Wednesday, March 31, 2004

"A gloom is settling over the city"

When the UK handed control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, there was an agreement called the "Basic Law," supposedly protecting the territory's right to a separate political and economic system for 50 years and providing that any electoral changes must be approved by the government of Hong Kong before being ratified by the National People's Congress in Beijing.

Now China is maintaining that the government must look to the intentions of the negotiators - that is, the Chinese negotiators, not the British ones - who drafted the Basic Law rather than to what it actually says.

China has also threatened to suspend the Basic Law if it appears events in Hong Kong affect Chinese national security. Among such threats, it seems, was last year's massive demonstration that forced local governors to drop strict security controls. Such exercises of civic involvement seem to be disturbing to Beijing.

As a result, the Chinese government is to decide sometime this week what moves toward democracy will be allowed in Hong Kong in coming years. While Hong Kong officials welcomed that announcement, democracy activists were furious, saying that it's setting limits on democracy even before the people of the territory have a chance to discuss how they want to choose their leaders.

I can't say I'm surprised. The population of Hong Kong is only a small part of China as a whole, but I still can't believe the central authorities can be happy about the continued functioning of a democratic enclave with a population pushing seven million. In fact, back on February 2, in response to earlier moves by Beijing to assert more control over Hong Kong, I said
Did anyone really honestly believe that Beijing would honor the promises it made about political freedoms for Hong Kong? I mean really? And what do you think are the chances, with the "huge Chinese market," as it's always described, in play, that anyone will speak out on behalf of Hong Kong now?
I see no reason to alter that sentiment.


What is Kung Fu? (Acceptable: Gongfu)

Foreign Words and Phrases for $1000

Spanish for "little war," it's a member of a small band of irregular soldiers who harass the enemy by surprise raids.

Just a reminder

The liberal talk radio network "Air America Radio" is supposed to hit the airwaves in three markets at noon today.

As I've already mentioned, this is not a radical or progressive outfit; in fact, they prefer to describe themselves as moderate and "leaning a little to the left." Still, it's better than the radio playing nothing but Rush and The Ranters.

Supposedly, they're going to be streaming the audio on the internet at It might be worth a listen.

Update: I listened for a while, caught the end of Al Franken's interview with ex-Senator Bob Kerrey, now of the 9/11 commission and the beginning of Michael Moore's appearance. It was okay, better than the typical boring policy wonk crap our side usually thinks is entertaining radio. There was also a bit about supposedly having Ann Coulter "accidentally" locked in the Green Room. It fell flat, I think. I'll listen more.

One thing I have to find out in listening to the other hosts is what kind of style they bring. I maintain that what the network needs is a real flame-thrower. Someone who will call the bastards bastards, the creeps creeps, the liars liars, without qualifying, without apology, and without ever backing down. Someone who won't stop to defend unless it's part of an attack. Take no prisoners, scorched-Earth advocacy.

That's what Ann Coulter freely admits to being. That's what every movement needs: Someone on point. It's way past time we had one. And no, Al Franken does not qualify.


Peter Ustinov, 1921-2004

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

What's it to ya? part two

The White House has agreed to have Condoleezza Rice testify in public and under oath before the 9/11 Commission.

That gives you a pretty good indication of the relative importance of politics and "important Constitutional principles" for the Bush gang.

What's it to ya? part one

In her "60 Minutes" appearance on Sunday, Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that the day after 9/11, George Shrub pressed Richard Clarke to look for connections between Iraq and the attacks. She described it as "a perfectly logical question."

This was, of course, the conversation that just last week the White House was strongly hinting never took place.


What is yenta?

Foreign Words and Phrases for $600

A Chinese form of self-defense, its name means "work man."

Monday, March 29, 2004

The knock on the door

: knock knock :


"Good evening. We're investigating a report of a prowler in the neighborhood. Do you mind if I come inside and ask a few questions?'

"Uh, well, no, I guess not, officer.... Okay, come on in."

: police officer enters your house :

"Your demeanor gives me cause to have concern for my safety. I'm going to search your house."

"Huh?? Do you have a warrant?"

"I don't need one. Now stand aside or you'll be arrested for hindering a police investigation."

Hey! Is that legal?

If you live within the jurisdiction of the 5th Circuit of the US Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, it is. In what local media call a "groundbreaking" decision,
[p]olice officers in Louisiana no longer need a search or arrest warrant to conduct a brief search of your home or business.
This arose from a case where police went to a home and once allowed inside, conducted a "cursory" search - which involved looking under furniture and other places not immediately visible - looking for weapons on the grounds that they felt their safety was in question.

The did find guns, although the person who would supposedly wield them was not there. When he was arrested, a motion was made to suppress the evidence of the guns based on the argument that it was illegally obtained. The Court disagreed, ruling that if police fear for their safety, they have may conduct a search so long as it's "limited." What's more, anything they find in the course of that search, even if it has nothing to do with anything that could threaten them, is admissible in court.

Another slice of the baloney. Another piece of the whole taken away. And with each slice we're told some variation of this:
New Orleans Police Department spokesman Capt. Marlon Defillo said the new power will go into effect immediately and won't be abused.
Don't worry, be happy - even though two dissenting judges called the decision "the road to hell" and even a former US prosecutor said "it goes way too far."

Some years ago, Jules Pfeiffer had a wonderful comic strip story about atmospheric nuclear testing. After each test, some official of whatever government did it announced "this test has added no appreciable amount of radioactive fallout to the atmosphere." Eventually, the air started to contain visible black specks, which grew larger and larger as the tests continued. In response, the governments hired PR experts to run campaigns with slogans like "Big Black Specks Are Pretty." Eventually, of course, there was one super test - which took out everyone and everything.

What I've always remembered is the part about the continued reassurance that each test was insignificant - even as the specks were growing.

I don't know about you, but with regard to our civil liberties and privacy, I'm seeing black specks.

Footnote: TalkLeft has more on this here.

Update March 31: I had the facts of the case a little wrong, but in a way that doesn't change the implication. The police went to the home - a trailer - to question a suspect in connection with a recent crime. They were given entry by someone else who was there, who told them that the man they were seeking was asleep in another room.

The police, saying they felt their safety was at risk because they didn't know for certain where this man was, looked through the trailer, supposedly for him. It was in the course of that search that they found the guns. The court ruled in effect that the cops' subjective opinion as to their safety made the search "reasonable," outweighing any constitutional protections against unreasonable searches, and that anything found in the course of such a "reasonable" search is admissible evidence.

What's most interesting - and disturbing - about the decision is that the judges could have found (I'm not saying they should have, only that they could have) that the search for the suspect was legitimate based on safety issues - but only for that purpose, that is, only for ensuring safety. They then could have said that nothing found in the search was admissible.

It would have been interesting to see the police department's response to such a ruling; I suspect it would have been outrage, which is the usual police response to any ruling that stops short of "do what you flipping please." In any event, the fact that course wasn't taken is, I think, sufficient proof that there was a lot more on the judges' minds than the officers' "safety."

What was that about Saddam developing bioweapons?

And of course my very next post is one of those "go read this" ones I just complained about. But the article is too long to summarize easily and too important to do so inadequately. It's one by Michael Scherer in the March/April issue of Mother Jones magazine, available online here.

Just to give you a sense, this is the opening paragraph:
It has been called a modern-day Manhattan Project - a spending spree so vast and rapid that it might change the face of biological science. In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government is funding a massive new biodefense research effort, redirecting up to $10 billion toward projects related to biological weapons such as anthrax. The Pentagon's budget for chemical and biological defense has doubled; high-security nuclear-weapons labs have begun conducting genetic research on dangerous pathogens; universities are receiving government funding to build high-tech labs equipped to handle deadly infectious organisms; and Fort Detrick, Maryland, once the home of America's secret bioweapons program, is about to break ground on two new high-tech biodefense centers.
Regarding some of the work, Scherer quotes a critic of biodefense spending as saying "If [the researcher] worked in a Chinese, Russian, or Iranian laboratory, his work might well be seen as the 'smoking gun' of a bio-warfare program."

But of course, since we're Americans, that can't possibly be true.

The future of this blog

Well, the near future, anyway.

Based on tracking of my hit count and my referrers, it appears to me I have a small group of regular readers who check in once or twice a week to see what's up. So this is really a heads-up for them.

I've re-entered the world of work. I know, gasp. But as is typical for me, it's not usual work and certainly not 9-5. (A couple of years ago for about six months and quite by coincidence of scheduling I actually worked 9-5 Monday to Friday. It was the first and so far the only time in my life I've done that.)

It's actually two part-time jobs involving - another gasp - educational programs around science and history, respectively. Two-part time jobs with varying schedules that I'm going to have to juggle pretty much week by week. (Well, not exactly; I will be able to plan several weeks in advance but that planning is going to involve that week-to-week juggling act to set up.)

