March 31, 2007

Girl talk

Tony Snow's understudy Dana Perino has been thrust into daily handling of press secretary duties at the White House thanks to Snow's cancer recurrence. Perino seems to be off to a creditable start, but one bit of reported "girl talk" about her sudden transition struck an odd note.

Perino has been flooded with calls of support, including one, she says, from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who told her: "Put your big-girl panties on."

There is no male equivalent to such a phrase, not even remotely. ("Put your jockstrap on" would come from an entirely different place.)

Does Hillary Clinton talk that way?

Posted by Alan at 09:08 PM

March 27, 2007

Tony Snow's cancer returns

Here's bad news for admirable Tony Snow.

Presidential spokesman Tony Snow's surgery to remove a small growth showed that his cancer has returned and spread to his liver, the White House said today.

President Bush, making a brief statement to reporters in the Rose Garden, struck an optimistic tone that echoed how aides said Snow was feeling. Bush said he looked forward to the day when Snow returns to the White House.

"His attitide is one that he is not going to let this whip him," Bush said. "My attitude is that we need to pray for him."

Posted by Alan at 10:28 AM

March 24, 2007

Emmylou Harris with John Starling & Carolina Star

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What a splendid evening we had at Friday night's concert by musical superstar Emmylou Harris and her colleagues John Starling and Carolina Star in Houston's Jones Hall.

The event was billed as part of the American Expressions series of the Houston Symphony, but our hometown orchestra was nowhere to be found. The Jones Hall stage was just a simple set filled with the acoustic instruments of Emmylou and the band.

She was in fine form, still beautiful after all these years and vocally strong. The two-part set was a mixture of bluegrass and traditional songs, plus a generous selection of Emmylou's hits from past years. There were lots of similarities to her memorable 1992 Live at the Ryman recording with the Nash Ramblers.

John Starling and Carolina Star are in fact a reincarnation of the legendary Seldom Scene, famed 70s bluegrass revival pioneers, so they were soulful virtuosos.

An article last fall from the Washington Post tells the story of how these old friends came to reunite on the stage.

For the audience, it was like sittin' in around their living room: cozy, relaxed, conversational, friendly. As a longtime fan, now for more thirty years, it was, in a word, magical.

Recommended:

• Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler - Real Live Roadrunning - CD/DVD (2006)
• John Starling and Carolina Star - Slidin' Home (2007)

Posted by Alan at 06:47 AM

March 23, 2007

Tony Snow cancer concerns

This is unfortunate news for Tony Snow. We can only hope the final biopsy will prove this is non-malignant, not a cancer recurrence.

Presidential spokesman Tony Snow is undergoing surgery Monday to remove a growth in his lower abdomen, a procedure he said was being done "out of an aggressive sense of caution" because he had colon cancer two years ago.

He said Friday that tests since the growth was discovered have been negative, but that doctors decided to remove it to be sure.

"Please do not leap to conclusions about this because we don't know what this is," Snow told reporters. "We know it's coming out and I know I'll be back soon."

Posted by Alan at 12:30 PM

Stupid, stupid, stupid

Here's a dramatic example of how narrow bureaucratic budget-think continues to undermine our military preparedness, even while our national leadership tries in vain to make the case that we are a nation at war.

The Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Northern Command are planning to shut down the huge underground command bunker at Cheyenne Mountain, Colo., where U.S. nuclear war operations would be held and space and missile tracking is done.

A defense official said Congress is being misled about the supposed cost savings for moving the mountain's functions to other less-protected bases.

"The real cost will be billions of dollars, and we will lose the cornerstone of the U.S. nuclear command and control facilities," said the official, who opposes the move.

Instead of placing command and tracking posts in the hardened, survivable Cheyenne Mountain, "we are going to base the deterrence for North America out of an office building."

The official said that it took years to build the current team of U.S. and Canadian military officials at Cheyenne Mountain into "the most integrated, technologically fused, state of the art system in the world."

"It is probably the Eighth Wonder of the World, but in six months it will be ripped asunder and nothing will be left," the official said. "This country will be at a risk level rarely ever seen. But it's like safety: Until something blows up, no one notices and everyone's happy. Then you hear 'how did this happen?' "

The official said an honest cost-benefit analysis was never done on closing the mountain and moving more than 250 North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command specialists to nearby Peterson Air Force Base.

