Saturday, September 23, 2006

Stop the Taliban

We have a priceless opportunity to stop the Taliban dead in its tracks before it takes over Afghanistan again, and it's very simple. All we have to do is legalize opiate drugs. The Afghan opium crop this year is up 59%, and is now providing 92% of the world's supply, according to a recent article. And that money is funding the Taliban and its attempt to overthrow the Karzai government. Given where they seem to be hiding out, drug money is almost certainly also funding Al Qaeda.

The United States is one of the biggest markets for opium and its derivatives. If we legalize opium, morphine, and heroin, we cut the legs out from under the Taliban. We also do a number of other good things for ourselves, which I detailed in my February 2 post, Prohibition Doesn't Work. The "War on Drugs" wastes our time and energy fighting personal habits that would harm no one except the users if we hadn't criminalized them; and at the same time the high price caused by the illegality is pouring money into the pockets of our greatest enemies.

Legalize the stuff; sell it over the counter, subject to the same restrictions as cigarettes and booze, and taxed in the same way; and quit subsidizing Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The purported moral horror at "drug fiends" is a crock. Sure, opiates will kill you. So will a lot of stuff you can get quite legally, starting with booze.

And while we're at it, let's legalize marijuana, too, and not just for medical purposes. Marijuana won't even kill you, which is more than you can say for booze.

Back to the Stone Age

I wish I could convince myself that Pervez Musharraf made up the story about Richard Armitage threatening to bomb Pakistan back to the Stone Age if they didn't support us in the war on terror. Unfortunately, it sounds exactly like something I'd expect the Bush Administration to have done at the time in question. Within the first months after 9/11/2001, this administration was making some extremely loose statements. We'll never know the actual truth, unless Armitage is dumb enough to confirm it.

Presidential Reading

I'm not an apologist for Hugo Chavez. I think he's a populist demagogue. He does seem to be providing for the poor of his country, which is how he stays in power, but he's blowing Venezuela's oil revenues at a cracking pace, and the minute the oil price drops far enough, either his free-spending ways will stop, or (more likely) he'll keep spending on borrowed money and then default on the debt as hyperinflation flattens the country.

Whatever you may think of his politics, at least he's literate. His well advertised recommendation of Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival does imply that he's read the thing; and having read some of Chomsky's linguistic work back when I was trying to convince myself that linguistics was interesting, I can confidently state that Chomsky is no Danielle Steele. Hell, he's no Jared Diamond; Diamond writes pretty accessibly about complex stuff. Chomsky is dense. Chomsky is obscure. If Chavez reads Chomsky, he has pretty advanced tastes and a good command of language. I wonder if he read him in English or in translation. Of course, Chavez also said it was a shame he never met Chomsky before he died; according to Wikipedia, as of today (Sept. 23, 2006), Chomsky isn't dead, so maybe Chavez can have his wish.

I would also compliment him on his remark that "the place smells of sulfur still" - that's a very poetic, effective and memorable line - except that I'm not sure whether he was speaking English or Spanish. If he was speaking Spanish, the poetic, effective and memorable line is his translator's.

The President of the United States is publicly linked with a book too. Unfortunately in his case the book is My Pet Goat...

Monday, September 18, 2006

Summer Vacation Postscript

You may recall that one of the, um, highlights of our summer vacation in Stehekin, WA was the Flick Creek Fire, which caused me to be deeply grateful for a steady north wind. The day we left, they posted a Level 1 evacuation notice, which translates to, "there's a fire in the area." I wondered what would happen if the wind shifted; and by gum, a couple of weeks ago it did. You can read all the alerts at the InciWeb site, the spot for all forest fire junkies.

On Sept. 7, the local sheriff and the fire team raised the evacuation level to Level 2. They have a long explanation of this, which boils down to, "Pack. Now. Leave if you can."

On Sept. 9, they issued Level 3 for the Hazard Creek area, one of the back country areas. Level 3 means, "Leave. Now. Don't wait to pack." No other area had to evacuate, and the notice covered I think 3 vacation homes.

They seem to have it back under control, because last Friday they dropped the evacuation notice back to Level 1 for the entire valley.

I'm still glad that wind didn't shift while we were there.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


I consider myself a rational person who believes things based on evidence. I don't do blind faith. So I sometimes lose track of the number of people out there in the world who are apparently comforted by the belief that there is a great Conspiracy afoot to fool us. Or something. Everybody knows about the conspiracy theories around the assassination of President Kennedy. It seems to offend some people that one guy with a rifle and a telescopic sight could kill the President of the United States; they can't believe it. He must have had help, he must have been part of a Cabal. I've always felt, never underestimate what one determined nut can accomplish, especially if what he's trying last happened 60 years or so ago and nobody realizes what he's up to. People see what they expect to see, which sometimes means they miss what's going on.

