Saturday, February 21, 2004

The greatest strategic blunder in modern memory

You'll never guess who wrote these lines, and where they appeared:

Bush arguably has committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory. To put it bluntly, he attacked the wrong target. While he boasts of removing Saddam Hussein from power, he did far more than that. He decapitated the government of a country that was not directly threatening the United States and, in so doing, bogged down a huge percentage of our military in a region that never has known peace. Our military is being forced to trade away its maneuverability in the wider war against terrorism while being placed on the defensive in a single country that never will fully accept its presence.

There is no historical precedent for taking such action when our country was not being directly threatened. The reckless course that Bush and his advisers have set will affect the economic and military energy of our nation for decades. It is only the tactical competence of our military that, to this point, has protected him from the harsh judgment that he deserves.

At the same time, those around Bush, many of whom came of age during Vietnam and almost none of whom served, have attempted to assassinate the character and insult the patriotism of anyone who disagrees with them. Some have impugned the culture, history and integrity of entire nations, particularly in Europe, that have been our country's great friends for generations and, in some cases, for centuries.

Bush has yet to fire a single person responsible for this strategy. Nor has he reined in those who have made irresponsible comments while claiming to represent his administration. One only can conclude that he agrees with both their methods and their message.

Paul Krugman? No. James Webb, Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. More excellent stuff on this blunder at TAPPED.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Scientists and Republicans

There seems to be a widespread belief that academics and researchers in the hard sciences and engineering are, on average, more conservative than academics in the humanities. This may be true, if only because humanities academics tend to be pretty far to the left. However, the oft-repeated suggestion that hard scientists tend to tilt conservative because they work in fields with more objectively verifiable facts and standards is both false and a non sequitur. Scientists may be more conservative than humanities academics, but they're still pretty liberal. As Nicholas Thompson reports in a recent Washington Monthly, Republicans have been gradually alienating scientists for four decades:

The split between the GOP and the scientific community began during the administration of Richard Nixon. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, protests against the Vietnam War captured the sympathy of the liberal academic community, including many scientists, whose opposition to the war turned them against Nixon. The president characteristically lashed back and, in 1973, abolished the entire White House science advisory team by executive order, fuming that they were all Democrats.


By the mid 1990s, the GOP had firmly adopted a new paradigm for dismissing scientists as liberals. Gingrich believed, as Nixon did, that most scientists weren't going to support him politically. "Scientists tend to have an agenda, and it tends to be a liberal political agenda," explains Gingrich's close associate former Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), the former chairman of the House Science Committee. In 1995, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House committee dealing with global warming, called climate change a "liberal claptrap." In interviews with The Washington Post in 2001, Texas Republican Tom DeLay dismissed evolution as unproven, said that we shouldn't need an EPA because "God charges us to be good stewards of the Earth," and denigrated scientific Nobel Prize winners as "liberal and extremist."

No party that panders to creationists while scoffing at Nobel Prize winners can honestly claim to be the party of science and hard-headed, objective thinking. Even top Republican strategists believe that, as a voting bloc, scientists are so liberal as to be a lost cause.

Now, people with business degrees, on the other hand...


p.s. While I'm at it, I may as well point out Tim Lambert's examination of (via Crooked Timber), a site that purports to debunk junk science by, among other things, running guest commentary by prominent creationist lawyer Philip Johnson. The proprietor of, Steve Milloy, is an "adjunct scholar" at the Cato Institute, a well-funded and highly influential conservative/libertarian think tank. On the Cato interview linked above, Milloy states proudly:

Explanations of human evolution are not likely to move beyond the stage of hypothesis or conjecture. There is no scientific way - i.e., no experiment or other means of reliable study - for explaining how humans developed. Without a valid scientific method for proving a hypothesis, no indisputable explanation can exist.

The process of evolution can be scientifically demonstrated in some lower life forms, but this is a far cry from explaining how humans developed.

That said, some sort of evolutionary process seems most likely in my opinion. But there will probably always be enough uncertainty in any explanation of human evolution to give critics plenty of room for doubt.

That loud hacking sound you just heard was the sound of someone coughing up whatever shreds of intellectual integrity he had left in order to pander to the right. It's a sound that's all too familiar to scientists who hang around with conservatives.

p.p.s. UPDATE: NY Times reports:

More than 60 influential scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a statement yesterday asserting that the Bush administration had systematically distorted scientific fact in the service of policy goals on the environment, health, biomedical research and nuclear weaponry at home and abroad.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Bush and Cheney refuse to talk to whole 9/11 commission

Via Corrente, we find an article in the Newark Star-Ledger explaining that Bush and Cheney are refusing to be interviewed by all 10 members of the bipartisan 9/11 commission:

Another showdown between the national commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the White House may be in the offing, this time over whether all of the panel's 10 members or only some of them will be able to interview President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The White House announced Friday evening that Bush had agreed to a request from former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, the commission's chairman, and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman, to meet in a closed-door session to discuss the 9/11 disaster. But it now appears the White House is trying to limit how many commissioners will meet with the president during the private session.

