Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

The Most Interesting Stories of 2013

January 1st, 2014

A happy belated New Year to all the loyal readers out there! Here’s my recap of some favorite stories I read in the last year. For those craving aging items to read, check out my recaps of 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008. Thanks for reading and I look forward to what 2014 brings.

5) New York Times: Uproar Over Netanyahu’s Ice Cream Is Welcome in One Parlor

His foreign minister had to resign after being accused of fraud. He was sharply criticized for his government’s handling of Prisoner X, who committed suicide in prison. And now this, which made front-page news in Israel over the weekend: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands accused of dipping into state coffers for an ice cream budget of $2,700 a year.

Pistachio, it was revealed by the proprietors of a gourmet ice cream parlor a couple of blocks from the premier’s official residence, is his favorite (presumably not made with an Iranian variety of the nut). Mrs. Netanyahu, they said, appears to prefer French vanilla.

4) Lapham’s Quarterly: Bombs, Burning Sheets, and Cocaine

“Bomb the shit out of them!” was reportedly a drunken President Richard Nixon’s conclusion as to what should be done about Cambodia. Henry Kissinger recalled in an interview in 1999 that “two glasses of wine were quite enough to make him boisterous, just one more to grow bellicose or sentimental with slurred speech.”

3) The New Yorker: Taken – The Use And Abuse Of Civil Forfeiture

“Where are we?” Boatright remembers thinking. “Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” Holding her sixteen-month-old on her hip, she broke down in tears.

Later, she learned that cash-for-freedom deals had become a point of pride for Tenaha, and that versions of the tactic were used across the country. “Be safe and keep up the good work,” the city marshal wrote to Washington, following a raft of complaints from out-of-town drivers who claimed that they had been stopped in Tenaha and stripped of cash, valuables, and, in at least one case, an infant child, without clear evidence of contraband.

2) The New Republic: A 31-Year-Old Is Tearing Apart the Heritage Foundation

Instead of fleshing out conservative positions, says one Republican Senate staffer, “now they’re running around trying to get Republicans voted out of office. It’s a purely ideological crusade that’s utterly divorced from the research side.” (“If Nancy Pelosi could write an anonymous check to Heritage Action,” adds the House aide bitterly, “she would.”)

As a result, the Heritage Foundation has gone from august conservative think tank revered by Washington’s Republicans to the party’s loathed ideological commissar. “It’s sad, actually,” says one Republican strategist. “Everybody forgets that Heritage was always considered the gold standard of conservative, forward-looking thought. The emergence of Heritage Action has really transformed the brand into a more political organization.”

1) New York Times: The Myth of Nuclear Necessity

The first is the myth that nuclear weapons altered the course of World War II. Leaving aside the morality of America’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, new research by the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa and other scholars shows that Japan surrendered not because of the atom bomb but because the Soviets renounced neutrality and joined the war. Sixty-six Japanese cities had already been destroyed by conventional weapons — two more did not make the difference. Attributing surrender to the bomb was also convenient for Japan’s leaders, allowing them to blame defeat on a “miracle” weapon.

Second is the myth of “decisive destruction.” Mass destruction doesn’t win wars; killing soldiers does. No war has ever been won simply by killing civilians. The 1941-44 siege of Leningrad didn’t deter Soviet leaders from pressing the fight against Hitler. Nor did the 1945 firebombing of Dresden force Germany to submit. As long as an army has a fighting chance at victory, wars continue. Building ever more destructive weapons simply increases the horror of war, not the certainty of ending it.

And for no particular reason, here was the best old photo found in 2013 and my favorite New Yorker cartoon.

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The Most Interesting Stories of 2012

January 1st, 2013

Happy New Year to all my friends, family members and loyal readers! I’m continuing the tradition of sharing a small collection of my favorite news items from the previous year. If you’re a bit lost, be sure to check out my 20082009, 2010 and 2011 recap posts if you missed them the first time. This year, I went with a larger mix of entertaining stories instead of all long-form pieces (I am quite sad there were no big Somali pirate stories this year). Thanks for reading and I hope everyone has a lovely 2013!

5) CNN: Romney aide loses cool, curses at press in Poland

CNN: “Governor Romney just a few questions sir, you haven’t taken but three questions on this trip from the press!

Gorka: “Show some respect”

NYT: “We haven’t had another chance to ask a question…”

Gorka: “Kiss my ass. This is a Holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.”

