Saturday, May 31, 2008

This is not Nam

I’ve been negotiating with myself for 6 weeks or so about whether or not it’s cool to write this post, and I had pretty much decided that it wasn’t – despite the persistent seductiveness of a comparative Clinton-Mugabe riff, I’m no hatchet man. Zimbabwe roils with political violence, intimidation, and political and military capture of the electoral process that we could never see in our country as currently constituted.

Hillary Clinton, however, has stepped on my last nerve. Really. Only in her world, in which she is badly in need of some sleep, or a vacation, or something to get her head put back on her shoulders, could failing to count the votes from an election for which the rules said that the votes would not be counted be analogous to what Robert Mugabe is in the process of doing again in Zimbabawe.

Let’s be crystal clear here, because the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the DNC is meeting today to decide what to do with the Michigan and Florida delegates, and while they may settle on some pragmatic outcome that moves the party towards a healing conclusion to this bewildering odyssey, any outcome other than exactly that one which was promised by the rules under which the election was held is a travesty.

I’m a sucker for elections being done properly, so let’s review the theory. Here’s how an election works:
• Step One: Everyone agrees on a process for picking a winner. This is a very important first step – it’s the reason that, in the end, though some people have to be governed by someone other than the person by whom they wanted to be governed, pretty much everyone agrees to be governed by that person.
• Step Two: Votes are cast and counted in accordance with the system that everyone agreed to in Step One.
• Step Three: The outcome is declared according to the rules laid out in Step One, and followed in Step Two.

Common trouble spots include:
• The rules agreed to in Step One are not followed in Step Two. This is very common, nearly universal to some extent. The US-led global melt down of this decade, for example, can be traced back to this type of hiccup.
• The rules agreed to in Step One are followed in Step Two, but the loser declared by Step Three complains that they were not, or in some cases, obscures what happened in Step Two. This is less common, but really bad. This is Zimbabwe.
• The rules agreed to in Step One are followed in Step Two, but the loser declared by Step Three complains that there was something wrong with Step One. This is also very rare, but a favorite of players in a democracy that is strong enough to prevent retroactive messing with Step Two. This is what is happening in Washington DC today.

Seriously, though, this is not a laughing matter, and I want to assert that my position has little or nothing to do with my Obama supportiveness. Well, that’s not exactly true. This is why I’m an Obama supporter. I don’t think my candidate would do what she’s doing. I settled on Barack when, last summer, she criticized him for saying he’d be open to meeting with Ahmadinejad, and he stuck to his guns. My respect for her was vast, but then she did that, she said she would not have stayed at Trinity United Church, she did the gas tax thing, she did the “hard-working Americans, white Americans” thing, and she did the RFK thing. And she is persistently willing to stake the case for her nomination on an election in which her opponent was not on the ballot, which was in accordance with the rules governing that contest. Here, I’m gonna say it: Hillary, if anyone is reading the Mugabe playbook, it’s you.

Bill says her best path to the presidency might now be the vice-presidency. I’d prefer a running mate who is focused on winning right now. I don’t trust her. I don’t want her anywhere near the ticket.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Monkeys Have Telekinesis

Monkeys have telekinesis. Well, not really. But this is fascinating.

My first instinct was to think about the impact of this study on the body mind question (really an age-old area of questions in philosophy: what is the nature of the mind? What is the nature of the mental causation of physical actions?). But it is largely an engineering breakthrough. Not to minimize; it’s an incredible engineering breakthrough. But for quite a while now, we’ve known that muscles work with electric impulses, transmitted by nerves, and having their origin in the brain. The interpretation/realization of these impulses is now mysterious only insofar as it is scientifically complex.

