6.30.2009

Tomorrow is Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day













I think it's supposed to be something like the Fourth of July.

However, it's really not about independence.  Not at all.  It's a public holiday that marks the day Hong Kong was turned over to formal People's Republic of China sovereignty in 1997.

From what I gather, there's generally a big fireworks show over Victoria Harbour in the evening.  According to people in the elevator this morning, the day is also marked, typically, by a giant protest march:

On 1 July of each year since the 1997 handover, a march is led by the Civil Human Rights Front. It has become the annual platform for demanding universal suffrage, calling for observance and preservation civil liberties such as free speech, venting dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong Government or the Chief Executive, rallying against actions of the Pro-Beijing camp.

The march saw a turnout of 500,000 in 2003 when the populace rose up against a questionable amendment to the Hong Kong Basic Law that many saw as ceding to much to the PRC government in Beijing.  I have noticed that people take the right to protest seriously here - with authorities going to almost ridiculous lengths to accomodate a few ladies downtown who camp outside of the Citibank location with signs like "Citibank Bloodsucker" and an incredibly annoying taped chant in Cantonese.  The proximity to "the mainland" certainly provides a stark contrast that makes the actual exercise of certain liberties all the more dear, it seems.













Tomorrow's march will be held in the year that marks both 20 years since Tiananmen and 60 years since the establishment of the People's Republic of China by Mao.  Word on the street is that the evening's fireworks display may be colossal, but that's not all.  March organizers are optimistic.


Ironically, tomorrow's annual push for freedom also falls on the same day the oppressive new smoking ban hits Hong Kong bars.

6.29.2009

Still Life in a Muslim Graveyard

SCOTUS Hands Down Ricci, An Affirmative Step Toward Ending the Use of Race

The United States Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Ricci v. DeStefano, a case arguably more famous as of late due to its centrality to the Sotomayor confirmation process than to its own factual scenario.

It's a case about affirmative action policies by a local government in the end - and whether what I would consider reverse discrimination is a legitimate action by a local government under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court said no.  Race cannot be the determinative factor for a local government body's decision to throw out the results of an objective firefighter promotion examination in which white and Hispanic candidates advanced for captain and lieutenant positions, but no African Americans advanced:

All the evidence demonstrates that the City rejected the test results because the higher scoring candidates were white.  Without some other justification, this express, race-based decision-
making is prohibited.


It's possible that the results were simply incidental, a disparate impact.  Fear of a lawsuit stemming from that disparate impact is trumped, essentially, by the city's need to avoid further disparate treatment of those who did pass.  The city also failed to employ less racially discriminatory means before throwing out the results of an otherwise valid examination round.

What struck me, as I read Justice Kennedy's majority opinion (after his slap at Sotomayor's involvement in the case below), was his summation of the district court's holding, the one that Sotomayor upheld with a perfunctory glance:

It concluded that respondents’ actions were not “based on race” because “all applicants took the same test, and the result was the same for all because the test results were discarded and nobody was promoted.” Id., at 161.

The logic employed is so very ironically similar to the logic defeated in Loving v. Virginia - the notion that so long as everyone is harmed or discriminated against equally, then at least the law is fair in that respect.  That's largely why the majority in Ricci gets it right.


While the decision is confined in its precedential value by its limitation to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, a statute - and not the Equal Protection clause - Justice Kennedy makes it clear (not to mention Justice Scalia's concurrence) that actions like those at the center of the case would face a hostile landscape.

6.28.2009

Potemkin postscript

The mutiny on the battleship Potemkin was put down on 27 June 1905. A failure, it was of course, later memorialized by Sergei Eisenstein and Soviet Russia. Most of the mutineers ended up in Romania, but a few returned to Russia.


The fortress where the imprisoned sailors were held -- despite a sign to the contrary, no tours are given.


Those that did return, and weren't either executed or pardoned, were imprisoned. At least some were sent to the fortress in Zaqatala, Azerbaijan. Part of a chain of forts built during the Russian advance south, it was a very small piece in the much greater game for dominance of the Middle East played against Britain. It would also serve as a linchpin in the defense against Sheikh Shamyl, the last of the great Caucasian guerrilla fighters against that implacable Russian advance. The mountains of the Caucasus -- the dreary and picturesque mountains of Lermontov, which sheltered dozens of unique tribes -- was far from the sea.


The grave of Stepan; I can't make out his last name -- in a lonely corner of the Heydar Aliev park in Zaqatala.

I Think I'm Turning Macanese













6.27.2009

Contrast Macau


A Day of SARs - Live from Macau


It's raining heavily here in Macau, the tiny peninsula and two islands that make up the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Macau, formerly a Portuguese outpost along the Chinese coast since the 1500s. That hasn't stopped us at all, though.

We departed the other SAR of Hong Kong this morning and crossed the wide, choppy Pearl River Delta.

Macau has been better than expected, even with the downpour. The Portuguese culture and heritage is definitely engrained, and even as massive Vegas-style casinos go up all around, the warrens of colonial and post-colonial buildings with signage in both Portuguese and Cantonese are fun to wander in.

My friend, Eric L, a fellow adventurous Tulane Law student working in Asia this summer, is down from Beijing to visit for the weekend. We had a great meal of baked duck over rice in a back alley earlier, and we're hoping to let it settle for a few more hours before making the sea voyage back. As Eric put it, as we left the pier aboard the fast tri-maran - "It sounds like we're at the premier of a Hello Kitty movie." There were indeed many sudden ooohs ands uggghs as we hit the first massive swells in the harbor. People all around us were vomiting as we crossed the open water studded with high rocky islands and a fleet of colorful ferries heading back to Hong Kong. One lady even stole our vomit bag.

But we made it across just fine. And after obtaining some picatas, the Macanese currency, we headed off by random rickshaw down the rows of luxurious casino hotels into the old town center, where we climbed through the crowded, sweet-smelling streets full of spiced meats and baked treats to the ruined facade of St. Paul Cathedral - a Jesuit Church from the 1600s that is merely it's front now and nothing more.

