A Man with a Flashlight

Upcoming interview: Susan Aldous
April 30, 2007, 3:41 pm
Filed under: The East, Undiscovered writers

Susan Aldous has been doing charity work in Thailand for eighteen years. With little money and few resources, she has focused on helping people forgotten by society: prisoners, drug addicts, the sick and dying. Armed with her faith, and what donations she is able to collect, she works to let them know that, whatever they have done, they are worthy of love. That simple message has made a profound difference in the lives of many.

Susan is best known for her work counseling the inmates of Bang Kwang maximum security prison in Bangkok, and working to improve their abject conditions. She has appeared on this blog before here and here. She has written an autobiography, The Angel of Bang Kwang Prison, released this month by Maverick House.

Susan will be answering some questions for the readers of this blog in the near future, so check back soon to hear more about her story and her new book. In the meantime, please email me with any questions you’d like me to pose to her.

The coming Republican revolt
April 29, 2007, 11:13 pm
Filed under: Politics, The Imperial President, The War on Terror

William F. Buckley – yes, the leading light of the conservative movement – doesn’t think Iraq is winnable. To wit:

What can a “surge,” of the kind we are now relying upon, do to cope with endemic disease? The parallel even comes to mind of the eventual collapse of Prohibition, because there wasn’t any way the government could neutralize the appetite for alcohol, or the resourcefulness of the freeman in acquiring it.

How long will Bush have enough votes in Congress to keep his veto power secure? He’s going to get a spending bill after he vetoes the timetable (um, right?), but will he get the next one?

In the past month or so, the political fight over Iraq has taken on the feel of an endgame. Even if the President lives to fight another day for now, I just don’t see what else he can pull out of a hat. Particularly if he doesn’t really think Iraq is winnable – just postponeable to the next president’s term.

Surge, or time-delay fuse?
April 29, 2007, 10:47 pm
Filed under: Politics, The Imperial President, The War on Terror

Joshua Micah Marshall at Talking Points Memo argues, citing circumstantial evidence, that the surge is designed to push the inevitable loss of Iraq into the tenure of the next U.S. president, protecting Bush from some of the blame for it.

I’m reluctant to believe that anyone could be that ruthless, let alone the man who still has nearly two years left to lead our country. And I don’t see how it could succeed – the war is just so integral to Bush’s presidency that I find it hard to imagine a McCain, an Obama, a Clinton, or a Giuliani in any way diminishing Bush’s identification with it.

But I’ve underestimated the administration’s shameless self-service so many times that I’m tempted to give Marshall’s argument some credence. And it would explain something I just can’t fathom. We are at the war’s most desperate hour (well, so far anyway). If our leadership can make it happen, they have to act now. Everyone needs to focus on what must be accomplished.

So why hasn’t Bush made any indication of what his tactical goals are? What exactly is the measurement that will tell us – or at least tell him – if he is succeeding? Shouldn’t this information be in the hands of every soldier? Do our Americans on the ground have any idea what the president wants them to achieve in the next few months?

Far from it. We have no goals in Iraq. “Stop it going to hell” doesn’t count. There is no sense of ambition, of hungering for something achievable. In fact, Marshall cites a NYTimes article saying that the administration is actually lowering its expectations of the Maliki government.

So the good news is that the surge is having some effect. The bad news is, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all a sham. A good tactic doesn’t matter if you don’t have a strategy.

Meanwhile, in case you hadn’t contemplated how losing Iraq could be worse for America than losing Vietnam was, the Washington Post counts the ways.

The sound of one jaw dropping
April 29, 2007, 1:52 am
Filed under: Design, The Earth

Now and then you come across a slap-to-the-face reminder of human ingenuity. Here’s a beauty – the Falkirk Wheel. Most futuristic visual design turns me off, but in this device, any attempt not to look futuristic would seem silly.


My favorite line from the Wikipedia description: “The electric motors… consume just 1.5 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy in four minutes, roughly the same as boiling eight kettles of water.”

If we really do screw the pooch and melt the icecaps, how are we going to explain to the future that our civilization could build this, but it couldn’t stop a catastrophe that was seen coming for decades?

“The president is less in command of his administration than any president I have ever observed.”
April 27, 2007, 11:06 am
Filed under: Politics, The War on Terror

He’s had a method of operating in which he is the chief executive, and that he expects things to happen, and he doesn’t superintend them very closely, and a significant number of people who are nominally working for him don’t agree with him, don’t work very hard to implement his policies and in some cases even work against him, and that was certainly true at the State Department. It was certainly true at the C.I.A.

– Richard Perle, on the runup to Iraq, to a hearing organized by the Tricycle Theater in London.

It is eerily similar to Alberto Gonzales’ portrayal of his own role at Justice, and his explanation of how he fired 8 U.S. Attorneys without knowing why. No wonder Bush didn’t see anything wrong with his story.

Pure gold
April 27, 2007, 10:43 am
Filed under: Israel, The War on Terror

Reuters reporting from the Gaza strip. Check out the caption to the photograph. Yep, that’s right. (Nod to Andrew Sullivan.)

