Sunday, October 31, 2004


What is tamper-resistant?


They're "unlucky" because in the Middle Ages they were thought to be the mascots of witches.

So what do you think?

Back on May 3 I posted about work being done by neuroscientists from UCLA to see if they could determine a difference in the way Republican and Democratic brains work by using MRI scans of brain activity. Now, thanks to a link at Cosmic Iguana, I can tell you something about their results.
Last month, Drs. Joshua Freedman and Marco Iacoboni of the University of California at Los Angeles finished scanning the brains of 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. Each viewed images of President Bush, John Kerry and Ralph Nader.

When viewing their favorite candidate, all showed increased activity in the region implicated in empathy. And when viewing the opposition, all had increased blood flow in the region where humans consciously assert control over emotions - suggesting the volunteers were actively attempting to dislike the opposition.

Nonetheless, some differences appeared between the brain activity of Democrats and Republicans. Take empathy: One Democrat's brain lit up at an image of Kerry "with a profound sense of connection, like a beautiful sunset," Freedman said. Brain activity in a Republican shown an image of Bush was "more interpersonal, such as if you smiled at someone and they smiled back."

And when voters were shown a Bush ad that included images of the Sept. 11 attacks, the amygdala region of the brain - which lights up for most of us when we see snakes - illuminated more for Democrats than Republicans. The researchers' conclusion: At a subconscious level, Republicans were apparently not as bothered by what Democrats found alarming.
There are some interesting differences between these conclusions and the earlier ones made after examining 11 of the 20 subjects, even though the MRI results themselves don't sound particularly different.

For example, in the preliminary conclusions, they described the effect of looking at the opposition as "using their rational apparatus" as if they were trying "to argue against him." That's now become "actively attempting to dislike the opposition." Both conclusions, however, appear to be based on activity in the same part of the brain, that which indicates rational judgment. Why the change? What new data was revealed to cause the shift?

Another change was the interpretation of activity in the amygdala, which in involved with perceptions of danger. The preliminary results, the researchers said, indicated Democrats were more averse to the use of force than Republicans; now they conclude the same activity suggests Republicans are "not as bothered" by images such as of 9/11 than are Democrats. Considering the reactions to 9/11, I find that particular conclusion hard to accept and the preliminary one more persuasive. So again, what new data emerged to push the new understanding?

In neither case do I know, but there is one other change that I do find significant. Originally, the clear implication was that the research was purely academic, simply a way to better understand how our brains function. Now, however, it emerges that
Freedman came to political brain scanning through his brother Tom, who served as a consultant to President Clinton. Tom Freedman asked his neuroscientist brother if the technology could improve on how campaigns woo voters.

"No one had done fMRI with politics," Dr. Freedman said. "So we decided to see what we could find."

The UCLA researchers said they have not been contacted by any political consultants other than Freedman's brother and a collaborator, though they expect to change after the election.
Indeed, they predict that
brain scanning ... will be a campaign staple four years from now, despite ethical concerns about "neuromarketing." ...

"People make tons of decisions and often they don't know why," Iacoboni said. "A lot of decision-making is unconscious, and brain imaging will be used in the near future to perceive and decide about politicians."
That is, they envision this as an improved technique for the manipulation of voters. And there are some, fortunately, who object.
"This is a story of the corruption of medical research," warned Gary Ruskin, who runs a nonprofit organization called Commercial Alert in Portland, Oregon. "It's a technology that should be used to ease human suffering, not make political propaganda more effective."
When I posted about the preliminary results in May, I discussed some the issue of neuromarketing, the use of brain imaging to improve marketing techniques. I concluded by saying
[w]hether you can be effectively unconsciously manipulated to prefer Coke to Pepsi isn't really important; whether you can be so manipulated to prefer Candidate A to Candidate B, is.
Now more than ever.

Saturday, October 30, 2004


What is shrink-wrap(ping)?

Packaging for $2000

Pill bottles with push-down caps are child-resistant; sealed ones mandated in 1982 are this-resistant.


"Strong" is not a synonym for "competent"

On Saturday, Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo quoted Kerry's and Bush's responses to the release of the new video from Osama bin Laden.
John Kerry: In response to this tape from Osama bin Laden, let me make it clear, crystal clear. As Americans, we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists. They are barbarians. And I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes. Period.

George W. Bush: Earlier today I was informed of the tape that is now being analyzed by America's intelligence community. Let me make this very clear: Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I'm sure Senator Kerry agrees with this. I also want to say to the American people that we're at war with these terrorists and I am confident that we will prevail.
"Which of these two statements," Marshall asks, "sounds like it comes from the stronger leader?"

Frankly, my answer is neither. Bush sounds like an unsteady politician reverting to boilerplate in the attempt to slip past an issue he knows can't play well for him, while Kerry sounds like he OD'ed on testosterone pills; I'd half expect his next statement to be a proposal that he go one-on-one with "that wimp Schwarzenegger." Both sound like people who prefer sloganeering to analysis; neither sounds like a leader who has a flaming clue about the roots of terrorism or has a means to deal with it.

Blind faith, however, will find its champions even if it means embracing fantasy. For example, several liberal blogs have approvingly cited Zbigniew Brzezinski's op-ed piece in Monday's New York Times because of it's critique of Iraq policy and how Shrub has "lost credibility among other nations." But they fail to note that "Zbig," as he was known during his time as national security advisor to the Carter White House, didn't have much better to say about Kerry.
Unfortunately, the predicament faced by America in Iraq is also more complex than the solutions offered so far by the Democratic side in the presidential contest. Senator John Kerry would have the advantage of enjoying greater confidence among America's traditional allies,
but that alone won't be enough unless the US actually breaks free of "a worldview that fundamentally misdiagnoses the central challenge of our time," one he says holds both Bush and Kerry "prisoner."
To get the Europeans to act, any new administration will have to confront them with strategic options. The Europeans need to be convinced that the United States recognizes that the best way to influence the eventual outcome of the civil war within Islam is to shape an expanding Grand Alliance ... that embraces the Middle East by taking on the region's three most inflammatory and explosive issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the mess in Iraq, and the challenge of a restless and potentially dangerous Iran.
While Brzezinski goes on to offer a hopelessly wrong proposal for "basic principles of a formula for an Israeli-Palestinian peace," the point remains he recognizes the centrality of dealing with the issue. But the painful fact is, John Kerry is even less likely than George Bush to undertake a change in US policy in the region.

His basic policy position offers not the slightest hint of a critique, much less a criticism, of Israeli policy and a fair amount of it is lifted directly from Israel's policy positions, even when it seemed beside the point in a declaration of basic principles (i.e., he "supports Arafat's isolation"). For example:

- He supports any military action Israel takes so long as it's "self-defense" (as if it's ever called anything else).
- He endorses the claim that Israel has no "partner for peace" until the emergence of "new, responsible Palestinian leadership" once the "failed...unfit" Yasser Arafat leaves the scene.
- He applauds the so-called "security fence" and condemns the International Court of Justice for even considering the issue.
- He enthuses over Sharon's "unprecedented" plan to create a gulag in Gaza under the rubric of "withdrawal."
- He supports Israeli military superiority in the region and opposes any restrictions on aid, citing his lobbying against George H. W. Bush's 120-day suspension of aid in the fall of 1991 - even though that suspension came after it emerged that Israel was using US aid intended to help in the resettlement of refugees in Israel to free up funds for construction of additional settlements in the West Bank, settlements which were and are in violation of international law.
- He promises to veto any "anti-Israel/anti-Zionist resolutions" in the UN Security Council, thus equating Israel with Zionism, something which even a fair number of Israelis don't do, but the Israeli right wing does.

In fact, he prides himself on not pressing Israel to do anything Israel doesn't want to do; rather, he says, "Israel’s cause must be America’s cause" while suggesting that "anti-Semitism [is] often masked in anti-Israel rhetoric."

What this adds up to is that on Israel and the Palestinians, Kerry has, as I've said before, staked out a position that is actually to the right of George Bush. He offers no cause to believe in a change in US policy - and thus, to the extent Brzezinski is right, no cause to believe in either security or stability in the Middle East and no cause to believe he has any clue what it will take to reduce terrorism to the "nuisance" he wants to make it.

We are so very, very screwed.

