Archive for December, 2006

The Thinker

The Problem with Vengeance

Saddam Hussein has gone to meet his maker. Shortly before dawn this morning, the former Iraqi dictator was hanged. Reputedly, justice was served. Hussein received the same ultimate penalty that he and his henchmen inflicted on reputedly hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shi’ites during his twenty-five years or so as national dictator and despot. Hussein at least had the benefit of having his guilt established in an open trial. One thing is for sure: Saddam Hussein will not be around to inflict further atrocities.

I certainly understand the need for the survivors of Hussein’s tyranny to see Hussein suffer some small measure of the pain that was inflicted on them and their loved ones. Mesopotamia, after all, gave us Hammurabi, the Babylonian king. Nearly four thousand years ago he invented a form of justice that was still evident in Saddam’s hanging today: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Saddam’s hanging of course could not begin to really equal the voluminous misery he inflicted on others. Still, death is the ultimate penalty. Having Saddam spend a couple of years in prison knowing he was going to pay the ultimate penalty was probably a very miserable experience.

The problem is that by hanging Hussein, the justice that was served did nothing to solve the underlying problem. Rather, by hanging Saddam the violence in Baghdad is likely to worsen. Ninety-two people died from violence in Iraq today. A curfew imposed later in the day will hopefully staunch the violence, although most likely the violence will keep recurring until it is fully expressed. Sunnis will feel even more aggrieved by Saddam’s execution. Shi’ites and Kurds will feel even more righteous. If national unification is the goal, it is hard to see how serving this kind of justice, no matter how lawful and fair, will serve Iraq’s national interests.

Real solutions to Iraq’s sectarian problems can only be solved by changing hearts and minds. Saddam’s execution was thus counterproductive toward those ends. All sides will be more inclined to dig in their heels and less inclined to work toward national reconciliation. Imagine if during our Civil War we had captured General Robert E. Lee and had him hung for treason and for ordering the murdering hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers. It is unlikely that the Confederacy would have suddenly felt the desire to sue for peace.

What then does this execution really accomplish? While it does give survivors some feeling of vengeance, I am not persuaded that vengeance as a form of justice will be much of a deterrence. By definition, no sane people would engage in violent crime in the first place. Millenniums pass by and regardless of how lax or strict the execution of our laws is, violence continues at roughly the same levels it always has.

I think that vengeance is like throwing wood onto a fire: it keeps it going. What is needed is something that will douse the fire. What justice for Saddam Hussein would have served both as punishment and have served the interests of the stability of Iraqi society?

In countries like Liberia and South Africa, truth and reconciliation commissions have proved to be effective vehicles for mending societies torn by decades of strife. Such a commission in Iraq could have done much to reduce sectarian tensions by allowing victims to air their grievances. Now that Saddam is dead, those who did not have a chance to formally air those grievances feel in some measure that they were not heard, and consequently justice was not served for them. The Kurds suffered thousands of deaths because of chemical attacks ordered by Saddam Hussein. Their rage, which should have had the opportunity to be expressed in a proper forum, is instead bottled up and unchecked instead. As a result, this rage is likely to cause further destabilization and violence in the future.

I think it would have been better for all parties had Saddam been tried by the International Criminal Court. It was established precisely for these kinds of crimes. By having his crimes adjudicated by an external court, it would have had the pleasant smell of impartiality. Instead, Saddam was tried in an Iraqi court. While the evidence of Saddam’s guilt was clear enough, impartiality was simply not possible. Lacking impartiality, the verdict smelled malodorous. It is true that had the International Criminal Court convicted Saddam Hussein, he would not have been executed. Most likely, he would have lived out the rest of his life in isolation in a prison in some place like The Hague. There, isolated, alone and unempowered, a rough form of justice would have been served in the form of impotence and obscurity.

Too often justice is merely a code word for vengeance. We need to understand that society’s purpose in seeking justice is not to elicit vengeance. Instead, it is to elicit true repentance from the criminal if possible, ensure future behavior does not recur, and to ensure the rest of society is safe from a criminal’s actions. We need justice that does not amount to being Band-Aids on society’s gaping wounds. Instead, we need actions that promote the wound’s healing. Unfortunately, as Saddam’s execution points out, the need for vengeance simply helps ensure that future Saddams will likely reemerge from the toxic environment he left behind. Therefore, the karmic cycle will repeat until someday, perhaps, Iraqis learn the lesson and get it right.

Saint Paul got it right in Romans 12:19-21:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

 
The Thinker

Thanks Frank

My friend Frank Pierce died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve.

Frank is a friend who I initially “met” online. Meeting someone online nowadays is not a big deal, but around 1990 it was a weird thing to do or to even acknowledge. In those days, there was an Internet, but it was not accessible to the average person. I met Frank on The Back of the North Wind, an electronic bulletin board system that resided on the spare PC of a woman named Dawn Gibson who, if memory serves me right, lived in Arlington, Virginia. In those days, you used your 2400-baud modem to dial up these computers, play games, swap software and engage in electronic conversations with people in your community. I wrote more about those days a year or two back in this entry, if you are interested.

The Back of the North Wind drew an eclectic crowd. You had to know someone who knew someone to get on the board because it was not advertised on Mike Focke’s BBS list. My friend Debbie who I met on a board called Zonzr directed me there. I quickly spent almost all of my electronic social life on Dawn’s board. A good part of the reason was Frank Pierce. Frank was an older gentleman who was fifty something at the time. He was virtually unique among people in his age group for indulging in this online community thing. His passion was discussing politics and he quickly found that an online community allowed him to engage in his habit very easily. Somewhat to Dawn’s disgruntlement (for she hated politics) her board was nearly taken over by an inner ring of Washington area amateur policy wonks. Frank and I were two of the main contributors to those political discussions.