And one other thing: For several believe-it-or-not practical reasons, I just bought a new computer. Which means that I have to spend time installing programs and transferring files.

What's the point of all this "a day in my life" stuff? Blogging may be limited for the next week or so. Don't be surprised if the only thing you see is the Jeopardy! answer/question of the day.

At the same time, I mentioned last month that I was hoping to nudge this thing more toward the idea I had at the beginning, which involved fewer, longer, more in-depth, more analytical pieces than just a string either of "hey-look-at-this"-plus-link posts or long-excerpt-from-some-other-source-plus-"I-agree" posts - the latter two being something of which I think too many blogs are guilty.

I think I've taken some steps in that direction; I'd like to go a little further, so you may see more along those lines in the future. (If any of you remember the print version of "Lotus," imagine this being something more like that.)

In doing this, I've tried not only to provide an outlet for my ideas but to provide, if you will, some kind of service. As part of that, I've tried to post more on topics (or aspects of topics) that were not getting a lot of focus in other lefty blogs, or at least the major ones. That is, I didn't want to talk about the same things everyone else was already talking about. Thus, for example, I spent virtually no space posting about the Democratic primaries; my only two long posts relating to them were about press coverage rather than the primaries themselves.

(I will have something to say about John Kerry, "Anybody But Bush," and other related topics in the near future.)

On the other hand, I think you'd be hard put to find one of those blogs that has paid any attention to Cyprus and few that have devoted as much space to Haiti.

I'm not saying this to blow my own horn, although I admit I'd love to have a good opportunity to do exactly that. It is, rather, to say why I think my small voice has added some value to the overall discussion of who we are as a people and as a political society. (Well, okay, I guess that is blowing my own horn - but you'll have to agree it's kind of a small horn. More like a toot than a blow.)

That's the end of this long, disjointed ramble except to say that I'm egotistical enough to hope to increase my visibility (I intend to place a few cheap ads on other blogs to see how that works) but also humble enough (I'm proud of how humble I am, you know) not only to welcome any feedback but to ask for it. Comment here, comment in email. Hell, those of you who know who I am can comment by phone. But I would like to hear from you.


Who is Al Gore (Jr.)?

Foreign Words and Phrases for $200

Yiddish for "a gossipy woman," it's derived from a woman's name.

The article is a few days old, but still much worth noting

Citing the risk of a catastrophic ship-borne terrorist attack on a US port, Congress passed a new law of the sea 16 months ago. The passage was all but unnoticed by the public, as was a new global code adopted by the UN's International Maritime Organization under US pressure.

At bottom, the law and code require all the world's ships and ports to install counterterrorist systems - computers, communications gear, surveillance cameras, security patrols, the whole schmeer - by July 1 of this year.
If a ship, or any one of the last 10 ports it visited, does not meet the new security standards, it can be turned away from American waters. If a port falls short, no ship leaving it can enter American harbors. That means ports, and their nations, can be barred from trading with the United States.
The cost of such security systems will reach to many billions of dollars, money which many poor nations don't have. (Indeed, many US ports can't afford the requirements, either - and Bush's budget for domestic port security is equal to less than 1% of the cost of compliance.) But spend it they must, without any help from us, at the risk of losing access to US ports.

And just in case the monumental selfish arrogance of this isn't clear, let me spell it out: The United States is using economic blackmail for force other nations, including impoverished ones, to spend huge amounts of money which many of them don't have - to protect us. Not them, us. It's all about us. Us, us, and more us.
"We want to protect our borders," said Kim Petersen, who runs one of the world's biggest maritime consultancies, SeaSecure. "But what happens when we cripple the economy of a developing country and create a breeding ground for the very problems we're trying to prevent?"
I'll go one better: Even if we don't wind up bashing some poor nation's economy by cutting off trade, what does this display of insufferable hubris tell the people of the world about how we see ourselves in comparison to them?

Footnote: The same article, citing the arguments in favor of the measures, says that
Al Qaeda has sought for seven years to use commercial ships to attack the United States at home and abroad, public records show.
Sorry, but doesn't that mean that current security measures are working pretty well?

Just in case you missed it

The Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee, at the request ranking minority member Henry Waxman (D-CA, 30th), has compiled a list of 237 misleading statements made by top White House officials about the "threat" from Iraq. About 1/3 were made after the war started.
Most of the statements were misleading because they expressed certainty where none existed or failed to acknowledge the doubts of intelligence officials, according to the report. Ten statements were false, it said.
The statements are compiled in a searchable database found here; a link to a .pdf version of the whole report is on the same page.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

I hear they're expecting a bumper crop in the White House garden this year

Condoleezza Rice continues to insist that she just can't, oh, can't, really really wants to but just doggone it, can't testify before the 9/11 Commission.
"Nothing would be better, from my point of view, than to be able to testify," Rice told CBS's "60 Minutes." "I would really like to do that. But there is an important principle involved here: It is a long-standing principle that sitting national security advisers do not testify before the Congress."
This is just dishonest in so many ways that it's hard to list them all.

First, as Josh Marshall, who continues to take point on this, notes, the phrasing is carefully parsed. Sandy Berger testified twice before Congress in the 1990s - oh, but the first time he was Deputy National Security Advisor, so that doesn't count. The second time, while he was director of the National Security Council, it was during an investigation of a scandal - so that wasn't "policy," so that doesn't count, either. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski testified in 1980 - again in the context of an investigation, so again that doesn't count.

But beyond that, there's the fact that the Commission is not a Congressional body! Yes, it was created by an act of Congress, but that doesn't make it an arm of the legislative branch. Testifying before the Commission is not testifying before Congress.

Even beyond that, the argument is utter crap on its own terms: Rice has already testified before the Commission and has offered to meet with it again, so the whole argument is bogus on its face. (Although I expect the answer would be that since she wasn't under oath, it wasn't "testimony," which is in line with the Bushites preference for weasel wording. "We never said 'imminent,'" anyone?) What she doesn't want to do - and what Bush doesn't want her to do - is testify under oath. Or in public. Or worse, both. That is, under any conditions where she can be effectively challenged and held responsible for what she says.

They are just cowards. Lying cowards.

Deconstructing a matrix

From TalkLeft we hear that
Utah has joined the growing list of states that are dropping out of the Multistate Antiterrorism Information Exchange, or MATRIX. ...

Gov. Olene Walker recognized that law enforcement agencies have a legitimate need to share information, but not at the expense of equally legitimate interests in protecting privacy.
Quoting the Salt Lake Tribune, TalkLeft adds
Walker's announcement comes a day after a panel that she appointed to review the MATRIX recommended steering clear of the pilot crime-fighting network until "adequate oversight" is established to assure that the billions of public and private records it collects on citizens aren't misused.
Of the 13 states that were originally part of MATRIX, only five remain; the others dropped out over privacy and civil liberties concerns.

Any questions?

Friday's New York Times reports that US officials believe they have found a legal way for US forces to remain in control of "the security situation" in Iraq even after Iraq supposedly regains its sovereignty on July 1 - assuming saying we're in control of it now is not a misnomer.

Relying on an interpretation of a UN Security Council resolution from last October, L. Paul Bremer issued an executive order that the new Iraqi army will be under the operational command of US forces until December 31, 2005. Which means that once again the "irrelevant" Security Council is being used to give cover to the US occupation.

And the part of this that surprises you is...?

Tom Corbett, Space Geek

Rock music - literally - is not a new thing.
Archaeologists have rediscovered a huge rock art site in southern India where ancient people used boulders to make musical sounds in rituals.

The Kupgal Hill site includes rocks with unusual depressions that were designed to be struck with the purpose of making loud, musical ringing tones. ...

The boulders which have small, groove-like impressions are called "musical stones" by locals. When struck with small granite rocks, these impressions emit deep, "gong-like notes".

These boulders may have been an important part of formalised rituals by the people who came there.

In some cultures, percussion plays a role in rituals that are intended for shamen to communicate with the supernatural world. The Antiquity work's author, Dr Nicole Boivin, of the University of Cambridge, UK, thinks this could be the purpose of the Kupgal stones.
The site was first described in 1892 but subsequent explorations couldn't find it, so this is truly a rediscovery.

However, the site is threatened by quarrying.
Modern-day commercial granite quarrying has already disturbed some sections of the hill. A rock shelter with even older rock art to the north of Kupgal Hill has been partially destroyed by quarrying.

"It is clear government intervention will be required to elicit effective protection for the majority of the sites in the [area] if these are not to be erased completely over the course of future years," writes Dr Boivin in Antiquity.
The song says "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Slowly, slowly, we seem to be learning the lesson of valuing what is past, the better to understand how we got to be where we are and who we are. UNESCO's World Heritage sites program is an example of an organized effort toward that end. If you haven't heard of it, check it out.


