Friday, March 30, 2007

Green Boats

A Swiss catamaran just crossed the Atlantic powered only by solar energy. Cool.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Actual Good News

It feels unbelievably good to write this: Defense Secretary Robert Gates just told members of the House that he advocates closing the Guantanamo prison.

Gates believes that "because of things that happened earlier at Guantanamo there is a taint about it" and because "no matter how transparent, no matter how open the trials, if they took place in Guantanamo, in the international community they would lack credibility." He takes the very sensible stance that, while some of the prisoners are far too dangerous ever to be released, most of them aren't and that they should all get fair trials.

At this moment, Justice staffers are probably having to explain to Alberto Gonzales that he's not empowered to fire Gates.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Protect Me From Lawsuits!

You would think, the way lawsuits are often written about, that they are a blight on society that threatens everyone's future. Michelle Malkin blogs about a House Republican initiative to protect people from being sued for reporting "suspicious activity," by other passengers on airlines or on public transportation.

I'm not entirely without sympathy for this position. Every day, when I ride the subways in New York City, I hear an announcement urging me to tell MTA officials or NYPD officers if I see suspicious activity. If the government is encouraging me to do so, then I shouldn't be sued for it.

But, the potential for abuse here is so obvious that it barely needs explaining. If I'm a racist, for example, I could report a member of my favorite hated race as suspicious. Should the person I've reported have no recourse against me? What if I'm not a racist but just paranoid? Does everyone in the world have to conform to standards of behavior that don't spark my paranoia?

This all arises from a lawsuit brought by several muslim clerics who were removed from a flight because they prayed in the terminal before boarding and then sat in the wrong seats on the plane. They're suing the people who identified them as suspicious.

Again, I have some sympathy for the people who complained about them -- it's been our government and media that has told people that suicide bombers pray before the act -- but... what if I complained about a Christian praying before or on a flight? What about the (correct) right wing insistence that public displays of religion are entirely protected by the constitution?

Look... muslims have the right to pray in public. If that makes you uncomfortable, get over it. If it makes you call the authorities, curtail their right to travel and subject them to an investigation, why exactly shouldn't they be able to sue you?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Damned if We do, damned if we don't... shoot you in the face

Well, seems an aide to Senator Jim Webb was caught carrying an unloaded semiautomatic pistol, with ammo in a separate bag, into the Senate building today.

Republicans are having a field day with this

But... these are the same people who criticize Democrats for not being man enought to carry firearms.

And... nobody got shot in the face.

Obviously, this was a massive foul-up, but nothing more.

Republican criticism of it is just an example of the pot calling the kettle a penned-up dove that was bred for being shot by senior citizens on hunting trips.

I Feel Better Now

So I used to think that I was the only American reading my posts to this blog, and that used to make me feel bad. But now I don't feel that way. Yes, I'm probably still the only American reading my posts. But it's not because my fellow citizens don't want to read it. Well, not only because they don't want to. It's also because they can't.

You may have heard lately that one-third of the adult residents of Washington, D.C. are functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy entails struggling to read maps, simple instructions, bus schedules. That's horrifying, yes. But the truly horrifying number comes when literacy groups and reports try to contextualize that number. It is, they say in impressive tones, much higher than the national figure of one-fifth of Americans.

One-fifth! One-holy-outsourcing-french-fry-fetching-voting-at-random-fucking-fifth!

At this point, America's real capital isn't manufacturing. It's intellectual production. With that many functionally illiterate people, America will soon find itself too stupid to produce the episodes of "Ow, My Balls!" that it watches.

And democracy? Forget it. If you think that being able to track USA Today's "Snapshot" is too hard for some people, you don't believe in citizens debating and deciding their collective path forward.

Of course, the silver lining here is that what has made China such an economic superpower in past decades is a combination of embracing the free market, rejecting political freedom, and having a huge pool of unskilled workers living at the edge of starvation. And if things keep up as they are here, in ten years we might be able to outcompete them in all of those categories. Just think of all the plastic models of the Great Wall and all the bobblehead Yao Ming dolls the peasants of Sacramento and Portland will be able to ship to the consumer classes of Fujian province.

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Good News!

By which, of course, I mean bad news.

The prestigious British medical journal The Lancet recently released a study indicating that about 650,000 Iraqis have died during the Iraq War.

Some in the British government are questioning the study's sampling method, even though the method is the standard one for battleground estimates. But the chief scientific advisor to the British Ministry of Defense has said that the estimate is pretty much as good as possible, and even its British critics in the Foreign Office have written, "The survey methodology used here cannot be rubbished, it is a tried and tested way of measuring mortality in conflict zones."

At Iraq Body Count, the death toll is at about 62,500. But, as they point out, they're counting only reported deaths. And, as they point out, "It is likely that many if not most civilian casualties will go unreported by the media. That is the sad nature of war." So The Lancet figure isn't necessarily inconsistent with the IBC figure.

Still, if we're optimistic, maybe the IBC number is only, say, a 10% undercount. That would mean that only 70,000 Iraqis had died since the war began. Which is a mere 23 times more than died in the 9/11 attacks. Cheer up, Iraqis! Good news!