We're not the only ones confused about elections

Questions, conflicts, and doubts about the elections scheduled for January are emerging in Iraq, issues far removed from "retaking rebel strongholds" that forms the core of US strategy. The Iraqi Press Monitor for Friday contained two revealing items. The first problem is who are people actually going to vote for? An October 26 editorial in Al-Sabah, an independent daily, wonders.
People still do not know who to vote for because nobody has been presented as a candidate to run in the January elections. The reason for this delay is that the "political entities" have not decided what to do in the next elections. The said entities are still negotiating to reach political alliances. The negotiations are characterised by bargaining, but they have not yet led to the formation of any electoral alliances. Even the government's intentions are still unclear. Because of all of this, the people of Iraq are still perplexed. The political entities need more time than what remains before the elections for their electoral campaigns. Iraqis have the right to know who the competitors are so they can choose correctly.
Such tactical alliances include that between SCIRI and the Dawa Party which I mentioned on Thursday. It's hard to know just what sort of effect such dilatory tactics will have on the elections except to say that it clearly favors those individuals and parties that will run on name recognition, icing out the "independent voices" Iraqis were supposed to have the chance to hear.

The other problem, with a greater potential for conflict, is who will be religiously allowed to vote. An editorial in Al-Mashriq, published daily by Al-Mashriq Institution for Media and Cultural Investments, for October 24 lays it out.
Apparently, some religious groups have made participation in the elections obligatory, while others have described it as a sin. On the one hand, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani reportedly said participation in the elections is religiously obligatory and who do not participate are sinners. On the other hand, a well-known Sunni clergyman allegedly described participation as a sin. Between sins and virtues, elections could be disturbing even before we know anything about them at all.
Sistani was actually quoted at one point as saying those who don't vote are condemned to hell, but he denied saying it and in fact has largely tried to avoid linking religion to politics in more than a general way. Nevertheless, there are other clerics in Iraq - largely Shiite - who are saying people have a religious duty to vote and others - largely Sunni - who are calling for a boycott. In that single statement can be seen two of the major political and religious divisions in Iraq.

I fear this will be an election much more in form than in substance.

Something else forgotten but not gone

Kirkuk remains a potential flashpoint for ethnic conflict in Iraq.

The Iraqi Press Monitor for October 27 quotes this from Al-Mutamar, the daily paper of the Iraqi National Congress:
Arabs and Turkomen in Kirkuk are taking steps to stage a large demonstration in reply to the repeated demonstrations staged by the Kurds who have called for the removal of Arabs from the city. A source in Kirkuk's Arabic Gathering said the Kurdish demonstrations, which had not been spontaneous but staged and partisan, included a large number of demonstrators from outside of the province. Demonstrators' demands focused on removing the Arabs, which is an insult to the government, the source said.
The Arabs are there because of a resettlement policy of Saddam Hussein, who wanted to dilute the demographic strength of the heavy Kurdish majority in the region. That policy included taking property from Kurds and giving it to Arabs, some of who were pretty much told to move to the region. Now, having made the emotional commitment to homes which in some cases they've occupied for decades and often in which they've grown up, they - understandably - are reluctant to leave.

Meanwhile, the Kurds, who see it as a legacy of exploitation and expropriation by the old regime, want things to be returned to where they were before the relocation policy was enforced.

No, all is not going well.

Footnote to the preceding

Just a very simple reminder that there is more going on in the world than our narrow, self-interested view:

Over just the last two weeks, Human Rights Watch has issued reports and/or statements on human rights violations in (alphabetically) Azerbaijan, the Balkans, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, D.R. Congo, Gaza, India, Indonesia, Iran, Morocco, Nepal, and Vietnam. (There were also items about Gitmo and US prisons but we knew about those.)

Forgotten but not gone

The BBC for October 26 reported that
[a] World Food Programme survey on nutrition and food security in Darfur has found that almost half of all families are not getting enough to eat.

The survey confirms aid agencies' fears that the western Sudanese region is facing a serious food shortage. ...

The agency found that:

- Almost 22% of children in camps for internally displaced people are malnourished
- Almost half of all families are not getting enough to eat
- Ninety-four percent of the displaced in Darfur are completely reliant on food aid for every mouthful they consume.
Even those who were not displaced are having trouble feeding themselves: Food prices have gone up 60% and scarcity is expected to increase with an expected small harvest and many farmers lacking seeds or tools for the next planting season. The result will be more and more people relying on food aid.

Some 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes in the conflict, a minimum of 70,000 have died.

Just FYI

How do we know what Saturn's moon Titan looks like? Sure, we have digital photographs sent back by the Cassini space probe, pictures which reveal a complex world with some baffling features. But those are still 2-D pictures of a moon covered in haze, making surface features hard to see.

What scientists will do is use photo-enhancement software to increase contrast or otherwise alter the image without introducing any new elements in order to emphasize aspects of the images, bringing out details previously difficult to detect.

Why am I telling you all this in a non-geek post? Because Dr. Robert M. Nelson, a senior research scientist at NASA currently involved in just such analysis of the newest photographs of Titan, has applied those techniques to the picture of the "bulge" under George Bush's jacket during the first presidential debate. His conclusion, as reported in Salon for Friday:
"I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate," he says. "This is not about a bad suit. And there's no way the bulge can be described as a wrinkled shirt."
While saying the image is "consistent with" an electronic device, as a good scientist Nelson acknowledges that he can't say what the object actually was. But he is absolutely certain there was something there.

Chances this will actually make real news: Low. Chances that, if Shrub is re-elected, Dr. Nelson has ruined his career: High.

Personally, I didn't join in the gleeful noise about the "mysterious bulge" because I've not been saying much of anything here about the election. That's because, as I've said several times, I tend to skip commenting on things that I figure are being covered more than adequately elsewhere. In fact, I sometimes suspect my hit rate has suffered because over the last few months my posts haven't consisted mainly of Bush. Kerry. Bush. Kerry. Bush. Kerry. Kerry rocks, man! Bush. Kerry. Bush. Kerry. Bush. Kerry. Bush sucks, man! Bush. Kerry. Bush. Kerry....

Indeed, I only mention it now because of the expertise Dr. Nelson brings to the issue - plus, of course, the connection to astronomy and space exploration. But I will say that I actually was certain from the start there was something under Bush's jacket because of something I haven't seen anyone else mention: In the picture, Bush is leaning slightly forward with his shoulders a little rounded. That would tend to make the jacket stretch across his back, not "bunch" as the White House originally claimed - and such a stretching would tend to make the fabric press against anything underneath it, emphasizing an outline.

Footnote: To read the entire article you either have to be a Salon subscriber or obtain a one-day "pass" by watching an ad.

Friday, October 29, 2004


What is a (flex)straw?

Packaging for $1200

In this process, a clear film is wound around an object, then heated to tighten it.

Invasion of the Body Geeks

I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam. Two items about who we humans are. Both date from back on September 6 but I doubt we have changed all that much since then.

1) The Baltimore Sun had an article about a study by a team of researchers in Switzerland indicating a biological basis for revenge. (Link no longer valid.)

The researchers invented an economic game which included the possibility of gaining revenge (by imposing fines) on those who doublecross their partners. What they found is that in contemplating such revenge, a portion of the brain called the dorsal striatum became active. That part of the brain has been experimentally associated with pleasant stimuli such as "cocaine, money, a lover's face, [and] good food."

In short, revenge actually is sweet.

The same article also note this:
Even as scientists gain a better understanding of the biological underpinnings of fairness, others are trying to understand its origins.

Sarah Brosnan, an Emory University anthropologist, says an important question is whether a sense of fairness is something people pick up in school, home or church, or whether it's a concept that has been hardwired into the human brain over the eons.

In continuing work with capuchin monkeys, Brosnan and her colleague Frans de Waal of Emory have found compelling evidence of an evolutionary origin. The monkeys, it turns out, know a raw deal when they see one.

In a study published last year, researchers trained the monkeys to barter small pebbles for slices of cucumber. Initially the capuchins, a small tree-dwelling species known for their smarts and discriminating tastes, were satisfied with the trade.

But that quickly changed when researchers placed pairs of capuchins in adjoining cages that enabled them to observe the deal making.

When scientists handed one monkey a plump grape for its pebble but offered the other only a cucumber slice, it balked. When one capuchin was handed a grape without being asked for payment in return, its cagemate became even more incensed - sometime hurling its pebble or cucumber slice at experimenters.

What made these protests so surprising, Brosnan and de Waal noted, is that the animals rarely refuse food. In two years of one-on-one bartering, capuchins turned down a trade in fewer than 5 percent of trials.
What struck me about that result is the strength of the response. The second monkey still could have taken the cucumber slice despite the favoritism shown to the first. Yet to a statistically significant level, it would rather do without the cucumber slice altogether than accept the unfairness.

Admittedly, there is a way to read this as a measure of inborn selfishness, but then again selfishness and fairness are related. And if selfishness is thought of as trying to maximize one's own benefit even at the expense of others, it would still make more sense for the second monkey to accept the deal offered rather than wind up with nothing.

