Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Natural Disaster and Societal Turmoil

There is supposedly a Chinese tradition that floods and disasters are the test of an emperor. Even god kings aren't expected to prevent natural disasters, but they are expected to respond agressively and appropriately.

I not a big David Brooks fan, but he has this nice column in a related vein tomorrow.

Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities. When you look back over the meteorological turbulence in this nation's history, it's striking how often political turbulence followed.
He presents concise descriptions of some historical examples, and concludes with this:
Civic arrangements work or they fail. Leaders are found worthy or wanting. What's happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come.

Out of Slack

Our Presidential playboy was vacationing in Texas when the final 9/11 warning came in on the presidential briefing. He missed it of course, because "nobody could have imagined" the scenario, even if it was there in black and white.

There can't be any excuse for failing to pay attention to Hurricane Katrina. The disaster was predicted far in advance, and the approach of the Hurrican was seen many days out. Why weren't the obvious preparations made? Why were not evacuations carried out, troops and trucks sent to aid the population, shelters prepared and staffed? Criminal negligence! Criminal negligence! Criminal negligence!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Causal Sets

Fay Dowker has a nice descriptive introduction to the Causal Sets approach to Quantum Gravity:

gr-qc/0508109
No equations, but very lucid explanations of the ideas and accomplishments.
Every approach to quantum gravity in this broad conception must embody answers to two fundamental questions: “What is quantum mechanics?” and “What is the deep structure of spacetime?” This article will touch on the former question and focus on the latter and the answer to it provided by the approach known as causal set theory which marries the two concepts of discreteness (or atomicity) and causality.

The view that causality is a more fundamental organising principle, even than space and time, is an ancient tradition of thought...
She brings in a supporting quote from big Al:
“But you have correctly grasped the drawback that the continuum brings. If the molecular view of matter is the correct (appropriate) one, i.e., if a part of the universe is to be represented by a finite number of moving points, then the continuum of the present theory contains too great a manifold of possibilities. I also believe that this too great is responsible for the fact that our present means of description miscarry with the quantum theory. The problem seems to me how one can formulate statements about a discontinuum without calling upon a continuum (space-time) as an aid; the latter should be banned from the theory as a supplementary construction not justified by the essence of the problem, which corresponds to nothing “real”. But we still lack the mathematical structure unfortunately. How much have I already plagued myself in this way!”

A. Einstein in a letter to Walter D'allenbach,
The real punchline is that causal sets, unlike any of those more fashionable approaches to quantum gravity, seems to have an actual confirmed, or at least tentatively confirmed prediction:
In this regard, causal set theory already has the advantage of a long-standing prediction of the current order of magnitude of the cosmological constant, or “dark energy density”... that has apparently now been verified.
Yep. Kinematics, dynamics, and an actual prediction, made before the discovery, and, apparently, now confirmed by supernova and cosmic microwave background measurements.

A very nice article for anybody interested in the foundations of quantum mechanics, sum-over-histories, and quantum gravity.

Catastrophe

Right now, people in New Orleans and on the Gulf coast urgently need all kinds of help, but when the crisis is past, the nation needs to take a good hard look at how this was allowed to happen. Cuba, a poor and technologically primitive country took a huge hit from a Category 5 hurricane earlier this year, but loss of life was minimal. It now looks like hundreds or perhaps thousands have died in Mississipi and Louisiana, in the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world, despite the fact that almost exactly the disaster that occurred has been long predicted.

What could have been done? For a start, mandatory evacuations should have been mandatory, with the troops and trucks to get everybody out. Getting everybody out not only protects those who leave, but prevents looting, the threat that causes many to stay. The levees should all have been concrete, not dirt. Pumps should have had generators and been located well above Lake Ponchetrain. Well equipped and prepared shelters should have been prepositioned a safe distance from the coast.

Investigating our failures here should be a priority for Congress.

Monday, August 29, 2005

ID BS in NYT

No, I'm not talking about the bullshit articles on the "scientific controversy" over Intelligent Design published a week or so ago. Here the initials stand for Intelligent Design BitchSlapped in New York Times, (by Op-Ed contributor Daniel Dennett.) Dennett is one of many guys writing intelligently about Darwin (Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life ), and he elegantly exposes the ID scam in this essay.

Intelligent design is a hoax, he says, and it exploits common human fraillties just like every other scam.

The fundamental scientific idea of evolution by natural selection is not just mind-boggling; natural selection, by executing God's traditional task of designing and creating all creatures great and small, also seems to deny one of the best reasons we have for believing in God. So there is plenty of motivation for resisting the assurances of the biologists. ...Some of the methods used to exploit these urges are easy to analyze; others take a little more unpacking.

A creationist pamphlet sent to me some years ago had an amusing page in it, purporting to be part of a simple questionnaire:

Test Two

Do you know of any building that didn't have a builder? [YES] [NO]
...
The idea, of course, is to promote the "whoa, wait, how could all this design have happened by accident?" reaction.
It seems obvious, doesn't it, that there couldn't be any designs without designers, any such creations without a creator.

