Ahead of Our Time

Ahead of Our Time

My husband maintains that, once again, we're on the cutting edge culturally. The WSJ ran a piece today on "The Artfully Disheveled Home." Out: professional decor. In:

[C]leverness over money, taste over expense, personality over hired expertise, idiosyncrasy over polish . . . . The fantasy of the undecorated house is Tuesday morning as it is actually lived, not as we would like other people to imagine it; it is the idea of energy, of chaos, of motion, of mess (well, mess within very circumscribed and aesthetically pleasing limits: children lying in a pile of books, artfully unmade beds, one piece of clothing strewn across a couch).
Our version of "un-decoration" is fabrics artlessly covered with tasteful dog hair, casually draped with the fascinating detritus of our complex lives, covered in a quirky patina of grime, giving our home that charming "lived-in" look. Boy, howdy.

I go further and apply this aesthetic to my person. Maybe I should start a magazine.

Fukushima Update

Fukushima Update

The news coverage has mostly moved on to Libya and other stories, but the Fukushima troubles are hardly over. Good information continues to be posted on the PhysicsForum site, a thread with over 1,300 posts now, whose members are exerting an admirable discipline on each other by relentlessly pointing out the difference between speculation and credible sources. Commenters on that site recently posted these two excellent links. First, YouTube is carrying video footage of several helicopter flyovers. This footage, previously almost unwatchable, has been run through a terrific piece of software that stabilizes the bumping and jerking of the camera.

Second, a slideshow from AREVA, a French public power company with a strong presence in nuclear energy projects of all kinds, depicts the unfolding accident in fairly clear schematic form, with due attention given to which conclusions are the most speculative. It is unfortunately clear that fissile products have escaped into the environment. The damage, nevertheless, still is not of Chernobyl-like proportions. The nearby crops, for instance, may have been ruined for this year, but it does not appear that the land is permanently contaminated. (We take our blessings where we can find them.) Workers have been injured, but reports of deadly doses so far appear to be alarmist and inaccurate. (I very much hope.)

This picture keeps bothering me, though. For several days, the participants at PhysicsForum have been discussing whether these could be fuel rods that were blown out of the spent-fuel pool at Unit #3 when that unit exploded on March 14. They don't really look like ordinary structural rods, and yet the radiation readings in and around the unit don't suggest that a lot of fuel rods could be lying around in the open air, either. Considering how much contamination already has escaped in the form of steam and coolant-water runoff, the last thing the suffering residents of the area need is another explosion and/or fire that might blow pieces of fuel rods into the air.

If this disaster does nothing else, it has demonstrated that on-site storage of fuel rods, coupled with vulnerable cooling systems, is a less-than-perfect solution to the public distaste for permanent nuclear waste facilities of the Yucca Mountain variety. The core containments have held up pretty well at Fukushima, but the spent-fuel pools were nowhere near as well contained as the reactor vessel.

Wisconsin Open Records Laws

Wisconsin's Open Records Laws

Does the law matter? I think it does. And because I think the law matters, I must take exception to a few of Grim's statements on the Cronin brouhaha. He begins by putting forth a hypothetical that differs in several crucial respects from the Cronin case and those respects are not distinctions without a difference. Grim's hypothetical begins:

Let's say an FBI agent started a blog called "The G-Man as Citizen." On this blog he investigated liberal interest groups and posted apparently factual information about the special interests and big money behind their proposed legislation.

Federal (and some state and local) employees are prohibited by law from participating in partisan political activities at work. The FBI is subject to an even stricter set of rules than those applied to other government employees. So the first question to ask would be: is there any evidence that Grim's G-man blogged on a government computer or during working hours? Because if he did, that alone puts him in violation of the law.

Because of the Hatch Act, I never sent even politically themed jokes to my husband's work email, nor did he ever send such materials. That's how strict the law is. Because my best friend (a liberal Democrat who voted for Kerry and Obama) works for Social Security, she doesn't send or receive political jokes or any other political material from her work email account.


Has my progressive friend been "stripped of her right to question or challenge the government"? Of course not. It's just that if she wants to do so, she must do so on her own time, using her private email account. That's the problem with Grim's argument: he is conflating the rights and privileges of private citizens with their duties as employees of the government. He is also conflating public records with private ones:

The fact that a man works for the government does not, and should not, strip him of his right to question or challenge the government. To some degree we accept limits on that in the military, but only to some degree: and the military is a very special case.

...In the absence of any criminal accusations, security in one's person and papers should be absolute. The fact that the government owns the email sever is no more germane than the fact that it may own the letterhead and envelopes on which Dr. Cronon may have written a sealed letter; that fact bestows no right on them to open the letter and read it. If they wish to do so, they should get a warrant. If there is no cause for a warrant, they can go to hell.

