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June, 2002:

Trivia time

Trivia time Who is the only NBA player taller than 7’2″ who has played on a championship team? Read this article on the life and times of the league’s biggest players to find out. Anyone who gets this right is a serious sports fan.

Where’s the outrage?

TAPped recently printed this excerpt from a dreadful Cal Thomas column:

On the eve of our great national birthday party and in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when millions of us turned to God and prayed for forgiveness of individual and corporate sins and asked for His protection against future attacks, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has inflicted on this nation what many will conclude is a greater injury than that caused by the terrorists.

You read that right: Cal Thomas believes that the recent 9th Circuit Court ruling about the Pledge of Allegiance is a greater injury to America than the 9/11 attacks.

Putting aside the fact that the death toll from this ruling was considerably lower than that of airplanes flying into buildings, Thomas seems to verge awfully close to saying that the attacks were somehow the result of those individual and corporate sins that we were supposed to be asking forgiveness for. Does anyone want to bet that if there is another attack, Thomas will write a column that mentions this ruling as a contributing factor?

I’m not going to waste too much time on this drivel. Cal Thomas is a predictable right-wing shill in the David Horowitz/Ann Coulter mold. He’s a modern day Pharisee who writes tirelessly about the virtues of people like himself. There’s no starting point for engaging in debate.

TAPped says that the blogosphere “ought to get itself whipped into a frenzy about this one.” I agree, but for liberals like me and some of the others who have responded to TAPped’s call, it’s shooting fish in a barrel. Thomas may have grooved one for us here, but let’s face it, we could randomly pick any one of his columns and find something that we consider reprehensible. There’s no challenge to this.

So what I would like to know is where are the denunciations from conservatives? This is easily the equivalent of any stupid thing Noam Chomsky or Ted Rall has said. I know perfectly well that the vast majority of conservatives, even those who I find appalling, would disagree with what Cal Thomas has written. I want to see some examples of conservative pundits and bloggers taking Thomas to task for this. Otherwise, given that more than one conservative writer has attempted to make hay by tarring all liberals with the Chomsky/Rall brush, many of those freestyle Fiskings of the loony Left were really nothing more than scoring points.

Please feel free to use the comments to point me in the right direction. I will happily give credit where it is due.

By the way, Thomas begins the last paragraph of his hit piece as follows: “The overwhelming majority of Americans have been forced to stomach a lot of garbage in recent years”. You can add your column to that garbage heap, pal.

Houston “fitness czar” controversy

Houston “fitness czar” controversy Sigh. No matter how much people like me defend Our Fair City, it’s stories like this that give the Randall Pattersons and Katherine Mieszkowskis of the world their ammunition.

Houston’s new “fitness czar” is using the city’s weight-loss Web site to push a diet that nutrition experts say is potentially harmful and that promotes protein powders and other nutritional supplements he sells.

Larry says it best:

If [Mayor Lee] Brown wants to promote fitness, he can loosen taxes on fitness centers, provide incentives for employers who allow their employees access to a weight room or motivate employees to take time to exercise, quit tearing up the bike paths with short-term construction projects, etc. and so forth. Standing on the sidelines and cheering with rah rah rah go Houston while letting his buddy sell something that’s contrary to what the USDA recommends isn’t going to work.


HMO successfully sued

HMO successfully sued A jury has awarded $13 million to the widow and daughter of a man who died days after an HMO forced him out of a skilled nursing facility. The 83-year-old man was back in the hospital the next day and died five days after that.

George Parker Young, a Fort Worth lawyer who represented the family, said the jury was outraged by evidence that Cigna’s medical director and utilization review nurse received bonuses for reducing inpatient stays.

“It was clear that Cigna put cost-cutting ahead of patient safety at a time when the patient most needed care,” said Young.


In addition to finding Cigna was grossly negligent, the Dallas jury said that the company caused serious bodily injury to Pybas, a violation of the state’s criminal law against elder abuse. Young said that finding negated otherwise applicable caps on punitive damages.

According to the lawsuit, [Herschel] Pybas was in and out of the hospital from Oct. 6, 1998, until his admission to the skilled nursing facility on Dec. 31, 1998. He was forced out of the facility on Jan. 22, 1999.

Dr. Nathan Watson, who was treating Pybas, testified that he wanted to keep his patient in the nursing facility but Cigna was pushing to get him out.

Pybas suffered from congestive heart failure and progressive renal failure as well as a bedsore. He had a history of stroke, anemia, upper respiratory infection and malnutrition.

Young said evidence showed that Cigna officials never reviewed Pybas’ medical records before deciding he should be sent home. Although Pybas required oxygen, he was not provided any when an ambulance took him home from the nursing facility.

This is the first such jury award in Texas, which was the first state to allow people to sue HMOs. The bill became law without then-Governor Bush’s signature. Bush vetoed the earlier law, refused to sign this one, then crowed about his achievements in health care reform on the campaign trail in 2000.

