Twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun

Stanislav Petrov saved the world on Sept. 25, 1983. To quote one commenter from the post where I learned about him, “Here's the thing about his act; he may or may not have saved the better part of a billion people, but at that time and on that spot his best guess was that he might have that power or the power to slow the slide down the slippery slope, if not stop it. He did, with consequences I'm sure he had some foreknowledge of. That's heroism.”




It’s just imagination they lack

Dana Milbank is sometimes capable of being funny, but his column mocking Al Gore's recent testimony before the Senate is among the laziest, least funny columns ever written. The column appears to be based on the belief that Gore testifying about global warming, and Senators taking what he says seriously is so absurd that just printing selections from the transcript and replacing Gore's name with “Goracle,” plus one crack about Gore being fat (Milbank says he was sweating despite the room being cool) is enough to make a worthwhile column. But there's not a single funny thing in the column, nothing Gore says, nor any of the things the Senators say to him, are out of the ordinary comments. I was initially worried that I found this column so bad because I'm being over-sensitive to criticism of a politician I like and agree with, and that perhaps I would find an analogous mocking of a politician I don't like and disagree with funny. But I don't think I need to worry that, because I think I can recognize a good joke based on the premise that Gore is a crazed, egotistical prophet of doom.

Generally, I have little patience for media criticism which takes one bad piece of work and turns it into an indictment of an author's entire career, or a publication's entire reason for being, but between this and the doctored quotes in the “Obama is the presumptuous nominee” column (text, video), I was starting to wonder what possible value there is in reading Milbank's column. But, checking his two most recent columns before this one, there's nothing objectionable about them and they provide some interesting details. So maybe he's all right.




Markets in Everything

Tyler Cowen, and to a lesser extent Alex Tabarrok, have a long-running series of posts at their blog with the above title or variants thereof, about goods and services surprisingly available for purchase. I once e-mailed a suggestion for an entry, though when it was posted it wasn't officially included in the series. Today I found a couple of suitable items:

“Witness the exploding fire of passion igniting the heart of industry as an opulent oligarch clashes with the bricks & fists of Mighty Unions!”
- Literally underground theater tickets. In order to avoid intentionally un-paid (accidental is fine) audience members, they don't announce on which lines or at what time they're performing publicly or in advance.

“‘Just pray and hope that we get it back,’ said Havosha. ‘You're not messing with people anymore, you're messing with God.’”
- Black market torahs. I found the second article when I was wondering what the thief in the first would do with the ill-gotten gains.




House of Style

I don't usually write about architecture, because I don't know anything about architecture; except that I knows what I likes. And I'm not going to write anything about architecture today either, but I did just read, and wanted to recommend, a post by Eric Rauchway about the impact of regulations in Manhattan on the aesthetics of buildings here. The post serves as a useful reminder of the way rules we don't really think about impact our lives; and in turn we should remember that if we care to, we can take actions to change those rules.

Eric's post included a bunch of links to photos of buildings on this site as examples of the effect he's discussing. I'd never seen it before, but it features a cornucopia of photos of notable New York architecture, which I could probably browse through for hours. Here, for instance, is the building on there nearest to my present home.

As always, readers are invited to comment on this post, especially if they're also named Eric R., recently completed their masters degree in architecture, and are reading from the great state of Indiana.




It's an oblate spheroid, dammit

Shamelessly stolen from here, it's the cover for this review. Taibbi on Friedman was previously discussed on this blog in this post.




Give me Liberty or . . . Actually, just give me Liberty

Yesterday, Sec. Interior Salazar visited the Statue of Liberty, the crown of which has not been re-opened since Sept. 11 2001. The National Parks Service claims this is for safety reasons, that the crown does not meet modern safety and fire codes. Two pieces of evidence cut against this explanation:
1. It was closed immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, it seems extremely unlikely that they realized these problems existed exactly at that time.
2. When I was in 5th grade, I raced up the stairs along with a large number of other children. No one was hurt. While anecdote isn't the singular of data, I haven't seen any data about injuries which indicate that the stairs are dangerous, so anecdotes will have to do.

