Please: A moment of silence for Luna 15

So. We’re in the week of Apollo 11. The first step into a world where there isn’t just one world.

But there was another mission that week, the Soviet Luna 15.  Don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what NASA has to say about it.

Luna 15 was placed in an intermediate earth orbit after launch and was then sent toward the Moon. The spacecraft was capable of studying circumlunar space, the lunar gravitational field, and the chemical composition of lunar rocks. It was also capable of providing lunar surface photography.

Notice the date. Notice the absence of a reference to Apollo 11. Actually, from what I gather, the mission was designed to return samples to the Soviet Union the same week that the Americans were there.

But at the time the Luna 15 was of interest not only to journalists sensing a Soviet plot to sabotage the Apollo mission but to the people at NASA who were concerned that there could be a collision with Apollo. In, what might be considered an unprecedented cooperation between the two countries at the hight of the Cold War and in the middle of the Space Race, the Soviets shared the flight plan with NASA.

There is an interesting press conference discussing Luna 15 at the NASA history site  (search for “Luna 15”). The most humorous part is when a journalist asks when the information was given to NASA and why the press hadn’t been informed. The answer. “Oh we got the – I didn’t – I didn’t, quite frankly, didn’t see any – I thought there wouldn’t be any more news last night than there was this morning, and we… [laughter] …put it out. I was at home.“ A classic in journalistic gotcha journalism shot down by someone admitting that he didn’t think it was all that important.

But as so many Soviet missions in 1969, the Luna 15 wasn’t a success. It crashed into the moon at 15:50 UT on July 21, 1969. The Apollo Astronauts saw the spacecraft pass over the Apollo landing sight.

While the recording is difficult to understand, there is a recording of the loss of the Luna.   The recording was made using the radio antenna at Jordell Bank, Macclesfield, England where scientists were following both the Apollo and the Soviet missions.

So, let’s have a moment of silence for Luna 15. A mission doomed from the start. Even if it had successfully landed, started and returned to the Earth, It wouldn’t have been enough. Quoted from the Asif Siddiqi’s book Challenge to Apollo:

There was one small irony to the whole mission. Even if there had not been a critical eighteen-hour delay in attempting a landing, and even if Luna 15 had landed, collected a soil sample, and safely returned to Earth, its small return capsule would have touched down on Soviet territory two hours and four minutes after the splashdown of Apollo 11. The race had, in fact, been over before it had begun.

OK. I may come back

Wow. I didn’t expect this

I’m thinking about coming back. Anyone out there still interesed? Please let me know.

Just a Song Before I Go

So. That’s it.

Today, I’ll be hanging up my keyboard.

I’ve given a lot of thought recently as to why I blog and why I started in the first place. I have been at looking a series of diminishing personal returns here in the last couple of months.

That’s why I think it’s best to just make a clean break. That’s also why my last couple of posts were a little out of character, that was something I’ve wanted to write for a long time.

Since I doubt I’ll be visiting my old haunts very often, I’m also going to take the rather drastic step and turn off comments. This isn’t meant to be mean to the couple of people who have read me, it’s just a bow to the reality of comment spam.

I started this experiment almost exactly one year ago. For some reason that first post landed in some alternate WordPress reality. At least it doesn’t show up here anymore.

That first post really wasn’t much. It was simply a youtube video. Somehow once again appropriate.

I wish you peace.

Evolving Politics

One major misconception about evolution is that it finds the best possible, permanent solution to a problem. Sure, evolution has managed some long term success stories; sharks for example have changed little in the past several million years because they managed to become optimized for their environment very early. But summa summarum, most evolutionary solutions only make a temporary appearance before disappearing into the mists of time, 99.9 percent of all species that have existed are now extinct.

Then again evolution isn’t about finding the best permanent solution, it is about finding the best solution to a problem right now. Further, evolution works by tweaking the apparatus it has available either by finding unique recombinations of current tools or slight modifications to already working systems.

It’s that idea of not being a permanent solution that’s makes the idea of human ideas driven by meme oriented mental evolution is so scary. Take for example politics (Please!).

If you were to define the most important characteristic in a successful politician what would you choose? Honesty? Integrity? Intelligence? The foresight not to attempt to have sex in airport bathrooms?

I would argue, wrong on all counts. The most important factor is the ability to be elected to public office. That is proceeded by an ability to get support and funding to run for office in the first place. An inherent likeability, a willingness to lead, a certain lust for power are all key ingredients. None have directly to do with the ability to do a good job. And often that is why we see politicians at every level of government spiral out of control, spouting foolish nonsense because understanding problems isn’t what they are good at; getting elected is.

The most important characteristic in modern politicians is getting into office. Once there, baring any major screw ups on your part or on the part of your political party, you will probably be able to stay in office. That is the trait being selected for. The people supporting democracy, journalists, pundits, lobbyists and bureaucrats are all under a similar selectivity. Journalists are selected not for necessarily writing the truth but for writing things people read (look at Judith Miller). Successful pundits need not produce truth but appropriate platitudes. Lobbyists work incredibly hard to keep the system functioning for their benefit. Most bureaucrats work hard (and for the most part honestly) to achieve their local goals; whether those goals are well meaning or well placed is another question. I’m not claiming these people are corrupt. They are simply perfectly adapted to the systems and enviroments they inhabit. That is the point.

(Note: this is similar to the effect that usually chooses managers in modern companies. The skill (or luck) in generating short term successes, either by impressing the appropriate bosses or producing above average statistics one or two quarters in a row is an important part of moving up corporate hierarchies. The people who have advanced in that manner have a tendency to pick similar people to work for and with them. Thus the system perpetuates itself. The memes get replicated.

The army works in much the same way as can be seen in Fred Kaplan’s must read NY Times piece.)

Now think about the American Revolution and of origins of the modern democratic meme about 250 years ago.

There were a number of factors which led to the success of the American Revolution but perhaps the most important is that it really wasn’t necessary in the first place. Despite what most hard core Conservatives might think, people living in America already had more freedoms than the people in England. As a whole, as a population, even the people in England weren’t suffering any more than the French, the Prussians, the Spanish or any of the other populations in Europe. Oppression is a relative term. If revolution was always a direct consequence of oppression, the medieval feudal systems wouldn’t have lasted for centuries. It was the meme of liberty that caused the unrest leading to the separation of America from her motherland, not any oppressive taxation or real misrepresentation.

That same liberty meme was far less successful elsewhere.

France, the next country to become infected with the virus of democracy, revolted not simply because of the idea, but because the economic system collapsed and the meme was able to move in and take over as a dominate thought. Because the underlying social structures were in such bad shape, the liberal reforms that worked so well in the U.S. were unable to grow in France. Thus you find the Terror and Napoleon’s bloody dictatorship following a popular revolution instead of a time of consolidation and lawmaking like in the U.S. And looking back, far more revolutions follow the French path than the American one. Imposed Democracies work even less often: (Iraq *cough Weimar anyone?)

Democracy was an idea attempted both in ancient Greece and republican Rome but it stilled died out twice. After 1750 years of dormancy, enlightenment thinkers began again to toy with the idea at the beginning of the 18th century; selectively breeding the meme if you will, honing it to perfection. In the U.S. Constitution, those thinkers produced a thoroughbred capable of winning races for centuries to come.

Ultimately, it turns out that during the Industrial Revolution and modern period, democracy as a system is more effective an authoritarian methods at generating wealth and power. Thus democracy managed to spread across the Europe. Slowly, often after several attempts, most countries developed a system of democratic values reflecting some measure of popular support for their government.

Other systems got tried. Stalinist communism for example, more resembled the authoritarian systems that preceded it than the liberal or socialist ideas it pretended to promote. Fascism is another example. A populist mix of authoritarian ideas and democratic preaching that has become a staple factor somewhere in the world since it’s rise in Italy and Germany.

Now, remember, evolution is blind. It wants a solution to today’s problem. It is trying to fill the niches in today’s fitness landscape. The question is: is democracy the best system there can be? Churchill put it best when he quipped, “democracy was the worst system of governance except all those other systems which have been tried from time to time.”

Let’s go back to the racehorse analogy.

The best racehorse bred at the end of the 18th century would probably be a very good horse today. But would it be able to win modern races? Probably not.

People assume democracy is somehow different. That ideas that worked well in largely agricultural, pre-industrial societies can hold up against the test of time. This is the very core of much of Libertarian ideology with it’s accompanying worship of the American Founding Fathers.

This resilience to the travails of time doesn’t necessarily follow from an evolutionary viewpoint. Like a species destroyed by a virus, democracy could be brought down, not because it isn’t good, but because the social and technological landscape changes. The fittest political system need no longer be defined the same way.

The memes used by politicians, pundits and pollsters have become far more sophisticated. The breeding techniques if you will for creating the perfect politician, the perfect party, the perfect movement are becoming better and better. Unfortunately, these techniques have little to do with solving the problems society is faced with. These techniques have little to do with producing long term solutions to permanent problems. They are about solving the most important problem of the day: surviving into the next electoral term; winning the next election. Having an effective politician who changes things for the better is just an added bonus; a spandrel if you will. It is really isn’t the ultimate goal anymore.

I can’t think of a time when I have heard or read about politicians repeating the line “I take full responsibility for..:” whatever it is they’ve screwed up most recently. Why have we been increasingly subjected to this litany of responsibility? Because under earlier mutations of democracy, the very mistakes and misdeeds being repeatedly purpetrated today would have been followed by a resignation and discrace yesterday. Today the person simply stays put or moves horizontally and seamlessly from the public to the private sector, to produce the same mistakes there before moving back to the next step up the public ladder several years later.

Western democracies, led by America, are slowly devolving into something far different from what they were conceived to be. It really isn’t clear whether this change can be reversed or even slowed. I don’t like this idea. It is however a feeling I simply can’t shake.

The symptoms of sickness are clear. An ever widening gap between the haves and the have-nots; the willingness of the rich and leadership classes to literally, physically separate themselves from the rest of the populuation. Think gated communities and charter schools. Are these the precursors to modern castles and monasteries in tomorrow’s incarnation of a feudal system?

Perhaps the most troubling thing isn’t the idea that democracy might collapse but that mankind might even manage to create a new dark ages, a time when learning and science dwindle away. The difference in losing civilization today as opposed to any previous time in mankind’s history is that this time it is likely to be permanent. The easily accessed reserves of metals, coal and oil have been harvested. These are perhaps the most important keys to moving from pre to post industrialization. If civilization falls, it will be a long time, geologic time, before it ever returns.

So. Think about it.

