Archive for September, 2006|Monthly archive page

Ferret Hammocks

I was going to point my German-speaking, ferret-owning readers to an online German pet store selling ferret hammocks.

Then I went over to the Ferret Store.

Never mind – just never mind.

Who would have thought there are so many kinds of ferret hammocks. The world is a weird place; but a good market for things snugly for ferrets.


After having her head in the stars, Anousheh Ansari, the first female space tourist, has her feet back on the ground. 


The space capsule containing Ms Ansari and the two professional space travellers* Pavel Vinogradov and Jeffrey Williams has landed back in Kasachstan this morning at 3:13 MET.


*I refuse to use astronaut  and cosmonut. Ideological idiocy!


One more time I’d just like to say – cool lady, cool trip. That slot couldn’t have gone to someone who wanted it more and really worked to earn it.


Spiegel-Online (German)

New York Times 

Washington Post

A Moderate Case of Synchronicity

David Schraub, my first stop for boneheaded political quotes, has an excellent heads up pointing to Trent Lott’s newest verbal derailment. Included is the fact that he doesn’t understand the problems in Iraq. CNN quotes him as saying “Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.” This perhaps explains what passes for cultural issues in Lott’s home state Mississippi and why Lott supports Bush’s policies in Iraq.

Fortunately on the same day at the same blog – elrod does an excellent job of comparing a Washington Post article about the cultural subterfuge necessary at Iraqi checkpoints with something that might be near and dear to Senator Lott’s heart, the Civil War. Although the Post agrees with Senator Lott in describing the difficulties in identifying the religious groups –

For centuries, from the Ottoman Empire to the British-installed monarchy to the republic eventually ruled by Saddam Hussein, Sunnis were the elite who got the bulk of government jobs. Shiites, in Hussein’s time, were badly persecuted.

Yet in daily life hardly anyone cared about telling Sunnis and Shiites apart. It was considered rude to ask a person’s sect, and it is practically impossible to discern from their looks, speech or dress. For generations, the two sects intermarried, making it difficult to differentiate them by surnames. They attended the same schools and lived in mixed neighborhoods.

elrod points out the difficulties in identifying neutral civilians in a quite different Civil War

In a grounbreaking book on the guerrilla war in Missouri during the American Civil War, Michael Fellman identified the practice of neutral civilians telling different stories to different sides in guerrilla war as “survival lies.” Rural Missourians living amidst the daily conflict between pro-Confederate guerrillas or “bushwhackers” and pro-Union militiamen learned to tell compelling stories when each side inevitably paid a visit to the family farm.

Just a tip Senator Lott – start having your aides read The Moderate Voice. Then the methods for recognising all those pesky religious groups will be portioned in mental titbits even you or your speech writers can understand.

Did David Schraub and elrod get together to put up these posts? I don’t know but I suspect a modicum of synchronicity.

Heads Up: Fighting for a Science Job

Just thought I’d point you to Sharon Weinberger’s snarky little piece about science recruiting. Working conditions might be a little extreme for some. It’s the insurgents in Iraq that are looking.

And if you don’t want to work for them, you might hop over to Defense Tech and read about the new CIA recruiting website. Do you have what it takes to be the next James Bond (or George Tenet)?

Who says you can’t get a job with a science degree?

Slim and none

Slate’s Jacob Weisberg has a very clear analysis explaining why the political parties aren’t presenting solutions for Iraq. Most of the article deals with the various ideas, from full on reinvasion, to some form of separation, to absolute withdrawal.

 But in the current political discussion, Weisberg is right. While many politicians point at each other saying what is wrong, no one talking about trying to solve the problem. There is an elephant in the room. He’s quiet and both sides of the political spectrum are completely ignoring him. (You just keep finding footprints in the butter in the fridge. Blah!)

Not only is discussing a solution almost as stealthy as the administration would like wiretapping programs to be, the reality is probably even worse. Weisberg sums up the situation nicely. 

Reviewing these proposed strategies suggests another, less partisan reason why House and Senate candidates seem so disengaged from the question of what to do in Iraq. The situation is hopeless. The best that our leading foreign-policy minds have been able to come up with is a grim choice among forms of failure and defeat. In a country of optimists, no politician wants to deliver that message.

One has to think not how America will leave Iraq but what are the odds of America leaving Iraq more or less unscathed. Probably somewhere between slim and none.

Torturing Justice

The Republicans managed to push their legislation through the Senate yesterday. My take on this is twofold. On the one side, I agree with the Democrats as reported by the New York Times

Democrats argued that the rules were being rushed through for political gain too close to a major election and that they would fundamentally threaten the foundations of the American legal system and come back to haunt lawmakers as one of the greatest mistakes in history.

This legislation is a mistake and only being pushed right now to give the Republicans a ‘rescue-ring’ issue for the next few weeks. Passing this bill now let’s the Republican party hammer on the anti-terror button for the next few of weeks, drowning out the negative press caused by the ‘Trends in Global Terrorism’ report from the intelligence agencies. The Democrats voting for the bill were left with little manoeuvring room; it was either vote for the legislation or be painted a friend of terrorism.