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Amateur Legal Advice for Drug Dealers

So Mike and I agree that prisoner detention at Guantanamo will probably never get the swift attention it deserves and that those responsible for making it a legal and moral morass will never get the punishment they deserve. Robert Gates, the new Defense Secretary, reportedly has wanted to close it since before coming into office, and if the Defense Secretary can't or won't close it, then there's not much chance anybody else will.

Don't worry. This isn't another attack on torture at Guantanamo. (Lord knows we need more of those, but lord knows that nobody with an ounce of influence seems to listen to them or to act on them.) It is, instead, a gradual build-up to an innovative but potentially useful defense for drug dealers, arms dealers, and others who in the discharge of their professional duties may run afoul of the authorities.

Guantanamo as a detention facility exists because the courts have ruled that it's not on US soil, and therefore US legal protections don't apply to inmates held there. I don't buy that for a second. The Guantanamo Naval Base is a heavily fortified military facility that has been under continuous American control since 1903. If something becomes American soil because Americans have worked on it, lived on it, and defended it for generations, then Guantanamo has a better claim to being US soil than do big parts of my home state of Illinois and most of Alaska.

The rationale for saying that Guantanamo isn't US soil is that, technically, we've been leasing it from the Cuban government since 1903. So we're renters, not owners.

But this raises a big set of questions: if US law doesn't apply because Guantanamo isn't the US, then whose law should? Well, for military personnel, I assume it should be the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which applies to all American soldiers wherever they're stationed. But what about non-military personnel--the detainees, the Cuban asylum-seekers who live and even work on the base? Well, they're not on American soil, so it can't be US law. They're not in the US military, so it can't be the Uniform Code. But they are on Cuban soil, so it must be Cuban law. Problem solved.

Of course, that doesn't solve the problem at all. If civilians on the naval base are subject to Cuban law, then we should turn over the al-Qaeda prisoners, the "al-Qaeda" prisoners, and the asylum-seekers to Cuban courts. ("Thank you for seeking asylum from Cuba in Cuba. Your petition for political asylum will be heard by Castro's great-nephew, who will determine whether you will be granted asylum in Cuba or instead deported back to Cuba.")

Since that's clearly impossible, we're back to the Kafkaesque legal fiction that Guantanamo is under US control by force and by treaty but not part of the US. Because, see, we're tenants, not owners.

As bizarre and ludicrous as that may be, it has a potential upside for criminals who get a little sloppy prior to the issuance of a search warrant:
POLICE: We've got you dead to rights, O'Shea. Twenty-three, two-kilo bricks of Oregon's finest pot. Six kilos of uncut coke. Two crates of Chinese AK-47 knockoffs with matching crates of cop-killer bullets. Two shoulder-mounted RPG launchers. And three kilos of weapons-grade plutonium. You're gonna be serving ten consecutive life sentences.
O'SHEA: That' ain't my stuff, man.
POLICE: What are you talking about? We found them in your apartment, badly hidden in your bedroom closet under back issues of Better Housekeeping with your name on all the mailing labels. The bullets were wrapped in a blanket that has your name and "Camp Adventure, 1979" embroidered on it.
O'SHEA: Sure. That's where you found them. In my apartment.
POLICE: So you admit it?
O'SHEA: In my rented apartment. Which, of course, means it's not mine. Anything you find in my rented apartment doesn't belong to me or to my landlord.
POLICE: So who does it belong to, O'Shea?
O'SHEA: I dunno. Cuba?
POLICE: Right then. Men, we're gonna make a little trip to Havana, to arrest Fidel Castro.

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I Could Swear They Used to Talk About Decency and Integrity

Remember George W. Bush's first Presidential campaign? Above all it positioned Bush as a candidate who would avoid the scandals of the Clinton years. It promised us that Bush would restore "honor and dignity" to the Oval Office and (hilariously) that it would restore America's tarnished reputation abroad.

In August 2000, Dick Cheney solemnly promised that Bush would "repair what has been damaged. ... On the first hour of the first day, he will restore decency and integrity to the Oval Office."

Flash-forward to March 2007. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Bush are under scrutiny for the firings of 8 US attorneys who seem mostly to have been fired because they were prosecuting Republicans or weren't prosecuting Democrats. Bush and Gonzales, along with their defenders, have pointed out that US attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President. They can therefore be fired for displeasing the President; there is nothing illegal about that.

True enough. But it's sort of pathetic that the best and only defense anyone at Justice or the White House has been able to sustain for the firings is that they're "not illegal." As cynical as we are, most Americans still at least hope that the standard of good governance is a little higher than merely being non-criminal. Having integrity is way more than being unindictable. Decency demands more than staying a quarter-inch inside the lines of the penal code.

One of the biggest requirements of decency and integrity when it comes to being a politician is to do everything you can to provide the services that most benefit Americans, whether or not doing so helps you or hurts you politically. And a big part of that is having a judicial system that people trust to be driven by an honest desire to find the truth, to protect the innocent, and to prosecute the guilty. That's a tall order, and to do it right, one has to be as honest and careful as one can.

