Sunday, October 29, 2006

Global Warming and Global Cooling

There is a great linguistic irony in the fact that we are being warned repeatedly by various sorts of alarmists that the emissions of our cars and factories, as well as the farting of our cows, is contributing to global warming but the danger of global warming is not that the earth will become too warm per se but that it will actually cool down and we northern North Americans and Europeans will be living in ice houses if we live at all.

Just for fun, I Googled "greenhouse gases are causing global warming" searching for an alarmist page and the first entry was from the University of Michigan. To its credit, it noted that no one can prove that human causes of greenhouse gasses are accelerating global warming to any significant degree. To its discredit, it neglected to mention that the worst consequence of global warming is global cooling and that is a linguistic conundrum if ever I wrote one. How can warming cause cooling? Easy, it seems. As the planet warms, glaciers and ice packs melt and the runoff of ice cold water both cools the waters of the polar regions and causes desalination and both of these things can disrupt or even stop the ocean current "conveyor belt" that moves shallow warm water north where it is cooled and sent south and deep cold water south where it is warmed and sent back north. This conveyor belt is responsible for keeping Britain relatively warm in comparison with parts of Canada that are at the same latitude. This may be why when I have Googled on this topic of global warming BBC web pages inevitably pop up. They are rightly scared about the warming of the Earth.

We have here an extremely difficult scientific question: to what degree are humans contributing to global warming? As I have noted, responsible sources say that no answer to this question can be proved. There is no surprise in that since scientists are rarely able to prove anything about complex phenomena like the climate. My wife and I checked weather predictions for yesterday so that we could prepare for the weather at the University of Minnesota at Ohio State football game. The prediction was cold, very windy, and a good chance of rain. They got the first two right I checked the local weather radar map before we left and predicted cold with no great likelihood of rain. I was right. In short even local weather events can't be predicted with any great accuracy. Why should it be different for long term, including very long term predictions?

Let me tell you some things I bet you didn't know. There was a Little Ice Age in Europe that Wikipedia dates as follows :
* 1250 for when Atlantic pack ice began to grow
* 1300 for when warm summers stopped being dependable in Northern Europe
* 1315 for the rains and Great Famine of 1315-1317
* 1550 for theorized beginning of worldwide glacial expansion
* 1650 for the first climatic minimum
In contrast to its vague beginning, there is an almost undisputed consensus that the end of the Little Ice Age was in the mid-19th century.
Guess what? We didn't drive our autos about madly or pump substantial amounts of greenhouse gasses or keep large numbers of farting cows back in 1250. Or 1315. Or 1550. Another interesting site concerning the Little European Ice Age provides this chronology replete with the consequences::
1595: Gietroz (Switzerland) glacier advances, dammed Dranse River, and caused flooding of Bagne with 70 deaths.
1600-10: Advances by Chamonix (France) glaciers cause massive floods which destroyed three villages and severely damaged a fourth. One village had stood since the 1200's.
1670-80's: Maximum historical advances by glaciers in eastern Alps. Noticeable decline of human population by this time in areas close to glaciers, whereas population elsewhere in Europe had risen.
1695-1709: Iceland glaciers advance dramatically, destroying farms.
1710-1735: A glacier in Norway was advancing at a rate of 100 m per year for 25 years.
1748-50: Norwegian glaciers achieved their historical maximum LIA positions.
This is scary stuff to be sure. Here is a nice web site concerning rapid climate changes.

I am a linguist and dishonestly used the above cited linguistic conundrum just to make this topic relevant to my blog but I felt a debt to say what I have learned since writing my blog, The Danger of Metaphors. What I have learned since then is that the global warming alarmists have been at least as dishonest as those who sell us oil and sell us products that use it. The fact is that we are headed for another Little Ice Age or a Big Ice Age whether we do anything or not.

There are several natural causes of global cooling. Check out this very interesting site, which suggests as possible cause sun spot variation and volcanic eruptions sending debris and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, both of which block sun rays from hitting Earth. A television show on the National Geographic channel mentioned that any volcano expelling sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere even if it isn't erupting can contribute to global cooling since this gas reflects sunlight. And for years and years I have read and heard about meteor impacts shooting debris into the atmosphere, blocking the sun's rays. This has often been cited as a cause for the extinction of dinosaurs. In fact large mammals and other large creatures with long gestation periods are quite vulnerable to rapid climate changes since they cannot adapt quickly to new circumstances. We would be large animals with large gestations periods in case you wondered.

Right now the North Atlantic waters are cooling down due to glacier and ice pack melting and we can expect disruptions in the ocean conveyor belt in the who knows how distant future. I will be dead. Possibly every human alive right now will not experience it but I wouldn't bet on it. I know I wall be flamed for writing about a subject I do not have the relevant expertise for. However, if I have failed it would be in my selection of web sites to show you. I have no personal opinion as to whether or not we should worry about what we might be doing to the atmosphere except that there is no sense to our doing anything that would hurry up Doomsday. My natural political disposition runs with the alarmists but the bad guys aren't always wrong.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Meaning of "Winning"

[I changed the title on realizing after the fact that it obscured, rather than enlightened readers as to the content of this blog.]

