Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Geeksons

Stephen Hawking, fresh from experiencing weightlessness (technically, microgravity), repeated his conviction that "I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space."

More and more, if looks as if we ever do go out there, we'll have places to go. Reuters brought the word:
European astronomers have spotted what they say is the most Earth-like planet yet outside our solar system, with balmy temperatures that could support water and, potentially, life.

They have not directly seen the planet, orbiting a red dwarf star called Gliese 581. But measurements of the star suggest that a planet not much larger than the Earth is pulling on it, the researchers say in a letter to the editor of the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

"This one is the first one that is at the same time probably rocky, with water, and in a zone close to the star where the water could exist in liquid form," said Stephane Udry of the Geneva Observatory in Switzerland, who led the study. ...

"On the treasure map of the universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X" [added team member Xavier Delfosse of Grenoble University in France].
Most of the 200-plus extrasolar planets found so far are gas giants similar to Jupiter, largely because the most common way to find such planets is by their gravitational effect on their star - and large planets orbiting close to the star will produce the largest effect and thus be the easiest to find. This one, by comparison, appears to have about 5 times Earth's mass; Jupiter's mass is about 318 times that of Earth.

Note that the discovery does not mean the planet has water (it could have been boiled away during an earlier epoch when its sun was hotter), only that it could have water and if it does it would be liquid. What's more, this is not the first rocky, Earth-type (as opposed to gaseous) planet found - it is, however, the most Earthlike so far. As techniques continue to improve, more such planets are likely to be found.

In fact, it's believed that fairly soon, within 20 to 30 years, it will be possible to block the light from the star and so obtain spectrographic images of light reflected from the planet itself - which could even reveal, assuming there is any, the signature of plant life there. And wouldn't that be something.


Life, or, more properly, nature, imitates art. From the BBC for a few days ago:
Kryptonite is no longer just the stuff of fiction feared by caped superheroes.

A new mineral matching its unique chemistry - as described in the film Superman Returns - has been identified in a mine in Serbia.
It ain't green and it doesn't glow, but it's a damn close match.

It seems that researchers discovered an unusual mineral aid asked for help from Dr. Chris Stanley, a mineralogist at the Natural History Museum in London.
"Towards the end of my research I searched the web using the mineral's chemical formula - sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide - and was amazed to discover that same scientific name, written on a case of rock containing kryptonite stolen by Lex Luthor from a museum in the film Superman Returns.

"The new mineral does not contain fluorine (which it does in the film) and is white rather than green but, in all other respects, the chemistry matches that for the rock containing kryptonite."
Okay, if you want to be mundane, it's just a new mineral with some possible commercial value. Still, as far as I'm concerned, the "new" part makes it cool - even without the caped crusader.

Unintentionally revealing quotes

In a story from Saturday, AFP quotes Resident Bush as saying Congress shouldn't "test my will" over Iraq occupation funding.
"If the Congress wants to test my will as to whether or not I'll accept the timetable for withdrawal, I won't accept one," he told a news conference at his retreat in Camp David, Maryland, Friday.

"So if they want to try again that which I have said was unacceptable, then of course I'll veto it," Bush said.
So is that what this comes down to? Is that, in the final analysis, what this is all about, at least as far as Our Only President is concerned? Some test of wills? Is it, when all is said and done, just a matter of Bush showing how macho he is, "how much of a man" and I don't mean that in the good sense?

Consider that all the talk about the Congressional bill's reference to "withdrawal starting October 1," even if that's to be taken as a requirement, is unimportant because there is no end date beyond an "advisory" one. Bush could make some token withdrawal to a base in the region and promise more troop cuts "as conditions allow" and be in full compliance because the bill is sufficiently supplied with loopholes and "but ifs" with regard to benchmarks as to allow him to say that they're being met without fear of contradiction or limitation except by an entirely new bill. The short version of that is that Bush could easily sign the bill and still do pretty much anything he wants in Iraq.

So why wouldn't he? Is it really just a matter of ego, of pride, of plain old stiff-necked stubbornness on the part of someone trying yet again to prove his manliness? This was, after all, the same guy who at 26 and often drunk, wanted to go "mano a mano" with his father.

In an article published April 12 at Scoop, an independent news source based in New Zealand, the father-son team of psychotherapist John P., and Professor JP, Briggs write of "The Psychology Behind G.W. Bush's Decision-Making." In it, they argue that Bush "makes hasty, risky, ill-informed decisions in which he relies on his defenses [against feelings of inadequacy] rather than judgment." They describe this as "tar-baby decision-making," which I take to mean that the more things go wrong, the more committed he becomes to a course of action, the better to avoid the feeling of failure. Put another way, once he makes a decision, he's psychologically stuck with it.

To the extent George Tenet's new book is accurate and not simply a "It wasn't my fault!" whine, it illustrates the point with regard to Iraq:
New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti obtained a copy of the memoir, which goes on sale Monday. In an interview with NPR on Friday, Mazzetti said Tenet states in his memoir, "There was never a debate about whether the threat was imminent from Iraq. There wasn't a debate about other options besides invasion."
I think, as I often do about psychoanalysis-at-a-distance, that the Briggs occasionally go too far, making too much out of too little - and sometimes cite ostensibly significant examples of behavior to support the thesis which are actually significant only in the light of the already-determined conclusion. That is, if it hadn't already been decided that Bush is hiding a sense of inadequacy, the "significant" behaviors would not appear significant. Even so, the image of "tar-baby decision-taking" resonates and, if I'm allowed the addendum that the bigger the issue, the bigger the conflict surrounding it, the more this seems to be true, it does seem to describe Bush's pattern.

So in the end, I guess a "test of wills" with Congress is exactly what it comes down to in his mind. It's not about the soldiers, it's not about Iraq at all. It's about getting his way. Period.

We are not governed by incompetents - we are governed by brats.

Powerful arguments

Several years ago I worked in a science museum. One of my duties involved a program about electricity. In the course of doing that, more than once a question would come up about the safety of living near powerlines - or, as they were called when I was a kid, high-tension lines. The museum didn't have an official position on the question, but all of my colleagues were dismissive of the concerns; one insisted "you get more exposure to electromagnetic radiation from your electric toothbrush."

I remained a little skeptical of that attitude, noting that more than one study panel had failed to reach a genuine consensus. So rather than dismissing people's worries, when asked I would tell people that what was universally agreed is that if the effect exists, it's a small one. If I didn't have to live near a powerline, I wouldn't - but if I wound up living near one, I wouldn't spend my time worrying about it as there are far greater dangers about which I could be concerned.

It's now several more years and several more studies down the road and it still looks like I was giving the best advice. From the BBC for Friday:
Experts have clashed over whether or not it is safe to build houses and schools near powerlines. ...

The panel of 40 included scientists, representatives from the electricity industry and health campaigners.

Opinion is divided over whether electromagnetic fields from powerlines pose a health risk. ...

In 2005, the Department of Health funded Draper Report found that children who lived within 200 metres of high voltage lines had a 70% higher risk of developing leukaemia than those who lived more than 600 metres away. ...

Some scientists have suggested that other illnesses, including brain tumours and motor neurone disease could also be linked to EMF exposure.

But others say powerlines pose no health threat.
The panel did suggest a number of ways to reduce public exposure to electromagnetic fields both in terms of the lines and individual families' efforts to avoid excess exposure in their homes - but couldn't agree on the more contentious issue of an outright ban on new construction near powerlines.

If the Draper Report is correct, the result of people now living within 200 meters of powerlines could be an extra five cases of childhood leukemia per year, just over 1% of the annual total of roughly 400 new cases. Again, a rather small effect - but not a zero one and hardly negligible for those actually affected.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

A nice round number

I was alerted by an email that today, April 28, is the 1500th day of the Iraq invasion and occupation.

That email also noted that just over 94% of US military deaths in Iraq have occurred since "Mission Accomplished."

Comment comment

A few weeks ago, in response to this post about the Supreme Court's failure to address the Shrub team's (and Congress's) undermining of habeas corpus, I got a comment from folks at the Ministry of Love referring to their "ongoing Orwellian protest of the Military Commissions Act."

I didn't check it out partly because I was distracted and party because I'd never heard of them and frankly, I was suspicious it was a spam post just trying to drive traffic. But today I was at Haloscan doing something else and I got reminded of it and figured what the heck, I'd find out.

Yes, it is a legit site and their "Orwellian protest" is actually rather clever: They are trying to send a copy of 1984 with an explanatory note to every member of Congress who voted for the Military Commissions Act. As of early April they had sent out 149, not quite half of the total of 315 necessary.

You may want to give them a look - and, if you can, donate a copy. The link is above.

