Wednesday, February 28, 2007

What's Killing the Honeybees of America?

The pedigree of honey / Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him / Is aristocracy.


Once upon a time, I had an opportunity to work with a beekeeper. This wonderful experience opened my eyes to the crucial link that these industrious insects were to the crops that we grew and ate on the farm where I lived, as well as the global food chain.

So I have followed with great interest and considerable dread the mystery of why an alarming number of honeybees in roughly half of the contiguous 48 states are succumbing to what is called Colony Collapse Disorder in which they fly off from their hives to never return and succumb to some unknown malady.

There always is a certain amount of honeybee mortality, and on several occasions I donned a white protective body suit, gloves and netted hat only to open hives where the occupants were long gone or dead.

But beekeepers in some East Coast states and Texas are reporting losses of more than 70 percent because of the disorder, while West Coast keepers say their losses range from 3o to 60 percent. This is occurring at a time when there is a growing demand for bees to pollinate all sorts of crops.
The New York Times reports that one study has estimated that honeybees pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the U.S. each year, while one expert says that every third bite of food we consume is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate it.

Yes, I got stung from time to time, mostly because I showed a lack of proper respect while messing with a hive, but the pleasure I derived from working with honeybees made it more than worthwhile.

Then there was the honey that they produced.

Each spring, my beekeeper friend would take a jar of our honey to a professor of apiary science at the local agriculture college for a taste test.

Year after year the professor pronounced our honey to be among the best clover honeys he had tasted, clover being the primary plant on which our bees feasted. Then one year he was stumped, declaring that he had never had such unusual tasting -- if delicious -- honey.

We too were stumped until my friend solved this little mystery:

Our neighbors had grown a sizeable marijuana crop in a field bordering our farm and the bees had feasted on the buds when it flowered, imbuing the honey with this bounty.
Let’s hope that the much bigger mystery of what is killing the honeybees of America also is solved.

Iran: A Positive Development At Last

For an administration that has been more inclined to saber-rattle than talk, the news that the U.S. may meet face to face with Iran and Syria is most welcome.

Less welcome are the saying that the White House has been weighing air attacks on Iran even in the face of threats by General Peter Pace, head of the Joint Chief of Staff, and other Pentagon bigs that they would resign if the saber rattlers don’t back off.
Did George Bush, a man famously averse to change, get cold feet? I think so.
Joe Gandelman has a comprehensive roundup on these developments over at The Moderate Voice.

Gasp! Another EFP Factory Found in Iraq

Further evidence that the Bush administration was blowing smoke up our backsides when it claimed that those nasty explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) are much too sophisticated to be made in Iraq and therefore had to come from Iran with the complicity of the highest levels of the Tehran government:
Another makeshift factory used to fabricate EFPs has been found in Iraq.

The White House really takes us to be fools, doesn't it?
More here, as well as my previous thoughts on the administrations woeful inability to stop exaggerrating and lying about Iran.

Quotes du Jour on the Various Wars

On the suicide bombing in Afghanistan:
I guess this was the Taliban’s way of saying, "Go fuck yourself." . . .

But don’t tell that to Major William Mitchell, who insists, despite the Taliban saying otherwise, that the explosion that killed God knows how many people and wounded at least 20 others right outside the base where [Vice Presidnet] Cheney was staying was strictly a coincidence.

Now, this means one thing and no one can ignore this: The Taliban has come closer to killing one of our senior government officials than we ever came to killing bin Laden (Damn you, Sandy Berger, damn you to Hell!).

How the Bush administration can reconcile this with claims to be winning the war on terror requires a special lunacy that really shouldn't be trusted with nation-building or nation-leading.
On the flummoxed Democratic majority in Congress:
It appears that the Democrats may have misinterpreted their mandate, and that they have finally discovered that they're on the brink of demanding surrender while at war. While a majority of Americans have serious doubts about the management of the war, most understand that pulling troops out of a fight means surrender and retreat, and they don't see how that makes America any more secure. In fact, a surrender to terrorists in Iraq will make this country a good deal less secure and embolden the terrorists to continue attacking our interests, and the Democrats seem to be the last to that realization -- or the realization that Americans understand these stakes.
On the Joe Lieberman Phenomenon:
Not since Paris Hilton has there been a media figure who draws more attention for doing nothing. Barely a week passes without Lieberman flashing a little thigh (politically speaking), and hinting (in sorrow, of course) that if his Senate Democratic colleagues fail to bend to his will and support the Republican president’s demonstrably ruinous mission in Iraq, he might just decide to retaliate by partying forevermore with the GOP. And by doing so, he would presumably shift power in the closely-divided Senate over to the Republicans (which is inaccurate, although a lot of media outlets don’t seem to know this). Yet he always qualifies the defection threat by saying that he’s probably not serious – thereby clearing the decks for the next tease cycle. . . .

The last thing that Lieberman would want is to be relegated to six long years of minority status. Remember, this is a guy who today would be a heartbeat away from the presidency, if not for hanging chads, a butterfly ballot, and a 5-4 Supreme Court. A guy like that sees himself as a player.

