SocraticGadfly: 9/18/05 - 9/25/05

September 24, 2005

What the First Lady gives, Shrub will surely take away

First Lady Laura Bush wants to restock Hurricane Katrina-damaged libraries.
“No doubt, many books were destroyed by the rain and flood waters,” she said at a gala (Sept. 23) for donors to the $1.5 million festival. “Family Bibles, scrapbooks, children’s books that were cherished by parents and children alike.”

No word on how many copies of “My Pet Goat” she might be getting, as surely available copies are being horded for the official announcement of the location of the W. Presidential Library. Nor does the story tell us how many Patriot Act-snooping FBI agents will need to hired to monitor checkouts of these new books.

Stirring the intellectual pot: Genius, pick-five version

The American magazine Foreign Policy and Britain’s counterpart Prospect have started an online voting campaign for the world’s top intellectual.

The webpage has a list of what the two magazines judged as the world’s top 100 intellectuals. You are allowed to vote for up to five, and in a sidebar, nominate one intellectual that you think should not have been overlooked.

They had Noam Chomsky, but no Alexander Cockburn? I’m shocked, shocked! Cockburn will probably use a future issue of Counterpoint to explain it as part of some Jewish conspiracy to repress Palestinians and their supporters like him.

On the other hand, it does have Christopher SnHitchens, sans bottle.

Anyway, that snark aside, here’s my Fab Five, followed by Overlooked One:

1. Daniel Dennett, American philosopher. Somebody from the field of cognitive science has to be here. Dennett is a far better representative than also-listed Steven Pinker, as well as having a broader range of intellectual interests, including linguistic and analytic philosophy touching on metaphysics, free will, epistemology and other issues, the “nature” side of a still-smoldering nature-vs.-nurture debate, and more. Plus, as Darwin’s biggest bulldog this side of the pond, that lets me leave out Richard Dawkins and keep another space open.

2. Jared Diamond, listed as geohistorian. Paleohistorian, anthropologist, might also fit. So, too, as his warnings to today’s world in “Collapse” indicate, would the word “pundit” or similar. Because his historical and geographic knowledge is so strong, this allowed me to not bother looking at pundits who, although academics, are better known for their punditry (especially on the progressive side), such as Paul Krugman.

3. Paul Kennedy, British historian and most notably, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” His book stops with the fall of Great Britain, but he points out that the U.S. moving from a manufacturing, engineering and (non-entertainment) creativity and invention society to one based on making money through financial speculation and manipulation could easily go the way of the British and Dutch before them. This pick, too, allowed me to avoid more narrow pundit-type writers, as well as get a more conventional historian than Diamond on the list.

4. Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, British astrophysicist. If some version of string theory, or beyond it, gains traction in today’s cosmological world, it will be in fair part because of Rees’ work. I had considered Freeman Dyson, but, although his mind is still sharp today, went with someone younger and more active in the field.

5. Peter Singer, Australian bioethicist (labeled as philosopher). Although much of his philosophy impacts animal rights, he certainly can’t be pegged just as that. Among philosophers, especially since Walter Kaufmann is dead and therefore not eligible, he has to be considered the foremost ethicist of our age. Some of his cognitive work, from the non-human animal perspective, butts up against some of Dennett’s.

And the Overlooked One? Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. I picked him for several reasons. First and foremost, as a neuroscientist, he has served as a welcome check to some of Dennett’s thinly-substantiated claims in cognitive science. Second, he would appear to be the successor to the storytelling mantle of Oliver Sacks, and Dennett, in the “strange but true” of the human mind in action in abnormal cases.

That said, there are others I considered giving one of my votes.

They would include Dawkins, Dyson, Umberto Eco. Howard Gardner, Clifford Geertz, James Lovelock, Richard Rorty, Salman Rushdie, and Steven Weinburg, for whom I probably would have voted instead of Rees if I had noticed his name! (Well, I guess I can vote again, right?) Naomi Klein would have made it with another decade of age and its attendant gravitas, probably. Speaking of that, while the list has a decent about of non-Caucasians from non-Western countries, it doesn’t have a lot of women, it seems.

People who should not have been on there, in my opinion:
Francis Fukayama. Last I checked, history was moving on in its merry old way, with no neo-capitalism version triumphalist version of a Hegelian final synthesis.

Hans Küng. There are religious philosophers, and even more so, critical scholars like some of the better-grounded people associated with the Jesus Seminar, who qualify ahead of Küng in my book.

Bjørn Lomborg. “environmental skeptic.” Don’t you have to have more of your facts correct to qualify as an intellectual?

Others besides Ramachandran who could have been the Overlooked One? Author Gerald Posner, who deserves it for the definitive Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone book, “Case Closed.” The religious scholars to replace Küng. More scientists outside of physics. Perhaps fewer economists?

A partial list of of other blogs weighing in is here.

