Monday, April 30, 2007

Attention 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists

As I understand it, one piece of evidence cited by 9/11 conspiracy theorists is that fire can't melt steel. Thus the fires generated by burning aircraft fuel and office papers couldn't have possibly brought down the World Trade Center buildings. As the great structural engineer Rosie O'Donnell said, "For the first time in history, steel was melted by fire. It is physically impossible."

Well, yesterday, a chunk of freeway overpass in Oakland collapsed. It collapsed because a fuel truck had crashed and exploded, and the resulting fires - you guessed it - melted the steel in the overpass. It happens, folks. A steel girder holding up hundreds of tons of concrete doesn't have to melt to a pool of liquid. It just has to weaken, and intense heat will do that.

Okay, I guess this is the second time in history.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Bad blogger

Sorry for the lack of posts. I'm between conferences and working like crazy on presentations and a book manuscript.

Monday, April 9, 2007


I love my wife, but at least a small part of why I'm still married must be my fear that this is what my dating life would otherwise look like.

Terror watch list

Yeah, as an academic, I'm pretty pissed off about this. I hope they don't ever find out what I said about Keith Krehbiel.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Music on my phone

My LG phone allows me to use Verizon's VCast service to play music. The phone' s speakers suck, but with the headphones on, the sound quality is surprisingly good. For most songs, it's indistinguishable from the sound quality on the iPod.

I haven't actually purchased any VCast music - that strikes me as silly. Instead, I've converted music I already own with the help of a program called FreeConverter, which works surprisingly well. You can even compress the music further - I've reduced the stuff to WMA format at 44 kHz. I imagine a true audiophile would notice the difference and would probably slap me, but I'm very pleased with the results. And it's allowed me to shove 200 songs onto a 500MB chip with room to spare.

My main complaint is that the phone's VCast software is remarkably clunky. The synchronization software that allows you to send music from your PC (using Windows Media Player) doesn't actually synchronize. That is, whatever's on the sync list gets sent to the phone again, even if those songs are already on the phone. So unless you erase the songs from the phone, you'll get doubles. Very stupid. And I can't seem to create playlists. And all the music has to be in WMA format, even though 90% of the planet uses mp3. And when it comes down to it, manipulating the songs on the phone is nowhere near as convenient as on an iPod.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Parties and profiteers

British historian A.J.P. Taylor has a wonderful essay that I consider essential reading for understanding the behavior of political parties. No, it's not about parties; it's about imperialism. Here's a key excerpt:
The annual cost to Germany of administering the Cameroons was five times as great as her total trade with the colony, and much the same applied to other countries.... In almost every case, European countries spent a great deal of money in acquiring colonies which proved of little economic value.

These arguments, though true, are also irrelevant. They treat European countries as communities in which policies were conducted for the benefit of all, much as companies are conducted, or supposed to be, for the benefit of the shareholders. This was not so. Benefit went to the few who determined policy and shaped public opinion; it was of no concern to them that this was achieved at great loss to the many.... [W]
hen we are told that imperialism was not profitable, we can reply ‘It was to the imperialists.’
This translates well to the study of political parties. A thriving two-party system provides, I believe, a net benefit for a nation, offering accountability and a way for the public to be competently involved in elections. Any individual party, however, is controlled by a cadre of extremists that is trying to get something out of the government. These extremists have to be at least somewhat mindful of public opinion if they want to attain and retain power, but the general public is mighty inattentive; you can get away with quite a bit. What's more, what these extremists want isn't necessarily even good for the nation or even good for their party - it's good for them.

Taylor's essay helps us understand President Bush and the cadre that put him in office. It's safe to say that most Americans think that Bush's policies have not been good for the country. But have you noticed that those policies haven't been particularly good for the Republican Party, either? They benefit a pretty small subset of party elites, who got most of what they wanted when the public wasn't paying attention - during the long post-9/11 period when Bush's approval ratings were unusually high and nobody felt like criticizing him.

Parties can serve a democracy well. Indeed, as E. E. Schattschneider said, democracy is impossible without them. But in order for parties to serve us, we have to keep an eye on them. Artie Samish, a very colorful, if corrupt, lobbyist for California's alcohol bottling industry in the 1930s and 40s, was once asked what it would take to get rid of him. "People must take more interest in the men they elect," was his reply.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

$240 worth of pudding

Greatest skit ever, courtesy of The State.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Thompson Surge!

Fred Thompson just passed John McCain on Intrade.

Off The Table

When I teach Intro to American Politics, I occassionally feel the need to inform my students that certain issues are off the table. For example, the idea that a state can nullify a federal law with which it disagrees -- a main argument of some southern governors during the Civil Rights Era -- was actually settled by the Civil War a hundred years earlier. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was wrong (despite the efforts of some of my students and a few modern pundits to defend it), which is why President Reagan publicly apologized for it in 1988. Similarly, the idea that an executive can imprison people indefinitely without access to a jury trial was settled by the Revolutionary War. That was something that only thuggish monarchs did. It was something that would not be tolerated in America.

Or so I thought. Please read Glen Greenwald's excellent column on this, in which he notes that the leading Republican candidates for president seem quite comfortable advocating a presidency with essentially limitless power. As Greenwald rightly asks:
What does it say about the current state of our political culture that one of the two political parties has all but adopted as a plank in its platform a view of presidential powers and the federal government that is -- literally -- the exact opposite of what this country is?
In a late update, Greenwald gets some help from Andrew Sullivan, who provides this helpful quote from Winston Churchill, spoken during World War II:
The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him judgement by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and is the foundation of all totalitarian governments whether Nazi or Communist.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Fred Thompson

Okay, I'm a bit confused by the GOP's sudden love for Fred Thompson. Wasn't this the senator who started off so promisingly, delivering the response to Clinton's 1995 State of the Union Address, and then disappointed Republican leaders by embracing campaign finance reform and suggesting that the Senate should investigate wrongdoing in both parties? And now he's being seen as the great conservative hope for 2008?

I've got nothing against Thompson, mind you. I think he's a better D.A. on "Law & Order" than Dianne Weist was, although no one could beat Steven Hill. And Thompson's not a bad actor. Not a great one, mind you, but he is an actor who can competently play the same entertaining character over and over again. You know, like Reagan, or Eastwood, or Schwarzenegger, or any successful actor-turned-Republican-politician. (Are there others? One can only hope.) And he's also got reasonable credentials as a candidate, since he's pretty conservative in both the cultural and economic sense without sounding like a wacko. (This was supposed to be Mike Huckabee's strength, but apparently the Club for Growth thinks he raised taxes too many times as governor. i.e.: at least once.)

But it seems to me that Thompson's rising stature suggests more about the weakness of the current GOP presidential field than about anything that he brings to the table. Slate offers the kind of advertising we may shortly see.