Friday, July 15, 2005

The secret to world peace

I am in the city of the damned hamsters. There's just something about the image of a fire-and-brimstone hamster preacher that draws me like a moth to a flame. But yes, I am in Amsterdam, a city in which it doesn't matter who you are or what you do as long as you don't impose it on other people. You want to smoke pot or take "magic" mushrooms? Fine. Here are some regulations to keep it safe, and safely out of the hands of children. You want to have some kind of really kinky sex with a member of the same sex, or of the opposite sex, or of some other variation of sex? Fine, as long as everyone is a freely consenting adult. You want to exchange sex for specific amounts of money? Well, again, we need some health regulations and some special zoning.

The result is that the Netherlands has far fewer drug addicts per capita than countries with far stricter drug laws. The result is that the Netherlands has homosexuals and transsexuals and people whose sexuality, gender, and even biological sex defies the usual categories, in all levels of society, including the military, the courts, and elected officials, and it's just not a big deal. Any two adults can get married in the legal sense, whether or not your religion chooses to recognize it as spiritually valid. The result is that the Netherlands has far less crime — especially violent crimes — around prostitution than other countries that try to ban it entirely.

The result is a sane society that can focus its resources and attention on real problems. In other words, the result is not America.

In World War II, the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. It wasn't enough for them to occupy it militarily, it was also important for them to crush its spirit. In particular, the moral permissiveness that already characterized this city, even sixty-odd years ago, was a threat to the moral purity of the Aryan race. When Amsterdam was finally freed, they made a point of emphasizing their tolerance of "other" people as a parting gesture of defiance to the Nazis.

I don't toss in a reference to Nazis lightly, believe me. For those liberals who persist in comparing President Bush to Hitler, I say this: you are truly giving aid and comfort to America's sworn enemies — by which I mean you are giving aid and comfort to Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Bush is not Hitler, and Iraq is not the Holocaust. We must never demean those horrors by invoking them for some second-rate chimpanzee and his little war.

The secret to world peace is what I did earlier tonight: I had joint-rolling lessons from two Iranians who now live in London. They took pity upon a poor klutz who couldn't roll a joint to save my life. When they left, I said to them, "I don't speak a word of Farsi, but hertzelijk dank and salaam aleichem."

Amsterdam sends greetings to a world in need of tolerance of other people.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Dispatch from Paris

A few items from the international press for you today.

Við munum ekki leyfa ofbeldi að breyta samfélögum okkar eða gildum okkar, né munum við leyfa því að hafa áhrif á störf þessa fundar. Við munum halda áfram að ræða hvernig bæta má heiminn. Hryðjuverkamennirnir [terrorists] munu ekki hafa sitt fram. Við munum sigra, ekki þeir. — Tony Blair, forsætisráðherra Bretlands, 2005-07-07 (Morgunblaðið)
Well, yes, actually, I did throw in that quote just to put in the thorns and eths. It's the translation into Icelandic of Prime Minister Tony Blair's statement that the terrorists will not defeat Britain.

Can you guess which movie got this review? "Innrásin er girnileg sumarskemmtun. Poppkornsmynd af bestu gerð!" I must say, though, that Hagar the Horrible takes on a whole different meaning when you read it in actual Viking language.

In other news from London,
Être unis, être forts, ne pas se laisser diviser, ne pas laisser monter la haine intercommunitaire. C’est lobsession des autorités britanniques, et singulièrement celle d'un leader travailliste désormais soutenu de toutes parts, depuis l'explosion de quatre bombes jeudi dans le métro londinien et dans un bus. Hier, s'exprimant pour la première fois devant les députés de la Chambre des communes, Tony Blair a insisté: Notre pays ne seras pas vaincu par la terreur mais la vaincra et émergera de cette horreur avec nos valeurs, notre mode de vie, notre tolérance et notre respect pour les autres non diminués. — Libération 2005-07-12
(In other words, We must not let the terrorists divide our community. We will defeat the terrorists with our values, our way of life, our tolerance, and our respect for others undiminished.)

One comment from this week's Economist magazine (July 9th 2005) about the situation in London I found especially noteworthy: "George W. Bush has sometimes claimed that a silver lining to the cloud his forces are struggling through in Iraq is that at least the West's enemies are being fought there rather than at home. The attacks in London are a reminder that that view is as wrong as it is glib."

The French paper Libération also noted with horror that Ryanair (a low-cost airline based in Dublin, Ireland) is — so far unsuccessfully — pressuring its pilots to accept a contract that would require them to repay €15,000 to the company for their flight training if they either leave the company within five years or join a union. For some reason, the pilots aren't eager to sign. Said Michael O'Leary, president of Ryanair (quoted in English, even though the rest of the article is en français): "Only over my dead body and never on my fucking watch" will the pilots unionize. Wow.

A couple of tidbits from today's International Herald Tribune, truly a must for travelling in a non-English-speaking country.

