Whither the intrepid blogger?

Sure, I deserve some blogging time off the week of Christmas.  And I wish that’s all it was.  But damn have I been knocked by the flu.  And so has Kim (who also has bronchitis to boot).  The kids are as demanding as ever and bored out of their minds as they sit at home with their zombified parents.  Good times!  It seems that I’ve turned a corner and regular parental (thank God for Netflix and DVD’s) and blogging functioning should hopefully resume soon.

Oh, and we both had the flu shot.  Lot of good that did us.   Interestingly, Kim, David, and I all had the shot and all have the flu.  Alex, Evan, and Sarah all had the mist.  Alex was sick for about 48 hours before Christmas (we now realize that’s what started it all) and the other two have not had the slightest hint of illness.  Flu mist > flu shot?

Photo of the day

Favorite Christmas morning photo from yesterday.  Evan with the ornament he made for his mom on his shoulder:


Broken Clock

George Will nails it on the gross injustice of our nation’s mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.  This so has to change.  I know politicians are super-fearful of not being “tough on crime” but I think that this is the rare instance where the public might be out ahead.  Not only is it morally wrong-headed to lock somebody up for decades for simply selling a psychoactive substance the government deems harmful (but is often no worse than alcohol) it is just horribly stupid an inefficient policy.  Ugh.  Will’s conclusion (I’ve included his last of many dismaying examples):

Kenneth Harvey was 24 in 1989 when he committed a crack cocaine offense. He had two prior offenses that qualified as felony drug convictions even though they were not deemed serious enough for imprisonment. They, however, enabled the government to make an 851 filing. He will die in prison. Harvey is 48.

Thousands of prisoners are serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. Gleeson, who is neither naive nor sentimental (as a prosecutor, he sent mobster John Gotti to die in a supermax prison), knows that most defendants who plead guilty are guilty. He is, however, dismayed at the use of the threat of mandatory minimums as “sledgehammers” to extort guilty pleas, effectively vitiating the right to a trial. Ninety-seven percent of federal convictions are without trials, sparing the government the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Mere probable cause, and the meager presentation required for a grand jury indictment, suffices. “Judging is removed,” Gleeson says, “prosecutors become sentencers.” And when threats of draconian sentences compel guilty pleas, “some innocent people will plead guilty.”

Barack ObamaAttorney General Eric Holder and Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are questioning the regime of mandatory minimum sentences, including recidivism enhancements, that began with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Meanwhile, the human and financial costs of mass incarceration mount.


Photo of the day (Merry Christmas)

From a Big Picture gallery:

General view of the Guinness Christmas lights world record made in Canberra, Australia, Nov. 24. Homeowner David Richards switched on more than 500,000 lights to raise money for the charity SIDS and Kids ACT. The previous record was 350,000 lights. (Alan Porritt/EPA)
And since it is Christmas, I really enjoyed this appreciation of Christmas coming from a rabbi (seen in his syndicated column):

However, beyond the tinsel and toys, what I love about Christmas is very deep and reaches out to non-Christians in gentle but profound ways.

I love Christmas most of all because of its universal message of hope, symbolized by the manger. I love mangers. I love the animals more than the three kings, but the baby Jesus in the cradle is my real favorite.

At his birth, before his adult mission that theologically divides us began, the infant Jesus was a symbol of inchoate hope. He was hope the way all babies are hope. Carl Sandburg once wrote: “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” I agree, and the baby Jesus is a symbol of all babies and the way they gently help us upgrade our idea of life and its spiritual possibilities.

The more advanced element of hope symbolized by the birth of Jesus is the hope that we might all find a way to correct our lives, which are all broken by sin.

Each religion has a different way to teach hope. I believe God’s Torah is my hope for a life of virtue and salvation. Whether I need Jesus’ hope will be sorted out by God in the fullness of time, but this week I’m uplifted by the great story of hope contained in the Christian account of the birth of Jesus. A baby in a manger seems to me to be a perfect depiction of a future that’s neither bleak nor abandoned…

Christmas is certainly one of the greatest holidays any religion has ever produced. Its combination of twinkle and hearth, cookies and wreaths, plus the promise of a redeemer for this wounded world, and of Santa while we wait, is extraordinary and alluring, magical and moving.

Well, if you put it that way, Merry Christmas to all.

(Of course, when it comes to thinking of baby Jesus, I think Will Ferrell has permanently ruined it for me:)

Photo of the day

Wow.  This Phil Plait gallery of astronomical images of the year is amazing.  (Can’t wait to look at them all with my astronomy-loving son, Evan).   Here’s just your every day picture of a dying star.Hubble snaps NGC 5189

Photo by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

When stars die, they do it in style. This is NGC 5189, a glowing gas cloud seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. At the center is a white dwarf, the remains of what was once a star probably about twice the mass of the Sun. As it ran out of fuel, it expelled huge quantities of gas into space, exposing its dense core. White hot, spinning rapidly and possessed of a killer magnetic field, the white dwarf spewed out twin jets of energy and matter from its poles, energizing the surrounding material. However, the star is wobbling, so these lighthouse-like beams appear to carve out a gigantic S shape in the star’s former outer layers. At least, we think that’s what’s happening: This object isn’t completely understood, though that’s is the most likely explanation for this dramatic and lovely object.

Quick hits

Your belated Christmas eve version of quick hits.  Enjoy.

1) Snooze buttons are bad for you.  Always seemed that way intuitively to me.  Never really used one.

2) How humans created cats.  Short version– agriculture.

3) Surprise, surprise, white middle class people get treated differently in our justice system.  A first-hand account of a middle-class white guy trying, but largely failing, to get arrested is always nice.

