Monday, October 29, 2007

Carnival of the Godless

The Haunted House edition of Carnival of the Godless is up, and I want to thank Greta for doing an excellent job.

I Question Your Patriotism

I don't normally do actual direct reporting -- except for my restaurant reviews. Typically, I will see something somewhere, and I will link to it and bloviate.

But something happened over the weekend, and I just had to blog about it. Something of no great import, but it really struck me. On impulse, the Main Squeeze and I went to a late night showing of the latest cut of Blade Runner. The movie itself was great -- fun seeing Blade Runner again on the big screen, and of course it's nice to see Ridley Scott's version, as opposed to the happy-ending version foisted upon him by the studio.

Before the film they had the obligatory advertisements, including a music video-style ad for the National Guard. I looked for it online without success, and I would have posted the video if I had found it. Essentially it was a montage of the National Guard throughout history -- citizen soldiers fighting the Redcoats, more recent conflicts, and it also showed them in non-combat duties, like disaster relief and emergency rescue. It was kind of what you would expect from National Guard ad.

Here's what shocked me: after the ad ended, I heard boos and hisses from some other members of the audience. Not all of the audience, by any stretch, but an appreciable number booed the National Guard.

Now, it is certainly unfair to make generalizations about an entire group based upon a smattering of people in a late-night showing of an old science ficiton movie. However, given the demographics of the area, it's nearly certain that most of the people in that theater (myself and the Main Squeeze excepted) would identify themselves as being on the left.

Granted, many people who would self-identify as being leftists would be as revolted by that display as we were. Nonetheless, the modern left really does include within its ranks a fairly important group which thinks nothing of booing the National Guard. I will be blunt: while most Democrats are undoubtedly as patriotic as the next person, the fact is that somebody who would boo the National Guard in a theater is almost certainly a Democrat. And if they are not a Democrat, it's because the Democratic Party is insufficiently leftist and anti-American.

In the long run, I think that is a bad thing. Bad for America, bad for the Democratic Party, possibly even bad for democracy.

I have not blogged a lot about the Iraq war, but it's fair to say that I have some reservations about it -- in the long run, I think it may have been a tactical mistake. And I think that the cost of the war, both in terms of lives and treasure, may outweigh any possible benefits. Still, I have to say that I find much of the anti-war left utterly off-putting, because I think that a lot of them are, well, the sort of person who would boo a National Guard ad at a movie theater.

A while back, Blackfive posted a video by Australian country music singer Beccy Cole. Cole may be wrong on the merits, but culturally I feel a lot more affnity to her than those Code Pink people. Culturally, I have a visceral antipathy to the sort of people who would boo a National Guard ad. And yes, I question their patriotism.

To end this on a postive note, here's that wonderful Beccy Cole video:

UPDATE: Frequent commenter Society Girl was able to identify the video/ad. It's the song "Citzen Soldier" by 3 Doors Down. And the video is indeed available on YouTube.

Friday, October 26, 2007

All Hail the Darwinian State

Richard Dawkins gave an interview with a German newspaper in which he said, well, something about a "Darwinian state." I don't speak German, but the folks over at Panda's Thumb translate as follows:

Q. In “the Ancestor’s Tale” you mention the Welfare State as a challenge to Darwinism. How can one justify this challenge”

Dawkins: No self respecting person would want to live in a Society that operates according to Darwinian laws. I am an passionate Darwinist, when it involves explaining the development of life. However, I am a passionate anti-Darwinist when it involves the kind of society in which we want to live. A Darwinian State would be a Fascist state.

This quotation got picked up by First Things, and it made its way over to Dembski's blog, where contributor Barry A tries to make rhetorical hay out of it. After quoting a passage from one of his books where Dawkins appers to be saying that we all dance to the music of our genes, Barry claims that Dawkins contradicts himself:

In the last sentence Dawkins asserts that Darwinian determinism is absolute. It is, therefore, incoherent for him to suggest that we can “rise above” our biological nature. For if he is correct then we are nothing but material objects dancing to DNA’s tune, and it makes no sense to suggest that an object can rise above itself.

It is just here that O’Leary’s work in “The Spiritual Brain” comes into play. I can rise above my material body ONLY if an immaterial ”me” exists that is separate from, and superior to, my body.

I think I know what Dawkins meant to say: that belief in Darwinian evolution doesn't entail a belief in some form of crude social darwinism.

But still, he could have chosen his words a lot more carefully. I mean, what the heck is a "Darwinian State" anyway? A state where children face each other in gladiatorial games where the winners are allowed to reproduce? One where everybody gets IQ tests and the low scorers are culled? Nazi Germany? I don't know what a "Darwinian State" entails, and I don't know of anybody who wants one. I don't think it's a coherent or well-specified concept. Tell me what it is, and I will tell you if I like the idea.

Dawkins seems to be saying that belief in evolution is wholly compatible with the sort of European-style Social Democratic welfare state that, as a good left-leaning European intellectual he tends to favor. Which of course is true. But believing in evolution, or being an atheist who also believes in evolution, doesn't necessarily lead to any particular political agenda or economic theory. It is quite possible for somebody to be an atheist, and to believe in evolution, and be a Marxist, or a libertarian, or a Burkean conservative, or even a monarchist. Being an atheist is certainly incompatible with certain political positions -- Sharia law, Christian Reconstructionism, pretty much any other form of theocracy. But it is wholly compatible with a wide range of mutually-incompatible political belief systems.

Like it or not, Richard Dawkins is a big "name" atheist -- probably the most widely-known advocate of atheism on the stage today. He is also a science writer who has written a lot of popular stuff about evolution, and he's a big foil for the creationists. Given that position of notoriety, it is probably a mistake for him to make statements that the creationists can twist into some sort of concession. He can express whatever political views he wants, but he should probably avoid terms like "Darwinian state."

Possibly Earth-Like Planet Discovered

Via Newmark's Door, scientists have discovered a planet that just might be able to support life. Dubbed Gliese 581c, it's in the neighborhood, circling a star in the constellation of Libra called, oddly enough, Gliese 581, a mere 20 light years away. Two other planets have been discovered in the system as well. It's a bit bigger than Earth, and it is closer to its sun than Earth is to Sol, but Gliese 581 burns at a lower temperature, so it is within the zone where liquid water could exist on the planet's surface -- thought to be a prerequisite for life. Or at least life as we know it.

I wonder how long it will be before the science fiction writers start cranking out the stories about the first mission to Gliese 581. Do science fiction writers still do that? Follow the science news and incorporate the latest discoveries into their fiction, I mean. If they don't, they should. If I can no longer walk beneath the hurtling moons of Barsoom, I wish to walk beneath the hurtling moons of Gliese 581c.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Still More on Torture

This is a continuation of my ongoing dialogue with a conservative Catholic friend, whom I have dubbed "CC" for purposes of this discussion. In my first post on this matter, I outlined my basic anti-torture position. My second post was a reply to CC's emailed response. CC has taken the time to e-mail additional thoughts, and this post continues our dialogue. I am here quoting both some of my own prior statements and CC's response to them:

Well, as a religious believer it seems to me that you probably ought to apply a categorical command against torture. You do, after all, believe that Christ (whom you consider to be a manifestation of God, right?) was tortured by the Romans. This ought to lead you to a certain sympathy for the victims of torture, regardless of whether it works.

Response: There you go again. The word "torture" is inherently ambiguous. I agree that the Romans inflicted pain on Jesus of Nazareth and killed him. Christ's suffering serves as inspiration to me inspires a "certain sympathy" for all persons who suffer pain at the hands of any government, including our own. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek, and so, as a Christian, I try to live up to these ideals. It is not easy, however, to love terrorists who, if they could, would kill every man, woman, and child in the United States. But, Jesus calls us to do so, so those of us who are Christians must strive to do so. On the other hand, Jesus did not call anyone to be suicidal, nor did he suggest that worldly notions of justice should be abolished with his dying on the cross.

