1.31.2006 | Grading the State of the Union

I'm no fan of Bush, but I have to admit, his speech was pretty good. Though I disagreed with half of what it had to say, Bush stayed on message, and his intended theme of optimism was resnonant. I was pleased to see him concede the issue of dependence on Middle East oil, though his emphasis on "technology" seems to lack environmental considerations (the issue of hydrogen, for example is promising, but the issue of hydrogen leakage is a problem that will need to be addressed up front).

My one problem with the speech was how he painted positions in the war on terror in stark terms (as he tends to do – remember "with us or against us"?), a black-and-white view of the world that doesn't reflect the reality on the ground. When he said there is a force in Iraq that grows every day more capable of defeating the enemy, I wasn't sure if he was talking about the American-trained Iraqi security forces or the insurgents. And "second-guessing is not a strategy?" – maybe if he had listened to people who had guessed correctly the first time that Iraq didn't have WMDs we wouldn't be in this mess.

Bush also failed to address many domestic issues, including healthcare (sorry, folks, but lawsuits aren't the reason the cost of healthcare is going up, and it's not the reason rural areas are having a hard time recruiting doctors). The priceless moment of this year's speech was when Democrats stood and applauded President Bush's statement that Congress didn't pass his Social Security "reform." His response was equally priceless – that spending on entitlement programs was "is not is a problem that is not going to go away." Apparently, so are his English skills.

But despite my problems with the speech (and Bush's problem with the English language), the speech overall left me reassured that, even if I disagree with him, we have a leader who's at least able to tell us what he thinks is going on (even if he does do it with a teleprompter). So, here are my grades:


Foreign PolicyC+
Domestic PolicyD
OptimismA
Quality of speechB+
OverallB+

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1.26.2006 | About time

California has decided that secondhand smoke is a pollutant, no different from diesel exhaust or Benzene, for example. I say it's about time. While the panel that made the unanimous decision cited a "seminal" study linking secondhand smoke to breast cancer, this New Scientist article from 2004 reported that cigarettes are more polluting than diesel exhaust. Considering, too, all the toxic chemicals found in cigarette smoke, as well as studies linking secondhand smoke to all sorts of other health problems, it should have taken more than just a breast cancer study for a decision like this to be made. Next will have to come all the public smoking bans that people will no doubt gripe about, saying it's their own right to kill themselves (euthanasia aside, of course). But what people don't think about it the smoke that isn't filtered that people around them have to breathe. Smoking isn't just unhealthy, it's downright dangerous – to yourself and to others.

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1.21.2006 | Podcast no. 1

Okay, so it's not really a podcast in the technical sense, but you can download it to your iPod (or other portable media player) if you like. I took some songs I like and put them together in a brief broadcast. Check it out:

this is an audio post - click to play
Click to hear my music


Links:

Update (1/26/06): I wrote the artist who contacted the music company who owns the rights to the CD, and Bent Fabric's "Jukebox" album is now available on iTunes. Still waiting on the single that has an extended, though.

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1.20.2006 | The end of Independence Air

Update: As of 1/22/06, it appears the Independence Air Web site is no longer online.

I flew Independence Air once in 2000 when it was still known as Atlantic Coast Airways, a feeder for United Express service on the East Coast. I flew from Dulles to Indianapolis, and it was one of the best domestic flight experiences I ever had on a small plane. It was a regional jet, not a turboprop, so the cabin was quiet, and the flight was very smooth, and most importantly, non-stop. This is the kind of freedom Independence Air offered when it broke away from United in 2004 to start its own (independent) service – plenty of non-stop flights from Dulles, but with lower fares.

Now that independence is gone, and the giants of the Washington market like United are free to raise fares again. Under bankruptcy United has largely restructured itself in the model of a low-fare airline. With the exception of "Economy Plus" seats added for more legroom, seats have become narrower and the same planes are carrying fewer passengers, a model pioneered by Southwest Airlines, the original low-fare carrier in the 80s. Legroom is fine, but it's difficult to navigate eating a meal or typing on a laptop without the necessary elbow room.

In any case, the collapse of Independence Air shows the final result of airline deregulation begun in the 1980s: a decline in the quality of airline service in a race to the bottom to provide the lowest fares. That is the inevitable result of laissez faire capitalism, as we have seen with Wal-Mart and the like providing lower prices, but inferior goods.

The middle class is disappearing in this country as cheap Chinese TV sets flood the market, but the quality sets sell for more than the average American can afford. The same principle applies to airline seats: narrower seats for the coach class, and ever-increasing amenities for those who are willing to pay a premium by flying first class.

Not only that, but airlines have stopped offering meals on board. People always used to complain about airline food, but for a while in the 90s United was using gourmet chefs. In a campaign called "United Airlines rising," it admitted the bad state of airline food and showed what it was doing to improve. Now all that's gone, meals replaced with "snack packs," sandwiches and wraps. The flying experience has been reduced to a lunch line, all for the sake of deregulation and the resulting race to the bottom for the lowest fare.