Muhammad Bouyeri, a 27yo Dutch-Moroccan on trial for the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, has exercised his right to remain silent and instructed his defense attorney not to participate in the trial proceedings. Bouyeri is accused of brutally murdering van Gogh, apparently because he made a film that was critical of the treatment of women in Islamic countries. Bouyeri could receive life in prison if convicted.

Robert A. Pape has analyzed information regarding 67 of the 71 al Qaeda-linked suicide terrorists from 1995 to 2004. His conclusions are unsettling: al Qaeda is stronger since 9/11, not weaker. It has carried out more attacks and killed more people since 9/11 than before. Almost all of its suicide bombers have come from Islamic countries in which the United States has a significant military presence, not from other countries listed by the State Department as "state sponsors of terrorism" (Iran, Libya, Sudan, or Iraq).
Afghanistan produced al Qaeda suicide terrorists only after the American-led invasion of the country in 2001. The clear implication is that if al Qaeda was [sic] no longer able to draw recruits from the Muslim countries where there is a heavy American combat presence, it might well collapse. — Robert A. Pape, International Herald Tribune, 2005-07-12
Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Jihad: the Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, gives striking insight into Osama bin Laden's apparent ability to hide in Pakistan: it is not in Pakistan's interest to find him, because if it does, its domestic problems will multiply while the U.S. will no longer consider it quite as vital to our strategic interests.

One of the letters to the editor especially caught my eye:
It's dangerous to assume that more than a billion of the world's Muslims are a monolithic bloc. Terrorists come from countries and regions where Shariah law [a draconian set of Islamic legal traditions] is prevalent. Youth raised under Shariah inevitably feel enmity when faced with the modern way of life and values; some of them react violently. Islam is a religion that promotes compassion and justice. It is the archaic set of values associated with Islam that creates this terrible problem we are facing. — Ahmet Ozgunes, Istanbul
Back on the home front, Nicholas Kristof writes of the insanity of the Bush administration's position against Oregon's "death with dignity" statute, and the main editorial makes the point that it is time for the Defense Department to address the real enemies we face, instead of the enemies that would justify the weapon systems we would like to build. "After four years of painful surprises, the Pentagon should recognize that chasing indiscriminately after remote contingencies can leave U.S. forces dangerously underequipped and understaffed for real wars."

Lastly, here in Paris (both where I'm staying and where the IHT is headquartered), John Vinocur details the ways in which the political leadership in France is dangerously out of touch with both domestic and international realities. The people have resoundingly said "non" to the draft European constitution, but the leaders across the spectrum continue undaunted to press for France to lead the drive for Eunity. France is also falling out of a leadership role on the world stage, in part because of their lack of involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, their lack of attention to African poverty and famine, and their bizarre relationship to American power, following our lead in Lebanon but insisting that they can lead Europe to provide a much-needed counterbalance to American unilateralism (never mind what the rest of Europe thinks). Evidently the problem of arrogant and/or insane political leaders isn't limited to America.

For those of you sitting in America, please please please seek out sources of news beyond the American corporate media conglomerates. There are fine, responsible journalists working for PBS, NPR, Comedy Central, CNN, ABNBCBS, the New York Times and the Washington Post (though much less often the New York Post or the Washington Times), and others, but in a world of global problems we need to at least take a look at the viewpoints of the other 5½ continents.

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Is bisexuality real?

The New York Times, which usually tries to offer journalistic integrity to the world, slipped up the other day. On July 5th, they published an article about a study that suggests that there is no such thing as "true" bisexuality, at least among men. The fact that the researcher has conducted eugenics research apparently wasn't deemed relevant.

I once identified as bisexual, but for me it was merely a stepping stone on the path to coming all the way out as gay. I know a number of other people for whom the same is true. However, I also know a number of people for whom the same is not true. Indeed, I know several people who came out as gay or lesbian, lived openly as gay or lesbian for decades, but finally found they could no longer deny that they also feel attraction to some members of the "opposite" sex. (Never mind my friends who don't subscribe to the silly, limited notion that there are only two sexes or genders.)

No matter how hard you try to pigeonhole people, one inescapable fact remains: People are not pigeons.

Thanks to FAIR for the heads-up to the action alert on the GLAAD web site.

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Terror Strikes

Terrorists staged multiple strikes against London's public transit systems this morning, including at Edgware Road, my old tube station. Several hundred people were injured, including dozens killed. A group claiming affiliation to al Qaeda has claimed blame for the attacks.

The Bush administration would have us believe that by fighting the terrorists "over there" (in Iraq), we are somehow safer "over here" (in America and our allies in the so-called "war on terror").

It seems to me that al Qaeda is quite capable of multi-tasking.

