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Monday, June 23, 2008

"I've unfortunately been to too many disasters as president." Something you share with all of us, Mr. President, since your election. People stupidly elected you and deserved it all. So when GOP members looking for an easy scapegoat say "Republicans say [Karl] Rove is the architect....He's the architect of our demise" they're being sleazy.  Bush sold the Reagan image of the third rates as our heroes, and they are not. I hope that lesson needs no repeating.

Comedian George Carlin died of heart failure yesterday. Throughout his career, Carlin tried to push boundaries and was probably best-known for his routine called "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV," which exemplified how he came to be known as "the dean of counterculture comedians." The "Seven Words" routine got him arrested in 1972 and even led to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that said the government has the power to police offensive language if children might be listening. Carlin wasn't as outside the mainstream as he's credited.  His genius was in creating that illusion and making folks believe it, and a lot of Americans really like to play the rebel, but shudder from paying the penalty.  Carlin knew us clear through.

"I think it is the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately," Carlin once said. He was 71 and had a history of heart trouble.  He was one of the greats, and he is missed every time art chickens out.  

Africa gets the big story space, but it's bad news as ever. First, though, I want to point out that my once friend and roommate Jan Mitchell is running a pretty nifty charity for kids in Africa, and she took the photo on the cover.   The little boy was defective at birth and therefore evil and left to die but was saved.  He's learning to walk, and that tongue and determination will make the difference.  Kindness, International, people.

Now to the horror.

Zimbabwe's opposition leader announced that he would pull out of the presidential runoff election scheduled for Friday due to the rising levels of violence. Morgan Tsvangirai said he could no longer ask his supporters to risk their lives "for the sake of power." Violence has been escalating as President Robert Mugabe's supporters have been stepping up their efforts to kill and intimidate opposition activists under the ruling party's new slogan: "WW—Win or War." The opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, says that at least 86 of its supporters have been killed and thousands more have been injured. "We will not be part of that war," Tsvangirai said.

The LAT talked to an official from Zimbabwe's ruling party who made it clear that just because Tsvangirai plans to drop out of the election (he has to put it in writing to make it official) doesn't mean the violence will automatically end and warned that the crackdown would intensify if opposition supporters decide to protest. The NYT notes that Tsvangirai's decision "seems intended to force Zimbabwe's neighbors to take a stand." There is a growing sense of frustration inside Zimabawe's opposition about the reluctance of South Africa, along with other African nations, to condemn Mugabe's tactics.

The WSJ says that although it's evident that there's "growing international impatience with the Mugabe regime," it's unclear whether it "would translate into any concrete steps." The United States and Britain want the United Nations Security Council to discuss the issue, a move South Africa has long opposed. The WSJ points out the opposition wants foreign leaders to support a transitional government that would take over Zimbabwe until fair elections can be held. But, of course, it's quite unlikely that Mugabe would agree to such a plan, seeing as though he has made it clear that he would not hand power to the opposition, no matter the results of the election.

The WP fronts a look at al-Hurra, the Arab-language television network that was founded by the Bush administration to improve the image of the United States in the Middle East and promote democracy. Around $350 million in taxpayer money has been plunged into a project that has been, for all intents and purposes, a flop. Al-Hurra has been plagued with problems from the start, partly due to the fact that many of its top executives had no experience in the TV business and couldn't speak Arabic. Think about that.

But ultimately, critics say the whole idea that a network could play the same role as Radio Free Europe did during the Cold War was ill-conceived. As opposed to those who lived behind the Iron Curtain, residents of the Arab world have plenty of choices due to the high proliferation of satellite dishes, and al-Hurra's programming, which is widely described as mediocre, has never found an audience. Coincidentally (or not?), ProPublica and 60 Minutes released the extensive results of a joint investigation into al-Hurra and its partner radio station last night and say that the network's "four years of operation have been marked by a string of broadcast disasters that government officials believe are as negative as anything aired by Al Jazeera." Another Bush triumph.

USA Today says there's been an almost 90 percent decrease in deaths caused by roadside bomb attacks in Iraq. Military leaders say this is due to a variety of factors, including new armored vehicles, more assistance from Iraqi security forces, and enhanced methods of surveillance.

Unsurprisingly, Barack Obama wants to get a record number of black voters to go to the polls in November as part of his strategy to win five key battleground states. Aides have identified "a gold mine" of new voters and will target them with the help of Obama's deep pockets and sophisticated techniques that were critical to Bush's victories in several crucial swing states. But strategists insist he has to play a delicate balancing act in order to avoid the appearance that he's "exploiting race or running solely as a black candidate," which could hurt his chances with white, working-class voters who didn't support him in the primaries.

The NYT looks at Obama's close ties to domestic ethanol producers. The presumptive nominee represents the country's second largest corn-producing state, so it's hardly a secret that he's a big supporter of ethanol as an alternative fuel. Today, the NYT notes that several of his advisers and biggest supporters have close ties to the ethanol industry. Obama's campaign insists the presumptive nominee's views have nothing to do with where he's from or any pressure from special interests. But the NYT points out that the presumptive nominee is against removing the tariffs on Brazilian ethanol that is made from sugar cane even though it is much more efficient. Instead, Obama favors awarding subsidies to farmers and imposing the tax on imports so the United States can build "energy independence."

In history, this day in 1757, the remarkable Robert Clive defeated the Indians at Plassey and won control of Bengal. With a few hundred men.  Learning how to play people against each other was a British tool, and it worked well.

In 1934, Italy gained the right to colonize Albania after defeating the country.

In 1964, Henry Cabot Lodge resigned as the U.S. envoy to Vietnam and was succeeded by Maxwell Taylor. He later was Goldwater's VP candidate.

