Friday, May 25, 2007

TPV, one week hiatus

Well, I'm off to Yellowstone with my girlfriend. Please check back in a week's time to make sure we haven't been eaten by bears.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Christopher Hitchens, no longer my hero

Last night, I watched Christopher Hitchens speak about his new -- and excellent -- book, "god is not Great." As longtime TPV readers know, I think Hitchens is a great writer, and I found his new book an inspiring call to arms for atheists and freethinkers everywhere. So how'd he hold up in person?

Answer: not good. For a whole variety of reasons that I'll try to parse out in list form:

1. He's a dick. When one lady asked if he really thought Saddam was a religious figure, rather than a secular despot, he leveled an icy glaze and asked the woman if she knew about the history of the Ba'ath Party, and its control of Syria, and its alliance with Hezbollah. Having confirmed that she did not, he chortled in triumph and moved on. The whole exchange lent tremendous credence to "Big Daddy's" argument that Hitchens' attacks on those who opposed the Iraq War were virulent to the point of being pathological.

2. He's really a dick. Also during the Q&A, some lefties in the back started to boo and hiss when Hitch reiterated in no uncertain terms his continued support for the war. As said hissing continued, he castigated the crowd, saying, "How dare you hiss the soldier who risk their lives to save your worthless bodies." Uh, Hitch, they were hissing you and your ad hominem attacks.

3. Did I mention he was a dick? Perhaps the most disappointing realization is that Hitch isn't very thoughtful. His co-host, an incredibly smart dean of a local church whose name eludes me, repeatedly tried to get Hitch to explain the transcendent and the luminous, concepts that Hitch seemed to find in secular Shakespeare but not in religious texts. Rather than answer this question, Hitch just rattled off some pithy remarks that played to the crowd -- in other words, he preached to the converted.

All in all, Hitchens reminded me of all too many people I met in Yale's "Conservative Party," people who liked to debate by sneer and derision instead of principles and reason. I still believe that "god is not Great" -- currently at #1 on the NY Times bestseller list -- is an important, even groundbreaking book, because it refuses to debate religion on religion's terms. But I no longer want to grab a drink with the guy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

TPV's Quickhand reference to American Politics

Yesterday, my sister turned 27 (happy birthday, sis!) She informs me that she never reads this blog because it's boring, and has too much about politics and sports (true!) But she said she would try to get up to speed if I provided a short summary of American politics. So without further ado, here's a roundup of what you need to know:

President Bush: Started War in Iraq, has lowest poll ratings since Nixon. May have singlehandendly destroyed Republican Party. Struggles with sentence formation.

Darth Cheney: Evil. Lives in an underground lair, plotting attacks on Iran. Considered best insurance policy to prevent assassination of President since Dan Quayle.

Iraq War: Not going well. Enemy undefined. American will sapping. Expensive! Also, no one speaks Arabic. Bad times all around.

Alberto Gonzales: Minion of Bush. Ostensibly the Attorney General, spends most of time testifying about why he shouldn't resign. Best thing to happen to Democrats since Bush.

Immigration: Republicans want to build a Berlin Wall on Mexican border. Democrats want to legalize 12 million illegal immigrants living here. Both ideas seem dubious, yet both parties seem eager to draft bill doing both. Drunken Ted Kennedy (brother of JFK!) spearheading effort.

Afghanistan: No one pays attention anymore, sort of like the Korea circa 1950, even though Afghanistan, along with Pakistan, is a haven for Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist types, we're too pinned down in Iraq to do much (see above). In general, don't trust "stans" or "rans" when it comes to countries. Also, "Inas" and "Ussias" are suspect.

"Netroots": Obnoxious phrase used to describe unemployed, tea-sipping hippies who control the Democratic Party.

Obama: A new sensation that's sweeping the nation, Obama speaks to our thirst for political substance in an era of cynicism, even though Obama himself has yet to provide any political positions of substance. Irony runs thick in politics, sis.

Abortion: Fun! New Justices on Supreme Court seem intent on overturning Roe v. Wade. Super-high-up Democratic political operatives are secretly hoping that it happens so that Democrats can seize power a la FDR era and run country permanently.

Evolution-Creationism: Our dipshit President and at least two Republican presidential candidates believe evolution is a myth, 100 years after the Scopes monkey trial. Stupidity like this may explain why people like you sis have lost faith in politics. Sure tests my resolve sometimes.

Foreign Trade: Hot issue under Clinton -- "NAFTA and the Giant Sucking Sound" -- now in disrepute. To retain lefty-hippy credibility, make sure to buy "fair traded" goods at your local commie collective.

Hillary Clinton: Probably a dyke.

Philip Roth: Perhaps the greatest American novelist alive today, his recent book "The Plot Against America" imagined an alterna-America where a fascist Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and America remains neutral in WWII. To sound smart at cocktail parties, simply start every sentence with, "As Roth suggests in The Plot Against America, a sense of perpetual fear presides over our country," and watch people swoon.

