Monday, April 27, 2009

His Name Was Mellon.

And I fell in love instantly.  During my most recent trip to Slovakia, I took a little trip with my brother Martin and my niece Natalia and our cousin Roman to my brother's country house.  It's an old defunct mill with some piece of land and a beautiful little creek:

We took Natalia to "ride" on a horse.  Here's her and my brother admiring the beautiful horse, Mellon:

And here they are riding:

I tried it too.  It was amazing..

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Can Someone Please ..

.. fire Maureen Dowd?  I mean, her last column is an interview with inventors of Twitter.  Let's imagine for a moment that the phenomenon of Twitter hasn't been explored by numerous other writers.  And let's imagine that an interview is an acceptable way to use your column space in the NYT.  Even if I give her a break on those two things, how does someone think this is remotely good material:
ME: ..Is there any thought that doesn’t need to be published?

BIZ: The one I’m thinking right now.

ME: Did you know you were designing a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls?

BIZ: We definitely didn’t design it for that. If they want to use it for that, it’s great.

ME: I heard about a woman who tweeted her father’s funeral. Whatever happened to private pain?

EVAN: I have private pain every day.

Let The Torture Witchhunt Begin.

Turns out, many knew.  Even if they don't remember.  And finally, this can stop being a partisan issue.
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who in 2002 was the ranking Democrat on the House committee, has said in public statements that she recalls being briefed on the methods, including waterboarding. She insists, however, that the lawmakers were told only that the C.I.A. believed the methods were legal — not that they were going to be used.

By contrast, the ranking Republican on the House committee at the time, Porter J. Goss of Florida, who later served as C.I.A. director, recalls a clear message that the methods would be used.

“We were briefed, and we certainly understood what C.I.A. was doing,” Mr. Goss said in an interview. “Not only was there no objection, there was actually concern about whether the agency was doing enough.”

Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, who was committee chairman in 2002, said in an interview that he did not recall ever being briefed on the methods, though government officials with access to records say all four committee leaders received multiple briefings.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pink Slip.

Pink Slip

If you already haven't, you should go see Justin Bond's Rites of Spring at Joe's Pub - one more show left next Sunday.   I saw it last night and Justin is as magical as ever and Joe's is just a perfect venue for him.  And even though I heard 95% of the stories before, Justin's delivery never bores me, as random and disorganized as it may sometimes seem.  Even his band is always amuzed, and they heard them all many many times.  And the songs - well, you can check those out on his first CD here.  

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lost Loves and Lost Years.

Only about half-way through the most recent short story from David Sedaris in the New Yorker did I realize that I was reading a story written by a man talking about his relationships and encounters with other men published in a relatively mainstream magazine, and I thought to myself, how awesome.  Granted, the New Yorker is a fairly liberal magazine with a pretty geographically confined readership base, but still, it is no fringy rag.  It wasn't just that a piece like that would be published there, but that it no longer seems like a big deal.

The piece is nostalgic, funny, sweet, raw and blunt, typical Sedaris.  Go read it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Rule of Law.

Yesterday the administration released a series of legal opinions authorizing "brutal interrogation techniques" employed by the Bush administration, also known to the rest of the civilized world as torture.  

Only thing worse than doing something criminal and illegal and getting away with it, is doing it under the protection of very labored legal language which basically reenterprets the law to justify the activity in question.  

Here's an example from one of the memos:

"As we explained in the Section 2340A Memorandum, "pain and suffering" as used in Section 2340 is best understood as a single concept, not distinct concepts of "pain" as distinguished from "suffering"... The waterboard, which inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever, does not, in our view inflict "severe pain or suffering". Even if one were to parse the statute more finely to treat "suffering" as a distinct concept, the waterboard could not be said to inflict severe sufering. The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering."

There is absolutely nothing scarier than a government that takes it on itself to interpret the law to suit its needs.  And I think it will take minimal effort to prove that that is indeed what occurred and that someone essentially "ordered" these legal opinions.  However none of this can be achieved without proper investigation and prosecution.  If these people genuinely believe that they did nothing wrong, they have nothing to be afraid of.  So I hope the president is joking when he says "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past".  Huh?  Do we now believe that no crime should be prosecuted because it only amounts to "laying blame for the past"?  Where are we drawing the line?  

And no, I don't give a damn if we tortured for the right cause (not that we were ever shown any results of what torture has accomplished).  Any country can decide to justify whatever it wants on the grounds that it is protecting itself, yet I am sure that the US or the UN, would not particularly care.  This is such a crazy slippery slope and if we hope to have any sense of order in the world - and hope to have any say in what that order looks like - we can't arbitrarily decide how to interpret laws and which international treaties apply to us. 

And, as citizens in a democratic country, if we ever hope to live with the peace of mind that the government cannot arbitrarily act against us - will all the best intentions - it is in our best interest to see these activities be investigated and those who broke the law be prosecuted.  

