March 2007 Archives

On my Present Disposition

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For those who were wondering where I've vanished off to, a summary in maddeningly generic form:

On the research front, it's not only proposal season, but it's the supercharged end-of-multi-year-funding-cycle proposal season. The process of asking for money does rather consume a bit of otherwise useful time. I do, however, need to maintain various previously scheduled activities here.

On other fronts, I've been engrossed in more dead-tree reading than usual, which doesn't lend itself to blogging as efficiently as online articles: presently some recent Persian history that the library needs back soon, and rereading The Diamond Age, since it informs another tangent I've sprinted off on lately. Also this month, I've been making preparations to release the code for a software project I've been developing for half a decade now, which has mandated some upgrades to make years worth of revision history useable by outsiders. I also need to write an installer.

So my present constraints are such that my shiny new camera remains largely unused on a shelf for want of an appropriate camera bag, and my bicycle has been parked downstairs with a flat tire for a week for want of time to purchase and install a new tube. But that's just the inconveniences you sometimes live with, no? In an effort to keep you folks up-to-date, let's assume a couple-posts-per-week schedule for now while things percolate.

Comet-Free Sunset

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Urban Winter '06-'07: January Sunset
While scanning the evening skies for Comet McNaught, I snapped photos of the sunset over the chemistry building. That cloudbank made for a pretty sky, but pretty much obscured our viewing attempt.

Silly Milestone

Since we humans are much enamored of base-10 counting, I suppose this is significant: according to my hit counter, EGAD had its 20,000th visitor sometime this week. At least since I put up the counter, almost exactly two years ago. 10,000 visits per year doesn't exactly put me in the big leagues, but it's nice to know someone's looking.

Perusing this week's referral logs, it would appear that a majority of my readers got here by virtue of EGAD's showing up in the first page of results when Googling for Santa Katarina. Go figure.

Ignition! (+ free Gumby)

If I ever find myself teaching nuclear physics, I am so assigning this (pdf) as a problem set -- it's a declassified paper written by Edward Teller (with E. Konopinski and C. Marvin, all Manhattan Project scientists) in 1946 showing that you can't ignite the atmosphere with a nuclear weapon. I love the fact that this paper was written a year after three atomic weapons had been detonated. To be fair, though, the same trio had suppsedly presented the same calculation within the project as early as 1942.

What can I say? It's a Friday and I feel like taking a break from political posts.

YouTube and its ilk are busy forging alliances with various media companies, which on the whole will probably wind up working to the detriment of their users. However, for now, here's something fun: the original Gumby shorts are getting posted online.

And in other news, did anyone notice that six of the ten Intel Science Talent Search finalists this year are women? (Back in my day, it was the Westinghouse prize.) Does make you wonder exactly how we're screwing up badly enough to have so few women in science faculty coming out the other end of the process. The first place winner, incidentally, is getting some press for constructing some manner of homemade spectrometer. There was a period in there when biotech projects were taking a lot of the top prizes, but I think the ISTS judges have always had a weakness for making cool stuff on the cheap. My year, the winner built a tunneling electron microscope out of piezo crystals and Lego. Mary sounds like she's probably much less of a dweeb than he was, though.

Confessions

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So Khalid Shaikh Mohammed confesses to everything. To better disseminate the glorious news, the Pentagon has taken the unusual step of releasing a transcript of his statements before a military tribunal in Guantanamo. All hail our crushing victories over Eastasia! (Wait, I seem to have drifted a bit there.)

The terrorist cospiracy was organized and guided by myself, Zinoviev and Trotsky. ... Two paths remained: either honestly and copletely to put a stop to the struggle against the Party, or to continue this struggle, but without any hope of obtaining any mass support whatsoever, without a political platform, without a banner, that is to say, by means of individual terror. We chose the second path. In this we were guided by our boundless hatred of the leaders of the Party and the country, and by a thirst for power with which we were once so closely associated and from which we were cast aside by the course of historical development.

And he then went into similar specifics:

In the summer of 1932 a meeting of our Zinovievite centre was held in our villa in Ilyinskoye. I myself, Zinoviev, Evdokimov, Bakayev, Kuklin and Karev were present. At this meeting Zinoviev reported that the union with the Trotskyites, who had received Trotsky's personal instructions to commit terroristic acts, was an accomplished fact. At this very meeting Bakayev was instructed to carry out a terroristic act in Moscow, and Karev in Leningrad. The exile of myself and Zinoviev somewhat held up the execution of our terroristic plans. When we returned to Moscow, we made no changes whatever in the basis of our bloc. On the contrary, we proceeded to press forward the terroristic conspiracy.