The thing about Frank though was unlike lots of amateur policy wonks, he knew about what he was talking. Frank had a depth of understanding that always amazed me. Our political discussions evolved on The Back of the North Wind and later on the message board I set up and which is still in business, The Potomac Tavern. (Frank was the co-host.) There was not much about the world that Frank had not studied in some depth. When the conversation moved from politics to other areas like religion, Frank was equally well informed.

Since I “met” Frank in 1990, I figure I have known him for sixteen years. Over those years, I figure I actually met him in person less than a dozen times. Our last meeting was about two years back when I met him at a Starbucks near his house. We spent about an hour discussing Potomac Tavern business and just chitchatting. I also had the privilege of being invited to his house a couple times. Once he hosted a Back of the North Wind get together in his backyard. We did these get togethers once or twice a year for a number of years. More recently, he invited me to stop by so I could take him for a test drive in my new hybrid.

Frank was tall, thin as a rail, bony, grey haired and both gregarious and scholarly at the same time. He and his wife Nancy had been married forever. If my memory serves me correctly, he is also survived by two sons and a daughter. He was active in the local German American community, spoke excellent German, and even wrote a newspaper column for a German newspaper called, no lie, The Potomac Tavern. It discussed current political topics happening in our nation’s capital in the context of a real tavern with a regular crew of erudite patrons. Frank recently related a story of a reader who came to Washington and was disappointed to discover that there was no Potomac Tavern in the city. Frank’s portrayal of this fictional tavern was so convincing he had some people fooled.

For among Frank’s many talents, he was an excellent writer. He wrote a number of books. None of them was a best seller, but he knew how to target the small markets. You can buy a number of them from online sources like Amazon.com. Writing alone would suffice as a creative outlet for most people. However, Frank was also a photographer. On The Potomac Tavern, if you dig for them, you will see many an amazing photograph taken by him, often carefully retouched with Adobe Photoshop. Frank’s photography occasionally dabbled on the risqué side. He spent some time doing figure photography, and a number of his models posed in the buff. I recall one trip to his house when he showed me his portfolio of nude photography. As with all his other art forms, he excelled here too.

Frank was also incredibly generous with both his time and money. While on The Back of the North Wind, he grew to know a woman named Judy. Judy lived in the backwoods of Virginia somewhere. Frank saw potential in Judy: a very smart woman who simply did not have the resources to go to college. For whatever reason, Frank decided that he would make an investment in Judy. I do not know to what extent he did it, but I know he helped pay her way through college. Frank could do these things, you see, because along with all his other talents he was a shrewd investor. This, plus his modest lifestyle, gave him the leeway to occasionally indulge in these acts of targeted charity.

I expect to blog more about Frank in the weeks ahead. I am getting details of his death second hand, but it sounds like Frank died from the complications of bronchitis. I can say that I was shocked to learn he had died, since I believe he was in the bottom half of his seventies. He always seemed in such abnormally good health. He was so skinny and his mind was always so sharp that I fully expected him to be pontificating on my forum into his nineties.

Among the many topics I explored with Frank over the years was aging. For me death was and still is a very scary thing. Frank was not scared. He was pragmatic: there is nothing you can do to stop death, so the only thing to do was to enjoy what life that is given to you to its fullest. From a man who did not seem the least bit religious, this was a both a very pragmatic and positive philosophy. He succeeded in walking his talk. He lived his final years as if he expected to live a hundred years more. He said he was not concerned about death, but he was concerned about leaving a legacy. At that, Frank clearly succeeded.

Frank taught me many life lessons I might never have grasped otherwise. I am trying to emulate his philosophy and to see every day as a gift full of boundless potential. If I can manage to do it, and I have a lot of work to do to achieve this, then perhaps Frank will have passed on to me his most treasured gift.

Frank, I am going to miss you like crazy. You have been such a positive presence in my life these last sixteen years. You are one of these people who, when you pass on, leave a large and beneficent wake. You touched and inspired many people. We in your online world were a small fraction of them. Thank you for your friendship, which has touched me in ways I still do not fully realize. I am hopeful that I will carry forward your positive spirit into the second half of my life. I hope that I can draw on your positive energy and pull some people into my wake too.

Rest in peace, dear friend.

 
The Thinker

Fiddling while Rome burns

It is that time of year when I start writing checks to charities. One of my favorite charities is local: So Others Might Eat. SOME is an interfaith effort in Washington D.C. that provides for the basic needs of the area’s poor and homeless. As their name suggests they spend much of their money providing them meals. They also provide clothing and health care to people who obviously cannot afford it. In addition, they work to break the cycle of poverty through services like addiction treatment and counseling, job training and affordable housing. How could Jesus not approve? “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me,” he told us. His message is clear: find grace and meaning by practicing compassion and relieving human suffering.

I am so grateful that I was never homeless nor hungry. That is not to say I do not feel some empathy for these people. I have lived from meager paycheck to paycheck. I never went hungry, but I spent a couple years on the borderline, barely able to pay my rent and eating many meals consisting of little more than rice and entrees in boil a bags, because I could afford little better. When my car died, I lived for a couple years without one. I felt like many of today’s graduates do: that I deserved more from life than what I got. Life was risky when you are 21, you have a new degree and the job market sucks. In the complex game of natural selection in which I was caught, only my relative youth was an asset.

