Sunday, December 28, 2003

Art and Science

I was just reading Tyler Cowen's discussions of art and law over at the Volokh Conspiracy. He came up with some interesting examples of legal-themed art. (Also see his post just below this one.) I've had a similar interest in science-themed art, or how advances in science have influenced artistic expression.

I reckon people are familiar with the influence of atomic theory on pointillism, for instance. The Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh recently (2001) had an excellent exhibit (jointly with the Van Gogh museum in Holland) called "Light," in which they showed the scientific research on the nature of light and how this led to new styles of painting.

There are some great paintings relating to other science themes I've come across myself. One of the best is Joseph Wright of Derby, who has a number of scienc-related paintings. And I especially like William Dyce's "Pegwell Bay." There are a lot of subtle things in this one. Note the apprehensive expression of the artist's son(?), looking over his shoulder at something out of our ken. At first glance, the family appears to be enjoying a happy day collecting seashells, but we know that they're actually gathering fossils. The great work on evolution was being done at this time, and the implications were unsettling. Pegwell Bay's cliffs were a good place to go to see fossils.

Also note the depiction of Donati's Comet, which isn't really visible in this scan. It comes out a little in some other images, but I'll have to look harder. Comets have the symbolism of ominous portents, although this depicts an actual comet, as well. One commentary I read on this painting describes the vast geological time depicted in the rock strata in the cliffs, and the astronomical time depicted in the comet.

I can't find the original commentary I read online, but here's another useful one.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

NPR: That evil Wal-Mart is lowering consumer prices!

Hah, hah... I never thought I'd hear it: NPR right now is interviewing a guy, Charles Fishman (sp?), who is complaining that Wal-Mart continually acts to lower the prices to they charge their customers! Now, he's coming at this from the angle that Wal-Mart's requirement that their suppliers lower wholesale costs by 5% per year, every year (if I heard him right). And it's a defensible argument to make; it might not be possible for a supplier to lower costs by that amount every single year, after all.

But I think his statement that Wal-Mart is pressuring prices downward, in the absence of market pressure to do so, isn't anything that's going to make me mad at the company. Sure, it might create some problems for their suppliers, but we have a free market, and they're always free to sell to somebody else. For my part, this confirms the customer-friendly attitude I've found there, and it's a welcome, detailed affirmation of their advertising claims. Heck, Wal-Mart ought to promote this guy's article!

"Native American" vs. "American Indian"

While I'm still fuming about the whole misuse of "Holiday" to replace "Christmas" in public discourse, it brings to mind another complaint I have (sorry for using Christmastime to complain--so I'll make this short and get back onto it another time), which is the nearly-universal substitution of "Native American" in place of the proper "American Indian."

This really ought to strike people as offensive itself. After all, most of us in this country are truly native Americans, having been born here. A few of us are, in addition, American Indians or have some Indian ancestry. This is true in my case, being part Indian on both sides of the family. I may be only some fraction Indian, but I'm 100% native American.

I noticed recently a plaque on the wall of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Baltimore, the first Methodist church in the United States. This plaque commemorated the "First Native American Bishop" in the church, I think. The funny thing is, it took me a minute to realize that the ca. 1900 plaque was honoring the first Methodist bishop to be born in America, not the first bishop of Indian descent! It actually used the term properly, and it was just the decades of misuse of this phrase that affected my understanding. Heh, heh...

OK, off the soapbox and back to Christmas cheer...

Goodbye, Iranian Girl

Nuts. "Notes of an Iranian Girl" is ending. I didn't read her blog all of the time, but hers was the only source of inside information I got from Iran, and she kept me up to date on the (originally) hopeful events going on with the student protests and the movement for democracy there.

It was partly as a result of her comments that I wound up attending the Washington, D.C. rally against the Iranian government back this Summer, where I ran into Michael Ledeen (a polite and very unassuming guy, by the way).

I wish her luck.

Friday, December 26, 2003

20,000 Dead in Iranian Quake

Oh, no--I just saw the Reuters story about this on Drudge, the first I'd heard of it. Apparently, a 6.3 magnitude quake has leveled much of the old city of Bam, 600 mi. SW of Tehran. Officials say about 20,000 people are dead, with perhaps around 50,000 others injured.

I don't remember specific numbers offhand, but how long has it been since an earthquake has killed that many people? We've recently seen bigger quakes kill relatively few people (think of the Los Angeles earthquake of a few years ago--wasn't that >7.0?), but then, this one happened to hit the historic district of an ancient city. I presume there were lots of very, very old buildings that just couldn't have been designed to withstand this kind of shaking.

Let's pray the death toll doesn't rise above this already-high number.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Merry C-------- from NASA?

As far as skirting the word "Christmas," maybe this isn't as bad as the sign out front of my old church (see below), but it's pretty bad:

Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2003 14:05:19 -0500
From: xxxxx
Subject: Center Closed as of 2:00 p.m. due to Holiday

I just received a call notifying me that as of 2:00 p.m. today, Goddard is
closed due to tomorrow's holiday. You will receive a Center notification
soon; however, this e-mail can be considered your official 600/Space
Sciences notification.

Have a safe and happy holiday.

Space Sciences Directorate, Code 600

OK, to bring up the obvious: on Christmas Eve Day, you refer to "tomorrow's holiday"?! Come on people, it's not like it's a secret which December 25th holiday you're talking about!

I've got a funny mental image of these people playing charades or Pictionary, with "Christmas" as the word. They get it down to hints on the order of "it's a holiday that occurs on December 25th" and can't get beyond that.

I ought to send this to Jay Nordlinger...

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Wondering about al-Qaeda's plans

I was just reading this article that mentions the guy arrested at the Miami airport trying to sneak in a razor and hacksaw blade in his shoe. Now, he could easibly just be an unaffiliated nut, but what if he were part of al-Qaeda? What could their strategy be?

The MSNBC story also says al-Qaeda is thought to be trying another attack using airliners, and I've read that they are likely to try a coordinated attack. One guy trying to board a plane with a sawblade isn't likely to make for a successful (and coordinated) attack. In fact, the increase in security since 2001 makes sneaking any blades onto a plane difficult to do in any single case and therefore extremely difficult to repeat twenty times in a large, coordinated attack.

What if this guy were for real, but he wasn't meant to be part of a hijacking team?

What if his job was simply to plant the sawblade and razor onto the plane, where the hijackers would use it later--maybe months later?

Al-Qaeda could be trying a hundred such smugglings all over the country, at different times. If they're successful in just a few of them, then they've got that number of planes ready to be used. Then the hijacking teams can board en masse, without carrying any weapons and without suspicion.

So I'm curious--where was that plane headed? Do they tend to use the same planes for the same route over a long period of time?

Monday, December 22, 2003

Michael Jackson--flight risk?

So they've officially charged Michael Jackson today. He's supposedly been given back his passport to attend a promotional tour in Great Britain, and his lawyer is proclaiming that there's no risk he'll try to flee.

I wonder--if he did flee, would he get plastic surgery to disguise his face?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Them vs. 'em--archaic survivals in Modern English

Finishing up my Christmas shopping today, I was flipping through the Oxford English Grammar at the bookstore. I came across an intriguing discussion of the common pronunciation of them as 'em (as in "Give 'em heck!", etc.). I hadn't thought about it much before, but I'd assumed that this pronunciation (which I commonly use) came about by not pronouncing the th- when the word is unstressed.

But the book explains it as the surviving form of Middle English hem, "them," which was largely superseded by them (a Norse form of the word) in Modern English. So the unstressed form lacks an initial h-, not an initial th-. This does make sense, when you compare the unstressed pronunciations of him and her as 'im and 'er, respectively.

I always like finding these archaic holdovers in common use, that we don't normally think about. Oh--another one the book mentioned was the dialects that use hisn and hern for standard English's his and hers. It says these are also archaic forms. I think I've heard these used sometimes, but not often.

Now I wonder about my dialect's pronunciation of once't and twice't for standard once and twice. Hmmmm... Any old forms being preserved there?

"The Holidays" vs. Christmas and Hanukkah

Sorry for the long absence, everybody. State is on a quarter system, so I've got six weeks of vacation until the next quarter, but it's turning out to be a working vacation. Conference poster to get ready, a paper to finish up (I hate this error analysis part...), and a couple of Hubble Space Telescope proposals to do. Or, rather, "redo"--I've got some that were rejected last time around that I can start with.

But on to the first thing on my mind. Jay Nordlinger over at NRO has had a recurring theme of the annoying trend of "Holiday" replacing "Christmas" in greetings, store ads, and public mentions in general. I've got my own story on this--

Last weekend, when I was visiting the University of Pittsburgh for some research work, I attended my old church there in town (I went to grad school at Pitt), First United Methodist. I was shocked to see a sign in front of the sanctuary that read,

Holiday Party -->

I think pretty much anybody would have to agree that it goes too far when a Christian church substitutes "Holiday" for "Christmas" in something like this. Now, this is a pretty liberal church, but to be fair, I doubt they consciously avoided the use of "Christmas." Rather, I suspect that the public use of "Holiday" has gotten so familiar that the person who wrote the sign probably didn't even think about it.

