Thursday, December 29, 2005

Hanukkah: The Miracle of Spirit

Even more powerful than the "political" Hanukkah story of the Maccabees defending their faith and freedom, there is the spiritual Hanukkah story of the miracle of the oil. When the Jews rededicated the Temple, they lit the menorah which is supposed to burn continuously, even though they only had enough consecrated oil to last one day and it would take a week to prepare more. Miraculously, the small supply of oil burned a full eight days. Thus today, when we light the Hanukkah candles, we say a blessing to G-d "who performed miracles for our ancestors in days of old in this season". That a small amount of oil lasted much longer than it should have was a miracle. It was also a symbol for the spirit of the Maccabees, who lasted through battle after battle, against vastly greater numbers, when no one rationally would have expected it: the miracle of the victory of a faithful few against a mighty tyrant.

As I light the candles, I think not only of those particular miracles of enduring spirit and light, but I think of all of the miraculous spirits who have lit and who continue to light our world. How many stories have we heard of people who faced personal hardships, natural disasters, debilitating illness, or tyrannical oppression, and who amazingly endured, tapping some hidden strength, an inner well of miraculous oil, to carry them on long past when reason would have expected them to be exhausted and quit. The man who loses his home, his family, and everything he's built in a hurricane, but returns after the storm waters subside to the arduous work of clearing out the muck and starting to rebuild. The woman who was gang-raped by men of her own village for a crime committed by her brother, and who faced down the ire of her family, her village, and her people to challenge a vicious and unjust tradition. People like these, and many others whom we may never hear about, these are all "Hanukkah lights".

"Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu melech ha'olam she'asah nisim l'avotaynu b'yamim haheim b'zman hazeh v'asah nisim l'anu b'yamim hazeh ub'col hazmanim."

Let us bless G-d not just for the miracles done for our ancestors in days of old in this season, but for the miracles done for us in these days and in all seasons.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

2005 Word of the Year

Pronunciation: in-'te-gr&-tE
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English integrite, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French integrité, from Latin integritat-, integritas, from integr-, integer entire
1 : firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : INCORRUPTIBILITY
2 : an unimpaired condition : SOUNDNESS
3 : the quality or state of being complete or undivided : COMPLETENESS
synonym: see HONESTY

Surely I'm not the only one who finds it ironic that the Merriam-Webster "Word of the Year" for 2005 is "integrity". The title is earned by the word with the most online lookups. It is easy to understand why the other 9 words in the Top Ten were looked up in 2005 -- refugee, contempt, filibuster, insipid, tsunami, pandemic, conclave, levee, inept -- each of those clearly call to mind events of this year. But integrity? Who was looking that up? It certainly wasn't Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Judy Miller, Bill Frist, or way too many others who, like the levees, turned out to lack the integrity we expected. Nor was it Ian Fishback, who knows the word well and would have no need to look it up. Perhaps there was a mass of good people who, like Diogenes, were looking anywhere and everywhere to find a man of integrity. Given the sad shortage of integrity in public example, they resorted to the dictionary. On the bright side, we enter 2006 with that many more people knowing what "integrity" means. Maybe it will inspire some new years resolutions.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Happy Hanukkah, America

It occurred to me the other day to wonder why more Americans don't celebrate Hanukkah. (Well, aside from the understandable goyische difficulty of not knowing how to spell or pronounce it.) Too many Americans know too little about this holiday, thinking it's just an eight-night-long Christmas with funky candelabras instead of trees. The tradition of the holiday should have a particularly American appeal. Hanukkah is actually a celebration of religious freedom, and a small band of patriot rebels defeating a tyrannical imperial power against long odds. Sound familiar? It's really a lot closer to the 4th of July than to Christmas.

Forget whatever you thought about eight nights of gift-giving, and flash back 2170 years ago. The Jews in Israel were living under the yoke of an increasingly tyrannical emperor in Syria named Antiochus. Antiochus was a political descendant of Alexander the Great, who had conquered most of the known world a century earlier. But after Alexander's death, his vast empire became subdivided into several regional empires, and the rulers after him slowly forgot that allowing conquered peoples to keep their own customs and traditions was a key ingredient for keeping the peace. Antiochus started issuing decrees requiring all of his subjects to worship his pagan gods and to abandon their own religions. The Jews were specifically required to go against their religion by eating pork, not circumsizing their children, and paying homage to Hellenistic gods like Zeus. Copies of the Torah were burned, and people following the Jewish Laws were killed. Antiochus ordered the sacred Temple in Jerusalem to be profaned by slaughtering pigs there and setting up an altar to Zeus.

In the midst of this situation, there arose a George Washington figure by the name of Judas Maccabeus, who along with his father Mattathias, and his brothers (known as the Maccabees), organized a guerilla resistance to defend the Jewish people and their faith. The Maccabees were greatly outnumbered and out-weaponed by the army of Antiochus (just like the American Revolutionary patriots against the British), but fought with the fierce conviction of knowing they had God and justice on their side:

But when they saw the army coming to meet them, they said to Judas: How shall we, being few, be able to fight against so great a multitude and so strong, and we are ready to faint with fasting today?
And Judas said: It is an easy matter for many to be shut up in the hands of a few: and there is no difference in the sight of the God of heaven to deliver with a great multitude, or with a small company:
For the success of war is not in the multitude of the army, but strength cometh from heaven. They come against us with an insolent multitude, and with pride, to destroy us, and our wives, and our children, and to take our spoils.
But we will fight for our lives and our laws:
And the Lord himself will overthrow them before our face: but as for you, fear them not.
1 Maccabees 3:17-22
The Maccabees routed several armies that Antiochus sent, and eventually won the war and established Jewish religious freedom for the next hundred years. The defining moment of the Maccabee triumph was when they were able to purify and rededicate the Temple, on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, exactly two years to the day after the altar had been defiled. It was proclaimed that an eight-day celebration should be held on that date every year, and that is the origin of Hanukkah (a Hebrew word meaning "dedication").

It seems to me that while this holiday is traditionally a Jewish one, it celebrates themes of defending religious freedom that ought to resonate with all Americans. For Americans who are Christian, they may note that Jesus celebrated Hanukkah (see John 10:22-23), and those who are Catholic or Orthodox will find the books of Maccabees included in their Bibles. But shouldn't any American of any faith understand the appeal of remembering rebels defending their right to worship according to their conscience?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Christmas Gauntlet

Christmas is a wonderful season, but sometimes it can feel like a bit of a gauntlet. It seems a marathon effort to get the "holiday letter" written, get the cards sent, get the gift shopping done, get everything wrapped, cram all the parties and visits into a crazy calendar, and then we all collapse in a sigh of relief and happy exhaustion on the finish line Christmas Day. While there are occasional moments of despair ("how will we get it all done?"), the goodness of the season always wins me over and puts me in a great spirit. There have been many years where I've been out at the mall on December 24, and even though it's crazy crowded, the register lines are long, the store staff weary, and the shelves picked over, I'm always amazed at how the spirit of Christmas just picks me up. I chat with people in line, and while's there's inevitably a note of weariness, there's also a feeling that we're all part of this wonderful frenzy of giving, and it will all be good in the end. Even if we don't find the perfect gift for everyone, it is truly the thought that counts, the fact that we're together with our loved ones, and all participating in this annual ritual. I think the magic of Christmas is that it lifts us out of our quotidian toils, takes us out of ourselves, and gives us an annual moment of perspective to focus on all of the others we're grateful to have in our lives -- our close loved ones and our friends, including those friends from other times and places that we reconnect with maybe just once a year. Thinking of that, I smile as I'm standing in a seemingly endless line of people at See's Candy store, and with a light-hearted comment, I get the exhausted person next to me to smile, and the contagious Christmas spirit reminds us all why we're there.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Tookie Taken: Ruminations on Capital Punishment

It is bizarre timing that now, in the throes of the holiday season, the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams forces us to pause from writing cards and shopping for gifts to reflect on the death penalty. But like it or not, it is upon us. I had never given a lot of thought to the issue before, but I realized I ought to if people are being executed in my name as a citizen of California. I had conflicting feelings about it. On the one hand, some crimes are so heinous that nothing short of execution seems appropriate. But on the other hand, execution seems so, well, barbaric.

I'm more interested in contemplating the death penalty in general than in arguing the particular merits of this specific case. In short, I will just say this about Tookie Williams: if the death penalty is ever appropriate, then it is appropriate for this man. He was convicted of multiple murders of the most callous and cold-blooded kind. While he protested his innocence to the end, and duped a few gullible idealists into believing him, there is no real question on this matter. Though there may well have been cases in which innocent people have been executed, this is not one of them. Moreover, he does not dispute that he was a co-founder of the Crips gang, and there is strong reason to believe that he was guilty of much, much more than what he was convicted of. This was an evil man with a formidable legacy of evil. As to his alleged redemption, he never even admitted what he had done, let alone begin to regret it. His touted efforts to dissuade children from becoming involved in gangs are more likely to be a calculated PR tactic. He certainly didn't dissuade his own son from following in his father's footsteps. To me, that's what makes his case provocative. If capital punishment is only appropriate in extreme cases, where guilt is clear and the crime is heinous, one can scarcely imagine anyone more deserving than Tookie. That clarifies the question: is it ever appropriate to execute anyone, even someone like Tookie Williams?

