Sunday, December 31, 2006

In Cold Blood

So I need to confess to something... I'm a murderer. Yup, that's right. I hate to admit it, but I'm a cold-blooded killer. Last night, I violently took the life of one of God's little creatures. A small field mouse that somehow found its way into our home.

For the last two weeks its been an escalating war. I first caught sight of him while cleaning the house for a party at the beginning of December. I'd been kneeling under the table when I felt something brush past me. The little sucker scared the me half to death. I turned and chased him across the kitchen only to watch him take sanctuary under the fridge. I grabbed the broom and swept behind the fridge, not thinking beforehand just what I'd do if he came running out. Nothing happened though. Next I moved the fridge which succeeded in sending him scurrying into the adjacent bathroom. I quickly shut the bathroom door and tucked a towel under it to buy time to formulate a battle plan. Armed with my broom and a large plastic bowl, I laid siege to the bathroom. But again, nothing happened. Baffled, I waited until the first party guest arrived and had him help me do another sweep of the bathroom, but the mouse had somehow made his escape.

That's when the mouse droppings started appearing. First in the pantry and then under the sink. The job of finding and disposing of the droppings somehow got assigned to me. Soon I decided to do some major reorganizing. Throwing away anything he may have gotten into. Moving the easily accessible stuff into safer cupboards. And securing everything like pasta into extra ziploc bags. I also made room for mouse traps... lots of them.

Melissa picked up the traps from the store. She started with the humane ones that claim to catch mice unharmed so you can release them into the outdoors. Newsflash people... they DON'T work. Days went by and we caught nothing but turds. Our mouse had quickly realized the plastic boxes with swiveling doors were trouble and stopped wasting time on them, choosing instead to go straight for our packaged goods.

I followed up Melissa's purchase with some plastic snap traps. Our pantry and the cupboard under the sink looked like mine fields, with traps strewn every which way. These proved to be mere obstacle courses for our gladiator mouse. I tried baiting with everything from cheese, to crackers, to peanut butter, to nuts. I must have repositioned the traps some twenty times. Nothing worked and the droppings continued. I grew weary of obsessively checking the traps only to find them empty with nearby fecal matter taunting me.

Late one night, I opened the pantry and caught the furball sliding down the shelving affixed to the door. He slipped past me (startled and frozen in my tracks) and into the living room. With plastic bowl and broom in hand I went to work again, moving all the furniture in sight. I spent over an hour cursing loudly and scouring every inch of our front room, but to no avail. Damn mouse bested me yet again.

That's when the gloves came off. I went for the industrial-strength, heavy duty traps. Huge plastic, glue-filled trays (about 4 inches by 8 inches) that claimed to be the end-all and be-all of mouse traps. They were pre-baited, but I wasn't taking any chances, so I topped them off with crackers. The traps were everything they were made out to be. Three hours after they were set, our fourteen day siege was over. I came downstairs around 10pm last night to find our mouse sprawled across one of the glue trays.

Little did I know that the worst was yet to come. Mr. mouse was hopelessly stuck, but very much still alive. Not only that, he was... cute. When I picked up the tray, I was horror-struck to see him contorting his body in every which way vainly attempting to free himself. It was horrible. I felt like I was torturing Stuart Little. I fooled myself into thinking I might be able to free him, so knife in hand I went out to the backyard. They weren't kidding when they said this stuff was heavy duty though. My effort to scrape him off the glue pad only seemed to be making things worse. That's when I grudgingly resigned myself to the hammer. I slid the tray into a plastic bag in an attempt to censor the cruelty. I thought a little blow to the head would put a quick end to his misery, but instead lil' Mickey screamed and kept squirming. I hit him again and he screamed again. Aghast, I forced myself to hit him a couple more times just to make sure he was gone.

Thoroughly disturbed, I slipped the tray into a garbage bag and we laid the little mouse to rest in our trash can. Melissa said a few parting words and we tried to forget about the whole ordeal, but I'm haunted now. Visions from childhood plague me... the Rescuers, the Littles, the Secret of Nimh... even Jerry. Nostalgic mice are coming out of the woodwork of the past to exacerbate the guilt... and it's working. I don't miss the mouse poo, though.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Beard


So I haven't shaved since the end of July. Why? I guess I'm not quite sure. I stayed pretty clean shaven all summer while working at my firm, so perhaps it was a reflexive reaction to the tyranny of frequent shaving.

I'll come right out and admit it. I've never been a big fan of the daily shave. It chafes. While I was a student at BYU (where the honor code requires men to be clean shaven) I even got myself a "beard card" (a shaving exemption requiring a doctor's note). The official line was that I had a mild case of pseudofolliculitis barbae and so my doctor "prescribed" me facial hair.

Left to my own devices, I typically shave every week or so. My current beard started out as nothing more than pure laziness. As I wrapped up my summer work, I jumped on a number of home improvement projects and shaving just wasn't a priority. Once I'd made it past the "sandpaper" stage (usually a week and a half or two), Melbo stopped complaining (er... as much). From there, the beard just gained momentum. It became something of a conscious undertaking. I decided if I was ever going to just "let it all go," now was my chance. I had no looming interviews, no clients to impress, no events to oversee, and no weighty Church callings to live up to. It became sort of self-perpetuating. The longer it grew, the more curious I became to see how long it could get.

Five months long now and my curiosity has been satiated. Maybe if I was tending a lodge in Alaska I'd have more patience, but as things stand now, enough's enough. So as part of Melissa's Christmas present, I shaved this weekend. In stages of course.

The first left me with lambchop sideburns that hung two inches past my jaw (of which there is no photographic evidence). Then I went to the biker bush (this was a big hit at Church). And finally I scaled back to the well-trimmed goat. I'll probably stick this out awhile. While growing a beard is fun... it's suprising what a little shave does to Melbo's libido.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Kiss of Death

So it seems as though my support can be the kiss of death, politically speaking. For the second time in two months a presidential hopeful that I've liked has dropped out of the run for the presidency. Two months ago it was Mark Warner, a centrist Democrat from Virginia, who cited family considerations as the reason for his decision. On Saturday, it was Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, another centrist Democrat, who claimed simply to be facing up to the political reality that he didn't have enough support this cycle.

