Via Steve Benen:

Of all the bullshit out there about the SCOTUS nominee, this one is perhaps annoying: that Judge Sotomayor has a ridiculously high 60% overturn rate for her decisions by the Supreme Court. You see, she’s apparently so stupid/liberal/extreme/dimwitted that her court decisions are, a majority of the time, reversed upon appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

Expect this is, like much of what the right has been hurling at the judge, complete and utter bullshit. Judge Sotomayor has authored 380 majority decisions while on the bench for the 2nd Circuit. Of those 380, 5 were heard on appeal to the Supreme Court. 3 of the 5 were overturned by the Supreme Court. There’s your 60%.

In other words, you get a 60% figure because the Supreme Court overturned 3 of the 5 decisions it had agreed to hear. It only agreed to hear, of course, the appealed cases that it felt had a chance of being overturned. 375 of Judge Sotomayor’s 380 decisions were not heard by the Supreme Court in the first place, whether or not they were appealed.

How does this compare to other Supreme Court nominees? Justice Alito, when he sat on a Circuit Court, had two cases successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, and both were overturned. That’s a 100% overturn rate!!

Then add to this the fact that the Supreme Court typically overturns over 70% of the cases appealed from Circuit Courts that it agrees to hear in any given year (and the fact that 5 is not a large enough sample size to determine whether Sotomayor’s record is truly worse or better than average).

So what does all this mean? Absolutely nothing. The 60% overturn statistic is utterly meaningless, and it tells us nothing about Judge Sotomayor’s qualities or deficiencies. Nothing. It is make-believe, pure and simple.

Nothing to see here, folks.

Joseph Cirincione has a good (and brief) article in Salon on North Korea’s nuclear program. Here’s the bad news:

“This time the threats from the North are exceptionally harsh, and the maneuvering inside Pyongyang to succeed the ailing Kim Jong Il may push the situation toward confrontation rather than compromise. As the various North Korean players posture for power advantage, and the South Korean and Japanese officials, tired of these Northern games, push back, the risk of miscalculation leading to war grows.”

Cirincione still holds out hope, though, that this situation is resolvable, and that China and Russia may now be willing to provide needed help.

“…real cooperation with China and Russia…could contain and restart the rollback of the program. As Howard La Franchi reports for the Christian Science Monitor, ‘China and Russia, traditionally less eager to punish North Korea, are employing harsher rhetoric and reaffirming the need to walk the North back from nuclear status.’ Diplomatic pressure would help, like the October 2006 visit to Pyongyang by China’s third highest official, State Counselor Tang Jiaxuan, that forced Kim Jong Il’s apology.

This time, we should match diplomacy with trade intercepts and intelligence sharing.”

Picture 432

370 Beech St. in Highland Park, IL, just north of Chicago, is for sale. This was the house used as Ferris Bueller’s friend Cameron’s residence in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (including the scene of the Ferrari backing through the glass wall and into the ravine).

$2.3 million and it’s yours.

Hat tip: Sullivan.

All this talk about space prison has got me thinking (seriously!) – where are all the aliens?

Let’s start with a not entirely unrealistic assumption: the physical, chemical, and biological processes that led to our own evolution are not all that outlandishly unusual. In other words, if you started with anything approaching similar initial conditions – a small planet about 100 million miles from a medium-sized, young-ish star; some other really gigantic planets nearby to keep the small one from getting constantly belted with asteroids and comets; the presence of necessary elements and basic molecules – you’d expect, with a reasonable probability, some sort of intelligent life to evolve. Let’s assume that, given the basic ingredients, this would happen even 1 in every 10,000 cases.

Then where are all the aliens?

Even with that frequency, this galaxy, with its trillion stars (give or take), should be teeming with life. And considering the above conditions existed in our galaxy in different places long, long, long before our star came along, there should have been intelligent life out there millions of years before cavemen were drawing pictures on cave walls. With that time to work with, their technology should make Star Trek look wildly primitive. And if that’s the case, their presence should be obvious. Why haven’t they contacted us? Visited? Let their presence be known? Why aren’t their massive construction projects visible? Their electromagnetic signals?