Sorry, those were actually excerpts from the confession of Len Kamanev, from the 1936 Moscow trials at the start of Stalin's first Purge. That's just what popped into my head upon reading the statement.

Defenselink has the full transcript (pdf), in which K. S. Mohammed seriously does confess to everything you can think of:

I was Emir (i.e., commander) of Seit Al Shuhada (ie., the Martyrs' House) in the state of Kandahar, Afghanistan, which housed the 9/11 hijackers. There I was responsible for their training and readiness for the execution of the 9/11 Operation. Also, I hereby admit and affirm without duress that I was a responsible participant, principal planner, trainer, financier (via the Military Council Treasury), executor, and/or a personal participant in the following:

1. I was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center Operation.
2. I was responsible for the 9/11 Operation, from A to Z.
3. [REDACTED]
4. I was responsible for the Shoe Bomber Operation to down two American airplanes.
5. I was responsible for the Filka Island Operation in Kuwait that killed two American soldiers.
6. I was responsible for the bombing of a nightclub in Bali, Indonesia, which was frequented by British and Australian nationals.
7. I was responsible for planning, training, surveying, and financing the New (or Second) Wave attacks against the following skyscrapers after 9/11:
a. Library Tower, California.
b. Sears Tower, Chicago;
c. Plaza Bank, Washington state.
d. The Empire State Building, New York City.
8. I was responsible for planning, financing, & follow-up of Operations to destroy American military vessels and oil tankers in the Straights of Hormuz, the Straights of Gibralter, and the Port of Singapore.

And so on and so forth at great length, claiming a total of 31 attempted or actual major terrorist operations. A passage from the Times article that jumped out at me: "Mr. Mohammed indicated in the transcript that some of his earlier statements to C.I.A. interrogators were the result of torture. But he said that his statements at the tribunal on Saturday were not made under duress or pressure."

That's the funny thing about torture -- it fails utterly to extract reliable information, but as recently noted at the Prospect, really excels at breaking people. That post highlighted an article that recently observed that

the psychological practices which are in vogue right now "do not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the extent of mental suffering they cause, the underlying mechanisms of traumatic stress, and their long-term traumatic effects."

Indeed, the KGB excelled at that kind of thing. Apparently, so do we. Happy Ides of March.

worldmapper-prisoners.png
From Worldmapper, note that almost 25% of all prisoners are in the United States.

Extreme Meme!

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urbwinter_postcard_house.jpg
Urban Winter '06-'07: House
The house across the street from mine as the city digs out from a blizzard. Some days my neighborhood really just belongs on a postcard. This house will look remarkably less charming without the snow.

Sweet, I appear to have launched a meme! Two people counts, right? This one probably requires too much writing to really go properly viral, but don't let that stop you from playing along. Actually, while I expect many people will have broadly similar attitudes towards the propositions stated, I'm already delighted by the methodological divergence in responses.

And because that's really not enough to justify a post hereabouts, you get a filler photo.

Note for LJ Readers

I've updated the RSS 1.0 feed template. I should probably have done this years ago, but you know how these things go. It now includes much more metadata, and in particular should correctly transmit formatting, images, and the like.

Of course, nobody accesses the RSS 1.0 feed directly. However, it is the base data source for the LiveJournal feed version of EGAD, so this actually impacts a number of readers. Feedback, particularly from these people, is appreciated.

Run Newt Run

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Connor points today to his friend at PurpleScarf expressing dismay at the resurgence of Newt Gingrich. Now, it is astonishing that the fellow still bothers with politics at all, and in a sane world he'd have long ago been put out to pasture (or possibly, in a nice padded room). However, the unstated implication running through Yglesias' recent (hillarious) review of the Republican candidates is that, should Newt run, there's every chance he could unite the Christian Right and take the nomination. After all, they loved him at CPAC, where last week he proved to be just the toxic, creepy, conservative superstar you remembered.

And if that happens, we might even carry Texas.

Sunday Update

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Bought a new camera today, on which more later. Having spent all evening squinting at the microscopic type in the manual and fiddling with buttons on the thing, my eyes hurt. Thus the brief post.