About 20 to 30 lawsuits have been filed since the Health Care Liability Act was passed in 1997 over the objection of conservatives who swore that it would lead to a flood of such suits. That’s four to six filings per year in a state of 20 million people. Some flood.

Just checking

To all those who have come by lately looking for pictures of the Women of Enron or Shari Daugherty, I have one question: You do know that Playboy has, like, a web page, right? Just checking.

RIP, John Entwhistle

RIP, John Entwhistle The bassist for The Who is dead at 57. I saw The Who at the Astrodome in 1989, which was the first of their reunion tours. It was an awesome show, made even better by having Stevie Ray Vaughn as the opening act. How often do you see an opening act do an encore and get a standing ovation?

Redneck neighbor

Redneck neighbor Think you’ve got bad neighbors? Read this and be thankful. Via my cousin-in-law and faithful reader Emilie.

Citizens vs. the Katy Freeway expansion

The Katy Corridor Coalition has taken its first steps towards challenging the proposed widening of I-10 west of Loop 610. The notice, which you can read here, focuses on the lack of any high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, which allegedly violates the federally-approved clean air plan for Houston. There are plenty of other concerns, such as noise, flood control, and the need for rail, but this is a good place to start

Naturally, the cronies who pushed through this plan pooh-pooh the opposition:

County Commissioner Steve Radack, in whose precinct the freeway lies, called it “a shame that a few people would get together and conspire to inconvenience hundreds of thousands of people because of their own selfish beliefs.”

Funny, I was thinking exactly the same thing. I have a proposal for you, Steve: Let’s use the patented Tom DeLay Transportation Solution and vote on this. If it’s good enough for light rail, it’s good enough for the Katy Freeway.

First Enron indictments

First Enron indictments Three former British bankers who stole over $7 million from Enron via secret investments in an Enron partner company have been indicted for wire fraud. Next up on the Justice Department’s shopping list: Fastow and Skilling:

The [defendants] were involved as outside players in some of the complex and controversial partnerships set up by Enron Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow and his aide Michael Kopper that critics have said eventually helped sink the company.


According to the Justice Department’s charging document, the three bankers used a series of intricate financial transactions involving an Enron entity called Southampton LP to defraud the British bank they worked for.

The fraud occurred when the men secretly invested in Southampton, eventually reaping $7.3 million in profits that belonged to the bank that employed them, the Justice Department charged.


Southampton has been under scrutiny by federal and congressional investigators almost from the outset of the Enron debacle because of huge profits made by executives of the company and others from relatively tiny investments.

In early 2000, Fastow and Kopper each turned a $25,000 investment in Southampton into a $4.5 million gain within a few months, according to a special report released earlier this year by the Enron board.

Others, like former Enron treasurer Ben Glisan and lawyer Kristina Mordaunt also reaped huge cash payments from investments in Southampton.

I really hope they plead out in return for testimony against Fastow and Skilling. The only thing that’s keeping me from taunting Mickey Kaus right now is the lack of Ken Lay’s name anywhere in this article. Maybe he really was totally clueless about what was happening under him. Amazing.

That other freeway

A nice little article in the Chron about community participation in the debate over widening I-45 north of downtown. Neighborhood groups, including my own, were there to oppose plans to widen I-45 beyond its existing right-of-way, as this would require the demolition of many houses. The story covers one of three meetings that Metro is holding to discuss transit options, including rail.

The meeting that address concerns inside the Loop was one of three organized by the Metro team to gather comments on the highway study’s progress. Their work is focused on an area that runs about 30 miles from downtown to The Woodlands along I-45, and between I-45 and the Hardy Toll Road. About four miles of I-45 and U.S. 59 segments south of downtown are included.

As part of the study, Metro is analyzing a variety of advanced high-capacity options such as light rail or high-speed bus, as well as highway improvements.


Located near Houston’s largest and busiest airport and a north Houston business district, and surrounded by several growing suburbs, the Greenspoint area should serve as a mass transit crossroads, said many participants at Metro’s Greenspoint/IAH planning session.

While the majority agreed that a light-rail system running through the area is a must, many ideas surfaced on what route that train should take and where and how many stops it should make.

“Is there any reason we can’t ask for all at the same time?” said Houston Police Department Sgt. Corby Weber.

Some common themes that emerged from the meeting, Smith said, included the need for light-rail access from Greenspoint along Greens Road and the Hardy Toll Road, a stop at Greenspoint Mall, a light-rail line that serves local residents, and a line continuing north with stops at FM 1960, FM 2920, The Woodlands and Texas 242.

Eager for a high-speed alternative to lengthy and congested road trips to downtown Houston and points beyond, Woodlands-area residents and business owners voiced strong support for a light-rail line down I-45.

That last bit is especially encouraging, since it’s so often the folks in the far-flung suburbs who push for road widening because they can’t get to work fast enough to suit them. Compare to the recent announcements about widening I-10 west of Loop 610, which was pushed through without any real consideration of other options, led by westside Congressman John Culberson. There is organized opposition to this plan, but unlike the I-45 corridor folks, these people are starting out behind the eight ball.

