repeal the 17th Amendment?

The 17th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified in 1913. This Amendment moved the power to appoint Senators to the US Senate from the state legislatures (where the Framers had originally placed it) to direct election by the general populace. Via Volokh, comes this fascinating and persuasive argument that the 17th Amendment should be repealed:

Loosely basing our bicameral legislature on this model (minus the lords, both temporal and spiritual), the framers created the House of Representatives as the lower chamber, whose members would be selected directly by the people. And with almost unanimous agreement, they determined that members of the upper chamber, the Senate, would be selected by the legislatures of the states. Each state would have two senators, while representatives would be apportioned based on population.

James Madison was not only involved in structuring the system, but was also a keeper of its contemporaneous record. He explained in Federalist No. 10 the reason for bicameralism: "Before taking effect, legislation would have to be ratified by two independent power sources: the people's representatives in the House and the state legislatures' agents in the Senate."

The need for two powers to concur would, in turn, thwart the influence of special interests, and by satisfying two very different constituencies, would assure the enactment was for the greatest public good. Madison summed up the concept nicely in Federalist No 51:

In republican government, the legislative authority, necessarily predominate. The remedy for this inconveniency is, to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them by different modes of election, and different principles of action, as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions and their common dependencies on the society, will admit.

The system as designed by the framers was in place for a century and a quarter, from 1789 until 1913, when the 17th amendment was adopted. As originally designed, the framers' system both protected federalism and ensured that relatively few benefits would be provided to special interests.
...the true backers of the 17th amendment were special interests, which had had great difficultly influencing the system when state legislatures controlled the Senate. (Recall that it had been set up by the framers precisely to thwart them.) They hoped direct elections would increase their control, since they would let them appeal directly to the electorate, as well as provide their essential political fuel -- money.

These issues are especially interesting given the debate over the role of the Electoral College during the 2000 elections. I myself have noi problem with the Electoral College as an institution, but I strongly feel that the electors shoudl be assigned to candidates by district, not by plurality and winner-take-all. Unlike Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, I do NOT favor abolishing the EC entirely however. The idea of repealing the 17th Amendment appeals to me as well. I think that much of the fine-tuned balances of power that were carefully crafted by the Founders have been undone over time and this could account for a great deal of the malaise and domination of special interests in the system today.

As things stand today, it is the executive and judicial branches that wield the most power, not Congress, and that should alarm all of us. After all, Congress is where we, the electorate, wield our authority. It may be counter-intuitive, but returning the Senate to state legislatures (which are also directly elected by the people, on a local scale) will actually enhance our collective influence over our government.


Iran's nuclear program

Iran's nuclear program chugs along merrily. An article in GlobalSecurity.org by WaPo writer Dana Priest written last July has extensive details on Iran's reactor at Bushehr, which has been inspected by the IAEA (since Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). In the context of Iran's nuclear development program (estimated completion: 7 years by CIA, 5 years by Mossad), the article explains:

Neither the technology nor the spent fuel from the Bushehr plant could, by itself, be used to make a nuclear bomb. But the same technology used in the plant is necessary to manufacture enriched fuel for nuclear weapons. Also, weapons-grade plutonium could be extracted from the spent fuel for a nuclear bomb.

However, what I find more interesting is the summary in the article of the role that foreign governments have played in assisting Iran, and Iraq, in constructing their nuclear infrastructure. France built the Osirak reactor in Iraq, destroyed by Israel in 1981. Germany began building Bushehr for Iran in 1974 and Russia will has an $800 million contract for assistance and supplying the fuel. In fact, Russia's ambition in Iran is not limited to one unit:

Indeed, the Russian government announced last week that it plans to dramatically increase its cooperation with Iran in the energy field, including a proposal to build five more nuclear reactors. The plan envisages a total of four Russian-built reactors at Bushehr, including the reactor being built, and two at Akhvaz, where construction has yet to begin.
More important, according to proliferation experts and U.S. officials, are Iran's ongoing ties with Russian scientists. Russia's help on Bushehr creates a "convenient cover for interaction" between Iranian and Russian scientists involved in nuclear weapons development, said Gary Samore, a senior nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration. It also provides a cover to transfer sensitive, hard-to-track, weapon-related components.

The big question is what will Israel do? Israel's internal security doctrine is centered around Israel remaining the only nuclear power in the Middle East. If Israel destroys Bushehr as they did Osirak, it's hard to know what the reaction would be from the Bush Administration. Certainly it would enrage Russia, and yet Russia's cooperation is a cornerstone of Bush's policies.

But an even bigger question is, what is the point of the Bush doctrine of pre-emption if our allies are going to continue funding nuclear technology to the Axis of Evil? France and Germany are already pariahs from the Bush Administration's viewpoint, but again Russia is the main enigma.

It all boils down to Russia.


but am I chaotic or lawful?

How evil are you?

Someone needs to make an on-line AD&D alignment quiz. I already know what my ability scores are... If my friend Jay is reading this, maybe he can chime in with the encumbrance for a hand-and-a-half sword.

two-state solution: catch-22

It really is a quagmire! Even innovative and refreshing candidates for President like Howard Dean are forced to fall back to boilerplate statements of support for the two-state solution to the Israeili-Palestinian conflict.

I don't favor a two-state solution. The reason is because the two over-riding rationales driving it are mutually exclusive in the context of a two-state solution. These requirements are: 1. A realistic guarantee of security for Israel and 2. A true measure of sovereignity for the Palestinians.

I firmly believe that the only solution is a re-unified state, modeled along US governmental lines. As long as demographics and ethnic/religious criteria dominate the nottions of citizenship and nationhood, the Catch-22 will dominate. Both the "transfer" solution advocated by the right and the "separation" solution advocated by the left are founded in the same language of demographics that are ultimately the source of this paradox. This is ironic, given that the very concept of Jewish demographics is an artificial construct as applied to the current Israeli nation (and not at all congruent with the classical, well-defined Jewish identity in the context of culture and religion).

And as I have pointed out before, the single-state solution neatly solves these paradoxes, by rejecting the limitations imposed by demographic concerns. The neoconservatives who normally advocate democracy for all, and security for Israel, should logically prefer the binational, reunified state as a solution. The scale is certainly smaller and less ambitious than the current rhetoric about remaking the entire Middle East. Let's start with Israel-Palestine.


Liberals grow spine in Israel

This needed to happen:

Efforts to smooth over the tensions between Mitzna and senior Labor MKs collapsed during the second meeting in two days, after the Labor leader repeated his claim that the party's election defeat was largely due to the fact that Labor had spent two years in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's first government.
It was then Mitzna's turn to summarize the meeting. He began by thanking his colleagues for their advice on how the faction should act, but added "it's a shame that you are not doing 10 percent of the things you say and it's a shame that you didn't do this in the past." The Labor MKs were shocked to hear this confrontational message from Mitzna, but this was not all the party chairman had to say. Mitzna explained that he also wants to see a spirit of cooperation in the party, but that this will not stop him from saying what he thinks. "And, yes, our participation in the previous unity government is truly one of the main reasons for the debacle," he said.

All eyes turned to Ben-Eliezer, who slowly stood up and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

What's going on here, is that after Sharon became Prime Minister, Peres and Ben-Elezier became "fig leafs" - the Labor party joined Sharon's givernment and essentially became mute. Sharon's continual perpetration of the cycle of violence went unchallenged. Mitzna is right to continually bring up the increased number of Israeili lives lost during Sharon's tenure, because Sharon has been a disaster for Israeili security, and the Labor leaders were complicit by their silence.

In Israel, Mitzna is the face of the new liberal, loyal opposition. The one with a spine.

(just like Howard Dean... a new era dawns...)


Saddam vs Saudi

One interesting rationalization for war that I have often heard is that Saddam, armed with nukes, would then proceed to invade Saudi Arabia and grab control of all the oil in the known universe.

Note that during the Cold War, our conventional military stationed in Europe was enough to deter a massive conventional invasion by nuclear-armed Russia. So the argument that we would be powerless to defend the middle east against a nuclear Saddam is flawed.

There is an inconsistency between this argument and the "Clash of Civilizations" idea, which posits that America is the chief villain to terrorists because of our freedom, which threatens their repressive interpretations of Islam. But Saddam is a socialist, unloved by the fanatic OBL crowd. The rhetoric on the recent supposed-OBL tape was clear on this point - referring to the Ba'ath party as "infidels".

