Saturday, May 30, 2009

It's That Time Again

I'll be on the road again for a while, so posting here will be even spottier than usual for the next two weeks.

funny pictures of dogs with captions
Image credit: I Has A Hot Dog

Try to stay out of trouble.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Drill, Baby, Drill

Image credit: Lionel Trains

Looks like I'll be getting into the oil business, at least in a financial sense:

From: Ahmed Idris [Add to Address Book]
To: undisclosed-recipients@null, null@null
Date: May 27, 2009 9:25 AM

Attn Sir I'm Ahmed Idris, a representative of ExxonMobil in London ( I have a sensitive and private brief from the Senior Executives of this top oil company in need of your partnership to re-profile funds amounting to US$18M (Eighteen Million United States Dollars).

I will let you have the details, but in summary, the fund would be paid to you through a Finance Company where it is presently deposited as soon as the filing and documentation process is concluded in your name.

This is a legitimate transaction without government interference and you shall be compensated with 20% of the total sum, should you and your company agrees to work with us?. If you are interested, please reply back to me via this email for further details.

Dr Ahmed Idris

I don't know much about the oil business, but apparently that's not a problem. Hey, it's a tough economy right now, so I'm sure it's hard to find qualified applicants.

As usual, the sender e-mail address has been obscured, since I have no idea whose address that is. It's unlikely that the scammers are using one of their real names. The address is the one in the Reply To field of the e-mail, so I'd say it could legitimately be said that it belongs to the scammers.

Of course, it's unlikely in the extreme that Exxon Mobil has anything to do with this. Lionel is not in any way connected with this article, either, except for having a picture of a cute little toy oil derrick on the Internet.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Could We Move This Industry To China?

With the announcement of Judge Sonia Sotomayor yesterday as President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, the usual nonsense has started in earnest regarding her qualifications. As SCOTUS Blog points out:

The attacks are inevitable and tremendously regrettable, just as they were for Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. A cottage industry – literally an industry, given the sums of money raised and spent – now exists in which the far left and right either brutalize or lionize the President’s nominees. Because the absence of controversy means bankruptcy, it has to be invented by both sides, whatever the cost to the nominee personally and to the integrity of the judiciary nationally.

The Dynamic of the Nomination of Sonia Sotomayor

It's hard to imagine a cottage industry that's been less productive. How many Supreme Court nominees have been blocked by them? I can only think of two offhand - Harriet Meiers and Robert Bork. Since Bork's nomination was withdrawn back in the '80s, there have been nearly an entire Supreme Court's worth of people nominated and confirmed. The best you can say about this industry is that it makes Presidents vet their nominees more thoroughly.

That doesn't stop them from trying to prove their worth, though. The right-wing portion of this industry are already pumping out nonsense about Sotomayor. Here's an example, helpfully passed along by The Washington Times:

Three of the five majority opinions written by Judge Sotomayor for the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and reviewed by the Supreme Court were reversed, providing a potent line of attack raised by opponents Tuesday after President Obama announced he will nominate the 54-year-old Hispanic woman to the high court.

"Her high reversal rate alone should be enough for us to pause and take a good look at her record. Frankly, it is the Senates duty to do so," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America.

Sotomayor Reversed 60% By High Court

As someone noted in the part of this article that most people don't bother to read, this is an absurd argument. Sotomayor has been part of 380 decisions in the court of appeals. That translates to a reversal rate of less than one percent, if you want to get pseudo-technical. What's more, the rate at which her decisions would be reversed at a fairly high rate are obvious, once you think about them:

* The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) chooses to hear cases or leave them unchallenged. If they hear them, it's much more likely that some of the justices, at least, have a problem with the decision. Note that the sixty percent figure the article mentions are for those SCOTUS actually chose to hear.

* SCOTUS is now stacked with conservatives. A moderate or liberal judge, and surely Sotomayor belongs to one of those two categories, would be more likely reversed than a conservative one.

All this is pretty obvious, but you can bet that 60 percent figure will be bandied about quite a bit.

As you might imagine, Glenn Greenwald has made a number of observations about Sotomayor in the last two days. After quoting conservative Justice Sam Alito's testimony before the Senate at length, he goes on to observe:

Anyone who is objecting now to Sotomayor's alleged "empathy" problem but who supported Sam Alito and never objected to this sort of thing ought to have their motives questioned (and the same is true for someone who claims that a person who overcame great odds to graduate at the top of their class at Princeton, graduate Yale Law School, and then spent time as a prosecutor, corporate lawyer, district court judge and appellate court judge must have been chosen due to "identity politics"). And the idea that her decision in Ricci demonstrates some sort of radicalism -- when she was simply affirming the decision of a federal district judge, was part of a unanimous circuit panel in doing so, was supported by a majority of her fellow Circuit judges who refused to re-hear the case, and will, by all accounts, have at least several current Supreme Court Justices side with her -- is frivolous on its face.

Justice Sam Alito On Empathy And Judging

Let's ignore for the moment that Alito has displayed very little of that empathy on the bench so far. He said he thought it was a good thing to have. I'd say if anything, he and some others on the Supreme Court could use more empathy, not less. Still, there's the obvious hypocrisy just staring us in the face here.

One of the ironies of this situation is that I'm still not sure whether I like Sotomayor as a nominee. As Ian Welsh said yesterday, there are reasons for low expectations:

So, Obama has made his decision, and it’s Sotomayor. While my Hispanic acquaintances are all thrilled to bits, the fact of the matter is that she’s not much of a liberal. Like Obama, she’s a centrist. She will stand up for programs like affirmative action and will vote to keep Roe, which is good, but she won’t be anything special.

Sotomayor - Nothing Special, But Not Awful

So far, that's my expectation. Any reasoned look at Obama's decisions on the economy and health care would suggest that he's not going to buck corporate interests, particularly those of the country's financial institutions. I'd expect his first nominee to the Supreme Court to reflect at least some of those values. Still, I'd like to think that we're at least discussing issues like that. As both Greenwald and SCOTUS Blog pointed out, we don't know much about Sotomayor's views on the power of the executive. We don't know much about her views on government secrecy, either. Those are things that are important, yet we're discussing nonsense instead.

I think that this is one industry that I wouldn't mind seeing moved offshore.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Emptywheel Wins

It's a pleasure to discover journalists who actually studied when they were in school, instead of sleeping in preparation for gym class.

As Marcy Wheeler said today, there's at least one member of the mainstream press, Jay Newton-Small of Time, who can read and understand English:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had a tough week — much of it her own making. But in looking at the substance of the accusations, it increasingly looks like she was right. Porter Goss was careful to parse his words in the conditional future tense when talking about what, exactly, he and Pelosi were briefed on in September 2002[.]
Bob Graham, who was theoretically in the room with Shelby, says he has no recollection of the meeting at all – this from a man who famously details his every waking minute. Perhaps the most astonishing response has been from the CIA Director Leon Panetta, who basically said: Don't trust our records. Which begs the question: what other issues have they kept questionable records on?

