Monday, November 15, 2004

The Next Five Big NASA Failures

If you want a glimpse of how NASA really works (or doesn't work as the case may be) read this.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Leprechauns are real!

Wow, this is turning out to be a pretty good day for news. From rednova.com: [UPDATE: which now seems to be defunct]


A 3ft tall 'hobbit' discovered on a remote Indonesian island has raised the extraordinary possibility that our human species might not be alone on Earth.

The female creature has been identified as a completely new member of the human race.

But, although she lived 18,000 years ago, scientists believe her relatives survived for thousands more years on the island of Flores.

And experts have not ruled out the possibility of her descendants, or other unknown human species, still hiding in the impenetrable forests and cave systems of South-East Asia.

Mythical tales abound in the region of a race of little people that dwell on the islands of Indonesia.

Dutch explorers who colonised Flores 100 years ago were told colourful stories of a human-like creature local inhabitants called 'ebu gogo'.

The tales described how they could be heard 'murmuring' to one another, and how, parrot-fashion, they repeated back words spoken to them.

Dr Henry Gee, senior editor of scientific journal Nature, said scientists who made the discovery were now having to think again about these stories' source.

'Until they found this creature they would have dismissed them as tales of hobbits and leprechauns, but no longer,' he told a news conference last night.

Are we still the good guys?

When we attacked Iraq we didn't bother to count the civilian casualties, but now someone has. The grand total: over 100,000. To put this number in perspective, according to published reports, in the much-ballyhooed poison gas attack by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, 5,000 people died. Fewer than 3,000 died in the World Trade Center. I don't know what Saddam's grand total is, but it certainly appears based on these latest figures that the U.S. in contention for having killed more Iraqi civilians than Saddam Hussein and all the terrorist attacks in the history of the world combined.

I've asked this before, I'll ask it again: what exactly is it that makes us the good guys?

We've won the war on terror

The Deparment of Homeland Security has apparently made so much progress in the war on terror that now have extra time and manpower available to try to enforce copyright and patent law. That would be funny (or sad depending on how you look at it) even apart from the fact that their first target hadn't actually broken any laws. What's next? Breaking into people's houses to arrest them for jaywalking?

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Just in time for Halloween

This is really scary.

(The PDF is huge, around 5MB, so if you have a slow connection here's the original PowerPoint presentation , which is only 900k.)

Friday, September 03, 2004

Some reason for hope in Iraq

This is the most hopeful thing I've read about the Iraq war. My respect for the editors of Slate keeps increasing.

"The problem is that our understanding of successful warfare, like our definition of legitimate governance, is different from the region's. And a lot of people -- from Muqtada and Osama to the mullahs in Tehran and the Baathists in Damascus -- have a lot at stake in defining their own version of success. If history is written by the victors, the outcome of this war partly depends on how well we describe it, and how well we enforce those descriptions while we're fighting it.

Trouble is, the Bushies are much worse at describing this war than Lee Smith. And, alas, John Dukak--, er, Kerry, doesn't seem to be much better.

Cold fusion resurrected?

Another good example of how science really works: turns out there may be something to cold fusion after all. That is what distinguishes science from faith: in science experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and there is the ever-present possibility that the authorities are wrong.

Personally, I wouldn't rush out to buy palladium futures just yet, though.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Informed Comment

Just found (via Fred Kaplan over at Slate) a really great blog about Iraq by Juan Cole, a Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Worthwhile albeit lengthy reading.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Did the Resurrection really happen?

I was browsing through the Bible today looking up some passages that were cited in a discussion of Mel Gibson's "The Passion" (which I still haven't seen and probably never will -- I don't think I have the stomach for that much gore). I was struck by the sparseness of the description of the Resurrection in Mark, which is the earliest and hence presumably the most historically reliable of the Gospels. Here is the most important event in all of Christianity (in the history of the Universe if you're a Christian) and all the coverage it gets is about a dozen verses. The chronology of events as reported in Mark is:

1. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome go to the tomb of Jesus (who is dead three days now) to annoint his body with spices.

(As an aside, doesn't this seem like a rather odd thing for them to want to do? Remember, they don't know that Jesus is about to be resurrected. They expect to find a three-day-dead body.)

2. The three women puzzle over how they are going to gain access to the tomb given that its entrance is blocked by a large stone, but when they arrive at the tomb they find the stone has been rolled away and Jesus's body is missing. They enter the tomb and find "a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side."

3. The "young man" tells the women that "He [Jesus] has risen!," askes them to pass the word along to "his disciples and Peter" (I always thought Peter was a disciple), and that they will shortly see the risen Jesus with their own eyes.

4. The women flee the tomb, "trembling and bewildered" and say "nothing to anyone, because they were afraid."

All the quotes are from the New International Version as reported by Biblegateway.

At this point in the narrative there is a note in the NIV that reads:

((The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.))

Now, that came as a bit of a shock to me, because this is the cornerstone of modern Christianity. If this note is true it means that there is no contemporary account of the Resurrection whatsoever beyond what I have just detailed above, and that's a pretty scant account. Taken at face value, it sounds a lot more like an account of a grave robbery than a resurrection.

I note in passing that as the Resurrection took on more of a central role in Christian mythology, so did Jesus's miracles, which also tend to get more embellished and grandiose as one moves through the chronology of the Gospels from Mark to Luke and Matthew and finally to John, where we first encounter the story of Lazarus. Remember Lazarus? He was dead four days when Jesus resurrected him. Funny how that didn't make enough of an impression on the authors of the other three Gospels to be deemed worth mentioning. Maybe it's because they realized that if you're going to hang your religion on a resurrection it's probably best to at least report it as if it were a singular event. The author of John perhaps got a tad carried away and didn't think it all the way through. But that's just a guess.

Life imitates art again

Once again my favorite movie, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, has prophesized an actual event:

"Canada's police chiefs propose a surcharge of about 25 cents on monthly telephone and Internet bills to cover the cost of tapping into the communications of terrorists and other criminals."

Compare with:


INTERVIEWER
And the cost of it all, Deputy
Minister? Seven percent of the gross
national product ...

HELPMANN
I understand this concern on behalf
of the tax-payers. People want value
for money and a cost-effective
service.
...
That is why we always insist on the
principle of Information Retrieval
Charges. These terrorists are not
pulling their weight, and it's
absolutely right and fair that those
found guilty should pay for their
periods of detention and the
Information Retrieval Procedures used
in their interrogation.


Maybe Terry Gilliam is the Messiah.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

A time and a place for everything

I think Bill Timmons, president of the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas, was right to fire Linda Ronstadt for praising Michael Moore's film "Farenheit 9/11" during a recent concert. This is not a freedom-of-speech issue. The people in the audience paid good money to hear her sing, not proseletyze. She can say whatever she wants on her own time, but during a concert she's on the job, and her job is to entertain the audience, even if some of them happen to be Republicans.