I agree that there is some inherent ambiguity in the term "torture," but I also think that the tactics which appear to have been utilized by the United States government fall well outside of any possible grey area.

As for the religious implications, my only point is that it seems odd to me that Christian conservatives appear to have so enthusiastically embraced harsh interrogation techniques, when in fact their theology cuts in the opposite direction. As a non-believer, I feel no particular obligation to even try to love terrorists. I'd be all in favor of torturing terrorists were it not for two things. The first is the risk of error, of torturing people who are not, in fact, terrorists. This isn't just a fantasy, it appears to have actually happened to a man named Khalid El-Masri, who was kidnapped by the CIA, flown to Afghanistan, and tortured. Or at least he so alleges. (He recently lost in his attempt to sue the United States, but not on the merits of his claim.) On TV, they always get the right guy, but life isn't a TV show, and we are talking about fallible government agents, here.

The other reason is that I don't trust the government to have the power to torture people. I think that if the 20th century shows anything, that power will be expanded, abused, and applied against the innocent. It's not about them -- it's about us.

That said, I agree that torture ought to be subjected to a largely utilitarian calculation. However, I think that the resolution of those calculations is actually pretty easy. Torture is an information-gathering technique which may or may not even work, and if it does work produces information which may or may not be particularly reliable. Its benefits are dubious and relatively short-term.

Response: Again, if one eliminates all forms of ineffective coercive interrogation techniques, what is left? Anything? Your position seems to be this: certain effective coercive interrogation techniques are should be permitted -- so long as the coercion does not exceed your "mild discomfort" standard; but other effective coercion techniques should be prohibited because they involved "torture," which apparently is more excessive coercion than "mild discomfort."
To begin with, "mild discomfort" was probably a poor choice of words. As I have tried to explain, my use of that language was intended to convey the fact that I'm not one of those who believe that any distress or discomfort constitutes torture. Nor do I believe that people captured on the battlefield need to be given Miranda warnings or the like. In my first post of this conversation, I cited this article about a study which says there's no evidence harsh interrogation techniqes work and these reports which suggest the same. I propose we use the techniques that past interrogators claim actually worked: learn their culture and language and talk to them. It's not as satisfying as waterboarding, but it may be more effective in actually protecting our loved ones.

But let me be clear on this: even if torture worked, I would be against it, for all of the Libertarian reasons I've outlined. I think that letting agents of the state get used to having this power is a Bad Idea. And that the state is far more dangerous, in the long run, than terrorists could ever be.

The immediate cost is a loss of credibility of the United States, a massively-reduced level of soft-power and ability to exercise moral leadership. It means we have a far more difficult time complaining if our own people or our allies' people are mistreated by an enemy. I'm not a huge fan of the Bush/Clinton notion of war as social work, but if the idea is to remake Afghanistan and Iraq into liberal democracies, might not our own conduct have a certain teaching function? "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" isn't exactly the lesson we were trying to impart. In addition, while you may not think that the pain inflicted on terrorists or their sympathizers ought to count, the torture inflicted upon innocent people tortured by mistake certainly ought to count. And then there is the psychological cost borne by the torturers who have to live with what they've done in subsequent years.

Response: I agree that the reasons cited above weigh against "torture." But your analysis assumes that there are no benefits to aggressive interrogation techniques, and continues to avoid defining exactly what is "torture."

Given the lack of evidence that there is any up-side that cannot be achieved through other means, I think it more than weighs against it -- I think it's dispositive. As for the definition issue: "the deliberate infliction of severe physical or psychological distress."

CC and I actually agree at this point that that nuclear terrorism is fairly unlikely:

First, the danger of terrorists getting a nuke, "suitcase" or otherwise, is pretty small, for the reasons articulated by Gregory Cochran in his 2 Blowhards interview. And if we are worried about that, the best way to prevent it is not to go around torturing terrorists; it's to work with the Russians and the Chinese to keep the supply of nuclear weapons bottled up tight.

Response: I thought I sent a follow-up e-mail that acknowledged that the chances of terrorists obtaining a nuke is pretty small.
CC did indeed send such a follow-up, and I was in error to not acknowledge it.

That leaves "conventional" suicide terrorism. And he's right that terrorists can indeed kill a lot of people if they are so inclined. In fact, we can imagine all sorts of low-tech things that terrorists could do that are almost impossible to stop -- drive around medium-sized cities lobbing Molotov cocktails out the window of their vehicle, for example. But the number of people who are actually willing to do that seems to be fairly small. The chances of CC's kids, or my Main Squeeze being killed by conventional criminals is a lot greater than the chances they'll be killed by terrorists. The off-chance that a terror plot that would kill a lot of people will be foiled by torture isn't worth the very real costs associated with institutionalizing the practice.

Response: I generally agree, but the difficulty with making a risk assessment here is that we are not privy to confidential information in the hands of the government.

We agree? What's the fun in that.

I do agree it would be nice to have information now in the hands of the government. But the problem with relying on "trust us, we know what we are doing" is that government officials always have an incentive to increase their own power and cover up mistakes. At the end of the day, I don't trust the government to have this power, and that applies regardless of which party or person happens to be in office.

"My Bad"

I'm now in the midst of my first Instalanche, due to this post, to which Glenn Reynolds linked this morning. Obviously I am delighted, and the traffic is way up.

But in that post, I made a mistake. A minor mistake, not a big deal, but a mistake nonetheless: I misspelled Glenn Reynolds' name. I spelled it "Glen" with one "n," rather than "Glenn," with two, as he spells it. Now, obviously he cannot have been too badly offended, since he gave me the link, but if I were him I would be annoyed. Even worse, I did it twice, and when an anonymous commenter pointed out my error, I only corrected it one one place. I had to be nudged to correct the mistake in the first line of the post.

Do I feel stupid? Sure. A bit embarrassed? Yep. But I made a mistake; I've admitted it, and it's been fixed. It ain't the end of the world.

My readers now know that I can be a little careless, that I missed a detail -- one "n" or two -- and that proofreading isn't my strong suit. I try, really, but anybody who reads this blog regularly knows I make more typos and such than I would like. I sometimes get excited and say things that are maybe a bit more strongly worded than I would like, in retrospect. I am, in short, human. I think that most people can understand that.

But how stupid would I look if I wrote a post explaining that a lot of people spell Glen with one "n," and that, really! "Glen" is the right spelling. So Glenn Reynolds really ought to spell it Glen, not Glenn. He's the one who's wrong! Or if I blithely insisted that I hadn't spelled it with one n in the first place -- no mistake had been made at all.

I'd look like a complete jerk. Or, for those of you who already think I am a jerk, even more of a jerk. Everybody's heard the expression "when you are in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging." And they've also heard, "it's not the crime, it's the coverup." Both variants on a simple concept: when you make a mistake, stop making the mistake, admit it, and fix it.

I have been thinking about that this morning, because by a weird coincidence, Glen -- just joking, uh Glenn -- has been blogging up a storm about the whole Scott Thomas Beauchamp/Franklin Foer/New Republic mess. And here's the thing: The New Republic screwed up. They published reports that were, uh, embellished. Not what you want to do, and a pretty serious mistake -- more serious than misspelling "Glenn." But a mistake.