Fox News: Official propaganda arm of our government, Fox News anchors are being instilled in White House as official spokespersons. Seriously. It's that blatant.

Speaker Nancy "Bug Eyes" Pelosi: Elected from the heart of socialist San Francisco, and quite possibly an alien, Pelosi is effective at (a) providing pork to San Francisco and (b) caving to President Bush on the Iraq War. She also is unfamiliar with curly fries (see earlier TPV blog post).

Europe: Filled with weenies.

Mitt Romney: Former Governor of Massachussettes, Romney -- a Republican -- was elected on a platform of sound fiscal management combined with tolerance for gays; oh, and he was pro-choice too. Now running for President, Romney claims to hate gays and that he'll criminalize abortion. This, in the eyes of the GOP, makes him more electable. No, I mean it.

Al Gore: Have you seen him lately? He's like, Orca fat.

Global Warming: May devastate human life in the long-term, but makes for nice summers in Seattle, so it's kind of a wash.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Great movie idea?

This story from ABC News is interesting. Two identical twins have sex with the same woman within a 24 hour period. She gets pregnant, has a baby, and then tries to obtain child support from . . . well, that's what makes it interesting. The normal procedure here is to do a DNA test, but indentical twins are clones, so the legal system is all atwitter.

So here's my movie idea: what about two identical twins who are also vicious killers? They commit every crime "together," but can never be prosecuted, because they can always claim their twin was the real murderer -- thus creating a "reasonable doubt" and escaping conviction. In an age where Jim Carrey can make a stupid horror movie about the number 23, surely I can get this greenlighted, no?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Should this man be our next President?

I'm having a tough time saying no.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Watch the Wall Street Journal obfiscate!

Here's the Wall Street Journal editorial board, doing their damndest to explain and defend the Administration's near-Midnight Massacre ("11pm Massacre?"):

In Mr. Comey's spirited retelling, Messrs. Gonzales and Card were trying to "end run" his authority as acting attorney general by taking advantage of a "very sick man" who had delegated his AG powers to Mr. Comey. In a series of events that followed, Mr. Comey, under the guidance of Mr. Schumer, presented himself as further harassed--summoned to the White House to meet with Mr. Card, and later with President Bush himself.

The implication is that the White House was trying to lean on Justice to do something illegal. But listen to what Mr. Comey actually said as Mr. Specter questioned him. Was he pressured by Mr. Card, Senator Specter asked? No. "I don't know that he tried to pressure me, other than to engage me on the merits and make clear his strong disagreements with my conclusion."

Did they threaten him, or suggest he could be fired? "No sir, I didn't feel threatened, nor did he say anything that could reasonably be read [as threatening]." And what about Mr. Bush, did he twist arms in the Oval? Through FBI director Robert Mueller, Mr. Comey explained, "The President said the Justice Department should do what the Department thinks is right."

So where's the smoking gun here?

Well, WSJ editorial board, lemme see if I can explain. The problem is not that Comey was ordered or threatened if he didn't sign off on the warrantless wiretap program. The problem is that President Bush and Alberto and Andy, Official Minions, decided they didn't need him to sign off because they thought they could seduce a signature out of the ailing Ashcroft. Sure, the President could tell the Justice Department to do what it thinks is right, because as we know now, the President didn't particularly care what Justice thought one way or the other -- having failed to obtain "midnight" certification from Justice, Bush went ahead and reauthorized the program anyway. It was only the threat of mass resignations from virtually everyone in that department that forced his hand and resulted in changes to the program, changes that -- according to the Wall Street Journal -- apparently were entirely unnecessary, since, you know, the President said the program was legal. Got that? With me? Enjoying it on this side of the looking glass?

This story is not over.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Watch the White House stonewall!

Yesterday, President Bush's Press Secretary and Fox adjunct talking head, Tony Snow, deflected every question asked of him regarding Deputy Attorney General Comey's testimony. Here's the exchange reprinted in full, with my comments interjected throughout:

Q Tony, following on that. Whenever the President has received criticism about the terrorist surveillance program, he has said, look, top Justice Department officials are monitoring this for abuses. Okay, very dramatic testimony on Capitol Hill today -- James Comey, who in 2004 was the Acting Attorney general, testified that when he raised objections to the terrorist surveillance program, that Alberto Gonzales, as White House Counsel, and the White House Chief of Staff, Andy Card, took this extraordinary measure -- they went to the hospital room of John Ashcroft to try to get him to override what Jim Comey was saying, about how this needs proper legal footing. So wasn't that an end run by the White House to try to get John Ashcroft to overrule James Comey?

MR. SNOW: Well, number one, you've got a representation of internal White House deliberations, and we simply don't talk about that and are not going to.

