Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Into Africa

I'm off to Africa now for a volunteer vacation/watching lots of wildlife, so probably no posting for a while (mid-July). I may find an internet cafe somewhere and post something though.

I couldn't resist adding this news reference: increasing calls for withdrawing US troops from Iraq. It seems to me the 2 possible options are to increase troops or to withdraw them, but not George "Stay the Course No Matter How Stupid" Bush's current troop level.

So here's an idea: increase the troops in one area of Iraq, and withdraw them in another, and see which one works better.

Back in a couple weeks!

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Bush, Kerry space policies: lame
Burt Rutan: not lame

Despite being a space nut, I've written little about space issues here. Enough of that -I want to point out this Kerry criticism of Bush's manned space program here. Kerry is half right that Bush is assuming he can send astronauts to the moon and Mars without increased funding and that creating goals without funding them is lame. What Kerry doesn't say is whether he believes the Bush goals should be funded, or abandoned. Kerry also doesn't say if he agrees with Bush that the Shuttle and space station should be phased out, but Kerry does say he supports researching cheap low-earth orbit technology and microgravity research, which sounds like code words for improving the Shuttle and saving the space station. Improving the Shuttle won't be cheap, ever, microgravity research is overblown and inefficient when done by humans instead of robots, and Bush's ideas will be budget-busters.

Bottom line is that Kerry wants to revert to Clinton's lame manned-space policies, while Bush has come up with new, lame, manned-space policies. Not too inspiring. On the other hand, the Democrats have probably spent about 10 seconds thinking about space policy, so maybe they'll have something more interesting to say by the convention.

Burt Rutan is much better - the designer of the private manned space rocket that flew yesterday, despite some problems. What the government should do is cancel its $6 billion-a-year manned program, pay off the Europeans and Japanese for their incurred costs of building space station components (a one-time payment of several billion dollars), and start funding more prizes like the one that is inspiring the current private space race.

Odds of this happening? Low, but possible - if another Shuttle blows up. I wish it could happen some other way.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Good non-Republican weblogs

I'm pretty sure they're not Republicans, anyway, but they're good mostly because they're funny. First is, a Washington, D.C. gossip column with snarky political humor. Wonkette goes pretty far into the crass humor category, however, so parental discretion is advised - meaning, it's probably inappropriate for my parents.

Next is Pnuthouse, a blog by a law school classmate of mine. The author, Junichi, goes way beyond my attempts at dry humor by including some actual humor in his posts. Among the half-dozens reading this blog are some people who attended my graduation, and they will definitely remember his graduation speech. It looks like Junichi has just started his blog, but unless he's gotten less funny with age, it should be worth reading. I'm giving it a PG-rating though - parents should prepare themselves before viewing.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Torture memo author now a federal appellate judge

I noticed this last week, and it's finally getting limited media play, but the main author of one of the memos arguing torture is legal, Jay Bybee, has since been appointed, for life, as an appellate court judge in the Ninth Circuit, which covers the western third of the United States.

One aspect of the torture memo scandal I thought had been missed is the poor-but-frightening quality of legal advice being generated by the Bush administration. Now the source of that legal reasoning has been placed in a position of power for the rest of his life. Thank you, George Bush, and thank you, Ralph "No Significant Difference Between Democrats and Republicans" Nader. As a lawyer, Nader should know better.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Light blogging for a week or so

I'm working and then off travelling to Utah for a few days. Next post will probably be Wednesday or Thursday.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Mental averaging and moral value

In my own half-assed moral value scheme, animals like human beings are conscious and intelligent and therefore have moral values as individuals, and possibly as communities or species. Other animals like insects and mollusks are not conscious and have no innate moral value – no problems arise from killing and eating them. Some animals like our extinct ancestors, the great apes, dolphins, and whales, may fall in the same category as humans of being sentient intelligences and having individual moral value – we currently lack the information and understanding to know for sure. They don’t have to be as intelligent as the average human. Above a certain level in intelligence, and they’re in the club. Their possible moral value means we can’t just use them for anything we want.

Animals like fish, amphibians, reptiles, most birds, and some mammals (rodents) are certainly not conscious and show few aspects of what could be considered intelligence. Some animals in this category may not even feel pain. I have little hesitation in using these animals for my own ends, although causing unnecessary pain makes me feel morally queasy, even if I can’t give a logical reason for it.

The moral gray zone for me involves the remaining animals, consisting of most mammals and some birds. They have various degrees of intelligence, enough to make me wonder about whether I’m justified using them for my own selfish ends. Some animals, like pigs, elephants, and many primates, are disturbingly intelligent. Still, while I’ve felt these animals are in a gray zone, I also felt safe in putting them in a different, “gray zone” category. I still eat them, or some of them, anyway.