On cheap Chinese TV sets:

this is an audio post - click to play
On the race to the bottom for low fares:

this is an audio post - click to play

With the departure of Independence Air, though, opportunites have opened up for competitor JetBlue, which is going to start offering service to Boston, a small consolation prize. Better service is actually available from Richmond because it files from there to JFK, the airline's hub, allowing connections to more destinations on par with what Independence Air was able to offer.

So why did Independence Air fail? As I mentioned in the first paragraph, it used smaller planes. These smaller planes, the majority of FlyI's fleet, presented a significantly higher cost per mile per passenger than the rest of the industry, and it couldn't sustain its low-fare business without switching to bigger planes. It never quite made the switch, and so it went bust. As it turns out, FlyI ended its service to the West Coast in November 2005 before it went out of business completely this year. I didn't know when I visited San Francisco this summer that it would be the last time I would see a D.C.-based airline on the West Coast.

Alas, poor Independence Air, I knew ye well.

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1.19.2006 | Don't spy on me

So let’s put this all together. You probably heard over the last few weeks that the government has been spying on its citizens – without warrants.

That might sound bad enough on its own, but it isn’t just that this was going on without our knowing it; it’s that our president lied to us about it not just once or twice, but on several occasions. Not only that, but he misled the American public at a time when he was trying to get re-elected. (“That woman” from the Clinton years doesn’t seem like such a breach of trust in the executive anymore.)


The story

In defending the Patriot Act in 2004, President Bush said repeatedly on the campaign trail that wiretaps under the act require a court order. “Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a court order,” he said on Apr. 20, 2004 in Buffalo, New York. “Nothing has changed, by the way,” he continued. “When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so.”

Bush seemed to go out of his way to reassure the public that things were always what they were before. But in fact he had signed a secret executive order in 2001, still in effect, that bypassed these court requirements entirely. Not only that, but he authorized the program personally, according to one Associated Press article, more than three dozen times since then.

Even in December, when Bush was forced to admit the existence of the eavesdropping program, he called it “limited, and I repeat limited,” saying it only affected overseas calls between known or suspected al-Qaeda members. Wrong again, as a New York Times article Dec. 24 reported the surveillance affected all Americans, with the cooperation of America’s telecommunications companies. Worse yet, Bush has said he doesn’t intend to end the program, or at least suspend it while there are questions over its legality.

Only after the fact are we hearing arguments that bypassing courts and Congress in conducting searches on American citizens is OK. It makes you wonder why the New York Times, which sat on the story for more than a year, waited to break this news to us until long after the 2004 election. Even now, the media has merely questioned whether it is an “overreach of executive power.” That’s putting it mildly.

Since the founding of our republic, warrants have been a textbook example of the system of checks and balances between our branches of government. The executive branch, which enforces the law, always had to seek approval from the judicial branch, which issues warrants, before being able to search people’s homes, tap their telephone calls or otherwise invade the privacy that is guaranteed them under the Fourth Amendment.


No defense

Defenses of the president’s actions have ranged from self-serving and fear-mongering to the utterly absurd. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on Dec. 19, for example, that “speed” was an issue in bypassing the courts. But the fact is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of Congress of 1978 set up a court specifically for approving foreign intelligence requests. The court, in a reflection of its specialized purpose, rejects very few requests and approves them with deliberate speed.

Another defense of President Bush is that in a time of war, he has powers as commander-in-chief that allow him to go outside the law. Abraham Lincoln, for example, once suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War. But this is the first time such a wide breach of law has been conducted behind the scenes – without public pronouncement or a chance for debate. It is the very definition of unchecked power, a situation that goes completely against the kind of government our founders intended.

In a Dec. 23 article, Washington Post Op-Ed columnist Charles Krauthammer tried to defend the administration’s actions by pointing out that “In 1972 the Supreme Court required the president to obtain warrants to eavesdrop on domestic groups but specifically declined to apply this requirement to snooping on foreign agents.” While that may be true, Bush’s program treats all American citizens as foreign agents, a presumption of guilt that also goes against our nation’s tradition of the rule of law.


It doesn't work

Finally, there is a more practical argument against mass surveillance. An article by Jennifer Granick for Wired News argues that “People with something to hide are adept at speaking in codes. Teenagers tell their parents they are ‘going to the movies’ when they are going to drink beer.” Criminals also know to misspell victims’ names to avoid detection.

Even when spying technologies work, Granick notes, they “inevitably produce an unacceptably high number of false positives” and catch innocent people in their snare. Remember when Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, was blocked from flying to the U.S. because his name was found in the no-fly database (it was later found to be a typo)?


The question

We are in a time of war, but it is an undeclared war with an indefinite objective and an unknowable end. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are willing to surrender our basic civil liberties until a time in the future that we may or may not live to see, and whether the power to suspend those liberties should lie in one man.

Most Americans understand the values their country stands for and have sided with the law. An AP-Ipsos poll released Jan. 7 showed that 56 percent of Americans believe wiretaps, even for suspected terrorists, require a warrant. A Jan. 16 poll shows that Americans may even favor the “I” word – impeachment – by a margin of 52-43 percent (a similar poll six months ago found a reverse result at 42-50).

On Dec. 18, 2000, Bush once joked after a meeting with congressional leaders that “If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator.”

No one’s laughing now.

Click here to hear my reasoning behind this article:

this is an audio post - click to play

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