Were Saddam to invade Saudi Arabia, Iraq would be at war with Islam. War on their brothers is one thing that Arabs are very good at - but it wouldn't be just Syria, Jordan, and Egypt - Iran and Pakistan would also enter the fray.

And what if our forces were deployed in defense of Saudi Arabia against Saddam? America might even become seen as the protector of Islam...

UPDATE: Tacitus comments below that we weren't seen as protectors of Islam during the Gulf War. True, but the difference is that Saddam invaded Kuwait, not Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi Arabia is the epicenter of Islam (and Kuwait is utterly insignificant), the two scenarios are worlds apart.

Targeting the holy peninsula for invasion is tantamount to expressing a desire for domination of Islam. Done by a socialist, it is intolerable to the radical fundies. America's stationing of troops alone has caused immense outcry and is one of OBLs stated rationales fo rtergeting America for jihad - that rationale is multiplied a thousand fold in the event of invasion from (socialist) nuclear Iraq.


JDBGMGR.EXE is NOT a virus!

Aargh. The clever thing about the JDBGMGR.exe virus hoax is that the vector for transmission is usually well-meaning deliberate action by friends and acquaintances, not an automated program hiding in the PC's bowels. But I've received about three of these in the past week alone, so the novelty is wearing quite thin.

The bottom line: if you receive an email from a friend that says:

A Virus has been passed on to me by a contact. My address book in turn has been affected [though I have now deleted the virus] and as your address is in there, there is a chance that the virus could be in your computer too. I followed the following instructions to eradicate the Virus. The Virus is not detected by Norton or Macafee anti Virus systems. this Virus sits quietly for 14 days before damaging your system. It is sent automatically by the messenger and the address book, whether or not you send E mails to your contacts.
Here's how to check for the Virus and get rid of it:
1.Go to Start, Find or search option.
2.In the file/folders option type the name jdbgmgr.exe
3.Be sure you SEARCH YOUR C DRIVE and all the sub folders and any other drives you may have.
4.Click "Find Now"
5.The virus has a grey teddy bear icon with the name jdbgmgr.exe DO NOT OPEN IT
6.Go to edit on the menu bar and choose SELECT ALL to highlight the file without opening it.#
7.Now go to file on the menu bar and select DELETE. It will then go into the recycle bin

then it is a HOAX. The file is actually the Microsoft Debugger Registrar for Java (not really critical to your PC, unless you are a Java developer). Still, almost everyone has this file on their system.

For details about teh hoax, see the appropriate Symantec security page, "Jdbgmgr.exe file hoax" and the Microsoft Knowledge Base article. In general, whenever you receive a virus warning via email, you should ALWAYS verify it at a virus info site like the Symantec Virus Security Center.


Eid Ghadir-e-Khum

At Shi'a Pundit, there is a post about the event of Ghadir-e-Khum as well as a link to an excellent website run by the Ithna Ashari (Twelver) Shi'a community which has much documentation of the event drawn from both Shi'a and Sunni sources. The event at Ghadir e Khum is the exact point of schism between Shi'a and Sunni.

For me, today is a day of re-affirmation and piety. But the event also has ramifications today. As we consider the role of Wahabism in Islam and whether Islam "needs" a Reformation, it is important to remember the history of Ghadir -e-Khum. There are ideals and lessons for all Muslims, not just Shi'a - and all of us could do far worse than to follow the example of Amirul Mumineen, Ali ibn Talib AS.


mmmmm.... red alert

I think the Homeland Security Alerty System is all about shades of gray. I mean, why is "elevated" only yellow, whereas "high" is orange? I personally think elevated is worse than high. Are we really supposed to think, "thank god we only have an elevated risk of terror attack." ? Shouldn't we be buying duct tape for yellow too?

There's a much easier way to remember the various threat levels. It's certainly can't be coincidence that they correspond to the "threat" levels of Tropical Fruit Skittles. The various levels are then (from highest to lowest risk): strawberry watermelon, mango peach, banana berry, passion punch, and kiwi lime. This makes about as much sense as the entire Alert System scheme in the first place, and it's much more kid-friendly. You only need to explain to Little Tommy that the swarthy foreigners are plotting Mango Peach plans, and that's why we really need to stock up on duct tape.

The CATO institute agrees.


Google buys Pyra: advantage, UNMEDIA!

It's awesome that Google is buying Pyra Labs (the folks who invented Blogger). Arise, Bloggle! There are already naysayers, who argue that Google's focus on search engines doesn't fit with the blogging paradigm. But I think this misses the point about what Google is, fundamentally. Google says it's all about "search". But "search" is really just marketing-speak for data mining. With blogger, Google gains a human-driven, massively distributed, real-time updated store of content that is enormously useful. This is a deep, rich vein for Google's datamining technology.

In fact, I had actually written to Google last October suggesting that they focus on weblogs! The general idea was :

Your news service is brilliant, but it made me wish for another similar feature aimed at weblogs (and tied into the news service also).

What would be wonderful is if you could do almost exactly the same thing you do for news feeds, but using RSS feeds from weblogs. Currently there are hundreds of thousands of weblogs run on Blogger Pro, on Radio Userland, and on MovableType, all of which support XML syndication. It should be easy for your team to build up a comprehensive list of weblogs by looking at the recently updated list at weblogs.com and blogs.salon.com, as well as
blog.gs. Blogs with XML feeds could be flagged and used as information feeds into the same algorithms you use to construct Google News.

With that data, I propose you do two things:

1. create a weblog-centric normal Google search
2. link weblogs to the news.google service so that if a number of weblogs link to a given story, users of Google News can immediately find those bloggers commentary.

Weblogs are posing a significant challenge to the normal media and often contain intense, detailed discussion and analysis of current events as well as general debates on politics, religion, the economy, and foreign policy. All of these diverse threads of opijion and analysis could thus be indexed and accessible via the Google News interface.

There's more to the letter, as well as Google's (boilerplate) reply, in my original post.. As Glenn would say: Advantage, Blogsphere!

UPDATE: Cory Doctorow has also devoted a lot of thought to this, and has more ideas on how Google could leverage the vast content resources it just acquired. He points out that Google's vast volume will allow it to rapidly innovate and the Blogger data will become a custom test-bed for Google's idea laboratories:

But it's that usage-volume at Google that makes this deal so exciting. Like Amazon, Google has so much traffic that it can afford to roll out small-scale trials -- Remember the thumbnails of search-results? The limited trial of Folding@Home in the GoogleBar? -- and get instant results about how well a new feature performs. Google's core expertise is making sense of data gathered from the Internet, so it's eminently capable of making sense of the results of these trials.

What this means is that once Google actually does integrate Blogger proper into its service, we can expect very rapid and very solid innovation. Gbloogle will be able to sneak features in for a day or two, extract the data, and make some sense of the data, decide whether its worth keeping the feature, and engineer something Google-grade to put on the back-end.


Nader, buried - by the Internet

I greatly respect Ampersand as a fellow liberal. But on the issue of supporting Ralph Nader in 2000, I disagree profoundly. He wrote:

Bush and the Republicans have been a horror - even worse than I expected. But that doesn't prove to me I was wrong; that shows me I was righter than I knew. By refusing to take a stand, by compromising at every opportunity, and by being the party of no principles, the Democrats have enabled the Republicans to move further right than ever before.

I would be interested in seeing how he responds to these comments by Eric Alterman from 2000 (via Yglesias):

...elections are not therapy. Nor, as philosopher John Dewey reminds us, are they useful occasions for movement-building. If you have to start building your movement by the time Election Day comes around, it's already too late. Given the weakness of the left in America today, our elections are by definition a choice of the lesser evil. The mistake Naderites make is in their refusal to distinguish between those evils.
Had Nader taken a page from the Christian Coalition and challenged Gore and the party leadership in the primary process, he might have forced its center of gravity leftward in response to the organized populist anger we saw on display in Seattle last year. Indeed, I would have been happy to vote for him. A steady, patient challenge to the party's corporate domination at the grassroots and presidential level is just what both the party and its progressives need to build the kind of machine that can win tangible victories down the road. Instead, Nader has chosen to ape Pat Buchanan, leading his followers on a costly and quixotic march to nowhere. Too bad the poor and the powerless will be--as usual--the ones to pay.

This effectively decimates the argument that a vote for Nader was some kind of pressure on the Democratic party. The real path to change and influencing a party is at the primary level. No matter how pure your ideals, if you cannot make a simple cost-benefit calculation, you end up subverting them into the service of your opponents. Note for example Howard Dean - whose flexible, innovative positions on gun control and health care make him unique. His running for the nomination has already put pressure on the other candidates to moderate their views.

