Friday, July 31, 2009

Endeavour Returns


Backdropped by Earth, space shuttle Endeavour is photographed by an Expedition 20 crew member onboard the International Space Station soon after the shuttle undocked from the station. A Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station is visible in the foreground.

Image credit: NASA

The space shuttle Endeavour returned to Earth this morning:

Space shuttle Endeavour and a crew of seven astronauts touched down at 10:48 a.m. EDT at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, bringing an end to a complex mission to install the final section of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo laboratory on the International Space Station. All of the STS-127 crew members are doing well after today's landing.

Unless otherwise noted, all of the quotes come from the NASA archive page for the most recent shuttle mission. There appear to be no permalinks.


The Japanese Experiment Module Kibo laboratory and Exposed Facility are featured in this image photographed by a crew member on the International Space Station while Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-127) remains docked with the station.

Image credit: NASA

The mission on this trip was to install the Kibo module front porch and to do some maintenance on the space station. This front porch has a great view, as long as you bring a spacesuit. It's designed to conduct various experiments in vacuum and zero gravity. Several experiments were loaded onto the porch before Endeavour left the ISS. Contrast this picture with a similar view from this article last year.


The Japanese Experiment Module Kibo laboratory and newly-installed Exposed Facility are viewed from inside the International Space Station.

Image credit: NASA

A couple of things stand out about this mission. One is that there were five spacewalks, which only one other shuttle mission has performed. The other is the use of the robotic arms on both the shuttle and the ISS:

All three of the available robotic arms will be put to use, sometimes all on the same day. The shuttle’s Canadarm and the station’s Canadarm2 will be put through their regular paces for surveys, unloading cargo and moving equipment and spacewalkers around, and the new Japanese robotic arm will be making its debut to transfer science experiments – it’s been tested since it arrived on the STS-126 shuttle mission in November 2008. Four spacewalks and a great deal of the robotics work will devote some time to installing and outfitting the final pieces of the JAXA’s Kibo laboratory – its external facility, which will provide the Japanese a way to expose science experiments to the extreme environment of space, an exposed experiment logistics module for storage and some experiments to get it started.

STS-127: A Porch In Space


A portion of the Japanese Experiment Module - Exposed Facility; along with the space station and space shuttle robotic arms are seen from inside the Kibo laboratory of the International Space Station while Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-127) remains docked with the station. The blackness of space and Earth's horizon provide the backdrop for the scene.

Image credit: NASA

In at least one instance, a rather large piece of equipment was handed off from one arm to another. The thing they handed off is the Exposed Section cargo carrier, which is essentially the box that the Kibo experiments came in:

In yet another deft handoff maneuver, the space shuttle robotic arm grabbed the Japanese Exposed Section cargo carrier from the space station robotic arm. Endeavour Commander Mark Polansky and Mission Specialist Julie Payette then used the shuttle arm to place the cargo carrier back into the shuttle payload bay.

This is a simple thing for two people on earth to do, but when it's two separate arms on two separate space vehicles, it can be a bit more complicated. I think it's fair to say that the more that can be done with robotic arms, the less will have to be done by spacewalk. Advances in this area represent new ability to perform work in space.

All in all, it was a successful mission. The only negative thing about this mission is that some of the things this mission accomplished won't be possible in a couple of years. The shuttle is scheduled to fly only eight more times. After that, things like bringing home large cargo and using a spaceship's robotic arm may not be possible for years. Nothing that NASA has in the works will be able to do this. It's a shame our leaders lack the vision of their predecessors.

Fun With Charts

Charts are typically used to clarify a subject. Computer programmers used to use flow charts to clarify the workings of a program, for instance. Organization charts can be used to describe working relationships within an organization. In the wrong hands, charts can be made to do the opposite.

This is a chart that purports to show the same information as this chart, the infamous spaghetti chart that House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner presented as being a process chart of the Democrats' proposed Federal health care system. As the author of this chart says:

So, to try and do my duty both to the country and to information design (a profession and skill you [Republicans in Congress] have loudly shat upon), I have taken it upon myself to untangle [Rep. Boehner's] delightful chart. A few notes:

- I have removed the label referring to "federal website guidelines" as those are not a specific requirement of the Health and Human Services department. They are part of the U.S. Code. I should know: I have to follow them.

- I have relabeled the "Veterans Administration" to the "Department of Veterans' Affairs." The name change took effect in 1989.

- In the one change I made specifically for clarity, I omitted the line connecting the IRS and Health and Human Services department labeled "Individual Tax Return Information."

Do Not Fuck With Graphic Designers

Over at Talking Points Memo a reader-contributed article discusses more ways of charting the current and proposed health care systems. Worth a read, I think, if only to educate yourself about how it's possible to obfuscate something with a chart.

Stand Your Ground Award: House Progressive Caucus

It's hard to know how long this victory will last, but for now, there's at least some hope that there will be a public option in the House's version of the health care reform bill:

The chairman of a pivotal House committee announced Friday that he had reached an agreement with other Democrats that would allow the panel to approve sweeping health legislation later in the day.
To avoid cutting subsidies for low-income people, [committee chairman Rep. Henry] Waxman said, Democrats would find additional savings elsewhere in the bill.

Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, said the Blue Dog deal would hold down costs. But she said, "It was paid for on the backs of people who cannot afford health insurance," so liberals raised concerns.

House Panel Reaches Deal on Health-Care Bill

Earlier in the week, Waxman had reached a compromise with conservative Democrats on the bill, which, as Rep. DeGette said, had the effect of making health care nearly as unobtainable for the poor as it is now. For once, progressives actually stood up and objected:

In a letter to be delivered to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House health care leaders, Congressional progressives will reject a compromise Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) forged with Blue Dog Democrats to advance legislation. "We regard the agreement reached by Chairman Waxman and several Blue Dog members of the [Energy and Commerce] Committee as fundamentally unacceptable," it reads.

This agreement is not a step forward toward a good health care bill, but a large step backwards. Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, for a public option with reimbursement rates based on Medicare rates - not negotiated rates - is unacceptable.

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are hoping 50 or more members will sign on, to prove they have enough votes to kill the final bill.

In Letter, House Progressives Object To Blue Dog Public Option Compromise

The letter reads in part:

To offset the increased costs incurred by adopting the provisions advocated by the Blue Dog members of the Committee, the agreement would reduce subsidies to low- and middle-income families, requiring them to pay a larger portion of their income for insurance premiums, and would impose an unfunded mandate on the states to pay for what were to have been Federal costs.

In Letter, House Progressives Object To Blue Dog Public Option Compromise

Eventually, 53 57 signed on. This was enough get Pelosi's attention, and the deal was revised. As long as the Republicans continue to vote against any bill that has even a hint of Democratic Party involvement in it, the progressives can block legislation as effectively as the Blue Dogs can.