So while as far as I can see, the results don't show that there is an inborn drive to act fairly, they do provide a strong indication that there is an inborn sense that there is such a thing as fairness and what it is.

2) Psychologist Alan Slater of the University of Exeter told a British science conference that our sense of physical attractiveness is another thing that is inborn.
[B]abies can recognise their mother from as little as 15 hours after birth and also show a preference for looking at photographs of physically attractive people.

"Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the brain of the newborn enfant," he told the British Association for the Advancement of Science. ...

Infants show several spontaneous visual preferences. They like watching moving rather than stationary objects, prefer to look at three-dimensional stimuli and find faces fascinating.

When given a choice of two facial photographs to look at, babies usually prefer and spend more time gazing at the person who is better-looking.
Slater did allow that experience - that is, acculturation - also plays a role in a particular person's conception of what constitutes beauty while maintaining that a preference for more attractive people is biological.

Personally, before I find that result too convincing I'd like to know what the people in the pictures looked like and how the researchers determined which one was more attractive. There is an issue in research about the risk of results being interpreted in line with your own preconceptions and expectations, and the more subjective the criteria, the greater the risk. It's fairly easy to count how many times a monkey will trade a pebble for a cucumber; judging to a scientifically-rigorous degree which of two faces is more attractive can be considerably harder.

If their findings are confirmed, however, I'd be interested in seeing research on why that is so, that is, what is the evolutionary advantage of it (which there must be if there is indeed a biological basis), as well as if and how that image of beauty changes over time.

Update, updated

Updated More on the explosive explosives story via two stories from ABC News. Again, this may be info you already have - it's certainly been all over the blogs - but just in case you haven't.

First, from Wednesday, comes word that there might not be as much missing as was thought:
The information on which the Iraqi Science Ministry based an Oct. 10 memo in which it reported that 377 tons of RDX explosives were missing - presumably stolen due to a lack of security - was based on "declaration" from July 15, 2002. At that time, the Iraqis said there were 141 tons of RDX explosives at the facility.

But the confidential IAEA documents obtained by ABC News show that on Jan. 14, 2003, the agency's inspectors recorded that just over three tons of RDX were stored at the facility - a considerable discrepancy from what the Iraqis reported. ...

The IAEA documents from January 2003 found no discrepancy in the amount of the more dangerous HMX explosives thought to be stored at Al-Qaqaa, but they do raise another disturbing possibility.

The documents show IAEA inspectors looked at nine bunkers containing more than 194 tons of HMX at the facility. Although these bunkers were still under IAEA seal, the inspectors said the seals may be potentially ineffective because they had ventilation slats on the sides. These slats could be easily removed to remove the materials inside the bunkers without breaking the seals, the inspectors noted.
So there might have been 138 tons less there than thought, so "only" 239 tons are missing - and there was potentially a way to evade the IAEA seal on the remainder! Does this let the White House off the hook, at least theoretically?

Not quite.

The next night, ABC reported that
[b]arrels inside the Al-Qaqaa facility appear on videotape shot by ABC television affiliate KSTP of St. Paul, Minn., which had a crew embedded with the 101st Airborne Division when it passed through Al-Qaqaa on April 18, 2003 - nine days after Baghdad fell.

Experts who have studied the images say the barrels on the tape contain the high explosive HMX, and the U.N. markings on the barrels are clear. ...

The barrels were found inside sealed bunkers, which American soldiers are seen on the videotape cutting through. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency sealed the bunkers where the explosives were kept just before the war began.

"The seal's critical," [David] Albright[, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington] said. "The fact that there's a photo of what looks like an IAEA seal means that what's behind those doors is HMX. They only sealed bunkers that had HMX in them."
That is, there is clear evidence that the explosives were still there on April 18 and so must have disappeared after that. ABC concludes
[i]t remains unclear how much HMX was at the facility, but what does seem clear is that the U.S. military opened the bunkers at Al-Qaqaa and left them unguarded.
Which, to hear the GOPpers tell it now, was the soldiers' fault - like they were supposed to ignore their orders and instead do something which they had not been ordered to do. Right.

Now, frankly, if they had disregarded their orders and said "this is too important, too dangerous, to leave unguarded so we're staying here until some arrangement can be made," I would have applauded them and supported them in their disobedience, so this is not just a matter of saying "they had to follow orders." But to hear the very same people who present the essence of patriotism as shouting "we love our soldiers!" louder than anyone else now blaming the stupidity and failures of DC higher-ups on those same soldiers is one measure of how low they will go.

Updated to identify Albright.

It's a learning experience

AP for October 28 reports that Milwaukee Superintendent of Schools William Andrekopoulos
halted a get-out-the-vote program involving students after complaints were raised about its link to a pro-Kerry organization. ...

His decision came a day after Republicans accused Democrats of using the students for political gain because the program was organized by the Wisconsin Citizen Action Fund, whose parent organization endorsed Sen. John Kerry for president.

Students at 33 Milwaukee schools called voters and went door to door in minority neighborhoods and areas with historically low voter turnout, urging people to cast ballots in Tuesday's election. The young people, ranging in age from 11 to 18, often conducted the efforts during school hours.
Supporters of the program said there were disappointed in the decision because the students had been getting a valuable lesson in democracy.

Actually, it seems to me they got one.

Thursday, October 28, 2004


What are Sodom and Gomorrah? (Acceptable: Cities of the Plain)

Packaging for $400

One of these often comes attached to an individual kids' juice box.

Just FYI

New Scientist had a good article on the "huge experiment in electronic voting" that will take place on November 2.
Democratic elections are supposed to be decided by the will of the people. That principle was called into question by the 2000 election for the president of the United States of America, which was famously determined by just 537 votes in Florida and one Supreme Court decision. In November, it may be under scrutiny again, as another close presidential election could be decided by the accuracy of a raft of new voting technologies.
The article notes that by one standard measure, touchscreen voting machines are actually less accurate than punch cards.
The accuracy of a voting system is often assessed by what is called the "residual vote". This is the difference between the number of voters who turn up at polling stations and the total number of votes allocated to the candidates. Voters can still choose to spoil their ballots, but if one system regularly produces a higher residual vote than another its accuracy may be questioned.
Optical scanners have a residual vote of around 2.1%. Punch cards run 2.9%. Touchscreen machines are at 3.0% - nearly half again higher than optical scanners.

The whole article, which also notes issues affecting paper ballots and lever-pull voting machines, is definitely worth a read.

Men in Geek

Okay, you've gotten used to the ideas of black holes and extrasolar planets. You've heard that we don't actually live in a universe of three spatial dimensions plus time but in four-dimensional spacetime. You may even have gotten a sense of the General Theory of Relativity, which describes gravity as the result of the warping of spacetime in the presence of mass.

Now go a step further.
Earth's spin warps space around the planet, according to a new study that confirms a key prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity.

After 11 years of watching the movements of two Earth-orbiting satellites, researchers found each is dragged by about 6 feet (2 meters) every year because the very fabric of space is twisted by our whirling world.
It's called frame-dragging, and like black holes, an expanding universe, gravitational lensing, and more, the idea for it was derived from general relativity well before actual observations proved it.
Here's how it works:

Any object with mass warps the space-time around it, in much the same way as a heavy object deforms a stretched elastic sheet, explained study leader Ignazio Ciufolini of the Universita di Lecce in Italy.

If the object spins, another distortion is introduced, "in the same way as the elastic sheet would be twisted by a spinning heavy wheel on it."

If the space around Earth is being frame-dragged, then satellites ought to be caught up in the deformation, scientists reasoned. Imagine how a second object on the elastic sheet would be moved by the scrunching motion created as the sheet is deformed.
It was that extra motion that the team detected in the satellites. Although the results have a 10% margin of error, the apparent agreement with theory is so close (99% of the predicted value) that it's a pretty convincing find.

Einstein wins again. Or, I suppose we should say, nature wins again, because the reason these predictions could be made is that nature acts consistently and does not contradict itself.

DEW Line

Except it's not so D. This is two weeks old but still very worth noting. It's from the Scotsman (UK) for October 15.
Nearly one in three species of frogs, toads and newts in the world is under threat of extinction, according to the most comprehensive global study of amphibians ever conducted.

The report shows that amphibians are experiencing tens of thousands of years worth of extinctions in the space of a single century, with 122 species having disappeared from the wild since 1980.
Amphibians are "indicator species," ones that act as warning signs of environmental change, in their case because they are more sensitive to climate change and pollution. (Another example is the infamous northern spotted owl, the protection of which caused such howls of outrage from the timber industry.) The fact that there is a massive die-off of amphibian species indicates that something is going on under the radar, something which might rise up to bite us at any time.

