Monday, December 27, 2004

Followup to ID post

For any readers that want to dispute my summary dismissal of intelligent design: the National Academies (of Science, Engineering and Medicine) have been, since they were formed by Lincoln, the main source of technical advice to the government. They have a page on evolution & education, and an book discussing the issue (online, if you want, or else available as a paperbook).

Below is the description of this book from the Nattional Academies Press:

While the mechanisms of evolution are still under investigation, scientists universally accept that the cosmos, our planet, and life evolved and continue to evolve. Yet the teaching of evolution to schoolchildren is still contentious. In Science and Creationism, The National Academy of Sciences states unequivocally that creationism has no place in any science curriculum at any level.

Briefly and clearly, this booklet explores the nature of science, reviews the evidence for the origin of the universe and earth, and explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. This edition includes new insights from astronomy and molecular biology.

Attractive in presentation and authoritative in content, Science and Creationism will be useful to anyone concerned about America's scientific literacy: education policymakers, school boards and administrators, curriculum designers, librarians, teachers, parents, and students.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Hooray for the ACLU

Under the Taliban in Afghanistan, fundamentalist leaders in the government decided what religious beliefs were acceptable. In America, thankfully, the government doesn't tell us what god to believe in: Church and State are separate, and Americans are free to worship as (and if) they please.

One would think that after 200 years, people would, generally speaking, be clear on the basic concepts surrounding freedom of religion. Alas, not so. Not so far from my home, in the Dover, PA school system, science teachers are now required to teach "intelligent design". And let's make no mistake here: the study of "intelligent design" is not about science--it's about twisting science to support a certain literal interpretation of scripture.

(A short summary of ID, from looking at some arguments from proponents: there are some aspects of evolution we don't understand, and therefore G-d may control evolution. I personally don't mind having high school students hear that much, but it's ludicrous to plan to subject them to the actual arguments between ID proponents and opponents, which quickly degenerate into technical discussions of how the expression levels of groups of related genes are regulated in metazoans, the connections between ontogeny and phylogeny, and such. It's also clean that mainstream biologists are not in any way divided on the correctness of the "theory" of evolution.)

Anyway - not surprisingly, the requirement to teach "intelligent design" was not spearheaded by science teachers. The main instigator is a school board member William Buckingham, a self-described born-again Christian and a believer in creationism.

The Pennsylvania branch of the ACLU is now litigating against the Dover school board, and according to my wife (who volunteers and sometimes works there) they've been getting a bunch of letters with varying degrees of hostility. A recent letter in my local paper accused the ACLU of trying to suppress freedom of speech by their lawsuit.

I've sent a shorter version of this blog to my local paper, but that letter-to-the-editor is a classic case of "unclear on the concept": it's not a matter of what gets spoken, but what gets taught to our children. William Buckingham is free to speak as he likes, and I'm sure the ACLU would be all over anyone that said otherwise. But in America, neither he, nor any other religious leader, has the right to use the public schools as a pulpit.

When my family moved to Pittsburgh we immediately chose a synagogue, at which our children now receive religious instruction twice a week. The wonderful thing about that choice is that it was our choice, and ours alone. Americans who sincerely care about religion should be grateful to the ACLU for helping to defend the right of every American to find G-d his or her own way - not through the government.

A few days ago Christmas carollers, I guess as a protest against the godless liberals, came by the ACLU and sang, along with their other tunes, "We can't wish you a Merry Christmas, we can't wish you a Merry Christmas, we can't wish you a Merry Christmas, because the ACLU says no." And the ACLU office workers listened cheerfully, then invited the carollers in for coffee and fudge. (And it was excellent fudge, by the way.) I doubt there will a Christmas-miracle change for heart for anyone, but you never know. After all, Rush Limbaugh has now become an ardent privacy advocate.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Back Again

Well, it's been weeks since I did this. Blame it on the election - no, I wasn't depressed, particularly. I've been trying to get some work done again! Yes, I'm taking courses this fall, but that doesn't make me a student. Obsessing over news and tramping around Greenfield drumming up Democratic voters is no hobby for an up-and-coming academic.

But I can obsess a little bit, can't I? Friends and family have probably heard my famous airline story, which starts with me (with wife & two kids) grumpily boarding a long-delayed flight to my inlaws in November, 2001 and finding out that pillows and blankets were not available "for security reasons". Wife and I stare at each other with a silent look of "huh? what sense does THAT make?" and I say, with my usual total lack of tact and foresight: "Maybe they want us all to be alert so we can defend the plane if there's a hijacking." The stewardess rushes over - "Shhh! you can't say that word!". Now, I know I can't threaten, or even joke about threatening, or even joke about weapons. But I wasn't. There are words you can't say? George Carlin now has a "seven words you can't say in flight" routine? So anyway, I ask her nicely to tell me what the new rules are about what I can and can't say. There's more to the story, involving being hauled off planes and ID checks and men with guns and army fatigues, but let's not get too involved. Really, I should have just shut up to start with, stopped kvetching, and not caused trouble - did I mention this was Nov 2001?

What bugged me at the time was that I thought they should have at least told me their durn rule. After all, how can I follow it if I don't know what it is? if ignorance of the law is no excuse, and the law is a secret, I mean, what sense does that make? But after all, everyone at the airlines was worked up, about losing their jobs if nothing else. And it was November, 2001.