September 23, 2005

Barry: The 'roider to be named later?

While I was gone on vacation in late August, word leaked out from Major League Baseball’s office or somewhere that a really big steroid fish had been netted.

Bigger than Raphael Palmeiro, the rumor said.

Well, most baseball fans’ first thoughts turned to ageless wonder Roger Clemens. After all, when the season started, a number of sports pundits said pitchers, not just batters, had likely been juicing up over the past decade. And Clemens would certainly qualify as a bigger fish than Raffy.

But, this last week, after seeing Barry Bonds come back on his homer-a-day chase — fueled in part by whatever animus he has against Babe Ruth, and perhaps hoping to pass him this year, and perhaps fueled in part in other ways — I got to wondering.

Could Barry be the fish?

After all, you still get tested while you’re on the injured list.

So, picture with me this scenario.

In the offseason last winter, Barry has his initial knee surgery. Despite the blather coming from he himself, his sycophants, his camp followers and his groupies, he realizes early on that he needs a second surgery. Then his knee gets infected.

At some point, Barry recognizes that he may well not play this year. And he goes into that mindset with his doctors and trainers.

“Let’s focus on being 100 percent, or more, next year,” he tells everybody.

He keeps pretenses, and perhaps a bit of hope, up for this year, but his focus is on 2006.
When he comes back, 12 homers put him past the Babe 53 past Aaron. (Of course, that still leaves him behind the 800 dingers of Negro League great Josh Gibson, but that’s another story.)
Given his output of the past couple of years, he figures that’s no sweat. Given the quality of his lawyers keeping him out of the Victor Conte/BALCO mess, he figures it’s no sweat on any other grounds, either.

But then comes the certified letter from one Mr. Allen “Bud” Selig, commissioner of Major League Baseball.

“Dear Mr. Bonds: A random test conducted by Major League Baseball has determined the presence of steroids in your test samples, and reconfirmed it after retesting. Pending the beginning of any appeal on your part, you will be suspended from Major League Baseball for 10 days when you return from the injured list. Yours sincerely, yada, yada, yada.”

Most baseball players might well break out in a cold sweat at this point.

Instead, Barry says: “No sweat.”

He knows, by this time, about when Palmeiro tested positive, how long it was before his appeal was denied and his suspension upheld. He figures his lawyers can stretch things for at least that long.

So now he tells himself:

“Barry, if you ramp up your conditioning, and get your doctors or whomever to ramp up and ‘conditioning help’ you need, )like, say human growth hormone) you can be back in your SF uni and bashing balls into McCovey Cove by mid-September. A homer a day, and you pass that fat white guy Babe Ruth this year. You then retire before the appeal gets settled one way or the other. Legally, Bud can never name you — can never put a finger on you.”
And, I’ve got a sure-fire way to test this.

The Giants’ final series of the year is against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Let’s say Barry is sitting on No. 713 when the D-backs come to the Bay. Arizona’s already out of the postseason picture.

So, what’s to stop them from giving Barry an intentional pass every time he comes to the plate? If his head explodes in ’roid rage by about, say, the seventh inning of game two of the three-game set, we’ve got our answer.

American “Climate loonies” need to wise up

That’s the message from Sir John Lawton, chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in Britain.
“The increased intensity of these kinds of extreme storms (like hurricanes Katrina and Rita) is very likely to be due to global warming,” Lawton told the newspaper in an interview.
“If this makes the climate loonies in the States realize we’ve got a problem, some good will come out of a truly awful situation,” Lawton said.

Maybe, just maybe, hitting some of Bush’s Houston oil buddies, Rita will force more of them to be more vocal in their concerns about global warming.

Most the principals of Big Oil already give at least lip service to the issue; ExxonMobil is the only holdout, but what would you expect?

Now, if there were really a God and justice, Rita would wipe out anything Halliburton-related in Houston.

September 22, 2005

Bush drinking again?

So reports that bastion of journalism, the National Enquirer.

To be honest, that wouldn’t surprise me. And, even though the Enquirer is not a “serious” newspaper, it has broken hard news stories to scoop major dailies in the past.

That said, I do agree with this assessment of Bush’s personality.
Another source said: “I’m only surprised to hear that he hadn’t taken a shot sooner. Before Katrina, he was at his wit’s end. I've known him for years. He's been a good ol’ Texas boy forever. George had a drinking problem for years that most professionals would say needed therapy. He doesn’t believe in it (therapy), he never got it. He drank his way through his youth, through college and well into his thirties. Everyone's drinking around him.”

AA has a term for people like this, even though they aren’t actively drinking: Dry drunks.

Now, I don’t believe in everything AA says, in fair part because I’m a secularist and in fair part because AA does not really work that well, uninvestigated PR aside.

Plus, the “dry drunk” phrase is all too often a way of slamming somebody else just because you don’t like them or don’t agree with their point of view on something.