Obviously, science has not yet completely eviscerated the brain of its mystery. The signals powering the prosthetics in this experiment are pretty far down the causal chain. Thoughts directing actions come only after intent, identification, and a whole host of other thoughts not directly related to action (such as those driving a rambling, sprawling blog post). Those thoughts must still have some fundamental electrical basis, right? What would it be for a machine to start reading those thoughts, to get aboard the chain a little earlier? Actually I suppose this is what we’d call artificial intelligence – crossing over from a machine simply following instructions to a machine forming intentions (perhaps based on pre-programmed meta-intentions, but still…).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I love to cry at graduations

At my sister Becca’s graduation from Brown yesterday (I remember when she was just knee high to a grasshopper, which is not to say that she isn't still really short, which she is), a young Swedish woman named Olivia Olsen, who studied literary translation during her time as an undergrad, gave one of the two senior orations. She spoke about translating as a way to bridge across cultures. She relayed an image crafted by a great 20th century Swedish poet named Tomas Transtromer, who, writing to friends on the other side of the iron curtain, described his thoughts as an airship floating above terrestrial, political walls.

It was an excellent speech that, if it was at times unable to avoid the call of the platitudinous with which the moment of graduation seduces virtual all speakers, was notable to me for one turn of phrase in particular. Describing the political barriers of our time as an echo of Transtromer’s walls in his time, she said “these walls are not metaphorical, but they begin in our minds.” I’ve always said that Brown and Sweden makes a winning team.

The least metaphorical of the walls she was talking about – though perhaps somewhat virtual, right? – is the one along the Mexican-American border, so it was to that one that my mind turned, and to the news I had read on Saturday: that 270 mostly Guatemalan illegal immigrants had been, in the space of four days, detained, charged as criminals, brought in for hearings in makeshift temporary courtrooms, 10 at a time, and sentenced to 5 months in prison, to be followed by deportation.

My waitress two mornings ago, immigrant herself, saw me shaking my head as I read the story. I looked up at her as she re-filled my coffee mug and she asked “What can I do?” I didn’t know what to say. Immigration is, to me, the most complex of political issues; I don't know whether or not those who were rounded up in the raid should be allowed to work here. But what walls in our minds indeed, that we can call these people criminal, and that we can deny them due process, in America.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Memorial Day Meditation

My cynicism is a voracious and healthily metastasizing one, but it always meets its match on Memorial Day. When I hear the claim that a solider in Iraq died for “freedom” – especially searing when it comes from his/her mother, and perhaps most searing when it comes directly from the soldier him/herself via the “should something happen” letter – I want to believe the claim. At the very least, I wouldn’t dare dispute it. But how can I reconcile this with my belief that the Iraq war is the most ill-founded, ugly, futile thing this country has endeavored during my lifetime? This quandary puts tremendous pressure on the “I support the troops, not the war” formulation. Is that formulation a trick of rhetoric, or is it a substantive claim that really means something?

At first glance, it may seem that the metaphysical status of a soldier’s death does depend on the metaphysical status of the war. If you claim that a war lacks such status or value – let’s say justness, or righteousness – then how can you allow that the engagement of a soldier in that war upholds those (or similar) values? Particularly if that soldier’s “engagement” in the war is his/her death, the potential exists of giving in to the powerful emotional - but nonetheless nonintellectual and therefore illegitimate - instinct to grant worthy status to the soldier’s death.

But what is the internal experience of a soldier who believes s/he is engaged in a righteous war? What is the nature of his/her “sacrifice”? I think we can think of it in contractual terms – the soldier is willing to die to uphold certain values. It is this exchange that makes us invoke heroic concepts of selflessness and courage. When we are evaluating this act, it’s the thought that counts. What we celebrate is, given the worthy metaphysical status of the war, the decision taken and personal sacrifice made by the soldier. The actual truth of the claim that the war has worthy status does not enter into it.

All this is not to be overly glib or romantic about war. Soldiers’ reasons for enlisting and fighting are many and varied; they do not all believe in the justness of the war. And there are especially troubling class considerations that undermine the above “contractual” model of freely offered self-sacrifice. It's not rich kids over there.

Decoupling the metaphysical status of individual soldiers and that of the war not only frees us to honor soldiers but also to sharpen our indictment of the war. Most notably, it helps us rebut the “don’t let them have died in vain” argument (since the administration is always in the market for a retroactive war rationale).