For (finally) standing up for progressive values, the House Progressive Caucus members who signed that letter, particularly Rep. DeGette, have won the first Stand Your Ground Award of 2009. This award recognizes members of Congress who stand up for principles of freedom and liberalism. It is by far the rarest award granted by this site. There's no value to this award beyond whatever satisfaction the notice brings to its recipients.

Congratulations to the Progressive Caucus. In the future, let's see more of this.

(h/t to Comrade E.B. Misfit for the TPM link.)

UPDATE: The original version of this article, entitled "Progressives Win One", was revised to include the award and the quote from the letter.

UPDATE 2: According to this page of the Progressive Caucus's letter, there are now 57 members of Congress who signed it. That list includes SnS Blue candidates Donna Edwards and Eric Massa.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Parade Of Douchenozzles

[Updated July 31]

Image credit: Screenshot of The Daily Show by Cujo359

One of the sad facts of American TV news is that many of its front men (and front women) are empty-headed people no one in his right mind would trust with a motor vehicle, much less something as important as the jobs they have. Jon Stewart made that clear last night while highlighting some recent quotes by Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Glenn Beck, and a few other frighteningly ignorant people in a segment called "So You Think You Can Douche".

Best quote of the segment, referring to Fox News' designated moron Glenn Beck: "Normally, we have to go pretty far back in the vault to find people contradicting themselves. Very rarely is it a minute and fifteen seconds later".

Enjoy while my brain's recovering from the heat.

UPDATE (July 31): Kieran at sums up these douchenozzles, and the people who listen to them pretty well:

John Gruber mentions a report in the New Scientist about some research showing that people prefer cockiness to expertise:

The research, by Don Moore of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shows that we prefer advice from a confident source, even to the point that we are willing to forgive a poor track record. Moore argues that in competitive situations, this can drive those offering advice to increasingly exaggerate how sure they are.

Now, this preference would be irritating but tolerable if cockiness was at least reasonably well-correlated with competence in practice, so that it wouldn’t usually be a mistake to plump for the cocky judgment over the quiet one. And it would be a little better if the two were actually uncorrelated. But as a famous paper by Kruger and Sunning showed, people who are bad at what they do are generally also incapable of understanding that they suck — and this directly contributes to inflated self-perception. So, incompetence tends to make people cocky and people prefer cocky judgements over demonstrated expertise, which is pretty much the worst of both worlds.

Cocky Bastards

[links from original]

There are certainly things about which we are justifiably sure we're right. That's usually due to having certain knowledge, or at least because we have heard a wide variety of experts say that something is so. When it comes to issues like President Obama being a socialist, or other notions that don't seem to be supported by the facts, I've learned that the more certain someone is of their position, the more likely it is that his judgment can't be trusted.

Check The Log

Here's an xkcd cartoon that I think most of us can relate to:

Image credit: xkcd

I think that status displays, including error messages, are the most neglected area of software research and development. The other day I was trying to stream an MSNBC broadcast from what turned out to be a bad URL using VLC, a very popular and useful bit of open source multimedia software. The dialog box that popped up said that it couldn't find the connection, and to check the log to find out what the problem was.

Here's the problem - What log? There is no menu entry that says "view log" or any such. The system log is normally only accessible by the super user in POSIX systems such as the one I'm using, and there was nothing there, anyway. Yet there the message was - check the log to find out what's wrong. Look at all that empty space. Why not just tell me?

Given enough experience with a program, most software writers will be able to diagnose the more common problems that might arise. They can at least write error-handling software that will tell a smart user what the problem is and how to try to correct it.

Unfortunately, such things are often the lowest priority in a project. Adding features is what people pay for - making software easier to use when things aren't working is almost never profitable. When is the last time an article about software on CNET or PC Magazine Online praised the error handling features of a bit of software? While open source software projects usually aren't concerned with profiting from software sales, the priorities of the people who fund the work are usually the same.

In fact, progress boxes are, in my experience, one of the more difficult things to get right. Imagine that you have to estimate when a job will be finished. You know how much has to be done, but you have no idea how many workers will be working on it, how skilled those workers might be, or how many interruptions there will be for lunch breaks, tea time, etc. That's what the writer of a progress box has to contend with. Sometimes, estimating to the correct order of magnitude is a worthy effort.

So, as little as I think of Windows as an operating system, most of its competitors and contemporaries have nothing to brag about in this department. It's a very rare thing when they don't suck at this, too.

Wish I Could Do This

Image credit: I Haz A Hotdog

It still feels hot around here, even though it shouldn't. The rest of the week is supposed to be much cooler. I certainly hope it is, because my brain is starting to fry. I'm not alone in that department, it would seem.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It Isn't Hot Here, No Siree...

Image credit: Screenshot of NWS forecast by Cujo359

No, it isn't unusually hot out here in the Pacific Northwest today:

[W]ill a record be broken today or not?

The all-time high temperature of 100 degrees in Seattle was set July 20, 1994.

Official temperature records have been kept locally since 1894, and back then official temperatures were taken at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle.

So it's been 115 years of not one single 100-plus-degree day.

Heat Wave Puts High Pressure On Weather Forecasters

As this article mentions, it's unusual around here for the temperatures to be above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32o C). We usually get a few such days in summer. It's a once in a century event to have a day over 100o F (38o C). Clearly, it's an unusual phenomenon.

So, do you think all the putzes who complain about how it hasn't been hot recently so there must not be any such thing as climate change will be noting this record heat wave? Not bloody likely. Nate Silver of Five Thirty-Eight, who is a statistician, took one of them to task a couple of weeks ago:

John Hinderaker at the popular conservative blog PowerLine reports that it's been cold, cold, cold in his home town of Minneapolis, Minnesota, going to far as to compare it with "The Year Without a Summer", 1816, when global temperatures were abnormally low as a result of the eruption of Mount Tambora:

I don't think things are quite so bad this year, but if something doesn't change pretty soon 2009 may go down in history, in some parts of the U.S. at least, as another year with barely any summer. Here in Minnesota and across the Midwest, temperatures are abnormally cold. I don't know whether the phenomenon is world-wide--data that will answer this question have probably not been assembled, and may not be honestly reported--but the current low level of solar activity suggests that the cooling trend could indeed be universal.

Indeed, it's been pretty cool in Minneapolis for the past couple of days; the temperature hasn't hit 70 since midday Thursday. But has it been an unusually cool summer? No, not really. Since summer began on June 21st, high temperatures there have been above average 15 times and below average 13 times. The average high temperature there since summer began this year has been 82.4 degrees. The average historic high temperature over the same period is ... 82.4 degrees. It's been a completely typical summer in Minneapolis, although with one rather hot period in late June and one rather cool one now.

