Sunday, November 30, 2008

Quote Of The Day

This quote of the day comes from Jill at Brilliant At Breakfast:

This [YouTube video] comes to us via the inimitable Driftglass, and as you watch these bozos giggling at Peter Schiff like Maureen Dowd making fun of Barack Obama, you understand why the word "douchenozzle" was coined.

Let's resolve for 2009 to never, ever listen to conservative economists ever again

I'm still trying to figure out how to use "douchenozzle" in a sentence. Using it again in connection with conservative economists seems not only repetitive, but redundant as well.


You Don't See This Every Day

You don't see this every day, at least you don't see it in America:

Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil has submitted his resignation taking "moral responsibility" for the Mumbai attacks that killed nearly 200 people.

The move comes amid growing pressure on the Indian government to explain why it was unable to prevent the strikes.

There is no word on whether Mr Patil's resignation has been accepted.

Minister 'quits' over Mumbai attacks

Contrast this with the Bush Administration, which was caught with its pants down on 9/11. No one resigned or even apologized. No one resigned in protest over the decision to invade Iraq, and it took Rumsfeld several years to resign after the utter failure of his strategy there.

Yet in India, a public official offers to resign for making a comparatively minor mistake.

Makes you wonder what continent the "Land Of The Brave" is located on, doesn't it?


To Mark The Passing Of Events

Philosopher and sometime baseball player Yogi Berra is alleged to have once described time as "what keeps everything from happening all at once". As with many of his utterances, this one is as elegant a description as anything people with PhDs could come up with. The guys with PhDs would probably say that time is the passing of events, which is just another way of saying that it keeps things from happening all together.

We mark the passing of time with clocks. Clocks, of course, mark the passing of events that we know take a certain amount of time. Whether those events are the rising and setting of the Sun, the phases of the Moon, the swing of a pendulum of a particular length in Earth's gravity, or the vibration of an atom of a particular element, clocks record them and keep track of them. Through trial and error, and the gradually more sophisticated understanding of physics, our ways of measuring time have become both more accurate and more convenient.

The first events we humans almost certainly learned to record and associate with the passing of other events were the movements of the Sun and Moon. The Sun, of course, rises and sets 365 days a year. To know what a year is, though, we need to remember what a year is, which is the passing of all four seasons. Ancient people learned that the seasons were cyclical, and thus learned to mark time by their passing so that they could migrate to areas that were best for hunter-gatherers at that time of year, or plant crops once they formed agrarian societies.

For agrarian societies, these clocks often were built of stones that were placed in particular arrangements, or marked in particular places that would indicate when the Sun or Moon had reached a crucial phase. Often, these phases were solstices or equinoxes.

Image credit: Crystalinks.

This stone, the Intihuatana Stone in Machu Pichu, Peru, is an example of such a clock. It is pointed in the direction of the Sun on the winter solstice.




Interestingly, even longer events can be clocked, as the U.S. Geological Survey points out:

Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

In 1962, scientists of the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office prepared a report summarizing available information on the magnetic stripes mapped for the volcanic rocks making up the ocean floor. After digesting the data in this report, along with other information, two young British geologists, Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews, and also Lawrence Morley of the Canadian Geological Survey, suspected that the magnetic pattern was no accident. In 1963, they hypothesized that the magnetic striping was produced by repeated reversals of the Earth's magnetic field, not as earlier thought, by changes in intensity of the magnetic field or by other causes. Field reversals had already been demonstrated for magnetic rocks on the continents, and a logical next step was to see if these continental magnetic reversals might be correlated in geologic time with the oceanic magnetic striping. About the same time as these exciting discoveries were being made on the ocean floor, new techniques for determining the geologic ages of rocks ("dating") were also developing rapidly.

Magnetic stripes and isotopic clocks

Even the direction of magnetic north changes over time, sometimes dramatically. That's some comfort considering the times we're living through these days. Nothing is forever.



Another form of the passing of events is the passing of a volume of water through a standard-sized hole in a container. While modern fluid dynamics can predict how such things will work, at the time water clocks were first invented, the clocks were probably tuned using the brute force of trial and error:

Image credit: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Water clocks were among the earliest timekeepers that didn't depend on the observation of celestial bodies. One of the oldest was found in the tomb of Amenhotep I, buried around 1500 B.C. Later named clepsydras (“water thief”) by the Greeks, who began using them about 325 B.C., these were stone vessels with sloping sides that allowed water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. Other clepsydras were cylindrical or bowl-shaped containers designed to slowly fill with water coming in at a constant rate. Markings on the inside surfaces measured the passage of “hours” as the water level reached them. These clocks were used to determine hours at night, but may have been used in daylight as well. Another version consisted of a metal bowl with a hole in the bottom; when placed in a container of water the bowl would fill and sink in a certain time. These were still in use in North Africa this century.

Water Clocks


Some water clocks were, to say the least, a great deal more elaborate. This huge water clock was used by Chinese royalty in the 11th Century:


Image credit: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)


One of the most elaborate clock towers was built by Su Sung and his associates in 1088 CE. Su Sung's mechanism incorporated a water-driven escapement invented about 725 CE. The Su Sung clock tower, over 30 feet tall, possessed a bronze power-driven armillary sphere for observations, an automatically rotating celestial globe, and five front panels with doors that permitted the viewing of changing manikins which rang bells or gongs, and held tablets indicating the hour or other special times of the day.

NIST: Early Clocks

And I thought GPS was complicated...

Of course, water clocks do have their drawbacks. One obvious one is that they require lots of maintenance. When you're a despot, this isn't much of a problem. Heads could quite literally roll if things aren't up to snuff. For ordinary citizens, labor relations were more complicated, even in the good old days of slavery. In addition, water has an effect on its container. Over time, it can wear holes, soften or corrode containers, evaporate, and spill. This latter property made them particularly difficult to use on ships. For these and other reasons, pendulum clocks became much more popular:

The pendulum clock was invented and patented by Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1657, inspired by investigations of pendulums by Galileo Galilei beginning around 1602. Galileo discovered the key property that makes pendulums useful timekeepers: isochronism, which means that the period of swing of a pendulum is approximately the same for different sized swings. Galileo had the idea for a pendulum clock in 1637, partly constructed by his son in 1649, but neither lived to finish it. The introduction of the pendulum, the first harmonic oscillator used in timekeeping, increased the accuracy of clocks enormously, from about 15 minutes per day to 15 seconds per day leading to their rapid spread as existing clocks were retrofitted with pendulums.

Wikipedia: Pendulum Clock

With care, these clocks could be used on board ships, where they were used to determine the longitude of the ship's location. In the 18th Century, the British empire announced a reward for a clock design that could be carried on board their ships. This is the inspiration for the movie Longitude.

This is an illustration of Huygen's second design:

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.


The second pendulum clock built by Christiaan Huygens, inventor of the pendulum clock, around 1658. Drawing is from his treatise Horologium Oscillatorium, published 1673, Paris, and it records improvements to the mechanism that Huygens had illustrated in the 1658 publication of his invention, titled Horologium. It is a weight driven clock (the weight chain is removed) with a verge escapement (K,L), with the 1 second pendulum (X) suspended on a cord (V). The large metal plate (T) in front of the pendulum cord is the first illustration of Huygens' 'cycloidal cheeks', an attempt to improve accuracy by forcing the pendulum to follow a cycloidal path, making its swing isochronous. Huygens claimed it achieved an accuracy of 10 seconds per day. Each gear is labeled with the number of teeth it has. Alterations to image: Cropped out figure number, converted to 32 color PNG.