This day in 1964, a burned car of three civil rights workers was found, prompting the FBI to begin a search. The young men had been missing since June 21, and their bodies were found on August 4.

Treason.  In 1972, this day, President Nixon and White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman discussed a plan to use the CIA to obstruct the FBI's Watergate investigation. That's why, kids.

The remarkable Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, died in New York of burns suffered in a fire set by her 12-year old grandson. She was 61 at her passing in 1997.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

More great CU football news as two former students and players are arrested for armed robberies here in Boulder.  They hark back to the former coach, of course, but it still looks bad. The New York Times has the most detailed look inside the CIA's interrogation program ever released. They tell the story of Deuce Martinez, an unlikely CIA interrogator who helped break al-Qaida masterminds Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. It details the role of secret Polish prisons, "enhanced interrogation techniques," and counter-narcotics technology in the post-9/11 scramble to prevent new attacks. The piece is agnostic on the utility of water-boarding and says the CIA determined the location for overseas prisons "based largely on which foreign intelligence officials were most accommodating."

The Washington Post says three in 10 Americans are admittedly racist—but a higher percentage is ageist. A WP/ABC poll says 30 percent of white Americans and 34 percent of black Americans admit they're racist, which I believe proves more whites lie. The paper says that this presents a challenge for Barack Obama, but it notes that about twice as many people have qualms about John McCain's age.

The Los Angeles Times leads with a Friedmanesque look at how the falling dollar has affected people across the globe. The dollar is rearranging the global economy as it falls. Companies that rely on exports to the U.S., like Chinese T-shirt makers and Indian outsourcers, are feeling the pinch. The LAT has a wide-ranging look at the misery—plus a cool interactive feature.

There's a new threat to the financial system. As the economy weakens, consumers are failing to repay their business and car loans in record numbers—posing risks to smaller, regional banks that stayed out of subprime lending.

The NYT says the Midwest flooding wouldn't be so bad if we'd acted on a 1994 Clinton administration report. After a devastating 1993 flood, it recommended replacing the administrative patchwork that governs Mississippi River levees with oversight by the Army Corps of Engineers. That never happened, and we're paying the price. The LAT fronts a look at the flooding's economic impact. Some analysts think it will be as bad as 1993 and contribute to the global food crisis. But others think flooded farms will rebound quickly if the next few months remain dry.

Of course, we won't starve in our 'crisis.' The NYT reports on an agriculture crisis in India. The country could be the world's second-largest food exporter, but poor policy choices and systematic underinvestment have turned it into something of a bread-basketcase.

Barack Obama's plan to mount a massive national campaign, something John Kerry couldn't do in 2004 because he didn't have enough money, is making the GOP very, very nervous. By the end of June, Obama will have paid staff members in all 50 states—and his ad campaign will grow "well beyond" his current 18-state buy.

Ah, hah! The LAT asks questions about Cindy McCain's beer empire. She's the chairwoman and majority private stockholder of a major beer wholesaler that often lobbies the government, and she hasn't explained how she'd solve the conflict of interest as First Lady.

More Third World horror. Robert Mugabe's election crackdown before the runoff in Zimbabwe gets needed coverage to dubious effect.. His party insists it's a war, not an election, in which "all state resources at our disposal" will be employed in "the final battle for total control." They've launched a killing spree against opposition activists and they're herding voters into "re-education" meetings. The LAT goes inside with rough casualty numbers.

Good. Britain has set up a special office to stop Pakistani parents in the U.K. from forcing their children into arranged marriages. It's common for traditional parents to send their kids to Pakistan, where they're married off, often literally at gunpoint. But Her Majesty's Government thinks the practice is a human-rights offense, and it's interceding on behalf of the kids.

In history, this day in 1611, English explorer Henry Hudson, his son and several other people were set adrift in present-day Hudson Bay by mutineers. Never seen again, although Indians accepted children easy enough.

This day in 1772, slavery was outlawed in England.

In 1870, the U.S. Congress created the Department of Justice. Finally.

This day in 1933, Germany became a one political party country when Hitler banned parties other than the Nazis.

This day in 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Remembering the Bonus Army, in 1944 Roosevelt signed the "GI Bill of Rights" to provide broad benefits for veterans of the war. A year to the day later, the battle for Okinawa officially ended after 81 days.

In 1964, apparently after someone read it, the U.S. Supreme Court voted that Henry Miller’s book, "Tropic of Cancer", could not be banned.

In 1970, Nixon signed the 26th amendment, lowering the voting age to 18.

In 1977, John N. Mitchell became the first former U.S. Attorney General to go to prison as he began serving a sentence for his role in the Watergate cover-up. He served 19 months.

In 1978, James W. Christy and Robert S. Harrington discovered the only known moon of Pluto. The moon is named Charon, but Pluto is inexplicably no longer a planet, despite a moon, rotation, being round.

This day in 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that persons with remediable handicaps cannot claim discrimination in employment under the Americans with Disability Act.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

This is the longest day of the year, an event to celebrate, and people are.  Apparantly native Americans are at long last allowed to do the Sundance again, which isn't necessarily as bloody as the Richard Harris movie depicted, nor as drug laden as others suggest.  It's a fertility festival world wide, so go for it.  

Unless you're teenagers in Glocester.  Don't, in that case.  Shape up.

If you need inspiration, view the words of our Education President, emoting for the ages to Arabs on Al Arabiya TV, informing the world what advice he'd give the next President.  It is: "Take the Middle East seriously, because that's the center of - that's the place where people get so despondent and despair that they're willing to come and take lives of U.S. citizens." A moment of silence for the fate of the translators, please.  Dubya: fucking us up one sentence at a time.