While I'm sad to see Bayh go, I certainly understand his decision. Running for president these days is a pretty brutal undertaking and declaring an intent to run when he didn't think he could win would be nothing short of masochistic. The Democratic field already has its heavyweight contenders in Barack and Hillary, its second fiddles in John Edwards and Tom Vilsack, and its also-rans in Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich (with Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson sandwiched up there somewhere in between). Perhaps it really is best for the relatively young Bayh to avoid the damaging shrapnel that tends to fly during presidential primaries and instead begin plotting for '12 or '16.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Guess Who's Back... Back Again...

So the well's been relatively dry at the ole' blog of late. Finals this semester were absolutely miserable and my inspiration has lagged as a result. Beware though, it's five days removed from the hellfire now and my senses are beginning to return. I've got a lot of posts simmering on the backburner and more than three weeks of vacation to waste away (uninterrupted by travel mind you... Melbo is about to pop and the doc's advised us to stay put).

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Peter Bis Revisited

Earlier this year I posted about an intriguing fixture up on Capitol Hill, a homeless man named Peter Joseph Bis that sits greeting passerbys making the trek from Union Station to the Dirksen, Hart and Russell Senate Office Buildings. Yesterday, our local NPR affiliate did a short segment on Peter that I thought some of you might be interested in.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Election In Hindsight

This shouldn’t come as a shock to most of you, but I think the Democrats’ resounding victory in the election three weeks ago was a good thing for the country. Six years of virtual one-party control in Washington disrupted national priorities, short-circuited cooperative party interaction and limited productive administrative oversight. Worst of all, it derailed the vital deliberative process essential to healthy democracy.

Does that mean that the “glory days” are here? That somehow Democratic control of Congress will solve all the nation’s thorniest problems? No, of course not. Politics is politics. Party shifts never fully exorcize special interests pandering, pork-barrel projects and the ethical gaffes so endemic to American political life. That said, good things await us. Here’s why:

(1) No More Monopoly of Power
For 12 years Republicans in Congress have used procedural rules to suppress Democratic legislative proposals, amendments, and input, and curb minority party rights. They excluded Democrats from the legislative Conference Committees and held votes open for hours to strong arm wavering members to toe the party line. House Speaker Dennis Hastert even had a policy of only allowing votes on legislation that had support from a majority of the Republican majority, regardless of whether there was enough bipartisan support to pass a bill. Republicans also froze out Democratic lobbyists and sought to impose permanent institutional changes on the entire lobbying industry to advantage Republicans. Over time these policies had a corrosive effect on compromise, bipartisanship, and policy-making.

(2) Increased Bipartisanship
Both future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have made clear that they intend to work with the President and Congressional Republicans when the Democrats take power. Both Reid and Pelosi have stressed that they will treat Republican lawmakers “more generously” than they were treated as the minority party. Two days after the election, Pelosi met with President Bush and both vowed cooperation. Reid has similarly emphasized that Democrats “want to work with [the Republicans] to get things done. We want to be part of a Congress that functions.” With only a razor thin majority in the Senate and the specter of a presidential veto, Democrats will need to reach across the aisle to achieve their legislative goals. I believe they will, and as they do they will find some receptive Republican leaders. As governor of Texas, President Bush showed he could work well across party lines. Given the political necessity of it now, he will be inclined to do so again. Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate Minority Leader, is someone disposed to bipartisanship. Reid and McConnell are said to have a solid working relationship and neither has his sites set on the presidency, both things that bode well for legislative compromise.

(3) Change of Policy in Iraq
The Democrats already forced a change of course in Iraq simply by virtue of winning the election. In the wake of what President Bush described as an electoral “thumpin',’” the President promptly sacked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a man whose prickly leadership style and poor management of the war effort in Iraq had begun to stir up a rebellion of sorts within both the military and the Republican ranks. The man Bush appointed to replace Rumsfeld is a political realist much more palatable to Republicans and Democrats alike. He is very likely to diverge from the neo-conservative philosophy that has governed much of our policy in Iraq.

Beyond this, Democrats will continue to spur change by pressuring the Bush Administration and actually seeing to a long-neglected Congressional responsibility, holding substantive oversight hearings on the war effort in Iraq. While President Bush clearly will not heed calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq (a move I agree would be unwise at this point), I’m convinced that Democratic pressure will prompt the President to reevaluate just what our goals in Iraq are and what exactly “success” there means. Next week, the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Commission is expected to announce its findings and policy proposals, which purportedly recommend a marked reduction in US troops in Iraq by 2008 and reaching out to both Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq. On the heels of their electoral victory, Democrats will be in a position to push the Administration to implement the Commission’s recommendations. Even if the President chooses not to adopt these recommendations, because of the demands he will be facing on the home front, the President will be in a better position to pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Al Maliki to strengthen the Iraqi government and quell the sectarian tensions that have erupted. Moreover, substantive Congressional oversight hearings (of which there have been almost none) will help our military efforts by holding the Administration, the Pentagon, and all the civilian contractors in Iraq accountable for their performance. This sort of counterbalance is desperately needed given the Administration’s reticence to acknowledge mistakes and its tendency to offer grossly over-optimistic assessments of the war.

(4) A More Fair and Sound Economic Policy
Democrat leadership has pledged to reign in pork-barrel earmarks, reduce the deficit, and implement a more fair tax policy. All of this will be done with an emphasis on helping middle and lower class families and reducing the growing disparity between rich and poor, a disparity that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned could harm the economy. The Democratic economic proposals on the table include:

  • Raising the Minimum Wage: The Democrats want to raise the minimum wage by $2.10 an hour. Along with most Americans, I think this is right thing to do. The minimum wage has stayed constant for almost 10 years while consumer prices have risen 25%. Some conservatives fear this will simply raise unemployment, but they are hard-pressed to show that the minimum wage increases of the 1990s had that effect.

  • Fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): Democrats want to raise the level at which the AMT kicks in. The AMT sets a minimum tax rate (around 27%) for the richest tax payers so that they can’t use deductions, shelters and loop holes to avoid paying their income tax entirely. Because of inflation and rising incomes, households affected by the AMT are expected to balloon from 3.8 million households this year to more than 30 million in 2010 (and ensnaring millions of middle-class households).