Footnote to that footnote

Thanks go to Crooks & Liars for this link.
If [Oregon] Gov. Ted Kulongoski seems a little sluggish this week, he's got an excuse: he couldn't afford coffee.

In fact, the Democratic governor couldn't afford much of anything during a trip to a Salem-area grocery store on Tuesday, where he had exactly $21 to buy a week's worth of food - the same amount that the state's average food stamp recipient spends weekly on groceries.
Yep, the Governor is eating for a week on what a Food Stamp recipient could buy. He's hardly the first to try this experiment, and, just like the others, he quickly discovered that it ain't easy. And that's not even taking into account the hidden health perils of having to live that way.
Along the way, [Christina] Sigman-Davenport, a mother of three who works for the state Department of Human Services and went on food stamps in the fall after her husband lost his job, dispensed tips for shopping on a budget. Scan the highest and lowest shelves, she told the governor. Look for off-brand products, clip coupons religiously, get used to filling, low-cost staples like macaroni and cheese and beans, and, when possible, buy in bulk.
Good tips for saving money - and, potentially, for malnutrition. Many people struggling to pay for food do indeed go for "filling, low-cost staples like macaroni and cheese" - which are also high in fats and carbohydrates and often very high in salt. Even for many of us not on Food Stamps, who are not - what's the term, "food insecure?" - even for folks like us, finding foods that are nutritious, not overly high in fats or salt, and affordable can be a real struggle. One of the things I find endlessly irritating is nutrition gurus who tell us how we really should be eating fresh this and fresh that and specially-prepared the other and who apparently have no concern whatsoever about the cost. (I remember Jeff Smith, the so-called "Frugal Gourmet," slamming people who wanted to use lower-cost substitutes in his recipes. Oh, no, it had to be this and it had to be fresh - even fresh saffron, which can run from $60-$200 per ounce. Questioned about this, he said he defined "frugal" as "making the most out of what you've got," which is fine except for the fact that most of us don't "got" fresh saffron.)

The fact is, it is expensive to eat healthy and even more expensive to eat both healthy and well. When we are telling people, as we are always telling them when we hold down the minimum wage, when we get chintzy with Food Stamps, when we mouth condescending, vapid slogans like "workfare, not welfare," when we say "liveable wage" proposals are "anti-business," when we are telling people to look for "filling, low-cost staples," we are telling them that they must eat unhealthy. That they and their children must live in constant risk of being malnourished with all the adverse health (and particularly for children, cognitive) consequences that entails.
After the hourlong shopping trip, Kulongoski said he was mindful that his week on food stamps will be finite and that thousands of others aren't so lucky.

"I don't care what they call it, if this is what it takes to get the word out," Kulongoski said, in response to questions about whether the food stamp challenge was no more than a publicity stunt. "This is an issue every citizen in this state should be aware of."
Good for you, Governor Kulongoski. Now let's see some follow-up. But yes, you can have your coffee first.

A sort of footnote to that last bit

For an idea of what could be done with any assets seized or aid redirected, consider that
[t]he UN's African development director said Wednesday the continent would fail to reach the goal of slashing poverty in half by 2015 as it was beset by a legion of structural problems.

"Despite some encouraging economic results, Africa will not achieve the millennium development goals by 2015," Gilbert Houngbo from the United Nations' development programme said in the Congolese capital Brazzaville.

"African growth is handicapped by structural weaknesses. These handicaps include poor empowerment of women, weak child protection, insufficient access to reproductive health and to decent work," he said.
The goals, despite all the hoopla and (quite genuine) hope surrounding them, were never very realistic in the first place. For one thing, they depended on a much greater commitment to development aid on the part of the industrialized world than it has heretofore been prepared to show. Second, and probably more important, they also depended on what could most charitably be called good faith assumptions about the effects of "open markets" and "free trade," that is, on the tender mercies of international capitalism.

But while such measures can improve (and have improved) the GDP of a nation, occasionally dramatically, poverty is not a matter of the macroeconomics of a nation - it is a matter of the microeconomics of people on the ground, of individuals and individual families. And that is a matter that the golden idol of "free trade" is at least as likely to damage as to help.

For one little bit of proof, notice, if you will, that not one item on Houngbo's list has anything to do with being insufficiently enamored of international capitalism or "world markets." Rather, they are matters that involve - to use an old 60s buzzword in its proper context - empowerment. Empowerment of people on the ground, not the people in the skyscrapers.

You want to reduce poverty? You want to eliminate poverty? Start, if you will, by lowering your sights. Lowering them down to where the people actually live.

Notes from all over

But mostly from Africa, as it turns out. Another collection of brief items to remind us that our concerns are not the only ones and are not central to everyone.

Mexico - Mexico City, to be more specific, where city lawmakers voted earlier this week to legalize abortion in the district. The measure passed handily, 46-19 with one abstention, despite strong opposition from the country's ruling National Action Party and the Catholic Church, with Pope Benedict (who will always be Cardinal Ratzinger to me) calling for its defeat and local bishops threatening to excommunicate anyone who supported it.
The law made the megalopolis one of the rare parts of Latin America where abortion is legal without restrictions in the first three months of pregnancy. Cuba, Guyana and Puerto Rico, a US territory, have similar legislation. ...

Until now abortions in Mexico were only legal in cases of rape or if the pregnancy entailed serious health risks.
The law only applies to Mexico City; the severe restrictions in place elsewhere in the ocuntry are unaffected. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard has said he'll sign the bill.

Opponents plan to mount a legal challenge, but rights supporters express confidence such a challenge will fail and even hope that the vote will mark the beginning of a change in attitude on the matter in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Nigeria - Umaru Yar'Adua, the candidate of the ruling party, won a landslide victory in voting for president this past weekend.

Well, maybe. It seems the election was so bad, so marked by vote-rigging and violence, that even outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had hand-picked Yar'Adua to succeed him, "admitted to a bundle of election flaws," as the Agence France Presse put it, which added that both foreign election monitors and the political opposition called it the most fraudulent election in the nation's history, even worse than those of 2003 which the country's Supreme court agreed were tainted.
Dozens of Nigerians died in violence before the presidential and state elections[, AP reported}. Electoral officials during both votes could be seen inking ballots and shoving them into boxes. The presidential ballots bore no serial numbers, making them easy to mishandle and impossible to track. Election observers say ruling party thugs ran off with ballot boxes.
The Nigerian press was harsh in its judgment.
"We have been the laughing stock among world commentators," wrote the respected independent daily The Nation. "This is not the kind of Nigeria we dreamed of when many dueled with life ... for a democracy."

"Even a goat would have won the elections provided it had the backing of the PDP (ruling People's Democratic Party)," said the private daily The Vanguard.
Large-scale court challenges are planned and an opposition bloc is calling for peaceful protests on May 1 to demand the election be annulled and a new election held.

Somalia - For the moment, Mogadishu is quiet. Quiet enough, at least, for the dead to be gathered for burial and for some to venture to the central market area to see if their businesses are still standing.

This after nine days of fierce street fighting and heavy artillery barrages as Ethiopian troops and tanks acting on behalf of the interim Somali government sought to drive Islamist rebels from positions in the city. Somalia has endured 16 years of almost-unbroken violence since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was booted out in 1991, an event that produced a classical power vacuum that a variety of militias and clans have sought to fill with the predictable bloody results.

This past December, Ethiopia intervened on behalf of the interim government and appeared to have defeated the Islamists. In March, an African Union peacekeeping force began to arrive to police a ceasefire. Instead, rebels began attacking them as soon as they arrived and violence quickly escalated.

This latest round has left hundreds of civilians dead, hundreds of thousands have fled the city leaving half of it "a ghost city," and the interim government is accused by the UN of blocking the arrival of humanitarian relief and food aid. Meanwhile,
"We are getting reports that people have started dying in the camps because of squalid conditions - they are starving, with no water, food or medicine," said Sudan Ali Ahmed, chairman of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Organisation which monitors casualty rates.

"These people should just stop fighting."
The question, as it always is with war: Is your cause really worth this?

Turkey - In an unusually blunt statement, Reuters reported on Friday, the General Staff of the Turkish Army (the equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) declared that the armed forces "are watching ... with concern" in the wake of an indecisive first round of parliamentary balloting for a new president that revealed a deep split between Turkish secularists and the Islamist-rooted government.
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, the ruling AK Party's candidate, failed to win sufficient votes in the first round of voting after opposition parties boycotted the session. ...

The AK Party's main rival, the CHP, has asked the Constitutional Court to annul the vote on a technicality, raising the risk of protracted legal wrangling in the strategically important European Union candidate country.
Turkey has been pointed to on any number of occasions as the example of how a Muslim country can embrace democracy. (Or at least the outward form of it, the substance is open to considerable question.) Yet the tension is always there and the military regards itself at the guarantor of secularism.
Turkey's secular elite, which includes army generals, top judges and the opposition parties, fear that Gul, a former Islamist, will try to erode Turkey's separation of politics and religion if elected.