So, I agree with Rep. Weiner and Sen. Menendez, re-open the entirety of the statue. Besides all the symbolic benefits, I can't believe doing so would be anything but revenue positive, both for the federal and state governments and for private businesses which cater to tourists in that area.

On a somewhat related issue, what's the deal with the massive subsidy to Staten Island residents called “The Staten Island Ferry”? Are there some additional costs imposed upon them which justify this and make it better idea than providing free transport from the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens to Manhattan? I suppose it would be hard to enforce a system in which the subway was free if and only if your boarded in the last stop in one borough and got off in the first stop in another, but surely that can't be the reason. Is it just that Staten Island is too far away from Manhattan to build a bridge or subway from there?




Four Corfe

Is it helpful if I link to the currently most e-mailed (it's not clear to me whether or not that link will work and continue to link to the list of most e-mailed stories as of this writing, or will link to whatever the list of most e-mailed stories consists of at the time it's clicked on UPDATE: there is no way, or at least no way I can figure, to permalink a particular list of most e-mailed stories. The link no longer goes where I wanted it to.) NYTimes story because it's really funny, or are you guys probably going to read the most e-mailed story whether or not I link it? Let me know.


Wait, that's not when Sgt. Pepper taught the band anything

Google reader has a setting whereby if people google knows you know (because you've exchanged e-mail with their gmail account) also use google reader and decide to share an item, that item by default comes up in your reader as a shared item. One guy I went to college with who likes to share items likes a bunch of very conservative blogs. I'd considered telling my reader that I don't want to see his shared items, because they're generally complete trash, but decided instead that it's worthwhile using them as a method to keep up on what (some) conservatives are thinking. That's all background for how I ended up reading, and am about to post about, an entry by Mark Impomeni from the community blog RedState. Here's the post:
Six Years Ago Today…
…Daniel Pearl was kidnapped, later to be brutally beheaded by his captors with the video proudly posted on the Internet for the world to see.

The terrorists who committed this act, were they to be captured today under the Obama Administration’s policies, would be brought to the mainland United States for trial in civilian courts, be granted the rights of habeas corpus and the right to remain silent, could not be subjected to any coercive interrogation practices, and would have the right to see all evidence against them, as well as cross examine their accusers.

Rest in peace, Daniel.
I agree, I hope Daniel Pearl is resting in peace and that his widow and family have found some measure of comfort after his death. But really, I just want to note that this guy thinks the situation he describes (accepting his hypothetical as laid out) is self-evidently wrong. He's just one person, but as best as I can tell large swathes of the conservative movement agree with him and are devoted to the idea that people suspected of crimes, or at least foreign Muslims suspected of crimes, should be either imprisoned for life without trial or shot on sight. Why this guy thinks that giving Pres. Obama, whom he certainly doesn't trust, the power to do this is a good idea is totally beyond me. I do trust Pres. Obama, and would turn against him immediately if he tried to claim or exercise such power.

Looking at the comments to the post, it seems like the idea is that enemy combatants in a war wouldn't be treated in the way described (true, especially if they're uniformed, but also if they're not uniformed but captured in a situation such that they're clearly enemy combatants), the people who murdered Daniel Pearl think that they're enemy combatants in a war with the United States (true), and therefore we should treat whomever we suspect of being those people as if they're enemy combatants in a war with the United States, and further treat them as if they're enemy combatants who committed war crimes (bat-sh*t insane1).