Well, I suppose these are the possibilities:

(1) The above assumptions are all wrong. In fact, the evolution of complex life requires some extraordinarily rare factors to come together. The right-sized planet, the right sort of star, the right sort of solar system, the right sort of moon, etc., etc. And even then it’s a 1-in-a-gazillion chance. If that’s the case, our existence could be a bizarre fluke, and we’re all alone, or our nearest neighbors are in another galaxy and unable to make contact with us.

(2) Life is common enough, even complex organisms, but intelligence is rare. Perhaps intelligence doesn’t confer a huge survival benefit and there’s not much evolutionary pressure for it to arise. Perhaps we’re just a fluke in that sense.

(3) What we call “intelligence” is a very specific characteristic of human beings. Our conception of “intelligence” demands a very specific psychology. By asking whether there’s intelligent life out there we’re really asking if there are other human beings out there, and of course there aren’t. Whatever else is out there is so alien and foreign that it is unrecognizable to us as “intelligence.” Our use of tools and our whole understanding of physics and mathematics is particular to our psychological makeup.

(3B) Intelligence itself is not specific to us, but our type or level of intelligence is. Other ‘intelligent’ beings are out there but we are to them as ants are to us. There right in front of us but we can’t see them for what they are because they are so unbelievably superior. The universe itself could be their creation, or a sign of their existence. What we see as mathematics or the laws of physics could be nothing more than their engineering.

(4) Intelligent beings like ourselves evolved frequently enough, but they all died out, just as we will. There’s some built-in characteristic of intelligent beings that drives them to self-destructive behavior. The seeds of our own destruction are sown within us. Perhaps any being that increase its technological sophistication eventually destroys itself or alters its environment in a self-destructive way.

(4B) Intelligent beings self-destruct because there’s some specific potential for technological disaster we don’t know about. Some sort of obvious technology that all developing intelligences eventually come across causes some enormous cataclysm, and its impossible to foresee. Something – maybe using powerful enough particle accelerators or something else we haven’t even dreamed of yet – causes a drastic change in local conditions and wipes out all nearby life.

(5) Technological changes eventually leads to some sort of unforeseeable transformation that precludes meaningful contact with more primitive beings. Eventually we, too, will become some sort of ‘ascended’ beings on a higher plane of existence after reaching this ‘singularity.’

(6) Super-advanced civilizations that have come millions upon millions of years before us instituted some sort of Prime Directive that precludes contact with the likes of us.

(7) Some unforeseen physical law makes extrasolar spaceflight impossible or unlikely in the extreme. Other civilizations are out there but there’s a hard ceiling to technological development and they’ve reached it.

(7A) At some level of technological development further advances become impossible, not just in terms of space travel and communication. At some point the organization of the universe becomes unintelligible and further manipulation of it becomes impossible.

(8) We’re not real. We’re in a matrix-like simulation. It doesn’t include aliens.

(9) Those crazy right-wing Jesus creation stories? They’re real. And the Earth is a few thousand years old. Satan planted dinosaur fossils to trick us.

(10) Aliens are here. The gummint knows all about it. What do you think Area 51 is?

The last two are, of course, jokes. #8 is not a joke. If you think that we will ever develop the computer technology to simulate consciousness (and many, many scientists do), then it is entirely possible that we are those very simulated consciousnesses. But the whole are-we-really-real issue is for another post.

Out of the above list, my suspicion is that #1 is true – complex life is just a really, really unlikely thing to arise, and we’re all alone.

Keep in mind that the listed items are not mutually exclusive (I like making non-mutually exclusive lists today), and my guess is that complex life is super-rare, and intelligent complex life is rarer still.

I don’t want that to be true, by the way. I desperately want there to be Klingons and Vulcans and what not out there. But I doubt they are. I can’t imagine they would be out there and it took until now in our history to encounter them. They’d be super-beings compared to us by now, having had millions of years to develop all sorts of magical technologies, and they’d have made their presence obvious by building a galactic subway system or a giant monolith on the moon or some crazy nonsense like that.