Most interesting thing I read this weekend, the future belongs to the uninhibited. Which sounds about right, so far as it goes: New York Magazine digests the anthropology of a hyper-networked generation.

Me, I think Pipes has the potential to be the coolest thing you've ever seen, except that for the most part this is exactly the sort of technology the end user is never meant to see. Nevertheless I may, in fact, break down and create a Yahoo account. But bear in mind that this is coming from a fellow who, while pretty savvy about such things, only just figured out how to send email from his cell phone.

Time Change Weekend

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So it looks like this week I sort of fell off the daily-posting wagon. Five out of seven days ain't bad, but let's shoot for a 7-day-a-week operation here next week. Especially since it's Spring Break, and I thus can't claim distraction by students as an excuse.

Daylight savings time kicks in a few hours from now, three weeks ahead of schedule. The news reports have been crawling with this "mini-Y2K" stuff all week, because some computers (read: poorly maintained Windows machines) haven't been informed of the 2005 act of Congress mandating the change. I don't anticipate difficulty, but just for kicks, the University has a special site set up that will test your computer for temporal compatibility.

If you were curious, no, it probably won't save appreciable energy. Swing and a miss.

Long Way to Go

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Today is International Women's Day. As these things goes, the day has an interesting history. Tracing its origins to the international socialist movement at the turn of the 20th century, one claim is that the day originally commemorated the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It remains a state holiday in many Asian Communist and ex-Communist countries. As such, the day is as much focused on the economic status of women as on women's rights or safety.

Via TAPPED, Jana Goodrich is promoting a series of articles she wrote on the gender wage gap a little while back. Very readable, if you're up for some slightly longer fare.

Via WorldMapper (a very cool site, I might add):



worldmapper-women-illiteracy.png


A map of the world distorted such that the area of each territory is proportional to the total number of illiterate women living there less the number of illiterate men. China and India loom especially large.

The fact that nearly every territory has nonzero area attests that, throughout most of the world, women are more likely to be illiterate than men. Here in the affluent world we have the luxury of trying to tackle the wage disparity -- a very real phenomenon that Senator Clinton is taking aim at. For perhaps the majority of the world's women, the issue is a more basic disparity in access to education.

See also: Lindsay Beyerstein has a good roundup. With bonus bicycling content.

Progress

Yesterday Lewis "Scooter" Libby became the highest-ranking administration official since the Regan era to be convicted of a felony. The kicker is that even the jury felt kind of bad for him, since he was pretty clearly just covering for the Vice President. In the past 24 hours I've seen impeachment mentioned two or three times by folks on the supposedly moderate side of the pool, where heretofore the "I-bomb" has been the four-letter elephant in the room. (Have fun with that one, metaphor purists!)

More immediately, since Fitzgerald apparently doesn't plan to restart the investigation (barring Scooter having an attack of honesty as the slammer looms) the calls are already starting up for Congress to pick this up. (Andrew Sullivan, nominal conservative though slightly to the sane of Joe Klein, is a good example of what I'm seeing.) I've got a good feeling here.

Am I a Left-wing Extremist?

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Well, probably. Joe Klein, Time Magazine's premier blogger (and theoretical liberal, but mostly a mouthpiece of the political class, which see below) has made a cottage industry out of attacking liberals as too extreme. Apparently as a direct result of trashing Atrios, he's been goaded into actually defining left-wing extremism. It was probably a side effect of the Coulter flap that I wound up running across it a dozen times or so just this weekend.

Just for contrast, Digby illustrates (once again) what crazy extremism looks like. It mostly votes Republican. But, since everyone's talking about dear Joe Klein, let's treat his effort with exactly as much seriousness as it deserves.

Presenting: "Am I a Left-wing Extremist?" -- the blog poll!

