Thursday, August 24, 2006

"Dance like a Caucasoid girl!"

Osama bin Laden is not only the shadowy leader of a world-wide network of ruthless terrorists, he is also a big fan of Whitney Houston, Van Halen, and the TV series "The Wonder Years." This according to Kola Boof, who has just published her autobiography in which she recounts her year as the captive lover of OBL. You can read an excerpt in Harper's, and catch a few more details from the coverage in the Daily Mail. Osama bin Laden expert Peter Hagen has tried to poor cold water on Boof's allegations by, for example, pointing out that two of the people Boof supposedly had a group sexual encounter with were dead at the time. But Boof's publisher assures the public that she and Boof "happen to know they're very much alive."

But what's really got me worried is what Osama's favorite TV shows are. No, not the 'Wonder Years'--I mean the other one: MacGyver! The thought of Osama bin Laden learning the explosives secrets of MacGyver means that no airliner in the world is safe until all fire extinguishers, wooden spoons, bamboo shoots and mud (and a whole lot of other stuff) is banned from carry-on luggage. Probably it should all be banned from checked baggage, too, just to be safe.

Until these modest, completely sane steps are taken, I, like Kola Boof, will be hearing "Rock Lobster" in my sleep. For me it will be a constant, hard-rock warning that we're not safe as long as MacOBL is out there.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Signing statements: Have they had any effect on law enforcement?

The NPR show Fresh Air this evening had an interview with Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage, revisiting his April, 2006, article about president Bush's unprecedented use of signing statements. You can listen to that segment of the show on I was waiting for the interviewer to ask what effect the signing statements have had on federal law enforcement. But he didn't, and so I'm left still wondering whether these statements matter or not.

Bush's signing statements are clearly another way he has attempted to greatly expand the powers of the president, and another aspect of his administration's 'unitary executive' theory, which holds that the president's powers as head of the executive branch and as commander in chief of the armed forces cannot be limited by Congress, and that the president has the authority to judge the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. In effect, some argue, Bush's signing statements are like a line-item veto that cannot be overturned by Congress nor reviewed by the courts.

Well, maybe... I certainly don't like the signing statements, and believe the 'unitary executive' theory as it's been construed by this administration is a grave threat to the constitution. What the statements can and cannot do need to be clearly defined by Congress and the courts. But can anyone point out an example of where a federal agency has not enforced a law passed by Congress because of a signing statement? And if any agency did that, couldn't they be sued for not enforcing the law, thereby bringing the signing statement (and perhaps the whole principle of signing statements) before the courts?

Without any examples of the detrimental effects of these statements, they seem pernicious more for the principle they embody than for any real force they have in law.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

MPG and MPH, 1973-98

This should actually be a comment on Christian_Left's previous post on speed limits, but Blogger won't let me embed an image in a comment (dammit). So go back and read his post and its other comments before you read this, okay?

Looking again at the web page CL linked to in his post, I noticed that they do give sources for their data at the bottom of the page. For fuel efficiency they cite a study published in 1999, which I could not find online. But data from one done by the same authors, with the same title, in 1997-8 was available (probably it's the same study; you can download a PDF of the data here [chapter 7, p. 26], or see an image of the relevant table by clicking here). Using that data I constructed this graph:

So studies on peak efficiency have been regularly repeated, but the most recent data is probably from 1997-98 model year cars. The peak efficiency for that year is 32.4 mpg in the 50-55 mph range. So 55 is still the peak, as far as we know, though peak efficiency speeds have been increasing: it was the 35-40 range in 1984, and 30-40 (the lowest speeds tested) in 1973.

It's also depressing to note, however, that the fuel efficiency at peak speeds has decreased from 33.6 mpg in 1984, to 32.4 in 1997-8.

The one good thing about Israel's second invasion of Lebanon

Just when you thought the Bush administration couldn't possibly screw up US foreign policy in the Middle East any more than they already had, they surprise you once again by abetting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (with some neo-cons encouraging them to widen the war by attacking Syria and maybe Iran, too). As bad as the US position in the region before the Israeli invasion, it's now worse. Arab extremists have one more example of US/Israeli aggression to use as a recruiting tool, and Hezbollah, by virtue of not only surviving the invasion but by putting up surprisingly stiff resistance to the Israeli army, has increased its prestige in the Arab world.  I certainly hope that the ceasefire agreement voted by the UN holds, and that the bombs, shells and rockets will no longer be killing people in Israel and Lebanon. But war has been a disaster for the already dim prospects for peace in the region.

One good thing though: The brazen hypocrisy of US policy toward Lebanon--hailing the newly elected government as proof that the invasion of Iraq had indeed ushered in a new phase of democratic development in the region, and then hurrying to ship to Israel bombs and missiles to destroy the country, while publicly delaying diplomatic efforts to arrange a cease-fire--might have finally knocked Condoleeza Rice off the pedestal the US press had put her on since her ascension to Secretary of State. She had been portrayed as bringing a new realism and pragmatism to Bush foreign policy, but her absurd comments and diplomatic dithering after the Israeli air strikes began have severely damaged her image. She had somehow emerged from the White House without the taint of failure from the Iraq misadventure, blame for which was largely heaped on Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their cronies. Now she’s knee-deep in the Big Muddy along with the rest of them. If only they weren't dragging the rest of the country along with them.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Maybe We Should Lower the Speed Limit

I'm back in my old home state, Nebraska, right now. As I was driving on the central expressway corridor, Interestate 80--commonly called "I-80" by locals, not "The 80" as locals might say in southern California--I was thinking about how much gas people (including me) were wasting driving the 75-MPH which is the posted speed limit. Now, estimates vary, but it seems that most auto efficiency websites claim that fuel efficiency for most cars decreases above 55 or 60 MPH, and especially above 65 MPH.

Back when I was growing up, I remember that speed limits were raised from 65 to 75 MPH. Even though the change was popular, I remember being opposed at the time on the basis of safety considerations. To the best of my knowledge, such safety concerns are still valid: it is not so much that people have more accidents, although perhaps they do, but the higher speed inevitably makes such accidents more deadly. But now I wonder if it may be the high gas prices--and, more fundamentally, worries about dwindling oil supplies and global warming--might lead us to reconsider our love affair with high speed limits in America.

I experimented a little yesterday, driving between 60 and 70 MPH whenever possible, but I found that I often had to increase my speed temporarily to 75 in order to avoid creating a traffic bottleneck. Much as I believe in fuel efficiency, I am not willing to make a total pest out of myself on the road, nor am I willing to risk being rear-ended by some extra large pick-up truck or SUV. So that makes me wonder if it is time to broach the taboo topic of LOWERING speed limits. Now, I know that flies in the face of the American entitlement for high consumption and speed...but I still think maybe this time of high and rising gas prices might be a good time to raise the issue.

For its part, the government's own fuel efficiency website has a nice graph showing the huge fuel wastage that usually occurs as you approach 75 MPH. (If you've ever paid attention when going really fast on expressways, you must have noticed this too--I couldn't fail to notice when I had to refill my gas tank after 350 as opposed to 450 miles when driving on high-speed interestates!) However, I do find it somewhat comical that the website places this information under the heading "Observe the Speed Limit." They must not have been to Nebraska (or Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, or Wyoming--and those are only the ones with 75 MPH) lately. If one drove the speed limit in these states, one would be quite on the far right edge of that disastrously plunging graph. Now I realize that many of these states have long, "boring" expanses of open highway, but will it really kill us all to get where we are going a little bit later? Especially considering that we could save a lot of money on gas by slowing down a bit? I suggest that we consider lowering our speed limits to 65 MPH to save energy, money, and lives.