Moments later, Gorka told Jonathan Martin, a reporter for Politico, to “shove it.” About a half-hour later, the aide called reporters to apologize.

4) The New York Times: Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It

Ki Gulbranson owns a logo apparel shop, deals in jewelry on the side and referees youth soccer games. He makes about $39,000 a year and wants you to know that he does not need any help from the federal government.

He says that too many Americans lean on taxpayers rather than living within their means. He supports politicians who promise to cut government spending. In 2010, he printed T-shirts for the Tea Party campaign of a neighbor, Chip Cravaack, who ousted this region’s long-serving Democratic congressman.

Yet this year, as in each of the past three years, Mr. Gulbranson, 57, is counting on a payment of several thousand dollars from the federal government, a subsidy for working families called the earned-income tax credit. He has signed up his three school-age children to eat free breakfast and lunch at federal expense. And Medicare paid for his mother, 88, to have hip surgery twice.

3) The Atlantic: How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File

Conservatives were at an information disadvantage because so many right-leaning outlets wasted time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense. WorldNetDaily brought you birtherism. Forbes brought you Kenyan anti-colonialism. National Review obsessed about an imaginary rejection of American exceptionalism, misrepresenting an Obama quote in the process, and Andy McCarthy was interviewed widely about his theory that Obama, aka the Drone Warrior in Chief, allied himself with our Islamist enemies in a “Grand Jihad” against America. Seriously?

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because their information elites pandered in the most cynical, self-defeating ways, treating would-be candidates like Sarah Palin and Herman Cain as if they were plausible presidents rather than national jokes who’d lose worse than George McGovern.

How many months were wasted on them?

How many hours of Glenn Beck conspiracy theories did Fox News broadcast to its viewers? How many hours of transparently mindless Sean Hannity content is still broadcast daily? Why don’t Americans trust Republicans on foreign policy as they once did? In part because conservatism hasn’t grappled with the foreign-policy failures of George W. Bush. A conspiracy of silence surrounds the subject. Romney could neither run on the man’s record nor repudiate it. The most damaging Romney gaffe of the campaign, where he talked about how the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income taxes are a lost cause for Republicans? Either he was unaware that many of those people are Republican voters, or was pandering to GOP donors who are misinformed. Either way, bad information within the conservative movement was to blame.

2) The New York Times: Son’s Parties and Privilege Aggravate Fall of Elite Chinese Family

Last month, a few days before he lost his job as party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai was forced to respond to questions about how his modest government salary could support his son’s tuition and expensive tastes. He called the accusations “sheer rubbish,” and insisted that Mr. Bo had won full scholarships, although he did not address the allegations in detail. “A few people have been pouring filth on Chongqing and me and my family,” he told reporters. “They even say my son studies abroad and drives a red Ferrari.”

But Mr. Bo does study abroad, and American officials say he arrived in a red Ferrari last year to pick up the American ambassador to China’s daughter for a date. Classmates at Harvard say they have seen him driving around in a Porsche.

1) Gawker: Our Father’s Not in Heaven: The New Black Atheism

Blacks are now the most religious ethnic group in America, with 86 percent saying they’re “very” to “moderately” religious compared to just 65 percent of whites. Even blacks who purport to have no involvement with any church, mosque, or synagogue whatsoever are generally unwilling to reject the concept of God entirely, making African-Americans also the least likely to call themselves atheist or agnostic. For us people of color with no devotion to religion whatsoever, a tiny minority within a minority, the internal culture clash can sometimes prove awkward. It’s this culture clash that I find so irritating and ugly.

And the job of airing the “black perspective” on cable news is very often given to people like Reverend Jackson or Reverend Sharpton or Roland Martin, who has a master’s degree in “Christian Communications” from Louisiana Baptist University, an unaccredited religious institution. I don’t care that so many African-American leaders are steeped in deep religious tradition; I care that those are the people called upon to speak for all of black America, and they always have been. Most white Americans are religious, too, and yet MSNBC or CNN would never call on the pastor Joel Osteen to dissect the problems facing all white Americans. The networks would understand, rightly, that Osteen’s deep religious conviction makes him an inapt spokesperson for a group of people with diverse beliefs. That those networks don’t afford blacks the same respect is telling, and it’s a tacit acceptance of the myth that blacks and religion, particularly Christianity, are one and the same.