Last weekend I became aware of the latest flavor of conspiracy theories, which is almost as good as the U.N. Black Helicopters. You may have heard this one: it's the theory that the 9/11 attacks were staged by the U.S. government. That's right: it wasn't Al Qaeda. Because we know Bush wanted to go to war in the Middle East, the theory goes, it's reasonable to assume that he would arrange the attack on the World Trade Center so he could use it to justify going to war. Or maybe he knew about it and didn't prevent it, just like Churchill (as another conspiracy theory goes) knew about the attack on Coventry and allowed it to proceed so as not to let the Germans know he was reading their mail. Yeah, sure he did.

If you want to read the arguments, which are endless and involved, you can find them described in this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, which is about a video called "Loose Change"; or you can go find the video on YouTube. The video has a whole list of things the producer believes aren't covered by the official explanations, and therefore he argues that the government either actually caused the attack, or knew about it and let it go through.

I freely admit that the U.S. administration in 2001 was composed of neocon crazies, who were on public record as saying we ought to invade the Middle East and clean it up. Go check out the Project for the New American Century site if you don't believe the public record bit: they argued in a position paper that "a new Pearl Harbor" would galvanize Congress into strengthening the U.S. military. If you don't know about PNAC, you should; they are scary people, and most of them are running our government right now. Sorry, what I hate about these people is that they make me sound like a wingnut conspiracy theorist...

But I don't believe this, just because I don't think they're that bright or that organized. As Hanlon's Razor suggests, Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice. This is Our Government these people are talking about, the same government that couldn't see a cat 5 hurricane heading for New Orleans; the same government that has all the financial sophistication of a drunken sailor on payday; the same government that thought the Iraqi citizens would greet our (invading) soldiers with flowers and song. Our government? Nah.

The Fear Mongers

Maybe it's the simultaneous approach of the mid-term elections and the 5th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001; but there's been an awful lot of fear in the news lately. Years ago when Garrison Keillor was younger and A Prairie Home Companion was new, one of the sponsors he invented for the News from Lake Wobegon was "The Fear Mongers' Shop", and I sometimes feel that those folks are now running the country.

Dubya, of course, is reminding everyone how frightened they'd be if he wasn't protecting us, so we'll all vote Republican (dream on, Georgie). Ever notice how the threat alert level goes up when his poll ratings go down, and just before elections?

But it isn't only him. The San Francisco Chronicle had a big article today, Kids Remember 9/11, which interviewed four teenagers who were in grade school in 2001, and went on at length about how unsafe they feel now and how worried they are.

In fact, the kids came off better than the adults in that article; the African-American kid from Oakland frankly said he's more afraid of guns and crime in Oakland than he is of Al Qaeda, which is a perfectly rational point of view. The young woman said she now knows the world isn't a safe place, but commented that she would have found that out anyway. Unfortunately, one young man has bought Dubya's ridiculous claim that we're fighting the war on terror in Iraq: "It's to keep the terrorists busy so they don't come here." Still, he's only 15.

The quote that made me furious came from Joel McClough, 38, director for the Families Forward Program at the Institute for Trauma and Stress at New York University's Child and Study Center. Mr. McClough delivered himself of this brilliant thought:
"Teens today have to deal with the threat that they could be in danger or people they know could be in danger ... a danger they may have to confront on a daily basis and one that my generation, and people of the pre-9/11 generation, never had to.''
OK, he's 38. By the time he was 10 years old, in 1978, nobody really believed the Russians were going to try to take us down; we were negotiating nuclear disarmament treaties. But I'm 60. In 1956, when I was 10 years old, we were having duck and cover drills in grade school, so we'd know what to do if the Russians attacked. Even ten-year-olds know that a school desk won't give you much protection from a nuclear strike. I worried all the time that the Russians might attack; I grew up in the shadow of an imaginary mushroom cloud. The Bay of Pigs standoff happened when I was 15. Going farther back, an entire generation of Californians lived in fear for most of World War II, wondering if the Japanese would invade; after all, they'd bombed Pearl Harbor.

It is the height of ignorant arrogance for this man to assume publicly that no generation of young people has ever lived in fear the way this one does.

The real truth is, fear is only a problem if you let it rule you. We are allowing our fear of terrorism to rule us in a way that is way out of proportion to its actual threat. Every time we take a car out on the freeway, we risk our lives at a level that dwarfs anything the terrorists can do; but we don't fear driving on the freeway. We put our children in the car and drive on the freeway, which is a much greater threat to them than than Al Qaeda. The guns that litter this country kill far more people every year than Al Qaeda; but we don't (I'm sorry to say) fear them, in fact we don't even respect them enough to take proper care with them. We must stop allowing our fear of terrorists to rule us; and when we do, the absurdity of the idiots in the White House will become obvious and embarrassing, and we will vote them out of office.

