationships with leaders across the globe.

One pick is by a man of judgment; the other is by a man ofvanity.

She may be a fine person, but she’s my age, she has zero Washington experience, and no foreign policy expertise whatsoever.

McCain has just told us how seriously he takes the war we are in. Not seriously at all.

Even Mark Halperin, McCain-fluffer extraordinaire, thinks this is likely a terrible move:

John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate will either turn out to be a brilliant way for the Republican to scramble the race in his favor — or a disastrous pick that is cast as a desperate act.

On the face of it, McCain has failed the ultimate test that any presidential candidate must face in picking a running mate: selecting someone who is unambiguously qualified to be president.

I would say her relative youth and lack of experience undercuts very badly the McCain campaign's argument that Obama is too untested to be president. After all, if McCain is elected, Palin will be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. If Obama isn't ready to be president, how the hell can he say with a straight face that Palin is?

McCain chose Palin for short term, blatantly cynical political reasons. He chose a woman so that he can poach some of the Hillary loyalists. So he can be a candidate of "change" too. So he can shore up his conservative credentials (Palin is virulently opposed to abortion, and advocates teaching creationism in schools). He did not pick her for her credentials or ability to be President.
She will get thrashed in the VP debate, but McCain will no doubt try to pull a Hillary and paint Biden as a bully, trying to play on feminist sympathies.

In short, this is a shockingly awful pick (not to mention bizarre) from an objective, non-partisan standpoint. She is not ready to be President, and no one knows anything about her. She also comes with a pre-packaged scandal, which the Dems would be smart to publicize. But in the current political context, it's a somewhat shrewd move. McCain knows his only hope is to keep the Democrats divided. What better way to do that than to choose a woman as his running mate?

UPDATE: I want to add Ezra Klein's reaction as well:

As the day wears on, I'm growing ever more convinced this was an insane pick. Palin isn't well vetted. McCain has only met her twice. She's not well briefed -- a month ago she didn't know McCain's position on Iraq. And she doesn't come prepared for the scrutiny. Palin isn't in a political position that exposes her to the full range of issues. She's not been running for president for two years, working with sprawling policy teams and being exposed to every concern of every voter willing to write an e-mail or grab the mic at a townhall. She's not been in office long enough to dig in on many issues, and she's not been in the sort of office where she'd have been exposed to many of them naturally.

And Jack Cafferty's been kicking ass today on CNN:

"It's a joke," he said. "Alaska has as many people as Austin, Texas. What does she know about inner city poverty? The war on drugs? The Middle East? You want to put her against Putin?"

Making history

(Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)

Well, he sure did nail it. The whole thing was just an amazing spectacle. I'll hopefully have some more reaction tomorrow, but I'm pretty damn tired, so I'll sign off for tonight. Exciting times.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Do we really have to?

It looks like we will have an election after all. Harper's concocting some sad tale about the government being "disfunctional" (even though he's won some forty gazilion confidence votes), and Canada needing an election to sort things out.

This editorial from Lawrence Martin the Globe and Mail spells things out in an appropriately cynical way.

I dunno, maybe Harper is nervous about ethics investigations, or an Obama presidency, or whatever the hell else. But is this really the right time? Harper should stick to his fixed election date, and keep daring the opposition to bring him down. Until they do, he doesn't have a good excuse to call an election, and certainly not now of all times, with the US election campaign starting up in earnest. It would be a huge, even overpowering distraction.

Musings on the Democratic Convention

I'm generally not a huge fan of big, pointless political theatre, but tonight's Convention happenings were kinda cool anyway. It was all pretty well staged (but that lady chairing the roll-call was frightening looking), and it hit the right notes of unity (unity unity UNITY!) with Hillary asking for the acclamation thingy to end the roll call of the states, and half the people in the stadium in tears as Obama was officially nominated, with the network talking heads all blathering on about the history being made.

I'm hoping that Bill really tears into the Republicans tonight. It's nice to be all touchy-feely, but it's time for some red meat. Also interested in what Biden has to say.

Oh, and Mitt Romney? Total douchebag:

Former governor Mitt Romney, perhaps continuing his audition to be John McCain's
running mate, attacked Barack Obama today for making an issue out of McCain's
many homes.

Speaking to reporters at a lunch sponsored by the Christian
Science Monitor, Romney said that while McCain deserved his houses because of
the "hard work" of himself and his family, "Barack Obama got a special deal from
a convicted felon."

I mean, seriously. The "hard work" of McCain and his family? Well, maybe Cindy's family, but certainly not Cindy herself or John McCain. And Barack Obama's success can be boiled down to getting a "special deal from a convicted felon"? Uh, no. He didn't get a "special deal". He and his wife bought a nice house at the market price. Obama was able to do this because of his accomplishments in the fields of law, academics, and politics, and not because he married a wealthy beer heiress. The Republicans are bent and determined to push this bullshit affirmative action meme against the Obamas, even when the facts are diametrically opposed to it. Hasn't ever stopped them before, I guess.
(h/t Steve Benen)

This kind of crap is why I'm hoping Bill really throttles the GOP tonight. They fucking deserve it.

LATE UPDATE: Ezra Klein has a warning.

Say what you will about the 2004 Convention, it had a theme. Conversely, the
first night of the 2008 Democratic Convention had Michelle Obama bring the warm
and fuzzies, Ted Kennedy calling forth tears and hankies, and Jim Leach speaking
quietly and pedantically without any serious promotion from the Obama campaign.
The second night of the 2004 Convention saw Barack Obama tearing apart the
arena. In 2008, we had Mark Warner with a well-crafted speech that fell flat
because it was an attack structure that refused to name the politician it was
attacking. You had Hillary Cinton giving a powerful address, but it was an
address that was broadly aimed at problems in the Democratic Party, not the
problems with the Republican Party.