According to my morning paper, the Columbus Dispatch, George Bush says that we are winning the war in Iraq. The specific claim is
"We’re winning and we will win, unless we leave before the job is done," Bush said.
Lest anyone fear that his "stay the course" position means that he and his military planners have rigidly adopted an Iraq plan, they need fear no longer
"Our goals are unchanging," the president said. "We are flexible in our methods to achieving those goals."
As a linguist interested in understanding the meaning of words like "winning", I am not reassured.

The problem with Bush's claim that we are "winning" the war in Iraq is that while he has, I believe, said what his goal is for this war -- to establish a viable (preferably nontyrannical) government (formerly, "democracy") -- he cannot tell us how what is happening on the ground in Iraq gets us and the Iraqi people to this goal. And that is critical to evaluating the truth of his claim that we are winning.

In any nonstandard war in which the battlefield changes constantly and there are no clear "front lines" along which both sides are arrayed with their support elements behind them, the only way we can measure whether we are winning or losing is by measuring the level of violence (which pertains to the viability of the current government and measuring it against past levels) and by marking off as "reached" the various stepping stones that take us from where we are to a (preferably nontyrannical) government that can be said to viable.

There is winning, losing, and a state in which one is neither winning nor losing. Though we might concede that Bush's goal is clear and that he has laid out the general terms the stepping stones that must be reached, which pertain to passing over to Iraqi troops and police the job of protecting the Iraqi people from violence, he has never given us the details. We hear from time to time that the US has passed over control of a given area to the Iraqis. I have been reliably informed, however, that all this means in many cases is that we have passed over control to an Iraqi general but that American forces are standing right behind him propping him and his soldiers up. If this is true, then a critical stepping stone to victory -- the passing of military control to the Iraqis -- involves a linguistic sham, for it relies for its truth a literal rendering of the phrase "pass control," in which "control" means only 'command.' As for the progress made in policing Iraqi cities, I invite you to read The Telegraph, a conservative British paper's story titled " Night-time knock on door heralds secret assassins."

As for the level of violence, Forbes on-line magazine said on the 26th of October that
The number of American troops killed in Iraq in October reached the highest monthly total in nearly two years on Thursday after four Marines and a sailor died of wounds suffered while fighting in same Sunni insurgent stronghold.
Not long ago, I saw on a TV news show (probably CNN but it could have been a network news show) a graph of American casualties over the course of the war that showed them to be moving inexorably upward.

During the Vietnam War, the grisly method of determining whether we were winning or losing that war was to measure the enemy "body count." The method used was so loosely defined that enemy bodies were counted more than once. I prefer measuring coalition casualties. Even better is to look at each face of those who have been killed. You can do that at CNN.com. I could be wrong, but I believe that a critical turning point in the attitude of Americans toward that war occured when Life magazine published the names of all of the American casualties to that point and, but more importantly, they also published a photograph along with the names.

I got a comment on a previous post saying how happy the person was that I had returned to discussing language rather than political issues. In fact, what I am doing in this blog is a linguistic exercise, an exercise in which I try to give meaning to the word "winning" as used by Bush in the quote at the top of this page and then evaluate the truth of his claim. In my opinion, if "winning" means to George Bush that we are gradually reaching the stepping stones that must be traversed to take us from where we were when we started this war to a viable (preferably nontyrannical) Iraqi government which does not need American support to be viable, then we are not winning.

There are three reasons to believe that Bush is lying. These are:
1. American causalities are increasing not decreasing.
2. Claims made to the effect that we have passed over control of various areas of the country are linguistic shams since such claims mean by "passing over control," 'passing over command of military forces to Iraqi generals.'
3. Sectarian violence is increasing and the people, sadly, are more affraid now than they were when Saddam was in power. This is a clear sign that the Iraqi police are not getting the job done. One reason, of course, is that the Iraqi police are riddled with officers who participate in sectarian violence. At a CBS web site, it is reported that Iraq's Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, whose police forces have been accused of complicity in sectarian attacks, has fired 3,000 employees accused of corruption or rights abuses and will change top commanders, a spokesman said Saturday.
Ergo, Bush is lying when he says that we are "winning." All that can be said is that we cannot be forced to leave Iraq. At least not yet.

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Goldberg's Specious Iraq War Argument

Poor Jonah Goldberg has a problem. He was a supporter of Bush's war in Iraq but wants to change positions -- sort of. He begins his op-ed piece saying "The Iraq war was a mistake." He then lambastes those who have been saying this for a long time because he doesn't want to admit that they were right all along. I won't bother you with the argument since it isn't worth the time anyway.

As I said, he begins by saying that the war was a mistake. Note the past tense. He doesn't say that the Iraq war, as presently constituted, IS a mistake. In fact, he doesn't seem to think that it is. And, interestingly, he takes the position that if we do the right things, "the war won’t be remembered as a mistake." That is a very neat trick.

