Friday, June 15, 2007

Hmph, wut's goin on here?

Where the hell have I been? Busy, busy, busy. I'm about to commit to a re-registering of my domain name, though, so hopefully that will encourage me to get back to posting. Tune in later!!!

Friday, December 30, 2005

Shadows Of Nixon

Well, it seems that the Department of Justice is opening an investigation related to the president's secret domestic spying program. One big problem, though. The investigation isn't into the president's apparently illegal actions, but rather into the leak of those actions to the media.

Once again, the Bush Administration shows clearly that it expects to be able to operate with impunity and with no regard to the laws of the land, and is only concerned if it gets caught doing it. President Bush is once again trying to frighten the American people into passive acceptance of further limits on their liberties, invoking the specter of an attack worse than Sept. 11. Something worth reading to put this in some interesting context is Joe Keohane's recent piece in The Boston Globe recalling Sinclair Lewis' fictional portrayal of the rise of a fascist dictator in America. There are some disturbing parallels.

Another disturbing parallel comes from that master of all things disturbing, Vice President Dick Cheney. While traveling with reporters, Cheney mentioned that the president needs his authority to be "unimpaired" in terms of conducting national security. Cheney somewhat foolishly made comparisons to the Watergate era, saying that since then, the president's powers have been reigned in by Congress and the courts.

Of course, he doesn't mention that Congress was snapping the presidency back to its position before Nixon and others tried to vastly expand the powers of the office. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney seem to be taking a Nixon maxim to heart: "When the President does it, that means that it's not illegal."

But I don't think Nixon was right then, and I don't think Bush and Cheney are right now. Unfortunately, with Congress dominated by Republicans, they won't call in the president to answer whether he committed a crime. Instead, they seek to punish those who would expose such crimes to the American people.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Bush On The Defensive

I've got to thank my friend, John, for sending along this New York Times editorial. The Times takes President Bush to task for his latest tactic of accusing his critics of "rewriting history." This is in relation to the pre-war intelligence that the administration interpreted -- or twisted -- into claims that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.

Yesterday in Alaska, Mr. Bush trotted out the same tedious deflection on Iraq that he usually attempts when his back is against the wall: he claims that questioning his actions three years ago is a betrayal of the troops in battle today.

It all amounts to one energetic effort at avoidance. But like the W.M.D. reports that started the whole thing, the only problem is that none of it has been true.

Bush's attack posture has been pretty laughable, especially since much of the facts are so clear. Gone are the days when he and his cohorts can simply make up things and expect the public to believe them. But that's exactly what he's trying to do to counter the growing criticism over how our country started the war in Iraq.

Bush also says that Democrats have no right to complain because they also voted to go to war based on the intelligence. But, as the Times editorial notes, this ignores the verified fact that Bush had better intelligence and that the administration deliberately had reports reworked to validate their preconceived ideas. And now Bush has the gall to blame Democrats for buying the bill of goods he was selling.

Just the latest step in the decline of the Bush presidency.

In a related note about the war in Iraq, I should note that I wasn't in favor of the Democratic proposal that was defeated earlier today that would have forced the administration to set a timeframe for withdrawal from Iraq. The Republican alternative is a bit toothless, however, calling for regular updates and saying next year should be "a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty."

What is needed in this situation is for certain criteria to be established that, once met, would be the signal for us to leave. That's kind of what the Bush Administration has been saying, but only in vague, formless statements about leaving "when the job's done." By establishing tiers of well-defined criteria that must be met in Iraq, we can hopefully withdraw in an orderly way, leaving a stable Iraq behind.

Granted, that's very idealistic, and there may be no way in which this whole mess will ever be counted a success. But neither an arbitrary withdrawal date nor vague promises of leaving whenever we feel like it will help improve the situation there.

The Revolution Of Evolution

Just wanted to point out a very interesting essay in Harvard Magazine regarding Darwin and his theory of evolution. The link actually goes to a series of essays the biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote to introduce each of Darwin's four major works. Wilson discusses much of the current debate over the attempts to insert religious teaching in place of scientific fact in the classroom and whether scientific humanism can finally triumph over the religious worldview that, while responsible for much of human culture, also leads to bigotry and, coupled with "toxic tribalism," brutal warfare.