Most religions teach us that life is sacred. The Catholic Church goes the extra mile and prohibit adherents from doing anything “unnatural” to prevent pregnancy or anything deliberate to shorten its lifespan. While life certainly seems to me to be something of a miracle, it should seem less miraculous. We humans are so good at increasing our numbers and extending our life spans that a case can be made that we live unnatural lives. We are rapidly changing our world, and not for the better. Global warming, largely due to human activity, is now an accepted fact. None of us comes with an environmental expiration date. Mother Nature does not knock on our doors and say, “Well, you’ve had your 57 years. You’ve taken as much from the planet as it can give you and sustain the rest of us, so it’s time to die.” We resist. “I am here and I am entitled to live my life as I please. I will live a long life. I will live a prosperous life. I will live a comfortable life. I will be free and I will be reckless in my happiness. I owe no debt to the earth. Go screw yourself.”

I could perhaps satisfy Mother Nature by living a simpler life. I could be like Billy Graham and live alone in a cabin in the woods. Of course, I will not. It is not just me, I tell myself. I do it for my family. I do it for the ones I love. My wife and I are about ready to send our daughter to college. The last thing I want for her is to spend her adult years washing dishes. No, I wish for her a lifestyle similar or better than mine, in a house with central heating and air conditioning, and a car, and in a job that pays well and in a field where she will find meaning and personal growth. My miserable period was rather brief, but it was miserable. I do not want her to endure anything like it because, gosh, it hurt. For similar reasons, I ache for the wretched and homeless and write checks to SOME. I want happiness for that skid row alcoholic too. I want humans to stop dying of preventable diseases or to have to endure pointless suffering. Moreover, I want all war to end, pronto! Just say no to violence, people!

And I want the Earth to be a garden of Eden again. That is, I want a pony.

When I hit that last point that is when I feel like I should go douse myself in cold water. I have castigated President Bush for his guns and butter approach to war. I have castigated Republicans for expecting low taxes and plenty of government services at the same time. Therefore, I should hold myself to my own standard. I should take less, a lot less from this world than I do. Will I do it? Not a chance.

In a sense, my selfishness, as well as the collective selfishness of all of us living a first world life, as well as the billions desperately clawing their way toward a prosperous life, is writing the extinction of our species and possibly our planet. Each of us, by making this very natural choice to move from misery toward comfort is sending a four-finger salute to future generations. We are also sending this message to the other species that inhabit our planet, and on whom we depend for our mutual survival. In addition, we are sending a message to future generations: if we can be so selflessly reckless, so should you.

After all, freedom is what America is all about. Yes, there is a price to freedom. It is not just, as the proponents of the military tell us, that freedom must be defended. Freedom comes with certain constraints. One of its natural constraints is that the more of us there are, the less free each of us can be. Hence, we end up with community associations dictating the color of paint we must use on our houses. However, it is not just population increases that make us less free. It is also how we choose to live our lives. Each person who chooses to live a prosperous life is acting like a neighbor who plays his rock music all night long at ear piercing volumes. That more of us engage in this habit does not mean we are all, either individually or as a whole, really better off.

Even Al Gore is in denial. He talks about setting the thermostat down a few degrees and replacing incandescent lights with fluorescent lights. He says we must do this to reduce our carbon footprint. Obviously, these are steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, we should not kid ourselves. Al is not planning to give up his house in the suburbs either. His air conditioner may have a higher efficiency rating than yours, but he is not going to put it out with the trash. He too will take much more from the earth than it can affordably give him. Even if we followed all his suggested practices, the earth would not be in balance. At best, we might delay our day of reckoning.

To paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, I now find myself uncomfortably awake. I know my selfish actions are counterproductive to the values I claim to espouse. I know I am a damned hypocrite. I will continue to assuage my conscience by tinkering around the edges. Those plastic yogurt cups will continue to go in the recycle bin. I expect we will replace those incandescent lights with fluorescent ones. However, I also understand that these actions do not amount to atonement, and that I will continue to live an earth-hostile life. My car may be a hybrid instead of a Hummer, but I am still a sinner. I am farting a little less than my neighbor is, but I am still stinking up the room.

Perhaps knowing that you are in denial is a prerequisite toward moving toward real penance. If so, I am just tentatively sticking my head above the herd and bleating, “This is a real problem, folks.” The herd, being a herd, does not want to hear me but they sure notice that I am trotting in step with them. I shall bleat nonetheless. Meanwhile, I will keep recycling my yogurt cups. In doing so, I do not really atone for my sins. However, for whatever it means, I do acknowledge my sins. I am sorry I am such a reckless fool, but at least I know I am a fool.

 
The Thinker

Blogging Snafus Solved

Virtual private server hosting is a dubious joy. While it offers a lot of flexibility it also assumes you are something of a geek. While this is true with me, it is not true that I am the sort who likes to revel in the mysteries of Apache httpd.conf files in my spare time.

Since I rehosted about a month ago, I have been trying to get my blog entries to publish dynamically on this new host. In frustration, I went back to static publishing, which means every page is stored as a file on the server. Since I have dynamic content on the sidebars, this meant rebuilding 600+ entries every time I published, a process that took 20 minutes or so. I took dynamic publishing for granted on my old web host, so I assumed I could do it here.

I tried to find a solution through free support through the MovableType forums and knowledge base, but nothing worked. So yesterday I did what I should have done a month ago, but was reluctant to do: dug out my credit card and spent $49.95 for paid MovableType support. Thankfully their support is good.

