Saturday, December 07, 2013

Happy Holidays, y'all!

You know, it's that time of year again; as we approach the end of the year, we enter the Holiday Season. And just like every year of late, there are those who can't be happy unless they're given the opportunity to feel angry about something. And this time of year, the majority of them are the fine folks who don't believe in American values like "inclusiveness" and other sentiments best expressed at the base of the Statue of Liberty (you know, that whole "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" thing).

People like (just as an example) Bill O'Reilly, who want to pretend that there's some kind of "War on Christmas." They have decided to make themselves angry over something as innocuous as wishing people "Happy Holidays," instead of saying "Merry Christmas."

This is a particularly stupid thing to get cranky over, if you think about it, because the time in question, often referred to as the "Christmas season," runs from Thanksgiving through Christmas, and usually spills over into New Years, which is three holidays right there.

(I'm going with the current, somewhat commercialized version of the "Christmas season" - you know, "free market = good thing" - as practiced here in America in the 21st Century, so keep your cranky little historical interruptions to yourself - I might just mention them later anyway. And incidentally, the current "Christmas season" seems to have extended itself almost to Halloween at this point, which is yet a FOURTH holiday.)

December is just littered with minor Christian holidays, some of which (depending on your particular flavor of Christianity) are considered of relative importance, such as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12 (which is moderately popular here in New Mexico for some reason).

(A little trivia for you: the "Immaculate Conception" doesn't refer to the birth of Jesus, but to the day Mary was conceived, probably a decade and a half or so earlier: see, in order to give birth to the child of God, her birth had to be "immaculate." A lot of good Christians get that wrong - it's pretty much a Catholic thing.)

December is particularly full of Feast Days to various saints, from St Francis Xavier (December 3) to St Lucy of Syracuse (December 13). Yesterday, December 6, was St Nicholas Day, if it helps - that, at least, has a Christmas-based attachment to the holiday.

At least five of the December saints are Johns, if you count one non-English variation: St John Damascene (December 4), St Juan Diego (December 9), St John of the Cross (December 14), St John of Kanty (December 23) and, of course, St John the Apostle (December 27).

A lot of the saints were Johns; that's why Jesus needed to make sure that the prostitutes got into heaven first (Matthew 21:31). * ba-dum CHING *

Now, that last John (the Apostley one) is actually a part of a whole series of Feast Days (an even dozen of them, in fact), which make up a string of holidays immortalized in the song "the Twelve Days of Christmas." You'd think that somebody fixated on Christmas traditions could at least remember that much.

There's a whole buttload of secular holidays and commemorations going on: December 10 is Human Rights Day, December first was World AIDS Awareness Day; it seems like every time you turn around, somebody wants to remember, bring attention to, or sell something. Look up International Civil Aviation Day, and Poinsettia Day (which is also Christmas-related, if it helps - December 12). In fact, today (December 7, 2013) is National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. (Did you remember? SpaghettiOs did.)

December 22 is Forefather's Day, commemorating the Pilgrim's landing on Plymouth Rock. You want a whiter, more all-American holiday? And how come you didn't celebrate it last year, you commie?

The day after Christmas, December 26 (which is also St Stephen’s day, one of those Twelve Days of Christmas I mentioned earlier) is Boxing Day, which is mostly (but not entirely) only still celebrated in England.

December 4 through December 21, a roughly 2-week string, are considered Zappadan, celebrating the life and works of Frank Zappa. Popular culture also gave us Festivus (you know, for the rest of us) on December 23.

If you happen to be African-American, Kwanzaa runs from December 26 through January 1, and it's a commemoration of African heritage; having first been celebrated in 1966, it's now officially older than a lot of the people bitching about it. (Here's a thought: if you're going to complain about people not honoring your white, Christian traditions, perhaps you shouldn't complain when they hold celebrations in honor of theirs.)

But just because other religions aren't Christian doesn't mean they don't have their own celebrations. For example, if you're of a particularly pagan turn of mind, December 21, 2013 will be the Winter Solstice. Among the Germanic people, this was known as Yule - it's one of the many pagan celebrations that the early Christian church hijacked. (Where do you think the term "yuletide" comes from?) There's also Saturnalia, which is a festival based around fertility rituals that comes from the Greco-Roman traditions (and certainly sounds like more fun than another round of carol-singing).

For our Hindu friends, Friday the 13th this year will be Gita Jayanti, celebrating the "birth" (creation) of the Bhagavad Gita; technically, it's held on the Ekadasi (11th day of the waxing moon) of the month of Margashirsha in the Hindu calendar, so I did that math for you.

If you happen to be of the Buddhist persuasion, tomorrow (the eighth day of the twelfth month) is Rohatsu, or "Bodhi Day," commemorating the enlightenment of the Buddha. (If you happen to live in a Zen Buddhist monastery - I don't, but your mileage may vary - this would be the last day of a week-long sesshin, or meditative retreat.)

Hanukkah ended on December 5 this year. Since our right-wing friends like to trumpet the term "Judeo-Christian traditions," it's surprising how few menorahs I saw in the windows.

If you are a follower of the Jedi church, I really don't know what to tell you. "Life Day" is a Wookie holiday, and falls about once every three years on our calendar. But the first human awareness of it came about this time of year in 1978. Make of that what you will.

In that magical era of the Fifties that conservatives like to pretend was a special time in American history when everything was perfect, they liked to refer to America as "the melting pot," where people from all cultures could live and thrive. So, really, if the phrase "Happy Holidays" offends you, perhaps you should consider why you're such a crappy American.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Debunking "A Tale of Two Cities"

You know, now that the holidays are over, I can spend a little time clearing out my email. And what do I find? A message from my dad! Let's see what he has to say!

Aw, it's cute. It really is. I love it when unsubstantiated facts and statistical anomalies are stirred together and turn into fertilizer. And this one has tables and everything! In fact, it looks something like this.
A Tale of Two Cities

Chicago, IL Houston, TX
Population 2.7 million 2.15 million
Median HH Income $38,600 $37,000
% African-American 38.9% 24%
% Hispanic 29.9% 44%
% Asian 5.5% 6%
% Non-Hispanic White 28.7% 26%

Pretty similar until you compare the following:

Chicago, IL Houston, TX
Concealed Carry gun law no yes
# of Gun Stores 0 184 - Dedicated gun stores plus 1500 - legal places to buy guns- Walmart, K-mart, sporting goods, etc.
Homicides, 2012 1,806 207
Homicides per 100K 38.4 9.6
Avg. January high temperature (F) 31 63

Conclusion: Cold weather causes murder
Now, my dad is a reasonably smart person, so I can't assume that this is evidence of incipient Alzheimer's or anything. In fact, mostly, it looks like he just forwarded somebody else's data, without bothering to fact-check it (I'm sure most of us have relatives who do that). But since it's sitting there stinking up my inbox, I guess it deserves an answer.

First off, let's start with the fact that any time the NRA tries to claim that Chicago's "unreasonable gun laws" don't do any good, it ignores the fact that Chicago is surrounded by unreasonably loose gun laws, and anybody who wants a gun just needs to drive an hour to get someplace where they can buy one without a problem. So, you know, that part's crap - Chicago's laws have minimal effect because those laws have been nullified. Or, if you really want to look at how it works:
More than a quarter of the firearms seized on the streets here by the Chicago Police Department over the past five years were bought just outside city limits in Cook County suburbs, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Others came from stores around Illinois and from other states, like Indiana, less than an hour’s drive away. Since 2008, more than 1,300 of the confiscated guns, the analysis showed, were bought from just one store, Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Ill., within a few miles of Chicago’s city limits.
Now, let's look at the statistics as presented. Assuming they're accurate (and we'll get to that in a second), remember the phrase "pretty similar until you compare the following." Because, just taking them at face value, you have a 15% difference in African American populations, and a 14% difference in Hispanic populations. Anybody who thinks those numbers are "pretty similar" either failed statistics, or never graduated high school.

