Friday, July 31, 2009

Bits and Pieces - July 31, 2009

The Guardian's "Week in Wildlife." Those ladybugs are everywhere - thick in Wisconsin last fall. Apparently they are the the ladybugs that you order for biological control. Except they're native to China, not Wisconsin, not Germany. They're eating the native Wisconsin ladybugs. Here's another photo I particularly liked:

Where the "birthers" live.

The world's biggest military boondoggles.

Political science issues Stephen Walt doesn't understand. I don't either.

Looks like maybe Russia and the US will do an official threat assessment like this one.

Understanding Global Warming

There are many ways to do science. One is to observe nature, very carefully, as Jane Goodall did with her chimpanzees. Another is to measure the properties of things in a laboratory. The properties may be the strength of materials, or how a material behaves when it is heated, or any number of qualities that are needed for building automobiles and bridges, for example. Another is to look at what is known about a problem, build a hypothesis, and check out that hypothesis, as in many experiments that are in progress to determine the weaknesses of the AIDS virus that might be exploited to cure those suffering from it; these hypotheses may be about one tiny part of the problem, like how a receptor on a cell surface handles the flow of ions. Yet another is trying to put a number of facts together to form a bigger picture.

This is in contrast to the oversimplified picture of science that seems to be held by members of the press and too many K-12 science teachers. A scientist forms a hypothesis, goes into the laboratory, does an experiment, and comes out with a yes or no answer. Yes supports the hypothesis, no destroys it.

George Will wrote a week or so back about global warming, and James Fallows took the bait. His discussion includes a few posts, linked there, and his selection of reader e-mails. This link seems rather scattered; read all three posts for more coherence.

The climate deniers, like Will, feel that if they find one incorrect measurement, one incorrect calculation, the entirety of global warming is disproved. A public who have learned that oversimplified vision of science is inclined to take such things seriously. But it’s not that simple.

Global warming makes use of all those ways to do science. Observations of sea and land temperatures, gases trapped in glaciers, oxygen isotopes in cave formations, first arrival of migratory birds, extent of sea ice, spring sprouting of plants, and many more are part of the enormous data set. The physical properties, particularly relating to heat and movement, are necessary. Researchers are checking out how smoke particles affect reflectivity and how long they stay in the atmosphere; how ice forms in the upper atmosphere; how much light polar ice really reflects; the interactions between the water in clouds and the other components of the atmosphere, and many more of the individual interactions that make up climate. Putting all this together is the job of the climate modelers, of whom there are many.

Some of the information is wrong, or scrambled, or incorrectly entered into databases. It’s a good sign when those mistakes are found, and one indication that the models are working as they should. The models try to reconcile large amounts of the information; when something doesn’t fit, either the model is wrong or the data is. That’s how the mistakes are found.

Fallows is unhappy that scientists aren’t explaining global warming in an easily understandable way. I’m unhappy about it too, but I haven’t been able to come up with a simple answer because the problem is inherently complex. The scientists, when forced into a sound bite, give their results:
increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will warm the earth unacceptably. We are producing enormous amounts of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. We can stop burning fossil fuels or we can try to capture the carbon dioxide, neither of which is easy to do.
What’s unsatisfying about that is the implicit “Trust me.” Trust is not in long supply these days. Explaining the models, beyond the superficial, is nearly impossible. If you know something about differential equations, you can get a general idea of what’s going on in them. If you’ve actually worked with models like these, you know that cross-checking within and between models and with large data sets is the only way to confirm them, and that it’s reliable. Along with a lot of parameters that can look like fudge factors, this kind of thing activates the trust question. Further explanation seldom helps.

But the problem isn’t confined to global warming. President Obama recently spoke of his difficulty in explaining the issues related to health care.

On the science side, it can be hard to get the experts together and harder to get them to pay attention to the evidence. One expert may say it’s deer that are the problem in spreading Lyme disease, while another says it’s mice. They need to talk to each other. It could be that one or the other is right, or that the deer and the mice interact in such a way that it’s both. Notice that the answer doesn't have to be yes or no.

Doctors can be a breed apart from other scientists. But here are two examples of doctors not wanting to hear the facts, one at a summer camp infected with swine flu, and others who feel that the authority of a lab coat trumps its ability to carry germs from one patient to another. In the nineteenth century, doctors resisted washing their hands when going from one woman in labor to another; when they were finally convinced, the incidence of childbed fever plummeted.

People can be hard to convince. Add into that media that prefer “he said, she said,” and a widespread lack of understanding of science. And there are political-social preferences that might be overturned. That's why, along with the inherent complexity of the subject, it's hard to explain a complex topic like global warming.

Update: Or our media are using their precious time, energy, and money to provide such enlightment as this. I couldn't get through the video, it is so tedious.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Pause with Iran

Trita Parsi today suggests a pause in American attempts to engage Iran. I'll second that. The government is in uproar, with rival factions apparently undercutting each other, although all we can really see from here is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's difficulty in assembling a cabinet.

The counterargument is that Iran's nuclear program is moving forward, and Israel's trigger finger is getting itchy.

But when a government hasn't even been assembled, there are likely to be changes in direction and emphasis. Not a good time to try any sort of serious negotiations. And the IAEA inspectors are still there, although limited in the scope of what they can inspect.

Consider how it would have been for the EU to insist on major trade negotiations, or for Russia to insist on negotiating nuclear weapons numbers during the month-long impasse over the 2000 US presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore. That's what we would be doing by insisting on starting talks with Iran now.

Principles and Stories

Peter Levine's latest book will be out soon. In the meantime, Peter posts the first paragraph of the book:
This is a book about ethics and stories. Ethics (or morality) encompasses what is right or good, what we ought to do, and how laws and institutions should be organized. I argue that a good way to make ethical judgments and decisions is to describe reality in the form of a true narrative. Fictional stories also support moral conclusions that can translate into real life. I argue that when the moral judgments supported by a good story conflict with general principles, we ought to follow the story and amend or suspend our principles, rather than the reverse. What makes a story “good” for this purpose is not its conformity to correct moral principles, but its merits as a narrative--for instance, its perceptiveness and coherence and its avoidance of cliché, sentimentality, and euphemism.