Update: I just read Yglesias fucking2 nail the issue I'm talking about in the paragraph above, and thought I'd post it.
Simply put, terrorists are not warriors. The German soldiers my grandfather fought during World War II killed people, but they weren't murderers; they were soldiers. When captured, they became prisoners of war, not criminals. Some on the Nazi side were, of course, criminals -- war criminals -- and were charged as such. But the typical German soldier was a soldier, entitled to return to his home and family unmolested if he survived the war. Men who blow up nightclubs and train stations and demolish office buildings, by contrast, are murderers. We neither should nor will treat them as soldiers. But insofar as that's the case, we're not at "war" with them any more than we're actually "at war" with the guy who used to sell me pot.
Exactly right. Also, I wonder if as Yglesias's place in the media hierarchy improves he'll stop publicly acknowledging past illegal behavior. That last clause is in fact toned down relative to things he's discussed in the past, but still kind of gutsy.

1. This blog has no consistent policy on the use of expletives.

2. See?




Depleted Bullets

  • Whoever had the idea to play “Caroline, No” on the radio today immediately following a discussion of Caroline Kennedy's withdrawal of her name from consideration for appointment as senator: thanks, you made me laugh.
  • I really liked the symbolism about how the new was so much more open to being indexed by search engines than the old one, and was therefore disappointed to find out that there's no there there.
  • In writing this post I was interested to discover that “there is no there there” is a Gertrude Stein quote and originally referred to her experience of returning to her childhood home of Oakland after decades away from it.
  • Of course I can't resist commenting on the inauguration oath flub. I didn't notice the mis-placement of “faithfully” while listening, I did notice when Roberts replaced “President of” with “President to.” I liked this post about the slip-up a lot, and another had some interesting material about how one popular style manual for legal writing may have been at fault for Roberts's error.
  • And finally, a well thought out recent commentary on the “enormity” usage mentioned in the “I can't resist” link above. I continue to hold to the line that given its possible meaning of monstrousness, the word enormity shouldn't be used in any context where it's even remotely possible that it means monstrousness unless the speaker or writer using it intends it to mean monstrousness.
  • UPDATE: I'm linking to this important story indicating that as of now the Obama Administration is continuing the Bush Administration policy of launching missile attacks against suspected adversaries in Pakistan for the trivial reason of its author's choice to awkwardly write the unsplit infinitive, “to pursue more aggressively” rather than the more natural “to more aggressively pursue.”

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    I think I'll just repeat what I said election night

    The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

    It's especially appropriate to say that given whose birthday was on Thursday (or “today” from the perspective of me-while-writing-this) and whose holiday was celebrated yesterday. Also, I wrote that election night post over a week in advance of the election and was happy to see the Pres.-Elect (at that point just by minutes, and now only Pres.-Elect for a few more minutes) alluding to the same idea.

    And that's the graceful version of this post, I can't really decide between that and a post saying “Good riddance, you torturing, rat fuck” with perhaps a “From hell's heart, I stab at thee; for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee” thrown on to class it up . So I'll go with both.





    I cannot believe the ridiculous plan to give away three free Charlie Huston (who I'd never heard of before the promotion) books (in various e-book formats, not hard copies) in the hopes that it would cause people to buy other Charlie Huston books for money worked so damn well on me. But they're such quick reads, and it's like they say about Lay's: betcha can't just [read] just one! They've have won that bet.


    Knocking on wood

    While I'm writing posts in advance of the events they discuss, I'll go out on a very thin and shaky limb and congratulate the Knicks on a five game winning streak, their longest since the 2003-04 season, when they also had a five game streak. Congratulations not valid if the Knicks lost to any of the Wizards on Friday, the 76ers on Saturday (which they probably did, though they've been pretty solid in back-to-back games), or the Bulls just now.




    Illegally Searching for Libertarians in the Middle East

    The last line of “Non-reading list” said I'd talk about some good pieces I read on Wednesday as well. Actually, it said I'd do that in my next post after that one, but as you may know if you've read this blog for a little while, claims about what I'll post next are always false. Now I'll talk about them, instead of just talking about talking about them.