But you can just feel free to pull out your Klan membership card and claim that the higher number of blacks explain the difference in the murder rate. (Trust me, the argument has been made.) Of course, you'd then also have to explain how the lower percentage of Hispanics has affected these statistics, and I'd LOVE to hear you try to argue around that corner.

But then, just for fun, let's consider the REAL facts. (You remember "facts," right? Those things Fox News has no time for?) First of all, this link here goes to a Cost of Living calculator. Now, I want you to do a little homework (calm down, it isn't difficult). Compare the costs of living between Houston and Chicago.

Done? Did you notice that tricky little 22% percent (average) difference in the cost of living? So that a person making $78,000 in Houston would need to earn $100,000 to live in the same style in Chicago? Hmmm... I wonder if that has any effect?

But, you know, those numbers in the chart still seem a little off. And statistical analysis is probably a real pain when you're working with incorrect data, isn't it?

So I went looking, and it seems that there's this thing the census bureau does, and it's called the American Community Survey. But those are all these tables, filled with numbers and stuff, and I don't want to make anybody's head hurt worse than it probably does. So I found a website that extracts numbers from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, and you know, it's funny. There seems to be a discrepancy here. Just a slight one.

Because, as it turns out, the median household income for the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet Illinois metro area was $59,261 in 2012. Not $38,600, as claimed. Wow, that's a little bit of a difference, isn't it?

And look here: the median household income for the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown Texas metro area was $55,910 in 2012. Not $37,000. That's kind of interesting, too.

But, you know what else? I seem to remember just a couple of months ago, when it was big news that Chicago was the "murder capital of the USA." But, funny thing. The number of homicides wasn't 1,806, like that cute little table claimed. Seems like it was more like 500 or so. Isn't that odd?

But let's check that, shall we? How about we look at the FBI's official data? And we poke around for a while, and we see that, sure enough, the number under "Murder and non-negligent manslaughter" for Chicago was exactly 500. Kind of a round number - you know, the kind of number that might stick in your head if you had any interest in actual facts, instead of... well, I don't want to call it "fecal matter," because that would be rude. But still...

So they were... well, maybe they were off by a little bit. Roughly 1306 homicides off, to be exact: they were wrong by almost three times the actual figure! I wonder how they did with the number of homicides in Houston? Well, right there, they were MUCH closer! Houston had 217 homicides, instead of the 207 in the table! That's so much closer! I mean, it's still wrong, but it's so much better than they've been doing!

But still, it seems like a lot more people have been killed in Chicago than in Houston, doesn't it? That's just weird. Is there some sort of difference between the Chicago mobster and the Texas cowboy that could account for these numbers? I wonder if anybody has looked into this problem?
Efforts to compare the strictness of gun laws and the level of violence across major American cities are fraught with contradiction and complication, not least because of varying degrees of coordination between local and state laws and differing levels of enforcement. In New York City, where homicides and shootings have decreased, the gun laws are generally seen as at least as strict as Chicago's, and the state laws in New York and many of its neighboring states are viewed as still tougher than those in and around Illinois. Philadelphia, like cities in many states, is limited in writing gun measures that go beyond those set by Pennsylvania law. Some city officials there have chafed under what they see as relatively lax state controls...

"The way the laws are structured facilitates the flow of those guns to hit our streets," Garry F. McCarthy, the Chicago police superintendent, said in an interview, later adding, "Chicago may have comprehensive gun laws, but they are not strict because the sanctions don't exist."
So, really, even if you used accurate numbers and factored in socioeconomic data, the numbers wouldn't really mean a thing, would they? It's almost as if this email was comparing two completely unrelated things, isn't it?

I wonder if whoever put together the original chart knew that when he wrote it?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Adventures in Cooking

OK, so the Trophy Wife was busy sewing this year, and I got to make the whole Thanksgiving spread this year (it's not the first time, but we usually share the cooking these days - she's better at it than I am, so she's usually driving the bus, but I'm right there plugging away).

But this year, since I was in charge, I decided to go the traditional route. We tend to be pretty hard on tradition: ham is relatively normal, but we've had Thanksgiving pizza, and one year we decided that everybody does "pilgrim food," so we needed to have Indian food. So we had chicken Korma, cucumber raita, homemade naan, a whole spread - it was awesome.

But this year, I just decided that I was cooking, and damn it, I like turkey. So I went with the standard menu - turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, sweet potato pie.

The green beans are an old Southern recipe, with versions on both sides of our family: boiled for hours, with a ham hock, salt, sugar and a little apple cider vinegar. By the time they're done, there's nothing remotely healthy about 'em. I had Aunt Drew in Texarkana, who used to put on a huge spread whenever anybody in the family came to visit; and the wife had any number of relatives who did the same. And they all used basically the same green bean recipe.

The stuffing was an interesting challenge, because I wanted to duplicate the Trophy Wife's cornbread stuffing, which is awesome. But when I asked what recipe she used, it turns out that she basically fakes it every year. So that was interesting.

But for the main course, I decided to see whether Alton Brown's turkey recipe was a winner - he starts it at a high heat, and then backs it down, to end up with both a crispy skin and a juicy bird. But that didn't work for me as well as I'd hoped.

We didn't use a standard brine, because, truth be told, I'm not entirely sold on the joys of brining. (Your mileage may vary.)

We started at 500 degrees for half an hour, and then lowered the heat to 350 for two and a half hours. But at the end of that time, we had a browned chicken which would have been way underdone in the middle (which isn't good in poultry). But keeping it going at too low a heat would have resulted in turkey jerky, so we cranked it to 425 for another hour, and it turned out amazing: moist, flavorful, and exactly what we wanted. But I'm not going to proclaim the joys of the three-stage cooking method - the usual low-and-slow method makes it just as good, without the random moments of panic that this one had.

(Please note: all temperatures are in Fahrenheit, because we're American and stupid.)

So, in the end, everything worked out, with only a tiny amount of tension. And a good time was had by all.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The War On Thanksgiving

The entire country (outside of corporate boardrooms) seems to be up in arms about all the stores being open on Thanksgiving, which is traditionally a national holiday. It all started when Wal-Mart, that bastion of worker abuse, announced that they were going to beat "Black Friday" by a day, and everybody started following suit.

The lefties view it as just another example of the corporations treating workers like machines, with no time for their families. The right wing, on the other hand, has a somewhat more nuanced view: knee-jerk patriotism demands that they wail and cry about this abandonment of traditional American values, but brainwashed worship of unfettered capitalism won't allow them to criticize big corporations. So the whole situation makes them angry, but they don't know what to do about it.

The answer is fairly simple, though. If you don't like stores being open on Thanksgiving, don't shop on Thanksgiving. Tell all your friends not to shop on Thanksgiving, and explain why. Social media is an important part of this: send out the word on Facebook and Twitter, post videos on YouTube and Vine, or even post a message on Google+ (if you're particularly fond of the sound of your own voice echoing off empty walls).

