Sunday, November 30, 2008

How is it that irregular fighters so often beat the regular soldiers?

I posted the following to President-elect Barack Obama's transition website:

The 10,000 Greek soldiers that battled their way through hostile territory after the Persians killed their generals, 4th Century, B.C.

American irregulars against the British Army, 18th Century

French Resistance against Hitler's war machine, 1940's

Viet Cong guerrillas against a super power, the United States, 1960-1970s

Iraqi "insurgents" against the superior firepower of the United States

Afghani fighters against the British, the Russians, and the Americans.

Except for the Greeks, all of these groups were battling on their home turf. The Greeks were trying to return to their home turf.

Except for the Greeks, all of these groups were battling against a foreign power with an accompanying "puppet" government. The Colonial Americans did have an advantage in that many of the politicians were against the occupiers. Even with that advantage, it took six years to get the occupying army to surrender.

Could it be that many of the population have no incentive to support the foreign-supported government? If there is not direct foreign-support, could such support be perceived? If such support is not perceived, could it be that the government is ineffective in providing basic services or is seen as corrupt? If the last, does an ineffective or corrupt government have the resources to buy the loyalty of its own ruthless army.

It is only when all these questions are properly addressed, can anyone, superpower or not, hope to bring peace and stability to countries where neither exists.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

My best chuckle of the week

Jim Heffernan for years wrote a weekly column for the Duluth News Tribune. His column was a mix of commentary on daily life, Duluth, the state, the country, and the world, often with a bemused or satirical slant. He is now retired, but continues his column in his blog.

His latest was about the Second Coming, "The More Things Change, the More They Are the Same..." After reading it, I sent this note to Jim:
Dear Master of Satire,

“The second commandment is like unto to the first...” but many who call upon His Name seem more concerned about the commentary. The second commandment also means “we are the change”.

- Mel

Friday, November 28, 2008

You are the change!

President-elect Barack Obama's staff has set up a website for public input -

You can put up your story at or your ideas at

Maybe your input won't get past the filters, but then if you don't make a post to it will only stay in your head.

Don't trash the Constitution

I put the following on Barack Obama's website

President George W. Bush has made a mockery of the United States Constitution. Please do not follow his footsteps in appointing Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

"No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office."
- United States Constitution, Article 1, Section 6

Wearing a flag pin has become a symbol of patriotism. Worship of the flag is not patriotism; respect for and adherence to the Constitution is.

"Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'"
- United States Constitution, Article 2, Section 1

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Peace in the middle east?

Daniel Terdiman thinks that cheaper desalinization might be the most pressing problem to solve (What innovations are most important to world's future?, CNET News, 2008-11-14). He also suggests that water access may be a more important issue between Israel and Syria.

If Israel could desalinate water and sell it cheaply to Syria, Jordan, and Palestine, it may make itself indispensible to the supposed enemies.

See also his Space Station residents to drink recycled urine", CNET News, 2008-11-14.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Palin and Africa, who said what when?

Bob Lundegaard's letter ("The Palin Effect, McCain camp should have given her a map", Star Tribune, November 15, 2008) set off some alarms in my head, especially when he wrote about "the media" and even more so when he wrote about "the media elite".

I've written elsewhere that "the" is one of the most dangerous words in the English language, second only to "they". Too many people use "the" for sweeping generalizations about a particular group when it is really a few with whom they have a complaint. "The media" covers a wide variety of broadcasters, publishers, and bloggers. The opinions and skills of the people vary so greatly that one cannot really generalize. Can one lump Rush Limbaugh and Arianna Huffington together in "the media? Or a skilled writer like George Will with a ranting blogger who uses only ad hominem attacks?

Lundegaard complained that the timing of the release of the story about Palin and Africa confirms "people's suspicions that the media elite can't be trusted." I submit that the timing may have been because a certain news team could be trusted. However, to find this out, I had to spend more time than any of the online commenters to Lundegaard's letter seem to have spent.

The first inkling I got of a really big problem was when I saw CNET News item about a McCain advisor named Michael Eisenstadt claiming to leak the story to Fox News. This story was actually a New York Times story published in Arts and Entertainment, Nov. 12, "A Senior Fellow at the Institute of Nonexistence". The man posing as Eisenstadt said he really was not the leak.