As a committed philosemite, I'm eager to see more explicit mentions of Jewish holidays in the public sphere (with the hope that they not get too commercialized, of course). And I have long suspected that the muddling of "Christmas" was due to a desire not to exclude the recognition of Hanukkah. But why not mention them both? Would it really be that much of a chore?

On the other hand, Hanukkah is actually a relatively minor Jewish holiday, as I understand, yet it gets quite a bit of attention this time of year. Contrast that with the dreadfully little public attention paid to the really important Jewish holidays, like Passover and Yom Kippur. OK, Passover gets some recognition, but I think it's nothing like that paid to Hanukkah. Even my 2003 appointment calendar got the Passover dates wrong, according to my Jewish ex-girlfriend!

And poor Yom Kippur. It's practically invisible to us gentiles, unless we make the effort to keep up with these things. Rosh Hashanna? When was the last time you heard a local TV station put on a "Happy Rosh Hashanna" PSA?

I strongly suspect that Hanukkah has gotten elevated in public importance because of its coincidental proximity to Christmas. And keep in mind that Christmas itself isn't the holiest day on the Christian calendar. That honor belongs to Easter, but you wouldn't know it from the attention paid to each. I think the bigger tradition of gift-giving (and therefore, in our imperfect human minds, of gift-getting) at Christmas is what's responsible for the misplaced priorities.

It struck me just this week that while the close timing of Christmas and Hanukkah (which is entirely coincidental) might be responsible for this obnoxious trend of removing the explicit mentions of either one, somehow the same is not true at Easter, which is necessarily close to Passover. Somehow, stores and other public places have failed to muddy the waters on that one. Why? Passover is a very important holiday (Is it the most important of the Jewish year? I'm not sure.), and Easter is the biggest of the Christian year, but they manage to keep them straight. Does anybody have a clue on this??

Interestingly, the press discovered Ramadan around late 1998, I think, when there was public debate as to whether Clinton should conduct bombing raids on Iraq during that Moslem month. For a while, Ramadan was timed close to Christmas and Hanukkah, and all of a sudden (as I remember it), the TV news felt obliged to have "Happy Ramadan!" PSAs and such.

But the Islamic calendar is very strictly lunar, unlike the Christian calendar, which is solar, or the Jewish, which is lunar but tied to the solar year. So while Christian and Jewish holidays stay generally in the same season from one year to the next, the Islamic month of Ramadan will occur at different seasons in different years. And now that Ramadan has moved on outside of Winter, have you seen anything mentioned in public about it? Does the press simply pay attention only to those holidays that occur in December?!

Friday, December 19, 2003

Christmas Vacation

OK ya'll, I'll be gone for two weeks enjoying the holidays. Everyone have a great holiday and Happy New Year! See ya bloggin' in 2004. :)

Monday, December 15, 2003

Saddam Hussein Captured

This is the top news story around the world, Saddam Hussein captured! Hussein was found in a hole 6-8 feet under a mud farm house, just across the Tigris river from one of his palaces on December 13. The only thing separating him from the troops was a styrofoam square, dirt, and a rug. Intelligence gathered from bodyguards and family members lead to operation Red Dawn, or capture/kill Hussein. 600 soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, and special operations forces of Task Force 121 were involved in the operation. Once found, Hussein did not resist, and was immediately hand-cuffed, blindfolded, and moved to a secure location. It was said he shouted in english "I am the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, and I want to negotiate." About $750,000 US dollars were found on him, along with two AK-47s, a pistol, and a taxi. So far Hussein has been uncooperative.

President Bush, in a short televised address from the White House, said Saddam will "face the justice he denied to millions. For the Baathist holdouts responsible for the violence, there will be no return to the corrupt power and privilege they once held.

"This afternoon I have a message for the Iraqi people: This is further assurance that the torture chambers and the secret police are gone forever. You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again."

Iraqis were cheering and shooting guns in the street once they heard the news. Iraqi nationals in the U.S. were also excited about Hussein's capture, and can now visit their country and family without fear of retribution.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Google Scandal

My fiance pointed this scandal out to me last night, and I haven't heard anything about it on the news (except AOL), so I thought I'd share here what we found.

I'm not a webmaster, so I don't know all the details, but - when you create a website and provide links on that website, you can associate that link with a word or phrase. When you search using google with that word or phrase, that link will pop up. Usually if you search say for the word "physics" you'll get physics related links. However, if enough people link say a dog website with the word physics, then that will be the first link to pop up in your search. Seemingly having nothing to do with physics, yet a large majority of people had to associate that one website with the word "physics" for it to pop up.

With that in mind, there are always people who support the President, and who oppose the President. Somehow, the people who oppose the President have associated not-so-nice phrases with government and/or Bush websites. If you type in "miserable failure" the first link is a biography of President Bush from the official White House website. The 5-6 website links after that in some way are related to Bush. If you type in "weapons of mass destruction" the first link is mocking the Iraq situation.

It's very sad that people would defile the President on a global search engine, but at least few people who support Bush will be typing in miserable failure, or whatever else people have associated Bush's name with. I wanted to bring this to everyone's attention, and would love to hear feedback on this.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Astronomy in the Iliad

Keith Arnaud sent me this link to a book on Amazon he thought sounded interesting:

Astronomy was vital to the lives of ancient peoples; they invented
calendars from observations of the sun and moon and used the stars for
navigation. The heavens were also a focal point of their myths and
religious rituals. The peoples who lived in Crete and Greece from 2000
- 750 BC did not have an efficient writing system, and how they passed
astronomical learning down through the centuries has, until now, been
a mystery. This reading of Homer's Iliad reveals how mythology and the
great epic of the Siege of Troy was used to preserve vast knowledge
about the stars and constellations, the Moon and planets and ancient
ideas about the universe.

I'd have to read the book to see just what the author has found, but it's an interesting idea. Certainly there are astronomical references thoughout early literature, but I think this author is wanting to get at something deeper. I'm intrigued.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Opus is Back. Bill Watterson is missing.

I just saw the returned Opus comic strip in the News-Sentinel back at home. I was always a big fan of Bloom County, but I think Breathed has got to get back into the hang of this before he's really funny again. Earlier on, his strips had really great comic timing, and the example I saw Sunday was missing that. Plus, the drawings are a little...grotesque, almost. I like them better when they're simpler and cleaner. Not that I don't like detail, mind you--I'm especially fond of the beautiful, multi-pane color landscapes and dinosaur drawings that Calvin and Hobbes often featured. It's just this somewhat grotesque style that Breathed is doing now that is a little odd.

And there is something to be said for the method of James Thurber, who gave himself only five minutes to draw his cartoons. He actually had a timer. He'd found out early on that people thought his cartoons were better when he spent less time drawing them. But that's not for everybody, and as I said, I always enjoyed the elaborate paintings in some Calvin & Hobbes strips.

Speaking of Calvin, I came across this article on the now-reclusive Bill Watterson. Link via Instapundit.

Northern lights photos online

This time, my photos of the northern lights came out very well. I've posted them online here.

The images were all taken with 200 speed film, usually with 30-sec. exposures. The one labeled "road2" was 2 minutes, and a couple of the fainter ones were done with 15 or 20-second exposures.

For those interested in playing "Where's Waldo?", I've caught four airplanes in three different pictures, and in "road2" there is even a satellite making a longish streak in the center-right of the image.

I couldn't see the colors in any of these aurorae. What shows up here as green was very white to my eyes, although I once got a hint of pale blue-green when it brightened up. And the red regions were completely invisible. Once I could just make out a couple of pencil-thin, vertical streaks that turn out to be the brightest part of the red curtain, but otherwise I had absolutely no clue there was anything else to see. It's especially surprising, since the red clearly dominates many of the pictures, especially the "overlook" set. It's lucky that I happened to widen the field of view enough to catch them, accidentally as it was.

The image I'm showing here was taken from my back patio. I think it's got the best combination of colors of any of the photos.

Christian bumper stickers in Egypt

I'm impressed by this story from the AP that describes how Egypt's Coptic Christians are asserting their religion more publicly, putting those fish symbols on their cars, like many do here in America. There, it's a bumper sticker, rather than the plastic frame I see here, but the same design.

The shocking thing is the reaction from some in the Moslem majority--shark stickers on their own cars! Geez, I thought the atheists' reaction with "Darwin" or "Evolve!" legged-fish stickers was outrageous enough. That was the mocking of a Christian symbol, which is bad enough in its sarcastic intent. And I don't like mocking in general.

The Egyptian case is a bit different. I have little doubt that those Moslems (probably a small percentage) putting the shark stickers on their cars mean it as a joke, rather than a threat. But man, some of the things they're saying go right to the heart of the New Testament's counsel to Christians living under persecution. For example,

"The Christians had the fish so we responded with the shark. If they want to portray themselves as weak fishes, OK. We are the strongest," said Emad, who would give only his first name.