You're out near Jupiter in an old spaceship. It's cold, very cold. Your power supplies are waning. Parts of your ship are already below freezing. The fuel lines could freeze at any moment. And your flight doesn't end for four more years.

You're the NASA/European Space Agency spacecraft Ulysses. And you're actually a tremendous success story.
Ulysses was launched in 1990 on a five-year mission to study the sun. The craft gathered new data about the speed and direction of the solar wind. It discovered the 3D shape of the sun's magnetic field. It recorded solar flares on the sun, and super-solar flares from distant neutron stars. Ulysses even flew through the tail of comet Hyakutake, an unexpected encounter that delighted astronomers.

The mission was supposed to end in 1995, but Ulysses was too successful to quit. NASA and the ESA have granted three extensions, most recently in Feb. 2004. Ulysses is scheduled to keep going until 2008, thirteen years longer than originally planned.
The craft is still studying the Sun but now it's out by Jupiter and its temperature is dangerously low. If the scientists at ESA and NASA can keep it going for another three years, by then it will be back close enough to the Sun to be out of danger.
Mission scientist Steve Suess at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center believes it's worth the effort. "The extended mission gives us a chance to learn a lot more about the sun." Of special interest is the Solar Minimum. Solar activity waxes and wanes every 11 years, he explains. Ulysses studied the sun's quiet phase, Solar Minimum, between 1994 and 1995. Now Ulysses gets to do it again. "The next Solar Minimum is due around 2006," says Suess, "but it won't be the same as before." In 2001 the sun's magnetic field flipped. The north pole shifted south, and vice versa. Magnetically speaking, the sun is now upside down. How will that affect Solar Minimum?
Yes, the Sun's magnetic field can flip, just like the Earth's. Cool stuff, eh?

Babylon Geek

A recent discovery indicates that the development of symbolic thinking in humans may be far older than previously thought, the BBC reported last week.

An animal bone found in a cave in northwest Bulgaria displays a number of parallel lines etched into its surface. Researchers who are investigating the cave insist that no practical action, such as butchering a carcass, can explain the marks.
"These lines were not from butchering; in this place (on the animal) there is nothing to cut. It can't be anything else than symbolism," [said] Dr Jean-Luc Guadelli, of the University of Bordeaux, France.
What makes that significant is that the bone was marked between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago - while many researchers believe the capacity for true symbolic thinking arose only about 50,000 years ago. That makes the find quite controversial but also quite important if confirmed, since it would indicate that the ability for symbolic thinking, which underpins all of art, music, mathematics, and language, are older than believed and instead of emerging suddenly with Homo sapiens, likely developed in a different way.

Footnote: The dating was arrived by a technique called palaeomagnetism, which determines age via past reversals in the Earth's magnetic field, which can be detected in rocks.

Trusting trust funds

This week, trustees of Social Security System and Medicare released their projections on the future fiscal status of the funds. Social Security trustees said the trust fund would be exhausted in 2042 (the same as last year), but Medicare trustees projected that their insurance trust fund would be depleted by 2019 - seven years earlier than last year.

This lead to the usual horrified gasps of the right-wing doomsayers and renewed calls for privatizing the whole shebang. However, their wide-eyed, finger-jabbing, ashen-faced expressions of phony dismay don't add up. Social Security first:

Fist and most important is that despite what the headlines say, Social Security is in no danger of going "bankrupt" in 2042. Social Security right now has a surplus. In a few years, the system is going to have to start dipping into that surplus to pay full benefits. By 2042, by current predictions, the surplus will be gone and the system will go into the red. I repeat - into the red. It will have to borrow to meet commitments. It will not bankrupt. (Sidebar: For accuracy, I should say that in a technical sense it would be "bankrupt," or, more accurately, in default, because its obligations would exceed its assets - but you know damn well that's not what most of us think of when we hear "bankrupt" and it's not what the wingnuts want us to think, either.)

Even at that, current levels of Social Security tax revenue would be enough to finance benefits at 70% of current levels through 2078, which is as far out as the trustees try to project. That, I emphasize, is with no changes at all to the system. With just minor changes the problem disappears. (One change I'd strongly recommend is stop pretending Social Security is some sort of government-enforced IRA but is rather a social insurance program - and then eliminating the income ceiling on which SS taxes are levied, a limit which would no longer have any logic to it. Why should, say, Bill Gates pay no more in such taxes than someone earning $90,000 a year?)

There is no Social Security crisis. Period.

Medicare is trickier, but, as Paul Krugman notes in his March 26 column,
[e]ven on Medicare, don't panic. It's not like a private health plan that will go belly up when it runs out of money; it's just a government program, albeit one supported by a dedicated tax. Nobody thinks America's highways will be doomed if the gasoline tax, which currently pays for highway maintenance, falls short of the system's needs - if politicians want to sustain the system, they will. The same is true of Medicare.
More tellingly, Krugman explores how appeals to "the magic of the market" have been exploited to force Medicare to adopt per-person fees to HMOs that accept Medicare recipients rather than the traditional payments to doctors and hospitals for services rendered.

The predictable outcome was that HMOs wanted to accept only healthy recipients, leaving those most in need of care with even fewer resources than they had before - but Medicare wound up paying the HMOs slightly more per person than it had under the old scheme. The result, that is, was increased costs for the public and fewer options for the sick. Fortunately for health care availability, many HMOs later pulled out of the scheme: It seems private health plans, working in the "magical marketplace," have such high overhead that they can't compete with traditional Medicare, even with public subsidies.

The effect was large enough that of the seven years cut off of Medicare's financial stability, two could be traced directly to such increased subsidies.

So of course with the prescription drug bill, they did it all over again, turning it into a cash cow for private insurers. And when the result of that is to further damage Medicare's long-range outlook, the cries to "privatize" the "inefficient" federal "bureaucracy" will get even louder. It's almost like it was done on purpose.

There is one other thing to be mentioned here, which is too big a topic to get into right now, but is very relevant. All the problems of Medicare (and Medicaid) result from one central fact: our insistence on maintaining the fantasy that a private, for-profit health care system is the best engine for delivering and protecting the human right to decent, humane, adequate health care. It's not. At some point we have to stop talking about tinkering with how we subsidize a private system and start talking about a publicly-funded, publicly-directed system - that is, we have to start talking seriously about a single-payer, not-for-profit, national health care system. Until we do, we'll keep on chasing crises.


Who is John Alden?


Though born in Washington, DC, on March 31, 1948, his birth was front-page news in the "Nashville Tennessean."

Oh, well

After a 10 year program looking closely at 800 nearby stars for some kind of radio signals that could indicate the presence of intelligent life on planets possibly circling them, Project Phoenix has come to an end with the conclusion "We live in a quiet neighborhood."

Much of the effort's time was spent using the world's largest radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. There, they did a planned, close scan of a particular swath of sky and nearby stars within it. ("Nearby" is a relative term in astronomy: After the sun, the next nearest star is Proxima Centauri, about 4.3 light years away. That is, it takes light from that star nearly 4-1/2 years to get here. In more familiar but here less useful units, 4.3 light years is about 25 trillion miles or 40 trillion kilometers.) They found nothing that couldn't be ascribed to an Earth source or interference.

However, SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) researchers haven't given up: Next year they intend to start a new search with the Allen Telescope Array, a collection of 32 small radio telescopes electronically linked so they can act as one large one. The intention is to continue to expand that array, in effect making a more and more sensitive telescope that can look for weaker signals from farther away. The plan involves a targeted search of several hundred thousand stars as opposed to the 800 from Project Phoenix.

As the searchers recognize, it's possible such a signal will never be detected. It's possible that there literally is no one out there; it's more possible that there's someone out there but they're not producing signals we can detect, either from lack of intelligence, lack of technology, or just lack of interest. But, as the searchers also recognize, we'll never know if we don't look.

Hooray! A small victory, to be sure, but still....

On Wednesday, the European Commission ordered Microsoft to pay a record fine of $613 million (497 million Euros) for abusing its dominant market position.

The company is so cash-rich that the fine is unlikely to hurt much, but what's more significant is the demand for a more "open" approach to Windows' underlying code. In fact, MS has been ordered to reveal additional details within 120 days, to make it easier for rivals to design compatible products.

This related to another key point, that of "bundling," the practice of including unrelated functions within Windows - for example, its Internet Explorer browser - thus depressing markets for other versions of those same programs. (That tactic - not quality or features, which are roughly equivalent - was largely responsible for the dominance IE obtained over Netscape. Why get the latter if you already have the former?)