Michael Moore has come to Ronstadt's defense, calling her firing "un-American." I disagree. One of the defining features of a country based on free enterprise is that if you don't do your job you can get fired. Reasonable people can differ about whether this is good or bad, but to call it un-American is completely untenable. In my opinion, firing Ronstadt was not only American, it was the right thing to do.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Well, that's a relief

The reports that the Bush Administration had plans to postpone the election in the event of a terrorist attack seem to have been a false alarm. But there's still electronic voting machines to contend with. As long as Diebold controls the elections the world is not safe for Democracy.

Elections postponed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and ... the U.S.

The United States may join the ranks of countries where elections are "postponed" because of security concerns.

I hope we are not witnessing the beginning of the end of American Democracy. But I wouldn't bet my life savings on it at this point.

Free to do anything you want as long as no one objects

One thing that the Bush administration doesn't seem to get is that freedom to do only those things of which the government approves isn't freedom at all. Freedom means nothing if it does not mean being free to do things that are annoying, obnoxious, even offenseive, without fear of being driven into bankruptcy by the government. To be fair, a good percentage of the American People don't seem to get this either.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Knock me over with a feather

Clarence Thomas actually went against right-wing doctrine and did the right thing. Astonishing.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Things that need saying

Something else that in my humble opinionneeds to be said: with all due respect Mr. Vice President, you're a fucking asshole.

Monday, June 21, 2004

The last thing we need

Much as I hate to admit it, the right-wing wackos who hang out on Rand Simberg's blog were apparently right about Michael Moore. Sigh.

A happy day for HMOs

It's a happy day if you're an HMO. The Supreme Court has ruled that HMOs cannot be sued in state court for damages arising from witholding medical care against a doctor's orders. HMOs can now only in Federal court, where awards are capped at the cost of the care withheld.

If you think this through, this makes it fiscally irresponsible for an HMO to pay for any medical care at all! If they pay then they're out the money. But if they don't pay then the worst case scenario for them is that they have to pay out that exact same amount of money. And, of course, if they don't pay then they have all sorts of opportunities to avoid paying forever, like if the care really did turn out to be unnecessary, or of the patient doesn't decide to sue for one reason or another, or if they prevail in court.

Of course, if an HMO really stopped paying altogether they'd probably stop getting customers, so the wisest course of action for an HMO now is to pay out the bare minimum necessary to keep up the appearance that the HMO is not just a scam. But any more than that and the HMO faces a lawsuit by its stockholders. I wonder if the damages would be capped in that case.

Slip-slidin' away

Once again the Supreme Court refuses to toss a line to a country continuing to slide down the slippery slope towards Nazism and the day when a citizen may no longer legally refuse a police officer who demands, "Let me see your papers."

Where have you gone Harry Blackmun? A nation turns its frightened eyes to you.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

An unlikely advocate of states' rights

I am a second class citizen again. As an atheist, I cannot in good conscience declare my allegiance to "the flag of the United States of America, one nation under God" because I do not believe that there is any God for this nation to be under. For a while, the U.S. Court of Appeals recognized what has always seemed like a no-brainer to me: the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge is an unconstitutional establishment of religion. But three days ago the Supreme Court overturned the decision on the grounds that the person who brought the suit had no standing.

Fucking cowards.

Still, some of the Justices wrote dissenting opinions declaring that the Pledge is constitutional. It makes very interesting reading. Some of the reasoning is sound, some of it is twisted, and some of it is very, very scary.

Clarence Thomas, ironically, has the most clear reasoning among the dissenters. He squarely faces the fact that:

... as a matter of our precedent, the Pledge policy is unconstitutional.

But that is an unacceptable outcome to a religious fanatic like Thomas, so he goes on to rewrite the law in a most interesting way:

I believe, however, that Lee was wrongly decided. Lee depended on a notion of “coercion” that, as I discuss below, has no basis in law or reason. The kind of coercion implicated by the Religion Clauses is that accomplished “by force of law and threat of penalty.” 505 U. S., at 640 (SCALIA, J., dissenting); see id., at 640– 645. Peer pressure, unpleasant as it may be, is not coercion.

An ironic observation for a black man to make, but then Thomas was always the poster child for the proposition that even a man with dark skin can be a bigot.

But wait, there's still hope:

But rejection of Lee-style “coercion” does not suffice to settle this case. Although children are not coerced to pledge their allegiance, they are legally coerced to attend school. Cf., e.g., Schempp, supra; Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421 (1962). Because what is at issue is a state action, the question becomes whether the Pledge policy implicates a religious liberty right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

So far so good. Here's the scary part:

I accept that the Free Exercise Clause, which clearly protects an individual right, applies against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. See Zelman, 536 U. S., at 679, and n. 4 (THOMAS, J., concurring). But the Establishment Clause is another matter. The text and history of the Establishment Clause strongly suggest that it is a federalism provision intended to prevent Congress from interfering with state establishments.

So on Thomas's view, the First Amendment is not there to insure individual freedom of religion. It is there to prevent Congress from interfering with the rights of the states to establish official State religions!

Astonishing.

Does Thomas not recall that we fought a civil war over this very issue? The civil war was not about slavery per se, it was about states' rights.

How ironic that one hundred and forty years after the issue was settled that states' rights are being resurrected by a black man named Tom. You couldn't sell that story as a movie.

The rules of Republican politics

The LA Times (and every other newspaper in the world) reports:

One day after the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks reported it could find 'no credible evidence' of cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda in targeting the United States, President Bush today held to his repeated declarations that the two were connected.

'The reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda, because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda,' the president said.

...there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda."

Well, you know what? Since 9/11 there have been numerous contacts between the United States and Al Qaeda too. And numerous contacts between the United States and the Taliban. And there were numerous contacts between the United States and Saddam Hussein for a period extending over decades. And unlike Saddam's refusal to cooperate with Al Qaeda, the United States supplied weapons to Saddam. (I believe that we actually supplied him with WOMD, though I could be wrong about that and I don't feel like looking it up right now.)

The point is that Bush's use of the word "contacts" in the context of justifying the war implies a cooperation between Saddam and Al Qaeda for which there is no evidence whatsoever. For Bush to continue to cling to this rationale is disingenuous in the extreme. Not that this is at all surprising. This is the way it is with Republicans since Herbert Hoover refused to take any action to halt the spread of the Great Depression. Rule #1 of Republican politics: Republicans are never wrong. (Rule #2 is: when Republicans are wrong, see rule #1.)

Hey ho, Bush must go!

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Shhh... we're hunting wabbits (on Mars)

Another wonderful example of science at work, the great Mars bunny hunt. This example really show's Occam's razor at work. Even though we lack conclusive proof, the simplest explanation is probably correct.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Morons!