Well, yes - until you look at what contemporary biology has demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt: that natural selection - the process in which reproducing entities must compete for finite resources and thereby engage in a tournament of blind trial and error from which improvements automatically emerge - has the power to generate breathtakingly ingenious designs.
Dennett explains an important case, the evolution of the eye, in some detail, but his larger point is that ID doesn't really have a theory - there is no science in it.
The focus on intelligent design has, paradoxically, obscured something else: genuine scientific controversies about evolution that abound. In just about every field there are challenges to one established theory or another. The legitimate way to stir up such a storm is to come up with an alternative theory that makes a prediction that is crisply denied by the reigning theory - but that turns out to be true, or that explains something that has been baffling defenders of the status quo, or that unifies two distant theories at the cost of some element of the currently accepted view.
ID does nothing like this - if it could it would be science, and produce lots of peer reviewed articles.

So how does the scam work? How would you suck in, say, a couple of gullible NYT reporters?
Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.
The scam is perfect, since the con man isn't presenting any content. ID isn't a theory, it's a smokescreen.
Indeed, no intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection.
The peculiar thing is that even the proponents concede this point.
For now, though, the theory they are promoting is exactly what George Gilder, a long-time affiliate of the Discovery Institute, has said it is: "Intelligent design itself does not have any content."
Dennett does have an idea for teaching about Intelligent Design in the schools though.
Since there is no content, there is no "controversy" to teach about in biology class. But here is a good topic for a high school course on current events and politics: Is intelligent design a hoax? And if so, how was it perpetrated?

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The RRLC

Lubos Motl has a new post up on a proposed linear collder to follow the LHC. He talks about the late lamented SSC, its invention by the greatest Scientific Mind of our age, Ronald Reagan, the support it had from Bush & Bush, and its tragic demise at the hands of evil Democrats in the Senate.

Lubos hopes that private money might build a new linear collider, but what, I say, could be a fitter monument to the scientific genius of our dear leaders than a taxpayer (or bond buyer) financed Ronald Reagan and (George Bush)^2 Memorial Linear Collider. A suitable site could extend from the Bush Presidential Libraries in Texas to the Reagan Presidential Library in California, with the interaction region somewhere near John McCain's home in Arizona.

The whole thing would cost less than the International Space Station, and produce far better science, even if it never discovers the LSP.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Katrina

Katrina is starting to look like a very scary Hurricane, and the projected bullseye is very close to New Orleans.

Transverse Vibrations

Whereas I find Prof. Motl's Bloq interesting, well written, though often outrageous.

And whereas furthermore, I find writing comments to said blog often raises the Author's ire and subsequently, my blood pressure, resulting in an occassional tantrum.

I hereby resolve to avoid writing comments to said blog.

And attempt to confine my wrath to politicians, other scoundrels, and the more worthless elements of our press.

Let's hope this resolution lasts longer than my last.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Deconstructing Iraq

I wasn't that optimistic about the Iraqi Constitution yesterday, and delaying the vote for a third time today was not exactly a good omen. But now it might be time for despair. David Brooks has written this column explaining just what a jim dandy this constitution is. What David Brooks really likes is that it breaks up Iraq into three countries, thus expressing the citizens most fundamental aspirations.

In the last election each group expressed its authentic identity, the Kurds by voting for autonomy-minded leaders, the Shiites for clerical parties and the Sunnis by not voting.

This constitution gives each group what it wants. It will create a very loose federation in which only things like fiscal and foreign policy are controlled in the center (even tax policy is decentralized). Oil revenues are supposed to be distributed on a per capita basis, and no group will feel inordinately oppressed by the others.
Yeah right. One nation, with three or five or ten armies.

If you liked the above, you've got to love the following bit of supremely cynical bullshit:
The U.S. has orchestrated a document that is organically Iraqi.

It's their country, after all.

Intel D Inside

It looks like science has lost the battle of Intelligent Design. Bush, McCain, and Frist all support teaching it, as do all but 12% of Americans. Darwin is more unpopular than compulsory gay marriage or unilateral surrender to Osama bin Laden. More Americans supported the Libertarian party candidate in the last presidential election than support banning ID from the classroom.

I recently attended a meeting on atmospheric microscale models where, when one scientist noted that his models had developed through evolution, another sniffed that his, by contrast, had arisen through Intelligent Design.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Bad Vibrations

I would like to thank Lubos Motl for yet another lesson in the futility of attempting to hold a civil discussion with a fanatic - even if the fanatic happens to be witty, clever, and have a genius level IQ.

Mainly to remind myself, here are some signs that you may be dealing with a fanatic.

(1) Intellectual rigidity. Inability to civily discuss possible points of disagreement.

(2) Hypersensitivity. Treating every challenge as a personal and deadly affront.

(3) Absurd Conflations: "arguing against string theory is like arguing against the evolution" attributed to some string theorist who is not LM but partially endorsed by LM.

(4) Irrationality:

CIP - I have yet to have any string theorist tell me of any confirmed prediction of string theory

LM -

your demand is logically inconsistent. If you ask string theory to have "confirmed predictions", then the word "confirmed" means that the validity of the prediction is already known, and therefore the prediction is a known fact that string theory does not contradict.
It's unbelevable to me that a Physics prof at Harvard could fail to grasp the meaning of "confirmed prediction" - something first predicted and subsequently observed.

(5) Argument by Insult. - As an occasionally confrontational blogger/commenter, I expect a few insults, but they get tedious when they don't rise above the fourth grade level:
No one is interested in morons who keep on repeating stupid, boring, and obnoxious comments about the experimental unavailability of string theory - pretending that it is a problem of string theory. They're dumb, useless idiots.

... complete idiot,

... even more manifest idiots.

...

(6) Violent fantasies.
...should drown in their own blood...
Said about loop quantum gravity theorists.