After a quick visit to a quaint little fishing village at the far south of the SAR on Coloane Island, wee're at a rather seedy internet cafe now - full of exotic carvings of saints and skeletons and dragons - in some tight old rua. There are some advogado offices around (this is a civil law system).

More Macau later.

Tweaking

The rules get changed in Azerbaijan:
Last week, while I was in Baku, the most shocking (though I shouldn't be, as by now I shouldn't get surprised when these things happen) news broke out- the government of Azerbaijan was changing legislation on NGOs. And these were not some minor changes, these were changes that might end existence of NGOs in Azerbaijan, well, apart from those that are in "partnership" with the government (the devil himself).


It's easy to get worked up over what's going on in Iran right now -- and at such a historic moment for that country, the emotion can hardly be criticized. But it's often the small, almost unnoticed tweaks in off-the-radar consequences that have the really nasty consequences. This is, after all, the country that may well become the first in its region to join NATO. It's a country that has a tremendous amount of control over gas and oil worldwide. It's on the border of another country whose "pro-democracy" riots could have great repercussions worldwide after a war last year.

But Azerbaijan has never been a sexy foreign-policy place, and so it gets shunted aside and forgotten until Russia decides to turn off Ukraine's gas again.

6.26.2009

Could someone please explain why we have a full-time legislature?

Here we go again.

After spending a lot of time behind closed doors to negotiate a compromise between the Assembly and the Senate, legislative "leaders" convened a conference committee that lasted a grand total of about 3 hours - including a 2.5 hour "read through" of the budget by Speaker Sheridan. Yes, it's exactly as it sounds, Speaker Sheridan read through the budget because apparently not everyone on the conference committee is capable of reading for themselves.

When the Senate finally convened and passed the budget, the conference report had been approved for only 3 hours, yet the vote took place at 12:30 AM. What would have been the problem with waiting until today and passing it after members at least get an opportunity to read the Fiscal Bureau's analysis?

I realize that it may be a little naive and idealistic to believe that Senators and Representatives actually read bills, but this is absolutely ridiculous. It is an insult to democracy which is supposed to be an open and honest process. It isn't just the legislators who need time to read the bills, but concerned citizens who may want to call their representatives and voice their concerns before the bill is rammed through without any debate at all.

This is a budget that has been written, negotiated and passed in the dead of night and behind closed doors. Democratic leaders have cried and bemoaned the "drastic" cuts to services and the "gut-wrenching" choices needed to be made to balance the budget in these "difficult" economic times. Really? Then why do we increase spending by 6.6%? Why do we continue to borrow money like a drug addict who just can't kick the habit?

The truth is that we have 132 full-time legislators and most of them are not doing their jobs. They aren't interested in serious reform that will encourage job growth or improve health care or education. Instead they blame others for their deficits and job losses. It's disgraceful and an insult to every voter in Wisconsin.

The legislature and the governor's office are controlled completely by Democrats. There is no reason whatsoever that this shouldn't have been a completely open and transparent budget process. There wasn't the partisan fighting of the last budget and their should be no rush to meet a deadline that would require middle of the night votes.

What have they been doing these past few months? Whatever it was, it wasn't their jobs.

Possible Typhoon

Now approaching Hong Kong.

6.25.2009

Michigan gets the GM line, Wisconsin gets nothing

A couple of weeks ago I said that Janesville would not get the new GM car line. I had hoped that I would be wrong, but the Janesville Gazette is reporting that Michigan will get the new product. The story hasn't been confirmed by GM yet, but it doesn't look good.

It's a sad thing for a county that has 12.9% unemployment and a city with 14.3%.

The real issue, however, is what now? Up until this announcement our state's leaders have done nothing to move our economy forward and find a way to rebuild after losing GM. The only focus has been trying to lure GM back with incentives and cash. It didn't work; it was never going to work. It has been nearly a year since we found out about the plant's closing and we have no plan for Janesville or Rock County.

There are no more excuses. There are no more second-chances. We need to reform the business climate in Wisconsin and create an atmosphere that will attract jobs, not drive them away. Unfortunately, given our representatives' track records, I'm betting they wait and hope that someone else will do it for them.

Thomas v. Alito in Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend

The US Supreme Court handed down a significant maritime law opinion yesterday/today in the case of Atlantic Sounding v. Townsend.

Essentially, seamen may now officially seek and potentially obtain punitive damages against shipowners who fail to provide maintenance and cure, an ancient remedy of living expenses and healthcare owed an injured seafarer.

I worked intimately with the somewhat tortuous case law involved in the case/issue earlier this spring in the John R. Brown Maritime Moot Court competition in Charleston, South Carolina.

While I ultimately argued in favor of punitive damages at trial, I helped write our team's brief arguing against the availability of punitive damages.  I must say, I thought the argument that had prevailed in the 11th Circuit below - that punitive damages were not available to seamen under the general maritime law in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Miles v. Apex Marine in the early 1990s - would have prevailed in the high court.

It's interesting to see Thomas writing a majority opinion with Alito in the minority, the latter joined by the other three conservative justices.  An unusual split, which is always infinitely more intriguing to me than a typical split.  

For any of you maritime law junkies out there, my guess is that, in a topic with such a long, vague, obscure, and twisting jurisprudential history as punitive damages in maintenance and cure, Thomas latched onto very old precedents like The Amiable Nancy (and other Justice Story cases from the privateering and prize days of the early 1800s) and later 1800s cases like The Scotland.  The liberal wing of the court likely grasped on Vaughn and it's immediate progeny, having a natural inclination to support the cause of a punitive remedy for an injured seamen.  And the conservative dissenters likely see Miles as a definitive bar to recovery, relying heavily on the reasoning in the 5th Circuit's Guevara opinion.

But that's just my guess, not having read the opinions yet.  I may post additional thoughts after I've digested them.

What is the ultimate significance of this case, though, as I see it now?  It stands to open the door (some would say floodgate) to additional suits for punitive damages in maritime law - something that has not been definitively available before, although the Exxon Valdez case permitted punitives in a related, but distinct context.