And instead of admitting their error, they stonewalled, delayed, obfuscated, and generally made asses of themselves. So you have Glenn linking to this Washington Post Article, This Pajamas Media Roundup, and you have this post with more links than I care to copy, and this one too, and I am sure I could find find more if I weren't too lazy.

Has it ever occurred to the guys at The New Republic that if they were to just admit the mistake that maybe there wouldn't be so much continuing attention to what idiots they are?

Farrah Olivia by Morou

I've been a huge Iron Chef fan for years, and, while Iron Chef America doesn't quite live up to the original, it is nonetheless entertaining. If anything, The Next Iron Chef is even more fun: watching these eight really accomplished chefs go through a gruelling series of challenges.

Two of the judges -- Michael Ruhlman and Andrew Knowlten -- have blogged about the show. The latest casualty is Morou (he has a last name, but prefers the single-name moniker, like Cher), chef at Farrah Olivia in Alexandria, Virginia. Both Knowlten and Ruhlman had problems with Morou's plating style. You see, he makes a lot of "deconstructed" dishes -- small piles of food with artistic splashes of sauces and powders and the like. His plates really do look gorgeous -- like works of art, more than plates of food. Knowlten criticized Morou for "for consistently (and tediously) plating his dishes with all sorts of swishes, spurts, and splashes." Despite his apparent annoyance with the plating style, Knowlten said that Morou's dishes were "complex and full of interesting flavors and techniques." Ruhlman was even more harsh, saying Morou's food was "too fussy, dainty, and compartmentalized."

Well, nothing like judging for yourself. So, the Main Squeeze and I headed out to Farrah Olivia the fairly complex dishes -- . It's a smallish place, tastefully decorated, with some onsite parking. Our waiter wasn't going to ever win a "world's best waiter" award, but he had the basics down: he got to our table, took our orders in a timely manner, brought us more bread and water when we needed more, got the orders right, and generally did his job. If he had a weakness, it was in explaningMorou uses foams and powders and sauces and the like spread all over the plate, and a "world's best waiter" candidate would have it all down cold. You could tell he'd been trained on it, but he didn't quite, have it down the way he should. For example, he didn't know what the foam on my lobster was -- in fact it was "banana air." Yes, it was on my menu, but I had forgotten.

But the food itself came in a timely manner, and it was every bit as gorgeous as it seemed on TV. Yes, Morou's style includes unusual combinations -- butter poached lobster with tapioca and banana air, for example. And yes a lot of his dishes are deconstructed. But you know what? Butter poached lobster with tapioca and banana air happens to be really good, at least when Morou is preparing it. I suspect that if I tried it, it would be a disaster. And isn't that the point of a fancy restaurant? To get something you can't do at home yourself? The Main Squeeze's scallops with bacon powder were likewise delicious -- I just wished she had been more generous with her loving husband.

I'll take issue with Ruhlman's characterization of Morou's cuisine as being "dainty." Yes, it is complex -- if all you want is a big slab of meat on a plate, go to Outback, or, for a better slab, go to the Capital Grille. He uses really high quality ingredients -- my steak was very tender -- and he works magic to impart flavor. But the meat was hearty and well-seasoned, the opposite of dainty. And yes, he puts sauce on using artistic splashes and spurts. But that allows the diner to taste the meat first without any sauce at all. It was great -- tasted like steak, but with a layer of complex flavors to let you know that you were paying for more than just a seared chunk of animal flesh. And, when dipped in the sauce, it added additional complexity and flavor. Whatever you say about his flashy plating, the man knows how to cook meat.

And his deserts. Well, all I can say is "hang on to that pastry chef -- you have a winner." Amazing, fun, interesting flavors.

Truth be told, I like the way Morou plates his dishes, and I like the way the guy cooks. The food was uniformly excellent, with some really nice flavor combinations. It's unique and interesting -- he follows his own vision, sort of like Howard Roark in the kitchen. Maybe he won't be the Next Iron Chef, but the man can cook, and his restaurant is well worth a visit.

I will add, in the interest of full disclosure, that our waiter mentioned to Morou that we had seen him on The Next Iron Chef, and that we liked his plating style. He was nice enough to come out of the kitchen and say hello as we were leaving. Does that affect my judgment as a critic? Possibly, although I was a pretty happy well-fed camper when I got up from the table, before I had met him. Morou seems like a really great guy, and I hope that being a losing Next Iron Chef contestant gives him a boost. Would I like to see every restaurant plate its food like he does? Well, no. But his cuisine is unique and interesting, and well worth a try.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Gosh, What a Surprise

Glenn Reynolds links to this Christian Science Monitor article by Craig Franklin about the Jena 6 case. Franklin is a local journalist who has covered the case for the local paper, and his article is a damning indictment of the media's coverage:

The media got most of the basics wrong. In fact, I have never before witnessed such a disgrace in professional journalism. Myths replaced facts, and journalists abdicated their solemn duty to investigate every claim because they were seduced by a powerfully appealing but false narrative of racial injustice.

In fact, Franklin contends that nearly every aspect of the popular narrative is wrong. He goes through it one-by-one. The whites-only tree wasn't really whites only. The nooses hung on the tree were aimed not at black students but instead at members of the school's rodeo team. The District Attorney never threatened black students. Robert Bailey was punched in the face, not hit with a beer bottle, as he subesequently claimed. (True to form, Newsweek embelished this to his being pelted with beer bottles.) Bailey and his friends did indeed jump a white guy at a convenience store and steal his shotgun. And, finally, Mychall Bell really did hit Justin Barker from behind, and he really was stomped upon by a mob of black students.

Gosh, who could have predicted that the media narrative would turn out to be a bit overstated? Me, maybe? In fact, my first post on the topic, back on September 7, was a call for skepticism about the media narrative. I hate to say "I told you so, but . . ." OK, who am I kidding. I LOVE to say I told you so.

I told you so.

UPDATE: Thanks for the link, Glenn. A hearty welcome to all my new readers. Feel free to check out all my posts on the Jena 6 matter, or look around and see what I have to say about torture, or George W. Bush, or even read some of my restaurant reviews.

UPDATE 2: Minor error fixed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


We finally got a chance to sample Morimoto, the Philadelphia outpost of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and it really is an experience. Sleek and modern, the interior looks like something from a sci-fi movie. Upon entering the restaurant, one is greeted by attractive hostesses in short skirts, always a welcome sight. It's almost like going into a cave, because it's dark and the blond wood ceiling is so low. The undulating ceiling rises up as one enters the restaurant proper, almost like you are entering another world. In a way, the ceiling struck me as being reminiscent of the bamboo rollers used to roll sushi, while the dividers between the tables were reminiscent of Bento boxes. The tables and chairs are really funky looking, and each table has upon it a strangely phallic electric "candle." The place was loud and packed with people. Nonetheless, we were seated promptly at the time of our reservation, which suggests they run the front of the house pretty well.

We got the "Omakase" menu, which I am given to understand is Japanese for "trust me." Ideally, for an Omakase menu, you'd want Morimoto himself standing there, picking stuff and fixing it for you. But the guy has three restaurants, the Iron Chef gig, cookbooks and the like, so I think it's fair enough that he has, supposedly, personally designed the Omakase menu to highlight his cuisine. There are actually three different price levels for the Omakase, we got the highest one, at $120 a pop. We were told that the number of courses actually remains constant, but that price of the ingredients goes up at higher prices. So with the high-end menu you get the toro and lobster and wagyu beef and such, while if you pay $45, it's the dog food for you.

Part of the fun of the Omakase menu is that it's a surprise. Unlike the normal tasting menu, they don't tell you in advance what's coming up. Or even how many courses there are. So if you are thinking about enjoying the Omakase menu at Morimoto, the bottom line is that it's great, and it's well worth the (high) price, if you enjoy that sort of cuisine. Don't read any further if you want to be surprised.

