30 June 2011

Good summer movie, even if it was a comic book

Rico says that, if it's got Tommy Lee Jones in it, he's gonna see it:

Nice words from a nice guy

Rico says the Bayou Renaissance Man said what he should have:
Looking at the support forum, hundreds of other Blogger users had the same problems I had last night, which is why others of your favorite blogs might have been light on posting. The Blogger team seems to have fixed the problem, so regular posting should resume tonight.
As an aside, it always bugs me how people who use this free, let me repeat that: free blogging software can get so up-in-arms when it hits a snag. It's not as if we're paying for it, but some folks seem to get their knickers in a twist and get rude with the software providers about any interruption in service. Hey, I don't like interruptions either, but if I want something better, perhaps I should start to, y'know, pay for it!
Until then, I'll remain grateful to Google for providing this free platform for so many of us, and giving it a whole lot of nifty features. It's a very welcome and worthwhile public service. Thanks to the Blogger team for sorting out last night's problem, too.

Sudan, yet again

Nicholas Kristof, always cogent, has an op-ed column in The New York Times about the Sudan:
The world capital for crimes against humanity this month probably isn’t in Libya or Syria. Instead, it’s arguably the Nuba Mountains of the Sudan, where we’re getting accounts of what appears to be a particularly vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing, murder, and rape.
In its effort to preclude witnesses, the Sudanese government has barred humanitarian access to the area and threatened to shoot down United Nations helicopters. Sudanese troops even detained four United Nations peacekeepers and subjected them to “a mock firing squad”, the UN said.
An internal UN report says that Sudanese authorities are putting on uniforms of the Sudanese Red Crescent— the local version of the Red Cross— to order displaced people to move away from the United Nations compound. They were then herded into a stadium in the town of Kadugli, where their fate is uncertain.
Western aid workers have been forced to flee, and there are credible reports of government troops and government-backed Arab militias systematically hunting down members of the black-skinned Nuba ethnic group and killing them. “Door-to-door executions of completely innocent and defenseless civilians, often by throat-cutting, by special internal security forces,” a Westerner with long experience in Sudan recounted in a terse email. The writer, who was on the scene but has now left, does not want to be named for fear of losing access.
The Right Reverend Andudu Elnail, an Episcopal bishop for the Nuba Mountains area, told me that the Sudanese government has targeted many Nuban Christians. Armed forces burned down his cathedral, said Bishop Andudu, who is temporarily in the United States but remains in touch daily with people in the area. “They’re killing educated people, especially black people, and they don’t like the church,” he said. Women are also being routinely raped, Bishop Andudu said, estimating that the death toll is “more than a few thousand” across the Sudanese state of South Kordofan.
This isn’t religious warfare, for many Nubans are Muslim and have also been targeted (including a mosque bombed the other day). The Sudanese military has been dropping bombs on markets and village wells. The airstrip that I used when I visited the Nuba Mountains has now been bombed to keep humanitarians from flying in relief supplies; the markets I visited are now deserted, according to accounts smuggled out to monitoring groups. At least 73,000 people have fled their homes, the United Nations says. A network of brave people on the ground, virtually all locals, have been secretly taking photos and transmitting them to human rights organizations in the West like the Enough Project. My hard drive overflows with photos of children bleeding from shrapnel.
Samuel Totten, a genocide scholar at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, visited the Nuba Mountains a year ago to gather historical accounts of the mass killings of Nuba by the Sudanese government in the 1990s. Now, he says, it is all beginning to happen again. “As I watch the international community dither as the people of the Nuba Mountains are being killed, impunity reigns,” said Professor Totten.
The Sudanese government signed a framework agreement that could be a step to end the violence in South Kordofan, but there has been no deal on cessation of hostilities. Sudan has a long record of agreements reached and then breached, by the South as well as the North.
Sudan is preparing for a split on 9 July, when South Sudan emerges as an independent nation after decades of on-and-off war between North and South. The Nuba Mountains will remain in the North when the South secedes, but many Nuba sided with the South during the war and still serve in a rebel military force dug into the mountains.
Most of the violence in the Nuba Mountains has been by northern Arabs against the Nuba, but there are also reports of rebel soldiers attacking Arab civilians. There is a risk that violence will spread to the neighboring state of Blue Nile and ultimately trigger a full-blown North-South war, although both sides want to avoid that.
It’s critical that the United Nations retain its presence. Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, already indicted for genocide in Darfur, is now visiting China, and Chinese leaders need to insist that he stop the killing of civilians and allow the UN to function.
The appeals from Nubans today feel like an anguished echo of those from Darfur eight years ago. Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization that has long worked in the Nuba Mountains, said it received a message from a Nuban pastor: “With grief today, I want to inform you that the new church is burned down. We have lost everything. The house where my staff lives was looted, and the offices were burned. Many people fled from town, but some stayed. There is no food or water now.”
Rico says the 'Enough Project'? What they need there in the South is the Enough-Already Project. Oh, yeah, and some gubs...

In Cairo, however, things aren't better

Lara el-Gibaly and Dina Salah Amer have an article in The New York Times about the situation in Cairo:
Clashes between the police and protesters have left more than a thousand people injured in the worst violence to grip the capital since President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in February. The turmoil, which seemed to take almost everyone by surprise, demonstrated the fragile state of Egyptian society since the revolution, where almost any spark can ignite simmering tensions.
As the sun rose over Tahrir Square, a now familiar tableau was revealed: sidewalks smashed to bits by protesters who hurled the pieces at the police, metal barricades dragged into the street, rubber bullets scattered around, and clusters of protesters declaring a sit-in in opposition to the heavy-handed tactics of the police. “I am here today because I am appalled at how the police have treated protesters,” said Salma Samer, a 23-year-old student. “This is not what we called for when we took to the streets on 25 January. This is not the revolution we imagined.”
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which has final say over all decisions, called the events “senseless” and “with no purpose other than to destabilize Egypt according to a calculated plan”. It said that 44 protesters were referred to a military prosecutor. The origins of the clash remained murky. Protesters said they erupted when the police blocked a group from trying to enter a theater to commemorate the deaths of the approximately eight hundred protesters killed during the revolution.
The authorities had a different version, saying the violence began after protesters tried to break into the Interior Ministry. What is not in dispute is that armies of riot police officers who had been absent from the streets for months appeared in full force, eventually rushing protesters, who included relatives of the dead, and firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets throughout the night and the following morning. Eventually, the protests moved into Tahrir Square.
The prime minister, Essam Sharaf, said on state television that the police only used violence in self-defense and to protect public property. He said that Egypt was slowly moving toward stability before the clashes and that a police reform program was under way.
Protest groups called for an open-ended sit-in in Tahrir Square, earlier than originally planned, and are demanding an immediate end to emergency law and the removal of several top officials, including the interior minister, the finance minister, and the prosecutor general.
But the fighting made clear that there were differences not only between the government and protesters, but between those who want faster change and those who are growing weary of the post-revolutionary tumult. While some protesters called for a speedy prosecution of Mr. Mubarak, the prosecution of the police who killed protesters during the eighteen-day revolution, and for ending the practice of trying civilians in military courts, there was no single vision of what needs to be addressed first.
“The economy is in tatters, worse than before,” said Ahmed Safwat, a 26-year-old computer engineer. “The country is in ruins. Of course, people are still protesting.”
No unified chants rang through the square, no signs or banners decorated its lamp posts. People, milling about, voiced a variety of grievances to anyone who would listen. “They are calling us thugs; we are just citizens who are unsatisfied with the way the country is run,” said Amr Mostafa, 32, a shopkeeper. “I was here all through last night and we were assaulted and attacked by the police. They attacked us for expressing our demands.” As military police took to the streets early in the afternoon, trucks began to sweep up the broken glass and debris, and by sunset no trace of the clashes remained except the hard feelings.
“We’ve been patient for five months! We’ve seen no change. What have you been doing this whole time?” asked a portly middle-aged woman who refused to give her name, as she shook her fist at a cordon of military officers encircling the Interior Ministry. An officer replied: “You’ve been patient for thirty years. I’m sure you can wait a little while longer.” The woman walked away, joining a crowd of grumbling civilians, who complained of the military’s dismissive attitude.
Egypt has lurched forward since the revolution, its military council willing to use force and military courts to calm a restive public, while also responding to public demands including arresting Mr. Mubarak and his two sons. But the pace of change, or more precisely improvement, has been slow in a nation where poverty, corruption and dysfunction were endemic long before Mr. Mubarak’s fall. Now, the military, once widely hailed as an ally of the people, is increasingly seen as an obstacle to change.
Protesters and political activists said that they expected that the clashes would prompt large-scale demonstrations on Friday, which has become the unofficial day of protest in Egypt. The 6 April youth movement, which played a prominent role in mobilizing people during the revolution, has called for a sit-in to take place, to end each night at ten and resume the following morning, though again, not everyone agreed. “What’s this all for?” said Nadia Abdel Aal, 62, a homemaker, as she navigated her way through broken bottles and broken stones, with her shopping bags in hand. “Commodities are expensive; life isn’t any better. What have these youth and protests done for us?”
Rico says once you get a revolution started, it's hard to stop... (And, for the 'youth', way too much fun.)