The first two days of the convention
were wasted, or seemed so from my vantage point. Tonight, Joe Biden will rip
into McCain. And tomorrow, Obama will do whatever he does. Then on Friday, at
noon, John McCain will announce his vice presidential nominee, strangling any
convention bounce in the crib. Then the Republican Convention will begin, and
you can be assured that they will remember Barack Obama's name. They will
remember how to make fun of him, how to mock his celebrity and inexperience. And
the media will not cover Ron Paul's protesters with the vigor or attention they
gave to Hillary Clinton's diehards.
Instead, they will cover four days of
straight attacks on Barack Obama, culminating with a grave address about
sacrifice and service from John McCain. And unless Obama's convention makes a
sharp turn tonight and tomorrow, they will have done nothing to soften the
impact of these attacks and themes or create a counternarrative for the media to

True that. And Bill's speech was good, but come on guys, you can't just build the case for Obama, you have to build the case against McCain. And that case is there, waiting to be made.

Inflation worries

In the new issue of Macleans, there is an article about the global swing towards higher rates of inflation, and how it is affecting Canada. The Bank of Canada has an official target rate of between one and three percent, and for the most part, it's done well to maintain that over the past few years. But the last report, which I posted on here, gave reason for worry. And according to the article, the Bank admits we'll be at 4.3% by the start of next year.

One caveat: this is the official consumer price index, but the core rate, which excludes volatile commodities like gas and food, is more stable. Of course the question becomes "how long", since neither gas or food prices are expected to go down much any time soon.

So what's the problem? A lot of it is beyond our control. Inflation is creeping up all around the globe, in some cases, disastrously so (a million dollar note in Zimbabwe is used as toilet paper). And the growth in commodities prices is really quite unprecedented.

(Photo: AFP/File/Desmond Kwande)

Normally, the answer to inflation is simply to raise interest rates to slow down the economy and hope you nip it before it gets out of control. But in our case, it's really a tale of two economies. On the one hand, you have the red-hot western economy, fueled by Alberta's oil boom. Growth is strong, but so is growth in prices. This is referred to as "demand-pull" inflation, as the increased demand is literally pulling prices upwards. But on the other hand, you have Ontario, whose manufacturing sector has been shellshocked by the strong Canadian dollar and weak US economy, both of which combine to drive down the demand for exports, particularly automobiles. Inflation in Ontario is actually quite low.

The problem here is that the central Bank sets monetary policy for the entire country. Since we all share the same currency, Alberta cannot have one monetary policy and Ontario another. What we are seeing is a remarkable divergence in economic fortunes in different parts of Canada, and whatever happens, no one is likely to end up happy.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

High school politics and revisiting Star Wars

So, as we all wait with baited breath to see what Hillary Clinton has to say, there's just a couple other things I'd like to mention this evening.

1. Looks like Stephane Dion is none too eager for a fall election (neither am I, to be frank; the one south of the border is quite enough). Andrew Coyne thinks it's funny:

A source close to the Prime Minister said Dion was, like, totally avoiding him
in the halls and stuff. “Ohmigod, it’s like sooo obvious. He can deny it, but
it’s all over school.”

A Liberal official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, was like “no way.” The Prime Minister, according to the source, was
like “yes way.”

At a hastily convened press conference, Dion suggested he had
math fifth period and could see the Prime Minister then, but that after that he
had a chem lab that he was “totally freaked out about.”

Harper countered that there was no way he was going to end it, that if Dion wanted to end it he should call him…


2. With Star Wars: The Clone Wars out in theatres, and me not too excited to see it, I stumbled across something called Star Wars: Revisited. What is this, you ask? Only the COOLEST FUCKING THING EVER!

In all seriousness, this is what the Special Edition should have been. It is a fan-edit, with no official sanction from Lucasfilm, but it is so well done, it puts their official efforts to shame. The creator of this wonderful new version of Star Wars (he goes by Adywan) has taken the good parts of the original cut and the good parts of the special editions and spliced them together to make a definitive cut. Additionally, he has fixed numerous technical glitches and bloopers that were never fixed in any official release, added new music to various scenes (always appropriate, never intrusive), and even added entirely new special effects sequences that are on par with the studio efforts.

Obviously, with all the additions, it's not exactly purist (but Han does shoot first!), but in Revisited, Adywan has created what I feel to be the definitive version of the original Star Wars. And we were due for one, given all the technical glitches that infested the 2004 DVD release of the OT. Right now, he is hard at work on The Empire Strikes Back: Revisited, but you can find the first movie available for download on Bittorrent and Rapidshare here.

And then there's just stupidity

Yesterday, I gave a brief overview of the incredibly disfunctional US political media. Today, it's Larry Kudlow, who has a show on CNBC, and is one of the foremost conservative voices on economics in the media. Yesterday, he wondered:
Are the Denver Dems downing the stock market today? The Dow is off 230 points,
starting right from the get-go.
It is conventional wisdom on the Right that the Democrats are bad for the economy, so they are a frequent target when stock market declines happen to coincide with events like the Democratic convention. Never mind that the stock market has been incredibly volatile of late, and that investors are very nervous about things like the price of oil, consumer confidence, inflation, all that jazz.

No, it's the Democrats' fault, because they're going to RAISE TAXES. And SOCIALIZE HEALTH CARE. And REDISTRIBUTE INCOME TO THE POOR. And we all know those things are bad for the stock market and the economy.