In contrast, Ampersand acknowledges that Nader's strategy was to hurt Gore, not Bush:

I'm not talking about comparing Nader's vote total to Gore's losery margin (which presumes, wrongly, that 100% of Nader voters would otherwise have voted for Gore). [Ed. True. Actually, the figure was close to 90%, according to exit polling. --Aziz] I'm talking about a neck-and-neck campaign in which Gore wasted advertising dollars and precious candidate appearances in Democratic "safe states" - or, rather, states that would have been safe if not for Nader. Suppose all those pro-Gore commercials broadcast in Oregon - not to mention Gore's appearance here in the final weeks of his campaign - had been in Florida instead?

It probably would have made the difference.

But then again, wasn't that the whole idea?

Point. Driven Home. The whole idea of voting Nader was to defeat Gore. That anyone can be consistently outraged by self-serving politics and manipulation by Bush, but fail to see (and in fact rationalize away) the same behavior by Nader, is astonishing to me. And ultimately disappointing.

I myself voted for Nader. Actually, I vote-swapped - I voted for Nader in Texas while a Nader supporter voted for Gore in Oregon (we got organized and coordinated through one of teh several vote-swapping websites that flourished at the time). The idea was inspired by an essay on Slate.

The entire issue of teh Nader/Gore dynamic however is more interesting beyond the basic issue of a squabble amongst liberals. It hints at the transformative power of the Internet on the very dynamics of democracy itself. Chris Mooney hinted at this a bit in a recent essay, where he glowingly praised the Howard Dean 2004 blog for its groundbreaking role in supporting Dean's candidacy.

Always the visionary, Douglas Adams had thoughts along these lines during the 2000 election. On his website forum, he wrote:

I have this kind of utopian idea, though, that within a generation the internet will make this vast edifice of top-down government irrelevant and - with any luck - extinct. And I'm not talking about casting your four or five yearly vote on a computer screen instead of a booth, I'm talking about the cumulative effect of all of us being able to micromanage our lives in a responsive environment. You may call me a dreamer, but (altogether now) ...

In 2004, I will vote against Bush. If Nader runs, I will again use whatever resources I can to counter that threat, including vote-swapping or whatever else I can think of. The Internet makes this possible. Nader suceeded in his goal of defeating Gore, and for that, he has sealed his doom. The Internet shall be my witness.

UPDATE: Found this old thread on Golly (titled, "Gore and Nader can both win", a concept that Nader supporters never really grasped) where I fought the Good Fight, right up to Election Day. In this thread I posted volumes of text about why I swapped my vote, because of the specific dynamics of the Electoral College and the Two Party System. I was solidly outnumbered and never suceeded in delivering my point. Still, it's a good debate, exhaustively covering all the angles, and is good reading for reference in 2004. The Internet IS my witness.

UPDATE2: grr, pseudonyms. I apologise for te gender swap :( Fixed.


a whale of a tale

I turned 29 years old today. For the occassion, I want to share some photos I took during a whale-watching trip while living in Boston. I spent two years living there post-college, working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington (yes, THAT Lexington). One of my most memorable experiences was a whale watching trip in summer of 1998, operated by the New England Aquarium out of Boston Harbor.

The New England Aquarium run several boats, including The Voyager II, out to Stellwagen Bank, a huge region off the coast of Massachusetts covering over 1100 square nautical miles. It's a natural feeding ground for the endangered right whale, who stop there during the summer on their annual migrations. It also happens to lie directly underneath the major shipping lanes to Boston Harbor.

I went on the cruise during the summer of 1998. When the Voyager II got out to Stellwagen Bank, we saw several whales in the distance, but it took about a half hour before one decided to cruise past us. In the first picture, you can see the whale gliding past, at a respectful distance. This is a specimen of the "right whale" species.

After a few moments, the whale decided to come closer for a better look. It was astonishing how quickly the whale moved - in the photo, you can see that the whale is much closer, the guardrail to the viewing platform at the front pf the Voyager II is visible at the right. The whale it literally just a few meters from the boat. At this point the Voyager II was forced to cut her engines, since the ship must be at a standstill when whales are within a certain distance (to avoid injury).

The whale was quite cooperative - it was fascinated by us and floated lazily alongside. I call the next photo "smile" because it really seemed like it was grinning at us. At this point, the actual size of the whale became more apparent. I have no experience to be able to say if this was an average size specimen or not, but it was simply enormous.

I mentioned how the whale was fast - this next photo also proved to me just how agile they are as well. Suddenly, the whale did a complete 90 turn in two dimensions, turning towards the Voyager II while simultaneously pointing downwards. The maneuver took a second. The effect was like watching a ship hover in space. The head of the whale is now much deeper than the tail, and this is why the flippers look green. The fins are actually white (as seen in the "smile" photo above) but the heavy concentration of algae in the water give a flourescent effect, which is illustrated best over the white background of the flippers.

I think the whale was showing off here. From hanging stationary in the inverted position a moment before, suddenly it bent upwards and did a sharp turn. The whale is probably 30 feet long, but it has a better turning radius than our Hyundai Elantra! It was almost a paradox that such an immense creature could be so fast and so agile. In its native element, the whale moves with power and precision. It seems to violate physics and inertia.

It seemed at this point that the whale would leave. The whale seemed to change its mind though, and came back for another look. It actually dived under the Voyager II and came up on the other (starboard) side. I ran to that side to get a photo but only caught it as it went under again. The picture shows the whale diving back to return to the depths. We saw some more whales in the distance after it left, but none ventured near enough for a close inspection as did this adventurous fellow. When the Voyager II's engines started up again, we all knew it was over. My only regret was that we didn't see any breaching, but that just gives me resolve to visit Stellwagen Bank again someday.

Overall, it was an incredibly dramatic and awe-inspiring encounter. When I moved to Massachusetts, I had deliberately paid for the Save the Whales license plate (proceeds go to fund these organizations) - but that was out of a more generic liberal impulse. Only after actually experiencing the whale in its natural habitat, did I really come to understand their power. The single best word to describe it: grace.

el-cheapo high resolution

Previously it was reported that the Air Force has supplied NASA with the high resolution photo of Columbia which provided direct visual evidence of a problem with the left wing. Now it turns out that the photo was actually acquired using an ancient Macintosh computer and a regular telescope!

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) -- The shadowy, closely analyzed photo of space shuttle Columbia's underside was not snapped with cutting-edge military equipment, but by three researchers playing around with an old computer and a home telescope in their free time, officials said Wednesday.

The grainy photo was made February 1 at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base and released Friday by NASA. It shows what appears to be a suspicious bulge on the shuttle's wing shortly before it broke apart.

But contrary to reports last week, the photo was not snapped by one of Starfire's extraordinarily powerful telescopes, which are designed to spy on enemy satellites and detect incoming missiles.

Instead, it was taken by Starfire Optical Range engineers who, in their free time, had rigged up a device using a commercially available 31/2-inch telescope and an 11-year-old Macintosh computer, the researchers said.

To be honest, I wondered about the photo, given that the Starfire project is supposed to have incredible resolution. on the order of centimeters for objects as far away as a hundred miles. The resolution of the photo NASA released is clearly no better than a meter or so. I just thought that the original high-res version was being kept secret and NASA was releasing a blurred version, but this news is so much cooler.


Columbia theory: left wheel door scenarios?

I previously posted my teory about what caused the loss of the Columbia - namely, that the left landing gear door opened over the coast of California. In the comments on that post, several people pointed out flaws in that theory, rendering it less likely.

However, NASA just released some interesting news:

In NASA's latest telemetry timeline (revision 12.1), at least one sensor recorded landing gear deployment at 8:59:06 a.m., a full 26 seconds before contact with Columbia was lost. Reliable sources close to the investigation said today the telemetry is believed to be the result of a sensor failure, or "bit flip," and not any indication of an actual deployment.

How do they know it was a "blip" ? And I still havent been able tor econcile this with the timeline, 26 seconds is right over Texas, not California. Still, this certainly sheds more light on the wheel well.

Calling all Texas Bloggers

Mainly out of simple curiosity, who else is a Texas (political) blogger? Liberal or Conservative, I'm interested in compiling a list. The only other Texans I know of off-hand are Ted Barlow, Anna, and Off the Kuff. The H-town Blogger site hasn't been updated since Christmas, and Google didn't really give much help. If you're a Texas blogger, how about leaving your URL in the comments?

