The sun came out this afternoon, so I went back to the house near Verona where the Painted bunting has been seen, and sure enough it came back to pose for a photo. About a dozen people were there this time, and a few more folks came later on. (This time I brought a backup battery just in case!) I stayed around in hopes of getting a better photo in the sunlight, but no such luck. I also saw most of the same other birds that were there on Wednesday, as well as a noisy Pileated woodpecker in the distance and a Sharp-shinned hawk that caused a brief panic.
Many, many thanks to the friendly and gracious hostess, Chris Waldrop. I am working on a video that will be uploaded to YouTube later this evening. Stay tuned for update!
The second Painted bunting ever reported in Augusta County: December 29, 2007, at about 3:15 PM, northwest of Verona, Virginia.
You Tube update!
The video is about 35 seconds, showing the Painted bunting munching away at the feeder.
Apparently so. A billionaire named Sam Zell is in the midst of purchasing the Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Cubs, but he intends to sell the Cubs right away. One option is to take advantage of the preferential financing terms that public authorities get for capital improvements such as building renovation. Thus, he would sell the Friendly Confines to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority for the token sum of one dollar, in exchange for a commitment by them to invest about $350 million in further renovations. "Whoever buys the Cubs would be required to sign an "ironclad commitment" to keep the team at Wrigley Field for the next 30 years." Governor Blagojevich endorsed the proposal, but Mayor Daley resists it, saying that the fixing city's transit system is a higher priority. See the Chicago Sun Times; hat tip to Mike Zurawski.
New stadium in Miami?
Here we go again: A new stadium for the Florida Marlins is just around the corner, apparently, and under the new plan no new public funding would be required. Already-appropriated funds for urban revitalization would be tapped, replacing the Orange Bowl with a multi-purpose entertainment center, including a retractable-roof ballpark and possibly a soccer stadium. See Miami Sun-Sentinel; hat tip to Mike Zurawski.
PNC Park fixup
A new fan of this site, Cody Gobbell, pointed out a discrepancy in my PNC Park diagram, so I took care of that and a couple other pending touch-ups on it. While I was at it, I included a "suggested alternative configuration" that would eliminate the small bleacher section in right-center field, and extending the field into that space.
I've got other news items and tips from fans to catch up on. Stay tuned...
It's been a busy week for the Washington Nationals' front office, and General Manager Jim Bowden has taken some big risks in building a contending team full of promising (mostly) young wanna-be stars. Aaron Boone, Wily Mo Pena, and Ryan Langerhans, have been signed to a one- or two-year contracts. Boone is s ten-year veteran who has played with the Reds, the Yankees, the Indians, and the Marlins. See MLB.com. Late-breaking news: former Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca signed a one-year contract as well; see MLB.com.
The Washington Post noted that even though these roster additions greatly enhance the team's offensive power, two of the new players have serious behavioral issues: Lastings Milledge earned a bad reputation as a hot-dog rap singer with the Mets, and the (Devil) Rays' Elijah Dukes "has a long history of legal problems," including making threatening phone calls. That's not a good sign. Milledge's mother named him "Lastings" in hopes that he would be her last child.
With all the new faces, things will be very confusing for Nationals fans in coming months, and we will be lucky to recognize more than a few players as the team inaugurates their new stadium in April. All in all, it is a clear indication that the Lerners want their team to have a fighting chance to contend for a playoff spot next year. This stands in stark contrast to the Florida Marlins, who just traded away Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera to the Tigers. See MLB.com.
The mail bag
It's not exactly baseball news, but L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa has committed to keep the USC Trojans in Memorial Coliseum, which is in need of renovation. Otherwise, USC might join UCLA in the Rose Bowl over in Pasadena. The upshot is that the mayor has given up on getting an NFL team to play in Memorial Coliseum. It's probably all for the best, because an NFL franchise would probably want to ruin historic Memorial Coliseum in the same way Da Bears ruined historic Soldier Field a few years ago. See L.A. Times. (The photo in that story shows that the field is now much too narrow to hold a baseball game; the pale rows of seats were added in 1993. They are apparently going ahead with that historic exhibition game set for next March.) Hat tip to Mike Zurawski.
COMMENT by: Andrew Clem, of Staunton, VA on Dec 11, 2007 15:48 PM Testing 1, 2, 4
In spite of the gloomy overcast skies, the weather was surprisingly mild today. So, I went for a walk behind the Staunton-Augusta Rescue Squad for the first time in a couple weeks, and saw a fair number of interesting birds. A Golden-crowned kinglet came very close at one point, but it was too quick for me to get the camera ready. A Mockingbird was more cooperative, so I obliged by "shooting" a picture of it. (See below.) I also took a quick video of a male Bluebird examining a woodpecker hole, no doubt scouting prospective nesting sites for next spring. "The early Bluebird gets the hole." Today's highlights:
Downy woodpeckers (F, M)
House finches (F, M)
Purple finches (F, M)
Bluebirds (M, F)
Red-bellied woodpecker (F)
Yellow-bellied sapsucker (J)
Golden-crowned kinglets (F)
Yesterday afternoon, Jacqueline and I took a quick drive to Bell's Lane, but just about all we saw was a Red-tailed hawk and a dozen or so Ruddy ducks. While there, we happened to see Jo King and two other bird enthusiasts. Sadly, my preoccupation with end-of-semester tasks got in the way of my plans to attend the Augusta Bird Club's Christmas Party this evening.
Protests against the proposed new constitution in Bolivia are growing again, as the departments (provinces) of Santa Cruz, Tarija, Pando, and Beni are demanding autonomy from the central government. Those are the states with higher incomes levels, mainly reflecting their natural resources such as natural gas. Hunger strikes and petition drives are among the tactics employed by the dissenters. The country is teetering on the brink of dissolution, and yet President Evo Morales seems unperturbed in his campaign to take control on behalf of the Indian population -- and presumably the coca leaf traffickers whose cause he has espoused. See Washington Post and BBC.
Home for the holidays?
