Friday, December 15, 2006

Jews on Christmas

A collection of clips, sites, and info that really capture the spirit of the season...for us. Oy vey. Chappy Channukah.
(There is a sound that automatically plays when you load this page. Listen.)

Clark W. Griswold: Where do you think you're going? Nobody's leaving. Nobody's walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no! We're all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here! We're gonna press on, and we're gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye! And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he's gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse!

Clark W. Griswold: This is what Christmas is all about. I'll uh, park the cars and check the luggage, and uh, I'll be outside for the season.

Todd: Where do you think your gonna put a tree that big?
Clark W. Griswold: Bend over and I'll show ya.

What do Jews do on Christmas?

Also, from

A dreidel is a four sided top with the Hebrew letters, nun, gimel, hey, and shin, printed one on each side. The letters stand for Nes gadol hayah sham "A great miracle happened there." (In Israel, of course, the letters are nun, gimmel, hey, and pey, for Nes gadol haya poh "A miracle happened here.")

The dreidel is a traditional game played by children as the candles of the Hanukkah burn in the Menorah, the 9-candle candelabra of Hanukkah. Each player puts a token in the pot: a piece of candy, a raisin, nut, or chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Then the first player spins the dreidel. When the dreidel stops, the letter that is facing up determines the play: nun indicates neither win nor loss, gimmel allows the spinner to take all the tokens in the pot, hey allows the spinner to take half of the pot, but shin forces the spinner to put one token back into the pot.

The game of dreidel was played throughout Europe in the Middle Ages under various names. The Hebrew letters are probably borrowed back from the Yiddish or directly from German: N(un) for nichts "nothing," G(immel) for ganz "all," h(ei) for halb "half" and sh(in) for stellen "put in." Legend has it that Jewish children living under the persecution of the Persians and Greeks spun the dreidel as they studied the Torah and Talmud, so that their persecutors would think them playing rather than studying forbidden holy writ.

Dreidel is a Yiddish word spun from the German verb drehen "to spin, turn". This word is related to English throw, which originally meant "to turn or twist." The Latin descendant of the same original root is torquere "to spin", the root of our words torque, torture, and torment. In English it ended up as queer, another way of saying "twisted". (Everyone at alphaDictionary wishes all our Jewish friends the happiest of Hanukkah seasons, especially those in Israel, where we hope the Festival of the Lights will illuminate a brighter and more peaceful future.)


Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Ditto Dems

I kvetched earlier about pundits on the right claiming victory where none existed. Dems, that goes for you too. The talk of the left is awash in triumphant, self-congratulating encomia (aside from James Carville's bizarre call for DNC chairman Howard Dean to resign immediately after the electoral victory). As I voted democratic across the board in this election, I would like to remind my new representatives (even though nothing actually changed for me at the federal level, I feel the party should be beholden to me nonetheless) that they didn't win squat. Stop patting yourselves on the back; this was the kind of contest that, if it were a sports game, I would have wished both teams could be handed a loss.

What was the Democratic platform for this election? I paid very close attention to every candidate I could find time to follow, and they all had only one thing to say: "I'm not Republican." Minor variations included "I don't like the war" and "I do not support Bush." Yeah, the Republicans were fools to have hitched their wagon so tightly to Bush, and to have unflinchingly defended our clusterfuck of a war long after that ceased to be a reasonable option. But Dems have inherited an intractable problem that they themselves have made political anathema. They now face a terrible dilemma: they can stay in Iraq and try to win, in which case they will almost certainly face the same wrath of the electorate that Republicans recently did, or they can high-tail it out of there and let the devil take the hindmost. Based on the implied promises of this campaign cycle, they will certainly opt for the latter.

Some may object that I have presented a false dichotomy; we have the intermediate option phased troop withdrawals, essentially a downscaling of the war. Bollocks to that. First, there is a limit to how half-assedly you can fight a war and still call it that, and the Dems' cutbacks promise to be massive. Even if they are not, remember that one of the greatest criticisms of the war, now advanced even by its erstwhile proponents, is that we never had enough troops to begin with. If we maintain a further diminished troop presence, they will hardly be more than armed spectators. More importantly, it is doubtful that the electorate would tolerate even that. Americans by and large want our hands washed of that godforsaken place right now; they want OUT. So while I concede that the notion of a phased withdrawal is valid, I contend that it is purely hypothetical. In actual policy terms, what we choose to do will effectively amount to either staying or leaving. Recall that our hastily-bid adieu to Vietnam was not a retreat; it was a "phased departure." We will most likely do the same in Nam 2.0; declare victory and leave.