We also got the medium beverage omakase, which was mostly wine -- one dish came with a Morimoto Martini, and the sushi course came with sake. At the highest end, you can have all sake. The beverages were good, and they paired well with the main courses, but at Morimoto the food is definitely the star, and the beverages are a very good supporting player.

The first four courses were effectively the appetizers for the meal. All pretty small servings of some form of raw fish. To me, the item that stood out the least of this bunch were the three oysters topped with different sorts of gunk. I slurped 'em down and enjoyed them, and Morimoto showed a bit with the different toppings for the oysters, but they didn't blow me away. They were raw oysters. Good raw oysters, topped with some pretty interesting gunk on the top, but nothing to write home about. The second least appealing of the first four items was, believe it or not, a sashimi sampler. Again, it was good, and I cleaned my plate, but it wasn't knock-your-socks off good. I expected Morimoto's sashimi to really stand out, and it didn't.

The other two items in the first group were more than good -- they were incredible. One was the first item served, and it was heck of a way to begin the meal. The ubiquitous tuna tartare, something you see a lot these days. But this wasn't your average tuna tartare appetizer; it was toro tartare with caviar and wasabi. This is also on the appetizer menu, and I will say, if you like tuna tartare, get it. It was what I expected his sashimi to be: the best example of that thing I've ever had. An incredible, complex, balanced dish. And it also showed some originality, the way it combined the toro, the caviar, and the wasabi.

Finally, the other item from the first flight of four was a scallop carpaccio. Yeah, I know there's no such thing as scallop carpaccio, but there is now at Morimoto, and it's incredible. The scallop was sliced inhumanly thin, and it was arranged on the plate in one of those presentations you could never match. It looked like a work of art, and it tasted, well, like a work of art. Out of this world good.

I will say that, after four raw fish dishes, we really were hankering for some cooked food. And we got it: what was effectively the first half of the main course: the eight spice lobster, served with a dipping sauce made out of creme fraiche with some stuff in it. Yeah, the creme fraiche dipping sauce sounds weird, but it worked. The spices gave the lobster some real zip, and the sauce cooled it down. The dynamic is almost the same as good buffalo wings with bleu cheese, except about a million times better because of the underlying quality of the ingredients. The spices were really good, the dipping sauce was great, and what's amazing is that, with all this going on in your mouth, the lobster itself still came through. It was not overshadowed at all. I tend to like lobster a lot, but I also tend to prefer it plain, rather than all gussied up. This was absolutely one of the best things I have ever tasted. Lobster like I've never had it before, absolutely delicious combination that really shouldn't work. Truly worthy of an Iron Chef.

Next was the Kobe Beef, and it was great too. Absolutely delicious flavor. This was also one place where the drink pairing stood out: it was paired with a South African pinotage that was good on its own but which really stood out when paired with the Kobe Beef. Then came the sushi course with sake, and it was some of the best sushi I've ever tasted, particularly the toro. There was nothing particularly creative or weird here, just really good sushi.

We ended with a desert that was good but forgettable. In fact, I've forgotten it already. But you don't go to a place like Morimoto for desert -- you go for two things: creative edge cuisine that you haven't had before and raw fish. In both cases, Morimoto delivered. I probably wouldn't want to eat that way every night, but it was a real experience.

If I had one criticism of the Omakase menu, it was a bit heavy on the raw fish. Don't get me wrong, I like the raw stuff, but five of the eight courses were based on raw stuff from the water. I'd have been happy with four. In addition, I wish it had included a tempura dish. This may have been a function of the fact that we were sitting near the back, and all night viewed waiters and waitresses carrying the tempura appetizer past our table. It looked really good.

The service gets an A minus. Generally good, but it could have been a bit quicker between courses. The hosting staff at the front of the house did a good job, and for the most part they explained each dish well. A couple of times we weren't told about the wine, but mostly the seemed knowledgeable and attentive without hovering.

Morimoto was definitely a fun experience, and I'll give it another try at some point in the future. Although next time I will probably order off the regular menu, and I will definitely get the tempura.


Glenn Reynolds links this Examiner report about Senate Republicans who still support pork projects, even those designed to help Democrats. Sixteen Republican Senators wouldn't even vote to kill three Harlem projects inserted by Charlie Rangel and named for him.

I am as offended by this sort of pork as anybody. If Bill Gates wants to fund a building and have it named after himself, great. But it is outrageous that members of Congress get to use taxpayer money to name projects after themselves. If Charlie Rangel or Robert Byrd or any other politician wants to name a project after himself, he ought to damn well pony up the cash out of his own pocket. Not mine.

Glenn Reynolds says our politicians "lack essential self-discipline." Perhaps so, but I am suspicious of the claim that we'd be in better shape if only we had "better people" in office. That's always the claim about socialism -- if only they had been better, more virtuous people, socialism would work. No it wouldn't -- socialism will fail no matter how virtuous the officials. We have the politicians we have, and they are responding to the incentives offered them.

Let me propose a different culprit: United States Constitution, Amendment XVI. The income tax amendment. Once the federal government got easy access to all of our pockets, it was inevitable that politicians would take money from the citizens and use that money to try to get reelected. Pork barrel spending is the inevitable consequence of the sort of government we have. And until people decide they don't need or want this kind of big government, we're stuck with it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

More Thoughts on Torture

In my last post on this topic, I argued that the government ought not be given the power to torture people because, if the 20th century has shown us nothing, it is that giving the state the power to torture people is just a really bad idea.

In that post, I discussed a dinner conversation with an old friend, whom I will refer to as "CC" for "Conservative Catholic, regarding this issue, and I used that conversation as a springboard to my discussion. Well, CC has since e-mailed me to clarify his position, and he has suggested that I misquoted him. Of course I misquoted him! I was too busy swilling down a really nice wine to take notes.

In any case, his position is probably more nuanced than I gave it credit for being--- more nuanced than mine, for that matter -- and in his e-mail he raised some interesting points. Here's what he said:

I am generally against "torture," but, frankly, the label "torture" fails to capture the issue. The challenge the government faces is to obtain most effectively critical intelligence information as rapidly as possible. I recall that you endorse the notion that the government may inflict "mild discomfort" but not "torture" in order to accomplish this goal. There are not, however, bright lines between what some may call "mild discomfort" and "torture." Let's take an example: sleep deprivation. Women of infants are sleep deprived typically because they are taking care of their children. Are they tortured? Mildly discomforted?

The reference to "mild discomfort" is, I think, the result of CC's misunderstanding of my position, or perhaps my own lack of clarity. The point which I was making to him when I used those words is that I don't consider some of the things I've read about to be "torture" as that word is used in English. For example, I don't think it's "torture" to smear somebody with menstrual blood, or to make them watch you pee on the Koran, or for a female interrogator to strip off her shirt and parade around in a bra. Some folks on the left claim this kind of thing is tortue, and I think they're nuts. There are people who if you put detainees up in the Ritz will insist that only the Four Seasons would be good enough. I'm not one of them.

I can even agree with CC that it can be difficult to draw bright lines -- there are indeed grey areas. But techniques like waterboarding, forcing people to stand in "stress positions" for hours, sensory deprivation and waterboarding aren't in any gray area -- they're torture. Sure, to some extent women caring for children are slightly sleep deprived. But those women are allowed to take naps between feedings, and to get some sleep some of the time. Likewise, some people work standing for hours on end. But they aren't forced to work standing in a "stress position" designed to produce agony. Here's a hint: most of these techniques were pioneered by totalitarian regimes. Maybe that tells us something.