The software at issue here is Microsoft's MediaPlayer, held to be the beneficiary of an unfair advantage over market rival (and, in my own opinion, far superior) RealPlayer. Microsoft has been ordered to offer a stripped-down version of its Windows operating system, minus MediaPlayer, within 90 days.
By setting limits on Microsoft's practice of bundling software and services with its Windows operating system, [the Commission] has struck a blow against a key part of the software firm's commercial strategy.
And that's a damned good thing, I say.

The company will still be allowed to sell a version of Windows with MediaPlayer bundled in, but to be sure there is no attempt to downgrade the stripped-down version to push sales away from it, it was ruled that
the Commission would appoint a trustee to make sure Microsoft reveals "complete and accurate" software codes "and that the two versions of Windows are equivalent in terms of performance."
Having seen its claims in its US trial that any unbundling would either be impossible or so severely degrade performance as to make the product unmarketable fail to pass the laugh test, Microsoft didn't try that route this time. Instead, it claimed equally lamely that it shouldn't be fined because it didn't know its practices broke EU law.

The chuckling still echoes in the Commission's halls, I hear.

Microsoft says it will appeal (of course) so the case could drag on for a few more years (of course). But since, unlike the US, the top levels of the EU seem more concerned about monopolies than with finding a way to let Gates off the hook, this could be a case of running the giant to ground. We can hope.

Footnote: This came after Microsoft announced on February 26 it was going to drop a provision in its Japanese contracts which required Japanese computer makers such as NEC, Hitachi, and Sony to sign away their right to sue the Gates boys - even if Microsoft steals their patented technology - in order to be allowed to pre-install Windows on the units they sell.

MS claimed it was acting for "customer satisfaction" reasons. It was, no doubt, pure coincidence that the announcement came shortly after Japanese fair trade officials raided its Tokyo offices on suspicion of violating anti-monopoly laws.

Finding hope

As reported by Stop the FTAA, back on February 27, Federal Judge Donald L. Graham ruled that Miami "shall issue" protest permits to any who seek to engage in free speech activity, putting control of Miami's protest permit scheme in federal court until the city could rectify consituttion problems with laws and regulations that had for decades restricted First Amendment activity in the city.
The ruling came as a result of a federal lawsuit filed in early February by Miami Activist Defense (MAD), the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), and Southern Legal Counsel, which challenges the city’s ordinances concerning protests on sidewalks and streets as well as the city’s permit scheme for First Amendment activities. These ordinances were used during the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) protests to unlawfully detain and arrest hundreds of activists. This damage to the "Miami Model," may also have implications in other U.S. cities that have used similar language to craft protest ordinances of their own.
The success of the suit also lead to the dismissal of most charges against those arrested at the anti-FTAA demonstration in November and moves to repeal the "Parade and Assembly Ordinance" passed just a week before the protests and clearly geared to hindering them.

The reason I mention this now is that the success of that suit has prompted an additional one, filed Thursday in federal court on behalf of several people arrested in November, challenging the very legal basis of the "Miami Model," labeling it a violation of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments.
The Defendants named in the lawsuit, accused of Rights violations, include the City of Miami, Mayors Manny Diaz and Alex Penelas, Police Chief John Timoney, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, Secretary of Homeland Defense Tom Ridge, US Attorney General John Ashcroft. The lawsuit explains how these entities and others engaged in an orchestrated plan to arrest people on baseless charges and to hold them in preventive detention thereby prohibiting First Amendment activity and violating the Fifth Amendment right to due process.
May they have as much success this time.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Just for a smile

Thursday's Toronto Globe & Mail reports that the producers of 1979's Life of Brian - "He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy" - are re-releasing it in North America and Britain at the end of April and aiming directly as Mel Gibson's "equally contentious, but horribly grim," The Passion of the Christ.
The Python distributor, Rainbow Film Company, is promising that movie trailers will appear in cinemas on Good Friday, using tag lines such as "Mel or Monty" and "The Passion or the Python."
I can hear Mel now: "Bring 'em on."


Who was John Sutter?

Dear John for $2000

He and Priscilla Mullens were among the first Pilgrim couples to marry in America.

We are willfully malinformed

In a sane world, this would be a bombshell. In this world it will be interesting to see if anyone notices. This is from the March 26 mailing of The Daily Misleader.
A previously forgotten report from April 2001 (four months before 9/11) shows that the Bush Administration officially declared it "a mistake" to focus "so much energy on Osama bin Laden." The report directly contradicts the White House's continued assertion that fighting terrorism was its "top priority" before the 9/11 attacks.

Specifically, on April 30, 2001, CNN reported that the Bush Administration's release of the government's annual terrorism report contained a serious change: "there was no extensive mention of alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden" as there had been in previous years. When asked why the Administration had reduced the focus, "a senior Bush State Department official told CNN the U.S. government made a mistake in focusing so much energy on bin Laden."
The mailing also notes that AP reported in 2002 that in the months prior to 9/11, the Bush national security team met nearly 100 times - with terrorism the topic of only two. And Newsweek reported around the same time that
internal government documents show that the Bush Administration moved to "de-emphasize" counterterrorism prior to 9/11. When "FBI officials sought to add hundreds more counterintelligence agents" to deal with the problem, "they got shot down" by the White House,
the mailing says. (The original included references to the original articles.)

Actually, I have to amend my opening statement - in a sane world, CNN, AP, and Newsweek would have come up with all this themselves from their own files. Yeah, like that's gonna happen.

We are willfully misinformed

"A lie, repeated often enough, becomes the truth" is an old saying. Watch it in operation:
Washington (AP, March 27) - Emboldened by their deadly success in Spain, terrorists could attempt to influence the U.S. election and shock the world by launching attacks during this year's presidential nominating conventions or at the Olympics in Greece, FBI Director Robert Mueller said Thursday.

"We understand that between now and the election, there is a window of time in which terrorists may well wish to influence events, whether it's in the United States or overseas," Mueller said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Did you catch the lie? If you didn't, it means it's already penetrating.

No, not the second paragraph. That's merely silly unless you want to suggest a time when terrorist groups would not be interested in influencing events. It's purpose, rather, is to maintain a sense of constant danger, the better to keep people in line and achieve the goals of the guardians, including full reauthorization of the Patriot Act, which Mueller said the FBI supports.

The lie is in the very first phrase: "emboldened by their deadly success in Spain." That is, it now is supposed to be just an accepted fact, an unquestioned reality, that the bombings in Madrid were undertaken for the purpose of electing Zapatero and that Spanish voters tossed Aznar because they were frightened by the attack.

That is simply not true. I've gone through all the reasons before, including that the real deciding factor seems not to have been the bombing but public anger over the Aznar government's deceptive, politically-driven response to it.

But truth doesn't matter when there's right-wing conventional wisdom to be promoted.

Willfully ignorant and misinformed when we do try to pay attention. We are seriously screwed.

We are willfully uninformed

According to a Newsweek poll released Saturday, we Americans - or at least a significant number of us - are every bit as willfully uninformed (politer than "ignorant jackasses") as the rest of the world makes us out to be. It didn't say that directly, of course, but it's hard to reach another conclusion.

Some 65% said Richard Clarke's testimony hasn't changed their opinion of Shrub. Standing alone, that of course doesn't mean much: It didn't change mine, either - I already knew he was a self-centered creep whose only concern is his own position and that of his rich cronies and who dismissed credible threats to the physical safety of Americans because it might impact relations with the Saudis.

Half said that Clarke was acting for personal or political reasons. Again, that doesn't necessarily mean a whole lot, since acting out of conviction or even frustration could be called a "personal reason" with impacting the truth of what was said. But the fact that the response is so in line with what the slime buckets are throwing at Clarke to discredit him personally makes it disturbing.

Then there's the fact that 10% of respondents said Clarke's testimony improved their view of Bush. That betrays either deliberate lying to the pollsters or a truly twisted thought process.

But this is the one that got me:
Two-thirds said the Clinton administration did not take the threat of terror seriously enough, while six in 10 said the Bush administration has taken the threat as seriously as it should.
This is after clear testimony that the Clinton administration treated it as an "urgent" issue, with only Middle East peace taking a higher foreign policy priority, while the Bush administration downgraded it to the point where they basically ignored it until a week before 9/11.

You don't need to endorse Clinton's policies on terrorism (I didn't and don't) to realize this is the exact opposite of Clarke's testimony but right in line with the White House propaganda that they wanted to - and did - "do more" than Clinton. The slack-jawed dullards who make up a measurable portion of the electorate would rather swallow whatever bilge Fox Spews presents than actually pay attention and do just the least bit of critical thinking.

Sometimes I just want to give up.

Footnote: See if you can follow this. The link to the story above is broken; it gives a "story not found!!" error. The new lilnk is here. In addition to the link, the headline and the lead have both changed. Originally, it said "Clarke not hurting Bush" and emphasized the 65% who say their view hasn't changed. Now it reads "Poll: Clarke Doubted; Bush Support Ebbs" and leads with the finding that Bush's support on terrorism issues has dropped from 65% just before the hearings to 57% now.