A left-wing extremist exhibits many, but not necessarily all, of the following attributes:
--believes the United States is a fundamentally negative force in the world.
Not fundamentally; just at present, as run by the Bush-Cheney syndicate. Turns out, Klein really likes this word, "fundamentally", even though it renders most of the criteria too stupidly general to directly respond to.
--believes that American imperialism is the primary cause of Islamic radicalism.
No, it's one of three main causes, alongside Israeli imperialism and oppressive Middle Eastern governments.
--believes that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not an individual case of monumental stupidity, but a consequence of America’s fundamental imperialistic nature.
Not America's imperialistic nature, but the neoconservatives' delusions of imperial grandeur. It was also monumentally stupid, of course.
--tends to blame America for the failures of others—i.e. the failure of our NATO allies to fulfill their responsibilities in Afghanistan.
Well, Afghanistan would be going better if we'd sent even a fifth as many soldiers there as we sent to Iraq. Relying on local warlords to capture Bin Ladin probably wasn't a great idea.
--doesn’t believe that capitalism, carefully regulated and progressively taxed, is the best liberal idea in human history.
Actually, I think liberalism's best idea is the principle that all people are created equal. (So it's not original to liberal thought -- neither is capitalism.) I'm a big fan of rational inquiry, too.
--believes American society is fundamentally unfair (as opposed to having unfair aspects that need improvement).
It may not be fundamentally unfair, but if you let me change it enough to render it perfectly fair I'm pretty sure Joe Klein wouldn't recognize the end product.
--believes that eternal problems like crime and poverty are the primarily the fault of society.
Given that some of our contemporary societies have achieved much lower crime and poverty rates, we might consider that we're doing something wrong here.
--believes that America isn’t really a democracy.
Technically it's a republic. And a not-very-representative one to boot, but that's fixable.
--believes that corporations are fundamentally evil.
They're just immortal, amoral beings whose actions are largely insulated from the rule of law. I want that kind of power! If I ever get it, though, people will probably assume I've gone evil.
--believes in a corporate conspiracy that controls the world.
See above. Narrow self-interest is about the only personality trait a corporation is capable of possessing. Why would they need, or bother, to conspire?
--is intolerant of good ideas when they come from conservative sources.
Show me a good idea that's come out of the current crop of conservatives, and we'll talk.
--dismissively mocks people of faith, especially those who are opposed to abortion and gay marriage.
I almost never mock people for their faith (I do make exceptions for egregious stupidity). I sometimes mock them for what they do about it. I generally mock opponents of women's and homosexuals' civil rights, but I never dismiss them since that crowd includes some dangerous and sick individuals.
--regularly uses harsh, vulgar, intolerant language to attack moderates or conservatives.
I am rarely vulgar. I have on occasion expressed the desire to round up prominent conservatives and have them declared enemy combatants, which some conservatives might find a bit harsh.

So how'd I do? Well, nationally recognized pundits hate criticism, so Joe Klein probably gives me 13 out of 13 -- 100% extremist. However, by my count, I get 3/13 extremist, 2/13 not extremist, and 8/13 Joe Klein is irretrievably dense.

Eclipse Update

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eclipse_march_scene.jpg
The lunar eclipse of 3 March 2006 rises above a snowy urban landscape.

Last night's sky was crystal clear, so the lunar eclipse was readily visible. I didn't take the trouble to find a large open or elevated space, however, to totality had just ended when it rose high enough to be readily visible above the rooftops. It's a devilish challenge to photograph both a moonlit landscape and simultaneously capture any detail of the Moon itself. Here, I present my best effort from last night; to do any better I'd probably have to edit together multiple exposures. After all, the illuminated portion of the Moon there is probably thousands of times brighter than the dim light scattering off those houses.

All in all, our eyes are a pretty neat optical system, able as they are to deal with such huge contrast ratios.

March Forth

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As someone mentioned on NPR this morning, March 4th is the only date that is also an exhortation. ("May 1" may be misread as a question or a pleasantry.)

That sort of exhortation was followed forty-two years ago in Selma this week, on Bloody Sunday. (One of many Bloody Sundays, admittedly.) This year two presidental candidates and an ex-president will be joining the commemoration. It surely took courage to walk into the midst of the police waiting on that bridge, and it's always worth asking yourself if you would have joined that march. I like to imagine that I would, but perhaps instead I would have excused myself as too busy to get arrested, to get injured. It's telling that no firehoses or police batons have been turned against Americans demonstrating against the abuses of the past six years, and yet despite the lack of such physical threats getting people to stand and be counted is still like pulling teeth. (Whereas, Hell, you've got Russian grandmas marching into the riot police in St. Petersburg just yesterday. That's just by way of contrast.) Perhaps the people of this nation have become so inured to disgust that they've simply forgotten that outrage is an option.

Impeachment is hard, after all: at the end of the day, the political class protects its own, and the result is the conviction of powerlessness held by so much of the American populace. That's why it's so important to elect grassroots progressives who (at least for a few terms) see themselves first as public servants. I'm very sympathetic to the argument that we need institutionalized expertise in government, but long incumbancy in a position of power will twist anyone's priorities.
Here's a brilliant political cartoon along these lines.

