Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Gallagher's Conflicting Interests

Today's St. Petersburg Times includes a report by Joni James that "In his last year as Florida's elected insurance commissioner, Tom Gallagher invested millions of dollars in insurance-related stocks... ." The information comes from Gallagher's 2002 tax returns.

James is not reporting that Gallagher traded insurance company stocks in any companies with business before him when he was Insurance Commissioner. Not yet, anyway. The emphasis in the story's lede is "insurance-related."

But you can almost hear the suspenseful sound of a rising bass clef in James' hints there may be more shoes to drop:
Gallagher's tax returns, posted on his gubernatorial campaign's Web site this month, show ... along the way, Gallagher has not been shy about buying and selling stocks whose interests overlap with his role near the top of state government.
The potential conflicts James has uncovered so far arise in two ways. First, at the time Gallagher was state Insurance Commissioner he also was a voting member of the State Cabinet. In that capacity, he voted with other cabinet members to approve a pipeline for non-insurance companies in which he held stock, such as AES Corp., which calls itself "the global power company."

Second, James reports Gallagher did "have a $3.2-million stake in Brown & Brown Inc. of Daytona Beach" and "a $12,225 stake in Mutual Risk Management of Bermuda" while he was Insurance Commissioner.

Mutual Risk has since gone to that Great Consolidation in the Sky, courtesy of the Park Group, Ltd. holding company. Brown & Brown of Daytona Beach calls itself "an independent insurance intermediary that provides a variety of insurance and reinsurance products and services to corporate, public entity, institutional, trade, professional, association and individual clients."

Another SPTimes reporter, Adam C. Smith, comments on the newspaper's blog, "For a guy long planning to run for governor, Tom Gallagher seems to have been surprisingly oblivious to potential conflict of interest problems."

Not only that. According to the SPTimes, Gallagher's trading in stocks of companies he had some hand in regulating as a Cabinet member may have been against the law.
In a 1991 opinion, the Florida Commission on Ethics said it was a conflict of interest and against state law for the state's elected comptroller, who then regulated banks, to hold bank stocks he inherited.

Gallagher said Monday he was unaware of the 1991 opinion. * * *

Nor did he ever consider his investment in a handful of insurance companies a conflict of interest.
That last is difficult to swallow. Gallagher didn't even consider there might be a potential conflict of interest? Can the chief financial officer of Florida and a candidate for governor of the state be that incurious?

Little wonder that the state-owned Citizens Property Insurance is riddled with self-dealing managers and administrators. When the head of the herd is paying no attention, manners tend to deteriorate down the entire length of the trough.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Of Principles and Poseurs

This ridiculous little kabuki about voting AGAINST Alito and FOR cloture is a sham."
-- Jane Hamsher, Firedoglake.com
Pundits have expended a lot of ink and bandwidth over the last five years bloviating over what's wrong with the Democratic Party.

The public perception is said by some to be that Democrats are weak on national defense. Yet, no one has done more to break the U.S. army than George Bush.

Others say the public trusts Republicans more than Democrats to keep us safe from our enemies. Yet, it was George Bush, not Al Gore or John Kerry or Bill Clinton, who deliberately ignored repeated warnings that al Qaeda was planning an attack on the U.S., and who so badly miscalculated the aftermath of the Iraq war that, now, Afghanistan is backsliding into Taliban control and we are nearly impotent in dealing with the larger threat of Iran.

Some claim Republicans stand for a smaller Federal government, but no administration in history has so vastly exploded the size and reach of the Federal Government than George Bush, or wasted more federal tax money on a confusing Medicare prescription drug program that gave the bank way to the drug industry, or overspent revenues so much that future generations of Americans -- your grandchildren's grandchldren -- will be left with crushing debts run up by ill-advised tax cuts for corporations and the super-wealthy.

Yet, there is something definitely wrong with the Democratic Party. As a national party it has lost control of all three branches of Government. Large parts of its D.C. contingent sit idly by while Mr. Bush admits he is violating the statutory law of the land and the Bill of Rights -- and will continue doing so. Democrats (rightly) complain about a Republican 'culture of corruption' but in the last five years what did they do to blow the whistle as Abramoff Republicans were stealing the silverware?

Perhaps worst of all, Democrats remain in embarrassing disarray over a disastrous 'war of choice' begun because of -- take your pick -- deliberate falsehoods or rank incompetence by the Bush-Cheney administration. When Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), well-known known as the voice of choice in Congress for the military brass, called for an end to Mr. Bush's Iraq misadventure, most in his own party just hunkered down in their own foxholes, hiding from view.

At bottom, what is wrong with the Democratic Party is that too many Democratic office holders no longer act on principle. Instead, or so the public perception is, they act and vote according to cold political calculations of what is popular at the moment.

No better example was offered than Monday's cloture vote by Florida Senator Bill Nelson. Senator Nelson announced late last week that he would vote against confirming radical right-winger Samuel Alito to take the place of moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. His official statement says:
Sen. Nelson has voted for almost all of President Bush's judicial nominees; and, he greeted Judge Alito's nomination with an open mind. But Judge Alito's many legal writings and judicial opinions convinced Sen. Nelson he would tilt the scales of justice in favor of big government over the average person. Because Judge Alito is not the centrist voice Sen. Nelson believes this nation needs to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who fiercely defended the rights and liberties of all Americans, Sen. Nelson is going to vote no on his confirmation. * * *
Yet, late Monday Sen. Nelson voted against the one thing that would have kept Alito off the court: the filibuster. Cloture was invoked, on a vote of 72 to 25. Alito most likely will be confirmed Tuesday by a slightly narrower margin.

By voting to end debate, Nelson and other Democrats have exposed themselves to opposition charges that they are mere opportunists, unprincipled scalliwags who want to have it both ways. Check this early analysis from the San Francisco Chronicle:
Besides being a hopeless cause, Senate Democrats and consultants worried a filibuster would put Democrats in Republican-leaning states in a bind during a mid-term election year when they have a chance to retake their Senate majority. Kerry's filibuster robbed these "red state Democrats" of anywhere to hide, forcing them to cast two conflicting votes -- one pro-Alito vote today to end the filibuster, and another Tuesday against Alito's actual confirmation.

One of those Democrats up for re-election this year is Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who voted to end the filibuster, but said he would vote against Alito.
Nelson may be a scalliwag. Or, maybe he had some really good reason for voting to shut off debate by his fellow Democrats that hasn't been articulated yet. If so, he'd best get out there and start explaining because to the average voter it makes no sense to vote against a nominee because his judicial record shows he is unfit to serve, but also vote for a motion that all but ensures the nominee will be promoted to the U.S. Supreme Court.

'But,' you say, 'the filibuster was bound to fail. Why waste a vote in a losing cause?'

Yes, it always was a long shot to round up 40 votes out of 100 to continue the filibuster. The Senate is now dominated, as the House has been for a decade, by a neo-conservative, doctrinaire majority with ruthless discipline. "This is not your father's Republican Party," as a widely discussed essay put it last November.

But defeating Alito's nomination on the up-or-down vote taking place Tuesday is, if anything, a much longer shot. 51 votes are needed, not 40. Even chad-impaired voters can understand that if the prospect of being on the losing end of the Alito filibuster vote is reason enough to vote with the Republican majority, why not vote with it during the confirmation vote itself?