In conclusion: Dear Soldiers, Thank you for everything you've done. Dear Administration, You are a Jerk.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Two Pickleworthy musings from the rock and roll show I attended tonight.

1) A new coinage: fro radius. Obvious, self-explanatory meaning, yet new and useful. Adopt away.

2) In (very) oblique reference to the current conversation on sexism: when one of the bands came out on the stage, I immediately thought they had a very throwback look, though I couldn't figure out why. In a minute or two, I did: it was all dudes.
The co-ed band trend is still in the waxing stage I hope, particularly for bands which have co-ed vocals (e.g. The Submarines, The Fiery Furnaces or Pickle darlings The Stars). These ones at least pay aesthetic dividends far beyond the barrier-breaking ones.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Politics and Aid in Burma

The Pickle is tickled to have this cameo post from our friend Peter Richards, who has followed the situation in Burma for several years. - LR

On May 2nd, Cyclone Nargis slammed into the Irrawaddy Delta of Burma, killing an estimated 100,000 people. The ruling junta in Burma is only allowing a trickle of outside aid to reach the devastated area. The possibility of an outbreak of cholera or dysentery threatens to make this already horrific humanitarian disaster much, much worse.

Why has the international community failed to convince the Burmese government to open its borders to humanitarian aid? The root of the problem is the hyper-paranoia of the military junta. Ever since the monk-led protests of August 2007, the regime has been obsessed with preventing further internal instability. Allowing large-scale government and non-government aid into the country, it fears, might loosen its vice-grip on the country.

But the junta’s willingness to pursue self preservation at all costs should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, this has been their modus operandi from day one. The more difficult question is: why is China—the only country with any real influence over the junta—refusing to pressure Burma into opening its borders?

On the one hand, the Chinese government has become increasingly concerned with its image as it assumes a higher profile on the world stage, and particularly this year as we approach the Beijing Summer Olympics Games. China, therefore, has strong motivation to act the part of the good global citizen in order to counter the continual criticism of its human rights record, most notably its questionable handling of the recent protests in Tibet.

But on the other hand, there are a number of factors complicating this dilemma for China, pressuring them towards a policy of fully backing the Burmese government. For starters, they now have their own natural disaster to contend with, understandably drawing their focus away from the tragedy in Burma. There is also the straight-forward political consideration of defending their ally/client-state against outside pressure. Angering the Burmese government by pressuring them to buckle to international pressure has real (though not unmanageable) consequences for China.

And then, perhaps most easily overlooked, there is China’s opposition to the idea of unilateral humanitarian intervention. Or, seen another way, there is the Chinese government’s strong interest in upholding the principle of absolute state sovereignty. Looking ahead, the Chinese anticipate more trouble in Tibet, and any weakening of the principle of absolute state sovereignty that might emerge as a byproduct of a successful unilateral relief operation in Burma would make dealing with further unrest in Tibet much more problematic for them.

After the threat of a Chinese security-council veto, U.N.-authorized unilateral humanitarian intervention in Burma appears to be off the table…at least for the time being. So what’s to be done? Unfortunately, the options aren’t great. The Bush administration will continue to try to convince the junta of its good intentions, but probably won’t get very far. Meanwhile, the flow of aid will likely be determined more by purely political calculations that are dependent upon events occurring on the ground. Ultimately, I predict the junta (and China) will allow just enough aid to get through to keep the ‘unilateral humanitarian intervention option’ off the table. In other words, if conditions deteriorate considerably, I expect more aid to get through, but only just enough to prevent total catastrophe. Bottom line, the amount of aid will continue to fall well short of what is required to help all those in need.

