Archive for October, 2006

The Thinker

Why Democrats should punt on a plan for Iraq

There are just eight days until the midterm elections. That pungent smell of rancid urine is not from trying to litter train your new puppy. It is from all the Republicans wetting their pants. It would be an understatement to say the Republicans are nervous. They are plain scared. They can feel power slipping away. Some like Republican strategist Karl Rove feign optimism. Nevertheless, by now even Republicans can feel the political earthquake approaching. The question now becomes, what will its magnitude be?

President Bush has been running around the country engaged in, what else, blaming Democrats. This is not new of course, but what is new is that he is blaming Democrats for his mistakes. “The Democratic goal is to get out of Iraq. The Republican goal is to win in Iraq”, he said today at Georgia Southern University. “If you listen carefully for a Democrat plan for success, they don’t have one. Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, yet they don’t have a plan for victory.” President Bush has a point. It is hard to find any Democrat with a plan for winning with Iraq that passes the sniff test. Such as they are, most Democrats are calling for beginning a withdrawal of troops in 2007. They also want to involve regional powers in Iraq’s future. Mostly though Democrats sound wishy-washy on how to succeed in Iraq. Instead, they state the obvious by calling attention to Bush’s mismanagement of the War in Iraq. Hmm, maybe that is their plan.

If so, I think it will prove to be very politically effective. By calling attention to the Democrats’ lack of a plan for Iraq, what Bush is really trying to do is get the Democrats to share ownership his failure. He hopes that by showing that they are bereft of good ideas on Iraq, the cloud of doom that has been hanging over him and his party will lift. In this case, the lack of a Democratic plan should be construed as a short-term political blessing for the Democrats. It is a smart election strategy for the Democrats to keep the focus where it belongs: on Bush’s bungling the War in Iraq in particular and the War on Terror in general.

In reality even if Democrats sweep both houses of Congress next week, there is not a whole lot they can do to bring the troops home. They could in theory cut off funding for the war, but they will not have the votes to override a presidential veto. Congress’s power has never been in exercising the war, but in its oversight. However, if they control Congress, Democrats can exercise genuine oversight on the war. This has been sorely lacking with Republicans in charge. However, the power to run the war constitutionally will remain with President Bush. Iraq will remain his albatross for the rest of his life. I believe that its colossal failure will almost certainly make it impossible for a Republican to become elected president in 2008.

Here is the reality of our situation in Iraq, if it is not already apparent to you: we have lost. As I alluded before the war even started, we would lose because we had insufficient troops to secure the peace. Overthrowing Saddam and his government was a given and a no brainer. It was containing the inevitable and historical sectarian strife, along with occupying a Muslim country with forces perceived to be Christian that were the real obstacles to long term success. This is not to say that hope is entirely lost in Iraq. It is just that success at this point is so bizarrely improbable that only the willfully foolish think it can possibly happen.

No wonder Democrats are mum about a plan for success in Iraq. Unlike Republicans, most Democrats inhabit the real world. They know the situation in Iraq is so bollixed up that even a speculator with tons of spare cash would not waste any money betting on a successful outcome. Given that nothing Democrats can say or do will change this sad reality, why should they assume part of its ownership? If they did, in 2008 voters might assume they would do something equally foolish in the next conflict. It is better to leave Bush and the Republicans holding their ball. If Bush is the nation’s quarterback, the Republicans are on offense, it is fourth down and 99 to go, and there is two seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter, it is better that the Republicans take the inevitable fall.

If Democrats must propose plans for the War on Terror, it is far better to focus on where there is some probability of success. Success in Afghanistan is looking dubious, but it is not virtually hopeless as it is in Iraq. Besides, Osama bin Laden is reputedly in Afghanistan, or in nearby northwestern Pakistan. At least we could leverage sufficient forces to go after those who actually hurt us on 9/11.

Besides, things can only improve when those who screwed up this war are out of power. If Democrats win Congress, one of the most effective things they can do is hold many hearings on the war. It needs to be clear that people like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld were instrumental getting us into this mess. They need to account to the American people for their actions in public hearings. Why did Rumsfeld go into Iraq without a plan to win the peace? Why did Cheney forcefully assert Iraq had WMDs when there was no conclusive intelligence? Why were we repeatedly lied to? In making these public officials account for their actions, Democrats can help facilitate their ouster and position our government to being one that is accountable again. Democrats should demand these instigators be replaced with leaders who are grounded in reality.

It is obvious to voters that Bush does not have a viable plan for victory. Stay the course is not working. Democrats should demand that Bush present a viable plan for Iraq’s success. He is after all the Commander in Chief and it is his responsibility. Perhaps in the process, Bush will realize it is time to fold his hand. The reality is he has had nothing to show for years except bluster.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Prestige

I am tickled when a movie convincingly capture a time gone by. Of course, I really do not know how accurately the movie The Prestige portrays the time near the end of the 19th century, but it sure feels authentic. However, I also like a movie that keeps me guessing right up until the end. If you add handsome leading men (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) and top-tier established character actors then this movie should have all the right ingredients to ensure your satisfaction.

Fortunately, in addition to all these traits, the movie is well acted and finely directed. The plot consists of two rival magicians who are obsessed with learning and spoiling each other’s secrets. Most of the movie takes place in London, where the competition for top-flight magicians is depicted as cutthroat. Michael Caine plays an aging magician named Cutter who helps the up and coming magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) come up with ever more impressive magic acts. Mostly though, Angier obsesses at his rival Alfred Borden’s (Christian Bale) ability to transport himself from one side of the stage to the other instantly.