Nelson continues to promise he will cast a vote against confirmation. If that turns out to be a futile vote it will be because his own vote today guaranteed it. As Brad Delong says "Samuel Alito owes a debt of gratitude" to Democrats like Bill Nelson.

This was not Senator Nelson's finest hour. It does not enhance his reputation as a man of principle. Moreover, what he apparently can't see yet is that it also does nothing to enhance prospects for his reelection.

Voting for cloture won't fool anyone into thinking Nelson sides with them. It looks only like Bill Nelson doesn't have the strength of his own convictions -- whatever they may be. He sides only with himself.

Voters may be stupid but they're not crazy. Most of them can tell a poseur from a man of principle. They won't mistake Senator Nelson's vote in favor of cloture as a vote of conscience. They will see it for what it is: a pathetic attempt to have it both ways.

That's what's wrong with so many Democrats at the national party level. Voters believe they stand for nothing because too many of them don't have the courage to consistently stand for anything.

Mike over at Florida News has a point, of course. If we want better senators and congressmen, then we have to get out and contribute what we can to their campaigns -- money, or shoe leather, or envelope-licking, or whatever. The connundrum is this: Who among us is willing to work, or even vote for, a political poseur who stands for nothing but getting himself relected?

Unless, of course, the opponent is even worse. But, doesn't that make for one helluva campaign slogan?

"Vote for me. I'm less unprincipled than she is."

Filibustering the King's Choice

"During his testimony, Democratic senators were shocked by Alito's brazen support for a radical expansion of presidential power."
--Michael Carmichael, Counterpunch
The Senate flibuster of Samuel Alito's nomination comes down to a straight-forward matter of conscience.
  • Those who vote 'Yes' to cut off debate and send Alito to the Supreme Court should do so only if they truly believe that Alito is the best choice to uphold the Constitution -- not just the bits they like, but all of it, including the Bill of Rights - as the supreme law of the land.
  • Those who vote "No' to shutting off debate should do so if they truly believe that Alito is a "nominee who would turn back the clock on a woman's right to choose or the constitutional right to privacy, on civil rights and individual liberties and on the laws protecting workers and the environment."
Those are among the important issues the Supreme Court deals with, though there are more such as excessive media concentration, private property rights, etc. etc. etc.

Of all of the tens of hundreds of legal issues that will come before the court in the coming decades, however, Prof. Geoffrey F. Stone of the University of Chicago Law School makes a convincing case from the historical record that the "single most critical factor" in approving a Supreme Court justice is a nominee's judicial philosophy about executive power.
"Those Justices who abdicated their responsibility and chose blindly to defer to excessive presidential claims approved the pervasive suppression of dissent during World War I, the Japanese internment, and the rampant abuses of McCarthyism. Those who were determined to ask hard questions and to insist that the President and Congress comply with the Constitution gave the nation the steel seizure decision, the Pentagon Papers decision, and the 2004 decision preserving the due process rights of American citizens.

"Now, President Bush arrogantly asserts that he has the inherent constitutional authority to wiretap American citizens on American soil without first obtaining a warrant, in direct defiance of federal legislation and the Fourth Amendment. This is on top of his previous assertions of inherent authority to employ torture, wiretap lawyer-client communications, confine American citizens incommunicado, and close deportation and other legal proceedings from public scrutiny.

"Given the times in which we live, we need and deserve a Supreme Court willing to examine independently these extraordinary assertions of executive authority. We can fight and win the war on terrorism without inflicting upon ourselves and our posterity another regrettable episode like the Red Scare and the Japanese internment. But that will happen only if the Justices of the Supreme Court are willing to fulfill their essential role in our constitutional system.

"Whatever else Judge Alito may or may not have made clear about his views on such issues as abortion, federalism, and religious freedom, he has certainly made clear that he has no interest in restraining the acts of this commander-in-chief. That, in my judgment, poses a serious threat to the nation, and is a more than adequate reason for the Senate – Republicans and Democrats alike – to deny his confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States."
Our own U.S. Senator Bill Nelson said it more succinctly:
"[Alito's] many legal writings, judicial opinions and evasive answers both at his hearing and in our private meeting, convinced me he would tilt the scales of justice in favor of big government over the average person."

“Because he is not the centrist voice I believe this nation needs to replace the retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who fiercely defended the rights and liberties of all Americans, I’m going to vote no on his confirmation.”
Senator Nelson has taken a principled position on the Alito nomination. All Floridians should be proud of that. If he has the courage of his convictions, Senator Nelson should also vote "No" on cloture.

Addendum: What are the Florida Netroots Saying?

Can't Keep Quiet says:
"At one point the Republicans were the party of small government that was not sticking its nose into people’s private lives. That party has since been hijacked by the ideologues and government is bigger than ever. There are also more and more attempts to regulate what we can and can’t do in private.

Alito’s appointment will tip the Supreme Court dangerously over towards these ideologues. This won’t go away in a few years. This will last for decades."
RFK Lives adds, "We should all be going to and urging [Senator Nelson] to support the Scalito filibuster."

Out In Left Field has the numbers to reach Nelson and other Senators on the fence. So does Blogwood.

Mike at Florida News blames himself for Alito, "but at the same time I'm letting you know that it is not going to happen again."

Trish at Pensito Review sees today's filibuster vote as "a last chance for Democrats -- and democracy."

Once upon a time Pensacola Beach web site contributor Larry Coates, who's moved on to other venues, says "A president that has the constitutional power to ignore the Constitution is no longer the leader of a free country, but a dictator. Once that power is declared the law of the land, there is no law whatsoever except whatever the president of the day decides is needed or wanted."

Friday, January 27, 2006

For Sale - Beach Evidence!


Linda L. tipped us off to this weekend pleasure:

Someone from Kingsport, Tennessee, is auctioning off on Ebay a "tri-fold brochure [that] touts the lots available on Santa Rosa Island and the income potential as such."

Better hurry! Bidding ends Sunday at 4:00 PM (central time).

Old timers on the beach may recognize the brochure as the very kind of promotional literature the Santa Rosa Island Authority and Escambia County used to circulate coast-to-coast in the late '50s and '60s. Often, such brochures (and newspaper ads) promised "tax free lots" and made other explicit assurances that if you bought a 99-year lease you'd "never have to pay ad valorem taxes."

The Escambia county commissioners sure knew how to break that promise, didn't they!? (You can get the latest on the pending lawsuits over on the Pensacola Beach Tax Lawsuit web site.)

We can't be sure what this brochure on offer at Ebay actually says, but you can always ask the seller through Ebay's ask-seller-a-question system before bidding. At best, you might be able to use it as evidence in some drawn-out breach-of-contract litigation when and if the tax collector comes calling.

At worst, under the right lighting, the brochure would make a stunning conversation piece on your condo wall -- or in your jail cell when they haul all of us off to debtor's prison.

Harry Gowens, Dead at 81

Harry Gowens, a Pensacola Beach resident for more than three decades, died last week at age 81.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

G.O.P. Leader Discriminates

You can't get much more cynical than this grotesque pandering to the nutty Religious Right in Florida.

State senator Sen. Ken Pruitt, who's already been elected by his fellow Republicans to lead the legislature this year, wants to "force liberals in the Florida Senate to take a stand one way or the other." He's promising to do this, apparently, by passing a statute that would re-write the Pledge of Allegiance to include the Boy Scouts.

Hard to say just where he wants to put that amendment. Maybe the part about "...indivisible, with liberty and Boy Scouts for all." But...