Which is why his ongoing play for attention should be treated with the skepticism it deserves.

On Laura Bush's appearance on Larry King Live:
In case you missed it, she said this: "I hope that they can build their government and reconcile with each other and build a country. This is their opportunity to seize the moment, to build a really good and stable country. And many parts of Iraq are stable now. But, of course, what we see on television is the one bombing a day this discourages everybody."

There is such enormous cluelessness there (and in much else of what she said) you'd think her husband was feeding her lines through a hidden earpiece. And, like her husband, her vacuous optimism seems to be based on nothing but hope. Apparently she knows nothing of Iraqi history, nor of the nature of Iraqi sectarianism, nor of present-day Iraqi reality.


Hat tip to My Left Wing for the Cheney image

Cartoon du Jour on the Various Wars

Signe Wilkinson/Philadelphia Daily News

Inquiring Minds Want to Know . . .

. . . why February has only 28 days.
You can blame those damned Romans.
More here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I Suppose I Should Be Flattered, But . . .

Back in March 2006 on the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, I wrote at Kiko's House:
"For many Americans, the war is background noise that only occasionally and inconveniently intrudes as they shop at the mall and catch a glimpse of a bloody street scene from Baghdad on the TVs in the window of an electronics store."
Then in December 2006, I wrote the following at The Moderate Voice, a blog with a substantially larger following:
"Most [Americans] are figuratively if not literally shopping at the mall, and beyond the yellow Support the Troops ribbons on their SUVs, the obscenity that the Iraq war has become is an abstraction. That is unless they are the very rare person who knows a war veteran or happens to stroll past a TV store at the mall and catches a big-screen glimpse of the carnage before they avert their eyes and continue on to Victoria's Secret."
So imagine my surprise when the photograph above, shot by John Moore of Getty Images at a Marine Corps civil affairs office in Ramadi, appeared in newspapers and at military blogs.

I suppose I should feel flattered, but I do not.
As did my words, the graffiti based on them speaks a very sad truth.

When Bad Things Happen to Bad Policies

Karzai and Cheney: Having a blast in Afghanistan
As symbols go, the detonation of a Taliban suicide bomb practically under the nose of the vice president at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan is pretty powerful.

It matters less whether Dick Cheney was two feet or two miles from the blast outside the main gate of the sprawling base at Bagram, that he was the professed target or that he was not hurt in the attack, which killed and wounded several American soldiers and Afghan and Pakistani laborers.
What matters is that five and a half years after the U.S. declared war on the international global jihad and invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban is re-emergent and regaining control of parts of the country, while Al Qaeda has rebuilt its power structure and network of training camps just across the border in Pakistan.
(After initially going with MSM accounts linking the blast to the Taliban, I'm now not so sure. Suicide bombings are fairly routine in Afghanistan; perhaps the Taliban merely seized on the possibly coincidental timing of this one to take credit for what will be viewed as a brash attempt to take out Cheney.)

In any event, I have long believed that Afghanistan is ungovernable, that no amount of money would buy Pakistan's full cooperation in the War on Terror, that the Taliban would not be easily vanquished and that pushing back against Al Qaeda and its terrorist brethern would be a long and extremely difficult fight.

But because of the diversion of attention, resources and personnel for George Bush's war in Iraq -- that is, the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time -- we will never know if the Taliban could have been taken down and Al Qaeda routed.
The vice president's trip to Afghanistan had been shrouded in secrey, which makes the suicide bomb blast all the more problematic.

Cheney made an unscheduled overnight stay at Bagram on Monday night after his helicopter was grounded by heavy snow and he was unable to make a meeting with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. The stopover followed a sitdown with Pakistani Prime Minister Musharraf during which the vice president scolded him for not cracking down on his intelligence services, which in some cases have openly supported the Taliban.

Musharraf waited until Cheney had departed before issuing a statement telling him to mind his own business. The statement subsequently was watered down, but Musharraf had made his point:
The U.S. needs Pakistan a whole lot more than Pakistan needs the U.S.

And that bad things happen when you have bad policies.

Quotes du Jour on the Wars

A woman is treated after a Baghdad suicide bomb attack

With Congress preparing for renewed debate over President Bush's Iraq policies, a majority of Americans now support setting a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from the war-torn nation and support putting new conditions on the military that could limit the number of personnel available for duty there, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Opposition to Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq remained strong. Two in three Americans registered their disapproval, with 56 percent saying they strongly object.


The Democrats appear to have a special talent for incoherence. Here they are, holding the reins of power in both congressional chambers, and enjoying solid majority support from the American people, yet apparently they still don’t have a clue how to best confront an unpopular president who is waging a disastrous and unpopular war. . . .
So don’t hold your breath this week that the Democrats will get their act together, not when so few routes to unity seem available. And if they can't deal with Iraq, what will they do if Bush ups the ante and opts for direct confrontation with Iran (the country that is now a greater threat, thanks to his misadventures in Iraq)?