Pelosi's Probably Right

[links from original]

That latter question is something I pointed out in detail a couple of weeks ago. The fact that this was an events list that was reconstructed, badly as it turns out, from classified notes and recollections of six years ago ought to have been a big red flag for journalists looking at this thing. Marcy Wheeler was one of the few to get that. She then did her usually thorough job of deconstructing it.

This sounds like a good reason to once again urge anyone who can to contribute to Firedoglake's effort to support Marcy's work. Give her what you'd pay for a newspaper for a year, if you want to think of it that way. I'd rather pay someone like Marcy to dig for the truth than to pay someone like my local paper to lie to me.

Your Daily Bit Of Satire

In case you haven't seen this at Dana's place, here's your bit of daily satire, courtesy of Vagabond Scholar:


WASHINGTON, DC – Seeking to quell fears of terrorists somehow breaking out of America's top-security prisons and wreaking havoc on the defenseless heartland, President Barack Obama moved quickly to announce an Anti-Terrorist Strike Force headed by veteran counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer and mutant superhero Wolverine. Already dubbed a "dream team," their appointment is seen by experts as a crucial step in reducing the mounting incidents of national conservatives and congressional Democrats crapping their pants.

"I believe a fictional threat is best met with decisive fictional force," explained President Obama. "Jack Bauer and Wolverine are among the very best we have when in comes to combating fantasy foes." Mr. Bauer said, "We're quite certain that our prisons are secure. Osama bin Laden and his agents wouldn't dare attempt a break-out, and would fail miserably if they tried. But I love this country. And should Lex Luthor, Magneto or the Loch Ness Monster attack, we'll be there to stop them."

Anti-Terrorist Fantasy Dream Team on the Case

As is no doubt obvious to anyone who's been reading here awhile, I love science fiction, and I'm fond of cartoons, as well as the occasional comic book. What seems to separate me from much of my country is that I realize that they're fiction. For instance:

* There's no such thing as warp drive. The most imaginative physicists of our time can't even come up with an idea of how it might work that doesn't involve black holes or other things that are equally impractical.

* There's no such thing as transporters (or transmats). Physicists will tell you they're impossible. Biologists' reaction will be similar to Dr. McCoy's. Doctor McCoy, by the way, is a fictional character.

* The Joker and The Riddler are fictional characters. People don't break out of jail whenever they feel the need to give Batman a bad day. Batman's not real, either.

* It's really hard to grade a multiple-choice question when you don't know the answer. That's why torturing someone for an answer is even less useful than trying to tempt him with cigarettes and coffee. At least with coffee and cigarettes, you don't have to waste time listening to the stuff they think you want to hear.

I can't decide what's sadder, that there seem to be quite a few people in America who honestly believe that kidnapping and torturing random foreigners is a good idea, or that they don't know the difference between fantasy and reality.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More Reason To Be Sad

In what's becoming something of a trend, yesterday Dan Froomkin joined the ranks of those who think that the Democratic leadership in the Senate is sorely in need of a backbone:

Here's one thing that hasn't changed in the Obama era: Republicans are still able to come up with scare tactics that turn Senate Democrats into a terrified and incoherent bunch of mewling babies.

It's hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the suggestion that bringing some of the terror suspects currently incarcerated in Guantanamo to high-security prisons in America will pose a threat to local communities.

It is nothing more than a bogeyman argument, easily refuted with a little common sense. (Isn't that what prisons are for?) But that's assuming you don't spend your every moment living in fear of Republican attack ads questioning your devotion to the security of the country. Or that you have a modicum of respect for the intelligence of the American public.

With Friends Like These

I have to hand it to Froomkin - he's been covering this stuff longer than I have and he can still muster up the outrage to write something like this. Me, I think I need a vacation. Either that, or some indication that the Democrats in the Senate aren't secretly sorry they can't crawl into their parents' beds at night.

Looking over the roll call of yesterday's vote on Guantanamo, I have no idea what was behind it. The usual stalwarts mostly voted for this amendment. My guess is that they were just so flummoxed by their leadership that they preferred to vote for this amendment instead of trying to get the right thing done. Or maybe they assumed we'd just deport these people back to wherever they came from.

In any event, it's a sad thing to realize that this group of people are responsible for creating our laws.

Some Of Us Aren't There Yet, But It's Time They Caught Up

(See Note)

One of the more interesting developments in science fiction television on the last few years has been the BBC series Torchwood. In many ways, it's been a ground breaker. Not the least of those ways is the lead character of the series, Captain Jack Harkness. Jack is in many ways a typical heroic character - strong, courageous, sympathetic, humane, and more than a little mysterious, but what sets him apart from most run of the mill heroic characters is that he is openly bisexual. What's more, Torchwood is often in your face sexual, so it's not just a case of a using a bit of dialog here and there to establish his sexuality.

The "Captain" part of the character's name comes from his status as a former Royal Air Force group captain, a senior rank equivalent to a U.S. Air Force colonel. He has had serious responsibilities, and it's clear that both his subordinates, and most people he encounters, respect him.

So what? It's a science fiction TV series, which means about fifty people with functioning brains watch it, right? That's probably true (well, a bit more than fifty, I suppose), but as part of the larger trend of acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGBT) people on TV it's significant. Jack Harkness is a heroic character, and the series makes no bones about that. It's taken for granted. In many ways, Western society has learned to accept LGBT people. There are openly gay and lesbian entertainers. A couple have their own talk shows. Tens of millions of Americans watch these people every day and think nothing of it. Most of us, if we just forget how things have been in the past, think there's nothing terribly remarkable about that.

Which makes this next story all the more remarkable to me. You could say it's a story about a real-life Jack Harkness, but instead of his being respected for who he is and what he's done, he's being drummed out of the military, because he's been exposed as gay. As quoted by Steve Benen, Rachel Maddow explains:

[Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach is] an F-15 fighter pilot, 18-year veteran of the United States Air Force," Rachel explained. "On Sept. 11, Lt. Col. Fehrenbach was picked to be part of the initial alert crew immediately after the 9/11 attacks. The following years, in 2002, he deployed to Kuwait, where he flew combat missions over Afghanistan, attacking Taliban and al Qaeda targets. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Lt. Col. Fehrenbach deployed there, flying combat missions in support of mission Iraqi Freedom.

Over the span of his career, he has flown 88 combat missions, including missions that were the longest mission sorties in the history of his squadron. He's logged more than 2,000 flying hours, nearly 1,500 fighting hours, 400 combat hours. Lt. Col. Fehrenbach is also highly decorated -- he's received nine air medals, including one for heroism. After 18 years of active duty in the Air Force, this experienced, decorated fighter pilot says he is ready and willing to deploy again. He's ready to do what his country and the United States Air Force ask of him.

Lt. Col. Fehrenbach

As Benen goes on to note, they're drumming him out while our military is involved in two wars, where his skills as an experienced fighter pilot could, presumably, come in handy.

To say this makes no sense is a vast understatement. The Air Force and other U.S. military services actively seek out these folks and discharge them. At the same time, the Army, in particular, has been, at least until the economy tanked, recruiting criminals and people with health problems to fill its ranks. LTC Fehrenbach is by no means the first highly skilled person the military have dismissed, either:

First Lt. Daniel Choi, 28, of New York City, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 2003 as an Arabic major and served as an interpreter in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He later left active duty and joined the New York Army National Guard.