Trying to find a way to do it himself, Angier ends up in Colorado Springs with Nikola Tesla (David Bowie), a real life rival of Thomas Edison and something of a mad scientist. Using oversized Van de Graaff generators, he hopes Tesla and his assistant Alley (Andy Serkis) might be able to develop a device that will teleport him from one location to another. I will not give out more because it will spoil too much of the plot. Suffice to say that Tesla may be on to something, and Angier may have a way to out stage Borden.

The plot has more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel. If you are sufficiently sharp like my wife (who saw the movie with me) you will probably solve most of the hanging questions, but a few will leave you puzzling until the very end. However, this strange, somewhat fantastic, odd and lovingly realized film should fully command your attention. It will confuse you from time to time. (The many transpositions in time are hard to sort through.)

The Prestige is simply a classy, well-crafted, very well done movie. It will hold you in the magician’s spell. In this case, the magician is the director Christopher Nolan, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Nolan also directed Batman Begins, which is likely why he chose Christopher Bale and Michael Caine for this movie. (Both starred in Batman Begins.) While there is nothing in the movie that gives it a landmark or “must be seen” status, it is high entertainment. Just as The Sting convincingly captured the 1930s, The Prestige captures the end of the 19th century and the bizarre world of magicians in a very memorable way. It will win your appreciation and make you feel your time in the theater was well worth the inflated ticket price.

I rate The Prestige 3.5 out of 4 stars.

 
The Thinker

Why do Republicans hate America?

According to our President and Commander in Chief, “Stay the course” in Iraq no longer means “stay the course”. In fact, according to an interview with President Bush broadcast on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, our president asserted, “We’ve never been stay the course.”

A search of the White House web site alone shows that the President used the phrase at least eighteen times. Of course, the American public knows all about “stay the course” now. It has become drubbed into our brains, and like a catchy but annoying Top 40 song, we cannot get it out of our mind. It resonates like a loud bongo drum. Twenty years from now when someone uses the phrase, instead of suggesting steadiness, it will imply rampant and reckless bullheadedness. The unwelcome image of George W. Bush will pop in our heads.

Nevertheless, since our President now decrees that his White House has never said stay the course, it must be time for the Ministry of Truth to start scrubbing the record. This will be a challenge. Moreover, since Republicans in particular seem to have a problem with ambiguity, it leaves the obvious question. Why do Republicans in Congress want the terrorists to win?

I mean I am just shocked by what has been coming out of the mouths of heretofore-stalwart Republicans these last few weeks. No less than my own Senator George Allen of Virginia, in a tight reelection bid (one recent poll shows his rival Jim Webb marginally ahead), wants to change strategies in Iraq. “We can’t expect to keep doing the same things and get different results,” he said recently, even though a month earlier on Meet the Press he said, “Staying the course means that we don’t tuck tail and run, that we don’t retreat, that we don’t surrender.”

Senator Allen, you are either with staying the course no matter how stupid and counterproductive it is, or you must want the terrorists win. It is that simple really. No shades of grey are allowed in the War on Terror. So what is with all this sudden murkiness? Such murkiness is the hallmark of those dreaded tax and spend pussy whipped Democrats.

In fact, there is a long list of Republicans in Congress who want to change the course in Iraq. Some are calling for troop withdrawal. Coincidentally, most of them are running for reelection. In fact, soon you may have to start looking under rocks to find Republicans who still want to stay the course.

It has taken Republicans a while to figure it out, but they are finally realizing that staying the course means something even worse than letting the terrorists win: they will be voted out of office. All that message consistency apparently only works as long as the public buys into it. For some reason, probably because the massive civil war underway in Iraq is impossible to tune out and American casualties there keep accelerating, the American public no longer buys it. The American people overwhelmingly want to change the course in Iraq. The polls are consistent. For example, this recent ABC News-Washington Post poll indicates that 57% of Americans say the War in Iraq was not worth fighting and 55% blame the Republicans. It is the number one issue that respondents say will drive them to the polls in less than two weeks.

Okay, so let us agree for a moment that those of us who want to change the course in Iraq maybe do not want the terrorists to win after all. I know it is hard for me to get my mind around it. After all, a couple years ago when I expressed this sentiment someone left an “America: Love it or Leave It” note on my car’s windshield. Naturally, with this sort of peer pressure, I thought I must have unwittingly been supporting al Qaeda. Does wanting to change the course now mean that I was patriotic all along? Does this mean that those who want to continue to stay the course now want the terrorists to win?

Or could this just indicate that following the same failed strategy demonstrates not just stubbornness, but stupidity? Maybe it means that the American people are now wide-awake, and recognize there is no simple solution to this complicated situation. Maybe now that we have had our national chin karmically kicked in a few times by reality, we understand what does not work, and are amenable to trying something else.

The voters will give the politicians firm guidance on November 7th. Stay tuned.

 
The Thinker

Public Radio: The Agony and the Ecstasy

I am a big fan of public radio. With rare exceptions, I do not listen to anything else on the radio. Perhaps if I subscribed to Sirius or XM satellite radio I would stop listening to public radio. On the other hand, perhaps not. All I know is that I consider public radio, and NPR in particular, to be a national treasure. Which is why I want to chew nails every time the local public radio stations, as they did last week, host yet another membership week.