The New York Times has an analysis of the impressive, yet exceptionally fragile, security gains made in Iraq over the past six months. Especially given that people are just waiting for us to leave.  When we do not, it's all back. The paper wonders "What's going right? And can it last?" On the surface it looks like a military victory: The Iraqi army has quashed Shiite militias in a number of hot spots, driving violence to its lowest level in more than four years. But the article proceeds to elaborate the more unusual factors propping up the peace, including high recruitment for the Iraqi army, high oil revenues fending off inflation, tenuous deals with militias (including paying some insurgents to help keep the peace), and some very convenient assistance by American special forces. The WP is a little more bullish in its assessment of calm on the streets in Basra. The most striking element is a sense of guarded optimism in the quotes from Iraqis.

The House passed an electronic surveillance bill that would all but certainly put an end to legal challenges pending against telecommunication companies who were involved in warrantless wiretaps. The WSJ says many Democrats object to the FISA measure, but support from conservative Democrats and Republicans gave it enough votes to pass the House Friday. The paper says the leadership put the bill to a vote in order to protect Democrats in vulnerable districts. Enactment now seems inevitable, as the Senate takes up the bill next week. Barack Obama and John McCain each say they'll vote for the bill, which will be an interesting event, given that the Kos Krowd and the lefty blogosphere is so against this yet worships Obama.

The Burmese government denied several offers of foreign aid for cyclone victims out of what can politely be called "xenophobia." The government is helping its own opposition, however, as Burmese people looking to aid each other are learning to band together, solve their own problems and develop a sense of community activism. Of course, the junta is opposed to these groups as well. In one town, people distributing food are ordered to stop because a local general wants to be seen as the first to give out aid. Stories about people helping disaster victims are one thing—but the fact that the Burmese are trying to feed their starving countrymen over the objections of armed thugs takes the story to another level of inspiration. Meanwhile, WSJ runs a piece on Yangon, the country's old capital city, which the paper now calls a "ramshackle city of fear."

The Los Angeles Times leads with worrisome local unemployment reports.  High unemployment in California doesn't bode well for the rest of the country, and the state's unemployment rate rose to 6.8 percent in May, the fifth-highest rate in the nation. One analyst is quoted saying the state is already in a recession.

Recent declines in homeowning have all but erased the gains made earlier in the decade. The decline in homeowning since 2005 amounts to 1.3 percent of all households, which sounds small, but the paper assures us is the biggest drop in 20 years.

All of which inspires the WP to give a sobering assessment of  budget headaches the next president will face. Campaign promises being made today would only make the situation worse if they were enacted. The story starts off with a laundry list of current financial woes, many of which will get much, much worse over time, no matter what the next president does. The paper argues, however, that in the face of declining revenues and spiraling entitlement costs, both candidates' tax policies would swell the national debt and leave little funding for broad initiatives like a national health care overhaul. The paper finds Obama's tax policy less costly but reasons that McCain would be more inclined to cut spending.

The White House pursued its Guantanamo Bay detainee policy even though it knew there was a good chance the Supreme Court would overturn it, says the WP. The administration knew it would have a better chance of surviving a legal challenge if the detainee system were done in a legislative framework, the paper says, but declined to get Congress involved. Sources say officials pursued the policy unilaterally as part of a strategy to strengthen the executive branch.

The NYT writes about Lee Atwater flunkie Floyd Brown, one of the guys who produced the Willie Horton ad in 1988. Brown is now trying to raise money to go after Obama, but he's having a hard time attracting donors. The paper says this is partly because of legal changes to the limits of "527" or issue-advocacy organizations like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that helped defeat Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

The WP covers the much-ballyhooed discovery of ice on Mars. Of course, the paper notes that even if the white substance found by the Phoenix lander is ice, it doesn't answer the really big question of whether or not Mars ever sustained life.

An estimated 4 million wild hogs are raising hell in 37 states— destroying property to the tune of $800 million a year, says the NYT. For some states, the solution has been encouraging private hunters to go after the porcine troublemakers "with no weapon restrictions." But bagging a wild pig is a lot tougher than cornering Wilbur. For some hunters, the challenge of tracking something that can outsmart you is precisely the point. Outsmart and eat you.

In history, this day in 1404, Owen Glendower established a Welsh Parliament at Machynlleth and was crowned Prince of Wales.

Apparently, nothing else happened this day till 1788, when the U.S. Constitution went into effect after New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it.

On this day in 1941, German troops entered Russia on a front from the Arctic to Black Sea.

It was in 1954 that the American Cancer Society reported significantly higher death rates among cigarette smokers than among non-smokers.  Nobody, I mean nobody, really admitted it.

It was this day in 1964 that three civil rights workers disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Their bodies were found on August 4, 1964 in an earthen dam. Eight Ku Klux Klan members later went to federal prison on conspiracy charges.

In 1981, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" opened.  The last Indiana Jones movie sucked big time.

In 2004, SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan and piloted by Mike Melvill, reached 328,491 feet above Earth in a 90 minute flight. The height is about 400 feet above the distance scientists consider to be the boundary of space.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Been with family the last few days and fallen behind.  Mia culpa, of course.  

House and Senate leaders have reached an agreement on surveillance legislation. If approved, and everyone expects it will be, the New York Times says it "would be the most significant revision of surveillance law in 30 years." Annoyingly, the big winner is President Bush. After battling with Democrats on the issue for months, the president got pretty much everything he wanted. "The White House got a better deal than they even hoped to get," Republican Sen. Christopher Bond said. Democratic leaders insisted that the deal is a compromise but were criticized by some of their own. Sen. Russ Feingold said the deal "is a capitulation."