How bad is it? Pretty bad.
Over the past three years, the scientists analysed the distribution and conservation status of all 5,743 known amphibian species. Of these, 1,856 - 32 per cent - were threatened with extinction.

Accurate information was lacking on a further 1,300 species[, i.e., another 23%,] which scientists believe may also be under threat.

In comparison, only 12 per cent of bird species and 23 per cent of all mammal species are considered to be endangered. ...

The findings show that 43 per cent of all amphibian species are now in decline, with 27 per cent stable. Less than 1 per cent of the population is increasing and the status of the rest remains unknown.
Hang onto your hats, kiddies, it's going to be an interesting century. President? Hell, we don't need a president, we need preachers and prophets to jar us from our complacency.

Footnote: Those of you too young to get the title of the post can click here for the answer.

Déjà vu

A strong, very centralized government loses its power, the means of control break down. The "free market" is brought in with the conviction that it will solve all the economic problems.

But the result is other than predicted. Some people do very well, get rich quickly. Others fall by the wayside. Unemployment and misery shoot up amid areas of opulence. Crime increases as criminal gangs form.

We've seen it before in Russia. Now we're seeing it again in Iraq. An article from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting supplies some of the story:

- Government employees' incomes have "rocketed" as compared to under Saddam.
- The minimum pension paid to retired government workers has gone from around the equivalent of $1 a month to about $75 a month.
- The average salary for a municipal worker with 20 years of service has soared from about $1 a month to $100 a month.
- A builder's typical pay has tripled.
- In Sadr City, the price for a 150 square meter (about 1600 square foot) house has nearly tripled, to around 50 million dinars [almost $17,000).
- In the al-Jadeda district of Baghdad, prices for a 200 square meter (about 2100 square foot) home have hit 100 million dinars (about $33,000), a four-fold increase.

Meanwhile, there has been an "increase in crime and violence in the Iraqi street," including criminal gangs engaging in organized patterns of kidnapping for ransoms.

The IWPR article calls this a "paradox" that runs counter to people's expectations that an improved standard of living on the whole would lead to less crime. But I see no paradox here, nothing to confuse.

Not when unemployment is around 28%.

Not when Al-Mutamar, the daily paper of the Iraqi National Congress can report (via Iraqi Press Monitor, September 30) that
the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said 25 percent of Iraqis depend completely on the food they receive as rations. Most of them sell some of the items to get other essential needs like medicine and clothing. In a pessimistic report, however, the WFP said the items distributed to the people are not enough to prevent bad nutrition.
Unemployment at 28% and a quarter of the population totally dependent on inadequate food rations of which they don't even get the full benefit because they have to sell some to get clothing and medicine. Meanwhile, others have seen their income go up three times, thirty times, a hundred times. A dramatically improved life for some, a deeper desperation for others.

An increase in violent crime a "paradox?" I don't think so. Like I said, we've seen it before.

Footnote: The article says that the Iraqi ministry of planning
believes that foreign investment in Iraq could play an important role in solving the unemployment problem - provided that investors actually employ Iraqis and do not import foreign labour.
If importing foreign workers is more profitable - as it must be since it's what been happening - just what makes the ministry think they'll do that if they're not required to?

Telegraphing your intentions

The Iraqi Press Monitor for October 26 has this from Addustour, an independent Iraqi daily:
The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq has made a strategic treaty with the Dawa Party chaired by Iraqi Vice-President Ibrahim al-Jafari. The treaty aims at creating a Shia-Shia alliance as a preliminary step to running in the elections. Sciri's Director of Political Relations Ridha Jawad Taqi said there were many mechanisms through which the Council could run in the elections, including through a unified national list. ... The Council will also present a unified Shia list if the first list fails. "The Council aims at no less than 50% Shia representation in the National Assembly to achieve the necessary political balance".
Some time ago now I raised the question of what the concept of democracy means to the different factions in Iraq, including suggesting that to the Shiites it means majority - i.e, Shiite - rule, period. That is, if the Shiites are not able to rule, it's not democracy. SCIRI and the Dawa Party wanting to insure that Shiites make up a majority of the National Assembly (and therefore be able to control the shape of the new constitution) is a development I take as a step in that direction.

Proof - if more proof was needed - of the venality of invasion

In one of those bitterly amusing examples of unintentional humor, a subheading on this article read "Very Bad for Iraqi Civilians."
(Reuters, October 28) - Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed in violence since the U.S.-led invasion last year, American public health experts have calculated in a report that estimates there were 100,000 "excess deaths" in 18 months.

The rise in the death rate was mainly due to violence and much of it was caused by U.S. air strikes on towns and cities.
The survey was done by a team of researchers headed by Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It was published in a report published online by The Lancet, an internationally-respected, peer-reviewed medical journal.

"Excess deaths" are those beyond what demographics and established rates of mortality would predict over a time period. In this case the researchers used a household survey to compare the 14.6 months before the invasion to the 17.8 months following it.
Mortality was already high in Iraq before the war because of United Nations sanctions blocking food and medical imports but the researchers described what they found as shocking. ...

They found that the risk of death from violence in the period after the invasion was 58 times higher than before the war.
One hundred thousand people are dead as the direct result of our illegal, immoral, destructive, murderous, pointless, lying, nation-destroying invasion.


Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Who was Abel?

Genesis Basics for $1000

There metropolises are destroyed in Genesis 19.

Make of this what you will

At the end of August, Moqtada al-Sadr's office indicated that he would take part in the planned January elections. At the end of September, it said that he would not take part. A few days later, he himself said he "may" not take part.

Now it's the end of October and Azzaman, an Arabic daily based in London, reports that
radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said he was ready to assist the mujahideen of Fallujah, and would interfere to keep the city safe. "If you keep resisting the occupation, I will be with you, but I hope your city avoids war. No mercy for the occupiers," he told Fallujans.
That comes via the Iraqi Press Monitor for October 25.

I've been saying for a while now that I wonder how much Sadr is in control of his militia and his organization and how much it is in control of him. What some people describe as his "mercurial personality" I think might be a reflection of an on-going internal struggle about the most effective course for him to take: anti-occupation, yes, but as an election-oriented radical or a militant revolutionary? And what of his grander design, his desire for a theocratic government - which course is more likely to advance that cause?

If he ever does settle down to one course, we will know which side won that debate.

Other voices, other rooms

Just something worth noting. From the Iraqi Press Monitor for October 26, quoting al-Mada, a daily paper of the Al-Mada institution for Media, Culture, and Arts:
Hundreds of handicapped who have received aid from the charity organization Care have called for the release of Margaret Hassan, the Care leader kidnapped on October 19. In a public demonstration, the handicapped - some of them in wheelchairs - held up large pictures of Hassan, who has been an activist with Care in Iraq since 1992. One placard said "Margaret is not the British government".
Indeed she is not and CARE is not the occupation. Some of these sort of kidnappings of aid workers and the like are just opportunistic, using the rubric of "anti-occupation" as a cover. But frankly, I believe a good deal more reflect what can best be labeled political ignorance, shallow thinking, undertaken by people who persist in imagining they are striking great revolutionary blows by victimizing the innocent. They are fools.

And to the extent they realize the innocence of their victims, they are simply cold-blooded killers.

The most important story of the last week which you undoubtedly did hear, updated

I have no doubt that you heard about the 380 tons of high explosives that vanished from the Al Qaqaa military facility in Iraq. The White House has been trying to pass the buck on this by claiming the explosives were already gone when US forces reached the site, particularly jumping on an NBC report that when troops of the 101st Airborne - with an embedded NBC reporter - arrived at the facility on April 10, 2003, a day after the fall of Baghdad, they found conventional explosives but not the high explosives that are the source of the issue here.

Don't believe the spin.

First, as the Daily Mislead said on Tuesday,
According to an AP report, U.S. solders visited the Al Qaqaa in April 2003[, five days before the 101st got there,] and "found thousands of five-centimetre by 12-centimetre boxes, each containing three vials of white powder." Officials who tested the powder said it was "believed to be explosives." Yesterday, "an official who monitors developments in Iraq" confirmed that "US-led coalition troops had searched Al Qaqaa in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 invasion and confirmed that the explosives, which had been under IAEA seal since 1991, were intact." Thereafter, according to the official, "the site was not secured by U.S. forces."
(Sources for the quotes are with the Daily Mislead post, which is here.)