Andrew Sullivan discusses the Gates arrest:
I note two things that stand out to me. The first is the crudeness of the racism. "Banana-eating jungle monkey" is the baseline description of Gates, coupled, as it always is, with "I am not a racist". He also thinks it's real cool to use "ax" instead of "ask". Then this description of policing in his riposte to a journalist:
Your defense of Gates while he is on the phone while being confronted [INDEED] with a police officer is assuming he has rights when considered a suspect. He is a suspect and always will be a suspect. His first priority of concern should be to get off the phone and comply with police, for if I was the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.

Notice the Cheney view: that a suspect has no rights; and is always a suspect, always at the mercy of the state and government, with a duty to obey police and military power or face brutal consequences. Notice the use of pepper-spray as a response to mere verbal complaints of mistreatment.

And the more you read, the more you realize how deep the Bush-Cheney legacy runs and how the torture and 'enemy combatant' state, celebrated nightly on Fox, easily seeps into domestic law enforcement. Notice how Cheney actually wanted to use the military against "suspects" in America. And how proud he is of that move. And notice in the email how all of this is bound up with a defense of God. Notice the classic Christianist line to the journalist:

You are an infidel.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Detroit Misses the Mark Again

Chevrolet today has an extra-obnoxious ad on the New York Times site. One of the latest ad memes is to have something unfold across the print you'd like to read. Presumably the geniuses who thought this up believe that I am stupid enough to read their ads instead of the text of the article. Wrong!

Today's brilliant stroke unfolds across the text. It has a "close X" in the upper right-hand corner. But you have to click within approximately a millimeter square, perhaps less (two pixels?) not to activate the full thing in a new tab. And when you get within that millimeter or so, nothing happens. That's the best you can do. And the ad remains splayed across the text.

Nice work, New York Times and Chevrolet!

Update: Aaahhh, recalled that refreshing the page brings up a different ad.

All this gives the NYT and Chevrolet extra clicks. But not reader love.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kensington Pride Mango

Bits and Pieces – July 28, 2009

A report that Uzbekistan is doing better than I thought.

Photographs from James Fallows at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Fly-In. More here.

Do patents stifle innovation?

Does Macedonia, a country born out of the rubble of the former Yugoslavia, have the right to call itself what it wants? Greece says no. And by the way, Alexander of Macedon was a Greek, not a, er, Macedonian.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that national defense protects nuclear plants from attack.

More information suppressed by the Bush administration becoming available: spy satellite photos of ice loss in the Arctic and mountain glaciers. A few images are available at ThinkProgress and Reuters, but they are very difficult to find at the US Geological Service site that Reuters links.

And, speaking of secret Bush stuff, the news that Dick Cheney wanted to use the US Army to arrest alleged terrorists in Lackawanna, New York, is more than scary. Scott Horton reads John Yoo’s memos as being crafted to support Cheney in this effort. Emptywheel seems to agree with Horton for the most part. I find it disturbing that these memos and incidents are coming out piecemeal, obscuring their interconnections. Emptywheel is following them, though, and hopefully we can expect a unified explanation from her when enough material is available. I can’t help but wonder whether that CIA program that Leon Panetta stopped as soon as he was read into it is part of all this.

While the Birthers are getting all the attention, Jon Kyl (R, AZ) is trying to make sure that the followon START treaty is dead on arrival. His colleague John McCain (R, AZ), however, is considering supporting the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty when it arrives in the Senate again for ratification, as President Obama has promised. AP styles Kyl’s support by Jeff Sessions (R, AL) and Joe Lieberman (I, CT) as “the Senate.” Hey AP, the R’s are in the minority! Maybe this kind of thing is why AP doesn’t want their stuff quoted.

Gaffes? Or Not

The MSM's gaffe-of-the-day award goes to...(drumroll)...Joe Biden!

Biden is a favorite for such things and may someday make the MSM's Gaffe Hall of Fame.

But sometimes it's useful to say strong things. It's no big deal to walk back something that the media calls a gaffe. Ronald Reagan even got away with saying "we begin bombing [Russia] in five minutes."

Now here's what Biden said that constitutes the latest gaffe, in Jay Newton-Small's view:
Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.
This all happens to be true. But Biden did not say
they're on the brink of becoming an irrelevant third world country
That was Newton-Small. The Los Angeles Times calls it a blunder.

There are a number of additionally interesting quotes in the Wall Street Journal's version of the interview. They've cut it up into individual quotes, which eliminates any possibility of understanding the context and makes it easier for their colleagues to find the gaffe-of-the-day. Let's take just one:
On whether he is concerned about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili living up to promises to strengthen democratic institutions:

"I'm not concerned, but I'm not taking any chances. The opposition believes the only reason he said it was because I was coming. The opposition said to me the only reason he did some of the stuff he did in terms of backing off the demonstrations was because I told him….It may or may not have had an effect on his judgment."
It's generally thought to be a bad idea to claim that the actions of a head of state are influenced by another country's statesman. I guess that this didn't qualify for gaffe-of-the-day because Georgia is "an irrelevant third world country," in Newton-Small's words. And there's more that isn't entirely complimentary to Georgia.

It's fair enough to press the boundaries. Russia needs to recognize its limitations. So does the United States. We don't have Russia's financial problems, but perhaps getting the nuclear numbers down is to our economic benefit, too.

And maybe that's an indirect part of Biden's message.

A somewhat similar analysis here. But I like mine better.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bits and Pieces – July 27, 2009

Does the Iranian opposition need leadership? The initial response to an apparently rigged election made sense. But what else is the opposition asking for? What are they opposing? Until we hear some reasonably unified answers from them, it’s very difficult to support or oppose them. Fareed Zakaria is trying to figure this out, too.

We are finding new mammal species because we humans are moving into more of their habitats.

I’m wondering why the interest in Central Asian military bases is centering on Kyrgyzstan, rather than Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The last three are politically unstable, which may be part of the reason, and Kazakhstan is big enough to act fairly independently. If geography were the basis, I think I’d go for Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. The others are awfully mountainous.

North Korea wants two-party talks
with the United States, not the six-party talks. It’s worth remembering that the two states are at war; the Korean War was ended with an armistice.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Quant Recalls How She Learned To Save

I did a series of posts a while back (at WhirledView) styling myself as “the quant.” Like many of the Wall Street quants, I am a physical scientist turning my talents to economics. Unlike them, I do not have the power to destroy enormous amounts of wealth.

We need to save more. We have a burgeoning national debt that may not be a good thing in the hands of foreigners. It is likely to increase in the future. We also had a very large national debt as a result of fighting World War II.