Maybe they’re looking to boost their hit count as well

The Chron uses its whimsical puns quotient in this front page story on the Women of Enron, then gets all metaphorical on the editorial pages:

It’s blushingly appropriate for the times, some would say, that on the same day WorldCom was making headlines for having overstated its cash flow by more than $3.8 billion, “the women of Enron” were making a splash and some cash by baring their personal assets in Playboy magazine.

Had the same level of transparency applied to WorldCom, the nation’s second-largest long-distance carrier, to Enron and to a growing host of other corporate giants, investors and employees might not be losing the proverbial shirts off their backs and the fig leaf of corporate ethics wouldn’t be in the media mulcher.

These things just write themselves sometimes, don’t they?

Free speech controversy

The University of Houston is apparently going to disregard a court order that allowed an anti-abortion group to display large photos of dead fetuses in the heavily trafficked Butler Plaza area.

U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein Jr. ruled last week that UH must allow the student group Pro-Life Cougars to put up the controversial display this fall in the heavily trafficked Butler Plaza, near UH’s Hoffman Hall and M.D. Anderson Library. The judge concluded that UH violated the group’s First Amendment rights to free speech and 14th Amendment rights to equal protection last October by not permitting the display in the plaza.

UH spokesman Mike Cinelli said Werlein’s order is moot because it only applies to a previous university policy on regulating speech. He said a new policy enacted Tuesday will allow UH to restrict the proposed display to one of four so-called “free speech zones” in less visible areas of campus.

“This whole issue is really a case about where free speech will occur as opposed to the ability to express free speech,” Cinelli said.

I’m as pro-choice as the next guy, but I think the Pro-Life Cougars are being shafted. As long as they are not aggressively confronting passersby, UH’s attempt to restrict them to a more remote area of campus is a restriction on legitimate speech.

The same exhibit was allowed on Butler Plaza in March 2001, leading to student protests and partly causing UH to form a committee that summer to re-evaluate its free speech policy, Cinelli said.

The exhibit also caused the University of Texas and Baylor University to re-examine their free speech policies after controversies erupted in those universities last year.

What these schools should have decided about their free-speech policies is that, y’know, free speech is a Good Thing, and that the protests against this exhibit are a demonstration of how it should work. I’ll quote Penn Jillette again: “The cure for bad speech isn’t no speech, it’s more speech.” Isn’t college supposed to be a place where people encounter ideas that maybe they don’t like? How can you argue against someone’s position on an issue if you don’t know the details of that position?

Owen links to this article about a backlash against these so-called “free speech zones” on campuses. I wish them well.

Rockets end the suspense, pick Yao

And right now everyone’s happy about this pick, including his new teammates and the ever feckless Chron sports columnists.

Not that anyone outside of Houston noticed, but the Rockets also appear to have gotten a steal with their other first round draft choice, Slovenian player Bostjan Nachbar. Nachbar, who could fill a largish hole at small forward, is happy to be here:

For weeks, the Rockets had targeted Bostjan Nachbar with their second first-round pick. Then Nachbar put on a show that left the Rockets concerned only that he would be gone before they were up with the 15th pick.

But as impressive as Nachbar’s performance was to the Rockets, he was more sold on the Rockets.

He checked flight schedules from Houston to his home in Slovenia. He imagined himself filling a wing with Yao Ming sending an outlet pass and Steve Francis handling the ball on a break. He penned a letter to general manager Carroll Dawson and coach Rudy Tomjanovich to thank them for considering him, the first letter of its type they had ever received and the only one he sent.


“After one day in Houston, I fell in love with Houston,” Nachbar said in a phone interview from New York, where he attended the draft. “I love the team, the personnel. Everyone was great to me. I had four workouts (in Charlotte, Indiana, Houston and Washington). Houston was something special. From the beginning, I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

Take that, Randall Patterson!

More on the gender gap numbers

More on the gender gap numbers Atrios notes that one of his commenters has pointed out that the real driver behind the college gender gap is the larger discrepancy among nonwhite students. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make very much difference. If you look at the absolute numbers – 698,000 female graduates versus 529,000 male grads – the assumption that the number of white female grads is about the same as the number of white male grads leads to the conclusion that white females are outnumbered by a 2-1 margin by nonwhite females in universities. White males would thus be outnumbered by about a 9:7 ratio in this scenario. Obviously, that ain’t so.

A more reasonable assumption is that the white to nonwhite ratio at universities is about 3:1 or 4:1. Under those conditions, the gender gap for whites is about 5:4, or 55.5% to 45.5%. The greater the ratio between white and nonwhite, the closer the white gender gap will come to the overall 57:43 ratio.

(I’m skipping the math because it basically boils down to the kind of related-rate word problems that most normal people hated in high school algebra. And it’s late and I did a bunch of back-of-the-envelope calculating in my head. If you insist on making me show my work, let me know in the comments.)

