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April 2, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Chile's shaky political transition

Notwithstanding continuing aftershocks of over 6.0 magnitude, the inauguration of Chile's new president Sebastian Piñera went ahead as scheduled on March 11. It marked the first time since the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that a conservative has led Chile. In many people's minds, conservative and authoritarian are virtually synonymous, so it will take a lot of confidence-building measures before those on the left get used to Piñera as president. In his inaugural speech, he called on Chileans to uphold national unity, an obligatory gesture. The necessity of rebuilding after the earthquake means that it will be extremely difficult to live up to his campaign pledge to be fiscally prudent. After being sworn in as president, Piñera began a tour to the worst-hit regions of Chile. As a billionaire, it will be a challenge for him to convince the lower- and middle-class earthquake victims that he truly understands their plight. See the Washington Post.

As for the suddenly-weak left in Chile, former President Michelle Bachelet urged the Concertacion group to adopt a self-critical attitude and to rotate its leadership so as to maintain vitality. During an interview in Spain, she didn't rule out running for president again in 2013, as Piñera's term comes to an end. She was attending a conference on women's leadership in Spain, which is currently governed by Socialist Jaime Zapatero. See El Mercurio, in Spanish. (Zapatero is facing a severe budget crisis, part of the generalized economic crisis afflicting European Union right now.)

Earthquake effects

It was on February 27 that the massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Chile, and miraculously, the death toll is far less than most people feared at first. According to Chile's Interior Ministry, 432 are confirmed dead, and 98 remain missing, yielding a total figure of 530. Chile's high level of preparedness and building codes undoubtedly saved many thousands of lives; all the money invested in such preparations has clearly paid off.

The loss of exports of wine, timber, fruit, and other products will put an extra burden on Chile, just when it most needs capital funds for reconstruction. The biggest of the "aftershocks" had a magnitude of 6.9, and really should be classified as an earthquake in its own right. It happened on March 11, just as the inauguration ceremonies were getting underway, with the epicenter at the town of Pichilemu.

And if all that wasn't enough, on March 15 there was blackout, and 90 percent of the country lost power. It was caused by an overheated transformer, apparently not related to the aftershocks.


April 2, 2010 [LINK / comment]

GOVT 101: "wonks" vs. "hacks"

My brother Dan pointed me to a nice column by Charles Wheelan, Ph.D., entitled, "Why Washington Is Failing." It's a good background piece for understanding why it is often so hard to tackle crucial issues such as health care; see below. What interested me most, however, was the perceptive take on how policy-oriented "wonks" and politics-oriented "hacks" see the world so much differently. Wonks are rational, problem-solving people who (usually) look at things from a detached perspective -- e.g., moi. They focus on substance. Hacks, on the other hand, are hypersociable busy-bodies who crave attention, power, and influence more than anything. For them, issues are nothing more than ammunition to be used against one's adversaries, and the idea of public interest means absolutely nothing to them. They focus on process; it's all about "Who's side are you on?" As Dr. Wheelan points out at Yahoo Finance:

Wonks are often oblivious to political realities, or even dismissive of them.
...
That is why the world needs political hacks, or just "hacks." The hacks can read the political tea leaves and get stuff passed in a democratic system.

He goes on to compare the wonks to engineers, and the hacks to the guys in the marketing department. It's a good analogy. Well, as someone who has seen politics "from both sides now" (cue Judy Collins), I couldn't agree more with that article. It's well worth reading. Too many academics look down at the practical nuts and bolts of political action, forgetting that deft handling of interpersonal relations can often mean the difference between success and failure. This may seem like an elementary point to some people, but you would be surprised how many students have a hard time grasping such crucial distinctions.

But back to health care, Wheelan lays bare a scathing critique of the way that Obamacare was crafted and made into law:

Remarkably, the Obama administration and its Democratic allies seem to be failing on both the substance and the politics, the health care "victory" notwithstanding. The bills they have been pushing, from the stimulus to health care, are not what policy wonks would recommend. Nobody who is serious about health care policy would have drafted a bill anything like the one that President Obama just signed.

Things aren't much better on the other side, either: "But where are the Republican wonks? There is no intellectual center of gravity in the party right now." How true... frown


April 3, 2010 [LINK / comment]

President to toss first pitch

Wash. Nationals logo President Barack Obama will keep alive an ancient tradition by throwing out the ceremonial first pitch when the Washington Nationals host the Phillies at Nationals Park on Monday afternoon. (Only two days away!!) The Chief Executive's popularity has fallen in the wake of his bruising political victory in getting the controversial health care bill passed by Congress, so there is a risk of some boos and catcalls. That's what happened at last year's All Star Game in St. Louis, and it would be a shame if such a spectacle were to take place in Our Nation's Capital.

Back in the days before television, U.S. presidents threw out the first pitch at virtually every Opening Day game in Washington. I may be wrong, but I thought that the first game in Washington every year always took place before any other games had started. In any event, President Taft started the tradition in 1910 at National Park in Washington, one year before it was rebuilt and became Griffith Stadium. There were lapses from 1942 to 1945 during World War II, as President Roosevelt was too busy. President Johnson failed to make it in 1966, as the Vietnam War escalated, and in 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King. After the Washington Senators relocated to Texas in 1972, the tradition faded away, as presidents would lead in the ritual at various ballparks around the country. It became more of a regular event in the late 1980s, once again, but President George W. Bush did not carry on the ceremony for the first two years after the 9/11 attacks. For a complete list, see Wikipedia. (Groan.)

The return of baseball to Washington in 2005 created an opportunity to revert to the old custom of always doing the ceremony in D.C. This following list of Washington home openers and the first-pitch-throwers is taken from my game records:

  • Apr. 14, 2005: President Bush; RFK Stadium re-inaugurated. Nats beat D-backs, 5-3.
  • Apr. 11, 2006: Vice President Cheney; Mets won, 7-1.
  • Apr. 2, 2007: Vice President Cheney; Bush arrived late. Marlins won, 9-2.
  • Mar. 30, 2008: President Bush; Nationals Park inaugurated. Nats beat Braves, 3-2.
  • Apr. 13, 2009: Obama declined an invitation to throw out first pitch. Phillies won, 9-8.

To summarize, the Nationals have won both home openers when they were playing in a new (or newly inherited) stadium, which happened to be when the president was in attendance, and have lost the other three home openers. It will be interesting to see whether President Obama turns out to be a good luck charm for the Nats. They sure could use one.

Nationals finalize their roster

After a lot of drama, the Nationals named Garrett Mock as their fifth starting pitcher, which meant that Scott Olsen was sent down to the Syracuse minor league club. Olsen was not pleased, and told reporters to talk to his agent. It really wasn't that significant, however, because everyone expects Stephen Strasburg to join the active roster by June, and Chien-Ming Wang may get activated even sooner than that. So at least two of those five pitching slots will be taken by mid-year, presumably. See MLB.com.

Here is how the pitching rotation looks right now:

  1. Jason Marquis
  2. John Lannan
  3. Craig Stammen
  4. Garrett Mock
  5. Livan Hernandez*

* Hernandez will not be activated until April 11. Lannan is only one who was also a starting pitcher one year ago. Of the other four, Scott Olsen narrowly lost out to Garrett Mock and is going back to the minors; the promising Jordan Zimmermann is recovering from shoulder surgery and may join the roster by the end of the summer; the once-promising Daniel Cabrera has just been released by the White Sox; and Shairon Martis remains part of the Nationals farm system.

Here is the Opening Day lineup for the Nationals:

  1. Mike Morgan -- center field
  2. Willie Harris -- right field
  3. Ryan Zimmerman -- third base
  4. Adam Dunn -- first base
  5. Josh Willingham - left field
  6. Adam Kennedy -- second base
  7. Ivan Rodriguez -- catcher
  8. Ian Desmond - shortstop
  9. John Lannan -- pitcher

In sum, it's looking very good for the Nationals this year, with excellent batting and at least average quality pitching, overall. Unfortunately, they are in a tough division, and even the Washington Post forecast that they will finish the year in last place in the National League East. We'll see about that!

UPDATE: Bosox beat Nats

Today was the unofficial home opener at Nationals Park, but the visiting Boston Red Sox spoiled the occasion by winning 6-1. Kevin Youkilis and J.D. Drew got home runs in the first two innings, and the Nats couldn't cope with Tim Wakefield's knuckle balls. Ryan Zimmerman got the only RBI for the Nats. Attendance was 37,312, but that may be inflated by the "Red Sox Nation" phenomenon.

Yankee Stadium: falling

As expected, demolition workers took down Gate Two at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday. Almost every day another section comes crashing to the ground, pulled by a set of steel cables. At this rate, there will be nothing left but rubble by the middle of next week. frown The link to the video below (taken yesterday) was brought to my attention by Mike Zurawski:


April 4, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Sunny Easter Sunday

It would be hard to ask for a nicer day on which to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It was warm and sunny, and not nearly as windy as it was yesterday. The kids in church this morning could barely contain themselves, eagerly anticipating the Easter egg hunt to follow the service. But what in the world does one have to do with the other??

These days, it seems that most major Christian holidays are observed by calling attention to the pagan festivals from which the key symbols are derived. Some people see this as a bad thing. According to the Emmanuel Episcopal Church bulletin, Easter is derived from the Celtic rite in honor of the goddess Eostre, who restored life every spring. Her icon was the rabbit, the egg was a basic fertility symbol, and after a little syncretic adoption of "outward and visible signs," Celtic Christianity was born. The rest is history.

Speaking of "syncretic blending," the tolerant approach of Catholic missionaries in Latin America (in ironic contrast to the brute force approach of the conquistadors themselves) led to a confused state of religious affairs. Gods worshipped by the Inca Indians became semi-official local saints, and are venerated by millions even to this day. It's a recipe for theological incoherence. Add to that the conventional "hemispherist" incorporation into Easter of the pagan bunny and egg symbols, which is totally inappropriate for those folks who are living south of the equator. For them, it's the beginning of autumn, not spring! No wonder there is so much confusion down there...

Anyway, I went for a drive to take some pictures and watch birds this afternoon:

Bradford Pear blooms Statler Blvd

Bradford Pear blooms along Statler Boulevard; I had to climb a slope to get this shot. (Roll mouse over to see a closeup, and click to go the the Spring 2010 photo gallery.)

Saturday, bloody Saturday

Yesterday the Red Cross held a blood drive at the Staunton Library (in the bloodmobile outside), and in spite of extreme tiredness, I managed to arrive only a little late for my appointment. This time, the whole procedure went very smoothly. That's not always the case, however, and blood donors must endure serious discomfort, or even fainting, from time to time. But it's a small price to pay for saving human lives, and as my friend Mattew Poteat pointed out on Facebook, there can be health benefits from donating blood.

Later it occurred to me that there is an ironic connection between Celtic Christianity (see above) and my blood donation: the tragic conflict in Northern Ireland memorialized in the U2 song, "Sunday, Bloody Sunday."

Red Cross bloodmobile

The Red Cross bloodmobile, on April 3. (Roll mouse over to see me getting "drained," and click to see the Staunton Public Library.)


April 4, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Happy Easter bird watching

The veritable heat wave of the past week has all but erased memories of the horrible Winter of 2009-2010, and the feathered creatures have begun to arrive more or less on schedule from their wintering grounds far to the south. At long last, Spring migration is truly underway.

I've been driving out to the Bell's Lane area every couple days recently, and today marked another record-setting milestone for me. In the woods about 1/2 mile east of I-81 along Route 276, I heard, and finally saw, my first Blue-gray gnatcatcher of the year. The earliest I had ever seen that species before this year was April 9. (They have nested above Lewis Creek there in summers past, along with both kinds of orioles.) The gnatcatcher was accompanied by a few Titmice and Yellow-rumped warblers, and several Northern Rough-winged swallows (first of year!) were circling around the cow pasture nearby.

