More on when liberals and conservatives change places

Posted in Liberty at 16:00 by RjZ

Reason Foundation Commentary: Euthanize Federal Mission Creep
“The only hope for preventing federal mission creep in such a state of affairs lies not in any firm principles of either party but in the paralyzing conflicts of their partisan agendas.”

I noticed this article and even linked to it in a comment from my posting about liberal justices uncharacteristically protecting states writes while conservatives dissented, expanding bureaucracy. Here’s a surprise, the folks at Reason agree with me. But it was this quote that summarizes much of my current, alas cynical view, of our government.

For example, I used to believe that term limits weren’t necessarily such a good idea. The truth is that it takes a while to understand how our governmental bureaucracy works and politicians won’t be effective if just as they’re starting to get the hang of things, they are kicked out. Furthermore, it disturbs me that even if we have someone in office who is doing a fantastic job and we want him to keep doing it, he must go, due to term limits.

I’ve changed that view. In practice, politicians seem to learn more about how to work the system than how to work in the system. They seem to become more and more beholden to lobbyists and special interests the longer they are in office. Finally, they seem to become more and more interested in how to stay in office than in how to get the right things done. In short, they become more and more interested in politics of power.

Today I feel that even the inaction that might result from aggressive term limits for our elected officials would be just fine. Between not knowing how the system works and the paralyzing forces of partisan politics they wouldn’t get anything done. As much as it pains me to say, that’d be a lot safer for all of us!

George Washington was one of our great presidents for the simple reason that, unprecedented for a leader before him, he went home after two terms. He was asked to stay on but he refused. He wanted to return to his farm not be a career politician. He felt that the nation he helped found was best served not by career politicians but by a constant cycling of new ideas. No leader had ever done this simple act of giving up office and power before him and this act is critical to the history of the United States henceforth.

As long as today’s politicians can’t remember the meaning behind George’s return to Mt. Vernon and serve their own needs more than the nation, I don’t mind term limits or government paralysis one bit!

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Confound the NSA with these handy tips.

Posted in Liberty, Society at 12:59 by RjZ

Horse Sex Porn Candy Teens! / Inside! Fresh Google search terms to confound Dubya and the FBI. Also: Is Bush a fascist?

I figure if the government will be searching through Google’s et al. search records, I might as well really incriminate myself by linking to this article in my own personal blog.

It’s a humorous piece but is also aggregates a large and growing amount of abuses by this administration that are simply intolerable. So I link to it here, just in case you haven’t already realized for yourself that Bush and Co. have gone too far.

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Mouse buys pixels, get’s apples

Posted in Society at 16:16 by RjZ

I am a mac user. I have been for years but I avoid the PC vs. Mac platform wars because, well, it just doesn’t matter, although I’ve used a PC for work and constantly surprised that people would actually put up with the dozens of tiny, subtle problems and frustrations that using a PC running Microsoft Windows entails. Oh, sorry, this isn’t about the platform wars. When I started this blog I had intended one of those categories that classifies the posts to be related to Apple news and somehow I’ve not gotten around to it. So now, without further ado, I am posting something people who don’t really care about computers might even be interested in.

Have you heard about “convergence”? It’s a buzz-word in the tech world for the crazy idea that anybody other than a college student would actually replace his TV with a computer. Can you imagine? You turn on “Survivor” and get the blue screen of death? Not good. Convergence hasn’t really been happening so much, although you can now buy “media center PCs” which have complex remote controls and attempt to marry all your digital music and photos with your TV. Media PCs aren’t really selling all that well.

One problem is that the media companies don’t have much to do with the electronics. When Apple first offered just 500 000 tunes on their iTunes music store it was considered a huge success just to get the record labels to sit down and agree on something. Meanwhile, even behemoth Microsoft has not been able to penetrate Hollywood. Sony would seem like a good choice to do this. They make interesting computers, nifty consumer electronics and own quite a bit of content and yet, I am sure there are plenty of Harvard Business School case studies that attempt to explain why they haven’t made this work.

At the same time a small company with a charismatic CEO has made a huge splash doing exactly what Sony should have been doing all the time. Apple has made a digital music player and music distribution ecosystem that dominates the market. Please note, I said ecosystem, not just an iPod. It’s another whole story, but the reason that the iPod remains successful is not because it’s such a great mp3 player, it’s because of the complete product wrapped around it: the interface, the computer software, the ability to put in a CD and get track names from the internet (!), the music store, the accessories, etc.! Make a great mp3 player that plays music and bakes cookies but doesn’t make it easy to get music or put it on your device or buy nifty toys for it and you won’t sell any cookie dough, or players. But back to my point. Apple’s iPod ecosystem is evolving from most successful digital music store on the planet (surpassing even brick and mortar stores such as Tower Records) into a digital video distribution system where one can download episodes of your favorite programs, without commercials, for later viewing.