UPDATE - Charles Kuffner has the definitive list I was looking for! including expats... check it out!

Movie Night: guide my sword, don't lose your head

When I was in college, I used to run the weekly Movie Night in our dorm. Every thursday night we would select two movies (usually linked by some theme), reserve the big screen TV in the residence hall lounge, and sometimes even order a pile of food. It became a tradition in the way that collegiate group-bonding activities do, and I have greatly missed it. So, I've decided to start it up again, only this time, via blog! With the added bonus that we can discuss the movies in the comments section.

So, on to the first UNMEDIA Movie Night!

The movies this week are: The Princess Bride and Highlander

At first glance, these movies look to have nothing in common. TPB is a fairy tale, about (and I am quoting from the movie here) Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles... but I have always felt that the real heart of the film was Inigo , whose classic line "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." has practically entered the mainstream. And the music to the Guide my Sword scene is an emotional masterpiece (score by Mark Knopfler (yes, THAT Mark Knopfler!).

Highlander, in contrast, is a dark film, about immortals walking among us throughout history, striving to behead each other in New York. This is a strange but really exciting film, coupled to a rocking music soundtrack by Queen. This movie doesnt just engage in madcap swordplay, but really explores the nature of immortality - and yet is also a basic story of survival.

One thing they have in common is their respective cult status (which does have a non-zero overlap, as I am living proof). They approach Star Wars level of devotion - literally in the case of the fanfilm, Brains and Steel. And of course the two films share a lot of swashbuckling swordplay. But the real link between them is a basic underlying theme: skill, and heart, are the key to defeating evil. Not on the scale of a vast campaign, but rather as a personal one-on-one struggle.

I highly recommend signing up for NETFLIX. It's a DVD rental service by mail, with no late fees. The DVDs are delivered straight to your door with paid-return envelopes. It costs about $20 a month, though, so it isn't worth it of you watch fewer than 4 movies a month. But if you do watch at least that many movies, then this really is teh future of movie rentals. Check it out.


Charles in charge, alhamdolillah

I'm probably the only person in the blogsphere who still cares about Prince Charles, but I find the "Charles is a secret convert to Islam" meme so absurd, I can't let it go. It started with the rumors of Arabophilia which I debunked earlier. Another blogger then posted about the possibility that Charles converted, arguing that since the British Monarchy is tied up with the Anglican Church, there is some relevance. Or concern. Or something. It's not clear to me if Anglican Britons actually pray towards Charles and Elizabeth or not, but presumably the monarchy wouldn't bat an eyelid about this, given that being Muslim is no less being Anglican than being a playboy or an adulterer is. Presumably the presence of Camilla Parker Bowles at King Charles' side won't faze Anglicans, will it matter if she is wearing a burka? Hey, Elizabeth can dissolve Parliament, technically. Britain has a monarchy with all sorts of rules and powers on paper, but Charles the man actually lives in the real world. This is why I admire his outreach efforts to Muslims, Jews, and other minorities, because he is dedicated to building loyalty and patriotism to Britain (and this is the best use of a monarchy in the modern age - aimed at strengthening the fabric of the nation. Leave the laws and the foreign policy to the Ministers).

Glenn pointed to another article, dating from 1997, which also raises alarmist fears about Charles' conversion. The idea is not new. If anything it underlies how reactionary the idea is. The article is a joke - it invokes the Grand Mufti of Cyprus as an authority - that sound you hear is the collective shrug of a thousand muslim shoulders. Who?

Then it goes to take a number of Charles' reasonable comments about what embracing diversity can do to enrich the social and political fabric of Britain, and twoists them into wild accusations about "defamation of his own culture" and "denigration of the West". Overall it's just another attempt to smear Charles efforts at recognizing that the face of Britain is multicultural and diverse into some kind of broadly implied treason.

it's all about suuuuuuuuuuuuuuv's !

Wierd how SUVs are jihad-celebre, but trucks always seem to get a pass. Somewhere, some uber-liberal decided that covering the bed and adding some extra upholstery was the equivalent of turning the sacred cow into the golden calf.

Still, even if anti-SUV activists can't seem to understand the inherent contradiction in vilifying SUVs for being big and heavy and wasteful of fuel, but reverig minivans and trucks, at least corporate America has a clue. Or should I say, corporate Japan:

"For some time during the 1990s, our product planners in Japan resisted creating a big V-8 pickup for sale in America, but our U.S. colleagues changed this opinion. How? By inviting them to a Dallas Cowboys football game," Cho said.

"On the way to the game, the Americans took the Japanese on an extended tour of the Texas Stadium parking lot. Spread before them were thousands upon thousands of full-size pickup trucks, row after shining row. Our planners realized then that American pickups were not solely commercial vehicles but widely used by everyone for regular transportation. The result was the Toyota Tundra."

The common argument that SUVs are "image vehicles" bought by egregious consumers for single commuters is absurdly false, though bandwagon critics like Keith Bradsher, Greg Easterbrook, or Arianna Huffington still rely on it as their central argument. The actual vehicle of choice for the Wasteful Commuters is the pickup truck.

Of course, some people buy trucks for legitimate reasons, like hauling, farmig, construction, etc. Just as there are people buying SUVs for image. But the point is that the opposoite is also true in each case. The focus of anti-SUV advocates on SUV's negative users, but ignoring the negative usage of trucks, is a blind spot that exists solely because SUV hatred is an a-priori religious belief, to which facts must be bent towards, rather than a rational conclusion drawn from all data.

UPDATE: Thomas of Newsrack agrees with Easterbrook, arguing:

The real points against SUVs are that they deserve none of the free regulatory ride they've been getting, and they are a disproportionate danger to *other* drivers on the road. Easterbrook may have padded his article with atmospherics about intimidating design and so forth, but I suspect even here he's got a point, just not one that is easily verified. I would bet that you'd find SUV drivers are consuming their sense of collision safety with more aggressive driving habits, rather than simply reveling in Junior's added safety back there in his child seat. But I wouldn't know how you could go about proving it. I just feel like I see it on a daily basis.

The entire SUV fervor is indeed highly subjective, agreed. I address his point in his comments section, and he responded, its worth visiting Thomas's blog in general so i won't summarize that discussion here. Go read him! But my response is that his call for regulatory or policy decisions to minimize SUVs are then equally reasonable for trucks and minivans. There is simply no argument that can be applied to SUVs alone that ignores all other vehicles above the weight class of a Camry.


in defense of Prince Charles

I must come to the defense of the Prince of Wales. Via Glenn Reynolds, we see a brief mention of Prince Charles' supposed "Arabophilia" on Punditwatch:

Tony Snow, on Fox, revealed that Britain�s Prince Charles wears Arab robes and reportedly opposes war with Iraq. Snow called him a �Windsor Cat Stevens.�

The mere suggestion that Prince Charles could be interested in Arab culture has of course raised all sorts of alarm bells. Note that Snow deliberately invoked Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam) - a noted convert to Islam. It's unsurprising that already some in the blogsphere are chattering about Prince Charles' supposed conversion to the faith. Glenn updated his post with a photo of Charles wearing what looks to be (gasp!) Arab robes and headcovering (at left). The photo is from a breathless article in the UK ragsheet News of the World, which reveals that Charles actually reads the Qur'an daily and sometimes wears Islamic dress at home. I can imagine the consternation among the neocons already: The Windsors are Wahabis! UK to embrace the Sauds as dynastic brethren!

First, it is important to understand that Charles - recognizing that Muslims are a large and growing segment of his subjects - has done groundbreaking work in reaching out ot Islamic communities across Britain, fostering bonds and always emphasising loyalty and patriotism to the Crown. Apart from the vocal fools on the news, the vast majority of Britain's muslims are fiercely loyal to their nation and this is in large part to Charles' untiring efforts at recognizing them as valued contributors to the culture and diversity of Great Britain. Note that France makes no such outreach, seeing its Muslims as just nother pool of cheap labor. This may account for the lack of fraternite´ among French muslims for the tricolor.

Second, if Charles chooses to read the Qur'an, and wear Islamic dress in the privacy of his home, that is his business, just as his views on the impending Iraq war are. Drawing a causal link between these facts is unfair. What's next, demonizing the Shriners? But I have to doubt these claims anyway, given their source. The News of the World is just another weekly royal-bashing rag, and they are always looking for an interesting angle.