Gettin' out of Dodge

Anthony Shadid has an article in The New York Times about Syria:
The Syrian military and the government’s security forces have largely withdrawn from one of the country’s largest cities, as well as other areas, residents and activists said, leaving territory to protesters whose demonstrations have grown larger and whose chants have taunted a leadership that once inspired deep fear.
The military’s move out of Hama, where a government crackdown a generation ago made its name synonymous with the brutality of the ruling Assad family, has surprised even some activists and diplomats. They differ over how to interpret the government’s decision there, asking whether the departure points to a government attempt to avoid casualties and another potentially explosive clash in a restive country, or to an exhausted repressive apparatus stretched too thin.
But residents in Hama, the fourth largest city in Syria, have celebrated the departure as a victory that came after one of the worst bouts of bloodshed there in the nearly four-month uprising. “Hama is a liberated city,” declared one activist who gave his name as Hainin.
Residents and activists say the military and security forces have also withdrawn from Abu Kamal, near the border with Iraq, and some suburbs of the capital, Damascus. In Dayr az Zawr, a large city in the east, the military has remained on the outskirts, although security forces are said to still be operating inside the city.
The events in Hama and elsewhere around the country underscore the new dynamics in the uprising, as neither the government nor the protesters can resolve the crisis on their terms. An opposition meeting openly called for an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power, and parts of the meeting were broadcast on Syrian television, usually an instrument of the government. The committees behind the street protests are becoming better organized, and a weak economy once instrumental to the government’s vision continues to stagger.
“I feel like we’re in a stalemate, and while the stalemate is not pretty— in fact, it’s ugly— it only works in the opposition’s favor,” said an Obama administration official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Time is on the opposition’s side.”
Government forces have withdrawn from cities before, including Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast and Dara’a in the south, only to return even more relentlessly. But the scale of the departure and the size of Hama seem to set apart the experience there. “I don’t think it’s a tactic,” said Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group. “It’s exhaustion, a lack of resources, and a lack of finances.”
Hama is a city whose name remains seared in the memory of many Syrians. In the culmination of a battle between the government and an armed Islamic opposition, the military stormed Hama in 1982, killing at least ten thousand people and perhaps far more. Some residents said that Hama’s place in history had made the state more reluctant to crack down this time. “We learned from our mistakes,” said a teacher in Hama, who gave his name as Abu Omar. Like many interviewed there, he agreed to speak only on the condition of partial anonymity. “To make a revolution halfway,” he added, “is to dig our own tombs.”
On 3 June, government forces and protesters clashed in the city, which is along a strategic highway linking Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. By activists’ count, as many as seventy people in Hama were killed, though Syrian officials said their security forces also suffered casualties. Syrian officials said an agreement was reached afterward according to which protests would be permitted, as long as they remained peaceful and no property was damaged. Some residents confirmed that an agreement was indeed concluded this month. Since then, some said, even the traffic police had withdrawn.
“The security and the army are completely absent,” said a resident who gave his name as Abu Abdo. “They are not harassing us at all, neither before nor during the daily rallies, which have been gathering day and night. There are no patrols. Life is normal.”
In bigger numbers, protesters in Hama have gathered at night in Aasi Square, which they said they had renamed Freedom Square, and promised bigger demonstrations. Activists said the city’s mayor addressed the crowds there; when he asked what their demands were, one activist recalled that protesters replied, “The overthrow of the regime.” The mayor soon left, they said.
Other protesters there have taunted other cities and the leadership. “Oh, youth of Damascus,” went one chant, “we’re in Hama, and we’ve toppled the regime.”
In an echo of the early days of the Egyptian revolution, when a crumbling authoritarian order inspired a new sense of citizenship, some activists say residents have taken to sweeping the streets in front of their homes and shops, volunteers have kept the main squares clean, and drivers have adhered to traffic rules in the absence of the police.
Syrian officials played down the idea that the departure of government forces suggested a void in their authority. Since the beginning of the uprising, the government has said that much of the violence has occurred in clashes with armed opponents and, indeed, American officials have corroborated the existence of insurgents in some areas in Syria. “Our policy has been that if the demonstrators are peaceful, if they do not wreak havoc or destroy public property, no security will harass them,” Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, said in an interview. “The universal orders are not to harass demonstrators as long as those demonstrators are peaceful.” Mr. Moustapha estimated that nine out of ten protests began and ended peacefully.
The American official suggested that the violence was a response to government repression. When the government’s forces withdraw, the official said, the situation becomes peaceful again. “That’s what Hama has demonstrated,” the official said.
The departure could also suggest at least some recognition on the part of the government that a brutal crackdown cannot succeed. In Dayr az Zawr and Abu Kamal, officials removed statues of Mr. Assad’s father, in what seemed an acknowledgment that they were not worth the bloodshed that would be required to save them from protesters.
“Everyone is stuck, at this point,” said Mr. Tarif, the human rights advocate. “The regime is stuck, the protesters are stuck, and the opposition is stuck.”


David Jolly and Kareem Fahim have an article in The New York Times about France and Libya:
France confirmed that it had provided weapons to the Libyan rebels, the first instance of a NATO country giving direct military aid to the forces seeking to oust Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the French military, said France responded in early June to a United Nations request, made in May, for a “humanitarian pause” to allow the delivery of essential medical supplies and other relief items to Libyan civilians in the besieged city of Misurata and in the towns of the western mountains, also under attack from loyalist forces. “The U.N. request never actually took effect,” Colonel Burkhard said. “So we airdropped water, food and medical supplies” to Misurata and to the Nafusah Mountains south of Tripoli. “During this operation, troops also airdropped arms and ammunition several times, including assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades and launchers,” he said.
The French military assistance was first reported by Le Figaro, which cited unidentified government officials as saying that it was meant to help break the stalemate in Libya. The rebels were under sustained attack from loyalist forces until roughly the period this month that seems to coincide with the weapons drop. In what was seen as something of a mystery, they suddenly turned the tide on the Qaddafi forces and established control over most of the Nafusah Mountains region. They have continued to gain ground. The western rebels have overrun an enormous government weapons depot, though the most valuable arms seemed to have been destroyed or removed before they took control.
Colonel Mahmoud Mosbah, the leader of the military council in the western town of Rujban, acknowledged that weapons were dropped by parachute near his town over a three-day period this month. The drops, all at night and totaling perhaps three dozen tons, included mostly light weapons and ammunition, he said. He complained that rebels from the neighboring city of Zintan had taken all the weapons and were not sharing them with fighters in other areas. “The information I have is that the arms were for all the Nafusah Mountains,” he said in an interview at a local college, where he and other military leaders announced the defections of dozens of former Qaddafi army officers. The colonel said an intermediary told him that the French government was upset that the weapons were not being properly distributed. His claims about the Zintan rebels could not be immediately confirmed. He added that his fighters had received some new weapons, including shipments of Belgian rifles from the United Arab Emirates and the rebel Transitional National Council in Benghazi.
Fighters from the mountain towns clashed with Qaddafi forces near the town of Bir el-Ghanim, which has been the scene of fierce skirmishes in recent days. The rebels are hoping that victory there will open the road to the outskirts of the capital, Tripoli. Rebel fighters at a checkpoint about fifteen miles from the town said that NATO warplanes had struck Qaddafi positions and, later in the afternoon, rebels could be heard on a radio requesting trucks with heavy weapons, apparently trying to coordinate a fresh assault.
France, like the United States and Britain, is wary of the political and financial cost of an extended Libyan campaign and is eager for a decisive blow to bring down Colonel Qaddafi’s government. After a burst of activity early in the uprising, rebel military units in eastern Libya are in a stalemate with the loyalists, and attention has turned to the western mountain region.
Colonel Burkhard declined to comment on the strategic implications of the assistance, saying that France was simply protecting civilians from harm, as mandated by the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the intervention.