Has anyone tried to strip this man of his right to question or challenge the government? If so, I must have missed it. The fact of the matter is that Grim's G-man is prohibited BY LAW from participating in partisan political activity AT WORK. And the Hatch Act applies to state and local employees if the entity they work for accepts federal funds (as do nearly all state universities). But there's yet another law that applies to Prof. Cronin: Wisconsin's Open Records law. And that law is stunningly broad. I don't have time to dissect it in detail, but here's a taste:

WHO CAN REQUEST RECORDS: "[A]ny requester has a right to inspect any record." Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(a) (2003-04)

PURPOSE OF REQUEST: "Except as authorized under this paragraph, no request . . . may be refused because the person making the request is unwilling . . . to state the purpose of the request." Wis. Stat. § 19.35(1)(i)

These brief excerpts are by no means a thorough examination of Wisconsin's Open Records law, but they are sufficient to rebut the notion that government employees, using government sponsored email accounts, have the same right to privacy as private citizens. They absolutely and categorically do not.

As for the notion that Professor Cronin would be "silenced" if he were asked to obey the same laws any government employee is bound by, that is a canard. He may participate in all the political activity he wants to... on his own time and so long as he does so in his capacity as a private citizen.

The real irony here is that, though I am NOT employed by a federal, state, or local government, I do not engage in political activity using my company-issued email account. I do not do so because, were a politically charged email of mine to fall into the wrong hands, I would be creating the appearance that my company encourages or endorses my political beliefs, and that appearance could damage my company's reputation or business interests. When I am at work, I am not "Cass" - I am Company X's Technical Manager. That is what my signature block says - it does not list my home address and phone but the address and phone number of my employer.

Yes, it is an old fashioned idea - the notion that private actions are private and that while we are at work, using computers and resources we don't own, we ought to be doing our jobs and not engaging in other pursuits.

It's also a damned good practice.

Security in Papers

Security in Papers:

Let's say an FBI agent started a blog called "The G-Man as Citizen." On this blog he investigated liberal interest groups and posted apparently factual information about the special interests and big money behind their proposed legislation.

Let's say that the Democrats in Congress responded by filing a FOIA request for all of his government emails that might contain certain key words. We're not talking about a legal investigation -- no one is suggesting he violated any laws or even any policies. Rather, you have a political party trying to intimidate government employees from expressing political opinions... or even insight into our political reality.

That's a rough analogy to what is going on with Dr. William Cronon, except that he works for the state, not the Federal government; he is liberal, not conservative; and he is a history professor, not a G-man.

Some liberal bloggers are speaking up in his defense, but this strikes me as an issue that isn't a left/right question. He is clear about his political leanings, and his scholarship has the potential to be of benefit to all of us. I learned several things I didn't know reading Dr. Cronon's posts, and I'd suggest you read them too. We should want to have those with insight into these systems helping lay them bare; and if we prefer conservative to liberal policies, nevertheless the answer is to try to do the same kind of work to lay bare the organizations operating on the other side.

In any case, no political group -- no Republican and no Democratic legislator, at any level of government -- should feel they can harrass American citizens into silence. The fact that a man works for the government does not, and should not, strip him of his right to question or challenge the government. To some degree we accept limits on that in the military, but only to some degree: and the military is a very special case.

Too, Dr. Cronon is right to say that some emails caught in such a request may come from students who have political concerns; to publish their names and private thoughts is to violate a trust between student and teacher. I am sure we can all think of teachers we confided in, or looked to for guidance at points in our lives. This is a relationship that ought to be honored and protected. In the absence of any criminal accusations, security in one's person and papers should be absolute. The fact that the government owns the email sever is no more germane than the fact that it may own the letterhead and envelopes on which Dr. Cronon may have written a sealed letter; that fact bestows no right on them to open the letter and read it. If they wish to do so, they should get a warrant. If there is no cause for a warrant, they can go to hell.

Mileage Tax


For years and years, I've heard arguments that higher gas prices would make Americans morally better people. It would break our dependence on consumer culture. It would make Americans less fat. It would make Americans less greedy for energy. It would make Americans buy more fuel efficient cars. This last article actually has a pile of moral arguments: Americans would stay closer to home, enjoying their communities and building relationships. They would gamble less. They would use less credit.

So, I was not surprised to see that nobody in the political class is all that worried about gas prices: after all, they're convinced that high gas prices will be good for us. Given that the political class thinks we're not capable of making good decisions on our own, naturally it follows that the political class would be fine with high gas prices.

