Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Smells Good, Too

This is pretty funny.

"That Sounds Terrible! I Have to See it Now!"

*Sniff* Aw, man, was that you?
New York Magazine has a funny piece about the new Will Smith movie, Seven Pounds: "How Bad Is Seven Pounds' Ending, Anyway?" Turns out it's pretty bad.

Don't read the article if you're planning on seeing the movie and/or just don't want to know the ending.

The comments section is also worth perusing. My brother and I agreed a few weeks ago that, as my brother put it, comments sections get us "to cynical, misanthropic rage or depression in mere minutes." But this one is pretty funny. Here are some highlights:
Holy crap! That sounds terrible! I have to see it now!

He *could* have given his eyes to Tom Cruise instead but alas, the eye patch persists.

The jellyfish part sounds like something I'd write. Yikes.

Haha. This is so wrong, yet so right.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Super Duper Q & A

Charles Kaiser lays out yet another failure on the part of The New York Times in his piece today in The Columbia Journalism Review. Vice President Dick Cheney admitted in an ABC interview that he approved the use of what the Bush Administration likes to call "aggressive interrogation techniques." That's a big story, and the Times ignored it.

Kaiser quotes Harper's Scott Horton as saying the following:
[Waterboarding] has been defined as torture by the United States since at least 1903, the first military court-martial. The United States views waterboarding conducted for intelligence purposes during wartime as a war crime, and it has prosecuted both civilian and military figures involved in the chain of approval of its use. Penalties applied have ranged up to the death penalty. The crime is chargeable under the War Crimes Act and under the Anti-Torture Statute. There is no ambiguity or disagreement among serious lawyers on this part...
The use of waterboarding (actually, a different technique) by some United States military personnel in the Philippines – you remember, when we were saving our "little brown brothers" from themselves – shocked the nation. Have we really slipped this far? Why are we not as horrified?

Oh, but that's just Harper's. You know, a bunch of liberals. Never mind that, as Kaiser points out, retired major general Anthony Taguba wrote, “there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes.” (As Kaiser says, "the Times also ignored that one.")

Oh, but Taguba clearly has an axe to grind. He led the investigation into Abu Ghraib, and was subsequently thanked for his efforts by being put out to pasture. Never mind that we prosecuted Nazis for their use of waterboarding as a war crime.

And never mind that the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a bi-partisan report that found that this Administration's efforts to gather information "on how to use aggressive techniques, [redefine] the law to create the appearance of their legality, and [authorize] their use against detainees...damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."

And never mind that intelligence experts have repeatedly and unequivocally said that torture – or "enhanced interrogation techniques," or "super duper Q & A," or "questions on steroids," or "a gentle tickle under the chin," or whatever you want to call it – does nothing but get false information and hurt our cause.

Never mind all of these things. If politicians can be viewed as tough and get a boost in the polls, by golly, we should undermine our international reputation and ignore our principles.

Good thing for this Administration that The New York Times is the "newspaper of record." But the Times should understand that it's gunning for irrelvance by continually dropping the ball. Worse than that, it's aiding and abetting criminals.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The "Bleeps" Are Redacted

Patrick Fitzgerald is my hero. He has just been kicking ass and taking names, and he has a clean-cut, Elliot Ness demeanor to boot. At a press conference a few days ago he read portions of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich's expletive-spiced phone conversations, and concluded one such quotation with the statement, "...the 'bleeps' are redacted."

Gov. Blagojevich's behavior is appalling, and indicative of a sociopathy that is all-too common among the political and corporate leadership classes (for an example of the latter, look at the Big Three CEOs, who flew their private jets to DC to ask Congress for their bailout – that was not merely a PR blunder). When sociopaths finally get their comeuppance, they look completely clueless; their lack of awareness of other people, which is often what enables them to rocket forward in their careers, is also a type of stupidity, and, when they finally get nailed, they shrink, in our eyes, from intimidating figures to little idiots.

In Illinois, Fitzgerald comes out a hero, further raises his profile, and moves that much closer to his ultimate career goals, whatever they may be. While we can talk about the two men's ethics from a strictly moralistic perspective, I prefer to point out that this scandal is a lesson in short-term vs. long-term gain: the fat-cat pol demanding illegal cash vs. the hard-working US Attorney steadily building a case. Who comes out on top in the end? And I don't mean to ask who wins in this case; imagine that Fitzgerald and Blagojevich are completely unrelated. Nor do I mean to ask who gains in a karmic sense. Rather, the two men's different approaches to life can show us that we gain in the here and now by doing the right thing. Doing the wrong thing is a result of limited intelligence and imagination.

I realize that this may be a rather idealistic proposition; for one thing, as Mr. Rogers said, "good people do bad things," especially in difficult circumstances. For another, there are plenty of Blagojeviches in the world, and they distort the "doing well by doing good" input-output loop. I say this assuming that Gov. Blagojevich is not an example of a good person who did a bad thing, in which case it's troubling to think about what else Gov. Blagojevich has done that we will never know about. Reminds me of what they say about cockroaches: for every one you see, there are 10,000 others.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Prop. 8! The Musical

Here's a brilliant sketch on Funny or Die about Proposition 8 (AKA "Proposition Hate"). One thing that struck me is the little dig at anti-Prop. 8 forces near the end: having heard various arguments supporting legalization of gay marriage from Jesus (played by Jack Black) and Neil Patrick Harris, black-clad Fundamentalists, led by Allison Janney and John C. Reilly, exclaim, "We get it now! We've been such fools!" If only things were that simple. The eternal hope that one can reason with willfully ignorant, fearful people is a chronic failing of progressives. Or maybe it's a good thing?

Oh well. We can only hope The New Yorker is right when it says that Prop. 8 was one of the last gasps of the anti-gay marriage movement. This is one of the defining civil rights issues of our era in the United States.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Whatever Scares You the Most"

Get Your War On has been nailing it for years. And it's demonstrated a great use for clip art, which use enhances the satire. If you haven't seen GYWO, check it out at http://www.mnftiu.cc/ ("MNFIU" stands for My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable). And now they're doing animation. This clip goes directly to the core of all of this campaign season's "real America," "Muslim," "Joe Six-Pack" blather.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"If Obama Wins..." Redux

I've been thinking a lot about how to deal with this kind of...well, what passes for thinking. Should I be angry with them? More empathetic and understanding? The Christian thing to do would be to love them. But is that patronizing? From what little Nietzche I've read, I gleaned that he believed it to be disrespectful not to express anger.

