Friday, August 26, 2005

I think I have no power

Democratic leaders must look themselves in the mirror every morning and say to themselves, "I have no power.""

That's Matt Yglesias, five months ago, on the Social Security debate. I thought it was a pretty funny image -- imagine Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid building that into their morning routines. I also thought it was right. To put it more accurately, but in a way that would make Pelosi's morning routine a little longer, the only power that Democrats have is to ambush dramatic new Republican legislation like Social Security Privatization that we can successfully rally public opinion against. Dramatic improvements in policy are beyond us.

Now Matt's talking about how to get our Iraq policy in order, and I'm confused. Did we somehow get power? If so, it must have been a lot of power, because it's hard for me to see how Democrats can reshape something that's as much an executive matter as Iraq policy. Is Matt envisioning a future in which Democrats retake the House or Senate in 2006? Is he imagining that the moderate Republicans will come around and actually vote our way? (I don't think he thinks that.)

If we have power, making constructive suggestions about a withdrawal tied to events in Iraqi politics (elections, progress on the Constitution) might be a good idea. Everyone should be puzzling over Brad Plumer's post against withdrawal and figuring out whether he's right. If we don't have power, though, our energies should be devoted to finding politically sellable positions that will help us win some seats in 2006 while leaving us in position to clean up the mess in 2008 if it still exists. Taking the longer view, we should be trying to make this debacle the symbol of Republican foreign policy for a generation. When you can't actually change things, you have to settle for making Americans aware that Republicans make idiotic decisions which strengthen terrorism while killing lots of good people.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Yumminess in paradise

Having had a wonderful time in Hawaii, I shall now bore you with vacation pictures.

One of the big thrills for my mom was seeing all the delicious flora that Hawaii had in common with her native India -- mangos, jackfruit, date palms, guavas, and sugarcane. Dad found some sugarcane by the side of the road and ripped out a big stalk for us. I've found sugarcane to have a slightly bubble-gummy flavor among its sweetness, and this piece was no exception:

On the topic of deliciousness, I am here depicted enjoying a rainbow:

If you were reading back at the beginning of July, you'll remember my brother Robin and my sister Supriya, here embroiled in their usual backseat antics:

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I must away, ere break of day

I'm going to be traveling*, mostly with the family, until the beginning of September. Expect light posting for the next two weeks. In the meantime, you could read the poll Brad Plumer's linked to about public opinion in the Arab world. It's more informative than anything I could say, even if I had read the whole thing.

*Apparently it's spelled differently in different countries. Which makes the chart unusually handy in its case, since you're traveling if you're going to different countries. Except that only Americans spell it with one l, so you don't really need the chart once you've figured that out.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sunday's Song: MacPherson's Farewell

Over at Ezra's, I mentioned one of my favorite songs, Óró Sé Do Bheatha 'Bhaile. Another one, which I learned from the good people of the Harvard Celtic Society, is MacPherson's Farewell. (The song also goes by MacPherson's Lament and MacPherson's Rant, the latter of which seems more appropriate than the former.)

The story told by the song is over 300 years old -- Scottish bandit James MacPherson, the illegitimate son of a Highland lord and a Gypsy woman, was captured by the authorities and hanged. According to legend, he was a skillful fiddler, and on the gallows he played his fiddle and then offer it to anyone who would perform the subversive act of fiddling at his wake. Seeing no takers, he broke his fiddle right there so that it wouldn't fall into unworthy hands after his death. The fiddle was recovered by a member of his clan, and now it sits in the clan museum. Yet another legend is that local officials who wanted him killed were afraid of a pardon being delivered by higher authorities, so they put the town clock forward 15 minutes so they could hang him before the pardon would arrive.

I've never found a particularly good recording of this song. As for the lyrics, there's a whole bunch of different versions of this song to be found on the internet. I really have no idea which one most closely resembles whatever MacPherson originally said. When I sing it, I do the version I've linked to, but I swap out the anti-vengeance lyrics for a more fiery verse from the Robert Burns version:

I lived a life of sturt and strife;
I die by treachery
It burns my heart I must depart,
And not avenged be.