On Bell's Lane itself, not much was going on, but soon I glimpsed a couple small yellowish birds flitting about the vine-covered road-side fence, and soon confirmed that they were Palm warblers, also my first of the year. Too bad they flew away just as I was about to take their picture.

Three new arrivals: not a bad way to celebrate Easter Sunday! Now I'm going to have to update my Annual arrival page...

Other recent sightings

On Bell's Lane yesterday, I saw my first Barn swallows of the year, beating my previous earliest-sighting record by one day. I saw my first Tree swallows out there about a week ago, more or less when they are expected.

Allen Larner has spread the word about a rookerie (nesting colony) that has been established by a large group of Great blue herons on Frank's Mill Road, less than three miles northwest of Staunton. I spotted a couple dozen of them on my second visit to that location about a week ago. It's truly an amazing sight to behold so many large birds in one place.

On my way to the Green Valley Book Fair on March 24, I saw three Green-winged teals (1M, 2F) at Leonard's Pond. On the campus of James Madison University later that afternoon, I saw a Kinglet (not sure which) that was singing his tiny head off in the bushes.


April 5, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Goodbye, Princess (2000 - 2010)

The elder of our two female canaries, Princess, passed away in her sleep last night. It was not unexpected, as she has been ailing since last Friday, and became progressively worse during the day yesterday. Three days from now would have marked the ninth anniversary of Princess being in our household. In canary terms, that is a long life span, and is two years longer than George was with us. He died in January 2008.

We bought Princess in April 2001, a few weeks after our first canary, Goldie, died. Princess was plagued by bad luck from the very start, unfortunately, as her leg was injured after getting stuck inside a faulty box on the way home from the pet shop in Arlington. The veterinarian's attempt to help her leg heal by putting on a tiny splint only made things worse. Even though she was lame from then on, Princess was a very active, energetic, and "flirtatious" female canary. She had strong reproductive instincts, and started building a nest not long after moving in with us.

Princess made an excellent companion for George, and the couple's "romantic encounters" were quite a delight for us. On the occasion of Valentine's Day in Feb. 2005 I posted a video (pre-YouTube) of the two of them for the first time. Every few months or so, Princess would lay a clutch of three or sometimes even four eggs, as was the case in March. 2005. Because of her bad right leg, however, she was prone to occasional injury, as happened that summer. By Sept. 2005, she had recovered well enough to fly around again, and was soon back to flirting with the Goldfinches outside. She continued doing the darndest things, such as pulling threads from the corner of our sofa to get material for her nest (Oct. 2005) or taking a bath in small plastic cup (Feb. 2006). For some unknown reason, as she got older, she started singing, which is very unusual for a female canary; click here to listen. We never figured out what emotion or desire she was trying to express by such singing. What amazed us most over the years was her prodigious output of eggs: over 150 altogether from May 2001 until the final clutch at the end of Nov. 2006.

Her physical difficulties only grew worse over time, sadly. In June 2007 she suffered another minor injury, and lost one of her toes (on the lame right foot) in the process. The tragedy was compounded after George died in January 2008, as the new male canary, Luciano, was overly aggressive in his "courting" of Princess. Some time in the spring of 2008, her right wing was injured, presumably when Luciano was chasing her, and from that point on her ablility to fly rapidly diminished. By June 2008 her left leg was no longer strong enough to support herself, and she had to flap her wings just to move around short distances. It was a pitiful sight. By July 2008, she relied on "assisted living" just to take care of the basic necessities of feeding and cleaning herself. (That link has an audio clip of Princess "singing," which is unusual for a female bird.) As late as Jan. 2009 she was still in good shape in terms of outward appearance, but the months of sitting in the nest basket with accumulated droppings eventually took their toll, as she lost most of her tail feathers. We put a lot of effort into keeping her as clean as possible, and eventually Jacqueline made "diapers" (small squares of cotton cloth cut from old T-shirts, etc.), which we would wash almost every day. Another accident happened while I was out of town in Aug. 2009, and Princess left foot (the good one) somehow became infected. We ended up taking her to veterinarian, who amputated the infected foot and lower portion of the leg in last September. The stump gradually healed just as the vet said it would, but from that point on, Princess lost almost all mobility, and she became totally dependent on us.

Now, for a normal, non-pet-owning person, the extreme measures we took to keep Princess alive, clean, and reasonably healthy might seem quite irrational. Perhaps. We consider ourselves lucky that Princess got to spend an extra seven months with us after the emergency surgery, and I'm pretty sure it was worth it. We knew she was getting old, so we tried to give her the "royal" treatment whenever we could. We knew it would be her last Christmas with us, and for the first time she got to experience snow, which I brought inside every time we had a significant snowfall. (Many times!) Princess can be seen in the last portion of a YouTube video along with Luciano and Lucy, posted this past January 1. In recent weeks, as spring finally came, we took her outside for short walks several times, and you could tell from her animated reaction to the wild birds flying around that she was really enjoying herself. When we drove up to Northern Virginia two weekends ago, we took her with us, knowing that she needed constant care and attention.

Late last week, Princess became increasingly lethargic, and after a brief improvement late on Friday, she took a turn for the worse again, and we could tell she was in mortal agony. It's hard to say what the problem was, but she seemed to be trying to expel an egg -- even though it had been over three years since the last time she laid any. Strange. At least she managed to survive until after Easter Day had passed. Just like Goldie and George before her, Princess was a real blessing, making our lives happier. She was very special, quite "spunky" and tolerant of being touched by us. We will miss her very much -- especially Jacqueline.

Princess in hand

Princess, getting "tender loving care" from Jacqueline, this past Good Friday.


April 7, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Nats start 2010 with a thud

Opening Day in Washington will not be remembered with fondness by local baseball fans. The Nationals had won both preceding home opener games in which the president threw out the first pitch (2005 and 2008), so they had every reason to think that the presence of President Obama would help them win, or at least play well enough to stay close. For the first three innings, everything went just fine, and Ryan Zimmerman's RBI double in the first inning raised fans' hopes. But alas, the Philadelphia Phillies staged two big rallies (in the fourth and seventh innings), and went on to crush the home team, 11-1. Ryan Howard homered, and Placido Polanco hit a grand slam, and the Nats were unable to respond. In his first game as a National, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez went three for four, a very welcome sign.

The large number of Phillies fans at the Opening Day game makes some people wonder about the marketing strategy of the Lerners. If they go out of their way to sell tickets to fans from the visiting team's city, how is that going to affect sales to Washington-area fans? Hmm-mm?

In tonight's game, after a day or rest, the Nats did a little better, and Josh Willigham got some good hits, but another home run by Ryan Howard proved impossible to overcome. A possible ninth-inning rally by the "D.C. 9" was ended when "Pudge" Rodriguez grounded into a double play. Final score: 8-4. Well, at least they're narrowing the gap.

Obama commits gaffes

Part of the problem may have been that President Obama put on a White Sox cap just as he was about to throw the first pitch. You could tell from his grin he knew he was going to make some people mad, but from the loud boos he was getting as he walked onto the field, he probably figured it didn't matter anyway. See MLB.com and/or watch for yourself at youtube.com. Later on, while being interviewed in the press box by MASN's Ron Dibble, Obama was asked who his favorite White Sox players were when he was growing up. Obama stammered, and awkwardly explained that he grew up in Hawaii, and didn't become a White Sox fan until he moved to Chicago. He also referred to "Cominskey Park," which no real White Sox fan would have said! smile

It was not the first time that President Obama had mispronounced the name of the ballpark that South Side Chicagoans once held dear in their hearts. During an interview with Bob Costas for the All-Star game last year, he called it "Cominskey Field." See breitbart.tv. Is that really such a big deal? Only if you're a baseball fan!

Comiskey Park update

I was almost done with the revisions to the Comiskey ParkComiskey Park diagrams anyway, and President Obama's amusing mispronunciation provides a fitting occasion for getting that one out of the way. I saw some blueprints that were very useful in getting the profile much more accurate, and I tweaked a few other details as well. From looking closely at photos, I noticed an oddity for the first time: The big scoreboard behind the bleachers in center field was actually positioned to the right by a significant amount; it is slightly "lopsided." Also, the lower deck extended further back than I had previously estimated.


April 7, 2010 [LINK / comment]

"Polite company conservatives"

As if "RINO" (Republican In Name Only) wasn't bad enough, now there's a new epithet being used by grassroots right-wingers: "polite company conservatives" (PCC). It seems to refer to mainstream conservative pundits such as David Brooks and David Frum who use a more dignified tone of discourse and apply rational, critical thought to public policy issues, rather than echoing emotional sound bites. For example, see Tunku Varadarajan at thedailybeast.com; hat tip to Bruce Bartlett. (I came across that piece during the flap over David Frum being fired from AEI last month.) Those qualities are exactly the standard to which I aspire, and which I think will be essential for rebuilding support for the Republican Party as a governing (as opposed to campaigning) party. For the presently-dominant populist wing of the GOP, however, that kind of approach seems to be nothing more than sucking up to liberal elites, and even suggests a desire to curry favor with the "enemy."

Before proceeding, I need to emphasize one point very strongly: there is no necessary connection between moderate tone and moderate substance. One can be an extreme right-wing libertarian but express one's views in a very polished manner -- for example, the late William F. Buckley. Sadly, however, many folks on the Right these days equate rude or nasty behavior with being "tough," which they believe is what you need in order to win. How utterly mistaken.

So what do I think about the two leading exemplars of "PCC"? I cited Frum in January, with regard to RNC Chairman Michael Steele's performance (!), but not much otherwise. In contrast, I have often cited Brooks, who early on pointed out some of the glaring defects among right-wing Republicans. In March 2005 Brooks exposed some "masters of sleaze" such as Grover Norquist (Americans for Tax Reform) and Jack Abramoff (mega-swindler). In June 2006 he criticized Tom DeLay for often being "partisan at the expense of conservatism."

Sometimes Brooks got carried away in criticizing the "fear-mongering" of many politicians on the Right. In November 2007, I opined that he was being too complacent about the immigration issue, for example.

A defining moment came in January 2008 when Rush Limbaugh denounced Brooks for a New York Times column in which he lamented the "great tightening" that has afflicted the Republican Party since the Reagan administration. That September Brooks began to worry about the Sarah Palin phenomenon, and the contemporary drift of American conservatism toward populism. I share his concerns. Likewise, in October 2009 Brooks faulted GOP leaders for paying too much attention to talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity. He concludes, "The party is losing because it has adopted a radio entertainer's niche-building strategy, while abandoning the politician's coalition-building strategy." Indeed.

In short, "polite company conservatives" such as Brooks, Frum, and of course George Will, are the very people whom the GOP most desperately needs to provide a guiding light back to political success. Without them, there will be no brain power to stop the onslaught of Obama-style statism.

Karl Rove's memoirs

I simply cannot understand why Fox News has Karl Rove on so many times. Can't they figure out that Rove was the person most responsible for leading the Republican Party into the abyss of doom? In Sunday's Washington Post Outlook section, Craig Shirley and Donald Devine review Rove's past statements and policy prescriptions, concluding that he "is no conservative." Bruce Bartlett obviously concurred, and as I wrote on his Facebook page,

Nixonian or Gladstonian, the point is that BushRove (construed in the singular) transformed a party that had been pragmatically conservative in substance and frankly elitist in style (i.e., well suited for governing) into a party that is now dogmatically (though selectively) right wing in substance and populist in style (i.e., largely incapable of governing).

Will I bother to read Rove's memoirs? Maybe this summer -- but only after I have finished Atlas Shrugged.