I have opposed this war since it was just a gleam in the President's eye, but there is one thing his (former) people got right. Colin Powell said from the beginning, "If you break it, you bought it." Damn right, and we definitely broke it. If I may wax romantic, I do indeed believe that we are honor bound to help the hapless Iraqis who have suffered for our ostensible national interests. Regardless, the care with which we extricate ourselves from this imbroglio is of legitimate concern to national security, far more so than our initial incursion. Lately we have been speaking with powerful nations in the area about adopting our soon-to-be-bastard Iraqi government. Who can we trust over there? No one, of course, but we've been speaking with Syria and Iran. I will write more about this later, but suffice it to say that leaving a vacuum of power to be filled by these two (or even any of their competitors of whom I'm aware) would be perilous in the extreme. Syria is a known, prolific sponsor of terror, with a history of projecting its will internationally; Lebanon has long been a proxy for Syrian-funded terrorists to attack Israel. Syria is also dominated by the Baath Party, and in fact many of Saddam's loyalists fled there when his government was deposed in 2003. They may simply return from exile to reestablish the government whose existence was intolerable. Imagine how dangerous Iraq could be now that even the peons, and not just the ruling elite, hate us.

The same goes for Iran. Its truly evil aspirations were once checked by the rival power to the West. Even if Iran does not grow stronger through consolidating the Iraqi Shia under its banner (which seems almost inevitable), it gains simply from the fall of Iraq, who will not longer be able to foil Iran's most militaristic ambitions.

We broke it. Destabilizing the region could prove far more dangerous than having never meddled there at all. I do not envy the Dems; now they have control and they must be the ones to buy it. They have basically promised not to, and I believe they won't. This is a tragedy.

Our foreign policy may be hopeless, even if the Dems had the balls that I know they don't. But there are plenty of domestic issues that they can fix, and I won't stand for anymore kudos to anyone until they get fixed. Are they going to institute aggressive measures for limiting carbon emissions and funding alternative energy? Fund stem cell research? De-politicize the FDA? Axe the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act? Prosecute warrantless wiretapping? I hope that they will stand up for the Constitution and declare once and for all that this is a secular nation, and that means that nobody's book can tell the government what to do. The stemming of the theocratic tide in our country has much bigger implications than boys kissing, and needless to say, this is just a partial list.

Face it Dems, you are not winners. You are merely the beneficiaries of an opponent so corrupt, incompetent, arrogant, hypocritical, and out of touch with America, you could hardly but win. And, for shame, a lot of us still thought you would blow it. Show us something, and we'll be the ones to hand out the accolades. Until then, you've got a lot of work to do.

Update: According to WaPo, William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution agrees with me on how we should depart from Iraq:

"I think it's important to distinguish between the desire to bring this agony to an end and the consequences of bringing it to an end in the wrong way," he said. "I can't prove this, but I believe Democrats will be held responsible if they are seen as advocating a course of action that doesn't take the consequences of failure into account. We cannot afford as a party to be either silent or blithe about the consequences of rapid withdrawal."


Monday, December 4, 2006

Killer Chemistry

I can't believe that's the best title I can come up with. Anyway...

This post is no longer timely, but I will finish what I started some time ago.

I conceived this blog with the intention of devoting at least half of it to science, but apparently I am much more interested in politics after all. In any case, there has been much ado over Polonium-210 recently, because of the poisoning of a former KGB operative.

First, the "-210" after polonium denotes its atomic mass, or the total number of protons and neutrons in its nucleus. Polonium, like all elements, is defined by the number of protons in its nucleus, so this extra number (indicating that it is a particular isotope) basically denotes how many neutrons it has. Polonium has 84 protons, so Po-210 has 126 neutrons. Many elements have only one isotope, and most that have more than one isotope have only a few. Polonium has many, but here I will talk only about Po-210, the isotope used to poison Litvinenko.

