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.