The important points here are that the site had been under IAEA seal until we kicked the inspectors out, the site was intact in March, and it then went unsecured. Equally important is something noted by David Brock at Media Matters for America, which is that the NBC report the White House pointed to did not, in fact, mean anything.
NBC's Miklaszewski clarified on October 26 that there was another reason why the troops arriving April 10 didn't find explosives - they weren't looking for them. Following up on his report on NBC's Nightly News, Miklaszewski offered this additional clarification on MSNBC on October 26:

"Following up on that story from last night, military officials tell NBC News that on April 10, 2003, when the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne entered the Al Qa Qaa weapons facility south of Baghdad, that those troops were actually on their way to Baghdad, that they were not actively involved in the search for any weapons, including the high explosives HMX and RDX. The troops did observe stockpiles of conventional weapons but no HMX or RDX, and because the Al Qa Qaa facility is so huge, it's not clear that those troops from the 101st were actually anywhere near the bunkers that reportedly contained the HMX and RDX."
So we're left with what we started with: 380 tons of high explosives, previously marked, sealed, and contained, were left unsecured by US forces and now they have disappeared to who knows where and into who knows whose hands. Once again, our invasion has created the very danger we have been repeatedly lied to that it was supposed to prevent.

Footnote: There have been some rather silly statements made in the course of all the reportage and discussion of this. So let me run down four:

- On the left, there were a number of references to the fact that these explosives are used to trigger nuclear weapons. True, but irrelevant. Regular TNT can do that. It's just that these are better: More powerful (about 1.7 times the bang of the same amount of TNT) and easier to shape (the compression of the nuclear material must be precise to get the chain reaction explosion you want), they are more, you'll pardon the expression, "efficient."

- It took only roughly one pound of such explosives to bring down PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. Some have suggested that means that 380 tons = 760,000 pounds = 760,000 car bombs. Well, no. Remember that to bring down a plane you only have to blow a hole in the side. Physics will do the rest for you. Put a hole in the side of a building and you have a standing building with a hole in it. And since a car bomb will be at least a little ways from its target and since the force of an explosion drops by the inverse square rule (twice as far away = one-fourth as powerful), you have to pack in a lot more. Still, 380 tons is a hell of a lot of car bombs. Just nowhere near 760,000.

- On the right, the argument has been made that this is no big deal since the explosives are commercially available. In addition to wondering how they'd react to a story that a local drug gang had broken into a local gun shop and stolen a bunch of high-powered rifles and ammunition (both of which are available commercially), I'd have to say you're right, technically, they are available commercially. But, uh, 380 tons?

- Finally, we have the White House demanding to know why the media isn't focusing on all the ordnance they're destroying in Iraq. Yeah, why? And speaking of that, why don't they focus on how many planes did not crash into buildings on 9/11? Damn liberal media.

The most important story of the last week which you probably did hear

But just in case you missed it: Robert Scheer writes in Salon that the Shrub team is suppressing a report on 9/11 by the Inspector General of the CIA, completed in June, at least until after the election.

Scheer called the suppression "shocking." A CIA official he quoted called it "infuriating." Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee, which together with its Senate counterpart mandated the study two years ago, said she is "very concerned." I call it SOP for the WHS* because this report, unlike the ones that preceded it, apparently names names.
"[T]he report is potentially very embarrassing for the administration,[" the intelligence official said, "]because it makes it look like they weren't interested in terrorism before 9/11, or in holding people in the government responsible afterward." ...

The official stressed that the report was more blunt and more specific than the earlier bipartisan reports produced by the Bush-appointed Sept. 11 commission and Congress.

"What all the other reports on 9/11 did not do is point the finger at individuals, and give the how and what of their responsibility. This report does that," said the intelligence official. "The report found very senior-level officials responsible."
Scheer notes that by law, only a claim of national security allows for holding back the report - but the CIA has made no such claim. They are simply stonewalling, apparently figuring that with the backing of the self-interested jackasses populating the White House they can simply ignore the law, the Congress, and the public with impunity. Which actually makes me wonder if the plan is to withhold the report until after the election or just to withhold it, period.

I wonder what would have happened if the Nixon administration had simply refused to release the (in)famous White House tapes. No explanation, no claims of overriding national interest, they just never turned them over to Congress even after the Supreme Court said they had to. If in effect they'd just said "screw the law, screw the Constitution, screw separation of powers, screw oversight, protecting our position is more important than any of that." What would have happened?

I said the other day that our political life is in jeopardy because a combination of our economics and our culture serve to drive governing issues off our personal agendas. I say now that unless we can rouse ourselves enough to change the course, not only our political life is at risk but our already-anemic democracy as well

I'm also reminded of Bill Maher's remark that "Isn't it amazing that the only person who lost their job in the wake of 9/11 was me?"

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Tuesday, October 26, 2004


What is Noah's ark?

Genesis Basics for $600

He is slain in Genesis 4.

The most important story of the last month which you never heard

The online environmental news magazine Grist says that
[a] Google search shows that the story has barely made a blip in the U.S. media - with minor reports on CNN online, CBS online,, and in a few other places, and with "papers of record" like The New York Times remaining utterly silent.
Meanwhile, at least 33 major foreign news sources including Reuters and the BBC as well as major national newspapers in the UK, Australia, Turkey, South Africa, India, and New Zealand have given it serious attention.

What was this story that we mostly ignored but the rest of the world thought so newsworthy? This, from the Guardian (UK) for October 11:
An unexplained and unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere two years running has raised fears that the world may be on the brink of runaway global warming.
Scientists say it's too soon to be confident of long-term predictions - two years does not necessarily a trend make - but admit they are baffled as to the cause of the increase since it runs counter to the pattern of previous large increases. Those took place in El Niño years - and these two years haven't been. And the increases have been significant: The 2002 increase was over 38% above the yearly average of the last several decades and 2003's was nearly 70% above average.
[T]he fear held by some scientists is that the greater than normal rises in C02 emissions mean that instead of decades to bring global warming under control we may have only a few years. At worst, the figures could be the first sign of the breakdown in the Earth's natural systems for absorbing the gas.

That would herald the so-called "runaway greenhouse effect", where the planet's soaring temperature becomes impossible to contain. As the icecaps melt, less sunlight is reflected back into space from ice and snow, and bare rocks begin to absorb more heat. This is already happening.
Charles Keeling, whose pioneering work on climate change in the early 1970s first raised the alarm about the dangers we faced, said
"The rise in the annual rate to above two parts per million for two consecutive years is a real phenomenon.

"It is possible that this is merely a reflection of natural events like previous peaks in the rate, but it is also possible that it is the beginning of a natural process unprecedented in the record."
If Dr. Keeling and the other worried scientists are correct - and as they themselves acknowledge, it's still an if - but if they're correct we could be standing on the brink of literally, literally, an environmental catastrophe.

And the fact is, even if they're wrong, even if the breakout point for runaway climate change is still a ways off, that's no reason for complacency because not only the environmental but the economic and social dangers are already facing us.
London (AFP, October 20) - Environmental and development groups joined forces in warning here Wednesday that global warming threatens to hit the world's poorest people hardest and magnify existing injustices.

In launching their report, Friends of the Earth as well as other environmental and development charities said climate change threatened to make international targets on halving world poverty by 2015 unattainable.
Even worse, the report says continued climate change could "even reverse human development achievements," the BBC reports. The report, called "Up in Smoke" and available in .pdf format here, was produced by the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, a coalition of environmental and development groups. It argues that by mid-century,
industrialised countries must cut their greenhouse gas emissions to 60-80% below their 1990 levels "to stop climate change running out of control,"
a figure far beyond the demands of the Kyoto Protocol. It also urges industrialized nations to help developing nations adapt to whatever degree of climate change can't be controlled. It notes that "rich country subsidies to their domestic fossil fuel industries stood at $73 billion per year in the late 1990s" - subsidies which promoted the use of the fossil fuels that drive the human contribution to the climate change threatening to undo any improvements in the life of the world's poor.
Faced by "the intertwined challenges of obscene levels of poverty and a rapidly warming global climate", it says, humanity has no choice.

"There is no either/or approach possible: the world must meet both its commitments."
Assuming it's not already too late to do more than slow the coming disaster.

Footnote: The Bush administration reaffirmed on Friday that it has no intention of signing on to the Kyoto agreement. John Kerry, for his part, proposes to "reopen negotiations" on the agreement - despite that fact that, with the coming approval by Russia, it will go into force as a binding pact on all its signatories.

Important heads-up

The American Friends Service Committee is organizing a nationwide series of election eve candlelight vigils under the heading Lighting the Path for Democracy. With all the reports of voter suppression and possible fraud so rampant that there are plans for public actions on November 3 if need be, this kind of "we're watching" vigil has special importance.