The army ousted a government it viewed as too Islamist as recently as 1997. Gul served in that government. He says his views have changed and he is now a conservative democrat. ...

[But a]s an example of what it called increased "reactionary," or Islamist, activity, the army statement cited the recent murder of three Christians at a Bible publishing house in eastern Turkey. Turkish media have suggested the arrested suspects may be militant Islamists.
Gul is suspect because of his involvement in that Islamist government - and, in what can be taken as a clear indicator of how high feelings run, because his wife wears the Muslim headscarf.

Nobody, Reuters notes, is expecting a coup but the military's statement serves to remind everyone of the underlying tensions - especially because if Gul wins the presidency, as he's expected to unless the court acts, the AK Party would dominate all key state institutions - and while the party rejects the label "Islamist" (as does, again, Gul himself), opposition parties and secularists are not convinced.

Zimbabwe - His country falling apart with repression, corruption, hunger, and the highest inflation rate in the world - 1600% - Zimbabwe's native fascist, "President" Robert Mugabe, responded last month as those familiar with his rule could have predicted: He became increasingly violent toward protesters. All protests were banned and a peaceful meeting on March 11 became a target for attack by Mugabe's forces. In the wake of that assault, hundreds of opposition leaders were kidnapped, beaten, and tortured; at least one was branded so the thugs "would always know" who he was.

Faced with international condemnation, Mugabe tried to cut Zimbabwe off from the world, threatening to "kick out" foreign envoys and preventing opposition leaders from leaving on the fatuous claim that they might be charged with "inciting violence." (Something like, it seems, the abusive husband who glares at his bruised and battered wife and says "Look what you made me do!")

At one point, it looked like Mugabe was being forced to back down: He scrapped a plan to push presidential elections back from 2008 to 2010 (which would extend his current term two years by fiat) and released many of those arrested. That, however, was before he arranged, to the dismay of even some in his own party, to have himself nominated again as presidential candidate in 2008.

And dozens of opposition leaders have been re-arrested, again subjected to beatings and torture. Some of those are still held.
A leading Zimbabwe opposition activist who was badly beaten during a bloody crackdown on dissent appealed for international help securing the release of 28 other critics of President Robert Mugabe still in police custody.

Five of the 28 are "in very bad state," barely able to move or eat, said Grace Kwinjeh, whose lawyers arranged for her to get treatment in South Africa, where she was hospitalized for five weeks. ...

Kwinjeh, deputy secretary for international relations of [main opposition leader Morgan] Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, urged an international campaign to free them and to end the abduction, arrests and beatings of Mugabe opponents.
Perhaps one thing to do would be to say if Mugabe wants to isolate Zimbabwe, fine. No aid of any kind. At all. From anywhere. (I'd normally make an exception for humanitarian aid, but since any such aid doesn't seem to be getting to the people who need it, I'm not sure I'd do that in this case.) All assets frozen, including any personal assets that can be reached. No travel into the country. Refugees can leave, but any Zimbabwean official who leaves the country is subject to arrest and trial before the World Court on a charge of crimes against humanity. Then let's see how long his already-restive party continues to put up with him.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Speaking of religious law

The BBC reported on Tuesday that Israel is running what orthodox Jews there call "modesty buses" on 30 public bus routes across the country. These are buses where men and women are segregated, with the men sitting in the front of the bus (of course) and the women in the back. Katya Adler, a correspondent for the Beeb in Jerusalem, described her own experience:
The other day I was waiting for a bus in downtown Jerusalem. I was in the bustling orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Sharim and the bus stop was extremely crowded.

When the Number 40 bus arrived, the most curious thing happened. Husbands left heavily pregnant wives or spouses struggling with prams and pushchairs to fend for themselves as they and all other male passengers got on at the front of the bus.

Women moved towards the rear door to get on at the back.

When on the bus, I tried to buck the system, moving my way towards the driver but was pushed back towards the other women.
Authorities say the arrangement is voluntary, but to what should be no one's surprise, it's voluntary in name only. Adler tells the story of Naomi Regen, an orthodox Jew who is one of a group of women suing over the buses. After getting on an empty bus and taking a seat behind the driver, she was accosted by later passengers, "ultra-orthodox men," one of who demanded she move to the back on the bus. (God, that has such unpleasant associations.)
"And he tried to gain support from the rest of the passengers and I underwent a half-hour of pure hell - abuse, humiliation, threats, even physical intimidation."
Believe it or not - actually, I know you will - not only is the image familiar, the arguments are.
Shlomo Rosenstein disagrees. He is a city councillor in Jerusalem where a large proportion of Israel's segregation lines operate.

"This really is about positive discrimination, in women's favour. Our religion says there should be no public contact between men and women, this modesty barrier must not be broken."
You see? This is in favor of the women. It benefits them. It protects their modesty. It's for their own good, the dear little things. We discriminate against you, threaten you, call you names, because we care about you!
Naomi Regen says the buses are just part of a wider menacing pattern of behaviour towards women in parts of the orthodox Jewish community.

"They've already cancelled higher education in the ultra-orthodox world for women. They have packed the religious courts with ultra-orthodox judges.

"In some places there are separate sides of the street women have to walk on."

She says that there are signs all over some religious neighbourhoods demanding that women dress modestly.

"They throw paint and bleach at women who aren't dressed modestly and if we don't draw a line in the sand here with this seat on a bus, then I don't know what this country and this religion is going to look like in 20 years," Ms Regen said.
But we do know, Ms. Regen. We've already seen it. Just ask the women of Afghanistan who lived under the Taliban.

Be prepared

This, as reported in Wednesday's Christian Science Monitor, is something I'm sure will be appearing in the right wing blogs and in the ammo belts of wingnut trolls
One of the most alarming findings of a new poll of attitudes in four Muslim countries is that a majority of respondents say they support two of Al Qaeda's chief goals: They want strict Islamic law, or sharia, in Muslim countries and to "unify all Islamic countries into a single state, or Caliphate."
Sounds ominous and likely will be filed right next to that quote from Osama bin Laden, something about getting the US out of Iraq is not the end of the struggle (with which I actually agree but on a dramatically different basis), that gets tossed up whenever the idea of pulling out of Iraq is raised. But, as is often the case, reality lies just beyond the wingers' grasp. (Well, actually, it's well within their grasp, they just refuse to close their hands around it.)
[A] closer look at attitudes in Egypt and Pakistan, two of the countries surveyed, reveals a more nuanced perspective that also welcomes democracy and freedom of religion.
The survey by for the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) revealed widespread support for the idea of Sharia, but a wide range of ideas of what that meant. Stephen Weber of PIPA said
[a] useful analogy ... is to consider the fact that many Americans support Judeo-Christian values and the Ten Commandments, "but few would endorse stoning an adulteress."
More specifically, in one of the countries studied, Indonesia, the group found 53% "strongly" or "somewhat" agreeing
that the sharia should be followed in every Muslim country.

But a more in-depth poll of Indonesian opinions by the Asia Foundation in 2003 found that most Indonesians did not want Islamic law to replace the civil legal system, force women to cover their hair, or permit the mutilation of thieves and the killing of adulterers. Instead, they saw sharia as an admonition that Muslims abide by the five pillars of Islam: prayer, belief in God, pilgrimage to Mecca, giving alms, and fasting during Ramadan.
In addition, more than 75% in all four countries (the fourth was Morocco) called attacks on civilians un-Islamic and majorities in three opposed al-Qaeda's attacks on the US. (In the other, Pakistan, a heavy majority declined to answer that question, "rendering it difficult to gauge attitudes there.")

What all this comes down to is that most Muslims in the four countries studied - one in north Africa, one in the Middle East, one in south-central Asia, and one in southeast Asia - reject not only the violence of such as al-Qaeda but also the theocratic vision of the mullahs of Iran. Rather, they are looking for a way to integrate their religion with their civil lives into a coherent whole. That doesn't mean I'd like the end result of such a blending any more than I would like the results of our homegrown religious fanatics achieving their goal of a "Christian nation." It does, however, provide proof that contrary to the politically-useful paranoia of the putrid pundits, the people of the Muslim world are not interested in, as someone famously and similarly said, invading our countries, overthrowing our leaders, and forcibly converting us to Islam.

Footnote: There was one significant exception to the opposition to violence:
The poll also found that most respondents want US forces out of the Middle East and many approve of attacks on US troops there. Large majorities also say that undermining Islam was a key goal of US foreign policy.
Now, I actually am convinced that those responsible for our attack on and occupation of Iraq don't give a flying damn if somebody's religion focuses on Jesus, Muhammed, Buddha, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They only care if you're ready to play ball with us on our terms. However, I strongly suspect that the former of those convictions among Muslims is to a significant extent driven by the latter one. And every time one of our jackass wackos refers to Islam as a "religion of hate" or whatever, it just gives them more reason to believe it.