My problem turned out to be a default setting for how my web server processes those mysterious .htaccess files. These hidden files control who has access to a web site. The files were there and I could set them any way I wished, but the setting in my httpd.conf file ensured that Apache would blithely ignore them.

Thanks to MovableType support, this problem is solved. In case you need to do something similar, look for that first instance in httpd.conf and change this:


Options FollowSymLinks
AllowOverride None

to this:


Options FollowSymLinks
AllowOverride All

And then restart Apache.

Now I can really enjoy my holidays. I don’t return to work until January 8th. I will truly have a Merry Christmas though if Google decides to put my site back in its index by Christmas.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

 
The Thinker

Being the Oil in the World’s Engine

Sunday’s Washington Post published this article. The author surveyed Washington policy wonks who are busy promoting the “Next Big Idea”. The next big idea, in this case, is a successful foreign policy strategy that will promote American values, make the world a more peaceful place, and by implication, leave the United States as king of the hill. This next big idea seems to assume that neoconservative philosophy has proven bankrupt so something newer and shinier is needed.

What I found interesting was the article’s underlying premise: that the United States, by pulling the right levers can actually control the future direction of the world. Apparently, we here in the United States (or at least the policy wonks inside the beltway) still see our nation as The Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. Our modus operandi seems to be that by making sure our Oz machine blows a little more smoke and emits a little more flame that the world will acquiesce toward our will. We still believe ourselves to be what we probably were fifty years ago, but simply are not anymore: the natural, if not the only moral leader on the world stage. Despite overwhelming recent evidence to the contrary, our assumption seems to be that we are still smart and clever enough to be the world’s master architect. We think that if we make a convincing enough case other nations will nod their heads in suppliance.

Count me as one of the skeptics. Our lesson in Iraq, which I documented in previous entries like this one, is that the United States is an empire in decline and we are in denial. We reveled in the role of benign superpower when Great Britain tired of it. Great Britain tired of it because it realized that running empires over many centuries is hard work. The bigger the empire became the harder it was to manage it. Imperialism is deceptive easy and great for conquering state in the short term. Nevertheless, eventually the natives demand their independence. It became much easier for Great Britain to acknowledge the reality that its imperialist phase was over than to fruitlessly try to hold on to it. Now they are left with its trappings: a British Commonwealth, which amounts to little more than member countries putting the queen on their currency.

The American empire does not look much like the British model. While we practiced imperialism, by Great Britain’s standards it was imperialism-lite. For the most part, we channeled Teddy Roosevelt: we spoke softly and carried a big stick. We invaded countries and set up puppet regimes when necessary, but most countries understood it was in their leader’s best interest to play nice with us. We sponsored institutions like the League of Nations and later the United Nations as a means of solving the world’s problems collectively. However, since neoconservatism began to take a foothold with the election of Ronald Reagan, we have started to use the big stick more often. We have given diplomacy short shrift in favor of cowboy posse diplomacy.

Like Great Britain when its empire was overextended, we are discovering that are our stick is not as big as it was, particularly when natives in many places are acting up at the same time. It can be leveraged when we need it to be leveraged, but using it in a large way for any extended period becomes ruinously expensive. Today, the realists in government understand that our military is really only effective as a lever. Lately our hardest job has been to understand when it is appropriate to use the military as a lever. We are now rediscovering that if we use our military we need to be very confident that it will affect the ends we desire. It is either that or we must keep our expectations very modest. The biggest lesson of the Iraq debacle should be that diplomacy and occasional swats from our big stick is far cheaper and is likely to be more effective in both the short and the long term than war.

President Clinton understood the limits of American military power and made it work to our advantage. With Iraq, he used a two-prong approach. First, he used diplomacy. With the weight of the United Nations behind us, international sanctions were imposed against Iraq. When sanctions were not wholly successful, he used our military as a pressure point that contained Iraq. Consequently, we had military flights over Iraq that kept Saddam Hussein’s government out of Kurdistan. To ensure our air superiority, we also lobbed occasional bombs at Iraqi radar installations. While it did not solve the problem of Saddam Hussein, it did contain the problem. Moreover, it did it in a way that did not overtax the United States military and allowed our economy to grow. Containing Iraq cost about one billion dollars a year. Now we spend about four times as much every week in Iraq in a fruitless attempt to control the anarchy there.

In short, Bill Clinton’s model of exerting American control and influence, while certainly not ideal, was reasonably effective. With this to give some context, let me put forth my own big idea. It begins with the realization that the United States now has a much more limited ability to influence events on the world stage. It deals with the reality that our country is now overextended, both militarily and financially. In order to leverage our stick at all, strategic military withdrawals are in our future.

For example, our country has already withdrawn some troops from South Korea to support the war in Iraq. We need to get them all out, not just because we need our troops elsewhere, but because it is time to end our presence there. After fifty years, the South Koreans need to control their own destiny. Moreover, China is not going to provide military aid to turn South Korea into a godless communist state. Our role should be to facilitate peace if we can but otherwise to use Cold War tactics: if the North Koreans are stupid enough to play their nuclear card, we have to let them know unambiguously that we will respond in kind. With any sane nation these tactics would not be necessary, but clearly there is not much sanity among the North Korean leadership. Naked power seems to be all they understand.

It is also probably time to withdraw many troops from places like Japan and Germany. World War Two is now a distant memory. While these countries serve as convenient bases for deployment of our forces to extended theaters, neither Japan nor Germany is likely to be a military threat to us again. Our troops need either to be redeployed or brought home. If they are brought home, clearly our troops need to refine their skills for the next conflict. Our military is now a broken shell.