We are LESS SAFE because of the war in Iraq. We are training MORE terrorists, and giving them plenty of practice at killing Americans and our allies, so they can do it more efficiently when they come strike us at home.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Temporary Comment Restriction

Sorry, but I can't leave my blog open to whatever comments happen to land here when I'm gone this long. Thus, until I get back, this blog will temporarily hide all comments. You can e-mail me at ßLøgspõtҨLiΝ¢Måd•cöm [Any spam to that address will be vigorously LARTed.] if you have technical suggestions for a less intrusive way than requiring Blogger registration to protect against blogspam.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

God bless those other countries, too

Your trusty blogger is about to embark on some field research on international relations. I'll be investigating Bastille Day in Paris (my second!), exploring a city in which it is possible to enjoy herbal entertainment (or even fungal sacraments) without fear of interference by Dutch-speaking people with handcuffs, frolicking with European radical faeries (on Terskhhhhhhhhelling Island), comparing wedding chapels in Barcelona (just in case I meet Mr. Right some time soon), and sailing across the Mediterranean with an entire shipload of ho-mo-se-xu-als (because I've never been to Spain, Italy, or Turkey, and I'm not going to fly to Asia for the first time, I'm going to take a BUS!).

That means that I shall be blogging much less frequently for most of the rest of the summer. I shall have longish periods with no possibility of Internet access, and other days where it will just be outrageously expensive. (I mean, I'm obsessive about my blog and all, but I'm not going to pay to jack in via satellite from a cruise ship. Maybe we'll have lunch in an Internet café in Florence or something.)

I will thus leave you with links to a few of my favorite of my postings, and other good stuff. If you spam my blog, I will stir-fry your ballbags and serve them to prisoners at Gizmo, with lamb and hummus. [It's a Daily Show reference.]

  • Fareed v. Fwill on Snuffaluffagus — Fareed Zakaria gives me hope for America, no exaggeration
  • Alternative Text of the Federal Marriage Amendment, or the plain-English summary
  • review of What the Bleep — a cult indoctrination film that actually talks some sense!
  • Why I opposed Robert Börk when President Satan Nixon Reagan appointed him to be Swedish Chef Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (Or "Ayyyy-jay-ess-see, baby!") — it wasn't his facial hair! [and also the few articles following that one]
  • A translation of President George "Dumbya" Bush's address at Fort Bragg into plain English
  • A Modest Proposal for peace in the Middle East, followed up by a more serious proposal.
  • my second week, including George Galloway before the Senate
  • Why the Catholic church inevitably produces pedophile priests
  • America, the (Phrase) Book — useful phrases like the Finnish for "Do you speak French?" and a deeply offensive insult in Hawai'ian. (I don't know how to spell it, but if you meet someone from Denmark, be sure to call them a "blaue-huul" [in German phonetics].)
  • Two of my more conservative postings
  • My schoolyard insult to Governor Schwulearzeneggficker
  • Oh my goddess, it's not a joke ad on Comedy Central, it's a real product!
  • (irony-mode=OFF) My tribute to the enduring symbol of our Freedom, the Flag of the United States of America
  • Open criticism of a die-hard leftie, Mayor Willie Brown
  • My analysis of the parallels between the Michael Jackson trial and the two O.J. Simpson trials.
  • Any of the links on the lefthand sidebar, including the archives and the other blogs and generally worthwhile places to visit, certainly including KQKE and Air America. As for Randi Rhodes, there's not a straight bone in my body, but her show makes me want to give her a [virtual] big ol' kiss on the mouth. Here's some e-hugs instead. If given a choice between The Daily Show and oxygen, take the Daily Show. You're allowed to have oxygen if it's a re-run.
Thanks to Ann C., whose nifty new bumpersticker gave me my headline!

P.S. Sure sign of the impending apocalypse: Diet Pepsi using a Ramones song in their TV commercial. It's the most sick-and-wrong musical mix I've heard since the muzak version of the theme song from M∗A∗S∗H — you know, "Suicide is Painless [la la la] It brings on many changes [deet deet dee deet deet dee] ..." But now we have Jon Stewart telling us (yes, in a re-run, but hey, I'm an addict) about John Hostettler (R–Indiana) and the War on Christianity. Watch the episode of Stella on Comedy Central where one of the guys runs for President of the residents board for their apartment building, with an eye to the many layers of political satire; it's more rich than I have time to write about if I'm going to catch my plane in two days.... That and all of Reno 911! Seriously. And go see Lords of Dogtown and Summer Storm; if you like this blog, you will not regret it.

Something to think about: I think Morgan Spurlock is a more interesting person than "Jared," but I'd way rather eat nothing but Subway than nothing but McDonald's. (Wow, Morgan Spurlock rigged the conditions so that he would have to balloon in a month: he had to eat three meals a day, all of them at Mickey D'ease, he had to eat every single menu item at least once, and he wasn't allowed to eat anything not on the McD'oh menu. And your point is? He ate McD intensely for a month to show how nutritionally unbalanced it is, and he deliberately limited his physical activity to the level of the average American, and, no great surprise, the result of eating lots of high-saturated-fat, high-calorie, high-salt, high in high-fructose corn syrup — much worse for you than cane sugar — food and getting almost no exercise, is that you will gain weight.) [As Subway points out, Jared's specific diet may not be right for anyone else, and exercise should always be included in any weight-loss plan, but Subway does make quality food that can be an important part of a healthy lifestyle (along with Lean Cuisine and Fresca, the only diet soda I can tolerate), as opposed to a very infrequent guilty pleasure.]

