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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Tuesday, 6 January 2004

Topic: The Culture

Automotive Psychology: If someone's going to die, let it be someone else.
Is it possible to limit the damage an obsession does to others?

In this week's New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell has a long piece on those SUV things - those luxury, top-heavy, truck-based transport vehicles just about everyone drives. Heck, my nephew's wife out in Barstow is urging her husband to trade their nearly new Ford Excursion - the largest and heaviest passenger vehicle manufactured in American - for a Hummer. The Hummer is a bit more brutal and looks bigger and safer, or maybe more "invincible and impenetrable." This couple does have two children, five and seven. And the world is a mean place. I don't want to tell her the family's current Ford has more total mass and larger dimensions than even the largest Hummer. She had her dream. The unassailable family car. No one will ever hurt her or her kids.

The Gladwell New Yorker article is called "Big and Bad." It's not available online, but an interview with the author is.

See Road Killers
The New Yorker, Posted 2004-01-05

Here Gladwell on why my nephew's wife is so obsessed with the ultimate SUV:
One school of thought says that SUV buyers harbor a kind of outdoorsy fantasy. But I suspect that it's more basic than that: this is a vehicle that can flourish in the most extreme environment imaginable. If it can ford streams and climb over boulders, just think how safe and protected you'll be on the trip to Wal-Mart! Of course, the logic behind that argument is backward: the trip to Wal-Mart is a good deal more hazardous than fording a stream in the wilderness, and we ought to be buying cars optimized for the conditions we actually drive in.
Well, yes. But one should tell people what they "ought" to buy. That just makes them angry.

Gladwell comments on how market research does show that SUV's tend to be bought by people who are "insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills." This is what people said about sports cars for many years, of course.

Galdwell's response:
Well, it's not quite what people said about sports cars: for example, I think the people who buy sports cars have excessive confidence in their driving skills. But, in general, the more expensive an item becomes, the more psychological factors play into the purchase decision.
Well, I'll have to think about that. I see what he means, the more expensive something is the harder one must work to explain to oneself why the hell one is spending the money. Got it.

Then how are these things marketed? How does one convince a not-very-wealthy young family to assume a seventy-five thousand dollar debt for one of these?

Here's how:
There's a television commercial for an SUV in which a woman is driving the SUV and a rock rolls onto the road in front of her, and she swerves around it at the last minute. That ad claims that SUVs are nimble, and suggests that the key variable in avoiding the rock was the vehicle. That is an attempt, it seems to me, to play to the driver who lacks confidence in his or her skills. The most dominant image in SUV commercials and ads is still the SUV mastering some off-road obstacle: fording streams, cutting through snowbanks, racing across virgin wilderness. Obviously, almost no SUV driver is ever going to use his or her car in those environments (in large part, of course, because racing across virgin wilderness in an SUV is, for the most part, illegal). Another interesting thing about SUV advertisements, along these lines, is how rarely children appear in them. Keith Bradsher makes this point in his book, High and Mighty. Minivans are advertised in family-centric ways. The SUV, on the other hand, is supposed to allow the buyer to pretend that he or she doesn't have a family, that he or she is still a kind of rugged loner without suburban entrapments.
Well, let me see... if Keith Bradsher is correct my nephew's wife doesn't really like her kids and wants to pretend she's a rugged loner. That she wants a new Hummer means the marriage is in trouble. I don't think so.

Gladwell adds that the most important other issue right now is the question of fashion: that, at the moment, certain kinds of SUVs (like the Cadillac Escalade) are simply considered cool, in the way that Corvettes were cool twenty-five years ago. Maybe that's it.

And then there is the safety thing. These things are simply bigger than anything else on the road. If someone is going to die in a traffic accident, it won't be you. Let someone else drive their little Mini or SLK. You'll survive and win - even financially:
If every car on the road was a Mini, then the cost of an accident would be quite small: if you are in a Mini and you hit a Mini, you aren't going to be that bad off. So, in the old days, the premium on active safety wasn't so large. On the other hand, if every car on the road is an SUV, the cost of an accident grows substantially. When a Ford Explorer hits a Chevy TrailBlazer, both parties suffer enormously. And, if a Ford Explorer hits a Mini, the Mini driver is a dead man. ... As a non-SUV owner, I simply cannot afford to get into any accident at all these days.
Interesting. Last month my little SLK was clobbered by a fifteen-year-old Toyota sedan. The total cost of repairs was almost four grand. The insurance company was not happy at all. Had I been clobbered by a Hummer? Well, not much would be left. And I probably wouldn't be here.

