RSS feed for entries


Dawkins is wrong about God

I’m sorry to be so blunt, but Dawkins’ pronouncements are just plain stupid.

Using religion and God as an excuse to kill people is evil. If he’d said that, I’d agree 100%. Some of the things people do in the name of God really are evil.

But to say that religion is at fault because people make a pig’s breakfast of it is like saying that love is evil because people can use it to hurt each other.

The other thing is, where does he get off, making sweeping statements about God? He’s just finished saying he doesn’t think God exists. If God doesn’t exist for him, he couldn’t know anything about it. I would have thought he was smart enough to see the paradox. (Yes, I do have issues with not separating science and religion. Read more about it here, if you’d like.)

Maybe he should stick to genetics, something he does have a clue about.

Technorati tags: Dawkins, Richard Dawkins, religion, God, evil

    Print This Post Print This Post

Statistics and the human cost of the war in Iraq

Many commenters on the Lancet study (pdf) boggle at the numbers, point at the uncertainty, express disbelief, and note that they’re not statisticians. Well, I’m here to help.

Although perhaps not very much. I’m not a statistician either. I scraped the bottom of the barrel as a student taking my one required stat class. It was only because Dick Lewontin was a brilliant teacher and exceedingly merciful that I passed at all. But in some ways that may make it easier for me to explain. I know what we all go through when statistics get thrown at us.

I won’t be discussing specifics of the methodology or how they collected data. (For what my opinion is worth, their methodology is excellent.) Billmon, Zeyad, and the Lancet article itself go into that in exhaustive detail. (Update, Oct 19. Another English- rather than statistics-based discussion by Greg Mitchell. Yet one more: Riverbend gives her usual excellent personal take on the numbers.) Iraq Body Count has a much lower number (about 43,000 at the low end of the estimate) because that is a tally purely of deaths reported in various media. Anyone who thinks that the media are cataloguing every single death in Iraq is living in a dreamworld. Of course IBC’s estimate is vastly lower.

I’d like to (try to) explain in a nutshell what the overall numbers in the Lancet article mean.

The main thing that seems to have people’s knickers in a twist is the level of uncertainty surrounding the estimates of the true number of excess deaths. (It’s worth pointing out that the uncertainty would be much lower if the US had lived up to its obligations as an occupier and kept as good a count as it could of deaths in the country.)

There are two different kinds of uncertainty: the uncertainty of not knowing whether your numbers are right because of the difficulty of collecting the data, and the statistical measure of uncertainty. The broad range of estimates, 392979 – 942636, in the Lancet article is due to the difficulty of collecting data. Since getting the data is difficult, the distribution of estimates of the real number of deaths will look like the blue line below. Note that the line does NOT represent numbers of deaths. It represents estimates of what the actual real number is.

(Graphs modified from Wikipedia, showing generic normal distributions to illustrate the concepts discussed. These are not from the Lancet.)

graphs of normal distributions with different standard deviations

The important thing to remember is that the statistics tell you how much chance you have of guessing wrong. The true number has a 68% likelhood of being somewhere in the blue zone in the lower graph above. It has a 95% likelihood of being somewhere within the blue plus beige zones. In the top graph, the 95% zone lies between the dashed lines: as discussed below, that’s a narrow range for the red line, broad for the blue one.

With good data, the chance that your estimate will be far from the true number (i.e. “0”) is low, so the curve is steep and pointy. If, for instance, the true number of excess deaths were 655,000, and the necessary records to count the number of deaths were easily available, the likelihood that the real number of deaths was, say, 600,000 would be vanishingly small. Ninety five percent of the estimates might fall between, for instance, plus or minus 10,000 deaths, as depicted by the dashed lines in the top graph.

With hard-to-collect data, the chance of estimating wrong is much higher. The likelihood that the real number was 600,000 is not vanishingly small. It’s quite large, and 600,000 may, in fact, be the real number. So may 700,000. Both are equally likely. If one wants to stress that the number of excess deaths could be as low as 393,000 according to this study, one has to also stress that it could be as high as 943,000. The uncertainty of the estimate means higher numbers are as likely as lower ones.

What the range of numbers means is that there is high statistical certainty (at least 95% to be precise) that the real number of deaths falls within that range. The range encompasses the blue and the beige areas under the graph (and is represented by the hard-to-see dashed lines at the extreme right and left of the blue line in the top graph). That means there is a 95% probability that the true number of deaths falls somewhere between 392,979 and 942,636. There is a less than one in twenty chance that “only” 350,000 people have died due to the occupation, or that a million people have died. In other words, there is a great deal of statistical certainty that the range is correct. The midpoint of the range is the likeliest true number, but that is less certain.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died. That is not in dispute any more than any other scientific conclusion that rests on a 95% confidence level (i.e. all biological and medical science).

So, now that I’ve cleared that up, can we stop pooh-poohing the numbers and start being appropriately horrified that hundreds of thousands of people have died?

Technorati tags: Iraq, body count, Lancet, war, human cost

    Print This Post Print This Post

Windows Vista: Kill Switch or Linux Switch

Windows Vista, the new version of Windows due out Real Soon Now, will have an anti-piracy *cough* feature *cough* that people need to be aware of.

If your copy of Windows Vista is “identified as counterfeit or non-genuine” you’ll be kicked into “reduced functionality mode” … There is no start menu, no desktop icons, and the desktop background is changed to black … After one hour, the system will log the user out without warning … Sounds like a kill switch to me. [Ed Bott via]

This is like Windows “Genuine Advantage,” only more so. WGA has made a name for itself by interfering with people’s legitimate copies of Windows, forcing them to call Microsoft, and prove their legitimacy by climbing through the usual time-wasting voicemail jungle jim after digging up their software serial numbers. I think Microsoft is assuming that the new, improved Vista version of the kill switch will never, ever, ever make any mistakes. Personally, I would not want to bet my ability to meet a deadline on Microsoft’s idea of a mistake.

So maybe it’s time to take another look at Linux. I’ve used Linux for years (Red Hat 6, 7, 9; Fedora Core 3; and Ubuntu). Linux is an open source operating system, free as in free speech, which is famous for being suitable only for geeks. That is not entirely true anymore. It’s also important to remember that there’s no need to choose either/or. If you have the hard disk space, you can set up a dual boot Linux system and keep your Windows system exactly as is. That way you can use Linux and learn your way around, but if you need to use some of your old software, it’s right there. You can also try Linux out by booting and running off a CD, without installing at all. More on that below.

[Standard disclaimer: I’ve tried to make these pointers as clear and correct as possible. However, I can’t vouch for their suitability or fitness for any purpose whatsoever. Nor can I promise that they won’t turn your computer into a brick. Or whatever the correct terminology is. I throw away all the EULAs without reading them, just like everybody else.]

Let’s get to it. What’s involved?

First of all, there are many different kinds of Linux. Ubuntu is one of the easiest and best-supported types, or “flavors,” or “distributions” or “distros,” of Linux. It takes a couple of hours to get everything installed. It’s not any different from installing any other new software, but since there’s more of it–we’re talking about the whole operating system and office software, after all–it takes longer.