In Colombia, the FARC rebels are dangling the prospect of a hostage release as a public relations gesture for the holidays. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is doing his best to stay involved, contrary to the express wish of President Uribe, and the rebels (drug-running thugs, basically) are clearly looking to him for protection and international legitimacy. The most famous hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, recently sent a letter to her mother as "proof of life," and the daughter is quite weary of being a captive since 2002. See Washington Post. Speaking of which, I highly recommend the movie Proof of Life, starring Russell Crowe; see Internet Movie Database. It is gripping and very realistic portrayal of the hostage-taking "industry" in Latin America.
Christmas for the Clem family this year pleasant and low key. We've been listening to Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker as well as "White Christmas" and all the other Yuletide standards by Bing Crosby. Then there was the usual late-night salsa music, with hot chocolate and pannetone. (Hey, we're multicultural. ) Among the Christmas-season movies we saw on TV, we enjoyed the final scene or two of The Bells Of St. Mary's (1945), starring Bing Crosby (coincidentally) and Ingrid Bergman. A short film really struck an emotional chord with me: Star In The Night (1945), both on Turner Classic Movies. The latter is about a hard-hearted innkeeper in the California desert who gets a much-need attitude adjustment when the Nativity Story plays out in his own little inn. Would that all of us be blessed with such eye-opening life experiences to bring us closer to God, and closer to each other.
"Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men!"
Pakistan today is going through the same kind of anguish and turmoil that the United States experienced in April 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. The sudden loss of a beloved, devoted leader has left the people in a state of deep despair, and anything could happen. Not unlike that tragic moment, the news on Wednesday morning that Benazir Bhutto had been killed in a suicide bomb attack following a campaign rally in Rawalpindi was shocking but not totally unexpected. It reminds us that there are many awful possibilities we don't like to think about. Life as we know it is far more precious than we realize. Details about the wretched act are still coming to light as the investigation begins; it's always amazing how much confusion there is about something that happens in broad daylight with hundreds of witnesses. The Washington Post has a complete biographical background on Ms. Bhutto.
Benazir Bhutto knew her life was in peril even before the first bomb attack upon her arrival in Pakistan in October, which led President Musharraf to declare emergency rule in November. But she returned home anyway, defying the terrorists. Such an expression of courage by a leader just might serve as the inspiration for a new generation of Pakistanis who are no doubt weary from decades of instability and slow growth compared to their big neighbor India. What's more, the cowardly murder of a woman will discredit the Islamofascist movement in the eyes of many Muslims who are attracted to extremism. Perhaps one of her legacies will be that there will be less hostility in Pakistan toward the United States, where she earned a college degree.
Bhutto became more friendly toward the United States in recent years, reflecting the emphasis on U.S. support for democratization in the Third World. Originally, however, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) which she led had a left-wing, populist, anti-imperialist ideology that gave voice to discontented elements in Pakistan. That was one reason for the frequent episodes of instability and military coups over the years. Her father, Ali Bhutto, founded the PPP and served as prime minister in the 1970s, but was hanged on corruption charges by the military regime in 1970. Benazir Bhutto also faced corruption charges on several occasions, often centered around her husband's business dealings; graft is quite common in Pakistan, unfortunately. On the plus side, the PPP has matured over the years, and is now more moderate than before.
Most analysts assume that this tragedy is a major setback for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but much depends on how the Pakistani people react. Will the main theme be mourning and paying respects to Bhutto for her career as political leader, or will such sentiments be drowned out by cries for revenge? Will the elections scheduled for January be postponed to give the PPP time to choose a new leader? Will the other main civilian political leader, Nawaz Sharif (of the Pakistan Muslim League), take advantage of the situation? Will President Musharraf get serious about terrorism and crack down on the radical Islamic sympathizers within his military government, or will this episode deal a fatal blow to his credibility?
On the international level, tragic occasions such as this can sometimes serve to build bridges between hostile neighbors, as human sympathy supplants the routine rivalry for power. There is a strong parallel between the historic path of the Pakistan People's Party and the Congress Party in India, whose principle leader for many years, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated in 1984. Now that both countries have experienced the same kind of agony, perhaps there is a chance for improved relations. From Texas, President and Mrs. Bush expressed condolences and urged Pakistanis to honor Ms. Bhutto's memory by upholding democracy; see whitehouse.gov.
Nevertheless, the fact that Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal makes this situation especially dangerous for the whole planet. Can we really trust Musharraf? A few weeks ago there were reports that the U.S. military was preparing a contingency plan to take out Pakistan's nuclear weapons, but prospects for success are far from certain, and such a move could backfire horribly. The United States must apply a delicate mixture of firm pressure and respectful restraint toward Pakistan. We cannot tolerate a safe haven for Osama Bin Laden in the mountainous border with Afghanistan, but neither can we go so far as to provoke Pakistani nationalists. In few places around the world is there a sharper dilemma between the U.S. desire for more freedom and democracy verus our wish for more security and stability. For the next several months at least, we will have to pay close attention to developments in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey. Turmoil in each of those countries affects the whole region, and with energy supplies so tight right now, such turmoil affects the whole world.
The Washington Nationals have traded away two of the remaining players who used to be Montreal Expos: veteran Brian Schneider (catcher) and young Ryan Church (outfielder). In return, the Nats get Lastings Milledge, a 22-year old outfielder who is expected to become a solid mid-lineup batter in future years, but who earned a reputation for behavorial problems while in New York. It is thought that since Manny Acta knows Milledge from having coached with the Mets, that the youngster will be given proper guidance. See Washington Post. That means that the only former Expos among the Nationals regular starters are Nick Johnson (first base) and John Patterson (pitcher), and neither of them have played much (if at all) in the past year due to injuries. I'm a bit surprised because I thought Church was finally hitting his stride after a bumpy first two years in Washington, and Schneider has been the team's defensive backbone all along, keeping the pitching staff on a relatively even keel.
