Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gagging the Statue of Liberty and Skewering the Scales of Justice -- The State, 1 - Blogger, 0

The following is my response to a story I just read online, Crystal Cox Case Sets a Terrible Precedent with a Correct Ruling in a  blog on the Seattle Weekly Blogs website. (Links open in a new window.) The Mr. Cartier I address is the author of the story.

Mr. Cartier, though I'm not a lawyer, I reach a different conclusion about the law, though as a blogger myself, I understand the dilemma in defining just who qualifies as being a "journalist" when we're talking about the blogosphere and the wider Internet at large. My conclusion arises from part of the opening of the Oregon law: "No person connected with, employed by or ENGAGED IN any medium of communication to the public . . ." (my emphasis).

The two words "engaged in" are the basis of my conclusion. Let me start with the first phrase, "connected with," however. Then I'll turn to "employed by."

Who can we say is "connected with" any medium of communication. since the judge's opinion shows that he sees "media of communications" as being traditional news sources and ONLY those, I suppose that if an advertiser with, say, CNN, Fox, The Seattle Weekly, etc. also has a blog and writes something the subject of the piece feels to be libelous, and that piece is based on an anonymous source, the judge in the Cox case would rule opposite of his decision in the Cox case. After all, never mind that the advertiser, let's say, owns a furniture store, or restaurant, or -- well, *any* business that has nothing to do with news. However, such a person advertising with a medium of communication (as such is considered to be by this judge), that advertiser indeed has a "connection with" said medium.

"Employed by" is a phrase with a self-evident meaning. You yourself, Mr. Cartier, are an employee of this paper in your capacity as a reporter (or so I assume). As such, presumably you receive a salary, so are employ an outfit that is clearly a news medium. However, so are the people employed to keep the premises clean, as are the security staff, advertising sales team, etc. By a literal reading of the judge's view, his own words would force him to rule they, too, could write a blog that maybe not a single person at The Seattle Weekly even knew about, a blog in which that cleaner/guard/sales staff member wrote a story based on information from an inside source that the story's subject feels is libelous. But the writer would, according to the judge, fall under the protections of Oregon's relevant law.

Now we come back to "engaged in." Ms. Cox apparently has no "connection with" any news organization, nor is she employed by any. However, I am unmoved by the judge's argument that one *must* be a paid employee -- I'm willing to assume he didn't mean as a cleaner, etc., but as a reporter (though he left such a possibility open, I gather). But if she is not "engaged in" a medium of communication -- the blogosphere -- then on what grounds can anyone claim she libeled *anyone*? If she ISN'T engaged in that medium, then what is she doing?

There are other contrary instances.

I'm personally acquainted with a blogger who doesn't even have a formal business at all, but makes his living from the advertising he sells on his quite popular website. He isn't "employed by" his website, nor does he have any affiliation with any accredited news organization -- at all. Not as a reporter anyway. Yet in his niche, his entire website is entirely devoted to reporting news and offering commentary, sometimes scathing commentary. Clearly, he would run afoul of the Oregon law, as interpreted by this judge, were he to write a Cox-style piece.

Then think of the countless free-lance journalists whose sole role is to go out entirely on their own, research some piece then offer it for sale. According to this judge's take, a free-lancer who sold just one -- but the free-lancer who hadn't yet landed his or her first sale would not, even if that person had a hundred stories on file and still up for sale.

Finally, just how, in the good judge's opinion, an organization qualify for protection in the *first* place? It's number of readers, or employees, or advertisers (if any)? Some combination thereof? Or does it depend on the frequency with which it appears, or the number of stories, or, if it's a subscription-based outfit, its number of subscribers? Are words even necessary? How would he view a website or magazine that offered literally NO words at all, but only images -- without captions? True, I've never seen or heard of such a website or publication, but I can imagine one. Well, I guess at least one word would be needed -- a name for it. But it could be something completely bland one: "Pictures," for instance.

No, this judge still has a very steep and high mountain to conquer before he even approaches convincing me of the validity of his view. By the way, I wonder if the jury's verdict was a *directed* one?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Is the World Finally Waking Up To the Need to Begin Shifting to New -- and Green -- Energy Sources? A Hearty . . . Maybe.

Anyone who knows me knows that on the one hand I'm a pragmatist who knows we're stuck with fossil fuels for at least the next several decades. After all, the U.S. gets around half its energy from coal, while in China that figure climbs to around 70%.

However, a realization that we need to be planning for a post-oil world is clearly spreading, partly as the acceptance that serious anthropogenic climate change grows. For instance, the respected Swedish geologist and physicist Nils-Axel Mörner long challenged the concept, often focusing on long-range forecasts of rises in sea levels. However, just within the past few weeks, Dr. Mörner has changed his stance, and now is warning against climate change, specifically the dominant warming trend. Formerly a poster boy for skeptics and deniers, Dr. Mörner's switch has been greeted so far by those skeptics and deniers with a . . . big, fat silence, at least in the many sources I regularly read.

Not that their silence os a surprise, mind you. After all, last northern hemisphere they were besides themselves with joy when a major snowstorm struck the U.S. Atlantic seaboard from south of the nation's capital north and when the non-event, as it turned out, of so-called "Climategate" hit the press, yet this just-ended northern summer, they were strangely mute as, most notably (if only because of the press coverage), Moscow suffered day after day of record-high temperatures for two months. The City of the Tsars sees an average August daytime temperature of around 72F; this summer (and not just in August, by the way), the temperatures averaged much higher -- from between about 20 degrees to 30 degrees (both F). Wildfires raged throughout western Russia and parts of Europe.