Two months ago, Choi joined a West Point alumni group called Knights Out (West Point's mascot is the Black Knights) to advocate on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender soldiers and their right to openly serve their country. Choi came out as a gay man and began a media blitz against "don't ask, don't tell," the military policy that forbids homosexual service members from disclosing their sexual orientation or engaging in homosexual acts.

Choi's decision had a price. Just days ago, he received a discharge notice from the Army: "You admitted publicly that you are a homosexual," the letter said. "Your actions negatively affected the good order and discipline of the New York Army National Guard."

Choi said he will not resign, even if it ruins his chance for an honorable discharge.

"It's not honorable to hide. It's not honorable to lie," he said. "That's not what soldiers do. All I know is how to put up a good fight."

West Point Grad Targeted

Lt. Choi is fluent in Arabic, which is the language spoken by most of the people who live in Iraq. Arabic is one of the more difficult languages for English speakers to learn. Damn few of us speak it at all. Yet, once again, the military is trying to drum out someone with an extremely rare and valuable skill.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Obama Administration could put a stop to this right now:

A report issued last week by UC Santa Barbara's Palm Center research institute said Obama had the power to thwart the discharging of military personnel for their sexual orientation. Under the "stop-loss" provision, Obama can issue executive orders to retain any soldier deemed necessary to the service in a time of national emergency, the report said.

The president also could halt the work of Pentagon review panels that brand troops as gay and thus excluded from service, the report said. And Obama and his Defense secretary could revise discharge procedures, as allowed under the 1993 law banning gays in the military.

Obama In No Hurry To End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Neither of those steps is extraordinary, and both are well within the accepted prerogatives of the commander in chief. Yet this foolishness goes on. It's high time that those in our service who insist on living in the early Twentieth Century get with the program.

(h/t Dana Hunter)

NOTE: Torchwood is a copyrighted work of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC is in no way responsible for this article, nor did they approve it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Hubble Is Now Free

Atlantis's manipulator arm lifts the Hubble Space Telescope out of its cargo bay just prior to launching it into orbit. Image credit: NASA

Yesterday, the space shuttle Atlantis released the Hubble Space Telescope from its cargo bay, and set it on its way to make more observations of the universe:

Rejuvenated by hours of repairs in space, the Hubble Space Telescope floated out of shuttle Atlantis' cargo bay on Tuesday to reclaim its place as the world's flagship observatory for astronomical research.

Atlantis astronauts spent more than 36 hours over five marathon spacewalks to make upgrades and outfit Hubble with new instruments. These included a panchromatic wide-field camera that should be able to see objects formed just 500 million years after the universe's birth in the big bang explosion some 13.7 billion years ago.

Astronauts Release Hubble Telescope Back Into Space

This mission saw more than the usual run of difficult tasks. In particular, there were repairs done on two instruments that were never designed to be repaired in space:

The Atlantis crew completed everything NASA had planned, including the unprecedented repair of two science instruments not designed to be worked on in space. The astronauts, clad in bulky suits and gloves, sometimes struggled with the repair work, and were held up at times by stuck bolts.

Astronauts Release Hubble Telescope Back Into Space

Image credit:NASA, reduced by Cujo359

NASA engineers had to design a new power tool to effect some repairs on the HST:

Nothing in the astronaut’s regular tool kit could remove so many fasteners in a short time, Cassidy said. The pistol-grip tool, which is NASA’s version of a cordless drill, turns about 15 times a minute on the high side. It’s a staple for space construction, but could not do the job fast enough on the Hubble servicing flight. Engineers wanted at least 10 times that speed, but didn’t need the torque the pistol-grip tool generated.

"With these fasteners, you don’t need a really strong motor to break them free, but what you need is a really, really fast motor to be able to, basically like an Indy pit crew, to be able to buzz through all these fasteners in a very rapid succession of time," Cassidy said.

They also needed something to corral all the fasteners as they came loose. Otherwise, they might float into something critical inside the telescope and cause a problem.

It took four to five years to develop the mini power tool and the fastener capture plate, Cassidy said. The power tool spins at 210 revolutions per minute. The capture plate, meanwhile, was designed to work with the fastener tools and simply collects each fastener as it is removed.

Hubble Flight Tests Toolmakers

The HST will now have to be set up for several months before it can start making new observations:

While activities here in the [Space Telescope Operations Control Center] in support of the telescope and the space shuttle are nearing a conclusion, the science mission orbital verification work involving detailed checkouts, alignments and focusing of the new instruments is expected to take several months to complete.

Hubble scientists expect the first "new" images to be released in September.

Space Telescope Operations Control Center: Flight Day 8

For now, we'll have to do with the desktop backgrounds we already have ...

While this mission required tremendous planning and training to complete, it still serves to demonstrate what is possible for us to do in space, even with current technology. In a way, this is a sad occasion, since there will be no more shuttle missions to the HST. It's quite possible that there will be no more repair missions, since there are no other manned vehicles either in existence or in design that have anywhere near its capacity. That we haven't followed up with an improved space shuttle design by now, after more than twenty years, is a shame.

Another Golden Shower In DC

Glenn Greenwald provides a wonderful synopsis of the latest episode of pants pissing going on in our nation's captital:

Until recently, I thought the single most embarrassingly stupid event of the last decade's national security debates -- the kind that will make historians look back with slack-jawed amazement -- was the joint dissemination in the run-up to the war by the Bush administration and the American media of playing cards that featured all of the "Most Wanted" Iraqi Villains and their cartoon villain nicknames.
If you weren't on board with all of that -- if you weren't hiding under your bed shaking when these cartoons were shown on the TV -- that meant that you were neither Tough nor Serious. Just as is true now, the Tough and Serious people were the ones who became frightened by the comic book villians.

Terrorists in Prison: Is There Anything The Right Doesn't Fear?

Now, of course, world class serious person Sen. Harry Reid, along with a few other dispsticks among the Democratic Senators, have joined in this golden shower.

Go, read. I'm tired of writing about this stuff. It's hard to summon up the outrage against these people. It's not like they're adults or anything.

But it must get awfully slick and pungent on the floor of the Senate on days like this.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Yet Another Era I Missed Out On

One of the shortest and least noticed eras in political history has, apparently, come to an end:

The era of apologizing for Republican mistakes of the past is now officially over. It is done. The time for trying to fix or focus on the past has ended. The era of Republican navel gazing is over. We have turned the corner on regret, recrimination, self-pity and self-doubt. Now is the hour to focus all of our energies on winning the future.

Steele: GOP Must Take On Obama Directly

This quote is from Micheal Steele's address to the Republican National Committee today. Some eras we miss because we were born too late, others because we were born too soon. I'd never heard of an era before that you could miss because you'd chosen the wrong moment to blink.

Quote Of The Day

From Earth Bound Misfit, a classic quote on the Republicans' efforts on health care reform:

If this is the level of deep thought and real-world concern that the Hoover Party is bringing to the debate on health care, then they are as "willing to work with President Obama" as rust is willing to work with an engine.