So if US attorneys are doing a good job, prosecuting legitimate cases, not prosecuting hopeless or groundless cases, etc. the President and his Attorney General should congratulate them for that. Not fire them for partisan reasons and pretend it was about their competence. Doing that violates decency and integrity. "Not illegal" just isn't the same as "acceptable."

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Breaking News! Big News! Huge! Must Credit Me!

...or "The Politico," who broke the story:

Bush Nephew Joins Navy Reserve

When a member of the Bush family joins the Navy Reserve it means only one thing... a draft is coming.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Counting Carbon

Manufacturers and environmentalists in the UK are doing a trial run of a plan to label consumer goods with information about the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere as a result of the manufacture and transportation of the products. Carbon released into the atmosphere generally becomes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, so this is the first set-up (that I'm aware of) that will let consumers make informed choices about their contributions to global warming. Sounds like a great idea. Hope it works.


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Oh Miers!

In classic passive-voice buck-passing, Alberto Gonzales has now acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in canning eight Republican-appointed US attorneys whose primary dereliction of duty appears to have been not bringing enough trumped up political corruption cases against Democrats right before the 2006 election. (Never mind that under Bush, the 93 US attorneys have brought 10 political corruption cases against independents, 67 against Republicans, and 298 against Democrats.)

Meanwhile, the White House is also passing the buck, insisting that Bush approved but basically knew nothing about the firings.

There are all kinds of glorious hypocrisies and stupidities in play here. My favorite has to be the White House and Gonzales both trying to put the blame on Harriet Miers, former White House counsel.

Miers, everyone is saying, actually wanted to fire all 93 US attorneys, but Gonzales heroically said no because he thought it might be disruptive. (Ya think?) So, basically, Gonzales is trying to say that firing the 8 US attorneys (his call) wasn't really his fault because somebody (whose call it wasn't) wanted to fire even more than that.

And Bush's spokespeople are saying, "Well, you know, at least we didn't listen to crazy old Harriet Miers." Except that, less than two years ago, Bush thought so much of Harriet Miers's legal acumen and sound judgment that he nominated her to the Supreme Court. I suppose we can thank Katrina for making it impossible for Bush to nominate Michael Brown to head Homeland Security.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Go, Cananglicans!

If it weren't for all the religion, I'd seriously consider becoming an Anglican. The North American Anglican church actually strikes me as a religion for grown-ups.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

First Laws of Robotics

I've just learned that various groups, including the South Korean government, are giving serious thought to the ethical issues raised by the proliferation and increased sophistication of robots. These aren't labor-union worries (is it fair to replace me with a machine?) but rather artificial-intelligence worries (what if they "wake up"? is it okay to diddle an android?). More details here.

The sci-fi geek in me is chuffed: I many never get my flying car, but I finally get to see Asimov's laws of robotics introduced into a legitimate news story. Colony spaceships can't be far behind.

The part of me that writes grumpy blog posts, however, is cynically amused. A lot of people say that it's impossible to create, accidentally or deliberately, a truly sentient robot. A lot of people say that we might never be able to prove that we had done so even were we to do so. My sense is that it'll be easy to tell. Keep an eye on advanced robots and computers. The first one to be kidnapped, raped, beaten, robbed, sold, and eventually killed will be the first sentient one. Humans have a hard time not brutalizing and murdering other humans. We send dogs to sniff explosives, dolphins to find aquatic mines, and cows to become burgers. What are the odds we'll be civilized and respectful of steel and silicon critters?

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

An Idiot

If you want to know whom this post is about, you'll have to Google recent news stories for "John Edwards," "CPAC," and "faggot (as in, An Idiot called John Edwards a faggot at a gathering held by the Conservative Political Action Committee).

Most of you know who An Idiot is. She's a famous idiot. But An Idiot is above all else a self-promoter, so as a small gesture of protest I'm refusing to name her in this post.

So, yeah, what An Idiot said was offensive. Offensive, petty, and lame. But I've lost track of why I'm supposed to care. If you sit on a bus or go to a country club luncheon, you'll hear people say equally stupid things a dozen times an hour. But those don't generate controversy in the media. Why not? Because nobody who says them is famous. Fair enough, but why is An Idiot famous? Well, for saying stupid things. You see the problem.

An Idiot doesn't write policy. She doesn't advise people who write policy. She doesn't conduct legitimate research or journalism (i.e., fact-finding that comes from an effort to be fair and thorough). She doesn't even have some other skill--like a crossover dribble or an eight-octave range--that makes her interesting in some other way. An Idiot is a machine for the generation of hateful slurs and distortions ultimately intended not to help any cause (her remarks embarrassed CPAC and all the Republican candidates) but rather to get attention for herself. It's not a surprise, then, when she offers up a hateful slur or distortion. That's what she does. If she had any other skills, she might get a real job. As it is, calling Edwards names is her job. Running stories on "Idiot Calls Edwards 'Faggot'" is like running stories under the headline "Cashier Rings Up Purchase" or "Monkey Flings Poo."

At this point, I'm less annoyed by An Idiot than I am with the members of the media who act as if her stupidity mattered and by the rest of us who validate that behavior by continuing to consume the media coverage. I say we forget it. She just doesn't matter.

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