(I'm usually a pretty terrible singer. But practice makes better, and I've done these songs a couple hundred times. Apologies to my old Celtic Society buddies who had to suffer through the earlier versions.)

Friday, August 12, 2005

Moving up in the world

Ezra Klein has invited me and a couple other bloggers to regularly participate on the weekends at his place. I'm blogrolling them at the top, and their numbers are likely to increase. See you there!

(For an idea of some of the cool folks I'm going to be hanging out with, read this post on girls and video games. Maybe the promised discussion of the administration's Castlevania policy will actually materialize!)

Faster, technocrat! Kill! Kill!

Via Tony comes Brad DeLong's story:

Since I took Bruce's seat at the Treasury when the Bush administration turned into the Clinton administration, let me recount one 10:30 PM conversation I had at the Treasury in the spring of 1993 with one of the career economists. "Yeah. It was kind of boring around here for the past couple of years. We used to wish that we would be asked by the White House to do more." Pause. "I suppose the lesson is: 'Be careful what you wish for'."

I like what Tony says about this:

in general: the Democrats are led by people who want to think through to the best policy for every situation and enjoy doing that, and the Republicans have a set goal and know how they want to accomplish it. Their financial policy is run by Rove, Card, and Cheney. Our financial policy was run by a bunch of geeks staying late every night, obsessively trying to make sure they use the best methods.

Deism versus Intelligent Design: once more

Seeing as some people from QandO are still confused, I'm going to lay out the reasons why Intelligent Design is incompatible with a Jefferson-style Deistic view of the universe. This will settle the first question we discussed -- why "Intelligent Design" can't be used as a general term to describe the belief that God created the universe, and didn't interfere with it afterwards. Then I'll clear up the confusion that resulted from JWH's quotations of evolutionary theory.

First, let me clarify something. In arguing against Intelligent Design (ID), I'm arguing against the doctrines pushed by this movement, in particular the doctrines that cause them to propose making weird changes to high school biology textbooks. "Intelligent Design" is a proper name, not a description, hence the capitals. That you watched a news program about foxes doesn't mean you watched Fox News; that you believe an intelligent being designed the universe doesn't mean you believe in Intelligent Design. There are ways to believe that intelligent beings designed the universe that exclude the possibility of ID, and Jeffersonian Deism is one of them. I can only imagine the cackling with which ID's name was born -- it was a respectable-sounding name guaranteed to confuse issues for the benefit of would-be-theocrats everywhere.

Let me focus on one key doctrine of the ID movement -- the rejection of "chemical evolution." Chemical evolution is the view that the causal processes by which life first arose are reducible to the chemical interactions of inanimate matter. To quote ID proponent John Calvert:

The evidence for this claim is practically non-existent and there is no coherent theory about how life arose from inanimate matter through an undirected chemical process.

Rejecting chemical evolution, Calvert and the ID movement hold that God must act, even after all the chemical precursors (amino acids, nucleic acids, etc.) are in place, in order to bring the first living entity into existence.* This is in direct contradiction with the Deistic view that God brought the world into existence but did not interfere with it afterwards.

Now for the question of whether evolutionary theory is compatible with Deism. JWH's misunderstanding of the evolutionary theory quotations at the end of the comments section must first be dealt with. Many of the sources he cites are part of a rejection of "directed mutation", a view according to which there is a biological process aimed at generating beneficial mutations in organisms. They don't reject determinism, which is all the Deist needs. If an unsecured bale of hay accidentally falls out of the back of a truck and rolls around in a certain way, no process is directing it. However, given the exact initial conditions and the laws of nature (and leaving out quantum indeterminacy), there is exactly one way in which it could fall. JWH's quotations address the former kind of directedness; to argue against determinism he needs quotations addressing the latter half.

However, he comes a long way towards accepting my view when he says the following:

It is certainly possible that God set up the universe toward a specific goal. However, until you can figure out a test to demonstrate this, it is not scientific and not part of evolutionary theory.

This I completely agree with, and it was the thrust of my earlier post on the issue. Deism is definitely not part of evolutionary theory, and it is not scientific. However, as a hypothesis outside of science, it never contradicts the claims of evolutionary science. So you can accept evolution as a scientific theory, and be a Deist about the mysterious things that go on outside the domain of science, beyond space and time.