The command center will be moved to a building at Peterson that is under the flight path of all commercial aircraft traffic at Colorado Springs airport and easily within target range of a terrorist with a shoulder-fired missile. The same building experienced two power failures last summer that "brought Northcom to its knees" while the command center at Cheyenne Mountain continued operating under generator power, the official said.

This boggles the mind.

Posted by Alan at 07:07 AM

March 22, 2007

Bush library debate goes on

Faculty debate continues at SMU over the prospect of a George W. Bush presidential library and associated policy institute. Some are raising their voices in support.

The latest is a “Dear Colleague” letter today from several political science/history professors saying the open letter sent out by a faculty group Tuesday, asking that the institute be totally separated from SMU, contained misrepresentations, unverifiable claims, and unwarranted assumptions. The new letter presents arguments in support of the institute’s connection to SMU, asserting that it will be a boon to intellectual life at SMU.

[W]e should expect that most fellows of the institute, and most of their policy prescriptions, would be conservative in one sense or another. However, a general philosophical orientation or distinctive worldview does not imply incompatibility with a university’s mission, especially in a unit that would neither be hiring any faculty nor granting any degrees....

[T]o suggest that open inquiry and academic freedom would be put at risk not only for SMU but for all academic institutions by the presence of an autonomous policy institute is wildly implausible.

Although it's entirely predictable that many SMU faculty members would reflexively oppose any and all connections with their dreaded presidential bugbear, it's good to see that some also take a balanced view.

Posted by Alan at 12:22 PM

March 20, 2007

Gonzales down, almost out

U.S. attorney general Alberto Gonzales is slowly twisting in the wind this week, under attack for a witless, poorly executed political stratagem to dump eight US Attorneys and blame it on their "performance."

Now US News reports that the Dept. of Justice is "paralyzed." President Bush needs yet another exit strategy, thanks to more ineptitude from his so-called aides.

The fear that virtually any piece of communication will have to be turned over has paralyzed department officials' ability to communicate effectively and respond in unison to the crisis, as has the fact that senior Justice officials themselves say they still don't know the entire story about what happened that led to the crisis. So they are afraid that anything they put down on paper could be viewed as lies or obfuscation, when in fact, the story is changing daily as new documents are found and as the Office of Legal Counsel conducts its own internal probe into the matter.

The paralysis will affect the calculations that Gonzales must make this week as to whether he should stay or go. If Gonzales doesn't resign, there's little doubt that he will get few of his initiatives through for the rest of his tenure and that his people will spend months churning out documents at the behest of angry Democrats who will be investigating virtually anything that moves. But this could also give Gonzales an exit strategy, officials say. He could say that while neither he nor his subordinates did anything wrong, he has decided to resign for the greater good of the department and for justice at large.

Posted by Alan at 07:00 AM

March 17, 2007

Law, order, and more

John Fund interviews former senator Fred Thompson on his prospects for a presidential run.

Mr. Thompson appears serene about all the speculation swirling around him. "Those running are all good guys, and would be good presidents," he says leaning back in a recliner. "But there are truly vital issues--from the looming entitlement crisis to nuclear proliferation--I'm not afraid to talk about. Lots of people have such a low regard for politicians that they're open to a campaign that would be completely different."

So how would a possible Thompson campaign be distinctive? "Politics is now one big 24-hour news cycle, but we seem to spend less time than ever on real substance," he muses. "What if someone harnessed the Internet and other technologies and insisted in talking about real issues in more depth than consultants would advise? What if they took risks with their race in hopes that the risks to our children could be reduced through building a mandate for good policy?"

Imagine that, a campaign about issues and ideas... could it really happen?

Posted by Alan at 09:38 AM

March 16, 2007

Loyalty vs. Ideas

Peggy Noonan considers the fact that political loyalty is now trumping commitment to ideas, another dimension to the ongoing, downward spiral of our political culture.

