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Inter-Inception

[ 90 ] July 26, 2010 |

It appears as if my wife and I are the only two people on the face of the planet who hated Inception.  She walked out about an hour and change into it—immediately before the tedious exposition that made the rest of the film thuddingly predictable—and I followed shortly thereafter.  Spoilers follow under the fold.

Read more…

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My Crap For Your Manure

[ 24 ] July 26, 2010 |

Oh, goody:

According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports , the Mets are talking to the Royals about a trade that could involve Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, and Jeff Francoeur, as well as Gil Meche, Kyle Farnsworth, and Jose Guillen.

I don’t know what the record is for “most useless players signed to inexplicably expensive contracts exchanged in one trade” is, but if it goes through this one would have to rank up there…

The Age Excuse

[ 28 ] July 26, 2010 |

By far the most common defense of the Kagan pick in our comments sections has been to cite her age. Indeed, several regulars have made the claim that Diane Wood’s age should obviously have eliminated her from consideration. I think this is utterly silly, and is a case in which conservatives are much more savvy than liberals. If you look at life expectancy charts, Wood can essentially expect to live as long as Sam Alito. Does anybody remember Republicans outraged about the Alito pick, urging Bush to pick somebody who didn’t have impeccable conservative credentials so that they could get someone a couple years younger? Neither do I, and in this case the Republicans are obviously right. Within a plausible range of options, the age of nominees isn’t that big of a factor. The key things limiting its importance are that 1)it’s most important that justices be replaced by someone with similar values and 2)there’s a modern norm that justices resign when they can be reappointed by someone congenial. Given these two things, within reason the age of nominees doesn’t make all that much difference. In the most common case, a judge simply resigns and allows a president to pick someone similar who can serve a lot longer.

And even in cases where judges leave under conditions not of their choosing, sometimes it doesn’t matter. Rehnquist passed away in office, but was replaced by a near-xerox anyway (and may have resigned had Bush not been a favorite to win re-election.) Brennan and Marshall were replaced by Republican appointees (one OK and one a very young reactionary), but this just proves that if you don’t win a lot of presidential elections it’s going to be hard to keep ideologically congenial people on the court; there was only a four-year window between 1973 and 1992 in which they could have resigned and been replaced by a Democratic appointee. Black and Douglas left immediately before passing away, but here again it would have been better if they had been a little older, resigned and were replaced by LBJ (especially Black, who got cranky and more conservative in his last decade.) Harlan left under similar circumstances, but since he was replaced by Rehnquist it’s hard to say that this didn’t work out well for the Republicans.

In addition, relative youth is only a significant advantage if it’s clear that a justice will be a reliable vote. Thomas’s youth worked out well for conservatives — but Souter’s didn’t. Since we have no idea whether Kagan will be a reliable vote or not, her relative youth is much less of an advantage. When you combine this with the fact that being ten years younger will only matter in the long-term under a very unusual set of circumstances, the idea that Kagan is a better pick that Wood because she’s younger becomes untenable. Age might matter all things being equal, but that’s not the case here.

What is wrong with these people?

[ 35 ] July 26, 2010 |

Seriously.

It’s hard to understand how this kind of thing gets published in a world that includes editors, higher cognitive function, and/or common decency.

My favorite bit from the comments, defending the author’s use of a definition of lynching that limits it to hangings:

“Regardless of the dictionary’s definition, English is considered the most nuanced of languages because each word has a specific, unique meaning giving context and emotion to any written or spoken idea or statement. I don’t need a dictionary to instruct me on the accepted meaning of the word ‘lynching.'”

See also Yglesias.

Leaked Documents Show Afghan War Is Bloody Uphill Battle.

[ 18 ] July 25, 2010 |

“The biggest intelligence leak in history” was released simultaneously earlier this evening by NYTimes, the Guardian and Der Spiegel. Courtesy of Wikileaks, of course.

My initial reaction just from browsing the headlines: Read more…

Sunday Book Review: Stones into Schools

[ 2 ] July 25, 2010 |

This is the sixth installment of an eight part series on the Patterson School’s Summer Reading List.