Step 1a. Check for compatibility. The simplest way to do this is by booting Ubuntu from CD, without installing. If something critical, like your display or keyboard doesn’t work, it’ll soon be obvious. However, if you’d rather do it by the book, or if you want to buy new hardware and need to know whether it’ll work with Linux, then you can look through the compatibility lists. If you have common hardware that’s two or more years old, you can be pretty sure Ubuntu will install and run. Three compatibility lists: Ubuntu lists with a link to which is as complete as it gets, and a huge list where you have to scroll down to find the search bar,

1b. Check whether you have enough system memory and hard disk space. The current version of Ubuntu (6.06, Dapper Drake…) requires 256 MB RAM (also known as “system memory” as distinct from hard disk space) at the very least. 512 MB of system memory is the lower limit in practice. One gigabyte is better.

Space needed on the hard drive: The operating system itself plus basic programs take about 1.5 GB. Linux, like Windows, reserves space on the hard disk to swap files in and out while you use them. The Linux swap file takes 1.5 to 2 times your system memory. So if you have 1 GB RAM, you want around 2 GB space for a swap file; 512 MB RAM, you want about 1GB swap; and so on. You might want space for other programs you install later. As far as your data is concerned, Linux can read Windows-based files, so you can either use your existing Windows space, or reserve extra space on the Linux part of your hard disk. In the latter case, your Windows programs will NOT be able to read those data files.

Step 2 Download the latest version of Ubuntu to your computer. This is a large (approx 600MB) file that can be written straight to a CD. Alternatively, there’s an address to request a CD to be sent to you, which they do free of charge. (Thank Mark Shuttleworth)
2b) Boot from that CD.

Step 3. Try out Ubuntu. A screen with several choices appears. One is “Start or Install” (the default). Let it boot using that. It won’t install unless you tell it to after it boots up. You can run Ubuntu from the CD, so you can see what it looks like and how you feel about it without installing it on your computer. Since it’s on a CD that you can’t write to, you can’t change settings permanently, but it can give you an idea of what the operating system (OS) is like. Start by clicking on the icon in the top left of the screen, which acts like a Windows Start Menu. (Ubuntu has a somewhat unfortunate brown color scheme. This can be changed in preferences.)

Step 4. Install If you decide to install, you’ll eventually click the “Install” icon after the CD boots up. Not yet. Have your ethernet cable plugged in, if you have one. The installer sets up your network connections in that case, which is much nicer than doing it yourself. It also goes out on the web and looks for software it thinks you need while it’s installing. This is actually very useful, and not nearly as sinister as it seems beforehand.

Adam Pash of Lifehacker has written a number of helpful posts on Ubuntu (check under their linux section. There’s even a post on how to set up a triple boot system, which works just as well for dual boot if you ignore the first step about adding Windows Vista on top of your existing WinXP, and go straight to Step Two, installing Ubuntu.

The scariest part of installing is setting up an Ubuntu “partition.” Partition is Linux-speak for “drive.” If you were in Windows, this would be like formatting a new drive so that you could put a totally separate set of files on it. The installer can set up partitions as part of the install process, but it is actually easier to do it using a program that is on the Ubuntu CD. [correction Oct. 8th: The installer can set up partitions, but not the ones you want if you want to keep your Windows intact. So, it would be more correct for the purpose here to say that it cannot set up the necessary partitions. You have to do it ahead of time.]

–once you have the opening screen after booting from the Ubuntu CD, go to “System” on the menu bar at the top, choose “Administration” from the drop down menu, and Gnome Partition Editor from the submenu.

–there’s a table with one of the headings being “filesystems.” ntfs is WinXp native format, fat32 is used by all recent Windows, and fat16 is old Windows. Select the biggest one and click “resize.” (Don’t touch any smallish ones at the very beginning or the end. Sometimes they’re called “pqservice” or something obscure you’ve never seen before. Those are put there by the manufacturer to contain rescue information in case your Windows blows up. Sometimes they’re way bigger than they need to be, and can be resized, but tread carefully here.) Resize the big partition to something smaller that still leaves enough space for what you want to do in Windows.

–the “free space” liberated by the resizing can be formatted as ext3 (Linux partition) and swap (swap partition. I’m sure you’re surprised.)

——select the “free space”. Choose Partition, Format to, ext3. It will then let you stipulate the size. The Linux partition has to be at least 1.5 gigabytes, just for the OS and the usual complement of programs. At least 2 GB is better. This has a “mount point” of “/” (which equals “root”, so called because it’s at the beginning of the whole tree of folders and files that you’ll have. Folders, by the way, are called “directories” in Linux.)

——Select the remaining free space, and choose Partition, Format to, swap. The swap partition should be about twice the size of your system memory, aka RAM. Say 1 GB. In practice, you will have cleverly left about the right amount of free space for this purpose, and can just tell it to use all the remaining free space.

——[Added Oct 8] Write down the sizes and types of format of all the listed partitions. Linux uses its own naming conventions, and size and type of formatting may be the only way to know that, for instance, /media/hdc1 actually refers to the Windows part of your computer.

–Once it’s all done, exit GParted.

It actually takes longer to read about it than to do it. It’s intimidating, but very easy.

Install. (This section expanded and clarified (?) Oct 8th)

Once you click the install button, you get a series of screens labelled with steps 1 through 6. Only the very last one has the install button itself and commits you to the install process. You can cancel at any time before that.

The first three steps are no-brainers and involve 1)choosing your language, 2)choosing your geographic location and time zone, 3)choosing your keyboard layout. Step 4) is where you establish your name, login or user name, password, and computer or “host” name. The login and host names are very important for networking. These are not throwaway names unless you have a standalone computer. The user account that you’re setting up has privileges almost as great as the Administrator (known as “root” in Linux), so be prepared with a good user name and password AND BE SURE YOU REMEMBER THESE.

Step 5) is the biggie. The partition program starts up and presents you with two choices:

x   Erase entire disk         [Do not accept this default!]
     Manually edit partition table

Erase entire disk is the default selection. DO NOT HIT RETURN OR CLICK THE FORWARD BUTTON. Do change the selection to “manually edit.” Then hit the forward button.

The next screen is still Step 5). It shows the partitions you saw before in GParted. Make sure the list includes an “ext3” partition and a “swap” partition that you made earlier, and that they’re the size you expect them to be. Since you don’t actually want to change anything, accept the partitions as they are, and hit “Forward.”

You reach the third screen of Step 5) (The Ubuntu folks obviously cheated a bit here.) It shows all the partitions on the disk, and has boxes next to each one at the right showing which ones will be reformatted to hold your new Ubuntu operating system. By default, it leaves Windows partitions alone, and only the “ext3” and “swap” should have their reformat boxes checked. Make sure this is the case. One of the partitions has to be “ext3” and have a “/” (which equals “root”) “mount point.” Translated into English that means that one of the partitions has to be in native Linux format and has to tell Linux “boot from here.” Once everything is right, hit “Forward.”

Step 6) lists what will be done during the install. Double check that to make sure that only the partitions you intend to reformat will be reformatted. If everything is as expected, hit “Install” and either watch curious things scroll by on the screen, or do something else. I don’t remember how long it takes, but it’s at least half an hour, I think. Check back periodically in case there’s a problem. Do not worry about bizarre computer gobbledygook that goes scrolling by too fast to see. All of that is going into a file an expert could use, but has nothing to do with an ordinary user, even if it says stuff like “error.” If the install process stays stuck at one point with no sign of any progress for more than, say, five minutes, it’s a likely bet that some hardware in your computer is hopelessly incompatible, and the thing to do is give up.