A Challenge to Climate Change Skeptics

[link from original]

This is the sort of dishonesty typical of warming deniers. They cherry-pick a few bits of data that supports their premise, and ignore the rest. I tend to resist using the term "global warming", because it's a misnomer. A globe is a model of the world, not our world itself. Nevertheless, that name for the phenomenon evokes the idea that this is happening over the world as a whole, not in one little portion of it.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the response to the challenge Nate referred to in that article. It was to writers of major blogs (those with an Alexa ranking of 50,000 or lower). The challenge he issued was this:

The rules of the challenge are as follows:

1. For each day that the high temperature in your hometown is at least 1 degree Fahrenheit above average, as listed by Weather Underground, you owe me $25. For each day that it is at least 1 degree Fahrenheit below average, I owe you $25.

2. The challenge proceeds in monthly intervals, with the first month being August. At the end of each month, we'll tally up the winning and losing days and the loser writes the winner a check for the balance.

3. The challenge automatically rolls over to the next month until/unless: (i) one party informs the other by the 20th of the previous month that he would like to discontinue the challenge (that is, if you want to discontinue the challenge for September, you'd have to tell me this by August 20th), or (ii) the losing party has failed to pay the winning party in a timely fashion, in which case the challenge may be canceled at the sole discretion of the winning party.

A Challenge to Climate Change Skeptics

In other words, over a stretch of time more meaningful than a few days, he was willing to bet that temperatures would be warmer than average more often than not, at least if he had people betting against him from more than one place.

To date, not one of them has accepted the challenge, but what one right wing blogger attempted to do demonstrates the intellectual dishonesty of their arguments:

I did get a few feelers, most notably from Tom Maguire at, who was willing to take the wager provided that we made the location Minneapolis, rather than his hometown of New York. This was smart of Tom, since Minneapolis is one of the few areas of the country projected to have below-average temperatures over the next 30-60 days. Unfortunately, I am smart too, so I turned him down. You can read more of the friendly exchange we had at his site.

Climate Challenge Update

[links from original] Maguire cherry-picked the data. Go figure.

So, I don't expect that we'll be hearing much from these folks about the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. When we do, all of a sudden they'll remember that the warming or cooling of the earth happens at a more significant period than a few days, and they'll pick a slightly longer one. Either that, or they'll point out that it's cooler in Minneapolis.

Of course, the truth is that even the results of these challenges don't mean much individually. It's the dishonest attempts to cherry pick the data that are interesting. The truth is that the world's average temperature has been getting warmer for some time, as this chart demonstrates:

This is a chart of this data, which was collected and compiled by the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.

Clicking on that last link will take you to the NASA GSFC main page on the Earth's surface temperature. Every chart shows an increase in temperature. Charts that go back to the late 19th Century all show this trend, whether the information is compiled from weather station data or sea surface temperature measurements. Satellite surface temperature measurements confirm that trend, at least for the relatively short time they've been available. What's more, as this paper notes, that change can be attributed to greenhouse gases:

Global surface temperature has increased ≈0.2°C per decade in the past 30 years, similar to the warming rate predicted in the 1980s in initial global climate model simulations with transient greenhouse gas changes. Warming is larger in the Western Equatorial Pacific than in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific over the past century, and we suggest that the increased West-East temperature gradient may have increased the likelihood of strong El NiƱos, such as those of 1983 and 1998. Comparison of measured sea surface temperatures in the Western Pacific with paleoclimate data suggests that this critical ocean region, and probably the planet as a whole, is approximately as warm now as at the Holocene maximum and within ≈1°C of the maximum temperature of the past million years.

Abstract Of Hansen, et. al, 2006

What do those models predict will happen in the near future? More of the same, I'm afraid:

This quote from the paper explains what those different scenarios mean:

The congressional testimony in 1988 (13) included a graph (Fig. 2) of simulated global temperature for three scenarios (A, B, and C) and maps of simulated temperature change for scenario B. The three scenarios were used to bracket likely possibilities. Scenario A was described as "on the high side of reality," because it assumed rapid exponential growth of GHGs and it included no large volcanic eruptions during the next half century. Scenario C was described as "a more drastic curtailment of emissions than has generally been imagined," specifically GHGs were assumed to stop increasing after 2000. Intermediate scenario B was described as "the most plausible." Scenario B has continued moderate increase in the rate of GHG emissions and includes three large volcanic eruptions sprinkled through the 50-year period after 1988, one of them in
the 1990s.

Global Temperature Change [Hansen, et. al. (PDF)]

The conclusion I draw from this is that even in the most wildly optimistic scenario, Scenario C, the temperature of the world's surface will stay as it is. The most likely thing is that it will continue to increase at about the same pace it has been.

Other climate models agree with the outlines of that 1988 model. They all see the temperature rising. The only disagreement is over how much it will rise.

Our world is warming up, and that warming is at least partly due to the effects of the greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, that people are creating. To ignore this information because Minneapolis is cooler than usual this month, or similarly localized observations, is the height of stupidity.

UPDATE: As the Seattle PI reports, it was a record day. Temperatures hit 103o F at SeaTac Airport, Boeing Field, and Tacoma Narrows Airport, which are the three nearest official weather stations to me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Looking Stuff Up - Even Republicans Can Do It

There's something in this article that you won't see very often, praise for an elected official. What's more, he's a Republican. Here's what Rep. Trent Franks (AZ-02) had to say when FireDogLake's Mike Stark asked him whether he thinks that President Obama is a natural born citizen of the United States, and thus eligible to be President:

Franks: Yes, sir. I believe that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. [momentary interruption]

Stark: In the United States?

Franks: He was born in Hawaii, a state in the United States, and therefore is a constitutionally natural born citizen of this country.

Stark: That's the clearest expression I've heard from a Republican in a single [pause] All your friends seem to be listening to the lunatic base ..

Frank: You know, I'll be honest with you. My office received a lot of information that put that in question. There was a lot of very fascinating information that put that in question. My office did very in-depth research, and we found birth records in the newspapers, in Hawaii, that couldn't possibly have been forged.

This is my own transcript of that conversation, so it's possible it's not entirely right. Go see the YouTube for yourself. If you want to skip all the comedy, his conversation starts at roughly 3:30 into the video.

Now, this guy is a dyed in the wool Republican. He went on to rant about how Obama was making America safe for abortion on demand and wasn't keeping it safe from jihadis. Clearly, you don't have to have my world view to understand that the people who believe this nonsense are idiots. Media Matters found a whole list of conservatives who have publicly said that this is nonsense. That list includes Michael Medved, Joe Scarborough, Little Green Footballs, Allahpundit, David Horowitz, and Michelle Malkin. This one clearly isn't hard to figure out.