Apple is concentrating on the content and distribution method and so far done little on the actual convergence side. Other companies seem to hope that if they build it, a perfect media center PC, they, the content folks, will come. Except that being held hostage by several content companies some of whom are so nervous about illegal copying that they’ve taken to suing their own customers, is not exactly a recipe for happy investors.

Now Disney has purchased Pixar and Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple computer, is also the largest shareholder of Disney Corporation and on the board. And suddenly the CEO of a computer company that, unlike Sony, has already demonstrated a hit in the media convergence market with the iPod, is in a highly influential place at a Fortune 100 company. The board may soon be using Apple laptop with middle management following behind (or at least the IT department forced not to forbid them.)Disney’s media can be distributed on the iTunes music (media?) store. (Plenty, such as ABC’s shows already is) Apple’s eventual entrée into the media PC market will actually have something to play on it and even a way to get that material to it. You get the idea.

Essentially, I believe that, provided the straight-laced 50s-influenced culture of Disney can mesh well with the ping-pong tables and frisbee matches at Pixar, this purchase will be good for Disney and thanks to the confluence of events potentially very good for Apple too.

How did Sony miss this?

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Shorts and white sneakers in Iceland

Posted in Travel at 15:31 by RjZ

I walked straight past several fellow campers lounging in the common area. I was only there to refill my water bottle and return to my tent. I could feel eyes on my back as they observed me walk in, perform my task and turn around and leave. I said hello and goodbye.

We were in an improved campsite in Iceland which we had already started calling windland thanks to the cold gusts that seemed to blow all day and then all night against the tent. The campground wasn’t full but there were other campers around and the common area was nice because it was a good shelter from the incessant wind. I was tired though so I only returned to wash my hands before going to sleep. When I entered again, the same people seemed to be around chatting in English with each other.

Almost immediately after I entered, one of them asked me “if you don’t mind, where are you from?” “States.” I answered. “Ahh, I knew it.” He said, nodding smugly to the others in the room. I was a bit surprised. Granted, I remember playing this game and being rather good at it. A new friend and I sat for a whole afternoon in a café in Freiburg guessing what countries people were from. She helped a lot. It was my first time in Europe and I wasn’t so keen on the clues. Shoes are a big hint (Europeans wear dark socks with their shoes and U.S. Americans wear sneakers.) But there were dozens of other clues as well.

By the time I’d traveled to Iceland I’d been around a bit more and you start to get many more clues from how people dress (U.S. American’s dress casually and will wear shorts almost no matter what), what glasses they wear (Germans seem to have a penchant for bright colored exotic and asymmetric glasses.) The Dutch are tall, really tall. Italians really are well dressed, but just as out of context well-dressed as Americans are underdressed. The French travel to very exotic places and bring their families with them. They seem shy, but I think it’s because they’re not interested in speaking English. Australians are fun-loving and have the look of someone who’s been on the road for a year, because they often are! Often the clues are very subtle, but just keeping your eyes open is a good way to get a feel for it.

Some rules aren’t as practical. For example, U.S. Americans are generally considered loud so a loud group is often assumed to be American. Fact is Americans often travel in tour groups and people are just louder in larger groups regardless of where they’re from. I remember yelling “Rühe! Verdammt noch mal!” from my hotel room in Florence to a group of Germans who thought that because there were 10 of them it was OK to scream at each other at 11 at night outside my window.

So back in the common room at Iceland I looked carefully at the assembled travelers there. Most were about my age plus or minus a few years. Most looked German to me; a girl was even wearing the tell-tale glasses. A young man had the short hair of an English football rowdy. He looked tougher and smaller. Scottish! Suddenly it occurred to me that while I couldn’t see what was so damn American about me; I hadn’t said anything, wasn’t wearing shorts and didn’t have white sneakers on, I had an equally uninformed guess about nearly everyone there.

“Hmm, good guess,” I said “how did you know?” “It’s not too hard to guess Americans. I could just tell.” He said in a German accent. “You know the same goes for most everyone.” I said looking around the room. The observant German seemed a bit smug so off I went. “Do you mind if I try? German…British…Scottish, hmm, maybe Swiss, not sure. Maybe Swedish or Scandinavian in any event. German, and German…Northern German make that!” I said looking around the room and guessing. “How’d I do?” Several around the room, especially the Scot and the northern German we’re smiling. The Brit said “Pretty well, I’d say.” The smug German looked a little less smug and added “I guess it’s not so hard to tell where people are from.” “Yeah, well, I live in Holland right now and I travel a lot for my work. You get the hang of it, right?”