By the way, you may have noticed that the mass numbers used to describe isotopes of scary radioactive elements are almost always above 200. There is a good reason for this, and it has to do with the nature of radioactivity itself. Within the nucleus of an atom there is tension between the nuclear strong force, which binds protons and neutrons together, and the electrostatic repulsion of positively charged protons. The strong force is dominant at short distances, which is why small nuclei tend to stay bound together very tightly. However, as the distance between protons increases, the repulsion caused by their like charges becomes more salient than the attraction of the strong force. Consequently, when a nucleus attains a certain mass, the repulsive forces predominate and it becomes unstable. It can increase its stability (which is the same as lowering its energy) by emitting certain particles in order to achieve a better balance between attractive and repulsive forces. In addition to explaining radioactivity, this balance of forces is also the concept behind nuclear fusion. Nuclei with few protons, like helium, have very little repulsion between them, and thus the addition of more protons does not destabilize the atom. In fact, the atom is more stable with more nucleons, because the strong force binding it tightly together is not strongly opposed by proton repulsion. This is why heavy nuclei like U-235 are used for nuclear fission and hydrogen is used in fusion; if you want to release energy, you split large nuclei or combine small ones.

Back to Po-210. Polonium was discovered by Marie Curie, who did a great deal of the seminal work on radioactivity, and named for her native Poland. It can be produced a few ways from other radioactive nuclides, but Curie probably discovered it as the last (radioactive) product of the radon-222 decay chain, which is ultimately a part of the uranium-238 decay chain. It decays by alpha emission to lead-206, which is stable (i.e. not radioactive). More on what that means shortly.

Interestingly, while Curie did her famous work in her adopted France, Francium was later discovered by another woman, Marguerite Perey, at the Curie Institute in Paris. Apparently, Cheeseeatingsurrendermonkium was taken. Also, it would be difficult to distinguish such an element's abbreviation from that of Cesium (Cs), its close chemical cousin. A lazy element with no known applications and a peculiar odor, Francium is disliked by the other alkali metals for its haughty disdainfulness and effeminate cigarette holder-thingies.

Po-210 has a number of advantages as a poison. As mentioned above, it decays by emission of alpha particles. An alpha particle is essentially a helium-4 nucleus: 2 protons and 2 neutrons. This is a very large particle, as these things go. Typically when we think of radiation, the concern is neutrons (1/4th the mass of an alpha particle) and/or high energy photons, like gamma-rays, which are even smaller. This is important because at the the scale of these particles, almost everything is empty space. The bulk of the volume comprising a single atom is actually just the unoccupied space between the nucleus and the electron shell, so a subatomic particle can easily pass through loosely packed atoms and molecules (like air) without colliding with anything. And the size of the particle determines the likelihood that it will collide with a nucleus; larger particles will collide more often. Thus alpha particles cannot travel far, even through air, before smashing into something and coming to rest as plain-old helium. This means that a pure alpha emitter like Po-210 can be safely handled with very little shielding (paper is sufficient) or even none, because the particles will not penetrate the epidermis into tissues where they can really do damage. This also accounts for radiation screeners' inability to detect Po-210; if the particles don't reach the detector, it can't detect them! (In investigating the case, they have been able to track Po-210 contamination. I'm not sure if they have detectors that are capable of directly detecting alpha emission, but I know that alpha particles can precipitate the emission of neutrons from other elements. In fact, Po-210 is often used as a neutron source to initiate a chain reaction like those in nuclear weapons. So I suspect a better way to detect it is by introducing beryllium or some other metal from which Po can liberate neutrons, and then using conventional detection technology to look for those.)

While Po-210 is fairly easy to handle safely, that doesn't mean it's not dangerous. It simply needs to be introduced to the body by inhalation or ingestion, for example, and will then wreak havoc on the unprotected tissues. There are a few mechanisms by which it causes damage to tissue. First, remember that it is a 2-proton nucleus. This means that it will strip away 2 electrons from other molecules in order to balance its charge. This kind of ionization is usually a bad thing in tissues; it is the formation of the free radicals we have all heard of as potent carcinogenics. Free radicals are associated with the negative effects of aging and the carcinogenic effects of cigarettes. The anti-oxidants we always hear about in healthy and often brightly-colored foods like tomatoes and berries putatively confer their health benefits by neutralizing these radicals. This type of damage may be the greatest concern in chronic and/or low-level exposures.