If, because of an install problem or just because, you decide to go back entirely to Windows, see below about how to get all your hard disk space back into Windows.

Note that if you’re installing both Windows & Ubuntu (if, for instance, you bought a used corporate laptop off ebay that had its disk wiped clean), Windows has to be installed first. It doesn’t play well with other OSes, and needs to think it’s the only thing on the drive.

By default, if the installer detects Windows (or any other operating system) on your computer, it assumes you want a dual boot system, and gives a choice of operating systems when you start back up. You’ll get an ugly text screen showing the choices, one of which is regular Ubuntu (don’t choose rescue, or safe or any of that stuff), and the other is Windows. The default will probably be Ubuntu, but that can be changed to Windows later, if you prefer. You have 30 seconds, by default, to make your choice.

Things the installer does for you
Ubuntu includes OpenOffice, which is a full Office Suite donated by Sun Microsystems and hundreds of programmers. It can write and read Microsoft Office files without issues, unless you have complicated Powerpoints with animations. Those haven’t always worked for me. Ubuntu includes Gimp, a PhotoShop analog with about 90% of PhotoShop’s abilities. (No easy way to do high dynamic range, for instance.) CD burners, mp3 players, Firefox to browse the web, EvolutionMail, will all be there once the OS is done installing.

5) Getting help. As with any new software, you do have to learn your way around. The “OK” button is not in the same place, and that kind of thing. If there’s something you need outside assistance on, unfortunately the help files that come with the system tend to be obscure. The way to get help in Linux is via forums on the web. Users helping users seems like an iffy way to do things, but it has worked 100% better for me, with far less aggro, than “real” technical support. Ubuntu, has some of the best help forums around. (Support page with links to documentation, FAQs, mailing lists, and the forums. The Ubuntu wikis are also a useful resource, best used by using the search feature at the top right. is one of the biggest general linux forums. Another neat trick if you get a specific, incomprehensible error message, is to search Google for that exact phrase (enter it into the Google search bar with double quotes around it.) More often than not, the answer is in the first few search results.

I have a post about some of my favorite Linux programs here. There’s an open source animation program (Blender), photo gallery software (JAlbum), (one example using photos from Fiji) and other links.

Likeliest Problem Areas

In order to do anything system-wide in Linux, you have to be the Administrator, known in Linux as “root.” However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can cause huge security holes or crash your system as root. Ubuntu has therefore made root inaccessible. If you need Admin/root access, there are instructions at Ubuntu Community Help: Root-sudo

The weakest links in the Linux world are wireless, home networking, and font files.

Fonts. Adobe and Microsoft don’t want other people using their cool fonts. Obviously, a page formatted in some new, unplanned font can look very weird. The workaround is to find where the fonts are stored on your Windows system (search for *.ttf, and note the folder. E.g. C:\Windows\fonts.) You probably don’t use all of them, and if you want to save space you can just copy your favorites. With a bit of imagination, you can usually guess what’s what from the file name. These are then copied to /usr/share/fonts/truetype. (Note that this isn’t illegal, even in the alternate universe where the megacorps live. You have paid for the right to use those fonts when you bought your computer.)

Jeremy at has a brief rundown on exactly how to do this, after you open a command line (=terminal) window:

Installing True Type Fonts

If you own a new flat-panel display, but your web pages and documents just don’t “look right,” perhaps you need to install True Type fonts. Many web pages and documents use True Type fonts, but by default, Linux doesn’t have any installed. Luckily, Xfree86 4.0 and above supports True Type fonts. (If you’re using an older version of X you can either upgrade, or install a font server such as xfsft.)

The first thing to do is find a copy of each of the fonts that you’d like to install. The easiest way to do this is to copy them from a Windows machine or from a CD-ROM. Some True Type fonts can even be downloaded from the Internet.

Once you’ve found some fonts, choose where to install them, such as /usr/share/fonts/truetype/. Then copy all of the .ttf files into the directory and run the following commands as root: [note: in Ubuntu you’d preface each command with sudo, unless you’ve enabled root as described in the link above. If you’re root, the prompt is #, as below. If not, it’ll be $ most likely.]

[Piffle. The following does not work under Ubuntu 6.1, Edgy Eft. Does work on Fedora Core 3.]

# cd /usr/share/fonts/truetype
# ttmkfdir > fonts.scale
# mkfontdir
# chkfontpath -a /usr/share/fonts/truetype
# fc-cache

Now, the True Type fonts in that directory are available to your applications.

The instructions above should work for most distros. Some distributions include configuration tools or tricks to make font installs even easier.

Home networking. Ubuntu has something called Zeroconf, which should find your home network for you the same way Windows does. I haven’t used it yet, so I don’t know if it’s effortless or not. In Ye Olde Days, networking was dealt with by Samba, which I, personally, hate. After a labor of what feels like decades expended on it, you have a house full of machines eyeing each other suspiciously and refusing to talk.

I use a command line program called ssh (stands for secure shell, which means “secure way of giving the computer commands”). There’s a good intro by Gina Trapani of Lifehacker here. Ssh allows you to use the computer accounts already set up on various machines to log into those computers and get files from them or write to them, as needed. It’s not pretty, unless you get a GUI frontend.

Wireless As a relatively new technology, wireless is one of the iffiest parts of running Linux. It’s getting better, but if you’re having problems, it’s probably not you. It’s the operating system.

Where Linux Gets Really Difficult

If you have any sort of specialized software or very new hardware that does not have Linux drivers, then you shoot straight into the geek stratosphere, and should avoid Linux for now (unless you’re a geek, of course, but then you probably stopped reading this after the first sentence).

Recovering the space given to Linux requires the following steps:
–boot from the Ubuntu CD
–when the opening screen is there, go to “System” on the menu bar at the top, choose “Administration” from the drop down menu, and Gnome Partition Editor from the submenu.
–in the table, under “filesystems,” find any called “ext3” or “swap”. Start by selecting ext3 with one click because it won’t let you touch the swap file until ext3 is gone. You have a couple of choices:
—-if you want to keep them as separate, but windows-readable, drives, go to Partition on the top bar, choose Format As, and choose any one of the windows-readable formats, ntfs (WinXp native), fat32 (all Windows), fat16 (old Windows). Do the same with the “swap” filesystem.
—-if you want to return them to one big Windows drive, select “ext3” and “Delete.” (Sounds scary, but that frees it up.) Do the same with “swap.” The WinXP partition (labeled either ntfs or fat32 in the table) can then be “Resized” to include all that free space.)

Update a few hours later: It seems today is the day for posting about installing Linux. Lifehacker has a link to a site giving simple instructions on how to use Linux. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek in spots, but that’s better than a sea of acronyms. The instructions are for the Debian flavor of Linux, which is the most closely related to Ubuntu. Well worth a visit.

Also, in comments on the Lifehacker post, Tephlon also has a good howto on installing a single-boot Ubuntu system, –>with pictures!partition where you put it. In a dual boot system you install Ubuntu in a separate partition, so it does NOT wipe out your entire hard drive.