You can even slant your message to match your audience. "Abusing the workers" won't resonate with the Fox News crowd, but "destruction of American values" seems to do it for them.

Protests might work, but you'd be giving up your holiday at that point, and it's a little late in the game for that anyway: you aren't going to get massive crowds to help you out. So the best way to get your message across is through your wallet - by not using it. If the profits for sales on Thanksgiving don't pay for the employees to come in that day, the corporations aren't going to do it again.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Oops, I did it again

I'm getting into the habit, every 3 years or so, of getting a little trim whether I need it or not.

See, we have now scientifically calculated that it takes me three months to grow an inch of hair. And my preferred hair donation place requires ten inches of hair, as a minimum length, for a donation. So, a little math will tell you that I should be getting my head shaved every 30 months.

But since I try to do this in conjunction with the United Way folks (yeah, they have some issues, but they do help people), and since I haven't been able to convince our local rep to set something up outside of their usual Fall donation cycle, I seem to end up doing this in October of every third year.

My wife, having been raised on a college campus in the Sixties, prefers long hair.

I'm really not clear why.

You know, it's weird, but every time I mention donating hair, people say something like "Oh, you mean 'Locks of Love'?"

That group gets all the press (I blame Oprah), but they've never been completely open about their accounting practices, and even after all these years, they still haven't gotten any better. Even today, their accounting practices make it very difficult to figure out where all the hair goes. One watchdog group estimates that they waste $6 million in donations every year.

So it's kind of a shame that they've got Oprah pulling for them, when there are so many charities out there more deserving of your donations.

Really, it would be nice if I was shaving my head sometime when it wasn't dropping down around freezing at night, but you do what you can.

If I'd been wearing a costume this year, this was probably the last year when a Breaking Bad costume would be topical, but, for much the same reason that my blogging rate has dropped, I was a little too busy to put together a costume.

Oh, well. I would have just been one among a legion of Heisenbergs this year. And who wants that, right?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Some unconnected thoughts on the aging process

Apparently, I turned 50 today.

I’m not clear how it happened, but through dint of sheer survival, I am now officially middle-aged. I am no longer merely a cranky asshole, I now qualify as a curmudgeon, which is what I've always aspired to be.

I have now surpassed the average life expectancy of the citizens of Classical Rome – particularly if they drank from those lead pipes. About 92% of American males survive past my age, but then again, very few Africans survive even this long. I suppose I can take comfort in that (I’m a strong supporter of schadenfreude).

(Incidentally, it’s the rare spellcheck program that will recognize "schadenfreude," assuming you’re not speaking German. Ironically, very few spellcheck programs will recognize the word "spellcheck," either.)

I share a birthday with Oscar Wilde and playwright Eugene O'Neill, and both of those motherfuckers are dead. Pamela Bach was born exactly the same day I was in 1963, but at least I never married David Hasselhoff. So there’s that.

I succeeded in reaching this age without really trying. I don't work out, I drink, I drive too fast; the only thing I've done right in my life was marry my wife. I took the road less traveled by, got lost, and failed to find any money along the way.

I'm apparently also losing bone mass at a ridiculous rate. Maybe that will help me lose weight. Or maybe I should drink more milk; I'm not clear which way to go with that.

Overall, I really have no clear plan, which might well be part of the problem. I just intend to keep doing what got me through five decades of life so far. Keep moving and see what happens.
I grow old... I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The righteous hates falsehood, but the wicked brings shame and disgrace. (Proverbs 13:5)

We'll discover over the course of the next few days (or possibly hours) whether the GOP hates the Affordable Care Act more than they love the United States of America.

Over the last two weeks, the Republicans have continued with their basic tactic of lying about every facet of the debt standoff, at every phase of the fight. They continue to try and claim that this is "Obama's shutdown," despite the fact that they've been planning the shutdown for months.
Although the law's opponents say that shutting down the government was not their objective, the activists anticipated that a shutdown could occur — and worked with members of the Tea Party caucus in Congress who were excited about drawing a red line against a law they despise.

A defunding "tool kit" created in early September included talking points for the question, "What happens when you shut down the government and you are blamed for it?" The suggested answer was the one House Republicans give today: "We are simply calling to fund the entire government except for the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare."
And to get to this point, Boehner even admitted that he had made a deal over the budget, which he then simply broke. Because he's a lying bag of douche.

And the lies go on: they can't even tell the truth about the basic issue here. The Congressional GOP is not allowing a raise to the debt ceiling. Let's ignore the fact that every other president in history has gotten debt ceiling increases without a fight. (And most especially, let's not point out the one single difference between the current president and every other president throughout history. What's the one thing that's different? Is he more liberal than any other president? Even Jimmy Carter? Although you're coming close to the real answer at that point - Jimmy Carter was from Georgia, and the population of Georgia is over 30% black, second highest in the nation.)

And let's ignore the fact that the debt ceiling was raised seven times under Bush, and eighteen times under Reagan. We're ignoring that. What we're looking at is the basic fact of what the debt ceiling is.

The "debt ceiling" is the ability of the Treasury to sell bonds to pay the government's bills. (That's shorthand. Here's a slightly more detailed explanation.) That doesn't mean we're on a spending spree, or wandering through Sears making impulse buys - this is the money to pay the bills that America already owes.

And that's the ugly secret that the Republicans don't want to mention. Aside from the continuing bills - you know, pensions, power and pencils - we need this money to pay off the budget. The budget that was passed by both the Democratically-controlled Senate, and by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Our friends the Republicans have packed the budget with billions of dollars of unnecessary spending. Like a defense budget loaded with spending that the Pentagon didn't even want. Like the billions spent annually in oil company subsidies.

But the problem runs deeper than that. There is a small minority of the GOP who don't see the government going into default to be a problem. They believe, in fact, that we should "repudiate" all government debt - simply tell the world that we don't believe in it, and aren't going to pay it. They believe that destroying the US economy, triggering a catastrophic recession, and throwing world financial markets into meltdown, is a small price to pay to meet their goals.

Do you want to know why the president can't negotiate with the GOP? Because you can only conduct actual negotiations when you can trust the other side to live up to their side of the agreement. That's why there's the phrase "you can't negotiate with terrorists." Even if they get the helicopter and the money, you can't trust them not to kill the hostages.

Or in this case, destroy the economy.


Update (10/16/2013): It may not be related, but since it's obvious that the GOP has been planning this government shutdown for months, isn't it interesting that Teabagger Congressman Joe Barton started cashing out of the stock market back in August? Maybe some of them DID understand what the term "global economic disaster" means. And just didn't care.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Such are all their wicked works, and there is no truth in them.

Although most Democrats already know that most Republicans are, as a group, pathological lying sacks of shit, perhaps it will be the government shutdown that brings this fact into focus for most of America.

I doubt it - much of the country is blinded by partisan hatred of our president, and the many of the rest will stick with the "both sides do it" cop-out. But a guy can hope, right?

This tiny-minded Koch-sucking group of overwhelmingly Caucasian males has, for the most part, stopped even trying to tell the truth, because they know that any lie they tell will be twisted by a compliant press to extract what few grains of reality might have accidentally been included.

Alternatively, when there isn't a passing relationship with the truth in whatever ignorant statement they vomited up, Fox "News" and the right-wing blogs will simply repeat it over and over, louder. And through sheer repetition, the hope is that the inbred paste-eaters making up their "base" will come to believe it anyway.