Our military needs to be rebuilt again, of course. The fighting in Iraq has serious depleted not just our regular forces, but also our equipment. We should learn some lessons from Iraq. We need more military equipment that is designed for urban warfare and policing. We need as battalions of military police on standby. In short, if we are going to occupy a country, we need to ensure we can actually keep it secure, not just blow it up. It should also now go unsaid that we need an occupation plan that passes the sniff test. We did not have one in Iraq.

My hope is that we will get out of the occupation business. If we have to do it, it should only be under the umbrella of a broad multinational effort, preferably the United Nations. To succeed and thrive in the 21st century, what we really need the most are strong alliances. The Bush Administration sees India as an emerging power and partner. A strategic alliance with India is fine, but what we really need is a pragmatic and cooperative relationship with China. It is unlikely we will get China to embrace American democracy, so we should not press the point with them. However, we should be working with them on a whole range of issues with the goal of fostering trust in the military and diplomatic spheres. We should try to avoid setting our country up for yet another ruinously expensive superpower tug of war in a few decades. Together, we can wield a force that is greater than what one nation can wield. Admittedly, this kind of relationship will not be easy. For example, China’s actions in the Horn of Africa are the result of needing a secure oil supply. It has had the effect of causing unrest in the region. It is feeding disasters like the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Darfur. We need to foster a relationship of mutual codependence, primarily with China, but also with India. We also need to revitalize long-standing cooperation with Europe. We should emphasize humanitarian principles in all our actions.

Of course, we need to emphasize diplomacy rather than military force. It is not quite as important to have our way prevail, as it is to support a multinational consensus of the principle powers. There can be great diplomatic power in numbers. This will likely mean a new pragmatism from our president and our Department of State. The days of being unilateral are over. The nature of the 21st century is that we live in a much more crowded world where all nations will be competing for resources. Such competition is likely to inflame tensions, rather than calm them. However, if we all think globally rather than nationally, we can see that cooperation is in the interest of all. The United States needs to participate actively in this process. However, we must realize we are just one of many countries with positive ideas to bring to the table. Incessant parochialism will defeat our own interests as well as the world’s.

Over the last five years, we have learned that being stubborn and insular is counterproductive to our national security needs. It actually worsens and inflames tensions around the world. We must be cooperative to a fault. We must be the oil in the engine of the world, not its piston. This is where our true security lies.

 
The Thinker

Our Greatest 20th Century Republican President

Sorry, he was not Ronald Reagan. I will give you a hint.

President Theodore Roosevelt

If attitude were more important than actual accomplishments then perhaps Ronald Reagan’s effigy should be chiseled into Mount Rushmore. However, Reagan had many faults. Partisans tend to excuse his gross misjudgments, of which Reagan had plenty. These included:

  • The bombing of our Marines barracks in Lebanon and his subsequent decision to cut and run from Lebanon entirely
  • Support for terrorists (which we renamed freedom fighters) in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua that killed hundreds of thousands. His obsession led to the Iran Contra scandal, wherein we deliberately broke the law by selling arms to our avowed enemy Iran to fund terrorists in Central America.
  • An executive branch lead by so many people with no moral compass that the his administration was arguably the most corrupt presidency in modern history
  • A savings and loan fiasco that cost the treasury more than $120 billion
  • The largest peacetime deficits in American history

Nor was it the general who won the Second World War our greatest 20th Century Republican President. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also cut and ran, in this case from the Korean War. He “ended” the violence by threatening to use nuclear weapons on North Korea if they did not agree to a truce. If you are wondering why North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il is so anxious to build a nuclear arsenal and lob missiles at the United States, now you know why. In fact, North and South Korea are still technically at war. Both sides essentially agreed to stop fighting but never agreed to a peace. To this day, fifty years later, we keep tens of thousands of troops in South Korea on a hair trigger alert.

Eisenhower had many noteworthy accomplishments as president. The one I give him the most credit for was the creation of the interstate highway system. In addition, he was very savvy about the consequences of the emerging military industrial complex. On the other hand, during his presidency, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and we did not lift a finger. In 1953, he sent the CIA into Iran to kill its elected prime minister, and then helped put a Shah in his place against the wishes of Iranians. This resentment set up the conditions for the Iranian Hostage Crisis some twenty-five years later. It is one of the main reasons the state of Iran still hates us today. If it is part of an “axis of evil” we were instrumental in its creation. Eisenhower was also the first American president to send our troops into Vietnam. It would take more than fifteen years before we would get them out. Tens of thousands of American soldiers would die in the fiasco along with millions of Vietnamese. Perhaps most shameful of all, while Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized the nation with anticommunist hysteria, the same general that fought tyranny in Europe turned a blind eye. In addition, he oversaw three recessions while in office.

Most of the other Republican presidents I can dismiss for obvious reasons. William Howard Taft would not be seen as a true Republican today, since he introduced the first federal income tax. However his time in office was both short and undistinguished. Warren Harding’s name is synonymous with the Teapot Dome Scandal, not to mention his moral misgivings. Harding had at least two long-term affairs while in office, including a documented fifteen-year affair with a woman named Carrie Fulton Phillips. Calvin Coolidge was too boring to be noteworthy. Herbert Hoover oversaw the start of the Great Depression. Richard Nixon: nuff said. Gerald Ford: an aberration of a president who was never actually elected, nor was he in office long enough to accomplish much.