Bonus! – The Worst Story of 2012 is…
The Wall Street Journal: After Sandy, Wired New Yorkers Get Reconnected With Pay Phones

The last time Leslie Koch picked up a pay-phone receiver was during the 2003 blackout. Since then, she says, “I didn’t even know they were working.”

But on Tuesday, old was new again, as her BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad and two laptops were idled. After calling her mother on Long Island from a pay phone, she commemorated the occasion by tweeting a photo of herself from Instagram.

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The Most Interesting Stories of 2011

January 1st, 2012

Happy New Year to all my friends, family and loyal readers! I’m continuing the tradition of sharing a small collection of my favorite news items from the previous year. Be sure to check out my 20082009 and 2010 recap posts for those who are bit lost. Thanks for reading!

1) The New YorkerGetting Bin Laden – What happened that night in Abbottabad

One month before the 2008 Presidential election, Obama, then a senator from Illinois, squared off in a debate against John McCain in an arena at Belmont University, in Nashville. A woman in the audience asked Obama if he would be willing to pursue Al Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan, even if that meant invading an ally nation. He replied, “If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable, or unwilling, to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden. We will crush Al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national-security priority.” McCain, who often criticized Obama for his naïveté on foreign-policy matters, characterized the promise as foolish, saying, “I’m not going to telegraph my punches.”

[…] A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” After a pause, he added, “Geronimo E.K.I.A.”—“enemy killed in action.”

Hearing this at the White House, Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, “We got him.”

2) Popular Mechanics: What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447

At 1h51m, the cockpit becomes illuminated by a strange electrical phenomenon. The co-pilot in the right-hand seat, an inexperienced 32-year-old named Pierre-Cédric Bonin, asks, “What’s that?” The captain, Marc Dubois, a veteran with more than 11,000 hours of flight time, tells him it is St. Elmo’s fire, a phenomenon often found with thunderstorms at these latitudes.

At approximately 2 am, the other co-pilot, David Robert, returns to the cockpit after a rest break. At 37, Robert is both older and more experienced than Bonin, with more than double his colleague’s total flight hours. The head pilot gets up and gives him the left-hand seat. Despite the gap in seniority and experience, the captain leaves Bonin in charge of the controls.

At 2:02 am, the captain leaves the flight deck to take a nap. Within 15 minutes, everyone aboard the plane will be dead.]

3) The New Yorker: A Murder Foretold: Unravelling the Ultimate Political Conspiracy

In Guatemala, impunity has created a bewildering swirl of competing stories and rumors, allowing powerful interests not only to cloak history but also to fabricate it. As Francisco Goldman describes in his incisive 2007 book, “The Art of Political Murder,” about the assassination of Bishop Gerardi, the military and its intelligence operators concocted evidence and witnesses to generate endless hypotheses—it was a robbery, it was a crime of passion—in order to conceal the simple truth that they had murdered him. “So much would be made to seem to connect,” Goldman writes.

Guatemalans often cite the proverb “In a country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Fighting his way through the political fog, Rosenberg searched for a motive, stubbornly insisting that, if two people were assassinated, then somebody had a reason to kill them. In notes he kept about the case, he reported that authorities had initially suggested the shootings stemmed from a dispute over a fired factory worker. But, by all accounts, Musa had treated his workers well. Were the police and authorities trying to cover something up, spinning another web of disinformation?

4) The Washington Post: Year-long D.C. undercover sting netted arrests, guns, drugs

D.C. Police Sgt. Dale Sutherland’s high-tech headquarters in a stylish Northeast rowhouse welcomed some of the city’s most notorious gun-runners and drug dealers.

Sutherland made deals for revolvers, shotguns, ammunition, crack cocaine and heroin from black leather couches. His suppliers kept coming back, authorities say. Then, in June, one offered Sutherland hand grenades and a rocket launcher, and he had to act quickly.

In June, police said, one target accidentally dialed the phone of an officer who was posing as “Tony Blanco.” When the officer picked up, he overheard men discussing a plan to storm the studio, guns blazing.

5) The Wire Cutter: Steve Jobs Was Always Kind to Me (Or, Regrets of an Asshole)

“Hi, this is Steve. I really want my phone back.”

He wasn’t demanding. He was asking. And he was charming and he was funny. I was half-naked, just getting back from surfing, but I managed to keep my shit together.