And sadly, this tactic all too often works.

The GOP has turned the act of making ridiculous untruths a standard move in their playbook. They've been lying about the Affordable Care Act for so long, and in such idiotic ways, that they can't even make lucid arguments any more. They just devolve into random spewings of illegitimate talking points and mindless babble.

These "fiscal conservatives" who are so worried about passing along the costs to our children? They're costing the country $300 million per day that the government is shut down.

John Boehner's latest mantra is that he won't even allow reopening the government to come to a vote, because it couldn't pass. Which is an open and blatant lie, as just a little math will tell you. But it doesn't matter. Why would Boehner want to allow the government to reopen? There is ample evidence that the GOP has been trying to shut down the government since at least 2010.

The GOP has lied about the Affordable Care Act so hard, and for so long, that the drooling illiterati don't even know what they want any more. In poll after poll, they show that they support every aspect of Obamacare; they just hate anything named "Obamacare." This is so universal that late night comedians can create viral videos around the concept.

One of the GOP's current talking points is that Obamacare must be defeated because it was "rammed through in the middle of the night without a single Republican vote." Which, of course, ignores an entire year of committee meetings, and dozens of compromises and changes to make it palatable to the Republicans who then voted against it, because you can't trust them to keep their agreements.

But the brightest zit on the GOP nose, the puddle of puke that they keep returning to, is "he won't meet with us." Which is eyeball-meltingly stupid. He's met with them multiple times - he just hasn't caved in to their demands. Because you don't negotiate with terrorists.

In fact, that's probably the one fact that's driving them into the most stroke-inducing paroxysms of rage. Obama has been compromising and negotiating with them for so long that, now that he's standing firm on a position, they don't know what to do.

So they've shut down the government, after planning on it for so long. And now that they've done it, they don't even know what they actually want. The few who realize that defunding "Obamacare" is a losing proposition don't care. Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind) accidentally let slip the fact that they really don't care about the American people any more - they govern with the calm logic of a six-year-old throwing a temper tantrum. "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don't know what that even is."

The lunatics have taken over the asylum. They've taken their hostages and are screaming about what they're going to do to them. It may be time to reactivate Seal Team Six.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Who's paying for this?

This morning, I noticed that, in at least one Senate committee, it is possible to get bipartisan consensus. And considering the recent history of our Congresscritters, that is something that nobody, especially not the president, should ignore.
Leaders of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said they reached an agreement on Tuesday on a draft authorization for the use of military force in Syria that was much narrower than the request made by President Barack Obama, paving the way for a vote by the committee on Wednesday.

Among other provisions, the draft, which was obtained by Reuters, sets a 60-day limit on U.S. military action in Syria, with a possibility of a single 30-day extension subject to conditions.
And that's good - no boots on the ground, limited engagement. If we have to do something (and I'm not convinced we do), that's a good start. But, you know, I think there's more that could be done there.

Now, this agreement was set up by Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-TN). And the thing about Corker, aside from him being a rank-and-file GOP drone, is that he wants to be a budget hawk. For example, he was one of the Senators who voted against disaster relief following Hurricane Sandy (and we'll ignore the fact that he frequently requests disaster relief for his own people).

So, I went to his web page, armed with the address of a couple of people with my last name in Morristown, TN (yeah, I'm impersonating a Tennessee native, but at least I'm using my own name, right?).
Senator Corker,

I will admit that I don't agree with you on a lot, but I like the agreement you reached with Sen Menendez, for no American troop involvement, and for no involvement longer than 60 days. Thank you for that.

But I don't think you went quite far enough. I think that any military intervention needs to be funded, so it doesn't add to the budget deficit. This can be through money already promised to the military budget for 2013, or special "war taxes," or possibly even from monetary donations from organizations and private citizens.

(I really like the idea of a free-market solution to funding military strikes, but I'm not sure it will go over well with some people.)

In an age where crippling budget deficits are being passed on to our children, and the fiscal cliff is looming over us again, how can we, in good conscience, add to it?
No, I don't think it'll do any good. But this is the type of logic he's used before - maybe it will strike a chord in that tiny little brain of his.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Quiet Revolution

Gay marriage seems to have come to New Mexico. Under the radar, and buoyed by a force no stronger than a simple reading of the law.

In July, State Attorney General Gary King noticed something that state Republicans would have preferred to keep hidden away. New Mexico law does not prohibit gay marriage. Of course, it doesn't specifically authorize it, either, but up until now, nobody has banned it. And any attempts to do so appear to be unconstitutional.
The Associated Press reports that King made the argument after the court asked him to weigh in on a lawsuit filed by a gay Santa Fe couple who were denied a marriage license. In his filing, King urged the court to approve more broadly of gay marriage rights in a ruling in favor of the men.

"New Mexico’s guarantee of equal protection to its citizens demands that same-sex couples be permitted to enjoy the benefits of marriage in the same way and to the same extent as other New Mexico citizens," King said in the filing.
On the strength of that, on Wednesday, Dona Ana County clerk Lynn Ellins, began issuing marriage certificates to gay couples in Las Cruces, NM. Nobody told him that he could - he simply noted that nobody could tell him that he couldn't.

And today, in Albuquerque, a judge ordered the county clerk of the most populous county in New Mexico to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples, stating that any seeming prohibitions in New Mexico statutes against same-sex marriage "are unconstitutional and unenforceable."

In his ruling, Judge Alan Malott quoted Article II, Section 18 of the New Mexico State Constitution, which is pretty straight-forward (so to speak).
No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law; nor shall any person be denied equal protection of the laws. Equality of rights under law shall not be denied on account of the sex of any person.
So now, with roughly a hundred same-sex couples legally married in the state of New Mexico, any action by the state government (or our Republican governor Susana Martinez) will be met with an almost-unwinnable lawsuit.

So it would appear that gay marriage is here to stay in New Mexico. Not through what the GOP will undoubtedly be calling "judicial activism," but simply through strict adherence to the law.

That's gonna leave a mark - a big, rainbow-colored one.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Daily Race-Baiter

So, there's this internet "news" site out there going by the name the Daily Caller. It was started by Tucker Carlson, a bow-tied right-wing twat-weasel who was once famously savaged by Jon Stewart.

Now, despite the fact that he staffed his little paper with GOP advisors and got most of his funding from Foster Friess, who famously bankrolls presidential candidates like Rick Santorum, Carlson likes to claim that "we're not enforcing any kind of ideological orthodoxy on anyone."

Which might even be true, except... well, they ran with this story on Monday. A fluff piece, about Obama buying a new dog. Another Portuguese Water Dog named Sunny, to give First Dog Bo a playmate. Cute, right?
Well, kind of. It's a story that means absolutely nothing to anybody. Man buys dog. Until, not even 50 words in, you come across the following sentence.
Apparently it’s a girl and it was born in 2012 in Michigan, where the unemployment rate was 8.8 percent last month.
OK, motherTucker, define "non sequiter" for me, will ya?

What exactly is that little factoid doing in the second paragraph of a human-interest fluff piece? Is it, maybe, to show that "Obama reigns over a failed presidency"? "Obama doesn't care about poor people"? How does that even belong there?

But that's not the gold. Oh, no. Here's the gold - the last two sentences in the piece.
With the addition of Sunny, the Obamas now have two black Portuguese water dogs.

The Obamas do not have any white dogs.
Yes, that's right. They aren't even trying to hide it anymore.