The California Senate has passed this bit of legislative idiocy. Let's hope that there are more operative neurons in the Assembly. Somehow, I wouldn't bet my life savings on it.

You know, I read about how George Bush's approval ratings are plummeting, and that cheers me up because that means we have a chance to get rid of him in November. Then I remember that if we do that, the Democrats will be back in charge, and I sink into a deep pit of utter despair.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Blame it on porn

Rebecca Hagelin has it all figured out: the abuse of prisoners at Abu Graib is the result of too much porn (and not enough attendance at church).

The logic escapes me. It is certainly true that Americans spend a lot more on porn now than they did, say, fifty years ago, but we also spend more on just about everything else. One could just as easily say that Abu Graib was the result of too much money spent on beer, or SUVs, or fast food.

Or guns.

For that matter, let's take a closer look at the premise behind Hagelin's position: Abu Graib is a reflection of a "culture gone stark raving mad" and urges a return to the Halcyon days before the 60's corrupted us.

Of course, even Hagelin acknowledges that the history of the country before the 60's is not unblemished. "The horrors of slavery come to mind." But what Hagelin doesn't mention is society's reaction to slavery as contrasted to society's reaction to Abu Graib. It took us almost 100 years and a civil war to settle the question of whether slavery was moral. (And, I note in passing, we're still arguing about the question of whether state-sponsored discrimination against minorities is moral.) How long did it take us to settle the question of whether women ought to be allowed to vote? Or whether blacks ought to be allowed to marry whites?

The response of today's American society to the atrocities at Abu Graib stands in stark contrast to the lengthy, painful, and often shameful history that has brought us to where we are. Today's response was immediate and unequivocal (with the exception of a few on the far right who maintain that "those terrorists" got what they deserve): what happened at Abu Graib was wrong. I'll take that over anything our past has to offer.

The problem with today's society, if indeed there is one, is that it is starting to focus too much on the Ten Commandments and not enough on the Ten Amendments. Abu Graib happened not because we gave up on church or God, it happened because we gave up on due process of law.

A small island of sanity

A Federal Appeals Court has ruled that John Ashcroft overstepped his authority when he ordered that Oregon ignore a democratically approved initiative.

This is good news. The bad news is that the vote was 2-1. That's a thin margin.

We liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein. When George Bush has stacked the courts with conservative judges who think the U.S. should be a Christian theocracy, who will liberate us? Who will defend individual freedom and democracy against the overreaching dictatorship of John Ashcroft.

I fear for my country.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

That does it

Despite the fact that I have an Israeli heritage and a certain amount of sympathy for the suffering of Israeli civilians at the hands of Palestinian terrorists (and the fact that my grandmother still lives in Haifa) I can no longer muster any support for the government of Israel after reading this. To destroy a zoo is unalloyed evil.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Friday, April 23, 2004

The end of the world as we know it

There is more evidence that global warming is real and worse than previously thought. The Earth's temperature is rising nearly 1 degree Farenheit per decade.

That's a pretty alarming rate of change. It means that the average temperature of the Earth could change by as much as ten degres F in a single human lifetime.

To put this in perspective, it is probably not a coincidence that the rise of argiculture and civilization coincided with the end of the last ice age about ten thousand years ago. It's not so much the warming up per se that allowed civilization to arise, but rather the fact that global temperatures remained relatively constant for ten thousand years. It's hard to build a civilization if the city you build today will be underwater (or in the middle of a barrent desert) by the time your grandchildren grow up.

Ice core evidence shows that the last ten thousand years have been unusual in the grand and glorious scheme of things, and that radical global warming and cooling have been the rule rather than the exception. That has led some people to be complacent about mankind's contribution to the recent round of global warming, saying that this is just the Way Things Are. That may be. It may also be that civilization now has a firm enough grip that it will survive the end of the conditions that allowed it to arise in the first place, much like a plant, once established, can survive a drought that might have killed it as a seedling.

But even the hardiest plant cannot survive a drought forever.

Global climate change has the capacity to subject us to stresses that we as a species have not known for five hundred generations, possibly within the lifetime of some people alive today. That is certainly a worst-case scenario, but it is not outside the realm of possibility.

One reason to be optimistic: we will probably run out of oil first.

Picture of U.S. dead costs job

So much for freedom of the press.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Couldn't have said it better myself

I have to admit that I found George Bush's speech yesterday inspiring. Too bad it bore little resemblence to reality.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Techno-idiocy 101

California State Senator Liz Figueroa is seeking to block Google's new Gmail service on the grounds that it invades people's privacy.

I can't summon the words to describe how moronic this response seems to me. For one thing, no one is holding a gun to anyone's head forcing them to sign up with GMail. If anyone doesn't like the terms of service they are free to pass.

But the bigger issue is the technological ignorance (or Machiavellian idiocy) that must underlie this position. Email isn't private. It never has been, and until people start to use encryption (which the government is actively trying to prevent them from doing) it never will be.

Getting upset about GMail on privacy issues is kind of like getting upset at GM for making the Hummer on the grounds that you are shocked, shocked! to learn that SUVs aren't fuel efficient.

---

Followup 4/16: Paul Boutin says it much better.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Burying the lead

It seems to me that the press is giving President Bush a free pass on the August 6 memo. For example, the LA Times, whose reputation would lead one to believe that it could be relied upon to hold a Republican President to account, leads with "Memo Cited Fears of Attacks in U.S....But the newly declassified presidential briefing from August 2001 is short on specifics."

Well, that's not really true.

The August 6 memo says:

Although Bin Ladin has not succeeded, his attacks against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1997 demonstrates that he prepares operations years in advance and is not deterred by setbacks. Bin Laden associates surveilled our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993...

FBI information since [1998] indicates patterns of suspicious activities in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings and other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York.

Condoleeza Rice defends the Administrations lack of action in the face of this information on the fact that there is no indication of when the attacks were to take place. But then in her own testimony before the 9/11 comission she reveals that there were indications that attacks were imminent:

Most often, though, the threat reporting was frustratingly vague. Let me read you some of the actual chatter that was picked up in that spring and summer:

"Unbelievable news coming in weeks," said one.

"Big event -- there will be a very, very, very, very big uproar."

"There will be attacks in the near future."

Troubling, yes. But they don't tell us when; they don't tell us where; they don't tell us who; and they don't tell us how.


Um, Dr. Rice, with all due respect, the chatter and the August 6 memo did in fact tell us when ("in weeks"), where ("New York"), who ("Bin Laden"), and how ("hijackings"). Or were you expecting someone to give you the exact dates and flight numbers?

Now, to be fair, hindsight is 20/20, and I actually think it's a defensible position to look at that information at the time and make a considered decision not to act on it. But they didn't do that. They did what they did because they were willfully ignorant, because they had all their attention focused on Iraq, and because of familial obligations to the Bin Ladens and the House of Saud.