In my better moments, I tend to favor appealing to people's better side. I also think the people in that video are straight-out terrified, and we have to understand that shouting at frightened people does not help.

But man. It's all well and good to empathize with ignorant, scared people – until they do damage. So at what point do we move from reaching out to shutting them down? Throughout our history their ilk have enabled more cynical, powerful people to do a terrific amount of damage. How do we stop it from continuing to happen?

Friday, October 24, 2008

"If Obama Wins, the Black [sic] Will Take Over"

This is profoundly sad and disturbing. I don't like it when people equate a politician's supporters with him, and I don't mean to do that here.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Small-Town America

This is one of the angriest Daily Show clips I’ve seen, about the “small-town" and "real" America that the McCain campaign has been touting so much.

Some highlights:
  1. The church-going guy drinking at the saloon during the day, wearing tattoos on his shoulder of half-naked women representing his wife, mistress, and another girlfriend (the last of whom he brags is almost identical to her tattoo)
  2. The mayor of Wasilla saying, unequivocally, that her position prepares one for the vice presidency of the United States, even though she does not run the fire department, schools, or any social services…and can’t describe what she actually does day to day
  3. The head of the Alaska Independence Party, who says that Todd Palin was a member
I'd like to say that again: the spouse of a major candidate thinks his state should secede from the United States of America. We have a secessionist standing behind a vice presidential candidate. What am I missing here that makes this okay? Since when is it American to be a traitor to the United States? Please, someone, enlighten me. This is also why I don't understand how a true patriot can fly a Confederate flag. What is America about? Are we about the Constitution? Or is being an American purely about culture, and therefore open to interpretation state by state, region by region, town by town, religion by religion, and race by race?

I understand that there is more to being American than the Constitution, but I lean heavily toward the Constitution as the thing that defines my country, and I'm very, very afraid of people who think that being American has little or nothing to do with our founding document. The content of the Constitution isn't the only thing that makes us unique; it's also the fact that every other country in the 18th century defined itself purely on ethnic and cultural terms. The Russians were Russians, the French were French, and the Japanese were Japanese because of their cultural heritages. Of course, it's more complicated than that, and exceptions abound: human history is marked by constant racial and ethnic mixing, migration, and the expansion and collapse of empires. So to be, say, an ethnic Greek living in the 18th century among Arabs (both Muslim and Christian), Armenians, and Jews in what is now Lebanon was to be an Ottoman subject. (His circumstance and disposition at any given moment may have dictated whether he would identify himself as Greek, Ottoman, or Levantine.)

But by and large, most countries other than the United States identify themselves in ethnic and cultural terms. I believe that the point of the United States was that we had a different idea. This has always been challenged – we have had and always will have our share of ethnic and racial conflicts. But those conflicts can be resolved more effectively in the United States than anywhere else; you don't have to have a certain kind of name, religion, or skin color to be American. Most other countries will always have more of a problem, because to be French or Japanese or Danish means much more. And much less.


The Daily Show also does us a service by showing us some outdoor scenes of this "small town": Main Street, which is not a small-town street, but rather a massive arterial full of through-traffic; and the huge Target and Lowe's. I admit that I've never been to Wasilla, but it doesn't look like a small town to me, judging from this video. This doesn't look like a place where someone can walk to the local store, or let his daughter walk anywhere for fear of her getting hit by a car.

Then, at the end, is the Ground Zero footage. Like I said, this is an angry segment.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Veep Debate Drinking Game

This email is going around:
The Presidential VP Debate airs tonight at 9pm ET. The VP Debate "Shots" Game is simple: Whenever you hear one of the following phrases you must take a shot of whatever you're sipping on.

With that said, many will not make it to work tomorrow!

"Great State of Alaska"
"Bridge to Nowhere"
"Hockey Mom"
"Shore Up the Economy"
"Shake Up Washington"
"Executive Experience"

Monday, September 29, 2008

Is this a Parody? I Can't Tell

Tina Fey's imitation of Gov. Sarah Palin is frightening for its near lack of exaggeration. It's noteworthy that Fey and Amy Poehler simply replayed some parts of the Palin–Couric interview verbatim, but I'm actually amazed the SNL writers felt compelled to write anything for this sketch.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Urgent Secret Business Relationship

This is making rounds via email. I've removed some articles to make it more like those Nigerian scams.
Dear American:

I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.

I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.

I am working with Mr. Phil Gram, lobbyist for UBS, who will be my replacement as Ministry of Treasury in January. As a Senator, you may know him as the leader of American banking deregulation movement in the 1990s. This transactin is 100% safe.

This is matter of great urgency. We need blank check. We need the funds as quickly as possible. We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance. My family lawyer advised me that I should look for a reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred.

Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to wallstreetbailout@treasury.gov so that we may transfer your commission for this transaction. After I receive that information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.

Yours Faithfully Minister of Treasury Paulson

I still don't quite know what I think of the bailout. But the urgency of it, and Paulson's proposal to control fully what goes on, are dubious, in my opinion. Also, after years of being lectured by the Bush Administration not to intervene in their economies, foreign governments are not blind to the irony of what Mr Paulson is now pushing. More on this later.

Spoof of The New Yorker's Cover

This is for anyone who saw The New Yorker's cover showing Michelle and Barack Obama doing a fist bump in the Oval Office and wondered, "Uh, why?" I like The New Yorker, but sometimes it's just too clever by half.

Stephen Colbert wearing an Afro. I love this country.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Medieval IT

Here's an oldie but goodie.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Turn Around

Every once in a while my friend J sends me an email with the subject heading, "What is with your people?" with an article, photo, or video that somehow concerns Scandinavians – or some extremely rough approximation thereof, like Belgians or the Dutch. God forbid he should refer to the Swedes as my people; those are the oppressors! (Note: While there is some factual basis for this, "oppression" is a strong word to use in any discussion of Swedish–Norwegian relations, and I'm only joking.)