We now officially have a new definition for "dog-whistle politics."

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Developments in Iran

There's a little story out there which isn't getting a lot of play in the American press, possibly because the corollary to the journalistic axiom would be "if it doesn't bleed, it doesn't lead." It's not a story of death, or destruction, or anything other than a possible hope for the future.

See, there's this country called Iran, and the Iranian president for the last eight years has been a fiery little Holocaust-denier named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Now, a lot of people don't understand how little power (comparatively) the Iranian president has, but he does have a certain amount of influence, and Ahmadinejad is now out of office.

His replacement is a reform-minded moderate named Hassan Rouhani, who, from 2003 to 2005 under former President Mohammad Khatami, was chief nuclear negotiator with the European Union. He campaigned on promises to improve human rights in Iran, restore the economy, and improve relations with the West.

Now, there are certain factions in America (and Israel) who believe that it's in their best interests to keep stirring up fear of Iran, and who will never believe that there are peaceful Muslims - Fox "News," for example, is trying to spin him as a Smiling Warmonger on the basis of no evidence whatsoever.

One of the fears that the Islamophobic crowd wants to keep alive is the terror of a "nuclear Iran!" Because that would lead to immediate nuclear annihilation of Israel!

(Despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency has found no evidence that Iran has been building nuclear warheads, but that they have a history of "failure in a number of instances over an extended period of time to meet its obligations under its NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) Safeguards Agreement... with respect to the reporting of nuclear material, its processing and its use, as well as the declaration of facilities where such material had been processed and stored...")

Despite the strident screams of the Rush Limbaugh's and Pam Geller's of the world, the White House today declared that they're willing to engage with Iran "to resolve the international community's deep concerns over Iran's nuclear program."

So, we might just be seeing the Middle East inching toward peace - expect the right wing to start pushing back against it as hard as they can.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Whatever happened to "citizen journalism"?

I've been wracking the lump of meat I jokingly call a "brain," trying to figure out when, exactly, we turned the corner, as a country, with regards to whistleblowers.

I've been wondering this for a while. It crops up in weird places: earlier this year, a hacker revealed that the police were ignoring blatant evidence that a rape had been committed. He's facing ten years in jail, while the now-convicted rapists only got two years each. Was exposing the rape a worse crime than committing it?

At what point did we start to think it was more important to keep secrets hidden, instead of dealing with the crimes being covered up by those secrets?

Edward Snowden is currently hiding in a Moscow airport, living on vending machine borcht and energy drinks (I assume); he's under fire for disclosing the fact that the American government is spying on American citizens. And everybody else on the planet. His guilt is just accepted, at this point: the focus of the argument against him seems to be "well, he ran to another country! And he's a traitor!"

But what's being ignored here? Maybe the nature of his crime? Maybe the fact that... well, let me just quote from some people who were much smarter than me.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Does anybody remember what the phrase "probable cause" means? I'm pretty sure that a global, sweeping review of every phone call in America isn't covered by "describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Yeah, but fuck that Fourth Amendment, right? The Second Amendment is the only important one!

I think the best response came from the Rude Pundit:
The reaction that most infuriates the Rude Pundit is that Snowden didn't do the nation any favors because, well, fuck, we all knew that our phone calls and other information was being monitored... Yeah, but there's a huge difference between strongly suspecting that your husband is fucking around and being shown pictures of him balling the babysitter. There's vast gulf between "knowing" and knowledge. The intelligence services have been forced to say, "Okay, yeah, you caught us." The twist is that they're adding, "And, oh, by the way, we're gonna keep boning the babysitter. Just try to stop us from fucking her."
But if we're honest with ourselves, Snowden isn't the problem. His story is just a symptom of a larger problem.

In Maryland, the closing arguments in the Bradley Manning trial have been made, and as I write this, we await the judge's decision. Was Manning guilty of espionage?

Let's remember what he's guilty of, shall we? He leaked documents that showed that, despite our noble words and fine sentiments, America was still torturing and killing innocent people. He didn't damage our war effort, or put any spies in danger. He just told us that the American government was lying to us. He showed us what our tax dollars are paying for. He didn't commit espionage - he committed journalism.

Julian Assange, who's "guilty" of the same "crimes," held a press conference by telephone last week, where reporters also got to hear from Daniel Ellsberg - Ellsberg, you may or may not remember, was "guilty" of a similar "crime." He leaked the Pentagon Papers, embarrassing the US government; he never went to jail for telling the truth. Why should Manning? Why should Snowden?

Why should it be a criminal act to tell the truth?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Adventures in shopping

I got thrown out of a K-Mart last week. But I ain't even mad.

I'll admit, I don't shop at K-Mart much - the ones around me are pretty much giant Dollar Stores, and I can usually get higher-quality items for around the same price somewhere else. But there's this one store to the north that's closing down, with the usual signs everywhere:
Everything up to 50% Off!!!
And here I was with this shopping list that included "Scratching post." (We have cats - I don't know if you're aware...) And I figured "what the hell, right?" So I wandered in, and, sure enough, I found a budget-priced post for a cat to try and destroy. Seemed like a win to me, so I took it to the checkout line.

Now, I'm not sure that you've lived in the Southwest in the summer, but it's not known for being cold in these parts. And I'm not sure if you've considered the problem, but when a store is closing, the owner isn't overly worried about repeat customers, so the air conditioning may not be running at peak efficiency, if you know what I mean.

So, by the time I get to the front of the line, I'm hot and cranky. But the girl behind the register has been there for hours, probably, and she's doing her best. So I figure why act like an ass, right? So I engage Smalltalk Mode.

"So, do they at least move you to a different store when this one closes?"

"If you've been here for six months, yeah."

That answer didn't seem to make her happy. "How long have you been here?"

"Five months."

Oh, damn. I literally had nothing to respond with at that point. So she rang me through and started into her rehearsed spiel. "All sales are final. Make sure you have the receipt available." And then she made the mistake of taking a breath, and... well, I have this genetic failing. I'm a smart-ass.

"What good does the receipt do me if all sales are final?"

That seemed to take her by surprise - as far as I could tell, nobody was supposed to ask questions at this point. "Oh... um... well, they're checking receipts at the door... and... um..."

That was apparently the point where the douchebag behind me with the sunglasses on his carefully-moussed hair lost patience. I guess he was late for his prostate exam or something. "Look, can we move it along here?!? Some of us have places to be!!"

You know, I'm not the most sympathetic of bastards, but I've never seen where it was a great idea to be a prick to the underpaid people who were ringing up my purchases. And this self-important fucknozzle just grated against my last overheated nerve.

So I turned to look him right in the eye, and I said, loudly and clearly, "You know, asshole, this store is closing. And these people might not have a job in a few weeks. So maybe they have problems of their own. In fact, maybe the last thing they need is another problem. Like you being an ass. So maybe you should just back the fuck off, OK?"

And I stared at him for just long enough for him to flinch and turn away.

It was right about then that I felt a tap on my arm, and the guy from Security asked me to please come with him.

You know, maybe I shouldn't have been as loud as I was. Maybe I shouldn't have cursed. And I've been thrown out of better places. But everybody waited as the cashier hit the last few buttons and handed me my receipt. And you know, the guy throwing me out never thanked me as he escorted me to the door before.