Seriously, we loathe them. Heck, even public radio stations hate membership week. That is why increasingly stations like WAMU-FM here in Washington D.C. try to bribe us listeners into shortening membership week. For a few weeks before membership week officially starts they try to get us to send them money. If they get enough, they will take one day off the campaign. Yes. Anything but that. Anything but one more day of their grating and near constant grubbing for money.

Yes, it is sadly necessary, but is undignified. Our Congress can give obscene and duplicative payments to farmers, but just spare change to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Enduring public radio’s membership week is like watching a classy dame who goes regularly to the opera and shops at Neiman Marcus spending four weeks a year hanging out on street corners and hiking her skirt for strangers. It is not pretty and it is in fact just plain revolting. Just as you do not want to watch a car wreck, you do not want to listen to public radio during membership week. Really, I would rather have my fingernails slowly pulled out one by one.

At least with commercial radio you know what to expect: fifteen or twenty minutes of annoying commercials every hour. The master of it locally is WTOP, our local all news and traffic station. The proportion of commercials to content is so high you would think the volume of commercials on the station would be unlawful.

For 11 out of 12 months a year, public radio is a welcome respite from our overly commercialized world. Not that outside of membership weeks it is completely commercial free. Virtually every show is sponsored by some well moneyed commercial or non-profit organization that is anxious to tell you what they are up to and to give you their website address. Some TV shows, like The News Hour on PBS almost might as well be commercial TV, with the lengthy “sponsored by” messages that are (hate to break it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) just shameless commercials.

Clearly, all that corporate and non-profit cash is not enough. That is why the announcer usually informs us that most shows on public radio and TV are also sponsored “by viewers like you”. That is nice to know. Viewers like me who appreciate public radio and TV contribute most of the funds necessary to keep them on the air. I know I do my part. I give my local public radio stations a healthy chunk of change every two weeks through the Combined Federal Campaign.

So since I am giving regularly, can you please cancel membership week? For that matter, will WETA stop sending me regular (as in once a month) junk mail soliciting further contributions? Yeah, I know I am on their mailing list because I made the mistake of just once contributing during membership week. Now they will not let me go. I am constantly badgered for more money. I have tried to tell them that I am sending them money via other means anyhow, but they never listen. They are like the doe-eyed orphan Oliver Twist asking Mr. Bumble, “Please sir, can I have some more?”

For the record, I certainly do not want public radio to go out of business. I make sure I send them money regularly to keep them in business. I depend on shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition for my news fix. WAMU-FM in particular has just the right mixture of other public radio programming that keeps me tuning in for more. I need this refuge of commercial-free sanity on the airwaves to keep my psychic lid from popping. In my mind, public radio models what I want my country to be but simply is not. The announcers are scrupulously nonpartisan. They can discuss President Bush’s latest incoherent ramblings without even a hint of bias creeping into their voices. While I am sure I will get disagreement, I feel that on balance public radio shows are fair to both sides, as well as to the middle. Everyone is so thoughtful and civilized.

Until membership week. Then public radio becomes a bad carnie sideshow. It is amazing that public radio gets as much money as they do during membership week because public radio announcers are so excruciatingly bad at selling public radio. It is not that they do not have a valuable product. So many public radio listeners like me would not be listening to them if they did not. Their product is unique and singular. They just cannot sound convincing asking for money. The more they grub thank you products for $50, $100 and $200 contributions the less convincing they become. Besides, we know it is an important service and do not need further convincing. From the tone of their voice, it sure sounds like they too would prefer having their fingernails slowly pulled out rather than have to suffer through another membership week. This is to let you know that we here in the public suffer with you.

For me, membership week means tuning in for just the news or turning off the radio. Thankfully, in the Washington area, there is one final place of refuge on the FM dial when all else fails. It is WCSP, C-SPAN’s completely commercial-free public affairs radio station. (For those of you who live far from Washington D.C., you can always listen to it online.) Granted, spending your Saturday afternoon listening to archival recordings of the Lyndon Johnson tapes, or hearing the late Hubert Humphrey ramble about his life, may not be your cup of tea. Fortunately, its political content is usually more timely than these examples. However, at least in my area, its signal strength is low, so tuning it in can at times be hit or miss.

Membership week is beneath public radio. I think what public radio needs is a sufficiently well moneyed foundation. Perhaps Bill Gates, with all his billions, could put us public radio listeners out of our misery and fund an endowment for public radio. Then it would never be necessary again for a public radio or TV station to grub for money or have to find sponsors again.

And while I’m at it, I’d like pony.

 
The Thinker

The Illusion called the State of Iraq

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride
If turnips were swords, I’d wear one by my side
If ifs and ands were pots and pans,
there’d be no need for tinkers’ hands

Scottish Proverb

Sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest to discern. So here’s a dose of reality: Iraq as a nation no longer exists. Moreover, arguably it has not existed for some time. You do not have to look very far for evidence. From yesterday’s New York Times:

The Shiite militia run by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr seized total control of the southern Iraqi city of Amarah on Friday in one of the boldest acts of defiance yet by one of the country’s powerful, unofficial armies, witnesses and police said.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched an emergency security delegation that included the Minister of State for Security Affairs and top officials from the Interior and Defense ministries, Yassin Majid, the prime minister’s media adviser, told The Associated Press.

The Mahdi Army fighters stormed three main police stations Friday morning, planting explosives that flattened the buildings, residents said.

About 800 black-clad militiamen with Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers were patrolling city streets in commandeered police vehicles, eyewitnesses said. Other fighters had set up roadblocks on routes into the city and sound trucks circulated telling residents to stay indoors.