Which leaves George H. W. Bush and Teddy Roosevelt.

I was tempted to give the nod to our current president’s father. Granted, of all the Republican presidents in the 20th century, I do not think any of them reached the stature of a man like Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, George H. W. generally did what needed to be done, even though it was not popular. In response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he showed the sort of leadership and wise judgment at which his son floundered. He organized an international coalition of forces to oust the Iraq army from Kuwait. He did it at minimal cost to the United States taxpayer and without pushing into Iraq itself. He even agreed to a modest tax increase, which was necessary, but which earned him the external scorn of the Republican Party.

However, his four years were not without other major controversies. Like Reagan, he was not amiss to a little gunboat diplomacy. He used our military to illegally invade Panama and put its dictator Manuel Noriega into a Florida prison. While he was instrumental in NAFTA, a treaty that became law under his successor, he failed to staunch a severe recession. Perhaps most troubling is that he left office by granting pardons to many who clearly broke the law, including his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger along with five others implicated in the Iran Contra scandal.

Consequently, I give the nod to Teddy Roosevelt, who was also the first president of the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt would be seen today as a Democrat. Indeed, he coined the word “progressive”, which is a label many liberals like me now prefer. He was the original trustbuster. His obsession with reigning in the power of corporate interests and the powerful in general would horrify most Republicans today. He coined the term “square deal” to describe a mutually beneficial relationship between business and labor. He passed the Pure Food and Drug Act along with its companion, the Meat Inspection Act to address problems in our food safety system that today would seem unfathomable. Perhaps most startlingly, he was our nation’s premier conservationist. He set aside more land for national parks than all other presidents before him did. In addition, with much arm-twisting he was able to create the Panama Canal. To do it though he had to break a few eggs. It took some gunboat diplomacy to convince Columbia to allow us to “create” the state of Panama.

He was a man that in retrospect did have some faults. He believed in active United States imperialism. In addition to the “state” of Panama, which was largely our invention, he also invaded the Philippines. His reasoning would seem familiar to our current president. He wanted to “uplift” these poor souls toward “Christianity” and “democracy”. Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam became U.S. protectorates, but it is hardly clear that the natives welcomed our protection. Teddy though was hardly atypical for his time. Manifest Destiny seemed hardwired into our national consciousness in the early 20th century. It would take more than fifty years before we would fully appreciate the downsides of imperialism.

Still, among all our 20th century presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, not Ronald Reagan, stands out as our best Republican president. Perhaps he blazed a trail for his distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was inarguably the best president of the 20th century, yet who has only belatedly gotten the recognition he deserves.

Not coincidentally, Teddy Roosevelt’s graven image is already on Mount Rushmore, as it should be. If anyone deserves to be added to that modern American pantheon though, it should be Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin, not our 40th president.

 
The Thinker

Four Years of Blogging

This entry marks my first entry in my fifth year of blogging. Over four years I have racked up a total of 610 entries. That is a total of 670,253 words, or an average of 1099 words per entry. (Yes, I am anal enough to keep statistics.)

I have tried and generally succeeded at blogging regularly. For me this amounts to three to four entries a week. Many other bloggers are far more frequent with their postings than I am with mine. I hope that what I lack in quantity I make up for in quality. At a minimum each entry goes through four edits before posting. A typical entry will consume two to three hours of my free time.

Except for the past five weeks or so, my little blogging universe has been growing steadily. On November 3rd for reasons at remain mysterious I was dropped from the Google search index. I could count on 150-200 page views per day as measured by SiteMeter. This SiteMeter graphic gives some idea of how my growth was slowly growing month by month.

2006-yearly-stats.gif

However on November 3rd, all that changed. As you can see by comparing my November statistics with October’s, the “Google Effect” accounts for about 70% of my traffic. I never fully quantified it, but I would guess that about half of my visitors were typing “Occam’s Razor” into Google and generally I was on the first page of search results. The others happened to find me through other search terms. Those finding me through other search engines find me just fine. However, Google remains the 800 pound gorilla in the search business. So to some extent my blog thrives or dies depending on whether I am in their index.

I still remain hopeful though that I will not remain in the Google doghouse forever. There was nothing about my content that would lead it to banishment. I figure it was a Google programming gaffe. In fact, I used Google to research my situation. I am not alone. If what I am reading is correct then after 45 days they will re-scan this site. Even if I make it back though I am not sure how long it will take for my page views to recover. For I will likely be seen as a fresh site, not one that had established a small reputation. It all depends on Google and their proprietary algorithms for indexing content.

However, since I am in the Google doghouse, I feel less pressure to work on this blog. When my page views were going up, my motivation was higher. Since they are now down, the motivation is less. Nonetheless, as I start my fifth year I do not intend to stop blogging altogether. My goal until I get out of the Google doghouse is to keep contributing a couple quality entries a week. Meanwhile, I can and have found other ways to use my limited free time creatively.

You, gentle reader, can do me a small favor. If you like and value what you read on my blog, please recommend it to a friend or two. If you have a blogroll, consider adding me to it. And please give me feedback. If for example you prefer political entries, please let me know. Left to my own devices I am more inclined to write about whatever pleases me at the moment. However, I am capable of pushing up the content in one category if I know it will be better received.

Encouragement is always welcome too, so let me know via a comment or an email if you enjoy your time here and what you would like to see improved or changed. Leaving a comment is easy enough. To send me email, write to m...@occams-razor.info. Please put “Occam’s Razor” in the subject so it does not end up trapped in my spam filter.