I don't make it a habit of getting thrown out of stores. But sometimes, that's what needs to happen.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Fly Me To The Moon

I was born in the Sixties. You might have heard that there was a musical revolution going on at the time, but there was also a second one, slightly less ground-breaking, that occurred around the same time. (Technically it started earlier, but was going strong during this period.)

Yes, there was a revolution in schlock.

By saying "it started earlier," please understand that Muzak Holdings, LLC was started in 1934. But although they are related, they aren't the focus of this little rant.

Frank Sinatra first got big as a teen idol in the Forties, but then had a career resurgence in the Fifties when he refocused his music to appeal to an older audience.

Unfortunately, because he was popular, a lot of people with significantly less talent felt that they should try to sound just like him. And they put out albums and appeared on TV shows, and the result was a style of "music" that culminated in Michael Buble: the "crooner," a.k.a., "lounge lizard."

There are certain songs that I can't listen to any more. They are indelibly associated in my mind with slicked-back singers in cheap tuxedos (possibly in pastel colors, possibly not), looking either earnest or with big cheese-eating grins, belting out certain "old standards," as if they had been possessed by the spirit of Old Blue Eyes himself.

That being said, there are some musicians who should have been more successful than they were. Who should have become household names, instead of just a legend among musicians. His name is Paul Gilbert, and he was featured in Guitar Player magazine at the age of 15. And he managed, in just a throwaway performance, to perform the only version of "Fly Me To The Moon" that I've been able to listen to, by choice, in years.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Somebody's trying to sound butch!

You have to feel sorry for David Dewhurst. It has to be rough to be the lieutenant governor under Rick Perry - I mean, Dewhurst is no Rhodes scholar himself, but when you're second fiddle to a brain-damaged chimp, you must spend a lot of nights curled around a bottle of cheap whiskey, rocking yourself and sobbing uncontrollably.

I mean, he was in charge of the Texas Senate as they tried to ban abortion, and he failed. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filibustered for over 12 hours, until they were able to take her off the stage with three challenges: two of them, that she didn't stay on topic, involved her talking about Planned Parenthood and invasive sonograms - both of which are directly involved with abortion. So, bullshit right there.

Then, forgetting that the world was watching, they held a vote after the Senate was required to close down, and tried to fake the record. But the public wouldn't let them get away with that, either, and the vote was declared null and void.

So Dewhurst, being a good'ol'boy from Texas, felt he had to talk tough to hide the fact that he was beaten up by a girl wearing pink sneakers. The sad part is, he isn't very good at it.

Apparently, having witnesses when you try to cheat and break the rules is now called "Obama-style, mob-rule politics" - which I suppose you can understand, considering the back-room nature of traditional Texas politics.

But I think the best part of Dewhurst's sad little rant is what he chose as a battle cry.
Come and Take It!
Why does that sound like a bottom, kneeling in bed and calling to his top? Somebody needs to give Dewhurst some lessons in looking macho before he embarrasses himself further.

Maybe Wendy Davis is available.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Zimmerman Defense

So, in the upcoming weeks, we'll hopefully learn the facts about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. I know where I stand on it, based on what I've read, but it's always possible that there are details yet to come out.

But, for the moment, let's ignore the whole "Wild, Wild West," shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude that the "Stand Your Ground" law engenders. Just for now, let's concentrate on the trial.

Let's also ignore the fact that the defense attorney opened with a knock-knock joke. A knock-knock joke that bombed.
"Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying," he explained. "So, let me — at considerable risk — let me say, I would like to tell you a little joke. I know how that may sound a bit weird in this context under these circumstances. But I think you're the perfect audience for it as long as you — if you don't like it or find it funny or appropriate, that you don't hold it against Mr. Zimmerman, you can hold it against me. I have your assurance you won't?"

"Knock, knock. Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who?" West said. "Alright, good, you’re on the jury."

"Nothing?" he added when the jury apparently failed to laugh. "That’s funny. After what you folks have been through the last two or three weeks."
No, really, dude. If you're begging them to laugh, it was a bad joke. Trust me. I should know.

Instead, let's highlight another part of the defense attorney's opening statement. He tried to claim that Trayvon Martin was not unarmed.
"Trayvon Martin armed himself with the concrete sidewalk and used it to smash George Zimmerman's head; it's no different than if he picked up a brick or bashed it against a wall," Mr. West said, "and the law is very specific as to when you can defend yourself if the other person has a deadly weapon."
Really, that is an awe-inspiring defense. In order for it to work, you have to completely redefine the legal definition of the word "unarmed."

Because if Trayvon Martin was "armed," by the prosecutor's definition, then nobody who exists in a three-dimensional environment can ever be defined as "unarmed."

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Godwin's Law Redux

There is a constant drumbeat from the right comparing Obama to Hitler. I mean, let's ignore the fact that Obama's signature legislation is a method to ensure that everybody can go to a hospital when they're sick without ending up living out of their car. Because that's exactly the same as slaughtering six million Jews and attempting to take over Europe in a bloody campaign of destruction.

Yeah, let's ignore that. Instead, let's ask ourselves why every single time that somebody disagrees with a politician, it's become de rigueur to compare them to Hitler? Why is the litmus test for political arguments the ability to reduce your enemy to the level of the worst dictator in history? Last week, I pointed out an unintentional violation of Godwin's Law, but let's consider the issue a little, shall we?

Following World War One, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty included Article 231, which is commonly called "the guilt clause":
The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
Using this as a legal basis, Germany was forced to pay reparations to the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, Germany didn't think they'd lost the war - the German High Command told their citizens that the Army had never been beaten in the field, and the defeat was actually due to actions by civilians, particularly Jews, Socialists and Communists (the Dolchstosslegende, or "Stabbed-in-the-Back Legend").

That's right - Hitler didn't start the rumor that Jews were destroying the economy. Antisemitism was well-established in the German culture long before he was born.

So the Weimar Republic resisted the reparations, and defaulted on payments quite frequently. The French and Belgians, realizing that the Germans were able to pay and simply weren't, eventually invaded and occupied the Ruhr valley, which was the center of coal, iron and steel production in Germany.

Take this reduction in raw materials for the Germans and the resulting reduction in cash-flow, and add to it the fact that the German government funded a passive resistance movement among the citizens of the Ruhr by simply printing more money. This led to the famed hyper-inflation of post-WWI Germany.

Technically, the inflation started when the Kaiser decided to fund WWI by borrowing money instead of taxing his people and using his own fortune: the value of the German mark fell from 4 to 9 per US dollar. But the war ended in 1919; by November 1923, the American dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks. Or in more concrete terms, in 1919 a loaf of bread cost 1 mark; by 1923, a loaf of bread cost 100 billion marks.

This was the situation when Adolph Hitler rose into power. During the course of his leadership, he brought his people back from the brink of ruin and ensured they could eat.

People want for life to be simple. They want their enemies to wholly evil, so that there's no question that "destroying them" is a bad thing. The reductive power of the human mind wants those we disagree with to have no redeeming features. Homophobes want gays to practice pedophilia and beastiality. Radical conservatives want liberals to be fascists and totalitarian dictators. Radical liberals want conservatives to be inhuman monsters who laugh as children starve in the streets.

The reality is that people are more complex than that. But to see that, to understand the forces that drive someone, is to understand that perhaps evil is not something simple. Perhaps evil and good are in all of us. That bad things are done by good people, and good things are done by bad people, and the world isn't the simple place we want it to be.

Would you like to see the most frightening picture of Adolph Hitler ever taken?