The reason our mission in Iraq has proven to be so disastrous and corrupt is very simple -- the advocates and architects of that war are completely corrupt, inept, and deceitful. Recognizing this fact and ceasing to accord people like this respect and credibility is infinitely more important than any specific debates over particular policy or strategic questions. Everywhere Joe Lieberman goes, he should be asked by journalists why anyone should listen to anything he says, or believe anything he says, in light of his history of deceitful statements and tragically wrong assertions, beginning with his 2005 [Wall Street Journal] Op-Ed which today he completely repudiates while pretending he never said any of it.

These are people who are completely bereft of judgment and integrity, and their behavior has wreaked incalculable and arguably unprecedented damage on our country. Holding them accountable, and recognizing them for what they are, is critical not only for cleansing our deeply poisoned political system, but also for averting identical, or worse, tragedies in the very near future.


Democrats have started pressuring the White House to push [Pakistani PM] Musharraf harder, and it seems to have had an effect. Of course, the Bush administration has made more of an effort of late to call in markers. First, they told [Iranian PM] Nouri al-Maliki in no uncertain terms that he had to quit protecting the militias. Now they have made it clear to Musharraf that our aid won't go to someone who allows AQ to build bases in his country.

The Bush administration still rules out direct attacks on training camps inside Pakistan, but someone will have to attack those camps. Bush will probably give Musharraf the same kind of talk he gave to Maliki about that, too. If an American attack on those bases will destabilize Musharraf -- and they probably will -- then Musharraf had best start doing it himself. We can't wait forever while Al-Qaeda re-establishes themselves as a fully operational terrorist group.


The Army's highest-ranking officer and the former leader of the secretive world of Special Operations offered his thoughts on the importance of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden during a luncheon Friday. They're probably not what anyone expected.

"I don't know whether we'll find him," said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff. "I don't know that it's all that important, frankly." . . .

"So we get him, and then what?" Schoomaker said. "There's a temporary feeling of goodness, but in the long run, we may make him bigger than he is today. He's hiding, and he knows we're looking for him. We know he's not particularly effective. I'm not sure there's that great of a return" on capturing or killing bin Laden.


Photograph by Adil al-Khazali/The Associated Press

Iraq Oil: The Devil Is In the Details

In a rare display of comity, the Iraqi cabinet has approved a draft of a law setting guidelines for distribution of oil revenues and foreign investment in the country’s immense and largely untapped oil riches.The draft law allows the central government to distribute oil revenues to the provinces or regions based on population, which could lessen the economic concerns of oil poor Sunnis who fear being cut out of the vast potential oil wealth by the dominant Shiites and Kurds, who control areas of the country where most crude oil reserves lie.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details, including Production Sharing Agreements under which foreign companies -- including Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Shell -- would control all oil production from new Iraqi fields and reap a huge share of the profits for years to come.
Earlier this month, I explored the potential pitfalls of the law here. More here on the cabinet approval.

What a Wicked Web They Weave

It turns out that the Army went to extraordinarily lengths to try to blunt the impact of the WaPo's series on scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

From the Army's perspective, it was simply an effort to "get the facts out from our perspective." To the lead reporter on the series, it was a case of Army officials "shooting themselves in the foot, because reporters are not going to trust them."
More here.

A Very Belated Honor

If you saw the 2002 movie We Were Soldiers, then you know the story of Bruce Crandall.

More than 40 years after
Crandall repeatedly risked his life to rescue American soldiers fighting the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, one of the bloodiest of the Vietnam War, he has been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for military valor.
The lieutenant colonel's heroism was almost unrecognized -- when his unit deployed to Vietnam, it was shorthanded in administrative positions so that medal citations weren't handled promptly. But four decades?
Greg Kinnear played Crandall in the movie, while Mel Gibson played the commander of the men that Crandall rescued.

More here.

Crime: It's the Unemploment Rate, Stupid

I've been pretty tough on my once-upon-a-time employer, the Philadelphia Daily News, for its dead-on-arrival website. But to give credit where it's due, the paper has put together a fabulous package of stories that offer an obvious but nevertheless somehow startling solution to the city's outrageous violent crime rate, which so far has defied solution through more conventional means like cops cracking down and politicians mouthing off:
Find jobs for Philadelphia's unemployed youths, some of whom are whiling away their days using their neighborhoods for target practice.
You can read the series here. And click here for my take on why Philadelphia's murder rate has been going up while New York City's has been going down.

Cartoon du Jour

© 2007 Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Monday, February 26, 2007

Justice: The American Beacon Dims

Long after George Bush retires to his Texas ranch to search among the scrub brush for his lost legacy and long after Dick Cheney has his final myocardial infarction, Americans will be trying to pick up the pieces of a justice system that they sought to destroy.

If you are of a certain age, you may remember a time when the
United States was a beacon of justice in a world where justice was in short supply. Well, today it still is in short supply, but the beacon has dimmed. Because of the actions of the president and vice president, American justice is viewed with a mixture of scorn and horror, the U.S.'s global standing severely diminished.
What makes this turn of events so tragic is that it was so unnecessary.
The U.S. Constitution and the system of American jurisprudence that in part grew out of it have been extraordinarily resilient. There have been but a small handful of amendments to the Constitution beyond the original 10 that comprise the Bill of Rights, and more recent amendments are largely technical in nature. The same goes for the justice system, which has withstood the tests of time with relatively little tweaking.