April 8, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Health care & the Constitution

Sooner or later, the United States Supreme Court is going to have to take up the issue of whether the recently-enacted health care "reform" legislation violates the U.S. Constitution. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and a dozen or so of his counterparts in other states are filing lawsuits that challenge the authority of Congress to impose an insurance mandate on all individuals. I have no idea how the justices will rule, but it will probably be a 5-4 decision one way or the other, with Anthony Kennedy providing the swing vote.

Thanks mainly to Facebook friends, I've come across a wide variety of legal analyses over the past couple weeks. Here are some of the best:

A roundtable among experts, "Is the Health Care Law Unconstitutional?" at the New York Times; it includes Prof. Randy Barnett, of Georgetown University.

Leon H. Wolf, "A Brief Analysis of the Legal Challenges to Obamacare" at redstate.com

Brian D. Galle, "Conditional Taxation and the Constitutionality of Health Care Reform," at ssrn.com

It will take a long time to fully absorb and digest all the arguments pro and con. I try to keep an open mind about the issue, but one thing gives me reason for deep worry: Those people who downplay the threat to freedom from Obamacare, and insist that existing court precedents must be upheld, as though they were graven in stone, seem to ignore the strong likelihood that a ruling in favor of the new law will itself create a wholly new precedent for an even larger-scale role of government in running our private lives. I would need to be convinced that permitting the individual insurance mandate would not be a big step toward more and more such mandates in the future.

In a debate on the Supreme Court's role on Bruce Bartlett's Facebook page yesterday, I wrote:

Bruce candidly expresses a widely-held view of the Supreme Court's role which, ironically, subverts our constitutional polity. I dare say it is an authoritarian view. As John Agresto makes clear in "The Supreme Court and Constitutional Democracy," which Martha Derthick had us read at U.Va., there is NO "supreme," final arbiter of what is or is not constitutional in the American system of government. What we have is a constant tug of war involving the three branches of government AND the public.

[clickable hyperlink:] books.google.com

But back to the original point, the oft-stated notion that there is "no question" about the constitutionality of HCR strikes me as bizarre. If there is no question, then why are people debating it?? Are you afraid of the consequences if, somehow, the Supreme Court actually did its duty and upheld the Constitution in the way it was meant to be understood?

That wacky Glenn Beck

There is a place in this world for painfully earnest and dull observers of the political scene, such as moi, as well as "color commentators" such as Al Franken (at least until he became a senator) and Glenn Beck, whose forte is irony and sarcasm. Among the latter group, Mr. Beck has just admitted that he is in the entertainment business. Well, Rush Limbaugh has said similar things, so maybe it's no big deal. But what Beck said in an interview for forbes.com (hat tip to Andrew Murphy) is disturbing: "I could give a flying crap about the political process." (???)

In the past I referred to Beck as "sporadically cogent," but more often he is "unhinged." The latest admission makes one wonder whether his opinions should be taken seriously at all.


April 9, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Nats rebound, then falter

After the horrendous first two games of the season, in which the Phillies beat the Nationals by a combined score of 19-5, it was a big relief that they managed to eke out a 6-5 victory in the final game of that series on Thursday. In the seventh inning, Ryan Zimmerman hit a bloop double down the right field line, allowing the go-ahead run to score. Matt Capps came through (just barely) in his first save opportunity.

Tonight's game at Citi Field started off well, as the Nats took a 2-0 lead in the second inning, thanks to a triple by young shortstop Ian Desmond. But then starting pitcher Garrett Mock lost control of the situation, and was replaced. The Mets gradually took the lead in the middle innings, and ended up winning by a big margin, 8-2. Rod Barajas and Jeff Francouer each hit two home runs, in spite of gale-force winds. See MLB.com.

Even though the team's pitching is still shaky, the Nats are batting pretty well, especially Pudge Rodriguez and Cristian Guzman. The latter may play right field this weekend.

Pandering to visiting fans

As I mentioned briefly on Wednesday, the people in the Nationals front office went out of their way to make tickets available for Phillies fans this week, hence the large number of visitors. They marketing staff actually sold group packages even before individual tickets went on sale to the public. For an Opening Day game that is expected to be sold out, that is not smart at all. For more commentary, see Yahoo Sports. (Hat tip to Bruce Orser.) Phillies fans have a somewhat rough reputation, which may explain some of the boos for President Obama (!), and I got a taste of that when I attended the Opening Day game in April 3, 2005 -- the very first game ever played by the Washington Nationals.

Dan Steinberg discussed the situation in the Washington Post, owner Mark Lerner recently explained his rationale for broadening the Nats' fan base beyond the Washington metropolitan area:

We see the Nationals becoming America's Home Team. Our city belongs to all Americans, and we believe our team does, too.

I'm sorry, I don't buy that.

Baseball archives fixup

As part of "spring cleaning," I have thoroughly revamped the Baseball (blog) archives, and am doing likewise for the other blog category archives. At the same time, the Baseball blog page has been slightly reformatted as well. In the near future, I also anticipate making the registration process smoother, to make it easier to post comments on my blog pages.


April 11, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Chimney Hollow field trip 2010

Yesterday morning (Saturday) I led an Augusta Bird Club field trip to Chimney Hollow, joined by four other club members. On the way out there, we stopped at the Great blue heron rookery on Frank's Mill Road, a couple miles west of Staunton. The new leaves on the trees are quickly obscuring the 15-20 nests that have been built high in the tree tops, so we only saw seven or eight Great blue herons. We did, however, see a nestling Great horned owl that Allen Larner pointed out to us. The rookery is at least a quarter mile away from the road, however, so it is hard to see very much.

It was still rather chilly as we began our hike along the stream, so hardly any birds were present. Instead, we contented ourselves with examining tiny wildflowers and tree fungi, which I dutifully photographed. (See below.) After all the snow melt and rain from last month, I was glad that the trail was not as muddy as I had feared. As the rising sun gradually warmed things up, the bird activity picked up, and we soon spotted two of the main target species -- a Blue-headed vireo and a Louisiana waterthrush. That was a big relief. At the urging of Allen Larner, we crossed the stream at a difficult spot where I have ended the field trip in years past, and we began climbing for a short distance as the trail headed uphill away from the stream. Just as we were about to turn back, I heard a familiar high-pitched song up ahead, so we continued forward. Our extra efforts were soon rewarded, as a Black-throated green warbler popped into view. I was amazed, because I was not expecting to see that species so early in the spring. After checking my records back home, I learned that the earliest date I had ever seen that species before was April 21 (last year), so this sighting beat my previous record by eleven days! On our return trek, we heard and/or saw several more birds, but the most startling encounter was the hundreds of tadpoles that were just emerging from their slimy egg masses in a murky pond.

Next, we headed over to nearby Braley's Pond, and for the most part, I was fairly disappointed. No sandpipers, ducks, or other birds were on the lake, and only one swallow was observed. We heard a couple woodpeckers, but didn't see any. We took a side trail through an open field and soon heard what sounded like a weak version of a Louisiana waterthrush, but was definitely something different. We stealthily approached, and some some movement high in the tree, but somehow the darned bird got away. By using Ed Lawler's iPod catalog of bird songs, we tentatively decided it was probably a Yellow-throated Warbler, and after returning home to consult his sources, Allen Larner confirmed that that's what he thinks it was. It would have been a truly amazing sighting, if only we had seen it -- D'oh! Just as we were about to leave Braley's Pond, we noticed two hawks circling around each other, and based on the bare spot near their wing tips, we decided they were Red-shouldered hawks, which are rather uncommon.

Our group stopped for snacks at the convenience store in West Augusta, after which two of us returned home, and the other three continued on to look for Bald eagle nests around Elkhorn Lake, in the mountains about five miles to the north. Even though the total number of birds we saw wasn't that high, we got several high-quality observations, so the field trip was definitely a success. Plus, it was a beautiful day, ideal for taking pictures; see below. Here is a fairly complete list of birds that we identified, by sight or by sound, in rough chronological order:

  1. Great blue herons (8)
  2. Great horned owl (J)
  3. Brown thrasher
  4. Blue-headed vireos (FOS)
  5. Louisiana waterthrushes (FOS)
  6. Black-throated green warbler (FOS)
  7. Titmice
  8. Black-capped chickadees
  9. Hairy woodpecker
  10. Turkey vultures
  11. Red-breasted nuthatch *
  12. Pileated woodpeckers *
  13. Pine warblers *
  14. Bluebirds
  15. Chipping sparrow (FOS)
  16. Goldfinches
  17. Northern rough-winged swallow
  18. Blue-gray gnatcatchers
  19. Yellow-throated Warbler * (FOS - !?)
  20. Eastern phoebe
  21. Starlings
  22. Red-winged blackbirds
  23. Crows
  24. Robins
  25. Grackles
  26. Red-shouldered hawks (2)
  27. Sharp-shinned hawk

FOS = first of season; J = juvenile; * = heard but not seen.

I have made the appropriate updates to the Annual arrival page, but I may need to make further revisions to make sure all my records from the last few months are included.

The Chimney Hollow trail has long been one of my favorite places in this area to go bird watching while hiking, but I usually don't venture very far. For the first 3/4 mile or so, the trail is fairly level and thus suitable for almost anyonone, though there are a few stream crossings. It connects with a network of trails eventually leading to Elliott Knob, the tallest mountain in this part of the state. On one memorable high-elevation hike in that direction in June 2005, I saw several Ruffed grouse, and even a Black bear! Other ventures to that neck of the woods took place in April 2006 ("Big Spring Day"), May 2006 (an ABC field trip when we saw four nestling Phoebes), and July 2006 (when I spotted a Red-spotted newt!), as well as in March 2007 (an ABC field trip when we got closeup views of Yellow-bellied sapsuckers). To my surprise, after looking through my records, I have only made a few brief visits to that location since then. I must be slacking off or something.

Augusta Birders at Chimney Hollow

Left to right: Dan Perkuchin, Ed Lawler, Marietta Beverage, and Allen Larner at Chimney Hollow; click to see full-size version.

Braley's Pond

Braley's Pond, from the southeast corner; click to see full-size version. Also see a new camera panoramic view, similar to one I had taken one four years ago, but much better.

Wildflower montage April 2010

Wildflower montage; click to see full-size version.


April 12, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Nationals take two from Mets

For the first time in over two years, April 5, 2008 to be exact, the Washington Nationals have an even .500 record, having won three and lost three of their first six games this year. They are now tied for third place in the NL East, having had sole possession of last place ever since April 7, 2008. This (relatively) remarkable turn of events came about after clutch performances led to two victories over the New York Mets this weekend. On Saturday, reserve outfielder Willy Taveras (who??) batted in four runs, with a triple in the second inning and a single in the fourth, and that was all the Nationals needed. With the score 4-3, closer Matt Capps allowed the Mets to load the bases in the bottom of the ninth, and when Rod Barajas hit a low line drive to left field, it appeared as though the Mets would at least tie and probably win the game. But Willie Harris made a spectacular diving catch to make the third out and end the game -- just like he did at Shea Stadium in May 2008! Harris is a true clutch performer, on defense as well as at the plate. In the game I saw in Washington last September, it was his ninth-inning home run that launched the improbable comeback victory over the Florida Marlins.

In Sunday's game, once again, all of the Nationals' runs were batted in by one player -- in this case, outfielder Josh Willingham. In the first inning, he hit a grand slam after being called out at the plate. The umpires reviewed the play on instant replay, and his triple was turned into a home run. See MLB.com, which includes a video clip. (Hit "pause" at 12 seconds into the video, and you'll see exactly where the ball bounced -- to the right of that vertical orange line.) If the fence in center field were angled back several feet so that it met the grandstand at the corner, such anomalous situations would not arise. In any case, the extra run didn't end up mattering, as the Nats won by three runs, 5-2. Willingham doubled in another run in the third inning, and Mets' starter Johan Santana was taken out of the game after the fifth inning. In contrast, the Nats' reliable veteran pitcher Livan Hernandez went seven full innings without giving up a run, and in his last at-bat, he got a single! He isn't a fastball pitcher, and doesn't have any tricky pitches, he just outwits the batters, and lasts for inning after inning... In the eighth inning, Brian Bruney gave up two runs, but in the ninth, Matt Capps got three quick outs on seven pitches to earn his third save of the season.