Is democracy slowly following the Dodo into extinction? Can it adapt without mutating into something unrecognizable as democracy? Or was the idea of liberty, a government by and for the people just a dinosaur waiting for the next meteor to strike?

A Protection Racket

If gun ownership makes you safer, why doesn’t the U.S. have such relatively high crime rites?

Makes you wonder if thinking gun ownership is just a protection racket doesn’t it?

Evolution Works, Shit Happens

In his classic work The Structure of Evolution, Steven Jay Gould described the idea of evolutionary spandrels. Traditionally, a spandrel is the triangle formed when an architect places two arches next to each other. In medieval cathedrals, these arches were often highly decorated and could have been seen as a spot specially created for artists to present religious wonders. The reality is that the arch was necessary for stability, the spandrel just appeared, the art was an after thought.

Perhaps my favorite spandrel is the idea of memetics codified by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. A meme is the mental equivalent to a gene;it is another word for idea but with evolutionary connotations. It exists, is passed from one organism to another, one generation to another, mutating and replicating along the way. While most memes disappear quickly, literally forgotten, extremely successful memes transmit themselves through society; some are useful – like the idea of writing – some memes serve little or no purpose, useful only for replicating themselves. An example of these might be found in this week’s Top 40 play lists – in 20 or 30 years one or two of these “hits” might still be recognisable, some for toe tapping, others cringe-worthy.

Interestingly, Dawkins hadn’t planned on creating a meme when he wrote his fateful chapter on memetics. As a matter of fact he was simply looking for an example of something other than genes that could be described as replicating itself in an evolutionary manner. That his idea would even give rise to a short-lived scientific journal wasn’t really planned. Ironically, memetics seems to be the ultimate – um – memetic spandrel. (Which in and of itself is ironically humorous seeing that Gould and Dawkins almost never saw eye to eye on much.)

But the idea of memes and spandrels leads to an interesting observation about evolution.

First a slight comment on evolution.

Despite what some people might think, evolution doesn’t necessarily always produce the best solution, it produces solutions that work best locally to solve the problem at hand, often with the tools available, mixed and matched in a slightly different ways. Those characteristics that work survive, those that fail disappear. Written memes, like unused genetic sequences can sometimes reappear if the conditions change. As a meme, Gregor Mendel’s experiments disappeared into the dusty archives of scientific literature until rediscovered years after his death. The basic genes for expressing the light and dark coloring in peppered moths (Yeah creationists – I know. Just get over it. ) were likely still available to all offspring but the dark/light trigger was expressed in different populations at different times.

Arguably as a scientific theory, memes leave much to be desired. They really don’t predict much that other theories don’t already cover. The advantage of memes is their convenient function as a metaphor for ideas and how divergent thoughts can join, move and change with time.

That’s why I’d like to use memes to describe what I think happened at the start of the Industrial Revolution and finish yesterday’s post.

Spurts in evolutionary change are almost always accompanied by a change in the fitness landscape. A species might be introduced to a new environment taking over from less efficent populations; a disease or disaster might decimate certain populations leaving room for “less successful” species to move in and fill the gaps; something that happened to the dinosaurs much to our advantage.
It is just that kind of change in the mental fitness landscape that allowed the Industrial Revolution to start.

The education meme had caught on in Europe during the 17th century with the rise of secular university systems teaching a systematic, structured study of nature. The first scientific journals were published. This caused intellectuals and the now largely literate social elite to become susceptible to even more memes which became available in larger and larger quanities.

That accelerated the pace of progress caused more and more ideas – memes – to be thrown together in more and more mental test tubes. These people in turn produced new mutations, better ideas, better inventions. Each generation of meme able to build on the previous.

Engineering, mathematics, the sciences, philosophy: each of these areas was able to advance by leaps and bounds by the end of the 18th century. Not only because there were far more people working on the various problems, the very methods being used were becoming codified and traditional. The origins of the scientific method and mechanisms of science were being laid down.

One of the most important factors was the fact that the playing field was largely empty. There were great strides to be made because there were so few prior advances; each tiny step seemed a huge milestone, something we wouldn’t even notice today.

At the same time, in England, thanks to its relative protection from the continent, was able to devote more resources in thinkers and less in fighters.

Of course the 18th century was far from calm in England. There were upheavals, famines and wars. But the advantage England held was that the most important weapon in both defense and offence was the fleet – something harder on the royal purse than on the population or the countryside. England needed more money than it needed men.

This forced England into the paradoxical situation of trying to make money to fund the fleet while using the fleet to protect the methods for making money. All that forced the English intellectuals to think about better ways of making money feeding back into the ever growing pool of memes.

That’s what I think caused the Industrial Revolution in England.

It wasn’t inevitable and the form it took would have been completely different had it started in Spain, Germany or Russia. Once it started, the memes – the ideas – set free were powerful enough to move through most of the populations in Europe and America. Those areas where enough excess wealth had accumulated in the hands of a few, and where those people were willing to spend that money to improve their lot in life from just being good to being luxurious.

In those areas where the memes couldn’t travel, where the population was largely illiterate (like Russia), where there was little excess capital and the language barriers or cultural (meme) barriers too high to be overcome, the process slowed and faltered. These areas were unable to adapt quickly to the overwhelming power produced by industrial countries thus producing a century of colonization.

And that’s the rub. Remember. Evoltion finds local solutions. It doesn’t find necessarily the very best solution. It finds a better solution than other solutions nearby. Colonization was necessary for European powers because it was the best thing available at the time. Almost unavoidable; the fitness environment required it. But wasn’t the best solution long term. The world is still being rocked by the repercussions arising from the fall of the colonial system when the fitness environment shifted.

Thus the evolution of ideas isn’t always a good thing. And that’s where I want to go tomorrow. I finally want to approach the question of whether democracy is really ideal or just another local spandrel.

An Evolving Society

Most real scientists believe in the theory of evolution and, despite polls that show something different, I suspect that many people (especially if they aren’t Americans) would be more than willing to ascribe to an understanding more in line with a God guided process of “decent with modification” than a purely Creationist philosophy saying the world is only 6000 years old. (Even if the Chairman of the Texas Board of Education has different feelings about the issue.) The only difference between the “standard” theory of evolution and a theistic evolutionary argument is the extent to which God was involved, if at all, in tinkering with the tiny bits over time.

In recent weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to the implications of how evolution works and how evolution might work on human activities. This line of thinking was spurred by recent book review in the New York Times about A Farewell to Alms by Gregory Clark, a historical economist at the University of California, Davis. I will preface my comments by saying I haven’t read the book yet and am basing my comment on the description provided in the Nicolas Wade article and the preview chapter available. But then again my line of thinking only marginally touches on the thesis given by Clark.

Nevertheless, I’d like to start with a discussion of Clark’s ideas. The premise is as simple as it will be controversial.

In looking at the economic data for England for the years between 1200 and 1800, Clark argues that the English population was caught at the edge of the Malthusian limit. This is the highest population a society can sustain. In any area, the human population would grow up to the point where agricultural techniques provided just enough food for most people to survive. Any minor increase in population would soon die due to lack of food. The only exceptions to this rule were formed by increased agricultural land use and the occasional marginal improvement in technology.

From the online version of the first chapter

The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.1. Before 1800 income per person —the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head—varied across societies and epochs. But there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism explained in this book, the Malthusian Trap, ensured that short-term gains in income through technological advances were inevitably lost through population growth.

Thus the average person in the world of 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC. Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world’s population was poorer than their remote ancestors. The lucky denizens of wealthy societies such as eighteenth-century England or the Netherlands managed a material lifestyle equivalent to that of the Stone Age. But the vast swath of humanity in East and South Asia, particularly in China and Japan, eked out a living under conditions probably significantly poorer than those of cavemen.
[...]
So, even according to the broadest measures of material life, average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800. The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.

The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed for ever the possibilities for material consumption. Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries. The richest mod ern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average. Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled. There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest.

Clark calculated that the average caloric input of the poor in pre-industrial England was a quarter less than what would have been consumed in a normal hunter-gatherer society (a point also made by Jarod Diamond in Germs, Guns and Steel). As a matter of fact, only the rich in the European societies would have been able to eat more than the 2300 calories consumed on average by hunter gatherers. I know from other reading that in the middle of the 18th century, not only the poor but even the rich regularly suffered in the late winter and early spring from symptoms of serious malnutrition. Rickets, caused by malnutrition, was still common into the early parts of the last century.

The only real exception to the continual marginal lifestyles led by the majority of people was caused by the mass deaths due to the black plague. These devastating catastrophes produced a temporary improvement in the lives of the survivors because the available aerible land was able to temporarily produce an excess until the Malthusian limit was again reached.

Suddenly, at the end of the 1800th century, a turning point was reached. Something dramatically changed in England and allowed mankind to finally escape the Malthusian Trap that had been holding it captive since the beginning of time. It was the key to this something Clark searched for.

Clark’s detective work led him into the archives looking at wills and other documents. By tracing who survived, he felt he had uncovered the reason for the Industrial Revolution. You see; as opposed to the Billy Joel song, it wasn’t the good dying young, it was the poor. There was a strong social current in English society but it ran downhill; it was the rich producing poor relatives, generation after generation, replacing the poor who had died from below. According to the New York Times review,

As the progeny of the rich pervaded all levels of society, Dr. Clark considered, the behaviors that made for wealth could have spread with them. He has documented that several aspects of what might now be called middle-class values changed significantly from the days of hunter gatherer societies to 1800. Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy rose, and the level of interpersonal violence dropped.

Another significant change in behavior, Dr. Clark argues, was an increase in people’s preference for saving over instant consumption, which he sees reflected in the steady decline in interest rates from 1200 to 1800.

“Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving,” Dr. Clark writes. Around 1790, a steady upward trend in production efficiency first emerges in the English economy.

It is unclear, exactly, why Dr. Clark feels that literacy, thrift and a willingness to do hard work as opposed to a strong sword arm and good luck made what he calls the “economic upper classes of the Middle Ages,” Especially in light of the fact that people like Charlemagne were illiterate, the cases of spendthrift kings, princes and Popes longer than the lists at any tournament and a willingness to do hard work simply ignores the amount of brutally hard work done by the poor in England.

But Clark’s merry romp through Social Darwinist philosophy unfortunately doesn’t appear to stop there. From his first chapter,

Why an Industrial Revolution in England? Why not China, India, or Japan?6 The answer hazarded here is that England’s advantages were not coal, not colonies, not the Protestant Reformation, not the Enlightenment, but the accidents of institutional stability and demography: in particular the extraordinary stability of England back to at least 1200, the slow growth of English population between 1300 and 1760, and the extraordinary fecundity of the rich and economically successful. The embedding of bourgeois values into the culture, and perhaps even the genetics, was for these reasons the most advanced in England.

