Thursday, April 30, 2009

That's... what we do

From Judge Smails, a problem of math gone awry in a town council meeting, right here in Massachusetts (damn).
The exact count of the vote — 136 to 70 — had town officials hitting their calculators yesterday. The zoning measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass. A calculation by town accountant Trudy Brazil indicated that 136 votes are two-thirds of 206 total votes, said Town Clerk Cynthia Slade.

Brazil said she used the calculation of .66 multiplied by 206 to obtain the number.

But using .6666 — a more accurate version of two-thirds — the affirmative vote needed to be 137 instead of 136, according to an anonymous caller to town hall and to the Times.

Sadly, the story does not end with them realizing that "two-thirds" is best determined by multiplying by two and dividing by three, but don't worry, this is being referred to the state's Attorney General. No, really, it is going to the AG.

Too bad First Citywide wasn't involved, as their computers would have picked up the error right away.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why no investigations?

Krugman makes a salient point, regarding Congressmen's reluctance to press forward on torture:
Others, I suspect, would rather not revisit those years because they don’t want to be reminded of their own sins of omission.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jack Bauer

Chesty LaRue agrees with the Judge, and yet again, Jack Bauer is mentioned. I seriously wonder if the torture debate would be different in this country if it weren't for that damn show. Probably not, but I at least wonder who the 'literary' go-to justification would have been... Rambo?
here, here, Judge Smails.

I also wonder if the general public also has been duped into thinking torture works as a means to extract useful intelligence that prevents terrorist attacks. From reading a few articles in the past 2 days, it seemed like the "powers that be" really believed torture is an effective intelligence gathering mechanism and that it was necessary to torture before obtaining the legal authority to do so to prevent terrorist attacks.

I wonder if you asked some hypothetical about this to the american people, how many would believe that in this scenario the ends justify the means? (and how many of them watch 24?). In fact, from what I have read, experts in the field of suspect interrogation say that forming a trusting relationship and using "bribes" of small pleasures works infinitely better in extracting useful intelligence from people. And it isn't tainted by the whole physical coercion thing. But I think that most people probably don't know that because their information on the subject comes from tv and movies, not reality.

I also agree that race is probably a big factor, as many people have negative feelings about arabs. We would feel worse about torturing whites, or even africans since that brings up some bad collective memories about slavery.

Re: Torture

Paul Hogan adds his two cents on the torture discussion:
I think you and Judge Smails are overlooking an important distinction in the torture debate that helps explain why so many people are not bothered by it. The distinction I have in mind is the difference between (i) torture intended as punishment and (ii) torture for the purpose of obtaining potentially life-saving information--i.e. Jack Bauer torturing the guy who knows where the nukes are. The immorality of the second type is not necessarily clear-cut; there is an obvious and non-trivial utilitarian argument in favor of torturing people to obtain information in certain cases. So unless you're a pure Kantian who rejects all ends-justifying-the-means arguments (I have never met such a person), then you can't just dismiss anyone who is okay with "utilitarian torture" as a barbarian. I'm not an expert on Enlightenment liberalism, but I don't think that Enlightenment liberals would necessarily have been categorically opposed to utilitarian torture either.

Of course, even if utilitarian torture is acceptable in certain cases, there are many questions that need to be answered to determine when it is acceptable, such as:
- What type of information might the torturee have?
- How useful will the information be if it is obtained?
- How sure are you that the torturee actually has the information that you are seeking?

Tthe acceptable thresholds for those questions are certainly arguable. I think most Americans are not bother by torture because (a) they overestimate the likelihood of the Jack Bauer scenario, (b) they trust the government's intentions, and (c) they trust that the government will abide by acceptable thresholds before torturing. You have to realize that a substantial portion of the country are not as inherently distrustful of Bush, Cheney, et. al. as perhaps you and Judge Smails are. Therefore, I think that most people are not concerned about torture because they trust the government to torture in a limited and moral way, not because they simply do not care about the morality of torture. Though there is probably a sizable percentage of the population that just doesn't give a shit because the people in question are Arabs.