Crack-Smoking-Level Stupid

Click on the link and read the rest.

Most of the "debate" on this issue seems to be at about this level. Does anyone in his right mind think that we aren't already living with the worst consequences of a bureaucratic, unresponsive health care system? Fifty million of us have no health care at all, and another 50 million or so don't have health care coverage that's adequate. That's nearly a third of the country that are either partially or completely out of the system. Most of the other two-thirds who aren't legislators or government executives have to fight with insurance companies to get them to pay on time, or to pay at all for health care services they need.

Anyone who thinks this is a good system that just needs a little tweaking is either insane or someone the insurance companies wouldn't dare screw over.

Monday, May 18, 2009

America's Opinion On Torture

Waterboarding in the Middle Ages, where it belongs

When I first read this post by Jane Hamsher Saturday, I must admit my heart sank a little [unless otherwise noted, all links that appear in article quotes are from the original articles]:

These words from Digby sent chills straight down my spine, because she's right:

The argument against torture is slipping away from us. In fact, I'm getting the sinking feeling that it's over. What was once taboo is now publicly acknowledged as completely acceptable by many people. Indeed, disapproval of torture is now being characterized as a strictly partisan issue, like welfare reform or taxes.

If you oppose torture and share that despair, watch Kagro X (David Waldman of CongressMatters) on and he'll be your hero, too.

I Oppose Torture, and Kagro X Is My Hero

While David Waldman has certainly been courageous in arguing against torture, there are people who have to summon even more courage in order to be against it. One such person is a National Guard Lieutenant Colonel who is quoted by Thomas Ricks in Foreign Policy magazine:

So you must wonder, by what authority is this letter writer speaking? Well, as a Lieutenant Colonel and Combat Arms Battalion Commander in the Army I am responsible for the welfare, training, good order, and discipline of my soldiers. I am responsible for everything they do or fail to do. I am also responsible to follow and issue only those orders that are legal, ethical and moral. Torture of another human being is illegal, unethical and immoral, and I would be duty bound to disobey any such order...just as PFC Lynndie England and SPC Charles Graner (and their many counterparts, senior officers and NCOs at Abu Ghraib) should have done...just as any of my soldiers should disobey should I give such an order. We all have the lessons of Nuremburg to rely upon anytime such questions come to mind; "I was just following orders" is never justification for committing crimes against other human beings.

Before deploying to Iraq last year, I explained these things to my troopers. It is difficult to explain to young (practically) kids, with little experience, and poor knowledge of the world...but if you are caring and committed, and repeat yourself often enough they learn and understand. I told them the most important thing they needed to take away from all their preparations was that while it would be terrible to lose one of them or have one of them seriously physically injured, it would be worse to have them come home physically well and mentally broken because they had somehow lost their humanity. Torture destroys our humanity, and any equivocation (feel free to exercise the Kantian absolutist vs utilitarian argument to your heart's content) on the matter is just bullshit.

Torture: A National Guard officer responds to Krauthammer

While I can't be entirely certain that this anonymous LTC is who he says he is, I've been around enough current and former Army officers to see the resemblance between the way he writes and the way they talk. Ricks isn't normally in the habit of making stuff up, either. There are obvious reasons why this person would want to remain anonymous. While I'm always skeptical of anonymous sources, this one strikes me as believable.

If you wonder why I say that the quote reads as genuine, here's what a former Special Forces colonel, Patrick Lang, wrote on the subject not too long ago:

"I was ordered to..." has been a a discredited and unacceptable basis for a defense in war crimes trial since the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg. "Things were tough..." is an equally discredited defense.

What are we saying? Is it our position that international law applies to eveyone but us and that it does not apply to us because we are "special?"

Are we that childish?

Nuremberg And American Exceptionalism

Here's a quote from another article about waterboarding:

Waterboarding is worse than a crime. It is stupid. (That was a quiz. 10 points for recognizing the quote) As [SERE trainer Malcolm] Nance says in the article, when you are being drowned, you will say anything, anything, anything.... Surely that should lead to the conclusion that, at the very least, it is useless to waterboard people. Useless, unless you happen to be a sadist who just likes doing things like that without regard to rational thinking. People like me are given to rational thinking and moderation in action. That's what the word "professional" implies. Waterboarding should not be something that the United states allows, EVER.

In extremis, I might do something really beastly to someone to satisfy the needs of the "ticking bomb" fantasy scenario, but it would not be waterboarding, and I would want to know that it was not legal.

Waterboarding Is Torture

Lang's military experience includes both Vietnam and the Gulf War. He's certainly seen enough of war to have a considered opinion on the usefulness and morality of torture.

But how do most of us feel on the subject? Is Digby right, have we already lost the debate? A Gallup poll that was reported in last Sunday's USA Today implies that we haven't:

Even as Americans struggle with two wars and an economy in tatters, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds majorities in favor of investigating some of the thorniest unfinished business from the Bush administration: Whether its tactics in the "war on terror" broke the law.

Close to two-thirds of those surveyed said there should be investigations into allegations that the Bush team used torture to interrogate terrorism suspects and its program of wiretapping U.S. citizens without getting warrants. Almost four in 10 favor criminal investigations and about a quarter want investigations without criminal charges. One-third said they want nothing to be done.

Even more people want action on alleged attempts by the Bush team to use the Justice Department for political purposes. Four in 10 favored a criminal probe, three in 10 an independent panel, and 25% neither.

Poll: Most Want Inquiry Into Anti-terror Tactics

Considering that at the end of his presidency George W. Bush still had a 25 percent approval rating, I'd call this an overwhelming majority who want investigations. There are clearly people who don't have the capacity to think about things like this or to disagree with the commentators on Fox, and most of them are likely in that 34 percent who don't want to know.

As usual, Glenn Greenwald sums the situation up pretty well:

This happens all the time in our political debates. Rather than argue the substance of the issue, there is this virtually compulsive need to assert -- with no evidence -- that "the American people" believes a certain way and that anyone who believes otherwise is fringe and isolated. There's just no denying the fact that, as evidence of the depth of our national crimes continues to emerge, there is increased attention across the political spectrum being paid to these issues. In today's New York Times alone, Frank Rich lays out the case for why investigations are critically necessary, and Maureen Dowd -- in an uncharacteristically cogent and substantive column -- ends with this:

I used to agree with President Obama, that it was better to keep moving and focus on our myriad problems than wallow in the darkness of the past. But now I want a full accounting. I want to know every awful act committed in the name of self-defense and patriotism. Even if it only makes one ambitious congresswoman pay more attention in some future briefing about some future secret technique that is “uniquely” designed to protect us, it will be worth it.

If [the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy group, some of whose members apparently don't support investigations] wants to have its representatives arguing against torture investigations, that's its prerogative, but it really shouldn't be making claims about what the "American people" and especially Democrats believe when those claims are so clearly false.

Distorting Public Opinion on Torture Investigations

As many bloggers have noted over the past couple of years, it's astonishing that a "balanced" debate on torture includes a "torture is good" side. If it were up to me, the debate would be between whether torture was merely a completely useless exercise, or an ethically repugnant practice in civilized society. That this is not the sort of debate we see is an example of how distorted the issue has become.