Let me try to rephrase that idea. If you wanted to genetically “prepare” a society, whether through planning or luck, for the jump into the Industrial Revolution what you need are a group of people willing to starve the poorest of the poor to make room for the more industrious, “skillful” genetic racial representatives trickling down from above. And on the other side of the globe, the Japanese Tennos were apparently too infertile to produce a social change but fertile enough to produce a field ripe to adapt to the new ideas and methods coming from England a mere 100 years later. China took a century more to get on the right track. Um. Right.

Clark also ignores the agricultural civilizations in the Americas and in Bantu Africa; all arguably similarly captured in the Malthusian Trap; all arguably with similar cultural survival rates. The article simply comments that these cultures just aren’t “ready” for western advancement yet.

My response in a word: blech.

I can’t believe this drivel managed to make it into the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps it was published because the Times’ editors know full well that the eugenic ideas presented will generate a certain amount of controversy producing in turn both readership and advertising revenue.

Is Clark really trying to push for the idea of a genetically superior upper class? Hasn’t he even seen any of the Paris Hilton escapades? What about the Norwegain princess who believes in angels? Are these people mutants?! [Well... arguably, yes - but I won't go there.]

I am however loath to completely eliminate the idea of evolution from the how societies improve. I however don’t think the solution can be found in the evolution of bodies but in the evolution of ideas.

Thus I’d like to spend some time looking at where a naïve understanding of evolutionary thinking might take us. I’d like to look at the idea of memes. But time is short. Thus todays discussion is -

To Be Continued…

Mr. Giggles Goes

Oh No!

Mr. Giggles has resigned. He just up and quit. This just up at the Washington Post,

Embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has resigned from his post, according to an administration official, ending a controversial cabinet tenure that included clashes with Congress over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys and the nature of efforts to spy on U.S. citizens.

The official said Gonzales submitted a letter on Friday saying he had decided to step down, but the announcement was withheld until he met with President Bush at the president’s Crawford ranch. His resignation will be announced at a press conference scheduled at 10:30.

Gonzales’ decision was first reported by the New York Times on its Web site.

Gonzales’ resignation marks the loss of another Bush loyalist at a time when his support in public opinion polls has been lagging. Though Bush had voiced continued support for Gonzales, a longtime ally from Texas, the attorney general’s support in Congress had withered after a series of run-ins that prompted some lawmakers to allege he had committed perjury.

I wonder whether he’ll get a chair next to Ari on the back porch some day? Will Karl invite him over for family BBQs?

Goodbye Mr. Giggles. Your bizarre banter in front of televison cameras and congress will be missed.

Considering all the other things you have done in the last couple of years, warrentless wiretapping, politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys, possible purgery, making White House leason aide hotties nervious while not talking about cases you were involved with – um… hell, let’s just cut to the chase – your excessive bend to fascism – will perhaps be less missed. At least by most of us. I’m sure George W. is cut to the quick.

The flavor of words

I have never experienced synesthesia, but I think I have a fairly reasonable understanding of what it would be like; hearing colors, feeling sounds, experiencing the taste of words are all something I can understand at a subconscious level.

But like so many things taste is cultural.

That’s why, to a man bathed in the baptismal waters of modern fundamentalist Christianity, someone like George W. Bush, the flavor of the word “crusade” is a word with positive connotations. He associates it not with a physical war but with a social movement.

And in a very real sense, Bush and the people who craft his speeches and form his verbal soundbites are right. In America, crusades are largely social and not physical. We find the overt Campus Crusade for Christ but also find it natural to describe crusades to help the homeless and crusades against poverty.

Crusades are about spreading Good News, harmony and help; not oppression or hate. Crusades are about aiding the needy, showing the blind the error of their ways; leading the lost back to the path leading to salvation. From the perspective of the average fundamentalist Christian, a crusade is not negative – it is basically about helping others.

Unfortunately, to non-English speakers not immersed in the American cultural discussion, the word crusade has a far different flavor. In Muslim countries the bitter aftertaste of the word “crusade” is steeped in the historical realisation that very word is related to religion. Just as crucifixion has become the English word for a form of execution most closely related to the death of a religious figure, crusades were originally used to carry that religion out into the world, specifically into and against the Muslim religion and cultures. The crusades were a century’s long attempt to replace local Middle Eastern cultures with a Christian dictatorship. Perhaps more ominous, it was an attempt doomed to failure.

Seen in that light, the presidential confusion generated by the controversy shortly after 9/11 when George W. Bush declared a crusade against terrorism – a crusade to free the world from the evil of unexpected horrors – was understandable.

Now, if one can imagine the same word having a positive, glowing, warm feeling for one person while at the same time having a discordant, spikey, uncomfortable feel to the other, than it is a small leap to understanding why the same effect can be reversed. Words like jihad and intifada with one cultural feeling in Arabic are interpreted in an entirely different light by others in the English speaking west.

Whereas Americans would have shaken their heads in wonderment had Bush claimed “We will carry the fight to them in a global jihad against terrorism,” his meaning would have been far more clear and precise to Asian and Middle Eastern Islamic listeners.

What most people don’t understand is that is next impossible for people in the one culture to use a word imported from one language and translate the word back into the original while keeping the new cultural baggage associated with them. The more similar meaning of what have become two completely unrelated concepts, the more likely mistranslations will occur. The flavors become lost and distorted – like putting a five course meal through a blender, the ingredients remain the same but the result is less than appetising.

To show how this works in a slightly less politically charged atmosphere, I turn to a something near and dear to the hearts of many red blooded Americans – beer – or at least the containers you drink it from. For English speakers, the classic German vessel used to drink that oh-so-Teutonic ambrosia is called a “stein.” Unfortunately, native German speakers have absolutely no understanding of that use of the word for “rock.” The origin for the misunderstanding is likely very simple. The proper German word is “Krug” (related to the word pitcher). This word can, in some cases, be extended to the word “Steinkrug” if the vessel in question is made not of glass or porcelain but of clay. Since Steinkrug was likely too long for foreign ears to pick-up and remember. The word got shortened and imported into English as stein and not krug. Again, it’s important to realise that the word stein does exist in the German language but it has little to do with late night binges and Saturday morning hangovers and far more to do with something one shouldn’t throw the first one of and glass houses.

The flavor of words caused a small flap in early August when the principal of a recently founded New York bi-lingual school was forced by political pressure to step down. Debbie Almontaser lost her job due to her understanding of a word in based not in the language she uses in America, but in the language it originally came from. The story is even worse. As best as I can understand from the New York Times ($elect) article, she was fired after a controversy was created after an interview with the New York Post from a question clearly designed to spark exactly this brouhaha. From the Washington Post coverage,

Principal Debbie Almontaser said her mission was to foster tolerance and understanding. But she resigned Aug. 10 after the New York Post quoted her talking about definitions of the word “intifada.”

Almontaser’s critics say she failed to immediately condemn the slogan “Intifada NYC” on a T-shirt displayed by a group with no connection to the school. She later condemned it.

“You don’t want to have a school that confirms people’s worst fears,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers.
[,,,]
At core in the debate is a linguistic disconnect. The word “intifada” crystallized in its current Arabic meaning during the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early ’90s. It is seen by many Arabs as a valid term for popular resistance to oppression, while for many English speakers it has come to conjure images of violent attacks on civilians.

The right-wing punditry attacked the woman for all the things they see as being wrong in America. She was running a bi-lingual school, Arabic-English; this is in and of itself suspect because as we all know you can’t learn Arabic without learning the motives and religion of the Muslim religion and creating a madrassa. (It’s not like having a bi-lingual charter school, Hebrew-English, being run in Hollywood Florida run by an Orthodox rabbi. That’s OK. Hebrew has nothing to do with religion.) The mote of an Arabic-English school is a beam in the eye of the right-wing radicals.

Almontaser was attacked because she was an educator, someone who wanted people to understand not the westernised meaning of intifada but the current meaning in Arabic. Why an intifada is about protest but that protest can take many forms. That kind of cultural understanding leads to the very bedrock of multiculturalism. If children in New York start to read Middle Eastern newspapers and realise that there are good and bad sources of information, Arabic pundits as acerbic as any Fox News anchor. If the children in New York would begin to realise that the “them” in the “us and them” are just as much the bad guys in Hamas as the bad guys in RNC, then billions of dollars in propaganda will have been wasted.

Finally, Almontaser was probably attacked for simply being who she is; a proud, intelligent, Muslim woman, willing to openly wear the symbolic sign of her religion – a head scarf. The very same group of people who barked long enough and loud enough to get this woman fired would go into a mouth-foaming rage at the thought of a school system judging someone for wearing a cross or a Star of David on a T-Shirt or as a lapel pin. Almontaser was attacked because she is a woman capable and willing to accept a difficult and complex job and not stay at home, out of sight taking care of the children; a cultural tick that seems to be shared equally between fundamentalist Christians and Muslims.

But then again it isn’t about equality, or fairness, or even about the word itself. It’s about perception.

Which brings me back to George W Bush.

I think he would be shocked and amazed if people were to accuse him of fighting a global jihad to impose American culture on the world in general and the Middle East specifically. He would be shocked if he really thought people felt his invasion of Iraq was about crushing a 1500 years of Middle Eastern culture to replace it with western – or perhaps better American – values. An invasion bent on killing all who oppose his plans; the utter destruction of all those who want to live under different values.

If only Bush could make his critics understand that is far from his purpose. People would finally understand and accept that he is merely leading a world wide crusade to bring American ideals to the oppressed people of the world and specifically those in the Arab countries. He wants to help in the deepest most substantial way he can find, bringing harmony, hope and Good News.

It is all too clear once you understand the flavor of words why one side doesn’t understand the other. The problem is bitterly apparent.

Parsing the President

I just though I’d give you some of my asides to yesterday’s Presidential speech. People will probably latch on to the Vietnam references, but to be honest the entire thing was a train wreck, start to finish.

Bush’s attempt to link Iraq with WWII, Korea and Vietnam fall short of everything related to reality. And he starts off by distorting reality once again. Remember. Bush is speaking in front of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an organisation he would have a little difficultly getting in to.

I stand before you as a wartime President. I wish I didn’t have to say that, but an enemy that attacked us on September the 11th, 2001, declared war on the United States of America. And war is what we’re engaged in.