I didn’t know about the national debt when I was in grade school. What I knew was that for some small sum (either a dime or a quarter), I could buy stamps to paste in a book. They were nice engraved government stamps, like the postage stamps I collected. When the book was full, I would get a $25 savings bond. The full book represented $18.75 in stamps, and it seemed like a really good thing to me that if I waited a few years, I would get $25 for that.

I didn’t know that the government was paying down all that money it had borrowed to fight World War II. The bonds were referred to as “war bonds,” but I didn’t fully realize the connection until fairly recently. It took most of my childhood for the country to pay down the excess war debt, so when my husband and I bought our first house and cashed in the bonds we had accumulated on our own or as birthday and Christmas presents from relatives, they must have represented some of the last of that excess debt, as you can see in the graph. The US budget has grown so much that the percent of GDP makes the graph more understandable than dollars or adjusted dollars would be.

So why not start similar campaigns for savings bonds now? I know, we’re all much more sophisticated, and probably kids today are too. But they still like stickers, and stickers with a monetary purpose might be appealing. It would remind all of us that it is our national debt, and that we might just do something about it; minimally buy some bonds, but also keep our elected representatives on their toes about dealing with the debt. And the kids would develop an intuitive or better understanding of compound interest and what saving can do for them.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bits and Pieces - July 25, 2009

This seems like a good reason to levy a tax per trade on the exchanges.

William Safire recalls his role in the Nixon-Khrushchev "kitchen debate." The year before, there was a Soviet computer exhibition in New York. A group of my friends and I took the opportunity to harass the exhibitors about the superiority of digital versus analog. Got that one right!

The two best articles I've found on the Henry Louis Gates uproar:
bmaz on contempt of cop
Jim Sleeper on civil society

Friday, July 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

I seek out beauty because the alternative is too appalling.
Paul Moravec

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bits and Pieces - July 22, 2009

Ewww - girls really do have more cooties than boys! Or maybe we should call it an enhanced ecosystem.

China Lake was once a secret city for its research into weapons. The weapons part still is, but the residential areas are booming since the Navy consolidated its research there.

Anyone catch the tv ads for prescription eyelash grower?

The Armchair Generalist sets Newt Gingrich straight on the EMP threat.

An interview with Henry Louis Gates on his arrest. I'll just add that women in Kazakh foxfur hats can be suspects too.

More Distraction

By the end of yesterday, I knew I meant to follow up my post on distraction, but I had forgotten what it was I meant to say. This morning, I remembered.

The New York Times had an article on one of my pet peeves, drivers who are on the phone. Santa Fe has one of those laws that hands-free devices are okay, hand-held not, but every time I go as far as the main street, I see drivers holding something to their ears. There aren't enough police in the state to stop them all.

And, since I got a cell phone, it's been clear to me that I can barely walk while carrying on a conversation. I really don't know how people do it. If I have to call someone while I'm carless, I find a bench and sit down.

Today Maureen Dowd confesses her cellphone-driving sins, and the Times summarizes the comments they've been getting. Pardon me if I find the suggestions of licensing people to use cellphones more of the "competence for me, but not for thee" rationalization.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Summer Post: Surfin'

I was kind of an off-and-on surfer dude as a youngster in southern California, following an older cousin who made surfboards (including my own) and was sunk deeply into the surf culture of the 1960s-1970s. His sister was big on the Beach Boys and late summer afternoons hanging at the beach with friends. I was growing up in different places in Asia, but my hometown of San Diego was always home base for a year or two in between a few years here and a few years there in different countries. My cousins were the closest family apart from my immediate family and they were the direct conduit back into American culture. So I learned to surf with my cousin, riding on one of his handmade boards, and going to spots that are now legendary names - Black's Beach and Windansea in La Jolla, OB, up north to what was then a relatively uncrowded Trestle's, and our favorite Swami's. There's a certain feeling to that - the refracted sun slowly burning through San Diego's typical morning fog and chill; the excitement of waking up to a Santa Ana wind; the scent of coconut from Mr. Zogg's sex wax mingled with an occasional whiff of marijuana in the air; sometimes dolphins playing in the waves; fish tacos for our happily tired lunch; War, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Marley....

For the longest time, the general culture of surfing viewed anything Atlantic as cute little sibling to the bigtime Pacific waves. The Pacific Ocean was large, deep and mysterious, full of dark forces that pushed seismic signals across thousands of miles to rise up into monsters on the sandbars and reefs of California, Mexico, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji. This immense energy ended its ocean voyage often with a human being atop it. This sense of power and vastness as the backdrop to one's activity infused surf culture, even on small days in southern California. The Indian Ocean and the perfect waves it brought to Indonesia were also far more serious than anything produced by the Atlantic Ocean. American surfers from the west coast sighed or chuckled at the homely sight of North Carolina or New Jersey beach breaks. North Carolina had a bit of a name, and it certainly had its local surfers, but the breaks were usually a mess and constantly shifted location along with the sands below. Plus, the waves came out of the ocean that belonged to Old Europe. Quaint, but not the frontier Pacific, which held out the ever-present possibility of finding some "new," remote, unsurfed spot - the "secret spot." As I recall from then, places like France and Spain - well-surfed today on beautiful and strong waves - simply weren't on the surfing map yet. Surfing was centered on the powerful Pacific Ocean with Hawaii its mecca.

This is all a long-winded and nostalgic way of directing you to Chris Bickford's photo essay in the NY Times on North Carolina's surf. NC may still be the jokey younger sibling for most west coast and Hawaiian surfers, but it's a serious place for surf with its own unique sense of this beautiful relationship between the physical power of nature and human beings.

While I'm at it, let me toss in a photo of a wave I've found absolutely terrifying since its "discovery" in the late 80s. It's certainly not the largest in the world, and larger waves at places like Maverick's in northern California or Waimea Bay and Jaws in Hawaii also break on reefs, but imagine your board racing near-uncontrollably ahead of this uniquely thick mass of water, the reef speeding past just a couple of feet beneath the surfboard. This is the deadly wall of water that is Teahupo'o in Tahiti:

Here's another perspective:

Teahupo'o may very well be the last discovery, the closing of the surfing frontier.