(7) Comically accusing others of one's own bad behavior:
If someone prefers to insult scientists who are trying to do their best instead of helping them...

(8) Delusions of grandeur and fantasies of humiliation:
When [String Theory's] unambiguous proofs are found, it will be almost the end of the story. We will be all heroes, the critics of string theory will have to splash themselves in the toilet...

(9) Defending oneself with absurdly obvious falsehoods:
No one is writing serious non-stringy papers trying to answer the actual questions in physics (of quantum gravity etc.)...

(10) Making shit up:
Gravity is a confirmed prediction of string theory...
Buy youself a dictionary and look up the word predict. String Theory, or at any rate, brane theory may predict deviations from Newtonian behavior at short distances, but these are yet to be observed. On the other hand, maybe it doesn't predict such behavior, or at any rate it doesn't predict at what distance such behavior should be observed.

I sort of like string theory, based on my extremely limited knowledge (Greene plus Zwiebach thru Ch 12), but it tends to creep me out how a few of its practitioners take a religious point of view toward it - and preach damnation for the heretics - or at least a bath in the toilet.

Did I mention that I get touchy after the seventh time somebody calls me an idiot or moron?

Fanatics are not the only ones who like to get in the last word, though.
If you have nothing to offer, then I encourage you to shut up because your comments are completely counter-productive and idiotic.
All the Best Lubos - don't forget to take your meds, and just a suggestion: grow up sometime.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

$5000 Op-Ad

I'm not sure how much the New York Times usually charges for advertisements on its Op-Ed page, or even if it usually accepts them, but it sure looks like Matthew Simmons paid $5000 to advertise his new book in this column today. John Tierney's column today is about a bet he made with Simmons on the future price of oil, not coincidentally the subject of Simmons's book.

There is a very strange oddity in the bet: Tierney offered to bet him that the price of oil would not go up more than average worker's salaries between now and 2010, but Simmons insisted on a much riskier bet that the price of oil would exceed $200/barrel in 2005 dollars. Simmons is the president of an investment bank, so it's pretty plausible that he's a rational economic actor. Why would a rational actor seek out an obviously less favorable bet? My guess: publicity for his book, and publicity for the idea he's selling - that a huge rise in oil prices in likely and soon.

I think oil is going up myself, but $200, averaged over a whole year (the terms of the bet) seems crazy. Some smart guys, e.g. Daniel Yergin think that lots of new capacity is coming online and that a glut by 2010 is possible. More importantly, $200 oil seems cetain to trigger a massive recession, or depression, which would collapse oil demand.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

New Books?

Apparently John Schwarz and the Becker sisters are writing a new Superstring textbook. Anybody hear any buzz about it? Hope they don't take as long as Polchinski did!

Also in the "missing but predicted" category: Blandford and Thorne on applications of classical physics, Thomas Thiemann on quantum gravity, and di Francesco et. al. on Superconformal Field Theory. I would be interested in sightings or rumors

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Bush Agonistes?

Newsweek can generally be counted on to produce a Howard Fineman puff piece on Bush every year or so, but the August 22 story by Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas is something a bit different. They tell of meetings of grieving families with the President that paint a more complex picture than Cindy Sheehan's. Their Bush has learned the dead soldiers names and how to empathize, often crying with the families. The quote:

I will never feel the same level of pain and loss that you do. I didn't lose anyone close to me, a member of my family or someone I love. But I want you to know that I didn't go into this lightly. This was a decision I struggle with every day.
Sounds good, sounds human - maybe too good, at least to those of us who believe that he did go into the war lightly and recklessly, and that he has, through folly or callous indifference, catastrophically mismanaged it.

I think I would prefer to think that he does struggle with the consequences of his actions. At least that would seem to imply that he isn't utterly monstrous. Or is this story just another piece of the vast and intricate web of misdirections, obfuscations and deceits secreted by Rove's spinnerets.

La Migra: A Comedy

The Border Patrol is one of our longest running and least funny jokes. A recent survey showed that about 40% of Mexicans would prefer to come to the US. No doubt similar statistics hold for enough countries to run our population up to a billion or so if we just opened the gates. Most Americans find this worrisome enough that Congress and the Executive find it necessaary to pretend to try to prevent illegal immigration. In order to do that they deploy an completely inadequate number of border patrol officers, with insufficient equipment, to patrol a long border.

This doesn't work, of course, and millions cross illegally into the US. It doesn't work, because it isn't intended to work, it's just pretend. The joke is on the hundreds who die trying to cross every year, the hundreds of thousands exploited by coyotes (the smugglers), the border patrol officers doing a thankless and hopeless job, and of course on the American people, who pay for it.

The real joke is that there is a straightforward way to drastically decrease illegal immigration, but Congress and the President refuse to consider it. It has two parts: A difficult to forge Social Security/ID card and stiff fines for those who hire illegal aliens. The government knows, or can easily find out, who hires illegal aliens. Almost all illegals are here to work, and if they can't get jobs they won't come. If employers could readily identify legal work applicants and faced stiff fines and payment of repatriation costs, they would stop hiring illegals.

Absurd policies are usually not totally accidental - they survive and thrive because someone benefits from them. The principal beneficiaries here are employers who get ready access to a vast pool of employees who work cheap, don't join unions, and dare not complain. They have managed to con a lot of immigrant rights supporters into supporting their program, but I can't understand why. Business wants to keep foreign labor cheap, abundant, and illegal. This hurts American workers by denying them jobs and reasonable wages, but it also hurts immigrant workers, because their illegal status makes it impossible to organize to get better pay and benefits.