This is true, because he can’t stand in front of them and tell them he is proud to count himself among their ranks, the people who fought “in places from Normandy to Iwo Jima, to Pusan, to Khe Sahn, to Kuwait, to Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.“ At the same time, his war in Iraq wasn’t waged against the people who attacked America on September 11th. It wasn’t true then; his repeating it doesn’t make it any truer now.

For those of you who wear the uniform, nothing makes me more proud to say that I am your Commander-in-Chief. Thank you for volunteering in the service of the United States of America. (Applause.)

Of course he conveniently forgets that many of the people who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam were drafted and didn’t volunteer. He does realise that was the reason he joined the National Guard, right?

But here’s what we do agree on: We agree our veterans deserve the full support of the United States government. (Applause.) That’s why in this budget I submitted there’s $87 billion for the veterans; it’s the highest level of support ever for the veterans in American history. (Applause.) We agree that health care for our veterans is a top priority, and that’s why we’ve increased health care spending for our veterans by 83 percent since I was sworn in as your President. (Applause.) We agree that a troop coming out of Iraq or Afghanistan deserves the best health care not only as an active duty citizen, but as a military guy, but also as a veteran — and you’re going to get the best health care we can possibly provide. (Applause.) We agree our homeless vets ought to have shelter, and that’s what we’re providing.

Well. If Bush hadn’t have invaded Iraq, he probably wouldn’t need that huge budget. Where is that money coming from – subprime lending?

And wait a minute! Bush has increased health care spending by a total of 83% since he became president!? Sir, might I remind you, when you became president, the U.S. wasn’t at war? Wouldn’t being at war sort of demand that spending go up not just a little, but drastically? Is 83% even close to being enough to cover the huge expenses now being encountered?

Finally, Bush wants to help homeless vets. Let’s see. Why do they become homeless? Financial stress because the guard pays less than civilian jobs? No. Losing your hands in the war and then going broke because the military misplaced paperwork and wrongly issued payment? Nah! Post traumatic stress disorder? No, no, no. Subprime loans!? Yeah, that’s it! Not war related at all. Good out! (Of course Bush really only wants to supply shelter through faith-base organisations. One has to wonder if Iraq isn’t just a weird way to convert America?)

The enemy who attacked us despises freedom, and harbors resentment at the slights he believes America and Western nations have inflicted on his people. He fights to establish his rule over an entire region. And over time, he turns to a strategy of suicide attacks destined to create so much carnage that the American people will tire of the violence and give up the fight.

If this story sounds familiar, it is — except for one thing. The enemy I have just described is not al Qaeda, and the attack is not 9/11, and the empire is not the radical caliphate envisioned by Osama bin Laden. Instead, what I’ve described is the war machine of Imperial Japan in the 1940s, its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and its attempt to impose its empire throughout East Asia.

So “they” still despise us? Are the Japanese are still our enemies? (Bush used the present tense when he said “the enemy who attacked us despises freedom.” Oops.)

He still doesn’t get it though. Pearl Harbor had nothing to do with Iraq, it had to do with oil embargos and global militarisation in a completely different age. Viewed through contemporary Japanese eyes, it was arguably an unavoidable conflict. It also wasn’t designed to be a complete surprise, the Japanese just couldn’t type fast enough to get the Declaration of War to the State Department in time. (Of course the State Department already knew what was coming because it had already been intercepted, decrypted and distributed.)

When did Sadaam or Bin Laden send their declarations of war?

There are many differences between the wars we fought in the Far East and the war on terror we’re fighting today. But one important similarity is at their core they’re ideological struggles.

WWII was as much economic as ideological. Korea was a power struggle between China and the U.S. for supremacy in S.E. Asia. Vietnam was the paniced reaction of right wing American hawks looking for a place to fight communism.

Afghanistan, while it might have something to do with 9/11, is largely an international effort to attempt to bring a stable government into a region historically ruled by local tribes and warlords. Whether the American effort will be any more effective than the Soviet attempt or the 3 prior British tries remains to be seen. It has as much to do with ideology as the current boom in Afghan opium planting has to do with traditional agriculture.

Iraq was and is completely unrelated to the events in 2001 and to any ideological reasoning. Can Bush point to a single speech he gave in 2002 saying America had to invade Iraq for ideological reasons? A single speech. A single bullet point?. He knew that then, he knows that now. But he’d like to use rhetorical tricks to obfuscate the issue. Intermingling WWII; Korea, Vietnam and 9/11 and convincing everyone they are the same kind of conflict; a verbal bait and switch.

And does Bin Laden really despise American freedoms? No more than Bush does. (Then again both have different definitions of the word freedom.)

Bush really needs to spend more time reading Al Quada speeches instead of listening to his own propaganda. You see, even Bin Laden says things like “Security is an important pillar of human life. Free people do not relinquish their security. This is contrary to Bush’s claim that we hate freedom. Let him tell us why we did not strike Sweden, for example.“ Despises American freedom? *sigh*

The militarists of Japan and the communists in Korea and Vietnam were driven by a merciless vision for the proper ordering of humanity.

Not like the Christian Identity folks in America, right?

Like our enemies in the past, they kill Americans because we stand in their way of imposing this ideology across a vital region of the world. This enemy is dangerous; this enemy is determined; and this enemy will be defeated.

But aren’t we trying kill them to impose our ideology across a vital region of the world? Isn’t that the point?

At the outset of World War II there were only two democracies in the Far East – Australia and New Zealand.

Which is interesting seeing that much of Asia, including India, Cambodia and Vietnam, was under European colonial control in 1939. Korea had been a Japanese colony since 1876. And then there were the Philippines, an American colony/territory/protectorate. Don’t blame the lack of democracy on the wrong people Mr. Bush. It was the collapse of the colonial system in the 1950’s that brought democracy, not the Japanese surrender.

In the aftermath of Japan’s surrender, many thought it naive to help the Japanese transform themselves into a democracy. Then as now, the critics argued that some people were simply not fit for freedom.

These were the same people putting Japanese-Americans in prison camps without a trial, but I won’t go there.

Others critics said that Americans were imposing their ideals on the Japanese. For example, Japan’s Vice Prime Minister asserted that allowing Japanese women to vote would “retard the progress of Japanese politics.”

It’s interesting what General MacArthur wrote in his memoirs [This is the guy who wanted to use nukes in Korea, right?] He wrote, “There was much criticism of my support for the enfranchisement of women. Many Americans, as well as many other so-called experts, expressed the view that Japanese women were too steeped in the tradition of subservience to their husbands to act with any degree of political independence.”

Is he honestly trying to compare the suffrage of Japanese women to the spreading of American ideals? He does realise that women could vote in those Asian democracies, Australia (1902) and New Zealand (1893) long before America chose to take that step in 1920? American ideals, Mr. President?

His misrepresentation of the Shinto religion is foolish. He does realize that one of the main requirements for allowing the Japanese Emperor to stay in power was his renouncing his godhood? It would be a little like Islam taking over America and saying that Jesus fellow just isn’t all that important.

Shinto got changed not abandoned because it wasn’t compatible with democratic values. That’s why people said it wouldn’t work. The Americans didn’t abolish the imperial throne, they changed the religion. Perhaps that’s that what Bush has planned for Islam: banning Mohamed.

And the result of all these steps was that every Japanese citizen gained freedom of religion, and the Emperor remained on his throne and Japanese democracy grew stronger because it embraced a cherished part of Japanese culture.

No. The requirement that Japanese attend Shinto shrines as a patriotic duty was dropped. Freedom of religion was incorporated in Japan in the middle of the 19th century. Under the patriotic fever of the militant 1930’s, it became very unpopular to be anything but Shinto in Japan. Currently there are people in America who think that it is a patriotic duty to be a Christian – some of these people are Republicans. Do you think it is easy to be an open Muslim in America, President Bush?

You know, the experts sometimes get it wrong.

Like the clowns who told you that there were WMD’s in Iraq?

Instead, I think it’s important to look at what happened.

Yeah. So do I.

After the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel in 1950, President Harry Truman came to the defense of the South — and found himself attacked from all sides. From the left, I.F. Stone wrote a book suggesting that the South Koreans were the real aggressors and that we had entered the war on a false pretext. From the right, Republicans vacillated. Initially, the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate endorsed Harry Truman’s action, saying, “I welcome the indication of a more definite policy” — he went on to say, “I strongly hope that having adopted it, the President may maintain it intact,” then later said “it was a mistake originally to go into Korea because it meant a land war.”

Wasn’t the whole 38th parallel thing an American idea, drawn by the Dean Rusk (the guy who helped start Vietnam) and Charles Bonesteel just 4 days before Korea was completely liberated. An artificial border drawn simply because there wasn’t any way to get American troops any farther north before the Soviets occupied half of the former Japanese colony? And wasn’t the North Korean invasion more or less pre-emptive? (You know, like Iraq) Didn’t the American Congress drag their heels on arming South Korea because the then “democratic” president, Syngman Rhee, kept instigating a war with the North? Otherwise wouldn’t it have been better to arm South Korea to avoid a conflict altogether?

Finally, there’s Vietnam. This is a complex and painful subject for many Americans. The tragedy of Vietnam is too large to be contained in one speech. So I’m going to limit myself to one argument that has particular significance today. Then as now, people argued the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end.

You’ll limit yourself to one argument because that’s just about the only analogy you can find that works. The killing did end Mr. Bush. Of course to claim that people thought peace would immediately reign is a bit of a canard really. Could you give a quote there? You know as well as I do that the civil war could only end when America left, when America stopped propping up a dictatorship. (It certainly wasn’t a democracy.) Americans (and the rest of the world) wanted America out of Vietnam because America shouldn’t have been there in the first place, not because most thought the killing would immediately stop.

There was another price to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and we can hear it in the words of the enemy we face in today’s struggle — those who came to our soil and killed thousands of citizens on September the 11th, 2001. In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden declared that “the American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today.”

His number two man, Zawahiri, has also invoked Vietnam. In a letter to al Qaeda’s chief of operations in Iraq, Zawahiri pointed to “the aftermath of the collapse of the American power in Vietnam and how they ran and left their agents.”

His comments about Bin Laden and Zawahiri are telling. Both seem to understand history far better than Bush does. Bin Laden and Zawahiri understand why America pulled out of Vietnam. Bush, or his speech writers, apparently don’t.

It wasn’t the price for withdrawing from Vietnam that was high in international standing, it was the belated costs of going in in the first place.

