Tinsel Wing

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Saturday morning anatomy lesson

I know it's not Saturday morning. (And I know this is a lot of posts for one day, but I will be taking a hiatus from the Web all next week, and working long hours this week to clear the decks for that vacation. So it's time to sweep away my backlog.)

But it was a Saturday morning when we met most of these characters in the flesh. And here they are flensed of that flesh. All in the interests of pseudoscience.

[Update: the link seems to have shifted. I have renewed the URL.]

Homing in on a home away from home.

Catching up on the implications of a two week old bit of science news. Nature reported that three new Neptune sized planets have been found circling the nearby star HD69830, 41 light years away.

This was gratifying news for three reasons. First, infrared studies had already disclosed the presence of an asteroid belt around the star. It was predicted that a pair of planets would be found, one on each side of the belt, acting as shepherds to keep the belts in place, much as the inner moons of Saturn shepherd the particles in its rings. So it was pleasant to see observation follow dynamical theory.

Second, detection of the planets was possible because of a big jump in the sensitivity of the Doppler technique for finding extrasolar planets, by observing the wobble they induce on the location of the parent star.

Third, at the new level of sensitivity, it still isn't possible to find the holy grail of extrasolar planetary research: a rocky, earth-sized planet orbiting a sunlike star at a distance congenial to life. To do that, the sensitivity of the Doppler technique would have to be ratcheted up by another 90%.

But here's the beauty part: most nearby stars are not sunlike. They are smaller: lighter in mass, and less bright. That makes a habitable planet easier to find on two counts. The habitable zone is closer in to the star, so that an earth-sized planet would tug harder at its sun. And the star is smaller, so that the same size tug would make it wobble further.

We're getting close. The first planet around a different star worth a beamdown by Kirk's crew should put in its appearance within the next three to five years.

A brief requiem for AuH20

How far Republicanism has sunk from the days of Goldwater. Among today's GOP, Feingold's attempt to censure the President's lawbreaking constitutes extremism in the defense of liberty, to be decried and shouted down. But a mere call for investigation, a mere Mittyesque request that the President spell out just which of our liberties have been taken away, is enough to call down elephantine wrath.

A great many Republicans on the sidelines understand and are appalled at the damage being done to our system of government, from Bob Barr to the Cato Institute to John Dean to numerous former Reagan officials. Appreciation is due to them all for rising above partisanship in the name of patriotism. But among its elected officials, Barry's party today stands firm for the principle that any defense of liberty is a vice.

One cheer for democracy

Only one cheer, because this piece of apparent good news is destined to slide down the oubliette - and as likely as not designed to do so.

The Washington Post Sunday noted a bunch of really sweet requirements on the Executive voted in by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, thanks to a coalition of all Democrats with Republican "moderates" Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

  • As recommended by the September 11 commission, the total spending of all intelligence agencies is to be reported to the public.

  • The AG is to report within six months on the pros and cons of breaking that total down among the various agencies.

  • All members of the intelligence committees of the two chambers are to be given a complete list of all clandestine prisons maintained by the United States.

  • Whenever a subset of the intel committees is briefed on a matter, all members must be informed of the brief and its basic subject.

  • As long as Hayden is both CIA head and active military, he shall "not [be] subject to the supervision or control of the Secretary of Defense."

All well and good. However, at the President's direction, the House will kill all these provisions, as it has killed the first one before. This is purely a symbolic gesture on the part of Snowe and Hagel. Whenever they have an opportunity to take an action that will result in an actual effect, they join with Chairman Roberts in backing the President's one-man rule to the hilt.

For example, they have consistently voted against any real investigation into the NSA's domestic wiretapping; they have voted against any investigation into how the Administration used or misused the pre-war intelligence on Iraq; and they have both signed on to the DeWine legislation, which would retroactively legalize the NSA program, without ever learning what it actually consists of, and make it a felony for any member of Congress briefed on the program to make any comment on it in public, thus essentially criminalizing the act of oversight.

Where the President's attacks on the Constitution, the rule of law, and the separation of powers are concerned, these two have reliably performed as MINOs: moderates in name only.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Hey, buddy, get a warrant

This blog noted a couple of weeks ago how National Security Letters might be used to launder illegal surveillance.

Well, here's some good news that flew beneath my radar last week. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the rulings of two lower courts (one in NY, one in CT) that the National Security Letters provision of the USAPATRIOT Act is unconstitutional.

Wrote Judge Richard Cardamone:

"A ban on speech and a shroud of secrecy in perpetuity are antithetical to democratic concepts and do not fit comfortably with the fundamental rights guaranteed American citizens.... Unending secrecy of actions taken by government officials may also serve as a cover for possible official misconduct and/or incompetence."

Judge Cardamone added that national security concerns “should be leavened with common sense so as not forever to trump the rights of the citizenry under the Constitution.”

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A consequence of moral clarity.

In George Bush's moral universe, the one transcendent value is personal loyalty to the President. Every member of the Administration who failed to grasp that, such as John DiIulio and Paul O'Neill, soon found himself exiled from the Administration.

Don't you suppose that it must have dawned on Bush early on - perhaps around October 2001, when it became apparent that despite his express wish, intelligence would steadfastly decline to proclaim Iraq the engineer of 9/11 - that reality was not personally loyal to him?

What could be more natural, or more forthright, than his manly revulsion at this moral flaw? Clearly, reality had become an unprofitable servant. To remain uncorrupted by its taint, the President was compelled to exile it from the White House with the rest.