Though the war was a mistake, Goldberg's view seems to be that Bush's blunders have turned the war into a good war. How is that possible? Goldberg says:
Those who say it’s not the central front in the war on terror are in a worse state of denial than they think Bush is in. Of course it’s the central front. That it has become so is a valid criticism of Bush, but it’s also strong reason for seeing things through. If we pull out precipitously, jihadism will open a franchise in Iraq and gain steam around the world, and the United States will be weakened.
So, Goldberg's position is that the Iraq war, which was a mistake, can be turned into a war that is remembered as not being a mistake because Bush's blunders have raised the stakes in such a way that a victory there would be a very good thing. So, it seems, that two wrongs -- getting into the war in the first place and then making numerous post-combat blunders can be turned into a right.

Goldberg claims that there are not just two positions -- leaving and staying -- but a third. What is that? Well, it is staying. What makes Goldberg's staying somehow different from this other kind of staying is that he proposes that there be an election in Iraq as to whether or not we should stay? This may be the silliest idea I have read in connection with defenses of Bush's "stay the course" position. Someone needs to tell Goldberg that there is an Iraqi government that the people voted into existence. Why isn't it good enough for him that they ask us to stay? Could it be that Goldberg doesn't believe that this is a legitimate Iraqi government?

Bush has created a "lose - lose" situation in Iraq. If we stay we keep losing American troops and losing our credibility around the world as an effective military power against irregular military forces such as the rogue Sunnis and the outsiders who wish to destroy the current government and kill as many Americans as they can. If we leave, we lose credibility around the world as an effective military power against irregular military forces.

There is leaving and staying. For those who want us to stay the only question is how should we go about it? Stay with the course Bush and Rumsfeld have set or adopt some new course? I would be for the latter if a good changed course could be devised. I don't think that is possible.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

The Language of E-Mail Spam

I was struck today by an effort of spammers to defeat Gmail's excellent spam detector. This morning I was greeted by bunch of spam e-mails wich were variations of
Grand message. You need to read.
There were three instances of
Essential note. You have to read.
Each of these was ostensibly from a different sender. The other subject lines were:
Weighty message. You require to read.
Momentous note. You must to read.
Grand note. You require to read.
They all have a largely incomprehensible, very ungrammatical message which is quite comical and very much worth your reading, given that laughter is good for the soul:
The great prognosis are drawn up.
The increase is up to 70% lately.
(MXXR) is the profitable deal and those who knows it is making money.
The drilling achivements of this highly capable oil partnership exceeded all its expectations.
One time this data hits the outdoors there will be no stopping this one.
Right now it's about 0.025 but we are waiting it to triple.
Once the news is made and the PR gets into full brandish.
Don't waste time and miss out. We counsel you to buy today.
The key is getting in early and the time is pressing. They say that Monday is the day this one will shoot. Find your position
before that happens.
There are minor variations in the first sentence of the mail. In addition to the first sentence of the quoted passage, one finds:
The great predictions are made.
The great anticipations are drawn up.
The great prognosis are made.
The great anticipations are made.
I would venture to guess that this e-mail was generated by either a fairly recent emigrant to the US or someone in Asia who speaks a language that doesn't trouble itself with number agreement between subjects and verb. One example is "You require to read," this being an incredibly mangled version of "You are required to read this."I checked Gmail's identified spam and found many instances of this class of e-including
Very important message. You require to read.
Weighty note. You must to read.
Some of these had a message differing from the one quoted above.

Unfortunately, I discovered that Gmail is identifying some nonspam as spam. It is unfortunate because recently I have been banishing detected spam without looking at it. Being able to do that is the goal of spam detection algorithms of course. Sadly, my main Ohio State University e-mail account and the main e-mail account of my Roadrunner account collect most of the spam and these are accounts I can't get rid of.

One other class of spam e-mail that got through had the Spanish title "CURSO COMPLETO DE ALEMÁN," which I think offers a complete course of German along with a bilingual dictionary. At least this one offered something of potential interest though how I would use the product is difficult to see given my poor knowledge of both German and Spanish.

Clearly, this morning's English language spam that slipped through was generated by an algorithm combining plausible garden variety English language names, one of which combined an English language first name ("Ethan") and an English rendered Chinese last name("Chan"), but that too is plausibly American. The algorithm clearly used a thesaurus to combine "synonyms" of "weighty" or some other word in its semantic class (loosely defined) with the noun "message" as well as "synonyms" of "need/require" along with the infinitive phrase "to read." The problem is that some of these "synonyms" don't take infinitive phrases like this one.

Why Gmail identified some of these messages as spam but not the rest I don't know. The most amusing sender name of all was Mr. "Debt Help" This e-mail was generated by Blogger when Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Debt Help commented on my blog "He's my Bitch" blog. When I went to look at that blog's comments, however, I couldn't find Mr. Debt Help's two comments. Perhaps the beta version of Blogger I am using has a nice spam filter. That would be a good thing, as Martha would say.