One of the biggest disagreements in the surveillance debate involved whether to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that are facing dozens of lawsuits. Under the new agreement, the companies could get the lawsuits dismissed if they show a judge written assurances from the government that their cooperation with the warrantless surveillance was legal. Everyone agrees this is much the same as simply granting immunity because, as an ACLU lobbyist said, the companies "have to produce a piece of paper we already know exists." The measure also effectively expands the government's power to monitor foreign communications by allowing broad warrants targeting large groups of people at once. The government would have to get individual warrants to eavesdrop on Americans but could carry out warrantless surveillance for a week in emergency circumstances.  

Democratic leaders said the most important part of the compromise agreement involves the "exclusivity" language that spells out the surveillance law, which is the only legal way for the government to carry out its eavesdropping operations. Democrats insist the language would prevent the White House from getting around the law.

The WSJ thinks the agreement "was driven largely by the realities of election-year politics" as Democrats facing re-election in more conservative parts of the country worried about appearing soft on national security. Obama is now in the unenviable position of having to decide whether to anger the Democratic base by supporting the measure or risk losing the support of independent voters if he speaks up against it. Ultimately, "the surveillance powers may end up being a rare survivor of the administration's post-9/11 redrawing of national-security law."

Barack Obama has gone back on his pledge and reject public financing for the general election campaign, which will allow him to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money in the battle for the White House. It is impressive though, as a show of confidence. By turning down $84.1 million in federal money, Obama became the first major party candidate to reject public funds since the system was instituted in 1976. This is of great interest among those who fear the naivite of his supporters, who actually believe he can be something so different and able to function.  Also, the silence speaks to great hypocrisy, but McCain is so aswamp in it you cannot expect this to be an attack route for him.

Obama's decision to opt out of the public financing system wasn't entirely unexpected, but it immediately brought criticism from Republicans who accused the presumptive Democratic nominee of going back on an earlier pledge to accept public money. "This is a big, big deal," Sen. John McCain said before confirming that he would accept public financing.

The strategic advantages to Obama are clear as he is now "positioned to mount a general-election campaign on a scale the nation has never seen," notes the LAT. Obama has already has already raised hundreds of millions of dollars and as if to underscore his financial advantage, the presumptive nominee launched his first television advertisement of the general election that will air in 18 states, including several that have consistently voted for the Republican candidate in the past. The LAT notes that while Obama has always emphasized he intends to redraw the electoral map, with so much money on hand he could also choose to plunge millions into states he doesn't even expect to win simply to distract McCain and force him "to defend that territory."

Earlier in the campaign, Obama had pledged to "pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve the publicly financed system." Obama's campaign said they tried to reach an agreement with the Republican campaign, but McCain's aides said there were never any serious discussions on the issue. Yesterday, Obama justified his decision by saying that Republicans would spend millions of dollars in "smears and attacks." But the NYT highlights that there is no evidence so far that "Republicans will have the advantage when it comes to support from independent groups." A Republican strategist said Obama is "looking for ghosts that don't exist."

Responding to an editorial criticizing his move, Obama writes a column in USAT saying that the decision "wasn't an easy one." The Democrat writes that while he agrees "that we need to limit the influence of big donors" and will work to fix the system when he's elected, "the system as it stands doesn't work as it should." USAT's editorial board says Obama's promise to reform the system when he's president "reminds us of St. Augustine's famous prayer: 'Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.'"

The NYT says that Obama's decision means that the already-troubled public financing system is now "facing the most critical threat to its survival." Presidential campaigns have always found a way to get around the limits imposed by the post-Watergate system, but Obama's decision "may do more to shatter the system than all of the loopholes it has spawned." McCain may go down in history as the last major presidential candidate to accept public money.

The NYT's David Brooks has things right. In a scathing column, Brooks criticizes Republicans for being "saps" and thinking that they're "running against some naïve university-town dreamer" when in reality Obama is "the most effectively political creature we've seen in decades." Obama is a "split-personality politician" who says one thing but then demonstrates that he'd do anything to get elected. "He's the only politician of our lifetime who is underestimated because he's too intelligent."

USA Today says at least 18 more levees on the Mississippi River "are at high risk of being overwhelmed this week," illustrating how outdated much of the flood protection is in the area. Many of the 31 levees that have already failed to provide adequate protection in the region were built at least 30 years ago.

The NYT fronts word that a large-scale Israeli military exercise that was carried out in early June appeared to be a dress rehearsal for an attack on Iran's nuclear installations. No one thinks the exercise means that an attack will actually take place in the near future, but the fact that it was so large seemed designed to get attention from intelligence agencies around the world. "They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know" that Israel is prepared to act if Iran continues on the path to build a nuclear weapon, a Pentagon official said.

In history, this day in 451, Roman and barbarian warriors, mostly German, brought Attila's army to a halt at the Catalaunian Plains in eastern France. Not for long, be it said.

On this day in 1756, 150 British soldiers - ish - with some women and children were imprisoned in a cell that became known as the "Black Hole of Calcutta." This was at the command of the Bengali, Siraj-ud-daula, and they were held there until the following morning. Of those imprisoned, only 23 survive.

It was this day in 1782 that the U.S. Congress approved the Great Seal of the United States. Although several early American politicians were Masons, the Masonic institutions themselves deny that the Seal is Masonic; therefore, any resemblance is purely coincidental.

In 1791, Louis XVI of France was captured while attempting to flee the country in the so-called Flight to Varennes.

Queen Victoria ascended the British throne and Lord Melbourne came to power following the death of her uncle, King William IV.

My home town in 1893 found Lizzie Borden innocent of the ax murders of her father and stepmother. The trial was held in New Bedford though the crime was in Fall River.

In 1947, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel was murdered in Beverly Hills at the order of mob associates angered over the soaring costs of his project, the Flamingo resort in Las Vegas.