Poetry Archive 2

Another of my own pieces.

On Reading Emily

Death is a Motion in the mind
A stillness in the Nerve --
A jest -- unchaperoned by smile --
A feast that scarce -- will serve

That so replete with matter is --
One may miss the Gist
A sentence -- understood til given
Hyphenated -- twist

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Don't scratch at that, it'll only make it worse

Zippy the Pinhead periodically goes into a trance, repeating a polysyllabic three-word mantra over and over. Once in a while I stumble across a phrase in my science reading with just the right hypnotic quality to send Zippy to Zen heaven. A couple of months back, just before I began this blog, it was "nonsense mediated decay". I may have to post about that sometime, but for today's lesson our mantra is "giant gutless tubeworms."

From the moment hydrothermal vents were discovered -- deep ocean trench communities of organisms which get their energy not from sunlight, but rather from geothermal temperature gradients where tectonic plates meet -- these guys have been media stars. As the name indicates, they are gutless wonders. They start as free-swimming larva with normal digestive systems, but they soon settle down to a sedentary life. Taking Saint Paul's advice to extremes, they then put away childish things, including the gut, the mouth and the anus, and set about the serious adult business of putting on mass. They can grow up to eight feet long.

They get all their nutrition from symbiotic bacteria. They don't inherit the bugs from their parents; they harbor no colonies in their free-swimming youth. What's new this week, as reported in Nature, is the way they take on their microscopic boarders, which dwell in a specialized organ called the trophosome.

It had been thought that when it attached to the vent floor, the larva simply swallowed some of the proper bacteria, which then, by some mechanism yet to be determined, defended themselves against being digested. Not so. It turns out they are still bacteria-free when their mouths close over. Instead, the bacteria invade through their skin, and migrate to a region which then differentiates into a trophosome. While this is going on, the cells of the skin and intervening muscle go through a massive die-off, just as if they were succumbing to a nasty infection. Once the colony is ensconced, the die-off stops. The process presents a lovely example of a relationship somewhere between infectious disease and comfortably established symbiosis.

No matter how weird the life style, some organism somewhere is living it.

Giant gutless tubeworms, giant gutless tubeworms, giant gutless tubeworms. Go ahead, try it. No one can say it just once.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The bubble defends its perimeter

Joe Galloway has spent 20 years as a war correspondent. The strutting, draft dodging popinjays now in charge, finding a chestful of toy soldiers at their disposal, joyfully plopped them into their pet Adventurama in Iraq, oblivious to the fact that those neatly maneuverable poppets were our sons and daughters. Unlike them, Galloway knows the officers, the grunts, and the face of war. He gets an earful, and then he writes what he hears.

Rumsfeld's Pentagon, in the person of Larry Dirita, never gets an earful, because they have made it clear to their underlings in uniform that they want to hear nothing, unless it is their own wise words bounced back to them. Galloway wrote down in an April 26 column what he heard from Lt. General Paul Van Riper about a war game gone bad, and Dirita took umbrage. The
Booman Tribune
records the email traffic that went back and forth between the two. That alarming column is worth a post in its own right, but for now just read the letters, and savor the difference between a patriot who cares about the troops, and a Rumsfeld apparatchik who cares only about his boss's reputation. He typifies the badministration's matchless inability to tune its radio dials to the frequency we call "reality".

General Tommy Franks once famously said of another of Rumsfeld's stable of prize cronies, Douglas Feith, that he was "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth." Feith turned out to be neck deep in passing state secrets to foreign powers. So now he has departed, one step ahead of the shoeshine and two steps away from the county line. As his replacement Dirita may be bucking for the title of FSG in the galactic sector He previously gained brief notoriety, as reported in a no longer web accessible LA Times story from July 18, 2003, at a point when the first flush of fubars was grandly unfolding in Baghdad:
Still, he and other Pentagon officials said, they are studying the lessons of Iraq closely - to ensure that the next U.S. takeover of a foreign country goes more smoothly.

"We're going to get better over time,' promised Lawrence Di Rita, a special assistant to Rumsfeld. "We've always thought of post-hostilities as a phase' distinct from combat," he said. "The future of war is that these things are going to be much more of a continuum."

"This is the future for the world we're in at the moment," he said. "We'll get better as we do it more often."

Ah, 2003, what sweet and innocent times those were! Back then, Bush's golden horde believed they were going to sweep from little brown nation to little brown nation, from victory to victory, in another fresh bright clean war every year, just one banner waving vote magnet of a bloodfest after another.
How aft has the dulcet vision gang agley. Only now, after three painful years of delay, are they gearing up for their first followup, in Iran. And even that arrives less in the original spirit of triumphal advance than it does in the spirit of Bre'r Rabbit, fired up in rage at how fast his fist has got stuck in the tar, and hauling off to whack that offending lump of foreign matter with his other fist.

That they are strapping on their boots for the followup, that they are determined to stay in their bubble, having learned nothing from four years of mistakes, that they are ignoring the attempted protests of those small green plastic figurines they so enjoy directing, is clear from General Van Riper's account. When his Red team, wargaming Iran, so easily defeated the Blue team invasion, Rumsfeld's unreality bubble swiftly defended its perimeter. The Blue team just took a mulligan:
Van Riper resolved to strike first and unconventionally using fast patrol boats and converted pleasure boats fitted with ship-to-ship missiles as well as first generation shore-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. He packed small boats and small propeller aircraft with explosives for one mass wave of suicide attacks against the Blue fleet. Last, the general shut down all radio traffic and sent commands by motorcycle messengers, beyond the reach of the code-breakers.