But I wonder if there isn’t even more political bait and switch going on. It is very possible that this legislation won’t pass even the current Supreme Court.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, arguing for an amendment to strike a provision to bar suspects from challenging their detentions in court, said it “is as legally abusive of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution as the actions at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and secret prisons were physically abusive of detainees.”

The amendment failed, 51 to 49.

Even some Republicans who voted for the bill said they expected the Supreme Court to strike down the legislation because of the provision barring court detainees’ challenges, an outcome that would send the legislation right back to Congress.

“We should have done it right, because we’re going to have to do it again,” said Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon, who voted to strike the provision and yet supported the bill. [my emphasis]

It will be interesting to see if Bush adds any signing statements limiting even this legislation. If yes, he will probably sign the law shortly before the election and include signing statements again limiting the Geneva Conventions.

But even if Bush signs the legislation as is, I wonder how many Senators are hoping this will just buy time. If the Supreme Court kills this sometime next year, it would give the likely Republican Senate (and  a possible Republican controlled Congress) the chance to replay this theatre for the Presidential elections.

Especially McCain might be hoping the cards fall this way. The anti-war feeling in the US will probably increase over the next few years. McCain can use the failure of this law and his status as a former prisoner of war to push more responsible legislation in two years. He can win brownie points while remaining well in character. If the Supreme Court doesn’t kill the law and the war starts looking up (or elves take over the Middle East), he can leave it more or less as is. For McCain it’s an almost win-win situation; probably what he was planning.

Oh! And if McCain changes the legislation, Bush can push the Justice Department to charge lots of intelligence agents and administration officials just before he leaves office. Then during his last days in office, he pardons them. Outwitted those justices again! (Boy can I spin conspiracy plots.)

I just wish the political system weren’t in such bad shape with all the problems at the moment. That’s what keeps torturing me.

Go read  The Blind leading the Willing by Dahlia Lithwick over at Slate. She’s probably my favorite legal journalist. (And she has an excellent sense of humor.) Her take is even darker than mine. Congress doesn’t know what they are talking about, or worse, they are actively trying to avoid finding out.

Best comment: “enemy combatants (a term that sweeps in citizens and noncitizens, Swiss grandmothers and Don Rumsfeld’s neighbor if-that-bastard-doesn’t-trim-his-hedge)” lol!

A Mis-Gnomer

The headline in the Daily Mail reads ‘Man vows to fight garden gnome arrest threat.’

OK. I agree, the article is an excellent piece of fluff. But I’m sorry, I have to take exception to the headline.

Does this mean that a garden gnome threatened to arrest this gentleman? Is he defending his lawn ornament from unlawful imprisonment? No. He is being threatened with arrest because of his garden gnome.

For shame Daily Mail, for shame. This headline almost gave me a heart attack – um – cardiac arrest.
Hat Tip: Mimi Smartypants

Heads Up: James Inhofe – Climate Alarmist

Over at ScienceBlogs, Matthew Nisbet (among others) is all hot under the collar about Mr Bonehead Senator James Inhofe. .

Mr Inhofe gave a floor speech attacking the media coverage of global warming and specifically Andrew Revkin’s new book The North Pole Was Here. Revkin is blogging back and requested links to his Amazon Blog. There you go Mr Revkin. You, dear reader, might do the same thing. Revkin’s book is aimed specifically at younger readers (age 10 and up) so if you are looking for something for your children, it might be a good idea to check it out.

 Don’t miss David Roberts deconstruction of this speech over at at the environmental blog Gristmill

Mr Inhofe on the other hand might want to go feed a polar bear – with his brain. Wait! Then the poor little polar bear would go hungry. Never mind.

It’s Not a Cover Up

Hey, who needs censorship! Not Newsweek.

I heard about this a couple of days ago, but over at Crooked Timber you can identify the most important news in the US this week during an election year .  Actresses!

Of course other parts of the world see things differently.

But Newsweek isn’t covering anything up, up front – on the cover.

Another Martian Opportunity

Wow! The Martian rovers made the Washington Post yet again. Opportunity was on the front page on Monday and made page 3 yesterday!  This is TOO COOL!

After an arduous 21-month journey, the Mars rover Opportunity edged close enough to the rim of a large crater yesterday to send back its first photos of the bottom and rocky sides of the dramatic site. What they showed left researchers increasingly confident that their robotic explorer had reached a scientific gold mine that will dramatically increase their understanding of the planet’s history.

NASA scientists said the rover came within about 15 feet of Victoria Crater’s rim and was scheduled to climb over a small sand dune last night and stop right at the crater’s edge.

I’ve been following these little guys for what seems like forever. Well, at least since they landed. I try to stop by the homepage about once a week and check how things are going. I also pick up a fair amount of background information watching the Bad Astronomy or the Planetary Society blogs.