[UPDATE: Willingham's blast marks the 16th grand slam ever hit by a Washington Nationals player, and Willingham himself hit four of them. See Oct. 1, 2009 for a complete list.]

Yankee Stadium crumbles

A few miles to the west in New York, Yankee Stadium is in the final stages of demolition. As you can see from the helicopter photos at wcbs880.com, most of the external structure that once housed the concourses and ramps is now gone. frown On the positive side, workers salvaged three of the balconies from the demolished ballpark, and some people hope that they will be somehow incorporated into "Heritage Park," which will occupy the land where the original Yankee Stadium once stood. See nydailynews.com. Well, I guess that's better than nothing, but not by much. (Links above and below via Mike Zurawski.)

Texas Stadium implodes

In Dallas, meanwhile, Texas Stadium -- the home of the Cowboys from 1971 until 2008 -- was quickly demolished via implosion at 7:05 on Sunday morning. Watch it at youtube.com.


April 13, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Political turmoil in South Asia

Just as the U.S.-led offensive in Afghanistan (Obama's "surge"?) is getting underway, there are multiple disturbing developments that threaten to undermine the American strategic posture in South Asia, and by extension, the Middle East region. In Kyrgyzstan, a simmering protest movement suddenly exploded last week, forcing President Kurmanbek Bakiyev to flee and take refuge. A provisional government emerged to fill the void, led by Roza Otunbayeva, a former foreign minister.

The reasons for this abrupt upheaval became a bit clearer yesterday. The Washington Post reported that the ouster of the president was orchestrated by Moscow in a most unseemly way. Russia has been seeking to evict U.S. armed forces from the former Soviet republic, and made a deal with the Kyrgyz government about a year ago. For a while, it looked as though the U.S. supply line into Afghanistan would be severely pinched, without access to the air base at Bishkek. But then:

Four months later, after Russia had made good on $415 million of its pledge, Bakiyev suddenly agreed to keep the air base open when Washington offered more than three times the original rent. Russian officials, including President Dmitry Medvedev, indicated at the time that they had blessed the decision, but it soon became clear that the Kremlin had been cheated -- and was furious.

Bakiyev came to power in 2005, as the head of a democratic reform movement such as the ones that were then flowering in Ukraine and parts of South Asia. Until last year, he successfully steered a middle course between the U.S.A. and Russia. The article goes on to describe a complex set of deals with various high Kyrgyz officials. It sounds like a fairly typical corrupt Third World regime. The upshot is, we will almost certainly have to pay a much greater price if we are to retain the use of that air base in Kyrgyzstan. Russia clearly aims to steadily ramp up the pressure on us, until the strategic cost-benefit equation puts our continued involvement in Afghanistan in doubt. President Obama's advisors must have told him so, which raises questions about the renewed START treaty that he just signed with Russian President Medvedev.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai seems to have gone nuts. He responded to recent charges by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that his government tolerates corruption by adopting a populist stance, wearing Afghan clothing and headgear more often, and denouncing the "foreign interference" in his country. Well, truth be told, we're the ones who put him into power in the first place. He has even gone so far as to threaten to break his alliance with NATO and join the Taliban insurgents! In the past, Karzai has displayed mediocre political skills, and this bit of posturing may fool some of his own countrymen, but it greatly diminishes his stature in the international context. I'm tempted to say that we should dare him to defect, and see how many others in his government are willing to go back to the bad old days. Of course, we would be in a better position if there weren't so many accidental killings of Afghan people by NATO forces. In any counterinsurgency war, there are bound to be a significant number of collateral deaths.

Tea party op-ed

My friend and colleague Matthew Poteat had a column about the tea party movement in today's News Leader. In response to those who invoke the Boston Tea Party to justify their rebellion against the Obama administration, he portrays the American Revolution as an incremental process that began as a reform movement. He has a point, but I wish he would take the Tea Partiers just a little bit more seriously. I know for a fact that many of them are intelligent, earnest, and have the best of intentions.

Is Somalia "libertarian"?

Not by any stretch of the imagination, but the absence of strong central authority gives left-wing polemicists an opportunity to equate barbaric, lawless anarchy with civilized, law-abiding freedom. If you can stomach the sarcasm, watch the youtube.com video that I encountered "thanks" to someone on Facebook.


April 14, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Target Field grand opening

The Minnesota Twins celebrated the official opening of Target Field with a 5-2 victory over the Red Sox, as the franchise star player, Joe Mauer, went 3 for 5. Fortunately, it was mild and sunny. The Twins and their fans will have to get used to adapting to poor atmospheric conditions from now on. See mlb.com. The Red Sox bounced back and won in today's game, 6-3.

Ballpark rankings

Thanks to Jonah Mackey, via Facebook, I had a little fun with an online poll at ESPN, and was surprised that Target Field came in at the top, with 977 first-place votes. The following rankings were done on the spur of the moment, and differ in some cases from my "official" (and rather out-of-date) stadium rankings.

  • 1. Fenway Park
  • 2. Wrigley Field
  • 3. PNC Park
  • 4. AT&T Park
  • 5. Progressive Field
  • 6. Target Field
  • 7. Oriole Park
  • 8. Busch Stadium
  • 9. Coors Field
  • 10. Yankee Stadium
  • 11. Citi Field
  • 12. Nationals Park
  • 13. Comerica Park
  • 14. Citizens Bank Park
  • 15. Kauffman Stadium
  • 16. Great Amercan Ball Park
  • 17. Petco Park
  • 18. Safeco Field
  • 19. Turner Field
  • 20. Minute Maid Park
  • 21. Rangers Ballpark
  • 22. Miller Park
  • 23. Chase Field
  • 24. U. S. Cellular Field
  • 25. Dodger Stadium
  • 26. Angel Stadium
  • 27. Rogers Centre
  • 28. Oakland-Alameda Coliseum
  • 29. Tropicana Field
  • 30. Sun Life Stadium

April 15, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Grover Norquist & Lenin

While driving to work this morning, I heard Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, being interviewed by the substitute host on Bill Bennett's "Morning in America" radio show. Today being the deadline for filing income tax returns, it was no mere coincidence. Norquist sounded very pleasant and reasonable as he criticized tax-and-spend Democrats and made the pitch for his lifetime mission of cutting taxes, but that [mild tone] of course was just a clever mascarade.

In June 2007, I described Norquist an "anti-tax kingpin," recounting in detail his controversial deeds over the years, and on Facebook a couple months ago I offended someone by referring to him as a "traitor." It was a rare lapse of my usually high standards and avoiding personal attacks, and in retrospect I should have chosen my words a bit more carefully. Norquist may not have given "aid and comfort to the enemy" (the standard definition of treason), but through his advocacy of fiscally unsound policies, he certain did contribute to the dangerously weak financial position in which our country currently finds itself, beholden to foreign creditors.

One peculiarity of Norquist is that he apparently has a soft spot in his heart for Vladimir Lenin, the first ruler of the Soviet Union, formed after the Russian Revolution. It sounds counterintuitive, given the sharp ideological split of one from the other, but the respective leadership styles of the two men are rather close matches, actually. In his book Blinded by the Right, covered at Media Matters, founder David Brock recalls his horror at witnessing destructive economic policies:

There was nothing traditionally conservative in Grover's approach. As I conformed myself to the movement, I was being inculcated into a radical cult that bore none of the positive attributes of classical conservatism-a sense of limits, fair play, Tory civility, and respect for individual freedom. On the contrary, Grover admired the iron dedication of Lenin, whose dictum "Probe with bayonets, looking for weakness" he often quoted, and whose majestic portrait hung in Grover's Washington living room. Grover kept a pet boa constrictor, named after the turn-of-the-century anarchist Lysander Spooner. He fed the snake mice, all of them named David Bonior, the outspoken liberal House whip.

Norquist categorically denied endorsing Lenin's tactics during Diane Rehm's NPR show in Washington; via Brendan Nyhan. You can listen to it yourself. Nevertheless, mainstream conservative Columnist Paul Gigot called Norquist "the V.I. Lenin of the anti-tax movement" in a Wall Street Journal editorial on April 14, 1994; see rightwingwatch.org. That source also states that on Pat Robertson's "700 Club" TV show, Norquist boasted about his relationship with the Bush Administration, "We is them, and they is us. When I walk through the White House, I recognize as many people as when I would walk through the Heritage Foundation."

Given that Bush's economic policy consisted essentially of one central thrust -- cutting taxes, [which has long been Norquist's central focus] -- there seems little doubt that Norquist had a strong relationship with the Bush administration. In 2001, The Nation called Norquist The "'Field Marshal' of the Bush Plan." But now Norquist seems to shirk any responsibility for the big-deficit expansionist policies under Bush, which played a major role in the subsequent economic collapse of September 2008. Well, I don't blame him for wanting to disassociate himself from the sorry Bush legacy. "Miss me yet?" Nope.

Obama's FY 2011 budget

So where are all of our hard-earned tax dollars going? Sadly, income tax revenues are barely sufficient to cover half of the Federal government's budget; most of the rest is borrowed. At the end of January, President Obama submitted to Congress his budget for Fiscal Year 2011, in which $1.56 trillion of the $3.8 trillion total would be borrowed. See Washington Post. Even under the rosiest scenarios of economic recovery, the Federal government will continue to run large budget deficits for years and years to come. Take a look at the nice graphical summary in the Washington Post.

It was mildly encouraging when the House voted to revive pay-as-you-go budget guidelines back in January, but then they also raised the debt ceiling for the second time in the last few months, which was not encouraging at all. But as Bruce Bartlett pointed out in forbes.com back in February, whatever Obama (or any president) proposes in his (or their) budget may not matter that much. He debunked a widespread misconception spread by journalists:

But at the end of the day the final budget has little if anything to do with the president's priorities. Congress mostly decides how the money will be spent and lobbyists probably have more to say about it than OMB does.

But the big fact about the federal budget is that more and more of it is effectively on automatic pilot; neither Congress nor the president have anything so say about it.

Sadly, there is a lot of truth in that blunt assessment. I replied on Facebook:

Very good historical overview, Bruce. To me, it spoke volumes that Obama's SOTU speech made Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security off limits to any budget stringency, laying bare his utter lack of seriousness. Perhaps the fact that the OMB budget no longer has a central role in the process is why presidents feel free to indulge in fantasies.

Are we being transformed yet? frown


April 16, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Z-man's homer leads Nats win

After getting walloped by the Phillies the night before, you might have thought that the Washington Nationals would have given up hope. But you'd be wrong. Instead, they showed a resilient competitive spirit in the final game of the series at Citizens Bank Park yesterday afternoon. Scott Olsen pitched very well, holding the Phillies to only one run until the sixth inning, when they put three runs on the board. But no matter, the Nats came back with one in the seventh. Adam Dunn started off the eighth inning with his first home run of the season -- on the first pitch! Pudge Rodriguez took a walk, and then came pinch hitter Ryan Zimmerman, who has been out for the past few days with a sore hamstring. On his second pitch, he lined a shot that just cleared the right field wall, putting his team on top, 5-4. In the ninth inning, Rodriguez batted in two insurance runs with a single, and they proved to be decisive, as Shane Victorino hit a solo homer in the bottom of the ninth. But closing pitcher Matt Capps hung in there, and got the last three outs. Actually, he pitched for 1 2/3 innings to earn his fourth save, and the first save of his career that spanned two innings. See MLB.com. Well, that was certainly a huge relief for beleaguered Nats fans! Now they return to Washington for a ten-game home stand against the Brewers, Rockies, and Dodgers.