  • Jeffery Goldberg's op-ed on Gaza, with some interesting reporting on Hamas and analysis. A couple of writers whose views I trust and usually agree with don't like Goldberg (that may be putting it too mildly), and regularly have good reason to disagree with him. So I wondered if I was missing some flaws in his piece. But on Thursday, Yglesias briefly responded, and while the post says he's not impressed by the op-ed, he also doesn't bring up any significant flaws (similarly, Glenn Greenwald would presumably bring up problems if he had them, instead of just mentioning the article. It's not like Greenwald is afraid of writing lengthy pieces). So I'm sticking with my initial assessment, it's good.
  • DeLong had a post about the intellectual history behind the fact that despite being an economist he doesn't come to libertarian policy views (and not just DeLong, most economists). He's really smart; you should read what he says. There's certainly room to quibble with his line about what a self-interested butcher would do, but since the rest of his argument doesn't depend on that at all there's really no point in doing so.
  • On Wednesday, the Supreme Court gave their opinion in the 4th Amendment case of Herring v. United States. I first heard about the case when the court granted certiorari in February last, and wondered at the time why the principle with which the court decided U.S. v. Leon over twenty years ago wouldn't control. There are some factual differences (and an even more on-point case that I didn't know about), primarily that in Herring there was an error made by the police while Leon involved an error made by a judge in granting a warrant, but they didn't seem to me to be outcome-determinative differences. I'm ambivalent about whether or not Leon is rightly decided, but given that it has been on the books for over twenty years, yesterday's decision didn't bother me. For good posts about Herring, check out Orin Kerr writing about it back in May and Tom Goldstein (who is really worried about it, and makes me think I might be wrong) on Wednesday. Kerr wrote about it on Wednesday too, it's just that his May post is better.
  • I didn't read it on Wednesday (which was supposedly the unifying theme for this post) because it wasn't posted yet, but I also want to recommend a truly excellent Yglesias post discussing the mistaken cost/benefit analysis behind U.S. strategy in the Middle East over the last quarter century.

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    This post may not be in the best of taste

    Watch that trailer from 0:38 to 0:58. If you've seen the movie you probably know why I'm posting it, otherwise, have fun. I would not have done it if everyone hadn't survived. And I'm really curious about the salvage situation, to the best of my understanding the plane is largely undamaged.

    Also, I'm on a flight scheduled to take off the same minute I've scheduled this post for. Here's hoping karma does not exist; otherwise making a joke about bird strikes may not have been the best idea for today. On the other hand, the odds are in my favor. I may or may not have other pre-written posts scheduled to go up during this trip (I'll be gone until Wednesday), you'll have to wait and find out.


    Like Timex, putting them to the torture test

    Lots of bloggers have, correctly, complained about the consensus among essentially all national level politicians and everyone else who has much of a voice in national media that prosecutions or other consequences for the present's administrations crimes, be they torture or surveillance-related, are totally inappropriate and shouldn't be discussed in polite company. But I don't think I realized quite how far this had gone until I took a look at the five people who the Times picked to pose questions for Attorney-General nominee Eric Holder. On first glance, it seems like an almost balanced panel, with Jeff Rosen and Noah Feldman as the liberal, or at least Democratically-affiliated, members, and Eugene Volokh, Jack Goldsmith,1 and Charles Stimson representing those on the right. But not one of the five is a liberal torture critic.

    Feldman has one anti-torture piece I can find, but his embrace of the “harsh techniques” and the implication of his question that believing your acting under color of law should be enough to avoid prosecution, combined with some of his past work, don't leave me feeling charitable towards him. Rosen, while sometimes a jerk, hasn't written anything pro-torture that I know of, may have an anti-torture piece somewhere (but I looked briefly and didn't find one) and wrote an extensive article about Goldsmith's good work at the OLC, where Goldsmith's good work largely consisted of questioning previous legal justifications of torture. But four of the five of them ask a question which either implies opposition to torture prosecution (Feldman and Rosen), or, more frighteningly, suggests that they're worried the Obama administration won't torture enough (Goldsmith, Volokh). The only who doesn't imply either of those is Stimson. Stimson is best known for losing his job over this incident (scroll down five posts, start reading, and then scroll back up through the rest), and the fact that he's even being invited onto the op-ed page is disgusting. Oh yeah, Volokh (he's very smart and I still read him in some contexts, but seriously, that was beyond the pale. And his retraction doesn't retract the worst parts). Not one question for Holder asks what he'll do to make sure torture ceases, let alone asks what he'll do to punish people who broke the law by torturing.