Put the bosses down the mine, they think it's so safe

Rico says that Sabrina Tavernese has an article in The New York Times about Massey Energy, the lying sumbitches:
Federal investigators said that Massey Energy, the owner of the West Virginia mine where 29 men were killed in an explosion last year, misled government inspectors by keeping accounts of hazardous conditions out of official record books where inspectors would see them.
Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, described a dual accounting system practiced by Massey before the deadly explosion, in which safety problems and efforts to fix them were recorded in an internal set of books, out of sight of state inspectors, and off the official books that the law required them to keep.
That was among the conclusions of a large team of federal investigators, who spent a year sifting through more than 84,000 pages of documents, interviewing 266 people, and examining evidence at the Upper Big Branch mine, where the explosion occurred.
Some of the findings echoed a report issued by an independent team of state investigators this month, which blamed Massey and a culture of impunity for the explosion. But these findings went further, saying that Massey took systematic and premeditated steps to circumvent government inspections.
“If a coal mine wants to keep two sets of books, that’s their own business,” Mr. Stricklin said. “What they have to do is record the hazards associated with the examination in the official record book, and that wasn’t the case here.”
Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, the company that acquired Massey in a merger this month, said that company officials had heard the information for the first time on Wednesday “along with the rest of the public”, and that until the company completed its own investigation it would not be in a position to comment.
In a presentation in Beaver, West Virginia, Mr. Stricklin offered a stinging indictment of Massey practices, saying the federal investigation by more than one hundred people had been able to rule out the company’s assertion that the explosion on 5 April 2010, happened because of an event beyond its control: a huge inundation of gas. His findings matched those of the earlier report, conducted by a former federal mine safety chief, Davitt McAteer, which said that coal dust had been allowed to accumulate, spreading what had been a small ignition of methane through the mine and creating the deadliest mine blast in forty years. “We are further along than this just being our theory,” Mr. Stricklin said. “This is our conclusion.”
It is not unusual for a mine to keep several sets of books to track things like production and safety examinations before and during shifts. But it is against the rules to note problems with safety only on internal books, which are not required to be shown to federal or state inspectors, and leave them off the official books, which are required. And while mines sometimes resort to shortcuts, noting that all is well when something needs to be fixed, doing so could result in criminal charges, because falsifying records is a felony under federal mining laws, said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky-based lawyer who specializes in coal industry cases.
Mr. Stricklin could not say whether his findings, which will be issued in the form of a formal report this fall, would lead to criminal charges.
Two people have already been indicted in the case this spring, according to Melvin Smith, a spokesman for the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of West Virginia: a foreman, accused of lying on a document and to federal officials, and the former chief of security, accused of lying and concealing documents.
Massey managers, including the former chief executive, Don Blankenship, have not been charged, including eighteen executives who refused to be interviewed for the federal investigation, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.
Mr. Stricklin acknowledged that the mining authority knew about the conditions at the mine— in the year before the blast, the mine received more orders to shut down unsafe areas than any other coal mine in the country— and had stopped short of applying the toughest measure of closing it. But he said officials had not known the detail that surfaced in the so-called production reports, or the internal set of record keeping, that officials were given as part of the federal investigation after the explosion. Inspectors had no way of going into the “locked closets” of the company to read these, he said. The blast forced them into public view. Mr. Stricklin showed scanned copies of pages from the reports side by side in his presentation on Wednesday. The internal report from 1 March 2010, shortly before the accident, noted a problem with water sprayers, while the official report stated flatly “none observed” in the column for hazardous conditions. Massey managers appeared to have pressured workers to omit dangerous conditions from the official books, Mr. Stricklin said, a finding that echoed Mr. McAteer’s conclusion that workers who tried to report risks were intimidated.
One fact seemed to buttress that conclusion: In the years leading up to the explosion, the federal mining watchdog received just one phone call on its anonymous safety hot line from a worker in the mine.
Rico says he thought, for years as a child, that the word misled was pronounced 'mice-elled', but he knows it's 'mis-lead'... But the bosses should be forced to work a year in their own mine; that'll learn 'em. (Full disclosure: Rico's distant relations have owned a coal mine in northern Pennsylvania since before he was born but, to the best of his knowledge, never had a fatal accident.)

On a lighter note, the Fourth of July is coming

Rico says Brian Palmer has an article in The New York Times about the ecological way to grill on the Fourth:
Food is responsible for ten to thirty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. By many estimates, cooking represents more of a meal’s carbon footprint than its transport. For certain vegetables, it accounts for more emissions than agriculture, transport and disposal combined.
I’m not advising you to forsake grilling this holiday and join the ranks of raw-foodists. Nor do I believe that we can reverse climate change by eating burgers rare instead of well done. But a little creative thinking can reduce this year’s Fourth of July carbon emissions without gustatory sacrifice. And maybe that awareness will carry into other days and other parts of our lives.
Consider potato salad: a pale mixture of boiled potatoes and mayonnaise that is sometimes appetizing but always wasteful. An overwhelming majority of the energy in boiling goes into heating the water rather than cooking the potatoes. Direct-heat methods are more efficient and usually tastier. Cubed and pan-fried potatoes take just ten minutes to cook and require less than one-third the energy of boiling. (According to my math, microwaving potatoes is about forty percent more efficient than pan-frying them on an electric stove, but when I do it the potatoes come out rubbery, and that is too much sacrifice for a holiday.) If you insist on boiling, lower the heat once bubbles appear. Keeping the burner on high only speeds evaporation; it doesn’t make the water any hotter or shorten cooking time. And cut the pieces small, because cooking time decreases as surface area increases.
Now for the burgers and dogs. First, a green disclaimer. Beef is an environmental disaster, no matter how you cook it. However, if you can’t resist grilled cow, your big decision is between charcoal and propane.
Charcoal is made of wood, so the carbon it releases upon combustion is approximately equal to the carbon the tree it came from once removed from the atmosphere. In theory, charcoal should be less damaging than propane, which releases carbon that has been sequestered harmlessly underground for hundreds of millions of years. It’s far more complicated in practice, though. We get most lump charcoal from cutting down mesquite trees, and in addition to the deforestation effect, it takes more fuel to produce and transport charcoal than it does propane. As a result, according to a 2009 study in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review, propane is nearly three times as efficient as lump charcoal.
Charcoal briquettes, however, are a different story. The compressed round briquettes are made from scrap wood that would otherwise go to waste. The better manufacturers build their plants near construction centers and use recycled heat from those centers to power their briquette kilns. If you take that into account, charcoal briquettes are ahead of lump charcoal and propane as the best option in terms of climate change. (Any kind of charcoal, however, releases more particulate matter than propane, which makes charcoal a greater contributor to air pollution. There are few easy choices in environmental analysis.)
And finally we come to dessert. Skip the pie. Baking is so energy profligate that the government hasn’t yet figured out a way to reward any residential ovens with the Energy Star label.
Here’s where you can really make use of your briquettes. One problem with charcoal is that you can’t turn it off when the burgers are done. In most backyards that means lots of heat— and carbon dioxide— goes to waste. Not in your yard, though. Use that leftover charcoal glow to grill up dessert. Apples, pears, peaches, and nectarines grill beautifully, and are even better à la mode. Or you can prepare a cobbler in a foil pan and grill it on the dying coals. From an environmental perspective, that’s free energy.
Maybe an Independence Day meal of pan-fried potatoes and grilled peaches seems un-American. But the tradition of backyard grilling isn’t exactly Jeffersonian in pedigree. Independence Day feasts in the early 1800s featured such classic American fare as turtle soup. By midcentury, revelers were gathering en masse to buy parts of whole roast pigs from street vendors. (A British visitor pondered: “What association can there be between roast pig and independence?”) Backyard grilling didn’t become popular until the interwar period at the earliest, and accelerated with the baby boom and suburbanization that followed World War Two. In other words, there’s nothing so very sacred about the Fourth of July cookout. So this year, why not experiment?