In Wednesday's 14-7 loss to the Phils, the score was actually close for most of the game, but Chase Utley hit two home runs, and Shane Victorino hit another one, as well as a triple. It's hard to compete with all that slugging power. The Phillies sure know how to take advantage of the short power alley distances at their cozy home field! The important lesson from that series is that the Nationals stayed in the game until the late innings. If they could just add a solid relief pitcher or two, it would make a lot of difference. Former Yankee Brian Bruney has not lived up to expectations thus far, but we'll see.

#42: Jackie Robinson

In eleven different ballparks yesterday, commemorations were held to mark the 63rd anniversary of the first major league game Jackie Robinson played. Every player in the majors wore his #42 jersey in his honor, which made it hard to keep track of who was who. At (New) Yankee Stadium, Robinson's widow Rachel and daughter Sharon were part of the ceremonies. See MLB.com. I think it is a wonderful thing that baseball has gone to such lengths to try to atone for the past sins of segregation. It was long overdue. At some point, however, such commemorations are going to seem a little hollow from excessive repetition. Let's not let a misplaced sense of guilt distort our sense of judgment about when enough's enough. OK?

Yankee Stadiums I & II

Speaking of history and Yankee Stadium, it was exactly one year ago today that the new Yankee Stadium opened for business. Even though the inaugural game didn't go very well (the Cleveland Indians won, 10-2), what counted was the year as a whole, as the Yankees went on to win the World Series for the 27th time.

Thanks to my friend Brian Vangor for sending along the following pictures of what remains of the genuine, original Yankee Stadium. I added the two photos below to that page (#32 and #33), along with a couple other new and/or edited photos. I'll have some corrections to the diagrams on that page in the next month or so. There's also a new batch of photos at demolitionofyankeestadium.com.

Yankee Stadium demolition

ABOVE AND BELOW: Yankee Stadium in the final phases of demolition, April 13, 2010. Click on either image to see the full-size version, or else just go to the Yankee Stadium page. Both photos courtesy of Brian Vangor.

Yankee Stadium demolition, east

April 16, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Health care "deep thoughts"

Even though the "Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act" has become the law of the land, the debate over it goes on and on. What follows are a random collection of comments I've written on various Facebook friends' pages recently. For example, many Republicans are demanding that their party's candidates pledge to seek repeal of Obamacare as a condition for getting financial support from the party. While I would like to see that happen, I am very dubious about any legislative remedy, and think the only hope lies in our court system:

As Kevin said, federal entitlements are 99% immune from repeal. The battle in Congress is over.

To the extent we are becoming a majoritarian democracy, we would expect courts to refrain from deciding controversial political issues. But how do Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade fit into that? Conversely, to the extent we still remain a republic in some meaningful sense, courts would exercise their proper role in upholding constitutional limits on power. I remain hopeful that SCOTUS will do its duty and preserve our body politic, but it hasn't fulfilled that role since the 1930s at least.

The only conclusion I can draw is that we are being transformed into a tyranny of the majority, the composition of which is highly fickle, inattentive, and subject to manipulation by various elites. Anyone with knowledge of the classics (or even just Federalist #10) knows what this implies for our future: increasing factional polarization, violence, chaos, and national decline.

Now why won't those who ridicule us dissenters at least acknowledge that our present situation is exactly what our Founding Fathers warned us about?

Andrew Murphy is among the thoughtful, independent voices I have come to respect, but I think he (and another Facebook friend, Bruce Bartlett) are far too sanguine about the hazards that are likely to accompany Obamacare. They seem to think it will all work out, somehow. I wrote on Andrew's page:

The health care law cannot stand as it is, because neither the private insurance companies nor the Democrats really trust each other. The companies will gladly take all the new customers, while squeezing out as much profit as they can before they are completely taken over. If the Dems and moderate Republicans had agreed to a limited public option for poor people without a mandate, it might have worked. I would have opposed such a measure, but at least it would not have been as bad as the coercive provisions in the new law.

Later, I elaborated further to clarify my thinking:

@Murphy - My objection is based primarily on efficacy, not philosophy. The main reason health care costs are spiralling out of control is that Americans over overinsured, leading to excessive testing and treatment, and the implicit subsidies via tax-exempt employer contributions to health insurance premiums creates an unstoppable vicious cycle. Republicans refuse anything smacking of a tax hike, so taxing those benefits are off the discussion table.

Instead of public insurance to let poor participate in a system that has gone haywire, there should be an expanded (free or cheap) public health service. Ideally, we should move away from relying on health insurance for routine doctor visits and prescriptions, which would at least give a chance for market mechanisms to work, but thanks to GW Bush and "compassionate conservatism," we are totally screwed

On another discussion thread on either Andrew's or Bruce's page, I took issue with the idea that the United States could emulate the public health care system in Hong Kong:

Fima understands what those who think Obamacare couldn't be worse than the status quo don't. The new law takes a hideously dysfunctional, wasteful Federally-mandate[d] private insurance system and expands it to become nearly universal. It is self-contradictory and can't possibly last, presumably just a first step toward a single-payer system.

If our political system weren't bogged down in a patchwork of crooked entitlement programs, there might be hope for a modest-scale public health system a la Hong Kong. T.R. Reid did a very good PBS documentary comparing Singapore, Taiwan, Switzerland, and Germany (I think) a few months ago. Under the right political circumstances, i.e., broad devotion to the public interest and respect for constitutional limits, it might be possible here.

As to Doug [Mataconis]'s reference to Hong Kong's political subservience to Beijing, it is a core belief of libertarians that free markets engender political liberalization. That is the Great Gamble of American foreign policy today...

April 15 Tea Party

Former Senator and Governor George Allen headed the list of speakers at the Tax Day event sponsored by the Shenandoah Valley Tea Party Patriots in Staunton yesterday afternoon. He spoke about energy self-sufficiency, but the main theme of the day was resisting the growth of government. According to the News Leader, about 800 people showed up, but I was not one of them. I had a very good reason for missing the event: I was doing my taxes! smile And in answer to the obvious question, yes I am "Taxed Enough Already!"

Blogger Andrew Sullivan had a surprisingly even-handed take on the Tea Partiers:

Most of the rational tea-partiers accept that the GOP has been as bad -- if not worse -- than the Democrats on spending, borrowing and the size and scope of government in recent years. They repressed this anger during the Bush years out of partisan loyalty. Now, they're taking it all out on the newbie. It's both fair and also unfair.

Hew went on to criticize their opposition to Obama is based more on partisanship and cultural hostility than to concrete differences on policy alternatives, of which they offer very little. On Facebook, Bruce Bartlett challenged Tea Partiers to state their positions on Medicare entitlements and other vexing, hot-potato issues. My response to him:

Well, to be fair, what grassroots populist movement ever cared about nuts-and-bolts technocratic policy dilemmas? They are what they are. Sullivan is exactly right the Tea Party movement: "My view is that it's so amorphous that you can slice it any which way." I'll keep trying to scrutinize them without prejudice, though it will take some effort.

Speaking of prejudice, local "progressive" columnist Al Dahler wrote an especially harsh piece about conservatives in the News Leader a few weeks ago: "Far right's actions becoming more absurd." Ironically, I would agree that there is a dangerous, wacky element on the far right, but he lumps them in with conservatives in general. His piece provoked a sharp right-vs.-left diatribe, and here's the comment I posted:

Kudos to JubalHarshaw, RushTil2016, and rkeefe57 for responding to Mr. Dahler's tiresome smear of conservatives with facts and reason. For more relevant information to rebut his distortions, see [clickable link] bigjournalism.com

Hate is NOT the exclusive property of either political party or ideological perspective. To combat hate and reverse the polarization that is spawning a troubling rise of political violence, those of us who love this country must call out and denounce hate wherever we find it, even among those on "our" side. There is no excuse for propagating bigoted, condescending attitudes, as exemplified by Mr. Dahler.

April 18, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Historic weekend in baseball

History was made in three different cities on Saturday and Sunday. In St. Louis last night, the Cardinals and Mets prevented each other from scoring any runs for nine innings -- twice. Broadcast by FOX in living color all across the Fruited Plain, the two teams battled each other for eighteen full innings before either one of them scored even a single run. (And they say soccer games are boring!) Three times in extra innings the Cardinals loaded the bases without scoring once. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa made some questionable substitutions, such as having the pitcher bat right after Pujols. The Cardinals used up their entire pitching staff, and in the 18th inning, infielder Felipe Lopez (a former Washington National who had single-handedly won the game the night before with a grand slam) came in as a relief pitcher. It was desperation, madcap baseball at its finest. Felipe had a tough time getting strikes and outs, grinning sheepishly at his amateurish efforts, but thanks to a couple spectacular defensive plays, the Cards held on.

In the top of the 19th, however, with outfielder Joe Mather on the mound for the Cards, the Mets finally got a run on a sacrifice fly by Jeff Francoeur, and it looked like it was all over for the home team. But in the bottom of the 19th, the Cards answered with a run of their own, as a single by Yadier Molina got Albert Pujols (who had just doubled) across the plate. Wouldn't you know it: for 18 innings neither team scores, and then they both score in the 19th! Actually, were it not for the failed hit-and-run attempt by Ryan Ludwick, who was thrown out at second (just barely) right before Pujols came to bat, the Cards would have tied the game on Pujols' double, in which case Molina's RBI would have won the game. In the 20th inning, Jose Reyes put one more run on the board with a sacrifice fly, and it proved to be decisive. The game ended shortly after 10:00 PM local time, six hours and 53 minutes after it began, with only about one-sixth of the original capacity crowd of 43,709 still present. See MLB.com; there are related stories on separate pages. Now that's entertainment!

It may not have been the longest game in history, but I'm pretty sure it was the longest game I had ever watched on TV -- nearly [seven] hours of high-tension drama. It was a game the Mets really had to win to prove they can still compete in the National League East, whereas the dominant Cardinals took the loss in stride.

Jimenez throws no-hitter

In Atlanta, Ubaldo Jimenez threw the first no-hitter in Colorado Rockies history last night, as the visiting team beat the Braves, 4-0. See MLB.com. He accomplished this feat while walking six batters over the course of nine innings, and only eight pitchers in history have thrown a no-hitter while allowing more walks than that. Three franchises have yet to record a no-hitter (Mets, Padres, and Rays), and the team that preceded the Washington Nationals in franchise history -- the Montreal Expos -- actually got a no-hitter (by Bill Stoneman) in their very first month of existence: April 17, 1969!

Speaking of Atlanta, a fan named Michael informed me that the Turner Field page lacked an Olympic version diagram, and I quickly realized that there was a formatting glitch that pushed the "control box" with the links that trigger the dynamic diagrams way off to the right of the page. So, I fixed that. Thanks, Michael.

Hernandez gets a shutout

In Washington, Livan Hernandez threw a shutout in an 8-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, as promising rookie Justin Maxwell, young slugger Ryan Zimmerman, and aging veteran Ivan Rodriguez each batted in two or more runs. It was Livan's first complete-game shutout since 2004, and it was a fitting achievement for the most reliable pitcher the Nationals had during their first two years. (He left in early August 2006, and returned to D.C. in August of last year.) He threw a total of 113 pitches over the nine innings, and was helped by a great play at third base made by Zimmerman, who was out with a sore hamstring for several days. See the Washington Post. The last time the Nats shut out their opponent was August 14 last year, when they beat the Reds, 2-0, and the last time they had a victory margin of at least eight runs was last August 25, when they beat the Cubs, 15-6. As indicated above, no pitcher for the Nationals has yet thrown a no-hitter, but there have been four complete-game shutouts:

  • John Patterson -- August 4, 2005
  • Pedro Astacio -- August 15, 2006
  • John Lannan -- July 21, 2009
  • Livan Hernandez -- April 17, 2010

Marquis gets blown out

In the final game of the series this afternoon, the momentum reversed direction immediately and drastically. Starting pitcher Jason Marquis had the worst outing of his -- or perhaps any major league pitcher's -- career, getting taken out after four runs had scored and the bases were loaded, with no outs. Thanks to a grand slam and a couple more hits, the Brewers scored a total of ten runs in the first inning, which must be some kind of record. Even though Washington's hitters made a respectable comeback in later innings, they still lost, 11-7. Marquis's record is now 0-3, with an ERA over 20! Some acquisition he has turned out to be. frown Well, maybe he'll return to his old form soon.