* ID leaves open the possibility that friendly space aliens came to Earth and started life. I don't know if any actual IDers believe this. Even if they do, God is still necessary to explain how the space aliens arose on Xenu or wherever. So IDers are committed to the existence of some Designer before any life arose in the universe, and perhaps they should call him God.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Last Days of Foxhound

I've never really been into webcomics, and I don't know much of the backstory about the universe it's set in. But on Occultatio's recommendation, I started reading Chris Doucette's "The Last Days of Foxhound" a couple days ago. Soon enough I'd read all 200+ strips. Reading the first 18 or so will give you an idea of the characters in all their secret-agent-superantihero goofiness.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

After savagery

Excellent post from Matt Yglesias, on the difference between the moral constraints on warfare now and in World War II, and the implications of these for future nation-building endeavors.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Choice and choices

Interesting discussion over at Ezra's about whether NARAL's old endorsement of Chafee was the right choice. I'm with Ezra on this one in thinking that NARAL made a mistake.

Imagine a judicial nominee who's into the whole "Constitution in Exile" thing and wants to roll back the federal regulatory system until all the mountains are strip-mined away, but also is strongly pro-choice. Now look around and try to find such a nominee. Can you? Oh, I know there are libertarians out there in the world, but they tend not to get nominated to federal judgeships. Presidential candidates try to satisfy the whole set of interest groups that brought them to power, and the nature of the political coalitions in today's America doesn't allow for nominees like this. So even pro-choice Republicans will vote for anti-abortion nominees, since there are a bunch of other Republican positions bundled in with the opposition to abortion. There's also the institutional machine of the Republican Party enforcing discipline here -- James Dobson and Corporate America have paid the piper, and Grover Norquist is going to make anyone who wants party support march to their tune. This explains the data that Kos cites -- Harry Reid votes against Janice Rogers Brown, while Lincoln Chafee votes for her.

I think dadahead is getting a little too caught up in Kos-bashing to clearheadedly assess the strategic issues involved here. Look, if Kos runs for Pope of the Democratic Party, I hope the Cardinals vote against him. (If there were such a position, I'd probably want Mark Schmitt to get it.) When Kos talks about the abortion, he doesn't seem to understand why it matters, and this is a problem with him. But he's right about how anti-abortion Democrats and pro-choice Republicans tend to vote on judicial nominees, and about the strategic import of this.

I think some of Kos' earlier anti-NARAL invective came out of a sense of frustration with NARAL regarding the RI senate race. The thinking was, "We canned our most promising candidate for you, and you're still endorsing our enemy?" Now, I happen to think that something is wrong if the Democrats can't get a pro-choice candidate elected in Rhode Island. Hopefully the whole situation will turn out for the best, with NARAL nudging the Democrats into nominating a pro-choice Democrat who eventually wins. I have no idea how likely this is.

Monday, August 08, 2005

What Intelligent Design is

Ezra cites QandO, who offers poll numbers that show a great amount of support for creationism, and solid support for "Intelligent Design". The first thing to say here is that QandO's post doesn't accurately represent the poll results -- scroll down to the November 2004 poll on the issue and you'll see that the phrase "Intelligent Design" was not actually used in the wording of the original poll. The pollsters merely asked people if they believed that evolution was "guided by God". There's an interesting difference between the belief that evolution was "guided by God" and ID, and it's what I want to bring to light in this post.

Here's a position that I imagine is reasonably popular, and that would make you my ally, not my enemy, in the fight against incorporating ID into biology textbooks: You believe that God created the universe so as to generate beings like us and all the other wonderful creatures that populate our world. But you accept that setting up a universe where evolution would eventually occur is the process by which God generated everything. You agree with everything Pharyngula and the biologists tell you about the history of life on earth, and you oppose the people who try to alter textbooks to say otherwise.

