John Wayne is the Duke. Elvis is the King.

John Wayne's Holster: May 2006
John Wayne's Holster
Visit my main blog at Monkey Wrench Revival. Visit my birdwatching blog at The Birding Nerd.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Congress Is Not Above the Law

Congressman William J. Jefferson (D-La.) has been under investigation by the FBI for more than one year for using his political office to promote a vested business venture in West Africa. According to FBI affidavits, Jefferson accepted bribes from a telecommunications company called iGate. In support of their case, the FBI is in possession of audiovisual evidence showing Jefferson accepting $100,000 from a wired witness. The money was reportedly given to Jefferson for use as a payoff to government officials in Nigeria, Cameroon and Ghana to persuade them to use iGate’s services.

As part of their investigation, the FBI obtained a warrant to search the Congressman’s Capitol Hill office. This past weeked, FBI agents executed the warrant and removed an undisclosed number of documents. Justice Department officials reportedly sought the warrant because Jefferson refused to comply with a subpoena for the documents.

House members from both sides of the aisle were angered by the raid, claiming it is in violation of the Constitution's separation of powers. In a joint statement issued Wednesday, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi stated, "The Justice Department must immediately return the papers it unconstitutionally seized…" House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer added, "The institution (Congress) has a right to protect itself against the executive department going into our offices and violating what is the speech and debate clause, which essentially says, 'That's none of your business, executive department,"'

Sounds to me like there are a lot of people working up on the Hill that have something to hide!

It could be that our elected officials are afraid the expanding corruption investigations of public officials that have been going on lately may snare them. For example, “Duke” Cunningham recently plead guilty to accepting bribes and is currently serving time. We have not heard the last of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. The Kyle "Dusty" Foggo/CIA bribery case is still up in the air. And Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-CA) and Alan Mollohan (D-WV) are under investigation for allegations that they directed public money to favored parties.

Why does Congress think that they are above the law? If it were you or I in Jefferson’s place, there would be no problem with the FBI searching our homes and offices. This notion about “violating the separation of powers” is nonsense. Congress is just trying to conceal its own wrong-doing. If Jefferson broke the law, he should be investigated the same way every other citizen would be investigated.


Here are the results from a FOX News poll that asked "Should the FBI have the right to raid the offices of congressional members suspected of taking bribes? Over 32,000 people responded and 95% say the FBI has the right. WOW!

In other news, President Bush ordered that the documents seized from Jefferson's office should be sealed for 45 days.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Dixie Chicks: A Music Career Gone South?

The Dixie Chicks' new CD, Taking The Long Way is due to be released tomorrow. Political pundits on the Right are predicting a grim outlook for the Chick’s music sales. James Hirsen of NewsMax suggests that the country trio’s career is essentially on the downslide because of comments made by Chicks singer Natalie Maines at the dawning of the Iraq war. Maines declared to a UK audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas."

That comment created a lot of controversy back home in the US as well. Radio stations, particularly those in the so-called “Red States”, pulled the Chicks from their playlists, and some even called for boycotts of the Chicks concerts. The unofficial Chicks ban continues to this day. Overall, they receive about 30% less airplay than they did before Maines’ infamous statement.

So, the question remains. Are Hirsen and the other Right-wing pundits correct? Have the Dixie Chicks committed an unforgivable sin by speaking out againts the President and the war? Are they washed up? Is their new CD destined for the bargain bin?

Mr. Hirsen would like us to believe to so. I think he is blinded by his own ideology.

Many who were staunch supporters of the Iraq war at the time Maines made her statement are not so staunch in their support today. In fact, many may now be inclined to agree with her. Public support for the war is down from 2004 levels, and President Bush is not exactly Mr. Popular these days. His latest poll numbers are below 30% approval – the lowest of his Presidency.

While I personally don’t agree with the statement made by Maines, I am not shocked or offended that she made it. Natalie Maines is an American and has the right to her opinion. And as Merle Haggard points out, “women have always been against war…so what's new?”.