That said, the phrase does have a degree of truth to it.

Does Bush still maintain the air of petulance on one side, devil-may-care on the other that many indulged 6-year-olds have? Yes indeedy, from where I sit. Is this something that true alcoholism recovery generally tries to address? Yes, sir.

Does not addressing it automatically lead to a relapse? No. But, does it often leave you skating on thin ice? Without a doubt.

This has now gotten official traction on Salon. Stay tuned on this baby.

September 20, 2005

More “liberal” hypocrisy

Well, it appears the Kennedy klan’s NIMBYism didn’t end with the failure of yellow school buses to show up at Hyannisport on the mercy mission of school integration.

Now, RFK Jr.’s knickers are in a knot about a wind farm that a company wants to build in Nantucket Sound.

This reminds me of something else, involving the Sierra Club. Unfortunately, I can't find the diary at Kos about the Sierra Club getting reamed recently for picking up Arianna Huffington at the airport — in an SUV. I thought it was a post by Hunter, but whatever. Whomever posted it (a Kos regular, not a diarist) noted that Malkin had first commented on it and so figured it was automatically wrong of Malkin and so this wasn't real hypocrisy.

Wrong. Does not matter who points out hypocrisy, it's still hypocrisy.

Paper ballots, not a Democrat-tweaked high tech, is the answer to potential voting fraud

A national commission’s ideas on reforming the election process to remove fraud has many Democrats thinking it sounds like a modern-day poll tax.

People such as John Conyers are concerned that the cost of a national ID card is a poll tax of sorts. Well, if a state already requires a photo ID of some sort, isn’t there already a poll tax of sorts?

Besides, all of this is really a red herring to real electoral reform.

And that is, in two words: paper ballots.

If they are good enough for most of Western Europe, why aren’t they good enough for the “birthplace of democracy”?

Shorter answer: We’re too fricking lazy and too fricking cheap, from the level of your local city council all the way through your statehouse and on to the President and Congress of the United States, to do this.

We’re too cheap to adequate compensate poll workers and election judges, let alone pay for good training. We’re too cheap to pay for enough workers that would be needed with a paper ballot system. And we’re too lazy to look for anything beyond an ever-higher-and-higher-tech solution.

Allegedly liberal bloggers who follow this red herring while still looking for a tech-based solution simply don’t get it. And, as long as high-tech elections companies are donors in the political process, whether to Democrats or Republicans, they’re part of the problem not the solution.

September 18, 2005

Katrina - plenty of blame to go around for past, present, Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal

I’ve waited a couple of weeks to write my analysis of Katrina failures, so that we could sift through the first round of rumors, straw men and shallow commentary.

But I’m now ready to issue my report card.

Unlike some liberal or progressive commentators, I don’t claim that state and local officials deserve no blame. It’s not an either/or, in which we can only give one person, or one level of government, low marks.

In fact, there’s plenty of blame to pass out, federal, state and local — and past governments as well as present. And there’s blame to go around for post-disaster analysis and commentary both inside and outside of government.

President George W. Bush — F. Look beyond the “My Pet Goat” deer in the headlights response. Beginning with cutting Army Corps of Engineers funding for Louisiana levee work, then on from not recognizing what could happen before Katrina hit, to not getting back to the White House (after those fibs in 2003-04 about how he could run the country from Crawford), to a slow response after he did get back, to buck-passing, to immediately going into “spin” mode — calling in Karl Rove to run the public relations operation to salvage his opinion, then on to naming Rove as head of the reconstruction effort — complete with no-bid contracts to Halliburton and other companies, Bush has handled just about every aspect of the situation wrong. And let’s not forget deliberately (and possibly illegally, without declaring a national emergency) running roughshod over prevailing wage laws for the rebuilding.

Fortunately, as with New York City, it appears initial casualty estimates were too high. Otherwise, that “F” would be even sadder.

And speaking of casualties, does Bush agree that AIDS, gays and abortions caused Katrina to hit? Seeing as some of the more obnoxious far-right preachers are claiming that, and he hasn’t repudiated this part of his political base …

Halliburton — F. No-bid contracts? We’ve already seen the skimming, to put it politely, that’s been happening in Iraq with Halliburton no-bid contracts. I don’t need to wait a month to give the company formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney a big fat F.

Former President Bill Clinton — C-. While I don’t doubt that he would have responded better to the situation, he is tied to the disaster through his own cuts to ACE funding. That rating includes failing to get Americans to recognize that global warming was and is serious enough to necessitate the Kyoto Protocol as the first step in fighting it, as many atmospheric scientists say global warming has made some contribution to increasing hurricane severity.

I mean, we all know that, like a petulant, pouting 6-year-old, Bush refuses to believe in scientific facts that don’t fit his ideology. But Clinton knows better.