Steve Benen has some crucial context:

on the day George W. Bush was sworn into office in January 2001, the Dow Jones
stood at 10,732.46. As I'm typing, it stands at 11,427.44. Under Reagan, the Dow
went up 148%. Under Clinton, it grew 187%. After nearly eight years, Bush is
barely breaking even. Blaming an Obama/Biden campaign rally isn't exactly a
compelling explanation.

Yeah, up is down, black is white. God, isn't it November yet?

Monday, August 25, 2008

The fundamental problem with US politics

As the Democratic Convention gets under way in Denver, now is a good time to step back and wonder just what makes American politics so incredibly disfunctional. I think a good place to start is the media. Take this clip, for example:

That blathering idiot was Mark Halperin, a well-respected political writer on TIME magazine's payroll. To recap, McCain's housing gaffe was bad news for Obama because now McCain will be forced to go negative.

What fucking planet has Mark Halperin been on? Did he somehow forget the past couple months, during which McCain has been relentlessly negative, sometimes disgustingly so? And what makes this genius think that the Republicans wouldn't push the Rezko/Ayers stuff anyway? Only in the world of these moronic beltway reporters is McCain not knowing how many fucking houses he owns good news for McCain.

So the housing gaffe was bad news for Obama, because everything is good news for McCain. That's why this election is going to be an uphill battle, no matter how bad the fundamentals are for the Republicans. The media will always defer to Saint Maverick, they will always play up the horserace/neck and neck aspect whether it is warranted or not, they will always draw equivalence between baseless smears against Democrats and valid criticisms directed at Republicans.

Liberal media, you say? Ha! Whatever they are, they sure aren't "liberal", unless "liberal" means doing their very best to tear down the Democratic candidate, mindlessly repeating every baseless smear, lie and attack on their patriotism that the Republicans volunteer. We saw it with Gore, we saw it with Kerry, and now we're seeing it with Obama.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush was repeatedly portrayed as a salt of the earth cowboy who you'd like to have a beer with, and who is a strong and decisive leader. John McCain is a war hero who always stands up for what he believes in, even when it means bucking his party (never mind that he's flip-flopped on 74 different issues or that he voted with Bush more than 90% of the time last year).

American democracy is being very poorly served by its farcical political press, this much is clear. But the American public must also take its fair share of the blame.

I'm not going to say that the American electorate is less intelligent or more ignorant than the electorates in other democracies, because that isn't fair. The truth is that a lot of voters in every democracy are unintelligent and/or ignorant. It's an imperfect system; there will always be voters making uninformed choices. But that's why we have the media, to cut through as much of the spin as possible, and give people a clear picture of where the parties stand on the issues that are important to them.

When the media utterly fails to do this, as in the US, and voters do not have a clear understanding of the candidates' policies, voters tend to vote based on other things. Who sounds more confident (Democrats tend to give nuanced answers, so they appear less confident in what they are saying)? Who would they rather have a beer with? Who has the more scandalous personal life? Hilzoy has a good post up in which she bemoans this lack of focus on what is important, and how it almost invariably benefits McCain.

When these things obscure the real issues, you have events like the 2004 election, in which a disastrous President was nevertheless reelected. On policy, there was no comparison. But Kerry was boring. He was too intellectual, too nuanced for the American public. And when the election became obscured by bullshit like the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, it gave Bush an opening that he would not otherwise have had. And the media played along. They did the obscuring. What got more coverage during the 2004 campaign, windsurfing or budget deficits? The Swiftboaters or the environment? "Elitism" or the importance of developing alternative energy?

At every step of the way, the media was only too eager to play along. It gave them an easily presentable campaign narrative; "Kerry is weak and a flip-flopper," "Kerry is too elitist and can't connect with Middle America," "Bush is a strong and decisive wartime leader". It didn't matter who was right, just as it won't this year. The candidate who best manipulates and spins the media will win this year, just as in 2004. And that is a depressing thought.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

This is pretty cool

It seems Senator Biden is quite strongly committed to combatting global poverty and disease. This is very encouraging, since these issues are so intertwined with the great challenges that we face in this new century.

Extreme poverty usually means a lack of access to education and health care. As I've blogged about before, these factors combine in a cruel positive feedback loop to frustrate any attempts at economic progress. Lack of primary education, especially among girls, means larger family size and higher population growth, which in turn contributes to all manner of environmental problems and stresses on natural resources. And lack of access to health care has obvious economic impacts. An unhealthy workforce is an unproductive one. Quite apart from the millions dying of the disease, sub-Saharan Africa is rife with AIDs orphans. What chance do they have?

If we're to have any hope of reversing these dangerous trends, our political leaders need to get serious about making a difference. No more empty platitudes and symbolic foreign aid budgets. If Biden really is passionate about this, choosing him as VP was a step in the right direction.

Weekend morality lesson

I think that little devil child will think twice the next time he tries that.

Biden's the VP

It's official.

I'm of two minds about this. Biden's home state, Delaware, has only 3 electoral votes, and was pretty much a lock anyway. And he has a tendency to say stupid things, including stupid things about Barack Obama (remember the "clean and articulate" thing?).

On the other hand, he's a great attack dog. His line about Rudy Giuliani's sentence formation ("a noun, a verb, and 9/11") was classic. And he brings a lot of experience to the ticket, including on foreign policy, which should either reassure voters nervous about Obama's lack of experience, or draw attention to it.

One other thing of interest:

He was ranked 99th out of 100 senators in personal wealth, and owns only one house. This provides a great contrast to John "I don't know how many houses I own" McCain, and whoever his VP will end up being (lots of people are thinking Romney, whose family wealth may add up to some $500 million). It'll take a shitload of cognitive dissonance for the Republicans to keep pushing this elitist nonsense.