It certainly doesn't help that most news outlets refuse to call what we've done torture. As Glenn pointed out recently, this has become so absurd that a recent issue of the New York Times included an obituary for an American veteran of the Korean war who was tortured that referred to his treatment as torture. Yet, barely a week earlier, an editorial appeared in that same paper justifying the use of "brutal" to describe our torture practices, in lieu of "harsh". A Los Angeles Times article I quoted recently about whether Nancy Pelosi was aware of the CIA's use of waterboarding, never once mentioned the word "torture", even in a sentence that went "some critics call this torture". Reading fluff like this, it's amazing that Americans have any idea what's going on.

I think many Americans are just waking up to what's been going on in their names in the last few years. Even many of us who suspected that the Bush Administration was torturing suspects to justify the invasion of Iraq have only recently had our suspicions confirmed. While I'm not a whole lot more optimistic than Jane Hamsher about whether this will ever lead to concrete action on the part of our government, I think it's at least a possibility. And I really, really wish that progressives would stop trying to give President Van Pelt a pass when it comes to doing things he'd rather not do.

Why do I want to see us repudiate torture, even though it means recrimination and, possibly, yet another division in our society? I think the reason is summed up in the quote that Jane began her article with:

"Defending torture insistently means one's moral compass is pointing straight down to hell." -- Bacaccio

We can't remain a civilized society and countenance such behavior. If our survival as a nation or a species is ever at stake, I suspect torture will happen. Even then, it must be treated not as behavior to be emulated or copied, but as something that will inevitably have consequences for the perpetrator. What the use of torture should never be is accepted practice. There is no virtue in it. There is only the loss of our humanity. If we refuse to accept that notion, we will be vastly diminished as a people, and our influence in the civilized world will wane. We can't afford any of those consequences.

Nothing that torture has ever gotten us is worth that cost.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Linus Van Pelt of Politics

No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from! Linus Van Pelt

Taylor Marsh states the depressingly obvious today:

Pres. Obama’s decision to keep the military commissions, while expanding the parameters of rights and procedures, in no way surprises me. Remember, Senator Obama actually voted for military commissions in 2006, which he mentioned in his statement yesterday.

Many others were surprised:

Some liberals and human rights groups said they were stunned by the announcement on Friday, with several calling it a betrayal.

Frankly, I find it stunning people are seemingly shocked that Obama continues to act in keeping with who he is.

Decision On Military Commissions Shouldn't Surprise

No doubt, those who are "seemingly shocked" are the same ones who were lecturing me during the primary about how Obama really did represent a new kind of politics, and that he wasn't as divisive as other candidates. I kept saying that actions speak louder than words, but no one was listening.

The fact is, Obama has spent a political career running from decisions and controversies. He's not going to change course now. Success doesn't prompt self-examination. Only failure does that, and Obama's been fabulously successful as an office-seeker.

It would be nice if they finally would take that lesson to heart, but I'm not holding my breath.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hubble Repairs Tricky

Caption for this picture, courtesy of NASA:

(14 May 2009) --- Astronaut Andrew Feustel, STS-125 mission specialist, appears to be selecting his next tool to use while participating in the first of his crew's five scheduled sessions of extravehicular activity to perform final hands-on servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope. Feustel and veteran astronaut John Grunsfeld (out of frame) are scheduled to participate in a total of three of those spacewalks.

The shuttle Atlantis mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope is continuing. Today, according to the Washington Post, they will be performing the trickiest operation yet:

Now [astronaut John] Grunsfeld has begun the most daunting task of the mission: He must repair the non-functioning Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), which was never designed to be repaired -- not on Earth and certainly not in space.

The spacewalker must extract 30 screws, remove a protective plate, and reach into the ACS with a specially designed tool that will clamp onto four sharp electrical circuit cards. He'll remove the cards -- being careful to keep his gloved hands away from any sharp edges -- and then install a new power source to the instrument.

Grunsfeld's task will be made all the more difficult by the awkward position of the instrument. He will not be able to face the screws head on, but rather from a 45-degree angle. A strut will partially block his vision.

Astronauts Having Success on Tricky Hubble Repair

The last paragraph describes the sort of thing that prompts curses from electronics technicians and auto mechanics. You do them as much by feel as by vision. Doing something by feel is a tough thing to do when you're wearing a space suit.

Of course, space suits are only part of the problem. On Earth, when an electronics tech yanks a circuit board out of a computer, gravity is holding his feet to the floor, or his butt to the chair, and his muscles can counteract the force being applied to his hands in reaction to the force he's applying to the board. In Earth orbit, there's no gravity. To get an idea what that's like, imagine you're underwater in a pool that's too deep to stand in. Push against the side of the pool with one hand. You'll spin around, because the force is being applied to your hand, and your body in turn.

Image credit: NASA

This is one of the reasons spacewalks are practiced underwater. In the photo that leads this article, the Canada Arm is providing the needed stability, but it won't feel much like the way that works on Earth.

One of the great things about having a space vehicle like the shuttle is that it makes repairs like this possible. It can bring all the parts and the astronauts to replace them. No doubt some of these things could be done by remote control, without taking human beings into space, but, as the WaPo story relates, sometimes humans need to be there to adapt to unforeseen problems:

The first spacewalk, also conducted by Grunsfeld and [Andrew] Feustel, was stymied initially by a bolt that wouldn't budge and threatened to trap an old instrument in the telescope and ruin the hopes of scientists and engineers who had spent a decade building a replacement. The astronauts used three different tools with ever higher amounts of torque, to no avail. There were fears both in space and on the ground that the bolt would shear. But Feustel, who fixes cars in his spare time, removed all limits on his socket wrench and, carefully applying ever more force, managed to loosen the bolt without shearing it.

Astronauts Having Success on Tricky Hubble Repair

Pretty amazing, under the circumstances.

Dan Froomkin On Torture

Yesterday, Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post wrote a rebuttal of Charles Krauthammer's column advocating torture. Froomkin's is worth reading in its entirety, as it's a point-by-point rebuttal using realistic arguments. Here's a sample:

Krauthamer: "The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great."

This of course is a blatant post-facto attempt at rationalizing the (inevitable) misdiagnosis of the ticking time bomb scenario. Now all of a sudden the standards are lower. Krauthammer is advocating fishing expeditions -- with a waterboard.

Krauthammer's Asterisks

Reading Krauthammer's columns, when I have the misfortune of doing so, is a frustrating experience. His inability to think through the most basic arguments, as with this example that clearly contradicts the spirit of his opening sentence, is a classic example. He's yet another example of a columnist whose opinions are in the paper merely because those opinions are useful to the people in charge.

What this is doing to the political discourse and the awareness of this country is nothing short of tragic.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dick Cheney's Dreadful Folly

image credit: U.S. Army

Seven years after the Bush Administration used the confessions of tortured prisoners to justify war in Iraq, our soldiers and Iraq's citizens are still paying for this dreadful folly. Here's the caption for this picture:

Spc. Herrick Lidstone, a radio operator with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, takes a security halt during a nighttime foot patrol in Sha'ab, Baghdad on May 4 [,2007].