I'll be back to incessant posting for about a week and a half in August, then off to Burning Man, and then I'll be back with a vengeance after Labor Day, at least until it's time for the Northwest Naraya on Vashon Island. Have a well-informed summer!

Historical trivia: what event of global importance occurred at 11 minutes past the 11th hour?

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Is Senator Orrin Hatch illiterate?

Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Joe Biden (D-Delaware) faced off on Face the Nation this Sunday, discussing the upcoming nomination of a Supreme Court Associate Justice to replace the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor.

Hatch said:

Let's understand something: the Constitution does not require consultation [of the Senate by the President in selecting a Supreme Court nominee], it's a courtesy. — Senator Orrin Hatch on Face the Nation, July 3, 2005
Well, Senator Hatch, far be it for me to lecture you on Constitutional law, but I believe the phrase is "with the advice and consent of the Senate." What part of "advice and consent" is not clear to you? "Advice and consent" does not mean the same thing as "rubber stamp," nor does it simply mean an up-or-down vote. It means exactly what it says: it is the Constitutional responsibility of the Senate to advise the President on nominees, and it is the Constitutional responsibility of the President to seek that advice — and not just from the majority party, either.

When President Clinton came to Orrin Hatch in 1993 to ask his opinion regarding a nominee (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) to replace Byron White, and the following year, when he consulted with Hatch before nominating Stephen Breyer to replace Harry Blackmun, the Democrats held the majority in the Senate, with one more seat than the Republicans hold today. If the Democrats played by President Bush's playbook, they could have rammed through two wild-eyed liberal activists who would've outlawed straight white men over 40 (whew! I'm only 3 out of 4!), but instead he chose to get the advice and consent of the Senate, including the minority party.

That is precisely what the American people — and our Constitution — demand of a President.

I posted a challenge to President Bush's judicial nominees, back when we were only talking about appellate courts. In a nutshell, prove that you will listen and consider both sides of a complex issue, not prejudging it or dismissing one side as coming from another planet. As for the so-called "Constitutional option" of eliminating filibusters on judicial nominations, violating the rules of the Senate by ramming through a rules change by brute force without the 2/3 majority vote such a change requires, hardly qualifies as a "Constitutional option" in my judgment. If the Republicans want to change the rules of the Senate, let them do it by the established procedure, not by having President Cheney [Dick Cheney is Vice President of the United States, but also President of the Senate] make a transparently false ruling from the chair.

The filibuster has been a part of the Senate since its first session. As for Supreme Court nominees being rejected by the Senate, the first President to suffer that indignity was President George "Dubya" Washington when he nominated John Rutledge as Chief Justice in 1795.

The Republicans need to get over their persecution complex — especially since 7 of the 9 Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican Presidents — and send a nominee who will treat all parties to a case with respect, and ameliorate [make better] rather than exacerbate [make worse] the political divide in our nation and in our Supreme Court.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

Sometimes it's the little things

I went over to the East Bay this evening for a quiet little barbecue with a few friends, going out on the back porch to watch the fireworks over the Richmond Marina. But then I had to get back to San Francisco, which means driving across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Even though I only drive on the bridge occasionally, I got myself a "FasTrack" electronic toll gizmo last year so that I don't have to wait in line and then fish for three bucks; I just zoom right through in the dedicated FasTrack-only lane.

Trouble is, most of the people trying to get to San Francisco tonight don't have FasTrack, and most of the toll booths were unstaffed on a Sunday night of a holiday weekend. The net result was that I had to wait and wait and wait, slowly crawling forward behind masses of cars waiting to pay their cash to the few humans in the toll plaza, before finally getting to zoom the last 200 feet to the toll plaza.

I couldn't help thinking, there has to be a better way to let those of us who have the labor-saving device get more advantage from it. One possibility would be to open more FasTrack-only lanes when most of the booths are unstaffed. Another possibility would be to extend the markings of the special lanes back farther from the toll plaza, because I couldn't tell until I was almost upon it where the special lane began. (The other thing that often snarls traffic is that it's almost impossible to tell which lanes are open or closed, because the lanes curve so much.)

Once I got onto the bridge, traffic moved freely, even with a breakdown in the right lane just before mid-span, so the delay was absolutely 100% waiting for people to pay cash to a human toll-taker.

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Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Two Wars of the Worlds

Frank Rich in today's New York Times (link above) writes about the difficulty that President Bush is having in trying to frighten America into "staying the course" with his agenda, both in Iraq and at home.