Q But he's testified on Capitol Hill. I mean, he --

MR. SNOW: I understand that, but --

Q All that "you have to tell the truth to the American people" -- he's testified about this now, it's public.

MR. SNOW: Let me give you a couple of things. Also, what had always been noted is the terrorist surveillance program was, in fact, something that was constantly reviewed by the Department of Justice at either 45- or 90-day periods, and furthermore was reviewed by the Inspectors General at the Department of Justice and at the National Security Agency. In addition, there was review by the FISA Court. The terrorist surveillance program saved lives, period.

Note the incoherency of this response. The Department of Justice had reviewed the program, and was refusing to certify its legality -- yet this review is cited by Snow as one of the procedural safeguards that should alleviate any civil liberties concerns. The program is doubleplus good because it saved lives (a "fact" neither relevant nor established.)

Number two, those who had questions about the FISA Court sat down and worked with the administration last year, and we worked out legislation that I think has met any questions that anybody had. But the fact is, you've got reforms, and I'm not going to talk about old conversations.

Yes, reforms were worked out . . . after Comey, Ashcroft, the Director of the FBI and various other senior Justice staffers were on the verge of resigning! So answer the damn question: why did the White House try to make an end run around the Justice Department?

Q But you had the Acting Attorney General at the time saying, in regards to what Inspectors General -- the acting -- chief law enforcement officer in the country is saying in 2004, I've got problems with this, and then you've got the Chief of Staff and the Counsel, Alberto Gonzales at the time, going -- and according to James Comey, they were trying to take advantage of a sick man who was in intensive care.

MR. SNOW: Trying to take advantage of a sick man -- because he had an appendectomy, his brain didn't work?

Seriously? This is the White House position? Ashcroft's brain was functioning ergo it was perfectly permissible to make a late-night hospital raid in an effort to avoid the acting Attorney General?

Q Yes, "I was very upset, I was angry." He was in intensive care at GW. "I thought I had just witnessed an effort" --
MR. SNOW: I --
Q -- let me just tell you -- "I thought I had just witnessed an effort to take advantage of a very sick man." Okay? Did any White House officials come and try to take advantage of you -- I mean, that's really not applicable in terms of this.
MR. SNOW: You know what, Ed --
Q They were trying to take advantage of him, according to James Comey.
MR. SNOW: Ed, I'm just telling you, I don't know anything about the conversations. I've also told you the relevant thing, which is, you wanted to ask from a substantive point of view, were there protections in terms of the terrorist surveillance program -- the answer is yes. It had multiple layers of review, both within the Department of Justice and the National Security Agency. Jim Comey can talk about whatever reservations he may have had, but the fact is that there were strong protections in there. This is a program that saved lives, that is vital for national security, and furthermore has been reformed in a bipartisan way that is in keeping with everybody. And you can go -- frankly, ask him.

Once again, those "layers of review," conducted by Comey and relayed to Ashcroft, resulted in the conclusion that the program was not legal. So, once fucking more, why did the White House try to escape the conclusions of Justice?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Narrowly Avoided Midnight Massacre at the Justice Department!

Yesterday, former Deputy Attorney General John Comey provided absolutely riveting testimony regarding an unbelievable showdown involving him and his boss (John Ashcroft) in one corner, and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and chief of staff Andy Card in the other. Everyone in the world is blogging about this, but here's what I hope is a helpful summary of events:

Around March 4, 2004

Comey meets with Ashcroft to discuss the legality of the NSA "warrantless wiretaps" program. According to Comey, and after "intensive reevaluation," he and Ashcroft agree that the Justice Department will no longer "certify" their legality.

Over the next week, the Justice Department communicates its momentous decision to the White House.

March 10, 2004

The Administration's controversial NSA secret wiretap program is now set to expire within 24 hours. That same afternoon, Ashcroft is taking to the hospital and put in intensive care. Comey at that point becomes acting Attorney General and de facto head of Justice.

That evening, around 8 p.m., Comey receives a call from Ashcroft's Chief of Staff, informing him that Mrs. Ashcroft -- sitting at her husband's hospital bed -- had received word that Alberto Gonzales and Andy Card were being dispatched to see Ashcroft. It's Comey's general impression that the call to Ashcroft's wife came straight from President Bush.

Comey then calls his staff and FBI Director Robert Mueller and tells them to hightail it to the hospital. Why? Simple: "I was concerned that, given how ill I knew the attorney general was, that there might be an effort to ask him to overrule me when he was in no condition to that."

Comey and his staff are the first to find Ashcroft, and the FBI sends agents over and Mueller instructs them to not allow Comey to be removed from Ashcroft's room for any reason.

Now, enter Gonzales and Card, stage left:

And it was only a matter of minutes that the door opened and in walked Mr. Gonzales, carrying an envelope, and Mr. Card. They came over and stood by the bed. They greeted the attorney general very briefly. And then Mr. Gonzales began to discuss why they were there — to seek his approval for a matter, and explained what the matter was — which I will not do.