Other parts of the world were affected too, some with heat, others by, for example, floods. Japan, for instance, had its own weeks-long heat wave; well over 40,000 Japanese sought treatment for symtoms of possible heat stroke. Meanwhile, as much as 1/5th of the entire country in Pakistan was underwater from unprecedented flooding. I remember reading that one city received more rainfall in a single 24-hour period than it normally receives during that day's entire month. China, too, was struck by severe flooding. All of these events were caused by the same thing, a stalled high-pressure system that re-routed the jet stream, significantly affecting the weather over a vast area.

But back to this entry's headline. As I write, China is hosting a major meeting on the climate in Tianjin, a major city, a port, southeast of Beijing. China. Further, as reported in the New York Times """Businesses Seek Clarity on Climate Goals," a group calling itself "Business for the Environment" is holding a summit in Mexico City this week -- in part to call upon next month's U.N. meeting in Cancun, Mexico to establish a goal of cutting greenhouse emission by at least 50% -- from 1990 levels, no less -- by 2020. So, whose attending the summit in Mexico City? "
blog "Green" in a story headlined "

Among the companies attending the Mexico City meeting were global corporations including Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Siemens, and Maersk, one of the world’s largest shipping companies. Wal-Mart sent somebody for the first time," according to the article, which goes on to note,  "But no one was there from any of the global energy companies. I'm particularly struck by the participation of Maersk, since shipping by sea is a huge contributor to greenhouse emissions. Good for Maersk -- and the rest of the companies participating.

Of course, the usual suspects continue their tricks. For instance, there is a proposition, Proposition 23, on California's ballot that is being strongly pushed by two Texas oil companies (Valero Energy, Inc. and Tesoro Corporation, both headquartered in San Antonio), each of which have two refineries in California, and both of which would have to take environmental measures at those refineries under California law AB32. Proposition 23, which masquerades as a job-protection bill (yeah, right), would block implementation of AB32 until after California has had four consecutive quarters with unemployment standing at 5.5% or less.

California is currently struggling with an unemployment rate well over 12% -- around 12.5%, according to most calculations. Proposition 23 would contribute to that by threatening as many as 500,000 green-sector jobs. Further, businesses and investors have plowed billions into California, to a degree on the basis of AB32 (passed in 2006, the bill seeks to cut California's greenhouse emissions by 30% by 2020). Further, California's unemployment rate has dropped to 5.5% just three times in over 30 years, making Proposition 23's requirements unrealistic. Green jobs have been one of the few bright spots in the state's badly troubled economy.

But companies such as Valero and Tesoro are beginning to find themselves with decreasing support, despite the tens of millions they've poured into fear-based lobbying and advertising to California. Even Meg Whitman, the Republican candidate for governor, has expressed some opposition to Prop 23 (though she still supports delaying implementation of AB32 one year to give time for a complete re-write -- read, "gutting" -- of that assembly bill). George Schulz, Secretary of State 1982-89 under President Reagan, and hardly a tree hugger, opposes Prop 23. (Schulz isn't a one-shot wonder; he served as Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of Labor during the Nixon and Ford Administrations.)

Yes, there appears to be a slow drift as climate-change skeptics' and deniers' claims are increasingly debunked. But there are some who apparently won't be convinced until, for example, an island nation disappears beneath the waves. And even then, some of them will claim the islands sank, and continue to deny the seas rose.

There's room for hope yet. . . .

Thursday, July 15, 2010

What Specifically Do Tea Party Members Want When They Say to "Return to the Constitution"?

In their enthusiasm, Tea Party members may want to consider that several recent surveys found that about 1/3rd of those questioned identified themselves as either members of the party or leaning towards their views. Unless they can broaden their appeal to people from the center, they don't stand much of a chance of winning many elections. Those at the other end of the political spectrum have exactly the same problem.

Also, since one of their demands is that politicians follow the Constitution, it might help to commission someone to summarize just what they want politicians to do, beyond the few specific demands they've made (such as eliminating certain government agencies); or explain how politicians are *failing* to follow the Constitution; or both. It might be helpful to keep in mind that the Constitution went into effect in 1789 -- 221 years ago. The point is that for 221 years our courts at all levels and other legal scholars have pondered the meaning of the Constitution, often arriving at very different decisions from earlier ones.

That's not a political argument; the record is clear.

For example, in 1857 the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott decision that slaves were not citizens of the US so had no standing to sue. Further, the ruling said the Missouri Compromise and that Congress had no authority to forbid slavery. Compare that to the Plessy versus Ferguson ruling in 1896 (separate but equal) and the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education.

Or look at the complicated history of who has the right to vote. For example, *some* free Black men could vote in the late 1700's -- though after 1810 *none* could. But they had that right, if only temporarily and only in some places, *long* before, for instance, women of any color got the right to vote. A few women could vote before 1920, but many could not until that year.

So, when we say politicians should go back to the original Founding Fathers' meanings -- that would include a restriction on voting to White men 21 or older who owned property -- plus, somewhat confusingly, free Black males in certain places, too.

We should go back to that?

And, for that matter, to slavery? It took the Civil War and the 13th and 14th amendments to end it (1865 and 1868, respectively).

Surely those aren't goals of anyone affiliated with the Tea Party.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Be Cute When You Travel -- and Shop CUTE, Too!

Just read a most excellent article by the most excellent Christopher Elliot on what to about taking stuff when you travel and how to decide what to bring home. (That's the link to the article on MSNBC above.)

I especially like the part of the article about what not to bring home; it's really, well, cute. (Elliot is a really good writer as well as being knowledgeable, and an unusually effective travel advocate. For the latter, see his website http://www.elliott.org. *Any* traveler can learn a whole BUNCH there, I don't care how experienced a Road Warrior you are.) But back to this article. Elliott advocates using the "CUTE Principle."