Just one quick pull quote:

The president has no one to blame but himself. The color-coded terror alerts, the repeated John Ashcroft press conferences announcing imminent Armageddon during election season, the endless exploitation of 9/11 have all taken their numbing toll. Fear itself is the emotional card Mr. Bush chose to overplay, and when he plays it now, he is the boy who cried wolf. That's why a film director [Spielberg] engaging in utter fantasy can arouse more anxiety about a possible attack on America than our actual commander in chief hitting us with the supposed truth. — Frank Rich, New York Times, July 3, 2005
Tom Cruise certainly is a nutbag adherent of a bizarre religious cult that was literally pulled out of the ass of a second-rate science-fiction writer — but he's still a good actor. Go see War of the Worlds, but also check out Frank Rich in today's NYTimes.

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Saturday, July 02, 2005

A compliment from Ahmadinejad

CNN has a story "Ex-Iranian Agent: Photo Not Ahmadinejad" on its web site today (byline: Ali Akbar Dareini).

Some of the hostages taken at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 have stated that they believe that President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was among the Iranians who held them captive for over a year. Ahmadinejad has denied the claim.

Exiled former President Abholhassan Bani-Sadr claims that Ahmadinejad was involved after the initial capture of the Embassy, but that he was not one of the "decision-makers." Ahmadinejad initially opposed the hostage-taking, but changed his mind when Ayatollah Khomeini gave his approval.

Former secret agent Saeed Hajjarian attributed a compliment to the United States to Mr. Ahmadinejad:

Ahmadinejad believed that the great Satan [was] the Soviet Union and that America was the smaller Satan. — Saeed Hajjarian, July 2005
Well, it's a good thing that George W. Bush is out there to defend our Texan American pride by making us once again the #1 Satan in the world. Yee-ha! Them Soviets never could compete with good ol' Yankee Amurrican know-how.

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Something odd about Manson

There's something odd about Manson, Iowa. Manson has a secret. For years, geologists knew that something was odd about the land around here. Abnormalities had been uncovered as far back as 1912, but the scientific community believed that ancient volcanic activity was the culprit. But then geologists Ray Anderson and Brian Witzke changed everything: they found shocked quartz. Only one thing on earth is powerful enough to create shocked quartz: a nuclear weapon. The conclusion was clear: 75 million years ago, our pre-mammalian ancestors in Iowa had WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION!!!

I'm just watching the National Geographic Channel's NAKED Science show about killer asteroids. Yes, once every few million years, an asteroid hits the earth with such force that it would extinguish the entire human race. In fact, we are four times more likely to be struck by an asteroid than hit by lightning. [according to NatGeo, anyway]

But what does that mean?

How many people have you ever heard of who were killed by a massive asteroid that wiped out the entire human species? How many people have you ever heard of who were struck by lightning? Maybe a few dozen, up to possibly a few hundred, people are killed by lightning every year in the United States, not counting the ones who survive. At least half a dozen people die from lightning strikes every year, just in the city of Singapore — more than in all of Great Britain!

Now, I'm sure that if you average out the number of people killed per year over a hundred million years or so, the asteroid will probably beat the lightning by a handy margin. However, most humans are just a tiny bit more selfish than that perspective reflects. What are the odds that I will be struck by lightning, ever in my lifetime? What are the odds that I will be vaporized by a meteor, ever in my lifetime? Should I climb a tall tree in a thunderstorm? Should I carry a concealed semi-automatic handgun just in case I need to shoot down a rogue meteor the size of Mount Everest?

This program really is the science geek's answer to Cops. "Bad science, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you-u-u-u?" Shoulda known with a name like NAKED Science.

Let me put on my Donald Rumsfeld hat and answer a few of my own questions:

  • Should we worry about an asteroid collision in our daily lives? No. Not even a tiny little bit.
  • Should we spend taxpayer money to look for asteroids that might destroy the earth? Hell, yes. A few months' advance warning really might mean the difference between a cataclysm and a pretty fireworks display. Forewarned is forearmed, dontcha know.
  • Should we worry more about our cellphones giving us brain cancer? No, that one is somewhere around "being eaten by mutant zombies" in the grand scheme of risks to life and limb. It could happen, sure, but let's be serious.
  • Should we carry gas masks around with us on the subway, just in case of an anthrax or Sarin gas attack? Ya know, you can just go right ahead and tap dance naked on my grave if that one bites you on the ass. Oh, except that you'll be dead, of course. Maybe you could haunt me. On the other hand, maybe that's why both of my computers crash so often. Woo-oo-oo-oo! My Dogbert doll commands you to hie thee hence!
  • Should we seriously think about the damage that human technology is doing to the earth and the life upon it? Well, that might be a good idea, but only if we're more interested in the survival of the species than in fake photos of Britney Spears getting it on with Paris Hilton. (Or are they really fake??) I'm not talking just about global warming here, folks. We are killing off whole species, even whole phyla, of plants and animals, faster than anything since that, umm, killer asteroid 65 million years ago. You know, the one that created the Gulf of Mexico and killed the dinosaurs. So yeah, if we have a spare moment, we might want to think about not raping the earth, at least not quite so roughly, 'cause she might just fight back one of these days.
Gosh, I wonder why the general public doesn't understand and/or doesn't trust the pronouncements by scientists about risks.