Technorati tags: Linux, dual boot, Windows, Vista, computers, PC, Ubuntu, installing Linux, installing Ubuntu

    Print This Post Print This Post

Let me explain what sex is

I give up. I have to comment on the Foley business because so many people seem to be totally confused about sex.

On the left and the right, every scandal that involved private parts has been enumerated, going back for decades right to Gary Hart and his Monkey Business. The implication is that they’re all more or less the same. They are not.

This really isn’t difficult. Sex is enjoyment, preferably between people, but not unknown as a solitary activity. That’s it. That’s all anyone needs to know. If anyone involved isn’t enjoying the situation, then it’s not sex.

If anyone involved is creeped out, then it’s harassment. If anyone involved doesn’t have the power or the knowledge to say no, then it’s exploitation in the same sense that slavery is exploitation. If anyone involved is saying no, then it’s rape. These are crimes. CRIMES. They are not sex, even if there is an erection going on somewhere.

There’s one reason why it’s essential to keep the difference between sex and crime clear. Sex is nobody else’s business. Crimes are everybody’s business and have to be stopped immediately.

Some examples, just to make the distinction clear. Barney Frank and Mark Foley were elected to Congress and are both gay. So far, so good. Their gayness is nobody’s business but their own and their partners’. Barney Frank does not proposition pages. That is also good. Foley propositions people young enough to be his grandchildren, AND OVER WHOM HE HAS POWER. That is a crime. It would have been bad enough if he’d been streetwalking in DC looking for nineteen year-olds. But he had to go harass lowly clerical staff who are hoping to make a career in his business. That makes his crime that much worse.

Or, take another pair of examples. Clinton having sex in the Oval Office. This was a poor choice of venue and one taxpayers can justly complain about. Dignity of the office and all that. But the sex itself is nobody’s business (except Hillary’s). Alternatively, there’s the current Gubernator of California, who apparently has a decades-long history of groping women. He said he was “just playing.” The narrative when this first became public (2003) was, really, what did anyone expect, we’re surrounded by sex scandals, and anyway, look at Clinton. Boys will be boys.

Which is nonsense. Hundreds of millions of boys with plenty of testosterone manage to get through life without harassing women. It’s got nothing to do with boys or sex or hormones. It has to do with the sense of power that twisted people get from humiliating another person. Doing that by assaulting a person and grabbing her breasts is not sex. It is a crime. (And one which the Gropinator has kept out of the news by using the power of the Governor’s office to investigate the victims.)

There are vital implications from the fact that sex is private, but crimes are public.

One is that the media and the politicians need to get out of everyone else’s underwear. Leave people’s sex lives alone. Enough already. Publicly messing about in people’s private affairs always ends in disaster. In the case of sex, the end result is something like Saudi Arabia, with morality police roaming the streets and masses of the men with erectile dysfunction (Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors, 2005; no direct link, unfortunately. Also, U. Chicago study (pdf) based on the GSSAB.). In the case of religion, the result is endless war. (I don’t really need to give references for that, do I?) Sex and state need to be separated at least as much as church and state. And although a politician’s attitudes to sex, race, or religion may need to be discussed if they are likely to affect voters, there is never any need to gossip about his or her Catholicism, hairstyle, or bed partners. Gossip may whip up the voters, but it’s a drug which is killing our ability to have an intelligent public conversation, and since democracy is founded on informed voters, this is not trivial.

On the other hand, crimes must be discussed, made public, and prevented, or, failing that, punished. The media and the poltiicians, and all the rest of us, need to stop confusing crimes and sex, need to stop lumping sex in with crimes, and need to stop pretending crimes are caused by wanting sex. Human beings are unique in having opposable thumbs, which gives us ways of dealing with irrepressible sex all by ourselves. Humans are also unique in having a mass of brain, which gives us ways of understanding how other people feel. So if we’re hurting someone, we bloody well know it, which is the very definition of a crime.

We have to keep the distinction between sex and crime straight because when we don’t sex can be called a crime, which makes the whole thing ridiculous, and crimes can be called sex, which, among other things, lets congressmen harass pages for years while everyone looks the other way.

Update, Oct. 14th, 2006
Holy crap. I knew that Those People were confused, but even I had no idea it was this bad: “Shays: Abu Ghraib abuses were sex ring” (Chris Shays, for those who’d like footnotes, is a Republican representative from Connecticut.)

Technorati tags: Foley, Mark Foley, politics, harassment, Congress

    Print This Post Print This Post

They all look the same, said Trent Lott

from CNN via Crooks & Liars:

Lott went on to say he has difficulty understanding the motivations behind the violence in Iraq.

“It’s hard for Americans, all of us, including me, to understand what’s wrong with these people,” he said. “Why do they kill people of other religions because of religion? Why do they hate the Israeli’s and despise their right to exist? Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”

You know, for once I think I know how the Trent feels. I have the same problem. Not so much with the groups he mentions. Being bombed and then being told to like it tends to make people mad. They’re weird that way.


Trent Lott

redneck with Bush poster

But when it comes to these people, man, do I know how he feels. Their violence is so senseless. Why do they hate everyone who’s different? Is that why they all look the same to me?

    Print This Post Print This Post

The Relativity (and Infinite Improbability?) Drive

It’s here, it’s queer, get used to it. Really it is. Stanley Shawyer, a senior aerospace engineer in England, has built a working prototype, and it is beyond queer. It’s downright magic. He’s calling it a staid-sounding “electromagnetic drive,” or emdrive, but he could have called it the Infinite Improbability Drive. (Hat tip: Douglas Adams, of course).

As far as I can tell, this has not appeared in a peer-reviewed journal (Physical Review Letters, are you asleep at the switch?) so maybe it is a load of bollocks as one scientist quoted in the article below says, but on the other hand, a number of other scientists say it’s brilliant. Time will tell.

The emdrive is based on the force exerted by light when it hits a surface, which is the same force used by solar sails. The difference is that it uses waveguides to channel and amplify the pressure of light. (Waveguides are like fiberoptic strands in one of those novelty table lamps, except that the ends in this case do not allow the light to escape.) The waveguides are shaped so that the photons exert more pressure at one end than they do at the other. Whenever there’s a difference in energy levels, it can be used to do something, whether it’s to push a space craft or to heat a pot of water. But the light is bouncing around inside the sealed waveguide, so how does that exert any pressure outside the “light pipe”?

This is where the magic comes in. Because the photons are travelling at the speed of light, the forces they generate have to be understood in terms of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. And that says things moving at light speed are in their own frame of reference. They’re in their own universe, so to speak, and the asymmetrical force inside the cavity exerts a push as if it was outside of it.

No, I don’t understand it either. But then, I don’t understand gravity, and that doesn’t stop it from exerting force.

Excerpts from the article in New Scientist by Justin Mullins, Sept. 8, 2006. (via Slashdot.)

Take a standard copper waveguide and close off both ends. Now create microwaves using a magnetron, a device found in every microwave oven. If you inject these microwaves into the cavity, the microwaves will bounce from one end of the cavity to the other. According to the principles outlined by Maxwell, this will produce a tiny force on the end walls. Now carefully match the size of the cavity to the wavelength of the microwaves and you create a chamber in which the microwaves resonate, allowing it to store large amounts of energy.