There was a time when people only half-seriously suggested that the Bush Administration deliberately had terrorism suspects tortured to produce "evidence" that there was a link between Iraq's President Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. As Joe Conason reports in Salon, that's not a joke any more:

In an essay that first appeared on the Washington Note blog, [aide to then Secretary of State Colin Powell Lawrence] Wilkerson says that even when the interrogators of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the Libyan al-Qaida operative, reported that he had become “compliant” -- in other words, cooperative after sufficient abuse -- the vice-president’s office ordered further torture of the Libyan by his hosts at an Egyptian prison because he had not yet implicated Saddam with al-Qaida. So his interrogators put al-Libi into a tiny coffin until he said what [Vice President Dick] Cheney wanted to hear. Nobody in the U.S. intelligence community actually believed this nonsense. But now, al-Libi has reportedly and very conveniently "committed suicide" in a prison cell in Libya, where he was dispatched to the tender mercies of the Bush administration's newfound friends in the Qaddafi regime several years ago. So the deceased man won't be able to discuss what actually happened to him and why.

Wilkerson's essay was followed swiftly by an investigative report in the Daily Beast, authored by former NBC News producer Robert Windrem, who interviewed two former senior intelligence officers who told him a similar story about a different prisoner. In April 2003, U.S. forces captured an Iraqi official named Muhammed Khudayr al-Dulaymi, who had served in Saddam's secret police, the Mukhabarat. Those unnamed officials said that upon learning of Dulaymi's capture, the vice-president's office proposed that CIA agents in Baghdad commence waterboarding him, in order to elicit information about a link between al-Qaida and Saddam. Evidently that suggestion was not enforced by Charles Duelfer, the head of the Iraq Study Group who controlled Dulaymi's interrogation.

We Tortured To Justify War

[links from original]

Let's just review this evidence to see why, while this information is based partly on anonymous sources, it is credible.

First, it's not entirely anonymous. We know who Lawrence Wilkerson is. At the time in question, he was the aide of Secretary of State Colin Powell. It's certainly possible that he knew the origin of whatever intelligence he was told about regarding Iraq. He certainly would have asked what the origin of any intelligence was, since that's information necessary to determine its validity.

Wilkerson has also been a critic of the Bush Administration's foreign policy:

In President Bush's first term, some of the most important decisions about U.S. national security -- including vital decisions about postwar Iraq -- were made by a secretive, little-known cabal. It was made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

When I first discussed this group in a speech last week at the New American Foundation in Washington, my comments caused a significant stir because I had been chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell between 2002 and 2005.

But it's absolutely true. I believe that the decisions of this cabal were sometimes made with the full and witting support of the president and sometimes with something less. More often than not, then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice was simply steamrolled by this cabal.

The White House Cabal

This article by Wilkerson, short though it is, is a thoughtful essay on effective decision making in areas where the relevant knowledge isn't all in one person's head. That's a set of problems that includes most of the ones organizations deal with these days. Business and government leaders at any level should read it and take its lessons to heart. Wilkerson is neither a fool nor stupid.

The second reason is that the story is at least partially confirmed by Charles Duelfer, who as the head of the Iraq Study Group:

In his new book, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq, and in an interview with The Daily Beast, Duelfer says he heard from “some in Washington at very senior levels (not in the CIA),” who thought Khudayr’s interrogation had been “too gentle” and suggested another route, one that they believed has proven effective elsewhere. “They asked if enhanced measures, such as waterboarding, should be used,” Duelfer writes. “The executive authorities addressing those measures made clear that such techniques could legally be applied only to terrorism cases, and our debriefings were not as yet terrorism-related. The debriefings were just debriefings, even for this creature.”

Cheney's Role Deepens

The third reason we should take this seriously is that it explains the events that followed. The White House, and its sycophants in the press, insisted that there was a connection between Hussein and Al Qaeda even though there clearly wasn't one. Hussein clearly had no motivation to do more than give Al Qaeda lip service. He certainly would not have permitted a rival for power to exist on his territory. That's an elementary lesson of Hussein's career - he quickly and ruthlessly eliminated or marginalized all possible competition for his power. Yet we were asked to believe, with no credible evidence, that he welcomed Al Qaeda.

While reaching a definite conclusion really requires a proper criminal or scientific investigation, it's clear that this charge against the Vice President and others is a credible one. It should also be one that Americans find disturbing. That we could have deliberately tortured people as part of a pretense for war is as serious a charge against a government as I can imagine.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Torture Briefings: CIA's Case Won't Hold Water

Here are a couple of items of note regarding the CIA's claims that Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats were briefed about waterboarding and other forms of torture it used on terrorism suspects in 2002. Both are from FireDogLake, so I recommend following the links and having a look.

The first is from Gregg Levine:

In a just-completed Capitol Hill press conference, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said without equivocation that the CIA is lying when it implies that she was briefed in on the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah. Pelosi stated that the CIA told her, in September 2002, that waterboarding was not among the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on high value detainees. Reporting by Marcy—among others—now shows that the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah started at least a month earlier.

BREAKING: Pelosi Says the CIA is Lying

As I wrote the other day, there are many reasons to be suspicious of the CIA's story, not the least of which is that even if it's a completely honest effort, it's based on whatever notes and recollections CIA employees had that occurred several years ago. However, thanks to this next article, there's reason to suspect that this was less than an honest effort:

Bob Graham just appeared on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show. In addition to repeating earlier reports that he was never briefed on waterboarding, Graham revealed that the first time he asked the CIA when he was briefed on torture, it claimed it had briefed him on two dates when no briefing took place.

Senator Bob Graham: The CIA Made Up Two Briefing Sessions

As Marcy Wheeler relates, Graham went on to say that the way in which the CIA briefed Congressmen seemed designed to ensure that they couldn't discuss what they were told with each other. This is a plausible claim. People who are given classified information are not allowed to discuss it with those who weren't present at the time, unless they are cleared to do so by the agency that classified the information. In this case, that agency would be the CIA, of course.

The government's power to classify information, and its power to punish those who publicize it, carries with it a tremendous potential for abuse. This is starting to look like another case of the Bush Administration's misuse of these powers.

As if we didn't have enough already.

UPDATE (May 15): Marcy Wheeler notes that Sen. Graham has found a third briefing the CIA incorrectly said he received on torture. This one is particularly critical, as she notes:

I've got to correct something I said yesterday about Bob Graham. I reported that Graham said that CIA had given him two erroneous dates for briefings. That was wrong (RawStory reported the number correctly, though). They gave erroneous dates for three briefings.

The difference is critical, because it means the CIA tried to claim it had briefed Graham on torture in April 2002, which would have put it in compliance with the National Security Act. But Graham, by consulting his trusty notebooks, proved that claim to be false.

Graham also notes that the CIA is obligated to tell the entire intelligence committees, not just the leadership.

Graham: They Claimed to Have Briefed Before Torture, Did Not

Once again, the Bush Administration violated the law, then used their powers to classify information to cover up that fact.