At the appointed hour he sent hundreds of missiles screaming into the fleet, and dozens of kamikaze boats and planes plunging into the Navy ships in a simultaneous sneak attack that overwhelmed the Navy's much-vaunted defenses based on its Aegis cruisers and their radar controlled Gatling guns.

When the figurative smoke cleared it was found that the Red Forces had sunk 16 Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier. Thousands of Marines and sailors were dead.

The referees stopped the game, which is normal when a victory is won so early. Van Riper assumed that the Blue Force would draw new, better plans and the free play war games would resume.

Instead he learned that the war game was now following a script drafted to ensure a Blue Force victory: He was ordered to turn on all his anti-aircraft radar so it could be destroyed and he was told his forces would not be allowed to shoot down any of the aircraft bringing Blue Force troops ashore.

The Pentagon has never explained. It classified Van Riper's 21-page report criticizing the results and conduct of the rest of the exercise, along with the report of another DOD observer.

As a strategic military exercise, this can't be taken seriously. As an exercise in telling Rumsfeld and/or Bush what they want to hear: that Iran will, like Iraq before it, be a slamdunk, a cakewalk, and an all around humdinger - in short, as an exercise in justifying a decision already taken for war - it is as serious as a heart attack.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Cutting a path through the conspiracy jungle

There's a semi-regular feature on Salon.com called "Ask the Pilot", the columnist being a commercial airline pilot named Patrick Smith. His latest piece takes up 9/11 conspiracy theory questions that have been put to him, and lays a lot of red herrings to rest. Which he doesn't take to mean that it's necessarily red herrings all the way down.

This is good. It's extremely unlikely that the official story on the events of that day is the whole truth. The more that foolish speculations recirculate through the rumor ether, the harder it will be for the signal emitted by reality (and yes, Virginia, there is a reality) to make it through the static. When knowledgeable folks with no love for the neocons peel away the wild conspiracy theories, the outlines of the real conspiracy, if any, are more likely to surface.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Pseudo-Judas: not a Gnostic?

With all the hullabaloo about that plodding movie made from that silly book, it was refreshing to bump into some serious discussion of hidden church history.

In its June 8 edition, The New York Review of Books assigned three Princeton grad students the task of reviewing the National Geographic blockbuster, The Gospel of Judas. It's a fine piece. It summarizes the contents of the Coptic text in crisp detail, accords it its rightful importance (on a par with the principal Nag Hammadi texts) without hyping it as some sort of authentic history. And best of all, it presents a cogent critique of the underlying assumption of the Kasser/Meyer/Wurst commentary in the book version.

Since the NYRB link may go behind an archive pay wall, here's the nub. The book under review categorizes the Gospel of Judas as "Gnostic", and reads it under the presumption that its author shared all the beliefs held by the academic's stereotype of Gnostics:
  1. that salvation is through knowledge and has no particular ethical complement;
  2. that the physical world is the creation of an evil power in rebellion against the higher, true God.
  3. that Jesus' salvific role was as a teacher, and his crucifixion had no redeeming importance;

The reviewers don't think any of those fit the text. First, the Judas gospel has a distinct ethical cast. The higher race of beings into which Judas is to be inducted is described as "pious" or "holy", and Jesus is sent to save the elect because they are"walking in the path of righteousness." Second, the angelic beings who create the physical Adam are not depicted as rebelious agents of Chaos, but as agents of the high God, sent to minister over the chaotic material realm.

Third, the final section of the Gospel, in which Jesus gives Judas the mission to assist in getting him crucified, although it is poorly preserved and ambiguous, contains these last words from Jesus to Judas, about the consequence of his crucifixion:

And the image of the great race of Adam shall be lifted up, because before heaven and earth and the angels, that race existed throughout the eternal realms. Behold, you have been told everything. Lift up your eyes and see the cloud and the light within it, and the stars surrounding it. And the star that leads the way, that is your star.

The three reviewers point out that this sounds like a pretty cosmic description of the Passion and its result, not just a mere casting off of an irrelevant physical shell. (And I would point out that the term "lifted up" is a direct reference to the Crucifixion, the Johannine language of "even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man shall be lifted up." And that the notion of the crucified Christ as the image of Adam is a Pauline staple. There are significant continuities here with the New Testament.)

There's also considerable discussion of the role of the Gospel in second century controversies over the value of martyrdom. The twelve disciples, portrayed in the papyrus as even more abysmally clueless than the butts the New Testament gospels often make of them, are set up to stand in for the bishops of the second century, who claimed descent from those same apostles, and preached the great virtue of martyrdom.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

CEI: We call it lies

It's finally happened. Someone has actually managed to underestimate the intelligence of the American people.

An energy company consortium called The Competitive Enterprise Institute, alarmed at the upcoming release of Al Gore's wonderful documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, are attempting a pre-emptive strike, with two 60-second ads being released in 14 cities.

The second ad contains some mumbo jumbo references to a couple of actual scientific papers, which do in fact indicate that parts of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are getting thicker. Needless to say, the ad completely misrepresents the significance of this fact, which is predicted by global warming models, which also predict that the phenomenon will be temporary. In the case of Greenland, the rate of melting at the edges already greatly outstrips the rate of temporary buildup inland. (In the case of Antarctica, it is not clear which feature predominates at the moment, though it's clear that melting will win out in the future.) More of the real poop available from a real live climate scientist may be found at Real Climate.