In considering the question, one must distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate reasons for capital punishment. One important purpose of the penal system is to protect society from dangerous people. That purpose is equally served by life imprisonment without parole as it is by execution. Another important purpose is deterrence, the pause that one criminal's fate may give to another prospective criminal. On that count, actual results should be looked to. I haven't looked into such studies, but my hunch is that capital punishment as it is practiced in the US is a weak deterrent, because it is such a rare and long-drawn process. (Tookie lived a quarter century between sentencing and execution.) A stronger deterrent effect might be achieved if execution were meted out more swiftly and frequently, but that's not possible to do without transforming the US into someplace more like the old Soviet Union or the Taliban or Singapore (all of which had low crime rates for the crimes that they punished).

Then there are the illegitimate reasons for capital punishment. One most commonly cited is that it is "justice" that capital crimes be answered with capital punishment. But justice is a misnomer here, the proper word is vengeance. This is the old "eye for an eye", and it is as barbaric as chopping the hands off of thieves. Believe me, I feel the allure of it too. It's hard to think of the crimes Tookie committed, and not to wish much more painful deaths on him than the one he suffered. But a civilized society must rise above this, or it ceases to be civilized. It has nothing to do with what the criminal deserves. It has to do with what we as a society become if we stoop to blood vengeance. And I'm coming to believe that if we practice capital punishment, we corrupt ourselves.

Another common justification given is that the family of the victims deserve to see the murderer executed. But this is just another spin on the same blood vengeance. If we truly believed that, then we should have a guillotine or a firing squad, and we should allow the families of the victims to pull the trigger, and enjoy the violence of spilling the murderer's blood. If that sounds barbaric to you (and I hope that it does), then ask yourself whether that differs in any significant moral respect from the clinical death-by-injection carried out on Tuesday.

A different argument is sometimes made that it is expensive to maintain someone in prison for life, and why should the good taxpayers be burdened with supporting a worthless life. If one looks only at the ledger, there seems to be an argument there. But one must look at the non-fungible costs. Killing someone because their life "isn't worth the expense of supporting it" is a monstrous precedent. If we do that, we cease to be a society in which life is sacrosanct, and we become instead a society where each life has a quantifiable worth. Once that bright line is crossed, all sorts of questions become fair game, including euthanasia or medical treatment decisions based on how much a given person's life is worth. Should we go around to state hospitals euthanizing patients who are unlikely to leave the hospital but not dying soon and costing the state a lot to support? If that sounds barbaric to you (and I hope that it does), then ask yourself whether that differs in any significant moral respect from killing a prisoner just because it costs a lot to keep him alive?

To recap: the legitimate reasons for capital punishment are uncompelling. The compelling reasons are illegitimate. And even if some extreme criminals deserve death, we cannot be the executioners without becoming barbarians ourselves.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Regrettable But Justifiable Shooting

My heart goes out to the family and friends of Rigoberto Alpizar, who was shot and killed in an unfortunate incident at Miami Airport yesterday. My heart also goes out to the federal air marshals who shot Alpizar, who turned out not to be a bomber after all. I can only imagine how having killed an innocent man will weigh on their hearts.

If the facts are as reported, the air marshals' actions were entirely justified. When a boarded passenger leaps out of his seat, charges up the aisle, claims to have a bomb in his backpack, disobeys commands from air marshals to "get down", and then starts reaching for his backpack, I don't see that the marshals had any choice. They don't have the luxury of waiting for a situation to unfold and gathering information ex post facto. They must react to such a situation immediately and make snap decisions, based on their training. Shame on those who are second-guessing the air marshals' decision based on hindsight. Given what they could have known (and what they could not have known) in the instant, and given what could have happened had there really been a bomb, they did the right thing. The incident is unfortunate and regrettable. But as an air traveler, I for one am reassured to see evidence of an effective air marshal program. We'd all heard that they were around, but never really knew for sure. Now we know. And so do the real terrorists.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What's FAIR Is Fair... Or Is It?

After today's oral arguments before the Supreme Court, many are predicting that Rumsfeld v. FAIR will be overturned in favor of the Department of Defense. The case puts the question of whether the government can withhold funding from universities whose law schools refuse military recruiters equal access to on-campus job fairs. The law schools argue that this amounts to unconstitutional coercion, infringing on their First Amendment rights to expression and association, by forcing them to compromise their own stated anti-discrimination policies (employers are only allowed to recruit on campus if they sign a statement of non-discrimination including sexual orientation among other categories). The trial and appellate courts have so far agreed. The government argues essentially that "he who pays the piper calls the tunes", and that the universities are free not to compromise by choosing not to accept government funds. From the sound of the Justices' lines of questioning today, it seems most of them may agree with the government. Famous centrist casuist Justice O'Connor seemed content that the law school's First Amendment rights were protected so long as they could protest and even jeer the military recruiters.

Mindful of the direct consequences, many gay people and organizations have argued in favor of FAIR (the law school organization). Commentators (e.g., KipEsquire here) have noted the irony that the appellate decision upholding the law school position was based on the precedents of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, in which the rights of free association of a private organization insulated the Boy Scouts against government intervention when they booted out a gay scoutmaster. A similar precedent involving gays being barred from a St. Patrick's Day parade was also cited. Yet both of these anti-gay cases were used to support the pro-gay position in this case. What this really shows is that trying to judge a case based on a preferred outcome rather than a principle is a double-edged sword. I haven't seen this analogy drawn elsewhere, but the other case that came to my mind was that of the 1998 San Francisco ordinance that prohibited the City of San Francisco from contracting with companies who did not offer domestic partner benefits. Gay advocates certainly cheered loudly when this ordinance was upheld in large part (with some exceptions) when it was tested in court. Yet the same principle that would enable the City of San Francisco to pull its purse strings to whip would-be city contractors into providing domestic partner benefits is the same principle being argued by the Department of Defense. If one is right, then so is the other. Others have observed that some of the federal civil rights statutes are similarly founded.

I would love to see our military's anti-gay discrimination finally and completely ended, and applaud the law schools who protest against it. And I am certainly queasy about the dangers of a government's "piper-paying powers" when we're approaching $2.5 trillion in annual federal spending. Notwithstanding that, I believe that a court case should be adjudicated on its merits and the principles, and not on a desired outcome. I'd love to see the Boy Scouts accept a gay scoutmaster, but I respect their right as a private organization to set their own policies, and I think Dale (as well as the Paddy's Day parade case) were rightly decided. (Note that also protects the right of Christopher Street West to refuse to allow Fred Phelps and his death-eaters to enter a float in the Gay Pride Parade.) And while I like the outcome of the appellate court in this case, I'm not sure I follow their reasoning. The Boy Scouts were a private organization facing court-ordered contravention of their policies, while the law schools are organizations (some private, some state) facing a hard choice of accepting funding tied to making an exception to their policies for the government. That doesn't seem sufficiently analogous to me. If I were a Supreme Court Justice, I don't think I'd be very receptive to FAIR's arguments either. Meanwhile, the law schools should follow up on Justice O'Connor's suggestion and vociferously protest the military recruiters when they let them on campus.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

FILM: Rent

Rent is my favorite Broadway musical. I've seen it six times, and we chose one of its songs (I'll Cover You) as the processional for our wedding. So we were very excited when we heard a film version was being made. Of course where such near-reverence is involved, the danger is high of the film version not living up to the stage experience. Fortunately, director Chris Columbus has done an awesome job of realizing Rent on screen. Rather than filming it theatrically, he re-envisioned it cinematically, using lush visual imagery, flashbacks, and montages. The result is a vivid presentation, different yet faithful to the original story. The opening number is a visual conceit of dozens of East Village denizens tossing burning eviction notices into the street (the imagery is beautiful, though you must indulge the suspension of disbelief that some broke bohemian squatters could have more candles in their flat than Pottery Barn). One Song Glory shows us Roger's earlier rock star life in flashback, adding depth to the lyrics. Out Tonight starts by showing us Mimi dancing at the Cat Scratch Club. Rapturous scenery of East Village life, New York skylines, and at one point New Mexico vistas all compliment the story beautifully. The film used most of the original Broadway cast, who (despite the grumblings of some churlish critics about their age) all translated wonderfully to film. (Most of this cast is only in their thirties. Do those critics think there are no bohemians over thirty?) And the two "newcomers" fit right in. Tracie Thoms is a feisty Joanne with a knock-out voice. Rosario Dawson looks, moves, and sings Mimi as good as any I've seen, and has such expressive eyes that there's no doubt why Roger writes a song about them. Those who have well-worn cast recordings will recognize some changes: there is a bit of added dialog, and some recitative elements in the original become plain speech in the film. There were a few small sacrifices: for example, Halloween and Goodbye Love didn't make the final cut (though they were reportedly filmed and are on the movie soundtrack, we hope to see them in the extended version on DVD). But the end result is completely faithful and beautifully creative.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Gay Catholic Anguish