That is not to say that they would want to be blamed for those high prices. So, instead of the occasionally-floated 'European style gas tax,' we've gotten increasing restrictions on refineries in the United States; bans on drilling in lots and lots of places inside the country; a "moratorium" on offshore drilling; etc., etc. It looks like market forces if you aren't paying attention -- which allows blame to be shifted to the oil companies. If you look closely, though, you see that there is a lot of pressure being added by the 'hand of government.'

None of that is surprising.

So now you're paying a lot more for gas, but your job is just as far away as it ever was. You may not be taking a vacation or flying anywhere, and you certainly won't be living it up at the casinos! You'll be spending time closer to home, building communities, etc.

Still, you can't really sell your house and move closer to work because the real estate market is broken. So, you do what you've been told to do, and trade in your much-derided SUV for a more fuel-efficient car. Say, one of those praiseworthy Prius-type cars we've heard so much about. Or a Leaf. Whatever.

Good work. You've done everything right. Obviously, you must be punished.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) this week released a report that said taxing people based on how many miles they drive is a possible option for raising new revenues....

The report discussed the proposal in great detail, including the development of technology that would allow total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to be tracked, reported and taxed, as well as the pros and cons of mandating the installation of this technology in all vehicles....

[Sen. Conrad] noted the possibility of a VMT tax as a way to solve the problem of collecting less in taxes as people move to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

"Do we do gas tax?" Conrad asked. "Do we move to some kind of an assessment that is based on how many miles vehicles go, so that we capture revenue from those who are going to be using the roads who aren't going to be paying any gas tax, or very little, with hybrids and electric cars?"
You can read the report here. The report does consider among the "cons" the implications for privacy -- to whit, the fact that your every move will be monitored by the government to ensure they get paid for each exercise of your right to travel. Sensing the danger of trying to impose such a regime upon Americans, the report ponders possibly allowing some people to choose to pay higher taxes elsewhere in return for 'opting out' of the system. The wording here is careful: "Allowing users with the strongest concerns about privacy to opt out... might serve as a safety valve to make the system more acceptable to the public."

It shouldn't be acceptable, even so, because there's no reason poorer Americans -- who may not be able to afford the higher taxes necessary to 'opting out' -- should not enjoy the same privacy protections as rich Americans. This is not the first time this issue has arisen.

Keeping the roads in good condition is one of the legitimate functions of the government, and even the Federal government in the case of what the Constitution calls "post roads." They must be funded one way or another. However, our right to be free from unreasonable searches is not to be sacrificed for it.



'Going down to Georgia, to knock down my last game... I had not been in Washington/ many more weeks than three...'

The song is traditional, so the way they switch verses may suggest they mean Washington, as well as Georgia. There is, though, a Washington, Georgia: I was there just recently. It was the first city named after George Washington in the United States; it was also the place where the Confederate States of America was officially dissolved by Jefferson Davis and the remains of a government in flight before the Union army. It's a beautiful place.

Like many traditional songs, this one has several variations. Here is a famous one:

Here is another variation, by the lead singer of Social Distortion on his solo album:

Well, we've got lots of gamblers down Georgia way, in any case.

Um, No


I'm under the weather a bit, and the doc gave me some antibiotics. The warnings include this:

Although most antibiotics probably do not affect hormonal birth control pills, some antibiotics may decrease their effectiveness. This could cause pregnancy.
I'm pretty sure that's not actually true.
Aptly named "Badass of the week" (and probably year, decade and century at this point...)

When asked by Southeast Asia Bureau reporter Rick Westhead why he risked his life to save his wife, he simply replied “She is very important for me” through his interpreter.

Well said.

Making a Star

Making a Star:

The Killer talks about how it all got started, and he talks about it from his age.

Picking cotton and corn, and hoping all the time.



Hat tip to DL Sly:

Actually, the horse's name is Midnight. What most people don't realize about horses is that their legs are part of their circular system. There is a part of the bottom of the foot called the "frog," which acts as a pump to push blood back up the legs when the horse is walking. This is why horses with broken legs are often put down: without the ability to move, they can't live.

Pegleg Midnight doesn't need all four frogs to function perfectly, but does have 3/4 functionality because of the prosthetic. That's enough to keep the animal alive and functional. Pretty nifty stuff they can do these days!



Weren't we just talking about education? I find that I can't understand how our President uses some very simple words. He has said several times recently that Moammar Qaddafi "needs to go" or "has to go." So far, so good: this doesn't pretend to be much more than a meaningless statement using a vague idiom. Obviously Qaddafi has no such need and is under no such compulsion. The speaker merely describes his preference, carefully avoiding any commitment to action.