PS: Why the hell did Obama release this news on a Saturday? Isn't this the worst possible time in the news cycle? I don't get it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Why John McCain isn't elitist

So John McCain's run into a bit of trouble in the past couple days. It seems he couldn't quite remember how many houses he owns. Is it 4? 7? 10? No one is quite sure, but that's a common enough mistake, right? Like I don't quite know how many pairs of socks I own. For regular Joes like McCain, keeping track of all their real estate can be a daunting prospect.

And wearing $520 shoes? Travelling to Starbucks in a nine-car motorcade to get a cappuccino (not a latte, thank God)? Not elitest, you commie scum.

No, real elitism is something that Democratic candidates have a monopoly on. Knowing what arugula is, and vacationing in exotic far-away places like....Hawaii. That's elitism, my friends.

Some may also say that being the son of a four-star admiral and marrying a wealthy beer heiress is somewhat elitist. But that simply isn't true. You see, it's all about your frame of mind. Since McCain is a Republican, he's just inherently more in touch with the average American. After all, how else could a pampered beneficiary of gross nepotism like George W. Bush have succeeded in painting his opponents as out of touch? Buying a ranch so he could pretend he was a cowboy helped too. Elitists don't do that, they just work as a community organizer in a god-forsaken place like inner city Chicago, or some such presumptuous and arrogant nonsense.

But we know that Obama is an elitist despite his modest upbringing. Quite apart from his sins of culinary and caffinated sophistication, he's all academic and stuff. He uses big words. And he probably had hot white girlfriends (hint, hint) and made snide comments directed toward less fortunate folk at the local country club. At least that's what Karl Rove thinks, and we know he's never wrong.

UPDATE: Yeah, all snark aside, this is chutzpah:

John McCain put a new ad out today attacking Barack Obama on taxes. It begins with a narrator intoning: “Celebrities don’t have to worry about family budgets, but we sure do.”

We? Really? This coming from a guy who, just the day before, couldn't remember how many houses he owned. Maybe he's referring to his budget for household servants, "which went from 184,000 in 2006 to $273,000 in 2007, according to John McCain’s tax returns."

Holy. Shit. Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse. Maybe, just maybe, America is getting a good look at the real McCain.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Generation Kill

I'd just like to write a quick recommendation of Generation Kill, the Iraq War miniseries (based on the book by Evan Wright) currently airing on HBO (six episodes in already, so catch reruns or get it On Demand).

Picking up right where they left off with The Wire, the writer/producer team of David Simon and Ed Burns set their sights on the US military. Not the men and women of the US military (they are portrayed honestly, neither heroes nor monsters, all nuanced characters in their own right), but the way the institution itself functions. It's not quite Catch-22, but it has a similar outlook. It deftly links the general disfunction of the military chain of command to the now-legendary mistakes that doomed the US adventure in Iraq.

The action is impressively staged, and there is little evidence of a TV budget. It looks convincing, quite a compliment in this age of 24 hour news, with pictures of Iraq beamed into our houses every night.

I don't know if I would put this quite in the same strata as The Wire, limited as this is by its setting and lack of dramatic license. There is nothing quite like that show's five year deconstruction of the ills of modern American society, but this is a worthy follow-up, and the first serious attempt (in my opinion) to deal with the Iraq war, either on television or on film. Although I'm still waiting for a definitive treatment of the US occupation of Iraq, which is much more representative of the American experience in that country as a whole. This is limited to those crazy days of Spring 2003, when anything seemed possible (but actually wasn't).

Defeat from the jaws of victory?

So many things to blog about, so little time...

First, I've got something to say about the perceived weakness of the Obama campaign, and the first national polls ever to put McCain ahead.

True, it's been a disquieting couple of weeks for Obama fans. While the McCain campaign repeatedly attacked him, comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, questioning his patriotism, lying about what his energy policy consisted of, and otherwise making despicable assholes of themselves, Obama pretty much just sat back and took it.

Sure, he had that good line about Republicans "taking pride in being ignorant", but otherwise, he hasn't shown a whole lot of toughness. His "tough response" the other day was to ask McCain to play nice. Fuck that, he should be going after the bastard!

Point out how McCain is frequently confused and/or clueless. Bring up the fact that McCain has flip-flopped on basically every position he's ever held. Hell, even question his temperament and fitness for office.

So yes, there is a lot of room for improvement on the Democratic side. Of course, this probably isn't helping:

McCain Outspending Obama By Hundreds Of Thousands In Many Core Battleground States

Clearly, Obama is biding his time to some degree, saving his money until after the Convention. Also, he's advertising in more states, but spread thinner, with the intention of making McCain compete in states he would rather not.

I guess it's somewhat encouraging that even with all these attacks and a generally limp Obama response (combined with an ill-timed vacation in Hawaii) McCain has only pulled even, and not vaulted into the lead. And Steve Benen points out that all of us have underestimated Obama before. The ground game is really what it's all about, and the Democrats have a huge advantage in that respect.

And finally, Joe Lieberman is an asshole. If he thinks he has any future in the Senate after November, he's sorely mistaken.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

John McCain defines "rich"

So last night there was this weird debate thingy hosted by Rick Warren (the guy who wrote The Purpose Driven Life) where both presidential candidates were asked identical questions. One of them was to define "rich". Obama gave a pretty competent answer about those making over $250,000 a year being in the top 3 or 4% of the population, and he went on to defend the use of tax money for things like roads and schools, reassuring everyone that those with incomes below $150,000 would actually see a tax cut in his administration, and that it was important to restore a sense of fairness in the tax code. Fair enough. But here's McCain's answer:

Some of the richest people I’ve ever known in my life are the most unhappy. I think that rich is — should be defined by a home, a good job and education and the ability to hand to our children a more prosperous and safer world than the one that we inherited. I don’t want to take any money from the rich. I want everybody to get rich. I don’t believe in class warfare or redistribution of the wealth. But I can tell you for example there are small businessmen and women who are working 16 hours a day, seven days a week that some people would classify as, quote, ‘rich,’ my friends, who want to raise their taxes and raise their payroll taxes. Let’s have — keep taxes low. Let’s give every family in America a $7,000 tax credit for every child they have. Let’s give them a $5,000 refundable tax credit to go out and get the health insurance of their choice. Let’s not have the government take over the health care system in America.