As I've said before, I don't believe that Bush and Cheney were responsible for the 9/11 intelligence failure. I don't believe they have anything to hide, at least on the attacks (as opposed to, say, the Iraq war). Therefore, I genuinely find it bizarre how suspiciously they are behaving w.r.t. the 9/11 investigation. All I can conclude is that they are simply not serious about preventing future terrorist attacks: either they don't believe it could happen again, or they don't care, or they sincerely believe that invading Iraq and Afghanistan has dealt such a fatal blow to terrorism that it's unnecessary to actually, you know, investigate the failures of 9/11. Any of these three options reveals breathtaking arrogance and stupidity. Take your pick.

UPDATE: today's MeFi has a fresh link roundup on the Afghanistan mess.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Our ongoing failure in Afghanistan and Iraq

Nathan Newman points to the continuing botch of "democracy" in Afghanistan:

Administration officials said in recent days that security conditions remained dangerous or at least uncertain in a third of the country, hampering registration so badly that only 8 percent of eligible Afghan voters have been enrolled. Among women, only 2 percent have registered.

Nathan continues with a link to an utterly infuriating Boston Globe article:

Because fundamentalist warlords now rule areas of the country like their personal fiefdoms, the situation of women and girls in parts of Afghanistan today remains a continuing crime against humanity. In three western provinces ruled by the warlord Ismail Khan, any female unaccompanied by a husband or male relative in public may be seized by virtue vigilantes and subjected to humiliating examinations to determine whether she recently had sexual intercourse.

Please tell me again why diverting our efforts and resources to Iraq was the right strategy for promoting democracy and fighting terrorism? Nathan sums it up:

I opposed the Afghanistan war. Not because I thought the world wouldn't be better off without the Taliban, but because I had deep faith that the Bush administration was using the war for political purposes, and would abandon real help for the people of Afghanistan as soon as they found another target for their war propaganda needs.

Unfortuntately, Bush has lived down to my low expectations.

This also puts me in mind of "Professor Nagl's War", a recent must-read article in the NY Times Magazine about the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq. The article provides an in-depth description of the challenges facing Major John Nagl, perhaps the U.S. Army's foremost counterinsurgency expert, and acting "third in command of a tank battalion in the heart of the so-called Sunni Triangle, which extends north and west of Baghdad". The excerpt that came to mind is the following:

Ignoring the civic side of counterinsurgency has been likened to playing chess while your enemy is playing poker. Though this truism is now well known in the military, Nagl acknowledges that it is not being applied in Iraq as well as it should be.

The civic chores are supposed to be shouldered by the American-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority, led by L. Paul Bremer III, but the C.P.A. remains isolated and rather inept at implementation. Its presence is minimal outside Baghdad, and even in the capital the C.P.A.'s thousands-strong staff spends much of its time in the so-called Green Zone, in and around Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, behind elaborate rings of security and far removed from Iraqi civilian life. Some of the staff are on 90-day tours: they arrive; they learn a little; they leave. On the few occasions when C..A. officials venture outside the compound, they are usually escorted by G.I.'s or private guards.

One morning, during breakfast at the battalion canteen, I asked Nagl about the Coalition Provisional Authority. He has yet to see a C.P.A. official at the base, he said. He pointed to an empty plastic chair at the table and asked: "Where's the guy from the C.P.A.? He should be sitting right there."

This administration is not serious about establishing democracy. Obviously, counterinsurgency and nation-building are difficult. What's disgusting is that this administration barely even seems to be trying. Bremer and the C.P.A. sit in their gated compound like perfumed princes running a satrapy while our soldiers pay with their blood and sweat. We pour billions into the fat reconstruction contracts in Iraq, while Afghanistan descends back into warlordism and sub-medieval conditions for women.

Any honest observer can only conclude that the Bush administration is not serious about improving the conditions of life for anyone in the Middle East; or, if they are, they're hopelessly and criminally incompetent. In any case, anyone who trusts them is either a villain or a deluded fool. Whenever I read of conservatives, right-wingers, and "liberal" hawks accusing anti-war liberals of wanting to coddle dictators and terrorists, it makes my blood boil. I'm not mad that we ousted the Taliban and Hussein. I'm mad that our administration fucked it up, and are continuing to fuck it up, and will continue to fuck it up for the indefinite future. I'm mad that they're actively undermining the war on terror, and that they don't particularly seem to care to investigate the failures behind 9/11, and that they're taking away our freedoms in the name of preserving them.