Too Wild for Al Qaeda

Foreign Policy's new Failed States Index has been out for a few weeks now, but Daily Dish just discovered it. They point out an odd little item amongst all the data and analysis:
...Somalia, once again the No. 1 failed state on this year’s index. A recent report by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, drawing on captured al Qaeda documents, revealed that Osama bin Laden’s outfit had an awful experience trying to operate out of Somalia, for all the same reasons that international peacekeepers found Somalia unmanageable in the 1990s: terrible infrastructure, excessive violence and criminality, and few basic services, among other factors. In short, Somalia was too failed even for al Qaeda.

Lucrative Strife in Congo

The continuing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo is being fuelled by western companies who are buying the country's minerals without properly checking their origins, a new report alleges today.

Global Witness says the Congolese army and other armed groups in the east of the country control much of the mining and trade in tin ore (cassiterite), coltan, wolframite – often using forced labour.

The report argues the trade is prolonging the 12-year conflict there, which has seen mass killings and rape. About 100,000 people have been driven from their homes in the past few months alone.

"As long as the warring parties can fund themselves through international trade, they will continue to be able to inflict widespread violence on the population," said Patrick Alley, the director of Global Witness.

The report calls for UN sanctions against foreign firms that buy the minerals from intermediaries without exploring who was profiting from their purchase. Many of the firms accused are Belgian but Global Witness also calls for UN sanctions against a British firm, the London-based Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC), whose subsidiary, Thaisarco, buys tin ore in eastern Congo....

Regarding a Most Banal Point

It's about time someone pointed out the obvious. Isn't empathy a fine quality of any human being? And isn't it a good thing to have a rich experiential background, so that one might aspire to being one's own equivalent of a "wise Latina"? And aren't we all shaped by our experience so that even if we happen to share quite a bit in the ways of values, beliefs and language, there are nonetheless fundamentally unique features of each individual? isn't this, like, a physical and metaphysical truism - that is, we cannot both occupy the same extended space and that distinction itself makes us unique in at least one basic way (i.e., I am here and you are there)?

Why is it that the Republican critics of Sotomayor have gotten away with attempting to subvert such obvious truisms for political gain? Are we still in upside-down land?
[Many] were fixated not on Judge Sotomayor’s 17-year record on the federal bench — she would have the most extensive judicial background of any justice in the past 100 years — but on a few of her speeches suggesting she has been shaped by her experiences and ethnic heritage...

All judges are influenced by how they were raised; the law and the Constitution aren’t mechanical templates, unaffected by perspectives and even prejudices. Why was segregation the law of the land for so long?

Imagine in 1967 criticizing Thurgood Marshall, the great civil rights lawyer who became the first African-American on the high court, for believing that his background would have an impact on his role. Of course it did.

Republicans have recognized that reality in the past. Justice Samuel Alito cited his own family’s immigrant past: “I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender.”...

...unfortunately for Republicans, the dominant memory of those sessions will be of white guys lecturing a Latin woman about ethnicity.
If Republicans want to do themselves a favor, they should rethink their apparent operating assumption that their political opponents should be opposed at every turn, even if the opponent's claim is something along the lines of "the sun rises in the east" or "diamonds are hard" or "water is necessary for life."


I've been reading T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" again. The complaint of distraction is not new. The Four Quartets were published in 1943. From "Burnt Norton," the first of the four:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bits and Pieces - July 20, 2009

Stephen Walt, who, with John Mearsheimer, opened the conversation on the Israel lobby, lists ten other topics in international relations that can't be discussed.

The toilet in the International Space Station has broken down. And it sounds like the Americans are charging the Russians to use their toilet? Shades of the Cold War.

The Brits have lowered their terrorist attack threat level from "severe" to "substantial." Wonder how that correlates to the American color levels, which are being reconsidered by the Department of Homeland Security. In any case, lowering the level is a good sign, along with the reopening of the Statue of Liberty's crown.

Would North Korea detonate conventional explosives to save up their plutonium?

Now that Yucca Mountain has been shut down, what will we do with spent nuclear reactor fuel elements? Advocates of recycling (once called reprocessing) are gearing up. Also, GE and Hitachi are going for the far-out technologies. They're looking at fast-neutron breakdown of actinides (which would require reprocessing) and laser isotope separation as well.

Another defense boondoggle bites the dust! The airborne laser has been canceled. The dream of a death ray has fueled this program since the 1970s, through technical problems and the tactical problem that it would have to be pretty close to the target to work. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates deserves congratulations.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

…And What Would That Philosopher Corps Say?

I think that Tom Wolfe has it wrong, big-time, about the space program. We could, of course, always use a “philosopher corps,” for many things, but I don’t think that was all that was wrong with the selling of the space program.

“Like many another youngster at that time, or maybe retro-youngster in my case, I was fascinated by the astronauts after Apollo 11,” says Wolfe. I suspect that that sentence would be more accurate if you substituted “little boy” for “youngster.”

I was an avid science-fiction reader at the time, and had traveled far in space in my mind — to many different planets, the stars slipping by the ports of the spaceship in between, or the swirl and black and emergence from interdimensional travel. I was an avid reader of many things, and had had built up a tolerance to the implicit sexism of so much that was written at that time. I could identify with any sort of hero, including those that weren’t even human.

The point of space travel was, for me, to see new sights and meet new beings. And then came Apollo.

Perhaps it was my age: the early teens are when a girl is discovering her sexuality, and so is everyone else. I was running into roadblocks I had not experienced before.

That great triumph for man and mankind broke something in my desire for space travel. They were all men; I had planned to be out there in just a few years. They were all test pilots; I had planned for an easy computer-controlled ship. The clear message was that space was not for me, and even if I could fight that fight among the others that were building in my life, it would be a very long time indeed. And the Moon looked pretty dead.

I read little science fiction after that. Perhaps I would have grown out of it anyway. I found other interests, other enthusiasms.

I knew what I wanted from space travel, but I’m wondering what purpose that philosopher corps might have explicated. Kennedy’s purpose was a unifying national goal that could bring progress on both the defense and domestic fronts. Once we got to the Moon, that was done.

Wolfe lists a few possible purposes: defense against attack from space; a more general competition with the Soviets; leaving Earth in the far future when the Sun burns up. The philosopher corps would need some content in selling the space program. But Wolfe seems implicitly to depend on that little-boy enthusiasm.