Rico says the whole concept is too funny, but Greg Bishop has an article in The New York Times about straight guys passing as gay in San Francisco:
The five ballplayers summoned before a protest committee at the Gay Softball World Series stood accused of cheating. Their alleged offense: heterosexuality.
Inside a small room, surrounded by committee members and other softball officials, the players said they were interrogated about their sexual orientation. Confusion reigned. According to court records, one player declined to say whether he was gay or straight, but acknowledged being married to a woman. Another answered yes to both gay and heterosexual definitions. A third asked if bisexual was acceptable and was told: “This is the Gay World Series, not the Bisexual World Series.”
Ultimately, the committee ruled that three of the five were “nongay”, and stripped the team of its second-place finish.
That decision, at the 2008 competition near Seattle, provoked a federal lawsuit against the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, which governs the softball World Series, and compelled the alliance to change its rules.
The case has also escalated into a flashpoint in organized gay sports. Sports leagues that exclude members based on sexual orientation— which is generally legal— are watching how the courts address the vexing question at the heart of this dispute: how should a group determine who qualifies as gay?
“It definitely takes an organization down a rocky path,” said Jennifer Pizer, the legal director at the Williams Institute, a policy group focusing on sexual orientation law. “It can be quite intrusive, and awkward at best.”
Dozens of gay leagues exist throughout the country for most sports, from flag football to volleyball, with tens of thousands of participants. The Gay Softball World Series is celebrating its 35th anniversary this summer, with several hundred teams from around the country competing for the title. Leagues often allow some heterosexual participants, in the spirit of inclusiveness, but still wrestle with rules regarding the limits on heterosexual players.
The National Gay Flag Football League, for example, has long used the honor system to impose its heterosexual limit (twenty percent of each roster for the annual Gay Bowl).
“We’ll look at our rule later this year, and we’ll ask ourselves the same questions: Is this the right rule? The right approach to a complex topic?” said Shane Kinkennon, the founder of a Denver flag football league and the national association’s commissioner. “The LGBT community has become increasingly sensitive to the way people self-identify their gender expression,” he added, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
The North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance limits the number of heterosexual players teams can have. The rule— jokingly referred to as the “straight cap”— is often a subject of spirited debate, and over time it has changed, from barring heterosexual players outright to the current policy of two per team.
At the 2008 World Series, the application of the rule prompted more debate. A protest was lodged during the championship game— the source remains unclear— against D2, a team from San Francisco. The hearing started “immediately following their championship loss,” according to court documents. The plaintiffs— Steven Apilado, LaRon Charles, and Jon Russ— contend that the hearing was intrusive, a notion disputed by the defense. They are seeking to have the team’s second-place finish restored, and to recover more than $75,000 each in damages for emotional distress. Through their lawyers, the players declined to be interviewed.
Roger Leishman, chief counsel for the defense, said that he spoke to all but one protest committee member, and that each said any player who claimed to be bisexual would have been considered gay. The defense insists that bisexuality never came up. Instead, Mr. Leishman said, the players provided evasive answers to challenge the rule limiting the number of heterosexuals per team.
“Some of the things the plaintiffs have said are just not true,” Mr. Leishman said. “They characterize it as a windowless room. It wasn’t. They characterized the questions as intrusive. They weren’t. It’s the Gay Softball World Series. It’s not shocking that someone would ask whether or not you’re gay.”
Three of the accused players were ruled “nongay”, although they said there were multiple votes and even a discussion about the definitions.
After D2 lost its appeal, the three plaintiffs filed suit. This month, in United States District Court in Seattle, Judge John C. Coughenour ruled that the gay alliance could legally limit the number of heterosexual participants, just as the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the Boy Scouts of America could exclude gays. But Judge Coughenour scheduled a trial for 1 August to further examine what happened at the hearing, and whether the players were victims of discrimination.
Ms. Pizer, of the Williams Institute, and other experts argue that sexual orientation is more complicated than a simple gay-or-straight definition. Experts describe a fuller spectrum of human sexuality, influenced by how a person acts, thinks, and self-identifies at a given time. Those factors could change over time, Ms. Pizer said.
The problem with a narrow definition, said Christopher Stoll of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represents the plaintiffs, is how to define 'gay'. “How do you prove if someone is gay or straight?” he said. “One of the most disturbing things about the league’s position in this case is that there’s only one way of being gay, or one view of being gay. The definition did not include bisexual, or transgendered. Our clients break the stereotypes of what gay is supposed to be.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance has changed its definition of gay to include bisexual and transgender people. It also clarified that it would determine sexual orientation by self-declaration.
The implications of the lawsuit stretch beyond the clarification, said Helen Carroll, the sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. She said she hoped it would spotlight the often-overlooked issues that face bisexual athletes and highlight the movement in gay sports leagues away from such limits.
But not everyone agrees that the rule is outdated. Chris Balton, the assistant commissioner of the gay athletic alliance, explained that he came out late in life and that a gay softball league provided support after his partner committed suicide. “His family didn’t want me to be part of the funeral,” Mr. Balton said. “Those guys got me through that. That’s why I love this organization. That’s what the rule means. If we allow it to be open, it would be just another softball tournament.”
Rico says that they may have to change it to LGBTS, to include those, like Rico, stuck in their straightness...

In the family for months*

Rico says the post title* is a subhead, but a classic, in Joyce Wadler's article in The New York Times about Sherry Lefevre's home in Nantucket (photo):
One never forgets one’s first summer love. Sherry Lefevre’s was named Rosemary. She was ten when she first encountered it: a house built in the early 1800s on Nantucket, where it is customary to give houses names.
Its furnishings were from another era: horsehair sofas with stiff velvet and threadbare Oriental rugs. Ms. Lefevre’s bedroom under the eaves had a tall dark chest with an array of things on top she had never seen before: a china perfume tray, a monogrammed dresser set, a box of collars. There was also a mysterious upstairs bedroom, accessible only through a bedroom her parents used.
At school, back home in Philadelphia, Ms. Lefevre was immersed in the literature of the nineteenth century: Hardy, Brontë, Melville. In this house, it was easy to believe she was part of that world. She imagined stories from the house’s past, that the back staircase led to “an insane wife, hidden away, her meals smuggled up the stairs”, as she writes in a book she hopes to publish.
Ms. Lefevre would have loved to inherit such a house (an heirloom house, as she calls it), full of well-loved antiques, but Rosemary was a rental. Three summers and it was gone. Then, two years ago, Ms. Lefevre, an assistant professor of writing at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a mother of two grown children, came into an inheritance, and was able to buy her own old house on Nantucket. Within a few months, she writes, she turned it into an instant heirloom house, filled with the sort of memorabilia that might have been passed down for generations: seashell art pieces, seascapes, converted whale-oil lamps, antique fabric drapes, bureaus, and beds sweetly hand-painted with clutches of faded flowers.
Ms. Lefevre estimates that the cost of furnishing the house was about $15,000. There have been some concessions to comfort (no horsehair sofas). But over all, the furnishings are worn, weathered, and redolent of seasons past.
“Why did my family’s summer house have to be old?” Ms. Lefevre writes in the manuscript she is calling The Nantucket House That eBay Built. “Because Rosemary was. Because I wanted a house that contained layers of memory, making it as otherworldly as summer. Because the nauseatingly maudlin motto of The Velveteen Rabbit is true, more or less: to become real, a house needs to show some wear, some shabbiness, some misshapenness, some evidence of love and life.”
While Ms. Lefevre’s heirloom house is filled with other people’s summer vacation mementos— their discarded souvenir plates, their Nantucket lighthouse postcards— that does not lessen the power of the items for her. “There is something in particular about summer that is poignant, because we all know that when we are in summer that we are in a fleeting moment that will become part of memory,” she was saying one recent steamy day on Nantucket, when thunderstorms threatened, but thoughtfully held off until day’s end. “Memory in summer is always stronger because we need it to get through the rest of the year. You know what I mean? For me, getting things that are old or things that remind you of everyone else trying to hold on to the good life makes everything kind of deeper.”
Ms. Lefevre, 58, is a trim woman, friendly, articulate, and sometimes quite funny. She slaps together a sandwich for a guest in the offhand manner of a woman who has made thousands of summer sandwiches for children while dealing with more important things: figuring out the next semester’s teaching plan, perhaps, or how she will pay the bills.
When it comes to telling her life story, she is guarded. “I don’t want this to be a psychological profile,” she says early on.
But, on the subject of summer houses and their influence on the families that spend time there, she is happy to talk. Her childhood sounds happy. Her father was a lawyer; her mother a homemaker. Ms. Lefevre, one of four children, attended what she describes as a prim girls’ school in Philadelphia.
One of the great pleasures of her childhood was the house called Rosemary, which she can recall down to the smell. “It was very musty,” she says. “It smelled of the sea. It basically rambled, but in a wonderful way. It had an old kitchen that was very haphazard, with curtains instead of cabinet doors. The floors in the place were just totally wonky. They were like being in a heaving ship. So we used to roll things like little trucks and see how fast they would go from the living room, downhill to the kitchen, downhill to the laundry room.” She continues: “I do think certain houses get inside kids. They live half in fantasy anyway. Though I never was in a house that had that kind of atmosphere. It stayed with me forever.”
Ms. Lefevre was educated at Princeton, then Columbia, married, taught in Lebanon for a time, then divorced and returned to Philadelphia, where she raised her children, Michael, now 22, and Callie, now 24, on her own. Life as a single mother was not easy. For a while, she was an adjunct professor at three different colleges, teaching days, nights, and summers. Nantucket, where her parents had bought a modern ranch house on three acres with an ocean view in the 1970s, was a respite.
A few years ago, after her parents sold the house and divided the money among Ms. Lefevre and her siblings, she began a search for her own home on the island. Her children were growing up, and she wanted a house that would create memories for the families they would one day have, as Rosemary had for her. She also realized that one sure way to see more of your adult children was to buy a vacation home.
She was looking for an old house that had not been gut-renovated, one that retained its history. In July of 2009, she found a house in town that, she later learned, had been owned in the 1800s by a man named Samuel Robbins, a first mate on a whaling ship who died at sea. She paid the asking price of $1.15 million and brought in her Philadelphia carpenter, Pat Clark, who lived there while he worked. The total cost of the renovations, which included installing two bathrooms, removing a wall between the kitchen and a den, and putting in additional walls upstairs, came to about $53,000.
Finding the right old furnishings was essential. Ms. Lefevre had discovered eBay only a few years earlier, when a nephew had his heart set on a particular toy. “It was a gorilla that sings, I don’t want to work, I just want to bang on my drums all day,” she says. “It cost me ten dollars, and it made my nephew happier than I could have imagined. Then I realized, anything that you hadn’t seen for so long that you missed, anything you remembered as a kid, you could get on eBay.
“When I was a kid, my brother had given me a rubber cigar that, when you blew on it, a worm popped out at one end. So I went on eBay and typed in ‘rubber cigar worm,’ and there it was. And it was one of those crazy moments where you say: ‘Oh, my God, everything that has been lost to me can be recovered.’ ”
What Ms. Lefevre remembered and missed was the kind of house we were sitting in, she is told. “Yeah,” she says. “It was a big version of a cigar with the worm coming out. A very expensive version. Too bad I didn’t quit when I was ahead.”
Ms. Lefevre bought furnishings for her house in an organized way. She is an academic, after all. She started by writing down her associations with Nantucket and other seaside resorts. She gave herself guidelines: bedside tables and bookcases could not cost more than $100 each; rugs could be no more than $200; lamps could not be more than $50 (not including the conversion kits for the whale-oil lamps, which were about $12).
She discovered ways to find things she could afford. Visit homes on Nantucket, she says, and you will find that owners with deep pockets have a fancy painting of a ship. But a nineteenth-century painting like that could cost several thousand dollars. Seascapes without ships in them, she realized, were much cheaper: most of hers cost two hundred dollars or less.
Ms. Lefevre also longed for sailor’s valentines from that era, framed shell compositions often containing hearts and flowers. Online, she found them for $3,500 to $18,000. But when she typed “antique shell art” into eBay’s search engine, she found she could buy seashell art and objects for less than a hundred bucks.
Whenever she could, she picked up furniture herself, instead of having it delivered, to reduce shipping costs. Sellers along Interstate 95, her route from Philadelphia to New England, were preferred, and she quickly discovered that better deals could be found in Rhode Island than in Connecticut.
Her big-ticket items were a $700 counter for the kitchen and a seascape for $500. (It doesn’t have a ship, but it was signed by the artist, Alex Mortimer.) She also found a portrait of a prosperous-looking fellow for $200 and pretended he was the deceased whaler who had once owned her home, whom she promoted to captain.
Not everything was bought on eBay. The faded flowered sofa and matching chairs in Ms. Lefevre’s living room are from the vacation house of Gerry Sills, the mother of a friend. And the mattresses are all new (she paid $1,100 for four, at a furniture outlet in Morgantown, Pennsylvania.). But most things are old, even if, as with the drapes, they are made to measure from old fabric.
She has found she enjoys the personal nature of eBay shopping; the stories of the people she deals with online and of the objects themselves. On the dining room wall, there is what appears to be a homemade version of a sailor’s valentine under glass, with tiny shells set in dried clusters of seaweed. Ms. Lefevre bought it on eBay for $125. “I had this very funny experience,” she says, taking the piece down and putting it on the table. “I made an arrangement to pick it up on I-95, on the way here. The owner said: ‘Call me when you hit exit such-and-such,’ and I met her in the parking lot of a supermarket. It was like a drug deal. I opened my trunk, and she opened her trunk. I didn’t want her to ship it. I think this is old and real.” It certainly seems old. The seaweed looks as if it could turn into dust if the glass were removed. The inscription, in gold-colored ink, is so faded that only part of it is legible. Ms. Lefevre and the reporter study it, trying to decipher it. Call us not weeds, we are flowers of the sea, for lovely and gay tinted are we, she reads. And quite independent of sunshine and showers. Then call us not weeds, we are ocean’s gay flowers. The story of the sailor who bought it, and of the person he gave it to, is unknown. But it may be something about which Ms. Lefevre’s grandchildren, yet unborn, will dream.
Rico says he won't be buying any of the houses he summered in on Nantucket, alas; his inheritance won't cover it...