It would be unfair to compare the science shown on this program with the Bush administration's so-called reasoning behind its policies, but there are certain parallels. Both are engaged in sensationalistic fear-mongering. It's the dramatic music that sells the TV show about KILLER ASTEROIDS!!! but it's about as scientific as that useless little plastic/foil sticker that's supposed to reduce the HARMFUL RADIATION from your cellphone into your braaaaaain (or improve your reception in elevators, or maybe both). Likewise, the Bush administration's presentation of its "evidence" on Iraq really wasn't far removed from "We've got charts and graphs, so fuck off!" and the President's Social Security plan is clearly a faith-based initiative.

Be alert. The world needs more lerts. Well, the world could use a few more people who understand at least enough science to know when someone is spouting total bullshit. The world could also use a few more people who give a damn about the yawning chasm between what the government says and the reality of the situation, whether we're talking Iraq or Social Security, and even whether we're talking Republicans or Democrats.

We should also question our government when it tells us for 68 years that marijuana is an addictive drug that will ruin our lives and destroy our society. Sure, marijuana is addictive. It's almost as addictive as Robitussin. Now, take your crack cocaine or your crystal meth or your alcohol, heroin, or tobacco — those are your big-league addictive substances. On the other hand, we have prisons bursting at the seams, the feds even stepping in to place the California state prison system in receivership this week, because, among many other reasons, we have thousands and thousands of people in prison for simple possession of marijuana. We know from his own direct admission that President George W. Bush has smoked marijuana, so I'll grant you that it can cause insanity and inability to cope coherently with adult reality, but for most people the effects are rather less severe. How can we trust a government that has so consistently, under both parties, outright lied to us about its drug policies through TWELVE administrations?

But since I mentioned Manson, here's a link for you: Ike, Tay, and Zac Manson. Or something that rhymes with it, anyway.

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Friday, July 01, 2005

Another Sunday, Another Opportunity to End the Bush Nightmare

I was just watching Meet the Press and This Week with George Snuffaluffagus (sp?) from almost three weeks ago, ever glad that I have not one but TWO TiVo-like devices. (The shows are on opposite each other at what I consider an unsociable hour on a Sunday morning.)

On Meet the Press, we see Hillary Clinton at a fund-raiser saying:

There has never been an administration, I don't believe, in our history more intent upon consolidating and abusing power to further their own agenda. I know it's frustrating for many of you. It's frustrating for me. Why can't the Democrats do more to stop them? ... I can tell you this: It's very hard to tell people they are making decisions that will undermine our checks and balances and constitutional system of government who don't care. It is very hard to stop people who have never been acquainted with the truth. — Senator Hillary Clinton at a "Women for Hillary" gathering, June 6, 2005
and it went on from there! If you want to see a "fair and balanced" analysis of her comments, try this blog:
— unless you think that "Blogs Against Hillary" is part of the left-wing biased media.

On This Week, we saw the wonderful Robert Reich face off against George Fwill, but even better, we saw North Carolina Republican Walter B. Jones, Jr. — the very same who coined the term "Freedom Fries" for the Congressional cafeteria — speaking out against the waste of lives caused by the wretched mismanagement of the war in Iraq. Jones' web site features a useful response to the Terri Schiavo case (encouraging people to discuss end-of-life issues with their loved ones and draft a living will) and a counter of the federal debt, now at $7.8 trillion dollars, or over $26,000 per person — well more than double what it was when George W. Bush took office in 2001. George W. Bush has presided over more deficit spending than the previous 42 Presidents combined.

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What the { } // null set Do We Know?

What_the {
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} do we(know);

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to watch the movie "Wħ∀⊕ _ †h℮ _ βL∈∋P _ ∂∅ _ ℑ _ Ḱñθω!?" for the third time. I suppose this is a good opportunity for me to tell you both a bit about the movie (its strengths and also its shortcomings) and about my own background.

What tHe βlεεp Dθ wΣ kπow!?™ (What the [bleep] do we know!?) is an independent film exploring the interplay between philosophy and science, especially quantum mechanics. In doing so, it ventures into the most fundamental questions of existence, such as the balance between determinism (the universe is a mechanism, whose precise workings could be predicted in every detail if we only had all the necessary measurements), randomness (there is an element of absolute randomness or arbitrariness at some level of the moment-to-moment existence of the universe), and intelligence and free will (it is possible to choose an action which changes the unfolding pattern of the universe).

I have a fairly unusual background for watching the film: I studied quantum mechanics, and my professor, Dr. Val Fitch, was a Nobel laureate. I've long since lost the fine details, but I remember quantum enough to be able to spot some shortcomings in the movie's explanations, and even give you my answer to Albert Einstein's key complaint about quantum mechanics.