Turns out that three years later, the situation is still pretty much the same. A conservative congresswoman ran afoul of the TSA last month, when she asked to see the legal authorization for a pat-down search. So, they wouldn't let her fly. The article I cited notes:

in a qualitatively new development in U.S. governance, Americans can now be obligated to comply with legally-binding regulations that are unknown to them, and that indeed they are forbidden to know. This is not some dismal Eastern European allegory. It is part of a continuing transformation of American government that is leaving it less open, less accountable and less susceptible to rational deliberation as a vehicle for change.

Part of a disturbing trend, another part of which is the continuing erosion of any sort of privacy. Laser printers have been quietly augmented so that the government can find out what printer has produced what document:

Next time you make a printout from your color laser printer, shine an LED flashlight beam on it and examine it closely with a magnifying glass. You might be able to see the small, scattered yellow dots printer there that could be used to trace the document back to you...Governments, including the United States, already use the hidden markings to track counterfeiters.

Freedom of the press, right, that's in the Bill of Rights. But the ability to anonymously print a flyer and distribute it seems to be disappearing, if indeed it's not already gone. Say what you like, but remember, they're watching...

And who is being watched? I certainly support tracking counterfeiters. But it appears to me that our ability to observe - to infringe on privacy - is far outpacing our ability to hide - to protect privacy. I would have guessed the opposite would happen, technically. I think the upshot of all this is that we need to really, really watch the watchers. Are they looking out for bad guys? or spying on Quakers and peaceniks? it's up to all of us to make sure.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Two orders of magnitude

Here's an interesting insight into the situation in Iraq, from a widely-blogged interview of an Israeli interrogator:

How physical are you allowed to get during interrogations, with permission?

Very low levels. It could be two slaps in one interrogation, or to shake him, but not very strongly, or to put a cover on his head to scare him. We have never insulted a person's religion or humiliated them. There is no torture in the security services.

What do you make of the torture and abuse that took place in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq?

I don't want to judge the Americans. In Gaza we have one security person for every 1000 people. In Iraq they have one for every 100,000. They have no information or intelligence on their detainees. Information is the beginning of interrogation, and if there is none, if there is no language between you and the detainee, sometimes you will use more power. That I presume is what happened in Abu Ghraib.

One for every 1000, versus one for every 100,000. Quite a difference.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Catching up...

Catching up, as it were - a final political post from Watchblog that's maybe worth sharing with the non-watchblog world. Most of these things are so transient...unfortunately, not all. I also wrote another post, back before 11/2, which was mostly about how Bush has clearly decided to ignore the outrage over torturing accused terrorists. And now Gonzales, the legal eagle behind Abu Ghraib, is being put up for AG - head of the Justice Department. Orwell would love it.

Maybe now that the election's over, I'll finally get back to doing some work. Or maybe not. It's so much more fun to fume about the election results and the news, isn't it?

Monday, October 11, 2004

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Posting to WatchBlog

As the election nears, I decided to start posting my political stuff to someplace that more people actually read, so I've started posting on Watchblog. For a while I was cross-posting here, but lately I've been lazy, so you'll have to go there if you want to read: Spins and Damn Spins, One Core Value We Should All Agree On..., The "global test" makes perfect sense, or ... well, I guess that's all I've posted so far.

I sort of like Watchblog, it's not nearly as vitriolic as most of the political sites, and some decent discussions get started. Occasionally.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Love Amid the Ruins: A Modern Parable

This is my attempt to put the Bush-Kerry-Iraq thing into human terms...

Not too long after the first "rat incident", my husband came up to me with a serious look on his face. "Honey", he said, "We've got a real problem. You know that broken-up stretch of sidewalk down the street? Well, there's a gas main running underneath it."

"So?" I asked "That hasn't been a problem so far, has it?"

"No", he replied, "But I'm afraid that one of the rats will chew into it, and then create a gas leak--and you know what that will lead to. We're talking mass destruction. I want to get the Homeowners Association together right away and work out a repair plan. This is a grave threat!

"Well", I said, "In that case, you've got my support. If it's dangerous, do whatever it takes to get it fixed. But - can you be sure about the gas main?"

"Trust me", he replied. "I hear finding the gas main will be a slam dunk.

A day after that, I woke up to find two guys tearing up the sidewalk, working a backhoe and a pneumatic drill. My husband was in the living room, practising his putting. "That was fast!" I told him. "You must have really laid it on the line to the Homeowners Association."

"Well", he admitted, "I didn't actually convince them...but I figured we ought to take on the problem anyway, ourselves."

Well, hubby's never been great at sticking to a budget, and dollar signs flashed through my mind as I listened to the drilling outside. "Can we afford that?" I asked.

My husband didn't seem worried. "Honey, emergencies like this are why people invented credit", he replied. "And don't worry - I know what I'm doing. Jobs like this are in my blood!

"And who needs the Homeowners Association, anyway. You don't want the safety of our home determined by decisions made by that screwy French couple down the street, do you?"

Well no, I guess not. But a gas leak threatens everyone - shouldn't they pay their share?

Once the work started, I couldn't believe how fast that crumbly, unsafe old sidewalk came up. When the last piece of concrete was loaded into the dumpster, I took out a pitcher of lemonade to them and invited them up to the porch for a break. The Backhoe Guy was a tall thin fellow, who reminded me a bit of the guy that played the scarecrow on the Wizard of Oz. The Drill Guy looked more like the cowardly lion.

"You guys really know your stuff." I said. "Looks like the job's just about finished."

"Oh no, ma'am." said the Backhoe Guy "There's a lot more work to do. See, there's a lot of stuff under a sidewalk--what we call 'infrastructure'. Stuff like water pipes, oil pipes..."