And Attorney General Ashcroft then stunned me. He lifted his head off the pillow and in very strong terms expressed his view of the matter, rich in both substance and fact, which stunned me — drawn from the hour-long meeting we’d had a week earlier — and in very strong terms expressed himself, and then laid his head back down on the pillow, seemed spent, and said to them, But that doesn’t matter, because I’m not the attorney general.

So Ashcroft and Comey refuse to authorize the program -- the jig must be up, right? Not with this Administration. Instead, Comey then fields an angry phone call from Andy Card demanding that Comey come to the White House immediately. Comey, no fool he, refuses to do so unless there a witness present, and specifically, the U.S. Solicitor General, Ted Olson. Card agrees to the condition.

Late that evening, Comey meet with Olson and other senior Justice staff members to discuss their strategy (Comey refuses to testify as to the details of this). Then, at 11pm, they schlep over to the White House to meet with Card and Gonzales. This meeting is less hostile, and although Comey is a bit vague on the details, it sounds like the White House is beginning to realize that they may face a massive wave of resignations from the Justice Department over this issue.

But fuck it! They decide to continue with the program anyway! Which brings us to...

March 11, 2004

The program has now been reauthorized -- presumably by Bush -- without Justice's certification. Comey prepares a letter of resignation. Comey also testifies that it's his impression that Ashcroft, FBI Director Mueller, Associate Attorney General (Robert MacCallum), and all of their chiefs of staff are prepared to resign along with Comey. Shades of the Midnight Massacre that occured under Nixon? You bet.

Meanwhile, trains in Madrid are bombed by terrorists. Things get a tad hectic.

March 12, 2004

Comey and Mueller meet with Bush for their daily counterterrorism briefing. After each of them speak privately with Bush regarding their concerns with the wiretap program, they receive "the president’s direction to do what we believed, what the Justice Department believed was necessary to put this matter on a footing where we could certify to its legality. And so we then set out to do that. And we did that."

Some quick thoughts about Comey's testimong:

-- It's stunning to think how low the White House was willing to stoop to keep this program going; not only did they try to weasel a deathbed signature from John Ashcroft, they continued the program despite the Justice Department's refusal to sign off on the program! No wonder Bush refuses to sacrifice Alberto the Mindless Minion.
-- Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think John Ascroft would be a civil liberties hero
-- Bush didn't back down on the wiretaps until Ashcroft, Mueller, Comey, and virtually the entire senior staff of the Justice Department were ready to resign. The raw nerve, the sheer hubris, is difficult to fathom. No wonder we can't get Guantanamo shut down, or torture abated, or the War in Iraq stopped. This President simply does not care.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Absolutism and Religion

Before you read this post, make sure to scroll down and read Big Daddy's argument against Chris Hitchens' new book, "god is not Great." And now, onto my (initial) response to BD's bromide.

First, let's note just how much common ground there is among all of us. Big Daddy, Hitch, and I all agree that religion is Bad with a capital B. I'd go so far as to label it Evil with a capital E, but that sounds too Bush-like, so let's just agree religion is Bad, Very Bad. We three would also like to replace religion with what Big Daddy describes as a "free, civil and rational secular society." Although this position may be favored by the loyal readership of TPV, I think it's safe to say most Americans disagree that religion should be minimized in daily life. So, to agree or concede these points to Hitch results, in my mind, to conceding 99% of his project in "god is not Great."

So where's the beef? Well, Big Daddy's argument is that religion per se is not the problem, but some inchoate "deep and dark" root horror that manifests itself in all sorts of unpleasant forms, including Nazism and Communism. In Big Daddy's view, the unimaginable pain inflicted by these nominally atheist or nationalistic "Absolutist" ideologies is proof that religion is a symptom -- not a cause -- of whatever flaw in our essential character that allows such suffering. The long, dark teatime of the soul invites religious fundamentalist and secular socialist alike.

Hitch anticipates and responds to this argument by essentially claiming that Nazism and Communism essentially became "state religions" that replaced god with Hitler and Marx. But this concedes the very point Big Daddy is cleverly making. If National Socialism and Communism foster quasi-religious fervor among their populations that result in horrors as unspeakable as those permitted in religious societies, then we still haven't addressed why the human soul is so easily corrupted. Nor can we expect the absence of religion have any longterm benefits for mankind, since we should expect some equally evil -- but potentially atheistic or secular -- society to rise in its place.

My response to Big Daddy's argument proceeds from a different direction. In my view, the fact that Nazism and Socialism were so short-lived is evidence of the primary role religion plays in our social ordering. The rise and fall of Hitler can be measured in years, and Marx in decades, but religion is all-pervasive, and has been for the last 2,000 years. There is no doubt that any Absolutist system can -- and will -- inflict great suffering, but let's make no mistake: much of the pain under secular absolutism was the unhappy and unintended byproduct of what many educated people hoped would make for a better world.

