Archive for June, 2010

Obama’s speech on the Gulf oil spill

June 15, 2010

President Obama always gives a good speech. So did President Clinton. Eventually I stopped listening to Clinton’s speeches because I came to realize they didn’t mean anything. I am approaching this point with President Obama.

I listened to his Oval Office speech tonight. He is going to make BP pay for everything. He is going to develop a Gulf Coast restoration plan. He is going to appoint a national commission to study the causes of the disaster. He is going to clean house in the Minerals Management Service.  And he is going to develop a plan for renewable energy – no details given, but he spoke highly of wind turbines.

What I’d like to hear is what he has done.  I’d like him to be able to say that the government can guarantee that no oil company today could get away with flouting safety and environmental laws as BP did.  I’d like him to be able to say that MMS officials who failed to do their jobs have been fired.  I’d like him to be able to say that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is functioning well.  I’d like him to be able to say what the federal government is doing in its own operations to use renewable energy and provide a market for it.  For myself, I’d like to be able to listen to a Presidential address and not have to wonder if it meant anything.


Human rights in central Asia

June 15, 2010

Central Asia is not often in the American public eye, but the region has some of the world’s most vicious dictatorships, the U.S. government is involved in the region, and the oppressed people of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries have the same right to justice as people anywhere.


Why Do I Care?

Recent News

My police state vacation by Bélen Fernández for Current Affairs (April 2018)

Uzbek Officials Discuss Human Rights in Washington by Catherine Putz for The Conversation (May 2018)

Testing the realities of Uzbekistan’s reforms by Hugh Williamson and Steve Swerdlow for Eurasianet. (July 2018)

What’s in a Name? In Uzbekistan, it signals a reform drive by Olzhas Auzezov for Reuters.  (July 2018)

Sources of Information


Choihona: independent news of Uzbekistan

Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan

Cotton Campaign: End Forced and Child Labor in Uzbekistan

Human Rights Watch reports on Kyrgyzstan

Human Rights Watch reports on Uzbekistan

Amnesty International reports on Kyrgyzstan

Amnesty International reports on Uzbekistan

“Jews and Muslims”: an e-mail chain letter

June 14, 2010

Some friends of mine last week forwarded me an e-mail chain letter that evidently has been making the rounds for many years. It is entitled “Jews and Muslims” and begins by saying that Muslims want to wipe Jews off the face of the earth. Then it goes on compare the number of Nobel Prize winners of Muslim vs. Jewish heritage (about 100 times more Jews than Muslims) and concludes by saying Palestinian Arabs can have peace any time they want just by laying down their arms.

My response is as follows:

One. There are more than 1 billion Muslims in the world, and among them are to be found all kinds of people, good and bad, and many different points of view. I don’t think the Muslims who participate in interfaith dialogues with Jewish congregations here in Monroe County, N.Y., want to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth. I am aware that many Muslims, especially in Arab countries, refuse to recognize the government of Israel, but that is a different thing. The United States for many years refused to recognize the government of China,, which in my opinion was a mistake, but that didn’t mean that Americans wanted to wipe the Chinese off the face of the Earth.

Two. I admire the Jewish people for having developed a culture that has produced so many outstanding people in the arts and sciences. But do you want to know another ethnic group that has produced more than its share of Nobel Prize winners? The Germans. Even people who belong to nations that have contributed greatly to world culture are capable of doing bad things.

Three.  There are two sides to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and we Americans generally only hear one side. It is as if all our news of the conflicts that formerly went on in Northern Ireland and South Africa consisted of reports of terrorist atrocities committed by the Irish Republican Army and African National Congress, all attributed to an irrational hatred of Protestants by Catholics and of white people by black people.

I do not, of course, justify acts of terrorism, no matter who commits them.


Whose BP should be kicked?

June 14, 2010

President Obama last week said he is consulting experts to decide “whose [body part] to kick” over the BP oil spill catastrophe. He might start with his own Department of the Interior.  It was officials of the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service which in 2009 approved the startup of the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig without checking to see of BP’s safety plans were adequate.

BP told the federal government it had full capability to deal with any oil spill, but apparently nobody bothered to check its claims. Among the more ridiculous, BP listed a certain professor as its consultant on wildlife; this professor had died in 2005.