The bottom line is that the larger nonwhite gender gaps have a small overall effect. A better line of inquiry is the one that Fritz raised, which is the effect of the larger incarceration rate among men. If, for example, the ratio of college age black women who are not in jail to college age black men who are not in jail is 60:40, then the gender gap for blacks is merely reflective of the general population. I don’t have the time or the gumption to look into this right now, but maybe I will later.

The college gender gap

The college gender gap Fritz Schranck finds Instant Man’s reaction to this article about the gender gap in American universities surprising. I confess that I’ve never been all that impressed with Reynolds, so I’m not that surprised. Is Reynolds unaware that the very first expert the article quotes (Christina Hoff Sommers) is one of the leading critics of the anti-male strain of feminism, or is he being disingenuous? I can’t imagine she’d miss the chance to blame overzealous feminists for this problem if she thought they were at fault. Perhaps if he’d done some research (as Fritz did) before he exercised his knee-jerk liberal media bashing, he wouldn’t sound so whiny.

Whenever someone makes a possibly foolish general statement about colleges, I always ask myself “Would that be true at Texas A&M?” A&M, for those not familiar, is a true bastion of nonliberalism, and with their legendary reverance for the Corps of Cadets, it’s quite friendly to the Y chromosome. As it happens, A&M is a rare Texas public school with more men than women, though a closer look at the numbers indicates that the entire difference and then some is accounted for by the College of Engineering, which in Fall 2000 had 7800 men and 1900 women. The overall enrollment figures would tend to support Reynolds’ thesis that men are avoiding college environs which are hostile to them, though I note that A&M still has a higher attrition rate and lower graduation rate for men than women.

I was going to compare A&M’s numbers to those of California-Berkeley for grins, but I couldn’t find them for Cal. You can find all sorts of data about the graduation rates of the various racial groups, but I failed to locate any such data broken down by gender. For what it’s worth, the notoriously PC Berkeley is only slightly majority female.

In any event, thanks in part to people like Sommers, more attention is being paid to the growing disparity between boys’ and girls’ academic acheivements. Whatever is causing this trend – and as Fritz notes, there are a number of factors – it does need to be understood and dealt with.

Deformed frogs update

Alert reader (I’ve always wanted to say that) Frank writes in to say that he recalled seeing news articles about bacteria being a cause of the rash of deformed frogs. I did a little more Googling, and found that bacteria has in fact been suspected as a cause of the Minnesota frogs’ deformity:

[A] parasite called a trematode may be involved in some frog deformities. Trematodes burrow into the limb buds of tadpoles and can, in fact, cause at least one of the deformities seen in Minnesota frogs.

A study by Gee Chow, “Pesticides and the Mystery of Deformed Frogs,” JOURNAL OF PESTICIDE REFORM Vol. 17, No. 3 (Fall 1997), pg. 14, was cited as the source of that information. However, others have disputed this. A pesticide called methoprene, used for mosquito control, is considered the leading contender for the deformities, but researchers have not fully ruled out parasites and pathogens. So stay tuned.

UPDATE: Paul Orwin informs me that trematodes, though classified as microorganisms, are not bacteria. Read the comments for a fuller explanation. Thanks, Paul!

First view of the Women of Enron

First view of the Women of Enron Via the Chron, which at least had the decency to not do any dime store moralizing as it was gleefully exploiting the story and snapping color photos.

This Enron model highlights one of the great things about Houston: You can be nekkid outside almost any time of year and not freeze your keester off.

Enron worker Shari Daugherty, 22, who grew up in nearby Richmond and graduated from Fort Bend Baptist Academy, told reporters that it was “a big fantasy” when she posed in the raw in front of Enron’s downtown skyscrapers.

She said skin show was fate: “I (posed nude) because it was there for me to do.”

God bless America.

Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional

So says the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals, in ruling that the phrase “under God” violates the Establishment Clause.

“A profession that we are a nation ‘under God’ is identical, for Establishment Clause purposes, to a profession that we are a nation ‘under Jesus,’ a nation ‘under Vishnu,’ a nation ‘under Zeus,’ or a nation ‘under no god,’ because none of these professions can be neutral with respect to religion,” Judge Alfred T. Goodwin wrote for the three-judge panel.

The appeals said that when President Eisenhower signed the legislation inserting “under God” after the words “one nation,” he wrote that “millions of our schoolchildren will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural schoolhouse, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

The court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has said students cannot hold religious invocations at graduations and cannot be compelled to recite the pledge. But when the pledge is recited in a classroom, a student who objects is confronted with an “unacceptable choice between participating and protesting,” the appeals court said.

“Although students cannot be forced to participate in recitation of the pledge, the school district is nonetheless conveying a message of state endorsement of a religious belief when it requires public school teachers to recite, and lead the recitation of, the current form of the pledge,” the court said.

Hoo boy. That sound you just heard was the fundraising arm of every religious organization in America jumping into action. The hyperbole is gonna get thick in a hurry.