Third, the photo of Charles above is actually of the Prince wearing the topi, the headgear of my own community of Shi'a muslims, the Dawoodi Bohras. The "robes" in this photo are a ceremonial shawl draped around his shoulders (and over the Prince's immaculate tailored suit) by the head of the Bohra congregation in London - both topi and shawl were gifts to the Prince, on the occasion of his visit to the Bohra community's Masjid Al-Husainy complex in Northholt (a suburb of London) in 1996. You can see another photo of Charles in topi and shawl here (keep in mind that this was seven years ago).

On the occassion of the Prince's visit to the masjid complex, he planted a "unity tree" (an oak sapling) with the leaders of the community, to represent the loyalty and pride that the London Bohras take in being citizens of the United Kingdom. The tree also symbolizes the unity of Britain, with all its diversity. The Prince said during the ceremony:

What I really wanted to do today is offer my heartfelt congratulations for what you have all managed to achieve here with your community in building this great complex here. Your commitment to building this very special place of worship and something that is of such beauty is I think a credit to community.
I want to congratulate the Dawoodi Bohra Community on the contribution you make to the economic well-being and cultural diversity of the wider community here in the country. And having met a large number of you as I�ve been going round the mosque and having seen how many different businesses you have all started and grown, I am impressed by what you have managed to achieve. And if I may say so, you are a splendid example of the way I believe different cultures can learn to understand one another much better."

There are more details and photos of the Prince's visit in this special edition of the Asian Age newspaper, published for the occassion. In the same issue, there is a discussion of how the community has integrated into the UK and the ongoing commitment that the Bohras have to being citizens of Britain without sacrificing our beliefs and practices.

The Bohras are described in much more detail in the book Mullahs on the Mainframe by Jonah Blank (which I have previously reviewed). I also recommend this entry in the Oxford University Encyclopedia of Islam for a brief overview.

UPDATE: Atrios comments, and zizka has more. Matthew Yglesias asks what exactly am I defending Charles from? The answer is, from News of the World's insinuation that Charles' anti-war opinions (which reflects the general public opinion in Britain) are caused by his secret Arab (implied: Wahabi) sympathies. Since the photo is 1. seven years old, and 2. shows him wearing Bohra (Shi'a muslims ethnically from Gujarat, India) headgear and shawl, this is an unfair and out of conmtext characterization. News of the World chose that photo - which is really a symbol of Charles' outreach and vision - and used it to imply the exact opposite.

'NOTHER UPDATE: Glenn posted again, and Matt took the post down, which makes me feel bad, I didnt mean to pile on. It gave me motivation to clarify my own post, at least. Also, I didn't mean to offend Tiffany, who is miffed that I called her a chattering conservative - which if you read carefully above, you'll note that I didn't. No offense intended Tiffany, I'm sorry. But I'll address the conversion meme in a new post.


super rational self-examination

I consider myself a reasonably intelligent guy, with rather strong opinions, and a sufficient amount of self-criticism. Note the presence of moderating adjectives in every sub-phrase - reasonably, rather, sufficient. Like a moth to flame, therefore, I am always drawn to writing by those I admire for the same qualities, only more so (without the adjectives). One of these is Kim, a dear ultra-liberal friend from college, still one of my closest (and always will be). Kim is formidably intelligent, with blazingly strong opinions, and fanatical self-criticism. I admire her greatly, because she tends to write things like this:

I've gotten used to hearing Republican claims and assuming that the claimers are just lying scum out for their own advantage, or people who haven't considered the issues thoroughly. I think most are, but some might just be superrational people who see an economic model that could be workable in a platonic world, just as my very liberal view of people acting decently and working hard just because it's the right thing to do may not play so well in the real world...but it requires my adherence anyway. Might make for more interesting discussions with my right-leaning friends, and non-friends. It's interesting to see that I've been long arguing against voodoo economics based on its inapplicability in the real world (actual rich people are the ones best at never letting a dime escape their clutches, so what exactly would "trickle?") and getting very angry when people argue that in the real world, lots of people will refuse to do the right thing environmentally or otherwise, so good people get the short end of the stick. I argue, "so what" be ethical anyway, and deny that in the real world MOST people are evil. Well, I guess the superrational Reaganomics fans think that surely MOST rich people aren't evil, and enough of them would take their ill-gotten capital gains and do good with them. Interesting.

The reference to "super-rational" is from Douglas Hofstadter's book, Metamagical Themas, in relation to the Prisoner's Dilemma[1]. A super-rational (SR) player is defined recursively as one who assumes the other players are also superrational, and chooses to cooperate in order to maximize gain. Unlike the "iterated" PD, where the best strategy is "TIT FOR TAT"[1], Hoftstatder explored the "one-shot" PD, and tried to rationalize a strategy that favors cooperation rather than defection (p.730):

I found that I could not accept the seemingly flawless logical conclusion that says a rational player in a noniterated situation will always defect. In turning this over in my mind and trying to articulate my objections clearly, I found myself inventing variation after variation after variation on the basic situation.

This led Hofstadter to come up with what he called the "Platonia Dilemma", based on the following payoff matrix[2]:


and he then sent out a letter to 20 of his friends and acquaintances, chosen for their rationality and familiarity with the PD concept, including notables such as Martin Gardner and Bob Axelrod, whose own research (summarized in his amazing book, The Evolution of Cooperation) proved the superiority of the TIT FOR TAT strategy in the iterated PD case. The letter read (in part):

Each of you is to give me a single letter: "C" or "D", standing for "cooperate" or "defect". This will be used as your move in a Prisoner's Dilemma with each of the nineteen other players. The payoff matrix I am using is [see above].

Thus if everyone sends in "C", everyone will get $57, while if everyone sends in "D", everyone will get $19. You can't lose! And of course, anyone who sends in "D" will get at least as much as everyone else will. If, for example, 11 people send in "C" and 9 send in "D", then the 11 C-ers will get $3 apiece from each of the other C-ers (making $30) and zero from the D-ers. The D-ers, by contrast, will pick up $5 apiece from each of the C-ers, making $55, and $1 from each of the other D-ers, making $8, for a grand total of $63. No matter what the distribution is, D-ers always do better than C-ers. Of course, the more C-ers there are, the better everyone will do!

By the way, I should make it clear that in making your choice, you should not aim to be the winner, but simply to get as much money for yourself as possible. Thus you should be happier to get $30 (say, as a result of saying "C" along with 10 others, even though the D-ers get more than you) than to get $19 (by saying "D" along with everybody else, so nobody "beats" you).

Hofstadter set this PD up with a clear subtext that cooperation is preferred. Note that the payoff matrix does reward defectors, but only if there are very few. A SR thinker would presumably choose to cooperate to maximize the probability of a large payoff. His expectation was that most would choose to cooperate (p.746):

Any number of ideal rational thinkers faced with the same situation and undergoing similar throes of reasoning agony will neccessarily come up with the ientical answer eventually, so long as reasoning alone is the ultimate justification for their conclusion. Otherwise reasoning would be subjective, not objective as arithmetic is. A conclusion reached by reasoning would [then] be a matter of preference, not necessity. Now some people may believe this of reasoning, but rational thinkers understand that a valid argument must be universally compelling, otherwise it is simply not a valid argument.

If you'll grant this, then you are 90 percent of the way. All you need ask now is, "since we are going to submit the same letter, which one would be more logical? That is, which world is better for the individual rational thinker: one with all C's or one with all D's?" The answer is immediate: "I get $57 if we all cooperate, $19 if we all defect. Clearly I prefer $57, hence cooperating is preferred by this rational thinker. Since I am typical, cooperating must be preferred by all rational thinkers. So, I'll cooperate."

Italics are his emphasis, underlines mine. A clear flaw is the assumption that all players are SR. I have underlined the parts of his argument where this assumption is explicit. Another clear flaw is the assumption that the "throes of reasoning agony" will be correct - it is entirely possible for a rational thinker to simply be wrong. This can be to flaws in logic, omission/ignorance of key facts, or flawed assumptions.[3]

When Hofstadter tallied up the responses, he found (much to his chagrin) that there were 14 defections (each earning $43) and only 6 cooperators (each earning $15). This, despite the fact that he had unconsciously (?) "biased" the sample of participants by selecting his own friends and acquaintances based on his evaluation of their "rationality" - even people like Bob Axelrod and Martin Gardner who are intimately familiar with the PD and game theory (both of whom chose to defect, BTW). Hofstadter writes:

It has disturbed me how vehemently and staunchly my clear-headed friends have been able to defend their decisions to defect. They seem to be able to digest my argument about superrationality, to mull it over, to begrudge some curious kind of validity to it, but ultimately to feel on a gut level that it is wrong, and to reject it. This has led me to consider the notion that my faith in the superrational argument might be similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy or self-supporting claim, something like being absolutely convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Henkin sentence "This sentence is true" actually must be true - when, of course, it is equally defensible to believe it to be false. The sentence is undecidable; its truth value is stable, whichever way you wish it to go (in this way, it is the diametric opposite of the Epimenides sentence "This sentence is false", whose truth value flips faster than the tip of a happy pup's tail). One difference, though, between the Prisoner's Dilemma and oddball self-referential sentence is that whereas your beliefs about such sentences' truth values usually have inconsequential consequences, with the Prisoner's Dilemma, it's quite another matter.