Today's edition of What Is with Your People? is priceless. It's the Norwegian band Hurra Torpedo, which plays on kitchen appliances, performing Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

Friday, September 5, 2008

BarackBook: Part of a Maverick's Campaign?

The Republican National Committee's website offers rich material for comment. Take, for instance, the red bar on the homepage that displays a clock that counts down from "Biden's Last Gaffe." The other day Sen. Biden "again mixed up military 'battalions' with 'brigades.'" (*Snicker* Again!) There's also the website's "Audacity Watch," which might be more appropriately titled "Uppity Negro Watch."

I mentioned the rotating graphics on the homepage in another post. One of them is a link to "BarackBook," which initially appears to be a relatively innocent dig at Sen. Obama's popularity on Facebook. But it's actually an attempt to smear Obama based on associations – both real and imagined.

Many of the people in Sen. Obama's "social network" are yawners. Others are included because, say, they protested the Vietnam War – they're just there to kick up the culture war embers.

Then there are the people that the GOP is clearly using to scare voters – people with scary names. Take, for instance, Ali Abunimah, founder of the online publication Electronic Intifida. This American author's BarackBook page details all the times he has talked about Obama or talked about talking to Obama.

Mr Abunimah says that Israel is the result of "Zionist colonization" – an inarguable fact – and that the Israeli government has demolished Palestinian homes (also true). He also uses the term "Jim Crow" when describing the daily lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and, in general, describes the daily hardships that ordinary Palestinians endure.

In other words, Mr Abuminah talks and writes about incredibly complicated issues from a perspective that is barely heard in the United States. But the implication on his BarackBook page seems to be that he's a terrorist, or at least a terrorist sympathizer, and this then seems aimed at raising the question in the reader's mind, "What does that make Sen. Osama?"


We should, of course, dig into politicians' associations, and asking about Tony Resko is certainly fair game. (I actually think The Chicago Tribune's editorial about the affair was pretty poorly written and unconvincing.) The thing to which I object is the innuendo.

Whatever your opinions about Ali Abuminah, he's not an explosives-vest-wearing psycho – he's a commentator and writer whose pieces have appeared in Ha'aretz, the Israeli paper, as well as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Financial Times, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. But what can be the intent of including Mr Abuminah in BarackBook other than to lead some people who are not familiar with the Middle East to believe that Obamah is a terrorist sympathizer?

But instead of coming out and making any serious, fact-based accusation against Sen. Obama, the McCain campaign instead relies on whispers: "Hey, did you know that Barack Hussein Osama wants to wipe Israel off the map?" Insinuations such as this are as insidious as any ridiculous and insulting (not only to Sen. Obama, but also to everyone's intelligence) direct accusations, because they quietly calcify into feelings and hunches and are so hard to shake with clear facts. Even if the any associations with Ali Abuminah don't work, 20 or 50 other such stories are there to take its place – only a few of them need to yield the intended result. And that result, in the end, is black paint slapped on sand to look like a road. Go down that road and you arrive at the inevitable conclusion that Sen. Obama is dangerous. But look down, and look behind you; what do you see?

Meanwhile, we're supposed to believe that this kind of innuendo is part of a maverick's campaign. We're supposed to believe that this is not politics as usual, and that Sen. McCain rises above the partisan, win-at-all-costs furor of typical political discourse.

But ask yourself: Is this is a tactic of an honorable man?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Pundits' Hypocrisy About Gov. Palin

Thank God for Jon Stewart; he's one of the best media critics out there. In the clip below he skewers Karl Rove, Bill "Papa Bear" O'Reilly, Dick Morris, and Nancy Pfotenhauer – all of whom can't seem to make up their minds on "the gender card."

A highlight: a segment featuring Papa Bear commenting on two different teen pregnancies:
First, on September 2nd, 2008, talking about Gov. Palin's 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy: "Millions of American families are dealing with teenage pregnancy, and as long as society doesn't have to support the mother, father, or baby, it is a personal matter.... It is true that some Americans will judge [Gov. Palin] and her family.... For the sake of [Gov. Palin] and her family we hope things calm down."

Second, on December 9th, 2007: "On the 'pinhead front,' 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant. The sister of Britney says she is shocked. I bet.... Here the blame falls primarily on the parents of the girl, who obviously have little control over her."
Wow. Just...wow.

In Ms Pfotenhauer's defense, she is a senior policy advisor to Sen. John McCain – of course she wants her horse to win. And if that's not made clear when she makes appearances, that's the network's fault, not hers.

But these other guys? To paraphrase Mr Stewart: in their defense, they're lying sacks of shit.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The RNC's Designs on Obama's Design?

I just logged onto the Republican National Committee’s website. The centerpiece of the homepage is a series of rotating graphics. One of these graphics – the one featuring Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. McCain’s running mate – caught my eye instantly.

Look familiar? Just in case it doesn’t, now look at this:

It’s part of the banner on the Obama campaign website. Compare the fonts, the colors, the poses. Now check this out from the homepage of the Obama campaign website:

In the graphic featuring Gov. Palin the word "from" is italicized, just as is the word "of" above. This is not that unusual a typographical feature, but it's also not that common, and the RNC's use of it is striking.

Similarly, blue is very common among campaigns. Having been proven again and again to be especially appealing to consumers (esp. when compared to red), this is no surprise. But the shade of blue in the Gov. Palin graphic is remarkably close to the one that the Obama campaign uses.

You’d think that the RNC would want to differentiate its design from that of the Obama campaign – that it wouldn’t want anyone to be struck by similarities. What’s going on here?

I have a quick and dirty theory. The Obama campaign’s logo and fonts have been hot topics of blog posts and in the press throughout the past year. Google “obama design” and you get nearly a million pages on the topic (or so it appears). From what I’ve read, the consensus is that the Obama campaign’s graphics – and its control of the visual message – are brilliant; for instance, Newsweek's "Stumper" featured an analysis back in February that included color commentary from Michael Bierut. Could the RNC be trying to get a little of that marketing and design savvy to rub off on it?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Visualization of Data

I learned about Many Eyes, the brainchild of scientists at IBM's lab in Cambridge, Mass., from my friend Adam. It's a Web tool that anyone can use to create visualizations of data. As a rabid fan of Edward Tufte (speaker, anti-PowerPoint crusader, and author of several books on the visualization of data, including The Visual Display of Quantitative Information), I had to pass it along.