This event yesterday is the boldest action to date by an Iraqi militia. It demonstrates the impotency of the so-called government of Iraq. With very little effort, a militia working under the instructions of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was able to take control of this city of approximately 340,000 people in Eastern Iraq. His militia did so with apparent impunity. While later reports suggested the militia has withdrawn at the request of an envoy working for the Iraqi government, no doubt the point was understood inside the Green Zone: focused militias of sufficient size can control not just towns, but major cities, and the Iraqi Army is largely incapable of stopping them.

Even the Bush Administration grudgingly admits that the security situation has simply spun out of its control. The result is a toxic mixture of anarchy and civil war. The influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr understands that Iraq really is no more. That is not to say the “government” of Iraq is wholly impotent. However, from a tactical level it is just another militia. Since it is backed by the United States, it is one of the more powerful ones. Yet even with the powerful assistance of tens of thousands of American troops in Baghdad alone and aggressive block-by-block efforts to clear neighborhoods of arms and insurgents, the violence has intensified. The carnage is clear from many statistics: deaths of American soldiers in Iraq are reaching a two-year high, there are an average of 100 Iraqis murdered on a typical day, the ethnic cleansing of whole neighborhoods continues largely unchecked, and 914,000 Iraqis that have relocated since the war began.

Al Sadr’s militia will be one of many already trying to establish dominance over various regions of Iraq. For now, the conflicts are mostly between Sunni and Shiite militias. In Baghdad, the sectarian war seems to be one without clear boundaries. Yet competing militias are still working within the city to control territory, despite the heavy presence of Iraqi and American troops. The Iraqi Army and Police have proven to be mostly useless there, and some elements inside it are working for sectarian interests. North of Baghdad we recently read about Sunni militias killing more than 100 Shiite residents of the city of Balad. In Western Iraq, our military admits it cannot improve the political or social situation there, and its ability to control territory is very limited.

Here in the United States the average voter now understands that Iraq is embroiled in a civil war, and it has spun out of our ability to control it. Nevertheless, we are still largely in denial that the state of Iraq has ceased to exist. We think that because it has a parliament, it is a state in fact. For a state to be one in fact, and not just in name, it must control its territory. Paramilitary groups control much of Columbia, and consequently those areas are really no longer a part of Columbia until the Columbian government can control them. Aside from the Green Zone and scattered neighborhoods and cities, government forces do not control Iraq either. In fact, the Green Zone is starting to eerily resemble Hitler’s bunker at the end of World War Two. That few of those who control Iraq will venture outside the safety of the Green Zone speaks volumes.

Today’s reality is that Iraq is stateless. It is rife with competing militias each attempting to gain the upper hand. Who controls a given territory largely depends on which force or militia has dominance over an area at a given time. With no clear boundaries, increasingly Iraqis are choosing to relocate to be with their own clans. A de-facto partitioning of Iraq has been underway for some time. People are expressing the reality with their feet. Those who can, such as the oppressed Christian community, are emigrating and ending up in nearby states like Syria.

At the White House, the disconnect between the reality in Iraq and official policy continues to become more surreal and now has entered the realm of the bizarre. An Iraq Studies Group has returned from Iraq. Headed by Bush’s father’s well-respected Secretary of State James Baker and former congressional representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana (who also vice chaired the 9-11 commission) the group is reportedly putting together a list of recommendations to deal with the Iraq mess. While its conclusions are unknown, Bush stated just yesterday that he is only amenable to changing tactics, not strategy. He still operates under the illusion that Iraq can be a free, democratic and contiguous state. His inability to acknowledge reality is doubtless fueling the animus that suggests that voters will allow Democrats to retake the House of Representatives in November, and possibly the Senate as well.

“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Just as Humpty Dumpty could never be put back together, there is no way to put Iraq back together either. At this point, it is beyond even Saddam Hussein’s ability to reform the Iraqi state. The Iraqi civil war is well underway. Clerics like al-Sadr are making their own reality. They are forging the sad new turbulent reality that was the country of Iraq.

There remains some small sliver of hope that Iraq will balkanize into a federation of states. Bush should be embracing this outcome. While it remains highly dubious, it still exists within the realm of the possible. The free, prosperous and democratic Iraq he envisions was always just a neoconservative fantasy. If a federalist state emerges, it will not last long. Its purpose will be to give us an excuse to withdraw our forces, and then it will collapse. I do not think federalism will take root in Iraq. Instead, I see continued civil war with the eventual creation of loose Sunni and Shiite states, and a stronger Kurdish state to the north. Within each state, there will be considerable bloodshed as competing militias fight for control. The real fight, of course, will be for whom controls access to the oil resources.

It remains to be seen whether the sectarian violence in Iraq will spill over outside its borders. When all the bloodshed finally ends, will this be the new map of the Middle East?

Potential future map of the Middle East

 
The Thinker

Tag! I’m it!

Hosting this blog is not without cost. The direct hosting costs are largely trivial. There is a cost to time, however. It was that investment that made me procrastinate upgrading my blog software (MovableType) from version 3.2 to version 3.3.

Shortly after the new version came out, I did make an attempt to upgrade. Then, as usual, it failed to install for reasons that were mysterious. I did not want to dig into their code or sift through their forums to solve. Last weekend, in an attempt to clear out my inbox, I made one more attempt. After an hour or so of scratching my head I figured out the problem. Suddenly I was running MovableType 3.33.