The Bush-Cheney mantra has been that the 9/11 attacks and subsequent War on Terror demanded a radical departure from a 220-year status quo. There had to be vested in the president an enormous range of powers beyond the reach of Congress and the courts in order to push back against the Islamic jihad. An administration in the thrall of junk science turned to junk law to justify its arguments that the president is above the law.
As is abundantly clear, those arguments are pure, unadulterated bullsh*t.

The Constitution and legal system have served the executive branch well through good times and bad, through peace and through war, and through prosperity and depression. What Bush and Cheney have done is nothing less than an unprecedented power grab for its own sake.
The consequences of this coup are incalculable because they have succeeded to an alarming extent in their goal to create an imperial presidency.

The Orwellian stew that they have concocted includes:
* Invading the privacy of Americans by monitoring their conversations, reading their mail and examining their bank accounts.

* Suspending habeas corpus and holding people for years without legal representation.

Ignoring international treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory.

* Legitimizing the use of torture.

* Running a gulag of secret prisons.

* Turning the balance of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches on its ear while casting aside any challenge to the executive's absolute power.
When the Supreme Court rebuked Bush last year in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld for overstepping his constitutional mandate in trying detainees before military commissions, blocking them from seeking relief in civilian courts by suspending habeas corpus and ignoring the Geneva Conventions, the president thumbed his nose at the high court and then rammed through Congress a new law allowing him to do the same thing.

The ultimate irony is that the War on Terror is being fought to protect the very values that Bush and Cheney have sought to destroy. Undoing the damage will be extraordinarily difficult.

Image: Ceiling tondo of "Justice" ( ca. 1509) by Raphael
in the Stanza della Segnatura
at the Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

The Lessons of 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Arab tribal leaders Sherif Ali (Sharif) and Auda abu Tayi (Quinn)
When the word tribal comes up in connection with Iraq and the Middle East, most Americans turn off.

The concept of tribes is a dialogue killer. Because no matter how Americans view George Bush's war, most see the Iraqi people as shiftless, intellectually vapid, morally suspect and content to wander through the centuries without ambitions, goals or leaders. This, in their blindered view, explains why the Iraqis keep biting the liberating hand that tries to feed them.

It's not often that a movie can set the record straight, but Lawrence of Arabia is even more relevant and revalatory today because of how it debunks that perverse "tribal" view than when it won seven Oscars in 1962.

The Dear Friend & Conscience made that observation as we watched the movie for the umpteenth time on Saturday evening on Turner Classic Movies, which for my dinar is one of the small handful of excellent cable TV channels. Turner was wrapping up its terrific "31 Days of Oscar" series, which concluded with the 79th annual Academy Awards show last night.

* * * * *
T.E. Lawrence was a young British Army intelligence officer in Cairo who was dispatched to investigate the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I. Once in the desert, he found that he had an affinity for and understanding of the disparate but freedom-loving Arab tribes he encountered.

Lawrence organized these tribes into a guerrilla army that he led in a series of harrassing raids against the Turks, who eventually were routed, marking the end of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the British-French partition of the Middle East. This profound betrayal of the Arab cause included the arbitrary line drawing that led to the creation of modern-day Iraq.

The British occupation of Iraq ended ignominiously, of course, and more closely parallels the ongoing American misadventure than oft-cited comparisons to the Vietnam war. The British example is generally overlooked, although Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," the masterful tome on which the movie is based, is assigned as required reading by some American officers.

Writes Tony Perry, a Los Angeles Times blogger embedded with troops in Iraq:

The Marines see their challenge as being the same as the one faced by that young English officer: organize an Arab fighting force to confront a common enemy. Lawrence was working for the British, helping direct an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. But then as now the Westerner’s promise was the same: a measure of safety and self-governance if the foe can be defeated. . . .

Now, as the quick knockdown of Saddam Hussein's regime has turned into the hard slogging of waging a counter-insurgency, Marines say Lawrence's advice and warnings are more timely than ever. On the ground in Iraq’s volatile Anbar Province, Marine officers swear by Lawrence. Col. Larry Nicholson, commanding officer of the 5th Marine Regiment, says in picking officers to interact with Iraqis he looks for 'people skills' -- not the kind of attribute one usually ascribes to a fighting force.

Nicholson was wounded by a rocket attack on his headquarters at Camp Fallouja, went home to recuperate, and then returned to the fight. When he tells Iraqis that he has shed blood in Iraq, it makes an impression.

Like most Marines, Nicholson is a hard-charger. The Corps' doctrine calls for Marines to seize an objective and move on swiftly. Holding and expanding territory, that’s for a more ponderous outfit like the Army. But like others here, Nicholson has had to learn patience. Lawrence counseled that the Arabs do not warm quickly to strangers, if at all, and that alliances are formed slowly, if at all.