Only three women are mentioned in Wolfe’s op-ed. We have Neil Armstrong, Prometheus, Wernher von Braun, an engineer turned tour guide, Buzz Aldrin, Mike Collins, and Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, among other men. The women? Scarlett O’Hara and her desire to think about tomorrow, Christa McAuliffe, a passive space tourist who died, and Valentina Tereshkova, a Russian astronaut who, Wolfe tells us, was one of those “risked their lives by sitting on top of rockets and having their comrades on the ground light the fuse and fire them into space like the human cannonballs of yore.” Passive, all of them, not like Wolfe’s manly astronaut heroes.

Lacking a clear purpose, the space program would have had to have some personal appeal to voters who were not middle-aged astronauts or little boys. For too long, it didn’t, and by the time NASA figured out that it wasn’t just a macho game, it was too late.


A few minutes ago Alberto Contador pretty much put away this year's Tour de France. The American papers will focus on Lance Armstrong moving into second overall, two notches up from yesterday (Rinaldo Nocentini, the yellow jersey over the last two days, was never going to hold onto it in the Alps). But Contador just put 1'37" between himself and Armstrong. Lance will now have to ride for his teammate Contador and this silly spat he started over leadership in Team Astana is now over.

Sexed Fascism

Three years ago in a post discussing fascism, I cited the remarks of one of the great active philosophers in the US, John McDermott, from his contribution to a conference and special journal issue on historical and contemporary fascism.
...fascism will not come to America as an anti-democratic movement. Quite the reverse! If it comes, it will be as an eruption from within our self-preening, self-deceiving confidence in our own ‘practice’ of democracy…. I do see… the contemporary crusading religious fundamentalist coalition as deeply foreboding, for they parade under the anthem of God and Country, thereby replicating the most dangerous of the historically numbing and oppressive movements. Hegel speaks of the cunning of history and here we face just that! Under the fake guise of pure American values and traditions, we are being coaxed into patterns of separation in our schools, opposition to gun laws, and a morally self-righteous smear on all alternative lifestyles. The insidious and seditious hook in this movement is its ability to convince many that their positions are not only authentically American but exclusively so. If ever there were the warning signs of an unhappy consciousness about to detonate itself, these are now before us. (From McDermott, “Threadbare Crape: Reflections on the American Strand”, 1997)
I think we can take this further. Fascism seduces not only ideologically and culturally, but also sexually. This point is merely obscured in the American context by the loud, self-righteous puritanism of the religious right. Fascism may be a matter of imposing the comprehensive doctrines of the powerful on an entire people, filling out its contours with themes drawn from populist resentment, folk beliefs, and fears over security. But it is also sexed. Fear and insecurity drive people into fascism's arms; intimations of sexuality drive them there longingly.

While this isn't exactly David Seaton's focus, he neatly combines these points:
That the number of white, working poor is growing exponentially and that this group, very large although unhyphenated, with all of its former left wing populist fervor long since extirpated, is bereft of any ideology except charismatic Christianity; with its critical faculties dulled to disappearance by a brutish corporate entertainment culture and drugged with sentimental, xenophobic patriotism and with nowhere to go except toward racism and paranoia.

These people have no defense against globalization and the new technologies except fear and resentment. And having an African-American in the White House has destroyed the last citadel of their precarious, tattered and battered self-esteem: the thought that, no matter how far down they were, there was someone they could look down on... black people.

Incoherent, celebrating violence, sentimental, paranoiac and resentful: it's all there cooking on the stove of high unemployment.

Along comes Sarah.

Many commentators, while admitting that Sarah Palin is attractive and charismatic, quickly discount her because little that she says will stand up to even the most cursory examination of its sense or nonsense. They fail to realize that this mixture of charisma and incoherence is precisely her most powerful political tool.

Under-Philosophized Space

Tom Wolfe describes the Apollo program, born of desperation in what was perceived as lagging military competition with the Soviets, as having ended in aimlessness the moment Armstrong set foot on the moon assuring "victory" for the US. What the program really needed, Wolfe suggests, was a "philosopher corps," or a more sophisticated examination and articulation of purpose and meaning which remains absent to date:

NASA’s annual budget sank like a stone from $5 billion in the mid-1960s to $3 billion in the mid-1970s. It was at this point that NASA’s lack of a philosopher corps became a real problem. The fact was, NASA had only one philosopher, Wernher von Braun. Toward the end of his life, von Braun knew he was dying of cancer and became very contemplative. I happened to hear him speak at a dinner in his honor in San Francisco. He raised the question of what the space program was really all about.

It’s been a long time, but I remember him saying something like this: Here on Earth we live on a planet that is in orbit around the Sun. The Sun itself is a star that is on fire and will someday burn up, leaving our solar system uninhabitable. Therefore we must build a bridge to the stars, because as far as we know, we are the only sentient creatures in the entire universe. When do we start building that bridge to the stars? We begin as soon as we are able, and this is that time. We must not fail in this obligation we have to keep alive the only meaningful life we know of.

Unfortunately, NASA couldn’t present as its spokesman and great philosopher a former high-ranking member of the Nazi Wehrmacht with a heavy German accent.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

New Director of Iran's Nuclear Energy Programs

Ali Akbar Salehi has been appointed Director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization. As I predicted, we can't tell much about his stand from his first statement.

Reuters makes it sound fairly positive:
The new head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation said on Saturday the Islamic state and the West needed to renew efforts to build mutual trust and end a dispute over Tehran's nuclear programme.

Voice of America is more doubtful:
Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar of the MEEPAS center in Tel Aviv argues that Tehran is hardening its position over its nuclear dossier, in response to Western criticism over its violent crackdown against its own people following the June 12 presidential elections.

[Um, Tel Aviv, VOA? Can't you do better than that?]

And the Tehran Times has a different take altogether:
Ali-Akbar Salehi, the new director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said on Friday that the West must close Tehran’s nuclear dossier after six years of wrangling.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bits and Pieces - July 17, 2009

A glob of goo in the Arctic. (h/t to Jamie. You might also want to check out his Sinosphere Fridays for news of China.)

Responses to the standard reasons why we supposedly can't work toward zero nuclear weapons. I think there's more to be said than this, but it's not a bad place to start.

Obama meets with American Jewish groups.

Tradeoffs in cancer screening. This is why we need more information on the effectiveness of medical procedures.

I would like to know more about what this Goldman Sachs code does, and what it's been doing to us.

The ever-so-small change in US stance on missile defense. This is the next step in the dance between Russia and the US. Let's see Russia's response.

