Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A post from the hinterlands

It's been a pretty wild week and a half. Here are some highlights.

A few days ago we were watching TV upstairs when the channel started changing inexplicably. We assumed it must be a problem with our remote, old batteries maybe, so we changed to the channel we wanted, then set the remote to control a nonexistent VCR, and the changing stopped. We thought nothing of it until last night, when we started fighting to watch first Everybody Loves Raymond, then The Golden Girls, while someone... or something?... kept trying to change the channel to South Park and ESPN.

We have the Dish Network and basically, the second TV in our bedroom is controlled by a remote that goes to a UHF antenna on the back of our box. Basically, our remote is like a radio station that the main receiver listens to; then it sends back the results of our choices to the screen. It turned out that some neighbor (we're not sure who) also has the Dish Network, and coincidentally, their remote broadcasts on the same frequency we do. So not only were they changing our channel, we were changing their channels.

I haven't tried it in Fedora Core yet, but I can recommend for both PC and Mac OSX the ASUS WL-167G USB wireless adapter. It's been smooth, with no problems whatsoever. I understand it will work with Linux too because it's one of the open Ralink chipsets, but I have spared myself the headache of getting it going. On the other hand, our DSL modem (an Actiontec wireless gateway, formerly standard issue for Qwest) has been a pretty wonky access point at times. If you can recommend a better one (PC/Mac/Linux friendly) please do. Our home network is all wireless, so a DSL modem without good wireless is dead to me. [/totalgeek]

I've written before about the one percent doctrine. Briefly, '[Suskind] contends, [the FBI's, CIA's, and NSA's] meticulous intelligence-sifting went unappreciated by administration policymakers, especially Dick Cheney, who formulated an overriding "one percent" doctrine: threats with even a 1% likelihood must be treated as certainties."' (Publisher's Weekly) It's pretty obvious that this kind of thinking is what made us chase the will o' the wisp into Iraq.

I've been playing some online Texas hold'em for free at Full Tilt Poker. [Digression: My handle's "mineshaftgap", as in "I mean, we must be... increasingly on the alert to prevent them from taking over other mine-shaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do, thus, knocking us out in superior numbers when we emerge! Mr. President, we must not allow... a mine-shaft gap!"] It's pretty hard to gauge how good I am, but I've been in the black since I started.

Anyhow, one of the first things you have to learn is when to give up on a hand. A relatively good starting hand that completely misses the community cards is not worth betting on. Novice players hang on to the wrong hands, say where they have three cards of a 5-card straight after the flop and need both the turn and the river to provide the remaining cards (example: holding 6-10 unsuited and seeing a flop of A-8-2, then needing both a 7 and a 9 to make a straight). Treating this kind of hand as if it were a winner is a good way to lose a lot of money. The runners come something like 2% of the time, and even then you're not guaranteed to win the hand; you could lose to a higher straight, for instance. This is the poker equivalent of the one percent doctrine: betting on a nice-looking hand that has very few outs (cards available on the turn and river to make a losing hand into a winner), or is even drawing dead.

In our foreign policy, Bush and Cheney have been playing ideological poker. "7-2 unsuited... if we fold, the terrorists will win." "If we only call this all-in, we'll be able to win future hands from the other nearby players." "Pocket aces? We have the most modernized, advanced hand around." They've been calling all the way to the river with garbage hands, and the sharks around the table have noticed. [/pokerdigression]

I have a lot of things to read, but the only one that is actually overdue (and I can't renew it because there are holds) is The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill by Ron Suskind. Since I have The One Percent Doctrine up next, I figured I should read the one that preceded it, about how the pragmatic, realistic Secretary of the Treasury fought for good policy against the ideologues and spinmeisters of the Bush White House's permanent campaign.

The Price of Loyalty is narrative nonfiction, which means it comes out as a sort of third-person limited perspective chronicling the first years of GWB's presidency through the eyes of O'Neill. It's a good move, because it turns all these political issues and headlines into very personal stories. I'm over halfway through, and it's been really eye-opening. The most creepy thing about it so far is O'Neill's weekly one-on-ones with the President. They were hourlong meetings for O'Neill and Bush to discuss the economy. But the President doesn't say anything in the meetings, doesn't ask questions or challenge O'Neill. He just stares like a buddha.

Along the same lines, here's an excerpt about a meeting spurred by Cheney's infamous energy task force, on March 19, 2001.

So, on March 19, at an hour-long meeting in the cabinet room, the President was hearing dark predictions about the economic effects of a looming energy crisis.

Everybody played their parts: literally. For this President, cabinet meetings and the many midsize to large meetings he attended were carefully scripted. Before most meetings, a cabinet secretary's chief of staff would receive a note from someone on the senior staff of the White House. The note instructed the cabinet secretary when he was supposed to speak, about what, and how long. When O'Neill had received his first such note, he was amazed. The idea of a cabinet meeting or any significant meeting between the President and his seniormost officials being scripted seemed to kill off the whole purpose of bringing people together. He had been in many White Houses. He had never heard of such a thing.


O'Neill was watching Bush closely. He threw out a few general phrases, a few nods, but there was virtually no engagement. These cabinet secretaries had worked for over a month on detailed reports. O'Neill had been made to understand by various colleagues in the White House that the President should not be expected to read reports. In his personal experience, the President didn't even appear to have read the short memos he sent over.

That made it especially troubling that Bush did not ask any questions. There are so many worth asking about each of these areas, O'Neill thought as he sat quietly, dozens of queries running through his head.

"This meeting was like many of the meetings I would go to over the course of two years," he recalled. "The only way I can describe it is that, well, the President is like a blind man in a roomful of deaf people. There is no discernible connection."

This reminds me of another notorious meeting where Bush didn't ask any questions: the FEMA briefing the day before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. One wonders what sorts of meetings Bush is having now that Israel is bombing Lebanon, and whether Bush is asking any questions.

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