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Archive for August, 2005

Outrage

August 18, 2005 2 comments

Warning: check your blood pressure before reading the next two paragraphs…

1. A US marine, native to Texas, returning from two tours of duty in Iraq and enrolling in college, is told he doesn’t qualify for the Texas resident tuition rate because of the time he’s spent out-of-state in Iraq.  He’s officially an out-of-state nonresident now, despite his Texas drivers’ license, banking records, etc. (from Cajun)

2. The plaintiffs in the Kelo case, who fought eminent domain seizure of their property for a development project, have been sent enormous bills for back rent for the time they’ve spent living in their own homes and fighting the county in court.  (from Dispatches from the Culture Wars)

Categories: Stupidity

TSA may loosen bans on razorblades, knives on airplanes

August 15, 2005 1 comment

Every once in a while someone on authority has a moment of clarity and reason, and actually speaks it in public.  It doesn’t happen often – remember John Poindexter’s terrorism futures market?  Democrats had a field day hooting that one down and everyone felt very good about themselves.  But it was still a good idea and would probably have worked.

The current example is the Transportation Safety Agency’s proposal to lift the ban on razorblades and small knives on airplanes.  I absolutely guarantee the hand-wringing contingent in Congress and in the press will hyperventilate trying to be the first or the loudest to condemn this bit of common sense… but it is still a good idea.

The 9-11 hijackers did not take over a three-hundred thousand pound aircraft with boxcutters.  No, they did it with the help of the people (I really wanted to say “sheep”) on board, who believed it was better to hand the over control of the plane than to fight four men with token “weapons”.

Lest we unjustly condemn the passengers and crews of the planes that struck their targets in NY and Washington, they were operating on conventional wisdom and policy.  Despite our addiction to violent movies, our culture had absorbed the idea the negotiation is always best.  It was as if we had the song; Billy, don’t be a hero ringing in our ears all the time. 

But what is usually correct is not always correct.  Today, most people would say the passengers (and perhaps crew) of the Pennsylvania plane had the right idea.  Imagine the scene the next time anyone tries to hijack a plane.  My guess is the plane will either end up crashing or it will land safely with pulverized hijackers.  It will NOT wind up with a hijacker steering the plane.  Rules have changed, and so has the popular mind.

So why not ban pocketknives on planes anyway, just to be safe?  Because it wouldn’t make us any safer.  In fact, it might have the opposite effect.  That’s one reason.

Another reason is I’d like to see a renaissance of manual capability.  There was a time when we weren’t a culture of wimps, frightened of pointy things.  Most men carried a pocketknife, and took considerable pride in their handling of this elegant tool. Let’s bring that back. 

A third reason is that non-weapons have been criminalized in many areas.  MrsDoF was not allowed to take her crochet hooks – a “weapon” – to jury duty.  This is an erosion of common sense, which is never a good thing.  A crochet hook, like a pocketknife, has a very small circle of danger when misused as a weapon.

Oh well, expect the uproar any day now – people talking about boxcutters as if they were weapons of mass destruction.

Personally I am in favor of handing out night-sticks to all passengers.

Notes:


  • Even knives specially designed to be weapons are not effective against multiple opponents.  But anyway no one is proposing allowing passengers to carry eight-inch double-edged stillettos with dual guard and center blood grooves. 
Categories: Safety & Health

Pop star explains secular ethics

August 14, 2005 1 comment

Secularists gasp in astonishment when religionists deny any real ethics are possible without the threat of eternity.  One need only look at the bloody history of religion to believe the opposite.  Then it’s the religionists’ turn to be amazed.  What basis could there be for ethics, then?  Let’s ask a pop star…

This is the world we live in
And these are the hands we’re given
Use them and let’s start trying
To make it a place worth living in.
- Phil Collins, Genesis; Land of Confusion

Long books have been written on secular ethics but when you use poetic language, it isn’t really that hard to understand, is it?

Categories: Geeky, observations

Sudden Death

August 13, 2005 Comments off

Coming up on the 1-year anniversary of my bike accident, things like this still catch my eye:

…As we crawled through traffic, seldom moving more than 10 MPH and hitting the brake every few seconds, I started to fume, as is my wont whenever in a traffic jam. We were losing at least 45 minutes to this.

Then I thought about it some more. What caused my inconvenience at the end of a 10+ hour drive had meant the abrupt and violent end of a woman’s life and serious injuries to several others. The name of the woman who died was…

Via Orac – not an ‘original’ insight, but said with unusual clarity.