If we had a system that effectively prevented illegal immigrants from working here, the border patrol could concentrate on stopping smugglers and terrorist infiltrators.

Adopting such a system would require a transition period, but that kind of detail would be simple once a real plan was adopted.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Stupid Design

I see from Josh Marshall that Senator Frist has come out in favor of teaching "Intelligent Design" along with Darwinism. I want equal time for the "Stupid Design" theory. Only a truly stupid or malicious designer could have come up with the human appendix, humanity's incredibly difficult childbirth, sickle cell anemia, inside out retinas, the fragile human spinal column, and numerous other bad designs. Kids can't really appreciate the world without SD as I shall call it. I'm thinking about getting one of those little pay pal thingies so that I can accept contributions for funding the SD institute. Maybe I should write to the Kansas School Board.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Steal that Vote!

Paul Krugman on Republican vote stealing, now and in the future. It's actually not as inflamatory as my title hints, and suggests that the temptation in 2006 and 2008 will be for Republicans to do much more of what they did in Florida (2000) and Ohio (2004) - without control of the whole government, their whole house of scandals and criminal enterprises could come tumbling down.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Some of the planets seem to be lining up to indicate a possible American withdrawal from Iraq. Via Kevin Drum and Reuters Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, the conservative but outspoken Vietnam vet weighs in:

"We are seen as occupiers, we are targets. We have got to get out. I don't think we can sustain our current policy, nor do I think we should," he said at one stop.
And also:
The expectations that the president and his administration presented to the American people 2 1/2 years ago is not what the reality is today.
Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, in this press release.
U.S. Senator Russ Feingold today, at a local Listening Session in Marquette, Wisconsin, proposed a target timeframe for the completion of the military mission in Iraq and suggested December 31, 2006 as the target date for the completion of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Also in his press release is
The former chief of Australia's armed forces, General Peter Cosgrove, recently argued that the foreign troop presence was fueling terrorist activity in Iraq, and called for foreign troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2006.
One more data point, to define this up to quadratic terms comes from (I involuntarily raise crossed pencils as I type the name) Chris Matthews. I followed Kevin's link to Atrios, and picked up this quote

MATTHEWS: Let me go, Paul, before you start. What I keep doing here is asking people on and off camera who come on this program, high-ranking officers, enlisted, former officers. I get sometimes, not all the time, two different versions, the version they give me on the air and the version they give me the minute when we‘re off the air.

The version they give me when we‘re on the air is gung-ho, we‘re doing the right thing, everything is moving along. The version they give me off the air is, Rumsfeld is crazy. There aren‘t enough troops over there. We‘re not taking this seriously enough, or, we shouldn‘t be there, sometimes.

Heart New York

Health Mystery in New York: Heart Disease is the NYT Headline today.

Death rates from heart disease in New York City and its suburbs are among the highest recorded in the country, and no one quite knows why.
My theory: NY taxi drivers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Will Recreate

I'm developing a real soft spot for Maureen Dowd. I always knew she was a good writer, but she's just so darn much more likeable when bashing a Bush. She's in good form in this Wednesday NYT OpEd column. The Bush family takes it's recreation seriously, and they really hate it when annoying reporters try to interrupt the recreation to talk about the wars they have started. W's proclivity for months long vacation was acquired honestly - after the old man started his Iraq war he took off for a well deserved vacation.

"I just don't like taking questions on serious matters on my vacation," the usually good-natured Bush senior barked at reporters on the golf course. "So I hope you'll understand if I, when I'm recreating, will recreate." His hot-tempered oldest son, who was golfing with his father that day, was even more irritated. "Hey! Hey!" W. snapped at reporters asking questions on the first tee. "Can't you wait until we finish hitting, at least?"

Junior always had his priorities straight.
And so it goes in Texas. GW won't let the collapse of his wars plans interfere with the important stuff. So what if a few more Americans and a few hundred more Iraqis get blown up every week:
...as W. reads a book about the history of salt and looks forward to his biking date with Lance Armstrong on Saturday.
No doubt Lance will be briefed on the first rule of riding with our leader - nobody catches up with, or passes, the President.

His father didn't invade Bagdad, he said, because he feared
...that America would get bogged down as "an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land," facing a possibly "barren" outcome.
Stupid kids always insist seeing what really happens when you touch your tongue to a frozen door knob.

Now watch this drive!

Gaza

It's hard not feel sympathy for people forced from their long-time homes, but the combination of wall-to-wall coverage and settler histrionics is testing mine. After all, these displaced persons are being compensated and being treated with kid gloves. What right do they have to make life miserable for the soldiers there to enforce the law? They certainly wouldn't get that kind of publicity or sympathy if they were being moved to make room for a mall or a freeway.

And there is the fact the land they were on was taken from the rightful owners in the first place, from Palestinians who got no coverage, no compensation, and no sympathy when they were summarily expelled. We don't hear much about the Palestinians removed to make room for walls, forts, and settlements nowdays either.

I guess what really annoys me is the subtext of religious fanaticism. It's that fundamentalist religious doctrine of greater Israel that animates the resisters and is one of the biggest impediments to peace.

You all right, Jack?