There are already several visualizations on the site. Here's one that I found quite compelling, because it uses a "network diagram" to depict visually the medal count at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing:

Note: If the graphic does not appear above, it's because Many Eyes is moving databases around. I've had problems signing in and performing other basic tasks – IBM may not have devoted enough server space to Many Eyes.

I think it would be easier to understand if the countries and the sports were better differentiated, and I posted a comment to that effect (I accidentally went down as "Anonymous," which was annoying because anonymous posting is a pet peeve of mine). If you're looking for a specific country, you can select a sport in which you know that country medaled, and all of the countries with medals in the sport light up; you'll then have an easier time of finding the country. (Of course, the same is true the other way around.)

I also think this visualization would be improved if you could find the actual data by rolling over a country or sport; for instance, if you hold the mouse over "Boxing" a pop-up window appears to list the countries that medaled in that sport. But these are minor quibbles, and I'm not even sure if it's possible to make those changes.

I love that you can pull apart different elements to get a better handle on the information. And the interactivity doesn't stop there: this is also a forum, by which IBM accomplishes two things. First, it is better enabled to improve this tool and its subsets through user feedback. Second, IBM provides an additional service to its users: free consultation from the thousands of other users who frequent the site. Many Eyes thereby builds a solid user base.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

When It Comes to Doing Its Job, CNBC Won't Drill

From what little I've seen of what passes for news journalism on TV, I'd already been unimpressed. But I was still shocked by what I saw on Meet the Press today.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain's choice for his running mate, was the topic of the segment I saw. Maria Bartiromo came on to talk about her interview with Gov. Palin, which was to be aired on her show after Meet the Press. Ms Bartiromo didn't report the news. Instead, she gave us her opinions. Ms Bartiromo said,
I think the biggest value [Gov. Palin] brings to the ticket is her expertise in energy. This is her comfort zone. She made a very compelling case to me that the area that we're talking about that is being debated about whether or not to drill, ANWR, as you mentioned, is 2000 acres in a 20,000,000-acre plain. This is her comfort zone. This is really what she's overseeing. Alaska is one of the few oil-rich areas we have in this country alone....So this is a very, very important piece of the picture and I think she brings great value there, making the point that it is a small swath of land and it really will not impact the wildlife, as of course is the concern, because we've got caribou and bears and moose there, and the upset or the worry is that it's going to impact the breeding of the wildlife. She feels very strongly that that is not the case. And I think that that knowledge of energy is going to be very important for the McCain ticket.

When Tom Brokaw asked Ms Bartiromo about Gov. Palin's expertise in other economic issues “of the day” besides energy, such as the liquidity crisis, she replied, "I don't think that she's necessarily well versed in the liquidity crunch, but I think she came across so strong with regard to economic matters as they relate to energy and as they relate to overall economic growth." She sounded like a high school sophomore trying to make an argument, deflecting a question that she saw as a threat to her case that "it was a very savvy pick, actually."

There's a lot of talk of balance in the news, with people on the left decrying the "MSM" for being corporate shills too afraid of Bush to report the real news, and people on the right slamming the media for being "liberal." But it's worse than that.

I know I’m not saying anything original here, but it bears repeating: the problem is that so much of the "news" is not really news at all. When people talk about "balance" they're talking about providing balanced opinions. I don't want balanced opinions – I want the damn news!

Ms Bartiromo, in this case, did not describe for us Gov. Palin's energy expertise; had not done an ounce of research about ANWR in order to be able to provide more information and context on the controversy when it came up, or to do more than lob softballs at the Governor; and did not describe other people's assessments of Gov. Palin's expertise in economic and energy issues. Instead, Ms Bartiromo gave us her opinions based on what appeared to be a Barbara Walters-like interview. What I learned from Ms Bartiromo is that she thinks that Gov. Palin has energy and economic expertise – I did not learn anything about Gov. Palin's expertise.


It can be argued that I should accept Ms Bartiromo’s assessment of Gov. Palin’s expertise. She is, after all, host of CNBC’s The Wall Street Journal Report, and she did interview the Governor. Well, I watched the interview (see the clip below – unfortunately I couldn't find the entire interview online), and still learned nothing. Actually, that’s not true; I did learn that Gov. Palin seems to think that we’re in Iraq for oil – and here I’d thought that only some anti-war protestors said that!

Gov. Palin said that there’s really nothing remarkable about ANWR, repeating the pro-drilling argument that, since it’s not on postcards, ANWR can’t possibly be ecologically significant. She also said that the proposed drilling site, the "1002 area," is only 2000 acres, analogous to a postage stamp on a football field. Ms Bartiromo didn’t ask about any of the anti-drilling responses to the Governor’s arguments: nothing about the coastal plain being extremely narrow (15–40 miles), or about the porcupine caribou’s extreme sensitivity to disturbance and its avoidance of roads and other human activity by up to a mile. Ms Bartiromo did not point out that it wasn’t a bunch of Democrats who assessed the 1002 area’s ecological value as "high" and concluded that development impacts would be "significant," but rather the Biological Research Division of the USGS. Nor did Ms Bartiromo ask Gov. Palin about the argument that the fruits of any drilling work in ANWR would not come to be in other 20–30 years, or that the impact of the estimated amount of oil there would have no significant impact on the global supply – and therefore the price – of oil.

From what I’ve read about ANWR, I do fall on the anti-drilling side; I am therefore always eager to hear good, well-reasoned arguments supporting drilling. I did not hear them from Gov. Palin. Instead, her arguments were very simplistic, and have already been addressed again and again. For this reason, I need more than Ms Bartiromo's opinions about Gov. Palin's expertise.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Responding to Distortions About Obama

In his piece on Newsweek’s website, “The Other Side of the Story: Rebutting Sean Wilentz on Barack Obama,” Charles Kaiser (full disclosure: my wife's uncle) explodes the kind of lazy – and often dishonest – criticisms of Obama that have been so prevalent these past two years. He calls out Wilentz for having written "a thinly disguised hatchet-job," and says, in part, that
Wilentz reinforces the canard that Obama's campaign is short on specifics, charging that his rhetoric amounts "chiefly to promising a dramatic break with the status quo"—and arguing that "millions of other Democrats still find his appeals wispy and unconvincing." The truth is, Obama has detailed positions on everything from Iraq and Afghanistan to universal health care and tax reduction—as was made clear by the cover story in the The New York Times magazine last Sunday dissecting his economic program. The Times concluded that of the two major candidates, Obama would be the real "tax cutter" for most Americans—except for the ones making an average of $9.1 million. That group would get a tax cut of $190,000 a year, from John McCain, versus a tax increase of $800,000 a year from Obama. So much for a lack of specifics.
I highlight this paragraph in particular because one of the biggest pieces of "received wisdom" of all this campaign season is that Obama is vague and lacks substance.