What’s crucial here is the Q-value of the cavity – a measure of how well a vibrating system prevents its energy dissipating into heat, or how slowly the oscillations are damped down. For example, a pendulum swinging in air would have a high Q, while a pendulum immersed in oil would have a low one. If microwaves leak out of the cavity, the Q will be low. A cavity with a high Q-value can store large amounts of microwave energy with few losses, and this means the radiation will exert relatively large forces on the ends of the cavity. You might think the forces on the end walls will cancel each other out, but Shawyer worked out that with a suitably shaped resonant cavity, wider at one end than the other, the radiation pressure exerted by the microwaves at the wide end would be higher than at the narrow one.

… The result is a net force that pushes the cavity in one direction.

And the device seems to work: by mounting it on a sensitive balance, he has shown that it generates about 16 millinewtons of thrust, using 1 kilowatt of electrical power. Shawyer calculated that his first prototype had a Q of 5900. With his second thruster, he managed to raise the Q to 50,000 allowing it to generate a force of about 300 millinewtons – 100 times what Cosmos 1 could achieve. It’s not enough for Earth-based use, but it’s revolutionary for spacecraft.

Shawyer is looking ahead to the next stage of his project. He wants to make the thrusters so powerful that they could make combustion engines obsolete, and that means addressing the big problem with conventional microwave cavities – the amount of energy they leak. The biggest losses come from currents induced in the metal walls by the microwaves, which generate heat when they encounter electrical resistance. This uses up energy stored in the cavity, reduces the Q, and the thrust generated by the engine drops.

Fortunately particle accelerators use microwave cavities too, so physicists have done a lot of work on reducing Q losses inside them. The key, says Shawyer, is to make the cavity superconducting. Without electrical resistance, currents in the cavity walls will not generate heat. Engineers in Germany working on the next generation of particle accelerators have achieved a Q of several billion using superconducting cavities. If Shawyer can match that performance, he calculates that the thrust from a microwave engine could be as high as 30,000 newtons per kilowatt – enough to lift a large car.

This raises another question. Why haven’t physicists stumbled across the effect before? They have, says Shawyer, and they design their cavities to counter it. The forces inside the latest accelerator cavities are so large that they stretch the chambers like plasticine. To counteract this, engineers use piezoelectric actuators to squeeze the cavities back into shape. “I doubt they’ve ever thought of turning the force to other uses,” he says. [This reminds me of the (apocryphal) story about Robert Boyle and his buddies in the 1600s who realized that the steam pushing up a pot lid could be used to push anything.]

Then there is the issue of acceleration. Shawyer has calculated that as soon as the thruster starts to move, it will use up energy stored in the cavity, draining energy faster than it can be replaced. So while the thrust of a motionless emdrive is high, the faster the engine moves, the more the thrust falls. Shawyer now reckons the emdrive will be better suited to powering vehicles that hover rather than accelerate rapidly. A fan or turbine attached to the back of the vehicle could then be used to move it forward without friction. He hopes to demonstrate his first superconducting thruster within two years.

Be great if it worked out on schedule, but I’m willing to wait three, even four years for my levitating car.

Technorati tags: relativity drive, electromagnetic drive, emdrive, Shawyer, science, energy, technology, space

    Print This Post Print This Post

The Pope, the Jihad, and the Sword

What is it about popes? With rare exceptions, like John XXIII, what a bunch of benighted enablers of balderdash. Maybe it has to do with the selection process being limited to a few old men in skirts.

Now the current one has managed to quote a fourteenth century emperor as if he had some relevance six hundred years later. (Quoted from the BBC)

…[H]e [the emperor] addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

That from the head of a religion that gave people the Inquisition and witch-burning. That from the head of a religion that was so famous for converting people by fire and sword that it’s a joke in one of the world’s most indispensable books, 1066 and All That.

The sad thing is, old Ratzinger–sorry, Benedict XVI–was actually trying to make a good point. Violence has no place in religion, which is sort of like saying that moms and apple pie go together. You’ll get no argument from anyone, except of course the people trying to use religion as an excuse for their own greed or hatred. That, too, is not limited to Islam or Christianity. You could probably dig up a paleolithic shaman with ten followers, and find a couple grunting slogans to justify killing their neighbors.

Ratzinger-Benedict was also trying to say that narrow Western concepts of reason interfere with dialogue with non-Western cultures. An attitude of “The facts, ma’am, just give me the facts” is indeed too limited to encompass any of the finer things in life. The Westerners have a lot to learn. So does everyone else. Worshipping gods made in our own image is not working out for us.

John Lennon said it best:

Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

Technorati tags: Pope, Islam, Christianity, terrorism, violence, religion

    Print This Post Print This Post

Human Rights Are Not Optional

I know I’ve said it before. I know I’m repeating myself. I still can’t believe it needs saying at all.

You can’t trade human rights for expedience. It does not work. It’s not only bad, as in BAD, but it achieves less than nothing. Let me run through a couple of obvious examples. (After all, if their message hasn’t gotten across yet, they must bear repeating.)

Slavery. In recent times, it created–and still creates–suffering among blacks. No particularly startling insight there. It held back the economic development of the US South for over a hundred years, and the area still hasn’t caught up. It created whole swathes of whites who have to believe in fear and hatred to justify what was and is done. It led to a disastrous war that would never have happened if slavery had been outlawed from the birth of the republic. It wasn’t outlawed then because the rights of a bunch of blacks wasn’t worth the trouble of arguing with a bunch of much richer whites.

Anti-semitism. This one is overused to the point of coma, so why haven’t we learned the lessons yet? Before the Second World War ground in its awful message, some anti-semitism was quite acceptable. It’s been lost in the fog of embarrassment just how normal it was to ignore Russian pogroms or to subscribe to conspiracy theories about world domination by a cabal of Jewish bankers. But even so, Kristallnacht, the night of November 9, 1938 that was a lynch party to end all lynch parties, should have been an alarm loud enough to wake the morally dead. However, at the time the rights of a bunch of Jews wasn’t worth the trouble of taking on a military superpower. It didn’t save anyone from having to deal with the Nazis eventually, of course. It just made it a lot more costly.

Moving right along to what caused me to go on this rant, the following is a quote from one of the best, most insightful, and most intelligent left wing bloggers:

Like most extreme reactionary movements, Al Qaeda has no meaningful economic or political program …. But what it does have going for it are wide and deep fears of cultural penetration and Western domination …. These are precisely the fears the administration and the neocons appear determined to stoke with their sweeping demands for “democratic” but slavishly pro-American regimes, privatization, women’s rights, Western-style individualism, etc.

This is like those lists on an SAT: “Find the element that does not belong. Red. Green. Blue. Purple. Concrete.” Putting “women’s rights” in amongst privatization and puppet regimes sets at nothing the unbelievable courage of people who try to give an education to girls in Afghanistan, or who try to help the victims of sexual crimes in countries where blaming the victim is taken for granted. It sets at nothing the superhuman efforts of the Shirin Ebadi’s of the world who are using every ounce of their strength to get at least some of the most basic human rights for the female half of the population in their countries. By implying that we should deny truth to avoid offending tyrants–we who would lose nothing but some money if we did–he sets at nothing the sacrifices of life, limb, sanity, and family that every fighter for human rights risks under those tyrants.