I can't remember all the twists and turns of my search for the facts, but I did find two Fox News broadcasts on YouTube of interviews with Carl Cameron, Chief Political Correspondent for Fox News. These both took place on November 5, one on the late afternoon news and one on the Bill O'Reilly program. On both he mentions Palin not knowing Africa was a continent. He mentions no sources except in the first he says "McCain aides told me today..."

When I searched Fox News for "Palin Africa" I found 25 hits in the ranges May 5 to September 10, September 18 to October 26, and November 7 to November 16. Either Fox News' search software leaves gaps or Fox News has pulled certain pieces.

I did find a news recap that mentioned the Africa charge. Jane Hall said on Fox News Watch on November 8, "And Newsweek had it and Carl Cameron had it and Hugh Miller had it." I don't know who Hugh Miller is, but when I searched Newsweek for "Palin Africa" I had zero hits.

I also did a search of the Star Tribune and the New York Times. The Star Tribune has nothing on "Palin Africa" until Lundegaard's letter. The New York Times has six hits after the election. Four were by columnists who attributed the remark to Fox News or Carl Cameron or stated it was a contention, one was the story about the hoax, and the sixth was about Palin defending herself against the charge, "Palin Calls Criticism by McCain Aides 'Cruel and Mean-Spirited'", November 8. She is quoted as saying, “For the most part, absolutely, media persons, reporters, have been absolutely right on and there has been fairness and objectivity. There have been some stinkers, though..."

So, where does this "revelation" that Sarah Palin didn't know Africa was a continent come from. One could say that Carl Cameron made it up; Wikipedia says that he has fabricated stories in the past. One could also say that one remark by Palin has been blown out of proportion and context. Apparently she did have a discussion about South Africa and was unsure whether it was about South Africa the country or southern Africa the region. If this is so, we should cut her some slack. Whatever, Carl Cameron is not "the media".

Who is "the media, who agreed to hold the story until after the election"? Remember Jane Hall's comment about Newsweek and Carl Cameron? For many years, Newsweek has done "Secrets of the Campaign" reportage. They offer to document many of the behind the scenes events in exchange for the promise not to publish anything until after the election. I think they have gotten co-operation from both Republicans and Democrats for many elections. Newsweek isn't "the media" but they have shown they can be trusted. You can see dozens of clips of both the McCain and Obama campaigns that were not made available until November 5. You might enjoy them if you have a few days free.

See also "Palin and Africa, who said what when? Sources for article"

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Vote early, vote often (An alternative to Instant Runoff Voting)

As the melodrama of the Coleman-Franken recount unfolds, much invective, hyperbole, and puzzlement is appearing in print and online. One of the "solutions" brought forth to the close vote is Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). See

"Avoid the agony of recounts, and more, with instant runoffs", David Durenberger, Star Tribune, 2008-11-25


"Elections with less acrimony? That's the true beauty of IRV", Nick Coleman, Star Tribune, 2008-11-24

I think IRV is another magic bullet that is going to cure confusion, apathy, and the common cold. As in any system of voting, one can find scenarios in which the system will not give the desired results.

Suppose Al, Bert, and Chuck are running for dog-catcher in an IRV system. The choices of the voters are

First choice - 100(Al), 100(Burt), and 50(Chuck)
Second choice - 75(Al), 75(Burt), and 100(Chuck)
Third choice - 75(Al), 75(Burt), and 100(Chuck)

Assume further that the voters for Chuck split their votes for Al and Burt, 25 each for second choice and 25 each for third choice.

Eliminating Chuck's first place votes and distributing those voters' second choice votes, we wind up with Al and Burt each getting 125 votes each. Recount anybody?

Add to this the task of verifying that the original vote calculations were correct...

My own preference is for a blanket or jungle primary followed by as many runoffs as needed to achieve a majority vote. See "Nonpartisan Blanket Primary" and "Blanket Primary" in Wikipedia.

In Louisiana, several candidates are allowed to run under the same party label. I suggest that candidates may use a party label only if they have received the endorsement of that party.

Under "my" system, people would not "throw their votes away" by voting for the candidates they really want to be in office. Assume the polls say that Chuck would receive only 20 percent of the vote. If Al were to get 50 percent of the vote plus one, he would clearly be the winner.