In contrast, the difference is that even on its best days, religion seeks to close our minds. If the goal is a "free, rational and civil" society, we three -- Big Daddy, Hitch, me -- must believe it's possible to structure one such that it will avoid absolutism and lead to the Good Life. But the same cannot be said for religion, or for the idea of god, because even when it is at its most tolerant, its most forgiving, its most understanding, religion still demands that we close our minds and refuse to accept evidence that casts doubts or disproves itself. As Big Daddy notes, religion is a closed and exlcusive system, no matter how tolerant or "open" it professes to be. (This, incidentally, is why I find Buddhism nearly as abhorrent as Christianity).

So religion deserves special mention, and special attack. Its continued existence provides virtually nothing of benefit to society, and with over 4,000 years of experimenting with different flavors, we should realize it's not going to taste any better. "Religion poisons everything."

Big Daddy vs. Hitchens vs. God -- a showdown!

Longtime commentor "Big Daddy" offers his take on Chris Hitchens' new book, "god is not Great." Here's his argument, reprinted in its entiretly. My rebuttal to follow sometime this afternoon...

* * *

At Ben’s request, a few comments on “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens; reasonable people may see it differently....

This is not a defense of organized religion; the catalog of horrors and stupidities compiled by Christopher Hitchens is too extensive and compelling. And, I share with him the desire and hope for a free, civil, and rational secular society. I will avoid discussing several assertions about specific beliefs that are open to debate and focus on one point: I will assert that the root cause of these horrors are [sic, dammit] not religion per se but go deeper and are darker and, if true, to eliminate religion by itself will not correct the sickness. To use an analogy, if a death certificate lists the cause of death as “stopped breathing and heart stopped,” this is technically true but not the heart of the matter. If it states the cause of death as “shot in head by shotgun” we have a better idea of what happened.

There are many ways to define religious Fundamentalism but I will define it as having these characteristics: (1) accepting a set of statements as True (i.e., “divinely inspired”); (2) the statements are considered a comprehensive explanation of reality (“all you need to know that is important”); and (3) the statements are exclusive (“we are right and everyone else is wrong”). There are secular systems of belief that have similar properties (e.g., Marxist-Leninism) and I will, as shorthand, refer to these systems as Absolutist. If we compare the two, it is hard to see how religion can be singled out and considered causal; the root cause seems deeper in our psyche than religious beliefs. Let me list a few examples:

(1) Take, for instance, the twentieth century. By any measure (the number of people affected, the severity of the horrors inflicted, and so on), the most harm to our fellow human beings was inflicted by National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism, two Absolutist systems of belief. The point is NOT to defend religion in comparison but to point out that religion has no special place when it comes to committing horrors.

(2) Let’s take an example that turns down the metaphorical heat. In chapter four, Christopher Hitchens describes how religious beliefs can be dangerous to our health. All true and all tragic. But let’s remember the story of Joseph Lister. Lister demonstrated that if obstetricians washed their hands in a simple antiseptic solution, there was a dramatic (startling) decline in post-delivery infections and deaths. It was a simple procedure and would cause no harm so why not use it? But the medical establishment refused for some time to accept Lister’s findings. Eventually it was accepted (a great strength of science is that eventually “truth will out”) but the data did not change; the information and proof were there all along. There are many such examples in the history of science. Science has self-correcting mechanisms built in but scientists are human beings and human beings tend to cling to dogmas, religious or otherwise.

(3) Finally, let’s use Christopher Hitchens as an example; we can agree that he is not a religious person. However, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, he showed some of the traits he decries about religious belief. Hitchens vilified anyone who opposed the invasion of Iraq. I think it is fair to say that he considered anyone who opposed the invasion as not just wrong, but immoral. I do not recall Hitchens ever acknowledging that reasonable and decent people could have a different point of view; in fact, I will send a check for $100 to “the charity of your choice” to anyone who can cite a statement by Hitchens before the invasion that acknowledges this. To be fair, Hitchens is not the only one who had this point of view. We are now living with the consequences.

The shorthand summary is that the horrors and stupidity of religious beliefs are not the cause but the effect – the effect of the tendency of our species to desire and cling to dogmas and submit to authority.

-- Big Daddy

Friday, May 11, 2007

Awkward moments in optometry

Question asked of me while getting fitted for new prescription, polarized sunglasses:

"Is one of your eyebrows higher than the other?"

I don't know, chief.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rudy in Iowa

Let me state at the outset that I don't like Iowa farmers. In fact, I singlehandedly hold the Iowa caucuses -- and Iowa voters -- responsible for 75% of the political and legislative disasters over the last 50 years. Case in point: they chose John Kerry, thereby handing the Presidency to the current numbskull.