The Abramoff scandal keeps spreading, sending its tentacles into seemingly every aspect of the right wing establishment and Republican party. Much of the right wing and Bush/Delay government seems to have been part of a network of shakedown rackets. Josh Marshall has the up-to-date details.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Twit's Twaddle?

Christopher Hitchens, well known war propagandist and right wing hack, slimes his way on to the pages of Slate with this eccentrically titled attack: Cindy Sheehan's Sinister Piffle. Three things seem to be bothering him, starting with Maureen Dowd's:

The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute.
No doubt that Mo was exaggerating slightly, but if interpreted as "moral authority to ask for a justification of the war." it seems pretty clear cut to me. Especially since neither GW nor any of his minions has ever come up with one that wasn't subsequently proven false.

Hitchens is perhaps being artfully obtuse when he finds this hard to reconcile with Sheehan's (perhaps overwrought) statement:
Am I emotional? Yes, my first born was murdered. Am I angry? Yes, he was killed for lies and for a PNAC Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel. Am I stupid? No, I know full well that my son, my family, this nation and this world were betrayed by George Bush who was influenced by the neo-con PNAC agendas after 9/11. We were told that we were attacked on 9/11 because the terrorists hate our freedoms and democracy … not for the real reason, because the Arab Muslims who attacked us hate our middle-eastern foreign policy.
Sheehan later apologized for the Israel remarks, and I think she made a mistake by guessing at Bush's motives and connections to PNAC and NeoCons - she should have just concentrated on the known facts: Bush's explanations for the war: nuclear threats, terrorist connections, building democracy were either willfully false (one and two) or hopelessly ineptly pursued (three). But whatever - Dowd clearly wasn't implying that "moral authority" turned Sheehan into an infallible oracle or even an astute critic of the war, but Sheehan does have the moral authority to demand why - and expect something better than lies and nonsense.

Hitchens is (or pretends to be) too dumb to make this distinction, but then proclaims that he has a
"moral" right to say that she is spouting sinister piffle
Well, it is a free country, so I suppose he's technically correct. He doesn't have any "moral authority" though, because partisan hacks and other slime merchants are utterly lacking in the requisite of moral authority - a just cause.

And what kind of phrase is "sinister piffle" anyway - some new way of proclaiming "I have no penis" or what?

The rest of the article is tediously forgettable but, like Drudge, O'Reilly and other bottom feeders he is perplexed at Sheehan's change of attitude from the time of her interview with the President. Some kinds of stupidity are best ignored.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Our Best Mercenaries

Dan Bergner has a New York Times Magazine story called The Other Army this Sunday. It's about the twenty-five thousand or so Private Security Company employees performing armed security duties now in Iraq, and I highly recommend it. They are almost unregulated, and some have a habit of shooting first and asking questions later.

Bergner doesn't mention it, but the use of mercenaries is specifically prohibited by article 47 of the Geneva Convention, which may be one reason the mercenary companies prefer the term "private security company."

Their use in Iraq is another consequence of Rumsfeld and Bush's decision to try to occupy Iraq with way too few Soldiers.

History suggests that mercenary armies tend to really become a nuisance if and when peace breaks out.

Reality, Biting

Kevin Drum find evidence that the Bush administration is being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the reality based community, here.

Game Over?

Frank Rich, writing in tommorow's New York Times thinks it's already game over in Iraq.

LIKE the Japanese soldier marooned on an island for years after V-J Day, President Bush may be the last person in the country to learn that for Americans, if not Iraqis, the war in Iraq is over.
As if.

His point seems to be that support for the war is collapsing, but like Mr. Cheney's "last throes" of the insurrgency, this war can go on a lot longer. There is a lot of wishful thinking in going from the unpopularity of the war to ending it.
A Bush loyalist, Senator George Allen of Virginia, instructed the president to meet with Cindy Sheehan, the mother camping out in Crawford, as "a matter of courtesy and decency." Or, to translate his Washingtonese, as a matter of politics. Only someone as adrift from reality as Mr. Bush would need to be told that a vacationing president can't win a standoff with a grief-stricken parent commandeering TV cameras and the blogosphere 24/7.
Rich sees withdrawal coming.
The endgame for American involvement in Iraq will be of a piece with the rest of this sorry history. ... Officially this calendar is tied to the next round of Iraqi elections, but it's quite another election this administration has in mind. The priority now is less to save Jessica Lynch (or Iraqi democracy) than to save Rick Santorum and every other endangered Republican facing voters in November 2006.
In the meanwhile, Americans and Iraqis will continue to be killed and wounded, and extrication will be neither easy nor painless.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Bleak View

Dexter Filkins has a bleak assessment of the state of Iraq, three years into the occupation, here in Saturday's New York Times. While the constitutional convention debates large issues and small:

Out on the streets, meanwhile, a new bit of Arabic slang has slipped into the chatter of ordinary Iraqis: "allas," a word that denotes an Iraqi who leads a group of killers to their victim, usually for a price. The allas typically points out the Shiites living in predominantly Sunni neighborhoods for the gunmen who are hunting them. He usually wears a mask.
Iraq seems to have already shattered into a maze of feudal microstates.
But in this third summer of war, the American project in Iraq has never seemed so wilted and sapped of life. It's not just the guerrillas, who are churning away at their relentless pace, attacking American forces about 65 times a day. It is most everything else, too.