"...sewers...", broke in the Drill Guy.

"...right, and electrical conduits---and that's all got to be working before we pour a new sidewalk and go home."

"Well, won't that be pretty easy to do, now that the old sidewalk's removed?" I asked.

"Actually," said the Backhoe Guy, "that old sidewalk, nasty as it was, was at least covering the infrastructure up, and protecting it from vermin. So we've got to be careful about how we get all the infrastructure rebuilt, and keep everything protected while we're doing that, or we could end up with a real mess."

Vermin, I thought. Since the rat incident I really don't like vermin. "What sort of vermin?" I asked.

"Rats." replied Backhoe promptly. "You end up with a messy, muddy hole, and it attracts rats. Also mice, roaches-"

"-frogs, locusts..." suggested Drill Guy.

"Well anyway", I interrupted, "How long will the rest of the job take?"

Drill and Backhoe exchanged glances. "Well ma'am," answered Backhoe after a pause, "it's hard to say, with the just the two of us. Usually you'd have a bigger crew for this. I mean, you need a plumber, electrician, civil engineer..."

"...union rep, lawyer..." interrupts Drill Guy,

" guys like us to stretch tarps, run fencing..." continues Backhoe

"...move in a porta-potty, build scaffolding ..."

"I think I get the picture." I tell them. "Tell me, does my husband know about all this? I mean, that we need a bigger crew?"

Drill and Backhoe exchange another glance, then look out, together, across the street. My husband's gotten out a tripod and camera, and is taking shots of himself climbing on the backhoe, wearing a borrowed hard hat and a T-shirt that said "Mission Accomplished!".

Another pause.

"We told him." said Drill Guy.

So, Drill Guy and Backhoe spent the next few days looking for that gas main, fixing up the 'infrastructure', and trying to keep the whole thing covered and 'secure' so it wouldn't turned into a rat-infested mud pit. A couple of neighbors even pitched in. And for a while, it seemed like things were going ok....sort of. I mean, they were working really hard, and this had to be a pretty tough job. But one thing they hadn't done was find that gas main.

Over dinner one night, my husband came out with some surprising news. "Well, honey" he said, "It looks like there isn't a gas main under that sidewalk after all".

"Uh - say again?" I asked.

"Don't feel bad - everyone makes mistakes", said one of the kids.

"Look", said my husband, "This wasn't a mistake!. There's no gas main, but I'm not the only one that thought there was. And isn't it great to have gotten rid of that dangerous old sidewalk? I mean, my Dad tripped up on that sidewalk back in the 90s. That sidewalk was trying to kill him - it tried to kill my Dad!

"Come on, Honey," he continued, "You said I had your support when I started this. Wouldn't you have still given it, knowing that there was no gas main?"

I hate hard questions: people so seldom take the time to listen to the answers. And the kids were watching, and I had a funny feeling that whatever I said, Drill Guy and Backhoe were going to hear my answer. Do I want to tell them, in so many words, they've been wasting their hard work?

"Look, I would have supported you", I said. "You're the head of the family, after all, and you needed all the ammunition you could get, to drum up support for the job with the Homeowners Association. And the sidewalk needed to go sometime. But--I would definitely not done everything the way you've done it, Dear. For starters, I sure wish you'd managed to get the Homeowners Association involved more. The last time we repaired with that sidewalk, it wasn't nearly as expensive."

After that, a few more weeks went by. It seemed like every evening and weekend was spent messing with that darn sidewalk job, and things just seemed to be getting worse, not better. There were places so dangerous, muddy, and rat-infested that no-one dared go there. The neighbors were more annoyed at us than anything, and even started to talk about the job being illegal. And then I found out that my husband had gotten a report that said that things were bleak, but hadn't told me, and also that almost no work had been done on the 'infrastructure', because of all the vermin problems.

So eventually, I got a little angry. "Look." I told me husband one day. "I've got to tell you that I'm not entirely sure that the way you're handling this sidewalk job is, well, exactly the best way that one might approach the job."

In reply, I got a glazed look. "Too much nuance and complexity in your language there, honey. Try and be more direct."

"Ok, I'll simplify." I told him. "I'll be real, real clear. What you're doing is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It's so wrong, I think 'Wrong' must be your middle name. This is the wrong job, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. It's so wrong, I think you should be off the home repair detail permanently. This job is putting us in debt, spending money we could put to better use elsewhere, and it's distracting you from that other, really important job you started and never finished." That glazed look again. "What other job?"

"Don't you remember the rat incident?" I asked. "When that big sneaky rat, the rat from the trash bin, the one that we called 'Bin Rat', got into our house sometime, knocked over your tower speakers, and caused $3000 in damage? Your important job was to catch Bin Rat!"

"Oh, that" he said. "I don't think that's so important any more. I truly am not that concerned about him.

"But if you're worried about rats - hey, we're doing great with rats! we're fighting loads of rats on the sidewalk job! and isn't it better fighting them outside than here in out living room?" "Sure", I said, "but how do you know that fighting them outside is actually keeping them away from our living room? maybe you're just attracting more rats with that muddy mess of a sidewalk job."

Another glazed look. Sometimes, a question can just be too complicated to answer.

"Ok, if you're so smart", he said, "Tell me what you'd have done differently."

"Everything." I told him.

"Ok, look" he said. "You told me I had your support when I started, right?"

"Well, yes." I agreed.

"And you even said you'd have supported this job, even if you knew there was no gas leak, right?"