So I think if you’re just talking about income, how about $5 million. But seriously, I don’t think you can — I don’t think, seriously that - the point is that I’m trying to make here seriously - and I’m sure that comment will be distorted, but the point is - the point is - the point is that we want to keep people’s taxes low and increase revenues. And my friend, it was not taxes that mattered in America in the last several years. It was spending. Spending got completely out of control. We spent money in a way that mortgaged our kids futures. My friends, we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now I don’t know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue, but the point is — but the point is it was $3 million of your money. It was your money.

And you know, we laugh about it, but we cry and we should cry because the Congress is supposed to be careful stewards of your tax dollars. so what did they just do in the middle of an energy crisis when in California we are paying $4 a gallon for gas, went on vacation for five weeks. I guarantee you, two things they never miss, a pay raise and a vacation. And we should stop that and call them back and not raise your taxes. We should not and cannot raise taxes in tough economic times. So it doesn’t matter really what my definition of rich is because I don’t want to raise anybody’s taxes.

Between all the incoherent rambling, John McCain did give us an answer: If you make $5 million a year, you're rich. And those poor souls who have to scrape by on $1 million a year? Not rich. Let's reiterate; John McCain just defined "rich" as making $5 million dollars a year. Shit, I half-expected he'd make a Dr. Evil mistake and say "one thooooousand dollars", given how out of touch he is on everything else, but this is even worse. Just imagine the attack ads that the Democrats could make of this!

"John McCain thinks people making millions of dollars a year aren't rich. And he wants to lower their taxes even more."

This stuff just writes itself.

As ridiculous as all that is, in the very next sentence, McCain made the same gaffe he did a while back, suggesting that he can somehow lower taxes but nevertheless increase tax revenues. John, it doesn't work that way! He is, again, confusing income taxes with capital gains taxes, and what he's saying isn't even true in that case.

Finally, he suggests that the problem over the past few years was not low taxes, but over-enthusiastic spending. It's true that spending was completely out of control with the Republican led Congress, but spending by itself doesn't cause deficits. What causes deficits is a shortfall between revenues and spending. To absolve the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy of all responsibility for the deficits is a very Republican thing to say, but it sure isn't very Mavericky.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


1. I think this guy has the right idea vis a vis Russia/Georgia:

Don't abandon Georgia to Moscow's 'sphere of influence'

I notice many on the Left have drawn an equivalence between this current crisis and the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and thus have limited their criticism of Russia. But remember that old saying "two wrongs don't make a right"?

The truth is that the US was wrong to invade Iraq, and Russia was also wrong to invade Georgia. And Saakashvili is no Saddam Hussein either. This was no "humanitarian intervention"; Russia just wanted to slap Saakashvili down to teach him and any other shitty little country in Central Asia with delusions of grandeur not to snuggle up to the US and NATO. And judging by the results so far, and the general unwillingness of the international community to take any strong action in support of Georgia, it looks like mission accomplished.

2. Canada has finally won a few medals at the Olympics! Still less than half of Michael Phelps' total, though. That guy's a freak. Literally! His joints bend funny and his wingspan is more than his fucking height.

3. So much political ridiculousness going on south of the border, I can't even catalog all of it. But this video of MSNBC's David Shuster taking on the Hillary die-hards of PumaPac was a riot:

(h/t Balloon Juice)

And may I just suggest to all the morons in the US media that John McCain demonstrating his ignorance of recent history and eagerness to start a war with Russia is NOT "displaying his foreign policy credentials". Christ, what will it take for these idiots to wake up?

4. Courtesy of MovieWeb, the first photos of The Dark Knight DVD and Blu-ray releases:

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like there'll be a Blu-ray set that includes the Bat-pod or the mask, which is a real bummer. No release date yet, but they are probably aiming for a December release.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Is gas really that expensive?

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Even if you understand the reasons for the increase in gas prices over the past couple years, you probably think it's high enough.

Despite some recent decreases in the price of crude, gas prices have barely budged. Surely gas isn't really worth more than $1.30 a liter (in Nova Scotia). Those gas companies are just getting rich at the consumer's expense. Right?


The truth is that the market price for gasoline doesn't begin to cover the true cost of its use. That $1.30 goes toward the cost of discovering, pumping, and refining the oil into gasoline, and then the cost of delivering the finished product to your local gas station, as well as any taxes (which can be considerable, depending on which country you live in).

But that $1.30 doesn't begin to cover the costs of climate change, various tax subsidies for oil companies, and even the long term health care costs resulting from air pollution. Depending on who's doing the calculation, those hidden costs could amount to as much as three or four times the market price that we pay for gasoline.

This is the problem with waiting for the market to solve our environmental problems; the true cost simply won't become apparent until many years in the future. These costs are generally referred to as externalities in economics lingo.

The classic case study is that of a factory which pollutes a nearby river. The costs of this pollution are not reflected in the firm's balance sheet, but the environmental damage is considerable for the town; some people die of sickness related to the pollution, and the cleanup is expensive. The market has no way to account for these external costs, so government regulation is necessary to ensure that the firm accounts for its own externalities, either by paying for cleanup or improving their standards so they no longer pollute the town's river.