Baghdad seems a city transported from the Middle Ages: a scattering of high-walled fortresses, each protected by a group of armed men. The area between the forts is a lawless no man's land, menaced by bandits and brigands. With the daytime temperatures here hovering at around 115 degrees, the electricity in much of the city flows for only about four hours a day.
The latest version of the official plan for success is that the Iraqi police and army will eventually be able to keep order. Maybe so, but what kind of order?

Filkin's story has vignettes personal and public that shed some grim light. A public one:
One night last month, according to the locals, the Iraqi police and army surrounded the Sunni neighborhood of Sababkar in north Baghdad, and pulled 11 young men from their beds.

Their bodies were found the next day with bullet holes in their temples. The cheeks of some of the men had been punctured by electric drills. One man had been burned by acid. The police denied that they had been involved.
The whole article is a gripping read, and there is little here to suggest hope - but not quite nothing. The story of a Sunni dentist who continues to seek a constitution of national reconciliation despite the relatives killed by Shia and Americans, 70 raids on his home by American soldiers, and assasination threats by all sides is an example of the ability of the human spirit to flower in the most unlikely places.

I'm afraid though, that his sacrifice, and that of the thousands of dead and wounded Americans, is very likely to be in vain. George Bush, an man who never apologizes and never explains, has a lot to answer for.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

ID's big Lie

Kevin Drum and the stories he links to in this post give us some insight into why it's so hard to debate Intelligent Design proponents. The main problem is that scientists are trained in the search for truth, but IDer's are trying to promote a big lie. ID is a big lie because even its proponents don't believe in it as science. The so-called Discovery Institute effectively admits as much in its internal "wedge" document. Their aim is to strengthen religious belief by using gimmicks like ID to sow doubt and confusion among the gullible.

The Bible says "you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." The Discovery Institute's program is more along the lines of "we shall feed you some lies, and the lies will make you...our slaves."

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Say it ain't so KD!

Kevin Drum, usually the most acute of political bloggers, set my teeth on edge with this post.

Why is it that blue states are so much richer and more culturally vibrant than red states?
His answer, more or less, is that it's because blue states are inhabited by diversity loving liberals while people who live in, say, Kansas, are evolution hating hicks. This drew a lot of comments from liberals patting themselves on the back for living in States that voted for the losing side in recent elections, but I hated it. There is a scintilla of truth in this but it's hidden in a mountain of folly.

First, it reeks of the smug, self-congratulatory distain of the urbane elite for the rest of America. Liberals are never going to be anything but a chattering nuisance until they stop sneering and talk to America.

It's also nonsense. Los Angeles and San Francisco are in California instead of Kansas for lots of reasons, almost all purely geographic. Stanford, Caltech, and Berkeley aren't where they are because their founders spotted the ideal liberal diverse community, but they did play major roles in creating those communities.

Orange County, Kevin's back yard, was famously conservative not so long ago. The economic vibrancy we see there now didn't come for the liberal diversity, but it did transform the place.

If Kansas had a deep water Pacific port and a city of millions, it might become a whole lot more liberal and diverse too - but just becoming liberal won't give it either.

Not to Complain

But blankety-blank blogger just trashed my no doubt most brilliant and eloquent post ever - and I'll never find the recipe again.

What says the Brush?

Maureen Dowd has this Op Ed on Bush vs Cindy Sheehan, the "angry mother of a dead American soldier," camped outside Bush's ranch in protest. Dowd nicely captures Bush's isolation, moral obtuseness, and cowardice in refusing to meet Sheehan.

It's amazing that the White House does not have the elementary shrewdness to have Mr. Bush simply walk down the driveway and hear the woman out, or invite her in for a cup of tea. But W., who has spent nearly 20 percent of his presidency at his ranch, is burrowed into his five-week vacation and two-hour daily workouts. He may be in great shape, but Iraq sure isn't.

It's hard to think of another president who lived in such meta-insulation. His rigidly controlled environment allows no chance encounters with anyone who disagrees. He never has to defend himself to anyone, and that is cognitively injurious. He's a populist who never meets people - an ordinary guy who clears brush, and brush is the only thing he talks to. Mr. Bush hails Texas as a place where he can return to his roots. But is he mixing it up there with anyone besides Vulcans, Pioneers and Rangers?
He sent his national security advisor out to talk with her and also has Drudge and the rest of the slime machine out to try to discredit her. Bush has tried to dress his war up by claiming moral and humane purpose:
But his humanitarianism will remain inhumane as long as he fails to understand that the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Why didn't Pentagon tell us about Atta?

Phillib Shenon and Douglas Jehl have this story about what the Pentagon knew a year before 9/11.

Members of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terror attacks called on Congress to determine whether the Pentagon withheld intelligence information showing that a secret American military unit had identified Mohammed Atta and three other hijackers as potential threats more than a year before the attacks.

Time to Wake Up?

E J Dionne has this analysis of Bush's current malaise in today's Post.

Americans, says Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, don't want to "relitigate" the war, but "feel he got into this without a real plan for success." Garin adds: "They're very frustrated that the president has gotten us into a situation where there are no good choices."
Yes, though many of us are a lot angrier about all the bad choices already made.
Two other factors are hurting Bush. In misreading his reelection as a "mandate" for his proposals to create private Social Security accounts, the president set off on a mission that few voters felt they had assigned him. And months of gloomy talk about an impending Social Security "crisis" reinforced doubts about the state of an economy that Bush has only recently begun to talk up.
I continue to be amazed at American's tolerance for his systematic mendacity though.
Underestimating Bush is always a mistake. In the past, the president has come roaring out of his Texas vacation pursuing strategies for recovery that usually included sharp attacks against his opponents. But attacks may not be enough anymore. Bush's arguments on Iraq are faltering, his Social Security ideas have backfired and his party's intense moral conservatism is becoming a liability. This time, the discontent may not be seasonal.
Time for reality to bite?