The mail bag
Thanks to Joe Johnston for some interesting photos of Yankee Stadium, about to enter its final year. UPDATE: I learned from Bruce Orser that the infield of Yankee Stadium was lowered by about 16 inches before the 2002 season, when they installed a new sand-based turf drainage system which obviated the need for an old-fashioned runoff system. See recmanagement.com, but note an erroneous photo on that page.
Can you say "Seasonal Affective Disorder"? The shortening hours of daylight put many of us in a somber mood this time of year, which is one reason the early Christians may have chosen late December to mark the birthday of Jesus Christ. In any case, we have made it to the Winter solstice, which means that the days will begin to lengthen for the next six months. Bulb flowers such as Amaryllis are a popular way of fighting the winter blues -- with bright red colors, of course.
Prime number fun
In the course of a Google search, I came across an interactive prime numbers chart at algebrahelp.com. Refreshing my memory on the significance of prime numbers, in turn, led me to an interesting Web page by Julian Brown, who asks "What happens when chaos encounters the quantum world?" It involves the Riemann hypothesis, of which I have only the foggiest comprehension.
Just a few days after getting approval by the State Board of Elections for a requirement that all Republican primary voters sign a declaration of intent to vote for the party's nominee in the general elections, the RPV State Central Committee voted to withdraw the request. I think that makes the party look even worse than before -- The leaders clearly want to keep out voters whose loyalty to the party is suspect, but they don't want to appear to be doing so. In other words, they are (apparently) both exclusionary and gutless. RPV Communication Director Shaun Kenney explained that "conservatives do not want Democrats to infiltrate GOP nominating contests..." [emphasis added] Del. Scott Lingamfelter has introduced a bill that would begin registration by party in Virginia. (Good!) The Washington Post reported that squabbles and shouting matches broke out in Loudoun County in recent years when party officials tried to impose loyalty oaths on voters. Also see rpv.org.
R.I.P. Henry Hyde
Former Illinois Representative Henry Hyde passed away this week at the age of 83. He was known primarily as a staunch opponent of abortion, and the Hyde Amendment banned federal funding of abortions for poor women, which no doubt resulted in many more babies being born than otherwise. Hyde was a conservative Republican throughout his career, but he was also an independent thinker who sometimes broke ranks with his party. For example, he opposed term limits and favored greater controls on handguns. His strong opinions sometimes offended those who differed with him, but he was widely admired for his candor, sincerity, and integrity. He was a model of what a good legislator should be.
Will Oprah Winfrey's endorsement swing next year's presidential election? Maybe. Her appearance with Barack Obama before huge crowds in Iowa and South Carolina over the past couple days showed how much energy she can generate in our celebrity-crazed society, but getting the voters out to the polls on Election Day is another question entirely. And, no, those folks who vote for Obama will not get a free car from Oprah.
Obama-mania is not exclusive to the Democratic side. In The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan (a disaffected conservative) gets a bit carried away extolling the unique virtues of Sen. Obama, who he thinks is the right candidate at the right time in U.S. history. Obama, Sullivan believes, is the real "bridge to the 21st Century."
[H]e could take America--finally--past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. ...
In other words, he would transform American politics, in a sort of paradigm shift, and thereby steal the rhetorical thunder of the screeching polarizers such as Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Michael Moore, and Keith Olberman. Well, that would certainly be nice, but somehow I don't Obama would have that much impact. Furthermore, I really don't think that the Iraq War will be the central issue in the 2008 campaign, contrary to what Sullivan thinks. I think the economy will be the main focus.
In the National Review (story link not available), Rich Lowry has a more convincing take on Obama, noting his heritage: "Barack Obama comes from a long line of thoughtful, achingly idealistic reformers in Democratic presidential politics." They are very inspirational and rally a devoted cadre of followers, but in the end they lose -- all except for Jimmy Carter in 1976, that is. Like Carter, and unlike Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, or Gary Hart, Obama has oodles of personal charm, and that could make the difference. Yet Obama has an inherent weakness similar to Carter: a penchant for blaming the United States for the resentment other countries express toward us. For most Americans, that line of thinking is a hard sell.
Perhaps the bigger story is getting lost in the shuffle: the rapid meltdown of front-runner Hillary Clinton's campaign. "The taller they stand, the harder they fall."
I have reshuffled the lower-ranking GOP presidential candidates, moving Mitt Romney up to sixth place, and moving Tom Tancredo down to seventh place. I'm still a little leery of Romney's slick appearance and tendency to recalibrate policy positions, but he sounds reasonable on most of the issues. Plus, he has that elusive presidential "timbre." On the other hand, Romney's Mormon affiliation also concerns me. The more I read about it, the more convinced I am that Mormons fall outside the theological parameters of Christianity, and I'm not sure this country is ready for such a big step. Meanwhile, Ron Paul slips back to last place, mostly because I am leery of his over-eager true-believing insurgents supporters, who recently created a big ruckus at the GOP "Advance" in Arlington.
As everybody knows, the years during which Bill Clinton served in the White House were marked by one of the biggest, most sustained economic expansions in our nation's history. No subprime mortgage crisis, no soaring gas prices, just peace and prosperity year in and year out. Now, whether that splendid situation had anything to do with his policies or not is another question, and it would take a college seminar to figure that one out. Who's got time for that?
In any case, retired First Lady (and front-running presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton has finally decided to pull out the stops and fight back against Barack Obama by playing up her husband's legacy, which is rather mixed. Ironically, Obama's youthful optimism echoes Bill's campaign theme of 1992, and Hillary's emphasis on experience echoes George Bush The Elder's ill-fated reelection campaign. Bill was a master at playing both sides of an issue (NAFTA, intervention in Bosnia, confronting Iraq, etc.), and I just don't think Hillary is a slick enough rhetorician to get away with what Bill did. Stressing "experience" is also rather dicey for Hillary, given the health care fiasco she engendered. Of course, that is what paved the way for the Republican Revolution in 1994.
