Monday, December 31, 2007

Iowa 2008 predictions

Starting the presidential election process with the Iowa caucuses is one of the silliest and saddest comments on American democracy. It's a horribly undemocratic and unrepresentative process as I detail in this BMG comment. But there's no way to alter the process so soon (I was about to say it is what it is, but that is apparently passé) so we may as well all try to mind-read these people.

Republican Primary:
1. Huckabee
2. Romney
3. McCain
4. Paul

You can't argue with sky-wizard affinity, and Huckabee's embrace of the most popular sky-wizard in this country gives him what money can't buy -- a first place finish. Romney is cruising to second based because he has everything going for him that money can buy.

As for third place, it's a bit of a toss-up between McCain and Paul. Giuliani is fading fast, and Thompson never really woke up and ran a race. Paul's support is geographically diffuse and very involved, the two key elements to caucus night victory. I really want to believe that he could score third, but you can't argue with momentum. Undecideds are breaking for McCain at a stunning rate, and that I think will push him into third.

Democratic Primary:
1. Clinton
2. Edwards
3. Obama
4. Richardson
5. Biden
6. Dodd

Clinton and Edwards will be essentially tied. She has the largest body of paid staff in state, and Edwards has a lot of unpaid but savvy locals. Given the diffuse nature of this farce, that will come in handy. It feels that Obama is fading fast in the face of reminders of how complex and demanding the job of the presidency is, and he's showing his true colors by reacting with a GOP attack on Edwards being a nasty horrible trial lawyers. If I thought he had a sense of shame, I'd say he should be ashamed of himself.

As for numbers 4-6, the results out of Iowa will be tremendously underrepresentative of their actual level of support because of the caucus mechanics. That said, I expect Dodd and Richardson to stick around through New Hampshire (then both drop out), and Biden to hang on until Super Tuesday.

All predictions guaranteed wrong or your money back.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Because I think it's funny...

...and because I desperately don't want to see Obama as our nominee, here's an excellent remix/edit of a couple Obama ads:

PS: Corrente brilliantly lays out the fallacies of Obama's appeal. One snippet:

Obama presents himself as post-partisan, but partisan politics are needed. The "food fight," obviously a partisan food fight, is purest Equivalation. The Democrats didn’t break the world record for filibusters when they were in the minority; but the Republicans just did....And last I checked, Democrats were allowing anybody to come to their election rallies, but Bush was screening his to make sure only Republicans attended. This is the Conservative Movement in action. Sure, there’s a "food fight," but most of the food that’s in the air is coming from one side of the cafeteria!

So why on earth would Obama think that "tearing down" the Conservative Movement and "lifting this country up" are opposites? They’re the same!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Interesting People: James Traficant

How quickly we forget those wily on-the-take elected officials once the prison door is slammed. Corrupt populist princes such as "Buddy" Cianci and "Duke" Cunningham are the carnies of American democracy, colorful in nickname, style, past, and eventually, docket. But nobody holds a candle to the charmingly corrupt, entertaining James Traficant.

Traficant spent 17 years as the Democratic Congressman of the 17th district in Ohio. He always did have an air of corruption about him, but managed to evade conviction for many years (even becoming the only person thus far to beat a federal racketeering/RICO charge while defending himself.) Sadly, the toupéed one's luck ran out, and in 2002 Mr. Traficant was convicted of accepting bribes and sentenced to eight years. As with Bill Jefferson, the corrupt representative from Louisiana re-elected after investigators found $90,000 in his freezer (seriously, the freezer? If I'm hiding 90K, bloody sure it won't be that easy to find), toward the end Traficant had uncomfortable relations with party elders. These leaders were wary of being associated with this corrupt Congressman, so they generally kept their distance. Traficant responded by voting for a Republican for Speaker of the House. Also similar to Jefferson, Traficant didn't let legal problems keep him from running for office. Unbowed by pressure, Traficant would be re-elected to his seat despite public knowledge of investigations. His style extended to running for re-election while in prison as an Independent, after his conviction. Traficant finished third, with 15% of the vote.

Most memorable, however, were Traficant's brilliantly madcap speeches during "floor time", when representatives bloviate in front of an empty chamber and C-SPAN cameras for the folks back home. Some of his best lines, taken from the delightful Free James Traficant website:

"Mr. Speaker, baseball will eliminate two teams. Some surprise. Tickets average 50 bucks. A program is $10; popcorn, $5; parking, $20. A hot dog and a beer cost about $10 to $12 at most stadiums. Beam me up. The umpire said, "Play ball," not "monopoly."...I yield back what is left of America's great pastime after the greatest World Series perhaps in our history."

"Now if that is not enough to find coal in your athletic supporter, check this out: A school board in Georgia removed the word "Christmas" from their school calendar because the ACLU threatened to sue. Beam me up. If this is religious freedom, I am a fashion model for GQ...Mr. Speaker, I yield back the fact that Christmas is not about a jolly old fat man. Christmas is about the birth of Christ."

In a court hearing: "I want you to disregard all the opposing counsel has said. I think they're delusionary. I think they've had something funny for lunch in their meal, I think they should be handcuffed, chained to a fence and flogged, and all of their hearsay evidence should be thrown the hell out. And if they lie again, I'm going to go over there and kick them in the crotch. Thank you very much."

I was originally thinking of doing a post on charmingly corrupt Republican Congresspeople. Unfortunately, "charm" and "Republican Congressperson" are two terms that have no business in the same sentence, and a post on plain Republican corruption in Congress would take much too much time.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

In Memoriam: Miss Benazir Bhutto

As the world knows, Miss Benazir Bhutto was assassinated after a campaign rally in what might be generously described as suspicious circumstances. She was in the process of running for Prime Minister as the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, an election she was very likely to win. Her pedigree in corruption was as lengthy as most leaders in the area, but the courage to stand up to despots from General Zia to General Musharraf is to be admired, and the mental toughness to succeed as a woman in a Muslim country is also worthy of respect. Miss Bhutto chose to risk her own well-being and safety for the sake of ending Musharraf's rule, and gave the highest price for the chance to restore some measure of democracy to her homeland. Without her, Pakistan's future seems dim.