Monday, August 08, 2005

Why I Hate the Media

Jack Shafer has a bone to pick with the reading public, or, more likely, the mainly non-reading public.

Over the last two decades, the Pew people have plotted a steady decline in the credibility of newspapers among its survey respondents. In 1985, 84 percent said they could believe most of what they read in their daily newspaper, but by 2004 that number was down to 54 percent.

These findings are enough to sicken the heart of any journalist—until he reads the rest of the survey. Over nearly the same interval, survey respondents gave consistently favorable marks to their own daily newspaper! In 1984, 88 percent of those familiar enough with a daily newspaper to give it a rating gave it a favorable grade. In 2005, 80 percent still did.
Jack claims that the press is actually better than ever. I'm going to guess that a lot of the press haters don't read the press they hate.

I would divide the press haters into two classes, and in order to avoid emotionally loaded terms just refer to them respectively by initials: 'i' (for the 'intelligensia') on the one hand and 's' (for the 'stupidigensia') on the other. Members of the 's' don't read news, they listen to Rush and Fox News. They hate the press because Rush, inSeanity, and Bill tell them to. Members of the 'i' (my readers, and, I hope, your humble correspondent) hate the media because it's so ****ing stupid. My reasons:

Trying for ten would be tedious, so you need to settle for 7. (Seven is the most powerful magical number - TMR)

7) Morons who don't prepare well enough for interviews to catch obvious falsehoods

6) Tim Russert

5) Other Sunday Talk show Hosts

4) Network News

3) The WaPo Editorial Board

2) The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page

1) Fox News

Of course there are some guys I like - a half a dozen or so reporters each on the NYT and WaPo, and a few great reporters scattered among other publications, Paul Krugman on the NYT OpEd, and of course the great Seymour Hersh.

Juan Cole

From: Juan Cole.

"They keep talking about drafting a Constitution for Iraq. Why don't we just give them ours? It was written by a lot of really smart guys, it's worked for over 200 years and we're not using it anymore."

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Pyramid Scheme

Brad Delong has this link up to Maciej Ceglowski's trenchant analysis of the ongoing disasters that constitute the space shuttle and international space station programs. Among other things, it gave me some insight into how ancient Egypt could have wound up spending a major fraction of its GDP piling up rocks in the middle of the desert.

How did the space shuttle get to be such an engineering disaster?

Taken on its own merits, the Shuttle gives the impression of a vehicle designed to be launched repeatedly to near-Earth orbit, tended by five to seven passengers with little concern for their personal safety, and requiring extravagant care and preparation before each flight, with an almost fetishistic emphasis on reuse. Clearly this primitive space plane must have been a sacred artifact, used in religious rituals to deliver sacrifice to a sky god.

As tempting as it is to picture a blood-spattered Canadarm flinging goat carcasses into the void, we know that the Shuttle is the fruit of what was supposed to be a rational decision making process...
Ceglowski has a nice account of the bizaare features of the shuttle and of the political and bureaucratic constraints that produced this monstrosity.
Most of the really wrong design decisions in the Shuttle system - the side-mounted orbiter, solid rocket boosters, lack of air-breathing engines, no escape system, fragile heat protection - were the direct fallout of this design phase, when tight budgets and onerous Air Force requirements forced engineers to improvise solutions to problems that had as much to do to do with the mechanics of Congressional funding as the mechanics of flight. In a pattern that would recur repeatedly in the years to come, NASA managers decided that they were better off making spending cuts on initial design even if they resulted in much higher operating costs over the lifetime of the program.
Big government programs have ways of perpetuating themselves even when the original rationale fades or their failures become evident.
Having failed at its stated goal, the Shuttle program proved adept at finding changing rationales for its existence. It was, after all, an awfully large spacecraft, and it was a bird in the hand, giving it an enormous advantage over any suggested replacement.
For a while, the shuttle program limped along doing some mediocre science at collosal expense (e.g., studying the effects of microgravity on cockroach development) but eventually it found the perfect co-dependent in the international space station.
Launched in an oblique, low orbit that guarantees its permanent uselessness, it serves as yin to the shuttle's yang, justifying an endless stream of future Shuttle missions through the simple stratagem of being too expensive to abandon.
Sometimes the parody makes more sense than the reality. So it is with Ceglowski's ironical suggestion:
...we could accomplish our current manned space flight objectives more easily by not launching any astronauts into space at all - leaving the Shuttle and ISS on the ground would result in massive savings without the slighest impact on basic science, while also increasing mission safety by many orders of magnitude.
A couple more money quotes in an article that needs to be read entire.
The Apollo program showed how successful the agency could be when given a clear technical objective and the budget required to meet it.

... The people who work at and run NASA are not cynical, but the charade of manned space flight is turning NASA into a cynical organization.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Presidential Cover Up

Josh Marshall has this link to a story about who Judy went down for. Her problem, says Murray Waas in this article was a conversation with Scooter Libby. She's doing time because Scooter won't give her a personal waiver on her promise of confidentiality, says Waas.