Many moons ago, when I was a freshman at Stuyvesant High School, the ruling came down from the school board that the Pledge of Allegiance was to be read over the loudspeaker every morning. This was not a popular decision among the students, but it was ameliorated by a policy that no one was actually required to stand and recite the pledge. In the case of my very loosely run homeroom, I can’t recall a single instance of a student reciting along. Most of the time, you couldn’t even hear it over the din of the room (we had a very disinterested homeroom teacher).

You could certainly make the case that “under God” would be counter to quite a few people’s religion at Stuyvesant. I knew quite a few classmates who were Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist, not to mention the Conservative and Orthodox Jews who are forbidden to say words like “God”. They have a very strict interpretation of “thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”, which basically says that since we cannot know God, we cannot know the proper way to say His name, and so we may be profaning Him by addressing Him by name. When they refer to God, they use the Hebrew word “Hashem”, which means “the name of God”, or simply “the name”. In computer scientist terms, it’s a pointer.

Those of us who remember the shameless way that Bush the Elder used the Pledge of Allegiance to flog Mike Dukakis will find a certain irony in the fact that this ruling came down during the reign of Bush the Younger. I’ve no doubt that Dubya will use this ruling to whip supporters into a frenzy, especially when he’s out on the campaign trail. As I’ve noted before, we should bear in mind that not all those who oppose public displays and declarations of religion are themselves nonreligious or even non-Christian.

It will not surprise me if the Supremes overturn this decision. As my friend Matt has noted, this was a three-judge panel’s ruling, so it may not even survive the 9th Circuit en banc. The same court has twice ruled that “In God We Trust” on US currency is not unconstitutional, after all.

Perry v. Sanchez, round 1 of many

Perry v. Sanchez, round 1 of many Governor Goodhair and Tony Sanchez went at it during their first joint campaign appearance. I found this bit amusing:

But the Republican governor rebuked Sanchez for claiming that he could use businesslike efficiency to milk enough money from the state budget to pay for extensive educational improvements.

Wasn’t it Republicans who used to campaign on pledges to run government like a business? We sure live in some strange times.

Seriously, though, Goodhair has a point when he says that Sanchez’s promise to find more money for schools by eliminating “waste, fraud, and abuse” is hot air. Of course there’s fat in the state budget, even in a low-tax, low-service state like Texas. The problem, as any national politician who ever tried to eliminate things like the mohair and ethanol subsidies can attest, is that one man’s waste is another man’s vital program. It’s easy to get a license to hunt sacred cows, but good luck bagging the limit.

Some good news for those who dislike or distrust school vouchers:

The Laredo businessman scored one of the biggest rounds of applause from the audience when, answering a question, he reaffirmed his opposition to private school vouchers, which are widely disliked among public school officials.

Silence, in contrast, greeted Perry’s call for a limited, pilot voucher program to enable some low-income children to use tax dollars to pay tuition at private or parochial schools.

Yao will join the Rockets

Looks like the path has been cleared for the Rockets to draft Yao Ming. Here’s a statement from the Rockets web page:

Rockets general counsel Michael Goldberg issued the following statement today: “I received a letter early this morning from Chinese Basketball Association Chief Executive Xin Lancheng confirming that all of his concerns had been addressed. We are looking forward to drafting Yao Ming with the first overall selection in the 2002 NBA Draft. The fact that we arrived at such a mutually beneficial understanding in such a short period of time illustrates the spirit of cooperation and trust that existed throughout these discussions. There were many rounds of congratulations exchanged this morning with Chief Executive Xin, Yao Ming’s representatives and officials from the Shanghai Sharks.”

And a few photos of Rockets coach Rudy Tomjonavich and his new player. I sure hope that’s Yao’s game face in this picture and not his opinion of the new coach.

Women of Enron update

Women of Enron update Apparently, the women who will be featured in Playboy‘s Women of Enron pictorial will be signing copies of their issue on Thursday evening, according to the Chron‘s Ken Hoffman, who is always an invaluable resource in times like these:

Soup Nazi rules will be in effect Thursday when the “Women of Enron” autograph their pictorial in Playboy magazine at the SuperStand in Uptown Park.

Here’s the drill: Buy the magazine, open it to the pictorial and step sideways to the table. You may chitchat briefly with the women, but cheesy pickup lines are discouraged (like they ever work, anyway). The scribble session will run from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

The Enron issue of Playboy will be available everywhere else on Friday. In case you’re wondering, 300 past and present Enron women volunteered to pose for the magazine. Ten made it.

Les Expositifs

Jonah Keri lays out a reasonable plan to help the Expos win ther NL East. Stranger things have happened, and lesser things have been worth rooting for. Go Expos!

Poor Anna

Times are tough for Anna Kournikova, who was bounced from Wimbledon in the first round and drew criticism for her behavior in a postgame interview.