Insert in your favorite NT verse here. Or Old Testament, in many examples.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Geuda Kansas

I've been away for a while, so hadn't heard of this law requiring households to keep a firearm and ammunition. I'd have to say my opinion of it is mixed - I applaud this city during a time when gun control and guns in general are thought to be the bringers of chaos and crime. (Not my opinion on guns, but the opinions of my civilian co-workers) I think it's a step in the right direction to reduce crime and provide a positive stance on the second ammendment. No criminal in their right mind will try to break into a house in that city when he/she knows they have a gun and ammunition.

I'm also glad to see that they have made considerations for the poor and for the mentally/physically disabled. I'm not sure how this law would be enforced - I see it as Tim and others have suggested - that it's reminiscent of a law passed in Kennesaw, Georgia, a law to show the city's pro-gun stance.

My one big concern is this: gun safety through gun instruction or certification. I am an avid believer in gun rights, but also an avid believer in gun safety. In my opinion, many accidents that occur at home with a gun could have been prevented if proper gun safety had been followed. For those citizens of Geuda who are familiar with guns and gun safety (and I can imagine that most are if it is a pro-gun city) they will already know gun safety, but for those who are not familiar with guns, I believe a course of instruction or certification should be offered to teach correct gun safety. Any thoughts on this?

Other than that, huzzah to Geuda Kansas!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Kucinich tries out his dramatic reading...

Dennis Kucinich on NPR's All Things Considered right now. The interviewer brings up the Medicare bill and says that the Bush plan might as well have been "drafted on a different planet" than Kucinich's socialized medicine plan (not the interviewer's words, of course). I love Kucinich's reply:

"You're right. The Bush health plan was drafted on a different planet. It's the planet...[dramatic pause]...Greed!"

Oh, boy...this guy provides no end of entertainment.

Monday, November 24, 2003

More on Geuda Springs

Joel, over at Southern Appeal, is still skeptical of the wisdom of the city law mentioned just below, and he's got a point. I'm a conservative, and I don't like the government compelling my behavior over much of anything, even if it is behavior that I think is good and should be encouraged.

But I just thought of something: I seem to remember a comment by George Will (?) a few years ago that, if you read the Second Amendment the way liberals read the rest of the Constitution, keeping and bearing arms wouldn't be merely allowed, but compulsory. Maybe the city fathers of Geuda Springs, Kansas, are just consistent and honest liberals!

Can a city require you to keep a firearm?

There's been a decent amount of coverage recently on the decision by Geuda Springs, Kansas, to require most households to keep a firearm and ammunition. NPR covered it this morning, surprisingly with little editorializing.

Southern Appeal's Joel Foreman asks whether or not this is a requirement that can be legally imposed. For the record, Foreman is a strong supporter of gun rights, but he doesn't think this is a good idea.

I was already thinking about this question, and I believe that this is a legitimate use of legal authority, ignoring the wisdom of the law for the moment. Think about it--what the city has done is perform a partial military draft. The citizenry is (are?) not being mobilized but simply required to keep arms, the means to carry out their job.

Now, some would argue that this is illegitimate because they're not being made to fight an external military enemy. But the National Guard is activated very often without an actual military purpose but rather to maintain order and prevent looting during emergencies. Wouldn't this be essentially the same thing?

True, it is, in theory, a permanent call to duty, rather than for a fixed term. But I don't think that that is a legal objection. We could, if we wanted, require a lifetime commitment (well, an "until old age" commitment) to military service of some kind (reserves or guard for most of that time), and some countries do.

I also have in mind the arrangement of Switzerland (as I understand it), in which the citizen-soldiers keep their arms at home. The benefits of such an arrangement undoubtedly extend to discouraging crime, even though that is not the primary reason.

Furthermore, I was at first worried that this could be an expensive requirement for the poor. A decent modern pistol will probably run you $300, after all. But according to this story (link via Southern Appeal), they explicitly exempt the poor. They also exempt those with physical or mental problems, as well as those with a conscientious objection to firearms.

As some have mentioned, this is reminiscent of a law passed in Kennesaw, Georgia, some years ago, although I seem to remember that that law specifically stated that it would not be enforced. It was more of a strong statement in favor of gun rights, and it was a public rebuke to the city of (I think) Morton Grove, Illinois, which had effectively or explicitly outlawed handguns shortly before.

Thoughts, anyone?

Robert S. McNamara--spin doctor extraordinaire

I don't have a link to this, but surfing the cable channels late Saturday night, I came across Robert McNamara on the History Channel, talking about the erection of the Berlin Wall. According to him, this was a great victory for the Free World!!

Boy, that's some pretty serious spinning! Now, he had an actual argument for this--that the political crisis over the Berlin occupation was building up to war, and our only credible defense was nuclear. Thus by letting the Soviets have a free hand in East Berlin, we defused the situation. And when they built the wall to keep the population imprisoned, it showed the whole world how massive a failure their system was.

Yes, and the world tolerated that imprisonment for nearly four more decades.

I can believe that the Kennedy administration saw this as a victory over short-term, but serious, dangers. But didn't they see what it meant to the people behind that wall? Did they give any thought to what they would endure? This was, I suspect, part of the strategy of "containment"--don't try to roll back the Soviet grip, just keep them from taking more countries captive. Thank goodness for Reagan's (and others') rejection of this pessimistic philosophy.

Christopher Hitchens is glad for the "fading" JFK cult

"Where's the aura?", he asks in Saturday's Wall Street Journal. Hitchens is an iconoclast, I reckon we could say. He enjoys bursting the public image of prominent politicians and others. I don't always agree with him (he's very liberal, overall), but he's got a good article on John F. Kennedy, here.

I've got mixed feelings about JFK. On one hand, I don't think his actions deserve to rank him among our greatest Presidents. One accomplishment would certainly be his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and many or most would argue that saving us from a nuclear war alone makes him deserving of such praise. Quite possibly, although I think there are probably good arguments that he in fact mishandled the situation or invited it by his earlier actions. I don't have a well-developed opinion on this and will have to read more.

But aside from this, I think it is undeniable that he was an inspirational leader. As a friend of mine from grad school noted, you've got an entire generation of (now) little old ladies with plaster busts of Kennedy sitting on their mantles. They adore him! That inspiration came from somewhere. And the idealistic spirit his administration was publicly infused with was probably very catchy. (I mean that in a good way.)

And I'll say this on his behalf, that as a conservative, I can really appreciate his appreciation for low(er) taxes, even while I am turned off by many of his other actions.

Hmmm...certainly several sides of him to consider.

Friday, November 21, 2003

The Day After

NPR's "Fresh Air" last night was talking about the 1983(?) TV movie, The Day After. I never saw it, although I remember the ads on TV at the time. One ridiculous comment from the NPR show was that the effect of The Day After wasn't an unalloyed good, because the big public debate on nuclear war that came from the show might have convinced people that problems were being taken care of, so they didn't need to "act," themselves.

Wait a second--debating an issue is a bad thing? So, the more we debate a contentious issue, the worse off we are, because the less people will get involved in it? Huh?! The logic here astounds me.

Of course, this strikes me as all being argued from the point of view that the public should "get involved" by being in a nuclear freeze protest or some other such silliness.


I got a beautiful look at the northern lights last night. They appeared as white, cloud-like shapes from at least as early as 7:00 (when I first looked) until 9:30 or later. They were arrayed in an east-west line, broken into fuzzy imitations of cumulus clouds. They would fade and brighten and reform over a timescale of about a minute or so, faster than I thought they would.

I saw them for the first time in my life last month, when these same sunspot groups first made their appearance, but the show wasn't all that good here. Then, they appeared as a red glow on the horizon, but this time they were right over my head.

I took several photos, and if they come out, I'll post some online.

WWII: The 60-year war?

According to The Scotsman, there are still Japanese soldiers hiding out in the Philippenes! The last Imperial Japanese soldier to give up returned in 1974, after a long and difficult search for him and a tough time convincing him that the surrender was a valid order.

Now they're investigating reports that as many as four soldiers remain in the jungles. Two of the men searching are veterans themselves, and one of them kept fighting for five years after the surrender of Japan. Now I'm curious--how many Japanese soldiers surrendered more than a year after the formal surrender, and when did they come in?

I've got to say I'm impressed by these guys, in a way. They're an extreme case, but they're definitely tough. Or crazy. Well, even if they weren't crazy to begin with, living alone in the jungle for 60 years might do things to you.

Hmmm...I just realized that this means the Japanese military presence in the Philippenes has outlasted the American military presence!

(via Instapundit)

In a related story, Al Gore refuses to believe the 2000 election has ended...

For the man who has everything this Christmas...

Get him the one-and-only (literally) double-barrel cannon!

The idea was to kill enemy troops more effectively by firing two cannonballs, connected by a length of chain. They'd spread out and cover more area, dragging the deadly chain between them. It's actually a good idea, and this kind of thing was used, principally in naval warfare to cut down enemy rigging. But it found its way into land combat as well, only the standard method was to fire both balls from the same barrel. They'd be placed in with the chain between them. I imagine the trajectory would be a bit unpredictable, and perhaps that's why John Gilleland got the idea to use two barrels.