"Not exactly", I said. "You're taking me out of context. I did support you then, but expected that you'd get help with the job, like you said you would. And, frankly, I didn't expect that you would screw this up so badly that-"

Yeah, yeah", he interrupted, "you're always going on about how I take you out of context. The point is, first you say yes, then you say no! that's just like a woman! how can I take your advice seriously if you're always flip-flopping like this!

"Face it", he continued, deepening his voice, and thrusting out his chest and chin, "major repairs are no place for people that can't make up their minds! Flip-flopper!"

Right, like he's never changed his mind?

"Well, if I'm a flip-flopper", I tell him, "You're a pig-headed idiot that refuses to take advice or admit he ever made a mistake!"

(And now the happy ending...)

"Don't say it like that", he replied, smiling winsomely, compassionately, and sincerely. "Actually, I'm decisive and resolute. And I make unpopular decisions."

Well, that was just too much - what's a girl to do? I took down my hair, tore open my bodice, and flung myself into his arms, my snow-white bosom heaving with passion. "Oh George", I sobbed on his shoulder, "You're right. You are so decisive and resolute! Please say you'll stay with me, and do my home repairs forever and ever! or at least another four years!"

"No problem" he replied. "In fact, I have big plans for the house too---I think we should switch to a flat roof."

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The real reason why we put the Cat out...

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time
There’ll never be a better chance to change your mind
And if you want this world to see a better day
Will you carry the words of love with you
Will you ride the great white bird into heaven
And though you want to last forever
You know you never will
(You know you never will, plank, plunk)

Yeah, sounds like a hijacking threat to me, too. Get him off the plane. Him and that Kennedy guy both.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

a few new links...

A really cool cite for election wonks, or even just those who want to see how their team is doing this week, is the Current Electoral Vote Predictor 2004.

A nice clear writeup of the war on terror (from a non-mimetic perspective of course) is here.

I clearly remember that write around the time my first son was born, I started have trouble concentrating, understanding technical material, and one other thing...oh yeah, remembering stuff. Which led to my theory of Conservation of Cognition, evidence for which is finally starting to emerge.

The First Meme War?

One of the scariest thing about terrorism is that it appears to be senseless and irrational. Why would anyone deliberately kill himself by flying into a building? Who could conceivably benefit from killing innocent schoolchildren? Why on earth would Iraqi insurgents deliberately target aid workers that are trying to rebuild their country? Irrational actions are always scary, since they're impossible to predict it and hence prevent.

I think that the 9/11 terrorist acts, and many subsequent ones, are not irrational, when put in the proper context. I think the "war on terror" can be understood as a conflict between memes. For those that haven't hear the term, "memes" are contagious ideas that, like viruses, replicate by passing from mind to mind. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins. Memes can be harmless (like a catchy tune), valuable (like a new scientific technique) or harmful (like the "smoking is cool" meme, which often kills off its host). One key to understanding memes is to view them as independent entities, not just as "ideas". Like viruses, memes can mutate, and like viruses, the memes that spread rapidly and persistently survive the best.

I believe that we are now fighting an extremely wily, dangerous and harmful meme: wily, because it has subverted the minds of its hosts so fully that it has some degree of intelligence; dangerous, because it is fighting for its life; and harmful, both to its hosts and to others. I'll call it RI, for radical Islam, but don't be confused into thinking that I'm talking about a set of countries, or individual people, or even a community of people. I'm talking about a different of creature: an more-or-less living entity that is encoded as set of ideas that propogates like a virus, and that subverts the minds and bodies of its hosts in order to spread and survive.

Let me flesh this idea out more. The first point is that memes compete---particularly memes associated with non-syncretistic religions, like Islam. This means that often memes can have a high level of penetration within an cohesive community, but a much lower level of penetration in the population at large, where they have to compete. (For example, for every guy from Malibu that joins up with the Taliban, there's also a Buddhist, a firewalker, a Wiccan, a Kabalist, an neo-animist, an atheist lawyer, and a physicist working on GUTs.) As societies open---due to economic globalization, cheaper communication and travel, etc---this threatens those memes that require an intellectually isolated community to survive. I believe that RI is such a meme---which is why it is fighting for its life. Western democracy is not (or at least, pre-9/11, was not) actively trying to stamp out RI---but the very existence of a set of strong competing religious memes constitutes a threat.

The second point is that a military confrontation is an extremely effective way to isolate two communities from each other's memes. The heros of the enemy---military or intellectual---become your enemies, and ideas of the enemy become treason. I believe that purpose of 9/11---from the point of view of the RI-meme---was to provoke the west into a military war against the Islamic world, thereby isolating itself from western memes.

Notice that from the point of view of the people in that world, this war might be economically disasterous, and from any military point of view, the war might be unwinnable. But to the RI-meme, the war is helpful, because it insulates it from competition.

So what are the implications of this?

One is that a lot of the current "war on terror" is misdirected. Better security at airports, screening containers shipped into the US, tracking black-market radioactive materials, even cleaning up and policing "failed states"---all of these make some sense as defensive measures. But offensive measures that take the fight to the enemy are not, ultimately, military measures. They need to be attacks on the RI meme, not merely on the society in which its human carriers live.

In fact, as the whole Iraq campaign has shown, conventional military attacks might actually strengthen the RI-meme. The usual military strategy is to attack the enemy's weapons and delivery vehicles, and then his economic infrastructure, making it impossible for him to rebuild. But for the RI-meme, there are no weapons, and the only "infrastructure" it needs is a population filled with hatred and dispair. In fact, economic and social chaos in may actually strengthen the RI-meme, just as weakening your body leaves it vulnerable to infectious disease.