A plague of frogs

Mac recently had some fun with this article about giant bullfrogs which are terrorizing Germany. Mac notes that these are introduced species. As funny as a plague of frogs in Germany is, it’s unfortunately the case that bullfrogs are causing havoc in other places, such as in the Vancouver area. The Vancouver Aquarium has a whole exhibit on frogs, including the invading bullfrogs. The problem there is that in addition to competing for the same habitat, bullfrogs can and do eat other frogs, a factor which is threatening the survival of several native species.

Frogs are apparently somewhat of a canary in the environmental coal mine. This is because their skin offers little protection against toxins, which makes them sensitive to changes in their surroundings. A recent rash of deformed frogs has led some people to wonder if it’s an indication of rising levels of chemicals in ground water. Whatever you may think of that, it’s hard to look at some of the deformed frogs and not worry about it.

Airport security

Airport security I was fairly impressed with the security at SeaTac Airport. They frequently repeated the instruction to relieve yourself of anything electionic or metallic when passing through the metal detector, which was apparently set to a pretty sensitive setting, and they were quick to call for a manual scan for anyone who couldn’t avoid setting it off. I also saw several people, including Tiffany, have to remove their shoes so they could be sent through the X-ray machine.

There’s been a fair amount written about the use of racial and ethnic profiling by airport security, and it’s more nuanced than I had thought it would be when I went Googling for blog entries. What I saw at SeaTac was what you’d want to see – security personnel following strict procedures, and taking extra measures when they were called for. It felt like a charitable reading of Norman Mineta’s infamous comment about 70-year-old grandmothers, since the security folks were only concerned with who was setting off the metal detectors. I’m not denying the potential value in taking a longer and harder look at passengers of Middle Eastern heritage – to paraphrase Willie Sutton, that’s where the terrorists are. still, I couldn’t help but think that such screening wouldn’t have weeded out Richard Reid or Jose Padilla. No single method will be the best solution.

Travel update, volume V

On Friday we headed north to Vancouver. To those who say that the Canadian border is a sieve, I can tell you that if you try to enter or exit Canada via I-5, you’ll need to show proof of citizenship to the customs agents, and you may have to answer a bunch of questions about who you are and what you do for a living. We saw at least one vehicle get denied entry into Canada on our way in. We really did need our passports.

The Hertz Never Lost system got rather confused on our way in to Vancouver. After exiting highway BC 99, we took a wrong fork in the road (due in no small part to the road being very poorly marked) and spent nearly 15 minutes going in circles trying to find our way back. We later found out that the map database for Vancouver was a relatively new addition to their system.

We stayed in a hotel in downtown Vancouver, about a mile from Stanley Park and a half-mile from the convention center. Once we’d checked in we took a stroll around the place, winding up at Stanley Park before walking back. It was nice to stretch our legs out, and the weather was gorgeous, perfect for walking.

We had dinner at a sushi bar on the way back to the hotel, then changed for an all-wedding-guests party that the bride and groom were hosting that evening. The wedding party was about 120 people, most of whom were at the Friday night get-together. It was a fun and loose event in which the groom’s brother-in-law emceed some silly bridesmaids-versus-groomsmen and bride-versus-groom games. The guests entertained themselves by decorating caricatures of the happy couple and taking a rather challenging quiz about Canada. I got about half the answers right, and I’m pretty good at this sort of thing.

Saturday was another beautiful day. The bride and groom led a small but hearty group of guests for a dip in the chilly English Bay. Helena, the bride, announced this outing on Friday night and specified that swimsuits were necessary, so I assume they didn’t go here. We hadn’t packed swimsuits, so I didn’t join them. Instead, we took the car to Stanley Park this time and visited the excellent Vancouver Aquarium. Among the cool things that they had there are Beluga whales, sleepover programs, and a walk-through butterfly exhibit. We then had lunch at an outdoor restaurant which overlooked the Lion’s Gate Bridge.

The wedding was held in the St. Andrew’s-Wesley Church, which has apparently been used in various episodes of The X Files as the place Scully goes when she’s having a crisis of faith. The ceremony went off without any aliens or ectoplasm getting in the way, then the guests were transported via shuttles to Brock House, a historic mansion on Jericho Beach. As with pretty much everything in Vancouver, the view and backdrop were spectacular. Best of all, they had a fine selection of beer. A good time was had by all.

We returned to Whidbey Island on Sunday for our niece Vanessa’s third birthday party. The Never Lost got confused again as we left town, but this time we were able to recover without too much agita. One thing that really amazed me during all the driving we did was that from Whidbey to Anacortes to Orcas to Vancouver we were able to pick up Canadian rock station CKKQ. If you’re ever up in that part of the world, tune your radio to 100.3 FM and leave it there. That was the best radio station I’ve listened to since the heyday of New York’s 102.7 WNEW back in the 80s.