What NASA does so much better then ESA is information dumping. You can access all the raw images as soon as they are downloaded. Sure this has caused some marsbats (sorry couldn’t resist) to think there were dust bunnies on Mars, but for me, it is just too cool to be able to see exactly what is going on in almost real time. The only thing missing is a slightly more ‘personal’ mission blog, perhaps from the interns working on the project.

After looking at Mars, why not take another short hop and go look at the beautiful pictures NASA keeps taking of Saturn.

Police Academy: A Comedy of Errors

The Washington Post highlights yet another case of a greedy contractor coupled with poor oversight by the Corps of Engineers.

Even though the Baghdad Police College was touted to be one of the success stories in what the US military termed the “year of the police,” the reality looks much different. In a report to be issued next week, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction Stuart W. Bowen Jr. will be calling the project a disaster.

The contractor, Parsons Corp., has been implicated in previous construction failures including prisons, clinics and hospitals, was charged with rebuilding the 1930s era police college. It didn’t go very well.

The Parsons contract, which eventually totaled at least $75 million, was terminated May 31 “due to cost overruns, schedule slippage, and sub-standard quality,” according to a Sept. 4 internal military memo. But rather than fire the Pasadena, Calif.-based company for cause, the contract was halted for the government’s convenience.”

Col. Michael Herman — deputy commander of the Gulf Region Division of the Corps of Engineers, which was supposed to oversee the project — said the Iraqi subcontractors hired by Parsons were being forced to fix the building problems as part of their warranty work, at no cost to taxpayers. He said four of the eight barracks have been repaired.

The U.S. military initially agreed to take a Washington Post reporter on a tour of the facility Wednesday to examine the construction issues, but the trip was postponed Tuesday night. Federal investigators who visited the academy last week, though, expressed concerns about the structural integrity of the buildings and worries that fecal residue could cause a typhoid outbreak or other health crisis. [my emphasis]

I wonder if the phrase “the governments convenience” is double talk for “You screwed up so badly we never want to see you again!” or simply “Ooops, You got caught.” I also note the people being called to task here are the Iraqi subcontractors and not Parsons. I wonder why. Are the Parsons people better connected? The Iraqis are thrilled, I’m sure.

What probably happened was a combination of inexperience and mismanagement. Many of the people directly involved in the project were probably new to something of this scale* and started off doing a good job, or at least trying to do a good job. As things started to slide, they attempted to get help or at least tell someone what was going on. Management responded with, we can’t give you more time, there is no more money, just get the job done. Just like every other government contract. Eventually even the most motivated just pushed paper and waited for the contract to end. What I call an internal resignation; you still go to work, get your paycheck but you no longer mentally work for the company, you’ve already quit.

 *Let’s face it, how many people do you need to rebuild a country. The good ones with experiance are pretty far and wide and  have probably gone home to better jobs leaving the rest to the newbies.

I think it’s the amount of government reconstruction in Iraq that is causing much of the problem. I doubt that many of these projects are that much worse than any other large scale construction project. But, since almost everything in Iraq needs rebuilt, all of these projects are simultaneously crashing. It highlights the failures of ‘business as usual’ both on the sides of the contractors and on the side of the government.

I’d love to believe that the individuals in the Corps of Engineers are simply stretched far too thin and have neither support from the upper echelons nor the time to properly oversee all the construction activities. This coupled with an increasing frustration both with the war effort (Why are we here?) and from the Iraqi civilian population (Why are you here?). I’d like to believe that – but unfortunately the Corps is a huge bureaucracy and has never really been more than mediocre at overseeing projects. (Katrina anyone?)

At least this lined up with all the other Police Academies: absolutely humorless.

Russia losing the war on terror, demographically

Some journalists have the coolest foreign assignments.  At least that’s what you might think if the Telegraph’s Adrian Blomfield wasn’t reporting from Moscow but from Ulyanovsk:

The governor of a Russian province gave workers an afternoon off and told them to go home and multiply in the most direct attempt yet by officials seeking to tackle the country’s growing depopulation crisis.

Bureaucrats have been dreaming up ever more imaginative schemes to help reverse the trend ever since President Vladimir Putin identified Russia’s demographic crisis – caused in part by soaring levels of alcoholism – as the country’s biggest threat.

But few have been quite as blunt as Sergey Morozov, the governor of Ulyanovsk, a depressed region on the Volga.

Why hasn’t Bush thought of this to win the war in Iraq? Encourage the Iraqies to make babies instead of bombs. Can’t you see the PSA with ‘Big Dick’ Chaney?

 Hat Tip: Ehrensenf (German)

Heads Up: Global Warming Graph and Paper

Global temperature change, Hansen et al.