On a lighter note, for ages now Xylo has been aggravating his friends with his extreme contrarian stance on climate change. Now I know why: he has it in for maple syrup! Clearly the sweet delicacy has offended him, so he has determined to do his part in doing away with the sugaring biz. Turns out that warmer winters interfere with the annual sap cycle that allows maple syrup to be made, and in the longer term the maple forests will be completely replaced in the northern United States (Canada will still have them, I would imagine. In an unforseen reversal of the usual order, this will allow that hardy folk to buy our loyalty by trading on our love of pancake toppings).

Reminder: Lunar Eclipse Today

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Urban Winter '06-'07: Droplet
The icicles today have been amazing. Click to enlarge -- really, do. It's worth it.

Just a reminder that there's a total lunar eclipse tonight. It's actually starting right about now, so if you're in North America just look east as soon as the moon rises.

Political Notes

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urbwinter_windowfrost_sky.jpg
Urban Winter '06-'07: Frost Like Stars
Frost dotting my window gleams against a deep blue sky and the neighbor's eaves during a bitter cold spell in February.

A little while back I started writing the following but thought better of it:

Only Coleman and Snowe are sufficiently scared of their 2008 reelection campaigns to break away from the GOP on blocking debate on the nonbinding anti-"surge" resolution. To Coleman: come on in, the progressive water's fine. You're not actually all that bad of a fellow; switch parties and we won't hurt you. Toe the GOP line and we'll cream you in '08, though.

Except of course that Coleman actually is kind of an ass at times, and is certainly no liberal at heart. I don't know who will replace him in 2008, but Al Franken is going to make sure that we have fun doing it.

Speaking of behaving like a horse's posterior, why is it that Conservative attempts at humor are always either unspeakably lame or Ann Coulter.

So, who remembers the Table Grape Boycott? While it officially ended in 1970 plenty of liberals still refused to buy grapes (at least from non-unionized farms) well into the '80s -- my family included. I think Colorado is trying to top the heinous behavoir previously displayed by the grape farmers. I think it would be entirely reasonable to call for a general boycott of any and all produce harvested by chain-gang.

Patent neglect at Walter Reed? Problem solved! It's the usual solution: punish the whistleblowers, ban the media, clap really loudly.

Finally, the article that's been making waves for the past couple of weeks now: Seymour Hersh on the Bush-Cheney Sunni-Shiite flip-flop. It's long, but worth a skim as it devastatingly lays bare the total lack of comprehension with which we're approaching the Middle East, and how the Administration's idea of covering it up is to provoke a war with Iran.

Madness, I Say

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So it looks like the Duluth zoo's porcupine was right -- here we are in our fourth week of rather conspicuous winter since the conflicting predictions of Groundhog's Day. So much for the least-snowy-winter record run; rather, it looks like we'll have racked up about three feet of fluff in less than a week. It's been observed to me now by a couple of people that the climate of the upper Plains is changing not so much for the warmer, as much as winter is shifting later in the year. Which sounds about right, although my experience of the region is brief enough that I find present conditions, on average, at variance only with the area's reputation. I would not with any confidence propose to derive a trend from personal observation.

At any rate, the present week of blizzards, while impressive, is little more than Poisson noise, in this case the small but real probability of getting hit by two major snow-producing systems in a short period of time. Even after this week we'll be running a snow deficit. RealClimate ran an useful discussion on El Nino, global warming, and our oddly warm winters earlier this year. Answer: a bit of both, as per norm.

On which topic, (via digby) here's an interesting post on a recent energy consuption smear directed at Gore that was manufactured recently, likely to coincide with the recent attention he attracted at the Academy Awards this week. These Republican operatives don't miss a beat when it comes to shaping the anti-Democratic narrative.

Anyway, photos of today's excitement:

urbwinter_santana.jpg
Santana's is a bit hard to pigeonhole: sort of a Mideastern-American bistro, you can get your convenience store basics plus gyros, fried cheese and decent falafel from the counter. They own the after-midnight food scene in my neighborhood.
urbwinter_roofblizzard_mall.jpg
Naturally, once the real blizzard action started up, I headed for the roof. If you click and enlarge the photo, it's apparent that turbulence is causing the snow to blow in sheets, like heavy rain.

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