Some of Kaiser's arguments include references to other pieces that are also worth reading – esp. Ryan Lizza’s piece in The New Yorker last month, “Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama.” Lizza shows Obama to have sharp elbows and to be incredibly politically tough and astute.


I have some beefs with Obama myself – his FISA vote among them – but to say that he’s radical, vague and touchy-feely, a tax-and-spender, &c., is to betray willful ignorance. There, I said it.

When friends of mine – people I deeply admire – mock Obama for being an empty suit, throw up their hands and complain that the man is not perfect, or earnestly say they're thinking of voting for McCain, I can only smile uncomfortably. Maybe it's more of a wince?

Even Obama's oratory, which is continually criticized for – get this – being too good, is sloughed off as vague. But anyone who actually listens to an entire speech – i.e., beyond the stuff played in clips the next day – will hear a display of a depth and breadth of knowledge and ideas that completely blow John "You Say 'Sunni,' I say 'Shiite' – Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" McCain out of the water. I'm as sick of hearing Obama's hackneyed "from the shores of [insert name of one state here] to the fields of [insert name of another state here]" lines as the next guy, but listen to a whole Obama speech or "town hall"-style forum, and then tell me that he lacks substance, specifics, or depth.

If you have any doubt about Obama, I encourage you to check these out and/or forward them:

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Summer Streets

Summer Streets, New York’s seven-mile road closure (or “opening”) on three consecutive Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., is over. The City DOT will presumably now compile and analyze all sorts of the data to ascertain the program’s success. The biggest question to answer, and the one that has been most publicized, is this: were businesses hurt, as some had predicted, or did they experience no change or actually benefit? Other questions come to mind as well: did Summer Streets function as planned? What opportunities presented themselves that had not been considered beforehand? What problems? Did potential partnerships present themselves? What potential revenue generators are there? And what potential cost-cutting measures?

My wife and I missed the first two weekends of Summer Streets, but we made it out this past Saturday, the last day, starting at the Brooklyn Bridge and heading north. Unfortunately, our time was limited, so we only got as far as 32nd Street or so. But what we did see was very thought-provoking. It was a novel experience for New Yorkers (and tourists), many of whom looked almost like characters at the end of a weather disaster film, when people emerge from their homes, a little disoriented, to watch the storm retreat into the distance. Their faces convey deep relief and a renewed sense of hope, but also weariness, and a little confusion as to what to do next.

Sight, Hearing, and Smell
I hadn’t expected the sensory experience of Summer Streets – it was powerful. I noticed different sensory inputs in succession. First, I was giddy at the sight of a major road taken over by people walking, running, and riding. Then, after several blocks, I noticed how wonderfully, peacefully quiet it was – the loudest noises came from the air conditioning systems of the buildings aligning the route. But the most pervasive sounds were those of footfalls, the various workings of bicycles, and people talking.

Then, much later, it hit me that the air was…well, clean; as a regular New York City bicycle commuter, I’d become used to the near-constant exhaust of cars, buses, and trucks along my route between home and my office. So it was a pleasant surprise to be able to breathe deeply and easily.

The Value of Ambiguity and the Problems of Uninsurable Guarantees
I would personally have liked to see more ambiguity and more mixing of uses. The reason for this is that I think that trying to limit ambiguity actually creates more confusion: no one can follow the rules perfectly 100% of the time, and, of those who are following the rules at any given time, many cannot or will not account for the errors on their part or on the part of others. I think this can end up making for more unsafe conditions. In an obviously ambiguous environment people know instinctively what to do: slow down and pay attention.

(Again, I would push ambiguity only in a limited number of specific situations. Also, the degree of desired ambiguity depends on the overall goals.)

To explain my point I’ll take, for comparison, an environment in which the dominance of a user group is absolutely clear and perfectly manageable: a motor-vehicle tunnel. In this setting people – motorists, in this case – are guaranteed not to encounter other people, say, walking in a lane (I’m sure there are some exceptions to this, but they are aberrant and rare). But in an environment where there isn’t absolute control and clarity as to which user group or activity dominates, providing someone with a guarantee of her complete, unquestioned dominance of a space is tricky. If that guarantee cannot be backed up it provides only an illusion of safety, sometimes leading that person to be less observant and more prone to error.

I’m not sure how to add more ambiguity to the mix in the Summer Streets program, and I know that there must be hundreds of considerations of which I’m unaware. One such consideration maybe the setup and breakdown of stages and other event infrastructure: imagine if one were to propose setting up the mini-events – the classes, &c. – closer to or even partially jutting into the main Summer Streets drag. The small window of time the organizers are allowed to set up and break down would not allow this – hence the locations on side streets, which are easier to block for a longer period of time.

A Series of Events? Or a Thoroughfare?
Another possible result of the illusion of safety appears to be anger: when people’s dominance is suddenly put into doubt, they get pretty pissed off. Case in point: when we saw a tennis class for little kids on a side street, my wife and I slowed down gradually to watch. We were blocking about half a lane, and the road wasn’t crowded at that point. After about half a minute, someone tore by and yelled, “Not a good place to stop!” I replied, “Yeah, relax, buddy”; I wish I’d remembered my standby for people who seem to think they’re racing in the Tour de France – “We love you, Lance!” My wife and I had thought that a big part of Summer Streets was the ability to wander, stop once in a while, observe, participate, &c. Clearly, “Lance” didn’t agree with that notion.

The tennis workshop was an example of intermittent punctuations along the thoroughfare by small concerts, classes, and demonstrations of various activities and sports. I was struck by how stark – through the use of signage, cones, physical separation, and marshals – was the distinction between riding and running on one hand, and, on the other, the events.