... the Boy Scouts? Boy Scouts?

Just what does Pruitt have against the Girl Scouts? Or the Brownies?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

SOTUS Extends Stay in Pensacola Death Case

Late yesterday U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy issued a temporary stay of the execution of convicted killer Clarence Hill of Pensacola. Hours later, the Supreme Court extended the stay of execution and calendared the case for briefs in the Spring. The order (in pdf format) is here.

According to the Associated Press, Hill's attorney is arguing that Florida's method of capital punishment, lethal injection, is cruel and unusual.

For the moment, however, it appears that issue is not directly being addressed. Instead, the Supreme Court will consider only whether the lower Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals erred when it refused even to consider Hill's underlying claim that the particular mix of chemicals used in Florida to execute inmates -- sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride --creates "a foreseeable risk of the gratuitous and unnecessary infliction of pain."

It takes a minimum of four justices to agree to review cases from lower courts in the federal system.

Katrina the Terrorist

The Carpetbagger covers the latest outrage by the Bush administration:
Now, it's official. Congress wants records from an administration that badly flubbed a response to a disaster. The administration is refusing to answer questions and, in the process, is thumbing its nose at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. What are lawmakers prepared to do about it?

When this special committee was created in Katrina's wake, congressional Dems initially refused to participate because they assumed Republicans would be afraid to push the administration, even when necessary. This is a chance for the GOP to prove Dems wrong.

Here's the only question congressional Republicans need to ask themselves in an intellectually serious way: What would they do if this were a Democratic president?
Anything They Say draws the obvious parallel:
"This is exactly the same behaviour it exhibited with the 9/11 commission when that panel was investigating executive incompetence surrounding the failure of the upper management of various intelligence agencies to "connect the dots," despite there having been a hell of a lot of dots."
And a blogger named Andy over at The Last Debate has some fun with all of it:
Bush Administration officials today declined to turn over internal documents related to Hurricane Katrina, citing national security concerns.

"If hurricanes were aware of the tactics we use, they could alter their strategies, making it more difficult for us to prevent the kinds of disasters we saw in New Orleans last year," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Greenwald In Brief

Glenn Greenwald in brief:
"So, in June, 2002, the Administration refused to support elimination of the very barrier ("probable cause") which Gen. Hayden claimed yesterday necessitated the circumvention of FISA. In doing so, the Administration identified two independent reasons for opposing this amendment. One reason was that the Justice Department was not aware of any problems which the Administration was having in getting the warrants it needed under FISA.

* * *
"The second concern the Administration expressed with DeWine's amendment was that it was quite possibly unconstitutional.

* * *
The Administration's claim that the "probable cause" component of FISA was preventing it from engaging in the eavesdropping it needed is the opposite of what it told Congress when refusing to support the DeWine Amendment. And its claim that Congress knew of and approved of its FISA-bypassing eavesdrop program is plainly negated by the fact that the same Congress was debating whether such changes should be effectuated and then refused to approve much less extreme changes to FISA than what the Administration secretly implemented on its own (and which it now claims Congress authorized)."
Someone's dissembling. If you care about the Constitution, read Glenn Greenwald's whole article here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Katrina: What Bush Knew and When He Knew It

White House documents, reports the New York Times today, show:
"the White House was told in the hours before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans that the city would probably soon be inundated with floodwater, forcing the long-term relocation of hundreds of thousands of people, documents to be released Tuesday by Senate investigators show.

* * *

The internal department documents, which were forwarded to the White House, contradict statements by President Bush and the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, that no one expected the storm protection system in New Orleans to be breached."

As on 9-11, Bush was vacationing at his ranch when the storm hit, then flew off to California to strum guitar at a political fund-raising appearance. Chertoff decided to fly off to Atlanta. Then-FEMA chief, Michael Brown, was busy looking over the menu of a Baton Rouge restaurant.

As the New Orleans Times-Picayune asks today, "If the highest levels of the government knew the likely impact of Hurricane Katrina, why was the initial response so slow and uncoordinated?"

The answer is they just aren't competent at their jobs. We expect more from convenience store clerks and night motel managers. Why not our national leaders?

Amplification

Florida blogger "Bark Bark, Woof Woof" has more:
"After this news you kinda feel sorry for Mike "Heckuvajob" Brown, the former head of FEMA. He was the most visible symbol of the administration's incompetence, but he sure wasn't the only one."

Monday, January 23, 2006

News Journal Correction


Correction

In Sunday's newspaper, the long-rumored feature article about Pensacola area bloggers finally appeared, with a top-of-the-page photo of Pensacola Beach photo blogger D.J. Zemenick ["Barrier Island Girl"] and her midget friend, Pee Pup.

A caption below the photo misidentified the furry midget as "PJ". The News Journal deeply regrets the error and offers its sincere apologies to Pee Pup.

We won't make that same mistake again.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Van Allen's Wisdom

"...almost all the truly important utilitarian and scientific achievements of our space program have been made by instrumented, unmanned spacecraft controlled remotely by radio command from stations on the earth."
Yesterday's successful launch of New Horizons, the Pluto probe, brings to mind the wisdom of one of America's greatest space pioneers, physicist James A. Van Allen of the University of Iowa.

Twenty years ago, or nearly twice as long as it will take New Horizons to reach Pluto, Prof. Van Allen was moved by the Challenger disaster to publish a succinct, level headed, and, to many minds, persuasive argument for re-tooling the U.S. space program to emphasize un-manned exploration. Since then, we have seen many remarkable triumphs of unmanned scientific space missions. Among them, most recently, have been the astounding persistence of the Mars Rovers, the pin-point accuracy of Deep Impact, and the return from deep space two days ago of Stardust.

These are merely the best known among dozens of other scientific space probes which are teaching us the details about our own planet, its atmosphere, the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Saturn, large asteroids, and much more. Meanwhile, manned flight experiments have been confined largely to keeping a handful of astronauts alive as we use aged Russian rockets to shuttle them back and forth to the low-orbit International Space Station, at a cost of more than $100 billion.

It's time once again to be reminded of old wisdom. Prof. Van Allen's article is as timely today as it was when it was written, but it has not been readily accessible on the web. So, one week before the 20th commemoration of the Challenger disaster, we are reprinting it from a private manuscript draft he shared with friends two decades ago.
-----------------------

Myths and Realities of Space Flight
By James A. Van Allen**
(Reprinted from an essay written in 1986. No copyright claimed)

One of the many distressing and ironic aspects of the tragic loss of life in the explosion- during-launch of the space shuttle Challenger on 28 January [1986] is the fact that the principal purpose of its mission was the orbital delivery of a communications satellite. This function has been performed successfully and much less expensively for many years, with minimal risk to human life, by unmanned launch vehicles.

A presidentially appointed commission is engaged in a detailed investigation of the technical causes of this disaster and the relevant administrative procedures of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. More importantly, the present disarray of our national space program demand a rethinking of its basic structure, and this is an appropriate juncture for doing so.

The Mythology of Space Flight

In 160 A.D., many centuries before the time of Isaac Newton, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata wrote an account of how Ulysses' ship had been caught up in a whirlwind and carried on a 7-day flight to the moon (1). In the early 17th century this work was translated from Greek into Latin by Johannes Kepler, the great early astronomer, in order to make it more widely available. Soon thereafter, Kepler himself wrote a fantasy of space flight called Somnium. In a 1629 letter to a friend he wrote, "If in the end we be driven from the earth, my book will serve as a useful guide for the emigrants and pilgrims who will be settling on the moon . . .' [1]. But Kepler was careful to make clear the speculative nature of his "dream.'