My nephew's wife may have a point. If someone's going to die, let it be someone else. Gladwell understands:
I don't think we can easily cure people of their desire to feel safe - even if that desire does not correlate with actual safety. But what we can do - and ought to do - is limit the damage that that obsession does to others. The important thing to remember is that the harm that SUVs do to other vehicles is not a simple function of their excessive weight. In other words, if a five-thousand-pound SUV hits you, you aren't automatically dead. Cars are so beautifully designed these days that they can safely absorb tremendous forces in an accident. (I always think of the fact that the bodyguard in the front seat of Princess Diana's Mercedes survived that crash, which was into a concrete pillar reportedly at a speed in excess of ninety miles per hour. That's how good car safety has become.) But all those safety mechanisms usually work if the car is hit squarely (or, at least, on the same plane) by the opposing vehicle. That's what is not happening now. SUVs are so tall that cars simply submarine them. The kind of redesign that the automakers are talking about - making SUVs less "aggressive" in their accident posture and reducing the risks of that kind of submarining - is critically important. Of course, it would be better if every car on the road was the same weight. But that's not going to happen.
I guess I'm in trouble. When I win the lottery I'll buy each of us our very own Hummer H1 - and we'll all be fine.

Posted by Alan at 23:27 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: Election Notes

Truth in Advertising: Do NOT Drive a Volvo!
Much has been said in the last day or two about the anti-Bush advertisements that have Bush morphing into Hitler and all that. But that was two of thirty "draft" advertisements, none broadcast, and those two were withdrawn with an apology for their "poor taste."

What about actual advertisements that got on air?

See Conservatives launch TV attack ad on Dean
Ralph Z. Hallow, The Washington Times, Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Here's the skinny:
A conservative advocacy group will begin running a TV ad in Iowa against Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, in a move questioned by some of President Bush's supporters.

The Club for Growth Political Action Committee said the 30-second spot against the former Vermont governor will begin running in Des Moines today -- two weeks before the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

In the ad, a farmer says he thinks that "Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading ..." before the farmer's wife then finishes the sentence: "... Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs."

...The Club for Growth was founded in 1999 to elect what it calls "pro-economic growth fiscal conservatives." Mr. Moore said the club and its members raised or donated more than $10 million to help elect 17 new members to Congress in the 2002 election cycle.

Mr. Moore said his PAC will announce next week a $4 million campaign to counter the expected, massive ad campaign by what he calls "left-wing groups" largely funded by liberal activists and businessmen such as George Soros and Peter Lewis.
Well, not one latte for me now. Never liked latte that much, anyway.

And even the Republicans think this advertisement is not exactly useful.

Over at the Atrios-Eschaton blog one finds this:
Imagine if I ran an ad which went something like "George Bush should take his negro-lynching, anti-intellectual, pig- feet eating, sister-screwing, wife-beating..." before the farmer's wife then finishes the sentence: "... KKK-loving, right-wing freak show back to Texas where it belongs."

Mine's slightly more over the top than the actual Club for Growth ad, but it's no more incorrect. For some reason it's perfectly valid to make just about any regional stereotype about the Hollywood and Northeastern "elite," (which, we should remember, was just code for "JOOs and Negro-lovers"), but people get all sensitive when one stereotypes the South and Texas. I don't think such regional stereotypes are particularly enlightening or useful, but nor do I think their invocation should provoke the kind of outrage that genuine racism should. But why the double standard?

Of course, the amusing thing about the Club for Growth ad is how wrong it is - Vermont is not part of the "elite Northeast" to the extent that it exists, it's a small rural farm state. And for the record, Vermont has precisely two Starbucks for all those latte drinkers to go to.
Just for the record, David Frum, Bush's former speechwriter and the man who gave us the "axis of evil" concept, has a minor criminal record - he did beat up his wife a few times. The rest about lynchings, pig-feet, and anti-intellectual tendencies you can work out on your own.