What is astonishing to me is that even in the face of news like that (and this) there will still be somewhere around fifty million Americans ready to vote for George Bush in November.

Where in the world is Battle Creek?

Wherever it is I think they have the right attitude.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Friday, April 02, 2004

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Chicken little was right

Martin (whose URL doesn't seem to be working at the moment) pointed me to this editorial by Donald Sensing in the Wall Street Journal. Sensing concludes:

Sex, childbearing and marriage now have no necessary connection to one another, because the biological connection between sex and childbearing is controllable. The fundamental basis for marriage has thus been technologically obviated. Pair that development with rampant, easy divorce without social stigma, and talk in 2004 of "saving marriage" is pretty specious. There's little there left to save. Men and women today who have successful, enduring marriages till death do them part do so in spite of society, not because of it.

If society has abandoned regulating heterosexual conduct of men and women, what right does it have to regulate homosexual conduct, including the regulation of their legal and property relationship with one another to mirror exactly that of hetero, married couples?

I believe that this state of affairs is contrary to the will of God. But traditionalists, especially Christian traditionalists (in whose ranks I include myself) need to get a clue about what has really been going on and face the fact that same-sex marriage, if it comes about, will not cause the degeneration of the institution of marriage; it is the result of it.


I completely agree (except, of course, for the part about all this being contrary to the will of God). Christian conservatives have been asleep at the switch for a long time, and not just about gay marriage. They're getting outraged about Janet Jackson's tit, when what they should be getting outraged about is "Frasier" (one my my wife's and my favorite shows) and "How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days", both of which portray pre-marital sex as the norm even among the fuddiest of duddies. And this isn't HBO, this is prime-time network TV and a PG-13 romantic comedy, and they are hardly the eception. I can't remember the last time I saw premarital sex portrayed in popular visual media as anything other than a societal norm. But the religious right seems too busy getting passionate about The Passion to notice.

I am not axiomatically pro-gay-marriage. What I am axiomatically for is consistency and effectiveness. Either we're going to defend marriage as an institution designed to foster procreation or we're not. If we're going to defend marriage on those grounds that means making illegal (or at least taking strong stands against) pre-marital sex, birth control, and divorce (at least for couples with children), taking away tax breaks for infertile couples (and even fertile couples who for whatever reason don't have children within a certain time period), and then wrestling with the very sticky issue of artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization. Most people now laugh at the chicken-littles who warned that the sky would fall as a result of reproductive technology, but it turns out they were right: the sky is falling. Society is coming apart at the seams as a result. Old institutions, like marriage reserved for heterosexual couples, are becoming untenable -- along with suffrage reserved for men and freedom reserved for whites.

Personally, I think that's a good thing. If having society unravel the way it has in the last hundred years is the price we have to pay to realize the American Dream of liberty and justice for all, I say bring it on.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Wow, people are reading my blog!

I just realized that people are actually posting comments on my blog and I hadn't realized it. I thought I had it set up to notify me by email when someone posted a comment, but that doesn't seem to be working. I'll have to look into that.

In any case, a response to a noteworthy comment:

On the issue of the California State Supreme Court ordering Catholic Charities to include birth control in their medical benefits:

> What if this organization didn't believe in antibiotics? Would you still feel the same way?

Yes.

This question seems to make a fundamental but common mistake, which is to assume that if a principle leads to an undesirable outcome that the principle must be abandoned. This is a logical fallacy that I call "proof by horror story." The problem is that most people don't stop to consider the negative consequences of abandoning the principle. In this case the principle is religious freedom, and the (hypothetical in this case) negative consequences are that some people will be deprived of life-saving medical treatment. Yes, being denied medical treatment is a terrible thing. But setting the precedent that the government gets to decide what does and does not qualify as a religion is vastly worse.

I would make only two exceptions: one is if the person being deprived of treatment is a minor (as sometimes happens with Christian Scientisits), and the other is in the case of truly egregious abuses, like if Microsoft tried to declare itself a religious organization in order to avoid paying taxes. But in the case of Catholic Charities it is quite clear that neither of these is the case. If an organization says it's religious it must be given every benefit of the doubt, otherwise we'll be left with nothing but state-approved religions.

Baby shortage? What baby shortage?

I am truly astonished at the number of otherwise apparently rational people who are advancing (and otherwise rational editors who are choosing to publish) the argument that gay marriage ought to be illegal because gays can't reproduce. For one thing, it's clearly not true. From the point of view of reproductive abilities, a lesbian couple is at least as capable (arguably twice as capable) of reproducing as a heterosexual couple whose male partner happens to be sterile or has had a vascectomy. So even if one accepts the premise that society has a vested interest in supporting the production of babies that does not hold up to scrutiny as grounds for opposing the marriage of lesbians.

But the premise is also clearly not true. There may have been a time when society had an interest in encouraging the production of babies, just as there was a time when it had an interest in encouraging everyone to produce (or hunt or gather) food. But those days are long gone. There is hardly a baby shortage in the world. What there is a shortage of, and what the institution of marriage was designed to foster it seems to me, is stable, loving families willing to invest the 18 years or so it takes to raise a child, and in this regard gays are just as capable as anyone else (more so if my gay friends are any indication).

I also wonder in passing how many Americans making the argument that gays shouldn't be allowed to marry because they can't produce babies simultaneously support stricter enforcement of our immigration laws. I don't have any data, but I suspect the number is large. This, I think, reveals this argument for what it truly is: a thin disguise for bigotry, because at the same time they wring their hands about the terrible shortage of babies they want to make sure that it's the right kind of babies. Mexican or Romanian babies just won't do. This mindset is no different from the one that led people to oppose interracial marriage in this country not so long ago.

As an aside, there is an interesting review of the history of homosexuality in society here. I'd take some of what he says with a grain of salt, e.g., "There is almost no evidence in any pre-Christian writer of hostility to homosexuality as such." Leviticus 18:22 says "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination," which certainly sounds to me like pre-Christian hostility to homosexuality as such. But maybe that's why he hedged with "almost."

I found another interesting passage while searching for that one: Exodus 22:16 says (or at least strongly implies) that pre-marital sex is OK as long as you marry the person afterwards.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

This is progress?

An interesting juxtaposition of headlines as the two top stories on Google News this morning:

Bombers in Iraq , Pakistan Kill 184 People on Muslim Holy Day , Hurt 590

Bush: America making progress against terrorists

Two lines from my favorite movie spring to mind:

Reporter: "But deputy minister, the bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year."

Minister (dismissively): "Beginner's luck."

Monday, March 01, 2004

Maybe pigs really do fly.

In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I'd find myself in violent agreement with a Bush judicial nominee. And yet, it is so.