Stand in Vagina Power
April 26, 2007, 10:49 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

From Atlanta public access TV. NOT safe for work. But pure genius anywhere else. (Nod to Andrew Sullivan.)

Ed in ’08
April 26, 2007, 10:21 am
Filed under: Education, Politics

Bill Gates and Eli Broad are putting $60 million into the 2008 election.

Not in support of a candidate, but of an issue: education. And not in support of a specific education policy. Simply to put pressure on candidates to propose solutions to our national crisis. Melinda Gates said on NPR today that our goal should be a 100% high school graduation rate.

Good for them. It’s a shame that this is necessary, but necessary it is.

Giuliani continues toil in the tragedy mine
April 26, 2007, 10:08 am
Filed under: Politics, The War on Terror

There’s gold in them thar hills! Giuliani continues campaigning for President of 9/11.

To wit:

“If [a democrat] gets elected, it sounds to me like we’re going on the defense,” [Giuliani] said. “We’ve got a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. We’re going to wave the white flag there. We’re going to try to cut back on the Patriot Act. We’re going to cut back on electronic surveillance. We’re going to cut back on interrogation. We’re going to cut back, cut back, cut back, and we’ll be back in our pre-September 11 mentality of being on defense.”

Cardinal rule of the war on terror: no idea, no matter how bad, can be reconsidered.

Oh, and standing up for human rights or freedom from government surveillance = retreat.

It all sounded so good four years ago. No, wait a minute – no, it didn’t.

Did they teach you that in Nevada?
April 26, 2007, 1:48 am
Filed under: Politics

Senator Harry Reid submits his entry for the sharpest tongue in Washington. It seems something Dick Cheney said got under his skin.

Mr. Reid fired back directly at Mr. Cheney on Tuesday, appearing at the same microphones just moments after the vice president.

“The president sends out his attack dog often,” said Mr. Reid. “That’s also known as Dick Cheney.”

Mr. Reid said he was not going to engage in a tit-for-tat with the vice president. “I’m not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating,” Mr. Reid said.

Next time he’ll have to get John Kerry and Chuck Schumer to pose like they’re restraining him from physically assaulting Cheney. Golden!

You mean there’s another branch of government?
April 26, 2007, 1:28 am
Filed under: Politics

Somebody had better brief the president.

Otherwise this is going to be a bucket of cold water to the face.

Attention: entertaining weeks ahead.

“They don’t know where the hell they’re going.”
April 26, 2007, 1:21 am
Filed under: Politics, The War on Terror

– retired marine general John Sheehan explains why he declined to serve as White House coordinator of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The surge is a sound tactic, and it is succeeding modestly. But towards what strategy? Does anyone have any idea what Bush’s goal in Iraq is?

In related news, the president’s allies in congress are demoralized, depressed, and desperate. David Ignatius chronicles how influence within his own party is slipping through Bush’s rigid, inflexible fingers. Money quote:

This White House is isolated and ineffective; the country has stopped listening to President Bush, just as it once tuned out the hapless Jimmy Carter; the president’s misplaced sense of personal loyalty is hurting his party and the nation.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Bush thinks Gonzales is doing a heck of a job.

The Bush presidency: it worked well as long as it didn’t need to change direction on anything. Then it failed.

Protectionism makes you fat
April 25, 2007, 8:49 am
Filed under: Food, Politics

Why are cola and potato chips cheaper, calorie for calorie, than tomatoes and carrots? Two words: farm subsidies.

Michael Pollan gets the very cool story. (New York Times, registration required.) Here’s the crux of it:

Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

Stand by your man
April 25, 2007, 12:31 am
Filed under: The Imperial President

Bush stands by Gonzales. He seems to have liked Thursday’s performance. Money quote:

“The attorney general went up and gave a very candid assessment and answered every question he could possibly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office yesterday. “Some senators didn’t like his explanation, but he answered as honestly as he could.”

Not “completely honestly,” mind you. But “as honestly as he could.”

The punch line is that Bush didn’t even watch the hearing, according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. That does explain things somewhat, but you don’t expect them to just come out and say it.

Expect more mutiny from Republican lawmakers. He’s giving them nothing to believe in, and hurting the chances of those who are up for re-election.

I waited too long to renew my passport
April 24, 2007, 1:04 am
Filed under: Design

So my new one is going to look like this.

So far my biggest mistake of 2007. And it’ll haunt me until 2017. Doh! (Nod to Design Observer.)

Seung-Hui Cho and “Oldboy”
April 24, 2007, 12:09 am
Filed under: Depression, Movies

Odd, but about the only worthwhile comment I’ve read on the Virginia Tech murders was written by a movie critic. A.O. Scott gets it about right. Movies aren’t to blame. Would that it were that simple.

I haven’t written much about this here. Obviously it’s an important story, but I don’t have much to say. Discussing prevention measures, if indeed any are feasible, should wait for a thorough analysis of what led up to the murders, to the extent it is knowable.