Kowloon

I Preferred Obama's Initial Take on Iran

"President Obama yesterday abandoned the restrained tone he had maintained in recent days in discussing the unrest in Iran."

That's unfortunate.  I must admit I disagreed with Sen. John McCain in his calls over the past week for a more assertive tone in the rhetoric of the American government toward the government leadership of Iran.

While I understand the "sharpening" of Obama's rhetoric in recent days with regard to the post-election unrest in Iran - mostly the product of domestic political pressure and criticism, increasing hard evidence of violence, probably some polls - I think it's actually unwise.

What, precisely, does the U.S. have to gain by getting officially indignant over the Iran situation?

I think it's highly unfortunate that people have died in political protests in Iran.  I think it's unfortunate that the Iranian presidential election, from the numerous reports I've read, seems to have been less than free and fair.  

But when it comes down to it, the U.S. must recognize - and you'd think Barack Obama of all people would recognize (indeed, he seemed to recognize initially) that the United States has limited foreign policy capital at this point.  It is a commodity subject to scarcity.  And with U.S. troops engaged in significant combat operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with North Korea threatening Hawaii, and with the U.S. and global economies in less than optimal shape, it makes sense for the U.S. to avoid burning through any additional foreign policy capital (especially in the eyes of countries that are still wary of any righteous talk by the U.S.) unless clearly defined and pressing U.S. national interests are at stake.

As brutish as the situation in Iran appears, I don't think there's much for the U.S. to gain by getting involved in the domestic dispute beyond not standing on quite as high of a moral high ground at the end of the day.  The U.S. interests relative to Iran would seem to be a) limit or prevent nuclear weapons/weapons of mass destruction, b) prevent Iranian assistance against or direct action endangering U.S. forces in the region, and c) prevent Iranian support for terrorist organizations.  Throwing increasingly virulent words around doesn't permit the U.S. any more leverage over Iran to achieve those goals and, in fact, it would seem to further open the risk of conflict between the U.S. and Iran - something we can ill afford at the moment.

In the wake of Bush, it would do the U.S. well to recognize, to a greater extent, the limits of its power - especially the limited usefulness of projecting its power or impliedly threatening such projection in situations where less than critical U.S. interests are at stake.  After the World Wars, we were supposed to learn that we had to be engaged as the world's policeman, in effect, to prevent hotspots anywhere from flaring up into full out conflagrations that we couldn't put out easily.  To some extent, that's unavoidably true.

But we certainly haven't always been smart about which wayward campfires to parachute into to extinguish.  There are lessons we should take to heart.  Some are simply not worth the time, effort, lives, money, and future political ill-will that they will entail.  And they will probably burn out - with some regrettable damage, sure - on their own.

Unless the protesters of Tehran take up arms, I don't think the United States has a sufficiently strong interest in being involved in the Iranian fiasco even rhetorically.  I think it's been difficult for anyone to truly gauge the depth, breadth, and vitality of the opposition in Iran - and I think the media has overstated the strength and prospects of the Mousavi-inspired movement.  

Obama has something to gain domestically, sure.  He also gains somewhat by standing arm in arm with other Western nations like France who are appalled by the scenes of violence exploding out on Youtube.  But on the other level of the two level game, the U.S. has a far different plate of interests and a far different world role than France at this point.

Obama was right on Iran at the start, and that approach, even taking into account the evolving factual scenario, seems the better approach.  He exercised restraint - it's a matter for the people of Iran, one that can only be damaged by Western attempts at influence, no matter how well-intentioned, that play right into the hands of those cracking down harshly on protesters.

Perhaps he and his administration believe that Iran would not respond to a hands-off approach anyway (and Mahmoud did accuse him of meddling lately despite his calls earlier to refrain from meddling), so it's worthwhile to lead and condemn the actions.  In that way it's like Tiananmen.  You might as well condemn away.  But again, it gets back to our inability to have any leverage over Iran or actually change the situation on the ground.  Clearly, the world's being vocally aghast at the events of 1989 has done wonders for improving the domestic political situation in China.  

When and where we refuse to dirty our hands in our abhorrence at another state's actions, we leave a geopolitical vacuum.  More and more, I'm realizing that our ideals, commendable as they are, reduce our ability, these days, to influence and engage pariah and borderline states - not just North Korea and Burma (Myanmar), but also places like Sudan, Angola, Venezuela, etc.

It's a paradox.  China, increasingly, is filling the vacuum we leave - see Central Asia, various nations in Africa like Zimbabwe, much of Southeast Asia, etc.  Russia, too, to some extent, is attempting the same in places like Kyrgyzstan.  As unsavory as some of these countries' ruling regimes may be, they are left with choices between which power to side with, and the U.S., acting on its values, loses out while the nation goes to a different power for succor, the effects of U.S. sanctions or other punitive measures blunted.

I think we, as a nation, have grown to expect that any time anything significant happens in the world, especially when covered heavily by the press, our political leadership must automatically step into the thicket, must automatically talk tough and make our clear stance known.  Do a little condemnation.  Sometimes there's little benefit from such an automatic response.  Sometimes doing so stands to make things worse.

Sometimes, we will hear and see things, as we did with Rwanda, that make us sick, that strike us as horrific and inhuman.  And yet we must realize there are limits to our range of action, to what we can encompass within the scope of what we call our vital national interests.  That's an  extraordinarily difficult judgment call, one that's potentially hard to live with.

The United States has a great example to share with the world.  I hope that people in other nations can come to fully enjoy the measure of individual liberty and democracy that still exists in the U.S.  

But I don't think bringing that experience and example to bear in the current Iran situation does much critically positive for the U.S. in the eyes of the world; I think our other engagements worldwide make it difficult for us to bring power to bear to back up our rhetoric (see the failure in Georgia); and I don't think we have strong enough direct national interests in the Iranian situation to warrant escalating (even as the protests seem to diminish and the multi-party front dissolve) our rhetoric or actual involvement at this time.  And, what's more, even if the wily Mahmoud tries, as always, to bait the U.S.:

"It's not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling."