And the president of the United States -- at whose pleasure Libby serves and who has vowed to do everything possible to get to the truth of the matter -- does not appear to be likely to direct Libby to grant such a waiver any time soon.
Pretty clearly, the President is not cooperating with the investigation, and hence, if Waas is correct, is an enabler of the cover-up.

There are a lot of ways this could play out - a successful coverup, indictment of key Presidential aides and possibly Novak, or even indictment plus unindicted co-conspirators. Be interesting to see how the Republican Congress would handle the last possiblity. Or, come to think of it - no, it wouldn't.

Heart Strings

There is a famous Sidney Harris cartoon where a character has covered a blackboard with equations, in the midst of which he has written "and then a miracle happens" while a second character says "I think you need to be more explicit here in step two." It's a very funny cartoon, but the annoying pedant in me hates it when he encounters the equivalent in a textbook. One of my infamous examples occurs where a famous meteorologist was trying to derive a thermodynamic equation in his book on Dynamic Meteorology but the sign of a key factor turned out wrong. This happened because he didn't keep track of which state variables were held constant, but he apparently didn't realize it, so he invented some total BS reason to arbitrarily change the sign.

All this is prolog to declaring that my infatuation with Barton Zwiebach's A First Course in String Theory has hit a major snag. I really loved the first 11.5 chapters of this book. It's full of interesting and exciting stuff, exquisitely presented pedagogically, all carefully worked out so that a senior physics major (and even a slightly pre-senile PhD who has forgotten most of what little he once knew) can understand it.

Until, that is, we get to the calculation of the central extension of the Virasaro Algebra, which appears to be a major punch line of the book (extra dimensions, for example, seem to come from that). Around page 224 he starts getting a little sketchy about the algebra, and between equations 12.136 and 12.137 he rather arbitrarily discards two terms and then even more arbitrarily adds in two more (for example, changing
AD[B,C] to [A,D][B,C] where [a,b] is the commutator of a and b). This sent me into a deep funk until I managed to produce some algebra that convinced me that the discarded terms were equal to those introduced. So why didn't he say so?

Of course I now realize that anybody who actually understands this post will probably know enough to see how silly my concerns are. The hazards of posting after my regular bedtime!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Subverting Science

Paul Krugman has this great column in Friday's NYT looking at how the right wing got business and others to fund organized efforts to undermine science.

...Irving Kristol, the neoconservative former editor of The Public Interest...is the father of the political strategy that lies behind the intelligent design movement - a strategy that has been used with great success by the economic right and has now been adopted by the religious right.

Back in 1978 Mr. Kristol urged corporations to make "philanthropic contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate preservation of a strong private sector." That was delicately worded, but the clear implication was that corporations that didn't like the results of academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say something more to their liking.
The principle of operation is simple:
Corporations followed his lead, pouring a steady stream of money into think tanks that created a sort of parallel intellectual universe, a world of "scholars" whose careers are based on toeing an ideological line, rather than on doing research that stands up to scrutiny by their peers.
I guess it shouldn't surprise anyone that the world's biggest corporation, with a huge stake in the pollution industry, has taken a leading role.
The most spectacular example is the campaign to discredit research on global warming. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, many people have the impression that the issue is still unresolved. This impression reflects the assiduous work of conservative think tanks, which produce and promote skeptical reports that look like peer-reviewed research, but aren't. And behind it all lies lavish financing from the energy industry, especially ExxonMobil.
Enjoy your retirement Lee Raymond, but enjoy it soon - your grandchildren might not thank you for wrecking the planet.

Trusting Bush

Kevin Drum links to a new AP-Ipsos poll showing that a majority of Americans no longer believe Bush is truthful. Results here. and some graphs here.

Oddly enough, substantial majorities still find him likeable, strong, and (you've really got to be kidding) intelligent. Sigh. Mumble. Muttered imprecations.

Envy Green

How does Brad Delong write so much good stuff? I'm pretty sure he has a family and a day job.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Man who Made al Quaeda

Juan Cole on the origins of modern Islamic terrorism.

Once upon a time, a dangerous radical gained control of the ...
Here and in other ellipses, you can't follow the story without reading Cole.
One fifth of the money ... went to Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a violent extremist who as a youth used to throw acid on the faces of unveiled girls in Afghanistan.
Another excerpt:
Fahd not only put Saudi government money into the Afghan Mujahideen networks, which trained them in bomb making and guerrilla tactics, but he also instructed the Minister of Intelligence, Turki al-Faisal, to try to raise money from private sources.

Turki al-Faisal checked around and discovered that a young member of the fabulously wealthy Bin Laden construction dynasty, Usama, was committed to Islamic causes. Turki thus gave Usama the task of raising money from Gulf millionaires for the Afghan struggle. This whole effort was undertaken, remember, on Reagan Administration instructions.
Oops, I guess I gave away the punch line.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Declaring Victory

The stars seem to be aligning in favor of a major pullback/pullout in Iraq next year. Even though I strongly favor this, I worry about the upshot. The most serious fears and my WAG at the probabilities:

1) Civil war followed by regional war. A worst case scenario, but not altogether improbable. (5%)

2) Civil war and chaos. A castrophe for Iraqis, but maybe the damage can be localized. (25%)

3) A Shia theocracy aligned with Iran. Iran becomes the power of the Middle East. (30%)

4) More of the same. A semi-democratic state limps along, bedevilled by a robust insurgency and helped by a contining US presence. (25%)

And the hope:

5) A stable, independent, and partially democratic state. (15%)

I hope I'm not being optimistic.