As usual, the rest of the article is well worth a read. It includes an interview of Graham on MSNBC.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Obama's Nonsense About Torture Photos

Today, President Obama decided not to release more of the Abu Ghraib torture photos that we found so shocking a few years ago:

The Obama administration changed direction today, announcing that it would oppose the release of photographs showing the alleged abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The administration this month had agreed to release dozens of the photographs, but reversed course after top military officials said they were concerned that the photos could put U.S. troops in jeopardy, particularly in Afghanistan.

In an about-face, White House opposes release of alleged prisoner abuse photos

First off, I'd be remiss not to point out that this wouldn't be the first time that politicians have hidden behind what the military supposedly advises in the last few years. Not all that long ago, many in the Bush Administration were proposing that we should trust the military to tell us when it was time to get out of Iraq. There is no way that I can respect a statement like this, or trust it. It represents an abdication of responsibility at best, or an outright lie at worst. They know the military, by tradition, won't openly contradict what they've said. It's an easy and feckless excuse.

Second, the story doesn't make any sense. Gregg Levine writes:

A couple of points here: First, it isn’t the photos; it is the acts themselves that put US troops in danger. The abuse is widely known among Iraqis, and those inclined to act don’t need photographic evidence as justification.

BREAKING: Obama Does 180 on Release of Abuse Photos

There are already plenty of photos to fire up the opposition. You'd have to be an idiot to buy into the idea that more of them is going to make things that much worse. There have been stories circulating on the Internet, and even in the news, about the prison for terrorism suspects that the U.S. military is maintaining in Baghram, Afghanistan. That's the subject of the film Taxi To The Dark Side. As the ACLU's Amrit Singh is quoted as saying by the Los Angeles Times:

"The decision to not release the photographs makes a mockery of President Obama's promise of transparency and accountability," said ACLU attorney Amrit Singh. "It is essential that these photographs be released so that the public can examine for itself the full scale and scope of prisoner abuse that was conducted in its name."

In an about-face, White House opposes release of alleged prisoner abuse photos

For continuing to be an apologist for torture while pretending to oppose it, President Obama gets to see his photo next to another of the Abu Ghraib torture photos.

UPDATE: In what I can only describe as one of those ironies that American politics seems to produce endlessly, Democracy Arsenal reports that the United States has joined the United Nations' Human Rights Council:

The Human Rights Council has been a controversial organization since its creation, three years ago. It was created in 2006, replacing the disgraced Human Rights Commission. The council has received a great deal of criticism for focusing its scrutiny on Israel and for not acting on the most pressing human rights issues of the time, including Darfur. Critics also accuse the council for being hypocritical, since many of its members are human rights offenders themselves. So rather than help shape the organization from withing, the Bush administration chose to stay out of the council, making this America’s first time seeking a seat.

U.S. Joins the Human Rights Council

[emphasis mine]

On second thought, I suppose it's to be expected.

UPDATE (May 15): Glenn Greenwald provides further evidence for why the argument that these photos might further inflame the opposition in Iraq and Afghanistan is stupid. Unless you live completely in the bubble created by the American press's restraint about reporting the effects of our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, you'll know most of it already. Unfortunately there are a whole lot of people in that bubble.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Atlantis Is On Its Way

STS-125 lifts off, May 11, 2009. Image credit: NASA. (Click on image to see it full size.)

While I was away, space shuttle Atlantis launched and reached orbit. Now they're trying to determine if that rescue shuttle will be necessary:

The crew of the space shuttle Atlantis is using the NASA vehicle's robotic arm to determine whether the spacecraft's heat shield was damaged during yesterday's blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The astronauts are using the technology to inspect critical areas of shuttle's thermal protection system, especially on the craft's nose and the edges of its wings. Data and images from the inspection, which is a routine check up after any shuttle launch, is sent down to analysts at Mission Control in Houston, according to NASA.

NASA Shuttle Crew Uses Robotic Arm To Inspect For Damage

[link from original]
According to the NASA site, they will be replacing the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) with a new one, WFPC3:

The WFPC2 instrument, which was installed in 1993 to replace the original Wide Field/Planetary Camera, will be removed to make room for Wide Field Camera 3 during the STS-125 mission.

During the camera's amazing, nearly 16-year run, WFPC2 provided outstanding science and spectacular images of the cosmos. Some of its best-remembered images are of the Eagle Nebula pillars, Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9's impacts on Jupiter's atmosphere, and the 1995 Hubble Deep Field -- the longest and deepest Hubble optical image of its time.

NASA Image Of The Day, May 10, 2009

They'll head to the Hubble Telescope tomorrow, to begin the upgrades and repairs. Meanwhile, here's a pretty picture, courtesy of NASA:

Clicking on the image will show the full size image. The caption for it, which is also from the IOTD site, reads:

This planetary nebula is known as Kohoutek 4-55 (or K 4-55). It is one of a series of planetary nebulae that were named after their discoverer, Czech astronomer Lubos Kohoutek. A planetary nebula contains the outer layers of a red giant star that were expelled into interstellar space when the star was in the late stages of its life. Ultraviolet radiation emitted from the remaining hot core of the star ionizes the ejected gas shells, causing them to glow.

In the case of K 4-55, a bright inner ring is surrounded by a bipolar structure. The entire system is then surrounded by a faint red halo, seen in the emission by nitrogen gas. This multi-shell structure is fairly uncommon in planetary nebulae.

This Hubble image was taken by WFPC2 on May 4, 2009. The colors represent the makeup of the various emission clouds in the nebula: red represents nitrogen, green represents hydrogen, and blue represents oxygen. K 4-55 is nearly 4,600 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

NASA Image Of The Day, May 10, 2009

So long, WFPC2, and thanks for all the pics.

Mystery Solved

I've written before about why having sixty Democratic Senators isn't going to help ordinary Americans all that much. As Brian Beutler noted today at Talking Points Memo, having forty Republican Senators gives the GOP exactly what it wants:

A Congressional Quarterly article about GOP efforts to get conservative Democrats to oppose major legislation contains an interesting admission from Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH).

Acording to the piece, Republicans "have vowed to block, reshape or defeat a number of Democratic initiatives in coming months, even though Specter's defection has left the Senate Republican caucus with just 40 members."

But in a 99-member Senate, 40 votes are enough to keep Democrats from cutting off debate on major legislation. "Usually you need 41 votes to get anything done around here. But right now, you can do a lot with 40 votes,'' said Judd Gregg

In a 99-seat Senate, 40 votes isn't nearly enough to "get anything done." Not at all. It is rather the bare minimum necessary to make sure nothing gets done. And it explains why so many Republican senators will routinely vote against cloture on major Democratic agenda items. It's called a filibuster--and it isn't typically thought of as way to "get stuff done."

An Accidental Moment Of Candor From Judd Gregg: With Franken Tied Up, 'We Can Do A Lot With 40 Votes'

What does it want? The truth isn't that they want to obstruct. They want to have power of some sort. If they can obstruct legislation, they have power. In short, they matter, and are thus worth bribingsupporting with campaign contributions.