Admiralty, Hong Kong



Skyscrapers. Robots in disguise.

6.24.2009

The "Green job" investment myth

Now back to substantive politics, George Will - who continues to be my all-time favorite conservative columnist - has an excellent column on the notion of "investing" in green jobs and "clean" energy as a way of creating jobs.

When embarking on new programs and investments - meaning massive government spending - on untested or inefficient technologies, it may be good to look at the efforts of other countries. I suggest reading all of Will's column, but this gives you a good idea of the argument:

For fervent believers in governments' abilities to control the climate and in the urgent need for them to do so, believing is seeing: They see, through their ideological lenses, governments' green spending as always paying for itself. This is a free-lunch faith comparable to that of those few conservatives who believe that tax cuts always completely pay for themselves by stimulating compensating revenues from economic growth.

Windmills are iconic in the land of Don Quixote, whose tilting at them became emblematic of comic futility. Spain's new windmills are neither amusing nor emblematic of policies America should emulate. The cheerful and evidently unshakable confidence in such magical solutions to postulated problems is yet another manifestation -- Republicans are not immune: No Child Left Behind decrees that by 2014 all American students will be proficient in math and reading -- of what the late Sen. Pat Moynihan called "the leakage of reality from American life."

"It actually was a car wreck - and an end-over-end NASCAR flame out at that."

That pretty much sums up the press conference held today by Gov. Mark "no-chance-at-being-POTUS-now" Sanford. I really don't have much to say other than my thoughts are almost exactly like these on the RealClearPolitics blog:

If one has any faith in the rationality of man, one has to think that the higher degree of scrutiny politicians are subjected to would deter such behavior. I guess there's an offsetting "rock star" quotient that might give more opportunities for affairs than the average person. But again, most of these aren't just average, everyday affairs of the Jim Bunn or Tim Hutchinson variety. They're stunning displays of hubris and stupidity.

So I find it really, really disturbing that so many people who are in charge of so many important things -- potentially even with a finger on a nuclear trigger -- display such amazingly poor judgment so frequently. On the other hand, I guess it also explains a lot.


They also have Mrs. Sanford's statement on the matter. I can only say that this woman appears to have a lot of class and I feel sorry for her. I'm also glad that she didn't act like a prop for her husband like so many other political wives.

On the Waterfront














Hong Kong Island from the Star Ferry to Kowloon.

Kowloon, really, is like the Jersey to the Manhattan of Hong Kong Island - or the West Bank to the crescent of New Orleans.

6.23.2009

An Interim Dean for TLS

Something I didn't know ...until today:

While we search for a permanent dean to replace Larry, Stephen M. Griffin, the Rutledge C. Clement Jr. Professor in Constitutional Law and vice dean for Academic Affairs at Tulane School of Law, has agreed to serve as interim dean for an appointment of up to two years.

ht/CPB

6.22.2009

Fields forever











The best part about picking strawberries yourself is that you can eat as you go.

Checking In

Today, searching for a take away lunch, I ordered "'La Mian' with assorted mushrooms in boiled shark bone soup" at a restaurant.  

Neither my co-worker nor I had any clue what la mian was, but we didn't want to walk any farther, everyone was standing in line, and the prices were cheap.

Plus, I wanted to find out what shark bone soup tasted like.  Sharks don't have bones, just cartilage.  So, perhaps it was going to be fake soup, I thought.  Something along the same trajectory as Chicken McNuggets.  Or perhaps a cousin of the wispy, roughly fin-shaped sheets of scratched yellow-brown material lighted like prize possessions in some Hong Kong restaurant windows was actually going to be flavoring my afternoon meal.

Whatever it was, shark bone soup, a liquid that resembled dirty dishwater with toadstools floating around in it, went pretty well over the noodles (the mysterious la mian).  I had to work at not thinking about what I was consuming several times as I worked the chopsticks, but I got most of it down as I sat at the desk, the fog rolling in once again over the terraces of skyscraper apartments up toward The Peak.

Why do I share this story?  I'm not entirely certain.  Certainly, drawing a rebuke from my friend Kristen, who will no doubt reprimand me for consuming poor defenseless sharks, is part of it.  Maybe it's because I couldn't dream up a post of any length about the coming of greater Greenlandic independence.  Or I couldn't thrust myself unreservedly back into the Madison scene with a comment on the state budget.  Or because I felt it was the most interesting drop of life from my day.

As I roll into my second week here in Hong Kong, though, I realize I've been abroad in one single place for longer than ever before.  So, despite not having my laundry done, despite my nose running from a bit of a cold that swept in today, despite a bit of a sleep deficit, I thought it was time to check in.  I feel I've been incredibly guarded and loathe to post anything controversial on the blog as of late.  Actually, for months.  And in doing so, I think I've snuffed out a bit of the spark that makes it an interesting place to visit, a blog worth checking.

In some ways, being in one outpost abroad for a decent amount of time is rewarding.  It provides a deeper, more mundane interaction with a particular corner of the earth.  It provides real comparison.  It's possible to get into a routine - open the curtains, put jam on the bread, say good morning to Chris (the quadralingual guy at the front desk), walk down the hill through the air conditioner drizzle as the red cabs whiz by without speed limit, hop the 8X to Causeway Bay, swipe the Octopus card and descend into the subway (we the conspicuous two), head to work in Central a bit sweaty, wander through the warren of interconnected luxury mall spaces in search of a decent lunch (or hike up the steep step streets into Soho, if time permits), work with people in the Singapore office on matters on the subcontinent in the afternoon, likely stay a bit late, hop the tram back through the exhaust-filled-old-Vegas-neon-bamboo-scaffolding ravines or catch the subway or a cab if it's late enough, or take the old Star Ferry to Kowloon to pick up the custom shirts from Sunny the Indian tailor, or round things out with a pint at an ex-pat bar near the racecourse like The Jockey or The Stable, or do Journal work, or wander aimlessly with the camera thinking that everyone back home is just getting up, how I missed Grandma and Grandpa's 55th wedding anniversary, how I miss the people from Wisconsin more than when I was in New Orleans, how I miss my friends from NOLA more than I ever have before.