It is sad to see the anguish of those who are gay and are faithful Catholics, facing the recent church pronouncements about gay men -- even perfectly and faithfully celibate ones -- deemed unfit for the priesthood. Andrew Sullivan has been covering this issue daily, and a letter from a Notre Dame grad student published on his site particularly struck me. It's worth reading the whole thing, but here is an excerpt:
Always bear in mind that when God surveyed his creation he deemed it good. Not perfect, good. As creatures we must recognize the value of other despite any deficiencies. . . . We cannot pass this position off as a 'hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner' exhortation otherwise a commitment to celibacy would suffice. The equation of predilection to actual act has dangerous implications for all Catholics. The inclination to sin, common to all humans and part of our imperfection, should never be squared with sin itself lest we abandon the hope for living in a Christ-like way by overcoming the inclination to sin to instead act with love and justice.
To many of us, this new line from the Vatican to exclude men from the priesthood based on who they are rather than what they do appalls the conscience. But perhaps this is because those of us who are shocked have a liberal conscience, which differs from a Christian one. As Jason Kuznicki explains:
To the liberal conscience, there is no sense in which an innate tendency could in itself be morally disordered, and thus the Church’s former position, while regrettable, was at least comprehensible: An alcoholic is sick, not evil, and we try to understand that his actions are not fully his own. Under an analogous reading of the former policy, chastity — a free choice open to everyone — should have been enough.

Under the new policy, however, a strongly homosexual orientation, even among the perfectly chaste, is reason enough to bar candidates from the priesthood. As William Saletan complains in Slate, "Through no fault of your own, you’re doomed."

I hate to say this, but… well, yeah. Complaining about it misses the whole point of Christianity.

To the Christian, every one of us is doomed through no fault of our own, every single day of our lives. We stand condemned not because we have done some specific act, but merely because we are human. We are bound for Hell because of Adam’s sin, and because, in the Christian belief, his taint infects us all.
The analogy of homosexuality to alcoholism is a useful one. If a gay Catholic argues that it is unjust to condemn as evil (or "gravely morally disordered") his very nature regardless of his actions, he plays into the "hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner" reasoning, and makes himself analogous to an alcoholic. At best, this earns him only pity and sympathy, along with support and encouragement to suppress his natural inclinations. And a rational bar from the priesthood. (Incidentally, the Vatican has issued similar instructions to bar alcoholics from the priesthood.)

The only proper escape from this trap is to refute the fundamental premise that homosexual behavior is evil. The Vatican position is that homosexuality "does not represent a social value and even less so a moral virtue that could add to the civilization of sexuality. It could even be seen as a destabilizing reality for people and for society." This is just plain wrong. When two people exchange vows of lifelong loving commitment, tend to one another in sickness, support one another financially and spiritually, putting the other ahead of themselves, and sometimes even take on the additional selfless sacrifice of raising children, how is that not a social value, a moral virtue, and the very fabric of civilization, even when those two people happen to be the same gender? How is it that we can recognize and admire these values in penguins, yet miss the same in humans? That's the argument that needs to be made. Such an argument can clearly be made on liberal foundations, but I believe there is an argument to be made on Christian (and even specifically Catholic) grounds as well.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Patent Double-Header

The legal equivalent of Katrina and Rita are hitting the high-tech world, with Research In Motion (RIM - the operator of the Blackberry network) playing the role of New Orleans, and eBay as the Gulf coast. These two tech titans have both been hit with patent infringement lawsuits that have been lost, appealed, and lost again. The Supreme Court has now agreed to hear the eBay case, which should be interesting. That valid patents were infringed is pretty much settled at this point. Now all eBay hopes to get from SCOTUS is to get off with "only" the $15 million in compensatory damages awarded, and to avoid a permanent injunction to cease and desist further infringement. However, they face an uphill battle even on that score. Unless the Justices have "activist" intentions in this matter, the precedent goes against eBay, based on decisions undisturbed for a good century.

The relevant case law, Continental Paper Bag Co. v. Eastern Paper Bag Co., was decided in 1908. That case concerned a patent for a machine that could efficiently produce a folded paper bag with a rectangular bottom (you know, the kind you still get in the grocery store today if you don't opt for plastic). Eastern Paper Bag held the patent, and Continental infringed it. That much was already stipulated by the time the case hit the Supreme Court. The matter of contention was whether injunctive relief was appropriate (same issue with both eBay and RIM), and also whether patent rights were curtailed if a patent holder did not put his invention into use (especially relevant to RIM, though eBay may try to make a similar argument). You see, it seemed that even though Eastern had invented the better bag machine, they declined to actually use it, or to let anyone else use it. This offended a number of people (including some appellate judges), and a reasonable argument was made going to the essence of patent law.

Patent law is essentially a contract between society and an inventor, in which an inventor agrees to publicly disclose his invention in exchange for exclusive rights to it for a limited duration. The core of patent law comes straight from Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution, in enumerating the powers of Congress: "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Thus, the appeal was that an inventor who basically "sat on" his invention and denied society its use was not holding up his end of the bargain to "promote the progress of … useful Arts," and thus should forfeit some or all of his patent protection.

Some lower court judges agreed with this line of reasoning, though making a distinction between "reasonable non-use" (e.g., the inventor did not put the invention into practice for lack of funds or practical opportunity) and "unreasonable non-use" (e.g., refusing to put it into use despite having the means to do so, and refusing to license it to others who could use it). However, the Supreme Court roundly smacked this down. Being good textualists, they did not attempt to divine the underlying philosophy or policy intentions behind the law, but instead looked at the law as Congress enacted it. And they found that Congress gave absolute property rights to the inventor (for a limited time period), regardless whether he put his invention into practice or he locked it away for 26 years. They noted that Congress was indeed well aware of the "non-use" issue, since they had in the 1830s made the patent rights of non-citizens contingent on putting the invention into use, but put no such requirement on citizens. (And even the limitation on non-citizens was repealed only a few years later.) They also found that injunctive (and not just compensatory) relief was tantamount to the right granted to the patent holder. (Though they did choose to "never say never", with a parting caveat of wiggle room: "Whether, however, a case cannot arise where, regarding the situation of the parties in view of the public interest, a court of equity might be justified in withholding relief by injunction, we do not decide.")

I'd say things look grim for eBay (and for RIM), but the Court seems to feel there is something worth hearing. Stay tuned. (Although when the decision is announced, the headline may or may not come across on your Blackberry.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Peres, Sharon, Schwarzenegger, and Kennedy

Intriguing news this morning to hear that Shimon Peres has quit the Labor party in order to join Ariel Sharon (who just recently quit the Likud party) in forming a new Kadima party. I love to hear about a right-wing and left-wing leader breaking with their "wings" and forming a centrist party focused on pursuing the pragmatic peace that Israel and Palestine both need. I wish that American political parties could be as dynamic, but instead we seem stuck with the stale "choice" between Democrats and Republicans. This news from Israel is the equivalent of John McCain and Joseph Lieberman both breaking with their respective parties to form a new one. That would be awesome if only it could happen in America.

I'm always encouraged by signs of a radical center: the "Gang of 14", the "Blue Dogs" in Congress (a bloc of Democrats trying to be real about fiscal responsibility) or the "Main Street" (a bloc of Republicans trying to be real about stem cell research) are all good things in my book. And there are certainly some encouraging governors with crossover appeal, Governor Mark Warner of Virginia being the most recent example, but I also remember Governor William Weld of Massachusetts (and said to be making a run at New York in 2006).

And of course there is our own Governor Schwarzenegger here in California, who announced a surprising (and welcome) anti-partisan move today. He is appointing Susan Kennedy, a longtime Democrat, as his Chief of Staff. Kennedy has been executive director of the California Democratic Party and of the California Abortion Rights Action League, as well as being an out lesbian who married her same-sex partner in Hawaii in 1999. In response to a reporter's question, she said that she voted for all four of Schwarzenegger's propositions in the recent election. In seeking to downplay partisan labels, Kennedy said this: "I believe in this man [Gov. Schwarzenegger], and I believe in what he's trying to do for this state and where he's trying to take California," she said. "I think a moderate Democrat and a moderate Republican — there is not a lot of light between us."