  1. Hide and Seek, Charles Duelfer
  2. The Accidental Guerrilla, David Kilcullen
  3. The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich
  4. Huang Yasheng, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
  5. Walter Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe
  6. Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools

Stones into Schools is Greg Mortenson’s follow-up to Three Cups of Tea, a book depicting his experience in southwest Asia building schools for girls.  In part because of his locale, Greg Mortenson’s efforts came to several US military spouse book clubs, which helped spread the argument to officers serving in Afghanistan.  The book continued to receive publicity (in part because of Mortenson’s speaking tours), and eventually led to Stones into Schools, a follow up volume.

You need to come to this book with certain expectation.  Although the subject matter is engaging, Mortensen is not a particularly sophisticated author.  Academics will find this interesting, but not very analytical; Mortensen starts with the assumption that women’s education will be transformative (a position that has some support in the academy) and doesn’t try to prove the argument or evaluate it in any very rigorous manner.  It would be wrong to say that Mortenson comes off as pompous, but there is a certain sense of self-importance, and the narrative is, of course, structured around the “white guy helps the primitives civilize themselves” idea.  All of this is forgiveable.  Mortenson has made an enormous sacrifice of his own time and money in order to help build schools in some of the world’s least accessible locations, and this has helped him produce a good book on development in southwest Asia.

Mortenson also includes some practical advice for non-governmental organizations.  In the wake of the Kashmir earthquake, for example, refugees received massive donations from the West, particularly the US.  Many of the donations included high end camping gear, which, while lovely, often caught fire when people tried to cook near it.  He also describes what can only be called the inefficiencies of frenzied disaster relief efforts.  I suspect that the response to the Haitian earthquake suffered from the same problems.

Mortenson has an instinct for negotiating local power structures.  He does a good job of identifying local power brokers, and isn’t bothered by the necessity to adapt to local cultures and decision-making practices.  His experiences indicate not only how difficult building relationship are in the area, but also how personalist.  One of Mortenson’s biggest deals nearly fails because of the illness and death of an important local powerbroker.  Indeed, Mortenson himself suffered a severe illness while traveling in Afghanistan, which was particularly troubling because many deals would have been imperiled by his death.

Mortenson is open about his failures.  Although most of his efforts at establishing schools have been successful, and few of his schools have been destroyed, he does detail several individual cases in which he failed to convince a family to send a young girl to school, or in which he was unable to bring together the resources needed to put a school in a particular area.  He also doesn’t describe the effort as likely to pay off in the short term.

In a couple of places, Mortenson discusses his relationship with the military.  Mortenson is impressed with the dedication of the US military, and at least its surface interest in humanitarian endeavor.  However, he’s skeptical of short term military success in Afghanistan.  This isn’t surprising, as his own work expects change on a much longer time frame. He also worried a lot about civilian casualties from air strikes.  However, Mortenson appears to have had good relationships with notable US military officers, including Mike Mullen.  Shortly before he was fired, Stanley McChrystal sent Mortenson a note, expressing the hope that Mortenson would continue his work even if McChrystal could not.

Mortenson’s book is both interesting and readable.  We don’t know yet whether Mortenson’s strategy will have any long term effect in Afghanistan and Pakistan, at least on the geopolitical scale.  We do know that peoples lives have been improved.  However, Mortenson’s perspective is particular; there are many questions of development and NGO operation that he can’t shed any light on.  This doesn’t make Stones to Schools less worthwhile to read, however.

Fatherhood IV: Getting to Know the Girls

[ 7 ] July 25, 2010 |

A friend of mine once told me that the experience of the first two weeks made him want to have more kids.  This seemed an absurd proposition, so I asked him to elaborate.  He argued that everything that the baby did in the first couple of weeks was something that she wouldn’t do again; then she’d change again in a couple of month, and then again a couple of months later, and so forth.  Thus, your experience with your child is really ephemeral, and once you get through it the only way to experience it again is to have another child.  That you experience those moments while stressed and sleep deprived makes them all the more difficult to hold on to.

Another friend characterized the same experience in a slightly different way.  He told me that when you reach what you feel is the absolute limit of your tolerance, something changes.  The baby starts to smile, or to roll over, or to crawl, or to babble, or whatever.  This new reality has its own problems (suddenly you can’t leave the baby on the sofa, and you have to put the remote where she can’t reach), but at least it’s novel, and the novelty lets you get through a few more months.