To find or organize a vigil near you, go to

An underlying reason why we are so screwed

The Christian Science Monitor reported last week on an environmental controversy in Indonesia which has resulted in the detention of executives of a mining corporation.

It started in July when a local organization reported that villagers on Sulawesi Island were suffering from food poisoning, skin rashes, and strange lumps on their bodies. A local environmental group called Walhi claimed the symptoms resembled mercury poisoning, or, as it has come to be known, Minamata disease. Walhi charged that practices of Newmont Mining Corp. - in particular, the use of "submarine tailings," a type of undersea waste disposal that is illegal in the US - had polluted Buyat Bay. A three-month investigation by national police turned up mercury levels 2.5 to 10 times the legal level. Six corporate executives were detained on September 22; five remain in jail.

However, serious questions about the accusations have arisen because other tests by the World Health Organization and the government's Environment Ministry found mercury levels to be well within the legal limit. "Buyat Bay is not polluted with mercury or arsenic," the Ministry concluded on October 14. And the fact is, the symptoms described are not typical of mercury poisoning, which usually manifests itself primarily through neurological effects.

It does appear, then, there is a real question as to whether or not the company is guilty of polluting Buyat Bay, at least with mercury. But other than a legal wrangle, what is the underlying issue I mentioned at the top? Well, this is the opening paragraph of CSM's story:
Five Indonesia-based executives of Newmont Mining Corp. have been sitting in a concrete jail cell in Jakarta for nearly a month, caught up in an environmental controversy that could further impair Indonesia's ability to generate foreign investment.
That's right, the real issue, we're told, is not whether or not a mining company has contaminated a bay and poisoned the residents around it - it's the case's effect on the investment climate. That's what matters: Can Indonesia continue to sufficiently suck up to transnational corporations if the personnel of those corporations can't feel confident that they won't be subject to such indignities as being held responsible for their actions?

And oh, yes, the indignity. We're apparently supposed to feel for these executives in their "concrete cell," who were "caught up" in the case as if they were innocent bystanders swept up in some mass arrest. But suppose they were a group of five inner-city black male teenagers held awaiting trial on a charge of burglary. Would we be expected to gasp "a month? They've been in jail a whole month?" You know the answer to that as well as I do: We'd never even hear about it. But corporate executives? Treated like, well, like criminals, even when it's suspected that's exactly what they are? That's just not supposed to happen! Our social perceptions are really twisted.

Even more, our economic ones. Our economic system is more polluted than Buyat Bay even if Newmont Mining is guilty of everything of which it's accused and more. We are increasingly vassals of the corporate state, our economic futures long stripped from our control and the only countervailing weight - government - long since bought off.

This is not intended as a counsel of despair. Remember that feudalism, as all-powerful as it seemed at one time, did die out. And right now there is a vibrant anti-globalization movement struggling to reverse this trend on an international level. Global Exchange is a good place to start checking that out.

There are also those looking to develop a "green economics" that unites economic questions with environmental protection and human justice. One paired example, focusing on what's called "appropriate level technology," is the E. F. Schumacher Institute in the UK and the E. F. Schumacher Society in the US. On the more overtly domestic political level, there are those parties and organizations whose platforms include environmental awareness and economic justice, such as the Green Party and the Socialist Party USA. So carry on and carry hope.

The CSM ends its article with this quote, made, you'll recall, at a time when no legal determination about the case of Newmont Mining has been made:
Beny Wahyu of the Indonesian Mining Association warns that the detention will further worsen sentiment in the mining industry. "The new government has to explain that things like this won't happen."
That's the attitude we're up against, that governments and we as human societies are supposed to guarantee that "things like this" never happen to corporations or their executives. We may be but drops of water against the boulder but we should throw ourselves against it in whatever way we each as individuals can in the thought that drops of water can eventually reduce rock to sand.

Footnote: Via Japan Today, Kyodo News reports that
[t]he Supreme Court [of Japan] on Friday held the state responsible for the Minamata mercury-poisoning disease in the 1950s and 1960s, bringing to a close the only Minamata disease-related lawsuit that sought government responsibility in the outbreak of the disease.

The ruling marked the first judgment by the top court on government responsibility in preventing the outbreak and spread of the disease, which killed hundreds of people, disabled thousands and produced birth defects in the city of Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture.
Water on the stone.

Monday, October 25, 2004


What is "Quadrophenia?"

Genesis Basics for $200

It sets sail in Genesis 7.

One article, two approaches

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, provided reporters with information on an updated military intelligence assessment of the insurgency in Iraq. CNN's article from Friday opened this way:
About $500 million in unaccounted funds from Saddam Hussein's former regime is being used to finance a growing insurgency in Iraq, a U.S. military intelligence official said Friday. ...

The top finding is that the United States believes about a half-billion dollars that once belonged to the former Iraqi government, along with funds from individuals and religious groups in Saudi Arabia, is being funneled through Syria and used to fund insurgents.
This, via the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Ft. Lauderdale), is how AP's article from the same day (and drawn from a briefing from what appears to have been the same Pentagon official) begins:
Iraq's new security forces are heavily infiltrated by insurgents, and the guerrilla groups have access to almost unlimited money to pay for deadly attacks, according to a U.S. defense official who provided new details on the evolution of the rebels.

A significant part of the insurgents' money is coming from sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government is neglecting the problem, said the official....

Money is flowing into Iraq through Syria, the official said.

In both cases, it comes from a diffuse network of supporters, funneled through charities, tribal relations, and businesses - not necessarily the same funding networks that transfer money to al-Qaida from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, but following a similar model, the official said.
That is, CNN focused on "Saddam's money" being funneled into Iraq while AP described bucks coming from "sympathizers" outside the country. Saddam Hussein is not mentioned in the AP account - nor is the infiltration of insurgents into security forces mentioned by CNN.

Now, the main thrust of both stories is that Pentagon intelligence - which proved so very reliable before the war - is revealing foreign involvement in the Iraqi insurgency. Even though that involvement comes in the form of money rather than fighters, the assessment can serve an agenda favored by the Shrub team, which is to blame the resistance on "foreigners." Still, it's interesting to note how differently the two news agencies played it.

And there are more differences. For example, the CNN report quotes the official as saying other intelligence findings include

- evidence that criminals, as opposed to those with political motivations, have conducted 80% of recent attacks;
- that elements of the Baath Party are "coming together" to disrupt the government and fund insurgents; and
- that capturing or killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would stop or slow insurgent activity significantly.

Now on the first of those, I'd say (and I mean this as a serious question) what does the word "criminal" mean? What's the definition? While there have been reports of ransoms paid in some of the kidnappings, the demands have not been for money. In the bombings and shootings there have not been robberies or looting. So what does "criminal" mean in this context? Or is it that "get the hell out of Iraq" does not, in the Pentagon's mind, constitute a political motivation?

On the second, before I'd take it seriously I want to hear a direct acknowledgement that this means that the earlier assertions in the immediate wake of the capture of Baghdad that the resistance was just Baathist "dead-enders" was flat out wrong. And then I'd want to know why in light of that I should believe this now. And why I should be surprised.

And on the third, I'd say get a flaming grip: Another of your own findings was "the absence of any unifying elements between [I assume they meant among] 50 widely dispersed cells around the country." So why do you insist on the fantasy of a single mastermind pulling everyone else's strings?

But meanwhile, the AP story, while not going into those claims, raises a point the CNN story completely omits: If the tale of the money trail is true, it provides
new evidence that the Iraqi resistance has gained support in the Arab world.

"The overall resistance in Iraq is popular and is getting more popular in the Arab world," said Vince Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism chief for the Central Intelligence Agency.
In fairness, it must be said that the CNN story does not overlook the element of popularity. Indeed, its mention of it comes in what would have to be fairly regarded as a devastating fact that if justice were done would have been the centerpiece of the whole story:
"Some foreign fighters are coming in, but more of concern is the numbers of Iraqis picking up the fight," the official said.

He added that the insurgency is growing, as show by the fact that the U.S.-led coalition appears to have captured or killed more insurgents than the original estimate - 5,000 to 7,000 - and there are still about 12,000 out there.
That bears repeating. According to our own estimate, we have now captured or killed more than the total number of insurgents there were when we started - and the result is that there are now twice as many more of them than there were in the first place.

A very odd measure by which to claim progress.

But getting back to the different approaches of the articles, some people of late have accused CNN of becoming the Bush-Cheney '04 Network, trying to out-Fox Fox in pursuit of that audience. I have to admit that I haven't found CNN any less reliable than any of the other mainstream news outlets (Fox of course excepted), although there are sources I trust more than American ones, including Reuters and AFP.