“I appreciate you had your fun with our phone and I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the sales guy who lost it. But we need the phone back because we can’t let it fall into the wrong hands.”

I thought, maybe its already in the wrong hands?

He continued, “There are two ways we can do this. I can send someone to pick up the phone–”

Me: “I don’t have it”

“–But you know someone who does…or we can send someone with legal papers, and I don’t want to do that.”

He was giving us an easy way out.

I told him I had to talk to my dudes. Before he hung up, he asked me, “What do you think of it?”

I said, “It’s beautiful.”

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The Most Interesting Stories of 2010

January 1st, 2011

Every new year begins on this blog with a collection of my favorite news items from the previous year. Be sure to check out my 2008 and 2009 recap posts for those who are bit lost. Happy New Year everyone and thanks for reading!

1) Why Can’t the I.R.S. Help Fill in the Blanks?

IN the digital age, filing income tax returns should be a snap. The important data from employers and financial institutions have already been sent to the government’s computers. Yet taxpayers are still required to perform the anachronistic chore of preparing a return from scratch. And, in many cases, they pay a software company for the privilege.

Requiring taxpayers to file returns without being told what the government already knows makes as much sense “as if Visa sent customers a blank piece of paper, requiring that they assemble their receipts, list their purchases — and pay a fine if they forget one,” said Joseph Bankman, a professor at the Stanford Law School.

Many developed countries now offer taxpayers a return containing all information collected by the taxing authority — to “get the ball rolling by telling you what it knows,” Mr. Bankman says.

It’s a stunningly reasonable idea.

2) Truthful Somali pirates (thanks Wikileaks!)

It was September 2008 and a band of Somali pirates made a startling discovery.

The Ukrainian freighter they had just commandeered in the Gulf of Aden was packed with weapons, including 32 Soviet-era battle tanks, and the entire arsenal was headed for the regional government in southern Sudan. The Ukrainian and Kenyan governments vigorously denied that, insisting that the tanks were intended for the Kenyan military. […]

But it turns out the pirates were telling the truth — and the Kenyans and Ukrainians were not, at least publicly. According to several secret State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks, the tanks not only were headed to southern Sudan, but they were the latest installment of several underground arms shipments. By the time the freighter was seized, 67 T-72 tanks had already been delivered to bolster southern Sudan’s armed forces against the government in Khartoum, an international pariah for its human rights abuses in Darfur.

Bush administration officials knew of the earlier weapons transactions and chose not to shut them down, an official from southern Sudan asserted in an interview, and the cables acknowledge the Kenyan officials’ assertions that they had kept American officials informed about the deal. But once the pirates exposed the arms pipeline through Kenya, the Obama administration protested to the Ukrainian and Kenyan governments, even threatening sanctions, the cables show.

3) Immodestly Dressed Atheists Cause Earthquake as Cleric Predicted (and close to home!)

Boobquake, a day of action that calls on women worldwide to dress scandalously and prove wrong an Iranian cleric who blames natural disasters on immodest cleavage, has started disastrously, reported Monday.

At 11am (local time), a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit Taiwan, no doubt causing thousands of Boobquake fans to hastily button up.

Although Boobquake founder Jennifer McCreight, of Indiana., has claimed that the quake does not count because it happened outside her Boobquake time zone, she admitted on her blog that the wobble was significant, but not unusual.

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Open Door Issue Heats Up

July 14th, 2010

There are some exciting new developments in my campaign to get retail stores to close their doors when the air conditioning is on (and the DC power grid is strained).  Most importantly, I’ve begun a dialogue with the very responsive DC council member Mary Cheh and started discussing the next steps.  Jeremy Faust, Director of Legislative Affairs for the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, was helpful enough to dig up some dead legislation that was introduced by Jim Graham in 2007 called the ‘Closed Doors and Windows Energy Conservation Act’ [pdf link].  It’s not perfect, but hopefully it can be re-examined and improved upon.

In other news, the NBC Washington site published a big article (also on MSNBC) about air condition use in DC that fortunately highlighted my letter but unfortunately did a very poor job of reporting (and somehow got a way with a lot of editorializing).  I responded in the comments where things got really interesting, including a lovely example of Godwin’s Law.  Here is an excerpt from the article (where I am called ‘local man’) and then some choice comment highlights:

D.C. resident Nicko Margolies is rightly annoyed by the practice of many stores in the city to set their air conditioning on full blast while leaving their front doors wide open.