The UK and Norway are working together to understand what it's going to take to count and disassemble nuclear weapons as the numbers go down. And there's a lot more to it than this: I've worked in that large space between steps 6 and 7. The complexity is one of the reasons that nothing's going to happen quickly. The BBC provides the first news report on the program.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Chengchui Starfruit

Developmentally Challenged

Here's an interesting virtual round-table discussion on poverty and intervention. It includes some of the stars of the development industry - Paul Collier, William Easterly, Nancy Birdsall.... It's also collectively a peek into some of the recent thinking on the question of poverty. What is most striking is that over 60 years after the institution of the Bretton Woods Agreement creating the IMF and World Bank there's not a whole lot of progress, philosophically and practically speaking, on the issue of tackling poverty. Members of those institutions have resolved their own economic needs quite generously, but global poverty rages on to such an extent that Collier is here basically arguing the case for intervention in the affairs of poor countries for their own sake.

How 19th-century.

Iran's Nuclear Leader Steps Down

Gholamreza Aghazadeh, one of Iran's vice presidents who has headed Iran's nuclear program for the last several years, tendered his resignation three weeks ago. That resignation has just been accepted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The reason most news sources give for the resignation is Aghazadeh's association with Mir Hossein Mousavi. That seems reasonably likely, but let me go 'way out on a limb here.

Ever since the uprising over Iran's elections began, I have been concerned about the politics of Iran's nuclear program. It has seemed likely to me that what Robert Oppenheimer called a "sweet problem," the making of a rapid chain reaction, has appealed just as much to some Iranian scientists and engineers as it has to others.

As India, Pakistan, and Israel were developing their nuclear programs, such factions existed. When political turmoil hit their countries, these scientists and engineers used that turmoil to make progress on weapons-related technology and to extend their political power.

Trita Parsi recently confirmed to me that such a faction exists in Iran. I can hardly believe that they are not making their case to the politicians and mullahs. The technical progress is inhibited by the presence of IAEA inspectors.

Aghazadeh's resignation opens the way for politicking by this faction. Whether they get one of their people into this position remains to be seen. Even when someone is appointed, it will not be clear because we know so little of Iran's internal politics.

Bits and Pieces - July 16, 2009

As a country, we're going to be revisiting questions about what functions government contractors should be able to carry out. Carrying guns in a war zone? Interrogating prisoners? Controlling the nuclear weapons design and production cycle? Making and executing foreign policy?

We ration health care now. Maybe we might get rational about it. Or maybe we're rational now and the change should be considering the citizen as well as the insurance companies.

I was really excited about space travel, until the actual thing seemed to be confined to (what seemed to me at the time) elderly men. Never have felt the same about it since. Send robots to Mars. They've been doing a good job.

I'm very grateful to Hillary Clinton and the Department of State for ending those horrible marching letters across the heading of their web pages. More to be said about the substance later.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential

While the demonstrators are in the streets and the basiji and Revolutionary Guard are bashing heads, we haven't heard too much about Iran's nuclear program. But we may be hearing more soon: Germany's stern magazine is coming out with an article saying that Iran could test a nuclear device within six months. That's not the same as having deliverable weapons, by a long shot. But it appears that this estimate comes from a single anonymous person at the German intelligence agency.

Things are most likely continuing as normal at Iran's nuclear facilities. The IAEA is still inspecting, as far as Iran will allow, which doesn't include the Arak heavy-water reactor under construction.

If you're looking for reliable information on exactly what progress Iran has made in its nuclear and missile programs, the best source I've seen is the EastWest Institute's report "Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential (pdf)." It hasn't much been noticed, perhaps because it has nothing sensational to report. It estimates one to three years for a device to be built, and five years beyond that to produce a warhead that could be delivered on a missile. It also says that the proposed missile defense system probably would do little to protect Europe, and that Iranian missiles that might be used to attack Europe will take some long time to develop.

The report was developed by a team of American and Russian experts, and it also has recommendations on how the two countries might cooperate relative to Iran. The report itself is one small step toward further cooperation.

Bits and Pieces - 7/15/09

The joys of anger.

Sick sea lions.

Those of us in New Mexico would really like to know the extent of our governor's involvement. Investigation continues. (HuffPo, TPMMuck)

Photos of Manhattan Project equipment. Here's the X-10 reactor face at Oak Ridge. I've seen many of these in person. There's a book just out with black and white photos like this. H/t to Adam Rofer. (Is nepotism allowed here?)

Six members appointed to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. With any luck, this commission will finger the bad guys and bad situations that allowed (assisted?) it to happen. With any luck, this might be a redo of the Pecora Commission.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bits and Pieces - 7/14/09

Congress likes to beef up budgets for military expenditures to keep defense contractors hiring. They frequently go beyond what the Defense Department requests. Now President Obama is threatening to veto a bill that contains such extra expenditures for the F-22 airplane.

It's been argued that future wars will be over basic resources, like water. Looks like Iraq is a candidate.

A Hiroshima survivor speaks out.

A majority of voters want Britain to end its nuclear weapons programs rather than update their Trident missiles as planned.

Hilzoy will retire from blogging this Friday. Unsettled times in the blogosphere.

It's hard to believe that that secret CIA program was only about killing al-Qaeda operatives in other countries. I expect more shoes to drop on this one. (NYT, Karen Tumulty) (Agreeing with helmut here.)

The two journalists convicted by North Korea have not yet been sent to a labor camp, which may indicate that the government intends to use them in diplomatic bargaining.

Helena Cobban interviews what's left of Israel's peace movement to give details on Israel's internal politics.

Fred Kaplan gets it right: if the US and Russia can agree on nuclear weapons, they will be able to talk about other issues. Just now, reducing nuclear weapons and getting a new START agreement are the low-hanging fruit.

The New Kid

Well, here I am, surveying the new digs, trying to figure out where the bathroom is and deciding where to put my favorite pictures. Didn’t pick up the milk, but will on the next trip.

For those of you who don’t know me, I used to blog at WhirledView. You can find my previous stuff, back to 2004, here.

I’m a chemist. My background includes a fair bit of nuclear stuff, fossil fuel, and counterterrorism along with managing environmental cleanups, which eventually expanded to collaborations and spending some delightful time in Estonia and Kazakhstan. One of my projects landed me in some of the domestic politics of decommissioning Pershing Missiles back in the 1980s, in response to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, and another laid bare some of the more uptight parts of the US government in relation to decommissioning nuclear weapons.