While there is a need to look at what will happen next, to question why this happened and where we go from here, the dignity and hope this lady represented must be remembered. Nations only get a couple moral leaders of courage on the scale of Suu Kyi or RFK, and Pakistan just lost one of theirs.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Educational triage under No Child Left Behind

As part of my ongoing explanation of life in the Brave New World of education, I thought I'd expound on the notion of what I call "educational triage" -- the exercise of taking the students barely missing the MCAS, and focusing on them. These students, often called "bubble kids", receive a disproportionate amount of time in professional development, curriculum meetings, and department analyses.

You see, under the MCAS, a student can receive four scores: Advanced, Proficient (both passing), Needs Improvement, and Failing. The cut-off for "Proficient" is a score of 240.

Schools are ranked, tested, rewarded, punished, and in general judged by the proportion of students who are "proficient or better". That's it. No bonus points for advanced, no comparison of who's failing badly, and who's failing miserably. Many times have I seen a kid scoring "failing" essentially abandoned as a lost cause for the school. Here's an example to clarify:

StudentInitial ScoreSecond Score
Passing = 240+

Under nearly every way that the bureaucracies of Massachusetts and the United States assess schools, the only improvement there that counts is that of Alex. An improvement 4 times as dramatic by Ming or Khaled means nothing. Zero. I've seen disastrous empirical analyses of scores by people who supposedly know better, because only "proficient" students were counted, and ignored those scoring "advanced" ignored, resulting in severe underscoring of districts. (Nothing earns you the contempt of a curriculum specialist more than asking "what about students who score advanced?")

Because getting a student from barely surviving to flourishing gets you nothing under this system, just as helping a student get from unable to write their name to almost passing is viewed officially as a waste of time, we do triage. Students are prioritized. Wanna guess which ones?

Right. The Alexes of the world get all the attention and coaching. I'm aware of classes tailored to these students, wherein the Khaleds and Mings of the class are essentially left to their own devices. The Alexes within a grade are identified, and targeted on an almost daily basis. Hopefully Ming doesn't drool on herself, and Khaled doesn't get so bored he starts disrupting the class. "Successful" schools are those that abandon their supposed mission to get Alex where s/he has to go.

This is another aspect of our system. Everything from funding cuts and state takeovers to rewards and publicity depends on turning "Needs Improvement" into "Proficient", and it's sweet to turn an occasional "Failing" into "Proficient".

In the Age of Accountability, these are the only students districts are truly accountable it's a small wonder that these are the only students many districts are truly interested in.

*I've taken over a dozen education courses in almost as many forms, and I've yet to meet an education instructor/professor/facilitator who doesn't rely exclusively on names of Western European origin for their examples -- everyone is Billy or Sally. I've had classes focus on integration in the classroom, and never heard mention of any name that isn't straight out of Germany or England. Hence, I try to use non-Western names in my racial stereotyping is meant or implied.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Santa: Democrat or Republican?

A retread from last year at BlueMassGroup:

In the spirit of the season, I'm going to pose the yearly question,and sketch out the exhibits -- is Santa a Republican or a Democrat?
I'll mention some of the more compelling evidence for either side below.

Exhibits for Santa as Republican:

* Wears red.
* Overweight -- clearly lives a comfortable lifestyle.
* Expects gifts (milk and cookies) for doing his job.
* Focuses almost exclusively on Christians.
* Comfortable judging people.
* Relies on exploitative labor.
* Prefers bio-unfriendly wrapping paper.
* Also enjoys decorations centered around a slowly dying tree.
* Lives in the far north (His home may be in Canada, Alaska, or Russia. All subject to conservative government.
* Great marketing.
* White male, likely Christian (just going with the odds here).
* Strongly consumerist.
* Apparent access to lots of coal.

Exhibits for Santa as Democrat:

* Gives people things. Often when not deserved.
* Believes in magic.
* Lead agent of a conspiracy to suck the religion out of Christmas.
* Grants wishes.
* Workaholic.
* Overlooks Rudolph's differences and makes him part of the team.
* Uses bio-fueled transport.
* Possibly unemployed.
* Many appearances in TV and movies -- works in entertainment.

# Has a happy marriage.
# Hangs out in malls, enjoys talking with children.
# Has facial hair.
# Jolly.
# Competent at his job.

So what say you -- and what's your evidence?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Guess the failure

So check it.

There's this guy, he's a rising political star in the state Democratic Party. He's a member of a visible minority who's looking to break barriers and become the first non-white elected governor of the state. His first campaign burns red-hot, and his inspiring personal story is a great launching pad. He came up from the poor and become a leader, and boy could he connect with people on the trail.

Mystery Guy becomes governor of his state by winning well over 50% of the vote, and has an enthusiastic cadre of supporters. The future is rosy, as the visionary is in charge. Almost immediately, the Gov starts getting national exposure, and is talked up. What's his limit? For all the rosy talk of the true believers and the hype machine, there's a problem. Turns out he makes some poor choices, and believe it or not for all the talk he's a pretty conservative Democrat. Makes curious choices on tough policy issues. He alienates many supporters, and...

Who do you think I'm talking about? Deval Patrick?

The answer is here (for more on the story, click here. It's up to you how far the parallels go.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Belgium Held Hostage: Resolved?

I have in the past posted some thoughts on the, um, situation in Belgium. Previous posts explain why Belgium hasn't had a federal government in nearly 200 days.

Today, I'll talk about the way out...sort of.

The "solution" is to punt. Current "outgoing" prime minister Guy Verhofstadt will remain PM until March 23rd, at which point presumptive PM Yves Leterme will take over. Mind you, possible coalition partners are starting to realize that this "plan" doesn't resolve their objection to Yves Leterme as Prime Minister, rather it delays their reckoning. In the article linked to, one Flemish party leader states in what I imagine is a "hey...wait a minute..." voice that there is no such thing as an interim government.

And that's the good news.

The bad news? Belgians are starting to parallel the break-up of Czechoslovakia in an important way. After the "Velvet Revolution" whereby Czechoslovakia became truly independent from the USSR/Russia, the country slowly and amicably broke into the two countries that exist today, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This break-up was actually driven by the top (rare for nationalist problems), and the elites' inabilities to work together eventually filtered down to the people of the country, who slowly came to agree with the idea of separation.