Though the second ad consists of what e. e. cummings called "the purest kidooleeyoon", it might achieve some of its intended propagandistic effect. But oh, sweet honey in the rock, the first ad! What a case study in self-parody. "Carbon dioxide" it intones, over tinkly Hallmark card music, "is essential to life. We breathe it out. Plants breathe it in..." Leading up to the all-powerful sound bite: "CO2. They call it pollution. We call it life."

If MoveOn doesn't have a follow-on ad within a week or two, I'd be surprised. Same tinkly music. "Excrement is essential to life. [Image of cutest possible toddler on potty training seat] We push it out. [Image of field being fertilized] Plants take it in..." Or, maybe it could be identical to the first ad, but in the last scene we see the business-suited oil execs, while "CO2. They call it pollution" is being intoned, all take out plastic clothes bags and fit them over their heads. And grin stupidly at us through the sheeting while the voice over says, "We call it life."

There is a limit, folks. Americans know nothing about science. But there is a fixed lower limit to our dumbnicity, and these bozos have aimed well underneath it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hopeful signs for Darfur

It must be February. January's over, and the molasses is starting to move.

It had almost seemed in recent years that the world had decided the proper speed for stopping a slow motion genocide was somewhere between first gear and park. But first there was the magnificent rally on the National Mall this April 30. Then came word that Khartoum and the largest rebel group had signed a peace deal.

Even so, trust remained low, and not all rebel groups were on board. Peacekeepers were sorely needed, and the African Union troops were overextended and underequipped.

Washington Post reports
U.N. Council Approves Mission to Darfur "The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a legally binding resolution Tuesday that instructs the United Nations to replace an underfinanced African Union peacekeeping mission that is struggling to halt the killing of civilians in the Darfur region of western Sudan. The council threatened sanctions against anyone who impedes peace efforts there.
The U.S.-sponsored resolution, which passed 15 to 0, is aimed at speeding the transition from an African force of about 7,000 troops to a much larger U.N. mission of as many as 20,000 international peacekeepers. The council demanded that Khartoum supply visas for U.N. and African Union military planners within a week to travel to Darfur and prepare for the transition...
......senior U.N. officials noted that the resolution was passed under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which can be enforced through the threat of sanctions or military force.

This action was pushed through on the initiative of the United States. When it comes to genocide, unfortunately, it appears that America remains the indispensable nation. We have one example of a genocide that was stopped without American troops (by Australians in East Timor in 1999), but even that required a US push for authorization at the UN. Otherwise, when America acts, genocide is halted or averted; and when America holds aloof, it continues unimpeded.

It took far too long. But Mom always said, "If you can't say anything good about somebody, don't say anything at all." From now on I am free to declare with a clear conscience that George W. Bush is the worst president ever. Not just by a whisker or a nose, but by a parsec or two. And Mom won't be offended, because I can also point to the one thing he has eventually done right. In future generations, all around the world, whenever his name comes up, it will be cursed and reviled. But in one western corner of Sudan, a word of blessing may be reserved for him.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Afterthought: the Poison Tree Triple Play

In my previous post, I explained why the "national security logic" demands that the NSA must be listening in without warrants to the content of purely domestic conversations. Having slept on it, I've decided my logic wasn't airtight.

As we learned Monday, the feds have also been collecting the phone records of journalists - but they've been doing it perfectly legally. They just fork over an NSL, a National Security Letter, a dodge made legal by the USAPATRIOT Act. Certain agencies, such as the FBI, may issue NSLs and compel the production of private information, without a warrant, and it is illegal for the provider to inform anyone of the search. (In theory, these letters were to be used only to track down potential terrorists, but the language of the Act is conveniently fuzzy, and a journalist is now the same thing as a terrorist in the eyes of this particular law.)

Here, then, is the value of the phone records the NSA collects. Once they've located a "pattern", they know which phones they want to bug for content. They can't go to the FISA court with that, because they'd have to admit to breaking the law, and they'd find their spooky behinds tossed out on the pavement.

But what they can do is go to the FBI and say, "Here are some phone numbers of interest." The FBI can then present NSLs to the phone companies, demanding phone records for those numbers. Lo and behold, the parties in question have been talking to Suspicious Characters. Now, the Hooverites trot down to the FISA court. Fortunately, our crack Tinsel Wing staff has the courtroom bugged; transcript follows.

Hooverite: "We'd like to listen in on the conversations of this individual, who is talking to some potential Bad Actors. These phone records show probable cause."

FISA judge: "Did you get these phone records from the illegal NSA database which we, of course, know nothing about and have never heard of?"

Hooverite: "Your honor, we cannot tell a lie, we got these records from a National Security Letter, in accordance with USASNOOPONPATRIOTSACT, section this, part that, and here's the paperwork."

FJ: "What led you to issue this particular NSL?"

Hooverite: "Well, your honor, sometimes we just get hunches. This one panned out."

FJ: "Sounds aboveboard to me. Where do I sign?"