The second implication is that we need to worry about a lot more than simply catching up with terrorists---even if we were 100% successful that would only eliminate part of the infection. We also need to think about prevention---about how to innoculate a population against the RI-meme. I'm not sure how to do this most effectively---for starters, I'd need to understand it a lot better. I'd guess the first thing to do is strengthen the memes most likely to displace it, which are probably more moderate versions of Islam.

Finally, if the RI-meme's purpose is to isolate itself from the west, we need to do what we can to defeat that purpose. We need to do whatever we can to cut through the membrane between "us" and "them". that started forming on 9/11. And we need to do it safely---without subjecting ourselves to additional danger from terrorist attacks, and without inviting PR fiascos that lead to more hatred against the west, and without unnecessary conflicts that lead to further isolation.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Moral clarity?

A long one this time, mostly written on a plane back from Alberta...

I find it interesting that Bush has recently begun again pushing "values" on the campaign trail - that the guy for whom the term "moral clarity" was coined is trying to take an advantage of this in the pools. Bush certainly comes across as a straight-talker on TV, which is part of his appeal, but morality is not the same as sincerity or even good intentions. Part of the red-blue split in the US might be due to different understandings of what morality really is.

Here's my view of all this (as a computer guy that knows basically nothing of ethics or religion). The "natural" way for people to behave is based on expedience. You could fill libraries with books on decision theory, but simply put, a person normally takes the actions that he thinks will benefit him the most in the future.

Morality is a fundamentally different way of deciding how to behave. Moral behavior involves taking actions based some fixed rules about "goodness" or "badness" of the actions. A moral choices might be very different from the expedient choice (but of course it isn't always), and are not based on what you expect to benefit yourself, but what you believe to be consistent with your rules of conduct. Rules of moral conduct are different in times and different cultures, but usually they're close to the Judeo-Christian "do unto others" stuff we learned in grade school.

If you think about it for a while, morality is kind of a strange idea, and most of the arguments in favor of it that I've heard seem more like wishful thinking than sound reasoning (is virtue its own reward, or its own punishment?) As a computer guy, I personally believe the value of moral behavior has something to do with globally optimal versus locally optimal behavior. The reward of morality is living in a community of moral people. Given that so many of the ways to benefit yourself end up hurting someone else, the world quickly turns into dog-eat-dog (or nation-eat-nation, depending on the scale of things) if we all act according to our own personal, local notions of expedience.

Bush's foreign policy at least appears to be driven wholely by expediency, not morality. The clearest example of expediency over morality is the whole torture thing. What was the legal justification for what would normally be completely unjustifiable, and what is obviously wrong? Expediency. Anything could be justified, in principle, if it would save Americans from another terrorist attack. Another example: in his TV speech last year announcing the war on Iraq, Bush discussed efforts to involve other nations, but emphasized that following UN procedure was in no way a constraint on what the US would do. This is from memory, so I may not have this exactly right, but I believe his words were "This is not about a process, this is about obtaining a result." In other words, the ends justify the means.

Aha, you say, but isn't it true that sometimes the ends do justify the means? If someone breaks into your house wielding a machete, aren't you justified if you pull a gun? Well, yes. As they say, every rule has its exception. But there are good reasons why one should be very suspicious of decisions to pursue actions like war or torture based on arguments of expediency. And unfortunately, Bush has given us some very clear case examples of reasons why ends-justifies-the-means is not a rule by which civilized, moral societies can function.

Reason 1: Justifications of an end tend to look very different, depending on which "end" of the justification you're on. For instance, consider this question: how many Iraqi civilian deaths is it worth to avoid a hundred American deaths in a 9/11-style attack? 100? 1000? 10? Now consider, how would an Iraqi answer that question, or a Japanese, or a European?

This is not an academic question by any means. We know how many American soldiers have died, but estimates of Iraqi civilian casualities vary widely, and run easily into the tens of thousands. Surveys of morgues suggested over 5000 violent deaths in Baghdad alone---many more than died in 9/11.

Reason 2: It's hard to see the end. Elimination of terrorism, safety from WMD, a stable democracy in the Middle East---all of these would be great. But instead, we didn't find WMD, so if there were any, they are still there, in a country in which al-Zarqawi roams apparently at will; violence is out of control in Iraq, and apparently on the rise in Saudi Arabia; and Iraq is certainly years from any sort of self-sustaining democracy, if indeed it ever gets there.

This should not really be a surprise. Republicans talk a lot about Democratic "pessimism", but the there's also a lot of overly optimistic thinking going on in the world, as anyone who owned stock in 1999 probably knows.

Reason 3: What goes around comes around. This is the main reason why career army officers were by and large not behind the prisoner abuse: they don't like the idea of the same happening to American soldiers in a future conflict.

Reason 4: You can get used to anything. Like, for example, torture. As it turns out, Seymour Hersh's original New Yorker piece is a pretty good moral fable. The US started after 9/11 with a few top-secret centers, outside the normal legal system (in Thailand and who knows where else) to wring information, by any means necessary, out of "high value" captives. The system was then expanded, by fits and starts and with some hand-wringing and backtracking, first to Gitmo and then (almost certainly) to Iraq, finally spinning out of control and into the public eye. Most of the subjects of those lovely pictures we all so much of this spring were carjackers and looters, not terrorists.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

W ketchup

From Yahoo this morning:

WASHINGTON, (AFP) - Americans allergic to the subtle Democratic flavor of Heinz ketchup can now plunge their "freedom fries" into a 100-percent guaranteed, patriotic alternative: "W Ketchup"

Come on, guys. What sort of America-hating Michael-Moore-like gay-marriage-supporting hippy freak would want to compare our fearless leader with a vegetable?