So a carbon tax on gasoline like the one the Liberals are proposing would be an attempt to account for the externality, but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that even a strident carbon tax will fully nullify the true cost of burning the stuff. I don't mean to be a broken record, but the only long term solution is to drastically cut back on our use of fossil fuels.

A bad peace

Despite scattered reports of ongoing Russian operations in Georgia, a ceasefire agreement has been agreed to by both parties in the conflict. Russian troops remain in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and in control of several key highways in Georgia proper.

Even if the ceasefire holds, it remains to be seen what the end result of this conflict will be. If Russian forces continue to occupy the two breakaway regions, in violation of international law, and succeed in forcing the removal of the democratically elected Saakashvili, the repercussions will be grave, not only for Georgia, but for the entire world. This cannot be allowed to stand. This behavior by a despotic Putin-led Russia cannot be validated.

If Russia is allowed to dominate Georgia in this fashion, what is to stop them from doing the same in other former SSRs? Surely there are "Russian citizens" in those countries to protect, separatist movements to foment, and pretexts for war to manufacture. Why stop at Georgia? After all, neighboring Azerbaijan has vast oil and natural gas reserves, and a Russian minority of 141,000.

It may yet become clear that Georgia's hands are far from clean in this conflict. Russian claims of massive civilian casualties in South Ossetia are likely gross exaggerations, but they may contain a kernel of truth. The Georgian assault on Tskhinvali may have been indiscriminate, and that is something they will have to answer for. But that does not excuse Russia's actions this week, nor their ongoing actions over the years in destabilizing Georgia.

Monday, August 11, 2008


It's a little difficult to piece together what's going on in Georgia with all the conflicting reports and general fog of war, but it seems that the Russians have indeed advanced beyond South Ossetia, and are now threatening Georgian towns. The Georgian army seems to have pulled out of Gori in the face of advancing Russian tanks to reinforce the capital, Tblisi.

To put it mildly, the Georgians are at an extreme disadvantage. The Russians can boast total air superiority, despite the loss of at least 4 combat aircraft (the Georgians claim to have shot down 18), and Georgian ground forces are heavily outnumbered and out-gunned. If the Russians decide to occupy the capital, they most likely can, if not without some degree of bloodshed.

In any case, this marks a dangerous escalation of the conflict. Russia has moved beyond any pretext of protecting Ossetian autonomy (already a very flimsy case), and now appears to have regime change in mind, as they are, to this point, rejecting all calls for ceasefires, landing troops in Abkhazia and attacking targets in and around the Georgian capital.

Russia's actions here are illegitimate and illegal under international law. In violating Georgian sovereignty without any international mandate from the UN security council and acting entirely unilaterally, they have made just as grave an error as the US did in invading Iraq. This sets a very poor precedent, not only for UN legitimacy, but also for the sovereignty of all the former SSRs, especially those that dare defy Russia.

And meanwhile, the Georgians are wondering why no one has come to their aid:

One soldier, his face a mask of exhaustion, cradled a Kalashnikov.

“We killed as many of them as we could,” he said. “But where are our

It was the question of the day. As Russian forces massed Sunday on two
fronts, Georgians were heading south with whatever they could carry. When they
met Western journalists, they all said the same thing: Where is the United
States? When is NATO

Unfortunately for President Saakashvili and his country, no one is coming. NATO and the US will not go to war with Russia over Georgia. If anyone assured Saakashvili that the opposite was true, that NATO would strongly back Georgia's efforts to retake S. Ossetia, then they must take their share of the blame for this conflict. Otherwise, it was a very stupid move of Saakashvili to provoke Russia in this way.

Which is not to excuse Russia's actions; they are blatantly geo-political and self-interested. As I previously noted, Russia has worked for years to destabilize Georgia, and their claims of only invading to protect "Russian citizens" are eerily reminiscient of Nazi propaganda over the Czech Sudetenland. Russian citizens or not (and Ossetians are not Russian anyway), they have no right to invade and occupy the sovereign nation of Georgia without any international mandate, something they didn't even attempt to get.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ah, the Olympics...

Beijing 2008 is well underway, and some athletes' dreams will come true, some won't, and some will likely drop dead of asphyxiation due to the city's terribly polluted air.

Canada's medal count sits at a less than respectable zero after 3 days of competition, but I'm sure many of our athletes have achieved "personal bests". Actually, I don't know, because I haven't spent much time watching.

The Olympics is a strange beast; full of sports that no one usually cares about, but once every four years, everyone pretends that they do. 302 events from 28 sports will be held, including exciting ones like water polo and handball.

See, the dirty secret about the Olympics is that no one really cares about the sports. They care about the medal counts. It's just nationalism expressed through a sporting medium.

That's one problem. Another problem is the inherent absurdity of one outstanding athlete winning 3 or 4 medals for essentially the same event. The American swimmer Michael Phelps, who has already won gold in the Mens 400m Medley, will no doubt win more medals in the 200m, and probably the 800m, and any other event he chooses to compete in. One man will win more medals than entire countries.

Then there's my unshakable suspicion that almost all the top competitors in these events are on the juice. Marion Jones was one recent high-profile case, but there have also been extreme ones like pretty much the entire East German team in 1976. Here is a full list of athletes caught doping at the Olympics. Keep in mind, those are just the ones that have been caught; I believe most of them are smart enough not to.

These things combine to considerably decrease my enjoyment of the games.

And I guess this is as good a time as any to relate one of my favorite historical anecdotes:

[After the Battle of Thermopylae] Xerxes was curious as to what the Greeks were trying to do (presumably because there were so few numbers) and had some Arcadian deserters interrogated in his presence. The answer was that all the other men were participating in the Olympic Games.