Today, however, the President took it a step further and announced that it is U.S. policy that Qaddafi has to go. It seems an odd use of the word "policy." I normally associate that word with an intention to engage in certain behavior toward a specific goal. There's no mystery about the goal here, but the means to the desired end are less clear, particularly since the President and his spokesmen are at pains to explain that our current military mission does not include as one of its goals the ousting of Qaddafi. As an exasperated Stephen Hayes asked this evening, do we propose to arm our diplomats, then?

In this context, "policy" seems to mean "wish." Our actual policy, in the traditional meaning of the word, is harder to make out. It can't be to interpose ourselves between every homicidal leader and his suffering people, or we'd have a lot more hot wars going on around the world. I can see why Mr. Obama is in no rush to address Congress on this issue and ask for a vote.

Didn't the President go to one of those fancy schools? They ought to have taught him better than to sound like such an empty bumper-sticker: Visualize No Qaddafi.

Update (Clearing That Up):

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes explains:

We're clarifying, as we’ve said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, that as we actually say in this readout, it’s the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future . . . . We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gadhafi should go because he’s lost their confidence.

Correct and Unwanted

True but Unwanted:

This author is one of those who is on to something exactly correct, but entirely unfashionable.

Home from the Road

Home from the Road:

It was a good ride.

Here we are encamped on Skidaway Island. The nearby Skidaway Narrows had a battery defense during the Civil War; you can hike out to the remains of the earthworks.

This is a bar called Spanky's Beachside, on Tybee Island. We stopped for lunch. I ordered the steak sandwich, expecting sliced or chipped steak. Instead, it was a whole ribeye, served on a bun. The thing was covered with melted cheese, sauteed onions and mushrooms. Delicious.

The Chatham Artillery claims to be "the oldest military organization of record" in Georgia, dating to 1786. You can find the punch recipe there too. I think they mean to claim to be the oldest surviving such organization, though. General Oglethorpe's Colonial Rangers predate them, as did the Georgia Continentals; but I believe that the 1st of the 118th FA claims descent from the Chatham Artillery. They returned from Afghanistan about a year ago now.

We visited the tomb of Gunnery Sergeant Pearson, KIA in the Beruit bombing. His tomb, located at the northern end of Forsyth Park, is also the Marine Corps monument in the city of Savannah.

Kevin Barry's second floor includes a large hall called "The Hall of Heroes," which is dedicated to celebrating our armed forces. Fort Stewart is not far away, but they've gotten quite a lot of display pieces given to them by others as well: for example, there's an impressive Army Ranger display featuring a black powder rifle, and a few things devoted to the 160th SOAR.

I was mistakenly served an entire pitcher of Guinness when I had actually ordered only a single pint. Any other day of my life this would have been wonderful news; but since I was the only driver available, I had to send it back. This was the only tragic event to mar an otherwise perfect trip.

The wife is inspecting my rigging of the bike for the ride home. She found nothing wrong with it, I'm pleased to say.

What Do They Teach Them in These Journalism Schools?

What Do They Teach Them in These Journalism Schools?

Over at Maggie's Farm, they're having one of their frequent debates about the content of a good curriculum. The low level of reporting in recent years on controversial aspects of climate change, nuclear power, and economics does suggest to me that the public and nearly all reporters could use better training in basic math and science, if nothing else. Just watching reporters and their audience struggle with the difference between "micro," "mili," "million," "billion," and "trillion" is enough to make me want to add a whole year that focuses on the location of the decimal point.

The Maggie's Farm post proposes a broad curriculum, intended to be covered by a combination of high school and college. It all seems like a good idea, though I confess I had to self-instruct in many of the recommended areas well after I had completed college. I somehow managed to get all the way through my formal schooling, for instance, before learning anything at all about geology.

I have my elder sister to thank for whatever balance was in my high school curriculum. My parents weren't the sort to interfere in my choice of classes, or really even notice whether I was going to school; they seemed to have a lot of confidence in me and would check in periodically to confirm that I was keeping my grades up. My father would provide additional instruction in any area where I showed curiosity, without insisting on a comprehensive approach. At the beginning of 9th grade, however, my public school expected me to develop a "four-year plan" for the remainder of my high school career. I began filling it in with all kinds of nonsense. My sister happened by and explained that we would be doing things a little differently. "Four years of science," she said, "four years of math, two foreign languages, and all the core subjects like English and History. You may have one elective each year." I took her word for it, and things worked out well.

The protagonist in Kurt Vonnegut's wonderful novel "Slapstick" describes himself as a good, if uninspired, student: someone who could "sort out good ideas from heaps of balderdash." When it comes to news reports on nuclear power accidents, public health, or national budget policy, our citizens need at least enough education to do that much. It would be nice if our journalists got it, too.