Carl Zimmer has a post up showing the above graph and linking to a paper comparing current temperatures with temperatures over the last 1.35 Million years (kyr = 1000 years)

While I agree with what the graph is trying to show, I have a problem with the presentation. I feel it misrepresents the data. The re-scaling on the right of the graph from 1870 to present makes the current temperature change seem far more normal then it really is. If the current peak were scaled properly, it would look more like one of the minor ‘blips.’ (Look at the spike around 1000 kyrs) I would argue this would be OK. You are showing where we are now and the two blue lines give an excellent ‘where are we now’ comparision.

But more importantly, the inclusion of some other information, like ice ages would have helped this chart quite a bit. This is especially important when one thinks that the last ice age ended 10000 years ago. This is where the temperatures rose sharply to not quite current values.

But, please go read Carl’s article and the comments, he has far more readers than I and the discussion will be much more important there.

Weird Weeks for the ACLU

Last week I got grumpy about the ACLU having issues with a general policy for testing for HIV. I’m sure you remember the amazingly arsine quote from the ACLU lawyer

Patients, particularly teenagers, she said, “will be tested without an opportunity for understanding the magnitude of having a positive result.” [like spreading AIDs?]

Yesterday, Teresa weighed in by pointing to a NYT article highlighting some of the less than intelligent recent moves made by ACLU honchos. From the original article comes:

In interviews, some members of the group behind the Web site pointed to internal controversies that have been made public, starting with an agreement that obligated the A.C.L.U. to check its staff against government lists of suspected terrorists to participate in the federal employees’ annual fund-raising drive known as the Combined Federal Campaign at the same time it was criticizing the lists.

Finally, Nick Matzke weighs in at Panda’s Thumb with the story of how the Discovery Institute attacking the ACLU for trying to get that Icon of Idiocy, Of Pandas and People banned from the Dover school library. As Nick clarifies in his Panda entry:

The word “library” does not appear in the Complaint. In fact, before the case was filed, I specifically recall that the ACLU (one of many participants in the case, a fact universally ignored by the ID propagandists) made sure that everyone involved on the plaintiffs’ side understood that we were not trying to ban Pandas from the library, because the ACLU doesn’t do that sort of thing. There is actually a body of law on school libraries and book banning, and, roughly speaking, school libraries can and should include a variety of works – science, religion, creationism, whatever. Public school libraries have a specific educational mission and their collection should be aimed at that (graduate level textbooks are not appropriate, nor a library with all creationism books and no science books), but this does not exclude having some creationist books.

Now having the ID-iot’s harping on about the ACLU is par for the course. I wouldn’t expect anything else.

But having Teresa and I slightly irritated amazes me. Bad press is bad press. But Bad Blogs? From liberals (or at least the liberalish?) For shame ACLU. Weird week.

Quickie: Using the Record vs. Throwing Muck

If I read this New York Times article correctly, they are comparing the Democratic use of negative Republican records to the Republican use of Democratic personal issues.

At the national level, the two parties are battling over issues like national security and the war in Iraq. But Congressional races play out on local airwaves, and the flood of commercials amounts to a parallel campaign, one that is often about the characters of individual challengers and obscure votes cast by incumbents. Frequently lost in the back-and-forth are the protests of candidates who say the negative advertisements are full of deliberate distortions and exaggerations.

While Democrats have largely concentrated their efforts on the political records of Republicans, the Republicans have zeroed in more on candidates’ personal backgrounds.

Let me get this straight. The Democrats are using what the Republicans have done. The Republicans have spent a year digging into the candidates backgrounds to find mud to throw. Excuse me?

Oh. I get it. If it works, use it.

While some public officials have criticized negative advertisements as destructive and blamed them for discouraging voter turnout, other analysts say they have come, if only by default, to play an important role. At a time of diminishing local news coverage of House and Senate races, they are one of the few ways in which voters learn about the candidates and their positions.

So what someone wrote in a student editorial say 20 years ago has a major impact on their current stand on various issues? If my behaviour from 20 years ago were any accurate evaluation of my current standpoint, I’d probably be dead by now.

And people wonder why voters don’t vote.

Bush made me blog this

I really didn’t want to go here. I was going to ignore the whole ‘Gee, imagine that! There are more terrorists in the world because America invaded Iraq.’ thing. But Bush made me change my mind.

The telling quote comes from the New York Times 

“You know, to suggest that if we weren’t in Iraq we would see a rosier scenario, with fewer extremists joining the radical movement, requires us to ignore 20 years of experience,” Mr. Bush said. He added: “My judgment is: The only way to protect this country is to stay on the offense.”

 OK. George, as Jon Stewart would say, meet me at camera three. I’ve got a couple of tips for you.

 You and I, we probably think eye to eye on the issue of where Islamic fundamentalists stand. They hate anything western almost as much as – um – Jerry Falwell hates homosexuals.

But do you know what George? The US presence in Islamic countries is one of the most important factors in radicalizing the middle eastern world. 25 years ago America was in Lebanon; about 20 years ago it was the Sudan. One of Usama’s big draws is bitching about having the US in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. That was something your dad did. Remember that? About 12 years ago. You ignored more than 20 years of experience.