Again, italics are his emphasis, underlines mine. The key to undertanding why seemingly "rational" thinkers could take the same facts and arrive at a different result, is because reason is not logic. The mechanics and machinery of our intellect is ultimately Godelian - no system of analytical statements and rules and formal descriptors can ever fully model it. In fact Hofstadter himself in the same book devotes much time to emphasizing this, that ultimately intellect must be an emergent and statistical property - even creating a wonderful symbolic model called "The Careenium" (a great pun which I won't spoil. Read the book :) to illustrate it.

This is why self-examination is essential. Thought and analysis are ultimately founded upon "gut instinct" as much as pure facts and figures and logic - we cannot escape it. This also is an argument for diversity - because in combining the analyses of two people, who arrive at different conclusions from different facts, we are able to better triangulate the reality which underlies all of existence, towards which we all must grope towards half-blinded when alone.

Self-examination of the kind that Kim engages in so directly and willingly is essential to improving ourselves and the world. And the lessons of the PD are one such route to that goal. Ultimately, though, we do have to apply reason as we understand it, not as we think others do.

[1] Steven Den Beste had a good article on TIT FOR TAT in the iterated PD (which does NOT apply to the one-shot PD, of course).
[2] I assume the reader is familiar with the basic concept of the PD, the "payoff matrix" representation, as well as the terms "cooperate" and "defect" in that context. If not, I highly recommend Hoftstatder's book (Metamagical Themas) or good ol' Google.
[3] this paragraph is self-referential in classic Hoftstatder tradition :) .


high resolution

The Air Force will be supplying high-resolution imagery of Columbia's reentry to NASA:

According to sources close to the investigation, the images, under analysis at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, show a jagged edge on the left inboard wing structure near where the wing begins to intersect the fuselage. They also show the orbiter's right aft yaw thrusters firing, trying to correct the vehicle's attitude that was being adversely affected by the left wing damage. Columbia's fuselage and right wing appear normal. Unlike the damaged and jagged left wing section, the right wing appears smooth along its entire length. The imagery is consistent with telemetry.

The ragged edge on the left leading edge, indicates that either a small structural breach -- such as a crack -- occurred, allowing the 2,500F reentry heating to erode additional structure there, or that a small portion of the leading edge fell off at that location.

Either way, the damage affected the vehicle's flying qualities as well as allowed hot gases to flow into critical wing structure -- a fatal combination.

I'll have to think about how this could affect my theory about Columbia's loss, though it's worth noting that the left wheel well is close to the fuselage - I still believe that the problem must have started in that area. The article is comprehensive and discusses other hardware failure implications and theories.

I sincerely hope NASA releases these photos! UPDATE: they did! see image above. Clicking the image will take you to the official NASA site which has all the imagery from the Feb. 7th briefing, including highly detailed timeline schematics of sensor failures and readings on the left wing.

this fence is getting quite comfortable

To be honest, Powell's speech to the UN was not convincing. I think Jim Henley summed up the reason quite well:

Because they lie. Routinely and often and deliberately. They said there were 100,000 people in mass graves in Kosovo. That was a lie. They said Iraqi soldiers were tossing babies out of incubators. That was a lie. They said Iraqi troops in 1991 were massing on the Saudi border. That was a lie. They said Saddam's attack on Kuwait was a total surprise. That was a lie. They said US troops had no combat role in Central America in the 1980s. That was a lie.

Even people who support the war have been less than impressed by Powell's supposed "Adlai moment" - Tacitus gave it good reviews for its strategery in driving a wedge in the antiwar camp, but seemed to be acknowledging it was preaching to the choir. Tacitus said that this NYT piece alleging ties between Iraq and Al-Qaida was more convincing than Powell (see his transcript in Word format), but such ties have been exhaustively analyzed, and the Bush administration previously admitted there was a weak-to-none case (until now once again it becomes politically expedient to assert the opposite. Same pattern of deceit and doublethink as always). Daily Kos has provided a large number of links and evidence that the FBI and CIA both reject any such link.

There isn't any link between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The main relevance is that if we go in, and do a poor job AFTER winning, that there might then indeed be a fertile ground for AQ to grow. Bush's Afghanistan reconstruction has been largely ineffective and insuffficient.


he must be a Republican

A few weeks ago, I linked to the War Personality Test by WildMonk. He emailed later on with a summary report (reproduced in full in an update to my original post). But I have to take serious issue with some of his statements and analyses of the data.

WildMonk wrote:

Among Republicans, the figures are 5% and 2%. 92% of Republicans disagree or disagree strongly with the proposition that America is the greatest threat to world peace. If you wonder why the average American doubts the patriotism of the Democrats, this will go a long way toward explaining why.

I wasnt aware that the "average American" doubts the patriotism of Democrats, esp given that 48% of the electorate voted for one in the last Presidential election (500,000 more than voted for a Republican). Perhaps it's the average Republican who thinks Democrats are traitorous scum, is a more accurate statement?

And of course, there's a huge difference between disapproving of your government's foreign policy and being unpatriotic. In fact, most people who disapprove of US foreign policy do so because they hold America to a certain standard - it is a direct result of their patriotism and love for this country that drives them to critique those who sully its ideals.

Wild Monk continues his analysis:

There is much more (did you know that Republicans, on average, score 9.3 out of 10 on rationality while Democrats score only 7.4?) so I invite you to stop by to take a look.

I would be interested in knowing how "rationality" is calculated. When I linked to the Personality Test, the rationality score was the subject of some debate in my comments section. (For the record, I scored a 10 out of 10, though :)

For a far more useful test of political orientation and personality, I still think the World's Shortest Political Quiz is the best. I tend to score on the border between left-liberal, centrist, and libertarian (no surprise to Jim Henley :) I do seem to recall that Matthew Yglesias had posted a critique of this 2D politics method, but cant find it on his blog since he hasnt enabled searchable archives...

UPDATE: Wildmonk wrote back:

I have to admit that this was unfortunate wording and in subsequent emails I changed the "average American" label to "many Americans". It is also true that in the last presidential election, issues of patriotism and national defense were not exactly on the voters collective mind. In the more recent election, where such issues were raised much more prominantly, the results were quite different.

fair enough. We will see in the next election, I guess! I'm sufficiently mollified by this. However, with respect to the other point of contention, WildMonk stood firm. He and I will have to agree to disagree. Though, he did point me to a post on his blog regarding how "rationality" is calculated. It turns out to have been strongly biased towards WildMonk's opinions on certain specific questions:

Rationality was calculated on a scale from 1 (low) to 10 (high). The score was affected most strongly by question 4: "It has not been proven that the World Trade Center / Pentagon attacks were committed by Muslims." Anyone who strongly agreed with this statement, lost 7 rationality points. Merely agreeing (but not strongly), cost 5 points. Having no opinion cost 3 points (I'll discuss all of these points below). Questions 2 and 5 had a small effect on the answer. If you Strongly Disagreed with the statement "The Afghani people are in much better condition today than before the Afghan war." then you were docked 1 point. Similarly, if you Strongly Agreed with the statement "The Bush administation's primary reason for invading Iraq is to take control of Iraqi oilfields." then you were docked 1 point.

People who Strongly Agreed with the statement "War has never and will never achieve anything" lost 3 points for loopiness and those just Agreeing lost 2 points. I'm sure all of the America haters will love this last one - 3 points were lost for those who Strongly Agreed with the statement "The United States is presently the greatest threat to world peace." Those that simply Agreed lost 2 points and those who had "No Opinion" lost 1 point.

(I repeat, I scored 10 out of 10). Still, I think it's somewhat disingenious to label this "rationality". Still, I'm definitely going to revisit WM again, I do like his style and he is gifted enough to actually implement cool things like online quizzes, so it does push the boundaries of blogging a bit further.


occupation watch I

Usually, revelations are obvious in hindsight. Perhaps the only ones for which this wasn't so, were those brought to us by Prophets.

