Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Face Sky, tonight only!

Look west in the evening sky tonight just after sunset - Jupiter will be almost directly above Venus, and the crescent moon off to the left making a pretty good, sideways, Happy Face Sky. I declare this conjunction to be of enormous astrological significance.

Don't wait too long after sunset or the moon will set and you'll miss it.

Once again, I strive to bring only the highest quality, useful news here at Backseat Driving.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Little Obamas

I'd meant to write about this NY Times article a while back, showing significant increases in black elected leaders who rely on white voters:

In 2007, about 30 percent of the nation’s 622 black state legislators represented predominantly white districts, up from about 16 percent in 2001, according to data collected by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research group based in Washington that has kept statistics on black elected officials for nearly 40 years.

In the 1980s, few black state legislators represented predominantly white districts, said David A. Bositis, the senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies who conducted the most recent study of black state legislators.

By 2001, that number stood at 92, according to Tyson King-Meadows and Thomas F. Schaller, political scientists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who analyzed statistics from the joint center and other sources. In 2007, the figure was 189, Mr. Bositis said.

All of this is a very welcome development - but why is it happening? Some possibilities:

1. White racism has decreased significantly from the 1980s and even from the 1990s so that white voters are now increasingly willing to elect black leaders.

2. White racism hasn't changed that much - some white voters have been ready to elect black leaders for ten or more years, but it takes time for black candidates to establish themselves and run for office.

3. The change isn't just in white racism but in how whites and blacks interact. White conservatives often point to the success that recent immigrants from African and the Caribbean have here as proof that white racism isn't the problem, it's African-American culture that's the problem. My guess instead is that something about the culture of how whites and blacks interact feeds into white racism, while recent African immigrants aren't part of this response. Now, maybe, the negative white-black interaction is starting to fade.

4. Some combination of the above three.

Option number 4 is the easy one, of course. Option number 2 is the most likely given the rapid rise in black leaders, and is the least good of them all in terms of positive trends, but it's still good and something to be thankful for.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Not at all Lovley

I was going to point out the climate awfulness of Erika Lovley at the Politico, but it's already been taken down at Deltoid, Climate Progress, Gristmill, and probably others.

Every criticism I've seen of her two appalling articles - one claiming there's increased scientific evidence of global cooling and another implicitly asserting without evidence that a positive correlation exists (while acknowledging it may be "coincidental") between climate change discussions and cold weather events - was justified criticism. I'll just add that there was no time pressure for either article, and so no excuse for failing to include responses to the non-science she reported as fact. Either she or her editor deserve the blame.

Joe at Climate Progress thinks she should be reassigned to another beat - she appears to be Politico's energy and environment reporter. I looked through some of her previous articles. They're not as bad, although this one making Dingell looking good on the environment is pretty ridiculous. This one comparing Obama-McCain climate plans fails to mention that Obama's willingness to auction carbon permits creates a funding source for renewables that McCain misses. Might be worth some more digging.

UPDATE: Something that would be much more lovely is petitioning the EPA to make the finding that CO2 is endangering the environment. The We Campaign has an online form you can fill and personify, if you want. I added some blather about international public opinion and environmental justice. Friday's the deadline to comment.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Team of Rivals is good, but not well-rounded

I wish I knew of a well-rounded biography of Lincoln that gave him all the praise that Goodwin does in Team of Rivals while holding back none of the criticisms for inevitable mistakes. The author is battling people I don't care about: trolls attempting to reanimate the reputation of the slave-owning Confederacy, and idiot historians who try to carve a reputation for themselves by chiseling a piece out of Lincoln's. I'd rather see some balance to Goodwin's constant praise for Lincoln, especially in his occasionally-cynical political maneuvering that was probably necessary to get to victory.

Still, the book gives a good feel for history in the Northern states from the early 1800s to the Civil War, through the biographies of the four main rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860. Lincoln's ability to work with all his rivals in his cabinet was amazing, but has limited relevancy: Obama and Lincoln are very different, despite the gift of rhetoric and intelligence they both share.