Nevertheless, at 6-6 so far, the Nationals are off to their best start since their inaugural year in Washington, 2005. The following chart compares the first ten games of each of the six seasons the Nationals have played, as well as the end-of-season percentages, which do seem to bear some correlation to the first ten games:

Year Wins in
first ten games
Losses in
first ten games
End of season %
2005 6 4 .500
2006 2 8 .438
2007 2 8 .451
2008 3 7 .366
2009 1 9 .364
2010 5 5 ???

Would it be too much to suggest that the Nationals might actually prove to be serious contenders this year? If Marquis pitches the way he is supposed to, and Stephen Strasburg and Chien-ming Wang live up to expectations, then the Nats will become very hard to beat after mid-season.


April 18, 2010 [LINK / comment]

What kind of taxes to hike?

Anyone who pays attention to the latest budget deficit figures knows that, even under the most optimistic scenario in which spending might get trimmed under a Republican Congress next year (!?), there will still be a huge fiscal gap to fill. The real question is not whether to increase taxes, but rather what kind of taxes should be raised? In the Republican Party these days, of course, the mere suggestion of tax hikes is outright heresy. That is why Republicans have not done well as a governing party in recent years -- their leaders simply refuse to face the bleak reality of our woeful fiscal predicament, part of which can be attributed to George W. Bush.

In today's Washington Post, George Will responds to the oft-heard suggestions that the country needs a Value-Added Tax in order to bring the crisis-bound Federal budget deficit back toward a semblance of balance. Unless the Federal income tax is terminated, Will writes, "a VAT would be just a gargantuan instrument for further subjugating Americans to government." He's probably right, but one gets the sense that the implicit grand bargain he is offering (we'll give you VAT in exchange for repealing the 16th Amendment) is not fully serious. (See below.) But he does at least acknowledge one big potential advantage:

VAT would ameliorate a real problem: Americans consume too much and save too little. Furthermore, today's baroque tax code drives economic distortions and enables corruptions.

Indeed. Will is nevertheless skeptical of the VAT, both in terms of necessity and efficacy. (I think he is right that Obama is inclined to create a false sense of "crisis" in order to push such a measure through, as has been done with the President's stimulus package and the health care bill.) He sees as a menace what others see as a virtue: the fact that it does not show up in workers' paycheck stubs gives it a quality of "stealthiness [which] delights the political class." He rightly observes that "Corporations do not pay taxes," which is why I have long argued that the corporate income tax should be abolished. But the basic problem is that the putative advantages of VAT in terms of simplicity and fairness would be frittered away in the political process: "Because a VAT potentially taxes everything, it would be riddled with exemptions."

At his blog Capital Gains and Games, Bruce Bartlett depicts Will's call for repealing the 16th Amendment as a "frivolous argument," minimizing the historical importance of that constitutional revision. Bruce didn't really address the main point of Will's column, however. My response on Facebook:

... But back to Bruce's article, he's too harsh on Will. Anyone who really cares about fiscal integrity knows that VAT or something like it is almost inevitable. So should Republicans just jump on board and swallow it, or try to get something in exchange for it? Maybe the 16th Amendment itself isn't such a big deal, but there ought to be some iron-clad restraint on the ability of the Federal government to hike taxes at Will -- and at the rest of us. ;-)

One alternative to the Value-Added Tax is the FAIR Tax, which Gov. Mike Huckabee advocated while he was campaigning for president two years ago. It's worth considering at least as an abstract possibility, but it would take a miraculous convergence of political minds for it to come about.


April 19, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Climate summit in Bolivia

It's time to get caught up on recent news from Latin America. On the eve of Earth Day 2010, an alternative "People's World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth" is about to get underway in Bolivia. For President Evo Morales, the summit in Copenhagen was not nearly radical enough, and he is trying to forge an alliance of countries that demand rapid action. Among other things, they are demanding that rich countries pay for the damages caused to Bolivia's glaciers, which are apparently melting due to global warming. See BBC. This would seem to validate the widely-held impression that the global environmental movement is to a large extent a smokescreen being used to advance a Marxist agenda of wealth redistribution.

Falklands dispute is renewed

The long-dormant dispute over control of the Falklands (Malvinas) Islands resurfaced in February, when British oil workers started to drill off near those islands. Argentina was angry that its protests were ignored, and the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner engaged in a bit of saber-ratting. See CNN.com. Preliminary results from the test drill indicate that there isn't enough oil down there to be worth drilling, but there will probably be follow-up test drills nearby.

The president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, obliged his counterpart in Buenos Aires by issuing a mildly supportive statement, but otherwise the effort by Argentina to rally diplomatic support for its claims against Britain did not bear much fruit. Indeed, it may have backfired. The BBC reported that Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez called on the Queen of England to promptly return the Malvinas (Falklands) Islands to Argentina. (The chances that the Queen actually responded are close to zero.) Chavez said it is not 1982 any more, referring to the year that Argentine armed forces were defeated by Great Britain, and even declared that the "Argentine fatherland is our fatherland as well." I wonder if Argentina agrees with that?

It seems that the government of Argentina may have some of the same motivations it did in early 1982, when the generals were running things. Back then, the economy was a mess, and the easiest way to reduce public discontent was to stir up nationalistic passions. Of course, it backfired, thus leading to a democratic transition less than a year later. The Economist had a report on Argentina's economic deficiencies, "Socialism for foes, capitalism for friends," back in in February.

One big difference between 1982 and now is that Britain no longer enjoys close support and cooperation from the United States. The London Times Online reported that the U.S. government refused to endorse British sovereignty in the Falklands. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for talks in March, but nothing much has come of it since then. So much for the "special relationship" that used to exist between Washington and London!

Mudslides in Brazil

At least 229 people in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil have been killed by mudslides caused by recent heavy rains. The problem is that millions of people in that city live in slums built along steep hillsides, and the coastal region of Brazil is subject to tropical rainstorms. When you compare that death toll to that of Chile, which suffered a devastating earthquake that killed fewer than 600 people, you can see how important well-build housing is. See CNN.com.

Machu Picchu reopens

In Peru earlier this month, the archeological wonder known as Machu Picchu reopened for the first time since late January, when floods washed away the railroad tracks that provide the only land access to the site. The workers and engineers who undertook the emergency reconstruction deserve a lot of credit for that. About 2,000 tourists who visit Machu Picchu every day, and Peru depends heavily on tourist dollars (and Euros). See BBC.

Colombia-Venezuela tiff

The Presidents of Colombia and Venezuela engaged in a petty squabble over who was manlier than the other. Hugo Chavez issued one of his usual schoolboy taunts, and his counterpart Alvaro Uribe upped the ante, calling Chavez a coward and daring him to meet him face to face. In the end, tempers cooled. See La Republica of Peru (in Spanish).


April 20, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Lagging baseball attendance

I was disappointed to see that attendance at Nationals home games has not exceeded 20,000 since their opening series against the Phillies. In the game against the Rockies on Monday night, only 11,623 paid to get in, the lowest ever recorded for Nationals Park. The problem exists in a number of other cities, however, and it may be a reflection of economic hard times. USA Today focused on the poor attendance this year for the Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays.

Citi (center) Field

Cody Gobbell reminded me that the Mets altered the center field fence in Citi Field this year, reducing the height from 11 feet to 8 feet. Cody thinks they may have built a new wall in front of the old one, but from what I can tell from photographs, that's not the case. Can anyone who has seen a game there tell us for sure whether or not there is a gap between the new wall and the old wall?

Another alteration at Citi Field is that they reoriented the bullpens, which used to be parallel to the right-center fence, and visiting team pitchers could hardly see the field from where they sat. After a series of complaints, the bullpens are now perpendicular to the right-center fence, so both teams have direct visual access to the field.

Target Field pic

James Matthes sent me a fabulous panoramic photograph of Target Field on Opening Day last week, so I have posted it. James is the proud sponsor of that page. And by the way, how 'bout those Twins?!! They are leading the AL Central Division, one of the first two teams to have won ten games so far this year.

Target Field panorama

Target Field Opening Day panorama; click to see a larger-size version.

COMMENT by: Chris J, of Harpers Ferry, WV on Apr 22, 2010 21:21 PM
I'm not too worried about the Nats attendance so far. If they can hang around the .500 mark by the time Strasburg comes up, I'm sure the attendance will rise. Go Nats!

COMMENT by: Andrew Clem, of Staunton, VA on Apr 23, 2010 20:30 PM
You're right: If the Nationals could recreate the incredible excitement of May & June, 2005, when they took first place in the NL East, attendance could go over 30,000 on a regular basis. It's a very real possibility!


April 20, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Bernanke on the budget

In my blog post about tax hikes two days ago, I neglected to mention that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, recently issued a blunt warning about the Federal budget deficit, which is growing out of control. Speaking to the Chamber of Commerce in Dallas, he said that American people will have to choose between higher taxes or cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. As reported in the Washington Post,

Barely two months after Bernanke was confirmed by Congress for a second term following a bruising fight, he used his bully pulpit to tread into an area of economic policy that is usually the province of the president and Congress.

My impression of Bernanke during the financial meltdown of 2008 was that he was a weak-willed technocrat ill-suited to stand up against the sinister forces of corruption, on Wall Street and in Washington. I hope his high-profile stance on the budget is an indication that I was wrong about him.

This comes on the heels of the admission by Bernanke's predecessor at the Fed, Alan Greenspan, that he was only right 70% of the time, a startling confession from someone whose opinions were once regarded with nearly-divine reverence. (See ABC News.) In the late 1990s, Greenspan warned of "irrational exuberance" in the financial markets, but did virtually nothing to prevent the bubble economy from over-inflating and then bursting. Bernanke seems determined not to repeat those mistakes. And as that WaPo article states, Greenspan's predecessor at the Fed, Paul Volcker, is among those advocating a Value-Added Tax, which was the subject of my blog post on Sunday.

Public broadcasting $$$

On State Senator Steve [Martin's] Facebook page, there was a debate over the use of taxpayer funds for public broadcasting. With the state budget being so tight at present, there is a real question as to whether such funding can be maintained. Here is my comment:

I agree with John Keltonic -- PBS and NPR serve a real public purpose that could never be met by a profit-oriented corporation. Are they biased toward the left? Of course NPR is, but PBS seems to try to be balanced, as some episodes of "Frontline" attest, for example. Broadcasters that get taxpayer money deserve heavy outside scrutiny, but I would oppose a total cut-off of funding.

Campaign 2010, U.K.

In Great Britain, parliamentary elections will be held in a little over two weeks, on May 6. Over the past couple years, public discontent with the ruling Labour Party has grown sharply, and there hopes that the Conservatives under would regain a majority for the first time since 1997. It's very hard to predict the outcome, however, because the third party, the Liberal Democrats, have drawn a big increase in their support, so it's anyone's guess how many seats each party will get. To do a little forecasting on your own, check out the Election seat calculator at BBC; hat tip to Shaun Kenney.