  • Make Pork-Barrel Earmarks More Transparent: Earmarks on legislation have gotten out of control in recent years. Part of the problem is that members of Congress could attach them anonymously. Speaker-Elect Pelosi says the first thing on the Democrat agenda in January is to require that sponsors of earmarks to be identified.

  • Increasing Support for Education: Democrats have pledged to cut the interest rates on student loans by almost half (Congress raised them earlier this year). They also want to increase the maximum Pell Grant available to low-income students from $4,050 to $5,100 and have considered making up to $12,000 a year in tuition tax-deductible (or giving out an equivalent tax credit). These are all proposals I strongly support (though I fear that even this isn’t enough to defray to skyrocketing). Democrats also plan to revisit No Child Left Behind Act to try to fix its deficiencies and ensure that it is fully funded before considering reauthorization.

  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit: Democrats are discussing enlarging the earned-income tax credit which currently gives families with two or more kids $4,536 to offset payroll taxes. This is a smart, market-centered way to help low-wage workers because it allows them to keep the difference if the credit exceeds what they owe in taxes.

  • Income Tax Changes: Several Democrats have floated a number of tax code changes, some which I’m pretty amenable to in order to ensure that social programs I think are important are provided for. These include raising the income tax on the very top tax bracket from 35% to 36% and allowing the cut in the maximum tax rate on capital gains and dividends taxes to expire (this was cut to 15% in 2003).

  • Balancing the Budget: Speaker-Elect Pelosi has promised to restore a House rule from the 1990s that required new spending to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases and the new Budget Chairmen are calling for a balanced budget within five years. While some might target this as window dressing, I think it would have a positive effect on the mindset of congressional appropriators as they approached drafting the federal budget.

  • Economic Shock Absorbers: Democrats have discussed expanding government programs that cushion the fall of those who lose jobs in our country’s rapidly changing economy. These might include targeted federal programs offering help with health insurance, wage-loss, and job retraining. Ultimately, better preparation before and more assistance after job losses would help workers and diminish calls for protectionism (i.e. these are trade-friendly proposals)

  • Changes to Medicare: Democrats have also talked about making changes to the Medicare that would save the federal government billions. These proposals include giving the government the ability to negotiate with Drug manufacturers on drug prices (much like the negotiating power that the Veterans Administration has) and reducing billions in what Democratic leaders claim the government overpays insurance companies that run Medicare’s managed care programs. These proposals are, in a sense, band-aids. But with such a slight Senate majority, Democrats are not in a position to do much more. Ultimately, I’m in favor of more progressive health care reform that does not depend so heavily on company largesse.

(5) Ethics Reform
Democrats back a stronger ethics reform package. Republicans this past year stripped any meaningful lobbying reform provisions from the proposed reform legislation in the months following the Abramoff plea deal in January. As the Democrats prepare to pick this legislation up, they plan on putting several substantive amendments up for a vote. Whether all of these provisions will pass is still in question (there are Democrats who aren’t crazy about all of them too), but allowing each to be introduced to a full floor debate and vote is sure to result in a much more sweeping ethics reform package than would have passed had the Democrats not been elected. In fact, had the Democrats lost, any real chance at a substantive lobbying reform bill would have been scuttled because Republicans would have been left with the impression that the public had moved passed the various ethical scandals that have plagued Congress these past few years.

(6) Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Democrats are much more likely to pass the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that, although supported by the President, stalled in the House last summer. The Senate bill that passed last year struck an important balance in that it provided for increased border security while also dealing humanely with those undocumented immigrants that had been living in the US for years. This was in stark contrast to an earlier House bill that was almost draconian in its approach to undocumented immigrants.

(7) Energy Policy and the Environment
Just by winning the election the Democrats already appear to have had what I consider a positive effect on energy companies and the environment. Democrats, as a whole, simply take environmental concerns like global warming more seriously. A Democratic victory also ensures that the government will focus more on investing in alternative forms of energy and energy conservation rather than rushing to open pristine wildlife preserves like ANWR to drilling (Let me make clear that I’m not opposed to drilling to meet our energy needs, but I would want a more bipartisan, non-ideological survey of what damage might be done to the fragile eco-systems in question and whether that harm is worth the estimated oil reserves we are tapping into). A Democratic victory also prevents the passage of any more duplicitous legislation like the “Blue Skies Act” and the Healthy Forests Initiative that have actually loosened environmental protections.

(8) Overriding the Stem Cell Research Veto
In retaking the Senate, the Democrats appear to have won enough votes to overcome President Bush’s veto this summer of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. The bill won passage by a 63-37 margin in the Senate, not quite large enough to override a veto. But four of the Senators who voted against the bill (Allen, Dewine, Santorum and Talent) were defeated in November’s election, giving the measure what seems like a veto-proof 67 votes.

(9) A More Moderate Democratic Party
This election swept a large number of conservative and moderate Democrats into office. By fielding a broad range of centrist candidates this year, the Democrats ran competitive races in a large number of “red” states and districts. As a result, the two moderate Democratic Caucuses in House of Representatives, the Blue Dog Democrats and the New Democrat Coalition, got 24 new members between them (with some overlap). Similarly, in the Senate three of the new incoming Democrats, Bob Casey (PA), Jim Webb (VA), and John Tester (MT), all come from centrist-conservative stock. This moderate bloc has already begun to put forward centrist legislative proposals.

What does this all mean? Well, as Nancy Pelosi herself pointed out the day after the election, it means that the Democrats will “have to govern from the center.” Some doubt whether Pelosi has it in her to do this, but I think those that do underestimate her. She wants to make her mark as a successful Speaker of the House and to do this she clearly understands that she must work with moderate members of her own party as well as House Republicans and the President. Harry Reid, considered a moderate in his own right, faces an even more difficult task in governing a very evenly divided Senate (51-49). Those who know him best, including several stalwart Republicans, have expressed confidence in his ability to lead in spite of the challenges. Republican consultant Sig Rogich has said of Reid “His personality will be more conducive to being a majority leader than minority leader. He has always been more of a consensus-building type than the over-the-top partisan that his current role has demanded.”