Now, the position in the previous paragraph is one I disagree with, since I don't believe that God exists. But it's different from ID in that it contains no biological hypotheses in contradiction to evolution. All it contains is a cosmological hypothesis that ends up contradicting my atheism. As such, it's no threat to interfere with a good K-12 science education, since cosmological questions about why all the physical constants are set where they are don't get discussed in high school science classes. Eventually, when the kids go to college and my co-workers teach them the Design Argument and the Problem of Evil in philosophy classes, they'll have a chance to hear both sides of those controversies. But even if they come out of those classes embracing teleological arguments for God's existence, that won't make them count as ID supporters.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Sunday's song: Contra, Stages 1-3

Yes, Contra. If you're around my age, you probably have a memory in your fingers: Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, start. If you're not, I should explain that I'm writing about music for old Nintendo games (the previous sentence included the cheat code that gave you thirty lives instead of the standard three, and which was responsible for my ever getting through stage 6.)

The musical limitations of the old 8-bit Nintendo meant that the goodness of its music was largely dependent on the melody -- you really couldn't do much else. People like me who are big on melody will likely appreciate good covers of memorable Nintendo songs. The Minibosses and the NESkimos are two good contemporary bands in this subgenre, and I'll give preference to the Minibosses because they're more accurate in hitting the notes and getting the pacing of the old songs right. People who want their Nintendo cover bands to rock out may like the NESkimos better. I strongly recommend their Megaman II medley as well -- it starts a little slow, but the Dr. Wily stage music is truly a wonder.

The Contra theme begins with the intro from the title screen ( and continues with stages one through three. The second stage is the weakest, in my view -- the original melody wasn't quite as memorable as the other two -- but the first and third are very good, and well expressed by drums and electric guitars. I've found it to be excellent workout music.

I would be remiss if I concluded this post without mentioning that my cell phone ringtone is the daytime music from Castlevania II: Simon's Quest.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Give 'em hell, Harry

There's a very good, but long article on Harry Reid in the New Yorker. I'll excerpt my favorite parts:

On John Roberts:

Roberts, Reid recalled, said, “ ‘Oh, on the Supreme Court you can change precedent only if there’s this and this,’ and he was rattling them off. I hope I didn’t act surprised, but I’d never heard anything like that before.” Roberts, in Reid’s view, left no doubt that he would be very reluctant to overturn precedents. To do so, Roberts had said, the Court would first have to consider a series of objective criteria, two of which stood out: whether a precedent fostered stability in the nation; and the extent to which society had come to rely on an earlier ruling, even a dubious one.

How he grew up:

There were about two hundred people left in the town when Reid was born, in 1939, the third of four sons of Harry Reid, Sr., a gold miner with an elementary-school education, and his wife, Inez, who did laundry for some of the local bordellos, which were by then the town’s primary business. Reid’s boyhood home was built out of scavenged railroad ties; it had no indoor toilet and no hot water. There were no telephones in Searchlight until the nineteen-fifties.

How he fought the Mafia:

Reid confronted wiseguys like Tony (the Ant) Spilotro, who had been sent to Las Vegas by a Chicago branch of La Cosa Nostra, “the Outfit,” and was known for killing his victims by squeezing their heads in a vise. In 1979, Reid barred Spilotro from all casinos.

In July of 1978, a man named Jack Gordon, who was later married to LaToya Jackson, offered Reid twelve thousand dollars to approve two new, carnival-like gaming devices for casino use. Reid reported the attempted bribe to the F.B.I. and arranged a meeting with Gordon in his office. By agreement, F.B.I. agents burst in to arrest Gordon at the point where Reid asked, “Is this the money?” Although he was taking part in a sting, Reid was unable to control his temper; the videotape shows him getting up from his chair and saying, “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me!” and attempting to choke Gordon, before startled agents pulled him off. “I was so angry with him for thinking he could bribe me,” Reid said, explaining his theatrical outburst. Gordon was convicted in federal court in 1979 and sentenced to six months in prison.

One day in 1981, Landra Reid noticed that the family station wagon was not running properly, and she discovered a cable under the hood and “something” sticking out of the gas tank. Police found a device that would have exploded had it been correctly grounded. Reid always blamed Gordon for the bomb, and the incident frightened his family—by then there were five children, four sons and a daughter—so that for a year they started the car by remote control. Gordon died in April, at the age of sixty-six, and his connection to the bombing attempt was never proved. McCue, Reid’s chief of staff, says that the episode changed Reid. Whatever the issue, she says, his approach is always “No one is going to kill me over this.”