I will only add that this seems like a good occasion to reflect how serious an illness depression is, and how important it is to treat early and aggressively. But it’s not clear that was the issue here. Cho’s depression was noticed and may have been treated. Earlier detection may have made a difference, or it may not have. Some sickness, inevitably, will not be healed.

I recommend two great books on depression: Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon and Peter Kramer’s Listening to Prozac. Beyond depression itself, they contain fascinating insights into the relationship between brain chemistry and personality.

In the future, early screening for depression will be as routine as screening for prostrate or breast cancer.

The Terrible Truth
April 23, 2007, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Drug Prohibition

A 1951 anti-cannabis propaganda film that is less wild-eyed than you expect:

Of course, considering it’s a reefer madness flick, much of the film is realistic, and the drug problem it describes needs to be addressed. That’s far truer now than it was in 1951.

But addressing the problem means being honest and serious about the dangers of cannabis, which are relatively few.

The terrible truth is, we are spending $35 billion a year on drug prohibition, the current focus of which is a drug that 95 million Americans admit to trying, that doesn’t cause crime, and which has never killed anyone by overdose.

How much space do you need?
April 23, 2007, 12:50 am
Filed under: Design, The Earth

Tiny houses are taking off, says the Christian Science Monitor.

A much-needed trend. Until now quality of life has been a matter of how much you can consume – money, oil, electricity, space.
For us to survive the next century, we need to start asking instead how many different things we can do with a limited pool of resources.


More tiny house pictures on display at tinyhouses.net. Just one complaint: they’re all standard American country/suburban single-family homes. The age of the automobile is ending. Let’s dense up, shall we?

The Surge – How do you know when to jump?
April 22, 2007, 11:15 pm
Filed under: The War on Terror

In spite of Harry Reid’s pronouncement that Iraq is lost, the Washington Post reports that sectarian murders in Baghdad are down by two-thirds, and refugees are returning to the city.

Apparently the horrendous multiple suicide bombing on Wednesday could have been quite a lot worse.

Another part of the strategy is to wall off communities along their traditional boundaries to control population access and prevent attacks.

…The walls helped divert the multiple car bombs in Baghdad on Wednesday that killed more than 170 people. Three exploded short of their targets, but the fourth and deadliest vehicle bomber was able to enter a market because someone had removed part of the barrier to gain easier access, U.S. officials said.

And apparently the Baghdad deployment has so far only reached 60% of the target.

Let’s give credit where credit is due: Bush made the right call here. Whether it will affect the ultimate outcome remains to be seen, but the surge seems to have halted Iraq’s downward slide, for the moment.

But how long will that moment last, and how long should we stay? I’m for using this strategy for a short period to give the government one last chance for political compromise. And if they get there, let’s get out as soon as possible and say we won. I don’t see us getting any closer to victory than that. And time is short: the insurgency has adapted quickly in the past, and we may be certain they are adapting to the surge as we speak.

In the heartland, Christians for medical cannabis
April 22, 2007, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Drug Prohibition, Religion

Illinois considers a bill that would permit prescription cannabis use, which probably won’t pass. (If it does, Illinois would be the first Midwest state to do so.)

Just another day so far. But wait – more than forty religious leaders in the state are supporting the bill. To wit:

“It comes down to, what do we think God is up to?” said Pastor Bob Hillenbrand of First Presbyterian Church of Rockford. He said his own belief was in “a God of compassion, and therefore also of healing.”

Pastor Robert C. Morwell of Union United Methodist Church in Quincy said he had never used marijuana nor had any desire to. “But I think it’s a little silly to say we can prescribe morphine … and other drugs that are more addictive,” but not marijuana, he said.

Hey, makes sense to me.

This is part of a pattern. From the environment, to torture, to the war on drugs, Christians are starting to ask whether their faith really requires them to reject everything liberal. Thank God – if that isn’t blasphemy.

Let’s take a look at what the law’s opponents say.

“Who wouldn’t want to make a person in that condition [a hospice patient] feel better?” said Jeannie Lowe, also of the Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems.

Lowe and other opponents say the wording of the legislation is so vague that, with a willing doctor, a patient could meet the standards for marijuana use for just about any illness.

I’m amazed, you might even say stunned. They don’t dispute that cannabis would help the terminally ill to live out their time with a little more dignity. Their argument is that someone might abuse this law, and smoke cannabis just to get high.

Forget that this probably won’t happen much – that phrase “with a willing doctor” will set the bar too high for most stoners. Forget how easy it is to get cannabis illegally (in most major cities you can call and have it delivered). Forget that we allow doctors to prescribe far more dangerous drugs like morphine and methadone, though they are, if anything, more likely to be mis-prescribed.

Even forgetting all of that, is this a compelling argument? Do you care whether a few stoners manage to get high with a prescription and have a little snicker at the government? Is preventing this worth denying medicine to dying people?

Just to be clear, I support full legalization of cannabis – I believe that the benefits of criminalizing a relatively benign intoxicant do not justify the financial and social costs. But even if we disagree on that, what is the argument against allowing it to patients?