At the same time, MSNBC, referring to the same poll, calls it a "Blow For Bush" in the headline and a "sharp blow" in the lead. The article also compares Bush's current rating to his high of 70% two months ago, make the drop seem even more dramatic.

Make of that what you will.

Must have something to do with the booming economy somehow

After all, you know how focused they were on terrorism.
Washington, March 26 (Reuters) - The U.S. government's Homeland Security Department, which is charged with protecting the nation from a terror attack, has imposed a hiring freeze amid budget concerns and halted nonessential spending at two of its key units, officials said on Friday.

The move to temporarily halt hiring affects two of the department's bureaus - Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
They should have realized something was up when the legislation for their budget got titled No Security Officer Left Behind.

Friday, March 26, 2004


Who was John Barrymore?

Dear John for $1200

Though gold was discovered at his mill in 1848, by 1852 he was bankrupt.

Speaking of not being safer....

Israel's success in assassinating Sheik Ahmed Yassin continues to reverberate across the region, reaching far beyond Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, reaching, in fact, into Iraq.
Baghdad, Iraq (CNN, March 26) - An influential Shiite cleric in Iraq called Israel's assassination of the spiritual leader of Hamas a "dirty crime against Islam" and the September 11, 2001, terror attacks "a miracle from God."

Moqtada al-Sadr delivered a charged sermon at Friday prayers at a mosque near the holy city of Najaf, blasting Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of Hamas. ...

He accused the United States of complicity in Yassin's killing and said Iraqis should react to the assassination "in the way that satisfies God."

Al-Sadr led the worshippers in chants: "No, no Israel! No, no to the Jews! No, no America! No, no to terrorism!"
Sadr is the more radical rival of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Sadr was the one who turned out tens of thousands of demonstrators in January to demand immediate elections, an event which was believed to be behind Sistani's stiffening resistance to the plans for an interim government and delayed elections. His is an extremely powerful voice and for him to assert that the US was involved in the killing of Yassin is to endorse additional levels of violence against Americans in Iraq and those seen to be associated with them.

I wonder if Israel thought of that. I wonder if, if it had, would it care?

Footnote: Israel stands by its "marked for death" policy.
Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that even if a harsh response from Hamas was likely, the long-term effect of the killing will be to rein in militants "because their leaders will know that they will be destroyed"
reported the BBC on March 22. Now, considering the result has been to prompt Hamas to select as its new leader in Geza one of its most "combative," "vitriolic" figures, one who even denounced a truce declared by Hamas and other Palestinian groups last summer, I wonder if when the next suicide bomb goes off Netanyahu will tell the families of the dead with a shrug that their deaths were only what was expected and were "worth it" to combat Hamas?

And by the way, just when has a policy of "kill their leaders" worked against terrorism for Israel? For anyone, for that matter? Why is it that attacks on "us" supposedly make us "stronger, more determined," but attacks on "them" will "destroy them?" Why is it that "our" leaders are brave, noble, true, while "their" leaders are cowards who will run and hide, taking their supporters with them, if they think their own lives are at risk?

Scummy is as scummy does

These people are so low they could walk under an ant without bending over.
Washington (AP, March 26) - Leading congressional Republicans announced plans Friday to seek declassification of 2-year-old testimony from Richard Clarke, hoping to show discrepancies between his recent criticisms of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies with flattering statements he made as a White House aide.

"Mr. Clarke has told two entirely different stories under oath," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said in a speech on the Senate floor.

The Tennessee Republican and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, want Clarke's July 2002 testimony before the joint House and Senate intelligence inquiry into the September 11, 2001, attacks available publicly. ...

The allegations against Clarke could linger for weeks as the declassification request winds through the appropriate agencies to ensure sensitive national security information isn't revealed.
The last paragraph being the significant one. This is simply a way to impugn his credibility without ever having to demonstrate it, a way to attack him without ever having to back it up, a way, that is, to avoid having to put up while not having to shut up.

(And this is, of course, after the White House allowed Fox News to reveal Clarke as the source of a briefing for reporters in which he supported White House policy, a briefing used - ineffectively - by Republican attack dogs on the 9/11 commission to go after him.)

Others have tried to strike back, for example Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) said sure, let's declassify that - and also Clarke's plan about dealing with al-Qaeda presented to the administration in January, 2002. He said he recalled nothing "inconsistent or contradictory" between the 2002 testimony and what Clarke said to the 9/11 Commission. And
California Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also wants to see more information disclosed, including 27 pages of the congressional inquiry's report addressing the involvement of a foreign government in supporting some of the 19 hijackers - an item of dispute with the Bush administration.

"This is selective declassification, in my view, and it is all about discrediting an administration critic," Harman said.
We can all guess how far those requests will go.

There's a joke lawyers tell on themselves having to do with why lawyers were used in a certain laboratory experiment, the answer being "because there are some things even a rat just won't do." The GOP leaders are a much more deserving target.

Update, Can You Say "Fishing Expedition?" Dept.: Josh Marshall tips us to an MSNBC story stating that just hours after accusing Clarke of perjury, Frist backed off,
telling reporters that he personally had no knowledge that there were any discrepancies between Clarke's two appearances. But he said, "Until you have him under oath both times, you don't know."
Did I say ant? I meant worm.

Missed again!

With most US media, even newspapers, acting more like a headline service than actual carriers of news, it's not surprising that some important things get overlooked if not ignored. A great deal of ink - there's an expression that's beginning to seem dated, yes? - was devoted to the testimony of Richard Clarke, and rightfully so. Even more space was devoted to the Bushites ad hominem attacks, and wrongfully so - but leave that for now. (For Fred Kaplan's interesting take on Clarke's appearance, go here.)

But with the focus on the fireworks, other things get lost in the shuffle. An example was Bob Kerrey's denunciation of the White House's "antiterror plan." This was the plan that the Shrub team was supposedly working on from "day one," the one that was to be the "comprehensive plan" to "eliminate" al-Qaeda, the one they were working on all through the spring and summer of 2001, which is why they paid no attention to all the warning signs and dismissed Clarke's complaints, and why it's so unfair now to accuse them of not taking it all very, very seriously. In short, their excuse.

Turns out it's as lame as everything else about them. From the International Herald Tribune for Thursday:
While Bush administration officials complained Wednesday that the Clinton administration had failed to provide them with a fully developed antiterror plan, Kerrey said that he had been briefed Wednesday morning on the plan Bush officials came up with. "I would say fortunately for the administration, it's classified," Kerrey said, "because there's almost nothing in it. It calls for more diplomacy; it calls for increased pressure" and "for some vague things to try to oust Mullah Omar," then the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Some hint as to what that plan consisted of was contained in an AP story for March 23, literally at the very end.
At a Sept. 10, 2001, meeting of second-tier Cabinet officials, officials settled on a three-phase strategy. The first step called for dispatching an envoy to talk to the Taliban. If this failed, diplomatic pressure would be applied and covert funding and support for anti-Taliban fighters would be increased.

If both failed, "the deputies agreed that the United States would seek to overthrow the Taliban regime through more direct action," the report said. Deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the strategy had a three-year time frame.
In other words, they ignored the briefings they got from the Clinton transition team and ignored Clarke, because they wanted a "comprehensive" plan - and after eight months of what they'd have us believe was unremitting toil they come up with a plan not only almost identical to the Clinton plan but actually proposing to back up a few steps and start all over again.

In other words, they accomplished exactly nothing. And other than what's above and a passing reference in Reuters' coverage, I saw nothing about it in the US media (of which, in fact, the Herald Tribune should not be considered part).

Now, I want to make clear here that this is not an endorsement of harsher military action than was undertaken or proposed. (John Kerrey was advocating military assaults on Afghanistan well before September 11, so he's not exactly an unbiased observer, himself.) And one thing I do agree with the White House on is that an attack on the Taliban for their role as "host" to al-Qaeda in the summer of 2001 would likely have had no effect on September 11. I have said numerous times that ultimately the only effective weapon against terrorism is justice and I'll expand that here to say that military action is probably the least effective weapon - or is Israel a whole lot safer now that they've assassinated Sheik Ahmed Yassin? (Even Sharon doesn't argue that it is.)

What this is about is the bullshit being dispensed freely by the Bush administration and how often the media, caught up in the "hot story" or busy playing "he said she said" as if being court stenographers to royalty constituted journalism, have let them get away with it even when someone points it out right in front of them.

And this is when I'm feeling charitable

Lying, hypocritical, scum-sucking, subhuman dirtbags. That's what they are.
Washington (AP, March 26) - In a major win for social conservatives, Congress is sending to the president legislation that would expand the legal rights of the unborn by making it a separate crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman.