So, just what is the "CUTE Principle," anyway? It's an acronym for "Can't Use That Ever." 

Come on -- admit it. Sometime or the other, you've bought and hauled home some perfectly worthless item, often putting yourself to considerable trouble because the thing was big, awkward, heavy, fragile -- or some combination of the above!
You went all the way from, say, Dallas to Delhi, and just had to have a colorful sari or two. Really, now -- how often do you think you'll be walking down Commerce on your way to the bank . . . in a bright pink sari?

 A Little Flashy for The Bid D, Huh?

Or maybe you went from Lexington to London and just couldn't live without your very own Beefeater uniform (if you've got a lot of money you want to spend on something really, really CUTE). Just imagine the envious stares you'll get when you and your lady land at JFK or La Guardia en route home and strol through the terminal, she in her pink sari, you, with your stiff upper lip, in your Beefeater garb:

The Talk of the Town! (And Maybe the Airport Police)

Ladies, you probably want something a little more realistic -- unless you are indeed Indian so can reasonably wear a sari, even in Dallas -- so let's check . . . China. The Chinese cheaongsam dress is very beautiful, no matter what the style -- casual (meaning short, like an ordinary skirt), semi-formal, and formal. And a lady need not BE Chinese to look quite attractive in a cheongsam. So, off you take from Boston to Beijing, and I promise you, you will turn heads back at Logan International Airport!

Imagine Strolling Along in This!

And now, for the gents, let's see. . . AHA! A MAN'S cheongsam -- yes, there really is such a thing. That way you and your lady will be sartorially synchronized:

"Mmmm -- Let's Freak Them Out at the Chinese Takeaway Shop!"

But hey, let's get coordinated here! Let's take a trip from Madrid -- whether the one in Maine, Alabama, New York, or Iowa -- to the better-known Madrid, majestic capital city of
España, or "Spain." Pick up matching outfits there, and you're good to go -- no matter which "other" Madrid you're from!

Imagine Tripping the Lights Fantastic at a Maine 
Clam Bake, While You Stroll Along Alabama's
Madrid County Highway Towards the Florida State
Line 2.5 Miles South, Dine in Any of the Several
Hotels in New York with Names from Places in Spain,
or Touring the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Iowa(!!!)

I guess you expect a little explanation regarding the caption for the flamenco dancers, sigh. Okay.

Well, one entertainment activity for which Maine is very well known is its clam bakes. Okay, so that doesn't really conjure up Spain, but by wearing your flamenco outfits, you have fun two ways -- and, no doubt, provide the Nor'eastern men and women with untold mirth! As for Madrid, Alabama, that was a tough one. The town is in the part of the state the state tourism bureau calls "the River Heritage Region" (there are three other regions), but in the 2000 census, it boast 303 folks, so it's not exactly hopping. But that's okay, as walking towards the Florida panhandle might remind passersby of the days when Spain owned this part of present-day U.S. -- something people forget.Madrid, Iowa was downright fun. It was founded by Swedes in the 1840's, but renamed "Madrid" in 1882, then incorporated in 1883. Located in central Iowa, you do have wide, open horizons; there's nothing to interfere with your view until the Rockies to the west, the Hudson Bay to the north, the Appalachians to the east, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south (well, except for the Ozark Mountains). So here you are, in the middle of fields of corn and wheat farmed by hardy folks of Swedish stock but very American in a town named after the capital of Spain! Hard to get more multicultural than that!
There are, of course, countless CUTE items one acquires, not just clothes (though do leave that serape in San Louis! You'll look silly if your home's, say -- Tokyo). I mean, how many hotel notepads and pens, individual servings of condiments, matchbooks, paper menus, cocktail napkins -- well, you get the picture -- do you really want, really??? And that plaster-of-paris hound dog isn't really representative of Incan art at Macchu Picchu, now, is it? Iowa was fun. And how much sense do the plastic Egyptian pyramids make, anyway -- when they're Christmas ornaments, complete with snow inside (the kind people of a certain age will remember from childhood inverting then righting endless to watch the resulting "snow storm"). And why on earth take advantage of your time in Tierra del Fuego to buy reproductions of . . . Thai art???

Well, to each his own. But don't whine to me when you approach Customs on your return, all decked out in your hula grass skirt, a serape, maybe a fake Zulu spear (plastic, let's hope!) in one hand and a statue of Shiva (Hindu God of Destruction) in the other (but NOT a plastic one -- please!), all topped off with a Thai Hill Tribe hat. And then you get pulled aside for a secondary inspection, then maybe a tertiary, then maybe . . . the nice men in white! ;-)


And Finally, a Thai Hill
Tribe Hat -- But I Didn't BUY It --
a Friend Had It One New Year's Eve!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Is the Clean-Up about to Begin . . . or Have We Seen Only the Prelude of Things to Come?

It appears the 2-month+ protests by the "Red Shirts" are over, at least for now.

Wednesday and yesterday saw a shocking amount of wanton destruction. Buildings, buses, and other places and things, were set alight by rampaging Red Shirts -- or were they? Some speculations suggest another hand, a dark one, might have been behind at least some of that.

If I understood the TV news announcer correctly last night, the Center One Shopping Center in the Victory Monument area was so heavily damaged by fire that the owners have said it's not worth trying to repair it, even if that's possible, so they'll raze it. That report didn't indicate the plans, if any, beyond that.