Another small victory in the struggle

On September 28, 2003, Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally handicapped black man, was at the Country Store in his hometown of Linden, Texas. A local teenager invited him to an outdoor party - where, it developed, he was to be the entertainment for the partying whites, dancing a jig, being called names.

It was when the party had wound down to just a handful that things turned ugly. Johnson was attacked, knocked out, tossed in the back of a truck, and taken to a deserted road where he was dumped, bleeding and still unconscious, on a fire ant hill.

The next morning, two of the four young white men involved found him still unconscious and called police.
Johnson, now 46, has not recovered from a blow to his skull and will need nursing home care the rest of his life. ...

He can barely speak and when he does, he is mostly unintelligible.
The young men's story of self-defense quickly broke down and all four were arrested and charged. And convicted, despite the fact the the county prosecutor couldn't even be bothered to attend, leaving it to a deputy. Two of the defendants were convicted of "injury to a disabled person," the other two on other minor charges. Three of them got 30 days, one got 60 days. You read that right.

And not so long ago and in too many places still, that would have been the end of it. But not this time.
Civil rights lawyer Morris Dees then helped Johnson sue the assailants in civil court. Last week, a mostly white jury here awarded Johnson $9 million in damages. Jurors say they stood up to racism in Linden and surrounding Cass County. ...

"I was amazed" by the jury's decision, says the Rev. Ronald Wright, president of the Dallas chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group. "It was a passionate group, a group that stands for justice. That sent out a real good message that East Texas needs to change the way it thinks."

"I think the verdict says the moral majority has spoken," says Marvin Weems, a white lawyer in Atlanta, Texas, a Cass County town 12 miles from Linden. "This is the way that most people in Cass County looked at what happened."

Tommy Thompson, a black resident who owns a barbecue restaurant, says that "a lot of people were dissatisfied with the outcome of the criminal trials," and were happy with the jury award to Johnson — even if it was so large that he'll "never get (all of it) anyway."
Let's hope those words, words themselves of hope, prove to be more than, well, than just words. Let's hope that the good citizens of Linden and the surrounding area who insist that things are better than they used to be and there is no more racism there than anywhere else are not products of willful self-delusion. But history is a heavy weight:
In 1994, a black man who had been dating a white woman was found shot dead. The incident was ruled a hunting accident. In 2001, a black man who had been dating a white woman was found hanging from a tree. It was ruled a suicide. ...

In Paris, about 105 miles northeast of Linden, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating complaints that black students in public schools are disciplined more often and more harshly than whites.

Shaquanda Cotton, 14, a black high school freshman, was sentenced last spring to seven years in jail after she shoved a hall monitor and was convicted of "assault on a public servant." Three months earlier, the same judge had sentenced a white girl to probation after she was convicted of arson for burning down her parents' house. Cotton was released last month after a public outcry.

Linden is about 150 miles north of Jasper County, which received worldwide attention in 1998 after the slaying of James Byrd. He was chained to a pickup by three white men and dragged to his death down a country road.
And then there's the fact that Linden's mayor at the time, one Wilford Penny, called the attack on Johnson "very unfortunate and senseless" - before adding "the black boy was somewhere he shouldn't have been."

But still, but still - two of the defendants had already settled by the time the civil trial opened and a third put up no defense. And the jury reached its verdict in less than four hours. It was a victory. A small one, yes, but a victory. And we have few enough of those to celebrate, so we should take or joys where we can find them.

Footnote: One juror said that one of the things that drove their verdict was the fact that one of the defendants, who mounted his own defense, referred to Johnson as "it" during the trial. The community may be learning something - but clearly he isn't.

On not getting the point

US News & World Report claimed on Tuesday that
the meeting last week between President Bush and congressional leaders to discuss Iraq went better than some media accounts described. ...

[C]ontrary to some news reports, there may have been more ground for compromise than the skeptics thought. Bush won't accept any legislation that tries to dictate tactics to military commanders, which means he will veto the evolving compromise bill that provides for Iraq war funding but also includes a timetable for withdrawal. ...

But what about legislation that sets nonbinding "objectives and goals" for deciding when U.S. troops should leave? The official declined to tip the president's hand but said Bush in the end will accept legislation to fund the Iraq war as long as it doesn't tie the hands of the commanders in the field. That concept, he says, could leave more of an opening for compromise than many people think.
WTF? Leave aside the utter inanity of claiming that a withdrawal date is "dictating tactics" - which is much like claiming that a parent telling their son or daughter to be home by 11pm is "dictating" what they do while they're out - just how the hey are "nonbinding 'objectives and goals,'" that is, ones that can be freely ignored by an administration which has proved beyond doubt that it's prepared to ignore binding restrictions, a "compromise?" How is putting no actual restrictions on Bush's bloodlust a "compromise" from putting no actual restrictions on Bush's bloodlust?

Now, just today the Senate joined the House in passing the Congressional bill on funding the occupation, the one Bush insists he's going to veto (and which he assuredly is because even if he was by some miracle to decide he should sign it, it would be too much of a political comedown for his pride to take). The test comes after that.

One possibility was raised by House Defense Appropriations Chairman John Murtha last week, who suggested that in the wake of of a veto, a bill to finance the war for just two months would be "very likely.”
House Defense appropriator Jim Moran (D-Va.) said a two-month bill is intended to keep troops funded without giving the president too much latitude.

“Six months is probably too long,” Moran said. “One month — it takes longer than that to pass the thing.” ...

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) a founding member of the House Out of Iraq Caucus, said she expects there will be even more pressure to withdraw troops in two months if events in Iraq continue on their current violent course.

“In two months it might be really clear how bad it is,” Woolsey said.
Which, of course, is part of the idea for a short-term funding bill as opposed to Bush's desire for one that would fund it for over a year: Make Bush keep coming back for money and make war supporters in both parties have to keep voting for it in the face of rising domestic opposition. (Gee, where did I hear that idea about a month ago?)

So it comes down to this: If after failing to overcome a veto (which is what will happen), Congress funds the war for two or three months, there are some people in that body who are serious at least about grinding the war to a halt if not slamming on the brakes immediately. If instead some disgraceful "compromise" about nonbinding "objectives" gets pushed, it means they will have folded like a cheap suit, collapsed like a house of cards, take your favorite simile.

And while we debate and pick and posture, of course, people keep dying. It's so easy, so desirable, to forget that all this is not an abstract exercise.

Noted more or less in passing

Since the death of Boris Yeltsin, both the news and some lefty blogs have featured encomiums to the man who was supposed to have lead Russia to democracy. Wednesday's Christian Science Monitor, for example, quotes Bill Clinton as calling him "courageous and steadfast on the big issues: peace, freedom, and progress," which the paper called "a typically generous Western accolade."

However, the CSM reports, those who saw him at closer range were less impressed.
[I]n Russia, even many of Yeltsin's former close allies temper their eulogies with references to his "serious errors," while much of the commentary has been sharply negative. During Yeltsin's nearly nine years in power, Russia's gross domestic product slumped by over 50 percent, millions of people lost their savings in repeated financial crises, and life expectancy plunged to third-world levels.

"Yeltsin inherited the Russian state in 1991, and left it in much worse shape than he found it," says Roy Medvedev, one of Russia's foremost historians, who has known all three leaders. "His legacy was mostly unhappy, and I don't think the Russian people will remember him with much warmth."
The "three leaders" are Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin.

Which brings to mind one of my old writings, from the September 1991 issue of the print version of Lotus, commenting on the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev the preceding month.
There was a second coup in August, this one partly successful. Only it wasn’t by generals and KGB officers with bad timing, it was by a politician with good timing. His name, of course, is Boris Yeltsin.

“Coup” is the right word. Yeltsin used the crisis as an opportunity for what can only be called a naked power grab. Using first Gorbachev’s absence and then his weakened political and emotional condition when he returned, Yeltsin issued a string of edicts about the KGB, the Communist Party, military forces in Russia, recognition of the Baltics, and so on, many of which blatantly exceeded his authority. He was determined to gather as much power as he could as quickly as he could. He succeeded not only in making himself equal to Gorbachev, at times he seemed to eclipse him: During their joint press conference after Gorbachev’s return, Yeltsin deliberately humiliated him by interrupting him to sign a decree suspending the activities of the Communist Party in Russia. ...