During the subsequent three centuries, many other authors wrote fictional accounts of voyages from the earth to the moon and of visits to the earth by extraterrestrial creatures from the star Sirius and from the planet Mars. Fictional space flight is a booming component of the entertainment industry at present and, for the most part, no attention whatever is given to either physical principles or practicality. Nonetheless, the mythology of space is a significant element of our culture.

Closely akin to science fiction and a prominent part of the 1986 scene is the large number of futuristic proposals for space flight. I may mention a few by short title: solar power satellites; manufacturing in space; permanently manned space stations in earth orbit, on the moon, and on Mars; and the economic mining of asteroids.

It is difficult to distinguish the proposals of prophets from those of charlantans, and I am not so foolish as to suggest that such undertakings are out of the question at some remote time in the future. But not one of them can withstand critical scrutiny in the context of the present century. I consider that untimely advocacy of them, especially by prominent national figures, does the entire space effort a disservice.

In science fiction, "space flight' means manned space flight -- that is, the flight of humans or other living creatures having at least some human characteristics. This is also the popular perception of what real space flight is mostly about.

The Realities of Space

With such a perception, many space enthusiasts blithely ignore the fact that almost all the truly important utilitarian and scientific achievements of our space program have been made by instrumented, unmanned spacecraft controlled remotely by radio command from stations on the earth. Our great system of rapid worldwide communications by means of satellite transponders in orbit around the earth is only one of many examples of this. Other examples are in weather forecasting; remote sensing of the earth's surface resources; marine and aircraft navigation; the science of the sun and of the earth's ionosphere, magnetosphere, atmosphere, and oceans; and military reconniassance, surveillance, and other applications of space technology that are technically similar to those for civil purposes.

In the realm of basic science, space techniques have brought spectacular advances in astronomy and in detailed knowledge of the sun and the other elements of the solar system. And there is no end in sight.

Since 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union have carried out massive and sophisticated programs of close-up investigations of six of the other eight major planets of the solar system -- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus--as well as scrutiny of the many satellites of Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus and the rings of the latter three.

Lunar, planetary, and cometary investigations have included close flybys, orbiters, and both hard and soft landers. Samples of lunar surface material have been brought back to the earth for laboratory study by our Apollo spacecraft and by unmanned, commandable spacecraft of the Soviet Union. The Soviet technique is applicable to the return of samples of material from Mercury, Mars, asteroids, natural satellites of planets, and cometary nuclei.

A huge increase in our detailed knowledge of the origin and evolution of our solar system and of its physical and chemical workings has been achieved. I think it fair to claim that the past 24 years of solar system investigation have constituted one of the most important epochs of human history. Each planet and each satellite is a new world of marvelous and distinctive properties and phenomena. Each is worthy of much more detailed scientific study, as are the geophysics and geochemistry of the earth.

Within a broad humanistic context the most important products of this work, as with the entire field of astronomy, are of a general intellectual nature -- namely the enhancement of our understanding of mankind's place in our great universe.

Here I may quote a comment by William Fowler, one of the two 1983 Nobel laureates in physics, concerning his studies of the sources of the sun's energy output on which all life depends [2]:
"What we're doing is mainly a cultural and intellectual contribution to the sum total of human knowledge and that's why we do it. If there turn out to be potential applications, that's fine and dandy, but we think that it's important for the human race to know where sunlight comes from."
Among other aspects of the body of evidence that we have found is the realization that the earth harbors the only living organisms within the solar system. This finding is not yet wholly conclusive, but there is progressively less basis for doubting it.

A complementary realization is that the ecology of the earth is a fragile one and that the earth, too, may become unsuitable for human habitation at some future time because of a combination of natural and man-made causes. Such a possibility is illuminated by studies of Venus, often called the earth's sister planter because of its similar size, mass, and distance from the sun. The surface of Venus is hotter than the melting temperature of lead, and its dense atmosphere consists of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other gases deadly to any known form of life.

I am not forecasting the near-term extinction of life on earth, but I am noting that comparative studies of the planets are already providing guidance for the wise conduct of human activities.

Despite the great successes and future promise of automated, commandable, unmanned spacecraft in providing vital human services and scientific advances, the President and Congress persist in giving primary emphasis to the misty-eyed concept that the manifest destiny of mankind is to live and work in space. The proposed development of a system of permanently manned space stations serves this concept but is otherwise poorly founded. If such a development is pursued as directed by the President two years ago, many of the much more worthy undertakings in space will languish for lack of support.

My own view is that our national predicament is the result of the clash between the mythology of manned space flight and the real achievements of space technology in practical applications to human welfare and the expansion of human knowledge.

Fervent advocates of the view that it is mankind's manifest destiny to populate space inflict a plethora of false analogies on anyone who contests this belief. At the mere mention of the name of Christopher Columbus they expect the opposition to wither and slink away. I find it possible to resist such an expectation. If reference to Columbus is made in an offhand, thoughtless way, it is merely incompetent; but if made with full knowledge of the facts, it is deceitful and fraudulent.

Let me explain. Our instrumented spacecraft have now ranged over the entire solar system. As an example, the surface of Mars has been studied comprehensively by a succession of U.S. and Soviet spacecraft, most notably the two Viking orbiter and soft-lander missions. If a similar survey of America had been available in the late 15th century, the mission of Columbus' fleet to the West Indies would have been unequivocally desirable.

But the application of the Columbus analogy to support advocacy of a manned mission to Mars is massively deceitful. Mars is not terra incognita. We have already explored it and found it to be far more desolate and sterile than the heart of the Sahara desert. There, of course, remain many matters of deep scientific interest on Mars but these matters can be addressed systematically--at much less cost and without risk to human life--by automated, commandable spacecraft, surface rovers, and sample return-to-earth missions.

It is difficult to avoid mentioning the poignant juxtaposition of the Challenger disaster and the brilliantly successful encounter of the scientific spacecraft Voyager 2 with the planet Uranus during the same week of late January. Voyager 2 was launched by a Titan Centaur on 20 August 1977 and proceeded outward to extremely fruitful flybys of Jupiter (July 1979) and Saturn (August 1981). Its close encounter with Uranus yielded the discovery of its magnetic field and radiation belts (previously totally unknown) and marked advances in knowledge of its atmosphere, its energy balance, and its extensive system of satellites and rings. During the close encounter, fresh discoveries were pouring out of the investigators' workrooms at a dizzying pace.
Anyone who thinks that unmanned spacecraft are dull or void of intensive human participation should have been present at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in late January.

In the arena of national space policy, I am deeply distressed by the dissipation and misdirection of our immense technical and human resources on enterprises that appeal to persons of a science fiction mind-set but are otherwise ill-considered and fruitless.

I conclude by proposing the following measures for the optimal exploitation of the great potential of space during the years immediately ahead.
  • Suspend manned flight indefinitely pending critical assessment of its justification.
  • Postpone development of the space station.
  • Resume the production of previously well-developed expendable launch vehicles
  • such as Scout, Delta, Atlas, Centaur, and Titan and upgrade their performances
  • progressively.
  • Seek lower cost launching techniques.
  • Emphasize advanced applicational and scientific work.
  • Recast the structure and the public image of NASA to those of an agency whose
  • primary purposes are to develop space applications of widespread human
  • importance and make major advances in human understanding of the great
  • universe within which we are privileged to live.
REFERENCES

1. McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Space (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1967), p. 16.