"'I spend a lot of my time eating goat and sipping tea at dinners and meetings where the first half is spent talking about families," Nicholson said. "If you can’t do that, you can’t do the job." Lawrence also counseled that it is sometimes difficult to decide which tribal leaders are real and which are poseurs. State Department operatives working with the Marines in Anbar bemoan time lost working with "fake sheiks."

If Lawrence had one major warning for Westerners inserting themselves into Arabia, it was this: "The foreigner and Christian is not a popular person in Arabia. However friendly and informal the treatment of yourself may be, remember that your foundations are very sandy ones. "

He also suggested modest aims: "It is their war and you are to help them, not to win for them. "

Quotes du Jour on the War & Other Stuff

Almost five and a half years ago, America — united by the shock of 9/11 — understood exactly what it needed to do. It had to find, thwart and take down the command structure of Al Qaeda, which was responsible for the deaths of 3,000 innocent people on American soil. Despite years of costly warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, America today is not significantly closer to that essential goal.

At a crucial moment, the Bush administration diverted America’s military strength, political attention and foreign aid dollars from a necessary, winnable war in Afghanistan to an unnecessary, and by now unwinnable, war in Iraq. Al Qaeda took full advantage of these blunders to survive and rebuild. Now it seems to be back in business. . . .

Having failed to finish off Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Washington now finds itself fighting Qaeda-affiliated groups on multiple fronts, most recently in Somalia. Al Qaeda’s comeback in Pakistan is a devastating indictment of Mr. Bush’s grievously flawed strategies and misplaced Iraq obsession. Unless the president changes course, the dangers to America and its friends will continue to multiply.

To get out of the ditch, America must change its Iraq policy, soon. That doesn't mean pulling out of Iraq quickly, as many Democrats in Washington seem to favor. I found few people [at the Doha conference] who thought a quick American pullout made sense. But it does mean shifting the American focus -- so that we are talking with Iraq's neighbors and negotiating with the Iraqis on a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. . . .

And to get back on the road, for real, America must broker a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. I winced when I heard Prime Minister Olmert say last weekend in Jerusalem that "the American and Israeli positions are totally identical" on the terms for recognizing a Palestinian unity government. The Israelis are right in insisting that Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist. But how to get there? What if Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had responded: America is a mediator in this conflict. Its positions are independent of either side, and it is willing to talk to all parties to achieve peace.

I would have loved to see the looks of astonishment from the America-bashers here.


Photograph by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Jihadi vs. Jihadi

All is not well in the Islamic State of Iraq, which was established by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups last October 2006.
The problem is that terrorists and killing other terrorists.
More here.

Meawhile, the Al Qaeda-backed Taliban is increasing its hold on western Pakistan.

More here.

The South Florida Weirdness Magnet

Anyone who has spent any time in South Florida knows that it is a freak show of the first water.

Dave Barry has his own explanation for why this is so:

"O.J. Simpson, for example. Why is he here? Did anybody in South Florida ever say, “Hey O.J.! Why don’t you pack up your golf clubs, your one glove and your remaining cutlery, and come be part of our community!”? Of course not! Nobody wanted him here. He was drawn here, by the Giant Underground Weirdness Magnet.

"Or consider the 2000 presidential election. . . . Another example is the Miracle Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich. . . . Please do not try to tell me that this could have happened in an area that was not being bombarded with powerful weirdness rays.

"There are many other South Florida phenomena that can only be explained by the Giant Underground Weirdness Magnet, including the Versace slaying, the Elian Gonzalez fiasco, Tim Hardaway and Donald Trump. The current example, it goes without saying, is the Anna Nicole Smith Corpse Battle and Freak-a-Palooza, now playing in Fort Lauderdale. Of course it had to happen here. And of course, instead of a thoughtful, dignified, decorous, mentally stable judge, we got an American Idol contestant — sometimes sobbing like Dorothy when she had to say goodbye to the Scarecrow; sometimes firing off one-liners that he apparently thought were hilarious. Ha ha! Stop it, Judge, you Krazy Kourtroom Karacter!"

Hat tip to The Carpetbagger Report

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

Ace fotog Steve Goodman recently trekked to Udong, Cambodia's capital between 1618 and 1866 and today a melting pot of Buddhists and Muslims.

More here.

* * * * *
Do you have a beautiful photograph that you'd large to share?
Send it as a .jpg attachment to

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Gratuitous Kitty Shot of the Week

A while back, we featured a waif of a kitty sitting on Jeremy's laptop computer.
Well, this wee thing now has a name -- Cici -- and a story.

* * * * *
Would you like your kitty to be world famous like Cici? Send a photo as a .jpg attachment to

Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Dance of the Dragonflies

We're in the late February doldrums where I live in the U.S. There are banks of dirty snow on shaded slopes. Enough black ice on sidewalks and streets in the morning that bike riding is hazardous. Not much sun. That and the depressing world scene leads me to share a hot-weather essay on a favorite topic. Enjoy.
Dragonflies are among the world’s most ancient creatures and have been performing the mid-summer mating dance that I have observed almost every year of my life for 300 million years. That’s more than 100 million years before dinosaurs appeared.

