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Powell: Close Down Gitmo

Colin Powell thinks the US should shut down Guantanamo Bay and give the prisoners there, like, rights and stuff.

"Essentially, we have shaken the belief that the world had in America's justice system by keeping a place like Guantanamo open and creating things like a military commission," Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Making it clear that he "would not let any of those people go," Powell said, "I would simply move them to the United States and put them into our more federal legal system." He said he sees no problem in detainees having the right of habeas corpus and getting their own lawyers. "Isn't that what our system is all about?"

Isn't it?


Butts Steals Toilet Paper


Disappearing Comments

Apparently, our recently installed spam filter was eating every comment. Sorry about that. Should be fixed now.


Genarlow Wilson freed

The guy Constant posted about here has been freed by a judge. But it looks like Attorney General doesn't like the ruling.

Attorney General Thurbert Baker's office filed a notice to appeal the judge's order this afternoon, saying Wilson has "absolutely no authority to change the judgment of the trial court, in this case the Superior Court of Douglas County."


Worst. Ending. Ever.

...in which David Chase does his best J. J. Abrams impression. I kept looking at the clock and wondering how all the storylines were going to be resolved "in the next few minutes". Later I thought, "Holy shit, Tony's gonna get whacked to Journey!"

Hey David Chase, I can do that too. I've done it, in fact. 5th grade, we had to write a short story, and I wrote one about a dude named Simon who is visiting the great pyramids and falls into a hole and winds up on another planet. As the pages piled up, the threads kept building and the plots grew more intricate. But I had no idea to write the ending so I abruptly ended with, "And then Simon woke up!"

"And then the screen goes blank!"

In the words of a memorable Conan O'Brien skit, not cool Zeus, not cool.


Tony Soprano: Sociopath?

One of the greatest series in the history of television ends this coming Sunday. The penultimate episode of The Sopranos, "The Blue Comet", which aired last Sunday, showed what was probably the last interaction psychiatrist Dr. Melfi has with her long term patient, mafia boss Tony Soprano. After seven years, she ends their doctor-patient relationship after her peers convince her that psychiatrists can't help sociopaths, and if anything, may enable them.

Is Tony Soprano a sociopath? That, I believe, is the over-arching question of the series. Are we to relate to Tony's suburban struggles with family and friends despite what he does for a living? Or should we recoil in horror at the monstrous acts he periodically performs without a hint of guilt?

While growing up, his role models were his father, a popular mob captain, and his uncle, another higher-up in the organization. At a certain point in his life course, he had to internalize his surroundings and decide either to get out and start a life outside this culture or stay in the family business and build up psychological defense mechanisms to justify what ordinary people regard as abhorrent acts.

The very first scene of the series showed him complaining to Melfi about the loss of the old ways of doing business. Tony was all about playing within the mob rules and respecting mob culture. He's a family man spreading his time between his nuclear family and his mob family. Anytime we see his dream sequences, he is struggling with what he has done or is about to do or how his life would have been different had he done things right in the past. He shows a conscience.

But over the years, he started making more and more exceptions, seeing himself above the law. Both the murders of Ralph Cifaretto and his own nephew Christopher Moltisanti were outside the accepted rules, though I think he genuinely felt remorse afterwards. The same can't be said about when he ruined Davey Scatino's life, or dumped asbestos into a marsh, or taunted Meadow about her boyfriend, all done without a second thought. Phil Leotardo, Tony's rival, himself no longer lives by the oaths. What he is doing is against all mafia conventions and punishable by death, all the while mocking Tony's New Jersey organization for its failure to follow the unwritten rules. After he gains all the power, without the checks provided by evolved customs in the den of theives, he himself will become corrupt beyond salvation. That's another central theme of the series: the civilizing forces of cultural norms and the consequences of their breakdown.

So is Tony Soprano a sociopath? I don't know. But I watched "The Blue Comet" with a deep sadness as the inevitable downfall began in a surreal chain of events. All along, Melfi has been a proxy for our fascination for the criminal mind, and in the end she decided that what she'd been doing these last seven years was helping Tony be a better gangster. She couldn't bear to live with herself for it. Maybe I'm not as brave as Melfi. Maybe I'm still gullible about seeing the good side of an evil man, someone who only us viewers saw kill another man with his bare hands, even as his own wife could only guess about all the awful things he did but never wanted to know. Or maybe it's simply David Chase working his magic, but within the mob world, I want Tony to win.

Now Paulie... if the word "sociopath" applied to anyone...


Big Apple Business

Interesting article in New York Magazine about various New York city enterprises and their struggle to make a profit.