Well, this may be happening here. Belgians' greatest expression of nationalism has been over the transfer of massive funds from the Dutch-speaking Flemish to the French-speaking Walloons. This is economic regionalization, common around the world (happens in the US and Canada as well), but now Belgium is experiencing divisions over language. In addition to dislike for Yves Leterme for his ignorance of Walloon culture, now it's leaking into beauty pageants. This lovely French-speaking contestant at the "Miss Belgium" pageant is whistled and booed for her ignorance of Dutch. Such a thing would be unheard of three years ago:

In the developed world, division over language use and knowledge is the most pernicious and intractable symptom of a real problem, and we are seeing it here.

Posting will be light...baking

One of the essential Christmas activities is baking.

I won't give away too many secrets, but I will say the best new recipe to come to my attention this season has been the Chris Dodd family cookie recipe at Yankee Magazine (though I tend to add 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon of cloves, rather than the full teaspoon of cloves recommended in the recipe).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Why Smart Children Shouldn't Go to Public School I

One of my hugest, hugest pet peeves is the way that gifted and talented children are utterly ignored and robbed in the public education system. In what I expect will be an ongoing series of posts on this subject, I want to detail the extent to which our nation's policymakers have turned their backs on those young Americans with the greatest potential.

My first post will be a short list of straight numbers from a local school. These are authentic and confirmed, but I am not ready to reveal the source. In a given (and typical grade), here is the breakdown for the focus of the staff:

Staff description# personnel
"Regular ed" (all students) teachers12
"Regular ed" aides/assistants0
"Special ed" (learning disability) teachers3
"Special ed" aides/assistants)4
Gifted teachers/aides/assistants0

So these special ed students, who make up about 15% of the student population at this grade, have devoted to them over one third of the staff, including all aides and assistants.

Looking at the duty breakdown of the personnel, we get these numbers:
Ratio of regular ed students to devoted staff: 18 to 1
Ratio of special ed students to devoted staff: 5 to 1
Proportion of gifted students to devoted staff: ?? to 0

Gifted students get zero. This is a typical layout, and in later editions I will describe the laws -- and their selective interpretation -- that lead to such a situation. But the situation is this in a sentence: gifted students get zero.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Interesting People: Pope Benedict IX

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usHow does one pick just one Pope to focus on? You have Alexander VI, the "Borgia Pope" who was installed in 1492 and fathered four children while leader of the church. You have Pius IX, whose hand-picked prime minister was fatally stabbed in public, before angry pro-democracy protesters trapped Pius in his offices until he caved in to their demands. That doesn't even get into the crunchy legends such as Pope Joan. But for today, let's focus on Benedict IX.

What can you expect when a kid becomes Pope? Not much, even if that person becomes pope three times. Some tales have him becoming Pope at 20, others at...12. Actually, to put a finer point on it, the Catholic Encyclopedia calls him a "disgrace to the Chair of Peter. Well!

Benedict became Pope in 1032, when many Catholics were recovering from the letdown of not being Raptured/killed with the return of Jesus. At this time, the Papacy was basically a minor kingship, replete with its own troops and lands, so unsurprisingly the Chair was the subject of a great deal of maneuvering. Four years into Papacy -- about the time kids here get their learner's permits -- he was driven out of Rome by an angry mob. A friendly king re-seated Benedict, and a mob drove him off a second time.

And he came back. Decided he didn't like it, so his archpriest paid him a large sum of money to buy the Papacy from him, and became Pope Gregory VI. What was life like under Benedict IX. Accusations of homosexuality and even beastiality never went away, and he was excommunicated for simony ( selling holy offices). One future pope named him "a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest" and another named him "devoted to pleasure" according to the future Pope Victor III and then abbot.

So apparently, no matter what the current pope does, he won't even be the worst Benedict in history...

Obama's Momentum: Dead

Hillary Clinton is the New England Patriots of the presidential campaign cycle -- just awesomely awesome in awesomeness. Not that I like her, and she's not in my top three, but she knows how to run a campaign. And she just took Obama's best shot, and this is the brick wall he hit:

Indeed, Obama, [Clinton's] chief rival, inspired our imaginations. But it was Clinton who inspired our confidence. Each time we met, she impressed us with her knowledge and her competence.

The times demand results. We believe as president she’ll do what she’s always done in her life: Throw herself into the job and work hard. We believe Hillary Rodham Clinton can do great things for our country.

That is from the Des Moines Register the single most important endorsement in Iowa, and possibly the primary process. They hit up Edwards in 2004 (and abandoned him this time around!), which probably got him his second place finish in Iowa. What's odd about this is the Reg's history of endorsing candidates further back in the field, such as John Edwards in 2004 and Paul Simon in 1992. In both cases, the endorsement had a measurable affect. This ain't the Ragtime Daily, whose endorsements do nothing but stroke editors' egos. Iowans care about the Reg's endorsements.

And punch two in the ol' 1-2 is a first-ever endorsement from Congressman Leonard Boswell of Des Moines, the first caucus endorsement of his 28-year political career. The less-than-articulate Boswell said "She sees the need...You listen to what she's said and what she's done and what her experience factor is -- she gets things done so I'm endorsing. My family's endorsing with enthusiasm because we want to win and we've got to pull on the best experience we possibly can."

Seriously, people, do you want to be standing between Hillary and the presidency? That's why I fear for the next few months of Obama's campaign. This is a glimpse of what's comin'.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blogging Project Runway #5: Fat women gone skinny

Oooh...a challenge with real people! I love these, because it punctures the insular world where designers make ugly clothes for models, and everyone pretends that the result i beautiful. A challenge where people like what they like, not what they "should" like.

And, right on cure Christian announces "omigod, I'm gonna die". Maybe he's got that phrase copyrighted or something (though it is worth noting that he's cocky with the camera, but appropriately docile and humble before the judges, so he ain't stupid). And Victorya coming like a b-tch. Nice to see the pigeonholing is well underway with the contestants.

Sucks that Jack had to leave, but Chris is awesome. Glad he's back.
I also love the times when Tim Gunn walks into the design room with a "what the hhhhe..... is going on here?" look on his face.

I think Kevin should have won, and clearly he did, too. Ah well -- only one victory counts in this show.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Stars and Stripes American Food!