Then again, I haven't been parsing every item to find traces of pro-this or anti-that bias. Still, in this case the treatments are so different that I have to think that either they came from completely separate and divergent briefings or that CNN deliberately plucked out the point that could link the Iraqi resistance to Saddam Hussein, a possibility perhaps more likely to discredit it in the eyes of Americans than almost anything else short of a direct connection to al-Qaeda.

Be careful what you wish for, revisited

Supposedly, the coming assault on Fallujah is to recapture - excuse me, free - the city from the "foreign terrorists" who hold it "captive" so that the freed citizens can freely take part in the free election freely planned for next, doubtless free, January.

And as a result of this free attempt at freeing freedom, the election may have even less legitimacy that it likely would have had anyway. From the Washington Post:
A powerful group of Sunni Muslim clerics threatened on Sunday to call a boycott of Iraqi elections planned for January if U.S. forces launch a widely expected full-scale assault on rebel-held Fallujah.

Any such call by Iraq's Muslim Clerics' Association, which has helped negotiate ceasefires and hostage releases, would resonate among Sunnis at the forefront of a revolt against the U.S. presence and seriously undermine the poll's credibility. ...

About 200 clerics met last Wednesday to formulate a policy on Fallujah and elections they consider an illegitimate extension of U.S. control. They say they want no part in the polls due by the end of January. ...

Even if an attack on Fallujah is averted, the clerics' association, which comprises thousands of mainly Sunni clerics from across Iraq, would dismiss the outcome of any ballot held under the gaze of 138,000 U.S. troops.

"We will consider the results null and void ... because elections that come with the blood of Iraqis, the burning of their properties and the killing of their women and children are a farce that do not deserve respect," said Faidhi. ...

By contrast, clerics from the Shi'ite community, which comprises about 60 percent of the population, have called for broad participation in elections they hope will finally give them a say in the political future of their country.
The poll I mentioned yesterday said that most Iraqis think their country is not near to civil war (although a significant minority held otherwise). But even if an outright civil war is avoided - an outcome I personally think unlikely and only to come about if the prospect appears even more fearful than any alternative - there is no getting around the fact that long-standing religious and ethnic differences are not going to disappear just because some outward form of governance has changed.

The bottom-line problem is that the Sunnis, long used to being the top dogs during Saddam's reign, do not like the prospect of elections as the result of which they as the minority are likely to have little power - while the majority Shiites, long suffering as the underdogs, are eager for those elections for precisely the same reasons.

In their similar approaches to Iraq, both Shrub and Kerry have staked a lot on the January elections to establish a "legitimate" constitution and government that will produce enough "stability" for the US to withdraw gracefully even if it takes a few years. But there is a considerable likelihood that the elections will produce no such stability, since Sunnis can be expected to continue resisting unless accommodations are made on their behalf - and the more such accommodations are made, the greater the long-simmering Shiite resentment will grow.

They say the first step toward recovery from a problem is to admit you have one. It's time we admitted the problem: There is, as I've said before, no smooth path out, no bloodless resolution, no way to "stay the course" that will not in the end produce as much pain as it intends to prevent. We need to admit to ourselves that we have screwed up big time and the best we can do is to limit the amount of that future pain that we ourselves inflict. I have said it in frustration, I have said it in anger, now I say it in sadness: Set the damn date and get the hell out.

Sunday, October 24, 2004


Who are the Marines?


The title of this album by The Who refers to the double schizophrenia of Jimmy, its protagonist.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Every day, the prospect of an all-out attack on the city of Fallujah seems both closer and realer. Bombing raids continue daily, always claiming to be "precision strikes against Zarqawi hideouts and fighting positions." (As I said the other day, just how many hideouts is this guy supposed to have in one city?) Ground-based raids in outlying areas have been added with the avowed intent of provoking a response from insurgents who then can be attacked from the air.

Oh, and progress is being made, yes it is. Reuters reported on October 23 that
[t]he U.S. military says the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Falluja is a shrinking sanctuary for Zarqawi's group....
Yeah, and "the noose is tightening" about Osama bin Laden, too.

And all those reports about civilian casualties? Ignore them. Because they don't exists amid our "precision strikes" and all those people in hospitals aren't really there and that isn't really blood.

Except of course for those who really are injured or killed, but that's not our fault, it's their own, US officials said in one of the more chilling comments of recent months:
"Those who associate with terrorists and kidnappers, including family members who support such efforts, are accountable," the U.S. statement said.
And if al-Qaeda had said in the wake of 9/11 something like "those who associate with the crusaders and imperialists, including those who work for them and support them, are accountable," how would we have described such a statement?

"Transfer of sovereignty," you say?

When did that happen?

The BBC for Sunday says that
United States intelligence officers have taken detainees out of Iraq for interrogation, according to The Washington Post.

At the request of the CIA, the Justice Department allegedly compiled a secret memo allowing transfer of a dozen detainees over the last six months. ...

Law specialists say the memo "amounts to a reinterpretation of one of the most basic rights of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which protects civilians during wartime and occupation", the Washington Post says.

The treaty prohibits the "individual or mass forcible transfers", the newspaper notes. ...

The Washington Post said the CIA and Justice Department declined to comment for the article.
I'll just bet.

Footnote: There's something that I have to admit has been confusing me for a while.
"These conventions and these rules are in place for a reason, because you get on a slippery slope and you don't know where to get off," said Senator John McCain, who has campaigned for George W Bush, in an interview with ABC television.

"The thing that separates us from the enemy is our respect for human rights."
McCain seems to be criticizing some White House policy or another almost every other day. I can conceive of how as a loyal party member McCain would feel obliged to support Bush's re-election, but why is he actively campaigning for him?

Be careful what you wish for

Some time ago - back on June 30 and again on July 17 - I said that evidence indicated that the people of Iraq, desperate for peace, security, and jobs, were prepared to give the interim government a chance. It appears that time and that chance are slipping away. As found in the Washington Post for Friday,
[l]eaders of Iraq's religious parties have emerged as the country's most popular politicians and would win the largest share of votes if an election were held today, while the U.S.-backed government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is losing serious ground, according to a U.S.-financed poll by the International Republican Institute.

More than 45 percent of Iraqis also believe that their country is heading in the wrong direction, and 41 percent say it is moving in the right direction.
Meanwhile, support for the Allawi's government has plummeted 20 percentage points since late summer. And as many people blame the US "coalition" forces for security problems in Iraq as blame "foreign terrorists." Almost no one blames Saddam Hussein's government.

That suggests to me that, as a number of commentators have already pointed out too many times, that the real problem is the occupation itself. That's why Allawi is fading: because he's tied to the US, blamed by many for the continuing problems. That's why the religious parties are gaining strength: because they've opposed the occupation. (And, being in the opposition, they also have the one real-world advantage outsiders have over insiders: no need to actually have produced results from your promises.)

One thing I think we on the left and the White House can agree on is that we don't want to see a government of religious fundamentalists. (The difference being they will limit it to Islamic fundamentalists while we include all stripes of fundamentalism and apply it to all places - including here.) So let's assume that a victory by the religious parties in the January election would be a harbinger of such a government since those elected in January will write the constitution. That's not an unreasonable speculation: The most popular party in the poll (mentioned by 18% of respondents) is the Dawa Party, which openly seeks an Islamic republic in Iraq. And the most popular politician is Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), with a majority wanting to see him in the National Assembly, followed by Allawi with 47% support and - significantly - Moqtada al-Sadr, with 46%.

Now, a fundamentalist government is by no means a sure thing even if the religious parties gain control of the National Assembly, since a number of leading clerics, including Ali al-Sistani, shy away from the idea of an Iraqi government ultimately run by religious officials ala Iran. (In fact, Hakim also has expressed opposition to an Islamic government.) But what all this means is that to the extent that you assume it's a real possibility, to the extent that you are worried about the establishment of a reactionary religious government in Iraq, to that same extent the single best thing you can do to head off such an eventuality is end the damn occupation!

Announce a schedule for military withdrawal, say you'll happily stay to assist in reconstruction and relief efforts if the government of Iraq so desires it, that you will chip in your share and more of the costs, but the fighting forces will be gone by such-and-such a date. And not some date like "when things are secure," which is utterly meaningless, or "the end of 2008" or some such too-far-off date. Something more like, hell, let's be generous and say "June 28 - the anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty." Allow the WHS* some political symbolism. But set the damn date and get the hell out!