Every company setting up in the city finds itself plugged into its myriad historical, cultural, and regulatory quirks. The biggest one, of course, concerns our island’s most precious commodity and its most enduring obsession: real estate. New York businesses live and die by the rent; if you’re a retailer leasing here, “making the rent” becomes the yardstick of solvency. The unofficial golden rule of restaurants dictates that the rent be made in a week and take up no more than a quarter of revenue. The bar version of the rule is even simpler: The rent should equal your Friday-night take. With each year, another company succumbs to the strange realization that where it sits may be more valuable than what it does. Even Macy’s, that icon of consumerism, may be worth more as a building than as a store. We’ve picked a disparate cross section of New York institutions and examined their inner workings. Some are nonprofits (a soup kitchen, a private school), some are not profitable (a fledgling yoga studio, the Yankees—at least on an annual basis), and at least one, Goldman Sachs, is stratospherically lucrative (though a lazy meth dealer ekes out a higher margin). A note: Where companies wouldn’t provide figures, our estimates are based on analyst reports, tax filings, and interviews with former and current employees.

An example, the restaurant Nobu:

How It Works: “There’s a saying that you’re only as good as your lease,” says co-owner Drew Nieporent. “It’s true.” Cheap rent lets Nobu work a lower-price, higher-volume game than many of its top-of-the-line brethren: The median check, including alcohol, is $75. The strategy makes for 90 percent dinner occupancy and 200 to 250 meals per day. Nobu’s spinoffs, Nobu Fifty-Seven and Nobu Next Door, share office and marketing costs and lower the cost of food for the original. “It’s like buying for your famous cousin—you get a better price because suppliers know there are other restaurants,” says restaurant consultant Clark Wolf. “That’s 3 to 20 percent lower costs, which is all bottom-line money.” Most restaurants pockets a dime on the dollar; Nobu banks twice that.

Annual Revenue: $8.5 million from Tribeca location ($1.7 million is profit).

Most-Profitable Item: Black cod with miso ($20): The restaurant’s top-selling item is cheap per ounce. Cost to Nobu: about $7.

Least-Profitable Item: Toro tartare ($32): Tuna belly is extremely pricey per pound. Cost to Nobu: Depending on markets, can be $20.

Added Value: Spare Japanese design pays off: Tight seating maximizes capacity, with no pricey tablecloths to launder.


Polite Golf-Claps Only Please

Galesburg High School won't give diplomas to 5 students because people in the crowd cheered when their names were called during the graduation ceremony.

Five students denied diplomas after cheers erupted when their names were called at a high school graduation emerged empty-handed Tuesday from a meeting with school administrators.

The students and their families met briefly with Galesburg High School officials at an administration building, but they were again denied the diplomas because no one apologized to school officials for the cheers at the May 27 ceremony.

The students in the central Illinois town about 150 miles southwest of Chicago will still graduate and receive their transcripts, even if they don't receive the keepsake diplomas.

School officials withheld the diplomas because they said the cheering violated a school policy aimed at restoring graduation decorum. Officials told the five female students and their parents Friday that they would hand over diplomas if they received apologies -- even anonymously.

[...]

The students denied the diplomas say school officials wanted them to track down the cheering culprits. They say that is impossible, because they don't know who might have cheered in the crowd of about 2,000 people.

The incident nicely encapsulates so much of what I find repulsive about public schooling:

1) Greater emphasis on appropriate social behavior rather than education
2) Blind obedience to authority
3) Collective punishment
4) Power-hungry, incompetent administrators

Any others?


All Hitchens All The Time

From a debate with Chris Hedges [via Newsbusters]:

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: The decline -- not to say the moral eclipse -- of the secular left has just been illustrated on this very platform by someone, who makes excuses for suicide murder and tries to trace them to a second-rate sociology.

[…]

HITCHENS: But, to what I think is the hidden agenda of the question: 'Is George Bush on a Christian crusade in Iraq and Afghanistan?' Obviously not, obviously not. Anyone who's studied what's happening in either of those countries now knows that the whole of American policy -- and by the way a lot of your own future, ladies and gentlemen -- is staked on the hope that federal secular democrats can emerge from this terrible combat. We can protect them and offer them help while they do so. We know that they're there, that we are -- I've met them, I love them, they're our friends. Every member of the 82nd Airborne Division could be a snake-handling congregationalist, for all I know, but these men and women, though you sneer and jeer at them, and snigger when you hear applause and excuses for suicide bombers -- and you have to live with the shame of having done that -- these people are guarding you while you sleep, whether you know it or not. And they're also creating space for secularism to emerge, and you better hope that they are successful.