In Conclusion
Certainly there are still many traditional liberals like Charlie Rangel who will be chairing Committees in the new Congress, but look at who these congressmen are replacing. Republicans like Bill Thomas, James Inhofe, Jerry Lewis and Peter Hoekstra are just as extreme as their liberal counterparts. I don't think there is a net loss there. In spite of ideologues, I think that this Congress will, overall, produce better legislation that addresses many of the problems I am most concerned about. The “liberals” have a large wing of moderate Democrats to keep them in check, and the Democrats, as a whole, will keep conservative Republicans in check.

I am really buoyed by the moderating influence that Democrats will have on a broad range of legislative and policy initiatives on the environment, energy policy, intelligence and national security, foreign policy, judicial confirmations, the economy, health care, and oversight. I think they will provide an important check on the President and Congressional Republicans and, through the ensuing gridlock, we’ll manage to come away with more compromise and better all-around legislation.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Why Obama's a Class Act

The year is 2004. A small town reporter for the Henry County Daily News finally builds up the courage to talk to the apple of his eye (a foxy intern for a competing paper) while attending a press conference held by then state senator Barack Obama. This local reporter even manages to sit next to her, probably flirting with just the right amount of charm and humor. No doubt motivated in part by the desire to sweep his coveted intern off her feet, he stands to ask a question during the question-answer period of the press conference... and that's when Obama declares open season on him in front of hundreds. As casanova tries to spit out his question, Obama cuts him off:
“Wait a minute son, this is for professional media only” (Obama)

“What do you mean? I work for the local paper,” (love-struck reporter)

“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were a college student. You have such a baby face,” (Obama)
Our reporter turns back only to see his dream girl laughing at him right along with everyone else... and bam, just like that, a budding romance is crushed underfoot. The resentment over a love lost, however, has been nursed for over two years now.

That is... until Obama made things right last week.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Er... Sore Loser?

In a little followed race this year in Texas's 1st Congressional District, Democrat Roger L. Owen challenged the Republican Representative Louie Gohmert for his seat in Congress. Owen got smeared in the general election on Tuesday 68% to 29%. And while Owen's party won back control of the House, the Senate, and a majority of the nation's Governorships, losing his own race apparently still didn't sit too well Roger. He now claims to no longer consider himself an American or a Southern Baptist... oh and it seems he plans on leaving the country too. We'd ask where, but he's made it clear that we're not to contact him.

Update: Just in case anyone was interested in Mister Owen's past criminal history and the special interest groups who were actually responsible for his conviction:

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Why I'm Studying To Be A Lawyer

This summer Melbo and I decided to take on a little home remodeling... I clearly had no idea what I was getting myself into. Our plan was to gut the main floor and install wood flooring, new tiling, a new kitchen, and a revamped bathroom. We kicked off the festivities in August after I finished my time as a summer associate. My brother-in-law, a contractor from cheesehead country, drove down to volunteer two weeks of his life and we went to work (aided by the generous help of my father-in-law and my other brother-in-law). We managed to finish the floor, set the tiling, build a new mantel and hearth, and install most of the kitchen before my contractor brother-in-law had to take leave.

Sounds good, right? Well... that's when school started back up. The remaining remodeling work (the "finishing touches" including caulking and grouting tile, finishing the kitchen, plumbing, re-doing the bathroom, painting, etc., etc.) stretched itself out painfully over the next 6 weeks. It was pure misery. Luckily Melbo's mom came into to pinch hit with the painting (a veritable lifesaver) while her dad did some bullpen work in the bathroom (he's a quintessential jack-of-all-trades), but we ended up living in a state of perpetual construction for almost two months nonetheless. And while there's still a long list of little to dos (like replacing our kitchen ceiling fan), at least the drapes are hung and the semi-normal life of a law student has resumed. We're now relishing the home improvements... and, through it all, I've even learned something. I'm not sure I could hack being a full-time handyman.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

So Long Mark Warner

In case anyone failed to notice, I retired a link on my sidebar last night. Yup... it's true, one of my early favorites for the 2008 presidential election has bowed out of the race early by declaring he is no longer considering a run for the presidency.

I liked Mark Warner. He was a centrist Democrat who had a history of reaching across the aisle to get things done. He wasn't overly idealogical in his views, and he decried the bitter partisan atmosphere that has engulfed politics in recent years. I believe he is a good man who would have made a good president.

In announcing his decision, Warner said:

This past weekend, my family and I went to Connecticut to celebrate my Dad's 81st birthday, and then we took my oldest daughter Madison to start looking at colleges.

I know these moments are never going to come again. This weekend made clear what I'd been thinking about for many weeks that while politically this appears to be the right time for me to take the plunge at this point, I want to have a real life.

And while the chance may never come again, I shouldn't move forward unless I'm willing to put everything else in my life on the back burner.

This has been a difficult decision, but for me, it's the right decision.

It's not a decision I have easily reached. I made it after a lot of discussion with my family and a few close friends, and ultimately a lot of reflection, prayer, and soul-searching.

It remains to be seen whether a moderate can weather the primary process anymore, but in the hope that one still can, I'm now leaning the way of Senator Evan Bayh.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Game On


PokerStars, the second largest online poker company, should put on a clinic in the art of statutory interpretation. They're currently doing quite the interpretive two-step in response to some anti-gambling legislation that Congress unexpectedly passed last month as a rider to a pretty uncontroversial port safety bill. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act purports to ban basically all online gambling, something it defines as "a sporting event or a game subject to chance." So what is an online gaming company to do? Well, PokerStars just announced that its lawyers have determined that the Act doesn't apply to it. How might it make such a claim that you ask? Simple... because Poker is not a game of "chance," but of "skill."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Greatest Ballot Initative Ever...

Ready or not... it's that time again. Election season. Regardless of how you feel about it, every two years October inevitably brings with it four weeks of complete and total saturation in all things political.

Candidate campaigns running ads 'round the clock, political pundits analyzing every last sneeze of their random samples in an effort to predict election outcomes, and ballot initiatives on everything from banning gay marriage to raising the minimum wage smothering you from the left and the right in a vain attempt to swing your vote.