With all that said, for some reason this story about Mayor Guiliani snubbing these poor Iowa farmers who thought they'd been asked to host the "Mayor-on-9/11" really bothered me. Basically, the campaign called these folks, promised them the opportunity to host Guiliani at their home, and then backed out when they found out they weren't rich. (As an aside, I note that most Iowa farmers are rich, due to the absurd federal subsidies funnelled their way -- so perhaps the Mayor's campaign team can't be faulted for their mistake entirely.)

Be interesting to see if the "Mainstream Media" picks this one up.

Regulate Guns like Cars?

Over on, Professor Eugene Volokh tries to rebut the argument that guns should be regulated the same way that cars are regulated. He finds this argument odd, because "cars are basically registered as follows:

(1) No federal licensing or registration.

(2) Any person may use a car on his own private property without any license or registration. See, e.g., California Vehicle Code §§ 360, 12500 (driver's license required for driving on "highways," defined as places that are "publicly maintained and open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel"); California Vehicle Code § 4000 (same as to registration).

(3) Any adult may get a license to use a car in public places by passing a fairly simple test that virtually everyone can pass.

Well, true. But here's the problem, as I point out in the comments:

I don't think the argument is odd if one doesn't approach it quite so literally. First, the federalist distinction for some gun control advocates -- including me -- is not all that important. I'd prefer to have states imposing the control, but in the absence of that, I'd happily endorse federal regulation.

Second, few people use cars in a purely private fashion. Thus, from a pragmatic standpoint, the use to which most cars are put -- driving on public roads -- are heavily regulated by states ("Why hello, Mr. CHP, and no, I didn't realize I was going 75 in a 20 mph zone..."). I'll grant that guns are put to private use far more often than cars, but the concern here is when guns are used "publicly."

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the value in having a test for gun ownership is not that it would make people safe, concientious users of guns (though this is surely a happy if incindental by-product of such tests). The value is the burden-slash-cost of the test itself! If people have to sign up for a boring class -- remember driver's ed? -- and then pay some (hopefully exorbinant) fee to own a gun, the chances of purchasing a weapon for an impulse crime fall off a cliff, don't they?

Finally, the other obvious objection to Prof. Volokh's argument is that it proves too little -- perhaps we need more driver regulation too! (I can hear the Volokh nation collectively shuddering as I type.) Certainly, I'm amazed that my 82-year-old Grandmother is allowed to drive without any state oversight, even though she clearly poses an extreme health safety hazard to anyone driving in the Clovis, CA area. So regulate Grandmas and guns.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Harrison Ford's career

Whatever happened to Harrison Ford? Over on ESPN's Page 2, Bill Simmons compares Tim Duncan, the solidly great center for the Spurs, to Harrison Ford's movie career up until "The Fugitive." It's an interesting comparison. There's no doubt that Ford was box-office gold for nearly 15 years, and "The Fugitive" is somewhere in my top 10 favorite actions films. But here's my question: if Duncan is about to have his "Fugitive" moment, does that mean he's about to fall off a cliff just like Harrison did, post-Fugitive? Consider this lineup of films:

1994 -- Clear and Present Danger. Solid, unspectacular, and one of the more forgettable Jack Ryan films. An 18 ppg, 8 rbs, 30 mpg of a film.

1995 -- Sabrina. A disaster, obviously. But everyone is entitled to an off year, even Ford/Duncan.

So that brings us to:

1996 -- Nothing. No films at all. (Injury?)

1997 -- Air Force One (Ford showing signs of serious decline in completely formulaic action film) and The Devil's Own (boring, though does feature some laughable Irish accents).

1998 -- Six Days, Seven Nights. I'm pretty sure this had Anne Heche in it, before she was an ecstasy snorting lesbian. Might be worth renting for unintentional comedic value. In 1998, if you were a serious Harrison Ford fan, it was time to start getting worried.

1999 -- Random Hearts. I didn't see it either.

2000 -- What Lies Beneath. Cool title, horrible movie.

2001 -- Another injury year (no films).

2002 - 2006 -- Ford rattled off the following flops: K-19 The Widowmaker; Hollywood Homicide; Water to Wine (as "Jethro the Bus Driver" according to IMDB); and Firewall. Do you smell the straight to video?

2007, in production -- Indiana Jones Part IV: The Quest for Low-Cost Prescription Drugs. Seriously, are you looking forward to seeing Indy hobble around, shaking his cane at the young Nazi whippersnappers?

Iraq troop levels

According to a recent AP story, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has testified that we could begin withdrawing troops from Iraq this year. Says Gates, "I think if we see some very positive progress and it looks like things are headed in the right direction, then that's the point at which I think we can begin to consider reducing some of these forces."

Sounds good to me. But what say you, Gen. Odierno, our day-to-day operations commander in Iraq? According to you, as quoted the Washington Post, the increase in U.S. troops to a force of around 160,000 "needs to go through the beginning of next year for sure."