I am personally opposed to government sponsored torture because I don't trust any government, American or foreign, Republican or Democrat, to implement torture in a limited and morally acceptable fashion. But if I had Osama Bin Laden in front of me and he told me that he knew about an upcoming terrorist attack, I would have no moral qualms against torturing him. I see torture as very similar to the death penaly--I am not opposed to it in theory, but I don't think the criminal justice system is acceptably accurate enough (100% in my opinion) to justify it in practice.

I think this is a good clarification of the issue, particularly on the two types of torture. I think at least part of the apathy of the American people (in addition to the race or those being tortured) is the feeling of "well, they're bad people anyway." Mix that in with the fear that there's a chance, however small, of a ticking bomb. What I find particularly disturbing from conservative commentators, though (and you see this in death penalty debates too) is not a sad resignation that we needed to torture but rather a sense of almost-excitement at the prospect of it, suggesting that, at least for them, the punitive aspect of it is driving their pro-torture views as much as anything.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Enlightenment tradition

Per usual, Judge Smails has some cogent thoughts on the issue of torture, and what it says about the state of the country:
The most interesting thing to me about the torture memos (and to all the torture-realted things of the last five years) is the relative public acceptance --- or at least apathy --- about it all. A few weeks ago I was hypothesizing that the average American wouldn't be particularly liberal if you ditched the borders and forced public choice to be done on a cosmopolitan scale. But torture is by far an even better example. And now we're not talking about the American public being not liberal in the 20th century sense, we're talking about people being fundamentally illiberal in the 17th century sense of the word.

I used to think that the average American (conservative or liberal) fundamentally accepted the political premises of the Enlightenment (equality under the law; equal opportunity in the market; electoral winners agree to hold fair future elections; electoral losers agree not to revolt). They might be thrown off by some underlying biases (like racial discrimination) that would lead them to some very illiberal conclusions (like supporting segregation), but on the whole they were rather principled disciples of English civilization.

But the torture thing really has me rethinking this. I can only see three options:

(1) We've collectively de-humanized The Terrorists to the point that being against torturing them, for the average American, is as pie-in-the-sky radical as being a 18th century American abolitionist or a 21st century PETA vegan: the kind of people you know exist(ed), but only as fringe religious nuts in Pennsylvania or wacky hippies in Vermont.

(2) Most Americans are situational liberals (in the 17th century sense!), whose respect for Enlightenment theory goes as far as it's (a) convenient, (b) helpful to their own self-interest, or (c) applied in "normal" times, however one chooses to define it. (One can think of the horrible POW camps set up by North and South in the civil war as another indicative moment, although both sides at least had the scruples to complain about the other).

(3) Most people are ignorant of the torture details.

I guess for a long time, I assume the explanation for the lack of fury was #3. But after release of the torture memos, that's out. Anyone with anything of a liberal (and, again, I say that in the 17th century sense) conscience can't possibly stomach reading those sorts of things. So I'm left only to believe that there are illberal principes which operate at a much more foundational level than I was ever ready to accept; that for Americans, defense of the traditional institutions of pre-Enlightment thought (the state, the family, etc.) is worthy of means that seemingly compromise the basic premise of liberalism.

Whatever the merits of pre-liberal thought, it can't possible be good for individual liberty, and I'm relatively confident that --- like slavery --- it is probably corrosive and distorting of liberal democratic institutions.

I mean, who the hell can honestly defend these things in any way compatible with western political thought since the printing press?

For my money, I'd say that (2) is the most likely reason, and the racial aspects of (1) probably aren't helping either (i.e. the folks being tortured aren't white). The other problem is that America just isn't what it used to be -- I think we have a lot of really provincial, stupid people in this country who are absolutely incapable of reading and understanding Judge Smails' email, but they are capable of owning TVs and buying products, so their opinions matter just as much as someone with a functional brain.