Wilson also has a nifty definition of scientific humanism that sums up how I try to approach things:
Still held by only a tiny minority of the world's population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. It is the commonality of the hereditary responses and propensities that define our species. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 percent of its existence, it forms the behavioral part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called the indelible stamp of our lowly origin.
It's an enjoyable read, but if you can only skim, skip down past the sketches of the monkeys to find Wilson's critique of current events.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Perfect Political Storm

I've been away for a while, distracted by real-world events. Unexpected flooding in New Hampshire required a good deal of my focus, and you can read about the events here. Suffice it to say that the state of New Hampshire did a much better job dealing with the disaster than the government did with the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast. Granted, the scale was dramatically different, but government officials approached the Northeast crisis with a determination to do what needed to be done, regardless of cost. There was no blame game because everyone essentially did their jobs.

If New Hampshire held gubernatorial elections today, Gov. John Lynch would keep his job in a landslide. If President Bush were up for re-election today, he would lose by a landslide. Polls show that he doesn't have the worst numbers of any president ever, just the lowest of his presidential career. The drop is also remarkably steep for a man who enjoyed historically high approval ratings immediately following Sept. 11, 2001.

The decline in approval was sparked by what was seen as an ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina, but it's being heightened by the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination. While apologists were eager to demonize local officials and even the residents of the hurricane-struck areas themselves for their untimely deaths following Katrina, many of these same people are resoundingly criticizing the president for his choice of Miers. The difference is that Katrina, even though it called to attention chronic weaknesses in the government's emergency readiness, could somewhat cynically be seen as a one-time event, something that can fade from the public consciousness. A Supreme Court nomination, however, has the potential to change the country for decades to come.

President Bush's support came from a variety of groups that were in large part united on moral issues. At least, that was the bill of goods sold to many Americans who would have been better served by not voting for Bush. In terms of economics and overall quality of life, a relatively small portion of Americans actually stood to benefit from a Bush presidency. That's not to say that a well informed, lower- to middle-class American could not have logically come to the decision that voting for Bush was the right choice to make. Based on the moral arguments being put forth, a person might think that a hit to the wallet was worth maintaining or restoring the moral fiber of America. The fact that those moral arguments did not have logical consistency and were put forth solely for the purpose of getting Bush elected means, to my mind, that it was not a rational choice for these people to make, but it's at least somewhat understandable.

With the Miers nomination, the tensions between the various groups that supported Bush are laid bare. The moral arguments that were made are now being shown (some say) to have been simply a cynical power ploy to elect the president. He apparently has no desire to shape the moral fabric of the country, and his administration is acting just like an extension of the classic Texas "Good Old Boy" network, rewarding cronies for their fawning service. That's what the critics say, at least. In truth, not enough is known about Miers to be able to determine whether this concern of the Right has merit. She could be to the far right of Scalia, and no one would know.

Nonetheless, it's an opening for criticism, and coming right after Katrina, it's another powerful wedge. And it's something Bush is having to face without another crony, Karl Rove, who has been marginalized in the Valerie Plame affair. Congressional support is somewhat lessened as well, with the indictment of Tom DeLay (though DeLay's progeny still holds the positions of power in the House). Traditional Republicans (remember those folks who called for smaller government and individual responsibility? Way back in the day? Yeah, those Republicans) are asserting themselves again, hoping to put the party back on a track that might be able to salvage the mess the neocons made. And all under a watchful, revitalized press.

It remains to be seen how this will all play out politically. It's still a long time before the next presidential election, so all eyes will be on the midterms to see if Americans' newfound disdain for the leadership translates to the polls.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

How Far We've Come

It was 100 years ago this month that the world changed forever. Actually, it didn't change, but our understanding of it did. It was 1905, and the German physics journal Annalen der Physik was about to publish its volume 17. This would become perhaps the most famous physics publication in history, containing three essays from the patent clerk, Albert Einstein, including one that spelled out his special theory of relativity. He later added an additional essay, a footnote basically, that described the equation, E=mc2.