It is true that the Obama administration was new in 2009 and couldn’t have been expected to immediately clean up the dysfunctional MMS administration inherited from the Bush years. But what is it doing now to fix the MMS? Has anybody been fired for negligence? What is the Obama administration doing about BP’s Atlantis oil rig, whose safety documentation is just as inadequate as Deepwater Horizon’s?

President Obama has said he will demand BP set up an escrow account to compensate Gulf residents for damages. I’m not sure what legal authority he has to do this; it seems like something a judge would order as compensation in a civil suit. I don’t see why the Obama administration should be granted new authority unless it shows it adequately carries out the responsibilities it already has.


Raymond’s Law

June 13, 2010

Evil is best recognized not by its motives but by its methods.

BP: too big to fail?

June 12, 2010

Last night I watched a segment on the PBS Newshour about the consequences of BP failed as a result of its liabilities for the Gulf oil spill.

The conclusion was that a lot of innocent people would suffer. Many British pension funds are heavily invested in BP stock, and retirees would suffer severe loss of income if BP’s stock price collapsed or BP stopped paying dividends over an extended period of time. Some U.S. pension funds also hold BP stock. Then there are BP’s 80,000 employees. I have no reason to doubt that the vast majority of them are doing their jobs well, and have no responsibility for the decisions that led to the Gulf spill.

The people that are responsible, on the other hand, are likely to get off scot-free. BP CEO Tony Hayward received $6.2 billion in cash and shares last year. Even if he loses his job tomorrow, he is not going to have to give it back. The worst-case situation will leave him vastly better off than the people along the Gulf whose properties and businesses have been ruined.

There is no such thing as punishing a corporation. A corporation is an organizational structure and cannot suffer. Only human beings can be punished. Human beings at the head of a corporate respond to economic incentives, which in BP’s case was to protect profits by cutting corners on safety and environmental protection. To offset this, you have to have strict governmental oversight, which the Bush and Obama administrations have failed to provide.


Cute kitten pictures

June 12, 2010

For the sake of sanity, it is good to remember that there are other things in the world besides dysfunctional governments and corporations.

Click on this for a gallery of lion, tiger, leopard and cheetah cubs and lynx and wildcat kittens born in zoos around the world.

Click on this and this for more pictures of lion cubs.

Click on this and this for more pictures of leopard cubs.

Click on this for more pictures of sand kittens and this for more pictures of a little ocelot.

Gaza and Israel’s demographic dilemma

June 11, 2010

I have long interpreted Israel’s policies toward the civilian populations of Gaza and the West Bank as expressions of blind rage, provoked by Palestinian terrorist attacks which also are expressions of blind rage. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they are based on an evil logic.

One of Israel’s long-range problems is the so-called demographic dilemma – the fact that the Palestinian Arab birth rate exceeds the Israeli Jewish birth rate so that, in time, the Arabs will be a majority in the territories ruled by Israel – Israel proper plus the West Bank and Gaza. To counter this the government of Israel tries to encourage Jewish immigration from Russia and other countries.

But there is something else that Israel can do to resolve the demographic situation, and that is Palestinian Arab emigration. The Israeli government blockade of Gaza does not make any sense in military terms; few of the embargoed products has any military use. But it does have the effect of making the lives of the people of Gaza so miserable that they will use any opportunity to leave.  Expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank serves the same purpose.

You could view Hezbollah and Hamas terrorism as mirror images of this policy. Random attacks on Israeli civilians do not impair the Israeli government’s military capability nor do they make the Israeli government more willing to negotiate. But the creation of a climate of fear and uncertainty would discourage immigration into Israel and encourage emigration.

If this interpretation is correct, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going to go on and on and on until the two sides realize that neither one is going to drive the other out, and they have to figure out how to live together.


“… get the hell out of Palestine”

June 11, 2010

When Helen Thomas said Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine,” the implication was that the Jewish people are not a nation, in the way that the Irish, the Poles, the Algerians and others who have struggled for national independence, are nations, and have no right to a homeland, as these other nations have.

This is the prevailing point of view in the Arab world and widely held elsewhere, and it is a view that Americans rarely hear. According to this way of thinking, Jews are merely a minority group in whatever nation they happen to reside, and never can be more than that. Jews born in Poland are Poles, Jews born in Germany are Germans, Jews born in the United States are Americans and Jews born in the territory of the old British Palestinian Mandate are not Israelis, but Palestinians.  Jews have no right to leave their native lands, settle in Israel and the Palestinian territories and push out the resident population.