Politics, per usual, continues to get in the way of doing what’s right. We can lay much of the blame at the feet of the paranoid Burmese regime that cares only for its own survival, and at those of the cold-hearted Chinese regime that is primarily concerned with its own interests. But the United States and the human rights community in general need to examine their own role in politicizing humanitarian aid and creating an atmosphere of distrust that complicates the political mess, preventing aid from flowing freely.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Long Awaited First Baseball Post on The Pickle

But it’s not what you think.

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Brewers signed second-year outfielder Ryan Braun to an 8 year, $45 million contract. In mid-April, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays locked up rookie third baseman Evan Longoria (non-baseball fans who haven’t heard this name before, enjoy), after only a handful of games in the bigs, with a 9-year, $47 million deal. There are two things you have to know to understand why these contracts are so remarkable.

First, here are the basics of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. For the first three years of a player’s service in the major leagues, teams can pay him an escalating league minimum, which is a little less than half a million per year – nothing to sneeze at, but well below open market value for the services of a good player. For the second three years, players are arbitration-eligible, which means that they and the team can take salary figures to arbitration, which is supposed to result in a deal that is close to market value. In practice, salaries in arbitration years tend to be a bit below market value, and they are usually only one-year contracts, so the team bears no risk, and the player bears all the risk. So all told, MLB and the players union have agreed to restrictions on the market for players that protect the investment that teams have made in developing young talent – for six years.

The second thing you have to understand – and I suspect that most of Pickle Nation has read Moneyball, so this is not going to be new – is that baseball teams in small markets compete with less money to pay players than do their big market competitors. Revenue-sharing has helped to moderate the disparity a little, but it’s still true that the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Tigers, Mets, and Angels can field payrolls north of $150 million per year, whereas the Devil Rays, Brewers, Marlins, and Pirates have to keep it around $50 million.

Which brings us back to Longoria and Braun. These guys may well develop into superstar, face-of-the-franchise type talents, but Longoria has done literally nothing on the major league stage, and Braun only has a year under his belt, so it’s an incredible risk that their teams are taking – with a thin payroll, they are agreeing to pay more now to avoid paying a lot more during the arbitration years, and ultimately likely losing the best player on the team to free-agency just as he is in his prime. If they do turn out to be great players, it’s a strategy that gives the Rays and the Brewers the financial flexibility they need to add more pieces to a solid core, and to compete for a championship. That’s a recipe that could work – a core of young stars making good money, but less than they could make on the open market, a couple of fresh additions coming up through the minor leagues, and a few higher priced free agents that the team can now afford. That’s a recipe for a championship.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that Braun and Longoria might not contribute, or worse, they might get hurt. The Sox and Yankees don’t have to take that kind of risk. In the past, no teams would – contracts of this length are very rare, and unheard-of for players so far from free-agency. But if you don’t have the money to sign proven producers, and if you aren’t willing to take a risk, you’re going to tend to suffer the same fate that the league’s small market teams have suffered: on occasion, you see a young team getting hot in the fall and riding momentum to the World Series, but for the most part, rich teams make the playoffs, and rich teams win in the playoffs. The Braun and Longoria deals seem to signal a new, riskier strategy that small market teams hope will yield a higher return.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Wednesdays in May in DC

Pickle Nation -

Two exciting events in Washington DC this Wednesday and next:

1) Tomorrow, 5/14: Joshua Segall for Congress Meet and Greet.
Josh is running for congress from the Alabama 3rd, against incumbent R Mike Rogers. It's a swing district, and Josh is generating a lot of noise with a strong first quarter fundraising effort and outstanding candidate skills. He's in DC for the week making the rounds, and he's doing a meet and greet at 2905 Woodland Drive, from 6:30pm - 8:30pm tomorrow. RSVP to

2) Wednesday 5/21: Karaoke We Can Believe In!
Regular Pickle Reader Julie James front a live-band karaoke band that is doing a fundraiser for Obama. Details:
What: Raving-mad live band karaoke for Obama
When: Wednesday, May 21, 8pm (and ending by 11:30, so don't come too late)
Where: Wonderland Ballroom, 1101 Kenyon St. NW (11th and Kenyon)
Price: $20 benefiting Obama for America (i.e., the Obama campaign)
Check out this link for more details, and to RSVP:

Monday, May 12, 2008

Financial Contagion

My latest excuse for a weeklong posting holiday has been the pursuit of a job as a correspondent on The Daily Show. Alas, I didn't get it, but here, because of its political angle and actually some word coinage, is the piece I wrote as part of my audition.