The American public is more forgiving than Hirsen thinks. Let us not forget - it was only a few decades ago that a few lads from Liverpool were boycotted, banned and burned in effigy for a loose remark made by John Lennon in which he claimed the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus". People predicted their demise. Well, we all know what happened to the Beatles.

Maybe John Lennon was right!

The bottom line for the Dixie Chicks is this. If the music is good, people will buy it! If the first single from the forthcoming album is anything like the rest of the CD, it will sell very well.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Public Execution of the Education System

Earlier this week, California Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman issued a ruling essentially striking down the state’s high school exit exam. Under the state’s plan, students intending to graduate are required to take a standardized test to determine if they meet minimum standards in math and English. According to school superintendent Jack O'Connell, more that 46,000 students had not yet passed the exit exam. Of those students, 61 percent are poor, and 44 percent are English learners.

Citing equal protections, the judge suggested that the test discriminates against students who are shortchanged by substandard schools. The judge apparently forgot to point out that the exam also discriminates against those who can not meet the minimum requirements.

This ruling is absolutely ridiculous! If you rephrase the argument, the judge is essentially asking why students who can not read, write, add or subtract are being denied diplomas. I suppose getting a diploma has become an “inaleiable right” and not a privledge!

To be fair, those opposed to the exam do have some valid grievances. But they are not valid reasons to let unqualified students slide. For example, San Francisco attorney Arturo Gonzalez, who filed a lawsuit challenging the exam, stated, "There is overwhelming evidence that students throughout the state have not been taught the material on the test. And many students have been taught by teachers not credentialed in math and English. "

WOW! At least we know where the real problem lies. And it is not unique to California.

Perhaps the solution is too obvious…but if schools across the country are not teaching the required material and the teachers are unfit, why don’t the local governments fire the teachers and replace them with others who are qualified?

The answer is simple. THE TEACHER’S UNION WON’T LET THEM! It seems the teacher's union cares more about the teachers and less about the kids. The teacher's union has a lot of muscle, and most politicians are too limp-spined to stand up to them. The politicans seems more interested in endorsements and votes that they do about the people they represent.

And we wonder why American students are falling behind the rest of the world.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What Classic Movie Best Describes You?

Here's a interesting test that identifies the classic movie that best describes your personality. Check it out here. There is also a Famous Leader test on the same page.

I took the test. Turns out that I am most like Platoon

I also took the Famous Leader test. It turn out that I am most like Hitler.

Boy I feel better now...I think!?

Thanks to El Capitan for the links.

Friday, May 05, 2006

J. Craig Ventner – A Modern Dr. Frankenstein?

J. Craig Venter made himself a household name by completely decoding the human genome. The magnitude of Ventner’s accomplishment can not be overstated.

Now he and his colleagues are striving to create the first synthetic life form. To do so, he will have to synthesize a complete set of genes for this organism – totally from scratch! As Ventner states, “ We're moving from reading the genetic code to writing it.

If Ventner is able to accomplish this feat, he will have succeeded in creating never-before-seen living things. This technology has the potential for great advancements in our understanding of how living cells function. In addition, it could lead to the creation of synthetic cells that can carry out useful industrial application such as chemical production, detoxification of pollutants and the production of fuels and medicines. Not surprisingly, this project has attracted big money.

While the potential benefits are encouraging, one must not forget that there are also serious risks that need to be considered. For example, what would happen if one of the novel synthetic life forms is accidentally released into nature? What would the ecological consequences be? The consequences to humans? How would it be controlled?

There is also the issue of security. The price for implementing these technologies is rapidly becoming cheaper and will be accessible to more people. There is the potential that rogue scientists or bioterrorists could use if for sinister ends. For example, they could create novel biological life forms that could be use as bioweapons - such as deadly viruses.

Last week, I attended a lecture given by Dr. Venter at Penn State University. Following the lecture, I spoke personally with him at the reception that followed his talk. I asked him about this potential for bioterrorism. To my shock, he blew me off. He told me that only three people have been killed so far by bioterrorism and much of the public's fear was being manufactured by President Bush as a tool to advance his own agenda.