I’d be very interested to see the data on any user conflicts, whether or not they resulted in accidents. I’d be even more interested in seeing how those data were gathered and interpreted. Sometimes the most valuable information can be anecdotal – for instance, if someone observed the “tennis for tots” area for an hour or so, taking notes and video, she could greatly inform how such areas are planned in the future.

Chute Alors!
A “chute” mentality seemed to take hold of most riders. Instead of watching out for people crossing and ceding way to them, the majority of riders rode through, encouraged by cones and the closures of (most) cross streets to cars to think that they had the supreme right of way, and that they didn’t have to look out for anyone else. It was very easy to behave in this way; it wasn’t until after we turned around that my wife and I realized that there were people at every intersection waiting to cross.

“Nature Abhors a Vacuum”: Summer Streets for Recreation, or More?
When we turned onto Centre Street upon arrival in Manhattan from Brooklyn, it was immediately apparent how similar Summer Streets was to a recreational trail for biking and running. Later, as my wife and I rode our bicycles back to Brooklyn, she said that she bet that there were no fewer runners and cyclists on the bikeway along West Street that day than any other. “Nature abhors a vacuum,” she said, as a metaphor – if a recreational resource opens up for use, people will fill it and use it.

I don’t know how far Summer Streets was supposed to go beyond “active” recreational use (I hate the term, but I see no alternative here, and I use it to mean running and bicycling). There’s certainly evidence that this was the primary focus, but, either way, the program will no doubt develop over time. I think that, in future editions, the program could use more events and activities along the way. For instance, a variation on some business improvement districts’ (BIDs) “taste of” events (such as Times Square Alliance's). Also, over the years, through careful tweaks in timing and through patient work with business owners and other stakeholders, the initiative may even lead to New Yorkers (and visitors) re-conceiving the city’s streets and thinking about transportation in a different way.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

"I Had to Finish the Race"

The men's and women's 4 x 100m relay teams' baton hand-off whiffs today at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing will be hard for the athletes and USA Track & Field to live down.

Lauryn Williams (left) and Torri Edwards (right) dropping the baton in their 4 x 100m relay heat (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko).

Darvis "Doc" Patton and Lauryn Williams – the latter of whom suffered the same fate in Athens four years ago – both made extremely candid, mature, and gracious remarks in their interviews immediately after their respective heats. Their successful struggles to maintain their composure were heartbreaking to watch.

It's very, very, very difficult to carry a coherent conversation immediately after a disappointing performance at the Olympic Games, when what you're actually thinking is "AAAAAAAAAAAAGH!!!!!" and you're nearly overcome with a desire to bash your own brains out against a concrete wall. To most viewers, it may be hard to understand just why an athlete looks to be on the verge of tears – after all, there are worse things in life than to be so privileged as even to be at the Games, right?

But imagine having spent, say, 12 years working your ass off on something – something that has required 100% of your focus to the detriment of all else in your life. And it's not just that you have to excel at the day-to-day training – you also have to avoid illness, boredom, mental burnout, injury, distractions, fatigue, self-doubt, poor nutrition, and 1000 other threats, big and small, to your place ahead of the hundreds of other people nipping at your heels to take your place. Now, add the 80,000 live spectators, the 1 billion television viewers, and the butterflies in your stomach that feel more like monkeys on speed. You literally lose a little control of your bladder at the starting line.

Just to get to this point, you've had to treat your effort with a sense of purpose extreme enough enough to require an elevated level of narcissism and self-seriousness. And this perhaps hasn't escaped your notice, causing moments of doubt along the way about what you're doing with your life.

Now, having done everything to a T, you get out there and things just don't go the way they were supposed to. What's your reaction? "AAAAAAAAAAAAGH!!!!!"

In the women's race, while the rest of the field went on to finish, Ms Williams turned back to pick up the baton, and she booked it to the finish line. Talk about an "Olympic moment," the kind of thing that will go down in history. Again: you've worked all those years for this, and, come hell or high water, you are going to get across that damn finish line.

When NBC later asked her about this after her heat, Ms Williams said, simply and emphatically, in a way that revealed her passion and determination, "I had to finish the race."

Guns, the Web, and Hopeless Naïveté

Today I intended to write about the excellent documentary about conscientious objectors, Soldiers of Conscience – which my brother co-edited – and some of the concepts therein. Okay, I admit it, I was going to engage shamelessly in promotion of a beloved family member, and glory in my association with him.

But I won't write about conscientious objection today – I hope to another time. Here's why: A couple days after the June 26, 2008, Supreme Court ruling on District of Columbia v. Heller, I looked up the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution on Wikipedia:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
I was amazed to learn that, in the summer of 1789, the language that was to become the Second Amendment, when first brought to the floor of the House of Representatives, included verbiage protecting conscientious objection:
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
When I watched Soldiers of Conscience, I mentioned this history to my brother. A few days ago, he told me that he hadn't found the reference to conscientious objectors in the Wikipedia entry on the Second Amendment. So this morning I logged onto Wikipedia to find the language – partly to point it out to him and partly to feed into my intended post today.

I found that the entry had been changed, in a small but extremely significant way. The first sentence now reads as follows: "The Second Amendment (Amendment II) to the United States Constitution is a part of the United States Bill of Rights that protects the pre-existing individual right to possess and carry weapons (i.e. 'keep and bear arms') in case of confrontation" (emphasis and links in the original). A footnote simply quoting the majority opinion in the Supreme Court's ruling on District of Columbia v. Heller is provided to back up this statement.

Um, exsqueeze me?

I couldn't resist writing about this, and dropping conscientious objection as today's topic (sorry O Beloved Brother Who Co-Edited Soldiers of Conscience, which, by the way, I highly recommend to all three of my readers). At first I thought, "well, maybe, when the Supreme Court rules on something, it just kind of becomes an incontrovertible fact...?" Then I snapped out of it. I mean, the Constitution is a living document, and this is the Second Amendment we're talking about. When you look up the Fourteenth Amendment on Wikipedia, the Due Process Clause is not described as protecting a woman's right to an abortion. Instead, the Clause "has been the basis of much important and controversial case law regarding privacy rights, abortion...and other issues."