The humble revelation that I have just experienced is certainly the former, not the latter - the single root reason that people disagree on the Israeili-Palestinian conflict. That is, the answer to the question: are the Palestinians an oppressed people?

By simple application of logic to those facts which are NOT in dispute, in the context of how you answer, you can explain the true depth of disagreement on every single aspect. Like most people I do have my opinion of the answer, but unlike most people I have made a concerted effort to find out as much information as possible. The best hope that we all have for understanding and shared resolve (even if disagreement remains) is to increase the number of facts that are not in dispute, therefore. As a result, I am going to start a new series called Occupation Watch. Granted the title betrays my current bias, but as my blog is my witness, I think I am reasonably open to having my mind changed. I wont make any overt attempt to post material that contradicts my view, but if I find any (which is very rare) I will certainly try. And i encourage others to leave comments for suggested examples as well - both pro and anti occupation exists. The only editorial criterion is that it must be a straight news report, factual report of events, not editorials or analyses. Good sources are the BBC, Ha'aretz, the Jerusalem Post, and CNN. The story will be posted, and we can all analyse the story in eth coments. I will leave the actual blog posts free of commentary.

My first entry is this pair of news stories from Ha'aretz - first, Interior Ministry demolishes Bedouin mosque in Negev:

Interior Ministry inspectors Wednesday demolished a mosque in an unrecognized Negev Bedouin village, a step condemned by Arab legislator Talab A Sana (United Arab List) as "a red line crossed� this is very severe and dangerous, and could lead to a public uprising."

Residents of the unrecognized village of Til al Malah built the mosque six months ago with NIS 100,000 of their own money, having nowhere else to pray. Because the village is unrecognized by state authorities, no construction is allowed in it, and the building was declared illegal.

and second, Peace Now: NIS 2.2 billion went to settlements in 2001

Some NIS 2.2 billion of state funds were transferred to West Bank settlements in 2001, according to a Peace Now study.

The study was conducted by economist Dror Tsaban, formerly a budget official and assistant director general in the Finance Ministry. It is based on a partial estimate of the allocations of various cabinet ministries to the settlements.

The estimate does not include the security budget, the Education Ministry budget and allocations to state supported bodies and institutions.

The study shows that the "surplus allocations" for settlers out of the NIS 2.2 billion basket is NIS 1.76 billion a year. "Surplus allocations" are defined as investment in infrastructure - which Peace Now says is redundant - surplus caused by per capita budget which is higher than the average per capita allocation in Israel, and benefits given settlements which are defined as areas of national priority (mainly income tax exemptions).


Columbia: how it happened?

I realize that this is absurdly premature, but I do have a theory as to what caused the Columbia to break up upon re-entry. This is a theory as to how, not why - only full analysis by NASA of teh flight telemetry can truly reveal the full details of what malfunction occurred when, and this process will likely take months if not years. But, I think that we do have enough evidence now - based on press reports and NASA's statements - to hazard a guess as to the immediate cause which directly led to loss of control and breakup over Texas.

I theorize that Columbia's left wing landing gear door opened prematurely, as the orbiter was crossing the California Pacific coast.

Columbia crossed California's Pacific coastline at 8:53 am EST[1]. At this instant, several sensors in the left wing went dead. This was the first occurrence of a significant, anomalous thermal event. Over the next five minutes, landing gear strut actuator temperature measurements (in the left wheel well) rose significantly above normal, 20 to 30 degrees[2]. Payload bay temperatures and temperatures on the right wing remained within normal bounds.

This coincides with the observations by Caltech radio astronomer Anthony Beasley, who was watching the shuttle pass overhead with his family. At 5:53 PST (8:53 EST), he was watching the shuttle pass from horizon to horizon, when he saw a bright piece separate. "It was like it dropped a flare, and kept going," he said[3]. This was the first visual observation of debris from Columbia separating from the main orbiter. In addition, photographer Gene Blevins (also at Caltech) took photos of the shuttle that appear to show an early trail of debris[4]. See at left for a sample - note the similarity to the images captured by WFAA in Dallas later on.

Also note that - according to this reference site- the thermal load on the shuttle is maximum about 20 minutes before landing[5]. According to SpaceFlightNow's timeline[1], the scheduled landing time was 9:16am EST, meaning that the Shuttle was near or at maximum thermal load just as it crossed over California.

I theorize that the debris seen here was the door of the left wheel well, and possibly some heat tiles. This would account for the visual observations and the initial loss of sensor data. Also, the resulting hole would be a gap in the heat shield, allowing temperatures to rise in the localized section of the wheel well.

At 8:58 am ESTover New Mexico, the roll trim in the elevons started to increase, indicating an increase in drag on the left side of the vehicle.[2]. Also, the left main landing gear tire pressure and wheel temperature measurements were lost, though NASA is certain this was due to sensor failure and not physical loss of the tires themselves, because the measurements were staggered.[2]

I theorize that at this point, heat and stress damage caused the tire sensors to give out. The hole left by the missing flap would account for the increased drag. If so, the tire itself was probaby lost shortly after the sensors went dead.

At 8:59 am EST, the shuttle entered Texas airspace. There was further increase in the roll trim indicated by elevon motion, suggesting that the orbiter was trying to compensate for increased drag on the left side by rolling to the right. [2]

I theorize that the increasing drag was caused by more physical damage - possibly the entire landing strut as well. The roll maneuver was automated and may have contributed to the breakup, since the drag experienced by missing hardware likely exceeded the tolerance that the automatic system was designed for. Thermal and aerodynamic stress forces were probably severe enough at this point, that the shuttle simply could not withstand further.

At 9:01 am EST, Houston lost contact with the Shuttle for the first time.[1]

at 9:04 am EST, the first visual reports of debris behind the shuttle in texas started to come in.[1]

Unlike most of the theories floated so far, I do not believe the breakup was caused by loss of thermal tiles. During the press interview, Dittemore said[2]:

"We certainly know the wheel well area is one of our sensitive areas thermally. We've analyzed that area intensively in the past and the loss of any one single tile we believe would not be a cause for loss of a vehicle. In fact, we believe we can lose a tile in different locations and all by themselves we don't believe that would represent loss of vehicle. It may represent some structural damage, but not loss of a vehicle."

I'm sure there are severe holes in this theory... thats what comments are for.

UPDATE: These are links to NASA's website detailing the details of the de-orbit maneuver, and some specific information relating to the landing gear doors. Unfortunately, the servers seem to be down. When they come online I'll look through them and try to update the post as relevant.

[1] Spaceflight now mission statuspage timeline, http://spaceflightnow.com/shuttle/sts107/status.html
[2] Shuttle program manager Ronald Dittemore press interview, http://www.spaceflightnow.com/shuttle/sts107/030202investigation/
[3] SF Gate article, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/02/03/MN33624.DTL&type=science
[4] NBC4 News, Los Angeles http://www.nbc4.tv/news/1951651/detail.html
[5] Space.edu reference, Chapter 19 http://www.space.edu/projects/book/chapter19.html


Israeili grief

The tragedy "goes against every single thing we were taught at home and in the gan [kindergarten]," said a Jerusalem-area woman, an Israeli-born daughter of Holocaust survivors who grew up in the United States and for whom the shuttle launch had rekindled memories of the fevered excitement that space flight had generated in the otherwise gravely troubled America of the 1960s.

"We were told that under no circumstances do we leave the bodies of the fallen in the field. When did we last leave people going up in flames in a metal box that belongs to someone else, where they turn into ashes? In Auschwitz. I thought we didn't do that anymore. That's what they told me. That's why I'm here. Because we don't do that anymore. So how could something like this have happened?"

(Ha'aretz Daily)

For 16 days we had one of our guys in space. And since he ascended in a white trail into the great blue skies of Cape Kennedy in mid-January, Ilan Ramon told us that when he orbits above, he sees how tiny and beautiful we are, and how thin the atmosphere that makes our life possible really is. And this country, so accustomed to cynicism, looked up to its man in space. This country, so used to looking down on itself, held its breath at the prospect of a different reality, that of a country that can defy the gravity of its fate. Yesterday afternoon the sky was filled with white trails.

And this chaotic tiny land was once again united in the feeling that one of its own was in those white trails. Those white trails held our alternative reality. And this hope that keeps shattering, the hope of freeing ourselves from our gravitational destiny, of floating in some weightless normalcy in utter disregard of the gravity of our existence.