The California Supreme Court has ruled that Catholic Charities employee health plan must provide birth control in violation of Catholic dogma. The grounds for this decision is that "the charity is not a religious employer because it offers such secular services as counseling, low-income housing and immigration services to the public without directly preaching about Catholic values."

The lone dissenter was Justice Janice Rogers Brown, who was nominated by George Bush to fill a to fill a Federal Appeals Court vacancy. Her nomination has been blocked by the Democrats in Congress. Brown wrote, ''Here we are dealing with an intentional, purposeful intrusion into a religious organization's expression of it religious tenets and sense of mission,'' Brown wrote. ''The government is not accidentally or incidentally interfering with religious practice; it is doing so willfully by making a judgment about what is or is not a religion.''

I completely agree with Justice Brown. The government must not get into the business of deciding what is and is not a religion. That is up to the religious organizations to say. Yes, this opens the door to all sorts of abuse, but that is the price of religious freedom.

In this case it is quite clear that the government is forcing Catholic Charities to support a practice that they obviously believe in good faith is sinful. A more egregious abuse of government authority is hard to imagine.

The U.S. Supreme Court should overturn this decision.

Logic envy?

I'm in the midst of an interesting discussion over in Rand Simberg's comments section that began as an argument about whether the death of Jesus on the cross was "the greatest injustice in history" and has turned into a discussion about whether free will is logically incompatible with an omniscient god (small g).

That argument is of course older than the hills, and so I won't rehash it here. What I find interesting is not so much the argument or its resolution, but rather the fact that people, and particularly religious people, keep arguing about it. What I find most fascinating is that on the religious side of the discussion the motivation seems to be not only to convince people that yes, man has free will and God is omniscient, but (and this is the interesting part) that there is no logical contradiction in this position.

Why is it so important that the religious position be seen as compatible with logic? After all, there is no logical reason to believe that logic is an effective guide to Truth (whatever that is); you have to take that on faith. Why can't religious people say, "No, it's not logical, but I believe it anyway?"

To be fair, many religious people do say that. But it seems to me that a substantial portion resist this position with all their might, and spend inordinate amounts of time trying to "reconcile" religion and logic or religion and science.

The only explanation I can think of is that many religious people suffer from "logic envy". Deep in their heart of hearts they think that there really is something to this logic thing, and they just can't bring themselve to dismiss it. But why? As I said, there is no logical reason to "believe" in logic. I have two theories.

The first theory is that our brains are just wired for it. There is an evolutionary advantage to being able to think logically and so humans are driven towards it by a mental hunger just as they are driven towards food by a gustatory one. (Or, if you prefer, our capacity for logic was given to us by God as a consequence of being created in His image.)

Theory the second: logic is not inherently "good" or "right", but it is effective. The computer I am using to write this (and the one you are probably using to read it) was not created by prayer, it was created by logic. Likewise for cars, antibiotics, light bulbs -- the effects of logic are pervasive in modern life. And so religion, seeing this effectiveness suffers from "logic envy". There is a visceral satisfaction that comes from being able to prove something. It is so poweful that religious people often lose sight of the fact that proof is fundamentally incompatible with faith.

What people on both sides of the discussion seem to lose sight of is that the effectiveness of logic has limitations. Logic is effective in the objective sphere, not so much in the subjective one. Logic provides little guidance when it comes to figuring out what is good, or just, or beautiful, or why sunsets are romantic, or what the meaning of life is. These are precisely the kinds of questions where religion has a vastly better track record of providing answers that are satisfactory for most people, and it's a shame that some religions do not seem to feel secure in this success.

Attempts to reconcile science and religion are doomed to fail -- and that's a good thing. Humans experience both objective and subjective realities, and these two realities operate under different rules. Logic is an effective tool for dealing with the objective reality of computers and cars and light bulbs, but it has (so far) been (mostly) ineffective when dealing with subjective realities -- love, passion, and the need to have a purpose in life. To meet those needs, religion is for most people much more effective. So it's good that we have both.

Friday, February 27, 2004

How many?

Question: How many multinational corporations could engage in systematic and ongoing sexual abuse of children, cover up that abuse for decades, and remain in business once these practices were revealed?

Answer: At least one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

But is it murder?

The Telegraph reports that smoking 'kills up to 5,000 fetuses a year'.

I wonder when conservatives will start to push to make smoking while pregnant a crime. I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

So wrong

This is so wrong. The French national assembly has voted overwhelmingly to ban head scarves and skullcaps in public schools. The justification for this fascist law is that "the ban would help to keep classes from dividing up into 'militant religious communities.'"

This beggars the imagination. Do the French really think that everyone won't know who the Muslim and Jewish kids are even if they aren't wearing headscarves and skull caps?

And wouldn't banning Jews and Muslims from public school entirely would be even more effective? But, oh, you'll still have Jews and Muslims flaunting their religous regalia in other public areas. How long before France decides it needs a final solution to the Muslim and Jewish problem?

There is no difference between forcing a Muslim woman to not wear a headscarf and forcing a Jew to wear a yellow star. It's not about separation, it's about individual freedom. When the government gets into the business of deciding what people may and may not wear it takes its first steps towards fascism. When it makes those decisions based on items of clothing associated with religious and ethnic groups it takes its first step towards Nazism.

On a related note, immigration officials in Maine have begun raiding ethnic supermarkets looking for illegal aliens. Local officials have begun advising all non-citizens to carry their immigration documents at all times. No, I am not making this up. It is true. In the United States we now have people living in fear of government officials stopping them on the street and demanding to see their papers. Of course, citizens who have dark skins or accents should probably also carry their passports with them at all times to avoid being mistaken for an alien without documentation. How long before no one but whites will be able to walk American streets without fear of being hauled away? And how long after that before no one will be able to do so any more, and "the home of the free" will just be an abstract memory?

If this sounds alarmist you should go read some histories of Berlin in the early thirties.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Someone needs to get a life

I am shocked (but not at all surprised) that someone is suing Janet Jackson::


Knoxville native Terri Carlin filed a proposed class action lawsuit in a U.S. District Court on Wednesday, charging the accused with causing her and 'millions of others' to 'suffer outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious injury.' The suit reportedly seeks billions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.


There is staggering irony that this is happening at the same time that France is about to ban the wearing of head scarves in public schools. I am not that familiar with Islamic culture but I am given to understand that Muslim women cover their heads for exactly the same reason that women from Western cultures cover their breasts (except on the Cote D'azure). Demanding that a Muslim women go bare-headed is tantamount to demanding that a Western woman go bare-chested.

But, of course, no one dares admit this because it highlights how utterly arbitrary all of these social norms are, and defuses that heady feeling of moral righteousness (to say nothing of the potential for profit) that comes from being a member of a majority that can impose its will on everyone else.