This is an idea that dawns on me every time I go out for "Chinese" food. I think it could go really far...

I want to go to Guangzhou and open up a "Stars and Stripes American Food". All of the front-room staff will ideally be ex-pat Americans. The walls will be filled with posters of cowboys on the plain, lighthouses on rocky shores, and palm trees. Takeout containers will be little suitcases with the Statue of Liberty on them. The menu will be in English and Chinese (and the English will say different things). Crazy drinks served in containers shaped like the heads from Mount Rushmore. Calendars will be sold with the Western zodiac on them. Remain open during all Chinese holidays.

But here's the catch -- serve only traditional Chinese food that your customers ordinarily eat -- little meat, lots of corn, rice, vegetables, etc. If needs must, add some ketchup or mustard to make it seem "real American". However, because everything is dressed up in the worst caricature of Americanism, it will become a niche restaurant and enormously popular.

Within a year, there'd by a Stars and Stripes American Food in every decent-sized village on the coast.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Weekend What-if: The Pilgrims don't make it

The Mayflower landed at Plymouth. There was a Rock involved. We learn that in second grade, if not earlier. Her sister ship the Speedwell didn't. We learn and forget that in second grade. What if the Mayflower similarly doesn't arrive in Plymouth? What then?

This gets to one of the great debates in history that will never truly resolve: is history shaped more by great individuals ("great men" theory), or are those individuals spit up by longer historical trends that are nigh irresistible by small groups ("longue durée" theory)? Through much of time until the 1940s/50s, "great men" was all the rage, then a typical academic overcompensation threatened to erase all traces of individual achievement -- particularly by white men -- in history.

My previous what-if makes clear my sympathies for the "great man" approach. Personally, I think that paths to power and influence are opened up by historical trends, but certain individuals take advantage of them, others don't. The world didn't stop on a dime when Churchill took over for Chamberlin; one was up to the job and the other wasn't. For every Tamerlane or Mansa Musa we hear about, there are a dozen wannabes who never get that far.

Free Image Hosting at
However, this is not one of those cases. The Europeans were coming to the Americas. and the Brits to this part. The British were not going to be stopped by a failure of some religious nuts, anymore than the failure of Roanoke stopped them. Plymouth had a great natural harbor, and native populations who were welcoming at first. Had the Pilgrims not made it, another group would have soon enough. And while some small differences would have occurred, in the sweep of history they wouldn't have mattered.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usThey don't have monuments or even a nice theme park, but in the end Massachusetts was settled due to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. As everything from Hudson Bay to India, it was a commercial venture that brought Europeans to Massachusetts, and those attractors -- natural harbor, friendly natives, workable conditions -- are independent of the Pilgrims' fate. Remember that there was a fishers' colony on Cape Ann in 1624, and that Mass. Bay was a going concern by 1629. Though they don't have the publicity that the Pilgrims do, Mass. Bay was ultimately more successful and was mated with Plymouth on and off again in 1643, 1686, and 1691, eventually uniting with it permanently.

So what changes if the Pilgrims never get out of England? Southeastern Massachusetts fills up more slowly. Nobody ever learns the name Squanto. Is SE Mass a British colony within 50 years? You betcha.

Blogging Project Runway #4

Well, nice to see that we're back to a reasonable challenge, one that I find interesting: turning old trends into something worth looking at again. I liked neon. That was cool.

Christian really greats on me. It's hilarious to see someone with thick-framed glasses and a butchered haircut denouncing old trends. Ten years from now, his current appearance will be as outdated as mustard-colored kitchen appliances. Live by the trend, die by the trend (personally, I stick with the tried-and-true tshirt and jeans). And every week we're greeted with him whining "Oh my God, I'm gonna die." Yes Christian, you are going to die, as are we all.

Raumi again stands out as a phlegmatic personality who seems to have some awareness of reality outside the fashion world, while Victoria is shaping up nicely as this season's b-tch. I wouldn't say Raumi is officially my favorite yet, but he's getting there.

I have no idea what makes collections consistent or not. None whatsoever. I can't disagree with the winner, though I will miss Kevin. He was the only overweight guy on the show,.

Interesting peek at next week's thing. I'm hoping it's fashion for seriously overweight people. Or perhaps Iraq War vets (that would be a feel-good tie-in).

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Why enjoy labor rights when you can implement bad policy?

So rich boy Paul Grogan has decided to buy himself a public policy. This week he announced almost a million dollars of bribe money was available to any school wishing to become a pilot school. What's a "pilot school"? Well it's a "school" in the tradition of public education about as much as is a group of fish. Pilot "schools" get to ignore any hard-won union regulations, treat staff like crap and shovel on more responsibilities, ignore the bizarro public policy requirements such as NCLB (you get to set your own graduation requirements), bypass nearly all district policies and decisions, and restructure away from a democratically elected school board.

So, Adrian Walker asks in the tone of the willfully ignorant, does the "union" not rush at the bait. (Of course, he means "groups of teachers democratically voting against such schemes", but Walker doesn't have the honesty to call it what it is.) The Boston Globe is annoyed at these "obstructionist" unions that have been creating an "ongoing struggle" to implement these gorgeous laboratories in amateur adventures in education. So let's see: pilot schools get to treat their workers however they like, firing, punishing, transferring, and manipulating staff at will while amping up their demands on staff with no warning. Who wouldn't take that deal?

Of course there need to be a lot of changes. But why rejecting bad public policy Strange, by the way, that we never see a pilot "school" that actually protects the academic integrity and personal rights of its workers, and just tries it without NCLB. It's almost as if school privatization reform advocates don't want to find out what happens when you get to teach children, rather than teach to a test. It's a false choice we're given: NCLB, or glorified temps as teachers.

NB: I don't like my local or national union (state chapter seems okay for the main part). But expecting me to give up any hard-won protections on my job just to fulfill Richie Rich's policy fantasy only makes sense if you know nothing about education.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Iowa Caucus: Failing International Standards for Democracy

According to the standards of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), the Iowa Caucuses of the Democratic Party likely lead to distorted results that may prejudice voters.