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Spam alchemy

A friend of mine claimed that he when he got a telemarketer on the phone he'd always try and sell them "a specially designed phone headset his company made, ideal for heavy phone users". But I never heard he actually sold one... here's someone that turned a 419 spam into $80, plus a new convert to the Holy Church of The Order of The Red Breast.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

why you should never believe the polls

The Washington Post recently ran a long, in-depth discussion about Bush-Kerry polls, including an call-in sessions with the pollsters where people could AIM in questions. Included was this exchange:

Minneapolis, Minn.: I never took stats. What does margin of error really mean?

Richard Morin & Claudia Deane: It's not too late to sign up! And statistians are viewed as hot, hot, hot by the opposite sex!

We have prepared a detailed explanation of sampling [...]

Well, so much for their credibility....

Pessimism and rage vs unintentional irony

The news today is about Dubya's latest ad, "Kerry's Coalition of the Wild-Eyed", which intersperses comments from Gore, Dean and others slamming Bush with shots of Hitler. And then ends with "Now is not the time for pessimism and rage ... ". Now, I'd have have thought it would impossible for Bush to both compare Democrats to Hitler and critize them for negative campaiging in the same 30second spot. I guess anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

Interestingly this is the same day that Cheney is in the news for telling Senator Leahy to f**k himself. From another source,

"I expressed myself rather forcefully, felt better after I had done it," Cheney told broadcast sources. Cheney said those who heard the putdown agreed with him. "I think that a lot of my colleagues felt that what I had said badly needed to be said, that it was long overdue."

Unfortunately, the direction the country's heading is not particularly funny: regardless of who wins or loses in November I don't see when or how we're going to get away from this take-to-prisoners sort of partisan warfare. We're all red or blue, and nobody's even a little bit purple. I don't know if it's helping Bush to continually bash Kerry, but at this point I think it's hurting Demos to keep pounding at Bush quite as bitterly as they often do. For one thing, political discussions now seem to quickly devolve into whether or not Bush is, in fact, the anti-Christ, which a relatively difficult preposition to conclusively establish, let alone find common ground on.

Admittedly, I sympathize with the rage, and even from time to time start wondering myself about the various conspiracy theories. Bush is easy to rage against - although he made a point of sounding moderate in the election, since then he's cozied up quite soundly with the Republican hard-core...and if you don't know what that's really like, I strongly recommend you look into it. For instance, read about the Texas GOP platform. But I think part of the polarity is that it's just so darn easy now to find news sources that you agree with. It used to be that if you wanted to follow sports you needed to look at the news, but now you can watch only the news you believe in. There's a recent survey which is very revealing...for instance, Republicans are twice as likely to believe "all or most news" from Fox than the NY Times. If nobody listens to the center - let alone opposing viewpoints - it's no wonder that the left and right are progressively more and more divergent, and progressively more and more at odds with each other.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Violent disagreement over which way to spin

The papers and blogs the last few days are full of disagreement about the 9/11 commission's report - basically arguing if the commission supports Bush or doesn't. If you get past the first paragraph in any story, it usually just noise about semantics, e.g., did al Qaeda and Iraq collaborate, or just communicate, and what constitutes a threat.

What I wonder is, why is there so much effort to tell us what to think about the report? It's only a few pages long, I'd hope most people would actually read it for themselves. And the part on Iraq is only a paragraph which can be summarized as: three known contacts around 1994; requests for help from bin Laden to Iraq which were not accepted; unconfirmed reports of contacts since then, and denial of "ties" from "two senior bin Laden associates". The paragraph ends: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the US".

But don't take my word for it - read the report, which is pretty interesting anyway, and make up your own mind.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Draft beer, not programmers

While I'm in the blogging mood...Kerry's been on the stump about the "backdoor draft", and rumours have been racing around about reviving the draft for a while. Here's what the guy with two sons worked out about this from poking around for a while, a few weeks ago.

It is a fact that legislation is pending in congress to reinstate the draft. The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by a man my sister once worked for, South Carolina's own Fritz Hollings. (Yes, she was a legal intern, or something, and no, it wasn't like that.) News reports at the time suggested that it was some sort of political strategem to make the president "sqirm" although, in light of recent events, that seems rather quaint.

Practically, short-term manpower issues are likely to be helped with a draft, due to long training times...that's why the inactive Army reserves are being hit, and why it's getting harder and harder for trained soldiers to actually leave. Long-term manpower issues? I don't want to think about it.

Apparently the biggest shortages currently are for computer programmers, and linguists. I'm starting to regret having Charlie learn Hebrew, but at least it wasn't Arabic.

another "how to make good news sound bad"

I've spent a bunch of time poking into various conservative blogs and bboards, trying to figure out why anyone still actively supports Bush. I'm sure liberals have made all sorts of mistakes too - maybe some of them really do hope the war in Iraq goes badly for the US! - but as more and more of the smoke clears, the more creepy Bush and his cohorts seem. To me, anyway. The souvenir Saddam handgun, I guess you can forgive - I mean, he's got to keep up with the Cheney's, and Dick's souvenir piece of 9/11 debris. The stories that Cheney has been greasing the wheels for Haliburton contracts are still rumours. And perhaps there's a sound, reasonable legal reason Bush needs to consult a lawyer before he testifies to that grand jury investigating that CIA operative's "outing", even though he's said in public that he knows nothing about it. Sure, legal analysis say that this probably means he's hiding something, but law is so complicated, you never can be sure. Personally, I kinda dislike the way the campaign is being conducted so far - after all, why isn't Kerry allowed to change his mind over 26 years? Bush certainly does - but I guess if I was a registered GOP member I'd consider it all fair play.