Categories: Geeky, observations

Bush meets with Sheehan

August 11, 2005 Comments off

Why is it that after doing things that seem so hard in anticipation, we always ask ourselves; “There!  What was so hard about that?”

President Bush meets with Cindy Sheehan, apologizes
Decrepit News, 11 August 2005
In a touching one-hour meeting at the President’s ranch, Bush met with grieving Iraq war casualty-mother Cindy Sheehan to hear her concerns and symbolically reach out to Americans who disagree with the war.

“It was a difficult meeting for both of us, I think,” said a subdued and reflective Bush at the press conference afterward.  “I listened and offered my condolences, and recognized that the reasons we entered the war have not turned out as we expected.”

A murmer of amazement agitated the small crowd of reporters at this admission, but Bush motioned for silence and continued:

“While I can scarcely imagine the sacrifice she has made for our country, I told her that we must continue in Iraq until that country is more stable.  To leave now truly would devalue her son’s loss as the insurgents would take the upper hand and Iraq would slide into chaos.”

Concluded Bush; “God bless us all in this difficult time.  And by ‘all’, I am including the people of Iraq, according to their beliefs.”

Sheehan declined comment, but a spokesperson released a statement which read in its entirety: “I would like to thank the president for hearing our story.  Perhaps our country can come together in the common purpose of bringing our troops – our children – home sooner, while reducing violence worldwide.”

Many hailed the president’s meeting with Sheehan as the first payment on his promise to become “a uniter, not a divider.”  But unnamed sources in the GOP criticized him for “playing into the hands of the insurgents” and said they would be more careful in their choice of the next Republican candidate for president. 

Sheehan is expected to be arrested tomorrow, even though the president has acknowledged her right to speak and protest.


Notes:
From UTI:

On the left, Cindy Sheehan, mother of Casey Sheehan KIA, Sadr City, 4/4/04. Bush ‘sympathizes with her’ but she’s not ‘very important’ and besides, she’s being ‘used by the left’; Cindy is not worth a five minute drive and ten lousy minutes in the middle of Bush’s five week vacation?

On the right, the helpless, withered body of what was once Terry Schiavo, strung up to wires … and paraded by the Neo-con Clerics … so important Bush left his vacation ranch in the middle of the night and flew to DC to sign “Terry’s Law”?

Damn, now I have to go buy a new irony meter… this one just exploded.

 

Categories: Politics

Mythos and Logos

August 7, 2005 1 comment

I know some Christians who stand as a counterexample to the bible-thumping, dominionist right-winger nudging us ever closer to a theocracy.  Oh, they’re not “moderates” many of their ideas are plenty radical – they just seem to have read the bible with a sense of proportion.  It’s very refreshing.

Which leads to New Scientist writer Karen Armstrong’s review, Two paths to the same old truths, of Michael Ruse’ The Evolution-Creation Struggle from Harvard University Press.  While Ruse dawdles on the same old canard of “evolutionism as a civil religion,” Armstrong extracts an important truth from his book, one which the bible thumpers should consider:

In the pre-modern world, it was generally understood that there were two ways of arriving at truth. Plato called them mythos and logos. Neither was superior to the other. Logos (reason; science) was exact, practical and essential to human life. To be effective, it had to correspond to external reality. Myth expressed the more elusive, puzzling aspects of human experience. It has often been called a primitive form of psychology, which helped people negotiate their inner world…

Myth could not help you create efficient technology or run your society. But logos had its limits too. If you became a refugee or witnessed a terrible natural catastrophe, you did not simply want a logical explanation; you also wanted myth to show you how to manage your grief. With the advent of our scientific modernity, however, logos achieved such spectacular results that myth was discredited, and now, in popular parlance a myth is something that did not happen, that is untrue. But some religious people also began to read religious myths as though they were logos.

The conflict between science and faith has thus been based on a misunderstanding of the nature of scriptural discourse. Many people, including those who are religious, find it difficult to think mythically, because our education and society is fuelled entirely by logos. This has made religion impossible for many people in the west, and it could be argued that much of the stridency of Christian fundamentalism is based on a buried fear of creeping unbelief.