But the test-firing was a disaster. The trouble is in the timing: if the barrels don't fire at exactly the same time, one ball will wind up dragging the other along, possibly snapping the chain. According to the article in Wired,

Screaming spectators ducked and covered as the twinned, spinning projectiles plowed through a nearby wood and destroyed a cornfield before the chain connecting the balls broke. One of the cannonballs then collided into and killed a cow; the other demolished the chimney of a nearby home.

Well, if at first you don't succeed, don't aim it near my house!

I enjoy Wired's take on this--"It is a monument to every geek who ever had what seemed to be a really good idea at the time." Yes, it reminds me a lot of ideas I sketched out as a kid. And some from last week.

Be sure to check out the nice photos of it on the second page of the article.

UPDATE: I forgot to thank my friend, Charles Danforth, for the story!

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Master and Commander, Rupert Brooke, and Richard Halliburton

I just got back from watching the movie Master and Commander. It's just as good as I'd been told it was--exciting and entertaining. There were some very stirring lines in the script. One passage in particular that I can remember has the ship's captain, Russell Crowe, addressing his men, as they are about to face a French privateer during the Napoleonic Wars:

England is under threat of invasion. And though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England.

Even being an American (or partly because of it), I had shivers down my spine then. It reminds me of my reaction from reading Rupert Brooke's sonnet, "The Soldier":

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Not quite the same tone, since the movie line is an encouragement to men before battle to defend their ship, while Brooke's poem is more of a reflection. I remember reading in one of Richard Halliburton's books that Rupert Brooke was his favorite poet. Halliburton was at his heyday in the 1920s and '30s, a decade or two after Brooke wrote this in 1914.

Richard Halliburton was a great Tennesseean (a Memphian, in particular) who deserves to be more widely remembered. Maybe he is, more than I realize. He was a rich playboy (as my dad described him) who decided to occupy his time by having adventures and writing about them. He traced the steps of Odysseus, the Conquistadores, and others, writing about his journeys in several books. I read The Glorious Adventure in college, at Dad's suggestion. About that time I found out that "Halliburton Tower" (in the background of this photo) at Rhodes College (my alma mater) is dedicated to this same Richard Halliburton. It bears a bronze plaque in his memory, describing his death in 1939, lost at sea while on another adventure. Probably the most fitting way for him to go. After all, this was a man who swam the entire Panama Canal, including through the locks. He slept high above the Urubamba River another night, curled around the intihuatana at Macchu Pichu. He swam the Hellespont (imitating Leander...and Lord Byron, later), and he climbed to the top of Mount Olympus, only the third expedition ever to make it. Not a bad life for a fellow Tennesseean!

I've read The Glorious Adventure, in which he follows Odysseus, and New Worlds to Conquer, where he takes the routes of the Conquistadors. Both of my copies are originals, but he's still in print. I still have to read The Royal Road to Romance, which I don't know anything about.

Well, I've rambled on enough, now.

Hussein / al Qaeda connection for real?

The Weekly Standard has obtained a secret memo from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith sent to the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. This memo, dated October 27, 2003, details several pieces of evidence, some of them very explicit on this point, that bin Laden and Hussein had a working relationship well before the September 11, 2001 attacks.

I had believed this was possible but assumed that there just wasn't much strong evidence such a relationship actually existed. If our sources on this are good, though, this looks pretty convincing. It will also be a pleasure to watch the reaction of those on the hard-line anti-war side who have taken such arrogant attitudes that no educated person could believe that "fundamentalist" al Qaeda and "secular" Iraq could ever possibly work together!

We still have to weigh the quality of the sources, of course, and see if the memo's conclusions hold up. I don't want to proclaim this as the absolute and final word on the topic, just in case, but it's intriguing.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Kagan on Revolutions in Military Affairs

Frederick W. Kagan has a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal from November 12, with a similar version at The New Criterion.

He gives us a lot of history on the various attempts to impose business or information theory models on warfare (often with tragic outcomes), as well as the concept of "Revolutions in Military Affairs" (RMA). An example of the former includes Robert McNamara and his "whiz kids" approaching the war in Vietnam through game theory. One of the ideas was that (as I understand it) by varying the military force applied to the enemy, you sent him "messages," and from game theory you could predict his response to them.

Kagan is probably correct to be critical of this method. I honestly haven't studied much about the Johnson administration's approach to the war (aside from the problem of micromanagement from the White House), and I know only a tiny bit about game theory. The concept intrigues me, but the problem is that it must be too abstract to apply in real life, with all of the unknown variables there are in human behavior, especially in wartime.

I remember that game theory was also discussed back in the '80s, in the context of Cold War nuclear strategies and the effect of a national missile defense system. What I remember about that came from an anti-Reagan, anti-missile-defense article in a science magazine. Probably Discover.

Kagan gives a wide-ranging discussion of this idea of RMAs--events that so change the face of warfare that everybody has to start over from scratch in figuring out how to fight one. Essentially. The advent of tanks, machine guns, and especially nuclear weapons could all qualify as RMAs. Apparently, the latest nominee to be an RMA is information technology, but Kagan seems skeptical about this. Or at least skeptical of taking the conclusions too far.

He says that the military predominance the United States enjoys in the world today is unlikely to last forever. Those who claim that our technological advantages will essentially prohibit any other state from even trying to challenge us (now or for many years in the future) are forgetting lots of details. Computers are increasingly cheap and can be obtained by even our poorest enemies. Our global positioning system, developed at great cost over many years, could be done today by smaller countries more easily. Because we've broken the technological ground to gain the position we have, we've made it easier for other countries to follow in our footsteps--they don't have to spend nearly as much on R&D, since it has already been done.

I don't have the background to tell if he's right on all points, but he makes a persuasive argument.

Ninth Circuit ruling on machine gun possession

I was happily shocked to read today that the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Congress cannot ban possession of a machine gun under the guise of the Interstate Commerce Clause of the US Constitution. I haven't read up on the ruling in detail, and I imagine that the summaries could miss important points, but this is an encouraging step in restricting Congress' abuse of the Interstate Commerce Clause. I'll note that this only applies to possession itself, and not to sales, even intrastate sales, so I don't believe this ruling goes far enough, but it's a step in the right direction as far as the concept of federalism goes.

Now, the question of whether or not the private ownership of fully automatic weapons is appropriate is entirely irrelevant here. I am only dealing with the Constitutional question of whether Congress can legislate a ban under the guise of regulating interstate commerce.

One further thought before I actually read the decision: Some commentary on this case misstates a critical fact (as I do, above). Congress has never actually banned machine gun ownership. Instead, it has imposed a tax on them. Machine guns, and all fully-automatic firearms, are considered "Class III Weapons." Anyone wishing to own one must pay a one-time tax of...I think about $200 (last time I checked) and fill out a lot of paperwork. But as far as I know, anyone who is eligible to own a firearm (i.e., someone without a criminal record, etc.) is also eligible to own a Class III weapon.

Now, this use of taxes can be an abuse of power when it's done as a way of getting around Constitutional prohibitions. I imagine that if Congress were to impose specific taxes on speech, for instance, that might be ruled unconstitutional by the courts, as well. I'm curious to read the exact reasoning of the court in this case. The Ninth Circuit isn't exactly known as a bastion of logic and careful interpretation of the Constitution, but on the surface, this seems like a correct decision to me.

Eugene Volokh comments on this here.

Alternative meaning of "fisking"?

David Pryce-Jones, writing in the Spectator, actually tomorrow, given the date on their website, gives a definition of "fisking" that I had not heard of: "...the selection of evidence solely in order to bolster preconceptions and prejudices."

He is referring to the use of the word on the web, but I only understood "fisking" to mean the process of dissecting, phrase by phrase, a writer's badly-reasoned political screed that was passed off as news reporting.

Either way, of course, the word was directly named for British "reporter" Robert Fisk, whom I first noticed when he visited Afghanistan immediately after that recent war. He was nearly beated to death by an angry mob of Afghans, and he wrote that he understood why they did this and would probably have done the same thing himself, if he were an Afghan. And, of course, it was all George W. Bush's fault.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

How do you test scientific reasoning?

We're winding up the quarter here at State, which is just as well, since I think I'm coming down with the flu. Final exams are next week, and I've been teaching two classes this term--Scientific Reasoning and Astronomy. Astronomy is easy enough. I've taught it a few times before and can go through the material without needing much review. And I'm really impressed with how well many of the students are picking up some very difficult concepts, such as the curvature of the universe, the effects of relativity (such as on time, length, and mass), and how black holes "work." I had students staying after class today to debate things like the features of a small, closed universe (everywhere you looked, you'd see the back of your head, magnified!).

The troublesome one is Scientific Reasoning. We're supposed to teach methods, not content, but that's tricky to do and still have something you can grade them on. My approach has been to look at this as a philosophy class, a kind of history of cosmology, since cosmology involves how we look at the entire universe.

But that just makes the testing all the more difficult. I was originally thinking of giving them an oral exam. I'd have in mind some alternative universe, and the student would have to figure out a model for how that universe worked by proposing observations and experiments. I would tell him what he would find in each case. But here again, this could be hard to do without requiring specialized knowledge about astrophysics. And then there's the fact that it would have taken me about 8 hours just to get all of the students through the door, seriatum (as Dr. Taylor would say).