Labeled parts: (A) front plate, (B) back plate, (C) minute wheel, (D) weight chain pulley, (E) third wheel pinion, (F) third wheel, (G) third (seconds) wheel, (H) contrate wheel, (I) crown wheel pinion, (K) crown wheel, (L) pallets, (M) verge, (N,P) verge supports, (Q,R) crown wheel shaft supports, (S) crutch, (T) cycloidal cheeks, (V) pendulum rod, suspended from two cords hidden behind cycloidal cheeks, (X) pendulum bob, (Y) hour hand, (Z,λ) second hand (ζ) hour wheel (Δ) rate adjustment weight.

Wikipedia: Huygens Clock

What makes pendulum clocks so handy is that the period of a clock swing depends only on its length. This makes the timing extremely predictable. Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is the equation that predicts that period (T0):



The 'l' in that equation stands for the length of the pendulum, and 'g' is the force of gravity. The bit on the right means that we're assuming that the arc the pendulum travels is considerably less than a full circle. Pretty simple, isn't it? Of course, nearly all materials that a pendulum could be made out of stretch or deform in some way under stress, and gravity isn't the same everywhere, even on Earth. So pendulums can only be so accurate.

For real accuracy, you need an atomic clock.

One important aspect of the Global Positioning System's operation is knowing exactly what the time is, down to the nanosecond. Thanks to atomic clocks, the GPS satellites know where they are, much as the mariners of the 18th Century.


image credit: U.S. Naval Observatory

This is one such atomic clock. The U.S. Naval Observatory describes it thus:

USNO Cesium Clocks

Most of the Observatory's cesium clocks are model HP5071A, made by Agilent Technologies, Inc. of Santa Clara, California. With an improved cesium tube and new microprocessor- controlled servo loops, the 5071A vastly outperforms the earlier 5061 cesium frequency standards. The Naval Observatory 5071A's feature HP's optional high-performance cesium beam tube, with accuracy 1 part in 10E12, frequency stability 8 parts in 10 to the 14th, and a time domain stability of < 2 parts in 10 to the 14th with an averaging time of 5 days. Other companies that produce cesium clocks include Datum, Inc. of Beverly, MA and Frequency Electronics, Inc. of Uniondale, NY.

Cesium Atoms at Work

It's your tax dollars at work, and working pretty well, I might add.

Your tax dollars have also been at work developing this, courtesy of the NIST:


Image credit: NIST

This is a "chip scale" atomic clock introduced by the NIST back in 2004. "Chip scale" means it's about the size of a typical integrated circuit. Someday, you may have one in your house and you'll never have to set the thing again (as long as you remember to change the batteries, of course):

The heart of a minuscule atomic clock—believed to be 100 times smaller than any other atomic clock—has been demonstrated by scientists at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), opening the door to atomically precise timekeeping in portable, battery-powered devices for secure wireless communications, more precise navigation and other applications.

Described in the Aug. 30, 2004, issue of Applied Physics Letters, the clock’s inner workings are about the size of a grain of rice (1.5 millimeters on a side and 4 millimeters high), consume less than 75 thousandths of a watt (enabling the clock to be operated on batteries) and are stable to one part in 10 billion, equivalent to gaining or losing just one second every 300 years.

In addition, this “physics package” could be fabricated and assembled on semiconductor wafers using existing techniques for making micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), offering the potential for low-cost mass production of an atomic clock about the size of a computer chip and permitting easy integration with other electronics. Eventually, the physics package will be integrated with an external oscillator and control circuitry into a finished clock about 1 cubic centimeter in size.

NIST Unveils Chip-Scale Atomic Clock

Some of your tax dollars really are spent well. How does it work? Well, like this:

The new clock is based on the same general idea as other atomic clocks such as the NIST-F1 fountain clock—measuring time by the natural vibrations of cesium atoms, at 9.2 billion “ticks” per second—but uses a different design. In the chip-scale clock, cesium vapor is confined in a sealed cell and probed with light from an equally small infrared laser, which generates two electromagnetic fields. The difference in frequency of these two fields is tuned until it equals the difference between two energy levels of the atoms. The atoms then enter a “dark state” in which they stop absorbing and emitting light; this point defines the natural resonance frequency of cesium. An external oscillator, such as quartz crystal like those found in wristwatches, then can be stabilized against this standard.

The important point is that the resonant frequency is a well-known physical constant, and once it's reached that frequency, it will tend to stay there.

The NIST Small Clock program is continuing to refine this design, and maybe we'll start seeing products based on this technology in a few years.

We've come a long way in the last few thousand years when it comes to measuring time. Maybe some day our descendants will be as amazed that we tried to mark the passing of events with atomic clocks as we are that our ancestors once tried to keep rocks pointed in the right direction. The only thing we can be assured of is that they will be able to do it better than we.

NOTE: Those of you who think you recognize some parts of this article may be right. Some of the text of this article is taken from a series of articles on the Scooter Libby trial that I wrote in 2007.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Murder In Mumbai

Image credit: CIA World Factbook.

[Updated on Nov. 30]

Like many people, I'm fascinated and appalled at the events that have just recently ended in Mumbai, India. The attacks seem to have been carried out by a dozen or so people, who apparently arrived by sea. Foreigners, particularly Americans, Britons, and Israelis were singled out as targets or hostages. Two Canadians were killed as well. The raiders were well-armed and clearly had some training. Beyond that, I don't think much can be said until events are reconstructed later.

Outside The Beltway writer Dave Schuler observes:

This wasn’t the same as a suicide bomber blowing him- or herself up in a crowded marketplace. That could have been achieved at a fraction of the cost of this particular set of attacks. These attacks had planning and coordination; the young men who forced their way into some of Mumbai’s fanciest hotels and restaurants had received a level of training and preparation. That incurs a cost; such resources are too valuable just to throw away.

I have no more explanation than anybody else and can only offer a handful of guesses. It may have been a probing attack. If that’s the case Mumbai can expect more such attacks and soon, indeed, I would have already expected a followup.

Terrorist Rampage Ended in Mumbai

I don't know why there'd be an immediate followup. They might need to find a different way to get into Mumbai in the future, or not. In any event, there are very few entities that can just whistle up a ride for a dozen armed men into a possibly foreign city any time it wants. We know who most of them are already, as the New York Times reports:

Officials in Washington said Friday that there was no evidence that the Pakistani government had any role in the attacks. But if evidence were to emerge that the operation had been planned and directed from within Pakistan, that would certainly further escalate tensions between India and Pakistan, bitter, nuclear-armed rivals. It could also provoke an Indian military response, even strikes against militants’ training camps.

U.S. Intelligence Focuses on Pakistani Group

Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) is certainly a suspect. Pakistan's longstanding conflict with India over the Kashmir region has been the genesis for much of the terrorism in that region. The Federation of American Scientists observe:

Critics of the ISI say that it has become a state within a state, answerable neither to the leadership of the army, nor to the President or the Prime Minister. The result is there has been no real supervision of the ISI, and corruption, narcotics, and big money have all come into play, further complicating the political scenario. Drug money was used by ISI to finance not only the Afghanistan war, but also the ongoing proxy war against India in Kashmir and Northeast India.