Remember Mr. President. Bin Laden and Zawahiri can only invoke Vietnam/Iraq comparisons because you ordered the unnecessary invasion of Iraq. Let me repeat that last, you ordered the unnecessary, pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. There will likely be hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq when America leaves and that will be a tragedy. But those are on your conscience Mr. Bush; not that of the American people you duped into believing your hawkish propaganda.

If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened, and use their victory to gain new recruits. As we saw on September the 11th, a terrorist safe haven on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to the streets of our own cities. Unlike in Vietnam, if we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home. And that is why, for the security of the United States of America, we must defeat them overseas so we do not face them in the United States of America.

Let’s turn this around, shall we. Isn’t Iraq the number one recruiting tool for Iraq and wannabe terrorists right now? Did America increase the size of it’s armed forces after World War II and we were emboldened by the victory over Germany and Japan. Didn’t “victory” end the war and disarmament start almost immediately? Didn’t the same thing happen after the end of the Korean war. And did the domino theory actually pan out after Vietnam? Did Central Asia completely fall into communist hands? Did America start fighting on the streets of Peking or Moskow? Did Vietnamese students start infiltrating college campuses in America and changing the bell curve in their favor?

Why exactly would Iraqi’s want to follow the Americans home? Don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds or maybe thousands of committed terrorists who would be willing to come to America and create mayhem and chaos. But that is not the war being fought in Iraq. Al Qaeda is only a small portion of the fighting there; most Iraqis are fighting for control of Iraq.

Afghanistan, where the brain of Al Qaeda is located, is starting to fall back into Taliban and extremist hands specifically because our resources are stretched too far. You remember Afghanistan? That’s where Bin Laden is supposed to be.

Here’s what they said: “Defeat would produce an explosion of euphoria among all the forces of Islamist extremism, throwing the entire Middle East into even greater upheaval. The likely human and strategic costs are appalling to contemplate. Perhaps that is why so much of the current debate seeks to ignore these consequences.” I believe these men are right.

Shawcross and Rodman!? Excuse me? Let me give you a couple of more quotes from these two “experts.”

Peter Rodman

[The future of the United States] will be forced more and more to choose between its convictions on what is essential to spare the Middle East from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein, on the one hand, and deference to the more assertive resistance of other major powers that either do not share the U.S. alarm or are driven by other motives.

…the key to multilateralism is not what one thinks of the United Nations but what one thinks of the United States. Those who believe the United States guilty of too many sins in the past—and these include some Americans—will be eager to see restraints on American unilateral action. Those who believe that global freedom and peace and the cause of human rights have more often than not been advanced if not sustained by the United States, acting out of some combination of its own self-interest and a general interest, will find multilateralism a potential source of paralysis. (1999)

William Shawcross

Tony Blair’s enemies have behaved in a shocking manner over the liberation of Iraq and its elusive weapons of mass destruction. Opponents of the war predicted all manner of disasters – millions of refugees, famine, thousands of deaths in battle, and revolution on “the Arab street” throughout the region. None of these horrors happened. Instead, it is obvious that the coalition has indeed freed Iraqis from a monster and created a new reality in the Middle East – one which just might offer the region hope. (2003)

Hmmm. I wonder if I would trust these guys to park my car? They sure don’t seem to be able to predict the future very well. Why should we listen to them now? Oh. They’re experts. (See above)

But then Bush manages his coup de grace.

The American military graveyards across Europe attest to the terrible human cost in the fight against Nazism. They also attest to the triumph of a continent that today is whole, free, and at peace. The advance of freedom in these lands should give us confidence that the hard work we are doing in the Middle East can have the same results we’ve seen in Asia and elsewhere — if we show the same perseverance and the same sense of purpose.

Bush should stop trying to conflate stateless terrorism with terrorist states. Nazi German created far more graveyards that can attest to the horrible human cost of a regime willing to invade other countries, to ignore human rights, to torture prisoners, to set up lawless prison camps out of the country. He shouldn’t talk about Nazi Germany while making tenuous links to the deaths following the American withdrawal from Vietnam .

There is one group of people who understand the stakes, understand as well as any expert, anybody in America — those are the men and women in uniform. Through nearly six years of war, they have performed magnificently. (Applause.) Day after day, hour after hour, they keep the pressure on the enemy that would do our citizens harm. They’ve overthrown two of the most brutal tyrannies of the world, and liberated more than 50 million citizens.

But the stakes those people see aren’t the stakes Bush is fighting for. They reenlist because they honor the uniform. They reenlist and keep fighting because there is a fight going on and you don’t desert comrades in arms. They keep trying to perform even though the substance, both human and material, is wearing out and breaking. But they don’t reenlist because the Bush policies are working.

Our troops have killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists every month since January of this year.

I thought we didn’t “do” body counts anymore. I thought we gave that up because it was an ineffective measure of success in Vietnam. I guess he didn’t learn that lesson. Oh. Right. He wasn’t there.

Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man with a difficult job, and I support him. And it’s not up to politicians in Washington, D.C. to say whether he will remain in his position — that is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy, and not a dictatorship.

Wow. With the exception of the comment about Maliki being a good guy (How can he be? He’s a politician.), I actually agree with that statement. Levin’s brain-dead comments after returning from Iraq were the most irresponsible comments in the summer slump.

But a free Iraq will be a massive defeat for al Qaeda,

A free and peaceful Afghanistan first would have been even better.

Prevailing in this struggle is essential to our future as a nation. And the question now that comes before us is this: Will today’s generation of Americans resist the allure of retreat, and will we do in the Middle East what the veterans in this room did in Asia?

I quote a Salon article written by Jessica Kowal in November 2003

The United States volunteered to fight the Vietnam War, too, in the context of a global war against an evil enemy, communism. Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon told Americans that a small country halfway around the world was essential to American security. U.S. leaders ignored that region’s long opposition to occupying forces. They lied to get troops into the war, and lied throughout the war. Defying reality, they insisted the U.S. was making “progress” as the situation deteriorated, and blamed critics for encouraging “the enemy.”

Hmmm.

Bush ends his speech on an interesting note.

The greatest weapon in the arsenal of democracy is the desire for liberty written into the human heart by our Creator. So long as we remain true to our ideals, we will defeat the extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will help those countries’ peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East. And when that hard work is done and the critics of today recede from memory, the cause of freedom will be stronger, a vital region will be brighter, and the American people will be safer.

If your ideals don’t include Creators – then I guess there is no belief in liberty, correct? But wait. Al Qaeda wants a theocracy! That means a Creator – liberty! Hey. Mr. President. They’re on your side!

Seriously, no president in recent history has done more to erode the ideals of America with the suspension of Habeas Corpus, secret prisons, torture and the pre-emptive invasion Bush so sadly keeps trying to defend. Bush was the one to invade Iraq before the job in Afghanistan was finished.

To assume that America will be really safer as long as there is a reason to hate, as long as people can find an excuse to wage war and as long as there are presidents willing to provide extremists with a reason to hate America?

Mr President sir, you are more deluded than I thought.

Petraeus? Petraeus Who?

Remember that guy running the show in Iraq? You know who I mean, P… P… Put… Pat… um Robertson? NoNoNoNoNo!Petraeus! **snap** Yeah! That’s him!

Yesterday at the press gaggle (and I really don’t what to know where that phrase originated), Dana Perino, Deputy White House spokeshottie, pointed out that it was never going to be Petraeus’s report in the first place,

Q Dana, there’s a report out today that the September Iraq report will be written by the White House, and not by Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus. Is that accurate?

MS. PERINO: Well, let me remind you of a couple of things. The Congress asked for these reports from the President; they asked for the President to report to the Congress. And so the July 15th report will be no different to the September 15th report, in terms of how that works. And the President has said that he’s going to take the recommendations from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, and then he will consult further before deciding on any possible next course of action.

Funny. What was her boss, Tony Snow, saying just two weeks ago?

Q Tony, the administration has been continually saying to wait until September, and to wait until the testimony of General Petraeus and saying that his testimony will be the clearest sense of how well the surge militarily is working and what should happen going forward. General Petraeus has also made, in the past, assessments about the quality of the Iraqi security forces, in Mosul specifically, and in the country generally, that proved to be overly optimistic by a considerable margin. Given that come September he’s basically going to be asked to grade a plan that he, himself, crafted and has implemented, what confidence should the American people have that his assessment of his own work will be objective and honest?

MR. SNOW: You’re impugning General Petraeus’s ability to measure what’s going on?

Q I’m asking how he can give an objective assessment of his own work.

MR. SNOW: Well, I think the first thing you ought to do is take a look again at the report that was filed to Congress, the interim reported July 15th — no sugarcoating there. You take a look — and they try to use real metrics on it. General Petraeus is a serious guy who sees his mission not as a political mission, but, in fact, as somebody who reports facts.

Now, let us keep in mind that the full burden of this report does not fall on his shoulders. A lot of the key judgments, especially about politics, will fall on Ambassador Crocker. So this is — although I know a lot of people talk about “the Petraeus report,” in fact, you have a report that is a joint report by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. And so we trust him.

Oh. I see. The White House trusts Petraeus to tell the truth. I guess they just “can’t handle the truth.

But then again neither can the Congress nor the American public.

You see, after the LA Times was nice enough to let us know that the White House would be writing the Petraeus Iraq report, today we find out today that, for some reason, the White House would also prefer neither Petraeus nor Ambassador Crocker appear in public hearings.

From this morning’s Washington Post,

Senior congressional aides said yesterday that the White House has proposed limiting the much-anticipated appearance on Capitol Hill next month of Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to a private congressional briefing, suggesting instead that the Bush administration’s progress report on the Iraq war should be delivered to Congress by the secretaries of state and defense.

White House officials did not deny making the proposal in informal talks with Congress, but they said yesterday that they will not shield the commanding general in Iraq and the senior U.S. diplomat there from public congressional testimony required by the war-funding legislation President Bush signed in May. “The administration plans to follow the requirements of the legislation,” National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in response to questions yesterday.
[...]
White House officials suggested to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week that Petraeus and Crocker would brief lawmakers in a closed session before the release of the report, congressional aides said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would provide the only public testimony.

Um. OK.

So why not have the people who actually write the report testify? They can’t testify because they would be under Dick Cheney’s bizarre mind control powers Presidential privilege since the report is being written in the White House?

Oh. OK.

Note: This charming information comes out on the same day as the devastating, terrorist attack in Iraq which has claimed up to 250 lives and destroyed the villages of Qataniyah and Adnaniyah north of Mosul.