You see, for a candidate to receive any support that counts in a Democratic caucus in Iowa, s/he must be "viable". "Viable" means that 15% of the voters at the caucus support that candidate. So, if 28 of 200 voters at a particular precinct supported Chris Dodd, it doesn't count. In such an example, it doesn't matter if you have zero or 28 supporters, it comes out the same way.

The OSCE of course does not comment on the Iowa caucuses, but they have talked about high thresholds before:

The electoral system contains an unusually high threshold of 10% of the vote to achieve … representation … This leads to distortions, and concerns were expressed … that it unfairly prejudices [certain voters].


(I have excised the subject-specific notes, which concern the Turkish electoral system. The full quote is "The electoral system contains an unusually high threshold of 10% of the vote to achieve party representation in parliament. This leads to distortions, and concerns were expressed to the OSCE/ODIHR NAM that it unfairly prejudices Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin.")

While the Council of Europe has not ruled that this high threshold is inherently an obstacle to free and fair election, the fact remains that such high thresholds are not particularly democratic. The OSCE knows this...why can't the Democrats of Iowa figure it out?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Interesting People: The Washington Generals

During the Patriots' game last week against the Bills, a commentator compared the Pats to the Globetrotters and the rest of the league minus the Colts (and apparently the Eagles) to the "Washington Generals". Who are these people?

The Generals were the traveling team that would face the slapstick basketball team Harlem Globetrotters in their exhibition games. They weren't based in Washington anymore than the Globetrotters were in Harlem -- that was just their name. They were the Moe to the Globetrotters' Curly (except Curly wins all the time). The Globetrotters had great amounts of skill, no doubt, but much of their routine consisted of clowning – spinning the ball on the opponents' heads, drop kicking toward the basket, even eating a fake ball made of pumpernickel. I remember Generals getting pantsed out on the floor (though their website declares that all games are indeed real competitive matches).

Their only cognates in the sports world are the interchangeable no-name wrestlers who lose to the big acts in pro wrestling, and even they don't have as bad a deal. Imagine that you're losing not just once in a while, but every almost night. Losing bigtime, and without much dignity left over. Granted, the staging isn't as meticulous as in a wrestling match, but still… gotta act. Not only was the Generals' job to highlight the Globetrotters' comedy by playing straight basketball, and to have a pretension of competition in the match, but ya gotta act. The eightieth time that Meadowlark Lemon shoots a foul shot, but *snap* the ball comes back on elastics, you have to act surprised. Then you have to act a little upset that the refs don't call the violation, but not too upset. You have to be a good sport. By the ninetieth time the crowd starts laughing at me because a Globetrotter made me look like a fool, I'd be tempted to sock one of 'em.

Being a General means an hour of hustling, and then being forgotten. You're an extra in a comedy, except you're on-screen for the whole movie. Nobody knows who you are, but you're expected to give it all and leave it on the floor. How do you end up in such a career?

Some interesting stuff about the Washington Generals from various sources:

  • The Generals were incorporated separately from the Globetrotters, so were strictly never under the same controlling interest – they could have gone their separate ways if they so desired.
  • Early on, Globetrotters' opponents would merely change uniforms from town to town, appearing to be five different teams when they were just five sets of laundry.
  • They were one of the earliest professional teams to have a woman player. For example, sometime actress Nancy Lieberman was a General.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the Generals would actually have a real shot (see below). All the clowning does mean the Globetrotters do pass up some good shots, and it would catch up with them. In the early days, the Generals played to win and not a few times, fans didn't get much of a comedy show.
  • In 1962, the Generals beat the Globetrotters.

The Generals were traded in for the "New York Nationals": same owner (Red Klotz), new laundry.

Profile of Generals' owner Red Klotz

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blogging Project Runway #3

The mysterious new challenge: Menswear for running back Tiki Barber. This is like watching a show about 10 people competing for a slot on the Olympic swimming team, and then having an episode where they have to platform dive.

Of all the guys on this show, would you have guessed that Kevin was the only straight one? Me neither.

I feel for the contestants on this one. This is a bit unrelated -- to use another analogy that I have ripped off of legendary comedian Mitch Hedberg, it's similar to telling decent chefs to go out and farm.

I wouldn't mind getting maybe 3 of those combos (in my size, which would require major alterations). And this show is a good example of why it has to be about women's clothing: pants are pants. There's no real way to do anything adventurous with a suit, and fashion is limited to slightly different colors and a slightly narrower pocket. I'm looking forward to seeing the women's stuff back next week, and seeing a fairer show.

For next season, no people who've been "in the industry for years" -- raw undisciplined talent please. I'm moving toward adopting Raumi as my favorite for this competition.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Gather round my children, and I will tell tales of war...

As Thanksgiving passes, we gather round and and tell stories of the endless war. Poverty? Drugs? Terror? Nope. The War on Christmas. Some may say that war is glorious, but "war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it." Sure Spielberg makes it look glorious, but you be the one trapped in vines of garland as glass ornaments explode above you. You try assaulting the Fortress of Good with nothing but some sharpened holly leaves, poison oak fashioned to resemble mistletoe, and evil godless intentions. Tell me stories of it now!

Okay, that may be overwrought, kinda like the seasonal cries of conservatives that there is a "war on Christmas" is on. The way that cantankerous would-be soldiers in this war wish you a "Merry Christmas" with chin out and nostrils flaring, just daring you to respond with an insufficient "Happy Holidays!" The mind games they play with store clerks making $7/hour who will probably get laid off in a month. And the thing of it all is, though I am proud and firm in my atheism, I agree with them. But for different reasons.

Because I think that it is time to liberate the word "Christmas" from the dusty, mournful still-life mishmash of early religious writers trying to fill in backstory to make even older religious writers seem prescient. Happily, our culture has writ the joyful trumpeting of angels across this feast.

We've drowned out the ominous observance of the Saturnalis Christmas to remember the virgin birth of baby Mithra Jesus born in Nazareth Bethlehem to one day die and rise again to save mankind as is the duty of Adonis the Son of Man. Because in 2007, America's Christmas is more, and I would say better than that.

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usI love the music of it, the lights. I love candy canes and yes -- mistletoe. I love this joyful conspiracy to fête a jolly man who gives freely to those deserving, and embodies humankind on its best. I love that the Grinch's heart grew three sizes that day, that Keith Lockhart conducts the heck out of a Christmas concert, that I'm almost in my 30s and still have a stocking. So yes, wish me a Merry Christmas.