...

The oldest and most widely known militant organization, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), spearheaded the movement for an independent Kashmir. This group declared a cease-fire in 1994. The most powerful of the pro-Pakistani groups is the Hezb-ul-Mujahedin. The other major groups are Harakat-ul Ansar, a group which reportedly has a large number of non-Kashmiris in it, Al Umar, Al Barq, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Lashkar-e Toiba, which is also made up largely of fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of these militants were trained in Afghanistan, where several ISI agents were killed during U.S. air strikes in 1998 against terrorist training camps. Since the defeat of the Taliban, militant training camps have moved to Pakistani Kashmir.

Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI]

[bold emphasis mine].
In short, these guys have been really busy fomenting terrorism in that part of the world. Lashkar-e Taiba is considered the most likely organization to have carried out this raid. Taylor Marsh's observation:

With Lashkar's stunning coordination (assuming the reports to date are correct), the scope and targeting of these bombings elevated India's quiet terrorism challenge to the front pages everywhere. It's one reason why the 9/11 comparison is so apt. Like the once sleeping U.S., India's financial mecca was hit to such devastating proportions as to change the perception of the country, awakening the world to the scope of her enemies, as well as the wider horror revealed. That this trio country region [Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India], so to speak, with all its dangers, including Kashmir, can no longer be ignored as simply tribal areas, border disputes and separate missions. They are one.

India: Anatomy of a Calculated Hit

rings true with me, as it seems to with Patrick Lang and Juan Cole as well. This region has been volatile for a long time. It is only now that we are starting to pay attention. India is the world's second largest country, and its twelfth-ranked economy (as of 2007). Its future is in many respects intertwined with our own, particularly since it is the world's largest democracy. Since India's future is intertwined with its two troubled neighbors, this makes it axiomatic that they, too, are going to require more of our, and the rest of the world's, attention in the future.

UPDATE (Nov. 30): The Guardian's William Dalrymple provides a fascinating look at the tie between the conflict over Kashmir and this week's attacks in Mumbai:

If Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is the most emotive issue for Muslims in the Middle East, then India's treatment of the people of Kashmir plays a similar role among South-Asian Muslims. At the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the state should logically have gone to Pakistan. However, the pro-Indian sympathies of the state's Hindu Maharajah, as well as the Kashmiri origins of the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, led to the state passing instead to India - on the condition that the Kashmiris retained a degree of autonomy.

Successive Indian governments, however, refused to honour their constitutional commitments to the state. The referendum, promised by Nehru at the UN, on whether the state would remain part of India, was never held. Following the shameless rigging of the 1987 local elections, Kashmiri leaders went underground. Soon after, bombings and assassination began, assisted by Pakistan's ISI which ramped up the conflict by sending over the border thousands of heavily armed jihadis.

Mumbai atrocities highlight need for solution in Kashmir

It's well worth a read, I think. (h/t: Lotus)


Friday, November 28, 2008

Puppets Of Big Science

The Rant Puppets on Jenny McCarthy's jihad against vaccines: I admire stalwart, resolute determination in the face of information that says you are completely wrong.

Of course, there are quite a few other whackos out there pontificating about vaccines causing autism, including one U.S. Represenative, but none have quite the bustline Ms. McCarthy does. Thus, both they and their well-deserved ridicule are largely under the radar. To be ridiculed by puppets, you have to have some serious visibility.


Benin Needs My Help

This is an image of 500 and 1000 Franc notes from Benin. My collection of international currency will apparently be growing again. Image credit: NAM News Network.












My e-mail account received another message of hope and avarice today:

I have a new email address!

You can now email me at: madamgsolo1@noemail.com.invalid


- My Dearest In Christ Jesus, Good day to you.Please use this money for the churches and less privileged.Greetings to you and your family in the name of God.In my search for a reliable and God fearing person and having gotten your contact through prayers and painstaking efforts I have decided to seek your help in carrying out my last wishes.My name is Mrs.Grace Solo . I'm 48 years old woman and from Benin Republic. I was a Merchant and owned two businesses in Dubai and Idia. I was also married with two children. My husband and two children died in a car accident a year and half now.Before this happened, my business and concern for making money was all I live for. I never really cared about other values in life. But since the loss of my family, I have found a new desire to assist helpless families,I have been helping orphans in orphanage/motherless homes.I have also donated some money for humanitarian needs in Sudan, South Africa,China, Brazil, Spain, Austria, Germany and some Asian countries like Indonesia. Only recently I saw on television the colossal loss of properties and livelihood people in China,Canberra, Australia ,Indonesia and USA through fire and earthquake.I was moving with great pity and compassion that I decided to make this contribution on assisting people over there, I kept US$45 Million United States Dollars in a long-term deposit account in a Finance company here In Benin Republic.Presently, I'm in a hospital where I have been undergoing treatment for oesophagi cancer at Bright Life Memorial Hospital Benin Republic and my doctors have told me that I have only few months to live but am still praying to our God Almighty in heaven for his intervention towards my health conditions now.It is my last wish to see this money distributed to victims of the fire outbreak in Australia and other charity organization all over the world as soon as you got the above fund into your care as Relatives and friends have plundered so much of my wealth since my illness since i stay in the hospital. I cannot live with the agony entrusting this huge responsibility to any of them.Please,I beg you in the name of God to help me collect the deposit and distributes it accordingly. Use your judgment to distribute the money and keep 15% of it to yourself. Feel free to reimburse yourself when you have the money for any cost you incur during the process of collecting and distributing the money.Please If you are willing to help me out,reply me as soon as possible with this E-Mail: mrsgracesolo@ubbi.com or mrsgracesolo@walla.com . May the good lord bless you and your Family.Regards, Madam Grace Solo.

You're on my To Do list, Madam Grace, but right now I'm really busy helping out the Japanese banking system. One crisis at a time is about all I can handle.

[Yes, yet another e-mail to an obviously fictional Internet persona requesting assistance with a cash transfer. You have to admire their persistence.]

UPDATE: I have removed the sender's e-mail address. While I'm pretty sure it's the real address of this scam artist, I'm not completely sure.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Like Sacks Of Wet Cement"

Image credit: Screenshot of WKRP In Cincinnati by Cujo359. The producers and writers of this show are in no way responsible for this article.

The usual crowd of idiots are wondering what atheists could have to be thankful for, what with us not having a god to thank and all. To understand what at least some of us are thankful for, one merely has to watch an old TV show's Thanksgiving episode.

One of my favorite holiday TV episodes is WKRP In Cincinnati's "Turkeys Away". In this episode Mr. Carlson, the bumbler who owns the radio station, decides that he needs to take a more active role in running it. One of his decisions is to promote the station by dropping turkeys from a helicopter onto a crowd of shoppers. Carlson, sadly, is too ignorant to know that turkeys can't fly. Les Nessman, the station's news anchor, is an unfortunate witness to the results. "The turkeys are hitting the pavement like sacks of wet cement", he tells the station's no doubt horrified listeners.

Here's what I'm thankful for today. In a couple of months, our country will no longer be led by someone who makes Carlson look like a Rhodes Scholar. I'm tired of being dropped from a helicopter, as is much of the country. Bush has done his best to make the rest of us as ignorant and clueless as he is. Sadly, that's about the only accomplishment he can point to.