The other source of damage is the physical collisions of the alpha particles with parts of the cell. This is most harmful in the nucleus, where particles are likely to collide with dense coils of DNA. It's never good when something messes with your DNA, but not all types of damage are equal. Your cells have remarkable mechanisms for repairing DNA, but alpha particles are capable of severing both strands of DNA. Double-stranded breaks are tough to repair; you don't have the other strand to use as a template, or you have very little of it if the ends overhang slightly. Still, our repair mechanism for double-stranded breaks (non-homologous recombinational repair, sometimes called non-homologous end joining) works pretty well with isolated breaks of the kind that may occur naturally in a cell. The problem is that if you have lots of these breaks simultaneously, as with high doses of UV light or other ionizing radiation, the ends of non-matching fragments can get joined. These transpositions can cause lots of problems and eventually lead to, you guessed it, cancer.

In Litvinenko's case, he would have accumulated so many of these damaged and swapped DNA fragments so quickly that they would have immediately begun to affect his cells. You would expect the effect to be most prominent in cells that are highly active and rapidly dividing (which entails replicating their DNA), and this is exactly what happened. His rapidly dividing epithethial cells died or malfunctioned, causing his hair to fall out, and most probably some serious problems with his skin and the lining of his digestive tract. Some people may have noticed that his symptoms were reminiscent of a chemotherapy patient; that's exactly right. Chemotherapy fights out-of-control replication of cancer cells by inhibiting DNA synthesis, and unfortunately this inhibition cannot be contained only within cancerous tissue. Also, chemotherapy is usually accompanied by radiation therapy, which seeks to induce enough mutations in the DNA of cancer cells that they can no longer reproduce viable cells. This is why a substantial percentage of people who overcome their cancer with this treatment will later develop leukemia; the radiation induces the same carcinogenic mutations discussed above in other, previously healthy tissues. In both treatments, the goal is to halt DNA synthesis, either by inducing mutations that are lethal to the cell, or by chemically blocking the process. Litvinenko's death was, in effect, similar to a massive overdose of chemo/radiotherapy, in that it was caused by the prevention of DNA synthesis in cells that must replicate for the body to function.

A few more interesting links:


Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I'm glad I haven't seen nearly as much of this nonsense as I did last year. I can't believe anyone ever dared to make it a political issue, given the other things we were and still are facing. I am elated that this tactic of diversion from substantial issues has backfired; the House that brought this ridiculous bill up for a vote has been cleaned.

I think Clark W. Griswold expressed the spirit of the season best:


History (Lesson) Repeats Itself


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Maybe he does get it...

The irony of most of this rant is fantastic. Omit the references to Palestinians and it's almost like he understands what happened on November 7. The sad part is that, as usual, he fails to respond to the question that was posed.

I hate to admit it, but Bush reminds me a lot of myself. I used to give responses that were nearly identical, at least in form, to those he regurgitates at press conferences. Throughout grade school I made a habit of not doing assigned readings for English class, and frequently I was called on to analyze a chapter or even an entire book that I hadn't read. Of necessity, I became a masterful bullshitter. I would make a great president: restate the question, but so vaguely that it sounds like an affirmative response. Now some filler; litter it with platitudes, especially uplifting ones like "peace is never dead, because people want peace," and other such vacuous verbiage. Restate the question again; differently enough to allow you to get completely off the original topic. More words. Smile. Weave your own narrative, one which may not have anything to do with reality, but which is plausible and internally consistent, and if you act like you're really buying it, other people will too!

There's no need to elaborate on that. I'm sure you know how it goes; we've all fabricated some ridiculous response about critically important foreign policy issues n English assignments, and in any case my BSing prowess is considerably diminished nowadays since I've come to appreciate an honest, well thought-out, to-the-point answer.

I guess that's the great irony of Bush's press conferences; he is so often an accidental prophet. For instance, he once said of Iraq, without even a hint of irony, "There are extreme elements that use religion to achieve objectives." Who knows whether he willfully or inadvertently forgot much of his own constituency when he said that, but he sure nailed it. And in attempting not to answer a tough question about the Middle East nearly a year ago, he actually gave a spot-on assessment of domestic politics today: the people are unhappy with the status quo, they want honest government, better education for their children, health care, and best of all, that "the elections should open the eyes of the Old Guard..." In the Palestinian territories, huh? Wouldn't that be nice.