But human rights are a luxury, right? People who aren’t even really men can’t be worth an argument with a bunch of guys with their heads up their seventh centuries. Think about it. These guys have both oil AND guns. It’ll be different this time. It’ll really be much easier, much cheaper, much less painful if we don’t let the rights of these minor groups interfere with the big picture. It’s never worked before, and right now it’s making us more dependent on oil, more involved in wars, and it’s breeding more drug-resistant epidemics in more failed states. But if we just ignore people’s rights harder than ever, this time it will work.


    Print This Post Print This Post

Facts and the danger from GM food

Evidence of harm from genetically modified (GM) food is one of the under-reported issues discussed by the generally excellent Project Censored for 2006. Specifically, they report on studies of rats and mice fed “GM soy” and that the rats died young, were underweight, and/or had other anomalies. There are several things that are missing in almost all the non-technical reporting on GM food (and plenty of things missing from the scientific reports, too).

First, they don’t specify what kind of genetic modification took place. (PC at least does say “Mon863,” but that doesn’t tell us much.) The beans could have been modified with jellyfish genes to make them glow green in the dark. They could have been modified with a vitamin A-producing gene (as some rice actually is). However, they probably weren’t. The majority of GM-ing (about 75%, if I remember right) is done by Monsanto to introduce RoundUp weedkiller resistance into crop plants. Given the “Mon” prefix, that’s probably what these studies were about.

A bit of background is needed here. RoundUp (which, interestingly enough, is made by Monsanto) kills weeds by interfering with their growth hormones. Plants have very different hormones from animals, including humans, and so destroying those hormones shouldn’t have any effect on animals. The problem is that life is infinitely complex, there are vast amounts we don’t know about biomolecular interactions, and chance matches that cause curious downstream consequences are not unheard of. Cannabis, for instance, has an effect on the human brain because a plant molecule (whose probable function is repelling insects) can interact with nerve receptors whose normal target is very different molecules produced by humans.

So, did the rats do poorly because the GM soy had weird stuff in it that was harming them? Or did they do poorly because it just wasn’t very good soy?

Assuming the GM-ing did involve RoundUp resistance, that last question is not rhetorical. The point to the resistance is to allow frequent spraying with the weedkiller without killing the crop itself. (Yes, Monsanto has farmers paying for patented seeds so that they can pay for more Monsanto weedkiller to pour on them.) RoundUp resistant crops are generally also grown with plenty of insecticide spraying and chemical fertilizer, and that kind of produce has fewer vitamins and minerals. That’s a matter of observable fact, but it’s not necessarily anything directly to do with the genetic modification itself. The GM-ing just allows the crop to be produced under even more hostile conditions than ordinary chemical farming.

If the GM soy killed the rats by being the equivalent of a lifetime of soda pop and french fries, then that’s very interesting, but not actually panic-inducing. If it killed them as a direct consequence of the molecules produced by RoundUp resistance, then there really needs to be a red alert. An Australian CSIRO study found an immune response to GM peas (gene unspecified), and that suggests a possible direct molecular interaction. It really, really, really needs follow-up studies immediately. (PC cites this as a “private research institute,” but CSIRO is “the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, … Australia’s national science agency and one of the largest and most diverse research agencies in the world.” (From their website.))

The question of why the rats did poorly is absolutely critical, but the point is hardly ever raised in non-technical articles.

Another question I don’t see addressed is not technical in itself, but does require awareness that there are different genetic modifications. Critics of GM food would like to see it banned. Proponents say we have to move with the times or people will starve. Both are being silly. Vitamin A-enriched rice is a Good Thing. Disease resistant crops that require less herbicide or pesticide are also (usually) good. (But consider the impact on Monarch butterflies due to the deaths of caterpillars caused by caterpillar-killing genes added to corn in the US Midwest.) And as for people starving, they aren’t doing it due to a lack of food, even without GM-induced abundance. People are starving because of wars or because staple foods are too expensive. Genetic modification (unless it prevents human greed and stupidity) will do nothing about that.

On the other hand, banning GM food that has no socially redeeming features seems like a good idea. Pouring out more RoundUp is good only for Monsanto. It’s terrible for everyone else. Let us, by all means, ban that.

The point I’m trying to make is that the opposition to GM food needs to be done intelligently. It needs to be based on fact. And a first step in that direction would be for non-technical talk on the subject to tell us what those facts actually are.

Technorati tags: GM food, photovoltaics, frankenfood, genetically modified food, genetic engineering, RoundUp, Monsanto

    Print This Post Print This Post

Katrina photos by Alan Chin

via BAGnewsNotes (which I found in Crooks and Liars).

A woman from New Orleans said, “I hate this stupid anniversary.” Me too. As a realist (see blog title…), I need reminders that people are NOT venal idiots. Then I came across Alan Chin’s photos, which I’d never seen before. (I live under a rock.) They say it all. Go look.

One example, showing the proudest flag I’ve ever seen:

    Print This Post Print This Post

What Pluto Really Is

That is not a difficult question, thanks to the miracles of modern science. Pluto is a large ball of rock and ice.

Dan Durda’s concept of the Pluto-Charon system on the Astronomy Picture of the Day archive.

Update Sep. 2nd. Also from the APOD Archive, Pluto in true color at the highest resolution currently available.

Pluto is the same today as it was last year. The only difference is that the Astronomical Union decided to put it in a different category. That means nothing, absolutely nothing, outside our own heads.

Inside our heads, however, which is where we spend much of our time, it makes a huge difference. People hate learning new names for things just as much as they hate having the “shift” key suddenly appear in a strange place on a new keyboard. It means having to expend neurons on relearning something that functioned perfectly well before.

The problem of names is not unique to Pluto. It’s something biologists have dealt with for hundreds of years. Recently, for instance, Apatosaurus was found to be the correct name for the much better known brontosaurus. That created a good bit of annoyance. Well-known genera of orchids, like Odontoglossum, turn out to be invalid and all have to be renamed. Not only do all the textbooks have to be rewritten, but thousands of horticulturalists have to redo labels, change marketing materials, and somehow stop their prize plants from losing name recognition. These problems are expensive as well as annoying. People talk–and I’m not sure they’re always joking– about taking out contracts on the scientists wreaking the cognitive havoc.

Botanists have actually been dealing with this problem longer than any other branch of science, and if the astronomers had one of those nice broad liberal arts backgrounds we hear so much about, the kind that makes them aware of disciplines outside their own, then they would have realized that the solution to their problem was staring them in the face.

It’s called conservation of names. When a technically incorrect name is in wide usage, and when it would be too disruptive to people’s minds to change it, then the name can be conserved. It’s just a name, remember. We humans came up with it in the first place. Like Humpty Dumpty, we can do anything we want with it. So the Astronomical Union could have said, “Pluto isn’t a planet,” or “Ceres and Vesta really are planets. However,” they could have continued, “we’ll conserve the popular designations, and only we scientists will have to do the mental gymnastics necessary to remember what the right name really is.” Which is as it should be. If they didn’t want to do mental gymnastics, they shouldn’t have become scientists.

Instead the dingbats decided to mess with everyone else’s mind, and now they’re reaping their just desserts. Hopefully, that’ll teach them a thing or two, including the concept of conservation.