Salmon Chase presents an interesting figure forpondering over morality. He was the only rival in Lincoln's cabinet who never came around to admiring him. Consumed with ambition, he never stopped scheming to be president and died unhappy because he missed that goal. At the same time, he was the strongest, consistent opponent of slavery and supporter of black men's rights of all the candidates, with positions far ahead of Lincoln's. His morality and ambition were in direct conflict, something he never quite worked out, and didn't seem that likeable a figure in the end.

Other points: the one interesting-to-me argument Goodwin takes up is refuting the theory that Lincoln was gay (not that there's anything wrong with that). She effectively demonstrates that men from that period were much more emotionally and asexually intimate than us folks.

The book helped me think about whether Lincoln could've saved the South from punishing Northern retribution and eventual repression of black populations. I still think he would've failed, that there was no real compromise between Northern desire for revenge and white Southern determination to oppress blacks. Still, Lincoln might have taken a bit of the edge off from either side, and that could've brought the civil rights era a generation earlier than what did occur.

Finally, I was struck by how many of these strong men had become emotional wrecks in their early lives due to the deaths of people they loved, even in a historical period when sudden death wasn't unexpected. We're a strange species to have evolved to be so dysfunctional following events that are very likely to occur. I think it shows how important relationships are to our survival that dysfunctionality is a necessary side-effect to the evoluntionary drive to create those bonds.

UPDATE: Guess I'm not done commenting - Goodwin weighs in on Lincoln's spirituality. He was clearly a deist, at least. She's convinced he didn't believe in an afterlife - I'm not sure she proved that, but maybe I'm forgetting her evidence. If she's right, you probably couldn't call him a Christian, so I guess he'd be unelectable today.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bystanding on the Dingell-Waxman climate battle

We'll know when the climate activists have really arrived when they get into the fight for Congressional leadership positions, like the current Dingell-Waxman battle over who leads the Energy and Commerce Committee. Enviros don't look at that actively involved to me (from my own bystanding viewpoint), but Dingell was a climate denialist until recently, and this battle is in significant part over how much we'll push the auto industry in the right direction.

Hope it works out, but we'll find out on this week.

(No blogging for the rest of the week, probably.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reviews: Arab Labor, and the Aubrey/Maturin novels

The Arab Labor show and Aubrey/Maturin novels have nothing to do with each other, but I really enjoyed both.

Arab Labor depicts a middle-class Israeli Palestinian, neurotically trying to conform to expectations in both Jewish and Arab worlds, and generally bungling it up. This review of the show describing it as the Palestinian Seinfeld gets it right. Link TV has the first show available on the web, and I hope the rest show up on Netflix at some point so I can see them.

The Aubrey/Maturin novels formed the basis of the Master and Commander movie that came out several years ago. The series takes the Horatio Hornblower, naval historical fiction to new levels both in nautical detail and in story-telling. The nautical detail I skip, mostly, but it still adds to the authentic feeling, and the story-telling's great. Great for time-wasting.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

T.H. Huxley on the ocean acidification lawsuit

Huxley's famous comment after reading the Origins of Species: "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that."

That's my thought after reading about the Center for Biological Diversity's threatened Clean Water Act lawsuit over ocean acidification. Unfortunately, they haven't put their 60-day notice of intent to sue online, but a petition they wrote last year requesting voluntary regulation by the EPA is available. For unfathomable reasons, EPA actually created a don't-change-the-ocean's-pH standard in 1976 of .2 units, but CBD says it's past time to update the standard, especially since we've already changed acidity by .11 units and could exceed .2 units by mid-century.

I don't know this part of the Clean Water Act all that well, but it seems like a pretty good lawsuit. I think it's even better from a climate communications point of view - ocean acidification isn't hard to understand, it doesn't take much imagination to realize bad things will come of it, and glibertarian reactions like "we'll just geoengineer our way out of global warming" don't address this issue at all.

We'll see what will happen to it. The notice was filed last week and has to sit 60 days before CBD can sue. I'd kind of expect them to hold off on litigation until Obama is in office and then see what settlement is available. If nothing else, it's one more bargaining chip in favor of stronger climate legislation.

The next lawsuit down the line should probably be for human production of biologically-available nitrogen. That would be interesting to watch.

UPDATE: Lawsuit filed on May 19, 2009.

UPDATE 2: Lawsuit settled, with EPA agreeing to evaluate whether to regulate acidification. Expect future litigation by good guys if they refuse, or bad guys if they take action.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Is Obama insane enough to let torture stay legal?