I can remember being fascinated by this dance as a youngster, although I didn’t understand that it was all about making baby dragonflies.

My brother and I would trap lightning bugs in Mason jars to sell to the man at the agricultural research station. He paid us a dime a jar for his research into what made the bugs’ tails glow, but I would never consider trapping dragonflies for any amount of money. Even then they occupied a special place in my world.

Perhaps it was because their dance reminded me of dog fighting World War I flying machines, which captured my imagination at an early age, but I would like to think that the connection was more subtle.

I lived in Japan for a few years. The dragonfly is revered there and depicted on everything from pottery to textiles. I recall one particularly glorious afternoon when I observed their mating dance in the backwater of a stream in the foothills below Mount Fuji.

* * * * * *
After I returned to the States, I would take long walks up the dirt road next to a slow-flowing creek on hot mid-summer days, turn down a narrow footpath through high weeds and slip into the water. It was refreshingly cool four or five feet beneath the surface and I loved to feel the chill percolate up into my chest and then my head.

Dragonflies colonize around creeks and ponds, so it usually wasn’t long before they were performing their dance around me. Sometimes they would alight on my forehead – even in mating tandems -- if I sat perfectly still and thought yoga thoughts and breathed yoga breaths.

It was during this period that I first began reading about odonata, as this family of four winged, six legged insects is called.

I learned that the three species indigenous to my neck of the woods are members of the libellula genus. These include my companions over many a summer -- the bar-winged skimmer (Libellula axilena) like the mating pair in the photo, and the less common great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans). There also is the apparently elusive Jane's meadowhawk (Sympetrum janeae), which is recognizable by its reddish body but has escaped my gaze.

I also learned that these species of dragonflies are short lived (7 to 10 weeks, although some species can live up to four years). They also are territorial.

The mating dance is initiated by the male showing his genitals, of which he is endowed with two sets. This display allows male and female to make sure that they are of the same species and therefore suitable mates. The male then bends his abdomen so that one set of genitals touches the other, which is a sure-fire turn-on for the female, who curls her abdomen forward to make contact with the secondary genitalia and receives the sperm.

As I have often observed, the ritual can vary.

Sometimes the male grabs the female by the head or thorax for a “quickie” without going through the dance. Other times the dance is long and elaborate, involving much diving and spinning, including mad charges in reverse, but in either event copulation takes less than a second.
Sometimes male and female remain in tandem for several minutes, as if to say, “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”

The females are acutely sensitive to pollution and will lay their eggs only if the water is clean. Other times they lay them on waterside plants. Sometimes the male acts as a lookout for the female as she lays the eggs he fertilized. In fact, scientists say that males are so committed to their mating partners that they can display signs of jealousy if other males try to nose in.

* * * * *
A few years later, I lived in an old house a short walk from the creek and two particularly lovely spots -- Ring Rock and the Burned Out Bridge.

Ring Rock (also known as the Rock That David Sat On) is a massive limestone remnant of the furthest extent of the last Ice Age that protrudes from the water at a 25 degree angle. It is so named because an iron ring had been pounded into the rock perhaps 200 years ago so that the locals could tether their wagons to it and lower them into the creek to be cleaned -- an early version of the car wash. I never learned who David was, but I would slide into the creek below the rock -- six or seven feet deep even in the mid-summer heat -- and watch the dragonflies dance.
Alas, the rock attracted hikers and the occasional swimmer, so I moved on to the Burned Out Bridge.

A pair of overgrown fieldstone foundations on either side of the creek are all that remain of this 19th century covered bridge, which is said to have been torched by a man in the early 1950s so that he and his son could fish undisturbed.
This is at a point just below where the west and middle branches of the creek converge, an area that is heavily silted and quite shallow. It took all of one summer and part of the next, but I methodically moved sand and piled rocks until I had fashioned a pool about four feet deep where I could resume my dragonfly encounters. My kids were too young to be of much help, but our big goofus of a black labrador retriever became pretty good at picking up rocks and dropping them onto the sides of our pool.

It was here that I began seriously expanding my horizons to other fauna as I would sit quietly at periscope depth.

There were rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus kykiss), restocked each spring for sport fishermen by the state fish and wildlife agency, and the occasional sunnie (Lepomis machrochirus), as well as some wee fishies that I was never able to identify. There were water-walking spiders (Dolomedes triton), black snakes (Elaphe obsoleta), a water moccasin (Ancistrodon piscivorus), which was a very rare sighting that far north of its southern habitat, and all sorts of toads and frogs, including little frogs called spring peepers (P
seudacris crucifer crucifer), so named because of the time of their arrival each year and their high-pitched trill. The black lab would slog into the marshy areas between the creek and woods and ingest mouthsful of them.

* * * * *
It is mid-summer again. It's been too hot to trek up to the creek, but I was sitting near a fountain in the quiet university town where I live.