Central World, a shopping icon in the heart of the business district -- and adjacent to the main rally Red Shirt site -- was largely gutted by the fire set alight in it Wednesday night. Due to sniper fire and other safety concerns, firemen had to stand off until yesterday morning, by which time much of the damage had been done. (Standing off by the fire department was pretty much the rule, and I don't blame them.)

Both the Skytrain and subway remain closed today, as do some bus routes (that last is -- I think). So do a great many businesses.

That includes some you might not expect. Last night I went about 7:30 P.M. to the 7-Eleven in my sub-soi where I live -- only to find it closed. When I thought about it, given that there was a 9:00 P.M.-5:00 A.M. curfew about to start (as it will tonight and tomorrow night, by the way), I guess it wasn't a surprise, though it did draw me up short, and still does.

Why? Well, my sub-soi is a little crooked, and though that 7-Eleven can be approached from several directions, they all feed into the sub-soi itself, and the store is located in a place it's not easily visible until you're upon it, not even from Sukhumvit Soi 22. Coming from my home, I can't see it until I round the bend just a few meters before the entrance. No one comes into this little private world unless they live or have business here, or happen to wander in by accident, so it remains somewhat . . . what? . .  well, let me rephrase it: it gives one reason to pause and reflect to ask just how disjointed matters are.

My soi is also lined with street vendors in the evening. There were some last night, though some regulars weren't around. Those that were open were doing a brisk business, running low on food, and clearly not planning to cook up anything else, not with the start of the curfew not so far off.

We didn't have a curfew even during the 2006 coup that deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now a fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence; the last curfew here pre-dates my time in Thailand, a curfew imposed almost exactly 18 years ago in May, 1992, also known as "Black May" owing to the violence and deaths at that time.

The noted Thai-American author and keen observer of the local scene S. P. Somtow has just written about the protests, though his overall focus is on the debate about the reporting by the foreign media throughout this crisis, particularly that by CNN's Dan Rivers. Somtow's piece is one of the best introductions for Westerners seeking to approach and understand Thailand I've ever read, and it's not long -- a blog entry. You can read that essay here:


(Somtow's homepage http://www.somtow.org is well worth bookmarking, by the way.)
Back down to the nitty-gritty.

The troubles haven't been confined to Bangkok. Since Wednesday, at least four provincial halls in the Northeast (Isaan), from where many of the protesters come, were torched. Red Shirt demonstrations have occurred in the North as well, in Chiang Mai, Thailand's "Second City," for instance.

A great many ordinary, everyday folks have had their lives seriously disrupted. I read an article a few days ago in which someone involved in tourism was quoted as saying he knew several people who had been involved in the industry in the form of owning private businesses, such as tourist agencies, who simply didn't have the money to continue so had folded. Closed. Gone belly up. They took a heavy blow in the wake of the invasion of the ASEAN summit and airport occupations last year, and according to this guy, these just-ended protests proved fatal.

Of course, that means their employees are unemployed, too.

I read about a boutique hotel somewhere near the main rally site; the owner said that normally they would have 85-90% occupancy this time of year -- but that at the time of the story, they didn't have even one guest, so he had locked the gate to the grounds and hunkered down for the count.

Tourism arrivals are way down, though by how much is unclear. The most dramatic I've read is that prior to the start of the protests, Suvarnbhumi Airport (Bangkok International) was receiving around 30,000 people daily, but that by then that number had dropped by a shocking 2/3rd's or so, to about 10,000 daily.

Think about that: a drop of 20,000. That number undoubtedly includes people returning home, both Thais and foreigners who have settled here, but it also includes a great many tourists and business people. Visitors. Visitors who spend money, generating employment.


Even if every single tourist who canceled a trip here was a backpacker limited -- just to pull a number out of thin air -- to spending US$20 per day, that's not an insignificant sum, especially after about 10 weeks. And you know not every tourist is a backpacker on a shoestring budget.

As for the business folks, well, they're hardly going to be staying in a 400-baht-per-night "love hotel," are they? They're not going to be buying 25-baht servings of friend rice from street vendors, Rolex knock-offs along Sukhumvit Road or in the Patpong Night Bazaar, riding unairconditioned buses, especially long-distance buses, and the like.

Further, some of them may have been coming here to discuss investments. Serious investments. What if they advise their companies to invest elsewhere? And some news reports suggest that this is happening, or that the business people are advising at least holding off investing. And another delay day is another no-payday for locals.

Then there's the personal inconvenience. While I haven't been sitting around home grieving that getting out might not be such a hot idea -- I have been sitting home, for exactly that reason. The only two times I've left my sub-soi in the past week were last Friday, when my glasses broke and I had to get a new pair chop-chop (since I'm practically blind without glasses), then again two days ago when I had to go the the nearby Tesco-Lotus to run a can't-wait errand. I encountered absolutely no problem either time, though in the latter case, a fair bit of luck was involved. That is, I got to the Tesco-Lotus about noon, and spent about 30 minutes there before leaving. I left about 12:30 P.M.

Arsonists struck about 2:00 P.M. I hasten to add that as far as I know, no one was even hurt, let alone killed, but I am plenty happy I wasn't around when whoever started the fire arrived. (By the way, I also don't have any idea if the resulting fire was major, minor, or in-between, though the fact that I don't know gives reason to hope any resulting damage was minor, since had it been major it undoubtedly would be played up in the news.)

So, for me, the inconvenience has been, and continues to be, minor. After all, I don't work, so I don't have to worry about getting to work. And I rarely get off Soi 22 even in perfectly normal times.

But what about the people who do have to get to their jobs? Of course, since some no longer even HAVE a job, that's not a problem now, is it???