What Rep. Franks did is what I expect political opposition to do in this country. No doubt sensing a potential political advantage, he treated the information these fruitcakes sent him skeptically, but researched it. He found there was nothing to it, and said so. If there had been something to it, or some real reason for doubt, he probably would have made this case in Congress. He clearly doesn't mind going out on a rhetorical limb, if his statements about abortion and jihadis are at all typical. This is what the opposition is supposed to do. I wish the Democrats would do that more often when they're not in power.

In contrast, somehow Rep. Dave Reichert (WA-08) doesn't think this is his responsibility. On this YouTube that he didn't believe Congress had any right to investigate this question. It's sad that this numskull is there instead of Darcy Burner, who quite clearly did understand Congress's role. It's even sadder that this fool was once in charge of enforcing the law in King County.

Rep. Franks also made it clear that you don't have to insult the people who send you this "fascinating information" in order to clearly state that you don't believe it. Why so many of his colleagues refuse to do this is a mystery.

UPDATE: Dana Hunter found this inspirational poster:
Image credit: from here
and I just had to share.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards XV Hits The Beach

In keeping with the season, this month's Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards is hitting the beach at NP's place, Coffee Stained Writer. As usual, yours truly has a sideshow at this carnival. So grab your blanket and head on over.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Some Morning Reading On Health Insurance Reform

As often happens on Fridays, I've been too distracted to write. Meanwhile, there are other folks who haven't been distracted, and have brought some interesting insights into the health insurance reform debate. First up is Think Progress, with this quote from Republican National Committee Chairman Micheal Steele:

[O]n Fox News, Steele urged Democrats to pass a health care reform without GOP input. Host Sean Hannity agreed:

STEELE: Look at what these guys are saying and doing, not at what we’re saying and doing. You got 60 votes in the Senate. You got almost a two-to-one majority in the House. The Democrats control the entire power structure of the federal government. If you want health care, get the votes. Do it!


STEELE: I mean, Republicans can’t block the bill. The Republicans can’t even filibuster in the Senate.

Steele urges Democrats to pass health care bill without Republicans

Actually, he's making a point a good many observers have made lately - the Democrats have the power to change things if they want to. If they don't, then they deserve the blame. They have the power to pass legislation. They have enough votes in the Senate to prevent filibusters, and enough votes in the House to control the agenda.

The danger here isn't that people will flock back to the Republicans. At least, they won't flock back to these Republicans. What they'll do is stay home. Apathetic voters help the GOP, not the Democrats. Nearly all the gains in voter registration and turnout for the last two election cycles have been in favor of the Democrats. If, after giving the Democrats everything they ought to need to pass the kinds of legislation we need, the Democrats still fail to do that, it's hard to blame people from being apathetic. That's a danger, and if the Democratic "leadership" had a clue they'd be worried about this enough to lean on the people who are holding up progress.

The second article is by Ian Welsh. In it, he explains why the reasons why we could expect a single payer health insurance plan to be less costly than commercial health insurance. While it seems obvious that executive salaries would be lower (no government executives earn anywhere near the kind of money executives of large corporations do), and there would be less need for sales staff, I hadn't considered that the need for underwriting and actuaries would be much lower, as well. I'm not going to try and quote anything. Go read his article and learn.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Memo To Robert Gibbs

Image credit: Cujo359

There are such things as transcripts, which are pieces of paper or hard disk that contain the words a President says in a press conference.

This morning, Robert Gibbs, President Obama's press secretary, was quoted as saying this at this morning's White House press conference:

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reports that President Obama does not regret his comments last night about the arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates -- and that Obama was not calling the officers stupid.

"Let me be clear," said Gibbs. "He was not calling the officer stupid, okay? He was denoting that . . . at a certain point the situation got far out of hand, and I think all sides understand that."

Gibbs: Obama Did Not Call Police Officers Stupid In Gates Case

Here's what the President said last night, according to both the transcript by Lynn Sweet, the reporter who asked the question, and CBS:

Now, I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that, but I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge Police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact.

Transcript: Obama's News Conference

[emphasis added]

The President accused the police of doing something stupid. There's no doubt about that in the mind of anyone who clearly understood what he said. There are really only two honest choices here, either:

  • Admit the statement was wrong

  • Stick to it, until and unless you've been proved wrong to your satisfaction

Trying to weasel-word your way out of it isn't going to do it.

I'm not trying to defend the actions of the officers involved. I explained my attitude about these sorts of incidents a few months ago:

Police work is stressful and potentially dangerous. As part of their work, police officers often have to ask questions and do things to us citizens that we find annoying or even painful. People who can't do that work without losing their composure and behaving emotionally or irrationally shouldn't be doing it. Any police department that can't or won't investigate complaints against its officers is a potential danger to the people it's supposed to be protecting. In a time when both the presence of law enforcement and their power to monitor us are on the increase, it's especially so.

Today, We're All Driving While Black

I have no patience for police departments that don't try to rein in or weed out officers who can't do the job properly. That's part of the reason I find the quote from Gibbs so irritating. It only serves to make the President less authoritative on this subject, and we need both clarity and certainty here, not waffling.

Unfortunately, President Obama admitted that he was speaking without knowing all the facts. I can't imagine why the police thought a small, middle-aged man who walks with a cane and was clearly inside his own house was a danger to the public, but it's possible they had reason. Without knowing that part of the story, I'm going to reserve judgment on this, and the President would have been wise to do the same. Nevertheless, he spoke, and trying to pretend he didn't say what he said isn't going to help.

This is yet another example of how you can't have things both ways. Maybe it's time President Van Pelt stopped trying.

UPDATE: At FireDogLake, bmaz writes from the point of view of an attorney who has experience with false arrest cases:

Via Rayne's link to DKos in comments, and the Boston Globe, the Statement of Facts from the official police report [(PDF)] in the Gates arrest:

On Thursday July 16, 2009, Henry Gates, Jr. ___ of ___ Ware Street, Cambridge, MA) was placed under arrest at __ Ware Street, after being observed exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior, in a public place, directed at a uniformed police officer who was present investigating a report of a crime in progress. These actions on behalf of Gates served no legitimate purpose and caused citizens passing by this location to stop and take notice while appearing surprised and alarmed.

Signed: Sgt. James Crowley

And therein lies the problem for Sergeant Crowley and the Cambridge PD. It was a patently illegal and insufficient arrest from the start. Gates is arrested for disturbing the peace - of Sergeant Crowley. See the words "directed at a uniformed officer"? This is the epitome of contempt of cop, and that is an illegal and unconstitutional arrest. What is not contained in the statement of facts is any reference to an identifiable citizen/member of the public being disturbed. None whatsoever.