Identifying phony e-mails involves a language-based algorithm that checks out the sender name, the subject line, and the first sentence, at a bare minimum. That is why, I think, the first sentences of the spam mail were varied by the spammer. The same tools used to identify spam are also used in machine translation and involve the literal meanings of subject lines and the first line/sentence of the body. Unfortunately Blogger does not have even a rudimentary grammar checker like Microsoft Word has because if it did, it would detect the subject-verb agreement failures and the crazy infinitive constructions. An interesting failure of the Gmail spam filter is that it hasn't taken the hint that Spanish language e-mails are unwanted. Perhaps it regards my insensitivity to Spanish language e-mails as a moral failure on my part. I offer up this light weight blog to let you know that as you slog through your e-mail trying to sort out the real messages from the spam, you are not alone.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Danger of Metaphors

Metaphors are surely a necessary aid to thinking, at least at a preliminary stage in the effort to understand some phenomenon. But they can also prove to cloud issues as much as shed light on them. The reason is that metaphors by definition do not involve a literal application of language to describe a problem.

I encountered a very interesting set of metaphors in a Guardian Unlimited article, which is an excerpt of a book by Paul Brown, on climate change. The first occurred in the headline for the story: "How close is runaway climate change?" The use of "runaway" in connection with climate change likens the climate to a horse that has tossed its rider and galloped off into the distance. This use of "runaway" evokes the idea that unless we gain control of climate change, we will lose our ability to affect it. Maybe this is true. Maybe it isn't.

A "teaser" below the titles reads:
In an extract from his new book on global warming, Paul Brown looks at how close the planet is to irreversible damage
This provides a very explicit way of characterizing what might be meant by a "runaway climate." It would be irreversible damage. The catalyst for this climate change is said to be greenhouse gasses, specifically the production of unwanted Carbon Dioxide.

We are all aware that climate change is cyclical. The book excerpt suggests not that it will cease to be cyclical but that the average temperature of the globe will irreversibly increase. The meat of the article is presented in this paragraph:
The phrase "tipping point" is heard a lot more from scientists. This is where a small amount of warming sets off unstoppable changes, for example the melting of the ice caps. Once the temperature rises a certain amount then all the ice caps will melt. The tipping point in many scientists' view is the 2˚C rise that the EU has adopted as the maximum limit that mankind can risk. Beyond that, as unwelcome changes in the earth's reaction to extra warmth continue, it is theoretically possible to trigger runaway climate change, making the earth's atmosphere so different that most of life would be threatened.
In this case, our metaphor has changed from that of a runaway horse or train or bride to that of something tipping over or toppling. Indeed, the word "tipping" normally occurs with "over" but interestingly one does not read or hear proponents of the global warming hypothesis ever referring to the "tipping over point." If they did then the fact that they are using a fundamentally spatial metaphor would be clear to all. It would also sound rather silly. Likening the climate to, say, a free-standing vertical object that can be said to have a tipping point -- say the amount of force exerted on the tip of the object that would cause it to fall over -- is not helpful to understanding the issue of global warming. I also draw attention to the weasel phrase "theoretically possible."

I am also intrigued that the EU has decided that a 2˚C rise is as far as we can safely let the warming go. I don't know whether some set of EU scientists voted that 2˚C is the most we can allow the average global temperature to rise or a bunch of politicians decided this but the last I checked scientific hypotheses are net decided via the democratic process. In point of fact, unfortunately, scholars can tend to come together to hold a consensus view. That view then becomes enforced by journal editors and panels that select the papers for presentation at conferences and select the grants that will be funded. These views can come to be proved incorrect.

We are invited by the idea that the globe will get hotter and hotter to believe that some day summer will not change over into fall but will become hotter and hotter until it reaches some limit at which all thermometers will stick. That we know will not be true since as the temperature rises, evaporation of bodies of water will accelerate and that will lower the average temperature. So, at worst, we would arrive at a cyclical warming and cooling as we have now but at different average temperatures. What this equilibrium would entail for living beings is anything but clear. It could mean that we all live in a Sahara-like environment or all live in Hawaii-like environment. Or that all life is extinguished. No one has a clue about this.

The article moves on to an American political metaphor when it says:
Runaway climate change is a theory of how things might go badly wrong for the planet if a relatively small warming of the earth upsets the normal checks and balances that keep the climate in equilibrium.
"Checks and balances" -- imagine that. The climate works in something like the American political system with each of the three branches of government able to check and balance the others (whatever that means). I also draw attention to the use of the weasel word "might."

The article makes one fantastically false statement:
Warming is directly related to the quantities of greenhouse gases there are in the air, the chief of which is carbon dioxide.
In fact, the chief greenhouse gas is water vapor. The Florida State University Meterology Department gives these figures for the composition of our atmosphere:
PERMANENT gases in the atmosphere by percent are:
Nitrogen 78.1%
Oxygen 20.9%
(Note that these two permanent gases together comprise 99% of the atmosphere)
Other permanent gases:
Argon 0.9%
Neon 0.002%
Helium 0.0005%
Krypton 0.0001%
Hydrogen 0.00005%
VARIABLE gases in the atmosphere and typical percentage values are:
Water vapor 0 to 4%
Carbon Dioxide 0.035%
Methane 0.0002%
Ozone 0.000004%
Our concern is with variable gasses, of course. The article/book excerpt suggests that we will have runaway expansion of the level of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere. Right now, as the FSU figures make clear, it would take an enormous expansion of the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere for it to catch up with water vapor.