Along those lines, of not having a job, that is, what about, to give two examples, employees at TV Channel 3 and the Khong Toey Metropolitan Electric Authority Office? Both those were badly damaged by fire -- the picture I saw of the latter shows it as what seems to me to be gutted. Both undoubtedly will come back into service -- eventually. Will the current employees be paid while the buildings are rebuilt? Will those two operations shift elsewhere so they can get back into business as soon as possible -- and keep their employees working? I don't know.

And that scenario is being played out in many, many places, around Bangkok, and elsewhere.

On the macro level again, Thaksin has denied being a leader of the Red Shirts at all, and people who did lead them on the ground have surrendered (some of them) to the police and admitted, in at least one leader's case, legal responsibility even while denying being able to "assume" any financial responsibility.

The Red Shirt leadership and the movement itself are clearly fractured. The rampage started when some of the leaders took to the stage at Ratchaprasong to call upon their followers to stop the protests and go home.

That clearly displeased fom of their followers, who promptly rioted.

A few days ago, I read an initial estimate that the Kingdom has taken a hit for at least 500 billion baht. Folks, that's a huge amount of money. It's in the range of US$ 1.6 billion -- in just 10 weeks. Well, no -- it was closer to NINE weeks when I read that story. And, to tell the truth, I'm not sure if that figure was for the whole Kingdom -- now that I think about it -- or just for Greater Bangkok.

So -- are the problems over?

I doubt it. As the Bangkok Post says in an editorial, it may take years, or even a generation, to heal the wounds that have been opened. Reuters has a opinion, according to a story at TAN (the Thai-ASEAN News Network).

Some of my Thai acquaintances have commented, though none have talked about these past several weeks in a political context. They've been irked, even angered, by the inconvenience, first, and to a much greater degree, secondly, by the violence, but even in criticizing the violence, they remained silent on their opinion about who was right, who was wrong, etc. They just wanted everything to stop.

It's going to be awhile before we're back to business-as-usual. It will take time to repair or replace damaged and destroyed facilities, for one thing. It also will take time for those thrown out of work to find new employment, and for the government to help them survive in the meanwhile. The security forces need some time to make as sure as they can that troublemakers are at least staying low, if not necessarily cowed over the longer term.

On the practical level, it appears we're not going to face shortages of food, fuel, etc., as the various groups involved in those areas are reportedly moving swiftly to make sure there are enough supplies on hand and that the supply chain isn't interrupted. (Maybe I can get a loaf of bread today at the 7-Eleven, if it's open!!!)

I wish there were something I could do to help, but given the raw emotions, I wouldn't be surprised if any offer I might make might meet with a snarl at perceived foreign interference. That wouldn't anger me or hurt my feelings -- peoples' emotions are understandably very, very raw. A couple of days ago I was chatting on the phone with a Thai friend and mentioned my cable TV was out, and she snapped at me, accusing me of worrying about small stuff. Then she immediately apologized before I could even react and explained that she was watching the TV news while we were chatting and there was a story about trouble in the provincial capital near which her family lives, and she was concerned about them, especially since she had been unable to get through on the phone.

I hope the bitterness begins to go away. . . .

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Days of Rage: The Health Care Debate. (0135, Wednesday, March 31, 2010, Bangkok time and date)

If the debate over what has been billed as "health care reform" before the House vote Sunday, March 21 was often bitter and divisive, it has, if anything, become worse in the days since.

Some of the worst excesses can be condemned and dismissed quickly. A member of Congress was sit on and called a "nigger," another was called a faggot, yet others received threatening phone calls and faxes, one Representative's address was posted on the Internet along with a message for those objecting to the legislation to drop by and "thank" him -- except the address belonged to his *brother,* whose gas line to his outdoor grill was cut, and bricks were hurled through windows. Among the worst of the worst was a threat posted on YouTube by a guy, now under arrest, threatening Republican House Minority Whip Cantor and his family with harm or death.

All of this is despicable. Reprehensible. Hateful. In many of the cases, laws were clearly violated -- reasonable laws to most of us. And we need to utterly reject such actions, from every quarter and from whichever side of The Great Divide they come. I assume you noticed that the actions above involved targets in both parties.

Now what? Well, though the House and Senate have both signed off on the legislation and the President has done likewise, the fight really has just begun. To wit: there are two lawsuits challenging it, suits filed by various state attorneys general. Constitutionality is an issue in these suits.

One argues that the law violates the commerce clause, which enables Congress to regulate commerce between and among states, though (according to this argument) not within a single state; medical insurance is not sold across state lines. That seems straightforward on the face of it, appearing to trump -- and invalidate -- the legislation. However, there's apparently nothing preventing a single company setting up headquarters in, say, Chicago, then establishing branches or subsidiaries not only in Illinois (in the case of Chicago), but in any other state(s) as well. Does that make that company's business subject to the interstate commerce clause? I don't know, and apparently there is no precise Supreme Court precedent. Proponent argue that it is subject to the commerce clause, pointing out that claims are often paid across state lines. Another component of this suit is that individuals will be required to buy medical coverage. Opponents argue that it's unconstitutional to require us, by law, to buy a product or service offered by the private sector, and further argue this has never been attempted before.

I gather both suits also argue that the legislation violates the principle of state sovereignty, a controversial issue in just about any state, though more so in some than in others. I should point out that I have to rely on news reports for my information, and I'm not clear that both suits actually involve this principle, though I'm virtually certain that at least one does.

There are some points to keep in mind as we sit here trying to peer into the crystal ball to divine how all this might come out. First, this legislation isn't about health care reform -- it's about health care insurance reform. One's an apple and the other's an orange, though just as apples and oranges are both fruits, health care reform and health care insurance reform are indeed related, as both center on, well, health care (obviously). Second is this business about rationing and death panels. These require some detail.