In 1967, Muhammad Ali was convicted in Houston of violating Selective Service laws by refusing to be drafted. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the conviction.

In 1977, this day, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline began operation.

This was the day in 1979 - so long ago, yet it seems yesterday- that ABC News correspondent Bill Stewart was shot to death in Managua, Nicaragua, by a member of President Anastasio Somoza's national guard. It was caught live on camera by his team.  Peter Jennings' cold anger was palpable, and you could literally hear the nation going lock'n'load. Somoza was dead from then on.

In 1997, the tobacco industry agreed to a massive settlement in exchange for major relief from mounting lawsuits and legal bills.

On June 20, 2001, Houston mother Andrea Yates drowned all of her five children, one after another, in the bathtub, then notified the authorities. Yates is later sentenced to life in prison which is overturned. She was on medication for post-partum depression and had recently attempted suicide. Her husband, who apparently wanted a large family divorced her, married again, has another family going.

Finally, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally retarded murderers was unconstitutionally cruel. The vote was 6 in favor and 3 against.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Here in Boulder the Damned, the two guys who tasered each other some weeks back aren't going to trial, probably because everyone is so embarrassed. It does bring to mind the iffy status of security guards and what their actual role in the feeding trough of peace officers is.  I'm still not sure, but then I'm not convinced the walk lights have legal standing, either.

Vaguely good news out of Burma, where relief workers are coming back from some of the areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis with reports that survivors aren't doing as badly as initially feared. Of course, this doesn't mean survivors aren't struggling to stay alive, but there's little evidence that the delay in reaching the Irrawaddy Delta led to large numbers of deaths or disease outbreaks.

Relief workers say that the main reason why the predictions of massive amounts of deaths among survivors of Cyclone Nargis never materialized has to do with the nature of the disaster. Most who died in the cyclone drowned, and those who survived were unlikely to need urgent medical assistance. The Burmese are used to being ignored by their government, so villagers took matters into their own hands and managed to survive by relying on food that was immediately available. And while the international world was focused on the military junta's reluctance to allow foreign aid, Burmese citizens and monks were busy carrying out large relief efforts that many now credit with preventing mass starvation. Still, the good news is all relative, and relief workers emphasize that they continue to face obstacles from the government to carry out their work as thousands of survivors still don't have enough food or adequate shelter and remain vulnerable to disease.

A car bomb that exploded in a predominantly Shiite area of Baghdad and killed at least 51 people early today. It was the deadliest bombing in Iraq's capital in three months. Of course, angry Shiites called for revenge after the bomb ripped through a crowded marketplace in the Huriya district. Although residents were quick to blame Sunni extremists, the NYT, which is alone in fronting the news, talked to an American military spokesman who said "a special group extremist," meaning Shiite militants, claimed responsibility for the attack that was supposedly aimed at killing coalition forces. But the spokesman was careful to emphasize that since no coalition forces were injured, the U.S. military is questioning "the validity of the claim" of responsibility.

The rising Mississippi River threatens to break through levees in several towns that continue to rely on outdated flood protection. A review done by the paper found that at least 17 levees in the affected region "are too low to hold off a 100-year flood."

Barack Obama and John McCain are fighting, which yesterday focused on terrorism and who would do a better job at keeping Americans safe. It is nice to see Obama not only not backing down, but straining the leash. It all began when McCain's camp said Obama has an "extremely naive approach to terrorism" and accused the presumptive Democratic nominee of wanting to treat terrorists like ordinary criminals. Obama fought back and said those who are criticizing him are the same people who let Osama Bin Laden get away and "helped to engineer the distraction of the war in Iraq."

Yesterday's heated exchanges marked the first time that the two presumptive nominees have engaged on the issue of terrorism. The Post says the intensity of the back-and-forth "demonstrated that both sides are confident that they have a winning message on the issue." In 2004, many think President Bush managed to sway undecided voters by pushing the idea that Sen. John Kerry had a pre-Sept. 11 mindset when it came to dealing with terrorism. The way Obama quickly fought back against that assertion shows he's willing to engage in the debate and take it a step further by arguing that the way this administration has dealt with terrorism has been nothing short of a failure.

New documents released by congressional investigators yesterday  suggest the CIA played a larger role in advising Pentagon officials on tough interrogation techniques than was previously known. The top lawyer at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center defended the harsh techniques and explained that the definition of what constitutes torture "is basically subject to perception." He helpfully added: "If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong." True, a clue, surely. The documents illustrate how military officials were confused about what was allowed and gathered opinions from other government agencies before implementing the techniques despite objections from lawyers and others in the military who said they were probably illegal.

In yet another damaging revelation that isn't getting coverage, the documents show that lawyers openly discussed cutting down on the harsher techniques when observers from the Red Cross were present. McClatchy - again, that chain does good work - does emphasize this bit of news and notes that a senior CIA lawyer said during a 2002 meeting that it was common practice to move detainees in order to avoid the prying eyes of Red Cross officials. But McClatchy also points out that the documents don't specify whether U.S. officials "moved the detainees from one place to another or merely told the ICRC they were no longer present at a facility."

Yesterday was the first full day of legalized same-sex marriages in California. Hundreds of couples, including Star Trek actor George Takei and his partner, Brad Altman, descended on courthouses and city halls across the state to get married. By the end of the day, more than 2,300 marriage licenses had been issued, and the ceremonies largely went off without a hitch as opponents of same-sex marriage remained mostly silent as they continued planning their campaign to overturn last month's state Supreme Court decision that allowed the unions. "We are silent today, but we're just biding our time," one activist said. Whatever.  But I remain awed at how FEW gay marriages there have been, which strikes me that the numbers of gay people have been exaggerated through the years.