And "pre-existing"? Click on that "pre-existing" link in the quotation above, and see where it takes you. Okay, fine, I'll do it for you – sigh... That link takes you to the Wikipedia entry for "natural right," which is defined as "the concept of a universal right inherent in the nature of living beings, one that is not contingent upon laws or beliefs" (link in the original).

I personally don’t have a problem with gun ownership – I am forever grateful to an uncle who taught me and the rest of us kids how to handle and shoot guns, and how to be safe about it. My problem is with criminals’ easy access to guns, and I don’t understand why, in many states, it’s easier to own a gun than to own a car. In other words, I think gun ownership should be better regulated. And while I'm no Constitutional scholar (I don't even play one on TV), I just can't understand how the Supreme Court interpreted the Second Amendment the way it did in June.

But here's the thing: let's put aside, for a moment, our disagreements about gun ownership and any Constitutional protection thereof. Can we agree that controversy surrounds the idea that the Constitution protects our right to own and carry guns? To say otherwise is to make a meta-argument in favor of a Constitutional right to own guns; put another way, it's equivalent to pretending to step outside of the debate while still engaging in it. This is a powerful (and sneaky) way of getting your point across.

Now here's where the "hopeless naïveté" comes in: I had known that Wikipedia is "written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world," and I had known about pranks and about some "volunteers" essentially arguing with each other – thereby distorting their debates, to our detriment – by replacing one another's entries. But I hadn't really paid close attention to Wikipedia, and I had assumed that the pranks and the distortions only happened with some relatively unimportant topics. I mean, wouldn't Wikipedia be reliable on the big issues through focused management of its entries on those issues? And wouldn't each of these issues to be assigned to, say, a select, well-informed, diverse, and small group of people with exclusive editing access who make changes to their entries only through consensus?

A lot has been written about the dangers of readily available, false information that people accept without question, and how Web technology is so powerful in this regard. But, to paraphrase the NRA party line, "the Web doesn't misinform people – people do." And I would add that people allow themselves to be misinformed. (Thankfully, the NRA doesn't say, "Guns don't kill people – people do. And, oh, by the way, the victims allow themselves to get killed.")

Granted, the Web is extremely powerful, thanks to how easy it is to use. Anyone who's used a card catalogue knows this. But it's just a medium, and there are, there always have been, and there always will be other media available to cynical and short-sighted people who wish to disseminate false information – and to those poor souls who readily accept false information as fact.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Scraper Bike!

I'm pretty late to post this video from April by East Oakland's Trunk Boiz, but I had to share it. A good friend on the Left Coast sent it to me, introducing it as "some bike culture that isn't totally stale."

Urban Dictionary – upon which, I am distressed to admit, I am increasingly dependent to understand much of anything as I suffer the indignities of Time (I know, woe is me) – defines scraper bikes as "A new trend that is a part of the San Francisco Bay Area Hyphy Movement [OkoMisc Note: Uh, "Movement"? Not to put it down, but I'm not sure this qualifies as a Movement] in which people ride their tricked out bikes and go stupid, dumb, retarded while on their bikes. Generally, the bikes have nice designs, such as duo-tone paint jobs, and rims or spinners. The term was coined by the rap group Trunk Boiz of Oakland, California."

I love this video. For one thing, it's so unusual to see an SUV sit in the background, completely irrelevant to the action – rather than play a glorified role and serve as a status symbol – while a bunch of guys wax poetic about their tricked-out bikes. For another, those things are functional! Check out the trike's rear box, and the baskets on some of the other bikes.

And then there's the whole "hyphy" thing. While I may not call it a "Movement" – and while I can't say I know much about it beyond what I've gleaned from Urban Dictionary – I'll sign on to not taking ourselves too seriously any day of the week.

Monday, August 18, 2008

One Less Car. Screw the Rest of You!

The weather forecast this morning called for a hot, humid day, so I decided to wear a T-shirt for my bike ride to work. I coast as much as possible to avoid over-heating when it's warm, and I actually end up sweating less on my bike than I do riding the subway; just standing on the platform makes me feel like the baby wearing the diaper that leaks in those old Huggies commercials.

I grabbed the most accessible T-shirt, which turned out to be my new Transportation Alternatives shirt. It's beautifully designed: it's white, with TransAlt's new logo (designed by Milton Glaser, the great graphic designer of "I [Heart] NY" fame) on the side. On the back, in huge, all-caps text, it reads, "ONE LESS CAR."

I put on the shirt, and was putzing around the apartment getting ready to go, when my brother, who's visiting from California with his wife, joked, "Why don't you just wear a shirt that says, 'FUCK ALL OF YOU DRIVERS'?" I laughed and joked back that I'd like one that said, "ONE FEWER CAR" – typical humor in our family.

When I rolled down my street I thought about my brother's joke, and figured that I might as well wear a target on my back. I'd had this shirt for just a few weeks, and loved it – the design is great, and I agree with the message. But I realized that I would prefer a shirt that used humor rather than what can be interpreted as sanctimony and even hostility. On one hand, motorists in New York should be happy that I'm not driving – I'm not adding to the congestion that they experience on a daily basis.

On the other hand, if I saw a shirt that said, "ONE LESS ATHEIST," I'd interpret it as judgmental and holier than thou, and wouldn't feel at all compelled to see the Light and become a believer. Sanctimony doesn't work. Plus, I hadn't owned a car anyway (well, I did for a year, when I was rowing in Pelham at 5:30 a.m. each day, until last summer), so it's not like I used to drive, but then the clouds parted and I heard a chorus of angels, and then changed my ways. The shirt would be more accurate if it read, "ONE LESS SUBWAY RIDER."

A few other reasons the shirt doesn't make sense for me. First – or rather, third – I ride my bike to work because I like to: I feel more awake when I get to work (I like to think this is due to the exercise, not from the adrenaline that comes with looking Death in the eye); I love being outside; and I'm much more physically comfortable biking than riding the subway (the same can be said of motorists in their cars, by the way).