(Ha'aretz Daily)

The future of American spaceflight

I'm collecting analyses from various better-informed bloggers than myself about what Columbia means for the future of NASA and for the future of manned spaceflight in general. I'm afraid I am too ignorant to comment on the relative merits of these arguments, other than express my certainty that we must continue. How, I do not know. But this is wht others have to say:

Trent Telenko, Winds of Change.NET:

If we want "assured human access to space" that is for American national security. Then that calls for a small, reusable, high flight rate military space plane and a seperate military space service to use it. The USAF has made clear that it would rob money from a military space plane to fund the F/A-22 and you can't launch a space plane from a Nimitz class carrier.

If you want assured civilian human access to space, then putting out launch service bid to private launch service providers is the way to go. Lock-Mart or Boeing are fully capable of putting crewed capsules or space planes on their Atlas and Delta rockets respectively. Orbital Sciences has made similar proposals for NASA's orbital rescue vehicle.

Whatever we do, we need to retire the huge standing army associated with the NASA shuttle. We can no longer afford to allow NASA to have a monopoly on manned space flight. NASA is a Cold War Space Agency. The Cold War is over and the centralized government bureaucracy paradigm has been shown to be a under performing failure.

It is time to demobilize NASA and move on to opening the space frontier.

There are other government entities that can do the job of exploration, the military for one, National Science Foundation for another, and universities for yet another. And the private sector awaits if the regulatory and tax environment can be made attractive enough. It is time that we used them all in the traditions of late 19th and early 20th century America.

Rand Simberg (who I need to add to my blogroll), at Transterrestrial Musings:

The entire NASA budget is now in a cocked hat, because we don't know what the implications are until we know what happened. But it could mean an acceleration of the Orbital Space Plane program (I sincerely hope not, because I believe that this is entirely the wrong direction for the nation, and in fact a step backwards). What I hope that it means is an opportunity for some new and innovative ideas--not techically, but programmatically.

Once again, it demonstrates the fragility of our space transportation infrastructure, and the continuing folly of relying on a single means of getting people into space, and doing it so seldom. Until we increase our activity levels by orders of magnitude, we will continue to operate every flight as an experiment, and we will continue to spend hundreds of millions per flight, and we will continue to find it difficult to justify what we're doing. We need to open up our thinking to radically new ways, both technically and institutionally, of approaching this new frontier.

Greg Easterbrook, writing in TIME Magazine:

In two decades of use, shuttles have experienced an array of problems�engine malfunctions, damage to the heat-shielding tiles�that have nearly produced other disasters. Seeing this, some analysts proposed that the shuttle be phased out, that cargo launches be carried aboard by far cheaper, unmanned, throwaway rockets and that NASA build a small "space plane" solely for people, to be used on those occasions when men and women are truly needed in space.
For 20 years, the cart has been before the horse in U.S. space policy. NASA has been attempting complex missions involving many astronauts without first developing an affordable and dependable means to orbit. The emphasis now must be on designing an all-new system that is lower priced and reliable. And if human space flight stops for a decade while that happens, so be it. Once there is a cheaper and safer way to get people and cargo into orbit, talk of grand goals might become reality. New, less-expensive throwaway rockets would allow NASA to launch more space probes�the one part of the program that is constantly cost-effective. An affordable means to orbit might make possible a return to the moon for establishment of a research base and make possible the long-dreamed-of day when men and women set foot on Mars. But no grand goal is possible while NASA relies on the super-costly, dangerous shuttle.

Dale Amon, from Samizdata.net:

So NASA must get the fleet flying again. President Bush has already said we will not abandon space. In the community, we all knew that. It's simply too important now.

There will almost certainly be a push for a replacement vehicle. The shuttle is, after all, a 1975 base level of technology. It's been upgraded and retro fitted, but even the newest shuttle, the Endeavour, is nearing 15 years old. The problems are budgetary and the inability of the "old aerospace" to perform on anything like a reasonable time and budget. I had actually much hoped NASA would work with the existing shuttles until the end of the decade, long enough to let the start up companies move in and revolutionize the field.

NASA will go to Boeing or Lockmart for a replacement. They are not going to talk to XCor or Armadillo or any of the other companies who will develop the true space ships.

What is my guess? I will suggest we'll see a half hearted program for a shuttle replacement initiated. It will run over budget or be stillborn like every other such program in the last 15 years. The ISS schedule will stretch out to a completion date of 2010, almost 30 years after Ronald Reagan called for a space station to be completed in 10 years. An X-Prize space ship will fly suborbital this year or next year and there will be private tourists on private suborbital flights by 2006 and orbital by 2010. NASA will then buy one for crew turnaround. The Russians will get a big capital infusion to turn out more Soyez and Protons.


human remains confirmed

According to local television and radio news reports, shuttle-related human remains have been confirmed in Jasper and San Augustine. "Two body parts were found" was all they had to say. UPDATE: here is an online report:

In Hemphill, near the Louisiana state line, hospital employee Mike Gibbs reported finding what appeared to be a charred torso, thigh bone and skull on a rural road near what appeared to be other debris. Billy Smith, an emergency coordinator for three East Texas counties, confirmed the find.

"I wouldn't want anybody seeing what I saw," Gibbs said. "It was pretty gruesome."

On a farm, also in Sabine County, two young boys found a charred human leg, The Dallas Morning News reported Sunday. "From the hip to the foot, it's all there, scorched from the fire," said their father, Bob White.

not to mention this, which is somehow symbolically sadder:

Debris found in San Augustine County about 140 miles northeast of Houston included a charred astronaut's patch and a flight helmet.

Trent Telenko has excellent updates of the news coverage, and Rand Simberg has detailed technical analysis of what could have caused the disaster. And SpaceFlightNow continues to have the most detailed coverage at their STS-107 Flight Status page.

Interestingly, Rand was taken to task by the esteemed Reverend Donald Sensing, who accused him of minimizing the human scale of the tragedy. Rand responds:

with all due respect, I disagree, and that kind of attitude is exactly why the manned space program has been such a disaster for so long. As long as we elevate the humans over the hardware, and emotions over rational discussion, we will never make significant progress in this frontier.

People die on frontiers, (and even in non-frontiers--more died in traffic accidents in the past twenty-four hours than have died in space since we first started going there) and if we can't accept that, then we have no damned business being there.

Or, to paraphrase Tom Hanks in the movie, A League of Their Own, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everybody would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

Columbia debris

It's been reported in multiple places that NASA has urged people not to touch debris from Columbia. The newscasters have already alluded to "dangerous radiation" that could be harmful. I just want to say, that this is nonsense, and there's no need to add to a tragic situation by needless fearmongering. Feeding the public's fears about radiation in the context of the shuttle will only serve to amplify the perception that spaceflight technology is harmful and dangerous. If "debris from space is radioactive" becomes conventional wisdom, this will greatly harm prospects for nuclear propulsion as well (remember the ridiculous outcry over use of nuclear isotopes aboard the Cassini probe?)

If you find debris, the first thing you should do is call the local authorities. The next thing you should do is, protect the debris. The last thing we want is the memory of the Columbia Seven to be desecrated by sales on Ebay. In my humble opinion, all debris of Columbia should be imediately MOVED to safe locations under trusted guard until it can be picked up.

NASA will need every possible scrap for forensic study, so that they can determine the cause of the tragedy and prevent it from happening again. Sadly we do not have Richard Feynman to analyse the data, but we can at least do our part by making sure that the ghouls don't get their hands on the physical evidence. Save what you can and call the police.

UPDATE: ok, NASA clarified by saying that the toxic nature of the propellants are what makes debris dangerous. So, be careful! But don't be afraid of radioactivity - and it is still vitally important that we keep as much of the debris out of the hands of scavenger ghouls as possible.

UPDATE: It already started, and will likely continue:

Risk said a group of five to six people were watching over what appeared to a PC board found in the passing lane in the intersection of Martinsville Road and University Drive when a woman in a 2000 blue Volkswagen stopped, jumped out of her car wearing a while plastic bag over her hand, scooped up the debris and began walking away.

"We asked her, 'What are you doing?' and she said, 'None of your business,' got back in her care and drove off," he said. A person in the group took a photo of the car as it left, including the license plate, and notified authorities, he said. "We flagged down a police car, and they ran the information, found out who she was and where she lived," Risk said. "I hope they pursue it."

And there was already an auction for "space shuttle debris" on EBay, but it was quickly pulled (mirror). But there will be more.