It's a classic Tinker to Evers to Chance to Tinker to Chance to that little celebrated catcher Bfstplk. The phone giant at SS passes records to NSA at 2nd: one hundred percent illegal. The NSA passes the resulting tip to the FBI at 1st: one hundred percent illegal. The FBI launders the tip by going back to the shortstop, who pass the ball, now clean as a whistle, to the FBI, who throws it home to the FISA judge. A triple play, and the stands go wild.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Tice and the poison tree

Ever since the NSA domestic wiretapping story broke, 20-year NSA analyst Russell Tice has been petitioning Congress for a chance to testify about what the public hasn't learned. For a long time, Congress didn't want to know, and the big committees (intelligence and Judiciary) still prefer to be ignorant. But this week, he will speak to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Tice said his information is different from the Terrorist Surveillance Program that Bush acknowledged in December and from news accounts this week that the NSA has been secretly collecting phone call records of millions of Americans. “It’s an angle that you haven’t heard about yet,” he said. … He would not discuss with a reporter the details of his allegations, saying doing so would compromise classified information and put him at risk of going to jail. He said he “will not confirm or deny” if his allegations involve the illegal use of space systems and satellites.

Perhaps thanks to Tice it will be sooner. In any case, sooner or later we are going to learn that the NSA has been listening without warrants to the content of purely domestic conversations.
How do we know this? The national security logic demands it. The whole point of the database of all US citizens' phone calls is to look for "patterns" suggestive of terrorism. Now, suppose they find just such a pattern. Suddenly they have probable cause to believe that a domestic phone owner is taking part in a terrorist conversation. How can they use what they've learned?
The next step is plain. They've got probable cause, so they go to the FISA court and ask for a warrant to tap the phone in question. Problem is, they can't go to the court. They violated the law when they did the surveillance that turned up the "pattern". The court will be obliged to toss out their claim of probable cause, on the grounds that it is the fruit of the poison tree.

Therefore, once the NSA has started down this road, the only way to take advantage of having found the "pattern" is to go ahead and listen in to the purely domestic calls, without benefit of a warrant. Since they knew from the beginning that this would be the only way to utilize the intelligence coming from the phone database, they would not have bothered to set up the database unless they were planning to listen in on content. Without warrants.

Anyone care to place a bet that this isn't what Tice will tell the Senate ASC?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

So hold me, Mom, with your long arms...

The NSA would like to remind everyone to call their mother's this Sunday. They need to calibrate their system.
Tip of the nicteis wing to Bruce Schneier's blog.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Titanic: the Movie

Here for your random edification and enjoyment is a time lapse movie of the Huygens spacecraft's descent onto Titan. Also available is a more geeky version, with narration replaced by a soundtrack in which pitch conveys the angle of the parachute, and the patching together of the visual mosaic is not hidden from you.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

But I'm all ears

I can admire the sentiment when Steven Dedalus mutters, "Silence, exile, cunning." But I doubt I'll ever learn to adopt such restrained ideals.

USA Today has never got the respect it deserves. Now it will. They don't do a ton of investigative reporting, but when they do, they nail their story to the wall. It's a shame they'll only land a Pulitzer prize for this story. There was never a better time to institute a super-Pulitzer, a best of decade award.

Because this, folks, is it. This is the fire raining down at last on the City of the Potomac Plain, the fall of the Tower of Babel, the upness of the jig.

Sure, the Bush administration was not just a lame duck, it was the duckly equivalent of a quadruple amputee. But the sad truth is, this was not any old delimbed fowl; this was one of the walking, hobbling, flopping undead. When a government arrogates to itself, as this government has, the right to violate any law it sees fit to defy, and when it operates entirely in secret, with no oversight whatsoever from Congress or the courts, and only the occasional token peep of curiosity from the media - then it doesn't matter whether its approval numbers are in single digits. It will remain the 500 pound zombie gorilla duck, sleeping, defecating, and eavesdropping wherever it likes.

It was able to preserve its secrecy, relinquishing only onion-thin layers of it to the occasional whistleblower, or to the sporadic incursion into the mass media of the common knowledge of the Internets, only because at least half of the citizenry accepted, or wanted to accept, the rationale for the secrecy. That Bush was not trying to keep Americans, but the terrorist enemy, in the dark about everything he did. That rationale is blown.

The country was evenly split on whether they approved of the NSA cross-Atlantic wiretapping. That was largely because, first, the media never bothered to explain the little details: what the Fourth Amendment actually says; the powers already available to the Administration under FISA, including the power to tap first and answer questions 3 days later. And, second, the average citizen, too harried making ends meet to track down every detail, was inclined to trust Bush's hasty assurances that only a select few evildoers were swept up in the net. Half the country felt it didn't touch their lives, didn't touch their own privacy, and didn't matter too much.

Now they know better. We know better. We know that Big Brother is watching us. And we also know incontrovertibly that Bush, Gonzales, Hayden, the whole tapping tapdancing pack of voyeurs, spent every night with ears pressed to the bedroom door of Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch, and then for months spent every day looking us straight in the face and lying about it.

Here, incidentally, is one of the statutes Bush was breaking. Note that there's a seven year penalty for each violation. At 200 million odd illegal acts, Bush should get out of the slammer at about the time the sun goes nova.

The eavesdropping was never a winning issue for Karl Rove in the fall, not if lovers of the Constitution stood up to him on it. Up til now, Rove has been able to frighten the more weak-kneed lovers of the Constitution, most of our elected Democrats among them, into making only the feeblest protests. But now there isn't a politician in the length and the breadth of the land who can pretend the issue hands Bush anything but his head on a platter.

I confidently predict poll numbers for Dubya stabilized under 30 well by the end of the month.

[Breaking: New Harris poll puts Our Fearful Leader at 29%. And that's before the Snoopgate story broke.]

I'm speechless. Just speechless.