Augusta County GOP

Earlier this evening, I was at the Augusta County Republican Committee meeting, at which officers were elected for a two-year term. At the mass meeting on March 30, Bill Shirley was reelected chairman by acclamation. Likewise, at tonight's meeting, all of the officers were unopposed, and hence declared elected by by acclamation. Here are the officers for 2010-2012:

  • Chairman: Bill Shirley
  • Vice-chairman (programs): Craig Shrewsbury
  • Vice-chairman (precinct organization): Dan Kalas
  • Vice-chairwoman (communications): Zanette Hahn
  • Secretary: Ruth Talmadge
  • Treasurer: Emily Griffin

Mr. Shirley talked about the need to embrace conservatives of all stripes so as to build a winning coalition to preserve our freedoms. It was very encouraging that a strong, positive spirit of unity has returned at long last to the Augusta County GOP. To prevent any disturbances such as have occurred in the past, nevertheless, a security guard was present outside the door. For the future, it remains to be seen whether a working relationship can be established with the "SWAC" faction, which now controls the Staunton Republican Committee, and keeps busy in party politics elsewhere. Only a token contingent from that group was present at the meeting tonight.


April 21, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Kauffman Stadium update

Quick change of plans: I updated the Kauffman Stadium Kauffman Stadium page with exquisitely tweaked diagrams that more accurately render the profile and the new outfield waterfall pavilion seats. I do wish they had kept more green grass slopes out there, but it's nice that fans can now walk all around the waterfalls, enjoying the cool spray on a hot summer day.

Detail-oriented fans of this Web site will notice that I am paying more attention to the specific layout of the dirt diamonds for each respective stadium. The standard dirt diamonds in my old diagrams are generally too small by about ten feet, and the notches in front of first and third base were too small as well.

What prompted this abrupt, unscheduled revision was a fact check from a guy named Barry who pointed out that 1980 was not the first-ever Missouri-only World Series, as I had mistakenly written on that page. Actually, the first time that happened was in 1944 when the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Browns played against each other in Sportsman's Park. I knew that, or should have known it, since my father was at that World Series! He even got autographs from several of the players.


April 21, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Chile quake: "moving" experience

Seismic experts have calculated that the city of Concepcion, Chile, was displaced by a distance of three meters (about ten feet) toward the west as a result of the massive February 27 earthquake. This is going to cause big headaches for cartographers, GIS users, landowners, lawyers, etc. See latercera.com; hat tip to Angela Nebel.

On a more serious note, this year must be setting a record for the number of major earthquakes and even volcanoes around the world, and three have been recorded this month alone. Here's a quick, unofficial list:

  • Jan. : Haiti
  • Feb.-Mar.: Chile
  • Apr.: N.W. Mexico
  • Apr.: Indonesia
  • Apr.: China
  • Apr.: Iceland (volcano)

April 22, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Sunday drive to the (national) park

Last Sunday, Jacqueline and I took advantage of a free-entry promotion courtesy of the National Park Service, and drove up to the Shenandoah National Park. It was nice to get up in the mountains and experience the exhilaration of fresh air, greening trees, and great views. It started out mild and sunny, but turned cloudy and chilly by the time we got to the midway point around Loft Mountain. At one point I got a glimpse of a Black bear not far from the road, down a slope, but it was gone by the time we had stopped so that I could take a look. Hardly any birds were to be seen, unfortunately. It was too hazy for good scenic views from the mountain tops, but the sun came back out by the time we headed back south through the Shenandoah Valley:

Massanutten Mountain south

Massanutten "Mountain," from the south side, a few miles east of Harrisonburg. (That's actually the terminal point of a very long ridge, but they call it a mountain.) Roll over to see a deer grazing by Skyline Drive; both of those photos are on the Spring 2010 photo gallery page.


April 22, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Unhealthy agricultural subsidies

On Wednesday night, PBS broadcast the P.O.V. (Point of View) documentary "Food, Inc.," and I caught most of the second half. Like Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle from a century ago, it is an expose of the unsavory and downright unhealthy ways that big meatpacking and poultry processing companies do business. See pbs.org. You could tell there was a not-too-subtle leftist bias from the rhetoric about "greedy corporations" (as if none of us are greedy), but for the most part their critique of public policies that encourage gigantic-scale agribusiness operations was on target. It is not a "free market" system, it is a heavily subsidized system that puts the public health at risk. If it weren't for the current polarized political climate, it wouldn't be too hard to mobilize a coalition of health-conscious people from the right and the left to push for reforming this country's agricultural policies.

I missed the part of the documentary with Michael Pollan, the author of the controversial book The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I did see and hear Joel Salatin, who operates the organic Polyface Farms just a few miles west of Staunton. He really knows how to butcher chickens, and he does it in the open air, where it's cleaner. He is acutely conscious of the uphill economic battle he is waging against an agricultural establishment that is propped up by artificial subsidies. You have to admire his visionary approach and hard work to change the way American farms are run. So, of course, I looked at the P.O.V. Facebook page, and entered the following comment:

Great documentary! If more people knew about the hormones and filth involved in producing meat and poultry in mega-facilities, they would be willing to pay the extra 25%-50% for locally-produced organic products. I was glad to see Joel Salatin on the show, as he farms in my area. What a visionary!

Crops subsidies rarely have the desired effect, and a lot of that money goes to corporate farms that don't need it. Sugar subsidies discriminate against exporting countries in the Caribbean. European countries waste huge amounts of money for farm subsidies, and there's no reason for us to emulate them.

AMTRAK subsidies

Coincidentally, the issue of public subsidies came up on Facebook, as Shaun Kenney lamented how much it costs to take AMTRAK to Washington compared to a passenger automobile. This sparked a debate about whether it's appropriate for the Federal government to spend so much money to keep the trains running. My comments:

The eternal bugaboo of cost-benefit analyses is deciding which expenditures to include or exclude. If the cost of maintaining the U.S. military presence in the Middle East were included, the results would be drastically different. Does anyone think we could drive cars so cheaply if our troops weren't guarding the source of our energy? As good libertarians who favor a restrained foreign policy, Cato folks would probably be sympathetic to this implied value judgment.
BTW, I'm deeply conflicted on this issue. In general, I detest public subsidies, but I love trains!

But that's not the last word on subsidies!

Radio & TV subsidies

Just two days ago, I gave a cautious thumbs-up to subsidizing public broadcasting, which I believe does fulfill a vital public interest, much like public schools. (The way public schools are supposed to operate, that is.) Yesterday, fortunately, the Virginia General Assembly voted to reject the cuts in state funding for public television and radio which Gov. McDonnell had proposed in a budget amendment. See the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Shad Planking 2010

Once again, other obligations prevented me from participating, but Republican blogger Steve Kijak was at this year's Shad Planking political schmooze-fest in Wakefield, Virginia, and has a boatload of photos. Maybe next year...


April 23, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Peru photographs & memories

One of the chores I've been meaning to get to is revamping the older Photo gallery pages. I took a big step toward accomplishing that today, redoing all of the Peruvian pages. I even edited many of the older "analog" photos that were scanned and never looked quite right. Hopefully they are an improvement, but there's no substitute for taking pictures with an up-to-date digital camera. With any luck, I'll be able to return to Peru in the next year or so.

As part of this revamping, I am using dynamic image-switching Javascript effects to aid in the navigation among photo gallery pages. The more photos I take, the harder it is to keep them properly organized. The new scheme will probably be revised eventually. In any case, here are all of the Peru photo gallery pages:

Peru montage

April 26, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Nationals are holding their own

The Washington Nationals just concluded a ten-game home stand in which they came out ahead, winning six games and losing four. On Sunday they beat the L.A. Dodgers 1-0, and the only run was scored by fleet-footed Nyjer Morgan in the first inning. Adam Dunn hit a hard ground ball that was snagged by the second baseman, who prevented a single but could not make the throw to the plate.

This marks the eighth consecutive game in which the outcome was different than the day before: L,W,L,W,L,W,L,W -- like a clock ticking back and forth. Well, that's one sign of consistency. Ever-curious about such distinctive patterns such as this, I checked my records for the Nats and found that the longest previous "tick-tock" streak was six, which they did twice: in August 21-27, 2005 and Sept. 18-24, 2006. For this home stand, attendance averaged only 16,836, but will hopefully increase as we enter the summer months.

And guess who is currently leading the National League in batting average? Why, Nats catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who is batting .411 as of yesterday! The backup catcher Wil Nieves is doing pretty well also, and has had a few clutch hits.

The Nats have vastly improved their "small ball" skills this year, and that's what it often takes to win a game. In today's Washington Post, columnist Thomas Boswell writes that the Nats have a attitude this year, much tougher and resilient. They aren't content with just saying "wait till next game," they're doing what is necessary to win today.

Marquis is injured

Now we know what was ailing Jason Marquis, who had raised high hopes for the Nationals when he was acquired in December. X-rays revealed that he has bone chips in his right elbow, so he has been put on the 15-day disabled list. He is voicing optimism about a prompt return, but to me that sounds like something that will take a month or two before it heals. See MLB.com. If he does get healthy again before mid-season, then the Nationals will be a very competitive ballclub. Marquis was replaced by Luis Atilano, who won his first start after being called up from the Syracuse minor league club.

Meanwhile, Ryan Zimmerman was taken out of the lineup after straining a hamstring again, but it doesn't sound too serious. With the team doing as well as it is, he can afford to take a few extra days of rest.

Ballpark news

In The Bronx, the demolition of Yankee Stadium is almost complete. All that's left of the concourse structure is between first base and the right field, and the ramp "pod" at the southwest corner is coming down as well. See baseball-fever.com; hat tip to Mike Zurawski. Here's my take:

Thanks to Gary Dunaier for his thoughtful explanation of his feelings about this melancholy historical event, adding to his already-superb photographic expressions. I thought that view of NYS with the fallen wall of OYS (one of the original 1923 parts of the structure) was a classic for the ages, and soon all traces of the latter will be gone. I made my final pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium in October 2008, fortunate to take a tour inside, and I'm very grateful to Gary and all those others who have shared their photographs and anecdotes of the final months and days for the benefit of fans who live in other parts of the country.

As for NYS, it has some good points, but as Gary says, the sky-high prices for box seats is an outrage -- especially in the context of the current economic situation. I wish they had found some way to "re-renovate" RYS, and I'm mad that they couldn't at least preserve part of the original structure, but I'll get over it eventually.

In Chicago, they are moving ahead with plans for a college football game at Wrigley Field between Northwestern and Illinois on November 20. The gridiron will roughly parallel the first base side rather than the third base side, as it did when the Chicago Bears played there. See the Northwestern Athletics Dept.; hat tip to Phil McGuire.

Photographic changes

Fans with a keen eye (most of you, no doubt) may notice that I have changed the photo montage on the Baseball blog page, for the first time in years. "Out with the old and in with the new!" smile Actually, the old montage will reappear -- as if by magic! -- when you roll your mouse over the image. This is part of an ongoing overhaul (or overgoing onhaul?) of this Web site, aimed at simplifying the navigation process.

Baseball Photo Montage Apr 2010

Clockwise, from top left: Nationals Park (D.C.), Yankee Stadium II (Bronx), Busch Stadium III (St. Louis), Coors Field (Denver), Citi Field (Queens), and PNC Park (Pittsburgh). All of them have been built in the last 16 years, and the photos were taken within the last two years.

Roll your mouse over the image to see the OLD montage: RFK Stadium, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and Memorial Stadium. Except for RFK Stadium (1961), all of them were built before I was born.

COMMENT by: Chris J, of Harpers Ferry, WV on Apr 27, 2010 15:41 PM
The Nats are indeed holding their own. Yesterday's loss was a tough one though, Bruney walking in the winning run. But they really have me excited this season.


April 28, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Street battles on Mexican border

Six police officers and a teenage boy were gunned down in Ciudad Juarez in broad daylight last Friday, the latest sign that the Mexican government is losing control along the border with the United States. The assailants used AK-47s and other weapons. The battles escalated into a virtual civil war March 2009, after which the situation temporarily improved. In response, the narcotics mafia began assassinating policemen and other officials elsewhere in Mexico, forcing the government to patrol a broader area. As CNN.com, reports, "Ciudad Juarez is the most violent city in the nation, with more than 2,600 drug-related deaths in 2009."