But these are all pretty personal reactions, after all - this is America, after all, we're all entitled to our opinions, and people have all sorts of opinions, so I wasn't to surprised to see a recent CBS poll titled "CBS Poll: Vets Favor Bush" bandied about the blogsphere. The title sounds like bad news, to me anyway, but buried deep inside is the tidbit that the current vote choice of all registered voters is Kerry 49%, Bush 41%.

Interestingly, according to the poll, even vets - who tend historically to go Republican, and many of whom are still very bitter about Kerry's anti-war comments - aren't thrilled with Bush's performance on specifics. Less than half approve of his performance handling Iraq, or foreign policy. And a much large percentage than the general public think that "higher level military" should be help responsible for the prison abuse scandal (vs "soldiers involved" - I wonder what the response would be if "civilian military leadership" was one of the options?)

What bothers me about the poll is that a plurality of Americans (and of vets) believe the US should "turn control over to Iraqis now", which sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. Any way you slice it, it's a fiasco - even if Saddam had WMD, we certainly didn't find any. So, even if you believe Bush's claims from last year, said now WMD are cached in under a turkey farm somwhere, waiting to be dug god-knows-when by god-knows-who...this is better? But regardless of whether how we got there, the idea of a 25M person power vacuum in the Middle East is so clearly a bad idea that we've clearly got to stick around, until the country has some sort of effective government. I surprised we haven't seen more analysis of the links between the surge in anti-US violence in Iraq and the surge in anti-Western violence next door, in Saudi Arabia. They certainly seems to be a correlation, and it's not difficult to imagine a causal link here.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

cameras banned in the military?

I found a more coherent story on this in Wired, of all places. According to this story, "the Defense Department said it hasn't banned the devices and doesn't plan to". However, there is a new directive signed by Wolfowitz in April which has a more plausible justification: "the directive tells all soldiers, contractors and visitors to Defense Department facilities that they can only carry wireless devices that conform to the military's security standards." The article also says that:

While Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld may not have signed a ban on new consumer digital-imaging technologies, he did express clear concern about the unforeseen impact of such technologies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 7.

"People are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon," Rumsfeld said.

Camera phones have been banned in many other places - school locker rooms for example - on privacy grounds, so the story's far from absurd. And it may yet turn out that the milspec restriction effectively does ban most camera phones. But for now this looks like it was a nascent urban legend.

Maybe those Ozzie reporters were confused by humorists, who were again ahead of the curve on this one.

ok, maybe it's not funny

That camera-phone story (banned in Army installations) seems to have been picked up by Yahoo! news - but generally placed in under "technology" rather than politics. So maybe it's true, in which case it's certainly less funny.

A Hole in Texas

No, not more's the title of Herman Wouk's latest book, which I just finished and loved. As a soft-money academic, I found it refreshingly's basically about getting grants funded, a rather unusual topic for a novel. Except with hearings on TV and beautiful congresswomen and Chinese spies and national honor at stake and stuff like that, to make it more interesting.

These days, people argue about everything...

Start looking at Google news and blogs, and you'll find bitter arguments about everything, even what are normally considered facts. And boring facts at that.

Here's a great example - you should really look at it, but the punch line is that that this blogger violently disagrees with Reuter's choice of adjectives in one of those financial-news bulletins that I always skip over (thinking "who reads this stuff? CPAs?"). Apparently, Reuter's isn't fully on board in convincing us that the US economy is in, great shape, really, and this brings them up to a "Clear and Present" danger, and I guess also reveals them as one of "forces that are trying to destroy civilization as we know it". Not that Reuter's doesn't spin the news occasionally, but really, isn't this overstating things just a bit?

Meanwhile my morning paper's op-ed column sends me to a 10-year graph on job growth to emphasize its point, that job growth the last few months is only average by the standards of the 90's. Which seemed misleading to me also - after all weren't the 90's just great, economically? But fiddling with the graphing options is pretty easy to do...make you're own call, but I'd say the numbers confirm my impression from talking to friends...that things are on their way back to normal, but that the health of the economy is nothing earthshakingly exciting - it just feels that way, in comparison to the last three years.

My main economic worry now has to due with uncertainty about Iraq, and oil prices---I'm not sure what economists have to say this time around, but ever since I was a kid (think '75, late 80's, last few years) high/uncertain prices and/or instability in the Middle East have always been a huge drag on the economy. The really bad news has only just hit, and it's never clear exactly how much all this matters to the increasingly service/science oriented economy of today, but the historical pattern is so clear to us 40-somethings it may have an effect simply due to psychology.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Doesn't anyone remember what happened last time?

Forget Iraq - what's really annoying is all those disgusting gays, wanting to take part in the ultimate perversion - getting married. I mean really. If you feel this way, take heart, you can join a new sovereign nation that absolutely won't allow that sort of stuff, according to this story:

Calling the approval of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts "the straw that broke the camel's back," a group of Christian activists is in the beginning stages of an effort to have one state secede from the United States to become its own sovereign nation.

Their target location is South Carolina, which civil war buffs will recognize as a rather prone to succession anyway, historically speaking.

Monday, May 24, 2004

more auto-satire....