This whole mess was caused by your judgement. (well actually Wolfowitz, Feith, Rumsfeld, and the Lord of Darkness Chaney, but that’s not important right now.) Remember your judgement that Hamas would loose the election in Palestine? How about watching Israel ‘kick Hezbollah’s ass?’ Those didn’t work out very well. Do you think Hezbollah is just slightly more popular now that Israel kicked their asses. Do ya think?

Look at the quote in the Times, your own appointee reading from his report saying

“If this trend continues, threats to the U.S. at home and abroad will become more diverse and that could lead to increasing attacks worldwide,” General Hayden said, using the exact language of the intelligence assessment made public on Tuesday. General Hayden is now director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

You can only stop terrorism by removing as many dividing factors as possible. Spreading peace and not war. Might I suggest if you are going to listen to anyone’s judgement, try Colin Powell. He has a grasp on reality. You know – REALITY. It isn’t fun, just somewhere most of us try to live.

 Now George, please, don’t make me have to blog this again.

Ghost? Busted!

I admit it. I have a really vivid dream life. Fortunately, I usually forget what I’ve dreamt even before I finish dreaming it. Yesterday was a bit different. I had a dream about filming a sceptics program in India showing how dishonest the peddlers of healing crystals and Ayurveda are.

The dream started with me entering an esoteric shop and asking the healer to help me. I claimed I was having some problems and inquired what I’d need to do to get some relief. The shopkeeper was very calming and said I would need to hold a diagnosis stone in order for him to pick up the negative vibrations. He could then study the vibrations and prescribe a treatment. (And yes, I know Ayurveda doesn’t work this way. It was a dream.)

I should note here, that what I was dreaming wasn’t my going into the shop itself, but rather my reviewing my video, taped using a hidden camera, of my going into the shop. So we have a dream of a video of a shop selling imaginary charms. Wow, how anti-existential do you want to get for one night?

Back to the dream; I am handed a rather beat-up piece of dark glass and told to hold it while concentrating on my problems. I solemnly hold the piece of ‘crystal’ and pretend to concentrate on my problems while the shopkeeper/healer looks very concerned. While doing this, I mentally write the narration saying that the peddler would be better off selling this type of trinket to foolish tourists as an example of glass beads traded to Indian merchants by the British in the previous century. “These beads are very rare and highly valued”; sort of a reverse trading-worthless-trinkets-to-the-gullible kind of thing. But I digress. After a little while he remarks that it should be long enough and asks for the glass stone diagnostic crystal .

Looking very serious he holds the crystal in both hands, wringing it like a wet rag, moving his hands back and forth as if he were trying to wash any evil from the stone. He does an excellent job of pretending to pick up the vibrations from the stone and makes a really cool grunting/humming/tsking sounds before pronouncing his diagnosis.

I have an energy blockage of some kind. It is extremely serious and I am lucky to have come to his shop when I did, otherwise things would have gone very, very wrong. He is one of the few people who knows how to treat this and he proceeds to collect several different crystals, powders and herbs explaining what I need to do to ‘unblock’ and ‘recenter.’ None of his explanations seem either comforting or comfortable but I act relieved and pay a rather exorbitant sum for the rather worthless collection of dead plants and pebbles.

I later do the journalistic pounce thing, returning to the shop and forcing the poor guy into the defensive, mumbling and defending his way of life. I feel like the ‘Oh, aren’t I just the really impressive journalist, protecting you, dear viewer, from giving your hard earned tourist dollars to some impoverished healer/seller of stones.’ Color me Ralph Nader.

For most people that would have been enough for one dream. Me? I’m just getting warmed up. Now enter the second shopkeeper.

This time it is not a he but a she. We have moved to a new town and are in a much more middle class, upscale shopping district. The woman is the image of the professional sub-continental business woman, well-dressed, urban, intelligent and confident. She greets me, listens to my claims and hands me a stone. I can already tell, for whatever reason, she just isn’t buying my baloney; a reverse sceptic if you will.

I hold the stone while she watches more distracted and annoyed than helpful. I make a show of trying to imbibe the rock with whatever bad vibrations I might have, attempting to wring the stone just like the guy in the previous shop. It worked for him, right?

I give the stone back to the woman who holds it briefly in both hands. No wringing or grunting here, just a slight frown. She shifts position slightly, grasping the stone tighter, then places the stone to her forehead, pretending that the proximity to her brain will help her pick up any negativity. I can tell she hasn’t bought my charade and is simply going through the motions of her own play-acting. Sure enough after a few seconds, she coolly informs me that she can detect no problem. Perhaps I should try western medicine. The sceptic exposed!  She’s really good; I am majorly impressed with the up-market quackery.