2. W. Fowler, interview quoted in Caltech Bull. (1984).
----------

This article is reprinted from a 1986 draft manuscript provided personally by the author. It was later published in the journal, Science. Another version also appeared in Scientific American.

** James A. Van Allen was the recipient of the 2004 National Space Grant Distinguished Service Award by the National Space Grant Foundation. The award recognizes individuals who have shown exceptional dedication in their efforts to support and promote aerospace technology, science and education, consistent with the goals of the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program. Van Allen played an important role in planning the 1958 launch of Explorer 1 -- the first successful U.S. satellite -- and its scientific payload, which provided information that the Earth is surrounded by regions of intense radiation, later called the "Van Allen radiation belts." The discovery marked the birth of the research field of magnetospheric physics.

He also was the recipient of countless prestigious awards for scientific achievement, including the Gerard P. Kuiper Prize (1994), the NASA Lifetime Achievement Award (1994), the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest honor for scientific achievement (1987), and the Crafoord Prize (1989), awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm and presented by the King of Sweden. The Crafoord Prize is the highest award the Academy can bestow for research in a number of scientific fields and, for space exploration, is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Ashes to X

Clyde Tombaugh's ashes are on their way to Pluto.

Tombaugh, who died in 1997, discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930, while searching the skies for what forecast to be "a trans-Neptunian planet (also called Planet X), which had been predicted by Percival Lowell and William Pickering."

If you're into the details about the century-long search for Planet X, click here.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Pun Of Destiny?

"Coincidences are puns of destiny."
Two days ago, Gordon Corera of BBC News broadcast a report which you can see and hear right here. Seemingly a follow-up to last Friday's wayward U.S. missile strike against the small Pakistani village of Damadola, Corera begins by noting that Ossama bin Ladin hasn't been heard from in more than a year, but "a top U.S. diplomat" told him that he believed bin Ladin "is alive" and "the hunt is still on."

The 'diplomat' turns out to be the U.S. State Department's head counter-terrorism expert, Henry Crumpton, so we learn from other news sources. Quite a few other sources, in fact.

Crumpton was busy earlier this week. He pitched the same story in an "exclusive" interview conducted no later than January 16 with the London Daily Telegraph. This news, little noticed by the mainstream U.S. press, circled the globe starting last Monday: The U.S. State Department thinks bin Ladin is alive, he's probably somewhere in Pakistan, and al Qaeda is planning another attack on the U.S., possibly biological in character.

Here's the intriguing thing: About the possibility of of another al Qaeda attack on the U.S., Crumpton is quoted as saying, "It is simply a question of time."

That line appears time and again in multiple news sources which ripped-and-republished the BBC and Telegraph interviews. It shows up in papers from South Africa to Australia and Canada to Israel .

So, what's this have to do with today's news? On January 19, a new bin Ladin tape surfaced. On the tape, as he threatens the U.S. with another attack bin Ladin uses nearly the very same phrase as Crumpton had done.

From the translation used by CNN , the bin Ladin tape has him saying:
"As for similar operations taking place in America, it's only a matter of time. They are in the planning stages, and you will see them in the heart of your land as soon as the planning is complete."
The U.S. government has not yet 'officially verified' the authenticity of the latest bin Ladin tape.
Assuming it's genuine, internal evidence suggests it was recorded some time in the "last six months," according to Western reports. The English-language edition of Al Jazeera is more precise. It concludes the tape was made in "December last year."

Authentic or not, the fact that both men used essentially the same phrase conceivably could be merely "a pun of destiny," as Arthur Koestler once described the notion of coincidence. But we doubt it. Given Crumpton's full court press earlier this week, it seems more likely he was well aware of today's tape when he gave interviews several days ago.

A lot of stuff we'll never know in this lifetime doubtless is going on behind Government curtains. It always does. But it's a good bet that someone at al Jazeera shared today's tape with U.S. officials a week or more before today's broadcast.

Destiny rarely has the humor needed to make puns.

Hilton Ground Breaking


Ground has been broken for the new Pensacola Beach Hilton Hotel, according to McCrory Building Co. of Birmingham, AL.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Update: Reporter Jill Carroll

The overnight news from the Mideast is, "abductors of U.S. journalist Jill Carroll have threatened to kill her if the United States does not free Iraqi women prisoners within 72 hours... ."

The Christian Science Monitor is publishing periodic updates about their reporter, who was kidnapped in Iraq more than a week ago.

Things seem to be worsening in Afghanistan, too, as that nation undergoes what another Monitor reporter calls "re-Talibanization of Afghanistan".

Update - 12 noon

The BBC is reporting that "six of the eight women being held by coalition forces in Iraq have been released early" by the Iraq Justice Ministry. The stated reason is, "because there was insufficient evidence to charge them." U.S. forces, we are told, "stressed... that decisions over such matters were ... unrelated to any other operational activity."

Yeah, right.

You do have to wonder -- just who, exactly, do we think we're fooling? The kidnappers? (Unlikely), The Iraqi women prisoners? (No way). The whole world? (Whay?)

Or, is this for consumption by us slobs here at home who are financing the propaganda?

Hurricane Katrina Index

The respected Harper's Index, which runs monthly in Harper's Magazine (complete with hyperlinks and footnotes to factual sources) reports in the latest issue some striking facts about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Here are some of them:
  • Average number of New Orleanians killed by gunfire each month since 2000: 16
  • Number of the 1,035 confirmed Hurricane Katrina‒related deaths that were caused by gunfire: 8
  • Chances that one of the 126 Wal-Marts shut down by Hurricane Katrina reopened within ten days: 9 in 10
  • Days after Katrina hit that the first strip club was reopened in New Orleans: 20
  • Percentage of their income from “dollar dances” that its strippers are donating to relief efforts: 100
  • Portion of British food aid for Katrina evacuees that still sits unused in an Arkansas warehouse: 7/10

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Naked Truth

Above: Vince ("The Mayor") Whibbs and Anna Whibbs
Courtesy, Council on Aging of West Florida

In a move that might be termed delightfully semi-transparent, the Northwest Florida Council on Aging has produced "Perfectly Aged," a 13-month calendar for 2006 featuring prominent Pensacola area personalities "over 60" in the altogether -- albeit with certain strategic body parts tastefully hidden from view.

Featured in the calendar's black-and-white photographs are Vince and Anna Whibbs, Ann Brett, Gerda Gernon, Doug Halford, Bettye Swanson, Ted and Natalie Ciano, Jim Reeves, June Guerra, Dr. Jack and Cookie Kichler, Don Parker, Taris Savell, Bobby Likis and Rosemary Bonifay.

Regular ($25) and autographed ($40) calendars are available. You can see sample calendar pages here. To order your own on-line click here.

Proceeds go to support the local aging council's meals-on-wheels services and respite care for the elderly poor.

Pensacola Beach residents may recall a similar fund-raising idea for worthy causes, such as Pensacola lifeguard services and PBES, was briefly considered by the residents' association three years ago. Unfortunately, it sank under the weight of alleged news reporter Nicole Lozare's censorious reporting for the News Journal.

While not novel, the charity fund-raising idea has been catching on around the world. A web site called, strangely, Dreaded Purple Master has been monitoring "naked calendar" fund raisers since 2003.