I'm mad as hell that they have the gall to do all these things and yet accuse their critics of hating democracy. No, you assholes, you're the ones who support an administration that is fucking up democracy all over the world, including here at home. Don't you dare smear us by questioning our commitment to liberal ideals.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Word-I-Hate of the Day: "wi-fi"

Q: What the fuck does "wi-fi" stand for? Presumably the word wi-fi is a parallel formation to "hi-fi". The only problem is that "hi-fi" stands for "high fidelity", which was supposed to refer to the high quality of the sound reproduction that one could get out of a hi-fi audio system --- i.e., that the sound was highly faithful (fidelity derives from the Latin fides, "faith") to the original sound of the recording.

If "wi-fi" is like "hi-fi", then presumably it stands for "wireless fidelity". But what the hell would "wireless fidelity" mean? The whole concept of fidelity is irrelevant when it comes to wireless digital networking technology. There's no such thing as a bit being more or less faithful to its original source. A zero is a zero, and a one is a one, and that's that. You cannot get more zero-ness out of a zero by applying sophisticated technology.

The word's complete logical incoherence and annoying trendy marketing aura make me wince whenever I hear it.

Feds investigating peace activists

Thank you, John Ashcroft, for defending us from those shady radical terror-sympathizers at the Catholic Peace Ministry. Does anyone still believe that the Feds aren't going to abuse PATRIOT Act powers to intimidate political opponents?

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

If you actually remember September 11, 2001...

...then you'll find that this Slate article about a Bush/Cheney campaign rally makes your blood boil.

Both Bush rallies that I've attended emphasize the idea that the president merits re-election as a reward for past performance, as much as—or even more than—any promise of future results. "On Sept. 11, when this nation faced in many respects the greatest threat to our security, President Bush stood forward, led this nation with clarity and with strength, which has earned him the admiration and appreciation of the overwhelming majority of Americans, and I believe has earned him another term as president of the United States of America," McCain said in Nashua.

Right. As I remember it, Bush and Cheney were practically nowhere to be found on that day. Let us remember that Bush spent twenty minutes reading stories to schoolchildren in Florida after he was informed of the attack (way to grasp the importance of the situation, genius). Then Bush promptly sank from sight, surfacing only to read canned "tough"-sounding speeches which were clearly scripted by his handlers. For real leadership, we had to turn to Mayor Giuliani, who was working his ass off in plain sight rallying the rescue teams in New York, and yet made time for regular press conferences to reassure the public. His remarks at these conferences were clearly unscripted and (in contrast to the preceding years of Giuliani's mayorship) managed a balance of gravity, dignity, concern, and confidence rarely equalled in recent political history.

Bush, by contrast, sounded like his usual drawstring-puppet self. I recall watching his appearances on television on that day, and the days that followed, with my roommates in Manhattan, and feeling a mixture of alarm and contempt. This man, who was clearly having trouble even remembering his scripted lines, was in charge of our nation in this time of crisis?

And Bush's administration has scarcely improved in its subsequent actions w.r.t. the events of 9/11. They oust the Taliban --- and then forget to invest the resources required to build a stable democracy in Afghanistan. They invade Iraq in a fashion calculated to annoy our allies and draw resources away from the war on terror. They undermine our international credibility with distorted intelligence. They appoint a bipartisan commission to investigate 9/11, but obstruct and underfund that investigation at every turn.

Anyone who actually remembers September 11, as opposed to the September 11TM All-Purpose Political Juice Machine which the Bushites have been using to squeeze Americans' emotional reactions ever since that day, can only regard Bush's handling of the entire affair and its aftermath as shameful, not admirable.

(The contrast between Bush and Giuliani is hardly surprising if you compare Giuliani's biography with the miserable failure that is Bush's life. For all his flaws, Giuliani is a man who possesses intelligence and at least a minimally adult level of emotional maturity. He graduated magna cum laude from NYU law school and worked his way up through the legal system as an ace attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice --- a job where you can't be a slouch, and Daddy's connections can't get you ahead and can't bail you out if you blow it. Bush's slacker-rich-kid extended adolescence and various failed businesses are, of course, well-documented.)

True costs of America's car culture

Great post by John Quiggin at CT. I've always been a proponent of dense cities, which not only reduce commute distances but make mass transit economicaly viable, create truly public spaces, and leave the countryside relatively pristine for leisure activities (viz., hiking and snow sports).