In a letter to the Washington Post, Margolies calls it “an extraordinarily wasteful act that strains the city’s electrical grid” that is “terrible for the environment.”

True. But Margolies isn’t just griping — he is also calling for legislation. He wants the District to “punish stores” that “blow cold air directly into the street.” He tells us that he will be contacting every member of the D.C. Council, and “hopefully starting a movement” toward legislation similar to that adopted by New York City two hot summers ago. (So far, nine New York stores have been slapped with $200 fines.

I won’t copy the whole article, but it gets a little off base.  Here are some of the comments of support:

Hey Nicko, I feel for you. This site’s reporting ethics seem synonymous with that of communist propaganda sometimes. You had a valid point and they left it out. People would never intentionally leave their own door open with the AC on, so why should you be heckled by a utility company when businesses do it all day long? Georgetown is the worst example around here. The rest of you critics need to read deeper into these things. NBC Washington is failing to report valid points made, and that’s not something any respectable reporter would do.

[via NBC Washington comment #7]

I would love to get Mr. Margolies contact info so that I can join his efforts !

[via NBC Washington comment #9]

Mr. Margolies —
I’m glad you commented on this story and further explained your point of view. The reporter made you sound like some whacked out hippy.

[via NBC Washington comment #10]

Nicko Margolies is right and Orvetti misses the point entirely. It’s not about people’s “right” to waste (which is nonetheless deplorable), it’s about the grid and the environment.

[via MSNBC comment #4]

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Letter to the Editor: Don’t let the cold air out

July 12th, 2010

This morning the Washington Post published my letter to the editor about commercial establishments keeping their doors open and the air conditioning on. Next steps are to email every member of the DC Council, all local blogs and hope to start some legislation in DC modeled after the law in New York City.

With the sweltering summer heat upon the city, I find myself stunned by the policies of many area retail stores to keep the air conditioning on full blast and the front doors wide-open. It is an extraordinarily wasteful act that strains the city’s electrical grid and is terrible for the environment.

Pepco recently sent a message through the D.C. government’s alert system asking residents to refrain from using power-heavy appliances during peak hours, but there is no rebuke for businesses that blow cold air directly into the street. The D.C. Council should pass legislation to punish stores because this profligate practice must go — a smart move that New York City made two years ago.

Nicko Margolies, Washington

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Indefensible Spending, Defense Contractors and Political Suicide

June 29th, 2010

With many politicians distancing themselves from ‘Washington’ and pointing to big government, I think it is time to look at a sometimes taboo subject. Military spending.

According to the fantastic annual budget visualization, Death and Taxes, military spending accounted for approximately 63% (or $895 billion) of the 2011 federal discretionary budget. Now I won’t argue that this spending is wholly unjustified, I enjoy a reasonable amount of deterrence as much as the next guy and I do enjoy some sweet programs like missile defense (star wars!), but some of this stuff is manic. Here’s a stat I dug up with a few minutes of poking around. According to the Department of Defense’s own 2009 Budget Request Summary Justification [pdf link], if you completely cut only the F-35 program (instead of just re-negotiating) you could double the entire budget of the National Science Foundation [pdf link of budget proposal].

Aside from silly programs that have no practical battlefield applications, there is the outsourcing of materiel production to contractors that is troubling. Northrop Grumman, the third largest supplier of military equipment, recently had to pay $12.5 million in a settlement to the government because it didn’t properly test items for navigation systems in warplanes, submarines and space equipment. How did this get exposed? An internal whistleblower who was probably enticed by the provisions of the False Claims Act that got him almost $2.4 million. Money talks. This is just the most recent example of contractors who get too much money for shoddy work and get virtually no oversight. In my opinion, the more spending you have the more transparency you need. Is 63% of accountability and oversight dedicated to defense spending? Hell no.

The largest roadblock to this uniquely American epidemic is that cutting back on defense spending is a very sensitive political subject. People want to feel safe. The American answer to fear is spending. Big guns make you feel safe. Big guns are expensive.  Bottom line: Be very cautious to take away big guns from scared people who somehow still have a blank check.

But there is hope! And not Obama’s style of hope, but a historians style of hope! Look back and notice: it has been done before! After the cold war, defense spending fell over 25 percent between 1985 and 1993. And guess who was defense secretary? Dick Cheney!

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