Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Bizarre Theories

Did an open mic catch Obama making promises to Russia?

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Republicans are livid about a comment that President Obama made -- unaware that it was being captured by an open microphone -- to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Referring to protracted discussions over the placement of a U.S. missile defense system in Europe, Obama said: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved.  But it's important for [incoming President Vladimir Putin] to give me space. This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."  Sounding like a spy, Medvedev responded: "I will transmit this information to Vladimir."

Were Obama's comments proof that he was "pulling his punches with the American people" and obscuring his plans for the missile defense system? That’s what Mitt Romney suggested.  John R. Bolton, whom conservatives would like to see as Romney’s secretary of State, called the remarks a "fire bell in the night" and a harbinger of capitulations  to come  if Obama is reelected.  Karl Rove contributed a piece to the Fox News site headlined  "Why Obama's Open Mic Slip Could Seriously Hurt his Re-Election Hopes."

The overheard Obama remarks were certainly a gaffe, but that was because they were overheard. The president should have been more discreet and wary of electronic amplification. But the comments themselves are defensible, even obvious.

The Russians don't need Obama to tell them that it's bad timing for him to accelerate negotiations that would bring exactly the sort of outcry from hard-liners that greeted his "private" comments. It's likely he or his emissaries have pointed to the election as a reason for patience on other fronts. It would be no surprise, for example, if the administration has been telling Palestinians it will be more likely to press Israel to stop West Bank  settlements after the U.S. election.

Obama insists that he isn't  trying to "hide the ball" from the American people about his plans for missile defense and said he would continue to work with the Russians on the issue later this year. He can now expect to be asked, by Romney or a debate panelist, if he would be willing to share details of the missile defense system with the Russians to assuage their fears that it might undermine their nuclear deterrent.

It's a fair question, and Obama should answer it, but he committed no sin in reminding the Russians that all sorts of issues, domestic and foreign, move to the back burner during an election campaign.

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--Michael McGough

Photo: President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after their meeting in Seoul. Credit: Jewwl Samad / AFP/Getty Images

What would Sunset Jesus do?

 

I saw Jesus this morning on Sunset Boulevard.

Actually, it wasn't the first time I have found Christ. He can often be found around Sunset, a few blocks from where the other superheroes hang out at Graumann's Chinese Theatre. A local fixture, he can  even be seen refusing money from Snoop Dogg in the above YouTube video. This morning he was parting the red-tail-light sea as he crossed the street in front of the Laugh Factory, which might not have attracted a second glance -- there are odder sights in Hollywood than Jesus on a typical Thursday morning -- except that it was only about an hour after sunrise on Sunset, and I happened to be riding my scooter due East toward the Times building in downtown L.A. That meant Jesus was backlit better than a Spielberg alien, with the head-high sun turning his shoulder-length brown locks into a blaze of glory that looked, for a split-second, almost supernatural.

This would have had a more profound effect on me if I weren't a Buddhist. But I think people of all faiths should be aware of a few basic facts about Jesus:

He walks to work. You will not find Jesus contributing to L.A.'s traffic problem or ravaging the planet's climate by burning fossil fuels.

He has a sense of humor. He paused to look at the Laugh Factory's playbill before moving on.

I've never seen Jesus proselytize, or try to change the nation's laws to suit religious ideals that may not appeal to all Americans; apparently, he just wants to be seen, as if his simple presence is all he thinks it should take to inspire others. Somehow, it seems like there's a lesson there for his followers. Then again, he may just be mentally ill.

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--Dan Turner

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The papacy -- the job of a lifetime but not a lifetime job

Rowan Williams
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has announced that he is stepping down at the end of the year to return to academic life. Williams is 61. Meanwhile, another professor turned prelate, Pope Benedict XVI, remains in office at the age of 84. A lot of Catholics would find nothing notable about this comparison: Popes rule until they die, bishops (including the spiritual head of the Church of England) can resign without shaking the spiritual firmament.

There are differences, of course. The archbishop of Canterbury lacks the ultimate authority exercised by the pope, and the existence of one or more former primates of all England doesn't undermine the influence of the current incumbent in a church that, in any case, is more democratic in its structure than the Roman Catholic Church. Given the unique ethos of the papacy, an ex-pope -- especially one who was relatively young and continued to appear in public  -- could be a distraction, even a "scandal" (as the term is used in Catholicism). Still,  Benedict is very old and has shown signs of frailness. If he were to resign, he likely would withdraw to a (perhaps literally) monastic existence. 

Contrary to what a lot of Catholics believe, the papacy is not necessarily a lifetime office. The Code of Canon Law treats the question rather matter of factly: "If it happens that the Roman pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone."