That's the way I like to see the pot stirred. Heck with this "red" and "blue" crap. Give me an innovative shade of purple.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

FILM: Pride and Prejudice

On Saturday night, we greatly enjoyed seeing the new adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen's stories are rich romances, featuring strong and spirited women who seem like they won't get the man they deserve, and men who are often not what they seem at first blush (both good and bad), but character always triumphs over class and money in her endings. In this story, protagonists Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy spar engagingly like Beatrice and Benedick until the inevitable reconciliation. Keira Knightley is perfectly cast as the spirited Lizzie, and Matthew MacFadyen is marvelous as the brooding and taciturn Darcy. The story has been very nicely adapted to the screen by big screen newbies director Joe Wright and writer Deborah Moggach (though rumor has it that Emma Thompson had some hand in the dialogue; she is credited on the film with "special thanks"), in a sensitive handling that focuses on the romance and the character judgments (and mistakes) that people can make. Beautiful shots of English countryside, together with some very subjective camerawork contribute to the story. (One memorable scene: when Lizzie and Mr. Darcy are dancing at a crowded ball, and for a moment we see the scene as Lizzie does, as if they are the only two in the room, providing a nice depth of feeling in contrast to her seemingly aloof repartee.) The cast are all excellent, but especially notable are Donald Sutherland as the loving father Mr. Bennett (who truly wants his daughter to marry for love), Tom Hollander as the mousy and obsequious Mr. Collins, and of course Judi Dench as the imperious Lady Catherine de Bourg. The costumes, settings, and even the blocking (all that courtly bowing) perfectly recreate the texture of the period. The superb 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility was a hard act to follow, but Pride and Prejudice lived up to our great expectations.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Geocaching: Inspiration Point and Mount Lowe

On Saturday, "Team Compass" made its second expedition into the San Gabriel front range, a 7.8 mile hike to Inspiration Point, Mount Muir, and Mount Lowe. We started from Eaton Saddle (on the Mount Wilson Road) and followed the Mount Lowe Fire Road through the an old tunnel, along a canyon, and descended to the Mt Lowe Trail Camp (elev 4400'). This was the site of the old Alpine Tavern, a famous lodge and tourist destination in the early 1900s. It was built by Thaddeus Lowe (for whom Mt. Lowe was renamed), who built a railroad to bring people up to the Tavern. (He hoped to get his railroad to the top of Mt. Lowe, but he never made it that far.) Today, you can still see old foundations, parts of a large fireplace, and old pipes. There are some great historical markers that include photos of the place from its heyday. After finding a cache there, we headed for Inspiration Point, a 10-minute walk down the road. The Camp is nestled among pines and oak trees, but just down the road lies a ridge between Inspiration Point, Panorama Point, and Mount Muir. On the saddle of the ridge, a viewing pavilion has been restored to how it looked 100 years ago, including "viewing tubes", various pieces of pipe mounted in a fixed alignment so that looking through them you could find specific sites in the panoramic view before you. Each pipe is labeled "Rose Bowl", "Redondo Beach", "Catalina", etc. This particular warm autumn Saturday was so clear that not only could we see the whole Los Angeles basin before us, but on out into the ocean, to Catalina Island (~60 miles distant), and even beyond, to San Clemente Island (90 miles). We could also make out another, which we weren't sure whether it was Santa Barbara Island (75 miles, but smaller and shorter) or San Nicolas (105 miles away, but much larger). The curve of Redondo Beach was clearly visible, so Tom and Katy were trying to decide whether they could see their houses from here, while I looked for mine not far from the easily discernable towers of downtown. After enjoying the pavilion for a bit, we made the short 200' climb up to the actual Inspiration Point summit (4714'), where we signed the Sierra Club summit log and then found the geocache hidden there. We then descended, and walked along the wide flat bed of the old "One Man & Mule Railroad", a 2-foot gauge railway that consisted in an open trolley car pushed by a mule to take tourists from the pavilion (with views to the south and west) over to Panorama Point for views south and east. (It seems they did indeed put the cart before the mule, since if the mule pushed instead of pulled, he would get the tourists less dusty.) A short but scenic single-track trail took us to the summit of Mount Muir (4688') where we found another summit log and another cache. (Apparently John Muir visited these peaks in 1877.) We then backtracked a short ways down the fire road toward the Camp, where we picked up the Mt Lowe East Trail, which snakes its way in a long spiral up to the top of Mount Lowe itself. As it was a warm day, we appreciated the fact that much of this trail was in the shade of oaks and pines. Eventually, we summitted Mount Lowe (5603'), enjoying the spectacular panorama from an even higher vantage, and with the afternoon sun reflecting brightly on the ocean. With the sun hitting the water just right, we could make out Marina Del Rey and Ballona Creek (~30 miles away). After a nice lunch, we found one of the two caches there, and headed back down. Having started at 9am, we finished before 4pm, having hiked 7.8 terrain miles and climbed about 2500' in all, and found six caches (counting one at Red Box station that we found on the way out). Another great day! Check out our photos here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Naval Academy Admissions Forum: Parents' Response

The following is an actual letter written by parents of a young woman invited to a Naval Academy Admissions Forum, and shared for public distribution by my friends at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. It is very well written and speaks for itself.

Larry D. Faulkner, USN (Ret.)
Pamela W. Faulkner

Highland Park, Illinois 60035

November 11, 2005

Department of the Navy
Office of Admissions, United States Naval Academy
Attn: Capt. K.D. Frye
117 Decatur Road
Annapolis, Maryland 21402-5017

Re: United States Naval Academy Admissions Information Forum

Capt. Frye:

Our daughter, Molly Faulkner, received your kind letter inviting her to attend the above referenced Forum. Both of us have had the honor of serving in the Navy, one for twenty years, the other for eight. Molly's sister recently transitioned from active duty to reserve service with the US Air Force after serving deployments in both Qatar and Baghdad. We have attempted to instill in each of our children a shared belief in the debt of service we owe our Country and have been pleased to see each of them stand willing to take her turn as they reach the age to do so.

Although the source of our bias is reasonably clear, from even an objective standpoint Molly is an exceptional young woman. An avid athlete, she plays golf, basketball and softball for Highland Park High School, but has placed her emphasis on her golf game and works year-round with a private coach.

Also an excellent student, Molly consistently shoulders a heavy courseload including several honors level classes and receives marks earning no less than "high honors" in any given marking period. She is studying both French and Italian and has absorbed some modicum of understanding in Hebrew through several years of attendance at our synagogue Hebrew school. She is involved in several clubs and is active in our synagogue youth group participating in numerous events involving community service. She is respected among her peers as a steady friend and valued by her adult teachers and mentors for her quick mind, giving spirit and willing hands. In short, she is all that you would consider worthy in a candidate seeking admission to the Brigade of Midshipmen.

Unfortunately, we are certain that you will withdraw your current invitation and will not extend another due not to either her abilities or the content of her character, but for reasons beyond her control. However, we would like it to be perfectly clear that when you delete Molly's name from your database, it will be at your behest and not at ours and based upon policy now so outmoded as to appear ridiculous even to the casual observer.

As may be expected given her maturity and good sense, Molly has long recognized an intrinsic truth about herself. Molly is a lesbian. To her credit, and hopefully in small measure to that of her family and friends, she has been in a position to be honest and forthright regarding this fundamental truth and has found acceptance at every turn with no diminishment of either regard or affection. Neither she, nor we, see any cause for dissembling on this point, her father and I because it is against our inclination, and Molly because her sense of honor and self-worth forbid it. We would not even broach the subject were it not for the knowledge that the very sense of integrity and dignity which would make her an excellent midshipman and officer also render her incapable of adhering to a policy which would require her to commit the offense of lying by omission.

It is, again, with great pleasure that we acknowledge your kind invitation and, were it in her power, you would certainly see Molly in enthusiastic attendance at the Forum. We regret, on your behalf, the loss of the contribution she and so many others like her could and would willingly make towards securing our common goals and doing so in a manner that would bring credit to the traditions of the service.

Please don't hesitate to inform us if the policies, which we believe bar you from including Molly in the appointment process, have been rightfully amended to allow the open and unfettered acceptance of those members of our society who have so much to offer in service to their Country.