So I left and returned from my tent feeling pretty darn smug myself. Of course the truth is that these are just stereotypes and I got lucky. But it’s easy for each of us to travel to other places and spot our fellow compatriots acting in ways that embarrass us. We can tell from a mile away that that loud obnoxious guy is an American and we wish he weren’t our irritating representative. Not to worry, you are your own ambassador. The locals will likely know where you’re from even if you try to crawl in a hole. Be proud of it!

And please don’t give me those stories about how you’re such a chameleon, a citizen of the world who speaks five languages and nobody, not even the CIA and Interpol can tell where you’re from. That you blend in like Brody from Indiana Jones. That might be true; great for you. I doubt it though and you’ll sound exactly like the smug German from the story. If you’re too embarrassed to be your own ambassador than you’ve missed the whole point of the story…. On second thought, if that’s you’re comment, let’s hear it!Check out some pictures of Iceland here.

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Bush broke the law

Posted in Liberty, Society at 13:08 by RjZ

Little has changed since the story broke more than a month ago that President Bush has authorized wire-tapping of American citizens. Little more has been revealed and the arguments haven’t changed much. That in itself is amazing to me. The administration’s plan remains ‘if we say we’re right to do this and that everyone who questions our right to do it is a threat then we are.’ I don’t know if American citizens are buying it but those who didn’t like Bush and the administration before are going nuts.

Well, it’s not exactly true that little has been added to the debate. The administration has gone on the defensive on multiple fronts. Attorney General Gonzales claims there is legal justification for the president’s actions. And there’s precedent for it too. Gonzales tells us George Washington even read letters between British and Americans during the revolutionary war. Now that’s just silly. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1791. The revolutionary war was long over by that time. But this is a point. What presidents have done before FISA may or may not be constitutional. What President Bush and the NSA have done is break the law. Actions during war or otherwise that happened before FISA are not justifications to break FISA now. FISA was enacted by congress and signed by the president because it was felt necessary to enable flexibility for the executive office while still upholding checks and balances to the 1st and 4th amendment of the constitution protecting the rights and freedoms of U.S. citizens.

The president, like every other member of U.S. society is bound by the law of the land. Laws may be found to be unconstitutional, but they are valid up until that time and breaking them requires punishment. The administration believes that the power to wire-tap U.S. Americans was given to him by the 2001 Authorization of force act. My post linked above shows the wording of that act and it’s a stretch at best to think that it authorizes wire-taps. Regardless, wire-taps are allowed and regulated under the FISA and if the administration didn’t think FISA was sufficient or flexible enough it is their responsibility to ask congress to change the law, not to flout it.

The president is the chief executive, in charge of executing the laws of the land. Bush has ignored his solemn oath of office by breaking these laws and spying on American citizens. Perhaps he needs this power to protect us from terrorism (I don’t think so.) Perhaps civil liberties must be sacrificed in a time of war (I don’t think so.) Just the same, the law of the land must remain in tact, even in times of war.

So the only thing new to the debate is that other presidents did similar things in the past and that apparently, in a time of war a president may do whatever he wishes if he feels it is necessary to protect the safety of Americans. Even if you trust Bush implicitly, it’s fairly easy to see why this is not how our system is supposed to work. Be careful what power you confer on the president. The power given to this president stays with the office regardless of who fills the seat in the future.

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When liberals are conservative

Posted in , Liberty at 17:20 by RjZ

I am confused. Three conservative Supreme Court justices (Scalia, Thomas, and Roberts) dissented on a decision that protected state’s rights in the 6-3 case Gonzales v. Oregon. In this case, the Court decided to uphold Oregon’s doctor assisted suicide law which had been passed twice by voters.

It’s probably a moot point as only Oregon has passed such a law. These laws are meant to give dignity to death but in the last five years doctors have finally worked on what they can do to make the last months of a person’s life better, thus providing the dignity that barbiturates had provided.

I am glad that the Court is showing some sense. Regardless of your feelings on doctor assisted suicide, it’s clear that having someone in Washington regulate which medical practices can be performed or not by a doctor on the ground in Oregon or elsewhere is not necessarily a good idea. This is clearly a state’s rights issue and it’s surprising that the same Court recently upheld the federal medical marijuana prohibition Gonzales v. Raich. It makes little sense to me.