The pope is a bishop, not a king. Other Catholic bishops turn in their resignations at the age of 75. There is no theological reason why the bishop of Rome couldn't do the same, before he was too impaired to perform his duties.

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Save the incredible sinking, leaning Washington Monument

--Michael McGough

Photo: Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is shown waiting for Pope Benedict XVI to arrive for their meeting at Lambeth Palace in London, England on Sept. 17, 2010.Credit: Claudio Onorati / EPA

Save the incredible sinking, leaning Washington Monument

David Doyle checks Washington Monument
Pity the poor Washington Monument.  Not only was it damaged in a magnitude 5.8 earthquake last year, but now we learn that it's sinking.  And leaning.

(Thankfully, The Times' story Thursday didn't say which way it's leaning, so we won't have to wade through a comment board full of wisecracks and loony conspiracy theories.)

Fortunately, the leaning is nothing like that tower in Pisa. The sinking? That's another matter:

The obelisk -- which is 555 feet, 5 inches tall -- has subsided only two inches since it was finished in 1884, according to new data from the National Geodetic Survey.

But naturally (if you're of a certain political persuasion, that is), things have gotten worse since President Obama arrived:

Preliminary data collected Wednesday showed that the monument has sunk two millimeters since the last survey was done in 2009.

And you thought the "birther" thing was nasty.  Just wait until Fox News gets hold of this story. Not to mention the fact that Obama has apparently switched the country to the metric system behind our backs.  Must be part of his evil plot to remake the U.S. into one of those European countries.

I can hear Newt Gingrich now:  "Not only do we have $4 a gallon gasoline, but this president has no plan for saving the Washington Monument.  Elect me and not only will I fix it, I'll build a monument to myself right next to it!  And it won't cost taxpayers a thing. Sheldon Adelson will pay for the whole thing!"

Of course, you may think that Washington is a swamp.  But you may not know that that's literally true:

Dave Doyle, the government's chief geodetic surveyor, is trying to determine how much of the sinking is a natural result of building an 81,120-ton stone pillar on reclaimed land, and how much was caused by last summer’s quake.

"People see the Washington Monument sitting on a nice little hill. They think that was always there, and it wasn't; much of it was swampy," he said.

If you know your history, you know that many people weren't keen on building the nation's capital on this land.  Now we know why:

In fact, the entire western end of the National Mall is built on former marshland, meaning the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are sinking at about the same rate as the monument, according to Doyle’s measurements.

If you appreciate irony, though, there's this:

The Capitol and the White House are on firmer ground, and Doyle said there is no evidence they are sinking.

Doyle's a professional, so I'm sure there's no political intent behind his observations about "sinking" and "firmer ground."   My theory, though, is that it isn't so much the firmer ground but the fact that "hot air rises" is holding up the Capitol and the White House.

Anyway, I for one am pleased to see that at least someone in Washington knows what they're doing.  

Doyle's going to keep measuring, and hopefully we're not going to see a real-life version of those History Channel "Life After People" episodes.

George Washington probably would be mad enough at the mess we've made of his country. Let's not ruin his monument too.

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Big government won't build you a snore room, that's for sure

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: David Doyle, chief geodetic surveyor with the National Geodetic Survey, at the base of the Washington Monument. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

Big government won't build you a snore room, that's for sure

Del Webb home offers snore roomWhen it comes to domestic issues, Americans should trust the private sector.

That's a Republican Party mantra, and two stories in The Times this week have me convinced as well.

Now, I know you think one concerns gasoline prices. Really, though, who cares about that? Snore.

That's right: I'm talking about snoring.  As The Times' Lauren Beale reported:

A so-called snore room is the latest offering from Del Webb, which builds communities for people 55 and older.

Buyers whose marriages are plagued by a spouse who snorts, grunts and wheezes while he or she sleeps can opt for an adaptable bedroom plan marketed as the "owners retreat" at Sun City Shadow Hills in Indio. Designed for couples who start out in the same bed but end up apart because of ear-piercing snoring, insomnia or late-night TV viewing habits, this secondary bedroom is connected to the bathroom of the master bedroom.

See?  Big problem; private-sector solution. You leave that to government, and pretty soon you've got government-run snore insurance instead.

Still, even the private sector can stumble. For example, I'm a bit puzzled by Del Webb's logic:

"A nice enclave that shares the master bathroom provides a civilized alternative to the family room sofa," said Jacque Petroulakis, corporate communications spokeswoman for PulteGroup Inc., the parent company of Del Webb.