Because that appears to be the only way left to avoid being overheard by the No Such Agency.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

José, can you see?

You could cut the demagoguery with a knife, but it better be well sharpened steel.

The GOP having decided it would help in the fall elections if they could stir up a good rolling boil of racist resentment against wetbacks - and then having discovered that they didn't actually want to do anything about it - our Senators longed to make a bold and forthright stand, to show the world that they hate that awful Spanish stuff more than anybody.

So on Monday they passed a resolution that the Star Spangled Banner should be sung in English. And, while they were at it, that citizenship oaths and the Pledge of Allegiance should be recited in English too.

But wait! In the course of reaffirming what they assume to be the electorate's revulsion against all things Hispanic, they didn't want to alienate any Hispanic voters. So, performing a neat straddle across the requirements of bigotry and PC, they cleverly omitted the word "only". Their final language, after the obligatory slop bucketload of Whereas-es, ran thus:

Resolved, That the Senate affirms that statements or songs that symbolize the unity of the Nation, including the National Anthem, the Oath of Allegiance sworn by new United States citizens, and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States, should be recited or sung in English, the common language of the United States.

From this one gleans the point of the whole exercise: we Anglos may take comfort that, after the Brown Peril has swamped our country under a flood of siestas, piñatas, and little candy skeletons on el día de los Muertos, the Pledge and Anthem will still be performed in English at least every now and then.

Meanwhile, the Whereas-es tendered their own amusements.

Actually, I found this Whereas more offensive than amusing:

Whereas the people of the United States are united not by race, ancestry, or origin, but by a common language, English...

(The bill does go on to mention, as if in afterthought, that we Yanks have some founding ideas like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in common, too. But it appears those are but the icing of Americanism, while English is the cake.)

In explaining how very important it is for Americans to be "united", to be, you know, all like each other rather than (shudder)different,
this Whereas gets trotted to the front of the stage:

Whereas the original national motto of the United States, `E Pluribus Unum', meaning `from many, one', signifies the coming together of people from many foreign countries to form one Nation, was incorporated into the Great Seal of the United States in 1776, is printed on currency of the United States, and inscribed on the wall of the Senate chamber;

In the light of this resolution, don't they have to sandblast "E Pluribus Unum" off the wall of the Senate chamber, and replace it with something in English?

If they don't, our great land could be overrun by hordes of olive-skinned aliens in togas, taking away those vine tending and coliseum building jobs that ought to go to real Americans. And I would hate that more than anybody.

Bush demands clean energy; Beelzebub orders Zamboni fleet

Ted Kennedy's opposition to the Cape Wind wind farm off Nantucket is a gift that keeps on giving - to the farm's proponents. Both the White House and arch-conservative Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who never before saw a green initiative he didn't hate, have leapt to the defense of the project.

In the Bush administration's most significant statement to date on the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm, a top energy official is urging Congress to strike controversial legislation that could doom the project

Department of Energy undersecretary David K. Garman, in a May 4 letter to key lawmakers, called a proposal that would specifically grant the Massachusetts governor veto authority over the plan ''unwise for several reasons.''

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Straws in the wind

This is possibly the most ominous development yet in the ongoing Iran War Drum Symphony.

The Bush administration has been talking war-war and refusing to jaw-jaw. ("We are committed to diplomacy, but not if that means like, you know, actually talking to Iran.") Despite reports from several quarters that they are already committed to a military attack, the insanity of such a move is so plain that it's easy to hope it is all just for show. Specifically, to hope that all they really want to do is ensure that the issue comes to a head in Congress in October, so that when voters go to the polls, the thoughts uppermost in their minds will be "National Security" and the latest Muslim bogeyman. Under that rosy scenario, once the threat of a Democratic House or Senate is beaten back the war drums will subside.

In the wake of the Labour Party's dismal showing in local races last week, Tony Blair dismissed, demoted and rearranged his Cabinet members in what's being called a "Night of the Long Knives". Two of the most prominent victims had become lightning rods for public discontent or sexual scandal. But no one had been clamoring for the head of the third, foreign minister Jack Straw. Unless that someone was Washington.

In an article titled The two crucial mistakes that cost Straw his job, The Guardian says that Straw didn't help himself much by cozying up to Gordon Brown, the probable leader of any Labour insurrection against Blair. But his unforgivable sin was declaring war with Iran "inconceivable":

Jack Straw made two crucial mistakes in his dealings with Tony Blair: one involved the prime minister's relationship with Gordon Brown and the other Iran. Mr Straw has said repeatedly that it is "inconceivable" that there will be a military strike on Iran and last month dismissed as "nuts" a report that George Bush was keeping on the table the option of using tactical nuclear weapons against Tehran's nuclear plants.

But Mr Blair, who sees Iran as the world's biggest threat, does not agree with his former foreign secretary. The prime minister argues that, at the very least, nothing should be ruled out in order to keep Iran guessing. Downing Street phoned the Foreign Office several times to suggest Mr Straw stop going on the BBC Today programme and ruling it out so categorically...

His fate was sealed when the White House called Mr Blair and asked why the foreign secretary kept saying these things. In any case, Mr Straw had boxed himself in on Iran to the extent that he would have had to resign if a military strike became a reality.

(Emphasis mine.) The Washington Post concurs with that analysis.

If the hyping of the "military option" against Tehran were intended solely for the U.S. domestic market, there would have been no particular call for Washington to nudge Straw out. Americans couldn't care less about the composition of the British Cabinet. Americans did very much care, however, when the boots hit the ground in Iraq, that the loyal, sensible Brits were there to reassure us we were doing the right thing. This smells like, as they say on the island, the decision for war has been taken.