Medical care is already rationed, and long has been.

This is most obvious in times of widespread natural disaster, when there's not enough of anything to go around for all the sick and injured, and doctors (and other medical personnel) have to make triage decisions -- "who needs it the most and the fastest?" It is also effectively the case within the medical insurance sector; adjusters decide what to pay for and what not to pay for. If an adjuster decides not to pay for something and the insured person can't afford it, then he's out of luck -- not treatment/medine/surgery/etc.

The government panels? They are to try to discover the most efficacious treatment. The law specifically prohibits them from making medical decision, further specifically leaving that up to your doctor. Further, nowhere is there a single syllable empowering a government panel to summon Granny to learn whether she's getting a death sentence. There was even a case of a protester berating a guy who is apparently -- please note the word "Apparently" (I'll explain in a moment) -- a victim of Parkinson's disease. The protester has since apologized and expressed remorse, to his credit. It's still worth watching the video:

Whatever happened to the "civil" in "civil discourse"?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reconciliation and the U.S. Congress: A Study in Hypocrisy; and other Joys

Just watched a great video on YouTube about reconciliation, that legislative process through which, in theory, differences in Senate and House legislation are ironed out. While reconciliation was meant to be used only for budgetary matters, it has been used for other things.

Thing is, when the Democrats are IN of power, they *like* reconciliation, which requires just 51 votes in the Senate rather than a super-majority (as it's rather amusingly called) of 60 to ram legislation through. When the Democrats are out of power, they *hate* reconciliation. But don't go congratulating the Republicans; they're indistinguishable from their Democrat buddies when it comes to reconciliation. Just watch the video:

Then there's the matter of health insurance for employees of the federal government. No one will seriously dispute (I hope) that if workers in the private sector deserve I*some* sort of coverage through their work, then so do federal employees. But it sort of depends on what we mean by "*some* sort of coverage," doesn't it?

I mean, did you know that under circumstances the EX-employees of a federal employee can continue being covered. Or, more startlingly, so can -- get this (Dave Berry ought to write about this) -- so can an ex-SPOUSE.

The last time I worked in the U.S. was mid-1990, after which I returned to These Asian Climes. I can just see myself calling up my former employer in Texas and saying, "Hey, the game's changed, and I want medical coverage again from you guys. By the way, remember my wife? I want her on the plan too. What's that? No, we're not; we split in 1994 -- but I KNOW MY RIGHTS and you BETTER cover her!"

It gets better (if you define "better" in a really, really weird way). I ran across the main page for federal employee health insurance. Of course, when you start following the links, things become mind-numbing. But on the main page (URL to follow) you see there are two basic groups, one by geographic region, the other by service (fee-per-service plans), and the employee can choose either approach. Fair enough. The employees are also divided within each of those groups into two sub-groups: postal employees, and non-postal ones.

I pulled up the pages for each under the geographic plans. I scrolled down to the very first listing under Texas, and saw that of a biweekly premium totaling $194.30, the part the employee pays is . . . are you ready for this? . . . $28.17. That's a princely 15%, folks -- actually, a tiny fraction shy of that. "So," you ask, "who pays the rest of the taxes?" Do you pay federal taxes! Go look in the mirror and congratulate yourself for winning the gold in the Premium-Paying event.

Here are the links to the main page, then to the one where I found the above example:

http://www.opm.gov/insure/health/rates/index.asp (main)

http://www.opm.gov/insure/health/rates/postalhmo2010.pdf (postal)

You might also want to look at About.com's page on Congressional benefits. While members of Congress don't get *quite* the perks some think they do; certain ones have an average retirement income from *just there government service ("service," ha-ha) of dollars shy of $61,000. That's right: 61 G-notes, more than a lot of working stiffs make at full-time jobs (if they have one, that is).


I read sometime ago that members of Congress can get full medical coverage for -- as I recall -- a puny premium of $503 per year. And if a Representative or Congressman needs to have the finest heart surgeon, so be it. (A few actually refuse this benefit, to their eternal credit, in my opinion.)

A final beef, probably my personal Number 1: amendments to a bill that have ZERO to do with the bill, especially OINK-OINK-bring-home-the-PORK! amendments.I wish the Founding Fathers had written into the Constitution that if an amendment wasn't CLEARLY related to a bill, then nope, it couldn't be stuck on.

Snuffle snuffle oink oink.

Monday, March 1, 2010

President Washington and Party Politics

In his farewell speech September 17, 1796, President George Washington spoke some truths about, and to, the then-new country, the United States of America.

In President Washington's mind, as he stressed in his address, he though one factor we had to guard against was sectionalism -- as he couched it, the Atlantic versus the West and the North versus the South.

Of course, anyone with even a vague knowledge of American history knows that a mere 65 years later, the North and South put that to the test.

But what of today, when the divides aren't so much geographical -- though those do exist -- as much as ideological, reflected in the current deadlock between our two main parties.

David Ignatius, Op-Ed columnist for the Washington Post (clickable link), has written a thoughtful column titled "The U.S. is at a crucial point in defining its direction" (clickable link). Below is the reply I posted in the comments.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
President Washington warned in his farewell address in September, 1796 against party politics coming to dominate our national political life, a warning we well could heed now, when "The Wall of Washington" -- our own version of the Berlin Wall -- dominates that life.