Back to you, Secretary Gates -- how can these two views be reconciled? "I think the candid answer is they don't."

Well, at least our new defense secretary is up front about the inner confusion.

Questions for TPV readers (aka, my family and girlfriend)

1. Got any blog requests? I find I have very little to say right now -- slooooow news week -- so I'm taking requests. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

2. Last week, I did some minor investigative journalism on Michael Vick. Would you like to see more of this sort of stuff, if it meant less frequent postings (e.g., maybe only one or two posts per week)?

3. What about videos? They're a cheap way to add posts, but I feel lazy adding them to the site. Do you like 'em?

4. Layout -- any ideas to make the site more interesting? I've tried to keep it basic, but I'm willing to play around with html if the need is there.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Presidential Approval Ratings

Fascinating graph from the Wall Street Journal available here.

TPV's one-year anniversary

I just realized that this blog is a year old, sometime this month. In the absence of anything of substance to talk about -- I have nothing interesting to say about France, Turkey or tornados -- I thought it might be fun to waste 15 minutes with a "best of, worst of" review of this blog.

Best Picture

Jerry, from San Francisco Auto Repair.
Best World Cup Observation
5. "Jose" from the Adidas advertisement doesn't know shit about picking a soccer team. Do you know those Adidas ads with the two street kids from some unidentified Latin American country who pick teams? Jose, the less fat kid, has the first pick and he picks freakin' Djibril Cisse, an erratic French forward more famous for his hair than his actual ability (Cisse isn't even starting for France). The fat kid immediately takes Beckham -- smart move, Gordito! -- and you have to wonder: what the f*** was Jose thinking?
Worst World Cup Observation
My rank ordering of the teams after round one had Czech Republic ranked first.
Best Seahawks Near-Prediction That Unfortunately Screwed the Team When it Came to Pass
June, 2006
2. Will Shaun Alexander continue his production? Alexander turns 29 in August. He's played four straight seasons without missing a game -- unbelievable for a RB -- carrying the ball 295, 326, 353, and 370 times. He's lost all-world tackle Steve Hutchinson. And he's on the cover of Madden. And our backup is Maurice Morris.
Most Provocative Email Exchange with Family
After claiming that my parents painted me in blackface so I could go as Dwight Gooden's baseball card for Halloween, Dad weighed in with an email claiming "Dwight was White!" only to quickly be countered by Mom, claiming that Halloween face paint was indeed purchased (but denying the use of shoe polish.)
Best Orwellian Syllogism
(1) Bush's invasion of Iraq has turned Iraq into haven for terrorists worldwide;
(2) Osama bin Laden, Bush quotes approvingly (because, you know, we haven't actually caught him) believes Iraq is fertile ground for terrorist activity;
(3) Ergo, Iraq is central to the War on Terror;
(4) "Politicians" -- read, Democrats -- who think that the amount of resources we've devoted to issue #1 (War in Iraq) instead of issue #2 (Osama bin Laden, responsible for 3,000+ U.S. deaths) -- are "diverting" resources from the War on Terror.
Think about that. By invading Iraq and failing to secure the country, we've created a breeding ground for terrorism. Therefore, we cannot divert resources from Iraq. We are at War with Oceania. We have always been at war with Oceania.
Worst Rant
Probably the Bojinka plot, which I endless railed against as zealous over prosecution by UK officials. Two of the alleged terrorists were released, but four others were convicted, and may have been involved in the London bus bombings.
Worst NFL Prediction
NFC SouthTampa Bay 10-6; New Orleans 6-10.
More navel-gazing to come...

Friday, May 04, 2007

Is Michael Vick breeding pit bulls for dog fighting?

Last week, city officials in Smithfield, Virginia, discovered a massive pit-bull breeding facility owned by Michael Vick, quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons. The reports regarding this facility are pretty grim: the carpets were blood soaked, various breeding "rape poles" were strewn about, and dogs on the property showed signs of being mistreated and malnourished.

In response, Michael Vick's claimed that he had no idea his property was being used for such purposes. That story, however, is coming under increasing scrutiny. Numerous local residents have claimed to have seen Vick in town buying pet supplies, and the massive operation seems to have been well funded. The Humane Society is threatening legal action, and the NFL has already met with Vick to figure out what's what."

"Yes, well, that's very interesting and all, but why the hell am I reading about this on TPV?" you may be thinking. Here's why. Moments ago, I found the webaddress for the kennel, After visiting that site, I noticed that "Vick's K9 Kennel" is affiliated with "MV7 Inc." (Guess what Michael Vick's number is). So, enterprising blogger that TPV is, I decided to navigate the Byzantine website for the Virginia Secretary of State -- for the insatiably curious, check out Virginia's database here -- to see if I could find "MV7 Inc." registered with the state.