So my "God is an iron" submission for today is this news story from "correspondents in London" via Apparently, the US is finally getting serious about prisoner abuse, and prevent further occurences of the horrors we've all seen in the press lately, no less a man than Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself has called for a ban, in all US military installations in Iraq, of ... and from the same source, a "total ban throughout the US military is in the works" ... a ban of (the secret of comedy - timing! but it's so hard to do in text) ... cell phones with cameras.

Now, true or false, that's funny.

So who do you believe?

Not too long ago, I was struck by an editorial: Jack Kelly's story Kerry's Free Pass in the May 9th Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which discussed a group of veterans "including 19 of the 23 officers who served in Kerry's swift boat squadron" which "endorses nobody at all for president", but feels that John Kerry is "unfit to be commander in chief".

Like many of us, I really know very little about Kerry, so I read the article quite closely. Kelly described at length certain "doubts" about whether Kerry's first Purple Heart was deserved, and goes on to remark: "It is remarkable that so many of Kerry's peers and superiors have such a low opinion of their former shipmate."

This was an opinion piece, not a news story, but I more or less respect the PG as a news source, and in spite of the author's clear bias the story seemed to have important information: that many vets who apparently knew Kerry well don't want him as president.
Unusually for me, I decided to research this organization, called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. I found a bboard on their web site, I posed a few questions, which I'm summarizing below:

1) If your group is nonpartisan, as you claim, why wait until May to make your case?

2) Kerry's web site is packed with military records - which specifically do you feel are missing, and what would it show if they were there?

3) You want Americans to "hear the truth about his service and about his charges about war crimes", but your letter and website give no details about what this "truth" is. What exactly makes Kerry "unfit"?

The claim your group makes is that his old comrades in arms by and large do not support him. I would definitely like to hear from those that knew Kerry and have something concrete to say about his service record and/or leadership skills. What was it exactly in your personal interactions with Kerry 40 years ago that makes you believe he is unfit to be president?

There were no answers to most of these questions, but one reply was this:

You both misconstrue the member class and mis-state their goal, probably intentionally, but I could be wrong.

While a few might qualify, this gathering of Swift Vets isn't limited, as you imply, to those having had direct contact with Kerry during his Vietnam/post-Vietnam activity. His direct "comrade-in-arms" number in the thousands (the Swifties), and his extended "comrade-in-arms" number in the MILLIONS (the Vietnam Veterans). This IS a gathering of those who are more than familiar with Kerry and what he was about in his disgraceful, politically opportunistic smear upon the honor of ALL Vietnam veterans, the Swifties in particular. That KNOWLEDGE was no secret to those of us who experienced it, and will NEVER be forgotten. Nor will it be diminished by disingenous, mitigating, self-serving apologetics from that same lying mouth.

A triumph for Google, the web, and concerned citizenry! Now that I know that "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" is no more composed of John Kerry's "former shipmates", than the New Jersey is populated by my former housemates, with only a few minutes of time invested. The disturbing thing is - why didn't the newspaper do this for me? You can check the articles I've cited to see I'm not exaggerating - Jack Kelley doesn't ever lie, exactly, but surely if he says that a man served on the same boat as John Kerry, I'm expected to infer he means "and at the same time"? If I was editing a technical paper I'd surely call the author on nonsense like that - is it fair for a paper to publish material this blatently and deliberately misleading?

BTW I did send in a letter to the editor, and no, it didn't get published...but to be fair, they published another rant of mine fairly recently.

Three weeks later (now that is) there's a nice section on the organization in the Disinfopedia, which looks like a wonderful resource for those who like to check their facts.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

and in the "God is an iron" category

Things that really shouldn't be considered funny:

1. Slashdot's May 10th post on "a reclusive millionaire [who] had formed a terrorist group" but who turned out to be character in Sega's Headhunter video. This would be funny if I was the one that was mixed up, but it's even more funny that this made the "item on the government's daily threat matrix". Except....

As someone that's spent more time than most thinking about the technical side of matching names/addresses and so on, I'm very concerned about the practicality (aside from privacy) issues involved. Basically, there is no way to track people by name without a substantial number of errors: either false positive (e.g., those poor saps that can't fly, because they're on the wrong list) or false negaive (e.g., the famous visas issues to Mohammed Atta). At this point, I suspect most of the errors are due to use of inappropriate technology and miscommunications, but errors will always be made---and the more watching is done, the more errors will be made. In other words, you might wake up one year to find out that not only are you in a total survaillance state, but you're in an imperfect one at that.

I heard from a colleage that the current watchlist has over 10 million entries. This seems to me to be way too many for effective counter-terrorism, by at least 4 orders of magnitude.

2. The Onion's wonderful satire, "Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over'" - I missed the original, but recently saw this annotated version. Does anyone recall if the date (Jan 2001) is correct? It's hard to believe that humorists could be this prescient - I guess no-one else was cynical enough.

3. A recent NYT story, which starts out:

Like many of its predecessors, the Bush White House has used the machinery of government to promote the re-election of the president by awarding federal grants to strategically important states. But in a twist this election season, many administration officials are taking credit for spreading largess through programs that President Bush tried to eliminate or to cut sharply...

There's material for a great satire on the political process here, except of course for the reality issue. Come to think of it, this is a great example of why recognizing good satire is difficult for so many people - if you saw this in the Onion, wouldn't you laugh?

I finally yield to temptation

I blame Natalie Glance for this. She and the rest of Intelliseek's ARC crowd have seriously lowered my productivity with Blogpulse. That and the news lately...much more interesting than working on my research.