Update: In conversation, someone had the audacity to dispute that Bush sounds like a high schooler bullshitting his English teacher at his press conferences. A quick Google search shows that about 1/3 of the internet is devoted to disputing whether and how much of an idiot he is, but as for my slightly different point, this sums it up nicely in about 36 seconds.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Feeling the Hate

A worthy read from Harper's about the people that scare me most.

He reminds us... that “ages of faith are not marked by dialogue but by proclamation” and that “there is power in the unapologetic proclamation of truth..." He tells the crowd to shun the “persuasive words of human wisdom.” Truth, he says, does “not rest in the wisdom of men but the power of God.” Then, in a lisping, limp-wristed imitation of liberals, he mocks, to laughter and applause, those who want to “share” and be sensitive to the needs of others.

Yes, what our embattled world needs most is certainly a condemnation of appeals to reason and reconciliation. Sigh.

I do not understand how a religion whose central tenets are love, forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, and self-abnegation can be perverted into a movement that is so decidedly militant in metaphor and rhetoric, if not yet in action. The humble, peaceful teacher is now portrayed as Napoleon or Alexander the Great: vainglorious and monomaniacally bent on conquest.

I must admit, this type of speech does make me want to pray.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Hardly a no-brainer

"Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable." -G.K. Chesterton

Let's talk honestly about what this torture debate (or more specifically, the debate over the Military Commissions Act which authorizes the President to "interpret" the Geneva Conventions) is n was n should really have been about.

Here is an interesting piece on waterboarding that includes the reporter being interrogated by SERE instructors. The most notable line is borrowed from John McCain.

I'm categorically opposed to torture. Pretty much everyone is. The point of contention lies with what constitutes torture, and what should be permissible "coercive interrogation." I completely agree with Dershowitz; if we want to use ethically questionable methods, then let's say so and put it on the table for a fair and honest discussion of its virtues and vices. If the benefits merit its use, then what methods are acceptable, and under what circumstances?

Perhaps a reasonable debate might lead to the conclusion that it is okay to use, say, Method X only in the "ticking time bomb" scenario. Even though this scenario is extremely unlikely, such a proclamation would provide accountability. If you use Method X, you must demonstrate that the conditions specified for a ticking bomb scenario were met when you used it. Otherwise, you face the consequences of having illegally tortured someone. Regardless of whether or not you choose to accept the time bomb scenario as justification for torture, such a system would be fair in the sense that it is consistent in application and resistant to abuse.

We cannot afford to allow a single person (or secret tribunal of unidentified, unaccountable people, appointed by a single person) to make those decisions without having to specify where the lines are drawn, what methods are used, when, why, etc. Again, while I personally would vehemently oppose a law like the one above, perhaps it is in our national interest to legalize, under certain conditions, some form of what the Geneva Conventions call torture. If so, then we should codify that decision into law so that we know when it is broken! This position, revolting as I find it, is at least in keeping with our identity as a nation guided by law. And it is NOT what Bush wants. He wants a "License to Torture," without oversight and without constraint. Consider this: the phantasmal enemy sent to haunt the dreams of those who oppose Bush's policies is "Islamofascism." For those who wield this political buzzword like a club, I would like to know just what unchecked power to interrogate by unspecified means smacks of to you.

When Dick Cheney defends the MCA by stating that "a dunk in the a no-brainer" when it could save American lives, he is being dishonest in a not-so-obvious way. His official denial that he was referring to waterboarding, as well as all the fine-parsing by White House spokespeople and uber-analysis by media outlets, have done little to obfuscate the plain meaning of his comment. In fact, I suspect Cheney intended to be unmistakeable, because despite the coarseness of his words, they communicate a sentiment that many Americans can get behind: that it's okay to torture to save our own people. And therein lies the deception. He proposes a notion that is both fairly popular and also acceptable (if unpalatable) for discussion among reasonable people, in order to provide cover for a question which could never be posed honestly to the citizenry: Should one person effectively have the power to declare who is a criminal?

It's the old bait-and-switch. It is the most devious type of lie: not one of false assertion or even omission, but one of conflation. It is a tactic this administration has perfected. Cheney suggests that if you believe that saving American lives can justify torture, then you must support the MCA. Although it's only slightly more subtle then the insultingly simplistic "Support the war, or you hate the troops/love Saddam/club baby seals/are a pedophile" line, it still plays astonishingly well with the public.