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The World Is Flat.

That the passage of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont would produce a response from the conservatives was not a surprise at all.  Nor was its utter head-in-the-sand ridiculousness.  The NRO editorial on the subject is a beautiful case in point.  

Why people even feel the need to respond to it employing the tools of reasoning and logic, however, is a mystery to me.  Sullivan and Anonymous Liberal are the cases in point.  They both make very solid logical points that are, well, in a deep sense pointless (borrowing from the illustrious language of NRO).  For to me, arguing with the essence of the NRO article, is like arguing with the someone who believes that the world is flat.  Not because I think that my position is superior and right (and I do), but because someone who believes the arguments assertions in the NRO piece, will not care what enlightened logical arguments you have to offer and will never change their mind.  The only thing that a sane person can do is laugh and update their Facebook profile with funny excerpts.  

One point I would like to advance, however, has less to do with the arguments in the article and more to do with its title and the way it contradicts the very essence of the conservative view.  The title The Future of Marriage, suggests that marriage is something that has a past, a present and a future; in other words, that it is something that evolves.  The very fact that the article defends the currently prevailing legal construct of marriage as the right one, suggests that marriage is fluid and certainly not "by nature the union of a man and a woman."  

A few more bon mots:  

One still sometimes hears people make the allegedly “conservative” case for same-sex marriage that it will reduce promiscuity and encourage commitment among homosexuals. This prospect seems improbable, and in any case these do not strike us as important governmental goals.

Same-sex couples will also receive the symbolic affirmation of being treated by the state as equivalent to a traditional married couple — but this spurious equality is a cost of the new laws, not a benefit.

So too is the governmental recognition of same-sex sexual relationships, committed or otherwise, in a deep sense pointless.

In fact, the more I read and think about it, the more I feel like argumentation is futile not because the points advanced by the NRO don't even meet the basic requirements for argumentation, but rather because they are disingenuous.  This is not about what marriage is and isn't supposed to be, this isn't about kids, this isn't about what is natural and what is right.  Actually, this isn't about marriage, kids, or laws at all.  Instead, encoded in these paragraphs of garbage are the following clear messages:  YOUR COMMITMENT IS NOT IMPORTANT, YOUR EQUALITY IS A COST and YOUR RELATIONSHIPS ARE POINTLESS.

FINALLY, after all these years, it is clear to me that these faux arguments are are nothing more than a wordy veil around a simple singular emotion: WE HATE YOU.

And good luck arguing with that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On a Roll ..

Vermont done and DC says ME TOO!  

And the world, shockingly, hasn't come to an end.

Torture Like It's USSR.

Today, Sullivan points me to a brilliant article in the NY Review of Books about a Red Cross report about torture in Guantanamo which until now has been classified (and can be found here).

When I think about torture and the way it has been talked about over the years I can't help but be confused on several levels.  On the one hand, the fact that it went on is virtually undisputable at this point.  On the other hand, the idea of exploring what happened and how and who exactly was responsible seems to be getting very little traction.  In the light of the multiplying (and now certified official) evidence, the Bush administration denied allegations of torture and went out of its way to sugarcoat its activity with Nazi-inspired euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" and at the same time justified those as necessary to protect the country.  And while abroad the US has been getting tremendously bad rep for its practices, the public here seems strangely passive on the issue.

To be fair, given the vagueness of the languague employed and the emotional calculation at play, the lack of popular outcry isn't entirely surprising.  The majority of the populace elected and - for the vast majority of its term - supported the Bush administration.  The administration tortured to protect the people it governed.  At the same time, the administration said that it doesn't torture, but whatever it is doing is done to protect the American people.  The message was not "torture is good", it was "whatever we do is to protect you".  This had several implications: first, the country could feel good about "whatever the government was doing" because it was meant to "protect them" and after all, it wasn't torture.  Second, by defining the terms of the debate, the administration automatically invalidated any arguments against torture - both on principle and as a matter of strategy.  Because the government wasn't torturing, there was no place in the debate to ask "Is torture right?" or "Does torture work?" or "Is it worth the damage it is doing to our reputation?"  Any debate around torture quickly became diluted by ridiculous polemics like "Is waterboarding torture?"

Mark Danner makes an interesting observation in his NYRB piece about the role that the American press played in propagating the administration's view by reprinting its wording: 

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press—to its "stenographic function" and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official—that the former vice-president's insistence that these interrogations were undertaken "legally" and "in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles" continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush's oft-repeated assertion that "the United States does not torture" is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. 

Ah, the power of words.  The pattern shouldn't be surprising to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the 20th century.  I just wonder if this sort of political behavior is a natural outcome of an organic course of events that somehow has a tendency to happen in turbulent times, or do the leaders actually get inspired by each other?