My adventures have taken me to cooler climes than those that produce helmut’s photos of fruits we’ve never heard of. And my tastes extend to lots of other sorts of flora and fauna. But here’s a cloudberry for you.

I’ll continue to write the kinds of things I’ve been writing, and I may try some new things.

I’m delighted that helmut and the guys are allowing me to occupy space here, and looking forward to conversing with the readers!

Welcome, Cheryl!

We're extremely pleased to warmly welcome our new co-blogger here at Phronesisaical, Cheryl Rofer.

Cheryl immediately improves this blog 100-fold. Trained as a chemist, Cheryl brings a particular interest in and very sharp eye towards foreign affairs and nuclear and environmental issues. She formerly blogged at Whirled View. She'll soon give more details about her background. I'll leave that to her. For now, let me say simply that it's an honor that she's joining us.

Welcome, Cheryl, and please feel free to make yourself at home (beers are in the fridge, but could you pick up some milk on your way over?).

The SD

From the NYT on the CIA program Cheney hid from everyone:

But in practice, creating and training the teams proved difficult.

“It sounds great in the movies, but when you try to do it, it’s not that easy,” a former intelligence official said. “Where do you base them? What do they look like? Are they going to be sitting around at headquarters on 24-hour alert waiting to be called?”
The answer is in the question! You get an irascible army major who has achieved rank despite his record of a lack of respect for authority. You have him recruit a bunch of sociopaths, criminals who can be offered pardons in exchange for their service (joke's on them, ha ha, as they'll surely be killed on this mission). Then, the major and the criminals gradually find some common ground and grow in the course of the mission, despite themselves, to care for one another; the cause, you see, the justness and the goodness of their project, will reform them all to one degree or another. Side note: it will help, narratively, if each of these guys can have a kind of particular problem or hangup. Though they may die anyway, they will die redeemed. And we all might cry a little and savor the paradox, which has something to do with morality and transgression and how this big guy, who seemed so gruff, he was really soft inside.

Sometimes, we would learn, the rules have to be broken in order for right to prevail. The nice part is that the notion of goodness can be transferred, in the telling, to the redemption of the sociopaths, so that we don't have to sweat the international legal stuff or the deeper questions about secret operations that violate our own laws and decades of attempts to keep the CIA from totally fucking things up over the long term.

Really, I don't think any of us was surprised to find that Cheney had been sitting on a secret program, but I was hoping for something a little cleverer and more romantic. Something like the SD, the Shit Department, the supersecret CIA auxiliary in Paco Ignacio Taibo's Four Hands. Now they were involved in some reprehensible stuff that redeemed no one. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Cheney was hiding more than this Lee Marvin fantasy. In fact, the whole story itself, given the quote from the "former intelligence official" about the movies, is beginning to seem like it might be the work of the SD. Because, speaking of Marvin and Borgnine, don't loose lips sink ships? I mean--and this is really a question, maybe Helmut can offer an opinion--don't we expect that military operations could include something like a highly-trained clandestine unit that seeks such targets? Or does the problem have to do with the administrative desire not really to be at war with a state because that restricts you from certain behaviors among state actors? Like rendition and torture? Like having the CIA assassinate whomever you can identify as non-state terrorists?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday reads

From the solar-powered "Night Garden" in Jerusalem

Some excellent bits and pieces from around the internets:
  • Deborah Pearlstein on the problem of post-acquittal detention os US war prisoners.
  • Andy Worthington and Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld "shatter" the credibility of the Guantánamo military commissions.
  • Roger Burbach on the Honduran coup.
  • Rortybomb on the non-GDP costs of global warming.
  • James Hansen dumps on the Waxman-Markey climate bill. (Probably unfairly and certainly unhelpfully, since he doesn't seem to have much of a grasp of the obstacles in crafting policy. As director of NASA's Godard Institute and a long-time proponent of serious action on climate change, he's a big name on the issue, of course. But be careful to take his piece with a grain of salt).
  • If the G8 countries get serious on climate change, developing countries say they will also act, although this must include China and India. This has been obvious for a long time, but it now seems to have entered the skulls of the G8 leaders, thus belying one of the main justifications for not acting to mitigate carbon and other GhG emissions.
  • Happy 11 millionth birthday, Amazon River!
  • Brilliantly evocative piece in the Sunday NY Times on the changing relationship between whales and humans.
  • For music fans with a particular taste, Unrest offers a a terrific list of the 95 best (and often quite obscure) French prog and psych albums. (An index to musician Dominique Grimaud's books, Un Certain (?) Rock Français, volumes N°s 1 & 2).
  • From The Onion, "Baseball Fans Delighted by New Between-Innings Fuck-Cams." (Go Nats!). I don't think anyone can better express eternal recurrence baseball despair.

Investigating torture

What, is Eric Holder now running for president? If so, he's got my vote.
Contrary to White House wishes, Attorney General Eric Holder may push forward with a criminal investigation into the Bush administration's harsh interrogation practices used on suspected terrorists.

Holder is considering whether to appoint a prosecutor and will make a final decision within the next few weeks, a Justice Department official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on a pending matter.

A move to appoint a criminal prosecutor is certain to stir partisan bickering that could create a distraction to President Barack Obama's efforts to push ambitious health care and energy reform.

And we would not want to "stir partisan bickering" over something as trifling as a systematic program to commit war crimes on a broad scale contrary to all international and domestic law and all morality except the brute use of force, while destroying the image and mythology of the US as a force of freedom and human rights in the world, using the means of one of the very worst things human beings do to each other, so that the government could find some justification for a chosen and wildly misguided war of aggression that has led to the deaths of 100,000 civilians, has altered the the possibilities of any semblance of genuine global peace for the worse by defining a main force for peace in the world as a naturally vindictive beast, stirring racial and ethnic tensions, and has sapped the resources of the country, driving its debt and the burden on its children to unscalable heights,... would we?

Thursday, July 09, 2009


Republican Insurrection

We keep hearing from people on the right that the Obama administration is sending us into a socialist/communist/islamofascist/atheist state with a cherry on top. It's really only a matter of time. The concentration camps are already open and waiting. When pressed, these concerned people - exhibiting a tenuous grip on the very nature of time - then refer to nationalized banks, TARP, the rapid rise in the national debt, and so on, all of which were well underway before President Obama was even elected.