CHRIS HEDGES: I feel like I should be reading Kipling's White Man's Burden.

Audience: Laughter.

HITCHENS: What you mean is you wish you had read it.

[…]

HITCHENS: It's exact equivalent of the evil nonsense taught by Hedges and friends of his, who say the suicide bombers in Palestine are driven to it by despair. Have you read the manifestos of these suicide bombers? Have you seen the videos they make? Have you seen the manifestos they put out? The propaganda that they generate? These are not people in despair. These are people in a state of religious exultation. Who are promised everything. Who are in a state of hope. Who are in a state of adoration for their evil mullahs. And for their filthy religion. It's this that makes them think they have the right to kill others while taking their own lives. If despair among Palestinians was enough to create psychopathic criminal behavior, there's been enough despair for a long time, and enough misery to go around. It is to excuse the vicious, filthy forces of Islamic jihad to offer any other explanation but that it is their own evil preaching, their own vile religion, their own racism, their own apocalyptic ideology that makes them think they have the right to kill everyone in this room, and go to paradise as a reward. I won't listen, nor should you, to anyone who euphemizes or excuses this evil wicked thing.

[…]

HITCHENS: Religion consists now, we find, no longer of moral absolutes. It used to be, when I debated with religious types, they would say, 'Yes, circumcision is good; masturbation is bad. We know this, because God tells us so. Hacking of the genitals of a child with a sharp stone is divine; touching them with a hand -- not so great.' We know -- so we knew where we were. We were absolute. Now [gesturing towards Chris Hedges] it's all relative. Now it's all completely relative. It's made up a la carte and cherry-picked by mediocre pseudo-intellectuals who want you to believe that the following thing that would have happened -- in the year, in the month of the year that the liberation of Iraq took place, that finally, after an endless thesaurus of United Nations resolutions condemning every aspect of its regime, that Iraq was free from the proprietorship of Saddam Hussein -- that was March, 2003 -- do you know what would have happened in April, 2003? Iraq was going to be the chair of the United Nations Special Committee on Disarmament. Some people think that would have been a better outcome. More humane, more legal, less troubling, altogether more dealable with. Just as Iran and Libya have just been re-elected to that very Committee on Disarmament at the United Nations. I ask you: You pick that kind of relativism, you'll also find you're dealing with a very surreptitious form of absolutism, which is only capable of describing as fascistic relatively comical forces (who I've denounced up- and downhill all my life in the United States), but cannot use the word totalitarianism about the religion that actually conducts jihad, actually organizes totalitarianism, actually inflicts misery, pain, unemployment, and despair upon millions of people, and then claims what it has done as the license for suicide and murder. A perfect picture [gesturing towards Chris Hedges] has been given to you of the cretinous relationship between sloppy moral relativism, half-baked religious absolutism, and the journalism that lies in between. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Chris Hedges? [Inviting him to respond.]

HEDGES: [Waves his hand, to indicate 'No more.']


Community site update

We're still working on a lot of changes to the site. It'll take another couple of weeks to move things along. In particular, I regret that we don't yet have a way to list community blogs on the front page. We also don't have the power yet to move posts to the frontpage. We appreciate your efforts on the community blogs and your patience with the changes.


Links Roundup

Eric H, one of the best bloggers around, on "The Black Book of Capitalism".

British patients told to stop smoking or their surgery will be refused.

Ron Paul on The Daily Show:


Sunnis vs Al-Qaeda

From a WaPo article:

The mayor of the Amiriyah neighborhood, Mohammed Abdul Khaliq, said in a telephone interview that residents were rising up to try to expel al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has alienated other Sunnis with its indiscriminate violence and attacks on members of its own sect.

"I think this is going to be the end of the al-Qaeda presence here," Abdul Khaliq said of the fighting Wednesday and Thursday, which began over accusations that al-Qaeda in Iraq had executed Sunnis without reason.

[...]

In the western province of Anbar, which is predominantly Sunni, tribal leaders have formed an umbrella group, the Anbar Salvation Council, to join with U.S. and Iraqi troops in a common fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq, which used to dominate the province. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said at a news briefing Thursday that 12,000 Anbar residents have joined the Iraqi security forces in the first five months of this year, compared with 1,000 in all of last year.


Hitchens vs Hitchens

Apropos recent discussions, Peter Hitchens reviews Christopher Hitchens' book God Is Not Great. Some excerpts:

I also think it is wrong, mostly in the way that it blames faith for so many bad things and gives it no credit for any of the good it may have done.

I think it misunderstands religious people and their aims and desires. And I think it asserts a number of things as true and obvious that are nothing of the sort.

[...]