The problem with my half-assed scheme is its reliance on mental averages, and then being confronted with Rico. This dog has been all over the news recently, having demonstrated a linguistic understanding comparable to trained dolphins, apes, and three-year-old humans. Rico is obviously not an average dog – he’s a one-in-a-million dog, or possibly even more rare. But still, he exists, and undoubtedly other dogs just as smart as he also exist. While I had placed dogs fairly high up in my gray zone category, I don’t think they’re in the top rank. If this is the intelligence level of a genius dog, what is the one-in-a-million pig like? How many pigs do we kill each year that are smarter than three-year-old children?

Mental averaging isn’t good enough to determine the moral value of an entire species. I’m going to have to work in a margin for error for the Ricos that are out there. I think I’m done with bacon.
Two Bush jokes:

Number 1.

As President Bush gets off the helicopter in front of the White House,
he is carrying a baby pig under each arm.

The Marine guard snaps to attention, salutes, and says: "Nice pigs, sir."

The President replies: "These are not pigs, these are authentic Texan
Razorback Hogs. I got one for Vice-President Cheney, and I got one for
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld."

The Marine again snaps to attention, salutes, and says, "Nice trade, sir."

Number 2.

The U.S. Postal Service created a stamp earlier this year with a picture of President Bush to honor his achievements while in office.
However, it was found that in daily use the stamp was not sticking to envelopes at all.
So the President established a blue ribbon commission to determine the reason for such a defect.
After a month's testing, the commission made the following findings:
1. The stamp was found to be in perfect order.
2. There was nothing wrong with the consistency of the applied adhesive.
3. People were just spitting on the wrong side.

Now back to our regularly-scheduled ranting.

(And thanks, folks, for forwarding the jokes - feel free to add new ones in the comments section.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Ashcroft's non-denial of torture

Several legal memos from the Bush administration have surfaced recently with legal analysis saying that Bush and people acting under his authority are not bound by the Geneva Convention and other legal restrictions against torture. John Ashcroft in testimony before Congress said this:

"The president of the United States has not ordered any conduct that would violate the Constitution of the United States, that would violate not one of the laws enacted by the Congress, or that would violate any of the various treaties."

Despite the way this statement has been portrayed in the news, it is not denying official sanction of torture. Accepting the legal analysis that the President has the authority to override laws and treaties, then torture pursuant to such authority is legal, and not a violation of the Constitution, laws, or treaties. In other words, Ashcroft is not answering the question, and he refused to answer a number of direct questions about the memos and their effect on American policy.

It's useful to remember this non-denial comes from the people who said the statement in the State of the Union that "British intelligence has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" was truthful because it referred to British intelligence's opinion, even though the Bush administration knew the uranium claim was false. This is the level of word analysis we have to use.

The questions that need to be answered are these:

Has the Bush Administration determined that the President can override domestic legal and/or treaty protections against torture? If so, have any actions been taken pursuant to this authority?

UPDATE: Looking at a different part of the CNN story, I see that Ashcroft denies any presidential order exists that immunizes Americans from prosecution for torturing Al Qaeda members. The memo report that I saw said that an order would be helpful, but I don't think it said that an order would be required. I think my questions still stand, but I would rephrase the first question this way: Does the Bush Administration agree that the the President cannot override domestic legal and/or treaty protections against torture?

Monday, June 07, 2004

My 24-dollar cherry tomato

I was going to share my deep thoughts about NASA space policy, but that may have to wait until after I write about the $24 cherry tomato I ate yesterday.

Twenty-four dollars is what I spent two months ago for a large ceramic pot, potting soil, and two cherry tomato starter plants. Yesterday I had my first cherry tomato, so I figure if I don’t get to eat any more, then it cost me $24 (who knows what it cost by the pound). Of course I hope to get more tomatoes from the two plants, but I’m not sure how much more. The plants have stopped growing after getting less than three feet tall, which seems unimpressive to me.

Several weeks ago I decided my goal was to reduce my unit cost to less than one dollar per cherry tomato, but I was dreaming – I’ll be lucky if they only cost me twice as much. Yes, I know I can get more plants, but not for a while – I’ll be traveling for several weeks, which spells doom for potted tomatoes. Great way to save money.

I had this posting written in my mind, and then I ran across this article in the Washington Post (registration required), about a 13-year-old girl in rural Ethiopia seeking criminal punishment for her rapist, instead of being forced to marry him. Quite a contrast to my shallow existence. The very end was the most striking to me, to read the comments of the rapist’s sister-in-law, who herself had been raped and forced to marry. I felt like she was risking her life to say the things she said, maybe because she just didn’t care that she could be killed for saying the truth. What a life to have.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Good Republican weblogs, and other Republican weblogs

My goal was to find well-reasoned weblogs that take the opposite of my usual political views. In the category of good, Republican-leaning weblogs, I suggest Daniel Drezner's site, and The Volokh Conspiracy, which is a group weblog. I'm cheating a little to recommend these sites because they lean libertarian, which is an easier perspective for me to swallow than a standard conservative viewpoint. Still, they're good to take a look at.