If Al and Burt got 40 percent each as in the above example, then they would have a runoff without Chuck. With only two candidates in the race, it is more probable that one of them would get a clear majority. If not, we're in just as much trouble as with the IRV example.

But suppose the polls are wrong. Many voters refused to read the polls and voted as they really believed. Not knowing they "would throw their votes away" voting for Chuck, 40 percent voted for him, 35 percent voted for Al, and 25 percent voted for Burt. In the runoff the result might be as high as 65 percent for Chuck or as high as 60 percent for Al; either case would be a clear majority. Of course, we could still have a tie and ...

As usual, no human system is flawless, but I think this system is more fluid than the so-called "two-party system". Rather than having to vote for a "major" party that has lost much of its popular support and voting for it only as a vote against the other "major" party, voters can feel more free to vote for a party more to their liking. It took less than 70 years for a new party to replace a major party; at over 150 years since the last change, we are long overdue for a new party.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

How do you measure pain?

I have visited doctors' offices more than I wanted in the last few months, including two ER visits and a same-day surgery. After the latter I have had varying degrees of pain for over a week now.

In almost every doctor's office there is a 8.5x11 pain chart with a bar of varying colors and a scale from 0 to 10. Just what is a pain of 2 or 4? I don't know. On one visit I found out that there is another scale on this chart, from smiley face to extreme grimace with tears. Even with the faces, I'm hard put to measure my pain because I don't hold any particular facial expression constantly. If I had a pain that had me tight-lipped and someone told a really good joke, I would smile and laugh.

Today, I came up with my own list of descriptions based on my own current and past experiences.

Barely noticeable would be a tender spot that you didn't think about until someone touched it with a bit of pressure.

Noticeable would be a minor ache or pain that you think about when you are still or make certain movements.

Annoying would be a pain that is always there but you can function normally and sometimes put out of your mind.

Distracting would be a pain that stops all activity. Your mind is just too occupied with it to do much else. You can force yourself to act, but you do so with reluctance.

Excruciating is not only distracting, but you want to cry out in anger or frustration.

Stop, stop, stop! has your full attention. All you want is for the pain to stop. You can think of nothing else.

Only once in recent memory have I had "Stop, stop, stop!" pain. I had an abscess in my upper jaw giving me pain varying from noticeable to excruciating. I was scheduled for oral surgery to treat the abscess, but the oral surgeon took me in just to drain the abscess. When he put the needle in, it felt like he was putting fluid in me rather than taking it out. I must have tightened every muscle in my body. After that, if I remember correctly, the pain stayed in the range of annoying to distracting until the complete surgery.

Fortunately, sort of, pain doesn't stay at one level. It can subside and come back again. The best way to keep the pain at a lower level is to do something: read a book, watch a movie, be with friends, or write a blog about pain.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Control the terms of the debate

After reading my submission to the Star Tribune on "The media", my son sent me a link to a New Yorker article on the Republican Party, "The Fall of Conservatism" by George Packer, 2008-05-26.

One interesting point was:
The Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, in his new book, “The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008” (Harper), argues that Reagan “learned how to seize and keep control of the terms of public debate.”
I thought of how the Republicans have seized and kept control of the terms of the public debate on taxes by constant harping on "high taxes" and "low taxes". I really think the debate needs to be on "appropriate taxes". With that in mind, I sent the following to President-Elect Obama's change web site,
Appropriate the adjective appropriate.

The Republicans are controlling the debate on taxes with a charge of "high taxes" and a call for "low taxes". The real question is not whether taxes are too high or too low but whether taxes are appropriate for the tasks facing the government.

If a war calls for a large portion of a nation's resources, a fifty-percent tax rate may be appropriate to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

If a country is at peace, if all the infra-structure is working well, and if the country is healthy and prosperous, a five-percent tax rate may be appropriate to keep the country running smoothly.
I encourage to send your thoughts to Obama's transition team. Who knows, if you have a well-thought and well-prepared idea that resonates with one of the filters, your idea may be adopted. If you don't send your thoughts to the transition team, ...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Supreme court ruled by military?

Many people are wary of this country becoming more and more militaristic. Sometimes events seem to strengthen this belief. The Navy vs. environmental groups on SONAR being a threat to marine mammals seemed to be heading in that direction.

A recent New York Times article seemed to imply that the Supreme Court was leaning towards extreme deference to the military. See "Supreme Court rules for Navy in SONAR Case", New York Times, 2008-11-13.