There are many new features to this upgrade. The most useful is the ability to tag my blog entries. To tag, I must associate relevant words that describe a blog entry. These words are indexed. Once indexed, it allows readers like you to find relevant information across my blog.

Tags are a recent phenomenon, but ideas like it have been tried before. For example, MovableType already supports HTML keywords. I never use them, mainly because search engines ignore them; consequently, they are of no use to my readers. MovableType also supports categorization. I always categorize blog entries. For example, this entry will go into the Technology Category. Categorization though is too broad. Tags are an attempt to allow more refinement. For example, if I discuss Hillary Clinton it will likely end up in one of the Politics categories. However, if I tag “Hillary Clinton” to a blog entry, people who come to my blog who want to read everything I consider relevant about Hillary Clinton can search for entries where I have tagged her name.

There is one problem implementing tags: I have been blogging for nearly four years and none of my entries had been tagged. This means that I have to go back, reread all 580 or so blog entries and enter appropriate tags for each one. The alternative was just to start tagging and forget about tagging previous entries.

The latter idea was attractive, but of course I opted for the former. This is a blog of essays, which means it is primarily a blog of ideas and ordered thoughts. Tags are a natural fit for my kind of blog. So of course I have been busy tagging my entries during my limited spare time.

Tagging remains a work in progress, but you can see the results. Next to the search form on the left panel I added a link that will take you to my tag index. Click on a tag link and you can easily read all blog entries for that particular tag.

I discovered two issues with tagging that might not be obvious. One is that there are no real criteria for proper tagging. Tagging seems to have been invented in response to the inherent difficulty of finding relevant content on the web. Tagging lets you sort of, but not completely do this job. This is because it relies on the person who is tagging to decide which tags are relevant. Most of doing tagging have no training in taxonomy.

Another issue is that it is hard to know which tags to use. Assign too specific a tag to an entry and sifting through tags becomes a real problem. Take for example, a movie review. For my entry on Million Dollar Baby, should I tag Clint Eastwood? What about Hilary Swank? There are no limits to the number of tags that I can assign to an entry. How many tags for an entry constitute too many? Another approach is to limit the entry to the single tag of Movies. Where does one draw the line? How am I supposed to know what tags others will consider to be relevant?

I see tagging as a necessary bump on the road toward a truly semantic web. Just as Windows 95 was a vast improvement over Windows 3.1, it still was flaky, buggy and confusing, just less so than Windows 3.1. Yet it was a necessary step in the evolution of Windows and it still ran programs written for Windows 3.1. Similarly, HTML is not going to go away, but it does slowly evolve over time. Perhaps tagging entries is the next logical step toward finding relevant content on the web.

Tagging will definitely help me find entries on a particular topic. But will it help the casual web surfer? Only time will tell. It is unlikely though that we think in similar ways. Consequently, I could choose different terms to categorize my entries than you would. I do know is that it is time consuming to go and tag over five hundred entries. So far I have completed 2005 to the present. I have about sixty percent of my blog entries left to tag.

There are other new features in MovableType 3.3 that I will likely use in time. Drag and drop templates and widgets are now available. Actually templates have been around in MovableType for a long time, but you still had to know HTML and study the MovableType template tag library to be creative with them. In other words, you had to be a bit of a geek. The drag and drop interface should make it easier for me to maintain the presentation of this site without writing HTML.

One thing is worse as a result of upgrading: comment spam. I don’t know why but spam that used to get sent directly to my junk folder now makes it as a comment for review. I have changed the spam threshold, but so far it has made little difference.

I hope you find the tagging feature useful.

 
The Thinker

End Life Style Job Discrimination

Weyco Inc., a benefits service company based in Okemos, Michigan is a company for which you definitely do not want to work. At least that is my opinion about reading this article in today’s Washington Post Business Section. According to Washington Post Staff Writer Amy Joyce, this is a company that believes what you or your family does off the job are grounds for your dismissal.

Like most companies, Weyco prohibits smoking on the job. I have no problem with that. The dangers of second hand smoke are well known and the workplace is a captive environment. I am also a virulent nonsmoker. The last thing I want is to go back to those days when I worked in a confined space and those around me smoked with both impunity and official sanction. Since the employer pays for the workspace, they have the right to make rules for how employees will use the space.

However, if you work for Weyco, beware. There are some unusual strings attached to your continued employment:

  • If you smoke on the premises, you can be fired
  • If you smoke at all, you will not be hired, no matter how competent you are
  • You can be tested at any time for nicotine. Hiring includes consent to urinalysis at the company’s discretion. If nicotine is detected in your urine, you are sent home for a month without pay. After a second offense, or if you refuse to be tested, you can be fired.
  • The company also reserves the right to require that your spouse be tested monthly for nicotine use. If your spouse tests positive, the employee must pay an $80 a month fee until the spouse takes a smoking cessation class and tests free of nicotine.

According to Workplace Fairness, three fourths of the 80 million Americans employed in the private sector are employed “at will”. Every state except Montana is an “at will” state. This means the employer can terminate an employee for any reason whatsoever. (I assume this does not include those activities prohibited by federal law, such as sex discrimination.) Not surprising, the United States lags behind most of the first world in protecting employees from “lifestyle discrimination”. Most of Europe, Japan and Canada are among over sixty enlightened countries worldwide that prohibit this sort of blatant job discrimination.

With a few exceptions, I do not think that any employer should have the right to fire you for your lifestyle. Your conduct and performance on the job is what matters, not off the job. Clearly those in a public safety position must have constraints on their off duty behavior. We do not want airline captains sipping cocktails at the airport lounge an hour before takeoff. We do so because it could affect their judgment while on the job.