It is astonishing, in one so set against the idea of design or authority in the universe, how often he appeals to mysterious intuitions and "innate" knowledge of this kind, and uses religious language such as "awesome" – in awe of whom or what?

Or "mysterious". What is the mystery, if all is explained by science, the telescope and the microscope? He even refers to "conscience" and makes frequent thunderous denunciations of various evil actions.

Where is his certain knowledge of what is right and wrong supposed to have come from?

How can the idea of a conscience have any meaning in a world of random chance, where in the end we are all just collections of molecules swirling in a purposeless confusion?

If you are getting inner promptings, why should you pay any attention to them? It is as absurd as the idea of a compass with no magnetic North. You might as well take moral instruction from your bile duct.

Two pages later, speaking for atheists in general, he announces: "Our belief is not a belief."

To which one can only reply: "Really? And that thing in the middle of your face. I suppose that’s not a nose, either?"

Christopher is not tentative about his view on God. He describes himself as an "anti-theist", so certain of his, er, faith that he wars with bitter mockery against those who doubt his truth.

Well, I wish I were as certain about any of these things as Christopher is about his anti-creed.

He reminds me rather more of the bearded Muslim sages of the Deoband Islamic university in India I met last year, than of the cool, thoughtful Anglicanism that we were both more or less brought up in.

For the purposes of this book, religion is identified as a fanatical certainty. No doubt there are plenty of zealots who suffer from this problem.

But it is obvious to anyone that vast numbers of believers in every faith are filled with doubt, and open to reason. The Church of England’s greatest martyr, Thomas Cranmer, was burned at the stake for changing his mind once too often.

The noblest thinker of that Church, Richard Hooker, enthroned reason, alongside tradition and scripture, as one of the governing principles of faith, and warned against crude literal use of the Bible to justify or prohibit any action.

What bugs me about the recently popular anti-theist sentiment is the certainty and ridicule with which anti-theists approach the question of God's existence while at the same time making similar "leaps of faith" about other questions about the universe.

Leave theism and anti-theism to the true believers; give me skepticism.


Mmmkay

Watching the Democratic debate; it's a riot.

Wolf Blitzer: What would you do to lower gasoline prices right now?

Chris Dodd: blablabla... Enact a carbon tax.


Rational Ignorance, Specialization, and Evolution

I have some quibbles with sourcreamus's post about why irrational beliefs exist. (S)he says:

I was reading some forum posts about Scientology the other day, and whenever that subect comes up my first thought is always "How could people believe something so stupid?" After some thought about it, I came to the conclusion the reason is not stupidity or irrationality, but specialization. It is irrational to learn how to fix my car, since if it ever breaks I can pay a specialist to do it for me, and the cost of paying for him to do it will be less than the cost of learning how to do it myself. Likewise, knowing too much about theology or the origin of the universe is irrational. There are people who spend their lives studying these things and the price I will pay to understand these things will generally be more than the benefit I derive from the knowledge. So I just choose an expert and believe what they believe. However, there are many experts out there and many say contradictory things. So how do I choose an expert? I could read their positions and research which is better. but to do that I'd have to become and expert which I have no desire to do. Another way is to pick an expert who is part of a group I already trust. To apply this to Scientology, one expert says that the reason you are depressed is because of an imbalance in the neurotransmitter levels in the brain. The other expert says that it is because of some spirits that attached themselves to you when your mother screamed during your delivery. The second expert also said that if you hold two cans in your hands while imagining past traumas you would feel good afterwards. The second expert was right about that so you decide to trust him about the reason for depression.

When you pay someone to fix your car, you get results that are immediately apparent: either you car is fixed, or it isn't. If it is, you might hire him the next time your car breaks down. If it isn't, you hire someone else next time. Because there is immediate feedback, it pays to be rational about who you hire. And because there is a market in mechanics, there is feedback in the system. Specialization does not result in irrational beliefs as long as there is adequate feedback and an ability to evaluate results. Markets promote feedback evaluation through the price system. Markets promote rationality.

The problem comes in the sifting of data, having adequate control groups, and overcoming innate biases to have proper feedback. For example, it's not easy to determine how much of a car's poor performance over many years is due to expected wear-and-tear and how much is due to poor servicing by mechanics.

The ease of data-sifting varies with different types of markets. The market for mechanics is more rational than the market for medical services, which is itself more rational than the market for legislation.

As an aside, the part about Scientology got me thinking what I'm sure others have probably already said somewhere but just occurred to me. How can a nation as prosperous as the US still have so many people who would rather subscribe to creationism than evolution? Simply, for most people, there are very few costs associated with creationism, and there is very little to gain with a belief in evolution.