So I've just given them an essay assignment again. Today's discussion was mostly on the "Anthropic Principle" and other ways of interpreting what we know about the make-up of the universe. A critique of this is one option they have for a paper.

Re: Death in Iraq

Sorry to hear about your classmate, E. And yes, God bless them all over there.

Death of a Classmate

The war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq has been going on for many months now. After the "war" in Iraq was officially stopped in the spring, every day we've heard of a soldier killed here, a convoy attacked there. My reaction thus far has been a sigh that a good soldier and an outstanding citizen of the U.S. lost their life, a prayer for their families, and the knowledge that the soldier died defending his/her country and its principles. But I never knew the soldiers that died in action, I don't even remember their names.

That all changed for me when I was told (by email) one of my classmates had died in action. I never knew him very well, I had talked with him on occassion throughout the 4 years together, but we weren't good friends. I sat at my desk this really happening? It made me realize how precious life is, and how we should treasure every special moment. This taught me not to be afraid to do what I want to do in life, and more than ever, to pursue my dreams. My classmate was survived by his recent wife, who is also in the army, and also over in Iraq. I cannot imagine the pain she's going through, or the pain of his family. It's a terrible loss to the community, yet I am so proud of him. He died with honor, defending his country in a cause greater than himself. God bless the US, god bless our soldiers, and gold bless Josh Hurley.

Here is the announcement of his death:

Lieutenant Joshua Charles Hurley, VMI Class of 2001

The Superintendent regrets to inform the VMI community of the combat death of Lieutenant Joshua Charles Hurley, United States Army Corps of Engineers, VMI Class of 2001, on Saturday 1 November 2003 in Iraq. He was serving with the 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division west of Baghdad. According to official reports, the vehicle in which Lieutenant Hurley was riding was destroyed by an improvised explosive device detonated by an unknown terrorist in an ambush.

Lieutenant Hurley entered VMI from Clifton Forge, Virginia and was graduated with Distinction in May 2001 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. He was selected as a Distinguished Military Graduate and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Corps of Engineers upon graduation.

As a Cadet, Hurley was a participant in a wide variety of intramural sports, played on the VMI Varsity Golf team as a Rat, was active with the Cadet Program Board, held Cadet rank his Second Class year, and earned status on the Dean's Academic Honor List six consecutive semesters.

Just before being deployed to Iraq, Lieutenant Hurley was married to Army Lieutenant Teresa Vaughan Hurley. They were deployed to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom together.

In addition to his wife, Joshua Hurley is survived by his parents, Charles and Christine. Hurley, II of Alvin Texas, a married sister, Amanda, and his Brother Rats of the Class of 2001.

Funeral service arrangements are to be announced. The Virginia flag has flown at half-staff in his honor since notification of his death, and will continue to be flown thus until his interment.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Long time, no post!

Hi, E, readers, et al.

Sorry I've been AWOL for a couple of weeks. Thanks for taking up the slack, E! I've literally had Four Weddings and a Funeral over the past five weeks, so things have been hectic. And then a few days ago I was back and ready to post again, but I'd forgotten my login name... Man, I'm getting the absent-minded professor bit down pat.

More fascinating thoughts soon to come...

Monday, November 03, 2003

Online Games

There hasn't been a lot of political and/or space related topics that haven't already been hit by Tim or Jeff, so I thought I'd delve into something completely different, and mostly new to me - online games. Specifically, the new game Final Fantasy XI.

I was never into computer games, I grew up on a farm, and we were lucky to have a computer. But times are changing and nowadays almost everyone has access to a computer in some way. So bear with me if I don't show as much knowledge about computer games as peers of mine.

MMORPG's, or Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games have become extremely popular lately. These games allow you to create a character and play with other people in real time. I myself have tried out Anarchy Online, Ultima Online, Asheron's Call 2, and of course Final Fantasy XI. These are just a sampling of the numerous games out there to play online.

I have found Final Fantasy XI to be heads above any game I've played so far. As with other games, you get to select your race (hume, elvaan, galkan, mithra, or tarutaru) with each race having their own traits, and you can select your job (numerous jobs, too many to list here.) Not to mention you can choose your face, hair color and build of your character to make it unique to you. There are 3 nations in the online world, so large that you must use an airship to travel from one to the other. Cities are so far apart that it takes 15 minutes to travel by chocobo (means of transportation) from one city to the next. The game is very well planned out - I can't even begin to describe all the possibilities for players. You can be an adventurer and hunt, or you can set up your own shop as a blacksmith, carpenter, etc. You have your own house which you can decorate.

Because this game has been up and running already in Japan, most bugs are fixed and the game economy is established. Graphics are excellent, music is well thought out (and enjoyable) and the players are all very friendly. If you have never played an online game, I recommend this one. If you are a computer game aficionado (like my fiance) I still recommend this one.

Good luck, and if any of you out there have tried it, let me know your thoughts.


Friday, October 31, 2003

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween folks! I thought I'd provide a link to the origins of halloween, or All Hallow's Eve, and let you discover where this strange tradition developed. Be safe, enjoy the candy (I looooove candy!) and I'll catch back with you next week. Until then...


Sunday, October 19, 2003

The Purpose of the United Nations

One more thing from this John F. Cullinan article:

Hence this candid admission by Shashi Tharoor, one of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's most senior aides: "The worst fear of any of us is that we fail to navigate an effective way between the Scylla of being seen as a cat's paw of the sole superpower and the Charybdis of being seen as so unhelpful to the sole superpower that they disregard the value of the U.N."

So...the whole guiding philosophy of the United Nations today is to react (one way or another) to American policy?! Well, in a way, I'm not entirely disappointed by this. It shows just how important the United States is in the world today, and that our old enemies (and their successor states) are essentially irrelevant, relegated to nipping at our heels, so to speak. And if the UN is merely reacting to American policy, then the UN is not leading with policy. For the reasons I laid out in the previous post, I am happy that the UN is not a leader in the world. Not that I want the United States to intervene in other countries' affairs when they don't concern us, of course.

If it were running around the world, coming up with its own ideas, the UN would be the multilateral equivalent of a rogue state!

Iraq and UN Resolution 1511

I had been idly rolling my eyes at the latest UN resolution on Iraq, regarding it as a useless but probably harmless PR move that changed little. And I thought that if it did anything, it might pave the way for India and other countries to send in material aid for our efforts. But this article in National Review makes me worry that Resolution 1511 will do real harm, more than anything else.

Two issues stand out, deadlines and political control. 1511 sets a deadline for the Iraqi Governing Council to come up with a schedule for writing a constitution and holding national elections, and it gives the UN some ability to intervene in the poilitical affairs of the country.

As for the timetable, I worry that it will be hard to predict how quickly we'll see Iraqi society develop the kinds of attitudes and stable institutions required to handle self-government and democracy. I'm also concerned that since there are still Ba'athists at large and trying to tear down the new government, that having a fixed schedule will
make it easier for them to manipulate things through terrorist and guerrila attacks that undermine the emergence of a stable society. Furthermore, I think that the transition needs enough flexibility to take into account the situation on the ground, mostly regarding the Ba'athist holdouts.

Now, this is not to say that we should get into a situation in which the transition to full self-government and democracy are repeatedly put off, maybe indefinitely. I've always been disgusted by the kinds of governments which declare martial law in response to a "state of emergency," an emergency that suspiciously continues longer, and longer, and longer, allowing the government to maintain dictatorial powers. That's unlikely to happen in this case, because the United States has enough interest in Iraqi democracy to ensure that democracy and self-government will come in the near future.

This timetable might push things too quickly, so that we wind up with an Iraqi government that doesn't know how to handle power responsibly. There are countless cases of countries throwing off dictators or colonial powers, establishing a democracy, quickly falling into a civil war, and winding up with a strongman no better than the one they overthrew. That would be an absolutely awful outcome here.

The next issue is UN interference with the political development in Iraq. I think that the United Nations should have absolutely zero influence on Iraqi politics. I believe that the UN simply doesn't place much value on democracy and limited government. They make some noises about these concepts, but remember that the UN doesn't have an existence separate from the will of its member states, and these are by no means all liberal democracies (I mean liberal in the classical sense). The UN is perfectly happy to have certain dictators in power.

Let's take a look at the permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China.

China: good ol' Dictatorship of the Proletariat, the largest Communist country in the world. Couldn't care less for democracy. Hostile.

Russia: recovering ex-Communist-evil-empire. Nominally democratic, but it still has a good way to go before it's stable or protective of people's rights. More relevant here is that Russia (or perhaps Russians themselves) has not completely changed the roster of countries it considers its friends. Happily, it looks like Russia and the United States are nominal allies on many issues, but there's still a good deal of Soviet-era foreign policy at work in Russia's dealings with the Middle East. Unreliable.

France: more-or-less-stable democracy. A begrudging American ally during the Cold War who sees itself as being more directly able to oppose American policy since the demise of the USSR. Furthermore, French policy towards the Middle East has been based on the strong-man model, prefering the establishment of friendly dictators. There's no sign that this attitude has changed, despite French insistence on an immediate transition to Iraqi self-government. That can be chalked up more to the desire to make trouble for us. Hostile?