Also, in a fact that many alleged liberals like to ignore, Clinton was the one who started privatizing the U.S. Army by contracting quartermaster services to Halliburton. True, Bush has expanded on it, and further loosened oversight, but it didn’t start with him.

The Army Corps of Engineers — D. Many liberal commentators are touting the ACE as the “could have been” hero if it had gotten the levee funding. This overlooks the fact that the Corps is actually responsible for the severity of the flooding through channelizing the Mississippi and draining south Louisiana wetlands, destroying a natural barrier that would have lessened tidal surges. It’s especially ironic, if not hypocritical, to see any environmentalists tout the wisdom of the Corps. We could actually do more to preserve New Orleans if we would eliminate the ACE and get rid of about half of its work on the Mississippi in the last 50 years, as it is arguably the most environmentally-unfriendly agency in the federal government.

Karl Rove — F. If you want a Machiavellian political genius, give him an A (except for his own slow response on Katrina).

Unfortunately, although disaster relief calls for anything but that, Bush has determined that’s what the country is going to get.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco — B-. Despite the Bush blame game, she did declare a state of disaster already Aug. 26. Once the hurricane hit, she generally did the right things, above all hiring Clinton’s Federal Emergency Management Agency director, James Lee Witt, to serve in a similar role for the state during the duration of hurricane cleanup.
However, it looks like state advance planning for the hurricane was lackadaisical, getting her the grade I gave. And, she might deserve worse, but has avoided too much of the spotlight so far. Anyway, not all of what happened can be passed back up the line. And, anybody native to Louisiana has known about the ticking hurricane time bomb for New Orleans.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin — C-. What I just said about Blanco holds true in spades here. Let’s also not forget that this man voted for Bush AND donated $1,000 to his campaign in 2000. He also, while claiming to be a Democrat, supported Republican candidate Bobby Jindal for governor against Blanco in 2003. (More on why I mention this in a minute.)
I think Nagin can be most faulted for not planning to have the Morial Convention Center, as well as the Superdome, become a shelter, and for not having a transportation plan for people to get out of New Orleans. (Of course, this hinged on state or federal officials already having places to which these people could be transported.)

Meanwhile, after his initial rant, he met with Bush and sure has been quiet afterward. Is he getting a cut, somewhere? Well, this is New Orleans and Louisiana.

Michael Brown, former FEMA director — D. Did he do horribly? Yes. Was he appointed as a political hack? Yes. But, I don’t grade him lower because he was left out on an island by his immediate superior …

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff — D-. A New Orleans mock hurricane had been “war-gamed” earlier this summer by his department. If the Katrina response was the best he and it could do after practice, and he’s willing to dump all the blame on Brown, then he deserves to be ranked a notch lower than Brownie.

Conspiracy theorists, wrath of God preachers, “never in America” folks, etc. — Fs across the board. While Bush did many things wrong, and while I have no doubt there were isolated race-related incidents as part of recovery, rescues, etc., there was no organized racial conspiracy in hurricane response. People of all ethnic backgrounds were caught in New Orleans. And while the city, and Orleans Parish, are black majority, neighboring Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes are white majority.
What it was, was a class-based disaster. Poor of all races got hit the hardest. At the same time, class is tangential to race, with more of the poor, per capita, being minorities.

As for the fire and brimstone preachers, AIDS, gays in general, or abortions, whether in New Orleans or across the country, did not cause Hurricane Katrina. If you really claim to believe in an omnipotent divinity who was that wrathful, don’t you think he (or she, for that matter) could do more of a “surgical strike” on the offenders only? And besides, haven’t you read Jesus’ parable about leaving the wheat and tares standing together?

On the other hand, the United States has no special protections against disasters. Nor is there anything to prohibit our country, or sections of it under duress, from dissolving into Third World chaos. Maybe a few people will wake up, both conservative and liberal, and realize all sorts of things can happen to America — no invincibility guaranteed. (This part of the grade could probably be passed out to a large majority of our country, at least in part.)

The mainstream media — D and possibly worsening. The first couple of days of coverage, with TV news doing what it does well, were great — both for hurricane-site coverage and an overview of what Bush wasn’t doing.
But the mainstream media then went back to its earlier passiveness in the face of Bush, failing to ask tough follow-up questions to its earlier tough questions. The mainstream media, especially of the Washington-New York axis, apparently decided once more that a story deserved a “script” and it would write it. Michael Brown got designated as the bad guy/fall guy, and after he fell, the coverage fell a notch too.
Then the media went on to tap Nagin as the designated heroic Democratic foil to Bush, ignoring that even though he’s a black big-city mayor, he certainly appears Republican, and that he didn’t do perfectly, either.

Non-mainstream media — D- (conservative)/D+ (liberal). Blogs and such on both sides of the political divide have come up short on this issue, though conservative ones have been worse.