We are faced with a very large array of answered scientific questions, not all of which we are even aware of if climate science is like the rest of science, a scare, and a political problem. If the scary activists are right we need to do something. This will entail diminishing greenhouse gasses, which is our only tool. I have no clue who is right in this debate but I do know that this Guardian offering is so full of misleading metaphors and weasel words and phrases that I can't take it seriously. What I do know is that the US will not give up its standard of living willingly nor will developing nations give up their ambition to reach or surpass our standard of living. Maybe the human race will die off. Would that be all that bad?

Some will be upset that a mere linguist has the temerity to blog on this topic. But note that I have pretty much stuck to the language of the article. Moreover, the fact is that if there is a problem and if we must act, it is essential that people like me and you understand the problem and what I can tell you is that Paul Brown is very far short of being persuasive.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

MInd Bending With Language -- George F. Will

I have never understood the attraction people have for George F. Will. He has a reputation for being very smart. I'm not quite sure why. It could be the big words he uses and his penchant for putting people who disagree down. Here is a classic case:
With his state and the nation paying no attention to an anti-constitutional campaign to alter how presidents are chosen, Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a bill that, had it become law, would have imparted dangerous momentum to a recurring simplemindedness.
"A recurring simplemindedness." What a concept! What is this recurring simplemindedness? It is the idea that the President of the USA should be directly elected by the people. It is a simple idea but it is not a simpleminded idea. Will, like other conservatives, doesn't like it because he is afraid of how the great unwashed might vote if they ever all got around to it.

Will's op-ed piece concerns a bill that would force the casting of all of California's electoral votes for the candidate for the Presidency who receives the most votes nationally. I side with Will in defending Schwarzenegger's veto. The idea that the electors of a state should vote for the candidate people everywhere prefer rather than the candiate Californians prefer is inconsistent with the most fundamental principle of our representative form of government and this is that anyone the people choose to represent their interests should vote in ways not inimical to their interests.

It is logically possible (a) that the state of California go 52% Democratic, (b) that the majority of voters across the country give a majority to the Republican candidate, but (c) that the Democrat would get a bare majority of the electoral votes assuming that he got California's electoral college votes. This bill would force the California electors to cast their votes for the Republican candidate even though that would entail voting in a way inimical to their desires. This is a lunatic result but according to Will that hasn't stopped Colorado's Senate from passing such a bill and it hasn't stoped six other states including California from considering such a bill.

What might have led to such lunacy? Will claims that one of the reasons for this sort of proposal is a concern in uncontested states that they are ignored -- that candidates that know they will win states like California (blue state) and Colorado (red state) won't visit them and won't advertise in them. They actually don't know how lucky they are. I live in Ohio and it is as contested a state as there is. During the current election cycle and during the last Presidential election we were exposed to outrageious television commercials from both sides, the Democrats and their supporters having learned (but still imperfectly since Kerry didn't learn it) that the dirty politics that Republicans are in the habit of practicing works and so they have decided to use this method as well. Beleive me, the people in California and Colorado don't know how lucky they are.

Will's argument against the bill as a remedy for states being ignored is:
But it is disproportionate to traduce, by simplification, sophisticated constitutional arrangements just to make campaigns more stimulating for some states.
This is an example of what I shall call "mind bending with language," the idea being that if you actually try to understand what is written or said, it may bend your mind totally out of shape. Before I try to parse this prose (which takes some bravery since the shape of my mind will be at risk), let me first note Will's use of a word he knows you don't know, namely, "traduce." This is an elitist trying to show you that he is your better because he knows words you don't know. That doesn't make him smarter. It takes no great intelligence to learn the word "traduce."

The phrase "traduce by simplification" in fact doesn't mean a damn thing. Here is my parcing or translation of Will's full sentence: the bill attempts to undermine the electoral college by making a mockery of [traduce] it and that this is an extreme [disproportionate] remedy that is also simplistic [simplification] in nature. Somehow, my mind made it out the other end of Will's verbal worm hole undamaged. Notice that what I said is comprehensible. However it isn't much of an argument.

The second reason Will says Californians want to pass this bill is:
The possibility of the winner of the popular vote losing the electoral vote contest violates the value that trumps all others — majoritarianism.
Notice that he uses the word "majoritannism" where "majority rules" would work as well. What he is doing, I believe, is trying to turn the principle of majority rules into some sort of evil political principle along with others that end in "ism" such as facism, communism, etc., but I could be wrong. Later on he uses the phrase "simplistic majoritarianism." What in the hell is simplistic majoritarianism? The principle that the majority rules is what it is. It doesn't come in such varieties as "sophisticated majoritariansim," "ordinary majoritariansm," and "simplistic majoritariansm." Since "simplistic majoritariansm" doesn't contrast with anything, his only purpose for using the word "simplistic" here must be to disparage the principle that the majority should rule itself. This is the "recurring simplemindedness" he dislikes so much. Again, we have a Republican who really doesn't like the idea that people are voting so he supports institutions like the electoral college that undermine the will of the people.