It would be quite salubrious for our body politic, in the form of a joint session of Congress with the President and Vice-president in attendance, along with all Supreme Court Justices, in the audience -- not on the podium, but in the audience -- to have that farewell speech read out to them. Read out as a reminder of what, supposedly, we're about. If President Washington got it wrong, well, then, there's little hope for anyone else, over 200 years after he spoke so sagely, perhaps most directly to us in this paragraph:

""""The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Well, today's parties certainly are "sharpened by the spirit of revenge," and need knocked back, slapped down, into their respective places -- i.e., necessary parts of a whole to provide a whole government for America.

They've both lost sight of that; hence, the Tea Party et al.

Who to deliver such an address? I would propose to invite Mr. Vaclav Havel, former C
zech dissident then President, after his country's Velvet Revolution, for a "Havel Redux," a reprise of his brilliant speech to a joint session of Congress some 20 years ago, but reading Washington's speech. The entire speech.

After 9/11, we got some sense of ourselves through no small measure of the the words in "What Is an American?" that wonderfully sympathetic late 18th-century essay by a Frenchman-turned American, Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur.

Sometimes an outsider can see us better than we can see ourselves.

I wonder if Mr. Havel would have the stomach for it, though. . . .
3/1/2010 2:34:37 AM (time posted at the Washington Post)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Should YOU get an Hybrid or Extended-Range Electric Car?

Although I'm very much for our weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, if for no other reason than to get us out of the situation of being at the mercy of some not-very-friendly countries -- think Venezuela, for instance -- I realize two important factors when we're talking about our cars: One, fossil fuels are going to be a major, perhaps the major, source of our total energy source for some decades to come; and, two, while technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, a great many people remain skeptical of hybrid and extended-range electric vehicles, and not without reason.

But first, definitions are in order. A hybrid vehicle uses both  its electric motor and gasoline engine at the same time -- that is, the gasoline engine is connected to the power train so that it works in tandem with the electric motor. In other words, gasoline is being consumed all the time you're driving, but at reduced rates per mile. On the other hand, an extended-range electric vehicle works differently; the gasoline engine isn't connected to the power train -- its only job is to keep the battery charged.

So, if you drive, say, a Prius, which is a hybrid car,, you are going to be burning gasoline even if you just drive a mile or two. But if you drive a Volt (once they go on the market, that is), for up to the first 40 miles you won't be burning any gasoline at all.

At first glance, anyone who drives, say, an average of 30 miles per day may think, "Heck! All else being equal, I'll go with a Volt!" And indeed, there is something to recommend that: no expense for gasoline, and a boost for clean air.

But no gasoline expense and cleaner air aren't all there is to the story. You have to recharge a Volt -- well, I guess you could let the battery run down and just buy gasoline, since the expected fuel tank, according to the latest I can find from GM, will have a capacity somewhere in the 6-10-gallon range, and even at, say, 25 mpg, that'll get you a ways. In contrast, a Prius drives like a "real" car -- you never have to recharge it, because the gasoline engine is keeping it recharged the whole time while helping with the driving. That's a big plus, and a big reason the Prius is so popular. People do worry about being able to recharge an ER EV (extended-range electric vehicle).

If you're still eager for a Volt on the basis of savings on gasoline expenses, you better hold up and think a moment. Even if your driving habits are such that you indeed never or only very rarely drive more than 30 miles per day, how much are you going to save? If your current car gets 30 mpg, you'll save, at most, 7 gallons per week -- and that's only if you drive that much every single day of the week.

I decided to look at that number, and do some math. I just now checked online, and in the area in Texas from which I come, the median price for gasoline in the last 24 hours is around $2.60. Okay, so in a week I save $18.20, or $946.40 per year. I just checked, and the average American car buyer who buys a new car keeps it three to four years. Let's split the difference at 3.5 years. Okay, 3.5 X 946.40 = $3,312.40 saved. Let's round that down to an even $3,000, just to build in a margin of error.

Right now, there are some nice tax breaks available. If I remember correctly, you can get a $7,500 break from just the federal government alone for either kind of car. (Don't take my word for that if you decide to do some serious shopping -- check it out; a rebate I may remember correctly may have been reduced or even eliminated.) Various states give various breaks as well. But let's say you live in a stingy state that *doesn't* give *any* break.

Okay, that leaves you your $3,000 in fuel savings, in the case of the Volt, plus the $7,500 tax break from the our friends at the IRS. (You know it must since a tax collector into spasms of grief when Congress and the President gives us breaks like these!) That's a cool $10,500, which is (sort of like) extra money in your pocket when you head to the dealership. If you're a person who can reasonably afford no more than a $30,000 car, that's a lot of extra buying power. I'm assuming that a $40,000 car is almost certain to be rather nicer than a $30,000 one. Put another way, you get a $40,000 for 3.5 years instead of that relative clunker you could really afford.

BUT -- the eternal "but" -- what about after the fed break ends? Then you'll have to fork over $36,500 for a $40,000 car. And you'll have to recharge it as long as 3-4 hours -- on a 220-240 volt outlet -- or as long as 6-8 hours on a 110 outlet every time you drive it, depending, of course, on how far you drive it.

That's a pain in the a -- I mean neck. A Prius, on the other hand, is ready to rock-and-roll all the time, every time, unless you were a dodo and ran the tank dry, in which case I have no sympathy anyway, Dunce! ;-)  Just hope your battery has enough charge to let you limp to the nearest gas station to gas up. And don't forget next time, okay?

Now, what about a Prius, in terms of fuel capacity and consumption? I think the 2010 model holds just under 12 gallons. Let's just call it 12 gallons. It boasts a range of "more than 600 miles," which isn't very specific, so I'll assume a range of just 600 miles, since manufacturers lie through their teeth all the time. (Ditto GM, no doubt, not just Toyota -- and PLEASE don't bring up Toyota's current recall nightmare; I imagine they'll get that sorted, eventually, and make darned sure they don't get stuck like that again!) That's 50 mpg.