There's a scene in the film that offers a fairly good metaphor for quantum-level reality. Marlee Matlin finds herself cajoled into playing a game of basketball with a boy. The boy explains that in parallel quantum realities, the ball could be anywhere on the court; it is the act of observing the ball that fixes it to only one of those possibilities. It's an allusion to the underpinnings of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

What Heisenberg said is that there is a limit to the precision with which you can specify both the position and the energy of a particle. The more precisely you know where the particle is, the less precisely you know its energy, and vice-versa. The usual illustration is a billiard ball bouncing around on a pool table in a completely dark room with funky acoustics. In order to find out something about the ball, you shoot the cue ball at it. The harder you slam the cue ball, the more exactly you can tell where the balls collided, because you hear the "crack." However, you then send the ball careening off at high velocity, with very little knowledge of how fast the ball was going before the cue struck it. On the flip side, if you hit the cue ball gently, you can tell much more about how fast the first ball was moving, but you have much less idea where the collision took place. (The analogy is far from perfect, of course.)

Returning to the basketball court analogy from What the Bleep, think of the whole court as an infinite set of possibilities of basketball-ness. However, in the act of observing the basketball, you do not in fact collapse that infinite set to a single truth. Rather, you collapse it to a smaller infinity.

When I was a college freshman, my roommate, also a math-science nerd, was trying to explain to me the concept of different "sizes" of infinity; my mind utterly rebelled at the idea. Infinite is infinite, ∞ = ∞, right? Well, actually, no. Look up "aleph null" (א0) and read about the sizes of infinity. However, that's not the kind of "smaller infinity" I'm talking about.

What the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us is that the basketball is a better metaphor than it might seem. The act of observing the situation doesn't collapse the infinite range of possibilities to a single point, but rather collapses it to a narrower infinite range.

The unfolding of the existence of the universe from one moment to the next, results from a finite number of infinite ranges of possibility. Each proton, electron, and neutrino in the universe (whether it's part of your body, the earth, or your Winnebago), has a quantum probability field in which it has an infinitesimal chance of winding up in a dark alleyway in Cleveland. The range of possibilities is always infinite for each particle, because it could be over here or over here or over (wait for it...) here, on top of which it might have this much energy or This much energy or THIS much energy, or pi times that much. However, there are only so many particles. (Did you know that it is fundamentally impossible to write out a googolplex in numbers, because there aren't even that many protons in the entire universe? Yes, really. It would take more than a billion billion universes.)

Each particle has an infinite range of possible choices, but the number of choices to be made is not infinite. If particle A is within a certain range of possibilities, and particle B is in a corresponding range, then they are likely to interact. If all the choices are completely random, then statistically the random variations will mostly cancel out over a large enough sampling. If you roll a thousand dice, the odds are very good that your total will be pretty close to 3,500, even though there are some sixes and some ones mixed in. On a small scale, each die is random — it is equally likely that an individual roll will be a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 — but in large numbers the dice will average out very close to 3½. (There's about a 90% chance that the sum of 1,000 dice will be between 3,400 and 3,600.)

If we take a large object like a planet or a star or a whole galaxy, any random variations on the part of the individual particles are completely lost. We can calculate that the sun will be completely eclipsed by the moon for 2 minutes and 27 seconds on August 1, 2008, because at that scale the behavior of celestial bodies is a perfect clockwork. Better yet, on July 16, 2186, there will be a total solar eclipse lasting 7 minutes and 29 seconds! (Eclipse predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA/Goddard SFC)

But, hey, hang on a minute here, bucko. Not only can we tell when a solar eclipse will happen 181 years in the future, we know to the second how long it will last. Doesn't that mean that the entire universe is nothing but a clockwork, a vast system of cogs and gears in rigid pre-ordained relationships? Maybe.

Let's go back down to the sub-sub-sub-atomic level for a moment. Exactly where is that proton? Where will it be, and what will its energy state be, a nanosecond from now? The only thing we can give you is a set of probability equations. If we blast an anti-proton into our observation chamber, we can see what interactions take place, but it's still a probability field.

Einstein had great difficulty accepting the idea of quantum mechanics, objecting that "God does not play dice." Well, Albert, what if the dice themselves are God? Or how about this: what if the very existence of intelligence — the capacity to bias the rolls of a group of dice in a particular direction — is God? It is a fact that we cannot reduce the behavior of subatomic particles beyond a probability field. It is a fact that on the scale of stars and galaxies the behavior of the universe is predictable to unimaginable precision. It is a fact that the choices that intelligent beings make can affect the arrangement of at least some of the nearby "dice" for the next few rolls. Quantum mechanics neither proves nor disproves, nor even gives evidence for or against, the existence of God.

While I'm here, I may as well also demolish the so-called "Intelligent Design" theory hypothesis. The proponents of Intelligent Design maintain that there are certain structures in the physical universe that are so complex they could only have been designed by some intelligent force. Utter nonsense. Either there was an "intelligent designer" or there wasn't; all we know is that certain complex structures do exist. In order to posit the existence of an intelligent designer, we would have to know what a universe would look like with one and what it would look like without one. Since we only have the one universe, we can neither prove nor disprove "Intelligent Design." It is an intrinsically unscientific hypothesis, because it can never be tested.