At a time when gang violence is plaguing Arizona and other states along the Mexican border, the implications of the deteriorating situation in Mexico are becoming all too clear. If the Mexican government cannot maintain security on its side of the border, no one should be surprised that a massive flow of illegal immigrants continues to pour across the border. President Obama should pursue active cooperation with President Calderon, and he should not berate Arizona which recently passed a law that empowers law enforcement officials to crack down on illegal immigrants. The citizens of Arizona overwhelming support the measure, and I'm afraid that until the Federal government gets serious about defending our border (not very likely for the foreseeable future), there is no other choice.

That is why criticism from the Mexican government over the new Arizona law should not be taken at face value. President Calderon is under heavy domestic pressure to respond with forceful rhetoric, but it may not mean much. What's more, Mexico itself has a poor record of protecting immigrants that pass through it on the way to the U.S.A. An Amnesty International report listed a series of abuses that have been ignored thus far. See BBC.

Rebel threat in Paraguay

In all of Latin America for most of history, no country has been more tranquil than Paraguay. That may be changing, however. President Fernando Lugo has declared an emergency in the northern region, meaning that constitutional rights are suspended for 30 days. The "Paraguayan People's Army" is not widely known, and it remains to be seen whether the movement originated domestically or may have been "planted" there by outside forces. See CNN.com.

President Lugo is a left-leaning former Catholic priest who was inaugurated in August 2008. He is the first non-establishment figure to lead the country in over half a century.

Corruption in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, former President Miguel Angel Rodriguez and eight others are standing trial for bribery. The French company Alcatel allegedly paid more than $600,000 to secure mobile phone contract worth $149 million. Rodriguez was serving as secretary general of the Organization of American States, but resigned from his position when the scandal broke in 2004. See CNN.com

Photos from Costa Rica

I have revamped the Photo gallery pages from Costa Rica, making them more user-friendly, efficient, and easier to navigate. I also drastically edited the wild bird photos I took there, and plan to edit some of the scenic photos later.

Costa Rica montage

April 30, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Month of surprises in baseball

The Tampa Bay Rays are the best team in baseball right now (17 - 6), and the Boston Red Sox are below .500, confounding most people's expectations. In the NL West, the San Diego Padres have first place with a 14 - 8 record, while the L.A. Dodgers are at the very bottom. Some usually-mediocre teams are playing very well, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates (10 - 12), and most of the divisional races are pretty competitive, with only one team below .300: the Baltimore Orioles. What is going on?

But perhaps the biggest surprise is in Our Nation's Capital. Who would have thought that the Washington Nationals would be only one game behind the division leader in the National League East? Earlier this week, they bounced back from a frustrating extra-inning loss to the Cubs in Wrigley Field, winning the next two games. (Their "tick-tock" streak of consecutive win-loss switches thus ended at ten games, for those of you who are keeping track of such things.) Livan Hernandez continues to pitch splendidly, having one of the best seasons of his career, with a 0.87 ERA! After beating the Florida Marlins tonight (7-1), the Nationals pulled ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies -- the back-to-back NL pennant winners -- to claim second place. If it weren't for the Mets' amazin' eight-game winning streak, the Nats might be in first place right now!

In tonight's game, Ryan Zimmerman made a splashy return after resting a pulled hamstring for several days, hitting two home runs and a double. Marlins finally got on the scoreboard in the seventh inning, and loaded the bases, forcing shaky relief pitcher Brian Bruney out of the game. Ronny Paulino smashed a drive to right-center field, but Nyjer Morgan made a diving catch to end the the inning. Morgan deserves a lot of credit for preventing a big Marlins rally, and for preserving Tyler Clippard's superb record as a relief pitcher. See MLB.com.

The combination of skilled veterans such as Pudge Rodriguez and enthusiastic youngsters such as Willie Harris seems to be working out very well for the Nationals. As a result, they ended up with their best win-loss record ever for the month of April: 13 - 10. The following table shows that, except for their inaugural year in D.C., the Nats have gotten off to a lousy start every year:

Year Wins in
April*
Losses in
April*
Percent
2005 13 11 .542
2006 8 17 .320
2007 9 17 .346
2008* 11 17 .393
2009 5 16 .238
2010 13 10 .565

* Including March in 2008.

So, how does this season compare to the glory days of 2005? The Nats won the hearts of Washington baseball fans by climbing to first place in early June, and by July 4 they were 50-31, which is a .617 average. Even though they tumbled in July, they stayed at or above .500 for the rest of the season. Washington fans have every reason to expect at least that good an outcome this year.


April 30, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Arizona sparks mass outrage

All across America, and much of the civilized world, people are furious --furious! -- that the state of Arizona had the temerity to pass a law aimed at controlling the problem of illegal immigration. In the minds of many human rights activists, this was motivated by nothing more than irrational fear and racism. San Francisco and other cities are moving to declare an official boycott of Arizona, the government of Mexico has warned its citizens not to travel there, and after President Obama scolded Arizona, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Federal government would file a lawsuit against the state. Well!

And by the way, Amnesty International says a "major human rights crisis" is taking place in Mexico, where migrants from countries further south are subjected to widespread abuses. See BBC. Actually, those of us who study Latin America have known about that problem for years; see March 2006, for example.

On Facebook, Bruce Bartlett applauded former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for criticizing the Arizona law, and has cast aspersions on those in Arizona and elsewhere who resist illegal immigration. Today he criticized Tea Partiers for claiming to cherish liberty, but staying silent while a (supposed) police state is being set up in Arizona. ("Show me your papers.") [This came from a blog piece by Peter Beinart at thedailybeast.com: "America will become Amerika, a totalitarian dystopia where citizens can't even walk the streets without their government-issued identity papers..."] This prompted a heated debate, to which I added:

Liberty can only survive when the rule of law is widely respected and enforced. Even the lowliest, most simple-minded Tea Partier knows that. But they are beside the point in the Arizona mess.

Illegal immigration has reached an unprecedented scale that may be impossible to reverse before long, as companies and consumers get used to cheap labor and cheap services. Our economy has come to depend on "indentured servants," an abominable practice that makes a mockery of freedom. We are fast becoming a nation of cheaters, whose comfortable lifestyles are sustained by a hidden, resentful underclass. If you ask me, every upper-class American who poo-poos the illegal immigration issue is a hypocrite!

Those who disparage state efforts to rectify for the failure of the Federal government to enforce borders or uphold labor laws should be ashamed of themselves.

Personally, I am not at all happy about what Arizona has done, but I wouldn't blame them for it one minute. If someone has a better answer to dealing with the crisis, now's the time to speak up. Of course, many politicians will bemoan the failure to pass a comprehensive "reform" of immigration, by which they typically mean a general amnesty. Evidently they have forgotten that the amnesty of the 1987 Simpson-Mazzoli Act did not yield the desire effects.

Gov. Crist quits GOP

And speaking of Florida, Gov. Crist announced he is withdrawing from the Grand Old Party, and will run as an independent in this fall's election for the U.S. Senate. He was way behind in the polls to Marco Rubio, the latest sensation among conservatives in the Sunshine State. It's probably for the best, as Crist made a fatal mistake by embracing President Obama's stimulus program last year. I wish moderates such as him and conservatives could make common cause, but prospects for bridging the political gap seem slim right now. As for Rubio, my initial impression was not strong, since he is so young and untested. When I heard him in an interview yesterday, however, he came across as very serious and thoughtful. Here's something else: When queried about the new immigration enforcement law in Arizona, Rubio expressed understanding for the plight of law-abiding Arizona residents. He seems to share my sentiments that it is a regretful but necessary measure to restore law and order.

Dumping on "tea baggers"

Comedian-pundit Bill Maher does not exactly appeal to a wide audience. His sneering tone and sarcastic diatribes against conservatives are aimed exclusively at those on the Left, and I rarely pay attention to him. Thanks to to Andrew Murphy, however, I learned that Maher came close to making a good point when he criticized "Tea Baggers" for not caring about wasteful defense spending. See the video on huffingtonpost.com. Well, he does have a point, in spite of himself.

Green Tea Party?

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (hat tip to Connie) has a suggestion for Tea Party activists who are concerned about America's national security and economic future:

We, the Green Tea Party, believe that the most effective way to advance America's national security and economic vitality would be to impose a $10 "Patriot Fee" on every barrel of imported oil, with all proceeds going to pay down our national debt.

On policy grounds, I'm not sure that a selective tax on imports is the right way to go, but Friedman nevertheless makes an excellent point that not many Tea Parties would want to acknowledge. Some kind of tax on energy, for economic and environmental reasons, will become more and more compelling in the years to come. Those who resist the suggestion on ideological grounds are only fooling themselves.

Right-wing "nuts"

Even though I'm no longer as enthusiastic as I once was, I still tune in to Rush Limbaugh two or three times a week. Sean Hannity grates on me more and more, however, and Mark Levin is extremely annoying, with a voice like Gilbert Gottfried. Levin has written some interesting books, however, and this prompted a Facebook discussion, in which I wrote:

All radio entertainers (which is what talk show hosts are) HAVE to act nutty or outraged in order to boost ratings. It doesn't necessarily mean they ARE nuts, but it sure seems that way quite often. It's a business, pure and simple. The demand for the hyperpartisan rantings of Rush or Glenn or Sean or Mark far outstrips the demand for sober, thoughtful reflections on policy that I would prefer. Same goes for blogs, where popularity is often inversely proportional to merit. Ironically, conservatives are loathe to acknowledge that reality.

News Virginian heart Tate

The Waynesboro News Virginian has endorsed Carl Tate, my friend and local Republican activist, in his bid to win a seat on the Staunton City Council. In their editorial:

Tate is our first pick for the Staunton Council. While taxes and public spending have helped the Queen City fashion a thriving downtown, Tate's focus on reducing the tax burden and tightening spending is particularly needed now.

Go, Carl, go!


April 30, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Remembering Fort Hood

It's been nearly six months since the massacre at Fort Hood, but have our leaders really learned the lessons yet? Are we still so afraid of being called racists that we avoid reporting potential threats before someone gets hurt? Is political correctness going to lead us to self-inflicted doom? If you read the Fort Hood review, you'll wonder if we are any safer now than we were before November 2009. It states:

DoD policy regarding religious accommodation lacks the clarity necessary to help commanders distinguish appropriate religious practices from those that might indicate a potential for violence or self-radicalization.

That document is via homelandsecurityus.com; hat tip to Stacey Morris. If we really are serious about resisting and defeating the threat we face, we'd better get used to calling things by their proper name, and not worrying about whether someone might be offended.

A fallen mil-blogger

And on the theme of remembering, let's take a minute (or more) to reflect on the life of U.S. Army Major Andrew Olmsted, who was killed in Iraq in 2007. He was a military blogger, and on his final blog post, he said he had no regrets, whatever the consequences that may lie ahead. It's rare these days to come across someone with that kind of determined, upbeat attitude. For more, see boston.com.

WW II on Facebook

On a lighter note, I came across an amusing way of depicting the diplomatic maneuverings prior to World War II, as well as the actual war, as it would be expressed on Facebook. See ebaumnation.com. For those few people such as me who are both military history buffs and Facebook users, it is hilarious!

DD-933: USS Barry

When I was in Washington last month, I stopped to take a couple photos of the Navy Yards, next door to Nationals Park. I have long known that a Navy warship is docked there more or less permanently, but not until I saw the number near the stern end was I able to determine its identity. It's DD-933, the USS Barry, a destroyer that was commissioned in 1956, was refitted several times, and served in Cuban Missile Crisis and several other conflicts. See navy.mil.

Navy Yards, USS Barry DD-933

The Washington Navy Yards, USS Barry DD-933. Click to see the full-size photo.


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