[I]n addition to his seizure of authority he also undertook a variety of actions that frightened some of his neighbors and angered some democratic activists within his own country. Yeltsin, who seeks what he calls a “federation,” threatened to “press territorial claims” against any republic that breaks away completely, which sent shivers of fear through - and Russian Vice-president Alexander Rutskoy scurrying to - the Ukraine and Kazakhstan to calm fears about what Ukrainian officials labeled “resurgent Russian chauvinism” and Kazakhstan’s president called a “great-power, chauvinist attitude.”

Meanwhile, activists in Russia are raising complaints of illegal searches, seizures of property, intimidation of political opponents, and closings of newspapers and nonconformist institutions, raising doubts about how democratic his “democratic movement” really is.

Let it be noted for the record that I do not like Boris Yeltsin and I’m not at all sure I trust him.
(As for the economy, in that same essay, I said "the real question now is where things will go from here. Sadly and in a word, downward.")

Democracy? It was a George Bush-style democracy, one that valued institutional fealty to Dear Leader, differing only in how harshly arranged.
To Western eyes[, CSM reported,] it was the new, democratic Russia. Boris Yeltsin, the man who had wrested the country from the grip of communism two years earlier, was facing what he described as an armed "mutiny" by communist holdovers in the country's elected parliament. So when Mr. Yeltsin sent troops and tanks to disperse the Supreme Soviet legislature and arrest its leaders, Western leaders cheered his actions.

But many Russians were appalled.

"When I heard [then US President Bill] Clinton describing Yeltsin's actions as 'a triumph for democracy,' I was horrified," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "The president shelled parliament, killed lawmakers, and destroyed the only elected branch of government capable of challenging him. That had nothing to do with democracy."
Another memory, from a November 29, 1993 letter to a friend in the UK:
An outrageously self-serving, two-sentence comment on Boris Yeltsin’s coup, which played here as a struggle of democracy (i.e., Yeltsin) against “hard-line Communists” (i.e., the parliament) instead of as one man trying to force the dissolution of an elected legislature because it wouldn’t do what he wanted: “[Recent events have raised] doubts about just how ‘democratic’ Yeltsin’s ‘democratic movement’ really is. Let it be noted for the record that I do not like Boris Yeltsin and I’m not at all sure I trust him.” - Lotus, September 1991.
The Yeltsin era was marked by war in Chechnya, corruption, electoral abuses, major economic decline, and, in the wake of his destruction of Parliament, the imposition of a new constitution that dramatically increased the powers of the presidency, enabling Putin to become increasingly autocratic "without changing a single word," as Kremeniuk put it.

No, I did not like Boris Yeltsin. And I was right to not trust him.

A bit of good news

The Christian Science Monitor reported on Thursday that China, the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gases (and predicted to become #1 as soon as a year from now) is finally, if belatedly, surrendering to the weight of reality.
[O]fficials in Beijing appear to be backing away from their view that global warming is a Western problem that developed countries must solve.

While still insisting on their right to industrialize hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, Chinese leaders are showing the first tentative signs of readiness to accept mandatory emissions-reductions targets. And they are setting themselves all kinds of green goals.
Officials are being coy about how far they will go - and how deep the commitment is, is debatable. But the government is feeling pressure from its own scientists:
The effects [of global warming] are visible and getting worse, Chinese scientists are warning.

On the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, "one quarter of the glaciers that existed 350 years ago have disappeared," Qin Dahe, a former Chinese climate-change negotiator, said Monday. At current melt rates, "another quarter will disappear by 2050."

Those glaciers, he said, "are vital to people's economy and livelihood" in most of China and South Asia. "The water from these glaciers supports life for half the world's population."
Between than and being stung by the ominous predictions of the IPCC report, the government has
set its own emissions goals. Most ambitiously, the new assessment pledges to reduce CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 80 percent by 2050. ...

Even if China reached half its goal, the resulting reductions in emissions growth would still be larger than the EU-15's Kyoto CO2 goal of cutting 682 million tons annually by 2012, according to the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington.
In other words, a significant amount. Still, the questions of both determination and perhaps more importantly technological ability remain. But it does serve to point up how cold hard facts - or maybe I should say hot hard facts - are dragging the governments of the world, often kicking and screaming but still being dragged, out of a state of denial.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Number two

There was another of those tearing-out-the-hair, slumping-in-the-chair experiences this past week. Because this one is a bit subtler, I’ll make an exception and include this one link to a relevant site, in this case Media Matters for America, because it’s a bit hard to demonstrate clearly otherwise.

Okay. On April 19, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said at a press conference after meeting with the Cacoepist-In-Chief about Iraq that “this war is lost.” He was slammed and excoriated in the usual terms (ho-hum) by the usual suspects (ho-hum). None of that was surprising; it was also not surprising that the condemnations were based on an incomplete rendering of what he actually said. As the MMFA link above properly points out, he also said “the war, at this stage, can only be won diplomatically, politically, and economically.”

All well and good and a fair criticism of the slams, a criticism echoed in other places in similar terms. So what’s my problem?

Just this: The defenses of Reid all had an undercurrent of, indeed seemed to be driven by, the desire to insist that Reid hadn’t said what he actually had.

“Oh no gasp choke,” the attitude went. “He didn’t say the war is lost, he just said we can’t win this way. In fact, he really said the war can be won! He’s for victory! And so are we! No defeatism here! No cut and run there! We can win win win! Just not Bush’s way.”

But when people talk about a war won or lost, they aren’t thinking of “a diplomatic solution” or a “political settlement,” they’re not thinking of economic reconstruction or humanitarian relief or building good will. They’re thinking in military terms. Of battles, of victories and defeats marked with casualties and blood and shattered landscapes. And that war is lost. And Harry Reid did say that. And we should not be running away from it.

In fact, a number of what would have to be considered very establishment voices agree it’s lost.

- In February, General William Odom (ret.), a former head of Army intelligence and NSA director under Reagan, said that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was “a declaration of defeat.”
Victory, as the president sees it, requires a stable liberal democracy in Iraq that is pro-American. The NIE describes a war that has no chance of producing that result.
- In its March 22 issue, Rolling Stone reported that
[t]he war in Iraq isn't over yet, but - surge or no surge - the United States has already lost. That's the grim consensus of a panel of experts assembled by Rolling Stone to assess the future of Iraq. "Even if we had a million men to go in, it's too late now," says retired four-star Gen. Tony McPeak, who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. "Humpty Dumpty can't be put back together again."
- Early this month, even war criminal emeritus Henry Kissinger admitted in an interview with AP that a military victory “is not possible.”

In fact, the situation is so bad that even the optimists, ones who still spin fantasies of military victory, are pessimists. In a Washington Post article on April 8, John Hamre, described as a former deputy defense secretary, was quoted as saying “the time scale to succeed is years." And an unidentified official in Iraq said that maybe by the summer the escalation could “begin to turn the tide” but defeating the insurgency “is a five-to-10-year project, minimum.”

Kissinger, for his part, said the fighting “is likely to continue for years.” And even Optimist-in-Chief General David Petraeus, who got his job because he was willing to parrot Bush’s assurances that all was well in Iraq, told PBS's Jim Lehrer the beginning of April that “it will be months ... before we see real indicators of progress" from the escalation and more recently answered CNN’s Kyra Phillips’ softball request for a response to Reid by saying, according to her,
“It’s not that simple. I define winning as certain pockets of progress.”
The “pockets of progress” theme was then echoed in Phillips’ report by CENTCOM commander Admiral William Fallon, who told her
“It’s not that easy ... but I can tell you about areas of Iraq where they feel they are winning [sic].”
What’s most notable about this methodology is that it apparently does not involve balancing those “pockets of progress” against the jacketfuls of failures and devastation and loss. The technical term for this procedure is “desperation.”

And the public is fully aware of how badly things are going.

- In a NY Times/CBS poll in March,
[t]hree-quarters of those polled say things are going badly for the United States in Iraq, and only 23 percent say the efforts to bring stability and order to Iraq are going well.

Seventy percent, including 52 percent of Republicans, say there is not much the United States military can do to reduce the sectarian fighting in Iraq.
- A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll in mid-April reported that 69% of us say things are going badly for the US in Iraq and only 29% thought that the escalation would help in that regard. Meanwhile, a new USA Today/Gallup poll found 57% saying the Iraq war was a mistake.

- Finally, a Washington Post/ABC News poll, also from mid-April, had a number of interesting results, such as that 66% said the war in Iraq was “not worth fighting,” including 54% who felt that way “strongly.” For another, 57% have disconnected “winning in Iraq” from “success in the war on terror.” For a third, the proportion of respondents who feel “angry” about the war has increased 24 percentage points since it began and the proportion who feel “hopeful” has dropped by 29 percentage points over the same time.

But what’s most significant right now is that 53% said the US is losing the war (with another 12% volunteering the option that it’s a “tie”) and 51% say it ultimately will lose the war (with another 11% volunteering a stalemate). Only roughly a third of the public sees any chance of victory.