Such dichotomies do not exist, and we must not capitulate to the claim that the only way to save our lives is to forfeit our liberty. I can, I should, and I always will unconditionally oppose the ceding of due process in favor of executive fiat. And this decision has NOTHING to do with the fact that I do not like or trust Bush; I would feel the same way if the powers in question were to go to the man I admire most. The problem is establishing a precedent on which this nation cannot survive. Consider the Romans enacting the suicide of their democracy by electing Julius Caesar emperor. He served Rome honorably until his death, but was eventually succeeded by a host of incompetent tyrants who destroyed history's mightiest empire. This issue is bigger than planes and bombs today, it is about avoiding our own induction into history's version of the Darwin Awards. Here's a quote that has been used an awful lot lately, but I could hardly say it's been overused, because it so desperately needs to be heeded: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." -Ben Franklin

Another important point is that interrogation methods aren't all of sudden more important since 9/11; the GCs were originally agreed upon as rules of war. In fact, several were introduced or amended in the wake of the immense bloodshed of World War II. If extracting intelligence from enemy soldiers during war won't save lots of (our) lives, then I can't imagine what will. And even in this case, when we are absolutely positive who the enemy is, and it is very likely that they have at least some useful information (since they have a much more centralized command than terrorists, who may really not know much), we still opt against those methods in favor of humanity and morality. We prosecuted German soldiers for waterboarding our boys in WWII! The fact that they were just trying to win the war for their side is no defense; such a practice was deemed inhumane and unacceptable regardless of the motivation. [Correction: It was actually Japanese soldiers that were prosecuted for torturing US soldiers, and they were subsequently executed for war crimes. Consider that the most compelling version of the ticking timebomb scenario involves nuclear weapons and densely populated areas, and you will see that we have no legal leg to stand on.]

Finally, needless to say, if we do not abide by these rules for others, they are likely to return the favor. In abandoning the Geneva Conventions, we are almost certainly subjecting our own troops to torture. Some might argue that our enemies are already failing to play by these rules. Maybe so, but in making the Convention optional, we are legitimizing that behavior. Rest assured that they will never even consider treating our prisoners humanely if we are not expected to do the same, and if furthermore there is no fear of reprisal. This is the fundamental notion upon which conventions like these rest; it's not that we don't want to reserve the right to torture, or have nukes, or pollute endlessly, we just can't allow other countries to do the same! But no longer will we have recourse to accuse and prosecute such barbarism; we have ceded that moral high ground.

Ultimately, though, all of this quasi-legal philosophy is irrelevant. McCain had it right: It's not about who they are, it's about who we are.

PS: About that last bit, I know we didn't sign Kyoto, and that our efforts at nuclear non-proliferation are hypocrisy defined (wow, are we really 0/3 on some of the most critical international agreements?), but the point is they are all good ideas . Indeed, Bush's plan to optionalize Geneva is just one manifestation of our tendency to try to hold other countries to a standard by which we are unwilling to abide, and this arrogance is largely responsible for all of the international goodwill that we have squandered. I know that a certain strain of self-styled patriot, the type more concerned with words and flags than with actions and ideas, bristles at Americans calling America arrogant. I really don't know what else you could call it.


I found a similar editorial by Dick Meyer here.
I also added the leading quotation.

Another pertinent link of Bush at a press conference discussing the act here. How loosening the standards of interpretation of the Geneva Conventions actually clarifies law is not explained. Here is Matt Lauer cornering him on torture. We clarify international law to "agree[ing] to disagree" with Amnesty International. Sounds like a good plan. He also explains that it is important we don't talk about techniques such as waterboarding, because if they are being used, confirmation of this would allow the terrorists to adapt. As Bush deftly recognizes, insane Muslim fundamentalists are notoriously capable of sprouting gills.


The Glass is Half Full...of Bull

Politicians have an infuriating habit of claiming a victory even in contests where they were clearly humiliated. A lot of conservative commentators, including Rush Limbaugh, have shifted their rhetoric from that of lamentation and outrage to one of, one supposes, disingenuous optimism. This sort of spinning a resounding defeat into a minor victory is certainly not unique to the right, and I condemn this sort of dishonesty in all politicians. The hope seems to be that claiming victory becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; that you can rally your troops around an ass-whooping, as long as you can convince them that it wasn't one.