Ha! But I have a back up plan. I pretend to be really relieved to hear this. You see, I’ve only been living in India for about 3 months. A few weeks ago, a co-worker had invited me to a wedding in his village. I had been honoured and went along for the experience. For some reason, during the ceremony I managed to disgruntle the village witch who proceeded to curse me. Actually, she hadn’t cursed me; she had called upon some ghost to haunt me. Ever since then absolutely nothing has gone right. My project is behind schedule, I feel sick, and my sex life has gone downhill into a valley of nothingness. I hadn’t quite believed in the witch and am just so relieved that the healer is on the same wavelength. All this gushes out in a too fast, “Thank God I’m not possessed!” kind of speech. Excellent acting if I do say so myself.

This is not what the woman had expected. Now she looks rather nonplussed and a slight look of doubt crosses her face. She recovers immediately and responds with the perfect explanation. She couldn’t use the stone to test whether I was being haunted or not. The stone only works for finding internal problems. She would need a much more complicated ritual to find out whether my problems were spectral, not spiritual. I would need to return later after she had made certain arrangements. She warns me this ceremony would not be without risk to her and is fairly expensive. She’d need some money up front to prepare but, as she hastened to point out, she wouldn’t charge me for my previous consultation if I go ahead with the next step. I just need to spend some money to save some money. Nice bait and switch.

What’s the sceptical journalist to do? I’m in. The rest is fairly predictable. I return later to incense and nonsense. The standard semi-serious mumbo-jumbo* but I am impressed by the really nice outfit the healer wears during the second session. After declaring me to be ghost ridden, she tells me of a priest I must immediately visit to rid my self of evil spirits. I go to priest, get exorcised. Finally, I return doing the journalistic pounce thing all over again. Pow! Zap! Aren’t I just the investigative reporter?

*I know. This is Hindu not voodoo, but what’s mumbo-jumbo in Hindi?

This dream was weird on a number of levels. I don’t mean the sceptic thing. Just think what Freud (Verry, Verry interesting. I zink ve must follow ze reason for ze stones. Vhat do stones say to you?) or Moses (You will think you are sick in the first season of the year. After feeling better, a more dangerous and foreboding illness will encroach in the second season. This too will pass.) might have said about this.

What I find strange is the absolute lack of inducing factors for this dream. Sure, I’m a sceptic but I’m neither a journalist nor a fan of India. The closest I’ve come to seeing anything about India in resent months was a program about horse racing in Uzbekistan. And I haven’t even started looking at Ayurveda silliness yet. So what caused this dream? Perhaps it was the mind-warping, kamikaze memory molecule from earlier.

I have to say, I don’t have even a ghost of an idea.

Anti-Déjà vu

I had a strange experience last night while shopping. I was waiting in the checkout line and had this really weird thought. I remembered the memory of never having seen the person in front of me. It was true. I had never seen the person before yesterday. 

But what caused this? Was it a thought and an anti-thought colliding and producing a feeling of unease and a couple of strange quirks? Sort of a mini black hole imploding in my mind, sucking down reality into a kind of mental event horizon? 

Or perhaps it was some mind-altering molecule that has lurked in my brain since a misspent youth, like some molecular sleeper cell waiting to attack some unsuspecting neuron. Did it have a little calendar, marking off the days until the finale? Perhaps it wore a little molecular kamikaze headband and prayed using miniscule incense sticks just prior to tossing itself into some vital thought process.

If déjà vu is the memory of something that couldn’t have happened previously, is anti- déjà vu the memory of something that hasn’t happened?

Are the Aliens Speaking in your Brain?

Here’s one stop shopping for your personal EMF blockage needs (AKA tinfoil underpants).

Who knows, this could be important some day. But probably not.

Hat Tip: Mimi Smartypants

One Man’s Take on the Assault on Science

Ken Miller spoke this year at the Yale Terry Lecture about the Dover trial and about coexistence of theism and evolution. I just finished watching the video and I can only encourage you to watch it. Miller is an excellent speaker and this is an excellent lecture.

Unfortunately, this speech has been attacked in other blogs due to what Miller said about theism. I won’t go there except to say I’d throw my weight in Miller’s side of the discussion. I would argue that Miller’s attempt to find a path between science and faith, often perceived as nothing but a minefield, is nothing short of saintly. I can’t argue his theism; I won’t even argue whether he is right. More important is his emphasis on understanding and cooperation and not exclusion and confrontation.

I’d prefer to look at Miller’s comments on how partisan science has become in the last few years. This came up not in the speech itself but in the question and answer period that followed.

It started with a question from Carl Zimmer (The Loom) asking for Miller’s comments about an attack on Chris Mooney  by the Discovery Institute. Miller responded, that since the Kitzmiller verdict showed ID to be religion and not science, the DI has spent increasing time attacking proponents of science. Mooney, the author of ‘The Republican War on Science’ is one of the victims because he has pointed out the tactics used by the Discovery Institute and the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.

What I find more disturbing were Miller’s comments on the changing political atmosphere in America today. Miller begins by describing why he went into science and what has changed in resent years.