The war is lost! It probably never could have been won - Ah, the memories, how sweet! Remember "Mission Accomplished" and how most troops would be out by the fall of 2003? Remember “dead-enders?” And how about “last throes?” Those were the days! - but no matter what, it clearly is lost now. And people know it! And Harry Reid said it!

So why, by all that’s humanly reasonable, morally supportable, and politically rational, are we trying so hard to run away from it?

The answer is as obvious here as it was in the previous item: Rank, craven, political cowardice, cowering fear of being labeled “soft on defense” or “soft on terrorism” or just soft, period. Even when the facts on our side, we run away. Even when the public is on our side, we run away. And we run away, oddly enough, to claim we really are quite macho.

Footnote: In the comments on the MMFA item, a couple of people made the good point that we should not be referring to the Iraq “war” but to the Iraq “occupation.” Not only is that a good example of framing (because people will react differently to the two terms, with the former in some way linked to “defense” and the latter somehow to “aggression”) but also because it simply is more accurate. I intend to try to follow that advice in the future; I didn’t here because Reid used the word “war” and his quote was what prompted the reactions.

A second footnote: I was going to use the reference to “turning the tide” in the above to link to the story of King Canute - but unfortunately, all the links I found got the actual story right: Contrary to the popular notion, Canute did not order the tide to turn back in order to show his power but to demonstrate to fawning courtiers the futility of such an effort. Damn those accurate sources.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Number one

Updated I haven’t written anything for several days now. Part of the reason was that things I would have said about the things I would have most intended to address were, I thought, already being said by others with far bigger audiences - and as a general rule I don’t like to spend energy doing little more than echoing others. That is, when I contribute something to the conversation, I like to think it goes somewhat beyond “Me, too.”

Another part of the reason, though, was that it seemed to be one of those very frustrating times, very tiring times, where significant voices in the lefty side of the blogosphere were saying things that just made me want to tear my hair out but more usually just made me slump in my chair.

Again by my general rule, in what follows I won’t link to the sources even where I use direct quotes because this isn’t a matter of slamming some particular blogger or even some particular post but of discussing a broader attitude. That is, if I'd seen it in just one place it wouldn't have gotten to me; the reason I found it distressing is that I saw it in at least two reasonably prominent places.

The first thing that got me was the eagerness in some quarters to insist that oh no no no, the massacre at Virginia Tech was in no way related to gun control - absolutely not! Now, on Wednesday I addressed the blather that VT and gun control were unrelated because Cho Seung-hui bought the guns legally.
Excuse me, dipwads, but isn’t that the exact argument about gun control - that it’s too goddam easy to get guns legally?
I addressed that to the pundits and the “guns make me macho” crowd - and then discovered to my dismay that there were liberal blogs making essentially the same arguments that they were. For example, one parroted the NRA argument that if he couldn’t have bought the guns he would have stolen them instead so gun control laws didn't matter and one even referred to “the extremists on both sides” of the debate, that wonderfully weaselly way of declaring oneself the “reasonable” person in the discussion - and tarring gun control advocates with the brush more properly reserved for the upper echelons of the NRA.

Well, if thinking that arguing that rather than forcing someone to steal a gun in order to commit mass murder we should make it easy on them to get their weapon of choice is flat-out idiotic, damn me as an extremist.

If thinking someone who was supposed to be undergoing Court-ordered counseling after being hospitalized should not be able to buy guns, if thinking that someone in Virginia should not be able to go on eBay and buy ammo clips from a store in Idaho, makes me an extremist, then damn me as an extremist.

If thinking that allowing people to carry concealed weapons is stupid and that the image of someone “dropping” Cho is a blood-soaked Die Hard II fantasy, if daring to mention that the claim “more guns equals less crime” is utter crap (including noting that tough-on-guns Massachusetts had 171 murders in 2005 as compared to 459 in easy-on-guns Virginia, despite similar populations), makes me an extremist, then damn me as an extremist.

And most of all, if being convinced that this eagerness to dismiss, to dance and dodge away from, to double-talk a way out of, dealing with the entire neglected issue of gun control has a good deal less to do with facts and logic and a good deal more to do with cowardly political calculations about the effect in “red” states of appearing to be “anti-gun” makes me an extremist, then by all means please do damn me as an extremist.

Better an extremist than a fearful know-nothing.

(Thanks to Clif at The American Street for the link to the Brady Campaign info.)

Updated with a correction: This post originally said "undergoing Court-ordered counseling after being forcibly hospitalized." That was a misunderstanding on my part; Cho's hospitalization was apparently voluntary, not forcible. The word "forcibly" has been removed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


“It’s just so senseless.”

I feel like I should write something about what happened at Virginia Tech, should say something, have something to express about the horrific events of Monday.

But I don’t. I don’t have anything to say, at least not anything already said - and probably better - by others. I don’t feel moved to, and I’ve been wondering why.

I have to admit that when I first heard the story, I just heard about a “campus shooting.” I shrugged it off as just another sensationalized crime story. It wasn’t until later that I realized the extent of what had happened. Even then, I didn’t feel the stunned horror that seemed to engulf so many. It was almost as if I was numb. Not numb with shock or grief, just numb. Beyond caring.

But no, not numb. Not beyond caring. Tired. Just damn tired. Tired of it all. Tired of the killing. Tired of the blood. Tired of the grief. Tired of the mourning. Tired of the public fears and pains that result from such tragedies and tired of the private fears and pains that drive them. I’m just ... tired.

“It’s just so senseless.”

I’m tired of ranking of deaths, of making some lives more important, more worthy of notice, than others. I’m tired of the truth of the saying that one death is a tragedy, 50 deaths is a horror, and 5,000 deaths is a statistic.

I’m tired of days of wall-to-wall coverage of what was, yes, a horrific event, but coverage that goes on and on, covering the same ground over and over because there is nothing new to report while the misery in Darfur barely raises an eyebrow and the continued massacres in Iraq, in a number equal to two Virginia Techs a day, every day, becomes mere background noise for political posturing aimed more at the 2008 election than at our war.

I’m tired of making human lives into political bargaining chips, of deaths as the basis for political banter and one-upping. For one specific, I am tired - indeed, sick and tired - of the stupid, inane, pointless sniping over body counts, specifically, the Iraq Body Count versus the John Hopkins study. The IBC, using a very conservative approach of only counting civilians killed directly by war violence in incidents verified by two independent media accounts, now reports a number of killed of around 65,000. The John Hopkins study, using a standard survey methodology and looking to uncover all war-related deaths, including the many more resulting indirectly from the war, came in at 650,000. Despite the difference in approach and breadth of focus, and more importantly despite the fact that due to those differences the two numbers are not in conflict, IBC was slammed in some quarters as not only underplaying but even of actively concealing the destruction caused by our war, even of trying to somehow justify the occupation. As if 65,000 dead was a trivial number. As if 65,000 dead humans were not important enough for our outrage. As if the dead in Iraq, coming so fast that there would seem barely enough time to mourn them, mattered only as political talking points. As if the horror of the number wasn’t our concern but only the size of it.

“It’s just so senseless.”

I’m tired of the pomposity, the self-important ignorance of our pundit class, declaring with all the gravitas they can muster that the tragedy at Virginia Tech has nothing to do with gun control, nothing at all - because we certainly don’t want to have to go through all that nonsense again, do we? And why did it have nothing to do with gun control? Well, because - and yes, this is precisely the argument I heard from more than one source - Cho Seung-hui bought the guns legally.

Excuse me, dipwads, but isn’t that the exact argument about gun control - that it’s too goddam easy to get guns legally? Even for someone who was hospitalized just 16 months earlier as a “danger to himself” and ordered to undergo outpatient treatment? Oh god I am so tired of the “any excuse to keep my guns ‘cause they make me feel so macho” crowd.

And macho? You want macho? How about the cheap, swaggering, sneering, Dirty Harry fantasies of some columnists who considered the VT students wimps and wusses because they didn’t “rush the guy?” One even proposed counting the shots to catch him between clips. And then there was the well-known conservative blogger who advanced the argument that the problem was that there weren’t enough guns on campus. Yeah! That’s the answer! Everybody packin’ heat! A real shootout at the OK Corr- er, Quad!

There was overlap here with those who laughed at the British sailors taken captive by Iran, who were mocked and ridiculed as weaklings, as “pansies” and even sell-outs; even some ostensibly liberal bloggers opined contemptuously about making “propaganda films for the enemy.” All mixed in with stalwart assurances from members of the US military as to how they would have fought back and kicked some Iranian butt, not like those surrender-monkey Limeys.