Hm, I am feeling pretty outraged, angry and embarrassed, and I'm about to suffer serious injury from this insurmoutable urge I feel to beat my head against a wall. I wonder if I can sue Terri Carlin for damages.

I see right through you

Josh Marshall has figured it out:


Besides tax cuts and parceling out pork to favored constituencies, there's very little this White House does in domestic policy that isn't for short-term political gain, regardless of the consequences.


Now let's hope the rest of the American electorate does the same before November 7. I wouldn't bet my life savings on it.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Life immitates art

It took almost twenty years for the real world to become like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, but only two years for Minority Report to morph from fiction to fact :


In a new twist, President Bush suggested today that Saddam Hussein's intent to surreptitiously acquire weapons of mass destruction was sufficient grounds for the Iraq war that ousted the dictator from power.

Ronstradamus prognosticates

I would like to note for the record that this post was written before the Super Bowl.

:-)

There must be a pony in here somewhere

Rummy says WOMDs may still be found in Iraq.

You gotta give him this: the man's an optimist.

Then there's this:


Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and other Democrats on the committee reminded Rumsfeld that in September 2002 he said "we know" where weapons of mass destruction are stored in Iraq.

Explaining that remark, Rumsfeld told the panel that he was referring to suspected weapons sites, but he acknowledged that he had made it sound like he was talking about actual weapons.

The remark "probably turned out not to be what one would have preferred, in retrospect," he said.


It was actually clear at the time that the Administration could not possibly have known where the weapons were. Remember, there were still UN weapons inspectors on the ground at the time. If the Administration really knew where the weapons were they could have cemented the case for war by simply giving this information to the UN. That they didn't proves that they didn't know. Furthermore, it proves that they knew they didn't know, which means they lied through their teeth when they said they did know.

The credibility of our nation has been irrecoverably undermined. Who is going to believe us the next time we cry Wolf of Mass Destruction?

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Better late than never

Someone close to the Bush administration has finally figured it out: "'If you cannot rely on good, accurate intelligence that is credible to the American people and to others abroad, you certainly cannot have a policy of pre-emption,'" says David Kay. Too bad it took a year (to say nothing of over 500 dead American soldiers and God only knows how many Iraqi civilian lives -- last estimate I heard was 'over 10,000'.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

A test of character

It's a little stale now, but I just wanted to go on the record saying that Jacques Chirac's proposal to ban head scarves and other ostensible religious symbols in French public schools is a really bad idea. It's so bad I can't even muster the words to describe how bad I think it is. It's bad. El stinko. What was he thinking? There is no difference whatsoever between banning head scarves and forcing people to wear them. Either measure is repugnant to a free society.

Now, here's a test of character: if you agree that requiring women to wear head scarves in public is unacceptably oppressive, would you say the same of laws requiring women to cover their breasts?

Thursday, January 22, 2004

It's white on one side

Although Siegfried Hecker is not officially speaking for the U.S. government it is hard to believe that a former head of the Los Alamos National Lab doesn't have some connection to the Bush Administration. In any case, it is quite a spectable watching Dr. Hecker bend over backward to avoid saying the North Korea is actively developing nuclear weapons at the same time that the Dubya is still tying himself into semantic knots insisting that Iraq did have WOMD. ("Weapons of mass destruction-related program activities" is a phrase destined for the history books, right along with, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.")


When Hecker expressed skepticism about North Korean claims, technicians produced a heavy glass jar containing a funnel-shaped piece of metal that was "blackish with a rough surface," he said. A metallurgist who has spent decades working with plutonium, Hecker said the North Koreans allowed him to hold the jar in gloved hands. In contrast to everything else in the laboratory, the jar was warm, and it "seemed about right in terms of weight," Hecker said. When he took off the gloves, the North Koreans ran a Geiger counter over them to check for radioactivity. The counter went off.

"The bottom line is: It was consistent with the way plutonium looks," Hecker said, "but I still cannot say with 100% certainty that it was plutonium.


It reminds me of an old joke:

Four learned fellows are on a train traveling through Scotland, each trying to outdo the other in being factual and precise.

At one stage, the first looks out the window, and spying an animal on the field nearby, claims, "All the sheep in Scotland are white!"

The second replies, "No, SOME of the sheep in Scotland are white."

The third retorts, "No, AT LEAST ONE of the sheep in Scotland is white."

They all look at the fourth, daring him to improve on the last statement.

He thinks for a second, and replies, "At least one of the sheep in Scotland is white ON ONE SIDE."

While this exchange is going on, a fifth man is walking through the train car. He overhears the exchange and stops. He looks out the window, sees the sheep disappear in the distance, and says quietly, "At least one of the sheep in Scotland is white on one side part of the time."

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Poor Dubya

Pity poor George Bush. Now on top of everything else he has to deal with, the Shiites in Iraq are demanding (can you imagine?) elections! Don't those ingrates know we've already got our hands full trying to bring them freedom and democracy? Elections! Heaven forfend! If there were actually elections in Iraq they might vote for leaders who would turn Iraq into (shudder) an Islamic state like Iran! Don't they understand that we can't take that kind of a risk? (Jewish states and Christian states are OK, but Islamic states are breeding grounds for terrorists. We can't have that.)

No, I do not envy President Bush. How to bring democracy to Iraq without taking the risk that the Iraqi people will actually have some say in how things turn out -- now that is a pickle. But I have every faith that he'll figure it out. After all, he already did it once in the U.S.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Blogspeak is dead. Long live blogspeak.

Blogspeak, the service I was using to host blog comments, has gone kaput. All the comments have supposedly been transferred over to haloscan, but I need to change my blog template and I don't have time to do it right now. But if you're itching to say something about one of my posts check back in a day or two.

Kudos to Harry for carrying on with Blogspeak for as long as he did.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

One small step for Big Brother

The Supreme Court has taken yet another step towards transforming the United States into a police state.

A requiem for Paul O'Neill

The main question I have about Paul O'Neill is not what possessed him to reveal what he knows about the Bush administration but rather how such an apparently hopelessly naive individual ever rose as far as he did. The most striking quote from the Sixty Minutes interview was this: "I can't imagine that I'm going to be attacked for telling the truth."

Are you kidding me? You're a cabinet member in the Administration with the most reckless disregard for the truth since Nixon, and you can't imagine that you're going to be attacked? I'm not even a politician and I figured out long ago that the biggest lie we tell our kids is that honesty is the best policy. Honesty is almost never the best policy. The key to life is to know when and how to lie, beginning with telling Aunt Agatha how delicious her homemade quince pie is, and thank you so very much for making it.

Well, maybe O'Neill is right. Maybe he won't be attacked because he will be perceived as such a buffoon that no one will take his revelations seriously anyway, which is a shame because O'Neill provides actual evidence to support the long-standing speculation that the Bush Administration was determined to invade Iraq long before 9/11, and that the tragic events of that day merely provided an convenient cover story to sell the idea to the American people.