UK: our strongest ally among the other four permanent members. I'm not sure what the British public favors in this case, but the Blair government can probably be counted on to insist that the new Iraqi government be done properly, the way that we are talking about. Friendly.

So with only two permanent members (the US and UK) certain to push for stable, liberal democracy in Iraq, I'm very, very worried about the direction that UN interference will take. And according to Cullinan's NRO article, Resolution 1511 is vague on just how the UN can stick its nose in. It can, though, be counted to on push for every opportunity it sees.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

"What do astrophysics and the world's oldest profession have in common?"

A friend back at NASA notes a "curious paper" that just popped up on the Los Alamos physics preprint server:

I'll quote the description from astro-ph:

\\Paper: astro-ph/0310368
replaced with revised version Thu, 16 Oct 2003 13:06:54 GMT (59kb)

Title: What do astrophysics and the world's oldest profession have in common?
Authors: Martin Lopez-Corredoira
Comments: 23 pages (english version) + 23 pages (spanish version, submitted to
Dikaiosyne). English version was not submitted to any journal yet. If any
journal is interested in its publication, please, contact me. Second
affiliation removed (Note: my personal opinions are not given in the name of
the affiliation in which I work)
Subj-class: Astrophysics; Physics and Society
\\ ( , 59kb)

I'll have to read this, just to see what this guy is getting at! My friend notes, though, that the paper itself is more boring than its title.

Other friends (all NASA astrophysicists) are commenting on that original e-mail. One says, "Astronomers, like prostitutes, are judged by the amount of money they bring in... :-))"

Friday, October 17, 2003

Slacking on the Chinese launch

OK, as you can tell from the previous post, I'm really behind in commenting on this Chinese rocket launch. What kind of an astrophysicist am I?! More to come on this, I promise. I'm especially curious about What It All Means, and what the NASA response will be, if any.

Chinese space launch and...clapping

That's odd. I just saw a clip on Fox News of the launch of China's first manned space mission, and the film cut from the launch tower to a view inside the control room, showing the mission controllers applauding. Makes sense; exactly what I would expect, since this is their first time.

The weird thing is that the mission controllers didn't seem to be smiling as they clapped. Maybe I'm totally misreading this, but the people I saw near the camera seemed to be clapping mechanically, with just a blank look on their faces. It didn't look natural.

Were they told to clap? Staged for the cameras? I'd expect people to do it anyway, but this didn't look spontaneous. Am I being too suspicious of life in Communist China? The government carefully controlled everything the TV audience saw in this launch, and I can imagine them telling the controllers how to behave once the rocket went up.

I hope they show this segment again, because I want to get a look at the other faces in the room. This was only a couple of seconds long, so I could have gotten the wrong impression.

Did anybody else see this? Am I 'way off base here?

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Clinton's self-congratulatory buck-passing

This Reuters article says that Clinton is now saying that he told President-elect Bush in October, 2001 that "he biggest security problem was Osama bin Laden." Furthermore, "Clinton said his inability to convince Bush of the danger from al Qaeda was 'one of the two or three of the biggest disappointments that I had.'"

Where do I begin?! If Clinton really thought al Qaeda was the greatest threat to American security we faced, why didn't he tell anybody that at the time? Was he ever quoted as saying this? And most significantly, why was his administration handling that threat as a law-enforcement matter, through the FBI? A Middle Eastern peace agreement, North Korea's nuclear program, Iraq, the Pakistani-Indian nuclear standoff...all of these were farther down on Clinton's list of priorities, he says now. All of these supposedly took a back seat to fighting al Qaeda, and yet his administration's only approach is to look at this threat as a law-enforcement problem? This is not credible. Well, true, there was the cruise missile strike on that al Qaeda training camp, which accomplished little. About as much as his cruise missile strike on an empty office building in Iraq, as retaliation for Hussein's assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush.

Clinton is offered bin Laden, practically as a gift from the Sudan, but he turns it down. I can see that there are considerations to make on how you can proceed with prosecution, the nature of the evidence, and so forth, but that's still looking at this almost exclusively in terms of criminal law enforcement, like a bank robber or a serial killer, not like the leader of our country's greatest military enemy.

Notice the condescending way Clinton says this, that his inability to convince Bush of the threat of al Qaeda was one of his biggest "disappointments." He tried and tried, but sadly, that thick-headed Bush just wouldn't listen. The boy's simply a disappointment to him.

This is the same Clinton who couldn't keep his mouth shut after he left office, regularly criticizing the new President's policies, but...somehow, I don't remember him bringing up al Qaeda once. All of these criticisms, and he forgets to mention the "biggest security problem" to this country?

One last little, actually, this is a pretty big deal, but it gets passed over 'way too often. This line:

The U.S. government has blamed bin Laden's Al Qaeda network for the September 11 attacks.

Really? We "blame" al Qaeda for the attacks, eh? Must be a controversial opinion, heavily debated, not well-established, for them to say that we "blame" al Qaeda for the attacks. It's not like they could reasonably say, "al Qaeda carried out the September 11 attacks," even though bin Laden himself has said they were more successful than he'd expected. (Psst--"expecting" it hints that he was in on the planning.) Reuters has been taken to task on this issue before, and they're still at it. I wonder--do they have some kind of a macro or keystroke shortcut in their word processors to insert this phrase? Saves them typing over and over again, and they don't seem to have changed the phrasing much since September 11, 2001.

Time to go let off some steam...

Friday, October 10, 2003

I don't have much to say but...

I don't have much to say except that I will continue to be absent from hypotheses non fingo until Oct 20. The wonders of annual leave!! Good blogging until then.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Jeff on Space Station Cargo Transfer Vehicles

Contributor Jeff writes in to say: had a story yesterday about NASA's need for a space station cargo transfer vehicle ( stating that industry reps had been briefed on a cargo-up requirement of about 48 tons per year, and a cargo-*down* requirement of 34 tons. Why cargo down? Because pieces of the station will fail, and the manufacturers might be out of business, so NASA will have to repair the broken bits rather than buy new ones.

Jeff Bell has a typically caustic editorial on this development ("NASA's Orbital Junk Truck") at (

My own thoughts: cargo-up is good. It gets us away from the shuttle.

But possibly billions spent to develop a cargo return module just to return broken parts to Earth? Is that really cheaper than just buying multiple copies of high-risk components?

And the per-flight costs might be enormous. We're probably talking $50 million or more, bare (unrealistic?) minimum, for a re-entry module for the cargo carrier that could carry of order a thousand pounds or so back home (figure a Soyuz entry module as a model here). I suppose you could put some cargo in the thing on the trip up to help defray expenses, but it would be a whole lot less mass than you could put on a cargo carrier designed to burn up upon re-entry, due to the extra weight of the heat shield & such. So $50-150 million for a launch vehicle, $50-200 million for the cargo carrier... sounds like a lot of money to bring back a piece that'll have to be sent back up again later (at similar cost!). You're talking in the neighborhood of a quarter billion to half a billion dollars just in cab fare for the replacement part!

How many things are there on the station that are worth so much, and are expected to break?

And remember, that entry module I described brings home half a ton. Either NASA has something *much* bigger in mind, or they expect to return ~70 of these pods to Earth every year.

What are they thinking?

Oh... wait... could this be an attempt to scare up money to turn the shuttle into a totally automated, privatized vehicle? Consider: two flights per year would meet the requirements. And if NASA puts this out as a "new" contract, they might get away with just "retiring" the shuttle, washing their hands of it, and giving it over to contractors for modifications.


Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Back from wedding

As you could figure from that last post, I'm online again. I was back in Tennessee for a college friend's wedding. The roommate of my high school girlfriend, in fact (we went to college together). Everything went perfectly. The bride had told me several years ago exactly how she wanted to arrange her wedding, and sure enough, she did it. Right down to the last detail, including the location (it was out-of-doors, so we're glad the weather cooperated) and the recessional music.

The younger crowd (we friends of the bride and groom) stayed at the reception late. The happy couple left about 2:00 AM, I stayed 'til 3:00, and a few were up even later, before we all got up again to see the couple off over lunch. Most of us had nearly lost our voices from talking for so many hours straight, and I had to lecture again Monday morning. It was a late night driving in Sunday, but this has been a terrific weekend.

The next friend's wedding is in two weeks, and then another two weeks after that. Seems to be getting contagious...

China edging closer to manned spaceflight

The clock is apparently ticking down towards the first manned Chinese spaceflight. The BBC says in this article that the flight is thought to be just a few days away, but probably after October 14. Furthermore, their space ambitions go beyond mere near-Earth orbit but beyond to Moon landings.

I wonder if the push for these programs is an attempt by the decaying Communist party to reinvigorate a sense of national pride and thereby extend the Party's hold on the people.

Friday, October 03, 2003

China poised to send man into space

This article says that the Red Chinese are on the verge of manned space flight, possibly launching within the next two weeks. At one point, I'd been eager to see this--they'd be only the third country on their own ever to send men into space, and the approach they take might be different in an interesting way from the Russians and Americans (although it really looks like they've simply taken a Soviet-designed Soyuz capsule and tweaked it a little; not very original). But I'm increasingly worried that this is another sign that this largest of the backwaters of Communism is aiming for Great Power status and will be a threat to us in the future.