But there is a flip side to this, and that is the refusal to recognize that Palestinians also are a nation with a right to self-determination. The counter-argument is that Palestinians are not a nationality, and it doesn’t matter if they are pushed out of their ancestral lands, because they are merely generic Arabs who could live just as well in any Arabic-speaking country from Morocco to Iraq. If the Israelis demand that Palestinian Arabs acknowledge their right to exist as a nation, they should recognize the existence of the Palestinian Arab nation. The alternative is more suffering and more bloodshed.


Deming and the rise and fall of quality

June 10, 2010

During the 1980s, when I was reporting on business for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, I became fascinated with the ideas of W. Edwards Deming, the father of the Total Quality Management movement. I thought then, and still think, that Deming’s ideas were more potentially revolutionary than most of his followers realized.

W. Edwards Deming

Deming was a statistician. He created statistical techniques by which workers can monitor their own workand coordinate their work without the need for supervision. His techniques were widely adopted by Japanese industry after World War Two, and enjoyed a vogue in the United States when Japanese competition was seen as a threat.

I was excited by Deming’s ideas. I became a cheerleader for Total Quality Management as the expense of my professional journalistic skepticism. I liked the idea of Americans working together as teams to make our industry the best in the world. I liked the idea of businesses drawing on the knowledge and best ideas of all their employees, and not just a handful of managers and consultants; this, to me, was democracy. I interviewed company employees who were enthusiastic about being able to plan their work and make improvements, and not just passively obey.

But this was not to be. In a few years, TQM was wiped off the blackboard, and U.S. business fell into the pattern of downsizing and outsourcing which has continued to this day. Was TQM abandoned because it was threatening to the prerogatives of management? Or did it simply prove too difficult to implement? I’m not privy to the inner decisions of corporate management nor to the information those decisions were based on, so I can’t say.


Exit Helen Thomas

June 9, 2010

It’s too bad that Helen Thomas didn’t retire years ago from her job as White House correspondent when she could have done so with dignity. Unlike baseball players, journalists tend to stay in the job long after they lose their ability to hit the long ball.  That was true of once-revered figures such as James Reston, and it is true of  David Broder and Larry King today. In contrast, Bill Moyers and, in an earlier era, Walter Cronkite retired when they were at the top of their game.

Helen Thomas is best known for asking questions at Presidential press conferences that other reporters do not dare to ask. But the reason she could get away with asking them is that she functioned as a licensed court jester – someone who could speak insults, nonsense or unwelcome truths because nobody took her seriously. It was an indulgence that was a flip side of prejudice against elderly women. She was a kind of mascot, a sort of elderly child who sometimes said the darndest things.

She deserves credit for being a woman who made her way to the top in journalism at a time when women were relegated to what was then called the “society page.” She must have had a tough time. I respect her for that. But what great news stories did she write? Her biography on her web site mentions her many journalism awards, but it has been a long time since she broke an important news story (*).

I agree that her remark about Jews in Israel going back where they came from was thoughtless and offensive, but I think they are less the words of someone who hates Jews than of someone who has lost the habit of thinking before she speaks.


Coffee, retirement and other privileges

June 8, 2010

Back in the 1980s, I once talked to a couple of machinists for Eastman Kodak Co. about our respective jobs. They were in their 50s, the same as me. From what they said, and from what I know about skilled trades, their jobs required at least as much knowledge and skill as my job, and their jobs were of more obvious usefulness to society.

The thing that struck them about my job as a newspaper reporter was that I could go to the bathroom, or go to the vending machine for a cup of coffee, without having to ask permission of a supervisor.

I remember what conversation whenever I read about somebody saying that the retirement age needs to be raised to 67 in order to save money on Social Security.  I’d bet that none of the people who say that work under conditions in which they have to ask permission to go to the bathroom or get a cup of coffee.

A new definition of chutzpah

June 7, 2010

The Yiddish word “chutzpah” means a combination of audacity and impudence, as exemplified by someone who murders his mother and father and then asks for mercy from the court on the grounds that he is an orphan.

Maybe we need a new word for the audacity and impudence of the Wall Street banking and financial community who brought the U.S. and world economy to the brink of disaster, were bailed out of their mistakes through hundreds of billions of dollars of direct and indirect subsidies and now tell us that we have to cut back on spending to help the unemployed and retirees because otherwise we will lose the confidence of the financial community.