And yet, Bush's approval rating is still at a record high. P.T. Barnum was right.

Putting the lie to the Big Three

Yesterday I went to my local Toyota dealership to test drive a Prius hybrid. But I wasn't able to because there's a five month long waiting list to get one.

This seems to indicate that the Big Three auto makers' claims that Americans just don't buy small fuel-efficient cars is hogwash. Maybe we just don't buy bad fuel efficient cars, but if you give us half a chance to buy a fuel efficient car that's reliable, performs reasonably well, and doesn't look too goofy we'll beat a path to your door.

I'm now leaning towards the new Mazda3. It's an economy car that doesn't look or feel like an economy car. I need to replace my ten year old G20, which was also an economy car (I bought it because it cost less than a Honda Accord) that didn't look or feel like an economy car. It's a shame Infiniti doesn't make a small car any more or I'd buy another one in a heartbeat. It's kind of nice to have the cachet of a luxury nameplate without the luxury price tag. The G20 was also rock-solid reliable. In ten years I've never had a single problem with it. (Actually, that's not quite true. I did have the brake light switch fail on me. The replacement part cost me $10 and it took me about ten minutes to swap it out.)

The only thing even remotely comparable to the G20 nowadays are the BMW 3-series and the Lexus IS300. Yes, these are both nicer than the G20, but are they $10,000+ nicer? Not to me. Besides, it's really hard to justify shelling out $32k for an IS300 or a Beemer when you can get a G35 for $5k less. Trick is, I need a car that I can park in a compact space, and the G35 is just too damn big. Other than that it's a great car. I got to drive one as a loaner when my G20 was having an oil change (that's one of the nice perks of owning an Infiniti) and it was just a dream to drive. I took it up a windy mountain road and I was able to go around the curves so fast that I was making myself seasick without even approaching the car's handling limits.

Oh well, gotta leave something to aspire too. Of course, there's always the Acura NSX...

Friday, January 09, 2004

Oh what a tangled web we weave

I listened to Terry Gross's interview of David Frum and Richard Perle yesterday. Frum and Perle are two self-described hardliners and architects of the Bush Administration's Iraq policy. Their basic position was this:

1. We (the U.S.) continue to be under grave threat of terrorism from Islamic fundamentalists, and have been for over a decade (c.f. the first WTC bombing in 1993).

2. The source of the threat is widely distributed, and includes (or included) Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudia Arabia, Pakistan, North Korea, and several other countries.

3. A policy of patient diplomacy failed to prevent 9/11, and could therefore reasonably be expected to fail to prevent future and even more horrific attacks using ever more powerful WOMD.

4. Therefore, some kind of pre-emptive military action was not only justified, but necessary to show the world that the U.S. was serious about protecting its security.

You know what? I mostly agree with them.

The problem with the war in Iraq was not so much that it happened, but that it was sold on the basis of (let's be generous) a very serious mistake. Frum and Perle's argument, while it might have been instrumental in forming Adminstration policy, was never made to the American people, or to the rest of the world. The argument that was publicly made was very, very different, to wit, that Iraq 1) possessed WOMD and 2) had extant ties to terrorist organizations and therefore 3) presented an imminent danger to the U.S. and the rest of the world.

That argument was false. We may never know whether it was an honest mistake, or a deliberate deception based on the realization that the real reason for attacking Iraq would almost certainly draw even more widespread condemnation than the one that was actually given. The real reason was, to paraphrase: there's a threat out there somewhere, we don't really know exactly where, but 9/11 has exhausted our reserve of patience and so by God we're going to go out and kick some Muslim fundamentalist ass.

I can see why some people in the Administration thought it might not have flown, and that they had to come up with something else.

Trouble is, we have now painted ourselves into a very serious corner. By attacking a country that 1) was not really the central locus of the threat and 2) on a false pretext, we have now seriously undermined our ability to press the initiative. Making an example of Iraq seems to have been enough to bring Lybia and North Korea in line, but what if it isn't enough to also bring Syria, Pakistan, and (the elephant in the living room) Saudia Arabia around? What if the Taliban re-establish themselves in Afghanistan (a real possibility by the way)? What if we get to the point where we need to kick some more Islamic fundamentalist ass in order to make our point? What then? There are no more Saddam Husseins out there (unless you want to count Serdar Turkmenbashi, but does anyone really think that attacking Turkmensitan next is going to have any effect but to leave all the Isalmic fundamentalists rolling on the floor laughing?)

The problem with attacking Iraq on a false pretext is, as many have pointed out, that there is no exit strategy. I don't mean that in the usual small way, referring to getting our troops out of Iraq. I mean it in a big way, that it leaves us with our hands tied. We laid some implicit ground rules with our rhetoric: it's OK to launch pre-emptive strikes as long as 1) the danger is imminant and 2) the leader is brutal. If it should become necessary to launch another pre-emptive strike against another country in order to win the war on terrorism we will have only two choices. We either have to make the case against another country on the basis of those same ground rules, in which case we will almost certainly fail to do so (the credibility of our intelligence has been seriously undermined), or we have to unilaterally change the rules, in which case the world will almost certainly condemn us. The last person to change the ground rules they set up in order to justify a pre-emptive attack on another country was Adolf Hitler when he invaded Poland in 1939.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Back in the U.S. of A.

Our month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand went off without a hitch (with one minor exception involving a pair of scissors, but that's another story -- see my earlier post). We left Auckland at 8 PM on December 31 and arrived in Los Angeles twelve hours later at 10 AM on ... December 31. Crossing the date line is really weird. (So is seeing the sun in the North, and Orion standing on his head. The world really is round.)

There apparently wasn't room for the plane to park at the terminal building, or maybe this is now procedure for all incoming international flights, but we got off the plane and they herded us all (a full 747's worth) onto busses. The bus was already looking pretty full when my wife and I got on, but they kept packing more and more people in. It was starting to feel like a Tokyo subway when someone said, "We're full, close the doors." The airport employee in charge of loading people onto the busses flew off the handle. "Don't tell me what to do!" she shouted, and just for emphasis she said it three times. The shock among the Kiwis, who are unfailingly polite, was palpable. I was ashamed for my country at that moment.

The airport employee (I'm not sure what her actual job title would be -- bus loader?) was, naturally, black, as were most of the people working customs and security that day. Part of me could understand where she was coming from. Here was a (I presume) poor black woman loading an overwhelmingly white crowd of affluent (I presume) travellers onto a bus when one of them barks what sounds to her like an order: "Close the door, nigger woman!" No, that's not what he said, but I suspect that's what it might have felt like to her. God damn it, she may have thought, this isn't 1864, it's 2004! Black people shouldn't have to take orders from white people any more! Don't tell me what to do! It was a very tense moment.