These ways of viewing parenthood aren’t mutually exclusive, but rather are different aspects of the same experience.  The former is backward looking and tinged with regret, while the latter is forward looking and characterized by a combination of suffering and mild optimism.  Both perspectives have held some value to me, although I think the latter has been a touch more important.  Notably, the guy who explained the former never ended up having any more children, while the latter had his second child a few months before Miriam and Elisha were born.  For our part, Elisha and Miriam represent the entirety of our contribution to global repopulation.  I already appreciate, however, the grandchild impulse; I’d love to be able to experience some of those early moments again, ESPECIALLY if I can just hand the little monsters over to their mom and dad once I tire of them.

Through my life I’ve found it very easy to fall into routine.  Indeed, I seek out routine, and almost make it a routine to vary up the routines I create for myself.  It’s been relatively easy for me to develop routines of taking care of the girls.  The problem comes with the transitions.  I resist, probably more than Davida, changing routines as the girls change.  Since the girls change almost continuously (allowing for some plateaus) this means that my routines always feel threatened.  Just when I have the proper number of feedings down, as well as my method of convincing Elisha to drink her entire bottle, we suddenly have to start feeding them solid food.  Dealing with a moving target makes figuring out how to structure the rest of my life more difficult; the spending of time with my wife, the completion of work, and so forth.

I’ve also found myself obsessed with comparison.  I stare at babies that are strolled past, and often ask the parents about ages, and so forth.  I have, on many occasions, discussed the physical characteristics of other people’s babies in public places.  “Your baby has such a huge head!  It’s, like, twice the size of Elisha’s head!” is something that I exclaimed to a couple that I didn’t know at a Dewey’s Pizza.  At a recent baseball game, I marveled openly at the size of a baby’s thighs.  Both Miriam and Elisha are small, and Elisha in particular has a very small head.  I suspect that people think I’m insulting their baby when I comment on how fat he is, or how big his head is, but of course nothing could be further from the truth; I’m actually impressed by the size of other people’s babies.  I also remember the first time I noticed that other babies were smaller and younger than Miriam and Elisha, a phenomenon that, although probably predictable, kind of blew mymind.

Thinking about change and comparison, of course, reinforces just how much the girls themselves have changed.  It is… amazing… how much a baby changes in its first year.  It goes from a smelly, screeching, sleepy thing into something that still smells, screeches, and sleeps, but that also moves and has a personality.  I try to avoid projection, but it still feels as if Miriam and Elisha are so different from one another in outlook and reaction to the world.  Miriam seems so absurdly earnest about everything that she does, from babbling to eating to watching TV, while Elisha appears to have an ironic, mischievous approach to babyhood.  I know that those terms don’t quite capture what’s going on in their heads, and again that there’s some risk of projection, but nevertheless they characterize my thinking about the girls.

I’ll confess that I felt an immediate emotional attachment to one of the girls, while with the other it took a couple of months.  I’ll never say which (I suspect Miriam and Elisha will be able to use Google or its successor in fifteen years, if they wish), but it simply isn’t true that there’s an automatic connection.  I always felt responsible for the well being of both of them, but from the start I liked one better.  That’s not really the case anymore, though; although my emotional connection with each of the girls is different, I nevertheless HAVE a connection that goes beyond feelings of paternal responsibility.  I also think it’s a positive that my relationships with the girls are distinct, even at this age; I want to believe that it reinforces a budding sense of individuality.

Putting the Best Face…

[ 3 ] July 25, 2010 |

At most ballparks the staff find creative ways to make crappy players look good; “Dan Wilson is hitting .307 in 16 of his last 24 games,” and so forth. Apparently, the Reds crew thought that they would try to do Wandy Rodriguez a favor, but it didn’t really work out:

Marty Brennaman: Wandy Rodriguez; the overall season numbers don’t look very good, Chris, but he has pitched much better over his last four starts.

Chris Welsh: Well he has, until the last couple starts in which he’s given up eight runs in his last three innings.

For the record, it appears that Rodriguez did have a decent string of four “quality starts”, before giving up five runs in six innings in his last appearance.