In the past, personal loyalty has been more a Democratic thing than a Republican one. Democrats used to like politics more than Republicans, so it's no surprise they'd like its practitioners more. Republicans used to be conservatives; conservatives think politics is a duty, not a joy. Democrats took their leaders more seriously as personalities, as people. They emotionally invested more in them. FDR's people gave themselves to the boss, and went on to write the wonderful compelling story: Franklin and Eleanor, he a flighty state rep, she a flutey-voiced duckling, both of them born to and comfortable in wealth, then illness, growth, personal drama; he gets sick and finds his strength, she becomes independent and finds her voice. How many books, films and made-for-TV movies have we seen of it? All written by Democrats, who were more eager to see the life as a reason for their loyalty.

Republicans used to be a cooler sort. They got excited by the philosophy, by what the guy would do in office. If he pleased them in these areas, they were more than happy to find he'd lived an interesting and inspiring life, and tell you about it in books.

It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities. Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history. Better to have fidelity to principles, and not to political figures, no matter how interesting or compelling they are.

Posted by Alan at 11:30 AM

March 15, 2007

M-Terrorism

Here's something new to worry about: a 21st century technique for funding terrorism.

We are on the cusp of a new era of terror financing, that of mobile payments or "m-payments." An m-payment system is being developed by members of the GSM Association to enable migrant workers and the poor who do not have bank accounts to transfer money internationally, efficiently and inexpensively. According to the World Bank, 175 million migrants transferred at least $230 billion international remittances in 2005. Are Hamas, al Qaeda, Hezbollah and their likes far behind?

Soon, every mobile-phone owner will be able to send money, pay bills and make purchases anywhere, anytime. According to the GSM Association, 3 billion people have mobile phones, but only 1 billion people worldwide have bank accounts. BearingPoint, a major management and technology consulting company, estimated the unbanked marketplace in the United States alone in 2006 at $510 billion. No wonder that banks such as Citigroup, HSBC, JPMorgan Chase, BancorpSouth, as well as mobile phone companies such as Cingular, Verizon, Sprint and Vodafone, to name a few, are clamoring for a piece of the action.

Without the implementation of a real-time digital anti-money-laundering compliance framework, the m-payment system is well suited to become the "killer application" for money laundering and terror financing. All you need is a stored value card and m-payments enabled mobile phone and carrier.

Posted by Alan at 05:59 PM

March 14, 2007

Another chicken comes home to roost

More and more often, I appreciate the sensible insights of Andy McCarthy, this time concerning strident calls for our admittedly mediocre AG Alberto Gonzales to step down or be fired.

Now, no matter what you think of Gonzales's performance, it would be a travesty to allow him to be forced out because the opposition has turned the USAtty fiasco into a referendum on abuse of presidential power.... Makes it all the more infuriating to find yourself in the position of defending a guy who wouldn't have the job but for his closeness to the president and whose story, to explain testimony now acknowledged to be inaccurate, is that he didn't know what was going on between his own chief-of-staff and the White House counsel.

...

Gonzales rates being defended strictly because it would be an outrage if he lost his job over this manufactured scandal. But the president shouldn't be shocked that there isn't exactly a tidal wave rushing to the attorney general's defense.

Posted by Alan at 06:23 PM

March 12, 2007

Van Morrison - Austin City Limits Music Festival CD

Van Morrison and his touring band stopped in Austin last September for a much-anticipated performance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. We decided not to go since we knew all too well that the price of the brutal late-summer sun and heat in Austin would be excessive, even for a chance to hear a longtime favorite musical artist.

Van was touring his c&w-themed 2006 CD Pay the Devil, so it was uncertain what his set list in Austin would feature or what idiosyncratic mood he would be in for the performance. An enhanced edition of Pay the Devil had included a video disc showcasing an energetic but enigmatic performance at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Would the Austin show focus on c&w or would it include the full flavor of his lengthy and innovative career?

Early reports here and there from the festival were pretty positive but not detailed. Then up popped a contemporaneous in-studio effort taped for the Austin City Limits show on PBS. It was enjoyable, but didn't quite capture Van Morrison at full burn.

Recently an email via his UK website arrived, offering a limited-edition, 2-disc CD of the ACL Music Festival performance. Well, the CD package arrived recently and it's a revelation. That show at Zilker Park in Austin would have been [well, almost] worth the price of dehydration and sunburn.