Henry Louis Gates’ Contempt Of Cop

[link from original]

I've read the links I provided earlier, plus some other news reports, and I've decided. This was a case of stupid police work. The cops should have walked away. It's a tough thing to do when you're just doing your job and catching crap for it, but that's what they should have done.

That doesn't change my mind about either what President Obama said last night, nor about the attempt to retract it this morning. The former wasn't handled well, and the latter just makes it all look really silly. Stick to your guns or admit you're wrong - people will respect that. They won't respect trying to have it both ways once you've said something like this.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Another Wacko Conspiracy Theory Is Born

The sad thing about conspiracy theories is that once they get started, they never really die. The 9/11 "Truthers" are a case in point. The evidence that they were wrong has been presented so many times, in so many ways, that you'd have to be deliberately ignoring it not to see it. No doubt, there are still people who believe that the Clintons had Vince Foster killed.

Now, we have a new conspiracy theory for a new age. The adherents of this theory believe that Barack Obama isn't a natural born U.S. citizen, and therefore not qualified to be President. It's been around for some time, having gotten started during the 2008 election. This theory seems to be getting lots of play lately in the popular press. They must be bored with covering Micheal Jackson's death by now.

While I feel funny coming to the defense of President Obama, this is ridiculous. Here's an image of his birth certificate:

Image credit: click here for full size

If you believe that's not genuine, read this analysis by FactCheck. Most state health departments have records of birth certificates. All that's required to confirm that a certificate is valid is to ask the board of health that issued it. That's what FactCheck did.

If you still don't believe Barack Obama is a natural born citizen, because this is all some vast liberal conspiracy on the part of the Hawaiian health care system, then I have some advice for you. You're a fucking idiot. You make the most dimwitted Truthers look like clear-eyed geniuses in comparison. So, don't touch anything. Ever.

UPDATE (July 23): If your computer can play Comedy Central clips, check out this one. It's Jon Stewart administering a smackdown to Lou Dobbs and a few other birth conspiracy theorists. This is an example of why people take him more seriously than the "real" news anchors.

Health Care: A Showdown-Like Thing Approaches

It's been an interesting day in the health care reform effort. Apparently, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi may cancel Congress's summer vacation if they don't deliver a bill soon:

Asked at a press conference whether she'd support keeping the House of Representatives in session into the August recess to complete work on health care reform, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was fairly adamant.

"I think 70 percent of the American people would want that," she said. "I want a bill."

Pelosi 'Wants A Bill,' Congress Should Work Through Recess

That sounds more like a hint than a stern warning, but it remains to be seen. The article went on to say that Pelosi sounded confident that she had the votes to pass a bill. What that bill might look like is another question altogether. As I mentioned yesterday, there's quite a bit not to like about the bill as it's currently understood. It will leave millions of people uninsured, and will almost certainly require everyone to buy health insurance. I think that if that requirement is levied without substantially changing the health insurance options available to Americans, it will backfire.

The Massachusetts health care system, widely regarded as an example of how to provide universal coverage and keep costs low, is in fact faltering badly and should not be held up as a national model for reform, according to a study released this week by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) and Public Citizen.

The study comes at a time when the health insurance industry is reportedly weighing in heavily in secret talks on Capitol Hill in favor of an individual mandate, a legal obligation requiring persons to have or to buy health insurance. The insurance industry’s position was described in today’s New York Times.

However, such mandates - which have been a cornerstone of the Massachusetts health reform - have failed to assure universal coverage, the new study says. For example, the state’s most recent figures show that it had to exempt 79,000 residents from the mandate in 2007 because they could not afford to buy insurance.

The Massachusetts plan has also failed to make health care sufficiently affordable or to control costs, the report says.

Physicians, public interest group urge Sen. Kennedy to introduce single-payer legislation

Anyone who is surprised by this needs to review how the advent of no-fault auto insurance, which mandates that all residents who drive have automobile insurance, has affected the quality and price of auto insurance.

Ensuring access to health care for Americans is a problem that's just going to become more urgent and expensive over time. Huffington Post's Sam Stein explains why:

A survey of more than 29,000 individuals in June by Gallup shows that 16 percent of Americans over the age of 18 are currently without health insurance. That number reflects what the survey's authors describe as a "small but measurable uptick in the percentage of uninsured adults."

Crisis: Nearly Five Million Adults Have Lost Insurance Since Sept. '08

For those who aren't good with fractions, 16 percent is about one sixth of the adult population of this country. Considering that a roughly equal number are insured, but are not covered adequately, this is a problem for roughly one third of the country, and that proportion is growing. Failing on this will be a blot on the Democrats' record no matter what else they do in the next year and a half. As we've noted so far, they haven't done very much yet.

So President Obama is going on TV tonight to try to frame the debate more to the liking of those who want to see this system fixed. How successful that will be is a very important one, not only for us but for Obama as well.

Peter Doao wrote this today about the idea that the success of Barack Obama's presidency hangs on how this bill turns out:

The New York Times blares: In Health Care Fight, Defining Moment Nears for President. It's the "Waterloo" talking point, promulgated by Republicans, seized upon by the White House, and echoed by the punditocracy and online commentariat.

It's false.

Some form of health care reform may pass -- the contours may or may not be in place by the August recess (a deadline that has become a distraction rather than an impetus). Stakeholders across the health spectrum may or may not like the final compromise. Pollsters and pundits and press may or may not express approval. But either way, this is not the defining moment or issue of Obama's presidency.

There will be many more watersheds, many unforeseen events, many highs and lows, many poll dips and spikes. In the end, Barack Obama's presidency will be defined by the extent to which he attempts to right America's (badly adrift) moral ship. Providing universal quality affordable health care is only a part of that process, albeit a significant one.

Obama's Presidency Will Not Be Defined by Health Reform (The "Waterloo" Myth)

This will no doubt come as news for Mr. Daou, but for those of us who don't have health insurance, and those of us who are worried that our health insurance won't actually pay to keep us healthy, the "moral ship" of this country is a distinctly minor concern. People are dying for lack of health care in this country by the tens of thousands. For those without family or lifelong friends, there is no safety net anymore.

In addition, as I've already mentioned, this Democratic leadership has done nothing else of note so far. The stimulus bill they put together is completely inadequate to the task of getting this country back on track economically. They were pantsed by the bankers multiple times, and actually had the chutzpah to say that they'd been successful. They haven't done a damn thing about Guantanamo or the other black sites, and they don't seem inclined to move out of Iraq any time soon. They've gradually pissed away whatever good will they had going into this congressional session. These are the things that matter, or at least will matter, to ordinary Americans. The health of the economy and our own health are two things nearly all of us are concerned about, and right now things aren't looking too good. They have managed, to quote Scorpius, to make their vector for success vanishingly small. In short, if they don't produce a decent health care bill, there's not much else they can do that's going to impress their voters.