However, this is completely different from smoking on the job, or outside of company property. Perhaps nicotine should be a regulated substance. Thanks to our Congress, its use is both legal and unregulated among adults. An employee who chooses to smoke off the worksite may be endangering their own health, and the health of anyone who lives with them, but it is not germane to their ability to perform a job. It is simply not the business of the employer to regulate the habits or lifestyle an employee chooses to engage in outside the office. Not only is such regulation deeply offensive to a free people, but the employee is not even compensated for behaving in a way that may be contrary to their will.

It is one thing to offer incentives to employees to engage in healthful behavior. Most progressive employers do it routinely. I am a civil servant. My agency provides limited counseling services for all employees. It assumes that if a worker’s private life is better ordered, they will be more productive on the job. Workers can choose to use the counseling service or not, and they can even use their time on the worksite for this purpose. I can even grudgingly agree to employee disincentives, like requiring employees who smoke to pay higher health insurance premiums than those who do not smoke. After all, the employer typically helps pay for health insurance, if it is offered at all. It is another thing entirely to deliberately discriminate against or actually fire someone for a lifestyle conducted outside of work.

As a supervisor, I cannot imagine doing something like this. For example, I have an employee whose wife was very mentally ill. She manifested her illness in chronic alcoholism. Had I worked for Weyco, I might have grounds for summarily dismissing my employee. No matter whether he was still performing acceptably in his job, I could simply terminate him. Rather than use compassionate techniques like leave sharing to retain the employee, Weyco might fire the employee, thereby making his situation much worse. After all, employees are not exactly people. “At will” states seem to assume that people are like widgets, and are interchangeable. Maybe employees do have feelings, but that is no reason an employer should bother to concern himself with them. Their bottom line is all that matters.

In my naiveté, I simply assumed workers had reasonable protections against this sort of behavior. I was wrong. Not only can employers in “at will” states set any conditions of employment they want, even if they have no bearing on the ability to perform a job, some like Weyco will exercise these rights.

It is so Big Brother-ish. I am not surprised that employers routinely search the web for background on applicants before hiring them. The web is after all an inherently open medium. Those who publish blogs in their own names should not be too surprised that an employer might use it as one criterion for a hiring decision. Conduct and performance on the job should be all that determines whether employees are doing their job correctly. Anything else is none of their business.

I would like to say, “There ought to be a law”, but the laws already exist and are egregiously bad. They likely go back to the 18th and 19th centuries when people accepted being treated like chattel. It is time to rectify these laws. Governments do not exist to serve corporations first. They exist to serve citizens first. Most of us, if we knew how these laws are being applied, would be outraged.

If you are as outraged as I am, perhaps you will join me by doing something about it. Since this is primarily an issue to be solved at the state level, you should let your state representatives and senators know how you feel. Tell them that you expect them to put citizens first, not corporations. Ask them to modify “at will” employment laws so that an employer may not fire anyone (with the obvious exceptions) for their conduct or lifestyle choices outside of work.

After all, you could be the next one to be fired.

 
The Thinker

Fine Dining at Ruth’s Chris

Thursday’s dinner was one of those that I would have every night if I were independently wealthy.

Had my wife and I not had a reason to celebrate, our dinner would have been something much more prosaic. In fact, there probably would have been nothing resembling a family dinner. We do have family dinners, but mostly on the weekends. During the week, we usually scavenge. When we get hungry, we go make something, generally for ourselves. (You can do this if your family consists of only three people, like ours.) I would have likely pulled something out of the freezer and microwaved it.

However, Thursday just happened to be my 21st wedding anniversary. Since it was an anniversary, my wife and I elected to go some place very nice for dinner. Last year as you may recall we went to The Hermitage, in Clifton, Virginia. There we had no problem happily departing with $130 or so. Thursday we went to Ruth’s Chris in Fairfax, Virginia. Rarely have I left a restaurant more satisfied. Moreover, rarely have I had to dig so deeply into my wallet to pay the bill. With tip, our bill came to $155. It would have been more had we ordered drinks.

Ruth’s Chris is a national steakhouse chain. You may have eaten great steak before, but unless you have eaten a steak from Ruth’s Chris, you probably have never have eaten perfectly prepared steak. I bet any other steak you have eaten cannot attain Ruth’s Chris lofty standard of excellence.

The steak though was just the centerpiece of a rich dining experience that was meticulously controlled and arranged to impress. There actually are entrees other than steak on their menu. It just seems like such a waste to come all the way to Ruth’s Chris and not order the steak. It is like going to Starbucks and not ordering coffee. I ordered the Petite Filet with Shrimp. It was a mere eight ounces of corn fed USDA Choice steak, cooked at 1800 degrees and served on sizzling, 500-degree plates. On top of each four ounce filet was one jumbo-sized shrimp.

But oh, the ecstasy of that first bite! Actually, each subsequent mouthful was equally excellent. Each slice was dripping in butter, lightly seasoned and so tender it offered no resistance whatsoever during consumption. Each swallow sent another little surge of ecstasy down my throat. The taste simply radiated through my whole mouth. I found myself slicing my filets very finely just so I could savor each bite to the maximum.