Whatever Barack Obama turns out to be, he'll almost certainly be an improvement. President Bush cannot leave office too soon, as far as I'm concerned.

As for the dipsticks who assume that non-theists have nothing to be thankful for, you need to develop an imagination. We have friends, family, and a world that is often beautiful and wondrous. We don't need to pretend someone made all that to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving. For all of you who aren't Americans, happy Thursday.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Good Idea, Pending Implementation

Image credit: Ann Erickson for the U.S. Army. The caption for this photo reads:

Purple Heart recipients Staff Sgt. Cypress Phipps, Staff Sgt. Michael Henning and Spc. David Talbot sing the 'Dog Face Soldier Song' during their Purple Heart ceremony, Nov. 20 at Winn Army Community Hospital. Phipps, Henning and Talbot were assigned to a 3rd ID unit at the time of their injuries and are now assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion.


One of my local newspapers, the Tacoma News Tribune, featured an article today on a visit by the Secretary of the Army to Ft. Lewis:

Secretary of the Army Pete Geren reached into the inside pocket of his sport coat and pulled out four blue notecards.

The palm-sized cards were filled with comments soldiers had made to him: praise of resources for injured and wounded soldiers, complaints about the slow-moving bureaucracy that determines if a soldier is medically fit for duty.

Such feedback doesn’t always make it back to the Pentagon, Geren admits. Listening to real-world concerns of soldiers is one reason he tours Army installations around the world, including a stop Tuesday at Fort Lewis.

“There are a lot of filters between individual soldiers and the office of the Secretary of the Army – or anybody at the Pentagon,” he said. “Every trip is a chance to hear first-hand from soldiers: How are we supporting them? Are they getting what they need?”

Army Boss Fears From Fort Lewis' Hurt Warriors

Geren was visiting the Warrior Transition Battalion there, which is a unit made up of soldiers who are recovering from wounds or post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). Warrior Transition Units were set up by the Army this year to help soldiers recover and return either to their regular duties or to civilian life:

The Army is ready to launch a new phase in caring for wounded warriors, the assistant surgeon general for warrior care and transition told Soldiers and Army Civilians during an Army Leader Forum at the Pentagon Tuesday.

Brig. Gen. Mike Tucker announced that the Comprehensive Care Plan is scheduled to begin March 1, and will focus on healing the whole person - body, mind, heart and spirit - and not just physical well-being.

The program will include educational, vocational and life-skills development, leadership and mentoring, relationship coaching and behavior-health treatment in addition to medical treatment and physical and occupational therapy.

...

"We want them to return to duty or return to be a citizen in society and be successful and be proud of their service," he said. "If we're not careful, we'll raise a generation, 10-15 years from now, that will be panhandling because they don't have any life skills.

"It's important that we give these kids life skills. They all want to be something in life, other than what they are right now. They have to aspire. We have to allow them to achieve all they can be and provide them the structure at a time in their lives when they need it the most."

Army to Launch New Program for Wounded Warriors

As I've noted before, treatment ideas, particularly for PTSD, have changed quite a bit since the Second World War. This program makes it the soldiers' duty to recover, and assigns specific tasks for them to do that are designed to accomplish that goal. Occupational therapy, I suppose you could call it, combined with other forms. Soldiers, at least in my experience, are people who want to feel like they're making a contribution to their group. In such units they will be around other people who are in similar circumstances, which can make it easier to empathize with and support each other. So this sort of unit seems to me like a good idea.

Unfortunately, good ideas encounter plenty of hurdles in the Defense Department. The TNT article continues:

Geren talked to five soldiers participating in a weekly woodworking course, which helps relieve stress brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder. Staff Sgt. Irma Proffitt, who’s been in a medical holding unit since 2006, showed off her wood carvings of bears.

She used her time with Geren to voice concern about the staffing levels of clinical providers – a doctor, a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant – assigned to the battalion.

“We need more for the WTB,” said Proffitt, who’s been in the Army for 23 years. “We’re a big battalion and we’re going to grow. We need more” primary care managers.

Geren listened and asked a few more questions. Once he moved into another room, he asked Maj. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the commanding general of Madigan Army Medical Center, about Proffitt’s complaints.

Horoho said four clinical providers were assigned to the 512 soldiers of the Warrior Transition Battalion, which is better than the 1-to-200 ratio goal.

“I think it’s just a misperception on her part,” Horoho said.

Army Boss Fears From Fort Lewis' Hurt Warriors

This is a disheartening exchange for several reasons. First, there's the rather obvious issue of getting a bureaucratic response to a statement of a problem - the unit needs to grow, but there isn't enough care being provided. The response, that they already have more than their allocation, ought to be enough to give a thoughtful person pause: Are there really enough resources being allocated? A ratio of 200 (potential) patients to 1 caregiver sounds like an awfully large one to me. Let's face it, anyone who is wounded or injured is a potential PTSD sufferer. Even if only the physical injuries are of concern, that's a lot of people to keep track of. Many of these soldiers are young men in their late teens or early twenties - not the most self-aware population when it comes to taking care of themselves.

This is how good ideas can be lost in a bureaucracy. The resources are allocated per our direction, bureaucrats will say, what's the problem? Any process, whether it's intelligence, science, engineering, or caregiving, requires constant review to see if it's being done as well as it can. Directives aren't commandments from some deity, they are created based on a perception of need and the resources available. Such perceptions can be, and often are, wrong.

I give the Army and Secretary Geren major props for implementing this idea. I just hope it's not lost in a fog of bureaucratic rationalization.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another Good Day

Image credit: National Archives This is the Constitution. It got a bit of a break from the beating it's been taking lately.




Via Glenn Greenwald, this is what Barack Obama's intelligence advisor John Brennan wrote in a letter to Obama that was released today:

John Brennan, President-elect Barack Obama's top adviser on intelligence, took his name out of the running Tuesday for any intelligence position in the new administration.

Brennan wrote in a Nov. 25 letter to Obama that he did not want to be a distraction. His potential appointment has raised a firestorm in liberal blogs that associate him with the Bush administration's interrogation, detention and rendition policies.

Brennan out of running for top intel post

According to the IHT article, this is part of Brennan's letter:

"The fact that I was not involved in the decisionmaking process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored," he wrote in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. "Indeed, my criticism of these policies within government circles was the reason why I was twice considered for more senior-level positions in the current administration only to be rebuffed by the White House."

Brennan out of running for top intel post

In all likelihood, he was asked to remove himself from consideration. As Glenn observes, it seems clear that Brennan is in excuse-making mode:

Brennan's self-defense here is quite disingenuous. Whether he "was involved in the decision-making process for any of these controversial policies" is not and never was the issue. Rather, as I documented at length when I first wrote about Brennan, he was an ardent supporter of those policies, including "enhanced interrogation techniques" and rendition, both of which he said he was intimately familiar with as a result of his CIA position. As virtually everyone who opposed his nomination made clear -- Andrew Sullivan, Digby, Cenk Uygur, Big Tent Democrat and others -- that is why he was so unacceptable.

Exceptional news: John Brennan won't be CIA Director or DNI

[links and emphasis from original]

"Others" would include yours truly, by the way.