The Unborn Victims of Violence Act cleared the Senate on a 61-38 vote Thursday, a month after the House passed the bill and five years after conservatives first tried to move the legislation through Congress.
The bill, that is, puts the fetus on an equal legal footing with the woman. Indeed, it puts the zygote on an equal footing, since it says that "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development [emphasis added], who is carried in the womb" is an "unborn child."

And after the vote, after the belly-crawlers spent a great deal of energy claiming that this did not in any way affect abortion rights, that in fact it had nothing whatsoever to do with abortion and how could you even think such a thing, after the smarmy lies and the shameless exploitation of the Laci Peterson murder, then and only then did Tony Perkins, president of the reactionary barefoot-and-pregnant cabal called the Family Research Council, say that
with the president's signature, "our nation will be one giant step closer to rebuilding a culture of life, where every child, born and unborn, is given the protections they so clearly deserve."
Contemptible. Contemptible, but in line with the case of Melissa Ann Rowland, charged in Utah earlier this month with murder because one of her twins was born dead after, prosecutors claim, she refused doctors' advice to have a Caesarian section. That, they charge, constituted "depraved indifference" to the health of her "unborn children."

The result of a successful prosecution well could be to criminalize as "child endangerment" any refusal or failure of a pregnant woman to do exactly as she's told by physicians, putting her back in the position of being a subordinate baby-machine rather than an adult human being.

And that, after all, may be exactly the idea.

Footnote: For those who keep track of such things, John Kerry interrupted his campaign to vote in favor of an unsuccessful substitute bill that would have made injury to a fetus an aggravating factor in the assault on the woman rather than a separate crime and the fetus a separate victim. It failed on a 50-49 vote. He then voted against the final bill.

Is Beatrix a Juliana?

Some 200 Bosnian Muslim refugees from Srebrenica are among 26,000 asylum seekers the Netherlands has announced it intends to deport to their home countries within the next three years, reports the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.
This has shocked many politicians, aid organisations, human rights activists and even some military personnel because Dutch troops were in charge of protecting the former UN Safe Area when Bosnian Serb forces overran it in July 1995. More than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were summarily executed in the days that followed. ...

The Dutch troops unknowingly ended up facilitating the selection of who would live or die.

"We cannot select them for a second time," an angered [former minister Jan] Pronk said, referring to the 200 Srebrenica survivors facing expulsion [who] have already exhausted every legal option available to them. ...

In what appeared to be a desperate last gesture, they made a dramatic appeal on March 11 to the Dutch queen, Beatrix, to prevent their extradition.

"Our request to the Queen is our last hope. She's the only one who can prevent this," said Muharem Mehmedovic, one of the asylum seekers facing expulsion. ...

However, royal intervention does not seem very likely. The queen only rarely goes against policies approved by a parliamentary majority.
Maybe she should ask herself "WWJD" - what would Juliana do?

Positive evidence for the theory of devolution

I'd heard this was coming, but I just yesterday learned for certain it had actually happened. The Cincinnati Enquirer for March 10 lets us know that the bunch of scientifically-illiterate blockheads who make up the majority of the Ohio State Board of Education have approved new lesson plans for 10th grade science classes that introduce so-called "intelligent design" into the schools under cover of "critical thinking."

"Intelligent design" is the latest fall-back attempt by those who consider the Bible to be a science textbook to undermine the theory of evolution. It argues, at bottom, that a "higher power" must have had a hand in the development of life - while claiming it's not in any way religious because the nature of that "higher power" remains undefined. (Of course, by failing to address the question of the nature of the very driving force it describes, it's also not in any way scientific, but leave that aside for now.)

Anywhere it's been introduced, courts have recognized its religious foundations and struck down the effort. So now, in a fall-back from the fall-back, the trick is to hide it inside "modern critiques of evolution" which are to be "debated" as an exercise in "critical analysis." (Evolution - surprise! - is apparently the only area to get this treatment.) The net effect (and the intent), of course, especially in any sort of "debate" format, is to set such "critiques" on an equal footing with the theory, whereby evolution becomes just one idea among many.

Now, when I say "theory" there, I'm using it in the scientific sense. When someone says "evolution is just a theory," the proper answer is "you're right, except there is nothing 'just' about a theory." Observations obtain data. An educated guess based on data is a hypothesis. A hypothesis successfully tested by verifiable predictions is a theory.

Evolution - genetic change over time in response to environment - is a theory. It's not a guess, not "just an idea," not a hypothesis. It's a theory. Not one easily tested in a laboratory, obviously, but one whose agreement with an enormous number of observations from biology, geology, and paleontology is overwhelming.

Oh, yes, there are arguments about the details, about the exact nature of the process, was it incremental change or punctuated equilibrium for example, how much of a feedback loop is involved (that is, as organisms change, how much do they then affect their environment, creating pressure for more change) - there is good healthy debate about all that and more. And it's true that strict, classic Darwinism is no longer generally accepted. But the basic principle of evolution remains and has withstood every scientific assault on it. And the more we learn about self-organizing systems - the tendency of any sufficiently complex system to spontaneously organize itself into patterns - and therefore the less evolution involves the "random change" on which its critics charge it depends, the stronger it becomes. Bluntly, while the details are still argued, evolution itself simply is no longer a matter of scientific debate and hasn't been for some time.

The drive to change that physical reality, or, more accurately, our understanding of it, comes from a collection of scientific know-nothings backed by a handful of "scientists" - almost none of who are from relevant fields - who have, sadly, allowed their personal ideologies to trump their science training. What's being advanced in Ohio is not critical thinking but a political agenda, a social and political agenda promoted by those who don't even have the courage to openly advocate what they really hope to achieve.

Shameless. That's what they are: shameless.

Footnote: Now, if the intent was really to stimulate critical thinking, the lesson plans could have been devoted to the question of analyzing why inanities such as "intelligent design" and its first cousin, creationism, both accurately described as "answers in search of a question," fail as science and why people embrace them anyway.

The very fact that the natural and immediate reaction to such a suggestion is "fat chance" indicates what's really going on.

Star Geek: The Next Generation

All right class, how many states of matter are there?

Three! Solids, liquids, and gases. Just like we all learned in school.

Except actually there are four. Plasma is an extremely energetic state of matter where atoms have been ripped apart into ions and free electrons. Stars are plasma.

Whoops, I'm sorry, there are five. The strange form called a Bose-Einstein condensate only exists at extremely low temperatures, when members of a class of particles called bosons start to act as if they were one big particle which has a number of strange properties, including that light travels through it very slowly.

Oh, darn, sorry again. There are now six.

The partner to the group of particles called bosons is the group consisting of fermions. And scientists have now formed fermionic condensates - a type of matter so new that most of its basic properties are unknown. They're very cold and probably have zero viscosity (that is, absolutely no resistance to flow). Beyond that is the unknown.

The trick in making such a condensate is that fermions are, if you will, unsociable. They tend to repel each other - unlike bosons, which join easily. A finely-tuned magnetic field was used to get around that to build up a condensate.

So what? Well, because such condensates may be "superfluids," they might tell researchers a lot about a related phenomenon: superconductivity, in which electricity flows with zero (or at least near-zero) resistance. Long offering dreams of incredibly efficient electricity generation, superfast computers that would make today's supercomputers seem like Model Ts, and more, the warmest temperature at which any material now displays superconductivity is, unfortunately, a chilly -135 degrees Celsius. Rather impractical.

But "the strength of pairing in our fermionic condensate, adjusted for mass and density, would correspond to a room-temperature superconductor," notes [lead researcher] Jin. "This makes me optimistic that the fundamental physics we learn through fermionic condensates will help others design more practical superconducting materials."

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Star Geek

For years, particle physicists working to understand the most fundamental principles on which all matter is based have relied on what's called the Standard Model, which groups fundamental particles into families based on symmetries. One of the reasons it's become, as it's name implies, the standard has been its ability to make successful predictions about then-unknown particles.

But a change may - emphasize may - be in the works. Physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory have been observing disintegrations of a short-lived particle called a K-meson, or kaon. According to the model, in very rare cases - about one out of seven billion - a kaon will disintegrate into three particles called a charged pion particle, a neutrino, and an anti-neutrino.

But after watching more than seven trillion such disintegrations, they saw that particular pattern occur at twice the predicted rate, a significant difference.

At present, it's unknown if this is an experimental fluke. But if it's not, if it's a real result, it would challenge current thinking in a way that could point to an even deeper hypothesis about the most basic nature of matter.

Footnote: For anyone interested, when a charged pion, a neutrino, and an anti-neutrino combine, they do not make a kaon. The reaction only happens one way, which arguably is experimental proof of the existence of an "arrow of time."