As CC sees it, there are actually two issues:

The "torture" issue presents two real sub-issues: (a) whether "torture" is an effective means of obtaining intelligence; and (b) whether "torture" violates some human right against cruel or inhumane treatment. As to (a), I offer no opinion. I agree that the governments hould not use any interrogation or intelligence-gathering technique that is not effective, but, then, only sadistic people would suggest otherwise.

Even sadistic people won't say otherwise overtly, but that doesn't rule out sadism as a potential motive. I certainly can't prove this, but to a great extent I think that the Cheney/Addington/Yoo/Tenet position on torture is indeed motivated by sadism. Oh, not sexual sadism of the whips-and-chains variety, but a desire to hurt people, or a callous indifference to their suffering. The desire to inflict suffering is strong enough that it predisposes the advocates of harsh measures to believe that those measures are necessary and effective. This may explain the popularity of TV shows like 24, as well as the ubiquitous ticking time bomb scenario. And this is why I will never, ever vote for Rudy: at the end of the day I think he wants to hurt people.

The human rights question is more difficult and depends upon a variety of factors: the gravity and imminence of the harm; the information sought; the type of interrogation technique being considered; and a reasonable likelihood for success. There may be other considerations. But I do not believe there is a bright line, especially in times of war when, as now, the national security is threatened. This may come down to a largely utilitarian calculation of choosing among a variety of bad options.

Well, as a religious believer it seems to me that you probably ought to apply a categorical command against torture. You do, after all, believe that Christ (whom you consider to be a manifestation of God, right?) was tortured by the Romans. This ought to lead you to a certain sympathy for the victims of torture, regardless of whether it works.

That said, I agree that torture ought to be subjected to a largely utilitarian calculation. However, I think that the resolution of those calculations is actually pretty easy. Torture is an information-gathering technique which may or may not even work, and if it does work produces information which may or may not be particularly reliable. Its benefits are dubious and relatively short-term.

The immediate cost is a loss of credibility of the United States, a massively-reduced level of soft-power and ability to exercise moral leadership. It means we have a far more difficult time complaining if our own people or our allies' people are mistreated by an enemy. I'm not a huge fan of the Bush/Clinton notion of war as social work, but if the idea is to remake Afghanistan and Iraq into liberal democracies, might not our own conduct have a certain teaching function? "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss" isn't exactly the lesson we were trying to impart. In addition, while you may not think that the pain inflicted on terrorists or their sympathizers ought to count, the torture inflicted upon innocent people tortured by mistake certainly ought to count. And then there is the psychological cost borne by the torturers who have to live with what they've done in subsequent years.

And you have the huge potential down-side of people who work for your security services getting used to the idea that they are allowed to torture people. While terrorism is indeed a danger, a state with security services acclimated to the idea of torturing people is a far greater danger in the long term. If you say that "terrorists" can be tortured, it's a pretty easy step to define one's political opponents as being terrorists.

My friend CC, however, doesn't see it that way. He seems to think that I underestimate the danger associated with Islamic terrorists:

The notion that the "terrorists" are weak is generally accurate in the conventional military sense, but there is the possibility, at least reported, of suitcase nukes obtained via the black market, suicide bombers, and the like that could result in large numbers of casualties. The real danger with Islamic terrorism is that (1) the terrorists seek to kill as many Americans as possible, including all men, women, and children (including my wife and children and you and [the Main Squeeze]; and (2) the terrorists are willing to carry out their murderous schemes by suicidal means. This presents almost unimaginable possibilities for mass murder and must, unfortunately, affect the analysis of the types of interrogation techniques that are possible, at least with respect to those that are effective.

First, the danger of terrorists getting a nuke, "suitcase" or otherwise, is pretty small, for the reasons articulated by Gregory Cochran in his 2 Blowhards interview. And if we are worried about that, the best way to prevent it is not to go around torturing terrorists; it's to work with the Russians and the Chinese to keep the supply of nuclear weapons bottled up tight.

That leaves "conventional" suicide terrorism. And he's right that terrorists can indeed kill a lot of people if they are so inclined. In fact, we can imagine all sorts of low-tech things that terrorists could do that are almost impossible to stop -- drive around medium-sized cities lobbing Molotov cocktails out the window of their vehicle, for example. But the number of people who are actually willing to do that seems to be fairly small. The chances of CC's kids, or my Main Squeeze being killed by conventional criminals is a lot greater than the chances they'll be killed by terrorists. The off-chance that a terror plot that would kill a lot of people will be foiled by torture isn't worth the very real costs associated with institutionalizing the practice.

Friday, October 19, 2007

No Shirt, No Problem. Well, Actually There Is a Problem

Andrew Sullivan (who else?) links to this page about the antics of a group of guys who go to a set location and take their shirts off en masse. They targeted the New York Abercrombie and Fitch, which apparently has a shirtless male model at the door to greet entering patrons. A rather amusing stunt, I suppose, although the folks at Abercrombie and Fitch don't seem to have appreciated it.

I remember walking by that store in a local mall, and while it didn't have a shirtless male door-greeter, it was festooned with photos of male models. Even the shopping bags had pictures of male models on them.

Seriously, why would a straight guy ever shop at Abercrombie and Fitch? It's decorated like a gay teen's bedroom, and the last time I got one of their catalogs in the mail, I thought I'd accidentally been put on the mailing list of a gay porn magazine. I just don't get their marketing approach, but I guess it works.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hot Israeli Babes

Blogger Mark Shea objects to this video, which shows Israeli girls in bikinis, on the beach:

He thinks that this might undermine Israel's support among Evangelical Christians:

This is the sort of thing that makes me wonder how long American Evangelicals (and even some Catholics) can be snookered by the notion that Israel is something other than a secular nation-state. The Golden Calf appeal to Money Sex and Power evident in the commercial is perfectly representative of typically debased postmodern secular culture and has nothing to do with "fulfillment of prophecy". Israel has the rights and responsibilities of any secular nation-state, but to concoct some notion that it gets special privileges as God's Chosen State is rubbish.

Speaking for myself, I don't think that Israel ought to get special privileges as God's Chosen State. Nonetheless, I find it noteworthy that it is simply impossible to imagine any Muslim state using women in bikinis to promote itself. In that sense, Israel is like us in a way that no Arab state is or will be in the forseeable future.

This doesn't mean I support everything Isreal does, and I agree that it has the same rights and responsibilities as any nation-state. And yes, I think that Israel sometimes deserves criticism. But this video makes me more sympathetic to them, not less.

(Both Mike Potemra at NRO and Insty have a similar take, although as a religious believer Potemra is a lot more into the "Chosen People" stuff than I am. To me, the key point is that Israel is a secular state where women can run around in bikinis if they are so inclined.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Rudy: I'm Not Really a Republican

Via Andrew Sullivan, here's Rudy explaining that he's not really a Republican:

Is anybody really shocked at this?

On Torture

No, I'm not talking about the sight of Rudy in pantyhose; I'm talking about actual, physical torture. As used for interrogation.

A while ago, the Main Squeeze and I had dinner with an old friend, and that topic came up. I took the position then, as I have here, that torture is bad, and that it ought to be rejected as a tactic in the Global War on Terror. My friend -- a decent, humane guy, an old-fashioned Church-going Catholic -- expressed some disagreement. Referring to his children, he said "I would be inclined to agree with you were it not for the fact that really bad people want very badly to hurt my two kids." He admitted that torture was brutal, and that it inflicted suffering. But then, so too does war, and war is sometimes necessary as well. I understand his desire to protect his children, friends, family, loved ones, and fellow Americans from harm, but he's dead wrong about the desirability of torture.