Today's Washington Post also notes that Mrs. Clinton is getting campaign help from daughter Chelsea Clinton, trying to show Hillary's "human side." Well, I suppose her "demonic side" probably gets too much press coverage, so that's OK. But few things are sadder in life than seeing maternal loyalty being put to such nefarious ends, on behalf of a mother only a daughter could love.
As for the "two-for-the-price-of-one" argument, Argentina just underwent a husband-to-wife presidential transition (Nestor Kirchner to Cristina Kirchner), and the possibility of the "Billary" duo Clinton back in the Oval Office will raise the question of whether we need a constitutional amendment to prevent familial dynasties.
Clinton Library tour
Just for fun, take a tour of the (unofficial) Clinton Presidential Library hosted by impersonator Frank Caliendo, courtesy of youtube.com. (Must be age 21 or older. ) Hat tip to Rich Raab.
Every sane person on Earth knows that the furious protests in Sudan against the British schoolteacher were patently absurd. Gillian Gibbons, a sweet and innocent middle-aged lady, committed the "blasphemy" of letting her students name a teddy bear "Mohammed," and all hell broke loose. Yesterday she was freed from jail (an act of "mercy") and returned to Britain; see Washington Post.
On the Post editorial page, Anne Applebaum reminds us of similar episodes in the past: Salman Rushdie, Pope Benedict, the Danish cartoonists, and Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh, among others. Each of the protests staged by Muslims against these individuals was characterized by a freakishly exaggerated reaction to relatively minor affronts. Viewed from the conventional mindset of politically correct cultural relativism, it is natural to ask "What did we do to deserve this? We need to be more sensitive to the Muslims and avoid inflaming tensions." In truth, however, the protests have had little or nothing to do with "Muslim hypersensitivity" but instead were a contrived outcry aimed at rallying political support for Islamic extremist leaders. Just look at the video images of the grinning mobs: They're not angry, they are gloating at our collective gullibility! Nevertheless, as Applebaum writes, many people in the West just don't get it. Among them is Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who "regretted the 'disproportionate' punishment." Sheesh. Is it any wonder that few if any Western leaders have the gumption to take the lead in saving the people in Darfur from genocide?
This episode also reminds us of the appropriateness of the label Islamofascist. True, it is applied too widely on occasion, and certainly doesn't apply to most Muslims, but it is nonetheless a very real and dangerous phenomenon with strong parallels to the grievance-mongering of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. As long as Western democracies are too timid or self-doubting to stand up and call a lie a lie, the aggressors will keep getting away with it.
Thanks to an e-mail rare bird alert from Allen Larner, I got to see a Painted bunting for the first time ever this afternoon. It is aptly-named, with spectacular red, blue, and green feathers, and has been seen near the town of Verona several times over the past week or two. It was quite chilly, but fortunately it showed up today after a wait of a little more than 30 minutes. Somehow I managed to run down the camera battery before taking a picture (D'oh!), and my return trip late in the afternoon, fully recharged, was fruitless. So I'll try again tomorrow, but I doubt my pictures could compare to the photo taken by my brother John.
Painted buntings usually spend the summer in southeastern states, as far west as Arkansas, and they winter in southern Florida and the Caribbean. On rare occasions they show up further north along the east coast, but hardly ever do they come this far inland. This was only the second sighting ever reported in Augusta County. I was happy to see the Augusta Bird Club's archivist YuLee Larner at the house where the Painted bunting has been showing up, and I look forward to reading her column in the News Leader when she reports on this big event.
At the same location, I also saw a few Fox sparrows, Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, Yellow-rumped warblers, and a Red-breasted nuthatch, as well as many Cardinals, Chickadees, Titmice, White-throated sparrows, and other birds.
This marks the 369th bird on my Life bird list, and the fifth new bird for this year, which is about to end. That is about the same number of new North American birds I have seen in each of the four previous years.
Christmas Bird Count
For the first time since 2002, I did not participate in the Christmas Bird Count this year, because of conflicting obligations on the date it was conducted, December 16. (Last year, when it was very mild, Stan Heatwole and I saw or heard 42 bird species altogether.) There was a fairly good turnout from local birders in this area, with 22 participants, and they identified 78 bird species. The complete tally is posted at audubon.org.
So now we learn that the National Intelligence Estimate given to President Bush two months ago cast doubt on Iran's intention of producing a nuclear weapon. It is now believed that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003 -- the same year that Iraq was liberated. The new NIE represents a strong consensus opinion among intelligence experts, and undercuts Bush's attempt to use the threat of military force as leverage to get Iran to make major concessions on its nuclear research program. Two years ago, the NIE expressed "high confidence" that Iran was determined to build its own nuclear weapons. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley put an upbeat spin on this stunning development, saying it is "good news." See Washington Post. Well, sure it is, but it's going to make it a lot harder to keep up the pressure on Tehran. Moscow and Beijing have been dragging their heels in the U.N. Security Council all along, and this will give them justification to become even more uncooperative with regards to imposing sanctions on Iran. That constitutes a big setback for U.S. foreign policy goals. After all, no one should doubt that Iran remains as hostile and as determined to attack Western interests as ever.
The strange thing is that Bush warned only a few weeks ago that nuclear weapons in Iran would raise the threat of World War III breaking out -- a possibility that we thought had ended with the end of the Cold War. Didn't he believe the report he was given? Bush could have used the NIE report to claim that his Iraq liberation policy had succeeded in persuading the Iranians to back off their nuclear ambitions back in 2003. Instead, now he has egg on his face. As Daniel Drezner wryly noted, "That's one heckuva NIE on Iran." (Referring to hapless former FEMA Director Michael Brown, of course. ) Drezner also pointed out, "One obvious implication: whatever slim chance there existed of a U.S. military intervention in Iran over the next 13 months just got way, way slimmer." I was skeptical about all that saber-rattling, anyway.