    Print This Post Print This Post


We need a new word. Something that describes intelligent people urging the stupid use of force. If you were feeling temperate, you might want to call it pundofallacy, but I’m not and I don’t.

What brought this on is an article in the TimesOnline, “It sounded so good to start with. But where did it all go wrong, George?” by Gerard Baker, Aug 18 2006.

…as the world contemplates the nervous breakdown of American policy in the Middle East, it is something President George Bush should surely be asking himself, or at least his fellow Americans. How’m I doin’?

Let’s see. You invaded Iraq because you argued you would be able to bring about a peaceful, democratic society in the heart of the Arab world, a step vital to the eradication of modern terrorism. Many of us supported the project because we believed the stakes were so high that you would not stint in committing the resources necessary to achieve it.

But you tried to do it on the cheap. If many of us miscalculated the scale of the threat Iraq posed, there was no excuse for the woeful lack of preparation by your Administration for the task of pacifying the country.

So far, so good, assuming by “resources” he means keeping order until people without guns, including women, had a voice. Assuming he means intelligently applied, uncorrupt resources for rebuilding the mess left after Saddam and over a decade of sanctions. But the reasoning floats into fantasy after this.

…you supported and perhaps even encouraged Israel to invade Lebanon last month, after repeated provocations by terrorists. The aim — a good one in principle — was to crush Hezbollah, weaken its Syrian and Iranian sponsors and put Lebanon on a path to long-term, terror-free stability.

There’s the old “crush the terrorists” dream. Yes, it would be nice if you could just stomp them like so many cockroaches. Have you ever tried to get rid of cockroaches by stomping them? I mean, to really get rid of them all, not just one? Of course not. It would be idiotic. The intelligent application of force in that case involves cleaning the kitchen. “Crushing” terrorists makes as much sense as crushing an oil spill.

There was a saying in the sixties, “If it feels good, do it.” This works for some things–sex, for instance–but it falls down badly as a method of anger management. Everybody hates people who hurt them. Everybody wants to hurt them back. It feels good. It just doesn’t happen to work as a way of stopping people from hurting you.

That point bears repeating. It does not work. It’s not that it’s unkind, or that I feel sorry for the poor terrorists in some liberal, pinko, namby pamby way. It’s that it does not work. The real cowardice is to avoid the facts–which are, I repeat, that it does not work–and to avoid effective action. That action may be something deeply unsatisfying, like cleaning the kitchen in the case of cockroaches, or paying the economic price in the West of having actual human rights in the Middle East.

That said, there is one way in which crushing enemies can work. Every last one of them has to be crushed. There are no terrorists among the Tasmanian aborigines because there aren’t any Tasmanian aborigines. They were all killed in a literal genocide. People convinced of the pundophallacy that brute force should work have to remember that it only works when the enemy is eliminated, culturally or literally. They should stop hiding behind limp-wristed, liberal ideas like democracy if they really believe in force.

(None of this is to say that strength is totally useless. Every village needs its policeman, and the global village is no exception. But that’s intelligently applied force, and it’s applied to exceptional cases that stand out on a background of law-abiding people. Police forces are never effective when whole populations are breaking the law, and our current intractable terrorist problems are embedded in widespread popular support in their communites. … Widespread, and getting wider.)

Further in the article, Baker continues:

The common critique of US foreign policy these past few years has been that it was insufficiently multilateral. That if only the US would work a bit more with the French and the Russians, be a little bit warmer to the Palestinians, sign up to international treaties, say nice things about the United Nations, the world would be a much safer and calmer place.

I always found that a slightly old-fashioned critique. The events of September 11, taken together with the other, steadily escalating acts of terrorism committed against the West in the past 30 years, required a radical new departure for the international system. Preventing the lunatics from blowing us all to the hereafter was going to require that the US, the only country with the power to stop it, break a bit of crockery.

And through the rest of the piece to the end:

… [T]he US could take the risk of alienating the world and discarding international law only if its leadership was going to be effective …. [I]t went all mushy and multilateralist …. [T]the world’s only superpower,… pinned down like Gulliver, tormented by an army of fundamentalist Lilliputians. … I don’t truly see how the failings in the Middle East could have been avoided by Washington’s being nicer to foreigners. What’s been missing is resolute leadership.

He starts with a different fallacy in that section. Russia has as much “power” to blow things up as the US. Russia, China, and India have plenty of men under arms. Europe, Japan, China, India, and Brazil have plenty of economic power, and enough, if they worked together, to force action even from the US.

So, no, the US is not the only country with the power to stop it. The US is the single largest concentration of power, and the US has the easiest time exercising that power. But using that fact as a reason for inaction, especially on the part of a European, is pathetic. Europe definitely had enough power, in any sense of the word, to get in there and start cleaning the kitchen. Of course, now that the US has tipped a pig’s breakfast onto the floor, I can see where the Europeans might want us to clean up our own mess first, but that’s a different matter than saying the US is the only country with the power to do anything.

Otherwise, it’s the same fallacy repeated. “Breaking crockery” will prevent “lunatics.” It might, or it might not. It depends on the relationship between the crockery and the lunatics. Since in actual fact the relationship seems to be that lunatics feed on broken crockery, this is one more example of dreaming that force will solve something because it feels so good.

“Effective” (read “strong”) leadership is useless if the strength is applied to bashing your head against a wall that you’re building yourself.

“Pinned down like Gulliver.” Of course they’re pinned down. The intelligent application of strength wins every time.

“I don’t truly see how” anything could be solved by “being nicer to foreigners.” Well, the British could have not invaded Iraq for its oil at the beginning of the First World War. The CIA could have not overthrown democratically elected Mossadegh and installed the Shah in 1953. The US could be not supporting totalitarian, torturing dictators in Saudi Arabia. Little things like that.

The core problem of terrorism is the lunatics. Removing what they feed on by paying the price of real human rights is part of the solution. Another equally difficult and unglamorous part is recognizing that the specific lunacy in question, fundamentalism, is everywhere. It is used by politicians to gain power everywhere, and has the same effect everywhere. Fundamentalism spreads intolerance, which ends in killing, wherever it goes. We need to deal with the theocrats–our own as well as everyone else’s. It’s the separation of religion and state we need to achieve–in our own governments as well as others’.

Nobody wants to hear that. It’s much easier to blow things up.


Baker ends with this, which is wrong on every level.

“It is hard for me to recall a time when the world was such a scary place.” Balderdash. I remember all too well those years and years when the whole world could have been obliterated in half an hour. The whole world. The entire planet. The only thing that comes close for scariness is global warming.

Then: “No one should rejoice at America’s weakness. The world is scarier still because of it.” I don’t know about that. If the US is going to be a pro-torture country that detains people without trial, it can’t get weak enough for me. The US has some distance to go before becoming a global dictator, but dictators are preferable only to total destruction. Those are not our only choices.

Aug. 22, 2006 Tom Tomorrow says it much better.

    Print This Post Print This Post

Cure for terrorism? Islamic law for women

This is down there with “Attack Iraq because of terrorists in Afghanistan.”

A headline today in the UK newspaper Independent:
Let us adopt Islamic family law to curb extremists, Muslims tell Kelly.”

Dr Syed Aziz Pasha, secretary general of the Union of Muslim Organisations of the UK and Ireland, said he had asked for holidays to mark Muslim festivals and Islamic laws to cover family affairs which would apply only to Muslims.