So it confuses me. The Court doesn’t seem to be sure which cases represent examples of federalism and which don’t and more confusing is that it is the Court’s strongest conservatives that feel that this is a centralized government issue. The Wall Street Journal seems to think this is just the liberals supporting a conclusion that they wanted i.e. more activist judges, but if that’s true can’t we levy the same accusation on the conservatives for other cases? In any event in this case the Court has finally (re)awoken to the concepts of federalism. Perhaps it’s a sign of change for the better. Given their recent track record (most notably the property rights case Kelo v. New London) I won’t hold my breath.

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Atheism is not a religion, and neither is agnosticism, or secular humanism!

Posted in at 14:30 by RjZ

I claimed earlier that atheism is not a religion. I noted that others state that it is in order to show, for example, that the theory of evolution is a religion and therefore must be banned from public schools just as creationism is. Here’s another example An “Intelligently Designed” Ruling? (Excerpt)

Some religions, including but not limited to conservative Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, and most forms of Islam, are consistent with ID and inconsistent with Darwinism. Other religions, including but not limited to liberal Christianity, Reformed Judaism, most forms of Buddhism, Secular Humanism, Unitarianism, atheism, and agnosticism, are consistent with Darwinism and inconsistent with ID.

Read the excerpt for more silly remarks.

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You own your national parks

Posted in Liberty at 12:12 by RjZ

Gentian in Rocky Mountain National Park
Gentian in Rocky Mountain National Park

The first national park in the world was Yellowstone, established in 1872. President Lincoln had actually set aside Yosemite in 1864, but Yosemite is part of California and California was expected to take care of it, not the nation. Yellowstone, meanwhile, was part of a territory and as a result, the nation took responsibility for it. Today we have national parks around the U.S. and other countries have them as well. The general idea behind the movement is that the government shall protect untouched areas with exceptional resources, such as wildlife or ecosystems. The government protects these features for use and enjoyment of the citizens.

And today many U.S. citizens have been to at least one of our beautiful national parks. Where I live, most everyone buys a yearly pass to Rocky Mountain National Park just because this gorgeous collection of mountain scenery is likely to be visited several times a year for a casual hike, rock climb, or to see the Elk once again during mating season. The pass is well worth it, they’ll tell you.

Coloradans are very proud of our natural beauty and willing to pay to protect it. Boulder famously spends significant budget resources buying up open space land just to be sure that it can’t be developed. A national parks pass costs $50 per year but I never hear anyone complain about. They feel that their money is well spent to protect these amazing resources. The parks around the nation heavily promote that “more than 80% of Pass proceeds go straight into vital Park programs” If you love the parks, it’s hard to argue.

RjZ at Yellowstone National Park
RjZ at Yellowstone National Park

Except for one thing. Just as the national park promotions remind us, it’s our park. We own it. In fact, we’re already paying for it with our taxes! The parks belong to all of us and the fact that we have to pay extra to use them is absurd, and it’s double taxation. Of course, operating the parks isn’t free. In order to balance the recreational and educational desires of the citizens with the preservation needs of the parks we have to spend money. If our taxes do not sufficiently cover this, then this money should be budgeted to do so.

‘Why is this wrong?’ you might ask. After all, shouldn’t those individuals who live near parks and get to use them pay for that privilege, while those who don’t care for them shouldn’t have to? If this argument were valid there would be no reason to have a national park system in the first place. The national parks preserve the land for everyone and give each of us a reason to be proud of our country and to enjoy the tourist dollars of those from outside the country who come to visit just to see the Grand Canyon! If you don’t choose to use the park you are probably still receiving some benefit from it. I didn’t choose to bomb Iraq, but I have to pay for it just the same.

Worse, though, is that by charging a not insignificant amount to enter national parks we essentially banish entire segments of the population from seeing them. Those folks who are living from paycheck to paycheck aren’t going to be able to use the land that is rightfully theirs because the $20 entrance is just too much for a weekend outing. Instead they are relegated to local parks and beaches for free entertainment and never get to experience the beauty of their own land.

Charging a national parks fee is a progressive tax because the well-off can afford to pay and the poor do not have to. In practice though, it’s an elitist policy where only the well-off get to use and enjoy these special places. If we believe in the national park system at all, it is one of the few places that the central government is both best suited to protect the resource and is the correct institution to be responsible for it. Therefore, it is irresponsible for our elected officials to continue pushing national park financing on to individuals or worse to the commercial sector. As The Woodie Guthrie song says well:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

It’s my land and I pay for it with my taxes. It’s your land and you should too. I am proud to visit my land and enjoy the beauty there. I hope you have a chance to do so as well. We may very well choose to pay extra to support expanded protection of our rare treasures. However, augmenting park conservation dollars with entrance fees is not only double taxation, it’s an elitist system which puts obstacles between some citizens and their resources. The Smithsonian museums are free for a reason; they are part of our national heritage. I do not support paying a park entrance fee simply because our government has shirked it’s responsibility for an institution it created.