This is just pathetic, Part 2

At least this one is a little original. It's from the International Herald Tribune's Thursday edition.
Amid anguished debate here over whether the Clinton or Bush administration was more at fault for failing to preemptively crack down on Al Qaeda terrorists, a central vulnerability of the U.S. system remained largely unexamined: slips, lapses and lags inherent to the handover of power from one administration to the next.

Even as Al Qaeda militants continued preparing in late 2000 and through 2001 for the calamitous attacks on U.S. targets of Sept. 11, the transition from one administration to another was slowing U.S. intelligence and military efforts to press Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts.
Original, yes, but no less pathetic for that, especially when offered on behalf of an administration that still tries to justify the invasion of Iraq by insisting it was merely slavishly following Clinton administration policy. I mean, first off, that's what transition teams are for: making transitions. Doesn't this just suggest that the Bush team was particularly incompetent at the task? (Significant sidebar, just in case you didn't know: Among the members of the Bush transition team was Philip Zelikow - who is now executive director of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission.)

To see how utterly silly this argument is, just consider that it effectively says that the US would have been safer if Al Gore had been elected because that would have avoided a major transition (well, yes, actually he was elected, but you know what I mean). Somehow I don't think that's what those who raise "the transition problem" had in mind.

More significantly, even though the claim is laughable, the act of advancing it is an admission that the White House didn't take al-Qaeda seriously, since it apparently preferred having no policy on whatever threat bin Laden's organization presented to continuing a previous policy until a new one (if one was desired) could be formulated.

I'll say it again: Is this really the best they can do?

This is just pathetic, Part 1

Is this really the best they can do? From Wednesday's Toronto Star:
U.S President George W. Bush responded yesterday to allegations that he ignored a gathering threat from the Al Qaeda terrorist network before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by insisting he "would have acted" had he known what was coming. ...

Bush said CIA Director George Tenet briefed him "on a regular basis about the terrorist threat to the United States of America," adding: "And had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11, we would have acted."
So they're off the hook because Osama bin Laden didn't send them a telegram with the exact date and place of a planned attack? Ooooh, sorry we ever doubted you, Mr. President.


What is Ding-Dong?

Dear John for $400

He was actress Drew's famous grandfather.

Pre-emptive strikes

Back on Sunday, the New York Times reported that US officials say prisoners at Guantanamo
have provided a stream of intelligence to interrogators during the past two years, including detailed information about Al Qaeda's recruitment of Muslim men in Europe
and other al-Qaeda operations. The Times suggests that
sweeping assertions about the value of the detention center at Guantanamo respond to criticism of the operation, in the United States and abroad. Released detainees have also made allegations of mistreatment.
But since claims of value obtained do not refute claims of abuse - particularly since such "cooperation" as these officials cite can be the result of such abuse - what do you want to bet that this isn't a response to those charges but a pre-emptive strike against the suit before the Supreme Court about the legality of the imprisonments at Gitmo?

I predict that government mouthpieces will as part of their arguments point to these statements as proof of the "vital necessity" of the interrogations to "defending the homeland."

Three items to help you sleep tonight

1) From the New York Times for March 19:
To cope with the possibility that terrorists might someday detonate a nuclear bomb on American soil, the federal government is reviving a scientific art that was lost after the cold war: fallout analysis.

The goal, officials and weapons experts both inside and outside the government say, is to figure out quickly who exploded such a bomb and where the nuclear material came from. That would clarify the options for striking back. ...

Most experts say the risk of a terrorist nuclear attack is low but no longer unthinkable, given the spread of material and know-how around the globe.

Dr. Jay C. Davis, a nuclear scientist who in 1999 helped found the Pentagon's part of the governmentwide effort, said the precautions would "pay huge dividends after the event, both in terms of the ability to identify the bad actor and in terms of establishing public trust."

In a nuclear crisis, Dr. Davis added, the identification effort would be vital in "dealing with the desire for instant gratification through vengeance."
2) From the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, March 19:
Tajikistan's Plutonium Scare: Police foil an attempt to smuggle weapons-grade nuclear material for sale in Afghanistan or Pakistan

The arrest of three men arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle plutonium through Tajikistan has highlighted concerns about the security of the republic's borders. ...

According to Vladimir Echouprov, a coordinator with Greenpeace's energy department in Moscow, this amount of plutonium is far too small to make a nuclear bomb, but it is more than sufficient to make a so-called dirty bomb, in which radioactive material is spread by conventional explosives. ...

Defence analysts have long considered Tajikistan to be the weakest link on the long-established smuggling route linking Afghanistan with Russia and western Europe. A recent series of attacks blamed on Islamic extremists has heightened fears that a "dirty bomb" could be constructed using plutonium smuggled through Central Asia. ...

This is not the first time that weapons-grade material has been confiscated from would-be smugglers in Tajikistan. However, the plutonium in those cases originated within the republic - a legacy of the uranium mines and enriching factories built by the Soviets but now decommissioned.

This time there seems little doubt that the plutonium came from Russia. According to Major Avaz Yuldashev of the DCA, "The container holding the plutonium had special marking signs which identify it as having been produced at one of Russian nuclear plants."
3) From AP for March 21:
Sydney, Australia - Osama bin Laden's terror network claims to have bought ready-made nuclear weapons on the black market in central Asia, the biographer of al-Qaida's No. 2 leader was quoted as telling an Australian television station.

In an interview scheduled to be televised on Monday, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir said Ayman al-Zawahri claimed that "smart briefcase bombs" were available on the black market.
Speaking of sleeping tonight: Considering that the US developed nuclear weapons, remains (at least so far) the only force to have used them, promoted nuclear power during the Eisenhower administration as a means of ensuring a sufficient supply of enriched uranium for the nuclear weapons then planned, continues to promote nuclear power, undermined nuclear weapons nonproliferation efforts by its failure to restrain its own arsenal (by far the largest in the world), and failed to provide assistance to the former Soviet states (including Russia) in efforts to dismantle their weapons and dispose of the nuclear materials, this may be a case of "you made your bed, now lie in it." A very uncomfortable bed, indeed.

Worth noting

1) An Agence France Press report for March 18, quoted by Daily news Online, says Italy's European affairs minister, Rocco Buttiglione, told the daily newspaper Il Messaggero in an interview published Thursday that the war on Iraq
"may have been a mistake. Perhaps there were ways it could have been avoided." ...

"What is certain is that it wasn't the best thing to do," he added,
thus breaking ranks from the pro-Bush administration of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

2) This one is from CNN for March 21.
The United Nations' top two weapons experts said Sunday that the invasion of Iraq a year ago was not justified by the evidence in hand at the time.

"I think it's clear that in March, when the invasion took place, the evidence that had been brought forward was rapidly falling apart," Hans Blix, who oversaw the agency's investigation into whether Iraq had chemical and biological weapons, said on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."

Blix described the evidence Secretary of State Colin Powell presented to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 as "shaky," and said he related his opinion to U.S. officials, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

"I think they chose to ignore us," Blix said.
As they did with everyone else in the world.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

No particular reason, just felt like mentioning it

From the Toronto Globe & Mail for Sunday.
The Netherlands' beloved Princess Juliana died Saturday of pneumonia. She was 94. ...

A monarch with self-effacing manners, she was a popular figure during her 32-year reign, from 1948 to 1980, and is credited with nudging her country's governments toward progressive social policies. ...

While she lived in Ottawa, Juliana had an unpretentious lifestyle. She did her own shopping, lined up with others at movie theatres and offered to baby-sit a neighbour's children. Back in her native country, she was known for riding her bicycle in public, dressing like a commoner, sending her children to public schools and visiting hospitals, schools and disaster areas. ...

In 1980, citing her age, the 71-year-old sovereign abdicated in favour of Princess Beatrix. She declined the title of queen mother, and chose to be called princess.
She was not without controversy in her life and some questionable associations (personal, not political) - but she always had class in the best sense of the term.

It's deja vu all over again

Just a reminder of how the Bush team deals with honest opinions.

From a statement by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, via BuzzFlash:
- Larry Lindsay, fired as the President's Economic Advisor because he spoke honestly about the costs of the Iraq War
- US Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers, suspended when she disclosed budget problems that mean our nation's parks are less safe
- Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, replaced on the Council on Bioethics because of her scientific views on stem-cell research.
- Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, immediately ridiculed by the people around the President and his credibility attacked.

From Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times for March 23:
- Gen. Eric Shinseki, his military career ended for telling Congress that postwar Iraq would require a large occupation force than the White House claimed
- Valerie Plame, wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, her career destroyed when she was outed as a CIA operative in retaliation for his revealing that the 2003 State of the Union speech contained information known to be false
- Richard Foster, the Medicare system's chief actuary, threatened with being fired if he told Congress the real cost of Bush's prescription drug plan.