Taylor Marsh sums up the other problem pretty well here:

Whether its secret meetings with health care industry honchos, or the missteps on marketing health care out of the White House, the debate on universal health care has the potential to become THE symbol of the Obama presidency. And not in a good way.

Pres. Obama came in with record approval numbers here and across the world. His outreach to the world, but particularly the Muslim world, has been greeted with unanimous praise and hope. But at a time when the American people, in a large plurality, have weighed in that they want universal health care, Obama has allowed the naysayers to hijack, not only the debate, but the positive impact of national health care, even when the numbers began strongly on his side. Slowly, we’ve seen these numbers erode. Why? Because the White House naively thought their bipartisan call would be greeted warmly and that Barack Obama would become the political exception to the rule of national politics.

So, the health care debate could become a symbol of Barack Obama’s presidency and how even the mighty can fall, if the opposition, including some in his own party, come at him hard enough.
The “Waterloo myth,” as Peter cites, isn’t a myth at all right now. The symbol has been hoisted. It all depends what happens on health care. Unfortunately, even if Obama succeeds, the seeds have been planted that his health care reform isn’t the best prescription, which means Obama’s health care reform could become the rallying cry for 2010 and beyond.

If that’s not defining Obama’s presidency by health care reform, I don’t know what is.

Health Care a Symbol of Worse to Come if Obama Fails

Sometimes, I think that image and appearances are 90% of politics. They aren't really, and goodness knows they shouldn't be, but they're very powerful nonetheless. The health care reform issue is a perfect example of the failure of the Obama Administration and the Democratic leaders in Congress to deal with what's ailing this country. They didn't turn to progressive organizations, particularly the blogs until a couple of days ago - long after things started going south, and long after the decisions had been made. They managed to honk off many of us by not even considering single payer health insurance as an option. It's possible that, in the end, we would have had to abandon that idea for now, but at least having the discussion would have let everyone have their say, and would have served to give advocates of single payer some ownership of whatever legislation ended up coming to the floors of Congress.

What's worse, they let the message about reform get hijacked by the insurance industry and their sycophants in the news and in Congress. Instead of saying what they were trying to accomplish and how, they let their opponents define it for them. Needless to say, that hasn't gone well for our side.

The irony, of course, is that if they do manage to get this right, Obama and the Democrats could probably coast for the next year and a half. They would have done something that would be directly beneficial to tens of millions of voters. Every time those voters saw a doctor, or were treated for an ailment they used to have to ignore or live with, they would be reminded of what was accomplished. There are certainly people like me who will remember all the other things that they failed to do, but to say we'd be in the minority is an epic understatement. People vote their pocketbooks, and anything that's related.

As Daou mentions, there's much that can change in the next eighteen months, but there is probably as much that can change in the Republicans' favor as the Democrats. If I were the latter, I'd be worried right now. And I'd be asking Rep. Pelosi where you can get a good mai tai in DC.

UPDATE: The transcript of President Obama's news conference isn't an especially inspiring read. He makes some good points about what needs to be done, but even in print it looks like he was phoning it in. Taylor Marsh watched the conference, and that seems to be her impression, also. As both she and FireDogLake mentioned, he has started calling this "health insurance reform", which is a more honest label. It's mostly about how we pay for medical care, not the care itself.

Anyway, certainly not a knockout punch, and maybe not more than a slap. This is going to be a long battle, and I'm not terribly confident that it will feel like a victory at the end.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Turkey Shot Down

Image credit U.S. Air Force

The Congress and the President did something right today, as the New York Times notes:

With some of his political capital on the line, President Obama won a crucial victory on Tuesday when the Senate voted to strip out $1.75 billion in financing for seven more F-22 jet fighters from a military authorization bill.

Obama Wins Crucial Round in Senate Vote on F-22

The F-22 Raptor is probably the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world. The NYT article goes on to say:

Critics have long portrayed the F-22 as a cold war relic. The plane was designed in the late 1980s and can perform tactical operations at higher altitudes than other fighters. It can cruise at supersonic speeds without using telltale afterburners, and it has a stealthy skin that scatters radar detection signals. Proponents see it as a form of insurance against possible wars with countries like China.

Obama Wins Crucial Round in Senate Vote on F-22

Conflict with China is years away, assuming it happens at all. With the advancements in remotely-piloted aircraft that have happened in the last decade, it's quite possible that the F-22 will be the last manned interceptor aircraft America ever builds. Meanwhile, the F-22 has been a maintenance nightmare:

The jet's metallic skin is reportedly the principal cause of its maintenance troubles, with unexpected problems such as vulnerability to rain and other abrasions.

Recent tests have required more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight, The Washington Post says, quoting government reports. Such maintenance demand is said to push the plane's hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000, far higher than for the warplane it replaces.

Expensive F-22 having maintenance woes

Extra maintenance is to be expected on aircraft with advanced features, at least during development, but the F-22 has been in development for more than a decade. That these problems are still cropping up is worrisome.

As Taylor Marsh's guest analyst Winslow Wheeler notes, this was a victory for President Obama and the Senate over the sort of pork barrel politics that the defense business reeks of:

Narrow parochial interests outranking an effective defense has been crippling our armed forces for decades. Pentagon data show that America’s military budget is now larger than at any point since the end of World War II. However, our Air Force has fewer combat aircraft than at any point since 1946.

The Congressional Budget Office informs us that this reduced number of tactical aircraft is, on average, older than ever before. Still worse, Air Force combat pilots get one-half, or less, of the in-air training time they had, for example, in the early 1970s. Major reasons for this decay are programs like the F-22 and the F-35.

Heating Up the Defense Meltdown

The way that weapons development programs are handled these days is sucking the life out of the budget, and is doing no good at all for the military. The way the game is played now is for major projects to be spread all over the country. This makes it harder for Senators and congressmen to oppose a program, because if the program is cut, jobs will be lost in their constituencies. You can see how that played out in the case of the F-22. Senators Boxer (D-CA), Feinstein (D-CA), Murray (D-WA), and Cantwell (D-WA) all voted in favor of the F-22. Except for Feinstein, all are moderates or liberals, and all come from progressive states. Yet they voted in favor of continued production because they have plants in their states.

Another effect of this distribution is that subcontractors, test organizations, logistics, and contract administration for a program are often hundreds or even thousands of miles away from each other. In addition to making communications more difficult, this also necessitates far more travel and shipping costs. What's worse, the programs are so rigidly specified, and often overspecified, that it is far more likely that changes or delays will affect the production schedule. If you want to see how to make a product development process hideously expensive, just look at how the Pentagon does it.