For further information
The Organic Act of 1916
“Experience Your America” National Parks Services

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Trade one lie for another

Posted in Reviews at 23:02 by RjZ

In my review of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces I revealed that I was skeptical of the veracity of his memoir. I wrote that “I’m not sure it’s great writing and I often wonder about the details of the story, but that’s not what interests me about the book.” Good call.

The Smoking Gun can’t seem to corroborate Frey’s description of his criminal arrest in Ohio. It looks like Mr. Frey may have exaggerated the facts in a convoluted version of self-aggrandization. In this case, Mr. Frey’s achievement of recovering, essentially all on his own, from his previous life and his mantra “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal” is certainly minimized if he really wasn’t much of a drug addict and definitely not a “Criminal” with a capital C.

How important is it that this memoir is quite possibly a work of fiction? It does matter because because what makes the book a good read is the excruciating idea that this isn’t a work a fiction. One imagines the reader exclaiming ‘O my, this really happened!’ If he didn’t actually overcome significant obstacles on his road to recovery then even my observations about the book are weakened (and I wondered about the details of the book before the Smoking Gun pointed out the problem.) Fortunately, the most important details of Frey’s life are really his addictions and, so far, these haven’t been called into question.

Most readers will be content that the real value of this book or any is what it made them think and feel while reading it regardless of how it got there. I too am satisfied that what I got from the book and posted about here is still legitimate and interesting, but I am also confident that this book, as a work of fiction would never have been published. It simply doesn’t carry the same weight. As it stands, it’s a harrowing tale of what human beings can do in the face of adversary, self-created and self cured. As a work of fiction, it’s…whiny. All the more so when one considers just how embarrassingly macho Frey describes himself to be. I didn’t like that part of the book when I read it but considered it a peccadillo, not worth repeating. Perhaps the good news is that Frey’s probably a nice guy–the macho nonsense might well be fiction too.

Meanwhile. My postings are all non-fiction. So far. Really. Come on, leave me alone. The blog would be worth reading either way. Wouldn’t it?

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Worshiping the ritual

Posted in Travel at 22:24 by RjZ

The via Dolorosa in Jerusalem is the fabled path of Jesus walking the stages preceding the crucifixion. Pilgrims from around the world travel to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ. To lean on the wall where he leaned to rest under his burden of the cross. The divot in the stone wall is fully eight inches deep from the centuries of hands who leaned there.

At the end of the twisting road is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the spot where the crucifixion took place. One walks to the altar, listening to pilgrims singing, to the very location where Jesus and the thief took their final breaths. Continue through the dark church and you come upon the a cracked stone and a painting of a skull with blood dripping on it. The guide will explain that, according to God’s plan the crucifixion occured on the very spot where Adam’s skull lays buried and the blood of Christ had soaked through the soil right onto it. Amazing.

It’s even more amazing when you consider that Jerusalem had been razed to the ground at least three times since Christ took his last walk. That the actual location of Jerusalem itself is not exactly known and that this Church wasn’t built until hundreds of years after the death of Christ. But walk they do, these pilgrims, and they feel the strength and connection of placing their hand on exactly the same wall Jesus did for strength.

During this year’s Haj, the at least once in the lifetime of every Muslim pilgrimage to mecca, 345 people died and hundreds more were injured during a stampede that occurred during the stoning of the pillars ritual. There are tasks to complete during the Haj. Every Muslim must run between two hills seven times and circle around the huge black temple, the Kaaba four times at a hurried pace, followed by three times, more closely, at a leisurely pace, in a counter-clockwise direction. Finally, they must throw stones (collected elsewhere) at three pillars that represent Satan. It was during this, the last of the Haj rituals that pilgrims tripped over luggage of other Hajji and ended up trampling each other in an effort to complete the rituals required of them.

The actual intention of the act is to represent driving the devil away as Abraham did in the Bible. The devil, meanwhile, seems to make his presence known year after year as pilgrims forget that this ceremony most importantly a symbol and in there selfish effort to complete the Haj in time trample each other year after year. (In 1990 it was over 1400 people.)

Rituals, religious and otherwise, remind us of important lessons or focus our minds on the tasks before us, but always they are proxies for something larger, symbolic of greater meaning, mnemonic devices of complex stories that we feel are important. Forgetting our common sense in an effort to perform a ritual is like remembering the rhyme but forgetting what it was supposed to remind us of. By focusing on the act we lose the value of the rite altogether and the greatest loss is our own. The ritual doesn’t care either way.

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