Dr Pasha said he was not seeking sharia law for criminal offences but he said Muslim communities in Britain should be able to operate Islamic codes for marriage and family life.

Ri-i-ight. I’ve noticed the problem too. It’s all the young men running around without their veils on. And the wild girls: don’t get me started. They come under bad influences, and the next thing you know, they’re carrying blow-your-socks-off-red lipstick on to airplanes.

The application of a bit of Muslim family law should sort that right out.

Update, Aug. 21, 2006
British Muslim MP, Shahid Malik, says the same, more elegantly.

As I have repeatedly said, in this world of indiscriminate terrorist bombings, where Muslims are just as likely to be the victims of terrorism as other British and US citizens, we Muslims have an equal stake in fighting extremism.

When Lord Ahmed, the Muslim Labour peer, heard my comments — I said essentially that if Muslims wanted sharia they should go and live somewhere where they have it — he accused me of doing the BNP’s work. He is entitled to his opinion. However, a little honesty, like mine, in this whole debate might just restore trust in politicians and ease the population’s anxieties.

[earlier in the piece] …given that these [terrorist] acts are carried out in the name of our religion — Islam — we have a greater responsibility not merely to condemn but to confront the extremists.

I don’t know about “greater” responsibility, but certainly as much. And confronting extremism, rather than aiding and abetting it, might be worth a try, perhaps, bizarre as it sounds.

    Print This Post Print This Post

AOL: get out of my underwear drawer!

There’s a big flap, as there should be, over AOL releasing information about searches that is detailed enough to identify individuals. Google says they’d never, ever, ever do something like that. Sure, they could, but they wouldn’t. Honest.

On the other side are privacy advocates saying all this information needs to be safeguarded by neutral third parties. Or someone trustworthy. Or something.

Let’s step back a moment, and think about why search information needs to be saved. It’s not to help you recover lost searches which you forgot to back up. It’s not to help scientists discover the Grand Unified Theory of Information. Searches are saved so that the search engine can target ads more precisely. Precise targeting allows the search company to charge more for ad placement.

We’re supposed to live under a constant spiritual colonoscopy, as it were, so that Google can make money.

I don’t think so.

Privacy should not be the last priority. Marketing should not be the first. It’s way past time for legislation that puts those two in their proper relationship.

    Print This Post Print This Post

The government is not just in Washington

The Cheney Administration’s policies affect all of us all the time. I know that. But it feels different when it’s personal.

I lead a sheltered life, there’s no question about that. Anyone who looks at my flickr photo set, which swaps in and out on this blog, can see just how sheltered it is. But the first faint corrosions of the zone of destruction are starting to touch even me.

One of my in-laws has led a long and full life, and has reached the age where her bones are not so much bones as a loose aggregation of calcium and hope. Without her regular dose of Fosamax, she can (and does) develop hairline fractures just from walking. Fosamax is expensive. The new prescription drug bill is so useless that it is still considerably cheaper for her to buy the medicine in Canada, as she’s been doing for years. The Fosamax sold in Canada–at least the stuff she’s been getting–is shipped there from New Jersey and repackaged for the Canadian market.

A few weeks ago, suddenly her Fosamax didn’t arrive. After some flapping around, it emerged that US Customs had intercepted this package of illegal drugs. They just stopped the shipment. They didn’t do anything, at least not so’s any of us noticed, to make sure that patients didn’t get sick or die because of their actions. Except for the fact that nobody showed up in a bulletproof vest to throw this white-haired lady in the slammer, she might as well have been sneaking heroin into the country.

If globalization is such a good thing, why is it bad for her to buy drugs from Canada? One argument the congressional stooges of the pharmaceutical industry have made is that nobody except the US knows how to make safe drugs. Even granting that ridiculous proposition, why are drugs that are good enough for New Jersey not good enough for the rest of us?

It’s obvious to everybody by now (it is, isn’t it?) that the purpose of the prescription drug bill was purely to protect corporate profits. That can actually be a legitimate goal. A noncompetitive industry, in the strict economic sense, may have so much social value that it’s worth subsidizing. Japanese rice growers and Swiss milk farmers come to mind.

The US pharmaceutical industry doesn’t fit the paradigm in any way, shape, or form. It has had the highest profits in recent years of just about any sector except oil. (Speaking as a sheltered person who owns drug stocks, trust me on this.) Drug execs keep pissing and moaning about research and development costs. The lion’s share of R&D that’s not a sure thing is paid out of government grants. A lot of drug company-funded R&D involves stuff like figuring out ways to repackage patented drugs and extend the patent just before it runs out. The really big costs for drug companies are advertising. You know what? I have a real hard time feeling sorry for the poor drug giants creaking under their huge burdens.

But I am furious on a whole deeper level, now that the cruelty of protecting vast profits has hurt a friend of mine.

The other faint touch of corrosion involves Iraq. Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I’m anguished about everything that US policies cause in the Middle East. Everything.

Well, a couple of years ago I met a young man, a buddy of a relative. He’s a friendly guy with a blond buzz cut, a quick smile, and a roll-on-the-floor sense of what’s funny. He’d qualified as a school teacher by entering the Reserve and using some of their programs that help people better themselves. When I met him, he’d been teaching school (I think it was third grade) for a few years, was married, and had young children. He’s not stupid. The minute the Shrub got elected selected in 2000, he got out of the Reserve.

You know where this is headed. He got called up. Under emergency regulations of some kind of other, that can happen any time for five years after you get out. With a few weeks left to go on his five years, he got called up. He’s driving one of those insufficiently armored targets on the Baghdad Road right now. He’d been doing it for way too long, and was due to go home August 1st. A few days before that, Rumsfeld decided that those particular pawns had to stay in his hellish game for another four months. I think they got four days’ notice. I guess cannon fodder doesn’t need weeks or months to make arrangements for the rest of its life.

You’ll notice that another four months keeps the troops there till December first, and after whatever it is that happens in early November. No doubt, when someone was figuring out how many US soldiers had to stay so that a few thousand could be brought home for the TV cameras in, say, September or October, somebody suddenly saw they’d be a few thousand short.

So now my friend is still driving on the Baghdad Road.

I wonder if he ever has that great big blue-eyed smile any more. Maybe when he talks to his family now and again. Although, if he’s anything like me, talking to his family will just make it hurt more. All I can say is that he hasn’t been killed yet. I hope to God it stays that way.

    Print This Post Print This Post

trying out Picasa’s upload

flamingo searching for something good (This is me, trying out the “blogthis” button on Google’s Picasa Posted by Picasa.

For those who care about this sort of thing: the “img src” points to the file on my actual computer. Seems a bit braindead, since personal computers get turned off. What were they thinking?)

update after posting: no, the photo is on Not sure if I’m happy about Google uploading it without telling me first where it plans to put it. What if they changed their copyright policies and I wanted to remove it? Hmph. Grump.

Update after transferring to wordpress: The photo on blogger seems to have vaporized. So much for that. Instead, [No, now it’s back. You’ll notice I haven’t used Google’s “service” since this first try….] … enjoy the tawny frogmouth chick by Morgana on Barbelith.
tawny frogmouth chick.  Photographer: Morgana

    Print This Post Print This Post