    1. As mentioned below, I'm familiar with the good work Goldsmith did at the OLC following the disastrous period in which Bybee was in charge. He's still a conservative Republican.





    This post (UPDATE: and title, I'm not really a fan of all caps) comes from friend-of-the-blog Chris. I totally agree with his overall thrust, though I'd be more diplomatic and not describe the problem as people not “get[ting] off their couches.” For that matter, I'm not sure getting this wrong counts as a huge mistake on the scale of mistakes, but Chris has a better idea of the costs involved here than I do. I've supplied links, and a really tiny bit of editing, and made the name of Chris's employer un-searchable (that's why there are slashes in it) but the rest is Chris's:

    I am not happy about it, but I am going to have to agree with Kevin Martin on this one. The Obama camp would be making a huge mistake if they move the DTV transition date back. Rockefeller, Boucher and other supporters of the move on the Hill are correct when they point out that funding is gone and not everyone has received their converter boxes. It is true that the government has botched this transition form the beginning. The transition has already been in the works for ten years and they still were not able to get it right; six more months will not solve any problems.

    I will not get into the fundamental issues as to why the DTV campaign has been so inept, but I will say that it could take as long as ten more years of wasted resources before the campaign reaches the level of competency that the Obama camp expects. I do not think it is ok that millions of people will be left without television come Feb 17th, but in a way once it happens, those that have been lazy and have not paid attention to all the ad campaigns will get off their couches and walk into the local Best Buy or Radio Shack, and those that cannot actually afford a converter box will notify local officials and then we will have an exact count of who needs immediate tech attention.

    There is another HUGE reason why the transition date should not be pushed back and that reason has to do with the broadcasters. I'm currently working for a broadcasting company so it may seem that my views are skewed, but All/britt/on is a fairly large company that is currently making a lot of money. The costs imposed by an additional X months of simulcasting an analog and a digital signal will not make or break my company. The broadcasters that will be hurt the most are the small guys, the ones broadcasting in Albany, Georgia, or Duluth. The cost of extended simulcasting on these small local broadcasters will impose an extreme financial burden on these small stations struggling to stay afloat.

    The Obama camp seems to fundamentally support the idea of localism and diversity within the media market place. That is why I think it is surprising that they are proposing a plan that will inevitably harm hundreds of small local broadcasters and threaten the future of localism and diversity indefinitely.

    For those of you that care, I strongly urge you to write your local Congressman and Senator and ask them to stay the course. We need to be wise about where we allocate our money and resources in this economy and extending the DTV Transition is not a wise move.




    Non-reading list

  • Writing an article about a bunch of GQ editors playing LeBron James in a 5-on-1 basketball game is a pretty promising premise. If you read it, prepare to be disappointed.
  • Via Josh, Roger Simon's Politico piece comparing the role of race in Burris being seated to the role of gender in Caroline Kennedy not yet being appointed makes no sense at all. I'm not sure it's right on its factual claims about what's happened, and if it were its analysis still wouldn't be supported. The Senate making a decision about whether or not to seat an appointee and Gov. Patterson making a decision about who to appoint just aren't relevantly comparable.
  • Everyone likes a story about Somali pirates, right? This one even includes some new purportedly justifying facts, outside of the usual ones about illegal foreign use of Somali fisheries. Strange not to mention U.S. support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and the connection between that and the piracy. Oh, and the purportedly justifying facts decidedly don't. The lack of state power to prevent illegal dumping of toxins in Somali waters and the lack of state power to prevent piracy in Somali waters are symptoms of the same problem (lack of state power), but the dumping of toxins doesn't justify the piracy. And how could the in-group egalitarianism of 17th century pirates possibly be relevant? It's unfortunate too, because I kind of like Johann Hari.
  • Rounding out things I'm complaining about today, the comparison in the first three paragraphs of this Daily Howler post is actually offensive, and the column it's criticizing isn't bad at all. That is, the last four paragraphs of the Dowd column really aren't factual claims which she needs to support.
  • I actually read a bunch of good things today too, I'll get to them with my next post.