I find it a little hard to believe, but Andrew Sullivan reports "Mr. Obama may decide he wants to keep the road open in certain cases for the CIA to use techniques not approved by the military, but with much greater oversight."

Sullivan adds "It's obviously being placed by some Clinton and Bush officials angling for more continuity with Bush's torture regime."

A (still-Obama-hating FWIW) blogger at Talk Left refers to a John Brennan of Bush/Clinton CIA years as Obama's head of intelligence transition issues.

The New Yorker describes Brennan as a supporter of CIA torture techniques even despite the practical problems: "Setting aside the moral, ethical, and legal issues, even supporters, such as John Brennan, acknowledge that much of the information that coercion produces is unreliable."

It's all hard to believe. I'm actually hoping that the torture has even stopped with Mukasey now heading DOJ, so why Obama would want to keep the door open?

I'm seeing some blogs saying, don't criticize Obama until he's actually done something wrong, but what we're seeing is a push from the Democrats' right, and we need to push back.

Somewhat related issue on the other end of the spectrum is the rumor about appointing Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to the Environmental Protection Agency. A great environmentalist and fine lawyer, RFK Jr. has not used science appropriately in the whole mercury-vaccine issue and wouldn't be right for the job. Again we're told not to respond to rumors, but again I see a trial balloon sent up by somebody, and it's a problem.

A final footnote: I had read somewhere that RFK was representing mercury-vaccine plaintiffs, although I can't find confirmation of it. If true, it makes it very difficult for him to renounce the claims following new scientific results. I'd give a little slack to a lawyer stuck in the position of being a mouthpiece for his clients, but still....

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Some praise for some McCain bloggers

I was pleasantly surprised at the election-night reaction of some conservative bloggers at the group blogs Tigerhawk and The Corner. They stated that Obama was now their president too, they were genuinely happy for the tears of joy coming from the black community; and some even stated the nation should unite around the new leader and work together. Of course some right wingers were the exact opposite, but bile and anger was the reaction I had expected.

So that all is great, but it's harder to figure out how to work with well-meaning people when you have strong policy disagreements. I think the most important thing we can ask of them is not to drop their policy disagreements, but when policies get enacted that they disagree with, to do their best to keep an open mind in judging whether the policies succeed or fail. I guess we should do the same.

Some other possibilities for cooperation include emphasizing governmental transparency and anti-corruption efforts. Democrats' best and worst intentions will be split over this, while out-of-power Republicans have nothing to lose by supporting them. Earmarks aren't the most important problems in the world, but they are bad policy and recipes for corruption. Finally, sunset provisions and measurement metrics as part of new policies and legislation could be agreeable for both sides - to the Democrats who think the policies will succeed, and Republicans who think they'll fail. For example, I'd prefer stronger climate legislation that sunsets in 2020 over weaker legislation that's permanent.

Maybe there's other ways to work together, I don't know. I think the Republicans might have to lose again in 2012 and 2016, and then they might consider changing some of their views on social and environmental policies so that it becomes easier to work together.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The new Senate's effect on climate legislation

I posted last June about Lieberman-Warner's failure to reach the 60 votes it needed. (The actual vote list is here.) It received 48 yes votes, and proponents claimed six absent Senators were on their side (Obama, Clinton, McCain, Coleman, Biden, and Kennedy) so they're six votes short. How about now?

Wiki lists the Senate election results so far that we can compare the bill vote list. Allard's retired, replaced by a good enviro, Mark Udall, so that vote switches to yes. Sununu was a good vote, so his replacement's a wash. Domenici's replacement adds a yes vote. Dole was a yes vote, so another wash. Gordon Smith's loss is another wash as a yes vote. Same thing with J Warner replaced by M Warner. So total pickup, not including the still contested seats, is two votes.

In the too-close-to-call category, two incumbents (Stevens and Scumbag Chambliss) will switch to yes votes if they lose, while Coleman's a wash.

So best case from the election is four new yes votes. I speculated last June that we might only need two if we could get the four existing Dem votes against the bill (Brown, Dorgan, Johnson, and Landrieu) to switch on cloture, but we might only need two of them. If climate legislation is packaged together with some "energy independence" legislation, it might peel off an additional Republican vote or two.