To begin with, I'm not convinced that torture is actually likely to be an effective way of extracting information. Bill O'Reilly (via Balloon Juice and Flopping Aces) thinks it does, because, well, the torturers told him it did:

Both former CIA chief George Tenet and former CIA official Michael Scheuer, once the head of the bin Laden unit, told me that coerced interrogation methods often provided accurate intelligence that potentially saved thousands of lives.

Well, there you have it. It works -- case closed.

Seriously, of course George Tenet says "enhanced interrogation" works. He was the guy in charge at the CIA when a lot of this stuff was goig on. Of course he wants to claim that it was necessary, that it saved lives. In order to really evaluate his claim, a disinterested observer would have to have full access to all of the Super Top Secret burn-before-reading files and see what was gleaned. Unitl that happens, Tenet is saying "trust me." Has George Tenet done anything to earn that trust?

Publicly-available information does not suggest that torture or "enhanced interrogation" is particularly effective. At least one government study by the Intelligence Science Board found that there's no scientific evidence that torture works. Anecdotal evidence suggests that less coercive methods can be very effective indeed. A recent report of the reunion of World War II veterans of a unit known then as "P.O. Box 1142" has caused a bit of stir. The members of that unit extracted information from people, and they did it without torturing them. Likewise, this Anne Applebaum column from 2005 notes that the French used torture in their (losing) war in Algeria, and there's no real evidence it actually, you know, worked. She also quote quite a few past and present interrogators who concluded that harsh methods aren't all that effective. I'm sorry, but I trust these guys over George Tenet.

But let's suppose that it turns out that torture or "enhanced interrogation" really is effective, at least when done properly in some cases. It's still a bad idea. Glen Greenwald is right when he points out that small-government conservatives are often inconsistent with their own stated values when they support expansion of state power in the War on Terror.

Terrorists are indeed bad people intent on hurting us. But there are limits on what terrorists can do. They succeeded in killing several thousand Americans on September 11, 2001, and it's possible they will launch another attack that will be equally murderous. Even so, there is a reason why they had to use hijacked airliners rather than their own. At the end of the day, terrorism is a technique used by groups that are fundamentally weak. It is tragic for the people who are killed and their loved ones, but it's not an existential threat.

There is, by contrast, no limit to the amount of damage that can be done by an oppressive government. Murder by millions. Industrial scale torture. Seizure of property. Imprisonment without a fair hearing.

I don't want the government to have the power to torture people for one simple reason: I don't want to the government to have the power to torture people. I am, reluctantly, forced to admit that we need to have some government, but there is ample reason to not trust the government or its agents to not abuse their power. If the 20th Century taught any lesson at all, it ought to be that you don't want to live under a government where the agents of the state are given the power to torture people. Conservatives ought to understand that, and before President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney took office, they did.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Pantyhose Policy

Mathew Yglesias links to this article about an unnamed Republican Senator who makes all his or her female staffers wear skirts with pantyhose. Well, if CI were a Senator, he certainly wouldn't require female staffers to wear pantyhose. Although all female staffers under 35 would be required to dress like Catholic Schoolgirls.

On the bright side, when Rudy is President, male staffers will also have to wear pantyhose.

Send in the FEMBOTS!

This article speculates that we will soon use robots for sex. Even marriage.

(HT Sully.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stop Ordering People Around

A while back there was a blogospheric blip about washing machines. It seems that the feds mandated greater energy efficiency, and as a result, Consumer Reports found that the newer machines (at least ones that cost less than $900) don't get clothes particularly clean. As John Tierney observed, this was the predictable result of the new standards. Indeed, it was predicted, but the advocates of more regulation just shrugged it off. Alex Tabarrok makes even more interesting point: the new regulations might not even save energy if, as a result, everybody washes their clothes twice.

This is why Megan McArdle gets it exactly right when she argues in favor of a carbon tax. A carbon tax (or cap-and-trade system, which she argues against on other grounds) doesn't require any government official sitting around in Washington to figure out how much energy a washing machine ought to use, and whether it's worth trading some level of cleanliness for cost savings. It doesn't require somebody in Washington to decide whether the energy savings of compact fluorescent bulbs outweigh the ugly light, or the best way to calculate gas mileage.

All it requires the government to do is to set the tax rate, measure the output, and collect the taxes. The market can take it from there.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mark Kleiman On Intellectual Honesty

General Ricardo Sanchez is making a few waves, having decided to let loose on the Bush Administration. Mark Kleiman seems happy to have General Sanchez on the "right" side. Returning to his prior theme of the "hack gap," Kleiman has advice for how Iraq war opponents ought to treat Sanchez:

I'm not one who regrets the "hack gap." I'd rather be on the side with the edge in intellectual honesty rather than the side with the edge in the tactical capacity to misrepresent the truth. But in politics, words are weapons, and if for the moment Gen. Sanchez has chosen, at some personal risk, to take our side, we ought to do what we can to reward that behavior rather than punishing it.

Whatever honestly can be said in Gen. Sanchez's praise ought to be said now, and criticism of him ought to be suspended, if only as a matter of incentives management.

Right. Kleiman is arguing (again) that folks on "the side" he's on (however defined) have the edge in intellectual honesty. And he is simultaneously urging members of that side to avoid criticizing General Sanchez, not because such criticisms would be false, but rather because they wouldn't further his political objectives.

Can you say self-refuting argument?

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Psychohistorians Are Coming

Reihan, blogging for Ross Douthat, links to this article about a guy named Bueno de Mesquita who uses game theory to make predictions that out-predict the CIA. Now, this may not seem like much of a feat, but apparently he's got a pretty good record:

To verify the accuracy of his model, the CIA set up a kind of forecasting face-off that pit predictions from his model against those of Langley’s more traditional in-house intelligence analysts and area specialists. “We tested Bueno de Mesquita’s model on scores of issues that were conducted in real time—that is, the forecasts were made before the events actually happened,” says Stanley Feder, a former high-level CIA analyst. “We found the model to be accurate 90 percent of the time,” he wrote. Another study evaluating Bueno de Mesquita’s real-time forecasts of 21 policy decisions in the European community concluded that “the probability that the predicted outcome was what indeed occurred was an astounding 97 percent.” What’s more, Bueno de Mesquita’s forecasts were much more detailed than those of the more traditional analysts. “The real issue is the specificity of the accuracy,” says Feder. “We found that DI (Directorate of National Intelligence) analyses, even when they were right, were vague compared to the model’s forecasts. To use an archery metaphor, if you hit the target, that’s great. But if you hit the bull’s eye—that’s amazing.”

This is way cool -- not for the first time, I wish I was better at math. He uses lots of math and game theory for his predictions, and for some reason he absolutely drives many of his critics bonkers.

So am I the only one who is reminded of Asimov's pyschohistorians?

UPDATE: Some skeptical points in the comments to Reihan's post. I agree that in order to really assess this guy, you'd need a database of predictions in advance, which you could then check against other methods, or just random chance. But I still like the coolness of it all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eat Shit and . . . Live?

This Slate article suggests that Americans should consume a bit more waste in our diets. The theory behind this is that the near-surgical level of cleanliness that many kids experience these days make them like the boy-in-the-bubble, with weak immune systems. So when a bit of infected food makes it through, it can be fatal. I don't have the scientific expertise to evaluate this claim, but I just love counterintuitive stuff like this.

By the way, didn't George Carlin advance a similar theory?

Graeme Frost and the Oprahfication of American Political Discourse

There's been quite the kerfluffle about young Graeme Frost, and his family's financial situation. A couple of weeks ago, the Democrats had Graeme Frost -- age 12 -- deliver their response to President Bush's radio address. Not surprisingly, the folks at Thing Progress are delighted with this little stunt -- the Democrats, you see, are "daring to put a human face on the SCHIP program at a time when Bush was proposing a 'diminishment of the number of children covered.'”