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

Today's newspaper just had so many amazing things I have to devote a post...

Viva EspaƱa! According to the AP, Spain's top fashion show, the Pasarela Cibeles, has refused to allow models to appear whose body mass index is less than 18. Too skinny models, the Madrid regional government fears, will encourage young women to starve themselves; they want models who project "an image of beauty and health". Yes!

The town of Atherton, CA is now charging its residents $22 per cubic yard to haul dirt through the city streets. The town has a 30 foot height limit, so if you want to expand your house, you have to dig out the basement; and the excavation can cost you $50,000 and up. Before you feel too sorry for Atherton, remember that the average house price here is $2.5 million, and the area they're digging out for that basement can be as much as 20,000 square feet. A town with 2,500 houses has issued 3,600 home-improvement permits in the last 5 years, so just maybe, the good burghers of Atherton might consider living with what they have for awhile??

The Senate Intelligence Committee has concluded, after extensive study, that the CIA was right, and Saddam Hussein really didn't have any ties with Al Qaeda; in fact, he regarded it as a threat, and was actively trying to capture al-Zarqawi. And furthermore, they don't think the U.S. should have believed anything the Iraqi National Congress ever said about WMDs in Iraq... It's taken them 4 years to realize this?? Your tax dollars at work, as the mighty brains analyze the evidence.

Monday, September 04, 2006

We Have Nothing to Fear...

Many of you may have read this in the Sunday newspaper (Sept. 3), but this is so good that I'm going to quote part of it here in full, with fervent thanks to Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury for saying something brilliantly, that really needed to be said. I thought I couldn't link the site, but apparently Doonesbury doesn't impose the usual 2 week comic blackout, so here it is.

The scene is "Megaphone Mark" and his partner Chase, and Chase is complaining bitterly that "the mess we're in today" is all Clinton's fault. Mark challenges him that "the right wing has had a complete monopoly on power for four years now," and asks why he is "angrier than ever." Then it comes:

I'll tell you why. Because radicals can only survive when fear replaces reason. So they need enemies, real or imagined. As an old lefty, I know. I was as angry as they come. But being an ideologue robs you of critical thinking. I miss it. Which is why I find myself drifting back into the mainstream.
Thank you, Garry Trudeau - this is probably the most incisive single panel you've ever written.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Awfulness of Fox News

Out of sheer curiosity today, I surfed over to the Fox News web site. (I was probably impelled by mentioning Fox in my last post.)

What a disaster of awful web design that is! Politics, nothing - the site is practically unreadable. First of all, the dominant color is red, with bold black type on white in little squares; repulsive. Second, there is NO "white space" on it, virtually every square inch is covered, which means it takes forever to load. Third, the advertisements and the news stories have basically the same web presentation, except that the news stories don't usually have animated GIFs. Maybe the people who read Fox News don't care if they read a news story or an ad. I thought CNN was too busy, but this makes CNN look like fine art; it makes Yahoo News look positively elegant.

Marauding Democrats

On a simple trip to the dentist the other day, I was intercepted by a pair of earnest young men with clipboards, who asked me if I wanted to help the Democrats take back Congress this fall. This was in Montclair, a neighborhood of Oakland, California; since I never go to Montclair except to see the dentist or shop, I don't really know whether this was fertile ground for them or not: it's in Barbara Lee's Congressional district, but it's rich enough to lean rightward if it chooses, and it may; I saw several people brush them off. I fended them off in the interests of being on time for my appointment, but chose to stop and chat with them on the way back.

I was impressed. (Mildly.) The Democrats have grassroots organizers on the street. I haven't seen that in years. They had energy and enthusiasm, they had the Democrats' platform (the Democrats have a platform??) and could explain it, and I actually allowed them to persuade me out of a contribution. (I already get regular mailings from the DNC so it shouldn't add too much junk to the mail.) I normally ignore fundraising requests from the Dems, on the grounds that they are such hopeless nebbishes that there's no point in funding them. But somewhere - can we credit Howard Dean with this? - someone has remembered the tactics that ran Tammany Hall for 150 years, and ran Chicago for a generation. Two generations. Whatever you may think of the morals of machine politics, it's really efficient. Ask the Republicans.

Of course, they're still bucking the most impressive fundraising machine known to man, a grassroots organizing structure fueled by evangelical zeal, and a control of the media which the Republicans have been carefully building for thirty years (after all, with Fox, the Repubs have their own news network); but at least the Dems are trying, and they're using stuff that works for the other side. Precinct captains. Street organizers. People who go and give people rides to the polls. If they put their backs into it, this could work.

Now if the people at the top of the party can just maintain the focus...