So a definite maybe, at this point, and with the additional disclaimer that stronger legislation like Obama wants might drop a few votes. As for a treaty - forget getting 67 votes. A trade agreement including post-Kyoto limits is the only option.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Don't just do something - stand there!

I noticed several things when I re-read my posts after the 2004 election debacle. First, I weighed over five pounds less then, which is distressing. More relevant though is all the handwringing I and my guest-bloggers did over what we should do to bring the country back to a non-insane course. None of it really mattered - the main thing was to wait for people to realize how screwed up the conservative mission was.

The funny thing about that is the advice of waiting for the people to come around is what's going to be what conservatives will do over the next four years, and I think that's a huge mistake. I expect no change in their social issue positions or national security outlook, and at most a modest improvement for a few Republicans on climate change. The problem for them is that I think their opinions are wrong, and in the long run, no one's going to be converted to their side. Ultimately they'll realize it, and have to come up with something different.

My superficial impression is that British Conservatives have evolved quite a bit. American conservatives used to admire the Brits, so maybe, someday, they'll emulate them.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Israel to bomb Iran this week?*

*As The Daily Show once noted, insinuations made without evidence are often justified by adding a question mark, but here goes nothing.

Enough celebrating over what I anticipate the election to be, and time to get cranky. Presently, it seems unlikely that the US will try to obliterate Iran's nuclear program, although I wouldn't rule out semi-accidentally stumbling into a hot border war that spreads. Given US reluctance, what will Israel do?

If they decide to do it themselves, I think their two best time periods to do it are before Obama's inauguration, or at some point in the future when the US relinquishes control of Iraqi airspace. The safest path for Israeli bombers is over Jordan and Iraq, not Saudi Arabia. Bush would be less resistant than Obama, and Israel could present Obama with a fait accompli, so that favors an attack relatively soon.

The other possibility for Israel is to wait one or more years, when the US doesn't have legal responsibility for Iraqi airspace. It'll be many years after that time before Iraq could really do anything about the Israeli air force, so this would be the diplomatic sweet spot for attacking Israelis, assuming they're willing to wait.

It also assumes the Israelis want the diplomatic sweet spot to get America off the hook. Maybe they don't - if they attack while the US sits on its hands and refuses to shoot down Israeli warcraft (and I doubt we would), then the Arab world would blame the US for the Israeli attack, which would make Israel happy enough.

So what should Obama do? Not much he can do until he's inaugurated. If it happens before January 20, he should say "Once is enough - when I'm President, any warcraft from any nation that enters Iraqi airspace under US control will be shot down." If no attack occurs, he could still say that when he's President, eliminating the "once is enough" part.

More happily, there's this Fresh Air interview with former CIA operative Bob Baer. He knows Israeli officials who want an attack but are not getting their way. Maybe someone in Israel realizes there's still time to figure out what Iran is really doing, or even that a long-term smoldering war with Iran is even worse than Iran getting nukes.

UPDATE Jan. 10 2009: Israel wanted to attack Iran and asked for Iraq overflight rights, but was refused by Bush. Good for him.

Monday, November 03, 2008

My peon-volunteer eye view of 2004 and 2008 campaigns

In 2004 I was a higher level peon volunteer than I am this time around. I don't think commitments are supposed to proceed in that direction, but I feel this campaign has less of a need for my time, and I now have personal commitments.

In '04 I was about the third volunteer lawyer to arrive on the Kerry team in Orlando and spent my two weeks there, mostly helping organize the 130 lawyers who arrived for election day. This time I spent a weekend canvassing door-to-door out of state, did some phone calling yesterday and will probably do some more tomorrow.

One surprising thing is that my canvassing weekend three weeks ago didn't feel like it was with a more resource-rich organization than what I saw in '04. All volunteer-driven, not a lot of money being spent. On the other hand, the scale of the effort then seemed comparable to what I saw in Orlando on the weekend before the election. Maybe the vaunted Obama ground game is about spreading out the organizational effort instead of gold-plating it.

The other thing that's different is that I was aware in '04 of tensions between city-level, Florida-state level, and national-level campaigns, but I'm not hearing about that now. I'm also not as well positioned to hear it in '08, but from the outside at least, it seems like a well-oiled machine.