It's a heady time at the end of the night, when you walk past the steamed windows under crimson overhangs, past the piles of halogen-lit spiky durians, past the old shirtless men pushing carts and sing-songing in Cantonese, the scent and air conditioning blasting out of an open hotel bar, past the Muslim-Catholic-Public-Parsee-Zoroastrian cemeteries all in a row with their stone encrusted terraces looming off into the dark hillsides overrun with black foliage.  It's not too difficult to think past the callouses still forming inside your dress shoes at that point, past the shirt stuck to your back, to what's to come.

I'm not entirely certain.  

It's a wonder to think how we end up in certain places, in certain situations at various points in life.  I couldn't have told you as I stood to answer the first question in the Fourth Grade Geography Bee at Zielanis Elementary that I would be heading, in all likelihood, to Macau this weekend.

Reflecting, I have to ask whether all my rushing around is, as some people seem to think, effectively a sort of Panglossian running away from something, from settling down.  Perhaps it is.  But I tend to think its both what I choose to do, and...what I must do as a thinking individual.

Deep down somewhere is the scene from The Snows of Kilimanjaro where the sick man, lying inside his mosquito tent at night flashes back through the seeds of unwritten stories, the memories of his life.  He does so with feverish regret.  But, I always want to tell him, he has those bright seeds at least - like skiing in the Alps.  He lived.  And that's more than some can say.  More than many.

When and if I can write my stories and share them, I will.  Sometimes I wonder if blogging is some inadequate compromise in my attempt to do so - me getting ahead of myself by trying to share my story before actually living or simply living.  But I think the exercise in attempting to tell the story now and then to some extent helps expose the flaws in the attempt at life.  I see more and more that I worry far too much about the dangers of posting, what people will think - killing off the best and real with a caution that has only hollow rewards.  I think many interesting people refrain - no matter how many sermons and inspirational quotes and Emerson essays they've read - leading their versions of quiet desperation, locked into the pursuit of unfulfilling goals that may never come to fruition.

And that's a shame.  For when the hyena draws close to the tent in the end, when it's cackling there with you in the dark, when the certainty sets in, you will have what you have done - not even the regrets - but only what you have genuinely lived.

6.21.2009

Seaside on the South Side














Yesterday, I got away to Stanley, a little spot on the other side of Hong Kong island. It's a nice, relaxing cove town that borders the South China Sea.






6.20.2009

Boom



Summer in Neenah, Wisconsin.

Subsuming Abkhazia -- or, what freedom means in Russian

Abkhazia is starting to think it might not have got the better end of the deal:
"We are turning over to Russia all our responsibilities for building this state. This is very bad," Kashig says.

"When half the budget is financed by Russian subsidies, when Russians need to guard our borders, when we can't run our own railways and airport and turn them over to the Russians, this says we are losing hope. If we can't do this ourselves, it means we have doubts over whether we chose the right path in setting up our own state."

Junk in the Harbour

6.19.2009

"Journalistic ethics?" Really?

I wasn't going to post on this. I never really liked McBride and Chief Flynn seemed competent, outside of that I just don't care.

That said, who cares about McBride's "ethics" as a journalist? She cheated on her husband with a married man! Sorry, but if you do that I'm really not going to believe you have a grasp on anything even approaching ethics. Chief Flynn has some serious explaining to do. Whether or not he keeps his job is up to Mayor Barrett. But this sure doesn't look good.

It's a sad, pathetic story. The only people we should have sympathy for are the people they cheated on. End of story.

And if conservatives really want to be the party of values, stop rationalizing affairs! You look petty and stupid. They cheated on their spouses. They broke their word. Absent any abuse, I don't care what the excuse is. If it's wrong, it's wrong. There is no gray area.

Saturday Morning Coming Up

Somehow, as the sun rises in Happy Valley, as Lester Holt, back in America, signs off for "this Friday evening" on the tv, a song comes to me.

Harrowing times in Iran

Via Andrew Sullivan, this article deserves some looking at. It sounds like things are getting dicey in Iran:
By the way, two nights ago I went out to see a few things ... as the general crowds spread into their homes militia style Mousavi supporters were out on the streets 'Basiji hunting'.

Their resolve is no less than these thugs -- they after hunting them down. They use their phones, their childhood friends, their intimate knowledge of their districts and neighbours to plan their attacks -- they're organised and they're supported by their community so they have little fear. They create the havoc they're after, ambush the thugs, use their Cocktail Molotovs, disperse and re-assemble elsewhere and then start again - and the door of every house is open to them as safe harbour -- they're community-connected.

The other thing that struck me was this:
Also, with $10K every local police station lock can be broken and guns taken out...the police too are crowd friendly...for sure put a gun in their hands and these young become a serious counter-balance to the Basij...call them 10% of 18-22 year olds - that makes circa 10 million around the country versus max 4 million Basijis.

It's not the astounding sum that's passed off as unimportant -- that could be mistaken English -- the crucial point here is that the police appear to be sympathetic to the pro-democracy students. The regime will stay afloat or sink based on whether or not its enforcers will be willing to fire on the crowds. To some extent, the mullahs' goon squads have been willing to shoot, but if the police aren't, that's big. Moreover, this reveals the depth of the rot of corruption in Iran -- corruption deteriorates ideology, and that can be a big benefit for the protesters.

Azerbaijan memories



As spring turns to summer, the Caucasus Mountains glow. The snow recedes, dried up streams trickle back to life, and lightning plays about the peaks every night. We'd sit outside my friend's house, on his balcony, and drink cheap beer and talk and watch the storms late into the night.

U.S./Iran Relations - A Helpful Historical Tableau

Smithsonian Magazine, in what I'm now seeing as a welcome trend during any given geopolitical flashpoint, provides some very helpful background on the history of Iran's interactions with the outside world.  Really, it's a good read.

