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the column of lasting insignificance: Mar. 03, 2012
by John Wilcock

“The lack of competition in legislative elections is nauseating” declare election reformers Rob Ritchie and Steven Hill of FairVote. “Most Americans, most of the time, experience ‘no choice’ elections for their city council, their state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives. They live in political monopolies where there is no two-party system let alone with viable third parties” —from ‘Redlining Voters’ in the Nation

BURNING BOOKS is always a disgracefully stupid thing to do, whether the volumes are religious or not, and the Afghanistan incident speaks volumes about the dim-witted mentality of a military that doesn’t know this. “We’re leaving so we might as well burn the library”. There’ll always be somebody that welcomes free books and it’s just as easy to give them away as burn them. The deference that authorities give to religion (superstition) is undeserved. Religions don’t pay taxes; in Israel (and possibly other places) its acolytes have long been paid not to work; in jail where everybody should be treated alike, special arrangements are made for them, special meals prepared. Ok, so why don’t they allow pious Rastafarian prisoners to smoke hemp?

AMERICAN CRIMINAL JUSTICE is a worldwide disgrace and in many cases hardly ‘justice’ at all. Apart from the cruel and often inhumane conditions in which prisoners are housed in this country, it’s noteworthy that there are more of them percentage-wise than anywhere else in the world. That includes the huge number kept in the Russian gulag during its worst days. Everybody knows that the war against drugs has been a complete and expensive failure—how does it make sense to jail people for smoking something they grew in their garden?—but it continues, mainly because gutless politicians lack the intelligence and the courage to bring it to an end.
     One of the biggest obstacles to reform is plea bargaining which has resulted in what author William J. Stuntz calls “assembly-line adjudication”. It allows prosecutors to blackmail prisoners to give up the foundational right of a jury trial, a fundamental principle dating back to the 12th century and enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. “Jurors were free to acquit and frequently did so” says the Nation, “based on generic arguments that the crime was morally excusable or justified (for example, self defense)”.
     Reviewing Stuntz’ new book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, the magazine adds: “Most important, police, prosecutors and jurors came from the same communities as the perpetrators and victims of crimes. Rather than entering a justice system of outsiders, the accused faced their peers”. As for politicians, they court voters “not by fighting crime but by talking about it”.

THE SIZE OF TYPE can vary enormously, as everybody knows, with 10pt being pretty much what you’ll find in the columns of most newspapers and magazines (there are 72pts to an inch). But type can be very small indeed, such as the 4.5pt type (that’s half this size) found in places like contracts, for example the 32-page user agreement that accompanies the iPhone. Blocks of capitals, oddly enough, make it even harder to read. So why is this essential material presented in this obscure manner? “They don’t want you to read it” Brian Lawler told Smart Money, explaining that the world’s best typesetters work on such documents and “there are $500-an-hour lawyers who make these decisions”. Lawler, professor of graphic communication at California State Polytechnic University, nevertheless admits that he sometimes admires a “masterful” piece of typesetting. Transparency Labs, however, claims that the information buried away in documents like these costs American households billions of dollars a year in fees, exclusions, waivers and other legal jibs and jabs. Typesetters themselves call it “mouse type” and the Better Business Bureau says that complaints about fine print or unclear documentation rose more than fivefold in the past few years.

NEW ISLANDS POP UP from time to time, the latest being a so-far unnamed one, a mere 150 feet wide in the Red Sea off Yemen. Like most, it was from the eruption of an underground volcano whose lava reached the surface. A similar undersea eruption beyond the southernmost Canary Island, El Hierro, solidified a couple of hundred feet below but, whimsically observed the Economist, “one more heave might be enough to add an alternative holiday destination for those bored with (nearby) Tenerife and Lanzarote”.

WHEN MEXICO’S ELECTION for the next president takes place in July there will be competition for voters among a populace that is “cynical about politicians and deeply disappointed by democracy” writes Pamela K. Starr in Current History. The UC professor claims that most Mexicans feel no better off than they were when Felipe Calderon (barred from a second term) took office in 2006, with many worse off. Mexico’s economy has sunk even more than in the U.S., the war against the drug cartels has killed thousands and the historic enmities between Calderon’s PAN party and its rivals, PRI and PRD, has resulted in widespread “partisan mistrust”.

HUGE SUPPLIES OF COPPER and gold combined with rising Chinese demand is about to make Mongolia “rich beyond the wildest dreams” of a population only a generation removed from nomadic herders. That’s the verdict of the Economist reporting on a place called Oyu Tolgoi (Turquoise Hill) in the center of the desolate Gobi Desert 90 minutes flight from the nearest town, Ulaanbataan, widely known as UB (The mine is called OT.) “Mongolia makes mining geologists salivate over its known riches and unexplored potential for copper, gold, silver, uranium, molybdenum, etc” says the mag. Three thousand mining licenses have been issued and OT is expected to produce almost half a million tons of copper a year. Not far away at Tavan Tolgoi is the world’s largest untapped coal deposit. All this means there’ll be plenty of work for miners willing to work in temperatures that can drop to 30 degrees below zero.

“The Great A&P challenges some of our self-perceptions as Americans. We like to think that we like capitalism and free enterprise and free markets; we really don’t. With capitalism people lose their jobs and firms go out of business and communities lose their economic base. These consequences make us very uncomfortable.” –Mark Levinson, author of The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America

THE WILCOCK WEB: Gas prices going up again and in a few months, when oil companies report even more gazillions in profits, they’ll somehow claim there’s no connection….….”The secret of success” quoth John D. Rockefeller, “is to get up early, work late and strike oil”…..The French can’t make up their mind about Anne Sinclair, wife of former disgraced IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn says Le Nouvel Observateur. Despite her job as the HuffPost’s European editor, “will she ever shake off her infamy? From now on she’ll only ever be judged as DSK’s mate”… Do you ever get the feeling that when all those financial ‘experts’ babble along about restructuring Greek debt they don’t have the faintest idea of what they’re talking about?.... Sam Zell, the billionaire tycoon who took less than a year to bankrupt two of America’s biggest newspapers then left with his own $4.5bn fortune intact, says it wasn’t his fault that the papers didn’t follow his orders…… “When a man tells you he got rich through hard work”, wrote Don Marquis, ”ask him, ‘Whose?’”….NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s donated millions to charity, jokes that “the ultimate in financial planning is to bounce the check to the undertaker. I’m gonna try to do that”…...Ambrose Bierce defined an admiral as “that part of a warship which does the talking while the figurehead does the thinking”…. His successful term as Florida governor made Jed Bush “a star turn”, writes Artur Davis in National Review. He could still be a Republican savior this year because, “the GOP can’t afford to wait until 2016 for one of its brightest stars to run”…..Exporting oil at the same time as importing it never seems to make much sense….The skulls of a couple of 33,000-year-old dogs show that they had been domesticated, report researchers from the University of Arizona…. Have you heard about the Kerryman who got a pair of water skis for Christmas? He’s still going around looking for a lake with a slope….…...If Supremo John Roberts didn’t anticipate the effect of his decision to allow rich folks to buy the election, then he’s an idiot; if he did, he’s a menace…Stores magazine reports that the strategy of Abercrombie & Fitch in enveloping its customers in a woody aroma (in its case, Fierce, from orange, fir, resin and Brazilian rosewood) is extending more and more to hotels and restaurants that seek definition from a signature smell… IKEA says it has figured out a way to cut costs and help the environment by switching from wooden pallets to greatly strengthened cardboard ones…. Carrying political correctness to extremes, as in the case of affirmative action, just results in the other kind of racism….Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for—Will Rogers (1879-1935)



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