Many nominations for the not-so-good Republican-leaning weblogs, but the top of the list in terms of importance is the Instapundit. Lots of knee-jerk postings with little thought involved. Here's an example, linking to another blog, Transplanted Texan:

INTERESTING LETTER FROM MARK TWAIN to an American expatriate worried about his country's reputation:

'Is it France's respect that we are going to lose? Is our unchivalric conduct troubling a nation which exists to-day because a brave young girl saved it when its poltroons had lost it - a nation which deserted her as one man when her day of peril came? Is our treacherous assault upon a weak people distressing a nation which contributed Bartholomew's Day to human history? Is our ruthless spirit offending the sensibilities of the nation which gave us the Reign of Terror to read about? Is our unmanly intrusion into the private affairs of a sister nation shocking the feelings of the people who sent Maximilian to Mexico?'

It goes on, but the problem is that neither Reynolds nor the original poster seem to realize that Twain CHANGED HIS MIND, going from a supporter of the Spanish-American War to an opponent, especially of the US occupation of the Philippines. Twain is the last person that an Bush supporter on Iraq should be quoting, and I think they seized on one small fragment of history without even knowing about the larger context. Instapundit lacks the comment section most blogs have, so there's no chance to set the record straight.

To give Instapundit some credit, the site does have interesting links to news, sometimes. As for Transplanted Texan (the original poster), I can't really say how good or bad it is. At least he does have a comments section. I'll put in a trackback, and maybe he can tell me how wrong my postings are.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The best weblog on Iraq

I’ve been meaning to plug his website for awhile, but Professor Juan Cole’s Informed Comment website is the best weblog on developments in Iraq, cited by bloggers on both the right and left sides of the spectrum for its information and analysis.

In his June 2 posting, Cole brings up a point I’ve not seen elsewhere. Ahmed Chalabi, who used his Iraqi National Congress to feed false information on WMDs and Iraq’s nonexistent nuclear weapons program to the US, may have done the same thing to Iran:

The INC peddled the story to the US that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program. It must have peddled the same story to the Iranians. In fact, what if the lies of Chalabi & Associates about the non-existent nuclear program so alarmed Iran that it redoubled its efforts to get a nuclear weapon, conducting an arms race against a phantom? If so, Chalabi and his group have single-handedly destabilized the entire Persian Gulf region.

I’d add two variations to Cole’s comments. First, along with betraying the US by telling our secrets to the Iranians, Chalabi may have added a few lies to those secrets, saying the US knew information it had not yet revealed that confirmed Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. Again that could have spurred the Iranians onward, while Chalabi hoped to use the information to get their support. Second, it is not necessary for the Iranians to have completely believed him. There were certainly plenty of Iranian hardliners who wanted nuclear weapons for their own sake, and these Iranian versions of Wolfowitz, Cheney, and Bush would seize on any excuse for doing what they wanted without looking at it too closely. Chalabi’s unreliable information could be damaging in Iran, just as it was in the US.

And for a comic take on the situation, check out this cartoon.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

A question for the president

Here's a question that reporters should be asking the president’s press secretary:

Has the president asked his military commanders in Iraq if having more troops in the country would result in fewer American casualties?

The Bush administration keeps insisting that it is not refusing to increase troop levels in Iraq for the political reason of not wanting to look like it is sinking into quagmire, and was unprepared for the occupation. Instead, they say that they are asking their commanders in the field if they need more soldiers, and those commanders had not asked for additional troops.

I don’t believe it – that those commanders could not want additional troops for force protection. Assuming the Bush administration is not lying when they say they’ve asked and received a negative response about the need for additional troops, then I think the questions asked of commanding officers have been carefully phrased. I’ll bet they are asking this: “Are you unable to meet the security tasks assigned to you with the troop levels we have given you? You are able to do the job? Okay – if you find yourself incapable of completing the mission you have been ordered to do with current forces, let us know.” Any ambitious officer will say yes, I can do it, you don’t need to replace me with someone who does not need additional troops because I don’t need additional troops.

The ability to do the job is very different from the ability to do the job with fewer casualties. This is my best guess for explaining the paradox that more troops are needed in Iraq, while Bush keeps claiming that he’s not the one that stopping them.

I’ve listened to Richard Clarke’s book, “Against All Enemies”, twice now on an audiobook. It’s very good. At one point, Clarke points out how Defense Secretary Les Aspin was forced to quit because he failed to give US soldiers in Somalia sufficient weaponry to protect themselves, resulting in 18 American deaths. The Democrats should get some respected military analysts to give their best guess on how many fewer casualties they US would have experienced if the Bush administration had not refused the troop levels necessary to protect them.

Update: Following the advice in this column, I just emailed my question to the White House. I'm sure I'll get my response in no time! (It still might be better if a reporter asked it, though...)

Update (July 20):  The following is from the July 16, print version of The Wall Street Journal:  “White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis [stated] ‘The troop levels in Iraq have always been guided by what commanders in the field have said is necessary to accomplish the mission.’”
I think the administration is wording that very carefully.