The Pentagon procurement process needs desparately to be reformed. Unfortunately, until Congress and the President are both really on board with doing that, it won't happen. At least this development gives us some hope that it will happen.

If We Can Put Men On The Moon ...

Apollo 11's Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) on the Moon, July 20, 1969. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin is in front of the LEM.(Click for a larger image.) Image credit: NASA/Wikimedia

That used to be an expression you heard all the time. It was a rhetorical question that people used when they wondered why something that bothered them wasn't fixed. If we could put a man on a moon, why couldn't we make cars that didn't kill their occupants when they crashed, or make a milk carton you could get open without tearing it to shreds? Why, if we could do something so difficult and expensive, couldn't we do the simple things?

As we passed the fortieth anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the Moon, I once again have to wonder. If we could put a man on the moon forty years ago, why can't we have universal health care now?

Putting people on the moon was anything but an easy or sure thing fifty years ago. When President John F. Kennedy announced the plan to put people on the moon in a decade, there was no assurance that it was even possible. While there were no physical reasons that it couldn't be done, there were plenty of practical ones. At that time, the sort of rockets we'd use for such a journey were more prone to blowing up on the pad than they were to arriving at their intended destination. Computers wouldn't fit in a house, much less inside the electronics bay of a spaceship. The trip would occur mostly in vacuum, which required extraordinary protection for both the people we were sending into space and the ships that would take them there. From an engineering perspective alone, it was a tremendous challenge.

It was a challenge in other ways, too. It was dangerous, both for those who tested and fired the rockets, and for those who rode them. It was expensive. It was stupendously, almost ridiculously, expensive. While it was certainly a worthy objective, it wasn't strictly necessary. Yet we did it anyway.

Putting men on the moon was one of the many things we did in our competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was one of the many constructive things we did following the end of World War II. Presidents Kennedy, Harry S Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, were veterans of past world wars. They were all determined to make sure that we were never caught as unprepared as we had been for the last two wars. This was prudent, of course. What showed them to be wise, though, was their equal determination to prevent another such war. They began the United Nations to ensure that nations would have a place to resolve their differences without war. They rebuilt Europe and Japan so that they could help resist the Communist Bloc, and also so they wouldn't be the source of another world conflict. They knew that poverty, hopelessness, and the unwillingness of national leaders to talk with each other caused wars, and they set about making sure those things would be less likely in the future. As President Kennedy said at his inauguration:

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

John F. Kennedy Inauguration Speech

They also applied those lessons at home. They created the GI Bill, which paid the way for millions of war veterans to go to college. They insisted on equal rights for minorities. They even fought a "war on poverty", and were somewhat successful. Their political contemporaries in Congress, some of whom had been to war themselves, and all of whom had experienced it in one way or another, were supportive of these efforts more often than not. For those people, Kennedy's words that we would "pay any price, bear any burden" expressed their desires, too. Those wars had been started by countries where freedoms were few and both justice and opportunity were rare. Americans, having paid a heavy price for the last two wars, were also determined to avoid another such experience.

Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy's Vice President and a former leader in Congress, found ways to pay for many of these efforts. Sometimes, those ways included making himself and his cronies rich, but he implemented much of Kennedy's vision. You can thank Lyndon Johnson for the location of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, Texas. Still, in those days even an avaricious bastard like LBJ could recognize that making his world a better place could make his life better.

Needless to say, the space program wasn't just about making the world better. It was a part of our competition with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower and Kennedy both realized that if the competition grew even more intense, we might have to seize the high ground of space before the Soviets could. The space program built up the facilities and the experience necessary to do that. Strictly speaking, a civilian program for space exploration wasn't needed, but they embraced the notion so that the hope could remain that we and the Soviets could avoid taking our arms race into orbit. In the end, they were right.

President Kennedy expressed the spirit of those times with these words:

[W]e choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort

They knew that, to use an expression of the times, a rising tide lifted all boats. They knew that government was there to do the things that were hard, the things that the markets and individuals couldn't do on their own. They didn't shrink from those tasks. They rebuilt Europe and Japan. They ended racial discrimination. They fought poverty as well as anyone. They sent men to the Moon.

Compare those leaders and their accomplishments to what we are seeing from our "leaders" today. The Republicans today are the epitome of the "What about me? What about my needs?" impulse. They whine about how minorities and the poor have it so much better than they do. The Democrats seem to be following their own path to uselessness. The Democrats in Congress didn't get it done when it came to ending the useless war in Iraq. They didn't resist the urge to pander to the telecom industry instead of bringing an outlaw President to justice. They couldn't even handle the banking crisis. We've listened to these people snivel about how hard it all is to do these things, even though anyone who could hold a thought in his head knew they were necessary. You'd think they hadn't even applied for the jobs they now have.

Their greed and shortsightedness have reversed much of the gains ordinary Americans made following the Second World War. The economic gains in particular have been erased.

Now, the best they seem to be able to do on health care is a lousy bill that won't start working until 2013. It won't cover millions of Americans. It will probably make the government the insurer of last resort for all the people the insurance industry doesn't want to cover.

The best you can say about this plan is that Congress will have three years to repeal it. The Senate's bill is shaping up to be even worse. It will make us hostages to the insurance industry for even emergency health care. If President Van Pelt doesn't put his foot down, that's likely to be the bill that's passed, if our recent experience with the telecom immunity bill is any indication.

Of course, any health care bill is going to be much more expensive than the Apollo program was. That should go without saying. But it should also go without saying that adequate health care for our citizens is also necessary. Lack of proper health care for a large portion of our population is an economic drain. It's a hazard to our well being, because pockets of poverty will also become pockets of dangerous health issues. The cost of health care is putting American companies at an increasing disadvantage with their European and Asian competitors. For both selfish and ethical reasons, truly universal health care is a necessity, not a luxury.

What's more, in contrast to the moon landing, we know that it's possible for an advanced country to provide medical care to all its citizens. Canada and most of the countries of western Europe have managed this feat for at least a generation. Canada pays about two thirds per capita what we do for their health care. Yet to hear members of Congress and the President tell you, it's a feat comparable to turning lead into gold.

Image credit: Kennedy Space Center

A little over ten years ago I visited the Apollo/Saturn V Museum at the Kennedy Space Center. Needless to say, for a techno-geek it was a fascinating experience. It was also a time to reflect on what we have done to build on that success. At the time, it had been nearly thirty years since the first Moon landing, and more than twenty-five since the last. In the intervening time, besides a few unmanned probes, we had only the space shuttle to show for the efforts of a quarter century.