Maybe there is hope for Venezuela after all. Voters narrowly rejected the constitutional revision that would have given President Hugo Chavez virtual dictatorial powers, 51%-49% in relative light turnout. This was the first time Chavez has lost an election since ascending to the presidency in 1999, and people on all sides were taken aback by this reversal of fortune. There were celebrations in the streets of Caracas, but this time it was the opponents of Chavez. For his part, Chavez said he respected the voters' decision, showing a rare glimpse of his more sensible, reflective side. Having set such low standards for himself over the past eight years, any reasonable gesture at all by him is greatly magnified. Nevertheless, Chavez also vowed to press ahead with his revolutionary agenda. That presumably means that voters will be presented with a similar, perhaps watered-down version of the constitutional revision in another year or two. Otherwise, he will be obliged to leave office when his term expires in 2013, and from what we know of Chavez, it would take a miracle to get him to give up power voluntarily. See BBC. One of the comments made by Chavez perfectly illustrates his vain contempt for his people:
Could Hugo Chavez make a mistake some time? It could be. It may be that we are not yet mature enough to withstand the socialist "bombardment." * ... Before looking for the guilty ones, I have to say that I may have erred in choosing the wrong time to make the proposal. That could be. (SOURCE: El Universal)
* In this context, I think his use of the word bombardeo refers to the period of revolutionary tumult accompanying the transition to a socialist system. In any case, the lower-than-expected turnout among the lower-class people that Chavez counts on may indicate the weariness that many people in Venezuela are starting to feel, after eight full years of noisy turbulence wrought by their hot-headed jefe. If so, Chavez is unlikely to fare any better in future elections. He will certainly win more political battles in the future, but now that his aura of invincibility has been undermined, there is a good chance that many people will start to think for themselves and consider whether his agenda is in their best interests.
After months of depressing news about Republican infighting in Virginia, it's a refreshing change of pace to read that the Democrats have their own divisive issues to deal with. The selection of state Senate committee chairmen left out the rural parts of Virginia, and legislators from those areas are not too pleased. Whether or not this disgruntlement threatens the Democrats' newly won majority control in the Senate, it will at least give the rural senators added reason to bargain with their caucus leaders whenever a close vote is looming. It strengthens the political center, which these days is very good news. See Washington Post.
"The Meatrix" (yuk)
Anyone who lives in the Shenandoah Valley, and anyone who drives along Interstate 81 south of Harrisonburg during the warmer months, knows about the pollution caused by megafarms. As they say, "That's the smell of money, mister." Sometimes it's hard to argue with the vegetarian slogan "meat stinks." Then there is the problem of large-scale fish kills in the upstream parts of the Shenandoah River, which is suspected to be caused by farm runoff. This situation should make us reflect on the meat and poultry industry in this country, where the obsession with trimming costs has led to awful conditions for animals. (Also, the industrial-scale poultry processing plants are fond of hiring illegal immigrant workers, but that's another story.) That is the point made by The Meatrix, a parody Web site that promotes organic produce and free-range meat products Hat tip to Connie. It has a link to search feature through which I found the Charis Eco-Farm, located just north of Staunton.
Scrutiny for Huckabee
The recent "surge" of Mike Huckabee in the polls is in part a reflection of his sincerity and articulate manner of speech. Now that he is a serious contender, though, we are obliged to examine his background and positions more thoroughly. Fortunately, that task has been done for us by Stephen Bainbridge, via InstaPundit. Upshot: He is not very conservative when it comes to economic issues.
Al Gore recently visited his arch-rival George W. Bush in the White House, along with other Nobel laureates, and it was quite an amusing situation. Some saw this as vindication for Gore's frantic alarms about global warming, but one has to wonder whether the recent release of scientific research on global warming was timed to coincide with this event. For example, some scientists estimate that the entire North Polar ice cap will melt by 2013, which could set in motion a self-reinforcing chain of climactic events of catastrophic proportions. See BBC. It would be prudent to take seriously such a possibility, but let's try not to set off a massive panic, OK?
Last week it snowed here in the Shenandoah Valley, which provided an occasion for many bloggers to mock the idea of global warming, notwithstanding the fact that snow in December is perfectly normal. I thought it would be obvious to everyone, but let us repeat the point: Day-to-day fluctuations in local weather conditions have nothing whatsoever to do with global climate change! Today it got up to 71 degrees, setting a record for this date. How many of those global warming skeptics will be taking note of that?
As a dramatic indication of the effect of the recent warm spell we've been enjoying in Virginia -- NOT related to global warming! -- I was surprised to come across this mushroom while going for a walk this morning. It's about three inches in diameter and fairly dense. According to my field guide, it is probably a Boletus Pinophilus, the species name indicating that it thrives around pine trees. The only fungus that we normally see during the winter is "Witch's butter."
This has been a mixed year for Our National Pastime, with continued discouraging fallout from the steroid / dope scandals, but with uplifting stories of courageous underdogs (Nationals), spirited comebackers (Rockies), and deserving champions (Red Sox). The main downside was that the playoff series were imbalanced, most of them being swept, which hurt TV ratings and advertising revenues. Nevertheless, the superb All Star game raised hope for growth in fan interest, upon which baseball's fortunes rest. It was surprising that most fans seemed to overlook all the bad news and kept forking over big bucks for tickets. I just hope that the franchise owners and Commissioner Selig appreciate how lucky they are to have such loyal, forgiving fans.
Anyway, here is my (highly biased) ranking of the Top Ten stories in baseball this past year, with links to the blog posts in question:
Ballpark-wise, 2007 was the first year since 1988 that there were no new major league baseball stadiums built, nor any major renovations on old stadiums, nor any inheritance, name changes, or demolitions of stadiums. (See the Stadium chronology annual page.) Four stadiums are under construction, however, and there are tentative plans to build at least two more.
SI on dope use
Last week's Sports Illustrated featured a sobering essay by Tom Verducci about the steroid problem. He is right that if the owners and players do not find a way to tackle this scourge in a cooperative fashion, there will be backsliding. Furthermore, the dope testing must be done by an outside agency, not by MLB itself. I also noticed on one page a reproduced front page from The Trentonian tabloid with the face of Mark McGwire and a devastating headline: "He took it in the butt." (Referring to the hypodermic needle, of course.) Well, as they say, that's gotta hurt!