I put down the book I was reading, took off my sunglasses and let the sun beat on my face. My mind drifted back to my childhood and the illustrations in a favorite picture book. The young hero is sick and has been put to bed by his mother where he imagines that the quilt spread out below him is a make-believe world with villages, roads and farm fields. Armies clash across this terrain and dog fighting aeroplanes bob, weave and loop overhead.

I grew drowsy and my mind drifted further when something drew me from my reverie and I opened my eyes.

It was dragonflies doing their dance over the fountain.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Cartoon du Jour on the War

© 2007 Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Beautiful Photograph du Jour

The portcullis at Cahir Castle in Ireland by Kevin Lawyer

Hat tip to Frank at iFlipFlop
* * * * *
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Send it as a .jpg attachment in an email to

Revisting the Rumsfeld Gulag

Nearly a year ago, our pal The Scribe put up an interesting -- and ultimately depressing -- post at Highway Scribery on one of the few people pushing back against the Bush administration's efforts to dismantle the foundations of American jurisprudence under the guise of fighting the War on Terror.
She is Heather Rogers, an attorney who represents detainees in the Navy brig at Guant√°namo Bay, Cuba.
The piece, entitled: "Gitmo Girl (or Lady Lawyer in Yemen)," recounted the public defender's travels in Yemen in search of relatives of the purported terrorists she represents.

Rogers and colleague Stephen Demick recently participated in a symposium that traced the history of what I call the Rumsfeld Gulag, the global system of U.S.-run and supported prisons for terrorism suspects.

The Scribe reports on the symposium here.

Prince Harry to Iraq. Are the Twins Next?


Quotes du Jour On the War

What's more telling is how unpopular the war is in Britain, and how an entire generation of Brits have now grown up thinking of the United States as a bullying, torturing force for instability in the world. That's not the America I love -- but it is the image of America that Bush and Cheney have built for the largest generation of human beings ever to grow up on the planet. In Italy, the government has fallen because there is no longer support for even a minimal presence in Afghanistan, let alone Iraq.

This is the critical question, when you consider the aftershocks of what President Bush has wrought over the last 6 years. On the evidence of the last six years, is the US an aggressive, destabilizing force on the global stage or a benign, ordering force?

Who can give an answer to that question that they're proud of?


[British PM Tony] Blair is essentially doing what Ronald Reagan did after 250 U.S. soldiers were blown up in their barracks in Beirut: he’s simply declaring victory and getting out. (Although not even Blair’s spin this week sounds much like victory: “What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by Iraqis.”)


Under [Army General David] Petraeus’s plan, a U.S. military force of 160,000 or more is setting up hundreds of “mini-forts” all over Baghdad and the rest of the country, right in the middle of the action. The U.S. Army has also stopped pretending that Iraqis—who have failed to build a credible government, military or police force on their own—are in the lead when it comes to kicking down doors and keeping the peace. And that means the future of Iraq depends on the long-term presence of U.S. forces in a way it did not just a few months ago.


Adding 20,000 troops to Iraq in a five- to six-month window is a significant increase but in and of itself not decisive, and certainly not a "new strategy."

The relentless, focused targeting of Shia and Sunni extremist organizations is a far more important feature of what Iraqis are calling "the new security plan" than more U.S. troops. The coalition's effort to better integrate the economic and political development "lines of operation" with security operations could have greater long-term effects. . . . Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the new security plan is the increased aggressiveness of the Iraqi Army as it conducts counterinsurgent operations. The Iraqi military defeat of the cultist "Soldiers of Heaven" planned attack on Najaf in late January provides a dramatic example. With coalition backup, Iraqi forces launched a spoiling attack and killed or captured several hundred militants.

Maliki's national reconciliation program remains the key Iraqi political endeavor. That program began well before "the new security plan," but no security plan will succeed unless reconciliation occurs.


Slowly bleeding our forces by defunding what our commanders think they need to win (the House approach) or rewording the authorization of the use of force so that lawyers decide what operations are to be launched (the Senate approach) is no way to fight a war. It is no way to end a war. It is a way to complicate the war and make it inherently unwinnable -- and to shirk the political responsibility for doing so.


It’s the same old story. Fear of being attacked with charges that make no sense whatsoever keeps the Democrats from withholding funding, an action that a majority of the country supports. An alternate action that Republicans have no good way to oppose or argue against is dropped due to internal discord. Between the paralysis caused by fear, and the inability to achieve consensus on the things that don’t attract paralysis, nothing ever gets done. Hopes are raised. Hopes are dashed. Hopes are raised again. And so it goes.

Whoever saddled them with that donkey really knew what they were doing.

Photograph by The Associated Press

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Reefer Madness Challenged

My felonious father and abetting mother
Medical marijuana advocates have filed suit against two federal health agencies who assert that smoking the Evil Weed has no medical benefit.
The nonprofit group, Americans for Safe Access, challenges the government’s position that marijuana “has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”

In its lawsuit, the group contends that the Department of Health and Human Services and Food and Drug Administration have publicly issued “false and misleading statements” about the medical benefits of marijuana.

The suit seeks a court order to retract and correct statements that the group called, “incorrect, dishonest and a flagrant violation of laws.”

I have no idea of the suit's chances of success, but it is long overdue.