This is good news on two fronts, I think. First, the obvious one is that John Brennan, an apologist for both the rendition and torture of people from around the world without the consent or acquiescence of their own governments, and the telecom immunity debacle, will not be running the agencies most responsible for those travesties. Second, and perhaps as importantly, this indicates that progressive blogs can have an influence on this President. I don't for a moment think that he will always take us seriously, but he's at least susceptible to persuasion if we're vocal and united enough.

So today was a good day. Enjoy the rest of it.


Monday, November 24, 2008

I Wish I Knew More About Banks

[Image credit: Banking decision aid from Carroll College, Montana.]


You're in a business where people say to you "Here's my money. You hold onto it until I need it. In the meantime, do whatever you want with it." How can you fail at this? And yet, so many are:

Stocks surged today as investors cheered a bailout of Citigroup, one of the country's largest banks, and a proposed economic stimulus package that could near $700 billion.

...

Investors received a boost from a government plan announced late yesterday to protect Citigroup against potential losses on a $306 billion pool of troubled assets and invest another $20 billion in the company.

Stocks Rise on Citigroup Bailout Plan

Once again, we taxpayers get stuck with a bunch of bad loans and $20 billion in a stock that seems determined to drop to the center of the planet. If that were all of it, I guess I'd stop bitching right now. But wait, there's more:

Citigroup’s problems have been thinly veiled, given the tap dance the bank and regulators performed in an effort to keep the New York bank’s purchase of Wachovia on track even after a private buyer, Wells Fargo, stepped forward with a higher price as part of an offer that didn’t require assistance from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Citi was also seen by some as the major bank needing government help when the Treasury Department debuted a program in which it required nine major banks to accept direct government investments in their companies.

Citigroup’s Government Rescue Signals Depth of Banking Woes

That's right - this nearly-insolvent bank was trying to buy another one, even though it needed assistance from the government to do it. Now, remember when I wrote that it seems like this is a difficult business to fail in? One way to do it is to throw your customers' money down a rat hole. This is, it would seem, what Citibank was trying to do. Why the government was going to let this go through, given that there was a better offer from a more solvent bank remains a mystery.

Oh, wait, it isn't such a mystery:

Wachovia Corp., a once-thriving financial giant now teetering on the brink of collapse, confirmed today that it was extending an $8 million loan to the cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee for last-minute activities to support GOP House candidates.

Investigation: Wachovia's $8 million bailout to the GOP

This failing bank was willing to make a loan to a failing political party. Looks to me like putting those two together would be a match made in heaven.

So, on the one hand examples like this of how free enterprise works make me think that people who like to talk about socialism and how awful it would be if the banks were run by the government are somewhere between idiotic and crazy. On the other, I think maybe they have a point.

UPDATE: Over at FireDogLake, Ian Welsh, who knows a thing or two about banks, wrote:

The rule here continues to be the same as it has been throughout this crisis: the people who caused the crisis must be left in charge of the organizations, the executive class running financial institutions must not be significantly harmed.

Because these folks are not competent, this is clearly the wrong decision, yet again. If they were capable of managing Citigroup properly, they would have done so. They didn't because they aren't able to do so. The correct decision is to simply nationalize the firm and replace the key executives. Then, in the case of Citigroup, which is too large to be effectively managed, it should be broken up.

Citigroup bailout: leaving the incompetents in charge

This strikes me as the central tragedy of all this - so far we have not really changed things in a way that makes it unlikely this will happen again. What's more, we have rewarded failure.


In The News

Oh, my god, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt are eloping. I had no idea. Part of the reason is that I have no idea who Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt are. Yet their alleged elopement is the big news at Google News right now. I can't decide whether it's sadder that I don't know who these apparently important people are, or that this is considered headline news.

Yes, I know, I could do an Internet search and find out who they are, but I don't care.

Oh, wait, I can decide. It's sadder that this is considered important news.

I don't know what this says about America. We certainly have better things to be concerned with. I suppose one could say the same thing about sports, that it's a form of entertainment, but even as a form of entertainment this strikes me as pretty lame.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Greenwald On Obama's Cabinet

Glenn Greenwald tries to explain things today to progressives:

I've been genuinely mystified by the disappointment and surprise being expressed by many liberals over the fact that Obama's most significant appointments thus far are composed of pure Beltway establishment figures drawn from the center-right of the Democratic Party and, probably once he names his Defense Secretary and CIA Director, even from the Bush administration -- but not from the Left.

Progressive complaints about Obama's appointments

He goes on to explain, rightly, that Obama is a centrist both by demeanor and political stance. Anyone who was actually paying attention would have known that. Most of the rest of the Democratic challengers, except for Richardson and Gravel, were more progressive than Obama. As Glenn observes, many progressives just saw what they wanted to see.

So, if you're at all surprised by what's going on, do yourself a favor and read the article. While you're doing it, contemplate these words that I wrote many months ago:

I'm going to give you some of the best advice you've ever read about politics. It requires effort. You have to learn things. You have to check out what politicians say, and you have to check out what people who say things about those politicians are saying. No one speaks the truth all the time, even those of us who try. Sometimes, we're wrong. Find out what the facts are, and then figure out who knows what the facts really are and how to interpret them.

The Price Of Freedom

A great many people in the "reality based community" simply didn't do their homework. Needless to say I don't find this shocking. It is discouraging, though. We don't have the money, so we need to be smarter than The Other Guys. Right now, I don't see us being any smarter.


Sad Irony On SOFA

Juan Cole reports that:

The Iraqi parliament has postponed its vote on the proposed US-Iraq security pact from Monday to Wednesday. MPs had complained that there were not given enough time to study its provisions. It is still not clear how the Sunni Arab MPs will vote; without their support, the agreement would likely be seen as a joint Shiite-Kurdish conspiracy.

SOFA Vote Set for Wednesday

What's sadly ironic is that in a country that, depending on one's point of view, is either a country struggling to become a democracy, a puppet of the United States, or a heinous dictatorship of the future, the national legislature is ratifying this treaty. They're actually complaining that they haven't had time to study the treaty. In contrast, President Bush has told Congress this treaty is none of it's business, and it seems likely to do nothing other than call a hearing.

Makes you wonder which country is having a harder struggle with democracy right now, doesn't it?


Friday, November 21, 2008

Sad News From Down South

Lotus, who started and has been running Folo after starting it a little over a year ago, is leaving the blog at least temporarily. Her co-blogger NMC will be taking over the reins in the meantime.

So long Flowah, and try to come back soon, OK?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Not The Bad Idea It Might Seem

[According to Wikipedia, this is the Trinity explosion 0.016 seconds after ignition. Image credit Los Alamos National Laboratory (via Wikipedia).]

I got a chuckle out of this article by Michael Shermer in Scientific American:

There are certain characters in science who stand out for their larger-than-science characteristics: Galileo and his conflicts with Papal authorities; Albert Einstein and his political dabblings and pacifist overtures; Richard Feynman and his safecracking, storytelling antics; Stephen Hawking and his ethereal brain trapped in a frozen body. Biographies, documentaries, films, and even plays have attempted to capture the essence of these giants (see QED, for example, the play starring Alan Alda as Feynman). But to my knowledge, none have had an opera produced in their likeness.

Enter Doctor Atomic, a look at the meaning behind the making of the atomic bomb from the perspective of its paterfamilias J. Robert Oppenheimer and his disparate struggles: with nature to reveal her secrets, with his conscious to ease his guilt. He also struggles with General Leslie R. Groves, the titular military head of the Manhattan Project, and with fellow physicist and future father of the H-Bomb, Edward Teller.