This horrible attack will likely fit the Administration’s claims that al Qaeda is responsible for everything bad that happens in the world. (Are Republican children chastised with – “Be good or Bin Laden will get you?”) The attack also points out the extremely strange cancers growing within the body politic in Iraq. From Al Jazeera,

Hoda Abdel Hamid, Al Jazeera’s Iraq correspondent, that the areas where the attacks happened are considered “soft targets” because there is no large presence of Iraqi or US security forces.

“Over the past few months we have seen bolder attacks which are going further north … so it is also a message from the attackers saying ‘you might some success in one area but we can easily move to another area and there are many soft targets around the country’.”

The Yazidis, primarily a Kurdish sect, believe in God the creator and respect the Biblical and Quranic prophets, but the main focus of their worship is Malak Taus, the chief of the archangels.

In April, a Yazidi teenager was stoned to death after she reportedly fell in love with a Muslim and ran off with him. The incident appears to have sparked an increase in attacks on members of the sect.

Terrible attack. What do we learn?

The “Surge” has put out the worst fires in Baghdad but sectarian fires are cropping up around the country and there is little or no likelihood of near term Sunni-Shiite cooperation, therefore Petraeus is likely to recommend cutting back U.S. military presence anyway.

Um. Wait! Petraeus? Petraeus who?

An Open Letter

Dear Lamb and Lynx,

I finally got a chance to see the Channel 4 documentary Nazi Pop Twins by James Quinn. (Hat Tip: Susy Buchanan/SPLC)

All I can do is wish you hope and give you encouragement to stay strong. If the film managed to present even a modicum of reality and your feelings are honestly presented, I can only hope you have a better future than you have had a past.

Listen and learn from your grandmother, she seems to understand the problems that have come from following an ideology full of hate.

I know you will encounter people who will deride you for what you have done in the past and perhaps things you will do in the near future, (to be honest I was one of them), but the problem isn’t you, it’s your mother, it’s your grandfather, it’s the circle of people who have chosen a very sad, distorted reality to follow. I think both of you know that.

Maybe you’ll come across this one day while Googleing your names. I hope it comes at a time when you need encouragement from an annonymous voice. I think I understand the pressures you’re under and want you to know that there are people pulling for you.

Good luck. Again. I wish you strength.

I’ll be leaving you alone for now on.

Petraeus Report to be Written in WH

The Scream by Edward MunchYes, I’m still alive. I’m just not writing because everything is just so mind numbingly depressing.

Karl Rove leaves the White House to go pre-buff Bush’s post-presidential legacy and then move on to use whatever dirty tricks he can find to discredit the Democratic party during the 2008 elections. I suspect he is leaving government service not because he thinks it is time but because the kind of partisan activities he has in mind would be so immensely illegal from a White House position that even Rove got cold feet. (Maybe he just misses his RNC e-mail account.)

Then there is the whole FISA/Wiretapping thing with the Democratic congress happily feeding constitutional rights to Barney, rolling over and going woof every single time anyone in the White House says boo before skittering off into a summer news vaccuum.

The increased sound of war drums being pounded in the direction of Iraq is becoming deafening. It looks like the U.S. is planning once again to make a feign to the U.N. before invading. That is why they are planning to release the plans about declaring the Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist organisation during the U.N General Assemby next month.

Then we find out that, as opposed to being under fire and in retreat, Alberto Gonzales is planning to “fast track” the death penalty in California and other states. Perhaps because we need to make room on death row for all those terrorists who have been arrested thanks to the TSP and other “undisclosed monitoring activities?” You know, those pesky terrorists we can’t try in criminal courts because we tortured them in violation of their constitutional rights and can’t try in military courts because we tortured them in violation of the Geneva convention? Those folks like Jose Padilla now being convicted of “having engaged in a criminal conspiracy to be nothing so much as an ‘unlawful enemy combatant.'”

There is the media offensive underway by the “journalists” and “experts” that went on their eight vacation daysight seeing tour inspection of Iraq Baghdad with day trips to see “the troops” or perhaps better “military commanders” out in the field. That trip being plastered across the media starting with the NYT Op-Ed by “war critics” Ken Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon (so absolutely debunked by Glen Greenwald) to yesterday’s William Kristol appearance on the Daily Show. (Neat how all those folks were on the same “fact finding junket”, huh?) The spin machine is cranking out positive stories about the Iraq situation well in advance of the September 15 deadline for the Petraeus report.

And then. this morning, I find out, buried in the LA Times article about the Iraq status report, that it will be written, not by Petraeus, or even in the DoD – but in the White House.

Administration and military officials acknowledge that the September report will not show any significant progress on the political benchmarks laid out by Congress. How to deal in the report with the lack of national reconciliation between Iraq’s warring sects has created some tension with in the White House.

Despite Bush’s repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it actually will be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government.

And while Petraeus and Crocker will present their recommendations on Capitol Hill, legislation passed by Congress leaves it to the president to decide how to interpret the report’s data. The senior administration official said the process has created “uncomfortable positions” for the White House because of debates over what constitutes “satisfactory progress.”

The spin goes on. (Oh Karl, we miss you already. Thank God, he and George Bush exchanged telephone numbers.)

Mind-numbingly depressing. No?

How Many Dead Americans Is Sadaam Worth

Oh. The wonders of YouTube … and a little time,

Retorical question from Dick Cheney about the deaths in the Gulf War.

But for the 146 Americans killed in action and their families it wasn’t a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether we went on to Baghdad and took addtional casualties in an effort to get Sadaam Hussain, was how many additional dead Americans is Sadaam worth? And our judgement was not very many and I think we got it right.
– Dick Cheney

Did I mention that was in 1994?

The best part. The video is from the American Enterprise Instititue.

(Hat Tip Unfogged via Kieran Healy/Crooked Timber)

Why Bridges Fall and Radios Fall Silent

Much has been made of the recent collapse of the Saint Anthony’s Bridge in Minnesota. Today’s Washingtion Post headlines a story about how the advanced technology given to local governments in response to 9/11 has fallen into disrepair and disuse because the local governments did not have the money to fund the long term maintenance.

In 2003, the FBI used a $25 million grant to give bomb squads across the nation state-of-the-art computer kits, enabling them to instantly share information about suspected explosives, including weapons of mass destruction.

Four years later, half of the Washington area’s squads can’t communicate via the $12,000 kits, meant to be taken to the scene of potential catastrophes, because they didn’t pick up the monthly wireless bills and maintenance costs initially paid by the FBI. Other squads across the country also have given up using them.

“They worked, and it was a good idea — until the subscription ran out,” said Mike Love, who oversees the bomb squad in Montgomery County’s fire department. At the local level, he said, “there is not budget money for it.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the area has received more than $1 billion in federal money to strengthen first responders and secure the region. That money has bought satellite phones, radios, protective suits, water-security monitors and a host of other items.

But local officials are grappling with how to maintain the huge infusion of equipment. Like a driver whose 5-year-old luxury sedan has worn-out brakes, cracked tires and engine problems, local governments are facing hefty bills to keep their gear working.

Thus, what was an excellent idea ended up being a rather expensive flop. Excellent equipment that isn’t used or can’t be used because there isn’t enough money to continue the upkeep.

That seems to be the story of the American infrastructure. Once something has been created, all problems are solved – move along, move along.

Anyone who owns a car, knows this isn’t true. Not only do you need to purchase the vehicle, you need to continue maintaining it. As the car ages, the maintenance costs don’t decrease or remain stable, they increase until it becomes necessary to scrap the car and replace it. That will probably need to happen in the next few years with most of the interstate bridges in America.

Interestingly for all those people who would simply like to privatize the current system – fat lot of good that will do.

For those with limited historical background, it might be good to remember that all the railroads in America in the last century were either completely private or public/private joint ventures. That didn’t save them. They collapsed under the weight of increasing infrastructure costs coupled with a change in demographics. The same thing will happen to the American Interstate System.

A rail/road system might have been an option, loading cars and trucks onto trains for long distance travel. It might have even been more economical than building completely new interstates, but that wasn’t well understood at the time. The future was freedom, the future was in interstates. That’s the legacy we are now inheriting.

And even the privatised systems will walk into the maintenance trap. This can be shown in fast forward in the case of plank roads, popular in the 1840’s . The idea was to make toll roads not of rock or stone, but of a relatively cheap material, wood. You charge people to use the road and the cost of replacing the road is far enough off that it either wasn’t seriously considered or completely underestimated. This lead to a boom in plank road building. It also lead inexorably to the collapse of the system 10 years later as the planks began to rot and needed replacement.

Five years ago, the GAO produced a rather positively titled report “HIGHWAY INFRASTRUCTURE, Physical Conditions of the Interstate Highway System Have Improved, but Congestion and Other Pressures Continue.”

On the surface one would think the problem might be in the idea that there just aren’t enough highways. Systems must be created to clear up the major problem, congestion and everything else is secondary. Ah, but how relative secondary can be.

The really unnerving graph doesn’t show up until the final pages. Preceded by the following quote,

Another factor negatively affecting the condition of Interstate pavement and bridges is the age of the infrastructure. For example, half of the Interstate bridges are currently over 33 years old. (See fig. 7.) Officials from one state we visited explained that many of their state’s Interstate bridges were built about 40 years ago and are reaching the end of their estimated 50-year design life. In addition, officials in 45 states believe age may jeopardize their bridge conditions: officials in 38 states expect age to negatively affect their pavement conditions 10 years from now.

one finds the following graph (click for full size).

Year Interstate Bridges Were Built

Privatize away. Who is going to build the new bridges? Where does that funding come from?

Perhaps Rome wasn’t build in a day; neither was the American Interstate Highway System. But when a lot of things get built at the same time, a lot of things need repair and replacement at the same time. Fixing things isn’t nearly as sexy as building new stuff; there isn’t any red ribbon to cut on a newly refurbished stretch of highway. Just a sigh and the sad realisation that the next job is right around the corner. Replacing things that are worn out is even worse; it’s a thankless job to get people back to a perceived status quo. (That bridge was fine, it hadn’t collapsed yet.)

One of the problems Rome faced at the end was the fact that income was no longer able to support the infrastructure built up over hundreds of years. Ask yourself the very real question: where does America stand now? Is New Orleans back to normal? That was a challenge to the American willingness to rebuild a specific area.

As the challenges spread and the pressures increase, will the old bridges fall just as the new radios fell silent?

Source: Agencies

While I read Al Jazeera every morning, I really don’t expect much in the way of new news. I get something far more important though: I find out how people in the Middle East might be interpreting US and international events.

I also see a lot of stories that would have passed under my radar.