Oh well.

Say, are there really regional stereotypes about the Hollywood?

Of course, and they all have much truth to them.

Are we all looking forward to the upcoming campaign? We're well beyond Willie Horton and the revolving prison door.

Posted by Alan at 09:26 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Monday, 5 January 2004

Topic: Iraq

Democracy: Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

Those libertarian guys over at the Cato Institute are tons of fun.

See Can Iraq Be Democratic?
by Patrick Basham, January 5, 2004
Patrick Basham is a senior fellow with the Center for Representative Government of the Cato Institute.

Here's the core of what Pat says:
Is Iraq capable of moving smoothly from dictatorship to democracy? This paper contends that the White House will be gravely disappointed with the result of its effort to establish a stable liberal democracy in Iraq, or any other nation home to a large population of Muslims or Arabs, at least in the short to medium term.
Not good.
The building blocks of a modern democratic political culture are not institutional in nature. The building blocks are not elections, parties, and legislatures. Rather, the building blocks of democracy are supportive cultural values - the long-term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture.

Four cultural factors play an essential, collective role in stimulating and reinforcing a stable democratic political system. The first is political trust. The second factor is social tolerance. The third is a widespread recognition of the importance of basic political liberties. The fourth is popular support for gender equality.
It seems getting a secular, free-market capitalist representative democracy up and running by mid-summer over in those parts might be a stretch.

Heck, it's a getting to be a stretch over here.

Political trust? Not a whole lot of that going around these days here at home.

Social tolerance? We say pretty things about that. And, we really will accept you - heck, we're tolerant of all kinds of folks like you - if you accept Jesus as your personal savior, and you think Britney Spears' twelve-hour marriage was far more moral than any "gay marriage" ever could be, and you think abortion is murder and assassinating doctors who perform them is justified, and you think everyone who uses illegal drugs should be executed, except for Rush Limbaugh, and that Bill Bennett knows how we all should act - just as Martha Stewart knows which chafing dish is correct. Yeah, we're tolerant. As long as you don't talk down George. He knows best.

Basic political liberties? Here? As long as you watch what you say, and where you say it. And as long as you don't get all uppity about you so-called "right to privacy." There's a war on, remember?

Gender equality? As Phyllis Schlafly. Gender equality is code for those anti-Christian New York types who flaunt God's law about women's holy obedience to their male sovereign. She knows about happy marriages. Ask her.

Yep, we're doing fine.

Posted by Alan at 20:55 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Topic: The Law

Your Police State at Work Protecting You. Secret Court Proceedings Make Us All Safe

I came across this at and found it odd. But perhaps it is only of interest to the two lawyers I know who sometimes log on here.

Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel was secretly jailed after the Sept. 11 attacks. His court case was kept secret. It's now before the Supreme Court. According to The Washington Post the Bush Administration has filed a request to continue to keep his case secret. More than 20 media organizations have filed requests to open the proceedings.

According to the Post:
Justices sometimes are asked to keep parts of cases private because of information sensitive for national security or other reasons, but it's unusual for an entire filing to be kept secret.

Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she was disappointed by the government's request. "The idea that there is nothing that could be filed publicly is really ridiculous," she said. "It just emphasizes our point that we're living in frightening times. People can be arrested, thrown in jail and have secret court proceedings, and we know absolutely nothing about it."
Behind the Homefront: The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has much more on the case.

The case is The case is M.K.B. v. Warden, 03-6747.

Posted by Alan at 20:15 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 5 January 2004 21:09 PST home

Topic: Election Notes

Three unrelated items...

Over at Michael Moore's website he runs this daily reminder:
How Long Before Bill O'Reilly Apologizes to the Nation?

In the build up to the war with Iraq, Bill O'Reilly was on television every night backing up Bush's whoppers. Like the White House team, O'Reilly assured us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. On March 18, 2003, O'Reilly was on ABC's "Good Morning America." He made the following promise about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction:

"If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it's clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation, and I will not trust the Bush Administration again, all right?"