Last night, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina compared Obama's America to Hitler's Germany:
Part of what we're trying to do in Saving Freedom is just show that where we are, we're about where Germany was before World War II where they became a social democracy. You still had votes but the votes were just power grabs like you see in Iran, and other places in South America, like Chavez is running down in Venezuela. People become more dependent on the government so that they're easy to manipulate. And they keep voting for more government because that's where their security is. When our immigrants get here, they're worried, because they see it happening here.
Why don't we call them on this?

One important way to characterize a belief is something that we're prepared to act on. I can say to you that I can run right through that reinforced concrete wall, but it's not a belief I'm prepared to act on and thus not something I genuinely believe. I am, however, prepared to make a swan dive off the diving board if I truly believe the pool is filled with water. I may be wrong, of course, but a genuine belief is one that I'm prepared to act on.

If DeMint and some of his cohorts in the Republican party and media truly believe that we are entering a new Nazi Era, then they really ought to do something, to act on that belief, shouldn't they? If a new Hitler or other authoritarian, fascist figure truly is taking over the country, shouldn't these people openly - rather than insinuatingly - call for and lead an armed insurrection?

Or are DeMint and cohorts appeasers because they don't revolt? Surely, they're failing their responsibility to rise up against the fascist monster. Or are they cowards? In the face of the fascist/socialist menace there really are only a few options: appeaser, coward, demagogue, liar.

From Rome to L'Aquila?

See if you can guess the author of the following:
The global market has stimulated first and foremost, on the part of rich countries, a search for areas in which to outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods, increasing purchasing power and thus accelerating the rate of development in terms of greater availability of consumer goods for the domestic market. Consequently, the market has prompted new forms of competition between States as they seek to attract foreign businesses to set up production centres, by means of a variety of instruments, including favourable fiscal regimes and deregulation of the labour market. These processes have led to a downsizing of social security systems as the price to be paid for seeking greater competitive advantage in the global market, with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State. Systems of social security can lose the capacity to carry out their task, both in emerging countries and in those that were among the earliest to develop, as well as in poor countries. Here budgetary policies, with cuts in social spending often made under pressure from international financial institutions, can leave citizens powerless in the face of old and new risks; such powerlessness is increased by the lack of effective protection on the part of workers' associations.
(Many thanks to Andrew Leonard of How the World Works, for his smart reading of Caritas in veritate).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Monday Good News

By the way,...
A new U.S. study suggests drinking coffee five cups a day helps protect against and combat Alzheimer's disease.

"The study gives evidence that caffeine may be a viable treatment for established Alzheimer's disease and not simply a protective strategy," said Dr Gary Arendash of the University of Florida.

I'd have a great memory if it weren't for my inability to sit still long enough to reflect.

Tokyo as Non-Existent Present

Beautiful photographs of Tokyo by urban photographer Thomas Birke. I think he unintentionally nails a little Peircean insight about the nature of the present as non-existent, or at least my interpretation of this insight. Writing here about Peirce a couple of years ago:
This is to say that the consciousness of the present is not itself describable in terms of an atomic present since it is a function of inference. The present involves the felt impulse of immediacy, but the idea of the present itself is a construct of inferential processes...

...Since time in general is continuity but a continuity of some thing, and is therefore a continuous relating of past and future, and since concepts require time, the present in effect does not exist other than as a prescinded conceptual condition for the possibility of past meeting future. Or, to put this another way, Peirce argues for the immediacy of feeling--consciousness of firstness--and since time is a relation of concepts and the present instant an immediate feeling, the present may be said to be non-existent (or simply qualitative feeling) if to be is to be cognizable. Peirce writes, “feeling is nothing but a quality, and a quality is not conscious: it is a mere possibility.” (PW, 84: CP1.310). But “qualities merge into one another. They have no perfect identities...,” and they are thus understood only as prescinded. (PW, 77).


DougJ at Balloon Juice:
Nothing annoys me more than the conservative myth that to be an ordinary American you have to be a moron. Although it’s probably just a corollary of the myth that to be an ordinary American you have to be conservative.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Obama and the I in IT

The title of this entry links to an excellent short piece by Cory Doctorow in the most recent edition of Make Magazine. "If You Can't Open Government, You Don't Own It," draws an enthusiastic connection between what is perhaps the core principle of Make (take it apart and figure out how it works and how to make it do what you want! restrictive end-user-licensing be damned!) and the intentions of the Obama administration:
President Obama went even further: the Jan. 21 memo tells agencies that: "They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely."
In today's "How the World Works," Andrew Leonard points out that (found via Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture) is an incredibly powerful interface to a database of federal spending. Although it debuted on July 1, it's not exactly brand new -- it's actually a government organized relaunch of a previously existing Web site,, that was set up by the non-profit OMB Watch a couple of years ago. But it's slick, and it's fast, and it is supposed to gradually incorporate more and more data from government agencies.
Warning: the website is kind of addictive. Go search it, though, and let us know what you find.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Praying Hands Bananas

Healthcare Unreality

Steve G:
In the health care debate we're about to get a heaping helping of socially constructed reality. The World Health Organization evaluated the health care systems around the world and the US is ranked 37th -- right below Costa Rica. The American medical system delivers less effective health care to fewer people at a higher cost. By any reasonable measure, that means we have something to learn from other systems.

Yet, we are incapable of admitting this. We will hear over and over again that we have the best health care system in the world when it is not true. Why are we incapable of admitting the truth?

My claim is that insecurity is the most important force in shaping American society. It manifests itself in two ways. In the middle class, it is class insecurity. There is the sense that our kids will not only fail to have more than we have, but that they may fall from being middle class. This is why schools are simultaneously turned into prisons providing environments that are not conducive to learning and overburdening our kids with too much homework. If they don't get into the right pre-school they won't get into the right college and then they might not end up with a good job. The kids are so risk averse that they refuse to think interesting thoughts. Just get the B, just don't screw up. It is there in the way we create gated communities both in terms of actual gates and in terms of infrastructure. We can't build public transportation because then the wrong kind would have easy access to our homes and our stuff. It's all fear of losing our stuff and our kids not being able to get it for themselves. Look at our drug laws, look at the way we pay for schools through property taxes, look at the discussions around affirmative action. The group of voters who went for Reagan and Clinton are governed by class insecurity and both of them knew it and played them like a fiddle.

The middle class doesn't want health care reform, not because they think ours is the best system in the world, but because it is good enough for them and they are afraid that helping someone else would be a zero sum game and thereby cost them. It works for me and mine so don't mess with it. Insecurity leads to malicious, selfish inaction.