Pensacola's 'Perfectly Aged' calendar has been 'covered' (you might say) by Seniors World Chronicle and Happy News.com, where radio personality Don Parker is quoted as saying, "The only thing worse than being asked to pose nude would be not being asked."

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Speech

News Hounds has links to the video and the full text of Al Gore's stunning speech at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
Former vice-president Al Gore asserted Monday that President George W. Bush "repeatedly and persistently" broke the law by eavesdropping on Americans without a court warrant and called for a federal investigation of the practice.

Gore, the Democrat who lost the 2000 presidential election to Bush only after a ruling by the Supreme Court on a recount in Florida, called Bush's warrantless surveillance program "a threat to the very structure of our government."
And, as this ground-breaking speech was being made, Peter Daou asks, "What do all three cable news nets cover under the "Breaking News" banner? An overturned tanker truck on a New York highway."

Hippochristimas

Remember this?
"...maybe Mr. Free and the zoo should consider abandoning the accidental-finders-are-namers policy just this once. Making a big to-do over the naming rights could jump-start a much-needed public fund raiser for the recently renamed zoo."
They did it. You have until the end of the month.

(Hint: It's a boy.)

Sunday, January 15, 2006

How To Celebrate MLK Day

"King's widow, Coretta Scott King, says that the day was always intended as a one of activism that mirrored her husband's life during the Civil Rights movement, rather than just an empty celebration."
There is no well settled national custom for how to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, other than not delivering the mail. Some devote the day to public service. Most probably don't. Some take the day off. Others go to work as usual. Some parade. Most don't.

This Monday, probably the best way to commemorate the life and courage of Rev. King is to exercise your brain by tuning in to C-Span at 11 am Central time (noon Eastern) to watch the live speech from Constitution Hall of former Vice-president Al Gore.
In a major address slated for delivery Monday in Washington, the former Vice President is expected to argue that the Bush administration has created a "Constitutional crisis" by acting without the authorization of the Congress and the courts to spy on Americans and otherwise abuse basic liberties.
Georgia conservative Bob Barr, a former congressman, will introduce him. The event is sponsored by the non-partisan Liberty Coalition. The issue is the most important constitutional crisis confronting the nation since the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Civics Lesson

"All correct answers automatically disqualify entrants for a job in the George Bush administration."
------
While, in the compelling view of the Pensacola News Journal, Sam Alito and the Senate Judiciary Committee were making a bad joke of the Supreme Court judicial confirmation process this week, the Florida blog Sticks O' Fire was bringing us news about the people responsible for putting those jokers where they are today.

It's us! No wonder the new blog on the block, ...Because Everyone Else Has One, finds it so "effin' depressing."

The Florida State Bar recently commissioned a survey of Floridians and found "Only 59 percent of Florida adults surveyed ... could name the three branches of government." Barely 46 percent knew the meaning of "separation of powers" and only 61 percent knows what "checks and balances" refers to.

The reason, so the bar association suggests, is that so few schools in Florida teach civics any more. In 2004, the Florida Law Related Education Assn. surveyed 13 school districts in the state. It found:
"Less than 10 percent of Florida's 67 counties require the teaching of civics in middle school. High school students are required only to take a one-semester government course, usually in senior year... ."
Barely more even offer civics as an elective, as the map below illustrates. Schools aren't the only ones falling down on the job, though. The mainstream media doesn't help much, either.

Consider this: Last week also was supposed to be the culmination of the Association's annual "We The People" event. It was scheduled for yesterday, January 13, at the Ivanhoe Plaza Hotel in Orlando.

This is a kind of mock congressional confirmation hearing where students compete to really answer serious constitutional law questions. The same kind of questions Judge Alito artfully dodged all week.

Did the Orlando contest take place? Was it postponed? Is it still going on? Who won? What did they have to say?

There doesn't seem to be any news source in Florida that can tell us (although they all have room for today's horoscope and basketball scores.) So let's indulge and compete against ourselves.

The "We The People" contest involves posing several questions to student teams. The questions are tougher than they look. And, unlike Sam Alito, participants actually have to answer them to win.

Below are two of the contest questions. How would you answer them?
1. What is the difference between a government with a constitution and a constitutional government?

2. What is the rule of law and why is it important in a constitutional government?
Caution: All correct answers automatically disqualify entrants for a job in the George Bush administration. Incorrect, disingenuous, or evasive answers win an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Friday, January 13, 2006

More on the Baker Tornado

WEAR-TV reports this evening:
"All told, 16 kids and one adult sought out medical attention, but none required transport to the hospital. The school, on the other hand will need a lot of patching up. Part of the roof was torn off the secondary wing."

Tornado News

Radar photo courtesy of The Weather Channel

The phones were buzzing late this morning with reports -- now confirmed by eyewitnesses -- that a tornado damaged the elementary/middle school in Baker, Florida. Baker is in Okaloosa County.

The second grade classroom suffered the worst hit, witnesses say. At least fourteen second graders are said to have suffered injuries, but all are believed at this time to be minor.

No local news stations or newspapers have as yet reported the matter.

Update - 3 pm

USA Today has the news, too.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The War on Cankerism

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's citrus canker program, under which hundreds of thousands of over a million perfectly healthy trees were needlessly tortured and condemned to death, is being abandoned.

According to state officials, this means Florida Government will have to stop cutting down perfectly healthy trees that belong to others:
The state will continue to cut down infected trees... but it will stop destroying those within 1,900 feet of an infected tree, which under current law are considered 'exposed.'
Citrus industry spokesmen are blaming hurricanes for spreading canker too wide and far. But Andrew Myers, chief counsel for Broward County, says that's "disingenuous... and blatantly false." He adds:
"Any effort to effectively address the citrus canker issue was undermined by shoddy science and bureaucratic incompetence. It is unfortunate that the constitutional rights of so many Floridians were senselessly trampled."
As for the governor, Jeb Bush says he's "troubled" by the failure of this ill-conceived and badly executed program. Here's an idea: why not simply declare victory and leave?

Bad Birthday

Gitmo is now 4 years old.
  • Number of prisoners transported to Guantanamo: 750
  • Number of Gitmo prisoners convicted of a crime: 0
  • Number of prisoners released without charges: 180
  • Number "transported to the custody of other countries" (i.e. tortured by proxy): 76
  • Number of prisoners presently on hunger strike and being fed by tube: 32
Read more: Guantanamo Detaineees: 4 Years Without Justice.

And, A Peak Behind the Curtain at Gitmo.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Beach Rhythms Returning

"There are a lot of other people besides me who walk the beach and look at the sand and watch the trucks going by. They can see what the danger is. If they get involved and speak up then we have a chance to keep the beach as beautiful as it is now."
-- Anne Sanborn, July 2001
Wednesday's Pensacola News Journal prominently features an article about red clay concerns on Pensacola Beach. This provides yet another welcome sign that the familiar rhythms of life on Pensacola Beach are returning to normal at long last, nearly a year and a half after Hurricane Ivan.

Just as the usually gentle Gulf waves ebb and flow along Florida's barrier islands -- each wave, having spent itself, supplanted by another as surely as that one in its turn will be replaced by a newer wave -- so, too, do the generations of beach residents who care deeply about Pensacola Beach easily flow from one into the next.