One of the things I liked about science and one of the reasons I wanted to go into science as a career is because science isn’t politicised. I mean there isn’t a conservative version of the Krebs Cycle or a liberal version of the cell cycle. I mean it just doesn’t exist.

And I went to scientific meetings for 25 years, the early part of my career. I don’t recall talking about politics even once. I’m an officer of the American Society for Cell Biology; I go to the Cell Biology meetings every year. The last two years, it’s been nothing but politics. And the reason for that is that the major political parties seem to have picked up scientific issues as part of their partisan agenda.

As an experiment I a group in my own freshman biology class this year “Would you regard evolution as a liberal or conservative idea?” They all said, Oh it’s a liberal idea, left wing, liberal. They didn’t say Commie, Pinko but they all said left wing idea. [My transcript, any errors are mine.]

He goes on to make the point that 100 years ago, evolution was considered to be a conservative , right-wing, economically laissez-faire topic. (Of course the classic case of right wing misuse of the evolutionary theories is how it was mutated into Social Darwinism and became one of the keystones of Nazi ideologies.)

The problem here is not how the science is being misused but that the science is being seen through political frames. Both right and left increasingly point to science or anti-science as the argument requires. Left is less likely to use anti-science, but the willingness of both sides to find a ‘second opinion’ is increasing common. Not only does this worry me, but I think the rate at which this separation into left and right science is increasing. Evolution, global warming, stem cells, even what went wrong during Katrina; no stone or scientific paper is left unturned or untouched.

The Discovery Institute often uses a cartoon showing the ‘Darwinist’ Huns at the gate of Christian security. In the case of partisan use of science, we have both sides, Republican and Democrat, besieging an overwhelmed science.

Miller discussed his take on this assault; I’m just worried that the war is far from over and only a few are fighting for the good guys.

Those Who Don’t Do – Talk

Just in case you missed it, Michael Kinsley wrote a wonderful essay on the victory ( – um – challenge, – no – victory,  NO! conflict – um – whatever ) in Iraq last Friday for Slate.

He simply follows the evolution of the remarks made by the Bush administration about the conflict in Iraq since May 2003.

I cry foul.
It is absolutely unfair to use what a politican says. After politicians don’t talk, they do things. Oh wait, no. Politicians don’t do, they just talk.

Regretting not going to MIT?

Do you every wish you could have gone to MIT? 

I don’t. I wouldn’t have been nearly intelligent enough. But how can I be so sure?  I’ve watched a number of the freshman streamed lectures.

MIT has this amazing service called Open Course Ware.

Interested in Physics? Watch the really entertaining first three semesters presented by Walter Lewin. How about Biology being taught by one of the central figures in the sequencing of the human genome?  

Perhaps other interests?  Enjoy.

Shooting Down the 2nd Amendment

Imagine someone invoking the thoughts and deeds of the Founding Fathers to justify actions today. Now imagine someone actually going back and checking those pesky little details, the facts. It appears that is what Saul Cornell did while researching his newest book which he recently promoted in Minneapois-Saint Paul.

Cornell, a professor at Ohio State University, passed through town the other day with much to say about regulating guns. Yet his aim isn’t to take sides in the modern gun-control debate — a squabble he thinks has strayed rather off-topic. It’s far more interesting, he thinks, to look back to learn what this country’s founders actually thought about gun regulation.

They couldn’t imagine life without it, says Cornell. That’s the point of his new book, “A Well Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.” In it, Cornell excavates the foundations of the Second Amendment and offers some startling conclusions.

“As long as we’ve had guns in America,” says Cornell, “we’ve had gun regulation.” In fact, the Second Amendment’s chief purpose is to assure such regulation. Without it, the founders feared, anarchy might take hold.[my emphasis]

I wouldn’t say that anarchy is imminent. I do feel groups fighting any form of gun regulation are doing more to contribute to the problem than solve it.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a big Founding Fathers fan (the Enlightenment was so pre-scientific method) but they were a pretty clever set of people. I am relieved to see that I am finally on their side instead of wondering how their system might be improved.

Nevertheless, much of the current political climate has misused and misconstrued exactly what the Founding Fathers actually wanted to say. Now, in an earlier post, I asked the question whether people feel safe to walk the streets. It seems I am not alone questioning this nor am I alone in the feeling that the question should be asked.

Unfortunately in today’s climate, I’m sure ideas like this will be shot down before they get very far.

Hat tip: Ralph E. Luker/CLIOPATRIA

Politician Lies; Demonstrations Rock the Streets

No, really! Not in America of course; it happened in that bastion of democracy, Hungary.

It all started so harmlessly, just a leaked tape. According to the Daily Telegraph (free registration required):

Hungary’s Socialist Party has publicly backed prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany after the leak of a tape in which he admitted lying to win April’s general election, despite opposition calls for him to quit.