Today, Al Jazeera posted a blurb about the two US marines cleared in the shooting deaths of 24 people in Haditha.

What actually struck me though, was neither the fact that this got a significant place on the premier Middle East news site nor the fact that neither McClatchy, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor nor even the International Herald Tribune chose to headline the piece.

The NYT does have both the AP and the Reuters articles up. Only the Washington Post gave it a small link on the front page but the story was fairly detailed. From the Reuters piece,

A U.S. Marine general dropped all charges on Thursday against two Marines in the shooting deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha, scene of what Iraqi witnesses said was a massacre by American troops.

The dismissal of charges means neither Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt nor Capt. Randy Stone will face a court-martial in connection with the events at Haditha, which have brought international condemnation of U.S. troops.

Five Marines still face charges in the November 19, 2005, shooting of two dozen unarmed men, women and children in Haditha, which prosecutors say came in retaliation for the death of a beloved comrade, Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas, who was cut in half by a roadside bomb.

Sharratt, 22, had been charged with three counts of premeditated murder and Stone, 35, with dereliction of duty for failing to properly report the civilian deaths.

Defense attorneys conceded civilians were killed at Haditha but said they died during chaotic fighting with insurgents after the roadside blast.

What only becomes clear from the WP piece is that Sharratt was involved in a shooting that happened several hours later,

The finding by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, exonerates Justin L. Sharratt, 22, of Canonsburg, Pa. In a two-page document, Mattis not only cleared Sharratt of legal charges but also called him “innocent” in the general’s eyes. The dismissal came after an investigating officer found that Sharratt acted appropriately when he shot a group of armed men while searching a house in Haditha hours after other members of his unit killed numerous women and children in an alleged killing spree through two other houses. [my emphasis]

What I find far more interesting than the news of the soldiers, was the spin Al Jazeera put on story.

The fact that the attorney, who was new, inexperienced and probably more than a little gung ho, didn’t get court martialed for investigating is understandable if debatable. The fact that Sharratt didn’t get in trouble for a completely different shooting also makes sense. These two facts show why it was a non-story to western news agencies.

Ah. But Al Jazeera is different. They presented an edited version of the Reuters story missing the fourth paragraph talking about what the people were accused of and without any mention of a separate encounter (admittedly missing from the Reuters narrative). This gives the impression that both men took part in the civilian shootings.

Then again. Al Jazerra doesn’t even reference the source directly on the website. I have only seen them use the subscript “Source: Agencies” to identify where the information came from. Even if the story has been taken from a single article or “Agency”. It makes a nice trick to distance itself from the Western tainted news sources.

Again I think it is less important to understand the story and more important to understand how the story has been presented.

Spin is spin and every little bit creates more and more momentum towards building attitudes. If you don’t watch the spin, you don’t understand the motives.

Of course the same goes for the US sources. Which paragraphs got deleted in your newspaper?

He Said She Said

Chinese WhispersRebecca Watson, Skepchick and amazingly cool writer, has made to round three in NPR’s contest looking for a new radio talent. (hat tip: Phil Plait, congratulations and good luck Rebecca on the contest and a quick nudge to geeky web comic XKCD , the focus of Rebecca’s most recent interview.)

But a quote stuck in my mind after listening to her most recent entry. She is being interviewed by one of the local radio personalities. The first question is very appropriate.

David Bowery(?): Give me an example of something or someone you believe in.

Rebecca Watson: Wow. That’s an interesting question because I’m often accussed of not believing in anything. That’s just my thing. I’m always questioning.

I believe…I believe in science. I believe in logic and I believe in reality. I believe in – I believe in a certain point of view were you can look at the world for what it actually is as opposed to what you want it to be. And you can explore the world and see the beauty in it with that kind of perspective.

While I would love to agree with this, I am starting to doubt that people work that way. More and more books are being written about cognitive dissonance, two people seeing the same thing but interpreting the event or “reality” completely differently. As a matter of fact, that very idea is a central theme in Daniel Gilbert’s wonderful book Stumbling on Happiness.

I got yet another example of this while reading the right wing blog Capitan’s Quarters this morning.

Conservative blogs have been attacking a series of extremely negative reports in the New Republic, reportedly written by a soldier in Iraq. The issue got so far out of control that the previously anonymous blogger outted himself and his unit. The Army started investigating; conservative bloggers smelled blood.

This is how conservative blogger Ed Morrissey begins the entry describing the New York Times article.

Despite the oddly-worded non-denial denial from the New Republic yesterday, the Army did determine that allegations made in its magazine by Scott Beauchamp were false. The New York Times reports this morning that their investigation showed no substantiation for Beauchamp’s stories of petty mischief and ghoulish behavior on the part of his fellow soldiers.

An Army investigation into the Baghdad Diarist, a soldier in Iraq who wrote anonymous columns for The New Republic, has concluded that the sometimes shockingly cruel reports were false.

We are not going into the details of the investigation,” Maj. Steven F. Lamb, deputy public affairs officer in Baghdad, wrote in an e-mail message. “The allegations are false, his platoon and company were interviewed, and no one could substantiate the claims he made.” … [ellipsis in original post]

Yesterday, The New Republic posted another note on its Web site saying its editors had spoken to Major Lamb and asked whether Private Beauchamp had indeed signed a statement admitting to fabrications. “He told us, ‘I have no knowledge of that.’ He added, ‘If someone is speaking anonymously [to The Weekly Standard], they are on their own.’ When we pressed Lamb for details on the Army investigation, he told us, ‘We don’t go into the details of how we conduct our investigations.’

That the Army would deny the accusations doesn’t really surprise me much. The Army also gave a medal to Pat Tillman for bravery under enemy fire. They then denied any problem with the story, but piece by piece the truth emerged over the last months, morphing from enemy combatants, friendly fire to what might now be murder. (The last, a claim I doubt. But who can tell any more?)

Anyway. For Morrissey it is enough that the Army is denying everything and the NYT has backed him up. Right?

I don’t see that tone in the article. I give you the three paragraphs just after the ellipsis Morrissey so cleverly inserted for his readers.

The brief statement, however, left many questions unanswered. Just last week The New Republic published on its Web site the results of its own investigation, stating that five members of the same company as Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp, who had written the anonymous pieces, “all corroborated Beauchamp’s anecdotes, which they witnessed or, in the case of one soldier, heard about contemporaneously. (All of the soldiers we interviewed who had first-hand knowledge of the episodes requested anonymity.)”

Private Beauchamp had revealed his identity after The Weekly Standard online and conservative bloggers expressed doubts about their veracity. As the Baghdad Diarist, he wrote that one soldier had jokingly worn the remnant of a child’s skull on his head. In another issue, he said he and a soldier had mocked a terribly disfigured woman sitting near them in the mess tent. Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic said that after Private Beauchamp revealed his identity, the Army severely curtailed his telephone and e-mail privileges.

Private Beauchamp is married to a reporter-researcher at the magazine, Elspeth Reeve. [my emphasis]

Thus it seems to be my understanding of the English language posed against Ed Morrissey’s description of what was said in the Grey Lady. It’s a case of he said she said.

My problem is I think he did read the story as confirmation of his (and Michelle Malkin’s) ideas.

The Washington Post also has a much longer article describing the whole teacup tempest. They end their coverage with the following quote,

Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at George Washington University, called the Army’s refusal to release its report “suspect,” adding: “There is a cloud over the New Republic, but there’s one hanging over the Army, as well. Each investigated this and cleared themselves, but they both have vested interests.”

As far as I can tell, the Army solved the problem by ordering the soldier to sit down and shut up. Whether he was describing reality wasn’t important. The conservative bloggers and the Weekly Standard chose to continue the attacks and say – see he’s not saying anything any more – thus Private Beauchamp was lying. It’s not like the Army might have busted him for violating OPSec regulations when he named his unit and then put him under extreme presure. The Army wouldn’t do that; would they?

That’s all in the eye’s of the beholder. Or if you don’t follow the links, he said, she said, they said, he said, they did…

Want to know what I say? Rebecca – there is no reality. *sigh*

Democrats In Congress: Republicans with Blue Ties

… or skirts. Whatever.

Slate’s legal lovely, Dahlia Lithwick, wrote a killer analysis of the implications of Democrats voting to expand Bush’s wiretapping powers and Congress’ favorite punching bunny, Mr Giggles,

This past Sunday, a heap of Democrats voted to rush through changes to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that governs electronic surveillance of anyone in this country. The new law expands the authority of the attorney general to approve the monitoring of phone calls and e-mails to suspected overseas terrorists from unknowing American citizens. Make no mistake about it. The vote to update FISA rewarded the AG for years of missteps and misstatements by giving him expanded authority to enforce the president’s alarming constitutional vision. Sans oversight. Sans judicial approval.

There is virtually no way to reconcile Sen. Mark Pryor’s, D-Ark., claim that Gonzales has “lied to the Senate” and needs to go with his vote to expand the reach of our warrantless eavesdropping program. And how can one possibly square Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s, D-Calif., claim that the AG “just doesn’t tell the truth” with her vote to give him yet more unchecked authority? You either trust this AG with the power to listen in on your phone calls or you do not, and the mumbled justifications for these “yes” votes ( … but Gonzales shares his authority with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell; … but the bill sunsets in six months) do nothing to lessen the impression that some Democrats mistrust Gonzales when it’s convenient, but not when it’s truly important.

The whole thing should be read in full. It shows just how big the problems are.

I’m getting the feeling that the only difference whether your vote goes Blue or Red in 2008 will be the speed at which the churches take over.

Considering the fact that evangelical churches are now starting to infiltrate the Democratic party and making more and more inroads into issues like the environment, prisons and homeless shelters (temporary? – riiiiight!), it is clear that there really is no chance that America will remain a secular nation. Oh! I forgot. It wasn’t one anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. Evangelicals need to understand the issues. I’m just afraid the movements will become biblical. They won’t understand and support the issues, they simply take them over. After all it worked for the Republican Party, didn’t it?

Don’t Run with that Pencil!

Have you ever heard or shouted that warning?

A German woman didn’t heed that advice as a child and as a result spent the next 55 years with about 8cm of pencil lodged in her brain.

According to Spiegel Online,

A woman who lived with an 8-centimeter (3.1-inch) pencil lodged in her brain for 55 years has had most of it removed in a complex operation. She is now looking forward to a life without headaches and nosebleeds and hopes to also regain her sense of smell.

“When I was four years old I fell down in Dessau with a pencil in my hand. The pencil bored its way through my skin — and disappeared in my head,” Margret Wegner, 59, told the mass circulation newspaper Bild. “It was incredibly painful.”