Hitler, holding hands with a little girl and walking in a park. Hitler loved children. He loved animals: he was a confirmed vegetarian and was opposed to vivisection.

Were you aware that Eva Braun took home movies?

Hitler was a human being. It challenges your worldview: he should be a monster, pounding on desks and ordering people to their deaths. But he lived, he loved, he laughed, he played with children.

He also destroyed much of Europe, threw the world into war, and established concentration camps where 11 million people were killed.

Perhaps "good" and "evil" aren't the simple concepts that some people want them to be.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Can Godwin come down and rule on this?

You know, the GOP keeps trying to claim that they don't have a "War on Women." They claim that they respect women (even though the womenfolk can't be trusted to make decisions regarding their own bodies). But then they'll stumble, and somebody like GOP candidate Todd Akin will try to claim that rape is not a reason that abortion should be kept legal, because, after all, nobody gets pregnant that way.
"First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare," Akin told KTVI-TV in a clip posted to YouTube by the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Or you get somebody like, say, Trent Franks (R-AZ), who, after ten years in the House of Representatives, should know better.
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), whose measure banning abortions after 20 weeks was being considered in the House Judiciary Committee, argued against a Democratic amendment to make exceptions for rape and incest by suggesting that pregnancy from rape is rare.

"Before, when my friends on the left side of the aisle here tried to make rape and incest the subject — because, you know, the incidence of rape resulting in pregnancy are very low," Franks said.

Franks continued: "But when you make that exception, there’s usually a requirement to report the rape within 48 hours. And in this case that's impossible because this is in the sixth month of gestation. And that's what completely negates and vitiates the purpose for such an amendment."
Now, let's ignore the fact that The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who make it their business to know such things, report that ten to fifteen thousand abortions due to rape occur each year, which makes statements like that "medically inaccurate, offensive, and dangerous." And we can ignore that particular piece of data because, after all, facts don't matter to this crowd.

Instead, let's all try and remember a wonderful little bit of information dug up by Tim Townsend and Blythe Bernhard for the St Louis Post-Dispatch following Akin's comments.
While U.S. Rep. Todd Akin cited only "doctors" as his source of information about the rarity of pregnancy resulting from rape, it is two pages, from Mecklenburg's 1972 article, "The Indications for Induced Abortion: A Physician's Perspective," that have influenced two generations of anti-abortion activists hoping to build a medical case to ban all abortions without exception...

In supporting his claim about trauma and ovulation, Mecklenburg cited experiments conducted in Nazi death camps.

The Nazis tested this hypothesis "by selecting women who were about to ovulate and sending them to the gas chambers, only to bring them back after their realistic mock-killing, to see what the effect this had on their ovulatory patterns. An extremely high percentage of these women did not ovulate."

Finally, Mecklenburg said it was likely that the rapists — because of "frequent masturbation" — were unlikely to be fertile themselves.
(I just threw in that last line as a bonus.)

So, are we clear on this? The GOP is trying to claim that there is no such thing as rape-babies, because the Nazis said there weren't. They are now basing their arguments on unscientific and inhumane experiments performed by Nazi doctors in death camps

Do you know how happy that one little fact makes me? I don't have to call the GOP racist, fascist, or Nazis! They're doing it to themselves!

Republikanische Partei ├╝ber alles!

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Aren't we tired of this yet?

Much like Benghazi, the Congressional Republicans, desperate for any scandal they can find, are trying to flog the IRS story into some impeachment-worthy conspiracy, when it's actually just a simple case of a group of bureaucrats trying to do their jobs.

The current version of the "conspiracy" here is: Obama ordered the IRS to investigate right-wing political organizations because he is a power-hungry tyrant!!

I think that pretty much covers it, but by the time you read this, it might have morphed into something that sounds even scarier.

The Republicans know that power-hungry tyrants do this kind of thing, because this is something that Republican presidents have done for decades: Nixon tried to use the IRS against his political enemies (it was one of his articles of impeachment), but wasn't allowed to; and the IRS under George W Bush was infamous for targeting liberal groups, like Greenpeace, the NAACP, and churches that spoke out against the war.

Congress has convened five hearings, and have turned up nothing but lies and half-truths in their efforts to smear the president. IRS officials have resigned or been fired, because people further down in the organization were trying to do their job as best they could.

The entire administrative structure of the IRS has been lambasted by the Republicans for their "lack of leadership" (completely ignoring the fact that there is no leadership because the Republicans in Congress have blocked every appointment Obama has made - including his appointment of an IRS director - for the last five years).

The IRS is an easy target, because nobody likes paying taxes. The fact that they already have a negative image in most people's eyes makes smearing them much easier. But, for once, they aren't the bad guys.

Let's start from the beginning. The tax code gives us a number of different classifications based on what we do. One of them, a tax-exempt status, is designated 501(c)(4), and it's defined as "Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare, ...the net earnings of which are devoted exclusively to charitable, educational, or recreational purposes."

This allows groups to be formed to construct basketball courts for inner-city kids, build a gym for a high school, set up after-school reading programs, operate food banks, or any other activity that can be defined as "social welfare." And it goes further: to prevent people from arguing that defeating a politician would qualify as "social welfare," the IRS specifically excludes political organizations from this particular tax-exempt status.
(ii) Political or social activities. The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.
And that inconvenient fact is what the Teabaggers want everybody to forget.

So, after the Citizen's United ruling in 2010, the number of groups applying for 501(c)(4) status doubled, and an already overworked IRS tried to keep up. A couple of workers in the Cincinnati office realized that they could pull up a large number of the "bad" applications by searching for political terms in the applications. (Remember - politics are't allowed for these guys.) Unfortunately, all of the terms they came up with happened to be conservative - probably because conservative groups, and particularly Tea Party groups - had a long history of financial discrepancies.
But when the Cincinnati group explained their test to IRS exempt organizations division chief Lois G. Lerner, she objected to it and it was changed. A few months later, the IRS would release new guidance that suggested scrutinizing “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement,” and after that, “organizations with indicators of significant amounts of political campaign intervention (raising questions as to exempt purpose and/or excess private benefit.)”
Which showed that the GOP was just playing political games when they called for the resignation of the acting IRS Commissioner, since the language had already been corrected by the time he sat down in the big chair. The Commissioner in place when the "bad" language was there? Bush-appointee Douglas Shulman.

Were more conservative groups reviewed than liberal groups? Absolutely. And you know why? Because there were more conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Conservative groups accounted for about 84 percent of the spending reported to the FEC — mainly through Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Liberal groups spent 12 percent of the dark money. Nonpartisan groups made up the rest.
In actual fact, the congressional investigation has not only found nothing, they now have evidence clearing the White House. But Darrell Issa (R-CA) is the chairman of the House Oversight Committee investigating this lack of a scandal, and he's been running one witch hunt after another since Obama came into office. And now, it turns out, he's sitting on the evidence.
House Oversight Committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings on Sunday said that the so-called scandal involving the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) targeting of tea party groups was "solved," but Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has refused to release the testimony of a "conservative Republican" IRS manager because it indicated that the White House was not involved.

Last week, Issa had told CNN host Candy Crowley that IRS agents "were directly being ordered from Washington," but he declined to produce complete transcripts of the testimony of IRS employees to back up his claims.

On Sunday, Cummings explained to Crowley that he had "begged" Issa to release the full transcripts. "He's the chairman of the committee, we're not in power," the Maryland Democrat pointed out. "If he does not release them, I will. Period."