In the pre-modern world, it was considered dangerous to mix mythos and logos, because each had a different sphere of competence. Much of the heat could be taken out of the evolution versus creation struggle if it were admitted that to read the first chapter of Genesis as though it were an exact account of the origins of life is not only bad science; it is also bad religion.
-Karen Armstrong, 30 July ‘05 New Scientist, page 43

I once knew a Methodist minister who used to say, “I do not ask if a passage in the bible is true, but what truth is in it.”  But he was careful who he said it to.  Try it!  Talk to a fundamentalist about Genesis or even Luke as myth.  See how far you get.

From what I have seen the ones who most profoundly misunderstand myth are the ones promoting mythos as logos.  Scientists, when I have seen them write about myth, seem to have little problem with it.  They understand the psychological need for meaning, though they may not embrace that need themselves. 

And this is how I feel.  Faced with becoming a refugee or witnessing a terrible natural catastrophe, I do want a rational explanation for it.  Politics and plate tektonics scare me a lot less than an invisible being with unlimited power, intervening in human life toward mysterious ends.  As someone once said, isn’t it a good thing life is NOT fair?  Because if it were, we’d actually deserve all the bad things that happen to us.

Categories: Religion

Hiroshima, 60 years ago

August 6, 2005 1 comment

My father held The Bomb affectionately at arm’s length.  While he was pretty certain that – on balance – it had saved both Japanese and American lives (including those of his fellow servicemen), he was simply appalled by the carnage it packaged into a single shell. 

Like everyone of my generation, I grew up under its radioactive shadow.  As children, we could not eat snow because of the fallout from nuclear tests.  We practiced “duck ‘n cover”.1  A couple of my friends’ families had elaborate underground fallout shelters in their back yards. 

Starting with John Hersey’s Hiroshima, I wound up reading books about the nuclear weapons industry, the politics of Mutually Assured Destruction, the physiology of radiation sickness and flash burns, and how the bombs are made.  At one point in high school, I considered an apprenticeship program for welding for nuclear facilities, with an eye to working at the Hanford facility (which is now mostly shut down.)

It’s fascinating stuff, if you can suspend judgement long enough to learn about it.  In my reading, I’ve only scratched the surface.

But what about the bombing?

A lot of people are naive about the carnage wrought by conventional bombing in WWII.  It’s as if they think that it’s somehow more horrible to die in an atomic bombing than a conventional one.  For the victim, there probably isn’t that much difference.  The difference in horror, if any, is abstract; something for us to debate in following years.

The main sticking point, as I understand it, is that nuclear destruction is so economical.2  Firebombing a city required a lot of planes, masterful coordination, and ideal weather conditions.  Nuking a city just seems so… easy, as if that meant one might not give it serious consideration before pushing the button.

Well, there could be a point there.  If a lot of people are involved in an attack, there’s always the chance they might balk if the attack isn’t justified.  History does not give much support to that hope, but hey; it could happen.  A nuclear weapon, once finished and deployed, places a lot of trust in the judgment of very few people.

Was it necessary to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Can I answer that with another question?  How about this: can we judge the past by the standards of the present? 

Historical figures were not cartoons; they were people.  Remember that many historical decisions were the first of their kind.  It is simply disingenuous to ask them to know everything we know, or to see things from our perspective.

For many, the point of studying history seems to be to pass judgment on the people who lived then, on their decisions, by present standards of “evolved” morality.  You know the song and all its verses; Jefferson was a racist, so was Lincoln.  The Bomb was an atrocity.  Well let’s face it… that’s all the history some people know.  It’s pretty much Romans, Dark Ages, American revolution, Civil War, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq.  Their entire grasp of history wouldn’t fill a thick phamplet.  But they sure can tell you what was right and wrong about those who went before.

We forget that someone, someday, will apply the same treatment to us.  So a little humility is in order, along with some study.

I’d like to think our morality has evolved, and it has.  But evolution doesn’t have headlights.  If you know anything about evolution, you know about blind alleys and ecological niches.5  Our moral understanding might easily have adapted to circumstances that don’t exist anymore and we will be seen as the bad guys. 

History should help us decide what to do next.  Not because we say; “They were wrong,” but because we know what “they” did and can reflect on it and say “What will we do?”

In those days, warfare was about “strategic targets.”  It still is.  We’re just using a better magnifying glass. 

As military technology has become more “granular” (that is, capable of delivering its effect to smaller and more well-defined targets) there is less public support for incinerating entire cities full of people.  Today’s morality might say: “If you have a beef with that leader, kill him.”  It is our leaders who are afraid of assassination, which might be returned in kind.  For people on the street, assassination has a certain ring to it.