It's almost enough to make you want to throw in the towel and cry "uncle"... unless you live in Arizona that is. Why you ask? Because Arizona has what some argue is the greatest ballot initative ever up for a vote this fall. It's a proposal that would award one lucky Arizonan voter $1 million big'uns just for casting a ballot. If it helps you conceptually, think of November 7th as "Powerball Tuesday"... except you don't have to pay anything to pick your numbers and you are exempt from any guilt if gambling happens to be against your religion (it being your civic duty to vote and all).

Question is, as apathetic as Americans are, is this really the key to voter turnout? And if it is... who's likely to benefit more? The Repubs' or the Dems'?

Friday, September 29, 2006

A New Baby

As many of you know, the wife and I are currently expecting... but I have a confession to make. We already brought home a new baby earlier this month. Yes, that's right. Three weeks ago today, we welcomed a shiny new Vespa 50 LX to the family.

My brother-in-law calls it a glorified leaf blower, but I tell ya', it can sure fly for a leaf blower. It's certainly not a crotch-rocket, but it can cruise at speeds up to 50 mph. Plenty fast to get me to the store and shuttle me to the nearby metro and back, and slow enough to keep the wife from nagging me too much.

I've run up a hefty 212 miles on it so far and haven't even burned through 2.5 gallons of gas yet. A refreshing change of pace to the rape I experience at the pump with my car. Unfortunately, however, the bike did just incur it's first war wounds (In case anyone was in doubt, doing a Chinese fire-drill on a clutch-less scooter while holding onto the throttle is a bad idea). The way I like to see it though, I no longer have to worry about that "first scratch" anymore. A weight has been lifted... and our baby now has that much more character.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Mormons ≠ Cool?


"[Y]ou can't be a Mormon and be cool! But I'm trying my best!''
Brandon Flowers
Lead Singer for The Killers
Quoted in the
Observer Magazine
(Hit Tip: David Kennedy)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

He Said... He Said...

"And I will make decisions based upon -- the level of troops based upon the recommendations by the commanders on the ground. If they tell me we need more troops, we'll provide more troops. If they tell me we've got sufficient level of troops, that will be the level of troops."
George W. Bush, November 29, 2005

"Many of us routinely asked for more troops. There simply aren't enough troops there to accomplish the task."
Retired Major General John R.S. Batiste, September 26, 2006
Former Commander of the 1st Infantry Division of the US Army in Iraq

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Quote of the Day

When asked why he wouldn't accept campaign contributions from political action committees or community groups, Ken Wegner, a Republican congressional candidate from Nevada's 1st district, used an analogy comparing campaign fundraising to extramarital temptation. He explained to the Las Vegas Review-Journal that:

"I have a really cute secretary. My wife's had a few kids, doesn't have a great body anymore and my secretary is really hot... It's that first kiss that's going to kill you. My secretary just wants a kiss."

Campaign finance issues aside, I say Wegner's a brave man. I'm pretty sure my wife would be demanding a new secretary on principle.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

"Guys" and "Places"

A friend recently wrote about the phenomena of "Guys"... how when you live in a certain place for an extended period of time you amass an army of "Guys" to do just about everything. People typically have a "Car Guy", a "Jewelry Guy", an "Investing Guy", and maybe even a "Fix-it Guy." I'd say that your doctor, dentist, and hairstylist could all qualify as "Guys" too. Overtime you come to depend on and, in many cases, implicitly trust these "Guys"... you return to them faithfully and usually recommend them to others (I've channeled at least two dozen people to my former "Car Guy" in Utah).

These "Guys" are one of the reasons that moving can really suck. You pick up your life and truck half-way across the country and you're back at square one. You eye all of your new service personnel with suspicion until they gain your trust, a process that may entail an awkward "dating" stage with several "Guys" until you find one that works for you.

I think the same is true for "spots" or "places." After living in an area for awhile, people usually settle on their favorite restaurants, burger places, concert venues, stores, ad infinitum. Often out of the way or lesser known, they are places you love to take others to, especially when they may not have known about them.

I've found this is especially true with the outdoors. When I lived in Utah, my friends and I had our favorite camping spots, hiking trails, ski/snowboarding resorts/runs, climbing routes, natural hotsprings, canyon firepits, etc. We found these places and developed our preferences over the course of years, and we always enjoyed sharing our finds with others. Sliding Rock was one of these places. It is a natural waterslide formed by the icy run off of Lone Peak in Alpine, Utah (see Melbo on the left). First shown to me by a friend's former girlfriend, it became a place I loved to bring people to (even after local residents gated off the trail).

Moving to the D.C. area necessarily entailed losing all the "Sliding Rocks" we'd found over the years. Our first month in Virginia we went camping and ended up pitching our tent in a commercial camplot because we didn't know where else to go. While it's taken a couple of years and a LOT of so-so recommendations, we've finally begun to find new "places" to call our own... and among them is a new Sliding Rock.

Just before summer break wrapped up last month, we sneaked off to some nearby mountains for a day with some friends and discovered White Oak Canyon, a gorgeous hike nestled in the Shenandoahs that has several impressive natural waterslides... including one that's even bigger and faster than our beloved Sliding Rock (see me on the right). While the search goes on to keep finding new "places" to replace those old "places" we left behind, finding something like White Oak Canyon almost makes up for the lack of respectable ski resorts any where in our vicinity. Well... actually, that might be stretching it a bit, but it was a nice find nonetheless.

Note: It has been pointed out that, embarrassingly, I failed to give proper credit to the individual who brought Melbo and I to White Oak Canyon... as such I'd like to publicly thank this kind GW International Law Review Articles Editor.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Why I Love Colin Powell

Yesterday, former Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a letter to John McCain stressing Powell's opposition to White House efforts to amend the Geneva Conventions as part of its current military tribunals legislative proposal. The bill being pushed by the White House essentially redefines how the United States understands and complies with Common Article III of the Conventions (i.e., it would "legalize" techniques now understood to be prohibited under Common Article III):
"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine Common Article III would add to those doubts," Powell wrote. "Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."