Oppenheimer the Opera: A review of Doctor Atomic

That's right, someone made an opera out of a bunch of scientists and engineers building a highly explosive technological gizmo out in the desert. As daft as this idea sounds, apparently it turned out to be a good one:

If you’ve not experienced an opera in modern English, it takes some getting used to. Mundane conversations take on significance when set in a foreign language, but lose that here. The gravitas of this opera, however, is in the haunting music, the dramatic sets, and especially in the subject matter itself, for seemingly commonplace dialogue is rapidly elevated when the topic is whether uranium or plutonium will kill the most people. The libretto, in fact, was pieced together from numerous historical sources, including Edward Teller’s Memoirs, historian Ferenc Szasz’s The Day the Sun Rose Twice, Robert Norris’s Racing for the Bomb, and others. When Doctor Atomic lets us in on conversations that the Los Alamos scientists had about the possibility that the test shot might set the atmosphere on fire, and gambled on the TNT equivalency of the bomb, we are listening in on history itself.

Oppenheimer the Opera: A review of Doctor Atomic

You have to admit, it's a story with some drama all right. They were literally talking about, and betting on, end of the world stuff out there at Los Alamos. I'm glad no one offered me a bet on whether an opera about it would flop or not, though. I would have bet wrong.

Oppenheimer is one of the great personal stories of our time. He was a brilliant physicist, of course. He was troubled by the implications of the weapon he was developing, but as an ethnic Jew whose parents immigrated from Germany, he had reason to hope that the Allies would develop an A-bomb before the Nazis did. After the war was over, he refused to support further research into atomic weaponry:

After the war, Oppenheimer was appointed Chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), serving from 1947 to 1952. It was in this role that he voiced strong opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1953, at the height of U.S. anticommunist feeling, Oppenheimer was accused of having communist sympathies, and his security clearance was taken away. The scientific community, with few exceptions, was deeply shocked by the decision of the AEC. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to redress these injustices by honoring Oppenheimer with the Atomic Energy Commission's prestigious Enrico Fermi Award.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904 - 1967)

Oppenheimer didn't limit his intellectual pursuits to physics and nuclear engineering. He learned Sanskrit, I read long ago, simply for the sake of learning the language. It was he who quoted the Bhagavad Gita at the Trinity test:

Recalling the scene, Oppenheimer said: "A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. There floated through my mind a line from the "Bhagavad-Gita" in which Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty: "I am become death: the destroyer of worlds."

American Experience: Race For The Superbomb


He died at a relatively young age. It's hard to know whether the pressures of building the bomb, his guilt over his role in that effort, or his subsequent persecution contributed to his early death. They certainly could have. In any event, I suppose if there were an American scientist about whom an opera could be written, it would be he.

UPDATE (Nov. 23): Dana Hunter has linked to a couple of YouTube videos from Doctor Atomic in this article.


Honoring The Memory

Image credit: The Naval Aviation Museum The caption for this picture reads:

No longer able to fight the enemy with bombs and missiles, these men were instead forced to wage war on other fronts. They endured miserable living conditions and resisted sadistic torture employed against them by the North Vietnamese in attempts to gain confessions of war crimes or break their spirit.

A lifetime ago, American pilots were sent to bomb North Vietnam as part of the Vietnam War. Some were shot down and captured. They endured years of captivity under some of the most horrible conditions imaginable. Like the current residents of Guantanamo Bay, they couldn't be sure if they'd ever leave.

Over at FireDogLake, Chacounne, also known as Heather, has written this:

As some of you know, my husband, Dan, was Vietnam vet who, I believe with all my heart, was a POW who was tortured by his North Vietnamese captors.

When he got back to the United States, doctors removed his toenails three times, in an attempt to irradicate the bamboo poisoning from where they had inflicted pain to try to get him to tell them the information he wanted. He never got a full night's sleep and his screams still haunt my nights. On the nights he didn't scream, sometimes he would be speaking Vietnamese, urgently pleading with someone. There was never enough food in the house to fill the psychological hole left by the food deprivation he had suffered. This became an especially large hole when he ended up on dialysis for the last two years of his life.

On June 12th, 2005, Dan had a heart attack and didn't come back, but he left me a legacy to fulfill.

When I see photographs or read news from Guantanamo Bay, or Abu Ghraib, or the dark sites around the world, all I see is my Dan naked and curled in a crumpled ball on the floor of a dirt cell, bloody and bruised and broken, incoherent with hunger and exhausted with sleep deprivation, unable to tell his family or his country where he is.

I cannot let torture be the law, policy and practice of the United States without standing up as strongly as I know how, in Dan's name. It is NOT what Dan fought for! It is NOT what Dan gave his physical health for! It is NOT what Dan gave his mental health for!

A Humble Invitation: Speaking at Harvard Against Torture

It shames me to think my country has come to this, and that it continues to elect politicians who won't put a stop to it.

Heather's been out there doing something about it, though, as have many good people in this country. She'll be speaking at Harvard University on November 24, 2008. If you can be there, pop on over to her article at FireDogLake and give her a shout.

UPDATE (Nov. 22): In case you're just finding this article today, Heather left a comment at the FDL link where the meeting will be:

The group is called:
The Anti-Torture Group of the Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights. We’ll be in Pound Hall, room 332.

If you can be there, introduce yourself, and tell her I said hi.


What About This Surprises You?

Joe Lieberman kept the job he wanted today. He is, once again, the completely useless chairman of the committee that oversees the largely useless Department of Homeland Security.

Chris Cilliza observes:

Asked what it would mean if Lieberman kept his chairmanship, one Senate Democratic aide said bluntly: "The left has been foiled again. They can rant and rage but they still do not put the fear into folks to actually change their votes. Their influence would be in question."

The Lieberman Vote: What It Means and Why

That's it in a nutshell. We don't have the power to hurt them, so they don't care. I've made this observation for years, only to be met by some variation of "we don't want to waste our votes" or "it's too close right now". And yet, each time, as a group we only realize belatedly, and dimly, that none of it got us anything. Given the chance, the Democrats in Congress will urinate on us until their bladders are drained, and then go out for an extra large coffee.

Here's what we have to do, liberals. We have to be willing to vote strategically. Target one of these assholes, or several. Make them pay with their jobs, even if it means replacing them with Republicans. Until you prove that you can hurt them, these people will never respect you. They only respect power, and right now we haven't got any. That's why they piss on us and kiss up to the G.O.P. even though what those people have done to the country is the last things most Americans want any more of for a while.

I'm just going to keep repeating this message until you get it. I'm tired of losing, even after seemingly winning. When you decide you're tired of it, too, get back to me.

Meanwhile, I'm done with more useless pledges. When you're really willing to get rid of some of these assclowns, I'll be there. Until then, I'm sure there's something else I can be doing with my time.


Monday, November 17, 2008

Mr. President-Elect, A Word?

Image credit: Good Housekeeping, who are in no way responsible for this article.