I just looked back at my posts for November and October 2004. I was much more personally involved and invested then. Interesting in that I like Obama somewhat better than Kerry. Here's one thing from the day after the '04 election:

So I've returned back home. I somehow weigh what I did before I left, despite an exclusive diet of junk food and Coke. I climbed at the gym tonight, and it seemed to go like it did before I left for Orlando. And we have the same president. Except that we will still have him until January 20, 2009. That seems so depressingly far off. I can't stand it, I'm not going to think about it right now.

Even nightmares come to an end.

UDATE, 11/4: Went into the Silicon Valley Obama HQ this morning to do a few more phone calls. At 7:30 a.m., the place was packed and I had to sit on chairs outside to make calls.

Probably the best thing I've done for the campaign though is this September blog post refuting a lying email that went around. My site stats showed over 200 referral links just to that post (a lot for me), and the info was hopefully used elsewhere. I'm not a blogging triumphalist normally, but that counts for something.

Biggest regret is not doing more to fight the homophobic Proposition 8 here in California. Crossing my fingers on that one.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Supporters of Palin say they're not using "rational theorizing"

Interesting comment in a post by a pro-Palin conservative:

I think Sarah Palin is indeed a Rorschach test for’s about what Conservativsm MEANS....

The core idea behind Conservatism is that most of human learning is done not by rational theorizing, but by pattern recognition....

This pattern recognition is called common sense, and over generations, it’s called traditions, conventions etc. Religion is usually a carrier meme for these evolved patterns. It’s sort of an evolutionary process, like a genetic algorithm....

Liberals, Lefties and even many Libertarians want to use only 10% of the human knowledge that’s rational.....

Conservatives are practical people who instinctively recognize the importance of evolved patterns in human learning: because our rational knowledge simply isn’t enough yet, these common sense patterns are our second best option to use. And to use these patterns effectively you don’t particularly have to be very smart i.e. very rational. You have to be _wise_ and you have to have a good character: you have to set hubris and pride aside and be able to accept traditions you don’t fully understand....

Anti-Palin Conservatives don’t understand it. They think Conservativism is about having different theories than the Left, they don’t understand that it’s that theories and rational knowledge isn’t so important.

What's especially interesting is the enthusiastic response following this idea of "going with your gut and calling it wisdom". I think the truth is a lot of what all of us consider reasoned analysis that reaches a conclusion is actually a gut response that's going through the motions, but to not even bother to fight for logic and knowledge is pretty striking.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

A repost from September 4, 2007

(Original here. Reposting seemed relevant to California's election on Tuesday.)

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

On a personal note...

I got married on Sunday. Everything seemed to go very well, and it was fantastic to see everyone.

In addition to registering for the usual selfish presents, we also registered for Kiva loans, a system that supports microfinance institutions by allowing donors to give no-interest loans to micro-entrepeneurs in developing countries. A number of people made loans, and I'll be very interested to see how it turns out.

And we registered for TerraPass for carbon offsets, something I need to do more of.

Final note: I often think the whole "personal is political" concept involves an overblown sense of self-importance, but the idea that my wife and I can participate in something so wonderful while a gay or lesbian couple cannot is simply beyond ridiculous. I know good-hearted people who disagree, and I just don't think they're reflecting on it hard enough.

And now - off travelling for a few days!

McCain record not better than "most Democrats" on climate change

This week's Economist endorsement of Obama gives undeserved credit to John McCain for "having a better record on global warming than most Democrats." I've heard that before and it's not true.

In 2003, Joe Lieberman (who despite his many flaws, remains a good environmentalist) introduced the Climate Stewardship Act, meaning he was mainly responsible for moving the bill forward. McCain was just one of 9 co-sponsors. McCain's name got on the bill because they try to have both a Democrat and a Republican name, but it was still Lieberman's bill.

The bill ultimately failed to pass the Senate on a 43-55 vote, and most Democrats voted for it.

McCain's overrated willingness to buck his party is deserved in this one, very important issue, and for that he deserves credit. That doesn't make him better than most Democrats, though. I suppose he may have put more effort than most Democrats on this bill, but that's a pretty slim reed.