The “Paper Trail” Myth

[ 49 ] July 25, 2010 |

Essentially, among people who don’t think that the Supreme Court’s perspectives should range only from “Rockefeller Republican” to “Newt Gingrich Republican,” there have been two excuses for nominating Elena Kagan in a context that would permit a much more clearly liberal nominee. The first of these — age — I’ll leave for a subsequent post. The second is the idea that since all contemporary nominees are blank slates, Obama is just doing what every other modern president does, because candidates with a paper trail are extremely difficult to get confirmed.

In a comment to his (deservedly) widely-discussed post, Paul makes a point in response that shouldn’t be buried:

What “trend” would that be? The trend that put Alito and Roberts and Sotomayor on the Court? Two of those three had long careers as appellate judges and the third was a well-known movement conservative whose political and legal positions were not in any real doubt.

And one can same thing about Breyer and Ginsburg; they both had well-established public views. It’s also worth noting that the only nomination of the last two decades that came close to failing in the Senate — Thomas — involved the candidate with arguably the thinnest “paper trial” among the group between Kennedy and Kagan. (The other candidate is Souter, which is…not a precedent Kagan defenders are going to want to use in any case.) And in addition to this, the nominee with the very thinnest paper trail in this period — Miers — was actually forced to withdraw, and was replaced by a successful nominee whose down-the-line reactionary bona fides couldn’t have been much more clearly established.

Against all of this, I assume Kagan defenders will invoke Robert Bork, who did have a long paper trail and was indeed defeated. But it’s not clear how Bork is relevant to, say, Diane Wood. First of all, Bork doesn’t prove that you can’t be confirmed if you have a paper trail; he proves that you will have a hard time getting confirmed if your paper trail includes stuff like “the 1964 Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional” and “free speech is a ‘gratification’ in most cases deserving no special protection against the powers of the majority.” So, yes, if you express views that are well outside of the mainstream of what either party is currently willing to defend publicly, having a paper trail is a problem. But this isn’t going to apply in most cases. And even in this relatively extreme case, Bork’s defeat was highly contingent — on Reagan waiting until the Republicans lost their Senate majority to nominate him, and on many of the crucial votes in the Senate being conservative Southern Democrats who couldn’t vote for someone with Bork’s record on civil rights.

So, anyway, the “paper trail” argument is a lousy justification for nominating Kagan. Even since the failure of the Bork nomination, a majority of candidates have had a substantial paper trail and all of these have been confirmed. And of the three possible exceptions, one was nearly rejected, one was forced to withdraw, and one demonstrates that blank slate candidates carry a very substantial downside risk.

…while it hasn’t really been made by her defenders here, Joe is right to note in comments that there’s a third justification: that she’ll able to use her faculty-management skills to persuade Anthony Kennedy to switch sides in some close cases. If anything, I think this argument is even worse than the other two, but it is out there.

Deep Thought

[ 11 ] July 24, 2010 |

Finding out that liberal pundits were happy when Barack Obama won the 2008 election is a remarkably shocking scandal. Tucker Carlson is truly redefining journalism for our time.

On the Worthlessness of “Authenticity” As A Criterion of Value

[ 48 ] July 24, 2010 |

I think our commenter Bob sums it up well:

If authenticity mattered Billy Ray Cyrus, born into a Pentecostal family in KY, would be a much better musician than Ingram Cecil Connor III, better known as Gram Parsons, who was driven to prep school by a chauffeur, but I’ll be damned if Hickory Wind isn’t an infinitely better song than Achy Breaky Heart.

Game, set, match.

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They will always behave like grade-schoolers

[ 12 ] July 24, 2010 |

Paul Waldman on the subject of painting Energy Department roofs white to save energy:

I’m guessing conservatives will attack this idea, because … well, because conservation is for wimps, or something. You might remember that Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the roof of the White House, and when Ronald Reagan took office, he ordered them taken down. I wonder if President Palin will demand that all the white roofs on DoE buildings be painted black?

The answer is, “Of course she will,” because when Republicans waste energy, they hear the symphony of a million hippies weeping:

UCLA economists Dora Costa and Matthew Kahn analyzed the impact of an energy-conservation program in California that informed households about how their energy use compared with that of their neighbors. While the program succeeded in encouraging Democrats and environmentalists to lower their consumption, Republicans had the opposite reaction. When told of their relative thrift, they started cranking up the thermostat and leaving the lights on more often.

Pathetic.