It's time for Bill O'Reilly to apologize to the nation and tell us that he no longer trusts the Bush Administration. How long must we wait?
Don't hold your breath.


According to radio talk show host Lowell Ponte, Howard Dean, and the members of the Congregationalist church to which he belongs, are not sufficiently Christian: "[T]his week get ready to see Howard Dean with what amounts to his own prefabricated cardboard cutout of Jesus on stage with him as he campaigns for Southern votes in South Carolina. It will be a thin, two-dimensional Jesus, and Dean will declare Christ to be more socialist than savior."

See Howard Dean's Politics of Bad Faith
Lowell Ponte,, December 29, 2003
... So how genuine is former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's newly expressed Christian faith? Jesus, he reportedly recently told editors at the Boston Globe newspaper, was "an important influence" in his life.

"Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised, people who were left behind," Dean told the Globe editors. "He fought against self-righteousness of people who had everything.... He was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2000 years, which is pretty inspiring when you think about it."

The Jesus embraced by Howard Dean is a mere liberal social activist, a do-gooder whose "extraordinary example" of helping the poor and downtrodden is "pretty inspiring when you think about it."

What is missing from Dean's picture? To devout Christians, Jesus Christ is infinitely more than a social worker or political activist.
Yes, Jesus kicks ass and punishes bad dudes.


Doug Ireland over at TomPaine.Com reviews a book published last week.

See the review at this link.

Here's a bit of it.
Published the day before 2004 by Random House, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror bears the signature of two of Washington's most influential ideologues. Richard Perle, known as the "Prince of Darkness", helped put together the now-famous 1999 neocon manifesto (signed by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, among others) calling for war on Iraq. David Frum is Dubya's former speechwriter, the man who coined "axis of evil" and put it in the president's mouth.

The book proposes harsh action against France--which Perle and Frum say should be treated as an "enemy"--and thunders that "We should force European governments to choose between Paris and Washington."
Yeah, well. That's been coming for a long time. And this?
The book's knee-jerk frog-baiting is mild compared to its call for a military blockade of North Korea, combined with overt preparations for war. The North Koreans, of course, have just accepted an extensive visit by a non-governmental U.S. nuclear inspection team headed by the former director of the Los Alamos labs.

The dangerous duo says that Syria, too, should be put into economic quarantine, its oil supplies cut off and its territory invaded in the search for terrorists.
Threaten war with them all. That's the idea.

Hey, it works! Or one supposes it might work. If not, there is actual war or some way of overthrowing pesky governments.
In Iran, nothing less than a U.S.-sponsored regime change will satisfy Perle and Frum. In their nostalgic fantasy, the United States will finance dissidents to overthrow the current Tehran regime (shades of the CIA coup that overthrew the Mossadegh government a half century ago).
Well, that's out right. They tick us off.

Ireland calls these guys Freon Neocons:
Perle, Frum and their ilk have freon where their blood ought to be: what's more, their chilling willingness to use U.S. military force anytime and anywhere Washington feels like it has now been enshrined in the Bush doctrine of "pre-emptive first strikes" (read: aggressive war). And damn the consequences to the innocents, who are chalked up in a dehumanizing way as so much "collateral damage."

If Bush is re-elected, the Freon Neocons - from their power bases in the Pentagon and Dick Cheney's office - stand an excellent chance of seeing their reckless cowboy imperialisms, codified for all to see in Perle and Frums's book, become reality.

And if I were an Iranian, a Syrian or a North Korean, I'd start building myself a very deep bomb shelter.
Indeed. Who will stop us?

These two fellows are the advisors to George and the rest in power. So this is the new policy thinking: You don't mess with us.

For a country feeling frightened and beat-up, and regarded now by most of the world as a cowardly bully, this is heady stuff. Everyone hates us? Fanatics are trying to kills us? The French lecture us? Fuck `em all. Bomb everyone. We do have the power.

Jacques Chirac could get a visit from some Army Rangers any day and then we'd have Jean-Marie Le Pen running things over there, a fellow Bush could warm to easily.

Posted by Alan at 16:43 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

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