When Xerxes asked what the prize for the winner was, "an olive-wreath" was the answer. Upon hearing this, Tigranes, a Persian general, said: "Good heavens, Mardonius, what kind of men are these that you have pitted against us? It is not for money that they contend but for glory of achievement!" (Godley translation)

It seems to me that the modern Olympic games, with the doping and all the money and commercialism, have strayed far from these simple ideals.

What now for Georgia?

It's hard to say where things are going to go from here. Georgia wants a ceasefire, and has pretty well withdrawn from South Ossetia. But Russia has landed troops in Abkhazia (another breakaway region of Georgia), and has bombed targets in Tblisi. The Russians seem to be in control of Tskhinvali, which appears to have suffered major damage, and the Russians claim as many as 2,000 dead there as a result of the Georgian offensive that began Thursday. This is most likely an exaggeration, and the Russians have killed Georgian civilians as well as a result of the bombing missions they have carried out.

The roots of this conflict are now becoming clear, or at least less opaque than they were two days ago. Russia has consistently undermined the Georgian state over the past decade, hitting them with trade boycotts and cutting off gas supplies, and fomenting separatist movements in places like Abkhazia and S. Ossetia. This is a culmination of those efforts, aiding by some spectacularly stupid decisions by Georgia's president, and also some hubristic actions by the US.

The population of South Ossetia numbers about 70,000 in total. Most of these people favor independence from Georgia. There isn't much an economy to speak of, mostly limited to organized crime, with almost the entire population living in the provincial capital, Tskhinvali. The idea that such a region could form a viable independent country is laughable. Douglas Muir describes it thusly:

Couple of things you need to grasp if you’re going to understand South
Ossetia. One is, it’s not very horizontal. It’s all mountains, with just enough
flat ground for one modest-sized town. Almost all of it is over 1000 meters up,
about a third of it over 2,000 meters.

Two, it’s not that big. There are only around 75,000 people in South
Ossetia. In both area and population, it’s the smallest of the frozen conflicts.

Three, it’s poor. Really poor. I mean, Transnistria is one of the
poorest corners of Europe, but Transnistria is Switzerland compared to South
Ossetia. It’s basically 75,000 people living on rocks. Okay, okay, not rocks,
but this is a region whose traditional economy consisted of driving sheep uphill
in spring and back down again in autumn.
There’s no industry to speak of. About
one-third of the state’s income comes from charging tolls on the single highway.
South Ossetia doesn’t export much but timber, sheep and people. Well, and there
was a big counterfeiting operation making US $100 bills a couple of years back.
But anyway, point is, not much there.

But Russia has been busy, putting these people on the fast track to Russian citizenship, installing "peacekeepers" in the region (obstensibly to protect S. Ossetia from Georgia, but lacking any international mandate), and riling up separatist sentiment.

Meanwhile, Georgia accepted Western military aid and training, and transformed their army into a small but competent and well-equipped force, ready to deal with domestic insurgency....or be accepted as a member of NATO.

NATO membership has long been a primary goal of Georgia's government, which they no doubt assumed would help them resolve any outstanding disputes with Russia, and give them a freer hand to deal with separatists. The significance of this was not lost on Russia, who also saw other former SSRs like Ukraine talking about joining NATO and/or the EU. The US promoted these efforts, and both Ukraine and Georgia sent military forces to help in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In retrospect, it may have been a grave error for the US to cultivate these relationships, encroaching as they were on what Russia still views as its own region of influence. Russia has taken this opportunity to aggressively push back against these unwelcome developments.

This guy seems to know what he's talking about, and this is how he describes Russia's aims in Georgia:

As in the good old days of the Cold War, this has also been a testing ground
between Western doctrines and arms against their Russian counterparts, and to
state the obvious, the former has come off very badly. True, the Russians came
in greater numbers, but the lesson for a lot of the other post-Soviet republics
is clear - fancy Western military aid and training doesn't mean you can stand up to the Bear,
so it may be prudent to avoid antagonising the Bear by forming military (or any
other) relationships with the West in the first place. So kiss goodbye to a lot
of our influence in the post-Soviet space.
Hilzoy also has a good post up on the situation, with lots of links to further reading, for anyone interested.

The question now is how far will Russia go? Will they confine their operations to South Ossetia (and now, Abkhazia), or will they push into Georgia proper? Will they only be satisfied with the removal of President Saakashvili?

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A couple political things before bed

First, Edwards. I gotta say, I never cared much for him. I always thought he was kind of a phony, and I never understood the Left's love affair with him. Well, turns out he had another love affair. With a woman other than his wife. In 2006, just as he was kicking off his presidential campaign.

Ezra Klein says it best:

No one forces you to devote your life to national advocacy of important issues.
But if you decide to do follow that path, with all the plaudits and moments of
roaring applause it entails, you have to make certain sacrifices, and shoulder
certain realities. Among them is that if you falter, you can harm all that
you're advocating and deny help to all whom you claim to represent. I don't know
if it's true that Edwards' affair started and ended in 2006, but if so, that's
actually the most morally unforgivable of possible timelines. If Edwards had
won in Iowa and captured the nomination, this could easily have lost him the
election, and thus destroyed the country's chance at health reform, withdrawing
from Iraq, and so forth. This reaches back and recasts his candidacy as an act
of extraordinary selfishness. That's not to say it was conscious -- we all
contain multitudes and we all compartmentalize mercilessly -- but it was
gambling with the fates of the very people Edwards was running to help.

The narcissism on display here is just mind-boggling. If Edwards really believed all the things he purports to believe, how could he dare jeopardize the fate of the entire country over his failure to control his dick? It would have been slightly more forgivable if this had occured well into the campaign; it would have been too late to do anything about it. Just press ahead and hope it doesn't come out. But he went into the race with the full knowledge that this story could break at any time.