4) Should you be physically blocking your webcam from spying on you?

5) The NCAA is more evil than you think.  And that’s saying something.

6) An Israeli security expert outlines 7 reasons the TSA is horrible.

7) You’ll never look at plants the same after reading this amazing Michael Pollan New Yorker article about the intelligence of plants.  That’s right– the intelligence of plants.  Stunning stuff.

8) Right to remain silent?  We don’t need no stinkin’ right to remain silent.  

9) The thirteen most-read New Yorker articles of the year.  You know that’s going to be some damn good stuff.

10) Too  my everlasting shame, I somehow never blogged about Sarah Stillman’s phenomenal and phenomenally disturbing piece on civil forfeiture (in the list above).  If you follow just one of these links, make it this one.

11) A magnum opus on all that goes into making the perfect chocolate chip cookie.  It’s amazing how long this is.  Yet I read most all of it.  And can’t wait to try the recipe.

12) Kevin Drum on the fraud that is pretending voter fraud is a real problem.

13) Not actually surprised to learn that when properly tested in a comparative effectiveness design, exercise is often just as effective as drugs in treating medical conditions.



Quote of the day

Rand Paul (via Isaac Chotiner):

Young people, they don’t really associate with Republicans on taxes and regulations. Not that they oppose us, they just don’t have any money so they don’t care much about those issues. But they’ve all got a cellphone, they’re all on the Internet, they’re all concerned about Internet freedom — and they’re concerned about privacy. And these are precisely issues where we can grow our youth vote.” [Italics Chotiner]

And Chotiner:

In short: if you don’t make a lot of money or own a business subject to governmental regulations, the GOP doesn’t have much to offer you! How odd. I had always thought it was the poor single mother without health insurance who Republican politicians were trying to help. I stand corrected.

Voting– NC style

Sunday’s Doonesbury:


Photo of the day

A cool In Focus gallery of clouds filling the Grand Canyon:

A total cloud inversion in the Grand Canyon, viewed from Mather Point on the South Rim. (National Park Service/Erin Whittaker)

Two Americas– one is better

Man did I love this Josh Barro take on the whole Duck Dynasty business:

Specifically, there’s one America where comparing homosexuality to bestiality is considered acceptable, and another where it is rude and offensive.

In one America, it’s OK to say this of gays and lesbians: “They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil.” In the other America, you’re not supposed to say that.

There’s one America where it’s OK to say this about black people in the Jim Crow-era South: “Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.” There’s another America where that statement is considered to reflect ignorance and insensitivity. In one America, it’s OK to attribute the Pearl Harbor attacks to Shinto Buddhists’ failure to accept Jesus. In the other America, that is not OK.

There are two Americas, one of which is better than the other. And it’s instructive who’s sticking up for the worse America.

The conservative politicians who are complaining that Phil Robertson’s firing flies in the face of “free speech” are generally smart enough to understand that Robertson doesn’t actually have a legal right to be on A&E. When Sarah Palin and her cohorts talk about the importance of “free speech,” they mean something much more specific: That the sorts of things that Robertson said are not the sorts of things a private employer should want to fire someone for saying. That they are, or ought to be, within the bounds of social acceptability.

But they’re wrong. The other America—the America I live in—has this one right. Racist and anti-gay comments and comments disparaging of religious minorities are rude and unacceptable and might cost you your job. It’s not OK to say that gay people are “full of murder.”  [emphases mine]

Also, nice take in the Atlantic that the real scandal is how Robertson’s odious comments on race have largely been ignored in all this.

Is the opera really a charity?

John F. read yesterday’s post about charitable giving and shared this great Robert Reich column with me (in Salon):

 According to the Congressional Budget Office, $33 billion of last year’s $39 billion in total charitable deductions went to the richest 20 percent of Americans, of whom the richest 1 percent reaped the lion’s share…

But a large portion of the charitable deductions now claimed by America’s wealthy are for donations to culture palaces – operas, art museums, symphonies, and theaters – where they spend their leisure time hobnobbing with other wealthy benefactors.

Another portion is for contributions to the elite prep schools and universities they once attended or want their children to attend. (Such institutions typically give preference in admissions, a kind of affirmative action, to applicants and “legacies” whose parents have been notably generous.)

Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the rest of the Ivy League are worthy institutions, to be sure, but they’re not known for educating large numbers of poor young people…

I’m all in favor of supporting fancy museums and elite schools, but face it: These aren’t really charities as most people understand the term…

In economic terms, a tax deduction is exactly the same as government spending. Which means the government will, in effect, hand out $40 billion this year for “charity” that’s going largely to wealthy people who use much of it to enhance their lifestyles.

To put this in perspective, $40 billion is more than the federal government will spend this year on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (what’s left of welfare), school lunches for poor kids, and Head Start, put together…

At a time in our nation’s history when the number of poor Americans continues to rise, when government doesn’t have the money to do what’s needed, and when America’s very rich are richer than ever, this doesn’t seem right.

If Congress ever gets around to revising the tax code, it might consider limiting the charitable deduction to real charities.

Amen.  The likelihood of revising our tax code this way?  Pretty close to zero.  Safe to say those rich people– who have maybe just a slightly disproportionate influence in politics– aren’t about to give up this deduction.

[Since when do I blog so much on a Sunday?  Since it’s Christmas vacation and my kids are more interested in spending time with the grandparents and aunt & uncle than me.  I’ll take it.]

Map of the day

Football vs. Soccer in one map.  Via Knowmore:

Who calls it “football” and who calls it “soccer”, in one map

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