I think there is a lot of outrage out there, but it hasn't taken an organized form, at least not yet. Since the administration that did this stuff is now out of power one can't really voice opposition at the ballot box any more. And it would be a bit weird to demonize the Obama administration, although certainly fair to criticize them for actions they do or don't take. Personally, I'm willing to give Obama some time on this one to map out the appropriate course. But if no one has been tried for a crime come 2012, then America will have been furthered weakened.

Home of the... torturers

Through the many incoherent splutterings of the Fox News crowd, I can't quite figure out if their argument is that we didn't torture them (as the torture techniques are often described in gentle terms, like we "slapped" them or "threw water in their face") or that we did torture but it is okay because these are Bad People.

But what I really don't get is that Karl Rove argues that releasing these memos makes us less safe, because now the techniques won't work because the terrorists will know what's coming. But if that's true, then what is the point of waterboarding someone several times, much less dozens of times? I mean, if someone can 'practice' being tortured and inure himself to it, then wouldn't you not want to waste an application of a given technique?

And while the MSM isn't really following up on the implications of all this, at least The Daily Show has been covering our crimes...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

History Lesson

In case you were wondering, Judge Smails writes in:

(1) Talk of secession in Texas has always been stronger than in any other state (save perhaps South Carolina during the first 70 years of the union) for three reasons: first, Texas was once an independent nation; second, Texas did actually secede with the south; third, there's a mistaken belief that the annexation treaty of 1845 provided for legal Texas secession. That's simply not true.

(2) What the 1845 treaty did say is that Texas could subdivide into up to five states, given it's enormous size relative to the other existing states at the time. (It wasn't made clear in the treaty whether Texas would need Congressional approval for the admittance of those new states, nor is it clear whether a plan that didn't require congressional approval for those states would have been constitutional.) Snopes has a nice layman's discussion of the subdivision/secession aspects of the Treaty here.

(3) None of this matters, because the Radical Republicans made it pretty clear that the terms of readmission for Texas in 1870 nullified the provisions of the 1845 treaty.

(4) Rick Perry is an idiot.

(5) I've been heartened this week to see that conservative street protests are at least as incoherent and retarded as the ubiquitous leftist protests. I will contend till my death that the only rational reason to go to a protest rally is to meet chicks.

Deep End

While the tea-bagging protests have been a good source of unintentional comedy, statements like this from the governor of the second most populous state in the union are bizarre to the point of frightening:
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said that his state could secede from the United States because "the federal government has strayed somewhat from what our founders wanted and is choking Americans with excessive spending and taxation," reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Said Perry: "Texas is a unique place. When we came into the union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. My hope is that America, and Washington in particular, pays attention. We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that? But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot, to boot."

Now, one would hope that Americans as a whole have become inured from obvious political grandstanding and will pay this no mind. And I really doubt that Perry himself takes his own statements seriously. But can you imagine what the GOP would have said if, say, Deval Patrick had mentioned that perhaps Massachusetts should secede from the union because the Bush Administration was violating Constitution?

Monday, April 13, 2009


Remember that Seinfeld where George quit his job on Friday, regretted it, and then tried showing up to work on Monday as if nothing ever happened? Apparently my favorite NYT Op-Ed writer is trying the same thing. Yes, Mr. Jake from AIG, who awhile ago 'resigned' while attempting to wring sympathy from us about all the Hard Work he did at AIG for a mere pittance of a $750,000 bonus, is still there:
Jake DeSantis, the AIG executive who recently penned a very nuanced take in the New York Times about why he deserves a publicly funded $750,000 bonus that otherwise would’ve been laughed out of bankruptcy court, is still working at that damn company, even though his NYT column was supposedly a resignation letter. Anyone have a ballpark figure on how long it takes to “resolve a commodity business?”

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sign. Me. Up.

From the American Prospect:
News that Somali pirates had seized an American ship and, after being repelled, held her captain hostage drew a response from analysts at the Competitive Enterprise Institute: the United States should consider authorizing private parties to attack pirate ships under little used instruments called “letters of marque and reprisal.”