Will's disdain for the people is shown by his use of "sophisticated constitutional arrangements" as code for our use of the electoral college. I think he is telling you and me that we shouldn't worry our pretty little heads over these questions because they involve sophisticated constitutional arrangements we couldn't possibly understand.

Will clearly doesn't want the electoral college to be replaced by direct elections. His best argument for the electoral college is that in close elections, the Electoral College tends to isolate questions as to the fairness or legality of an election to just a few places. Direct election of the President could lead to legal challenges in every precinct in the country. In the 1960 election, as Will notes, the popular vote difference was smaller than the number of voting precincts in the country. Another close election like that could lead to challenges in every single precinct since changes anywhere due to a recount could change the outcome. That is truly scary. Anyone who supports the direct election of the President needs to find a way around that.

Another of Will's arguments against those who would get rid of the electoral college is that it normally gives the same result that a direct election of the President would give. The problem with this argument is that if how the people vote is the gold standard by which the electoral college is measured, then there is no need for the electoral college.

Another reason Will objects to the bill is that he likes the way the current system makes third parties difficult to establish. The "winner take all" principle that applies everywhere but Maine and Nebraska makes it difficult for third party candidates to be competitive since it is hard for them to get a majority or even a plurality.

Why would Will want to make third parties noncompetitive? It is people like me who should hate the idea, for the candidacy of the egomaniac, Ralph Nader, kept Gore from being elected. Gore did a lot of damage to himself but without Nader, there would not have been a Bush. I will not disparage the people who voted for Nader by saying what I really think of them and their capacity to think clearly.

In fact, there is a solution to all our problems. We should change over to the system the Brits use. When I was quite young the French, having a system similar to the Brits, kept changing governments more frequently than the weather changed. This was cited as a very good reason not to employ that sort of system. However, the frequent changes reflected the dislocations of the society due to World War II more than any imperfection in the system. France no longer has that problem.

It is important that the people be able to change its leaders when they, like Bush, take the wrong path. The British system allows for that. Interestingly, what reading I have done in connection with the establishment of a new government for Iraq has led me to believe that the consensus of experts in the formation of governments is that new governments should use a system like the British system rather than ours. Right now, it may appear that the British system is not being responsive to the people for they don't approve of Blair and his alliance with Bush, yet Blair is still the Prime Minister. However, he has said he will resign some day soon and I gather that the people are okay with continued rule by the Labour Party.

So, Will gives us "traduce by simplification," "recurring simplemindedness," "majoritarianism," "simplistic majoritariansm," and "sophisticated constitutional arrangements." That is quite a verbal stew he has cooked up for us. But we don't have to eat it. The great Harvard psychologist, William James, brother of the novelist, Henry James, once wrote that if a sentence or utterance seems grammatical we will tend to think it makes sense. I read that way back when I was in graduate school so you can see that it made a big impression on me. I suggest you think of Will's writing in the light of James' observation.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Christian and Islamic Fundamentalists

A little over four years ago, the New Yorker ran a story on how it was that Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's intellectual mentor and former head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, came to hate the United States so much. His mentor, another Egyptian, whose name is Sayyid Qutb, had studied in the USA and though initially loving it here ultimately formed the view that we were spiritually deficient as a people. He saw lots of churches but didn't see religion having much of any impact on American life. He found particularly problematic seeing boys and girls dancing together in a church in Colorado. His conclusion was that American and Western European values were a threat to Islamic values. Of course, his and al-Zawahiri after him were not garden variety Muslim values. They were and al-Zawahiri still is a radical fundamentalist. You have to be to think killing women and children is a good thing.

Interestingly, there was a story on the front page of the Columbus Dispatch this morning saying the same thing about American values but this time it was a leader of a Ohio Christian Fundamentalist movement, one Marilyn Reinking. She sees her Christian values as being "under attack," as the Dispatch put it. Her concerns are with
Abortion. Same-sex marriage. Pornography. The Ten Commandments removed from public places. Prayer banned in public schools.
I wonder how Ms. Reinking would like it to hear that she feels about America's values pretty much what Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden do.

Al-Zawahiri and bin Laden would have a bit different list. I suspect they would not care about the Ten Commandments per se but would surely endorse the view that religious writings should be on display in public places. I don't know how Muslims feel about abortion but I wouldn't be surprised if they opposed it. Muslim fundamentalists have a lousy track record when it comes to recognizing women's rights including a woman's right over her own body. They would be one with Ms. Reinking in regard to same-sex marriage, I would imagine, and would share her view that pornography is a bad thing. Of course, most people oppose pornography but a Right Wing Christian's idea of pornography would be different from that of a typical liberal or even a moderate. In the same issue of the Dispatch, there is a story about a Frisco, Texas teacher being relieved of duty, i. e., fired, for taking her grade school class to a museum where it seems they may have seen a nude statue or a painting of a nude. I suspect that fundamentalist Muslims wouldn't much like seeing nude statures in public places. I am sorry but I feel like my values are under attack by both the Christian Right, as well by Fundamentalist Muslims.