Without being dull, the article outlines key moments of tension and transition in Iranian history, including the many pivotal mass protests over the past century and a half.

I found this one, a rally against Western influence and a corrupt domestic dynasty, the most interesting - the 1891 Tobacco Revolt:

Under the terms of the deal, Iranian tobacco farmers had to sell their crops at prices set by British Imperial, and every smoker had to buy tobacco from a shop that was part of its retail network. This proved one outrage too many. A national boycott of tobacco, supported by everyone from intellectuals and clerics to Nasir al-Din's own harem women, swept the country. Troops fired upon protesters at a huge demonstration in Tehran. After a series of even larger demonstrations broke out, the concession was canceled. "For a long time Iranians had been watching other people take control of their destiny," says John Woods, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago. "The tobacco revolt was the moment when they stood up and said they'd had enough."

People getting outraged about excessive regulation of smoking?  A lack of "control of their destiny" - ?  My, what if tobacco was tea...?  Some interesting founding-era parallels emerge.

But I project a bit of my own distaste for heavy-handed tobacco-related government interference onto the event (although once again, I'll be present for the enactment of a smoking ban - this time here, ironically, in Hong Kong, supposed enclave of freedom and laissez-faire, when smoking is officially banned in bars on July 1).

Anyway, read the article if you want to understand President Obama's reluctance to step into the thicket full of lingering shadows.

Also, read this piece that goes against the grain (ht/OOTM).  It will help you assess the Iranian actions of the present without rushing headlong into the green-draped arms of the protesters as you consider the tumult in full.

The Third Soho










Happy hour in Hong Kong, south of Hollywood Road.

A lesson in procrastination and irresponsibility, from the state legislature

Given the choice between the stalemate from two years ago and the current rush to pass a budget, I'll choose the stalemate every time.

It's not that I want government to be divided and nasty, it's rather that I want to know what's going on in the legislature. Sure, the conferees met for months on end and the debates got heated and bordered on silly at times, but we knew full well what each side wanted.

In this budget Speaker Sheridan and Senator Decker have done everything they can to pass this budget without any debate or public input. They have held meetings and votes into the middle of the night and early mornings. Time and again they have shown they are willing to try and push through a budget that drastically increases taxes and fees with barely enough time to glance at the Fiscal Bureau's analysis, let alone read the actual bill.

Now we have a story in which Senate President Fred Risser hints that the differences that still remain between the Assembly and the Senate could be hammered out in private. No conference committee needs to be formed. No formal debate needs to be held.

I realize that many differences are worked out in private conversations, but if we are going to have an open and democratic process the leaders of each chamber should sit down and hammer them out just like was done two years ago.

No attempt has been made to provide an open and honest debate about our state's budget. We have a full-time legislature where members make more than $50,000 a year. Middle of the night votes and last minute shenanigans are absolutely unacceptable.

To the leaders of the legislature I have only this to say: Your only job is to represent the people and pass a budget. If you can't get your act together to pass it in daylight, or at the very least begin the debate before 5 o'clock on a Friday, you have no business trying to run our state. You have all the discipline of a college student pulling an all-nighter to write a paper they've had 2 months to finish.

To deprive the people of an open and at least public - I've given up on honest at this point - debate about the differences between the Assembly and the Senate version is pathetic. If you are afraid to let light shine onto this sorry excuse for a budget and have to pass it in the middle of the night, maybe - just maybe - you shouldn't pass it at all.

6.18.2009

Rationale behind rationing

Amidst the cave drawings and plethora of bikini-clad beauty queens, the Troglopundit has touched on an important issue in the upcoming health care debate (such that one exists) and offered a nice rebuke of David Leonhardt's most recent column in the New York Times.

Anyway, when we Righties complain that nationalized health care will lead to “rationing,” we might as well be complaining that Autumn will lead to Winter. In an economic sense, rationing is happening already. Always has been, and always will be.

The real argument in health care isn’t whether there will be rationing, but how that rationing will be done. I’d prefer more of an “I, Pencil” approach. Nationalized medicine proponents like Leonhardt prefer to substitute nests of government cubicles infested with a few thousand white-collar workers.


Exactly right. Rationing exists naturally as part of the free market, but it is important that it is done by the free market and not by government. In my mind, rationing as described by Leonhardt in the opening paragraphs of his column is dead on. Rationing in this sense is a painless (relatively speaking) function of supply and demand.

Where Leonhardt - and other proponents of universal health care - goes wrong is in making the leap to government handing out the rations. I do not dispute, and indeed I know of no rational person who does, the need to modernize our medical records and do a better job of identifying procedures and treatments that actually work. The difference is in who makes those decisions.

A truly independent review panel that evaluates procedures is a good thing, but if we use that as the only guide to treatment are we not running the risk of stifling innovation? Currently, we have doctors over-medicating and over-testing to avoid lawsuits. Do we really want to risk swinging too far the other way?

Transparency and information on quality and efficacy can only help our health care system, but the ultimate decision as to how that information is used must be in the hands of the patient and their doctor.

Also, to quibble with Mr. Leonhardt on semantics, when those of us on the right argue against government rationing it is not because we oppose paying for effective treatments. It is because we recognize that in "the process of allocating scarce resources" the United States economy can ill-afford to pay for all medical treatments for all of our people in a government-run system. One need only to look at the looming fiscal crisis of Medicare and Social Security to see the demographic writing on the wall.

Once we reach the point at which we cannot pay for all of our health care needs, rationing - in the sense of deciding who and what will be covered - must take place. In this type of rationing, health care as a "right" goes out the window and cold number-crunching comes into play. Put bluntly, does the 85 year old woman get knee replacement surgery? What about the 88 year old man that needs a new hip? Nope. They don't get the procedure. It doesn't matter about the technique at that point, all that matters is the bottom line.

Individuals may be content to make that decision for themselves. Patients can refuse treatment at any time. What I think no one is prepared to do is turn that decision over to a government agency or bureaucrat.

What's the Deal with Hong Kong?


