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    I blame David Remick

    I have correctly orthodox thoughts about The New Yorker; its articles are of consistently high quality. But I cannot believe this sentence slipped through their quality control: “He spends a lot of time listening to speeches—the way most people download Coltrane or Mozart, he’s got Churchill and Martin Luther King on his iPod.” And it's true, Mozart almost beat Flo-Rida feat. T-Pain for most downloaded track last year, and Coltrane ring tones are nearly as popular as the one where Katy Perry talks about kissing girls.

    Update: For criticism of the New Yorker that isn't insanely nit-picky, I recommend this (long) piece about their use of template letters-to-the-editor. What this translates to, at least in this case, is that they convince people writing in with criticisms to rewrite their criticisms in significantly weaker forms in exchange for having them published. It's also interesting because by the end neither party is particularly sympathetic.


    Aural Thrush*

    On the radio today, Glenn Thrush of the Politico, while discussing Hillary Clinton's Secretary of State confirmation hearings, said that Obama had done Hillary a big favor by taking on all of her positions once he entered the general election campaign (this is a paraphrase). Thrush specifically noted that Obama had dropped his position in favor of meetings with leaders of rouge states in general, and Iran in particular, without preconditions; a position which had separated him from Clinton during the primary campaign (it's a 17:00 minute segment that I can't listen to right now, I'll update the post later with when exactly he said it).

    The only problems with this claim are that it is totally false and pretends that the ideas Obama was supporting when he won the election were more conventional than they in fact were. That in turn allows people in Washington who are uncomfortable with challenges to conventional wisdom (I know that's a vague description, sorry) to pretend that the challenges don't exist and aren't widely supported by the American people. Of course, Pres. Obama can undo that damage in this particular case by actually engaging in high-level diplomacy without preconditions, but it's part and parcel of the were way in which large swathes of the people dominating the media conversation responded to the election results by declaring the U.S. to be a center-right nation.

    *This is the best pun of all time.




    The Guarantee, iii or, Does Jay-Z know what “most” means?

    A close analysis of the lyrics to “Roc Boys,” and possibly the most SWPL thing ever written.

    In the first line of “Roc Boys” Jay-Z raps, “First of all, I wanna thank my connect, the most important person with all due respect.” In this lyric, Jay, speaking in the character of a drug dealer, thanks his supplier and, quite reasonably, says the supplier is the most important person. Without him, this character would have no drugs to sell, or, in a slightly less awful alternative, have to either pay more for his drugs or receive drugs of slightly less quality. Either way, his supplier is clearly very important to him, and it's reasonable for Jay to say he's the most important person, though it's nice of him to say “will all due respect” in order to mitigate hurt feelings among anyone else who though they were the most important person.

    But, then at the end of the same verse, comes this line, “Yea, thanks to all the hustlers, and most important to you, the customer.” This appears to be saying that the most important person, rather than being on the supply side of the drug trade, is on the demand side.1 Where the truth lies here is a close question, as any individual customer is fairly easily replaceable while customers as a class are strictly necessary for the business's viability. But that's not why I'm writing, I'm writing because Jay-Z says that both the connect and the customer are the most important. And I started to wonder, can two things both be the most important?

    And, after a little bit of thought on importance, I realized the answer is yes (ties in importance are possible) and that “most” just rules out there being any thing more important than the connect, not other things having equal importance. I should never have doubted Jay-Z's logic.