But of course that’s just a wild guess, and no sign of other intelligent life isn’t exactly a great data set to be working with.

Picture 431

I’m just thinking out loud here – could we rig up one of those floating space squares the people of Krypton used to imprison General Zod (and Ursa and Non) in Superman II? Because if supermax prisons aren’t enough to hold The Terrorists, why should we feel any safer with them at Guantanamo Bay? Cuba is only 90 miles from our shores, for crissakes! I think NASA has a new mission.

Picture 1

Given the paucity of information on this, I don’t have anything particularly intelligent or Earth-shattering to say about this. I’ll just lay out some considerations on how to interpret this in general. First, expect a lot of bullshitting and wild speculation in the press about what this all means, and what sort of threat in poses. Given the secrecy of the North Korean government and military, it’s extremely difficult to divine the ruling regime’s reasoning behind anything it does. Also, the press has a tendency to interpret events like this in terms of short-term effects and consequences, whereas North Korean nuclear and missile tests fit into a long-term, drawn-out game. Second, expect the right to make a great deal of political hay out of this as well, as if North Korean nuclear and missile tests represent some sort of profound failure of the Obama administration. North Korea’s had a nuclear-weapons program for decades. Obama has been in office for 4 months. It would be remarkable if this administration had made significant progress with North Korea, not the other way around.

All that having been said, there are a few lenses through which to view this (in no particular order):

(a) North Korean domestic politics: Think of North Korea as a bizarre sort of monarchy with an ailing king. The king recently had a stroke and is in questionable health. He also has no firmly established successor, and the likeliest candidate is in his 20s. Hawkish, ballsy demonstrations like underground nuclear tests and lobbing multistage rockets over Japan can be aimed at shoring up support from the more militant elements of the regime, especially the military elite.

(b) Negotiating tactics: The North Koreans like to use brinkmanship in their negotiations with other countries, particularly the United States. We’ve got a new US president who isn’t exactly laser-beam focused on issues on the Korean peninsula (for good reason). Also, the North Koreans have been unhappy with the policy shift introduced by the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, a center-right politician who has adopted a more hawkish stance toward the North and has promoted closer ties with the United States. He was also hampered by low approval ratings at home, something not likely to improve in the wake of a North Korean nuclear test. From the North Korean point of view, aggressive posturing has served well in the past to sow divisions between the US and its allies (and perhaps more importantly between the US and its allies on the one hand and China and Russia on the other), and to bring the US to the bargaining table. It is also one of the very few remaining ways the North has to capture international attention. In a time of policy shifts, uncertainties, and myriad international and domestic concerns for the United States that have led it to downgrade the North Korean nuclear issue’s spot on the agenda, North Korea has a strong incentive to recapture headlines and to feel out American and South Korean bargaining positions.

(c) Creating a nuclear deterrent: Sometimes the simplest explanations are the right ones. If you’re developing plutonium bombs, you gotta test them. The first North Korean nuclear test was less than spectacular (about a 1kt yield – a dud). This second test yielded an explosion comparable to the plutonium bomb the US dropped on Nagasaki in over 60 years ago. There’s a tendency to see our own politics as divided and uncertain but the politics of other countries as unified and all leading toward a clear goal and purpose. The reality is that there is likely debate in North Korea about where it’s going with its nuclear development (trade it away in a bargain with the US? develop a nuclear deterrent against the US and South Korea?). For the factions that entertain full development of a nuclear deterrent, these tests are necessary steps to getting there.

The above three categories are not mutually exclusive, and it is likely that they all enter into whatever calculus led to this most recent test. It is also not an exhaustive list – it’s 9:30am, I’m tired, stressed out, and have lots and lots of work I should be doing, so no promises about how straight my thinking is right now.

It’ll be interesting to see how the major players act as this goes forward (and how long this story maintains prominence in the news). It’s certainly heartening that the UN Security Council, with Chinese support, was quick to condemn the North Koreans. Have they finally overreached? Stay tuned.