Today's story is that Victoria Clarkin, the president of the Pensacola Beach Preservation and Historic Society, is said to be following "dump trucks as far as Navarre, documenting the hauling" of material off the beach. Reporter Lynette Wilson's treatment leaves a few gaps in the story that may mystify some readers.

Most will understand that Ms. Clarkin suspects something may be fouling the famous "sugar white sands." But it isn't clear whether she's worried the sand is being removed by road crews building a four-lane Via De Luna, or red clay is being left in place, or even that trucks are accidentally importing the clay. Quite possibly, all the above.

It's hard to know because the newspaper gives Ms. Clarkin too little space to explain the basis of her suspicions.
It is clear, however, that her volunteer efforts are vital. Escambia County environmental services director Keith Wilkins is quoted in the article as saying:
"We appreciate the residents watching. We rely on the citizens to keep an eye out. We have 12 enforcement officers and no inspectors."
No inspectors? That will come as a shock to some. Yet, thus it always has been.

Long-time residents of Pensacola Beach may be forgiven their sense of deja vu. Today, the sand monitor is Victoria Clarkin. Yesterday -- or, to be more precise, from 1998 to 2001 -- it was Anne Sanborn.

National reporter Kelly Greene even did a front-page feature for the Wall Street Journal about Anne in July, 2001. The title was, "Gray Area: If Sand on Strand Isn't White, Ms. Sanborn Is Livid." The subhead read: "She Patrols for Discolorations And Reports Them; Builders And Some Others See Red."

After the article appeared, Anne was interviewed about it for the (now defunct) pbrla.com web site. Here is an excerpt:
Anne said she and several friends had been informally patrolling the beach for nearly three years, alert to any red clay or discolored fill dirt being trucked onto the island. Their efforts started in earnest after they discovered the Santa Rosa Island Authority was overlooking sand mixed with red clay, rocks, dirt and "brown sand" trucked to a Gulfside dune rebuilding site.

Now, Anne says, the cadre of volunteers keeps a watchful eye for all sources of sand defilement, from road repair materials to new building construction.

Why worry over the color the sand?

"Because I like white sand," she states flatly. "It's one of the things that attracted me to Pensacola Beach and I know it attracts many other people. The AAA Travel guide even mentions the unique white color in the first sentence of their section about Pensacola Beach."
As it happens, Anne, then age 75, moved from the beach soon after to be nearer her children and grandchildren. When asked if she had any advice for those who were staying behind, this is what she said:
"All I can say is keep up the good work. There are a lot of other people besides me who walk the beach and look at the sand and watch the trucks going by. They can see what the danger is. If they get involved and speak up then we have a chance to keep the beach as beautiful as it is now."
And so the beach goes on into a long future, we can hope. Victoria Clarkin has answered Anne Sanborn's call to "get involved" and "speak out" to preserve the best of Pensacola Beach. Let's hope more of the next generation of beach residents will do the same.

Trigger Happy

You may remember the national news story that broke here in Pensacola just before Hurricane Ivan swamped everything but storm stories. Even the National Enquirer covered the incident, we're told.

In many publications and blogs of the time, the headline writers just couldn't resist: "Dog Shoots Man."
"On Sept. 6, 2004, [Allen] Bradford was holding two puppies, trying to shoot them in the head, when one wiggled, sending a bullet into Bradford's wrist. Bradford had shot and killed three puppies before he was wounded himself."
The puppy walked on a plea of self-defense. The "perp" as they say on Law and Order, turned out to be a grown adult who was trying to kill him.

Today's PNJ writes the end of the story (we hope): "Jerry Allan Bradford, 38, pleaded no contest to three counts of killing an animal and was sentenced to one year on probation, court records show. Three additional charges of cruelty to animals were dismissed."

Employees at the Escambia County Animal Shelter tell us today that the puppy, whom they named "Trigger," was adopted shortly after the incident and is believed to be well and happy.

That would make him him "Trigger Happy," if we were the kind who would write a headline like that.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Speaking the Language

Today's Washington Post has more on Jill Carroll -- and, as a possibly inadvertent aside, the chronically sad state of Western journalism in Iraq:
With violence roiling Iraq, a sizable number of foreign reporters largely restrict themselves to armored cars shuttling between hotels and the American-controlled Green Zone. They cover American officials and the isolated authorities of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government.
This, emphatically, has not been the case with Ms. Carroll's coverage:
Unlike most Western reporters in Baghdad, Carroll spoke Arabic well enough to easily talk to ordinary Iraqi people and interview Iraqi officials. She had picked up the language while working as a business reporter in Jordan... .

"In this poorly understood region, where so much is at stake, important stories are lost everyday because the foreign press corps doesn't speak Arabic," Carroll [once] wrote. "Journalism is a public service and readers are best-served if I and the people I am writing about speak the same language."

Although things may be slowly improving, at least with newspaper coverage, it is still true that one of the many subjects badly covered by American journalists in Iraq remains their own poor communication skills. As Tom Engelhardt wrote recently:
American reporters may be almost as crippled by not being Arabic-speakers as by the dangers of Iraq. It remains an amazing fact that an American occupation which began largely without Arabic-speakers... has since been covered in our press mainly by reporters who can't communicate directly with the people they're covering.
Can you imagine what press coverage of Pensacola would be like if "most" reporters here didn't speak English, talked mainly to military base officers, and "largely restricted themselves" to a room at the Motel 6?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Reporting the Unreported

Today, the Christian Science Monitor went public with news that one of its reporters in Iraq, Jill Carroll, was abducted in Baghdad late Friday (Saturday morning local Mideast time). This gives the green light to a long line of U.S. media outlets and bloggers (yes, this one among them) who for several days had been observing a voluntary embargo on publishing the identity of the kidnapped reporter.

The embargo is said to have been requested by Reporters Without Borders. It was claimed that not publishing Ms. Carroll's name would aid them in negotiating her early release. No one wants anything to interfere with any prospect for saving Jill Carroll, so of course the vast majority of U.S. news outlets remained mum.

Ms. Carroll's sister has a blog, written out of Washington D.C. that also went dark. All that remains of Lady of Arabia, for now, is a Google cache.

Jill Carroll once wrote an affecting article about how she rebounded from a layoff by the financially troubled Wall Street Journal to become a freelance reporter in Baghdad. Although she doesn't say as much, the reader can't help but conclude that Carroll is a very courageous reporter, indeed.

Her last report was published on Thursday, the day before her translator was shot and she was abducted en route to an interview through a dangerous Baghdad neighborhood. Her final report of 2005 noted that things were deteriorating badly in Baghdad:
"Iraqis are saying that 'The purple finger isn't paying off,' in reference to the indelible ink left on a voter's finger."
There might be no reason to question the judgment of U.S. news editors who honored the blackout, except for the curious fact as Editor & Publisher notes that "Numerous foreign news outlets and several leading wire services disclosed the incident -- and in a few cases, the reporter's name." Most who did so published her name on the very day of her kidnapping -- and some of them every day thereafter.

One was USA Today, which pulled the story a few hours later. Readers of the popular blog Eschaton, after a couple of false starts, figured out Ms. Caroll's name on their own Saturday, as you can see by tracking through their 95 comments that afternoon. As Atrios noted when he started the thread, "There aren't exactly an infinite number of female American journalists in Iraq."

Others who openly reported Ms. Carroll's name were mostly newspaper and radio sources throughout Europe and Asia. Several of the latter were easily heard on shortwave right here in Pensacola as well as across the U.S.