Powell is certainly not alone in his belief that the proposed legislation is bad policy. He joins former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Jack Vessey, Democrats, and Republicans John Warner, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain, among others, in opposing the President on this issue. Not bad company to be in.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pipe Dreams

When you're a teenager, you typically have lofty visions of what your life is going to be like. As you think about your future, you have all sorts of ideas of things you'd like to do and careers you'd love to have. These usually mirror your interests at the time. Back in the day my friends and I would dream about, among other things:
  • Circling the globe in search of the endless winter (ala Endless Summer II)
  • Becoming pro-snowboarders/skiers
  • Designing ski/board/skate/outdoor equipment
  • Becoming independent filmmakers (ala Jackass and/or skate/snowboard/skiing flicks)
  • Making it as musicians
  • Becoming journalists for Rolling Stone or some snowboarding/skiing magazine
  • Opening an independent music venue/lounge
  • Opening a skate shop/skate park
  • Making killer investments and living off the fat of the land
My friend Geoff Tice dreamt of inheriting some inordinate sum of money and buying a huge house, complete with all the fixins' (a skate ramp/park, swimming pool, pool table, huge screen T.V., etc.), where all of his friends could live and/or crash. This would preferably have been in some SoCal town right near the beach (like some skater friends he had in High School).

Soon, however, reality set in. We got in line and acqueisced to more traditional fields of work. In the process we've become (or are on the road to becoming) accountants, lawyers, teachers, professors, social workers, techies and/or managers of some sort. We have day jobs with offices or are slaving through grad school. We have families and responsibility and have lost those grand visions of our youth.

Most of us that is. I do have one friend that dropped out of college several years ago to become a professional cyclist. He's now sponsored, lives in Austria, and rides for Volksbank.

Another friend, Geoff Tice (the kid with the pipe dream above), seemingly had given into "the man," graduating in communications from BYU and settling down with a nice job for an ad agency in Salt Lake... but now he's turning back to the roots that most of us have begun to forget. This past year he came up with an idea for an online snowboarding magazine. Initially many of our friends thought it was just another bright idea that would burn out under a bushel. But Tice, while slugging through his day job, hired a web-designer, sought out and signed several pro snowboarders, and worked to drum up advertisers for the site. He sold a duplex he owned in order to finance his efforts, and, this past week, brought the project online. While Tice's magazine may make you feel like an old hack who's become part of the establishment, it's definitely worth a look: www.snowblahg.com. Who knows, you might just find yourself crashing at Tice's pad in a few years.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Refresher on Government Hierarchy

"Let me explain the government to you. There’s God, then there’s the president and then there’s my father."

— Jack Roberts, the 6-year-old son of Chief Justice John Roberts, overheard speaking to one of his young peers on the last day of summer camp (as reported by the Examiner)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Play of the Day


AND HE COULD... GO... ALL... THE... WAY...

My dear friends, I'm pleased to introduce you to the little squirt that will be my son
(due January 15th)


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Of Prisons, Dwarves and Lawsuits

In 2002, I interned for a semester at the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, a non-profit that advocates for prisoner rights within the prison system. The Project sought to ensure the proper treatment of inmates and to hold correctional systems accountable for misdeeds. It primarily dealt with issues like inadequate prison facilities, proper access to medical care, religious freedom, and prison guard misconduct. As an intern, my job was to sort through all of the incoming mail (the "intake") and respond to it. I first had to dispense of letters that:
(A) had no point (with the amount of time prisoners have on their hands, trust me, there were a lot of these)
(B) requested services we didn't offer (e.g., help on criminal appeals) or
(C) made claims that stretched the imagination (prisoners can get surprisingly creative)
I responded to these with a standard form letter that explained the scope of the Project's mission and suggested other organizations that might be in a better position to help (ain't nothin' quite like pawning someone off on someone else, eh?). I then would sift through the rest of the letters and determine which I thought would be a good use of the Project's meager resources. This determination typically required me to get more details about whatever the alleged problem was through written correspondence and, often, prison visits (to conduct more thorough interviews and clarify key points at issue). I then would write a memorandum with my recommendations of what should be done in a particular case and present it to the Project's Executive Director. Often I would be directed to write a letter or make a phone call to the relevant authority to ask for some corrective action. This usually brought about a back and forth with the prison bureaucracy and eventually some sort of acceptable resolution. If all else failed we would then consider filing suit on the prisoner's behalf.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, since my internship I've become fairly attuned to issues involving the efficacy of our correctional system. News stories along these lines usually catch my eye and, because of my experiences, I can spot a winner. What's a winner look like? Well… this one’s a gem:

A 4’1” dwarf who served 20 months for dealing marijuana and possessing methamphetamine is suing the prison he was incarcerated at for injuries he sustained as a result of negligence by the prison.

Byron "B.J." Rhodan, an aspiring rapper also known as "Lil Dirty," claims that two years ago while he was confined at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, Georgia, a guard ordered him to shave. When Rhodan couldn’t reach the mirror above the sink in his cell, the guard told him to stand on the sink. Rhodan claims he slipped in his attempt and landed hard on cement floor. The fall severely aggravated a back condition caused by his dwarfism, one for which he had already undergone multiple surgeries. Rhodan alleges a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he’s seeking unspecified monetary damages.

Now in my four months at the Project, I handled a ton of cases. Many of which involved prison guards and/or prison facilities. Few were this entertaining though. Inmates accused guards of a lot of things... overlooking violence, arranging for enemies to be near one another (let's just say shivs' aren't folklore), denying vital medical care (e.g., insulin shots and even cancer treatment), refusing to cater to religious dietary restrictions (everyone wants to be Muslim in the joint... apparently their food's better), running drugs (how did you think the smack gets in there), excessive beatings (seems to happen frequently), and even demanding sex for favors (usually more of a problem with female inmates). They also complained endlessly about shabby prison facilities... toilets that shot water up into the air (do they know people pay for that in some countries?), very large spiders/cockroaches/rats (TFB better not get incarcerated), and cellblocks without cable television (how they supposed to watch their Oz?!) .