How daring of them.

Apparently the folks at Thing Progress think our politics aren't emotional enough. If there is one thing we are not short on, it's human faces. If anything, we need fewer human faces, and more cold, hard analytical reasoning. Putting a twelve-year-old on the radio like one of Jerry's Kids is emotional and manipulative, a way of bypassing reasoned debate and argument. It's all part of the Oprahfication of American political discourse, and it is, in general, a Bad Thing.

I'm old enough to remember when people were discerning enough to ridicule Jimmy Carter for seeking his daughter Amy's advice on arms control. We really ought to ridicule the Democrats for sending twelve-year-olds to respond to the President. And it's incredibly hypocritical for the Democrats to become outraged when people decided to check the anecdote they were using and began questioning whether the Frost family is needy enough that it "deserves" government aid. Here's a hint for our friends on the left: if you don't want people to check your anecdotal claims about the necessity of government programs, then stop using anecdotes. But if you put the poster kid in the wheelchair up on stage, don't act all outraged if somebody decides to check if the kid can walk. (I'm using that in a metaphorical way, since Graeme does seem to be ambulatory.)

As Mark Steyn put it:

Over the weekend, I posted a couple of things re Graeme Frost, the Democratic Party's 12-year old healthcare spokesman. Michelle Malkin reports that the blogospheric lefties are all steamed about the wingnuts' Swiftboating of sick kids, etc.

Sorry, no sale. The Democrats chose to outsource their airtime to a Seventh Grader. If a political party is desperate enough to send a boy to do a man's job, then the boy is fair game. As it is, the Dems do enough cynical and opportunist hiding behind biography and identity, and it's incredibly tedious. And anytime I send my seven-year-old out to argue policy you're welcome to clobber him, too. The alternative is a world in which genuine debate is ended and, as happened with Master Frost, politics dwindles down to professional staffers writing scripts to be mouthed by Equity moppets.

Now, all that said, I do think that hilzoy over at Obsidian Wings has a point: get the facts right. As it turns out, Graeme's family owns a nice house, but they bought it years ago when it was dirt cheap because it was in a bad neighborhood. Graeme attends a pricey private school, but he does so on a scholarship. From what I can tell he does seem to be the sort of lower-middle-class kid for whom the program appears to be intended. But there's no reason, in principle, why people shouldn't check the telling anecdotes used to advance certain policies.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

More Bathroom Antics

Andrew Sullivan links to this story about a Republican candidate arrested for public bathroom antics which in turn links to this Times-Picayune article. It seems that Joey DiFatta, a Republican Councilman and (now former) State Senate candidate has twice been detained for bathroom incidents in a mall. It's worth observing that DiFatta was never convicted in connection with either arrest, and that he denies any wrongdoing. So he may well be innocent.

Here's the story:

Kenner police issued a misdemeanor summons to DiFatta in September 1996 in connection with a peeping Tom incident in a men's bathroom at the former Mervyn's department store at The Esplanade mall, according to a Kenner Police Department incident report obtained by The Times-Picayune.

The report states that DiFatta watched a man use the bathroom while peering through a hole in a bathroom stall. The man held DiFatta until police arrived, at which time he was issued the misdemeanor summons and ordered to appear in court.

DiFatta said the man eventually withdrew his complaint, and the case was dismissed. A spokeswoman for the Kenner Police Department said the record was expunged.

Tapping foot in stall

In the second incident, Jefferson Parish deputies working an undercover detail in a men's bathroom at Dillard's at Lakeside Shopping Center in March 2000 stopped DiFatta after he indicated a desire to engage in sex with an undercover deputy in an adjoining bathroom stall, according to an interoffice memorandum written by Sgt. Keith Conley, one of the deputies involved in the investigation.

The report said DiFatta slid his foot into the deputy's stall and tapped the deputy's foot. In the report, Conley noted that such activity is common among men to indicate a willingness to participate in sex.

The deputy inside the stall, Detective Wayne Couvillion, responded by tapping his foot, and DiFatta reached under the partition and began to rub the deputy's leg, the report states.

The detective asked DiFatta, "What do you want?" according to the report, and he replied, "I want to play with you."

DiFatta also used a hand signal to indicate that he wanted to engage in sex and used language that indicated the same, according to the report. Conley, who is now the Kenner city attorney, confirmed the report's authenticity Thursday.

The incident did not culminate in an arrest because the deputy in the bathroom with DiFatta terminated the investigation after several children entered the bathroom, the report states. Conley noted in the report that DiFatta appeared well-versed and comfortable with the routine.

Sully's take:

I should say my sympathy is ultimately with the Republican. I don't think this stuff is a threat to public order or should be subject to police stings. But, sadly, if you are representing a party that believes in the necessity of publicly stigmatizing homosexuals, you're pretty vulnerable to this kind of trauma.

Forget Sully's loaded phrasing and gratuitous swipe at Republicans. What struck me was how casual and accepting he seems to be about this sort of activity in a public restroom. He seems to think it's, well, normal.

It's not the same "threat to public order" as, say, bank robbery, but when I'm using a public restroom, I don't want some other guy peering at me. Now maybe Sullivan doesn't mind if guys check him out as he's peeing. Heck, maybe he likes it. But most guys don't, and yes, it is a "threat to public order," because it's something that can provoke a physical confrontation. Likewise, while I'm a little less directly impacted if two guys are going at it in the stall next to me, I don't think it's something that bathroom-users ought to have to put up with. Perhaps police bathroom stings are going a bit far, but it really is legitimate for the cops to prevent people from having sex in public.

More to the point, Andrew Sullivan has spent a good amount of energy advancing the cause of tolerance for homosexuals -- most particularly arguing for gay marriage. Now, I realize that there is no logical connection between bathroom sex and other gay rights issues, but he might consider at least acknowledging that having sex in a public bathroom is a really gross thing to do. It's gross in the (rare) case when straight people do it, and it's gross when gays do it. But this casual acceptance of public gay sex -- something widespread enough that gay guys have developed an elaborate code -- certainly fuels the argument of guys like Clayton Cramer who notice that certain rather repulsive antics don't get much condemnation from within to the gay community.

Friday, October 5, 2007

ALL The Planes Are Late

I've been known to post a missive or two about bad customer service, and particularly about how U.S. Airways customer service really sucks. Now James Fallows links to this Patrick Smith's latest Salon "Ask the Pilot" column about why that plane is always late. According to Smith the answer is simple: the airport doesn't have enough slots to accomodate the number of takeoffs and landings at peak times. In particular, he thinks that regional jets are the big villain:

It's an airline scheduling issue, plain and simple. Carriers have created this mess through a self-defeating insistence that frequency of flights is the ultimate key to success. Over the past several years, they have portioned capacity onto smaller and smaller planes making more and more departures. The results of this strategy can be seen on any afternoon at airports such as JFK, Newark, LaGuardia and Washington National, where small regional jets (RJs) account for up to half of all takeoffs and landings. It is not the total volume of passengers slowing things down, it's the inefficient way they are divvied up. In some places, 50 percent of the traffic is carrying a quarter of the people.

How bad does it get? Two weeks ago I was working a flight from Europe to JFK. We landed shortly after 5 p.m. -- several minutes ahead of schedule, ironically -- only to spend the next two hours -- two hours -- taxiing from the end of the runway to our parking position. Our assigned gate was open and available the entire time, but the airport had become a spaghetti snarl of planes. Taxiways were blocked; aprons, clogged. It was literally gridlock -- with scores of 50- and 70-seat RJs jockeying for space with A340s and 747s.