Whatever protection anonymity might have provided Ms. Carroll while in the hands of her captors -- and it's not clear why there would be any -- it surely was lost long before today. Most of Europe and much of Asia knew her identity. Only Americans remained blacked out.

Is there a lesson for us in all of this -- or for the journalists upon whom we rely to publish the reality of our shrinking world? It's becoming conceivable that before we realize what's happened, we in the U.S. might not be allowed to say.

Further Amplification Dept.

Speaking of violent acts against journalists, the UK Guardian reports, "American troops in Baghdad yesterday blasted their way into the home of an Iraqi journalist working for the Guardian and Channel 4, firing bullets into the bedroom where he was sleeping with his wife and children." There's more....

The Ages of Man

Prize-winning columnist Donald Kaul, now retired and having turned 71, asks 'What is the best of the "four stages of age"?' (Hint: It's not "You're looking great.")

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sex and the Single Web Surfer

"An economist is a man who states the obvious in terms of the incomprehensible."
It's January. Do you know what that means, students? That's right! It's Annual Academic Meeting Time!

From Archeologists to Zoologists at schools from Adelphi to Yuba College, underpaid teachers hoping to bulk up their tenure applications are gathering in drafty Holiday Inns and down-at-the-heels Sheratons across the nation to share the fruits of their lonely labors in the vineyards of Academe.

Not least among these is the American Economics Association. Gathering in Boston last week, this brainy group received several hundred heavily-footnoted papers -- the more footnotes, the better, don't ya' know -- in the never-ending quest by practitioners of "the dismal science" to reduce the complexities of human behavior to one unified, bloodless mathematical equation.

This year, no academic paper is likely to be of less importance, or more stimulating, than "What Makes You Click: An Empirical Analysis of Online Dating," by Gunter J. Hitsch and Ali Hortacsu (Univ. of Chicago) and Dan Ariely (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The entire thing is available on-line here in pdf format, complete with 51 pages, 23 footnotes, 11 charts and graphs, and seven tables.

To research on-line dating habits from an economists' point of view, the authors used "a novel data set obtained from a major online dating service." This enabled the trained economists to identify "mate preferences" and "match outcomes" of men and women who are looking for each other via the Internet.

All of this is economics professor talk for 'we spied on your on-line dating messages and intercepted your emails to each other.' Taking a leaf from George Bush's playbook, they confess to conducting warrantless searches of Internet dating line customers in two American cities, San Diego and Boston.

You think having President Bush monitor your phone calls is bad? Imagine this:
"At each moment in time, we know which profile [dating service users] browse, whether they view a specified photograph, and whether they send or reply to a letter from another user. We also have some limited information on the contents of the e-mails exchanged; in particular, we know whether the users exchanged phone numbers or e-mail addresses."
To this 'data set' the authors then applied -- we're not making this up -- a mathematical equation for determining the "latent utility of man, m, from e-mailing woman, w, related to the eventual utility from forming some sort of match." Or, as we used to say in the olden days before the Internet, they went looking for good pick-up lines.

For those of you who want to try this at home, here's the economic equation for whether you're likely to get laid:
Umw = x'wa + | xw - xm | - ' + B + xw - xm | - Y
+ N/k;l=1 {dmk = uk and dwl = vl ¢ ±kl} . 8 + cm + ²mw .
Really. That's it. The empirical mathematical formula for catching a mate on the Internet.

For the mathematically impaired, the authors do offer a narrative summary of their findings, cushioned in advance with a warning so as not to shock you too much:
"Many readers will find some of our results sobering. Our fate in love and marriage seems to be driven by factors such as looks, height, weight, and income, that are hard or impossible to change."
What else could they have expected? Preferences in breakfast cereals? Paper or plastic users?

There are several equally compelling conclusions these august academic economists reach. They hardly qualify as earth-shattering, however. Among these --
  • "Men appear much more receptive to first-contact e-mails than women." Translation: Men are hornier than women.
  • Women are browsed more often, and receive more first contact e-mails and e-mails containing a phone number or e-mail address than men." Translation: Ditto.
  • Men who "indicate a preference for casual sex are contacted less often than men who state that they are hoping to start a long term relationship. Women, on the other hand, are not negatively affected by such indications." Translation: Men are such pigs.
  • Women prefer tall, rich, well educated men. Men will 'date' any size of woman no matter how short, poor or stupid she may be. Translation: Ditto.
  • "Women seem to have a strong preference for men with equivalent education levels and higher incomes in a mate." Men, on the other hand, will date anything that doesn't have scales and slither through the grass. Translation: Ditto, again.
  • "About 3.5% of dating web site users declare their annual income to be above $200,000, whereas the [general census population] samples contain 0.0% of the population." Translation: Men are such liars.
After thoroughly studying this latest empirical analysis of on-line dating, you might be uncertain whether any of the economists' findings can help your particular situation. Yes, one can:
"Blonde women have a slight improvement in their online 'success' [in attracting men] while women with gray or 'salt and pepper' hair suffer a sizable penalty. ... For women, 'long straight hair' leads to a slight improvement in outcomes, while short hair styles are associated with a moderate decrease in outcomes."
So, there you have it. Real college-trained economists who spy on on-line dating service users conclude: Guys, you really are pigs. And, gals, don't cut your hair. Dye it blonde.

And, be sure to lose those scales and stop slithering through the grass.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Friday, January 06, 2006

Unbuckling the Bible Belt

"Religious freedom and separation of church and state also are among the top issues in Pensacola, which Watson described as the 'buckle of the Bible belt.'"
Although things are changing ever so slowly, Pensacola still deserves its reputation for being a hotbed cold freezer of neo-con politics. As Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times put it during the last presidential election, "To call Escambia County a Republican stronghold is like calling Tiger Woods a decent golfer."

Somehow, though, a few liberals now and again manage to slip past the armed guards at the county border. One of them is Susan Watson. We mention her because she was one of the lead plaintiffs in the Florida voucher case of Bush v. Holmes.

Ms. Watson is no stranger to education issues or to the struggle to protect American civil rights. She first came to public attention when she took on the charlatan Hal Mason, who was once elected as an Escambia County school board member but then died in office.

For a thankfully short time, Mason virtually held the county's public school system hostage to his peculiar Know Nothing-like ideology, all the while refusing to disclose what, exactly, he'd been doing in California for a lengthy period of ten to twenty years that left a large, mysterious blank space on his resume. Mason's downfall can be traced largely to the courageous fight Susan Watson waged, almost single-handedly, against the nutty faction that dominated local school board politics a few years ago.

When interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times last summer, Ms. Watson explained that she had decided to challenge the state voucher system in Bush v. Holmes because "I don't want my tax dollars being thrown into the garbage, being thrown into schools that we don't monitor or test."

Her three children are, or soon will be, graduates of Pensacola High School. The oldest now attends the University of Chicago.

That's not the whole story, however. Susan Watson also has been a very active P.T.A. member. A few years ago, she became a founding officer of the "Panhandle Chapter" of the American Civil Liberties Union. Last summer, she was appointed "the ACLU's first full time director of Northwest Florida."

More recently, she's been making common cause with former conservative Georgia congressman Bob Barr and libertarian minister Chuck Baldwin against the more egregious aspects of the U.S. Patriot Act.

Pensacola still may be the 'buckle of the Bible Belt," but Susan Watson is valiantly working to set us free.