Sure, Dr. Venter is correct in saying that only three people have been killed so far, but that in not a valid reason to brush off a potential pandemic that a bioterror attack could release. It is not science fiction to imagine it could happen. In 2002, Dr. Eckard Wimmer (State University of New York at Stony Brook) constructed a polio virus by mail ordering small DNA fragments over the internet and assembling them in the laboratory to create the virus. What is to stop a potential terrorist from doing something similar? For example, scientists were recently able to regenerate the 1918 Spanish influenza virus that killed 50 million people. The complete sequence of the virus is publicly available and - in the wrong hands - could be synthesized by bioterrorists.

In an effort to alleviate public concern, the Ventner Institute, along with the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), recently initiated a project to “explore the risks and benefits of this emerging technology, as well as possible safeguards to prevent abuse, including bioterrorism”. While I find the goal of the study to be commendable, I must admit it is problematic to have groups with vested interests to self-police their own research.

The bottom line is this! Synthetic biology has the great potential to impact our lives in ways we only imagined a decade ago. It could lead to major advances in medicine, energy, environment and industry. But there are also risks! Do we really know the scope of the uncertainties associated with these risks? Do we have realistic strategies to deal with accidents that may occur? And how do we keep the technology out of the hands of those who mean to do us harm?

If we do not have satifactory answers to these questions, then the risks outweigh any potential benefit that could be generated and therefore should not be taken. I am not convinced that these questions have adequately been answered. And the people in charge of looking for the answers are vested in the implementation of the technology itself, and should not be trusted.

Perhaps Dr. Ventner should curb his ego and exercise a little caution, lest he become the modern version of Victor Frankenstein.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Pope to Consider Condoms to Halt AIDS? Not Really!

Is the Pope going to give his blessing to the use condoms to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS? The New York Times would like to think so. Or at least they would like to stir up some controversy to put pressure on the Catholic Church.

The Times is trying to paint a picture wherein the Catholic Church is unsure if its current policies regarding condoms and other moral issues rest on solid ethical foundations. For example, the Times states, “Even at the Vatican, not all sacred beliefs are absolute: Thou shalt not kill, but war can be just. Now, behind the quiet walls, a clash is shaping up involving two poles of near certainty: the church's long-held ban on condoms and its advocacy of human life.

The article goes on to state that a Vatican official has confirmed the Pope Benedict XVI has requested a study be taken on "whether it might be acceptable for Catholics to use condoms in one narrow circumstance: to protect life inside a marriage when one partner is infected with H.I.V. or is sick with AIDS."

I think the Times is misleading its readers! There is absolutely no chance that the Pope will sanction the use of condoms under these circumstances. The Church's position on contraception is firmly stated in Pius VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae. HV states, “it is an error to think that a conjugal act which is deliberately made infecund and so is intrinsically dishonest could be made honest and right…

If this is the case, why the would the Pope request a report on the issue? Most likely, it is to clarify and solidify the Chruch’s position. It would also have the effect of putting an end to the public debate started last month between Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (former Archbishop of Milan) and Ignazio Marino (an Italian bioethicist). Cardinal Martini, speaking about married couples where one parter is suffering with HIV/AIDS, stated that "…the use of prophylactics can, in some situations, constitute a lesser evil."

With all due respect, the Archbishop is gravely mistaken!

This whole “lesser evil” argument is being taken out of context. According to Church teachings, “it is sometimes licit to tolerate a lesser evil in order to avoid a greater evil to promote a greater good, it is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom; that is to make into the object of a positive act of the will something which is intrinsically disorder, and hence unworthy of the human person, even when the intention is to safeguard or promote individual, family or social well-being.

What does all this mean as far as condoms, AIDS and married couples are concerned? If you want to follow Church teachings, it essentially means that the married couple should abstain from sex if one partner has HIV/AIDS. If there were only two choices, either to use or not use condoms, then I suppose to use condoms would be the lesser evil. But this is not the case. There is, in fact, a third choice here - to abstain from sexual relations. According to Humanae Vitae, it is the only way to safeguard the unitive and procreative aspects of the conjugal act - which are intrinsically inseparable. It is also the only way to be sure to safeguard one’s spouse from becoming infected.