Three mistakes

Rico says his father forwards this one, from a Texan friend of his, about Pearl Harbor:
Tour boats ferry people out to the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii every thirty minutes. We just missed one, and thus had thirty minutes to wait. I went into a small gift shop to kill time; there I purchased a small book entitled Reflections on Pearl Harbor by Admiral Chester Nimitz.
On Sunday, December 7th, 1941, Admiral Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington, D.C. He was paged and told there was a phone call for him. When he answered, it was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who told the admiral that Nimitz would now be Commander of the Pacific Fleet.
Admiral Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume command of the Fleet. He landed at Pearl Harbor on Christmas Eve of 1941. There was such a spirit of despair, dejection, and defeat, you would have thought the Japanese had already won the war.
On Christmas Day, Admiral Nimitz was given a boat tour of the destruction wrought at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Big battleships and navy vessels, all sunk, cluttered the waters every where you looked.
As the tour boat returned to dock, the young helmsman asked: "Well Admiral, what do you think after seeing all this destruction?"
Admiral Nimitz shocked everyone within the sound of his voice by replying: "The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?"
Shocked and surprised, the young helmsman asked: "What do mean, the Japanese made the three biggest mistakes an attack force ever made?"
Nimitz then explained:
"Mistake number one was, the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and sunk, we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.
"Mistake number two was, when the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking them, they never bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow everyone of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.
"Mistake number three was, every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is on top of the ground in storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply.
"That's why I say the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could make. Either that, or God was taking care of America."

I've never forgotten what I read in that little book. It is still an inspiration as I reflect upon it.
In jest, I might suggest that, because Admiral Nimitz was a Texan, born and raised in Fredricksburg, Texas, he was a born optimist.
But, any way you look at it, Admiral Nimitz was able to see a silver lining in a situation and circumstance where everyone else saw only despair and defeatism. President Roosevelt had chosen the right man for the right job. We desperately needed a leader that could see silver linings in the midst of the clouds of dejection, despair, and defeat.

Giving it back

On 30 June 1997, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time over Government House in Hong Kong, as Britain prepared to hand the colony back to China after ruling it for 156 years.
Rico says the inadvertent comment by the member of the Black Watch (photo) was caused by the wind, and the sartorial choices of the Scots, not politics...

29 June 2011

Oops is now a kayaking term

Rico says his friend Tex forwards this one, about a guy quietly kayaking in Alaska when a whale decided to surface under him... (He lived, amazingly.)

Hitler on FCX

Rico says that Hitler doesn't know shit about video anyway, so he'll gladly buy it as soon as it's available...

Funny, unless you're a pirate

Rico says his friend Tex sends along this one:
A pirate walks into a bar and the bartender says: "Hey, haven't seen you in a while. What happened? You look terrible."
"What do you mean?" says the pirate. "I feel fine."
"What about the wooden leg? You didn't have that before."
"We were in a battle, and I got hit with a cannon ball, but I'm fine now."
The bartender replies: "Well, okay, but what about that hook? What happened to your hand?"
The pirate explaines: "We were in another battle. I boarded a ship and got into a sword fight. My hand was cut off. I got fitted with a hook but I'm fine, really."
"What about that eye patch?"
"Oh, that," says the pirate. "One day we were at sea and a flock of birds flew over. I looked up, and one of them shit in my eye."
"You're kidding," says the bartender. "You don't lose an eye just from bird shit."
"It was my first day with the hook."