I am just so tired, so very tired, of that sort of arrogant, conceited, condescending crap mouthed for the most part by people who have never been in a situation any way even remotely similar and who have no flipping clue how they would respond, who as much as they like to fantasize themselves as John Wayne or perhaps Kwai Chang Caine, could just as easily turn out to be Falstaff or Shaggy or Doctor Zachary Smith if not some cowering, weeping victim in a teenage slasher flick.

“It’s just so senseless.”

I’m tired of the search for someone to blame, the urge to point fingers, to make sense of the senseless by finding someone to label as “at fault.” As always, after the fact we find “warning signs,” oh so many warning signs, and we wonder, loudly and repeatedly, why someone didn’t notice, why someone didn’t “do something,” why someone didn’t accurately predict the future.

In this, we don’t blame the shooter. Not because we think he’s innocent or not responsible, but because nothing we do can touch him. He’s dead, beyond our reach, beyond our ability to castigate, to humiliate, to punish. Worse yet, he killed himself. He died not by our hand but by his own and not because he was trapped with no escape but apparently because it was his intent from the start. There’s no retribution possible, no way to strike back, no way to balance the blow. So we look to others.

We blame the school administration for not locking down the campus. We blame the police for a “sluggish” response. We use our knowledge of what did happen to condemn them for not knowing what would happen; we implicitly assume that we would have acted differently, that we would have known what no one involved knew, seen what no one involved saw.

Contrary to early notions, the police were called soon after the first shooting. They thought it was a “domestic dispute,” another in a much too-long list of boyfriends inflicting violence, in this case as in again too many others murderous violence, on their girlfriends. They even had a suspect in mind. Yes, they were wrong. But the fact remains that at that moment, there was no reason to expect more shootings. There was no reason to lock down the campus, no reason to immediately inform faculty and students, no reason to suspect further danger. No reason to think this was the one in a million exception.

Oh, even if it was one in a million, they should have taken steps? They could have, yes - and they would have been wrong 999,999 times out of that million. After how many thousands - hundreds - dozens - tens - of times of being wrong would it be before such precautions were resented and then disregarded as crying wolf? What about all the previous times police anywhere have not locked down an entire neighborhood in the wake of a shooting - was that a failure on their part? Or was it okay because it turned out not to be a case of someone on a rampage?

But we can’t deal with that, can’t deal with the tragic reality that at the very moment police were investigating what they thought was a single incident, the blood-soaked afternoon was approaching minute by minute and nothing was being done to stop it because no one knew it was coming. We feel that someone must have known, someone must have been able to do something, somehow.

But no one did. Because no one could. Because there was no reason to.

And I’m tired. Tired of the frustration, tired of the bitter taste of futile anger, tired of grief unleavened by any emotional sense of justice, tired of the search for living victims to join the dead ones.

“It’s just so senseless.”

And oh my dear lord I am most tired of all of the exploitation of this, just like, it seems, every other human tragedy that breaks through our emotional walls and touches us in some deep way, as grist for every damned political mill.

For example, I saw a progressive blogger who insisted that the afternoon bloodbath took place because campus officials and police didn’t take the matter seriously because it was “only” some guy “killing ‘his’ woman.” To her, the significance of the event was that it “proved” that police just don’t care about women getting murdered by men, in fact that they regard that as something to be shrugged off. What if the initial victim had been a male professor, she asked. Do you think the response would have been the same?

Probably not. Because it would not have looked like the same sort of crime. Do you think in that case they would have assumed a mass murder was running around and locked down the campus? What if there was reason to think the said professor had been killed by someone with who he was romantically involved? How different would the response have been then?

But no, that was not the worst, far from it. One conservative columnist, in a display of wretched excess and gut-wrenching paranoia, made a flaming big deal out of the fact that Cho had “Ismail Ax” written in ink on his arm. Because “Ismail” is the Arabic version of “Ishmael,” somehow, somehow, this meant that Cho was actually a Muslim (in fact a "Paki" - a Pakistani) and this was some sort of terrorist hit, thus proving the need for everlasting venom for all things Muslim or Arabic or maybe Middle Eastern or, anyway, non-American. (The “Ax” part didn’t seem to enter the analysis.)

To top it off, Fred Phelps his loonies from the Westboro Baptist Church plan to picket the funerals of the victims, claiming that this was all God’s will, a divine punishment for - well, for something, I’m actually not sure what.

Dammit, 33 people are dead! A dozen more wounded! This is a tragedy, not a fucking debating point for paranoids! It is the brutal, irredeemable massacre of dozens of innocents by a tormented, twisted soul who could no longer bear the weight of his own demons. It’s a time for grieving, not grandstanding.

And - and I say this both knowing I could be accused of some of the same use of this tragedy to make points of which I have accused others and thinking this may bring me back to the very start of this, may be the root of my difficulty in responding as so many others so naturally did - I am so tired of having to grieve. I look at Virginia Tech, I look at Darfur, I look at Iraq, I look at Zimbabwe, I look at Israel and Palestine, and I am just so damned tired, so very damned tired, of having to grieve.

“It’s just so senseless.”

Indeed it is.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Stay with me, now

The rumbling in the distance is that of war clouds, still at something of a distance, held back by a stationary front of public skepticism, but always threatening.
The U.S. suspects Iran is providing weapons and other military support to both sides of the sectarian conflict in Iraq - not just to the Shiites who have historic ties to the Iranians, the No. 2 American commander in Iraq said Friday.

"We're working now to determine whether they are in fact not only providing support to Shiite groups, but also Sunni insurgent groups," said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, referring to the Quds force, an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Oh my, that would be serious, now, wouldn't it? Do you have any proof, General Odierno? Well, no, he said, but they did have "some indications." What kind of indications, he wouldn't say. Leaving evidence aside for the moment, then, why would Iran help Sunni rebels?
"I think it's mainly because they want to continue to create chaos in Iraq," he replied. "They do not want this government potentially to succeed. But additionally, I think they want to try to tie down coalition forces here."
Okay, let's see. First, bear in mind that most Arab Muslims are Sunnis. What Odierno is suggesting is that Shiite Iran is helping Sunni rebels prevent the Shiite-dominated government of majority-Shiite Iraq from succeeding - because they want US military forces (I refuse to use the misleading "coalition") to stay in Iraq.

Okay, that's it, I'm done for the night. There's only so much bizarro-ness I can take in one evening.

Another success story in keeping us safe

This can be filed under the heading of "things we knew already but are still nice to have confirmed again."
Students who took part in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, according to a study ordered by Congress.

Also, those who attended one of the four abstinence classes that were reviewed reported having similar numbers of sexual partners as those who did not attend the classes. And they first had sex at about the same age as other students - 14.9 years, according to Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
In other words, the abstinence-only programs, the kind being pushed by the White House to the exclusion of others and to the tune of $200 million a year, didn't, if you will, accomplish a fucking thing about fucking. Doing nothing at all was equally effective.

Hilariously, the Shrub team is arguing that the study should be largely dismissed because the programs examined were some of the first established after "the end of welfare as we knew it" in 1996. Of course, that also should mean they are among the longest-standing with the most data, but hey, why should that matter? It gets even better:
Officials said one lesson they learned from the study is that the abstinence message should be reinforced in subsequent years to truly affect behavior.

"This report confirms that these interventions are not like vaccines. You can't expect one dose in middle school, or a small dose, to be protective all throughout the youth's high school career," said Harry Wilson, the commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families.
So faced with data that says their program isn't working, the first thing - in fact, the only thing - they think of is to do more of it while pretending the study's results are invalid. I think we can all guess what they would be saying about the study (the full report of which, incidentally, can be found here in .pdf format) if it backed up their antisex fantasies.

Oh, and before anyone says the opposite, that those opposed to abstinence-only sex ed only like the study because it confirms their belief, I'll note that this is not the first time abstinence-only sex ed has been found to be an utter failure at reducing sexual activity or unwanted pregnancies. In fact, the international AIDS charity Avert makes reference to eight studies covering programs in the US, Europe, Asia, and Africa which show
that comprehensive sex education can reduce behaviours that put young people at risk of HIV, STIs and unintended pregnancy ... [but] does not lead to the earlier onset of sexual activity among young people and, in some cases, will even lead to it happening later.

In contrast there is no such robust evidence for the effectiveness of abstinence education....
(Scroll down to the section "But which method is best?")

It's nice when decency, understanding, and science are all on the same side - and makes it natural for the WHS* to be on the other.

Footnote: In mid-March, Ohio became the sixth state to reject federally-funded abstinence-only programs this year. The others are California, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In rejecting the money, a representative of Ohio Governor Ted Strickland said that the state matching requirement "is an unwise use of tax dollars because there is no conclusive evidence that suggests the program works."

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Urgent message from somebody in Nigeria!