Very Respectfully,
Larry D. Faulkner
Pamela W. Faulkner

cc: President George W. Bush, Senator John Warner, Senator Carl Levin, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Senator Barack Obama, Representative Duncan Hunter, Representative Ike Skelton, Representative Mark Kirk

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Idle Hands: Marriage, France, and Gaza

In the marriage debates, one of the ideas often raised is a sociological benefit of marriage, that of the "cilivizing influence" of marriage on men. The notion is that if men were not married, then we'd have young unattached men roving around in packs and that could only spell trouble. While obviously a generalization, I think there's some truth to it. Along similar lines, I think we'd have to admit that gainful employment provides a similar civilizing influence. When unemployment soars, unemployed young men can be like gasoline-soaked kindling just waiting for a match. This is certainly a significant contributing factor in the French riots. As noted in this Economist article, "France’s overall jobless rate of nearly 10% is worrying enough; its latest youth unemployment rate of 23% is among Europe’s worst (see chart). In the 'sensitive urban zones', as officialdom coyly calls them, youth unemployment touches a staggering 40%." This is why I was especially heartened to hear this morning's news about Israel and Palestine coming to an agreement about opening a Gaza border. This tentative first step absolutely must be encouraged, as the ability to move people and goods across Palestinian borders and through Palestinian ports is essential to the development of any Palestinian economy, which in turn is essential to achieving peace. The UN estimates that 80% of the 125,000 Palestinians who used to work in Israel or in "joint industrial zones" have lost their jobs, and the CIA estimates unemployment in Gaza at about 50%. With unemployment like that, it's almost a wonder that more people aren't strapping on explosive vests. Congratulations to the leaders of both nations who have taken this important step, and to Secretary Rice for her efforts in brokering the deal. The sooner more Palestinians can become productively invested in their own economy, the better for Palestine, for Israel, and for the world.

Monday, November 14, 2005

FILM: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

We had a great time the other week seeing Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a fun and clever take on Raymond Chandler-style film noir. Impressively, the film succeeds in being both a pastiche and a parody of film noir at the same time. While we laughed heartily and often, this was no Naked Gun-style send-up of the genre. Instead, the characters often traded witty barbs, and the script mined the rich vein of ironic potential in taking the 1940's genre and relocating it to the present day. While the noir texture was faithfully preserved, with all the traditional characters and the seedy parts of town, modern elements (such as a gay detective, the Hollywood club scene, the "industry", and people with dyed spiky hair) were seamlessly spliced in without compromising the Double Indemnity look and feel. This clever device allowed the movie to be alternately suspenseful and funny without breaking the mood. Robert Downey Jr. is terrific as the likeable petty thief (whom we first meet robbing a toy store trying to find just the right toy for his nephew's Christmas present), Val Kilmer's deadpan timing is dead on as the hard-shelled homosexual detective, and Michelle Monaghan is great as the lost hometown girl gone to Hollywood. Definitely check out this clever comedy.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

STAGE: Measure for Measure

We had the pleasure of seeing the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre production of Measure for Measure at UCLA's Freud Theatre. This remarkable company strives for authentic Shakespearean performances using original practices including all male actors, period musical prelude and interludes, and three-sided stage configuration. Their diction, acting, and direction truly make Shakespeare come alive (as we had discovered two years ago in their outstanding performance of Twelfth Night). Actor and Artistic Director Mark Rylance, who last year played an unforgettable Olivia, this year wore trousers (or at least a robe), playing the Duke (who spends most of the play disguised as a friar). He portrayed him with impeccable comic timing, on occasion blustering into a royal rage but then suddenly remembering his disguise and fumbling back into character. Edward Hogg wore the dress, playing a cerebral Isabella, variously expressing intimidation, indignation, and reluctant forgiveness with perfectly pitched nuance inside the tight scope of his austere character. Liam Brennan portrayed a complex Angelo, boxed in by devotion to the law and slowly undone by succumbing to the temptations of power, difficult but successful performance ringing true in the character's strange amalgam of rectitude and villainy. Several others were notable: Colin Hurley as Lucio (what Shakespeare called "a fantastic" and what we might call a good ol' boy and a player), delivering well-timed comic asides like small grenades; John Dougall as Pompey, speaking wry cynicism to power; and Roger McKern as Barnardine, the cantankerous prisoner too perpetually drunk to be executed. All in all, the whole cast were excellent.

When UCLA had been advertising the play, their season brochure and radio ads described Measure for Measure as a "light-hearted comedy", which struck me as very odd as I remembered it being rather heavy and not very comical. (In fact, I wondered whether the copywriter even knew the play.) I noticed that in the last week before it opened, the radio ads had changed to describing it as a "subversive comedy". Structurally, the play is arguably a comedy in that everyone is more or less happily married off in the end, but this is not your typical light romantic comedy. The play deals with profound themes of justice versus mercy, and the crucial moment in the play is the confrontation between Angelo and Isabella, where he forces on her the choice of her chastity or her brother's life. She speaks truth to power, but he counters that given his power, "say what you can, my false o'erweighs your true". Not exactly the stuff of comedy. This tension between comedic form and the dramatic moment of the subject makes the play difficult, and presents some hard choices for a director. Is Angelo a puritanical villain, or a virtuous man brought down by lust? Is the Duke a wise and strong ruler, or does he cop out in letting Angelo be the bad cop? And what might Shakespeare himself be saying about strict moral laws? Needless to say there is a lot of scope for a director to take this in interesting directions to overlay current relevance. But that's not the mission of the Globe Theatre, who strive for the authenticity of Shakespeare's time. They chose to emphasize the comedy, not only through the truly comic characters (such as Lucio and Barnardine), but through creative comic relief in interpreting the dramatic scenes (for instance, Angelo's momentary pause and arched eyebrow in II:iv when Isabella enters for the fateful confrontation, saying to Angelo "I am come to know your pleasure"). The Duke is portrayed as a bit doddering and befuddled, adding comic opportunity and lightening his character. (He even makes light of her non-response to his proposal in the end.) This provides balance (and even tips to the comic side) against an unflinchingly austere Isabella, and earnest dramatic portrayals of Claudio, Mariana, and Juliet. The result is a very enjoyable performance that makes you laugh but leave with a slightly unsettled feeling (not unlike the off-note of Malvolio's curse at the end of Twelfth Night), to wrestle with and come to your own resolutions about the themes. And perhaps that is exactly how the Bard intended it.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Saluting True Patriots

Today, for Veterans Day, I would like to salute the millions of lesbian and gay American veterans, and the 65,000 lesbians and gay men currently serving in our armed forces. These courageous men and women take the ultimate sacrifice a step further, not only putting their lives on the line for their country, but doing so under a special burden of injustice, fighting to defend rights that they themselves are denied. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network has compiled the personal testimonies of many of these patriots. If you have a few moments, go and read some of their stories. Here are some highlights:
The Army is the best thing that ever happened to me. My career gave me an opportunity to make what I believe was a significant positive impact on the lives and careers of the numerous outstanding soldiers with whom I served. . . . I would have loved to remain in the Army and I probably would have continued to do well, however the Army's policy on gays in the military made that impossible. Two decades of always having to look over my shoulder were enough."

William Winniwisser, Lt. Colonel, US Army (1982-2002)

I did not accept my homosexuality until my last tour. Those years were difficult. I couldn't seek counseling because I had to use military medical facilities and didn't know who I could trust. Before I retired, my best friend — an army officer who was also struggling to accept his homosexuality — committed suicide. I had to cope with the pain alone, in silence, lest I risk being discovered myself. After all I had given to the Navy, living in fear of losing my career or my pension seemed like an unjust reward.

Nick Marulli, Petty Officer First Class, US Navy (Retired)

My bosses identified me as "the best staff officer in the battalion" and "best company commander in the brigade." More importantly, I earned the trust and respect of most the soldiers I led. As a matter of conscience, I resigned my commission because of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. . . . When I got out (literally and figuratively), I outed myself to as many people as I possibly could. About 80 percent of those I told said something like: "Yeah, we knew, we didn't care, we wish you had stayed." Another 15 percent expressed surprise, although I had never made any attempt to pass as heterosexual. This group was usually very supportive as well. Only about 5 percent decided that they couldn't be my friend if I was gay.

Rebecca Kanis, Captain, US Army (1991-2000)

At this early point in my career, a young Hispanic marine from another platoon "came out" as gay to a chaplain. I watched the chain of events that took place very carefully. It confirmed my views about Marine leadership. This young man was afraid that if his peers found out that he was gay they would beat him up — maybe even kill him. Nothing was further from the truth. The first sergeant took time to speak with the young man and find out what he was all about. His company mates looked out for him and took care of him until he was discharged. There was never any discussion about his shower or living arrangements. We Marines were all brothers and the first sergeant made sure everyone understood that. Leadership creates the mindset of an organization, and the leadership in my unit set the standard.