The really sad part was that there really wasn't any more room on that bus, and in the end there was nothing she could do but comply with the order/request.

We actually saw some hints that similar things happen in Australia with the Bama (which is what the Aborigines call themselves). The Bama are not doing nearly as well as the Maori's in New Zealand. When Europeans arrived, the Maoris were able to adapt. They dropped their tradition of warring amongst themselves, united, and managed to negotiate, by comparison to other indigenous peoples, a pretty good situation for themselves. Today the Maoris are probably, among indigenous peoples who had significant contact with Europeans during the Colonial age, among the best off. The Maori culture and language are thriving. There are Maori radio stations playing Maori rock and roll (even, alas, Maori rap). By comparison, the Bama are invisible. They were never able to unite (probably because Australia is so huge) and so the Europeans had them for lunch. Some of the abuses were truly horrific, not as bad as the institutionalized slavery practiced in the U.S., but in the same ballpark. (Some of these were dramatized in the recent movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence", which I recommend.) Their various languages and cultures are all but invisible to casual inspection. We did visit one Bama cultural center run by a tribe called the Tjapukai (pronounced Jabugai). Outside of that, the only aboriginees we saw were in Cairns, apparently homeless, and being hassled by the (white) police.

In a moment of rare lucidity, one of the Tjapukai, in the midst of a demonstration of how to play a dijeridoo (an astonishingly versatile instrument when played well), launched into a tirade about how Europeans had brainwashed his grandmother with the Bible, and made a joke about his BMW, which stood for "Black Man Walks." There seemed to be no such lantent bitterness among the Maoris. In fact, while in New Zealand I saw a newspaper article reporting poll results that Kiwis (as New Zealanders call themselves) were very optimistic about the future, and that the Maoris were even more optimistic than the national average (despite having lower incomes and life expectancies).

I didn't learn as much about the Bama as I would have liked, in part because we were warned not to raise the topic in polite company. We did learn that they have been in Australia for tens of thousands of years, and no one, not even the Bama themselves, know how they got there.

The Maoris were comparatively recent arrivals in New Zealand, having arrived only about a thousand years ago. They came from the same Polynesian peoples who populated Hawaii, and there are many interesting parallels in both culture and language.

Oops, I'm running late so I'll wrap this up by saying, Kyora! Which is Maori for Aloha. :-)

I'm moving to New Zealand

But shhhh... don't tell anyone. New Zealand is the most consistently beautiful place I have ever seen. It's like Switzerland without the Swiss. But I don't want people to know because if the word gets out everyone will move there and ruin it. Kiwis are legendary for being friendly, and the reputation is well deserved. The countryside is uniformly spectacular, so much so that after two week we found ourselves almost going into beautiful-scenery-overload. "Oh, another waterfall. Ho hum."

New Zealand's one saving grace (after a fashion) is that the weather really sucks, and this may be enough to convince most Californians to stay in California, which is already a lost cause so where's the harm. Oh, and they drive on the wrong side of the road too. It's not that driving on the left is bad per se, but the problem is that you have to work the shifter with your left hand. If God had intended that he would not have made most people right handed, now would he?

(And if your answer to that is: that's why God invented the automatic transmission, my answer is: God did not invent the automatic transmission, God invented the tiptronic tranmission. The automatic was clearly the work of Satan.)

Skeletons in the file drawers?

As long as I'm on the subject of lying scumbag politicians, I am once again having second thoughts about my support of Howard Dean. He impressed me as an honest straight-dealer, but what's with sealing up his gubinatorial records? That just the sort of thing George Bush would do (has done, in fact). I am a stauch advocate of the right to privacy, but not when it comes to records pertaining to public office, and certainly not if you are running for President. The only reason I can imagine him doing it is if he knows that there's a dark secret in those files that will cost him the White House. To quote Baby Herman, the whole thing stinks like yesterday's diapers.

What was that mission again?

While I was in Australia I had time to read two of Michael Moore's books, so it came as no surprise to me when Sixty Minutes reported that we are forcibly dismantling democratically elected local governments in Iraq and putting ex-Baathists in power instead.

If you find that shocking you really need to read "Stupid White Men". There Moore documents (among other things) that the Bush family has close personal ties with the Taliban and the Saudi royal family. I'm not sure what is more shocking, that fact, or the fact that no one knows about it.

Security insanity

The comment on the previous post prompts me to take time out to relate the following anecdote from our trip down under.

We were in Australia and New Zealand for a month, visiting a dozen different places. It was quite the whirlwind tour, and in order to avoid the hassle of waiting for our baggage all the time we decided to pack everything we needed in carry-on luggage. (It can be done!) This presented a logistical problem because my wife wanted to carry a pair of scissors to trim her nails. (For some reason that I don't completely understand she doesn't like to use nail trimmers.) I checked the TSA web site and discovered to my pleasant surprise that scissors are now allowed in carry-on luggage as long as they have blunt tips. So we bought a pair of "safety scissors" as they were called and off we went. It took a little negotiating with the TSA agents at LAX (who apparently had not studied up on the latest list of banned items) but we eventually arrived in Sydney with our scissors intact. When we flew to Melbourne the Aussies didn't even bother to look in our bags. Going from Melbourne to Cairns we discovered, however, that scissors of any kind were in fact prohibited on Australian flights, never mind that we had already managed to smuggle them aboard one flight without even trying (or realizing that's what we were doing). Reluctantly we donated our scissors to the no-doubt burgeoning collection at the Melbourne airport.

Fast forward to Brisbane. "You've got a pair of scissors in your bags," the security agent told us. "No, we don't," we replied, "our scissors were confiscated three flights ago." After a lot of searching and several return trips through the X-ray the security agent finally found an old forgotten hotel sewing kit with a pair of scissors inside. We had no idea they were there. They were all of two inches long, with plastic handles and aluminum blades. (The blades were less than one inch long.) But they took them nonetheless, and gave us a stern lecture about how unwise it was to lie to Australian airport security.

The crowning irony to all this (apart from the fact that these deadly scissors had gone through god only knows how many airport X-rays without raising any concern) is that right next to the sewing kit my wife had a comb that consisted of six rather long (3 inches or so) and fairly sharp steel prongs embedded in a plastic handle. I don't know how much damage you could do with that comb, since I somehow managed to resist the temptation to conduct a relevant experiment on the Australian security guards, but I'm pretty confident that it would be substantially more than you could do with those toy scissors they spent all that effort to locate and confiscate. So I am sad to report that when it comes to security insanity reigns as supreme down under as it does up here in the U.S. of A.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Climbing Mount Email

I'm back from my month-long trip to Australia and New Zealand. I'm eager to tell you all about it, but at the moment I'm still digging out from under a mountain of mail, so in the meantime go read this from Michael Moore.