About a quarter of couples in the 55-and-older age group sleep apart to get a good night's rest, according to PulteGroup, which got the data from a third party but also conducted focus groups and interviews as it developed the bedroom plan.

Now first of all, the sofa isn't for snoring husbands; it's for misbehaving husbands, or came-home-late-drunk husbands -- which, come to think of it, is redundant. (It's never for wives, of course, who are too savvy to choose the sofa, regardless of their transgressions.)

Second, if you're 55 or older and still married to someone who snores, isn't it a bit late to be dealing with the problem? Seems to me the snore room should be marketed at 30-year-olds, who need all the help they can get keeping their marriages together.

But, staying true to the private sector's can-do spirit, in addition to the snore room, Del Webb is offering other conveniences:

Among other new life-easing features the builder is offering are pass-throughs from the closet to the laundry room. A door large enough to push a hamper through connects the two spaces.

Which brings me to my second domestic issue story of the week: widespread thievery of Tide detergent.

The Times Dalina Castellanos reported:

Thieves seem to be embarking on an anti-grime spree, some media outlets are reporting, saying thousands of dollars in Tide detergent is being swiped from shelves across the country.

One Minnesota man stole about $25,000 worth of the liquid laundry detergent from a West St. Paul Wal-Mart over 15 months, authorities there say.

And who's to blame for this crime wave?  Sadly, dear liberals, it appears that Rush and Sean and Glenn are right: It's the government -- or, in this case, at least one peson who apparently has fallen prey to the liberal-nanny-state mentality.  

Lt. Matt Swenke of the West St. Paul Police Department said in an interview with The Times that Patrick Costanzo, 53, was the suspect in the Minnesota thefts.

"He told [police] he didn't have a job and the state didn't help him in any way so he did what he had to do to get by," Swenke said.

Yes, it's true, liberals: You do a man's laundry, he's clean for a day. You teach him to do his own laundry, and he won't steal Tide.

Which doesn't make a lot of sense, I'll admit. But then again, my wife keeps me awake a night -- either snoring or doing the laundry.

Speaking of which:  Why do we have so much Tide?

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--Paul Whitefield

Photo: A so-called snore room is the latest offering from Del Webb, which builds communities for people 55 and older. Credit: Handout

Be afraid: Robot experts say machines are catching up

Sky Captain robot at Comic-Con 2004A panel of robotics experts at the South by Southwest conference couldn't reach a consensus Tuesday on whether machines would soon take over the Earth. But they agreed that the advances in artificial intelligence are well-nigh unstoppable. In fact, they said, machines are already demonstrating the ability to learn and to solve problems that humans couldn't.

The discussion was seasoned with more than a dash of whimsy, and like much of what goes on at South by Southwest, it was closer to a brainstorming session than an academic presentation. Nevertheless, the speakers offered enough anecdotal evidence to make their visions of the future compelling, if not necessarily prescient.

Two of the three -- Daniel Wilson and William Hertling -- are authors of novels about apocalyptic conflicts between machines and humans, so their comments need to be taken with a grain of salt. The third -- Chris Robson, founder of the data analysis firm Parametric Marketing -- wasn't promoting any books, just an (ahem) unconventional point of view about the nature of human consciousness.

The idea of a robot coup d'etat is based on the sci-fi notion of "technological singularity" -- the point where machines become powerful enough to improve their own instruction sets and capabilities without human intervention, leading to a runaway chain of self-upgrades that surpasses human comprehension. And Wilson, for one, is not a believer.

Smart machines like IBM's Watson supercomputer aren't the product of some magical breakthrough, but of a lot of separate research efforts that solved individual problems. Because progress toward singularity is iterative, Wilson said, "we'll have time to deal with potential unforeseen circumstances."

Hertling wasn't so sanguine. The rapidly advancing power of microchips means that machines with far fewer chips will be able to perform Watson-like feats. Combine that with some open-source artificial-intelligence software toolkits, he said, and hobbyists will join scientists in writing "crowdsourced" solutions to the technical problems involved.

Noting that cats have about 10% of the brainpower of the average human, Hertling offered the audience a milestone for anticipating the arrival of the singularity. "If you see a robotic cat wandering down the street, we're about 10 years from human level AI," he said, adding, "That's the point when I'm grabbing my kids and heading for the hills."

Robson went even further. Smart machines are already designing the chips that are paving the way for ever smarter machines. And there's already smart software online -- such as "tradebots" built to generate profits on Wall Street -- and self-replicating programs can interact with machines -- such as the Stuxnet virus that reportedly tracked down and attacked some of the centrifuges Iran was using to enrich uranium. Put those things together, Robson warned, and you could produce a tradebot that shorted airline stocks, then directed viruses to cause planes to crash.