If they can't obstruct on their own, then the people who may matter the most will be the Blue Dog Democrats. Clearly, the GOP don't want that to happen.

In my younger days, I often asked myself what kind of person would put up with the nonsense of running a political campaign in order to hold public office. As I grew older, I came to realize that, all too often, this is the sort of person who does.

Monday, May 11, 2009

No Square Deal Today

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Reading Jane Hamsher's rundown of the Democratic lobbyists in DC who are working against President Obama's proposal for credit card rights legislation, which followed her smackdown of the folks who have been spending millions to prevent mortgage renegotiation (AKA "cramdown") makes me mindful of the person who said this:

Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.

I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service...

Wikipedia: Theodore Roosevelt

It's emblematic of our times that the person who said this was a Republican President. The reason it's emblematic is that these are the words of Theodore Roosevelt, who was President a little more than a century ago.

While it hasn't given up its bellicose foreign policy or its fetish for a huge military, today's Republican Party has certainly given up giving the working people of this country any thought. Today, it seems utterly ironic that a GOP leader would rate his potential successor as a progressive, and think of that as a good thing. Not long after, though, the Republicans gave up that concern for ordinary Americans in exchange for the corruption of Warren Harding and the indifference of Herbert Hoover.

Twenty years later, Teddy's cousin Franklin Roosevelt would make the Democratic Party the progressive party. With the coming of the Democratic Leadership Council, the Democratic Party has largely abandoned the idea of a square deal in favor of wealth and corruption. Now, we have no party that truly represents the 95 percent of us who haven't benefited from the last thirty years.

It might seem that I'm counseling despair when I write this, but the truth is a bit more complicated. In the past, we have been led by people who felt that what America needs is an honest living for honest work. We can have such people running things if we're willing to be informed, to educate ourselves and vote in our own best interests. It's happened before, and it can happen again. But it won't be easy, and it should be abundantly clear that the job of fighting for our rights against the rich and corrupt will never be done.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mom Said There'd Be Days Like This

All I can do right now is say go read what Marcy Wheeler has to say about Senator Pat Roberts' participation in torture briefings by the CIA. While you're at it, why not help Marcy keep on doing what she's doing?

Incidentally, "SSCI" means "Senate Select Committee on Intelligence". Now you're prepared.

Happy Mom's Day

It's Mother's Day, a holiday invented by the folks who sell you cards and other gifts. Still, it's a good day to remember the mothers in your life. After all, they're the patient and caring people who brought us into this world:

funny pictures of dogs with captions
Image credit: I Has A Hot Dog

and kept us safe until we could figure it out on our own.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

New Lease On Life For The Hubble

The fairy of the Eagle Nebula, one of the many pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope over the last eighteen years.

In a few days, the space shuttle Atlantis will launch to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) one more time. Besides its objective, this mission is interesting for another reason - the manner in which NASA intends to rescue the shuttle's crew should something go wrong:

If the Hubble repair crew due for liftoff on Monday got into the deepest sort of orbital trouble, yet another shuttle would have to be launched into orbit as little as a week later. NASA hasn’t launched two piloted spacecraft so close together in more than 40 years. But that's just the first act of the drama.

The rescue shuttle, Endeavour, would have to pull within about two dozen yards of the stranded shuttle Atlantis, and then help Atlantis' crew members make their way across a lifeline to refuge. Then Endeavour, full to capacity, would have to leave Hubble as well as Atlantis behind and return home — but not before Atlantis' controls are set for a self-destruct sequence.

NASA Set For Dramatic Shuttle Rescue

It all sounds a bit like something out of science fiction,, but this is actually a very difficult thing to do. Shuttle launches are, despite the prosaic implications of the word "shuttle", complicated processes involving thousands of people directly and indirectly. As James Oberg explains:

In a perfect world, the STS-400 team would just mark time until Atlantis heads back to Earth, after which Endeavour would be put back into preparation for a flight to the space station in mid-June. But if STS-400 is needed — and the need might not be discovered until the final few days of the STS-125 mission — the countdown would resume, and Endeavour would launch three days later. A day after that, using an abbreviated rendezvous path, it would be hovering back to back, 75 feet (23 meters) from Atlantis.

NASA Set For Dramatic Shuttle Rescue

The "repair" Oberg mentions really sounds more like an upgrade to me. This image, from shuttle mission STS-109, is similar to what will we will probably see out of this mission. STS-109 replaced the old solar panels with the new ones, and also upgraded the power system.

The BBC describes one of the reasons for this upgrade:

If all goes completely to plan on Hubble Servicing Mission 4, the orbiting observatory will be reborn as the most productive telescope in history, with even greater powers to probe the Universe's deep history and help cosmologists make sense of one of their biggest problems - "dark energy".

Peering Into Hubble's Future

Interestingly, this mission might not have happened at all if it hadn't been for public support for the HST. The Columbia disaster was thought to have doomed the HST at one time:

The mission, scheduled for May 2008, should see the space shuttle Discovery take a team of astronauts to the orbiting space telescope. Once there, the crew will boost the satellite into a higher orbit, replace its ageing batteries and gyroscopes, and install some new instruments.

Taken together, the repairs should leave the telescope in fine form until its replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, can be launched in 2013.

Ups and downs

The decision is the latest turn of fortune for Hubble, which, in recent years, has seen its repair plan approved, replaced, cancelled and reconsidered. The mission, the fifth to the telescope, was originally scheduled for 2006, but was cancelled in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster.

NASA approves Hubble repair

The Mice, two colliding galaxies photographed by the HST

But all those wonderful pictures convinced the public to ask for more:

"I'm very excited about it!" said Fernando Ribeiro, a Brazilian educator and artist who runs the Web site "It's what we've been fighting for all these years. I think this is going to mean a lot both to science and to the public."

Telescope rally cry

Ribeiro founded his site in 2004 after the shuttle servicing mission, originally scheduled to launch in 2004, was cancelled over safety concerns in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. Ribeiro collected some 5,500 signatures on a petition to reverse the decision, which would have left Hubble without new instruments and repairs needed to keep it alive.

Other Hubble fans (often called "Hubble Huggers") founded similar sites such as [(Flashmedia support required)], which sells Hubble T-shirts.

NASA credits this outpouring of public support for the mission as part of the reason it was resuscitated.

Hubble Huggers Ecstatic for Telescope's Facelift

Dark energy is one of those ideas that may help explain the origins of the universe. In essence, it's an idea to explain why the universe is expanding at an accelerated pace. Observing distant supernovae has made it possible to calculate how long dark energy has existed. The HST upgrade should allow that to be done with greater precision.

Far from being a trivial concern, public pressure has helped scientists continue to research some of the most important questions in physics.

Its new solar panels installed, the Hubble once again orbits Earth on its own at the end of STS-109.

In a way, this mission marks the ends of two eras. One is the era of the space shuttle, which will be phased out in a couple of years. The other is the age of the Hubble Space Telescope. Without continued visits from a vehicle like the shuttle, the HST will eventually break down.

The HST has given us both wonderful pictures of the universe we live in, and a far greater understanding of it. Many of us will miss it when it goes.