And then I found something funny on the way to the kennel. It turns out that MV7 Inc. is a limited liability company who's "registered agent" for service of process -- i.e., the person who you serve papers on if you want to sue MV7 -- is one Lawrence Woodward, Jr. of the Virginia law firm of Shuttleworth Ruloff. Here's how Attorney Woodward describes himself on his firm's website:

Mr. Woodward has an extremely busy civil and criminal practice in all state and federal courts. His litigation practice includes successfully representing high-profile individuals in various civil and criminal cases that have garnered national attention. In addition to his litigation practice, Mr. Woodward has negotiated numerous endorsement and team contracts valued at hundreds of millions of dollars for NFL and NBA players. He is certified as an agent with the NFL and NBA. Mr. Woodward also represents numerous businesses in Virginia in their litigation and contract matters. He is frequently called upon by companies and individuals nationwide to represent their interests in Virginia.

But wait, there's more. Googling "Woodward" and "Vick," I found these interesting remarks from Atlanta Falcons' President Rich McKay in 2004, just after Vick signed another contract with the Falcons that made him the highest-paid player in the NFL (full text of the press conference available here):

Before I bring Michael up here, I want to acknowledge a few people who have had an awful lot to do with the success of today. Joel Segal, sitting here with Michael, is his agent and represents a number of the players on our club, has done a great job representing not only Michael, but representing the interests of the NFL in being soft and sensitive to the interests that we have here in the Falcons. Larry Woodard, who is his financial advisor and supporter has been tremendously supportive to Michael as his advisor and I - as I've said to Michael and Larry both - feel comfortable with the team of people who Michael has working with him and supporting him now that this investment we've made in Michael personally and that he's earned and will be earning over the years to come will be handled well from a trust standpoint, from an investment standpoint with the kind of support he's getting today.

So, to recap: Michael Vick owns property with massive dog-breeding operation on it, with strong indications the breeding is for dog fighting (a felony). Vick denies any knowledge, but the LLC that operates the kennel has Michael Vick's personal attorney and financial advisor as its registered agent.

Credit to for keeping this story alive and piquing my interest in Vick's apparent involvement in animal cruelty. Let's hope the press -- and the NFL -- continue to investigate this troubling story.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

When you're right, you're right

Who said this in 2002?

Now let me be clear - I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity. He's a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the middle east, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.

Answer: Barack Obama.

Hillary's going to have a tough time defending her war vote on grounds of "being misled" when her leading opponent, with admirable clarity, understood the problems with extended occupation.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

President Dipshit

President Bush, moments ago after vetoing the war funding bill that mandated troop withdrawal (as quoted by the AP):

"This is a prescription for chaos and confusion and we must not impose it on our troops," Bush said in a nationally broadcast statement from the White House. He said the bill would "mandate a rigid and artificial deadline" for troop pullouts, and "it makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing."

Here' s what I don't get. Let's say, for sake of surreal fantasy, that the surge succeeds in stablizing Iraq to the point that assassination and mayhem are reduced to a tolerable level, such that the U.S. is prepared to turn over security functions to the Iraqi government. Once that happens, the U.S. military and the Administration will have to announce a date for planned withdrawal. As soon as it does, of course, we can expect an upsurge of violence and mayhem as various nefarious forces prepare to foment post-occupation chaos.

In other words, at some point, we have to tell "the enemy" -- note that Bush can't even identify who the enemy is anymore -- that we are leaving Iraq. The only question is tell "the enemy" we are leaving now, or wait for another 1,000 (or 5,000 or 10,000) U.S. soldiers and Iraqi citizens to die. The choice is simple as that.

Slave to the billable hour

As many of you know, I'm a lawyer. It is the unfortunate practice of my profession to bill time by the hour, a policy that is universally reviled by attorneys but nonetheless accepted as the only way to convince clients that we aren't fleecing them completely. Indeed, the entire concept of "the billable hour" evolved to protect clients from unscrupulous lawyers who pretended to be doing more work than they actually are.

But what if that premise isn't true? A recent survey, reported today in the Wall Street Journal, found that 55% of attorneys admit to doing "unnecessary work" to pump up their billable time. Sixty-six percent admitted "knowledge" of bill padding, artifically inflating the time spent on a task. Sadly, I'll admit that I've padded my time (though I've never done any unnecessary work, given my inherent laziness).

It doesn't have to be this way! Plaintiffs' attorneys -- that is, attorneys who represent people suing to recover damages -- work on a contingent-fee arrangement, whereby they get paid only if you win (though they take a hefty slice -- usually between 25 to 50% of your recovery). There's no reason that the "defense bar" -- that is, attorney who represent the large entities that are the usual target of plaintiffs' attorneys -- could not craft alternative fee-structures that align incentives with outcomes. Yet there is tremendous institutional resistance to eliminating the billable hour. Perhaps this study will force clients to reconsider.