But why assume that advancing machine intelligence will eventually lead to a Terminator-style future, where robots try to kill off their human overlords? Hertling said it's easy to see smart machines concluding that humans are a threat to the planet they live on, or that the warlike nature of man makes a preemptive strike a robot's best defense. His own fiction, however, finds a happier ending, with machines concluding that they need humans just to keep generating the power they need to operate.

A more interesting question is whether the increasing intelligence of machines and the simulation of personality (hello, Siri!) creates a moral imperative to treat them well. Robson went the furthest on that point, saying: "I know of no scientific reason why AI machines can't have the same kind of consciousness as we have... I see no scientific reason why machines can't suffer."

Wilson said that people are going to start interacting in their daily lives with machines that look increasingly like living creatures. Such machines "should have moral rights, but only in so far as it affects human beings." It's OK to destroy a toaster, he said, but harming a robot that looks like a puppy might breed sociopathic behavior.

As for the future, Wilson said, "There's no stopping this train we're on." The people who are building technology try to assure its safety, "but there's no way to cover all your bases there." Nevertheless, he argued that the best course is to keep building technology and continue expanding our own capabilities with it.

Robson, on the other hand, said, "I'm filling my bunker at home with good quality scotch, and I would advise everyone else to do the same." Noting how "stunningly successful" humans have been in controlling spam and viruses, he warned, "We are very, very vulnerable at the moment."

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Red meat will kill you? Stick a fork in me, I'm done

Al Gore and Sean Parker call for "Occupy Washington"

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Denis Poroy / Associated Press

Red meat will kill you? Stick a fork in me, I'm done!

Red meat is linked to premature death
You can have my steak when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

I hate to be politically incorrect, but that's my, well, gut reaction to a study released Monday that says eating any amount of red meat increases one's risk of premature death.

Now mind you, it's not that I don't believe the study. Its lead author is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, and only really smart people get into Harvard. And it's not as though the researchers weren't thorough: They looked at the eating habits and the health of more than 110,000 adults for more than 20 years. Which, on a scale of boring tasks, certainly tops the homework in the geology class that I took in college.

But first I read this -- "adding just one 3-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat ... to one's daily diet was associated with a 13% greater chance of dying during the course of the study" -- and I think, wow, I'm pretty sure that just two bites of that T-bone I had last month were more than 3 ounces.

Then I read this -- "Even worse, adding an extra daily serving of processed red meat, such as a hot dog or two slices of bacon, was linked to a 20% higher risk of death during the study" -- and I think, that probably means the bacon-wrapped hot dogs I had for lunch last week should've killed me by now. (To give me some credit, I skipped the onions and the fries; perhaps that's why I'm still walking around.)

Also, this part moves me not at all: "Eating a serving of nuts instead of beef or pork was associated with a 19% lower risk of dying during the study. The team said choosing poultry or whole grains as a substitute was linked with a 14% reduction in mortality risk; low-fat dairy or legumes, 10%; and fish, 7%."

Well, I had peanuts on Saturday afternoon. It didn't make me glad it wasn't steak; it made me think of being on an airliner. Then I had sushi on Saturday night. It made me think of fishing.

But here's the part of the study that has me really puzzled:

The Harvard researchers hypothesized that eating red meat would also be linked to an overall risk of death from any cause. ... And the results suggest they were right: Among the 37,698 men and 83,644 women who were tracked, as meat consumption increased, so did mortality risk.

Which means what, exactly? If I grill a nice New York strip on Sunday, that increases my chances of being hit by a bus on Monday?

Granted, I didn't go to Harvard, but that seems like a stretch. Or maybe it's just that all the red meat is killing my brain cells, in addition to clogging my arteries (and making me more likely to die in an airplane accident).

Probably a lot of people are going to have fun with this story. They may even ignore the more salient points, among them that at least cutting down on the consumption of red meat is good for your health and good for the planet.

But sorry, Harvard, my bottom line remains: As a red-blooded, red-meat-eating American, I just can't stomach a future that doesn't include a juicy rib-eye.

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Photo credit: William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

Voters aren't the only ones who need photo IDs

Eric Holder
Not surprisingly, the Obama Justice Department is opposing a Texas law requiring voters to show photo ID, claiming that it disproportionately disenfranchises  Latino voters. It's the latest example of a familiar trope: Democrats oppose voter ID, calling it unnecessary and discriminatory; Republicans support it, arguing that impersonation at the polls is a real, if hard to quantify, problem.  Not so coincidentally, racial minorities tend to favor Democratic candidates.