Finally, we have the separation of the church and state. Muslim Fundamentalists totally oppose such a separation. Just how strongly the Christian Right opposes the separation of church and state is not clear but Ms. Reinking thinks that there should be prayer in school and that is a good start to closing the gap.

There are two battles in the "war" on terroristic Islamic fundamentalists. One is a fight against their criminal acts. Another is an intellectual fight. It was, in fact, the latter that has led to the former, at least historically. And what we have is Ms. Reinking basically agreeing with terroristic Islamic fundamentalists on some of the most basic elements of this intellectual battle, the most important of which is the separation of church and state. It is this that makes our democracy such as it is what it is. It protects us from people like Ms Reinking. I don't mean to tar Ms. Reinking with my anti-terrorist brush. She has shown no inclination toward violence though some fundamentalist Christians have. However, I see her as even more dangerous to American democratic values than are Fundamentalist Muslims since they aren't going to influence us at all.

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Friday, October 06, 2006

Is Foley a Sexual Predator?

The term "sexual predator" has been widely used to characterize Florida Congressman, Mark Foley. This puts him in the same class as a serial pedophile who targets quite young children. While I am for anything that makes the Republicans look as hypocritical as they actually are and that wrecks their election chances, the term "sexual predator" seems more than a bit over the top as a characterization of Foley.

I have heard Foley described as a "sexual predator" primarily by Republicans who are desperately pushing themselves as far away from him as they can. I have also heard Republicans say that they need to get this issue off the front pages of newspapers by election day. In short, their concern is not for the pages, but for their own political asses. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, who richly deserves to be dumped by voters in my Congressional district, once listed him as one of her top five buddies. She is now retreating from this association faster than a speeding bullet.

In fact, insofar as the evidence shows, Foley went after high school graduates who had passed the age of sexual consent, which, in most states, seems to be 16 years old. Thus, Foley cannot fairly be said to be a pedophile because he seems not to have broken any laws and if he isn't a pedophile, I don't see how he can fairly be described as a "sexual predator." The FBI has said that the evidence they have seen does not rise to the level of a crime. He does prefer his male sexual partners to be young, perhaps because he is twisted in the way that many members of NAMBLA (The National Association of Man Boy Love Association) doubtless are. But being twisted in this way doesn't make him a lawbreaker per se and so calling him a "sexual predator" would be a bit over the top linguistically. His sexual actions are no more or less appropriate than those of a male or female college professor of similar years who goes after a male or female college freshman. What that kind of relationship is is inappropriate, rather than being illegal.

Nevertheless, I think everyone should pile on the Republicans as hard as they can for Republicans and their fellow travelers to their right are the ones that are hell-bent on legislating their personal moralities. Actually, they aren't legislating their personal moral values -- Foley co-chaired the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus so he wasn't interested in legislating his -- so much as trying to represent themselves as having these values and getting whatever political mileage they can out of the effort. In short, the Republicans are being hoisted on their own hypocritical moralistic petard and that is a welcome sight.

I don't mean to make light of ex-Congressman Foley's actions. If I were the parent of a kid who had just graduated from high school and was serving as a page in Washington, I would be pretty pissed to learn that some Congressman was either sleeping with him or her or trying to. But I wouldn't see him or her as a criminal, much less a sexual predator.

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Monday, October 02, 2006

The Supremes Dance With Death

The Supremes say that the death penalty in the United States requires that the state "rationally narrows the class of death-eligible defendants and permits a jury to consider any mitigating evidence relevant to its sentencing determination." The Supremes sided with the state of Kansas in allowing the state to stipulate that if the mitigating factors do not outweigh the aggravating circumstances, then the death penalty is the appropriate jury choice. This, as the Supremes note, puts the burden of proof on the defendant in regard to whether or not he or she should be put to death and says that that is fine and dandy with them.

I have posted on the death penalty twice before and you may want to review the posts. They are the first two items under "Law." For those who don't have the time to do so, let me just say that an aggravating circumstance is some specific characteristic of the crime named by the state such as that the defendant killed two people or a police officer or that he or she killed someone during the course of committing a felony, the famous "felony murder" one hears about all the time. So, robbing a liquor store while brandishing a weapon cannot result in your being put to death but killing the clerk while robbing the store can. Mitigating circumstances are anything the jury wants to consider from his or her being very young, or acting under duress, or being a pretty blond.

What is interesting in this particular case is that the Supremes affirm that the burden of proof can be placed on the defendant rather than the state. Forgive me for being a little dim but this seems as un-American as anything I can think of. In our system of justice, the burden of proof that a defendant is guilty of felony murder lies squarely with the state and it must meet a very high standard of providing proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I ask you which is more important in the grand scheme of things -- whether or not someone is guilty of felony murder or whether or not someone should be put to death for felony murder? Reasonable people could, I suppose, disagree as to the answer to this question.