The pencil missed her optic nerve and a major artery by just millimeters. A doctor treated the wound, but no one dared to operate on her brain. She decided to have the life-threatening operation after 55 years, and it was successfully carried out by a surgeon in a Berlin hospital last week.

Most of the pencil — six centimeters of it — was removed but the 2-centimeter-long tip has grown in so tightly that it will remain lodged in her brain.

All I can say? Congragulations. And Blech - brain pencils.

Almost as bad as “Mr. Phineas Gage’s Famous Injury

Mr. Gage was employed as a railroad worker in Vermont and fell victim to a freak accident that involved a long metal rod called a tamping iron. This rod was used to pack sand over an explosive charge, which was used to excavate rock for the building of railroad lines. In this instance the charge exploded unexpectedly and propelled the 3-foot-long rod through Mr. Gage’s head. The 13-pound rod entered the left cheek and exited the midline of the skull anterior to the bregma, resulting in severe injury to his left and, in all probability,2 his right prefrontal cortex. The Gage case, one of the most famous and influential in neuropsychiatry, played a crucial role in the discovery of behavioral syndromes resulting from frontal lobe dysfunction. Readers interested in detailed accounts of the case and its historical context can find excellent reviews by MacMillan3 and Barker.4

By the way, “behavioral syndromes resulting from frontal lobe dysfunction” is just a nice way of saying lobotomy among loved ones and doctors.

Remember that next time you are running down the hallway with a pencil in your hand… or playing around with tamping irons. (Anvils on the other hand. Have a ball.)

Up, Up and Away

Anti-gravity is just so cool in a geeky sense.

According to New Scientist (and today’s Telegraph) researchers may have found a way to play some new games with levitation.

In May 2006, two research teams led by Ulf Leonhardt at St Andrew’s University, UK, and John Pendry at Imperial College, London independently proposed that an invisibility cloak could be created from exotic materials with abnormal optical properties. Such a cloaking device – working in the microwave region – was manufactured later that year.

The device was formed from so-called “metamaterials”, exotic materials made from complex arrays of metal units and wires. The metal units are smaller than the wavelength of light and so the materials can be engineered to precisely control how electromagnetic light waves travel around them. “They can transform space, tricking electromagnetic waves into moving along directions they otherwise wouldn’t,” says Leonhardt.

Leonhardt and his colleague Thomas Philbin, also at St Andrew’s University, realised that this property could also be exploited to levitate extremely small objects.

They propose inserting a metamaterial between two so-called Casimir plates. When two such plates are bought very close together, the vacuum between them becomes filled with quantum fluctuations of the electromagnetic field. As two plates are brought closer together, fewer fluctuations can occur within the gap between them, but on the outer sides of the plates, the fluctuations are unconstrained. This causes a pressure difference on either side of the plates, forcing the plates to stick together, in a phenomenon called the Casimir effect.

This probably won’t start making ships fly to the moon. And despite Professor Leonhardt’s rather humor driven Zero Point Energy reference on his web page describing Quantum Levitation, I get the impression his work is more that serious.

This kind of thing would probalby be extremely important for both low “friction” nano-components where the Casimir effect outweighs “roughness.” It might also be a good way to decouple optical components from external effects allowing for all kinds of precision measurements.

And who knows, perhaps one day, we will have Casimir force driven space making cool “whirrrrr” sounds like on the Jetsons. I doubt it. But it would be drop dead cool.

Hello Kitty – um – Bobby

According to the International Herald Tribune, Thailand’s police will be getting a less than honorable addition to their uniforms, at least if they break the rules,

Thai police officers who break police rules will be forced to wear hot pink armbands featuring “Hello Kitty,” the Japanese icon of cute, as a mark of shame, a senior officer said Monday.

Police officers caught littering, parking in a prohibited area, or arriving late — among other misdemeanors — will also be forced to stay in the division office with the deputy chief all day, said Police Col. Pongpat Chayaphan. The striking armband features Sanrio’s Hello Kitty sitting atop two hearts.

“Simple warnings no longer work. This new twist is expected to make them feel guilt and shame and prevent them from repeating the offense, no matter how minor,” said Pongpat, acting chief of the Crime Suppression Division in Bangkok.

Hello Kitty. A mark of shame? sigh

Jaw Dropping Quote of the Day

From Captains Quarters, Ed Morrissey manged

Today, the Washington Post joins the New York Times in its passion to write exposés about Jeri Thompson, the wife of presidential candidate Fred Thompson. With two glaring exceptions, the piece actually appears rather balanced and fair, although it appears that Republican wives get a lot more critical attention than Democratic wives in this cycle:…

Um. What!

Let’s see. Absolutely no critical coverage about Democratic wives?

Michelle Obama:

Giving up her job WP and Salon (“It had to be hard for the high-achieving candidate’s wife to give up her career — and I’m in a feminist fury about”)
Reluctant Political Spouse Newsweek?

Elizabeth Edwards:

Cancer with “should he stay in the race punditry” CNN, or Time
need I mention Ann Coulter? ( MSNBC, ABC. FOX) (Repeat the slur a thousand fold while “reporting” it?)

Hillary’s “Wife” – Bill:

CBS
Forbes
USA Today
And the oldie but Goodie, from the last year’s NYT … and the justification

But all that is nothing compared to two articles about Jeri Thompson. And the NYT article he is so grumpy about got widely trashed in liberal blogs who felt it was below the bra strap.

Nothing negative about Democrats? So what if there is the occasional comment that Jeri Thompson is perhaps soon to be First Hottie. (Just a hint Ed: I think she knows she’s good looking. After all she doesn’t dress like Mother Teresa does she?)

And wait! Thompson isn’t even a candidate yet Ed. Why don’t you push for answers on that question? When will he joint the race. Isn’t the question of why national newspapers write articles about the wives of people who aren’t running for president a far more pressing issue?

‘Mericans Don’t Torture…

No. They murder.

From the AP Wire story that probably got dropped or buried in most American newspapers, (Fox News Version)

A Marine Corps squad leader was convicted Thursday of murdering an Iraqi man during a frustrated search for an insurgent.

Sgt. Lawrence G. Hutchins III, 23, also was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, making a false official statement and larceny. He was acquitted of kidnapping, assault and housebreaking.

Hutchins, of Plymouth, Mass., could be sentenced to life in prison without parole. He had been charged with premeditated murder but the military jury struck the premeditation element from the verdict. Sentencing deliberations for Hutchins were set to begin Friday morning.

Hutchins stood rigidly and stared straight ahead in the silent courtroom as the verdict was read. A few minutes later he answered a procedural question with a loud and clear, “Yes, sir.”

His wife, sitting in the public area behind Hutchins, sobbed silently with her head bowed.

A second soldier was also found guilty, not of murder but of larceny and housebreaking. From the same source,

Cpl. Marshall Magincalda, 24, of Manteca, faced up to life in prison. He was also found guilty of larceny and housebreaking, and cleared of making a false official statement.

Magincalda was not accused of firing any shots, but was charged with murder for participating in the plot.

A military psychiatrist testified Magincalda developed post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression as a result of combat.

“He was essentially a broken shell,” Dr. Jennifer Morse said. “This was a young man who was gone, who was clearly haunted by his memories.”

This is the legacy of the Bush administration.

I’m sure the administration will play this down as an isolated incident, a single squad that got out of control.

WHAM. Winning hearts and minds. That was the phrase used in Vietnam. These kinds of things also happened in Vietnam. Even today we know they were also isolated insidents; not indicative of the larger American/Vietnamese interaction but highly indicative of the moral of the American soldiers; the amount of frustration at not being able to win or even play the game.

WHAM. Winning hearts and minds. This was the number three story on Al Jazeera this morning. I doubt the same will be true in America. Somehow, I suspect the Arab world is listening. Is America listening? Whose hearts and minds got just a little more jaded today?

George W. Bush told a presidential scholar clearly and definitely that “Americans don’t torture.” I would argue that might be a debateable point.

But the fact is Mr. Bush; Americans do murder. Sleep well at night?

Please, Just No Film at 11:00

Oh No! Think of the shame if a hard core religious figure gets caught in a sex/drug scandal.

No. I don’t mean Ted Haggard; not even Colorado. Virginia gets the honors.

Fans of gospel music likely know the name Tommy Tester well. He’s a staple at WZAP 690 am in Bristol, Virginia, and has been for almost 25 years, but his recent arrest, has put his station in a tight spot.

Johnson City police arrested Tester Thursday night on charges of indecent exposure and public drunkenness. Police say the preacher was driving drunk when he stopped at a car wash and urinated with children present. Investigators say prior to his arrest, Tester, who was wearing a skirt at the time, made sexual advances to them.

Aren’t they even trying anymore?

(Hat Tip: Wonkette: with Mugshot – boy does he look sheepish)

Keeping Score on Gonzales

For those who have lost their scorecard on the General Giggles case, Laura Rozen, journalism Goddess and War and Piece blogger, has a quick run-down of exactly just what all those Congresspersons, Senators and Department of Justice weasels have been getting on about.

The administration is and has been engaging in a shell game in trying to wriggle out of accountability and Congressional oversight and now accusations of perjury on its warrantless domestic spying programs. Shortly after the activity was first revealed by the NY Times’ James Risen and Eric Lichtblau in late 2005, Alberto Gonzales immediately dubbed the domestic spying program “the Terrorist Surveillance Program.” As in, of course, what American could argue with surveilling the communications of the terrorists, wherever they may be? But when in deciding whether to reauthorize the Patriot Act, Congress asked him whether there had been any internal administration dispute over the activities, Gonzales said no, none. Congress was not asking specifically about the Terrorist Surveillance Program – that was Gonzales’ shell game to call it that and say in hindsight that that was his understanding of the narrow scope of their question. Congress was asking whether anyone in the administration had concerns about the White House bypassing the FISA court in authorizing warrantless domestic spying and indeed, as it turned out, there had been such grave concerns that a dozen of the top Justice Department and FBI officials had been prepared to resign over it. But Gonzales answered there had not been any concerns at all, everyone was so convinced of its legality.

She goes on to explain in clear terms just why Gonzales has either been listening to the little bats in his belfry or just outright lying. Her complete rundown is well worth the read, I don’t think anyone has put it better.

She also compares whole situation to the classic sketch by Abbot and Costello.

So here’s a short dramatization of Congress questioning Mr. Giggles. (Hint: Congress is played by Lou Costello, Bud Abbott plays the completely helpful and truthful Mr Gonzales.)

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