Here's a decent example. It's not so much a flat denial of the facts as a very, very sneaky portrayal of them, but it gets the point across.

Claiming that the new class of Democrats is comprised of a lot of moderate "blue dog" dems is one (true) thing, but extrapolating this into the notion that the recent election is in fact ultimately "a victory for conservatism" is horse shit. The more relevant facts are as follows: the dems picked up seats in dependably red districts, they overwhelmingly ousted incumbents (a near-impossible feat in the House and no easier in the Senate), and while some of the newly elected candidates may be considered conservative relative to other Democrats, they are NOT Republicans. Why don't you say this: The people have spoken, and our party will respond accordingly.

I guess this sort of lying is probably harmless; go ahead and call a rose by any other name. But my disgust stems from the fact that they really think I am stupid enough to believe what is manifestly false, just because they say it so certainly! It's like politicians accusing the media of only showing the "bad stuff" in Iraq, when in fact it's going ever so smoothly. I am offended by their apparent conviction that strong rhetoric can trump reality. It cannot.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Good News

I was a bit worried about what the dems would do with their newly acquired power. We're certainly not out of the woods yet, but if Chris Dodd has his way, we'll be reinstating Habeas Corpus, along with other civil liberties and the Geneva Convention.


Who the hell are they?!?

Mississippi lawyer Michael Wallace, Bush's nominee to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, was unanimously rated "not qualified," the lowest ranking on the scale, by the American Bar Association. This is rare for federal nominees, and, needless to say, does not bode well for his appointment.

I am amused and bewildered by Trent Lott's response. In The Hill , he had this to say:

“It’s just outrageous what [they] did...Who are they to decide who’s qualified and who isn’t?"

I believe we covered that; they're the American Bar Association, the governing organization for those who deal with the law, like judges. Now I'm no proponent of lamb-like deference to authority, but if the American Medical Association rated a surgeon as "unqualified," I would be uninclined to go under their knife.

Granted, Trent Lott is a lawyer, and I will assume that he knows a good deal more than I do about what qualifies a judge for a federal position. But he's also a prominent Republican, the former Senate Majority Leader and now Minority Whip (I bet he's always wanted to be called the Minority Whip, cuz, y'know... he hates minorities ) with a stake in this political game, and a friend and former colleague of Mr. Wallace to boot! His over-the-top incredulity reminds me of one of my favorite rants in the history of saying dumb things with a mic in your face.

So why we should believe the assertion of an interest-conflicted politician (pardon the redundancy) that the ABA has politicized their unanimous decision, even though they have favorably reviewed other highly conservative and controversial Bush appointees like Roberts and Alito, well that's anybody's guess.

I think this is an example of how the culture of anti-intellectualism takes our notion of democracy a step too far. A great deal of our country despises being told that someone else knows better, at least if that someone disagrees with them. A few weeks ago, a scientist I know was thrown in jail for contempt of court. He was offering testimony as an expert witness, and when something he said was disputed, the judge took umbrage at the fact that he resolutely claimed his position to be authoratative. The obvious question is: Isn't that what expert witnesses are supposed to do?

Whether it's global warming skepticism or intelligent design being taught in schools, people seem to think that democracy means everyone's opinion is equal, or even worse, that "might makes right". It does not. It means that every person is equal in a moral sense, and that their opinions should be entitled to equal consideration a priori, but it does not mean that opinions that are not supported by facts are equal to those that are. While the majority of a town may believe that evolution is false, this does not affect the truth of that assertion. The question has an objective answer, and even though experts may not always know what that answer is, if they are not to be trusted, then who? To paraphrase someone I have never quoted outside of a punchline, you make decisions with the best information available. But for those who resent the perceived arrogance of the literati, I want to be very clear about what I'm saying. My position is not one of presumption and hubris, or an advocation of a power-grab for the technocracy. It is in fact the most humble of appeals. I ask simply, If an expert opinion is worth only as much as anybody else's, is there such thing as expertise at all?


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

All Your Seats Are Belong to Us

I mean this in the most conciliatory way possible.

From The Agonist.

The prequel, via YouTube

I consider this a good first post, since from here there's nowhere to go but up.