Fair enough -- he's a pilot, and he can see and make sense out of what he sees outside his own window.

If you are like me (fat chance) your market-oriented libertarian instincts kick in: the obvious choice is simply to charge more for takeoffs and landings during peak periods. Yet Smith rejects this obvious solution:

So-called peak-period pricing is a popular and controversial idea, akin to levying heavy tolls on automobile drivers as a way of reducing downtown traffic jams. In cities like London, apparently, such disincentives have met with success. But jetliners are not cars, and airlines are not private motorists. The result would be higher fares with a minimal effect on congestion. Speaking last week to the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety, and Security, Zane Rowe, a vice president at Continental, said that peak-period pricing "will do nothing more than reduce service to small communities, reduce job growth and raise fares for commercial passengers." Rowe is partly right. The bit about small communities is certainly an eyebrow-raiser, now that RJs operate on mainline trunk routes as much as they fly to minor cities. (Out of New York, they service such "small communities" as Chicago, Miami and Dallas.) He's correct, however, about costs being passed along to fliers. With average ticket prices as low as they are, it'd be relatively easy for airlines to pass along a modest rise to customers. You already pay extra to fly at the choicest times (even if your flights don't actually leave or arrive when they're supposed to). You'd probably pay more. For the scheme to encourage any measurable consolidation, fees would need to be fairly radical, which is to say very expensive, and I don't foresee that happening. The airlines are too strong, regulators too timid. Instead, the probable result: pricier tickets, same delays.

This can't be right. Basic economics tells us that if the price goes up, the amount demanded will go down. You cannot have pricier tickets and no reduction at all in the commodity being priced. At the margin, some travelers will shift to less-popular times. "Pricier tickets, same delays" is simply not a possible outcome.

Now, if they set the price for peak hour departure too low, then it won't have much of an impact, and so we will have pricier tickets and only slightly reduced delays. But if the congestion fee is that modest, well, ticket prices won't go up that much, either.

Besides, having government set the fee for a particular time is a clumsy and stupid way of going about implementing a congestion-fee system. The obvious solution is to figure out how many takeoffs and landings an airport can accomodate during a particular period and then auction off the rights to prime slots. Instead, Smith prefers a command-and-control solution:

If you ask me, the only hope is for carriers to consolidate departures and wean themselves away from their berserk obsession with regional jets. They can do this voluntarily, or the government can force them to by imposing caps. For example: At Kennedy, no aircraft with fewer than 100 seats shall be allowed to take off or land between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Or, during that same time frame, each carrier serving the airport must reduce its schedule by a certain prorated percentage that reflects its share of total passengers.

I'm quite certain this man knows more than I do about flying an airplane, or even about the mechanics of how airports work, but it's goofy to think that government-imposed caps will work better than a price system. If nothing else, he claims that government won't set the price high enough because of the strength of airlines and weakness of regulators. Then why, pray tell, does he imagine that government will set the cap correctly? And if he bans planes with fewer than 100 seats, doesn't he just create an incentive to produce airplanes with exactly 101 seats?

For the life of me, I just don't understand the appeal of command-and-control regulations, when market-based solutions are obviously superior.

UPDATE: Reading the comments, I must say, great minds think alike:

Surely the simplest and market friendly solution would be to cap the number of slots at the most congested airports and conduct an open auction for the right to use the slot. This would give the larger airliners an advantage in that their per seat slot cost would be lower than commuter and executive jets and would have the extra advantage of raising funds for the upgrade of traffic control systems.

Alas, this insightful commenter was anonymous, but whoever it was, he or she got it exactly right.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Free Gonzo Stross

Ann Althouse links to this story about a Michigan artist named Ed "Gonzo" Stross who faces a jail term for painting a mural on the wall of his own studio. Background: "In 1997, Stross got permission from the city to paint the 1,100-square-foot mural on an outside wall of Gonzo Fine Arts Studio at Gratiot and Utica roads, but with conditions: no letters, no genitalia and regular maintenance of the artwork." He then proceeded to paint a mural on the wall based on Michalangelo's "The Creation of Man" which -- gasp -- shows one of Eve's breasts. The city claimed that the breast was barred under the agreement, and brought him up on charges of some sort. A jury agreed with the city, and he's been ordered to serve 30 days in jail, pay a $500 fine, and serve two years probation.

His lawyer from the ACLU is, of course, focusing on the bluenosery of the whole thing:

Marlinga said the sentence is absurd given the fact that the mural is based on artwork in the Sistine Chapel and that the part some say is offensive is minimal.

“You would have to be a puritan out of the 16th Century with a magnifying glass in order to spot Eve’s nipples,” Marlinga said.

Yeah, yeah. And as Ann Althouse observed, breasts aren't genitals, at least not if we are talking about humans.

Of course that is all true, but it seems like they're focusing on the piddly stuff. Sure, it's based on a famous painting, but so what? Would it really be any less outrageous if the artwork were wholly original? And sure, only a prude could get all outraged about Eve's boob, but even if it were a giant size picture of Bambi the Stripper with enormous breasts, the case would still be outrageous.

First of all, why the hell is this a criminal case? If he violated an ordinance or broke his agreement, why not bring a civil case, ordering him to paint over the offending mural, or modify it -- paint pasties on Eve's nipples, or the like. Even if you assume that the city has the right to control how people paint their own property, there is no justification at all for criminalizing offending murals.

But I am not willing to make that assumption. I realize that the whole concept of defending property rights is anathema to the ACLU, but it's his own damned building. He should be able to paint it however he wants. Art, advertising, political advocacy, bright garish colors. The government has no business telling people how they decorate the outside of their own buildings.

Maybe you could convince me to allow government restriction of flat out raunchy porn on the wall. But this notion that the local government should be making aesthetic judgments about how people paint their property is just ridiculous. People should be able to do what they want with their own property without getting permission from some idiot bureaucrat.

Oh, and there has to be more to this story. He first got permission in 1997. That means the mural has been up for ten years now. If Eve's boob were that offensive, they'd have noticed it before then. There has to be some new reason the local authoritarians decided to go after this guy now. Some other grievance they have against him.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Go My Team!

Tim F. over at Balloon Juice exhibits a fine bit of reflexive anti-Republican my-team-ism in this post. He links to this John Fund piece about Rudy Giuliani's propensity to take telephone calls from his wife in the middle of speeches. On the merits I agree with Tim (and John Fund) that this is really rude, and also a bit weird. If Rudy is this rude to people, and has this sense of entitlement now, it's hard to imagine how he'd behave if he were actually elected President of the United States. Given how much kowtowing the President gets, actually being elected could push Rudy to James Bond movie-villain level megalomania.

Tim seems to think that Rudy will end up being a weak candidate because he is so personally unlikable. On that I agree with him. But what struck me about Tim's post was this comment:

On the downside, if Giuliani self-destructs too soon he could put the race within reach of a real candidate like Huckabee. Go Rudy go.

Tim seems to be saying that he wants Rudy to be the candidate precisely because he will be a weak candidate. This, to me, is an example of a rather desctructive my-teamism.

Whoever he turns out to be, the Republican candidate will have some chance at winning the general election. Maybe not a big chance, but some. As an American, it seems to me that you should root for both parties to nominate the person who you believe would make the best President. Maybe not the best candidate, but the best President.

The same would be true of die-hard Republicans -- they should want the Democratic Party to nominate the individual whom they believe would make the best President, if elected. It's fine to be mad at Republicans -- I am pretty annoyed with them myself, these days. But the polity is healthier when both parties field strong candidates.