    1. It's also possible to read this line as saying the most important person to thank is the customer, whether or not the customer is actually more important than the supplier, but I don't think that interpretation coheres with the track as a whole.


    Sometimes I miss Dick Armey

    This weekend, Mo Rocca made however much time I have spent listening to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me worthwhile with the following line during a discussion of the pornography industry's request for a bailout. During the following discussion Mo suggested that along with the bailout members of Congress star in pornography in order to save the industry money, and then said:

    “Dianne ‘She's So’ Feinstein featuring the Minority Whip.”

    Just brilliant. I'd provide more context for why he says this, except there isn't any.




    Hamburger, you're good!

    One last Burris post, because both Laurence Tribe and Erwin Chemerinsky have now weighed in. Tribe argues that the Senate has the power not to seat Burris, Chemerinsky disagrees. As I understand the Tribe argument, and if I understand it I buy it (though I should admit I haven't read Powell), Powell stands for the proposition that the House and Senate can't consider any qualifications of the candidate outside of the age, citizenship, and residency qualifications specified in the Constitution. In particularly, in making the seating decision, they can't consider whether or not the candidate is personally corrupt, as this takes the ability to choose their own Senator or Representative away from the relevant locality.

    But they can consider whether the process by which the candidate was elected (or, analogously, appointed) was corrupt. Tribe gives multiple pre-Powell examples of the Senate making such determinations about process as part of their seating decisions, and believes that Powell doesn't stand for the proposition that there was anything problematic in those.

    Relatedly, the first segment of last night's Colbert Report, which was the first after a long vacation, was awesome. It included Alan Colmes joining the show as Stephen's co-host, Stephen confusing Plaxico Burress with Roland Burris, and a great clip-based joke about the taint on Burris's candidacy. I'm keeping score for which of The Daily Show or Colbert Report was better on each night that I watch both this year; so far Colbert is way ahead (n=1).


    Hurdy Gurdy Man

    Rather than give all of my thoughts about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I'm going to provide a review of one line of dialogue based upon the second formulation of Kant's categorical imperative.

    An old woman who is not otherwise an important character says to Benjamin early in the film, “We're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?” Benjamin might repeat this line later, I forget. I can however, assure you that the movie is not presenting this as a misguided sentiment. Which is weird, since it's actually a horrific example of treating other people as mere means, rather than ends in themselves. Let me explain why it's so bad.

    Say someone you love dies, and another person, trying to comfort you, says, “Don't feel so bad, you're still alive.” That would raise some interesting psychological issues such as guilt for actually feeling that sentiment, but it's extraordinarily unlikely that the person saying that will make you feel better, and they're pretty much being monstrously callous.

    But the line from the movie is much worse. It goes further than not mentioning the ways in which being dead is bad for this person who you love, it says that you should ignore those and just think about how their death is good for your own emotional development, ignoring whatever ends they had for their life and just thinking about how their death serves as a means for yours. Seriously, it's disgusting.

    The movie had good points too.

    P.S.: I kind of like this Peter Suderman review, except that he focuses exclusively on the negatives of the film, and since I did that in this post as well, I'm giving a distorted picture of how I really felt about it.





  • Joel Garreau, currently of the Washington Post and author of the early-80's book The Nine Nations of North America, which I'd never heard of before today but sounds pretty good, responds to Igor Panarin's U.S. breakup prediction discussed below. Via Justin Fox.

  • Akhil Reed Amar, author of the indispensable America's Constitution: A Biography, and Josh Chafetz, argue that despite Powell v. McCormack the Senate does have the power to refuse to seat Burris, though they may be required to do their own investigation of the circumstances surrounding his appointment before such refusal. This would mean the issue of their power to expel him, discussed in the post below, does not arise. Brian Kalt and Sandy Levinson disagree, but they also both concede that if the appointment was actually corrupt, that is, that Burris in fact did pay for play, the Senate would have the power to prevent this. Levinson's attempt to then limit this principle is totally unavailing.