But consider this point. The defendant is presumed innocent of any crime until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard is designed to make sure that the jury approaches the testimony in a case without bias. Now, we are grown ups here and we all know that that is a pipe dream. Pretrial publicity, racial and ethnic and religious biases, gender biases, and social class and other biases may very well play a role in any given juror's thinking. Asking prospective jurors whether they can render an unbiased verdict is one of the silly exercises the justice system goes through. I suppose the legal community goes through this exercise so that it can feel good about itself. Do these people really think that prospective jurors are going to always tell them the truth? Surely they are not that stupid. No one else does.

The Kansas statute in contrast to the presumption of innocence demanded of what is called the "guilt phase" of a death penalty case, allows a presumption of guilty (more precisely, a presumption that the defendant should be put to death) in the "penalty phase" of a death penalty trial. During my work on death penalty cases in Ohio, I argued that the jury instructions at that time did bias the jury in favor of imposing the death penalty despite the fact that Ohio law labored under the pretense that there should be no such bias. Imagine my surprise in discovering that one state, at least, made a verdict of death the default choice.

Here are the differences between the guilt phase and penalty phases of death penalty laws in Kansas.
1. The guilt phase presumes a verdict favoring the defendant at the outset but the penalty phase does not.
2. Guilt must be proved beyond any reasonable doubt but not only is this not true of the penalty phase in any state I am familiar with, Kansas allows for "ties" favoring the state.
3. In the guilt phase, as in Ohio, Kansas does not allow as an aggravating circumstance that the crime be heinous, brutal, or something else ugly or that the defendant is incapable of rehabilitation, but you can be absolutely sure unless Kansas is very different from Ohio, that prosecutors will routinely stress one or the other or both things in their closing statements without objection by the defense attorney or admonishment by the judge.
4. Juries can hang during the guilty phase of a death penalty case but not during the penalty phase.
5. Jury nulification during the guilt phase favors the defendant but in the penalty phase if favors the state.
In regard to the third point, in the several cases I am familar with where lawyers in the Ohio Public Defenders office did interviews with jurors, it was these factors, especially the first, that swung the jury over to the determination to impose the death penalty. In short they totally ignored the jury instructions. This is what I meant by item five above. Given how often it has been determined that persons given the death penalty have been proved innocent of the underlying crime, one would think a fair society would bend over backwards in an effort to minimize imposition of the death penalty. But not in the Good Old USA.

As I noted, in Kansas, a tie in regard to whether or not the aggravators outweigh the mitigators goes to the state. What this comes down to is that if a juror is uncertain whether the aggravators outweigh the mitigators he or she should vote for death. But what should happen if the vote is, say, 7-5 for death or 8-4 or even 11-1? In Ohio back when I was doing my work on the death penalty, the law said that the jury/court was supposed to impose a life sentence unless it is 12-0 for death. In practice, that didn't happen. Jurors were forced in fact to come up with unanimous verdicts. It will be no surprise to you, I suppose, that imposing the death penalty became a higher priority for jurors than being sequestered over a weekend for further deliberations. The problem here is that while juries can "hang" in the guilt phase, they cannot hang in the penalty phase.

Another problem is the absurdity of "weighing" aggravators versus mitigators. How does one weigh the killing of a police officer against the fact that the defendant was 18, had never been arrested for a crime, and who always got good grades? I have no clue how that is to be done. This is the classic issue of judging between apples and oranges. Worse than this is the fact that Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer, authors of "Actual Innocence," have claimed, "in the last ten years, DNA testing has uncovered stone-cold proof that sixty-five completely innocent people were sent to prison and death row." As of April 22, 2002, 100 persons on death row had been found to be innocent of the underlying crime, not all because of DNA evidence. In July 19, 2006, a study documented that 26 people convicted of crimes in New Jersey were innocent. Not all were death penalty cases.

The fact is that our legal system is fallen and can't get up. There are two principal reasons for this. The first is that District Attorneys are elected. The second is that Judges are elected. I believe only federal and state Supremes (and perhaps appellate judges) have life appointments. There is constant pressure on DAs to get convictions, on the police to testilie, and judges not to be lenient, especially when the public is up in arms about upsurges in crime. This is where much of the corruption of the system comes from.

So far, everything I have written stamps me as a liberal. Here is where I throw you a curve ball. I believe also that the notion of "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" is both too vague a concept and too high a standard to be workable and is another major source of the corruption in the law including, specifically, police fibbing on the stand to strengthen a case. The fact is that scientists rarely can prove that this or that scientific principle is true beyond any reasonble doubt. One needs a standard that is comprehensible by the average juror, is strong enough to protect the defendant, and weak enough to be attainable. I am open to suggestions. How about: After evaluating the evidence, I am as certain as I expect myself to be before making a major life decision such as to marry someone or buy a house that the defendant is guilty.

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