Fourth, what about all the transit riders? As I waited at an intersection this morning for pedestrians to cross in front of me, other cyclists whizzed through them like they were so many gnats. I shrunk at the sight, hoping no one would associate me with those cyclists ( – but, oh yeah, I was wearing a target on my back!), and I reflected on the sanctimony in the bicycling community that I think justifies the "I wait for no one and no thing" attitude. What a way to make friends! Anyway, most of those pedestrians were walking to or from bus stops or subway stations – each of those transit riders is "ONE LESS CAR" too. Do any of those people commute to and from work in righteous indignation?

Believe me, I know that riding a bike in New York City will make the most patient, kind person into a raving, indignant jerk. Bicycling really should be a viable option in New York – it's relatively flat, the weather is pretty good most of the year, and the distances between most destinations in our daily lives here are fairly short. New York as it could/should be, juxtaposed with New York as it is (despite the vast improvements thanks to TransAlt and the current Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan), makes cyclists pretty angry.

Bicycling is a fantastic mode of transportation: it's clean, good for our health, quiet, and space-efficient. And yet a short ride in New York will very quickly tell you what New York thinks of you and your stupid bike. You feel like a cornered rat, giving proof to the obverse of Jan Gehl's somewhat-broken-English remark that "if you love people, they love you back": if a city, through the manner in which it builds and manages its streets, shows people no respect, they will, in turn, show that city and its laws – as well as other people – no respect.

I've ridden in righteous indignation myself, and I'm sure I will again, in weaker moments. But if we cyclists want to improve our reputation in this community, and therefore contribute to lasting change, we must rise above the dangers and slights we experience almost every day and not treat others as we do not want to be treated. So no rudeness, no riding through people as if they're a cloud of gnats, and no sanctimony and righteous indignation.

About 20 minutes into my commute this morning, on Third Avenue in Manhattan, I ran into a friend from college. He was walking his wife to work with their kids – they run a business together. We were chatting when my friend noticed the logo on the side of my shirt. I turned around to show the back, and mentioned my brother's joke. They both laughed, and my friend's wife said, "Yeah, why stop there? Why not just, 'FUCK ALL OF YOU'?"


This all reminded me of my old Mao fetish, which started with some old posters my grandmother had bought in China in the 70s that I hung for a few years in the 90s. The posters show Mao, looking to be about seven feet tall, striding through factories and fields, with eager, fawning peasants and workers walking alongside and behind him – some of them literally walking bent over and grinning, like in some old Western, racist depiction of "Chinamen"! – so proud of their work and so grateful to him for his magnanimity and wisdom. When I was in China in 2001, I bought a T-shirt that likened Mao to the sun – red and yellow rays emanated from his floating head as he wore that Mona Lisa smile. (I also bought a Mao watch that worked for about two days.)

After a year or two of owning this shirt, I realized that I might as well wear a Hitler or Stalin shirt ( – yeah, it took me that long). Wouldn't that be kitschy and cute? So witty, hip, and tongue in cheek! Mao, a deranged megalomaniac, who was carried on a litter during the Long March, and, later, as dictator, killed millions of people? Ha! What a doozy!

I promptly threw out the Mao shirt. (The posters had already been stashed – my wife never liked them – and an uncle has since taken them.)


This afternoon, on my ride home, I'll just wear my undershirt. I love my "ONE LESS CAR" shirt, but I think I'll give it away to someone who doesn't over-think everything or take his older brother's jokes so much to heart. As much as I admire TransAlt, my desire not to risk being viewed as hostile trumps my desire to broadcast my love for bikes. Besides, I'm not so much anti-car as I am pro-bike.

If I ever get the inclination to make my own pro-bike shirt, I'd like to use something gentler and more humorous, like "THIS, TOO, COULD BE YOU!" with a retro drawing of a guy on a bike flashing a toothy grin and winking. Kind of like, "if you lived here, you'd be home now." What do you think? Let me know. Also, please write in with other ideas. If I like your idea the best, I'll print up two T-shirts – one for me and one for you. And we'll both know that there's at least one other person out there who waits at intersections while people walk across the street – and that that person is just happy to be outside on a bicycle.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Jesse's Dead

How are we to react when a demagogue dies at a ripe old age? Upon Jesse Helms' death I feel guilty for thinking it's good that he's gone once and for all.

Can we move on to a new chapter? One in which people who claim to be our leaders do not turn their backs on the equivalent of Nelson Mandela when he speaks on the floor of the Senate? One in which they do not refer to homosexuals as "disgusting people"? One can only hope that this is part of the beginning of the end of this chapter.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Independence Day

Have you read the Declaration of Independence lately? It's a fascinating document. The propositions within it are nothing short of amazing.

All of us, across all cultural, political, and social spectra, can append many faults to this country's name. Here are just a few that spring to my mind: the "mission-accomplished" "non-war" in Iraq; the related "war on terror," which is borderless, endless, and therefore completely contrary to our founding values; the brazen redefinition or even elimination of fundamental concepts that are crucial to the survival and health of the nation, such as habeas corpus and the separation of church and state; what now passes for news; consumer, celebrity-obsessed culture; the denial of accountability among so many, esp. in this Administration; &c. Then there are those moments in our history about which we also cannot be proud: the near-complete annihilation of American Indians (or, in PC-speak, "Native Americans" – but I've only heard "Native Americans" refer to themselves as American Indians or Indians); slavery; illegal and unprovoked incursions into other nations; &c.

Ann Coulter types would decry this list as unpatriotic – how dare anyone criticize the United States? – and then turn around and whip out lists of their own. These lists might include gay marriage, declining religiosity, &c. In more private moments, the Coulter types may even cite the end of Jim Crow.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying that I highly recommend pulling out the Declaration of Independence every year and reading it. It reminds us that, for all our complaints – which really are a reflection of our aspirations for the United States and our drive to make it a better nation – we (or most of us) have a lot to be thankful for. (It also, in some places, reflects some of those aspects of our history of which we cannot be proud – for example, the reference to the "Indian Savages" who were simply defending themselves against the white settlers' incursions into their lands.) This truly is a great country. It is great for many reasons, but what strikes me each time I read the Declaration of Independence is the set of ideas and laws upon which this country is founded. I worship at the altar of this document and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (which are even more profound, if less dramatic).

What better day than July 4th (or, in this case, the day before) to read the Declaration? Some new realization may strike you upon each reading. Here it is:

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.