The museum was built around the last of the Saturn V moon rockets. For someone who grew up following the manned space program, seeing that giant machine in pieces in a museum was profoundly sad. The vision, courage, and human effort that went into that endeavor had been reduced to a few signs and some leftover hardware. The effort to explore and work in space that it represented has been largely abandoned. If you want to see a monument to the shortsightedness and selfishness of the last four decades, this is as good a place to go as any.

Or you could go to just about any hospital emergency room in America, and watch as people wait for hours to be seen for ailments that they would be able to get treated for as a matter of routine in most countries.

Of all the things we've lost in the last few decades, the ability to recognize our problems, and to find leaders who are willing to find and implement constructive ways of fixing those problems, might be the most tragic loss of all.

UPDATE (Dec. 10, 2012): A reader named Sara pointed out that the link about the Democrats' path to uselessness ( no longer works. Go figure. I've put one in its place that should stand the test of time, at least for a few years. ;)

Thanks, Sara, for the update.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Walter Cronkite

Image credit: Screenshot of Newseum clip by Cujo359

Being otherwise occupied recently, I missed this, as reported by Peter Hyman:

Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” has died. He was 92. There are no shortage of obituaries and tributes from every major media organization, as befits a man who delivered the news with grace, elegance and a sense of measured fairness. One cannot help but compare the current state of broadcast journalism to the heightened form that he practiced. Indeed, it feels as if an important door to the 20th century has been sealed tonight.

Walter Cronkite, Consummate Newsman, Dead at 92

Perhaps no better contrast has been drawn between Cronkite and his contemporaries, and the pretenders and spokesmodels who try to fill his shoes today than these two quotes Glenn Greenwald led his article with:

"The Vietcong did not win by a knockout [in the Tet Offensive], but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. . . . We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . .

"For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past" -- Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, February 27, 1968.

"I think there are a lot of critics who think that [in the run-up to the Iraq War] . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you're a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn't do our job. I respectfully disagree. It's not our role" -- David Gregory, MSNBC, May 28, 2008.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam died, media stars everywhere commemorated his death as though he were one of them -- as though they do what he did -- even though he had nothing but bottomless, intense disdain for everything they do. As he put it in a 2005 speech to students at the Columbia School of Journalism: "the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be . . . . By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are."

Celebrating Cronkite While Ignoring What He Did

[links and emphasis from original]

Posers like Gregory, and empty-headed spokesmodels like Brian Williams, are the norm these days. What Cronkite said at the end of the Tet Offensive in 1968 has proved true. If anything, he was stating the obvious as far as anyone who understood history was concerned. Britain's colonial campaigns and their aftermath were lesson enough. At the time, though, it took courage not only on Cronkite's part, but on the part of the management he worked for. They caught no end of flak saying the things that should have been blindingly obvious to their critics. In many cases, as with Robert McNamara, they were.

Yet today, the supposed journalists who populate the TV news have abdicated the only role that really makes them useful - that of the people who ask the questions and find out whether the answers are true. I gave up watching shows like Gregory's Meet The Press more than a decade ago, because it was obvious even then that all they were doing was providing politicians another soapbox instead of asking them to explain the difference between what they say and the obvious truth. No doubt Gregory and his contemporaries take a dim view of the likes of Talking Points Memo or Screw Loose Change, where the reporters' political opinions are front and center in most articles, yet they're ten times the journalists the David Gregorys of the world could ever hope to be.

What did Walter Cronkite think of his successors? Here's a quote from an interview he did in 1996, as quoted by Glenn Greenwald:

What do I regret? Well, I regret that in our attempt to establish some standards, we didn't make them stick. We couldn't find a way to pass them on to another generation.

Celebrating Cronkite While Ignoring What He Did

That's a polite way of saying that the current crop of TV "news" organizations have failed to stay true to Cronkite's legacy.

The fact that more young people watch shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report than watch network news shows should be all the wakeup call that network news divisions need, yet they seem to have no plans to change. That is what's so sad about Cronkite's passing.

UPDATE (July 22): Thanks to Dana Hunter's mentioning it in the comments, I found this smackdown of Brian Williams by Jon Stewart yesterday. Williams, once again, proves shameless when people point out exactly what's wrong with how he does journalism.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why I Use 64-Bit Linux

What's wrong with planning ahead?

Click here to (hopefully) see the comic

I'm sure I'll have lots of other problems to deal with in 2038, like whether we'll be having soup that day.

By way of background, back in the early 90's I was on a software project that had to predict the orbit of the planets and the moon. Someone asked whether it was Y2K compliant. Since it was written for Unix, I said it would be fine until 2037, and I was willing to let the Year 2038 problem take care of itself.

It's important to give future generations something to strive for.

Profiles In Urine

Image credit: NASA TV

Don't you just love the ability of computers to search for similar information to what you're reading at the moment?

Efrique led me to this article about an Ohio University project to extract hydrogen from urine:

Gerardine Botte, an Ohio University professor, sees the liquid as a solution thanks to the particular composition of its major component, urea. Its make-up, a 2-to-1 ratio of hydrogen and nitrogen, is convenient because hydrogen can be extracted from nitrogen using much less electricity than that needed to, say, pull apart hydrogen and oxygen. (It’s a matter of 0.037 Volts versus 1.23 Volts, if you really need to know.)

The Power Of Pee

I can't wait for the usual know-nothings to start railing against this use of government funds.

Then, I noticed in the "Related articles" column, and in it was this gem:

There's nothing like washing down some freeze-dried space grub with a gulp of what you and your crewmates excreted just days prior. NASA announced yesterday that the recently installed urine and sweat recycling system on the International Space Station (ISS) has begun to churn out good, potable water, fit for consumption in orbit and terrestrially (though don't expect it to compete with Evian). To celebrate, ISS crewmembers and NASA folk on Earth raised a toast Wednesday and took a drink.

Space Station Astronauts Toast ISS Kitchen Upgrades With Their Own Urine

Far from being a waste of money, these are great examples of using technology to solve problems. Spaceflight, and settling on worlds that lack water, will require that we be able to recycle all the water astronauts excrete. In a world that is running out of drinkable water, this technology may have applications closer to home someday.

The energy cost of separating hydrogen from other elements we normally find it combined with is one of the principle drawbacks to hydrogen power. Whether it is obtained from biomass or growing crops or from splitting water molecules, that cost is so high that hydrogen may not be a viable fuel, even though it is the most plentiful element in the universe. Extracting it from a readily available source could be a breakthrough.

The net effect of research efforts like these could be that someday, we will use what is now a waste product that must be disposed of as a source of vitally important commodities.

So the next time someone asks, no doubt rhetorically, why we spend all this money on research into disgusting things like using urine in new ways, you can tell them it's because someday soon we'll need it.