We see the great warrior priest of the minus three hundred thirtieth century, Ramtha, channelling through some certifiable nutbag named J. Z. Knight. Don't be distracted by Knight's large breasts; she's utterly nuts. However, some of what she says is still true. (After following a lunatic at a public hearing once, I told the board, "Just because a crazy person says it's raining, doesn't mean you don't need an umbrella.") I certainly fault the film, though, for not telling us up front that the words we were hearing out of this woman's mouth came supposedly from someone whose body died 35,000 years ago. "The only way that I will ever be great to myself is not what I do to my body, but what I do to my mind."

We also meet Dr. Joe Dispenza, but, unless you look very carefully at the closing credits, you probably won't notice that he's really a chiropractor. I have nothing against chiropractic or chiropractors; I see one several times a year to keep my spine happy. However, Dr. Dispenza is way out of his league talking about "infecting the quantum field" each day when he wakes up, looking for some completely unexpected event that will confirm to him that he really did create his own reality. It's pretty difficult to go through an entire day without an unexpected event of some description. Also, how exactly does one "infect the quantum field"? Just by thinking about it? It's not that easy. It is by our concrete actions that we affect the quantum fields of the particles that comprise us and that surround us. Thought itself is an action, of course, but Dr. Dispenza imbues it with mystical significance that shows him to be a silly little wanker.

Another segment of What the Bleep focuses on the extent to which human reactions are determined by hormones. Taking testosterone, whether to build professional athelete muscles or to give a female-to-male transsexual a body more in line with his identity, can cause an increase in aggressive behavior. When some circumstance triggers a panic reaction, it becomes quite difficult to think rationally, because adrenaline pushes the fight-or-flight response. When we have a sexual response to someone we see (or something we see, hear, or smell), we are easily distracted.

Again, reality doesn't fit neatly into either extreme. We are neither automatons responding mindlessly to the injection of hormones and other biochemicals, nor perfectly logical beings who react only with our intellect. The reality is, if you will, along the Third Path.

The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but be in the mystery. Ponder that for a while. Fred Alan Wolf, PhD, in What the Bleep Do We Know?

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Why I opposed Robert Bork

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has announced her retirement, setting the stage for the first Supreme Court nomination in 11 years. I think this is an excellent time, then, to reflect on a previous nomination that bitterly divided the nation: President Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. Bork was eventually rejected by the Senate, after a fight that got quite ugly on all sides. Neither Democrats nor Republicans comported themselves well.

The greatest focus of opposition to Bob Bork was the fear that he would vote to reverse Roe v. Wade and roll back some of the civil rights decisions of the post-World War II era. However, those issues were not the center of my personal opposition to his nomination.

First and foremost, as Solicitor General of the United States during the Watergate era, Bork failed a crucial test of character. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox was pressing the White House to turn over the tapes that Nixon had made of nearly every conversation in the Oval Office. Nixon's response was to get rid of Cox, so he ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire him. Richardson resigned because he refused to comply. Richardson's deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also resigned rather than comply with such an egregious miscarriage of justice. However, Robert Bork, the third in line, said, "Sure, why not?" Those tapes eventually brought down Richard Nixon, and the special prosecutor law was clarified so that the subject of an investigation could not fire the investigator, but Bork was forever tainted by his betrayal of the concept of justice.

Second, Bork has written extensively about his concept of the theory of law, especially constitutional law, and his writings are frightening. For just one outrageous example, Bork, who claims to be a "strict constructionist," asserts the twisted notion that somehow "freedom of speech" only refers to "freedom of explicitly political speech":

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. — First Amendment

Constitutional protection should be accorded only to speech that is explicitly political. There is no basis for judicial intervention to protect any other form of expression, be it scientific, literary, or that variety of expression we call obscene or pornographic. Moreover, within that category of speech we ordinarily call political, there should be no constitutional obstruction to laws making criminal any speech that advocates forcible overthrow of the government or the violation of any law. — Robert Bork, Indiana Law Journal, 1971
To say that you are a "strict constructionist" and then insert a word not written by the authors of the Constitution, radically changing its scope and meaning, is an outright contradiction.

In short, I opposed Robert Bork's nomination less because of the decisions I feared he would make, and more because of how I feared he would make them. That the man is a respected legal scholar is mystifying, given his bizarre and unique theories.

If you want to read more about Bork, I recommend Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

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Finding myself with strange (judicial) bedfellows

The Supreme Court was absolutely nuts to say that the power of eminent domain can be used when the "public use" involved is nothing more than increasing the size of your tax base. It's offensive to the concept of property rights, and I find myself agreeing with, of all people, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas (plus Justice Sandra Day O'Connor — rather less of a surprise) in their dissent.

The concept of eminent domain is that it is sometimes necessary for the government to seize land in order to put it to public use — building a school, firehouse, police station, or other public building, or perhaps building a road or an airport. An office complex is not a "public use" within the context of the constitutional provision for eminent domain, except that five Justices say that it is.

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