We spent a few hours in Whidbey helping Vanessa celebrate her birthday – with both sets of grandparents as well as two aunt/uncle pairs, she had plenty of help – then saddled up again to head back to Bellevue where we would once again crash at Manu and Jenny’s house. The last thing we did before we left town was a stop at Pike Place Fish Market for some dungeness crab to go. They packed it for travel, and we wolfed it down at home with some help from Tiffany’s parents, without whom we’d not have been able to cross the border in the first place. Today, after putting the passports back in the safety deposit box and profusely thanking the BankOne employee who helped us out with that, I will rescue Harry from the kennel on my way home from work, and all will be back to normal at home. Just in time for next weekend’s housewarming party…

Another perspective

One of the benefits to travel, in my opinion, is the opportunity to look at another city’s newspaper(s). I find it moderately annoying that Seattle, a city which is much smaller than Houston, has two daily papers while we’re stuck with one. In any event, today’s Seattle Times had a couple of interesting pieces in their Business section, about a universal remote that might actually simplify the TV/cable/VCR mess, the possibility that Peru might ban Microsoft products from their government offices, and how evil popup ads are starting to be tolerated by web users.

I’m back

Looks like there’s been some spirited discussion in my absence. I’m back now, so I’ll try to get into some new and improved trouble. Look for a final trip report and some thoughts on airport security tomorrow.

Debating Owen and Josh

I’ve read Owen and Josh’s defenses of the alliance between American Christians and the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) on matters of abortion and gay rights. Owen points out that the OIC is made up of over 50 countries, mostly “moderate” Islamic nations, and has been a strategic ally in the War on Terror. Josh notes that agreement on some points between Christian conservatives and Islamist nations does not imply agreement on all points, and that we’re worked and voted with mortal enemies in the UN any number of times in the past when a matter of our national interest coincides with theirs.

The OIC is surely comprised of nations which are mostly at least non-hostile towards us. I suppose this argument would ring less hollow to me were it not for the quote about how Sudan helped prevent abortion rights language from entering a UN statement, or the bit about how US officials conferred with Iranian officials. In other words, if the Christian conservatives were merely dealing with a large organization that happens to include a few bad apples, it would be more believable if they avoided dealing directly with those bad apples.

Then there’s the question of which values the two groups actually share. I suppose it was the Moroccan official’s use of the term “family values”, an expression that can cover quite a bit of territory, that got my antennae humming. The thing about strategic alliances is that you often find yourself going along with things you wouldn’t normally in support of an ally, possibly in return for something that ally wouldn’t normally do. Will the US officials turn a blind eye to, say, honor killings in order to maintain this alliance? I’m sure any number of OIC nations would file such a thing under “family values”.

As for national interest, it’s a bitter pill for me to swallow, but when we have a Republican in the White House, opposition to abortion and gay rights are going to be classified as being in the national interest. (And may I pause for a moment here to say once more: Thanks, Ralph!) Fine. I still question the priorities of an administration that would put this agenda ahead of such things as freedom, democracy, and open markets. I still say that working with even a small number of hostile nations in opposition to things that our real allies support undermines our relationship with those allies in the War on Terror. I still say that what we’re doing here is objectively wrong.

Finally, apart from the Bush Administration, I question the values and priorities of the Christian activists themselves. As the Bull Moose noted, Sudan practices slavery against its Christian population. In many OIC nations, from hostiles like Iran to “moderates” like Saudi Arabia, Christians are not allowed to openly practice their faith. Freedom of worship is a foreign concept. There was a time when American Chritian organizations concerned themselves with issues like that. I suppose it’s more important nowadays to ensure that slowing the spread of AIDS does not include making condoms available. Let’s not hear anything more about “moral authority” from this crowd, shall we?

Travel update, volume IV

Travel update, volume IV Today Tiffany and I went off on an adventure to Orcas Island to meet up with Jenny, a college friend of hers. We had stayed at Jenny’s house on Bellevue on Sunday, but as Jenny and her kids were on Orcas at the time, we spent the evening with her husband Manu.

Orcas is a small island off the Puget Sound. To get there, we had to drive to Anacortes and take a ferry. There are quite a few ferries that run out of Anacortes, not all of which go to Orcas. We were aiming for a 10:15 AM ferry there and a 7 PM ferry back. In each case, since the next Orcas ferry was several hours after that, we had to make sure we were there early enough to ensure that there was room for our car.

With that in mind, we headed out at 8:30 for the 40 minute drive to the ferry terminal. We had some problems with the Hertz Never Lost, as it didn’t appear to have an entry in its database for the ferry terminal. We finally found a ferry terminal and pointed ourselves in that direction. Once we hit town, it became obvious we were headed for a different terminal, and we were able to follow signs to our destination.

Orcas Island is small and largely uninhabited. There are a couple of small towns – East Sound, Orcas, and Olga among them – and one main road that winds a horseshoe path around the bay that juts into the land. We had some directions from Jenny, the kind that go by landmarks because there’s nothing else to go by, and we followed the main road because there’s nowhere else to go. The Never Lost didn’t even list Olga, the nearest town, and cellphone service was spotty at best, but after one or two wrong turns we arrived.