The opening paragraph reads:

"Courts must be wary of second-guessing the military’s considered judgments, the Supreme Court said Wednesday in lifting judicial restrictions on submarine training exercises off the coast of Southern California that may harm marine mammals."

Oh, boy! thought I. We are on a slippery slope here. We have all the politicians who want to defer to the military with its interpretation of the "situation on the ground." Now we have the Supreme Court doing so.

It isn't until the end of the article that one finds a much more nuanced judgement:

"'Of course,' Chief Justice Roberts added, 'military interests do not always trump other considerations, and we have not held that they do. In this case, however, the proper determination of where the public interest lies does not strike us as a close question.'”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Palin and Africa, who said what when? Sources for article

I get a strong reaction when anybody writes about media bias. "The media" covers a wide range of skills and opinions. When I read "The Palin Effect: McCain camp should have given her a map" in the November 15 Star Tribune, I got busy at my keyboard. It took two days, but I churned out over 700 words of analysis looking for the "real" story about what Palin really said. I can't post it here unless the Star Tribune decides not to print my article. While we wait, you can "enjoy" some of the articles I used.

2008-11-05 Carl Cameron, Fox News, broadcast bit about Palin not knowing Africa is a continent. No mention of source of information. Cameron does say, "McCain aides told me today" about Africa statement.

O'Reilly and Cameron No mention of sources of information. Cameron does say that McCain staffers were met by Palin in a bathrobe.

2008-11-06 Palin-Africa Story Implodes Right Wing Media Cabal, Gawker,

2008-11-08 Fox News recap,,2933,449566,00.html, Newsweek, Cameron, and Hugh Miller "had it".

2008-11-08 Gail Collins writes that Carl Cameron of Fox News said Palin didn't know Africa was a continent. Collins includes that Palin says this is untrue. "A Political Manners Manual"

2008-11-08 Article on Palin reaction to criticism. “For the most part, absolutely, media persons, reporters, have been absolutely right on and there has been fairness and objectivity,” Mentioned some "bad apples". "Palin Calls Criticism by McCain Aides 'Cruel and Mean-Spirited'"

2008-11-09 Nicholas Kristof's indirectly quotes Fox News, "Obama and the War on Brains"

2008-11-10 "Palin Defends Herself in Fox Interview", The Caucus Blog, New York Times

2008-11-12 "MSNBC retracts false Palin story; others duped" Associated Press, Fox and others reprint

2008-11-12 Maureen Dowd mentions Palin defending herself about remarks that did not confuse Africa as country or continent. "Boxers, Briefs, or Silks?"

2008-11-12 New York Times publishes article about hoax, "A Senior Fellow at the Institute of Nonexistence"

2008-11-15 "The Palin Effect: McCain camp should have given her a map", Letter to the Editor, Star Tribune, Bob Lundegaard

If you have the patience to read the comments to this letter, you'll find few that actually address what Lundegaard wrote. They almost all are off on their own agenda.

Friday, November 14, 2008

One solution for GM's problems

I sent the following to Barack Obama's transition web site at

One solution for GM's problems is for it to start selling like mad in China.

Supposedly many Chinese like big vehicles. American auto manufacturers traditionally have bought foreign factories rather than export. Rather than the paltry 50,000 vehicles that Ford supposedly sold in China, why don't all of the U.S. auto makers start some really serious sales in China.

Oh, I forgot, foreign languages are a "frill" in American schools. Well, maybe there are enough English speakers in China to respond to some of the American car ads broadcast or published in English.

Thomas Friedman for Secretary of State

I sent the following to Barack Obama's transition web site at

Thomas Friedman for Secretary of State. He speaks Arabic and Hebrew; he spent years in both Lebanon and Israel; and he has contacts all over the world. He also has a realistic view of the difficulty of bringing people together. See
"Show me the money", New York Times, 2008-11-09

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yes or No! No Ifs, Ands, or Buts!

Creationism vs. evolution, anti-abortion vs. pro-abortion, pro-Americanism vs. anti-Americanism, “you’re for us or against us”, “my way or the highway”, Democrat or Republican! On and on it goes for issue after issue – taxes, gun control, and war. Loud voices drown out reasoned voices. Slogans overwhelm discussion.

