Latter Day presidential candidates

by Matt_Bishop on August 9, 2006

Had lunch with a Wall Street tycoon who has been sizeing up the likely candidates for the Republican presidential ticket in 2008. Other than John McCain, the current front-runner but no shoo-in, he thought Rudy Giuliani had no chance, Bill Frist too intense, Chuck Hagel statesmanlike, but burdened with a voting record, and George Allen a nice guy, but don’t get it, “George Bush lite”. One person impressed him a great deal: Mitt Romney, the governor of Massachussetts, who earlier in his career turned around Bain & Co and then made a success of the Winter Olympics in Utah.

The question that neither of us could answer – and nor apparently could Romney – is how Romney’s mormon faith will play in the primaries, where the hardcore christian right holds sway. My guess, based entirely on time spent with evangelical christians in Britain, is that it will not play well at all. Romney may be a pro-lifer (with a few caveats), but although evangelicals sometimes admire the missionary zeal of mormons, those I have met universally regard mormonism – with its indestructible undergarments, shunning of coffee and magic scripture-reading spectacles – as bonkers, and a cult, up there with or even worse than scientology. Perhaps it is viewed differently in America: does anyone know?

Still, it is the fastest growing religion in the world, apparently, so there may be some supportive voters out there for Mitt, whose sensible economic views may also appeal to centrist Republicans. Meanwhile, I am trying to figure out why I find HBO’s mormon polygamy show, “Big Love”, such compulsive viewing.

Enemies of Promise

by Henry Farrell on August 9, 2006

Scott McLemee’s “column”: today is on a new collection of essays by George Scialabba. I’ll be getting the collection – everything by Scialabba that I’ve read I’ve enjoyed – but I want to take issue with Scialabba’s very interesting “essay”: on Christopher Hitchens for _N+1_ last year. The burden of the piece is that Hitchens used to seem like a brilliant essayist when he agreed with Scialabba, but now seems anything but; less because of his disagreement than the manner of it, a form of argument which is, in Scialabba’s lapidary phrase, “a tempest of inaccuracy, illogic, and malice.” After having thought about it on and off over the last year, I think that this is right in broad outline, but it doesn’t get at the root of what’s wrong with Hitchens’ writing. Hitchens can be a brilliant stylist (less so today than he used to be, but even now a beautiful sentence occasionally pierces through the fog), but he doesn’t seem to me to be a political thinker. Which is to say that the political positions that he takes seem to me to be grounded more in a sensibility than in a coherent view of politics. This was as true when he was unambiguously on the left as it is now – his earlier essays are sometimes wonderful taken one by one, but they really don’t add up to a whole. Hitchens is notoriously fond of comparing himself to George Orwell, but the better comparison is with Orwell’s friend, “Cyril Connolly”: A bit of a waster, with a prose style to die for, but not much at all in the way of political _nous_.

A step above steerage

by Matt_Bishop on August 9, 2006

There are some budding investigative hacks among my fellow Timberers, I see – Jim having concluded from my reading of a free Daily Mail that I must have traveled ‘a step above steerage’ on my BA flight from London to NY. Spot on! I actually flew premium economy (World Traveller Plus), having been upgraded (probably due to the frequency of my flying) from the steerage ticket which is all that The Economist allows its journalists to have (except on flights of more than 11 hours, I think, which none of us ever take. Genius). Premium economy means more leg room, which is frankly all I want, but is otherwise identical to the steerage service – with the one great advantage that you get off the plane sooner, and so have to spend less time queueing in US immigration.

Compared to that of, say, an Arab, my experience of US immigration is admittedly a doddle. But standing in line for an hour after a long flight is no fun, with the only entertainment being celebrity spotting. Sir David Frost delighted us steerage types by trying and failing to get to the front of the queue – though a small lady mysteriously appeared (perhaps from steerage?) to carry his bags. I also saw John Porter, the son of Lady Shirley Porter, the famous Tory jerrymanderer and Tesco heiress, who has controversially just returned from exile to England. I have met John before, and had hoped for a chat – but he was led off into the dreaded private room by immigration officers. His traveling companion said that this is the fifth time this has happened, as he has a name similar to someone on the US watch list. Presumably not a terrorist – but maybe the director of a British online gambling firm or an investment bank that did business with Enron? The US really does itself no favours on the PR front.

Anyway, to my point. I tried to use my mobile phone while waiting in immigration, and was soon ordered to stop. The same happened on the plane, as we were taxi-ing to the terminal. Can anyone explain this intolerance of phones? Perhaps the immigration officers prefer silence in their halls, but there is no ban on conversation per se. As for mobile phoning on a plane, surely it is time for a consistent policy for all airlines, which clearly have no idea why they have the policies they do. Most US airlines allow phones to be switched on as soon as the wheels hit the ground, which surely makes sense if you buy the main justification offered for banning the use of mobile phones in the air – namely that they might interfere with the plane’s electrical instruments. However, my science and technology colleagues tell me that there is no way that a mobile phone can interfere with the electrics in this way, and that it is perfectly safe to use phones in the air. Indeed, several phones are usually on, inadvertently, during a typical transatlantic flight, and do no harm. Surely it is time to free the mobile phone for use in flight – though if it happens, I bet the first flight I’ll be sat next to a teenage girl from California who spends the entire flight, like, gossiping, like, to, like, her, like, friends.

War crimes (again)

by Chris Bertram on August 9, 2006

Via “Billmon”: , I see that the Bush administration “is now proposing amendments”: to the War Crimes Act in order to protect CIA operatives and former military personnel from prosecution for violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The proposal is to replace general protections against degrading treatment with a list of specific offences. Guess what gets excluded:

bq. … humiliations, degrading treatment and other acts specifically deemed as “outrages” by the international tribunal prosecuting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia — such as placing prisoners in “inappropriate conditions of confinement,” forcing them to urinate or defecate in their clothes, and merely threatening prisoners with “physical, mental, or sexual violence” — would not be among the listed U.S. crimes, officials said.

Two-point scales

by John Q on August 9, 2006

I’ve been reading Steven Poole’s Unspeak and he observes that having introduced a five-level color coded terror alert, the government has never used the top level (red) or the bottom two levels (blue and green). The obvious reason is that a red alert would require some specific action, while a move to a blue or green level would imply that there was some prospect of the War on Terror actually ending.

I’ve noticed much the same phenomenon with 5-point grading scales for worker performance, such as those used in the Australian Public Service for a while. A top score suggests a requirement for some kind of substantial reward, so these are rare, while a score of 4 or 5 implies a need for counselling and a possibility of dismissal. So just about everyone gets a 2 or a 3, yielding, in effect, a two-point scale.

I imagine someone in psychometrics must have studied this kind of thing in general. Any pointers?

Update James Joyner at Outside the Beltway made the same point a couple of years ago. BTW, I saw a fun movie clip with an earnest PR type talking about the creation of the color code, maybe posted by Eszter. I couldn’t find it on a quick search. Can anyone remember this?

Yet further update One day after I posted this, the Red Alert level has finally been used, but apparently only for commercial flights from Britain to the US, in response to the announcement by British authorities that they have detected a terrorist threat to blow up planes.