Sometimes listening to people complain was about all we could do for them... other times the situation gave us leverage (e.g., we once got a paraplegic transferred from Leavenworth because the place has no wheelchair ramps). I can't say I ever remember a case involving dwarfs though. Wish I had had one. Writing the warden on a case like that would have been good times. Interviewing Lil Dirty might have been even better. You have to admit, the little guy seems to have a point... prison's gotta' be tough for a four-footer in a six-foot world. And shaving on that sink must have been a bitch. Not sure how much this case is worth monetarily, but I say we certainly could have had fun with it at the Project.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

And The Winner Is...

Who says Brigham Young University is no longer a dynasty? For the ninth straight year BYU tops Princeton Review's list of "Stone-Cold Sober" schools (a ranking based on a combination of survey questions concerning the use of alcohol and drugs, hours of study each day, and the popularity of fraternities). BYU also placed first in the "Don't Inhale" and "Got Milk" categories (on how widely the student body partakes of beer and marijuana, respectively), and came in a strong second in the "Scotch and Soda, Hold the Scotch" category (on how widely hard liquor is enjoyed). Wait a minute... is that right? Do jack Mormons at the 'Coug (along with the one or two of BYU's ten non-LDS students) really like their Jim Beam a wee bit more than their Bud Light?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Blueberry Memories Revisited

Just over eight months ago I wrote about an odd memento that sits atop my desk... or should I say sat. It was a nine-year-old blueberry bagel loaded with sentimental value. Now all that sentimental value is rotting in my dog's digestive tract.

We came home from dinner Friday night to find Jäger sitting among the scattered remains of my petrified keepsake. From the look in his guilt-ridden eyes, it was clear he sensed he'd done wrong. I sentenced him to a couple of hours in the crate to think things over, but the deed was done. The bagel was no more.

Knowing how much it meant to me, my brother-in-law kindly suggested that I save Jäger's next poop and allow it to petrify until suitable for display. He reasoned that it wouldn't be anymore disgusting than setting a nearly-decade-old bagel out on public display. I thought about it for a minute, but ultimately decided against the petrified poop. Jäger's been known to eat that stuff too.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

This Week's Sign That The Apocalypse Is Upon Us

In the grand tradition of Sports Illustrated's long running Apocalypse watch, I give you this week's sign that the apocalypse is upon us: The textbook publisher Freeload Press is offering free college and graduate school textbooks that are laced with keyed advertisements.
"Textbook prices are soaring into the hundreds of dollars, but for some courses this fall, students won't pay a dime. The catch: Their textbooks will have ads for companies including FedEx Kinko's and Pura Vida coffee. A small Minnesota startup called Freeload Press will offer more than 100 titles this fall -- mostly for business courses -- free of charge. Students, or anyone else who fills out a five-minute survey, can download a PDF file of the book and store it on their hard drive to print."
But what if a University is worried about distracting or inappropriate ads? Have no fear:
"Freeload's ads won't be distracting, will be placed at natural breaks in the material and won't push products such as alcohol or tobacco. Schools with other concerns could customize their standards. For instance, Brigham Young University, founded by Mormons in Utah, could nix ads for caffeine products."
Gotta' love the incredibly random BYU plug in Washington Times, eh? So, what does a "non-distracting" advertisement look like you ask?


How's that for spicing up your homework? I guess if the ad pages are numbered, they might help you feel like you are making progress on your reading by giving you a few pages to skip. Honestly though, outside of giving you the munchies in class, I don't see that many drawbacks. But then again, I'm part of the Google generation that is selling my soul to advertisers. Considering the cost of most of my textbooks (even those bought used), I'll be the first to admit that I'd take the Freeload Press up on its ad-laden copies if they offered any textbooks I needed... just so long as they placed no ads for caffeinated products of course (err... except maybe Mountain Dew).

Monday, August 07, 2006

Huh?

Patrick Swayze is the latest Celeb' to come to Mel Gibson's defense over anti-semitic remarks Gibson made during a DUI arrest this past week. Swayze says this incident won't end Gibson's career and... err... apparently we just need to slap the "pit bull" and move on?

"When you are a pit bull, and you love what you do and you are going to continue to grow, that talent will find its way out... Talent deserves to be honored. Hands deserve to be slapped if you do something stupid as well, but don't take it too far" (Washington Post).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Rejecting Legislative Extortion

Cheers to the Senate Democrats for defeating a measure tonight that basically amounted to legislative extortion. Republicans, most of whom have staunchly opposed Democratic efforts to raise the minimum wage (and voted against raising it just over a month ago), attached a $2.00 an hour minimum wage hike to the permanent repeal of the estate tax (dubbed the "death tax" by opponents). The repeal would eliminate the tax on estates worth up to $5 million and drastically reduce the tax on estates worth up to $25 million (currently estates worth up to $2 million are spared the tax as are family-owned farms regardless of their worth). Previous attempts to permanently repeal the estate tax have continually failed, leaving the issue hopelessly stalled in the Senate. This is where the extortion comes in.

Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage is costing the party politically in the run up to the mid-term elections, as almost 83% of Americans support such an increase. So in a purely political move, Republicans threw the minimum wage increase into a bill that would have repealed the estate tax (something Democrats vehemently oppose). The idea was to force Democrats to vote against the minimum wage proposal in order to nullify any political advantage Democrats enjoyed on the issue. If, by some miracle, the measure passed, then Republicans would at least have secured a major political coup in repealing the tax and could also campaign on having raised the mininum wage they really didn't want to raise.

Democrats wisely didn't take the bait. Raising the mininum wage should be done on its own merit. We should not have to accept a misguided federal tax policy that centers on preserving aristocratic estates in order to give those scraping by on minimum wage a long awaited cost of living increase.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Little Disappointed

In D.C., law firms that hire summer associates typically pack their summer calenders with a slew of social events. You'll always have a couple of standard dinners at a Partner's house as well as some obligatory happy hours. Beyond that, anything's fair game. My firm also took us on a dinner cruise, to a couple baseball and soccer games, as well as to a few plays, movies, and comedy clubs. All in all a pretty good summer... except that I'm still feeling a bit unfulfilled. Why might you ask? Because I never got to segway.