Monday, February 02, 2004

Close your eyes and hum pretty songs and maybe the code will fix itself

San Jose Mercury news reports on the following, which does wonderful things for my confidence in electronic voting machines:

Poll workers in Alameda County noticed something strange on election night in October. As a computer counted absentee ballots in the recall race, workers were stunned to see a big surge in support for a fringe candidate named John Burton.

Concerned that their new $12.7 million Diebold electronic voting system had developed a glitch, election officials turned to a company representative who happened to be on hand.

Lucky he was there. For an unknown reason, the computerized tally program had begun to award votes for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to Burton, a socialist from Southern California.

I can totally imagine how this would happen. I bet they keep the list of candidates in a sorted list by last name. Somehow an index got incremented or decremented incorrectly, and they indexed into a location one prior to the one that was supposed to be referenced.

(This raises the question of how that index got incorrectly set on this machine, but not on most of the others. If it's a software error, then it has to be a bug on a rarely executed program path. It could also be RAM error. Are they using error-checking (ECC) RAM? Somehow I doubt it --- it's a baseline requirement for reliable hardware, but it's more expensive, and everything I've heard of these voting machine manufacturers leads me to believe they're a bunch of incompetent crooks.)

The thing is, this is a perfect example of how a tiny little mistake (incrementing a number wrong) can lead to a huge difference in election outcome. At least when a person misinterprets a hanging chad, it only messes up one vote at a time. A mistake like this can instantly misrecord a thousand votes or ten thousand.

As I've written before, every respectable computer scientist (and some non-respectable ones) believes that electronic voting is fraught with opportunities for abuse and error. It's outrageous for these companies to refuse to open their source code and assembly diagrams to public inspection based on trade secret law. They're the ones begging for our tax dollars, and asking us to trust them with the foundation of our democratic institutions. The burden of proof is on them to prove to us that they are worthy of this trust.

My proposal:

  • All voting machines' hardware components must be commodity off-the-shelf parts.
  • All voting machines' hardware designs should be open to public inspection (i.e., posted on a public web site).
  • All voting machines' software should be open source and available for public review (i.e., posted on a public web site for download).
  • All voting machines' software must be written in a type-safe language (where possible), and must be written using the best formal methods and automated software verification tools currently available. For example, software should be written in Cyclone rather than C wherever possible. If it absolutely must be written in C, it must pass the Splint checker at its most rigorous setting.
  • All voting machine company employees must have strict background checks.
  • All voting machines must be assembled, and their software installed, in a plant subject to public audit at any time.

If you can't live with these restrictions, you should get the fuck out of the voting machine business. And if your government can't bear to impose these restrictions of your voting machine company, your government should get the fuck out of the voting machine market.

UPDATE: Reading further down the article, I get even more disturbed:

``At no time were incorrect vote totals released,'' Diebold spokesman David Bear wrote in an e-mail. ``The system is safe, secure and accurate.'' He attributed the malfunction to a computer-server error and the large number of candidates on the recall ballot.

Server error? Large number of candidates on the recall ballot? Holy shit, were they using something ridiculous like a 6-bit integer to represent the candidate ID somewhere in their client/server protocol? That's even more frightening than my previous hypotheses.

BTW, don't buy this spokesperson's crap about the system being safe, secure, and accurate. Software is not like a car engine; it doesn't stall occasionally due to normal wear and tear, or anything of the sort. There are no truly random errors in software. Software is like a math formula: if there's a bug, there's a bug. Period. That bug definitely exists, and will stay there until someone fixes it.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

If I had a junk mail filter for my postal inbox... would look something like this:

  • .*Wilmington, DE.* => /dev/null
  • .*Comcast.* => /dev/null
  • .*Advo, Inc.* => /dev/null
  • .*Maryland.* => /dev/null

It's actually kind of amazing how much my junk mail would be reduced just by implementing the first one of these rules. I think the preponderance of Wilmington junk mailers (usually for financial services of one sort or another) has something to do with Delaware's tax code.

It occurs to me that if the USPS allowed you to register a blacklist for your postal address, then it would punish states like Delaware for being hospitable to pro-junk mail businesses. Delaware would get the equivalent of an Internet Death Penalty. This, in turn, would discourage states from rigging their tax code to attract these pests, which would have the beneficial effect of raising the cost of sending junk mail, which would reduce the volume of junk mail.

Now, given that junk postal mail (unlike spam) actually subsidizes non-junk mail (it is pre-sorted, which makes it cheaper to mail, and hence the USPS makes a larger margin), this would drive up the cost of mail for the rest of us. But IMO that would be a fine price to pay in exchange for less crap inside my inbox.