Jenny, her sister and sister-in-law and their combined 6 kids and two dogs were staying in their great-grandfather’s Victorian farm house, which was built in the 1880s. It has no electricity or running water – they pumped water from a well, and used either the wood-burning stove or a camp stove to cook. It was a great place for the kids, as there was a ton of open and wooded space to explore. After getting the grand tour of the house, I was shown around the grounds by five-year-old Marina and six-year-old McLean. Other than ten-month-old Peter, McLean was the only boy there, so I pretty quickly became his best buddy. He showed me his Star Wars handheld video game, and we talked about Spider-Man and exploding robots (you had to be there).

We packed a lunch and hiked a well-worn path through some woods to a small patch of rocky shore, where the kids hunted for crabs and threw sticks into the water for the dogs to fetch (the dogs never once got tired of this, and barked if we weren’t holding up our end of the game sufficiently). We ate sandwiches and cookies, threw the leftovers to the dogs, collected “beach glass” (pieces of broken glass that had smoothed out after awhile of being beaten on by the tide), and the adults encouraged the kids and dogs to wear themselves out.

After making our way back to the house, this time with most people piled into Jenny’s sister’s VW Vanagon, we said our goodbyes and drove back towards the ferry, stopping in East Sound for a little shopping (Tiffany has been using opportunities like that to restock the gift closet) and a bite to eat. We had plenty of time to catch the ferry home.

Tomorrow we head off to Vancouver for the wedding. We’ll be there until Sunday, when we come back for Vanessa’s third birthday party.

Equal time

Josh Trevino and Owen Courreges respond to the condemnations of the UN alliance between American Christian conservatives and Islamist states. Both make good points, and I recommend that you read what they have to say.

Even conservatives agree with me

Andrew Sullivan asks why the Bush administration should want to ally itself with Islamist states on issues like women’s rights and gay rights. The Bull Moose practically echoes my sentiments:

Haven’t these folks heard the President’s “axis of evil” speech? After all, they are working with two of the three rogue state miscreants. One of their ranks even stated, “We have realized that without countries like Sudan, abortion would have been recognized as a universal human right in a U.N. document.” Hello! Sudan is the notorious state that still practices slavery against its Christian population. Freedom for the unborn, but chains for the born?


What’s next? A strategic alliance with Satan? A religious right conference on Hezbollah family values?

Off the Pine makes a good point that I’d been thinking about but hadn’t said:

This issue also gives Dems a golden opportunity to wrest the monopoly on flag-waving currently enjoyed by the GOP. There are a large number of liberal/libertarian hawks who disdain religious fundamentalism but see the Dems as soft on foreign policy. The Dems need to become the party of exporting liberal values (first and foremost gender equality) abroad. The question is whether they will be able to shed their own culture warriors’ instinctive relativism to do so.

I can sure imagine an effective ad campaign to take the GOP to task for this. I can’t imagine my GOP-leaning friends would be too happy to see such a thing.

All links via Matthew Yglesias.

Travel update, volume III

Today after a hearty breakfast of hash browns and eggs, we packed up the minivan and headed off to the historic town of Langley, on the other end of Whidbey Island. Langley is another small older village on the coast of the island which makes a big part of its living these days off the tourist trade. We poked around in more antique and gift shops, had some rather good pizza at the Village Pizzeria (even my folks, who have often complained about the lack of good pizza on the Left Coast, are known to like the pizza at this place), and generally enjoyed the sunshine and beautiful scenery.

After Langley we headed back, stopping at the Greenbank Farm wine seller for a tasting. They offered four tastes for two bucks, which we gladly took them up on. All wines were indigenous to the area. We wound up buying a couple bottles of pinot gris.

It’s been a lot of fun spending time with Vanessa, our soon-to-be-three-year-old niece, and Jack, our seven-month-old nephew. They’re quite the opposites in many ways. Vanessa was a small baby and is still quite small for her age. Jack is a bruiser – he’s only ten pounds lighter than his older sister. Vanessa doesn’t like to be picked up, except by her parents. Jack is generally fussy unless he’s being held. He doesn’t care who holds him, but he fusses if you’re sitting down while you’re holding him, so most of the time you have to stand up and walk around.

Vanessa is very excited about her birthday party on Sunday. She chatters on about how both sets of grandparents, as well as her aunt Bernadette and uncle Sean, will be there. She loves being the center of attention, but only when she wants to be, for otherwise she can be shy. I suspect if we spent more time around her she’d be more open to us. Sometimes I wish we could all live closer together, but that’s the way it goes.

Travel update, Volume II

We took the ferry to Port Townsend for a little shopping and sightseeing this morning. The road signs refer to it as the “Pt. Townsend Ferry”, so naturally when I first saw one of them as we were driving in I said to Tiffany “Hey, look! It’s the Pete Townsend Ferry!” (Yes, I know that’s not how Pete Townshend spells his name. Work with me here.)

Our passports arrived today, thus ending our brush with diplomacy. We can now enter (and more importantly, exit) Canada in a hassle-free manner.