Equally big news in California and Florida, Bush will call on Congress today to repeal the federal ban on offshore oil drilling. The announcement came hours after McCain said he wants the ban lifted so states can decide whether drilling should be allowed off their coastlines. Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, followed McCain's lead and reversed his long-standing opposition to offshore drilling. Coincidently, Crist is widely considered to be on the shortlist of possible vice-presidential candidates. The NYT says Bush is currently considering whether to repeal an executive order signed by his father in 1990 that banned offshore drilling, but the White House emphasized the president wants Congress to act first. I'll bet.

The NYT's David Leonhardt points out that "there are some big unanswered questions about Mr. McCain's economic plans. And we in the media have largely overlooked those questions so far." Simply put, what McCain says on the campaign trail simply doesn't match what he tells "budget wonks" who look at the details of each candidate's proposals to see what effect they'd have on the deficit. Although neither Obama nor McCain seems terribly serious about getting rid of the budget deficit, "the unknowns about the McCain agenda are simply on a different scale."

The LAT interviews the infamous Iraqi informant known as Curveball, who gave Western intelligence officials information about supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and finds that he still insists he was telling the truth. Rafid Ahmed Alwan wasn't eager to speak to reporters, but "in a series of sometimes reluctant interviews," he said he's being blamed for the mistakes of others. Germany's intelligence agency believed much of what he told them soon after he began seeking political asylum, but if government officials had bothered to do a little digging, they would have found that Alwan was famous for being a dishonest man. He constantly lied and "was not embarrassed when caught in a lie," a former supervisor said. The trend seems to continue. "Everything I said was true," Alwan said. "For what I've done, I should be treated like a king." Yes. Charles I, for example.

In history, this day, the War of 1812 began with our declaration of war against Great Britain. The conflict began over trade restrictions.

Three years to the day later, Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo, partly because of an inability to properly survey the battlefield (possibly due to a case of inflamed hemorrhoids). He faced an an international army under the Duke of Wellington, and abdicated on June 22.

Twelve years after, London's Waterloo Bridge opened over the River Thames and designed by John Rennie.

On this day in 1900, the Empress Dowager of China ordered all foreigners killed. Among those meeting this fate are the foreign diplomats, their families, as well as hundreds of Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts.

In 1918, the German offensive, and Army, having collapsed,  Allied forces on the Western Front began their counter-attack which won the war.

It was in 1936 that Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano was found guilty on 62 counts of compulsory prostitution, a charge we might see again applied to others.

In 1959, a Federal Court annulled the Arkansas law allowing school closings to prevent integration.

In 1967, John Phillips helped organize the Monterey Pop Festival, and this day famed guitarist Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar on stage and changed a few heads.

In 1983, Dr. Sally Ride became the first American woman in space aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Here in Colorado, this day in 1984, the Jewish talk show host Alan Berg was murdered in the driveway of his Denver home by members of The Order, a neo-Nazi group partially inspired by the novel The Turner Diaries. Two white supremacists were convicted of civil rights violations in the murder.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Barack Obama and John McCain are running even among political independents. McCain has a clear lead among this crucial group of voters on dealing with terrorism while Obama is seen as better equipped to handle a variety of domestic issues. The two presumptive nominees are pretty much evenly split on who would be better on Iraq. Overall, Obama leads McCain 48 percent to 42 percent among all adults and 49 percent to 45 percent among registered voters. I suspect a blowout for Obama, especially after the debates.

A majority believes McCain would run the country much like President Bush, which is a bad sign for the Republican nominee when unhappiness with the direction of the country continues to increase. In total, 84 percent say that the country is on the wrong track. Read that again.

McCain also faces a clear "enthusiasm gap" as many more said they're "very enthusiastic" about Obama, a trend that carries over even to the supporters of the presumptive nominees. But enthusiastic or not, McCain has the support of almost nine in 10 Republicans, while Obama still has clear scars from the long primary fight as "not quite eight in 10 Democrats" said they support him, while "nearly a quarter" of Clinton supporters said they'd rather see McCain win in November. I do not believe that.  No Democrat would vote for McCain over Obama, that's GOP misinformation.

In order to increase economic growth, the WSJ says Obama would "rely on a heavy dose of government spending," including a plan to spend $15 billion a year for 10 years on energy technology. Obama also emphasized that the government must use its power to redistribute income. The presumptive Democratic nominee noted he might back a decrease in corporate tax rates as part of a package that would simplify the system by reducing existing loopholes.

In a NYT op-ed piece, Tony Horwitz has a bad idea that could help Obama gain the support of blue-collar voters: "Lose the Nicorette. Light up instead." Statistics show lower-income Americans with a high-school education are more likely to smoke and some key swing states have a large number of smokers. "Bottom line: small-towners in the Rust Belt and Appalachia don't cling to guns and religion so much as they do cigarettes."

The New York Times leads with an interesting look at how the tables have turned in relations between China and the United States. It wasn't so long ago that U.S. officials were busy criticizing China for its economic policies, but now Chinese officials are doling out the criticism and saying that American officials should spend more time fixing problems in their own back yard before trying to implement changes in an economy that has continued to grow at a strong pace. The new criticism reflects a "new sense of self-confidence" that is "bolstered by the lame-duck status of the Bush administration." This combination means that American officials are unlikely to get any significant concessions from the Chinese in the latest round of economic talks this week. No kidding. True around the world.  Heard anything about Condi of late?

USA Today says companies from Europe and Asia are starting to invest more heavily in Iraq than those from the United States now that the security situation has improved. Some say U.S. companies could lose out on early opportunities if they don't step up efforts to do business with the war-ravaged country. Given the resentment we've generated, go figure. The Pentagon official who is in charge of efforts to rebuild the Iraqi economy says "it's ironic" that "the people who are getting in on the ground floor are not American." No, it isn't.  It was predictable and was in fact predicted.