Another Space Race? Well, the last one certainly gave our engineering a boost and aided the national pride when we landed men on the Moon, after taking a hit with Sputnik and Gargarin. But we aren't the only ones who might gain from such a race. It's entirely possible the Chinese will make good on their goal of flying a space station, and I don't think a Communist presence in space is a good thing.

That's it for this week for me. I'm heading back to Tennessee for a friend's wedding. Let's hope the weather holds up.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

The Wilson Affair

There seems to be a good bit of public disagreement as to whether former Ambassador Wilson's wife (I won't name her, even if she is already on the front page of every major paper) is a covert or overt employee of the CIA. Apparently, this relates directly to whether identifying her as a CIA employee is illegal or not. Robert Novak, whose column first identified her to the general public, says now that the CIA officially refuses to categorize her work for them (a smart policy for an intelligence agency) but that an unofficial source there indicates she is an analyst, working domestically (this from his first column) but not overtly for the CIA. Hmm...still sounds like a bad idea to publish her name in this context, even if it might not be illegal.

But I was reading Wednesday's Best of the Web when I came across a surprising revelation by Taranto: the explicit claim that she is, indeed, covert comes from a former CIA employee who spoke to PBS' Newshour. He said, "she has been undercover for three decades..." Taranto points out that Mrs. Wilson is 40 years old.

I think that any CIA employee of any kind who started working undercover at the tender age of ten is an amazing prodigy! Good grief, what have I accomplished with my life to this point, by comparison?!

Okay, that was sarcasm. Very unlikely that she has actually been undercover for 30 years. Unless this man is explicitly lying, he's probably using somewhat deceptive language that slightly annoys me when I see it in store advertisements. That is, since he left the CIA in 1989, and she worked with him then, perhaps he means that Mrs. Wilson worked undercover in the decades of the 1980s, the 1990s, and now the 2000s. Now, in that sense, she might have been in that capacity only for 10 years and a few months, but that would still have stretched across three different "decades." It's the same thing as my parents leaving us kids with the babysitter to go to a New Year's Eve party and the babysitter joking that she'll have been looking after us for "two years." Sure, it was only a few hours, but...

So Newshour's man is being at least deceptive when he says "three decades." Nevertheless, the length of time she was undercover is not relevant to whether this revelation broke the law. If she was (is?) undercover when she was identified, that's all that matters, as far as I know.

More later...

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Private Spacecraft

Jeff has been great at providing feedback for the NASA situation of manned space flight. I'd like to look at a slightly different type of manned flight, the non-government venue.

The X-Prize foundation is an organization offering $10 million to the first privately built and owned spacecraft. The CEO, Peter Diamandis, believes that a winner will emerge in the next 9-12 months. In fact, an airport in California is approved as the take-off point for the competing space craft. There are two teams which lead the pack, Scaled Composites, led by aviation maverick Burt Rutan, and Armadillo Aerospace, a Dallas group headed by John Carmack. However there are 23 other teams that span the world, including Israel and Argentina. This may seem a little too sci-fi-ish, but when compared to manned air flight in the early 1900's, the parallels put a new perspective on it. There were many prizes offered in the early 20th century for manned air flight, which greatly boosted airplane research and development. Even Charles Lindbergh's flight across the atlantic for a $25,000 prize increased the number of airplane passengers significantly.

Perhaps this is the route to go for space flight. Airplanes were once and still are a research phenomenon of the military and NASA, but now have ventured out to private corporations. Perhaps space-planes will become another member of the private corporation, allowing an increase in the research and development of space flight. More on this later...

Why? is there.

Contributor Jeff sends these thoughts:

On, there's an op-ed by Elliot Pulham of the Space Foundation, titled "We must get in our spaceships and go." (

The gist of the article is that if we don't get back in the saddle, we will not only be turning our back on some primordial exploration instinct, but on the very human "it's there so I suppose I have to climb the darned thing" response.

Personally, I see the inspirational value of space exploration. Wonderful as robots are, to see humans exploring the Moon, Mars, or asteroids would be more spectacular still.


One characteristic of the great explorers is that they tended to take huge personal risks, but few others really had a stake in what happened. If Hilary had failed in his attempt to climb Mt. Everest, well, Mallory & Irvine had failed, too. Others would try.

Human space flight is different. Probably because of its roots in Cold War competition, we place great stake on the success of space missions, for good or ill. An astronaut risks not only his or her own life when the shuttle flies next, but the pride of the nation is along for the ride. Not only did people die onboard Columbia, Challenger, and Apollo 1, but a part of the national spirit was quenched as well.

And space flight is astoundingly expensive. Each shuttle flight costs in the neighborhood of $1 billion. That money comes out of the common coffer, out of taxes, not from foundations or personal fortunes.

Yes, Americans will fly again in space, but there has to be a real goal. We cannot afford to keep doing it because space "is there," and we don't really want to stop, but we don't know what to do, as we have for the last 30 years. If we dare to take great risk in lives, treasure, and prestige, we have to risk them for great goals.

Public opinion polls indicate strong enough support for continued human space exploration that it likely will go on. But we need to actually go there to *do something.* What we should be doing in space should be decided not by the astronauts, or contractors, or politicians, or space partisans. It needs to be decided by the public. And if the public decides it doesn't want to foot the bill in lives, prestige, risk, etc., then we should have the courage to admit it, and pull the plug.


Learning Plato

Since I brought it up, I might as well brag about my students' insightful classroom discussions on Plato's philosophy and cosmology. I wrote up the best half-dozen questions or ideas they had and will present them below, along with some of the discussion that followed (discussion between the students and me).

If there are any philosophers (or Plato fans) out there who have some ideas on these subjects, please feel free to write me! Some of my attempts to answer my students could be wrong, after all.

1. Is Plato's Creator-god a Form, himself?

If so, then he is eternal and unchanging and does not experience Time.
But then, how could he have taken the act of creating the Universe? That requires
taking action!

If not a Form, then he must be imperfect. Yet he is described as being perfect in the Timaeus, I think.

If the Creator-god is a Form, then is there an imperfect, physical imitation of him that has been created? Are there, in fact, any Forms which do not have their physical imitations made?

Note that in Genesis 1, Man is created in the image of God. Yet Man is imperfect, unable to realize the perfection of God.

2. Human souls are created things--

So they cannot be eternal. But they do outlive the physical body. Do they ever come to an end, cease to exist?

Are souls made of the same substances as corporeal things? Earth, water, air, and fire?

3. Since, as the Timaeus says, Time is "the moving image of eternity"--

Is Time essentially a World-of-Becoming imitation of Eternity, its Form?

If so, is Time made of a substance? Is it made out of one of the four elements, or out of something else that the Receptacle takes the shape of?

4. Could the created universe come to an end?

Plato contemplates the creation of the Universe, which is imperfect and changeable. But could the Universe have an end?

OK, enough for the moment. I'll get to the last couple later. I think they're especially good questions.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Teaching Plato

One more thought on David Brook's NYT column yesterday--

The most common advice conservative students get is to keep their views in the closet. Will Inboden was working on a master's degree in U.S. history at Yale when a liberal professor pulled him aside after class and said: "You're one of the best students I've got, and you could have an outstanding career. But I have to caution you: hiring committees are loath to hire political conservatives. You've got to be really quiet."
As a result, faculties skew overwhelmingly to the left.
Hundreds of conservatives with Ph.D.'s end up working in Republican administrations, in think tanks and at magazines, often with some regrets. "Teaching is this really splendid thing. It would be great to teach Plato's `Republic,' " says Gary Rosen, a Harvard Ph.D. who works at Commentary magazine.

I've got to smile at that line, not from laughing at Rosen, but in glad satisfaction. After all, I'm a conservative physics professor, and I am actually getting to teach my students Plato's Republic this term! This isn't in physics class, but in a scientific reasoning course. I'm approaching the material in my own way, treating it as a philosophy class and looking at the history of cosmology. Plato's Republic is great for this--the "Allegory of the Cave" provides an excellent discussion over how we know what we think we know. I think I should feel very happy that I get to do this.

I'd enjoy being a writer for Commentary, but he's right--teaching really is "a splendid thing."

Conservatives in academia

I'm reading David Brooks' excellent column on conservative academics in yesterday's New York Times (registration required). This subject has quickly gotten more interesting to me since I became one this Fall (became a professor, I mean). Now, I'm an astrophysicist, so politics is not part of the subject I teach, and the approaches to teaching my subject have little direct connection to political beliefs.

You won't find radical leftist astrophysicists pursuing a career in stellar remnants, for instance, while conservatives trend towards galaxy evolution. But Brooks says there are such distinctions among historians and other professors of the humanities. Not always overt political discrimination, but a preference for particular research subjects that are more radical or have an appeal to liberals.