"Just wait till next year!" Well, that's right around the corner, isn't it? Indeed, there a number of significant revisions and enhancements to many of the baseball stadium diagrams that will appear on this Web site in coming weeks. I do appreciate the recent shows of support from fans.
Thirty three months after the Capitol Hill hearings on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, former senator George Mitchell submitted his massive 311-page report on the dope problem, a PDF version of which is available from MLB.com. Two books focused the public's attention on the issue: Jose Canseco's Juiced (2005), and Game of Shadows (2006), by Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada. A large portion of the new information in Mitchell's report came from Kirk Radomski, and eleven players admitted buying performance-enhancing drugs from him. The activities of trainer Greg Anderson, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), etc. were mostly a rehash of earlier published reports. No active major league player other than Jason Giambi consented to speak with Mitchell. The report focuses mainly on steroids, but also on human growth hormone, which is much harder to detect than steroids. Paul Byrd was among the players who claimed to use it for therapeutic purposes.
What follows is a partial list of players named in the Mitchell report, in approximate order of when they were first mentioned, with the more well-known players shown in bold face. For fans of the Yankees, the biggest disappointment was seeing the names of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Say it ain't so! Sammy Sosa was only mentioned once, to my surprise. Most of the players in that list are under a heavy cloud of suspicion, jeopardizing their future eligibility for the Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, we must remember that under our system of law, they are presumed innocent until proven guilty of criminal conduct. The list below should not be considered as either authoritative or exhaustive.
Jose Guillen *
Paul Lo Duca *
Gary Bennett, Jr. *
Nook Logan *
Gary Matthews, Jr.
Asterisks indicate past or present Washington Nationals players. It's too bad Paul Lo Duca was named so soon after signing with the Nats.
It wasn't a very good sign when BALCO's Victor Conte said that Mitchell's report was a whitewash. Echoing what Mark McGwire said in his March 2005 testimony, Mitchell is less concerned with punishing past misdeeds than with correcting the problem in the future. It sounds like a cop-out, but given the huge scope of the problem, there wouldn't be much point to a full-blown investigation of past drug abuse. The report makes clear that widespread steroid use was suspected at least as early as 1996, when the number of home runs started to surge. The earliest hint of abuse was in 1988, when Jose Canseco was jeered for suspected steroid use, about the same time that Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic medals. So how did players ever think they would get away with it? Well, believing that oneself is above the law is one of the essential characteristics of people with inflated egos.
In assessing blame for dope use, we must keep in mind that standards and rules have changed over the years. For example, it was not until the 2002 collective bargaining agreement that Major League Baseball adopted a mandatory random drug testing program. Ethical standards in the 1990s were perhaps best defined by Bart Simpson:
"I didn't do it!"
"You can't prove I did it!"
"So what? Everybody does it!"
In one sense, Mitchell is correct to blame everyone involved with baseball, but of course such a vague statement (liberal breast-beating?) doesn't really count for very much. What about the collective responsibility of the teams? The players, the coaches, the manager, and the owners should each shoulder some of the burden for enforcing discipline and punishing cheaters.
More broadly, the baseball dope scandal aptly illustrates a fundamental, glaring defect in the contemporary American economy: The growing inclination to cut ethical corners in order to get an edge on competitors. Hence, the hypocrisy over the widespread use of illegal immigrants in our labor force, which artificially holds down costs and fuels our "steroid-based" economy.
As for Mitchell's suggested corrective measures, I suppose they are the best we can hope for, but some of them remind me of the intrusive "Mickey Mouse" procedures used to screen terrorists at airports -- lacking in common sense. Ultimately, it will be up to the players themselves to uphold standards of good sportsmanship, and to fans to hold the players accountable. That is how virtue is maintained in free societies -- not by cumbersome rules.
I was concerned about the hiatus of one of my favorite bloggers, Donald Sensing (One Hand Clapping), and just learned what is going on: He has begun a new collaborative blog which is called Sense of Events. The Rev. Sensing, who is an ordained Methodist minister living in Tennessee, is also a retired Army officer and an authority on national security matters. Even though he is hawkish when it comes to the war in Iraq and the struggle against Islamic extremists in general, and is skeptical of global warming, he usually avoids politics. Another reason for his blogging hiatus is that he recently had a serious car accident, but he is apparently in good shape now. May God bestow blessings upon him and his family this holiday season.
After having staked so much in their successful 2006 congressional campaign on the war in Iraq, presuming that defeat was just around the corner, it must be terribly disheartening for the Democrats to have failed to alter the Bush administration's war policy by even one iota. Their vote to approve funding for the Defense Department without any strings attached (Democrat leaders had been demanding a timetable for withdrawal) marks a clear "surrender" (how ironic!) to President Bush, almost on par with the Republicans' surrender to President Clinton in the fall 1995 showdown over the budget. As Fred Barnes noted at the Weekly Standard, "Everything changed, of course, when General David Petraeus, the Iraq commander, testified before Congress in September." (Link via Instapundit). Everyone expected a dull, phony white wash of a crumbling military situation, but were shocked to learn from him that our forces have actually turned the tide of "battle," such as it is.
A big part of the Democrats' problem is the lack of discipline among the freshmen representatives, who tend to be moderate or even conservative. (Democrats In Name Only? ) The Washington Post profiled new Democratic Representatives Jason Altmire (PA), Joe Donnelly (IN), Brad Ellsworth (IN), and Heath Shuler (NC), the former Redskins quarterback. Each of them is well aware that reelection will depend much more on listening to their constituents than Nancy Pelosi. It is a heartening sign that Joe Lieberman is not the only sensible patriot on the Democratic side of the aisle, and I wish more Republicans would wake up to the fact that some Democrats do "get it" when it comes to national security. This illustrates once again that the political dynamic in American politics is shifting toward the center, and politicians who capitalize on that underlying reality will prosper, while those who heed the advice of ideologue pundits will lose.