In one way, it seems amazing that those spam scams are still circulating; you'd think that by now even internet tyros would have heard about them at least enough to know to avoid them. But in another way, it's not surprising - because if you do manage to scam someone, it's very unlikely you'll be caught or prosecuted. Why? I can't tell you: It's a matter of national security.

But the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did tell us on Wednesday (with thanks to TPM for the tip).
Thousands of white-collar criminals across the country are no longer being prosecuted in federal court - and, in many cases, not at all - leaving a trail of frustrated victims and potentially billions of dollars in fraud and theft losses.

It is the untold story of the Bush administration's massive restructuring of the FBI after the terrorism attacks of 9/11.

Five-and-a-half years later, the White House and the Justice Department have failed to replace at least 2,400 agents transferred to counterterrorism squads, leaving far fewer agents on the trail of identity thieves, con artists, hatemongers and other criminals.
The facts the P-I found are damning. In the period 2000-2005,

- the number of criminal cases sent to prosecutors by the FBI dropped from 31,000 to 20,000, a 34% drop.
- the number of white-collar crimes referred for prosecution plummeted from over 10,000 to 3500 - a cut of more than 2/3.
- civil rights cases, including hate crimes and police abuse, dropped 65%.
"There's a niche of fraudsters that are floating around unprosecuted," said one recently retired top FBI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are not going to jail. There is no law enforcement solution in sight."
In fact, fraud cases where the losses are less than $150,000 aren't even on the radar and even ones involving losses of $500,000 are unlikely to get any attention.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if the next time Shrub talked about how his job is to make the rest of us "safe," someone brought up these numbers and asked how uninvestigated crime, unprosecuted civil rights violations, and a laissez-faire attitude toward fraud are making us safer?

Credit where credit is due

Rahm Emanuel, of all people, he of the oh-so-carefully selected Democratic candidates last fall (most of who lost),
is urging his House Dem colleagues in a memo not to back down in the face of White House pressure over Iraq and instead to continue to marginalize President Bush by pointing out that he's weaker than ever and way out of step with public opinion.
Election Central at TPMCafe got hold of the full text. Dated April 11, the memo notes that
[a] Time Magazine poll released a little more than a week ago found that, when given a choice, 68% of Americans endorsed a proposal to withdraw combat troops compared to 28% who favored maintaining troops in Iraq “as long as needed until the Iraqis can handle the situation themselves.” This is a clear comparison between our plan, which the American people overwhelmingly support, and the President’s plan.
It still takes something of a stretch to say the Dummycrat's plan is to withdraw, period, especially since this comes just one day after the Reid/Pelosi statement that talked about withdrawal in virtually the same breath as "fully funding" a war with a "strategy for success," but it's still better than the capitulation Carl Levin was advocating. So, like I said, credit where it's due to Rahm Emanuel.

The internot?

I sometimes think I may be the last person to still call it the internet as opposed to the internets, the intertubes, the inner tubes, the whatevers. But golly gee, maybe that won't be an issue that much longer. From AP for Friday:
Although it has already taken nearly four decades to get this far in building the Internet, some university researchers with the federal government's blessing want to scrap all that and start over.

The idea may seem unthinkable, even absurd, but many believe a "clean slate" approach is the only way to truly address security, mobility and other challenges that have cropped up since UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock helped supervise the first exchange of meaningless test data between two machines on Sept. 2, 1969.
Right now the project is confined to a few projects, and those
and aren't expected to bear fruit for another 10 or 15 years - assuming Congress comes through with funding,
which so far has totaled tens of millions from all sources as compared to the hundreds of billions thought necessary to design and establish a replacement system. So why is this not just some techie sidebar? Because two parts of the article jumped out at me:
One challenge in any reconstruction, though, will be balancing the interests of various constituencies. The first time around, researchers were able to toil away in their labs quietly. Industry is playing a bigger role this time, and law enforcement is bound to make its needs for wiretapping known.

There's no evidence they are meddling yet, but once any research looks promising, "a number of people (will) want to be in the drawing room," said Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor affiliated with Oxford and Harvard universities. ...

[S]pammers and hackers arrived as the network expanded and could roam freely because the Internet doesn't have built-in mechanisms for knowing with certainty who sent what.
In other words, this "clean slate" is not only expected to eliminate anonymity on the net, it's going to "balance the interests" of "industry and law enforcement." In other words, it's going to be about corporations and cops.

Welcome to the future.

It's not right

Much to no one's surprise, President Ignoramus is opposed to any easing of restrictions on federally-funded embryonic stem cell research.
"In our day there is a temptation to manipulate life in ways that do not respect the humanity of the person," Bush said Friday [at the national Catholic prayer breakfast]. "When that happens, the most vulnerable among us can be valued for their utility to others instead of their own inherent worth." ...

"We must continue to work for a culture of life where the strong protect the weak and where we recognize in every human life the image of our creator," Bush said.
To have to bear the sight - the thought - of this man, this egomaniacal twerp, this strutting, self-important bozo with the smug attitude of a spoiled brat and the world-grasp of the same, this titan of torture, this producer of poverty, this author of so much pain, so much blood, so much death, to have to bear the thought of this man waxing poetic about the value of life, about protecting the weak, for the purpose of hindering scientific investigations that could cure the sick and bring mobility to the paralyzed, to name just two - it's just... it's just not right.

Footnote: Bush also noted that
this year's prayer breakfast occurred the Friday after Lent.

"You can eat your bacon in good conscience," he joked.
Remember when we had presidents who told jokes and we laughed because they were funny, not because it was like laughing at the boss's jokes?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Stargeek SG-1

On the other hand, if the world does go to hell, we might have somewhere to go! Wednesday's Reuters carried the news.
Evidence of water has been detected for the first time in a planet outside our solar system, an astronomer said on Tuesday, a tantalizing find for scientists eager to know whether life exists beyond Earth.

Travis Barman, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, said water vapor has been found in the atmosphere of a large, Jupiter-like gaseous planet located 150 light years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. ...

"I'm very confident," Barman said in an interview. "It's definitely good news because water has been predicted to be present in the atmosphere of this planet and many of the other ones for some time." ...

Scientists searching for signs of life beyond Earth are keen to learn about the presence of water on other planets - both in and beyond our solar system - because water is thought to be fundamental to the existence of life.
Gas giants are unlikely to harbor life although there have been speculations that some sort of life on the level of bacteria could survive, floating in the atmosphere. However, even that would not apply here because of how close this one is to its star: The heat would be too intense and the radiation would likely be such that any organic molecules would be broken apart as fast as they formed. So this tells us nothing directly about whether life is out there - but it does increase the likelihood. As Barman said, his findings
do provide good reason to believe other planets beyond our solar system also have water vapor in their atmospheres.
And the more abundant water is, the more opportunities for life there are.

Footnote: There are more than 200 known extrasolar planets, that is, planets outside our solar system. Which is pretty amazing considering the first confirmed discovery wasn't until 1988.

Another reason to think that maybe the world isn't completely going to hell after all

The cynics will tell you that self-interest, competition, "go for the gold and second place is first loser," and "looking out for #1" are the natural state of affairs for human beings. If they're polite about it, they'll say that "reasoned self-interest" in the most "rational" way to live; if they're not, they'll say that "fairness is for suckers."

In fact, 10 years ago I engaged in an online debate with an Ayn Rand devotee who described altruism and egalitarianism as, and this is a quote, "evil ideas" contrary to nature.

They're all wrong. Well, okay, to be precise I have to say they're not right, at least not universally. And that's good enough right now. Reuters tells us that
[p]eople taking part in a game designed to explore egalitarian impulses in human nature consistently robbed from players assigned the most money while giving money to those with the least, scientists said on Wednesday.

James Fowler, a University of California at San Diego political scientist, and his fellow researchers detected what they saw as a "Robin Hood impulse" in people who took part in the experiment, described in the journal Nature. ...

The experiment was carried out last year using 120 paid student volunteers at a computer lab on the campus of the University of California at Davis.

The volunteers sat at computer terminals, and a computer would assign them into groups of four. Once placed into a group, each person was assigned an amount of money and was told how much money the other three members were given.

The players then had the chance to spend some of their own money in order to increase or decrease the amount the others possessed, but their actions provided no financial gain for themselves. ...

About 70 percent of participants at some point reduced or added to another person's money, most often by taking from the richest players or by donating to the poorest players, the study found.

These actions had the collective effect of equalizing income among the players - with participants spending their own money to achieve the goal.

The researchers said even players whose own loot had been pilfered in previous rounds were willing to take steps to redistribute the money in an egalitarian manner.

Fowler acknowledged the experiment might yield different results if conducted in another country or somewhere other than a U.S. college campus, but suggested a certain universal egalitarian yearning might be seen.
Okay, so it's a thin reed - but it's better than drowning.
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