I feel bad for his wife, who has to deal with this and her cancer, and who, frankly, seems to be to be far better candidate material than her jerk of a husband. I'd like to see her run for Congress or the Senate, health permitting, of course.

Anyway, let's not forget that McCain has very similar skeletons in his closet, having left his disfigured but faithful wife Carol for greener pastures, ie. the younger, richer, and better connected Cindy Lou Hensley.

And with that said, I think it's a good time to post this video, a collection of some of the little gaffes that McCain has made throughout the campaign, courtesy of TPMtv. For a fun thought experiment, just try to imagine the media reaction if Obama had made all these boo-boos.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Canadian election watch, part II

According to this article from yesterday's Globe and Mail, Stephane Dion is "ready to go" for an election over his Green Shift (which a Liberal insider is quoted describing as very difficult to understand, even for Dion's own aides). Frankly, I'll believe it when I see it. This isn't the first time that an election has been threatened, but the Liberals keep caving.

As for the Green Shift, it's surely going to be a difficult centerpiece for a campaign, because no matter how Dion tries to sell it, it amounts to new taxes. And Harper's no fool; he'll paint it as just another attempt to transfer wealth from the West to Ontario. Never mind that Alberta's oil wealth is essentially unearned and is wreaking havoc on the environment, Finders-Keepers is the name of the game here.

It's all a little depressing, because the more I see and read, it's clear that we're going to need bold action on the environment if our civilization is going to survive this century. Isn't there any way for our political parties to make this crucial argument without sounding disingenuous or over-alarmist?

For example, the carbon tax should not be potrayed as an attempt to make expensive gasoline even more expensive, it should be portrayed as a plan to force the use of alternatives to gasoline, something which we can all agree is sorely needed. Right?

Russia invades Georgia

It looks like Russia and Georgia are at war, for all intents and purposes. James Joyner has a pretty good run-down of the crisis. (h/t Balloon Juice).

Most people don't even know where Georgia is, but the region around the Caucasus is a frequent flashpoint between Russia, the former Soviet republics of the region, and various rebel groups that still want to break away from the former or the latter. Georgia is a particularly thorny case, being a former Soviet republic with rebel groups within its borders as well as Russian "peacekeepers" obstensibly there to mediate between the two sides. What happened today, as Georgian forces attacked rebels in South Ossetia, has both sides claiming the moral high ground, Georgia describing it as an unprovoked Russian attack on its populace, and Russia claiming they are only acting to defend Russian citizens in S. Ossetia (of which there are many).

The subtext to all of this is that Georgia was trying very hard to become a NATO member. Now it will never happen. Why? Because the whole idea of NATO is that if one member state is attacked, all other member states must come to its defense. But as long as Georgia has uneasy relations with its northern neighbor, NATO won't risk getting drawn into a conflict with Russia, and thus won't risk allowing them to join. Putin, who still sees NATO as an anti-Russian alliance, surely knows this.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What I'm reading, Chapter 2

Today, it's Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal, an endlessly fascinating book about the behavior and lifestyles of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, and what they can tell us about ourselves, from violent power struggles to sex.

Most examined are the two species of Chimpanzee, the more common Pan troglodytes, and its cousin, the interesting bonobo.

Chimps are probably easist for us to relate to, with their male dominated social hierarchies and political alliances (and backstabbing), and their more conservative sexual habits. Their propensity for brutal violence and inter-tribal warfare also echoes our own, but their capacity for empathy and kindness reassures us that our roots are not all bad.

Bonobos, on the other hand, while more humanlike in some ways (they often walk upright, and have longer legs than chimps), are strikingly unique in other ways. For one thing, they are incredibly sexually promiscuous (all bonobos seem to be bisexual, with homosexual acts seemingly as common as heterosexual), and females hold power over the males.

Although bonobos are a subspecies of chimpanzee, their temperament couldn't be more different. Violence still occurs, but their egalitarian societies seem to be much more stable than the constantly fueding chimps with their ambitious alpha males (the male-female ratio in most groups of common chimps is 1:2, evidence of frequent killings, while among bonobos it's nearly 1:1). Because sex is so common and casual, infanticide is practically unheard of in bonobo groups (while common among chimps). No bonobo male can be sure which offspring are his, so males must help defend all offspring, while the females band together to assert their authority.

This description only scratches the surface of the book; suffice to say that there are humbling moments throughout as we learn more about our hairy cousins. Much of our behavior, even in this modern age, can be traced to that of the great apes.

On a related note, a census found that there are 125,000 western lowland gorillas living in the Congo, considerably more than had been estimated previously. Good news.

Hitting back against Republican idiocy

"It's like they take pride in being ignorant."

Yes, it is. They take pride in a lot of things, actually, few of them good.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Anthrax case solved?

The strange case of the 2001 Anthrax mailer may have come to a close. Bruce Ivins, the FBI's lead suspect, committed suicide Tuesday as the government prepared to indict him for the five deaths that occurred only weeks after 9/11. There are still many unanswered questions; Greenwald asks some of them here.

For example, what were the multiple unnamed sources that the media repeatedly quoted in efforts to establish an Iraqi connection? The immediate post-9/11 atmosphere was a strange time to be sure (almost surreal), but who were these people that were spreading these falsehoods and playing upon people's fears in order to promote their own agenda? Sounds like neo-cons to me...

PS: No updates for the next few days; I'll be gone for the long weekend. See you next week!

PPS: I'm also having a strange problem with IE. Every time I try to load the blog, I get an error message and then "operation aborted", taking me to a blank screen, and leaving me with a blank look on my face. WTF? Firefox seems to work okay, but this is just weird.