The astonishing implications of this weren't clear at the time, though a former student described how Einstein, in 1907, said that his realization that all mass was essentially untapped energy would probably be the most important consequence of his theory. It couldn't even be tested until 25 years later, but Einstein was proven right. In fact, his theory has been proven correct time and time again, though we still can grasp only some of the implications it has for the universe as a whole.

Einstein's theory came about like so many do. He saw a problem in our perception of the world as outlined by Newton. Nothing that was Newton's fault -- he just didn't have to deal with the concept of the speed of light being a universal constant. Einstein lived in a world with two basic concepts of physics -- Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell's equations -- that were incompatible. There had to be a way to reconcile them. After a despondent conversation with his friend Michele Besso, in which Einstein admitted defeat, he had a sudden moment of brilliance on the streetcar trip home. He realized that time can flow at different rates throughout the universe, depending on how fast you move.

It solved the problem neatly, even though the basic concept (and many concepts it spawned) seemed irrational. Over the following decades, Einstein's theory has been tested, confirmed and refined through the scientific process. This process demands continual testing of our theories so that we can discover all their implications and, if the theory fails, throw it out completely.

Now let's turn to our time. Right now, a group of parents are in a Pennsylvania courtroom, fighting to protect their children from the forces of fear and irrationality. Their school district has decided to require that students be told about intelligent design, the idea that life on Earth could only have originated or developed without the assistance of some unidentified intelligent force. Proponents of this belief say that there are some things the theory of evolution doesn't explain, and so this must mean that that there is an "intelligent designer" at work there.

It's a debate that scientists don't enjoy having (but they do in some cases), not because they fear being proven wrong, but because intelligent design does not represent science. It is an attempt to point out perceived holes in the theory and proclaim, "Ha! That's where God is!" It does not offer a scientifically testable alternative. Proponents cringe from that, in fact.

There are certain aspects of intelligent design that a lot of people find attractive. The general public and ID proponents have an inaccurate understanding of the word "theory" in the scientific sense. They throw the word around in phrases like, "It's only a theory." But evolution is "only" a theory in the sense that gravity is "only" a theory. In science, a theory is an explanation of observed phenomena that can be tested and stands up to rigorous testing. That's what evolution has done. It has been experimentally proven both in the real world and the lab.

Now let's look at ID. It offers no explanation, only saying, "Well, if you can't explain some aspect of what we see, it must mean God's doing it!" That, frankly, is stupid. There's no other way to describe it. You don't even have to mention the fact that a lot of what the ID proponents use as "evidence" of things that can't be explained are actually explained quite nicely by evolution. They take advantage of a gullible public and pandering school boards to squeeze religion into science classes. It dumbs down our children by undermining the bedrock of the scientific method, the same method that has raised us up from medieval squalor and allows us to glimpse the basic structure of reality.

It is disheartening to compare the story of Einstein with what's going on in that Pennsylvania courtroom. One hundred years after his eureka moment, we're still fighting the battle between superstitious belief and reason. Anyone who has some understanding of Einstein's theories and the discoveries that have come after can stare up at the night sky and feel the wonder of knowing what lights those stars. You can have some grasp of the majesty of our world when you know something about what it consists of and how it developed. All of this has been given to us by science. But some want to extinguish as much of that light as possible, overturning the pillars of science and reason in the process. It's disgusting, and it must be stopped.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Another Test Blows In

We're now getting another chance for our government officials to show whether they can protect people under the worst conditions. Of course, everything is a bit different this time.

On the news the other night they put up population totals of Texas cities in the possible path of Hurricane Rita. Before Katrina, that would have come off as crass and sensationalistic. Now, it's an important piece of the pre-hurricane planning. Katrina also has primed people to be extra cautious. The highways out of Houston have been jammed for over a day now as everyone tries to evacuate. There have been tragic side effects to this already. People are turning back from the crowded, gas-depleted roads and returning home in the hope of waiting it out.