The taped comments, in which Mr Gyurcsany said “we lied in the morning, we lied in the evening” about the need to raise taxes, among other things, were made at a party meeting in which he urged the party to embrace economic reform to fix Hungary’s persistent budget problems. [my emphasis]

For a brief time, there were loud demonstrations demanding Gyurcsany’s resignation. That a politician would use slightly less than the truth to win an election seemed – um – dishonest. We don’t want dishonest politicians, do we? Politicians who will say one thing to the public, and something quite different during a closed-doors conference. Or perhaps politicians who claim the world is safer because they led an ill-advised invasion of a foreign country?

Fortunately reality has set in. There are better things to get upset about than expecting honesty from public officials. (I wonder how the Hungarian national football/soccer team is doing?)

The effects probably won’t remain long. This weekend, the Telegraph reports that the number of demonstrations in Hungary waned.

But last night, the violence looked to be dwindling and, for many in the city, life has gone on as normal. Bars are busy, restaurant tables fully booked, tourists undeterred.

The biggest danger to Mr Gyurcsany may lie within his own party. What started as an explosion of popular anger has quickly deteriorated into accusations of political skulduggery involving a power struggle between two of the country’s leading politicians, allegations of faked bomb plots and football hooligans for hire.

Fortunately modern politics are like modern detergents, no stain stands much of a chance. Indeed,according to the politicians involved,  votes or no votes, nothing really changes; demonstrations are merely a blot on the democratic process. The Washington Post quotes Hungary’s Premier Minister (the taped one):

“Neither the government’s actions nor what happens in the party depend on the final outcome (of the elections),” Gyurcsany was quoted as telling the Vasarnap Reggel newspaper. “I’m going to fight for these policies and part of it is the modernization of the Socialist Party.”
“This is not only the tragedy of the Hungarian right but also of Hungarian democracy,” he told reporters.

But just imagine this happening in America, now, during an election year! If American voters would actually violently demonstrate when top elected officials are caught lying. Terrorism would cease to be an issue because the streets would lay in ruins, destroyed by disgruntled voters. Immigration laws would become irrelevant because help would be needed to help clean up and repair the damage. DHS would really have to do something. But no. Not in America. In America, political indifference and lots of junk food have turned the American voter into a passive couch potato.

According to the Daily Telegraph, Hungarians have a much more social view of politics. Quoting George Jaksity, the former chairman of the Budapest stock exchange:

“Typical Hungary,” said Mr Jaksity, arguing that Hungarians were just no good at revolutions.

“We go out on to the streets and start to shout and get drunk and then we get tired and we go home.”

At least they take to the streets and get drunk. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s the ticket, The Free Beer (Political) Party. Na, would probably be illegal – or at least dishonest.

Heads Up: Insuring Intelligence

You might not think about it, but there is a new threat in the global war on terror: getting sued if you’re an intelligence officer. But all risks can be minimized and according to Newsweek, intelligence officers are turning to insurers.

To protect themselves, many CIA officers take out insurance policies, according to current and former intelligence officials who, like all agency employees, would not be named. For a $300 yearly premium, Wright & Co. (known around the agency as Wright Brothers) will cover legal fees for CIA employees sued in the line of duty. Last week, at CIA headquarters, agency employees darkly joked among themselves about the possible fallout to come. “A lot of people are checking their Wright Brothers insurance,” says a former senior Clandestine Service official.

Why would this be important? Well, what if you kidnap someone and the world finds out about it? What happens if the world gets grumpy? What happens if the federal prosecutor in some backwater country presses charges? (Again from Newsweek)

As many as 20 CIA officials and contractors could face legal charges in Germany for their alleged role in the abduction of Khaled el-Masri, a German national once wrongly suspected of involvement with 9/11 conspirators, German officials say. Amid new disclosures last week by a German TV show, a Munich prosecutor confirmed to NEWSWEEK that he is conducting a probe into the people who carried out the abduction—an inquiry that could soon lead to arrest warrants.

Most people might attribute a willingness to get sued or prosecuted to a certain fanaticism. Perhaps. But why is the CIA so willing to torture people in the first place? The LA Times has an excellent article explaining this.

But [Paul] Pillar[, former deputy director of the CIA counterterrorism center,] and others noted that spies, unlike soldiers, are not afforded the protections of the Geneva Convention. Therefore, agency officials are less preoccupied with the concern over reciprocity articulated by Powell and others.

The convention spells out elaborate protections for captured soldiers, and sets minimum standards for others who are captured who are not in uniform.

But spies fall into a separate category. Those engaged in espionage “shall not have the right to the status of prisoner of war,” according to the convention, which also says that an occupying government “may impose the death penalty” in cases when a prisoner is guilty of espionage.

All three articles are eye openers. Both into the nuts and bolts areas of intelligence work but also in a shadowy area of the insurance industry.

Now if the intelligence community could just insure success…

Hat Tip: Laura Rozen, who put this really remarkable connection together. (I just fluffed and trimmed a bit. Laura Rozen, Goddess of the News.)