More cartoon fun

This lovely specimen is via Brandon, who notes the Sleater-Kinney reference in the title...

Friday, August 05, 2005

Teaching both theories

The best cartoon on Intelligent Design that I've ever seen.

Via Battlepanda.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Looking good

I'm usually not one to cite David Buss, but these results Ezra's talking about are interesting:

On a scale of 1 to 3, the importance men gave to good looks rose from 1.50 to 2.11. But for women, the importance of good looks in men rose from 0.94 to 1.67. In other words, women in 1989 considered a man’s looks even more important than men considered women’s looks 50 years earlier.

Women caring more about how men look, I think, is a symptom of a good development that's taken place over the past 50 years. Women are far more financially independent now than they were back then, and they don't have to care as much about whether their man makes a lot of money. So they're able to focus less on earning potential and more on things like physical attractiveness. Sure, it'd be nice if they focused more on philosophical ability or the ability to dance in novel ways, but all in all it's an improvement.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

News roundup

This, from a recent study at Cornell, is pretty funny:

"I found that if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq war more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle"

Some other news items that might interest my male readers, and which are behind a subscriber wall so I can't link to them: the average man can bench-press only twenty pounds, is worse than you at football, and has a three-inch penis. Now give the Democrats some money and buy a Prius.

Via Amanda.

Update: As usual, Matt Yglesias has some interesting thoughts on the issue, especially on how diametrically opposed foreign policy positions can be coded as masculine.

Post-Hackett thoughts

There's not much I can introduce into the Hackett discussion that hasn't already been said in great detail. So I'll say my bit about how we should feel about the loss, and then offer a strategic point:

First, there's no denying that Hackett's loss is disappointing, since the prize if he had won would've been enormous. Having a Iraq vet in Congress who could be our party's mouthpiece on this issue and foreign policy more generally would've been awesome. It's also possible that Hackett could've held this seat for quite a while or moved up to challenge some higher opponent. So it's reasonable to have the disappointment that people have when they barely miss out on something unlikely but really wonderful.

Second, we can feel pretty good about our competitiveness in Ohio. If we can lose 52-48 in the reddest district in the state, there's a way to win anywhere else. Sure, we were running a great candidate against a mediocre one, but the point is that a lot is going to depend on particulars of the race. Giving Coingate and other scandals some time to simmer can only help us, and the fact that we'll be running against the least popular governor in the nation (19% approval, 74% disapproval in a recent poll) can only help us as far as coattails go. While Bush may have won in 2004 by making himself seem indispensable to the War On Terror, it's not clear that GOP congressmen can claim the same advantages.

Third, I'm happy about the fact that a Democratic Iraq vet got so much media attention.

I disagree with the dKossish line that Hackett succeeded by uncompromisingly yelling the Democratic line everywhere, and that moderation is a loser. Hackett did an impressive job of presenting himself as a hard-core liberal to the bloggers, but he did feature Bush fairly positively in one of his ads. Hackett's webpage only identifies him as a Democrat in third-party news stories. While it's important to make your positions clear and defend them aggressively, flaunting the symbols of Democratic partisanship can be a bad idea in some places.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Summoning my willpower

Urrr... Must get dissertation work done... must not obsess over Ohio Special Election Results as they come in... Go Hackett! Woooo!

Monday, August 01, 2005

Sunday's song: The Lullaby of London

One of my favorite too-rarely-performed musical forms is the lullaby. A soothing tone, a rhythm suitable for rocking a child, and hopes that the child sleep well are sufficient to mark a song as a lullaby -- after that, songwriters are free to play with the conventions of the genre as they wish, expressing their distinctive visions of the world as it relates to children and their hopes for how children will grow up. Any departure from the stereotypical lullaby-singer's persona will only make the singer's persona stand out more. One of my favorite contemporary lullabies is "The Lullaby of London," by The Pogues, which includes the following lines:

May the ghosts that howled
Round the house at night
Never keep you from your sleep
May they all sleep tight
Down in Hell tonight
Or wherever they may be