Phil Adams, Captain, US Marine Corps (1983-1992)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The True Face of al-Qaeda

My heart and prayers go out to the people of Jordan, especially the families affected (and especially including those whose wedding was indelibly marred). Recalling how we felt on 9/11, we can understand well how the Jordanians feel about their 11/9. In case there was any doubt, al-Qaeda have now proven that theirs is not a cause of Muslims against the West, but rather a cause of fundamentalist fanatics against anyone and everyone who doesn't share their perverted worldview. Now that they have directed their terror against a Muslim Arab nation, killing scores of Jordanians and Palestineans, more people in the Muslim world will see the monster for what it is. It is an amazing and powerful news image: thousands of Muslims shouting "Burn in Hell, al-Zarqawi, death to the traitor!" Let us hope that this is a tipping point.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Bad Day For Good Government

It is disappointing, though not surprising, that the good government measures went down to defeat. As I wrote last night, I believe that the propositions suffered because many people were voting out of partisan suspicion rather than reason, and I lay some of that blame on reprehensible Republicans such as Tom DeLay and Karl Rove, whose baldly partisan machinations make Republicans worthy of suspicion. However, I also lay some blame on Governor Schwarzenegger, as I don't believe he did as good a job as he could have in making the case for the most important propositions (76 and 77, which I note were the most roundly defeated). I think his strategy fueled partisan flames, both by making the propositions about him, and by pushing 74 and 75 so hard, which reaffirmed the definition of the election as "Arnold vs the public employee unions". Perhaps I'm naïve, but I'd like to think that a good strong presentation of the facts and merits, instead of the personalization of the issues, would have served much better. When you actually look at the facts (starting with current district maps), I think Prop 77 practically sells itself. (I would note that every major newspaper in the state, ranging from the Orange County Register to the San Francisco Chronicle, all endorsed Prop 77.) Props 74 and 75 were a sideshow, and caused the Governor to not put enough wood behind his two best arrows. This point is proved by the surprising (to me at least) results that the two union-antagonistic propositions (74 and 75), which were the most vehemently and directly opposed, were defeated much more narrowly than the good government propositions (76 and 77).

It should also be noted that "good government" propositions (i.e., the sort that propose a general improvement in some aspect of government function) seldom succeed even when they are superbly sound and reasonable. This comes down to just plain politics and social psychology. By their nature, good government proposals are something that a broad number of people may approve of, but won't feel very strongly about. At the same time, any constituency whose ox is gored by the proposal will oppose it vehemently. And in elections, when it comes to putting "wood behind the arrow" (raising campaign funds), the vociferous few will decisively overcome the mild inclinations of the many. When it comes to something like independent redistricting, those who will be most vehemently against it (incumbent politicians and partisan hacks, often of both parties) are by definition those who are most politically powerful. It's a wonder when any such proposal passes. Note that as the alleged "Republican power grab" was going down in flames in California, a similar redistricting measure in Ohio, labeled a "Democratic power grab" by the GOP-dominated incumbents in that state, also went down. If only our Governor had put more muscle into pushing the merits of good proposals rather than picking fights with teachers and nurses. Alas, it was a bad day for good government.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Voting Suspicion Over Reason

Some perfectly reasonable ballot measures are likely going down to defeat tonight, and I think I know why. ln an exchange on an online neighborhood forum, discussing Prop 77 (which would create an independent commission to draw district lines), one of my neighbors wrote this: "Though I still disagree with you, I welcome such a reasoned response and hope to learn from it. . . I truly wish there were an impartial body to set boundaries and not the legislature. Problem is, I absolutely don't trust the motives of who's sponsoring this bill and the set-up that will ensue." [emphasis added]. And therein, I think, lies the crux of a lot of our political problems: many people look at the world through blue-and-red glasses, and can only view the other side with deep suspicion. Rather than examine a ballot proposition on its merits, their instinct is to look at who is behind it, and if it's "the other side", then to immediately suspect dark motives. Despite a measure like Prop 77 being eminently reasonable, if it's backed by Governor Schwarzenegger, then it must somehow be a clandestine attempt to smuggle insidious right-wing evils into our state Constitution.

According to Assemblymember Jackie Goldberg, "the corporate takeover of California is what is being proposed". Her arguments against Prop 77 were disingenuous and designed to appeal to left-wing emotions rather than reason. She says "No state uses retired judges. In fact, almost all of them do it the way we in California currently do it." In actual fact, 20 states have some form of district drawing commission separate from the legislature, and the only reason 29 other states currently do it the way California does is that it is notoriously difficult to wrest the district drawing power away from the legislature, when keeping it is one of the few things that both red and blue partisan politicians will agree on. She goes on to say, "Think about retired judges. Currently almost all of them are going to be Anglo males, largely drawn from the men appointed by [Republican] Governors Wilson and Deukmejian. This does not sound 'non-partisan' to me." The statistical claim about retired judges is debatable, but more importantly, she obtusely ignores the provisions in Prop 77 that make it scrupulously non-partisan, similar to a jury selection process, with representatives from both major parties getting both selections and vetoes over candidates drawn from a random pool. And then voters get to approve it. It should sound very non-partisan to anyone who will bother to actually read and consider the proposition, but for Democrats like Assemblymember Goldberg, the actual details of the measure are irrelevant. It was put up by Governor Schwarzenegger, a Republican, so it must be evil. (Ironically, a very similar measure, in aims if not methods, on the ballot in Ohio is being strenuously opposed by the Republicans, as they are the ones who currently control Ohio's state legislature.)

According to activist Jamie Court, a whole slate of our ballot measures are part of a vast right-wing conspiracy emanating from Washington: "Some of the nation's leading conservative thinkers and strategists are seeking, through Schwarzenegger's initiatives, to alter the balance of power between the right and left wings of California politics. Their hope is to turn California red in '08 and pioneer a new gospel that can spread across the country." With hysteria like that, all of the oxygen is sucked out of the room for any reasoned debate on the merits. What could one possibly say in response?

Voting on such an irrational basis really galls me, but at the same time I'm not sure I can blame them. In a better society, such suspicion would be uncalled for. The problem is, people have been given reasonable cause for suspicion. After Tom DeLay's baldly partisan hijacking of the redistricting process in Texas, any reasonable person's hackles should be raised when redistricting is put on the table. And while President Clinton famously surrounded himself with policy wonks, President Bush infamously surrounds himself with political strategists and spin-doctors like Karl Rove. While the untrustworthiness of most politicians is as old as dirt, it sure seems as though today's politicians are breaking new ground for shamelessness. (Republicans are by no means alone in this, but they're doing the worst of it at the moment, only because they are in control at the moment.) If Prop 77 goes down, I lay some of the blame at the feet of Tom DeLay and Karl Rove.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Palm Springs Gay Pride

We spent an enjoyable weekend in Palm Springs, attending the desert resort city's Gay Pride parade and festival. Seeing it shows me how much times have changed. The parade included the usual coterie of lesbigay community organizations, including "open and affirming" churches, AIDS service organizations, and lots of fun clubs like the gay rodeo, gay cheerleaders, gay classic car collectors, etc. And of course the local gay bars each had floats in the parade. But what struck me was that the dominant entries in the Palm Springs Pride parade were local city officials, candidates for City Council, and realtors. There are other factors at play, of course: the timing of Palm Springs pride just before an election, the increasing flow of gay population into this paticular city. (Two years ago, Palm Springs elected an openly gay mayor.) But still, it struck me how this gay pride parade is starting to look more and more like the plain old-fashioned community parades I remember growing up, with city officials, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and so on. And likewise with the crowd attending the parade, there were quite a lot of straight people of all ages enjoying the show. (Along similar lines, I hear that the crowd at the West Hollywood Halloween street festival is probably more straight than gay anymore.) We're getting much closer to the point where going to the Gay Pride Festival is just a part of the larger community cultural melting pot, like going to the Greek Festival or the Columbus Day Parade or St. Patrick's Day Parade. And that, I think, is a good thing.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Touch-Screen Voting

Yesterday, I checked out LA County's early voting system, which uses touch-screen stations. It was very efficient, easy to use, and I was in and out of there literally in moments. I brought in my official sample ballot, and they were able to read the codes off of that, program my identity into a microchip card, which I then took to a station and inserted it. Even though I was in a completely different part of the county from where I live (I voted near where I work), it brought up the appropriate ballot for my city of residence. All of the ballot measures were easy to see, and it was easy to check the yes/no boxes. At the end, it was easy to review all of my selections before committing my vote. I will definitely be doing this again in the future. Bye-bye silly punch cards and ink blots!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

NO on 78 and 79: The Initiative Process Is No Place for Drug Plan Policy

Propositions 78 and 79 offer two different prescription drug discount plans. For very similar reasons as I'm voting NO on Prop 80, I am also voting a "prima facie NO" on both of these. These are complex pieces of policy that would require a real policy wonk to make an informed decision about, and have no business on a general ballot. An initiative statute is just the wrong way to do this. Each of these propositions would add a couple dozen sections, over a hundred clauses of fine print, into State law. And once enacted by initiative, if it ever needs to be modified, it will require another initiative to fix it. There are situations where initiative statutes may be appropriate, but enacting drug discount policy is most certainly NOT one of them. Just vote NO.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

NO on 80: The Initiative Process is No Place for Energy Policy

While there are a number of complex propositions on this ballot, perhaps the most perplexing is Proposition 80, an initiative statute to re-regulate the electrical energy industry in California. I feel quite confident in giving this one a "prima facie NO". Only an energy policy uber-wonk would be qualified to evaluate such a technical proposition, while the other 99.999% of us Californians would be unable to formulate any rational opinion about the merits of this proposition. However, I can formulate an intelligent "meta-position" on this proposition, which is to say that it is utterly assinine to be codifying any energy policy as an initiative statute. Two good reasons for this meta-position. First, as already mentioned, the voting population at large is simply not qualified to make any intelligent decision on such technical matters (especially ones with such potentially far-reaching consequences). Second, codifying such broad policy as an initiative statute unduly constrains our ability to "fix it" when we realize that parts of it are "broken" or need updating. Keep in mind that under California's Constitution, initiative statutes are "super statutes" that cannot be touched by the Legislature, and require another ballot measure to make any changes to them. (While the measure has some limited provisions to allow for minor amendments by the Legislature, they are too constraining, as well as lawsuit-invitingly vague.)