That is worth celebrating. The goodness of man being kind to man, people smiling and wearing silly hats. And if I'm wrong and there is a Jesus, I imagine that he'd be pretty pleased with what his birthday has become.*

* Yes, I'm ignoring the excess consumerism that drives people to go to stores at 4am the day after Thanksgiving. I ignore it in this post, and I ignore it in my life. I don't let anybody ruin my Christmas, especially Madison Avenue. But if you want some Christmas humbuggery, here's some stand-up from Jim Gaffigan for ya.

His Easter stuff isn't as funny as Eddie Izzard's, though:

Friday, November 23, 2007

One Reason I Liked the Mongols

Always get an interesting reaction when I talk about my interest in Mongol history. To a lot of people, the Mongols are a scary bunch of people. Now, while an assuredly lethal horde is certainly scary, at least one knew where one stood with them:

1. We want gold
2. You have gold
3. Give us your gold or you die

That I can understand, at least. The Mongols were pretty clear. Compare that with the vast majority of regional powers, who not only wanted the gold, but insisted that you structure your economy a certain way, that you develop your religion a certain way, etc., etc. At least the Mongols in Chinggis Khan's time left you alone.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A quick examination of the Republican mind

Two notable passages from this article on the rise of Mike Huckabee, who I think has an even shot to win Iowa:

"'He is articulate and articulates the conservative message very well'" says the head of the Iowa Christian Alliance.

better still:

"Huckabee's down-home style has proven effective, as has a record that many see as untainted by nuances and switches."

Granted, this from AP writer Mike Glover, but it's accurate. However, what does it say that the key to winning Republicans' hearts is a lack of awareness of nuance?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Nauset had the right idea

The first time the Pilgrims landed in the New World, they put down anchor in modern Provincetown. The Native Americans in the area of the Nauset nation ran them off rather quickly.

Almost four centuries on, it looks like they had the right idea. For more on the "alternate" view of Thanksgiving, here's an excellent diary on DailyKos.

Blogging Project Runway #2

Episode Two of the best reality show going. Last week they dispatched my initial favorite in favor of a dress that looked like cetacean effluvium. We're promised a "fashion icon" for this week, who will probably be some washed-up C-lister in between rehab stints. Or a corpse or animal or something dumb like that. Huh, it's Sarah Jessica Parker. Not bad.

Funny thing is, two-thirds of the time the models look better on the runway in those little black dresses that the crap they're sent out during the competitions (and I think Lauren is the cutest by a mile).

I love that they give the designer $15 to buy fabric, and then send them to shop at a high-end place? Why not go to, oh, Fabric Place?

Sarah Jessica Parker comes off really well in this episode. Approachable, friendly...frankly more everyday and human that the designers. When Heidi Klum says "everyday woman" you know she means "fat woman".

Hm...I liked the teal dress better than the winning outfit, but what do I know. I am glad they dispatched that burlap sack though...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Conspiracies: Something I Never Got

I never got the whole conspiracy theory thing. Take the Manhattan Project (overview that's not Wikipedia here). Six thousand people half a century ago, cut off from civilization, monitored and isolated from the world to build the atom bomb. And the Soviets knew about it anyway through George Koval. (And new friendly not-USSR Russia awarded him more honorsthis year.)

So in the age before the Internet, cell phones, or high-speed chases, this small project still leaked out. People couldn't keep their mouths shut, and/or were betrayed due to ideology.

But I'm supposed to believe that reptilian overlords run the Earth. In Satan's service, natch.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Belgium held hostage: Day 161

35,000 people marched for more government! (for English coverage, try Flemish news service flandersnews). The situation alluded to earlier has worsened, and I explain in more detail why below...

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.usBelgium has two versions of federalism. One based on regions (in this map, Dutch-speaking Flanders in yellow, French-speaking Wallonia in red at bottom, and French-speaking Brussels is the red dot in the sea of yellow.)

Also, the country is divided into linguistic communities -- French, Dutch, and German (the blue stuff on the right). In an interesting experiment, these legislatures are non-territorial. A registered francophone living in Flanders votes for seats in the French-speaking parliament.

This is the loosest constitutional federalism in the developed world. In addition to such typical competences as education and language, these smaller units also have strong sway over justice and some departments of international relations (that's right -- the two larger sections of Belgium run largely independent foreign policies in some arenas).

This political bifurcation of Belgium has gone all the way to the political apparatus at this point. There is no national political party in the country as everyone -- Greens, Socialists, Liberals, etc., is divided into two groups that work together. So you have les socialistes and die socialistiche. French-speaking parties run only in French-speaking areas and vice versa.

While some parties worked more closely with their partner than others (Green MPs would even take their parliamentary oath in their second language), one could usually expect all Belgiane Liberals or all the Socialists to support a common candidate, giving that person a working coalition.

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Until Yves Leterme came along. He is among the first whose career flowered during this divisive time. "Mr. Flanders" as he's known is a popular figure in Dutch-speaking Flanders...and unknown in Wallonia. So, when he introduces himself by, say, not knowing the French words to the Belgian national anthem and humming "Le Marsaiellaise" instead, well it's bad mojo. Imagine a New England presidential candidate ignorant of Jefferson Davis, Fort Sumter, and NASCAR all rolled into one. That's what we got with Yves. Oh, and he's ignorant of the French-based origin of the Belgian equivalent of July 4th. Video below for French-speakers:

Now the 40% of the Belgian political establishment that is French-speaking loathes him. About 40% of the Flemish-speaking establishment already detested him because of his take-no-prisoners climb to the top. It's tough to build a coalition when the top vote-getter was alienated two-thirds of the country. Their best hope for a prime minister is hated much more that tolerated.

What will happen next is open to question. The king (yes, they have one) has tried to bring people together to no avail. New elections would likely be a boon for the smaller nationalist parties. A sacrifice of Leterme is not impossible.

But have you heard about massive waves of starvation? Panic in the Belgian countryside? Of course not -- because it seems increasingly that the federal government plays the same role in Belgium as county government in Massachusetts -- nice to have but not horribly, necessary.