Thanks for reading.

 
The Thinker

The Price of Growth

Here in Northern Virginia, residents on its western edge are in a bit of a tizzy. These areas in Loudoun and Prince William counties, along with counties even further to the west hugging the Shenandoah Mountains, are Washington D.C.’s latest and fastest growing bedroom communities. Uppity blue-blooded towns like Middleburg, home to wineries, the well moneyed and fox hunting, who have taken the Virginia piedmont for granted are feeling the press of encroaching civilization. To their south, new bedroom communities like Gainesville are growing by leaps and bounds. For the moment, this land is relatively cheap. This means many of these pastoral areas are now sporting boxy McMansions instead of foxholes. Most of these residents take pride in their new homes and their unspoiled views. You can see the Shenandoah Mountain much more clearly from places like Warrenton and Gainesville than you can from where I live, in Fairfax County.

Along with growth of course come all the trappings of growth: strip malls, congested highways, overcrowded schools and power lines. The strip malls do not seem to bother these latest residents. No doubt, they grumble about the crowded schools. Those who commute regularly from these far-flung exurbs to Washington D.C. have to groan through nightmarish commutes that get them up long before dawn and deposit them home long after the dinner hour. However, it seems to be a price they are willing to pay for a relatively affordable home in the exurbs, the white picket fence and to not hear neighbors playing rock music at 2 a.m. In time, they expect their houses will become excellent investments, as my closer in house has become for me in the 13 years we have lived in closer-in Fairfax County. Nevertheless, there appears to be one adjustment they cannot tolerate: new fifteen story power lines courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power and Pennsylvania based Alleghany Power.

The Virginia Piedmont is without question gorgeous real estate. At least for now it consists of many miles of generally rolling hills, mostly deforested, which make a gradual incline as they approach the Shenandoah Mountains to the west. Perhaps it is the relative lack of trees in this part of Virginia that has these new residents so up in alarm. Without them, it is hard to obscure the ugliness of these new power lines set to run through their neighborhoods. Some are watching their hopes for a tidy fortune disappear with the power lines.

She bought her 100-acre Delaplane farm last year, when it was an overgrown slice of land anchored by a rundown old farmhouse just off Interstate 66. She plowed all her savings into it. To pay down her $1 million mortgage and build up her horse business, she planned to sell a five-acre chunk within a couple of years.

Then came what her neighbors have come to regard as “the black cloud.”

“I’m probably sunk by this,” said Eaton, 45, seated by the wood stove she uses to heat the farmhouse. “No one will buy that land if some ugly power line could run right over their house. I’m broken off at the knees.”

I am having a hard time summoning much sympathy for these property owners. That is not to say that I too would not be aghast if Virginia Power decided to put up fifteen story power lines in my neighborhood. However, that was never a problem. My community was settled before I bought my house. In fact, there are high voltage power lines about half a mile from my house. There is many a nice house as well as a McMansion close to these power lines too. I have not taken the time to assess their value compared to homes like mine that are further away, but I doubt those high tension power lines have affected their property values too much. At least here in Fairfax County, it is location, location, location. If you live in Fairfax County, you are within twenty miles of an incredible number of diverse and well paying jobs. Residents seem to agree: being closer to good schools and good jobs is worth the price of having a high power line as a next-door neighbor.

On the other hand, what are the people in these latest exurbs thinking? Did they think growth would not involve some messy choices? Virginia and Alleghany Power understand what is going on: these areas are growing like gangbusters. Eventually they will not be able to meet demand for electricity unless they build the infrastructure now to support these communities. Hence the need for fifteen story power lines. The only question is where to place them. For the most part, they are hoping to place them not too far from I-66, which is the major interstate heading west from Washington D.C. This seems reasonable to me. I-66 is a bit of an eyesore as an interstate anyhow. It would be hard to make things much worse by putting a power line next to it, unless, of course, you have property close to these power lines.

Most homeowners in these areas will make out very well. I expect their home values will rise steadily. The land may no longer be so pristine. They may be spending their days in new traffic jams far from the city. Nevertheless, more swatches of Virginia piedmont seemed doomed to succumb to humanity’s need for large living spaces.

While people have to live somewhere, in my mind the obscenity are not plans to put in these admittedly ugly power lines. The real obscenity is the way these pristine lands are being transformed into new oversized habitats for humanity. These newly traffic-clogged roads once ferried the likes of statesmen like Thomas Jefferson. Instead of building in closer to cities like Washington, which already have large tracks of land that could be redeveloped, we have to push out further, destroying our environment, further reducing space needed for wild animals and exacerbating global warming in the process.

I understand why these people choose to live where they live. If I were a twenty something again it would probably seem like a logical choice to me. I probably could not afford to live closer in. However, I do not think I would be so naïve as to think my choice would not be without some necessary tradeoffs. Fifteen story power lines are part of the price of growth. These NIMBYies may be upset now, particularly if their property values are affected. Nevertheless, you can bet they would be much more upset if ten years from now their house suffered regular brownouts because the supply of power could not keep up with the demand.

They should swallow their misgiving and applaud Virginia and Alleghany Power for being proactive. If they do not like it, it is not too late to sell their estates in the exurbs, and move in to some smaller and more modest estate closer in. I suspect Mother Nature would prefer it if they made that kind of choice.

 
The Thinker

Tower Records: Death by Internet

Retailers come and go. So the passing of yet another retailer should not bother me at all. Yet somehow today, when I passed the Tower Record store here in Fairfax, Virginia and saw the giant “Going Out of Business” and “Everything Must Go!” signs in the windows, I felt both sad and nostalgic.