More ugliness in Kabul

Alissa Rubin and Rod Nordland have an article in The New York Times about the assault on the Intercontinental:
Several heavily armed attackers stormed one of tKabul’s fortified premier hotels, and sporadic shooting and at least two loud explosions were heard as Afghan security forces battled insurgents for hours afterward.
Coming within a week of President Obama’s announcement of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, the attack underscored the still precarious nature of security, even in the capital, as the transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces is about to begin in several areas of the country, including Kabul.
Later, in the early morning hours, three attackers on the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel were killed by NATO helicopters, a spokesman said. In addition to the three killed on the roof, two others were killed by hotel guards at the beginning of the assault and another was killed either in the attack by the NATO helicopters or by Afghan security forces, The Associated Press reported.
At the end of the fighting at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, Afghan security forces found that there had been eight suicide bombers, said a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Sediq Sediqi. All were dead.
Eight other people were killed, including one police officer, and eight were wounded, but the police were still going through the hotel room by room, and the final toll could rise, Mr. Sediqi said. All of the dead found so far were Afghans, he said. The attack was one of the largest and most complex to take place in Kabul, although others had higher death tolls.
The heavily guarded Intercontinental Hotel (photo), which sits on a hill on the western side of Kabul, has police guards at its base and intelligence officers stationed at the top of the hill and near the entrance. It was not clear how so many attackers could have breached the building’s defenses.
Attacks in Kabul have been relatively rare, although there was an attack on a similarly soft target in May, when a bomber detonated his explosives on the grounds of a military hospital, killing six people.
In announcing the troop withdrawal, Mr. Obama said he could reduce the number of American forces because the influx of about thirty thousand troops that he ordered more than a year ago had succeeded in pushing back the Taliban. Although the insurgents have been set back, particularly in their strongholds in the south, they have proved themselves still capable of carrying out assassinations and suicide bombings, even in urban centers.
The White House’s nominee to become the next American commander in Afghanistan faced tough questioning from a Senate panel about President Obama’s plan to pull troops from the country. The nominee, Lieutenant General John Allen, said that “surge” of more than thirty thousand American troops had halted the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan, but he added that the fighting remained intense as insurgents were trying to regain lost territory. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Allen echoed comments by other top commanders in recent days, saying that military leaders advised a more conservative drawdown of troops over the next year than Mr. Obama’s plan.
In the Kabul attack, a NATO spokesman said that the international forces tracked the situation through the night, but left the fighting to the Afghans until early Wednesday, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was called in.
“Two ISAF helicopters circled the roof of the hotel and then identified three individuals believed to be insurgents on the roof, and the helicopters engaged the individuals with small arms,” said Major Tim James, a NATO spokesman. “They were all wearing suicide vests and were armed, and there were at least two explosions which we believe were the suicide vests detonating. Then Afghan National Security Forces who were in the hotel and were clearing the hotel worked their way onto the roof and were securing the roof.”
Samoonyar Mohammad Zaman, a security officer for the Interior Ministry, said that the insurgents were armed with machine guns, antiaircraft weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades. Mr. Zaman said there were sixty to seventy guests at the hotel. One guest, Jawid, said that he had jumped out of a first-floor window to flee the shooting. “I was running with my family,” he said. “There was shooting. The restaurant was full with guests.”
The Taliban took responsibility for the attack, saying they intended to kill foreigners and Afghans, according to Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman for northern and eastern Afghanistan. “Our muj entered the hotel,” he said, referring to the Taliban mujahideen fighters, “and they’ve gone through several stories of the building and they are breaking into each room and they are targeting the three hundred Afghans and foreigners who are staying.” His claims could not be immediately confirmed.
At least six stories high, the Intercontinental is one of the largest hotels in the city and is frequented by foreigners as well as Afghan officials, who stay there while they are in Kabul on business. It is also often used for conferences and political gatherings.
A major conference starts Wednesday in Kabul on the transition of NATO military and civilian control to the Afghan government, but none of the official meetings were scheduled to take place at the hotel.
The attack was reminiscent of several other recent ones in which multiple insurgents have converged on a public place. More than two dozen attackers converged on downtown Kandahar in May, killing four people and, in February, seven gunmen wearing suicide vests entered the Kabul Bank branch in the eastern city of Jalalabad and killed eighteen people.

Not worth it

Benjamin Weiser has an article in The New York Times about justice:
With the sentencing of Bernard L. Madoff only a week away, Judge Denny Chin received a letter from Mr. Madoff’s lawyer, asking for a prison term substantially below the 150-year maximum.
The lawyer, Ira Lee Sorkin, listed several reasons, including Mr. Madoff’s confessing to his sons, knowing he would be turned in; his “full acceptance” of responsibility for his crimes; and his efforts to assist in the recovery of lost assets. Citing data that showed Mr. Madoff, who was then 71, could expect to live about thirteen more years, Mr. Sorkin asked for a term of twelve years— “just short of an effective life sentence,” as he put it— suggesting that Mr. Madoff might be allowed a year of freedom before he died. Mr. Sorkin also proposed another option: fifteen to twenty years.
Judge Chin says he understood Mr. Sorkin’s goal. “It’s a fair argument that you want to give someone some possibility of seeing the light of day,” the judge said in a recent interview, “so that they have some hope, and something to live for. And,” he added, “that was one of the struggles in Madoff.”
Judge Chin said he quickly rejected the idea of a twelve-year sentence for Mr. Madoff, but pondered whether 20 to 25 years might be acceptable. He ultimately concluded that even that “would have been just way too low. In the end, I just thought he didn’t deserve it,” he said. “The benefits of giving him hope were far outweighed by all of the other considerations.”
Judge Chin would impose a term of 150 years on Mr. Madoff, perhaps the most stunning and widely discussed sentencing in the history of American white-collar crime. In doing so, he seemed to find a way to translate society’s rage into a number. Two years later, his recollections resurrect all the anger, shock, and confusion that surrounded Mr. Madoff’s crimes, and provide a rare peek at the excruciating pressure faced by a judge who had to balance the law, the public’s emotions and his own deeply held beliefs while meting out a sentence that was just and satisfied the court’s need to send a message.
Judge Chin agreed to an extensive series of interviews as part of a broader look into his sentencings in Federal District Court in Manhattan. “Most judges will tell you that sentencing is the most difficult thing we do,” he said.
Mr. Madoff, who was also interviewed, offered his first comments about the judge and the sentence, which occurred two years ago. Speaking by phone from federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, Mr. Madoff said he believed that Judge Chin went along with “the mob psychology of the time. Explain to me who else has received a sentence like that,” Mr. Madoff said. “I mean, serial killers get a death sentence, but that’s virtually what he gave me. I’m surprised Chin didn’t suggest stoning in the public square,” he added.
Judge Chin, 57, said he learned he had received the Madoff case from his staff as he entered his chambers on 6 March 2009, after a court proceeding. He had also received an email that day from Gabriel W. Gorenstein, a magistrate judge who had reached into the wooden wheel that is used to randomly assign cases in the courthouse and selected an envelope that contained Judge Chin’s name. “Just thought I’d give you the heads up,” Judge Gorenstein wrote.
“Thanks (I guess) for spinning the wheel in my favor!” Judge Chin wrote back.
Judge Chin also learned that day that Mr. Madoff would plead guilty to all eleven counts against him, including fraud, money laundering, and perjury. A few days before the sentencing, Judge Chin’s law clerks and interns joined him for their weekly lunch around a large wooden table in his chambers. “I said to my interns, ‘What do you think?’ ” he recalled. Two interns, both law students, suggested a term of 75 years, but when the judge asked them why, he said, they had trouble articulating their reasons. “I said, ‘So basically you’re splitting the baby?’ ” the judge remembered. “And they kind of looked at each other and said yes.” They agreed that it was probably not the best thing to do, he said.
Although the judge did not tell his staff his own views that day, he made it clear that he would not choose a term arbitrarily, nor would he compromise with a number halfway between zero and 150 years. Judge Chin noted in the interviews that 20 or 25 years would have effectively been a life sentence for Mr. Madoff, and any additional years would have been purely symbolic. Yet symbolism was important, he said, given the enormity of Mr. Madoff’s crimes. “Splitting the baby, to me, was sending the wrong message,” he said. “Often that’s the easy way out, but as we know from the old parable, that wasn’t the right thing to do.” The judge reflected on the fraud’s unprecedented scale, its duration over two decades, and its thousands of victims. At that point, the judge said, symbolism “carried more weight.” He began to consider how to articulate the message he wanted to send. The court’s probation department had recommended a fifty-year term, while the government had requested 150 years. He said he struggled to find the right number— “the just sentence,” as he described it. Another dilemma, he said, rested in the fact that because none of the counts against Mr. Madoff carried a sentence of life imprisonment (indeed, none carried more than twenty years), he could not impose a conventional life sentence. Instead, he was required to stack the maximum sentences for each count, totaling 150 years, to calculate a recommended sentence under the federal advisory guidelines. He was not bound by that figure, and he considered going beneath it, he said. But he decided that 150 years would send a loud, decisive message. He felt that Mr. Madoff’s “conduct was so egregious,” he said, “that I should do everything I possibly could to punish him.” Moreover, any sentence of less than 150 years could be seen as showing him mercy. “Frankly, that was not the message I wanted to be sent,” the judge said.
Typing on a computer in chambers, and on a laptop at home, Judge Chin continued preparing a draft of the statement that he would read in court. On the Sunday before sentencing, the judge returned to the roughly 450 emails and letters that had come from victims. He took notes and sketched out themes as he went, with a view toward working them into his draft:
“Not just the wealthy or institutional clients.”
“Middle-class folks, elderly, retirees.”
“Not just money: It reaches to the core and affects your general faith in humanity, our government and basic trust in our financial system.”
“The loss of dignity, the loss of freedom from financial worry.”
Judge Chin said he was particularly moved by an account of a man who had invested his life savings with Mr. Madoff, then died of a heart attack two weeks later. The man’s widow had met with Mr. Madoff, who had put his arm around her and told her not to worry, that her money was safe with him. “She eventually gave him her own pension, 401(k) funds,” Judge Chin wrote in his notes. He would include the story in his draft. He also wrote that he had received no letters on Mr. Madoff’s behalf: “The absence of such support is telling.”
The judge, explaining why he had rejected the defense’s request for a substantially shorter sentence, provided two reasons why the symbolism of a much longer term was important: to send the “strongest possible message” of deterrence, and to help the victims heal. He also responded to the assertion in Mr. Sorkin’s letter that the “unified tone” of the victims’ statements suggested a desire for “a type of mob vengeance” that would seemingly negate the judge’s role. “I do not agree,” Judge Chin wrote about the victims. “Rather, they are doing what they are supposed to be doing; placing their trust in our system of justice.” But, as he finished for the night, he said, he felt vaguely unsatisfied with the draft, which he saved on his computer at 9:29 p.m. “I was still struggling with the reasoning,” he recalled. He decided to review it again the following day. He knew he would be arriving at work early. A former law clerk had emailed him to say that more than a dozen television trucks were already lined up near the courthouse.
By the time Judge Chin entered his chambers on the morning of Monday, 29 June, he had decided what his draft was missing, he said. In explaining how the 150-year sentence was symbolically important, he had neglected to include a third, crucial reason: retribution. “A defendant should get his just deserts,” he remembered thinking. He had an intern quickly research relevant cases; he reviewed them and began writing, adding about a hundred words to the draft. He recalled that as he had thought about Mr. Madoff’s conduct, two words came to mind: “extraordinarily evil.” He put them in his draft. “One of the traditional notions of punishment,” he wrote, “is that an offender should be punished in proportion to his blameworthiness.” Mr. Madoff’s crimes were “extraordinarily evil,” he added. In a society governed by the rule of law, he wrote, the message had to be sent that Mr. Madoff would “get what he deserves,” and would be “punished according to his moral culpability.” He saved the document at 9:12 a.m., printed it, and soon headed for the 10 a.m. hearing which, because of the expected crowds, would be held in the court’s expansive ceremonial courtroom.
As Judge Chin listened from the bench, nine of Mr. Madoff’s victims described the devastation he had caused in their lives. Mr. Madoff rose and offered a lengthy apology, saying he felt “horrible guilt.” He turned to face the victims, and apologized again. To Judge Chin, Mr. Madoff seemed sad, almost as if he were grieving. “But I did not believe he was genuinely remorseful,” he recalled.
Judge Chin then began reading his statement from the bench, adding a few phrases to acknowledge what he had seen and heard in court that morning. He cited Mr. Madoff’s victims— “individuals from all walks of life”— and told the story of the widow who had been reassured by Mr. Madoff. “Now, all the money is gone,” the judge said.
Judge Chin read his passage on retribution, which, after the length of the sentence itself, appeared to have the greatest impact. In the headlines and news accounts that followed, the words “extraordinarily evil” seemed to be everywhere.