And like the facts, the Cabinet is now being fixed around the policy.

Circles within circles

Now and then, I expect to blog on theology and religion. That's not easy to do for a mixed audience, small as I expect my audience to be. It's not all that easy when I'm the only audience I've got, since the conversations I have with myself on religion already involve a throng of interior interlocutors and points of view: the long discredited but in some ways fondly remembered atheist I was for a few years, the admirer of Paul Tillich, the sympathetic reader of Talmud and of the Blue Rock Collection, the guy who feels most at home when worshipping with evangelicals, and the fellow who blanches with horror at the politics that pop out in the same services' sermons.

I'm likely to chatter blithely about the common heritage of mystics from all traditions, like some latter-day Richard Bucke. And then I'm likely to start hammering on some arcane doctrinal point by flinging around prooftexts (though I prefer to think of it as "close reading") like the most Bible-besotted preacher who ever waved his King James in the air.

Rather than talking about "natural" and "revealed" theology, Tillich said that theologians speak sometimes from outside and sometimes from inside "the theological circle." It seems to me that the theological Inferno or Paradiso is composed of many more circles than that. Once someone abandons materialistic monism, and starts thinking of mind or consciousness as things that cannot be reduced to the buzz of a neural switchboard, however entangled with and even dependent on that switchboard they may be, she has stepped into the first circle. Confident that the innermost circle contains all the rest, I will give myself permission to be sloppy about which one I'm speaking from.

Still, I wouldn't want to be deliberately confusing. So by way of orientation, I'll deal a few simple cards face up on the table right here. I am an orthodox Christian, by which I mean that I can recite the entire Apostle's Creed without crossing my fingers behind my back or placing selected words in scare quotes. There was a virgin birth, there was a resurrection on the third day... you know, the whole six yards. I cop to being both "born again" (blinded on my particular Damascus road at 26) and "evangelical" (the Christian message is both "eu" - good, and "angelical" - news, information about real events rather than just a way of looking at things.) I regard the Bible as the proper court of appeal for resolving moral and doctrinal issues within the church, but not as an inerrant text on science or history.

I also cheerfully acknowledge that I could be wrong about all of that. I feel no obligation to believe it, I just find that I do. And I certainly feel no obligation to drag anyone else kicking and screaming into believing any of it. If my faith happens not to be folly, that kind of heavy hauling is God's job; if it does happen to be folly, it's no one's job at all. What I can do, piece by unsystematic piece, is explain why a set of beliefs, so bizarre to the uninitiated, coheres for me both with itself and with the endlessly intriguing world I live in.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

First corals proposed for Endangered Species Act list

NOAA has formally submitted elkhorn and staghorn corals - two once abundant, fabulously branching species - for listing as threatened species. The proposal will be published in the Federal Register for public comment.

Hurricanes, pollutants, human divers and fishermen, have all played a role. But bleaching associated with global warming is the biggest driver.

This way to the egress

There may be unsightly reasons for Porter Goss's unseemly haste in departing the CIA. Perhaps Negroponte put the hammer down when Goss refused to fire his old friend Dusty Foggo. (A delicious name, that, which does sound fitting for a Senate aide who doled out earmarks in exchange for poker nights out with the boys and all the rented girls. But doesn't it sound more like a hobbit? One of that unsavory crew who acted as enforcers for Sharkey, in the days before the scouring of the Shire?) Or perhaps one of the many old-time spooks, up in arms over Goss's mission to make the CIA a pliant arm of the RNC propaganda mill, applied a blackmail lever.

But Billmon has a perspicacious reading of the long term significance of the event. Porter Goss was destined for the door soon in any case, if only because he has accomplished what he was appointed to do.

However, just because the Night Porter is carrying his own bags out the door, that doesn't mean the White House's war on the agency is over. The leak investigations and political purges no doubt will continue, if more discreetly. The people who have been purged -- taking with them something like 300 years worth of cumulative experience -- aren't coming back. The CIA isn't the new FEMA; it's the new New Orleans, flooded and gutted and left to mold in the mud.

I'd say it would take years for the agency to recover, but my suspicion is that it will never recover, as its missions and resources continue to flow towards the Pentagon, like stars being sucked down a black hole. Rather than being a hatchet man, like Schlesinger, or a caretaker, like Carter's CIA director, Stansfield Turner, Goss's successor may be more in the nature of an undertaker, charged with the continued, gradual dismantling of the agency -- taking the C out of CIA.

And that may be the bigger story here. What's been happening over the past decade -- or longer, according to Andrew Bacevich -- has been a relentless expansion in the authority and functions of the military services, and of their civilian overlords in the Secretary of Defense's office, at the expense of the CIA, the State Department, the NSC and the other bits of alphabet in the national security soup. Years ago I saw an editorial cartoon that showed the Pentagon attached to the White House as its new west wing. We may be nearing the day when it's actually the other way around. And Porter Goss has done his part to bring that day closer.

Friday, May 05, 2006

What are fobbits for?

This is only a point of idle curiosity, I admit. Probably the answer is straightforward. But I can't help but wonder what all the fobbits are doing over there.

Fobbits is the gently disparaging term our grunts apply to the soldiers who rarely if ever venture "outside the wire", spending all their time holed up in FOBs, forward operating bases. The quintessential FOB, of course, is the Green Zone. But KBR won the bid to build won the contract to build fourteen "enduring bases" back in '04. (The contract was reported by the Chicago Tribune on March 23, in what is now unfortunately a pay-to-read article.)