Tower Records was a nationwide music retailer with a counter culture attitude and a huge selection of music. It always felt avant garde. You knew, even if you were in the classical music section of the store (which was typically walled off by high glass walls) that the clerk at the counter probably had a stud through his tongue and piercings through his ears or lips. He or she was probably dressed in clothes from Hot Topic. If there were counter culture newspapers in the area, they would be in a rack near the checkout counter. It was a “record” store with a nonconformanist attitude.

It is tempting to suggest that its name killed it. Vinyl records, except for the few who regale in being retro, went out of fashion in the 1980s. Despite being hip, Tower Records never bothered to change its name to Tower CDs and DVDs. It would be understandable if the latest generation just passed by the store. They could credibly ask, “What the heck is a record anyhow?” Today’s generation grew up on CDs, not 33 1/3 RPMs. (“What’s an RPM?”) Not surprisingly, it was this latest generation that killed Tower Records. They grew up in an Internet age. Once the Internet’s bandwidth and data speed problems were conquered, there was no need to go and buy music anymore. In fact, paying for music became old fashioned. Instead, you downloaded Napster, or Kazaa, or most recently, BitTorrent, found the music you wanted and generally did not pay a dime. This was much less expensive, and more convenient than going to a “record” store where you would shell out $15 to $20 for a compact disc just to get a song or two by the artist that you really wanted. That such fire sharing was in most cases technically illegal only made it more alluring.

It was not the “record” in Tower Records that killed it. It tried to keep up with the times by creating its own online web site, where you could choose from an Amazon.com like selection of music. No, it was the Internet that killed Tower. Try as it might, it could not adapt to this new paradigm.

I feel nostalgic about this transition. When I needed music, Tower Records was my destination of choice. I knew I would often pay $5 more for a CD than I would at a place like Best Buy. Yet I also knew that if I were looking for something eclectic, it would not be at the Best Buy anyhow.

I should have seen it coming. Over the last few years, I had been less and less in the Tower Records habit. This was mainly because I am one of a dying breed of classical music aficionados and their classical music department kept shrinking. It used to take up two aisles, and I could also find an extensive opera collection against the back wall. Also along the back wall was the compulsory copy of the Schwann Catalog of Classical Music. You could thumb it and find every recording ever made of the 1812 Overture. If you wanted some obscure 20-year-old recording, there was a good chance you could find it at Tower Records.

Tower learned that its money was not made selling classical music. What a shame. I could spend an hour or two very blissfully in its classical music aisles while some gorgeous classical music, often an aria by a famous soprano, played through the overhead speakers. Then it became one aisle. Then half an aisle. Then they stopped playing the classical music altogether because the back of the store had morphed into something else. Then the DVDs arrived and took up the front part of the store. They were followed by their eclectic but very limited selection of mostly odd books. And they were followed by the naughty but not too naughty adult videos and skin magazines.

All killed by the Internet. Today as I walked the halls of my local Tower Records, likely for the last time, a third of the stock was gone. What remained had justly been left behind. The good stuff had been quickly sold. The classical music that remained took up a single rack, and it was all mediocre stuff. What was left of the Rock Music section consisted largely of groups you have never heard about. Of those of whom you have heard, there were plenty of recordings representing them at their worst. Tower Records was dead. The clerk did not have a stud through his tongue. The music coming from overhead was still hard ass rock and roll, but the few patrons like me wandering its aisles were simply looking for bargains. In reality, there was none to be found. What music that remained was not worth spending any money on. The patrons were not the counter culture teens or young adults I remembered. They were older, harried looking adults, the type I see at garage sales, not at Tower Records.

While Tower Records is dead, retail music has not wholly disappeared. Borders Books has a fine selection of music. Arguably, for the last few years its classical collection has been the best in my area. Yes, while its selection feels voluminous, it cannot compare with Tower Records in its prime. Moreover, Borders is a soulless place. I never felt that way about Tower Records. In its prime, going to Tower Records was like going to Starbucks is for many today. It was as much a destination and a place to feel at home with your own kind (the eclectic music lover) as it was a place to shop. It had, in its own quirky way, a sort of ambience. Now, the Internet has put a stake through its heart.

I wonder if Vinton Cerf, the inventor of the Internet, is also a Tower Records fan. I wonder, as his invention of the late 1960s enters its full flowering and makes things like this blog possible, whether he is shedding a tear that his invention killed such a wonderful business and destination.

Tower Records is gone, mourned and appreciated, but should never be forgotten.

 
The Thinker

Rehosted

This will be a short entry. My writing here lately has been constrained because (a) I have been busy at work (b) having Google abandon my blog has made it more difficult to get inspired (c) I have been busy doing phpBB modifications work for clients and (d) I have been up to my armpits with rehosting issues.

Thankfully, the rehosting issue is finally solved. I went through a tedious process of moving over my two phpBB message boards (Oak Hill Virginia Online and The Potomac Tavern) but the last domain, this blog, has proven daunting. Thankfully with a help from my friend Jim Goldbloom, calls to the tech support people here at westhost.com, and helpful users in their forums, plus a lot of the troubleshooting common sense skills acquired from being in this business 20 years, this blog is now rehosted too.

So hopefully I will feel a bit more inspired, Google will put me back in their index and clients will not need my services as much, so I will have more leisure time to get back to the sober and well crafted blogging I hope I do so well.

Thank you for your patience.

 

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