GOP "horse race"
It's just as well that Tom Tancredo has dropped out of the presidential race, because his focus on the issue of immigration failed to convince many voters that he knew what to do about other critical issues. I'm glad he helped raise the public's awareness of the consequences of the status quo, and he deserves credit for it. I was going to move Mitt Romney up one notch in my rankings, based on his impressive, forthright articulation of what needs to be done about immigration when he appeared on Meet the Press recently. There remains a nagging doubt, however, about whether his actions would correspond to his words. His recent gaffe about having seen his father march alongside Martin Luther King makes him look like a first-class panderer or worse. See the YouTube video clip on Blogs for Fred Thompson; "it depends on what the meaning of saw is."
The Iowa caucuses are really only eight days away? I'll have to start paying closer attention to all the campaign nonsense statements.
The first official stateside baseball game of the 2008 will take place in Our Nation's Capital, as the Washington Nationals will host the Atlanta Braves in a one-game "series." That is certainly appropriate recognition as the franchise passes through the transition phase that began when it was announced that the former Montreal Expos would relocate to Washington. The special event will be cablecast nationwide on ESPN, no less! See MLB.com.
Marlins wait till next year
It looked like they almost had a deal nailed down to get a new ballpark for the Marlins at the site of the Orange Bowl, but complications arose and they will wait until January to settle everything. As part of the proposed stadium funding deal, the team would be called the Miami Marlins, which is appropriate. See MLB.com; hat tip to Mike Zurawski.
Construction in Minneapolis
After a delay stemming from the collapsed Mississippi River bridge in August, construction of the Minnesota Twins' future home is now well underway, as the first section of concrete has been poured. Target completion date is the spring of 2010. See Twins Ballpark blog; hat tip to Bruce Orser. Also, Cal Ripken has lent his name to an architectural design firm: ripkendesign.com. They are working on the (hopeful) renovation of Tiger Stadium, among other things.
Hiatus for the holidays
In preparation for some future upgrades to the baseball stadium pages, there will be a brief baseball blog hiatus for the holidays. Please note that the ballpark impressions feature is temporarily out of service, but please come back next year!
Peru seems to be going through the same sort of belated, half-hearted expression of contrition for wrongdoing by the Chief Executive that took place in the United States during the late 1990s. The difference is that it involves a former president, and the charges center around human rights issues rather than sexual misconduct and coverups. Having been sentenced to six years in prison as the first stage of a lengthy trial process, Alberto Fujimori said that he "regrets" the human rights abuses that took place during his government (1990-2000), but denied responsibility for them and did not apologize directly. See BBC. Is he being sincere? Quite possibly, but it too late for such a gesture now. It looks like he is angling for more lenient treatment in the next phase of his trial.
As I've said before, I'm inclined to put Fujimori in the same category as Richard Nixon -- someone with solid accomplishments and positive leadership qualities, as well as deep character flaws that he refuses to confront. Hence the tendency to blame enemies when things go bad. Nevertheless, the final chapter on his amazing political career has yet to be written, and he may yet find some way to serve his country in the future.
I checked a couple times during the week, and found that Comet Holmes has been dissipating so much that it is no longer visible at all to the naked eye. With binoculars, it looks like a vague, hazy cloud in the middle of the constellation Perseus, but you would probably never notice it if you weren't looking for it. According to www.space.com, "the comparatively tiny Comet Holmes has released so much gas and dust that its extended atmosphere, or coma, is larger than the diameter of the sun". Well, it was fun while it lasted. Jacqueline and I saw Comet Hale Bopp once or twice in 1997, and it had a tail that was clearly visible to the naked eye. Some photos can be seen at ASSOCIAZIONE ASTRONOMICA CORTINA.
The constitutional referendum being held in Venezuela today is quite a paradox: Voters are faced with the choice of granting virtually unlimited powers on President Hugo Chavez, who is already quite authoritarian, or else standing up to his blandishments. Among other things, the measure would allow Chavez to run for reelection as many times as he wants and would put an end to the Central Bank's autonomy, enabling Chavez to have money printed at will. As usual, Chavez has been accusing the United States of plotting to assassinate him, stoking xenophobia among the masses. The BBC reported that Chavez said on Friday, "If God gives me life and help, I will be at the head of the government until 2050."
According to the Caracas Chronicles (via InstaPundit), exit polls indicate that the results will be very close, so there may yet be a slim hope for a semblance of freedom.
So what can or should the United States do about this clear menace to Venezuela and the rest of Latin America? Until he gets out of hand and commits some drastic provocation, not much. In the Outlook section of today's Washington Post, Donald Rumsfeld suggests "The Smart Way to Beat Tyrants Like Chavez." He talks about reviving Cold War insitutions like NATO to counteract the threat of neopopulist despots, which doesn't sound convincing to me. His other main suggestion of unleashing new media tools (blogs, YouTube, etc.) to combat false propaganda and raise the consciousness of Third World people offers more hope, but even in that case, there are limits as to what can be done.
Ecuador assembly fires congress
The constituent assembly called by Ecuador's president Rafael Correa voted by a large majority to dissolve the existing congress, notwithstanding the lack of any constitutional provision or precedent for doing so. If they get away with this brazen power grab, it will signify a major defeat for the cause of constitutional democracy in the Andean nation. See BBC. As we have learned from Venezuela, "illiberal" democracies led by fierce populists such as Hugo Chavez are prone to become more and more authoritarian over time.
The "non-announcement" by Delegate Chris Saxman at this year's "Advance" (GOP retreat) held in Crystal City was not a big surprise, but it at least got him headline coverage in the Washington Post. (Gaining publicity was probably the main point of Saxman's testing of the waters.) The Post reports that Saxman's decision not to run for the U.S. Senate next year "dismayed" some party activists who were seeking a "fresh face" (a.k.a. "new blood"). His decision not to run is probably just as well, as it would be very difficult for a newcomer such as him to defeat the popular former Governor Mark Warner. Some feared that a nomination contest with former Governor Jim Gilmore might further divide the Republican Party, which is already badly frayed from the spring primary campaign battles between moderate conservatives and right-wingers.