Either way, the net effect of controlling the terms of the debate - and the press complicitly reporting on the same terms - while reinforcing the overarching objective of national security - was such that by the time the evidence of clear undisputable torture started dripping out, the weirdly foggy non-debate has been going on for so long that the actual act of torture (a) was not really a surprise and (b) occurred in some confusing ethical vacuum that allowed people to distance themselves from it entirely.  In the meantime, people could feel comforted by watching episodes of 24, entirely based on the premise that extraordinary situations require extraordinary means, something that Danner also notes in his article.

It is scary but somehow almost understandable.  The question now is what happens next, with a new administration and new set of facts.  To that point, Danner ends his piece with 2 poignant paragraphs:

Philip Zelikow, who served the Bush administration in the National Security Council and the State Department and then went on to direct the 9/11 Commission, remarked in an important speech three years ago that these officials, instead of having that debate simply called in the lawyers: the focus, that is, was not on "what should we do" but on "what can we do."

There is a sense in which our society is finally posing that "what should we do" question. That it is doing so only now, after the fact, is a tragedy for the country—and becomes even more damaging as the debate is carried on largely by means of politically driven assertions and leaks. For even as the practice of torture by Americans has withered and died, its potency as a political issue has grown. The issue could not be more important, for it cuts to the basic question of who we are as Americans, and whether our laws and ideals truly guide us in our actions or serve, instead, as a kind of national decoration to be discarded in times of danger. The only way to confront the political power of the issue, and prevent the reappearance of the practice itself, is to take a hard look at the true "empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years," and speak out, clearly and credibly, about what that story really tells.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Some Legal Opinions Are Fun To Read in Full

Our responsibility, however, is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time. The framers of the Iowa Constitution knew, as did the drafters of the United States Constitution, that “times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress,” and as our constitution “endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom” and equality.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Closing In.

I was wondering when we're going to start hearing more about the H1B restrictions that were placed on institutions getting TARP money (that I wrote about here) and today I saw this deeply troubling article.    Few interesting bits:

The legislation doesn't apply to current employees of Wells [Fargo] and other TARP recipients who need to have their existing H-1B visas renewed. However, Wells is letting those visas expire anyway, according to a copy of an internal email sent to some of its foreign employees on March 20 from the bank's human resources department.

This contrasts with Goldman Sachs, another TARP recipient, which is renewing existing H-1B visas and continues to offer jobs to foreign workers who need new temporary visas to join the investment bank. "We will make offers to the best people regardless of where they live," said Ed Canaday, a Goldman spokesman.

Bank of America pulled job offers for more than 50 foreign students who would have needed H-1B visas to join the bank.

First of all, go Goldman.  As evil banking empires go, they are right up there along with everyone else and I always viewed their "emphasis on people" with heavy doses of skepticism.  But I guess they mean it, and how rightly so.  The Bank of America case is so disturbing and I can't imagine what I would do if after years of studying and multiple rounds of interviewing I would have my offer rescinded so that someone else, who was considered a worse applicant in the first place, can fill my spot.  Granted, the next best 50 are probably not complete idiots.  And one could (and many would) argue that a first year analyst in banking is a generic commodity.  What college graduate with some amount of training can't crunch some numbers and do a decent job?  

Indeed, the problem is not that this will lead to a massive deterioration of the talent pool in our investment banks (if only because the best of the best can still get an offer from Goldman).  The real problem is twofold:  first, there are areas where the foreign talent is much more irreplaceable (I'd like to say IT, but that could only be because I don't know anything about IT and I'm stereotyping .. and besides, maybe smart IT is what got us into this mess in the first place? Though the dude in question was American, so there!  But I digress ..).  

Second, bringing highly qualified immigrants to this (or any) country by means of employment is by far the easiest and most natural way to replenish the diversity of this country and anything to close that path, as tempting as it may be during a recession, is just not desirable.  I realize that I am making an assertion here that deserves a bit more argumentation; but if you need one, here's a pragmatic argument in favor of immigration.  

Lastly, one technical note on the article, specifically regarding this pearl of wisdom:

With unemployment surging, there's no need for companies to hire foreign guest workers through the H-1B program when there are plenty of qualified Americans looking for jobs, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in February. Grassley sponsored the amendment to the stimulus bill that made it harder for TARP recipients to hire overseas workers on H-1B visas. "Our common-sense amendment simply ensures that recipients of American taxpayer money make American workers their first priority," he added.

This common-sense only makes any sense if you believe that American taxpayor money is only money paid by American workers.  However, seeing that some 50% of my income gets rerouted biweekly to the United States trasury, New York State and New York City, I beg to differ.  Yes, foreigners pay taxes, too, and by design (they have to earn more than the going market rate to justify their H1B status)  they actually pay more in taxes that the average American.  So unless someone wants to exempt me from contributing to the $1 trillion bailout of the US banking industry and to the $800 billion stimulus ($11,000 per person, thank you very much) or exempt me from paying Federal taxes (a much much higher amount), don't tell me that I am somehow a lesser priority than a US citizen.