Watching the chaos of a failed evacuation, it would be tempting to label this second test a failure. But that's not indicated right now. Even as the highways were completely impassable, officials were still calling for evacuations. It's just something that the roadways were not designed to handle. It's difficult to determine how it could have been better. Ideally, you could have a controlled evacuation, with residents of specific areas moved out at an orderly rate, followed by other areas. But that wouldn't have worked, would it? There's no way that you can evacuate that many people quickly and safely.

If anything, this shows, in part, the limits of what we can accomplish. It simply becomes impossible at some point to completely control the situation. But again, this is a wildly different situation, so far, than Katrina was. In that case, people prepared just the same as they always prepared for a disaster -- some left, others hunkered down. The government failed at various levels in its preparation. It didn't preposition crews and supplies in the area to the extent that it should have. It didn't have a plan to deal with its own worst-case scenario.

With Rita, we can likely expect all of that to be better. But the difference this time is that people are preparing differently. Instead of hunkering down, the vast majority are clearing out. And that's something that our infrastructure can't handle. The fear is that people will remain trapped out on the highways when the hurricane arrives -- no gas, little shelter.

Both Katrina and Rita show the need for two things -- emergency officials must plan for the worst and be prepared to deal with the worst when it arrives, and they must still be flexible enough to deal with situations when they change. The government will hopefully do better with the first part. We'll see if they do better with the second.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Warnings Ignored

While President Bush may finally be accepting responsibility for the federal government's failings in the response to Hurricane Katrina (though both overt and subtle finger-pointing among all levels of government continues), we're still hearing more about how truly awful the planning was inside FEMA for this event.

As I commented earlier, Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff either lied or was incredibly poorly informed when he claimed that no one could have predicted what would happen because, clearly, many people actually did predict it. Former FEMA chief Michael Brown seemed to be saying in all his public statements that Katrina magically blossomed into a Category 4 storm off the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi in mere moments, giving them no time to prepare.

Now comes a story from National Public Radio that shows some of the information that Chertoff, Brown and other officials were given by the people responsible for informing them of disaster potential. Leo Bosner is an emergency management specialist at FEMA in Washington, D.C. It's his job, along with his crew, to alert officials of impending disasters. As early as Friday, Aug. 26, Bosner was warning Chertoff and Brown of the potential devastation Katrina could cause. By Saturday, Bosner was specifically warning of "dire predictions" of what could happen to New Orleans.

In the NPR interview, Bosner said he and his crew were shocked that Saturday's note seemed to get no response from FEMA or Homeland Security. They expected to go into the office and see dozens of people scrambling to position food and water supplies, activate the National Guard and provide transportation to those in New Orleans who would be unable to evacuate. Instead, they found the same 12 or so people there.

By Sunday, Bosner's note had taken on a much more urgent tone, reminding officials of Hurricane Betsy 40 years ago, which put half of New Orleans under water and killed 74 people. It talked about the 100,000 people in the city with no transportation to evacuate. Still, Bosner said, that urgency did not seem to be felt at FEMA. It wasn't until Tuesday, when it was too late, that the level of mobilization reached what it should have been on Saturday.

Keep in mind that Bosner's job is not to suggest policy, but rather to inform those who do. His missives are the way in which the emergency management chiefs get the information and decide what to do. They're sent by e-mail to the important people, who get them on their Blackberrys. They had this information and they didn't act on it.

There's always enough blame to go around, of course, but it's becoming increasingly clear that if the federal government had simply acted as it should have based on the information it had, it could at least have been able to get more people evacuated and provide food and water to people in the affected area immediately. It would have done its job. Much earlier planning and money would have been needed to prevent the flooding of New Orleans, but at least more people would have been saved, and the government would not have to be ashamed of its failure.

A cynic might look at today's national day of prayer and point out Bush's past unwillingness to place science and information over religion and "gut feelings." That cynic might wonder if this irrational thought process has permeated throughout the administration and other federal agencies. It might, after all, explain the way the facts and warnings were ignored. Maybe officials weren't being lazy or irresponsible, but rather they were just convinced that "everything would be all right." Yes, something that a cynic might bring up...