Not quite gone, Qaddafi

Kareem Fahim has an article in The New York Times about protests in Libya:
In darkness, rebel soldiers from towns throughout the Nafusah Mountain region gathered to put the finishing touches on a bold mission: they planned to capture a sprawling military base controlled by government soldiers that was still stocked, they believed, with the kinds of weapons and ammunition that would help level their fight against the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi. A group of the fighters spent the night at a safe house, and as the sun rose in the mountains of western Libya, hundreds of other fighters joined them in positions around the base. By midday, the rebels had routed a hundred or so of Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers who had been guarding the base and had left their potatoes, trash, and crumpled green uniforms behind. The soldiers also left a dubious bounty for the rebels, who carried off crates of outdated and aging ammunition and weapons parts, including components for heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles that security experts worry about falling into the hands of terrorists. There was no sight of the rifles they desperately needed. But that could not diminish the glow of a hard-fought victory, and the fighters fired in celebration as they drove from the base in trucks packed with olive-colored crates.
As the rebel offensive has faltered in other parts of Libya, it seems to have picked up momentum in the West. The rebels have ambitious plans of consolidating control of the western mountain region and using it as a staging ground for an assault on the oil city of Zawiyah and, finally, the heavily fortified capital, Tripoli.
Colonel Qaddafi is holed up there, and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, predicted that the colonel’s days as head of state were numbered, urging his associates to arrest him on the warrant recently issued by the court, news agencies reported.
The rebels are not banking on that turn of events, however. They made their farthest advance yet toward Tripoli, in a fight with Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers in Bir al-Ghanem. The victory at the base also seemed to signal progress, in that the Qaddafi loyalists had kept control of the depot despite repeated bombings by NATO warplanes.
As hundreds of people rummaged through concrete ammunition stores, one rebel leader, buoyed by the victory, framed the attack as one more step in preparation for an inevitable advance. “We will go to Tripoli,” said the leader, Said al-Fasatwi, a revolutionary commander from the town of Jadu. “But we won’t leave anything behind.”
As fighters gathered at the headquarters of the military council in the town of Rogeban, Colonel Mohamed Ethish and another officer reviewed a map of the battlefield surrounding the military base. Other men prepared their weapons, and a few fighters set out to scout the area. Their offensive started about 6 a.m., when rebels in trucks with antiaircraft guns and rocket launchers took up positions around the base, a meandering collection of more than seventy concrete bunkers and buildings that stretched for miles. An hour later, the pro-Qaddafi soldiers were fighting back fiercely but aiming poorly. For hours, Grad rocket barrages and mortar rounds landed harmlessly in the desert scrub, sometimes far behind the rebel lines.
The rebels have boasted recently of a much-improved communications system that, coupled with the degradation of the Qaddafi forces’ communications, is giving them a major advantage on the battlefield. While there is no cellphone service here, the rebels were equipped with wireless radios, which did seem to give them some tactical advantage.
By 10:00 a.m., spectators watching with binoculars from nearby hills decided the battle was going well enough that they could move closer. Two hours later, the hills were filled with brown dust, as rebel vehicles drove in convoys toward the base, reacting to the news: Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers had fled. The rebels said only one of their fighters was dead, by rounds from an antiaircraft gun. One man returning from the front lines thought some of the loyalist soldiers had been killed, though he did not know how many. “I saw blood,” he said.
If the attack on the base was a showcase of rebel organization, its aftermath was a picture of the movement’s shortcomings. Apart from men directing traffic, there seemed to be no effort to secure the ammunition or weapons. On a road outside the base, a truck hauled away cases of ammunition bearing stickers that showed two hands shaking above the words United States of America. A traffic jam clogged the narrow entrance. Young men hitched rides in pickup trucks, hoping to find a Kalashnikov or any other gun. There were none to be had, so the men hauled away anything they could find. “I found a new gun,” said Murad Ruheibi, 33, holding up an emptied plastic water bottle with a snake he found in one of the warehouses. A teenager slung what appeared to be part of an antiaircraft weapon on his shoulder as others carted away dozens of similar tubes. All but a handful of the concrete storage bunkers had been partly or totally destroyed by several waves of NATO airstrikes, rebels said. Carpets of metal stretched for hundreds of feet in front of the damaged buildings, consisting of destroyed ammunition and unexploded tank shells.
In undamaged bunkers, people ripped apart ammunition cases, striking them with crowbars or gun butts. At least one person died while handling the ammunition, according to people at the hospital in the nearby town of Zintan. By day’s end, there were signs that the rebel momentum might be fleeting: hundreds of people fled the base, after a rumor that the pro-Qaddafi soldiers were returning. But they did not. A fighter from Jadu, who asked to be identified by his first name, Sufian, suggested than talk of an attack on Tripoli was premature. “We are going to have to organize ourselves out here first.”
Rico says he wonders how you do say 'clusterfuck' in Arabic...

More trouble in Cairo

The AP has an article in The New York Times about demonstrations in Cairo:
Egyptian security forces and protesters clashed for a second successive day in central Cairo in scenes not seen since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February. Riot police were deployed around the Interior Ministry and were using tear gas to keep the protesters at bay. The demonstrators were responding with rocks and firebombs. The clashes left streets littered with rocks and debris and sent a cloud of tear gas over the area.
So far, the violence was on a much smaller scale than the clashes the previous evening, when some five thousand protesters battled the police for hours overnight. But, regardless of their size, the clashes are likely to widen the rift between many Egyptians and the police, blamed for many of the human rights abuses during Mubarak's years in power.
The clashes are also likely to delay efforts aimed at allowing the police to fully take back the streets after their unexplained disappearance following deadly clashes with protesters during the uprising and the deployment of army troops in their place in late January.
Dozens of protesters and policemen were injured in the violence, but there were no exact figures immediately available. Ambulances were ferrying the wounded to hospitals and volunteer doctors and nurses were treating others on sidewalks. The scenes were reminiscent of the eighteen days of protests that toppled Mubarak's nearly thirty-year regime.
Some of the protesters used scarves to fend off tear gas, pelted police cars with rocks, and advanced when the riot police lines retreated. But while the main chant back in January and February was The people want to oust the regime, screams of the people want to oust the field-marshal dominated now.
It's a reference to Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's longtime defense minister and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that has taken over after the former president stepped down. Tantawi is seen by some of the youth groups behind the uprising to be a key member of the Mubarak regime. They charge that his policies are designed to keep the old order, and also accuse him of deliberately slowing down the process of purging Mubarak loyalists and failing to reform the hated Interior Ministry and its security agencies.
Many of the protesters who took to the streets are believed to be relatives of some 850 people killed during the uprising that ousted the former president, and are frustrated over what they perceive as the slow pace of prosecution of police officers believed to be responsible for the deaths.
The clashes began in Tahrir square, the epicenter of the earlier uprising, but later moved to streets leading to the nearby Interior Ministry when authorities ordered the riot police to pull back from the vast plaza. Tahrir square was closed to traffic.
The military, which has taken over from Mubarak, issued a statement on its Facebook page saying the clashes were designed to "destabilize the country" and drive a wedge between the groups behind the uprising and the security forces. It called on Egyptians not to join the protests.
A key youth group, 6 April, described the police's handling of the latest protests as "brutal", and called in a statement for a sit-in in central Cairo to protest what it said was the failure to implement many of the demands from the uprising, and also to show solidarity with the families of the uprising's victims.