JON: On Sunday, Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, said Wall Street’s credit crunch is over, and that our economy may be in the clear. For more on this, we go to Luvh Rakhe. Luvh, what’s the story?
LUVH: Jon, man, don’t make me re-live this.
J: Huh? No, I just thought Wall Street had serious issues.
L: Okay, Luvh, you can do it.
So, Jon, by now you know the ugly truth, right? Wall Street has a bit of a past, got with a lot of subprime lenders over the recent years. Like, a lot. More than even the rumors.
J: Did you say “got with”?
L: Had dealings, had financial, you know, intercourse.
J: Obviously.
L: Well, as it turned out, these lenders - the technical term is Super Leveraged Underwritten Transactors, or SLUT’s, had a bit of instability. Of course, Wall Street never really asked about it before it got with them. Didn’t check it out, definitely didn’t use protection. “Not my style, babe.”
That’s what she says, never get tired of hearing that one.
J: Who’s “she,” Luvh?
L: She, Jon. Wall Street. Just using a feminine pronoun to describe an inanimate object, as you would a country, or a ship.
Before you know it, she has the instability. Passes it along to whoever she gets with, student loan providers, public pension funds, whether they’re a SLUT or not. Then they pass it along - you could be unstable right now and not even know it! Just one day, pow! you get this phone call.
J: Are there symptoms to watch out for?
L: If you’re experiencing irrational exuberance, or especially employee discharge, you want to get that checked out.
Anyway. That’s all in the past now. As you said up top, Wall Street’s got a clean bill of health. And it’s not like we can go out and find another financial system, so we should just try and be cool with it.
J: But Luvh, according to what you said, there still may be an underlying problem. Shouldn’t some protections be put in place on Wall Street, to keep this from happening again?
L: Why bother, Jon? She’s not gonna change. And now we all got the instability. It is what it is.
J: So no lesson to learn?
L: Only this: Everyone you have financial intercourse with, it’s like you’re having financial intercourse with everyone they’ve had financial intercourse with. Get checked out.
J: Thank you, Luvh.
L: Seriously, Jon, you should get checked out. Head down and get a free credit report, whatever.
J: Me personally?
L: Well, remember, a couple months ago, you and I both enrolled in that Roth IRA...?
J: Luvh Rakhe, everyone.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Very slim...

I've just done a quick back of the envelope - which counties have how much left to report, etc - and I my guess is that Clinton is going to win Indiana by more than 2 but less than 4. That's pretty good. In fact, that's damn good. The constructed narrative in the run-up to this was "who will win bigger?" We do have an emphatic answer to that question.

And for anyone who say Donna Brazile tear Paul Begala a new [redacted because sometimes, though very rarely, our parents read the Pickle], there's at least one superD who seems to have had enough.

Update 9:30: 30 minutes ago, at 9:00, she had a 50K vote lead. Now it's 40K, at 9:30. There's probably another 10K votes of margin for him in Indianapolis and Bloomington. I don't know how many people are in Lake County, but he should win there, and they haven't started reporting, for some reason. It's very unlikely there are 30K votes of margin there for him, so she'll almost definitely win, but this is very close. A near tie. A win for the guy who was supposed to lose.

Update 9:40: Now hang on a second. There are about 900K people in Marion county (Indianapolis), and there are 500K people in Lake County. He's going to have to make up about 30K votes in Lake County. If he gets the kind of margin in Lake that he did in Marion, he can win Indiana. I don't know enough about Lake County to speculate, but I doubt he'll win it 2-1, like Indianapolis. It looks closer and closer. I'd still bet on her, but it is tight tight tight.