What impresses me about the CD? For starters, Van is by turns impassioned, intense, and playful - he sounds better than he has for years on any recording. The band is in fine form and has great arrangements; musical styles transition easily between c&w, blues, jazz and Van's trademark Celtic soul.

The overall set is full of small surprises as well as familiar grooves. The song selection spans forty years or more, from Pay the Devil tunes to old favorites like "Cleaning Windows," "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Gloria", with frequent lyrical and musical allusions to Van's roots in 50s and 60s rock and soul. To hear Van's take on Sam Cooke - how fun is that? To hear a fresh, jazzy arrangement of "Moondance" - terrific. An eight-minute rave-up of his young man's anthem "Gloria"? What a great ending to a great night in Austin.

This CD has been in constant rotation at home and in the car - a nifty piece of work by an authentic legend of popular music . At one point, Van comments to the crowd that he can't recall when he was last in Austin, but "it's been worth the wait." That's true for us as well.

Set list:

• Back on Top
• Big Blue Diamonds
• Playhouse
• Days Like This
• Muleskinner Blues
• In the Midnight
• Bright Side of the Road
• Don't You Make Me High
• Cleaning Windows
• I Can't Stop Loving You
• Real Real Gone/You Send Me
• Saint James Infirmary
• Moondance
• It's All in the Game/You Know What They're Writing About
• Precious Time
• Don't Start Crying Now/Custard Pie
• Wild Night
• Brown Eyed Girl
• Gloria


Posted by Alan at 06:27 AM

March 11, 2007

Texas toll roads

A journalist known to us recommends a thoughtful report in today's Dallas Morning News about the looming future for privatization and toll roads in funding highway transportation in Texas.

Some argue that toll roads are the only smart play in a state where the Legislature has refused to raise the tax on gasoline, which pays for roads. In Texas and beyond, officials have turned to private companies like Cintra, which on Feb. 27 won a 50-year contract to operate State Highway 121 in Collin and Denton counties as a toll road. The companies build the roads, and motorists pay them back a trip at a time – for decades.

A growing number of lawmakers are mobilizing against Texas' toll road policy. But barring a legislative roadblock, tolls are coming to plenty of other North Texas roads, and they will be central to the mammoth Trans-Texas Corridor project. Privatization of roads is happening across the nation and, indeed, around the world.

Proponents, who include Texas' governor and Transportation Commission chairman, say it's the only way new roads will be there for motorists who want them. Critics say the deals to build toll roads are too generous – handing over valuable highways in exchange for quick cash – an easy way out for politicians unwilling to raise taxes. Critics also say that motorists will be stuck paying higher-than-necessary tolls.

I'd like to believe that private sector know-how and relative efficiency is a good portent, but experience also teaches us to be wary of sweetheart deals and the short-term thinking of revenue-hungry politicians who have proved time and again that they'll mortage the future for the next election.

Related:

Trans-Texas Corridor (pro-TTC)
CorridorWatch.org (anti-TTC)

Posted by Alan at 06:03 PM

Halliburton moving to Dubai

This is unexpected news, and should have interesting reverberations in corporate conspiracy circles.

Oil services giant Halliburton Co. will soon shift its corporate headquarters from Houston to the Middle East financial powerhouse of Dubai, chief executive Dave Lesar announced today.

"Halliburton is opening its corporate headquarters in Dubai while maintaining a corporate office in Houston," spokeswoman Cathy Mann said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "The chairman, president and CEO will office from and be based in Dubai to run the company from the UAE."

Lesar, speaking at an energy conference in nearby Bahrain, said he will relocate to Dubai from Texas to oversee Halliburton's intensified focus on business in the Mideast and energy-hungry Asia, home to some of the world's most important oil and gas markets.

"As the CEO, I'm responsible for the global business of Halliburton in both hemispheres and I will continue to spend quite a bit of time in an airplane as I remain attentive to our customers, shareholders and employees around the world," Lesar said. "Yes, I will spend the majority of my time in Dubai."

Lesar's announcement appears to signal one of the highest-profile moves by a U.S. corporate leader to Dubai, an Arab boomtown where free-market capitalism has been paired with some of the world's most liberal tax, investment and residency laws.