As you may remember, Hong Kong, a British enclave since the first Opium War of the 1840s, reverted to the People's Republic of China in 1997 with much pomp and circumstance.

But was did that actually mean? Today, Hong Kong is a "Special Administrative Region" of the PRC. Under this arrangement, the city-state has 50 years of semi-autonomy following the transfer of sovereignty. In practical effects, this means Hong Kong SAR runs its own immigration and naturalization services, maintains its own currency, and retains its Common Law heritage for the time being. As I've seen on the street, there's clearly a sense that the concepts of free speech, assembly, and general protest have their place as legitimate part of society here.  There's still a good dose of ex-pat in the city, although Chinese Hong Kong people predominate in the local population.



















It's been interesting for me to try to discern the precise nature of Chinese influence and control on the ground - ostensibly the PRC only has foreign affairs and defense prerogatives with respect to Hong Kong SAR.  Tangibly, there's the hulking People's Liberation Army barracks building - that looks like an giant, ugly, concrete dreidel - occupying some prime real estate near the harbor.  But locals tell me the soldiers themselves "never come out" - not even during the many protests in Hong Kong, like the recent one on the anniversary of Tiannanmen.

Supposedly, there's also a PRC naval facility on Stonecutter's Island across the harbor, but I've only seen one vaguely military vessel in the waters during my time here, and it was quite tiny, probably a coastal patrol boat at best.

Locals here seem to agree that Hong Kong people may not see the direct effects of Beijing, but they self-censor in anticipation of Beijing, almost unknowingly.  And there's a widespread suspicion that the Lord Mayor and other trappings of the colonial administration left intact are a rather hollow pretense when it comes to actual governance and decision-making.

I'll keep an eye out and my ears open - it's an interesting dynamic.

ADDED:  Here's a great reference outlining the specifics of the relationship between Hong Kong's "The Basic Law" and the PRC.

Hello, Tasty

Is this the last year the PGA will come to Milwaukee?

If Kevin at Lakeshore Laments is correct, and I'm afraid he is, then it will be a sad day for Milwaukee and indeed a sad day for golf.

The PGA Tour has been coming to Brew City every year since 1955. The tournament has been known by many names, but it will always be the GMO to me. It was the first PGA Tour event I ever attended. It has always been a chance to showcase our state in a sport that every person can play.

The crowds in Milwaukee are not stuffy, they are loud and boisterous and respectful. It's a Brewers game, just in a different setting.

But it is sad that the PGA is slowly killing the GMO. A look at its past winners shows how sad this is. Legends like Ken Venturi, Greg Norman, Lee Elder, and Calvin Peete have all won here. Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino finished as runners-up.

It's a tournament with great history and better fans. I hope someone, something, somehow comes to it's rescue. Maybe the savior of Wisconsin golf, Herb Kohler could do it? Maybe someone else?

First listen!

Regina Spektor's new album is up at NPR -- go check it out.

And just for fun, here's a memory of seeing her live:
Regina was 500% more charming than on her records, which, if you've heard her, is really saying something. She was absolutely delightful tonight, apologising for her (really not at all bad) guitar playing and happily cursing when she messed up one of her last encore songs.

Happy Valley

Reverberations

LiB's resident old China hand, Brad V., sends me this interesting bit from the Financial Times:
The city of Beijing is planning to hire thousands of internet censors in a fresh sign of the authorities’ attempts to tighten their grip on cyberspace.

The city will seek to employ at least 10,000 “internet volunteers” before the end of this year to monitor “harmful” websites and content, said an official at the municipal authority’s information office.

Chinese local governments and Communist party branches often pay web commentators to influence online opinion. But it is unusual for officials to admit the practice and the big recruitment drive gives a rare view of the resources China uses to try to control the internet.

I expect this is a result of the shockwaves being sent out from Tehran. Consider the language being used lately around the Iranian protests. Canadian and Swiss ambassadors to the country are being criticized for the West's support for Web 2.0:
Iranian officials summoned Canada's top diplomat and the Swiss envoy — who represents U.S. interests — over concern the North American countries are helping destabilize Iran by supporting such social networking sites as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, which the Islamic regime has tried to ban.

Dan Rather sees real parallels between Tiananmen Square and Tehran:
Despite the surface similarities, this is not Tiananmen in 1989. The Christian Science Monitor references the equation, seen on blogs such as Read Write Web, that “Tiananmen + Twitter = Tehran.” The proliferation of information technology and the phenomenon of citizen journalism have made it much harder now to turn the lights out than it was two decades ago. Oral history once kept alive for generations the stories unsanctioned by official propaganda; now social-networking tools have the power to spread the people’s story around the world, instantly.

The HuffPo's Hadi Ghaemi is similarly concerned:
The government is rapidly moving to shut down communication channels amongst Iranians and with the outside world. There are serious fears of a "Tehran Tiananmen" in the coming days. The High Commissioner should move rapidly to send an envoy to Iran to prevent an all-out closure that could lead to serious violence and attacks on protestors undertaken with total impunity. There have already been at least a dozen fatalities due to government forces opening fire.

There's no real flashpoint in China right now similar to the recent election in Iran, but I have little doubt that Hu Jintao and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are more than a little jittery at the prospect of more upheaval.

6.17.2009

"Go ahead, make my day."

While casually surfing the internet for cave paintings, I came across a fun post over at Troglopundit about your top 10 favorite movie quotations. I posted mine in the comments - as well as the movies from which they are taken - but thought I'd do it again here.

The rules are simple: only one per movie franchise, and it’s gotta be something you might (and do) quote in an everyday conversation.

Here are mine:
1. Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.

2. Don’t drive angry!

3. He chose poorly.

4. Earth, Hitler, 1938.

5. A toast? Yeah. To high treason. That's what these men were committing when they signed the Declaration. Had we lost the war, they would have been hanged, beheaded, drawn and quartered, and-Oh! Oh, my personal favorite-and had their entrails cut out and ''burned''! So... Here's to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right...what they knew was right.

6. Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!