In addition to this well-founded meta-position of voting NO on 80, I have a "meta-philosophy" on initiatives in general. When I doubt, one should always vote NO. Not only is it the safer position, but perhaps if more initiatives are defeated, people will become more discouraged from submitting more initiatives in the future. We have too many initiatives as it is, with too many of them hitting on topics that are no business for an initiative. Prop 80 is a fine example of the sort of initiative that needs to be discouraged.

NO on 73: A Misguided Setback for Good Health Policy

I found a wealth of background information on Prop 73, which would require parental notification for a minor to have an abortion, at the USC California Policy Institute, and wading through it all has me convinced that Prop 73 is not a good idea. Of course in an ideal world, we would like to see teens with an undesired pregnancy be comfortable in discussing the issue of abortion with their parents, and come to a decision that all are happy about. And it turns out that most teens in that situation do turn to at least one parent to come to their decision. For the smaller portion who don't, in some cases they have legitimate fear of abuse or other adverse repercussions. The evidence indicates that teens are generally capable of making abortion decisions that they do not regret later on, and that a higher proportion of those who made a decision independently were satisfied with their decision than those who were pushed by their parents into a decision other than what they would have liked. There is also some evidence that parental notification laws, rather than having the intended effect of increasing family communication, instead have the effect of pushing teens into other options such as seeking an abortion in another state, obtaining a "back room" abortion, or attempting it themselves. The bottom line is that most teens will discuss the matter with a parent, and for those who feel unable to, a law is not going to magically improve their family relationships.

As if that weren't enough, the text of the proposition contains wording describing abortion as "the death of the unborn child", which may have unintended consequences beyond this proposition if it becomes installed in the State Constitution. (Actually, some would argue that the consequences are fully intended by the proposition's proponents, intending to establish a pro-life beach-head in the Constitution.) A parental notification statute in Pennsylvania containing a nearly identical phrase has had the unintended(?) consequence of constraining stem cell research in that state. California, having just authorized a substantial state investment in stem cell research, certainly doesn't need this to become a spanner in the works.

The proponents' argument in the ballot pamphlet starts with the observation that a teenager can't get a flu shot or even an aspirin from the school nurse without parents being notified, but they can have an abortion in secret. Granted that's a jarring juxtaposition, but what's wrong with that picture is that the school nurse can't give a child an aspirin without fear of being sued. In the case of reproductive health services, the state has long recognized the importance of teens having confidential access to such services, and because of their importance, have created a special "safe haven" for teens who need such services and the medical practitioners who treat them. (Such laws go back to the 1950s, so I would say they have stood the test of time.)

Finally, one should keep in mind the larger picture, in that teen pregnancy rates, birth rates, and abortion rates have been dropping nationwide in the last 15 years, and even more so in California than the nation overall. Obviously the policies of the last 15 years are moving us in the right direction, and this misguided proposition seems unlikely to improve that and would possibly move us backwards.

Monday, October 31, 2005

San Gabriel Peak Geocaching

On Saturday, I took some friends from work out for their first geocaching expedition. I'm happy to report that the first geocaching expedition of "Team Compass" was a success. Our team hiked 5.36 miles (terrain distance) in 5.26 hours, scaled three peaks in the San Gabriel front range (2948 vertical feet climbed), and found three geocaches, one on each peak. The peaks are arranged such that each one looks like the highest one around as you ascend it, until you see the next peak, which is just a bit higher. Hence their names: Mt. Deception, Mt. Disappointment, and finally San Gabriel Peak.

Our intrepid team met on a cool sunny Saturday morning at Red Box Station on Angeles Crest. We started off inauspiciously, with a search for a supposedly easy geocache right there at Red Box, but came up empty, so we decided to just get moving. After dropping cars at Eaton Saddle, we started off at 4301' altitude, following a private paved road winding up through pine trees to a saddle (5500') where we took a single-track spur trail to our first peak, Mount Deception (5783'). The trail was pretty steep at first, but then turned to gentle ups and downs through beautiful high chaparral of manzanita and some huge yucca skeletons (some of them nearly 30' tall). We had breathtaking views of the whole San Gabriel range, and although the LA basin was covered in a layer of white, we could clearly see the upper reaches of Catalina Island peeking out above the white. At the summit, while I was focused on my GPS, Katy spotted a rock cairn that hid the Sierra Club summit log, so we stopped to sign. And a little further when we zeroed in on the first cache, Katy was the first to spot it. A small 5x3x2 container had some prizes in it. We all signed the log, and Katy took a geocoin trading it for an outrigger race medallion. I left a scorched geocoin that I had retrieved from a melted cache after the fires in the Simi hills last year.

We then dropped back down to the saddle and hiked around to Mount Disappointment (5948'), which has a flattened top with a bunch of comms antennas on it. Just beyond the summit was a pile of boulders which we scrambled around for a while, searching all the crevices for the cache. Just when we were about to give up, I found the small cylinder hidden under a large boulder and concealed by another rock. It was about noon, and it was a nice spot to enjoy our lunch. From there, we could look down on Mt. Deception where we'd been, up to San Gabriel Peak where we were headed next, and across to Mt. Lowe and Mt. Markham, which we'll hit another time.

Back down to the next saddle (5704') and then up a winding single track trail to San Gabriel Peak (6137'), which I believe is among the highest in the front range. That was another tricky cache, which turned out to be a fake rock hide-a-key, hidden amongst other rocks, but with persistence we eventually prevailed. After resting and enjoying more views, we headed back down, taking a different path off the shoulder to hook up with the Eaton Saddle fire road (5270'), through a tunnel, and back to the cars at 5108'.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Prop 74: Important Problem, Incomplete Solution

Proposition 74 claims to be "real education reform" by making it easier to get rid of under-performing teachers, currently protected by a tenure system. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that there are such teachers protected by the current system, and that it is very difficult and costly to get rid of them. But according to the California Policy Institute, we simply don't have any data one way or the other to tell us the actual extent of this problem, or of the expected efficacy of changing the tenure system in the ways proposed. In other words, we don't really know how big a problem this is, nor whether this measure does anything to solve it. Given that the benefit of the doubt on any Proposition should always be given toward voting NO, that's one strike against this measure.

On philosophical grounds, I'm generally opposed to tenure as a concept, except in special cases. In general, people should be entitled to keep their job so long as they are performing productively in a valuable capacity, but when they cease to perform well (or their services otherwise cease to be valuable), it's unreasonable to artificially constraint the termination of the employment relationship. That's the way it works for most of us in the "real world", and I see no philosophical reason teachers should be any different. I mentioned that there are certain cases where tenure is justified: a Supreme Court Justice is one example, where the lifetime appointment is important to preserving independence from political pressures. And in university academics, I can see the case for it, where research should be kept free from intimidation against unpopular inquiries. But I don't see any case to be made for public school teachers needing tenure any more than waiters, actors, salesmen or accountants need tenure.

That being said, I think there is a current pragmatic (non-philosophical) justification for public school teachers to have tenure, and that is because tenure as a benefit is a modest form of non-cash compensation to help make up for the fact that teachers are paid less than they ought to be. I would love to see tenure tossed on the scrapheap, and merit pay introduced instead of a rigid seniority system, but coupled with a substantive overall increase in pay across the board. I get this idea from Matt Miller, who has written extensively on this, and has run some numbers and some political surveys to show that this really could work. I highly recommend his book "The 2% Solution: Solving America's Problems in Ways Both Liberals and Conservatives Can Love". You can also find a synopsis of his win-win education reform proposal in this article.

Education reform is desperately needed, and if a more credible and comprehensive solution were put on the ballot, I'd happily vote for it. In the meantime, while I support what they're trying to get at with Prop 74, I don't think I can support this "half measure", which is all stick and no carrot.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

So What Does She Talk About Anyway?