Last I heard, the Halliburton brass was busy orchestrating layoffs at spinning-off subsidiary KBR. Time to move on, apparently.

Posted by Alan at 01:38 PM

March 10, 2007

Heart of the matter

Here's an interview with exiled Ayaan Hirsi Ali and insights into her fierce, defiant criticism of Islam.

Ms. Hirsi Ali was born in 1969 in Mogadishu--into, as she puts it, "the Islamic civilization, as far as you can call it a civilization." In 1992, at age 22, her family gave her hand to a distant relative; had the marriage ensued, she says, it would have been "an arranged rape." But as she was shipped to the appointment via Europe, she fled, obtaining asylum in Holland. There, "through observation, through experience, through reading," she acquainted herself with a different world. "The culture that I came to and I live in now is not perfect," Ms. Hirsi Ali says. "But this culture, the West, the product of the Enlightenment, is the best humanity has ever achieved."

...

In person, she is modest, graceful, enthralling. Intellectually, she is fierce, even predatory: "We know exactly what it is about but we don't have the guts to say it out loud," she says. "We are too weak to take up our role. The West is falling apart. The open society is coming undone."

Many liberals loathe her for disrupting an imagined "diversity" consensus: It is absurd, she argues, to pretend that cultures are all equal, or all equally desirable. But conservatives, and others, might be reasonably unnerved by her dim view of religion. She does not believe that Islam has been "hijacked" by fanatics, but that fanaticism is intrinsic in Islam itself: "Islam, even Islam in its nonviolent form, is dangerous."


Infidel (2007)
• NPR - 'Infidel' and an Argument for Intolerance

Posted by Alan at 11:28 AM

March 08, 2007

Matt Doherty at SMU

Here's a decent profile of Matt Doherty, who just finished his first year coaching basketball at Southern Methodist University after a spectacular fall from grace at UNC. This was just a so-so season for the Ponies, but the future sounds far brighter.

Back into coaching and a year removed from a stint at something called Florida Atlantic, Doherty is like Pavarotti playing McFarland Auditorium. From the Petit Palace, somehow to midtown Dallas.

He finds himself with a five-year, $400,000-a-year deal commanding a program that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since '93, fired its former coach for giving players unauthorized laundry detergent and burgers and has—dwarfed amongst giants such as Doak Walker, Eric Dickerson and Payne Stewart—a short, sheepish hoops history anchored by the extremely forgettable Jon Koncak.

"We'd like to be Dallas' university, but with only 3,500 fans at games we know we can't say that yet," says SMU athletic director Steve Orsini. "We're carving out our niche. We've got the right building coming up and, with Matt, we've got the right leader in place."

Posted by Alan at 06:07 PM

March 06, 2007

John Noble

It was a pleasant surprise to see actor John Noble in "24" last night, playing the part of the conniving Russian consul general Markov, even if Jack Bauer did end up torturing him.

Is it just me, or is Jack's now much-discussed penchant for torture in danger of becoming unintentional parody? I think the "24" screenwriters need to take things in a different, less predictable direction.

Posted by Alan at 07:08 AM

March 05, 2007

Exploring in place

The New York Times discovers the concept of enhanced oil recovery, in another cycle of panic-don't panic over world oil supplies.

The oil industry is well known for seeking out new sources of fossil fuel in far-flung places, from the icy plains of Siberia to the deep waters off West Africa. But now the quest for new discoveries is taking place alongside a much less exotic search that is crucial to the world’s energy supplies. Oil companies are returning to old or mature fields partly because there are few virgin places left to explore, and, of those, few are open to investors....

“We’re still finding new opportunities here,” said Steve Garrett, a geophysicist with Chevron. “It’s not over until you abandon the last well, and even then it’s not over.”

Some forecasters, studying data on how much oil is used each year and how much is still believed to be in the ground, have argued that at some point by 2010, global oil production will peak — if it has not already — and begin to fall. That drop would usher in an uncertain era of shortages, price spikes and economic decline.

“I am very, very seriously worried about the future we are facing,” said Kjell Aleklett, the president of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. “It is clear that oil is in limited supplies.”