7. I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

8. They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!

9. I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people and I expect the same from them.

10. Wrong, Mr. Pepper. Because no matter where people go, sooner or later there’s the law. And sooner or later they find God’s already been there.
So, what are your favorite movie quotations? And bonus points to anyone who can name the movies #9 and #10 are from without looking.

6.16.2009

Of deficits, lies and Scott Walker

There isn't enough time to refute all of the idiotic charges against Scott Walker by Chris Liebenthal. At least not in one post.

Chris Liebenthal - and others like him - are partisan hacks. If Walker were half as evil and incompetent as they say there is no way that he would be County Executive - certainly not reelected with 59%. Liebenthal's latest silliness paints Walker as a man so evil and cold-hearted that Dick Cheney looks like Santa Claus.

The thing is that Liebenthal's entire premise is wrong. He claims that Walker is outright lying to constituents and the County Board about the proposed deficit for Milwaukee County and that by doing so it allows Walker to impose draconian cuts to vital services and union contracts. Basically, in Liebenthal's world, Scott Walker is a man so evil he hates children, old people and probably kicks puppies.

Liebenthal points to this Journal Sentinel story that puts the deficit at a mere $650,000 - a tiny fraction of the $15 million deficit Walker claimed exists.

There's only one problem: the deficit would balloon right back up if the programs Liebenthal and other liberals hate were taken away.

Let's break down the Journal Sentinel story:
One reason for the large discrepancies in county deficit projections was that Walker did not include a $5 million payment from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
If the $5 million is paid by next March, it could still be applied to this year's budget, the report says.

That sounds like a bit of a big if. I have always loved the ability of liberals in government to count on money that is in no way guaranteed to "balance" budgets. It strikes me as eerily similar to the overly-optimistic projections about the increased cigarette tax. We all know how well that worked.

Also, Walker's deficit projection figures were more than two months old, Heer noted. Monday's update counted $4.4 million in savings from 3% departmental budget cuts also imposed by Walker.

Those included some unpopular moves supervisors said should be reversed, such as raising fees for county pools, closing Pulaski and Noyes indoor pools and cutting highway maintenance.

About those cuts. Most people on the County Board - as well as Liebenthal - absolutely hate those cuts and increased fees. It would seem that if they did indeed get there way the vast majority of those savings would be lost. If I'm not mistaken, I think that ends up making the deficit worse. A lot worse.

Finally, my favorite part of the story:

Unions representing county workers have opposed Walker's imposition of a 35-hour workweek, which amounts to a 12.5% pay cut. Those furloughs are set to take effect June 28. That action would save the county about $4.5 million, if it lasts through the end of the year.
Now, it's important to note that neither the paper, nor the release by the County Board state that the revised deficit figures included the "5 hour furlough." Still, if you read the paper's story and Liebenthal's blog it may very well include it. I'd be very interested to know whether the furlough was included in the revisions or not. After all, the "draconian" cuts by Walker were included and the Board still wants to overturn many of them.

Either way, let's add up the "what ifs" in the new budget projections: $650,000 - "new" deficit
  • $5 million - if UW-Milwaukee completes there purchase by March 1, 2010
  • $4.4 million - in "draconian" cuts that could be overturned
  • $10 million - deficit if nothing is done at all
If the 35 hour work week was included in the new estimate there would be a $14.5 million deficit. Again, the new estimate reported in the Journal Sentinel includes the cuts imposed by the "immoral" and "lying" Walker and $5 million that the county hopes it has in time.
At a bare minimum, without action the deficit for Milwaukee County is $10 million. It could be as high as $14.5 million - pretty darn close to Walker's claimed $15 million deficit that Liebenthal and the County Board is all up in arms about.

Liebenthal is making quite a big deal out of claiming that "Walker has used this alleged deficit for bashing both the unions and for bashing the citizenry, especially the elderly, the poor, the minorities and the children." Problem is that the deficit isn't fictional. It's real and it would be a lot worse without Walker's actions.

Who's really being dishonest and misleading?

The Beeb sings the blues

The BBC looks at New Orleans, and sees a struggle for rebirth:
A Walmart superstore is also due to open in the new year - an important sign of recovery, according to Craig.

At the same time, he acknowledged that - while the authorities may want to build bigger, better and smarter - the recovery is not entirely in their hands.

"Much of the recovery depends on some things we don't have control over. Whether the nation's economy gets better and allows people to move around a little bit more, whether the housing market improves. As long as the federal dollars continue to flow, our recovery projects will continue."

When I was down that way -- very briefly, perhaps too much so to comment in-depth -- NOLA struck me as a city in some way cushioned from the economic downturn by the already-flowing federal dollars and the influx of creative-class types, and in some ways more vulnerable, still on the brink. So I hope our New Orleans readers will chime in with their impressions -- is the Beeb right? Are they missing anything? Have you been to the Musicians' Village mentioned, and what did you take away from it?

The First Days in Hong Kong














Sometimes, things got so surreal it took all my effort to refrain from laughing out loud.


















Like the explanation of the typhoon and "black rain storm" procedures (I still don't really understand what the latter is) from a person with a heavy Hong Kong accent in a H1N1 mask at close range. Like the towers rising organically out of the greenery from the terraces.  Like the cannons placed atop the HSBC building to ward off the bad feng shui from the Bank of China tower.


















Like the colorful first names such as Jelly, Cherry, and even Chlorophyll. Like the giant series of escalators going up the hillside.   Like the PLA barracks along the shore of the harbor.  Like the innocuous English translations that, if you look at them the right way, are zen deep.  Like the high rise tenements amidst the glitter.  Like the armed guards swarming the bank as the lady protested outside, chanting with a bedsheet that read "Citibank = Devil Bank."



















Like the "concrete the entire cliff" efforts to stem erosion (various slopes are registered to various subdepartments).  Like the solitude at Lover's Rock where one can float over the megalopolis alone for a while.  Like the newspaper stories about the acid attacks.  Like the little girl I happened to catch in the act of slapping her father in the face.