The geographical and linguistic communities handle most domestic chores. The Brussels-based Europe Union does monetary, financial and increasingly foreign policy (and the Belgian elite love the idea of the EU), and Brussels-based NATO directs what armed forces they have.

Whether this is the end of Belgium, stumbling to dissolution as did Czechoslovakia is possible. Unlikely says I, but possible. In any case, an interesting story...

Crossposted at the Bluest of the Blue: Blue Mass Group

Friday, November 16, 2007

Interesting People: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

From time to time, I'll do a post in the category "Interesting People". These will mainly be people who got a flare of media attention, then burned out. But their story is still fascinating and may even be ongoing still. I find such people interesting because of the extremes of human experience they plumb. See how that all works?

The "interesting person" of the moment is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and his extreme is survival. In his lifetime, Hekmatyar has counted Iran, Pakistan, the Taliban, and the United States as allies at different times. Naturally he lives in Afghanistan, where he was prime minister on two different occasions and was a murderer at 25. Ronald Reagan called him a "Founding Father" of Afghanistan. A good introductory biography of him can be found here, though it ends before the current era in Afghanistan.

Briefly, Hekmatyar is a warlord of the classic mold, controlling a heroin-fueled empire in Western Afghanistan. He sided with the United States after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Later, he would work with Pakistan to push the Taliban into power. When the Taliban were on the run, he resumed his middle stance. Just this week, American troops were active in his region. Though not fighting against us, Hekmatyar is apparently feeling quite bold lately. Frankly, I don't care what Bush or CNN say -- if Hekmatyar is heading toward a more active role, this says volumes about our current position in the region. While he was never an ally of the United States, he always held back from direct confrontation. That may be changing.

In a country were battle fatalities and assassinations are common ways of dying, this man is on his third or fourth war. He switches sides like a drunk American at a FIFA soccer match, and even after being designated a "global terrorist" by the American government, he's still at large. Hekmatyar could write a book about "surviving in the corporate war zone" and make a bundle.

My favorite pander of the week

In case you missed it:

"To get elected, I need your support. And North Dakota can play a big role."

-- Rudy Giuliani

As goes Wahpeton, so goes...suburban Wahpeton (moo).

Weekend What-if: A Mongol Invasion

On weekends, I'll endeavor to present a "what-if". I love alternate history...the attempt to extrapolate what would have happened if such-and-such had unfolded differently in history. Less alliterative but more to the point is the idea of a "near-miss". Despite the best attempts of the history education industry to present history as a procession of inevitable events, so much of what happened turned on surprising moments of fate.

This week's what-if: What If the Mongols Had Proceeded With Their Planned Invasion of Europe?

Free Image Hosting at"What happened: 1242 -- the Mongols had brought the Muslim world (mainly Turks and Persians) to its knees, and pointed toward Europe. Whereas the Mongols were initially regarded by some Christians as allies in the struggle against Islamic states, this less tame Horde now became symbols of the devil. Under the leadership of the master strategist and general Sabutai (pictured here, from a Chinese print), the forces of the Mongol army streamed into Europe through Polish armies and were setting up outside of Vienna. When word of the khan's death arrived, however, the army turned, and raced back to the homeland, leaving destruction in its wake. The Mongols never returned. Christians naturally chalked it up to the intervention of God.

What would have happened?

First, leave behind any notion that anyone save the Mongols could have stopped the Mongols. Every single member of the army was mounted on horses that had raced through the steppes, and the typical Mongol boy received his first bow at 3. The European armed forces would have done little to stop the Mongols had they all been combined. Furthermore, a network of informants had given Sabutai a sense of the ragged relations in this appendage of Asia, and experience in Russia showed that the Mongols were quite able to turn possible allies against each other.

Following the typical image of Mongols in history, most people would theorize thusly: "horrible pillage and destruction by these crazed barbarians. Needless slaughter would have ruled Europe, and civilization would grind to a halt until the Mongols overextending themselves and being killed in turn."

Wrong. First off, the Mongols would occasionally destroy an entire city. They had little use for cities -- our best sources indicate that Chinggis (Genghis) Khan entered a building once in his lifetime. However, sacking a city was intended largely as a message. Sacking one city thoroughly could cause the next five to surrender, perhaps causing less bloodshed overall. Europe was pushing the limits of Mongol (Arctic, Egypt, Vietnam, and Japan) and it is unlikely that the Mongols would have gone much further than the Germanic states and Northern Italy.

Positives: By this stage in their history, the Mongols had adopted a form of vassalism and, as happened in China, often permitted the life in the towns and cities to continue provided they got their cut. So we could anticipate a break in the centuries of internecine Christian struggles would have been paused for a while. Furthermore, the unbroken exchange of culture and learning through Europe, the Muslim World, and China would have accelerated Europe's technological advance. The Mongols would likely have been assimilated eventually as happened de facto with the rulers of China and the "Golden Horde" in Russia.

Negatives: Mongols would have sucked up a lot of the riches that historically went to European scientific and cultural advance. Progress on these fronts would have stilled, particularly given the lack of Mongol tradition in the arts.

Possibles: Regarding religion, Chinggis Khan had started a tradition of religious tolerance -- mainly to avoid the loss of treasure caused by wars over religion. A tribe uninterested in the Catholic Church's spiritual authority would have hurt that institution's power, particularly in Germany. With a willingness to tolerate Christian "heresy" and disinterest in allowing a Catholic Church to stamp it out, the Reformation could have unfolded sooner, more rapidly, and with less bloodshed.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Statements I Question: Barack Obama

At the 11th second of this television ad, Barack Obama says something curious:

"I don't accept that we should be still sending $800 million a day, part of it to hostile nations because of our addiction to foreign oil."

Now, I dislike our addiction to foreign oil (as does Obama considering that he -- gasp! -- made a speech!). But who are these "hostile nations" who sell us oil or petroleum? This DOE table lists our top petroleum sellers in Sept. 07, in thousands of barrels:

1. CANADA 2,467
3. MEXICO 1,429
4. VENEZUELA 1,325
5. NIGERIA 1,181
6. ALGERIA 701
7. IRAQ 603
8. ANGOLA 591
10. RUSSIA 348

Okay, let's see. The Virgin Islands are American. Canada and Mexico are staunch allies.