Many oil executives say that these so-called peak-oil theorists fail to take into account the way that sophisticated technology, combined with higher prices that make searches for new oil more affordable, are opening up opportunities to develop supplies. As the industry improves its ability to draw new life from old wells and expands its forays into ever-deeper corners of the globe, it is providing a strong rebuttal in the long-running debate over when the world might run out of oil.

Posted by Alan at 06:08 AM

March 04, 2007

China's strategy

Mark Helprin reminds us not to be so pleased about supposed "progress" with North Korea that we take our eye off the longterm risk of an ascendant China. In light of China's recent satellite-killing success, he discusses one threat: a high-atmosphere EMP attack against our vulnerable electronic infrastructure.

The Asian nuclear power of which we must take account is not North Korea but China.

The forerunners of China's government were able to defeat Chiang Kai-shek, fight the United States to a draw in Korea and, merely by means of their country's looming potential, help defeat America in Vietnam. This they did in chaos, poverty and without modern arms, but with strategy bred in the bone. Since 1978, using their extraordinary and sustained economic and technical growth to build military capacity, the Chinese have deliberately modeled themselves on the Meiji (who rapidly transformed feudal Japan into an industrial state able to vanquish the Russian fleet at Tsushima).

In altering their position relative to that of the United States, the Chinese have received generous assistance from the past two American presidents, who have accomplished first a carefree diminution of our orders of battle and then the incompetent deployment of what was left, in a campaign analogous to losing a protracted struggle with Portugal. China advances and we decline because, among other things, its vision is disciplined and clear, while ours is burdened by fear, decadence and officials who understand neither Chinese grand strategy nor its nuclear component.

Related news:

China announced Sunday it will increase military spending at a sharply higher rate this year, budgeting a rise of nearly 18 percent, and a senior U.S. official immediately called for more clarity on what the expenditures are for.

The official, Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, told a news conference at the end of a maiden visit to Beijing in his new post that the Bush administration is dissatisfied with China's unwillingness to share such information.

Posted by Alan at 09:40 AM

March 03, 2007

Social Security blame game

A front-page story in today's Houston Chronicle reports on the supposed scandal that teachers in Texas took unfair advantage of a "questionable loophole" to claim undeserved Social Security benefits.

About 22,000 Texas teachers took advantage of the questionable loophole that allowed them to get Social Security benefits and a state pension after working a one-day job, potentially costing the national program $2.2 billion, according to a government report.

Texas was the only state where teachers systematically took advantage of the loophole, which was closed by Congress in 2004, Social Security Inspector General Patrick O'Carroll Jr. said in the recent report.

The Sweeny Independent School District in Brazoria County was one of seven Texas districts where the teachers, in organized fashion, spent a day at the end of their careers in janitorial, clerical or other nonprofessional jobs to qualify for Social Security payments based on their spouse's earnings.

Many of the teachers each paid a fee of up to several hundred dollars to small school districts to ensure that their last day of employment was outside the Texas teachers' pension program....

Lifetime teachers who retired without the day of noninstructional work were eligible for benefits from the Teacher Retirement System of Texas but not for Social Security payments based on their spouse's earnings [emphasis added].

Left unaddressed in the article and the report by the Social Security IG is any discussion of the inherent unfairness of a system that deprives participants in plans like the Texas Teacher Retirement System of the benefits received by others around the nation: those for surviving spouses based on the lifetimes of earnings and Social Security tax payments by their now-deceased spouses.

Congress, in its ongoing desire to steal from Peter to pay Paul, ruled that even when teachers' spouses have paid into Social Security their whole private-sector lives, their spousal survivors cannot collect any benefits if the poor survivor was herself covered by a private pension system like TRS. It's not about TRS participants collecting double benefits based on their own careers, but about screwing them out of the spousal benefits everyone else gets, and then re-directing the stolen funds into the federal Treasury.

Why should the families of those who contributed to Social Security all their lives get nothing when those workers then die?

Don't be fooled. These Texas teachers may have exploited a "loophole" but they were just obtaining their fair benefits the only way they could before Congress completely closed the door. It's also yet more evidence that Social Security is just an elaborate shell game.

Posted by Alan at 11:03 AM