I'm not finding this to be the case where I am, thankfully. There are plenty of conservatives (or apparent conservatives) among the faculty here, even outside the physical sciences. Things were a bit different when I was at the Space Telescope Science Institute as a grad student, or at NASA as a postdoc, where there was a noticeable liberal tilt among my coworkers. The odd thing is that the liberals tended to feel no compunction about bringing up politics in unrelated conversations, and they would usually phrase this in a tone that assumed everybody else would agree with their opinions (about Bush, Iraq, etc.).

The conservatives, on the other hand, were much more circumspect about having political conversations. One friend of mine, in fact, would only get into any frank discussions with me after he'd closed the door to his office! Interesting thing is, we had ways of quietly figuring out who the other conservatives were and would exchange guesses about whom else we could safely bring into these conversations. It all seemed so exciting and conspiratorial.

Sticky Little Yellow Notes

There's a website that offers a free download of computerized sticky little yellow notes. I'm giving it a trial on my computer, and so far it's not bad. The only problem is it's hidden by whatever application you have open, and therefore I could forget about it. We'll see if I transition from paper notes to computer notes.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Saddam Fooled Himself?

Time magazine has an interesting article online that raises the possibility that Hussein's WMD programs had not been rebuilt after the Persian Gulf War, but that he wasn't aware that he didn't have these weapons. Essentially, that he was fooled by his own subordinates. (Link via Drudge.)

This idea was out there some months ago as speculation, but I can't remember where I read it. Probably National Review. Time's article strikes a somewhat anti-Bush tone, but at least the facts of their report are new and interesting. Be warned that this article is very poor in style, being riddled with typos, mostly mistakes in capitalization. I'm assuming that it was submitted in haste and will be corrected soon.

Friday, September 26, 2003

China next in space?

John J. Miller has some discussion of the motivations behind the Chinese manned space flight program today on National Review's "Corner." I won't get into this just now (no class today, so I'm trying to get some research done), but I want to comment on the Chinese program soon. Keep in mind that they claim they're not aiming merely for a quick trip around the earth but intend to be on the moon before long!

E, glad to hear your family's OK! I saw how much damage there was around them when I was there last weekend. Hope they didn't lose too much food when the power went out. The lack of dry ice was a problem there--one of the two local CO2 factories lost power themselves, ironically.

Isabel Update, Part II

I have finally heard from my folks. My parents survived fine through the storm, they did not get the brunt of the winds or rain. However, my sister and her family are another story. They decided to stay home through the storm. Probably better to let you read what she wrote.

The kids are out of school because we are a federal disaster area. I don't
think they are having too good of a time, there is sooooooo much work to be
done, they aren't getting much of a break. They have been working their
butts off helping Jim with our yard and great grandma, uncle matt etc.
There were 1.6 million people without power. We still have no power and
they are saying maybe next Tuesday.
We stayed home during the hurricane, it was pretty amazing to see. And we
were lucky because it had slowed some by the time it hit land. It still did
amazing amounts of damage. Some homes in [] were flooded right off of
their foundations. The old Wal Mart is now a shelter, and a satellite
office for FEMA, and Red Cross.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Against "universal jurisdiction"

Dr. Henry Kissinger has an excellent discussion of and argument against the concept of "universal jurisdiction," such as is claimed by the International Criminal Court, in this article in Derechos Human Rights from 2001.

I'm also against the concept, for many of the reasons Dr. Kissinger outlines. The idea creates problems similar to those of ex post facto laws. Furthermore, it violates the sovereignty of countries and therefore the sovereignty of the people in those countries--their right to govern themselves--even under free, democratic governments.

Orbital Space Plane

Contributor Jeff e-mails me the following thoughts on the continuing ideas of an "Orbital Space Plane"...

At has an editorial from a former astronaut bemoaning the
possibility that the Orbital Space Plane might be a vehicle fine-tuned for
the task of safely and reliably getting astronauts to and from the Space
Station. Don Peterson writes that lack of capabilities such as the
ability to loft large cargos, robot arms, etc. will render the OSP a dud.
Further, because the intent is to produce a vehicle quickly, the OSP
would rely almost entirely on existing technologies, and so it would not
produce technological advances.

Those criticisms have some merit, and would have even more if the goal of
the OSP were indeed to produce new technologies or a vehicle with a wide
range of capabilities. But if we give yet another try at developing a
manned vehicle made of pure "unobtanium," would that be better? Over $3
billion dollars have been wasted in shuttle follow-on projects (NASP,
X-33, X-34, X-38). Should we cross *both* sets of fingers this time,
hoping the new-new-new-new-new shuttle successor doesn't get cancelled for
having been too ambitious?

Do we even NEED another shuttle-like vehicle, capable of lofting large
cargos, serving as a mini-space-station, and returning large objects from
orbit? As the Columbia Board Chairman said it, don't develop a vehicle
and then try and figure out what you can do with it. That happened with
both the shuttle and station, and we'll be paying off those projects for
another 15 years.

But Mr. Peterson's case could be restated: the OSP is an interim solution
for a significant problem, yet it may not offer easy evolutionary paths to
address the needs 15 years down the road. Instead of criticizing the OSP,
one might suggest that in addition to the OSP, we need a parallel
development track for either extended capabilities for the OSP (via a
mini-space-station or orbital maneuvering vehicle) or an entirely
different vehicle...with one big caveat. A clear mission needs to be
defined for the second-track capability.

The OSP is indeed a limited vehicle, as currently conceived, but we do
need it as soon as possible to send crews and light cargos to and
from the Station. Expecting continued service from the shuttle for the
next 15 years strikes me as dangerously optimistic.

What isn't clear is what we need for the post-Station era, because the
goals of American human space flight in the post-Station era have yet to
be defined.


Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Volunteer Tailgate Party

Yours truly represented Hypotheses Non Fingo at last week's Volunteer Tailgate Party, the biweekly, super-secret get-together of Tennessee bloggers. Check out Up For Anything for a report of the good ol' time had by all!

Post-Isabel stories

Well, I'm back from a Federal disaster area and had to get back to teaching Monday with less than four hours of sleep. I've got some good stories from the D.C./Md./No. Va. trip--Isabel damage, flooding, Phi Beta Kappa discussion panels, and hanging out backstage with Will Hoge and his band!

I just finished up a tedious but satisfying bit of data collection for my quasar research, and it's time to cook something for supper. I'll post more later. And if I can figure out how these free online image hosts work, I'll see about posting some photos of an air show of WWII fighters, including "Glacier Girl," the P-38 they dug out of the Greenland ice cap.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Isabel photos

Go here and scroll down to photo gallery. There are some excellent photos of hurricane Isabel.

Isabel Update

I have yet to hear anything from my family in Virginia, tried to call but no answer. I'm assuming no news is good news, but I'll keep you posted.

I had mentioned earlier my concern for the Chincoteague ponies, and have discovered that they in fact survived the storm. It appears that the ponies were not herded off the island, but were allowed to endure Isabel's rage without any human intervention. I'm not sure I agree with allowing the possibility of the ponies being swept away into the ocean during a hurricane, but they have survived for a few hundred years on the island, so perhaps the Chamber of Commerce knows what's best. For our readers who only know the ponies by name, they actually live on the island of Assateague, which is slightly east of Chincoteague island, putting them that much closer to the Atlantic Ocean. If you want to see pictures of the ponies, or of Assateague island, go here and click photos.

Isabel did change the carolina islands, washing away parts of highway 12 and creating new inlets between the Atlantic ocean and Pimlico sound. Many are left without power, but luckily the storm was a class II by the time it reached land, and although the damage was severe it is estimated to be around $1 billion in damage which is not the most costly hurricane to ever hit the east coast.

In all this turmoil over Isabel, I haven't heard any reporter mention west coast hurricanes until now. Marty, a class II hurricane, hit Baja California, and is heading for mainland Mexico.

Friday, September 19, 2003

Science and Religion

Rob just e-mailed me with this article on science and religion. Anthony Rizzi, the head of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies (that name always strikes me as very vague...but maybe that's the point) is working on restoring the relationship between the two. He has a new book out, called The Science Before Science: A Guide to Thinking in the 21st Century. The article is a good interview with Rizzi. More on this topic later--I'm about to make that trip to D.C. Looks like most of Isabel has left my path, at least.

Alert reader Dave Gill just pointed out to me that Rizzi is not with Princeton's IAS but with the Institute for Advanced Physics, which is in Baton Rouge. Actually, that might impress me more with the direction he's apparently taking them, since I imagine that, guessing from its name, the IAP has been somewhat more narrowly focussed than the IAS. I'll have to read more about this.

'Twas Ever Thus

"...and as for the essence of the question, or its moral side, so to speak, he doesn't touch on that at all, he even rejects morality outright, and holds to the newest principle of universal destruction for the sake of good final goals. He's already demanding more than a hundred million heads for the sake of common sense in Europe, much more than was demanded at the last peace congress. ..."

--The Demons, Fyodor Dostoevsky
(p. 94 of the 2000 Everyman's Library edition)

The Demons was written in 1871-2, and it is strange to read it today, because the attitudes of the radicals it depicts seem so modern, so like what we'd been accustomed to throughout the 20th century. But "human nature has no history," and in our lifetimes, we've only seen the fruits of the ideas the radicals began to develop well over a century ago.