  • My next post will be some thoughts on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and will be up yesterday. “Yesterday,” because Benjamin Button ages backwards. Get it? Probably not, because it's not funny at all. When it's posted, you'll discover that I mostly agree with Stephanie Zacharek except that she doesn't bring up my main criticism.

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    What's he going to give the Senate not to expel him, his appreciation?

    Adam, a friend of the blog, e-mailed the following to me last Wednesday and suggested that I post it if I like it. I do like it (though I'm not certain I agree with the claim that the Senate has to seat Burris), but I wasn't updating the blog last week. Rather, I had written four posts last Monday and then scheduled some of them to be posted later in the week. Which means this won't be as timely as it was when I got it, but that's life. The rest of this post consists of the e-mail to me, very lightly edited, and with links supplied for referenced materials. No edits to the substance of the argument were made:

    It is fairly clear that the Senate is going to have to seat Roland W. Burris as a Senator. This issue was already visited with a fair degree of finality in the case of Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969). In Powell, the Court ruled that the legislature's Art. I, Sec. 5, Cl.1 powers to judge the qualifications of its members extends no further than to determine that the Senator is a naturalized citizen of a state and is over the age of 30. The Senate is constitutionally prohibited from setting membership requirements above and beyond those basic criteria.

    However, the question then arises of whether the Senate seat Burris, and then immediately move to expel him to avoid the appearance of impropriety in the appointment of an Illinois Senator. The expulsion would be based on clause two of Art. I, Sec. 5 which reads, “Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two thirds, expel a member.”

    The answer to this question is manifestly unclear and involves a careful reading of the aforereferenced section with an eye towards comma placement. One interpretation views the sentence as a list of powers the legislature has to regulate and control its members. If one takes the sentence at face value, it enumerates three powers for the legislature in control of its members. Essentially, the Senate can (1) determine the rules of its proceedings, (2) punish its members for disorderly behavior and (3) expel a member with agreement of a supermajority. This view would extend Congressional discretion to expel a member for any reason as long as 2/3 of house members agreed.

    There are public policy arguments for the above interpretation. For example, lets say that prominent KKK member David Duke was in fact elected to be a Senator in 1990. His fellow lawmakers could likely see good reason that incendiary racist rants be kept off the floor of the Senator and could move to expel him if his rhetoric became too dangerous and disruptive despite the fact he did nothing technically illegal. On the other hand, of course, it would be allowing the Senate to expel members at will thus essentially abrogating the will of the people.

    The other interpretation of the statute is the “serial comma” interpretation. Take just this portion of Article I, Sec. 5, Cl. 2 “disorderly behavior, and, with the. . . .” The “, and,” is troubling. The comma before “and” could allow the sentence to be read such that the expulsion portion of the sentence modifies the punishment for disorderly behavior portion. This would mean that for disorderly behavior, the Senator could expel a member. This would allow the Senate to expel only for cause. This interpretation obviously has the advantage of limiting Senate's discretion to expel duly elected members.

    Wikipedia's article on serial commas has a good illustration of the exact problem. Take this phrase: “Betty, a maid and a rabbit.” Is this a list of three items, or is Betty both a maid and a rabbit? The introduction of the comma before the “and” in Article 1, Sec. 5 makes it look like a list rather than the expulsion being a modification of the punishment clause.

    I invite anyone with more insight on this to comment.




    New Year's Day Murder-blogging

    As the commenters aptly note, this 1930 New York Times article about one of Belle's relatives reads more like a good pulp novel than it does a modern day Times article. Besides stylistic differences, there's a wealth of detail included here which I can't imagine seeing today. I'm interested in the causes behind that change, and would speculate they include the increasing professionalism of journalists and police officers so that the two don't cooperate nearly as tightly, which has both good and bad consequences (though good on net, probably). The causes also likely include different privacy norms, which might well themselves have to do with changes in legal liability.