Now the election is over and we shall see if we get more partisanship or more governance. If McCain has won, we’ll definitely see more partisanship and less governance; each side working to show how they “know best”. If Obama has won, we may see less partisanship and a bit more governance. Even then, with our “imperial presidency”, there will be grandstanding both in Congress and in the Executive Office to show how “hard everyone is working for the people.”

Whoever has won, we will see many shortsighted solutions. On one hand, we’ll see “free market knows best” solutions with a lot of government breaks for favored industries. On the other hand, we’ll see “the people know best” solutions with a lot of government breaks for favored industries.

Charles Wheelan, author of “The Naked Economist”, recently wrote “The Twilight of Free-Market Ideology”. He faulted those who promoted lessening regulations to let business thrive, especially those who say government should get out of businesses’ way. He wrote that, at a minimum, we need government for when we want to sue somebody.

Many of the comments that followed on were extremely vituperative. Almost any hint of government involvement is seen as socialism or communism. Fortunately, we have few public voices that are espousing either of these extreme ideas of government involvement in the economy.

In health insurance, McCain has been promoting individual choice and wants to tax employee-provided insurance. He seems to forget all the fraternal societies founded in the 1800s to provide various forms of assistance to members as well as help to others. At one time insurance companies were owned by policyholders; that’s why they included the name “Mutual”.

Obama has a several-point plan on reducing costs and providing insurance for more people. However, it will take a lot of jawboning on the part of the Federal government to implement many of these ideas.

Wouldn’t a better way be to encourage states to improve health care and insurance costs? This way a lot more ideas can be tried sooner with a lot less hassle than a national plan.

“Obama will take our guns away.” Other than an ill-advised, off-the-cuff remark about some people finding solace in having guns, I don’t think Obama has said much about gun control. Even if some future president and Congress wanted to take guns away, does anyone think they will succeed? President Bush hasn’t been able to take guns away from people in Iraq and Afghanistan in over five years. And there are enough Democratic hunters in Congress to block any extreme action in the U.S.

“Gay marriage will destroy marriage!” “All couples should be treated equally!” Hm! I find both positions tiresome. Gay marriage surely will not destroy my marriage of 48 years. And everybody has the right to marry a person of their choice of the opposite sex. However, there are many living arrangements that require more legal support than is currently available. How about two widows living together to save costs?

As for the Biblical basis of marriage being one man and one woman, what about Solomon and his 700 wives and 300 concubines?

Every abortion is a difficult choice. To criminalize abortion is to assume that the federal government knows best; strange coming from the party that wants “to get government off our backs.” Criminalizing abortion will work no better than prohibition of alcohol or drugs. We would be much better off working to reduce abortions by providing more non-governmental counseling, just like is done with substance abuse.

“The two-party system” is the king of “yes or no, no ifs, ands, or buts”. We are bamboozled into making a choice between two candidates, both of whom may cause more problems than they will solve. “Don’t throw your vote away!” “A vote for Nader was a vote for Bush!” It was? More Democrats stayed home than voted for Nader in 2000 in Florida. Nader got 9,000 votes and over 100,000 Democrats stayed home.

I hope you didn’t stay home on Nov. 4 but cast your vote as you saw fit, whether it was for McCain or Obama, Barr or Nader, or whoever else was on the ballot. If you didn’t like any of them, I hope you voted for “None of the above”. You didn’t see it on the ballot? It’s there in two ways. In Minnesota, you can write someone in (remember to give two names when voting for President) or you can leave the boxes blank for any given office.

This election may see the rise of a viable national third party. There may have been enough Republicans, dissatisfied with the McCain-Palin candidacy or with the ideological hardening of the Republican Party, who will split off into a new party. Don’t forget that the Republican Party was started by dissatisfied Whigs.

As the first and last real Republican said, “As our case is new, so must we think anew, and act anew.”

Monday, November 03, 2008

Will the Republican party become marginal?

"But the G.O.P.’s long transformation into the party of the unreasonable right, a haven for racists and reactionaries, seems likely to accelerate as a result of the impending defeat."

"The Republican Rump", Paul Krugman, New York Times, 2008-11-03

Krugman doesn't predict the demise of the Republican Party, but he thinks moderate Republicans will have to confront that their party has become the party of intolerance.

See also "Are we getting closer to a viable third party?"