First off, I need to address this oft-repeated (yet completely inaccurate) claim that the president has taken an oath to protect the citizenry of the United States, and therefore has to push the limits of law and constitutionality in order to protect us all from The Terrorists. Here’s the presidential oath of office:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The only thing in there that the president swears to protect is the Constitution. Our principles and rule of law is given privilege in the oath, not the safety and security of the population. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in there that lends credibility to the argument that national security is the most important duty of the president and everything else, including legality and constitutionality, comes after that. In fact, at least one of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, said (just weeks before the beginning of the Revolution):

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Neither the oath of office nor the words of Benjamin Franklin is the word of God, but these two citation certainly belie the claim that Bush administration and now Obama administration policies such as indefinite detention without trial fit with long-accepted American practice. And they disprove the claim that the president has taken an oath to keep us all safe and warm and happy.

Second, I need to voice my amazement at the fear in this country of The Terrorists. The idea that we cannot move terrorists or anyone else held at Guantanamo to facilities in the United States because they would put us in danger is absolutely absurd. Put aside the fact that we already imprison some of the worst terrorists here in the United States. Put aside that we imprison serial killers and child rapists in the United States by the hundreds. Put aside that nobody has ever even come close to escaping from a US supermax prison. Put aside that if a terrorist from Guantanamo were moved to Leavenworth, Kansas and escaped, the first thing they’d do is try to get the fuck out of Kansas. Put aside that some Central Asian terrorist who doesn’t speak English isn’t going to get very far in Kansas or Oklahoma. The truth is that even if the inmates at Guantanamo were released into the streets of Islamabad tomorrow, we’d still be in almost no danger. How many people die each year in the United States from terrorism? Almost zero? Let’s say there were to be a 9/11-sized attack every year. That would still be 10% the number of people dying on our highways and less than 5% the number who die from smoking. Yet we pay almost no attention to highway safety and not much more attention to cigarettes. We certainly don’t freak out over them.

I’m not arguing that we should do nothing about terrorism, but some perspective is necessary here. We focus on the terrorism issue in a way that is profoundly out of proportion from the actual risk. If you live in Kansas, you are simply NOT going to die from a terrorist attack. EVER. If you are worried about where they’re going to move the Guantanamo detainees, then really, you should be paralyzed by fear of lightning strikes, animal attacks, and multiple drug-resistant bacteria. PERIOD.

When did we become a nation of cowards? Time and again we’ve heard from Dick Cheney and his ilk that we are ceding ground to the terrorists by having a discussion about our policies (or by holding on to any of our democratic principles). You know what REALLY cedes ground to the terrorists? Freaking out every time some idiot in a cave yells “boo.”

But of course I’m only saying this because I am a naive apologist for Islamofascism who thinks that we can convert all the Terrorists by offering them hugs and therapy and herbal tea. I don’t appreciate how a bunch of idiot thugs in caves are putting us in mortal danger and represent the gravest threat to our Republic since the Nazis and Communists (and The Gays, and Socialized Medicine, and Nancy Pelosi).

Tom Tomorrow nails it:
Picture 289

Apart from pinning the blame for torturing the shit out of everybody on Nancy Pelosi, the Republicans have also made a lot of headway with the argument that Guantanamo is the the new Ellis Island, filled with al Qaeda operatives yearning to breathe free on American shores, soon to be moved by the Obama administration into a housing development near you. The next time you’re out mowing the front lawn of your suburban home, so the argument goes, you may just look over to your right to see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, complete with low-cut T-shirt, waving at you as he walks out of his house in slippers to pick up his copy of the Boston Globe from the front walk (what else would he read?). Complete idiocy? Yes, of course, and the Republicans and all the conservative talking heads know it’s total lunacy (please, even Sean Hannity’s not THAT stupid). But there’s a big difference in this country between the insane and the politically ineffective.

Hilzoy vents:

“We’re Doomed!

From the New York Times:
‘Four men from upstate New York were arrested Wednesday night in what the authorities said was a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes at Stewart Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y.

The men were arrested around 9 p.m. after planting what they believed to be bombs in cars outside the Riverdale Temple and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center, officials said. But the men did not know the bombs, provided by an informant with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were fake.