In an interview with the Staunton News Leader, Saxman said he has not yet decided upon his future political plans. His family owns the Shenandoah Valley Water Company, and he was recently elected president of the International Bottled Water Association. Saxman is a prominent member of the anti-tax Club for Growth, has taken a lead role with the "Cost Cutting Caucus" in the Virginia House of Delegates, and has endorsed John McCain for president. He is very bright and articulate, and is widely expected to run for higher office in the next election cycle, possibly lieutenant governor. State Senator Emmett Hanger made a brief bid for that office in 2005, and it is possible that he may do so again in 2009. It would be an interesting scenario if both of them run...
So you think you're smarter than a fifth grader? Then take this world geography quiz at minijuegos.com (Don't worry, it's not in Spanish.) You have to pinpoint the location of world cities and other important places by clicking the mouse, the quicker the better. I just missed making it to the 12th and highest level, scoring a "Travel IQ" of 129. I might want to use that as a classroom exercise next semester! Hat tip to Chris, and congratulations to his son Noah for scoring 132!
Thank goodness! The U.S. Senate has approved the measure establishing a free trade agreement between the United States and Peru. The vote was 77-18, a gratifying gesture of faith in a country that has endured much sacrifice over the past 20 years to lay the groundwork for mutually beneficial economic ties. "The agreement will go into effect after the two countries adjust laws to conform to the deal." See Washington Post, which noted that one of the leading opponents of the measure was independent (Socialist) Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The House of Representatives had given its approval to this agreement in early November.
In Peru, President Alan Garcia thanked President Bush and his own predecessor, Alejandro Toledo, for their efforts in bringing the free trade agreement to fruition. See La Republica (in Spanish). Twenty years ago, Garcia was a fierce adversary of the United States, much like Hugo Chavez is today, and this shift toward a more friendly, open attitude goes to show how experience can lead to greater wisdom.
Free trade with Colombia!
Meanwhile, President Bush has been putting pressure on a reluctant Congress to pass the free trade agreement with Colombia. President Uribe is one of our closest allies in that turbulent region, and failure to back him up at a critical moment of opportunity like this (just after Hugo Chavez's electoral defeat in Venezuela) would be a colossal blunder. Bush declared:
The biggest fear in South America is not the leader in Venezuela, but the biggest fear for stability is if the United States Congress rejects the free trade agreement with Colombia...
It would be an insult to a friend; it would send a contradictory message to a country led by a very strong leader, who is working hard to deal with some very difficult problems. (SOURCE: BBC)
Well put. Of course, there will be many self-interested nay-sayers who complain that the agreement does not give adequate protection to this or that, but such perfectionist thinking in this situation is terribly misplaced. The Colombian government is flawed, but it is working with us for the most part, and we have vital interests at stake: discouraging those who are tempted to profit from the narcotics trade.
Once again, my RSS feed got messed up about three weeks ago through a simple oversight on my part, but it was not until today that I finally noticed that my blog has not been showing up on the blog aggregators. (That shows how little attention I've been paying to the Virginia blogosphere, I guess.) Anyway, the problem has now been fixed, and as a result, from now on I will be able to use non-standard characters (such as Σ, ñ, and á) in my blog posts without causing any glitches. One thing I have learned is that XML syntax rules are extremely picky!
... and that's just for starters. Peru's former president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to six years in prison for having ordered an illegal search of the home of the wife of Vladimiro Montesinos, his erstwhile right-hand man. This happened during the "Vladi-video" blackmail scandal which led to Fujimori's resignation in October 2000. The trial began on Monday, with Fujimori loudly proclaiming his innocence, and the initial verdict was handed down by Supreme Court Judge Pedro Guillermo Urbina the very next day. (¡Qué rápido!) After the more serious charges are dealt with, it is likely that Fujimori will face life imprisonment. The sentences would be served concurrently, however, so the question is, How many years will the most serious charge be worth? See Washington Post.
It is worth noting that, as the Post article mentioned, most Peruvians still have mixed feelings about Fujimori, faulting him for abusing his power but crediting him for achieving enormous success between 1990 and 2000. After all, he defeated the Shining Path terrorist movement, halted hyperinflation, and paved the way for one of the most sustained periods of economic growth in the country's history. As stated by "El Peruanista", "[t]he first 4 years of his government (1990-1994) had a positive balance for the nation. But as power and corruption grew ... Fujimori became the abusive autocrat..." If he had not gotten carried away with himself and sought a third term in office in 2000, he would have gone down in history as one of the best Peruvian presidents ever. Indeed, given the modest historical standards of Peru, he still might.
In my mind, there is no doubt that Fujimori should have to answer for the abuses he committed during his decade-long term in office, but a six-year sentence for such a minor offense is extreme. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this prosecution is politically motivated, getting revenge on Fujimori for having persecuted those in the Aprista party who now run the government of Peru. (Current President Alan Garcia was a fugitive in the aftermath of Fujimori's "autocoup" of 1992, and finally managed to flee to Colombia, where he resided in exile for over eight years.) With the steady economic growth in Peru, in contrast to most of the rest of South America, it's a shame that the political elites are letting slip the opportunity to build state institutions (and thereby enhance the rule of law) by separating politics from justice. I could be wrong, though, and much depends on Judge Urbina's background, which warrants further scrutiny.
New constitution for Bolivia?
In keeping with the agenda of President Evo Morales who seeks to transfer political power to the Indian people of Bolivia, the constituent assembly has passed a new basic charter. The final vote was boycotted by opposition parties, however, so it is doubtful that the new charter will be widely accepted. On the other hand, in an authoritarian regime such as Venezuela (which Morales wants to emulate), consensus is beside the point, so he may well press ahead, protests or not. See BBC.