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...

-E

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:

http://arXiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0310368

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
version:
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
\\ ( http://arXiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0310368 , 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 point...no, 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.
-E

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Jeff on Space Station Cargo Transfer Vehicles

Contributor Jeff writes in to say:

SpaceRef.com had a story yesterday about NASA's need for a space station cargo transfer vehicle (http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewnews.html?id=878) 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 spacedaily.com (http://www.spacedaily.com/news/shuttle-03zh.html)

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.


-J

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? Because...it is there.

Contributor Jeff sends these thoughts:

On SpaceRef.com, there's an op-ed by Elliot Pulham of the Space Foundation, titled "We must get in our spaceships and go." (http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=12681)


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.


But...



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.



-J

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.