The term "enduring bases" sort of suggested that the USA intended to squat in Iraq forever, which may be why the Ministry of Peace, ever attentive to the needs of the Ministry of Truth, now refers to them instead as "contingency operating bases". Their number has shrunk, but their size has expanded. There are four of them now, under more or less permanent construction. The largest, for instance, Balad Air Base, sprawls to the north of Baghdad, and boasts a population of 20,000 American servicefolk, the vast majority of whom, according to an embedded reporter with the Washington Post, are fobbits.

The number of American soldiers in Iraq, about 150,000, is now exceeded by the number of private contractors, about 160,000. So what's the need for all the military support personnel? We wonders, yes, we wonders.

One possible answer is that, as Seymour Hersh reported last December, the political consultants have decided that the electorate will put up with the war indefinitely, so long as casualties are kept under two a day. And therefore, the foot patrols are being systematically replaced with bombing runs - which obviously raises your basic fobbit to expeditionary ratio.

Here's a second possible answer: Bush needs a buffer of twenty to forty thousand bodies not strictly required for the current combat missions. He needs that buffer because he intends to pull twenty to forty thousand bodies out of Iraq (which would be considerably fewer than the number of people he's turned into bodies in Iraq, but that's a different post) just before the elections. Because, you understand, Iraq will have turned a critical corner just about then, things will suddenly be going just swimmingly there by then, and the withdrawals will prove it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Personal poetry archive 1

I will inflict my old (and maybe new) poems on my readers for - as Wm J Clinton once said - the worst reason in the world.

Because I can.

This one is from 1972.


insatiable children, their rustling vestments wove
stories between them as

the light curled

at dark's feet


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

CIA: no evidence that Saddam "sought" yellowcake

The CIA sent Ambassador Wilson to Niger because they had received reports, based on the forged sales agreement, that Iraq had bought uranium from that African country.

Blogger eriposte, at leftcoaster, writes dry, repetitive prose, and he uses a layout that's the typographic equivalent of a Phyllis Diller clothing boutique. But he does his homework, in spades. He's just started a series on the way that right wing commentators have obscured the utterly falsity of the "Saddam bought yellowcake" claim by morphing it into a claim that Saddam "sought" uranium. Then their story goes that Wilson's trip somehow made the latter claim more credible. As eriposte proves, by diving deeply into the official documents, the claim was false, and Wilson's trip made it less credible.

The primary documents in question are the report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the British Butler report. Both were designed as whitewashes, but if one looks beyond the executive summaries and the much-quoted Republican addendum to the SSCI report, the wash proves thin, and the dark grain of the underlying deception shows through.

Clicking through eriposte's links to one of his earlier posts, I was slightly flabbergasted to learn that the CIA, in an official, unclassified memo written after Wilson's trip, which was quoted in the SSCI, informed the DCI (i.e., George Tenet, the Director of Central Intelligence) that the "sought" was as spurious as the "bought":

On June 17, 2003, nearly five months after the President delivered the State of the Union address, the CIA produced a memorandum for the DCI which said, "since learning that the Iraq-Niger uranium deal was based on false documents earlier this spring, we no longer believe that there is sufficient other reporting to conclude that Iraq pursued uranium from abroad." This memorandum was not distributed outside the CIA and the Committee has not been provided with any intelligence products in which the CIA published its corrected assessment on Iraq's pursuit of uranium from Niger outside of the agency. [page 71]

(Emphasis mine.) Obviously, the spooks did not agree with the Senate Republican spin, that the Niger journey somehow bolstered the truthiness of Bush's infamous sixteen words in the 2003 State of the Union address. Nor did they appear to assess the British "intelligence", all of it ultimately based on the same forgeries, as "sufficient other reporting".

Bronzed, rested, and ready

Ever since the Army paid a small coterie of Iraqis to be photographed, no zoom lenses please, watching the GIs pull down that statue of Saddam, the spot has looked,well, a little bare. Like that stretch of unrepainted wall after the velvet Elvis was taken down. So a Baghdad square is missing its monumental statuary, and somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot. Of such coincidences, inspiration is born.

Here's a sculpture that would surely find an instant place in the hearts of all Iraqis, and of freedom loving peoples everywhere. What else could befit the truly Ozymandian proportions of the colossus now bestriding the world? (And is mixing bad Shelley with good Shakespeare a graver lapse than mixing a metaphor?)

Technical difficulties

Well, that was instructive.

I've learned that blogspot will every so often just not allow some blogs (or some browsers) to publish for a few hours or a couple of days. And in the course of scouting for a workaround, I've learned that my current HTML template, which does fine on Mozilla and Firefox, looks moderately hideous on Internet Exploder. This is why I don't envy the web designers of the world.

Wonder how it does on Safari? -- But not to worry, I have it on good authority that no one uses Macs anymore.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Sorting out half-pint elephants

Nikos Poulakakis of the Natural History Museum of Crete reports in Biological Letters (alas, no link) a comparative study of DNA fragments from fossil half-height elephants, of ages ranging up to 800 thousand years old.

Their closest relatives had always been assumed to be modern elephants. But one species, on Crete, turns out not to belong to the modern genus Elephas, but to Mammuthus.

That's right. Move over, jumbo shrimp! There's a new oxymoron on the block: the pygmy mammoth.