While it is not entirely surprising that Harriet Miers has (or was) withdrawn, I gasped with incredulity when I heard on the radio that Miers and Bush had "never before discussed the option of withdrawal". This woman is amazing. She spends an entire career in the practice of law, has close friends who are judges, was involved in politics, and yet if we are to take her at face value, she had never once had a discussion with anyone about Roe v. Wade, nor apparently discussed or formed opinions about any Supreme Court decisions. Practically every Joe and Jane with a blog has an opinion about some Supreme Court decision, but Harriet Miers has never even discussed it. And now, with the drums beating for weeks for her withdrawal, we are told that she and President Bush had never discussed the option. So the burning question on my mind: just what does this woman talk about with her friends? The Houston Astros? Desperate Housewives and America's Next Top Model?

As to what happens next, I think Kip's read is as good as any. Edith Clement has the New Orleans angle, she's got the experience, the conservatives are confortable with her (I think?), and yet she doesn't seem quite the fire-breathing ideologue of say a Janice Rogers Brown. Stay tuned.

YES on 76: Let's Live Within Our Means

Prop 76 (state funding and school spending limits, a.k.a. the "Live Within Our Means Act") is a big, messy, complex proposition. The official summary alone is eight text-packed pages in the ballot pamphlet. With anything this complex, it is a practical certainty that there will be good parts and bad parts, and pieces you'd prefer to have a different way. That makes the decision tougher, in that even after digesting the big hairball, a clear-cut "yes" or "no" is improbable. More likely, you just need to weigh the benefits against the flaws and decide whether it's worth writing into the state Constitution. True to expectation, I found things in here that I liked, and other things that left me a bit queasy. But overall, I'm inclining to support this measure.

As background, it's important to understand that California has been in a down-spiraling fiscal mess ever since the Internet boom caused state revenues to boom as if the state had won some lottery. The state government increased spending commensurately, like those lottery winners you always hear about who blow it all and end up broke. Sure enough, after the Internet bubble burst, California has been piling debt upon debt ever since. This is compounded by the operation of a 17-year-old measure (Prop 98) that guarantees a minimum spend on education, based on formulas that increase over the previous year, such that windfall spending in one year raises the bar that much higher forever more.

Although there already exist current spending limits and balanced budget requirements, analysis shows that these are not sufficient to avoid similar messes in the future. Research indicates that only a rigorous requirement to balance actual spending to revenue (not just the budget as forecast) is effective in avoiding mounting deficits. The current requirements insure only that a balanced budget is passed at the start of a fiscal year, but do not protect against that budget falling out of balance when actual revenues fall short of what was estimated. Proposition 76 would provide two important protections: first, to limit spending to a measured growth (avoiding the drunken lottery winner syndrome), and second, to require budgets to STAY balanced. (The analysis of the California Policy Institute suggests that the spending limits would play an even greater role than the "anti-deficit" requirement.) Two independent studies have done a retrospective analysis on how California might have looked if had Prop 76 15 or 25 years ago, and it looks pretty reasonable. In short, Proposition 76 seems likely to be effectively beneficial for future fiscal sanity.

The Proposition also tweaks the old Prop 98 education funding guarantees (which had previously been tweaked by Prop 111). The changes are too technical to explain in this already long blog, but after studying them, they seem reasonable to me. There is a lot of heated rhetoric out there about $3.8 billion that the Governor "cut" from the education budget, and how this proposition will cause a reduction in funding. The reality is that that $3.8 billion was money the state never had in the first place, and only existed in the hypothetical budget requirements created by the perverse combination of Prop 98 mandates in the wake of the boom spending spree. ("Hypothetical" is a diplomatic description of that "budget". "Fantastic" might be more apt.)

Probably the most controversial aspects of the proposition concern the expanded powers given to the Governor. Under the new measure, if the budget falls out of balance, the Governor can declare a fiscal emergency and convene the Legislature to address it. The Legislature then has 45 days to enact correcting legislation, and if they fail to do so, the Governor has unilateral power to reduce State spending by making cuts at his discretion. While there is a definite shift in balance of power going on here, it is not quite as dire as the shrill warnings of the measure's opponents claim. "It places everything at the whim of the Governor!" they warn. Yes and no. For one thing, the Legislature always has the "right of first refusal" to, um, actually do their job and pass a budget. And even if the Legislature abdicates their responsibility in the first place, handing this new power to the Governor, the Legislature can always "get their act together" at a later time. In other words, if the Governor's cuts are not to their liking, they can always pass a new budget more to their liking, so long as it addresses the fiscal requirements. It should also be noted that the Governor already has a fair amount of power with the ability to reduce budget line items before signing a budget. All that being said, I do think that this goes too far. However, I think the benefits of the overall measure outweigh this queasy part. Also remember it's not uncommon for propositions to get tweaked by later propositions, and this seems to me the most likely part of this proposition (should it pass) to be tweaked in the future.

The other part of the proposition that I have some misgivings about is the automatic extension of the prior year's budget if the government can't get a new budget passed. It's a bit disconcerting nearly every year in June when the state government comes to a near-screeching halt when the budget expires and the Legislature hasn't pulled together the new one. But that screeching puts great pressure on them to finally get the job done. This auto-pilot budgeting makes the stakes too low for obstructionists in getting a new budget hammered out.

On the upside, other provisions tighten up the loopholes that have allowed all-too-frequent raids of "special funds" to keep the general fund afloat. When Californians voted for a gas tax that was to explicitly fund transportation projects, that's what we should get. Not a transportation fund full of IOUs from the general fund while the pot-holes go unfilled.

I glanced at the "pro" and "con" arguments in the ballot pamphlet, not that these are explicitly illuminating, but they are implicitly so. On the "rhetoric" meter, usually the sides are more balanced between reason and hysteria, but in this case the "con" arguments sounded much more hysterical to me, while the "pro" arguments sounded much more reasonable. Endorsers included the Governor, California's current Finance Director, a UCLA economics prof, the state Secretary of Education, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association president. Opponents included the teachers union, the nurses union, the firefighters union, and the law enforcement union. (Draw your own conclusions from that.)

In sum, while there are parts of this proposal that definitely make me a bit queasy, I think the overall package is needed, and the benefits outweigh the misgivings.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

End Gerrymandering: YES on 77

Even those outside of California may be aware that we have a rather contentious special election coming up in November. A colleague at work has asked me to comment on the 8 statewide propositions on our ballot, and I must confess I've only just started to delve into the 77 page voters pamphlet. However, one of the propositions ought to be a no-brainer. (I say "ought to be", because, sadly, a lot of people are being taken in by the opposition obfuscation.) Proposition 77, which would end gerrymandering in California, deserves a whole-hearted YES.

After the 2000 census, California's Democrats and Republicans, though extremely polarized in the legislature, struck an unholy alliance in which they colluded to preserve all incumbent parties by drawing a new district map that would make Elbridge Gerry blush. A simple glance at the Senate district map for the Los Angeles area (shown here) should make that perfectly clear. We live in Senate district 22 (shown in brown), in the narrow isthmus that inexplicably connects an amorphous swatch of downtown and east Los Angeles with a mickey-mouse cut-out of Pasadena. As strangely shaped as my Rorschach test of a district is, it is by no means atypical. In fact, when I looked up "gerrymander" in Wikipedia, I found a California congressional district as one of the casebook examples. (Unfortunately, California is not unique in this respect. Illinois and the Texas travesty provide other examples.)

Proposition 77 would take district-drawing out of the hands of the legislature and assign it to a panel of retired judges, chosen through a thoroughly fair and assiduously bipartisan process, and with final approval from the voters. So why would anyone oppose it? Ironically, neither of the major parties are happy about it, as it will likely undo the cozy "safe" districts they had carved out, and possibly create some real competition. What arguments do they put against it? They start with the general smear of trying to associate this initiative, along with most of the others, with Governor Schwarzenegger, whose popularity is sagging lately. One would hope that people would be smart enough to vote on each proposition on its merits, rather than take them all as a referendum on the Governor. Regretably, many people will do just that. There's also the more focused smear of accusing this proposition of trying to "do what they did in Texas", which is an ironic accusation. There is a superficial similarity in that Prop 77 would trigger a redistricting outside the customary decennial cycle, but there the similarity ends. Prop 77 will actually protect us against the blatant partisan redistricting that was done in Texas in 2004 (and in California in 2001). The sooner the better. They cry about "added costs" of "extra elections", but that's bogus. The process will require no extra elections, and is structured to cost half of the current process. They sound the alarm that "three unelected judges will decide everything" (I've spared you the all-caps and exclamation points used in the ballot pamphlet). Well, yes, that's the point: the current problem is that the elected officials have an inherent conflict of interest. And they appeal to partisan fears, warning that "it's a Republican power grab". Um, no, it's a power grab by the people away from the unholy alliance of incumbent partisans.

There is absolutely no good reason to vote against Prop 77 and every good reason to vote for it. Vote YES on 77.