Goyette’s Second Law

June 6, 2010

A government performs its legitimate functions in a manner inversely proportional to the degree in which it busies itself in unauthorized activities.


Some things human beings do right

June 5, 2010

Click on this and then click on the little black specks in the upper right corner of the image.

What you’ll see is the International Space Station and the spacecraft Atlantis moving across the disc of the Sun.  It is an amazing sight, and shows that we human beings haven’t lost the knack of getting technology right.

My friend Anne Tanner forwarded this link to me.  As she says, it was a remarkable achievement by the photographer, who had about half a second to get that image.

Click on this to see the Brussels Carpet of Flowers.  It would be awesome if it had been done only once, but the Belgians do this every year.

A failure of prevention, not response

June 4, 2010

Some situations are irretrievable.  If you fall out of an airplane without a parachute, there’s not much you can do before you hit the ground.  This is the case with the BP oil spill off the Louisiana coast.  The Obama administration’s failure is not a failure of response, because there is no obvious action that the administration is overlooking. It is a failure of foresight and prevention.

Business corporations respond to financial incentives. Corporation executives respond to short-term financial incentives rather than long-term risks because, after all, it’s not their money.

BP executives had no financial incentive to say, “Well, actually, we aren’t sure we know how to drill for oil a mile beneath the ocean’s surface, and maybe we had better hold off until we figure it out.”  It had no financial incentive to prepare for the worst case situation.  Its financial incentive was to extract the maximum of oil at the minimum of cost.

Now it is too late.  We are looking at what is shaping up as the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, with both BP and the government unable to stop it from running its course.


Replaying your life

June 3, 2010


The science fiction novel Replay by Ken Grimwood, first published in 1988 and recently reprinted, is based on a fascinating premise.  The central character dies in 1988 at age 43 of a heart attack, and wakes up as his younger self at age 18 in 1963.  He gets a chance to live his life over, not once but many times, but in decreasing intervals. In each replay, he starts over at a later point in his life, but he always dies at the same instant in 1988.  The fascination is in the question: What would I do if I had that chance?  Would I retrace my previous life and this time do things right, or would I try something entirely new?

In its execution, the novel does justice to its premise. Grimwood has a good feel for how things were in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and how these decades differed. There are clever plot twists, which I won’t reveal.  In one replay, the central character tries to alter the course of history and inadvertently brings on an intensified version of  War on Terror and Homeland Security state (not called by those names) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, resulting in a cancellation of the 1984 elections.

Grimwood had a lot of insight to foresee that possibility, unless he was a replayer himself (he died in 2003).

Can black people be racist?

June 3, 2010

Yes, of course, black people can be racist, and, more to the point, black people can be racially prejudiced.  I make the distinction because racism is a conscious ideology while racial prejudice consists of unconscious feelings. Racists know they’re racist; racially prejudiced people are unaware they are prejudiced.

My experience is that black Americans are better at sizing up white Americans than the other way around, but all human beings are prejudiced to some degree.

The consequences, however, are different for the two groups.  When a white person makes false negative assumptions about black people, this is often detrimental to black people.  When a black person makes false negative assumptions about white people, this is likely to hurt the black person more than it does whites.

The argument against prejudice is not that you owe it to other people to be unprejudiced as that you owe it to yourself to accurately perceive reality.  Knowing someone else’s color or ethnicity does not tell you anything about that person’s character or abilities.

The golden door

June 2, 2010

Once when I was reporting on business for the Democrat and Chronicle, I telephoned an economist or statistician in some government bureau remote from Rochester, N.Y., to get information I needed for an article about whether average wages were keeping pace with the cost of living. (They weren’t.)

As I talked, I quickly realized the person I was interviewing was not a native speaker of English. She did not know the meaning of the idiom, “make ends meet.” I recall the impression that she was Japanese, but I don’t know whether this was because I knew her name or for some other reason.

After I got the information I needed, we started talking generally about the United States and its economic situation. She told me that “we” as a nation needed to get our act together, that “we” risked being overtaken by foreign competitors.

I still remember the thrill I felt when I realized the significance of that “we.”  Here was a woman who was born on the other side of the planet. Here was I whose ancestors have been American citizens since the United States come together as a nation. Yet we could talk to each other as “we” – members of a common community with a common loyalty.