I, for one, would be in it for the requisite canoodling with the governor's daughter. And the rum. Never forget the rum.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Opening Day, take 2

Opening Day for the Sox was rained out yesterday, although the ownership at least had the brains to read the weather forecast and cancel at 10:30 am rather than try to get the game in. Why the schedule makers decided that it would be better for the Sox-Rays to be played in New England at the beginning of April instead of in Tampa's dome is beyond me -- the first two weeks of April pretty much always suck around here, so keeping the Sox (and Yankees, and Mets, and Phillies, and all other northeast teams) on the road in the early going makes a lot of sense. This, of course, is why MLB doesn't do it.

Anyway, the Sox break camp with no real injuries to the starters. The pitching staff is probably the best and deepest in the majors -- the rotation is solid, and the bullpen has the potential to be just absolutely lights-out. I think the Yankees, on balance, are not much better than last year, and could actually be worse (AJ Burnett won't be all that good, they need to replace Mussina's 20 wins, and the lineup is pretty non-threatening, as Posada, Jeter, Damon, and Matsui don't scare anyone anymore). So my prediction is that the Sox take the AL East.

Monday, April 6, 2009

CEO pay

Matt Yglesias, who'd get my vote for Best Blogger on the Planet, has a very nice summary of a NYT piece about CEO pay. His take:
Apparently Jeffrey Rein is 4.7 times the CEO that Steve Ballmer is. And Boeing has a CEO who’s a staggering 10.7 times more effective than the top executive at Microsoft. Considering that Microsoft is a pretty big, rich, and important company it seems fairly shocking that they would allow themselves to get along with such second-rate CEO talent. Meanwhile, Louis Gallois, CEO of Boening’s top competitor EADS (parent of Airbus, among other things), makes just 2.1 million euros. To be sure, that’s more than you get working for bargain-basement companies like Microsoft or Google, but given the genius and rationality of the free market it’s surprising that Airbus’ planes fly at all.

Definitely worth reading the whole post.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cutler to da Bears

I'm going to make a bold prediction... Kyle Orton will have a better season from a fantasy perspective than Jay Cutler next year.

Orton was actually a pretty good fantasy QB until he got hurt last year -- he averaged 19 points a week from week 3 through week 7, and was certainly a top 10 QB during that time. He got hurt mid-year (a knee or shin injury or something) and was a bit slow in coming back. But he ended the year on an upswing as well. And look who Kyle Orton was throwing to -- pretty much a collection of nobody WRs. Cutler, on the other hand, was throwing to Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. Plus, the Broncos were playing from behind a lot, so Cutler was in a position to air it out -- that probably won't be true in Chicago.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bulb mania (and not in Holland)

Reducing carbon emissions supposedly will reverse warming, which is allegedly occurring even though, according to statistics published by the World Meteorological Organization, there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998.

Yes, and since Ryan Howard hits a home run once every 11.3 at bats, were he to start with season with 14 homerless at bats, clearly that means he is not really all that good at hitting home runs anymore and the Phillies should trade him immediately.

Okay, so George Will writes yet another column about climate change and needs to first get in his dig that the earth isn't really heating up, or if it is, that we shouldn't and/or can't do anything about it. Of course, this is crazy, but the Washington Post still publishes him twice a week, but lots of other crazy people write for their OpEd page, so he doesn't stand out. Will has essentially become obsessed with proving that he won't believe in climate change no matter what anyone else says or what any facts indicate, as it serves as the topic of his column more than any other.

But this column is actually decent, in pointing out that compact fluorescent bulbs are a pain in the ass. Throwing them out is a pain (although I would suggest dropping them off at Home Depot the next time you are going there anyway, not making a separate trip). And I have also bought some that burn out pretty quickly. And if you're not careful, you get some that produce a really ugly white light instead of a nice soft light you get from regular bulbs.