Okay, that means for a 30-mile commute you'll use just 6/10th's of a gallon compared to the 1 gallon you would use in an ordinary car that gets 30 mpg. So, you're saving 4/10th's of a gallon per day, or 146 gallons per year, which I am promptly rounding up to 150 gallons a year. At that same median price of $2.60 per gallon, that means you save $379.60 annually (if you drive every day of the week, every week of the year), which I'm also rounding to $380. Compared to the Volt owner, who saves $946.40-but-I'm-rounding-it-to-$950, You Pay, in a sense, a "convenience fee" of $570 not to have to recharge your car. A little under $1.60 per day.

So, which -- if either -- sort of car should you buy?

Well, that depends. If you're a typical family person in a family in which both the husband and wife work and drive 30 miles daily, including on weekends, but you're home every night and have a garage or carport in which you can recharge your vehicle, you may want to opt for the Volt. Night is when electricity rates are their cheapest, you're not going anywhere anyway, bar an emergency. However, if your driving habits vary, or if your a night worker and have to recharge during peak-rate daytime hours, maybe the Prius is better for you.

What about the potential car buyer who would be perfectly happy with a regular car that costs about the same as either a Volt or a Prius? I guess the next consideration would be how the buyer feels about cleaner air and the like -- and I don't mean climate change, global warming, whatever you want to call it. One can wish for cleaner air without believing any of the climate change stuff. If that's important to you (as it certainly is if you are a believer that people are pushing the climate over the edge), then you may want to give these cars some consideration, or cars like them.

What about people with greatly different needs -- like me, were I to move back to Texas (or anywhere in North America, for that matter)? I'm single, and there won't be any babies in this old boy's future. I suppose I might acquire a significant other somewhere along the way, in theory anyway; depends on how stiff I get -- "Do I really need a Sweetie around to go get me a beer?" Crucial considerations like that, you know.
But back to the point.

I'd probably take a look at some cars in the SmartForTwo class, not all of which are two-seaters, as it is. I checked a SmartForTwo, and it's near-unbeatable on price: I put together a basic coupe plus a few extras, most importantly an air-conditioner. On the company's website, the price came back as $13,530. There are quite a few choices in this class, though their prices can range above $20,000.

A final note: ER EV's aren't for everyone for everyone. Someone who otherwise is the ideal candidate suddenly remembers, "Hey, I live on the 78th floor of an apartment tower overlooking Central Park West! Where can I plug the damned thing in???" Oops. As the tuna ad says (or used to say in my day, anyway), "Sorry, Charlie." Or Charlotte. Or whatever.

I personally expect we'll see technology catch up sooner than we think, though building up infrastructure is going to take time since there are tens of millions of people across the country who plain don't have ready access to recharge EV's. And not everyone trusts even a Prius, though that's changing in its favor.

And if fuel prices soar again and stay high, unlike when they went to over $4.00 per gallon in 2008 but now are down to well under $3.00 per gallon, anywhere in the country, my bet is that Americans' driving habits really will change, even after the economy recovers and is purring along nicely.

Feel free to leave a comment!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

U.S. Federal Authorities Give Arrogant Advice AND Try to Redefine an English Word

I've just read an extraordinary article in Newsweek about a federal case over how far the authorities can go in getting a cell phone owner's phone regards -- not eavesdropping, but the data through which they can determine where you were at a given time. The first part of the title above is a reference to prosecutors saying if a cell phone owner doesn't like it, that's easy -- you don't need to carry a cell phone. The second part of the title above refers to an, um, "novel" claim by the authorities of the meaning of the word "solely."

You can read the article at this URL, and I hope you do so you get the full feel of what it is I reacted to so strongly:


While there are times federal agents might need such records -- the example of the agent tracking fugitives is a good example -- even under "2703(d)" orders, the agent or other authority seeking records needs to be required to explain to a judge just exactly what connection the information might have to the suspected crime. "It might be relevant" doesn't cut it, either, though apparently that seems to have become the basic departure point for some, especially since the passage of the Patriot Act.

For the prosecutors to have written "One who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone" is troubling, as is another assertion they made: "The term 'solely' is not wholly prohibitive, but rather, partially restrictive."

I'll address the "unusual" claim regarding the meaning of the word "solely" first.

Not wishing to rely upon my status as a native speaker of English, nor upon my two degrees in English, nor upon my many years teaching English in universities, mostly in the context of writing to native speakers and as language to non-native speakers, nor upon the fact I'm a writer, I looked it up. My dictionary defines "solely" as "1 only, completely. 2 alone." [Just for the record, my dictionary defines "sole" as meaning "1 one and only. 2 not shared, exclusive."]

Therefore, regarding the claim "the term 'solely' is not wholly prohibitive, but rather, partially restrictive": case dismissed.

Turning to the rather arrogant statement "one who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone," I have a counter-proposal to those prosecutors: "one who mistakes himself as being above the law should never be a prosecutor, nor even allowed to be." And when a prosecutor arrogantly dismisses citizen concerns regarding their 4th Amendment rights by saying a citizen just shouldn't carry a cellular phone -- and makes that assertion in writing -- he/she has just proven himself/herself, by his/her own words, as unworthy of being in the noble legal profession.

Most of us don't begrudge the authorities doing what is often a difficult and thankless job, and we are supportive and appreciative, even if we're not very good about expressing those sentiments. However, it has to be a two-way street: we don't want a police state.

I'll do my part now: thank you for doing your jobs. Just please give what I've written above some passing reflection.