If Ruth’s Chris has a downside, aside from the price, it is that everything is sold separately. This includes the baked potato. I chose a Caesar salad. It was delivered with unchopped leaves of romaine lettuce artistically arranged on my plate, covered with shaved Parmesan cheese and allegedly dressed with croutons. Their croutons resembled shaving the top eighth of an inch of a crusty loaf of bread. Of course, I elected to have it garnished with black pepper. This was one of the few salads where I had to apply my knife before it could consume it. I so rarely have pepper on any food (since my wife is allergic to it) that it was almost a shock.

My wife ordered a baked potato with her steak, but I elected for a side of mashed potatoes. One of the reasons I mourn my late mother is that she was excelled at preparing mashed potatoes. They always came out lumpless and were both creamy and buttery. I look for mashed potatoes whenever I dine out, but can rarely find them. I do not find lumpless mashed potatoes to necessarily be a sign of excellence. In fact, I like a little something to chew on in my mashed potatoes. What I look for is flavor. Ruth’s Chris mashed potatoes did not disappoint. They were as creamy and buttery as my mother’s famous mashed potatoes and came lightly topped with parsley. The serving was enough for two people. Between my fond memories of my mother’s excellent mashed potatoes and the exquisite steak, I was in culinary overload.

My wife chose a side of sautéed mushrooms. Each mushroom was uniform and perfectly round, and came in a lightly buttered and seasoned sauce. Sautéed mushrooms are one of my wife’s specialties. She frequently serves them on special occasions like Thanksgiving dinner. They get rave reviews. However, Ruth’s Chris’s mushrooms were actually better.

Of course, we found room for dessert. My wife ordered the Warm Apple Crumb Tart, which was enormous and more than she could finish. She gave me a taste, but it was hard for me to judge its quality, because my mouth was overwhelmed by the taste of the Chocolate Sin Cake that I ordered. The “cake” was excellent but perhaps misnamed. It was more like a big chocolate in the shape of a small cake slice than a cake. There did not seem to be anything in it that needed baking. It came garnished with a finely sliced strawberry and with drizzled raspberry sauce across the plate. I had to restrain myself from licking my plate when I was done with it.

As you would expect, the service was impeccable. Each table was covered with real linens, which were replaced after each dining experience. If I had a complaint, it was that perhaps our server gave us too much time to linger over our meals. The dining room was clean, attractive, quiet and well laid out. Clearly, they have been in this business a long time. They have this level of dining down to a science.

I have eaten better prepared food, but only very rarely. You go to Ruth’s Chris because you want the best tasting steak available. You will not be disappointed. Yet I have had fancier meals. More than ten years ago when it was still in business, we took our first cruise on a Dolphin cruise line. Our cabin was tiny, but the meals were to die for. At the time, Dolphin was known for its high cuisine. When it was still in business, my wife and I also had several meals at The Windsor House in Middleburg, Virginia. Both of those were better than our meal this week at Ruth’s Chris, although I do not recall ordering steaks with those meals. I know there is better dining is available. If I were independently wealthy, I would make sure at least once a year I dined at The Inn at Little Washington, which is renown in our region and which requires diners to sign up months in advance. Since Ruth’s Chris is a chain, there is likely one near you. Unquestionably, Ruth’s Chris is an excellent restaurant. If you have the money for this kind of dining, you will not be disappointed.

 
The Thinker

Great Expectations

Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. Can my country resurrect itself? After all, our Congress just recently gave President Bush permission to torture.

We will know on November 8th after voters go to the polls for the midterm elections. The vote will tell me whether our country will remain extreme or rejoin the mainstream. I certainly hope it is the latter. Perhaps we can then plead short-term insanity.

The sense of public outrage at our Congress and Administration is palpable to me, and I bet to you too. Even flamboyant Republicans that I know are strangely mute. Many are also ashamed. They no longer even try to justify President Bush’s strategy with Iraq and the War on Terror. Now that its consequences are crystal clear, there are no words that can plausibly justify our invasion of Iraq. Most journalists now agree that Iraq is in civil war. Its so-called government is ineffective. One credible estimate suggests 665,000 Iraqis have died from the Iraq War so far. So many bodies, many dismembered and decapitated, are found floating in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that local fishermen no longer bother to fish them out.

The Iraq War consistently comes up as voters’ top concern. Falling gasoline prices, while welcome, do not seem to be helping Republican prospects for controlling Congress. Nor are new highs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average helping. Typically, these events would add to a ruling party’s Congressional majority. However, polls show that they have failed to check expected Republican losses in the midterm elections. Instead, polls show that expected Democratic gains are increasing. Most Republicans now privately admit they expect to lose control of the House of Representatives. They seem to be hedging their bets on retaining control of the Senate too. Bush’s approval ratings are close to reaching record lows again. Congressional approval ratings, already at an all time low for this Republican congress, plunged further with revelations that now former Florida Congressman Mark Foley preyed on male pages in suggestive and occasionally lurid email conversations. The party of family values is now perceived as the party that will put expediency over principles as long as it allows them to keep their hands on the levers of power.

Many voters though are like me. They are wondering if their vote will be accurately counted. For three election cycles, there were rumors of voter fraud. Only now does much of the public believe that many votes were miscounted or fraudulently reported in the elections of 2000, 2002 and 2004. I know I felt it in 2004. Discrepancies in exit polls compared with final results told me that Bush had lost Ohio. Subsequent investigative journalism revealed that these feelings were not misplaced. Given the recent problems with electronic voting machines during the primaries in Maryland, it is hard not to continue to feel the unease.