The people of Saudi Arabia and Iraq may dislike us, but their governments are close to us.

The Chavez v. Bush thing is great theatre, but the Venezuelan economy is utterly dependent on oil sales to the United States. In words our governments are mortal enemies, but Venezuela has never seriously threatened our country.

The State Department has only good things to say about our relations with Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria.

Our choices are four:
1. Obama doesn't understand from whom we import petroleum;
2. Obama thinks nations are hostile that are not;
3. Obama is publicly calling out the Putin government as a "hostile nation" (likely correct but astoundingly undiplomatic)
4. Obama thinks voters are too stupid to listen to what he actually says.

Take your pick.

Belgium Held Hostage: Day 158

On June 10, 2007, the people of Belgium voted. After the votes were tallied, Belgians probably expected the politicians to, you know, form a government. Sometime soon. As in, before 2008.

Belgium is on its 158th day without a government. Why, well it's...complicated. Or if you prefer this in Belgian: compliqué/ingewikkeld.

Most of Belgium speaks Flemish Dutch, about a third of the country speaks French (a fraction speaks German, but they don't count). And never the twain do meet. No political party runs in both linguistic communities -- it's one or the other. So a man or woman can end up hugely famous in Flanders and be completely unknown in French-speaking Wallonia. Which makes it kind of awkward if you're that guy -- Yves Leterme -- and you want to be Prime Minister, and half of your putative government has barely heard of you. Throw in ignorance of your own country's national anthem in its secondary language, and you have yourself no government.

Meanwhile, the French and Dutch linguistic regions merrily continue to set their own budgets, run their own schools (free of the hillbilly attempts at federal interference we have here) and conduct their own foreign policies. That's right -- parts of Belgium can have different foreign policies. And above all that the European Union runs other things.

Maybe they don't need a Prime Minister, which is good -- they don't have one.

On the other hand, they do have excellent French Fries.
Mayonnaise required.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Blogging Project Runway #1

Guilty pleasures...Christina Aguilera's music...old Dilberts...Project Runway. It amazes me that someone can take a length of fabric, go into a room, and produce an amazing garment. In about the time it takes me to sew on a button.

Season 4 preliminary notes:
  • Tim Gunn is the only television fashion person I would trust.
  • Heidi Klum is sexier pregnant than Tyra Banks is...anytime.
  • Can we not give it to the freak with poor interpersonal skills this season?
  • On reality shows, I always end up rooting for the talented woman with the nasty personality (Susan Hawk, Wendy Pepper, Laura Bennett)
We've really gone from a show where undiscovered locals get discovered to a show where D-list designers hope to become A- or B-list designers. That's a disappointment, especially since the ridiculous affectation quota has exploded. I get it--you got a wacky hairstyle and crazier personality, and maybe that'll get you far for ratings' sake, but it doesn't make you more talented or less annoying.

It sticks in my craw that the most prominent show on BravoTV had the fabrics for its first challenge "donated". Drop the cash for the bloody fabric already, and if the fabric store wants to donate something, they can throw some coin at a deserving non-profit.

Half these outfits were basically burqas with a short hem. I don't really know from fashion, but I guess I always thought that clothes are supposed to, y'know, make the wearer look good. Which isn't "chic" according to the judges.

(The most amusing part is the anti-climactic moment of the show after they announce the winner. "Okay, runner-up, you're in but you already knew that. Now get out of here so we can dispatch the loser." )

Final verdict: Elisa's explanation is full of it, and her dress reminded me of a blue whale doing #2. I liked Raumi's gray dress (draping with the flower) and agree that he's the winner. I liked Simone...the only contestant I could imagine talking with as a real person. Oh well.

Hollywood to 10% of America: go screw

The "free hand" of the market, my schuchis. I'm a progressive atheist, and ain't nobody serving me or my 30 million fellow freethinkers. Jon Stewart and Keith Olberman is all we got (and even that is only halfway) meanwhile the dingbats have cable channels, industries, and a conduit to a government jobs program through a "university" that offers a course on "The Christian Role in the Arts today". More on that later, but first, about books.

There are books, then there are books. There are books that are a good read, something to make a subway ride go by quickly. There are books perfect for rainy Saturdays (I remember an entirely satisfying rain-pelt weekend plowing through The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson) and short vacations.

Then there are books. Books where you have to put the object down to savor the story. Books where part of you wants to sniff the page, because the prose is so electric that the paper itself should be transformed. When I think of the idea of a book, my mind goes to Philip Pullman's textured, dolent and fearless trilogy His Dark Materials.

The story as a whole is sweeping, and is a moving indictment of organized religion. The characters strive to tear down the Kingdom of Heaven, and replace it with a "Republic of Heaven". In the process, you have armored polar-bears, soulful witches, fearless miniscule spies, all leading up to some bittersweet.

But enough of that, let's go into the story. I won't go so far as and call the books "anti-religion" but they certainly don't swallow religion as a system whole. A recent treatment in Atlantic Monthly matches what we've seen from elsewhere: a desperate Hollywood, deathly afraid of Bullies with Bibles., shaved off the parts of the book that question religion (naturally, this didn't please the whining brats, who still stamp their feet at such horrid freethought running amok)

On a personal level, this is horrid. I love these books, and while I did not expect a 100% faithful (heh) adaptation, I was hoping that enough of the story would be preserved that I would be able to enjoy the cinematography in peace. Instead, they ripped out the series' center and meaning. This is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe without Aslan coming back to life, Citizen Kane without the sled, The Wizard of Oz without a Yellow Brick Road.

But can someone explain to me why it was so horrid that a movie with a huge built-in audience (the series is number 42 on the Barnes & Noble best-seller list) should remain true to the story? So horrid that a movie that discusses theology rather than ignores it or venerates it be made? That a movie that beautifully draws a world following the beliefs of about 30 million or so non-theists in this country be allowed to exist? Is evil atheist pop Hollywood that scared of a bunch that are only happy when they're sulking and being offended? I've waited 5 years for the movie, and we get...this.

Which stinks.

I wish there was a happier ending, but there isn't. Which makes sense, because being an atheist in modern America...


(PS: If you love the Narnia books, and are of stout heart, read Pullman's essay about them.)