The senior civilian official who was in charge of overseeing the military's largest contract in Iraq during the first two years of the war tells the NYT he was pushed out of his job after refusing to approve more than $1 billion in payments to KBR. The official, Charles Smith, told KBR that it would have to provide clear spending records before the Pentagon would approve payment. After he was "suddenly replaced," most of the payments were approved (until last year, KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton, the company where Vice President Dick Cheney served as chief executive). Army officials insist Smith, who worked for the Army for 31 years before retiring in February, wasn't removed from his position because of the dispute with KBR. But Smith tells a different story and says he was constantly pressured to look the other way and ignore KBR's accounting irregularities. There had better be criminal proceedings against these contractors.

Senior Pentagon officials began compiling lists of harsh interrogation techniques that could be used on detainees at Guantanamo months before commanders at the camp requested guidance on how to deal with uncooperative prisoners. A Pentagon official previously suggested that the tougher interrogation techniques came out of a request from Guantanamo commanders. The investigation also found that Pentagon lawyers had raised concerns about the legality of the techniques a month before they were approved, which - yawn - contradicts previous statements by top Bush officials.

In Afghanistan, hundreds of Taliban invaded and took control of seven villages outside Kandahar, the country's second-largest city. The development came three days after hundreds of Taliban members escaped a Kandahar prison in an attack that appeared to be well planned, not that it needed to be. The NYT covers a Taliban commander who is working out of Pakistan to coordinate attacks inside Afghanistan.  He does this with the help of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. These "combined terrorist-insurgent networks" have not only provided plenty of recruits but have also allowed insurgents to increase the sophistication of their attacks, which was evident in last week's prison break.

The Los Angeles Times has new data suggesting rising gas prices might affect the housing market. Home prices in Southern California dropped 27 percent in May from a year ago, and the plunge was even greater in far-out suburbs. Analysts say the housing market in the so-called exurbs might never fully recover, as people are increasingly reluctant to move far away from their jobs because of increasing commuting costs

What nobody points out is how few there are, how few gays want to get married, how few gays there are, all told. The LAT covered the first legal same-sex marriage in Los Angeles County. A few other localities in California did also after they officially became legal at 5:01 p.m. and many more gay and lesbian couples are expected at clerks' offices today when counties across the state will be issuing marriage licenses. The LAT notes that the couples who were first to marry "could have been selected by central casting to appear both nonthreatening and mainstream." It's all part of an effort by proponents of same-sex marriage to control what kind of images are released of the ceremonies so as not to scare voters who will go to the polls in November to decide whether the state Constitution should be amended to forbid the unions. "One of the things about the gay and lesbian community is we're known for our outrageousness, our flamboyance," a West Hollywood lawmaker said. "But we're under this incredible political pressure not to have those portrayals."

In history this day in 362, the Apostate Emperor Julian issued an edict banning Christians from teaching in Syria.

This dayin 1579, Sir Francis Drake claimed San Francisco Bay for England.

In 1856, the Republican Party opened its first national convention in Philadelphia.

It was this day in 1876 that General George Crook’s command was attacked and bested on the Rosebud River by 1,500 Sioux and Cheyenne under the leadership of Crazy Horse.

In 1885, the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York City aboard the French ship Isere.

This day in 1924, the Fascist militia marched into Rome.

In 1928, the dubious aviatrix Amelia Earhart began the flight that made her the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

It was this day in 1950 that Dr. Richard H. Lawler performed the first kidney transplant in a 45-minute operation in Chicago, IL.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the required reading of the Lord's prayer and Bible in public schools.

For those given to rosy eared recollections of the Watershed year of 1968, on this day that year the Ohio Express' "Yummy Yummy Yummy (I've got love in my tummy)" went gold.  Let me repeat....In 1972, this day, the "plumbers" broke into Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate complex, in the course of what President Nixon would later describe as a "third rate burglary." In actuality, it is an attempt by the Republican Party to illegally wiretap the opposition. Five men were eventually arrested, all of whom worked for the reelection of President Nixon. Thus began Watergate.

Two years to the day later, the IRA exploded a bomb in London's Houses of Parliament. An hour before, the IRA called to warn of the threat,  but officers fail to clear the building in time and 11 are killed.

In 1991, the Parliament of South Africa repealed the Population Registration Act. The act had required that all South Africans for classified by race at birth.

This day in 1994, O.J. Simpson failed to turn himself in to the LAPD at a prearranged time. He is later spotted in a white Ford Bronco on a Los Angeles expressway. After a low-speed pursuit through the freeways and streets of Brentwood, O.J. was finally arrested live on television in the driveway of his mansion. According to one of the defense attorneys who served on O.J.'s "Dream Team," Simpson tried to kill himself in the car, but the gun misfired. The Juice allegedly told him: "I pulled the trigger and it didn't go off." Afterwards, Simpson was arrested and charged with the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"Your Eminence, you're looking good." Our President to Pope Benedict XVI, who apparently took it in stride. I'd thought a Pope was above a mere Eminence, but I don't really care.

Flood-devastated Iowa, which Boulder would do well to study (although our's will be far more swift and shorter lasting) allows the media to segue into the disaster's impact on crops. As flood waters rolled, they are taking a major toll on the area's farms just weeks after the seeds have gone into the ground. With food prices at record highs, it's the last time a farmer would want to lose a crop. More than 1 million acres have been washed out. "In the lean years, we had beautiful crops but they weren't worth much," one farmer says. "Now, with commodity prices sky high, mother nature is throwing us all these curve balls."  