Richard Clarke is in good company.


What is (a) TicTac?

Change the Vowel for $1000

Hostess product or Avon signal.

Unusual Supreme Court case #2

This little-known case carries serious implications for privacy rights in a time of increasing government encroachments. From Tuesday's New York Times:
A Nevada rancher's refusal four years ago to tell a deputy sheriff his name led to a Supreme Court argument on Monday on a question that, surprisingly, the justices have never resolved: whether people can be required to identify themselves when the police have some basis for suspicion but lack the probable cause necessary for an arrest.
"The answer," the Times said, "appeared elusive."

What happened in a nutshell is that Nevada police had received a report from a passing motorist that a man was hitting a woman in a car. A deputy sheriff found Larry Hiibel standing by his pickup truck on the side of the road. His adult daughter was in the driver's seat.

The deputy demanded Hiibel identify himself. Hiibel, saying he had done nothing wrong, refused. The deputy kept repeating the demand, Hiibel kept refusing, inviting the deputy to arrest him if he was so sure Hiibel had done something. The deputy did.

Hiibel was charged under a Nevada law that requires people to identify themselves to the police if they are stopped "under circumstances which reasonably indicate that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime." No other charges were ever filed. He was convicted of a misdemeanor but appealed on the grounds that the law was in violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments' guarantees against unreasonable searches and self-incrimination. The State Supreme Court rejected the argument and Hiibel went to federal court.

Now, the authority to make such a stop is not in question. In 1968, the Supreme Court
gave the police the authority to briefly detain, question and conduct a pat-down search of someone whose activities ... gave rise to "reasonable suspicion," short of probable cause for a formal arrest.
Such incidents are now known as "Terry stops" after the case, Terry v. Ohio. According to the Times, there was no dispute that this was a Terry stop. The issue is: asked for identification, could Hiibel refuse?
Robert E. Dolan, Nevada's deputy state public defender, told the justices that while the deputy "certainly had the right to ask" Mr. Hiibel for his name, "equally so, Mr. Hiibel had the right not to respond."

Justice Antonin Scalia was openly skeptical. "What is the meaning of Terry?" he asked. Did Mr. Dolan mean that the police were "allowed to ask questions but shouldn't expect answers?"

Yes, the public defender replied; the state should not be permitted to criminalize silence or to "extract data from a person."

Justice Stephen G. Breyer appeared to agree, suggesting a rule under which the police can ask but the citizen does not have to answer. "Everyone can understand that," Justice Breyer said, adding, "Why complicate this thing?" Several Supreme Court decisions over the years have suggested such a rule, but there has never been a formal opinion to that effect.
As is usual, the justices appeared eager to avoid a sweeping decision, preferring to focus narrowly on the issues of the particular case. Yet there are serious possibilities that such a focus ignores. Particularly, Nevada contends that a name is "a neutral fact" and therefore neither incriminating nor an undue invasion of privacy. But as the Electronic Privacy Information Center said in a friend of the court brief,
government databases were now of such "extraordinary scope" that "systems of mass public surveillance" could result from a ruling that authorized "coerced disclosure of identity."
Between cases of identify theft and people being labeled terrorists based on a shared name (or, in some case, merely a similar one), no name can be considered "a neutral fact" but must rather be thought of as a potential doorway to a mass of personal - and sometimes seriously inaccurate - information.

There are a couple of other points about this that I want to mention. First is that, as the Times notes, there was apparently no argument over whether this was a Terry stop. Frankly, I would have challenged that contention.

There is a videotape of the incident taken by the police from inside the squad car. You can watch it on a website Hiibel set up about the case. Recall that this arose because of a report of a man hitting a woman. When the police arrived, they found nothing happening. So what were the activities leading to "reasonable suspicion?" In the tape, the deputy never asks anything about what's going on. He never approaches the truck to ask Hiibel's daughter, clearly visible in the video in the driver's seat, if she was all right - or anything else. That is, he never made any attempt to determine if in fact anything had transpired. So where is the "reasonable suspicion?"

Perhaps Hiibel didn't raise that challenge because he wanted to focus on the constitutional issues. But there is another point which I think is clearly relevant but doesn't seem to be under consideration. In the video, the deputy does not ask Hiibel for his name, he tells Hiibel to show identification - and that is something quite different. I'm aware of no law that says we have to have personal identification with us at all times (this does not apply to things like having a driver's license while driving), but a finding in favor of Nevada would establish that as a de facto requirement.

Shall we slippery slope for a moment? The Court rules for Nevada. Someone gets stopped, gives their name when ordered to, but the police officer, questioning if that's their real name, relies on Terry to detain them to check. Then, relying on the (possible) Hiibel decision, the officer demands positive ID. The person shows them a driver's license with a picture. The police officer wants to take the license back to the their car. The person refuses, saying "You wanted to see ID. You have now seen a photo ID with an address. That's all you get." The officer arrests them, claiming their lack of cooperation has produced "reasonable cause." What does the Court say then?

You may think I'm jumping several steps ahead, but I have to ask: If Hiibel loses, how far are we from empowering police to require our cooperation in running full personal background checks on us whenever they think we're looking at them funny?

Unusual Supreme Court case #1

The Supreme Court is to decide whether the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance is an endorsement of religion.

The suit was brought against the Sacramento County, California, school district by
Michael Newdow,
claiming public recitation by students violates [his] 10-year-old child's religious liberty. While legal precedent makes reciting the pledge a voluntary act, Newdow says it becomes unconstitutional for students to be forced to hear it, arguing the teacher-led recitations carry the stamp of government approval.
The Justices seemed skeptical. Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the pledge "doesn't sound anything like a prayer." Sandra Day O'Conner referred to "so many references to God" in the public arena, running down the classic list of coins and so on.

David Souter said that
even if the words "under God" represented religion "in actual practice, it's an affirmation in the mindset of a civic exercise."

Souter added the Pledge "is so tepid, so diluted, far from a compulsory prayer."

"God is so generic in this context as to be a neutral" expression of belief, continued Justice Stephen Breyer.
It seems to me that the Justices have missed - or perhaps ignored - their own point. The phrase "under God" was inserted in the pledge in 1954, specifically and avowedly to declare the US a theist nation in opposition to the official atheism of the Soviet Union. How is that not a government endorsement of religion? Indeed, the comments reflect that, when they insist that the phrase "under God" is simply "a civic exercise." The famed "wall of separation" between church and state is not only supposed to prevent government from favoring one religion over another, it's supposed to prevent government from favoring religion over non-religion.

In fact, that was the basis of two Supreme Court decisions during the Vietnam War that expanded the basis for declaring conscientious objector status in the draft. That status was available to those who showed "by religious training and belief" that they were opposed to warfare. In Seeger v. US (1965) the Court found that any belief, even if unorthodox, fit the description if it occupied the same sort of central place in a person's life that traditional religions did. In Welsh v. US (1970), the Court made explicit what was implicit in Seeger, that even philosophical and moral beliefs that were expressly non-religious could still qualify for CO status if sincerely held. To do otherwise, the Court reasoned, would be to favor one sort of belief, one based on a "higher power," over another sort, which was not. That, the Court found, was an affront to the First Amendment.

So how is it that the phrase "under God" does not offer that same kind of affront? The issue here is not whether or not a student can be forced to say it (or say the pledge at all, for that matter); they can't. The question, it seems to me, is whether a "civic exercise" that expressly favors a belief in a singular deity over nonbelief can fail to be regarded as government endorsement of religion, and whether it "sounds like a prayer" or not - you'll pardon the expression - be damned.

What the Court will do is of course unknown. Antonin "I'm here for my friends" Scalia has recused himself because he earlier expressed the opinion in a speech that it's not a matter for the courts, raising the possibility of a 4-4 tie. That would leave the decision standing in the 9th Circuit but not affect other areas. I really, really doubt that will happen, one because I don't imagine half of this crew agreeing to challenge the expression "under God" and two because if there is any chance of that, they have the easy out of a lack of legal standing on Newdow's part: He never actually adopted the girl so there is a serious and legitimate legal question of his right to sue on her behalf.

In the immediate case, what I think the Court will do is overturn the lower court decision, much to the relief of the right wing (and many liberals terrified of the notion of any other decision being used to brand them "anti-religion," no matter their actual thoughts on the case). What I think it should do is declare the phrase "under God" unconstitutional and order its removal.

And I'll say one other thing here: In one sense, despite this lengthy post, on a purely personal level it doesn't matter to me one way or the other, because I reject the pledge altogether. I do not pledge my allegiance to flags. And I do not pledge my allegiance to nation-states or the governments that run them. I pledge my allegiance to principles, to ideals, and to the people those principles and ideals are to serve. "I pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all." Everything in between should be dumped.
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