When I wrote this open letter, I really wasn't excusing the sort of lapses I was afraid you might be capable of. What I was doing was trying to get you to do the right thing. I think maybe you didn't get that message:

It's just a fact that there are all sorts of people close to Obama who have enabled those Bush policies and who are mobilizing now and attempting to ensure that nothing meaningful occurs in these areas. It simply is noteworthy of comment and cause for concern -- though far from conclusive about what Obama will do -- that Obama's transition chief for intelligence policy, John Brennan, was an ardent supporter of torture and one of the most emphatic advocates of FISA expansions and telecom immunity. It would be foolish in the extreme to ignore that and to just adopt the attitude that we should all wait quietly with our hands politely folded for the new President to unveil his decisions before deciding that we should speak up or do anything.

The Democrats of 2002 and 2007 Haven't Gone Anywhere

[my emphasis]

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out in a later article, John Brennan has spent much of the last four years justifying the rendition policies of the Bush Administration. You might say he's one of the reasons we no longer call it extraordinary rendition. It's a normal way to do business now. He has also cooked the books for them, as Larry Johnson pointed out in this 2005 article from the Counterterrorism Blog:

Brennan asks the media and the American people to believe that the rise in attacks is simply the result of better counting by more people. Not true. An independent data source from RAND-MIPT shows a similar dramatic rise in attacks and deaths. This is not an artifice of methodology. Something bad is going on out there.

Two countries account for a major portion of the increased terrorist activity—the Kashmir region of India and Iraq. With respect to Kashmir it is important to note that since 1998 this area has consistently appeared in the appendix in Patterns of Global Terrorism that described significant incidents. I have used this data in briefing for foreign governments during that period to point out that not only was India being repeatedly attacked by Islamic jihadists (who were funded and trained by Pakistan), but that the people of Kashmir repeatedly suffered one of the highest death tolls of any country in the world from terrorist attacks. The sad fact is that media, and to a lesser extent the U.S. Government, tended to ignore these attacks.

Terrorism: Why The Numbers Matter

The article sounds technical and somewhat opinionated (this is probably the least opinionated excerpt of this size I could have drawn from it), but the basic point is that Brennan tried to make it seem as though the rising terrorism in the world was some sort of statistical glitch, not the trend it actually was.

Brennan has been one of your advisers for some time. He's mentioned in this article as being part of the Obama foreign policy team back in May.

There are several people on that list whose past work I could take issue with, like Anthony "Rwanda, where's that?" Lake and Susan "I hear they have nice hotels" Rice. But few of them would countenance an illegal practice that spirited other countries' citizens away to be tortured, nor would they lie to defend the record of an administration that was actually not doing a good job of fighting the thing it was saying it was fighting.

Yet, you not only hired this guy, you have now put him in charge of transitioning that intelligence community to a new administration. What on earth are you thinking?

I'll tell you what I'd be thinking if I were a foreigner observing our country's behavior over the last eight years, and then watching as you name an apologist for that behavior to fill a key position on your team. I'd be wondering what happened to the country that practically invented the idea that murder and torture weren't OK even in a war. If I were a citizen of Japan or Germany, I'd be wondering what happened to the country that held the Tokyo and Nuremberg trials, and in so doing removed many of the criminals and sadists from my governments. Mostly, though, I'd be wondering this:

Are you crazy?

We've just seen one of the ugliest periods in our history. It's a time when we said it was OK to kidnap an innocent citizen of our closest neighbor and turn him over to be tortured by another government for ten months:

Mr. Arar’s case attracted considerable attention in Canada, where critics viewed it as an example of the excesses of the campaign against terror that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. The practice of rendition has caused an outcry from human rights organizations as “outsourcing torture,” because suspects often have been taken to countries where brutal treatment of prisoners is routine.

Canadians Fault U.S. for Its Role in Torture Case

Right now, I think most Canadians assume this was just the action of an out-of-control President, not the sort of thing that they can expect from us as a matter of routine. Do you really think that will still be true if you hire the apologist for that decision as part of your administration?

It's also been a time when the government did this to its own citizens and neither you nor the rest of the Democratic Party raised so much as a whimper. How long do you think it's going to be before we're so afraid of our own government that we decide "why should I support these assholes? At least the Republicans are honest about wanting to screw up the country."

So, are we clear now? I sure hope so, because as crusty as it is, this is the better side of my personality. The other side? We don't want to go there.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Militant Atheism

Updated Nov. 14

There's been lots of discusion about "militant atheism" of late. Much of it, of course, is from the sorts of religious fanatics who want to make the world in their narrow-minded image. Others, unfortunately, have a different reason. In an interview promoting his recent book I Don't Believe In Atheists, Chris Hedges said:

In May of 2007 I went to L.A. to debate Sam Harris, and then two days later I went to San Francisco to debate Christopher Hitchens. Up until that point, I hadn't paid much attention to the work of the New Atheists. After reading what they had written and walking away from these debates, I was appalled at how what they had done for the secular left was to embrace the same kind of bigotry and chauvinism and intolerance that marks the radical Christian right. I found that in many ways they were little more than secular fundamentalists.

I Don't Believe In Atheists

I haven't read much of Sam Harris' work. I'm familiar enough with Hitchens to know that the guy is an opinionated jerk. I've read enough of Richard Dawkins, the biologist whom Hedges lumps in with these two, to know that he is not. Hedges' first mistake is simply lumping all these people together, but it's worse than that:

[Salon:] So you think that Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are just shills for a neocon agenda?

[Hedges:] Well, Dawkins is a little different, because he's British. But looking at our own homegrown version of new atheism, yes. Hitchens and Harris do for the neocon agenda in a secular way what the religious right does in a so-called religious way.

I Don't Believe In Atheists

Dawkins isn't different because he's a scientist or because it's just his way, it's because he's British. Now who's being a bigot?

Ironically, in The God Delusion, Dawkins compared the tenor of his criticism of religion with the tenor of restaurant critics. People who find Dawkins strident need to check out some food columns.

What's worse, neither Hitchens nor Dawkins are actually trying to impose their point of view on their society. What they're trying to do is express theirs, and point out why much of what religious people believe about both their religions and themselves isn't necessarily true. To equate that with the people who insist that this is a "Christian nation", and that anyone who doesn't believe in their religion should sit down and shut up is absurd.

OK, so maybe Hedges isn't such a great spokesman for this great "middle ground" in the struggle between religious fanatics and non-believers. Over at En Tequila Es Verdad, commenter Progressive Conservative gave it a try:

'Liberal atheist blogs' ?

I wasn't aware you were so militant in your atheism that you added it to the description of your blog Dana. If so, that's unfortunate because it's such a waste of time. Why not stick to politics where you might actually be able to make some progress? If you or 'Woozle' got the impression that I care about your atheist leanings, go back and re-read my comments. I'm no defender of Christianity. I'm just someone who dislike evangelism from religious folks AND atheists.

Comment on: Break Out the Bubbly! Barack Did It!

In a way, it's odd that I'm even writing about this, because I've never been an "evangelist" for atheism. To me, it's boring to discuss things I don't believe in, or think are so preposterous that I can't think of a good reason why anyone would believe in them. Nevertheless, I find myself talking and writing about it anyway. Here's why:


[image credit McHenry County Blog]


[image credit: leisamarie]


[image credit: Journeyman at Just Passing Through]

In a country where much of the population seems to insist on telling you about their religion and why you should believe in it, discussion is inevitable. By Hedges' and PC's standards, the folks who put up these signs are "militants". To me, they're just outspoken, at least as long as they limit themselves to friendly persuasion.