Water runs downhill, and as it does, it will find the Mississippi River, which is expected to crest in the middle of next week. The calamity sent food commodity prices even higher.

The WP looks at an effort in Congress to preserve 2 million acres of wilderness, an amount equal to what it has saved over the last five years. A confluence of factors—Democratic control of Congress, communities' increasing recognition that they actually need environments in which to live, and environmentalists' recognition that they must offer concessions to move forward—mean that 2 million acres could be protected under federal control.

"It may not seem like it on most issues, but in this one arena Congress is getting things across the goal line," Mike Matz, executive director of the advocacy group Campaign for America's Wilderness, tells the Post. "Nobody gets everything they want, but by coming together, talking with age-old adversaries and seeking common ground, wilderness protection is finding Main Street support and becoming motherhood-and-apple-pie." Good.  Now, population control.

Lawmakers and environmentalists are also raising President Bush's record of opening wilderness to extraction

In USAT, coverage of nationwide increases in electric bills, the result of climbing coal and natural gas prices. Why coal prices? The paper says coal has doubled in the last year largely due to surging demand in India and China, but those two countries certainly haven't doubled their energy usage in a year, and China is crawling in coal. Either way, bills are expected to rise by as much as 29 percent. Price gouging.

The Los Angeles Times has a feature on the opportunities presented to state Republicans by California's disastrous financial situation. In reality, a profile in bipartisan cowardice. Lawmakers have missed the constitutionally mandated June 1 deadline to enact a budget. Democrats are offering a range of new taxes but not specifying what they want to tax, and Republicans are offering a bunch of spending cuts but not specifying what they want to cut. The state GOP is instead using the opportunity to press its legislative agenda: In order to pass the budget, Democrats may need to repeal environmental and labor laws normally addressed outside the spending bill.

Worse, the Wall Street Journal gleefully announces Big Oil plans to ask Congress to allow more drilling in the United States. Democrats may have struck on an ingenious way to deflect it: Drill what you have. WSJ reports that the amount of available and leased land in production has declined in the last few years and is down to 27 percent. Big Oil says that Congress doesn't understand how the industry works and that it takes time to get land under production.

The Journal notes, however, that Wall Street tends to value oil companies based on reserves, rather than production, providing an incentive for a company to drag its corporate feet. Meanwhile, portraying Big Oil as a collection of greedy scoundrels may not prove politically difficult. The industry is still sending three-quarters of its campaign contributions in the 2008 election cycle to the GOP. In Congress, you often get what you pay for, public calls for more drilling notwithstanding.

Two Bear Stearns managers may be facing indictments, says the WSJ. THAT could provide good testimony.

The euphemistic-phrase-of-the-year award has a strong candidate in a New York Times Page One piece on Obama's executive management skills. It's important to gauge how he runs a large operation, notes the Times, "as the country absorbs the lessons of President Bush's tenure in the Oval Office." ("Absorbs the lessons" is certainly one way of putting it. Struggle to understand, won't you?) Obama, say Zeleny and Rutenberg, "is personally even-keeled, but can be prickly when small things go wrong." No kidding. They call him "a concerned but not obsessive manager" who routinely communicates by BlackBerry—what happens if the president loses his?—and delegates many decisions and most tasks to a core group of staffers. Unlike the current White House tenant, Obama is a night owl, sending messages into the morning hours.

Obama also allows himself to be overruled on issues he doesn't find to be crucial. He apparently disliked the slogan "Change We Can Believe In" and thought his blue and white logo was too corporate and polished-looking.

The LAT addresses the human cost of sugar ethanol and finds it quite steep. Low pay, long hours, and exposure to toxic chemicals make for the foundations of a rotten workday. In much of Brazil, sugarcane is still harvested manually, much as it was by slave labor more than a century ago.

The piece includes the requisite protest-too-much quote from an industry hack. "If there is an industry that has bettered the situation of the worker, it is the sugar cane industry," said Rodolfo Tavares of Brazil's National Confederation of Agriculture, a trade group. "It's an example for the world." No doubt it is.

In history, on June 16, 1750 BC, lawgiver King Hammurabi died in Babylon, now Iraq, and was succeeded by his son Samsu-iluna.

In 455 CE, Rome was sacked by the Vandal army.

Finally, in 1487, the War of the Roses ended with the Battle of Stoke.

It was on this day in 1858, in a speech in Springfield, Illinois, U.S. Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln said the slavery issue had to be resolved. He declared, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

In 1952, "Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl" was published in the United States.

This day in 1958, Hungarian prime minister Imre Nagy was hanged for treason. He had been the prime minister during the 1956 uprising that was crushed by Soviet tanks. In 1989, Nagy was reburied. The funeral brought at least a quarter of a million people to the streets of Budapest.

On June 16, 1959, while entertaining friends at his home, George Reeves - in the original Superman TV series he played the hero - committed suicide with a 9mm German Luger.

A year to the day later, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho opened in New York. And scared the bejesus out of people, without a doubt.In 1961, the remarkable Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union while in Paris, traveling with the Leningrad Kirov Ballet.

In 1976, this day, thousands of school children revolted against the South African government's plan to enforce Afrikaans as the language for instruction in black schools. Later, they fought for it.

In 1978, U.S. President Carter and Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos ratified the Panama Canal treaties. And we were out of there.

In 1987, a jury in New York acquitted Bernhard Goetz of attempted murder in the subway shooting of four young blacks he said were going to rob him. He was convicted of illegal possession of a weapon. In 1996 a civil jury ordered Goetz to pay $43 million to one of the people he shot.

In 1996, Russian voters had their first independent presidential election. Boris Yeltsin was the winner after a run-off.

In 2000, U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson reported that an employee at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico had discovered that two computer hard drives were missing.

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