At 29,000 miles an hour, anything's a close call

Kenneth Chang has an article in The New York Times about a near-miss in space:
One of the hundreds of thousands of pieces of space-age litter orbiting Earth zipped uncomfortably close to the International Space Station recently. The six crew members of the space station took refuge in their “lifeboats”— two Soyuz space capsules they would use to escape a crippled station— as the unidentified object hurtled past them at a speed of 29,000 miles per hour, missing the space station by only a thousand feet.
“We believe the probability that it would the hit the station was about 1 in 360,” said Lark Howorth, who leads the team at NASA that tracks the space station’s trajectory. NASA rules call for precautions when the risk of impact is greater than 1 in 10,000.
In the section of the station run by the United States, astronauts closed the hatches in case the debris— commonly known as space junk— crashed through, to limit the danger of explosive decompression. To prepare for a rapid departure, the clamps holding the Soyuz capsules to the station were released.
“They would be one command away from releasing the hooks and undocking,” said Edward Van Cise, NASA’s lead flight director. Mission controllers gave the all-clear signal four minutes later, and the crew members returned to work. There was no sign of damage or impact to the station.
It was only the second time in the ten-year history of people living on the space station that the crew needed to take such precautions; on 12 March 2009, a piece of an old satellite motor went zipping by.
If the station had been hit, the crew could have quickly undocked and returned to Earth. The risk of space junk hitting a Soyuz capsule is much slimmer. Usually, when NASA gets a warning, several days in advance, that something that might come too close to the station, it moves the station by firing thrusters. Or, if a space shuttle happened to be visiting at the time, the shuttle would nudge the station out of danger. That has happened twelve times. This time, however, the warning came less than fifteen hours in advance, too little time to plan a maneuver.
Since the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched was in 1957, the space neighborhood has become cluttered with human-made detritus; more than half a million pieces, by recent estimates, from the size of a marble on up. If the orbits of two intersect, the result can be a destructive collision.
“It’s getting kind of dangerous,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who has become an expert on space debris. “Most active satellites now have a regular process of maneuvering to avoid debris.”
NASA estimates that for each six-month period, there is a one-in-one-hundred chance that some or all of the space station crew might need to evacuate, and most of that risk comes from the possibility of impact from debris or natural micrometeroids. Over ten years, the current planned lifetime of the station, the cumulative risk is nearly one in five.
“It’s at the level where it probably won’t happen in the lifetime of the station, but it easily could,” Dr. McDowell said. The debris includes spent rocket stages, and sometimes over time residual fuel combines and explodes. “You now no longer have a rocket stage,” Dr. McDowell said. “You have five hundred pieces of shrapnel.”
Also still in orbit are broken satellites or almost incidental litter. In the past, lens covers on satellite cameras and sensors were simply popped off and left to float away. Now satellite makers put the lens cap on a hinge. Military antisatellite tests also make a big mess, notably when the Chinese blew up one of their satellites in 2007.

Not the Mad Hatter's tea party

Rico says the Mad Hatter (drawing) is a different tea party, not the Tea Party, but Kate Zernike has an article in The New York Times about the political one:
When Tea Party groups celebrated their victories in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in November, where they had helped take the governor’s office and the legislature, it seemed that one of their priorities, school choice legislation, would have an easy time passing. Instead, the bill, which would provide vouchers to poor families who want better schools for their children, has sparked what one Tea Party activist called a “fight within the family.”
Many Tea Party groups oppose the bill because it does not establish universal school choice, and call it a bailout of failing schools. They accuse those who support it, backed by a powerful Washington group that has helped cultivate the Tea Party, of selling out to the kind of politics-as-usual approach that the movement was founded to oppose. Supporters say those opponents do not understand that compromise is part of politics.
The disagreement resonates beyond the local particulars. It offers a microcosm of the Tea Party’s struggle as it tries to turn the potency it showed in the midterm elections into influence in legislative battles and the 2012 presidential campaign. Having been brought together primarily by what they oppose, Tea Party groups have had difficulty agreeing on what they stand for. Just saying “Tea Party” strikes fear in many Republicans in Washington and state capitols. But, in practice, the Tea Party is often fractious and undefined.
In Tennessee, a split between Tea Party groups forced legislators to scale back antiterrorism legislation that toughened state penalties for people who support terrorist groups. While the social conservatives in the movement supported it, those on the libertarian end of the Tea Party spectrum argued that the bill, originally aimed at Islamic groups, was a government intrusion on personal liberties.
In Indiana, Tea Party groups had vowed to unite behind a challenger to run against Senator Richard G. Lugar in the Republican primary in 2012, but soon fell to disagreement, with some groups refusing to attend a planned nominating convention.
Earlier this month, some Tea Party groups objected when Amy Kremer, the leader of the Tea Party Express, a group founded by longtime Republican consultants, told an interviewer that Tea Party supporters would fall in line behind whoever became the Republican nominee for president.
“I think people see this movement that became enormous and powerful and they are trying to harness it,” said Jennifer Stefano, one of the Pennsylvania Tea Party members who has opposed the school choice bill. “And everyone who asks my advice on how to do this, I tell them not to try, because it’s not possible.”
Pennsylvania, a perennial swing state, was an early breeding ground for the Tea Party movement. In April of 2009, Anastasia Przybylski, a mother in Bucks County, was inspired to hold a “roast the pork” protest against the federal stimulus bill at the site where George Washington rallied his troops before crossing the Delaware to attack British forces. Ms. Przybylski and her co-organizers sent the information about the event to FreedomWorks, the Washington powerhouse led by Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader, which was trying to publicize Tea Party events across the country. Soon, FreedomWorks had enough contacts in the state that it held training sessions for Pennsylvania Tea Party activists. FreedomWorks encouraged its trainees to learn from the teachings of Saul Alinsky, the father of modern community organizing and a hero of the left. They advocated a high pressure, win-at-any-cost approach, advising activists to use ridicule, agitate, and disrupt to get what they wanted.
After the midterm elections, the group hired Ms. Przybylski and Ana Puig, another activist, who called their group the Kitchen Table Patriots, to lobby for a school choice bill here.
FreedomWorks is pushing anti-union legislation in several states, and saw the school choice legislation as part of that larger battle.
The bill would give vouchers to students in failing schools who are poor enough to qualify for the federal free lunch program. The amount would vary according to how much money the state contributes to each district and would be expanded to a limited number of additional students in the second and third years of the program. It would cost an estimated $50 million in the first year, $100 million in the second and $1 billion in the third.
FreedomWorks hoped that having Ms. Puig and Ms. Przybylski’s support would give the bill grass-roots credibility. But many Tea Party groups objected, saying the bill violates the principles they have fought for, in particular, the libertarian tenet that the government cannot take property from one person against his will for the benefit of someone else. The bill, they argue, amounts to another government entitlement program. “It creates class warfare,” said Sharon Cherubin, an activist in Lancaster County who home schools her children. “Is it fair that John Doe’s family earns a penny over poverty level and his parents have to sacrifice and work four jobs while the next guy gets a free ride?”
FreedomWorks has paid for robocalls and newspaper and television campaigns against several conservative Republican legislators who oppose the bill. And Tea Party activists complain that the group has treated them with contempt. At a meeting in April, the president of FreedomWorks, Matt Kibbe, called opponents of the bill “bed-wetters”, prompting an angry confrontation with Tea Party members. The Republican who sponsored the bill, Senator Jeffrey E. Piccola, accused its critics of racism.
“They took far too seriously their own Saul Alinsky training,” Ms. Stefano said. “It’s one thing to go against the left, but this is taking it up against your own family, the people who stood side by side with you. The whole reason the Tea Party came up is that we were tired of people coming in and telling us what to do. Now they’re coming in here and trampling on the very people they take credit for creating.”
Ms. Puig and Ms. Przybylski say these criticisms reflect the naïveté of many Tea Party activists. “I was naïve, too,” Ms. Przybylski said, “But when you start talking to people, you realize how difficult it is to get a fraction of what you really want through the legislature. You have to take an incremental approach.” Working with FreedomWorks, she said, allowed her group to “professionalize ourselves.”
With the legislative session expiring this week, two forces of Tea Party activists have been working the state Capitol here. Last week, Ms. Przybylski and Ms. Puig were inside trying to persuade undecided lawmakers to support the bill. Outside, other Tea Party groups were holding a news conference to express their objections and advocate for a new proposal that would instead expand tax credits for companies that give low- and middle-income students scholarships to attend private schools.
“We can’t, as a Tea Party organization, allow anyone to speak for us,” said Lisa Esler, a Tea Party activist who opposes the bill. “That’s the lesson.”

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