There is ample evidence that smoked marijuana can save lives. It eases nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and other crippling treatments and helps mitigate the effects of AIDS wasting and glaucoma.

There also is ample evidence that with the vast majority of users, marijuana is not a so-called gateway drug that leads them to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin.

More here on the lawsuit.

For more on my take on medical marijuana and to learn why my folks and I engaged in what the federal government considers to be criminal behavior, click here.

Paging Mohammed Al-Mahdi

The civil war in Iraq unofficially enters its second year today -- the anniversary of the insurgent bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.
The mosque, the holiest of the holy for Shiites, remains closed, a heap of untouched rubble symbolic of the firestorm of sectarian violence unleashed by a botched U.S. occupation.

The attack was a brilliant tactical move because the insurgents, who probably were affiliated with Al Qaeda, knew that it would put the U.S. in the middle of a war within a war. The result has been the emergence of sectarian militias and their ethnic cleansing squads, and the deaths of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of Americans, with no end to the bloodshed in sight.
Samarra has become a virtual ghost town without the millions of pilgrims who would journey to the mosque. Reconstruction has been delayed because of disagreements between the Sunnis who control the city and the Shiites who run the mosque about how to proceed.

The edifice is officially known as the Askariya mosque and contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams -- Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868, and his son Hassan al-Askari, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and Shiites consider them to be among his successors.

The shrine also is near the place where the 12th imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared.

Al-Mahdi, known as the "hidden imam," was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the Askariya shrine. Shiites believe he will return to Earth to vanquish opression and restore justice to humanity.

Well, Al-Mahdi, your time has come.

When the War Returns to Washington

A U.S. trooper in Baghdad plays chess while Congress fiddles
Uh-oh! Lock up the china and hide the children. Congress reconvenes next week and will again take up the Mess in Mesopotamia.
As you may recall, the House has passed a non-binding resolution pretty-pleasing President Bush to not increase troop levels, which he has done anyway, while the Senate has tied itself in procedural knots, all over the most pressing issue to confront the Greatest Deliberative Body in the World since God knows when.
But as Randy Bachman of Bachman-Turner Overdrive said (or rather sang), you ain't seen nothing yet.

Dick Polman provides a preview of the mischief afoot in the Republican caucuses:
"[T]he House Republicans are working up a strategy that is designed to shift the focus away from President Bush and his war team (a smart idea, since Bush and his war team are the architects of this foreign policy disaster), and instead try to spotlight the Democrats by painting them as white-flag wimps who don’t care a whit about the safety or morale of U.S. troops.

"The House Republicans, relying not merely on their rhetoric, are also floating a bill that would bar lawmakers from cutting off the war money, or restricting the money in any way. They obviously have calculated that a lot of Democrats would feel compelled to go along, just to ensure that the GOP would not be able to label them as "against the troops" during their ’08 re-election campaigns. (Indeed, that’s one reason why the majority Democrats will ensure that this bill never comes up for a vote.)

"But the basic weakness of the Republican argument – better yet, its rank hypocrisy – is that its architects apparently don’t know, or choose not to remember, their own history. Because 11 years ago, when President Clinton was in the process of sending troops to Bosnia, and putting them in harm’s way, the House Republicans huddled in a party caucus and voted by nearly a 2-1 margin . . . to cut off funds for the troops. An action, by the way, that prompted some worried Republicans to warn that they might be undermining troop morale."
More here.

Dead Presidents: Happy B-Day, George

Washington steps down as commander in chief
I was so PO’d that the worst president in history had the temerity to compare the Revolutionary War with the Iraq war in a speech at Mount Vernon honoring one of the greatest presidents in history on President’s Day that I nearly threw one of the cats at the TV.
What a waste of good cat that would have been!
But I have cooled down, and in honor of the George Washington’s 275th birthday, which is today, damnit, I am providing this link to a .pdf file of the Great Man's brief but memorable resignation speech as commander in chief at the Statehouse in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1783.
Read it, contemplate the mess the great nation he led is in today, and weep.

Dead Presidents: Cheney Channels Nixon

Richard Nixon's final days in the White House were lonely ones. The soon-to-resign president roamed the halways talking to portraits of dead presidents. Will Bunch says that you have to wonder if Dick Cheney is having conversations with Nixon's portrait these days. Writes Will:
"Cheney's long strange trip through American politics pretty much began in the Nixon White House in the early 1970s, and much of his public life seems like a crusade to avenge his misunderstood ex-boss. At the height of Watergate, he told friends it wasn't a scandal but 'a power struggle,' and as top aide to Nixon's successor Gerald Ford, he chafed so much at the post-Watergate restrictions on White House power that he honed his bizarre theory of an allpowerful unitary executive.

"Those aren't the lessons that most Americans took away from the Nixon years, and yet they are shaping our nation's government some 33 years later. Even so, we never expected Cheney to look to Nixon for inspiration on handling the fiasco that is Iraq. Until now. Check out the echoes of 1968 in what Cheney said earlier this week on his Asia junket . . . "

Read the rest here.