It wasn’t, after all, the cities full of children and their parents, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The fact is that our range of moral options derives from our range of practical possibilities.

If we had a similar conflict with Japan today, we’d launch one cruise missile.3  It would fly low, winding its way around mountains and hills, under power lines.  It might even fly right down a street, turn right at another street, and into the front door of the Imperial palace.  It could carry conventional explosives, or a small nuke, half the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima.4

If you got this far expecting me to say; “It was wrong to drop the bomb,” or “Dern tootin’ it was the right thing to do!” I am sorry to disappoint you.  I’d have more to say about using The Bomb today, but that (contrary to popular opinion) is an entirely different essay.  It would have to be informed by, but not directed by knowledge of the past.  The ambiguity of such a terrible event is summed up quite well in the ending of a National Geographic article about Hiroshima.  It says something like this:

“At ground zero there is a simple monument bearing a plaque which reads: ‘May the dead rest in peace, for the mistake will not be repeated.’  But it is not clear which mistake: The Bomb?  Or Pearl Harbor?”


NOTES:

  1. Despite its comical reputation, if you are outside the zone of complete destruction, “duck ‘n cover” is a very useful exercise likely to improve your survival chances.  I never understood why people thought it was so futile.

  2. It’s pretty unlikely the captain and crew of the USS Indianapolis would have thought The Bomb to be economical.  They paid rather dearly for it.
  3. There were some cruise missiles during WWII; the Nazis built them.  While incredibly advanced for their time, they couldn’t pull off that kind of surgical strike. 
  4. The popular image of Hiroshima as totally incinerated is not correct.  Thousands of people survived, and later were subject to prejudice by their own society for reasons I still cannot quite fathom.  In any case, huge numbers of people survived exposure to radiation – according to one report 120,000 of them are still alive today and constitute the largest human study of radiation exposure. 
  5. Moral arguments from scientific knowledge such as evolution are at best an anology.  Don’t put too much weight on them.
  • One of the interesting facets of WWII is that cities are practically immortal.  Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki existed for some economic reason – transportation, rivers, etc.  Nearly wiping them off the face of the Earth had little long-term effect.  Today, they are bustling cities, and tourists are more likely to visit monuments than residents are.
  • Our faith in a future may be somewhat irrational.  If there are real threats to our existence, popular understanding of them will face an uphill battle.
  • Mostly Cajun weighs in on Hiroshima – pretty close to my dad’s point of view.
  • Orac picks up the bomb, weighing the present against the past and including a list of well-chosen links about Hiroshima.
Categories: Geeky, History

That’s our future economy you’re toying with, Mr. President

August 2, 2005 Comments off

No time right now for a detailed post, but our president threw large handfuls of monkey-feces at the future of science education in the US yesterday: Bush endorses teaching “Intelligent Design”.

It’s bad enough that enormous chunks of our economy are owned by Saudi and Chinese financiers (that’s what massive deficit spending really means) but we aren’t going to dig out of that hole with a population that has been taught lazy thinking.  And “Gee that’s really complex; God must have done it” is lazy thinking.  It’s the same logic as “I don’t know what causes thunder so it must be Thor’s hammer.”

Unfortunately the Knight-Ridder story linked above gives a free pass to the Discovery Institute’s ID talking-points.  I suppose they’re trying to be “fair” but to me it’s evidence that news agencies should stop hiring people with “journalism” degrees and get people with degrees in real subjects to report the news.

Thanks a lot, Mr. President.


Articles and rants on Bush endorsement of “Intelligent Design”:

Categories: Education

NASA, space priorities all screwed up

August 1, 2005 4 comments

NASA astronauts took a spacewalk today to replace a malfunctioning gyroscope on the International Space Station (ISS).

Let me see if I understand this correctly: the space shuttle is too dangerous to use for replacing the gyros on the Hubble Space Telescope, even though that instrument is cranking out tremendous scientific data by the truckload. 

But it’s fine to use the shuttle to replace the gyros on the ISS, which is producing no science at all other than learning how to keep a half-assed space station spinning around the Earth.  Let me repeat that; it has no mission to speak of.  If the ISS fell into the sea tomorrow, no significant scientific work would be impaired.

What the ???  Am I missing something?