The arrests capped what officials described as a “painstaking investigation” that began in June 2008 involving an F.B.I. agent who had been told of the men’s desire to attack targets in America by a federal informant. As part of the plot, the men intended to fire guided stinger missiles at military aircraft at Stewart International Airport, officials said.’

This raises the difficult question: what should we do with these would-be terrorists while they await trial? And if they are convicted, what then? I assume that if it’s too dangerous to move people at Guantanamo to the United States, it must be much too dangerous to allow these jihadists to run loose in our prisons. After all, they might provide financing for other jihadists from their supermax cells, or radicalize other prisoners, or use special Terrorist Mind Control Techniques to create a whole army of brainwashed convicts under their complete control.

I’d suggest killing them, cutting them into pieces, and shipping their parts to parts unknown immediately (trials? who can afford trials under these circumstances?), if I weren’t afraid that some hitherto unknown al Qaeda trick might allow their reanimated body parts to slither around in search of one another and, eventually, reconstitute themselves as the Islamofascist Undead. Earlier, I thought we should send prisoners into space, but that was before I realized that that would allow them to join forces with the Klingons.

In fact, I can’t think of a single thing to do that would not make matters worse.

We’re doomed.”

And there’s more:

“From CNN:
‘A top Mexican drug cartel suspect has been arrested along with 12 accomplices, including five women, federal authorities said. (…)

Rodolfo Lopez Ibarra, known as El Nito and believed to be a top lieutenant in the Beltran Leyva cartel, was arrested Monday at an airport in Nuevo Leon state, said the Mexican National Defense secretary.

Along with the suspects, officials said they also confiscated a Cessna 550 airplane, two cars, a large quantity of drugs and cash, firearms and a hand grenade. (…)

The Beltran Leyva cartel is one of the top drug organizations in Mexico, allied with the Gulf cartel in its battle against the Sinaloa organized crime syndicate. The Beltran Leyva group was formerly allied with the Sinaloa cartel, considered the largest drug-trafficking organization in the nation. The two other major drug organizations in Mexico are the Juarez and Tijuana cartels.’

I am so, so very relieved that we didn’t arrest Mr. Lopez Ibarra here in this country. Unlike Mexico, we do not have secure facilities here in the United States. We do have ‘prisons’, but they are just a charade designed to lull unsuspecting citizens into complacency. In fact, all of our prisons were eliminated years ago as a result of Republican budget cuts. When Ebenezer Scrooge asked ‘Are there no prisons?’, he was thinking of us.

I have it on good authority that the leaders of the Cali Cartel slip out for eight hours every day to pursue their boyhood dreams of working at Applebee’s. Ramzi Yousuf rearranges his body into a highly diffuse gas, slithers between the molecules of his cell walls, and floats about in the sky above his supermax facility in Florence Colorado. The Blind Sheikh manages to bend steel bars through the sheer force of his faith, leaps through the opening onto a winged white horse, and he is taken to paradise, where, much to his disappointment, he is given bunches of grapes.

And he’s blind! Just think what an actual drug kingpin could do, with all five senses intact and an army of henchmen at his back waiting to terrify the local citizenry. Thank God he was captured by a country that actually has secure prisons in which he can be safely locked away. The damage he might have wrought from the ‘confines’ of a supermax ‘prison’ in this country is too dreadful to contemplate.”

Raise The Gas Tax

May 19, 2009

Yglesias (he’s only 28??!!) cheers the new fuel-efficiency standards but makes the important point that we need to raise the tax on gasoline to promote real change:

“it would be better to have higher gasoline taxes as a complement or a supplement for tighter fuel efficiency standards. The reasons are twofold. One is that CAFE does nothing to encourage the purchase of more fuel efficient used cars except on a very long time horizon. The other, more important one, is that fuel consumption has two determinants—the fuel economy of the vehicle, and the number of miles the vehicle drives. And, clearly, different people drive different amounts. Some people’s commutes are longer than others. Some people people car pool. Some people walk or bike or use transit. And this stuff makes a difference to overall fuel consumption. Any policy that leaves this entire suite of issues off the table is distinctly sub-optimal.”