Neither of the warring narratives is totally satisfactory. It's plausible that members of economically disadvantaged minority groups are less likely to have, say, a driver's license. But I felt my eyebrows elevating at the Justice Department's estimate that between 175,000 and 304,000 registered Latino Texas voters lack driver's licenses or other state-issued IDs. Really? On the other hand, Republicans' fears of fraud at polling places seem forced. They have a point, though, when they say that it's anomalous that you need a photo ID to board a plane but not to vote.

It's crazy that 175,000 (or 304,000?) Texans of whatever background don't have  government-issued photo IDs and might have difficulty buying a plane or train ticket.  They need to get IDs, and the government should help -- regardless of what happens on Election Day. Like it or not, in 21st century America your face is your fortune.

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Photo: U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder has been an outspoken critic of the Texas law. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin / AP Photo

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

F. Sherwood Rowland
It's not often you can say that someone saved the world -- and mean it literally.

But that's the case with F. Sherwood Rowland. The UC Irvine chemist, who died Saturday at 85, was one of three scientists who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry, The Times reported, for their work "explaining how chlorofluorocarbons, ubiquitous substances once used in an array of products from spray deodorant to industrial solvents, could destroy the ozone layer, the protective atmospheric blanket that screens out many of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays."

In hindsight, it seems straightforward: Bad stuff was eating away a vital part of Earth's environment. So get rid of it.

But it wasn't so simple in 1974, when Rowland and fellow scientist Mario Molina published their concerns in the journal Nature.

As The Times says, the findings "were met with scorn by the chemical industry and even by many scholars. For a decade, Rowland and Molina persevered to prove their hypothesis, publishing numerous scientific papers and speaking to sometimes hostile audiences at scientific conferences. It took almost 15 years for the international scientific community and chemical industry to accept the pair's findings."

Hmmm, starting to remind you of a little something called "climate change," is it?

But here's something of a vital difference between the ozone debate and the current climate change one:

Manufacturers began to phase out chlorofluorocarbons in the late 1980s, prompted by the discovery of an ozone "hole" over Antarctica that formed each winter in response to weather conditions and the falling worldwide levels of ozone. The Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement to phase out CFC products, was signed by the United States and other nations in 1987.

The protocol was proof that nations could unite to address common environmental threats, Rowland contended. "People have worked together to solve the problem," he said.

Rowland was right then.  Nations did unite to address a common environmental threat.

But have we taken that lesson to heart?  Will we accept the scientific consensus on climate change and work together to save the planet?   

Or will it continue to be a political football, at least in the United States, where too many politicians are opting for short-term partisan gains at the risk of the planet's future?

Donald Blake, a colleague of Rowland’s at UC Irvine, told The Times that Rowland considered the phase-out of CFCs his greatest achievement.

It would be a shame if Rowland won the ozone battle -- but the rest of us lost the war for Earth’s survival.

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Photo: F. Sherwood Rowland, shown in his UC Irvine lab.  Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Romney's Southern strategy: Admit he's a stranger

Mitt Romney in Mississippi
Mitt Romney is catching grief for describing himself as an "unofficial Southerner" during a Mississippi campaign swing.  "I'm learning to say 'y'all'," he said. "I like grits. Strange things are happening to me." More proof of inauthenticity and phony outreach, his critics say.  

The new comments are  reminiscent  in their awkwardness of his infamous  "regular guy" gaffes, like his  statement that he once had worried about receiving a pink slip.

But I'd cut Romney some slack on this one.  To call yourself an unofficial Southerner is to admit that you're not a real one. He acknowledged that eating grits was a strange experience for him -- strange in the sense of foreign or unfamiliar, not strange in the sense of the banjo-playing boy in "Deliverance."

Even in the 21st century, Northerners visiting the South can feel like strangers in a strange land  (and vice versa). Regional differences still exist -- in politics, religion and culture. One example: Southerners -- including teenagers -- are startlingly more polite than Northerners. Watch any TV report about a natural disaster below the Mason-Dixon line -- the victims usually address the correspondent as "sir" or "ma'am."

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

Romney's candor about his un-Southernness will strike some Southerners as endearing, perhaps prompting them to paraphrase Lyle Lovett: "That's right you're not from Mississippi, but Mississippi wants you anyway."

Or maybe not.

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--Michael McGough

Photo: Mitt Romney waves to the crowd at the Port of Pascagoula while campaigning in Mississippi on March 8. Credit: Amanda McCoy / Sun Herald/Associated Press 

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