Sadly, many folks don't limit themselves to friendly persuasion. There are Christians in this country who genuinely deserve the term "militant". Here's one such individual:

I think they missed the point of the outrage. Losing Labor Day as a holiday was not the issue that infuriated Americans nationwide. It was instead the catering to Muslims.

This is America, a Judeo-Christian nation. Why should any employer accommodate the religious preferences of Muslims? If these Muslims are not content with the American holidays that their employers offer, they are free to go back to whatever Muslim nation they came from. And you know what, we won’t miss them or their whining for Islamic religious rights or all their lawsuits.

Tyson Foods Reinstates Labor Day for Employees

My preference is that there are no religious holidays, but I'm reasonably sure that as long as people enjoy Christmas (and the winter solstice) as much as they do, that's not going to happen. On the other hand, I think that if Muslims are willing to exchange one of the standard holidays for one that they really want to celebrate, then their companies should try to accommodate them somehow. That doesn't seem like too much to ask. Society isn't going to break down if two percent of the population are on holiday for a day while the rest of us are working. Yet this clown takes offense at such a notion to the point where he demands that they go back "where they came from" if they don't like the way Christians are running things.

These aren't just isolated nut cases. The First Amendment Center notes:

Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the nation's founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation, according to the “State of the First Amendment 2007” national survey released Sept. 11 by the First Amendment Center.

'07 Survey Shows Americans' Views Mixed On Basic Freedoms

One of the things this poll demonstrates is that the majority of Americans have little or no idea what their Constitution says. The other thing it demonstrates is that the idea that the rest of us are not really full-fledged Americans is a popular one. President George H.W. Bush is on record as having said so about atheists.

Dana Hunter has a good list of reasons why we argue so vociferously at times with some of the Christians around us:

We atheists can't ignore religion and let you go on about your worship for a simple reason: your religion impacts us. It threatens us, and it often harms us. We can't live quietly in a world full of religion because religion won't let us.

Deeply devout Christians believe they have a mandate from God to tell me what I can do with my body. They believe they should be able to control my reproductive choices. Not only do they believe their morality dictates whether I can or cannot have an abortion if such becomes necessary, but they believe they have the right to deny me access to birth control. They believe they can tell me whom I can and cannot marry. They believe I must believe the way they do in matters of sexuality, and if I disagree, they believe they have the right to force my compliance. They are trying to get laws passed that will limit my access to birth control, abortion, and marriage. Religion threatens me as a woman, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Deeply devout Christians believe God has told them all they ever need to know about science. They are actively trying to introduce creationism into science class under a number of guises - Intelligent Design and "teach the controversy" are great favorites just now, and when those are defeated, they'll come up with other euphemisms. I have no children, and I graduated from school a long time ago, so you might think this isn't my battle to fight. But it is. All of modern medicine is based on the proven theory of evolution. Without a thorough understanding of evolution, students can't go on to become medical researchers who will find breakthrough cures for the diseases that will destroy my mind and body. And it's not just that. Science underpins everything in our lives: the energy that powers my appliances, the computer I'm writing on, the phone I call my mother with, and endless other examples. If Americans allow religion to water down science, we will no longer be on the cutting edge of science. Our economy and quality of life will suffer the consequences. Religion threatens me as a beneficiary of science, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Deeply devout Christians believe they know what is morally pleasing to God. They believe God tells them what music is appropriate to listen to, what books are appropriate to read, movies to watch, and themes to explore in art. They launch crusades to censor things they find morally offensive. They constantly try to craft legislation that will defeat the First Amendment in order that things offensive to them cannot be created. Religion threatens me as an artist, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Progress Report: Ooouuuucccchhhh

People who tell us that they know how we should live our lives, and can't offer more than a 2,000-plus year-old religious text as justification ought to expect hostility. Of course, just about anyone stupid enough to try probably isn't smart enough to know that, either.

It's not intolerance to tell people who think of you as a second-class citizen to shove their attitudes. It's refusing to be marginalized.

It's not bigotry to point out that the only two places the Constitution mentions religion is to say that there will be no requirement to belong to a particular religion, and that Congress can't make laws establishing a religion or limiting peoples' choices regarding religion. It's calling stupidity and ignorance for what it is.

So, if you don't like how "militant" atheists sound when we talk to you, it probably means you need to learn what you're talking about, or consider how it would feel if you were in the minority.

UPDATE: Added the longish quote from Dana Hunter, because it fits in so well here. She's listed many of the reasons we sound hostile when discussing religion.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Love This Picture

I wish I'd found this picture on Veterans' Day.

UPDATE: I love this one, too. Watertiger has an eye for comedy.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans' Day


This is the Canadian cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer. It holds some of the dead from one country in one battle of the Second World War. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

It's November 11, or 11/11, which is an easy date to remember. It was first celebrated in 1918, when the guns fell silent in Europe on what would come to be known as Armistice Day. It ended what was, at least up until that time, the worst war Western civilization had ever fought. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson announced that World War I would be the "war to end all wars". If his optimism had been justified, that's what we'd still be calling this day. No doubt, we'd be sadly shaking our heads at the folly and the sad, futile loss of life in some event from long ago.

Instead, we now call the day Veteran's Day. In Canada and much of the English Commonwealth, it's now Remembrance Day, and in much of the West it has similar names. The changes of name reflect the fact that we've fought an even more destructive war since then, and many more before and after.

At his blog Sic Semper Tyrannis today, Patrick Lang quoted this bit of dark humor from a Captain Wilfred Owen, who served in the British Army in World War I:

For 14 hours yesterday, I was at work-teaching Christ to lift his cross by the numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.

Veteran's Day - "Only the dead..."

Capt. Owen died a week before the Armistice. John Kerry's words before Congress during the Vietnam War are as sadly relevant to that long-gone war as they are today:

How Do You Ask a Man to be the Last Man to Die for a Mistake?

How do we ask anyone to die for a mistake, once we realize we've made one? Clearly, wars can't be gotten out of as easily as they were gotten into. That's fairly obvious - the "war to end all wars" is a classic example of that fact. Still, you have to ask yourself why, thirty years later, Kerry didn't heed his own words when it was his turn to decide whether another generation of American kids should go to war. In the end, Kerry at least tried to stop the madness. There are plenty of worthless bastards, on both sides of the aisle, who did precisely nothing to stop this thing. They acted as if it was some terrible burden to risk political repercussions to stop a foolish war.

I wish they'd take a hard look at this cemetery and tell me who is bearing the real burden.

It's a day to remember our veterans, and thank the ones who are still alive to thank. It's also a day to remember the ones who now need our help. But I'd like to ask one more thing of all Americans. Please, the next time some "leader" insists that we must go to war against some enemy who hasn't attacked us, and who seems to represent little real threat, can we ask them "Why?" As in, "Why do we need to risk the lives of our soldiers in some place we've never heard of, so they can kill people they have no argument with? Why must we believe you without you having presented a shred of real proof?" And if the answer is "We know more than you do. Trust us.", tell them "Go down to Arlington - find the biggest, tallest flagpole there, and fuck yourself with it."

That's how I'd like to see us celebrate Veterans' Day. With a little well-placed skepticism.

UPDATE: Bob Geiger adds this thought: Don't pretend to "support the troops" and then refuse to support the G.I. Bill. (h/t Eli)