"I’m willing to come on your show next week with the chairman, with the transcripts, if he agrees to do that," he added. "But if he doesn't, I'll release them by the end of the week."
These are some of the little facts you need to remember if the subject of the IRS "scandal" comes up.

Friday, June 07, 2013

In Memoriam - Just a damned cat

In 1997, we came back to the States from Germany, and somehow, somebody in the Pentagon figured that my operatically-trained wife and I needed to be in Wyoming. (See, "opera" and "opry" are really similar...) On our arrival, the Housing Office informed us that nothing was available on base for about a year. (This was not the last time they'd lie to us.)

Needing a place to live, we rented a crappy little house (that turned out to have been built by the Salvation Army, with the plans reduced 10% in size), and, in the first week or so, I left the Trophy Wife, my seven-year-old and two twelve-year-olds, alone long enough to get some groceries. The nearest grocery store was roughly a mile away, and as I walked out, I was accosted by a couple of kids with a plastic hamper containing a cluster of kittens.

Weirdly, the Trophy Wife (despite my best efforts to instill some sanity in her life) has always appreciated cats more than other animals. And here I am, with an armful of bread, milk and cereal, looking into a basket of black-and-white cats, and one tiny little runt kittn, apparently made of orange-and-white plaid. All "free to good home."

I walked to the car, put the groceries in the trunk, walked back and said "I'll take that one."

No cat carrier, so I walked back to the car with an calico kitten cradled in my arms, purring. Until I reached for the door and the little bastard leaped out of my arms and ran under the car, where she found the exact middle. Just out of reach from any angle, where she sat and shivered.

I'm pretty sure that was when I realized her name was, by necessity, "Bucket-head." Which shortened easily to Bucky.

Being intelligent (if underage) human beings, the kids agreed right away. The Trophy Wife did not. But she eventually caved under pressure, and "Bucky" it was.

We moved several times in the intervening years, and pets have come and gone. The most intelligent dog I ever had the pleasure of knowing came into (and out of) our lives. At least one cat (an idiot long-hair) escaped through a badly-fitted screen and never found her way back. But Bucky was always a constant.

She grew into a beautiful cat, but not a charmer. She had a voice like badly-tuned foghorn with a "nasal" setting, and she wasn't afraid to honk her anger when she didn't get her way. She never loved me, but learned to tolerate me (as so many people do). But as time went on, she became the favorite of the Trophy Wife. If only because she was always around, and always insistent that you love her (even if only from a distance).

At sixteen years old, she had a long run for a cat. In the last several months, she developed a number of health problems; two nights ago, she had what seemed to be a stroke, and a very dignified cat (she may not have started out that way, but that's what she turned into) lost all control of her body.

Neither my wife or I has ever had a cat who lived this long. Last night, we said goodbye to a beautiful girl.

She was just a damned cat. Why am I crying? What the hell is wrong with me?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Freedom of the Press

In a column published in USA Today, Jonathan Turley is feeling a little cranky about the Justice Department investigating reporters; he even calls, in the headline, for the firing of Attorney General Eric Holder.

Turley is a very smart, highly educated man. This doesn't stop him from being wrong. Not completely wrong, I'll admit; but he is arguably incorrect in the larger sense here.

Turley's point, at its center, is that Holder approved the search of email and phone records for Fox "News" reporter James Rosen and (Turley mentions in passing) the Associated Press. Turley holds to the idea that a "free press," as delineated in the Constitution, is vital.

And he does make a point. It was a free press that showed Nixon as the abusive, power-hungry paranoid that he was. It is a free press that turns up scandals and crimes that are otherwise hidden from sight.

But what Turley is missing is that, just like free speech, a free press has limits. Or, to be more accurate, it has consequences: Turley and the AP both have the right to report on whatever they find, but they both have to take responsibility for any repercussions that might occur due to their reporting.

See, with Fox, the Justice Department got a search warrant from a federal judge, which gave them the opportunity to thumb through Rosen's phone records and email. And all because Rosen had reported on missile tests in North Korea; these tests were conducted as a response to the UN Security Council's condemnation of North Korea's bat-shit insane leader's nuclear aspirations. And Rosen learned all this from leaks of classified information which came from Stephen Kim, who has since been fired from the State Department.

North Korea is a notoriously paranoid and insular country, and the classified leaks allowed the North Koreans to cut off one of our few sources of intelligence from inside their borders.

The Associated Press story is a little more complicated, mostly because of the overblown hyperbole used by the AP in defense of their people. The AP published a story about a foiled bomb plot, and their story revealed the identity of a Saudi spy who'd been inserted into notoriously terrorist-friendly Yemen.

The Justice Department once again got a search warrant, as they should, and they used it to subpoena phone records from an editor and six reporters (including the Washington bureau chief, Sally Buzbee). Those seven people, though, used phones out in the common area of the AP news room which were used by every reporter who passed through the bureau; this allowed AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll to claim that the news service is "shocked" by what happened, and that the Justice Department cast a "very broad net" which pulled in AP operations "that have, as far as I know, no particular connection to the story that they seem to be investigating."

Sorry, lady, that's the way investigation works. To pull out the gold nuggets, sometimes you have to pan through a lot of pebbles. You'd probably know this if the AP did any actual investigation these days, instead of just stenography of other people's talking points.

Thanks to these two stories, we've lost access to one of the few available sources of information on the nuclear aspirations of a raving madman, and to a spy embedded in a terrorist cell.

And that's the real scandal.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The end of an error

Well, it happened. Michele Bachmann announced today that she won't be running. And comedians across the country suddenly feel the weight of a great depression.

I won't lie. She is, by herself, everything that's wrong with America today. Fear-mongering, stubbornly ignorant, and wildly partisan; but she brought so much entertainment into our lonely lives. Every time she opened her mouth, it was like the Muse of Comedy showered us with rose petals.

I mean, who can forget, back in 2009, her attempts to be disengenuous?
"I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president Jimmy Carter. And I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence."
I mean, yeah, it's true that the swine flu epidemic happened under Ford, not Carter, but who are we to quibble over little things like "facts" when we've got talking points to manufacture, right? Or in 2008, when she called for a new McCarthyism?
"I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?"
But she was alway a uniter, not a divider, right?

Or her astute grasp of history?
"But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States... I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forbearers who worked tirelessly -- men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country."
You have to admire the work ethic of someone like Adams, who would continue to work for 20 years after he left office - and even 15 years after his death! - to get the Emancipation Proclamation passed. That's the kind of go-getter we don't see any more.

Now, of course, the fact that she's being investigated for both financial and ethical misconduct has nothing to do with her dropping out of the race. Nothing at all. (It also didn't stop her from renewing her call for Obama's impeachment. Although, unlike her, Obama hasn't broken the law.)

She'll be back in the public eye soon enough; after all, grifters gotta grift. I'm figuring that, six months from now, she'll be a lobbyist, a Fox "News" contributor, or maybe a televangelist. But she's too much of an attention-whore to drop out of sight.

It's always possible that she'd run for Senator, but unlikely. Under Obamacare, Minnesota has been able to afford to stay on its meds, and the latest polls show Franken destroying her in a head-to-head match-up.

Of course, Bachmann claims that Big Government is destroying America. So you would hope that she's going to forfeit her pension from Congress, which, after eight years of misrepresenting the people of Minnesota, equals just shy of $24,000 a year, at this point. Somehow, I don't see that happening.