Segways, in case you're unclear, are two-wheeled, self-balancing, scooter-like contraptions that bury the needle at a zippy 12.5 miles an hour. Everyday in D.C., mobs of tourists sporting "F.B.I. Agent" T-shirts purchased for 2 bucks from some street corner vendor cruise around the city on these speed demons as part of any of a number of organized tour groups.

For one reason or another my firm thought it would be a knee-slapper to make public spectacles of us summers' by setting us up to segway around the city like tourists. The thing is, I was all about it. With a tour group named "Segs in the City" tapped to herd us about, is it really any wonder?

Unfortunately, we got rained out on the night of the big tour. And it didn't just rain, it poured. The IRS building is closed until 2007 because of leakage from the rain that night. So alas, we were forced to reschedule... and what do you know? It rained again. I swear it rained for two damn weeks straight. We could have been in the Pacific Northwest for all we knew. We tried to set another tour up one last time, but the summer was more than half over and there just wasn't another workable tour night.

Why am I so bummed about it? Well... because I don't think I'll ever do a segway tour on my own. Having the firm plan the tour for me gave me an out. I'm not sure I could bring myself to pay for one. That said, I'm now a little fixated on these two-wheeled little gizmos. What's behind this fascination? I'm not quite sure other than to say that I seem to relish being the geek at times. Back in high school I used to show up to disco-skating on Saturday nights in a graduation gown and a Slash wig. The idea of strapping on a bike helmet and dodging sidewalk traffic while running in a pack of segways just sounds like a smashing good time. Apparently, however, this allure isn't universal. A couple of summers' at the firm swore they wouldn't be caught dead on one of these suckers... said they were "morally" opposed. Perhaps they aren't aware of how cool segways have become... from bad-ass Jackie Chan to Elvis-loving Junichiro Koizumi to also-ran John Kerry to the Chicago P.D., everyone seems to be riding these things of late. In fact, George W. even gave one a whirl not too long ago, although for purposes of full disclosure, I should note that he did encounter a bit of trouble (see below).

Which brings me back to my discontent. It's lasted long enough now that I'm wondering if I'm destined to crack at some point and cough up the money for a tour. Or maybe I could just rent one and hit the D.C. streets (and beyond) on my own. I've seen people take these things into office buildings, restaurants, and even the a Senate office building. I'm certain I could handle a segway better than Bush. I'd be a regular old Homer Simpson on the thing..."Fly, Segway, Fly!" (My only problem would be coercing someone into joining me).

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Thursday, July 20, 2006

My New Sidebar

I like to read. Actually, I love to read. This love has instilled in me a corresponding love for books and most things book related. For example, the first pieces of furniture that the wife and I bought after getting married were bookshelves. I can literally wander around a Barnes & Noble or a Borders for hours without losing interest. Get me into a Costco and it's trouble... I usually leave with three or four books I hadn't gone in intending to buy. This compulsion has lead to a rather sizeable book collection. The problem is that while in law school I can't read much of anything not school-related without feeling guilty for all the school-related things I should be reading (...unfortunately for me, surfing the internet isn't as guilt-ridden). This has naturally led to stacks of newly purchased books that sit gathering dust. For instance, this past year I thought it would be interesting to read books by both (Conservative) Justice Antonin Scalia and (Liberal) Justice Stephen Breyer and compare their jurisprudence (I know... I'm a geek). I haven't cracked the spine of either. Last fall, I also purchased, among other books, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. While I did flip through a couple of pages during the semester, I didn't start reading it until after finals. Over the Christmas break, I managed to burn through about 200 pages of the hefty, but fascinating biography... and then, once again, school hit. Despite my best efforts, over the next four months I failed to read more than 20-or-so pages. Every time I'd set aside time to sit down and plow through it, I'd have to read back a dozen pages to re-orient myself. Come summer, however, I got back on my game. I finished the Rough Stone by mid-June. My hope was to put a dent into my dust covered stacks this summer, but alas, I've gotten lazy and dug myself a pretty big hole. It's mid-July and I still haven't finished my next book. I'm beginning to doubt that I'll make much headway on those stacks. To motivate myself, I've added a book section to my blog sidebar. I figure this way I might possibly read a little faster in order to avoid the embarrassment of having the world know that I'm currently reading the teenage-girl-coming-of-age bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees. My wife is making me read it... I promise.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Loosening Up the G8?


Now I'm going to need to check with my wife on this... but Angela doesn't look too happy and part of me thinks the problem is really just with Bush's technique.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Kisses

There is a massive censorship campaign afoot that you should know about. From a McDonald's near Amsterdam to New York's very own John F. Kennedy Airport, certain works of art called "Kisses" are systematically being supressed from public view. Those Kisses already on display are being removed from public view and future plans to install Kisses elsewhere are being canceled. What could be stirring such brazen acts of censorship you ask? Open wide.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Shine On You Crazy Diamond


Roger Keith "Syd" Barrett (1946-2006)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Helping Out An Old Friend

Our old friend Screech (a.k.a. Dustin Diamond) is in trouble. You see, he had trouble finding work as an actor after his days on Saved By The Bell (surprising?!)... and not wanting to give up the dream, he tried his luck as a stand-up comic. Apparently it hasn't gone so well though. A bank is preparing to foreclose on Diamond's Wisconsin home and, in a last ditch effort to avoid losing the house, he has turned to the internet to try to raise a quick buck. He's hawking "I Paid $15.00 To Save Screeech's House" T-shirts via a website he threw together last month. To drum up a little support for this venture, Diamond made an appearance Howard Stern and was also interviewed by the AP for an article that ran countrywide. His "official" story blames bad credit, rising property tax assessments, and some guy named Arthur Giraldo for his recent run of bad luck. Diamond supposedly had 30 days to pay the $250,000 owed and, by my calculations, his time is short. So the question is... just how big of Saved By The Bell fan are you?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Eww.... Gross

Rumor has it that Rush Limbaugh and Mary Lynn Rajskub
(a.k.a. Chloe O'Brian of Fox's 24) are a thing.

Choice Quote of the Day



“You know, the problem with diplomacy is it takes a while to get something done."

President Bush on the ongoing diplomatic efforts with North Korea