Nevertheless, polls show a growing trend: more voters want the Republicans out and the Democrats in. Recent polls show that the preference for Democrats over Republicans have exceeded twenty percent. It remains to be seen whether such frustrations will carry over into local contests. Still, in poll after poll, races where Republican candidates were recently leading have moved to no clear favorite. The trend is unmistakable. The trend is even more remarkable given that the Democratic Party has failed to articulate what they will do if they regain power. It does not seem to matter to voters. We have to just get to get rid of these losers, is what the public seems to be saying.

Will this election resemble the 1994 election? In that election, 44 seats shifted in the House of Representatives, and eight shifted in the Senate. Since then Republicans refined a new tactic for maintaining power: draw those congressional districts very narrowly so it becomes almost impossible to oust an incumbent. In addition, where possible in places like Texas, redistrict out of turn to add to your majority. Consequently, a change of 44 seats in 2006 seems out of the bound of possibility.

Therefore, I have to check myself. Wishing does not make it so. Yet I still feel the political ground shifting below my feet, and now I am feeling tremors. For years, I have said that Bush and the Republicans cannot escape accountability forever. The public can only be kept in fear for so long. Neither can we forever ignore gross incompetence.

In less than a month, I will know whether my feelings this time are valid. Barring massive voter fraud, my gut tells me that the Democrats will recapture both the House and the Senate in the midterms. I think it will bear an uncanny resemblance to the election of 1994.

 
The Thinker

Review: Rent (The Movie)

Translating a musical to film is a devilishly hard business. Most directors are wise to steer clear of the endeavor. In fact, it is such a hard business that I can only think of a handful of musical films that fully succeeded in making the transition. Two that immediately come to mind are of course West Side Story (1961) and Chicago (2002), for which both deservedly won Oscars for Best Picture. The difficulty comes from translating works that were designed to be performed on a stage into a film where people are singing yet do not look, well, goofy.

I saw the musical Rent on stage when it appeared here in Washington D.C. in the late 1990s. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the fact that all the performers were wearing microphones and there was the distraction of a band on one side of the stage. Even then as a young forty-something I was feeling a bit too old for it. Christopher Columbus directed the movie version that was released last year. Given the saccharine way he directed the first two Harry Potter movies, I felt no compelling reason to see it on the screen. However, my daughter owns the DVD so I slipped it in our player last night.

The movie Rent is a tough sell to American audiences. It is full of the kinds of characters guaranteed to raise the hair of members of the American Family Association. If you are easily offended, it will offend you. It is rife with immature, twenty something characters who swear, smoke, drink, shoot up, engage in promiscuous sex and move from one toxic relationship to another. They frequently prefer their own gender, or swing both ways. In fact, most of the characters are HIV positive, and many have come down with AIDS. Of course, in both the musical and the film, they are hardly apologetic for their extreme counterculture behavior; in fact, they have the audacity to celebrate it in all its largely dysfunctional glory.

Perhaps this contributed to the movie’s less than stellar box office sales. Outside of Austin, it would just not sell in Texas. However, if you enjoy the musical genre, you should watch the film.

The film is well cast and directed. It fully captures the gritty reality of Manhattan’s more distressed neighborhoods. In neighborhoods where forty years earlier the Jets were fighting with the Sharks, we now find an inglorious little Bohemia. Naturally, this is not coincidental. The author Jonathan Larson deliberately tried to write a modern day version of Puccini’s opera La Boheme. Rent is hardly the first movie to draw inspiration from this opera. Another recent example is Baz Lurhmann’s amazing 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!

The cast consists of people who generally have not starred prominently on film before. Anthony Rapp, who plays the pivotal role of the documentary filmmaker Mark Cohen in the movie, also played the character when Rent first appeared Off Broadway. In fact, he looks a bit old for the part. However he seems to have mastered the role of Mark, who is an against the mainstream, sensitive (but pissed off) estranged Jewish liberal. The best actors as you might expect play the pivotal rolls of the transvestite Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) and Tom Collins (Jesse Martin). The joy Tom Collins feels for his love Angel is quite palpable on the screen. The heat between Roger (Adam Pascal) and Mimi (Rosario Dawson) is not quite as intense nor as understandable. Maureen (Idina Menzel) and Joanne (Tracie Thoms) spend more screen time estranged than being sweet to each other. I was somewhat disappointed in Idina Menzel as Maureen. She did not quite have the same frenetic, over the top style of the actress we saw in the staged version of the musical. Indeed, you spent the first third of the musical waiting for Maureen’s dramatic appearance. In the film, Columbus unwisely chose to put her in a flashback before she appears at her performance.

In general, the choreography is excellent, and the direction is very good. With many musicals, you are aware the music is lip-synched. Here it is impossible to tell. I noticed little snips removed from the staged version as well as padded dialog and extra scenes that you would expect translating a musical to film. You know of course that dozens of takes were needed for each scene, but like the music, it flows seamlessly. It is impossible to tell.

With a few exceptions, each character is a mountain of anger and hurt. They are often obnoxious and bullheaded, as early twenty something young adults frequently are. Each could profit from many sessions with mental help therapists. Instead, because they are largely broke, they become their own support group. Nonetheless, it is hard not to care about them as they careen from one young adult crisis to the next. Even if drag queens disgust you, you would not be a human if you did not shed a tear at Angel’s passing.

Christopher Columbus has partially redeemed himself in my eyes. I now forgive him for the first two Harry Potter movies. Maybe movie musicals are a niche where he can demonstrate special competence. Rent may not reach the lofty heights of West Side Story or Chicago, but it deserved much better than the tepid response at the box office. Take a chance and “Rent” it.

3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

 

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