Footnote: The same Post article says that Colin Powerless told Abu Dhabi television that
Iraqis want democracy and are unlikely to go "from one form of totalitarian state to another form of totalitarian state."
In part this expressed the opinion of US officials, matching my own belief expressed above, that the rise of religious parties does not mean the creation of a theocracy. But it also has a dark underside, noted here for the record: It could form the basis of a future refusal to withdraw military forces from Iraq on the grounds that the National Assembly is creating a constitution "contrary to the clear wishes of the Iraqi people for freedom and democracy" or some such line. That may not have been in Powell's mind - but I wouldn't put it past them.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

We are so screwed, cont.

This is via CNN:
Cincinnati (AP, October 24) - A federal appeals court ruled Saturday that provisional ballots Ohio voters cast outside their own precincts should not be counted, throwing out a lower-court decision that said such ballots are valid as long as they are cast in the correct county.

The ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals supports an order issued by Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell[, a Republican].
This comes a day after the Columbus Dispatch covered confirmed reports of people receiving phone calls falsely telling them their precinct had been changed, reports of which Blackwell's office was well aware.
U.S. District Judge James Carr on Oct. 14 blocked Blackwell's directive, ruling that Ohio voters who show up at the wrong polling place still can cast ballots as long as they are in the county where they are registered. Blackwell appealed to the 6th Circuit.
Upon winning at Circuit level, Blackwell's office reacted as we would have expected, vilifying "frivolous lawsuits filed by the Ohio Democratic Party and its allies [which] needlessly wasted the valuable time of election officials." The Democrats, too, responded in the way we have come to expect: They gave up.
Ohio Democrats on Saturday night decided not to file an appeal in the case, one of the first major tests of how such ballots will be handled in a close election. ...

"To avoid any confusion, we are not going to appeal this ruling," David Sullivan, voter protection coordinator for the Ohio Democratic Party, said in a statement. "That way we can ensure that voters and election officials understand that voters must be in the proper polling place before casting a vote."
There is, of course, no such risk of "confusion" unless you assume that people would knowingly show up at the wrong precinct. The inclusion of "election officials" in the statement as if they were the ones being instructed is a real hoot.

By the way, what do you think are the chances that if Blackwell has lost that his office would decline to pursue it further to avoid "confusion?"

Saturday, October 23, 2004


Who is Winston Churchill?

Beyond Belief for $2000

The expression "tell it to" them comes from British Navy men, who thought them gullible.


Wandering the blogs, part three

Updated This is kinda a threefer. The original source is a report done by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), available here in .pdf format, which was reported on by Winning Argument - from where it was picked up by Daily Kos, which is where I saw it.

What it found was an astonishing gulf between what Bush supporters believe and reality. This list is as presented by Winning Argument:

- 75% believe Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda.
- 74% believe Bush favors including labor and environmental standards in agreements on trade.
- 72% believe Iraq had WMD or a program to develop them.
- 72% believe Bush supports the treaty banning landmines.
- 69% believe Bush supports the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
- 61% believe if Bush knew there were no WMD he would not have gone to war.
- 60% believe most experts believe Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda.
- 58% believe the Duelfer report concluded that Iraq had either WMD or a major program to develop them.
- 57% believe that the majority of people in the world would prefer to see Bush reelected.
- 56% believe most experts think Iraq had WMD.
- 55% believe the 9/11 report concluded Iraq was providing substantial support to al-Qaeda.
- 51% believe Bush supports the Kyoto treaty.
- 20% believe Iraq was directly involved in 9/11.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. With the possible exception of the belief that most experts think Iraq had WMDs (assuming that meant in the runup to the war; obviously Iraq did have chemical weapons in the past), every one of those is simply factually, demonstrably, wrong. (I note for the record that I include the statement that Bush would not have gone to war if he knew there were no WMDs. To be precise, while they had no good reason to believe there were WMDs, that's not the same as saying they knew there weren't any. But the argument here is that WMDs were the reason for the invasion and the White House not only has not claimed that, it has denied it.)

Now, most of the attention to this is going to be focused on "oh, those dumb Bush supporters." But that's actually not entirely accurate: The same survey showed significant numbers among John Kerry's supporters sharing some of those beliefs. For example:

- Nearly one in five agree that experts believe that just before the war Iraq had WMDs.
- Almost a quarter maintain that the Duelfer Report said the opposite of what it did.
- 30% say that Iraq was directly involved in 9/11 or gave al-Qaeda substantial support and 27% hold that the 9/11 Commission reached that conclusion.
- Similar numbers, generally 25-30%, could not identify Kerry's positions on the landmine treaty, the test ban, including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements, or Star Wars systems - and a majority had his position on defense spending wrong.

Those percentages are clearly below those of Bush supporters but they still represent a pretty good number of people. So I'm actually concerned with a somewhat different issue than "ignorant Bush supporters." That is, how is it that so many people can believe so many things which are simply, straightforwardly, clearly, unarguably, factually wrong? This even goes beyond the old business of the remarkable - to me, embarrassing - number of people in this country who refuse to accept evolution or who are convinced the moon landings never happened. This is insisting on believing things that the very source you rely on says are wrong.

How can a majority of Bush sympathizers believe he supports the Kyoto Protocol when he pulled out of it? How can so many believe the Duelfer report said the opposite of what it said? How can anyone remain convinced Bush supports the landmine treaty or the test ban treaty when he has specifically rejected both? How can such a large number of people, including a significant portion of Kerry supporters, believe Iraq was "providing substantial support" for al-Qaeda when even the White House has admitted it wasn't? Why are we as a people such political ignoramuses?

Writing in the October 18 "Nation," columnist Patricia Williams has much the same lament. (No link because it's available online to subscribers only.) She was describing a conversation she recently had with a 12-year old French boy while on vacation in rural France.
We talked some more. He was from Nantes, and when he discovered I was born in Boston, he asked, "Where Mr. Kerry is from?"

"That's right," I said, impressed - and was more impressed yet when he observed that Kerry's foreign policy was very close to "that of Mr. Clinton, no?" and then went on to compare them in some detail.

I've thought a lot about that conversation since. Perhaps he was an exceptional child, but I don't think so. In my limited travel experience (to Western Europe, South Africa, Canada and Australia) almost anyone I run into has a better sense of our political system and its carryings-on than any given audience member of The Tonight Show. What struck me with great force as I chatted with that boy was the way our media keep saying that Kerry "hasn't defined himself." Yet here was a random kid in a random shopping mall in suburban western France who could define Kerry - and Bush for that matter - better than some American news anchors. ...

Why, I wonder, is our political life so marginal to daily life and to average citizens? Why is our educational system so dismal, our civic discourse so diminished, that schoolkids abroad sound as though they have better-informed opinions about our wars than the "security moms" whose sons are marching off to fight them?
I don't accept the notion, advanced by some, that there is some organized, conscious plot involving all the media to deliberately keep us stupid. (I will not say the same about certain political and economic forces.) I believe rather that our culture and our economic system combine to willy-nilly drive social and political awareness and involvement off our personal agendas.

We as a people celebrate the individual, the "go for yourself" entrepreneur, we admire the so-called "self-made man," we like to imagine ourselves the Marlboro man on his horse (although likely without the cigarette these days), independent, in no need of help from anyone, certainly not the government: Welfare, after all, is a "crutch" and for many, even among those who qualify for it, a sign of humiliation and failure. As a result, government and the actions of government seem removed from our lives, not relevant except for those occasions when they touch us directly.

Meanwhile, there aren't big bucks to be made in public affairs programs, and the drive for corporate profit and the continuing concentration in the media industry have turned news programs from what some decades ago was looked on as a public service into just another profit center. Our media have failed us terribly, those in it that even now like to imagine themselves "journalists" having become little more than official scribes to power and gossip mongers.

But even at that, it's not all their fault: They become gossip mongers because that's where the money is, and it's where the money it because, despite our protestations to the contrary, it's what we buy. And it's what we buy because it provides some relief from daily life: The fascination with gossip, with scandal, is hardly a new thing. But the more we buy gossip, the more we get of that and the less we get of substance - and the less we get of substance, the more distant, the more meaningless, the more isolated the doings of government become and the less we feel we can do anything about them. And the less we feel we can do anything about them, the more we feel that even to the extent that we care we are still irrelevant - and to that extent we withdraw from the public sphere further, further into scandal and rumor and gossip, and the cycle continues.

Our political life - and I don't say this lightly - is in jeopardy. And I don't mean from the election of George Bush. One of the things the figures above reveal is that significant number of Americans reject Bush's actual policies! They are supporting him because they have somehow convinced themselves that he believes in the same things they do. No, the threat to our political life comes from our own collective ignorance, our preference for foam over beer, froth over substance, image over reality. And I'm afraid that will be a much tougher opponent to overcome than Shrub will ever be.

Updated to include the stuff about Kerry supporters.
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